Krishna: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Hero

Krishna Guide - Featured Image - Picture of a flute with peacock feathers attached to the lip

Krishna is considered by many to be the main protagonist of the Mahabharata.

Krishna is the son of Devaki, the princess of Mathura, and Vasudeva, the prince of Shurasena. He takes birth inside a prison-cell and is then transported across the river Yamuna by Vasudeva to the house of Nanda and Yashoda in Vrindavan.

For the first fourteen years of his life, he is fostered at the cowherd settlement of Vrindavan. His half-brother Balarama, with whom he shares a father, is also present with him during this period.

Krishna’s first act of significance is to liberate the city of Mathura from the tyrannical hold of Kamsa. This attracts the ire of Jarasandha the king of Magadha, who chases Krishna and Balarama out of Mathura into the deep west.

The two brothers then found the city of Dwaraka, and build a kingdom around it – named Anarta. Here they unite a number of small warring Vrishni factions.

In the Mahabharata, Krishna – through his friendship with Arjuna – helps the Pandavas regain their kingdom from their cousins, the Kauravas.

In this guide, we will cover everything you need to know about Krishna.

(For more Mahabharata character guides, please see: 56 Mahabharata Characters that will Never Cease to Amaze You.)

Contents

Before Birth

At the time of Krishna’s birth, the kingdom of Mathura is in the middle of an upheaval. Its long-time king, Ugrasena, has just been pushed aside from the throne by his son, Kamsa.

Along with a new regime come new political philosophies and aspirations. While Ugrasena was friendly with the Yadavas of the west and regarded Magadha and the eastern kingdoms with a sceptical eye, Kamsa takes the opposite view.

He decides that there is more verve and upward mobility possible in friendship with Jarasandha of Magadha. For this to happen, he must necessarily cut ties with the likes of Shurasena and Kunti, and forge an alliance with Magadha.

Whether Jarasandha is the instigator of this relationship or whether it was Kamsa who sought the older man’s audience, we do not know. But they find a kindred spirit in each other.

Kamsa is understood to have imprisoned Devaki and Vasudeva out of fear for a curse that their eighth child will kill him. But of course, that does not explain why he chooses to imprison them from the start of their marriage, or why he kills the first seven children.

A more plausible explanation is that Kamsa holds Vasudeva and Devaki to ransom, in order to control the behaviour of Shurasena.

With the prince held captive in his prison, Kamsa can command the kingdom of Shurasena to do anything he wishes. As long as Shurasena wants to keep Vasudeva safe, they will obey Kamsa’s instructions.

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Birth of Krishna

Krishna is born into this milieu. It is an interesting question to ponder how Balarama was born to Rohini when Vasudeva remains prisoner in Mathura.

The magical explanation is that Balarama is actually the son of Vasudeva and Devaki. He is then transported from Devaki’s womb to Rohini’s womb by an act of divine intervention.

If we are to search for a more natural-sounding chain of events, we may surmise that Kamsa allowed for conjugal visits for his prisoner. Or at the very least, he allowed for occasional family visits and Rohini manages to get pregnant with Vasudeva’s child on one such visit – with or without Kamsa’s knowledge.

On the night of Krishna’s birth, all the prison guards in Kamsa’s palace fall asleep, and the chains holding Vasudeva magically unfasten themselves. He then carries the young boy on his head across the river Yamuna to a sleepy little cowherd village called Vrindavan.

The Yamuna parts for Vasudeva to pass. Sesha the divine serpent shelters the infant Krishna from the rain as Vasudeva carries him across the river.

On a more realistic level, Krishna may have been smuggled out of Kamsa’s prison by King Shurasena after successfully bribing the required guards. Balarama and Krishna are then safely fostered at Vrindavan without anyone’s knowledge.

Shurasena’s plan is to have these children grow up in anonymity – because if Kamsa knows of their existence, he would harm Vasudeva – and have them reclaim Mathura when the time is right.

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Vrindavan

Balarama and Krishna are the only two surviving sons of Vasudeva. Both of them are brought to Vrindavan to be raised in secret at the house of Nanda and Yashoda.

All the other children of Vasudeva have been killed by Kamsa. As far as Kamsa knows, he has successfully stopped Vasudeva from having children.

For this plan to work as per Shurasena’s wishes, it is important that the two boys be raised entirely without any contact with their ‘real’ family. Only when they’re ready to be deployed on their mission of overthrowing Kamsa can they be told who they are.

Only Nanda appears to know the true identity of his sons. Even Yashoda – who knows that the children are not hers – does not know that they are actually princes of a Great Kingdom.

Shurasena plays the waiting game as Krishna and Balarama grow up in Vrindavan. He does not make any overt attempts to contact his grandchildren. If he keeps tabs on them through Nanda, he does so very discreetly.

For Krishna’s part, he grows up the darling of the village. His time in Vrindavan in punctuated by four events or phases:

  • When he is no older than a suckling infant, he kills Pootana, a witch who poisons babies with her breast milk.
  • As a boy, he liberates the lake of Kalindi from a serpent named Kaliya.
  • As he grows into adolescence, he becomes dear to all the women of Vrindavan, and makes it a habit to meet them for all-night dances in the moonlight.
  • Just before his departure from Vrindavan, he lifts up the Govardhana mountain on his little finger.

Soon after all these exploits, when Shurasena decides that the time is right, he sends guards to Vrindavan to take Krishna and Balarama to Mathura.

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Killing Kamsa

The age of Krishna at the time of killing Kamsa is a matter of great dispute. Some readers claim that he is yet to reach adolescence, and they also insist that the Rasa Leela of Krishna is composed of devotion, not romanticism.

According to some others, Krishna is already an adult by the time he arrives in Mathura. In this scenario, Krishna has already fallen in love with Radha in Vrindavan, and has participated in the ‘sexual awakening’ of many milkmaids in the village.

We will take the middle-ground in this debate and place Krishna at the age of fourteen when he leaves Vrindavan.

The manner of Krishna’s killing of Kamsa is best described as an assassination. He does not challenge Kamsa to a duel. Nor does he introduce himself or perform any of the ‘just’ actions expected of a warrior.

He and Balarama gain entrance into the palace grounds disguised as participants in a wrestling tournament. They defeat two of Kamsa’s court wrestlers, Chanura and Mustika.

At the moment when Kamsa is about to give the two winners of the tournament their due prizes, Krishna pounces on the king. Before any of the guards or assembled citizens can react, he murders him by wringing his neck.

By the time the officers of Kamsa come to their senses, Balarama announces himself and his younger brother as the ‘liberators’ of Mathura. They find plenty of support among the common citizens, and in no time at all they begin a new reign.

One of their first acts is to free Devaki and Vasudeva from imprisonment. Then, they also liberate Ugrasena the old king and place him on the throne.

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The Anger of Jarasandha

The new regime under Ugrasena of course re-introduces many of the policies of old Mathura. With Krishna and Balarama overseeing this transfer of power, Mathura once again allies itself with Shurasena and cuts off ties with Magadha.

This angers Jarasandha because he sees this – rightly – as an act of provocation. All these years he has cultivated a strong friendship with Kamsa, and has even given his two daughters in marriage to him.

Now two secret sons of Vasudeva have turned up from nowhere and assassinated the king. They have successfully completed a coup and have taken Mathura from him – without even needing to fight for it.

Jarasandha now does what any king in his position would do. He begins to apply military pressure on Mathura.

Over the years, he has earned the support and friendship of Chedi as well, whose ruler Damaghosha, despite being married to the daughter of Shurasena, switches allegiance during Kamsa’s rule.

Jarasandha now uses Chedi’s support to launch a series of attacks on Mathura’s eastern border, testing Krishna and Balarama’s abilities to hold their new kingdom together.

Krishna tries to fight Magadha on a few occasions, but the twin problems of keeping Mathura united internally while handling external pressure from Jarasandha prove to be too much.

After a while of suffering in this manner, Krishna makes the decision to leave Mathura to Magadha.

He takes all the citizens of Mathura who are sympathetic to their cause and migrates to the far west. There, on the shores of the sea, he proposes to build a new city which will ally itself with Shurasena and the Yadavas, and which will one day return to reclaim Mathura from Jarasandha.

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Dwaraka and Anarta

When Krishna and Balarama arrive at the seaside on the western coast, they have no resources to speak of. They’re accompanied by a few (hundred) citizens of Mathura who have followed them on this new quest.

They may have brought a few cattle with them, maybe some gold. But they have left all the true wealth of Mathura behind for Jarasandha to keep. This is their peace offering, an offering that Jarasandha is only happy to receive.

In this new land, a number of Vrishni factions are constantly at war with one another. No one has attempted to unite them under a single banner. The tribes have always been considered too violent, with histories going back several generations.

With support from the treasury of Shurasena, Krishna and Balarama set themselves this task: to unite the Vrishnis, and to found a kingdom that will espouse their common values.

This kingdom will operate with a capital built on the shore of the sea, almost backed up against the ocean.

How Krishna and Balarama complete this quest of bringing the Vrishnis together, we do not know. But in a couple of years, they succeed, and thus the kingdom of Anarta is born.

The capital of Anarta is the fabled city of Dwaraka, which Krishna and Balarama together build.

Anarta is well-placed geographically to ally with Shurasena and Kunti. It is also well-placed to harvest the unified power of the Vrishnis, which allows Krishna to bring warriors like Kritavarma and Satyaki together on common causes.

By the time this project ends, and just as Krishna and Balarama are looking to find more allies in their long-term feud against Jarasandha, Drupada invites them to Hastinapur for his daughter’s swayamvara.

This is where Krishna’s life intersects with the Mahabharata timeline.

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Draupadi’s Swayamvara

Krishna’s first appearance in the Mahabharata story happens at Draupadi’s swayamvara. He comes to Drupada’s palace accompanied by Balarama. They are invited guests, but as soon as they arrive, they announce that they’ve come merely as spectators.

In other words, they rule themselves out as competitors for Draupadi’s hand.

Krishna watches proceedings at the ceremony carefully. When a Brahmin youth succeeds in winning Drupada’s archery test when famed kings have failed, Krishna has no trouble guessing that the man is Arjuna.

And when another brawny Brahmin defeats Shalya in a mace fight, Krishna is certain that he is none other than Bhimasena.

He tells Balarama of his suspicions, and the two of them follow the Pandavas back to their hut as they escort Draupadi home. After confirming their doubts, Krishna and Balarama introduce themselves to Kunti and their cousins.

This is the first recorded meeting between Krishna and the Pandavas. He does not linger all that long at the Pandavas’ hut, wisely sensing that they have just welcomed Draupadi into their midst and may therefore need some privacy.

Some people speculate that Krishna has had a hand in the decision to make Draupadi the common wife of the Pandavas. But in reality, Krishna and Balarama leave before the conversation about Draupadi’s sharing begins.

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Krishna Hosts Arjuna

Toward the end of Arjuna’s self-imposed twelve-year exile, he stops at Dwaraka and spends a few weeks at Prabhasa in the company of Krishna. This is the first time that the two men spend an extended amount of time with each other.

The seeds of their long-standing friendship take root here.

Krishna is so impressed by Arjuna that he makes a suggestion to his friend to abduct Subhadra – Balarama’s sister – against her wishes in order to signal his interest in her.

Arjuna is hesitant at first, but Krishna reminds him that carrying away maidens by force is just a message of intent, and is approved by scriptures. He even recalls the story of how Bhishma carried away the princesses of Kosala all those years ago.

Convinced by this line of reasoning, Arjuna sends a message to Yudhishthir first, and upon receiving his brother’s blessings, carries out Krishna’s orders.

After Arjuna carries Subhadra away (though he waits with her just outside Anarta, awaiting word from Krishna), Balarama and the Vrishnis fly into a temper, calling for war against the Pandavas.

Krishna scoffs at this, and soothes Balarama’s frayed nerves. ‘Arjuna has done us an honour by offering us this alliance. He is the most powerful hero in the world. Who else can we find that is a better match?’

After some cajoling, Balarama agrees to the marriage. Arjuna marries Subhadra, and they have a son called Abhimanyu.

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The Sudarshana Chakra

Shortly after Arjuna and Subhadra return to Hastinapur, Krishna comes to visit them. Krishna and Arjuna spend some time alone together again, this time around the forest of Khandava.

Here, Agni approaches Arjuna, and enlists his help in devouring the woods. When Arjuna asks why, Agni replies that a hundred-year sacrifice conducted by a king called Swetaki has constipated him. Now, Brahma has agreed to let him swallow up the Khandava forest so that he might regain his lost power.

Arjuna agrees to help Agni. Agni then tells the two Krishnas that Indra is liable to attack them during Agni’s rampage, because his dear friend Takshaka the Naga lives there.

In order to help them fight off Indra effectively, Agni gives them a number of weapons. Among them is the Sudarshana Chakra, which Krishna keeps for the rest of his life.

The slaughter of Khandava plays an important role in the Mahabharata, though it receives only a cursory mention. After the forest is eliminated and levelled, Yudhishthir claims the land as his own, and annexes it to his kingdom.

This is the first of Yudhishthir’s expansionist activities. Soon after, he will embark upon the Rajasuya, and seek to become emperor to the entire world.

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Killing Jarasandha

When Krishna comes to know that Yudhishthir is looking to perform the Rajasuya, he pitches to the Pandavas the idea that unless Jarasandha of Magadha is killed, no other king can claim the title of emperor.

Around this time Jarasandha is himself preparing for a sacrifice in which he plans to behead a hundred kings, whose kingdoms he has seized in the past.

In Krishna’s narrative about Jarasandha, we get an image of a cruel and ruthless tyrant – which is not surprising because Krishna wants to use the Pandavas as tools to get rid of Jarasandha.

There may have some truth to the idea that Jarasandha also wishes to become emperor. But we must also allow for the fact that at least some of what Krishna relates to the Pandavas about the Magadha king is propaganda.

In any case, Krishna volunteers to take Arjuna and Bhima to Magadha, disguised as Brahmins. The three of them succeed in gaining an audience with the king, during which Krishna introduces himself and challenges Jarasandha to a wrestling match.

Jarasandha picks Bhima for his opponent, and the duel happens in the official arena, overseen by Jarasandha’s courtiers. In this match, Bhima kills Jarasandha.

The three of them install Jarasandha’s son on the throne and ensure that he accepts Yudhishthir’s supremacy. Thus, with Jarasandha removed from Yudhishthir’s path, it is only a matter of time before he becomes emperor.

With Jarasandha’s death, the kingdom of Mathura is once again free to align itself with Shurasena. Krishna has thus succeeded in using artifice to kill his old enemy, and to earn back his lost city.

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Killing Shishupala

After liberating Mathura for a second time, Krishna’s work is still unfinished because Chedi, the kingdom once ruled by Damaghosha and now under Shishupala, is still refusing to align with Shurasena.

When he learns of Jarasandha’s death, Shishupala pretends to accept Yudhishthir’s leadership and invites Bhimasena to stay in Chedi as an honoured guest. But at the Rajasuya ceremony, he attempts to engineer a revolt by bringing into question Yudhishthir’s fitness as emperor.

Some of the Pandavas react with anger at Shishupala’s words, and want to attack him. But Yudhishthir thinks it’s improper to attack a guest on a sacred occasion.

Shishupala, in fact, counts on this; he knows he is no match for the Pandavas in battle. But he knows that Yudhishthir will refrain from violence at the sacrificial ceremony.

For a long time, everyone stays silent and listens to Shishupala’s monologue. Finally, he provokes a response from Sahadeva, who makes a threat that he will kill anyone who opposes Yudhishthir in his presentation of arghya to Krishna.

This threat tips the scales in favour of Shishupala. More and more kings rise in their seats and say, ‘We do not accept Yudhishthir’s supremacy if he is going to insult us like this.’

Seeing that Shishupala might just get away with fomenting a public uprising against Yudhishthir, Krishna decides that enough is enough. He addresses the assembly, tells them that he is going to punish Shishupala for a number of past deeds, and beheads the king of Chedi with a decisive swipe of the Sudarshana Chakra.

Yudhishthir’s coronation as emperor, therefore, happens in the midst of bloodshed.

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Krishna Rescues Draupadi

At the dice game, when Yudhishthir stakes and loses Draupadi to Duryodhana, Duhsasana is ordered to drag Draupadi by the hair and to present at her at court.

A debate occurs then about whether Yudhishthir had the legal right or not to pledge Draupadi. Karna argues successfully that he did, and then proceeds to call Draupadi a prostitute for publicly taking five paramours.

He instructs Duhsasana to disrobe Draupadi right there in public, in full view of attending men.

Nobody raises an objection to this. As Duhsasana begins to peel off Draupadi’s clothing, she prays to Krishna. Krishna makes a divine appearance in Hastinapur’s court, and sends reams upon reams of garments to cover Draupadi’s body.

Duhsasana keeps pulling off the clothes as they appear. But Krishna’s magic is such that the river of fabric never stops flowing. Draupadi’s honour is thus preserved.

However, it must be said that Krishna’s intervention in this scene is inconsistent with what happens later. At the beginning of the Pandavas’ exile, Krishna gives a lengthy explanation for why he was not present at the dice game, and how he would have prevented the whole thing if he had been around.

Also, after Krishna’s magical appearance at Hastinapur, he leaves just as suddenly, and it is left to Vidura to protect Draupadi’s honour by making a plea to Dhritarashtra.

Regardless, Krishna’s rescue of Draupadi during the dice game is often treated as fact by storytellers, and the scene is considered one of the most important ones in the Mahabharata.

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The Exile Years

When the Pandavas go into the woods for their exile, Krishna takes a back seat and gets back to governing Anarta in his role as regent. During this time, Balarama nurtures his relationship with Duryodhana so that Anarta’s friendship with Kuru remains strong.

Krishna makes one appearance toward the end of the Pandavas’ exile. Duryodhana tries to drink the Pandavas into earning a curse from Durvasa by sending the sage to the Pandavas’ hut late after sunset, after Draupadi has washed all the utensils and put them away.

Durvasa brings with him a large entourage of sages, and they descend upon the Pandavas unannounced.

They tell Draupadi to prepare a large feast in an hour. Then they go to a nearby lake to wash themselves.

While Draupadi is wringing her hands about what to do, Krishna comes there and asks her to bring out the vessels that she had cleaned that evening. Clinging to the base of one of them is a grain of rice.

Krishna touches the rice grain, and with his magic, he fills up the stomachs of the bathing sages. Durvasa and his followers don’t even bother to return to the Pandavas’ house. Their hungers sated, they go on their way from the lake directly.

Upon the Pandavas’ return, Krishna is right by their side starting from Abhimanyu’s wedding to Uttara. While he and Balarama speak for a peaceful resolution, Krishna keeps reminding everyone that if Duryodhana does not listen, war might be the only option.

As negotiations continue, Balarama makes the decision that Anarta will remain neutral in the war. Krishna divides his forces more or less equally between the Pandavas and Kauravas.

Kritavarma and Satyaki bring one akshauhini of troops each, and they fight for Duryodhana and Yudhishthir respectively.

As for Krishna himself, he pledges his entire Narayana Sena to Duryodhana, and offers his own services as a strategist only to Arjuna. He becomes Arjuna’s charioteer.

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A Messenger of Peace

With the war approaching and all the kings of the world taking sides, Yudhishthir requests Krishna to make one final attempt at peace by going as an emissary to Hastinapur.

Krishna agrees, but tells the Pandavas that Duryodhana will probably view this as an act of weakness and will therefore be further emboldened.

At Hastinapur, Krishna stays at Vidura’s house, where Kunti is also staying. At the royal palace, Krishna makes the argument that the Pandavas are content to rule under Dhritarashtra, and will be satisfied with five villages only.

But Duryodhana refuses to give anything to the Pandavas. He behaves exactly as Krishna predicted, and claims that the army he has assembled to fight the war is invincible.

‘With Bhishma and Drona fighting on our side, and with eleven akshauhinis stacked up against the Pandavas’ seven,’ he says, ‘what have I to fear?’

Krishna tries all the tactics of negotiation, but they all fail. As a parting gesture, he shows the assembled courtiers of Hastinapur his Vishwaroopa, to reinforce the point that no matter how strong the Kuru army, it cannot hope to win against the Pandavas.

Still, Dhritarashtra refuses to rein in his son. Krishna tells everyone to prepare for war, and leaves.

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Krishna Bribes Karna

On the evening before his departure from Hastinapur, Krishna learns from Kunti the secret of Karna’s birth. Early next morning, he seeks an audience with Karna and meets with him on the outskirts of the city.

Here, he reveals what he has learned, and makes Karna an offer. ‘If you fight on the side of the Pandavas, O Radheya,’ he says, ‘the kingdom will be yours to rule. Your younger brothers will worship you like a god. Yudhishthir will wash your feet.

‘Draupadi will become your queen, and she will have sons with you. Your children will become kings after you, and your name will be etched among the great rulers of the Kuru dynasty. Everything you’ve ever wanted will be yours.’

But of course, for this to unfold as Krishna describes, Karna will have to reject what he has come to believe as his identity. He will no longer be king of Anga. He will have to disown his adoptive family: his father Adiratha, his mother Radha, and his brothers and children.

Most of all, he will have to break his loyalty to Duryodhana.

Karna does not even consider Krishna’s offer. He immediately says no. ‘If I switch sides today, Krishna,’ he says, ‘the world will think of me an ungrateful wretch. What answer shall I give Duryodhana, who has rested all hopes of killing Arjuna on me?’

Krishna gives Karna a sad smile. ‘So be it!’ he says. ‘We shall meet on the battlefield.’ And he leaves for Upaplavya, the capital city of Matsya where the Pandavas are staying.

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Removing Bhishma

During the war, Krishna makes the play on almost all the important decisions. The first of these happens on the ninth day, when he sees that Bhishma is hell-bent on fighting ruthlessly against the Pandava army.

The only warrior on the Pandava side capable of checking Bhishma – Arjuna – is unable to conquer his listlessness.

Krishna warns Yudhishthir that if the same deadlock is to continue for much longer, the Pandavas will be left without an army. He exhorts Yudhishthir to seek out Bhishma and ask him how he can be defeated.

Krishna accompanies the Pandavas to Bhishma’s tent that very night, where Bhishma tell them that his oath forbids him from fighting Shikhandi because the Panchala prince was once a woman.

On the tenth day, therefore, the Pandavas place Shikhandi in the middle of their formation, and give him a single-point brief: engage with Bhishma continuously and pepper him with arrows.

Despite this being a foolproof plan on paper, the Pandavas realize by afternoon that Shikhandi is unable to penetrate the armour of Bhishma even when the grandsire is not fighting back.

So Krishna re-plans the attack such that Arjuna positions himself behind Shikhandi and shoots some arrows at Bhishma. It is Arjuna’s arrows that eventually floor Bhishma, and result in the Kuru patriarch falling onto his bed of arrows.

The fall of Bhishma is an important milestone for the Mahabharata war, because he was threatening to end the war in Duryodhana’s favour. Krishna’s intervention ensures that does not happen.

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Killing Jayadratha

On the thirteenth day, Abhimanyu gets killed inside Drona’s Chakra Vyuha. When Arjuna comes to know of this at the end of the day, he takes a foolhardy vow that he will kill Jayadratha by the sundown the next day – or consign himself to flames if he fails.

Krishna internally winces at this show of blind fury on his friend’s part. One of the cardinal rules of war is that nothing should be taken personally. It is not Jayadratha’s fault that he was assigned the task of holding together the Chakra Vyuha.

It is not his fault that he succeeded at the task so marvellously either. As a warrior, he is only performing his duty.

Arjuna should have taken the death of Abhimanyu in his stride and focused on what mattered in the war. Instead, he has taken a vow that puts his life in needless jeopardy.

Now the Kauravas will no doubt create a formation for the fourteenth day that is designed to protect Jayadratha at all costs. Arjuna has needlessly taken a risk. If he had just fought normally, the Pandavas would have won in due course.

Now, Krishna is forced into the position of guiding Arjuna through Drona’s impenetrable maze, and to lead him to Jayadratha.

The fourteenth day thus becomes an Arjuna-and-Krishna show, with the two friends shooting through the Kuru formation and reaching Jayadratha just as the sun is about to set.

Here, Krishna performs two actions that help Arjuna in fulfilling his vow:

  • With a slice of magic, he causes the skies to be covered in dark clouds, tricking the Kauravas into believing that the sun has already set. This brings Jayadratha out into the open.
  • He tells Arjuna the exact means by which Jayadratha should be killed: Arjuna must behead Jayadratha, and transport the head by means of arrows to the forest outside Kurukshetra, and cause the head to drop into the lap of the meditating Vriddhakshatra.

It so happens that Vriddhakshata has procured a boon that ‘the person who causes the head of my son to touch the earth will have his own head shattered into a hundred pieces’.

With what Arjuna does, Vriddhakshatra’s own head breaks open the moment he stands up from his prayers.

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Killing Drona

Drona is arguably the second most powerful warrior in the Kuru army, after Bhishma. On the fifteenth day of the war, Drona fights with renewed vigour against the Pandava army, and once again the same problem resurfaces when Arjuna refuses to face his preceptor with any of the ruthlessness he summoned against Jayadratha.

Krishna decides once again that unless Drona is made to put his weapons away, the Pandavas will lose the war in a short time.

His plan is that if Drona can be convinced that Ashwatthama is dead, he will then renounce his weapons. The Pandavas can capture Drona and hold him prisoner until the war is finished.

Krishna does not plan to kill Drona necessarily; his only intention is to ‘remove’ him from battle, like he did with Bhishma.

Arjuna is not on board with lying to their preceptor, but Krishna employs the eager services of Bhimasena, who kills an elephant named Ashwatthama and brings the information back to Drona.

Also in on the trick is Yudhishthir, who utters a reluctant lie (his first and only) in response to Drona’s question: ‘Is it true? Is Ashwatthama really dead?’

Upon hearing his worst fear confirmed from Yudhishthir’s lips, Drona gives up his weapons and sits down in the terrace of his chariot to meditate. Krishna’s strategy has worked almost flawlessly; now all that is needed is to take Drona prisoner, and apologize later.

But Dhrishtadyumna, the son of Drupada, has other ideas. He leaps into Drona’s chariot, and before anyone could fathom his intentions, beheads the preceptor with a sword.

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Death of Karna

Krishna’s next big play is during the final battle between Arjuna and Karna. This is the duel that both warriors have been awaiting for decades.

The early exchanges are quite even, despite Shalya doing his best to sabotage Karna’s efforts. When the Naga Aswasena arrives and offers to become an arrow in Karna’s quiver, the balance tilts a little.

Karna shoots Aswasena at Arjuna, and the missile zooms in unerringly at the Pandava’s forehead. Seeing that his friend is in mortal danger, Krishna stamps down on his chariot so that its wheels get buried in the mud.

This causes Karna’s arrow to miss. What would have struck Arjuna plush on the forehead now harmlessly knocks off his throne.

Krishna then leaps off the chariot and pulls the wheels out. Aswasena, for his part, goes back to Karna and asks him to shoot again. But Karna refuses. (‘It is improper for a warrior to shoot the same weapon at an opponent twice.’)

Later, when Karna’s own chariot-wheel sinks into the earth, Shalya refuses to help him the same way Krishna helped Arjuna. Karna is thus forced to tend to his wheel by himself.

Karna asks Arjuna for a short cease-fire, during which he proposes to bring his chariot back to level ground. Arjuna almost grants it, but Krishna interrupts and reminds Arjuna of all the improper deeds that Karna had perpetrated on the Pandavas.

After reigniting Arjuna’s passion thus, Krishna orders him: ‘Shoot your deadliest arrow at your enemy, Partha. Without apologies!’

Arjuna obeys the command, and kills his nemesis.

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Judgement on Duryodhana

During the final mace-fight between Duryodhana and Bhima, Krishna proposes to Arjuna that unless Bhima employs underhanded methods, he will not be able to defeat Duryodhana.

The reason, Krishna says, is that Duryodhana has been practicing mace-fighting exclusively for decades, imagining his opponent to be Bhima. Bhima, on the other hand, has had other things to occupy his mind. His mace technique, while not bad, is not a match for Duryodhana’s well-honed skill levels.

(Whether this is true or not, we do not know. It may be another of Krishna’s white lies to ensure the Pandavas’ victory. Alternatively, it may just be Krishna’s opinion.)

With this information on hand, Arjuna signals to Bhima by slapping his thigh, and Bhima loses no time in crushing Duryodhana’s thighs with his mace.

As he hits the ground, Duryodhana accuses Krishna and the Pandavas of having fought an unjust war. ‘You have killed Bhishma, Drona, Karna and me through unfair means!’ he complains. ‘Shame on you.’

Krishna then responds to Duryodhana’s accusation by reminding him of all the unjust and unfair acts that the Kauravas have perpetrated over the years against the sons of Pandu. Essentially, he says, ‘There is no sin incurred by defeating a sinful man by unfair means.’

Krishna then blows on his conch and declares an end to the Kurukshetra war. He proclaims the Pandavas to have won.

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Fall of Dwaraka

After the war, when the Pandavas go to Gandhari and Dhritarashtra for blessings, the former erupts with anger at Krishna. ‘You could have prevented this if you wished, O Madhava,’ she says. ‘But you chose not to.’

In order to atone for this ‘sin’, says Gandhari, Krishna will be compelled to watch his own race – the Vrishnis – dismantle itself by infighting just like the Kurus.

Krishna does not protest Gandhari’s words, nor does he try to explain himself. He merely bows his head and accepts them.

Gandhari’s curse comes true thirty six years later during the events of the Mausala Parva. Dwaraka gets submerged by the sea. Anarta fragments into pieces when Kritavarma and Satyaki break into a quarrel which escalates into a full-blown civil war.

Krishna oversees this destruction. He and Balarama participate in the war and kill everyone in sight.

As the war comes to a close, Balarama sits down to meditate, and gives up his life. Krishna returns to Dwaraka and sends a messenger to Arjuna, informing of what had happened, and requesting him to come rescue the women of Anarta.

Then, his work done, he goes to the forest and sits under a tree.

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Death of Krishna

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.

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After Death

Krishna’s death becomes the event that the Pandavas use as a signal for their own final journeys. Arjuna discovers that all his powers have been taken away from him. He is unable to shoot arrows at targets anymore.

Vyasa recommends to the Pandavas that the time has come for them to leave. Yudhishthir takes this advice, installs Parikshit (the son of Abhimanyu) on the throne, and sets out to scale Mount Meru.

The five Pandavas and Draupadi begin the ascent of Meru in hope. They all believe that they have lived lives virtuous enough to be rewarded with direct entry into heaven.

But events prove them wrong. Draupadi, Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna and Bhima all succumb to exhaustion and fall to their respective deaths before they can reach the summit.

The only person who succeeds in reaching heaven in his mortal form is Yudhishthir.

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Further Reading

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Enjoy!