How many follies is a person allowed to commit before being punished? The story of Shishupala in The Mahabharata is a moral discourse on the concept of mercy.
Shishupala was born to Damaghosha, who was a Chedi king. His mother, Srutashrava, was sister to Kunti (the Pandava matriarch) and also Lord Krishna was his cousin. Shishupala was born with three eyes and four arms. His parents didn’t want him because of this and were about to discard him when a heavenly voice prophesied that these extra arms and eyes would disappear once Shishupala sat in the lap of the person who would eventually kill him.
His anxious parents invited all the kings they knew to Chedi and placed Shishupala on their laps, but to no avail. Finally, it was Krishna, on a visit to Chedi to meet his new cousin, who placed Shishupala on his lap, and at once, his extra arms fell off and eyes disappeared, much to the relief of his parents. But this also meant that Shishupala would die at the hands of Krishna.
In order to prolong her son’s life, Srutashrava asks Krishna to promise her that he would pardon Shishupala a hundred times before killing him. The cousins, however, grew to dislike each other. The bone of contention was Rukmini, the sister of Rukmi, the prince of Vidarbha. The prince wanted his sister to get married to Shishupala, but she eloped with Krishna just before the wedding. This created a rift between the cousins and Shishupala began hating Krishna. As revenge, Shishupala attacked and humiliated Krishna several times, becoming emboldened each time because of Krishna’s refusal to retaliate.
It all came to a head at a ceremony elevating Yudhishthira to the status of emperor. The Pandavas declared Krishna to be the guest of honour at the ceremony, which was attended by kings, including Shishupala. Upon hearing this announcement, a livid Shishupala began insulting Krishna, and said he did not deserve this honour when there were so many attendees who were more deserving than him. He insulted the Pandavas calling them ‘children’ and questioned the intelligence of their granduncle Bhishma. After hearing his barrage of insults, Krishna finally declared that Shishupala had committed his 100th sin for which he had been forgiven. Krishna asked Shishupala to stop talking if he valued his life. But a defiant Shishupala continued verbally attacking his cousin. Krishna calmly raised his finger after which his weapon of choice, the Sudarshan Chakra, appeared. He flung it towards Shishupala, beheading him instantly.
In Shishupala’s death, we learn that restraint should never be mistaken as a sign of weakness. If pushed to the limit, even the most patient person will retaliate. It is also a great lesson in good decision-making. While Krishna and Shishupala were related, this did not cloud the former’s judgement when it came to doing what was right. Shishupala taunted Krishna time and again, but Krishna never reacted because he knew that in the end, it was he who had the upper hand. Krishna teaches us the importance of keeping emotions at bay when making sound decisions – giving us a perfect demonstration of the power of equanimity.