This little story has enduringly etched itself on the Indian psyche. Krishna’s intensely human reaction on seeing his impoverished mate—a reaction that overcame the constraints of wealth and status by its sheer spontaneity—has become in the minds of the common man, a defining metaphor for the test of friendship. It has also come to be regarded as the definitive parable to emphasize the importance of human values in the conduct of those in high office. Yesterday’s cowherd was today’s monarch. Much around him had changed; and yet, so much in him could never change.
The Sudama episode reiterated Krishna’s enduring links with his past. Sudama’s journey to Dwarka, notwithstanding his initial misgivings, so beautifully portrayed in the Bhagavata and elaborated upon subsequently by many accomplished writers, was meant to demonstrate the triumph of faith over doubt.
While Dwarka was the seat of his kingdom, the real stage for Krishna’s role as a warrior was still located along the river Yamuna, in the familiar setting of the north Indian plains, not far from Vrindavan and Mathura. Krishna’s aunt—Vasudeva’s sister Kunti—was married to Pandu, the ruler of the Kuru kingdom with its capital at Hastinapur. Kunti’s three sons— Yudhishthira, Bheema and Arjuna—were thus Krishna’s cousins; this familial relationship also included in its scope, on the same footing, Pandu’s two younger sons— the twins Nakula and Sahadeva—born from another wife, Madri.
Pandu had died early and his large kingdom was being run by his brother, the blind Dhritarashtra. The real power behind the throne was Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra’s unscrupulous and ambitious eldest son, who wanted to inherit the throne and exclude completely the five Pandava brothers from their father’s legacy. Dhritarashtra did not approve of his son’s doings but was too weak and vacillating and too overwhelmed by love for his sons, who numbered a hundred, to stop the machinations against the Pandavas. Duryodhana was aided and abetted by his mother’s scheming brother, Shakuni. The most serious conspiracy hatched by uncle and nephew was the attempt to burn alive the Pandavas and their mother in a palace specially prepared for this crime. The Pandavas managed to escape due to a timely warning, but it was clear that they would no longer be safe in Hastinapur.
For some time they led an itinerant existence dressed as Brahmins to conceal their real identity. During their travels they visited the court of King Dhrupad, who was conducting a swayamvara for the marriage of his daughter Draupadi. A galaxy of princes were gathered for the occasion but it was Arjuna alone who could perform the feat prescribed for her hand. Being the skilled archer he was, he shot through the eye of a fish revolving above his head by looking only at its reflection in a pool of water below. Krishna was also present at the swayamvara. He had, of course, seen through the disguise of the Pandavas, and became, from then onwards, their closest ally and adviser.
The war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is the theme of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. Krishna, ranged on the side of the Pandavas, played a central role in its unfolding events. It is not the intention here, nor would it be feasible, to narrate the entire sequence of events, all the plots and sub-plots, and the scores of characters, that constitute the background to Krishna’s role in the epic’s narrative. It would perhaps serve our purpose if we touched upon the main events of his involvement in the great fratricidal conflict. At a generalized level, Krishna was on the side of good and against evil. The Pandavas were sinned against.
The Kauravas led by Duryodhana were the villains. His participation was, therefore, for the restoration of righteousness and the defeat of adharma. However, while in broad terms this description of his role is sustainable, the fineprint of his involvement militates against the assumption of any unquestioned ethical clarity. What is profiled much more clearly is Krishna the strategist, at one moment the sober statesman, but very often also the shrewd manipulator bent upon achieving his purpose irrespective of the means employed.