A Few Questions on Krishna
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I am the goal, the sustainer, the master, the witness, the refuge, the guardian, the well-wisher, the creation, the dissolution, the preservation, the reservoir and the imperishable cause – Bhagavad Gita 9.18
Since time immemorial, Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, a true friend, romantic lover, an ideal son, the learned philosopher, a shrewd politician and a diplomat, has remained one of the foremost holy being amongst all the Indian Gods and Goddesses. He is the supreme cultural icon of India who has spurned beautiful devotional songs by Meera and Surdas in the north, saint poets of the Varkari Sect in the west and Purandara Dasa and Kanakadasa in the south; landmark Sanskrit literature like Geeta Govinda by Jayadeva and Krishna-karnamritam by Bilvamangala; and different theological Schools founded by Nimbarka, Vallabhacharya and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu among others. The Krishna Bhakti movement has also travelled beyond national barriers and spread far and wide in the form of International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
However, in the epic of Mahabharata, his character comes across as any other fallible human being. A deeper probe into his actions would show that all was not what usually met the eye and what prevailed in the name of popular perceptions. Despite being an ardent admirer of all the cultural and theological ethos that Krishna stands for, I hereby raise a few questions about the role that he played in the epic of Mahabharata.
He was one of the chief architects of the great Kurukshetra war. When he took it upon himself to make a diplomatic visit to Hastinapur to attempt reconciliation between the two warring branches of the Kuru family, he employed all his persuasive skills to avoid the war. He displayed traits of a fine negotiator to avoid a feud which would have resulted in the annihilation of either side, to both of whom Krishna was related.
But what happened when he supposedly failed? What did he say when Duryodhana refused to give away even an inch of the kingdom without war? He told the ever hot-headed Duryodhana how the Pandavas were illustrious and superior in all skill sets both on and off the war field. In a way, he instigated and motivated Duryodhana more to take up arms and fight the war by manipulating his diplomatic and conciliatory words with jargons and comparisons.
Add to this, the instance of instigating Arjuna against his own family on the eve of the Kurukshetra war. Arjuna, the brave warrior yet an emotional human, refused to take up arms against the Kauravas. Krishna’s philosophical sermons to Arjuna in this context became the great text of Bhagavad Gita.
“O Partha, do not yield to unmanliness, this is not worthy of you. O chastiser of enemy, giving up this base weakness of heart, rise up.” – Bhagavad Gita 2.3
Here was a confused warrior in a precarious moral dilemma, standing face-to-face with his entire family in a battlefield. To facilitate Arjuna to take a decision, Krishna asked him to choose a cause over concern for his family members. Krishna told Arjun to rise over petty weakness of heart (namely love and respect for one’s own family) and chastise the enemy (the same people who have nurtured Arjuna e.g. Drona and Bhisma among others). It goes completely against what he says in another context.
You should perform your prescribed vedic activities since actions are better than renouncing actions; by ceasing activityeven your bodily maintenance will not be possible – Bhagavad Gita 3.8
He depicts this dynastic power struggle as a war between good and evil. While Pandavas cannot be termed as fully ‘good’, Kauravas also can not be dubbed as fully ‘evil’. So what according to Krishna, was the actual justification?
“The embodied soul is eternal in existence, indestructible and infinite, only the material body is factually perishable; therefore, fight, O Arjuna”- Bhagavad Gita 2.18
Krishna was the supreme instigator of the Kurukshetra war. He never wanted to avoid it and thus never advised any of the warring parties for recourse of a different path. The differences could have been resolved through dialogues, mediation and all such methods. Duryodhana, who respected Krishna enough to have sought his advice before the war could have been persuaded by him. It’s a well-known fact that Krishna remained unbiased by offering something of himself to both the warring parties and vowed never to raise a weapon himself. On one hand, he placed himself and on the other hand, his own yadava army. In other words, he chose to fight against his own army – something which no king has ever done unless in a situation of rebellion. In a war to resolve family feuds and political gains, innocent yadavas had to participate, and that too against someone, to whom they owed their allegiance. How could Duryodhana benefit from such an army? So did Krishna actually offer Duryodhana anything at all? Was he actually unbiased?
War does not determine who is right – only who is left. ~ Bertrand Russell
Balaram taught both Bhima and Duryodhona the art of fighting with a mace and was extremely fond of both. He always believed that Bhima possessed greater strength but Duryodhona possessed greater skills and had also desired to marry off his sister Subhadra to the latter. When Bhima killed Duryodhona during the war in a patently illegal way by striking him below the navel, Balaram was incensed and even threatened to kill Bhima. Krishna pacified Balaram by reminding him of Bhima’s vows to kill Duryodhona by crushing the very thigh which he exposed to Draupadi during her cheer haran. If one takes recourse to illegal method in a war, just to fulfill his vow, does it become a morally justifiable one? Moreover, Bhima resorted to such lowly means because Duryodhana’s whole body was invincible due to the boon of Gandhari, except his groin. When Bhima failed to strike Duryodhana fatally, Krishna indicated the Achilles heel of Duryodhana to Bhima. In a way, Krishna was the brain behind Bhima’s illegal actions.
This was not the only instance when Krishna showed utter disregard for fair rules of war. There is the most well-known example of Arjuna killing Karna when the latter was unarmed. Krishna’s schemes here were two-fold. He first convinced Kunti to disclose to Karna that he was her firstborn and requested him to change sides. When he politely refused to betray the trust of Duryodhana, Kunti extracted a promise from Karna that he would not kill any of her sons, save Arjuna. During the war, when Arjuna agreed to Karna’s plea to wait while he tended to his chariot, Krishna instigated Arjuna to use the opportunity. Karna attained eternal glory as a warrior and tragic hero, while Arjuna is till date, condemned for his act. To kill an unarmed opponent is the most heinous crime that Arjuna committed, albeit at the instance of Krishna.
Krishna also prompted the lie by which Yudhishthira, the ever-truthful king, broke down the prowess of Dronacharya. Till date, Yudhisthira is blamed for this dishonourable act, but hardly anybody ever questions Krishna who suggested this course of action.
Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime. ~ Ernest Hemingway
Krishna’s schemes in the battlefield were instrumental in winning the war in favour of the Pandavas. But he had showed total indifference towards lives of others while strategizing to keep the Pandava brothers, especially Arjuna safe. Karna had been blessed with a divine weapon by Indra which he could use only once. He had been saving it for his arch-rival Arjuna since he had vowed that only one between the two could live. On the day Arjuna killed Jayadrath, again with the help of trickery from Krishna, the battle continued even after sun set. Krishna advised Bhima to send his half-demonic son Ghatotkach to war since the magical powers of demons were said to be most effective at night time. Ghatotkach wreaked maximum havoc on the Kauravas and it seemed that he would singlehandedly destroy the whole army. Duryodhana desperately sought Karna’s help and asked him to stop Ghatotkach. Karma had no other option but to use the divine weapon upon Ghatotkach, thereby killing him and in the process, making himself vulnerable against Arjuna. Krishna’s tricks to weaken Karna had worked but at the expense of Ghatotkach’s life.
Then there is the famous instance of Abhimanyu’s death. Everyone always condemns the Kauravas for killing the young, brave warrior prince through tricks and treachery. However I firmly believe Krishna had a huge role to play in it. When I first read the episode, the one question that stuck me was why Krishna could not prevent Abhimanyu’s death. When the Kauravas challenged the Pandavas for penetrating the famous Chakravyuha, the idea behind it was always to lure Krishna and Arjuna away from the battlefield so that the only two people with the requisite knowledge could not participate. Krishna, with his foresight and shrewd nature could not have missed this fact. Despite that, he allowed the Kauravas to be successful in their plan. While they were busy battling some other kings, Pandavas were forced to send the young Abhimanyu to penetrate the Chakravyuha, despite the fact that he did not know how to come out of one. Pandavas’ attempts to guard Abhimanyu failed and he was left alone in the middle to fight it out by himself. While applauding the valour with which Abhimanyu fought, can one not question Krishna as to why he led Arjuna away? Was it a ploy to keep Arjuna safe from the hands of all the seasoned fighters of the Kauravas side present in the Chakravyuha? Did he, in a way, allow the sacrifice of Abhimanyu?
It’s true that death is an inevitable part of war, and tricks and schemes are often employed to win them. Kauravas themselves broke quite a number of rules of fair play on and off the battlefield. But the disturbing fact about Krishna is that he always disguised them in the garb of morality. As one delves more and more into the story of Mahabharata and the text of Bhagavad Gita, one cannot help but wonder the true purport of dharma, as preached by Krishna and as opposed to what practiced by him.
It would be wrong to judge Krishna’s role in the epic entirely from the Kurukshetra war. He was a great friend of Arjuna, so much so that he may be accused of blind affection in the same way Dhritarashtra is accused of blind love for his sons. At a time, when the whole of Kuru family, including the Pandavas and Kauravas brothers were guilty of one of the most shameful episodes of Mahabharata, it was Krishna who emerged as the only saviour of the Draupadi’s honour. He represented wealth, strength, beauty, knowledge and renunciation in all its glory throughout the epic.
But he was also the one to change the whole course of the epic in ways more than one, and not all of them were the most rightful and fair.
Relinquishing all ideas of righteousness, surrender unto Me exclusively, I will deliver you from all sinful reactions, do not despair – Bhagavad Gita 18.62
This post does not intend to hurt the religious sentiments of anybody and is merely an objective exercise in analysing the character of Krishna, as depicted in Mahabharata. All images are from Google and their copyright vest with the respective authors. I sincerely thank my team members and friends whose feedback was instrumental in giving the final shape to this post .
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