Kurukshetra

“I warned you once that

Duryodhana’s mischief

Would be the cause of

The annihilation of the kingdom.”

–Vidura in Mahabharata (207.30)[1]

This post will be shorter than normal.

I was shocked to discover that there didn’t exist online any approximate charting of the opposing alliances which fought at the battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata, according to the mythology. I’ve decided to fill that gap. This map is based on the information in F. E. Pargiter’s article called “The Nations of India at the Battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas,” and the “Races, Tribes and Castes” section of the Samsad Companion to the Mahabharata.[2] I used the map located on AncientVoice as the basis image.

EpicIndia2caps1

Let me be clear that the position of several of these names, particularly those outside the subcontinent, and the “borders” themselves are speculative. Not to mention that the historicity of the war’s events are questionable, though the story is most probably based in fact.

The most useful section of Pargiter’s article lists the alliances as follows (unfortunately I could not include his diacritical marks):

“We may sum up these results in the following way, leaving out of account all the insignificant tribes which merely furnished contingents to the larger kingdoms, that were near them and that claimed some overlordship over them.

“On the Pandava’s side were these: ––

From the Madhyadesa –– Panchalas (with Raksasas or forest tribes from their north), Matsyas, Cedis, Karusas, Dasarnas, Kasis, Eastern Kosalas, and Western Magadhas, with the various tribes dwelling in or near the Vindhya Mountains and Aravalli Hills.

From the West–– all the Yadavas from Gujarat and from the territory east of Gujarat.

From the NorthWest–– Some Kaikeyas and Abhisaras

From the South–– the Pandyas, with contingents from the Dravidian races in the Karnatic.

 

On the Kauravas’ side were these:––

From the East–– the Eastern Magadhas, Videhas, Pragjyotisas (with Cinas and Kiratas), Angas, Vangas, Pundras, Utkalas, Mekalas, Kalingas, and Andhras, with contingents from all the tribes bordering on them.

From the Madhyadesa–– Surasenas, Vatsas, and Kosalas.

From the North-West–– Sindhus, Sauviras, Madras, Vahlikas, Kaikeyas, Gandharas, Kambojas, Trigartas, Ambasthas, and Sivis, with contingents from the tribes all around them.

From the North–– hill tribes from all along the Himalayas, except from the north of Pancala.

From the West–– Salvas and Malavas

From Central India–– the Tadavas from the country south and south-east of Baroda, Avantis, Mahismakas, Vidarbhas, Nisadhas, and Kuntalas, and contingents from the races bordering on them in the Dekhan.

 

We may summarize these conclusions further by confining out attention to the leading nations. Those on the Pandavas side were the Pancalas, Matsyas, Cedis, Karusas, Kasis, and Western Maghadas from Madhyadesa; all the Yadavas from Gujarat and the country east of it; and the Pandyas. On the Kauravas’ side were all the nations from North and South-Eastern Behar, all of Bengal and West Assam, and all the region south of Bengal as far as the river Godavari; all the Surasenas, Vatas, and Kosalas in Madhyadesa; all the nations in the north and north-west with the Salvas and malagas: and the Avantis and all the nations of Central India

Stating these conclusions more generally still, we may say that the Pandavas’ cause combined the Pancalas and all the kingdoms of South Madhyadesa (except the Surasenas and the Vatsas) together with the Yadavas of Gujarat against the rest of Northern, Central and Eastern India. Now the Yadavas of Gujarat are said to have been an offshoot from those who dwelt in the country near Mathura; and the division of the contending parties may broadly said to be South Madhyadesa and Pancala against the rest of India…”[3] (Pargiter, 332, 333.)

The arrangement of the conflict in between Kuru and Panchala in the northern Gangetic valley marks either the conclusion, or the last stages of the initial shift from Indus-Oxus orbit to the Gangetic political orbit.[4] The Pandava territory is clearly the Gangetic core of this period, and aside from Kuru proper, which itself straddles Ganges and Indus basins, the only major military power center of the Kauravas is the Punjab. The rest of the Kuru allies are periphery territories (Yes, there is the minor exception of  Eastern Maghada/Videha, though I am skeptical of the historicity its strength as described to it in the text). Essentially what we have is a central Gangetic kingdom, which has lost control of its eastern periphery, and faces a major threat from the northwest, a situation which would recur with frustrating frequency throughout Indian history.

More precise

This map is quite accurate, which necesitates its sparseness. It pertains to the historical Kuru, Panchala, Kosala, and Videha kingdoms, not the mythologized versions we read about in the texts. For your comparison. Image source

Note the location of the two capitals and the battlefield. This area would be some of the most strategically crucial land for all of Indian history. Assuming that Indraprahsta is approximately on the site of modern New Delhi, it bordered one of the most persistent frontier territories we know of. The massive forests, which occupied the space between the Yamuna and the Sutlej, were the last barrier one needed to cross on the frequently utilized trade and invasion route between Afghanistan and Delhi. In later centuries when history becomes clearer, we have good evidence of extensive horse breeding in this area, partially as a result of repeated central Asian invasions. This made the territory a productive asset for the military as well.[5]

Delhi and its predecessors have been positioned directly on the eastern edge of this fertile valuable land, which was also a trade route and an invasion route, and possessed thick forestation. As a result, though Delhi is highly strategic and valuable, it is also precariously placed. A mere ~70 kilometers south of Kurukshetra lies Panipat, which was the site of numerous epic battles. The Mughals won two major battles there in 1526 and 1556. Then the Marathas won a battle at the same site in 1761. About ~70 kilometers northwest of Kuruksheta lies Tarain, which saw two more battles, first in 1191 (Rajput victory) and then another battle of epic proportions in 1192 (Ghurid victory). [6] Delhi itself has been taken and retaken more times than can be reasonably listed, and the modern Indian state of Haryana (northwest of Delhi, roughly corresponding with the historical Kuru kingdom) is absolutely littered with minor battlefields. Since the time of the Mahabharata, this region has been the keystone of controlling northern India.

The Battle of Kurukshetra is the template for all of the ensuing military history of the northern Gangetic valley.

 

If you are curious about the reason for putting that particular quote by the sage Vidura at the start of this article: This map is interesting for another reason. It represents a snapshot of Indian history at a crossroads, which accompanied the transition from Indus to Gangetic culture–– a crossroads, which the Mahabharata portrays as cataclysmic, but necessary for progress. The old way of doing things was coming to an end. The culture of warring clans, with its rote sacrifices and agnostic and agonistic Nietzschean warrior morality, its manly ethic of virya was doomed in this epic conflagration. Though the old order had noble qualities, the Mahabharata portrays it as doomed by its own inherent chaotic, violent, and greedy nature, embodied in Duryodhana. Emerging from the ashes, slowly, painfully, and with substantial residue from from the past, were the first true Indian kingdoms, accompanied by Krishna’s message of Bhakti (devotion,) a unification of Hindu philosophy, a social ethic, and a theory of just war informed by the ethics of nonviolence. If at some point I write another post dedicated to that revolutionary transition I’ll link to it here.

1.9bhishma

The death of Bhishma on the bed of arrows. He is the grand uncle of both the Pandavas and the Kauravas. He probably is supposed to represent the most worthy and noble of the old order. Similar to the role of Cato in Roman civic mythology. Image source


 

Endnotes:

[1] Bhattacharya, Pradip, Themes and Structure in the Mahabharata: A Study of the Adi Parva. Dasgupta and Co, 1989. As quoted on p. 341

[2] Dasgupta, Madhusrabha. Samsad Companion to The Mahabharata, published by Shishu Sahitya Samad, Calcutta, 1999. Chapter 4 p.72-95

[3] Pargiter, F.E. “The Nations of India at the Battle Between the Pandvas and the Kauravas” in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (April, 1908) p 332-333

[4] Chakrabarti, Dillip K. The Geopolitical Orbits of Ancient India. Oxford University Press 2010. This text doesn’t discuss the Mahabharata in any real detail, but I’m pulling these terms, and this way of thinking about Indian geography from

[5] Gommans, Jos. “The Silent Frontier of South Asia, C. A.D. 1100-1800” Journal of World History, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring, 1998), p. 19

[6] Gommans, p. 21

2 comments on “Kurukshetra

  1. bhanu13 says:

    I am a little confused here regarding your phrase ‘theory of just war”. Ethics were the first to die in this war and the Pandavs were the first to indulge in an unfair mean of killing a warrior: The Killing of Bheeshma. How could the war they won be called a ‘just war’?

    • Sorry I missed your comment Bhanu. But better late than never, right? In any case, I’m sensitive to the issue you bring up. If you scroll through my blog you’ll see that I find the “theory of just war” propagated by Krishna Vasudeva to be highly suspect, though it does have a certain internal logic to it. I’ve written defenses of Duryodhana in relation to this point, and have given a heterodox interpretation of Chapter 1 of Bhagavad Gita to that effect as well. Scroll back all the way to my first posts and you’ll find them.

      It is a complex issue you raise, and I would briefly respond as follows: The war they won was a “just war” within the context of the moral system propagated by Krishna, wherein the “unfair” killing of a warrior is an acceptable crime if it serves to preserve or restore “Dharma” in a broader, more contextual and utilitarian sense (which is also perhaps more slippery and exploitable). In the context of Kshatriya Dharma as practiced by those dedicated to the system of warrior ethics which precedes the dominance of Bhakti, the victory of the Pandavas can in no way be considered a “just war”. That is the contradiction which emerges when two mutually exclusive moral visions come into battle, and it is impossible to fully resolve.

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