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: Why was the Mahabharata war fought?
The main reasons why the Mahabharata war was fought are: (1) Bhishma vow of celibacy, (2) Bhishma’s favouritism toward Pandu and his sons, (3) Dhritarashtra’s love for Duryodhana, (4) Drupada’s revenge against Drona, (5) Yudhishthir’s promise to be non-confrontational, (6) Duryodhana’s ruthlessness, and (7) The need for good to triumph over evil.
Read on further to learn more about why the Mahabharata war was fought.
Soon after returning to Hastinapur after sixteen years in Heaven – where he is reared by his mother Ganga and trained by Vasishtha and Parashurama – Bhishma takes a vow of life-long celibacy.
He does so in order to allow his father, King Shantanu, to get married to the fisher-princess, Satyavati.
This act brings him plenty of fame, and he earns the title of ‘Bhishma’, but it effectively rules him out of ever becoming king of the Kuru line. His descendants – who would have been kings of excellent pedigree – are no longer going to be born.
This vow of Bhishma directly leads to the marriage between Shantanu and Satyavati, and the ascension to the throne of first Chitrangada and later Vichitraveerya.
Satyavati’s children become kings of the Kuru dynasty instead of Bhishma’s.
If Bhishma had not taken the vow of celibacy, and if he had not given up the throne for his father’s sake, the Mahabharata war would likely not have happened.
After the births of Pandu and Dhritarashtra, Bhishma displays partiality toward the former even though he is the younger prince.
The ostensible reason given for this is Dhritarashtra’s blindness. The narrative goes that a blind boy can never grow up to be a worthy king, therefore the only alternative is for the younger prince to be groomed for the throne.
However, it is also true that Bhishma is going to serve as the regent and minister no matter who serves as king. Dhritarashtra’s blindness is not going to be as much of a handicap in this particular situation as it would be for a regular king without any support.
Dhritarashtra will have Bhishma, Vidura and Pandu to buttress his shortcomings. The four of them could easily have divided duties between them and give the Kuru kingdom the governance it deserved.
Giving Dhritarashtra the title of king, therefore, would have eliminated all the politics and uncertainty of the future.
Even after Bhishma had made the mistake between Dhritarashtra and Pandu, he continues to compound the error by encouraging the Pandavas to aspire to the throne.
If Bhishma had been decisive about who the actual heir to the throne is when the Kuru princes were young, the quarrel between them would not have festered.
This is often considered one of the most important reasons for the Mahabharata war: the inability of Dhritarashtra to rein in the passions of his eldest son, Duryodhana.
Dhritarashtra’s ineptitude is most on display during the dice game in which Yudhishthir loses his entire wealth to Shakuni. Despite the stakes rising, and despite Draupadi being presented near-naked in a public hall, Dhritarashtra refuses to chastise Duryodhana.
He gets advised on numerous occasions by the likes of Vidura and Bhishma to discipline Duryodhana, but Dhritarashtra fails to rise above his love for his eldest son.
It is also possible that Dhritarashtra resents Bhishma – and the Kuru establishment – for denying him the throne that is rightfully his. He may have thought it unacceptable that the same treatment is being meted out to Duryodhana as well.
Whether Dhritarashtra is motivated by love for his son or anger toward Bhishma, we do not know. But his refusal to confront Duryodhana ends up emboldening him, and finally causes the Mahabharata war.
The relationship between Drona and Drupada has a significant impact on the political ties between Kuru and Panchala.
Drupada and Drona grow up as friends at the hermitage of Bharadwaja. Here, Drupada gives Drona his word that he will give his friend half his kingdom once he becomes king.
This is just a naïve promise given by one boy to another, but Drona takes it to heart. As a married man, he arrives at Drupada’s court and asks for his share of Panchala. Drupada scoffs at him and sends him away.
Drona nurtures a grudge over this, and when his Kuru princes graduate years later, he sends them to attack Panchala. The Pandavas overpower Drupada, and win Northern Panchala for Drona.
This, in turn, burns the fire of vengeance in Drupada. He goes away and performs a sacrifice intended to (a) earn the means by which to kill Drona, and (b) destroy the Kuru empire.
This ceremony turns out to be successful, and out of the fire springs Draupadi – who a divine voice proclaims will destroy the Kuru empire – and Dhrishtadyumna, whose destiny it is to kill Drona.
But for Drona and Drupada’s fractious friendship, Draupadi would not have been born at all. And the Mahabharata war would probably never have been fought.
Early on during his reign as emperor, Yudhishthir hears a prophecy from Vyasa that the Kuru dynasty is going to destroy itself by infighting.
Yudhishthir then takes a vow that for the next fourteen years, he will not disobey any instruction or command given him by any of the Kuru elders. This includes Dhritarashtra, Vidura, Bhishma, Drona and Kripa.
His reasoning is that if he says yes to everything suggested by Dhritarashtra, there is no chance of a conflict, and therefore Vyasa’s prophecy may be avoided.
Immediately after he takes this decision, the Pandavas are invited to a game of dice. Yudhishthir humbly accepts everything that the Kauravas throw at him in Dhritarashtra’s hall.
But for the vow, Yudhishthir would have found a tactful way to reject the invitation of Dhritarashtra, and he would have stood up for himself and his brothers during the game.
Draupadi’s humiliation would not have happened, and the Pandavas would not have lost their kingdoms. The Mahabharata war, therefore, would have been averted.
Duryodhana is ruthless with the Pandavas throughout the story, but when Krishna comes to offer peace to Hastinapur toward the end, just before the war, he says that the Pandavas will be content with just five villages.
If Duryodhana agrees to this offer, the war will not take place. Dhritarashtra will continue to be king, and the Pandavas will serve the old man as his kinsmen.
But Duryodhana views this concession as a sign of weakness. He thinks that if he gives five villages to the Pandavas, the world will think of the Kauravas as weaklings who do not wish to fight their cousins.
He also fears that the Pandavas will use the five villages they are given and build an empire from it. Given enough time, they will again snatch all the wealth that the Kuru kingdom now possesses.
Because of these thoughts, he tells Krishna: ‘I will not give the sons of Pandu even a needle-tip’s worth of land. If they want anything at all, they have to fight me for it.’
This stubbornness leads directly to the war.
Destiny of Good versus Evil
Throughout the Mahabharata story, there is a sense of inevitability about the war. We’re told right at the beginning that a great war will happen between the forces of good and evil.
The Pandavas – the eventual victors – represent ‘good’. The Kauravas – the eventual losers – represent ‘bad’.
In this frame, the gods all get together and contribute divine essences to the cause. Yama, Indra, Vayu, the Ashwin twins and Vishnu agree to become incarnate on Earth in various forms.
Soma, the moon god, gives up his son, Varchas – and predicts that he will live on Earth for only sixteen years but will cause the biggest turning point in the war. Varchas takes birth as Abhimanyu.
Duryodhana is considered to be the leader of all things evil, fed by the dark powers of the Rakshasas and other demons.
Within this construct, there is nothing that can prevent the Mahabharata war from happening. Good has to triumph over evil – and it will. Nothing anyone can do will change that.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- Bhima: 10 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered