When God incarnates as a human being, he is both a human being and God at the same time. He becomes at once a human being with God’s powers, and God with a human being’s limitations.
The most popular image of the Mahabharata war in calendar art and in paintings is, of course, that of the Gitopadesha, of Krishna telling the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna at the beginning of the war. Perhaps the second most popular image is that of Krishna rushing with a wheel upraised in his hand at Bheeshma in the middle of the war. Krishna is furious here and the wheel is sometimes his Sudarshana and at other times it is a chariot wheel picked up from the battlefield.
The incident of Krishna rushing at Bheeshma in murderous fury happens twice during the Mahabharata war.
The first time it happens towards the end of the third day of the war. The five Pandava brothers, Dhrishtadyumna, Abhimanyu, Satyaki, Ghatotkacha were all in a fierce mood and were slaughtering the Kaurava army mercilessly. The Kaurava army starts fleeing in all directions and Duryodhana comes to Bheeshma and tells him that if he did not want to fight the Pandavas, he should have told so at the beginning itself. He includes Drona and Kripa too in his accusation – if the three of them had told him at the beginning that they wouldn’t harm the Pandava brothers, Satyaki and Dhrishtadyumna, then he would have thought of other alternatives right at the start.
A furious Bheeshma now begins attacking the Pandava army savagely. Describing the war that ensued then, Sanjaya tells Dhritarashtra that such a battle has never been heard of or nor seen [Na drshtam na šrutam vápi yuddham eatadršam nrpa]. Bheeshma danced on the floor of his chariot displaying his splendid skills and it looked as though Bheeshma was, in the words of the epic, like an alata chakra, the glowing wheel that appears when an ember is moved in circles. He seemed to be everywhere at once. People saw him in the north, then when they looked at the south, he was there, and then again in the east and the west, all at the same time. It was as though there was not one Bheeshma in the battlefield, but several.
Krishna reminds Arjuna of the pledge he had made before the war in the assembly of kings – that he would kill Bheeshma, Drona and all the other warriors of Duryodhana along with their friends and relatives. Krishna tells him time has now come to fulfil his vow. Arjuna asks Krishna to take his chariot before Drona. A battle begins between Bheeshma and Arjuna, in which Bheeshma is like a fierce tempest, like a whirlwind destroying everything in its path, shooting arrows at both Arjuna and Krishna with savage fury, his arrows piercing both of them with relentless ferocity. They are both bathed in blood, and such is the pain that Krishna is in, his entire body begins shivering in agony.
On one side Krishna was watching this inexorable rage of Bheeshma and on the other he was seeing that Arjuna was not really putting up a fight – he was gentle and soft. The best of the Pandava army was falling dead all around them, picked up individually and slaughtered by Bheeshma. The Mahabharata uses the word ‘yuganta’ for Bheeshma and ‘mrdu’ for Arjuna – the grandsire was like the all-consuming fire at the end of the world and Arjuna, soft. Krishna’s rage now knows no bounds. Time has come for him to act – he decides. He would himself put on the armour and fight the battle for the Pandavas. He would kill Bheeshma by himself.
In the meantime, the best of the Pandava warriors were scattering and running away in all directions to save their lives. Bheeshma’s fury was growing every minute and Arjuna was continuing to act soft towards his grandsire. Unable to stand it anymore, Krishna remembers his wheel Sudarshana, which instantly appears in his hand. With the furiously whirling Sudarshana in his hand, roaring aloud again and again, he jumps down from the chariot and rushes towards Bheeshma. The earth shakes as Krishna’s steps fall on it.
Arjuna now jumps down from the chariot and pursues Krishna. He catches hold of his arms, struggling to stop him. This has no effect on Krishna, who drags Arjuna along and continues to rush at Bheeshma like a storm. Arjuna now catches hold of Krishna’s leg and tries to stop him – eventually Krishna stops. Arjuna now prostrates before Krishna and requests him to control his anger. He promises, by his brothers and sons, that he would keep his vow – he shall now fight. He would do his duty, he would finish off the Kauravas.
It is only than that Krishna is pacified.
The second time Krishna rushes at Bheeshma on the ninth day of the war. The Mahabharata describes this scene, frequently repeating its words and phrases used to describe the first scene.
The grandsire had been spreading death in the battlefield like a murderous fire and men perished in their thousands before the old man’s rage. It looked like if Bheeshma continued in that mood for a while more, there would be no warriors left alive in the Pandava army. Krishna takes Arjuna’s chariot before the grandsire so that the fiercest archer on the Pandava side can counter Bheeshma and put an end to his life. However, while the grandsire attacks Arjuna ferociously, Krishna sees that there is no matching fury in Arjuna’s response [exactly as on the earlier occasion]. This sends Krishna into a savage wrath, for he wants Bheeshma dead, because if that does not happen immediately the war would be lost. His eyes spitting fire, his limbs burning with rage, Krishna jumps down from his chariot and rushes towards Bheeshma, his hands raised in the air. Here is the Mahabharata’s compelling description the scene:
Vásudevastu samprekshya párthasya mrduyuddhatám
Bheeshmam cha šaravarsháni srjantam anišam yudhi
Pratapantamivádityam madhyam ásádya senayoh
Varán varán vinighnantam pánduputrasya sainikán
Yugántamiva kurvánam bheeshmam yaudhishthire bale
Námrshyata mahábáhur madhavah paraveerahá.
Utsrjya rajataprákhyan hayán párthasya márisha
Vásudevas tato yogee práchaskanda mahárathát.
Abhidudráva bheeshmam sa bhujapraharano balee
Pratodapanis tejasvee simhavad vinadan muhuh
Dárayanniva padbhyám sa jagateem jagadeešvarah
Krodhatámrekshanah krshno jighámsur amitadyutih.
[Bheeshma Parva 106.53-59]
“Krishna, the mighty warrior, the destroyer of enemy armies, could not tolerate it when he saw that Arjuna was putting up only a gentle [mrdu] fight against Bheeshma and that Bheeshma himself was showering torrents of arrows relentlessly, and standing in the middle of their army was scorching them like the merciless midday sun, ceaselessly killing one after the other the best warriors on the Pandava side, creating the effect of a holocaust among them. Abandoning the silver horses of Arjuna, he, Vasudeva, the great yogi, leapt down from the mighty chariot, and, roaring repeatedly like a lion, he ran towards Bheeshma, his whip in his hand, his hands his only weapons. As he ran, the lord of the universe, Krishna in his splendour, his eyes red with anger, looked as if he was pulverising the earth with his feet.”
This time there is no chakra in Krishna’s hands. All he has is his charioteer’s horsewhip.
As on the earlier occasion, Arjuna jumps down from his chariot and runs after Krishna, desperately trying to hold him back with his arms. This time too he does not succeed, such is Krishna’s wrath. Dragging Arjuna along, Krishna continues to rush forward as on the earlier occasion. Seeing that he is unable to hold him back, Arjuna then catches hold of Krishna’s leg. Krishna still drags Arjuna along for another ten paces; it is only then that he is somehow able to stop Krishna and remind him of his vow not to fight in the battle. Arjuna promises Krishna that he will no more be lenient, he will kill Bheeshma, and then Krishna controls himself. His anger is not spent, though, for he is like a volcano still, silent, fuming.
Whether we accept the popular version of Krishna rushing at Bheeshma with a chariot wheel in his hand, the first Sanskrit version of his rushing at him with the Sudarshana in his hand or the second incident of him rushing with his whip in his hand, one thing is very clear. The Krishna we see here is a very human Krishna. His anger completely human, his frustration completely human. In his fury he forgets he has taken the vow not to fight. In the second incident in the Sanskrit epic such is his rage that as he rushes towards Bheeshma he forgets to drop the horsewhip he has been holding in his hand; he forgets to empty his hands so that he can throttle Bheeshma if that is what he had in mind, he forgets to pick up a weapon with which to kill the grandsire, if that was his intention. Krishna blindly rushes at Bheeshma, his eyes spitting fire.
It is a very human face of Krishna we see here. And that face is not one he has put on. It is not a mere show, it is genuine. The epic’s description makes it crystal clear. And if it is not clear enough, it becomes clearer still that night when Yudhishthira gets into his usual melancholy mood in the camp and speaks in his defeatist mood. Reassuring him, Krishna promises that he himself would take up weapons and kill Bheeshma the next day if Arjuna does not want to his grandsire. There is nothing he wouldn’t do for Arjuna, Krishna tells Yudhishthira, for Arjuna is his friend, his relation and his disciple. He would cut his flesh off and give it, if that would help Arjuna.
What we see here is a very fascinating face of Krishna. A very human face.
We see the same human face of Krishna later when Karna kills Ghatotkacha using Vaijayanti, the Shakti Indra gave him as a return gift for Karna’s armour and earrings that made him unslayable in war.
Seeing Bheema’s son dead, the entire Pandava army plunges into dreadful depths of despondency. Yudhishthira goes berserk with grief. Breaking down completely, he bemoans the young man’s death in heart-rending words. Such is his sorrow that he even forgets that Bheema has a right to weep for his dead son. Instead, he pathetically asks Bheema to proceed straight to the warfield and stop the advancing army of Duryodhana. He tells Bheema he himself is incapable of doing anything now, such is the sorrow that has overpowered him. Streams of tears flow from Yudhishthira’s eyes. When Krishna comes to him and asks him to get a hold of himself, he wipes his eyes with his hands and tells him that ingratitude is no less a sin than the greatest of sins, brahmahatya, killing a Brahmin, that is what dharma says, implying that by sending Ghatotkacha into the mouth of death, knowing that he was going to be killed, they have committed the gravest of all sins. One by one he recalls the services this son of Bheema has rendered them. When they were living in the jungle, Yudhishthira tells Krishna, Ghatotkacha had rendered them numerous services, though he was then a mere child. All the years Arjuna was away trying to acquire powerful weapons, Ghatotkacha had stayed with them. While they were travelling to Gandhamadana, every time there was a crisis, which they seemed to be running into one after another, Ghatotkacha was with them to help them out. And when Draupadi was tired, it was Ghatotkacha who had carried her on his back. He recalls the great service the youth had rendered him throughout the war, the numerous impossible tasks he had achieved for his army. “The natural love I have always had for Sahadeva, that same love I always felt for this Rakshasa prince,” he adds.
The intensity of his torments awakens other woes in his heart. Killing Jayadratha was wrong, he tells Krishna. True, Jayadratha had stopped them from entering the Kaurava army that Abhimanyu had penetrated into. But it was not he who deserved to be punished. Abhimanyu’s death, which the sensitive Yudhishthira had not yet been able to accept, the wound of which was still fresh in his heart, was caused not by Jayadratha, he tells plainly, but by Drona and his son. It was the acharya and his son who were responsible for the death of Abhimanyu, they and the other maharathis, and it is they who deserved to be punished, more than anyone else. “I did not like it much, Krishna, that Arjuna killed Jayadratha, for his fault was but small. If the Pandavas have a right to kill their enemies, in my opinion it is Drona and Karna that deserved to be killed before anyone else.”
Alpe cha kárane krshna hato gandeevadhanvaná
Saindhavo yádavašreshtha, tachcha nátipriyam mama.
Yadi šatruvadho nyayyo bhavet kartum hi pandavaih
Karnadronau rane poorvam hantavyáviti me matih.
Such is the depth of his sorrow that Yudhishthira, normally incapable of entertaining a single negative thought against his acharya, speaks of the need to kill him! And not content with the harsh words he has spoken, in a madness of anger, he starts out in his chariot to attack Karna all alone! Only Vyasa’s advice persuades him to turn back from his suicidal mission.
To every one of the Pandavas, to the entire Pandava army, Ghatotkata’s death was a devastating event, an unforgivable act for which they were responsible, a great sin. But Krishna dances at it – literally!
This is how the Mahabharata describes it.
Hidimbam nihatam drshtvá višeernam iva parvatam
Babhoovuh pandavás sarve šokabáshpakulekshanáh.
Vásudevastu harshena mahatábhipariplutah
Nanáda simhanádam vai paryashvajata phálgunam.
Sa vinadya mahanádam abheeshoon sanniyamya cha
Nanarta harshasamveeto vatoddhoota iva drumah.
Tatah parishvajya punah pártham asphotya chásakrt
Rathopasthagato dheemán pranadat punarachyutah.
“Seeing the son of Hidimba killed, seeing him collapsing like a mountain, the eyes of all Pandavas were filled with tears. Krishna, on the other hand, was deep in great ecstasy. Roaring like a lion, he hugged Arjuna. Roaring aloud again and again, reining in the horses, overpowered by boundless rapture, he danced like a tree caught in a storm. Then, hugging Arjuna again, clapping on his back repeatedly, Krishna roared again and again from the chariot.”
We do not see Mahabharata’s Krishna dancing ecstatically like this anywhere else in the epic. Here Krishna yields body and mind to the rapture in his heart at the death of his nephew.
Here again it is the human face of Krishna we see. It is not God, or his incarnation, that is dancing so ecstatically at the death of a Rakshasa prince, but a human being. Or, at least, the human side of incarnated God.
Krishna gives Arjuna a lengthy explanation for his joy at Ghatotkacha’s death.
Ghatotkacha lived the Rakshasa way of life, and he, Krishna, was bound to kill anyone who lived the life of adharma – this is the main thrust of his argument. “This Rakshasa was a brahmana-hater, a sacrifice-hater, destroyer of dharma, a sinner. It is for this reason that I had him killed.”
Esha hi brahmanadveshee yajnadveshee cha rakshasah
Dharmasya lopta papatma tasmadeva nipatitah.
[Drona Parva 181.27]
We are not really convinced by the explanation, though. We feel there is something else behind all this, which Krishna does not reveal to Arjuna. And true, soon we get a clue to the real reason behind Krishna’s joy. A few verses later in the epic, Krishna reveals some of his innermost feelings to Satyaki – feelings he does not feel fit to express before Arjuna. Perhaps the reason why Krishna danced for joy, shouted uproariously in such frenzy of joy, is because of the great relief he felt at the moment. He had been released, all of a sudden, from what he had been holding back in his heart for long, perhaps acknowledging not even to himself. Fear! Fear for Arjuna! Fear for Arjuna’s life!
Here are the exact words of Krishna:
Phálgunasya hi sá mrtyur iti chintayato’nišam
Na nidrá nacha me harsho manaso’sti yudhám vara.
[Drona Parva 182.41]
“Brave warrior [Satyaki], continuously thinking that that [Shakti] is the death of Arjuna, I have not been able to sleep for long, nor have I ever felt any joy in my heart.”
Krishna knew, as he admits in the previous few verses, that Vaijayanti, the Shakti that Indra had given Karna in return for his armour and earrings, was Arjuna’s death. And to Krishna, Arjuna’s death in something he cannot even contemplate. For, he is like a twin soul to Krishna, dearer to him than his very life.
Continuing his explanation, Krishna tells Satyaki, “Best of Shinis, seeing that the Shakti has been used on Ghatotkacha, I consider that Arjuna has been released from the jaws of death.” And then Krishna adds, “I do not think it is so important to save my father, nor my mother, nor you my brothers, nor even my own life, as it is to save Arjuna in this war. If there is something superior to all the three worlds together, Satyaki, I do not wish even for that if it is to be without Arjuna. That is why I felt such great joy today, seeing Arjuna as though he has come back from the dead.” [Drona 182.41-45]
This is not God taking a sigh of relief. This is not God dancing for joy. This is definitely a human being dancing in the rapture of relief from the unspeakable agony he has been enduring in his heart for long.
Towards the end of the Stree Parva, Gandhari lays a curse on Krishna using the ascetic power she had acquired through her service to her husband, the only tapas enjoined to [married] women in the scriptures. It is not clear whether Gandhari speaks to Krishna as God Incarnate here. All she says is he had great strength, he had a large army, he had influence on both sides, he had in him the wisdom found in the Vedas, and yet he willfully ignored the destruction of the Kurus [which he could have avoided if he wanted] and now he will have to suffer the consequences of that.
Šaktena bahubhrtyena vipule tishthatá bale
Ubhayatra samarthena šrutavákyena chaiva ha
Ichchhatopekshitá nášah kuroonám madhusoodana
Yasmát tvayá mahábáho phalam tasmádavápnuhi.
[Stree Parva 25.40-41]
On his way back to Dwaraka after the war, Krishna meets Sage Uttanka in the desert plains. Krishna offers worship to the sage and the sage too offers worship to his honoured guest. Then Uttanka enquires of Krishna about the war. The sage is very earnest about it for he is sure that someone like Krishna would certainly have stopped such a disastrous carnage. “So, Krishna, may I believe you went to the house of the Kurus and the Pandavas and were able to establish unshakeable brotherhood among them? Tell me all about it! You are returning after establishing piece between them, aren’t you? For both the Kauravas and the Pandavas are your relatives and you have always loved them both.” The old sage goes on in his fervid optimism and his trust in Krishna’s great powers and subsequently, concluding, says, “Son, I have always had this hope from you. Tell me, you have fulfilled my hopes for the Bharatas, haven’t you?”
Krishna informs Uttanka that all his attempts to bring the Kauravas to a peaceful settlement failed and all of them have died in the war that ensued. “No one can stop the designs of destiny either by strength or by intelligence,” Krishna adds.
Uttanka goes into a rage at this. His eyes turn fiery red and he begins to stare at Krishna in utter disbelief and total fury, his eyes fuming. “Have no doubt, Krishna, I am going to lay a curse on you. For, you were capable of protecting those mighty Kurus who were your relations and who were dear to you, and yet you did not do so.”
Yasmád šaktena te krshna na trátáh kurupungaváh
Sambandhinah priyás tasmád šaptsye’ham tvám asamšayam.
[Asvamedha Parva 53.20]
One feels great respect for this old sage’s passion here. Gandhari was bemoaning the death of her own people when she cursed Krishna. But this old man is a complete outsider – he has nothing to do either with the Pandavas or with the Kauravas and his anger is purely righteous. If you are capable of doing good, you must do it. You have no right to fail.
Interestingly, Uttanka uses the very same word in accusing Krishna that Gandhari uses: ‘šaktena’ – by the capable you. Krishna was capable, Krishna had the power.
Before laying the curse on Krishna, he accuses him of hypocrisy, repeating the word šaktena once again.
Na cha te prasabham yasmát te nigrhya niváritah
Tasmád manyupareetas tvám šapsyámi madhusoodana.
Tvayá šaktena hi satá mithyácharena mádhava
Te pareetáh kurušreshtháh našyantah sma hyupekshitáh.
[Asvamedha Parva 53.21-22]
“You could have stopped them by holding them back by force, but you did not do that. For that reason, Krishna, I am going to curse you in my overpowering anger. You were capable and yet, acting hypocritically, you abandoned to their destruction those mighty Kurus in their affliction.”
Repeatedly, Sage Uttanka refers to Krishna’s shakti, his power, his competence. We do not know what exactly he means by this. Does he refer to Krishna’s divine powers as an incarnation? Or is it just his powers as a superior man that he is speaking of?
Whatever that be, in his response to Uttanka Krishna makes things crystal clear by assuming the role of God Incarnate. He takes his shakti to mean his divine powers, his powers as God Incarnate, as God.
Krishna stops Uttanka before the old sage is able to lay a curse on him, unlike he did in the case of Gandhari. His words here are powerful, and have a ring of anger to them. Krishna offers his obeisance to the sage and tells him to listen to him carefully, he deserves to listen carefully, to have patience, for he is an ascetic. And after listening, if he still wishes, Krishna tells him, he could curse him. But he does not want a poor sage’s little tapas to be wasted – nobody should think that with his small amount of austerities he could curse Krishna. And then to pacify the sage, Krishna praises his ascetic power that he has gained through his long brahmacharya from childhood [Uttanka remains a brahmachari until his old age and then marries his guru’s daughter after converting himself into a sixteen-year-old youth through his ascetic power as desired by his guru. His wife is the daughter of Ahalya and Gautama] and through his long service to his teachers and elders.
Krishna then describes himself in terms that remind us of his cosmic form in the Gita. The three gunas of sattva, rajas and tamas have their basis in him. The Rudras and the Vasus are born of him. All beings have their being in him, and he is in all beings. The Daityas, the Yakshas, the Gandharvas, Rakshasas, Nagas, Apsaras are all born of him. The existent, the non-existent, the manifest, the unmanifest, the perishable, the imperishable, are all he himself… He is Vishnu, he is Brahma, he is Indra, he is creation and dissolution, he is the creator of all beings, he is their destroyer too.
Having established who he is, Krishna continues to reveal his nature and the nature of his actions, answering our questions about why Krishna could not or did not stop the war, answering Uttanka’s accusations about his indifference to the Kauravas and answering Gandhari’s own accusations which he does not answer when they are made, except to counter-accuse Gandhari that she herself is responsible for all the tragedy of the Mahabharata war since she did not stop Duryodhana from evil. In the course of his speech, he answers eternal questions about the nature of the deity and of the role of the deity in the affairs of the world, of the nature of incarnation, and so on.
“Oh best of Brahmins,” says Krishna, “understand Dharma as my first-born son, born of my mind, and his nature as compassion for all beings. Repeatedly transforming myself, for the sake of Dharma, I take birth in numerous wombs… for the sake of protecting Dharma, for the sake of establishing Dharma in all the three worlds, living in those forms and in those appearances.’
Continuing, Krishna says he takes birth again and again, in age after age, whenever Dharma declines, so that he can save and act as a bridge for people living in adharma, in unrighteousness. For the sake of beings in different yonis, he is born in that yoni – as a Deva at times, as a Gandharva at others, as a Naga, Yaksha, Rakshasa, or a human being as required.
Let me quote in the original what Krishna says next since I consider those words of extreme importance to our understanding of the deity and his/her incarnations.
Yadá tvaham devayonau vartámi bhrgunandana
Tadáham devavad sarvam acharámi na samšayah.
Yadá gandharvayonau vá vartámi bhrgunandana
Tadá gandharvavat sarvam acharámi na samšayah.
Nágayonau yadá chaiva tadá vartámi nágavat
Yaksharákshasayonyostu yathávad vicharámyaham.
[Ashwamedha Parva 54.17-19]
“When I [incarnate and] live as a god [Deva], Oh descendant of Bhrigu, then I doubtless do everything exactly as a god does. When I live as a Gandharva, Oh descendant of Bhrigu, then I doubtless do everything exactly as a Gandharva does. When I am born as a Naga, then I behave exactly like a Naga. And when I incarnate as a Yaksha or a Rakshasa, I live my life exactly as a Yaksha or a Rakshasa does.”
Incarnate God accepts the limitations of the form into which he is born.
Interestingly, Krishna also says God incarnates in such yonis too which are often considered evil, including that of Rakshasas. Of course, the original meaning of the word Rakshasa is ‘a protector’, but I do not think that is the reason why Krishna says God incarnates as a Rakshasa too when required. No form is too low for God to incarnate in – for the sake of Dharma, for the sake of his creation, he is willing to incarnate, and does incarnate, as anything, however low we perceive it as, however evil we perceive it as. No birth is beyond redemption, beyond divine grace. No creature is beyond redemption, beyond divine grace.
Krishna also states here that incarnations are not the few we count on our fingers – they are numerous.
Speaking of his present incarnation as a human being, Krishna says that he piteously begged [the Kauravas for a peaceful settlement with the Pandavas] but they, deluded as they were, never listened to his beneficial [hitam] words. Then, attempting to persuade them, he used fear. He terrified them, hoping that would work, and then he showed them the terrible consequences of a war exactly as they were bound to happen. But the Kauravas were possessed by adharma, and already destroyed by Time.
Krishna makes a great revelation here, something he does not do even in the Gita. When God incarnates as a human being, he is both a human being and God at the same time. He becomes at once a human being with God’s powers, and God with a human being’s limitations.
The limitations of a human being are very real.
He could not have stopped the Kauravas by force from destroying themselves – that is not in the nature of the deity when it incarnates.
God incarnated is perhaps more a human being than God, and has very human limitations. While transcending human limitations in his divine aspect, he is bound by them in his human aspect, as a human being.
And it is this human face of God, of God incarnate, of Krishna, conditioned by human limitations that we see in Krishna’s furious anger in the battlefield when he jumps down from his chariot and rushes at Bheeshma, his eyes fuming in wrath, his hands raised murderously, forgetting even to drop the horsewhip in his hand, forgetting his vow at the beginning of the war not to fight.
It is also the same human Krishna we see roaring repeatedly like a lion, hugging Arjuna again and again, patting him on his back, and dancing on the floor of the chariot ecstatically, rapture filling his entire being, making every hair on his body stand on end – in the relief of Karna’s mighty weapon, the Shakti given by Indra, Vaijayanti, that he has been keeping back for Arjuna, that Krishna knew was the sure death of Arjuna once he got a chance to use it against him.
It is this human Krishna who fails to stop the Mahabharata war in spite of all his sincerest efforts, who was forced to take the side of the Pandavas whom he loved, who walked on the path of Dharma, ‘the first-born son of God’.
This encounter between Krishna and Uttanka has a fascinating afterword. The old sage is now fully convinced of what Krishna really is and of Krishna’s innocence in the tragedy of the Mahabharata war. He does not any more think that Krishna is a mithyachara – a hypocrite, nor does he want to curse him. Instead, he wants a blessing from Krishna. He wants to see Krishna’s ‘aišwaram roopam’, his divine form. He begs for that blessing and Krishna reveals to Uttanka the same form that Arjuna had seen at the beginning of the war. Overwhelmed, the sage now praises Krishna in terms similar to Arjuna’s praise of Krishna during his vision of Krishna’s cosmic form. Krishna offers him a boon. Uttanka politely refuses it – he has seen Krishna’s cosmic form, and he needs no other boon, no other blessing. But Krishna insists – when the deity has revealed itself, it is bound to give a boon. The ‘darshana’, vision, of God is ‘amogha’ – it can never go without a blessing.
Uttanka, the old sage living in the deserts, then asks for a simple boon: whenever he needs water, he should get it. “If you must give me a boon,” he says, “let it be that I get water wherever I desire it in this desert where it is difficult to find.” Krishna blesses him with the boon that his wish will be fulfilled if he remembered Krishna whenever he desired water.
Later roaming in the desert, Uttanka is afflicted by thirst. He remembers Krishna and he sees standing before him a Chandala, the lowest of the outcastes, naked, dirty, surrounded by his dogs. There is a spring at his feet, from which water spouted in large quantities. The filth-covered Chandala invites Uttanka to have a drink. He begs the old Brahmin sage again and again, offering him water to quench his thirst – but he refuses it and begins to abuse Krishna, concluding that Krishna has betrayed him. The Chandala disappears and in his place Uttanka finds Krishna, with his conch, his wheel and his mace in his hands.
Krishna tells Uttanka that the Chandala was none other than Indra himself, come to give the sage not water, but amrita, the ambrosia of immortality. Krishna had begged Indra to give Uttanka amrita. Initially Indra had refused, but when Krishna pressed, he had agreed, on condition that he would appear before the old sage in the guise of a Chandala and Uttanka should receive it from him then.
This was an object lesson for the old sage who had questioned why Krishna hadn’t stopped the Mahabharata war and saved the Kauravas from death. Even if the deity is willing, even if God is willing, the human being has to be ready to receive his blessing. It requires understanding, acceptance, humility and surrender on the part of the human being to receive divine blessing. In the absence of that, even God is helpless.
Indra personally had come to give Uttanka amrita, but the sage did not have the understanding, acceptance and humility, the necessary surrender, to receive it, and he wasted the opportunity which comes only with the grace of God.
Exactly as the Kauravas had refused to receive the divine blessings of Krishna. They did not have the understanding and humility, they did not have the required attitude of surrender.
God incarnated as a human being is a human being, with a human beings joys and sorrows, woes and ecstasies, angers, frustrations and furies – all human limitations. And even if he did not have those limitations, unless there is surrender before the divinity, understanding and acceptance, humility, on the part of the human being, God will not be able to bless him.
Walking on the path of Dharma, the first-born, mind-born child of God, too helps.
One last thing. A frequently asked question. Why did Krishna not personally fight in the Mahabharata war if he had come to establish dharma and destroy adharma? If he could personally kill Kamsa, Shishupala, Ekalavya and many others, if he could engage in other wars, why did he then not fight in the Mahabharata war?
In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna tells Arjuna: Nimittamatram bhava savyasachin. Be thou, Oh Savyasachin, a mere instrument [in the hands of the divine]. That is what Krishna wanted. The battle was actually being fought by him. True, he did not take up any weapon in his hand, but each move being made was planned by him, each step was being taken as he had desired it. That is personally fighting the war, even if you do not take up the weapons.
In Rajasthan, we have the story of Barbareek, also known as Khatu Shyamji, told with slight variations in different places. According to local legends, Krishna and Arjuna, dressed as ascetics, were roaming in search of warriors who could fight on their side in the Mahabharata war. It was while they were resting under a peepal tree that they came across a powerfully built young man on a horse. Asked who he was, he told them he was Barbareek, the grandson of Bheema [according to another version, he is the son of Bheema himself and the Naga maiden Ahilavati], and was on his way to join the Mahabharata war, as asked by his mother. They enquire on whose side he would fight and he says on the side of those who lose – that is the instruction he had been given by his mother. Krishna asks him what he can do and he demonstrates his skill with arrows by tying up all the leaves of the peepal tree with a single arrow shot from his bow. The tale also tells us that Krishna hid one fallen peepal leaf under his foot and that the arrow, after piercing all other leaves and threading them together approached Krishna’s foot and hovered above it until Krishna lifted his foot and the arrow succeeded in piercing and collecting it too, after which the arrow went back to Barbareek’s quiver.
Sensing how dangerous Barbareek could be if he joined the Kaurava side, Krishna, as a monk, asks for bhiksha, alms: Barbareek’s head. Barbareek readily gives it, and requests for a return favour. He should be allowed to see the war. His head should be placed on the top of the peepal tree from where he would be able to see the Kurukshetra battle. Krishna does so and Barbareek’s head watches the entire war from atop the tree.
Legend also says that when the battle was over the Pandavas argued among themselves about who was responsible for victory and Krishna suggested that they ask Barbareek – after all, he had seen the entire war from the tree top. Barbareek answers that he saw only two things in the entire war: Krishna’s Sudarshana wheel slaughtering Kaurava warriors and Draupadi drinking up all the blood, having transformed herself into Mahakali.
Maybe, Krishna did fight in the Mahabharata war. Maybe, it was he alone who fought the entire battle.
Note: All translations from the Sanskrit Mahabharata are by the author. The verse and chapter numbers are as they appear in the Gita Press edition of the epic.