Sometimes scriptures are known for their exaggeration. Or sometimes people do go way over the top, and such huge feats, involving very big numbers, did indeed take place.
These thoughts occured to me lately when I had to do some research.
In the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, we hear of a an epic battle in which 640,000,000 people perished in an 18-day battle on a tract of land 80 miles in circumference. Of course, this was the scene on which a huge tapestry of love, hate, war, peace, betrayal, etc., was played out, in order to extol dharma and to teach moral principles. At the heart of it we find the Bhagavad-gita, arguably one of the most famous religious scriptures, in which Krishna, God Himself, acts as Arjuna's charioteer and delivers his famous sermon of 18 chapters.
Recently I was asked to do some research on the site of Kuruksetra, itself. I found a lot of information on the tourism web-sites of the state of Hardwar.
According to one site, "the Kuruksetra area covers a 160km (100 miles) area and is home to many places of pilgrimage related to the Mahabharata events. The area includes Pehowa, Kalayat, Amin, Phalgu, Thanesar, Jyotisara, and
Kurukshetra town."(1) However, I did not know if this area that it speaks of was actually the site of the battle. It certaily includes the Jyotisara and both Sarovara, but including Kuruksetra town itself may make this area too large.
The official web-site for the area(2) states that the name Kuruksetra has been applied, mythologically, to "a circuit of about 48 kosas or about 80 miles (128km) which includes a large number of holy places, temples and tanks
connected with the ancient Indian traditions and the Mahabharata War and Kururu, the pious ancestor of Kauravas and Pandavas."
80 miles? Hmmm... Sounds quite large. Let's do the maths, though. If Kuruksetra is 80 miles in circumference (2*pi*radius) that is 127 square miles in area, which means that the 640 million people on it would have had 5.5 square feet per person. Since soldiers stand side by side in a phalanx, they probably only need maybe 1.5' by 1.5' = 2.25 ft2, so I guess this is quite reasonable.
But what about the chariots? The Gita opens with Arjuna asking Krishna to drive his chariot between the two armies. Krishna responds, pasyaitan samavetan kurun, "just see, Arjuna, all the Kurus assembled here!" So, already there is space in between the two armies. I then came across some information by a Mr Rajesh Kocchar(3), that indicates that "Pancavimsa Brahmana (25.10, etc.) introduces us to the region Kuruksetra in which Sarasvati, Drishadvati, and Apaya flowed. [...] Another lake, Anyatah-plaksa, is also placed in Kuruksetra (Satapatha Brahmana (126.96.36.199.)." According to him ancient Kuruksetra appears to have been a
vast area which comprises not only the Sarasvati, Drishadvati and Apaya but many lakes and hills and probably other rivers also. He states that the "hilly part of the Ghaggar system is very small and devoid of lakes", which
would suggest to me that ancient Kuruksetra is much larger than that which we today call Kuruksetra.
So, in the end, more than just 127 square miles to play with, but it all adds up to staggering figures. 640,000,000 men (more than all the wars of the modern world), all these chariots, and great weapons, arrows charged with mantras, etc. Simply stupendous!
And you wondered what I got up to in my spare time...
So, did it really occur?
Modern Gaudiya Vaishnavism would argue yes and no. As Swami Tripurari puts it, "The battle is not a historical event that can be documented with modern methodology, nor is it something that could have have taken place within the realm of human possibility. Yet if the war is merely a myth, then either there is no play of God within the human drama or the Bhagavad-gita and the Battle of Kuruksetra are not part of God's play. According to the Gita, neither of these two are an option. Thus we are left with the conclusion that the battle did and did not occur. Its violence is nonviolence."(4)
Such a fascinating conundrum, paradoxical in nature, is at the heart of the bhakti tradition. God descending in a seemingly divine act of play/drama, to teach and attract us. "Just as in drama things happen that do not happen in the 'real world,' things happen in Krishna's play that do not tally with our sense of possibilities."(5)
Fact vs. Reality. It couldn't be simpler, and yet it couldn't be harder to understand.
(3) Rajesh Kochhar, "On the Identity and Chronology of the Rigvedic River Sarasvati" (http://www.picatype.com/dig/dc/dc0aa03.htm)
(4) Swami B.V. Tripurari, "The Play of Violence" (http://swami.org/sanga/QA/PlayofViolence.html)