For the sura, the hero, there is no return from death, except in the words of epic poetry…”
The hero must hold immense mystique if he returns from death time and again to become the subject of extensive research. Especially if one is not sure that he existed at all.
Kevin McGrath’s Heroic Krsna is an analysis of one such enigmatic mythological character. McGrath examines Krsna’s role as a friend and charioteer (suta) to Arjuna in the epic poem Mahabharata. But his Krsna is not the performer of miracles and the deity with innumerable followers. His Krsna is a poet, strategist and military adviser. His Krsna is mortal.
McGrath claims that Krsna’s life can be divided into that of the child, the warrior and the divine deity. This book’s focus is on the second stage with Krsna and Arjuna’s friendship as its cornerstone.
Of all mythological characters believed to be avatars of Vishnu, Krsna seems to be the only one who forges notable friendships, namely with Sudama and Arjuna. The only other relationship that comes to mind in this context is that of Rama and Hanuman, but there is an element of subservience there which is in contrast to the oneness of Krsna and Arjuna that McGrath details in the book.
Two events ensure that Krsna becomes inextricably linked to the fate of the Kurus and Pandavas. They are Subhadra’s (Krsna’s sister) wedding to Arjuna, and his accepting the role of a charioteer during the war. The first shapes the alliance of the Yadavas and Pandavas and the second makes him the “driver” of most of the war events.
Sutas, considered to be gifted with tact and strategy, are also poets who use words to raise the morale of the warrior they are driving. McGrath says it is thanks to them, the suta-poets, that we have the Mahabharata in its current form. It is the task of the charioteer to note the warrior’s heroics during the combat and spread his praises far and wide. The chariot itself is seen as the medium through which a warrior will achieve fame.
Before the war, Krsna declares he will not draw blood or kill anyone. He stays true to his promise but his words become the most potent weapon used in the war. He is the one who tells Arjuna how to kill Jayadratha—predominantly responsible for Abhimanyu’s (Arjuna’s son) death, he encourages Arjuna to shoot the killing arrow when Karna is incapacitated, he prompts Yuddhishthira to effectively lie to Dronacharya about his son, Ashwatthama’s death, and he is the one who tells Bheema to flout the rules of mace fighting to kill Duryodhana.
Krsna uses words to motivate, coax, berate and praise the Pandavas. These are carefully chosen words, words which at times involve adharma, words employed at the most appropriate times to ensure victory of the Pandavas.
McGrath says of Krsna’s tactics: “It is a mental activity that concerns awareness, thought, perception, and something else that is magnetic and strangely unspeakable.” For believers of Krsna, the God, the “magnetic and unspeakable”, amplify his divine status. McGrath though dwells on Krsna’s “awareness, thought and perception”. Traits that make him human, albeit a supremely talented one.
In a battle between Salva and Krsna, the former misleads Krsna into believing that he has killed his father, Vasudeva. Krsna falters for a moment. This moment, when he becomes a victim of maya, is seen by McGrath as a strong sign of his mortality. For if he were divine, he should have been able to see through this trickery. While most writings on mythology work with the assumption that Krsna, the divine knows everything and everything is part of His plan, McGrath’s book presents a different, pragmatic approach to Krsna.
McGrath’s work is an interesting study of times, roles and emotions far removed from the world we live in. It is not a narration of how certain events unfold in the epic, but of how they are sung, recited and represented.
Sanskrit shlokas are used extensively to describe the war and the emotions of the characters. The book becomes more comprehensible and interesting if one is able to understand at least some Sanskrit.
While reading McGrath’s Heroic Krsna, one has to unlearn the way Mahabharata has been read and understood till now.
Gayatri Chandrasekaran is a copy editor at Mint.