In this post I am not answering any questions about Krishna, although there are questions which I have to answer some day, but am trying to look at him from a certain perspective. He arrived in the world as its protector, but I have sometimes wondered, whereas his being the protector is fine, at the same time, wasn’t the avatara a huge problem for the world he came to protect?
Many questions have been asked about him: why did he do this, why did he do that, and being omnipotent, couldn’t have done something else in a given situation, etc. Those who have written on Krishna in Sarala Mahabharatahave focussed on the personality and the doings of Krishna: what all he did, why did he do what he did, what kind of a human he was, why did he conduct himself in a disgraceful manner in certain situations, even who did Sarala have in mind when he conceptualized his Krishna, and the like. This is fine and is quite expected too. Krishna attracts, as his name suggests, so it is no surprise that the Krishna-discourse gets focused on him exclusively. But isn’t it possible that there might be other aspects to the absolutely absorbing narrative concerning the avatara? Let’s shift the focus from Krishna to the world he came to save and ask the question: how did the world he came to save, take him?
Think of some earlier avataras of Vishnu: Matsya (Fish), Kurma (Tortoise), Varaha (Boar) and Nrusingha (Man-Lion). They manifested in the world, readily performed their avataric task and returned immediately to their Source. As for Vamana, after he sent king Bali to patala (the name of a loka, a habitat), he disappeared. Parashurama left the sacred precincts of the ashram and his activities as an ashramite and entered the world outside with a weapon to rid it of the wicked. Over a period of time he did that and when he decided that his task was over, he returned to the ashram. Thereafter he stepped out of it only rarely. During the time he was outside of his ashram, his interaction with the world was largely limited to identifying the wicked and killing them. Rama lived in the world, but primarily as a ruler. Being Maryada Purushottama, the very embodiment of dignity and decorum in all spheres of life, he observed maryada(decorum) in all his dealings and the maryada of the king often meant distancing himself from the common people. Neither Parshurama nor Rama had knowledge of his self in that neither was aware of his avatarahood.
Krishna was different. In bhakta (devotee) Sarala’s narrative, he was the embodiment of pure energy, pure knowledge – he knew the past, the present and the future. And he had the knowledge of self – that he was the avatara of Narayana. Such a one lived among ordinary mortals, like ordinary mortals and lived intensely. Like everyone, he enjoyed the pleasures of the body and was afraid of death (or at least seemed to be; in his case what was real and what was pretension, a reader of Sarala Mahabharata would be never sure. Who could understand his lila.). He quarreled with people, used offensive language, humiliated people, cheated them, manipulated things and people and demanded privileges he was not entitled to. In his dealings he showed unmistakable partiality. Everyone knew he was the incarnation of Narayana Himself. Duryodhana – it must be emphasized – called the Kurukshetra War dharma yuddha (war of Dharma) because of Narayana’s presence in the war field. He would be the witness.
He betrayed the trust of Yudhisthira, who had sent him as his emissary to the court of Duryodhana, by ensuring that war took place, rather than peace prevailed. Bhishma advised Duryodhana not to let Krishna go empty-handed, and give two villages to the Pandavas, if not five, and at one stage Duryodhana was indeed inclined to do so but Sakuni told him that Krishna should be given nothing because he would ask for the impossible. When Krishna named the villages he wanted, everyone knew that they simply could not be given. By asking for those specific five villages, he ensured that there would be no alternative to war.
His clear partiality towards the Pandavas and hostility against the Kauravas baffled the latter – how could Narayana be partial? He baffled the Pandavas as well by asking them to do things absolutely unethical. In the battlefield he asked a reluctant Yudhisthira to tell a lie to his guru which, Yudhisthira knew, would lead to his killing and he asked a reluctant Arjuna to kill Karna who was unarmed at that point of time. By neutralizing Bhishma’s arrow with his sudarshana cakra (the name of his ayudha or weapon), unknown to anyone, man or god, he saved Arjuna’s life but by doing so, he betrayed his word to his elder brother, Balarama. He had promised to him that he would not participate in that war between brothers, which Balarama had considered unacceptable and unethical. He betrayed dharma when he told his brother that Bhishma was a liar and was levelling a baseless charge against him by claiming that he had saved Arjuna’s life. Incidentally, this episode is Sarala’s creation.
Recall what Duryodhana had said. He must have felt betrayed when in the dharma yuddha, the witness, in whose witness-hood he had such absolute trust, had participated in the War.
After the War, in order to save Yudhisthira from Gandhari’s yogic fire, Krishna had her only remaining son, Durdasa, burnt to ashes by that fire. The poor mother got to know who she had destroyed only after she had destroyed him. And Durdasa had left the Kaurava army and joined the Pandavas responding to Yudhisthira’s call in the battlefield to join him. The embodiment of dharma had promised protection to whosoever came over to his side. Durdasa was the only one who had came. While each of Krishna’s deeds as mentioned above was morally utterly reprehensible, the most reprehensible was the killing of Durdasa. Yudhisthira was stunned. Although Sarala does not say in so many words, he must have found Krishna’s explanation incomprehensible that there must be no residue of the enemy. Durdasa had done absolutely nothing to give the impression that he was a potential enemy of the Pandavas. His was a totally unfair, meaningless death. The proposition that as a general principle, in order for dharma to emerge victorious, some adharmic or contextually less adharmic (violating dharma) means may have to be adopted, could lead to chaos. How low, how mean could an acceptable means be? In any case, such a proposition would sound pathetically hollow in front of the ashes of Durdasa.
And in front of the dead and the dying bodies of the countless fighters on the battlefield too. Dead bodies demand answer for their fate. Gandhari asked Krishna their question too when she asked him why he caused such massive destruction when it was in his powers to stop it. Krishna gave her the most unconvincing of answers. He said he did it to take revenge on the Kauravas who had humiliated him in the court when he came there as emissary. This has to be false. I cannot think it to be otherwise. He couldn’t have meant it. In Sarala Mahabharatahe is portrayed as not just the most exalted among the exalted, the mightiest of the mighty, the most knowledgeable among the knowledgeable, be they humans, asuras or gods, but also as the meanest of the mean and the lowest of the low. Still he could not have stooped so low as to cause such a devastating war merely to avenge a personal insult. So Sarala makes him say other things by way of explanation to others; Gandhari was not the only one who had asked him that question. Elsewhere he said that he could not have allowed dharma to perish. His sister Subhadra thought that he avenged the killing of his dear nephew Abhimanyu by getting the Kauravas destroyed. Which one was the truth or all these together constituted the truth one would never know. But one can consider whether any of these would constitute an adequate answer. The answer is an emphatic no. Is it possible that the cosmic objective that he came to achieve, he simply could not articulate to man in a way intelligible to him, whose knowledge is limited to the present alone? Suppose he had told, whoever asked him about the logic of the comprehensive destruction in the War, that he was Death Incarnate and had arrived to kill, would it have made any sense to Gandhari or anyone else, except perhaps the sage Vyasa or the sage Agsti? Even about them one can never be sure. True, they all showered praise on Krishna, but never explained his ways to those who did not have their yogic insight. In Sarala’s narrative, Krishna is as mysterious as his words.
And he who knew the past, the present and the future mistook an old woman for his beloved Radha, for whom he was waiting with intense longing. He made wild love to the old woman, Radha’s emissary. What message about right and wrong would the world extract from this act of the avatara?
In the world he chose to take birth in, and in which everyone knew he was an incarnation of Narayana Himself, Krishna was loved and unloved, obeyed and disobeyed, revered and despised, worshiped and cursed. He seemed to dismiss the moral systems that people in his times lived by and he flouted many norms by his conduct, but it is unclear what he recommended in their place. Humans must necessarily use their ethical framework and their knowledge system to make sense of things, including the doings of Narayana. He is difficult to understand for the readers of Sarala’s narrative today, as he must have been to the audience of his time and also to the world thousands of years ago about which the great poet wrote. Krishna, the purna avatara (complete manifestation), as he is called, would remain for ever a profound and a disturbing enigma for mankind. And enigmas, as we know, are always problematic for the humans because they can live comfortably only in a universe that they can make sense of.