One of the favorite pastimes of people interested in Indian epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata, is to compare Rama with Krishna, specially to take actions performed by Rama and speculate on how Krishna would have handled the situation. On all delicate situations faced by Rama, specially where his actions seem unpalatable, Krishna is brought in and a statement is usually made – "If it were Krishna, he wouldn’t have let this happen; he would have done something else and resolved the issue." This article is a humble effort in trying to actually see if there is any veracity to such comparisons.
Rama and Krishna were two different personalities. Their times, their characters, their outlook to life, their circumstances were all different. Hence normally comparison is very difficult. But compare we must do, having set forth on this endeavor. The methodology used for comparison in here is to set out the same with respect to various human characteristics or personality traits. The events in their lives shall be used to substantiate the comparison. The attributes chosen to compare are taken from the standpoint of importance in the Indian – Hindu dharmic structure. Such things as miracles, superhuman show of strength, looks and such have been discounted. The similar traits are analyzed first later moving on to the differences.
Details from Rama’s life are from Valmiki’s Ramayana while those of Krishna are from the Bhagavata Purana, Padma Purana, and the Mahabharata.
Selflessness is another highly valued characteristic in Indian dharma. Both Rama and Krishna proved over and over, time and again, their selfless nature.
Rama gave up his rightful throne and went away to the forests for fourteen years. He could have got control and rule Kishkinda and Lanka, but in both places, he places their rightful kings in their thrones and moves on. Such is his selfless nature that upon the completion of 14 years forest stay, en route his return journey to Ayodhya, he sends his friend Hanuman ahead. He asks him to inform Bharata (who is a caretaker king) and see if there is any feeling of resentment in him. If there was even an iota of resentment in Bharata at Rama’s return, he would have not returned. The zenith of his selflessness is his highest sacrifice wherein he gives up his beloved pregnant wife for the sake of his citizens.
Krishna’s life is also one of absolute selflessness. On the slaying of Kamsa, he installs Ugrasena (Kamsa's father) on the throne. Krishna slays or causes the slaying of other kings in the course of establishing dharma. In each case, he installs the rightful heir on the throne and moves on. Throughout his life Krishna never becomes a king. The importance of this fact is better perceived when contrasted against the singular role he played in the Kurukshetra war, a war so great that all kings then ruling were pitted either on the side of Pandavas or the Kauravas.
On selflessness, both Rama and Krishna stand at par with one another.
Equanimity and balance in thought
In the most difficult situations, Rama keeps his head. When prompted to rebel, and take over the throne instead of going to the forest, by Lakshmana (and verily by Dasharatha himself), he refuses. When Lakshmana grows suspicious of Bharata coming with many men to their forest dwelling and gets agitated, he calms him down. When Vibhishana comes in surrender, he gladly accepts him as a friend instead of killing him as advised.
Of course, there are times when he gets agitated, angry and suspicious. He first thinks that the bird Jatayu is a monster that must have kidnapped Sita while it had actually tried its best to save her. Rama also gets angry at the ocean since it does not give him way to go to Lanka. There are times where Rama is seen expressing common human characteristics like anger and resentment. But his greatness is that he never acts on those base tendencies. He always overcomes these failings to retain his equanimity.
Krishna is also known for his ability to keep cool always and never lose his thinking to normal human failings. He is always composed. When Shishupala starts abusing him in Yudhishtira’s Rajasuya yajna, he doesn’t get provoked. He tolerates it till such time that his promise to Shishupaala’s mother (of forgiving Shishupala's 100 sins) holds. He then quickly slays Shishupala with utmost composure. Similarly, his encounters with Jarasandha, Duryodhana, and others are perfectly balanced from his side. His actions are clean executions of his purposeful decisions.
Krishna also, at times, gets angry in face of adharma. He is not always the cool and fun-loving person. In the Kurukshetra war, when he sees Arjuna not fighting to his best against a belligerent Bhishma, Krishna gets angry and almost takes up his weapon, against his earlier vow not to bear weapons in the war. Krishna’s actions are never influenced by anger, resentment, jealousy, and other such base tendencies.
On equanimity and balance in thought, Rama and Krishna are on par.
Humility, as per the ancient Indian ethical structure, is an important characteristic of a great leader. We shall now see how Rama and Krishna fare in this attribute.
Rama never shows arrogance in spite of his immense strength. His meeting with Shabari and his unhesitating acceptance of her offering of fruits is an excellent example of this. He is humble, yet firm, never weak. In many instances, such as upon slaying of Vali and installing Sugriva and Angada as the king and prince of Kishkinda, any mortal would have shown arrogance, but not Rama. His humility shines through as a sterling quality, specially in one so great in strength, valor, and power.
Krishna too is always grounded in reality. There are numerous examples of his humility – be it his meeting with Kuchela, be it his partaking the leftovers on his visit to the Pandavas’ forest abode or his preference to be with Vidura rather than the royal hospitality offered by Duryodhana.
Both Rama and Krishna are strong yet humble. Their humility doesn’t arise from weakness, but from an understanding of human relationships and the value they place on it. As regards this attribute, both Rama and Krishna are on par.
An important aspect of a leader is the way he relates to other people that he comes in contact with.
Rama exemplifies the perfection of managing relationships, as we understand them today. In his role as a son, he is willing to go to any length to save the honor of his father. As a brother, he is the guiding force for his younger brothers, earning their respect and respecting them. As a husband he is loving, caring and loyal. As a friend, he is an embodiment of friendship as seen in his friendship with Hanuman, Sugriva, Vibhishana and so on. Even as an enemy, he is perfect – he gives Ravana several chances to correct the mistakes. He doesn’t resort to unfair means in war. Most importantly, as a king, he treats his subjects as his children and has their welfare as a foremost concern. Each one of his relationships is memorable, even the shorter relationships – such as with a dying Jatayu or the old Shabari. Hence, we see that from the perspectives of all those who related with Rama, he must have seemed perfect. The unfortunate event of renunciation of his wife Sita was a compulsion. Even then, though he physically separated from her, he was always one with her memory as seen in episodes such as when he uses her image made in gold as a dharma-patni while performing religious rites.
Krishna, as in everything else, is a master in human relationships. His relationships with Radha and the gopis is a matter of everlasting enjoyment for his devotees. It is said that thousands of gopis all felt that Krishna was fully and completely with them at the same time. Such was his effect. Krishna’s loving relationship with the Pandavas, his special friendship and camaraderie with Arjuna, his loving friendship with Kuchela and Vidura, his tolerance of the Kauravas, are all examples of his keen sense for human relations. Krishna, as an enemy, is perfect too. He uses force only as a last resort and there are always options open for his enemies to correct their mistakes.
Krishna, unlike Rama, has to deal with many people who have their own vagaries and idiosyncrasies. By his perfect understanding of their characteristics, he manages them and at times manipulates them. Examples of such are Satyabhama (his wife who is perennially jealous and possessive of him); Balarama (his brother who is foolish and stubborn); Bhishma (an honorable man who is fighting on the side of adharma); Duryodhana (who is arrogant); etc. On the other hand, the people that Rama has to deal with are more in terms of black and white. Also, the events of Ramayana are not as complex in terms of human interplay as the Mahabharata.
Rama’s relations with others are fully based on the strength of his own character. His dealings are always straightforward and so are the characters he has to deal with. Krishna understands and utilizes to the full, the strengths and weaknesses of people he has to deal with. The events and characters that Krishna has to deal with cover a much wider spectrum between white and black and thus provide a wider canvas for showcasing his remarkable relationship skills.
The emotional quotient, love and attachment to near and dear reflect a persons approach to life. As such this is an important human attribute and hence may be used as a measure of comparison.
Rama’s emotional quotient is very high and derived from his love towards his parents, brothers, wife, friends and his subjects. Rama stays attached to his family and their memories when they are no longer with him. He emotionally remembers his father, Dasharatha, many times over several years. When Sita is kidnapped, he pines for her. After renouncing Sita, he keeps a golden sculpture of her resemblance with him for all rituals. When Lakshmana dies, Rama follows quickly. He gets nostalgic and reminisces the good times. He stays connected, directly or in fond memory, with his ancestors, family, friends, subjects.
Krishna’s approach is quite different from Rama's. Krishna derives his high emotional quotient from detachment. While fully enjoying the company of his parents, wives, brother and friends, he is absolutely detached from them all. When he leaves Gokula to kill Kamsa, he never returns. All his attachments of his childhood – his adopted parents Yashoda and Nandagopa, his love Radha and the gopis, his friends – are all coolly detached. The rest of his life is disconnected from his past. He just moves on. His relationship with others are similar. He indirectly causes the destruction of his clan who had regressed and become rather useless. His strongest attachments were probably the Pandavas for whom he had great affection.
This is probably the most important difference between the two. Krishna’s life is a perfect example of his teachings in the Gita, of the characteristics of a sthitaprajna. For Krishna life is in the moment, while for Rama, his entire life is the moment.
Following dharma is an important attribute, specially in heroes and role models, since it is an essential characteristic for human society to survive.
Rama, throughout his life, was faced with many difficult situations, as if to test how he would react to the situation. He reacted with utmost righteousness in each case, so much so, they set the standards of ethical behavior. Be it when he leaves Ayodhya for the forest, when Bharata entreats him to return to Ayodhya or when he realizes that the citizens of Ayodhya are unhappy with Sita’s chastity. His stand in every situation is a shining example of what a person must do to follow dharma, irrespective of the cost to oneself.
Rama established dharma by living it in the face of travails. Rama’s approach was to live by dharma and sort out the adharma when encountered with a problem. When the sage Vishvamitra asked for his help, he accompanied him to the forests where he slayed Khara, Dhushana, and other rakshasas who were troubling the sages and their rituals. When Ravana kidnapped his Sita, he went after and killed him. The opportunities for establishment of dharma, thus presented themselves to Rama in the form of problems.
Krishna’s life was probably not as personally testing as was Rama’s, in terms of the situations he had to face. Though he was born in captivity, his childhood and youth was spent in fun and frolic. His later life was filled with task after task of establishing dharma. All of the important events of his life such as the killing of Kamsa, Shishupala, Jarasandha, and the Kauravas, were done either directly by him or were motivated and mentored by him for the purpose of establishing dharma. His advice to Arjuna, the Bhagavad-Gita, is verily a treatise on dharma. In his own life he never compromised on righteous behavior. The right things to be done were never postponed nor ignored.
Krishna established dharma by destroying adharma. He was more pro-active in going after adharma. For instance, Krishna and his brother Balarama, both had the exact same upbringing and environment. Krishna, in comparison to Balarama, accomplished a lot by action oriented intervention into problem areas. This can be found in several cases mentioned above as also in his active intervention in the Kurukshetra war.
Hence, though Rama and Krishna both had dharma as their core value, they differed in their approach. While Rama established dharma by setting a model for generations to come, by living his life by dharma, Krishna sought out adharma, destroyed it and established dharma.
This is an important attribute for comparison, since here again there is a marked difference, especially in perception, between our two heroes.
Rama is not specially known for his strategic or tactical thinking or decisions. At every critical juncture, he chooses the decision based on dharma. However, most of his decisions – to align with Hanuman, Sugriva and his monkey warriors, Vibhishana, all do seem strategic. He seemingly commits some tactical errors such as letting go of Ravana first time in war when he is in a position to kill him. However, it is difficult to say that these were errors since eventually he does manage to kill him. His decision of renunciation of Sita is widely believed to be a lack of strategic or tactical thinking, but this thinking is incorrect since he had no other options and no amount of strategizing would have resolved the problem.
Krishna is believed to be a master strategist and tactician. This is because of the various events in his life such as the stage managed kidnapping of his sister Subhadra by his friend Arjuna, the slaying of Jarasandha, numerous events during the Kurukshetra war – killing of Jayadratha; his advice to Ghatotkacha when he is getting killed (to grow and fall on the enemy soldiers); his plan to field Shikhandi against Bhishma, his bringing about the end of Drona by inspiring Yudhishtira to tell a white lie; the killing of Karna when he is weaponless and has lost the memory to invoke powerful weapons; his advice to Bhima resulting in the eventual death of Duryodhana; all these are the high points of his strategic and tactical thinking.
These various events give an incomplete model of Krishna to a casual observer as cunning and manipulative person who would do anything to gain victory. It is not so. All those who are killed by strategy were invincible in one way or the other and had some weakness that had to be exploited to ensure that the ends of justice are met. In all these cases, strategy was inevitable. Moreover, Rama’s slaying of Vali was similar to many of Krishna’s tactics.
In light of these many incidents, there are many who believe that Krishna would have found some way to work, if he were in the position of Rama while abandoning Sita. They say that he would manage the subjects somehow and ensure that there were a better ending to the story. But on a little analysis, we can figure that it would not be the case. Both Rama and Krishna stand firm for dharma. The situation that was a dharma sankata (an ethical dilemma) for Rama would have been the same if it was Krishna in his place. This is shown by the incident in Krishna’s own life - the case of the Shyamantaka jewel that belonged to his friend Satrajit. Satrajit’s brother wears it while going for a hunt and loses it when he is killed by a lion. The lion takes the gem which is further won by Jambavanta, the bear. Krishna goes to great lengths, going in search of the jewel and fights with Jambavanta for 21 days to get back the jewel. Here again Krishna bows to the perception of citizens that he may have had a hand in the jewel being lost. This one incident suggests that Krishna, in Rama’s position, would have acted in the same way.
The comparison between Rama and Krishna is unfair to both since their situations, characters and times were all different. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are vastly different. Hence the comparison may seem dubious. However, since such comparative statements keep coming up amongst interested people, such an analytical exercise becomes inevitable.
While Rama is more on a human level, Krishna is in the divine plane. While Rama appeals at a personal level, Krishna appeals at a higher, structural plane. The way of life for an ideal Hindu family is modeled after Rama’s life and not as Krishna’s. This is because ordinary mortals can reasonably aim to live their lives as Rama lived his (discounting the feats of strength and valor). Krishna’s way of life is to view with awe and not something that can be followed and achieved.
Since the Mahabharata has a much wider canvas and colors as compared to Ramayana, Krishna’s character at times is perceived wrongly as someone who doesn’t care about the means as long as the end is justified (as compared to Rama who is perceived as caring about the means as much as the ends). This perception, is highly unfair to Krishna. Both Rama and Krishna are equal followers and upholders of dharma. Though perceived as opposite poles in characteristics, their core values are the same.
Both Rama and Krishna are similar in most human characteristics as well as their adherence to the four purusharthas of dharma, artha, kama, and moksha, specially since artha and kama are to be pursued within the framework of dharma.
While we read Krishna’s sayings in the Bhagavad-Gita about detachment and equanimity in the evening of our lives, we faithfully live our lives imitating Rama.
Appendix 1. Important events in Rama’s life
- Childhood. Rama’s childhood was marked by his kinship and leadership with his brothers
- Going to the forest with Vishvamitra to protect the sages from rakshasas
- The achievement of not only lifting but breaking the Shiva dhanusha in Janaka’s court and winning Sita for a bride
- Renunciation of the kingdom just before coronation when he learnt that his father’s honor depended on him
- Retiring to the forest with bare minimum belongings to the great disappointment of his citizens and family. His sobering advice to Lakshmana, Sita, and Kausalya
- Rendezvous with Bharata who was intent on taking back Rama to Ayodhya. His refusal to go back and his convincing of Bharata
- Happy life spent with Sita and Lakshmana in the forest for nearly thirteen years
- Chasing of the magic deer and the kidnapping of Sita by Ravana. His sorrow on losing his beloved.
- Encounter with Jatayu, its death and his performing its last rites with as much shraddha as if it were his father
- Meeting with Hanuman and Sugriva
- Killing of Vali to aid Sugriva’s fight for justice
- Search for Sita
- Leading the monkey army towards Lanka.
- Meeting with Vibhishana (brother of Ravana). Building of the bridge to Lanka.
- Winning the war with Ravana, his warriors and his army. Coronation of Vibhishana as king of Lanka
- Sita’s agni pariksha
- Tentativeness in returning to Ayodhya; return and coronation as king
- Renunciation of Sita based on citizen’s perception of her chastity. Leading a lonely life
- Accidental meeting and union with his twin sons. Parting of Sita to her mother’s womb (into the earth)
- Eventual niryana (departure) from the earth followed by many of his citizens
Appendix 2. Important events in Krishna’s life
- Birth in captivity. Removed to a safe haven.
- Killing of many rakshasas even as a baby
- Childhood fun and pranks – specially directed towards women in the community
- Loving relationship with Radha
- Killing of the tyrant uncle Kamsa
- Coronation of his grandfather as the king
- Kidnapping and subsequent marriage with Rukmini
- Accusations on him regarding the loss of the Shyamantaka jewel. His efforts to clear his name. Fighting with Jambavanta. Wedding with Jambavati
- Wedding with Satyabhama
- Killing of Narakasura and marriage with the sixteen thousand women held captive by Naraka.
- Many wars with Jarasandha. Eventual eviction of all citizens to a newly built city – Dvaraka
- Attending the Rajasuya yajna performed by Yudhishtira.
- Planned assassination of Jarasandha by Bhima in a fight.
- Beheading Shishupala after prolonged tolerance of his abuse.
- Friendship with the Pandavas, specially Arjuna.
- Staged kidnapping of his sister Subhadra by his friend Arjuna. His influence in the valor of his nephew Abhimanyu
- Saving Draupadi’s honor when she was being disrobed by Dushshasana
- Empathy towards the Pandavas for their unfortunate forest stay. Anger towards the unjust Kauravas
- Mediation efforts on behalf of Pandavas
- The many important turns of the Kurukshetra war where he played a singularly influencing role – advice to Arjuna in the form of Bhagavad-Gita; killing of Bhishma, Drona, Jayadratha, and Karna; protecting Arjuna in many instances, even at the cost of others like Ghatotkacha (Bhima’s son from Hidimba)
- His overseeing of the demise of his clan
- His own eventual departure from earth