How did Bhima kill Jarasandha?

How did Bhima kill Jarasandha - Featured Image - Picture of a symmetrical pattern spreading out, representing Krishna's influence of power

Bhima is the second of the Pandavas (in order of birth) in the Mahabharata. He is the third biological son of Kunti – her first being Karna, and second being Yudhishthir. His biological father is Vayu, the wind god. Pandu, the king of Hastinapur, is his adoptive father.

He is considered physically the strongest of the Pandavas. He is also described by Bhishma as the ‘best all-round warrior’ among all the heroes that assemble at Kurukshetra.

Bhima is a mace-fighter, a wrestler, a Rakshasa-killer – and not a bad chariot-archer.

In this post, we will answer the question: How did Bhima kill Jarasandha?

Jarasandha is the only obstacle to Yudhishthir’s ambition to become emperor. Krishna takes Arjuna and Bhima in disguise to Magadha to challenge Jarasandha to a wrestling match. Jarasandha agrees to fight Bhima. In the duel, Bhima kills Jarasandha by tearing open the king’s body and throwing the pieces in opposite directions so that they do not join.

Read on to discover more about how Bhima killed Jarasandha.

(For answers to all Bhima-related questions, see: Bhima: 10 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Rival for the Rajasuya

Soon after the burning of the Khandava forest, Yudhishthir decides that the time has come to perform the Rajasuya sacrifice, in which he can declare himself an emperor.

(The Rajasuya typically follows an extensive expedition of conquest and diplomacy in which the ambitious king builds alliances and invades kingdoms. He then invites all of his new partners to attend the ceremony that formalizes his emperorship.)

Krishna encourages Yudhishthir in this matter, but also warns him that as long as Jarasandha – the king of Magadha – is alive, the Pandavas have no chance of becoming the all-powerful rulers they deserve to be.

Krishna informs Yudhishthir that the likes of Shishupala (of Chedi), Dantavakra (of Karusha) and Bhagadatta (of the Yavanas) have already pledged allegiance to Jarasandha.

With his control over Mathura, Jarasandha therefore controls many of the middle kingdoms. Until he is defeated, Yudhishthir cannot break into that network.

Yudhishthir is crestfallen at the news. ‘What chance have I got of defeating a man who made you and Balarama flee, Krishna?’ he asks.

Bhima’s Promise

At this stage, Bhimasena rises to his feet and proclaims that he will kill Jarasandha with the help of Krishna and Arjuna.

Arjuna too gives a stirring speech (how a Kshatriya should never be led by fear, how with Krishna on their side they can fight any army on Earth and so on), after which Krishna also tells Yudhishthir:

‘Your brothers have spoken like true men of valour, Yudhishthir. What makes you think choosing to do nothing is effective in stopping a man like Jarasandha?

‘If no one stands up to him, he will soon conquer all of the middle kingdoms, and then he will set his sights on Indraprastha, I dare say. And one day, he will march up the western mountains and launch a siege on Dwaraka.

‘But before that, he intends to perform a sacrifice himself, and you will be forced to attend it as tribute-paying ally.’

‘Indraprastha will never pay tribute!’ thunders Bhimasena, and Arjuna nods in assent.

Krishna then tells the Pandavas the story of how Jarasandha was born, how he got his name, and how he might be defeated. He takes Bhima and Arjuna with him and travels to Magadha.

Jarasandha’s Sacrifice

Jarasandha grows up to be a far more resourceful ruler than his father Vrihadratha, using a variety of tactics – both military and political – to bring many of the middle kingdoms under his control.

Just as he is on the cusp of collecting a hundred kings to sacrifice for the benefit of Shiva – a ceremony that he believes will give him unmatchable power – the two Pandavas and Krishna arrive in Magadha, disguised as Brahmins.

To make a long story short, they gain an audience with the king without too much trouble, and when Jarasandha sees through their ruse and asks them who they really are, Krishna tells him:

‘I am the prince of Dwaraka, the brother of Balarama, and these are Arjuna and Bhima, the sons of Kunti. We have come to challenge you to an unarmed duel; you may pick whichever among the three of us you want to fight.’

Jarasandha chooses Bhima, as Krishna earlier predicts that he would due to his pride. After a long fight, one which happens ‘officially’, with a priest anointing the two warriors in a public arena, watched by thousands of Magadha’s citizens, Bhima manages to pick up the king in his arms and break his backbone upon his knee – thus killing him.

Two Pieces of Jarasandha

In some versions of this tale, Bhima kills Jarasandha multiple times, but each time he comes back to life. Then Krishna takes a blade of grass and tears it open meaningfully down its length, tossing pieces in opposite directions.

Bhima takes the hint. Remembering the earlier story of how Jarasandha was born, he tears him open along the length of his body, and throws the fragments on opposite directions so that they would not be able to come together again.

This second story, though the more often repeated one in popular narratives because it is admittedly better, appears to be a later addition.

The Mahabharata version tells a plainer tale of two wrestlers going at it for hours and hours, until one of them is slowed by fatigue. His opponent jumps at the opportunity and kills him.

Questioning the Narrative

Regardless of which version you prefer, I must admit that the story of Jarasandha’s death strikes me as incredulous.

With all the talk of how great a king he is, one would assume that it would take more effort on the part of Krishna and Bhima to gain entrance into his palace, to find him and to kill him.

Won’t a king of his stature have multiple levels of security to keep him away from attacks of this sort? Won’t he have ministers and advisers specifically employed to protect him from his own pride?

Will a man of such high intellect as to unite the whole middle portion of Aryavarta be so naive and accept a challenge thrown at him in such a haphazard manner?

And will a king’s subjects and courtiers look on mutely as their master is being killed in the wrestling ring so publicly? Where are Jarasandha’s bodyguards? Where are his trusted confidants?

What may have happened in reality, therefore, is a much more elaborate, sinister ploy to gain access to Jarasandha’s inner chambers. And the death that the three ‘Brahmins’ inflicted upon the king might have been a lot less honourable than the wrestling match described.

Reimagining Jarasandha

It is in fact very likely that Jarasandha is not as cruel a man as Krishna projects him to be. We must remember that Krishna himself has history with the Magadha king; of course he will say that Jarasandha is a blot upon humanity.

If we look at the facts more neutrally, a different image emerges:

  • Jarasandha rules over Magadha, one of the eastern kingdoms. He gives two of his daughters in marriage to Kamsa, the ruler of Mathura, which is right in the middle of Aryavarta.
  • This alliance by marriage works well for both parties: Jarasandha gets a firmer foothold on the middle kingdoms through his son-in-law. Kamsa, for his part, becomes more powerful than Shurasena and Kunti combined.
  • Now along come Krishna and Balarama, fostered in Vrindavan, who arrive in Mathura, and by some clandestine means, kill Kamsa and usurp the throne.
  • This is seen as an act of provocation by Jarasandha. He raises an army and attacks Mathura relentlessly until the Yadavas retreat further to the west. Mathura thus becomes Jarasandha’s again.
  • For a few years, there is no fighting between the two: Balarama and Krishna build the kingdom of Anarta. Jarasandha consolidates his power among the middle kingdoms.
  • The decision of Yudhishthir to start the Rajasuya gives Krishna the opening he needs to project Jarasandha as the common enemy.
  • Using Bhima as a pawn, he once again employs underhanded means (like he did in the case of Kamsa) to kill Jarasandha and install his son, the meek Sahadeva (not to be confused with the Pandava) on the throne.

Bhima’s killing of Jarasandha, therefore, is an extremely significant event that creates a power-vacuum. Kuru and Anarta share in the spoils, much to the chagrin of Shishupala – who rages about the injustice at Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya.

And dies at Krishna’s hands for his trouble.

Further Reading

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