Chronological Framework for Bharatiya Culture – Part 4

In this series of articles, we are introducing the research ‘On the Chronological Framework for Indian Culture’ by Shri Subhash Kak, to readers old and new. (To read Part 3 of the series, click here.)

The Bharata War

Let us review the three main Bharatiya traditions regarding the time of the Bharata War.

1. The Puranic Evidence

To examine this tradition we depend on the collation of data by Pargiter. According to the Puranas, a total of 1,500 years (in certain texts 1,015, 1,050, or even 1,115 years) (Vayu 99.415; Matsya 73.36 etc) elapsed between the birth of King Pariksit and the accession of Mahapadma Nanda. The king lists for this period add up to 1,498 or 1,500 years in the most reliable records. It appears that the correct elapsed duration is 1,500 years as it tallies with the detailed count.

Based on his collation, Pargiter suggested an important emendation as follows:[19]

The Great Bear (the rksas or the Seven Sages or Saptarsi) was situated equally with regard to the lunar constellation Pusya while Pratipa was king. At the end of the Andhras, who will be in the 27th century afterwards, the cycle repeats itself. In the circle of the lunar constellations, wherein the Great Bear revolves, and which contains 27 constellations in its circumference, the Great Bear remains 100 years in (i.e. conjoined with) each in turn.

This implies a period of 2,700 years from a few generations before the War to the middle of the third century AD. Support for this reading comes from the following statement that has often been misinterpreted: The Saptarsi were in Magha at the time of Yudhisthira but had shifted to Purvasadha (ten naksatra on) at the time of Nanda and Satabhisaj (a further four naksatras) at the end of the reign of the Andhras (Vayu P. 99.423). This astronomical evidence would point to a gap of about 1,000 years between Pariksit and Nanda and another 400 years between Nanda and the end of the Andhras.

Considering that Pratipa was only seven generations before Pariksit, or about 150 years earlier, this gives a total interval of about one-half the interval of 2,700 years mentioned above. But we do know that the gap between Nanda and the end of the Andhras was more than 800 years. It is clear that this second reference counts two hundred years for each naksatra. This may have had something to do with the Jain tradition that counted a total of 54 naksatras and to the number stated one had to add a like number for a correct count.

As for the duration of reigns, Vayu Purana 99.416 speaks of a gap of 829 years between Nanda and the end of Andhras. Elsewhere this gap is given to be 836 years. Adding the dynastic lists with 100 years to the Nandas, 137 years to the Mauryas, 112 years to the Sungas, 45 years to the Kanvas, and 460 years to the Andhras one gets a total of 854 years.

The Puranas also assign one hundred years to Mahapadma Nanda and his eight sons. Furthermore, in Magadha 22 Barhadrathas, 5 Pradyotas and 10 Sisunagas are assigned for the period between the Bharata War and the inauguration of Mahapadma Nanda for a total of (967+138 +346) 1,451 years. The historian of astronomy P.C. Sengupta argues that to the Pradyotas one should add another 52 years, giving a total of 1,503 years. Over the same period are said to have ruled 30 Paurava kings and 29 Aiksvakus. It is also stated that when Mahapadma Nanda defeated the ksatriyas, there had reigned since the Bharata War 24 Aiksvakus, 27 Pancalas, 24 Kasis, 28 Haihayas, 32 Kalingas, and so on.

Assuming that the lists are complete and that the year assignments are wrong, various suggestions have been made for the duration of the average reign. On the other hand, using the statement that ten centennials (ten naksatras) had passed between the time of Pariksit and Nanda, one gets approximately 1,100 years upto Chandragupta, which yields circa 1420 BC for the War.[20]

Considering that Chandragupta became king about 324 BC the direct reference to the years elapsed (counting 1500 years of the Puranic statement and 100 years of the Nandas) leads to the date of is 1924 BC. But clearly the average reigns for the kings are too long, unless these lists are incomplete and the names are the most prominent ones, in which case there would have been other kings who ruled for very short intervals.

If the naksatra reckoning was for some reason actually being done per each two centuries as the gap of 829 years for four naksatras indicates, then there should be about 2,000 years between Pariksit and Nanda. This would take the Bharata battle to around the middle of the third millennium BC. We will show later that this takes us to 2449 BC.

2. The Kaliyuga Tradition

According to the famous astronomer Aryabhata (c. 500 AD) the Kaliyuga began in 3102 BC, which the Mahabharata says happened thirty-five years after the conclusion of the battle. This implies the date of 3137 BC for the War if we assume with the tradition that the Kaliyuga era began 35 years after the War. But there are other accounts, such as that of Kalhana in his Rajatarangini 1.51, where it is stated that 653 years of the Kaliyuga had passed when the Kurus and the Pandavas lived on the earth.

3. Varahamihira’s Statement 

Varahamihira (550 AD) claims that according to the earlier tradition of the astronomer Vrddha Garga, the Pandava king Yudhisthira was ruling 2,526 years before the commencement of the Saka era (Brhatsamhita 13.3). This amounts to 2449 BC for the War and 2414 BC for the beginning of the Kali era.

There is no reference to the Kaliyuga era in texts before Aryabhata, and so it has been claimed that this era was devised by Aryabhata or his contemporaries. The first inscriptional reference to this era is in the Aihole inscription of 633/634 C.E.

After analyzing the astronomical evidence, P.C. Sengupta spoke in favour of the date of 2449 BC. We will examine these conflicting accounts and see if they can be compared considering independent evidence. Here we will use the king lists of the epics and the Puranas, the Greek evidence, and contemporary archaeological insights.

Analysis of the Literary Evidence

The Puranic Evidence

We have seen that the Puranic data has been interpreted variously to yield dates for the Bharata War that range from the latest of 1424 BC to the earliest of late-fourth millennium BC.[21] Each of these will be separately examined.

1424 BC: This date is suggested by the mention in some Puranic manuscripts of the interval of 1,050 years between Pariksit and Nanda. This date is too late by about 500 years when compared to the totals of the reigns in the Puranas. On the other hand, it does bring the average reign period to the realm of possibility, as it reduces to about 27 years, assuming of course that the lists are complete.

The fact that a submerged temple at Dvaraka dating to the middle of the second millennium BC has been discovered has been taken as the evidence of the destruction of that city soon after the Bharata War. However, we do not know if this temple is the one that was lost to the sea soon after the Bharata War.

There is no archaeological evidence suggesting a flowering around 1500 BC. For this epoch for the War, one would expect evidence for the tremendous literary activity of the arrangement of the Vedas and the composition of the other texts. The second millennium BC is archaeologically the lesser age or the dark age.

We must reject this date if we consider the evidence related to the Sarasvati river, which was supposed to be a major river during the time of the Bharata War. Since this river dried up around 1900 BC, the figure of 1424 BC for the War is too late. The rapid decline around 1900 BC of cities, such as Kalibangan in the mid-course of the Sarasvati, makes it impossible for us to assume that the river could have somehow been called “major” when it ceased to flow all the way to the ocean.

1924 BC: This date is a result of the stated interval of 1,500 years between Pariksit and Nanda, and the count obtained by adding up the durations of the reigns.

This appears to be the original interval of the Puranas that became corrupted. Pargiter has suggested that the Puranas, as living bardic material, were transcribed into Sanskrit sometime between the reigns of the Sungas and the Guptas from the then form in Prakrit. This translation often used ambiguous constructions which is how the figure of 1,500 was read wrongly at some places.

According to Lalit Mohan Kar,[22] “If a comparative estimate is desired between the totals, as given by the different Puranas (vis., 1015, 1050 and 1115 years), and the sum total found by calculation of the details [1500 years], the scale must turn in favour of the latter, as a corruption, or at least a variation, depends on the mutation of two or three letters of the alphabet, as is evident from there being those different versions of the total period, while the details are more definite.”

If the Bharata War story was a metaphor for the natural catastrophe that occurred in Bharat around 1900 BC, then this is the correct date. On the other hand, if the War did take place (although it was remembered in an embellished form), then the natural catastrophe may have contributed to it by causing a breakdown of the old order.

2449 BC: This is the date mentioned by Varahamihira. The Puranas may be interpreted to point to this date, and also this date may be correct if the genealogies represent only the chief kings.

It is indirectly supported by the archaeological evidence. Since a great deal of literary output of Vedic times was produced and arranged during the centuries after the War, one would expect that such efforts would have been supported by kings and that one would find a correlation with prosperity in the land. The archaeological evidence indicates that the Harappan era represents a period of great prosperity.

This date implies that the Harappan phase of the Sindhu-Sarasvati tradition is essentially post-Vedic. But this date also implies that the genealogical lists are hopelessly incomplete which is plausible if a great catastrophe, such as the drying up of the Sarasvati, caused the tradition to be interrupted.

3137 BC: The problem with this date is that the Puranic evidence does not support it. On the other hand, some scholars have suggested that the Sarasvati river went through two phases of diminution: first, around 3000 BC, after which the river ceased to flow all the way to the sea; second, 1900 BC, when due to further shrinkage the river was unable to support the water needs of the communities around it, ending the most prosperous phase of the Harappan era. Since the Rgveda describes the Sarasvati as sea-going so, going by this theory, the Rgveda must be prior to 3000 BC.

This date could be reconciled with the Puranic accounts only if we take it to define the last phase of the Rgveda and assume that the Bharata War was wrongly transferred to this earlier era when the last major assessment of ancient Bharatiya eras and history was done during the early Siddhantic period of Bharatiya astronomy in early centuries AD.


(To be continued…)

(Featured image for representational purpose only. Source)


19. Pargiter (1922)

20. This date has been quite popular with scholars for some time but has much evidence going against it.

21. Another date of 950 BC was proposed to fit in with the theory of the Aryan invasions. But this date has nothing to commend it. For a critique see Kak (1994a).

22. Kar (1916). Also note that in Sengupta (1947; page 55) the date is given as 1921 BC.