Mahabharat is synonymous with the epic battle at Kurukshetra from which only a handful came back alive. But Kurukshetra was just the climax. All through the scripture, the characters are seen playing games with one another. Mind Games. While most mind games were carefully planned, some were unintended, but had same impact as the former. Some realised they were being played, some never realized, and some realized too late. Mind Games in the Mahabharat – Part 1, featured Shakuni and Duryodhan. Part 2 here covers the mind games played by the Pandavs, mainly Krishna:

  1. Krishna with Bheem & Arjun – Jarasandh

The Pandavs had turned Indraprasth into a flourishing kingdom. Under the leadership of Yudhisthir, his brothers Bheem, Arjun, Nakul and Sahadev achieved immense success in expanding their kingdom by either forging alliances or neutralizing hostilities. The endeavours got Indraprasth fame, power and copious amounts of wealth by way of tributes, which made the kingdom thrive further. The citizens were happy and felt safe, the harvests were rich, the granaries were full, markets and trade routes prospered, justice prevailed, and the society was devoid of any form of corruption. Having ticked all the boxes, Yudhisthir contemplated performing the Rajsuya sacrifice. A ritual which, when completed, gave the king a title of an emperor – the highest pedestal among royalty. No Pandav plan was ever executed without inputs and approvals from Krishna and this was no different. Krishna was in favour of Yudhisthir performing the ritual and convinced Yudhisthir that the same should be done without any delay. He, however, highlighted a threat. The king of Magadh, Jarasandh was a powerful and ambitious man. It was because of Jarasandh’s relentless attacks on Mathura* that Krishna had moved his kingdom to Dwarka. Krishna said that Jarasandh was by far the biggest and only obstacle in Yudhisthir’s coronation as emperor. Known for his super powerful and large army, brute strength, wicked tactics and use of occult sciences, Jarasandh was already planning for a Rajsuya sacrifice. Krishna also stated that it was impossible for the Pandavs to defeat Jarasandh’s army in a full-blown war, for the Pandav army was too small in size. Krishna also told Pandavs the story of Jarasandh’s birth, which made him mystically powerful. Hearing Krishna, Yudhisthir said that if Jarasandh was such an unconquerable obstacle, it was no point planning for a Rajsuya sacrifice to which his brothers disagreed. They opined that it would be coward and far too below their dignity as warriors to let go of their ambitions without trying. Bheem and Arjun reasoned that it would be an honour to die fighting, instead of sitting back. Krishna had already ruled out an all-out war and instead suggested that Bheem challenge Jarasandh for one to one duel. Only the powerful Bheem could wrestle with Jarasandh and defeat him.

Krishna, Bheem and Arjun disguised as brahmins and reached Magadh. As brahmins, they could ask Jarasandh for anything and being a king of honour, Jarasandh would always grant a brahmin’s wish. In the court, Krishna asked Jarasandh to pick any one of them for a one to one duel. Hearing such a strange request from a group of brahmins who usually asked for cattle, land or other help, Jarasandh felt something fishy, but as expected agreed to fulfil the wish. Jarasandh saw the three of them picked the bulky and powerful Bheem for a duel, stating that picking the frail looking Arjun or Krishna would be an insult for a mighty wrestler like him. Shrewd that Jarasandh was, he also realized that the trio were no brahmins but warriors and before the duel, Jarasandh asked the three to identify their true selves. Bheem and Jarasandh pounced at one another like hungry lions. Very strong and highly skilled that they both were, their duel was at a different level. Punches and chops, headbutts and kicks, moves and counter moves, all were on display. Aggressive manoeuvres were dealt with swift tackles. One would pin the other to the ground, only to be responded with a slick move out. After hours of a sweltering, sweaty and bloody duel, Bheem tore open Jarasandh’s body, thanks to a timely tip from Krishna. The one and only, seemingly invincible, obstacle in the way of Yudhisthir lay in pieces. Lifeless. Being mindful of Jarasandh’s strengths and traits, Krishna laid the trap, baited Jarasandh and had him butchered in his own backyard!

  1. Krishna with Kunti – Karn

Kunti was blessed with a boon to summon any god of her choice and the god would bless her with a son. Curious, Kunti used a boon to invoke the Sun god who appeared and honoured the boon. Since this was before her marriage, Kunti feared difficult questions about the birth of the child and abandoned the new born. The infant was found and raised by foster parents and came to be known as Karn. Having mastered archery, Karn challenged Arjun who was considered the finest archer of the time. Karn’s true identity remained unknown to all, including himself. Only Krishna, who was omniscient and Kunti, who was Karn’s biological mother knew who he really was. As circumstances and would have it, in spite of being the eldest of the Pandavs, Karn was befriended by Duryodhan, the eldest Kaurav. With the Kauravs and Pandavs being at loggerheads, Karn became the most loyal and trusted friend Duryodhan had. Karn had, over the years, become a party to Duryodhan’s misdeeds against the Pandavs. His rivalry with Arjun made him stand by Duryodhan ignoring the righteous calls of his own conscious. As war seemed inevitable, Karn one of the most powerful generals in the Kaurav army going into the battle at Kurukshetra. Karn was the only one who would fight the Pandavs ruthlessly, devoid of any affection for them. Being both capable and willing to single handedly defeat and kill the five Pandavs, Karn was the only real threat to Arjun, who he had vowed to defeat. Aware of Karn’s ability as an archer and a divine weapon he had in his quiver, Krishna was worried. He knew Karn had a fair chance of killing Arjun in battle, especially as they were completely oblivious of their true relationship.

When Krishna visited Hastinapur to make the final attempt to de-escalate tensions and restore peace among the clans, Duryodhan insulted him and disagreed to all proposals put forth. That’s when Krishna met Karn privately and disclosed his true identity. Krishna’s words knocked Karn off his feet and left him aghast. Realizing the fact that he was actually Kunti’s son and the eldest of the Pandavs made Karn weep to his fate for all his life he had been ill treated as a low caste. He was left wanting for his real family’s love and affection and the privileges that the blue blood brought. The fact that he was to fight his own brothers made him nervous and weak. Karn wailed and stated that it was rather cruel of Krishna to be revealing this to him now, with the battle so close. Krishna told Karn that he would like him to join the Pandavs who would happily accept him as their elder brother. That if Karn sided the Pandavs, Duryodhan would be left alone and there would be no war. That if Karn were to be the king, both the Kauravs and the Pandavs would wholeheartedly accept the win-win proposition. Krishna went on to state that this revelation would end the conflict once and for all, with no innocent lives being lost in war. That if Karn were to lead a kingdom comprising both Kauravs and Pandavs, there would be no other kingdom left in the world. Karn wasn’t known for his leadership and Krishna’s reasoning and convincing didn’t change that. Karn rejected Krishna’s offer, stating that the Kauravs and Pandavs had come too far to make peace with each other. Knowing his true identity from Krishna had however left Karn deeply shaken.

Unable to convince Karn himself, Krishna met Kunti and told her that he was fully aware of what had transpired and that he knew Karn was Kunti’s son, the eldest. Karn was known to grant people’s wishes and had a reputation of never denying anything to anyone who came seeking. Krishna told Kunti that though he was aware of the circumstances that led to what Kunti did a new born Karn, it was time for her to own up her deed and face Karn. He also stated that this was needed for the sake of mankind, for it could save hundreds of thousands of innocent lives from the fury of war. Krishna asked Kunti to meet Karn and convince him to join the Pandav side. That it was the only way to end the impasse and avoid the war. Krishna thought Karn would melt meeting his real mother and that he would live up to his reputation of granting peoples wishes, especially this one given it was coming from Kunti. Kunti did as directed and met Karn. The long-estranged mother and son hugged each other and wept as neither could hold back their emotions. Getting rid of the burden of her deed that she carried for years was too much for Kunti and she couldn’t stop her tears. And, feeling the warmth of his mother’s love, after years of deprivation, was too much for Karn to remain poised. Kunti felt redeemed as she kissed her son’s forehead and Karn felt complete as he touched her feet to seek her blessings. Kunti apologized for having abandoned Karn and blamed herself for the hardships he had to face. Karn, being the large-hearted Karn that the world knew him as, accepted the apology. Kunti then made the same proposals as Krishna did. Karn then told Kunti about the conversation he had with Krishna and stated that he would never leave Duryodhan, even for the sake of heavens, as it was Duryodhan who stood by him when no one else did. Karn went on to say that he regretted not doing what Kunti wanted him to and that he would also not let her go completely disappointed. Karn promised Kunti that he wouldn’t kill any of the Pandavs in the war, except Arjun. Karn reasoned that like the two warring sides, he and Arjun too had come too far in their rivalry. In what in the interest of peace at large for Krishna and redemption for Kunti, they ended up saving the other Pandavs from the wrath of Karn. Though unintentionally, Krishna made Karn give it away!

  1. Krishna with Yudhisthir & Arjun – Bhishma

The Kauravs and Pandavs were at war. Kurukshetra witnessed the largest congregation of the most well-equipped armies, led by the finest of warriors and generals of the time. Both sides had organized their forces into battalions, each led by a general. The generals reported to the commander in chief, who was responsible for overall strategy. The commander in chiefs on both sides were appointed by Yudhisthir and Duryodhan and reported directly to them. The Kauravs were led by Bhishma, the great grandfather to the warring cousins and the grand old man of the era. Going into Kurukshetra, there were four important things about Bhishma. One, he was bound by his oath to protect the rulers of Hastinapur, which currently were the Kauravs. However, Bhishma firmly believed that truth and righteousness were on the side of the Pandavs and, much to the dismay of Duryodhan, had bestowed his blessings of victory to Yudhisthir. Two, he was a warrior par excellence, had divine weapons to his disposal, was a master war strategist with immense experience and could single handedly annihilate battalions. Three, to add to his martial skills, he was also blessed with a boon to choose the time of his death which made him almost immortal and a major threat to any enemy. And four, he had decided and made it very clear to Duryodhan before the war that he wouldn’t harm or kill any of the five Pandavs at Kurukshetra. Duryodhan was flabbergasted by what Bhishma had to say, for he couldn’t imagine having a commander in chief who denies killing the enemy. But, Duryodhan was well aware that his army would never be the losing side so long as Bhishma was at its helm and that the Pandavs would always look at Bhishma in reverence rather than animosity. This made Duryodhan appoint Bhishma as the generalissimo of his forces. As it was already anticipated, Bhishma turned to be a menace for the Pandav forces. From the first bugle call, Bhishma wreaked havoc across the Pandav ranks. Battalion after battalion and general after general faced the wrath of the grand old warrior and none could thwart his forward thrusts. The Pandavs tried every formation, every manoeuvre in the book and Bhishma would run over them like hot knife in butter. The Pandav army was deeply demoralized more than wounded and its size kept reducing by the day. The only topic of contemplation and debate back in the Pandav camp in the evenings was Bhishma and ways to stop him. The think tank was running out of time and ideas to even slow down Bhishma’s carnage let alone ending it.

With no solution in sight, Krishna came up with an idea. He asked Yudhisthir and Arjun to meet Bhishma privately and return his blessings for victory that they received at the beginning of the war. Yudhisthir found the idea to be a strange one, challenging its ability to solve their problem. Krishna reasoned that Bhishma, a man of high self-esteem and values, would never take back a blessing he had so wholeheartedly given, especially to the Pandavs. Krishna also warned Yudhisthir that Bhishma would be very curious to know why the Pandavs would return his blessings and advised him to honestly state that with Bhishma around, a Pandav victory was never a possibility and it was pointless keeping a blessing that would never work. Yudhisthir smiled as he understood the plan. Krishna wanted Bhishma to divulge the secret of getting him out of the battle. The duo did as directed by Krishna and came back confused. As Krishna had expected, Bhishma had refused to take his blessings back. Upon hearing Yudhisthir’s reasons, Bhishma stated that if he faces a woman in the battlefield, he would lay his weapons down and then, Arjun knew what had to be done. Bhishma’s solution had only added to the perplexity in the Pandav camp as the rules of the war didn’t allow a woman to enter the battlefield. Again, it was Krishna who understood the message Bhishma had conveyed and asked Arjun to seek help from Shikhandi, who had his own axe to grind*. The next day in the battle, Shikhandi accompanied Arjun on his chariot. To Bhishma, Shikhandi was none other than a woman called Amba. Seeing Shikhandi, Bhishma lowered his weapons which gave Arjun a window to fire a barrage of sharp arrows that pierced through Bhishma’s body. Arjun stopped only when he had fully incapacitated Bhishma, now lying on a bed of arrows. Krishna compelled Bhishma to give away a secret. The secret of his own death!

  1. Krishna with Yudhisthir and Bheem – Drona

After Bhishma’s exit from battleground Kurukshetra, the Pandavs didn’t have a day of respite for Drona succeed as the commander in chief of the Kaurav army. Drona was the guru of the warring cousins. He was entrusted to impart martial skills to the young Kaurav and Pandav princes. It was under his tutelage that Arjun became the finest archer, Duryodhan and Bheem could excel at wielding the mace and Nakul could swing his sword so fast, it could hardly be seen. Drona was the on the Kaurav side in the war for his allegiance to the Hastinapur kingdom. Like Bhishma, Drona too had a soft corner for the Pandavs for he too believed that truth and righteousness was with the Pandavs. However, unlike Bhishma, Drona would’ve played his role professionally, not letting anything personal come in the way of his duties as the command in chief of his army. He wouldn’t have second thoughts before killing or capturing any of the Pandavs. Needless to say, his capabilities on the battlefield were unparalleled both as a warrior and a strategist. Being the guru of martial arts, he had divine weapons at his disposal, knew all battle formations in and out and had years of battle experience behind him. This made Drona more menacing than Bhishma and he lived up to it. Drona would make attempts to capture Yudhisthir which would end the war that very minute resulting in a Kaurav victory. To ensure that didn’t happen, the Pandavs had to cordon the central part of their formation where Yudhisthir was positioned by deploying their best warriors. This would leave the other fronts vulnerable and the Kaurav warriors would deplete the weaker flanks of the Pandav army very easily. Drona would often breach Yudhisthir’s line of defence only to be blocked by Arjun. The Kauravs deployed tactics to stray Arjun away in battle, so Drona could capture Yudhisthir. The most notable incidence was when Arjun was engaged in a duel on the far end of the battlefield and Drona deployed the Chakravyuh or the concentric formation to capture Yudhisthir. Arjun’s son Abhimanyu decided to take on the challenge. The boy was brutally killed by the Kauravs but only after he managed to foil Drona’s plan, much like his father would have. When Drona was at the helm of the Kaurav forces, the Pandavs lost many other important generals like Virat, Drupad and Ghatotkach.

Having had enough of Drona and unable to withstand his havoc any longer, Krishna came up with a plan. He decided to make Drona falsely believe that his son Ashwathama was dead, so as to lead him into deep sorrow, making him lay his weapons.  Arjun outrightly rejected the idea for he did not wish to use deceit against his guru. Krishna reasoned that when Drona himself was on the wrong side of truth, he saw no wrong in using half-truth to defeat him. Krishna stated that for the right to ultimately prevail, he was happy to let ends justify means. When Arjun was silenced and Yudhisthir tacitly agreed to the plan, Krishna asked Bheem to slay a war elephant named Ashwathama. Bheem hurled his powerful mace towards the elephant, killing it. Bheem then went to Drona and jubilantly claimed to have killed Ashwathama. Bheem’s boastful chest thumping made Drona believe his son was dead. To verify the fact, Drona came to Yudhisthir, asking if his son Ashwathama was indeed killed in battle. Known to be truthful under all circumstances, Yudhisthir said that Ashwathama was indeed killed, but he wasn’t sure if it was a human or an elephant. Knowing Yudhisthir would say the truth, Krishna was ready and blew his conch as soon as Yudhisthir uttered the first sentence. The deafening sound of Krishna’s conch ensured Drona couldn’t hear the second sentence and drifted in deep grief. Loosing his son was too much for Drona to handle as he dropped his weapons, removed his armour and sat on the ground with his eyes shut, holding his breath to death. Seeing Drona in that state, Dhrishtadyumna beheaded him with a slick swing of his sword, for he had his own score to settle*. Krishna’s half-truth did to Drona what no weapon or warrior could!

  1. Shalya – Karn

Shalya, the king of Madra and uncle to youngest Pandav twins Nakul and Sahadev was tricked by Duryodhan and was obliged to fight for the Kauravs in a last-minute switch. Duryodhan’s move was a good blow to the Pandavs as they lost an a fine general in Shalya, who with his army was now fighting against them. When Duryodhan offered to appoint Shalya as the commander in chief of the Kaurav army, Shalya humbly denied the position, stating he couldn’t take up the role with generals like Bhishma and Drona around. The Karn-Arjun duel was going to be one of the most anticipated and high voltage encounters of the war. Both had trained under great gurus, both had proven their mastery in archery, both had notable bows and quivers full of divine and powerful arrows. The equation had matched in all areas except one. Arjun had none other than Krishna steering his chariot*. Karn was looking at someone as deft, experienced and wise who he could rely on like Arjun would rely on Krishna. Now that Shalya was on the Kaurav side, Karn made the most of the opportunity and requested Shalya to be his charioteer. Karn’s request wasn’t out of thin air. Shalya’s lineage had something in their genes that made them fine equestrians. They had a reputation of being great charioteers and horsemen. The skill was passed on to his nephew Nakul, who was the finest warrior on a horseback in his generation. Karn thought he wouldn’t find anyone better than Shalya to hold the reins of the stallions that drove his chariot in Kurukshetra. Tricked and devoid of any choices, Shalya agreed to a grateful Karn. Having pulled a fast one, the Kauravs couldn’t ask for a better start to the war.

Although now on the Kaurav side, Shalya wanted to do something for the Pandavs. Knowing it would be treason to do so, Shalya didn’t care having been deceived. He wanted to give it back to the Kauravs. And he did. He did so by doing exactly the opposite of what Karn wanted his charioteer to do. When Karn became the commander in chief of the Kaurav army, as Karn’s charioteer, Shalya used his words to demoralize him. There wouldn’t be a conversation between the two without Shalya talking about how righteousness was on the Pandav side and that truth always prevails in the end. Shalya would remind Karn of how Kauravs had been unjust to the Pandavs and that the war they were witnessing was nothing but a means to get all culprits to the book. Shalya would repeatedly praise the Pandavs and how great warriors the likes of Bheem and Arjun were. He would shower praises on Krishna for ensuring invincibles like Bhishma and Drona were out of their way and would confidently state that with Krishna around, no threat to the Pandavs would survive too long. Karn would silently listen to what Shalya had to say. When Karn discussed aggressive battle formations and tactics, Shalya would laugh them off  stating that instead of trying to defeat the Pandavs, which Karn wasn’t capable of, he should rather focus on saving himself and delay the Kaurav defeat. Shalya would reiterate these things time and again to ensure Karn lost his confidence and focus. Things didn’t stop here. When it came to duels with Arjun, Shalya would be at his caustic best. Shalya would generally ask Karn if he was scared of Arjun and if he was ready to face Arjun’s wrath. Shalya once said that whenever he spotted an adversary as powerful as Arjun in the battlefield, his instincts as a charioteer would always find routes to flee from the scene. When reprimanded by Karn for thinking so, Shalya justified it saying it was his job to ensure Karn’s safety. Shalya would remind Karn of Arjun’s superiority as an archer, his stock of divine weapons and his fearlessness which matched that of the gods. When Karn would argue that he was no less, Shalya would get to Karn’s past. He would remind Karn how Indra had already taken away his divine armour* and that the thunderbolt he got in return was a thing of the past, having used it to kill Ghatotkach. Getting even more personal, Shalya also reminded Karn about the curses he got from his guru and a brahmin and how they’re going to add to his misery in the battlefield. Shalya would constantly try and give Karn a feeling that his defeat at the hands of Arjun was nothing but a certainty and all he should do is brace for the same and put up a brave face. While Shalya’s army fought for Duryodhan, his words were doing their best for the Pandavs. While Shalya’s words couldn’t weaken Karn’s resolve to fight bravely, they definitely ensured Karn’s confidence didn’t grow. A fine general like Shalya knew confidence played a bigger role than determination and capability and that’s what he ensured eluded Karn. Karn as at the receiving end of Shalya’s sarcasm, pointed remarks, mocking and ridiculing which ended up being more effective than his weapons could ever be. Karn was paying the price of Duryodhan’s deceit with Shalya – who knew revenge was best served cold!


Also read: Mind Games in the Mahabharat – Part 1 of 2. Shakuni & the Kauravs

3 thoughts on “Mind Games in the Mahabharat – Part 2 of 2. Krishna & the Pandavs

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