War and pious deeds have often come together at this ancient North Indian site.
KURUKSHETRA, about one hundred miles north of New Delhi, is best known as the place where the great battle of the Mahabharata was fought and Lord Krsna spoke the Bhagavad-gita. But long before that, Kurukshetra had played a dominant role in the history and culture of ancient India. For thousands of years it was a hub around which the Vedic civilization spun in its full glory. Kurukshetra's religious importance is described in many scriptures, including the Bhagavad-gita, the Mahabharata, and various Upanisads and Puranas. The scriptures refer to it as a place of meditation and an abode of demigods. The atmosphere of Kurukshetra is still charged with the chanting of Vedic hymns, especially the Bhagavad-gita.
The first verse of the Gita refers to Kurukshetra as dharma-ksetra, or "the field of dharma," indicating that it was already known as a holy place. Today one can find many ancient temples and sacred lakes at Kurukshetra, an area of about one hundred square miles between the sacred rivers Sarasvati and Drsadvati in Haryana state.
The Great King Kuru
Kurukshetra was formerly known as Brahmaksetra, Brghuksetra, Aryavarta, and Samanta Pancaka. It became known as Kurukshetra because of the work of King Kuru.
The Mahabharata tells of how King Kuru, a prominent ancestor of the Pandavas, made the land a great center of spiritual culture. King Kuru went there on a golden chariot and used the chariot's gold to make a plow. He then borrowed Lord Siva's bull and Yamaraja's buffalo and started plowing. When Indra arrived and asked Kuru what he was doing, Kuru replied that he was preparing the land for growing the eight religious virtues: truth, yoga, kindness, purity, charity, forgiveness, austerity, and celibacy.
Indra asked the king to request a boon. Kuru asked that the land ever remain a holy place named after himself, and that anyone dying there go to heaven regardless of his sins or virtues. Indra laughed at the requests.
Undaunted, Kuru performed great penance and continued to plow. Gradually, Indra was won over, but other demigods expressed doubts. They said that death without sacrifice did not merit a place in heaven. Finally, Kuru and Indra arrived at a compromise: Indra would admit into heaven anyone who died there while fighting or performing penance. So Kurukshetra became both a battlefield and a land of piety.
The Mahabharata Battle
When the Pandavas claimed their legitimate share of their paternal kingdom from their uncle Dhrtarastra and his sons, the Kauravas, they were given the Khandava Forest in the south of the Kuru kingdom. There they built a magnificent city called Indraprastha, located where Delhi is today. The Kauravas kept Hastinapura, situated to the northeast of Delhi, as their capital.
Later, the Pandavas were exiled for thirteen years after Yudhisthira's defeat in a game of dice. After the exile, the Pandavas demanded the return of their kingdom. On behalf of the Pandavas, Lord Krsna went to Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, and begged for five villages for the five Pandavas. But proud Duryodhana refused to give any land. "I won't even give them enough land to fit on the tip of a pin," he said.
The war was therefore unavoidable, and the Kauravas and Pandavas decided to fight at Kurukshetra, because it was large, uninhabited, and abundant with water and fuel-wood.
The Pandavas won the Battle of Kurukshetra, which lasted only eighteen days.
The Birth of the Gita
The Battle of Kurukshetra began on the day known as Moksada Ekadasi. (Ekadasi is the eleventh day of either the waxing or waning moon, and moksada means "giver of liberation.") On that day, Krsna enlightened Arjuna with the knowledge of Bhagavad-gita, liberating him. Now every year on that day considered the birthday of Bhagavad-gita festivals in honor of the Gita are held at Kurukshetra and many other places in India. The grand festival in Jyotisar, the spot where the Gita was spoken, is organized as a state function, with chief ministers and governors presiding. Coincidentally, this is also the time of ISKCON's annual Prabhupada Book Marathon, when devotees distribute hundreds and thousands of copies of Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita As It Is in India and around the world.
Rathayatra's Kurukshetra Roots
Once, when Krsna was preparing to go to Kurukshetra at the time of a solar eclipse, He invited the gopis (cowherd girls) and other residents of Vrndavana to meet Him at Kurukshetra. When He had left Vrndavana in His youth, He had promised to return very soon. But He had been away for a long time (about a hundred years), so out of intense spiritual love, the residents of Vrndavana had always felt ecstatic longing to see Him again.
The residents of Dvaraka (a majestic city) arrived at Kurukshetra on chariots; the residents of Vrndavana (a simple cowherd village), on ox carts. Because the families of Vrndavana and Dvaraka were related, a joyful reunion took place.
Of all the residents of Vrndavana, the leading gopi, Srimati Radharani, had felt the pangs of separation from Krsna more than anyone else. She and the other gopis were determined to bring Krsna back to Vrndavana. The loving exchange between Krsna and the gopis at Kurukshetra is the esoteric meaning behind the festival known as Rathayatra ("Festival of the Chariots"). So whenever Hare Krsna devotees put on Rathayatras in cities around the world, they are proclaiming the glories of Kurukshetra.
Lokanath Swami is the director of ISKCON Padayatras ("walking festivals") worldwide and ISKCON's minister for social development information.