Why did Shrikrishna almost break his vow?
Before the start of the great war both Duryodhana and Arjuna visited Dwaraka to seek alliance with Shrikrishna. While Shrikrishna was asleep Duryodhana entered first and stood near Shrikrishna's head. Arjuna entered some time later and stood near his feet. When Shrikrishna opened his eyes, he saw Arjuna first and offered him to choose between himself and his Narayani Sena. Shrikrishna also said that he would not bear any arms during the war and would take up the role of the charioteer. Arjuna picked up Shrikrishna, while Duryodhana was very happy to get Narayani sena to fight for his cause.
On day 3 of the battle when the Pandava army was slaughtering Kaurava army, Duryodhana became desperate and approached Bhishma. Duryodhana taunted Bhishma and accused him of showing favour towards Pandava and not fighting with his full potential. Duryodhana's accusations angered Bhishma and he spoke these words, "O king! On many occasions, I have spoken words for your welfare and you should have accepted them. The Pandavas are incapable of being vanquished in battle even by the gods, together with Vasava. O supreme among kings! Though I am aged now, I will do what I am capable of doing and I will do it to the best of my capacity. Behold it with your relatives. While all the worlds look on, I will alone repulse the sons of Pandu now, together with their soldiers and relatives."
After this Bhishma positioned himself in front of Arjuna and started attacking him. A fierce battle started between the two. Arjuna managed to destroy two of his bows but was unable to stop the shower of arrows from Bhishma. When Shrikrishna saw that Arjuna was not fighting with his full potential against Bhishma due to the affection he had for his grandfather, he thought, ‘For the welfare of the Pandavas, I will armour myself and kill Bhishma today. I will relieve the burden of the great-souled Pandavas. Though Arjuna has been struck with sharp arrows in this battle, he does not know his duty in this encounter, on account of the respect he has for Bhishma.’
Shrikrishna stepped off the chariot and ran towards Bhishma with the intent to kill him. Arjuna quickly jumped after him and held his feet. Arjuna pleaded with him to stop and not break his vow. Arjuna bowed down before him and said, ‘O Keshava! You are the refuge of the Pandavas. Control your anger. O Keshava! I swear in the names of my sons and brothers that I will not deviate from the acts that I have promised to carry out. O younger brother of Indra! Instructed by you, I will certainly destroy the Kurus.’ Hearing the promise and the pledge, Janardana was happy and was pacified.
Another time when Shrikrishna almost picked up a weapon happened on the 9th day of the battle. This is how it is described in the Mahabharat. “Vasudeva saw that Partha was fighting mildly. Bhishma was continuously showering down arrows in the battle. Stationed between the two armies, he was as scorching as the sun. He was killing the best of the best in the army of Pandu’s son. Against Yudhishthira’s forces, Bhishma was like the destruction at the end of a yuga. The mighty-armed Madhava, the destroyer of enemy heroes, could not tolerate this. O venerable one! He abandoned Partha’s horses, which had the complexion of silver. Full of anger, the great yogi descended from the great chariot. The powerful one advanced towards Bhishma, with his arms as weapons.
Arjuna ran after him and grabbed his feet. Arjuna, the destroyer of enemy heroes, spoke these words of distress to him. ‘O mighty-armed one! Refrain. You should not do this. O Keshava! You earlier said that you would not fight in this war. O Madhava! The world will say that you have uttered a falsehood. Let the entire burden be on me. I will kill the one who is rigid in his vows. O Madhava! If it is otherwise in this battle, let there be a curse on my truth and my good deeds. O destroyer of enemies! I will do everything so that the end of the foes is ensured. Behold. As I wish, I will bring down the invincible one who is great in his vows today, like the full moon at the end of an era.’ Madhava heard these words of the great-souled Phalguna. He did not say anything. But in great rage, he again ascended onto the chariot.
This time again the reason for Shrikrishna's anger was Arjuna fighting mildly. Many people believe that Bhishma took a vow that he would make sure that Shrikrishna would break his vow and pick up arms in battle. There is no mention of this vow by Bhishma in the couple of versions of Mahabharat that we referenced. (If any of you have any references from authentic sources please feel free to share them with us through social media. Our handle is @mysutradhar on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram)
Another reason we believe that Bhishma would not have taken any such vow is because it does not make any logical sense. Shrikrishna was an accomplished and renowned warrior and the only reason Duryodhana was happy to not get him on his side was because he had taken the oath to not pick up arms in the battle. There was no way for Bhishma to predict that Arjuna would be able to stop Shrikrishna and without that knowledge any such vow by Bhishma would have only strengthened the enemy. Despite all the love Bhishma had for Pandava, he never tried to sabotage Kaurava's side during the war.
In our opinion Shrikrishna breaking his vow in front of Bhishma has another message and that was directed towards Bhishma and us. He was trying to tell Bhishma that his approach of keeping his personal Dharma over and above the welfare of the Kingdom/Society had brought them this carnage. Shrikrishna was ready to break his oath for the greater good, while Bhishma kept quiet because of his vow despite being capable enough to stop the wrongdoings in front of him. Had Bhishma stopped Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana at the right moment this entire bloodshed could have been avoided.
There is another lesser known incident when Shrikrishna had made up his mind to break his vow and had planned to pick up arms. On the 14th day Arjuna had taken the vow to eliminate Jayadratha by the end of the day or sacrifice himself if he could not accomplish that task. After hearing this vow of Arjuna, Shrikrishna told his charioteer Daruka to keep his chariot ready and be on stand-by.
“When it was the middle of the night, Janardana woke up. He remembered Partha’s oath and spoke to Daruka. ‘Because he was oppressed at the death of a relative, Arjuna has taken an oath. O Daruka! He has said that he will kill Jayadratha before tomorrow is over. Having heard this, Duryodhana will consult his advisers, so that Partha cannot kill Jayadratha in the battle. Several of his akshouhinis will protect Jayadratha. Drona and his son are skilled in the use of all weapons. If someone is protected by Drona, not even the brave thousand-eyed one, the oppressor of daityas and danavas, ventures to kill him. Tomorrow, I will act so that Arjuna, Kunti’s son, can kill Jayadratha before the sun has set. My wives, my friends, my relatives and my kin are not dearer to me than Arjuna, Kunti’s son, is. O Daruka! Bereft of Arjuna, I will not be able to look at the world even for an instant. Therefore, it shall not be that way. For Arjuna’s sake, I will slay the standard-bearers of the enemy, with their horses, chariots and elephants, with Karna and Suyodhana. In the great battle tomorrow, let the three worlds witness my valour. O Daruka! For Dhananjaya’s sake, I will show my valour in the battle. O Daruka! Tomorrow, I will rout thousands of kings and hundreds of princes, with their horses, elephants and chariots. Tomorrow, you will witness the army of kings shattered by my chakra. For the sake of Pandava, I will angrily bring them down in the battle. Tomorrow, the gods, the gandharvas, the pishachas, the serpents, the rakshasas and all the worlds will know me as Savyasachi’s well-wisher. He who hates him, hates me too. He who follows him, follows me too. Use your intelligence to comprehend that Arjuna is half of my body. When night is over and morning has dawned, prepare and yoke my supreme chariot according to the rites decreed in the sacred texts. O suta! Place the divine club Koumodaki, lances, the chakra, bow and arrows. Stock the chariot with all implements. Make room on the floor of the chariot for the standard and for Vinata’s brave son, the adornment of the chariot in battle. Place the golden umbrella and make the horses don divine armour created by Vishvakarma, as radiant as the sun and the fire. Yoke the supreme horses Balahaka, Meghapushpa, Sainya and Sugriva. O Daruka! Armour and station yourself. You will swiftly come to me when you hear the loud and terrible sound of Panchajanya fill everything with the bhairava note. O Daruka! I will alone angrily dispel all the reasons for misery that have afflicted my brother, the son of my paternal aunt. While the sons of Dhritarashtra look on, I will make every effort so that Bibhatsu can kill Jayadratha in the battle. O charioteer! I assure you that his victory is certain.’ Daruka replied, ‘His victory is certain. How can he be defeated? O tiger among men! You have yourself agreed to be his charioteer. As for me, I will do what you have asked me to. This night will give way to an excellent morning that will bring Vijaya’s victory.’’
However it never came to this because Arjuna managed to kill Jayadratha and survived the day. This specific incident highlights Shrikrishna's love for Arjuna and the extent he was ready to go for his beloved friend.
Disclaimer: All the quotes are from the English translation of Mahabharat by Shri Bibek Debroy. Events of Day 3 and 9 of Kurukshetra war are covered in Book 5 and events of Day 14 are in Book 6.