If you read any unabridged version of Mahabharata, it is evident Krishna enters the story in Draupadi swayamvara. Yet, reading through the story reveals that he entered the scene much earlier. In order to understand the role and ascent of Krishna in Mahabharata, one needs to know a background story:
Dronacharya and Drupada
During the Mahabharata times, India was divided into multiple confederacies. Amongst them, three of them were dominant viz Kurus, the Panchalas, the Magadhas. The Panchalas ruled along the Ganga river somewhere in present-day Uttar Pradesh. They were led by a king called Prishata, who had a son named Drupada. When Drupada grew up to his schooling age, he was sent to the ashrama (universities in those days) of Maharishi Bharadwaj, who had a son named as Drona. Since Drona and Drupada were of the same age, a deep companionship developed between them. Once, in an unreasonable moment of childishness, they pledged to share each other’s fortune. Accordingly, Drupada promised Drona that after ascending the throne of Panchala, he would share half of his kingdom with Drona.
As years passed by, Drona and Drupada grew up and were separated from each other. While Drupada became the king of Panchalas, Drona went on to marry Kripi, sister of Kripacharya, the family priest of Kurus, ruled by Dhritarashtra under the leadership of the great grandfather Bheeshma. In due time, Drona started facing financial hardships. In search of wealth, he went to Parashurama, who was distributing his wealth amongst the poor. But by the time Drona reached, Parashurama had distributed all his wealth. Out of his sympathy, Parashurama offered to teach him martial arts, which he gladly accepted. Shortly, Drona absorbed everything that Parashurama had to offer in the science of warfare and returned home to raise his newborn son from Kripi named as Ashwatthama.
Once, Ashwatthama came to Kripi crying, since his friends came to play after drinking milk. However, owing to unavailability of milk due to acute financial conditions, she mixed water with flour and applied it to Ashwatthama’s lips, so that he could go to his friends and say that he had drunk milk. This incident shook Drona to the core. Though he was a proud man, he decided to seek help from his childhood friend Drupada, who was now a king. When he arrived at his ‘friend’ Drupada’s court to seek help, the latter was a changed man. He ridiculed Drona saying that friendship exists between equals and not between a king and a poor brahmin. Drona was offended to the core and pledged to seek revenge by humiliating the haughty king.
Propelled by a desire of revenge, Dronacharya reached Hastinapura, the capital of Kuru kingdom, in order to seek employment. He was welcomed by the great Bheeshma, who was looking for an able preceptor for their princes; Kauravas and Pandavas. Soon, Dronacharya bent all his energies to train the princes. Arjuna, the third Pandava, turned out to be the best amongst them. Once their training was completed, Dronacharya asked for a gurudakshina, the offering made by disciples to their preceptors. Accordingly, he asked them to capture Drupada, the panchala king. Arjuna, in a well-orchestrated attack, captured Drupada and handed him over to Dronacharya. As retribution for his humiliation, Dronacharya snatched one half of Drupada’s kingdom to the north of river Ganga.
Stung by the humiliating defeat, Drupada grew cynical and miserable. Adding to his frustration was Dronacharya’s growing stature in Hastinapura, where he was held in high regard. His disciples Arjuna, Karna, Bheema, Duryodhana turned into great warriors and especially Arjuna was gaining the reputation of being the best warrior of Aryavarta(India). His own son Ashwatthama turned out to be a skilled warrior. Protected by Bheeshma, the Kuru kingdom seemed to grow from strength to strength, while his fortunes were declining. His sons viz Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandin and Satyajit, although trained in arms could not match the disciples of Drona. However, he had a fine daughter named Krishnaa or Draupadi. Poisoned by hatred for Drona, he decided to marry Draupadi to the best warrior in Aryavarta, capable of outstripping the best of Drona’s disciples including Arjuna.
However, it was no mean task. Who would dare take on the Kuru kingdom lead by the great Bheeshma and protected by Arjuna? As if by the grace of God, some help arrived. In those days, a great teacher of martial arts named Guru Sandipani visited Panchala. He was very famous amongst kings since kept traveling across kingdoms with his disciples. When Drupada met him, he vented out his frustration, unburdening himself to the sage.
Sandipani sympathized with this old king who was growing weak. After listening to the king Sandipani said: ‘Lord of Panchalas, I understand your feelings. But, amongst all the warriors I know, Arjuna is the most irresistible, followed by Karna. However, both of them are loyal to the Kurus’. Then Sandipani mentioned several warriors of repute but Drupada rejected them outright.
‘Find out for me a real warrior, one who can overcome all the pupils of Drona’ said Drupada, fiercely, for he was at the end of his patience.
Get him to wed my Draupadi!
After a few moments of silence, Drupada spoke up with a ring of finality in his voice ‘I must find a suitable warrior to match the pupils of Drona and marry him to my daughter Krishnaa’
In a soft tone, Sandipani said:’ I know of many great warriors. But, it is very difficult to find a master archer who can be decisive in battle. That is why Arjuna is irresistible. He can even shoot in the pitch dark. However, princes Vinda and Anuvinda of Avanti are expert archers ‘
Drupada shook his head in dismissal. ‘Neither of them can ever come up to the best pupils of Drona.’ With a glint of sudden realization in his eyes, Drupada said, ‘But I have heard of one disciple of yours whose bow has been blessed by the gods. He has the reputation for taking a deadly aim from a running chariot while he is handling four horses: a feat which even Arjuna cannot perform’.
Sandipani laughed at Drupada’s earnestness and said, ‘I know whom you mean. Krishna Vaasudeva! Isn’t it? He is my only pupil to have out-stripped me. He can match the best archer in the country. But it is no use counting on him.’
‘Why not?’ said Drupada, ‘I have heard so much about Vaasudeva. He routed Jarasandha, destroyed Kala-Yavana, killed Karavirapura Vaasudeva, inflicted defeat on Shalva and architected Dwarka. It is said that he can not only shoot a deadly arrow but can speed his Chakra at an opposing warrior from a running chariot.’
‘That is true,’ said Sandipani.
‘Please get him to marry my Krishnaa, I beg of you. Being your disciple, he will listen to you.’ said Drupada earnestly.
‘I know Krishna,’ said Sandipani. ‘He will not wed any woman unless she wins him, and it is very difficult to win him.’
‘My Krishnaa is a wonderful girl. She would stand up to all his tests.’ said Drupada with pride, ‘What is he like, by nature?’
‘He is not merely a great warrior, but a great leader as well. His leadership has united and strengthened the chaotic Yadavas while their wealth has increased multiple folds. He releases mysterious streams of faith and has become a source of inspiration for his tribe.’ said Sandipani.
‘Then I beg you to help me. I will do everything to win him for my daughter. ‘ said Drupada with folded hands.
‘Noble king, I will tell him about your offer the next time I go to meet him. But I am yet to see a man who can make a decision for Krishna’, said Sandipani beaming with pride.
Sandipani goes to Dwarka and presents Drupada’s offer to Krishna. However, Krishna analyses the situation with unerring clarity and realizes that accepting this offer means being a dependent of Drupada and inviting conflict with his dear cousins Pandavas. However, rejecting it outright would lead to Drupada’s alliance with emperor Jarasandha of Magadha, Krishna’s arch enemy. This alliance would lead to a major conflict in Aryavarta with Drupada and Jarasandha on one side while the Kurus and Yadavas on the other. In the meanwhile, the Pandavas were banished from Hastinapura owing to internal conflict. In order to avert these complications, Krishna decides to meet Drupada. This meeting led to the inception of the famous Draupadi Swayamvara and thus began the greatest game of politics and tactics by Krishna!
The images have been taken from Mrinal Rai’s blog