The Mahabharata, also called, The Kurukshetra War is a war described in the Hindu-epic, Mahabharata. The conflict arose between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas, and Pandavas, due to the struggle for a dynastic succession for the throne of Hastinapura, in an Indian kingdom called Kuru. Many ancient kingdoms participated as allies of the rival groups in of the battle occurred in Kurukshetra, whose modern day location is the state of Haryana. The number 18 is an important number in Mahabharata; Duryodhana had 11 Akshouhini soldiers and Pandavas had 7, making a total of eighteen; there are eighteen chapters in the epic and last but not the least, the war lasted exactly for eighteen days, since sunrise to sunset.
The Narration of the War
Jaya, the core of Mahabharata, is structured in the form of a dialogue between the King Dhritarashtra (who was born blind) and Sanjaya (having divine vision), his advisor and chariot driver. Sanjaya narrates each incident of the Kurukshetra War, fought in 18 days, as and when it happened. Dhritarashtra sometimes asks questions and doubts and sometimes laments, knowing about the destruction caused by the war, to his sons, friends, and kinsmen. He also feels guilty, due to his own role that led to this war, destructive to the entire Indian subcontinent
In the beginning, Sanjaya gives a description of the various continents of the Earth, the other planets, and focuses on the Indian Subcontinent, then gives an elaborate list of hundreds of kingdoms, tribes, provinces, cities, towns, villages, rivers, mountains, forests etc. of the (ancient) Indian Subcontinent (Bharata Varsha). He also explains about the military formations adopted by each side on each day, the death of each hero and the details of each war-racing.
The great war of Mahabharata began after blowing Panchjanya by Lord Krishna.
The horrendous war began with Bhishma leading all of the Kaurava armies, rushing with their raised flags against the Pandavas. With Bhima leading the Pandava army stood against them with cheering hearts.
Dushasana fought Nakula, attempting to strike him with many an arrow, but Nakula cut down these arrows, the standard and the bow of his enemy. Yudishtira fought Shalya, while Drishtadyumna sought Drona in battle. The King of Panchala fought the King of Sind and the battle between them was fierce and terrible.
Bhishma went through the Pandava army wreaking havoc wherever he went, seeing that Draupadi’s five sons with the twins Nakula and Sahadeva and Abhimanyu, rushed against the Kaurava army and directly attacked the commander of the Kaurava forces.straight at Bhima, tearing them with their arrows. Duryodhana and his brothers surrounded Bhima and the young warriors couldn’t match the prowess of Bhishma and were defeated.
On that first day Uttara, Virata’s son –who was driven by Arjuna – was struck by Shalya, King of Madra, and was killed. Krishna consoled the distraught Yudhishthira, having lost his son in the battle, saying that eventually, victory would be his.
When the battle was commenced, The Pandavas suffered heavy losses and were defeated at the end of the first day.
With confident Kaurava army facing the Pandavas, the second day of the war commenced. Arjuna realized that something had to be done quickly to reverse the Pandava losses and decided to try killing Bhishma. Sri Krishna skillfully located Bhishma’s chariot and steered Arjuna toward him. Arjuna tried to engage Bhishma in a duel, but the Kaurava soldiers placed around Bhishma to protect him attacked Arjuna to try to prevent him from directly engaging Bhishma. Arjuna and Bhishma fought a fierce battle that raged for hours.
Drona and Dhrishtadyumna similarly engaged in a duel in which Drona defeated Dhrishtadyumna and had to be rescued by Bhima’ intervention.
Duryodhana sent the troops of Kalinga to attack Bhima, including the King of Kalinga and lost their lives at his hands. Seeing which, Bhishma immediately came to relieve the battered Kalinga forces and Satyaki, who was assisting Bhima, shot at Bhishma’s charioteer and killed him. This resulted in Bhishma’s horses to lose their control and carried Bhishma away from the battlefield.
Hence, The Kaurava army had suffered great losses at the end of the second day and was considered defeated.
Bhishma arranged the Kaurava forces in the formation of an eagle with himself leading from the front, while Duryodhana’s forces protected the rear. The Pandavas countered this by using the crescent, the shape of a half-moon with the right horn commanded by Bhima, Yudishtira holding the center and Arjuna managing the left horn. All morning, the armies fought and none gave way.
Abhimanyu and Satyaki combined to defeat the Gandhara forces of Shakuni. Bhima and his son Ghatotkacha attacked Duryodhana in the rear. Bhima’s arrows hit Duryodhana, who swooned in his chariot. His charioteer immediately drove them out of danger. Duryodhana’s forces, however, saw their leader fleeing the battlefield and soon scattered. Bhishma soon restored order and Duryodhana returned to lead the army. He was angry at Bhishma, however, at what he saw as leniency towards the five Pandava brothers and spoke harshly to his commander.
The Kauravas concentrated their attack on Arjuna’s position. Arjuna’s chariot was soon covered with arrows and javelins. Arjuna, with amazing skill, built a fortification around his chariot with an unending stream of arrows from his bow.
In the afternoon, Bhishma invoked celestial astras and mowed down the Pandava army on all sides. Krishna urged Arjuna, saying, “The hour has come when you must hold to your promise to slaughter the Kaurava army and fight Bhishma. Behold, your army is being destroyed by him alone.” He drove the chariot to where Bhishma’s chariot stood. Beholding him advancing, the Pandava host rallied, while Bhishma covered the onrushing chariot with his arrows. Arjuna took Gandiva and sent forth arrows that cut the grandsire’s bow in two. As Bhishma seized and strung another that too was cut down. Bhishma, stung by this unfair charge, fell on the Pandava army with renewed vigor. It was as if there were more than one Bhishma on the field. Bhishma sent forth arrows against Arjuna. Krishna, with great skill, avoided them but many still struck him and Arjuna.
Arjuna attacked Bhishma trying to restore order again and engage in a fierce duel. Arjuna drew an Astra causing a river of blood from the Kaurava army. Every other sound was silenced by his bow. As the sun set the Kauravas withdrew, Bhishma and Drona with them, and the Pandavas triumphed that day.
Bhima appeared on the scene with his mace aloft and started attacking the Kauravas. Duryodhana sent a huge force of elephants at Bhima. Seeing the mass of elephants approaching, Bhima got down from his chariot and attacked them singlehandedly with his iron mace. They scattered and stampeded into the Kaurava forces, killing many. Duryodhana ordered an all-out attack on Bhima. Bhima, however, withstood all that was thrown at him and attacked Duryodhana’s brothers, killing eight of them, as per his oath during the gambling game. Therefore the Pandavas, though they often fought their cousins and struck them wounded, never slew them, so that Bhima could keep his promise. Bhima was soon struck by an arrow on the chest and sat down in his chariot dazed.
The unimaginable carnage continued during the ensuing days of the battle.
Duryodhana, when he went each night to his tent, was overcome with grief, and wept for his brothers. He was distraught at the loss of his brother and overwhelmed by sorrow at the loss of his brothers, went to Bhishma at the end of the fourth day of the battle and asked his commander how could the Pandavas, who are facing a superior force against them are still prevailing and wining. Bhishma replied that the Pandavas had justice on their side and advised Duryodhana to seek peace.
When the battle resumed on the fifth day, the slaughter continued. The Pandava army again suffered against Bhishma’s attacks. Arjuna fought and killed thousands of soldiers sent by Duryodhana to attack him. Bhima engaged in a fierce duel with Bhishma, which remained inconclusive. The unimaginable carnage continued during the ensuing days of the battle.
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Satyaki bore the brunt of Drona’s attacks and could not withstand them. Bhima drove by and rescued Satyaki.
This day was marked by remarkable slaughters. Drona caused immeasurable loss of lives on the Pandava side as the formations of both the armies were broken. Bhima too managed to penetrate the Kaurava formation and attacked Duryodhana. Duryodhana was defeated but was rescued by others. In the end of the day, the war halted with the defeat of the Kauravas.
The terrific carnage continued and Drona slew Sankha, a son of Virata. The day’s battle ended with the victory of the Kauravas.
This day Bhima killed 17 of Dhritarashtra’s sons. Iravan, the son of Arjuna and the snake-princess Ulupi killed 5 brothers of Shakuni, princess hailing from Gandhara. Duryodhana sent the Rakshasa fighter Alamvusha to kill Iravan, and the latter was killed by the Rakshasa after a fierce fight. The day ended with a crushing defeat of the Kauravas.
Krishna saw that Bhishma’s arrows were again slaughtering the Pandava army, while Arjuna was fighting mildly, out of respect for Bhishma, whose heart was not in the battle as he did not like the idea of attacking his grand-uncle. During the battle, Bhishma killed numerous soldiers of Arjuna’s armies.
Seeing the vigor of Bhishma in slaying his own people, Krishna was afraid that Bhishma would finish the battle all alone. He was overwhelmed by annoyance at the apparent inability of Arjuna to defeat Bhishma who was still not clear in his head. Krishna rushed towards the Kaurava commander, the wheel of a fallen chariot in his hands, eager to slay him. Bhishma laid down and surrendered in front of the Krishna with his arms and stood ready to die at the hands of the Lord. However, Arjuna ran after him and threw his arms at his feet to stop him. “Stop, O Krishna! Remember your promise not to pick up a weapon, do not let men say you are a liar. I by my weapons, by the truth, by my own deeds, will destroy our foes. The task is mine.” Hearing this, Krishna, still angry, mounted the car and took up the reins again.
Bhishma arrays the troops as a hollow square and wrecks much havoc upon the Pandava army. Realizing that the war could not be won as long as Bhishma was standing, Krishna suggested the strategy of placing a eunuch in the field to face him. Some sources, however, state that it was Yudhishthira who visited Bhishma’s camp at night asking him for help and seeking his advice on how they may slay him. Bhishma tells them to use Shikhandi as a shield, for he would never raise his bow upon a eunuch.
The Pandavas, unable to withstand Bhishma’s prowess, decided to put Shikhandi. Shikhandi’s arrows fell on Bhishma without hindrance. Arjuna positioned himself behind Shikhandi, protecting himself from Bhishma’s attack and aimed his arrows at the weak points in Bhishma’s armour. Then the Pandavas surround Bhishma and driving off the Kauravas, pierce Bhishma with many an arrow until no space on his body greater than the breadth of two fingers remains to be seen. Soon, with arrows sticking from every part of his body, the great warrior fell from his chariot. His body did not touch the ground as it was held aloft by the arrows protruding from his body.
Bhishma had promised his father, King Shantanu that he would live until Hastinapur was secured from all directions. To keep this promise, Bhishma used the boon of ‘Ichchya Mrityu’ (self-wished death) given to him by his father.
Both armies stop their battle in honor of the eldest of Bharatas and approach him seeking his advice. The Kauravas and Pandavas gathered around Bhishma at his request and Arjuna gives him a pillow of three shafts to rest his head on and strikes the ground with a blazing arrow to provide him with a cool jet of sweet water.
After the war was over, when Hastinapur had become safe from all sides and after giving lessons on politics and Vishnu Sahasranama to the Pandavas. Thus he lies there on his bed of arrows, waiting for the faithful moment and died on the first day of Uttarayana.
Much to Duryodhana’s joy, Karna entered the battlefield with Bhishma unable to continue. Drona was made the supreme commander of the Kaurava forces, according to Karna’s suggestion.
Duryodhana asks Drona to capture Yudhishthira alive. It was because killing Yudhishthira in battle would only enrage the Pandavas more, whereas holding him as hostage would be strategically useful.
Drona sets up the Trigarthas to draw away Arjuna from protecting his elder brother.and formulated his battle plans for the eleventh day to this aim. He cut down Yudhishthira’s bow which feared Pandava army that their leader would be taken a prisoner. Thus, Arjuna rushed to the scene and with a flood of arrows and eventually defeated Drona.
Drona was dissatisfied with his attempts to capture Yudhishthira. Thus, he confided to Duryodhana that it would be difficult as long as Arjuna was around and ordered the Samsaptakas to keep Arjuna busy in a remote part of the battlefield, an order which they readily obeyed.
The Trigarta warriors headed by Susharma, who had vowed to either conquer or die also had accounts of their old hostilities with the Pandava scion. However, Arjuna managed to defeat them before the afternoon, and then faced Bhagadatta, the ruler of Pragjyotisha (modern day state of Assam).
Bhagadatta had been creating havoc among the Pandava troops by defeating great warriors like Bhima, Abhimanyu and Satyaki. Now, he fought with Arjuna riding on his gigantic elephant named Supratika. Arjuna and Bhagadatta fought a fierce duel, and finally Arjuna succeeded in defeating and killing his antagonist.
Drona still continued his attempts to capture Yudhishthira but the Pandavas fought hard and delivered severe blows to the Kaurava army, frustrating Drona’s plans.
Drona’s target remained the same, which was to capture Yudhishthira. Thus, he arrayed his troops in the Chakra/Padma/Kamala – Formation, a very complex and almost impenetrable formation. Among the Pandavas, only Arjuna and Krishna knew how to penetrate this formation, and in order to prevent them from doing so, the Samsaptakas led by Susharma again challenged Arjuna and kept him busy at a remote part of the battlefield the whole day. Arjuna killed thousands of Samsaptakasa but couldn’t exterminate all of them.
On the other side of the battlefield, the remaining four Pandavas and their allies were finding it impossible to break Drona’s Chakra formation. Yudhishthira instructed Abhimanyu, (the son of Arjuna and Subhadra) to break the Chakra/Padma formation.
While Abhimanyu was still in his mother’s womb, Arjuna had taught Abhimanyu on how to break and enter the Chakra Vyuha. Still, before explaining how to exit the Chakra Vyuha, Arjuna was interrupted by Krishna (In another story, Abhimanyu’s mother falls asleep while Arjuna was explaining her). Thus from birth, Abhimanyu only knew how to enter the Chakra Vyuha but didn’t know how to come out of it.
The Pandava heroes followed him to protect him from any potential danger. However, as soon as Abhimanyu entered the formation, King Jayadratha stopped the Pandava warriors. He held at bay the whole Pandava army, thanks to a boon obtained from Lord Shiva, and defeated Bhima and Satyaki.
Inside the Chakra/Kamala formation, Abhimanyu slew tens of thousands of warriors. Some of them included Vrihadvala (the ruler of Kosala), the ruler of Asmaka, Martikavata (the son of Kritavarma), Rukmaratha (the son of Shalya), Shalya’s younger brother, Lakshmana (the son of Duryodhana) and many others. He also managed to defeat great warriors like Drona, Karna, Ashwatthama, Kritavarma and others.
Facing the prospect of the complete annihilation of their army, the Kaurava commanders devised a strategy to deter Abhimanyu from causing further damage to their force. According to Drona’s instructions, six warriors together attacked Abhimanyu (the warriors included Drona himself, Karna, Kripa and Kritavarma), and deprived Abhimanyu of his chariot, bow, sword and shield. Abhimanyu, however, determined to fight, picked up a mace, smashed Ashwatthma’s chariot (upon which the latter fled), killed one of Shakuni’s brothers and numerous troops and elephants, and finally encountered the son of Dussasana in a mace-fight. The latter was a strong mace-fighter, and an exhausted Abhimanyu was defeated and killed by his adversary.
That night, Arjuna hears of the dastardly murder of his son and vowed to kill Jayadratha, before the battle ended at sunset, otherwise he would throw himself into the fire.
While Arjuna destroying the rest of the Shakatavuyha, Vikarna, the third eldest Kaurava, challenged Arjuna to an archery fight.
The Kauravas rally around King Jayadratha and keep Arjuna at bay after realizing that Arjuna will kill himself if they protect Jayadratha till sundown. Drona challenges Arjuna to distract him and they fight relentlessly, without managing to kill the other. Karna, Drona, Ashwattama and Duryodhana, all surround Arjuna to keep him from King Jayadratha. The fearful fight raged till the sun approached the western hills.
Krishna, anxious that Arjuna’s vow should be kept, drives the chariot forward by leaving Drona behind. Krishna said to Arjuna, “You cannot kill Jayadratha till you have slain these warriors. I shall eclipse the sun in darkness so that they will think it has set and be less careful.” Through his divine power, he eclipses the son, creating darkness and deceiving the Kauravas, who part way, thinking Arjuna must now take his life. (In another story, Lord Krishna raised his Sudarshan Chakra to cover the sun, faking a sunset.) Arjuna fixes an astra and taking aim at Jayadratha, lets it loose. Jayadratha’s head is severed just as the eclipse ends and the sun begins to shine again. Seeing that they were deceived, the Kauravas weep in sorrow and anger.
Duryodhana, distraught, orders his army to fight through the night, and the two hosts lighting torches, continue their battle. But so tired are they that men are killed while they fell asleep, and many were killed by their friends in a daze. The battle continued past sunset. Arjuna asked Bhima to decimate Vikarna, but Bhima refused to, because Vikarna had defended the Pandavas during the Draupadi Vastrapaharanam. Bhima and Vikarna showered arrows at each other. Later Bhima threw his mace at Vikarna, killing him. The muscular Pandava was devastated and mourned his death saying he was a man of Dharma and it was a pity how he lived his life. Drona killed Vrihatkshatra, the ruler of Kekaya and Dhrishtakethu, the ruler of Chedi. Dushasana’s son, Durmashana, was slain by Bhima in a duel.
During this time, Gathokacha, the rakshasa son of Bhima wreaks havoc among the Kaurava, until he is felled by the Shakti, a weapon given to Karna by Indra. Karna was planning to use the Shakti against Arjuna However, Duryodhana, desperate to end Gathokacha’s carnage pleads with Karna to use it. Now Karna loses the weapon since it can be used only once and returns to Indra.
Then the two armies take a break and call a truce till the moon rises and rest upon the battlefield.
The battle continues through moonrise and sunrise, when Drona begins to slaughter the Pandava army. Arjuna and Drona meet in a fierce battle but no side can prevail. Drona then fights both Virata and Drupada, killing them both. Seeing that no one can slay this fierce warrior, Krishna advices that they use deceit to kill him. Yudhisthara reluctantly agrees and Bhima is ordered to kill an elephant named Ashwattaman. Bhima proceeded to kill the elephant and loudly proclaimed that Ashwatthama was dead.
Then when he is near Drona, he announces loudly, “I have killed Ashwattaman.” Drona’s legs turn to water, but he cannot believe that a mighty warrior like Ashwattama could be killed by Bhima. So he turns to Yudhisthara and asks him, “Is this true?” Yudhisthara, the ever-truthful replies in the affirmative. Drona is distraught. Overcome, he drops his weapons and goes into meditation to leave is body. He was then killed by Dhrishtadyumna to avenge his father’s death and satisfy his vow.
Ashwattama is enraged by his father’s death and fired the Narayanastra against the Pandava army. Krishna tells everyone to lay down their weapons and lie on the ground, since this is the only way the weapon can be made harmless.
Kunti requests Karna to join the side of the Pandavas, telling him that he is her eldest son. But Karna says he will spare all the Pandavas, except Arjuna.
On the sixteenth day, Karna was made the supreme commander of the Kuru army. Shalya is made charioteer of Karna, much to his dismay because though Karna matches Arjuna in archery, only Shalya can match Krishna as a charioteer.
Karna fought valiantly but was surrounded and attacked by Pandava generals, who were unable to prevail upon him. Karna inflicted heavy damage on the Pandava army, which fled. Then Arjuna successfully resisted Karna’s weapons with his own and also inflicted casualties upon the Kaurava army. The sun soon set and with darkness and dust making the assessment of proceedings difficult, the Kaurava army retreated for the day.
On the same day, Bhima swung his mace and shattered Dushasana’s chariot. Bhima seized Dushasana, ripped his right hand from shoulder and killed him, tearing open his chest and drinking his blood and carrying some to smear on Draupadi’s untied hair, thus fulfilling his vow made when Draupadi was humiliated.
On the seventeenth day, Karna defeated the Pandava brothers Nakula, Sahadeva and Yudhishthira in battle but spared their lives.
Karna wounds Yudhisthara sorely, who leaves the battlefield to rest. Hearing this, Arjuna goes to his tent to see how he is. Yudhisthara however, in pain and anger, insults Arjuna, thinking that he has run from Karna. In shame and anger, Arjuna draws his sword against Yudhisthara, and has to be pacified by Krishna. Ashamed at their reckless acts and words, the two brothers seek each other’s forgiveness.
Later, Karna resumed duelling with Arjuna. Karna and Arjuna battle each other in a ferocious fight, until Parashurama’s curse comes true and Karna’s chariot wheel sinks to the ground. During their duel, Karna’s chariot wheel got stuck in the mud and Karna asked for a pause. Krishna reminded Arjuna about Karna’s ruthlessness unto Abhimanyu while he was similarly left without chariot and weapons. Hearing his son’s fate, Arjuna shot his arrow and decapitated Karna. Before the battle, Karna’s sacred armour (‘Kavacha’) and earrings (‘Kundala’) were taken as alms by Lord Indra when asked for, which resulted in his death by Arjuna’s arrows. It is told that Kunti sings a song for Karna in presence of the Pandava brothers, and Karna’s foster mother, Radha; before he dies. It was the Pandavas who completed his funeral ceremony.
On the last day, Shalya is made the commander of the Kauravas and battles and is killed by Yudhisthara. Shakuni is killed by Sahadeva and none of the Kaurava army except Ashwattama, Duryodhana Kripacharya and Kritavarma survived the war.
Realizing his defeat, Duryodhana fled the and headed towards a lake to cool down his body, which beczme hot with anger. Krishna takes the Pandavas to the lake and Bhima compless Duryodhana to out of it. As they fight a mace battle, Duryodhana is invincible because of his mother Gandhari’s boon that his body is impenetrable. Bhima flouted the rules (under instructions from Krishna) to strike Duryodhana beneath the waist in which he was mortally wounded. In great pain, Duryodhana is left to die by the Pandavas.
Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, and Kritavarma met Duryodhana at his deathbed and promised to avenge the actions of Bhima. They attacked the Pandavas’ camp later that night, trying to kill all the Pandavas’. However, amongst the dead were Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, Uttamaujas, and children of Draupadi who were killed thinking them to be the Pandav brothers.
It the end:
Only the five Pandavas, Krishna, Satyaki, Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, Yuyutsu, Vrishakethu, and Kritvarma. Yudhishthira was crowned king of Hastinapur for 36 years, he renounced the throne, passing the title on to Arjuna’s grandson, Parikshit after Krishna’s demise.
Yudhishthira then left for the Himalayas with Draupadi and his brothers to find heaven. Draupadi and four Pandavas—Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva died during the journey and Yudhishthira, the lone survivor as being of pious heart, was invited by Dharma to enter the heavens as a mortal.