I’ve finished reading about the Mahabharata war, and it has been described in such gory detail you get goosebumps at times.

There is almost total destruction of both armies with only 8 rathis (warrior capable of attacking 5,000 soldiers simultaneously) surviving on both sides, and I wondered how many people died in that war.

I tried to calculate this with how the two armies were described. The Pandavas had 7 Akshauhinis, while the Kauravas had 11 Akshauhinis.

An Akshauhini is a battle formation that consists of chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry in the ratio of 1:1:3:5 and there are 21,870 chariots, equal number of elephants, 65,610 cavalry, and 109,350 infantry.

This is typical of Mahabharata where the numbers are always large, and never easy to remember. It is also quite fascinating because the total of the digits of the large numbers comes to 18, and I feel it couldn’t be a coincidence, but the purpose to it is probably lost now.

If you consider the destruction of 18 Akshauhinis, you arrive at a number which is slightly less than 4 million, so that could be taken as body count.

But of course the number of soldiers on a horse, elephant or chariot is unknown so you could double or triple this number.

However, this question is answered in the Mahabharata itself when Dhritarashtra asks Yudhisthara how many of the soldiers are slain, and Yudhisthara replies 1.6 billion (1,660,020,000) soldiers have been slain and 24,165 are missing.

There is no way to reconcile 4 million with over a billion, and of course there is no need to; the incongruence of the tale lends beauty to it.