Krishna's short journey from Vrindavan to Mathura was a watershed in his life. Until then his prominent characteristic was that of a carefree child and then of accomplished lover, fulfilling his will in a pastoral setting. On reaching Mathura, he assumed the mantle of a man of the world, a dexterous player in the urbane of city and state politics. This dramatic transition cowherd to prince, from flute-player to warrior statesman, and the equally dramatic change of canvas from the groves of Vrindavan to the decorum of kingly courts, has led some to postulate that historically there perhaps two Krishnas, two heroic figures whose its coalesced in time into the image of the one Krishna that we know of today.
This line of reasoning need not be dismissed outright. Historical curiosity about the origin and evolution of deities in the Hindu tradition has led to a new and authentic insights. But, in the case of Krishna, enquiries of this nature have not had—indeed cannot – have definitive answers. In spite of the sharp qualitative difference in his personality in the post-Vrindavan phase, there is much that points to the unitary aspect of his life. His mission was the elimination of evil personified in Kamsa: he came to Vrindavan to escape Kamnsa, and he went to Mathura to kill Karnsa.
From Mathura he sent Uddhava to Vrindavan to console his grieving parents and the gopis. The Bhagavata asserts that many years later, at Kurukshetra, on the occasion of a pilgrimage to mark the total eclipse of the sun, Krishna met Nanda and Yasoda and the gopis again. The Mahabharata frequently refers to Krishna as Govinda— a name that incontrovertibly associates him with his early years as a cowherd. Thus, as Alt Hiltebeitel states in 'Krishna at Mathura', 'the problem is not to find separate origins for "contradictory" aspects of a composite Krishna but to understand why his essentially unitary biography is largely split in two. In Vrindavan, he is a prince in the guise of a cowherd; in Mathura and Dwarka he is a cowherd in the guise of a prince. In both, he is an avatar of Vishnu merely indulging in his effortless leela to assume many forms.
Kamsa was killed by Krishna through superior physical prowess. It was a clash of strength, in which Krishna, aided by Balarama, but without recourse to any supra-human powers, deposed and killed the tyrant. Kamsa had received due warning of the formidable strength of the two brothers. A washer man who had refused to lend them clothes appropriate for city-wear, had had his head smashed by one blow from Krishna. Kamsa's sacrificial bow, which strong men could not even bend, had been picked up by Krishna and easily broken into two. Kuvalayapida, Kamsa's massive elephant swaying in a rut, had been set upon the two young men, but Krishna had dragged it by its tail and,
wrenching its tusk out, had killed the angry beast.
Now there was to be a wrestling match. Kamsa's greatest wrestlers Chanura and Mustika were to fight Krishna and Balarama. The entire town had gathered to witness the match. Kamsa himself was seated in the royal pavilion. Krishna took on Chanura, and Balarama, Mustika. The professional wrestlers were full-grown men and tremendously strong, but no match for the agility and physical stamina of the two brothers. The moment to fulfill the prophecy of the death of Kamsa was now at hand. 'Like a falcon swooping down from the sky*, Krishna caught hold of Kamsa, knocked off his crown, and dragged him by his hair around the arena, until he lay lifeless.
It was a dramatic moment. The people roared their approval. Kamsa's wives screamed in grief. The noise of drums rent the sky. Some skirmishing—soon quelled by Balarama—persisted. Through all of this Krishna retained his transcendental calm. Good had prevailed over evil. More importantly—unlike in many other contexts of his future life as a warrior—it had prevailed with little ambivalence. In a transparent act of daring and courage, he had demonstrated that it could prevail. Now there was other work to do. The first was to release his long-suffering parents—Vasudeva and Devaki—from prison.
They had spent their lives waiting for this moment, and now that it had come and their son of
whose exploits they had heard so much, was in front of them, they stood awkwardly inhibited, overawed by his divine presence. But Krishna, always at ease in the human realm, used his powers of 'maya’ to appear before them as nothing but their son. A tearfully joyous reunion followed aas much too short—for it was time also for Nanda and Yasoda to say farewell. Their role of custodian was over. One phase of life had come to an end. Krishna and Balarama, so inseparable from them thus far, had to move on to the next. This was the inevitability of the chasm between Vrindavan and Mathura.
Krishna reinstated his maternal grandfather, Ugrasena, on the throne of Mathura. It was time now for Balarama and him to prepare themselves to don the mantle of their princely heritage. They may have vanquished Kamsa but they were still cowherds waiting to acquire the training of their Kshatriya lineage. As rustic youths, so dear to the gopis, they may have mastered the fine art of 'barjori', but to become accomplished princes they now needed to master the formal disciplines of logic, prosody, grammar, phonetics, astronomy and etymology.
The strength and daring of the killer of the dreadful asura Kesin may have been fabled; but the grandson of Ugrasena, ruler of Mathura, needed also to know about the science of warfare and the relative merit of all the weapons used in battle. The gopis of Vrindavan may have been content to see a garland of wild flowers around Govinda's neck; but the scion of Mathura had to undergo the 'upanayana’ ceremony where a sacred thread was put on his body. In Vrindavan, Kanha's flute was enough to give the gopis an insight into the divine; but in Mathura, Krishna's mind had to be given a formal grounding in the Vedas and the Upanishads. Balarama and he spent sixty-four days and nights in the custody of Guru Sandipani, renowned for his learning and wisdom, and emerged masters in all the sixty-four arts and crafts.
The Bhagavata narrates an interesting episode during Krishna and Balarama's sojourn in Sandipani's ashram. It was customary for disciples to pay one's guru his fee in the form of guru dakshina. As his 'dakshina', Sandipani asked the two brothers to rescue his son who had been kidnapped to the kingdom of Prabhasha in faraway Saurashtra. In an adventurous journey, described with colour and verve in the Puranas, Krishna and Balarama finally rescued the boy from the very clutches of Yama, the God of Death. Shorn of mythological additives, the incident, if it is based upon historical memory of a real expedition of this nature, is perhaps indicative of the first foray of Krishna outside the Vrindavan-Mathura region, and his first contact with the west coast of India, where he would later opt to set up his own kingdom at Dwarka.
At Mathura, Krishna's career as a warrior began by a decision to withdraw from the battlefield. Kamsa's wives—Asti and Prapti—were the daughters of the powerful ruler of Magadha, Jarasandha. Jarasandha had sworn to avenge the widowing of his daughters and, true to this oath, attacked Mathura as many as seventeen times in the years following Kamsa's death. Krishna and Balarama stoutly defended the city; the city did not fall, but Jarasandha was not defeated either. It was an unacceptable impasse, which was taking a heavy toll of the people of Mathura. Then Jarasandha was joined in his depredations by an 'outsider’, Kalayavana, who besieged the city at the head of his huge army of 'mlechchas’ It was at this time that Krishna decided that discretion was the better part of valour.
It was better to retreat to fight another day, than to fight when defeat was certain. Such a clinically realistic approach to warfare was something new. It went against the grain of the prevailing Kshatriya code of honour, which upheld values of sacrifice and valour over those of strategy and expediency. A Kshatriya's code was to fight. To retreat in a fight was tantamount to betraying that immutable code. Krishna's decision to withdraw from Mathura must therefore have had its strong detractors in his time from even amongst his own followers. One evidence of this is the somewhat derisive epithet 'Ranchhor’— relinquisher of the battlefield—that has survived to this date in association with his name. In the town of Dwarka he is, in at least one important temple, even worshipped by that name—evidence, if any were needed, that over time the overwhelming appeal of his myth made palatable even those of his actions which were not entirely explicable in terms of traditional expectations.
The statecraft of the decision was never in doubt. Magadha was a powerful kingdom and Jarasandha a formidable foe. The Bhagavata states that Krishna deliberately allowed Jarasandha to escape on all seventeen occasions, but this appears to be—even by the Bhagavata's standards—a rather far-fetched rationalization. Kalayavana was probably an invader from across the Himalayas whose marauding hordes could not be taken lightly. Mathura, at the head of the Indo-Gangetic plains, was much too vulnerable a site against such attacks.
The Yadava army after the turmoil and dislocation of Kamsa's death had little time to recoup and consolidate. The withdrawal to the more sheltered west coast, away from Magadha and the northern frontiers, made sound strategic sense. Jarasandha and Kalayavana pursued the retreating Yadavas, but geographical distance ultimately made it impossible for them to sustain the impact of their military strike. Kalayavana was probably killed by cunning and deceit father than in open warfare. The Bhagavata says that Krishna emerged from his fortress consciously unarmed and alone, thus luring Kalayavana to pursue him. Prof. Goswamy and Prof. Dallapiccola give an account of the killing of Kalayavana in Krishna, The Divine Lover.
Dodging Kalayavana but leading him on at the same time, Krishna now entered a dark cave where he knew the glorious king Muchkunda to be asleep. Unsuspectingly, the Yavana also entered the cave. There he dimly perceived the form of a man lying asleep on the ground. Naturally assuming that this must be Krishna, he kicked him, at which Muchkunda woke with a start and cast on the intruder an angry glance which instantly reduced the Yavana to ashes. Muchkunda had in a bygone age, aided the gods against the demons and, completely overcome with grief, had solicited just one favour from them: that he be allowed to enjoy a long repose. 'Sleep long and soundly' the gods replied 'and whoever disturbs you shall be instantly burnt to ashes by the fire emanating from your body.' Krishna knew of this favour and had turned it skillfully to his own advantage.
The linkages between a possible historical event and its mythological embellishment and perpetuation is once again made evident.
The move to Dwarka symbolized the expansion of Krishna's mythic domain from the north and the east to the west of India. Dwarka was built as a fortress-city, on a mountainous perch overlooking the Arabian Sea. It was a well laid out city, and the Bhagavata speaks eloquently of its gold encrusted buildings and crystal balconies. At the heart of the city was Krishna's resplendent palace, encrusted with jewels and replete with all manner of luxuries. This was the setting of a powerful king, but as an extremely popular and poignant incident of Krishna's life demonstrates, it was power that was both accessible and human. Once a childhood friend of Krishna, by the name of Sudama, came to see him at Dwarka.
Sudama was very poor and had agreed to visit Dwarka reluctantly and only at the goading of his more calculating wife. As he wended his way to Dwarka, all kinds of doubts assailed Sudama: Who would believe him when he claimed Krishna as a friend? Would the royal guards even allow him to enter the palace? Would Krishna recognize him? And if he did, what would be his reaction to see an indigent friend of so long ago? Once in Dwarka, Sudama was pleasantly surprised to find that he could enter the palace without hindrance. What is more, Krishna himself saw him approach and, even from a distance, immediately recognized him. Tears of joy began to flow down the cheeks of the ruler of Dwarka.
He clasped his friend in a tight embrace and seated him on his own couch. With the greatest reverence he himself washed his friend's feet. Then he served him food with his own hands. All this while, Sudama had endeavoured to hide some handfuls of rice tied up in a rag which his wife had sent as a gift for Krishna. Sudama was ashamed of a present so wretched for a king so rich, but Krishna, seeing the little bundle, opened it eagerly and ate up the poached rice with the utmost delight. The next day, when Sudama left, Krishna accompanied him for a considerable distance to see him off. Sudama had not been able to bring himself to ask anything of Krishna. It was more than enough, he told himself, that he had managed to meet him and had been treated with so much love and respect. A huge surprise, however, awaited him when he reached home. His humble hut had been miraculously replaced by a glittering palace. Krishna had fulfilled his needs without his asking.
This little story has enduringly etched itself on the Indian psyche. Krishna's intensely human reaction on seeing his impoverished mate—a reaction that overcame the constraints of wealth and status by its sheer spontaneity—has become in the minds of the common man, a defining metaphor for the test of friendship. It has also come to be regarded as the definitive parable to emphasize the importance of human values in the conduct of those in high office. Yesterday's cowherd was today's monarch. Much around him had changed; and yet, so much in him could never change.
The Sudama episode reiterated Krishna's enduring links with his past. Sudama's journey to Dwarka, notwithstanding his initial misgivings, so beautifully portrayed in the Bhagavata and elaborated upon subsequently by many accomplished writers, was meant to demonstrate the triumph of faith over doubt.
While Dwarka was the seat of his kingdom, the real stage for Krishna's role as a warrior was still located along the river Yamuna, in the familiar setting of the north Indian plains, not far from Vrindavan and Mathura. Krishna's aunt—Vasudeva's sister Kunti—was married to Pandu, the ruler of the Kuru kingdom with its capital at Hastinapur. Kunti's three sons— Yudhishthira, Bheema and Arjuna—were thus Krishna's cousins; this familial relationship also included in its scope, on the same footing, Pandu's two younger sons— the twins Nakula and Sahadeva—born from another wife, Madri.
Pandu had died early and his large kingdom was being run by his brother, the blind Dhritarashtra. The real power behind the throne was Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra's unscrupulous and ambitious eldest son, who wanted to inherit the throne and exclude completely the five Pandava brothers from their father's legacy. Dhritarashtra did not approve of his son's doings but
was too weak and vacillating and too overwhelmed by love for his sons, who numbered a hundred, to stop the machinations against the Pandavas. Duryodhana was aided and abetted by his mother's scheming brother, Shakuni. The most serious conspiracy hatched by uncle and nephew was the attempt to burn alive the Pandavas and their mother in a palace specially prepared for this crime. The Pandavas managed to escape due to a timely warning, but it was clear that they would no longer be safe in Hastinapur.
For some time they led an itinerant existence dressed as Brahmins to conceal their real identity. During their travels they visited the court of King Dhrupad, who was conducting a swayamvara for the marriage of his daughter Draupadi. A galaxy of princes were gathered for the occasion but it was Arjuna alone who could perform the feat prescribed for her hand. Being the skilled archer he was, he shot through the eye of a fish revolving above his head by looking only at its reflection in a pool of water below. Krishna was also present at the swayamvara. He had, of course, seen through the disguise of the Pandavas, and became, from then onwards, their closest ally and adviser.
The war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is the theme of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. Krishna, ranged on the side of the Pandavas, played a central role in its unfolding events. It is not the intention here, nor would it be feasible, to narrate the entire
sequence of events, all the plots and sub-plots, and the scores of characters, that constitute the background to Krishna's role in the epic's narrative. It would perhaps serve our purpose if we touched upon the main events of his involvement in the great fratricidal conflict. At a generalized level, Krishna was on the side of good and against evil. The Pandavas were sinned against.
The Kauravas led by Duryodhana were the villains. His participation was, therefore, for the restoration of righteousness and the defeat of adharma. However, while in broad terms this description of his role is sustainable, the fineprint of his involvement militates against the assumption of any unquestioned ethical clarity. What is profiled much more clearly is Krishna the strategist, at one moment the sober statesman, but very often also the shrewd manipulator bent upon achieving his purpose irrespective of the means employed.
The Pandavas established their own kingdom at Khandavaprastha, a region which was a half of the Kuru kingdom in extent, but barren and desolate. The territory was given to them by Dhritarashtra after he had invited them with all honours to return to Hastinapur from their volitional exile. Vidura, Dhritarashtra's younger brother, had personally journeyed to Dhrupad's court to request the Pandavas to return. The brothers were reluctant, but Krishna advised them to accept the invitation. When
Dhritarashtra made the offer of Khandavaprastha, Krishna knew that it was an unfair and unequal settlement. But again, he advised Yudhishthira to accept it. He was present at the formal ceremony arranged by Dhritarashtra to consecrate Yudhishthira as the ruler of Khandavaprastha. And finally it was he who helped the Pandavas transform Khandavaprastha into a rich and fertile region. Indraprastha, its capital, soon emerged as a city to rival all others. According to the Mahabharata, at Krishna's behest, Vishyakarma the celestial architect himself planned and executed the construction of the city.
Having made his kingdom secure and prosperous, Yudhishthira wanted to perform the traditional Rajasuya sacrifice to project his political pre-eminence among the other states and kingdoms. His advisers were enthusiastic, but Krishna, whose advice was as usual sought, advised caution. In a remarkable portrayal of the unsentimental, calm and dispassionate military strategist, Krishna clinically essayed the political situation. It would be a mistake, he said, to underestimate the strength of Jarasandha, the as yet unvanquished ruler of Magadha. Jarasandha's position was bolstered by a host of important alliances. Sisupala, prince of the Chedi kingdom, was a good friend of his, and other Kshatriya scions—Dantavaletra, Rukmi and Paundraka Vasudeva—were known to be close to him.
Yudhishthira's own cousin, Duryodhana, would, in a conflict, probably be on the side of the Magadha ruler. Bhishma, Dronacharya and Kripacharya, formidable warriors of the Kuru kingdom, would perforce have to support Duryodhana. Even if they did not, Kama, an archer to match Arjuna, would surely go with Duryodhana.
'With such a formidable team of foes you have absolutely no chance of performing the Rajasuya,' Krishna argued. 'Jarasandha has captured ninety-eight kings and he keeps them mprisoned. He has an idea of making a sacrifice of royal heads to lord Sankara. The man is mad. But he is too powerful to be ignored or to be defeated. So long as this Jarasandha is alive, your hopes of performing the Rajasuya are thin indeed. If, however, we manage to kill him, then there is nothing to worry about. The other kings, seeing him killed, will not have the courage to defy you and your brothers. This is my firm opinion. Think of a way to kill Jarasandha, and the rest is easy."
Jarasandha was killed, but not in open battle. According to a plan hatched by Krishna, he was tricked into accepting a one to one wrestling match with
Bheema. Even in such a bout, he would not have been defeated, for he had been gifted with divine powers by the sage Chandrakansika. Every time Bheema tore his body into two, the two halves would miraculously rejoin. Bheema was at his wit's end, until Krishna came to his rescue.
When he was able to manage it, Krishna caught the eye of Bheema. Krishna had a small leaf of a plantain in his hand. He split the leaf into two. He then turned one piece round and threw the two pieces at two corners of the floor. Bheema understood what he was trying to say. Again, Bheema threw Jarasandha up in the air. He caught the descending form of the king by the legs. He tore him in two. Bheema now threw the two pieces at two corners of the hall such that one leg and one half of the head were corresponding. The halves did not join up any more. Jarasandha, the favoured of Shankara, was now dead.
With Jarasandha out of the way, Yudhishthira's Rajasuya was eminently successful, and a grand ceremony was arranged for his coronation. Kings and princes and sages and distinguished guests poured in from all the four corners. The Kauravas, led by Duryodhana, had been specially invited. Krishna, of course, was one of the first to arrive. After the ceremony was over, it was incumbent upon Yudhishthira to express his gratitude to each of his guests personally. As per traditional practice, it was also necessary for him to identify a special guest of honour. Bhishma's advice was to select Krishna for this honour, an advice more than enthusiastically accepted by Yudhishthira and the Pandavas. Accordingly, Krishna was ritually 'worshipped' by Yudhishthira. In conformity with the custom to show respect and obeisance, Yudhishthira, aided by Sahadeva, washed Krishna's feet with his own hands. Appropriately, so the Mahabharata says, the very heavens rained down flowers on this happy event.