Showing posts with label Battle of Kurukshetra. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Battle of Kurukshetra. Show all posts

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.