Krishna Vaasudev from Maha-Bharat – per Irawati Karve

Editors’ Note: 
We are grateful to a reader, a friend from Mumbai, who was kind enough to loan us the English version of Yugant

This is the first article in our series Dharma in Maha-Bharat – Irawati Karve vs. Gurcharan Das announced last week.
Naturally it is about Krishna who towers above the Pandav-Kaurav period like a colossus.

We begin with the discussion of Krishna by Dr. Irawati Karve. Her original essay was published in February 1966. She approaches the topic as an anthropologist, as a student of history. She brings to the discussion analytical rigor untouched by emotive feelings. We warn readers that they are likely to find the discussion below to be very different than the traditional approach towards Krishna.

1. Krishna Vaasudev

The name “Vaasudev” ordinarily stands for the Son of Vasudev just like the name Bhaarat stands for the Son of Bharat. Krishna’s father was Vasudev and so it would be natural for us to call Krishna “Vaasudev”. But Vasudev had many sons, including Balram, the elder half-brother of Krishna. But neither Balram nor any other sons of Vasudev are ever called Vaasudev in the Maha-Bharat.

From her study of the Maha-Bharat, Dr. Karve concludes that “Vaasudev was apparently a title which could be borne by only one man in any age.” This is consistent with Chapter 10 of the Bhagwat Geeta:

  • Chapter 10I am Shankar among the Rudra  (रुद्रानाम शंकर अस्मि), Skand among Generals (सेनानीनाम स्कन्द), Ram among Warriors or Weapon Experts (रामः शस्त्रभ्रुताम), I am Vaasudev among the Vrushni or Yadav  (वृष्ण्नीनाम वासुदेवः अस्मि)
We know that Shankar was the greatest of the Rudra, Skand (Kartikeya) was the greatest among Generals of the Gods and Ram was the greatest of warriors. So when Shree Krishna calls himself the Vaasudev of the Yadav, it has to mean something extremely exalted.

2. The Migration of the Yadav to Dwaaraka

Krishna & Balram killed Kansa and placed their father on the throne of Mathura. As a result, Kansa’s father-in-law Jara-Sandh, the mighty Emperor of Magadh, became an enemy of the Yadav. The Yadav fought many battles with Jara-Sandh’s massive army. They were always defeated and left the battle to avoid destruction. This is why the favorite name for Krishna in Gujarat is Ran-Chod, the one who leaves battle.

Unable to defeat Jara-Sandh, Krishna and Balram took the Yadav clan and migrated to Gujarat. There they built an impregnable city called Dwaaraka. Located on the western end of India, Dwaaraka enabled the Yadav to trade with other areas to their west. The Yadav became extremely rich and powerful from such trade.

According to the Maha-Bharat, Dr. Karve writes “the Yadav were rich, strong, quick-tempered, ready to sport their weapons at the smallest provocation, proud and very skillful charioteers.” They also had many factions. It was Krishna who very skillfully brought all the factions together under the leadership of his elder step-brother Balram. 

Krishna was content for Balram to be the Head of the Yadav. As Vaasudev, he had a much grander vision and purpose.

3. The Entrance of Krishna in the Maha-Bharat

Krishna enters the Maha-Bharat for the first time during the Sva-Yam-Var (स्वयंवर) of Draupadi, the daughter of King Drupad. As Dr. Karve writes, “As soon as Krishna saw Arjun getting up from among the Brahman attendees and performing the difficulty feat of archery, he recognized all the five brothers. Krishna followed Yudhishtir home and greeted Kunti. Then Krishna went back to Dwaaraka and returned with many prominent Yadav and with rich presents for the marriage ceremony.”

By marrying Draupadi, the Pandav had obtained an alliance with King Drupad. This by itself was not material because Drupad was a small king. But at this marriage ceremony, Krishna and the Yadav openly acknowledged the Pandav as kinfolk and allies.

The Pandav had now transformed themselves from poor but brave cousins to a powerful family allied with a King and with the most powerful group in India. Now the Pandav could not be denied their share of the kingdom of Hastinapur.

After this, Krishna became the counselor and friend of the Pandav. Every major success of the Pandav from this point onwards was due to the brilliant guidance of Krishna Vaasudev.

4. The Raaj-Suya Yadnya
To make room for the new Pandav capital, the mighty duo of Krishna and Arjun razed the forest of  Khandav. This was the first forceful, almost brutal, act by Krishna on behalf of the Pandav, the morality of which is still debated in India today.

Yudhishtir, the eldest Pandav, was advised by many to undertake the Raaj-Suya Yadnya. This Yadnya was required to attain the title of SamRaat or Emperor. At any time, only one King could perform the Raaj-Suya. So before doing so, “world conquest” was necessary. Military Expeditions had to be sent in all four directions and all other kings had to accept the suzerainty of the new SamRaat.

Krishna told Yudhishtir that no Raaj-Suya Yadnya was possible until Jara-Sandh was defeated. Since Jara-Sandh would never surrender, he had to be killed. Krishna advised Yudhishtir against any attempt to fight the massive army of Jara-Sandh. At this point, Krishna told the Pandav about his own battles against Jara-Sandh. According to Dr. Karve, this is the only place in the Maha-Bharat where mention is made of Krishna’s earlier years.

So Krishna proposed a daring but brilliant idea of taking Bheem and Arjun without any army to fight Jara-Sandh.

5. The Killing of Jara-Sandh

Krishna, Bheem and Arjun donned the Brahmin dress and asked to see Jara-Sandh. When Jara-Sandh asked these “Brahman” what he could give them, Krishna answered “Dwandva-Yudha” or a personal duel. Krishna asked Jara-Sandh to choose between them. Jara-Sandh told him that because Krishna had run away from Jara Sandh in war, it would be beneath his dignity to fight with Krishna. Jara-Sandh considered Arjun to be a mere child and so he chose Bheem.

This is of course exactly what Krishna wanted. Jara-Sandh’s massive army, his infrastructure was now useless in a personal duel. The duel was to be settled by wresting, the worst possible duel for Jara-Sandh who was nearly 80 years old, In contrast, Bheem was young and as skilled. And Bheem had Krishna to guide him, the Krishna who knew all the strengths and weaknesses of Jara-Sandh. This duel could have only one result. Bheem killed Jara-Sandh by tearing his body into two pieces and throwing the two pieces in opposite directions.

It was a victory won by the hands of Bheem guided by the smart counsel of Krishna. This pattern would be repeated many times during the Maha-Bharat war. 

6. Yudhishtir as SamRaat and Krishna as the Vaasudev of all – the killing of Sishupaal

Once Jara-Sandh was killed, the rest of the “world conquest” (दिग-विजय – conquest of all directions) was a mere formality. All the Kings of Bhaarat and neighboring entities attended the Raaj-Suya Yadnya. This was the acknowledgment by all that Yudhishtir was the one and only SamRaat of the land.

But Raaj-Suya Yadnya also requires the SamRaat to designate one as deserving of Agra-Puja, or the right to be worshipped first. This person then is respected and obeyed by all. By tradition, it should have been Bheeshma, the grandfather of the Pandav and the most celebrated warrior of the dynasty.

Instead, with Bheeshma’s blessing, Yudhishtir gave this honor to Krishna. His cousin Sishupal was a rival of Krishna and loyal to Jara-Sandh. Sishupal also had dreams of being considered a Vaasudev. So Sishupal provoked a quarrel and began verbally abusing Krishna.

This was simply unacceptable. The Raja-Suya was the culmination of Krishna’s vision and grand purpose. He could not let Sishupal damage the moment and create discord among the Kings present. A discord once begun is difficult to contain.

So, contrary to the practices of Dwandva-Yudha of that time, Krishna simply threw his Sudharshan Chakra at Sishupal and severed his head. This stilled any nascent protests and ensured that all Kings obeyed Yudhishtir as SamRaat. It also confirmed the unique status of Krishna as the Vaasudev of all the known world, the greatest person of his time.

7. The realization of Krishna’s Purpose and the Pinnacle of His Success

Some believe there was a grander vision and purpose to Krishna’s efforts. His stay in Dwaaraka and the trade of the Yadav with their west had made Krishna aware of the dangers to the Indian continent from that direction. Krishna realized, some argue, that the dominant empire of Magadh was too far to the east to either comprehend or fight effectively against any invasion from the northwest.

So Krishna wanted to move the Indian center of power closer
to the northwest. The best choice was the Kuru kingdom of Hastinapur, adjacent to today’s Delhi. But that kingdom was to be ruled by Duryodhan and the arrogant, selfish Duryodhan was not someone who would either understand Krishna’s vision or take steps that were necessary.

So Krishna chose the Pandav as his instruments of geo-strategic policy. Yudhishtir was a noble and frankly pliable soul. And as the descendant of the great Bharat, Yudhishtir would be acceptable to all Kings. Bheem was a great warrior who would listen to Krishna. Arjun, the greatest archer of that time, had become the best friend of Krishna.

This grand vision came true with the Raaj-Suya Yadnya of Yudhishtir. Jara-Sandh was killed and Magadh became Krishna’s suzerain. Yudhishtir was universally respected for his Dharma. Bheem and Arjun guarded the empire and brought in revenue by their conquests. And this empire agreed eagerly to be guided by Krishna, the Vaasudev of all.

The correct order had been reestablished in Bhaarat. This was the pinnacle of Krishna’s success. He had achieved what Shree Krishna stated in Chapter 4 of the Bhagwat Geeta, that whenever Dharma goes into a decline, whenever A-Dharma rises, Then I recreate Myself.

Having established the proper order in Bhaarat, Krishna left Indra-Prastha. Little did he know, his order would fall apart quickly and decisively.

8. The Stupidity & Weakness of Yudhishtir

The stupidity of Yudhishtir to agree to a game of dice with Shakuni simply boggles the mind. This was the act of a weak, selfish man who liked his pleasures. He was a man who could twist Dharma in any way he liked to come to the conclusion he wanted to satisfy his temptation. So in one stupid action, Yudhishtir destroyed the grand edifice Krishna had created. When Krishna heard what had happened, it was too late.

This is the essential difference in the stories of the two Vaasudev, Ram & Krishna. Ram was the eldest son of the Dasha-Rath, he was the official successor of the Raghu Vamsha. So Ram was always in control of his destiny. Ram could fight his own battles, he could lead the army against the enemy of his social order.

In stark contrast, Krishna was the younger half-brother. He could never be accepted as the Head of his group. The war against the Kaurav was not his and he could not fight in it. The only choice available to Krishna was to advise and instruct. Despite all these odds, Krishna succeeded in creating the Dhaarmic and strategic order. Then he watched it collapse due to the weakness of his ally.

Krishna proved to be the true Yogi he later advised Arjun to be. He did not let the failure affect him. He kept performing his Karma, his Sva-Dharma and the Actions that were his duty.

9. The Prelude to War

Everything Krishna had built was at risk in the upcoming war. So Krishna tried everything he could to settle the conflict without war. When Duryodhan proved obstinate, Krishna tried a masterstroke. He asked Karna to accompany him as he left Hastinapur.

Krishna told Karna that he was the eldest son of Kunti. He tried to convince Karna that Karna was bound by family dharma to come over to the Pandav side. Then he played on Karna’s secret passion for Draupadi and told Karna “by being the Sixth (Pandav), Draupadi would be yours“.

When this tactic failed, Krishna sent Kunti to meet Karna. She tried to get Karna to switch sides. When that failed, Kunti secured the promise from Karna that five of her sons would remain alive. It was clear that only one of Arjun or Karna would survive the war. But Kunti made sure that the other four would not be killed by Karna. This is how Krishna and his aunt Kunti saved the Pandav from defeat or death before the war had even begun.

10. Krishna’s Tactics – Dhaarmic or A-Dhaarmic?

We won’t dwell much on the actual tactics in the War because everyone knows the stories. The fall of Bheeshma, the execution of Drona, the killing of Karna, the defeat of Duryodhan – These were at the hands of the Pandav or their allies. But the guiding hand was Krishna.

There is no doubt that the Pandav would have lost the War but for Krishna’s counsel. Krishna’s behavior during and before the War is described by some as immoral or unjust because it involved subterfuge and unfair tactics. But these tactics proved decisive.

We believe that these tactics of Krishna were absolutely just and Dhaarmic. This view goes back to the Eternal Dharma concept from the Isha-UpaNiSad and the Bhagwat Geeta – the concept of  न कर्म लिप्यते नरे or the Action does not Attach to the Man.

In our opinion, Krishna acted and lived as he taught Arjun. He tried to prevent the War. But when the War began, His duty, his Sva-Dharma, his Karma-Yog was to perform his duty. He did it with a single mindedness of purpose. That disturbs many people but that is how Karma-Yog is to be performed.

At every stage, at every difficulty, Krishna’s Buddhi remained stable and totally focused. His Actions are consistent with his Dharma and taken without emotion. And according to Eternal Dharma, Karma when performed in this selfless manner does NOT attach to the performer. And without attachment of Action to the Performer, there is no immorality or A-Dharma.

What the Isha UpaNiSad calls non-attachment of Karma, Dr. Karve calls non-involvement. She writes: 

  • The Krishna of Maha-Bharat is wholly human, but his complexity and non-involvement in his most intense action makes him hard to grasp. We cannot feel close to the Maha-Bharat Krishna.
  • He worked, he thought intensely, he advised others, but we do not find him downcast or mourning because his actions did not bear fruit. This is what he would have called Yog, his calm, this non-involvement.
Unfortunately, Krishna’s work and actions resulted in eventual failure, not success. An entire generation of Kings & Warriors perished in the Maha-Bharat War. The Pandav, his allies, won but ruled a land that was stripped of its previous glory. Krishna led his own clan, the Yadav, to power, riches and glory. But at the end of his life, the Yadav self-destructed in fratricidal rage. Most of the powerful leaders among the Yadav died. Then their golden city of Dwaaraka sank to the bottom of the sea.

Krishna saw all this with total non-attachment. Through out his life, Krishna performed his Karma-Yog without any desire of fruits of his Actions, with equanimity towards success or failure. He retained his  stable Buddhi all his life and in his own death.

In the final words of Irawati Karve “Krishna did not just teach Geeta; He lived Geeta“. 

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