Yatra yogeśvaraḥ kṛṣṇo yatra pārtho dhanur-dharaḥ …:
Krishna, Arjuna, the Battlefield & The Need for a Kshatriya Mindset
“Yatra yogeśvaraḥ kṛṣṇo yatra pārtho dhanur-dharaḥ
tatra śrīr vijayo bhūtir dhruvā nītir matir mama”
(Wherever there is Bhagavan Krishna, the Lord of Yoga, and wherever there is Arjuna, the wielder of the Gandiva bow, goodness, victory, glory and unfailing righteousness will surely be there: such is my conviction.)
(Bhagavad Gita (“BG”) 18:78)
I am so happy to be here today in Vraj Bhoomi, in this beautiful temple and retreat area, under the auspicious gaze of Shrinath-ji. Shrinath-ji is a crystallization of a particular form of Sri Krishna, who is also my ishta devata or personal deity of worship. In this form, Sri Krishna is a 9-year old boy. I have not yet been to the famous Shrinath-ji temple (Nathadwara) in Rajasthan, but I feel a special bond with Him.
A little over 10 years ago, I was at the lowest point in my life. I had been through some traumatic events in my personal life and was struggling with a sense of existential despair. So, I did what many of us do when we are in angst or heartache—I went on a shopping spree. I happened to be in Delhi for the summer. I found myself at a jewelry store, looking at rings and bracelets, and on a whim, I asked if they had a locket of Sri Krishna that I could wear around my neck. They had only one—a locket of Shrinath-ji, whose image I had never seen before. I found the locket exquisitely beautiful and bought it right away. Since that day, I have always worn this locket around my neck, and in this form, Shrinath-ji has been close to my heart, literally, for over 10 years. On the rare occasions I have to remove the locket out of necessity, I cannot tell you how bereft I feel, how empty, much more naked than if I wore no clothes. What I found in a jewelry shop has become one of my most important and special spiritual talismans—I feel now, looking back, that Shrinath-ji came to me in this form as a blessing and I marvel that He came to me in this way at a jewelry shop of all places.
Starting from around that time, a number of positive opportunities began opening up for me and from that place of existential despair, I found my way towards the path of sadhana (spiritual practice). The old depression and angst eventually fell away.
Several years later, I had gone to Vrndavana on pilgrimage and undertook the Govardhan parikrama. The Govardhan parikrama is a circumambulation of the famous Govardhan mountain (which over time has become gradually reduced to the size of a large hill), which Sri Krishna lifted on top of His pinky finger as a young boy. The parikrama which is slightly over 13 miles long, takes approximately 7 hours or so, and many devotees undertake this parikrama. Some great devotees and sadhus perform this parikrama on a daily basis. The entire area is divine, and there are many sacred leelas (transcendental pastimes) associated with various spots along the way. One of the highlights of the Govardhan parikrama is visiting the site of the original Shrinath-ji temple.
I do not know how many of you know the history of the Shrinath-ji vigraha. He originally revealed Himself in Govardhan, close to Vrndavana, and He was first worshipped there for a number of years. With the Muslim invasion of India and their genocidal and violent rampages against Hindu temples and devotees, many of the worshipped deities in Vrndavana were smuggled to Agra and other places and reinstalled in safer environs. Shrinath-ji was taken away in a similar fashion and was later installed in Rajasthan where He is worshipped today.
When I reached the site of His original shrine in Govardhan, I began weeping. I cried like this for almost 20 minutes. Part of it was, I think, exhaustion and fatigue from the heat and the long day. More than that, it broke my heart to see this empty shrine in which Shrinath-ji had resided. I felt great sorrow that Shrinath-ji had to be removed from His own home. I felt ashamed of our people, that we allowed back then and still today allow our temples and deities to be destroyed, our people persecuted and killed, without putting up a stronger fight.
However, I was also overcome by gratitude. Even in His absence, I could feel the presence of Shrinath-ji there and I thought of His compassion and love and how He had come to me in that little jewelry shop so many years ago. I was overcome by the truth of the principle that if you take one tiny step, not even a step, if you so much as even lean towards Iswara, Iswara comes rushing towards you.
So, when I think about Shrinath-ji, I think of all of these things—the sublime and also things very much of this world. I think that is fitting, because that is how I also think about Sri Krishna—His life and teachings are transcendental and sublime, but at the time, so much of what He did, so much of what He taught us, is about how to handle oneself in this world, how to successfully navigate earthly affairs, how to be in this world without being of the world, like the lotus that is untouched by the mud in which it lives. And today, what I would like to talk about, is one aspect of Sri Krishna that I think weaves together all of these threads—the sublime and the earthly—His relationship with Arjuna and their interaction on the battlefield just before the Mahabharata war began.
Let us begin with Sri Krishna. Sri Krishna is recognized as one of our most joyous forms of the Divine. He is full of mischief and humor, His flute music enchants all souls, His dance is mesmerizing, He brings joy and sweetness to all those who cross His path—His cowherd friends, the gopis, the cows and deer of Vrndavana, Kubja on the road to Mathura, His many, many wives, His friends like Sudama and Uddhava, the Pandavas—the list goes on.
But when you think about Sri Krishna’s life, it is full of difficult moments that for most ordinary people would have led to a life full of suffering and disappointment.
He was born in a dungeon, His parents, Vasudeva and Devaki, tied in chains. He was then smuggled into Gokul, handed over to the care of His foster parents, Nanda Maharaj and Yashoda. As a baby and a child, He is hounded by demon after demon. His uncle, Kamsa, was unrelenting in his hunt to find and kill Him. Eventually, Sri Krishna and His associates are driven out of Gokul and move to safer grounds in Nadagaon / Vrndavana. His brief idyllic boyhood in Vraj is interrupted when Akrura comes to take Him to finally fight Kamsa. When Sri Krishna leaves Vrndavana, He is torn away from the only parents He has ever known, from the cows He so lovingly tended all these years, from His dearest friends, from His beloved gopis, and from Radharani, His consort.
After He kills Kamsa, He reinstalls his grandfather, King Ugrasena, on the throne of Mathura. To avenge Kamsa’s death, the powerful king Jarasandha, Kamsa's father-in-law, begins repeatedly attacking Mathura. Sri Krishna and his elder brother Balarama defeat Jarasandha in battle eighteen times but he keeps coming back. After the eighteenth battle, Sri Krishna decides to retreat and convinces King Ugrasena to move his kingdom from Mathura to Dwaraka in order to escape the wrath of Jarasandha. The king, his ministers, and even Sri Krishna’s father vehemently oppose this decision. Vasudeva, Sri Krishna’s father, warns Sri Krishna that He will earn infamy for this act, that He will forever after be known as ‘Ranchod,’ or he who runs away from the battlefield. Sri Krishna accepts the consequences of this without a second thought.
Then, it is time for Sri Krishna to be married. He claims His bride, Rukmini, in the rakshasa form of marriage, and therefore has to wage war against her brother and other family members in order to spirit her away.
No sooner is the new kingdom in Dwaraka established than Sri Krishna’s attentions are turned to protecting the Pandavas, the five sons of Pandu—Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva and their wife, Draupadi—and restoring them to their rightful kingdom. He has to play ambassador and diplomat, pleading with Duryodhana, their cousin and enemy, for the smallest parcel of land on which the Pandavas may live. When even that request is denied by Duryodhana, Sri Krishna has no choice but to instigate the most famous, most destructive, most renowned war in our history. In this war, Sri Krishna is not a commander—He is a mere charioteer on one side while His armies fight on the other side. He masterminds the war, whispering into the ears of the warriors. Sri Krishna compels the Pandavas, over and over again, to break the rules of war, for that is the only way they can win. (This is not out of partiality towards the Pandavas but rather because the Kauravas, having first and repeatedly departed from the rules of dharma, could no longer expect dharmic rules to be extended to them during the war). At the end of the war, Duryodhana is finally defeated in a mace-fight with Bhima when of Bhima, at Sri Krishna’s bidding, strikes him on the thigh, which broke the rules of mace-fighting. Duryodhana then cries out that the Pandavas only won because of cheating and trickery, that their names will always be blackened by these acts. Sri Krishna acknowledges the truth of Duryodhana’s accusation. After the war is finally over, there is no glory of victory awaiting Sri Krishna. Instead, He is cursed by Gandhari for all of the lives he has taken, all the widows He has made, all the mothers He has deprived of children.
The other princes and kings of the realm do not ever fully accept Him in their midst. He is jeered at and taunted, most famously by His cousin, Shishupala, the would-be suitor of Sri Krishna’s bride, Rukmini. At a great assembly, Shishupala insults Sri Krishna, mocking Him as a cowherd who is not worthy of being king. Finally, after having endured 99 of such insults from Shishupala to honor a promise He made to Shishupala’s mother, Sri Krishna slays him by cutting off his head with the Sudarshana Chakra (the Divine Discus).
After all this, after His life’s work is done, Sri Krishna has to watch silently as His family and clan, the Yadavas, destroy themselves. At the very end, Sri Krishna has to face an ignominious death. He sits at the base of a tree, and is shot in the foot by a hunter who mistook His feet for a deer. This is how He, one of the greatest avataras of Iswara in our tradition, departs from this world.
When we look at the bare facts of Sri Krishna’s life, we think, what a life of hardship, of incessant sacrifice that is never rewarded, of separation, sorrow and suffering. We think this is not a life worthy of a hero, let alone a god, the most beloved god of many Hindus. Where is the glory of His deeds? He spends much of His life running away, first from Kamsa, then from Jarasandha. The war for which He is remembered, He is remembered for breaking the dictates of war. He is constantly separated from His family, His friends, His loved ones, His consort. Rama faced pain, too, but He had to his credit Rama Rajya—a reign of unsurpassed nobility, righteousness, peace and harmony; Sri Krishna, on the other hand, presided over the end of one era and the dawning of a darker era; He wrought and presided over the most destructive war this world has ever seen, a war that led to the demise of the greatest heroes of that time, a war that resulted in a hollow victory that brought no joy to its survivors.
Still, it is Sri Krishna who is considered the purna-avatara, the complete avatara, amongst the bhakti movements of India. Even Rama did not reach this status—which does not mean He is inferior to Krishna. It is just that they had different purposes and roles to play as exemplars or models for mankind. Dharma has to be constantly rejuvenated for each of the ages, and that is the concept of the birth of avataras in Sanatana Dharma theology and philosophy. What is it that makes Sri Krishna purna-avatara? There is a list of 16 kalas or 24 attributes, according to various devotional traditions, that make Sri Krishna a purna-avatara. But, in my mind, I have perhaps a more simplistic answer. An avatara may be more or less omniscient and omnipotent—many gods are conceived of with these attributes. But what makes Sri Krishna special, unique from all other avataras, from all other gods of whatever religion, is that Sri Krishna is ever conscious of his Divine Nature and has no attachments. Most gods are attached to being good or doing good, but Sri Krishna has not even that attachment to morality or to our conventional understanding of goodness. He is ready to do whatever it is that needs to be done in the moment for the overall harmony of the cosmos, for the wellbeing of all sentient beings, for the greatest good for the greatest number.
Osho (Bhagwan Rajneesh) says in his book on Sri Krishna that what makes Him unique is that Sri Krishna had the courage to be as ruthless as Genghis Khan or Hitler. The difference is that whatever Sri Krishna did was for the wellbeing of the world—there was no personal gain for Him. He is not a jealous god or one that demands to be worshipped. He was fully surrendered to that Dharma which is higher than the invariant Dharma of rules and regulations, the code of honor to which even Rama was attached, for which Rama gave up everything else. That lower form of Dharma Sri Krishna was willing to and did break again and again for the sake of the higher form of Dharma. He would happily be called Ranchod if it would bring peace and prosperity to the people of Mathura. He would happily slay Bhishma and Karna and cheat to win the war if that was the only way to restore the balance of the universe.
It is because Sri Krishna has no attachments, no preferences to be in a particular place or position or to be in a particular form, that He can do what needs to be done in the moment. This is the highest form of no-mindedness in Buddhism.
This is what makes every moment of Krishna’s life a transcendental leela (sacred play/pastime), no matter how seemingly mundane or inglorious. I used to do a yoga video where the instructor, Bryan Kest, would say that in yoga, it doesn’t matter what you do but how you do what you do. Similarly, it is not what Sri Krishna did, it is how He did what He did that makes Him so remarkable. It is Krishna’s vision, His no-mindedness, His non-identification with any attributes or qualities we may wish to ascribe to Him, that make him unique among all the divinities, that make each moment of His life sacred and sublime.
He has no preferences of His own. This is what makes Him perfect in everything. If He needs to be a charioteer or a cowherd, He does not mind. If He needs to be king, He will do that, too. Whatever He does, He is the best at it. He excels at and is supreme at each role that He plays, and He can play an infinite number of roles because He has no limitations. This is why He can bring unlimited bliss (ananda) to all others, because there is nothing He wants for Himself, because there is no notion of self to which He is attached. And so, when He is with Yashoda Mata, He is the sweetest of babies. When He is with His cowherd friends, he is the most mischievous and fun-loving boy to be around. When He is with the gopis in their romantic mood, He is the most passionate of lovers. When He is with his guru, He is the perfect brahmacari. He never says no to anyone or anything; even when Duryodhana approaches Him before the war, He consents to let His armies fight for Duryodhana, His enemy. This is what it means to be Sri Krishna.
He will do whatever needs to be done in that moment, and if in the next moment, the opposite is to be done, He will do that, too. Yet there is nothing capricious, arbitrary or self-indulgent about this; there is always a higher purpose, a method to the seeming madness. When it is time to run away from the battlefield, He will run without shame. When it is time to fight, He will fight fiercely and valiantly. When the gopis run to Him, surrendering themselves to Him, He will dance with them and unite with them in love. When He is called to Mathura, to fight His uncle, He will leave them behind without a backward glance.
If you are ever asked what makes Hinduism different from other religions, one answer is that no other religion in the world could give birth to Sri Krishna. It is the high philosophy of the Upanishads and the Vedas, the ethical framework of situational dharma conceived of by our rishis, that make Sri Krishna possible. It is only the rich, intricate tapestry of our Itihaasas and Puranas that could weave together His life story. It is the passionate bhava of our bhakti traditions that brings Him alive for us, through song, literature, art, through the deepest of meditations and pujas. It is only in Hinduism that Sri Krishna can exist.
Now, we turn to Arjuna. Arjuna was certainly a valorous hero of the Mahabharata. He was the son of Indra, the highest among the devas. He was an unparalleled archer and warrior. But he was also very human. He was proud, impetuous, and did not possess the steadfast, thoughtful wisdom of his elder brother, Yudhishthira. He was not an uttama adhikari (one who has the highest qualification for spiritual evolution). There is a famous story that shows Arjuna’s ignorance and pride even after the Gita had been revealed to him.
At the end of one of the days of fighting in the Mahabharata war, Sri Krishna takes the chariot to a remote place and suddenly tells Arjuna to take his Gandiva bow and dismount first. Being the charioteer, it was Sri Krishna who had always dismounted first. Puzzled, Arjuna obeys. Sri Krishna releases the horses and dismounts. The banner of Hanuman disappears, too, and in just a few moments, the entire chariot erupts into flames and burns to ashes. Sri Krishna explains, “Arjuna, this chariot has been attacked by so many different kinds of weapons. It is because I had sat upon it during battle that it did not fall into pieces. Now it has been reduced to ashes upon My abandoning it after your success has been ensured.” Hearing the words of Sri Krishna, Arjuna was humbled by how much he owed to Sri Krishna and ashamed of his pride, his arrogant assumption that it was his valor alone that was winning the war for the Pandavas.
In short, other than his military prowess and valor, Arjuna was very much like any of us. This is what makes it easy for us to relate to him, if we try.
For the most part, the relationship between Sri Krishna and Arjuna looks very much like what we may call today a bromance. They hang out together, they go hunting together. Arjuna marries Sri Krishna’s sister, Subhadra, at Krishna’s urging, cementing their bond even more closely. There is a special bond between Sri Krishna and the Pandavas, but Arjuna seems to be Sri Krishna’s especial favorite. Save for the extraordinarily deep friendship between Sri Krishna and Draupadi, His friendship with Arjuna may be the closest friendship Sri Krishna had.