How many days did the Mahabharata War last?

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The Mahabharata war, also called the Kurukshetra war, is the climactic event of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. It is fought between two sets of cousins in the Kuru dynasty, the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) and the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra).

Kingdoms like Panchala and Matsya side with the Pandavas. Krishna, the regent of Dwaraka, drives the chariot of Arjuna, the third Pandava, and signals his support for their cause.

The war is fought over eighteen days on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. It is won by the Pandavas at the end, but only after unfathomable destruction to lives and wealth on both sides.

(For the full summary of the war, see: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.)

In this post, we will answer the question: How many days did the Mahabharata war last?

The Mahabharata war is fought over eighteen days. It is broken down into five phases: (1) Bhishma Parva, from Day 1 to Day 10, (2) Drona Parva, from Day 11 to Day 15, (3) Karna Parva, on Days 16 and 17, (4) Shalya Parva, on Day 18, and (5) Sauptika Parva, on the eighteenth night when Ashwatthama raids the Panchala camp.

Read on further to learn more about how many days the Mahabharata war lasted.

18 Days

The Mahabharata war is fought at Kurukshetra over a period of eighteen days. These eighteen days are broken down into five Parvas, depicting the action that takes place under five different commanders of the Kaurava army.

In this post, we will give a short description of each of these phases. They are:

  • The Bhishma Parva, or the first ten days of the war.
  • The Drona Parva, which lasts from the beginning of Day 11 to the end of Day 15.
  • The Karna Parva, which happens over Day 16 and Day 17.
  • The Shalya Parva, which captures events on Day 18.
  • The Sauptika Parva, which details the occurrences of the night of Day 18, under the leadership of Ashwatthama.

Bhishma Parva

Bhishma is the first commander of the Kaurava forces. Duryodhana makes the popular choice here by electing his grandfather as the leader of his army.

In doing this, he makes the difficult decision of relegating Karna to the sidelines. Owing to a long-standing quarrel, Bhishma tells Duryodhana that he will not fight on the battlefield at the same time as Karna.

Duryodhana’s other choice would have been to make Karna the commander and allow Bhishma to sit out, or make a third person – like Drona – the leader, keep Karna on the field, and risk losing the services of Bhishma.

As it happens, though, Bhishma leads the Kaurava army for the first ten days.

His general strategy is to refrain from hurting the Pandavas and to focus on obliterating their army. Bhishma reasons that if their army is destroyed, the Pandavas will soon be forced to surrender.

While rejecting all of Duryodhana’s accusations of being partial to the Pandavas, Bhishma ends up being just that during his tenure.

Krishna sees through Bhishma’s tactics and forces Yudhishthir’s hand to bring about the grandsire’s downfall. On the evening of the tenth day, with Shikhandi acting as a shield, Arjuna unseats Bhishma.

The first phase of the war, what one might call the ‘restrained fighting’ phase, thus comes to an end.

Drona Parva

Drona presides over five days of the war – from the beginning of the eleventh day to the end of the fifteenth.

However, we must also remember that the two sides continue to fight through the night of the fourteenth day. So effectively, Drona’s time as leader traverses six fighting days.

His approach is markedly different to that of Bhishma’s. Drona fully commits himself to the cause, and promises Duryodhana to capture Yudhishthir alive so that the Kauravas can force the Pandavas into another game of dice.

But Drona’s attempts fail repeatedly because of Arjuna’s interventions. The fierce band of soldiers called the Samshaptakas are thus born, tasked with diverting Arjuna’s attention away from action so that Drona can imprison Yudhishthir.

On the thirteenth day, this diversionary tactic works brilliantly, and leads to the entrapment and death of young Abhimanyu.

This leads to Arjuna wreaking havoc on the Kaurava army on the fourteenth day, during which he kills Jayadratha the Saindhava king.

As fighting continues into that night, Ghatotkacha dies at Karna’s hands. Toward the end of the fifteenth day, Drona gets duped by a lie uttered by Yudhishthir, and gets killed.

Drona’s death rouses Ashwatthama, who will take his revenge during the Sauptika Parva.

Karna Parva

Karna takes over as commander of the Kuru forces at the start of the sixteenth day. This phase of the battle ends with Karna’s death at the end of the seventeenth day.

During his two days at the helm, Karna memorably secures victories against each of the four Pandavas: Yudhishthir, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva.

But owing to his promise to Kunti, he refrains from killing any of them. His vow requires him to seek a match to the death only with Arjuna. Kunti is therefore assured of remaining with five sons regardless of how the Karna-Arjuna battle goes.

For the seventeenth day, Karna requests Duryodhana to give him the services of Shalya as charioteer. Karna believes that by using Shalya as his driver, his ability will rise to equal Arjuna – whose horses are manned by Krishna.

This turns out to be a misguided move. Shalya hurts Karna’s morale by repeatedly insulting him and by singing the praises of Krishna and Arjuna.

During the final battle between the two heroes, Shalya refuses to help Karna when their chariot gets stuck in mud.

Karna is thus forced to attend to the vehicle himself, and gives Arjuna an opportunity to take a shot at him. Arjuna hesitates at first, but on Krishna’s urging, he goes ahead and kills Karna.

With the death of Karna, the sun sets on the seventeenth day, and the Karna Parva comes to an end.

Shalya Parva

Shalya is the next commander of Duryodhana’s army, and he leads them out on the eighteenth morning.

He fights with great purpose and resolve, but toward the afternoon, in a single battle against Yudhishthir, he dies.

The death of Shalya throws the Kuru army into disarray. The Madra soldiers begin to flee, and the Pandava soldiers pounce on them. The Kuru numbers get whittled down rapidly.

Duryodhana flees the battlefield and hides at the bottom of a lake in the forest adjoining Kurukshetra. The Pandavas find him after a lengthy search, and Yudhishthir calls his cousin out to fight.

A mace-battle is arranged between Duryodhana and Bhima. The condition riding on the duel is that the winner will be given the whole kingdom and the loser will be exiled.

Bhima fights this high-stakes battle virtuously at first. But as he begins to lose, he sees a signal from Arjuna that suggests that he should aim at Duryodhana’s thighs.

Now, the most sacrosanct of mace-fighting rules is that one should never strike his opponent below the waist.

But Bhima ignores this and crushes Duryodhana’s thighs. At the fall of the eldest Kaurava, Krishna blows on his conch and declares the war finished. He proclaims that the sons of Pandu have become victors.

The eighteenth day ends here, and the Pandavas believe the war is over. But Ashwatthama has other ideas.

Sauptika Parva

Ashwatthama is still burning with the need for avenging his father’s death. He approaches Duryodhana and asks him to make him the next commander of the army.

There is no ‘army’ at this point. Only Ashwatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma are alive.

Duryodhana sees no sense in what Ashwatthama is saying, but since he does not have anything to lose, he anoints the son of Drona as the next commander of his forces.

The three Kuru warriors make their way to the outskirts of the Pandava camp. They wait until everyone has gone to sleep. Then, aided by the power of Shiva, Ashwatthama goes on a rampage inside the camp, killing everyone that he sees.

In doing this, he breaks one of the core rules of fighting: you should never attack your enemy when he is sleeping and unarmed.

But Ashwatthama believes this is warranted because Drona was killed when he was meditating, after he had relinquished his weapons. This, therefore, is just reprisal for Dhrishtadyumna’s act.

As the Panchala camp is being raided, the Pandavas and Krishna are spending the night on the bank of the river Oghavati.

After the bloodshed is complete, Ashwatthama returns to Duryodhana and tells him that all his enemies have been killed. Duryodhana is pleased at the news. He blesses Ashwatthama, and dies with a smile on his face.

Thus ends the eighteenth day of the Mahabharata war, with Ashwatthama’s night-time massacre.

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