Sri Krishna – An Immortal Civilisational Leader

Right through Krishna’s life, he faced adversity but each time he sailed through it. In the end, he left behind a unified strong civilisation-state governed on the basis of Dharma

By Shobhit Mathur, Co-Founder & Dean at Rashtram

Image Source: Sri Ramgurujala

“As a fighter, he was without a rival, as a statesman, most shrewd, as a social thinker, very liberal, as a teacher, the most eloquent, as a friend, never failing, and as a householder, the most ideal” – from the book ‘The Life of Krishna in Indian Art’ by P Banerjee

An unending stream of civilisational heroes has kept Bharatavarsha alive for millennia. Sri Krishna is one of them. His life as an avatar of Lord Vishnu is common lore in Indian homes. Temples dedicated to him are common across the country. Thousands of books have been written on his life and every home has a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. To understand Sri Krishna in his entirety, it is important to also look at his life beyond his divine aspect. Role-modeling him makes him an inspirational human being and brings out lessons from his life.  He was a political leader and military strategist par excellence. His knowledge of dharmic statecraft and actions as a politician serves as an important guide to future public leaders of India. This article attempts to delve into the less spoken socio-political aspects of Sri Krishna’s life. 

The Context: Here is a quick overview of the context of Sri Krishna’s early life. Sri Krishna was born to Vasudeva who was a chieftain of the Yadava clan Vrishni and a minister of King Ugrasena who ruled Mathura. Sri Krishna’s mother was Devaki who was the daughter of Devaka, brother of King Ugrasena. Ugrasena’s son Kansa usurped the throne from his father through a coup and put all his father’s confidants including Vasudeva and Devaki in prison. Sri Krishna was born in the prison of Mathura but was smuggled out and brought up in Gokul, across the Yamuna. Sri Krishna’s life was in turmoil right from his birth. He faced several threats on his life right from his childhood and vanquished all his opponents. Kansa accepted the supremacy of Jarasandha, the tyrant ruler of Magadha (present-day Bihar). Jarasandha married his two daughters to Kansa and Mathura became a vassal state of Magadha. The people of Mathura needed to be freed from the tyrannical rule of Kansa and at a larger level, Jarasandha had to be neutralized for Dharma Rajya to be established in Bharatavarsha. Thus began Sri Krishna’s political life. Rather than draw a chronological sketch of his life, we present 5 salient qualities of a public leader displayed by Sri Krishna.   

Sri Krishna the able administrator: Sri Krishna established the Yadava kingdom at Dwarka (present-day Gujarat), and he also helped establish the Pandava kingdom at Indraprastha (present-day Delhi). Both these kingdoms flourished during their times and became model kingdoms. Understanding their governance models would need a separate book in itself, but here is the background. 

After Sri Krishna defeated Kansa and reinstated Ugrasena as the king of Mathura, Jarasandha repeatedly attacked Mathura. Sri Krishna defeated Jarasandha 17 times consecutively, but Mathura suffered serious losses each time. Before the 18th attack, Sri Krishna decided to move the population of Mathura to Dwarka and establish the Yadava kingdom afresh there. This was an extraordinary effort – moving an entire city across the country while being under attack and starting afresh in a faraway land. The glory of Dwarka is now known through the excavations of the submerged kingdom off the coast of Gujarat. While re-establishing the Yadava kingdom, Sri Krishna never sat on its throne, but only guided it. For this effort of saving the people of Mathura and establishing Dwarka, Sri Krishna is worshipped as Dwarkadhish to this day.    

On the northern front, due to familial rivalry, Duryodhana asked the Pandavas to move out of Hastinapur (present-day Meerut), the capital city of the Kuru dynasty. He asked the Pandavas to establish their own kingdom in Khandavaprastha, a forest on the banks of Yamuna. Sri Krishna asked Pandavas to accept this offer as it would give them political space and the battle for the throne of Hastinapur could come at a later date. Along with the five Pandava brothers, Sri Krishna cleared up the forests of Khandavaprastha and established the city of Indraprastha. Indraprastha outshone Hastinapur through the able governance of Yudhishthira and the guidance of Sri Krishna. Yudhishthira came to be known as Dharmaraja and his kingdom as Dharma Rajya.   

Sri Krishna the military strategist: Sri Krishna had a knack of choosing his battles wisely, strategizing a victory, and winning them with limited resources. As a young boy, he took up the challenge of battling his uncle Kansa and killed him. When he understood that he couldn’t defeat the mighty Jarasandha one more time, he decided to protect the people of Mathura instead and migrate them to Dwarka. He is called Ranchhod for this reason. He later smartly challenged Jarasandha for a 1-1 duel and killed him using the mighty Bhima. Rather than install an outsider as ruler of Magadha, Sri Krishna replaced Jarasandh with his son Sahadeva, as the new ruler, and gained Magadha’s support to Indraprastha. Before the war in Kurukshetra, Duryodhana approached Sri Krishna for support from the Yadava clans. Sensing foul-play, Sri Krishna said that Arjuna and Duryodhana could choose between him and his Narayani army. Arjuna chose Sri Krishna and Duryodhana got the Narayani army. Through this maneuver, Sri Krishna ensured that the Yadava army was weakened without his guidance while his support was with the Pandavas. His strategy in making the numerically weaker Pandava army win against the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war is well known. Sri Krishna’s military strategies are a subject of stand-alone study – winning battles from impossible positions – all for a larger cause of establishing a Dharma Rajya.  

Sri Krishna the political mentor: We know about Sri Krishna’s timeless guidance to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra through the Bhagavad Gita. Sri Krishna also guided the naturally reluctant ruler Yudhishthira in establishing his just rule and running the administration. After setting up Indraprastha, Yudhishthira did not want to expand his kingdom further. Sri Krishna convinced him to expand his kingdom and establish a unified, large, and strong state for the protection of Dharma. After the ghastly destructive Kurukshetra war, Yudhishthira was heartbroken and did not want to rule. It was Sri Krishna who encouraged him to see beyond his personal tragedies and look at what the people of Bharatvarsha needed. They needed security, stability, and prosperity. Sri Krishna took Yudhishthira and the other Pandava brothers to Bhishma to learn Rajadharma directly from the master himself. Sri Krishna had chosen the Pandavas (over his own Yadava clan) as the ones who would establish Dharma Rajya over Bharatvarsha and mentored them through all challenges to make it happen.      

Sri Krishna the vanquisher of invaders: There is a debate on whether Bharatvarsha was ever understood as one Nation prior to the British. This confusion emanates from the euro-centric view that sees political unity as a prerequisite to nationhood. However, though Bharatvarsha was ruled by different political kingdoms, there was always a sense of geo-cultural unity and it was clear what was within and outside this Nation. Two instances in Sri Krishna’s life where he vanquished the ‘outsiders’ demonstrate this sense of Nationhood. The 18th time Jarasandha attacked Mathura he used the help of Kaal-yavana (the ruler of Greece and Balkans). While Sri Krishna wanted to protect the people of Mathura, he foresaw that if an invader got hold of Mathura, he would run through the Gangetic plains and the sovereignty of Bharatvarsha would be at stake. Through a brilliant military strategy, he confused Kaal-yavana in the hills of present-day Rajasthan and vanquished him there. When the battle-worn people of Mathura reached the Saurashtran coast at Dwarka, it was not an easy re-settlement. The area was taken over by outsiders from West Asia, and Sri Krishna could anticipate the security issues of having an alien civilization get a foothold in Bharatvarsha. He built local alliances and executed a two-pronged war from land and sea to vanquish these West Asian invaders and settle his people there.    

Sri Krishna the political unifier: Throughout his life, Sri Krishna built political alliances across Bharatvarsha to establish Dharma Rajya. Once he left Gokul for Mathura, he never looked back. The boyhood was over and now was the time for the political unification of Bharatvarsha. He won the favor of the most powerful kingdom of Magadha by making Sahadeva, son of Jarasandha, the ruler after killing Jarasandha. He convinced Yudhishthira to conduct the military quest of Rajasuya Yajna after establishing Indraprastha. Arjuna was sent to the north, Bhima to the east, Nakula to the west, and Sahadeva to the south. Several kingdoms came into the Pandava fold through this. Similarly, post the Kurukshetra war, most of the kingdoms were left without their kings and armies. Bharatvarsha had become weak and needed a strong ruler to reestablish Dharma Rajya. Sri Krishna convinced the reluctant Yudhishthira to conduct the Ashwamedha Yajna to establish his supremacy as Chakravarti Samrat and protect the future of Bharatvarsha

In closing: By keeping the goal of establishing Dharma Rajya above everything else, Sri Krishna, the adorable child of Gokul, became a civilisational leader. Right through his life, he faced adversity but each time he sailed through it. In the end, he left behind a unified strong civilisation-state governed on the basis of Dharma. Divinity was attributed to him even during his lifetime and continues to this day. Looking at him as a public leader gives us lessons that can be applied in today’s context and serves as an inspiration for all aspiring leaders of the future.   

धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः – Manusmriti (those who protect Dharma will be protected themselves)


Krishna Rajya by Prafull Goradia and Jaganniwas Iyer, published by Bloomsbury 2018  

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