As the rift between the Pandavas and Kauravas widened, the destruction of the Pandavas became Duryodhana's sole obsession. In his uncle, Shakuni, he found an ideal tactician to achieve this goal. Together, they devised a strategy to entice Yudhishthira to a game of dice. Yudhishthira, being no match for Shakuni's mastery over the dice, predictably lost the game, on which he had staked all his material possessions, even his four brothers and wife Draupadi. Duryodhana invited all Pandavas to another game of dice. Incredibly Yudhishthira, unable
to overcome the gambler's instinct, accepted. This time there was only one stake: whichever side lost would have to go into exile in the forest for thirteen years. Yudhishthira's folly reduced the Pandavas to homeless wanderers.
Once the exile was over, the Pandavas sought their kingdom back but Duryodhana refused. Krishna, who tried to make peace on behalf of the Pandavas, failed in efforts. War thus became imminent. His personal investment in trying to achieve a peaceful solution notwithstanding, Krishna was the quintessential warrior. The political setting of northern India at the time of the 'hi terical' Krishna, certainly provided an appropriate stage for his war-like exploits. The Aryans were in the process of colonizing the region. Small and competing kingdoms had come up along the Gangetic Valley. These were often in conflict with each other. New territory had to be won and secured. Forests had to be cleared for human settlement. Weapons of copper and bronze were being discarded by the revolutionary discovery of iron. One account, in Krishnavatara by K.M. Munshi, which does not claim to be a historical rendering but is nevertheless based on a thorough study of traditional texts, has. these extremely interesting passages describing the discovery of iron ore by Krishna
Burning and crackling on the altar, when he saw, as usual, a fiery stream of copper being released by the (fire) god. As he diverted it into a narrow gully which young Garuda kept filled with water, he felt highly dissatisfied. For long he continued to invoke the gods to send him super human arms, offering fresh fuel and coconut oil at the altar. Suddenly, his eye caught sight of something miraculous. One of the rocks, which had not melted with the others, began to glow like the sun, fiery as at mid day, golden red as at dawn. It was a strange sight. It was a sign from the gods, thought Krishna. The other rocks had already melted freely, but not this glowing, fiery ball of light and heat. He continued to invoke the gods and to pour his offerings into the fire. The flames leapt up from the altar. A stream trickled out of the glowing ball. When diverted into the gully, it sizzled frantically, a fiery steam issuing from it. When the molten liquid became cool, Krishna picked it up and was delighted that the gods had answered his invocation. He flung it at the copper blade of the sword; the blade broke into two. He shot copper arrow-tips against it; their edges were blunted. At last Indra had sent him a piece of his thunderbolt, heavy and
Krishna then discovered that the little red rocks . . . were the favoured offerings of the Fire God, for when they were offered, the fiery liquid which came from the altar became pieces of thunderbolt.
Krishna and Garuda made a search for such reddish rocks all over the hill. When they were found in sufficient quantities, they were offered to the sacrificial fire. Though the Fire God was difficult to please, Krishna satisfied him with copious offerings of coconut oil and sandal wood. Then the fire blazed high. The flames leapt up. The red rocks glowed red. A stream of molten liquid flowed out. Cooled and tempered, hammered and sharpened, the thunderbolt emerged as a shining weapon—a weapon which could easily break copper and flint weapons. It was the gift of the gods.
The above is obviously an attempt to reconstruct what might have been but is not entirely implausible. In general terms there can be little doubt that the period of the historical Krishna coincided with a phase in which military adventurismand acts of personal valour and bravery were the stuff from which cult figures could easily emerge. A.L. Basham, one of the most eminent
historians of ancient Indian culture and history has, therefore, rightly surmised that '. . . it seems certain that there is some historical basis for the legend of the hero god; but evidently tales of many heroes from many ages and many parts of India have been fused together in the Krishna myth..
Given Krishna's mastery over the arts of war, both the Pandavas and the Kauravas were keen to have him on their side in the imminent battle. According to the Mahabharata, Arjuna journeyed to Dwarka to obtain a commitment of support from him. Hearing of this, Duryodhana also journeyed to Dwarka. Both arrived simultaneously, but it was Duryodhana who first entered ' Krishna's bedroom. Krishna was asleep then; waiting for him to awake, Duryodhana sat down on a chair at the head of the bed, while Arjuna deferentially took a place on the opposite side, near the feet. When Krishna awoke he first saw Arjuna, and then turned around to notice Duryodhana. Duryodhana was the first to speak.
He bluntly asked Krishna to be on his side, and said that since he had arrived first, his request should get priority over Arjuna's. Krishna's answer was that while Duryodhana may have arrived first, it was Arjuna whom he had seen first on awakening. Arjuna was also younger than Duryodhana, and had, therefore, the right to ask first. The choice Krishna said was between him personally, and, his well armed and extensive Yadava army. Furthermore~ whichever side he may be on, he would not fight himself. He would be weaponless, providing only unarmed support. To Duryodhana, given these options, the choice was abundantly clear. He was most relieved, therefore, when Arjuna unhesitatingly chose the non-fighting Krishna and allowed Duryodhana to have Dwarka's formidable army.
Why did Krishna not take up arms in support of the Pandavas? After all, he was fully convinced of the justness of their cause. And that being the case, why was his involvement in their support qualified? On more than one occasion he had said that the Pandavas— specially Arjuna—were closer to him than anyone else. Why then a self-imposed restraint on the degree of his participation in their struggle to obtain their rights? Perhaps the rights and wrongs in human affairs are never that categorically clear for unambiguous divine involvement on any one side. Perhaps the purpose was to demonstrate that even without arms his mere presence was more than enough to ensure victory. Or perhaps, it was a symbolic gesture, meant to convey, as in so many other aspects of his life, the perennial shadow play between his mortal form and his essential divinity. He would be a participant, but at a transcendental level. He would be involved, but in a detached manner. In his human avatar he could not remain an aloof observer. But being God, his association, however vigorous, would always be tinged by a sense of distance.
Krishna's role in the actual war is not beyond controversy. The controversy concerns the means he employed, even while not fighting himself, to ensure the victory of the Pandavas. There are at least six incidents in the Mahabharata, crucial to the final outcome of the war, which call into question the ethicality of his actions in terms of the prevailing code of fair play, or at least in terms of the expectation of fair play from him.
On the eve of the war, Krishna's attempt was to wean away the mighty warrior Karan from the Kauravas. This he did not by appealing to Karan's sense of rectitude, or by persuading him to see the legitimacy of the Pandava's claims. His strategy instead was to use a crucial nugget of information about Karan's personal life to break his pledge of unshakeable loyalty to his childhood friend and benefactor—Duryodhana. Karan was in reality the first-born of Kunti, from an unintended liaison before her marriage with Surya—the Sun God. Krishna was aware of this, and chose this moment to reveal the truth to Karan. The news had a traumatic impact on the young warrior. At one stroke the Pandavas, whom he regarded as his most implacable foes, were revealed to be his brothers. Krishna did not stop there. He went on to outline in detail the advantages that would accrue to Karan were he to betray his old loyalties:
You know that a son born to a woman when she was a maiden, becomes, by law, the son of the man she marries. Accordingly, you are a Pandava. You are the eldest of the Pandavas. You are a Pandava on your father's side. You are a Vrishni, my relative, on your mother's side. Come with me now. I am going to Yudhishthira. Your brothers will fall at your feet. All the kings who have assembled to help the Pandavas will honour you as the eldest Pandava. You will be crowned by them as their king. You will be the king and Yudhishthira will be the Yuvaraja. He will lead the white horses of your chariot tayour presence and lift you to your seat. The dark and beautiful Draupadi will belong to you, since you are a Pandava. Yudhishthira will get into the chariot after you. The mighty Bheema will hold the umbrella over your head. Your younger brother Arjuna will be your charioteer. He will hold the reins over your horses. Nakula, Sahadeva and I will be walking behind your chariot.
Krishna's mission did not succeed because Karan, in spite of the enticements somewhat blatantly outlined to him, refused to give up his friendship of Duryodhana who had stood by him when he needed support most.
But Krishna's request was not a complete failure either. Karan's emotional equipoise was shattered. His animosity to the Pandavas was weakened. His hitherto resolute morale for battle was shaken. The ground had been prepared for him to concede a boon of the greatest significance to Kunti, who met him a few days later. Kunti too was unable to persuade him to forsake Duryodhana; however, not wanting to completely disappoint his mother, he promised her that he would not attack Yudhishthira, Bheema, Nakula and Sahadeva. The duel with Arjuna was something to which he was irrevocably pledged, but, at all times, he assured Kunti, at least five of her sons would remain alive.
During the war, the Pandavas, at the explicit urging of Krishna, managed to kill the top warriors on the Kaurava side by means which were at best expedient and, at worst, deceitful and unfair. Bhishma was more than a match for any on the Pandava side. His arrows were wreaking havoc on the Pandava army. In consultation with Krishna, the Pandavas decided to meet Bhishma and ask him how he could be defeated. Even though he was duty bound to fight on the side of Dhritarashtra, Bhishma, at a personal level, had the greatest love for the Pandavas. Krishna's clear reasoning was that if Yudhishthira posed the question to Bhishma, the grand old man would certainly reveal the answer. The plan worked. 'Place the warrior Shikhandi before
me/ Bhishma said, 'and I will have to put down my bow!' Bhishma had sworn never to fight against a woman, or even a man who had once been a woman. Shikhandi was a man only in appearance. In reality, he was an incarnation of princess Amba of Kashi. Amba had wanted to marry Bhishma, but, the latter, wedded to his oath of celibacy, had spurned her advances. The princess had then sworn to avenge this humiliation. Born again as Shikhandi, she led the attack on the venerable warrior. Bhishma relinquished his arms, and Arjuna's arrows were quick to pin him down.
Drona, the towering guru of the Kuru clan, was another formidable warrior whose depredations were taking a heavy toll of the Pandava forces. Krishna's plan to kill him was ingenious. It was well known that Drona was extremely fond of his son Ashwathamma. If he was told that Ashwathamma had died, Drona would, Krishna said, lose all desire to fight. But Drona would believe this news only if Yudhishthira, who never spoke an untruth, conveyed it to him. Yudhishthira baulked at being told of his role; Arjuna too was disapproving. But Krishna's exhortations were coldly persuasive. 'If Drona lives for but half a day, the Pandava army will be wiped out,' he said. In a study by R.C. Gupta, Krishna says, 'A lie to save lives is not immoral. In fact, in certain situations a lie is permissible. A lie in the presence of women, in marriages, to save cows, or to rescue a Brahmana, is not; wrong.'
The plan was implemented with Machiavellian skill. Bheema had killed an elephant called Ashwathamma. Yudhishthira, the reluctant conspirator, did not tell a complete lie when he told Drona, 'Ashwathamma is dead!', adding in an inaudible whisper, 'the elephant called Ashwathamma.' The shattered Drona, unquestioningly believing Yudhishthira, lost his will-to fight. A few caustic words from Bheema on the inappropriateness of a Brahmin indulging in wanton killing were enough to make him dispiritedly put down his arms, and Dhrishtadyumna, son ofDhrupad, swiftly cut off his head.
Karan was killed when, during his fight with Arjuna, he got down from his chariot to lift its wheel sunk into the ground. It was against the rules of war to attack a man when he was unarmed, and Karan asked Arjuna to respect this code of conduct. But Krishna was quick to intervene. Fair play in war had no application, he said, to those who had scant respect for it themselves. By supporting Duryodhana's unjust cause, Karan had forfeited his right to be dealt with fairly. Eyes flaming with anger, Krishna recounted the inhuman and unscrupulous manner in which, just a few days earlier, Karan had gauged up with other Kaurava luminaries to kill Abhimanyu, Arjuna's young son. 'Kill Karan now, before he returns to his chariot,' Krishna pressed Arjuna,
and the next moment, Karna, his head severed from his body, lay dead on the battlefield.
Jayadratha, the ruler of Sindhu and the son-in-law of Dhritarashtra, was killed, if not by a tampering of temporal laws, then bydivine manipulation. Jayadratha had been instrumental in the death of Abhimanyu. Arjunahad sworn to either avenge his son's death by killing Jayadratha before sunset the next day, or to immolate himself. Having heard of Arjuna's oath, Jayadratha, protected by the entire might of the Kaurava army, remained effectively elusive. At the end of an exhausting day of fighting, he was still beyond the reach of Arjuna. The horizon was darkening with the imminent sunset. Krishna was worried. Jayadratha emerged triumphantly from hiding, only after he was very sure the sun had set. But just as he did so, the sun inexplicably peeped out from the darkness to shine again. This time Arjuna did not let the opportunity slip by. One arrow from his bow and the exultant Jayadratha was dead. Krishna had saved Arjuna from his vow of selfimmolation by creating a false sunset to lure Jayadratha from his hideout.
Duryodhana was the last of the Kaurava brothers to be killed. With honourable magnanimity, Yudhishthira had offered him a duel with any of the Pandavas using a weapon of his choosing. Krishna was quick to chide Yudhishthira for such foolhardy generosity. Duryodhana was too good a fighter, he said, to be defeated by anybody except perhaps Bheema. Fortunately, Bheema himself challenged Duryodhana to fight him with the mace, and the latter readily accepted. The fight was long and bitter. The two opponents were evenly matched. But, after a while, it became clear that even though Bheema was the heavier of the two, Duryodhana was more agile and the better fighter. Krishna, who was watching the duel intently, confided to Arjuna that Bheema would never be able to win in a fair fight. He had to be defeated by unfair means.
'Has Bheema forgotten his vow to break Duryodhana's thighs?' Krishna asked Arjuna in a voice loud enough for Bheema to hear. Arjuna, (quickly grasping Krishna's intent), smacked his own thighs as a signal to Bheema. Bheema got the message. In one forceful blow his mace smashed Duryodhana's thighs, leaving him prostrate and writhing in agony. It was against the rules of war to hit below the navel. Duryodhana was thus not expecting to be hit on his thighs. Bheema too would not have broken the rules of war but for Krishna's unambiguous urging. Balarama, who was observing the fight, was furious at the unfair means adopted. He was ready to attack Bheema, but was restrained by Krishna. Then Duryodhana, who was in his death throes, but still mentally alert, spoke. His last words were a damning indictment of the means adopted by Krishna during the
war. The fallen warrior recounted each incident—the disarming of Bhishma, the killing of Drona and Karan, and, of course, the duplicitous means responsible for his own defeat. There was unconcealed contempt in his voice, and the heavens themselves seemed to endorse his stand by raining flowers on his head when he died.
Krishna's response to the accusations of Duryodhana is extremely interesting. First, he admitted that he had resorted to unfair means. The Kauravas, 'who were the very flowers of Kshatriya prowess', could not, he said, have been killed by fair means. The vow he had made to Draupadi at Kamyaka forest could thus be fulfilled only by the pursuit of deceitful means. Deception, Krishna said, is acceptable when the enemy is stronger. 'The gods themselves are not above it; we have only followed their example.' The Kauravas symbolized adharma. They had to be defeated. In such a situation, 'the end,' he said, 'justifies the means'. In the prevailing times, 'unsullied righteousness' could not be practised. The fourth quarter of time, the Kalyug, had begun. In this age, absolute morality would be at a discount.
The working of fate and destiny did not allow right and wrong to retain their sharply distinctive focus. 'It is the rule of time. You must not try and change the course of Destiny. She will have her way. She is unrighteous too, and she fulfils herself in manv ways mostly unrighteous.' Krishna's final argument was that in his human avatar he had to play the game as a mortal would. 'When I am living as a god, I act like a god; when my form is that of a gandharva or a naga, my actions and behaviour are in conformity with such a status; now, as One born of human parents, I must act and behave as human beings would.'
Peace and prosperity smiled upon the Pandavas after the defeat and decimation of the Kauravas. Their own sons had perished in the war, but a grandson, Parikshit, born to Uttara and Abhimanyu after the latter's death, kept the lineage preserved. This family continuity would have tragically snapped, but, as always, for Krishna's help. Parikshit had been stillborn, possibly as a result of injury to the embryo from the after effects of a special weapon launched by Aswathamma, in the last stages of the war. Krishna, true to his promise to be at hand to ensure a safe birth, miraculously resuscitated the child. In time, Parikshit grew into a handsome and responsible prince. The time for Krishna to relinquish his mortal frame was approaching. When the war had ended, Gandhari, inconsolable at the death other bundled sons, and, furious with Krishna for not having prevented such fratricidal bloodshed, cursed him: ‘You Krishna, will one day slay your kith and kin and die yourself alone in the wilderness." Her ominous prophecy came true in a curious way. The story goes that once Shambha, a son of Krishna, along with some other Yadava boys, insulted the sages Vishvamitra, Narada and Kanwa. Shambha dressed himself as a woman and accompanied by his friends presented himself before the sages with the question: 'Will this woman bear a male or a female child?' The sages, who immediately saw through the ruse, were not amused, and cursed the boys thus: This woman will produce a club that will destroy the Yadava race."
Accordingly, an iron club emerged from Shambha's belly. Ugrasena, aware of the prophecy, had the club ground to dust and scattered, but from the particles there grew fearsome iron rushes. One particle, bigger than tlie others, was thrown into the sea and swallowed by a fish. The fish was caught by a hunter, Jara, who, discovering the piece of iron in its belly, used it as a point for his arrow.
Meanwhile, events toward the destruction of the Yadavas were proceeding inexorably. There were evil signs and portents foretelling the imminent destruction of Dwarka. On Krishna's advice, the Yadavas left for a pilgrimage to Prabhasa. But destiny had to be fulfilled. In Prabhasa they consumed liquor and under its effect set about attacking each other. Such was their
uncontrolled anger that when their weapons were expended, they used the same deadly rushes as weapons in a fight to the finish. Krishna tried unsuccessfully to stop the fighting; enraged, he himself slew several of his kin. In the end, save Krishna, Balarama and Krishna's charioteer, all the Yadavas lay dead.
In anguish, Krishna retired to the forest. Here he saw a large serpent emerge from the mouth of Balarama and take him towards the deeps of the ocean. Balarama, an avatar of Sesha, Vision's great serpent, had returned to his celestial origins. Krishna knew his own end was close. He despatched his charioteer to narrate the sequence of events to Ugrasena and Vasudeva. He had already ensured the survival of Uddhava by sending him on a separate pilgrimage to the mountains. Now, the emblems of his mighty power—his conch shell, mace and discus—circumambulated him and ascended heavenwards. Alone in the wilderness, Krishna sat down to meditate, one foot resting on his knee. At this moment, Jara, the hunter, mistaking the sole of Krishna's foot as belonging to a deer, shot the arrow tipped by a piece of the fatal iron club. The lethal arrow, strongly reminiscent of a similar weapon in Greek mythology, lodged itself in its target. On realizing his error, Jara fell at the Lord's feet, but Krishna, not in the least perturbed, blessed him and assured him of a solace in the heavens of the gods. Then, by his own volition, Krishna relinquished his mortal frame, to become one with his essential self – eternal, unblemished and universal.
On that very day, the oceans rose in upheaval and submerged the city of Dwarka.