Why did Balarama support Duryodhana?

Why did Balarama support Duryodhana - Featured Image - Picture of a geometric pattern representing the two-pronged strategy of Anarta

Duryodhana is the main antagonist of the Mahabharata. He is the eldest son of King Dhritarashtra and Queen Gandhari of Hastinapur. He and his ninety nine younger brothers are together called the Kauravas.

Central to Duryodhana’s life is his belief that Dhritarashtra was the rightful king of Hastinapur, and that he had been cheated out of the throne by Bhishma and Vidura. Duryodhana attempts to correct this wrong by proclaiming himself heir to the Kuru throne.

Duryodhana’s relentless envy and ambition bring about his downfall. He drags the Kuru kingdom to the Kurukshetra war, and becomes responsible for the deaths of thousands of people.

In this post, we will answer the question: Why did Balarama support Duryodhana?

The official foreign policy of Anarta – the kingdom of Balarama – is to be equally conciliatory toward both the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Therefore, while Krishna ostensibly supports the Pandavas in their many quests, Balarama does the balancing act and cultivates an enduring friendship with Duryodhana.

Read on to discover more about why Balarama supported Duryodhana.

(For answers to all Duryodhana-related questions, see: Duryodhana: 12 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Arrival at Draupadi’s Swayamvara

Balarama first makes an appearance in the Mahabharata along with Krishna at Draupadi’s swayamvara.

Whether the brothers come as invited guests or uninvited spectators, we do not know. But the fact that they announce on their arrival they do not wish to compete for Draupadi’s hand suggests the latter.

In the years leading up to this event, Balarama has been preoccupied with many things: liberating Mathura from the tyranny of Kamsa; migrating from Mathura to escape the clutches of Magadha’s king Jarasandha; uniting the Vrishni factions of the west to found the kingdom of Anarta; and to build the seaside city of Dwaraka.

With their attendance at Draupadi’s swayamvara, Balarama’s intention is to scope out potential allies on the Gangetic belt with whom to build relationships.

Chiefly, he has his eyes on two kingdoms: Kuru and Panchala. These are the two most powerful kingdoms of the North. With these two as friends, Balarama hopes to one day mount an attack on Jarasandha so that he may reclaim Mathura.

At this ceremony, Balarama spots the Pandavas and witnesses the power of Arjuna and Bhima. This is when it dawns on him that Kuru is not just one kingdom – it is potentially two, because of the internal politics that separate the Pandavas and Kauravas.

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

Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya

In the twelve years that lie between the wedding of the Pandavas to Draupadi, and Yudhishthir’s coronation as emperor, Balarama makes important strides toward strengthening the Anarta-Pandava friendship.

  • Krishna is the enforcer of this angle of the alliance. He cultivates a strong friendship with Arjuna, and deepens the bond by offering Subhadra to him in marriage.
  • Krishna uses the friendship of Arjuna and Bhima to land a fatal blow on Jarasandha. Ostensibly, this clears the way for Yudhishthir to become emperor. But it also brings Mathura, Chedi and Magadha into the Yadava fold.
  • This period ends with the killing of Shishupala by Krishna at Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya.

During this entire time, we must note that Balarama remains carefully uncommitted. He does not indulge in any overt gestures of support toward the Pandavas. All the actions come from Krishna.

This is because whatever Balarama does will be construed – rightly – as the official position of Anarta. Krishna can be interpreted as a bit of a wild, free agent on whom Balarama has little control.

During these twelve years, therefore, Balarama takes the opportunity to build a relationship with Duryodhana and the official Kuru establishment. Thus, he is strengthening the Anarta-Kaurava alliance.

Right to the end, Balarama will manage both these friendships (Anarta-Pandava, through Krishna; Anarta-Kaurava, through himself) more or less equally so that no matter whose fortunes in Kuru are on the ascendant, Anarta’s path will not be interrupted.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 16: Krishna Kills Shishupala.)

The Exile Years

When the Pandavas are sent away to exile, Balarama’s foresight becomes vindicated. Krishna now takes a back seat, and does not provide any material support to the Pandavas.

Anarta’s dealings are now with Duryodhana alone, because he is the sole emperor of the entire world. Balarama furthers his friendship with the eldest Kaurava, assures him that Anarta will always support his ambitions, and builds a strong trade alliance with Kuru.

While Krishna offers psychological and moral support to the Pandavas, Balarama engages with the Kauravas in an official capacity. During this time, Balarama deliberately sells to Kuru the narrative that he disapproves of Krishna’s actions.

‘But what can one do?’ he may have said to Duryodhana on occasion. ‘Krishna is his own man.’ On the other side, Krishna gives the Pandavas the impression that he is frustrated with Balarama’s support of Duryodhana.

Despite appearances, it is extremely likely that the brothers are united in all of this. The strategy makes sound political sense; each brother picks one side and extends about equal support so that no matter which side wins, Anarta will still remain friends with the ruling class of Kuru.

At the end of the exile, Balarama and Krishna attend the wedding of Uttara and Abhimanyu. Here, they make their stances clear. While Krishna speaks in favour of the Pandavas, Balarama proposes that the issue be resolved by nonviolent means.

(Suggested: Why did Krishna support the Pandavas?)

Kurukshetra War

With the war imminent, Balarama springs a surprise on everyone by stating that Anarta – in its official capacity – will remain neutral in this war. Along with Anarta, therefore, we may consider Shurasena and Kunti to be neutral as well.

This means that the major power center of the middle kingdoms choose not to fight in the battle of the Gangetic plains.

When it comes to Krishna, he divides ‘his resources’ equally between the two sets of cousins. To Duryodhana he gives his entire Narayana Sena, and to Arjuna he gives himself – and offers to steer the Pandava’s chariot.

He also pledges two akshauhinis of troops to the battle. One of them is led by Yuyudhana (Satyaki). The other is led by Kritavarma. The former fights for the Pandavas, the latter for the Kauravas.

To make his official position beyond clear, Balarama even goes on a pilgrimage for the entire duration of the war, as if to distance himself from it completely.

This act invites public criticism from Krishna, but it is of course entirely possible that this decision too was taken by the two brothers in consultation with one another.

Unofficial versus Official Support

When we speak about either Krishna or Balarama supporting the Kauravas or Pandavas, it may be enlightening to demarcate between official support and unofficial support.

  • During the ascendance of the Pandavas, Krishna offers them practical support in a couple of matters: first, he helps Arjuna in clearing the Khandava forest. Then he helps them kill Jarasandha – though this can be interpreted as a selfish act as well.
  • Balarama, during this period, extends primarily unofficial support to Duryodhana, making him his disciple at mace-fighting and building a friendship – but staying away from significant trade deals.
  • When the Pandavas fall into hard times, Krishna steps into the ‘moral support’ role, giving the Pandavas his assurances but little else. Meanwhile, Balarama swings into ‘official support’ mode, building a strong diplomatic relationship with Duryodhana’s Kuru.
  • When it comes to the war, Balarama withdraws all official participation of Anarta in the conflict. Krishna then balances what help he can give the Kauravas and Pandavas.

Over this entire time, Balarama’s primary concern is to safeguard and further the interests of Anarta, his kingdom. He does not wish Anarta’s fortunes to ebb and flow along with the Pandava-Kaurava conflict.

His main ambition is to set Anarta on an uninterrupted path to supremacy – and that can only happen by carefully managing Anarta’s relationship with both the Pandavas and Kauravas separately.

Balarama looks after the Anarta-Kaurava relationship. Krishna takes care of the Anarta-Pandava relationship. When the Pandavas are doing well, Balarama will take a back seat. When the Kauravas are doing well, Krishna will do so.

With this strategy, Anarta – with its capital city at Dwaraka – becomes the superpower of the age without fighting a single war.

Further Reading

If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also: