Krishna becomes adviser to and guide of his cousins the Pandava princes being particularly close to the third brother Arjuna who marries Krishna’s sister Subhadra,

Navaratna Rajaram


Even though Krishna is known in several works, the ancient historical epic the Mahabharata is the most important and regarded as the primary source. Any details relating to his life and career, not found in the Mahabharata must be seen as questionable. Krishna appears in the Mahabharata in the episode of Arjuna’s winning the hand of the Panchala princess Draupadi. Draupadi’ name was Krishnaa, meaning dark. Like Krishna she seems to have been dark complexioned. At that time and wellinto 1000 CE (AD), dark complexion was seen as a sign of beauty. Draupadi (daughter of Panchala king Drupada) and naa also Panchali (for princess of Panchala). She was said to be Agnisenaa (or fire born) probably because of her feiry personality.

Krishna and the Pandavas

Arjuna performing the feat win Draupadi’s hand Above). After his move to Dwaraka from his birthplace of Mathura, Krishna’s life was inextricably tied to the fate of the five Pandava brothers and their rivalry with their cousins of the House of Kurus. In Krishna’s time, the Kurus with their seat in Hastinapura had been ruled by two brothers Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Pandu’s wife Kunti was the sister of Krishna’s father Vasudeva. She had three sons — Yudhisthira (aka Dharma Raja meaning king of dharma), Bhima and Arjuna; Madri had twin sons Nakula and Sahadeva. All of them were born during Pandu’s voluntary exile. He died in exile and his junior wife Madri voluntarily immolated herself on his funeral pyre. The care of all the five sons now devolved upon the young widow Kunti.

 Young Draupadi (Left)

Following this calamity, Kunti decided to head back to her husband’s clan and seek protection. Although the blind Dhritarashtra was nominally the king of the Kurus, the real ruler was his uncle Bhisma. And Bhisma, a noble soul, welcomed Kunti and her sons into the palace and arranged for the care and education of the princes.

Dhritarashtra himself had numerous sons (‘a hundred’ is not to be taken literally). The eldest of his sons was Duryodhana, a proud and headstrong prince. The return of Pandu’s sons — known as the Pandavas — introduced complications in the royal succession since the eldest Pandava Yudhisthira was senior to Duryodhana, and his own father Pandu had been ruling before his exile. All the five brothers were considered outstanding warriors especially Bhima and Arjuna. Yudhisthira was known for his sense of justice and compassion, and was recognized as heir apparent, which aroused the jealousy of Duryodhana. (In ancient India, heirs were chosen based on fitness to rule; succession did not automatically go to the seniormost member.)

Kunti had also a premarital son by name Karna (though he was unaware of the fact), who received the patronage of Duryodhana. He was considered an exceptional warrior — the peer of Arjuna. This was the beginning of the rivalry between Arjuna and Karna on the one hand, and the great friendship that was to blossom between Duryodhana and Karna on the other. There were several attempts to eliminate the Pandavas, and finally, fearing for their life, Kunti with her five sons again went into exile. The Pandavas were entirely isolated and led a precarious existence concerned mainly with survival against heavy odds. This helps explain the willingness of Yudhisthira to swallow humiliations when the odds were weighted heavily against him and his brothers.

Gaining the hand of Draupadi:The Pandavas were forced to lead an itinerant life disguised as poor Brahmins. Their greatest need of the moment was a powerful ally who could protect them against Duryodhana and his father Dhritarashtra. In the course of their wanderings they learnt that the powerful Pancala king Drupada was to hold a contest for the hand of his daughter Krishnaa (thedark one), the beautiful and strong willed Draupadi . The Pandavas decided to attend the contest, the svayamvara of princess Draupadi (meaning Drpada’s daughter) . She was also known as Panchali or the princess of Panchala kingdom. She was said to be Agnisene meaning daughter of the Fire God. Her fiery prsonality fully justified the name.

It was a tough challenge, but greatly to everyone’s surprise, Arjuna, disguised as a Brahmin won the contest and the hand of Draupadi. Princess Draupadi did not object and freely chose Arjuna, disguised as a poor Brahmin, as her husband.

Krishna also attended the event see picture Krishna also attended but neither he nor any of the Yadavas contested for her hand.

The astute and observant Krishna had seen through their disguise and recognized the five youngBrahmins as none other than his own cousins, the famous Pandava princes. This is the first recorded meeting between Krishna and the Pandavas. This is also the first scene in which Krishna appears in the Mahabharata.

For whatever reason, at Kunti’s insistence, the five Pandava brothers married Draupadi as their common wife. Polyandry was not unknown but looked down upon, but Kunti’s own experience probably made her feel that there was greater security in it for Draupadi. During their years of exile, Kunti and her husband had lived in the Himalayan regions where the practice of polyandry — brothers marrying a common wife — was not uncommon. King Drupada also was persuaded to go along with this strange marriage of his daughter. Polygamy was then common, and all the Pandavas married other women. Later Arjuna was to marry Krishna’s half sister Subhadra. Their son Abhimanyu was to attain fame as Arjuna’s peer as a warrior. But Draupadi was always recognized as the queen.

Following their marriage to Draupadi, the Pandavas felt strong enough to return to Hastinapura and demand a share of the ancestral kingdom. Duryodhana refused, but the grandfather Bhisma, who still had some influence at the court, advised partitioning the kingdom. They were granted some largely undeveloped territory that included a wilderness called Khandavaprastha. Arjuna and Krishna cleared the forest and a new city called Indraprastha (modern Delhi) was built as their capital. Following spectacular conquests, especially by Arjuna, their territories also expanded. Yudhisthira now had ambitions to be recognized as the greatest monarch of the age. But this was impossible as long as the great Jarasandha of Magadha — Krishna’s old rival — was still ruling. He would never acknowledge anyone. Yudhisthira therefore turned to Krishna for help.

Krishna, accompanied by Arjuna and his elder brother Bhima went to his old rival, Jarasandha of Magadha, and challenged him to a duel. The proud Jarasandha chose to fight only with Bhima, a giant of a man generally regarded as the strongest man of the age and the most formidable in individual combat. Jarasandha was also renowned for his physical powers, but proved no match for Bhima. Bhima killed him in the duel. Jarasandha had imprisoned many princes and was thought to be an oppressive ruler. Krishna freed all the prisoners and placed Jarasandha’s son Sahadeva on the throne of Magadha. The Pandava ruler Yudhisthira could now claim to be the greatest, but Krishna wanted nothing for himself. Krishna’s greatest strength as a statesman was freedom from personal ambition.

Pandavas’ loss and exile

Following Jarasandha’s death, Yudhisthira felt bold enough to perform the Rajasuya — a ceremony to have himself annointed the first monarch of the age. This was an occassion to which all the leading princes in the land were invited, including his cousins the Kauravas of Hastinapura. The Rajasuya aroused the envy of Duryodhana who also felt slighted by the extraordinary honors bestowed on his cousin Yudhisthira whom he regarded as an upstart. With his uncle Shakuni — the brother of his mother Gandhari — he began to scheme of ways to deprive the Pandavas of their kingdom.

            Despite the honor conferred by the Rajasuya, the Pandavas’ position was far from secure. The Pandavas’ rapid rise from relative obscurity to great power threatened the old order headed by the elder Kuru branch. Duryodhana, who seems to have been chronically suspicious by nature, sensed a threat to his own position as the king of Hastinapura. He felt that he himself would some day have to face his formidable Pandava cousins in battle and possibly even lose his kingdom. After consulting with his father, he invited Yudhisthira to Hastinapura and challenged him to a game of dice. It is not clear why Yudhisthira accepted the challenge. It is possible that Yudhisthira found it politically expedient. In the contest itself Duryodhona was represented by his crafty uncle Shakuni. Yudhisthira staked and lost everything including the freedom of all the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi. She like her husband Arjuna looked upon Krishna as an elder brother and protector.

 Yudhishthira playing for the Pandavas lost the contest to Shakuni representing Duryodhana and the Kauravas. It is unnecessary to into the details of the humiliation of Draupadi and the Pandavas; I will only note that the story of the endless sari supplied by Krishna’s blessing that saved Draupadi’s honor is a much later interpolation found only in some southern versions of the Mahabharata. From the oldest version, I conclude that her invoking Krishna as a threat, though the Pandavas had lost their freedom, was enough to persuade Dhritarshtra to release them. The upshot was that the Pandavas had to give up their kingdom and spend twelve years in the forest followed by a year in hiding; if discovered in the thirteenth year, it was to be more of the same.

Once again the Pandavas were exiled and left for the forest with their queen Draupadi. Their mother Kunti remained in Hastinapura staying with their uncle Vidura. Krishna took Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu with him to Dwaraka, and Draupadi’s brother Dhristhadymna took her five sons with him to her father’s house in Pancala. For the next thirteen years Abhimanyu was to live with his uncle Krishna to be brought up under his tutelage as a warrior to almost equal Arjuna.

After twelve years spent wandering in the forests, the Pandavas and Draupadi went to the Matsya country ruled by Virata. Disguised as servants, they found employment in various capacities in the royal household. At the end of their year spent incognito Virata was delighted to learn that these were the great Pandava brothers. A marriage alliance was also concluded with Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu — now a dashing young prince of eighteen years — and princess Uttara, the daughter of Virata and queen Sudeshna.

Now with some firm alliances — with Virata, Drupada and, of course Krishna — Yudhisthira asked for his share of the kingdom. But Duryodhana refused to honor his commitment. Even though he offered some lame excuses, it was a brutal breaking of a solemn agreement. Krishna again enters the scene, first to prevent the war, and then to guide the Pandavas to victory. This is what I will discuss in my next article.


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