Kurukshetra: A Short Visitor's Guide
by Stephen Knapp
Kuruksetra is a spiritually important and peaceful town which no pilgrim should miss. It is 118 kilometers north of Delhi, or about a four hour train ride or three hour auto ride away. It is most noted for being the place where Lord Krishna sang the Bhagavad-gita, which means the "song of God," to his friend Arjuna. Therefore, this town is considered the cradle of Vedic culture, part of the battlefield of the Mahabharata war, and the birth place of the Bhagavad-gita. The Bhagavad-gita is a classic text of India and Vedic thought. Every December there is the festival of Gita Jayanti, which is the celebration of Krishna relating the Bhagavad-gita when thousands of pilgrims visit Kurukshetra. The name of the town is believed to have come from King Kuru, the son of Samvarana and Tapati, and the ancestor of the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
Not only was the Bhagavad-gita sung by Lord Krishna in Kurukshetra, but other spiritually important events also took place here. Krishna met his friends and residents of Vrindavana here during an eclipse while He was living in Dwaraka. He also took bath in Brahma Sarovara and the Sannihit Sarovara water tanks. It is said that the Brahma Sarovara tank is one of the most important in all of India, and that all the holy waters of India are found in the Brahma Sarovara during an eclipse, which is why millions of pilgrims come here to bathe during such an event. It is also said that those who bathe here, live here, visit, or die in Kuruksetra go to heaven after death. In the Kurukshetra Mahatmya of the Mahabharata the sage Pulastya says that even the dust of Kurukshetra will cause one to reach the highest goal. This is the benefit for all who died in the battle of Kurukshetra 5,000 years ago, and one reason why the battle took place here. It is another reason why every pilgrim should visit this holy place. It is also explained that if a person walks eight miles along the Ganga River, he will acquire the merit of performing one ashwamedha ritual. In Kashi (Varansi) one gets the same result by walking only four miles, and only two miles when walking in Kurukshetra.
Furthermore, it is said that Manu wrote the Manu-samhita here. Some people also believe that Vyasadeva wrote some of the Vedic texts, such as the Mahabharata, at his ashrama along the banks of the Sarasvati River when the Sarasvati used to flow through Kurukshetra. This is not to contradict the premise that he also wrote Vedic texts in his ashrama near Badrinatha. The Rig and Sama Vedas may have been written here as well. Even Lord Buddha is said to have visited Kuruksetra.
While we are here, there are several places we want to visit. First of all, Jyotisar is the place where Krishna related the Bhagavad-gita to His devotee Arjuna. This is about 10 kilometers north of town. It is a pleasant motor-ricksha ride away, and it provides a time to meditate on the occasion when the huge armies gathered on these plains thousands of years ago. Jyotisar is now a small park with a central banyan tree over a small marble chariot that marks where Krishna sang the Bhagavad-gita and showed Arjuna His universal form. The banyan tree is said to be the same tree as when Krishna and Arjuna were present and, thus, the only living witness to the event. There is a large pond of water here that provides for a refreshing atmosphere. There are also a few other small shrines, like an old Shiva temple. It is most pleasant to sit and meditate on the significance of the area and read some of the Bhagavad-gita while visiting.
The history of the Battle of Kuruksetra and the speaking of the Bhagavad-gita can be told briefly. The five Pandava brothers, born of King Pandu, were the legitimate heirs to the kingdom of India. However, when the Pandavas were still young, Pandu died untimely and Dhritarashtra, the head of the Kuru family, assumed control until the Pandavas were grown. However, due to his love for his own sons, Dhritarashtra engaged in many plots and intrigues to eliminate the Pandavas so his sons, the Kauravas, could inherit the kingdom. After many years of tribulations, close escapes from death, and fourteen years of exile, the Pandavas returned to reclaim their rights to the throne. However, the Kurus were not inclined to honor the Pandavas in any way. Even after asking for only five villages, one for each of the Pandavas to rule, Duryodhana, the chief of the Kauravas, said he would not give them enough land with which to stick in a pin.
After all peaceful negotiations were exhausted, the Pandavas agreed that there was no other choice than to fight. Even Lord Krishna went and personally asked the Kauravas to settle the matter in a peaceful way, but this was not what was destined to be. Each side then amassed huge armies from all over India and beyond. In fact, the Kurus had a much larger army and far greater warriors than the Pandavas. However, the greatest ally of the Pandavas was their great moral and spiritual character, and their friend Sri Krishna, the most powerful personality.
When it was time for the huge armies to face each other on the plains of Kuruksetra, there were many millions of warriors, horses, chariots, and elephants ready to fight. Before the battle, Krishna, who was serving as Arjuna’s chariot driver and advisor, drove Arjuna’s chariot between the two great armies. Seeing the number of friends and relatives on each side ready to fight each other, Arjuna hesitated and felt much grief over the situation. He felt it was useless to fight. He preferred to retire to the forest and live as a recluse and meditate. It was then that Krishna took the opportunity to sing the Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna to show him that action for devotional service and to protect Sanatana-dharma is a higher standard.
The Bhagavad-gita is the essence of all Vedic philosophy and is composed of 700 verses and explains such topics as the nature of the soul, God, the material universe, activities and karma, reincarnation, the process of yoga, the purpose of life, and more. After all this was explained to Arjuna, he took courage with proper understanding and fought. Thereafter, the war of Kurukshetra lasted for 18 days in which several million warriors died in the fierce fighting. Then the Pandavas were rightfully established in their kingdom, and Sri Krishna had provided His eternal instructions in the form of the Bhagavad-gita for all of humanity. This is all elaborated in the Mahabharata which is composed of 100,000 verses, making it the longest poem in literary history.
When we leave Jyotisar, our next stop is at Bishma Kund, also called Bana Ganga. This is where Grandfather Bhishma fell on the tenth day of the battle of Kurukshetra, but remained laying there until the sun entered the northern hemisphere. The battle was so fierce that Bhishma’s back was covered with arrows. Finally, he fell on his back and laid on what appeared as a bed of arrows. Then Krishna and the Pandavas, hearing the news, gathered around him as he prepared to leave this world. Bhishma was one of the greatest and most respected of the warriors on the battlefield. As he lay there, he became thirsty and Arjuna shot an arrow into the ground from which sprang Ganges water to quench Bhishma’s thirst. This later formed into what is now a small kund or water tank called Bana Ganga, or Bhishma Kund. Bathing in it is said to give the benefits of bathing at all the holy tirthas. This is also where Bishma gave the teachings of Rajadharma (statecraft) and Anushasana (discipline) to Yudhisthira. Bishma also sang the Vishnusahasranama (The Thousand Names of Vishnu) to Lord Krishna before he departed this world.
Next to the kund is a small temple that has images of Bhishma on the bed of arrows surrounded by Krishna and the Pandavas in the act of listening to Bhishma as he instructs Yudhisthira on the path of dharma, or spiritual merit. There is also a deity of Krishna in His universal form. At one end of the kund is also a huge 26-foot tall deity of Hanuman. There is also a little temple here of Sita-Rama, Lakshmana, Hanuman, and Durga. When we are finished here, next we’ll go to the large Brahma Sarovara tank.
There is another place called Bana Ganga southwest of Kurukshetra in Dayalpur. This is a small kund where Arjuna had stopped to rest his horses on his way to fight with Jayadratha. In order to quench the thirst of his horses, he shot his arrow called Parjanyastra into the ground which generated the necessary water. There is also a temple of Goddess Bala Sundari on the premises, and a large Hanuman image.
Brahma Sarovara is one of the holiest tanks in India and is where millions of pilgrims gather to bathe during an eclipse. One who bathes here is said to receive the merit of performing an ashvamedha ritual, and one is freed from all sins by bathing here during an eclipse. This is where Lord Brahma performed a large sacrificial ceremony and also from where he manifested the earth planet in the process of creation. Legend has it that Brahma Sarovara was excavated first by King Kuru long before the epic battle of Kurukshetra. It is a huge tank (half a kilometer wide and one kilometer long) with an island in the middle connected by a road that cuts through it. On the island is a water well called the Chandra Kupa Well, one of the oldest sacred wells. Tradition has it that in ancient times the water in the well would change to milk during the solar eclipse. Next to the well is a small Radha-Krishna temple where Yudhisthira is said to have built a victory pillar after the successful culmination of the war. This lake is also where Krishna, His brother Balarama, and His sister Subhadra came from Dwaraka to bathe during an eclipse. Along the side of the tank is a smaller island with the Sarveshwar Mahadeva (Shiva) temple on it.
The streets nearby have a number of other temples that we can visit, such as the Birla Gita Mandir. This has a deity of Krishna in the act of explaining the Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna. Outside is a chariot with images of Krishna and Arjuna on it. Down the road along Brahma Sarovara are other temples and ashramas, many of which are quite nice. You can simply ride down the street and stop to see the ones you want to visit.
Nearby is Sannihit Sarovara, another lake or water tank that is very significant. It is not as large as Brahma Sarovara, but it is fairly big (1500 by 450 feet). Sannihit means the assembly of the entire range of holy tirthas or sacred sites, which is said to happen every Amavas, or eclipse, especially the Somavati Amavas (lunar eclipse). It is also said that all of the sacred holy places gather here on the new Moon day, and that this is where the seven sacred Sarasvatis meet. Performing the shraddha ceremony for the benefit of the ancestors and bathing during the eclipse is said to purify you of all your sins and give you the merit of having performed 1,000 ashvamedha ceremonies. Lord Krishna also bathed here and met the gopis and residents of Vrindavana when He was present. It is also accepted that it was here where Lord Indra accepted the bones from the great sage Dadhichi, which were so powerful that they were used in making a Vajra or thunderbolt for killing the demon Vritasura.
On the eastern end of the tank are several small temples to Vishnu, Dhruva, Hanuman, Durga, Lakshmi-Narayana, Surya, etc. Across the road is a large, beautiful temple to Lakshmi-Narayana. There are also numerous sadhus found here, and those who merely look like sadhus. In fact, as I walked around the lake on one occasion, I came upon a group of sadhus who, instead of engaging in meditation or reading scriptures, etc., were sitting and playing a game of cards. When I asked them if I could take a photo, a few instantly said no. Playing like a naive tourist, I asked why not, and one answered, "What do you think?" They thought I was going to take a photo and then give it to the newspapers. Of course, I knew why they didn’t want their photo taken: They didn’t want to be seen that way because they would lose their credibility. This made me realize how few real sadhus actually exist.
Not far from here is a very impressive, government operated Krishna Museum. Every aspect of this museum is related to the pastimes of Krishna and the various ways to express devotion to Him. The museum has a wide assortment of brass, metal, and wood deities of Krishna, Jagannatha, along with paintings, drawings, sculptures, and artwork from all over India. There was also a life-size image of Mother Yasoda with Krishna and Balarama. It also has an assortment of costumes and dress from different eras of Indian history. This museum is very nicely done and well worth the visit, but don’t take any photos or, as I was told, they may take away your camera. There is also a Multimedia Mahabharata and Gita Gallery for all those who are interested. Altogether it is an especially nice exhibit. Also, do not miss the Kurukshetra Panorama & Science Centre, which brings to life the epic battle of the Mahabharata with special acoustic effects. Exhibits are also related to various branches of science like astronomy, medicine, chemistry, botany, and zoology.
Our next stop is Kamal Nabha or Nabhi, which is a water kund said to mark the place where Brahma was born out of the lotus flower that arose from the nabhi or navel of Lord Vishnu. This is located in the old town of Thanesar. The water tank here is not that large and is green with algae, but is very significant. There is only a small shrine with Lakshmi-Narayana deities and a picture on the wall of Vishnu with Brahma on the lotus coming from Vishnu’s navel. In the entranceway are a few other small deities.
Another short ride to a different part of town takes us to the Sthaneswara temple and tank. This is also quite interesting and is where the Pandavas prayed to Lord Shiva for blessings to be victorious in the war of Kurukshetra. The water from the tank is considered sacred and to have healing powers. A few drops of the water from the tank is said to have cured King Ban or Vena of leprosy. The temples around the tank have very beautiful deities of Krishna, Radha-Govinda, Sita-Rama and Lakshmana, Shiva, Durga, etc., and an ancient Shiva lingam. The present temple is said to be constructed by Sadashiva Rao Bhau, the commander-in-chief of the Maratha forces, to commemorate his victory over Ahmed Shah Abdali in the battle of Kunjpura, near Karnal. According to the Vamana Purana, the tirthas of Shukra, Soma, Daksha and Skanda are located in the north, east, south, and west parts respectively of this Sthanu tirtha, but one who visits the linga of Shiva here gets moksha or liberation. The Vamana Purana also says that whoever enters this Sthanu temple, with or without desires, gets emancipation from all karma and attains the supreme seat.
Down the road is the Bhadra Kali temple. This is another Shaktipeeth, or empowered place related to Devi, which marks the place where Sati’s ankle fell when Lord Vishnu cut her dead body into pieces as it was being held by Lord Shiva. This was after she left her body when she had been insulted by her father, Daksha, in Haridwar for having Shiva as her husband. A marble sculpture of a right ankle is placed over the well where Sati's ankle fell. It is visited by a large number of devotees.
The Iskcon Krishna temple is in the bazaar in the older part of town. If you can get there in the morning you can have darshan of the beautiful Radha-Krishna deities, which stand about two feet tall, and the smaller Gaura-Nitai deities. You can also attend the arati and have a nice prasadam breakfast. The temple is quite nice and expanding. They also have guest quarters on the top floor where visitors can stay. The number of devotees is small, but they are very friendly and helpful. In fact, they helped arrange my motor ricksha transportation to see the holy places in town the first time I came to visit Kurukshetra. However, they are building a new and very large temple on the road on the way to Jyotisar, which will be in the shape of a chariot. So many people will be stopping to see this new temple.
Another place to see is the Dharohar Haryana Sangrahalaya, established in 2006, which houses a variety of objects like agricultural and domestic implements and art and craft items from the state of Haryana. It also has archaeological artifacts, manuscripts, wall paintings, folk music instruments, ornaments, weapons, etc., to highlight the culture and rich traditions of Haryana.
There is also the Kalpana Chawla Memorial Planetarium named after Dr. Kalpana Chawla, India's famous astronaut and space scientist. This has been set up by Haryana State Council for Science & Technology for imparting non-formal education in astronomy so anyone can learn more about this form of science. However most shows are run in Hindi language, but when needed, they are shown in both Hindi and English.
There is an assortment of other noteworthy places around Kuruksetra, some of which you may want to visit if you have time. Altogether there are still about 134 important pilgrimage sites that are still known today, of which we will describe a few. For example, the mound called Amin, eight miles outside of town, is where Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu, was caught in the Chakra Vyuha military formation and killed during the battle of Kuruksetra, as described in the Mahabharata. And the Karna Vadha trench is where Karna, the Pandavas half-brother who fought against them, was killed when his chariot got stuck there.
About 40 kilometers from Kurukshetra is the place of Pehowa where the ancient Sarasvati River is commemorated, and is famous for the performance of the shraddha ceremonies for the ancestors. The tirtha of Prithudaka is mentioned in the Puranas and Mahabharata, where Matinara, a king in the Puru lineage, performed many rituals here on the bank of the Sarasvati River, which is now mostly dried up and no longer flows through Kurukshetra as it did during the times of the Mahabharata.
Jind and Safidon are towns where you will find such tirthas as Ram Hridaya where Parashurama performed a spiritual ceremony. At Birhi Kalan near Jind is Varaha Tirtha where Lord Varaha appeared in order to save the earth. Sarp Damam, in Safidon, is where Janamejaya, the son of Maharaja Pariksit, performed a fire sacrifice in order to destroy all the snakes after his father was bitten by the snake bird Takshaka from a curse by Shringi, as described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. This is in connection with the holy town of Shukratal. If you have the time to do some research, the library at Kuruksetra has a good collection of Vedic literature in Sanskrit and English.
Many of the sites mentioned herein will likely change greatly in their appearance over the next few years because the government plans to spend a lot of money to make these sites more tourist and pilgrim friendly. They plan to make a "Krishna Tour" for the many pilgrims so they can easily see the sites connected with Krishna and India's history. This will include Kurukshetra and many other places in Haryana, but also places like Vrindavana which will also be a part of this tour.
In this way, Kurukshetra has much to offer the sincere pilgrim and also elaborates the significance of the Bhagavad-gita. Some people stay for a day, but Kurukshetra deserves a few days to see and absorb all it has to offer.