Given Krishna’s mastery over the arts of war, both the Pandavas and the Kauravas were keen to have him on their side in the imminent battle. According to the Mahabharata, Arjuna journeyed to Dwarka to obtain a commitment of support from him. Hearing of this, Duryodhana also journeyed to Dwarka. Both arrived simultaneously, but it was Duryodhana who first entered ‘ Krishna’s bedroom. Krishna was asleep then; waiting for him to awake, Duryodhana sat down on a chair at the head of the bed, while Arjuna deferentially took a place on the opposite side, near the feet. When Krishna awoke he first saw Arjuna, and then turned around to notice Duryodhana. Duryodhana was the first to speak.
He bluntly asked Krishna to be on his side, and said that since he had arrived first, his request should get priority over Arjuna’s. Krishna’s answer was that while Duryodhana may have arrived first, it was Arjuna whom he had seen first on awakening. Arjuna was also younger than Duryodhana, and had, therefore, the right to ask first. The choice Krishna said was between him personally, and, his well armed and extensive Yadava army. Furthermore~ whichever side he may be on, he would not fight himself. He would be weaponless, providing only unarmed support. To Duryodhana, given these options, the choice was abundantly clear. He was most relieved, therefore, when Arjuna unhesitatingly chose the non-fighting Krishna and allowed Duryodhana to have Dwarka’s formidable army.
Why did Krishna not take up arms in support of the Pandavas? After all, he was fully convinced of the justness of their cause. And that being the case, why was his involvement in their support qualified? On more than one occasion he had said that the Pandavas— specially Arjuna—were closer to him than anyone else. Why then a self-imposed restraint on the degree of his participation in their struggle to obtain their rights? Perhaps the rights and wrongs in human affairs are never that categorically clear for unambiguous divine involvement on any one side. Perhaps the purpose was to demonstrate that even without arms his mere presence was more than enough to ensure victory. Or perhaps, it was a symbolic gesture, meant to convey, as in so many other aspects of his life, the perennial shadow play between his mortal form and his essential divinity. He would be a participant, but at a transcendental level. He would be involved, but in a detached manner. In his human avatar he could not remain an aloof observer. But being God, his association, however vigorous, would always be tinged by a sense of distance.
Krishna’s role in the actual war is not beyond controversy. The controversy concerns the means he employed, even while not fighting himself, to ensure the victory of the Pandavas. There are at least six incidents in the Mahabharata, crucial to the final outcome of the war, which call into question the ethicality of his actions in terms of the prevailing code of fair play, or at least in terms of the expectation of fair play from him.
On the eve of the war, Krishna’s attempt was to wean away the mighty warrior Karan from the Kauravas. This he did not by appealing to Karan’s sense of rectitude, or by persuading him to see the legitimacy of the Pandava’s claims. His strategy instead was to use a crucial nugget of information about Karan’s personal life to break his pledge of unshakeable loyalty to his childhood friend and benefactor—Duryodhana. Karan was in reality the first-born of Kunti, from an unintended liaison before her marriage with Surya—the Sun God. Krishna was aware of this, and chose this moment to reveal the truth to Karan. The news had a traumatic impact on the young warrior. At one stroke the Pandavas, whom he regarded as his most implacable foes, were revealed to be his brothers. Krishna did not stop there. He went on to outline in detail the advantages that would accrue to Karan were he to betray his old loyalties:
You know that a son born to a woman when she was a maiden, becomes, by law, the son of the man she marries. Accordingly, you are a Pandava. You are the eldest of the Pandavas. You are a Pandava on your father’s side. You are a Vrishni, my relative, on your mother’s side. Come with me now. I am going to Yudhishthira. Your brothers will fall at your feet. All the kings who have assembled to help the Pandavas will honour you as the eldest Pandava. You will be crowned by them as their king. You will be the king and Yudhishthira will be the Yuvaraja. He will lead the white horses of your chariot tayour presence and lift you to your seat. The dark and beautiful Draupadi will belong to you, since you are a Pandava. Yudhishthira will get into the chariot after you. The mighty Bheema will hold the umbrella over your head. Your younger brother Arjuna will be your charioteer. He will hold the reins over your horses. Nakula, Sahadeva and I will be walking behind your chariot.