Why did Krishna not fight in the Mahabharata?

Why did Krishna not fight in the Mahabharata - Featured Post - Picture of a symbol of peace

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 not fight in the Mahabharata?

Krishna does not fight in the Mahabharata war because: (1) He wishes to emphasize the extent of his powers, (2) He thinks that his support is more valuable in a strategic sense to Arjuna rather than in a chariot of his own, and (3) He wants to show the world that when the time comes, good will win over evil even when the latter is more powerful.

Read on to discover more about why Krishna did not fight in the Mahabharata.

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

Equal Support

When Duryodhana and Arjuna approach Krishna – at the same time – with request for support during the upcoming war, Krishna’s primary motivation is two-fold:

  • He needs to ensure that the Pandavas get the better part of the bargain
  • And he needs to ensure that he accomplishes this while letting Duryodhana think otherwise.

In order to fulfil this dual mandate, Krishna divides his personal resources into two ‘equal’ parts:

  • In the first part, he puts himself, alone and unarmed – with an oath that he will not pick up arms until the war is finished.
  • In the second part, he puts his cowherd army of a hundred million soldiers, with all their skills and weapons.

He deliberately creates a lopsided balance between the two because he knows that Arjuna will prefer to have Krishna on his own, and will not care for the large number of cowherds. Also, the foolish Duryodhana, Krishna knows, will be smitten by the cowherd army and scoff at Krishna’s support.

We must note here that if Krishna had offered himself along with his fighting ability, Duryodhana may have felt that he is more powerful than the army. By offering himself unarmed, Krishna ensures that Duryodhana is happy with the trade.

On the other hand, for Arjuna, it is Krishna’s guidance that is more important: he already has all the weapons and skill at his disposal to win the war on his own.

By offering not to fight in the war, therefore, Krishna ensures that both Duryodhana and Arjuna leave Dwaraka satisfied with the support they have received.

(Suggested: Why did Arjuna choose Krishna?)

If Krishna fights…

For a moment, let us assume that Krishna had offered himself and his army in two separate portions, but he does not take an oath that he will be unarmed.

In this scenario, we can imagine that he will fight in a chariot of his own, with the reins held by his long-trusted aide, Daruka. Meanwhile, Arjuna will also fight in his Agni-gifted vehicle, with another charioteer.

Would this have been better for the Pandavas as a whole, with Arjuna and Krishna fighting separately? Common sense says yes, but we must remember that this would have deprived Arjuna of Krishna’s constant guidance and analysis. He would have had to rely on his own judgement more often.

Would he still have managed to defeat Bhishma? Kill Jayadratha? Kill Karna?

And would Krishna – occupied by fighting as he is – have been able to focus on the strategic elements of battle with the same intensity as he did as Arjuna’s charioteer?

Would he have been able to devise the killing of Drona? Would he have planned the defanging of Karna the same way with Ghatotkacha as leverage?

Fighter versus Strategist

If Krishna had been available as a fighting resource, the Pandavas may still have, therefore, asked themselves the question of whether the regent of Dwaraka is more useful as a fighter or a full-time strategist.

Arjuna is the lynchpin of the Pandava army. As long as he is kept alive, the Pandavas will win. There is no question. The Pandava strategy, therefore, is to keep Arjuna alive as deep into the war as possible.

Arjuna is already empowered with skill and many divine weapons. If it could be arranged that Krishna could accompany him on his chariot at all times, then it is near impossible that Arjuna can be defeated.

So even if this hypothetical scenario were true – if Krishna had made himself available as a fighter – the Pandavas may have found it more profitable to employ him as a full time strategist atop Arjuna’s chariot.

(Suggested: Why did Krishna become Arjuna’s charioteer?)

Krishna’s Assessment

Before the meeting with Duryodhana and Arjuna, therefore, and before making the divisions and offering them to his two visitors, Krishna must have asked himself that question: ‘Am I more useful to the Pandavas as a fighter or as a tactician?’

He must have decided that boosting Arjuna to near-invincibility by becoming his charioteer was a better option than leaving him vulnerable to the likes of Bhishma, Drona and Karna.

If Krishna fights on another chariot and Arjuna is to die, it would be left to Krishna to defeat the Kaurava army on his own. And despite his considerable powers, he does not have the fighting ability to overcome the maharathas on the Kuru side.

The only man capable of matching the stalwarts fighting for Duryodhana is Arjuna. Krishna therefore reasons that protecting and guiding him through the maze is better addition of value than picking up arms himself.

Arjuna already has the skill. He has the divine weapons. He just needs to be given the mental, emotional and tactical support to complete his task.

And Krishna undertakes to do this – not only with the Bhagavad Gita, but with constant inputs on how the Pandavas should conduct themselves.

(Suggested: Why was Arjuna Invincible?)

Proving Himself

During his visit to Hastinapur in an effort to make peace between the two sides, Krishna speaks highly of the Pandavas’ skill, and suggests that if war was to happen, a Pandava victory was a foregone conclusion.

At this point, Duryodhana scoffs at Krishna. ‘I do not think you believe that the sons of Pandu are as powerful as you make them seem,’ he says. ‘With the likes of Bhishma and Drona on our side – two men who have never been defeated – how can the Pandavas win?’

Krishna then shows himself as the incarnation of Vishnu, and claims that whichever side he is on will win regardless of the odds.

So his personal values are invested in this war. He believes that the Pandavas should win, and that their victory will result in a politically stable world. He wants to prove to the world two things:

  • That he is powerful enough to support a side without taking up arms and still guide it to victory, thus embellishing his own image as a supreme strategist.
  • That the Kurukshetra war is a Dharma Yuddha, in which good will win against evil even when the odds are stacked against it.

Would Krishna have fought?

Finally, to end this post, we may ask another hypothetical question: if Krishna had noticed that his support for the Pandavas is not sufficient to make them victorious, would he have foresworn is oath and fought with weapons?

Evidence suggests yes, because on two occasions, he does pick up the discus and advance menacingly in Bhishma’s direction as if meaning to strike him down.

However, we don’t know what the implications would have been if Krishna had done this. He would have lost all moral high ground, and Duryodhana would have claimed victimhood, but Krishna would not have let that bother him.

At the end he says, ‘There is no disgrace in winning a war through whatever means necessary against a sinful foe.’ This suggests that if he had thought it necessary, he would have not hesitated to pick up weapons despite his vow.

Further Reading

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