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 15: The Rajasuya.
To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
When Krishna is given the arghya at the Rajasuya, none of the assembled kings display any signs of antagonism. Indeed, such behaviour would be seen as unlawful because they have all accepted Yudhishthir’s supremacy before the ceremony.
However, such compunctions do not seem to dissuade Shishupala, the king of Chedi and once right hand man of Jarasandha.
We are not given a good reason behind Shishupala’s motivations behind this act. We will speculate a little bit in this direction at the end of the post. First, let’s see the gist of his objections.
The moment he rises in his seat, he addresses Yudhishthir directly and asks him a list of questions that raise doubts about Krishna’s suitability to receive the arghya:
- On what grounds (he asks) are you honouring this man, O King? Is it on grounds of seniority, because if so, his father Vasudeva is right here. Why is he not being given the prime offering?
- If you’re feting him as a friend and kinsman, could he mean more to you than Drupada, who gave you his daughter and the strength of the Panchala kingdom when you were all mere beggars?
- Is he a matchless preceptor, perhaps? But then, with Dronacharya sitting amongst us, how could he be?
- Shall we think that he is a sage without peer, a Ritwija? But that would be folly, for we have Dwaipayana himself overseeing the sacrifice.
Then Shishupala goes on to name a number of people who he thinks are more deserving than Krishna – Bhishma, Duryodhana, Karna, Shalya etc. And he also reminds everyone of the ‘unethical way’ in which Krishna killed Jarasandha.
It is Bhishma who comes to Yudhishthir’s aid in responding to the king of Chedi, because after all, it is he who had recommended Krishna’s name. Instead of addressing Shishupala’s points, though, he resorts to a long monologue of praise and prayer.
His primary argument is that Shishupala and his ilk are too ignorant to understand the greatness of Krishna.
Among other things, says Bhishma, Krishna is:
- The prime mover of everything in the universe
- An incarnation of Narayana, and therefore the most powerful being in the world
- The protector of Dharma
- The eternal cause and consequence of every event that ever happens
- The most deserving of the honour at the Rajasuya in not only this world but in all three worlds
Now this is perfect for those in the assembly who already agree with Bhishma (and whose purposes are well-served by agreeing with him). But for those who think that the mythology surrounding Krishna is all propaganda and poppycock – like Shishupala – it infuriates them further.
To make things even more interesting, Sahadeva, the youngest of the Pandavas, now issues a threat out of nowhere. ‘If anyone opposes our acts,’ he says, quite unreasonably, ‘let it be considered that I have placed my right foot on their heads.’
Shishupala now sets about dismembering the stories around which the idea of Krishna is built, in the following fashion.
Shishupala Dismantles Krishna
‘Your words reek of shame and weakness, old one,’ says Shishupala to Bhishma in response. ‘You sing Krishna’s praises as if he is a god, but what has he done? He has killed a woman in Putana. He has killed the bull Arishtasura.
‘Has it not been said in our scriptures that women and kine are to be forever protected? Where is the virtue of this fellow? Do you not agree that these are sins that need to be punished?
‘You say he has lifted the Govardhana. Indeed, what is so heroic about lifting that little anthill? Whenever he has been faced with real men, he has chosen to flee from fighting, like he did with Jarasandha.
‘And then he strikes back with the means of a thief, entering through a gate reserved for beggars, disguised as a Brahmin, and killing our beloved king by means of deceit and trickery. Is this the greatness of a man you call the prime mover of the universe?
‘Even with Kamsa, he and his brother engineered an attack that is filled with subterfuge. Why, has he in his entire life fought one battle by fair means and won it?’
During this speech, Shishupala airs what we might term the anti-Krishna narrative, popular among his enemies.
These people contend that the whole biography of Krishna as a child – and his supporters’ insistence that he is a god – is nothing more than a carefully engineered branding project undertaken by the storytellers of Dwaraka. This is a view held by many kings of the world at the time; Shishupala happens to be their spokesperson in this instance.
A Curse for Bhishma
‘And what do we say of you, O Bhishma?’ says Shishupala. ‘You are like the swan in that old story, which always preaches the highest of virtues and convinces the rest of the birds to leave their eggs with it for safekeeping, only to eat them up at the first opportunity.
‘You speak of the Vedas in every sentence, Grandsire, but is it not true that all the good deeds of your life come to nought unless you have children?
‘Like that swan, you are just a speaker of good words with nothing to show for them, and like that swan, beware, you will be struck down by the very men whom you are now clutching to your bosom as loved ones.’
This veiled curse of Sisupala, it is to be noted, does come true. Bhishma does meet his end at the hands of Krishna and Arjuna in the Mahabharata war.
The Birth of Shishupala
Bhimasena stands up at this point in anger, intending to take matters into his own hands, but Bhishma stymies him and tells the assembly a story about Shishupala’s birth.
It so happens that Shishupala – born to King Damaghosha and Queen Srutashrava (sister to Kunti and Vasudeva) – takes birth with four arms and three eyes. He brays loudly like an ass, and every evil omen worth mentioning makes an appearance.
With Damaghosha contemplating giving up the boy, an invisible voice from the sky tells him: ‘Do not worry, O King. This son of yours will grow up to be a great ruler. No harm will come to you or your city due to him. He will not die in childhood. Indeed, he who is destined to kill him has also been born.’
Srutashrava, anxious to protect her son, asks the voice how they might identify the killer of her son. And the voice replies, ‘He upon whose lap, when you place the child, the extra arms will fall off and the extra eye will disappear will one day slay the prince.’
A Hundred Sins
The king and queen, from then on, make it a habit to invite monarchs from all over the place so that they can place their son in their laps. But the limbs and eye stay intact.
Then, Krishna and Balarama visit Chedi from Dwaraka. The very instant Sisupala is placed on Krishna’s lap, the arms fall off and the superfluous eye disappears. Queen Srutashrava, plunged in worry, addresses Krishna and says, ‘Dear Nephew, I would like to ask you for a boon.’
‘Anything you wish, Aunt, I shall do whether I am able or not,’ replies Krishna, playing with the boy on his lap.
‘Grant me that you will pardon the offences of Shishupala for my sake.’
Krishna smiles. ‘I cannot pardon every mistake of his, Aunt, but for your sake I promise to forgive him a hundred sins that are serious enough to get him slain otherwise. Now set your mind at rest.’
Finishing the tale, Bhishma tells Bhima, ‘It is with the arrogance of possessing this boon from Krishna that Shishupala rages thus. Do not interrupt him, child, for Krishna knows well what must be done. Leave it to him.’
Shishupala Challenges Krishna
Now Shishupala trains his focus at Krishna. ‘Why must we waste time in insulting Bhishma when it is you that deserves all our ire?’ he says. ‘You are nothing but a slave and a wretch. You are certainly no king.
‘If the Pandavas worship you out of selfishness, and if the world treats you as a hero out of ignorance, it is my duty today to peel those scales off and uncover you for who you truly are. Come, let us finish this today. Let me defeat you.’
Now Krishna, after having watched proceedings silently for a while, rises in his seat and addresses the assembly in a soft voice.
‘Respected guests of Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya,’ he says, ‘hear me tell you of the true colours of this man Sisupala. He is the son of a daughter of the Satwata race, indeed of my own aunt, but he is the very enemy of our clan.
‘When he heard that we had gone to the city of Pagjyotisha, he came to Dwaraka under the pretence of being a kinsman and burnt it. Indeed, Dwaraka cannot ever be claimed by outside forces, but how can one defend against attacks inflicted by one’s own?
‘When King Bhoja was sporting in the Raivataka hill, this fellow imprisoned many of the attendants of the king and led them away in chains to Chedi. When my father, the pious Vasudeva, was performing the Ashwamedha sacrifice, Shishupala stole the horse and obstructed our activities.
‘He ravished the reluctant wife of Akrura when she was on her way from Dwaraka to the country of the Sauviras. Disguising himself as the king of Karusha, he also tricked Bhadra, that pious princess, intended as a bride for someone else.
‘All these and other sins of this man I bore patiently, in accordance to a boon I have given long ago to my aunt, the Queen Mother of Chedi. But today his time runs out.
‘In the presence of you all, I shall punish him for his deeds, with apologies to my aunt who must grieve the passing of someone even so wicked just because he is her son.’
Saying this, Krishna summons his Sudarshana Chakra and lets it fly in Shishupala’s direction.
For all of Shishupala’s bravado, the final duel with Krishna is not much of a duel. The Sudarshana Chakra wastes no time beheading the king of Chedi, and he falls to his death right there in the middle of the assembly.
When the strengths of the two characters are so unevenly matched, one wonders why Shishupala chose this particular occasion to publicly humiliate Krishna in this manner. What did he hope to achieve?
First, it seems to me that Shishupala did not expect that Krishna would attack him at the ceremony. He was counting on being secure in the midst of a ‘holy’ occasion. He perhaps thought that no matter how high the provocation, Krishna would not respond.
But still, that leaves this question unanswered: After having accepted Yudhishthir’s supremacy at the beginning, why did he turn against him at the Rajasuya?
One possible explanation is that it was an impulsive act. Shishupala intended to grin and bear the shift of power, but the sight of Krishna being given the prime seat of honour rankles him to a point where he can no longer control himself.
Why does Shishupala do this?
Another possibility is that this is a planned assault. Instead of attacking the Pandavas on the battlefield, he chooses to attack them at a place where he knows that they will be unable to take up arms. Knowing that he is not strong or skilled enough to defeat them in a battle of weapons, he attempts to engage them psychologically by ruining their Rajasuya.
What he hopes to achieve by this is some sort of mutiny: say he is able to garner the support of a fraction of assembled kings. If he can stage a walk-out from the ceremony, and Yudhishthir’s overlordship is brought into question, the Rajasuya stands incomplete, and the Pandavas have to begin their process all over again.
But – for his plan to work, the Pandavas have to play their parts as nice guys: if any of them call Shishupala’s bluff and challenges him to a duel, then all bets are off.
For a while this goes swimmingly for Shishupala, because as Bhima and Arjuna get angry at the king of Chedi, they get pulled back by Yudhishthir, who wants to keep the ceremony clean of violence.
But unfortunately for him, Krishna sees through the plan – and just as the assembly begins to rumble with dissent toward Yudhishthir and Bhishma – he steps up and says, ‘Enough is enough.’ He hurls his discus, kills Shishupala, and saves Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya.
This establishes Yudhishthir as the emperor of Aryavarta. It also sets a precedent for unholy incidents happening in civilized assemblies of kings. In the next one, it is Yudhishthir and the Pandavas who are on the receiving end. And Duryodhana who is executing the strategy.
He does it slightly better than Shishupala, as we will see.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
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- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered