Was Krishna Cruel?

Was Krishna cruel - Featured Image - Picture of a pawprint but with the shape of a heart. Representing Krishna's dual nature.

Krishna is considered by many as the hero of the Mahabharata. He is the eighth son of Devaki, the princess of Mathura, and Vasudeva, the prince of Shurasena.

Krishna is raised in a cowherd settlement in Vrindavan for the first fifteen years of his life. Later, along with Balarama, he founds the seashore city of Dwaraka and builds a kingdom for the Yadavas – named Anarta.

He enters the Mahabharata story at Draupadi’s swayamvara, and quickly establishes friendly relations with the Pandavas – in particular with Arjuna. This friendship lasts all the way to the Kurukshetra war and beyond.

In this post, we will answer the question: Was Krishna cruel?

Krishna can be called driven, ambitious, ruthless, detached and cold. These attributes sometimes make him look cruel and uncaring. But in the capacity of a god who has taken birth on Earth with the intention of wiping away evil, he does not have the luxury of managing expectations. He simply does what needs to be done.

Read on to discover more about whether or not Krishna was cruel.

(For answers to all Krishna-related questions, see Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Early Motivations

If we consider Krishna as a human character in the Mahabharata, separate from the all-seeing, all-knowing god, we can attribute a few different motivations to him at various stages of his life. Here are a few main ones:

  • During his time growing up in Vrindavan, Krishna’s main antagonist is Kamsa. He may be too young to know the details of his enmity with the king of Mathura, but he knows that he has to be killed and the city liberated.
  • At the time of Ugrasena’s rule as Mathura’s king, Krishna’s main occupation is to protect the citizens and economy of Mathura from constant raids by Jarasandha, king of Magadha.
  • After their migration to the western shore, Krishna’s primary goal is to unify the warring Yadava factions and to bring them all under the rule of Balarama.
  • After this is successfully accomplished, Krishna now wants to ensure that his newly founded kingdom will remain safe from Jarasandha’s ambition to become emperor.

None of the above issues is nontrivial. They all require plenty of planning, foresight and luck to manage. At the time of Krishna’s arrival in the Mahabharata story – at Draupadi’s swayamvara – he has already crossed the first three hurdles and is now working on the fourth.

Strengthening Anarta

Krishna and Balarama attend Draupadi’s swayamvara with one primary objective: network with other kings and build some potential allies that will strengthen Anarta.

Note that in order to find friends, the two brothers are looking among the northern kingdoms on the Ganga’s bank. All the middle kingdoms – the likes of Chedi and Mathura – are already under Jarasandha’s control.

Why come to a swayamvara if they wish to build relationships? Because this is the swayamvara of Draupadi, which all the northern kings of note will attend. Krishna will be able to see everyone – from a safe distance – and assess each person on how useful he will be to Anarta’s prospects.

By all indications, Krishna does not expect to find the Pandavas there. Like all other commonfolk, he has assumed that the Pandavas have died in the fire accident in Varanavata.

At the top of Krishna’s wish list of allies would be Kuru and Panchala. Establishing friendly relations with either or both these kingdoms will ensure that Jarasandha will remain on his toes.

But as luck would have it, Krishna meets the Pandavas here, which upends all his plans.

Meeting the Pandavas

Krishna and Balarama announce right at the outset that they do not wish to participate in Draupadi’s swayamvara; they’re merely there as spectators.

Krishna then watches as:

  • Arjuna wins Draupadi’s hand by performing an almost impossible archery feat.
  • Arjuna then defeats Karna in a single combat.
  • Bhima is challenged by Shalya, but defeats the Madra king easily. Bhima then singlehandedly pushes back on a group of angry suitors.

By this time, Krishna has guessed that these Brahmins are the sons of Pandu. He speaks on their behalf to soothe the fraying tempers of the kings, and follows the Pandavas back to their hut.

Krishna and Balarama then introduce themselves to Kunti and her sons. After a rather short meeting, they leave.

(Suggested: What happens during Draupadi’s Swayamvara?)

New Plans

His meeting with the Pandavas convinces Krishna that the sons of Pandu are powerful enough to challenge any king in the world. Krishna also knows a little bit about the internal feud that is developing inside the Kuru house.

Krishna wants Kuru and Panchala’s support to strengthen Anarta against Jarasandha. But Kuru is a complicated matter: in the quarrel between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, who should Anarta bet on winning?

On the one side, Duryodhana has the support of his father, Dhritarashtra. He is therefore the official incumbent with all the consequent privileges. On the other hand, the Pandavas have the support of Bhishma and Vidura. Who will triumph? Who will lose?

If Krishna ends up picking the wrong horse, not only will he end up not gaining an ally against Jarasandha, but he will also make a new enemy at Hastinapur.

So Krishna does the sensible thing and formulates a plan whereby he cultivates friendly relations with both the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

He personally builds a close friendship with the Pandavas through Arjuna – while Balarama woos and strikes a rapport with Duryodhana. That way, no matter which way the Pandava-Kaurava fight leans, Anarta will be served well.

Killing Jarasandha

As it turns out, the Pandavas are the first to aspire to power, with Yudhishthir seeking to become the emperor of the world. Krishna offers to help him by giving him a plan to eliminate Jarasandha.

‘As long as Jarasandha is alive, Yudhishthir,’ he says, ‘you will never become emperor.’

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 15: The Rajasuya.)

He then takes Bhima over to Magadha, finds a way to gain a private audience with Jarasandha, and oversees his killing in a wrestling match. Thus, Krishna uses the strength of his allies to crush his old enemy.

In doing this, of course Krishna helps Yudhishthir, but he is also furthering his objective of securing Anarta’s safety. With Jarasandha gone, all of the middle kingdoms now gravitate toward Dwaraka as their power centre.

During the Exile

The installation of Yudhishthir as emperor of the world is perfect for Anarta’s cause, because Krishna now has the support of Kuru and Panchala from the north.

Below the Gangetic plain, the kingdoms of Mathura, Shurasena, Kunti, Anarta, Chedi and Magadha – all of them come under the control of Anarta. There is no Jarasandha to harass them.

Now, when the power shifts to the Kaurava side during the dice game, Krishna remains neutral (because he is away fighting another battle, he explains later) and watches as the Pandavas leave on a thirteen-year exile.

(Suggested: Why did Krishna allow Draupadi Vastraharan?)

During this time, he extends some help to the Pandavas – for instance, he fosters the Upapandavas at Dwaraka – but Anarta, as a whole, remains friendly toward Duryodhana.

Balarama’s friendship with Duryodhana comes into play now. Over the thirteen years, the two brothers transform Anarta into the most powerful kingdom bar none – even surpassing Kuru in wealth and status.

During the War

Anarta’s strategy of hedging their bets equally between the Kauravas and Pandavas continues in the war. While the official stance of the kingdom is to stay neutral, Krishna ensures that resources are split more or less evenly between the two sides:

  • First, he stays on the Pandava side to fulfil his duty as friend, but gives the Kauravas his Narayana Sena.
  • Second, he enlists Satyaki and Kritavarma to bring one akshauhini of troops each, and they go to the Pandavas and the Kauravas respectively.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 32: Krishna Becomes Charioteer.)

Once the war begins, having the Pandavas win is once again the preferable result for Anarta and Krishna – because the Pandavas will be powerful enough to ensure a peaceful world for some time to come. And they will remain friendly toward Anarta.

With Duryodhana as the king of Kuru, there are higher chances of other small pockets of power forming in different places in Aryavarta.

To be certain, Anarta will still be okay if the Kauravas win. But they prefer the Pandavas to return to the throne.

Is Krishna Cruel?

All of Krishna’s decisions, therefore, can be cast in the light of someone who is trying to balance his support equally between the Kauravas and the Pandavas for most of the story.

This is the best strategy for Anarta’s safety and its uninterrupted development. Whatever he has to do to ensure this, Krishna does it.

The killing of Jarasandha, the killing of Shishupala, the relative lack of support for the Pandavas during their exile, complete support during the war, the various strategies adopted to ensure that the Pandavas win… these are all driven by a single objective: to secure the welfare and future of Anarta.

Krishna does not hesitate to take unconventional routes to breaking open situations. Whether he is cruel or clever depends on whether you ask his friends or enemies.

Further Reading

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