Arjuna and Krsna have what is described as a perfect warrior-friend relationship
(Katz 82). There are also many hints of the relationship being described as representing a great friendship between a man and god, as Krsna is Visnu, a god incarnate and Arjuna is a man. It is represented in many different stories throughout the Mahabharata. This relationship starts out as one of family members (cousins), both princes from neighbouring lands. It continues throughout the massive epic to grow and change as the two men grow and learn how to deal with life’s lessons and how to be dharmic in every scenario. Learning from one another as much as learning with one another. This is shown particularly in the stories of The Burning of the Khandava Forest, as well as the Great War of Kurukshetra. It is also well represented within the smaller appearances of Krsna in the lives of the Pandavas and Arjunas throughout the Mahabharata. The relationship of the two men grows through the devotion and loyalty shown by Arjuna and it is ultimately the saviour of the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra war (Katz 239-248).
The relationship starts out in the beginning of the Mahabharata with the birth of Arjuna, the son of the god Indra. Spoken by a figureless voice, comparisons between Arjuna to the god Visnu are made (Katz 29). The bodiless voice states that in one way or another Arjuna will bring as much joy to his mother as Visnu brought to his (Katz 29). This early comparison of the god and the man already foreshadows some of the experiences to be had by Arjuna and Krsna later on in the epic. It brings forth the idea that the two men really complete one another and are destined to be brought together in life. The symbolism of the ying and the yang is sometimes used to represent the friendship between these two men (Katz 83). Not that one is either the ying or the yang but that they both complete each other and make full contributions to the relationship (Katz 83). They are even referred to as the two Krsnas in some versions of the Mahabharata, the common meaning being that the two are so completely in sync with one another they are simply one and the same mind but two beings (Bryant 25).
The two men’s bond grows even stronger when Arjuna takes Krsna’s sister, Subhadra, as his wife. He first asks Krsna what his thoughts are on this idea of marriage to his sister and
Krsna approves right away exclaiming that Arjuna is the perfect match for his sister (Katz 63). Arjuna then sneaks into the kingdom where the princess lives and he causes her to fall in love with him. He then abducts the princess causing anger and an uproar within Krsna’s family. Krsna then speaks to his family in favour of the union between Arjuna and Subhadra and convinced his family that his sister’s marriage to Arjuna is not only a good thing but that Arjuna is the most suitable match for Subhadra (Katz 63). This shows a preference for Krsna’s friendship with Arjuna over that of his family’s wishes. It shows a strong commitment to a friendship in choosing Arjuna over his family. After this union of families Krsna and Arjuna are now brothers-in-law. This only strengthens their friendship as they are even closer relatives now; it also draws a parallel to them being actual brothers and therefore causing them to share an incredibly tight bond. They celebrate their new found brotherhood by going out to play in the water of a river, and so begins the story of The burning of the Khandava Forest.
In this story the two men show the reciprocity of their respect for one another and the equality of their relationship by teaming up and defeating gods and animals. This story starts out with the two, now brothers, running into the fire god Agni, who is hungry and asks to be fed. The two men comply with his requests and decide to burn down the entire forest and all the creatures within it (Rajagoplachari 41). According to C. Rajagoplachari editor of Mahabharata 6th ed. this story can be thought of as a connection of the two men’s souls as the growth of their friendship causes them to act as one/two people with one mind. It is about two men who are about to prove themselves to their fathers, themselves and their worlds (Rajagoplachari 79). This defeat of gods and father gives the description of the two men being outside of society’s judgments, as they are going against most of the lessons taught throughout the Mahabharata and killing the entire forest, alive with animals and plants (Rajagoplachari 79). This new opposing lesson causes reader/listeners to draw out the idea that these men must both have a deeper understanding of dharma and how to uphold it (Katz 79). Another similarity taken from this story would be that the two men know how to complement one another and by doing so how to fight off other warriors sufficiently. In the end of the story the men are granted a favour from the god Indra, who has now been defeated by Arjuna, a proven man to his father (the god Indra). Krsna chooses to remain close companions with Arjuna for all his life as his wish (Katz 82). This is an incredible request that lets us see the true companionship that Krsna feels with Arjuna and not just the devotion that is normally shown of Arjuna toward Krsna.
Part of the closeness between Arjuna and Krsna can be seen in its opposing relationship, between Krsna and Duryodhana. At one point Krsna goes to Duryodhana and shows him a truth. Much the same as when he shows Arjuna his true identity as the god Visnu in the story of the Bhagavad Gita. When Krsna does this Duryodhana, unlike Arjuna, denies Krsna’s truth and even threatens him (Katz 234). This little side story to the Mahabharata only accents the commitment and devotion that Arjuna holds for Krsna (Katz 234). The devotion that is shown by Arjuna for Krsna is a model throughout the Mahabharata. It shows up in many of Arjuna’s actions and words. For example when Arjuna stands at the foot of Krsna’s bed instead of the head, where Duryodhana stands, this shows Arjuna to be a humble man who is attached to the idea of Krsna as a great alliance rather than simply a strong weapon.
There are also references to the relationship between the gods, Indra and Visnu. Indra who is Arjuna’s father and Visnu, who is Krsna, represent fathers to both the men. The two gods have a friendship themselves and the friendship between Arjuna and Krsna hints at the same friendship as the one shared between the two father gods (Katz 83). This is an interesting side note as it leads to the idea of a strong eternal friendship between two equals.
Right after the Pandavas are exiled for thirteen years by Duryodhana they begin their journey into the forest. Krsna, hearing of their exile, rushes out to say goodbye to them and to see them off. He finds the Pandavas and appears to them in the forest. He comforts them, especially Draupadi, who is upset over her disrobing scene. He then assures vengeance on the Kauravas, then says goodbye and is on his way. This may represent the idea that god is always with you/always finds you (Mahabharata 54).
Before the great war of Kurukshetra, Arjuna and his cousin Duryodhana race to Krsnas kingdom in efforts of recruiting him for either side of the war. Krsna then gives Arjuna the choice of either using Krsna’s army for the war or Krsna himself as an advisor. Arjuna chooses Krsna as his advisor and chariot driver. In choosing Krsna as his advisor, Arjuna shows his loyalty and support in his friendship with Krsna.
At some points it is said that Arjuna is Krsna’s companion and in others it is said that Krsna is Arjunas companion (Katz 82). This friendship grows out of its equality, stability and emotional support on both sides. It is Krsna’s duty to guide Arjuna through life and keep him on the path of his dharmic duties (Bryant 8). Sometimes Krsna is needed to show Arjuna the path of dharma and this is what he does through some of the stories in the Mahabharata (Katz 83).
This way of the dharmic path Krsna shows to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita when he tells Arjuna what to do in the war in many different scenarios that make the dharmic path confusing even for such a man as Arjuna, son of a god, with such intensity, that of a true warrior (Rosen 12). This need for a teacher as well as another warrior that Arjuna possesses is a common theme throughout this history of literature as well as human life. It shows up in almost all aspects of his life, when he needs someone to help him convince people of things, or when he needs another set of hands to defeat enemies. He also needed a teacher to help him with his duties in his life as a warrior. The theme of the warrior friendship seems to hold common place among many stories throughout history [e.g., Patroklos and Achilles (Katz 82)]. Most often the friendships have a bit of a hero complex, meaning that one man is greater than the other, or is seen as more important than the other (Katz 82). It represents a relationship with god himself and how humans should treat god and be treated by god. It is seen as the perfect friendship with complete trust, enlightenment, teaching and support (Katz 82). The devotion of Arjuna to Krsna is spoken about in Arjuna and the Mahabharata by Katz. She writes about how Arjunas’ devotion to Krsna is what makes him the best of all his brothers (Katz 233). It is the extra characteristic he holds that completes him as a perfect being. As well as this unconditional devotion to Krsna shows him to be representing of the warrior class and their specific dharma (Katz 235).
The idea to take away from Arjuna and Krsna’s relationship in this myth would be that god is one’s true companion in whom rests a perfect relationship (Katz 83). The Mahabharata is a story told that portrays a friendship between two men. One who represents the great hero who is a perfect student and is in search of the truth (Katz 15); the other who portrays an advisor, seen as god or a more aware/enlightened version of the first man (Katz 15). When put together these two men makeup a great team, which seems to represent god and man working together as one. Together the two of them are unbeatable and working as equals who are supportive and respectful of one another, it is the perfect relationship between two people-god and man.
References and Further Recommended Readings
Bryant, Edwin F. (2007) Krishna: A Sourcebook. Oxford University Press.
Hiltebeitel, Alf (1990) The ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata. State University of New York Press.
Katz, Ruth Cecily (198) Arjuna in the Mahabharata: Where Krishna is, there is Victory. University of South Carolina Press.
Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1970) Krsna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
Rajagopalachari, C. (1950) Mahabharata 6th ed. New Delhi: Hindustan Times.
Rosen, Steven (2007) Krishna’s Song: A New Look at the Bhagavad Gita. London: Praegers Publishers.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Duryodana and Krsna’s relationship
The meaning of Krsna’s instructions
The Dharma of Krsna
Krsna as a trickster
Article written by Jolene Anderson (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.