How Possible is the Scale of the Final Battle in the Mahabharata?
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 29 May, 2014
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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.
Here is the answer in its original context in 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
So, 7 armies =
and 11 armies =
for a total of
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.)
These were opposed by a Soviet force comprising of
2.5 million infantry
13,451 artillery pieces
894 - 4000 tanks
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
(see Battle of Kursk)
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.