Mahabharata Episode 34: The Vishwaroopa

The Vishwaroopa - Featured Image - Picture of Krishna's flute and peacock feather with a lotus.

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 33: Krishna Makes Peace. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

A List of Offences – Part 1

‘You say you have done nothing wrong with respect to the Pandavas?’ Krishna asks Duryodhana. ‘How did you defeat them in the game of dice without conniving with the son of Subala?

‘After they lost the first round of play, it is not you but Dhritarashtra who gave them their kingdom back. You were eager to make them your slaves for the rest of their lives.

‘And who in this assembly hall can forget all that had been heaped upon the very incarnation of fire, Draupadi? Who has ever been so cruel as to behave with a brother’s wife as you did with her, Duryodhana?

‘And who can ever forget the shaft-like words that Karna – your dear friend Karna – shot at her when she was standing half-naked to the eyes of the world?

‘Duhsasana’s vain effort to disrobe her in the midst of this very court has not been forgotten, Prince. Not by you. Not by me. Not by the Pandavas. Not by any right-thinking man of the world.’

A List of Offences – Part 2

‘And how did that wretched brother of yours bid goodbye to the Pandavas when they were departing for the forest? Did he not call them cows? Did he not obscenely gesture toward Draupadi and implore her to pick one of the heroic men of the assembly as her husband?

‘Let me go further back in time now, my friend. You took great pains to burn them alive in Varanavata, and due to your effort, the Pandavas were forced to live in hiding in the city of Ekachakra.

‘You poisoned Bhimasena when he was a boy. You gave Karna a kingdom he does not deserve out of the sole wish to use him against Arjuna when the time is right.

‘Even after they saved your life, instead of being beholden to them, you have found new depths of hatred for them, and now, when they continue to show patience by asking for just five villages – five villages – you swat them away with arrogance.

‘After all this, Duryodhana, you dare to suggest that you have never harmed the Pandavas, and that virtue, indeed is on your side. No, Prince. You are careening along a disastrous path, and the only thing that can stop it is peace.

‘Choose peace, and you might still find redemption. But if you do not, there is nothing in the world – not even I – that can save you.’

Apprehending Krishna

As Krishna is delivering his lecture at the Kuru court, Duryodhana attempts to put into action his plan of imprisoning Krishna and throwing him into a dungeon until the war is finished.

Satyaki gets wind of this and instructs Kritavarma: ‘Take your Akshauhiniof troops and have them stay at the ready a short distance from here. It is probable that the son of Dhritarashtra will make an offensive move at Krishna.’

(It is to be noted here that though Kritavarma has pledged support to Duryodhana in the war against the Pandavas, his loyalties do not extend to causing direct harm to Krishna, who is after all his king’s brother.)

In any case, Krishna receives news of this idea with a smile, and assures Dhritarashtra that he is not going to take up arms. Addressing Duryodhana directly, he says, ‘Prince, You think that I am just one person. But let me show you my true form, and then you shall decide on your own whether you can apprehend me.’

The Vishwaroopa

‘Here,’ says Krishna, ‘are all the Pandavas and the Vrishnis and the Andhakas. Here are the Adityas, the Rudras, the Vasus, and the saptarishis.’

He opens his mouth to laugh, and from his body, resembling a blazing fire, an array of gods stream out, each not bigger than the size of a thumb.

On his forehead appears Brahma, and Rudra sits on his breast. The regents of the world are perched upon his arms, and from his mouth come Agni, the Adityas, the Sadhyas, the Ashwins, the Maruts, Indra and the Vishwadevas. He also brings about images of thousands of Yakshas, Gandharvas and Rakshasas.

From one of his arms emerges Arjuna, bow in hand, and from the other comes Balarama, plough mounted upon his shoulder. Bhima, Yudhishthir, Madri’s sons and all the other Vrishnis (with Pradyumna at their head) stand in front of him in miniature, their weapons raised, ready to do battle.

He bears the conch, the discus, the mace, the Saranga bow, the plough, the javelin, the Nandaka, and every other weapon known to man. Each arm is raised, poised to strike.

From his eyes and nose and ears issue fierce sparks mixed with smoke. The form is such that it induces in equal parts awe and fright.

The kings at the assembly, with the exception of Drona, Bhishma and Vidur, are blinded by this vision, and they all close their eyes. But in their hearts they all realize, by some intangible, magical force, just how powerful Krishna is.

After a few moments of holding this grand pose, Krishna resumes his human form, and with Satyaki on one arm and Kritavarma on the other, leaves the assembly hall to mount his chariot outside.

From there, Krishna instructs Daruka, his charioteer, to take him to the abode of Kunti.

Message for Yudhishthir – Part 1

Krishna touches Kunti’s feet and tells her of all that has happened at Dhritarashtra’s court. He tells her that war is now inevitable, and asks if she has any messages for her sons.

Kunti nods and begins by saying that Yudhishthir’s virtue is on the descendant. ‘Do not think,’ she says, as if speaking to him, ‘that your view of dharmais that of a neutral observer that is outside the three worlds, looking in.

‘In reality, you are part of the world yourself, and therefore you have to view dharma from the subjective eyes of a human being, a king, a Kshatriya, a householder, a brother, a husband, and a son.

‘In all these respects must you examine your own behaviour, Yudhishthir, and in most of them, you are now failing. Brahma created the Kshatriya order out of his arms for one purpose: the protection of the world and for ruthless deeds.

‘Kshatriyas are not meant to question the act of displaying the strength of their muscle to their enemies. Indeed, that is how they gain their virtue.

‘It is the king’s duty to establish order among the three other kinds of men, and to ensure that everyone lives in harmony. A king that establishes peace in his kingdom goes to heaven, whereas he who allows unrest to flourish without raising his weapon will surely go to hell.’

Message for Yudhishthir – Part 2

Kunti continues her monologue meant for her eldest son: ‘Do not try to guess whether or not you are destined to fight; let me tell you right now that you ought to have fought long ago! Now, with the hour upon you, do not let your self-doubt cripple you further in the name of virtue.

‘The only virtue for a Kshatriya is to fight his foe, and to do his utmost to win!

‘The conduct you are now adopting befits a royal sage that already has the entire world at his feet, not a man who has lost everything and must rely on the strength of his arms to regain it.

‘Just like a Vaishya must earn, a Sudra must serve the three other orders, a Brahmin must give himself to mendicancy, it has been deemed that a Kshatriya must live by the strength of his arms, and the sharpness of his sword.

‘So do not sink your ancestors in infamy, Yudhishthir. Your father Pandu never intended you to be this way when he blessed you at your birth, nor did I ever think that my eldest son would be given to inaction this way.

‘Guide your younger brothers through this path. Now that an attempt at conciliation has failed, you must fight to recover your personal share in the kingdom. Otherwise, the five of you will surely fail to attain heaven.’

For Arjuna and Bhima

‘To Arjuna,’ says Kunti, ‘tell him that when he was born to me in that hermitage on Gandhamadana, a voice from the sky proclaimed that he will rival the deity of a thousand eyes.

‘It said that he will vanquish all the Kurus in battle, and that aided by Bhimasena, he will conquer the entire earth. With Vasudeva as his ally, I was told, he will bring about the extinction of the Kuru clan and win back a share of his paternal kingdom.

‘Make sure that he knows that if these words are to come true, he has to pick up the Gandiva and march into battle with you by his side.

‘Unto Vrikodara, say that the time has come for him to prove that he is indeed the son of a Kshatriya woman. Bhima is the kind of man who will never rest until he has taken vengeance upon his foes.

‘He might pretend to be mellow out of respect for Yudhishthir, but it is bent upon you, O Krishna, to allow my second son to be himself, so that his rage might act as the fire that burns down the Kuru empire.

For Draupadi, Nakula and Sahadeva

For Draupadi, Kunti has words of comfort. ‘Tell Draupadi,’ she says, ‘that she has been an exemplary wife to my sons all these years, and that her time of reckoning is nigh.

‘Soon, all the wrongs that were done to her will be avenged, and the perpetrators of those actions will all meet their gruesome ends at the hands of her husbands.’

For Nakula and Sahadeva: ‘May the sons of Madri know that they are to covet the fruits of their prowess more than life itself. You have told me that Nakula has spoken of dimming desire; each time it happens, implore them to remember the day on which Draupadi was dragged to the middle of the assembly in half a garment during her bleeding period.

‘Ask them to recall how none of them had the courage to stand up to her in that fated moment. If a man needs further reason for his blood to boil, indeed such a man does not deserve to be called the son of Pandu.’

As Krishna gets up to leave, Kunti tells him to let the Pandavas know that she has been well looked after by Vidura in their absence.

‘Go now, O Kesava,’ she tells him, ‘and protect my sons. Ensure that they never swerve from the path of their respective duties, and that they will emerge victorious in this coming war.’

A Rationalist’s Version

To round off this episode, let me attempt a retelling of the Vishwaroopa scene from the point of view of a rationalist who sees Krishna not as a god but as a human character in the Mahabharata story.

One possible way to characterize a human Krishna is to imbue him with skills that a mentalist of an illusionist may possess. Using a variety of psychological and optical illusions, he may have left the Kauravas with the impression of a vishwaroopa.

Since we’re told that Bhishma, Drona and Vidura are the only ones to have seen him in his full form – and that the rest only saw a blinding flash of light, accompanied by a ‘realization’ – the effect of the vishwaroopa seems to be largely mental anyway.

Another possibility is to consider that the entire vishwaroopa scene to be superfluous.

Consider that Kritavarma comes to know about Duryodhana’s plan to capture Krishna. Acting on Satyaki’s advice, if he were to take the Kuru prince aside and deliver him an ultimatum – ‘Make a move against Krishna and I will take my Akshauhini of troops over to the Pandava side’ – that would have been enough to calm Duryodhana down.

Because then, the Akshauhini balance would be 8-10 in the Kauravas’ favour – a lot tighter than the current 7-11. Is it worth losing a whole army division to the enemy for the sake of imprisoning one man? In Duryodhana’s mind, he would have said no.

Besides, it is likely that Duryodhana was only playing to the gallery by suggesting that he will imprison Krishna. Doing so would have brought Anarta – which has decided to remain neutral – into the war, and Balarama would have no choice but to fight with the Pandavas.

Not to mention Krishna’s Narayana Sena – his army of cowherds – would defect if anything of this sort happened.

So the power dynamics between Kuru and Anarta would have made it impossible for Duryodhana to actually imprison Krishna. But threatening to do so sends a signal of reckless courage to the Pandavas, which is probably what Duryodhana was trying to achieve.

Krishna Seeks out Karna

One last thing that Krishna does on his way out of Hastinapur is to summon Karna to meet with him privately.

This is a surprising meeting; it does not figure in Krishna’s official schedule. Nor is there any record of him telling the Pandavas or Kunti that he is going to meet Karna.

But he does, and he offers him a bribe (no other way of saying it) to lure him away from Duryodhana’s side over to the Pandavas’. We will see more details of this in the next episode.

Further Reading

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