One of the forms the Hindu God Krishna is worshipped in is as Partha Sarathi, “Arjuna’s Charioteer”. This is very curious because we generally consider the job of the charioteer as the medieval equivalent of a driver, definitely not suited to such a charismatic and powerful god. But this form of Krishna is a key element of his mythos; and we have to dig into the Mahabharata to understand why it is so.
Arjuna and Krishna are inseparable. According to the Bhagavata Purana, they are the reincarnations of Nara and Narayana, two great sages who themselves are the twin incarnations of Vishnu. Nara (which means “man”) was reborn as Arjuna and Narayana (“god”) as Krishna. In the Mahabharata, when they join together, they are considered invincible. The concluding sloka of the Bhagavad Gita says
yatra yogesvarah krsno
yatra partho dhanur-dharah
tatra srir vijayo bhutir
dhruva nitir matir mama
(Wherever Krishna is there as the spiritual master, and Arjuna with his bow, there will be prosperity, victory, power and justice – this is my opinion.)
In the Mahabharata, it is difficult to see Arjuna and Krishna other than as a dyad. Arjuna is the action while Krishna is the intention: one is the body and the other, the soul. On the battlefield of the Kurukshetra, it is significant that Krishna is unarmed: in fact, that is one of his conditions for joining battle. His role is solely that of guiding Arjuna and the shaping of war strategies.
The Battlefield of Kurukshetra
The epic of Mahabharata climaxes in the eighteen day battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas (Arjuna’s family), offspring of brothers, for the right to rule Hastinapura. Krishna, a cousin of the Pandavas, is officially neutral – even though he is morally on the Pandavas’ side. In the war, Krishna reiterates his neutrality by supplying the whole of his army to Kauravas while himself joining the Pandavas in the capacity of an unarmed strategist. Significantly, Arjuna chooses him over the army.
Many writers and mythologists have expounded upon the symbolic nature of the Kurukshetra – the battlefield transcends its physical nature and becomes a metaphor for life at the metaphysical level. Arjuna is man, forever spiritually weak even when physically strong – the guiding hand of Krishna is required at each and every stage to egg him on.
This is epitomised in what is most probably the most significant part of the Mahabharata, when Arjuna breaks down while surveying the enemy army, and seeing all his relatives arrayed against him – whom he will have to kill. It is then that Krishna imparts the Bhagavad Gita to him – the “Song of the Lord”, a sort of spiritual “pick-me-up” to enable him to go ahead into battle with detachment.
It is not my aim here to analyse the spiritual qualities of the Gita: I am not erudite or qualified enough. It is the general agreement among historians that it is a later insertion into the epic. This slim book of eighteen chapters has been elevated to the level of the spiritual text of all time and at the same time, vilified as the mouthpiece of Vedic Brahmanism used to spread their hated caste-riddled religion over the egalitarian Buddhism. Looking at it impartially, both views have merit. So we’ll leave the controversy there and concentrate on the roles: the role of Krishna, the spiritual guide and that of Arjuna, his disciple.
Because when the Kurukshetra battlefield moves on to the level of metaphor, we are looking at much beyond a battle of succession of a small kingdom in North India – we are looking at life, and the roles of the self and that of the godhead buried within the collective unconscious.
The Self and the Shadow
I have always felt that Arjuna can never be comprehended without looking at his nemesis and elder brother, Karna. Arjuna’s equal in archery, Karna is his exact opposite in almost everything. Born of the sun god Surya out of wedlock to Kunti (interestingly, Arjuna’s father is the rain god Indra) – the mother of the Pandavas – Karna had been cast adrift in the river on a casket (a common mythical motif across the world) and found and raised by sutas, a low caste. Facing rejection at all points due to his lower social status, Karna is elevated to the position of the king of the kingdom of Anga by Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, and from then on he becomes his fast friend and the sworn enemy of Arjuna, whom he has taken oath to kill.
Karna suffers from a sense of rejection and (it seems) an inferiority complex throughout his life. He has a fierce pride which has brought him nothing but trouble: a couple of curses earned due to his proud behaviour ultimately prove his undoing on the battlefield. Contrast this with Arjuna, who is constantly plagued by self-doubt and has to be given a psychological boost by Krishna at intervals! They make a strange pair – one the dark mirror image of the other.
In this context, I always like to invoke the concept of the Jungian shadow.
In Jungian psychology, “shadow” or “shadow aspect” may refer to (1) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative, or (2) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious. There are, however, positive aspects which may also remain hidden in one’s shadow (especially in people with low self-esteem, anxieties, and false beliefs). Contrary to a Freudian definition of shadow, therefore, the Jungian shadow can include everything outside the light of consciousness, and may be positive or negative. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” It may be (in part) one’s link to more primitive animal instincts, which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.
Carl Jung stated the shadow to be the unknown dark side of the personality. According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to psychological projection, in which a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections remain hidden, “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object–if it has one–or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.” These projections insulate and harm individuals by acting as a constantly thickening veil of illusion between the ego and the real world.
Here, I like to think of Karna as Arjuna’s shadow. (This is my very own personal reading, of course. There have been many erudite studies of the epic in which the social aspect of the caste system has been analysed. I am not trying to negate any of them – this is just my own personal take. Also, I’m no Jung scholar!) For every plus in Arjuna, there is a minus in Karna and vice versa. One is a dark mirror image of the other – brothers, unbeknownst to themselves, each oath-bound to kill the other.
Now let us look at another important character – Karna’s charioteer Shalya.
The Reluctant Charioteer
Shalya, an uncle of the Pandavas, has been tricked into acting as Karna’s charioteer by Duryodhana – because only he has the skills to rival Krishna in the job. Shalya is distraught that he has to do it, when Krishna offers him the solution: do it, but use the position to continuously denigrate Karna and his capabilities, because that is the only way to take this proud warrior down!
See the contrast – the self-doubting hero who is continuously guided by his charioteer (who reveals himself as god incarnate during the expounding of the Gita); and his proud antithesis (who nevertheless hides a sense of inferiority regarding his social status in his heart of hearts) who is continuously berated by his charioteer, who is supposed to be guiding him.
On the battlefield, at many points when Karna could have won, he loses out due to bad decisions. One such instance is very illustrative. Karna has Arjuna in the sights of his bow, and he is aiming for the neck, when Shalya advises him to aim for the chest. Thinking that his charioteer is trying to sabotage him, Karna ignores him – and Krishna on the other side pushes the chariot down, so that the arrow misses Arjuna’s neck and takes away his crown. Had Karna aimed for the neck, he would have got him.
Here, Shalya has followed a clever strategy. As charioteer, he has played fair and advised the warrior he is driving on the correct strategy. However, by ensuring Karna’s antagonism to him through his taunts, he has made sure that Karna will never listen to him – thus ensuring his defeat.
The Metaphor of the Chariot
It is also instructive to note that Karna is killed by Arjuna when his chariot wheel gets stuck in the soil. (This apparently treacherous act by a great warrior, even though justified by Krishna, has taken away a lot of his glow and has been the subject of any number of debates. But that is not our focus here.) If we are looking at it realistically, the question arises – why should this make a warrior helpless? He still has his weapons.
Here, I would like to provide my own metaphorical interpretation of the chariot as a symbol for the warrior’s psyche. Then, the rider is the self – and the charioteer, the godhead which resides within the psyche. When Arjuna faces a real spiritual crisis, Krishna reveals himself as God incarnate, and by showing his Viswa Roopa (himself as the whole of space and time) illustrates the core of Indian philosophy – namely that the whole of the universe is contained within oneself as one is contained within the universe. As long as this godhead is guiding the self, the spiritual chariot runs fine – but when it turns hostile, it derails. And when the self is in constant antagonism with the guide, the chariot inevitably breaks down disastrously.
When we look at this way, worshipping the divine charioteer does not seem silly; rather, it does make a lot of sense. Because if you listen to him, at times of spiritual crisis, you may receive your own Gitopadesha – and your chariot will keep on running.