Balarama is one of the minor but significant characters in the Mahabharata. He is the older brother of Krishna, and rules over the kingdom of Anarta with Dwaraka as his capital.
Balarama plays mostly a passive role in the Mahabharata story, often acting as Krishna’s foil. Many popular interpretations of Balarama’s character portray him as a paternalistic figure easily deceived by Krishna’s tricks.
In the Mahabharata war, Balarama takes the decision to keep Anarta neutral. He famously goes on a pilgrimage for the entire eighteen-day duration, and returns only at the end, just as Bhima and Duryodhana are about to have their mace fight.
(For a full list of important Mahabharata characters, see 56 Mahabharata Characters that will Amaze You.)
How was Balarama born?
The Mahabharata does not have an account of Balarama’s birth. He appears for the first time in Draupadi’s swayamvara fully formed as an adult, and as the already prevailing king of Anarta.
In the Bhagavata Purana, Balarama is described as an avatar of Adisesha, the divine serpent on which Vishnu sleeps. His birth on earth occurs by divine means.
He is conceived as the seventh child of Devaki and Vasudeva. Immediately after conception, Vishnu ensures that the foetus is transplanted from Devaki’s womb to Rohini’s. Rohini is another wife of Vasudeva.
At the time of this incident, Devaki and Vasudeva are imprisoned in Kamsa’s dungeon. Rohini, presumably, is at the royal palace of Shurasena.
Due to this incident, Balarama is sometimes called ‘Sankarshana’ (he who has been dragged away).
It is not clear what happens in the dungeon when the time comes for Devaki’s seventh delivery. Does he deliver a stillborn child? Is it reported to Kamsa that she has lost her baby?
One presumes that Vishnu, having performed the more difficult task of transporting Balarama to safety, will have thought of something magical to take his place in the dungeon to satisfy Kamsa’s murderous intent.
A more realistic version…
If we are examining Balarama’s birth from the lens of a realist, we might postulate that he was conceived by Vasudeva and Rohini before Vasudeva had to go away to Kamsa’s prison.
So this would have been before Vasudeva’s marriage to Devaki, or immediately after it.
But the snag in this theory is that if Vasudeva conceived Balarama before he went to prison, and if Krishna was the eighth child of Devaki, then it follows that Krishna is at least eight years younger than Balarama.
However, the two brothers are often depicted as being much closer in age – especially in the stories of their childhood in and around Vrindavan.
If we have to make Balarama Rohini’s son and still insist that he should be only one or two years older than Krishna – and we wish to formulate a realistic version of events, without resorting to magic – the only way is to admit that Kamsa may have allowed Vasudeva an occasional conjugal visit from Rohini.
If we accept this, then Rohini and Vasudeva would have conceived Balarama a year or so before Krishna’s birth.
Life in Vrindavan
Krishna is sent to Vrindavan as an infant, on the very night he is born. The official narrative is that Vasudeva carried Krishna dramatically across the Yamuna as the river parts for him.
A more prosaic version of events might see the kingdom of Shurasena intervening in some covert way to smuggle the newborn baby out of Kamsa’s dungeon without Vasudeva ever setting foot out of prison.
In either case, it is less clear just when Balarama is brought to Nanda’s house. Is he brought there on the same night, as a one-year-old boy?
Or does he arrive a few months – or years – later?
There are good reasons for Krishna to be fostered in secret at Vrindavan. Kamsa is looking for him. But why did Balarama have to be brought here? Why couldn’t Rohini raise him as a prince at Shurasena?
It appears that Shurasena, for some reason, wanted to keep the matter of all heirs of Vasudeva secret from Kamsa – and perhaps, by extension, from Jarasandha.
If this is true, then we can assume that when Krishna arrives at Vrindavan, Balarama has already been there for a year. He was taken from Rohini immediately after his birth (like Krishna is taken from Devaki) and transported to Vrindavan.
Journey to Mathura
Balarama and Krishna spend around fourteen years in Vrindavan (the actual number differs from source to source), and then they set out to assassinate the king of Mathura, Kamsa.
Now, from the frame of reference in which Balarama is the good guy and Kamsa is not, the latter is painted as a bloodthirsty tyrant with close ties to all sorts of Rakshasas.
But despite this, actual evidence suggests that during the many years of Kamsa’s rule, Mathura actually remains a stable economic power. Politically, it can be said to have grown in power, thanks to Kamsa’s friendship with Jarasandha.
Mathura participates in no notable wars during this fifteen-year period. No famines or droughts occur. No civil war or atrocities are reported.
In short, Kamsa’s reputation as a tyrant may just be untrue. It may just be a narrative device for future storytellers to justify the act of Balarama and Krishna killing him.
King of Mathura
Balarama and Krishna go to Mathura, enrol themselves as participants in a wrestling tournament, and proceeds to defeat all of Kamsa’s top fighters. Then, during the prize-giving ceremony, Krishna pounces on the king and breaks his neck.
This unbelievable incident happens with extreme suddenness. And even after Kamsa is killed, Krishna and Balarama have no trouble from all of Kamsa’s men that would have undoubtedly been furious at the turn of events.
Why did the guards of the king not immediately arrest the two brothers? Why were there absolutely no consequences to essentially walking into a king’s palace and killing him in front of his own men?
We don’t know. We can speculate that Balarama and Krishna did not perform this act on their own, but with intelligence and manpower support from Shurasena. What Balarama achieves, then, is a coup that snatches Mathura from Jarasandha’s hands and delivers it to Shurasena.
Balarama then becomes king of Mathura, though not directly. The two brothers are careful to install Ugrasena, Kamsa’s old father, on the throne. Then they begin to rule Mathura by proxy.
Escape from Mathura
Ironically, this transfer of power from Kamsa to Balarama unleashes a period of tremendous violence and war in Mathura’s history.
As soon as Jarasandha realizes that Kamsa has been killed, he begins a protracted campaign of harassment against Mathura with the intention of taking it back. As far as he is concerned, Balarama is the man who has stolen his property.
Mathura then enters into a multi-year period during which Jarasandha and Balarama clash repeatedly in several wars. (Some of these ‘wars’ may have been just skirmishes, but the point remains that there is plenty of conflict between the two kingdoms.)
These wars are terrible for Mathura’s citizens and for Mathura’s economy. It is inconceivable that the people of Mathura appreciated this shift in their fortunes – from relative peace under Kamsa to a dystopian forever war under Balarama.
We’re told that Balarama and Krishna migrate from Mathura in search of a kingdom to the west that they can found. This migration is often projected as an act of wisdom. The implication is that a large number of Mathuran citizens accompanied Balarama on this quest.
But we must ask: just how many Mathuran citizens supported Balarama in his bid against Kamsa?
How many of them actually went with Balarama and Krishna into the wild lands where no kingdom exists?
The answer, of course, is: it cannot have been many. Given the prospect facing the common Mathuran citizen, the vast majority of them would have been perfectly content staying back.
Only a tiny number of zealots would have accompanied Balarama and Krishna when they depart from Mathura.
Founder of Anarta
Consider the position of Balarama and Krishna at the time of their departure from Mathura. They only have a couple of hundred (if that) followers with them. And their stated goal is quite vague: find a possible kingdom in the west to build from scratch.
It is once again inconceivable that Balarama and Krishna, working on their own and without help, do the following:
- Travel all the way to the shores of the western sea, and note that the warring Yadava factions could potentially be united to fight under a single banner.
- Set up a self-sustaining independent city right in the midst of the Yadavas without competing with them for resources, and without advertising themselves as threats.
- Position themselves as a power-center that the Yadava chiefs accept with such total devotion that they begin to think of Balarama as their king.
- Build the kingdom of Anarta with the Yadavas, and build the seaside city of Dwaraka as its capital.
- Do all of the above in less than ten years.
While this is possible for two men without any resources, one has to be naive to suggest that they had no help from the treasury of Shurasena (and perhaps even Kunti) in this project.
It is much more likely that Balarama drew on the support given by Shurasena in founding the kingdom of Anarta. It takes him and Krishna a few years to unite the Yadava tribes, and then Balarama proclaims himself king.
Why did Balarama support Duryodhana?
The official foreign policy of Anarta – the kingdom of Balarama – is to be equally conciliatory toward both the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
Therefore, while Krishna ostensibly supports the Pandavas in their many quests, Balarama does the balancing act and cultivates an enduring friendship with Duryodhana.
As the king of Anarta – with its capital at Dwaraka – Balarama’s first priority is to protect the interests of his people.
In order to fortify Anarta’s position among the middle kingdoms, Balarama pursues friendship with Kuru on the Gangetic plain. But the internal politics of the Kuru throne – namely, the long-standing feud between the Pandavas and Kauravas – presents a potential problem to Anarta.
If Anarta takes sides in the matter, it will come out with its prospects diminished if its bet fails. For instance, if Anarta had openly supported the Pandavas, then it would have been left in an awkward position after Duryodhana takes over as emperor.
If Anarta had sided with the Kauravas, it would have been difficult to build friendships with the Pandavas during their ascension years.
In other words, Anarta’s wish is to maintain friendly relations with the kingdom of Kuru, regardless of who is ruling it. Balarama, therefore, builds an enduring friendship with Duryodhana, who he considers to be the principal player of one side of the fight.
Meanwhile, Krishna woos and forms a special bond with Arjuna, who he considers to be the principal player of the other side.
By straddling the fence in this manner, the two brothers ensure that regardless of the current state of the quarrel between the cousins, Anarta the kingdom will not be disadvantaged.
Relationship with Krishna
The most popular choice of storytellers across time is to depict Balarama as a bungling big brother to Krishna’s all-knowing and all-seeing antics.
Balarama is often clueless as to what Krishna is doing. He often doesn’t approve of Krishna’s choices, but Krishna’s logic and his charm always wins Balarama over.
But this may not be true. It may just be an artistic choice made by writers over the years. It may also be the narrative that Krishna and Balarama want people to believe in regards to their relationship.
In short, Krishna and Balarama probably agree with each other much more than they let on.
Witness that their arguments are often perfunctory. None of their fights ever lead to any lasting disagreements. Even the fact that Balarama refuses to fight in Kurukshetra – a point that ought to rile Krishna up – does not drive any fissure between the brothers.
From their birth to their deaths, Balarama and Krishna live together. They work together. They sometimes disagree in public, but only peripherally.
Together, they do what is right for Anarta and what secures Anarta’s long-term future.
Flourishing of Dwaraka
In all respects, Balarama ought to be seen as the most effective king of Anarta. From the time he founds the kingdom as a young man, he shepherds the Yadava factions in such a way that Anarta becomes an epicentre of power at its peak.
Especially during the years following Jarasandha’s death, and then after the Pandavas go into exile, Anarta rises to become the most powerful kingdom of the world – second, perhaps, only to Kuru.
(In some ways, Anarta could be said to be more powerful than Kuru because Kuru’s power relied purely on Bhishma – and to a lesser extent on Drona. But Anarta was friends with all the prominent kingdoms. They fought no big wars.)
At the end, the decision to stay neutral in the war of Kurukshetra is a masterstroke on Balarama’s part (implemented, no doubt, with Krishna’s approval).
Despite pledging a small number of soldiers to the war effort, Anarta becomes the kingdom to emerge from the war almost completely unscathed. And after the war, in the thirty six years following, it becomes the strongest kingdom of all.
Throughout this time, Balarama and Krishna live up to their reputations as master strategists, and guide their fledgling kingdom to the peak of glory.
How did Balarama die?
Balarama dies toward the end of the Mausala Parva, when he and Krishna decide that the time has come to kill all the Yadava people with their own hands.
This is to honour a curse that Gandhari places on Krishna in the immediate aftermath of the Kurukshetra war. She tells Krishna that just as the Kurus were destroyed by civil war, so will the Yadavas.
In more practical terms, Balarama sees that Anarta – the kingdom he has built from nothing – has become a monster that he can no longer recognize.
Years of prosperity and growth have made the people of the kingdom decadent and immoral. No repair is possible. Only destruction.
After killing his fellow men and tearing down the house he built so painstakingly, Balarama sits down to meditate alone in the forest. For a short while, Krishna leaves his side to go to Dwaraka, and on his return, Balarama has already died.
The manner of Balarama’s death suggests us that there is no such thing as continuous growth and prosperity. What rises must fall, whether the damage comes from without or within.
Also, Anarta – and to a more deeper degree, Dwaraka – can be seen as an allegory for the lives of Balarama and Krishna. The city takes birth in their minds, is sculpted into existence by their hands, and ultimately, destroyed by them just before their deaths.