Was Lord Krishna a good mediator in the Mahabharata war?

The dispute between the Kauravas and the Pandavas that led to the Mahabharata war was one that cried out for settlement. And yet, all talks failed.  

Published : Aug 24, 2023 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

A pictorial depiction of Krishna revealing the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna in the Mahabharata.

A pictorial depiction of Krishna revealing the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna in the Mahabharata. | Photo Credit: WikiCommons

Mediators are often told that Lord Krishna was the earliest mediator but that he failed in getting a settlement between the Kauravas and the Pandavas before the Great War. I am not sure why this keeps getting repeated. Is it to make mediators feel good that they follow in the footsteps of the Lord, or is it to tell them that failure is but natural for the process and if even the Lord failed, why should they worry?

Anyway, it is worth looking into what Krishna did in this regard. The Mahabharata says that before the Great War, Krishna went to the Kaurava court and met Duryodhana and his close associates. He seems to have suggested a compromise, by which the Pandavas would be given five villages and the rest of the kingdom could be taken by Duryodhana. It is not clear to us whether he consulted the Pandavas before making this offer, which, on the face of it seems to be a totally unfair resolution, giving them just a fractional portion, with the other taking virtually all.

It is also not clear whether Duryodhana evaluated this offer seriously or spurned it on the ground that it was so ridiculous it was not meant to be taken seriously. Perhaps he thought this was just another strategy by Krishna who, in any case, was known to come up with tricks and strategems. The five villages could possibly be expanded like Vamana’s foot to cover the whole world. You could never tell with Krishna; he was not all that upfront as current mediators are expected to be.

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Let us look at the appointment of Krishna in the first place. Was he the right kind of person to be appointed as a mediator? Was it not quite well-known that although the principal characters on both sides were his cousins, his sympathies and allegiance was with the Pandavas? He favoured them before the war, and he favoured them during the war. If the first rule of mediation is that the mediator should have no connection with the parties, or at least have an equidistant connection, Krishna’s appointment deserves a double fault on first serve. He should not have taken up the job. 

On further enquiry, it does not appear as if both sides consented to his appointment as mediator before the proceedings began. Certainly the Kauravas did not; they would not have trusted him overmuch in the first place. And even as regards the Pandavas, did they think that Krishna was going to be a mediator between both sides, or was he going to put forth their case, in other words negotiating on their behalf? Probably only the latter. So here goes another rule of mediation, the distinction between negotiator and mediator.

And, to top it all, it looks as if Krishna was approached by neither side but put himself forward to do the job. He simply travelled by himself to the Kaurava court and commenced proceedings. That is another big no-no. So, again, you cannot blame the Kauravas for thinking that this was a Pandava emissary rather than a neutral mediator. For all his virtues, Krishna is beginning to acquire a series of double faults and net calls in the first set itself.

Secondly, having got into the act, he did not set the stage for the mediation. He did not do the essentials. Getting all the parties together is primary. The first requisite is to get the parties together to hear each other out and understand where the other is coming from. Yudhisthira was, after all, a respected person and his wisdom and moderation may have moved some in the opposing camp. Some moderate language could have come from Nakul and Sahadev. The sight of Arjun and Bheem may have also helped as reminders of what could happen to some Kauravas in battle. All told, this could have opened up half a door in the mediation.

No opening statement, the cardinal error of mediators. No explaining what this was all about, what the great purpose was, the process guaranteeing fairness. How were people expected to participate? If modern-day mediators were to jump into mediation without an opening statement and ground rules, their licence to practise can be cancelled. Krishna, of course, could do as he wished.

Krishna should have designed the session as an open one, open to persons other than the disputing cousins. That includes the nobles and other prominent persons in the realm. This may have made it more difficult for Duryodhana to be unresponsive. A good mediator would have used the presence of the two stalwarts in the Kaurava court, Bheeshma and Drona. They were impelled to fight in Duryodhana’s cause because of the laws of dharma governing warriors’ conduct and duty to the king. However, the same laws of dharma governing equity and fair distribution would have impelled them to speak up in favour of a reasonable settlement. Krishna should have sought their views in an open forum where all could hear the debate. This would have put pressure on Duryodhana to be sensible.

Since Krishna was the godly type he must have pretty much known that Karna was Kunti’s son, her firstborn. This would have given him a masterstroke, a trump card. Karna was Duryodhana’s closest friend and adviser, the only warrior equal to Arjuna. If Krishna had arranged a quiet private session between Kunti and Karna where she revealed to him their relationship, the odds are that he would have become a supporter for peace. It would have been galling for him to refuse his mother’s wish and go to war against his brothers. His differences with Arjuna could have been sorted out in another way, perhaps a friendly match. With his principal commanders Bheeshma, Drona, and Karna rooting for peace, what chance did Duryodhana have to insist on war?

Another big mediation failure by Krishna was in not making the parties look at their long-term interests and offer good alternatives to settlement. Indeed, the case before him was ideally placed to invoke these elements to make the resisting side yield. Duryodhana’s long-term interests clearly lay in having a kingdom big enough to rule in glory and safe against those he saw as his enemies. A public settlement would have secured his kingdom and his peace with guarantees of good behaviour by the Pandavas. He could have achieved more with peace talks than what he could have got by war, and without the loss of a single life. Moreover, the only alternative to settlement was war and the Pandavas were formidable fighters with a sizeable number of supporters. To put it mildly, it was a no-brainer. Duryodhana, for all his faults, was not entirely deficient in the brain sphere.

“If Krishna had read some books on mediation, he would have benefited from the chapters that show how the mediator can overcome an impasse. ”

If Krishna had read some books on mediation, he would have benefited from the chapters that show how the mediator can overcome an impasse. Briefly, these are the following. Expect impasse—do not be surprised. Be positive. Persevere. Design joint and individual sessions well. Identify the block. Employ problem-solving approaches. Encourage parties to come up with options for settlement. Reduce personal animosity. Stress the benefit of good relationships. Bring forth apologies; a sorry can go a long way. Dampen unrealistic expectations. And so on and so forth. A one-week course run by Indian mediators would have been good training for Krishna.

One does not know if Krishna was adept at the law. Even if not, he could have gotten some good advice or had a retired judge or Senior Advocate as a co-mediator. There are legal and equitable principles applicable when land is being contested by members of a family. Some arguments on the lines of Order 39 Rule 1 Code of Civil Procedure could have been invoked—prima facie case, balance of convenience, and irreparable hardship. The law is not always an ass; it can quite often be useful.

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Rather than just tell Duryodhana that his unloved cousins wanted some land, Krishna should have invoked legal principle. A king is bound to pay heed to the law (even if we had not then come to the law-is-above-you heavy cannons) and Duryodhana might have paid heed.

And if everything else failed, what prevented Krishna from having a private session with Duryodhana, being somewhat hard-headed and plainspeaking, telling the chap in stark terms what awaited him if he did not see sense? And the ultimate, the Lord could have revealed his true form, his Viswarupa. Duryodhana would have been on his knees, blabbering consent. (Of course, this last is the ultimate authority we mediators lack.)

All told, it looks as if the Lord missed an easy one. This was a mediation crying out for settlement, and a rookie may have succeeded. Which brings us to the closing point—was it set up for failure so that everybody could get on with war preparations and we could get the grand scene of Arjuna getting cold feet and Krishna holding forth for 18 chapters, the grand performance of all time, the Bhagavad Gita, the Song Celestial? Did Krishna think that mortals would pay heed only to a ballad born out of war and not to verses sung in happy surroundings? What does that say about us?

And in the great scheme of things, where do we weigh a war that caused deaths beyond counting and wiped out empires against the great teachings to humanity contained in the Gita? And on which scale? What is the balance for the loss of one generation against knowledge for all future generations?

Sriram Panchu is a Senior Advocate of the Madras High Court and an internationally recognised Indian mediator.

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