What is Dharma? Krishna’s Dilemma


Two huge armies had gathered in Kurukshetra. It was the commencement of a fight to finish.Everyone was eager to fight. But at the very moment Arjuna found himself perplexed.His question was “What is Dharma ?” And the response to that was the song celestial Bhagvad Gita. But can anyone utter such profound truth without inner experience? Could Krishna empathize with Arjuna’s dilemma without facing them himself ? How could he answer his questions so precisely? He was great only because he could grapple with difficulties as no one else could, because he had the uncanny ability to find answers.

In his early days of political career, he went on casting his die at various places in Aryavarta and planned a magnificent Draupadi Swayamvara with two assumptions:

  • The Pandavas would come out of exile.
  • The Yadavas would back him in any adventure which could have involved fighting Hastinapura to restore Pushkara to Chekitana, a Yadava, which Duryodhana and Karna had annexed with no reason.

But, the Yadavas had proved a broken reed. The hope of securing a swift triumph for Dharma, which he had conceived and planned, was well nigh gone. All that was left to him was to attend the swayamvara and do his best. But his presence would no longer invest the swayamvara with the majesty of irresistible Dharma. He would only be one amongst the distinguished guests. In the assembly of kings everyone would see that the Yadavas as a whole were not behind him. And if the mission of Uddhava failed – and there was no saying whether his appeal to Bhishma’s sense of justice would prevail – the Nagas, led by Uddhava, might not take Pushkara by force. If Pushkara was not restored to Chekitana, he would have failed hopelessly, and the glamour of irresistibility which he had been invested with would fade away.

If the Five Brothers did not appear on the stage of the swayamvara spectacularly, as he had planned, they would sink as before into helpless dependants of the Kuru royal family. The fratricidal conflict might recommence – or nothing might happen at all – for Duryodhana would completely dominate Hastinapura. In addition, Jarasandha – the sworn enemy of the Arya way of life – might carry away the Princess of Panchala. The pursuit of the ways of Satya, Yajna and Tapas at the ashrams of the rishis, on which Aryadharma flourished, would wither away for want of protection and without support.

For the first time in many years, Krishna faced a crisis in his self-confidence; he did not know what to do. In his difficulties, he had nobody even to talk to. Uddhava was away. Satyaki, being such a loyal friend, did not shirk the heavy responsibility of training the group of young Yadava warriors ready to accept his leadership, but in his heart of hearts he had his doubts about taking the risk of such a mighty adventure.

The more he thought of the predicament, the more he felt that he had missed something. They had called him a God; he was only a bundle of weaknesses. They thought he was a miracle-worker; he had only been a clever man with a rare run of luck.

His friends carried a general impression that there was Dharma wherever he was, and that Dharma brought victory. He had won many victories; it was true, but did he bring Dharma wherever he moved? If he did, why did not his kin see Dharma in what he was convinced was the right thing to do? If he could not get them to follow its path, how could he overcome adharma in other kings for generations to come? And how was Dharma to be re-established and protected? How could he become Dharma-gopta, the protector of righteousness, not in his time, but for eternity?

He was led into a labyrinth of intricate puzzles. What was his Dharma for which he was fighting? And how could he protect it and inspire others with it in every situation in face of the vast passions and weaknesses released by man?

It was a stormy night – rain, thunder, lightning, the sea lashing in giant waves against the embankment, the rain falling on the roof as if in a shower of rocks.

A cry suddenly tore the air: ‘What is Dharma?’ The cry shattered Krishna’s sleep and stirred his dream-world. ‘What is Dharma?’ – reverberated all over the earth and in the heavens.

Scenes – vague, confused and shapeless – came before him. Men floated by, rishing, mingling and vanishing. Vrindavan, with its leafy trees, grinning monkeys, dancing peacocks.

And he abandoned Radha, fresh like a Kunda flower, whom he loved as his life, to a lonely fate. Was this Dharma?

The royal wrestling ground at Mathura. Men, women and children shouting, straining their eyes, gesticulating. He was pounding the bloody face of the tyrant, Kamsa, dragging his dead body along the ground, the people hailing him as a saviour. But he had killed his maternal uncle. Was it Dharma?

Big Brother and himself were running away from Mathura, finding safety in Gomantaka across the barren hills of Sahyadri. They were afraid of Jarasandha destroying the Yadavas because of them. Was it cowardice? Was it Dharma?

At the foot of the Gomantaka hill, Balarama was ready to smash Jarasandha’s skull. He intervened and stopped Big Brother’s mace in mid-career, and thus saved the life of the emperor, the source of all adharma in Aryavarta – to the undoing of many righteous kings, the closing of many homes of learning and piety, and the ruination of thousands of families. Was that Dharma?

On the outskirts of Kundinapura. He lifted Princes Rukmini into his chariot, kidnapped her, inflicted wounds on her pursuing brother. The swayamvara became an occasion for the gnashing of teeth and wailing of women. The heart of the goodnatured Bhishmaka was broken. Rukmi was driven into self-imposed exile. Was that Dharma?

The palace of Kampilya. Drupada and his children opened their hearts to him. He accepted their confidence, but refused to take the risk of fighting the Kurus, planned a spectacular swayamvara which was likely to end in complete failure. Was that Dharma?

Krishna shivered in his sleep. Opening his eyes, he saw the loving eyes of Rukmini fixed on him. He tried to smile and fell asleep….

He saw men and women coming in endless processions, shouting, grimacing, praying, wailing, talking of Dharma, waiting to know what it was, himself unable to give a satisfying answer.

Then, he heard himself asking these men and women: ‘Do you know Dharma?’

‘Yes’, said one, ‘I know it.’ And he was a profit-mad skinflint. He had the face of Satrajit, but a little twisted and much more sinister. ‘I buy Dharma,’ he said, ‘from the Brahmans, even from the gods. I feed my family and worship at the shrines. For I alone know how to gather riches and to give them.’

‘Your Dharma is the child of greed. I know you not’, Krishna heard himself saying, and let him pass by….

‘I know Dharma,’ claimed another, marked with the emblems of sanctity, ‘I am pious. I have shrunk from the ways of sin, never murdered, never stolen, never whored. My way is the only righteous way.’

‘Your Dharma is the child of fear. I know you not’, said Krishna, and let him pass by….

The third came, a dare-devil. ‘I know my Dharma,’ he said. ‘I have destroyed my enemies, for whoever opposes me is of the seed of sin. I perform sacrifices, give in charity and proclaim my victory to the world. I feed the Brahmans and my praises are sung by them.’

‘Your Dharma is the child of vanity. I know you not,’ said Krishna, and let him pass by….

Then there came before him one who was meek and resigned. ‘I know Dharma, no one else does,’ he said. ‘It is humility. Unresisting, I suffer wrongs cheerfully. I bear hunger, thirst, cold, even misfortune. That is the privilege of the meek in spirit. Theirs is the glory of Dharma.’

‘Your Dharma is the child of the slave mind, which does not know the divinity within him. I know you not,’ said Krishna, and let him pass by….

Then came another, sly like a fox, and said: ‘I know my Dharma. I stand away from risky action and the dens of lions, and walk the path of safety, which comes of peace and fearing the wrath of the gods.’

‘Your Dharma is the child of cowardice. I know you not,’ said Krishna, and let him pass by….

Yet there came another, who said: ‘I know my Dharma. It is to peddle the favour of the gods to those who open their money bags to me. I offer the hope of salvation to those who have none. Drunk with it, they dance with joy.’

‘Your Dharma is the child of fraud. I know you not,’ said Krishna, and let him pass by….

Still another came, who said with an air of superiority: ‘I know my Dharma. It is to escape the snares of life, to repress the longings of the flesh. I scorn human weakness in myself in others, and revel in stern detachment. I avoid contacts with men and live apart and superior to them.’

‘Your Dharma is the child of arrogance. I know you not,’ said Krishna, and let him pass by….

And yet another came, satisfied with himself. ‘I know my Dharma,’ he said. ‘I lend money to the gods by giving alms to the poor. I enter what I give in a ledger, which Chitragupta, the divine accountant, will open when I appear at my death before the throne of Dharma. I will then present my bill and collect my dues with compound interest and live in comfort thereafter.’

Krishna said: ‘Your Dharma is the child of commerce. I know you not.’ and let him pass by….

And yet another came and his manner was unctuous, and he said: ‘I know my Dharma. I do not care what I do – I murder, steal, avenge. But I chant the glories of the Great God and turn my sin into a song. I know He will forgive me, however wicked I am. My god is merciful.’

‘Your Dharma is the child of deceit. I know you not,’ said Krishna, and let him pass by….

And then came another with the mien of wisdom and the words of a saint. ‘My Dharma is not to resist evil. I shall suffer in silence and shall inherit the kingdom of heaven. Let the wicked see their foul destiny. They are no concern of mine. My martyrdom will win me glory.’

‘Your Dharma is the child of inaction. I know you not,’ said Krishna, and let him pass by….

Then another came with his body fragrant like the lemon leaves, with smirking lips and well-oiled hair. ‘All Dharma is illusion. I eat and drink and enjoy myself as I like. My body is my only shrine. The pleasures of the flesh are my rituals of worship. Beyond them there is nothing; after me there is nothing.’

‘You are the child of a demon. I shall never forgive you,’ said Krishna, and in disgust he turned his back on him….

Suddenly, the procession vanished.

Krishna awoke, his heart pounding wildly. Then he smiled to himself. His dream had told him how men looked upon Dharma. But he also had known Dharma.

He knew the Dharma of the rulers of men like Bhishma and Drupada. It was to defend their people, to feed the starving, to help the helpless, to foster learning, to uphold the ancient ways of godly living.

He also knew the Dharma of the family. It created the beautiful bond which Drupada had woven between himself and his children.

It knit the Five Brothers together so that they lived for each other and for their mother; made Rukmini and Shaibya parts of him; it led his Mother Devaki to see all in her child and her child in all.

He also knew the Dharma of the Master (Vyasa), who lived only to understand all who came to him with sympathy and who, by the love he bore them inspired them to be better than they were.

All this was Dharma, no doubt. But so also were the Dharmas of all others whom he had rejected. It gave each of them something noble to live by – ladders built out of weakness of the heart so that they might climb to a higher Dharma, always feeling better than before with each rung they climbed.

Men were differently made, and each needed his own ladder. But for that, they would have been demons with smirking lips and a self-satisfied air, as that one in the procession was whose body was his shrine, and whose only rituals of worship were the pleasures of the flesh.

Thunder-claps shook the halls of the mansion. Lightning rent the air. The sea-waves lashed angrily at the embankment.

Whilst the flashes illumined the room in which he lay, an inner light seemed to come to him as well. He saw clearly, distinctly what he had been groping for so long.

Life – sinful, wretched, noble, inspiring – was one and indivisible.

In accepting the mission of fighting for its ennoblement, he had embraced not a part of life, but the whole.He was all inclusive

Unwittingly, he had been struggling to fulfil the expectations of all – as a son, as a friend, as a husband, as a brother, as a warrior, as a leader, as a defender of the righteous way – at all times feeding the hunger of men and women for someone to love, to cheer and to inspire; and they had learnt to gauge the excellence of other men by comparing them to him. This was the secret of why he had moved many who, but for him, would have remained stagnant.

That was why, in their ecstasy at finding him what they had hungered for, many had called him ‘their’ Govinda; others, a redeemer; some, even a God.

Mother Devaki and uncle Akrura, deeply religious souls, in their overflowing love of him, had looked upon him as Vaasudeva, not the son of Vasudeva, the Yadava chief, but VAASUDEVA, That is All, as many ardent worshippers called the Great God.

He would like to be VAASUDEVA, That is All, the Great God, if he could, he mused. Then he would find a place in every heart. Then his Dharma would inspire all men in all ages at all times. But what was his Dharma?

He laughed to himself. He did not know it even at this critical moment when the fabric of his life was crashing round him.

When he opened his eyes, he found Rukmini looking at him with anxiety. ‘Has your sleep been disturbed?’ she asked.

‘No. I am only thinking.’

‘What are you thinking, lord?’ she again asked.

‘Vaidarbhi, what do you think your Dharma is?’

Rukmini smiled the smile of the happy and devoted wife. ‘My Dharma! That is very simple. To live in you so that you can live in my heart.’

Krishna pressed her hand and closed his eyes.

He dozed off, and in the twilight of a half-sleep, resumed the chain of his broken thoughts. Dharma is not merely a hope. Nor speculation. Nor rituals. Nothing which is inspired by anger, greed or fear…. It is the will to shape oneself, men and situations by rising above weaknesses.

No, that was not enough; Dharma for each one is, to weld the vision, the will and the deed – they are not three but one – so that he may strive, each in his own way, to live in All – VAASUDEVA – so that All may live in him.

The next morning, Satyaki and Kritavarma came to him, heart-broken. They did not know what to do. In a whisper, Satyaki asked: ‘Lord, what shall we do now? The Yadavas have no faith in what we are going to do.’

There was a new light in his eyes. He smiled the smile of one to whom light had come. ‘Don’t blame them, Satyaki. They have not failed. It would be truer to say we have failed them.’

‘But what shall we do? It looks as if the three of us are going on a fool’s errand!’

‘Satyaki, they will come if we live in faith ourselves,’ said Krishna.

‘How can we do that?’

Krishna smiled. ‘We shall give them faith, Satyaki, if we take Pushkara, find a bridegroom for Draupadi and heal the hatred between Drona and Drupada. For the moment, don’t think of what will happen. Let us make things happen.’

Note: Adapted from K.M. Munshi’s Krishnavtara Vol.3. You can buy this book here.

Prasad Kulkarni is a Data and Analytics professional. At work, he analyses historical data and ponders over historical events otherwise.

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