There is a lot of controversy regarding the truth of the Mahabharata war. A lot of people simply question the veracity of the text on the ground of it being composed much later then when the war happened. Moreover, such confusion is also because the place where the war avowedly took place has not been verified on the basis of archaeological findings. Also, the western educated mind is trained to believe in written records as the only true source of knowledge. This ignores the alternative traditions, ways of recording and disseminating knowledge.
I wish to dispel these controversies from my research which have been shaped from my personal findings. My inclination towards the itihasa (history) of this country as well as my experience as a Professor at the Rural Girls university in Haryana near Kurukshetra, where the war took place shaped my understanding of the subject. In Kurukshetra, there is Jyotisar where Lord Krishna delivered his famous discourse on the Bhagvad Gita.
The Geographical spread of the battlefield: The first question that baffles many is: how can such a war involving thirty six lakh soldiers take place in such a small town? The answer lies in the fact that the battle took place not in modern day Kurukshetra, but in the Kurukshetra Samantha Panchakshetra, which is one of the nine kshetras mentioned in the Mahabharat. It stretches from the foothills of Shivalik from where rose right up to the bend that Saraswati took at the border of Haryana & Rajasthan, the town of Sirsa. This information is based primarily from the local accounts, which has not been verified linguistically or otherwise. The local accounts tell us that the town Sirsa is the phonologically altered name of the Sirsaka, the place where Bhishma Pitamaha fell. The place Sirsa is about 130-140 kilometers from Jyotisar. The distance can be verified. If one travels on a chariot with four horses, like Lord Krishna did, it would take around three to four hours to reach Sirsa from Jyotisar. The distance can also be verified from certain other facts as they have been mentioned in the Mahabharata. It is mentioned: when Arjun had to fight the Trigarta warriors, Krishna and Arjuna left Jyotisar in the morning and reached Sirsa after four hours. Hence, it can be seen that the area where the war took place was vast.
Orality as a philosophy of Knowledge: The second issue that needs to be addressed is academic. A lot of intellectual doubts are raised, since the text was composed nearly 1500 years after the war took place. How can such a composition, which is not verifiable according to other written texts can taken to be true? This can be addressed only when we take into account that we are an oral culture. This is not because of a lack of scripts, or the inclination to write, or the lack of the know-how needed for writing. If that would have been the case, then what can be said about the Ashokan inscriptions which are in five different scripts. They are dateable to as early as the 3rd and 4th century BC. Moreover, we have Scripts, and Pāṇini in his grammar mentions the word lipi several times.
Orality is an alternative philosophy of knowledge: alternative mode of creating, disseminating and transferring knowledge. All this is done, as the storage is in the mind, not in the external documents and dissemination is by the word of mouth. When knowledge is transferred orally through Guru-Shishya tradition or through Katha Pravachans , it gets spread widely. All this has resulted in a long continuous tradition of which we have racial memories and records.
Westernized education has created a deep seated cynicism and a concomitant lack of interest in the ancient Indian texts, as written evidence is considered a parameter on which all the texts are to be scrutinized. But it needs to be stated clearly that we are not a scriptal civilization, like the rest of the world. This can be seen from the story of the ‘Ten Commandments’. Moses went up the mountain, talked to God, and God gave 10 commandments. He asked god to give the commandments in writing. God wrote the commandments with the hand of fire. Because if he had gone down to the Jew people, and said, God said this, nobody would have believed him. They don't have Shabd Pramaan. We do.
If in an Indian village someone says that an old Baba said that, we will readily
believe it. So, orality is a cultural philosophy of knowledge.
Places in the Mahabharata: Let us now see how the oral system of knowledge comes to help in understanding the various places associated with the Mahabharata war. My personal enquiry with the local people has helped me to understand the names of many of the places have changed and those places exist today with a different nomenclature. This is a fact that Sirsaka has become Sirsa over so many days.
Similarly, there is another village, very near to the Rural girls university. The name is Saragthal, mentioned as Swargsthal in the Mahabharata. This can be again verified by the local accounts of old people. I once asked a very old man about Saragthal? His reply was, when there was a huge war, many got cremated here at Swarga Sthal. Another place, Pehowa with the ancient name as mentioned in the Mahabharata as Prithudaka. The legend associated with the place is that Raja Prithu harmed the earth so many as 5 times, that it caused drought and famine. This provides a legendary linkage to the drying up of the river Saraswati from Prithudaka.
Further, whoever died in the horrible war, their Pind daan was done in Pehowa. There is a village, Chakwa where according to the villagers the chakravyuh: the battle formation set up by the Kauravas was formed in which Abhimanyu, son of Arjun died.
Races in the Mahabharata: Now you have a large number of educated Indians who keep asking: did the war really happen? They say it is just imagination, they further ask, where are those races now? The kurus and panchalas have disappeared. But the fact of the matter is that of the many races mentioned in the Mahabharata, are still there. The three most important races which stayed when the Rig Veda was composed, namely, Balinas or the Baloch, the Arpitas or the Afridis and the Pakhtas or the Pathans. They fought in the war. These races are still there.
Interestingly, Bharat varsha has had certain naturally given divisions. For example, it has three cultural divisions, Uddich, Pracha, Dakshanatya. There are glaring similarities between the people in terms of their attire, food and so on. If you look at the attire, turban and pyjama, across the Yamuna, topi and dhoti, right up to Maharashtra, turban and dhoti. There's a similarity. The food habits are also similar, wheat eating people, rice eating people in the three regions.
In terms of political rule and conflict, India has had two very interesting divisions: The entire northwest of modern day India was an essential part of Bharat Varsha. Bharat Varsha is not today's truncated, partitioned geographical entity that we call India. Political boundaries kept shifting. Afghanistan, which today appears so distant, in Aurangzeb's time, was ruled by the Jaswant Singh Rathore, the Jodhpur King. He was the governor of Afghanistan in the 16th-17th century.
In Mahabharata, the forces with the Kauravas, was more from the India that we see today. And the ones with Pandavas were more from there. Kauravas were very rich and powerful. They had brought Hastinapur and Indraprastha under their control. But they did not have as many allies because they were very arrogant. Distant people from Kandahar came to their help. The entire India went to the support of the Pandavas and Dhritrashtra expressed surprise that these poor Pandavas, have connected eleven Akshauhini sena. These accounts are substantiated by the local accounts.
These numbers are also verified by the local accounts. One Akshauhini has 1,13,000 soldiers. The local people describe it in a different way. They say, if you dig a well and make soldiers walk in a single file by that well and when the well is filled up by the dust raised by the soldiers. Then one Akshauhini Sena has passed.
The count of time in the Indian tradition is also very peculiar. Our Kala Ganana on one side is very precise, on the other hand, if you asked someone how old is your son they would say he was born when there was a great flo. Or when so and so was in the arms, then my son was born. There is a difference in the way of recording time and talking about time.
The River Saraswati: Coming to the river described in Mahabharata, the battle took place on the bank of the river Saraswati. At that time there is no reference to the drying up of the river. That gives us some idea about the time when the battle must have taken place. We have to make a distinction between the date of the war, and the date of composition of the epic, because the recording of the event took place after 1500 years-1200 years of the war. The oral narratives, sub narratives, gradually got together, to make the composition happen. But there is no reference, and it is nearly established that Saraswati dried up in 1900 BC or around 1900 BC. So the Mahabharata war took place before the drying up of the river.
The Rig veda, the Upanishads were composed on the bank of Saraswati. On travelling from Delhi, after crossing Kurukshetra, there is a town called Shahabad Marakanda, which comes upon crossing Kurukshetra . Everybody says Markanda is the place where Markandeya Rishi had his ashram. People who know the Vyasa parampara say that Saraswat rishi, got his name from the fact that he lived on the bank of Saraswathi .
Events in the Mahabharata: Literary or factual: Every narrative has the features of a literary composition. But, the core of the arguments cannot be denied. Sita had an agni-pariksha in the Mahabharata. Everyone, starts questioning this on the ground that it is impossible for a human to walk on fire. Interestingly, no one questions the acid test of the British. It is not that people jump in an acid test when they pass the test. But, there is a hegemony of western practices which makes us see what they do as right, and what we do as wrong.
It is said that the Mahabharata war took place 37 years before the Kaliyug started. When Al-Beruni accompanied Mahmud Ghazni to India in 1030 wrote about the Kali Yuga. He said that the cycle of the Kaliyuga started 4232 years ago. If we reduce 1030 years, to take into account the time from when he was writing, we arrive at 3102 BC which is the same as the date mentioned in our traditional works. After reducing 37 years from the time period suggested by Al-Beruni, we arrive at 3139 BC and that is the date when the Mahabharata war too place.
The racial features are very much akin to the martial qualities seen in the people of modern day Haryana. Very interestingly, when you look at the boys and girls of Haryana you can say that the warriors must have lived there. Girls from Haryana have won Gold medals in wrestling, boxing and even a beauty contest. The girls of Haryana are very shy in nature, they lower their eyes when they are placed on the pedestal to be given a medal. This shows their modesty which cannot be matched by the western girls. Their spirit gets reflected in the arena where they are like a tigress. They are martial and warlike people. That is the reason, the whole area has witnessed turmoil time and again. The last recorded king was Harshvardhan, the famous king of Thanesar. Very few people know that he was a Jaat. On the 4th of October 3139 BC, Krishna went to Thanesar to avoid war.
There is a substantial degree of self reflection in the Mahabharata about the rights and wrongs of a person. Mahabharata was nothing but a series of tremendous scenes. In the Mahabharata there are two people who engage in a considerable degree of introspection. One is Yudhishthir and the other one is Dhritrashtra . It is interesting to note that in the very beginning Dhritrashtra says to Sanjaya, not to think ill of him. He never wanted the war but Putramoh led him to it.
Dhritrashtra gave the whole narrative, he says that he knew that the war would happen, his side would loose and his sons would get killed but he could not stop the war. He reflects and says that we would be fighting like dogs over a piece of bone. On the other hand Duryodhana says that ‘I know what is Dharma and what is Adharma but I am not interested’. He says that he has taken this kingdom from the Pandavas and he will not return it to them. So there is both the reluctance and the motivation to fight, and when the war is over Yudhisthira does Vilaap.
The richness of the text can be seen from the fact that Arjun before the war says that why should I kill my own family for the sake of a kingdom. Lord Krishna had to give him 700 Slokas to pursuade him, to give him knowledge. When Yudhisthira mourned upon the death of his elder brother, Arjun tells him when you want to pursue Dharma, you need Dhan, power. For power, you need to wage a war and to wage a war you need to kill. Yudhishthira then replies, your job is to fight with weapons, you remain in that sphere. Do not advise me in the matters of karma and the matter of dharma. So the two characters introspect and meditate in the epic. The epic is full of professional characters and it gets difficult to say who the hero is?
Some say that Duryodhana is the real hero as his character does not change from beginning to the end. In the end when Bhima is about to crush the head of Duryodhana, krishna abstains him from doing so. Duryodhana then blames Krishna of being a hypocrite as he was the one who asked Bhima to hit him below the waist. And now, he was the one who is asking Bhima not to crush his head. He says that ‘I am a prince, I fought like a kshatriya, and I deserve to die like a kshatriya and go to heaven, but now you will go to hell and see the end of your race’.
Coming to the specifics of the date of the Mahabharata. The war happened ten days after the 4th October, as Lord Krishna told Karna that is on the 13th of october, 3139 BC the war began. It ended on 30th October. On 13th October, Bhism Pitamaha fell, on 14th November Duryodhana died . You believe it or not it depends on your Sanmatti, Sadbuddhi or Durmati .
This event of 3000 years ago was a watershed in the history of India . In our culture, people describe Mahabharata as a civilizational text. In fact, all epics are civilizational text. There has been a period in our history when all the Golden epics were composed, popularly known as the Golden chain. A French Scholar, writing about ‘What is Classic’, said that when Europe considered only Illiad and Odyssey as Classics, he added Ved Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Valmiki’s Ramayana and Firdausi’s Shahnama. In fact, the Golden chain extends to Gilgamesh, the Middle east. Gilgamesh is oldest of these narratives, an Arabic narrative about two brothers, about friendship and death. While Mahabharata is about death and animosity.
Gyan-kendrit sabhayata: Mahabharata is a civilizational epic as our civilization was known as a knowledge civilization from day one. We have the world’s first book, Granth, the Rig Veda. We have the world’s first treatise on Grammar, and the first sociological text. We have been a knowledge society, Gyan kendrit sabhyata from day one. In spite of its unique multicultural, multi-racial, multi- lingual character, civilization has survived as one. It is essentially because of a unity of consciousness, generated by a longer knowledge tradition. Despite the variations in appearance, language and culture, when you travel the country, you will feel as one because of the way people treat you. The people receive you, they try to communicate with you. They understand you because of the oneness of this Vedic civilization.
There is one civilization known as the Hebraic or the Abrahamic civilization. Whereas, the other is the Vedic civilization. The Vedic civilization is different from the Hebraic civilization which is God-centric. The Vedic civilization is man centric. Very few people realize that we don’t have a God with a capital G in our culture and civilization. We made a number of Gods, small gods and big gods. Gods whose fortune is worse than humans. Lord Rama, committing suicide by drowning into the Saryu river, Lord Krishna dying an animal’s death after getting shot. This is to show that the typical character of human suffering is a part of them. So, this knowledge civilization, the Vedic civilization is a civilization of certain deep rooted values and ideas. Every sentence of the Mahabharata sheds these values and ideas.
The decline of the Vedic civilization: Mahabharata comes as a watershed development in the Vedic civilization. People, familiar with the European history know that after the World War 1 and World War 2, people lost their faith in their civilization. They started questioning the ideas, values and ethics associated with Christianity and started questioning the existence of God. In the same way Mahabharata led to 36 lacs casualties in two days, the density of the casualties higher than the two world wars combined. Although, 10 million people died in World War 1 and 55 million people died in World War2, but the density of deaths was higher in the Vedic civilization. People started questioning the values and ethics, atheism swept the country. In Ashtdyayi panini’s Grammar which is about 900-800 BC, there are 28 schools, of which 27 are atheistic. People like Puran Kashyap say that there is no Paap, no Punya. And, Ajit Keshakambhali or the Charvakas, a whole tradition of material skepticism came to the fore which led to the Mahatma Buddha’s materialism, though he welded it with ethical idealism.
The recovery of the lost values: This sudden loss in the Vedic values was cataclysmic, but then it has been a continuous civilization. The recovery began gradually. We don’t have a history of ideas in India, someone should take the initiative to write the history of ideas in India. There are seeds of the Bhagavata Dharma in Mahabharata, seeds, because the events took place 3139 BC, but the composition began, maybe 1500 years later, 1600 years later, around 1800 BC. By that time the society had passed through so much churning and turmoil, and the origin of Bhagwat Dharma, which ultimately led to bhakti, and the three margas of gyana, karma and bhakti. The Upanishads believed in Dharma consists in Gyana. Buddhism believed the Dharma consists in action. The Puranas believed that Dharma consists in Bhakti, devotion. And Adi Shankara, in the commentary on Bhagavad Gita says that the Bhagavad Gita is the epitome of Bhagavata Dharma. And, in the second chapter commentary says that he combined the three. Knowledge informed action is Bhakti. It is Nishkama karma, and that is how Bhagvat Gita combined, resuscitated the value system, and integrated even Buddhist materialist thought into the total system of belief. Mahabharata acted as a watershed. But after that, again, the history of ideas began and took a different turn. Buddha would not have been possible if the war had not taken place.
Fighting for the end: We also need to see the way the fighting has been described in the epic. Every day begins by firing an arrow over the head of Arjun and Arjun starts by firing an arrow at the feet of Bhishm Pitamah. So Bhishm Pitamah is fighting on behalf of Kauravas but his heart is with Pandavas, so he blesses them. And on the seventh day, Duryodhana says, You're our Senapati, but you don't kill anyone. You kill 10,000 every day, but the Pandavas are unhurt. The warriors are unhurt. So when he taunts him, Bhisham Pitama says all right. Tomorrow, I'll show you. And he kills a lakh of soldiers the next day. When it happens Krishna senses and says, unless we stop Bhishm Pitamaha, the battle is lost. Because he had the blessing that he will die only when he wants to.
So they go to him. They go to him in the evening, and ask him, Baba Ji, how to kill you. He provokes them by saying that I don't raise my weapons on women. Even then, Arjuna refuses to fire at Bhishm Pitamaha. So Krishna tells him again and again to shoot Bhism Pitamaha. As a charioteer, he takes him there. He says now you shoot. He doesn't. Then Krishna loses his patience, and you know Krishna vowed not to take up arms. He picks up the wheel of a chariot and starts moving towards Bhishm Pitamaha, and Bhishm Pitamaha on seeing Krishna, picking up arms against him puts down his bow and arrow, folds his hands and says, you are very, very kind. I had taken a vow, that I should become such a warrior, that God has to take up arms.
In the end when the war is over, the first visit Krishna makes is to Gandhari, who lost her 100 sons. And as he was going, Durvasa comes who has a reputation of being a very angry Sadhu. If you had wanted, the bloodshed would have been avoided. I am going to curse you. So Krishna says Rishi, don't curse me. I'll cut your curse and I don't want to cut a Rishi's curse. He then goes to Gandhari, she has a Divya Drishti because of Tapasya, that you know binding, not seeing anything. She says, "Krishna you came. If you had wished, my sons would be alive today. I curse you." Krishna said that he could have cut Durvasa's curse, and in a similar way he could have cut Gandhari’s curse, but he does not do so. When Gandhari says I curse you, he could have easily done something. But he quietly smiles. She says, you will see the end of your race.
And she says, Why are you smiling? He said, Maa, I had to kill them anyway, but you gave me a reason. Extraordinary! This is to mean that the Mahabharata war was meant to be a doomsday for the race.