King Drupada had been living for years in the hope that one day he would be able to have his revenge. Drona had insulted him. He had sent his Kuru disciples to capture him and they had succeeded in their effort. Arjuna had tied him up and taking him to Hastinapura, handed him over to Drona in the form of his gurudakshina. Drona had then taken from him part of his kingdom and returned the rest, saying now they were equals and could be friends again, as they were in their gurukula. Ever since, he had had only one desire, one purpose, for continuing to live – revenge for the humiliation Drona had inflicted on him.
His daughter Draupadi had grown up seeing her father’s agony every day of her life. This unsurpassed beauty of the age, whose intoxicating fragrance spread a whole yojana all around, had vowed that she would wed only that man who would give her father what he desired – the vengeance his entire being thirsted for. That would be her kanyashulka, her bride price from the man who wanted to marry her.
One day the great teacher of the Vedas and martial arts, Guru Sandipani, who was in the habit of travelling from capital to capital much of the year round along with his gurukula, reached Kampilya, Drupada’s capital, as he had done many times in the past years. He had always made sure that he spent at least two weeks a year in Kampilya, out of respect for Drupada.
While the guru and the king were seated engaged in friendly conversation, Drupada shared his greatest concern with the teacher who was in touch with most of the royal families across the land: he wanted to give Draupadi in marriage to a young prince who is unsurpassed as a warrior. Sandipani knew every royal family in the land – who would be the right young man for Draupadi?
“Of course,” said Sandipani, “of all the young princes in the land today, the best warrior is Arjuna. But…”
Sandipani did not have to add that Arjuna would not do. He was the favourite disciple of Drona and he revered his guru as few disciples revered their guru. There was no question of Arjuna giving him the bride price he wanted – vengeance against Drona. Besides, it was Arjuna who had in the first place vanquished him and taken him to Drona, to subject him to his humiliation.
Seeing Drupada’s face grow cloudy, Sandipani said, “I can think of only one other name – only one person who is somewhat equal to Arjuna – Karna. But he is the son of a suta and as such is not fit to wed Draupadi. Besides, he too is a disciple of Drona and a very close friend of the Kuru prince Duryodhana. No, Karna is not a solution to your problem.”
Drupada then said with a soft smile on his face, “I have heard of some of your own disciples who are great masters of the science of archery.”
Sandipani took the name of Vinda and Anuvinda, the twin princes of Ujjaini, who were his disciples and great warriors. But Drupada shook his head, indicating he did not have them in his mind. Then the king said, “You have one disciple whose bow has the blessings of the gods. He is famous for his unerring aim with his bow and arrows while seated in a racing chariot, himself managing its four fiery horses. What he does is something even Arjuna cannot do.”
Sandipani burst out laughing and said with great pride in his voice, “Of course you mean my disciple Krishna Vasudeva! He is the only one of my disciples who has surpassed even his guru! He is equal to the greatest warrior in Aryavarta. But don’t count on him – that’s a waste.”
Drupada was surprised and spoke of his bafflement. He had heard great things of this Krishna. He had heard of how he had vanquished Jarasandha, the mightiest emperor of the age. He had heard of how he had killed Paundraka Vasudeva of Karavirapura and the barbarian king Kalayavana from across the borders of Aryavarta. He had heard of how he had taken the Yadavas of Mathura across the deserts to Dwaraka, where they were in great prosperity now. He had heard of how he had defeated other powerful kings and how he has been accepted as the best among the maharathis of the land.
At every word Drupada spoke in praise of his dear disciple, the guru’s face beamed more and more with pride, until it was all aglow with his indescribable joy.
“I have also heard,” said Drupada, “that it is not only in archery that he is unsurpassed, but in the use of the chakra, too. That he can let fly the chakra with unerring aim from a chariot moving at the speed of the wind and the chakra accomplishes its purpose and comes back to him.”
“That’s true,” was all a beaming Sandipani could say. The very thought of Krishna and his valour and prowess made the guru choke with pride.
“What else do I need!” said Drupada. “My request is, please bring him here so that he can wed Krishnaa [Draupadi]. I am sure he will not say no to you – you are his guru.”
Sandipani told him, “Krishna never marries a woman until and unless she wins his heart. Besides, I do not think Krishna would agree to marry Draupadi. For, if he does, he will have to fight his cousins the Pandava brothers, whom he loves dearly.”
“But I am sure he will listen to you, Acharya. You are his guru.”
And Sandipani said, “I do not know any person in the whole wide world who can take Krishna’s decisions for him.”
The guru was not complaining. For, as he spoke these words, his face was more aglow with indescribable pride than at any other time.
That is what Krishna was. That is how his own guru saw him. Such was his self-mastery, that even the beauty of a woman like Draupadi would not tempt him. Kings and emperors would be willing to risk their lives for her sake, risk the lives of millions of their soldiers for her sake, such was her beauty and glory as a woman, but not Krishna. Krishna definitely admired beauty, admired the power and sexuality of a woman like Draupadi that can ignite passion in a million male hearts, but what will not tempt him to commit a single act of adharma.
And no one took his decisions for this young, emerging leader. Not his father, not his mother, not his guru, not his king, nor anyone else. Only one person took his decisions for him – he himself. And no, this was not a matter of Krishna’s arrogance. Krishna’s decisions had to come from Krishna’s own unique perceptions, and no one other than himself had those perceptions. It had to arise from his own unique and boundless wisdom, and no one else had that wisdom.
Throughout his life, every decision he took originated in his own heart. No other individual and no other power took those decisions for him – neither the charms of a woman, however beautiful she was, nor the temptations of power and position, nor of wealth. Of course, there was something that guided him in his decision making – his vision: his vision of establishing a world in which dharma reigns supreme, a world in which adharma will have no place.
All great leaders take their own decisions. No one else takes their decisions for them.
Before they parted, Drupada extracted a promise from Guru Sandipani that he would talk to Krishna about his proposal when he met him next.
One afternoon while he was in Dwaraka, Sandipani asked Krishna to come to him. The guru was seated under a banyan tree. After some conversation, Sandipani gave him Drupada’s message: the mighty king of the Panchalas wanted to give his daughter Krishnaa in marriage to Krishna. And Sandipani praised Draupadi: praised her surpassing beauty, her superb intelligence, and her virtuous character. He also conveyed to Krishna the other offers Drupada had made – if Krishna married his daughter, part of the Panchala kingdom would be given to Krishna, and Drupada would help the Yadavas rebuild Mathura, which had been devastated by Jarasandha.
Krishna’s enchanting smile slowly dawned on his face, spreading its irresistible charm. “What a tempting order you have given me, Gurudev,” said Krishna. “I did not know that I was a groom in such great demand. At the time of Rukmini’s swayamvara, no king wanted to sit with me in the assembly, since I am but a cowherd!”
This made Sandipani burst out in laughter. “Well,” he said, “Drupada wants not only to give his daughter to you, but wants something in return.” Sandipani then told Krishna the story of the revenge for which Drupada has been living, and the vow his daughter had taken that she would marry only that noble prince who would give her father the revenge he wanted.
This time it was Krishna’s time to laugh aloud in spontaneous mirth. And he summed up the situation in his own words, “I must marry a woman of strong determination and then, for the sake of her father, fight Acharya Drona and if necessary all his disciples – meaning the Kuru princes. And I’ll have to cease to be a simple Yadava and become one of Drupada’s vassals. I will have to motivate the Yadavas to leave this beautiful land and rebuild a wasteland. A very tempting proposal indeed!”
Sandipani laughed again as Krishna spoke. “Precisely what I told Drupada! And I had also told him no one takes his decisions for Krishna – he does that himself. I wish all the kings of Aryavarta had the clarity of perception that you have!”
When Sandipani asked him what message he should take to Drupada, Krishna told him to inform the king that he was honoured by the king’s offer but did not consider himself fit for that honour and he could not accept it.
It is then Sandipani pointed out the danger involved in Krishna’s answer. Drupada was a king obsessed with vengeance. Supposing Krishna’s no turned Drupada blind – he had lived for years for only one thing, vengeance, and had hoped that he would be able to achieve it through an alliance with the most eligible warrior prince in Aryavarta. It was this hope that had been keeping him on the path of dharma all these years. Supposing he received Krishna’s message of rejection and found no other young prince fit for his purposes? What was there to stop him from offering his daughter to someone like Jarasandha – a king whose ambitions were monstrous and who would be delighted with an alliance with the powerful Panchalas? What then?
Krishna was taken aback. This was an angle he hadn’t thought about. He understood the danger his guru was talking about – that would mean the defeat of all he had lived for, that would mean the end of his dream, that would mean adharma routing dharma and becoming victorious all over Aryavarta.
With the agility that was characteristic of his mind, he saw his course of action in an instant. The calamity his guru was talking about had to be avoided at all costs. And yet he was not willing to be a pawn in the hands of Drupada for achieving his personal vengeance.
The Krishna who now spoke was not the smiling and playful Krishna of a moment ago. This young man was seriousness itself. He gave a new message to his guru, “Gurudev, please tell King Drupada that I will soon visit Hastinapura on an invitation from my cousin Yudhishthira and at that time I shall come and see the king at Kampilya.”
The cool early afternoon breeze was blowing, bringing with it the freshness of the sea. The guru and his disciple were still under the banyan tree. The conversation continued.
“You plan to go to Hastinapura?” asked the guru in surprise. “There is no point in your going there now. Don’t you know that Yudhishthira is no more the crown prince?”
The news came as a shock to Krishna. He hadn’t heard of that. There was complete silence for a while, with both the guru and his young disciple remaining quiet.
“Shwetaketu was at Hastinapura when these incidents happened. He will explain to you everything.”
Shwetaketu is a senior disciple of Sandipani. The acharya called him to them and Shwetaketu explained to Krishna how Yudhishthira’s popularity as a ruler disturbed Dhritarashtra and his sons and how, after a lot of plotting among themselves, one day Dhritarashtra called Yudhishthira to him and told him to leave the position of the crown prince. He also told Yudhishthira, said Shwetaketu, to take his brothers and Kunti with him and go and live in Varanavata.
“There is no point in your going to Hastinapura now,” said Sandipani, taking over from where Shwetaketu had left telling Krishna of the events at Hastinapura. “I’ll send Shwetaketu to Kampilya with your message. Then you follow him to Kampilya as soon as you can. Now that Duryodhana is in power at Hastinapura, there is no point in your going there.”
Krishna raised his head up at these words of his guru. There was no simplicity on his face now, no smile. When Krishna spoke, it was in a voice that was at once soft and yet had the depth of the oceans. He had taken his decision once again. A decision that came from his unique wisdom and his unique perceptions. A decision that was different from his guru’s.
“Gurudev,” he said, “my dharma is clear to me now. I know what I should do. And I am going to Hastinapura.”
“But Duryodhana will not welcome you.”
“I am not going there for his welcome. So long as Yudhishthira and his brothers were in Hastinapura, dharma was on the rise there; and now that Duryodhana is in power, it is adharma that is on the rise. It is absolutely essential that I must go to Hastinapura now.”
Krishna then explained that he would leave for Hastinapura within two days. Satyaki would go with him along with sixty rathis [chariot warriors] and other needed people. They would take the shorter route through the deserts.
“But why so suddenly? What is the great hurry?” Sandipani asked.
“I sense great danger for the Pandavas,” said Krishna. “There is darkness over them. And I want to reach Hastinapura before that happens.”
Krishna’s eyes had now become steady like those of a god and an irresistible power emanated from them – power that could only be called divine.
“Please do not send my message to Kampilya, Gurudev. Instead, let Shwetaketu come with me and I’ll send a different message with him to Kampilya.”
“What message are you going to send to Kampilya?” asked Sandipani.
“That I am grateful to King Drupada for his proposal of marriage with his daughter. That I shall go to Kampilya to discuss the matter with him. And then I shall consult King Ugrasena and my father on the matter.”
In the same breath, Krishna ordered Shwetaketu to leave for Kampilya straight away with his message.
Krishna was now power itself.
Sandipani sat with wide open eyes. The youth that sat before him was no more his smiling disciple Krishna, but the god of Destiny himself. The transformation was at once scary and awe-inspiring.
“Son,” said Sandipani, “You are the best person to take the correct decision under the circumstances. I do not know what prompted you to take this decision, nor will I ask you. If dharma is showing you the path, follow it. My blessings are with you.”
This is a glimpse of the kind of leader that Krishna was. Amazingly clear perceptions, unique wisdom, strong intuitions, quickness in decision making, unshakable determination, awe-inspiring power, flexibility and willingness to change his decisions to suit changing circumstances and fresh knowledge. His decisions were always his – and those decisions were always based on the reality of the moment. They were made at the speed of lightning, but they were never impulsive.
The Tibetans say something beautiful about great leaders. Great leaders, they say, are inscrutable – they have the inscrutability of the Garuda.The inscrutability and unpredictability of the Garuda.
It is the Garuda in action we see here.
In Indian mythology, there are close connections between Krishna and Garuda.
Note: Krishna’s story has been told in a thousand ways by a thousand story tellers and will be told again by thousands more, each in his and her own way. The study here is based on KM Munshi’s Krishnavatara, one of the most brilliant retellings of Krishna’s story ever. Krishnavatara is available from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai.