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.
In this post, we will look at all the important events that define the Mahabharata War.
The thirteen most important events of the war are: (1) Krishna almost fights; (2) Bhurishrava kills Satyaki’s sons; (3) Arjuna removes Bhishma; (4) Drona promises Duryodhana; (5) Abhimanyu dies; (6) Arjuna kills Jayadratha; (7) Satyaki kills Bhurishrava, (8) Karna kills Ghatotkacha; (9) Drona dies; (10) Arjuna kills Karna; (11) Bhima defeats Duryodhana; (12) Ashwatthama rages, and (13) Krishna curses Ashwatthama.
(For a more complete analysis of the Mahabharata War, see: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.)
Krishna Almost Fights
During the first ten days of the Mahabharata war, with Bhishma at the helm fighting at his fearsome best, Krishna gets tempted to take up arms on two separate occasions.
First, on Day 3, noticing that Arjuna is still holding back from using his full ability against Bhishma, Krishna leaps off his chariot and makes to attack Bhishma.
And then again, on Day 9, frustrated at Arjuna’s hesitation that refuses to go away when facing Bhishma, Krishna summons his Sudarshana Chakra and advances toward Bhishma.
(Suggested: Why did Krishna attack Bhishma?)
On both occasions, Bhishma welcomes the attack from Krishna but also warns him that he will go down fighting. ‘There is no greater honour than dying at your hands, O Madhava,’ he says. ‘But do not think I will surrender to you.’
Both these incidents are significant because they push Arjuna into a state of ruthlessness with respect to Bhishma.
Soon after the second incident, Krishna calls the Pandavas together and tells them unequivocally that unless Bhishma is removed from the battlefield, there is no question of victory.
Bhurishrava kills Satyaki’s Sons
On Day 5, Bhurishrava, the son of Somadatta and the grandson of Bahlika (Shantanu’s elder brother), enters into a battle with Satyaki the Vrishni chieftain.
Ten of Satyaki’s sons come up to support their father in this duel. Bhurishrava, though, fighting like a man possessed, kills them all while Satyaki watches.
This is an important battle because later, on Day 14, Satyaki fights Bhurishrava and kills him after the latter had relinquished his weapons and assumed a state of meditation.
If the personal vengeance angle had not been present, Satyaki would probably have refrained from killing Bhurishrava in this manner.
The killing of Bhurishrava rears its head many years later, and becomes the seed of an argument between Kritavarma and Satyaki. This quarrel grows and grows into a full-blown civil war which destroys the Vrishni race.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 47: Satyaki Kills Bhurishrava.)
Arjuna Removes Bhishma
For the first ten days of the war, Bhishma holds the fort on the Kaurava side. With him overseeing things, the battle simmers along without ever reaching boiling point.
Bhishma fights with the determination expected of a man of his stature. He targets the common soldiers of the Panchala, intending to wipe out their army and force the Pandavas to surrender.
On the tenth day, Krishna decides that enough is enough, and uses Shikhandi as shield to attack Bhishma.
The initial plan is for Shikhandi to shoot arrows at Bhishma all day long, knowing that the grandsire won’t retaliate. But as it becomes obvious that Shikhandi’s arrows are not strong enough to pierce Bhishma’s armour, Arjuna enters the fray.
Fighting from behind Shikhandi, Arjuna begins to shoot some of his arrows at Bhishma. Little by little, they wear the old man down together.
And toward the end of the day, Bhishma falls onto a bed of arrows. From this point on, he will take no further part in the war.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 42: Bhishma Falls.)
Drona Promises Duryodhana
After the fall of Bhishma, Drona becomes the next commander of the Kuru forces.
As the eleventh day dawns, Drona gives Duryodhana a promise that he will do his utmost to capture Yudhishthir alive and bring him back as prisoner to the Kaurava camp.
(Duryodhana wishes it this way, so that he can lure Yudhishthir into another game of dice and send the Pandavas back into exile. Killing Yudhishthir, he thinks, will only enrage Arjuna and Bhimasena – which is futile for the Kaurava cause.)
But Drona tells Duryodhana that until Arjuna is protecting Yudhishthir, the eldest Pandava is untouchable.
So King Susharma, the king of the Trigartas, volunteers to engage with Arjuna and keep him away from the main events of the battle so that Drona can perform his heist with ease.
The Trigartan army takes an oath that they will either kill Arjuna or die themselves. They acquire the name: Samshaptakas.
This is a significant turn of events because failing at delivering on this promise turns Drona ruthless, and he creates the Chakra Vyuha on Day 13.
(Suggested: Where was Arjuna during Chakravyuha?)
After two days of trying and failing at capturing Yudhishthir – on both occasions, Arjuna flies in at the last moment to rescue his brother – Drona creates his infamous Chakra Vyuha.
And his promise to Duryodhana at the beginning of the thirteenth day: ‘I will kill at least one Pandava atiratha by sundown!’
The Chakra Vyuha is a complex arrangement of soldiers that only Krishna and Arjuna on the Pandava side know how to enter and leave. Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna and Subhadra, only knows how to enter it. He has not yet learned how to exit it.
So if the Samshaptakas do their job well and keep Arjuna away, Drona reasons, he can trap at least one Pandava hero inside the array.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 44: Abhimanyu Dies.)
Everything goes according to plan for the Kauravas on this day:
- The Samshaptakas challenge Arjuna early in the morning and take him away.
- Yudhishthir enlists Abhimanyu’s help in penetrating the Chakra Vyuha.
- Jayadratha guards the mouth of the array with competence, and cuts off Abhimanyu’s reinforcements.
- After being trapped inside the formation, after a spell of fighting the boy with fair means, Drona eventually employs questionable tactics to kill him.
Drona thus fulfils his promise to Duryodhana, but at great cost.
Arjuna kills Jayadratha
On his return from the battlefield, Arjuna learns of Abhimanyu’s death and is broken by the news. Of all the people that are most responsible for the incident, Arjuna decides that Jayadratha is the one most deserving of punishment.
This is curious, because one would think that much of Arjuna’s anger should be directed at Drona.
But perhaps he stops himself because Drona is his preceptor. Jayadratha, on the other hand, has had some violent history with the Pandavas. So he becomes a soft target.
On the fourteenth day, with Arjuna riding out under the cloud of an oath (he promises the elements that he will either kill Jayadratha by sundown or die), the Kaurava army braces itself to protect the Sindhu king at all costs.
Drona employs a three-layered array that is forty six miles in length. At the far end of it, guarded by six atirathas, is Jayadratha.
Despite all of these measures, aided by Krishna, Arjuna manages to scythe through Drona’s formation. Just as the sun is about to set, he kills Jayadratha.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 46: Arjuna Kills Jayadratha.)
Satyaki kills Bhurishrava
On the same day, as Arjuna is about to kill Jayadratha, a fight breaks out between Satyaki and Bhurishrava. Bhurishrava almost wins this battle, but just as he is about to kill his opponent, Arjuna severs his arm with an arrow shot from behind.
Bhurishrava is aghast at this blatant show of unjustness from Arjuna. He relinquishes his weapons and sits down to meditate.
Stinging still from the deaths of his ten sons on Day 5, Satyaki ignores calls of warning from Arjuna and Krishna to grab a sword and slice the neck of Bhurishrava.
This accelerates the fall of Dharma during the battle. So far, no one had killed their opponent after the latter had given up his arms.
This sets a new precedent for what is acceptable in this war. A few hours later, Dhrishtadyumna will use this as an excuse to perpetrate the same act on Drona.
Karna kills Ghatotkacha
At the end of Day 14, Drona makes the decision to continue to fight into the night. Both armies light torches and continue to collide with one another.
Easily the most significant event of the night-time battle is the duel between Ghatotkacha and Karna.
Krishna stops Arjuna from challenging Karna this evening, and instead sends Ghatotkacha instead. He tells him that the time has come for him to take the life of the Sutaputra.
Ghatotkacha and Karna lock horns over a long and arduous battle, with no end in sight. Ghatotkacha is able to stave off Karna’s advances while at the same time terrorize the Kuru army with his illusions.
All the common soldiers of the army then implore Karna to kill Ghatotkacha by any means necessary.
After a while of thinking it over, Karna decides to use the Vasava dart on Ghatotkacha. This is a missile that he had been saving for Arjuna, because this is the one weapon to which Arjuna has no counter.
But on this night, in a moment of haze, Karna hurls the dart at Ghatotkacha and kills him.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 49: Karna Kills Ghatotkacha.)
On the fifteenth morning, Drona finds himself in remarkable fighting form. He renews his attempt at capturing Yudhishthir, and begins to unleash himself with vigour at the Panchala army.
Arjuna, meanwhile, experiences similar hesitation with Drona that he did with Bhishma. Once again Krishna sees that it is necessary to intervene to eliminate Drona from the equation.
This time the plan is a bit more sinister. Krishna asks Bhima to kill an elephant named Ashwatthama, and gets Yudhishthir to tell Drona that ‘Ashwatthama is dead’.
When Drona hears this, at first he does not believe Yudhishthir. But Bhima goads him into giving up his weapons.
Drona throws his bow and quiver away and calls out to everyone. ‘Karna, Kripa, Shalya, Duryodhana!’ he says. ‘Fight with all your might. My time has come.
He then sits down in the terrace of his car to meditate. Krishna intends to take Drona prisoner, and keep him captive until the war ends.
But Dhrishtadyumna seizes on the opportunity and jumps into Drona’s chariot with a sword in hand. He severs the acharya’s head and fulfils his destiny, even as Arjuna is yelling at him to stop.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 50: Drona Dies.)
Arjuna Kills Karna
After the death of Drona, Karna takes over as commander of the Kuru army. For two days he tries in vain to defeat Arjuna.
On the eve of the seventeenth day, he asks Duryodhana to give him Shalya as charioteer. His reasoning is that Krishna’s services make Arjuna invincible. In order to match him, his opponent also needs to have a charioteer who is comparable in skill.
Shalya agrees after much persuasion. But unbeknownst to Duryodhana, Shalya is actually Yudhishthir’s spy.
He has been instructed by Yudhishthir before the war to sabotage Karna’s efforts against Arjuna. On the seventeenth day, Shalya performs his role to perfection – by discouraging and insulting Karna throughout.
As the day draws to a close, Arjuna comes face to face with Karna. After a long and even battle, Karna’s chariot wheel unfortunately sinks into the ground.
Usually it’s the job of a charioteer to tend to such matters. But Shalya refuses. Karna is left needing to jump off the vehicle himself and rescue his wheel.
While he does this, Arjuna shoots a decisive arrow that beheads him.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 51: Arjuna Kills Karna.)
Bhima Defeats Duryodhana
On the eighteenth day, after Shalya is killed by Yudhishthir, the Kuru army falls to pieces and Duryodhana flees the battlefield.
After a period of searching, the Pandavas find him. Yudhishthir agrees to a ‘winner takes all’ mace-duel between Duryodhana and Bhima. Krishna is worried that this may backfire, but Bhima is confident.
During the battle, Duryodhana proves to be a surprisingly tough opponent. Despite being physically weaker than Bhima, he shows plenty of skill – enough to land a couple of blows on Bhima.
Krishna then tells Arjuna that the only way Bhima can win this battle is if he flouts the most sacred rule of mace-fighting: that one must never strike one’s opponent below the waist.
Arjuna signals this to Bhima, and as soon as he receives the message, Bhima wastes no time.
He brings the full weight of his mace down on Duryodhana’s thighs, crushing them. Duryodhana falls to the ground with a wail – half of pain, half of indignation.
Duryodhana is beaten to within an inch of his life. Krishna then blows on the conch and declares the Mahabharata war over. He says that the sons of Pandu have won.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 53: Bhima Defeats Duryodhana.)
On the night of the eighteenth day, after Duryodhana makes him commander of his ‘army’ (consisting of just three people now), Ashwatthama – along with Kripa and Kritavarma – launches a stealth attack on the Panchala army.
In his efforts he is helped by none other than Shiva himself. At the gate to the Panchala camp, Shiva meets Ashwatthama and gifts him the combined power of all his ganas.
With the strength of the Mahadeva surging in his veins, Ashwatthama roars into the night and kills every person he encounters in the Panchala camp.
Shikhandi, Dhrishtadyumna and the Upapandavas are among his victims.
The Pandavas, Satyaki and Krishna escape this onslaught because they spend the night on the bank of the river Oghavati in homage to the sacred river, to celebrate the war’s completion.
After finishing his bloodbath, Ashwatthama goes to Duryodhana and gives him the news. Duryodhana is delighted at the news. He dies with a smile on his lips.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 54: Ashwatthama Rages.)
Krishna Curses Ashwatthama
When the Pandavas come to know of what had happened during the night, they’re consumed with grief and shock.
Draupadi is distraught at the deaths of her brothers and sons. She tells Yudhishthir first, and then Bhimasena, that the war cannot be allowed to ‘end’ until Ashwatthama is punished for his deed.
The Pandavas and Krishna thus set out in search of Ashwatthama. They find him at Vyasa’s hermitage.
An archery challenge springs up between Arjuna and Ashwatthama. After fighting each other with earthly weapons for a while, Ashwatthama uses the Brahmastra.
Arjuna responds with a Brahmastra of his own, in its defensive form.
Vyasa intervenes in the battle now and tells both heroes to call back their weapons. Arjuna does so, but Ashwatthama doesn’t. Instead, he redirects his Brahmastra at the wombs of the Pandava women, making them all instantly infertile.
(Though it is not explicitly stated, we must assume that this weapon sterilizes all the men as well.)
In effect, the Pandavas are left with no way to have children anymore. Their only hope, the foetus growing in Subhadra’s womb, is also struck dead by Ashwatthama’s missile.
But Krishna assures Yudhishthir that he will bring the foetus back to life when he is born. As for Ashwatthama, Krishna curses him with an immortal life on earth, one filled with great pain and misery.
The Kurukshetra war ends with Bhima presenting Ashwatthama’s forehead-gemstone to Draupadi.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 55: Ashwatthama is Cursed.)
If you liked this post, you may find this interesting also: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.