What shall I say about Krishna! He is my strength, my very life breath. It is he who sustains me. I am because of him. But for him I wouldn’t have been. It is he I think of in every crisis and it is he who pulls me out of my troubles every single time.
People say he is God. But to me he is not only God, but if there is anyone greater than God, he is that.
What can I say about him? Without him I would still be wandering with my brothers and our wife in some jungle or the other, living in hiding somewhere with our mother, maybe begging for our food. And yet he bends down and touches my feet every time we meet. I have tried to stop him from doing that but he says I am his elder brother, his aunt’s son who is older than him. But an older brother is the one who gives strength to the younger ones, who guides them, counsels them, mentors them, shows them the way, corrects them when they err; who can be approached for guidance in life’s crises, who will be there always for them, who pulls them out of deep waters when they are sinking. I am none of these to Krishna and he is all these to me and yet he insists on bowing to me and touching my feet.
I remember what happened when I insulted Arjuna and his Gandiva and my beloved little brother wanted to kill me. You see, he had long ago taken a vow that if anyone insulted his Gandiva, he would kill him, whoever it was.
We were in the middle of the war then. I had gone out into the battlefield vowing to kill Karna. Instead he had beaten me miserably, wounded me dreadfully and humiliated me publicly. I was so broken that Nakula and Sahadeva had to carry me back to my tent. I wasn’t sure I would live. In fact, Bhima told Arjuna that I may not survive the wounds Karna had inflicted on me, so bad was my condition.
But it was not the wounds on my body that pained me. It was the humiliation he had dealt me – the wounds on my soul.
I have been humiliated earlier. Once Gurudev Drona had publicly humiliated me when I was young and studying in his gurukula. We were approaching the end of our education under him and he had arranged a test for all of us to assess where we stood in archery. I had failed, miserably failed, and Acharya had, fuming in anger, shouted at me, “apasarpa!” – away, get away you! Drop the bow and get away!
I have heard that shout of Acharya a million times in my heart. Awake I have heard it. Asleep I have heard it. My dreams have been full of that shout. That shout has been my greatest nightmare.
Every time I think of it, my insides fill up with rolling dark thunder clouds. Then the clouds start blowing violently with the power and speed of whirlwinds, carrying me with them, taking me into orbits where I have nothing to hold on to, churning my insides, filling my head with a kind of insanity.
“Away!” that is what Acharya had shouted. “Apasarpa!” Move away! “Naitat shakyam tvaya veddhum lakshyam.” “You just can’t hit this target!” Hitting that target is beyond you!
Acharya’s face was filled with distaste as he shouted those words, as he called me incompetent, an idiot, an imbecile. What is a kshatriya worth who can’t wield the bow and hit his target? Even blind Uncle Dhritarashtra could hit targets unerringly, guided by sound. And I with my two perfectly fine eyes – I can’t do even that. And if Uncle Dhritarashtra was denied the kingdom because of his blindness, then why should I be given the kingdom when I cannot hit a target even with eyes!
Acharya had fixed an artificial eagle on a tall tree in the garden of the gurukula and had one morning taken all of us there. I was the oldest of all the princes and Acharya called me first. I was asked to take aim at the neck of the bird.
As I stood there, my arrow aimed at the neck of the bird, Acharya had asked in his imperious voice, “Yudhishthira, can you see the eagle on the tree?” “Yes, Acharya, I can,” I had answered in a clear voice.
“Can you see the tree?” “Yes, Acharya, I can.”
“And me?” “Yes, Acharya, you too.”
I had looked at Acharya from a corner of my eye then. And had seen his face darkening.
“Can you see your brothers standing here?” I could, and I had said, “Yes, Acharya, I can.”
That is when Acharya had exploded, “Away!” Apasarpa! Move away! Get away!
Get lost you idiot! Drop that bow and get away!
Bursting out in anger. Reducing me to nothing. Humiliating me before my brothers, my cousins and all the other princes who were students in the gurukula.
Bheema was there, listening to those words. Arjuna was there. Nakula and Sahadeva were there. And Duryodhana was there. As were Dushshasana and numerous other disciples of Acharya. In their presence, Acharya had shouted those words at me. Shouted aloud. Screaming in anger. In contempt. Fuming!
The loathing in Acharya’s voice had stung me deep, wounding my very soul.
I knew Acharya had not rejected me for what I had just said. He had rejected me for what I was. For what I had been throughout. A failure. A disappointment. A shame. A shame to Acharya. A shame to the Kurus. A shame to all my ancestors!
Perhaps it would have been better if Acharya had picked up a horsewhip and whipped me with it before everybody!
And there had been other humiliations.
Everything that happened during the game of dice in Hastinapura, particularly what was done to Draupadi in the assembly before the eyes of us five brothers, Dhritarashtra’s sons, the Suta’s son, Pitamaha, Acharya, Uncle Vidura and the assembled kings.
My days of living in the court of Virata serving the king, entertaining him, being slapped by him once so hard that blood started running down from my nose and Draupadi who was present there had to come rushing to me with a plate in her hand so that my blood did not fall on the ground of Virata, which would have reduced the country to ashes.
Draupadi’s working as the Virata queen’s maid Sairandhri, Arjuna working as Brihannala, Draupadi being kicked publicly in the Virata court by Kichaka, Mother living in Hastinapura on the charity of Vidura.
Oh, there has been humiliation after humiliation in my life. Looking back I see that perhaps there had been nothing but humiliations in my life.
All those humiliations rushed into my mind when Karma humiliated me publicly in the battlefield. After beating me mercilessly, he had placed the tip of his bow on my head which had once wore the crown of an emperor, which had been consecrated with water from all the sacred rivers of the land during the rajasuya. That was the same as placing his foot on my head.
That is when I broke down. Broke down completely and collapsed in the warfield so that Nakula and Sahadeva had to carry me to my tent.
It was there, in that tent, that Arjuna and Krishna came to meet me.
And I was sure that they had come after killing the son of Radha. And I poured out all my pain at them, poured out all my relief, thanking them profusely for their great deed of killing such a mighty enemy. I told them that if I was alive at that moment, it was only because of the prowess of Bhima. I told them how for thirteen years I have not been able to get a wink of sleep either in the day or at night for fear of Karna. In my fear of him, awake and asleep I could see him everywhere; the whole universe seemed to be filled with Karna. In my nightmares I fled from Karna, as one flees from death, and wherever I reached, I found Karna waiting for me there. There was no escaping him. He haunted my waking, he haunted my dreams, he haunted my sleep. He is capable of achieving that Bhishma cannot achieve, what Drona cannot achieve, what a whole army together cannot achieve.
Then I asked Arjuna to tell me how he had killed him. Karna could not have been killed even by Indra himself. In battle he is equal to Indra himself. In efficiency he is equal unto Yama. And in mastery over weapons he is no less than Rama himself. How had he killed that Karna, I asked Arjuna. How did he achieve the impossible?
There was silence as I said this. Neither Krishna nor Arjuna spoke for a long time. Their faces looked like a million thoughts were passing through their minds. As though what I had said had sent them into some bottomless world of confusion.
I asked him again, “Tell me, Arjuna, how you killed him. Remember he had taken a vow not to wash his feet so long as you lived? How did you kill that son of Radha? Tell me. I can’t wait to hear it anymore.”
Instead of answering my question, Arjuna proceeded to give me a description of the battles he had fought that day, infuriating me, while Krishna remained silent. Then he went on praising Karna and his weapons, increasing my fury further. It is then he told me that if he is given the support of Satyaki, Dhrishtadyumna, Yudhamanyu and Uttamauja to protect him and his chariot wheels from all around, then he would kill Karna on that very day!
I could no longer hold back my anger. I told Arjuna he was a coward, a good for nothing fellow who had deserted Bhima in the middle of a battle and scared, come running to me. I told him he was a shame to our mother, he had desecrated our mother’s womb by taking birth as her son. I could no more control myself, such was my fury, and insult after insult poured out of my heart that was fuming in anger like the insides of a volcano.
I was beyond myself with anger. I was still smarting under the stinging humiliation Karna had dealt me. Maybe, maybe, now when I look back and think about what I had said at that time I wonder if I was jealous of Arjuna. Arjuna, my little brother, who walked as a child holding on to my finger, carefree, talking ceaselessly as a happy child does about everything he saw, he heard, he felt, he thought. A joyous child, a child who was joy itself. Of all the five of us brothers, Arjuna was the most joyous child – yes, Bhima too was a happy child, but his was a different kind of happiness, happiness that had an edge of violence to it, happiness you felt had something that might explode any moment. His basic quality was strength, power, raw strength and power, almost like thunder inside a cloud. And the twins were always quiet, whispering to each other, busy in their own private world, busy with their own private thoughts. And me, I was always serious. I was always conscious of the great responsibility on my shoulders. No, not just the responsibility of my four younger brothers, but the responsibility of the kingdom, and the responsibility of our mother. I was never spontaneous, never free. While Arjuna was like a little jungle stream that flows freely singing through the forest, singing to the trees and rocks, singing to the birds and beasts on the way.
But at that moment, in the pain of the humiliation Karna had given me, I forget all that. I just wanted to insult Arjuna for not killing Karna. I wanted to hurt him, hurt him badly. I would have insulted Krishna too, wanted to insult him too, but not for not killing Karna but for not making Arjuna kill Karna. I knew Krishna couldn’t have killed Karna because of the vow he had taken not to fight in the war, but he could of course have made Arjuna kill Karna.
But at that moment I was angry with Krishna too, With Krishna my God, for taking that vow not to fight in the war. And what if he had taken the vow? Couldn’t he have broken the vow once and killed Karna? What would happen if he broke his vow? Would the skies come down?
But my angry words were addressed only to Arjuna. And I couldn’t stop myself. After telling him he was a shame to all of us, a shame to his mother, the dark poison inside me kept pouring out of me with the power of an underground spring that has suddenly found a mouth and wouldn’t stop until the pressure of the enormous quantity of dark water eased.
“After you were born, you coward, you deserter,” I told Arjuna, “a bodiless oracle from the skies had spoken on the seventh day and told Mother that in beauty you would rival Soma the moon god, in speed you would rival the wind god, in patience you would be greater than Mt Meru, in forgiveness equal to the Earth, in splendor equal to the sun god; that you would be greater than Kubera in wealth, greater than Indra in courage and in might greater than Vishnu himself. You would be the founder of a race, the voice had said., And now look at what you have become! A coward, a deserter, a good for nothing run away from the battle field, a scared mouse, a wimp, a rotten cur, a despicable worm! That is what you are, Arjuna, just that and nothing more, you scum. Shame on you, Arjuna! And shame on your Gandiva! Dhik te gandivam!”
The words had hardly escaped from my mouth when Arjuna drew his sword and rushed at me, spitting fire from his eyes.
And he would have separated my head from my body the next instant had not Krishna jumped between us and pushed him back and away from me.
Arjuna had enormous strength and in his fury his strength had multiplied a dozen times. None but Krishna could have stopped him. Even he had to use all his might and struggle with him to stop him.
“Put that sword back,” commanded Krishna, but Arjuna wouldn’t listen. “I don’t put my sword back unless it is smeared with the blood of my enemy,” he shouted aloud at Krishna, his eyes on my face, his whole body trembling violently. “I have vowed to kill anyone who insults my Gandiva,” he screamed in anger.
All anger had suddenly left me. I was empty of all fury. It was as though the reservoir inside me had found a massive abyss beneath it and had in one instant drained into it, becoming totally empty. And I was shivering now, shivering like a little leaf caught in a storm, not in anger any more, but in fear! Yes, I was shivering in fear! I was afraid of all that I had said, but more than that, much more than that, I was afraid of death. I was afraid Arjuna would kill me with his sword like some animal, like a wild boar in the jungle, like a street dog.
And I realized I had behaved no better than a wild animal, no better than a barking mad dog.
Krishna stared at me for a long time, then at Arjuna for a long time, and then again at me and then at Arjuna. For a long, long time, until I collapsed back into the bed from which I had gotten up in my fury and Arjuna collapsed onto a sofa in the room.
Of course, I regretted almost instantly all that I had said and Arjuna regretted drawing his sword and what he was about to do with that sword, killing his own brother!
And then Krishna laughed! Laughed like I have never heard anyone else laughing. Hearty, hearty laughter! Mirth filled wild laughter. “Bhrata,” he called me, and then looking at Arjuna, ‘and you idiot, that is what war makes people do. In a war the father is no more father, a brother is no more brother, a guru is no more guru, all are just enemies. War begets hatred, and hatred blinds! That is why I tried so hard to avoid the war. There is nothing I wouldn’t have paid to avoid the war, nothing I wouldn’t have sacrificed; I’d have given even my life if that would have stopped the war. But Duryodhana’s intoxication with his own power gave me no choice.”
Now Krishna himself sat down. The smile that never left his face and his eyes reappeared. And he told us, while we two sat with our heads hanging down, not knowing what to do, ashamed of what we had done, “There is only one solution now. Arjuna has to keep his vow but at the same time he can’t kill you. The wise ancient sages have said that an insult to an elder who should never be insulted is as good as death to him. Arjuna should now insult Bhrata Yudhishthira. There is no other solution.”
Krishna was enjoying himself now. He couldn’t stop laughing.
So that is what Arjuna did.
But I never thought Arjuna could insult me the way he did on that day! What terrible things he said! But I did not mind. I deserved it all.
Krishna had once again saved us.
shrIvatsA~NkaM kaustubhodbhAsitA~Ngam |
viShNuM vande sarvalokaikanAtham ||
Dark as the rain cloud, clothed in shining yellow silk, proudly carrying with the footmark of Sage Bhrigu on his heart, his chest shining with the kaustubha jewel, his large eyes like two lotus flowers, he who can be approached through great merit alone, that Vishnu, the one lord of all the worlds, before him I bow down.