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Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Price of Faith

The Price of Faith

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 19 July, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.



Our faith in various aspects of the society we live in is constantly being challenged. Our faith that the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat is safe; that our streets are safe for our women and children; that our representatives in government can be trusted; that our infrastructure is safe; and many other aspects of life – is sorely tested each time we encounter a betrayal of that faith. But rather than conclude that one cannot believe in anyone or anything, we must realize that it is important to be able to believe, and that there is a price to be paid if we must continue to have faith, and that price is one of constant vigilance and persistence by the citizenry in demanding openness and transparency, both from public and private organizations.


·         It is what we have every day when we take the elevator from our flat to the ground level in order to walk out of our home – faith that the elevator will not snap and send us to a horrible death by crushing.

·         It is what we have when we take a train to go to another town or city – faith that the train will not have an accident by a collision or derailment and result in us being killed or amputated.

·         It is what we have when open a bottle of milk and drink it – faith that the white liquid we are drinking is pure milk and not adulterated, which can kill or injure us.

·         It is what we have when we send our children to a school – faith that our children will be well-treated and not sexually molested.

·         It is what we have when we open the tap and drink the water from it (at least in developed countries; in India you wouldn’t dare) – faith that the water is not contaminated with heavy metals or other pollutants.

·         It is what we have when we open the window and breathe in the air – faith that the air is not polluted with air-borne chemicals from industrial pollution that can cause asthma, wheezing, and allergies.

·         It is what millions of Indians have daily when they have a dip in the sacred river Ganga – faith that the river will cleanse their sins and not make them ill because of dangerous bacteria that enter the river because of raw, untreated sewage that is discharged into the river through its entire course.

·         It is what we have when we pick up the phone and have a long conversation with a friend or a loved one – faith that the conversation we are having is indeed private; that no one else is snooping on our private chat.

But Repeatedly, Our Faith in These and a Thousand Other Things is Tested.

For instance,

·         In Bangalore, a six-year old child is raped by gym instructors. The school that is supposed to protect its wards has violated one of them.

·         In the Ganges at Varanasi, the holiest city of India, the fecal coliform levels are a million times higher than what is deemed acceptable; the water is not even suitable for agriculture, let alone washing, drinking, or bathing.

·         In 2008, an estimated 300,000 victims suffered illness in China (and some died) because milk had been contaminated with melamine. Many suffered kidney failure because of the adulteration.

·         The Indian capital of New Delhi has an annual average PM2.5 level (particulate emissions) of 153 micrograms per cubic meter – and there is NO safe level of this level of particulate. Every increase of 10 µg/m3 leads to a 36% greater risk of lung cancer.

·         In 2013, Americans learned that their government had been routinely spying on them, intercepting phone calls and email communications that they had assumed were private, under the aegis of a government program known as PRISM – a program that had been approved by their own representatives since 2007, both Republican and Democrat – and the people did not know about it.

·         The south Gujarat town of Vapi made headlines in 2007 when it was listed in Time magazine as the most polluted area in the world, with mercury levels that are 96 times higher than the maximum allowable levels mentioned by the WHO in its groundwater.

This is just a sample of the thousands of betrayals one could list – betrayals of the faith that people reposed in various authorities that those who were sworn or law-bound to protect their safety and privacy.

Who is Ultimately Responsible for This?

It goes without saying that the criminals who raped the 6-year old in Bangalore should be brought to justice and meted out the severest penalty possible; that the city authorities along the banks of the Ganga who allow it to be polluted with raw sewage and industrial contaminants should be harshly penalized; that those who adulterate milk with melamine should spend the rest of their lives in prison for the deaths they have caused; that the authorities who allow the air in Delhi to be so polluted, whether by vehicular or industrial pollution, should be taken to task; that the Indian railways officials who were responsible for their negligence which led to the train accident in Gorakhpur should be strictly punished; and that the representatives of the American people who authorized the spying on their own people should be punished by the people.

But there is an even more fundamental question that these bring about – why did the breach of faith occur in the first place?

It occurred because we were too willing to have blind faith in the institutions that failed us.

And that brings us to the moral of this article: that there is no place for blind faith in a rational society – that there is a price to be paid for faith – and that price is the constant vigilance of the citizenry.

The breaches of faith occurred because we, the citizens, were not vigilant in preventing these crimes from happening. They occurred because we were not careful enough to see that procedures were not being properly followed, that guidelines were being flouted, and that crimes were not being monitored.

Yes, my friends, it is we who are ultimately responsible.

The criminals who are responsible for each of the crimes listed above are responsible for having committed these crimes and should be as strictly punished as the laws allow. But we, the citizens, are responsible for allowing the crimes to happen in the first place.

Where Have Citizens Failed?

We have failed in being vigilant, in demanding transparency and accountability. A democracy truly functions as a representative government of the people only when there is complete transparency; when citizens organize to demand what they want; and when representatives are accountable to their constituents.

It is fashionable to flagellate others for failing their duty – for example, to blame politicians for not being responsive to the needs of their voters. But have we done our duty as the citizens?  Let us take each of the incidents that I have listed above.

·         In the case of the Bangalore school where the six-year old child was raped, how many parents knew about the staff that the school had employed? Were there any background or police checks performed on these gym instructors? If so, were they publicly posted on an internet website that the parents had access to? Why are these and all facts about the school not openly available to the consumers of the school, i.e., the parents? The reason is that at present, private schools hold an advantage over parents – and this is because there is an artificial shortage in the number of schools. The root causes of all these problems are the restrictive regulations on opening schools. Ideally, a high demand for private schools would, in a free economy, be met by a rise in private schools until supply and demand are matched. But because of unreasonable controls that are in place to benefit the already-present private players, the number of schools is not enough for the demand for them. As a result, private schools act in an insufferably arrogant way, and do not believe that they need to be accountable and transparent to their customers, viz., the parents.

So, in this case, the citizens have failed both in demanding that their representatives open up private schooling to more players as well as in demanding openness and transparency from the school. The parents should be able to view the records and background of every employee of the school on the school’s webpage, including their backgrounds and the results of police and background verification checks on them. If this had been done, there would have been a higher chance of preventing the rape from happening.

·         The waters of the Ganga are incredibly polluted; yet how many citizens have taken on any activist role and demanded the clean-up of the river? How many citizens of Banaras or Allahabad have demanded that untreated sewage or corpses not be simply dumped into the river – actions that greatly increase the concentration of pathogens in the river water? How many citizens of Kanpur are concerned about the toxic effluents from the leather tanneries in Kanpur that make their way into the Ganga without treatment?

The problem with the Indian citizen is that he or she has become completely apathetic and selfish, and has no concept of civic responsibility. As long as the sewage is removed from my flat, why care what happens to it? But oh, the Ganga should be clean. The two expectations are incongruent.

·         China is a totalitarian state, and so one cannot hold its citizens to the same standard that one can hold citizens of democratic countries. But the Chinese example of milk adulteration is something people everywhere can relate to. How many of us demand that suppliers of foodstuffs give a detailed account of what is in the foodstuffs? In western countries, every ingredient of a product is listed on the package. There is no such requirement in India. Milk suppliers have no obligation to offer a minimum specific gravity or a certificate of quality to their customers. Most customers do not even demand any such thing from their suppliers. Is there any surprise that adulteration occurs?

·         PM2.5 is a designation of particulate matter emissions that are below 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These particles can get into our lungs and cause cancers. The source of this pollution is burning, and this can come from household burning of firewood or cowdung, or automobile emissions from diesel automobiles. This can be controlled by mandating better emission control devices on automobiles, especially the highly-polluting trucks that dot the Indian landscape, and by improving electrification in New Delhi in the winter so that people do not resort to polluting fuels such as firewood or cowdung.

Have citizens of Delhi ever banded together in a movement to demand tightening of air quality norms for automobiles? How many trucks are plying, either in Delhi or elsewhere in the country, that are openly flouting the existing Bharat IV pollution norms? I see trucks, taxis, and auto rickshaws everywhere in the country that clearly violate pollution norms – many times  you see black smoke coming from the exhaust pipes of these vehicles. Yet have citizens demanded better enforcement of existing emission laws? Have they ever demanded widening of the electrification net in the capital so that people are not forced to use firewood or cowdung for their heating needs in the winter? The answer is definitely no.

·         Railway accidents are a routine event in India. Every time an accident happens, the media is full of discussion as to why the accident happened. But beyond the routine blame game, few citizens ponder deeply about why these accidents happen. Yes, many incidents are the result of negligence; but more often than that, the causes of accidents are that there is not enough money in the railways for routine maintenance. The wear on the tracks, on the bogeys, the engines, and the stations is very significant, and the only way to avoid accidents is to have an aggressive program of maintenance and better-trained personnel so that human error occurs less frequently. What happens, on the contrary, is that engines, bogeys, and tracks that have outlived their lives continue to be in service because there is no money to replace them. Yet, the citizens of India are always opposed to ANY increases in fare hikes because they view the fare hikes not as a necessary adjustment to account for inflation but as an “anti-people” move.

The only way to stop this is to have a completely transparent operation of the Indian railways, so that any Indian can view on the internet the situation with any engine, track or bogey, and see when the maintenance was due and when it was actually done. Railway budgets should not be based on the wisdom of some railway minister, but on the situation on the ground. A demand for money for running the railways should be made on the basis of this publicly available information so that the demand is seen in objective terms – as a need for monetary allocation for necessary running of the railways rather than an arbitrary decision by a government. Once such a system exists, if people disapprove of a hike for maintenance, the government can clearly say that this accident occurred because the people did not approve a fare hike for a certain segment.

We have failed in not demanding transparency in the running of government utilities such as the railways.

·         The 2013 American government spying scandal shocked both Americans and the rest of the world. Yet how many Americans even knew about the fact that this program started in 2007 under the leadership of President George W. Bush, and was supported by both Republicans and Democrats? The spying that occurred was a direct result of this publicly-announced program. It was ostensibly created only to spy on those communications that related to Americans’ correspondence with foreigners, yet the safeguards were so weak that the act could easily be abused to spy on one and all. Yet for six years no one was the least worried about any of this, until Edward Snowden revealed to the world the extent of US spying.

True, the US government has to bear the blame of committing the crime of invasion of privacy, but it was the lack of diligence of the American people that allowed it to violate the Fourth Amendment under the guise of legality. It is the failure of the American people as a whole that allowed the government to abuse its power.

·         Vapi being a horribly polluted town is very well-known in Maharashtra and Gujarat. My father, who was a professor of Organic Chemistry, had many past students who worked in the chemical factories in Vapi. They would tell us of dogs which were dyed green, blue and yellow because they had wallowed in the effluent from dyestuff companies which would simply dump their failed batches of dyes out in the open.

Why isn’t something being done about this? How are environmental clearances being given to companies like these? Why are citizens not demanding more transparency in the functioning of chemical and other companies?  All companies are entitled to secrecy when it comes to trade secrets, but their environmental record should be out in the open. Every clearance that is given to a chemical company should be out in the public domain, along with the values of the effluents that are found to be detected in their effluent streams, so that any concerned citizen can take a sample downstream of the plant himself and get it analyzed at any lab and verify whether or not the plant meets environmental standards.

If Vapi had the distinction of being the world’s most polluted place in 2007, it is because its citizens never demanded transparency. They never demanded that the industries prove that their effluents meet standards, and they turned a blind eye to the corruption of the environment ministry by the chemical industry.

What Can We Do To Change the Situation?

The only way to change the situation so that one can continue to believe in the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the schools we trust our kids with, the trains and planes we entrust our lives with, the hospitals which we hope will save our lives rather than take them, and hundreds of other things, is for citizens to be more vigilant.

We need to demand transparency in every aspect of life, from both public as well as private enterprises.

Citizens of every government need to demand COMPLETE transparency and accountability from their governments. With the exception of defense-related matters, which need to be kept confidential in order to protect the nation from external enemies, EVERY transaction of the government should be publicly displayed on an internet website for the public to view. Notes of every ministry and cabinet meeting should be publicly displayed on websites, as well as every bill passed in parliament and notes of every meeting between legislators and the executive branch, except when such disclosure would compromise national security. While this would require a lot of digital storage, disk space is today very cheap – a 1 TB hard drive is available for a mere Rs. 5000; and internet access is widespread. There should be nothing to prevent this solution from being implemented except the will of the government. No government, of course, would want all its actions to be open to the public; however, there is no valid logical or moral objection; the representatives are OUR representatives; their duty is to report to us; and so they have no business keeping things secret, unless making them public would endanger national security. To make this happen, citizens have to unite and agitate (more on this later.)

Private enterprises have no duty to expose their affairs to the public, except to the extent that their activities affect the public. In particular, trade secrets and competitive intelligence need to be protected because the profitability of private enterprise depends on it.  However, environmental compliance should very much be in the public domain. The public has a right to know what materials a company makes or trades in, what the risks of storage of any particular material is, and what effluents are being emitted into the environment by the company. A fertilizer company, for instance, owes it to the community to tell them what quantities of ammonium nitrate are being stored on its facility, because ammonium nitrate is also a powerful explosive and can cause a huge disaster, as happened in West, Texas, in 2013. The public has a right to know the precise details of the claimed effluents released by a company into a water body because the water body is used by all. It is NOT ENOUGH TO SUBMIT THIS TO A GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT AGENCY, as the government agency can be corrupted. Not only government inspectors, but any member of the public should have a right to inspect the effluents of any manufacturing facility – if necessary, to challenge the public statements from the company (which should be displayed on a publicly accessible website) as to the amount of environmental contaminants released by the company.

Similarly, agencies such as food manufacturers and distributors have a responsibility to ensure that the quality of their foodstuffs is verifiable and the processes they employ are transparent so that customers know what they are getting. Schools and other organizations that take charge of our children, the weakest members of our society, should be forced to openly reveal both the qualifications as well as criminal antecedents of every one of their employees to their customers.

Manufacturers of cosmetics, toothpastes, insecticides, clothing, shoes, and other consumer items must reveal to the consumer public what chemical constituents go into their products (they need not reveal the exact formulation – this way they can protect their trade secrets) so that the public knows what it consumes. These are matters too important for them to only reveal to a government agency. We must take a page out of western practices, where every ingredient that goes into a cosmetic preparation is revealed on the tube or bottle.

Citizens need to get into the habit of becoming activists.

It is very easy for people to live in their own bubble and pretend that they don’t need to be concerned with what is happening around them. With many people in India becoming more prosperous in the last 20 years because of liberalization and the jobs that it has brought in its wake, people have become more self-absorbed, indulging themselves in the enjoyment of sports and Bollywood (or other local language movie flavours) in their free time. Most have no knowledge of or interest in critical affairs of a regional or national nature – such as a river getting polluted, vanishing mangroves, air pollution, lack of safety of women and children, increasing crime, structural integrity of roads and bridges, or infringements of privacy, to name just a few. But the fruits of such carelessness are easy to see: without sufficient environmental protection, India will soon degenerate into the horrible conditions present in some parts of China, where people do not venture outside without a face-mask. Mumbai and Delhi still haven’t gone tothe levels of Beijing, but that may just be a decade away.

All the items mentioned in the previous section, viz., on demanding transparency, cannot be achieved without a struggle. Manufacturers will do their best to oppose these demands, and unless citizens stand united and demand these disclosures, these will not happen. Politicians will not want to disclose everything they discuss, for the simple reason that they often discuss unethical things, but we must hold their feet to the fire and ensure that they comply with these demands.

Concluding Thoughts

We take many things for granted in life – things that we think should be fine but are not. We go with blind faith out into the world, thinking the world is a safe place for us and our loved ones; that the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink, are safe; that our government representatives always act in our best interest. But such faith is not well-founded. But rather than descend into cynicism and say you cannot trust anything or anyone, the lesson for us to learn is that there is a price to be paid for having faith – it is constant citizen vigilance and a willingness to be pro-active in demanding our rights, in demanding openness and transparency in all aspects of life that concern us, regardless of who we are up against. This takes hard work on the part of the citizenry, but as the Americans say, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” If you want to have faith in your systems, you have to work hard and be alert in order to maintain that faith.

There are some who believe that others will do the hard work for them – that if they only elect that one great leader, he will take care of all their concerns. To be specific, in the recent elections that were concluded in India, Mr. Narendra Modi of the BJP led his party to an impressive win. The BJP campaign was focused solely around Mr. Modi and his achievements, and generally sought to convey the message that Mr. Modi was a wise and decisive leader who knew best. Even if that were true, no man can speak for another, and Mr. Modi’s priorities for India will likely be quite different from yours or mine, as he just proved with his budget. So to imagine that the ills of the world will simply vanish because of the election of a supposed superman is nothing but sheer folly. One cannot abdicate personal responsibility for changing the world that one is unhappy with simply by hoping that someone else will solve his problems for him.

The only way to control your destiny is to be involved personally. As the greatest Indian thinker of the 20th century, Dr. BR Ambedkar, said in his motto for the untouchables (Dalits): “Educate, Agitate, Organize.”

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Which Character in the Mahabharata was the Most Chivalrous?

Which Character in the Mahabharata was the Most Chivalrous?

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 29 May, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.


This question was asked on quora about a year ago, and I am reproducing here the answer I gave there for the benefit of my readers who do not have access to quora. Here is the answer in its context in quora.

My answer follows.


If by chivalry we mean nobility of character, the ability to keep your word under all circumstances, devotion to duty, and fairness in war, Bhishma towers above anyone else in this regard.

Before I talk about Bhishma, I'd like to dispose of other contenders that may be spoken about, so that my reasons for picking Bhishma will be clear.


Arjuna is often spoken about as a very chivalrous warrior.  His speech to Uttara before they meet the army of the Kauravas and defeat them bespeaks his nature as one who despises none, for which he has earned the name Bibhatsu.  (Bibhatsa is the term in Sanskrit for the emotion of disgust, and the Bibhatsu means one who shows disgust towards no one.)  Arjuna, instead of despising Uttara for his cowardice, seeks to embolden him to raise himself and show the courage that is expected of him.  There are many other incidents in his life which show his chivalrous nature.  Yet there are three incidents in the war which show him to be less than chivalrous.  Although he does these unchivalrous acts at the bidding of Krishna, that doesn't excuse the fact that they are unchivalrous.

The first is the killing of Bhishma.  Knowing fully well that Bhishma would not fight a woman, Arjuna fights behind Shikhandi and kills Bhishma.  The second is the slaying of Bhurishravas, who was fighting Satyaki.  Satyaki was prostate and defeated, and Bhurishravas was about to kill him.  Arjuna shot an arrow that cut off the hand of Bhurishravas who was about to kill Satyaki.  By attacking an opponent who wasn't even facing him, Arjuna committed an unchivalrous act.  The third, of course, is the killing of Karna.  By killing Karna, who was not fighting him, who had laid down his bow and arrows and was trying to extricate the wheel of his chariot from the ground, Arjuna again was unchivalrous.  In my mind, these three acts make Arjuna ineligible.

Karna and Drona:

To try to burn your enemies in a lac palace or cheat them at a game of dice would automatically disqualify someone who hopes to be labeled chivalrous, but in addition, Karna also has behaved unchivalrously on the battlefield.  He helped kill Abhimanyu, along with 5 other great warriors of the Kauravas, when Abhimanyu was fighting them singlehanded after being trapped in the Chakravyuha.  On Drona's advice, Karna shoots arrows to cut off the reins of the horses using which Abhimanyu was steering his chariot - and that too from behind.  This act disqualifies both Karna and Drona.

Karna is a mixed bag, however, since he did give up his greatest protection, his armour, in order to adhere to his vow that he would refuse no gift to anyone after his prayers.  He also spared the life of his brothers Yudhisthira, Bhima, and Nakula on the battlefield in order to keep his promise to his mother Kunti that he would only kill Arjuna or die by Arjuna's hand.

Drona has one more strike against him - the treatment of Ekalavya, the Nishada prince who learned archery on his own, using only a clay image of Drona as an inspiration, and became a better archer than even Arjuna.  Because of caste bias and because of his favoritism towards Arjuna, Drona commits the very ignoble act of asking Ekalavya for his thumb as guru dakshina, knowing fully well that having given that, Ekalavya could never again hope to be as good an archer.


Although Duryodhana behaved egregiously almost his whole life, scheming against the Pandavas - incidents like the palace of lac, trying to poison Bhima, cheating at the game of dice, etc. - for the entire duration of the war he behaved chivalrously - with the exception of the death of Abhimanyu.  He died a warrior's death, and his death was achieved unchivalrously by Bhima striking him below the navel, which was a violation of the rules of war.


I don't think I need to say much about why Krishna doesn't deserve this title - most everything he achieved in the Mahabharata war was done by behaving without chivalry - these include the deaths of Bhishma, Drona (killed because of a lie about the death of his son), Karna, Duryodhana, and Jayadratha (darkening the sky and making people believe the sun had set when it really hadn't).  Krishna, of course, justifies everything by saying that the ends (the defeat of the Kauravas) justify the means (trickery).  Be that as it may, what he did certainly wasn't chivalrous.


Yudhishthira is often regarded as a noble person.  Indeed, often in the epic he is considered to be the epitome of dharma.  Even people like Bhishma defer to his understanding of Dharma.  But Yudhishthira has three fatal strikes against him.  The first one, which is the only one Vyasa seems to consider, is the fact that he lied on the battlefield about Ashwatthama.  The Pandavas, on Krishna's urging, decide that they will tell Drona the lie that his son Ashwatthama is dead.  Drona does not believe it and, to verify it, comes to Yudhishthira to ask if the news is true - for he is very sure that Yudhishthira would never tell a lie, not for the kingship of the three worlds. 

Yudhishthira proves him wrong - and goes along with the lie, with the consequence that Drona lays down his weapons and goes into yoga, upon which Dhrishtadyumna cuts his head off.  It is for this sin that Yudhishthira spends a sixteenth day of his life in hell.

But in my opinion, Yudhishthira had two other strikes against him.  One was his excessive fondness for dice.  In the final ascent to heaven that the five brothers and Draupadi attempt, Bhima asks Yudhishthira what his crime was that he was falling down from the mountain.  Yudhishthira replies that he was overly attached to food and was a glutton. If this is the standard, surely addiction to gambling should be a higher crime?  In addition, Yudhishthira abandoned his wife, enough in my mind and for my understanding of chivalry to be considered ineligible.  For more on this, see Can you Compare Today’s Rape Victims to Draupadi?

So now, having disposed of his rivals, I come to Bhishma.

A man who would keep his word at any cost; a prince who gave up kingship for the sake of his father's happiness; a young man who gave up married life simply so his father could marry the girl he had set his heart on; who served his king and kingdom like a loyal and faithful knight until his death; and who, even when his life depended on it, refused to break his oath never to fight a woman and hence ultimately gave up his life in the cause of dharma - Bhishma is my vote for the most chivalrous person in the Mahabharata.

How Possible is the Scale of the Final Battle in the Mahabharata?

How Possible is the Scale of the Final Battle in the Mahabharata?

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 29 May, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.


This was a question that was asked in quora, and I am reproducing my answer here (with some formatting) for the benefit of readers who may not be using quora.


I think it is possible. 

Let us see why.

Scale of the Armies in the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata consisted of two army fronts, one with 7 Akshauhinis facing another of 11 Akshauhinis.  The term Akshauhini would correspond to the modern concept of an "Army."  One Akshauhini is supposed to consist of

21,870   chariots
21,870   elephants
65,610   cavalry
109,350 infantry

So, 7 armies =

153,090   chariots
153,090   elephants
459,270   cavalry
765,450   infantry

and 11 armies =

240,570    chariots
240,570    elephants
721,710      cavalry
1,202,850 infantry

for a total of

393,660     chariots
393,660     elephants
1,180,980  cavalry
1,968,300  infantry

Scale of Modern Battles: World War II, Stalingrad and Kursk

Sounds like a lot?  Actually, it isn't too much.  It clearly is a large-scale war, but is by no means impossible.  Let's get some comparative figures.  The largest land war in terms of size of forces in recorded history has to be the Eastern front in the second world war.  If you look at the initial attacking force of the Germans itself, we are talking about a force of 3.2 million soldiers - and that is just the German side, and that too only the initial force.  In the initial 3 months of the war against the Russians, the Germans captured close to 2 million Soviet soldiers.  So such large formations are not unheard of.  

Let's look further and look at just one of the Germans' major armies (they had about a dozen such armies), the ill-fated Sixth Army that surrendered at Stalingrad in 1943.  The German Sixth Army was the core of the German force that attacked Southern Russia in the summer of 1942.  Along with the Fourth Panzer (Mechanized) Army, the Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian armies, it had a strength of (at the time of the Soviet Counteroffensive):

1.04 million infantry
10,250 artillery pieces (guns, mortars, etc.)
500 tanks
732 aircraft

These were opposed by a Soviet force comprising of

2.5 million infantry
13,451 artillery pieces
894 - 4000 tanks
1,115 aircraft

Similarly, the Battle of Kursk fielded a German force of:

0.9 million men v/s 1.9 million Soviets
2928 German tanks v/s 5128 Soviet tanks
9966 German guns and mortars v/s 25013 Soviet guns and mortars
2110 German aircraft v/s 2792 Soviet aircraft

Clearly, fielding millions of men in battle in a small geographical domain is not unheard of.  Stalingrad eventually reduced to a very small region of fighting, probably comparable to Kurukshetra.  Kurukshetra, with less than 2 million infantry, is clearly smaller (in scale of battle) than Stalingrad, with over 3.5 million.

Battle Elephants and Cavalry: The Armoured Vehicles of Antiquity

Secondly, people get intimidated by the large numbers of horses, chariots, and elephants mentioned.  Remember, the Pandavas and Kauravas did not have B2 bombers, F16 aircraft, or M1A1 Abrams tanks.  The elephants and horses and chariots WERE their military-industrial complex.  Consequently, they must have bred them in the tens of thousands to act as war animals.  One cannot go by how many elephants existed in the wild in 1800 in India and so on.  These were war elephants, specially bred and trained for that purpose.  Imagine hundreds of acres of land devoted to raising war elephants and horses. 

Usage of Battle Elephants in the Recorded History of India

Furthermore, Indian kingdoms were known even in later times to breed elephants by the thousands for war.  Porus (or Puru) is said to have used 700 elephants in the battle of the Hydaspes against Alexander in 326 BC. (see Battle of the Hydaspes).  If a single king could put forth that many elephants, surely hundreds of kingdoms banding together to fight could put together 393,000 elephants? 

There is further historical evidence that elephants and horses were used in large numbers by Indian kings in battle.  One of the reasons Alexander did not go further into India after his conquests in (modern-day) Afghanistan and Pakistan was the prospect of facing the Nanda empire in battle, who had in their army at least 3000 war elephants (see Nanda Empire).  Historians also record that when Malik Kafur defeated Prataparudra, the Kakatiya ruler of Warangal, he went back to Delhi with vast treasure loaded on about 700 elephants.  When Nader Shah of Iran invaded the Mughal empire in 1739, he took home untold treasure on the backs of thousands of elephants (see Nadir Shah's invasion of India) - enough, apparently, for Shah to declare a tax amnesty for three years in Persia.

So, in conclusion, 394,000 elephants sounds like a lot, but for a society that viewed these animals as one of the key components of mobile warfare (similar to tanks), this isn't unreasonable.  Keep in mind that by the end of the war in 1945, the Soviets were producing close to 5000 tanks per month, or 60,000 tanks in a year. If, with the right will, you can produce that many units of an engineered machine, surely it is possible to breed horses and elephants in large numbers - especially at a time when the population density was not that high in India.

Vast armies like this require huge amounts of space to camp.  Vyasa makes mention of this during the episode in which Salya, wanting to join the Pandavas, is tricked by Duryodhana into joining him instead.  The story makes reference to how Salya brought his army of 1 Akshauhini to join the Pandavas. On the way he set up camp, and the size of the entire camp was 1 and a half yojanas in length (1 yojana = about 8 miles, see Yojana) (see also the fulltranslation of the Mahabharata by Kisari Mohan Ganguly, Udyoga Parva, for details on Salya's force.)

I think we can conclude that while the actual battles in the war were fought at the battlefield of Kurukshetra, the armies must have been camped over several miles in each direction.


The final battle at Kurukshetra is possible in the scale mentioned, given that troop formations of this size have been seen to operate even at the time of the Second World War. While the large numbers of elephants and horses used boggles the imagination, it should be remembered that until modern days, elephants and horses were the bulwark of armoured warfare in India, dating even to the days of the early Islamic invaders. The description given in the Mahabharata therefore seems plausible.

Why Krishna Sided With The Pandavas - A Practical Answer

Why Krishna Sided With The Pandavas – A Practical Answer

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 29 May, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

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I was asked to answer a question on quora on the Mahabharata, an epic I love for its complexity, for its nuanced expositions of right and wrong, and the way it can make you think about ethics.

One of the most amazing things in the Mahabharata is that nothing is black-and-white – everything has shades of grey, whether that pertains to the character of individual heroes or even the behaviour of Gods.

In this regard, I was recently asked to answer a question on the social media website quora, of which I am an active member, and where I have answered many questions related to the Mahabharata. I posted the link to my answer on facebook, but then realized that there are some who may not wish to join quora but may want to read my post. Since this particular response was quite detailed, I decided to make a blog post of it.

First, you can read the answer in its context in quora here.

Below I reproduce this answer for the benefit of my readers who do not wish to join quora just to read my response.

The Question, asked by Akshaye Badiger (Copied Verbatim)

What was the sole motive of Krishna behind the Kurukshetra war?

Obviously he cannot be a reason of death of lakhs of people just for the sake of the death of 100 kauravas, were they so evil?
I mean to say what were the actual sins of Duryodhan and his 99 brothers?
Lets keeping their sins w.r.t. to the pandavas and Drauapdi aside.
Lord Krishna can never give such horrible deaths to people like Drona, Karna, Abhimanyu, Bheeshma etc just for the sake of these 100 evil souls.
What was the real motive of his plot of Kurukshetra war? Were kauravas so evil?
What exactly did he accomplish from this war that without any worries he left this earth 36 years from then?
What was his real motive?
What happened after the kurukshetra war for which the Lord himself had Incarnated?

My Answer (Again Quoted Verbatim from Quora)

Thanks for asking me to answer this question; however, I am not sure if you will like the answer I am going to give you. 

Unlike the other answers you have received from those whom you have asked to answer, I am giving you a practical answer, based on what is there in the epic, not a religious answer.

If you study the Mahabharata carefully, you will realize that it is not as black and white as it is often represented to us as children.

We are taught that the Pandavas were good and the Kauravas were bad; Krishna was on the side of the good; and so the Kauravas were defeated.

The fact of the matter is that the “evil” of the Kauravas is certainly not a definite conclusion you can come to if you read the epic in detail.

Let me explain.

The “Evil” Duryodhana?

First of all, any “evil” that Duryodhana and his brothers did was only confined to the Pandavas and their common wife Draupadi. For example, when the Pandavas were in exile in the forest, Duryodhana ruled as effective king, even though his father was nominally the king. There is no mention in the Mahabharata that Duryodhana was a bad king – that, as another person suggested, there was a rise in crime, murders and rapes, etc. Duryodhana’s quarrel was not with the people of his land. Duryodhana was apparently a king who cared for his subjects. He was generous, performed sacrifices and gave gifts to his subjects, and so on. His quarrel was only with the Pandavas, and that is because there was a genuine disagreement about who should inherit the kingdom. Yes, Duryodhana did a lot of bad things – TO THE PANDAVAS – but his justification (which he once presents to Dhritarashtra) is that all is fair in war, and that whatever is effective in the destruction of a powerful enemy is acceptable – in the words even of the guru of the Devas, Brihaspati.

The answer to that question – who had the legal right to inherit the kingdom of Hastinapura - is by no means obvious.

Who Should Have Inherited Hastinapura?

First of all, realize that the actual Kuru dynasty ends with Bhishma on blood lines. Vichitravirya and Chitrangada, Santanu’s sons by Satyavati, both die childless, and so Vichitravirya’s widows are impregnated by Vyasa, Satyavati’s son by her premarital sexual union with the sage Parasara. The Mahabharata is therefore essentially the story of Vyasa’s biological children and their offspring. Both Dhritarashtra and Pandu are Vyasa’s sons, speaking biologically; from the prevalent custom, they are legally Vichitravirya’s sons. Next, Pandu, the younger brother, due to a curse, cannot father children; but he begets children from the Devas on his wife because of a boon Kunti had received. Dhritarashtra’s sons, on the other hand, ARE his own biological sons.

Dhritarashtra cannot inherit the kingdom because he is blind; Pandu abdicates because of his curse; and so then, Dhritarashtra DOES become the king, not simply a regent. He is actually the king at this point. 

Pandu’s “legal” son Yudhisthira, the biological offspring of Yama and Kunti, is born before Dhritarashtra’s biological son Duryodhana. Duryodhana is thus the biological son of the actual king at the time. One could make a fair argument (and Duryodhana and his supporters do argue this) that, being the son of the king, Duryodhana should inherit the kingdom. 

Yudhisthira is born earlier than Duryodhana, but he is the son of the younger brother Pandu who, in addition, is no longer king at this time.

So who should be king? Bhishma and Vidura convince Dhritarashtra that it is Yudhisthira who ought to be king, but Duryodhana feels his birthright is being taken away from him. 

Finally, a compromise solution is arrived at, whereby the Pandavas are given the Khandava forest to rule over after splitting the kingdom. One could ask reasonably why this was unsatisfactory to Duryodhana, but if you see things from his viewpoint, there is no need to be happy about giving up half of what you think was yours. From Duryodhana’s viewpoint, the Pandavas had no business getting ANY share of the kingdom, and that stands as a pretty good argument on its own.

So I will argue that history is written by the victors, and that “evil” lies in the eyes of the beholder. Of course, Duryodhana was guilty of personally hurting the Pandavas on many occasions – poisoning Bhima, trying to burn them alive in the lac palace, and so on. Not to forget insulting their wife in the game of dice. But these he felt justified in doing in keeping with Brihaspati’s principle that all is fair in war.

Keep in mind also that Duryodhana’s cheating with Sakuni’s help in the game of dice is never proved. In fact, the Pandavas never once accuse Sakuni of cheating. When Draupadi is dragged by the hair by Dussasana and asks for justice from the assembly, including Bhishma, it is Bhishma who says that it is hard for him to judge, especially because Yudhisthira has not contended that Sakuni has cheated, and that Draupadi seems to have been fairly won. He even leaves the question of whether Draupadi was fairly won by the Kauravas for Yudhisthira to decide, given that Yudhisthira is Dharmaraja – the Just King – and Yudhisthira is silent, indicating that indeed, Draupadi was won fairly.

Now I will come to Krishna.

Krishna’s Motivations

Why does Krishna take sides with the Pandavas?

Because Krishna had an existential problem with Jarasandha, the powerful king of Magadha, who could be defeated by no one but Bhima. Jarasandha was responsible for Krishna and his people having to flee Mathura (which is why Krishna has the appellation Rann-chhod – one who fled the battlefield) and run away to Dwaraka.

When convincing Yudhishthira to send Bhima to kill Jarasandha, Krishna mentions that this is the only way to kill him, because killing him in battle, with weapons, would be impossible for the Devas and Asuras put together, and the only person in the world who is strong enough to kill him is Bhima.

Krishna is, of course, related to the Pandavas through Kunti, who is his aunt, but in politics relationships are never very important. He recognizes that partnership with the Pandavas would strengthen his position and eventually rid him of his enemy Jarasandha – and in return he supports the Pandavas’ claim to the kingdom of Hastinapura.

His gamble succeeds, of course, when he goads a rather unwilling Yudhisthira, after they have built Khandavaprastha and renamed it Indraprastha, to conduct the Rajasuya Yagna, to perform which Yudhisthira must be acknowledged as supreme emperor by everyone, including Jarasandha – which will necessitate the killing of Jarasandha, for he would not acknowledge anyone as an overlord.

And that is precisely what happens. Bhima kills Jarasandha in an epic wrestling match lasting for weeks. Yudhisthira becomes emperor, and Krishna’s future is secure.

So, was it necessary to kill Duryodhana and his brothers? No. And Krishna certainly did not intend to accomplish that in the beginning. The person who did accomplish that, and on whose shoulders we must place squarely the blame of the entire carnage of the great war, is Yudhisthira.

Who was Responsible for the Great War?

Yudhishthira had everything that one could want – four heroic brothers, a beautiful wife, a kingdom rich beyond imagination and made even wealthier by the tributes that they were able to extract from all the monarchs of the realm, powerful alliances with great kings, and a reputation for wisdom and fairness that was known the whole world.

And he ruined everything because of his addiction to gambling. 

Sakuni invited Yudhisthira to gamble, and the epic makes it clear that kshatriya dharma compelled Yudhisthira to accept the challenge and play. Yudhisthira assumes he will be playing Duryodhana and is surprised when he realizes that the much stronger Sakuni will be playing him. Still, he had the choice of playing 2-3 rounds, losing a lot of money and possessions, and then admitting defeat.

There was absolutely no reason for him to keep playing until he had lost all his possessions, then gamble away all his brothers and then himself and finally Draupadi. This is the behaviour of a gambling addict, which is what Yudhisthira is and for which Draupadi upbraids him repeatedly later.

It is because Yudhisthira makes Draupadi a slave of Duryodhana that he is able to insult her in unspeakable terms and it is this that makes a final confrontation with the Kauravas and the death of Duryodhana, Dussasana, and all their brothers inevitable for the Pandavas to salvage their honor.

So it is not Krishna who plots the destruction of the Kauravas. With his friends the Pandavas the overlords of Bharatavarsha, and his one implacable enemy Jarasandha dead, Krishna probably would not have bothered with the Kauravas had Yudhisthira not blundered so badly and unpredictably.

Of course, once war was inevitable, Krishna did everything he could to ensure that the Pandavas (and Krishna himself, by association) were victorious. This included deceit as in the case of Bhishma and Drona, and unfair play as in the case of Jayadratha, Karna, and Duryodhana. Krishna justifies these by saying that the ends justify the means – that Duryodhana had behaved dishonourably with the Pandavas, and was invincible in battle to boot, so cheating is the only way to defeat Duryodhana and, hence, adharma.

The war did not end happily for Krishna. He was cursed for his role in the war by Gandhari to die, and his whole race was cursed to destruction by Gandhari in 36 years time, which came to pass.

So, in practical terms, Krishna's sole motive was security - and he could achieve security with the help of the Pandavas. In return, he helped the Pandavas overcome their enemies the Kauravas.