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Leadership and Krishna: A Leader Rejects the Crown

In Mathura Kamsa has just been slain. And with that an age of evil and corruption has come to an end.

Krishna has killed his wicked uncle.

There is festivity in the air. The hearts of everyone in Mathura is dancing, barring a few loyal followers of Kamsa and guests whom he had invited to Mathura. And Jarasandha’s Magadhan soldiers, who were engaged in guarding Mathura and its ruler. Jarasandha was the mightiest emperor of the day and Kamsa’s father-in-law. Two of his daughters, Asti and Prapti, were wedded to Kamsa. If Kamsa’s loyalists intended to protest Krishna’s killing of Kamsa, if they wanted revenge, the desire was suppressed deep into in their hearts – for their stood Balarama, a giant of unbelievable strength, with his mace in his hand warning sternly that the first one who tries to lift a weapon will be dead before he does so. Balarama has just killed Kamsa’s powerful wrestler Mushtika before their eyes and they understand he means what he says.

Happy cries of “victory to Krishna” rise up everywhere. People hail him as the saviour – the prophesied saviour come to save them from the evils of Kamsa. People fall at his feet in reverence. Others bend down and touch his feet. There is inexpressible joy in their eyes. A dark age has come to an end. They want to celebrate it.

But is not triumph that Krishna’s eyes show. There is no joy there, no festivity. Instead, there is deep sorrow, intense grief. And with those eyes filled with grief, he looks at the celebrating people. He lifts his blood-stained hands in the air – it is Kamsa’s blood. People fall quiet. “This is no time for celebration,” he tells them in his voice that is amazingly powerful for a sixteen year old boy. “This is no time for happiness. This is the moment of sorrow. We have lost our king. I request all of you to go home quietly.” People silently turn around and start walking in the direction of their homes. The huge mass of population that had assembled to watch the festivities that Kamsa had arranged, to which he had invited Krishna and Balarama with the secret intention of killing them, disperse quietly.

What we see here is a great leader in action. He knows there is a time to celebrate and there is a time to mourn. True, the man that has been killed was wicked, but he was also their king. And the loss of a king is a matter for mourning.

A lesser leader would have allowed them to dance and celebrate. Perhaps he would have allowed them to carry him on their shoulders and take him in a procession through the city streets. But Krishna knows what has happened was something that should not have happened. There shouldn’t have been any need for this killing. It was not a happy deed for him. And Krishna wants people to realize it. Krishna wants people to feel pity for the dead king – it’s sad that things had to end this way.

What Krishna the leader is doing here is raising the consciousness of the people to a higher level. Death of evil is not an occasion to celebrate. Never having evil among them – that is the thing to celebrate. The heart of a man like Krishna weeps even for the wicked. And he wants his people to rise to that height.


A little while later. The Yadavas are in counsel among themselves. They need to select a leader from among themselves immediately. If they do not, there will be trouble in the streets. The slain Kamsa’s supporters would sense their opportunity and try to take advantage of it. Jarasandha’s Magadhan soldiers loyal to Kamsa might create trouble. There may be slaughter everywhere. A leader is the urgent need of the moment. A competent leader who will stand as a tower of strength telling the world that the Yadavas are not leaderless.

But there is a problem.

The mighty Yadavas are not exactly one group, not really one clan, nor of one mind. There are among them the Kukkuras, Andhakas, Vrishnis, Satvatas, Bhojas, Madhus, Shuras and many other clans. And the Yadava clans have never been united – they were constantly hostile with each other. They formed different groups among themselves, the combinations changing constantly, with very little friendliness among the groups.

The problem was the leader chosen should be acceptable to all. He should be able to hold all the mutually hostile groups together. Already there is suspicion in the minds of the clan elders that some smart guy from a rival group might cease power sensing his opportunity. They start eyeing one another with distrust in their hearts.

And then someone offers the position to Krishna’s father Vasudeva.

Wise and saintly Vasudeva is acceptable to practically all. Besides, he is Krishna’s father. Krishna has just slain the erstwhile ruler.

Vasudeva rejects the offer politely, telling them he has spent all his life in prison and has not been in touch with the world. He considers the offer an honour, but he does not consider himself fit for the position.

In the meantime, Krishna reaches there. He had been busy, making arrangements for the royal cremation of Kamsa’s body. The cremation should befit the ruler of Mathura.

We get another beautiful glimpse of Krishna’s great leadership qualities here. After sending the people to their homes to mourn the death of their ruler, Krishna meets his father, his foster father and his mother in scenes that are highly charged with emotions.

Having done that, we see the sixteen-year-old Krishna taking charge of the most important thing to be done at the moment. The hated ruler’s cremation could turn into an ugly affair and Krishna wants to avoid that. And there should be no clashes between rival groups.

Kamsa’s queens had been devastated. Their cries had been heart-rending. From queens one moment ago, they have been reduced to widows. And perhaps Kamsa was a good husband and they had loved him deeply. Krishna goes to them and meets them. He is Kamsa’s slayer – the man who ended their life of glory and turned them into widows.

Besides, the widowed queens are his aunts. In their moment of pain and loss his place is with them.

Throughout Krishna’s life, Krishna shows boundless capacity for empathy, one of the greatest qualities of a great leader. Indian culture calls Krishna the Poorna Purushottamma – all noble qualities are perfect in him. And yet looking at Krishna as a leader at times I feel if more than anything else it wasn’t his capacity to empathise that made him the greatest leader India has ever seen.

Having made arrangements for the cremation and spending time with his aunts, he reaches where decision about the future leader of Mathura is being taken. He comes and sits next to his father. Soon Balarama too comes, bringing along old Ugrasena, Kamsa’s father, whom Kamsa had deposed, and Andhaka, another leader of importance. Though this is not specifically stated, we suspect Krishna is behind this too – it is most probably on his instructions that the two leaders have been brought from their prisons into which Kamsa had thrown them. Or else, for one thing, it would not be Balarama who brings them to the meeting.

Vasudeva has just rejected the position. Old Ugrasena has just come. The clan elders now offer the position to Ugrasena. He too rejects it, saying that he has sent the last several decades of his life in his own son’s prison, he is too old, and now he is a bereaving father.

Ugrasena tells the meeting that he now considers Krishna his son, now that Kamsa is dead. And he tells the assembly he considers Krishna the fittest person to be king and accordingly, wants him to be the heir to the throne.

Krishna has been sitting silently all this while, listening to the discussions. When his name is suggested, there is loud approval from every corner. It is as though this is what they really wanted all along, though they were suggesting other names.

Krishna stands up quietly, his palms joined in reverence. And he tells them he has grown up as a cowherd boy and all he knows are the ways of cowherds. No, he cannot be the king. That position should go to the man most fit to occupy it. As for him, it is time for him to study the ways of the kshatriyas, to learn to be a good warrior, to study the Vedas, and to get himself the education that he has missed as a cowherd boy.

He then recommends Ugrasena’s own name. And he tells the protesting Ugrasena that only he can keep the Yadavas united. He assures him on behalf of his father and Akrura and others: they would all always be with him, to assist him in everything. And he adds, he himself would be there at his service.

Eventually Ugrasena is selected as the king unanimously.

What we see here is the wonderful insight of Krishna into the human heart. He knows that in spite of their momentary enthusiasm, once the moment is passed he will not be acceptable to many of them as their leader. And he knows the only person who can keep the Yadavas together is Ugrasena. He was king before Kamsa deposed him and threw him into the dungeons. He is the eldest among them all and respected by all.

We also see here a sixteen-year-old boy rejecting a crown offered to him. A crown that is his for the taking. A crown that almost naturally comes to him since he is the slayer of the erstwhile king.

Throughout his life, Krishna will show that he does not care for position. He will slay evil king after evil king, but he will never take the kingdom for himself, would never become king himself. It was always the deposed king’s son that he appointed as the next heir, provided he was qualified.

In this sense, Krishna is the least ambitious of all leaders.

He did have ambitions, though, but they were not ambitions for power. His ambition was what he declares as his mission of life in the Gita and what he states innumerable times throughout the Mahabharata: to establish dharma as a way of life, to create a world where life could be lived following dharma. For he believed, with Vyasa, that all happiness and prosperity come from dharma: dharmād arthaś ca kāmaś ca.

Without holding any position of authority, Krishna becomes the most influential leader of the day, the most effective one.

It’s not position that makes a leader.


What is most amazing is that this adolescent was a cowherd boy until a couple of days ago. All the sixteen years of his life he has spent among the most ordinary people, and when he reaches Mathura and finds himself among the mighty and powerful there, he is completely at ease among them. It is as though he has been living among royalty all along. And each word he speaks and each step he takes, speaks of authority. Everything he does has an authenticity of its own. His decisions emerge from his deep intuitive insights.

He is in touch with his being and his serenity is the source of his wisdom.

From the day he steps into Mathura, he proves himself to be a winner. He is always calm and composed, in full self-possession, and totally imperturbable. And he is always himself – he does not put on performances. His leadership arises from the stillness of his being and his love and concern for others. From his empathy. He does not believe in pretensions, does not believe in the mechanics of leadership or in power games, he does not believe in manipulating others. He knows the difference between being loving and acting to be loving. He is always fully in possession of himself, is always self-directed and autonomous.

That night Krishna, Balarama and Uddhava are together in the same room, waiting for sleep to come. And Balarama hugs Krishna, saying what a wonderful brother he is lucky to have. “You are great, Krishna,” he tells his younger brother. “Unsurpassed!”

And Krishna tells him, “Because I have a brother like you!”

That’s Krishna.


Note: Krishna’s story has been told in thousands of ways by thousands of story tellers and will be told again by thousands more, each in his and her own way. The narration here is based on KM Munshi’s Krishnavatara, one of the most brilliant retellings of Krishna’s story ever.


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