In the end, Krishna’s seeming failure to appease Duryodhana revealed His own greatness.

By Chaitanya Charana Dasa

Krishna’s unsuccessful peace mission successfully demonstrated His love for His devotees

The ancient Indian epic Mahabharata features a massive war. In today’s world threatened by violence in the name of religion, such a war in a religious book can be worrying. Even more worrying may be the fact that Krishna, who is God descended to the earth, was Himself involved in that war. He spoke the Bhagavad-gita to prod a reluctant Arjuna to fight.

Is Krishna a war-mongering God?

Not at all. The same Mahabharata narrates in detail how Krishna sought peace, even going as a humble envoy to reconcile with the evil opponent Duryodhana. Through this extraordinary incident, Krishna demonstrated, beyond all doubt, who was bent on the war: Duryodhana.

Krishna went on a peace mission, and He failed. But did He really fail?

Did God Fail?

To make sense of God’s apparent failure, let’s better understand the Krishna conception of God. Krishna, being God, doesn’t delight in majestic isolation – He delights in the full gamut of relationships and in the activities that enrich those relationships. His relationship with the Pandavas is in the mood of intimate friendship. Within that friendship, He played various roles, such as aide, mentor, and charioteer. One role was that of a peace envoy on a doomed peace mission.

“How can God fail?” we may wonder. “Isn’t He supposed to be omnipotent?”

Yes. In fact, the bhakti tradition declares that one of Krishna’s names is Satya-sankalpa – meaning that whatever He resolves to do comes true. Did this incident falsify His name? No. We need to understand what His sankalpa, or resolve, was. It was not so much to prevent the war as to demonstrate to the world that the Pandavas, His devotees, had done everything possible to prevent the war. In that resolve He was superbly successful.

Did Krishna not want to prevent the war? Certainly, He wanted to, and He tried to. But preventing war was not what Duryodhana wanted, and Krishna respected his free will. Despite being omnipotent, Krishna never encroaches on the free will He has given to every living being. Duryodhana wanted to misuse his free will by staying obstinately on the path of vice and waging war, so Krishna advised him for his own good, but didn’t force him.

Krishna’s intent to protect the Pandavas’ good name was revealed in His conversation with Vidura on the evening before the peace negotiation.

Vidura asked Krishna, “Why, O Lord, are You going to the Kuru assembly? You know that Duryodhana won’t agree to any peace proposal.”

Vidura spoke from experience. He had been trying for years, even decades, to make Duryodhana see sense. But Duryodhana was adamant in his antipathy towards the Pandavas. Never had he listened to good advice. And now that he had the vast Kuru wealth and army with him, he was unlikely to start seeing sense and settle for a peaceful resolution.

Krishna replied to Vidura, “Yes, I know Duryodhana won’t listen. Still I will go because I want the world to know that the Pandavas tried everything to prevent the war. I don’t want them to be blamed for having instigated this war.”

A Most Accommodating Proposal to a Most Arrogant Prince

The next day, in the Kuru assembly, Krishna expertly made the case for peace before the Kuru king, Dhritarashtra.

In a short while, Dhritarashtra threw up his hands and said, “You don’t have to persuade me; I agree with You. But my son doesn’t listen to me or to reason. Please persuade him.”

Then Krishna addressed Duryodhana, trying to make him see sense. Krishna resourcefully used all four broad methods for conflict resolution: sama (highlighting shared interests), dama (stressing the benefits of reconciliation), danda (emphasizing the consequences of confrontation), and bheda (sowing dissension among the opponents). 

Finally, while stressing the benefits of reconciliation, Krishna offered Duryodhana a peace treaty on the most accommodating terms: “Just give the Pandavas five villages.” This was an astonishingly generous overture. The Pandavas had been the undisputed rulers of vast expanses of land and had been defrauded of it all by Duryodhana. Even the gambling match in which they lost everything had been rigged. Still, they had honored the terms of the match and had lived out a long exile of thirteen years, including an especially humiliating incognito hiding for one year. Now they had full right to demand at least their share of the kingdom, which was the half they had developed from scratch from abandoned wilderness. 

And yet Duryodhana rejected even this proposal. But through his rejection he unintentionally exposed his own arrogant attitude thoroughly.

He replied, “I won’t give the Pandavas enough land to even put the tip of a needle through.”

His pronouncement was not just a practical no to the proposal – it was a personal no to the proposer.

Suppose we invite someone for dinner at our home and they decline, saying, “I have another engagement at that time.” That’s a polite no. But suppose they reply, “Even if I die, my corpse won’t come to your home!” That is not just a no to the request; it is a no to the person, a rude slamming of the door in their face.

Duryodhana’s sharp response actually cut himself sharply. Anyone who heard that reply could understand beyond doubt that it was Duryodhana alone who sought the war, who indeed made peaceful reconciliation impossible.

Winning the Perception Battle

Before Krishna went on His peace mission, Duryodhana had put the Pandavas in an untenable situation. Though he had committed atrocity upon atrocity against them, he had now cast them as the aggressors. Through a rigged gambling match, he had dispossessed the Pandavas of their kingdom for thirteen years and sent them into exile during that period. Though the Pandavas had faithfully served out the exile term, Duryodhana claimed they had been discovered before the end of the year of incognito exile and so would have to serve another thirteen-year exile. He based his claim on some technicalities and nonstandard ways of calculating time. His calculations were rejected by learned elders such as Bhishma, but he insisted on them. 

By portraying the Pandavas as violators of the terms of the exile, he tried to delegitimize their request to be returned their half of the kingdom. And when he thus forced them to take assertive action by preparing for war, he sought to portray them as aggressors, who were claiming a kingdom that was not theirs and who were ready to even attack their own brethren to win that kingdom. Duryodhana thus cunningly changed the narrative of events to make the Pandavas look like the bad guys.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Pandavas were not greedy or power-hungry; they just wanted what was theirs, what had been unfairly snatched from them, what they had every right now to reclaim. But Duryodhana was casting the violated as the violators.

Though the Pandavas might have been the ones launching the war, the Kauravas were the ones causing the war. This was the subtle but significant difference that Krishna’s peace mission made unambiguously clear.

Krishna is expert at everything, including the art of managing the optics of situations. Managing optics is important because perceptions are important – in the public eye, perceptions often trump reality. We may be working for a right cause, even a glorious cause, but that doesn’t mean people will automatically support us. If we don’t take the effort to explain what we are doing and why, we may find public opinion mobilized against us. The importance of public perception is acknowledged in legal aphorisms such as “Justice must not just be done; justice must be seen to be done.”

By asking for a merely symbolic gesture of reconciliation – give just five villages – Krishna placed the onus for the decision on Duryodhana. And Duryodhana played right into Krishna’s hands by flatly refusing, thereby exposing his envy.

The Kuru kingdom was so large and prosperous that giving up five villages would not have mattered at all, geopolitically or financially or in any other way. Krishna didn’t ask for any specific five villages that might have natural resources or strategic locations – He asked for any five villages. It was like asking for just a glass of water from a large lake.

Any reasonable observer would acknowledge that five villages was a ridiculously low price to avoid a catastrophic war. When Duryodhana refused to give even that much, his actions made the reality crystal clear: it was Duryodhana who was bent on war, whereas the Pandavas were ready to bend way backwards to avoid the war.

Duryodhana’s malice came fully out in the open when he rejected Krishna’s peace proposal and especially in the way he rejected it. In trying to stand tall, he left himself with no leg to stand on. Whoever might have had any illusions that Duryodhana had some case could see that he was not interested in doing what was right – he was just interested in doing wrong to the Pandavas.

Because he was so envious, he didn’t just want the whole kingdom for himself; he especially wanted that the Pandavas should have nothing. His joy came in reducing the Pandavas to penury and misery. His joy was not just in what he possessed, but in what he could dispossess the Pandavas of. He wanted them impoverished, humiliated, eliminated. Though he tried to conceal his envy under the garb of calendar calculations, his rejection of Krishna’s peace proposal brought that envy to light for everyone to see.

Though Krishna failed in the peace mission, He won decisively in the perception battle.

Ridiculous Rationalization

We all have arrogance to some degree. But cultured people use their intelligence to curb their arrogance, not to inflate it. Duryodhana unfortunately used his intelligence to rationalize his arrogant actions.

Initially, he tried to deny that he had committed any wrong at all. He went to the extreme of claiming, “Even after great introspection, I can’t see the slightest fault in anything I have done.” Such is the incredible capacity of the human mind for self-deception.

When Krishna’s cutting, uncompromising speech exposed the absurdity of Duryodhana’s claim, Duryodhana changed tack and tried to pass the blame on to his creator. “I am simply acting according to my nature. The creator gave me my nature. If I have done anything wrong, the creator who gave me my nature is responsible.”

Is God the cause of our nature? Yes, He is ultimately the cause of everything, including our nature. But He is not the immediate cause; that cause is our own karma from our past lives. The rain is the ultimate cause of all vegetation, but it is not the cause of which vegetation grows where – that depends on the seeds sown there. Our past actions are like the seeds that give rise to our present nature. So, we can’t blame God for our nature.

Even if we grant, for argument’s sake, that God is the source of our nature, still He is also the source of scripture, the guidebook to live with our nature and to live for something bigger than our nature. And the wisdom of scripture was explained to Duryodhana by the original source of scripture Himself, Krishna. Duryodhana’s acceptance of nature, but not of scripture, showed that his argument was not sincere but was simply self-serving.

Even if he had a particular nature, he could have used scriptural guidance as a resource to change himself for the better. What better resource could he have asked for to change himself than Krishna Himself?

We sometimes feel we lack the resources to change ourselves. While we all could do with more help for changing ourselves, no external help can replace the internal will to change, just as no alarm can get a person out of bed who’s determined to stay there. Such was Duryodhana’s unwillingness to face the facts about his culpability. 

Sentimentality, Surgery, Society

Krishna showed the same respect for human intelligence and independence in His interaction with Duryodhana that He showed in His interaction with Arjuna when speaking the Bhagavad-gita. Yet Duryodhana and Arjuna responded oppositely. Arjuna chose to accept Krishna’s proposal, understanding that Krishna was his greatest well-wisher. In contrast, Duryodhana chose to defy Krishna’s will, mistaking Him to be a partisan advocate of Duryodhana’s opponents and mistaking self-motivated people like Sakuni to be his well-wishers.

Krishna was proposing peace to Duryodhana, whereas He was proposing assertive action to Arjuna. But in both cases He was pursuing the same purpose: the welfare of everyone involved. In a hospital, the head surgeon may deter a drunk surgeon from picking up a scalpel, but may exhort a disheartened surgeon to pick up the scalpel. In both cases the chief doctor acts as the well-wisher of everyone.

If we compare society to a body, then kshatriyas, the martial guardians of society, are like surgeons for the social body. They need to remove the corrupted elements within the social body to maintain social order. Duryodhana was like a drunk surgeon whom Krishna was deterring from war. But when Duryodhana’s obstinacy made the war inevitable, Krishna exhorted Arjuna to not let sentimentality sabotage duty.

A surgeon can’t refuse to operate just because the patient will feel pain. In the long run, not doing the surgery will hurt the patient much more. Similarly, though war would cause bloodshed, society would suffer far more if antisocial elements like Duryodhana were allowed to rein unchecked. Duryodhana, by his vicious actions and attitude, had shown himself to be not just a drunk surgeon, but also a dangerously infected limb in the social body. He had to be amputated.

When treating a patient, if less intrusive methods fail, surgery becomes unavoidable. Through his peace proposal, Krishna demonstrated that he had tried every option before resorting to the surgery in the form of the Kurukshetra war.

Krishna’s failure in His peace mission represents not His weakness, but His greatness. His greatness in humbly becoming a peace messenger to try to avoid bloodshed. His greatness in respecting the free will of even rebellious souls such as Duryodhana. And His greatness in accepting defeat in the world’s eyes to protect the good name of His devotees.