When Did Arjuna Fight? – Georg Feuerstein

The most widely read Yoga scripture is undoubtedly the Bhagavad-Gita (“Lord’s Song”), which is part of the Mahabharata, one of India’s two great national epics (the other being the Ramayana).

The Gita’s spiritual teachings are presented in the form of a dialogue between the God-man Krishna and Prince Arjuna occurring on the morn of the first of eighteen fierce battles, all of which are described in rich detail in the epic.

The Bharata war was fought in the Kurukshetra area between the Sarasvati and Dhrishadvati Rivers. The contenders were the Pandavas and the Kauravas (or Kurus), and at stake was nothing less than the Pandava kingdom with its seat at Indraprastha, which the five Pandava princes (including Arjuna) had lost to their Kaurava cousins in an unfair game of dice. Also at stake were justice and law and order {dharma).

Krishna, an incarnation of the Divine (as Vishnu), sided with the Pandavas, and in the end, through his superior wisdom and occasional interventions, he won their kingdom back for them. He hailed from the Yadava kingdom south of Pancala, and his capital was Dvaraka, situated on what is now the Kathiawar peninsula projecting into the Arabian Sea.

Western scholars typically place the Mahabharata in the period from 400 b.c.e. to 400 c.e. and the Bhagavad-Gita in the period from 300 b.c.e. to 100 b.c.e. They also are inclined to think that the Gita was not part of the original war story of the Mahabharata, traditionally thought to have been told by Sage Vyasa. They also, in general, do not give much thought to the question of whether the war actually happened, and many are inclined to see in the epic an elaborate allegory for the human condition. This orientation has been connected with a general distrust of traditional Indian historiography.

Indian scholars have understandably shown a keener interest in the historicity of the war and Sage Vyasa’s account of it, and they have by and large shown greater faith in the reliability of their historical traditions, as embodied in the Mahabharata and the

Puranas. F. E. Pargiter was among the first to take the information contained in the various Puranas seriously, and his reconstruction of ancient Indian history prior to the Buddha (sixth century b.c.e.) was a significant step in the right direction.

Pargiter assigned the Bharata war to 950 b.c.e. and traced the preceding history back to the third millennium b.c.e. The native Indian tradition connects the war with the beginning of the kali-yuga, which was dated to 3102 b.c.e. by the fifth-century mathematician Aryabhata. While this date is far too early for the war, Pargiter’s estimate turns out to be too conservative.

Recent archaeological excavations at Dwarka and Bet Dwarka at the Gulf of Kutch have revealed that the first settlement dates back to 1500 b.c.e. and was submerged, as was the second settlement in the tenth century b.c.e. According to the Mahabharata, the port city of Dvaraka became submerged shortly after the great war, and archaeologists have linked the heavily walled city with the epic city of Krishna.

Remarkably, this corresponds with astronomical information given in the old Matsya-Purana (also said to have been compiled by Vyasa), according to which the sun reached its southernmost limit in Magha and its northernmost in Shravana. P. C. Sengupta has caculated that this position corresponds to c. 1400 B.c.E. (Admittedly, other astronomical information yields different, earlier dates for the Bharata war, notably 2400 B.C.E., as calculated by P. C. Sengupta.)

With the Dwarka underwater excavations headed by Dr. S. R. Rao, we now have a plausible date for the time of the Bharata war and its heroes. This date meshes well with the Puranic statement that 1,015 years elapsed between Arjuna’s grandson King Parikshit and King Mahapadma Nanda (422 B.C.E.).

With the help of the Puranas we can now also more confidently calculate back to the very beginnings of the Vedic civilization. In this exercise we are assisted by another very important chronological signpost, which is discussed in In Search of the Cradle of Civilization (coauthored with Subhash Kak and David Frawley). This is the date 1900 B.C.E., which marks the drying up of the Sarasvati River. In the Rig-Veda, this river is still described as the mightiest river of Northern India, flowing from the Himalayas (Har-ki-dun glacier) to the ocean. This places the early Vedic hymns in the third millennium B.c.E., which makes perfect sense when one considers the archaeological evidence for the so-called Indus civilization in addition to the Dvaraka findings.

The so-called Indus civilization, which is now seen as a phase in the Indus Cultural Tradition going back to 8000 B.c.E. in Mehrgarh, flourished in the period from c. 3000-1700 B.c.E. and extended from the Indus to the Sarasvati and Dhrishadvati Rivers. In fact, most of the sites belong not to the Indus but the Sarasvati. For this reason, in our book In Search of the Cradle of Civilization we have suggested the name Indus-Sarasvati civilization for this cultural complex.

Interestingly, the Mahabharata mentions an intermediate stage when the Sarasvati was still flowing but pooled into a series of lakes, vanishing in the middle of the desert before it could reach the ocean, which has been confirmed by geologists. Today the Sarasvati is only a small stream (called Ghaggar). According to the Tandya-Brahmana, the distance between the source of the Sarasvati and its vanishing point in the desert was nearly 900 miles, which by air is 300-400 miles from the ocean. What exactly caused this once mighty river to dry up is still uncertain, though major tectonic shifts triggering far-reaching climatic changes were undoubtedly involved.

Even though we now have a tentative date of around 1450 B.c.E. for Krishna and Arjuna, we must not assume therefore that the Mahabharata and Gita in their present form were created at that time. We know from the Mahabharata itself that it underwent three distinct developmental stages. Vyasa first composed an epic of 8,800 stanzas called Jaya (“Victory”), which was then expanded into a 24,000-stanza epic called Bharata-Samhita, which was further expanded into the present Mahabharata comprising approximately 100,000 stanzas.

It seems reasonable to assume that at least the Bharata version existed at the time of Gautama the Buddha. Since there is little evidence that the Gita with its 700 verses was interpolated at a later date, the famous dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna can be expected to date back to the fifth or sixth century B.c.E. as well. In his book Early Buddhism and the Bhagavadgita, K. N. Upadhyaya convincingly argues for this early date.

The archaeological breakthrough regarding Dvaraka is exciting for Yoga researchers, as is the discovery that the so-called Indus civilization is largely, if not completely, identical with the Vedic civilization. Many Western scholars unfamiliar with the details of the recent evidence are still reluctant to let go of nineteenth-century ideas about ancient Indian history, especially the date of the Vedas (1500-1200 B.c.E.) and the alleged (and now thoroughly debunked) invasion of Sanskrit-speaking Aryans from the West. Indian pundits, however, rejoice in the fact that their native tradition appears to have a continuity reaching back to 8000 B.C.E., and their faith in traditional history also is vindicated.



Feuerstein, G., S. Kak, and D. Frawley. In Search of the Cradle of Civilization: New Light on Ancient India (Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1995).

Frawley, D. The Myth of the Aryan Invasion. New Delhi: Voice of India, 1994.

Kak, S. The Astronomical Code of the Rgveda. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 1994.

“On the chronology of ancient India,” Indian Journal of History of Science, vol. 22 (1987), pp. 222-234.

“Archaeoastronomy and literature,” Current Science, vol. 73, no. 7 (1977), pp. 624-627.

Lal, B. B. The Earliest Civilization of South Asia. New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 1997.

Rajaram, N. S., and D. Frawley. The Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilization: A Literary and Scientific Perspective. 2d ed. New Delhi: Voice of India, 1977.

Sengupta, P. C. Ancient Indian Chronology. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1947.

Upadhyaya, K. N. Early Buddhism and the Bhagavadgita. Delhi: Banarsidass, 1971.