Book Reviews

Heroic Krishna

Krishna as Bronze Age Epic Hero and Word-Wizard [i]

Indologists intrigued by Krishna usually begin with Walter Ruben’s 1941 study, ignorant of the keen insights Bankimchandra Chatterjee provided long back in Krishnacharitra (1892), the first analytical enquiry seeking to sift reality from myth (available in my English translation since 1991 from M.P. Birla Foundation). Harvard professor Kevin McGrath has not availed of that research in his fourth book on the Mahabharata which views Krishna through the lens of friendship and how Rudra is connected to the recurring image of “two Krishnas on one chariot”, a phrase that has been elaborately investigated by Alf Hiltebeitel.[ii] It occurs 81 times, of which 85% is in the war books —mostly in the Drona and Karna parvas — the rest being linked to scenes of combat. For Krishna, the primary human relationship is with Arjuna, not with family or kin and this is reciprocated. Once Krishna dies, Arjuna too becomes powerless. Further, the pristine Vedic gods Rudra, Shakra, Vaishravana, Yama, Varuna, Pavaka and Hrishikesha underlie this sakhitva. That term, McGrath points out, is also used for the Karna-Duryodhana relationship — a fact seldom realised.

There are other instances of this word being used more than once. Sharmishtha, the Asura princess enslaved by her playmate Devayani uses this one-sidedly to justify taking her sakhi’s husband as hers and declares this to be the established tradition. Drona infuriates his childhood playmate Drupada by introducing himself as his “sakha” — again a sentiment not reciprocated. Again, the intimate relationship between charioteer and chariot-rider is first seen when Devavrata turns to his father Shantanu’s charioteer to find out why the king is malingering. Even the minister does not know the secret. McGrath needed to study these vis-à-vis the Arjuna-Krishna model. He notes that the Vedic pair Mitra-Varuna is an apt parallel, for the former wields a discus while the latter supplies Arjuna the Gandiva bow. Their closest comparison, of course, is the Puranic duo of Nara-Narayana who feature first in the Adi Parva decimating the asuras in the battle over amrita.

Krishna is never shown concerned over his kith and kin. Beginning by killing his maternal uncle, he then beheads his cognate cousin Shishupala. He fixes it so that Duryodhana chooses his army, feeling no compunction in its destruction in the war. Finally, he destroys his own clan, demonstrating an “extraordinary facility for streamlined and fatal violence.” It is the Kaunteyas—sons of his abandoned aunt—who are his chief concern. Repeatedly he consoles and guides them.

In Krishna, McGrath visualises the prototype of the Bronze Age Indo-Aryan charioteer. Other charioteers are scarcely mentioned, except Bhima’s conversation with Vishoka and Karna’s with Shalya (who is surely atypical). In his earlier book, McGrath focused on the unusual charioteer Sanjaya Gavalgani who never drives Dhritarashtra’s chariot but is the narrator of the war books. Here he focuses on Krishna-as-warrior (a role developed in the oral stage of the narrative), not as the supernatural avatar (a product of the literate period, he argues). Speech, McGrath shows, plays a major role in accomplishing Krishna’s goals.

According to McGrath, friendship being a purely human emotion, humans cannot be friends with deities. However, at the core of the Bhagwan-bhakta relationship is the bond of sakhitva, as seen between Indra and Uparichara Vasu, Krishna and Sudama. It also begs the question regarding the same bond between Draupadi, supernaturally born, and Krishna.

The first eleven books of the epic depict a warrior-dominated world where adharma prevails, whose concomitant emotion for the audience is grief. What follows (except the Mausala and Ashvamedhika parvas) is didactic, Brahminical, concerned with dharma, evoking tranquillity that resolves the preceding anguish. McGrath also makes the telling point that in the list of contents, parvasangraha, books one to eleven (the Kshatriya narratives) are cited as belonging to the Bharata, not Mahabharata. Thereafter, as the didactic Brahminical books take over, there is no reference to Bharata.

The contrast between Yudhishthira and Krishna is well brought out: the one obsessed with the dharma of withdrawal from action, yet going into battle; the other a non-combatant strategising victory through devious means, yet expounding dharma (the Bhishma and Ashvamedhika parvas) and revealed as a devotee of Rudra in the Anushasana parva. The major strategist in the war is Krishna. Rudra features in its closure through the holocaust of the Panchalas and Draupadeyas, besides being worshipped by Krishna.

If Krishna does not experience human sorrow, as McGrath claims, what of his anguished confession to Narada regarding the misery he suffers at the hands of family and kin which Bankimchandra, with remarkable insight, had seized upon to portray the human Krishna and which McGrath himself quotes on page 141? He exclaims that in Dvaraka he is friendless. Sakhitva, therefore, is a core need for Krishna and he finds it not with his kin but with Arjuna and Draupadi. Further, as Indrajit Bandopadhyay has pointed out [iii] in the Shalya parva when Krishna meets Dhritarashtra, we find him weeping — the only instance in the epic. Holding the blind monarch’s hand, “he burst into tears/ loud and long” (63.38).

No other pair in the epic is depicted in situations that are relaxed, even indulgent. There are at least three such memorable instances: before the Khandava conflagration; in their private apartments in the Udyoga Parva; and prior to the Anugita. One could argue that the role-reversal depicted in the Virata Parva where Brihannala (coaching Uttara in music and dance) acts as charioteer and morale-booster to Prince Uttar is another instance, but sakhitva is absent between them.

It is interesting to see the change in the Ashvamedha Parva where Krishna returns to the Pandavas, having left them after the war. Who drives Arjuna’s chariot in the expeditions? Is the supreme strategist and speaker par excellence no longer required? Attacked in Sindhu and Trigarta, the Gandiva twice slips from Arjuna’s hand. It is not Krishna but seers who restore his morale. Sakha-less, Arjuna is killed and resurrected not by his sakha, but by his wife Ulupi! As McGrath says, “All this is a dissimilar kind of narrative from what the audience has been listening to”. This disconnect in the narrative ethos could well have led to Jaimini’s version of this parva, full of Krishna-wrought miracles, being preferred in the regional versions of the Mahabharata. But has the earlier intimacy with Arjuna vanished, as McGrath claims? Section 87 contains a double-entendre in Krishna’s use of the word pindaka to explain Arjuna’s inveterate wandering, much to the amusement of Bhima and Yudhishthira laugh, while Draupadi is annoyed.

There is an excellent discussion of the pre-literate elements, the narrative syntax that reveals bricolage in the case of Vaishampayana, while in Sanjaya’s case bricolage is evident in the lexicon and phraseology. Where the former’s displays “greater narrative heterogeneity”, the latter’s has “greater metaphorical range”.

There is an error in note 6 on page 20: Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice is performed not at Kurukshetra but in Takshashila (vide the Svargarohana parva). Again, the epic does not bear out McGrath’s assertion that only the first marriage is attended with great show of wealth, while taking a co-wife is bereft of this. In Pandu’s case it is the opposite. There is but a cryptic reference to Kunti choosing him in the svayamvara, while Madri is brought by paying heavy bride-price. Again, when Subhadra marries, the Yadavas shower riches plentifully.

McGrath overlooks the role of Krishna as a mahout goading the faltering elephant. The Gita recital produced only a temporary effect. On the third and ninth days Krishna in frustration jumps off the chariot to kill the patriarch Bhishma. In the succeeding parvas, too, on a number of occasions Krishna and even Bhima berate Arjuna for faltering.

An excellent insight offered in the research is that in Jara being Krishna’s slayer the “ring composition for this hero” is established, Krishna’s first strategic victory having been the killing of Jara-sandha (joined by Jara). There is, however, an additional dimension: Jara was Vasudeva’s son from a Shudra wife who became a lord of Nishadas (Harivansha, Vishnu Parva, 103). As Krishna killed his agnate cousin Ekalavya (also a Nishada lord), so was he slain, in turn, by his step-brother Jara. The Nishada blood of Satyavati ran in the Dhartarashtras through Vyasa. Is it the Nishadas’ revenge on the architect of the Kurukshetra holocaust?

What is of great interest is the abrupt withdrawal of Krishna after the horse-sacrifice. He suddenly becomes distant and will not even approach Emperor Yudhishthira for permission to leave, but has Arjuna do it for him. He even takes Subhadra away to Dvaraka, leaving Arjuna alone with his brothers and Draupadi. Has Krishna, then, served his purpose?

There is a curious prevarication in Krishna’s account of the war to his father regarding Abhimanyu’s death, omitting Yadava Kritavarma’s role, and the unfair means by which the Duryodhana and his generals were slain. This McGrath has not studied.It is not possible in this short compass to survey McGrath’s extremely perceptive analysis of Krishna’s strategies and his superb use of speech (lethal, persuasive, honeyed—even making a field of carnage poetically beautiful) to mould characters and events to his desired ends. The climactic example of this power of the word is his resurrection of still-born Parikshit.

McGrath establishes that Krishna is a unique figure in Indo-European epic poetry: princely charioteer, master-strategist, wizard with words, ambassador, inspired seer, intimate friend, moving effortlessly between these varied roles. It is this remarkable picture that led to the development of a Krishna cycle in the Puranas, expanding on these roles, leaving aside that of the master charioteer which remains unique to the Mahabharata.


[i] Kevin McGrath: Heroic Krishna — friendship in epic Mahabharata, Harvard University Press, 2013, pp.165, Rs.1296 (paperback)
[ii] Alf Hiltebeitel, “The Two Krsnas on One Chariot: Upanishadic Imagery and Epic Mythology”, History of Religions 24: 1-26, 1984.
[iii] Personal communication


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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