Mahabharata Episode 32: Krishna Becomes Charioteer

Krishna Becomes Charioteer - Featured Image - Picture of Krishna with his flute and peacock feathers, lost in contemplation

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 31: End of the Virata Parva. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Asking for Anarta

One of the most important allies one can have in the upcoming war – assuming peace talks fail – is Anarta, the kingdom ruled by Balarama with all the Vrishni and Yadava clans united under his banner.

After the (unnamed) priest of Drupada has been dispatched to Hastinapur, Arjuna and Duryodhana set out at the same time to Dwaraka, and they reach the fabled city on the same day.

They seek an audience with Krishna at the same moment, with Duryodhana arriving just a few seconds before Arjuna. Krishna is sleeping at this time, and Duryodhana sits at the head of the bed. Arjuna, meanwhile, stands at the feet of the Dwaraka prince with his hands joined.

And when Krishna awakes, he first sees Arjuna and greets him, and then sees Duryodhana and asks him for the purpose of his visit.

‘I have come to seek your help in the impending war, O Madhusudana,’ says Duryodhana. ‘And today I came to you first; indeed, it was I who entered this chamber before Arjuna did. So it behooves you to first attend to my request.’

Krishna smiles. ‘You may have come first, Duryodhana, but I saw Arjuna first. It has lso been said that if two people equally dear to you approach you for help, you attend to the needs of the younger one first. So Arjuna, I am afraid, is entitled to first choice. But do not fear; I will help you both, and perhaps both of you will leave here getting what you wish.

Krishna Offers Himself

‘There is a large body of cowherds,’ says Krishna, ‘numbering a hundred million, called the Narayanas. They all fight like seasoned warriors. I offer the services of this entire horde to one of you, whereas I alone will go to the other.

‘But remember that I will not fight in this war; the Kauravas and the Pandavas are equally loved by me. I cannot bring myself to take up arms against any of you. So I will come to the other side as a guide alone, not fighting, merely observing. Arjuna, you get the first pick. Which of the two will you pick?’

Arjuna does not hesitate even for a moment. ‘I choose you, O Vasudeva,’ he says.

And Duryodhana happily accepts the offer of the Narayanas who would actively fight for him.

(Here, of course, it is implied that had Duryodhana been given the first opportunity, he would have picked the Narayana army anyway over Krishna. So the matter of whether Krishna made the offer first to Arjuna or Duryodhana is irrelevant.)

Balarama Hedges

Duryodhana then goes to Balarama and asks for his support. But the king says, ‘Both Krishna and I have decided that Anarta will not take sides in this war, O Prince. If you are to fight, I hope that you do so in accordance with all the rules that have been laid out by generations of kings.’

Duryodhana accepts Balarama’s blessings, and on the way back, meets Kritavarma as well, who gives the Kaurava prince a whole Akshauhini of troops. Duryodhana heads back to Hastinapur at the head of this force, delighted at the way his trip to Anarta panned out.

Balarama in fact goes on a pilgrimage while the war is fought in Kurukshetra. Though he claims here that this decision to keep Anarta neutral has been taken in consultation with Krishna, later events suggest that the latter is unhappy about it.

From a practical point of view, though, Anarta is best served by not fighting a war in which almost every kingdom is forced to take sides.

By pledging only a small portion of the kingdom’s resources – Krishna’s Narayana army, Satyaki and his forces, Kritavarma and his – Balarama is ensuring that no matter what the outcome of the war, Anarta will emerge from the ruins the most powerful kingdom in the world.

Krishna Becomes Charioteer

Later, Krishna asks Arjuna why he chose him instead of his army. ‘I have no doubt that I am capable of vanquishing an army of any size, Vasudeva,’ replies Arjuna. ‘But you are the most illustrious of all men, known and loved all over Aryavarta.

‘Anyone fighting you will only gain disrepute, whereas one who has you by his side will earn a portion of your fame. My brothers and I want wealth, Krishna, but not at the expense of renown.’

‘You have chosen well, my friend,’ says Krishna, ‘as I knew you would. Duryodhana, I think, would have chosen the army even if I had given him first pick. I dare say both of you got what you deserved. Now tell me – I am at your command. In what capacity shall I serve you on the battlefield?’

‘It has been my long-cherished desire, O Madhava,’ says Arjuna, ‘that you guide me through the battle by becoming my charioteer.’

‘So be it,’ says Krishna.

Duryodhana Woos Shalya

The king of Madra, the brother of Madri, Shalya, wishes to fight (naturally) on the side of the Pandavas.

But as he sets out from Madra at the head of a small retinue of soldiers and courtiers to Upaplavya, with the intention of proclaiming his allegiance to the sons of Pandu, Duryodhana sets up a clever ruse to win him over.

The Kaurvava orders that palaces of refreshment be built along the path between Madra and Upaplavya. Each palace is equipped with all the luxuries a king could ask for – sumptuous food, large numbers of servants, alcohol, water to drink and sport in, and so on.

After making the first two stops, Shalya is immensely pleased with these arrangements, and thinking that it is the Pandavas who are behind this, orders one of the servants to bring them out into the open so that he might reward them.

The servant in question tells of this to Duryodhana, and when he presents himself before Shalya, the king is surprised. But he also feels beholden to the Kauravas for this gesture, and says, ‘I must repay you in some way, O Prince. Tell me what you want.’

And Duryodhana answers, ‘I wish that you would become the commander of our army in the upcoming war, Your Majesty. There is nothing else that my heart wishes for.’

Shalya does not like it, but since he has already given his word, he shrugs and says, ‘Well, what else is there to say? My whole Akshauhini of forces will fight on your side, Duryodhana. May victory be yours.’

Shalya the Spy

After this promise is given, Duryodhana leaves for Hastinapur, and Shalya resumes on his journey to Upaplavya. After he is welcomed by the Pandavas and pleasantries have been exchanged, the king tells them about what happened with Duryodhana.

Yudhishthir is not fazed. ‘It is great that you have decided to fight on Duryodhana’s side, O King. But I wonder if I can ask you for a wish of my own.’

‘Of course you can, my son.’

‘Shalya, King of Madra,’ says Yudhishthir. ‘You are often said to be equal unto Krishna in battle. There will come a time in the upcoming war when Arjuna and Karna will be locked in combat. Krishna will be Arjuna’s charioteer. I wish that you contrive to make it happen so that you are Karna’s. And from that position, do what you can to tilt the duel in Arjuna’s favour.’

Shalya gives him his word to do what he can, and he also tells Yudhishthir that during the other days of battle as well, he will see do ‘whatever it takes’ to allow the Pandavas to gain ascendency.

Thus does Duryodhana win the services of a maharatha and his army on paper, but little does he know that the man intends to fight for his enemy while standing on his side.

Pandava Allies

Altogether, eighteen Akshauhinis assemble on both sides to fight the war of Kurukshetra. Seven of these Akshauhinis fight on the side of the Pandavas, and eleven on the side of the Kauravas.

(To know what an Akshauhini is, see Story 3 in: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Adi Parva.)

Note that the two parties set about securing allies before the peace negotiations have ended. This is fairly standard practice because (a) one needs to be prepared for the worst, and (b) one needs to negotiate from a position of knowledge – both of one’s own strengths and one’s opponent’s.

Anyway, here’s how the Pandava side stacks up:

  • Yuyudhana (also called Satyaki) of the Vrishni clan brings one Akshauhini of forces.
  • Kuntibhoja and Shurasena (kings of Kunti and Shurasena respectively) offer one Akshauhini.
  • Dhrishtaketu of the Chedis (the son of Shishupala) pledges one Akshauhini of troops.
  • Jayatsena and Sahadeva, the sons of Jarasandha, come to fight at the head of one Akshauhini.
  • Drupada and Dhrishtadyumna together bring one Akshauhini.
  • Virata lends support to his new family members with one Akshauhini.
  • The Pandyas, the Cholas and some other small tribes all make up one Akshauhini.

It is interesting to note that Jayatsena and Dhrishtaketu choose to fight on the side of their fathers’ killers (Bhima and Krishna respectively), but one can also see this as an act of loyalty for having been given the throne.

There are a couple of notable omissions in the above list: the first is Ghatotkacha, who brings a band of Rakshasas with him. The second is Iravana, son of Ulupi and Arjuna, who leads a small force of Nagas.  

This shows how important it was for the Pandavas to kill Jarasandha and Shishupala all those years ago. If they had not, today these two Akshauhinis would have fought for Duryodhana. The balance would have been 5-13 in the Kauravas’ favour – far too lopsided.

Kaurava Allies

Now the Kauravas:

  • Bhagadatta, king of Pragjyotisha, offers one Akshauhini of troops to Duryodhana.
  • Shalya, king of Madra, gives one Akshauhini and becomes one of the commanders of the Kuru army while being a Pandava spy.
  • Nila of Mahishmati brings one Akshauhini.
  • Kritavarma lends one Akshauhini of Yadava forces.
  • Jayadratha, the king of Sindhu, arrives to fight at the head of one Akshauhini.
  • Sudakshina of the Kambhoja race, along with Yavanas and Sakas, make up one Akshauhini.
  • Vinda and Anuvinda from Avanti bring one Akshauhini.
  • The Kalingas offer one Akshauhini.
  • From Gandhara, with Shakuni as its head, one Akshauhini of troops come to fight.
  • Susharma of Trigarta – he who loses to Virata’s army during the Goharana Parva – also brings one Akshauhini.
  • The Kekayas, comprised of five brothers, bring one Akshauhini.

On top of this is the Narayana army that Krishna has also pledged. Some versions of the Mahabharata contend that the cowherds are part of the Akshauhini that Kritavarma gives Duryodhana, but I tend to favour the narrative that they are separate forces.

Of these, we will keep a special eye on Bhagadatta, who gives an excellent account of himself during the battle atop his elephant named Supratika.

The army of Susharma also plays an important role because they take the vow of fighting to the death against Arjuna. They become known as the Samshaptakas, and divert Arjuna on the fateful thirteenth day when Abhimanyu is killed.

Drupada’s Priest Returns

Meanwhile, the priest sent by Drupada on Yudhishthir’s behalf strikes far too confrontational a tone in the Kuru court. He threatens Duryodhana with dire consequences if he chooses not to give the Pandavas their kingdom back.

Dhritarashtra and Pandu are two sons born of the same father,’ says the priest, ‘and therefore they are both equally deserving of a share in the ancestral property. The sons of Dhritarashtra, however, have seen it fit to take all that comes their way for themselves.’

The priest frames the conversation to imply that the Pandavas are equal heirs to the throne. But of course, the counter-argument – and Karna makes it – is that only the eldest son of the king is considered the heir. Not all the sons of all the brothers.

But even if all the brothers are for some reason thought to be equal heirs, then the kingdom should be divided into a hundred and five parts, with a hundred for the Kauravas and five for the Pandavas.

Needless to say, these talks fail – not least because Duryodhana feels that if he were to agree, the world would consider him a coward.

But Krishna offers to make one last ditch attempt to bring matters to a conciliatory end. We will see more of his effort in the next episode.

Further Reading

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