Heroic Kṛṣṇa: Portrait of a Charioteer

Kevin McGrath


Kṛṣṇa in the epic Mahābhārata appears in the poem as a superhuman and heroic figure and as an intimate companion and charioteer of his friend Arjuna; nowhere else in the Mahābhārata is such a close and constant amity portrayed by the poets as with these two heroes. [1] The following is a study of the practical relationship that exists in the Sanskrit epic between an archaic charioteer and a warrior and the emotions of mutuality that lie between these two heroes; or, the nature of what it means to be sakhā, suhṛd, or sahāya, ‘a friend’. [2] Nowhere else in the entire Indo-European epic corpus is there such a fine and powerfully distinguished portrait of a charioteer, both in action and at rest; and certainly, nowhere else in this kind of literature is there such an acutely depicted image of a truly vivacious friendship.
Apart from the management of their vehicle and its four horses, Kṛṣṇa, unlike all the other heroes in the poem is unique insofar as he accomplishes his actions primarily through speech: he does things with words not weapons, these are his instruments. He is completely unlike other heroes insofar as he does not act in a martial fashion. As we shall see, apart from his charioteering, that completely verbal manner is the nature or substance of Kṛṣṇa’s activity throughout the poem: he is a SPEAKER of great finesse and effect.
Certainly there exists a powerful unity between Karṇa and Duryodhana but it is founded upon a condition of fealty rather than of shared emotions; the poets do not portray this companionship with the degree of constancy and detail that they give to Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. When Duryodhana, in the Ādi parvan, asks what he can give to Karṇa, the other replies, sakhitvaṃtvayā, ‘friendship with you’ (I.126.15). For Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna however there exists a deep kinship bond as well as a great unity of action which makes their fellowship almost intransitive; as we shall see, this is founded upon the movement of a chariot.
We shall also examine how important the office of charioteer was in the culture of bronze age north-western India. This position was not only one of high social standing but it also required a man adept and skilled in many arts: as driver and controller of horses, as poet, as diplomatic messenger to royal courts, as physician at times, and as a well-qualified advisor to his hero with whom he has a profound attachment. [3] This epic charioteer often behaves like the Platonic Socrates, someone who is cognisant of what constituted ‘the good’; he is a morally capable personage—if not an initiate of esoteric and spiritual teaching—of both practical wisdom and ethical mastery. It is really this multifarious position of charioteer that stamps the most fundamental outline of Kṛṣṇa in epic Mahābhārata, and thus—in a sense—Kṛṣṇa supplies the particular or personal image for what is a more general or cultural depiction of the nature of a bronze age Indo-Āryan charioteer. Mention of other charioteers in the poem are cursory if not mute and no other warrior is supplied in the narrative with such a distinct companion to his charioteering: certainly, Kṛṣṇa is the consummate driver in epic Mahābhārata and he is the sole character to provide the ideal picture of a complex charioteer-hero. As we shall see, the duality which Kṛṣṇa exhibits with Arjuna—in terms of emotion—is with the dharmarāja Yudhiṣṭḥira manifest on a far more political level to the extent that these two appear to actually share sovereignty.
Certainly the mortal Kṛṣṇa does become divine—both in the epic and in history—in the sense of possessing the status and bearing of a deity, but his primary force in the poem’s narrative—as I shall argue in this study—is principally and originally heroic: this essay concerns the kṣatriya Kṛṣṇa. His father, Vasudeva, is a king and Kṛṣṇa represents such kṣatriya ideals of rule and lineage. [4] For instance, during the Bhīṣma parvan it is Kṛṣṇa who reminds the Pāṇḍavas that:

śāśvato’yaṃ sthito dharmaḥ kṣatriyāṇāṃ dhanaṃjaya
yoddhavyaṃ rakṣitavyaṃ ca yaṣṭavyaṃ cānasūyubhiḥ
This dharma of kṣatriyas is perpetually founded, Dhanaṃjaya:
To fight, and to protect, and to sacrifice without envy.


Similarly, after all the fighting is over and in the past, when Yudhiṣṭhira is one day remorseful and grieving for all those who have been destroyed—his sons especially—it is Kṛṣṇa who speaks out to remind him of kṣatriya dharma, of how grief is intrinsic to the life of a warrior. For grief is the one emotion which is instrumental in causing kṣatriyas to be spiritually strong, insofar as much of their work—or culture—concerns death. He says, tyaja śokaṃ mahārāja, ‘put aside grief, O great king’:

yuktaṃ hi yaśasā kṣatraṃ svargaṃ prāptum asaṃśayam
For it is certainly appropriate by fame to obtain a kṣatriya heaven.


It is this warrior aspect—and not the supernatural form of Kṛṣṇa as an avatāra of the deity Viṣṇu—which is the subject of the present analysis; divinity is something that comes to the cult of Kṛṣṇa during the early centuries of the common era and by modern times Kṛṣṇa is a great deity and the object of much devotion and ritual in India. [5] As a divine figure Kṛṣṇa cannot be a staunch friend insofar as friendship is a joint emotion that is utterly human and terrestrial; mortals are not friends with deities.

In this essay I examine what I envision to be an earlier and thoroughly heroic status of the poem when it still existed in a preliterate form, examining the narrative as it concerns Kṛṣṇa as he exists in that hypothetically ‘earlier’ telling. [6] In this pursuit I follow two intellectual and methodological traditions. This study is written very much in the conceptual tradition as developed at Harvard by Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and Gregory Nagy; a tradition that views preliteracy and rhythmical speech from the point of view of the techniques of oral formulation in such a medium. [7]
The present work follows in the intellectual style of the Parry-Lord-Nagy school of epic poetics, particularly in a line of thought developed by Mary Carroll Smith who assembled what she considered to be an “archaic, Aryan, warrior song imbedded in the vast brahmanical or priestly redaction of Mahābhārata.” In a narrative that she proposed, made up of the irregular triṣṭubh verses of the epic which she had identified and collated, she noticed “an almost complete absence of Brahmins in the core text”, and this she related to “the warrior domination of moral and spiritual affairs in the Vedic period of India.” [8] This study follows in that conceptual tradition although I do not proceed in the technical manner which she developed.
We cannot reconstruct any contingency for ancient preliterate performance nor can we arrange a taxonomy of early heroes. There exists what we know of as an Indo-Āryan tradition in which sometimes we can perceive patterns of identity or similarity between cognate systems of verse. Previously I have argued that there exist certain formal and narrative homologies in the life-cycle of Achilles and of Karṇa, for instance, and Jamison has similarly drawn our attention to patterns of speech that are congruent in the language of Draupadī and Helen. [9] We nowadays accept the idea that written literature builds upon and incorporates preliterate traditions, there is nothing radical in this view, and it is at this point that my analysis begins.
It is also pertinent to think in terms of how the organisation of thought moves from the preliterate to the literate, for these two systems of meaning—two arrangements for presenting human values—are two different media altogether. [10] To put this more specifically, how was it that Kṛṣṇa the warrior became translated into Kṛṣṇa the deity? For Kṛṣṇa the hero was first expressed in a poetry that was unwritten and simply performed whereas Kṛṣṇa who is divine was an aspect of an Indic world where literacy existed as a medium of recall; there is both an historical and material transition between these two stages of thought.
These are the two different kinds of original poetry that have been merged or woven into one larger textus—what we know as the Mahābhārata today or the Pune Critical Edition—and hence the quality of the poem now appears for us as an ‘assembly of parts’, or as bricolage. [11] This is not the case with other cognate epics like the Homeric Iliad, for instance. The merging must have occurred in early classical times and have been an arrangement or renovation achieved by the poet-editors. It is my assertion that preliterate poetics were fundamental to any Vedic poetry whilst literacy was more the medium of classical and early Hindu composition.
In the Mahābhārata the narrative moves in a manner that is not always serial, for suddenly the course of the poem will shift to another register and a completely different narrative will be engaged, perhaps for many adhyāyas; and then the story will return to its former setting. This transilience gives an almost ‘cubist’ quality to the poem and it is as if the song is composed of disparate yet harmonised planes or dimensions, wherein the song constantly shifts into not so much sub-narratives but equi-narratives. The crepuscular Vedic world that is portrayed in parts of the early Ādi parvan subscribe to such a model of poetics, where Śakuntalā, Vasiṣṭha, Kaśyapa, and others appear in the text and in effect merge different historical periods—what in the Irish epic tradition are referred to as remscéla, ‘pre-tales’—before the epic moves to Pāṇḍu and later to the wooing and marriage of Draupadī. [12] The presence of the Gītā in Book Six of the poem is a fine example of such poetics, for suddenly the movement of the epic jumps from one kind of telling to another, which is completely different in content as well as form and temporal reference. In all this style of bricolage there occurs a registry of disjunction, an out-of-sequencing, although in terms of structure the change of pattern is aesthetically concordant: the didactic, the genealogical, the folkloric, and the initiatory are made conjunct with what was once primarily heroic, and so the narrative lacks linear uniformity. [13]
In such a scheme the Mahābhārata poet-editors can be viewed in terms of what Lévi- Strauss referred to as bricoleurs. [14] Even though our present Critical Edition of the epic is thoroughly drawn from literate or written sources its arrangement can be seen to be in part thoroughly preliterate in foundation simply by virtue of the nature of those original sources which the editors drew upon in order to assemble their text. [15] This is what makes for the Mahābhārata as we have it today in the Critical Edition, to be so—as it is often said—encyclopaedic and extraordinarily inclusive or syncretic: two different styles of thinking or media for organising meaning have been combined into one work of art in order to produce a compendious and unitary poem. To express this in terms of La Pensée Sauvage, the four Kurukṣetra Books dealing with the great battle, for instance, can be viewed very much as a system of signs, whereas the Śānti parvan is more an organisation of concepts. The problem is that the epic as a whole is really neither one nor the other in entirety and that the compounding of two kinds of poetic expression has conduced to an odd or uncommon document: that is what I mean when I employ the concept of a bricoleur, where the literate and preliterate materials are joined together in a fashion that blurs their original distinction into one apparently synthetic whole.
For instance, when Saṃjaya—in moments of performative inspiration—sees what he is describing on the battlefield and says, paśya, ‘look’, he is not so much indicating what appears to his mind’s eye, but he is engaging with a vast treasury of poetic formulae that he remembers and calls upon in his song: he is actually recalling the audial stimuli of the tradition and presenting it in such a fashion that it appears to be ‘seen’ or witnessed. [16] He is assembling into one piece of work many elements drawn from other works as well as elements of his own artistic vision. This fine art of bricolage is arguably the nature of a preliterate poet’s skill in consolidating his song during the course of performance, bringing together in a complex geometry the elements of verbal formulae or phrasings, rhymes, assonance, motifs and metaphors, by which the adept poet spontaneously merges the lines or verses of his song during the course of active composition. Yet this is bricolage simply on a micro level where the poet assembles his word units: the emphasis is upon pictures rather than upon narrative tempo.
On the macro level—which is what we have been discussing above—the aesthetic concerns the manipulation and combination not of small verbal formulations but of larger and varying narratives: as when, similarly—but differently—the poet Vaiśaṃpāyana sings his version of the story and draws into the epic narrative elements which are not actually sequential but which are simply laid together to create an anecdotal system or montage of sorts: the plot moves, almost irrationally, from the heroic into the didactic or historical or moral, and then skips backs to the early aesthetic heroic style, and it is as if the editors have assembled a text out of uncompounded elements. [17]
The poetics of both Saṃjaya and Vaiśaṃpāyana emphasise structural form rather than events, although they achieve this in two different fashions. [18] There is more evidence of bricolage in the verse performed by Vaiśaṃpāyana as it concerns the syntax of narrative, than in the ślokas of Saṃjaya where bricolage concerns the lexicon itself and phraseology. The editors of long ago compiled more in the style of bricoleurs when dealing with the poetry sung under the rubric of Vaiśaṃpāyana and hence the mythology of Vaiśaṃpāyana evinces greater narrative heterogeneity than the songs of Saṃjaya which display a greater metaphorical range. [19]


Kṛṣṇa in the great Bhārata epic is nearly always linked with the warrior Arjuna, sometimes as friend, at other times as thérapōn or ‘attendant’ who advises and drives a chariot for this śūra, ‘hero’. [20] They are joined grammatically as ‘two kṛṣṇas’, dvau kṛṣṇau, as well as being partners in fighting and intimate and playful cousins. As Śalya, the Madra king who also served as a charioteer for the best of the Kaurava heroes says:

ekaprāṇāv ubhau kṛṣṇāv anyonyaṃ prati saṃhatau
Both Kṛṣṇas combine one spirit towards each other.

One must remember that Arjuna is the son of the heroic deity Indra and even receives divine weapons from his father; he is more than human and so less mortal than Kṛṣṇa, in that sense. [21] In this section we shall look at the variety of experience which portrays the many aspects of their duality; but let us begin by quickly rehearsing some of the facets which enclose the identity of Kṛṣṇa himself.

The audience first hears of the death of Duryodhana—this is during the long plaintive monody sung by his father, king Dhṛtarāṣṭra, to the poet Saṃjaya—when it is said that he ‘was improperly slain by the mind of Vāsudeva’, mithyā hataṃ vāsudevasya buddhyā (I.1.152). This is the first occasion in the epic where the impropriety or opportunism of Kṛṣṇa is mentioned; yet it is this intelligence or cleverness in tactics that wins the battle at Kurukṣetra for the Pāṇḍavas, for Kṛṣṇa possesses great mastery in his comprehension of adharma. Nowhere in the battle does he draw blood or kill anyone however and his presence is one of mentality and art only: it is his friend Arjuna who performs the violence. Note that the poets proclaim here that it was Kṛṣṇa who performed the slaying, but actually, Kṛṣṇa did nothing apart from speaking in a certain manner to his friend Arjuna. This verbal action of Kṛṣṇa is typical of how he is depicted throughout the epic.
In the parvasaṃgraha, the ‘digest of the books’, concerning the Fifth Book it is said that Arjuna, ‘chose Kṛṣṇa as his non-fighting friend’, ayudhyamānaṃ sacivaṃ vavre kṛṣṇaṃ (I.2.139). It is this role as friend or counsellor that will be Kṛṣṇa’s key role in the narrative, particularly during the battle books when he becomes the charioteer or driver for the hero Arjuna, and the poet Saṃjaya is said to speak about the ekātmyaṃ, ‘the unity’ or ‘complicity’ of these two heroes, Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa (I.2.144). [22] This warrior amity between the two constitutes one of the crucial narrative threads of the poem and the relation is in fact primarily one of cousinhood, which in matrilineal societies is a social nexus that is near-fraternal: Kṛṣṇa is the son of Arjuna’s mother’s brother. Certainly, there is the relation which exists between the poet Vyāsa and his protégé Saṃjaya, but that is inspirational; and there is the finely tuned relation between Karṇa and Duryodhana, but that is not as intimate as the charioteer-hero connection which obtains between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. [23] No other males in the poem exhibit such physical and emotional closeness. [24] There is a unique and particular amity which exists between these two heroes, akin to what occurs between Achilles and Patroklos but without the death or the concern with fame inherent in that friendship. As we shall see, the intense qualities of mutuality that occur between hero and driver are common: Bhīṣma, describing his duel with the arch-hero Rāma, speaks of, sūta mama suhṛd, ‘my charioteer friend’. There exists an ancient and paradigmatic quality about this keen and near irrefragable relation between driver and hero and the word ‘friend’ in such an instance is—as we shall see— almost a technical term (V.183.3).
The poets then say that Kṛṣṇa is dayāpannaḥ, ‘compassionate’, when he embarks on his embassy of the Udyoga parvan to the Kauravas, ostensibly attempting to allay war (I.2.145); his yogeśvaratvaṃ, ‘mastery of strategy’, is mentioned here as an important aspect of his identity and strategic capacities (I.2.147). [25] Then when Aṣvatthāman, after the slaughter of the Saupitaka parvan, releases a divine missile it is Kṛṣṇa who is said to cancel the effect of the accompanying mantra by the action of his own speech:

maivam ity abravīt kṛṣṇaḥ śamayaṃs tasya tad vacaḥ
‘Not so’, said Kṛṣṇa, extinguishing that speech of his.


So the audience hears that Kṛṣṇa can also accomplish things with words, that his language itself possesses great efficacy. [26]

Thus during the parvasaṃgraha, which occurs right at the outset of the epic, the characteristics of this divine hero are portrayed and fully limned. It is worth remarking that during this listing of summaries of the various books of the poem all the parvans up to the Eleventh, the Strī parvan, are said to be part of the Bhārata, not the Mahābhārata. With the mention of the next parvan, the Śānti parvan, all reference to the Bhārata is omitted. [27] It is only at I.29.15–16, that Viṣnu the deity is first and specifically equated with Kṛṣṇa; and the title govinda, ‘the one who acquires cows’, occurs in the poem beginning only with the forty-fifth adhyāya (I.45.12). Govinda is a name that derives from his youth when Kṛṣṇa worked as a cowherd in a period prior to epic time.
What Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna do together when they are alone is performed very much in warrior or heroic style. It is the hot time of the year and they have gone to relax beside the Yamunā with their women-folk and another gently relaxed scene is pictured by the poets: sarvaś ca janaś cikrīḍa, ‘and all the people played’. There is dancing and drinking and the women enjoy themselves and the two heroes are spoken of again in the dual:

tatra pūrvavyatītāni vikrāntāni ratāni ca bahūni kathayitvā tau remāte pārthamādhavau
Both Pārtha and Mādhava rejoiced … having told many Amours and valiant deeds of the past there.


The divine figure of ‘Fire’ suddenly appears in the disguise of a brahmin and begs them for food; a kṣatriya is morally not able to disoblige a brahmin making such a request and the two heroes naturally accept the plea (I.215.4–5). The food that Fire wishes however is the forest itself and he needs the two heroes to protect him whilst he consumes the woods. Divine weapons are supplied for this purpose which Pāvaka, ‘Fire’, instructs Varuṇa to supply: Kṛṣṇa receives his emblematic discus from the deity and he is granted a mace, another of his emblems that have adorned images of the divine Kṛṣṇa even up to today (I.216.21 and 25). [28] In recompense for the arms Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna perform the great slaughter of animal kind in the Khāṇḍava forest.

It is not rare in the poem for Kṛṣṇa to come into contact with deities of the older Vedic world and he is soon to become one of the foremost divinities himself in the burgeoning society of classical and Hindu India, transforming the Mahābhārata from a closed poetics of heroic culture to a less exclusive standard of devotional and didactic poetry, one open to all varṇas. Notable in this scene is that it is Pāvaka and not Agni who offers the gift of a weapon to Kṛṣṇa, more the elemental nature of that divine and ritual force.
Varuṇa gives to Arjuna his bow and double-quivers and the cosmically-fashioned chariot with the monkey banner which Kṛṣṇa will thereafter drive: this instant marks the commencement of Kṛṣṇa’s central function in the epic, that of charioteer (I.216.8). Then the two heroes begin their pitiless massacre of all animal life in the forest as Fire destroys the trees; this is their first moment of martial action together.

kṛṣṇaś ca sumahātejaś cakreṇārinihā tadā daityadānavasaṃghānāṃ cakāra kadanaṃ mahat
Then very splendid Kṛṣṇa, killer of enemies, made A great destruction of crowds of daityas and dānavas.


Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa are conflated during this great battle, tau rathābhyāṃsthitau, ‘both stood by the chariot’ (I.217.1). Almost all the Indo-Iranian devas are there, Indra, Yama, Varuṇa, the Aśvins, Dhātar, Aryaman, Mitra, Pūṣan, Aṃśa, Bhaga, Savitar, even Śiva is present with the Rudras, Vasus, and Maruts (I.218.30–36). When these ancient Vedic deities participate in the fight the two heroes are described in the dual as being kṛṣṇau, ‘TWO KṚṢṆAS’ (I.219.3).

What does it mean to speak about ‘the two Kṛṣṇas’ and what is signified by such a statement; is there perhaps some sensibility of twinning here, in the old Indo-European sense, as with the Aśvins or Kastor and Pollux? [29] At one point, much later in the epic, not long before Arjuna is at last to kill his bhāga, ‘allotted opponent’ Karṇa, the poets actually refer to the two companions as divine twins:

yajvabhir vidhināhutau mukhe devāv ivāśvinau
Like the divine Aśvins at the opening of a rite, correctly summoned by sacrificers. [30]


These two heroes are invincible and even the deities cannot quell or subdue them and Indra himself retreats, unable to vanquish the two warriors during this vast universal moment (I.219.20). Yama, Śiva, Varuṇa the Aśvins, Dhātar, Tvaṣṭar, Aṃśa, Aryaman, Pūṣan, Bhaga, Savitar, are all still there in this cosmic contest, as well as the Rudras,Vasus, Maruts, and others from the ancient divine pantheon (I.218.31ff.) [31] Along with Arjuna, it is said that:

rākṣasān dānavān nāgāñ jaghne tān hariḥ
Hari struck those rakṣasas, dānavas, nāgas …


Hari is one of the epithets of Kṛṣṇa, meaning ‘yellowish’ or ‘tawny’. [32] Indra, the warrior-deity and rain god of the old Indo-Āryan world, has no formal relation with Kṛṣṇa, only with his own son Arjuna; the exception to this model occurs at the end of this Khāṇḍava narrative when Indra, pleased at the heroic accomplishment of the duo offers them a gift. Arjuna of course makes a request for weaponry, whereas Kṛṣṇa asks for prītiṃ pārthena śāśvatīm, ‘perpetual love with Pārtha’, which Indra grants gladly (I.125.13). It is notable that the friendship between the two warriors receives such divine confirmation from the hero-deity for it is this amity which characterises, perhaps more than any other quality, the nature of the kṣatriya and mortal Kṛṣṇa: he is the guiding friend of Arjuna and in Kṛṣṇa’s final decease, Arjuna’s own dissolution is signalled. This is the primary human relation for Kṛṣṇa in his epic life and here it is a relation that is made perpetual by divine authority after a scene of terrific destruction of the living world. The act of annihilation that was performed by these two thus almost possesses a causality in that the narrative juxtaposition of exceeding violence and the divine establishment of eternal friendship makes firm their duality which is founded upon a chariot and the receipt of that chariot. This is so much the case that after his return from Indraprastha, in his herald’s report to the Hāstinapura court, Arjuna is said—by Saṃjaya—to prefer the amity of Kṛṣṇa to the assistance of his father, Indra. Arjuna in this account sings a long hymn of twenty-one verses in praise of his warrior companion. He says:

vavre cāhaṃ vajrahastān mahendrād asmin yuddhe vāsudevaṃ sahāyam
And in this battle I chose Vāsudeva as friend instead of Indra who holds the vajra in his hand. [33]


He goes on to say about his friend, that:

dhruvaṃ sarvān so’abhyatīyād amitrān sendrān devān …
Certainly, he would attack all enemies along with divine Indra!


Arjuna continues to sing a minor epic, summarising the heroic deeds of his friend and peer, a small song that is in the genre of a hymn that praises a champion and superhuman figure of the ancient past (V.47.62–83). He says:

tejasvinaṃ kṛṣṇam atyantaśūraṃ yuddhena yo vāsudevaṃ jigīṣet
Who could wish to conquer by war splendid
Greatly heroic Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva?


Even the deities, says Arjuna, admire Kṛṣṇa:

tasmai varān adadaṃs tatra devā
dṛṣṭvā bhīmaṃ karma rane kṛtaṃ tat
Having seen that terrific deed done in battle
The deities gave to him favours.


These favours are supernatural, for these Vedic deities promise invulnerability to Kṛṣṇa:

śastrāṇi gātre ca na te krameran
Missiles would never approach your limbs. [34]


Thus the audience perceives that Kṛṣṇa, by virtue of his association with the supernal aspects of Vedic life, derives the tenacity and force of his martial abilities.

On an unusually lyrical note, in discourse with his king Saṃjaya tells of how he was admitted into the presence of the two friends who were—for once—not in a martial or political setting but were luxuriously taking their ease in the śuddhāntaṃ, ‘women’s quarters’ of the palace at Indraprastha (V.58.3). He relates how the two warriors were:

ubhau madhvāsavakṣībāv ubhau candanarūṣitau sragviṇau varavastrau tau divyābharaṇabhūṣitau
Both drunk with the juice of honey, both smeared with sandal, Garlanded, well-dressed, the two — wearing divine ornaments.


Arjuna’s feet are at rest in Kṛṣṇa’s lap and Saṃjaya depicts the scene as intimate and lenient. In the Sanskrit language there is no one term of vocative address to demonstrate this intimate friendship status—tāta is a term of affection for either a junior or senior— and there is nothing in the lexicon to indicate a closely reciprocal emotional standing between men, except perhaps when the poets employ a dual inflection in such a setting. There is no other such portrayal of the two warriors in the epic where they appear quite so capricious and indulgent, and as a picture it is in perfect counterpoint to what occurs later at Kurukṣetra. The poet-dūta describes Kṛṣṇa—drawing his references from the Vedic world—as:

indraketur ivotthāya sarvabharaṇabhūṣitaḥ indravīryopamaḥ kṛṣṇaḥ saṃviṣṭo mābhyabhāṣata
Kṛṣṇa, upright like the banner of Indra, wearing all his jewels,
Equal to Indra in glory, seated, spoke to me.


Saṃjaya then adds that these words of Kṛṣṇa were, again drawing upon the old Indo-Āryan world:

garjan samayavarṣīva gagane pākaśāsanaḥ
Like the Punisher-of-the-Daitya-Pāka roaring in the monsoon sky. [35]


Indra is, of course, the father of Arjuna, and so this constant qualification of Kṛṣṇa as being like Indra covertly establishes a metaphorical kinship relation which magnifies the powerful amity that exists between these two heroes. Taking this model one step further, in the Āraṇyaka parvan, Kṛṣṇa actually tells Yudhiṣṭhira of how he fought the Dānavas, who had appeared as mountains, by using the vajra, the weapon of Indra: [36]

Ivajram udyamya tān sarvān parvatān samaśātayam
Having raised the thunderbolt I knocked out all those mountains.


There occurs a similar scene in the Book Fourteen—introducing the Anugītā—after the years of exile and then battle when the two companions are said to be wandering prior to becoming installed at Indraprastha, the former Pāṇḍava town:

vijahrāte mudā yuktau divi deveśvarāv iva tau vaneṣu vicitreṣu parvatānāṃ ca sānuṣu
śaileṣu ramaṇīyeṣu palvaleṣu nadīṣu ca
Like two Indras happily joined in the sky, they disported,
The two of them in lovely woods and on the ridges of mountains,
Among lovely rocks, ponds, and rivers …


They are, aśvināv iva nandane, ‘like the Aśvins in gladness’; and at Indraprastha they are portrayed as being in a sabhāṃ ramyāṃ, ‘a delightful assembly room’. The poets depict their manner of pleasure in that venue:

tatra yuddhakathāś citrāḥ parikleśāṃś ca pārthiva [37] kathāyoge kathāyoge kathayāmāsatus tadā
ṛṣīṇāṃ devatānāṃ ca vaṃśāṃ stāvāhatus tadā
prīyamāṇau mahātmānau purāṇāv ṛṣisattamau
O Pārthiva, both narrated there, in discourse by discourse then,
Beautiful epics and ordeals, and then both happily celebrated the lineages
Of deities and ṛṣis; both great-spirited, ancient great sages.


There are no such scenes elsewhere in the epic that portrays other heroes so at ease among companions; men and women are occasionally shown in various moments of idleness, but it is only with the restful amity of Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa that the poets dwell on such shared manly pleasures of friendship.

During the battle books, when the son of Arjuna by Kṛṣṇa’s sister Subhadrā has been felled in battle and grief fills the army, as the realisation comes upon Arjuna—he and Kṛṣṇa having just returned to camp—it is with his charioteer that Arjuna shares his grief, singing a lament for his dear son. Kṛṣṇa is emotionally closer to him than anyone else in the poem and Arjuna, aśrupūrṇamukhaṃ, ‘mouth full of tears’, is consoled by his friend (VII.50.18ff.) The warrior quickly turns his thoughts to revenge and eloquently makes avowal of his determination; he ends his long expression of remorse when his sorrow is translated into anger and he instructs his driver personally to prepare their chariot: kalpitaḥ syād ratho mama, ‘my chariot should be made equipped’ for revenge.

tathā kāryaṃ tvayā kṛṣṇa kāryaṃ hi mahad udyatam
Kṛṣṇa, thus a task for you: for a great duty has arisen.


Then Arjuna instructs his good companion to go and conciliate Subhadrā and her snuṣā, ‘daughter-in-law’: sāmnā satyena yuktena vacasāśvāya, ‘soothe with words conjoined with truthful conciliation’ (VII.54.10). This is an intimate and delicate task given the sorrow that has possessed the Pāṇḍava clan, and Kṛṣṇa visits his sister and sings a beautiful monody of fifteen ślokas about the young hero’s death; he begins, mā śokaṃ kuru, ‘do not grieve’ (VII.54.12). [38] These words, do not grieve, are spoken by Kṛṣṇa on many occasions throughout the course of the epic: to Arjuna, to Yudhiṣṭhira, to Dhṛtarāṣṭra, and to various Pāṇḍava and Kaurava women, he even says the same to his own father. As we shall see, Kṛṣṇa’s feelings are apart from such emotions of grief, he never really experiences sorrow himself; he becomes angry twice, and kills—when a wife is insulted he decapitates Śiśupāla—and when his kinsman and companion Sātyaki is slain in the Mausala parvan. Grief is not part of Kṛṣṇa’s life, although he constantly attempts to assuage the grief of others about him in the alliance.

This particular instant with Subhadrā is the one moment during the four Kurukṣetra Books that a woman appears on the scene, for women are absent from the depictions of fighting and are only seen after the battle has been concluded when it is their turn to speak and to sing the laments for the fallen, which occurs in the Strī parvan. Here, with his sister, Kṛṣṇa praises her son Abhimanyu, using conventional terms and expressions: as a kṣatriya and as a warrior, admiring his beauty and skill at arms and his ultimate attainment of warrior aims and incorporation into the kṣatriya ancestry of deceased heroes. He is one whose ‘valour is equal to the ancestors’, pitus tulyaparākramaḥ, says Kṛṣṇa:

kṣatreṇa vidhinā prāpto vīrābhilaṣitaṃ gatim
He has acquired by kṣatriya means the end desired by warriors.


Kṛṣṇa sings in a fashion that magnifies kṣatriya life, and as with many laments the song terminates when he curses and avows the death of the leading perpetrator, Jayadratha of Sindh. Kṛṣṇa, of course, will be managing the chariot when that vengeance is fulfilled.

Subhadrā responds, almost antiphonally, to this lament of her elder brother and performs her own mourning; formally praising her son, describing his beauty, her sorrow, and herself cursing the assailants (VII.55.2–31). The song is conventional and formulaic and is a stylised expression of grief, of a type that kṣatriya women commonly perform on such occasions, as mothers, wives, or daughters. [39] The tremendous range of convenient phrases which convey this emotion of intense sadness allows for the dreadfulness of the feelings to be expressed without what would otherwise be a fully-charged disordering of affect; all these conventional forms enable an expression of a condition that might become thoroughly deranging because of its fundamental inexpressibility. Conversely, silence is unacceptable. Here, it is Draupadī and Uttarā who accompany her in the threnody, the grand-mother and wife of the deceased. All this is in Kṛṣṇa’s presence, removed from the battle-field and in the women’s quarters; and when Subhadrā faints with anguish and collapses he is the one to revive her, sprinkling water upon her lovely face (VII.55.34). In all this one observes that it is Kṛṣṇa who performs the condolence, not Arjuna, for in terms of this particular kinship the two are interchangeable emotionally.
Not long after this scene, driven by his own sūta, Dāruka, Kṛṣṇa retires to his personal camp, yet during the night he wakens from sleep and talks to his driver, expressing the anxiety he has about the morrow’s combat: for Kṛṣṇa worries about Arjuna’s survival and what he must do to ensure this. As is usual when a hero is about to vow or to make a particular speech act there is a repetition of certain words supplying the pronouncement with forceful gravity; the word in this case that drives the promise towards conclusion—like the percussion of a drum—is śvaḥ, ‘tomorrow’. He says, haniṣyāmi, ‘I shall kill’; drakṣyase, ‘you will see’, and jñāsyanti lokāḥ sarve, ‘all the worlds shall know’ (VII.56.26ff.) As the audience knows well, Kṛṣṇa slays no one during the progress of the fighting and this is more of a battle chant of arousal.
Kṛṣṇa is behaving as a hero in colloquy with his charioteer in this scene, avowing the act of destruction which his discus will accomplish. ‘Arjuna is half of my body’, he says, śarīrārdhaṃ mamārjunaḥ, and he exclaims:

jñāsyanti lokāḥ sarve māṃ suhṛdaṃ savyasācinaḥ
All the worlds will recognise me — the friend of Savyasācina!


He orders that Dāruka prepare his own chariot with its martial ‘paraphernalia’, upakarāṇi, so that he might enter the conflict himself. These are made up of the banner and its pole, the chattra or ceremonial and ranking ‘umbrella’, the conch-horn, and weapons:

gadāṃ kaumodakīṃ divyāṃ śaktiṃ cakraṃ dhanuḥ śarān
The divine Kaumodaki club, missile, discus, bow, arrows.


The verbal directive during all this instruction to his driver is: iti saṃkalpyatām, ‘so let it be prepared’. [40] Having run through all these avowals, promises, and threats, Kṛṣṇa ends his speech by saying, in the form of a speech act:

paśyatāṃ dhārtarāṣṭrāṇāṃ haniṣyati jayadratham
Whilst the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra are watching he will kill Jayadratha.


This is a spirited song of a warrior about to embark upon combat, preparing both himself and his driver with great verbal display and swagger; the speech possesses a certain formal progression and is well-measured and arranged, and as such, it is a small work of art.

Speech is an important aspect of a sūta’s professional life and it is thus appropriate that such figures also serve as ambassadors and poets, for not only do they manage the horses and vehicle in order to bring success to the hero or patron in battle but they also serve to support a hero emotionally in terms of morale, as well as sustaining and maintaining the standing of a hero in both political negotiation and diplomacy and in the social world of performed poetry. The sūta is a complex, sophisticated, and highly skilled and high-ranking individual and it is actually thanks to the sūtas—as poets—that we have epic Mahābhārata today. Kṛṣṇa also refers to Arjuna as a brother and the son of his paternal aunt, stressing the necessary affinity which underlies this particular hero-charioteer dynamism (VII.56.37). All this avowal makes for much drama for Kṛṣṇa kills no one during the Mahābhārata’s battle and his action is solely verbal and intellectual; this is all spoken in support of Arjuna’s combat on the following day and these lines represent a solely dramatic and poetic moment.
Dāruka closes the episode by commenting on how victorious will be the one who possesses Kṛṣṇa in the position of sārathyam, ‘charioteering’, and he assents—making a quick verbal display with the syllable jay—to prepare his own vehicle jayāya vijayasya, ‘for the victory of Vijaya’, that is, Arjuna, Kṛṣṇa’s likeness.
It is this potent and central friendship between Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa which lies at the basis of the Pānḍava victory at Kurukṣetra and the triumph of the five brothers in their effort to secure the kingdom. [41] Indeed, even Yudhiṣṭḥira refers to Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa in Book Two as kṛṣṇau, ‘both Kṛṣṇas’ (II.18.14 and 24), and the formula kṛṣṇāv ekarathe, ‘two Kṛṣṇas in a single chariot’, is reiterated throughout the epic like a thematic note. [42] It is almost as if they are twinned or as if they partake of an Indo-Āryan model of the Twins, so intimately involved are they with each other and so mutually identified. [43] As we just noted, when the most favoured son of Arjuna dies in battle both his father and Kṛṣṇa are sleepless with grief, and the poets employ the dual inflection to emphasise the sharedness of their mourning: tāṃ niśāṃ duḥkhaśokārtaunidrāṃ naiṣopalebhāte, ‘the two did not obtain sleep that night, afflicted with grief and sorrow’ (VII.54.1).
As Yudhiṣṭhira says to Kṛṣṇa as he is about to commission him to approach the Hāstinapura court as dūta, his herald: bhrātā cāsi sakhā cāsi … sauhṛdenāviśaṅkyo’si, ‘you are a brother, you are a friend, you are not to be doubted in friendship’ (V.70.91). Once at the court it is his pitṛṣvasrī, ‘paternal-aunt’, Kuntī, who comments on this capacity for companionship: prabhāvajñāsmi te kṛṣṇa … vyavasthāyāṃ ca mitreṣu, ‘Kṛṣṇa, I am one who recognises your power in the establishment of friendship’ (V.88.102). The term mitra is an old-fashioned Indo-Āryan word indicating the loyalty of amicable relations and the idea functioned as a practical concept which acted as a social force in the archaic world; neither primarily affinal nor agnatic such communal connections were vital in preliterate and premonetary culture and were respected as possessing high emotional and moral valence, something that was potentially sacred or indisputable. [44] In fact, ritual friendship was an activity that even at times extended or substituted for kinship relations.
Alone and speaking with his poet, Saṃjaya, king Dhṛtarāṣṭra says of Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna:

manasāpi hi durdharṣau senām etāṃ yaśasvinau nāśayetām
For those two glorious invincible ones could destroy that army by mind alone.


This conjunction of amity and heroism makes for a powerful if not invincible ‘mind’ and it is a duality which dominates much of the Pāṇḍava narrative in the epic and, as we shall soon see, this dual capacity or ability is something which Kṛṣṇa will also partially share with the dharmarāja Yudhiṣṭhira in matters of sovereignty. One should recall that Arjuna is emotionally closer to Kṛṣṇa than is anyone else in the poem, for as Kṛṣṇa himself says:

na hi dārā na mitrāṇi jñātayo na ca bāndhavāḥ kaścin nānyaḥ priyataraḥ kuntīputrān mamārjunāt
Neither wife nor friends nor kinsmen – None are more dear to me than Arjuna the son of Kuntī.


Certainly, the Mahābhārata excludes his elder brother, Rāma, from this situation, and Kṛṣṇa’s wives and lovers—who are sung of so much by the poets in other traditions—are not admitted into this heroic narrative. The epic extols this dualistic friendship of two warriors who stand together and fight together on a single chariot and who are closely involved in each other’s lives by virtue of an affiliated kinship. It is an emotional model that dominates much of the poetry, where even sisters, wives, and nephews, combine to unite them in a manner that is more than fraternal. [45] The many qualities of grief—borne of warfare—sometimes joins them even further in their sorrowing: although it is Arjuna who actually grieves whilst Kṛṣṇa offers the consolation.

Keśava is a clearly charismatic as well as martial hero and his weapon, the cakra, ‘the discus’ is equally unique in a culture where armaments are typically made up of the tools of archery, spears, instruments of striking such as a mace or club, and sometimes swords. [46] This cakra is possessed of such supernatural force and energy that when the young warrior Aśvatthāman attempts to lift it in Book Ten he is incapable of moving the object: cakraṃ savyena pāṇina na caitad aśakat sthānāt saṃcālayitum, ‘and with his right hand he was not able to remove that discus from its position’ (X.12.21). In Book One the poets—playing with the guttural-palatal sounds—say how this weapon is so immensely potent that, cakreṇa … cakāra kadanaṃ, ‘he made slaughter with the discus’ (I.218.26). It is a magical weapon that returns after being discharged, and Kṛṣṇa himself says, cakraṃ āgāt karaṃ mama, ‘the discus returned to my hand’ (II.23.35). Saṃjaya, in colloquy with the old Dhṛtarāṣṭra, speaks of this weapon as: māyayā vartate, ‘it moves by illusion’, and he adds that, sāpahnavaṃ pāṇḍaveṣu, it is ‘hidden from the Pāṇḍavas’ (V.66.3). Quite strangely, the missile has to be verbally directed, almost like an animal, in order to make it strike:

jahi saubhaṃ svavīryeṇa ye cātra ripavo mama
‘Kill Saubha with prowess and whatever enemies are there.’ [47]


Among the ancient deities it is only Mitra in the epic, a divine figure of amity and loyalty who—like Kṛṣṇa—bears a razor-like cakra. In the fight at Khāṇḍava when the Vedic deities descend to attack Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna the poets say of Mitra that:

mitraś ca kṣuraparyantaṃ cakraṃ gṛhya vyatiṣṭhata
And Mitra having taken a sharp-edged cakra remained firm.


The word mitra in the Ṛg Veda denotes ‘friend’. [48] It is telling that Varuṇa, the deity who donated to Arjuna his Gāṇḍīva bow and quivers is typically twinned in the dual with this figure of Mitra: mitrāvaruṇau. [49] This duality is at times—in the ancient literature or hymns—connected with day and night or sun and moon, which by metonymy fits neatly with the terms arjuna, ‘bright’, and kṛṣṇa, ‘dark’. [50] We have seen how only Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, the two FRIENDS in the epic, receive a dual title, ‘the two kṛṣṇas’, dvau kṛṣṇau, and thus this duality which exists between the two heroes draws upon extremely primordial models and mythemes, charging this phrase with its epic valence. Such a subtext to these two supplies them with a unique and uncommon bipartite presence in the poem, and in epic Mahābhārata this duality stands as a perfection of the ideal of friendship and is unequalled elsewhere in the poem.

The great friendship of epic Mahābhārata closes dramatically and sadly, for at the dramatically ultimate departure of Kṛṣṇa from Hāstinapura—there occurs what is in fact a final separation of the two heroes—and it is said that:

punaḥ punaś ca vārṣṇeyaṃ paryaṣvajata phalgunaḥ ā cakṣur viṣayāc cainaṃ dardarśa ca punaḥ punaḥ
kṛcchreṇaiva ca tāṃ pārtho govinde viniveṣitām saṃjahāra tadā dṛṣṭiṃ kṛṣṇaś cāpy aparājitaḥ
Again and again Phalguna embraced Vārṣṇeya, And he looked repeatedly at him, and away from the object of his eye;
And with difficulty Pārtha took his sight which had been fixed on Govinda,
And the unsurpassed Kṛṣṇa then also withdrew his vision.


There is a terrific poignance in these lines, where an intense political allegiance and a profound and intimate friendship, both founded on kinship and affinity, all find conclusion. The poets do mention latter instants where the two heroes are simultaneously present but there exists no further emotional nor practical community between them. Nowhere else in the poem do the poets depict such a parting of friends—for nowhere else has there existed such an instancing of devoted friendship—and never again in the epic are these two companions—charioteer and warrior—described as being so together.

This moment marks the sad terminus of their great association and it is notable that no words are exchanged here by the two champions; the scene is depicted by the poets solely in terms of how the heroes look at each other. That old—and possibly very ancient— duality of dvau kṛṣṇau becomes annulled and it has been this dynamic of their extraordinary amity which charges the poem—as well as the allegiance—with its central drive.


The term for ‘charioteer’, sūta, is a word that also implies the varṇa of a kṣatriya poet. It is remarkable that the drivers of elephants, which are certainly prestige animals and used extensively in battle, are never mentioned in person throughout the poem. Perhaps this is simply because they are not part of the ancient Indo-Āryan tradition of heroic literature. There is the usual metaphor—so common in this culture—of rathaḥ śarīraṃ … ātmā niyantendriyāṇi, ‘the chariot is the body, the soul the driver of the senses’, a proverb that old Vidura quotes one evening (V.34.57). The noun sārathi also denotes ‘charioteer’ as does the word yantā, yet these two terms indicate a lower rank than sūta for the words signify only the driving of a vehicle and do not involve the verbal skills of a sūta. [51] The convention is that charioteers are unarmed, and the driver manages the horses so as to protect his warrior whilst the latter employs his weapons—usually the bow—in a manner that guards his charioteer.
The standard that flies above the chariot of Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna is portrayed by the poets as:

siṃhalāṅgūlam ugrāsyaṃ dhvajaṃ vānaralakṣaṇam
A banner, possessing the sign of an ape with horrific mouth and lion-tail. [52]


The warrior is called specifically a ratheśa, ‘a chariot lord’, and when Bhīṣma is about to enter into a dvairatha, ‘a chariot duel’, with his guru Rāma Jāmadagnya—as he recounts the event long after it occurred—he describes his driver as being: kulīnena vīreṇa hayaśāstravidāsūtena śiṣṭena bahuśo dṛṣṭakarmaṇā, ‘one whose accomplishments had been much noticed, a trained driver, competent in equine-lore, and from a warrior clan’ (V.179.111–12). Just as the leading heroes were of high status, so too were their drivers. [53] Similarly it is said of a charioteer before a battle that he was:

kulīnā hayayonijñāḥ sārathye viniveśitāḥ
Appointed in the office of chariots: well-born, knowledgeable as to the breeds of horses,


This particular charioteer after a day of combat is portrayed as:

ātmanas tu tataḥ sūto hayānāṃ ca viśāṃ pate mama cāpanayāmāsa śalyān kuśalasaṃmataḥ
O lord of the land, the charioteer—esteemed for his skill—extracted the darts
From me, from the horses, and from himself.


The charioteer is at this point acting also as physician to his hero and their steeds and one realises how super-competent such sūtas must have been; of necessarily high social standing, they were connected to a warrior’s life at many differing levels. [54] In this same duel just referred to, when the mighty Rāma is knocked out whilst fighting with Bhīṣma, the poets say of his sūta, Akṛtavraṇa, who is a Brahmin ascetic, that: enaṃ pariśvajya sakhā viprośubhair vākyair āśvāsayad anekadhā, ‘the ascetic FRIEND having embraced him consoled him with fair words repeatedly’ (V.185.14).

The sūta is someone who observes events—typically the battle—and reports to his patron, either king or hero, often praising the patron during that song and naming those who are in the vicinity, supplying them with summary accounts of heroic accomplishments. Sūtas possess an incredible vocabulary and knowledge of individuals and their lives and it is remarkable in the battle books that, given the enormous quantity of poetic formulae which the poets engage during their songs, there is little repetition but an extensively rich and complex modulation of a variety of small details. [55]
For instance, at VIII.43, Kṛṣṇa addresses Arjuna, drawing his attention to events on the field surrounding Yudhiṣṭhira, speaking in the charioteer’s deictic manner as he directs his friend’s view to particular situations, saying, eṣa, and ete, ‘that one’, ‘those’, as he distinguishes the various heroes on the field. [56]

paśya sātvatabhīmābhyāṃ niruddhādhiṣṭhitaḥ
Look, restrained and overcome by Bhīma and Sātvata …


He describes individual duels and aspects of combat as it concerns the enemy Karṇa and then turns his verbal-gaze towards Bhīma. This adhyāya is almost completely in the voice of Saṃjaya, the central Mahābhārata poet, and it is as if Kṛṣṇa himself is speaking as a sūta who sings of the scenery of battle, speaking to his warrior as they stand together in a chariot, indicating the various tactical situations on the field and the heroes involved. This adhyāya of seventy-eight verses is a microcosm of the epic itself, that is, a situation where the sūta sings—to his hero—of the visual and dramatic aspects of battle, verbally indicating then portraying what he sees. In a way, this is actually what one can consider the hypothetical proto-epic to be like, where the poet, the sūta announces to his patron, in this case not a king but a hero, how the battle and its participants proceed. [57] In the Śalya parvan Arjuna is actually said to be kṛṣṇanetro, ‘one whose eyes are Kṛṣṇa’ (IX.3.17).

Chariots, rathas, are frequently mentioned during the course of—what we might call— the Kṛṣṇa narrative. [58] They are splendid and powerful and the poets endow them with lovely metaphors and precisely detailed and often lengthy portrayal, which is not the case with horses nor with elephants. [59] In preparation for battle the chariots are said to be:

baddhāriṣṭā baddhakakṣyā baddhadhvajapatākinaḥ
Bound with charms, girths bound, bound with banners and standards.


Charioteers were an important social component in the culture and life of a hero and Kṛṣṇa’s own charioteer, Dāruka, has a son Dāruki, who drives for Kṛṣṇa’s own son Pradyumna. [60] Chariots also have two warriors who are charged with guarding their wheels, these are the cakrarakṣau, that is, one man on either side of the vehicle. [61] The deity Indra himself has a famed charioteer called Mātali, a paradigm for such kṣatriya mounted warfare; insofar as Arjuna is the son of Indra and frequently likened to his father by the poets, Kṛṣṇa is thus by inference like Mātali. [62] Kṛṣṇa, along with his two horses, is described as:

sainyasugrīvayuktena rathena rathināṃ varaḥ
Best of charioteers with a chariot yoked with Sainya and Sugrīva.


During the Rāmopakhyāna which commences at III.258, there is no mention of chariots nor of significant charioteering; this vehicle is not part of that narrative, at least not during the Mahābhārata rendition of the song, except for one brief reference where Mātali comes to the field of battle and is said to drive Indra’s chariot for the hero (III.274.13). There is something intrinsic to the Mahābhārata about Kṛṣṇa as charioteer and the corollary of his friendship with Arjuna that stamps this epic with a fundamental quality; one could aver, quite fully, that the Bhārata epic is a Charioteer Song. Vālmīki, of course, the poet of the Rāmāyaṇa, is not a sūta.

In the Bhīṣma parvan, during the fray of battle, Arjuna instructs his driver, codayāśvān, ‘urge the horses,’ and he repeats this imperative codaya (VI.80.43). [63] Yāhi, is another command, given by the warrior to his driver, as at VII.26.7. This specific verbal directive, like the paśya of the charioteer, is part of the charioteer-warrior lexicon. There is a mutual action in the chariot between hero and charioteer, both inflecting the other at different moments and occasions, and both directing the other; it is an intimate relationship and one that is encompassed by death and corporeal hurt, literally on all sides. Drivers of chariots in the epic receive little personal attention from the poets except for Kṛṣṇa. There is Śalya in the eponymous Ninth parvan but that episode is more of a perversion or parody of good charioteering, insofar as the driver actually contemns and insults his hero; there is dignified enmity rather than friendship between those two and their dynamic is the antithesis of what exists between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. [64] There are references to chariot driving and to particular men, but Kṛṣṇa is the only yantā to receive constant observation and depiction by the poets; charioteering is an inherent and central dimension of his narrative persona.
Later in the poem, during the Karṇa parvan, as Karṇa and Arjuna begin to engage in their final and fatal duel, the poets describe a rare moment in which the horses and the drivers themselves—Kṛṣṇa and Śalya—actually perceive their counterparts. It is an instant of intensely delineated reality and it is as if this duel is so focal to the epic structure that even the sūtas themselves are in contention, such is the concentration of animosity.

prakurvāte dvajau yuddhaṃ pratyaheṣan hayān hayāḥ
avidhyat puṇḍarīkākṣaḥ śalyaṃ nayanasāyakaiḥ sa cāpi puṇḍarīkākṣaṃ tathaivābhisamaikṣata
tatrājayad vāsudevaḥ śalyaṃ nayanasāyakaiḥ
Both standards make a battle, horses neighed at horses.
The lotos-eyed one pierced Śalya with eye-darts [glances],
And he then glanced at the lotos-eyed one:
Vāsudeva there vanquished Śalya with his eye-darts.


Nowhere else in the epic does a charioteer receive such dramatically adumbrated and non-formulaic images of martial reality.

Kṛṣṇa is the only sārathi in the whole epic to discourse upon the art of charioteering. During the Āraṇyaka parvan there is an unusual micro-narrative in which Kṛṣṇa relates to Yudhiṣṭhira an account of chariot fighting—about his son and then about himself—in which Kṛṣṇa speaks in the voice of a sūta, describing battle and its vicissitude (III.15–23). [65] The account begins when king Śālva determines to attack the city of Dvāraka where Kṛṣṇa’s clan resides. [66] He sings this short narrative just as a poet would, just as Saṃjaya would perform a minor epic song. [67] This episode contains a great deal of charioteering and chariot lore; it concerns three vehicles, the first of which, the Saubha— belonging to king Śālva—is a massive horseless chariot that can mount the air and move at will. [68] The other two chariots are those of Kṛṣṇa’s son and of himself. The narrative contains not simply descriptions of chariots in action but patterns of inhibitive and injunctive speech on the part of both charioteer and hero. This small song represents Kṛṣṇa’s only significant presence in the Āraṇyaka parvan for he is essentially absent from this book—which covers an historical period of twelve years—and when Arjuna is depicted fighting on a chariot in this parvan it is Mātali, Indra’s driver who controls the vehicle. During the Ghoṣayātra sub-parvan when Arjuna is said to be fighting from a chariot, there is no reference to either chariot nor to driver (III.233.5ff.)
The song commences:

śālvasya nagaraṃ saubhaṃ gato’haṃ bharatarṣabha
O Bharata-bull, I went to Saubha, city of Śālva … [69]


The town of Dvāraka goes under siege and Pradyumna, one of Kṛṣṇa’s sons, ventures to attack Śālva. Kṛṣṇa sings the verses which portray the battle, describing the city and the offense and relates how his son set off towards the enemy and is soon felled as he fights from his chariot. The driver immediately retreats from the fray:

III,19,3: taṃ tathā mohitaṃ dṛṣṭvā sārathir javanair hayaiḥ raṇād apāharat tūrṇaṃ śikṣito dārukis tataḥ
Then the skilful charioteer, Dāruki, having seen him unconscious,
With swift horses quickly drew him from the battle. [70]


Pradyumna, the hero soon returns to consciousness and angrily questions his driver as to why he retreated, addressing him as saute, ‘son of a sūta’, he says:

naiṣa vṛṣṇipravīrāṇām āhave dharma ucyate
This is not said to be the dharma of Vṛṣṇi heroes in battle!


He accuses the charioteer of behaving incorrectly and not according to how a good driver should conduct himself and vehicle in battle. The sūta responds formally, telling exactly how a charioteer should act in such circumstances:

mohitaś ca raṇe śūro rakṣyaḥ sārathinā rathī
A chariot-hero unconscious in battle is to be protected by the charioteer.


He adds that: rakṣitavyo rathī nityam, ‘a chariot-fighter is always to be protected’. Pradyumna only berates him further for his impropriety, for a hero should never retreat; how would his father, Kṛṣṇa, consider his son, if he fled from battle, he says? This long edifying address of hero to driver continues for twenty-two ślokas:

apayānaṃ punaḥ saute maivaṃ kārṣīḥ kathaṃcana
O son of a charioteer, never make a retreat again!


A kṣatriya cannot be observed to turn his back on the fight, that is warrior dharma, and the driver is also responsible for maintaining that manner of martial conduct, he adds. Nivartaya rathaṃ, ‘turn the chariot’, instructs Pradyumna. What the audience is hearing is a reversal of the usual roles, where the driver is the one to instruct the warrior as to right conduct, to encourage and to admonish; here, it is the hero who enjoins right conduct upon the charioteer. One should recall that it is Kṛṣṇa, the most glorious and super-competent of charioteers in the Mahābhārata, who is singing this episode, and in the song it is as if he were there, for he possesses the mystical insight of a poet-sūta. Pradyumna closes with the command: yāhiraṇam, ‘join the battle!’ (III.19.33).

Dāruki defends his behaviour and restates the defence of his recent action:

āyuṣmann upadeśas tu sārathye vartatāṃ smṛtaḥ
sarvārtheṣu rathī rakṣyas tvaṃ cāpi bhṛśapīḍitaḥ
Your honour, it is a specified traditional lore in the conduct of charioteers:
On all occasions a chariot-fighter is to be protected — and you were greatly oppressed!


He closes his response with a deictic form often used by charioteers, he says: paśya me hayasaṃyāne śikśāṃ, ‘look at my skill in the management of horses!’ (III.20.5). Paśya is an imperative term that is employed by sūtas when they wish to direct the attention of their companion or company to an object. [71] The two then return to the melée and Kṛṣṇa continues the framing narrative, shifting from an account of his son’s valour to a portrayal of his own heroism in destroying the attack of Śālva.

Now the scene becomes one where the hero and not the poet-sūta performs the account of a battle; the hero—Kṛṣṇa—is singing of his own aristeía, which is unusual, beginning with how he set off on his own vehicle with his famed horses, Sainya and Sugrīva, blowing upon his great conch shell, Pañcajanya, just as a hero should do (III.21.12). His driver is as usual, Dāruka. Kṛṣṇa spends many ślokas portraying his own valiance and martial prowess, even mentioning his use of māyā, ‘magic’ or ‘illusion’ (III.21.33). He describes the fray—as much of the combat is portrayed in the four battle books—drawing upon formulae:

tathā tad abhavad yuddhaṃ tumulaṃ lomaharṣaṇam
labdhālokaś ca rājendra punaḥ śatrum ayodhayam
Then there was that tumultuous horripilating fight.
O king, I, dazzled, fought the enemy again.


Then occurs a thematic formulation which is not uncommon in the poem, when a hero as he advances into battle experiences disbelief and doubt and sudden anguish. This expression of a warrior’s stupefying terror at the spectacle of violence is how the Gītā commences and it is a trope often employed to depict a warrior’s anxiety and shame at the prospect of combat. In this instance, in this Kṛṣṇa song, he says about himself, being both hero and poet simultaneously:

tataḥ śārṅgaṃ dhanuḥśreṣṭhaṃ karāt prapatitaṃ mama
mohāt sannaś ca kaunteya rathopastha upāviśam
Then the best of composite bows was fallen from my hand,
And, son of Kuntī, I — exhausted from confusion, sat down in the chariot-hold.


This is just as at the opening of the Gītā when Kṛṣṇa is charioteer to the hero Arjuna and the latter is suddenly horrified by his foresight of battle and similarly exclaims:

sīdanti mama gātrāṇi mukhaṃ ca pariśuṣyati
vepathuś ca śarīre me romaharṣaś ca jāyate
My limbs collapse, my mouth is dried,
And a trembling in my body arises, my hair is erect. [72]


Likewise, when the braggadocio son of king Virāṭa—who is being driven to battle against a raiding party of Kauravas by his driver Arjuna—sees the magnitude of the enemy force, his audacity fails and he tells his sūta:

notsahe kurubhir yoddhuṃ romaharṣaṃ hi paśya me
I am unable to fight with the Kurus. Look at me — thrilled by fear!


He instructs Arjuna to turn the chariot and retreat: so’ham eko pratiyoddhuṃ na śakṣyāmi nivartasva, ‘I am alone, I am unable to fight: turn [the chariot] (IV.36.16). [73]

Kṛṣṇa, in his own narrative, just like Arjuna, soon regains awareness and resumes the attack. The sky, earth, and aether cry out at his flamboyant skills (III.23.14), and when his horses falter and tremble his charioteer, Dāruka, addresses him:

tato mām abravīt sūtaḥ prāñjaliḥ praṇato nṛpa
sādhu saṃpaśya vārṣṇeya śālvaṃ saubhapatiṃ sthitam
Then, O king, the charioteer, hands folded, bowing, said to me:
‘Vārṣṇeya, look carefully at Śālva stationed, the Saubha king.’


The driver specifically advises his warrior now on how to act: jahi, he says, ‘strike’, encouraging and instructing him as to the moment’s timing (III.23.21–25). Again, this is exactly how Kṛṣṇa will speak to Arjuna when the occasions for Bhīṣma’s and Karṇa’s deaths arise. Kṛṣṇa concludes this part of the scene by commenting on how he reacts to Dāruka’s admonition:

tattvam etad iti jñātvā yuddhe matim adhārayam
Having realised that truth, I put my mind to battle.


In the same vein of charioteer-lore, when Kṛṣṇa delivers Arjuna to combat with Aśvatthāman the poets use Vedic terms to give this likeness: ‘Kṛṣṇa drew Arjuna like Vāyu drew Indra in the sacrifice’, avahat pārthaṃ kṛṣṇovāyur indram ivādhvare (VIII.12.22). Then as the duel proceeds and Arjuna is not achieving victory, his driver urges him further: pramādyase kiṃ jahi yodham etam, ‘why are you neglectful — strike that fighter!’ It is the task of the charioteer to direct and stimulate not only the horses drawing the vehicle but also to charge his companion-warrior with alacrity and heroic vigour. Some time after this moment, Kṛṣṇa repeats his urgence, saying mordantly: kiṃ krīḍase, ‘why are you playing?’ (VIII.14.22).

I have dealt at length with this particular poetic performance by Kṛṣṇa because it portrays what is perhaps his essential nature as a warrior hero and kṣatriya. Kṛṣṇa in this stage of his life-cycle is a sūta; he is no longer the superhuman shepherd nor cowboy of his mythical youth and not yet the divine figure and deity which he later becomes. During much of the Mahābhārata he is someone who behaves for most of the narrative time in the distinct and formalised manner of a charioteer. The fact that Kṛṣṇa can become deluded by ‘magic’ or fraud, māyā, indicates this intensely mortal condition; for when Śālva tricks him into believing that his father—Vasudeva—has been killed, Kṛṣṇa says that, māṃ moha āviśat, ‘delusion entered me’ (III.22.22). Such is a strong sign of humanity, for if Kṛṣṇa were divine—as he later becomes—and was not merely heroic, he would not be subject to this kind of sensible trickery or illusion. [74]
This brief song of nine adhyāyas perhaps encapsulates in summary the manner in which Kṛṣṇa is later—during the Kurukṣetra Books—going to behave when he himself becomes the consummate driver. The forms of sūta conduct are here all nicely delineated in this prolepsis and there is an almost unheimlich quality to this short performance in that it foreshadows so much of Kṛṣṇa’s own persona in the epic: it is emblematic. What is happening during this somewhat incongruous micro-narrative—incongruous as it is almost an integral song in itself and appears as if mortised into the larger movement of the epic—is that the poet-editors have behaved once again as bricoleurs. The sequence or serial form of the poem has been halted as another thread is woven into the texture of the work creating a small visual panel that is distinct from the ongoing way of the story; the narrative has jumped out of its groove, as it were, as another narrative is introjected into the force of the song. When it ends the poem resumes where it left off with Vaiśaṃpāyana taking up the words.
Curiously, this minor epic possesses two beginnings, one at 15.2 and the other at 16.2; in the first it is said that Kṛṣṇa describes the onset of the conflict, then in the second commencement it is the character of Vāsudeva who takes up the ślokas and performs the rest of the account. The second beginning merely recapitulates the first beginning. Thus again, there is an aspect of bricolage at work here and it is as if the poets are assembling together components of a highly variform song. There is no smooth and serial movement to the epic and it is often almost like a multi-dimensioned painting, such are the diverse and yet generally unified planes and perspectives.
This particularly little sub-narrative had been in response to an emotionally passionate and charged harangue by Draupadī where she denounced Kṛṣṇa for his absence and for not protecting her after the dicing when she—whilst menstruating—was publically stripped and abjected. The narrative is geometric rather than sequential, for all this charioteering lore has been by way of explaining to Yudhiṣṭhira—who is now in exile in the forest with his brothers and wife—why Kṛṣṇa was not present in the sabhā and so unable to assist his allies when Draupadī was being humiliated and they were being cheated out of the kingdom. There has been a juxtaposition of different and unrelated events which really lack any metonymy and the effect is less than symphonic; such is the nature of epic Mahābhārata, with a narrative form that is so unlike similar cognate poetry. To recapitulate the patterning of this episode: there is the scene in the forest and Yudhiṣṭhira’s question to Kṛṣṇa; then there is Kṛṣṇa the poet’s song about his son’s exploits which he reports although he was not actually present; this is followed by Kṛṣṇa’s own song of himself. Such are the movements of the master poet, shifting like a camera among framed narratives which merge and constitute one single concert.
This brief and succinct performance of Kṛṣṇa, behaving as a poet and singing of the code or dharma of charioteers, anticipates what the audience will hear later in Book Six, the Bhīṣma parvan, when the sūta Saṃjaya performs the voice of Kṛṣṇa—at that point in the epic a dynamic charioteer himself—who is addressing his hero, Arjuna. That episode is now known as the Gītā, where the savant driver admonishes his warrior and encourages him towards martial vigour. It is a song that has been overlaid with philosophy and theology and closes with a theophanic revelation by Kṛṣṇa in the part of an incarnate deity. This convergence of techniques which comes under the title of sūta is uniquely typical of Kṛṣṇa in the epic: he is a driver, poet, moral philosopher, and ambassador, as well as being the ideal of a friend for Arjuna and also the political compeer of Yudhiṣṭhira in both assemblies and battle.
For many people in India today, Mahābhārata means the Bhagavad Gītā, where the charioteer sings a song of cosmic advice to his anxious hero who is questioning the fundamental code of kṣatriyas. [75] As the imminence of violence and its corollary of death becomes immediately present, how is a warrior to deal with grief and terror, emotionally and practically: this is the question. [76] This crisis that heroes experience immediately prior to the fight is one of the motifs of the poem and it is an occasion for the charioteer to address his companion. This episode begins in typical sūta style with Kṛṣṇa’s first words on the battlefield, directing his hero’s attention with the indicative statement, sa eṣa bhīṣmaḥ, ‘there is Bhīṣma’ (VI.22.15); this is soon followed by, paśyaitān samavetān kurūn, ‘look, the assembled Kurus,’ for the chariot must now be paused between the two forces (VI.23.25). Then come the famous and somewhat formulaic lines where the warrior hesitates:

gāṇḍivaṃ sraṃsate hastāt tvak caiva paridahyate
na ca śaknomy avasthātuṃ bhramatīva ca me manaḥ
It is as if my skin is burned and Gāṇḍiva falls from my hand,
And I am unable to stand; my mind—as it were—whirls.


Arjuna even makes the un-kṣatriya claim that: na kāṅkṣe vijayaṃ, ‘I do not desire victory’. He is lapsing in martial tenor because he is expected to kill his kin and also his teachers; he drops his bow and quiver and collapses on the floor of the vehicle where he is said to be, śokasaṃvignamānasaḥ, ‘one whose mind is agitated with grief’ (VI.23.37). [77] Then the immortal song of this particular sūta is performed on the chariot which is halted between the two contending armies, a momentary pause that is stylised as timeless. [78] Uttiṣṭha, ‘stand up!’ says Kṛṣṇa in response to the collapse of his hero, a word that is often spoken to a kṣatriya in order to provoke them to fight; kutas tvā kaśmalam, ‘whence is your dejection’, klaibyaṃ mā sma gamaḥ, ‘do not be unmanly’ (VI.24.2–3). [79] Arjuna responds in a fashion that is also a formulaic expression for a hero: na yotsye, I shall not fight!’ (VI.24.9). [80]

Much of the Gītā is informed by Saṅkhya or non-advaita and dualist philosophy and does not concern kṣatriya conduct, although in depicting this ideal philosopher or yogī, Kṛṣṇa does draw upon the heroic lexicon, saying:

nainaṃ chindati śastrāṇi nainaṃ dahati pāvakaḥ
Weapons do not cut him, nor does fire burn him.
sukhinaḥ kṣatriyāḥ pārtha labhante yuddham īdṛśam
Pārtha, happy kṣatriyas secure such a fight.

VI.24.23, 32

The admonition to the kṣatriya warrior to engage selflessly in the fight, even to a point of personal extinction, is merged with the teaching of selflessness in human consciousness and a desire for or pursuit of spiritual truth: heroic action is fused with philosophy. A warrior should act according to his dharma regardless of consequences, of phalam, ‘the fruit’ (VI.24.51). Yujyasvakarmasu, ‘be yoked in actions’, says Kṛṣṇa, again drawing upon common expressions taken from warrior vocabulary. Similarly, Kuntī in her speech to Kṛṣṇa at V.131–133, summarises much of the dynamism of a kṣatriya code of martial conduct without the support of a technically resolved philosophical system. [81]

In this long discourse, like so many of the comparable edifying discourses that by appropriation have been unified into the kṣatriya epic narrative, the poets or editors have finely merged a traditional and rigorous philosophical system with the morals of an old warrior code. [82] The former really has nothing to do with the measure of the poem’s process and the presence of this element of discourse is another instance of poetic bricolage; presumably such an accretion to the kṣatriya poem occurred at some point during early classical times. The hero’s object weapon in this speech becomes transformed into a mental instrument: jñānāsinā chittvainaṃ saṃśayaṃ, ‘cut that doubt with the sword of knowledge’, the sword having become the knowledge of the philosopher (VI.26.42). It is such knowing that allows the yogī, or ‘adept’ to find peace, for, as Kṛṣṇa says: śāntiṃ nirvāṇaparamāṃadhigaccchati, ‘he approaches peace—the utmost extinction’ (VI.28.50). The courage of the hero unto death is thus fused with the valour of the yogī in the pursuit of nirvāṇa; and the transcendence of the warrior who achieves kīrti, ‘fame’, is homologous to the adept transcending the world and entering into a condition of philosophical bliss. So the language and vocabulary of death and ecstasy are blended via the use of metaphor.
The unique quality of the Gītā however—apart from the fact that the speech and interlocution occurs upon a chariot—is that Kṛṣṇa, the charioteer, puts himself at the apex of the cosmos, stating that it is he who is in the position of nirvāṇa, that which the philosopher pursues: he is that knowledge, which, according to our analogue is like death in the ontology of the kṣatriya. He says, combining the two systems of thought:

buddhir buddhimatāṃ asmi tejas tejasvināṃ aham
I am the intelligence of the intelligent, I — the energy of the dynamic!


Tejas, the ‘honourific energy’ that a hero must possess if he is to succeed is thus combined with the buddhi, ‘intelligence’ by which the philosopher is able to approach the ‘absolute’ of nirvāṇa. The editor-poets thus weave two strands of thinking or culture together in this great chariot song, and, referring to himself in the third person, Kṛṣṇa comments: vāsudevaḥ sarvaṃ iti, ‘Vāsudeva is everything!’ (VI.29.19). [83] For the śūra, the hero, there is no return from death, except in the words of epic poetry where his actions are reformed and repeated and so memorialised, or in the rites of cult where his disembodied psyche or ātman is invoked and activated. For the yogī, says Kṛṣṇa, there is a similar condition that is also irreversible:

avyakto’kṣara ity uktas tam āhuḥ paramāṃ gatim
yaṃ prāpya na nivartante …
They say that ultimate aim is the unmanifest-incomparable, [84]
Having obtained which — they do not return.


This understanding, he says, is rājavidyā rājaguhyaṃ, ‘kingly knowledge, kingly mystery’ (VI.31.2), and, he adds: paśya me yogam aiśvaram, ‘see — my royal yoga!’ The charioteer is initiating his hero into a system of mystery, for as he has just claimed: idaṃ tu te guhyatamaṃ pravakṣyāmyjñānaṃ, ‘I shall announce to you this most hidden knowledge’ (VI.31.1). Kṛṣṇa’s language as he relates this visionary wisdom—as he inducts his companion into this learning—partakes of kṣatriya phraseology and the verbal repertoire of kingship. [85] At one point Kṛṣṇa even glosses this absolute as, puṇyamsurendralokam, ‘the sacred heaven of Indra’ (VI.31.20). Concerning the devās, ‘deities’, he adds that, devānām asmi vāsavaḥ, ‘of the deities I am Vāsava’ or Indra (VI.32.22).

All this is a glossary of initiation and—as with most initiations—it is followed by epiphany, an experience that is typically unspeakable or inexpressible, which presently commences with a revelation of the Vedic deities:

paśyādityān vasūn rudrān aśvinau marutas tathā
Look — the Ādityas, Vasus, Rudras, the Aśvins, also the Maruts!


In order that Arjuna might witness these revelations Kṛṣṇa supplies his companion with supersensory perception:

divyaṃ dadāmi te cakṣuḥ paśya me yogam aiśvaram
I give you divine vision: see — my royal yoga!


Then the vision of this rūpaṃ paraṃ, ‘ultimate form’, is described and sung by Arjuna himself in seventeen verses. [86] This cosmic view is, of course, only apparent to Arjuna, and not to any of the many thousands of warriors and kings who are surrounding the chariot on either side as the two armies are assembled on the field at Kurukṣetra. [87] The most fundamental aspect of this initiation is that Kṛṣṇa makes the vision identical with his own person, he himself is the epiphany, for it is a theophany and Arjuna refers to what he is experiencing as tvā, ‘You!’ In the vision Kṛṣṇa is consuming or eating all the Dhārtarāṣṭras in his mouth, that is their extirpation as they enter his jaws, yathā nadīnāṃ, ‘like rivers’ (VI.33.25–30). This nadī in epic Mahābhārata, particularly during the battle books, is the primary governing metaphor of combat and death for heroes. [88]

‘I am death’, says Kṛṣṇa, kālo’smi, his first words to be uttered during the epiphany (VI.33.32). [89] He only speaks three verses in this theophanic form, closing with the lines— which are what a good charioteer should say to his hero: yudhyasva jetāsi raṇe sapatnān, ‘Fight the rivals! You will be victorious in battle!’ Arjuna addresses him with Vedic titles, Varuṇa, Yama, Prajāpati, and earlier he had even called him Brahma; then he calls to him by personal name: he kṛṣṇa he yādava he sakhe, ‘Kṛṣṇa, Yādava, friend!’ (VI.33.41). [90]
The scene concludes with the warrior admitting his error and pronouncing his readiness to engage in fighting, for his driver has successfully revitalised his companion’s prowess with the sacred ontology that has been transmitted. [91] Arjuna says:

I am firm, gone is my dubiety. I shall accomplish your speech.


So closes the saṃvāda, ‘the dialogue’ on the chariot between Keśava and Arjuna, the two Kṛṣṇas. Kṛṣṇa has initiated his friend who thus, brahmanirvāṇam ṛcchati, ‘obtains the bliss of brahma’, a consciousness whose mastery now allows him to participate in battle once again (VI.24.72). [92]

How effective the theophany was however can be noted later when Arjuna, in the company of Kṛṣṇa long after the battle and its obsequies are past, is pictured by the poets as: tasyāṃ sabhāyāṃ ramyāyāṃ vijahara mudā, ‘delightedly sported in that lovely sabhā’ at Indraprastha (XIV.16.2). In this scene he speaks of, te rūpam aiśvaramtat sarvaṃnaṣṭaṃ me, ‘your divine form — all that is lost to me’; that is, Arjuna had been unable to retain the memory of those moments, such was their super-nature. Expressions or representations of cosmic truth or validity cannot be remembered for the experience is immutable, in itself only, and at best it only leaves a trace; these are by nature ephemeral. [93] Thus Arjuna in the Āśvamedhika parvan requests further initiation and hence the monologue of the Anugītā as guhyaṃ, ‘a mystery’, is generated; there, such veracities are further elucidated and transmitted. The philosophical song, which commences at XIV.16.9 and is heard until 50.41, is a very different form of composition from the Gītā for it is entirely brahminical and concerns eschatological teachings which for the main part are spoken by a Brahmin, enacted or dramatised and re-spoken by Kṛṣṇa. Kṛṣṇa informs Arjuna about his own initiation into such ultimate conditions or ideals of knowledge but the metaphors in this case are not taken from a kṣatriya vocabulary. [94]
Earlier on during the poem, in the Śānti parvan, Bhīṣma reports how Kṛṣṇa had spoken with the ṛṣi Nārada about initiations, saying:

nāsuhṛt paramaṃ mantraṃ nāradārhati veditum Nārada,
one who is not a friend does not deserve to know the ultimate mystery.


That is, initiation or transmission of cosmic truth requires the necessary condition of friendship, or, the essential mediation of the personal and mutual emotions of amity and its affect.

Now let us examine some succinct and specific incidents of charioteer combat as they occur during the great battle. During the commencing chapters of the great Droṇa parvan when the two are engaged in severe combat, Kṛṣṇa, who is khinnaḥ, ‘wearied’, and sweating heavily, [95] turns to his companion and, due to the multitude of arrows passing through the air and the density of the fray he says:

kvāsi pārtha na paśye tvāṃ kaccij jīvasi śatruhan
Where are you, Pārtha, I do not see you? Are you living, enemy-killer?


Later, this situation recurs and neither Arjuna nor Kṛṣṇa can be seen, such is the profusion of missiles: na hayā na rathodṛśyante, ‘neither horses nor chariot were observed’, say the poets. Kṛṣṇa is described as moham anuprāptaḥ, ‘one who is bewildered’, and again, he is said to be sasvedas, ‘sweating’ (VII.26.19–20).

A similar moment occurs in Book Three where Indra’s charioteer is driving for Arjuna and they are terrifically beset by Dānavas; the driver loses both his goad and his orientation and exclaims, māṃ bhītaḥ kvāsi, ‘I am frightened, where are you?’ (III.168.15). This scene is the only other occasion in the epic where Arjuna is portrayed by the poets as an intimate and combatant hero in the company of another charioteer (III.164.31 to 170.62). At the close of this short episode, the driver, Mātali is said to recount the deeds, just as a good sūta—as poet—is supposed to sing the song, that is, the epic:

mama karma ca devendraṃ mātalir vistareṇa tat sarvaṃ viśrāvayāmāsa ….
Mātali informed the Indra-of-deities all my deeds without pause.


The audience does not hear this micro-epic directly because Arjuna—through the voice of Vaiśaṃpāyana—has been telling Yudhiṣṭhira of these heroic exploits himself. [96]

When the companions are attacked by an elephant warrior, Kṛṣṇa cleverly responds in order to keep the enemy on their left, the side of the chariot on which the warrior-archer stands and the side where he would have a greater arc of fire. [97]

cakre’pasavyaṃ tvaritaḥ syandanena janārdanaḥ
Janārdana made a quick left with the chariot.


Then, during the same duel, Kṛṣṇa does something atypical, although this is perhaps common for charioteers or for close warrior-friends. A missile has been discharged towards Arjuna, who is duelling furiously with Bhagadatta:

urasā pratijagrāha pārthaṃ saṃchādya keśavaḥ
Keśava took [the missile] on his breast, having covered Pārtha.


Arjuna objects to this as it might diminish his own heroism, much as the sūta Dāruki had been spoken to in the story which Kṛṣṇa had related earlier about charioteering in Book Three. He reminds Kṛṣṇa of his verbal commitment when he had promised ayudhyamānas turagān saṃyantāsmi, ‘non-combatant, I shall guide the horses’: that was all that he had engaged to do. Arjuna says:

yady ahaṃ vyasanī vā syām aśakto vā nivāraṇe
If I would become unfortunate or unable to hinder [missiles] …


Only then, he says, can the charioteer act according to his discretion, otherwise the sūta must remain thoroughly subordinate to the hero in fighting. This is exactly what Kṛṣṇa had said earlier in the poem. [98] Kṛṣṇa then resumes his role as driver to Arjuna and tells his friend: jahibhagadattam, ‘kill Bhagadatta’, which is quickly accomplished. This is an exceptional duel for the epic, for it had been between unequal elements: a chariot and an elephant-warrior, and such encounters are uncommon in the poem.

Similarly, when the youth Abhimanyu directs his driver to the field with the usual directives, acodayata and yāhi, the man replies with a warning, caused by Abhimanyu’s lack of years. The driver says that the task is too much for his young hero, it is atibhāro, ‘burdensome’ , for Droṇa—his present opponent—is a master of martial strength. Abhimanyu responds disdainfully and rhetorically:

sārathe ko nvayaṃ droṇaḥ samagraṃ kṣattram eva vā
Charioteer, who is this Droṇa, or such a kṣatriya force?


Abhimanyu, tāṃ vācaṃ kadarthīkṛtya, ‘having disregarded that speech’, commands his sūta to proceed, and the man is said to be: nātihṛṣṭamanāḥ, ‘not overjoyed’, but yet he obeys his youthful charge, as a sūta should do.

On the morning when Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna set out to slay Jayadratha the poets tell of how the chariot is prepared. As we have seen, the Mahābhārata—and not simply during the Kurukṣetra battle books—is full of small scenes describing the preparation, beauty, and the departure of chariots; these vehicles were an important and highly valued object in warrior society. It is said of Kṛṣṇa that, kalpayāmāsa sūtavat rathaṃ, ‘he prepared the chariot like a sūta’ (VII.60.11). [99] He is the one to harness the animals, to check the paraphernalia and panoply, and when complete Kṛṣṇa announces: sajjaḥ sajjaṃ puraḥsaraḥpārthāya nyavedayata taṃ ratham, ‘the prepared one, the forerunner, told Pārtha that the chariot was readied’. Arjuna, the warrior, vāhaṃ pradakṣiṇam avartata, ‘circumambulated the vehicle’, and being praised by attendants he mounts the chariot. This is one of the great thematic moments of aristeía, the heroic instant when a warrior committed to either death or personal victory in a duel, sets off in his beautiful vehicle and so combines both finery—in the poetry—with the terror of imminent death as a governing emotion: the chariot being the medium of successful violence or decease. The chariot is also, of course, the medium by which the victorious warrior will achieve fame and thus enter the tradition of epic poetry, conducted by the poet-sūta: it is the vehicle of that fame.
The chariot itself is praised: jaitraiḥ sāṃgrāmikair mantraiḥ, ‘with victory-mantras of war’ (VII.60.16), and having mounted the car, jagrāha govindo raśmīn, ‘Govinda took the reins’. [100] Curiously, there is a third member of this chariot team, which is unusual, for the archer Sātyaki, an important Yādava friend of Kṛṣṇa is present in the vehicle. [101] As they depart brahmins sing praises and poets—accompanied by musical instruments—are heard honouring the heroes:

tato vāditranirghoṣair maṅgalyaiś ca stavaiḥ śubhaiḥ
prayāntam arjunaṃ sūtā māghadhāś caiva tuṣṭuvuḥ
Then with fine praise and with the auspicious sound of instruments,
Poets with eulogists praised the departing Arjuna.


Before they actually pursue Jayadratha, Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna are met by Droṇa in his chariot on the field of battle. Arjuna, kṛṣṇasyānumate, ‘with the consent of Kṛṣṇa’, and with formally joined hands addresses Droṇa, who had once been his martial guru, someone who now requires deliberate respect on the part of his former student. The two then duel until, like a good charioteer, Kṛṣṇa reminds his warrior that they need to pursue Jayadratha as the day was passing; for Arjuna had vowed to end his own life if he failed to destroy Jayadratha that day. [102] Hence the anxiety of his companion Kṛṣṇa that his friend might not succeed in his commitment:

pārtha pārtha mahābaho na naḥ kālātyayo bhavet Pārtha!
Pārtha, Strong-arm! May our time not exceed us!


Arjuna, as he should, attends to the advice of his driver and ceases to attack Droṇa and they set off in pursuit of Jayadratha. Encountering Kṛtavarman, Arjuna fights with him, and again, his driver Kṛṣṇa urges him: kṛtavarmāṇi mā dāyampramathyainaṃ viśātaya, ‘be not compassionate to Kṛtavarman, grind him, destroy!’ (VII.67.25). Soon, when Arjuna is so struck by arrows that he faints, the poets say:

ājagāma paraṃ mohaṃ mohayan keśavaṃ raṇe
He lost consciousness, causing Keśava to be deluded in battle.


The two are so closely identified in the chariot on the field of battle—just as they are in pacific life—that their physical state becomes simultaneously conjoint; Kṛṣṇa becomes bhṛśasaṃtapto, grievously ‘scorched’, on seeing his companion comatose and he speaks to Arjuna softly, trying to restore him. This is the ideal of charioteer-warrior and their practical kinship and co-operation: an intimacy of effort involving violence, death, grief, ritual, daily companionship, the familiarity of martial confidence, and even the parenting of a son. This martial fellowship is nicely portrayed by the line:

rathamārgapramāṇaṃ tu kaunteyo niśitaiḥ śaraiḥ
cakāra tatra panthānaṃ yayau yena janārdanaḥ
Kaunteya made there a chariot-wide way with sharpened arrows,
By which Janārdana proceeded …


The warrior prepares a way by shooting his arrows at the enemy and thence the charioteer is able to drive their vehicle onwards further into the battle. Then, rathaśikṣāṃ tu dāśārho darśayāmāsa, ‘Dāsārha displayed his chariot skill’, say the poets, speaking of Kṛṣṇa, as he puts the vehicle through the evolution of circling.

This unity of driver and warrior is given even finer point when the horses become exhausted and wounded with arrows during all the battling and there occurs a charming moment in the epic. Arjuna, observing the animals, tells his driver:

hayān vimucya hi sukhaṃ viśalyān kuru mādhava
Mādhava, loose the horses easily; make them arrowless.


Kṛṣṇa simply responds by saying that he agrees, and does as advised. The problem is that the conflict continues to surround them and this resting must be accomplished whilst Arjuna, with his bow, protects driver and horses. Kṛṣṇa tells his companion that the animals need to drink and that they need fresh water for their thirst ‘not bathing water’, he adds: peyaṃ naavagāhanam. Arjuna shoots an arrow into the earth: cakre vājipānaṃ saraḥ śubham, and ‘he made a lovely pool of horse-water’ (VII.74.56).

tataḥ prahasya govindaḥ sādhu sādhvity athābravīt
Then, having laughed, Govinda said: ‘good, good!’


He dismounts and begins to remove the arrows from the horses, rubbing them with his hands and making them drink; then the animals, once more refreshed, are yoked back into the chariot. This is certainly, kṛṣṇaḥ kuśalo hyaśvakarmaṇi, ‘Kṛṣṇa, skilled in horse-lore’ (VII.75.14). [103] Blowing his war-conch, the Pañcajanya, Kṛṣṇa drives the vehicle so fast now that arrows shot ahead by Arjuna actually fall behind the chariot, such is the intense celerity of the two heroes (VII.75.31–32). [104]

As the conflict continues, Kṛṣṇa begins to manage events as they proceed about his hero. He draws the attention of his warrior with the usual indicative, paśya, to where Bhūriśravas is chasing Sātyaki, and Arjuna allows himself to be deflected once again from his pursuit of Jayadratha: vacanaṃ kurvan vāsudevasya, ‘accomplishing the words of Vāsudeva’ (VII.117.62). In an uncommonly unwarrior fashion—such is his ongoing wrath at the slaying of his son Abhimanyu—Arjuna savagely severs the arm of Bhūriśravas who then dies; Kṛṣṇa now informs his warrior how to fell Jayadratha. Again the charioteer is mastering his hero, directing him and informing him as to tactical necessity and movement.
So commences the great duel with Jayadratha. Arjuna soon proceeds to decapitate his enemy’s driver, another uncommonly and unwarrior-like act to perform, for unmanageable rage and furor have overtaken the level sensibilities of Arjuna (VII.121.13). Then Kṛṣṇa instructs his companion to perform the coup-de-grâce, saying: dhanaṃjaya śiraś chindhi saindhavasya, ‘Dhanaṃjaya, cut off the head of the Saindhava’. This is done in a manner that avoids any further consequence, for Kṛṣṇa had simultaneously advised Arjuna to ensure that the severed head would be taken on by the arrow and made to fall in the lap of Jayadratha’s father, otherwise it would have been explosive and destructive of themselves (VII.121.38). Once again it is the super-omniscient Kṛṣṇa who conducts the pace and events of Arjuna’s combat, both avoiding disaster and conducing towards victory. He is the maestro directing the ultimate outcome of battle, but apart from his position as sūta, he in no way practically participates but merely guides Arjuna—with words—towards the extinguishing of revenge. As Arjuna says of himself and of his brothers, tava vayaṃ preṣyāḥ, ‘we are your servants’, and Kṛṣṇa responds by, smayanśanakair vāhayan hayān, ‘smiling, urging the horses’ (VII.123.29–30).
The two finally proceed to where Yudhiṣṭhira is stationed and inform him of the deed, at which Yudhiṣṭhira sings a joyous hymn volubly praising Kṛṣṇa (VII.124). The term diṣṭyā, ‘by good fortune’, is repeated many times in this little song of victory, and he closes with:

mama prāṇasamau caiva diṣṭyā paśyāmi vām aham
And so like my life — by good fortune I see you both!


Then, much later, when Arjuna has accomplished his greatest duel and killed his main opponent Karṇa, thus essentially winning the war, king Yudhiṣṭhira makes the comment to Kṛṣṇa:

tvayā sārathinā pārtho yat kuryād adya pauruṣam
With you as driver, Pārtha could today achieve such manliness!


After the battle is over and when they finally arrive back at camp Kṛṣṇa directs Arjuna to stand down from the chariot, taking with him his Gāṇḍīva bow and its akṣayyau maheśudhī, ‘two great inexhaustible quivers’, saying that only then would he himself dismount. Dropping the reins he stands down and in that moment the ape-banner, the dvaja, vanishes, and then: atha dīpto’gninā hyāśu prajajvāla, the chariot itself ‘blazed by fire quickly burned’. The vehicle disappears instantly:

sopāsaṅgaḥ saraśmiś ca sāśvaḥ sayugabandhuraḥ
bhasmibhūto’patad bhūmau ratho gāṇḍīvadhanvanaḥ
The chariot of the Gāṇḍīva-bearer fell onto the earth,
Become ashes, along with curved yoke, horse, reins, and quiver.


So concludes the great co-operation and enterprise of two incomparable warriors as their transport vanishes in spontaneous fire. There still remains much amity and congruent activity for these two consummate kṣatriyas but their time of battle together has reached its terminus with the sudden annihilation of the chariot. Kṛṣṇa’s life as a sūta—as a driver, poet, and messenger—has also reached conclusion; he remains a close friend of Arjuna and as an important Kuru ally he manages to sustain the Pāṇḍava lineage, but his active place in the poem as a charioteer is completed. The devastation of the chariot signifies the atrophy of their powerful consilience, for that great amity was thoroughly founded upon the existence and movement of the vehicle. The warrior song of this extraordinary friendship as well as the song of the chariot is finished and what follows is almost of another genre of speech.

Let us close this section with Arjuna as he is towards the end of the epic: when Kṛṣṇa is no more in that position of charioteer and those days are long in the past, and in fact he is actually deceased. There occurs a brief conversation which takes place in the Mausala parvan between Arjuna and his magical quasi-human grand-father Vyāsa, at the latter’s āśrama. Arjuna tells of how, since the death of Kṛṣṇa:

na cehasthātum icchāmi loke kṛṣṇavinākṛtaḥ
Without Kṛṣṇa I do not wish to live in the world. [105]


Then Arjuna, in what is almost a reviewing of how the Gītā commences, recounts to his nominal grand-father how his martial prowess deserted him forever as he was escorting his deceased friend’s women-folk to their new domicile. The poets draw upon the usual verbal patterns for this scene which evoke other similar moments, saying, mano me dīryate, ‘my mind was pierced’:

dhanur ādāya tatrāhaṃ nāśakaṃ tasya pūraṇe
yathā purā ca me vīryaṃ bhujayor na tathābhavat
There, having taken a bow, I was not capable in its stringing;
As was once the virility of my arms, now it was not so.


His arrows, previously inexhaustible are soon depleted and he tells Vyāsa of how he had been attacked and was unable to defend the Vṛṣṇi women, his martial vigour having deserted him. He became parinirviṇṇacetās, ‘despondent’, just as he did at the opening of the Kurukṣetra war. He continues: viṣīdāmi ghūrṇāmīva, ‘I am despairing like one who is dizzy’. Formerly he had Kṛṣṇa, his double, to restore valour and confidence, but now there was no one like that sparkling charioteer, one who was able to revitalise a kṣatriya’ s energy, his tejas; and thus Arjuna himself is soon to perish. He says that he is, śūnyasya paridhāvataḥ, ‘one who is escaping the void’, and this is because:

vinā janārdanaṃ vīraṃ nāhaṃ jīvitum utsahe
Without the glorious Janārdana I am unable to live.


It is as if their duality, once severed, is only able to reform beyond death; and in a sense that location is the poetry of epic Mahābhārata itself, the truest of heroic vehicles, conducted by a sūta.

Arjuna, who had been summoned to Dvāraka by Kṛṣṇa before the latter died—and this is many years after the battle of Kurukṣeta—visits his mātula, ‘maternal uncle’, Kṛṣṇa’s father Vasudeva, who in his grief at the horror of the events had determined to fast to death. Arjuna determines to take all the Vṛṣṇi women and children and the aged to Indraprastha: vṛṣṇidārāṃs tu bālavṛddhāṃsnayiṣye, ‘I shall conduct the wives, children and elders’ he says, as if he knows that without Kṛṣṇa the town of Dvāraka will become defunct (XVI.8.5). Arjuna, as Kṛṣṇa’s closest friend and ally then appoints Kṛṣṇa’s great-grandson Vajra to become chief of the Yādavas: vajro’yaṃ bhavatāṃ rājā, ‘let Vajra become king’ (XVI.8.11). When Kṛṣṇa is killed it is said in the parvasaṃgraha, ‘book summaries’ of the Ādi parvan, that Arjuna rather than any other member of Kṛṣṇa’s clan, śarīraṃ vāsudevasya rāmasya casaṃskāraṃ lambhayāmāsa, ‘he had bestowed on the body of Vāsudeva and Rāma the funeral ceremony’; for even in death Arjuna is still the closest kin of his friend (I.2.225).
With the demise of his great companion and charioteer however, Arjuna becomes strangely debilitated and enervated as a warrior and is soon incompetent in fighting; it is as if his puissance was in some way dependent upon Kṛṣṇa’s presence beside him. In action, his bow fails and his usually inexhaustible arrows are soon gone and he becomes despondent (XVI.8.64). In the Ādi parvan this is described as:

dadarśāpadi kaṣṭāyāṃ gāṇḍīvasya parābhavam
sarveṣāṃ caiva divyānām astrāṇām aprasannatām
He saw the defeat of Gāṇḍīva as a dreadful disaster
And the disfavour of all his divine weaponry.


Kingship of the former Pāṇḍava stronghold of Indraprastha is quickly handed over to Vajra where the Yādava lineage will continue, for the Pāṇḍava brothers are soon to find their own imminent demise and Parīkṣit—who had been saved at birth by Kṛṣṇa—will sustain the dynasty at Hāstinapura.

indraprasthe dadau rājyaṃ vajrāya paravīrahā
The destroyer of heroic enemies gave kingship at Indraprastha to Vajra.


Thus the old coalition of Pāṇḍava-Yādava is sustained into the future and into the kali yuga, with the Pāṇḍavas in one Kuru stronghold and the Yādavas established at the other former citadel.


To conclude then, nowhere else in cognate Indo-European epic poetry is there portrayed such a finely outlined and dramatic picture of a kinglike charioteer, wherein the competence of that person—as a poet, as an ambassador, as an intimate companion and moral authority, as well as a capable physician at times—is vividly and beautifully demarcated. Such a charioteer is a figure come of a lineage fitting to these complex and sophisticated tasks. [106]
During the Bhīṣma parvan, the poets describe the warriors who have retired to their camp after a day of combat:

kṛtasvastyayanāḥ sarve saṃstūyantaś ca bandibhiḥ
gītavāditraśabdena vyakrīḍanta yaśasvinaḥ
All the glorious, whose success had been accomplished, sported,
Praised by poets with the sound of instruments and song.


This presumably is an occasion for the singing of favourite epic poetry or even a moment when epic song would find its origins, in the praise and congratulation of accomplished warriors who return from battle: victorious, perhaps wounded, and probably with jubilant emotions compounded with remorse for fallen companions. The song of Kṛṣṇa that I have endeavoured to capture in these pages, taken from what must have been at one point in time a much longer Kṛṣṇa Cycle of epic poetry, would have been performed on similar occasions among members of his clan; as a SONG OF A CHARIOTEER, the friend and moral philosopher, an initiate into cosmic mysteries, and one whose accomplishment in battle and in assemblies was achieved not through the use of arms but with a refined mental acuity and the language and skills of brilliant verbal improvisation.

As part of his coruscating persona in epic Mahābhārata Kṛṣṇa possesses a wide- ranging nomenclature. Keśava is most commonly the heroic name of Kṛṣṇa and that is sometimes varied with Hṛṣikeśa, ‘the Horripilating’; Madhusūdana is another epithet that is often employed in the formal vocative, ‘destroyer of the demonic Madhu’. Govinda is also a well-used name of Kṛṣṇa and presumably one taken from his juvenile and pastoral time when he was a ‘finder of cows’. His personality in the epic is that of a poet and messenger, a driver and warrior, and an agent of shrewd and astute endeavour working politically in favour of his Yādava clan and among their allied families; all this nomeclature fits with these various abilities.
As a charioteer and warrior, Kṛṣṇa is often the subject of metaphors or similes that depict this protean figure in terms of his likeness to the deity Indra. It is also remarkable that Kṛṣṇa in various moments throughout the poem will sing a hymn praising the Mahādeva, Rudra-Śiva, and that these are performed in a manner that casts the deity in a quasi-monotheistic light. [107] As a facet of this model, in the great cosmic myth of the tripura, the city of the Asuras, it is Brahma who is the charioteer for Śiva, the warrior who appears in the form of Īśāna, and the ratha in this particular myth is composed of various elements of the cosmos; so fabricating the chariot as a universal totality, the absolute metaphor for both natural and supernal existence (VIII.24). To pursue this kind of analysis is not within the methods or conceptual scope of the present work however; such thought lies more within the ambit of religious studies and its related disciplines. Yet certainly, the immediacy of sūta-Kṛṣṇa to both Indra and Rudra-Śiva is an intrinsic element of his heroic formation. [108]
The references and passages that I have pointed out and commented upon can be esteemed as being without doubt extremely INDICATIVE of an unusual status for this charioteer and his friend, in terms of their universal and perhaps ritual standing; I make no claim to be definitive. I have simply outlined—as given in the text—the narrative of the epic Kṛṣṇa as he appears in the heroic Bhārata Song, where the dual form of Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, the dark and the bright, reaches far back into the Indo-Iranian world to an era when emotional fidelity in the cosmos was sustained by the divine being of Mitra and his compeer Varuṇa, who, as we have noted above, were also metaphors of brightness and darkness. We also observed the correlative that both Kṛṣṇa and Mitra are the only two characters in the poem who possess the sharp cakra weapon whose core is vajranābham, like the ‘navel of a vajra’. It is an instrument that Kṛṣṇa receives from Varuṇa:

āgneyam astraṃ dayitaṃ sa ca kalyo’bhavat tadā
And it was lovely — so perfect, a fiery weapon.


This trace or durable affinity which Kṛṣṇa bears with Mitra extends—as we have repeatedly seen—into the practice of a dual sovereignty with the dharmarāja Yudhiṣṭhira, particularly when Kṛṣṇa as dūta is in active pursuit of agreement or treaty.

In this essay I have demonstrated how the model of an archaic and kṣatriya Kṛṣṇa stands distinctly and coherently within the Mahābhārata narrative and draws upon those well-limned Indo-Āryan mythical types, regardless of how this figure of Keśava was expressed by later classical poets when accounts of his boyhood deeds became merged in the literature with the divine and heavenly qualities of an avatāra. [109] How heroes become deified is a further and different question and concerns a spiritual dignity that developed out of the establishment of hero cults, which in the case of the Mahābhārata are now impossible to identify or to reconstruct. [110] Certainly, Mahābhārata hero cults exist and continue to proliferate in the Sub-continent today but these are often subsequent rather than prior to Kṛṣṇa’s elevation to divine standing.
In areas of contemporary western Gujarat Kṛṣṇa is regarded by certain herding castes as their kuladevata, ‘clan-deity’: he is their ideal cow-herd and stockman and folk tales of his cunning and cleverness with words abound. His birthday during the onset of monsoon times is an occasion for great festivity and also for marriages to be celebrated among transhumant pastoralists. [111] Stories, songs, and sayings about his mental agility and superhuman strength are common, but he is not a warrior in those regions and districts, but a dazzling and mercurial pastoralist.
In colloquy with his poet, Saṃjaya, the old king Dhṛtarāṣṭra says of Arjuna and his charioteer friend:

arjune vijayo nityaṃ kṛṣṇe kīrtiś ca śāśvatī
Victory is always in Arjuna, and in Kṛṣṇa imperishable fame.


That is, victory exists in the domain of the hero but in Kṛṣṇa’s ability lies the song itself, the immanence of kīrti or ‘renown’. This is the task of the competent sūta, the charioteer- poet, to develop and direct that vehicle of song, the ratha of heroic conduct and values. [112] The account of heroic Kṛṣṇa in epic Mahābhārata demonstrates—as I hope the reader will have seen—that speech is the most powerful of actions leading towards real accomplishment, and that friendship is the most verbally effective and profoundly extensive of emotions. [113] Thus the charioteer is perhaps the best of all epic metaphors insofar as he conveys or encodes so many versions of the kṣatriya message as well as being its primary medium. Earlier, in the Ṛg Veda, the ‘chariot’ was often a central metaphor of the hymn itself, as at V.73.10: bráhmāṇi tákṣāma ráthāṃ iva, ‘sacred songs which we built like chariots’, and both hymns and chariots are often sú taṣṭam, ‘well-fashioned’ (II.35.2). [114]

What happens during later centuries when Kṛṣṇa becomes a figure of pan-Indic cult and then a numinous divinity centred about the town of Vṛndāvana and a recipient of what has presently become international or global adoration—Kṛṣṇa redux—that is another story, complete with its own concepts and methods. [115]


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[ back ] 1. It is with great pleasure that I describe this essay as, A Garland For Greg: in gratitude for his wonderful genius, for his great intellectual generosity, and for his profound and constant humanism. I would also like to thank Leonard Muellner and David Elmer for editing and preparing this electronic venue.
[ back ] 2. Sakha, from √sac, ‘to be familiar with’; suhṛd, ‘one whose heart is good’; sahāya, ‘one with whom one goes’ or ‘an associate’. The best cognate equivalent of such intense emotional connection is of course the strong friendship that exists between Achilles and Patroklos; although this is mainly depicted in terms of absence.
[ back ] 3. Vide Frame 2009, on this idea of the Indo-European charioteer as distinguished counsellor, Nestor being his primary model.
[ back ] 4. My initial understanding of kṣatriya culture in Mahābhārata is founded upon the work of Hopkins 1888, and is qualified by conversations with friends and scholars in contemporary Gujarat. Pargiter 1922:6, comments: “there must have been two great streams of distinct [historical] tradition, kṣatriya tradition and brahmanic tradition.” “Kṣatriya tradition … is concerned chiefly with kings and heroes and their great deeds, and displays the ideas and code of honour of kṣatriyas.” Ibid., pp.59–60.
[ back ] 5. “The first representation of Kṛṣṇa is on a coin of Agathocles in 40 B.C., the only one in a foreign ruler’s coin. Later, Heliodoros called himself a Bhāgavata, a devotee of Vāsudeva.” Bhattacharji 2001:131. Vedic ritual life focused on the yajña, ‘the sacrifice’, a rite wherein the sacred fire was central; such worship was—to our present knowledge—aniconic and one where the impersonal language of worship was absolutely precise and unchangeable and projected towards a polytheistic and pantheistic universe. What followed, the brahminical era, was a situation where the divinity Prajāpati was considered—in terms of exegesis but not worship—the creator deity. Then, beginning in classical times, rituals of devotion replaced the solem sacrifice: a manner of honour that was directed towards iconic forms as the personal and infinitely variable rites of pūjā, or ‘reverence’. The emotional knowledge of pūjā as rite is a completely different ontology to the knowledge that was founded upon practical aniconic worship; these two patterns of human behaviour signify two distinct systems of experience and the conceptual forms therein activated.
[ back ] 6. Hiltebeitel 2004:207, remarks upon XIII.24.70 where ‘inscribers of the Vedas’ are mentioned, vedānāṃ lekhās. This is a definite reference to writing but it occurs only once in the poem. Schlingloff 1969:338, quotes Bühler and Kirste, p.26: “As Bühler has pointed out, a landgrant of A.D. 532/33, characterising the Mahābhārata as a compilation containing 100,000 Ślokas (śatasāhasrī saṃhitā), proves with certainty, that the Mahābhārata in those times had approximately the same bulk as present.” This presumes a thorough literacy, of course, which is not a complete certainty.
[ back ] 7. The Milman Parry Collection at Harvard University is currently curated by Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy; the history of events which led to the institution of this extraordinary collection is given in Bynum, 1987. Influenced by the Brothers Grimm, Francis Child began to collect British ballads in the latter nineteenth century, principally in manuscript form. Human values and experience at that time were considered to be more truly located in oral and preliterate traditions than in written forms of record, in what was considered to be the timeless medium of the Volk. George Kittredge continued and developed the scholarly practice of Child but it was only with the field-work of the Hellenist Milman Parry in the early twentieth century—influenced in particular by the work of the Indo-Europeanist Antoine Meillet—that a ‘live’ and performative tradition, in Bosnia, was both recorded and analysed. Vide Bynum, 1987:22ff.
[ back ] 8. M.C. Smith 1992:ii–iv. Smith was a student of Albert Lord. P.C. Bagchi, in Sastri 1967:285, writes: “The Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini … mentions the Mahābhārata. But it is not known which Mahābhārata it was. It was certainly not the epic in its present developed form. Supposing it was the old Pāṇḍu story, it does not throw any light on the age of the present epic. The epic therefore cannot be used as a source of information for the religious history of the Nanda-Maurya period.”
McGrath 2004; Jamison 1994.
[ back ] 10. They are two entirely different epistemological systems for recording, transmitting, and sustaining human values and culture. In terms of the storing of information, preliteracy favours metaphor, whilst literacy engages more with metonymy.
[ back ] 11. I here draw extensively upon concepts developed by Lévi-Strauss in his work, La Pensée Sauvage 1962. “Or, le propre de la pensée mythique est de s’exprimer à l’aide d’un répertoire dont la composition est hétéroclite et qui, bien qu’étendu, reste tout de même limité ; pourtant, il faut qu’elle s’en serve, quelle que soit la tâche qu’elle s’assigne, car elle n’a rien d’autre sous la main. Elle apparaît ainsi comme une sorte de bricolage intellectuel, ce qui explique les relations qu’on observe entre les deux.” Lévi-Strauss, op. cit., p.26.
[ back ] 12. Śakuntalā is at I.61ff.; Kaśyapa appears at I.26ff.; Vasiṣṭha is at I.93ff. The effect of so much atemporal juxtaposition is rather like what occurs in much classical mural painting or basrelief, where many instants of a lengthy narrative are simultaneously imposed within one frame, so condensing and concentrating what is actually diachronic into an essentially synchronic image. See the photographic image of a par, illustrating the epic of Pābūjī, by Jaṛāvcand Josī of Bhīlwāṛā, appended at the rear of J.D. Smith, 1991. The frontispiece of this book has a photograph of Parbū Bhopo singing and accompanying himself with a rāvaṇhattho as he dances before the par and performs the epic.
[ back ] 13. The sub-parvan of Nala at III.50ff. is of this nature of bricolage, as is the Rāmopakhyāna at III.258ff.; such deviations in the narrative are not always philosophical nor edifying but can be—as in these two cases—heroic. The relation is one between macro and micro narratives and the problem is to what degree metonymy unites these disjunctions.
[ back ] 14. For Lévi-Strauss, the former situation of preliteracy concerns system whilst the other model, that of literacy, concerns history; or, one medium deals with the synchronic whilst the latter is diachronic in its representations. Op.cit., pp.26–30.
[ back ] 15. One wonders if the scholiast Nīlakaṇṭha in preparing his Commentary drew upon oral traditions of the poem or simply used written sources? How was epic poetry performed in Vārāṇasī during the twilight years of the Moghul imperium? Minkowski 2010 in his excellent essay on ‘Nīlakaṇṭha’s Mahābhārata’, writes: “Nīlakaṇṭha created a fresh ‘cosmopolitan’ edition, based on collecting manuscripts from different parts of India.” This is the central question: what were the critical values which informed Nīlakaṇṭha when he arranged his cosmopolitan text of the poem? He even uses urdu words in his commentary, as in III.15.5: buruja, ‘siege-tower’; and III.15.5, baṃdūkh, ‘musket’. These are words that he glosses as mleccchaprasiddha, ‘known among outsiders’. At I.6 of his Commentary, Nīlakaṇṭha writes, concerning his method: bahūn samāt hṛtya vibhinnadeśyān kośān viniścitya ca pāṭham agryam prācāṃ gurūṇām anusṛtya vācam ālabhyate bhāratam āvadipaḥ, ‘having collected many dictionaries from many countries and having decided on the foremost readings following the words of the earlier teachers …’ He later refers to the poem as, bhāratamandir, ‘a Bhārata temple’, at I.7.
[ back ] 16. I am thinking of Saṃjaya here as a poet who only composed during performance rather than one who recited what he had precisely learned; the latter being more the model of Vaiśaṃpāyana’s poetics. I argued this in McGrath 2011.
[ back ] 17. Vaiśaṃpāyana is a historically later poet than Saṃjaya by several generations, and his song is recited, being founded upon what he had heard other poets singing on earlier occasions. He is not directly inspired by events.
For Saṃjaya there do exist exceptions to this form but they are rare.
[ back ] 19. To express this concept of the bricoleur in other terms, the poet as bricoleur assembles a song much as a melody is performed in hocketing style by two musicians or vocalists: where the melody is only composed in a linear sense by the sum of the two instruments or voices which combine during performance and integrate each other into a single uniform sound.
[ back ] 20. Arjuna is śūraḥ śaurisahāyavān, ‘the hero possessing Śauri as a friend’; Śauri being Kṛṣṇa, a vṛddhi form of śūra and patronym of Vasudeva, Kṛṣṇa’s father (VIII.45.2).
[ back ] 21. At I.218; and III.43–49.
[ back ] 22. The battle books are Books Six to Nine inclusive; they describe the fighting at Kurukṣetra. Kṛṣṇa’s own charioteer is named Dāruka, as at II.2.14.
[ back ] 23. Vyāsa, at the snake sacrifice of Janamejaya at Kurukṣetra, where the ostensibly proto-epic was initially sung, is said to be the sadasya at the rite. This is a superintending priest, the seventeenth member of the officiating body, who is silent except to correct errors in the ritual; he resides in the sadas, a special and temporary shed erected within the sacrificial precinct (I.48.7). Thus it is thoroughly appropriate that he has as assistant or disciple—Saṃjaya—to perform the song for him during the intervals between components of the rite. In contemporary Indian culture, Vyāsa is considered to be the poet who created the epic and one of his epithets is kṛṣṇa.
[ back ] 24. In McGrath 2009, I argued that the period of rivalry and war in the Mahābhārata occurred during a period when matrilineal succession possessed primacy over descent in the patriline. For instance, at I.55.33 the audience first hears of how Arjuna marries the younger sister of Kṛṣṇa, his mother’s niece: a type of cross-cousin marriage that is standard in matrilineal society.
[ back ] 25. See below, Ch. VI.
[ back ] 26. Vide Austin 1962.
[ back ] 27. I argued in McGrath 2004 that the epic Mahābhārata concluded with Book Eleven, and that what succeeded the Strī parvan was not in fact part of the original epic tradition. This argument was reiterated and developed in McGrath 2011.
[ back ] 28. It is a mace that will eventually be the undoing and death of Kṛṣṇa and of his clan in Book XVI. The weapon acts as a metaphor of ring-composition for the Kṛṣṇa story.
[ back ] 29. The dual occurs again, at the close of this minor narrative about the Khāṇḍava forest, at I.225.5. Vide Hiltebeitel, 1984:21–22, on this image of the dual Kṛṣṇas on a chariot: “Statistics provide an accurate orientation to the fundamental issues. Of the eighty-one references to Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa as ‘the two Kṛṣṇas’ cited in Sörensen’s Index, sixty-nine (or 85 percent) are found in the four war books. The remaining twelve references, found only in the prewar books, are all equally connected with combat scenes and themes: the burning of the Khāṇḍava Forest, the killing of Jarāsaṃdha, and the anticipation of the war itself. As to references to the two Kṛṣṇas within the war books, thirty appear in the Droṇaparvan and twenty-eight in the Karṇaparvan.” See below, Ch. VIII.
[ back ] 30. At XIV.51.35, Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna are again ivāśvinau.
[ back ] 31. From I.220–225.4 occurs another instance of what we have been calling bricolage, where the narrative suddenly jumps to another course, before returning again to its former track. In this case a sub-narrative is engaged that concerns the death of certain birds in the forest conflagration.
[ back ] 32. Another possible derivation is from the verb √hṛ, ‘to take’, in the sense of ‘one who removes error’.
[ back ] 33. Arjuna adds that dasyvadhāya kṛṣṇo, ‘Kṛṣṇa is for the purpose of slaying the dasyus’, which was traditionally—in the Vedic hymns—an action of Indra.
[ back ] 34. At VI.2.12, it is another sūta, Saṃjaya, who also receives the benison of such corporeal invulnerability.
[ back ] 35. Pākaśāsana is an epithet of Indra.
[ back ] 36. At VII.76.33 the two heroes are likened to Sūrya and Pāvaka, the Sun and Fire: two central Vedic deities, one supernal and one terrestrial.
[ back ] 37. Vide McGrath 2004: Ch.II,3 for yuddhakathās as ‘epic’.
[ back ] 38. It is said by the poets that: svasrīyaṃ ca hataṃ śrutvā duḥkhaṃ svapiti keśavaḥ, ‘Keśava slept unhappily having heard that his sister’s son had been killed’ (IX.4.11). In matrilineal society the maternal uncle of a boy is practically in the place of the father and Kṛṣṇa’s family had cared for the child whilst the five brothers and their wife were in exile for thirteen years; Abhimanyu had grown up at Dvāraka not at Indraprastha.
[ back ] 39. I have examined this form of women’s voice in McGrath 2009: Ch.V.5. One should recall this these obsequies are sung by male poets in a performance that strongly distinguishes either side of the antiphony or rhapsody.
[ back ] 40. This is from the verb √kḷp, ‘to prepare’, ‘arrange’, ‘regulate’, a verb that is often used vis-à-vis the organisation of the sacrifice; that is, it is a term which possesses ritual connotation. For kṣatriyas battle can be appraised as a solemn rite, śastrayajña (V.139.29).
[ back ] 41. Only in the Śānti parvan, when Yudhiṣṭhira is paramount king, do the poets speak of the catvāraḥ pāṇḍavās, ‘the four Pāṇḍavas’, as at XII.48.1; and at that point Kṛṣṇa is no longer emotionally close to the dharmarāja, their political and martial conjunction has withered away since those vital days at Kurukṣetra.
[ back ] 42. The poets do this again at III.84.4: kṛṣṇāv arinighātinau, ‘two enemy-striking Kṛṣṇas’, and they also refer to the two in the dual at III.252.14 where the friends are described as: samāsthitāv ekarathe sahāyāu, ‘two companions stood in a single chariot’. Dhṛtarāṣṭra similarly refers to these two in the dual at V.22.30, and the reference is in fact formulaic: kṛṣṇāv ekarathe sametau. At V.48.24 the formula is repeated in the manner of, kṛṣṇāv ekarathe sthitau, and it is heard again at V.51.11; Bhīṣma also employs this dual term at V.124.2. The conjunction first occurs in the battle books at VI.55.61, where it used in the genitive; at VI.69.11 it is in the instrumental; at VI.77.38–39 there occurs kṛṣṇau; and at VII.18.19; VII.28.3; VII.29.15; VII.76.29; VII.77.34; VII.118.20; VIII.12.51; VIII.45.4. At VIII.45.71 ‘the two kṛṣṇas are like the Aśvins’, kṛṣṇāv aśvināviva. It is heard at: IX.3.26; IX.4.10; IX.6.2; IX.13.6; IX.33.7. In Ṛg Veda these two names are conjoined just once where they refer to the temporal movement of days: áhaś ca kṛṣṇám áhar árjunaṃ ca, ‘dark days and bright days’ (VI.9.1); I am grateful to Indrajit Bandyopadhyay for this last reference. At 39.20 of the Virāṭa parvan, Arjuna tells Uttara that he received the name of kṛṣṇa from his father, that is, Pāṇḍu his foster-father, not Indra; he also says that concerning his name Arjuna: karomi karma śuklaṃ ca tena mām arjunaṃ viduḥ, ‘I perform pure deeds and by that they know me as Arjuna’ (IV.39.18).
[ back ] 43. On this idea of the IE twins, see Frame 2009: Part 2; West 2007:186–191; and Nagy 1979:292–93, where he discusses the thérapōn.
[ back ] 44. Vedic Mitra and Avestan Mithra derive from Indo-Iranian *mitra, ‘covenant, treaty, agreement, promise’; itself derived from, *mei, ‘to exchange’. Vide Meillet 1908.
[ back ] 45. Satyabhāmā is said to be Kṛṣṇa’s mahiṣī, ‘chief wife’ at III.222.3. The audience hears little of this personage however. She is said to mourn for her husband after his death, along with Rukmiṇī: satyā rukmiṇī ca praruruduḥ (XVI.6.13). Kṛṣṇa is said to have abducted Rukmiṇī and taken her off, ekarathena, ‘by chariot’, in good warrior fashion (V.47.68).
[ back ] 46. In a curious representation, Kosambi 1965:115 has a line drawing of a “Discus throwing charioteer in a Mīrzāpūr cave, circa 800 b.c.” I am grateful to Thomas Burke for drawing my attention to this detail. Pinch, in his book, Warrior Ascetics, 2006:61, describes the use of such a weapon, quoting from The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema, London, 1863: “Others carry certain iron diskes which cut all round like razors, and_ they throw these with a sling when they wish to injure any person.” Likewise, quoting from Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Travels in India, London, 1889, who says of the cakra that it is, “a kind of weapon which we have not got in Europe. It is a sharp iron, made like a border of a plate which has no centre … when they throw them with force at a man, as we make a plate to fly, they almost cut him in two.” Op.cit. p.68. Tavernier travelled in the seventeenth century and di Varthema in the sixteenth century.
[ back ] 47. He repeats the command at III.23.35, this time specifying Śālva himself as the target: śālvāya.
[ back ] 48. I.58.1; II.4.1. MacDonell 1917:79 glosses Mitra as “a guardian of faithfulness”.
[ back ] 49. Varuṇa is a deity who oversees ṛta, ‘order’ in the universe, or value.
[ back ] 50. As in the Taittirīya Saṃhitā, VI.4.8,: mitro’har ajanayad varuṇo rātrim, ‘Mitra bore day, Varuṇa night’. This is not an uncommon trope of the myth, which occurs in Atharva Veda XIII.3.13 as: sa varuṇaḥ sāyam agnir bhavati sa mitro bhavati prātarudyan, ‘Agni-Varuṇa becomes evening, Mitra becomes the uprising dawn’. Vide Oldenberg 1894/1998:98, “the equation Mitra-Varuṇa—Mithra-Ahura—remains as a definite feature of the Indo-Iranian period.” Dumézil 1940:1, begins his essay on Mitra Varuna by referring to, “une certaine conception bipartite de la Souverainté qui paraît avoir été celle des Indo- Européens.”
[ back ] 51. Sūta, from √sū, ‘to impel’; and yantā from √yam, ‘to control’. It is rare in the Mahābhārata for single horses to be ridden as the stirrup was not yet in existence; heroes rode on elephants or chariots. In the Sixth Book Duryodhana is depicted as: ārohayadd hayaṃ, ‘he mounted a horse’, a rare equestrian moment (VI.93.19). Only once in the epic is Arjuna—with Kṛṣṇa—said to be mounted on an elephant: pāṇḍuraṃ gajam ārūdho, ‘mounted [on] a white elephant’ (V.141.34).
[ back ] 52. Vānara literally means a ‘forest animal’, typified as a monkey or an ape; from vanar, ‘moving about in the woods’.
[ back ] 53. Pargiter 1922:18 notes that: “A remote antiquity was thus assigned to the original sūtas, who were royal … and were highly esteemed.”
[ back ] 54. Pargiter 1922:17 comments on how sūtas in the Mahābhārata were involved with medicine. In the Iliad, in Scroll XI.828ff., there is a small scene where the charioteer Patroklos acts in a comparable fashion as physician.
[ back ] 55. In McGrath 2004:24n90, I discussed the phenomenon of epic synonymy. Due to the geographic range and physical largeness of the poem’s text and its continuous aggregation and development over many centuries and possibly millennia, it is often that case that there exist numerous words indicating one significant person, thing, or activity. Individual heroes, for instance, possess a great proliferation of nominal epithets which the poets draw upon during their compositions, apart from the usual accumulation of patronyms and metronyms.
[ back ] 56. Conversely, in the Karṇa parvan Bhīma asks his driver: sūtābhijānīhi parān svakān vā / rathān dhvajāṃś casametān, ‘sūta, recognise those assembled chariots and banners — enemies or ours?’ He then inquires: ‘how many arrows would be left in my chariot,’ kiṃ śiṣṭaṃ syāt sāyakānām rathe me (VIII.54.10ff.) Viśoka, the charioteer, responds precisely to both questions, and when he informs Bhīma that Arjuna is visible and approaching, Bhīma is so pleased and relieved that he promises to reward his driver with fourteen fine villages, an hundred women slaves, and twenty chariots (VIII.54.29).
[ back ] 57. Sūtas, as ‘poets’ praise Duryodhana in Book Six, when he makes his way to visit the camp of Bhīṣma: saṃstūyamānaḥ sūtaiś ca māgadhaiś ca, ‘and being praised by poets and eulogists’ (VI.93.29).
[ back ] 58. Ratha is cognate with Latin rota, ‘wheel’, and radius, ‘spoke’. A rathavaṃśa is a ‘line of chariots’, as at VII.36.10, and a rathānīka is a ‘chariot force’, as at VII.37.2; both terms are indicative perhaps of combat tactics. Another word for ‘chariot’ is syandana, meaning ‘the fast-going’, or ‘swift one’, as at VII.27.28; from √syand, ‘to move on’. Hiltebeitel 1982 has carefully discussed the pattern of an archaic charioteer from an Indo-European point of view. Coomaraswamy 1992:8fig.12, displays a bas-relief image from Sāñcī of a scene at a city’s gates which he indicates as possibly depicting Rājagaha. Here there is a fine portrait of a two-wheeled chariot with driver and prince. This is one of the earliest stone illustrations of an Indic chariot and horses and it is finely sculpted and detailed. Bachhofer 1939: Plate 60, indicates that this image is ‘probably Bimbisara or Ajataśatru’ who flourished 558–491, 491–461 respectively. The earliest bronze age image of a chariot, with four wheels, two horses, and two riders, comes from the Semitic tradition, being unearthed from the royal graves at Ur, tomb PG 779 associated with Ur-Pabilsag, a king who died around 2550 BCE; given in Hamblin 2006:49. Later images of two-wheeled fighting chariots are Hittite and Egyptian.
[ back ] 59. Damayantī recognises her husband by the sound of his chariot: that is his key signifier for her (III.71.8).
[ back ] 60. Similarly, Dāruka’s younger brother drives for Sātyaki, an important Yādava friend of Kṛṣṇa (VII.122.77). There is only one long depiction of the beauty of horses in the epic, given at VII.22.2–63.
[ back ] 61. As at VII.67.35. In the case of Kṛṣṇa’s chariot these are the Pāñcālas Yudhāmanyu and Uttamaujas, and they are an important part of the chariot’s complement; they are only killed after the battle, when Aśvatthāman assassinates them at night in Book Ten. A chariot is often drawn by four horses, two of which are trace horses and two of which are yoked to the chariot pole.
[ back ] 62. Kuntī, Arjuna’s mother, in dialogue with Kṛṣṇa, even quotes a voice from the sky saying that Arjuna was: sahasrākṣasamaḥ, ‘like the thousand-eyed one’, that is Indra (V.135.2). Indra in the Ṛg Veda is often described by the poets as a charioteer, as, sthātā rátasya, ‘driver of a chariot’ (III.45.2).
[ back ] 63. Saṃcodaya, ‘drive!’ is heard again from Arjuna at VI.92.11; and VII.18.2.
[ back ] 64. Karṇa instructs his sūta to prepare their vehicle at VII.2.21–37, although Śalya is not personally named.
[ back ] 65. Kṛṣṇa is speaking in response to Yudhiṣṭhira’s rebuking query as to where Kṛṣṇa had been when the episode of Draupadī in the sabhā occurred; he had not been a good ally and had not been there to help the brothers and their wife (III.15.1). Draupadī herself had also hectored Kṛṣṇa in a long and cynical tirade about his famed omnipotence despite his feckless absence (III.13.43–108).
[ back ] 66. Śālva was also the putative suitor of Ambā, the girl whom Bhīṣma had abducted along with her two sisters as a wife for his brother, Vicitravīrya; Vicitravīrya was of the same generation as Vyāsa and Bhīṣma, and thus similarly ancestral to the Pāṇḍavas. It was due to her inchoate relation with Śālva that Ambā became a spurned woman and so vengeful; without her presence and force in the Kurukṣetra narrative Bhīṣma would never have died and the Pāṇḍavas would not have found victory. I say all this simply to indicate how delicately inlaid and imbricated is the Mahābhārata poem in all its elements; there exists a dense and embryonic kinship amongst the many minor narratives.
[ back ] 67. In terms of poetic voicing, at III.18.21 the action is—at one point—composed by: women’s voices being sung by Pradyumna, whose voice is being sung by Kṛṣṇa, who himself is being sung by Vaiśaṃpāyana, whose persona is being performed by the poet on the outer rim of these frames, Ugraśravas. Such is the agile complexity of epic poetics and one can imagine the extraordinary virtuosity of the actual poet who sang the song as he shifted between these various dramatic registers, giving them life and vivacity.
[ back ] 68. It is described as māyāmayoratho, ‘a chariot made by magic’ (III.18.12); and it is sometimes said to be a nagara, ‘a city’. It is perhaps like the horseless Puṣpaka chariot of Rāvaṇa in the Rāmāyaṇa.
[ back ] 69. Saubha is the name of the magical chariot-like vehicle. Curiously, Kṛṣṇa addresses Yudhiṣṭḥira as Bharata here, indicating that he is the Bharata, and not simply one of the descendants, one of the Bhāratas. It is a delicate yet majestic flattery on Kṛṣṇa’s part, suitable as he is attempting to correct an error of absence on his part. This is unlikely to be a scribal error, for the same spelling occurs in the Vulgate at III.14.2. Once again the audience perceives the suppleness of Kṛṣṇa as a speaker.
[ back ] 70. In Bhīṣma’s duel with Rāma a similar situation occurs when Bhīsma is wounded: ahaṃ … saṃnyaṣīdaṃ rathottame / atha māṃ kaśmalaviṣṭaṃ sūtas tūrṇam apāvahat, ‘I, full of despair, collapsed in the fine chariot, then the driver quickly carried me off’ (V.181.15). After recovering, Bhīṣma instructs his charioteer: yāhi sūta, ‘drive, sūta!’ The charioteer is killed at 183.5 and at that point Bhīṣma becomes helpless and eight supernatural figures come to his assistance. At 183.18, Bhīṣma, again restored, then drives his own vehicle. In the same parvan, Śalya, beset by Sahadeva in a chariot duel is similarly wounded and faints into the bed of his vehicle: taṃ visaṃjñaṃ nipatitaṃ sūtaḥ saṃprekṣya saṃyuge / apovāha rathenājau, ‘the charioteer, having observed that one felled and unconscious in battle, drove off quickly with the chariot’ (VI.79.52).
[ back ] 71. Vide McGrath 2004:61–73; and 2011:17ff. At VI.77.33–34, Arjuna reverses the pattern by uttering this imperative in order to draw the attention of his charioteer; these two heroes are so close in type that this kind of volteface of roles is possible.
[ back ] 72. Intimating the death of his son, Arjuna makes similar fearful claims in the Droṇa parvan when he enquires of his driver: kiṃ nu me hṛdayaṃ trastaṃ vākyaṃ sajjati keśava / … gātraṃ sīdati ca, ‘Why does my heart tremble, my voice cling, Keśava, and my body sink?’ (VII.50.4).
[ back ] 73. In the Droṇa parvan, the Kaurava warriors, on perceiving the great valour and martial achievements of Abhimanyu when he enters the battle are described as: saṃśuṣkāsyāś calannetrāḥ prasvinnā lomaharṣaṇāḥ, ‘dry-mouthed, roving-eyed, sweaty, horripilating’ (VII.35.42, and repeated at 45.4). These are the conventional terms used to depict a warrior’s fear immediately prior to an engagement.
[ back ] 74. Even Nīlakaṇṭha makes a note of this paradox at III.21.10 and 13 in his Commentary: how could the divine Kṛṣṇa behave vaicityāt, ‘from mental confusion’, he asks rhetorically?
[ back ] 75. Actually, in conversation with many non-metropolitan people today in India, if one speaks of the Mahābhārata, what is usually referred to is not the literary text but the Chopra television series of the epic, made and screened at the end of the twentieth century.
[ back ] 76. Even the aged kṣatriya Dhṛtarāṣṭṛa, when, on being offered vision to compensate for his sensory blindness by the brahmāṛṣi Vyāsa, refuses the offer on account of the grief that it would cause him; he says, na rocaye jñātivadhaṃ draṣṭuṃ, ‘I am not pleased to see the death of kin’ (VI.2.7). The poet Saṃjaya thus receives this magical insight. Dhṛtarāṣṭṛa is nevertheless in a condition of perpetual grief throughout the poem, despite the fact that his sensory experience of the war is actually conceptual or imagined.
[ back ] 77. Dhṛtarāṣṭra, in a summary recapitulation of his view of the epic in the Ādi parvan, refers to this moment as the kaśmala, ‘weakness’ or ‘dejection’ of Arjuna (I.1.124). The poets repeat this kaśmalam at I.2.156, in the parvasaṃgraha, ‘summaries of books’.
[ back ] 78. In my experience of hearing the Gītā sung in Gujarat temples, this moment actually possesses a duration of several hours.
[ back ] 79. As at VI.49.7. Kṛṣṇa’s own driver, Dāruki, in the charioteering episode in Book Three had spoken similarly to him, trying to arouse his hero when Kṛṣṇa himself, deluded by māyā had collapsed in the vehicle and was overtaken by dejection: mārdavaṃ sakhitāṃ caiva vyapāhara jāhi śālvaṃ mainaṃ jīvaya keśava, ‘put away softness and intimacy, kill Śālva, do not let him live, Keśava’ (III.23.21–22).
[ back ] 80. Karṇa, Arjuna’s personal enemy and the Sanskrit hero, makes the same pronouncement at V.165.27. Droṇa says the same, na yotsyāmi, at VII.94.24 in the Bombay Edition; in the CE he says, nāhaṃ yāsyāmi (VII.69.24). Achilles makes a similar claim in Scroll I.169, refusing to fight any more for Agamemnon. There is something about this refutation of a hero that is almost their ultimate weapon when honour among peers is at stake. The statement illuminates the constant tension that exists—in epic poetry—between kings and heroes.
[ back ] 81. In McGrath 2009: Ch.V, I examined this aspect of feminine discourse in the Mahābhārata, where women act as speakers of truth and remind their warriors as to the nature of heroic dharma.
[ back ] 82. Saṅkhya philosophy believes in a universe composed by a duality which occurs between what is prakṛti and that which inheres about the puruṣa; the former, as ‘the natural world’, is monadic, and the latter is arranged by the various multiform qualities of ‘consciousness’.
[ back ] 83. Indra is of course the nominal vasudeva, ‘the chief deity of the Vasus’; so this name is actually a gloss for Indra.
[ back ] 84. Indian lexicography also glosses akṣara as a ‘sword’.
[ back ] 85. One should recall that the Buddha—who also draws upon such a visionary lexicon—was born as a prince in the kṣatriya order.
[ back ] 86. M.C. Smith 1995:136 has noted that these verses are in irregular triṣṭubh form and so are part of what she considers to be the ancient kṣatriya core of epic Mahābhārata
[ back ] 87. Similarly, in Scroll I of Iliad when the deity Athena appears beside Achilles and speaks to him among the assembled heroes she is invisible to all except to him: I.198.
[ back ] 88. Vide McGrath 2011:80n66. Nīlakaṇṭha I.8 refers to the mahābhāratatīrtha, ‘the sacred river- crossing of the Mahābhārata’, involving the complete poem itself in this powerful and intrinsically epic metaphor. Blood and water are metaphorically often compounded in battle scenes, as: pravṛtaḥ sumahān saṃgrāmaḥ śoṇitodakāḥ, ‘a very great battle [possessed of] blood and water, ran’ (VI.80.51).
[ back ] 89. Kāla is also ‘time’, ‘blackness’, ‘fate’, and the planet Saturn; the term kṛṣṇa, of course, also denotes ‘blackness’. It is also appropriate that a kṣatriya charioteer make such a claim, snarling at his enemies—as it were—before the clash commences, and so bolstering the flaccid spirit of his hero. This is in fact a speech act which actually becomes true, insofar as Kṛṣṇa is the architect of destruction for the Karuava force, which includes, of course, his own kinsmen: the army of Yādava gopas of which the audience hears very little.
[ back ] 90. Belvalkar has a note on the idiosyncratic textual form here of sakheti: p.lxxix, and pp.781–82 of the Critical Edition of the Bhīṣma parvan, 1947, where he draws his reading from the evidence of the Kashmir recension of the Gītā 11.41, sakhe ca.
[ back ] 91. This teaching is said to be jñānayajña, ‘a sacrifice of knowledge’ or ‘rite of knowledge’ (VI.40.70).
[ back ] 92. Nirvāṇa is traditionally an important and central term in the Buddhist taxonomy. Brahma is essentially aniconic, absolute, and perfectly stable. The absolute I think of—in terms of the temporal—as being without premise, and—in terms of an object—as possessing no qualities. The term is used most often during the Twelfth and Thirteenth Books.
[ back ] 93. Arguably, all that ritual might accomplish is to briefly restore or recapitulate such traces.
[ back ] 94. In the Śānti parvan Kṛṣṇa is reported as telling Arjuna the significance of his names, what is in fact a further esoteric initiation (XII.328–331).
[ back ] 95. Khinnaḥ, ‘wearied’, and svinnaḥ, ‘sweating’, are often confounded by scribes.
[ back ] 96. That is, the poet’s voice, being sung by another poet, sings the song of Arjuna, who in turn sings the voice of Mātali. Such is the great artistry of the Mahābhārata.
[ back ] 97. Presuming that chariots were not both left and right-handed in management and that archers were not typically ambidextrous, unlike Arjuna.
[ back ] 98. Kṛṣṇa responds by telling Arjuna about his catur mūrtir, ‘four images’: one of these sleeps for a thousand years, one acts in the human world, one is engaged in asceticism, and the fourth observes the ‘moral’, sādhvasadhunī, conditions on earth (VII.28.23–25). Once, on awakening from that sleep, he had given a favour of a divine weapon, which happened to be that same weapon which had just then been directed at Arjuna: a weapon which Kṛṣṇa was receiving back, in a sense. This is a strange little account, not being Vaiṣṇava and yet not being simply heroic; yet it does seem to fit neatly into the narrative and not be an interpolation. The four mūrtis can be construed as referring to the yugas, ‘the ages’; these ages being of an ancient Indo-Āryan—if not earlier—provenance and are solar in form, just as the chariot itself possesses solar qualities in terms of myth. Vide Witzel 2011.
[ back ] 99. In the Virāṭa parvan Nakula elects to become an aśvabandha, ‘a horse fastener’ or ‘groom’, which is a term that indicates an auxiliary position in horse management, one that does not possess the high status of a sūta. The king says to him: tvad āśrayāḥ sārathayaś ca santu me, ‘let my charioteers depend on you’ (III.11.9).
[ back ] 100. It is fascinating to speculate what the war-mantras would be like, for no record of such songs now exists; it is as if the chariot were being formally charmed. One wonders what divine energy was being invoked and were these paeáns accompanied by war dances? Xenophon in his Anábasis speaks of warrior balletics at VI.1.7–11. On a more contemporary note, taken from Country Life magazine for December the Eighth 2010:33: “A new Scottish reel, choreographed by two British officers on active service in Afghanistan … first created ‘as a bit of a challenge and to pass the time’, the reel has become a powerful tribute to those killed and wounded in today’s wars. The dance’s steps, spins and turns echo life on the frontline, simulating movements of the Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters’ spinning blades.” The article is accompanied by a photograph of the men in battle fatigues dancing together.
[ back ] 101. It is telling that nowhere in Books Twelve and Thirteen is there any mention of kṛṣṇau, ‘the two Kṛṣṇas’, perhaps because there is no presence of the chariot—the vehicle of this duo—in those books. Sātyaki is elsewhere usually in the position of a ‘wheel-guard’.
[ back ] 102. At VII.51.37.
[ back ] 103. Duryodhana is one of the few other heroes to be said to be hayasaṃskāravit, ‘knowing the perfection of horses’ (VII.76.37).
[ back ] 104. The sound of this shell—śañkhasya nādena—being blown in battle by Kṛṣṇa prasvinnavadano, with ‘a perspiring face’, is stupefying to the Kauravas (VII.78.38). This sound is accompanied by the noise of other instruments used by the warriors during the fight: bherīṣu jharjhareṣvanekaśaḥmṛdaṅgeṣu vādyamāneṣu, ‘when three kinds of drums were being played’ (VII.79.15). The particular noise of these shells being sounded also acts as a directive on the battle-field: dadhmau śaṅkhaṃ mahāvegam ārṣabheṇātha mādhavaḥ / dāruko’vetya saṃdeśaṃ śrutvā śaṅkhasya ca svanam, ‘Mādhava blew vehemently the conch with a bull-note, and Dāruka, having heard the sound recognised the message’, and thus drove towards Kṛṣṇa (VII.122.42–43).
[ back ] 105. This is reminiscent of how Achilles reacts to the death of his companion Patroklos in Scroll XVIII.98 of Iliad.
[ back ] 106. In this late bronze age society there is virtually no mobility of individuals between and among ranks or varṇa, apart from the unique Karṇa. In that sense it is what can be described as a stationary culture dominated by a strict pattern of varṇa; one that was only affected by large-scale migrations and then later by the initial stages of secondary urbanisation.
[ back ] 107. This could also be construed in terms of what Max Müller, developing the ideas of von Schelling, entitled as henotheism: Müller 1878. Schelling 1857 considered such a form of worship an early stage of monotheism and in terms of intellectual history this is an essential hypothesis. In his 1894 essay, Hopkins, responding to Müller, wrote: “since Müller holds to an original monotheism in India—anterior to the recorded theology of the Rig-Veda—henotheism to him is a forward step in the religious progress of the Hindu mind.” Op.cit., p.75. He continues, “We find often, in regard to the gods, such statements as that in R.V. I.32.12, devá ékas (ájayo gás), which we have of course to translate not ‘Thou, the only god,’ etc., but ‘Thou wast the only god that didst conquer the cattle’”. Ibid. p.78. “The poets of the Rig-Veda were unquestionably esoterically unitarians to a much greater extent and in an earlier period than has been generally acknowledged.” Ibid. p.83. Someone like Allen, in Bronkhorst and Despande, 1999:19–32, examines the question of “Hinduism as Indo-European.”
[ back ] 108. That there existed some kind of affinity between Rudra-Śiva and Indra is not so far-fetched as it might initially seem to be, viz. Ṛg Veda II.33, a hymn addressed to Rudra that commences, te pitar marutāṃ, ‘you, O father of the Maruts’. The Maruts being the gaṇa or ‘cohort’ of Indra, traditionally the noisy and roaring winds that preceded the thunder clouds.
[ back ] 109. The early and juvenile deeds of Kṛṣṇa are given in the Viṣṇu parvan of the Harivaṃśa. They are also outlined at VII.10 of Mahābhārata by Dhṛtarāṣṭra where it is said that: he was born ‘into a clan of cowherds’, gopakule; he killed the asura Keśi as well as other demonic creatures; and he killed Kaṅsa, a family rival who took over the throne at Mathurā; and he performed many other heroic deeds.
[ back ] 110. Balzani 2003:135–136, on the topic of the relations between the hero mediaeval Ramdevji and the present Mahārāja of Jodhpur, writes: “Where deified heroes may gain some legitimation through royal connections … there is virtually no historical evidence for the actual existence of Ramdevji.” “It is possible that, once a hero cult begins to be established, stories about the royal links and noble ancestors of the hero might begin to develop to add some lustre to the burgeoning cult.” Balzani goes on to describe Ramdevji as: “More than just a beneficent hero-god providing relief in the area of natural calamities … [he is] Traditionally worshipped by low-caste Hindus … and Muslims, with female disciples of lowly origin, primarily rural in appeal … Ramdevji’s cult, in a time of increasing communal tension, has become in recent years more and more popular with higher castes and now has an urban following spread throughout India.” Op. cit. p.145. Blackburn et al 1989 well illustrate the variety and aetiology of hero cult in the Sub-continent today; as does Singh 2011.
[ back ] 111. The Rabāri of Kacch, for instance, will only celebrate marriages on one day, Gokul Aṣṭāmi, which is Kṛṣṇa’s birthday, falling in Śrāvaṇa, or western August. In Two Thousand and Eleven this occurred on August the Twenty-second.
[ back ] 112. Feller 2004:68 comments: “Keeping in mind the usual imagery of the fire as the charioteer of the gods, conveying the oblations to them … Finally their chariot [Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna], Agni’s gift for helping them to burn the Khāṇḍava forest, is actually none else than Agni, the sacrificial fire himself.” Op. cit., p.280. Feller is here discussing the myth of the raṇayajña, ‘the sacrifice of battle’ at V.57.12–14.
[ back ] 113. Benveniste, Tome II, 1969:337, comments: “Non seulement ce rapprochement est irréprochable, mais, en outre, il illustre la nature proper de l’amitié au stade ancien des sociétés dites indo-européennes, où le sentiment ne se sépare pas d’une conscience vive des groupes et des classes.”
[ back ] 114. There are two other governing metaphors in the epic: one is the hero as tree, along with all the arboreal metonyms which attach to that trope; the other is the river, the nadī of battle, a bloody current running towards the domain of Yama and transporting all the wreckage of war, including human bodies, downward. Vide McGrath, 2004: Ch.II.4; and 2011:79–81.
[ back ] 115. This can arguably be conceived of as the post-Hindu Kṛṣṇa, represented by the Kṛṣṇa-Consciousness movement.