Living Gita: 12: What Was in the War for Krishna?

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At the end of the previous article we saw how Krishna wanted to destroy the philosophy that people could be used as a means to your egoistic goals, that people are expendable. The philosophy that considered power as the ultimate goal, power as an end in itself, was anathema to Krishna. He knew that power for the sake of power or power for the privileges it can give you was a danger to the world.

The Mahabharata states clearly that kingship came into being to serve the weak, to protect the weak from exploitation by the strong, to destroy what the epic calls the matsya nyaya or the fish-eat-fish philosophy, the way of life in which big fish eat small fish. To the epic, service to his subjects is the ultimate aim of the king, his raison d’etre. It considers this aim to be so noble that it asks rhetorically: What shall a king do with tapas, or with religious vows or sacrificial rituals? The king who has looked after his subjects well has already achieved the results of all sacrifices and rituals.

kim tasya tapasaa raajnah kim cha tasya adhvarairapi;
supaalitaprajo yah syaat sarva-dharma-videva sah.
[MB Shanti 69.73]

To the Mahabharata, this service to the people is his religion to the king – the highest spirituality, the highest yajna, yaga, homa, the highest everything sacred. There is nothing more sacred than service to the people. If the king has served his people, he has achieved the results of all sacred acts, all sacred rituals, it said.

The Mahabharata does not stop there. It says that for the king his personal likes should seize to be his likes if they are against the good of his people; and even if he does not like to do something, if it is for the good of his people, that is what he should do. The greatest rulers this land has known, like Rama, believed in this and practiced it. Some of his actions we vociferously criticize today were based on this philosophy. He himself did not matter to him, his likes and dislikes did not matter to him, his deepest feelings did not matter to him, his personal pain and agony did not matter to him, if he believed an action would do good to his people he went ahead and did that.

The Mahabharata considered the garbhini, the pregnant woman, as the highest ideal for a ruler and said: Just as a pregnant woman gives up the things that are to her liking and does what is good for the baby in her womb, so too should a king, without a doubt, give up his pleasures and do whatever is for the good of his subjects. He should totally give up his own likes and do whatever is for the good of the world.

yathaa hi garbhinee hitvaa svam priyam manaso’anugam | garbhasya hitam aadhatte tathaa raajnaapy asamshayam || vartitavyam kurushreshtha nityam dharmaanuvartinaa | svam priyam samabhityajya yadyal-lokahitam bhavet || MB Shanti 56.45-46||

Chanakya of course came long, long after the Mahabharata times. But he, the genius behind the founding of the Maurya empire, too considered the job of the king as service to his people. Comparing the king’s job with the most sacred thing known to India in his days, a Vedic yajna, Chanakya says in the Arthashastra: To a king, “readiness to action is his religious vow [vrata]; continuous discharge of duties is his performance of sacrifice [yajna]; equal attention to all is the offer of fees to the priests [dakshina]”.

According to Chanakya: In the happiness of his subjects lies the happiness of the king; in their welfare his welfare; whatever pleases himself he shall not consider as good, but whatever gives happiness to his subjects he shall consider as good.” [prajaasukhe sukham raajnah, prajaanaam cha hite hitam; na aatmapriyam hitam raajnah, prajaanaam tu priyam hitam // Artha 01.19.34//] [Shama Shastry translation]

All his life Krishna fought to bring this philosophy of kingship as service to the people back into the political life of the day, into the leaders of his times. He sided with the Pandavas because he saw in them the possibility of leadership becoming for the service of the people, unlike Duryodhana who was obsessed with power for himself, would do anything to achieve it and wouldn’t let anyone or anything stand in the way of his attaining it. Duryodhana loved himself too much to live for others.

A narcissistic leader does not serve others. He serves only himself, whether he is the head of a family, a corporate house, a political organization or a nation. Personal glory is his aim, not service to others. That is why if you have a narcissistic leader at the head of an organization, the organization is doomed. His first thought is always how something will benefit him, not how it will benefit others. A leader has to put the others first, not himself or herself.

There were several powerful kings in the Mahabharata times who believed in Duryodhana’s philosophy. In those times kings in general had become power greedy – in the words of Sanjaya, they had become “like dogs that snatch meat from one another.” It is them that Krishna fought to destroy throughout his life and the Mahabharata war too was fought for no different purpose, at least not from Krishna’s standpoint.


Though the war was fought to counter this philosophy and to reestablish that leadership is service, to lead is to serve and a leader should live for others, especially for the weak, it did involve a throne. What throne was it? Was it the throne of a small kingdom, or was it the throne of the entire India, then known as Bharatavarsha? Let’s take a quick look at the Mahabharata to find this out.

Chapter IX of the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata is a discussion of what Bharata or Bharatavarsha is. Dhritarashtra calls the land for which his son Duryodhana and the Pandavas are fighting the war Bharatavarsha and asks his minister and companion Sanjaya for a description of it. In response, Sanjaya describes the mountains of this land, the rivers, the people living on this land and so on.

Important among the mountains that Sanjaya names are Mahendra, Malaya, Sahya, Shuktiman, Rakshavan, Vindhya and Paripatra, which are called the seven kula mountains. Besides these he says there are thousands of other mountains that are part of this land.

He then names the rivers of Bharata: Ganga, Sindhu, Saraswati, Godavari, Krishna, Narmada and Yamuna; Dhrishadwati, Vipasha, Vetravati, Iravati, Vitasta, Payoshni, Gomati, Gandaki, Sarayu, Charmanwati Vetravati; Kaveri, Bhima, Oghavati, Asikni, Vidisha, Varuna, Asi and Nila Sanjaya mentions scores of other rivers by name, but this short selection will serve our purpose.

As we can see, even this list contains rivers from every part of India, not just from the Kuru land or Kuru Jangala. The Iravati mentioned here is the river that flows through what was then Brahmadesha, Burma for the British and now Myanmar. Godavari and Krishna flow through today’s Andhra Pradesh, Kaveri through Tamil Nadu and Nila flows through Kerala, a river more widely known by the local name Bharatapuzha. Locate these rivers on a map and you will find that they cover all of modern India and much more.

Sanjaya now describes Bharata as the land where the following people are living: the Kuru Panchalas, Panchalas proper, Madras, Shurasenas, Kalingas, Matsyas, Kashis, Kosalas, Chedis, Karushas, Bhojas, Sindhus, Dasharnas, and the Utkalas; the Keralas, Shakas, Angas, Vangas, Abhiras, Kekayas, Andhras, Pundras; the Kashmiras, Tamraliptas, Malavas, Dravidas, Karnatakas, Cholas..... Sanjaya’s list goes on and on describing scores of other people living on this land called Bharata.

Interestingly he mentions the Mushakas on his list. The Mushakas, or Mushikas, were a dynasty of people who ruled northern Kerala long ago. There is an epic poem in Sanskrit called Mushaka Vamsha Kavya, authored by the poet Atula in the 11th century CE.

The description of the different peoples living in Bharata includes the Kiratas – they are the people of what we today call Tibet, an independent nation until 1954 and occupied by China since then. Just like Tibet, Bahlika mentioned on the list is also no more part of Bharata. It is the place we know today as Balkh, a province of Afghanistan.

So this is the land for which the Mahabharata war was being fought according to Ch. X of the Bhishma Parva of the epic.

All this land had been brought both under the Pandava rule through conquests while they were ruling from Indraprastha, also known as Khandavaprastha. Just before Yudhishthira’s rajasuya, Krishna, accompanied by Bhima and Arjuna, goes to Jarasandha and has the emperor killed, the eighty-six kings imprisoned by him released and Jarasandha’s virtuous son Sahadeva crowned king in his father’s place. Informed of the rajasuya Yudhishthira plans to perform, all these kings give Krishna their joyous assurance of going along with Yudhishthira. They go to Indraprastha along with Krishna, Bhima and Arjuna and pay their respects to Yudhishthira. After they depart, Krishna and the Pandavas have discussions with Yudhishthira and plan the digvijaya, conquest of all kings of the land as required by the rajasuya.

Soon Arjuna proceeds in the northern direction and subjugates all kings in that direction. The epic mentions these kings by name one after another, in the order in which Arjuna conquered them. At the same time, Bhima proceeds in the eastern direction and conquers all the kings there. Sahadeva proceeds in the southern direction and conquers all the kings there, going right up to what is now Rameshwaram, from where he sends messengers to Lanka. The only serious challenge Sahadeva had on his long journey south was from King Nila of Mahishmati, about which we are told the fascinating story of an adulterous affair between Nila’s daughter and the god Agni, their subsequent marriage and Agni’s protection given to the king. On Sahadeva’s way to the extreme south, we are specifically told of his conquest of the Kalingas, the Andhras, and the Dravidas. Later, after receiving tributes from the king of Lanka, Sahadeva returns to Indraprastha.

Nakula proceeds in the western direction and conquers all the kings in that direction. Interestingly, one of the kingdoms that accepted his sway was Krishna’s Dwaraka. Nakula sends messengers to Krishna’s father Vasudeva and Vasudeva with all the Yadavas accepts his overlordship. Next, approaching Madra, he sends messengers to his uncle Shalya and Shalya, of course, happily accepts the sway of the Pandavas – out of affection, adds the Mahabharata. Nakula also conquers the Mleccha kingdoms on the western sea coast such as the Yavanas and Shakas.

The four brothers had thus brought within Yudhishthira’s overlordship all the kings in all the four directions of the land – north, east, south and west, thus making Yudhishthira the emperor of the entire land from the Himalayas to the southern sea. So it was not just the kingdom of Indraprastha that Yudhishthira lost in the dice game, but also lordship over all the kingdoms that the four brothers had conquered on his behalf.

The Mahabharata war was fought for all of India – all of Bharatavarsha, an India much larger than today’s India. It was throughout the length and breadth of this land that Krishna wanted kings to rule people based on the philosophy that kingship is service to the people.

We have a modern name for leadership as service: servant leadership. This style of leadership which was the very heart of Indian leadership philosophy, in which kings considered themselves the dasas, servants, of the people they ruled, was reinvented in the west in modern times by Robert Greenleaf. Greenleaf’s inspirations were Krishna, Jesus and Leo, a character in Journey to the East by Nobel Prize winner Herman Hesse, who himself was inspired deeply by India. Today servant leadership is fast growing as a leadership approach, many leading industrial and business houses across the world following it, including South West Airlines, the world’s largest low-cost carrier. I have taught servant leadership as a leadership approach in one of the leading business schools in the country to several batches of students over many years and have also given lectures to officers from various corporate houses of the country, including the Tatas.

Krishna wanted all kings across India to be servant leaders. It is for this that he fought wars with many arrogant kings of the land, it is for this that he helped Yudhishthira perform the rajasuya sacrifice and become the samrat, and it is for this that Krishna supported the Pandavas against Duryodhana. This is the dharma yuddha, war for dharma, Krishna was talking about, the purpose for which he took incarnation. He wanted kings to serve their people. Service to the people was rajadharma as Krishna understood it.


This description of Bharatavarsha in the Mahabharata is also an answer to those who say that it was the British that for the first time brought India under one rule, that the very concept of India as a nation owes its existence to the British. India as a separate entity has existed for several thousand years before the arrival of the British in India, speaking of which the Vishnu Purana says: The land that lies north of the [southern] sea and south of the Himalayas, that is called Bharata and the people living there are called Bharati[yas].

uttaram yat samudrasya, himaadres chaiva dakshinam; varsham tad bharatam naama, bhaaratee yatra santati.

Of course, the political set up we had in the Mahabharata days was different. We believed in a federal system rather than in centralized administration – a federal system in which each kingdom had its independence but accepted the overlordship of an emperor, called a samrat or a chakravatri, to whom he paid tributes. Later in modern historical times too, such as under Ashoka and under Chadragupa Maurya, we had most of India under a single emperor’s rule, as did Akbar have most of India under his rule centuries before the British became the rulers of India. Under the British too several independent kingdoms existed in India, though they all paid tributes to the British, exactly as independent kings paid tributes to Yudhishthira in his days.

Besides, this condition of ancient India existing as several independent kingdoms is not a unique condition in world history. In fact, that is how most large countries were in ancient days. The historian Sarah Bradford’s celebrated book Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy, for instance, begins by describing how Italy was at that time more a geographical expression than a country. She says:

“At the time of Lucrezia Borgia’s birth in 1480, Italy was famously a geographical expression rather than a country, a peninsula divided into independent states bound by the weakest sense of common nationality. Neapolitans, Milanese and Venetians were Neapolitans, Milanese and Venetians first and foremost: the concept of Italy as a political whole did not exist beyond a vague xenophobia in which non-Italians were perceived as barbarians...

“The principal Italian states in the late fifteenth century were (from north to south) Milan, ruled by the Sforza family; Venice, a merchant empire ruled by an oligarchy of patrician families headed by a doge; Florence, then ruled by the Medici as a hereditary despotism in the person of Piero, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent; the Papal States, the temporal dominion of the Pope whose authority in practice was devolved to ‘papal vicars’, principally the Este of Ferrara, but including smaller city states such as Bologna, Rimini, Pisa, Siena, Camerino, Forlì, Faenza and Pesaro, where families such as the Bentivoglio, the Malatesta, the Petrucci, the Varani, the Riarii and the Manfredi held sway. Mantua was held as a fief of the Holy Roman Empire by the Gonzaga family.”

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