Even though Krishna and Arjuna are first cousins – Krishna’s father and Arjuna’s mother were siblings – it is their friendship that dominates the narrative in the Mahabharata. Throughout the epic, Krishna serves as Arjuna’s friend, philosopher and guide.
Since he was also a prince, Krishna also becomes the spokesperson of the Pandavas in the Hastinapur court. When, just before the big Kurukshetra war, Arjuna loses motivation and puts down his weapons, refusing to fight, it is Krishna who reveals himself as a Vishnu avatar and encourages Arjuna to carry out his duty as a Kshatriya.
It is said that when they first meet as young men, Krishna takes Arjuna aside and tells him that even though he doesn’t know it yet, the two of them were going to be great friends. And while the story of Sudama and Krishna is most commonly told when extolling the virtues of Krishna’s friendships, his relationship with Arjuna is very rarely held up. And yet, it remains one of the most important ones in the entire epic, one that even binds the narrative.
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But there is perhaps one story which highlights just how important Arjuna was to Krishna and it takes place in the middle of the bloody Kurukshetra war.
By now the war has begun and the Kaurava army has taken heavy losses. An enraged Duryodhana storms into Bhishma’s tent and accuses him of being a traitor and going easy on the Pandavas. Bhishma, the grandsire, is infuriated at this accusation and immediately sets out on a warpath. He destroys everything and everyone that stand in his way and attacks Arjuna.
Now, Arjuna, who had by then earned the reputation of being the greatest archer on earth is no match for Bhishma in his full fury. The battle between Arjuna and Bhishma rages on as Krishna expertly manoeuvres the chariot. Bhishma continues to relentlessly attack Arjuna who is now on the backfoot. At one point, it seems that Arjuna is about to lose when Krishna gets off the chariot, breaks its wheel and instinctively attacks Bhishma.
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The grandsire who had up until that point seen a lot of things in life and on the battlefield, is shocked by the sight of Krishna charging at him with a chariot wheel. He immediately puts down his bow and reminds Krishna that he had vowed to not wield a weapon on the battlefield. Krishna, still raging, tells Bhishma that even if that were the case, it was his friend’s life that was in danger and he’d do anything to prevent his friend from being killed.
Arjuna jumps off his chariot and tries to calm down Krishna. Bhishma is happy that it was he who managed to get Krishna to break his vow but, secretly, he is also humbled by the show of loyalty by a god to a mortal for where else could he see such a friendship than in Parth and Vasudeva?