Why did Krishna not kill Jarasandha?

Why did Krishna not kill Jarasandha - Featured Image - Picture of Krishna's face amid peacock feathers.

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 kill Jarasandha?

Krishna clashes against Jarasandha twice: once when he is regent of Mathura, and once during Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya. In the first instance, Jarasandha is too powerful for Krishna. The second time, Krishna is perhaps strong enough to defeat Jarasandha at wrestling, but it is much less personally risky to allow Bhimasena to attempt the act.

Read on to discover more about why Krishna did not kill Jarasandha.

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

Significance of Kamsa

The first big project in Krishna’s life is to kill Kamsa and liberate Mathura from his tyranny. Krishna fulfils this part of his destiny immediately after leaving Vrindavan. He gives the throne of Mathura to its ‘rightful king’, Ugrasena – Kamsa’s father.

The above is the official narrative of what has happened. From a more neutral viewpoint, here is a brief summary of the state of events that existed at the time of Krishna’s departure from Vrindavan

  • Ugrasena, by all accounts, is friendly toward Kunti and Shurasena and not particularly so toward Magadha.
  • Kamsa overthrows Ugrasena and becomes king. Though we’re not told the details of their disagreement, we can deduce from future happenings that at least part of it must have been Kamsa’s friendliness toward Magadha.
  • This does not have to be ‘cruelty’ on Kamsa’s part. He may have seen alliance with Jarasandha to be more profitable for Mathura than with Shurasena and Kunti.
  • After Kamsa’s ascension to the throne, he immediately marries two of Jarasandha’s daughters, thus deepening the alliance.

We must also note that a similar shift of friendship occurs with Damaghosha of Chedi. After marrying Srutashrava, the daughter of Shurasena, Damaghosha throws in his lot with Magadha.

Jarasandha’s Ambition

We’re often led to see Jarasandha as this monarch with an unquenchable bloodlust. But if we examine the issue objectively, Jarasandha is no more ambitious than any other king who seeks to extend his empire.

In the case of both Mathura and Chedi, he pursues non-violent means, using persuasion to convince Kamsa and Damaghodha to forsake their ties with the Yadavas and to partner with Magadha.

Whether Jarasandha uses bribery, praise, gifts, trade – or all of the above – to gain the trust of these two kings, we do not know. But by the time Krishna is old enough to leave Vrindavan, the king of Magadha counts both Mathura and Chedi as his allies.

Both kingdoms are important for Jarasandha’s ambition. He already controls some smaller kingdoms to the east, and this dual alliance with Kamsa and Damaghosha lays the foundation for his movement westward, in the direction of Kunti and Shurasena.

Jarasandha’s plan, therefore, is to become the emperor of the middle kingdoms – and in time challenge the northern belt as well.

The Killing of Kamsa

Shurasena and Kunti, on the other hand, are extremely wary of Jarasandha’s growing might. Krishna’s assignment to kill Kamsa and to reclaim Mathura is as much driven by geopolitical considerations as by outrage at Kamsa’s evil.

(Incidentally, there is no hard evidence of Kamsa’s tyranny. Life in Mathura – from descriptions of it when Krishna visits – is comfortable and prosperous. At least, it is not a hellhole.)

By killing Kamsa, and by reinstating Ugrasena as king, Krishna fires the first salvo at Jarasandha. Jarasandha views this as an act of war – which in fact it is, because Krishna has effectively assassinated an incumbent king and replaced him with a ruler sympathetic to Shurasena’s cause.

Magadha retaliates against this with military power. It is entirely possible that after all these years of friendly relations between the two kingdoms, Mathura has come to be an integral part of the Magadhan empire.

Here, too, we do not have to see Jarasandha as ‘cruel’. He is merely trying to retaliate against an invader who has taken territory that belongs to him.

Jarasandha’s Victory

The military strength of Magadha – with Chedi offering support – proves to be too much for Mathura. In a series of several battles, we’re told that Mathura is battered and skinned to the bone.

So comprehensive is Jarasandha’s victory here that Krishna and Balarama decide that it is prudent to leave Mathura to Magadha and migrate westward to build a new city from scratch.

If building a new city in an unknown place is the alternative that Krishna thought was prudent, we can imagine the horrific extent to which Jarasandha tortured Mathura with his soldiers.

A perceptive reader may ask: but why didn’t Shurasena and Kunti support Mathura in defending itself? Though the text does not answer this explicitly, we must guess that they did, but their combined might was not enough to defeat Jarasandha.

We must also note that Chedi’s involvement must have tilted this matter in Magadha’s favour: Chedi is located right next to Mathura, whereas Shurasena and Kunti are more distant.

At this point in the story, therefore, it is fair to say that Krishna does not kill Jarasandha because he is not powerful enough to do so.

Building Dwaraka

After Krishna and Balarama move to the western shore and pitch their tents, Jarasandha does not trouble him. He seems quite content ruling over his Magadha-Chedi-Mathura complex.

If he were personally motivated against Krishna, one would think that the best way to kill both the brothers would be to strike when the iron is hot: chase them all the way to the western ocean and finish the matter once and for all.

But Jarasandha does not do this. Perhaps he is aware that fighting Krishna and Balarama out in the west – where support from Shurasena and Kunti is more accessible – would be a different proposition.

Or perhaps he is simply not interested in Krishna personally. His enmity with the brothers was purely political in nature: they stole his Mathura, and he got it back from them. End of story.

Throughout the period where Krishna and Balarama build Dwaraka and unify the Yadava factions – leading to the establishment of Anarta – Jarasandha remains quiet. He makes no moves westward.

Whether he is too busy consolidating his eastern flank or if his ambition to become emperor has died with advancing years, we do not know.

During Draupadi’s Swayamvara

At Draupadi’s swayamvara, Krishna and Balarama are present but Jarasandha is not.

That Drupada might have invited the Yadavas but not the king of Magadha seems inconceivable. So we may conclude that Jarasandha does not attend the ceremony despite being invited.

Why may this be? If Jarasandha is truly the ambitious despot, one would think that coming to Draupadi’s swayamvara and making some friendships would have been sensible.

Once again, we see that the image of Jarasandha that emerges from his actions is a bit different to the image that Krishna paints of him.

Krishna characterizes Jarasandha as cruel and blindly ambitious, whereas from the evidence of his behaviour, it seems that the king seems reticent – and content with his spoils.

During the Rajasuya

At least twelve years pass between Draupadi’s swayamvara and Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya. During this time as well, Jarasandha troubles no one. He certainly does not make an offensive move against Shurasena or Kunti.

This behaviour may have been motivated by prudence: Jarasandha knows that his tri-kingdom complex is not strong enough to take on the might of Anarta, Kunti and Shurasena together, especially because the latter three cities will be defending themselves.

They will have the advantage of being geographically close to one another, whereas Magadha has to contend with transporting its army over vast stretches of land and even across the river.

On the other hand, Jarasandha may simply have been disinterested. Perhaps his ambition to become emperor of the world has been replaced by wisdom that accrues with age. Perhaps that ambition was merely a construct of Krishna’s narrative.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 15: The Rajasuya.)

The Need to kill Jarasandha

Regardless of how ambivalent Jarasandha at this point in the story, Krishna knows that as long as Mathura, Chedi and Magadha (and some smaller kingdoms surrounding them) are controlled by Jarasandha, there is enough power in that region to prevent Yudhishthir from claiming overlordship of the earth.

This is true. But what is not explored is whether Jarasandha – like all the other kings – would have entertained the option of being friendly with Yudhishthir.

Perhaps he would have been. Perhaps not. But the option is not explored.

Krishna tells Yudhishthir that the only way for the Rajasuya to happen is to kill Jarasandha. He also tells the Pandavas some fantastic stories about Jarasandha’s cruelty, and establishes him as the villain.

In this scenario, Krishna seems to be motivated by his own selfish motives: with Jarasandha gone, Mathura and Chedi will return to the Yadava fold, and Anarta’s power will increase along with Yudhishthir’s.

The same won’t be true if Jarasandha agrees to become one of Yudhishthir’s friendly tributaries.

Using Bhima for the Deed

Having come this far, why does Krishna not kill Jarasandha himself? Why does he use Bhima to do it?

Once again, we must entertain the possibility that Krishna is not as certain a bet as Bhima is in a wrestling match against Jarasandha. Krishna may have calmly calculated the odds and decided that Bhima would be a better choice.

Or if we assume that all three of them – Krishna, Bhima and Arjuna – are equally likely to defeat Jarasandha, it reduces personal risk for Krishna to have Bhima fight the battle.

Even if Bhima is to die in the encounter, the amount of personal harm accruing to Anarta in general or to Krishna in particular from the event is minimal.

From his previous battles against Jarasandha, Krishna seems to have taken a lesson to heart: wherever possible, use unconventional means to fight battles; and wherever possible, use one party’s power as leverage against another while remaining neutral.

With the death of Jarasandha, therefore, both Yudhishthir and Krishna get what they want: the former installs Jarasandha’s son on the throne, and the latter achieves a power vacuum among the middle kingdoms – which Anarta later fills.

Further Reading

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