Krishna, you first came into my life perhaps seven decades ago when I was just a tiny tot, lying in my mother’s lap waiting for the periodical feeding, accompanied by her lilting stories of your childhood. And as I grew up my fascination for you and your blissful childhood also grew to such an extent that I always pestered my mother to tell me more stories of you. Well, the stories never varied in their content or in the way of narration, or even in the vocabulary used, but for a child who loved you for your pranks, envied you for the attention you received from others and was over- awed by your superhuman prowess, as in your Kaliayamardanam feat or the celebrated slaying of Poothana, there was no boredom or no satiation at all. Like every child in every household who grew up on a daily dose of Krishna lore, I too wanted more and more of it. Any time. Anywhere.
And by the time I was old enough to go to school, I thought I knew much about you. Vrindavan, Gokula, Mathura and Dwaraka were more familiar to me than the neighbourhood where I lived. Vasudevan and Devaki, Nandagopan and Yashoda were all dearer to me than my own uncles and aunts. And how well your foster parents looked after you! The high drama of your birth in a prison cell, the perilous journey your father undertook to take you to safety, the switching of Devi in infant’s form in your place and the thunderous ‘asariri’ forewarning given to ‘durachara nrissamsa’ Kamsa were all inseparable part of my young, magical world frequented by gods and goddesses, demons and demonesses.
The repeated story telling ensured that each episode in your life was permanently embedded in my mind. Your playfulness was contagious for most of us children and your craving for butter more so. Even as a child I knew from mother’s narrations how butter was made, by churning buttermilk with a dasher. It was fun to get fresh butter from the churning pot, though I never copied your act of stealing butter from its storage pot suspended high above.
As I grew up to be a teenager, my interest in you also underwent a lot of change. Instead of the playful Kannan of my infancy, what I liked then was the youthful, gallant Krishna, darkly handsome and naturally surrounded by a bevy of beautiful Gopikas. And what a pose you struck in the umpteen pictures that I saw, standing cross-legged in tribhanga posture, your head slightly tilted towards a side, lips and fingers on the flute, left foot firm on the ground and the right bent at the knee, the right toes lightly touching the ground. Your trademark peacock feather was of course on your crown.
No wonder your fascinating demeanour and the captivating notes from your flute attracted the Gopikas to you. And what a combination we had in Krishna and Radha, the ultimate, eternal love pair! I always loved to see pictures of you with Radha, but I never knew then that you had met Radha only as a child and that pictures and songs of a love- lorn Radha and Krishna were mere figments of imagination of latter day Bhakthi movement practitioners.
By middle age my perceptions further underwent a transformation, making me take more interest in what worldly wisdom you conveyed to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshethra and how you made that supreme archer to abandon his initial hesitation and plunge headlong into battle. For me you were the ultimate dispenser of justice, the true incarnation of the omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Almighty.
But when wrinkles and grey hair caught up with me and I was gradually ushered into the autumn of my life, I should confess that for the first time I was a little confused as to the true nature of my god. Was my understanding of you, Krishna, all these decades, from childhood to old age, flawed in anyway? Did you come down a little in my estimation and were you, for me, a god that failed?
Perhaps like many old-time believers I too wanted my god to be all powerful and all merciful, a god who never had any human failings, a god who never betrayed. But what do we have in you, Krishna? Don’t we find in you human failings in their scores, a god who, at least in a few instances, betrayed the trust, a god who chose foul means, for whatever reasons, to deceitfully win a war governed by fair means?
How good it would have been if Arjuna’s initial hesitation was steered by you to its logical conclusion of renunciation, avoiding a gruesome carnage that absolutely had no parallel at all the entire history of the world, in any age. But you wished otherwise and reasoned otherwise. Dharmasamsthapanarthaya Sambhavami Yuge Yuge. Perhaps more than anyone else on the Pandava side, it was you who wanted to go ahead with the war, but at that time were you unaware of its horribly dreadful consequences? Wise counsel from you on the side of peace, not war, would definitely have prevented the holocaust.
The war you prompted the Pandavas to wage turned out to be what we call a Pyrrhic victory for them. See how Yudhishtira squirmed in front of Gandhari in their first meeting after the conclusion of the war. ‘Here is Yudhishthira, O Devi, the cruel slayer of your sons! I deserve your curses, for I am the cause of this universal destruction. Oh, curse me! I have no longer any need for life, for kingdom, for wealth! Having caused such friends to be slain, I have proved myself to be a great fool and a hater of friends.’
In the final analysis the Pandavas won the war, with your help, but did they ever enjoy peace of mind thereafter? It was only a matter of time before they renounced everything in this world and went as mendicants hoping against hope for their final salvation. Had they gone in for such a renunciation at the beginning of the war, perhaps they would have been blessed with that salvation much earlier.
The wise counsel you gave Arjuna did encompass the entire spectrum of Hindu spirituality and offered a great path for the people for a dharma- based life. But wouldn’t it have been better if this had been delivered in any other context and in any other ambience, than at Kurukshetra, which soon afterwards was transformed into the worst killing fields in the whole wide world?
Number 18 seems to have a great bearing on your discourse to Arjuna. Your discourse consisted of 18 sections--Karma yoga, Dhyana yoga, Gnana yoga etc—at the end of which Arjuna, rejuvenated mentally, shirked off his doubts and hesitations and rose to plunge headlong into the battle. Though a little while ago he was unwilling to strike at the array of his gurus and uncles and cousins, he was now more than ready not only to strike but to kill, and kill without mercy.
The immediate outcome of your discourse, thus, was a killing spree in which 18 Akshauhinis of army formations were annihilated in just 18 days, turning the vast, desolate warfield into mountains of human and animal carcasses, ‘devoured by jackals and cranes, ravens, ospreys and vultures.’
What was the casualty of the war, in human terms? The Mahabharata gives intricate details of army formations, the basic unit of which was Patti, consisting of one elephant , one chariot, three horses and five foot soldiers. Three Pattis formed a Sena-Mukha, three Sena-Mukhas made a Gulma, three Gulmas a Gana, three Ganas a Vahini, three Vahinis a Pruthana, three Pruthanas a Chamu, three Chamus an Anikini and ten Anikinis formed an Akshauhini.
Thus an Akshauhini, by calculation, consists of 21,870 elephants, 21,870 chariots, 65,610 horses, and 109,350 foot soldiers. Incidentally the digits of each of them would add up to 18.
The Kaurava army consisted of 11 Akshauhinis and the Pandava seven. The total force engaged in the war thus consisted of 47,23,920 men, 11,80,980 horses,3,93,660 elephants and 3,93,660 chariots. Of this vast multitude, all except 12 men perished in the war. The twelve survivors were the five Pandavas, Krishna, Kripacharya, Aswathama,Yuyutzu, Kritavarma, Satyaki and Vrishakethu.
There was no justification for the argument that the fight was between the forces of good and evil. Of the seven Akshauhinis fighting on the Pandava side, representing good, only six people survived, the five Pandavas and Krishna. All else perished.
Though described as a righteous war, righteousness and propriety were thrown to the winds, including by you, Krishna, when rivals made desperate bids to win the war deviously. The deliberate ploy employed by you to create the impression that dusk had set in, so as to throw the Kauravas off guard and kill the heavily guarded Jayadratha, the way you jumped into the thick of the war taking up the severed wheel of a chariot in a bid to kill an unarmed Bheeshma, the signal you gave to Bheema to strike at the fatally vulnerable point in the body of Duryodhana and the way you caused a false story to spread about killing Aswathama so as to disarm and kill Guru Drona were all occasions in the Kurukshethra war when you chose to dispense with your avowed neutrality and indulge in partisan participation in the war. The worst instance of your intervention in the war was the way you scooped out the protective gem from the forehead of Aswathama, at the behest of Draupadi, and the curse of unmatched ferocity that you cast on him for everlasting damnation. All the killers and those killed in the Kurukshethra war had attained salvation. The only victim of the war still believed to be roaming the earth with festering, unhealing wounds and unable to face the society is Aswathama, the hapless son the greatest Guru of all time. Did he really deserve such an unimaginably horrendous punishment?
Why, My Krishna? Why all these? In the twilight years of my life I am at a loss to understand.