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 cunning?
Krishna is well known for being a cunning strategist. Most of his victories in the Mahabharata can be attributed to his wiles more than his valour. Though his enemies criticise him for this, Krishna takes the pragmatic approach and says: ‘There is nothing wrong in pursuing whatever means necessary to accomplish one’s goals.’
Read on to discover more about whether or not Krishna was cunning.
(For answers to all Krishna-related questions, see Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Brain over Brawn
Throughout the Mahabharata, Krishna adopts a strategy of preferring his wits, intelligence and strategic thought over violence and weapons.
Indeed, the only time we witness – firsthand – Krishna fighting is during the burning of the Khandava. Here he teams up with Arjuna to help Agni devour the forest while keeping at bay the entire army of celestials led by Indra.
This general disposition seems to take root in Krishna during his years as Mathura’s regent, when he repeatedly fails to protect his citizens against the onslaught of Magadha’s king, Jarasandha.
After they migrate westward and build the seaside city of Dwaraka, Krishna and Balarama adopt a deliberately strategic outlook, shunning violence at all costs and focusing instead on friendships with powerful kingdoms.
Perhaps Krishna’s biggest diplomatic victory during the early years following Draupadi’s wedding to the Pandavas is to offer his sister Subhadra’s hand in marriage to Arjuna.
This happens during the twelfth year of Arjuna’s exile from Khandavaprastha. The two men meet at Prabhasa, a small natural reserve situated on the outskirts of Dwaraka. Here they spend some time together.
Although we’re not told of the exact content of their conversations, one can surmise that Krishna assesses Arjuna – and by extension the Pandavas – as an important future ally. He therefore encourages Arjuna to marry Subhadra.
At this time, Balarama is looking to strengthen his relationship with the Kuru kingdom by asking Duryodhana to marry Subhadra. So this coup by Krishna ensures that Anarta remains friendly with both the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
(Suggested: Why did Arjuna marry Subhadra?)
When Yudhishthir wishes to perform the Rajasuya, Krishna tells him that as long as Jarasandha is alive, no other man in the world would ever earn the title of ‘emperor’.
He offers to take Arjuna and Bhima with him – disguised as two Brahmins and a wrestler – to Magadha in an attempt to kill the king.
This is the cunning Krishna at work: he is using the strength of his formidable allies to defeat his old enemy. Whether this was the only option available, or whether Jarasandha would have been open to friendship with Kuru, is not explored.
We must note that Krishna chooses to challenge Jarasandha to a wrestling match in which Bhima kills the king. This is similar to how Kamsa had been toppled all those years ago. Crucially, we see here Krishna’s aversion to large-scale violence.
Speaking in general, Anarta’s foreign policy can be summarized in the following sentence: Be equally friendly with both the Pandavas and the Kauravas, so that regardless of who is ‘winning’, Anarta’s prospects do not suffer.
Pursuing this end, Krishna woos the Pandavas while Balarama builds a relationship with Duryodhana. Throughout the Rajasuya and the Pandavas’ ascent, Balarama stays out of the picture and allows Krishna to support his friends.
When the Pandavas fall into misfortune and are sent into exile, Balarama counts on his friendship with Duryodhana to stay on the good side of Kuru, thus ensuring that Anarta enjoys a prolonged era of peace.
(Suggested: How did Arjuna and Krishna meet?)
Even during the war, Krishna sees to it that Anarta’s resources are about equally divided between the two sides: he offers himself to the Pandavas but gives the Kauravas his Narayana Sena. Kritavarma and Yuyudhana fight with the Kauravas and the Pandavas respectively, with one Akshauhini of troops each.
Also, Anarta itself, officially, stays neutral during the war. Balarama goes on a pilgrimage for the whole eighteen days.
This strategy is conceived, developed and practiced by Krishna.
Killing Bhishma and Drona
During the Kurukshetra war, Krishna becomes the primary driving force behind killing Bhishma and Drona, the two lynchpins in Duryodhana’s army.
Bhishma is the first commander of the Kuru forces. For the first nine days of the war, he fights in such a way as to eliminate the army of the Pandavas so that they will be forced to surrender.
Krishna notices this tactic of the grandsire and warns Yudhishthir that the Panchala army will soon dissolve into nothing. He takes the Pandavas to Bhishma’s tent on the night of the ninth day, and after receiving the old man’s blessings, arranges it so that Arjuna fights Bhishma on the tenth day from behind Shikhandi.
Similarly, when Drona assumes his ruthless form and terrorizes the Panchala forces, Krishna intervenes and plans the killing of Ashwatthama the elephant, after which Yudhishthir utters his infamous lie to make Drona surrender his weapons.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 50: Drona Dies.)
Krishna’s other primary goal during the Kurukshetra war is to protect Arjuna at all costs.
This is important because regardless of what happens otherwise, as long as Arjuna is alive, the Pandavas will win the war. If Arjuna is to die, the Kauravas will gain the upper hand. This is regardless of the presence and prowess of Bhimasena.
And there is only one danger to Arjuna’s life: Karna.
Karna possesses the Vasava dart, the only weapon to which Arjuna has no counter. Krishna therefore ensures that Arjuna and Karna never meet in battle, and even when they do, he clouds Karna’s mind such that the latter forgets to use the Vasava.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 49: Karna Kills Ghatotkacha.)
On the night of the fourteenth day, Krishna sends Ghatotkacha to fight Karna, in the hope that he will sacrifice himself to the Vasava. This is exactly what happens, thus freeing Arjuna from a death grip.
Also, during the final battle with Karna, when an arrow (the Naga Aswasena in disguise) dangerously flies toward Arjuna’s head, Krishna stamps on the floor of his chariot, causing its wheel to sink into the mud. The arrow thus harmlessly knocks off Arjuna’s crown.
Krishna thus protects Arjuna’s life on multiple occasions.
On the fourteenth day of the war, Krishna offers invaluable assistance to Arjuna to help him kill Jayadratha and fulfil his vow.
Not only does he bring to the forefront all of his chariot-driving skills to break open Drona’s ‘impenetrable’ array, he also uses magic at the end to cause a fake sunset, making Jayadratha look up in relief at the darkening sky.
Arjuna seizes this moment to shoot an arrow straight the Saindhava king’s neck. Krishna then guides Arjuna into beheading Jayadratha and taking the severed head with arrows out of Kurukshetra into a nearby forest, so that the head falls into the lap of the meditating Vriddhakshatra, Jayadratha’s father.
If this had not happened, the moment Jayadratha’s head touched the ground, Arjuna’s head would have broken into a hundred pieces.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 46: Arjuna Kills Jayadratha.)
At the end of the war, when Bhima and Duryodhana and fighting with maces, Krishna tells Arjuna in answer to a question that Duryodhana is stronger than Bhima, and that he cannot be defeated unless Bhima resorts to unfair means.
In response to this, Arjuna signals to Bhima and quietly slaps his thigh. Bhima gets the message, and at the next available opportunity, strikes Duryodhana on his thighs and breaks them.
This is considered beyond the pale in mace fighting, and Duryodhana protests, but Krishna rises to remind Duryodhana of all the times he had broken the rules of Dharma with abandon.
In this post, we have seen a few examples of Krishna’s cunning side. This list is by no means exhaustive; a number of other instances exist in which Krishna displays unconventional methods to secure victory.
At the end of the war, when Duryodhana accuses Krishna of having won the war with conniving means, Krishna replies, ‘If we had used virtuous means alone, the Pandavas would not have won.’
He also says, ‘A man ought to pursue any means available to him to vanquish his enemy.’
It is clear from this that Krishna is not apologetic about his tactics. We may even go to the extent of saying that he enjoys the process of bringing down a powerful foe with his cleverness.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story