Krishna in the Mahabharata

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This article describes Krishna's role in the Mahabharata. For the main article on Krishna, see Krishna.
Krishna as depicted in Yakshagana from Karnataka which is based largely on stories of Mahabharata.

Within the Indian epic Mahabharata, Krishna was the son of the Yadava chief Vasudeva and his wife Devaki. Hence he was known as Vasudeva Krishna or Vaasudeva.

Krishna as a political reformer[edit]

India during the period of Mahabharata.

Krishna was the key political figure in overthrowing Kamsa, the king of Surasena Kingdom. The kingdom of Surasena was the native kingdom of Yadava clans constituted by the Andhakas, Vrishnis and Bhojas. By overthrowing Kansa, Krishna re-established the old king Ugrasena on the throne and stabilized the kingdom from collapse due to factional fighting within the kingdom.

The next threat came from outside the country, from the Magadha Kingdom. The ruler of Magadha, Jarasandha, attacked Surasena many times and weakened its military. Krishna and other Yadava chiefs all tried their best to hold on. At last they had to flee from their native kingdom to the south and to the west.

Later, with the initiative of Krishna, the Yadavas who fled from Surasena formed a new kingdom called Dwaraka. Its capital was Dwaravati, a city well protected by mountains on all sides, in an island, not far from the Gujarat coast. This made it immune to attacks from land. The kingdom prospered by sea trade with seafaring kingdoms.

Krishna also established a tie-up of Yadavas with the Pandavas, a faction of Kurus, who were fighting against the established Kuru Kingdom. This tie up also benefited the Yadavas, strategically. With the help of the Pandavas they overthrew the Magadha king Jarasandha who was their biggest enemy. For this assistance, Krishna in turn helped the Pandavas to win the Kurukshetra War against the Kurus headed by Duryodhana. Thus the rule of the Pandava Yudhisthira was re-established by Krishna at Indraprastha, the modern-day Delhi.

However, The Yadava chiefs fought the Kurukshetra War, on both sides, and even after the war ended, the enmity among the Yadava leaders continued. After 36 years, since the Kurukshetra War, another war broke among the Yadavas, in their own kingdom. This resulted in the absolute destruction of the Yadava kingdom in Dwaraka, with Balarama and Krishna also departing due to grief. This fight among Yadava is also attributed to a curse from Gandhari, mother of Duryodhana to Krishna.

But the help Krishna extended to the Pandava Yudhisthira, paid off. When the rule of Yudhisthira ended, he established the Yadava prince Vajra on the throne of Indraprastha along with the Kuru prince Parikshit, at Hastinapura. Thus the royal lineage of the Yadavas continued through Aniruddha's son, prince Vajra, great grandson of Krishna and grandson of Pradhyumna. Parikshita was the son of Abhimanyu and the grandson of Arjuna. Late Sri. Kulapati K.M.Munshi's famous narration of the life of Lord Krishna, Krishnavatara (Volumes 1 to 8) published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan is a very good read into the political aspects of Lord Krishna, painting Krishna not as the God Almighty but as a human Hero and a Great Leader. A very interesting read between the lines into the inner aspects of politics by Krishna as a human being.

The following sections shows glimpses of Krishna's political life, as a supporter of the Pandava cause, and as a mediator among his own kinsmen.

Pacifying his kinsmen when Arjuna eloped with the Yadava Princess Subhadra[edit]

(Mahabharata, Book 1, Chapter 223) Even this is my opinion: go ye cheerfully after Dhananjaya and by conciliation stop him and bring him back. If Partha goes to his city after having vanquished us by force, our fame will be gone. There is no disgrace, however, in conciliation.

Preparations for the Kurukshetra War[edit]

(Mahabharata, Book 5, Chapter 5) As we are desirous of adopting a politic course, this is, no doubt, our first duty; a man acting otherwise would be a great fool. But our relationship to both the Kurus and the Pandus is equal, howsoever these two parties may behave with each other. If that chief of the Kuru race should make peace on equitable terms, then the brotherly feelings between the Kuras and the Pandus will sustain no injury. If on the other hand, the son of Dhritarashtra should wax haughty and from folly refuse to make peace, then

Offer of aid in war for both Arjuna and Duryodhana[edit]

(Mahabharata, Book 5, Chapter 7) There is a large body of cowherds numbering ten lakhs, rivalling me in strength and known as the Narayanas, all of whom are able to fight in the thick of battle. These soldiers, irresistible in battle, shall be sent to one of you and I alone, resolved not to fight on the field, and laying down my arms, will go to the other. You may, first select whichever of these two commends itself to you.

Peace mission to prevent the Kurukshetra War[edit]

(Mahabharata, Book 5, Chapter 83) I will go to king Dhritarashtra, desirous of accomplishing what is consistent with righteousness, what may be beneficial to us, and what also is for the good of the Kurus.

Politics within the Yadava Chiefs[edit]

(Mahabharata, Book 12, Chapter 80) I never behave with slavish obsequiousness towards my kinsmen by flattering speeches about their prosperity. I give them half of what I have, and forgive their evil speeches. As a fire-stick is ground by a person desirous of obtaining fire, even so my heart is ground by my kinsmen with their cruel speeches. Indeed those cruel speeches burn my heart every day. Might resides in Sankarshana (Balarama); mildness in Gada; and as regards Pradyumna, he surpasses even myself in beauty of person. Although I have all these on my side yet I am helpless. Many others among the Andhakas and the Vrishnis are possessed of great prosperity and might, and during courage and constant perseverance. He on whose side they do not range themselves meets with destruction. He, on the other hand, on whose side they do range themselves, achieves everything. Dissuaded (in turns) by both (viz., Ahuka and Akrura,) I do not side either of them. What can be more painful for a person than to have both Ahuka and Akrura on his side? What, again, can be more painful for one than not to have both of them on his side I am like the mother of two brothers gambling against each other, invoking victory to both. I am thus, afflicted by both.

Conquest of Eastern Kingdoms of Pragjyotisha and Shonitapura[edit]

The epic Mahabharata describes many battles fought by Krishna, and his conquest of various kingdoms. He defeated the king Naraka of Pragjyotisha the modern day Guwahati, in Assam state of India. He was known as Bhumiputra (the son of the Earth) belonging to the Bhauma clan of kings. His kingdom was called Kamarupa.

He also conquered Bana or Vana of Shonitapura (Shonitpur of Assam), to the east of Pragjyotisha. However they became allies, as Krishna's grandson Aniruddha married Usha, the daughter of Bana. He belonged to the Daitya clan of Asuras.

In (Mahabharata, Book 5, Chapter 62), Krishna is described as the slayer of Vana and Bhumi's son (Naraka)

(Mahabharata, Book 5, Chapter 130) He hath slain Jarasandha, and Vakra, and Sisupala of mighty energy, and Vana in battle, and numerous other kings also have been slain by him. Of immeasurable might, he vanquished king Varuna and also Pavaka and Indra and Madhu and Kaitabha and Hayagriva.

Conquest of Vidarbha, Gandhara and Pandya[edit]

Krishna married Rukmini, his first wife, by abducting her on her request from the Vidarbha Kingdom, defeating her brother Rukmi. He also won in a contest and married a Gandhara princess, Satya, in the same manner. Krishna also attacked and conquered the Pandya Kingdom in the south.

(Mahabharata, Book 5, Chapter 48)...that Vaasudeva (Krishna), viz., who having mowed down in battle by main force all the royal warriors of the Bhoja race, had carried off on a single car Rukmini of great fame for making her his wife.

(Mahabharata, Book 7, Chapter 11) Krishna, vanquishing all the kings at a self-choice, bore away the daughter of the king of the Gandharas. Those angry kings, as if they were horses by birth, were yoked unto his nuptial car and were lacerated with the whip. The contest at swyamvara was chaining a set of bulls to plough.

(Mahabharata, Book 7, Chapter 23) The Pandya King Sarangadhwaja's country having been invaded and his kinsmen having fled, his father had been slain by Krishna in battle. Obtaining weapons then from Bhishma and Drona, Rama and Kripa, prince Sarangadhwaja became, in weapons, the equal of Rukmi and Karna and Arjuna and Achyuta. He then desired to destroy the city of Dwaraka and subjugate the whole world. Wise friends, however, from desire of doing him good, counselled him against that course. Giving up all thoughts of revenge, he ruled his own dominions.

Krishna as a philosopher[edit]

Krishna giving 'Updesha' to Arjuna on the battlegrounds of Kurukshetra.

Krishna's philosophical conversation with his friend and cousin Arjuna during the Kurukshetra War later became known as the famous Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of Hindus. How he amassed this great knowledge is revealed in the Anugita chapters of Mahabharata, which states that he got this knowledge by interactions with many learned men, and by his own meditations.

The following was what Krishna told to Arjuna when later told to repeat what he discoursed as Bhagavat Gita, in the midst of the Kurukshetra War.

(Mahabharata, Book 14, Chapter 16) I made thee listen to truths that are regarded as mysteries. I imparted to thee truths that are eternal. Verily, I discoursed to thee on Religion in its true form and on all the eternal regions. It is exceedingly disagreeable to me to learn that thou didst not, from folly, receive what I imparted. The recollection of all that I told thee on that occasion will not come to me now. Without doubt, O son of Pandu, thou art destitute of faith and thy understanding is not good. It is impossible for me, O Dhananjaya (Arjuna), to repeat, in detail, all that I said on that occasion. That religion about which I discoursed to thee then is more than sufficient for understanding Brahma. I cannot discourse on it again in detail. I discoursed to thee on Supreme Brahma, having concentrated myself in Yoga.

The probable source of Krishna's knowledge[edit]

Krishna mentions about the knowledge he obtained from a certain Brahmana

An 18th-century manuscript of Mahabharata.

(Mahabharata, Book 14, Chapter 16) On one occasion, a Brahmana came to us. Of irresistible energy, he came from the regions of the Grandsire. He was duly reverenced by us. Listen, to what he, said, in answer to our enquiries. The Brahmana said, That which thou askest me, O Krishna, connected with the religion of Moksha (Emancipation), led by thy compassion for all creatures and not for thy own good,--that, indeed, which destroys all delusion, O thou that art possessed of supreme puissance I shall now tell thee duly. Do thou listen with concentrated attention as I discourse to thee. [This inquiring is Krishna's Leela. This is also mentioned in the Chhandogya Upanishad.]

Extracts from Bhagavat Gita the Philosophy of Krishna[edit]

(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 26) There is no objective existence of anything that is distinct from the soul; nor non-existence of anything possessing the virtues of the soul. This conclusion in respect of both these hath been arrived at by those that know the truths of things. Know that the soul to be immortal by which all this [universe] is pervaded. No one can compass the destruction of that which is imperishable. It hath been said that those bodies of the Embodied soul which is eternal, indestructible and infinite, have an end.

(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 26) As a man, casting off robes that are worn out, putteth on others that are new, so the Embodied (soul), casting off bodies that are worn out, entereth other bodies that are new. Weapons cleave it not, fire consumeth it not; the waters do not drench it, nor doth the wind waste it. It is incapable of being cut, burnt, drenched, or dried up. It is unchangeable, all-pervading, stable, firm, and eternal. It is said to be imperceivable, inconceivable and unchangeable.

(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 26) All beings (before birth) were unmanifest. Only during an interval (between birth and death), O Bharata, are they manifest; and then again, when death comes, they become (once more) unmanifest.

(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 27) In this world, two kinds of devotion; that of the Sankhyas through knowledge and that of the yogins through work.

(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 29) Arjuna said,--Thou applaudest, O Krishna, the abandonment of actions, and again the application (to them). Tell me definitely which one of these two is superior. The Holy One said—Both abandonment of actions and application to actions lead to emancipation. But of these, application to action is superior to abandonment. He should always be known to be an ascetic who hath no aversion nor desire. For, being free from pairs of opposites, he is easily released from the bonds of action.

(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 29) He who is wise never taketh pleasure in these that have a beginning and an end.

Evidence of early worship of Krishna's personality[edit]

Krishna's childhood in Bhagavata Purana.
Main article: Krishna Vasudeva

The cult of Krishna Vasudeva (IAST kṛṣṇa vāsudeva "Krishna, son of Vasudeva") is historically one of the earliest forms of worship in Krishnaism and Vaishnavism. This tradition is considered separately to other traditions that led to amalgamation at a later stage of the historical development, that form the basis of current tradition of monotheistic religion of Krishna.[1][2] Some early scholars would equate it with Bhagavatism,[3] and the founder of this religious tradition is believed to be Krishna, who is the son of Vasudeva, thus his name is Vāsudeva, and according to them his followers called themselves Bhagavatas and this religion had formed by the 2nd century BC (the time of Patanjali), or as early as the 4th century BC according to evidence of Pāṇini and that of Megasthenes and in the Arthasastra of Kautilya, when Vāsudeva was worshiped as supreme Deity in a strongly monotheistic format, where the supreme Being was perfect, eternal and full of grace.[4] In many sources outside of the cult, devotee or bhakta is defined as Vāsudevaka.[5] Harivamsa, a later addition to Mahabharata as well as Bhagavata purana speak about his childhood in the village of Vrindavana, where Krishna passed his childhood and teenage days.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ KLOSTERMAIER, Klaus K. (2005). A Survey of Hinduism. State University of New York Press; 3 edition. p. 206. ISBN 0-7914-7081-4. Present day Krishna worship is an amalgam of various elements. According to historical testimonies Krishna-Vasudeva worship already flourished in and around Mathura several centuries before Christ. A second important element is the cult of Krishna Govinda. Still later is the worship of Bala-Krishna, the Divine Child Krishna - a quite prominent feature of modern Krishnaism. The last element seems to have been Krishna Gopijanavallabha, Krishna the lover of the Gopis, among whom Radha occupies a special position. In some books Krishna is presented as the founder and first teacher of the Bhagavata religion. 
  2. ^ BASHAM, A. L. "Review:Krishna: Myths, Rites, and Attitudes. by Milton Singer; Daniel H. H. Ingalls, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3 (May, 1968 ), pp. 667-670". JSTOR 2051211. 
  3. ^ Hastings 2003, p. 540
  4. ^ Hastings 2003, pp. 540–42
  5. ^ SINGH, R.R. (2007). Bhakti And Philosophy. Lexington Books. ISBN 0-7391-1424-7. 
    p. 10: "[Pāṇini's] term Vāsudevaka, explained by the second century B.C commentator Patanjali, as referring to "the follower of Vasudeva, God of gods."