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50 Jarasandha II

Jarasandh - II
Brief Recap : King of Magadha gives one fruit cut in half to two wives, both conceive and produce two halves of a lifeless infant; a Rakshasi called Jara puts the two sides together and the boy comes alive - hence Jarasandh; the boy grows up to be a mighty ruler and statesman; marries his daughters to Kamsa of Mathura; Krishna kills Kamsa; Jarasandh sad; attacks Mathura 17 times; Krishna runs away to Dwaraka; Jarasandh sadder; decides to perform yagna to sacrifice 100 kings; starts collecting these kings -- this is almost the nadir of the power equations in ancient India.


By the time Act 2, Scene 1 opens - here's what has happened. Jarasandh has kidnapped over 87 kings already and have put them in his dungeons. He is collecting these kings like little boys collect coins or stamps.

On the other side of the country, up in the North, the family feud between Kauravas and Pandavas has taken new dimensions. Dhritarashtra of Hastinapur has asked the Pandava prince Yudhishthira to build his own kingdom in Indraprastha (modern day Delhi). The brothers have been wedded to Draupadi and found two formidable allies - Drupada as father-in-law and Krishna as a cousin who has openly endorsed them now. The balance of power is starting to turn to positive.

At this time, Yudhishthira decides to perform a Rajsuya yagna. He cannot do Ashwamedh since that would mean letting go of the claim on Hastinapur's throne. But even for Rajsuya, one needs to ascertain his sovereignty and superiority over other kings. His four brothers decide to go to four directions and ensure this, but Krishna reminds that most kings are still living in the fear or control of Jarasandh. Some of them are his allies - like Shishupala, Banasura, Paundraka Vasudeva. They are arrogant, and will not yield till their ring-leader is taken down.

Now the five Pandavas and Krishna sit down to "strategize" how to bring the mighty Jarasandha down. Clearly a direct frontal attack would not do. Even with Drupada's support, the Pandavas did not have enough army to attack Magadha. You can imagine, this is the same Magadha empire that Chandragupta Maurya tried to fight in recent times by trying to attack the capital, and failed till he was able to break in from the fringes. In fact, at that time, there was no force in ancient India that could match the might of Magadha.

While debating, someone must have brought forward the details of Jarasandh and his birth, and maybe some of the Krishna's spies must have informed him about Sage Chandra-kaushika's prediction - the big man can be killed only if the two parts of his body are separated. This gives rise to the idea of a duel, but who would do it?

The only person who was good at wrestling was Bhima, so Krishna decides to take Bhima and Arjuna along. There is a lame verse about how Krishna says that he thinks in him is policy (strategy), in Bhima is strength and in Arjuna is victory (luck maybe) - but it could be simply be a matter of elimination.

But here's the daring part - they decide to dress as brahims, with no weapons at all, and walk into the city. So the three youths travel from Indraprastha, through Kuru-Panchala, Kosala, Mithila, and finally reach the Magadha capital of Girivraja. It is here that the Mahabharata also gives some description of the impregnable city. It seems that the city is surrounded by five mountains - Vaihara, Varaha, Vrishava, Rishigiri and Chaitya, which could have given the place natural fortification and must have been one of the reasons why direct assault on the city would have been futile.

Meeting with Jarasandh

The trio does not walk into the city unnoticed. In one rendering, it is said that the three youths go to one of the hills called Chaityaka, attack the peak and raze it to the ground. This causes a lot of commotion in the city, and in the confusion, the three heroes slip in. They find some sandalwood paste, some garlands and dress up like brahim snatakas (students).

Once this is done, they force their way to the king's palace where the king is completing some sacrificial rituals, at the end of which he gets up to provide to the brahmins who have gathered, as they usually do. Upon seeing the three, and their dress, asks what he can do for them. To this, Krishna answers that his two colleagues have taken a vow of silence till the midnight of that day, and so will only be able to tell their request at night, and if he can be kind enough to meet them at midnight. Clearly a way to dislodge the opponent and move him away from his comfort zone. Jarasandha, like his friend Karna, wants to be known as a giver - daanveer - and so agrees to this. He asks the 'brahmin' trio to rest and decides to meet them at night.

The day passes with the king busy with his work and the three foreigners relaxing and preparing for the night. At nightfall, the king returns to the chamber where they had met in the morning. For the first time, he sees that the three youths don't look like brahmins although they are dressed like them. Their hands are battle-scarred. Their arms show the marks of holding a bow. Their body built, especially the bigger one standing behind, are unusual and powerful.

By this time, Jarasandha probably has also got an update on how one of the hills that used to protect his city is razed to the the ground, and he must be suspecting every foreigner. So he comes straight to the point and asks them who they really are. Krishna also lays all the cards on the table upfront, reveals their names, and their reason for entering his city. He asks Jarasandh to release the kings from his dungeons, or fight a duel. Jarasandh plainly refuses, and agrees to fight a hand to hand duel.

This is where Krishna plays a deadly gamble - he gives Jarasandh the choice to choose his opponents, knowing fully well that only Bhima is capable of wrestling with the mighty warrior. But also knowing that Jarasandh is so filled with self-appreciation, that he will most likely choose Bhima anyway.

As gambled, Jarasandh decides that Arjuna looks too young to fight, and Krishna is anyway not worth fighting one on one - since he ran away from a fight earlier - the only worthy opponent seems to be Bhima. And so the combat begins.

The duel with Bhima

The duel of Jarasandh with Bhima is rather well known. The two warriors wrestle away. Jarasandh is known for his prowess in wrestling, but Bhima has by now had a lot of on job training - due to his bought in the jungles where he has already fought many Rakshasas like Bakasur and Hidimb. Evenly matched, the two fighters use every trick known to them to subdue the opponent.

After a while, when Bhima is able to overpower Jarasandha, he catches him in a grip, and rips his body apart - knowing that his two body parts need to be separated. But, horror of horrors, the two body parts magically come back together and make Jarasandha whole! ... Bhima is exasperated, but since Jarasandh is back in the fighting mode, continues with the fight.

The fight goes on for 14 days and nights. Both are now tired, bruised and hungry. Each time Bhima tears Jarasandh apart, the two sides rejoin. Finally Krishna thinks of a trick and signals to Bhima from the side. He shows that he is breaking one small leaf of grass (darbha) in two - and throws the two pieces on two different sides far away.

Getting the hint, Bhima seizes the next opportunity and tears Jarasandh's body. But this time, before it is able to join again, he throws the right side to the left, and the left side to the right - careful that it is thrown far away from the other one. The trick works and two pieces are unable to join this time. Finally the menace of Jarasandh is over, and the balance is starting to move significantly back to normal.

Aftermath and Effect of Jarasandh on the Mahabharata War

The death of Jarasandh could be considered as the single most important strategic victory of Krishna as statesman. There was a personal animosity, no doubt. But more than that, killing of Jarasandh with the help of Bhima, and freeing all the captive kings earned Krishna and Pandavas a lot of allies.

By the way, nowhere do we hear who these kings were, who got captured by Jarasandh and then freed by Krishna and Pandavas. So it is quite surprising that all these people - kings of small kingdoms - go largely unnamed throughout the story in spite of such a major event. Just one of those quirks of the enigmatic story.

Not only that, but this helped Krishna launch into a campaign against all his 'pending' enemies on the hit list. Just after the events in Magadha, once the route was clear, Yudhishthira performed his Rajsuya yagna without any problem. During this, Shishupala calls Krishna names as Yudhishthira had decided to consider Krishna the first guest of honour - for which Krishna cuts Shishupala's head off. He could not have done that with impunity if Shishupala's supporter Jarasandha was alive.

Krishna also took to stopping the menace of the Paudraka Vasudeva, who was an impostor - and would impersonate Krishna by wearing clothes and ornaments and weapons that would look exactly like Krishna. Again, he could do this only because Paundraka no longer had the support of Jarasandh.

This way, with the death of Jarasandh, not only did Krishna regain his own status and dignity in statesmanship, but also made the path clear for Pandavas during their war with their cousins the Kauravas.

If Jarasandh was alive he would surely have sided with the Kauravas, as Karna was supposed to be a good friend of Jarasandh. There is a make-believe story of Karna fighting a duel with Jarasandh. Whether that is true or not, it seems Jarasandh had found Karna to be a friend and an alley and had given him the town of Malini.

But let's come back to gruesome scene of the bloody duel. After Bhima killed Jarasandh, there is general commotion and fear all around the city of Girivraja. But Sahadev, the son of Jarasandh (different guy, not to be confused with the fifth Pandava), keeps his presence of mind. Knowing that the three heroes had no intention to harm anyone else, he comes forward, introduces himself and promises his allegiance to them.

Pleased with Sahadev's genuine submission, the three heroes decide to install him as the prince of Magadha, with full allegiance to Pandavas. This helped the Pandavas later during the Epic war as Sahadev came with one Akshauhini of force with him and strengthened Pandava's side.

So you see, the killing of Jarasandh was not only imperative, but necessary for the narrative to move forward in the favor of Pandavas. And the manner of the killing, however gruesome, was perhaps the only way in which it could have been attempted.

The one immediate question about this part of the enigmatic story, though, is this: how come Jarasandh's son Sahadev readily agrees to become an ally of the people who have just now killed his own father right in front of his eyes? And he does not even do that just to save the moment, but does it genuinely, as he actually provides support to Yudhishthira in the epic war years later.

So maybe Jarasandh was like that after all. And his son was relieved that Krishna and Pandavas got rid of him. So, in summary, the puzzling pieces of this part of the story:

* Who were the 85 or 95 captive kings that Jarasandh kept in his dungeons like cattle?

* Why did Bhima and Jarasandh fight hand to hand, why not with a mace for which Bhima was renounced? Maybe Krishna did not want to carry any weapons to drave unwanted attention; but this is unclear.

* If they did not want attention, why did they attack the Chaityaka mountain? Maybe they had indeed come till there with a large force and army, tried to break the natural fortification, were unsuccessful and therefore decided to strategize sneaking in for a one to one combat.

* What made Krishna play the gamble to ask Jarasandh to choose any of the three? Was it to give the opponent a false sense of confidence?

* How come Sahdeva, the dead man's son swear allegiance so readily to his captors and killers of his own father?

In the end, it all seemed to have ended well. But the final and most interesting question is:

* After all this, considering the importance of Jarasandh and his death, how come the stories related to Mahabharata never consider Jarasandha the main arch nemesis of Krishna but rather consider Kamsa as his arch enemy? ... Compared to the strategic battle Krishna had against Jarasandha all his life, walking up to Kamsa and killing him in a duel seems like child's play. But Kamsa is still treated as Krishna's main villain.

Is it because Krishna did not kill Jarasandh personally? Or is it because he had to run away once from him? Does that diminish or enhance Krishna's greatness - not as a living god, but as a statesman, a strategist and a fighter?

26 June 2014