Mahabharata Episode 59: Krishna and Balarama Die

Krishna and Balarama Die - Featured Image - Picture of Krishna playing the flute with the sun setting behind him. Representing the fall of the Yadavas

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes.

This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 58: Dhritarashtra Dies. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Curse of the Three Sages

It so happens that about thirty six years after the events of Kurukshetra, three sages – Kanva, Vishwamitra and Narada – arrive together in Dwaraka, to be welcomed by some Vrishni heroes, among whom is a man named Samba, one of the sons of Pradyumna.

Causing this man to be dressed as a pregnant woman (with a millstone under his garment), a bunch of louts attempt to play a trick on the sages. They present the disguised Samba to them and ask, ‘Tell us, O Sages, if you know for certain what this woman will bring forth. A son or a daughter?’

The three sages can easily see through the disguise. With their eyes blazing in anger, they say that Samba will bring forth a fierce iron bolt that will bring about the destruction of the Yadavas.

‘The Andhakas, the Bhojas and the Vrishnis will all perish with the exception of Balarama and Krishna. That blessed one with a plough will enter the ocean, and Hrishikesha will be shot through the foot by the arrow of a hunter named Jara.’

After passing their curse, the sages seek an audience with Krishna and inform him of the matter. The brother of Balarama is sanguine at hearing this, because he remembers Gandhari’s curse after the Kurukshetra war.

He has been expecting something of this sort to happen.

Escaping Destiny

However, Ugrasena is determined to try fighting the course of destiny. He orders the iron bolt to be reduced to fine powder, and for the powder to be mixed into the ocean.

At the same time, he sends out an announcement that no one in the kingdom is allowed to manufacture wine or any other intoxicant. Dwaraka thus enters a period of forced prohibition on wine due to Ugrasena’s order.

While the city is grappling with its fate, the embodied form of Time (Kala) visits the houses of Dwaraka every day. He looks like a man of terrible aspect: bald, dark and tawny.

The mighty bowmen among the Vrishnis try to shoot him down whenever they spot him, but none of their arrows hurt him, and night after night he returns, swarming the streets with rats and cracking their earthen pots.

Seeing these omens, the Vrishnis descend into sinful behaviour which hastens their end.

Journey to the Seashore

The Vrishnis, surrounded by many black omens, adopt a wicked way of life, characteristic of people who expect to be killed soon.

Wives are said to deceive husbands, husbands are said to deceive wives, and when fires are ignited, we are told that they only cast their flames to the left. (This is supposed to be an evil omen.)

Only Krishna and Balarama are still living righteous lives. After mutely watching the degeneration of his clan for a while, Krishna decides that it is time for it to end. He brings out the Panchajanya and summons all his leaders.

‘The fourteenth lunation has been made the fifteenth by Rahu once more,’ he says, pointing to the sky. ‘Such a day has happened before at the time of the great battle of the Bharatas. It has once again appeared, it seems, for our destruction.

‘Thirty six years ago, Yudhishthir noticed the same omens surround him in the battleground, and then it foretold his victory and the destruction of the Kurus. Today, it is our turn. Let us therefore make a pilgrimage to the ocean’s shore, and let us bathe in the sacred waters.’

A Strange Dream

Around this time, as the city makes preparations to obey Krishna’s command, the Vrishni women begin to see a strange dream. In it, a woman of black complexion and white teeth enters their houses and runs through the streets, snatching from men the auspicious threads that hang by their waists.

Ornaments and umbrellas and standards and armour are seen to be taken away by this Rakshasa, and in their very sight, the discus of Krishna, given by Agni, rises to the firmament and disappears. The chariot, along with the four great horses, is also engulfed by the sky.

A number of Apsaras appear on the horizon and take away the chariot of Balarama as well, with its Palmyra banner, equipped with maces and the plough. At the same time, they exhort the people of Dwaraka to hurry on their way to the ocean.

As these dreams accost all the people of the city, they move as one toward the shore, and they set up a massive encampment on Prabhasa, overlooking the sea.

It is here that a fight breaks out between Satyaki and Kritavarma, and it is here that the Yadavas meet their end.

A Fight Erupts

The text does not mention it explicitly, but there is a hint that the water of the ocean – in which the iron bolt was dissolved – begins to have strange effects on the Vrishnis.

After they have all bathed in the saltwater and settled down to a night of revelry – with wine and meat – an argument develops out of the blue between Satyaki and Kritavarma, who fought on opposing sides in that long-ago battle.

The first salvo comes from Yuyudhana. ‘What sort of Kshatriya kills his enemies when they are asleep? Of all the different ways in which one can kill one’s enemy, this is the lowest! No wonder, O Kritavarma, that the Yadavas do not think of you as much of a hero.’

Kritavarma, himself balancing a goblet of wine in his hands, rises to his feet. ‘If you proclaim yourself a warrior, O Saineya, then why did you kill the unarmed Bhurishrava after he had given up his weapons and assumed the pose of meditation?’

Krishna oversees this quarrel in silence, and looks out at the darkening sky. Satyaki springs to his feet with a sword in hand. ‘I will avenge the deaths of Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi and the five sons of Draupadi, O Krishna,’ he proclaims.

‘This Kritavarma has lived long enough in the land of men. I will today send him to the land of Yama.’

Krishna Steps in

Krishna does not say anything, even as Satyaki marches over to Kritavarma in sight of the full assembly, and with one savage swipe of the sword, beheads him.

This happens with such chilling suddenness that for a moment, no one can believe their eyes. And then the Bhojas turn on Satyaki with their weapons raised, with Pradyumna calling the Vrishnis to arms in Satyaki’s support.

Thus, the Bhojas and the Vrishnis begin to fight, but the latter are so outnumbered that they get slaughtered.

Satyaki and Pradyumna are both among the casualties.

Krishna now steps into the fore, and uproots a clutch of grass blades that turn into iron bolts in his hands. One by one he hurls them at the fighting men, and each time a missile makes contact, it leaves only a charred black spot in its wake.

Balarama also joins in the carnage, helping Krishna annihilate his own countrymen, and as all the Yadava heroes – Charudeshna, Aniruddha, Samba, Gada – hit the ground lifeless, Balarama leaves the place in disgust.

Krishna continues to kill the Vrishnis in the hundreds and thousands, until Daruka comes and stops him. ‘Your elder brother has gone somewhere, sir,’ he says. ‘I think we should follow him.’

Krishna finds Balarama

Daruka, Krishna and Babhru leave that spot immediately in an attempt to track down Balarama in his retreat. They find him at a distance in the woods, reclining in thought against a tree.

As soon as they spot him, Krishna sends Daruka off on a mission to carry the message of the Vrishni massacre to Arjuna.

To Babhru he says, ‘Go and protect the ladies of Dwaraka. Arjuna will come to rescue them in due course.’

But as the prince proceeds a short distance in the direction of the city, an iron bolt appears in the sky, and rotating around its own axis like a hunter’s mallet, crushes the skull of Babhru and kills him on the spot.

Krishna watches this without any reaction, and after spending a short moment in silence, he tells Balarama, ‘I will go and see to the ladies’ care, Brother. But I will come back.’

Balarama Dies

He enters the city of Dwaravati and seeks out his father, Vasudeva. ‘Gather all the ladies of court in one place, Father,’ he says, ‘and wait for the arrival of Arjuna from Hastinapur. At the outskirts of the forest, Balarama awaits me. I must go to him.

‘This great carnage of the Vrishnis has been ordained by fate, just as the destruction of the Kurus was. Let me now go and spend the rest of my life in penance in the company of my brother. I cannot bear to see this city deprived of all the heroes that had once built it.’

Touching Vasudeva’s feet with his hands, Krishna returns to the forest, even as wails of sorrow assail him from the women’s chambers. Upon reaching the tree under which Balarama had been sitting, Krishna notices that his brother had already assumed the yogic pose.

A white snake is in the process of exiting from Balarama’s mouth, a naga of a thousand heads with a form as great as a mountain, endued with red eyes. Krishna stands aside and watches the serpent as it slithers away toward the ocean.

No last words are exchanged between the brothers. Krishna knows that the body of Balarama is now but a shell, and his essence, that snake, would in due course be welcomed into the world of the Nagas with great honour.

He lets out a breath, and looks around for a tree to lean on. More and more, he feels like his time has come.

Krishna Dies

After his brother’s departure, Krishna wanders over the forest for a while, lost in thought. He then sits down on the bare earth, recollecting the words of Gandhari.

He knows that the death of the Vrishnis has followed the same path as that of the Kurus, but it has taken a frighteningly short time to play out. He knows now that his time has come, so he restrains his senses and enters a state of yoga.

At about this time, a hunter by name Jara enters that part of the woods, desirous of shooting a deer. Mistaking Krishna’s foot for an animal’s, he shoots an arrow through the heel of the prince of Dwaraka, drawing a stream of blood.

When he leaps out of the bushes, he is surprised to see a yellow-clad man rapt in meditation.

He throws away his weapon and falls at Krishna’s feet. ‘I am a sinner!’ he says. ‘I had no idea that you were here, O lord.’

But Krishna comforts the hunter, telling him that it is all part of the writ. In a few seconds, he takes his last breath, and his soul leaves his body and ascends directly to heaven.

We are told that Indra himself, along with the twin Ashwins and Rudra and the Adityas and the Vasus and the Vishwadevas and the Munis and the Siddhas, are present at the entrance to heaven as a gesture of welcome.

Krishna meets all the deities and accepts their worship. With the sages chanting verses in his honour and with Gandharvas singing his praises, and with Indra joyfully announcing his return, Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, enters heaven and takes his place among the celestials.

Arjuna Arrives

Meanwhile, Daruka reaches Hastinapur with Krishna’s message, and brings Arjuna back to Dwaraka. Seeing that city look like a woman bereft of her husband, the third Pandava is shocked at the amount of destruction that has taken place.

How can a city, he thinks, that had the lord of the universe as its protector be routed in this manner?

As per his brief, he visits the ladies’ chambers and meets with all the important women. He breaks down and weeps in front of Rukmini, Satyabhama, Devaki and the other Vrishni women.

The ladies sit down next to the fallen Pandava, and for a while they reminisce about the past days of glory, before Arjuna gets up and goes to visit Vasudeva, the father of Krishna.

The Kuru prince sees the husband of Devaki lying prostrate on the ground in his chamber, beaten and burning with grief. The son of Pritha, with his eyes filled with tears, touches the feet of his maternal uncle.

Vasudeva tries to smell the head of Arjuna, but fails to do so because of the extreme fatigue he has subjected his body to in order to welcome death.

Vasudeva dies shortly afterward, and Arjuna makes arrangements for the funeral.

Dwaraka Sinks

Arjuna gives the people of Dwaraka seven days to pack and leave. ‘I shall take away with me the remnants of the Vrishni and Andhaka tribes,’ he says.

‘The sea will soon engulf the city. Equip all your cars and place on them all your wealth. This Vajra, the grandson of Krishna, will be made your king in the city of Indraprastha. On the seventh day from this, we will set out.’

During the seven days, Arjuna sees to the rituals of many dead Vrishni warriors, and witnesses many wives willingly climb onto their husbands’ funeral pyres. The final procession that sets out of the city on the seventh day is a huge one.

It contains of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras segregated as per their orders, with Arjuna leading the sixteen thousand women that made up Krishna’s harem. Close on their heels are also the thousands of women who have been suddenly widowed by the fight on the seashore.

As the string of carts leaves the city, the sea begins to encroach upon its shore. As waves crash against the walls of Dwaraka and crush them into dust, as the shark-filled ocean swallows the city’s structures and wealth, the departing citizens quicken their pace.

‘How subtle is the way of fate!’ exclaims Arjuna, as he leads them to the land of five rivers and sets up an encampment in the midst of a land abounding with corn and cows. As the settlement lays down their tents, a band of robbers sees that this is an excellent opportunity.

These robbers attack the settlement, not knowing that they are being protected by Arjuna. Arjuna prepares to fight them off, but then he is no longer the warrior he once was.

Arjuna is Defeated

As robbers surround the Dwaraka camp, Arjuna holds aloft his Gandiva and issues a warning to their attackers. ‘Forbear, you sinful wretches!’ he says. ‘If you love your lives, you will leave us alone. You will rue this rash act when I pierce your bodies with my weapons.’

But the robbers disregard the words of Dhananjaya, and set about plundering all the gold and cows they can find. Seeing that they have to be fought off, Arjuna strings his bow, but he realizes that it feels heavier in his hand.

He then begins to recall some of the celestial weapons with which he fought the war of Kurukshetra, but none of them come to his mind. After attempting in vain to recall them, he tries to drive off the robbers with normal arrows, but he realizes that his quivers are no longer inexhaustible.

The attack ends up being very successful for the robbers, because they come away from it with minimal casualties, and a lot of looted wealth. They manage to rob a large number of women as well, along with gold and cows.

Seeing his enemies defeating him so easily, Arjuna once again proclaims out loud about the power of destiny, and resigns to thinking that he had been punished for some unseen sins.

He does not attempt to chase the robbers and free the women that they have taken away; instead, he orders his men to focus on the remaining Vrishni people, and to get them safely to Hastinapur.

Vyasa Explains

After the Vrishnis have been rescued, Arjuna goes to Vyasa in search of answers. The island-born sage is expecting the Pandava. After pleasantries have been dispensed with, he tells Arjuna:

‘The mighty warriors of the Vrishni and Andhaka tribes have met their death in accordance with the Brahmanas’ curse. You must not grieve for them.

‘Whatever has been ordained has happened. Krishna allowed himself to suffer through the calamity even though he was competent enough to stop it.

‘As for your own weapons, they were given to you for a purpose, O Prince. Now that the purpose has been fulfilled, they have been taken away from you. It is Time that gives, and it is Time that takes away.

‘The hour has come for the Pandavas to relinquish their thrones and go in search of their deaths. Everything that you achieve in this life, O Dhananjaya – wealth, prosperity, skill, renown, friendship – they are all given as loans.

‘At the end, you come into this life alone, and you must leave it alone as well. That is the nature of Time. So do not grieve the loss of your powers. Just be contented that they were once yours.’

After hearing this message, Arjuna takes his leave from Vyasa and sets out to Hastinapur. The Pandavas are now convinced that the time has come for them to embark upon their own final journeys.

We will see how that goes in our next – and final – episode.

Further Reading

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