The ways of dharma are confounding. Verily true for one whose soul is unpoised and beleaguered by the relentless flux of insecurities of the Prakriti, overpowered by Prakriti’s rattling kinesis, relentlessly seeks out a set of formulae or their outright omission for a flatly harmonious survival. The basal self has not yet been relinquished and an escalation above Prakriti’s sway is yet to set off in a mind merely keen on adherence to the inferior distinction between vices and virtues so that dharma eludes even when it is seemingly abided by in a puritanical spirit or veritably when altogether forsaken; the misconception of dharma and the consequent grudge against it stays as long as the outlook is mundane and the temperament is moral and intellectual with a disregard for integrality of one’s being vis-à-vis the Divine. In Krishna, the Purusha and the Prakriti are in absolute resonance with each other for they proceed from Him. He is the ultimate substratum of the visible and the invisible reality. Who better than Krishna would, hence, have had an understanding of the operative principle of reality what dharma is in its broadest sense? His descent into a human form is self-derived — a phenomenon that works out when He, with His primal opulence intact (unsplit) and His transcendental suzerainty undiminished, out of His own accord breaks forth in the visible canvas of His inscrutably dynamic reality. In total cognisance of Himself, of which the existences of becomings are only parts, He functions freely prevailing over the regulatory framework and constraints of reality. Krishna, in so doing, offers the rational possibility of man’s complete and final ascent to Divinity. He playfully brings about a reconciliation of the physical and the spirit, of humanity and the Divine. The conduct of such a man established in Divinity then reflects what dharma is. Life, a minuscule part, is run akin to the fashion this whole reality is run by Vasudeva who permeates it — for nothing more than the sustenance of His own order underlying it. With this secret of secrets coming to light, leading exponents of Vaishnava dharma like Chaitanya and Vallabha failed in their spiritual honesty to look past the staggering glory of Krishna as the real, eternal and transcendent Personal Being — all other manifestations and ontological entities either directly emanate from Him or are His secondary projections — what had once been glimpsed by Arjuna and Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa. This of course does not render Him an isolated man of miracles, who aloof to life circumvents, in disdainful spirit, life’s obstacles and complications through supernatural means and manages to remain an alien to human sorrows and miseries. The “magic-wielding happy prince” would not serve the purpose of His Self-advent into a human form. Ergo He introduces Himself as the culminating ideal of a synthesis of the Divine and the manhood. This demonstration incumbent on Him is meant to rekindle in man his acceptance of life’s totality and urge him to engage in strifes and to exploit the inherent conditions of his life, howsoever sophisticated and terrifying they appear, for through a triumph over them can he expand to his pristine infiniteness in his finite state, that in his foundation in supreme bliss; he is not to wallow in withdrawal but engage in detached participation. The Lila of Krishna’s descent would not be without the intrusion of His adversaries and involvement of strifes handling which would require awe-inspiring endeavours at the human level. Herein Krishna is bestowed a liminal, a taboo of a chance for the flawed to work on his shortcomings by conscious emulation of the Perfected Being. “Whatever the best man does, common people emulate. Whatever standard He sets, all the world pursues.” (यद्यदाचरति श्रेष्ठस्तत्तदेवेतरो जन:। स यत्प्रमाणं कुरुते लोकस्तदनुवर्तते॥) Else than Krishna, speaking in temporal terms without downplaying Krishna’s Divinity, the world has not yet produced a man worth emulating. (Although an imperfect Bhakta absorbed in Bhakti is also afforded an opportunity to gratify his sense of fulfilment by a mere acquaintance of Krishna’s human feats.) The Mahabharata, therefore, in the elucidation of His arcane dharma lays out an imperative juxtaposition of Krishna’s Divinity with his humanity. Although again steeped in the serenity of eternal calm and free of emotions but never out of His playful bliss, Krishna in the Mahabharata was not just a character but one who composed the symphonies of the destiny of other contemporary characters.
There can be two extreme ways of viewing Krishna: one through the eyes of the antagonists of His time and the other from the perspective of an Arjuna of SrimadBhagavadGita, who has surrendered himself at the feet of Krishna, wherein Krishna’s human side is cast aside and His Divine aspects duly venerated and eulogised. A third perspective may involve choosing to look at Him both as a literal Purushottama meaning one who is the most perfect in all the domains of human life, giving a tough fight to sly contenders who fancy overtaking Him and wants Him subjugated through brute force, and the Purushottama who entails Kshara, Akshara and beyond. Egoists, as they essentially are, who get a kick out of every little validation of immorality and experience triumphant delight in disparaging normalcy, ethics, conventions and traditions that frustrate their free lifestyles and therefore have earned their vehement abhorrence, are readily tickled as and when Krishna is being alluded to or definitively spoken of as an individual who operates on the principle of the-end-justifying-the-means with end necessarily and inevitably self-serving. Krishna cannot be associated with deontological ethics or any form of consequentialism or puerile concepts of conformity and non-conformity, much less with egoism. Truth is what He embodies perennially and it is only with the truth He is forever linked to. Just to assess the depth and intricacy of Krishna’s actions, especially as depicted in the Mahabharata, select episodes from the Sanjaya-yana Parva, the Bhagavat-yana Parva and the Ghatotkacha-vada Parva have been considered at length. The liberty to highlight a few other crucial facets of the itihasa will also be availed in the course of this deliberation.
The Sanjaya-yana Parva portrays Krishna probably in His debut role as a diplomat before the Bharata war. In His characteristic candour, He avoids the use of platitudes and cuts to the chase advancing the interests of the Pandavas without showing an iota of a tendency to compromise them. It is in this episode, Vasudeva Krishna is seen volunteering for the role of an emissary to the encampment of the Kauravas. When the Pandavas, on completion of their exile, assembled with their allies in the city of Upaplavya of the Matsya territory, Sanjaya was sent by Dhritarashtra as a messenger to the Pandavas’ camp. All that the blind king had to convey were blank pontifications about what defined dharma, interspersed with occasional emotional blackmails, without the semblance mention of reinstatement of the kingdom back to the Pandavas. As a classic sympathiser of the perpetrators, Dhritarashtra played the victim card and pinned the blame on the Pandavas asking them to follow dharma that he and his sons had brutally transgressed. His tone was like, ‘My sons are unrighteous but you are established in dharma, is not the onus solely on you to fervently follow it by exercising restraint upon you and not waging warfare even if it implies foregoing your claim over your own kingdom and properties that I and my sons deny you of?’ This weakling of a king had the temerity to tell that he was not scared of any of the Pandavas or Krishna else than Yudhisthira. This was kind of buttering up the most unsuspecting amongst the Pandava brothers in order to talk to him into eschewing violence. Such justifying convolution of arguments surely rings a bell and we are reminded of the usual antics resorted to by the left cabal in their bid to defend a dastardly offence. Sanjaya in conveying the message of his king could not help but sound as though he was supportive of Dhritarashtra’s and hence Duryodhana’s words and deeds. Indeed, he went on to incorporate his own voice while delivering the king’s message. While Yudhisthira and perhaps the other Pandavas preferred to ignore the undertone, Krishna cut in to tell him straight away that his conception of dharma was absolutely erroneous and his sermons utterly misplaced. Narrating all that Draupadi had to endure in the assembly hall of the Kurus while in her menses and how the heinous act of an assault on her dignity could have been prevented had one of the elders or Dhritarashtra had the good courage to intervene, He grilled Sanjaya asking what had driven him to accuse the Pandavas and lecture them. He also made it a point to remind the king’s charioteer that even he, who too had been a witness to the tragic incident, had not spoken of dharma then. (अनुक्त्वा त्वं धर्ममेचवं सभायामथेच्छसे पाण्डवस्योपदेष्टुम्।) Vasudeva Krishna, thereafter, articulated His firm wish to visit the Kuru camp to resolve the matter. In lieu of speaking appeasingly, His usages were clear and conspicuously threatening. He made His intentions transparent — that He would not take the oppression of the Pandavas lying down.
“If, without sacrificing the cause of the Pandavas, I succeed in bringing about peace with the Kurus, not only will I usher in great punya and accomplish an auspicious task, but also save the Kurus from certain death. (पुण्यं च मे स्याच्चरितं महोदयं मुच्येरंश्च कुरवो मृत्युपाशात्॥) I will speak what is wise, founded in dharma, and in full conformity to the doctrines of non-violence. When I go there, I hope the Kurus will pay me proper respect and Dhritarashtra’s sons will pay heed to my words. Or else, Phalguna will ride on his chariot and Bhima will arm himself for war. Know that because of their own evil deeds, the vile sons of Dhritarashtra will be consumed. (अतोऽन्यथा रथिनाफल्गुनेन भीमेन चैवाहवदंशितेन। परासिक्तान्धार्तराष्ट्रांस्तु विद्धि प्रदह्यमानान्कर्मणा स्वेन मन्दान्॥)”
Krishna’s long admonishment concluded with Him asking the envoy of the Kurus to go relate accurately all that the former had spoken. Sanjaya having verily assessed the mood of Krishna, now lowered his tone and expressed his desire to exit what surely in his judgement had transpired to be a heated scene as a consequence of the indiscriminate choice of his own words. In a grudgingly apologetic tone he, therefore, half-heartedly admitted to having spoken in a manner that might have affronted the Pandavas and their allies attributing the volley of his words to his distressed mind. When Sanjaya had departed, (it is the opening of the Bhagavat-yana Parva,) Yudhisthira had little clue of the proper course of action to get back the kingdom that is rightfully his from Dhritarashtra. Despite signs of an imminent war which Duryodhana and allies were bent upon his opinions swayed between extremes. He still craved for and seemed to have set his heart on the peace that indeed was light-years away. Krishna initially pacified him by an acknowledgement of his integrity but without further ado apprised him of the real scenario. His words were pregnant with worldly pragmatism as He exhorted Yudhisthira to slay his tormentors without hesitation. (वध्यः सर्प इवानार्यः सर्वलोकस्य दुर्मतिः। जह्येनं त्वममित्रघ्न मा राजन्विचिकित्सिथाः॥) He once again made His intentions clear as regards His role as an emissary to the assembly of Kauravas. Vasudeva declared that while He would laud Yudhisthira of his nobility and demonstrate Yudhisthira’s virtues before the gathering of kings, He would roast Duryodhana and tarnish his reputation. He further revealed His plan to keep an eye on the intentions of the Kaurava warriors and their conduct and preparations for the war. (कौरवाणां प्रवृत्तिं च गत्वा युद्धाधिकारिकाम् । निशाम्य विनिवर्तिष्ये जयाय तव भारत॥) And returning back, He would ensure the Pandavas victory. However, defeatism seemed to have vitiated the atmosphere about the Pandava brothers and it was now Bhimasena’s turn to manifest the affliction of his mind as he is also portrayed intent on having peace with the Kauravas. (यथा यथैव शान्तिः स्यात्कुरूणां मधुसूदन। तथा तथैव भाषेथा मा स्म युद्धेन भीषयेः॥) His sanctimonious words asking Krishna to be soft with Duryodhana, very much uncharacteristic of him, only managed to elicit a burst of sardonic laughter from Keshava who thereafter lambasted Bhima showering upon him the harshest of vituperations and the bitterest of censures. The tactic worked as Purushottama managed to knock enough sense back into Bhima. Bhima had to shake off this lassitude that is unbecoming of a Kshatriya like him for a Kshatriya obtains only through his energy. (न चैतदनुरूपं ते यत्ते ग्लानिररिंदम। यदोजसा न लभते क्षत्रियो न तदश्नुते॥) His ego ruffled, his conscience awfully stirred, Bhimasena’s words again brimmed with the intent of war. Later Krishna is seen placating a miffed Bhima affectionately. And veering into the philosophical domain reminded the Pandava that despite human efforts countering destiny, or, destiny countering human efforts, or, the two reinforcing each other, an individual must act composed regardless of the rewards of his or her own actions. The interests of Pandavas being His foremost concern, He once again brought up the possibility of an impending war in a situation where the sons of Dhritarashtra would turn neglectful of His words, about which Vasudeva seemed to have little doubt. It was Bhimasena’s sudden change of stance with regards to war that made Vasudeva use unkind language to reignite the Pandava’s Kshatriya Tejas. (तस्मादाशङ्कमानोऽहं वृकोदर मतिं तव। तुदन्नक्लीबया वाचा तेजस्ते समदीपयम् ॥) Krishna’s task to convince the Pandava brothers of the dire need of a war to get back all their possessions was still not over. Arjuna too sounded a pacifist insisting on Krishna to strive for peace between the two camps. Krishna did not beat around the bush.
“Through speech and efforts, I will do as much as I can. But I do not, in the least, expect peace with the foe. (यत्तु वाचा मया शक्यं कर्मणा चापि पाण्डव। करिष्ये तदहं पार्थ न त्वाशंसे शमं परैः॥)”
When Nakula spoke, he sounded diffident too, as he harped on peacemaking strategies. He seemed wary not to cause Duryodhana any pain or fear. Although the first four Pandava brothers showed eagerness to fall back on a peaceful truce, the youngest one, Sahadeva, was resolved to fight a war against the Kauravas. Satyaki, who was also present in the gathering, applauded Sahadeva’s rock-solid resolution. To a discerning reader, it would appear very clear that Krishna has been speaking Gita since a time much before the itihasa actually depicts Him doing so at Kurukshetra on the brink of the war. Not just Arjuna, even others among the Pandavas nosedived to varied depths of despondency and required hauling out propelled by Krishna’s vehement exhortations. When, yet again, Draupadi (who was, in truth, Shri incarnate) wept and demanded vengeance for the wrongs done to her and the Pandavas, Purushottama repeated His pledge to Her about the destruction of the Kurus He and the Pandavas would actively seek to secure.
“The Himalayas may shift from its place; the earth may burst asunder into a hundred fragments; the sky, with its nakshatras, may fall down; but, my words will not be false. (चलेद्धि हिमवाञ्शैलो मेदिनी शतधा भवेत्। द्यौः पतेच्च सनक्षत्रा न मे मोघं वचो भवेत्॥)”
His vow was far more impassioned and forceful than Bhisma’s. His voice would likewise assume resonance typical of Narayana’s voice, at a subsequent time, in His utterance of the shloka of SrimadBhagavadGita that is most endearing to His devotees across time and space — the only reason for them to keep themselves confined to the matrix of reality for continued fulfilment of His own wishes in the face of the toughest ordeals. “Whenever dharma declines, O descendant of Bharata, and adharma is ascendant, at that time, I manifest myself. To protect the righteous and to annihilate the wicked, as well as to re-establish dharma, I advent myself from yuga to yuga. (यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत। अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम्॥ परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम्। धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे॥)” If He props up the whole existence and beyond, His passion to protect His beloved ones from all harm stands boundless. He sees to it that beatitude is granted to those who have fervently pursued dharma in their lives. Constancy has been His essence across all realms.
Despite Arjuna’s reiteration of his views that Krishna should try to resort to a peaceful reconciliation with the Kauravas, the latter stayed determined to act only in accordance with dharma and in the just cause of the Pandavas. In fact, Madhusudana was one step ahead. He armed Himself adequately with the choicest weapons — a conch shell, chakra, mace, quivers, spears and the like — before He headed to the Kourava camp. He would not take the weakest of foes lightly. And He was well aware of the wicked nature of men of the sorts of Duryodhana, Karna and Shakuni who, with a track record of their own, were capable of resorting to duplicitous ways to inflict harm. (रथ आरोप्यतां शङ्खश्चक्रं च गदया सह। उपासङ्गाश्च शक्त्यश्च सर्वप्रहरणानि च॥ दुर्योधनो हि दुष्टात्मा कर्णश्च सहसौबलः। न च शत्रुरवज्ञेयः प्राकृतोऽपि बलीयसा॥) And Krishna had no reason to believe that He was not their principal adversary. He was already on one side! Probably it was Krishna’s resolve that helped build Arjuna’s own resolve whispered into the ears of the former as the latter saw Krishna off. On the way, Krishna came across Parashurama alongside the band of devarshis — all of whom bound for the Kuru assembly where Krishna was slated to present his case on behalf of the Pandavas. Parashurama, who also seemed to represent the other rishis, encouraged the former to speak in the assembly of Kurus in conformity to dharma and artha. During this journey, there is a mention of Krishna partaking in the food and hospitality offered by the distinguished Brahmanas in Vrikasthala. The itihasa here highlights a nuanced fact that He had already secured the favours of the makers of dharmic codes (hence, the regular kingmakers of yore) — the rishis, the munis, the Brahmanas en masse. They had wholeheartedly provided the sanction of a change in the overall regime across the political landscape of Bharatavarsha that Krishna sought to bring about. Ergo ten powerful, fully armed and battle-ready maharathas, a thousand-foot soldiers, a thousand horsemen and hundreds of attendants carrying plenty of provisions escorted Krishna on His visit to the Kourava encampment. Through spies, Dhritarashtra came to know of Krishna’s journey to his territory and so, had several arrangements and decorations made for the hospitality of the guest. But upon His arrival, Krishna simply ignored all — He was not to be beguiled by this charade, His visit had purposes and objectives and He was focused on fulfilling them. Perhaps, the Kauravas received the early signal of His intentions. He would, a while after within the premises of Duryodhana’s residence, also decline food and hospitality offered by the host. When Duryodhana insisted on the honest reasons for his overt refusal, Krishna spelt them out. “I do not transgress dharma for the sake of desire, anger, hatred, self-gratification, hollow polemics or avarice. (नाहं कामान्न संरम्भान्न द्वेषान्नार्थकारणात्। न हेतुवादाल्लोभाद्वा धर्मं जह्यां कथञ्चन॥) Food is to be accepted when offered with love, or, when in need. O, king! But I do not have affection for you. Nor am I in need. (सम्प्रीतिभोज्यान्यन्नानि आपद्भोज्यानि वा पुनः। न च सम्प्रीयसे राजन्न चाप्यापद्गता वयम्॥)” He then, having narrated the wrongs committed to the Pandavas by Duryodhana and his cohorts, declared His allegiance to the Pandavas. Having adequately fleshed out His brief allocution to Duryodhana, He avowed at the end, “All this food that you offer owes its root to evil and is not fit to be partaken by me. I reckon that only Kshatta’s (Vidura’s) food is worth partaking. सर्वमेतदभोक्तव्यमन्नं दुष्टाभिसंहितम्। क्षत्तुरेकस्य भोक्तव्यमिति मे धीयते मतिः॥) Noteworthy in this episode of the great itihasa is Krishna’s open assertion to not enjoy the food or any of the favours offered by Duryodhana who was the prime nemesis of the Pandavas. He had weighed up the ignoble motives of the father-son duo behind their superficial largesse and was on guard not to slide into a debt of gratitude to these bunch of brazen defilers of dharma. He would not concede them the slightest scope to enforce peace in a situation where they were least bothered to restore what they had grabbed through deceit from the Pandavas. Ergo He wanted them out and slain in the arena of war! He had long shaped a calm appraisal of the Kuru elders of the sort of Bhishma, Drona and Kripa and deep within had estimated that through espousal of a policy of “non-alignment” these august figures of the Kourava establishment had supported the words and actions of evil men like Duryodhana. None of these elders put his foot down to stop the deceitful game of dice or obviate Draupadi’s excruciatingly painful humiliation — they had internalised the vindication for a breach of dharma. So much for their much-touted nobility! No wonder He failed to see dharma in any of them and therefore, ignoring them headed straight to Vidura’s residence for a meal. To act as per dharma, one has to be certain of dharma — its basic conception and precepts. Vasudeva Krishna did not just have a keen sense of dharma but was dharma embodied.
At the assembly hall of the Kurus, Krishna in unambiguous terms asked Dhritarashtra to hand back the Pandavas their share of the kingdom and like what He had already promised did not spare Duryodhana for his terrible misdeeds and administered him a ringing denunciation before an august gathering of distinguished figures like Parashurama, Narada, the celestial rishis, Vidura, Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Bahlika, and kings (most of whom had old enmities with Krishna and had assembled seeking to fight against the Pandavas in order to avenge for the losses they had previously sustained at the hands of Madhusudana). Parashurama, Kanva, Narada, Bhishma, Drona and Vidura counselled Duryodhana to act in accordance with Vasudeva’s advice but to no avail. Krishna found a window of opportunity to berate the Kuru elders who evidently did not exercise their rights in their entirety to stop Duryodhana’s madness. As a last-ditch attempt to set Duryodhana back on the right path, his mother Gandhari was summoned to the court if she could pacify him, but it cut no ice with him. Embarrassed, Duryodhana thereafter went off the deep end and hit upon a daft plan with his cohorts to imprison Krishna and break the morale of the Pandavas once and for all. The idea of melting submission to one’s own crucifixion is beyond the ambit of dharma. Krishna aware of the situation, ramped up His aggression as He proclaimed His capabilities as a warrior. “At this instant, I can seize them and their followers and hand them over to the Parthas. There can be nothing wrong with the act. अद्यैव ह्यहमेतांश्च ये चैताननु भारत। निगृह्य राजन्पार्थेभ्यो दद्यां किं दुष्कृतं भवेत्॥)” Moments later He unveiled His transcendental form and offered a select few in the assembly — Drona, Bhishma, Vidura, Sanjaya and the rishis — a view of His resplendent and majestic sublimity; others were spooked to the core and kept their eyes shut as the ineffable phenomenon unfolded. When He regained His human form and departed, the Kauravas came to realise that it was just a matter of time for the war to get underway — they had, in response to the destiny forged in their own karmas, stationed in a situation that was just a brief prelude to war.
The prime objective of Vasudeva being accomplished, He then decided to secure His secondary but strategically critical goals. He struck up a conversation with Karna, the most resolved and the most formidable of warriors on the side of Kauravas — this was done in isolation a little away from the company of Duryodhana and Karna’s other aides, for obvious reasons. It is vital to drag your foes to the battlefield so that they fight accumulated in one place face-to-face. Karna was instrumental in that respect. To wipe out enemies you need to have them within the range of your weapons. Krishna would allow Karna’s destiny to play out in a certain fashion. Duryodhana had great fears for Arjuna’s skills and would not push for war without a warrior like Karna, who was undoubtedly Arjuna’s match, on his side. At a critical moment just before the war was to begin, Krishna disclosed Karna’s real identity to him — that he was the eldest of the siblings born to an unwed Kunti and ergo legally a son of Pandu — and if that was not enough to dislodge his peace of mind, the wielder of Maya, even tempted him with the kingdom, emperorship, boundless riches and finally physical intimacy with Draupadi stated in terms imbued with an explicit undertone (that even the foremost translators and scholars have failed to gloss over) as He made an overwhelming promise to Karna saying, “Draupadi will approach you at the sixth time (after the five Pandavas in order). (षष्ठे च त्वां तथा काले द्रौपद्युपगमिष्यति॥)” Temptations would not sway his mind and although Karna did not seem rattled with the disclosure of his identity; he already had been in possession of details concerning his birth as he delineated subsequently how he had been sired by Surya Deva on the maiden Kunti and how she had abandoned him soon after to salvage her honour. Nevertheless, the task had been accomplished. Krishna had launched an offensive by His assertion of these clandestine details concerning his paternity on Karna’s psychology. Karna would not switch sides but his psyche stirred, he confided in Vasudeva that in the war to be fought he foresaw his end, at the hands of Arjuna, that in his opinion would mark the commencement of the punashchiti, the second part of the yajna of war. (ब्राह्मणाः कथयिष्यन्ति महाभारतमाहवम्। समागमेषु वार्ष्णेय क्षत्रियाणां यशोधरम्॥) His words hinted that he would wield his weapons against dharma — he even regretted the stream of invectives he had let out at the Pandavas. Karna’s cherished goal of life all of a sudden had lost its hallowed status. Surely a brutal rewind of his emotive past would have his confidence take a pounding and his agony would heighten manifold for driven by destiny he was bound to continue hostility against they who had been his own brothers. These inward afflictions would visit him recurrently and at critical junctures to nudge him by degrees to the valley of death. Karna was a pawn of great value in the hands of Madhusudan. Duryodhana and other political adversaries of Krishna, who had been antagonistic to the sustenance of dharma, had gathered around Karna counting on his strength and loyalty to them to wage a war against Krishna. It’s infantile whining and cribbing on Karna’s behalf about life being unfair to Karna in the context of what is good and what is bad assuming morality to form the core of dharma. Several translators, visibly bowled over by Abrahamic perspective of life and reality, will err in giving irrelevant topic the shade of moral conflict — Karna’s birth was not for him to choose but he could have displayed better choice and judgement of the actions he carried out that made his life what it eventually turned out to be. Some of the other questions, purportedly suggesting moral dilemmas, often raised seem nothing less than overwhelming outbursts of sentiments either. The circumstances of Duryodhana’s birth that were indications of what he would ultimately grow up to be and several other events and incidents in which he acted maliciously towards the Pandavas led to the war of Mahabharata and so, to ask “why Krishna was partial to the Pandavas and did nothing to stop the war” tends to an attempt to whitewash the misdeeds of the Kauravas and show Pandavas and Krishna in poor light. And that inevitable comparison between Draupadi and Sita — an old chestnut!
The Ghatotkacha-vada Parva affords a compact illustration of Krishna’s political genius through Krishna’s revelations of the wide panorama of His very nuanced political strategising. In conjunction with the Mantra Parva, this crucial chapter of the itihasa aids in the recreation of a likely picture of the layout in India’s political milieu prior to Krishna’s advent as a political giant. The political hegemony had been concentrated in and around the territory of Magadha. Tyrannical rulers like Jarasandha of Magadha, Shishupala of Chedi, Paundraka of Pundravardhana and Kamsa of Mathura had been at the forefront of this political hegemony. However, the anti-status quo gradually gained currency in states positioned at the lower stratum of the hierarchy. The exploitative and autarchic nature of the existing order had, with the passage of time, aroused mutinous sentiments even in the minds of the subjects of these hegemonic regimes. Replacements would not appear overnight. The political setting, at the outset of Krishna’s political career, had been extremely hostile. He announced His arrival on the big stage by eliminating the paranoid Kansa in the wrestling arena of Kansa in full view of Mathura’s residents. In His political journey, Krishna had to come up the hard way. He caused the destruction of His political foes putting opportunities to full use. This He accomplished in an incredibly short span employing schemes and stratagems and resorting to His profound Yogamaya when earthly tactics failed to yield outcomes. His modus operandi was delicate and astute and this helped Him win the total trust and understanding of the mass He was fighting for. People wonderstruck with His superhuman feats had little choice but to visualise in Him the steady development of their much sought Palanahara. On the other hand, the rise of Pandavas in strength and power as outstanding warriors and their gradual ascension to political power (partly by Krishna’s assistance) offered Krishna an alternative to the set of existing regimes presided over by Jarasandha. He charted a course for the Pandavas to successfully conduct the rajasuya yajna, executed when an elevation from kingship to emperorship is desired, through which countless kings of Bharatavarsha came under Yudhisthira’s suzerainty. Before the yajna, He provided the Pandavas with critical information about the allegiances of the various kings of Bharatavarsha. He pointed out that while Magadha was the archetypal hegemonic custodian state, Jarasandha was its supreme hegemon who had by then held sway over a long list of rulers. Ergo the conquests of Pandavas began Krishna’s long undertaking to dismantle the political hegemony headed by Jarasandha and eventually cause a seismic shift of political authority from Magadha to Hastinapur. The Bharata war was a culmination of this ambitious campaign of Krishna Vasudeva. No wonder none other than this unconventional kingmaker, this unofficial young supreme leader in the then political theatre of Bharatavarsha, also with a proven record of invincibility in wars against the most powerful of opponents (vouched by elderly, contemporary statesmen), be offered the arghya of the rajasuya yajna organised by the Pandavas for extension of their political dominance.
Somewhere at the halfway stage of the war of Mahabharata, soon after Ghatotkacha was killed by Karna, Krishna is depicted to be overcome by uncontrollable delight. He danced madly with joy roaring and yelling time and again. He embraced Arjuna and pummeled His chest with His hands and continued roaring relentlessly in utter elation. (Dancing in sportive humour is Krishna’s precedent trait — He had once danced on Kalia’s hoods, shoving the venomous serpent into total submission.) This sight of apparent unceremonious conduct by the one known to be the embodiment of equanimity seemed not just unbefitting Him but caused great pain to the Pandavas who were mournful at the death of Bhimasena’s son. Arjuna baffled likewise ventured to ask Vasudeva of such an odd reaction which he plainly described as flippant — the uncouth mannerism, the levity of conduct in one who had always acted to cause the Pandavas welfare left Arjuna utterly dumbfounded. Vasudeva revealed the cause of His great delight and explained how He felt relieved after the missile Karna obtained from Indra as a boon to slay Arjuna had been wasted on Ghatotkacha. He stated in unambiguous words the capacity of the missile which no Deva would be able to contain and further that neither Arjuna’s Gandiva and nor His Sudarshana would have led any one of them to victory in a duel with Karna in possession of that lethal weapon.
His confidence knew no bounds and it verging on arrogance He would not hesitate to flaunt it with raw and bare, ruthless expressions. He, therefore, stated at the outset of His elucidation, “Therefore, know that Karna has already been slain.” He was fighting a war and in there He had abandoned His heart using His intellect to its fullest capacity to devise deadly strategies to wipe out they who He had long marked as tyrants on earth. He improvised and engineered manoeuvres after manoeuvres to keep tilting the scale in favour of Pandavas till their victory was full and final.
He continued explaining how with Arjuna’s welfare in mind, Indra had employed deceptive means to make Karna slice off his armour and earrings. He spoke at length of Karna’s skills and abilities as a warrior and reminded Arjuna of the invincibility of the monarch of Anga who had been raised as a charioteer’s son and came to be known as so. He then described with eerie prescience how Karna’s wheel would get stuck in the mud and then finding an opportune moment, He would direct Arjuna to release his weapon at Karna and slay him. He then admitted to employing Yoga (meaning Yogamaya, Krishna’s illusory force of operation that drives His enactment of Lila) to kill Jarasandha, Shishupala and Ekalavya on account of the Pandavas and while naming other rakshasas who had also been bumped off included Ghatotkacha in the list. This is a dim pointer to His long harboured aversion to Hidimba’s son (a fact He attached great importance to in His appraisal of Ghatotkacha’s make-up). Arjuna then enquired of the nature of Yoga Janardana had put to use for wiping out these antagonists and the way it had helped the cause of the Pandavas. Krishna is now portrayed sparingly revealing the rationale behind all his previous violent acts. Krishna thus gave a brief glimpse of His political acumen. He explained how He, having foreseen a probable alliance among Jarasandha, Shishupala, Ekalavya and the Kauravas, eliminated the trio in separate encounters before the prospective growth of their political clout and military prowess. Besides, what use is the elimination of a king who (virtuous or vicious) having secured wide acceptability, howsoever shallow and imposed, among his subjects is well approved of? Kauravas would have received the support of not just Jarasandha, Shishupala, Ekalavya but tyrants like Narakasura, Paundraka, Kansa and all their other allies, had they not been slain by Vasudeva prior to the battle of Mahabharata and the Kauravas would have presented even greater and much more formidable opposition than they could without the assistance of these indubitably powerful warriors. The itihasa had already shed light on the fact that all of Krishna’s enemy kings who had once served the mighty Jarasandha had sought refuge in the protection of Duryodhana (indeed Karna) and had fought on the side of the Kauravas.
Krishna, in the course of this lengthy narration to Arjuna, also mentioned the killings of Hidimba, Baka and Kirmira by Bhima after a description of his slaying of Jarasandha, Shishupala and Ekalavya, probably because He wanted to suggest that this had been willed by Him too and was very much a part of His grand scheme to establish the just rule of the Pandavas over the entire landscape of Bharatavarsha. This is also where Krishna likened the three rakshasas – Hidimba, Baka and Kirmira – to Ravana, again probably, to implicate that He would treat ones of asuric disposition alike regardless of time and place. Immediately after He mentioned the killing of another rakshasa, named Alayudha by Ghatotkacha as per His directions, Krishna is found letting out an eruptive confession about how He had always looked for ways to cause the death of Ghatotkacha and if the rakshasa had not been slain by Karna, Krishna “would have taken it upon Himself to kill Ghatotkacha” and that He had not done so only to keep Arjuna pleased. Contrary to praises He had Himself previously heaped upon the rakshasa when the latter appeared before Him for one of the last times before being instructed by Krishna only to engage in an encounter with Karna, Keshava branded him as a rakshasa “who had been hostile to Brahmanas and strongly antipathetic to sacrifices and having breached dharma deserved to be killed by Him for He had inviolably pledged to establish dharma”. (यदि ह्येनं नाहनिष्यत्कर्णः शक्त्या महामृधे। मया वध्योऽभविष्यत्स भैमसेनिर्घटोत्कचः॥ मया न निहतः पूर्वमेष युष्मत्प्रियेप्सया। एष हि ब्राह्मणद्वेषी यज्ञद्वेषी च राक्षसः॥ धर्मस्य लोप्ता पापात्मा तस्मादेष निपातितः। व्यंसिता चाप्युपायेन शक्रदत्ता मयानघ॥ ये हि धर्मस्य लोप्तारो वध्यास्ते मम पाण्डव। धर्मसंस्थापनार्थं हि प्रतिज्ञैषा ममाव्यया॥) This terrible confession of wanting to finish off Ghatotkacha for dharma’s sake constitutes probably an equally significant cause of His unbound happiness upon the rakshasa’s death. Krishna had long spotted the signs and patterns in Ghatotkacha that revealed nothing less than hostility to the dharmic foundation. For the same reason, He had Alayudha eliminated by Ghatotkacha and later as an endgame had Ghatotkacha killed by Karna through a wasted use of the lethal weapon the latter had preserved for Arjuna. Krishna had long planned His courses of action, having identified the nemeses of dharmic traditions who had offered Him His earthly purpose and direction. And He had realised how it would be futile to hold discourses with them. Compromise or middle ground would not yield results. Life to Krishna, since its inception, had been a continuous battle and full of struggles, with feral enemies wanting Him dead stationed on every side and, therefore, it would be naive on His part to not be able to tell a foe from a friend. Krishna held a sharp distinction between the two in His mind. Never in life was He afflicted with vagueness. Clarity of mind marked by a sharp sense of identity and purpose made Him a motivated and ingenious battler. Latent hostility in individuals would barely escape His eyes. No clever tactics by opponents could hold Him in the delusion of their real nature. Ghatotkacha, as Krishna pointed out, was out and out anti-dharma, regardless of his benevolence towards the Pandavas, about which the Pandavas had always felt grateful and indebted. Life to Krishna was not about conceding emotional subordinations for the sake of the lamest of austere excuses inwardly wallowing in the rapture of self-righteousness while effecting a gross subversion of dharma. By being dharma Himself, He jealously guarded it — a fact that actually transforms Him into an ideal.
Thoughts precede actions. It is solely ideals and principles that determine actions which when executed may, if need be and deemed rational, go against the closest friend and/or favour the foremost foe. People live by their choicest set of morals — silently, most times with strong resolve! If they are antipathetic to your codes of conduct that you look on as dharma, they will invariably come at you someday, regardless of their current positions with regard to you, when they reckon they are done with their need of you. Or, they will keep at furthering their agendas and work to hurt the values that you cherish the most till the time they find the opportune rationale to cast a full-fledged blow. Dealing with such invisible foes is difficult and may oftentimes require tact as exhibited by Vasudeva. He had for a long while sweet-talked Ghatotkacha thereby winning the latter’s reverence and confidence. Worth noting is the fact that Ghatotkacha’s rakshasa abilities were put to perfect use by Vasudeva when He had asked him to kill Alayudha and on an earlier occasion, to take on Karna in the night when Ghatotkacha could use his limitless rakshasa powers (in particular, his maya shakti) to the fullest for Krishna had latter averred that only Ghatotkacha had the ability to withstand Karna in a night duel. Another crucial aspect in the discourse of Ghatotkacha-vadh is his identity, often presented as a half-rakshasa by translators who have not been successful as regards their comprehension of the term rakshasa. Rakshasa refers to a culture and a way of life as opposed to the establishment of dharma. Ghatotkacha was no half-rakshasa. He was a complete rakshasa by his own choice and early grooming. Nowhere in the text of Mahabharata, Ghatotkacha has been addressed as a half-rakshasa. The term “half-rakshasa” just cannot exist. When he was summoned and instructed by Krishna to fight Karna (at a time in the battle when Karna seemed unstoppable and at his splendid best, was mowing down soldiers and warriors of the Pandava army at his will), Ghatotkacha asserts his rakshasa identity saying, “Following the dharma of rakshasa, I will kill everyone.” (सर्वानेव वधिष्यामि राक्षसं धर्ममास्थितः॥)
It will not be entirely out of place to mention that even Lanka’s rakshasas, also knowledgeable in the six Vedangas, chanted Vedas with the execution of due sacrifices day in and day out while their lord, Ravana was a supposed master of the Vedas, apparently more learned than most Brahmanas! Even to be grounded in Dharmic texts and an outer performance of rituals as per Dharmic injunctions does not necessarily imply translation to an earnest pursuit of dharma.
After Ghatotkacha was felled by Karna with Indra’s infallible missile which would only kill one opponent and go back to the Deva, Dhritarashtra was curious as to what had held back Karna, who by then had been rendered Vaikartana Karna having been robbed by Indra of his natural armour and earrings through deception, from using the infallible weapon (accorded to him by Indra for displaying selfless courage to part away with his prime strength for dharma’s sake despite persisting to fight against its prevalence on the side of adharma). Sanjaya narrated how Krishna would always protect Arjuna and preempt a face-off between Karna and Arjuna by stationing other great warriors before Karna. Thereafter, a similar poser was raised by Satyaki and this time it was directed at Janardana Himself. It is here that Krishna is found confessing how on account of Karna’s pledge to kill Arjuna He could not sleep and His mind was always bereft of happiness knowing that Karna had been in possession of Vasavi, a deadly weapon that would inevitably bring about Arjuna’s death if released at him. He then revealed what had been so amiss all this time: Krishna had kept Karna confused, another allusion to the use of His Yogamaya, and this was exactly why Karna never found himself in a fortuitous moment to put an end to Arjuna’s life. Krishna further declared that amid a battle nothing — not His father, mother, Satyaki, brothers, nor His own life — was as important to Him than the life of Arjuna. For reasons known in entirety to Vasudeva only, He stressed that He desired not a thing more precious than the kingdom of the three worlds without Dhananjaya. (न पिता न च मे माता न यूयं भ्रातरस्तथा। न च प्राणास्तथा रक्ष्या यथा बीभत्सुराहवे॥
त्रैलोक्यराज्याद्यत्किञ्चिद्भवेदन्यत्सुदुर्लभम्। नेच्छेयं सात्वताहं तद्विना पार्थं धनञ्जयम्॥) The purport of Krishna’s words and conduct here in the given context to us lesser mortals is three-fold. One, Krishna’s commitment to Arjuna and Pandavas was unbreakable. He unreservedly flaunted his loyalty to the best of his friends. Two, He knew that Arjuna was the best warrior on the side of Pandavas and if they were to stand a chance against the Kauravas who had ace and truly formidable warriors on their side, Arjuna had to stay alive throughout the war and see it through till final victory was at hand. Three, Krishna being Arjuna’s charioteer in every sense of the term had to act in every possible manner (evident from various events across the entire length of the war) to protect him from any harm.
Dhritarashtra is seen lamenting to no avail that Karna had lost the opportunity to kill Krishna for by then he had understood the fact that Krishna had been the root of Pandavas’ successes up till that point in the war. Frustrated with Krishna’s ploys, he shifted the blame of overlooking the ultimate route to the victory of Kouravas — the elimination of Krishna by Karna’s infallible missile — to Sanjaya. The passage now narrates through the mouth of Sanjaya how the Kauravas would awake daily with the resolution to kill Krishna and Arjuna (suggesting Kouravas had sized up the unarmed Krishna and considered the option of killing Him to secure abiding triumph over the Pandavas) and how they were kept confounded as Krishna always managed to protect Arjuna. Dhritarashtra is then described repeatedly ruing how opportunities to hurl the resplendent missile at Phalguna or Devakiputra were squandered away by Karna. It is here that, through Dhritarashtra’s mouth, Vedavyasa declares what seems to be Krishna’s identity with Vidhi who had Karna’s intelligence overpowered spelling Kouravas’s impending defeat. (Vidhi, to the intelligence of Krishna’s lesser accomplished Bhaktas, is just His sketch with the brushstrokes of time.)
In Krishna’s time, He could not afford to be devoid of motives and direction in a world where people in His vicinity ran specific operations backstage trying to get an edge over Him and/or inflict sufferings on Him to stop His advancement. In such an ambience sans the cosy armour of today’s body of laws (that governs general human conduct), a man lacking confidence and resolve is a mere pantywaist waiting to be trampled on mercilessly. Besides, Krishna barely revealed His cards. He had always maintained a thick blanket of an aura of enigma around Him which is also the cause of His magnetic appeal; Krishna also literally means the all-attracting person. He would not lay bare His intentions, decisions and objectives unless absolutely necessary. He sustained air of unpredictability to counteract the moves of His opponents unlike say, Bhishma whose famed principle became the principal cause of his death. Unpredictability helped Him elicit tactical blunders from formidable adversaries of the ilk of Jarasandha. In silence, He would gather information about His foes and use their vulnerability to His advantage. He understood the essence of timing and would stay restrained only to unleash His full force at the right moment and every time He did that He would rather ensure the total annihilation of His enemies; no scopes would be offered to them to rear up and get back at Him at a later time. Krishna revered reality for what it is and would not act unbefitting it. He practised all that He had ever taught and advocated specifically in His role as The Master of Kurukshetra. His idea of dharma, what He had set out to fix, found wide acceptance amongst the mass of his time which is why they loved Him as their own; this love being the basis of their adoration and His earthly deification. He never functioned in an isolated fashion; to do so would mean a disregard for reality which is His own extension (precisely, a portion of His inconceivable Self-manifestation). Therefore, acting in a detached manner, which is one of His foremost lessons in The Gita, is what He executed with aplomb. Krishna’s activities were, therefore, SrimadBhagavadGita in practice. Ideality begets ideality. None of Krishna’s detached acts ever went in vain. In Krishna, was blossomed all the conceivable human attributes in their fullest, supreme brilliance — of course, it had to be so! And probably, it is why proximity to Divinity is readily attained when one is able to connect to Him who is nevertheless seated in the seeker’s inmost core.
And the reason why SrimadBhagavadGita is not an interpolation is the fact that its imports subsume and inform the entire narrative of Mahabharata through the words and deeds of Krishna. The character remains steady all throughout the text since its first casual appearance as an invitee at Draupadi’s svayamvara. His perspective of the dharma of which He reminds others around Him from time to time too sees little variance.
On many occasions, He has been described by distinguished figures like Bhishma, Draupadi, Yudhisthira and others like the way He has been spoken of in The Gita without being referred to as an Avatara or subordinate to Vishnu, His other Self in a different dimension, but by being presented unambiguously as the Supreme Being; the tone definitely being that He is transcendence embodied and nothing and no being (in whom transpires the most intimate contact of Purusha and Prakriti) can transcend Him — His is the highest Divinity voluntarily descended and playfully attained.
The itihasa of Mahabharata presents a Krishna that ceaselessly exhorts us to lead a life consciously with total cognisance of reality. Life to Him is not a hippie’s play but His divine sport, Lila — frolicsome actions proceeding from His innate fullness of Spirit. He does not issue prescriptions of the futility of life. Nor does He attempt to outpour simplistic worldviews of leading an aimless, motiveless life. Through His Lila performed during His stay on earth as the ideal of divinised humanity, He advocates conscious participation intent on total restoration to one’s elemental divinity by making the sacrifice to Krishna the sole objective of every act.
Krishna’s total Self-advent into a human form furnishes proof of His limitlessness in that He accomplishes the inconceivable by injecting into the finite the whole of the infinite — singularity alongside variegated manifestations, coexisting localisation and delocalisation. In Krishna again is realised the long-sought-after harmonisation, an abiding one at that, of the irreconcilables of the spiritual domain. Krishna is the Absolute that debunked its long-held chimeric conception, that total indeterminacy being its sole esoteric characterisation; that it is wholly cut off from the universes of multifarious forms and becomings. Krishna simultaneously transcends and permeates all the things of His creation. Krishna underscores unreserved nearness to Divinity. The seers of the yore, the rishis and the munis, at long last, attained the finality of Darshana. The vague Nirguno Guni then crystallises as the most definite, the prantik Purushottama not out of any obligation (to implement as a derivative) but as an outpouring of pristine bliss. In so doing He nonetheless fulfils His promise to set dharma right and as its part triggers the desire in Atmans lost in samsara to relinquish their self-centred indulgences and endeavours to experience their divinity through union with Him.
This essay has been written primarily with an intention to bringing to the fore the ineffable glories of Krishna, especially from His depiction in the itihasa of Mahabharata. The few minuscules of positive takeaways from the article are completely ascribed to Krishna’s supreme compassion while the flaws and imperfections arising in it being entirely mine, having emerged from my constricted understanding of a discipline as colossal and daunting as Krishna.