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Shadows Rising -From the Cutting Floor #2 - Dating the Mahabharata

 This is the 2nd in a series of posts written originally as part of 'Shadows Rising' but that were dropped from the final version. This piece is about the likely dates when the Mahbharatha took place.

As part of the story and because I am occasionally neurotic about some details, I decided to attempt to calculate the most likely date for when the Mahabharata took place. The primary reason for doing so was that the very first diary entry by Akran mentions a date and I didn't want to get it wrong. However, I found myself enjoying the research process immensely, so let me breakdown my hypothesis as to when the event actually occurred.

According to Hindu scriptures, the Kali Yuga began when Krishna left this realm. The length of the Yugas is almost certainly an exaggeration—432,000 years is the number that gets thrown around most often because a day in heaven was equivalent to one year on Earth. (To put that into perspective, a day on Venus is approximately 243 days on Earth. The heavenly realm thus moves much slower than the slowest-moving planet in our solar system. )

As we shall see below, I have disregarded these numbers. If we instead assume that time remains constant across realms, then instead of 432,000 BCE, we get the much more reasonable 1183 BCE (432,000 /365) as the approximate date when Krishna died, and the Kali Yuga began.

Why do I call this a more reasonable date? Because frankly, despite several jingoistic narratives about how the Indian civilization is hundreds of thousands of years old, reality does not stack up.

Yuval Noah Harari makes a compelling case in Sapiens that by around 9500 BCE, agriculture was still not widely practised in the world and sheep herding had just begun in Northern Iraq.  The late stone age is supposed to be between 50,000 and 39,000 years ago. An advanced civilisation 432,000 years ago has no basis, in fact.

To put the likely date of 1183 BCE into a wider historical perspective, the Mayan calendar counts time from this point (1100 BCE). It was a period of turmoil across the world's fledgling civilizations – the end of the Shang dynasty in China, the likely date for the fall of Troy (1184 BCE),  the collapse of the Hittite Empire (1180 BCE), the end of the New Kingdom in Egypt , the end of the Mycenaean era and the beginning of the Greek Dark Ages. In India, the decline of the Indus valley civilization happened right around this time. This led to the Indo-Aryan migration to South Asia from Central Asia which led the Harappan's to migrate South. If there was ever a point of time in Indian history where a massive battle took place that might have changed the geographic map of the kingdoms of India, left a collective imprint on the psyche and consciousness of the people of that era, this would be it.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what else can help pin this date down.

The Rigvedas, one of the four sacred canonical texts of Vedic Sanskrit hymns (dated between 1500 BCE and 1000 BCE), mentions a historical event known as the battle of the ten kings -Some scholars believe that may be the the actual war that took place, which forms the core of the story.

3102 BCE is another popular date that religious pundits agree on as the likely starting date of the Kali Yuga. The key reason for that is because India's most famous mathematician and astronomer, Aryabhatta ( 476CE -550 CE), makes a single stray reference in the Sanskrit text Aryabhatiya (named after him) which mentions that in 3600 Kali Yuga, 499 CE, he was 23 years old. (Aryabhatta is credited as the mathematician who contributed the 'Zero' in the decimal system, so his words carry some weight)   However, there is no calculation or explanation for how he arrived at that date.

 There are, unfortunately, a few problems with blindly accepting that date. Rather than relying on a single statement, let's look at this with a critical lens, keeping religious sentiment aside and focussing on the historicity of events.

The first data point (fact, not myth) that we have is that horses were domesticated in Eurasia in 2200 BCE. To identify this, a team of scientists collected, sequenced, and compared 273 genomes from ancient horses scattered across Eurasia. This study was published in Nov 2021, and you can read about it here .

We know that horse-drawn chariots were used in the Mahabharata, as well as plenty of other references that have been made, such as the Ashwamedha yagna (the horse sacrifice). The earliest chariots with solid wheels recovered in archaeological excavations in India are also carbon-dated to (1800-2000 BCE).


The second data point is the weapons themselves. The oldest documented Iron age in India (dated between 2172 BCE and 1615 BCE) is from Mayiladumparai of Tamil Nadu, in South India.


 The Mahabharata makes multiple references to Iron weapons, including the maces of Bhim and Duryodhana, the arrowheads, notably the one that pierced Krishna's foot and the iron statue of Bhim that Dhritarashtra embraced and crushed with his bare hands.

So we have a date for when the war occurred that's definitely after the domestication of horses (2200 BC ) and the use of Iron age weapons.

The third data point is astrological. The Mahabharat states that in the year in which the war took place, three solar eclipses took place within a thirty-day period (eclipses are considered ill omens in Hindu astrology). Charting all eclipses that took place between 3300 BCE and 700 BC results in 32 pairs of eclipses which occurred in a less than fourteen days period (The war lasted eighteen days, and the epics describe the battle day by day). Of these six pairs could be seen unambiguously, only two of which occurred after 1800 BCE (1708 BCE and 1397 BCE)


So, we have two possible dates. The fourth point to add here is about the Kuru clan itself. It was established in approximately the Middle Vedic period ( 1200 BCE -900 BCE). King Parikshit, who is a descendant of Abhimanyu and Uttara, succeeded his grand uncle Yudhishthir to the throne.


His reign is dated as 1200-1100 BCE (late Rig Vedic Period). Puranic literature also presents an unbroken genealogical list associated with the Mahabharat narrative after Yudhishthir and mentions the accession of Mahapadma Nanda, commonly dated to 382 BCE, as taking place approximately a thousand years after the  Mahabharata, which would yield an estimate of about 1400 BCE for the Mahabharata. (For those who are wondering, Mahapadma Nanda was the first king of the Nanda dynasty -at this point, we are no longer in the ‘mythological era’ -we have multiple historical sources corroborating this information here - there are references to the Nandas in Buddhist texts, and this is around the time of Alexander's invasion of India (summer of 327 BC). According to Plutarch, after the battle of Jhelum (aka Battle of Hydaspes 326 BC between Alexander and Porus)  the army mutinied on learning that they would have to face the army of the vast Nanda empire.

The Nandas were overthrown by Chandragupta Maurya (324 -297 BC)  at around this time

 The Seleucid Mauryan war  (305-303 BC) took place when Seleucus Nicator of the Seleucid empire sought to retake the Indian satrapies of the Macedonian empire. Chandragupta's grandson Ashoka built the Ashoka Pillar that is present on the Indian rupee and can be seen in Delhi today. His conversion to Buddhism resulted in him being mentioned prominently in Buddhist and Jain sources as well. They are both ranked among India's greatest rulers)

All of these thus provide a concrete timeline for the historical events and a plausible timeline and genealogy chart linking to the mythological events..

 But I have digressed. Coming back to the Mahabharata, 1397 BCE sounds like the best date we can use for the war that supports multiple data points.

That dates the war. What about the Kali Yuga?

The Mausala Purva, the sixteenth of the eighteen books describes the demise of Krishna in the 36th year after the Kurukshetra war had ended, the submersion of Dwaraka under the sea, the death of Balarama by drowning, the death of Vasudeva, and a civil war fought among the Yadava clan that exterminated nearly their entire race.


There is an ancient submerged city off the coast of Gujarat which corresponds exactly with the description of where Dwarka is supposed to be. Looking at sources online, you will see that most Indian sources in the last decade claim it to be at least 12,000 years old. Given the tendency in the past decade of trying to rewrite history (eg Rana Pratap won Haldighati) as well as some other nonsensical claims ( eg Helmet on Mars) I would treat recent sources as highly suspect. Instead the archaeological excavations of 1963 as well as UNESCO place the supposed submerge date as between 3000 to 1500 Years BC

TLDR: For internal chronological consistency, I have dated Akran's ordeal to begin in 1361 BCE. In my personal opinion, I could very well be off by about 200 or so years ( see previous likely date of Kali Yuga starting in 1183 BCE)


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Rohan is an amateur photographer, an open water scuba diver, a mountaineer, an obsessive bibliophile, an intrepid traveller and a highly successful mutilator of the Spanish and French languages (often at the same time), a consultant in the fields of market research, client partnerships and Artificial Intelligence, an author, and more recently, a dad. Among other hobbies, he can also lay claim to half-baked cooking attempts (no pun intended), chess, computer gaming, badminton, swimming,board gaming, indoor wall climbing, poker, adventure sports, reading fantasy novels, and a string of other very forgettable endeavours. His first novel Keep Calm and Go Crazy - a true story of how he met his wife, was published by Harper Collins India in 2016. His second published piece was a short horror story The School that featured in the Best Asian Speculative Fiction of 2018 anthology. Curse of the Yaksha is his latest novel which is an Urban Fantasy series set in modern day Mumbai. Roha