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 ever defeated?
There is very little direct evidence of Krishna’s fighting prowess in the Mahabharata. His only significant defeat happens at the hands of Jarasandha when he is the regent of Mathura. As a result of this, Balarama and Krishna gather all their citizens and migrate westward to found the city of Dwaraka.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Krishna was ever defeated.
(For answers to all Krishna-related questions, see Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Deceit or Valour?
Krishna is considered by all other characters in the Mahabharata to be a great warrior. But his detractors – Shishupala and Duryodhana, for instance – always point out that all his victories have been won by deceit rather than valour.
During Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya, Shishupala makes the following insinuations against Krishna’s life in Vrindavan:
- He calls Krishna a mere cowherd who has created a false mythology around himself in order to masquerade as a god among men.
- He brings into question the stories of Putana (‘he killed a woman’) and the Govardhana Hill (‘he lifted a mere molehill and brags that it is a mountain’).
- He accuses Krishna of using underhanded tactics to kill Jarasandha, the king of Magadha.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 53: Bhima Defeats Duryodhana.)
Similarly, at the end of the Kurukshetra war, Duryodhana – after he has been vanquished by Bhima – rages against Krishna for having won all his battles by means of subterfuge rather than courage.
He cites the killings of Bhishma, Drona and Jayadratha as examples of Krishna’s cunning.
For his part, Krishna does not address these specific allegations in either case. With Shishupala, he remains silent until the moment is right. With Duryodhana, he admits that his methods are unconventional, but also that he is not ashamed of them.
Fighting at Khandava
We see very little direct evidence of Krishna fighting anyone in the Mahabharata. The only time he is shown wielding weapons is during the burning of Khandava. During this incident, Krishna and Arjuna together defeat the army of gods led by Indra.
But this is not a battle in the true sense of the word. Krishna receives plenty of gifts to help Agni devour the forest. He also has the help of Arjuna to face off against the celestials.
Also, none of the main gods of the pantheon participate in this battle. This is Indra’s personal war, so he alone leads a division of his forces against the two heroes. And Indra – at least in the Mahabharata – is not considered particularly powerful, especially when facing two warriors laden with divine weapons.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 14: Massacre at Khandava.)
The only other instance where Krishna fights is when he returns from Indraprastha – following Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya – and finds that Dwaraka has been sacked in his absence by a king named Suvala.
Krishna immediately gathers a group of fighting men, attacks Suvala, kills him, and avenges this slight.
However, all of this happens ‘off-screen’, while Draupadi is being disrobed in Dhritarashtra’s hall. We know of this only later, when Krishna explains to Yudhishthir why he had not stopped the dice game in time.
We do not know how reliable a narrator Krishna is when speaking about himself. This is especially true in light of what Shishupala says about Krishna’s childhood in Vrindavan.
Almost Fighting in Kurukshetra
Outside of this, Krishna hardly ever picks up a weapon. Twice during the first ten days of the war, he gets frustrated by Arjuna’s lethargic manner of fighting when faced against Bhishma.
He proposes to take matters into his own hands, and leaps off the chariot with his discus-wielding arm held aloft, advancing at the grandsire. On both occasions, though, Arjuna stops Krishna and drags him back to their vehicle.
Whether Krishna meant to use the Sudarshana Chakra on Bhishma here or whether he was just posturing to awaken Arjuna’s fighting instincts, we do not know.
What is instructive, though, is how Bhishma reacts. He throws away his bow and welcomes Krishna’s attack. He surrenders and says, ‘I will be a fortunate man indeed to be killed by you, O Madhava.’
(Suggested: 12 Mahabharata Stories From the Bhishma Parva.)
Two Competing Theories
From the above, we can see that Krishna’s fighting ability is judged in two completely different ways by two different groups of people.
On the one hand we have his devotees, followers and friends – who praise him to the skies at all times, and cite instances such as the killing of Putana, the lifting of the Govardhana, and the killing of Kamsa as examples of his skill with weapons.
Yudhishthir, Arjuna, Bhishma and Vidura belong to this tribe.
On the other hand, we have his enemies and detractors who ridicule him as an incapable warrior who always has to use someone else’s help to fetch him victories. Cases in point: Arjuna during the Khandava incident, Bhima during the killing of Jarasandha and so on.
Shishupala, Duryodhana and Shakuni are some of the characters who voice this view.
The truth, most likely, lies somewhere between the two extreme positions. Krishna is not without fighting skill altogether, but he is also not among the most skilful warriors of his day.
Defeat at Jarasandha’s Hands
It is occasionally mentioned in passing that during their early years in Mathura – shortly after the overthrow of Kamsa – Balarama and Krishna suffer a series of defeats in the hands of Jarasandha.
During these mentions, the narrator of the story focuses almost exclusively on Jarasandha’s cruelty, and glosses over the fact that Krishna is so vexed by the Magadha king’s pressure that he decides to take all of his Mathuran citizens westward to found a city on the seashore.
A couple of points need to be noticed here:
- After Krishna and Balarama leave for Dwaraka, Jarasandha essentially leaves them alone. This suggests that Jarasandha has no personal axe to grind against the two princes. What he wants is to regain control over Mathura.
- By bringing about a regime change in Mathura – from Kamsa to Ugrasena – Krishna and Balarama try to turn the city from a Magadha ally to a Shurasena ally. Jarasandha’s aim is to stop this.
From a neutral point of view, therefore, Jarasandha is neither cruel nor wicked. Like all kings, he is looking to establish sovereignty of his kingdom.
Krishna and Balarama do not lose just once against Jarasandha. The language suggests that they incur a series of losses, each one worse than the last, until they decide to leave Mathura under Magadha’s power and flee.
From here, Krishna plays an important role in the building of the coastal city of Dwaraka. He also helps Balarama found the kingdom of Anarta, where all the Yadava factions come together as unified force.
As regent of Anarta, Krishna employs an entirely nonviolent policy toward other kingdoms. It is almost as if he has seen how crippling it is for a kingdom to be engaged in constant wars. He sets Anarta on a path to domination by merely avoiding all conflict.
Instead of all-out war, he relies on intelligence, propaganda and artifice to fulfil his goals. He also makes it a point to remain friendly with all the powerful kingdoms – Kuru and Panchala in particular.
While doing this, he also ensures that Dwaraka is well-defended. Thus, he builds Anarta into an impregnable kingdom that can only be destroyed by civil war.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 59: Krishna and the Yadavas Die.)
The only time Krishna is defeated on record is when he loses a series of battles against Jarasandha, the king of Magadha, soon after the death of Kamsa and the liberation of Mathura.
This forces Krishna to migrate to the shore of the western sea, where he builds a city named Dwaraka.
The defeats that he has endured at the hands of Jarasandha teaches him to be extremely wary of violence and conflict in the future – and to instead rely on unconventional methods to bring about favourable outcomes.
In short, Krishna becomes the cunning strategist that we know as a result of losing repeatedly against Jarasandha.
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