Arjuna and Krsna are two characters in the Hindu epic known as the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is a tale about the descendants of Bharata (a character in the Ramayana epic). The Mahabharata is about the families of two brothers, Drhtarastra and Pandu, fighting a dharmic war against each other. The sons of Drhtarastra come to be known as the Kauravas, and the sons of Pandu come to be known as the Pandavas. Pandu’s wife Kunti knows a secret mantra whereby with it she can call upon any god and have children with him. Pandu encourages Kunti to call upon the gods and have children with them, as Pandu has no children. Kunti has her first two sons Yudhisthra and Bhima with the gods Dharma and Vayu. Then Kunti calls upon the thunder god Indra, and has her third son Arjuna with him (Rodrigues 229-230).
Arjuna, the main hero of the Mahabharata, has an extraordinary birth. It has been said that his birth was “attended with far more celestial clamor than the births of his brothers”. At the time of Arjuna’s birth, a prophecy was made “by a disembodied voice” which tells of all the heroic actions that Arjuna will perform (Katz 29). The prophecies also call Arjuna a hero. A hero, in Indian terms, is one whose action follows Dharma. This seems rather fitting because “among the Vedic gods, Indra, [Arjuna’s father] fulfills [the] heroic role” (Katz 30).
As Arjuna grows up, he becomes more and more distinct from his brothers. At one point, it is noted that out of all the Pandava brothers, Arjuna is the only one who seems to have “special marks on his body” (Katz 43), for example “ on the soles of his feet [there are] ‘straight lines that [run] upward’” (Katz 43). This is an external feature that distinguishes Arjuna from his brother. As time passes, the distinctiveness from his brothers becomes more and more evident. Out of all the brothers, Arjuna is the most skillful warrior.
Krsna was born to Devaki, the sister of a king named Kamsa. Krsna was Devaki’s eighth child. Kamsa was told that the eight child of Devaki would kill him, so Kamsa “imprisoned Devaki and her husband Vasudeva” (Rodrigues 313) and killed all their children. Krsna was somehow smuggled out of the prison to the village of Gokul, where he became the son to Yasoda. Krsna grew up to be a very mischievous child, who was loved by many, especially the gopis (cowgirls) who all shared a special relationship with him. Krsna’s most favourite gopi was Radha, who later becomes his lover (Rodrigues 313). Radha and Krsna’s relationship becomes the basis for a lot of devotional poety (Rodrigues 274).
Krsna is the eight incarnation of the god Visnu. When asked of his true identity, Krsna says “he is the Lord of all Beings descending to uphold dharma” (Theodor 16). Krsna is mentioned in many texts and has many different roles; however, in the Mahabharata epic, he plays the role of a warrior. Krsna and Arjuna, throughout most of the epic, are seen as equals and friends. It is not until the Bhagavad Gita, where Krsna reveals his true self as Visnu to Arjuna that the relationship between Arjuna and Krsna changes from that of friendship to that of god and devotee (bhakta). Arjuna and the rest of the Pandavas are known to be great believers of the god Visnu.
So close is Arjuna’s and Krsna’s friendship that when Arjuna expresses his “infatuation” for Subhadra (Krsna’s sister), to Krsna, Krsna prompts him to capture her and marry her. Arjuna and Subhadra have a “rakshasa marriage” (Katz 63); that is, a marriage through capture. Subhadra becomes Arjuna’s third wife and together they “give birth to Abhimanyu” (Katz 62) who is believed to be as good a warrior as his father.
In the Mahabharata there is a tale of the burning of the Khandava forest. Krsna and Arjuna are approached by the fire god Agni, who is seeking their aid to help him burn the Khandava forest. Agni cannot burn the forest down by himself, because Indra, the thunder- lightening god keeps extinguishing Agni’s fire with rain. Agni, disguised as a Brahmin, asks Arjuna and Krsna to help him get food. Arjuna and Krsna agree to help him without knowing Agni’s true identity. When Agni reveals his true identity to Krsna and Arjuna, they are unable to turn away from their promise (Katz 71).
Thus, Arjuna and Krsna keep their word and go to the Khandava forest to help Agni burn it down and feed Agni because “Agni needs the forest as food” (Katz 71). Arjuna and Krsna fight Indra and other gods who come to aid Indra in keeping the fire out. They also make sure that all of the creatures of the Khandava forest stay in the forest. By doing so, they alongside Agni, become killers. They make sure none of the creatures escape the forest and if any escape, Krsna and Arjuna bring them back and feed them to Agni. (Katz 72). Krsna and Arjuna make sure everything in the forest gets burnt.
The Burning of the Khandava forest is of great significance, because we see Arjuna fight his father Indra with Krsna, by his side. Arjuna’s power on a divine or heroic level comes from his father Indra, but it is from Krsna, with whom he shares a close friendship that Arjuna gets “the power of his fully developed character” (Katz 217). Therefore to some extent it can be said that the relationship that Arjuna shares with Krsna surpasses the relationship Arjuna has with his father, Indra (Katz 217). The relationship Arjuna shares with Krsna during the episode of the burning of the Khandava forest is that of an equal and a warrior friend. There is no mention of Krsna being a god during the Khandava episode (Katz 83). Arjuna, till the Kurukshetra war, is not aware of the divine nature of Krsna. We also see two gods, Krsna/Visnu and Indra, fighting each other. This alludes to the tension that is perhaps present amongst some gods and the shift in worship of Vedic gods to more devotional worship. This shift it seems is caused by the coming of the Epics and the Puranas (Rodrigues 292).
The actions of Krsna and Arjuna during the Khandava episode have been questioned by many, claiming that the actions of Krsna and Arjuna were adharmic. However, according to Katz, Arjuna and Krsna are supporting a dharmic ideal; Krsna and Arjuna “are supporting the sacrificial order of the universe” (Katz 75) where sacrifice to Agni is necessary to maintain the cosmic order.
The Mahabharata says that Arjuna and Krsna are incarnations of Nara and Narayana. The term “Narayana” seems to refer to an incarnate of Visnu. Nara, on the other hand, “means ‘man’” (Katz 215). Therefore Narayana is Krsna and Nara is Arjuna. The Mahabharata says that Nara and Narayana were rsis “whose godlike power derived from a tremendously long course of austerities” (Katz 215) and whenever there is any mention of the two in the epic, there is an implication of great friendship. Nara and Narayana are said to be “born yuga after yuga” (Katz 215). Since, the Mahabharata is said to be written in the Kali Yuga, we can safely assume that Arjuna and Krsna are incarnations of Nara and Narayana of the Kali Yuga.
Krsna and Arjuna’s relationship takes new heights during the battle of Kurukshetra. This is the main battle in the Mahabharata where the Pandavas and the Kauravas fight each other. Krsna serves as Arjuna’s charioteer. Once Arjuna and Krsna reach the battle grounds Arjuna has a change in heart; his perspective changes. Arjuna “no longer sees enemies on the other side….but [he sees] ‘bandhus’, relatives (Malinar 60). On the battle field, “Arjuna [sees], standing their ground, fathers, grandfathers, teachers, maternal uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, friends, fathers-in-law, and companions in both armies” (Johnson 5). Arjuna is unable to bring himself to fight. He tells Krsna that he sees “evil omens… [and] nothing good can come from slaughtering one’s own family in battle” (Johnson 5). Arjuna tells Krsna that he does not want to be a killer of his family. He doesn’t seem to understand the reason behind killing his own family; killing Drhtarasthra’s people will bring him no joy (Johnson 5). At one point Arjuna tells Krsna that he does not want the kingdom, neither does he want to win; however being a ksatriya warrior, this is exactly what he should desire. Then Arjuna says that the purpose of trying to regain a kingdom is to increase a family’s prosperity, however by waging war against the Kauravas, the family’s prosperity is not increased. He should be fighting with his family, not against it (Malinar 61).
Seeing Arjuna dejected and not ready to fight, Krsna has a conversation with Arjuna- where Krsna reveals his true self as Visnu to Arjuna and convinces Arjuna to fight against the Kauravas. This conversation has come to be known as the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most renowned texts of Hinduism.
Krsna/Visnu tells Arjuna that no one knows Krsna’s true self because Visnu is the source of all gods and sages, and thus to know Krsna, one must know Visnu; to be able to know Visnu, “one must rely on the supreme himself in order to know him” (Theodor 89). When one accepts Visnu as the source of all things, he becomes enlightened, and this enlightenment makes him fully devoted to Visnu. Krsna then says that when his (Visnu’s) people try and approach him, he bestows it upon himself to destroy their ignorance and make them his devotees. This speech seems to be addressing Arjuna’s moment of lapse- where Arjuna refuses to fight. Krsna is trying to rid Arjuna of his doubt and enlighten him, to make him fight the Kauravas (Theodor 90). He is urging Arjuna to “cut his doubts, which represent ignorance” (Theodor 15) and follow his path to be enlightened. Krsna tells Arjuna that a warrior should not experience this sort of weakness. This weakness leads one to disgrace and not heaven (Johnson 7). One gets the feeling that by telling Arjuna that when devotees try and approach him, he makes them stronger believers, Visnu/Krsna is telling Arjuna to believe in Visnu and Visnu will rid of him of his doubts and show him the right way. Visnu is sort of alluding to the fact that nothing is possible without Visnu, because Visnu is the source of all things; if Arjuna believes in Visnu, Visnu will rid him of his doubts and make things right.
When Krsna’s true self as Visnu is revealed to Arjuna, we notice a change in the relationship between the two. Before the revelation, Arjuna and Krsna are portrayed as friends, however, when Krsna reveals himself as Visnu, their friendly relationship is replaced with a sense of “fear, reverence, submission, a loss of identity, confusion and barely controllable mental turmoil” by Arjuna towards Krsna (Theodor 96). Despite feeling confused and afraid, Arjuna, from being the ideal king, becomes “the ideal bhakta, the loyal follower…” of Krsna (Malinar 13). He immediately feels regret for his previous informal treatment of Krsna and asks for forgiveness from Krsna for his behavior. Then Arjuna continually bows in front of Krsna praising his power and greatness (Theodor 96). Arjuna praises Krsna as “the father and the guru of the world who should be adorned” (Minnema 100). By calling Krsna the guru of the world, we see sort of a guru-sisya relationship come forth, where Krsna is the guru and Arjuna the student (sisya). Arjuna “relinquish[es] familiarity in favour of devotion” (Theodor 90).
The comradeship that Arjuna and Krsna share is very close. Arjuna alongside Krsna helps Agni burn the Khandava forest. During this episode- we see Arjuna, with Krsna by his side- fight his father Indra. This leads us to believe that the relationship Arjuna shares with Krsna, surpasses the relationship Arjuna shares with Indra, his father.
During the Kurukshetra war, Arjuna develops doubts about fighting the Kauravas. Here Krsna comes to his aid, and shows the right path. He convinces Arjuna that a warrior must fight, for that is his dharma. Krsna shows Arjuna his divine form, a form that many humans and gods thirst to see. This just shows the love and respect Krsna has for Arjuna. Krsna himself has said that no one is dearer to him than Arjuna; he cannot see the world without Arjuna being part of it (Katz 244).
Johnson, W.J (1994) The Bhagavad Gita. New York: Oxford University Press.
Katz, Ruth Cecily (1949) Arjuna in the Mahabharata: Where Krishna is, There is Victory. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
Malinar, Angelika (2007) The Bhagavadgita: Doctrines and Contexts. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.
Minnema, Lourens (2011) “One Dialogue- Four Relations”. Studies in Interreligious Dialogue. Vol.21 no.1 p. 96-11.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism The eBook An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online
Theodor, Ithmar (2010) Exploring the Bhagavad Gita. Surrey: MPG Books Group.
Related Topics for Further Investigation:
Nara and Narayana
The Burning of the Khandava forest
The Bhagavad Gita
Article written by Tasneem Kapacee (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.