KURUKṢETRA , "the field of the Kurus," is today an important Hindu pilgrimage site (tīrtha ) in Haryana state, about eighty-five miles north-northeast of Delhi. Its history can be traced from the period of the Brāhmaṇas to modern times; in 1014 ce its earliest shrines were destroyed by the invading Mahmud of Ghazni. The site forms part of the plain on which the two pivotal battles of Panipat were fought, marking the rise of the Mughals in 1526 and the defeat of the Marathas in 1761. Since at least the sixteenth century pilgrims have come to Sannihita Lake at Kurukṣetra at times of eclipses. According to contemporary māhātmya s ("glorifications" of the place that serve as pilgrims' manuals), a mendicant named Rāmācandra Swāmi came there several centuries after the early shrines had been destroyed and relocated the sites according to information he received in dreams. In all there are said to be 360 tīrtha s within Kurukṣetra. Current lists include many sites associated by local tradition with the brave deeds and deaths of the heroes in the great war of the Bhāratas, which is said to have been fought at Kurukṣetra at the beginning of the present age. Other than these epic-related tīrtha s, the pilgrim manuals of today mention much the same sites as are described in the Mahābhārata epic and the Purāṇas.
One of Kurukṣetra's traditional names, Samantapañcaka, indicates that the field is supposed to be "five [yojanas] on each side," or roughly a 160-mile circuit. The boundaries given in the Mahābhārata are little altered in Puranic sources and can be harmonized with this description. Kurukṣetra is thus bordered on the north and south by the rivers Sarasvatī and Dṛṣadvatī. Especially sacred, Sarasvatī is said to have gone underground at the Vināsana tīrtha within Kurukṣetra to avoid coming into contact with low castes. The epic mentions four yakṣa gatekeepers (dvārapāla s) on the boundaries at the intermediate cardinal points. According to a nineteenth-century account (Cunningham, 1880), these yakṣa s sang and danced during the great war of the Bhāratas and drank the blood of the slain.
The first texts to expound upon the sacredness of Kurukṣetra are the Brāhmaṇas, and it is likely Kurukṣetra was a heartland for Brahmanic learning in the period of both the Brāhmaṇas and early Upaniṣads. Thus Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 126.96.36.199 describes it as "the gods' place of divine worship," and several passages speak of the gods' sacrificial performances there. It is also the territory of the Kurus and Pañcālas, or Kuru-Pañcālas, famed for their Brāhmaṇas. These are the central peoples of the Mahābhārata, and several epic characters are already mentioned in Brāhmaṇa and Upaniṣadic texts.
It is through the Mahābhārata, however, that Kurukṣetra attains its renown. One passage ranks Kurukṣetra as the foremost tīrtha in the three worlds. Twice it is said that the dust of Kurukṣetra, blown by the wind, leads even those of bad karman to heaven. It is further described as the altar or northern altar (vedī, uttara-vedī ) of Brahmā or Prajāpati, and thus the preeminent place of sacrifice. Numerous sacrificial acts are said to have occurred there prior to the great war of the Bhāratas, including the destruction of the kṣatriya caste twenty-one times over by Rāma Jāmadagnya (later the avatāra Paraśurāma), which left in its wake five lakes of blood. But most significant is the legend told in the epic of the origins of Kurukṣetra. The field is named after King Kuru, ancestor of the epic heroes. Kuru had plowed the field for many years, seeking from Indra the boon that those who die there should go straight to heaven. The gods counseled Indra not to grant the boon, because it would mean that human beings could attain heaven without sacrificing to them, thus endangering the gods' existence. So Indra offered a compromise. Two types of beings could directly attain heaven there: yogins who practice tapas (asceticism), and kṣatriya s who were slain in battle. Thus the traditional Brahmanic sacrifices are dispensed with, but doubly transformed. Kṣatriya s will attain heaven by the epic's "sacrifice of battle," and yogins and pilgrims will do so by acts of tapas, which the epic repeatedly exalts above the traditional rites performed there. Indra's compromise is further sanctioned by Viṣṇu, Śiva, and Brahmā (the trimūrti ), thus indicating the subordination of these transformed sacrificial acts to the higher ideals associated with bhakti. All this is thus in accord with the Bhagavadgītā, which begins with the proclamation that Kurukṣetra is a dharmakṣetra ("field of dharma "). There, Kṛṣṇa instructs Arjuna to perform the sacrifice of battle on Kurukṣetra as a karmayogin, and thus perform acts disciplined by yoga that are offered as if in sacrifice to God. Biardeau (1976) suggests that the name Kurukṣetra has come in the epic to mean the "field of acts," kuru being the imperative of the verb to do. It is thus analogous to the Puranic concept of the earth as the "world of acts" (karmabhūmi ). The act of plowing, here undertaken by King Kuru, is further a common Indian metaphor for sowing the seeds of karman.
The main Mahābhārata passages are translated in The Mahābhārata, vol. 2, edited and translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen (Chicago, 1975), pp. 378–386, and in The Mahābhārata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, vol. 7, 2d ed., translated by P. C. Roy and K. M. Ganguli (Calcutta, 1970), pp. 158–159. For still the best on-site description, see Alexander Cunningham's Report of a Tour in the Punjab in 1878–79, vol. 14 (1880; reprint, Varanasi, 1970), pp. 86–106. On textual references, see Sasanka Sekhar Parui's Kurukṣetra in the Vamana Purāṇa (Calcutta, 1976). On symbolic overtones, see Madeleine Biardeau's "Études de mythologie hindoue, Chap. II, Bhakti et avatāra," Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême Orient 63 (1976): 111–263, esp. pp. 259–262.
Alf Hiltebeitel (1987)