Krishna’s mission to the Kaurava court
Krishna’s fruitless embassy to the Kaurava court exemplifies his philosophy of action; he knew very well that Duryodhana was not one to see reason. He still regarded Yudhisthira and the Pandavas as upstarts, resting on his superior support among the ruling houses in India. He felt that the Pandavas were in no position to challenge him militarily. He therefore saw no reason to compromise as long as he held the upper hand. Krishna realized this, but felt himself duty bound to make every effort to avoid war.
On the Pandava side, Yudhisthira wanted to avoid war. To everyone’s great surprise, not only Arjuna but even Bhima favored a peaceful solution. Among the Pandavas, only Sahadeva was for war. And of course Draupadi.
Draupadi had not forgotten her humiliation when Dusshasana had dragged her before the assembly where the Kaurava princes had hurled insults at her. Duryodhana had invited her to leave her helpless husbands and come and sit on his lap, pointing to his own thigh. Bhima seethed like a caged lion and vowed to kill Duryodhana some day by smashing his thighs. And now, when she saw even the fierce Bhima favoring peace — the same Bhima who had sworn to avenge her humiliation by dismembering Dusshasana and smashing Duryodhana’s thighs to smitherens — Draupadi could no longer control herself. She stopped Krishna as he was about to leave on his journey and appealed to him:
Look at me O Krishna! Look at me. Look at these long tresses of mine. To those men who talk of peace with the Kauravas — remind them of the day when that vile Dusshasana dragged me by this hair into the Kuru assembly. If Bhima and Arjuna have turned cowards and seek peace with such men, so be it. I have my aged father and my brave young sons to avenge my insult. Sahadeva and my five sons, with the peerless Abhimanyu in the lead — they will destroy the Kaurava horde and restore my honor. How can there be any peace in my heart until I see Dusshasana dismembered and his sinful arm dragged through the dust of the battlefield. These thirteen years — I have kept this anger within me. And now to see even the great Bhima cringe for peace in the name of dharma, what do I have left to live for?
And she said something, which gives rare insight into her extraordinary character: “It is as great a crime to spare a criminal, as it is to kill an innocent.”
Krishna was Draupadi’s cousin by marriage and her closest confidant. He was himself for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. He felt her anguish personally, but he also knew that affairs of state of such of great moment could not be decided in anger. His reply to the passionate princess is full of understanding, and yet showed awareness of his responsibility as a statesman on whose shoulders rested the only hope for preventing a holocaust. He told her:
Dear Draupadi! Hear me for my words. Before long you will see the queens and wives of the Kaurava heroes shed tears more bitter than your own. On Yudhisthira’s command — with Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva at my side — I will commence the slaughter of the black-hearted Kaurava horde. Heedless of my advice, Dhritarashtra’s sons will march to their doom. Your husbands will destroy your enemies, and you will reign again as the queen of the great royal house. Mountains may move and heavens may fall — but mark these words of mine! They shall never prove false. My words shall never prove false.
It is beyond the powers of a mere translator to reproduce the tragic grandeur of Vyasa’s mighty epic. Although literary criticism lies outside the scope of the present work, I hope this passage gives the reader some idea of the greatness of the Mahabharata as a literary work — probably the greatest in the world. We are indebted to Haven O’More (of the University of Chicago) for the following memorable description of the Mahabharata as a literary and philosophic work:1
Greater than any mountain, the Mahabharata sits supreme, its top veiled in clouds, with powerful winds and bitter cold. Truly, it is said, the Mahabharata gives birth, and also gives death. For it contains an account of the life and acts of the Supreme Ruler Himself [Krishna], Creator and Destroyer of the universe, who binds human beings and all manifestations “on a chain, of which one end is life, the other death.” What is not found within the Mahabharata is not found anywhere. A great intellectual and spiritual mountain, it unveils itself only to the most passionate, intense, sincere, full of truth to themselves and others, athletic, death-defying, life-embracing, plunging-into-possibility climbers. Civilizations rise up and decay; the great mountain penetrates into the whole/holy possibility of Universal Manifestation …
Indeed, the civilization that gave us the Mahabharata rose up long ago and decayed, but the mighty mountain is still with us, higher than ever, challenging ever more seekers to scale its heights. Verily it is said of the Mahabharata:
yadihasti tadanyatra yannehasti na kutracit
What is here may be found elsewhere, but what is not here is nowhere.
To return now to Krishna’s embassy, he was fully aware that he was on a futile mission. He was no warmonger, but he saw the signs and knew that Duryodhana was bent on destruction. Why then embark on such a mission, risking his reputation, when failure was a foregone conclusion? But that was Krishna’s philosophy: ever the activist, thought of failure did not make him slacken effort. Let us recall the famous passage from the Bhagavadgita:
Your right is to your duty, never ever to its fruits;
Let not the desire for fruits of action distract you, but seek not avoidance of your duty.
Abandon self interest, O Dhananjaya! Act with detached singleness of purpose;
Treating success and failure the same — this is balance, called yoga of action.
And later he explained his reasons for undertaking the onerous task:
It is greatly meritorious to prevent bloodshed — to save the lives of numberless soldiers and horsemen, of animals — of horses and elephants — and all kinds of life. He who fails to try his utmost to save misguided friends from impending calamity — why, such a man is no better than an enemy.
A compassionate man will drag a friend by the hair if it need be to save him. It is no loss to me if Duryodhana ignores my advice. He will suspect me, but no matter. I’ll have done my duty just by trying. A friend is not a true friend if he fails to give proper advice to kinsmen bent on the wrong course.
It should be noted that though Krishna was close to the Pandavas, to Arjuna in particular, he showed no animosity towards their rivals. He simply wanted a just resolution of the feud. He felt that Yudhisthira had shown poor judgment in agreeing to the dice game in the first place, bringing humiliation on the Pandavas and Draupadi. The Kauravas were disliked by some of Krishna’s kinsmen including his own cousin Satyaki. When a few hotheads like him demanded immediate war to destroy the Kauravas, Krishna made clear his disapproval.
If there has to be immediate war I can take no part in it. The two parties — the Kauravas and the Pandavas — are both my close relatives. Neither has been guilty of any hostile or improper conduct towards me. …Let us exchange ambassadors and try for a peaceful resolution.
He wanted every possibility to be explored before going to war. Krishna is of course best known for his Bhagavadgita. Legend has it that Vyasa compiled the work from Krishna’s own words of advice to Arjuna before the great battle. It is hard to believe that the Gita has come down to us exactly in the words of Krishna. But we have plenty of examples of his philosophy of action in the main body of the Mahabharata. Then, there is also his example, of trying to do his duty without regard to success or failure of the outcome. And these illustrate his principle of niskama karma — of detached performance of duty — which is thought by many to be the central message of the Gita. So we can definitely accept that the Gita embodies his teachings if not exactly in his words.2
Krishna was for a negotiated peace but not appeasement. “Nothing emboldens sin like mercy,” said Shakespeare, and Krishna knew it too. He understood that for any negotiation to succeed one has to be in a position of some strength. And here he ran into his nemesis Duryodhana, who still believed that the Pandavas were no match for him. He apparently failed to realize that with new marriage alliances and other friendships, the Pandavas had neutralized his advantage. Then there was Krishna, who would not actually bear arms, but still be a formidable force on the side of the Pandavas assisting them in their strategy. His immediate task, however, was to impress upon Duryodhana the hopelessness of his own position. With this as his goal, Krishna decided to go personally to the Kaurava court in Hastinapura and persuade their leaders to agree to peace.
Krishna was a firm believer in a just resolution backed by strength. Prior to his embassy to the Kaurava court, the blind king Dhritarashtra had sent his bard Sanjaya to Yudhishtira appealing to him not to engage in warfare, even if his own son was in the wrong. Krishna realized that for all his protestations of his love for the Pandavas, the sly old king was an extreme partisan, bent on helping his son realize his ambition by fair means or foul. Where Duryodhana was only arrogant, Dhritarashtra was devious. Krishna placed before Sanjaya in the starkest terms the moral positions of the two sides:
There is a tree in Hastinapura called Duryodhana. Karna is its trunk, and Shakuni its branches. The fruits and flowers it bears are called Dusshasana. The old king Dhritarastra is its root. Having seen that poison bearing tree, look now at the tree called Yudhishtira. Arjuna is its trunk and Bhima its branches. Nakula and Sahadeva are its fruits and flowers. And I, Krishna, am the root of this tree of justice. Now Sanjaya, reflect carefully and tell me: in the storm called war that is about to break loose, which tree do you think will survive, and which do you think will be blown apart?
Sanjaya was acutely embarrassed. He apologized to Krishna and Yudhishtira pointing out his own helpless position as an envoy. All he could do was convey the message; he could not determine policy. He returned to Hastinapura and told the Kauravas to prepare to receive Krishna himself as the Pandava ambassador.
But Sanjaya was furious with the old king for having sent him on this humiliating mission. He had known Dhritarashtra since childhood, and was used to speaking freely to him. He was actually the king’s suta — his bard — born to a servant girl, and also his constant companion. He was the blind king’s eyes. He told Dhritarastra:
Your misfortune is not that you were born blind. It is you are also blind to reason and justice. In the coming battle your sons will die at the hands of Krishna and the Pandavas. Your sons though are fortunate — to die like heroes. But you will be the bearer of all the misfortune, for you will be alive to witness their destruction. The world will soon forget the sins of Duryodhana for he will die the death of a hero at the hands of the mighty Bhima. Karna is also a great and generous man. His charity and chivalry know no bounds. He will sacrifice his life for his loyal friend and the world will remember Karna for his nobility. But history will not redeem you. Your name will go down in infamy. You have brought it on yourself. I pity you with all my heart.
Strong words, but they still did not make Dhritarashtra or Duryodhana swerve from their path of destruction. Anxiously they awaited Krishna’s arrival.
Krishna’s visit created great excitement in the capital city of Hastinapura. He was the most celebrated man of his day and people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the great man. Declining the royal hospitality offered by the Kauravas, Krishna went straight to the modest dwelling of Vidura where Kunti had been staying during her sons’ exile. What is interesting from our point of view is Krishna’s conduct with the Kurus: he refused the lavish hospitality of the Kauravas and stayed with Vidura and Kunti partaking their humble fare. Bhisma was particularly distressed. Despite being much the senior in age, he had always regarded Krishna as his master and superior.
“A mansion has been kept in readiness for you,” Bhisma told him. “Why won’t you accept our hospitality?”
Krishna shook his head. “My lord Bhisma!” the great man replied, “you have blessed me, and that is hospitality enough for me from those I respect. I shall be staying with Vidura — a good friend and a righteous man. His modest abode is made grand by the qualities of the people who live there.”
The following day he addressed the Kaurava princes and the elders in the assembly. Still smarting from the rejection of his offer of hospitality, Dhritarashtra expressed his unhappiness to Krishna — his refusal even to attend a banquet at the palace. Krishna’s reply, in addition to sound wisdom and his sense of duty, gives also a glimpse of his impish sense of humor. He gave this as his reason for rejecting the hospitality of the Kurus:
I am here on a definite mission — to bring peace between two parties bent on war. A man on a momentous mission accepts the hospitality of others for one of two reasons: to celebrate the accomplishment of his mission, or because he is in need. My mission has not been accomplished, nor am I in any particular need. Agree to a peaceful resolution and give back the Pandavas their share of the kingdom. I shall then join you in the celebration.
Krishna then explained to Dhritarashtra in graphic terms the magnitude of the catastrophe staring them in the face:
This very great calamity is about to befall the Kauravas. If not averted now it will annihilate the world. O king! This tragedy can be averted if you really wish. Peace is achievable. But this peace rests on your shoulders and mine. You pacify your son, and I will pacify the Pandavas. You control the limitless greed of your sons, I shall contain the burning rage of the Pandavas. I have in my heart your welfare no less than of the Pandavas.
There could hardly be a more reasonable or a more eloquent appeal. Dhritarashtra was a weak but covetous man unused to making momentous decisions. First Pandu and later Bhisma had shielded him from the affairs of the state. He was now in no position to force his headstrong son to agree to peace even if he wanted it. It is also possible that he did not realize the disaster that was about to befall his dynasty. He slipped out of his predicament by telling Krishna:
I am also in favor of a peaceful solution. Why don’t you just talk to my son and make him see reason. He refuses to listen to me.
This is what Americans call a copout. Nevertheless Krishna tried his best with Duryodhana. He first pointed out that Duryodhana was going back on his solemn word even after the Pandavas had fulfilled the terms of exile. Duryodhana tried to confuse the issues by claiming that they had been discovered before completing the full year incognito, but was immediately refuted. Bhisma — himself an expert astronomer and timekeeper — pointed out that the Pandavas had more than fulfilled their obligation.
The real problem with Duryodhana was that he wanted whatever he could get away with. And believing himself to be the stronger party, he saw no reason to part with the Pandavas’ share of the kingdom. With such men moral arguments carry little weight. Recognizing this Krishna tried to impress upon Duryodhana how the political conditions had changed, and also how in the event war the Pandavas were sure to prevail due to their military superiority. But Duryodhana, still regarding the Pandavas as upstarts, refused to budge.
What seems to have particularly emboldened Duryodhana was the realization that in the event of war, Krishna would not be bearing arms; he would serve the Pandavas as their counselor but not be a combatant. And Duryodhana commanded numerically the larger force, which gave him additional confidence. I will get to these details later. He refused even to listen to his mother, the noble Gandhari who was reputed to be a prophetess. She warned him that he was heading for disaster. At the same time she did not spare her own husband, the feckless Dhritarashtra:
This great kingdom of the Kurus deserves better fate than being ruled by a man full of avarice. My son Duryodhana is full of avarice. But you my lord, are no less guilty than your son. You have led him on his path of sinfulness. Through your excessive indulgence, he has become now possessed by greed and pride. I warned you against it my lord, but you still made him the ruler.
And you my dear son, listen to me, your mother. It is not easy to be the ruler of a great kingdom like the Kurus. A man should be in control of all his senses if he wants to rule. If you cannot even control yourself, how can you control and rule others? You are ill fitted to rule. Your own weakness of character is your worst enemy. You are headed down the path to a great calamity. Do you think these warriors on your side — Bhisma, Drona and Karna — that they can defeat the mighty Pandavas? Think of the divine pair — Krishna and Arjuna. Who can stand before them in battle? And they have justice on their side. Where there is justice, there is victory.
All this was of no avail. Duryodhana told Krishna grandiloquently:
With Bhisma, Drona, Kripa and Karna on my side, even the gods cannot defeat me — let alone the Pandavas. If without bowing to our enemies I get killed in battle, O Krishna, I shall have died the death of a hero. None need feel sorry for us.
Krishna could not refrain from sarcasm at this posturing:
Your wish will be granted. O Duryodhana! You will indeed die the death of a hero on the battlefield. Be firm of resolve O prince, and so be your advisers, for there shall soon be a great conflict.
Krishna then did not spare the Kuru elders either. He told Dhritarashtra:
It denotes grave negligence on the part of the Kuru elders to not force Duryodhana to act responsibly. By their failure to curb this fool, they have allowed his irresponsible acts to go unchecked. Your foolish son will bring ruin upon your ancient house. Just as a man has to sacrifice a sick limb to save the body, it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice an evil man to save a family. Restrain your son — remove him from his position — and make peace with the Pandavas. If you fail the only thing left of the Kurus will be the name.
Krishna pointed out that he himself had to eliminate his uncle Kamsa to safeguard the interests of the Yadavas. This infuriated Duryodhana. He threatened to imprison Krishna himself in gross violation of the diplomatic code. Here the Kuru elders drew the line. Krishna had also come suitably prepared. He had a powerful detachment of soldiers with Satyaki in command just outside the palace. The Kaurava capital had probably not yet been mobilized and Duryodhana may not have been able to carry out his threat. In any event he was not permitted. It was probably a momentary lapse of courtesy on the part of a very angry Duryodhana unused to being publicly rebuked in this fashion. At no other time was he guilty of the slightest disrespect towards Krishna.
It is possible though that Krishna’s rough treatment of Duryodhana before the full assembly was done in part to remind him of his mistreatment of Draupadi before the same assembly. He was made to taste a dose of his own medicine — in however diluted form. Krishna never acted in anger, but always made sure that injustice was not rewarded.*
(We can ignore the episode of the Vishvarupa or the theophany of Krishna. It is a clumsy later interpolation. Its poetry is also not on the same level as the famous description found in Chapter 11 of the Bhagavadgita. That is a literary masterpiece that has hardly a parallel in world literature.)
But Krishna’s suggestion came to nothing. Neither Duryodhana nor Dhritarashtra recognized the true strength of the coalition that the Pandavas had now put together. It was to prove a fatal miscalculation. There was to be no peace. Krishna left the Kaurava court empty handed.
Krishna and Kunti
He went back to Vidura’s humble abode and saw his aunt Kunti who had been living there all these thirteen years of her sons’ exile. There is a beautiful and moving scene — of true epic grandeur — in which Kunti pours out her anguish to Krishna. It need not detain us here beyond a brief refrain that I hope will give the reader a flavor of the austere beauty contained in Vyasa’s simple lines. Kunti, herself a Yadava princess tells her nephew:
O Krishna! Tell my son Yudhisthira of my anguish. Having begot such a great man for a son, I am yet reduced to subsist on the charity of others. Tell him O Krishna: ‘Do not incur sin by failing to fight.’ Tell my sons that the moment has come — for which a woman of royal blood gives birth to a son. Go safely dear Krishna — protect my sons.
Mark Kunti’s words: ”Tell my sons that the moment has come — for which a woman of royal blood gives birth to a son.” A woman of royal blood indeed! — Of the great and ancient house of Yadu. Is there anything in the world of literature to compare with its simple beauty?
Tempting of Karna
Despite the failure of his mission, the thought of the impending war weighed heavily on Krishna. He decided to make one last attempt to stop the war by appealing to the greatest warrior on the Kaurava side — Karna. He knew that Karna was actually Kunti’s premarital son; Kunti after all was his own aunt. The episode that led to Karna’s birth had taken place at the palace of Krishna’s uncle Bhoja. Krishna took Karna with him for a short ride and apprised him of his true parentage. He pointed out that in the event of war the Pandavas were likely to prevail. As the oldest of Kunti’s children, the Pandava kingdom was Karna’s by right. All he had to do was change sides and join his brothers. They would honor him as their king. The righteous Yudhisthira would have it no other way; he would never accept the kingdom knowing that Karna was his elder brother. (In those days, premarital children had the same rights as legitimate children.)
This was a daring piece of diplomacy by Krishna — the masterstroke of the master diplomat. With Karna on the side of his adversaries Duryodhana would have to agree to peace. Though personally brave and strong, Duryodhana was a poor leader and by no means a great warrior. He was heavily dependent on Karna, especially against the redoubtable Arjuna.
But Karna refused to rise to the bait. Duryodhana had been his loyal friend in his hour of need, and Karna could not now desert his benefactor in his hour of need. He agreed with Krishna that the fate of the Kauravas was probably sealed. Unlike the headstrong Duryodhana, Karna had a realistic appreciation of the military situation. But he would not now forsake his friend when he needed him most. Kingdoms and titles meant nothing to him. Karna was a man of honor and boundless generosity. He would rather die than go back on his word. He told Krishna:
Not the three worlds nor any amount of gold, neither pleasure nor pain will make me faithless to my benefactors. Living in the family of the Kauravas, I have freely enjoyed their hospitality. On my strength alone has Duryodhana sought this conflict with the Pandavas. I cannot now desert him.
Krishna left with a foreboding of calamity. He had tried everything. His embassy had proven futile.
All this clearly shows that despite his later elevation as an incarnation of God Vishnu Krishna was entirely a human figure and was so regarded by his contemporaries. Krishna himself says:
Since time immemorial learned men have known that the affairs of the world are influenced by forces both divine and human. I can only do what I can to control and influence human events. I have no control whatsoever on what the gods might do.
These episodes also show that the Mahabharata is concerned mainly with history. Divested of its supernatural elements — most of which are later interpolations — what we get is not only a human narrative, but one that is logically consistent, with richly human characters portrayed in all their fullness by a poet of surpassing greatness. Where Valmiki — the poet of the other great epic Ramayana — excels in poetry, Vyasa is unmatched for his portrayal of characters and emotions, especially the pathos associated with great men on the brink of ruin. Where Valmiki is a true epic poet of romance, Vyasa is a master who combines a Shakespearean sweep of characters with the tragic grandeur of the Greek dramatist Aeschylus. He is as great a dramatist as he is an epic poet. And Karna is the most tragic of the heroes of the Mahabharata. His was a tragedy in both the Greek and the Shakespearean sense. His ruin stemmed from his own qualities, but the gods were also against him.
Krishna returned from his failed embassy and advised the Pandavas to prepare for war. Even before leaving on his embassy Krishna knew that his efforts were likely to prove futile. He had told Yudhisthira:
For all my efforts I fear that signs point only to war. Such is the disposition of our enemies.
His experience with the Kurus had confirmed his worst fears. Upon his return from the failed embassy, he reported to the Pandavas speaking in beautiful rhythmic tones:
maya nagapuram gatva sabhayam dhritarastrajah
tathyam pathyam hitam cokto na ca grhnati durmatih
In my visit to Hastinapura, in the assembly, Dhritarashtra’s son was told what was truthful, helpful and beneficial, but that fool does not want to grasp anything sensible.
Krishna finally summed up the situation:
We have nothing left but the fourth option — resort to severe punishment. His many supporters — the kings and the princes — they are already on their way to the Kuru land, marching to their own ruin.
There would be no happy warriors now, only men resigned to their fate.
Preparations for war
War was now inevitable. The result of the Mahabharata War is well known. The Kauravas and their eleven armies were totally destroyed by the smaller Pandava force of seven armies. The war lasted eighteen days, but for the first ten days, with Bhisma in command of the Kaurava forces, it was more an armed demonstration than earnest warfare. After the fall of Bhisma on the tenth day, the war began in earnest when Drona assumed command of the Kaurava forces.
I will later describe how the war for all practical purposes was decided on the fourteenth day when Arjuna, Bhima and the Yadava prince Satyaki (Krishna’s cousin) coordinated their forces to destroy seven of the eleven Kaurava armies. For some reason this fact seems to have escaped most authors. Even Parvasangraha — a chapter briefly summarizing all the major episodes of the Mahabharata — records the defeat and destruction of the seven Kaurava armies on the fourteenth day of war. So it is not as if it is an obscure detail that needs to be pieced together with difficulty. It shows that the Kauravas, despite their superior numbers proved no match for the Pandavas in fighting effectiveness and strategy. And Krishna, though he had sworn not to bear arms, was constantly at Arjuna’s side as his charioteer and counselor. Krishna’s warning to the Kauravas had proven prophetic.
Krishna did not believe in turning the other cheek. He was forgiving of personal insults, but not grave injustices. To summarize: he felt that a man who slapped an innocent should be slapped in return – twice as hard. This way a bully or a tyrant would realize what it is like to be the receiving end. One of his mottoes was: “The powerless should never be insulted.”