Krishna and Arjuna are two of the most significant characters in the Mahabharata. Krishna is the younger brother of King Balarama of Anarta, and is considered by many to be the chief protagonist of the Mahabharata story.
Arjuna is the third of the Pandavas of the Kuru dynasty, known as the most powerful archer in the world of his time.
In this post, we will examine in depth the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna.
(For a comprehensive guide on Krishna, see Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
How are Krishna and Arjuna related?
Krishna and Arjuna are related through Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas and first wife of Pandu.
Kunti is the biological daughter of King Shurasena, father of Prince Vasudeva. Vasudeva and Devaki are the parents of Krishna. Therefore, Kunti is Krishna’s father’s younger sister – his paternal aunt.
Her maiden name is Pritha, and she is given for adoption at the court of Kuntibhoja, king of the kingdom of Kunti.
It is customary for a princess – after her marriage – to take on the name of the kingdom from which she hails. Pritha, the adopted daughter of King Kuntibhoja, is therefore called by the name of Kunti after her marriage to Pandu.
We see a similar thing happening with Gandhari (‘daughter of Gandhara’) and Madri (‘daughter of Madra’) as well. In these two cases, we do not even know what the women’s true names were.
Because of Krishna’s unconventional upbringing in the cowherd settlement of Vrindavan, he hardly meets Arjuna during his early years.
Even after he overthrows Kamsa, he stays busy attending to the constant threat posed by Jarasandha, and later with the founding and building of the kingdom of Anarta.
Meanwhile, Arjuna’s life is kept busy in the court of Hastinapur all during his formative years. He becomes the favourite pupil of Drona, and acquires a reputation of being a first-rate archer.
Therefore, it so happens that Krishna and Arjuna meet for the first time only during Draupadi’s swayamvara.
Krishna and Balarama spot the Pandavas at the ceremony, follow them back to their hut, and introduce themselves to their aunt and cousins for the first time.
After this delayed meeting, though, Krishna and Arjuna become close friends and allies thanks to the Kunti connection.
How did Krishna and Arjuna meet?
Arjuna and Krishna meet for the first time at Draupadi’s swayamvara. Krishna arrives at the swayamvara intending to watch proceedings, and Arjuna arrives there with his brothers intending to participate and win the hand of the bride.
Krishna and Balarama follow the Pandavas back to their hut and introduce themselves.
Arjuna and Krishna are together at the same place for the first time at Draupadi’s swayamvara. Arjuna does not know or see Krishna, but Krishna points out the five Brahmins to Balarama and remarks that they look like the sons of Kunti.
This is Krishna and Balarama’s first public appearance in one of the northern kingdoms. Thus far, they have been busily building their own kingdom in Anarta, fighting off raids and conquests from the likes of Jarasandha (of Magadha) and Damaghosha (of Chedi).
After Arjuna wins Draupadi, and after Bhima and Arjuna defeat Shalya and Karna respectively, the Pandavas take their new ‘acquisition’ and head back home. Krishna and Balarama follow them.
Back in the hut, before the topic of what to do with Draupadi is earnestly discussed, Krishna and Balarama introduce themselves to their cousins, pay their respects to Kunti, and leave immediately.
This is the first time that Krishna and Balarama exchange pleasantries with the Pandavas, Draupadi and Kunti.
How did Krishna and Arjuna become friends?
Though Arjuna and Krishna meet for the first time at Draupadi’s swayamvara, they do not become friends until Arjuna pays Dwaraka a visit toward the end of his twelve-year exile.
During this meeting, the two heroes spend enough time together for friendship to bloom. Krishna solidifies this bond by giving his sister Subhadra in marriage to Arjuna.
It would be naïve to imagine that the relationship between Arjuna and Krishna is a purely personal one. Each would have been aware of the geopolitical advantages that the other brought to the table.
At the time of Arjuna’s visit to Dwaraka, Yudhishthir is still a small king, ruling over Khandavaprastha but still under the shadow of Dhritarashtra at Hastinapur. The Pandavas are still, on the whole, a largely powerless entity.
However, Krishna sees the potential of the five brothers. Arjuna has already spent his twelve years forging two alliances – one with the Naga king Kauravya by marrying Ulupi, and the second with the Manipura ruler Chitravahana, by marrying Chitrangada.
During their time together, Krishna would have had several opportunities to test Arjuna’s ambitions for the future, and only after ascertaining that Yudhishthir wishes to become the emperor of the world, he decides that it would be advantageous to build a formal alliance with them.
On the other hand, Anarta is already a powerful kingdom, so the proposal would have been accepted gratefully by Arjuna.
Krishna also wants to defeat Jarasandha, and perhaps by this time he already has vague notions of how he might use the Pandavas’ might to achieve that goal.
The friendship between Krishna and Arjuna, therefore, begins at a mutually beneficial time for both men, and over time it evolves into a lifelong bond that extends all the way to the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
Why did Arjuna marry Subhadra?
Arjuna marries Subhadra at Krishna’s urging. Krishna’s plan is to construct an alliance with the Pandavas. Around this time, Balarama is seriously considering giving Subhadra in marriage to Duryodhana.
Krishna interrupts this by pushing Arjuna to carry Subhadra away. With this marriage, Dwaraka becomes an ally through marriage of the Pandavas.
This marriage is not high-stakes for the Pandavas. After all, Arjuna is only the third brother among the Pandavas with no line of sight to the throne. Subhadra is also Arjuna’s third wife, after Ulupi and Chitrangada.
(However, one must remember that both Iravan – Ulupi’s son – and Babruvahana – Chitrangada’s son – are expected to be raised with their mothers and take over kingship of the Nagas and of Manipura respectively. Neither of them will have a claim to the throne of Indraprastha if it came to that.)
For Anarta, though, this alliance is an important strategic move. Balarama already has a long association with Duryodhana, and a deep friendship with the Kuru house.
Instead of further deepening an existing relationship, this pivot by Krishna ensures that Anarta is equally invested in the fortunes of both Hastinapur and Indraprastha.
No matter who among the Kauravas and Pandavas are on the ascendant, Anarta will experience no interruptions on its journey. Even at the end, Balarama can afford to sit out the war citing this ‘equal love’ for both families.
Anarta therefore becomes the most powerful kingdom by refusing to take sides in the Kuru family feud. While Krishna remains friendly with the Pandavas, Balarama continues to maintain cordial relations with Duryodhana.
Why did Krishna become Arjuna’s charioteer?
After Arjuna chooses an unarmed Krishna and allows the Narayana Sena to be given to Duryodhana, Krishna asks Arjuna: ‘You have chosen me. You have me. What shall I do for you?’ And Arjuna replies: ‘I wish you to become my charioteer.’ Krishna says, ‘So be it!’
Since Krishna has already vowed not to pick up weapons during the war, in order to make full use of his non-fighting skills, the Pandavas are best served by employing him as a charioteer to one of the main warriors.
A good charioteer is of immeasurable value in the midst of battle: not only does he offer maneuverability and speed, he also acts as a sounding board to the warrior’s thoughts, often offering advice and suggestions in key moments.
There is, of course, a distinct class-hierarchy in the warrior-charioteer relationship: the charioteer is considered to be inferior, and as a servant to the hero who is fighting the actual war.
This is the reason Shalya, when asked to take up Karna’s reins on the seventeenth day of the war, reacts with scorn.
In the case of Krishna, though, this relationship is likely to be upended. No matter which warrior’s chariot he drives, he will play an active role in dictating matters of the battlefield.
Once it is decided that the best place for Krishna is in the charioteer’s seat, then it is not a stretch to suggest Arjuna’s vehicle, because of three reasons:
- Arjuna is the most powerful warrior of all. He is the lynchpin of the entire Panchala army. Krishna’s support will make him near invincible.
- Arjuna and Krishna have a long history of friendship, and of fighting together.
- Arjuna’s vehicle is the safest chariot on the battlefield. If there is a place on Kurukshetra that can be considered secure, it is atop this chariot.
Why did Arjuna choose Krishna?
Arjuna chooses Krishna over the Narayana Sena because he (rightly) reasons that Krishna’s strategic nous is much more valuable to the Pandava cause than the numerical contribution of his army.
Also, Arjuna and Krishna are good friends and close relatives – it would have been unimaginable for Arjuna to face Krishna in battle.
As the Kurukshetra war draws near, Krishna offers Duryodhana and Arjuna a deal. ‘I will not take up arms in this war,’ he says. ‘But I will serve – in any unarmed capacity – the side that wants me. On the other side will fight my entire Narayana Sena.’
He gives Arjuna first pick, and the latter unhesitatingly picks Krishna over his army. Duryodhana is secretly pleased at Arjuna’s naivety. This suggests to the reader that had Duryodhana been given first choice, he would have picked the army over Krishna.
Arjuna explains his choice thus: ‘I am strong enough to obliterate any army on my own, Krishna,’ he says. ‘But to fight against you would have broken my spirit. Having you on our side is enough to make us victorious, no matter how large an army Duryodhana amasses.’
Why was Arjuna chosen by Krishna?
Krishna chooses Arjuna for two reasons: (1) As the incarnation of Narayana, he knows that Arjuna is the incarnation of Nara, and that they have together come to Earth to fight evil. (2) As the regent of Anarta, Krishna secures the safety of his kingdom by establishing a strong friendship with the strongest warrior of his age.
One can answer this question from two vantage points. First, if we buy into the theory that Arjuna and Krishna are the incarnations of the sages Nara and Narayana, and that Krishna knows that he is Narayana, then the friendship between them is inevitable.
As the person who knows their true identities, it becomes Krishna’s role to ‘court’ Arjuna and build a strong relationship with him. Also, it is understandable that they find so much in common with each other. Theirs is a bond that has endured over the ages.
On the other hand, if we wish to divorce the Mahabharata universe from incarnations and so on, even from a geopolitical angle, Krishna’s actions make perfect sense.
At the time of Arjuna’s visit to Dwaraka during his twelve-year exile, Anarta is already on friendly terms with Kuru owing to Balarama’s relationship with Duryodhana. Now, Krishna wishes to diversify Anarta’s alliances and forge a relationship with the Pandavas as well.
By being an ally of both the Pandavas and the Kauravas, Anarta can ensure that no matter who wins the family feud, its prospects will not suffer.
Krishna is already a good friend of the Pandavas by this point – he has helped Arjuna clear the Khandava forest, he has accepted the arghya at Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya – but he wishes to win the personal favour of the most powerful of the Pandavas: Arjuna.
So he offers him Subhadra’s hand in marriage.
During the War
While Krishna’s relationship with Arjuna is strong enough in the years leading up to the war, it is during the war that Krishna earns his stripes as the master strategist of his time.
Acting as the charioteer of Arjuna, he advises his friend on several occasions in small and big ways. He even directly protects Arjuna on a couple of occasions by redirecting powerful weapons that are heading straight at Arjuna’s head.
This is in addition to all the tactical help he gives the Pandavas – especially in the matter of how Drona and Bhishma ought to be defeated.
In the rest of the article, we will see the various ways in which Krishna helps Arjuna during the Mahabharata war.
The Bhagavad Gita
Perhaps Krishna’s most salient contribution to the Pandava war effort occurs right before the first arrow has been shot across the plain of Kurukshetra.
With the two armies assembled on opposite sides, Arjuna watches in dismay that the warriors arrayed against him are none other than his grandfather (Bhishma), his preceptors (Drona and Kripa) and his cousins (the Kauravas).
He flings his bow away in disgust, lamenting that he does not wish to fight against his kinsmen for the sake of mere wealth.
Then, Krishna persuades his friend with a long discourse on diverse topics such as duty, ethics, morality, politics and spirituality. Krishna convinces Arjuna that the fight for virtue must happen, and that virtue must win.
Why did Arjuna have to fight?
Arjuna has to fight in the Kurukshetra war because it is his duty to do so. He has made a vow to avenge Draupadi’s humiliation, and to avenge the unjust manner in which the Pandavas were tricked into losing their wealth.
Krishna tells Arjuna that a man should be attached only to fulfilling his duty, not to its consequences.
If Arjuna chooses not to fight, we may ask the question, ‘What is the alternative?’ Consider this scenario:
The Pandavas withdraw from the battle because of Arjuna’s reluctance. They leave Indraprastha and Hastinapur to Duryodhana, and take up residence in – say – a kingdom like Matsya or Panchala. Over time, they may develop their new home into a power centre, and Yudhishthir may become a noteworthy king in a few years.
What happens then? Duryodhana will again seek them out for a battle. He may even make a few sinister plans to have the Pandavas killed by nefarious means.
Withdrawing from this battle, therefore, does not mean that the Pandava-Kaurava conflict will come to an end. It will continue until either Duryodhana dies or the Pandavas die.
If anything, the last-minute forfeiture by the Pandavas is likely to embolden Duryodhana into thinking that he can do anything. He has frightened his cousins into surrendering. That must mean only one thing: he is stronger than they are, and they know it.
These are all the practical implications of Arjuna relinquishing his weapons on the morning of the war. Krishna, however, speaks to him from a philosophical point of view: the main thrust of his argument is that Arjuna should surrender the idea of control over consequences and results.
Krishna advises Arjuna to be attached to action – action that needs to be taken to fulfill one’s duty – and not to consequences emerging from that action. And the only choice left for Arjuna is to fight.
Bhishma and Drona
Krishna plays an important role in helping Arjuna defeat the tremendous threat posed by the presence of Bhishma and Drona on the battlefield.
The problem is not that Arjuna is not capable of defeating (and killing) the two men, but that he is hesitant to do so.
And since Arjuna is the only warrior on the Pandava side with the ability to stand up to Bhishma and Drona, Krishna has to devise various strategies to ensure that Arjuna does not lose the will to fight.
Krishna tries to do this by constantly giving Arjuna pep talks during the war. These work to an extent, but again and again, when the crunch moment arrives, Arjuna pulls himself back.
On the other hand, Bhishma and Drona fight with more ruthlessness than Arjuna is able to summon.
So Krishna formulates two nefarious plans to remove the two stalwarts from battle:
In Bhishma’s case, Shikhandi is placed as a shield in front of Arjuna so that Bhishma can be brought down relatively easily. Arjuna peppers Bhishma with arrows and puts him out of contention.
In Drona’s case, Krishna proposes that Yudhishthir should lie to the preceptor about Ashwatthama’s death, so that Drona will – upon hearing the news – relinquish his weapons.
The original idea is for the Pandavas to take Drona prisoner, but Dhrishtadyumna, in a moment blinded by rage, beheads the meditating Drona and avenges his father’s death.
On Day 12 of the Mahabharata war, Arjuna comes face to face with Bhagadatta, a king of the Pragjyotisha kingdom who had earlier accepted Yudhishthir’s emperorship but had later decided to fight for the Kauravas.
Bhagadatta is mentioned as one of the atirathas of the Kaurava army.
In this fight, from atop his elephant Supratika, Bhagadatta hurls the Vaishnavastra at Arjuna.
Krishna knows that as powerful as Arjuna is, he does not have a counter to the Vaishnavastra. So he leaps into the weapon’s path and receives it on his chest.
The moment the Vaishnavastra hits Krishna, it becomes a garland and falls around his neck.
Arjuna is momentarily offended by Krishna’s action – because he sees it as an affront to his fighting ability – but when Krishna explains, he understands. Arjuna then goes on to defeat and kill Bhagadatta shortly.
But if Krishna had not received the full force of Bhagadatta’s weapon on his chest, Arjuna might have died.
Another big intervention by Krishna occurs on Day 14 of the war, with Arjuna doggedly seeking Jayadratha’s head as price for the death of Abhimanyu the previous day.
Krishna carefully guides Arjuna through Drona’s impenetrable array – which is made of three parts, the Sakata Vyuha in the front, the Padma Vyuha in the middle, and the Soochi Mukha Vyuha at the back.
When they approach Jayadratha, with the sun about to set, Krishna tells Arjuna exactly how to kill the Saindhava king.
As it happens, Jayadratha has a boon from his father, Vriddhakshatra, that ‘whoever causes his head to fall to the ground’ will have his own head break into a thousand pieces.
So Krishna advises Arjuna to shoot his arrows such that they pluck Jayadratha’s head off his body, take it flying through the air to the outskirts of Kurukshetra – where Vriddhakshatra is meditating – and cause it to fall on the old man’s lap.
That way, when Vriddhakshatra gets up from his meditating stance, the head of his son will fall to the ground, and his own head will shatter into a thousand pieces.
If Krishna had not given Arjuna this advice, and if Arjuna had killed Jayadratha the normal way, he would have died.
Karna and Ghatotkacha
Arjuna’s biggest threat during the Mahabharata war is Karna.
This is because of two reasons: (1) Karna is widely considered to be one of three warriors (the other two being Bhishma and Drona) capable of matching Arjuna’s skill, and (2) Karna possesses the Vasava Dart, to which Arjuna has no counter.
As it happens, even Krishna does not have the means to stop the Vasava if Karna uses it against Arjuna.
So Krishna takes the approach of steering Arjuna clear of Karna as much as possible. He also clouds the minds of the Kauravas so that they do not think to place Karna in the middle of their formation and have him attack Arjuna.
On the night of the fourteenth day, Krishna sends Ghatotkacha to fight Karna in the hope that the duel will be so evenly matched that Karna will be forced to use the Vasava on the son of Bhima.
This is exactly what happens. And once Karna uses the Vasava, his danger to Arjuna diminishes significantly. While he is still skilful enough to match the third Pandava, he is no longer powerful enough to kill him.
With this act, Krishna once again saves Arjuna.
Another instance where Krishna saves Arjuna’s life is when Ashwatthama uses the Narayanastra against him. This happens on the fifteenth day, soon after Ashwatthama learns of the manner in which Drona had been killed.
The Narayanastra, however, is a weapon that Krishna knows intimately.
As soon as it becomes clear that Ashwatthama has used it, Krishna calls out to the Pandava army and instructs every soldier to remove all thoughts of violence from his mind.
The theory is that the Narayanastra can only be defeated by peace. The more you fight against it, the more powerful it becomes.
Despite this warning, Bhima stubbornly takes up arms against it for a short while, and gets battered to pulp. Krishna then implores with him to surrender his weapons – and his mind.
Without this advice, Arjuna and the Pandavas would not have survived the Narayanastra.
Battle against Karna
Krishna helps Arjuna once again during the final battle against Karna, on the evening of Day 17.
A Naga called Aswasena appears during this battle, and claims that he is one of the survivors of the fire at Khandava. He volunteers to become Karna’s arrow, so that he might pierce Arjuna’s heart and kill him.
Karna obliges, and sends Aswasena flying through the air in Arjuna’s direction. It makes straight for Arjuna’s heart, but in the nick of time, Krishna stamps down hard on his chariot so that the wheels sink into the earth.
This causes the arrow to miss Arjuna’s heart, and merely knocks off the Pandava’s crown instead.
Krishna then leaps to the ground and brings the wheels of the chariot back onto firmer ground. If Krishna had not intervened in this moment, Arjuna would have certainly perished.
Later, when Karna is on the ground trying to rescue his own sunken wheel from the wet earth, Arjuna catches himself in a moment of compassion for his enemy.
Krishna notices this hesitation, and launches into a long monologue listing all of Karna’s misdemeanours from the past. This relights the fire in Arjuna’s belly, and he shoots a fatal arrow at Karna.
Thus, Krishna helps Arjuna fulfil his destiny.
The Mausala Parva
In the Mausala Parva, Arjuna does get an opportunity to repay all of Krishna’s favours. After Krishna and Balarama’s deaths, Daruka (Krishna’s charioteer) carries Krishna’s message to Arjuna in Hastinapur.
Krishna asks Arjuna to evacuate the people of Dwaraka before the city sinks into the sea. Arjuna is tasked with the project of rescuing the women and children of Dwaraka as well.
Arjuna immediately sets out with his Gandiva. He performs the final rites of Dwaraka and evacuates the city just in time.
But on the way back, the travelling party is accosted by robbers. Arjuna tries to fight them off, but he is no longer the warrior he once was. It has, after all, been thirty six years since the Kurukshetra war ended.
The robbers raid and loot the travelling citizens. They carry off some of the women. Arjuna is left to helplessly watch this carnage.
He does get some of the survivors back to Hastinapur. But immediately after, he goes to Vyasa and asks what the meaning of this is. Vyasa tells him bluntly that the time has come for his final journey.
The Pandavas, then, set out in a short while for a pilgrimage around the world.
So the final journey of Arjuna – and his eventual death – happens only after Krishna sends him a message from beyond his grave that their time on Earth has come to a close.
If you found this post interesting, you will like Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.