Why did Krishna become Arjuna’s charioteer?

Why did Krishna become Arjuna's charioteer - Featured Image - Picture of a chariot.

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: Why did Krishna become Arjuna’s charioteer?

After Arjuna chooses an unarmed Krishna and allows the Narayana Sena to be given to Duryodhana, Krishna asks Arjuna: ‘You have chosen me. You have me. What shall I do for you?’ And Arjuna replies: ‘I wish you to become my charioteer.’ Krishna says, ‘So be it!’

Read on to discover more about why Krishna became Arjuna’s charioteer.

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

As it Happens

As the beginning of the Kurukshetra war looms, Duryodhana and Arjuna visit Krishna in Dwaraka to decide on the method with which Anarta’s resources can be split between the two sides.

When it comes to Krishna himself, he offers them two choices: one side gets to have the entire Narayana Sena with hundred million fighting troops, and the other will get an unarmed Krishna who vows not to fight.

The option is given to Arjuna first, as a test for his trust in Krishna. Arjuna passes with flying colours, deciding with no hesitation at all that Krishna should be on the side of the Pandavas.

Arjuna’s reason? ‘I am powerful enough to defeat an army of any size on my own, Krishna,’ he says. ‘But I know that whichever side you are on will win the war because you’re the incarnation of Narayana. I don’t need more strength. I need you.’

Duryodhana, for his part, is happy with his lot. He thinks Arjuna is sentimental to pick Krishna when such a huge horde of soldiers stand waiting to be deployed. Thus, both Arjuna and Duryodhana leave Dwaraka with their wishes fulfilled.

(Suggested: Why did Arjuna choose Krishna?)

Role for Krishna

Krishna then asks Arjuna what role he must perform for the Pandavas. And Arjuna, equally unhesitatingly, responds: ‘I want you to be charioteer to my vehicle.’

And Krishna says, ‘So be it!’

Though this exchange seemingly happens on the spur of the moment, a lot of thought must have gone into it. For instance, once it is decided that Krishna is not going to pick up weapons, the Pandava army is left in a predicament as to how can be used best.

One option is to have Krishna not enter the battlefield and advise the Pandavas from the outside. But this will restrict his involvement to pre-combat strategy, formations and the like. He will not be able to make tactical adjustments on the fly.

If Krishna is to stay on the battlefield, it is imperative that he kept safe from the Kauravas’ weapons because he will certainly become one of the main targets of the enemy. Knowing that Krishna has vowed not to fight, one can expect Duryodhana to make plans such that he is under constant attack.

The third point that the Pandavas should keep in mind is that wherever Krishna is deployed, his decisions should have maximal impact on proceedings. In other words, the Pandavas wish to extract as much utility from Krishna as possible.

A Chariot of his own

The first option the Pandavas might have considered is to put Krishna on a chariot of his own, and have one of the main heroes of the Pandava army shadow him at all times. Krishna’s vehicle will be equipped with weapons so that the hero can make use of them whenever required.

This seems like a sensible solution at first glance, but the hero who will be charged with Krishna’s safety will have a lot to do. Not only does he need to take care of his own chariot and charioteer, but also keep an eye on Krishna’s vehicle.

While the hero will undoubtedly benefit from Krishna’s analysis, it is difficult for two chariots driven by two different men to execute any given tactic in the thick of battle.

Also, if the Kauravas can skilfully separate the hero’s vehicle from Krishna’s, and if a number of the Kaurava warriors can keep the hero busy for a while, the others can pick out Krishna and kill him within a moment’s notice.

(While in the above section, the word ‘hero’ evokes Arjuna’s image, he can be anyone that the Pandavas nominate.)

As a Charioteer

It seems, therefore, that the best option which fulfils all of the Pandavas’ requirements is to make Krishna a charioteer to one of the heroes. This ensures two things:

  • He is on the battlefield at all times, so he is able to assess situations as they emerge to tackle them.
  • He is safe as long as the warrior whose chariot he drives takes enough care to protect him. Since most battles do not involve deliberate violence against charioteers, Krishna is relatively safe.

It is of course a matter of good fortune that Krishna is well-educated in equine lore, and possesses more than enough skills to drive any vehicle on the field. This means that with reins in hand, Krishna is best equipped to protect himself as well.

Now the question becomes one of impact. Once it is decided that Krishna best serves the Pandava interests as a charioteer, the decision to be taken is: whose charioteer?

He could become Yudhishthir’s charioteer, for instance, and make sure that the king never finds himself in a tight spot. He could serve Bhima, Dhrishtadyumna, or even Satyaki his countryman.

Why Arjuna?

Having come this far, this final decision must have been an easy one for the Pandava think tank to make. After all, the most powerful chariot in the war belongs to Arjuna. He wields the most powerful bow, and he possesses the most powerful weapons.

It stands to reason that the most skilled charioteer should offer his services to this man. Not only will Krishna ensure that Arjuna’s chariot is always moving at the speed of light, he will offer his continual tactical inputs to the most powerful warrior of the army.

Thus ensuring that his utility is maximised.

Also, this takes care of the two main pain points of having to deploy Krishna in the battle effectively:

  • Arjuna’s is the safest chariot on the battlefield bar none. If there is any spot in Kurukshetra that can be called secure, it is atop this vehicle. So Krishna is as safe here as he can be.
  • With his skill, intelligence and wisdom, Krishna also offers support to Arjuna. As the best warrior in the side, Arjuna is bound to attract plenty of fire. Krishna will be excellently positioned to protect his friend and kinsman.

It is also important to note that Krishna and Arjuna have a long history of friendship, and that they also have experience fighting together.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 39: The Bhagavad Gita.)

Value of a Charioteer

A good charioteer is of immeasurable value in the midst of battle: not only does he offer manoeuvrability and speed, he also acts as a sounding board to the warrior’s thoughts, often offering advice and suggestions in key moments.

There is, of course, a distinct class-hierarchy in the warrior-charioteer relationship: the charioteer is considered to be inferior, and as a servant to the hero who is fighting the actual war.

All the decisions are taken by the archer. The charioteer implements them to the extent of positioning the vehicle at the right place at the right time. While they are a team, the leader is indisputably the warrior.

Kshatriyas often look down upon the profession of driving chariots. This is the reason Shalya – when asked to take up Karna’s reins on the seventeenth day of the war – reacts with scorn.

Not only is he being asked to drive a chariot, but he is being asked to drive a chariot while a charioteer stands on the terrace of the vehicle!

In the case of Krishna, this relationship is upended. Since he brings plenty of fighting pedigree of his own, Arjuna never thinks of himself as being superior to his charioteer. In fact, during the war, it is Krishna who repeatedly mentors Arjuna through various situations

Further Reading

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