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 soldiers died in the Mahabharata war?
In an answer to Dhritarashtra’s question, Yudhishthir claims that 1 billion and 660 million men have lost their lives in the war. But a more careful examination of the numbers reveals that the death toll is more likely to be around 5.76 million, with a mortality rate of around 96%.
Read on further to learn more about the people who have died in the Mahabharata war.
What is an akshauhini?
In the Mahabharata, an ‘akshauhini’ is a term used to describe a standard military unit comprised of certain numbers of forces.
An Akshauhini is built in the following manner:
- One chariot, one elephant, five foot-soldiers and three horses form one Patti.
- Three pattis make one Senamukha.
- Three senamukhas are together called a Gulma.
- Three Gulmas form a Gana. (An aside: the ganas of Shiva are led by Vinayaka, thus his name Ganesha.)
- Three ganas make one Vahini.
- Three vahinis are together called a Pritana.
- Three pritanas form a Chamu.
- Three chamus to one Ankini.
- And ten Ankinis, when assembled, is called an Akshauhini.
An Akshauhini thus contains 21870 chariots, the same number of elephants, 109350 soldiers that fight on foot, and 65610 horsemen.
Eighteen such Akshauhinis were assembled for the battle of Kurukshetra, seven on the side of the Pandavas and eleven on the side of the Kauravas.
(Suggested: 11 Warriors who Survived the Mahabharata War.)
The Number Eighteen
The number eighteen appears repeatedly in the Mahabharata context. There are eighteen parvas. The number of Akshauhinis that fought is eighteen. The war lasts for eighteen days.
Why eighteen? We don’t know. But there have been a few attempts at an explanation.
Here’s one: The human body contains nine orifices. The Gita describes the body as a ‘city with nine gates’.
And since a good life consists – at the very fundamental level – of a harmonious relationship between the self and the other, it requires us to gain knowledge of eighteen gates in all: nine that belong to the self, nine that belong to the other.
Here’s one more: The Katapayadi is a system of assigning single-digit numerals to each letter of the alphabet, to aid in composition of syllables into verses and words.
According to this system, the ‘ja’ syllable gets the number 8, and the ‘ya’ sound gets the number 1. The original title of the text, ‘Jaya’, therefore represents the number 81.
But since the Mahabharata is a tale of duality, and what is titled jaya (victory) is in fact a tale of apajaya (defeat and destruction in the hands of Time), Vyasa has reversed the numerical notation to 18 and has sprinkled it across the story.
(Suggested: 13 Important Events of the Mahabharata War.)
After the war is finished, when Gandhari is lamenting the deaths of her sons, Dhritarashtra addresses Yudhishthir and asks him, ‘If you know the answer, O Dharmaraja, tell me how many people have died in this war.’
And Yudhishthir replies: ‘One billion, 660 million and 20,000 men have died in this war, O King. And 240,165 men have escaped with life.’
If we take the Akshauhini numbers from earlier in the post, we have the following details to consider:
- Total number of elephants: 393660
- Total number of chariots: 393660
- Total number of infantrymen: 1968300
- Total number of horses: 1180980
We may assume that an elephant may carry three people on it (the warrior, a mahout and a bodyguard). From descriptions of chariot-warriors, each chariot seems to have four people on it (the warrior, two rearguards, and a charioteer).
A horse typically will carry only one person.
So the total number of individual men who fought in the war comes to: 5,904,900.
In other words, around 5.9 million. Let’s round up our estimate to 6 million.
(Suggested: 7 Reasons why the Mahabharata War was Fought.)
Discrepancies in numbers
The total death toll reported by Yudhishthir is quite obviously an exaggeration. For context, the population of modern India at the time of writing is 1.3 billion, with all its skyscrapers and cities.
Is it realistic to believe that the Mahabharata war claimed upwards of 1.6 billion lives? Did the sixteen Great Kingdoms have such high populations?
Even when we take the Mahabharata’s own claim of eighteen akshauhinis as fact, the number we arrive at is only 6 million.
A war in which 6 million people perished, of course, is a significant event – especially for Vedic times. In fact, even the numbers that define an akshauhini are probably exaggerations.
Still, 6 million is a far cry from Yudhishthir’s 1.6 billion.
(Suggested: The Mahabharata War: What happens on the night of Day 14?)
Number of Surviving Soldiers
Though Yudhishthir got the number of dead people wrong, we can assume that he got the number of surviving soldiers more or less right because this number can just be arrived at with a roll call.
If we take the 240,165 number as a starting point, then, and round it down to 240,000 for easier calculations, we can see that around 4% of the initial 6 million people survived.
This seems a realistic survival rate even for an apocalyptic event like the Mahabharata war. Despite the utter carnage, the notion that 4% of assembled forces escaped with life sounds about right.
(As a matter of context, mortality rates for World War 1 ranged between 6% and 30%. So a 96% mortality rate for Kurukshetra places it at the top of all violent massacres.)
From here, we can project that a total of 5.76 million (6 million minus 240,000) people perished during the eighteen days of the Mahabharata war.
(Suggested: Who is responsible for the Mahabharata War?)
Where did the dead men go?
Yudhishthir also reveals to Dhritarashtra that there are levels which a warrior attains depending on the kind of death he encounters.
‘Those warriors of true powers who have cheerfully cast off their bodies have all attained the regions of Indra, O King,’ he says. ‘Those that have fallen on the edge of a weapon while turning away or while begging for mercy have reached the region of the Guhyakas.
‘Those who, knowing death to be inevitable, embraced it cheerlessly are now sporting among the Gandharvas.
‘Those who refused to flee even when they were unarmed, and fulfilled their Kshatriya duties by encountering their foes without arms or armour, have reached the highest state – the state of Brahman.
(Suggested: The Mahabharata War: What happens on the night of Day 18?)
The official answer to how many people died in the Mahabharata war is given by Yudhishthir, and his claim is that the war claimed 1.6 billion people.
However, we know from earlier claims in the story that eighteen akshauhinis were assembled for the battle, and that brings the total number of fighting men to around 6 million only.
Assuming that Yudhishthir’s claim of surviving numbers (240,000) is more accurate than his death toll estimates, we can calculate that the total number of dead men is in the neighbourhood of 5.76 million.
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- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered