I have for long intended to take a close look at the several sins Krishna is accused of both by Indian culture and by westerners. When I recently read Elaine Fisher’s paper The Devious God: Mythological Roots of Krishna’s Trickery in the Mahabharata, which heavily depends on material from such scholars as Bimal Krishna Matilal, Alf Hiltebeitel and Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, my desire became stronger. It was then that I received a call from a friend of mine, a professor, an author and a scholar of great repute himself, who calls me up once every couple of months from the other side of the world to discuss long distance different aspects of Indian culture. My friend loves Krishna. This time his question was about the ‘apparently immoral acts of Krishna,’ as he put it. How do we explain them, he asked. I have dealt with this question in part in my article Krishna: A Study in Transformational Leadership, available online, based on a class lecture I gave at XLRI School of Business a few years ago. However, I felt it is a good time to take that closer look.
One of the sins Krishna is accused of is the way he achieves Bhishmavadha – getting Bhishma ‘killed’ at the hands of Arjuna. And that is what I shall look into in this study.
Following the ancient tradition beginning with the Mahabharata itself, I shall continue to use the word kill here, though Arjuna does not actually kill Bhishma, since he, because of a boon, could not be killed by anyone, but could choose his time of death. The Adi Parva tells us:
Shantanu, seeing the impossibly hard thing done by Bhishma, being pleased with him, gave him the power of death at will.
Bhishmavadha happens, as everyone familiar with the Mahabharata knows, on the tenth day of the epic battle. Krishna is accused of deviousness and duplicity here. He is accused of making the Pandavas go to Bhishma on the night of the ninth day and seek from him the secret of how he could be killed. Then, as suggested by Bhishma, during the next day’s battle he has Arjuna hide behind Shikhandi and kill him while Bhishma gives up battle seeing Shikhandi in front of him.
Now let’s take a look at the events as the Mahabharata describes them. I am following here the story as the popular Sanskrit text [Gita Press] narrates it and not as the Critical Edition does, though the quotations are mostly from the Critical text. The popular text is more detailed.
Towards the end of the ninth day of the battle, Bhishma is in one of his fiercest moods. Throughout the day he had been in a fiery mood – the previous night Duryodhana had gone to his tent at night, riding a horse, leading a large procession, accompanied by musicians with several of his friends on elephants – making sure it is a very public affair. There he had practically asked Bhishma to resign as commander-in-chief since he was achieving nothing for him. On the ninth day Bhishma was fighting under this humiliation. The Pandava army was fleeing everywhere in dread. Such was the chaos unleashed in the battlefield by Bhishma’s slaughter that in the pandemonium that resulted fathers blindly killed sons, sons killed fathers and friends killed friends. Pandava soldiers were fleeing in every direction – they had removed their armours and helmets, so that they will not be attacked, and as they fled helter-skelter, their hair blew wildly in the wind.
Krishna has the greatest respect for Bhishma – perhaps he respects him more than he respects anyone else in the Mahabharata, with the exception of Vyasa. But he now realizes killing Bhishma is a desperate need and it cannot be delayed any further. He asks Arjuna to fulfill the vow he had taken in the middle of kings at Virata – that he shall kill Bhishma in battle.
In spite of all the slaughter that Bhishma is doing and all the havoc he is causing, Arjuna is still not ready to kill the grandsire. He is in the same dilemma as he was at the beginning of the Gita: “Tell me Krishna” he says, “what is better for me? Obtaining the kingdom by killing those who should not be killed, which will be worse than hell, or the sorrows of life in the jungle?”
He then reluctantly asks Krishna to take the chariot to where Bhishma is and says he shall now fell [pātayishyāmi] Bhishma. Krishna does that, but soon realizes that Arjuna is not fighting as he should – while the grandsire is ferocity itself, like the fire that engulfs everything at the end of the world [yugāntam iva], Arjuna is still fighting mildly [mrduyuddha].
Krishna watches it for a long time, while mighty warriors and ordinary soldiers alike fall dead all around him, cut down mercilessly by Bhishma. Finally, he is unable to stand Arjuna’s softness to Bhishma any more. He knows the damage Arjuna’s attitude is doing, the devastation it is causing to his own army. Enraged, in a moment of exasperation, he drops the reins and jumps down from the chariot possessed by a blinding fury. With no weapons in hand, holding just his charioteer’s whip, he races towards Bhishma like an angry storm. His eyes are red. The earth shakes at every step he takes. People who watch the scene shiver in terror and cry out spontaneously – “Bhishma is finished, Bhishma is dead”.
Arjuna himself jumps down from the chariot now and runs after Krishna. He clings to him from behind and reminds him of his vow not to fight in the war. Such is Krishna’s rage that Arjuna’s hold from behind has no effect on him and he drags Arjuna along, as he continues his race towards Bhishma. Then Arjuna tries to hold him back by clinging to his feet. He now declares to Krishna that he shall kill Bhishma. By then Krishna has taken ten more steps dragging Arjuna along with him. When Arjuna makes that promise, Krishna, still fuming and silent, but pleased with what Arjuna has said, walks back towards the chariot.
Soon however the sun sets in the west and the battle is stopped for the day.
That night the Pandavas sit in consultation among themselves, along with Krishna and perhaps other leaders on their side.
During the discussion Yudhishthira confesses to Krishna that he does not like the idea of battling against Bhishma [na yuddham rocate mahyam bhīshmena saha mādhava], but at the same time Bhishma is killing his soldiers in battle [hanti bhīshmo mahāvīro mama sainyam ca samyuge]. He also admits that when Bhishma is in his form, it is impossible to have victory over him [na tu bhīshmah susamkruddhah śakyo jetum mahāhave]. He sees only one solution – go to the jungle and live there, which according to him is a much better option [vanam yāsyāmi durdharsha śreyo vai tatra me matam.]. They are, he says, like moths flying towards their death and Bhishma is a blazing fire. Forget about the kingdom, their very survival seems to be in question. And, says Yudhishthira, his one desire at the moment is to remain alive [jeevitam bahu manye’ham jeevitam hyadya durlabham]. Yudhishthira speaks in this tone for long [bahuvistaram].
Krishna is moved by compassion [kāruNyāt] by the dharma-obsessed king’s grief and consoles him. He praises his, Yudhishthira’s, brothers, describing them surpassingly mighty and capable of winning the war by themselves. But if Arjuna does not want to kill Bhishma, then, he says, if he has Yudhishthira’s permission, he, Krishna himself, would enter the battle. Please give him permission, and he would challenge Bhishma, battle with him and kill him. There is nothing he would not do for Arjuna – he would pull out his flesh itself and give it away if that would help Arjuna. And so would Arjuna give up his life for his, Krishna’s, sake. Because of his friendship with Arjuna, it becomes his duty to fulfill Arjuna’s oath. Arjuna is not only his friend, but also his disciple and his relation.
There is no deviousness here, no duplicity, no betrayal. Krishna does not recommend any guileful means to eliminate Bhishma from the battle. His plan befits the highest ideals of warriorhood. He would challenge Bhishma in open battle and kill him there right before the eyes of Duryodhana and his men. In fact, because of his commitment to Arjuna and the Pandavas he would even break his own word and enter the battle if that would help. The ill-fame that he would accrue through that does not bother him.
Ill-fame never bothered Krishna at any time in his life once he knew what the right thing for him to do was. In this he is a complete contrast to Rama, for whom the opinion of the world was of utmost importance and for the sake of which, he would even abandon his wife whom he loved beyond words, who he knew loved him equally, and of whose purity he did not have the least doubt. Krishna does not take his decisions by asking himself what everybody will think. He might ask Arjuna that question, but never felt it applied to him. His commitment was to higher ideals than public opinion. Ninda, scandal and disrepute, has always followed Krishna like a shadow – Krishna never bothered about it, nor did it ever stop him from doing what he thought was right.
Krishna also defines through his words here what friendship means. His friendship with Arjuna is the highest kind of friendship – nothing higher is possible. So is his loyalty to Arjuna.
Well, Yudhishthira refuses to consider Krishna’s offer, which is the right thing for him to do. Showing the maturity befitting a man of his position and an elder cousin of Krishna, he says no to Krishna. He reminds him of his vow not to enter the battle.
And then, as an alternative, he – Yudhishthira – places another idea before them all.
It is central to our discussion to understand that this suggestion comes from Yudhishthira. And unprompted by anyone, all on his own. There hasn’t been even the shadow of such a suggestion from anyone present there – neither from Krishna, nor from the other Pandavas or the other people who were presumably there, like Dhrishtadyumna, Satyaki, Drupada, Virata and so on. This idea is Yudhishthira’s very own.
Let me translate here from the Critical Edition the entire short passage in which Yudhishthira makes this proposal.
“Bhishma has made an agreement with me, O Madhava, that he will give me advice but will never fight on my behalf – fighting he will do for Duryodhana. Such is the truth, O Lord. So he will give me advice and [through that] the kingdom, O Madhava. Therefore, let’s again ask Bhishma about how he can be killed – you and all of us together. So, if you like it, O Krishna, let us all go to Bhishma, the best of men, immediately and ask for his counsel. He shall give us advice that will be true and good for us, O Janardana. I shall proceed in this battle, Krishna, exactly as he will tell us. Firmly committed to his word, he will certainly give us both counsel and victory.
“As children without a father, it is he who brought us up. It is that beloved grandsire, the father of our father, that we want to kill in his old age! Shame on the way of life of the kshatriyas!”
What Yudhishthira is doing here is recalling Bhishma’s promise to him on the opening day of the war. On that day, as the two armies stood facing each other, Yudhishthira had removed his armour, crown and weapons, and unarmed, his hair open and lose, had walked towards the Kaurava army, his palms joined together in reverence. Everyone, including his brothers, was initially confused. Krishna explained the situation to them and then they all followed Yudhishthira. Reaching Bhishma, Yudhishthira touched his feet in respect and sought his permission to fight against him. Bhishma wished him victory in war and, pleased with his conduct, asked him to ask for a boon. Since Bhishma had made it clear that he was bound to fight for Duryodhana and would do so, Yudhishthira had asked him to give him his counsel. Bhishma had asked him what counsel he needed and Yudhishthira had told him:
“Since that is the unfortunate case, O Grandsire, I bow to you and ask, please tell me how you could be killed by others in battle”.
In response, Bhishma had told him:
“Time hasn’t come for me to die. Come to me later.”
Yudhishtira now knows that time has come. He uses the word ‘again’ here in suggesting they go to Bhishma now – bhūyah. What he means is let’s do that again now, as I had done on that occasion.
Yudhishthira shows his nobility again here by recalling how Bhishma had looked after them lovingly, orphans that they were, while they were children. He regrets that it is that grandsire he has to kill and curses the dharma of the kshatriyas [dhig astu kshatrajīvikām].
[Throughout the Mahabharata, Bhishma is referred to as the grandfather of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, though he is actually their granduncle. By Indian custom of the day, and even of today in many parts of the country, an uncle is referred to as father, and a granduncle, as grandfather. To make the distinctions clear, sometimes the terms younger father or elder father and younger grandfather or elder grandfather are used. The feelings of reverence towards an uncle and a granduncle too were/are those towards a father and a grandfather.]
Krishna approves of Yudhishthira’s plan. Together, they go to Bhishma that night itself, after removing their armours and weapons. And there, after bowing before him reverentially, Yudhishthira asks the grandsire how they could win the war and obtain the kingdom. He also asks him to tell them how he could be killed:
“Please, tell us yourself how you could be killed.”
Bhishma tells them that he will not fight Shikhandi on any account. The standard on Shikhandi’s flag is inauspicious, he is a transsexual, having once been a woman and then transformed into a male. He has vowed not to fight against anyone whose symbol is inauspicious or who is or once was a woman. He will not fight Shikhandi because of both these reasons.
He then suggests that they put Shikhandi in front, or someone else of Shikhandi’s nature, and then fight him. Then from behind him, Arjuna should fell him. If they do that, their victory is assured.
The Pandavas and Krishna bow to Grandsire Bhishma and come back.
However, no one really likes the idea Bhishma has suggested. Arjuna positively hates it. Once again he tells Krishna he cannot kill Bhishma. He remembers playing in the lap of the grandfather as a child. Once, as a child, he had called Bhishma father and Bhishma had corrected him lovingly, telling him he was not his father, but his father’s father. How can he kill that man? He declares:
“Let him slaughter my army as he wishes. Le us win the war or let me be killed. But I shall not fight with that noble man. Tell me Krishna, what do you think?”
When Arjuna asks Krishna to tell him what he thinks of it, Krishna takes recourse to the supernatural and tells him that thus has Bhishma’s death been decided by the gods a long time ago. And then he quotes Brihaspati. Quoting the great acharya of Nitishastra, the Science of Polity, Krishna says:
“Even if he is someone senior to you or an aged person, or someone endowed with virtues, if he comes to you to kill you and thus becomes an ātatāyi, you must kill him. This, O Arjuna, is the eternal dharma of the kshatriyas.”
An atatayi is a great sinner. The meaning of the term includes anyone who is making an attempt on your life, even though he may not be a sinner otherwise.
Arjuna eventually says:
“Shikhandi shall certainly become Bhishma’s death. Every single time Bhishma lays his eyes on him, he retreats. So we shall keep Shikhandi in front of him and fell Bhishma through the means he has suggested. I shall stop the other great warriors with my arrows and let the mighty warrior Shikhandi focus all his attention on fighting Bhishma.”
It is interesting to note here that even now Arjuna does not once say he shall kill Bhishma. That is an unacceptable duty that he would perform, but he would not admit it, or name it, even to himself. It is ‘we’ who shall kill Bhishma – not ‘I’. Not Arjuna.
We see here then that Krishna has no role whatsoever in planning to have Bhishma killed through Arjuna who would fight standing behind Shikhandi. He was there when the suggestion was made by Bhishma, true. But the idea of going to Bhishma was not his, nor was the idea that Arjuna should attack Bhishma from behind Shikhandi.
Is Krishna being devious and deceptive in telling Arjuna that he has to kill Bhishma? What is going on is a battle and Arjuna is the best warrior on the Pandava side and Bhishma, the commander-in-chief and arguably the fiercest warrior on the enemy side. True, both of them love each other dearly. Both of them respect each other as warriors and as men of the highest integrity. Human feelings are the most natural things under such circumstances, and they should be there. If such feelings were not there, these men would not only not have been great men, but would have fallen below the level of ordinary humanity. But what is going on is a war and that war makes it necessary that Krishna gives strength and courage to Arjuna and helps him see things in the right perspective. As Krishna himself says, he is Arjuna’s friend and relation, and Arjuna is his disciple. Arjuna counts on Krishna’s wisdom to guide him – he has chosen Krishna against Krishna’s army for this reason and not because he was a good charioteer. Arjuna has just asked him: katham vā krshna manyase – “Krishna, what do you think?”
By telling Arjuna it is his duty now to kill Bhishma, Krishna does no more than what he is supposed to do under the circumstances. Honestly and in a straight forward way. With no deviousness.
Let’s now see if Krishna uses any other devious means in the execution of the plan. Does he use any duplicity in the battlefield itself to have Bhishma killed on the tenth day, other than what was suggested by Bhishma himself?
Skipping other details of this crucial day, the tenth day of the war, let us go straight to where the incidents that concern us take place. As the sun begins going down on the west, we find Bhishma tired of the carnage and devastation he has been spreading all around him for ten days. Deep despondency sets in and he now feels he has no interest in living any more. He just wants to die, and die fast. He does not any more want to continue the slaughter he has been doing for the last ten days.
He addresses Yudhishthira who happens to be near him at that time and tells him:
“Yudhishthira, wise man that you are and a master of all scriptures, listen to my words, son, that are in accordance with dharma and will give you heaven. I have totally lost all interest in this body, O Bharata. I have spent too much time killing men in battles. For that reason, if you want to do what will please me, please endeavor to get me killed by putting Arjuna as well as the Panchalas and Srinjayas in front.”
Yudhishthira announces to his soldiers and chief warriors that they need not fear Bhishma any more. They are going to have their victory over Bhishma now, because Arjuna is going to attack him, keeping Shikhandi in front of him. The warriors attack Bhishma, but they are opposed by Duhshasana. By then Arjuna joins the battle, attacking Bhishma, with Shikhandi as his cover. Other warriors join in on both sides. Shikhandi attacks Bhishma and wounds him, but Bhishma does not attack him in return. On one occasion, Bhishma is about to attack Arjuna with a mantra-empowered weapon [divyāstra] but at that time Shikhandi comes before him and seeing him, Bhishma withdraws the weapon.
Soon the Pandavas, with Shikhandi before them, attack Bhishma as a team, surrounding him from all sides. His armour is in ruins and he is getting wounded at vital points, but that does not upset Bhishma. At one point he is battling with and wounding simultaneously six maharathis on the Pandava side – Satyaki, Bhima, Arjuna, Virata, Drupada, and Dhrishtadyumna. Arjuna chops down Bhishma’s bow with an arrow of his. The Kaurava maharathis get enraged at this. Seven of them together attack Arjuna – Drona, Kritavarma, Jayadratha, Bhurishrava, Salva, Shalya and Bhagadatta. Seeing them attacking Arjuna several Pandava heroes come running there – Satyaki, Bhima, Dhrishtadyumna, Virata, Drupada, Ghatotkacha and Abhimanyu. A hair-raising battle now ensues among these giants, which the Mahabharata compares to the battle between the Devas and the Asuras of old.
After Arjuna has chopped down Bhishma’s bow, as the old warrior stands bowless, Shikhandi wounds him and his charioteer. He then destroys Bhishma’s flagpole. Bhishma in the meantime picks up another bow, which too Arjuna cuts off. Every time Bhishma picks up a new bow, Arjuna cuts it off.
An angry Bhishma now picks up a powerful shakti, and Arjuna breaks that too with his arrows into five pieces. Bhishma knows he can strike back, but he remembers that it is his dear Pandu’s son who is attacking him, and also that Shikhandi is standing in front of him. He remembers the boon that he has received – his power to choose his own death. And he concludes that time has come for him to choose that death.
“Long ago when Father married Kali [Satyavati], pleased with me he gave me the boon of death at will as well as immortality in battle. And now I think the time has come for me to choose that death.”
He continues putting up a fight, but his fight now does not have the power it had all along. Arjuna realizes the decisive time has come. He attacks Bhishma with a steady flow of arrows. Shikhandi too continues attacking him.
Bhishma gives up battling and turning to Duhshasana who is either in Bhishma’s own chariot or in a nearby one, tells him with a smile on his face: “These arrows are striking me like lightning. No, these arrows cannot be Shikhandi’s – neme bānāh śikhandinah.”
“I am being wonded terribly by the arrows of Arjuna. The arrows that Arjuna shoots incessantly at me hit me with the force of lightning. No, these arrows are not Shikhandi’s – neme bānāh śikhandinah.”
“These arrows penetrate my armour and pierce my very vitals. They hit me with the force of pounding rods. No, these arrows are not Shikhandi’s – neme bānāh śikhandinah.”
“They are as unbearable as Indra’s vajra and the staff of the lord of death. Unstoppable like the thunderbolt, they torment my very life. No, these arrows are not Shikhandi’s – neme bānāh śikhandinah.”
“As damaging as the messengers of Death, they destroy my pranas. O, how they hit me like maces and bludgeons! No, these arrows are not Shikhandi’s – neme bānāh śikhandinah.”
“Like enraged snakes filled with poison and projecting their tongues out, these arrows pierce my very vitals. No, these arrows are not Shikhandi’s – neme bānāh śikhandinah.”
“These arrows puncture my body even as baby crabs break open their mother’s body. These arrows are Arjuna’s. No, these arrows are not Shikhandi’s – neme bānāh śikhandinah.”
Again and again, as each time the arrows strike him with the force of pounding rods and the rod of the lord of death, with the force of maces and bludgeons, Bhishma, in unendurable pain, keeps saying – neme bānāh śikhandinah. No, these arrows are not Shikhandi’s.
Soon there is not one inch in Bhishma’s body that is not covered by arrows.
As the sun approaches the western horizon, the end comes. The mighty grandsire of the Bharatas falls down from his chariot, his head facing the eastern direction, the arrows piercing his body not allowing his old body to touch the ground. They form his final bed of rest – he will lie there in that condition long after all the slaughter of the battlefield is over and the war had ended in the victory of the Pandavas. He will await utttarayana, the northern solstice, to come and then when that period, considered auspicious to die, begins, he will finally end his life on earth.
This then, in brief, is how the Mahabharata describes the incidents after the Pandavas plan Bhishma’s death based on the idea given by Bhishma himself. As can be seen, Krishna’s role in the subsequent events leading to the grandsire’s death is no more than that of Arjuna’s charioteer. In the final battle scenes that culminate in Bhishma’s death, we know Krishna is there because he has to be driving Arjuna’s chariot, but otherwise he is not active at all.
Neither in planning the death of Bhishma nor in its execution does Krishna play any devious or dubious role.
Krishna commits no sin in the Bhishmavadha episode.
Note: All translations from the Mahabharata are mine. When the Sanskrit text is taken from the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute’s Critical Edition, the verse numbers are given before the verses. When it is taken from the Gita Press edition, verse numbers come after the verses. I have made certain compromises with the transcription of Sanskrit text since the blog does not recognise some characters commonly used for Sanskrit transcription.
01094094a tad drshTvā dushkaram karma krtam bhīshmena śantanuh
01094094c svacchandamaraNam tasmai dadau tushTah pitā svayam
06055037a jaghānātra pitā putram putraś ca pitaram tathā
06055037c priyam sakhāyam cākrande sakhā daivabalātkrtah
06055038a vimucya kavacān anye pānduputrasya sainikāh
06055038c prakīrya keśān dhāvantah pratyadrśyanta bhārata
avadhyānām vadham krtvā rājyam vā narakottaram
duhkhāni vanavāse vā kim nu me sukrtam bhavet. 06.106.038
06103029a hanishyāmi rane bhīshmam āhūya purusharshabham
06103029c paśyatām dhārtarāshTrānām yadi necchati phalgunah
06103030a yadi bhīshme hate rājañ jayam paśyasi pāndava
06103030c hantāsmy ekarathenādya kuruvrddham pitāmaham
hanta prcchāmi tasmāt tvām pitāmaha namo’stu te
vadhopāyam bravīhi tvam ātmanah samare paraih 06.043.047
06041043c na tāvan mrtyukālo me punar āgamanam kuru
06103059a bhavān hi no vadhopāyam bravītu svayam ātmanah
06103081a esha tasmāt purodhāya kam cid anyam mamāgratah
06103081c mām pātayatu bībhatsur evam te vijayo bhavet
06103089a kāmam vadhyatu me sainyam nāham yotsye mahātmanā
06103089c jayo vāstu vadho vā me katham vā krshna manyase