Skip to main content

49 Jarasandh - I

Jarasandh - Part (I)

Human condition is a strange one - people from time immemorial have tried to understand it, have tried to make sense of it, have tried to cope up with it by giving it different names and garbs - emotions, religion, psychoanalysis, and what not. But after ten thousand years on this planet, even the smartest among us are as clueless as our ancestors.

Consider, for example, this - they say that man is a social animal. Then why do some of us prefer solitude than the company of others? Why do we have bloody wars at the drop of a hat? Why are certain regions in the world always volatile and unstable? And if we are indeed social, where does our sense of socializing go when we spread litter and abuse the environment and fellow human beings?

On the contrary, if you say that man is usually self-made and self-centered, he comes alone and goes alone - then why does a Sunday afternoon tea time away from family and friends look so dark and gloomy and endless? Why do people not like their own company, and why does one have to 'train' himself to enjoy one's own company?

There is so much that we don't understand, that it is almost like a frighteningly brutal equalizer. When it comes to things that I don't understand and cannot comprehend, I stand in the same line as some of the greatest minds of the world.

Take a look at the Indian Epics. There are innumerable things in the stories about ordinary and extraordinary people that one simply does not understand. And I am not even talking about all the magic and pseudo science and whether things really happened or not, whether our ancestors could fly airplanes, and control weapons of mass destruction and all that.

In fact, those are easy. You can believe either way and your life does not change one bit. But those are not the things I am talking about. Those are not the things, at least to me, that matter. What matters are human conditions.

I mean, look at it. Consider Kunti - what made her spend a lifetime in the palace, in the shadow of her husband's blind brother who had usurped the throne after Pandu's death? Was it just to ensure her children's future - who anyway her elder son gambled away - twice?

What prompted Yudhishthira to play a second game of dice despite losing the first one so badly? What made him wager everything - even things that did not belong to him like his brothers and their common wife - on a silly game?

What made Draupadi laugh at Duryodhan and call him a blind's son? Was it just envy?

What made Ashwatthama conduct the bloody massacre on the last day - when clearly the war was all but over? If the war was only fought as Prithvi found the weight of pompous kings over-burdening -- who, by the way, were already dead on the 18th day of the war -- why destroy the little children?

What made Shantanu lust after Satyavati when he had already suffered so much due to to his earlier escapades and subsequent marriage with Ganga?

What made Krishna spend most of his adult life caring for and sorting problems of his cousins, rather than worrying about his own clan's future or strengthening their hold?

What made the Vrishnis fly away from their ancestral home at Mathura, and cross the entire vast land, with treacherous mountain passes and small fierce kingdoms of forest dwellers like Nishadas and Gurjaras - to finally settle near the Western coast? Was the fear of Jarasandh so unsettling?

And if so, what made Krishna -- who had earned the unfortunate and shameful epithet of 'Ranchod' (one who runs away from a fight) by escaping a deadly attack by Jarasandh and his allies -- muster courage and take the bold step to walk up to Jarasandh in person and ask for a hand to hand duel?

The whole story of Jarasandh is an enigma. Krishna fought a long and bloody campaign against him. He was stronger and more powerful as an enemy than Kamsa. And Krishna's win over him - by whatever means - should have been his greatest exploit before the actual War. But he is not even treated as an adversary to Krishna - like Kamsa is - and Jarasandh's death is a footnote - although a long one at that - in the story of Yudhishthira's Rajsuya Yagna.

But, first things first. Who was this guy and what did he do?

Birth and Early Life of Jarasandh

So most people kinda know the story of Jarasandh's birth - the key is in his name itself. 'Jara' was the name of the Rakshasi who joined the two parts of the baby and 'sandha' - well, that means to join.

Here is what seems to have happened - Long long ago, the king of Magadha (what is now west-central Bihar state in northeastern India) - whose name was Brihadratha and who lived in the city of Girivraja, is married to two sisters (twins! - not sure if they were identical, but one can only imagine). The two sisters were the princesses of Kashi. The sad part was that in spite of two wives, the king is without a son for a long, long time.

So he decides to renounce his kingdom, goes into the forest and becomes a pupil of a local Rishi called Chandra-kaushika. After some time, the sage is pleased with the king's services and asks him if there is anything he could do for him. Brihadratha shares his sorrow with him about not having a heir to his throne. The sage smiles and gives him a divine fruit -- there is always this diving fruit, wonder where they get it from -- and asks to give to his wife.

But little does he know that the king has two wives. When the king goes home, he is naturally in a quandary. Not wishing to displease either of the wives, quite naturally, the poor fellow cuts the fruit in half and gives to both. Now the fruit does its trick, and soon both wives are pregnant. After due course of time, they give birth at the same time - to two lifeless halves of the child! ... Ewee ...

Exactly - and that's probably why the midwives and the maids decide to get rid of the baby even before showing to the king, and tell the king that the child was stillborn. The king is devastated, and the palace is in the shadow of great grief.

Meanwhile, the two lifeless forms are found by a local inhabitant living on the outskirts of the city. Jara, the Rakshasi, who is passing by, sees the royal guards dumping something, finds the two parts, and while fiddling with them, accidentally joins the two halves. Surprisingly, the moment the two halves are joined, the child comes alive and starts wailing loudly.

Shocked and petrified, the Rakshasi does not know what to do, and in panic takes it to the king's court. The king is overjoyed to hear that his son still lives, and decides to commemorate the incident by calling the boy Jarasandha - the one joined by Jara. The king takes the infant to sage Chandra-kaushika in reverence, and the sage prophesies that the boy will be specially gifted and invincible due to the special situation of his birth and life.

The king brings the infant home, and raises him with great love. The boy soon grows into a powerful but arrogant young man, and after Brihadratha's death, assumes the throne of Magadha.

What went wrong with Jarasandha?

Jarasandha grows into a mighty and powerful king, invincible in battles. He consolidates his father's empire, annexes many smaller kingdoms to his own and becomes the most powerful monarch in the northeastern part of epic India. In this process, he makes many friends - Shishupala, Dantavakra, Bhagadatta, Pundra Vasudeva, Vishmaka, Banasura - all become his allies. (The Banasura in this story must be different from the Banasura from this one, as the timelines do not match, although there is Krishna in both stories. But this one seems earlier).

He has two generals called Hamsa and Dimbaka, with whose help he is able to prevail in all battles. He also marries off his two daughters Asti and Prapti to the powerful monarch of Mathura - Kamsa. Some say that his friend Banasura brought together this happy union of two ambitious, power-hungry kings.

Jarasandh, king of Magadha
So, you might ask, this sounds like a perfect story. A boy grows into a mighty king, and establishes a huge empire. What is the problem? The problem is this - dominance over others.

The sensibilities epic times in India did not have this concept that one king can take over another one's kingdom and dominate. The sense of nationality, territory, jingoism are products of recent history - as recent as 18th century - across the world, not just India.

During the times of Mahabharata, it was inconceivable that one Kshatriya king becomes the whole and sole ruler and all other kings become his stooges, losing their dignities. Sure, there was the concept of Chakravarti - a sovereign emperor - to whom others swear allegiance. This was done through the Ashwamedha or a Rajasuya yagnas. But once the Ashwamedha was done and the conquered kings have agreed that this one fellow is the jolly good chap, they would go their own separate ways. No one would be a stooge of the other.

That was what kept the greed of kings in check. That's why no Indian kings ever desired to expand their territories. That's what maintained the older kingdoms and a balance among them. That's what Jarasandh threatened.

So you can imagine that just like Jarasandh made a lot of friends - people who got drawn to him by force or by their own will - he also made a lot of enemies. Even now, when nationalism is considered a virtue not vice, the annexation of Crimea today by Russia generates such global debate. Germany invading Poland leads to the World War II. So the fact that Jarasandh expands his empire at the cost of others, and threatens the sovereignty of other kings -- including later physically imprisoning 95 Kshatriya kings --  is what makes his actions despicable.

Jarasandha - Yadava Enmity

Among the important enemies of Jarasandh, the main were the Yadavas. When Jarasandh decides to marry his two daughters off to Kamsa, he does not do just a matrimonial ceremony. He sends his army and his generals, along with his daughters, and asks them to camp in Mathura for days. This gives Kamsa the muscle power to carry out his long-planned coup in Mathura, where he overthrows the council of Yadava elders and usurps power - becoming the all-powerful soverign of Mathura. The ruling structure of Yadavas - which is more akin to democracy - crumbles and leads to an autocratic rule of Kamsa.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For both Kamsa and Jarasandh, the story confirms the epithet. Kamsa becomes more and more self-centered, rules Mathura with impunity and drives the rightful people away. A few years later, the Yadavas get their revenge, when Krishna- now a full grown youth - challenges and kills Kamsa in a single, hand-to-hand combat.

However, as you can imagine, this greatly infuriates Kamsa's father-in-law Jarasandh. Not only this action widows his two daughters, but his plans to dominate the world through his allies get a strong reality check. Seething with anger, Jarasandh sends his royal army to attack Mathura. By the time the Magadha army reaches Mathura, however, Krishna is able to fortify the city and defend it successfully.

Jarasandh enraged

Enraged further due to a futile campaign, Jarasandha attacks again - and again - and again - he attacks Mathura in total 17 times! .. Compare this with some of the most recent examples like the Shivaji and Sambhaji's unsuccessful campaign against the Siddis of Murud Janjeera - probably 8 failed campaigns, and an equal number of failed campaigns by the British and Portuguese - so a total of 16 campaigns .. and you won't find this number of 17 times too obsessive.

Agreed, Krishna, Balarama and other Yadava heroes are able to successfully repel each and every time, but Jarasandha's campaign gets stronger and stronger each time, and the damage to Mathura more and more acute. The two generals Hamsa and Dimbaka spread havoc and panic among the ranks of Yadava armies.

Finally, during the 16th campaign, probably in the 3rd year of the war, the Yadavas are able to break the friendship of Jarasandha's two generals - Hamsa and Dimbaka. They are able to spread the rumour that Hamsa is killed in the battle. Dimbaka, without verifying the facts, grieves his friend's loss and commits a suicide. When Hamsa hears this, he is aggrevated and jumps into the river Yamuna.

Yadava move to Dwaraka

When Jarasandh hears about the loss of his generals, he loses all control, gathers all his allies - Banasura, Shishupala of Chedi, Dantavakra, Rukmi of Vidarbha, and the brothers Vidha-Anuvidha of Avanti - and charges towards Mathura from his city Girivraja in Magadha. That must really have been some drive that Jarasandh commanded to get such a strong contingent. Or maybe the Yadavas were not the most likable people back then.

Anyway, Jarasandh and his powerful allies close in on Mathura on all sides, and completely encircle the city. The battle rages on for days, then months and the Yadavas suffer terrible losses. There is a mention of Jarasandha throwing his mace on Mathura, which some believe is a description of a missile attack, but we will let that be (!).

What is true is that by this time, Yadavas are in shambles and the years of war have already emptied their treasury. They send peace envoys to Jarasandh, but the Magadha emperor, grieving the loss of his son-in-law at the hand of Krishna -- is thirsty for Krishna's blood. He asks for the heads of Krishna and Balarama, his brother and in-charge of Mathura's defense.

Balarama decides to meet the foe head-on, but Krishna sensing danger, recommends a retreat to his elders. The elders, including Ugrasena - Krishna and Balarama's grandfather, agree reluctantly - since there is really no other choice. But this one act gives Krishna the epithet of Ranchod das - one who flees from war - forever. Maybe it is a well-deserved one, as he fleed a war that could not be won, and could only have resulted in innocent civilian casualties.

The Yadava army keeps an eye on the enemy, and in the moment of some respite, start moving people and property out in small portions. People of Mathura - those who could leave, then leave in small groups towards the Western part of India, cross mountains, forests, smaller kingdoms - to arrive at a predetermined spot across the mountains of Raivata, to a place called Kushasthali in modern-day Gujarat. Here is where they build a new city called Dwaraka on the island and live their till the end of their days (post Mahabharata war).

Back to Jarasandh, when he discovers that Krishna has slipped away, he is enraged and destroys whatever is left behind and razes the city of Mathura to ground. He vows to take his revenge at a later time and returns to his capital Girivraja in Magadha. There he performs a yagna to appease his ishta devata - that is Shiva. It seems that he starts getting into Tantrik practices, as he starts to believe that if he sheds the blood of 100 kings, he will be an invincible emperor of the world.

Talk about power corrupting.

So far, here are the intriguing things about the story:

* Why did the Rakshasi Jara bring the baby to the royal palace? Were Rakshasas allowed inside normal Kshatriya palaces?

* If a Rakshasi could enter easily, then maybe Brihadratha was also not an Arya, but a Rakashasa. If that is so, then that makes Jarasandh a Rakshasa too, and also his two daughters. Then how come Kamsa, who is an Aryan king, marry two Rakshasa princesses? Had he already deviated so much from his normal 'dharma'?

* And if so, is that the main source of discontent about Kamsa and also Jarasandh?

* If Sage Chandra-kaushika gave one fruit, why did Brihadratha not tell him that he has two wives?

* When the Rakshasi brought the child back to the royal palace and narrated how the baby came to life, did no one find it odd?

* In some stories it is said that Chandra-kaushika prophesied that the boy will grow up to be a mighty king, and also that he cannot be destroyed unless two parts of his body are separated. If that was so, why would Brihadratha keep his son's name Jara-sandha -- giving away the most precious information about his son's birth in the name itself and putting the boy in danger?

* Jarasandh, who is an all-powerful king who cannot be destroyed, and who knows that - why does he need another boon from Shiva to become the emperor? Was he enraged after his 17 unsuccessful attempts on Krishna?

So that forms the backdrop of what is coming ahead - the killing of Jarasandh by Bhima. Hold your breath!

- S
25 June 2014