Krishna’s mission did not succeed because Karan, in spite of the enticements somewhat blatantly outlined to him, refused to give up his friendship of Duryodhana who had stood by him when he needed support most.
But Krishna’s request was not a complete failure either. Karan’s emotional equipoise was shattered. His animosity to the Pandavas was weakened. His hitherto resolute morale for battle was shaken. The ground had been prepared for him to concede a boon of the greatest significance to Kunti, who met him a few days later. Kunti too was unable to persuade him to forsake Duryodhana; however, not wanting to completely disappoint his mother, he promised her that he would not attack Yudhishthira, Bheema, Nakula and Sahadeva. The duel with Arjuna was something to which he was irrevocably pledged, but, at all times, he assured Kunti, at least five of her sons would remain alive.
During the war, the Pandavas, at the explicit urging of Krishna, managed to kill the top warriors on the Kaurava side by means which were at best expedient and, at worst, deceitful and unfair. Bhishma was more than a match for any on the Pandava side. His arrows were wreaking havoc on the Pandava army. In consultation with Krishna, the Pandavas decided to meet Bhishma and ask him how he could be defeated. Even though he was duty bound to fight on the side of Dhritarashtra, Bhishma, at a personal level, had the greatest love for the Pandavas. Krishna’s clear reasoning was that if Yudhishthira posed the question to Bhishma, the grand old man would certainly reveal the answer. The plan worked. ‘Place the warrior Shikhandi before me/ Bhishma said, ‘and I will have to put down my bow!’ Bhishma had sworn never to fight against a woman, or even a man who had once been a woman. Shikhandi was a man only in appearance. In reality, he was an incarnation of princess Amba of Kashi. Amba had wanted to marry Bhishma, but, the latter, wedded to his oath of celibacy, had spurned her advances. The princess had then sworn to avenge this humiliation. Born again as Shikhandi, she led the attack on the venerable warrior. Bhishma relinquished his arms, and Arjuna’s arrows were quick to pin him down.
Drona, the towering guru of the Kuru clan, was another formidable warrior whose depredations were taking a heavy toll of the Pandava forces. Krishna’s plan to kill him was ingenious. It was well known that Drona was extremely fond of his son Ashwathamma. If he was told that Ashwathamma had died, Drona would, Krishna said, lose all desire to fight. But Drona would believe this news only if Yudhishthira, who never spoke an untruth, conveyed it to him. Yudhishthira baulked at being told of his role; Arjuna too was disapproving. But Krishna’s exhortations were coldly persuasive. ‘If Drona lives for but half a day, the Pandava army will be wiped out,’ he said. In a study by R.C. Gupta, Krishna says, ‘A lie to save lives is not immoral. In fact, in certain situations a lie is permissible. A lie in the presence of women, in marriages, to save cows, or to rescue a Brahmana, is not; wrong.’
The plan was implemented with Machiavellian skill. Bheema had killed an elephant called Ashwathamma. Yudhishthira, the reluctant conspirator, did not tell a complete lie when he told Drona, ‘Ashwathamma is dead!’, adding in an inaudible whisper, ‘the elephant called Ashwathamma.’ The shattered Drona, unquestioningly believing Yudhishthira, lost his will-to fight. A few caustic words from Bheema on the inappropriateness of a Brahmin indulging in wanton killing were enough to make him dispiritedly put down his arms, and Dhrishtadyumna, son ofDhrupad, swiftly cut off his head.
Karan was killed when, during his fight with Arjuna, he got down from his chariot to lift its wheel sunk into the ground. It was against the rules of war to attack a man when he was unarmed, and Karan asked Arjuna to respect this code of conduct. But Krishna was quick to intervene. Fair play in war had no application, he said, to those who had scant respect for it themselves. By supporting Duryodhana’s unjust cause, Karan had forfeited his right to be dealt with fairly. Eyes flaming with anger, Krishna recounted the inhuman and unscrupulous manner in which, just a few days earlier, Karan had gauged up with other Kaurava luminaries to kill Abhimanyu, Arjuna’s young son. ‘Kill Karan now, before he returns to his chariot,’ Krishna pressed Arjuna, and the next moment, Karna, his head severed from his body, lay dead on the battlefield.