When telling the story of the Mahabharata, parents often forget to tell their children a very important detail. That Balarama, Krishna’s elder brother, refused to participate in the war. While Krishna led the Pandavas to victory on the battlefields of Kurukshetra, Balarama was away on a pilgrimage, unable to make sense of the carnage.
In some scriptures, Balarama is an avatar of Vishnu’s serpent, Sesha, accompanying Vishnu when the latter descends on Earth. But in other scriptures, especially those from South India, he is an incarnation of Vishnu, the ninth of the ten avatars. He is shown holding agricultural implements like the plough and the pestle, unlike Krishna who holds implements of animal husbandry. This suggests that in early India, the two gods were gods associated with primary economic activities and that later, they acquired deeper metaphysical significance, but always complementing each other.
Through Krishna, Vishnu embraces worldliness or pravritti-marga while through Balarama, Vishnu embraces monasticism or nivritti-marga. Though Balarama is the elder brother of Krishna, in the list of incarnation, he comes after Krishna, suggesting perhaps that in the lore of Vishnu, Balarama’s approach is not as preferred as Krishna’s.
Balarama is not the shrewd diplomat like his younger brother, nor is he the romantic rake. In the Puri temple of Orissa, Krishna is worshiped as Jagannath, lord of the world, alongside his younger sister, Subhadra and his elder brother, Balarama. While in the traditional narrative, Balarama is married to Revati and has a daughter called Vatsala, in the Puri temple tradition he is treated almost like an ascetic who, like Shiva, likes Bhang, a drink made using narcotic Indian hemp and shuns the company of women.
This disengagement from women in metaphysical terms indicates a withdrawal from material reality. While Krishna struggles with the Pandavas to hold on to dharma, Balarama simply lets go. He goes away on pilgrimage and allows things to collapse. Balarama is thus more Shiva-like, than Vishnu-like, and as the ninth avatar, after Krishna, he seems to herald the end of the world.
Like Shiva who supports Devas and Asuras equally, Balarama supports the Pandavas and the Kauravas equally. He trains both Bhima and Duryodhana in the art of fighting with a mace. Since he feels Krishna sides with the Pandavas, he tries to balance things by favouring Duryodhana over Bhima. On his return from his pilgrimage, he learns that Bhima killed Duryodhana by breaking a rule of mace-warfare: he had struck below the navel, and smashed Duryodhana’s thigh. In fury, he raised his plough determined to strike and punish Bhima. But Krishna stopped his elder brother, reminded him the war was over, and that for dharma, sometimes, rules have to be broken. Rules exist to protect the helpless; Duryodhana had misused the rules to abuse helpless Draupadi, hence had lost the moral right to claim protection of the rules. Balarama saw sense in Krishna’s words and lowered his plough.
Extracted from the 7 Secrets of Vishnu by Devdutt Pattanaik, published by Westland Books
The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.