In Sarala’s Mahaabhaarata (also called Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata), Krishna acted deceitfully many times. By asking for the impossible he ensured that the Kurukshetra war took place. True, he asked for just two villages for the Pandavas, but he characterized those villages in such a way that Duryodhana could never have given them. As Sakuni told Duryodhana, if he gave him even a single village, he would be left with no place to put even his foot on. During the war, Krishna advised the Pandavas to resort to unfair means to kill some of the great Kaurava warriors including Drona, Karna and Duryodhana. He himself manipulated the killing of Jayadratha. After the war, he got the last surviving son of Dhritarashtra destroyed through an act of deceit of the vilest and the most cynical kind. At the call of Yudhishtira in the name of dharma on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Jujutsu had left his Kaurava brothers and had come over to the Pandavas’ side and had fought for them. It was the sacred duty of the Pandavas to protect him, but their mentor tricked the only surviving Kaurava to his destruction. The list of Krishna’s deceit would indeed be long. Deceit, as it were, was his second nature.
So what is so special about his last deceit? Indeed there is. First, one’s last act is always special, as is perhaps the first. Secondly, this was an act that had a direct and a desirable consequence on himself – Krishna passed away as a result of this deceitful act. Thirdly, the victim of his deceit in this instance was no other than Arjuna, with whom he had the closest relationship. Incidentally, this was a situation where both Arjuna and Krishna were agents and victims of mutual deceit; however, there was this asymmetry that the former did not know that the latter was deceiving him. Finally, this time Krishna acted deceitfully with solely his own interest in mind, unlike at others, when he had at least the interests of others, at least apparently.
Under the thick siaali bushes as he lay fatally wounded by an arrow shot unknowingly by the sawara (a certain tribe) Jara and in great pain, Krishna asked Jara, who was inconsolable on discovering what he had done, to go to Hastinapur and bring Arjuna alone (not any of the other Pandavas) to his presence. Overwhelmed with grief, Yudhisthira permitted Arjuna to go to Krishna’s presence. Sahadeva, his youngest brother and the knower of the past the present and the future, told Arjuna that he should not touch Krishna, although he did not say why he should not. This was how Sahadeva always spoke; he often did not give a reason or an explanation for such things, unless specifically asked. And Arjuna must have been too upset to do so.
Krishna wept as he saw Arjuna. “Come, brave Partha, and take me in your arms, which will give me comfort”, he told him. Standing a little away from him, Arjuna refused: “I’m a mere mortal, and you are Narayana Himself. How can I touch you?” Krishna then went on to tell him what all he had given up for his sake, how he had displeased even his elder brother Balaram by supporting him, etc., and in the name of all that he had done for him, he begged him to hold him in his arms as he was dying. All Arjuna did was repeat that being a sinful person, he could never think of touching his divine body. The clever person he was, Krishna could figure out why Arjuna was being so reluctant; he understood that Sahadeva must have told Arjuna not to touch him. He again pleaded with him to hold him in embrace, but again Arjuna said that being a mere mortal, he was afraid of touching him who was an avataar of Vishnu Himself. Krishna told him that he could at least come close and extend his hand to him, but Arjuna flatly refused even that, saying that he did not have Yudhisthira’s permission for this. In that case he could extend his bow so that he could touch one end of it and feel comforted, Krishna told him, and Arjuna was willing. As he touched the end of the bow, Krishna passed away, looking at Arjuna.
Thus did Krishna pass away. From one point of view, it was only appropriate that he, who had caused so much wanton violence, met with a violent end – it was as though justice was meted out to him by some organizing principle of the universe, never mind that whereas he had deliberately caused violence, he was the unintended victim of violence. “O Prajapati, so this is what you had ordained for me”, Krishna thought as he was suffering the blinding pain of the wound on his foot. He seemed surprised; it surely had never occurred to him that he could not be immune to violence while causing violence to others.
There is again something strangely appropriate that he who had practiced cheating so often in life had to resort to it as he lay dying. It is indeed ironical that he had to deceive Arjuna who was the dearest to him and for whose sake he had used deceit more than once on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Jayadratha could be killed through Krishna’s deceit and thereby Arjuna’s life was saved.
As mentioned earlier, Arjuna could not see that Krishna was cheating him. He was of course no fool, and he was not unaware that Krishna was quite capable of cheating – he had seen him doing it so many times, but it would have never occurred to him that it could be he, his best friend, who Krishna, his mentor, would be deceiving. After all, there are no explicit signals that distinguish deceitful words or action from the sincere ones. It was entirely natural for the one in agony and dying to request his best friend to comfort him with his touch. It was also equally natural that when denied this request, he would mildly charge him of ingratitude, reminding him of all that he had done for him. There was no ring of falsehood in the entire sequence of Krishna’s requests ending with the one to stretch his bow to him.
As today’s “audience” of Sarala, presumably five hundred years after his first listeners listened to his Mahaabhaarata, we might ask why Krishna deceived his best friend and protégé at all and that too as he lay dying. After Krishna passed away, Arjuna found that he had become powerless. Had Krishna then chosen deceit as the means of communication in order to impress upon Arjuna that without him he was utterly powerless? But did Arjuna really need to be made aware of this? If he hadn’t learnt already, despite his numerous experiences to this effect, was there any point in creating one more learning context for him? Krishna’s conduct appears to lack sufficient justification. People say that one’s true nature reveals itself at the time of one’s death. Then did Krishna cheat merely because cheating came almost naturally to him?
Sarala would want us to see Krishna’s action from a different perspective. Krishna knew who he was; he knew that he would not and could not leave his mortal form without contact with Arjuna, as though there was a part of him in Arjuna, which he had to withdraw from him through physical contact and absorb in himself in order to become complete. He couldn’t depart incomplete. Surely Sahadeva knew this or had some sense of this. An uncooperative Arjuna had to be tricked into the act. Not knowing how to refuse Krishna, Arjuna resorted to lies, but what lie could deceive the ultimate deceiver, the ultimate actor, who was also the ultimate knower?
An avataar in his Mahaabhaarata, Krishna behaved as man and as god himself. Seeing him as one and not the other is not knowing him. By seeing him only as man, one misses the glory and the illumination of the truth of the Ultimate Being, and by seeing him only as god, one misses the lilaa of god in his human form. This is perhaps how Sarala would want us to see his Krishna.