The Charioteer that drove the battle

September 24, 2015, Chennai

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We were talking about the dual aspect of Krishna’s role, letting everyone know that He is the Omniscient, unlike Rama, not remaining unaware of His Omnipotence, and not hesitating to display His Omnipresence, as we see again and again in the Viswaroopa Dharshan scenes.


And at some times, he chooses to play the ‘all knowing, all encompassing innocence’, acting as though he were not aware of what would happen on the morrow.  He plans to ward off a ‘possible contingency’ like every other ordinary man.  Let us see for instance how he acts in the case of Arjuna, when the latter vows to kill Jayadratha before sunset, the next day, and how elaborately he prepares a Plan B, just in case the Plan A fails.  About ten years back I had written on this sequence in ChennaiOnline, with the caption The Lord and His Plan B.   

Mahabharata

This aspect of Krishna holds the vital key to the question, ‘But for whom the War would not have taken place’.  To put it very simply, the answer would be ‘The two Krishnas’, namely Draupadi and the Lord.  If Draupadi held the fire in her, Vasudeva Krishna was the wind that whipped up the forest fire.  It was from him that the energy and the force for the War and its shapes and manoeuvres emanated, percolated and engulfed the land.   A simple analysis would substantiate our conclusion on Krishna, as to how he functioned beyond the responsibilities that he assumed (of himself) and how the whole drama was being enacted, not with the Lord just witnessing it all as any other charioteer would.  In other words, he was not the witness, but was the water that germinated the seed of War.  

And, as it was, the role that he assumed, namely, that of a charioteer was not insignificant.  Many of us tend to equate the role of a charioteer with that of a chauffeur of these days.  His function was not limited to holding the wheel and manoeuvring the carriage.  On the one hand the charioteer never had an opportunity to drive through a plain road.  His task primarily was concerned with taking the chariot through cut and scattered limbs, fallen horses and elephants and broken chariots as well.  He had to find a firm and even ground, stable enough for the chariot to remain in its position while the archer took his aim.  Any minor shake either on the wheel or on the structure would lead the archer to miss his aim. Added to this were many other higher responsibilities involving quick and critical decision making, one of which was to keep the target on the right side of the archer.  That was very important in view of the fact that every archer, with the sole exception of Arjuna, were right handed and it was easier to aim and shoot a target on the right side, if you consider how the bow is held, stretched and employed.  Arjuna was the only archer who could use both his right and left hands to shoot an arrow and that is why he is known by the name Savyasachin.  Arjuna himself explains this as “And since both of my hands are capable of drawing the Gandiva, I am known as Savyasachin among gods and men” in the Virata Parva (Mahabharata, Book 4, Section XLIV)

Added to all this, any charioteer who drove the car for war, had to take quick decisions in cases of emergencies.  And in a war, every moment is an emergency.  There may be a time when the archer faints, and there is none to order the Charioteer to take the car to safety, where and how he has to carry his master, the archer.  There are other instances where you see charioteers acting as counsellors and advising the archer on which weapon to use during critical times.   We see for instance, Sumitra, the Charioteer of Abhimanyu warning him (when Dharmaputra asks him to break the Chakra Vyuha) saying,

atibhāro 'yam āyuṣmann āhitas tvayi pāṇḍavaiḥ
saṃpradhārya kṣamaṃ buddhyā tatas tvaṃ yoddhum arhasi

ācārya hi kṛtī droṇaḥ paramāstre kṛtaśramaḥ
atyantasukhasaṃvṛddhas tvaṃ ca yuddhaviśāradaḥ
 (Mahabharata, Book 7, Chapter 35 (Sloka 3 and 4) in Sanskrit and 34 in English)

The English translation reads as follows: “O thou that art blest with length of days, heavy is the burthen that hath been placed upon thee by the Pandavas!  Ascertaining by thy judgment as to whether thou art able to bear it or not, thou shouldst then engage in battle. The preceptor Drona is a master of superior weapons and accomplished (in battle). Thou, however, hast been brought up in great luxury and art unused to battle.”  In other words Sumitra goes to the extent of saying ‘They are placing a very high burden on your shoulders.  Think twice and decide if you really want to pursue this course’.  If that advice comes against the request of none other than Dharmaputra, one could easily perceive the role and responsibilities that a Charioteer held and exercised.   

That shows what every ordinary Charioteer was entrusted with and to what extent they had the power to shape or influence the Archer.  Not denying that Abhimanyu chose to set the advice of his charioteer aside, one can find how the counsels of the Charioteer playing a crucial role in the victory of the Archer.  That was only one of the most onerous responsibilities that a Charioteer was vested with and it is here that a Charioteer’s role differs from that of a car driver of these days.  The epic abounds with such details.  We see the tactful manoeuvres of Visoka, the charioteer of Bhima and his numerous advices of when to hit and when to restrain.   I went into this just to show that a Suta, or a Charioteer, was no mean a person and his role was not limited to merely driving the car.  The Suta was never considered as a ‘low-born’, the celebrated Sanjaya and his father Gavalgana being Sutas themselves.  We will elaborate on these roles and responsibilities when we discuss Karna, and how grossly we have misunderstood the usage of the name ‘Sutaputra’.  That’s for a later date.   

Therefore, if a Charioteer of a comparatively lesser calibre could do this much, one can imagine what Lord Krishna could have done playing the very same role.  His role was much superior to that of others that held the reins and it was he who directed the entire Pandava side, assuming the garb of a shadow-generalissimo.  At every vital junction, the war depended on Him for directions.  It was he who shaped the decisions and O yes, the destiny of the Kurus.  

Let’s now come back to the point under discussion, namely, how is it that we call that Lord Krishna, the charioteer of Arjuna, drove just not the chariot, but directed the entire war; the reins that he held in his hands were powerful enough to take the war in the direction that he wanted.

(To be contd.)
                                                                                                                                  
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Hari Krishnan