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Yes, he did commit errors. He played the dice game in an extremely questionable manner with tragic results for the entire family. He tried to justify his game: he played because when he was ordered by an elder and when invited, he could not refuse; it was his creed; refusing a challenge would result in loss of face, violation of Kshatriya dharma, etc. He repented too. In reply to Bhima’s accusation he said that he should have stopped, but his anger overtook his patience. When the soul loses its patience, neither pride, nor manliness, not even bravery can control it. He said again that all those insults burned him like simmering fire. He drank those like liquid poison, “Vishasyeva rasam hi pitva—Bhima my heart burns/ as if I had drunk/ some fierce poison.” In spite of all this, there can be no doubt that he did cross all lines of decency when he pawned his wife too in the game. He lied or had to lie for the exigencies of the situation and deviated from the path of dharma; his chariot which always floated a few inches above the ground, came down and touched the earth – such was the magnitude of the lie. When the Pandavas and Krishna found Duryodhana in the lake, he, out of a misplaced sense of fairness, asked Duryodhana to choose his opponent from among the Pandavas for a duel thereby causing huge apprehension. That is why Parashuram, a noted satirist of Bengali literature wrote in his story, “The Third Dice Game”, “Balarama stated, ‘Dharmaraj’s knowledge of scriptures is vast, although he is somewhat deficient in practical sense.’” His most grievous error was that he left a helpless Duryodhana on the battle-field at the mercy of the predators. If he had put up guards for him perhaps the carnage of the Sauptika Parva could have been avoided. But all these shortcomings were perhaps very necessary. Without these Yudhishthira’s goodness was becoming somewhat suffocating. It goes to the eternal credit of Vyasa, the master story-teller, that he can elevate the characters from being merely mechanical and humanise them.
What was Yudhishthira’s power? As a king what could he wield which would be as potent as Arjuna’s divine weapons, if not more? It is true that he was not much of a fighting man; he did not have the physical power, the prowess or strength of Bhishma, Krishna, Bhima and Arjuna. But he had Bhima and Arjuna who compensated for this lack. He was not even a good student of the art of warfare – remember his performance in Drona’s school? He saw everything else along with the bird when he was expected to see only the eye like Arjuna did. That was because he abhorred all forms of violence. But then he was neither a complete washout nor a coward. During the war, he put in place all the battle formations and performed fairly well as a warrior – he slew Shalya. But he had fear as a constant companion ever since he stepped into the hostile ambience of Hastinapura. He was worried about the security of his family. Bhima’s poisoning and Varanavat happened reinforcing his fear. He was afraid of the power of the Kauravas. It almost became a part of him which was reflected in his reluctance to take up cudgels against the powerful Jarasandha when Krishna suggested this in the Sabha Parva. It would take the entire Vana Parva to enable him to get rid of this fear.
So, war-like abilities were not the source of his power. His power was internal, not external. He was the son of Dharma, so dharma was his mainstay. He was steadfast in following the path of dharma. He was the embodiment of everything that is good in man. The central theme of the epic is that one set of words which every major character utters at one time or the other, yatodharmastatojaya – where there is dharma, there is victory. Yudhishthira was the embodiment of that all-powerful dharma and dharma was the source of power. Therefore he stood for all that is implied by dharma - truth, magnanimity, kindness, justice, etc. Pursuing dharma he gathered knowledge from every source that was available to him. To begin with, with the help of Kripa, Drona and Vidura his intelligence was honed and his knowledge increased. Yudhishthira learnt and stored knowledge empowering his mind, making it stronger, richer. Vidura was his guru. He learnt from him whatever he knew of dharma, politics and administration. And then he received instructions from various sages whose names have been listed by Vidura in Sabha Parva. He has no hesitation in learning from his sister-in-law, Hidimba, too. Hidimba teaches him that dharma saves life, dharma gives life:
One’s life should be protected
at all costs – this is dharma.
… Virtue sustains life,
therefore virtue is called the life-giver (Pranada).
She further tells him,
Good men are kind. What greater
dharma is there than compassion?”
Kunti tells him when he gets angry with her for sending Bhima to Baka:
…This is an act of dharma.
Yudhishthira, two benefits
will follow from this act –
one, we’ll repay a Brahmin,
two, we’ll gain maha-dharma
…It is a raja’s duty to protect
even the Shudra, if the Shudra
In addition, he learnt tenets of administration, the characteristics and the duties of a good king, from Narada, narrated earlier, just before he became king at Indraprastha. In Vana Parva, he receieved instructions from many other sages, listed elsewhere in this article. And finally, in Shanti and Anushasana Parvas he received detailed instructions from Bhishma himself on rajadharma which even now can be a part of the curricula in a management institute. He internalised every nugget that he came across. Armed with his erudition, he handled the questions of Nahusha and later, the Yaksha, to save his brothers. And from Nahusha he obtained further lessons of dharma. His mind enriched, intelligence honed by constant exercise, he had the power of wisdom. In this manner, Yudhishthira engaged himself in a constant quest for excellence, to internalise dharma, to empower his self. A king with this kind of empowered Self can hardly fail.
Yudhishthira, being an ascetic, a yogi, had conquered anger. He never got angry because he knew that anger came when a craving was thwarted and he had no craving. He also knew that anger was an expression of vulnerability of the weak and he was no weakling. In Vana Parva, Draupadi chastised him saying that he did not have anger in him and there could be no Kshatriya without anger. She asked him not to show so much forgiveness to the enemies. In reply Yudhishthira reads her a lesson lasting one full chapter (Chapter 29) on why anger should be avoided. He says,
Anger devastates people
…he prospers who controls anger
…The angry man is most likely to do wrong
…The angry man doesn’t know
what should be said
and what shouldn’t.
…If kings were always angry, Krishna-Draupadi,
their subjects will incessantly suffer.
That is why we find him to be always cool and collected, never losing his equanimity. He was charged by his wife, brothers and even mother on so many occasions. Bhima wanted to burn his hands and called him a eunuch. He was hurt but remained ever unperturbed. We do find him getting angry occasionally: once during the dice game which he himself admitted and again when Kunti sent Bhima to confront Baka. But then he is human and a human being is certainly permitted a few slips. This lack of anger was another of his power sources. For a leader, an action taken in anger is almost always a wrong action. Under the influence of anger, one becomes impulsive. All decisions must be taken after due consideration. His patience, his introspection, subdued his anger and thereby granted him power.
On the other hand, others were afraid of his anger and believed that if he got angry, then he could burn everything. Dhritarashtra said to Sanjaya that he was not scared of Krishna, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula or Sahadeva but he was afraid of Yudhishthira because if he ever looked at his sons with anger in his eyes, they would be destroyed. Drona knew it. Sanjaya and Drona warned Duryodhana to beware of Yudhishthira’s angry glance. Krishna too knew it, “You can burn anyone with your glance.” Yudhishthira himself was aware of it and that is why he covered his eyes with a cloth while leaving for the forest so that the Kauravas are not destroyed with the fire of his eyes.
One great source of power Yudhishthira mastered right at the beginning of his political career – the support of the people. As the crown prince he endeared himself to the people of the kingdom by his politeness, his affectionate behaviour and approachability. People loved him. They became very attached to him. So, they expressed their anger when the Pandavas were forced to leave for Varanavata. They wanted to accompany them, Grihan vihaya gachhamo yatra raja Yudhishthira (we will leave our houses/ and follow Yudhishthira). Yudhishthira recognised this source of his power, the people, which would stand him in good stead in future. He replied,
you are our friends,
if you mean us well
…And when the time comes
when we really need your help,
then come forward and help us
to shine and prosper.”
The same thing happened when Yudhishthira was leaving for the forest after the dice game. The citizens were distraught with grief; they met and fearlessly condemned Bhishma, Drona, Vidura and Kripa. They said,
Where Duryodhana rules
the land is doomed.
Let us all go
to where the Pandavas are going,
because they are self-disciplined,
graced with humility,
famous and dharma-abiding..
This concern is again reflected in Yudhishthira’s words when Sanjaya came to Yudhishthira on his peace mission. Yudhishthira asked him about the welfare of the elders as well as of “elderly ladies,/ mothers of the Bharatas,/ kitchen maids, slave girls,/ daughters-in-law, sons,/ etc.” Then again before Sanjaya left, Yudhishthira asked him to pass on his greetings to the Brahmins, the purohita, the ritvikas, the low-born, the old who keep them in mind, people in trade, commerce and cultivation, the elders, the equals, the statesmen, the soldiers, door-guards, collectors of revenue, the ladies and their children, daughters-in-law, young girls, fashionable courtesans, servants, maids, the lame, the hunch-backed, the blind, the decrepit, the leg-less, the weak, the helpless, the foolish, the unlettered, the ignorant, the maimed, the dwarf, - the list runs to 50 shlokas, the entire chapter 30. He knows them all and asks Sanjaya to enquire after their health, give them his regards, remember him to them and tell all of them that Yudhishthira is well. He knew them all. He also knew that they “kept them in mind.” This kind of public support is an impregnable citadel of power for any king, an asset to be cherished and nurtured. Yudhishthira was kind-hearted and because of his kindness, his courtesy, his gracious behaviour, people adored him and when your people whom you lead are behind you, when you have this kind of public following that power is greater than the power of arms.
However, the turning point of his career is the exile. The empowerment of Yudhishthira truly begins in the Vana Parva. Here we see his patience, his equanimity, his far-sightedness, his judgement, his knowledge and his leadership in clear perspective. It is from here that we begin to understand him.
He bolstered his knowledge from interactions with Vidura and sages like Vyasa, Markandeya, Dhaumya, Baka, Shaunaka, Kashyapa, etc. With his in-born politeness, respect and courtesy he won over the resident and visiting Brahmins who without hesitation imparted to him all the wisdom and knowledge that would be necessary for him in future. Naturally inclined towards such discussions, he found himself at home in this ambience and this resulted in another reinforcement of his power – the Brahmana-Kshatriya alliance. The intelligence and wisdom of the Brahmins combined with the physical prowess of the Kshatriya. This kind of alliance was a decisive factor in those days:
Brahmin and Kshatriya duties blended
when Vedic chants of Brahmins mingled
with the twang of Pandava bow-strings.
Duryodhana with his insults and display of utter disrespect towards the Brahmins missed out on this. Another fall-out of this alliance was that during the period when the Pandavas set out on a pilgrimage following Arjuna’s departure on the quest of divine weapons, these Brahmins carried out diplomatic missions for Yudhishthira to obtain political alliances for the Pandavas. Duryodhana got this information from his spies and that worried him considerably.
Yudhisthira went from strength to strength acquiring vidyas, boons and political and administrative advice from experts during Vana Parva. As was his wont, he stored them away for future reference. During the Sabha Parva Vidura had given him the first set of advice on political and diplomatic behaviour. He told him that he had already been instructed by Merusavarni, Vyasa, Parashurama, Siva, Asita, Bhrigu (he should remember their instructions). He further said:
…never ignore the puja-respected wisdom of the rishis,
… win victories like Indra does,
check anger like Yama does,
be generous like Kubera,
subdue passion like Varuna.
Please like the pleasing moon,
nourish like vital water,
be patient like the earth,
radiant like the sun,
untiring like the wind,
flow like life flows.
Vidura continued with the second set of advice during Vana Parva: Be patient, develop your resources, share wealth with followers, obtain allies, speak the truth, be pleasant, no self-puja, no boasting. You will prosper. In other words, use this time to strengthen yourselves, obtain allies, wait patiently for your opportunity and win friends by polite, pleasant and impartial behaviour. This is reflected in Yudhishthira’s admonition to Bhima a little later in the Parva. When Bhima insulted him with cowardice and incited him for immediate war Yudhishthira said that deeds should be done after careful planning and purpose. Only such deeds succeed. Then he indicated that all the important kings and heroes of India were on the side of Duryodhana, namely, Bhurisrava, Shalya, Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Ashvatthama, etc and all the rajas who were humbled by the Pandavas. They will help Duryodhana, not the Pandavas. Their treasuries were full and that of the Pandavas were empty. Their armies were large and eager for battle, whereas the Pandavas had no army. They had divine weapons and the Pandavas did not. Unless these heroes are routed in battle one could not think of eliminating Duryodhana. So time was not ripe yet for warfare.
Dhaumya gave him the Suryamantra. By that he obtained from the Sun god the copper vessel that assured the Pandavas of sufficient food during their exile.
Then Vyasa gave him a spell named Pratismriti. Yudhishthira taught it to Arjuna who used it to obtain Shiva’s blessing and the Pashupata missile and divine weapons from Indra and other gods. Sage Vrihadashva gave him akshahridaya, which made him an expert dice-player, an insurance against any attempt at a repeat performance of the Sabha Parva by the unholy axis. He also gave him the Ashvavidya, expertise in matters relating to horses.
Dharma, disguised as Yaksha gave him two boons. The first boon was that the disguise of the Pandavas during the thirteenth year (ajnatavasa) would remain inviolate and their identity never exposed even if they moved about in their own forms. And when Yaksha offered a second boon, Yudhishthira said, completely in consonance with his nature,
“…grant me strength to overcome greed,
and folly, and anger,
grant that my mind
move towards charity, tapasya and truth.”
Nahusha advised him on statecraft, behaviour and worldly life.
Finally, Arjuna obtained divine weapons from Shiva, Indra and other gods thus filling a void in Yudhishthira’s physical power. After this the Pandavas no longer needed to fear the divine invincibility of the Kaurava weapons.
In the meantime, the incident of ghosh yatra took place. Yudhishthira, in an acute display of his astuteness, got the Kauravas and their families released from the clutches of the gandharva Chitrasena by Bhima and Arjuna. He achieved three things by this. First, he saved the honour of the family, reaffirming his peaceable intentions. Second, he made the Kauravas conscious of their strength lest they intended to take them lightly. Lastly, it exposed Karna’s vaunted prowess as he fled from the battle.
At the end of Vana Parva, Krishna officially assures Yudhishthira of the support of the Yadava oligarchy during the ensuing war. The Pandava-Panchala-Yadava confederacy is now in place.
The forest exile was a blessing in disguise. Yudhishthira overcame his fear, became wise having been enriched by experience, ascesis and knowledge gathered from every quarter. Slowly his power of wisdom and weapons increased. In fact these twelve years of privation and hardship granted all of them a maturity and steadfast determination they lacked in Sabha Parva. They were strengthened not only by Arjuna’s weapons but also internally, by the strength of the soul.
There is a lot of difference between the pre-Vana Parva Yudhishthira and the Yudhishthira of Udyoga Parva. He was still the same quiet introspective person, totally immersed in goodness and dharma, but now there was steel in him. The travails of the forest life had hardened him – his dharma was now wearing a shield of diplomatic excellence. He was still soft but now he could be stern, if needed. Now he spoke like a seasoned politician. He was an ascetic, now he had to be a king. Kunti sent him a message through Krishna: be a rajarshi, not an ascetic. Follow the rajadharma of your forefathers. Use sama, dana, bheda, danda. He therefore needed to be an ascetic-king. In Udyoga Parva and the Bhishma Parva we find a new Yudhishthira. The transformation of the scared youth of the Adi Parva was complete. Somewhere in him now he had a stone-hard foundation because of which he could make a strong pitch for their right and throw down the gauntlet to the emissary of Dhritarashtra. He was not a coward anymore and though essentially peaceable, could be very firm and war-like when needed. It is true that he was not a warrior like Arjuna and Bhima, but then he could bare his fangs when needed as he did when Sanjaya came with a peace-mission, - what do you know of dharma? I am not an atheist. I must get what is rightfully ours.
Go to the haughty Duryodhana
when he is sitting among the Kauravas
entreat him/again and again…
we are firm in wanting our ancestral inheritance
….Do not covet the wealth of others
….I am anxious for peace, Sanjaya,
and I am ready for war.
For dharma and artha
I can be both kind and cruel.
He was ready, for the sake of peace and to prevent loss of life, to be happy with five villages, - Abhisthala, Vrikasthala, Makandi, Varanavata and one more village or even one: “Return Shakrapuri-Indraprastha,/ or face, O brave Bharata,/ the prospect of war.” The request was turned down. So, it was war.
In Bhishma Parva too we find the same transformed Yudhishthira. On the first day of the war, Yudhishthira goes to Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and Shalya to get their blessing and to seek their permission to begin the battle. They were all pleased with his humility. Bhishma in fact said to him, “…if you had not come I would have cursed you/ into defeat. My son, I am pleased with you./ Fight, son of Pandu, and win!” Drona, Kripa Shalya - all of them said the same thing. In addition, Shalya promised that he would erode the confidence of Karna as his charioteer. And then without batting an eyelid he asked them how they could be slain or overcome. No longer the affectionate grand-nephew but a deadly enemy! Kripa, the immortal, said that he would pray for them and Drona told him how he could be killed. Bhishma promised to tell him later how he could be defeated (which he did on the ninth day of the battle). Yudhishthira did not go to ask for quarter. He went to get their blessing, soften them up so that they would not fight hard and know the method of their destruction. This acute sensibility, this balance, made him a great leader. With one stroke of brilliant diplomacy, just by displaying respect and politeness, he more or less ensured, Karna’s doom and learnt how to kill Bhishma and Drona, - in other words, neutralised the major power centres of the Kauravas. Duryodhana never knew that Yudhishthira had already won the war even before it started. It also displayed Yudhishthira’s divine grace, nobility of character and greatness of heart.
It is significant that Arjuna needed the Gita to rejuvenate him but Yudhishthira knew his exact course of action. He did not need Krishna to recite the Gita to him. He was already “yogarudha” - he knew the Gita through wisdom acquired through long introspection, study and ascesis as is evident from his discourse in the Shanti Parva. Where Arjuna needs help, Yudhishthira does not. Therefore he says he stands behind Arjuna’s prowess.
Krishna is different from both Bhishma and Yudhishthira. He has no compunction in overcoming loyalty to kith and kin, when such loyalty stands in the path of ensuring public weal. He uses power positively and without fear for protecting the virtuous and destroying the wicked which Bhishma should have done. He chooses Yudhishthira, unlike Bhishma, because he is the right model of a king who would ensure welfare and happiness of the people. He, unlike Bhishma, chooses to fight for those he loved and against those he does not. He is not bound within the confines of a vow. If needed, he can break the vow of remaining unarmed and take up arms. For Krishna, truth is dharma but not always and every time. He tells the story of Kaushika and says that dharma transcends truth. Sometimes a lie upholds dharma. Sometimes to uphold dharma, truth has to be sacrificed. Yudhishthira went to the forest to honour the vow he had taken. Krishna said, ‘Were I present at that time I would never have allowed such an adharma taking place in the name of dharma.’ For Krishna a larger truth must transcend a smaller truth. He does not assume an aloof stance which Bhishma adopted till the war. For him, standing apart out of a mistaken sense of impartiality does not help either to prevent destruction or to foster reconstruction of the polity. Krishna is svarat, one who is master of himself. He is free from greed, personal aggrandizement or imperialistic ambitions.
For the purpose of this paper, we shall ignore all the other facets of Krishna’s character and study him as a leader of men and a political seer who planned and put into inexorable motion a very long scheme for an ultimate Yadava supremacy. He painted a very large canvas, so large that it was not fully visible even to the all-seeing eyes of statesmen like Bhishma, Vidura and others.
The tremendous political acumen of Krishna is highlighted in the way he used all the four principles of Dandaniti to destroy the malignant power centres, create new alliances that emerged as counter balance to the existing power- structure and use diplomacy to bolster the Yadava interest. He used war and peace, he used marriages and he used his basic superior intelligence for this one purpose. Consequently, the Yadavas accepted him as their supreme commander. It took some time. It also took some effort. But in the final analysis, he emerged as the leader whose judgment and veracity could not be disputed. His political acumen combined with his sharp intellect, personal courage and physical prowess established him a major force. The contemporary powers came to regard the Yadavas under Krishna with respect and fear. It has not been spelt out clearly anywhere in the Mahabarata but his guiding principle must have been the establishment of a Yadava hegemony on the political map of northern India. Every evidence seems to indicate that. To understand his plans and actions clearly, the political situation of the country at the time of Krishna must be visualised.
The prevalent political situation had its roots in Yajati’s lust. He gave the kingdom of Pratisthana (later shifted to Hastinapura by Hasti and his son Vaikunthan) to his youngest son Puru, depriving his other sons, Yadu, Turvasu, Druhyu and Anu who established themselves elsewhere in the country. We shall ignore the others as they are not relevant and concentrate on the progeny of only Yadu and Puru, i.e. the Yadavas and the Pauravas.
Between Yayati and Yudhisthira-Krishna, there are twenty-six generations. Much naturally happened during these years. We find a lot of internal conflict within the Paurava and Yadava clans and also existence of bad blood between the Yadavas and Pauravas. These naturally had developed and distanced the clans and sub-clans over a period covering these twenty-six generations.
The main Paurava line continued at Hastinapura. We find Dhritarashtra ruling a very powerful political assemblage that included such stalwarts as Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Karna, Ashvatthama, Vidura and Shakuni. Another line of the Pauravas left Hastinapura (or were made to leave) and conquered Chedi from the Yadavas. This was another reason for the Yadava-Paurava enmity that began with the ouster of Yadu. Later, of course, this line re-established the Yadavas at Chedi and moved on to establish their sway at Magadha. We find one of the finest statesmen of the time ruling at Magadha, Jarasandha, who easily was superior to any other contemporary, including Krishna, in might, diplomacy and power. He even managed to alienate the Southern Yadavas from the mainline Yadavas of Mathura and bring them inseparably under his tutelage. This Paurava line became supremely antagonistic towards the Mathura Yadavas after the slaying of Kamsa, Jarasandha’s son-in-law. Jarasandha vowed to annihilate them totally. The third Paurava line established themselves at Panchala (around Badaun, Bareilly, etc.) and were known as the Panchalas. There was bitter enmity between these relations and neighbours which even the gap of generations could not dilute. In fact it went on increasing, finally culminating into the Kuru-Panchala war.
The Yadavas spread out all over. The mainline Yadavas remained in and around Mathura. Other lines went to Dvaraka, Mahishmati, Vidarbha, Chedi, Avanti, Dasharna, even up to Mysore. The entire Paurava kingdom was practically surrounded by the Yadavas. But though the Yadavas were a large clan, there was no cohesion among them. There was a lot of conflict within the Mathura Yadavas, mainly due to Kamsa who became king after imprisoning his father Ugrasena. There was no peace due to the power struggle between Andhakas, Shinis, Sattvatas, Vrishnis etc. The southern Yadavas were not friendly towards the Mathura Yadavas. Even though two of Vasudeva’s sisters were married to the king of Karusha and the king of Chedi, they remained firmly on the side of Jarasandha who took advantage of the situation. He married his daughters to Kamsa, supported him in his ascendancy and brought Mathura too under his control. In this way, it was Jarasandha who controlled the entire Yadava clan for some time. Even when Jarasandha attacked the Mathura Yadavas, Vidarbha, Chedi, Dasharna, Avanti, Karusha etc. joined his imperial forces.
Besides these warring relatives, there were other power centres in the country. The most important were the Matsyas of Virata (Jaipur) who played a vital role in shaping the course of history of the time, Shalva of Saubha (Punjab) and Paundraka Vasudeva of Pundravardhana etc. Also, there were Gonanda of Kashmir, Subala of Gandhara, etc. These were all friendly towards Jarasandha and joined the imperial forces in their campaign against Mathura.
This was the political situation of northern India when Krishna appeared on the scene with his heroic abilities, superior intellect and tremendous political foresight. He was quite clear in his objective. He had to retrieve the Yadavas from the political quagmire into which they had fallen and slowly re-establish them as the supreme power in north India to take their rightful place as the heirs of Yayati by replacing the usurpers, the Pauravas. His course of action was also clear to him. He had to bring back unity among the belligerent Yadavas. He achieved this with a master-stroke of diplomacy, a combination of brain and brawn. He slew Kamsa and his henchmen but did not assume power himself. Neither did he put Vasudeva, his father, on the throne. He brought back Ugrasena, Kamsa’s hapless father, and set him on the throne. This endeared him to all the Yadavas, irrespective of clans, including Kamsa’s supporters. Then, when Jarasandha attacked to avenge the death of his son-in-law, he kindled the Yadavas with the spirit of patriotism and provided inimitable leadership in the defence of Mathura. It is a remarkable achievement of Krishna that he was able to defend Mathura with a handful of Yadavas against the colossal imperial army that included practically all the major powers of India, namely, Shalva, Gonanda, Chedi, Bhishmaka, Virata, Panchala and of course, Duryodhana and his brothers. This imperial force was thwarted time and again not only by Krishna’s personal courage and prowess but also by the leadership he provided. All the Yadavas stood by him as one. By the time he retreated to Dvaraka in the face of the superior forces of Jarasandha, he had achieved his goal. The entire Yadava clan, the Bhojas, Vrishnis, Andhakas, Shinis, Kukuras, Sattvatas, etc. swore by him and always looked up to him as their natural leader in all matters of importance. Each and every future incident reconfirmed his position as leader and the bond of the Yadava brotherhood went from strength to strength. The path was not free of obstacles. Nevertheless, he achieved what he wanted—unity among the Yadavas. He did not succeed in bringing the southern Yadavas immediately into his fold. But by this time, the Mathura-Dvaraka Yadavas had already emerged as a major force, feared even by Hastinapura.
Having united the Yadavas, Krishna found it necessary to consolidate. Though powerful, the Yadavas were politically isolated and had powerful enemies. So, he needed political alliances, which would help him in containing or removing the enemies. His main adversary was Jarasandha and his allies. He realised that only after destroying him, could he turn his attention to Hastinapura, his final goal. That Duryodhana joined Jarasandha in the siege or Mathura must have weighed with him considerably in his antipathy towards the Pauravas. But first of all, the alliances.
Krishna saw that to destroy Jarasandha, he had to use the Pauravas, the other most powerful nation. For that, he needed to make an inroad into them. Luck was with him. He found the Pandavas. There were three distinct reasons why the Pandavas must be chosen as allies. First, they were individually extremely gifted, not only in the art of warfare but also in the qualities of head and heart. Most important, they too were isolated, without much political support and constantly persecuted and hunted by their kinsmen of Hastinapura. They needed help. Secondly, they were matrimonially linked with the Panchalas, the biggest hard core enemies of Hastinapura. That too suited him very well. Thirdly, the Pandavas were his natural allies, being his first cousins, through their mother Kunti who was the sister of Vasudeva. Providence was therefore with him. He needed the Pandava-Panchala alliance and they needed the power of the Yadavas at their back. He therefore extended the hand of friendship which was gratefully accepted. He chose for his friend Arjuna, who he noted was the most versatile, balanced and capable among the five. Arjuna was certainly the kingpin in this alliance and needed cultivating. He did it with such consummate grace and finesse that Arjuna could not even think without Krishna and was always willing to do what pleased Krishna. So, what began as a political need ended up as a deep emotional involvement for both. This attitude of Arjuna had far-reaching effects. It was not for nothing that Arjuna’s progeny inherited the empire. Krishna ensured it but he ensured it with a Yadava angle to it. It was a dubious Paurava inheritance with a strong Yadava flavour. He conceived a plan the moment he saw the Pandavas and nurtured it fondly, always progressing steadily towards the fructification of his ultimate plan.
Krishna used another traditional diplomatic instrument, matrimony, for securing political alliances. His grandfather and father used it with only limited success. Pritha, Vasudeva’s sister, was married to Pandu. Pandu did not live long. So this alliance did not produce the expected results, except that it provided Krishna with the invincible Pandavas and, through them, with a strong foothold in the Hastinapura sphere of influence. Two other sisters were married to the Yadavas of Chedi and Karusha. These were not successful at all as, in spite of these marriages, Chedi and Karusha remained firmly in alliance with Jarasandha. However, there was another powerful Yadava kingdom in the neighbourhood of Chedi, which also was an ally of Jarasandha. This was Bhishmaka of Vidarbha and his son Rukmi. Bhishmaka was also very friendly with Sishupala of Chedi and had planned to marry Rukmini, his daughter, with Sishupala. Krishna wanted to rectify the situation and win the powerful Yadavas of Vidarbha to his side. He abducted and married Rukmini hoping that this marriage would unite the Vidarbha Yadavas with the Mathura-Dvaraka Yadavas. But this effort failed. Vidarbha was incensed at this abduction and was driven more firmly to Jarasandha. This also enraged Sishupala who was already a sworn enemy of Krishna. (In the end, of course, we find that Rukmi came to join the Pandava forces on the eve of the war, with an expressed desire “to do something pleasing to Krishna.” But how much of it was political expediency since the Krishna of now was a much more powerful person than the Krishna of yore and how much of it was his genuine feeling for a brother-in-law, is a matter of conjecture. But it did not matter anymore. Neither Krishna nor the Pandavas needed him.)
When Krishna realised that he would have to base his activities solely on this Pandava-Panchala alliance he strove to make it more lasting and powerful. He wanted to bring the Yadavas too into this alliance. And this he decided would be done through Arjuna. He arranged the marriage of his sister Subhadra with Arjuna. Most unusual, as Arjuna and Subhadra were first cousins. Unusual but politically very useful. Also this marriage brought the Yadavas into the Panchala-Pandava alliance firmly. This marriage therefore he nurtured fondly. He brought up Abhimanyu and trained him to be the equal of Arjuna and himself. Such allegiance was not paid to the sons of Krishna-sakhi Draupadi, which is significant. The new alliance became powerful but not enough. Now Abhimanyu had to be married. Opportunity presented itself in the form of the Matsya Princess, Uttara. Why did Arjuna prefer Abhimanyu and not any of the sons of Draupadi who were equally available and marriageable? Perhaps, Krishna’s farsightedness and well-laid plains bear fruit now. Arjuna was never in love with Draupadi. His beloved was Subhadra whom he married out of love. So, it was not surprising that he considered Subhadra and Abhimanyu to be his family. It may seem far-fetched given the socio-cultural situation of the time, nevertheless it also seems natural and more human. Draupadi after all was not his alone. She was more of a political entity, a matter of convenience. Also, Abhimanyu was the nephew of Krishna, Arjuna’s friend, philosopher and guide. Arjuna would always do what pleased Krishna. Who else could he choose except Abhimanyu? Indirectly, therefore, it was Krishna’s influence which finally made Krishna-sakha Arjuna decide on Abhimanyu. This marriage further strengthened the Yadava claim on Hastinapura’s throne. Abhimanyu’s son Parikshit would be the king of Hastinapura later. And Abhimanyu or Parikshit were more Yadavas than Pauravas. Abhimanyu’s mother and grandmother were Yadavas. His father was not necessarily and strictly a Paurava. Both Arjuna and Pandu did not have any Kaurava blood in them. Both were “kshetraja” sons of their family.
The political outcome of this marriage was an invincible alliance of Pandava-Panchala-Yadava-Matsya which the marriage of one of Draupadi’s sons could not have brought about effectively. It brought the Yadavas in direct contact with the Matsyas. This axis very conclusively set up a balance of power which more or less neutralised the immense authority of the Hastinapura monolith.
In all this power game, what is bewildering is the marriage between Krishna’s son Samba and Duryodhana’s daughter Lakshmana. It is true that Krishna did not know anything about it. It was Balarama who went and rescued Samba and Lakshrnana from the clutches of Duryodhana who had forcibly detained Samba for his misadventure of marrying and trying to abduct Lakshmana. This is intriguing. Did the marriage please Krishna? Or was he enraged? Did it add to his negative feelings towards Duryodhana for imprisoning his son or was he happy on being presented with another, possibly useful, alliance? However, this marriage did not in any way affect the course of history, nor does it throw any light on the character of Krishna.
All through these happenings on the matrimonial front Krishna kept himself busy with eliminating the malignant powers that were irretrievably inimical towards the Yadava cause. No amount of diplomacy would have helped. Some he removed by himself, others he tackled with the help of the Pandavas. So he systematically destroyed Kamsa, Kalayavana, Hamsa-Dimbaka, Paundra Vasudeva and Saubharaj Shalva. Then he saw that unless Jarasandha was eliminated, the Magadha Confederacy, the most powerful one at the time, could not be broken. But he also knew that there was no power in the country that could take on the Magadha Confederacy in direct conflict. Nor could he handle it alone. So he took recourse to stratagem and, got Bhima to slay Jarasandha and release the numerous princes he had imprisoned. Then he went on to destroy Sishupala of Chedi and some other minor adversaries to clear the stage for the final holocaust which he knew must come. The Magadha Confederacy was completely defused. He had realised that if all these people came to help the Kauravas, nothing could save the Pandava alliance.
An interesting gambit which was often employed by Krishna, also bought him considerable allegiance from the erstwhile enemies. He never usurped the territory of the vanquished. He established their surviving relatives on the throne and returned the territory. He made Ugrasena, father of Kamsa, the king of the Yadavas. He gave the empire of Jarasandha to his son Sahadeva. He made Dhristaketu the king of Chedi after his father Sishupala was slain. These kings gave their loyalty to Krishna out of gratitude for his magnanimity. Consequently we find them at the side of the Pandavas during the War. Kalhana tells us that Krishna placed one of the female relatives of Gonanda on the throne of Kashmir. He was a kingmaker and not a king. And in the history of mankind we have seen time and again that it is the kingmaker who wields real power, never the king thus made.
Therefore, Krishna succeeds in all his plans. He unites the Yadavas. He removes their enemies. He makes the Yadavas very powerful through various alliances. He uses marriage effectively for the purpose. And for the final battle, he sets up a powerful axis of Yadava-Panchala-Pandava-Matsya aided by his grateful protégés against the Hastinapura allies. All the time, the Yadava interest is never lost sight of. When suddenly, at the end of the war, Abhimanyu’s unborn son was also killed (which eventuality even he had not foreseen), he resurrected him so that he could become king. Why did he do it? Why not one of Draupadi’s sons who also had died on the same night? The tragedy of Draupadi was that nobody really cared for her. Draupadi was always ignored – nathavati anathavat, as the lamenting Dhritarashtra describes her so aptly in Anukramanika, Adi Parva. She was a piece on the political chess-board of the time, to be used at convenience. Arjuna preferred Abhimanyu to her sons, because he was Subhadra’s son and Krishna’s nephew. Krishna preferred him because he was Subhadra’s son and more or less a Yadava. For the same reason, he resurrected Parikshit. Draupadi’s sons were not Yadava relations and for Krishna it was necessary that a Yadava relation survived to rule Hastinapura. It was a political necessity for him. He was all for Draupadi. But whenever there was any clash of interest between Draupadi and Subhadra, he invariably chose Subhadra’s cause, because the Yadava interest coincided with that of Subhadra, not Draupadi. For Krishna, blood was always thicker than water. Therefore, it was Subhadra and her progeny who must survive to carry on a Yadava history (even if it is in the guise of a Paurava history).
The blood and water theory seems to be apposite when we consider an aspect of the Mahabharata which is not much talked about. Why did the Yadavas refrain from joining the war? Why did no one question them on this? Again it was Krishna. Krishna offered only himself without arms and an akshauhini of Narayani Sena (probably mercenaries) who were as powerful as he was (mere sales talk, no doubt, but enough to fool Duryodhana). That is all. Satyaki joined the Pandavas out of friendship with Arjuna and Hardikya Kritavarma joined the Kauravas, may be out of an old enmity with Krishna. And, most surprisingly and significantly, at the end of the war when everyone died, the only survivors, besides the Pandavas, were Satyaki and Kritavarma. Krishna, one feels, prevented the Yadavas from annihilation by keeping them away. Out of all the nations, only the Yadavas survived— to be supreme and to be the rulers of the earth. It was an unparalleled master-stroke which may not be appreciated but was in total consonance with his policy of establishing a Yadava hegemony.
At the end of it all when all the dust settles down on Kurukshetra, when the earth has drained the blood of eighteen akshauhinis and is ready once again to pick up the reins of life after bathing in death, we find the Yadavas at the helm of affairs. And a little later, we find Subhadra’s grandson Parikshit on the throne of Hastinapura and Krishna’s grandson, Vajra, on the throne of mighty Indraprastha The wheel had indeed turned full circle. Yayati created a rift between Puru and Yadu by throwing out Yadu. His successor, after twenty-six generations, brought the Yadavas back into power in the land of their ancestors. If one is a little more gracious to Krishna, one can of course say that he brought the progeny of two brothers, who had fallen out, once again together in Parikshit, a Paurava as well as a Yadava.
Power brings decadence. And decadence destroys a race. The Yadavas were no exception to this rule. They destroyed each other before the grieving eyes of Krishna. He had made them powerful, saved them from the war and brought them thus far. But he could not save them from themselves. Unfettered individual liberty spelt their doom. This was the curious tragedy of Krishna. This supreme leader of men failed with his own people and died a lonely death at the hands of a petty hunter. We are reminded of Plato’s discourse that it is the ‘democratic man’ who is the source of tyrannical man, for in him all impulses are allowed free indulgence and he considers himself entitled to indulge which ever solicits him most powerfully at the moment instead of being ruled by a super-ordinate marshalling vision that pursues ends valuable in themselves, namely, goodness, beauty and truth. Of these, the power impulse is the strongest and establishes a tyranny over the rest. Nevertheless, he succeeded in placing the Paurava-Yadava Parikshit on the throne of Hastinapura. This is where he wins.
All the three protagonists use their power positively and do not let power dominate them. They, being internally and externally strong, have displayed the right attitude and have performed through higher Self, the right consciousness, while using their power. They have demonstrated concern for people and have followed the path of dharma. And they have risen above personal pleasures, sacrificed personal will when required and have shown total self-control, never surrendering to the corrupting influence of their senses. But, conscious of the human nature, Vyasa never painted his characters in pure black or pure white. His characters are multi-dimensional, complex and have different shades of grey in them. The celebrated, those who are posited in the epic as role-models, too are therefore, flawed. Bhishma, the sublime ideal of celibacy, sacrifice and supreme allegiance to the given word, wielder of incredible external and internal power, abdicates and assumes a witness stance, failing to be pro-active when it was most required. Yudhishthira, a king who would not be, was ever reluctant to wield any kind of power and was more of an ascetic than a kshatriya. He was so reluctant to become a king that even at the last moment he was ready to give up all plans of war if Duryodhana gave them one village. His determination to fight for their right constantly needed propping up. Draupadi did it. Kunti had to break her silence, tell him the story of Vidula through Krishna and ask him to follow the rajadharma of his forefathers like a kshatriya and be a rajarshi. Krishna, the Purushottama, the best among men, was desperately lonely. In spite of his people-orientation, he was friendless at the end, a victim of those whom he constantly went out to help. He was a victim of destiny, another concept which is eminently popular with Vyasa. In fact, in Udyoga Parva, Krishna declares that he dare do the utmost than man can, but is powerless to alter what is fated. (79.5)
Perhaps what Vyasa is trying to tell us that it is possible to wield power positively even if there are certain flaws in the character. Being human, there will always be flaws. But if one is a person performing from his higher Self, with the interest of the people in mind, if he is ready to sacrifice his personal welfare for those he governs and if he remains on the path of dharma, subduing his senses, he can bring forth public weal even he has flaws. Flaws which do not stand in the way of positive use of power, do not matter. But if they do it is necessary to train oneself either to get rid of them or to become conscious of them and work around those.