Elder Brother of God

Mahabharata, Shiva 18 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, September 12, 2010

The temple at Puri, in the state of Orissa, has the unique distinction of housing three divine siblings – Krishna, his elder brother Balarama, locally known as Balabhadra, and his younger sister Subhadra. Some say that Krishna is Vishnu, Balarama is Shiva and Subhadra is Devi, thus the three siblings represent the three main schools of Hindu theism: Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta.

Balarama’s character is very different from Krishna’s. Balarama is silent, somber, simple but has a fiery temper that is fast to rise and quick to fall unlike Krishna who sweet talks to get his way, always smiles and never loses his cool. Physically too, the brothers are different. Balarama is fair and has smooth straight hair while Krishna is dark with thick curly hair. Balarama dresses in blue while Krishna dresses in yellow. Balarama carries the plough and the pestle, associating him with agricultural activities while Krishna carries a flute, associating him with animal husbandry.

But the greatest difference between the two brothers is that while Krishna favored the Pandavas, Balarama favored the Kauravas, especially Duryodhana. The story goes that Balarama taught mace-warfare and wrestling to both Duryodhana and Bhima. Of the two, Duryodhana was his favorite, just as Krishna favored Arjuna over Karna.

In mythology, the hermit Shiva is Bholenath, the guileless one, who often very innocently gives boons to demons without realizing the consequences, a damage that needs to be rectified by the wily householder-god, Vishnu. In the epic, Balarama is the innocent Shiva while Krishna is the wily Vishnu.

Balarama was so happy with Duryodhana that he wanted his sister, Subhadra, to marry him. Krishna, however, had other plans. He engineered romance between Subhadra and Arjuna and got her to elope with him. “Look, he is not taking her by force,” said Krishna to pacify his infuriated elder brother, “She is holding the reins of the chariot. She wants to go with him. Who are we to stop her?”

Later in the epic, according to folk retellings, Balarama wants his daughter, named variously as Vatsala, or Shashirekha, to marry Duryodhana’s son, Laxman. Krishna stops even this from taking place. He asks Bhima’s son, Ghatotkacha, to help Vatsala elope with Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu and destroy the wedding plans.

The story does not end here. Duryodhana and Balarama had another plan to unite the Kaurava and the Yadava clans: Duryodhana’s daughter, Lakshmani, would marry Krishna’s son, Samba. When Vatsala elopes with Abhimanyu, an exasperated Duryodhana refuses to let his daughter marry Samba. Not willing to take no for an answer, Samba goes to Hastinapur and tries to abduct Duryodhana’s daughter, but is caught by Duryodhana who throws him in a jail.

When Balarama seeks the release of Samba, Duryodhana insults the Yadava clan for never keeping their word. Incensed, Balarama turns into a giant, swings his plough, hooks it on the foundations of Hastinapur and threatens to drag it into the sea, until Duryodhana apologizes.

Years later in the great war at Kurukshetra, directed by Krishna,  Bhima strikes Duryodhana under the navel on his thigh. When Balarama learns of this, he is so angry for this breach of war-rules that he raises his plough to kill Bhima. Krishna stops him. “Yes, the letter of the law was broken,” says Krishna, “but the spirit of the law was upheld so that victims are protected, not villains.” Balarama lowers his plough, and forgives Bhima, not because he understood the complex argument of Krishna, but because the ascetic form of God had faith in his younger brother, Vishnu, the more worldly form of God.


    Nice article sir.
    But I heard some another story according to that Balrama is incarnation of Shesh Nag (then one on which Vishnu sleep). Shesh nag accompanied Vishnu RAM avatar also, as laxman and served RAM as obedient younger brother. So he requested Vishnu that in next avatar he would like to be elder brother and enjoy the privilege of being elder.
    Don’t know as you always say everyone story is different

  • Nataraja

    Such a nice explanation, didnt knw abt Balarama so much, only after going thro this, got to knw much.
    Gr8 one.

  • Krishna loves the flute while he is in Vraj. Once he gets to Dwarika, he takes up the discus – chakra.

    Krishna is willing to change with times and adapts well to the situation he finds himself in. However, Krishna is not willing to make a compromise on his basic ethics.

    When Pandavas scupper Krishna’s plan of establishing a good Chakravarti kingdom by gambling away all they have, Krishna waits patiently, putting pieces in place for the great battle that he knows must follow. He does not compromise and work with less savory characters to establish Dhrama-rajya.

    During the great battle, Balarama abstains from battle, so as not to be part of the carnage. Krishna acts as a catalyst to help the good win.

    Like Balarama, many people hope to abstain from active part in economics/ politics/ religion/ family quarrels etc so as not to be “tainted” by it. Like Balarama, they are guilty of dereliction of duty.

  • Nice article sir, but I always have this question, Epics are real stories right?
    Then why sometimes deviations

    • shah

       History is like that.
      Everyone sees things differently.
      Also, as history, it gets distorted over time and people add their own “version” way after the event !

  • Suraj

    “Some say that Krishna is Vishnu, Balarama is Shiva and Subhadra is Devi, thus the three siblings represent the three main schools of Hindu theism: Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta.”

    I love this concept, had never heard it before.

    One of the things I love about our stories is how many multiple meanings our devatas and their relationships can have. In the South Indian tradition, Balarama is seen as one of the ten principal avataras of MahaVishnu. I believe one of the Alwars refers to it when he cites “the three Ramas” and Sankrsna is one of the Vyuhas of the Lord according to the Pancaratra Agama or early Bhagavata religion.

    I was always told that “the three Ramas” Parashurama, Sri Rama, and then Balarama represent a sort of continuum of the value of upholding social rules, with Sri Rama being the most exalted of the three given his context and character. As one SriVaishnava medieval theologian puts its, Sri Rama “sheds tears even for his enemies.”

    While Sri Krishna is the principal avatara of the Dwapara Yuga who breaks all the rules, Balarama’s presence still represents the importance of upholding social rules/structures, though with less primacy as Sri Rama.

  • Mahesh

    hi Dev,
    the story about Krishna’s son Samba is something that was not known to me earlier. interesting article.

  • Bhavesh

    very interesting writings and am sure involves a great depth of research. I ‘am not too sure if my parents know this part…must check.

  • It is no surprise that though both were brothers, but yet were so different. It does happen in real life too. Though being born of same parents, real brothers might some times resemble in physical feature,but in nature they are most of the times oceans apart. In the present case, to my knowledge, Balrama and Lord Krishna are not born to the same parents.I may be pardoned for my poor knowledge of the Mahabharat,if I am wrong.

    Secondly, Lord Krishna, who is the avatar of Lord Vishnu, has taken avatar to reestablish Dharma, which had gone astray. As the saying goes, diamond only cuts diamond, perhaps evil is the answer for evil.And finally the end justifies the means. As mortal humans, we may not understand the reasons behind Lord Krishna adopting wily means at times, but finally, the aim was to restore order and Dharma in the society.

  • hn

    Shashirekha-Laxman story is not mentioned in Mahabhaata…i believe its not even folklore..its entirely Fiction written for Famous old telugu movie Maya Bazar. One will not come across this story else where.Even if they do this is the first source.

    • Devdutt

      There are old 17th century Chitrakathi paintings of the tale…..300 years years before Maya Bazar

    • PBS

      Indonesian versions of Mahabharat written in 1000 Ad or so mention the story of Vatsala and Abhimanyu.

      Abhimanyu married Vatsala, daughter to Balarama, Kshitisundari daughter to Krishna (whose sister married Iravan) among other wives.

  • Milind Gupta

    please reveal the dource of these stories// some written source preferably…
    pls get ur books published in hindi- a large number of ppl still understand only hindi… it will give u an image makeover.


    Hi Devdutt,
    I have been following your writings for quite some time now and it is just enlightening to read them. However, I wish to share certain insights here in regards to the above article. Please do correct me if I am wrong.

    [1] Krishna “engineers” the romance between Arjuna and Subhadra only because He knew that Abhimanyu would be born of the union, and his birth has a certain bearing on the events that would follow, including those in the Great battle. Can possibly see karmic links here too. (How else would Paarikshit be born? How else would the Snake Sacrifice take place? ) It is not mere wily engineering on His part, or that of the plof of the Mahabharata.

    [2] It is maintained that Balarama is the incarnation of the Adi Shesha, the rest of Lord Vishnu (Krishna). In the earlier incarnation as Rama and Laxmana (Adi Shesha), Laxmana was His younger brother and was unable to protect/advise the Lord in many situations being His younger companion. Hence Laxmana (Adi Shesha) asks the Lord to bless him with being His elder brother/companion in the next Avatara. Hence the depiction of Balarama as Shiva is debatable.

    [3] Certain events had to happen, willed and foreseen by Krishna, as they were also under the bearing of the Karmic law. Abhimanyu’s slaughter, is one. Draupadi’s disrobing is another. In fact, before Gandhari curses Krishna, she questions Him as He could’ve stopped the War and the destruction to happen. Yet He knew better, of what was fate was to come and to whom.

    [4] Laws were broken in both letter and spirit at many instances in the Mahabharata, much before the Great battle of 18 days. Draupadi’s disrobing, to cite 1 instance. So when Krishna incites Bhima to strike Duryodhana below the navel, it was not mere retribution. Bhima had pledged it so and also, Duryodhana’s end was to come this way. Just as Jayadratha’s end too was “facilitated” by Krishna.

    Will await your response in this regard.

    Regards & Best wishes,

    • Ranjit More

      Adi Sesha is known as Samkarshana – one of the chatur-vyuha forms of Sri Vishnu. Samkarshana, in turn, is identified with Sadashiva of the spiritual skies. At the end of the life of Brahma, known as Mahakalpa, the thousand-hooded giant called Shesha, breathes poisonous fumes which roil upwards as the fire of destruction. From these flames is the Rudra of destruction born. Of course, this may rarely be the case. In general, it is Shankara’s tandava nritya that brings about cosmic dissolution but the relation between the two divinities is clearly present.

      Texts like Devi Bhagavatam, etc. delve, in detail on the non-difference of Sri Krishna and Sri Sadashiva, Sri Krishna and Sri Durga, etc… So Balaram can indeed be called Shankara. The famous teertha-sthanas like Puri, Kasi, etc. follow certain established rules or protocols in their respective famous temples. These protocols are invariably established according to the desire of the concerned deities. So even though a Vaishnavite temple, Jagannatha allows tantric worship of Subhadra, thus reinforcing Her real nature – of yogmaya Durga.

      • Arjunsakha Das

        Gr8 to be a part of the discussion which is a matter of great interest. Ananta /Adi Sesha who holds the universe is very well being depicted in a verse from Brmha Samhita ..

        IShwara Parama Krishna Sachidananda Vigraha …
        Anadir Adi GOvindam Sarba Karana Karanam ….

        ” Sahasra Patra KAmalam Gokulankha Mahad PAdam..
        Tad Karni Karam Tad Dhamam Ananta Ansa Samhutam ” .

        The thousand Patel univered centered with GOLAK Vrindaban .. the adobe of Sri Krishna is hold by non other than Sri Ananta Sesha… who is the 1st extendtion of Lord Krishna/Govinda. So there is no difference between Krishna and Balaram.
        Krishna wants to enjoy being served and he also want to enjoy the ecastic pleasure of Service. So for a devotee Balram?Baladeva is considered as a Param Guru for rendering service to the lotus feet of the lord..

        Lord Krishna Himself declred in Ch. 7 of B.G :
        ” Mata Paratara Na Annyat Kasjid Asti Dhananajaya ….” as he is the Supreme Personality of GODhead and he is the cause of all causes …

        Balram is the eternal and 1st expansion of KRishna at his Right in the form as Shankarsana …

        Your servent …

        Arjunsakha Das

  • Arjun Bhattacharyya

    Nicely written.

    Balram is the first expansion of Lord Krishna. Balram is considered to be the Adi Guru and Krishna to be the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Balram is a different personality from Lord Shiva and both are not the same. This has been clearly explained in Srimad Bhagavatam as well as in Brahma-Samhita.

  • PBS

    Balarama ‘s mother Rohini was sister to Somadatta, son to Bahlika II, and these Kaurava cousins who were closer to Kauravas rather than Pandavas for several reasons. So Balarama was related to Pandavas through his father (Bua, aunt Kunti) and related to Kauravas through his mother (Mama, uncle Dhritrastra). Like most people he preferred his mother’s cousins over paternal ones. Krishna had no problem, he killed his mother’s side cousins, Kansa, Sunama et all. He had only paternal cousins, he killed many of them too, Shihsupala, Dantavakra et all.

    As for Bahlika’s progeny, his sons Saptadhipati Bahlika and Kaitavya had sons Somadatta and Shalya. Shalya’s sister married Pandu. So one might expect the northern cousins to ally with Pandavas who shared their northern cousins’s habits (like Polyandry, an uttara kuru habit) but Somadatta and Shalya fought on Kaurava side. Simple reasons, Somadatta’s love of life Devaki was won by his own brother-in-law Vasudeva, father to Pandava advisor-in-chief. Shalya ‘s eldest three daughters married Balarama, Duryodhana and Karna. And people thought he might fight for Yudhisthara!!