Butter or Blood

Indian Mythology 9 Comments

First published in First City Magazine, New Delhi, December 2005

In Peter Brook’s play whenever Krishna appears on stage one can hear the flute in the background reminding you that this Krishna of the Mahabharata has a past: he was once Krishna of the Bhagavata. Krishna appears in the Mahabharata as the wise, some might say cunning, counsellor of the Pandavas, whose timely and much-debated interventions in the great war lead the Pandavas to victory; even more memorably, perhaps, he appears as the charioteer of the Pandava prince, Arjuna, passing down those teachings that got enshrined in the part of the Mahabharata that came to be known as the Bhagavad Gita.

However, for a great many Hindus, the pre-eminent text of Krishna worship is the Bhagavata Purana, and most particularly its Tenth Book, which recounts the childhood exploits of Krishna, his adolescence, and his life in Vrindavan and the Vraj area amidst cowherds and milkmaids, the gopas and gopis. The Mahabharata, composed between the 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD, is based on stories that were known at least a thousand years earlier. This epic focuses on Krishna’s relationship with the Pandavas. The Harivamsa which is the first book to describe Krishna’s earlier life as a cowherd was added as an appendix to the Mahabharata only around the 5th century AD. Tales from the Mahabharata and the Harivamsa were incorporated in the Vishnu Purana which later metamorphosed into the Bhagavata Purana around the 12th century AD.

The Bhagavata Purana, however, makes no mention of Radha, who is an integral part of Krishna worship today. She entered Krishna mythology much later through medieval folk songs and the celebrated Sanskrit work, Gita Govinda, composed around the 13th century AD. We are clearly talking about a very long and ancient living tradition when we talk about Krishna. The Harivamsa and the Bhagavata inform us that Krishna had to be smuggled out of Mathura to protect him from the murderous hands of his uncle, Kamsa, who seized control over the Yadava confederacy by imprisoning all the elders. He was raised by the cowherd-chief, Nanda, and his wife, Yashoda. He grew up with a fondness for butter, mischief, adventure and romance. He protected the village from natural calamities such as forest fires and thunderstorms and from a number of wild animals. He imbued the banks of the Yamuna with playfulness and delight with the melody of his flute.

One day, however, the idyllic bliss of the village came to an end. Krishna had to break the heart of the milkmaids because he had to leave his village and fulfil his destiny. He returned to Mathura and killed his uncle. This earned him the wrath of Kamsa’s father-in-law, Jarasandha, emperor of Magadha, who destroyed the city of Mathura forcing Krishna’s kinsmen, the Yadavas, to seek refuge far away in an island beyond the western deserts, called Dwaraka. Krishna of the Mahabharata is a resident of Dwarka, who having married many local princesses including Rukmini and Satyabhama, is a highly respected member of the Yadava ruling council. He befriends his cousins,the Pandavas, and their common wife, Draupadi, and helps them stake their claim on their inheritance. He forces the Kauravas to give the Pandavas the forest of Khandava-prastha where he helps them establish a magnificent city called Indra-prastha. The Pandavas help Krishna kill Jarasandha. Krishna, in turn, helps the Pandavas become independent sovereigns with powerful marital alliances.

The Pandavas, however, gamble their fortune away. Humiliated by the Kauravas, they are forced into 13 years of exile in the forest. During this period, Krishna takes care of their children. After the period of exile, he tries his best to reclaim the Pandava kingdom from the Kauravas. The negotiations fail. In response, he organizes and leads the Pandavas to a great victory against the Kauravas after a bloody 18-day war on the plains of Kuruk-shetra. The Mahabharata then describes in detail the glorious reign of the Pandavas, the death of Krishna and the destruction of Dwaraka.

Krishna of the Bhagavata is the adorable prankster with a butter-smeared face. Krishna of the Mahabharata is a shrewd strategist covered in blood. One is the winsome cowherd. The other a wise charioteer. One lives in the village, surrounded by cows, cowherds and milkmaids. The other lives in the city, surrounded by horses, elephants, kings and queens. One is admonished by his mother and seeks adventure. The other gives advice to friends and family and goes on missions. One submits to the demands of Radha and 16,100 gopis, a relationship bursting with clandestine eroticism. The other fulfils his husbandly obligations to his eight senior and 16,100 junior queens. One can be seen playing the flute on the banks of the Yamuna, surrounded by women dancing in joyous abandon. The other can be seen in the middle of Kuru-kshetra on a chariot, whip in hand, blowing the conch-shell war trumpet, surrounded by the dead bodies of hundreds and thousands of warriors. The two Krishnas could not be more different from each other.

How do you explain the two Krishnas? How do you distinguish the butter-smeared Krishna from the blood-smeared Krishna? How do you reconcile the Krishna who romances Radha and the Krishna who comforts Draupadi? Are they the same? Can they be the same?

Many mythographers are of the opinion that the two Krishnas are two different folk-heroes forcibly put together. The Krishna of the Mahabharata was Vasudeva, leader of a tribal oligarchy while Krishna of the Bhagavata was Gopala, an adventurous herdsman who the Greek traveller, Magesthenes, identified with Hercules. Both Krishnas were then identified with Vishnu, God, as Hinduism moved increasingly towards theism.

For the traditional Hindu, there are no two Krishnas. There is only one Krishna who is an incarnation of Vishnu and who descended on earth to restore peace and order. In Puranic literature, Vishnu is that form of God who maintains order in the universe through the code of civilized conduct known as dharma. He institutes and maintains civilization through kings, descending every time the order of dharma is under threat. His descent as Krishna takes place after the earth complains that the kings have abandoned dharma and are abusing her with their greed and ambition. In the Puranas, the earth takes the form of a cow when she appeals to Vishnu for help. In Hindu mythology, earth is visualized as Gauri, the milk-giving cow. Her milk takes the form of plant and mineral wealth that sustains all life. Vishnu, her caretaker, then becomes Go-vinda or Go-pala, the divine cowherd. In the Hindu worldview, a king should be to his kingdom what a cowherd is to his cow. He should love her and protect her and she should generously offer him milk, which he can then churn into butter. For the butter-loving Bhagavata Krishna, life is a game to be played and enjoyed. The wealth of the earth must be relished. He encourages the cowherds and milkmaids to protect the cow, enjoy her milk and celebrate the wonders of life. Hindu mythology, also visualizes the earth as Kali, the wild blood-drinking goddess who rides lions and tigers. Kali is naked and her hair is unbound. Gauri, well dressed and demure, maternal and affectionate, represents a domesticated earth when dharma is upheld. When dharma collapses, Gauri becomes Kali. All rules collapse. Her hair becomes loose, her clothes are undone, the law of the jungle overtakes the law of civilized conduct, might becomes right and there is no mercy for the weak. In this form, the earth is no longer the caring generous mother. She demands blood. This transformation of Gauri to Kali takes place in the Mahabharata when a helpless Draupadi is dragged in public, disrobed and humiliated. No one comes to her rescue. Neither her husbands nor the elders. They all hide behind the letter of the law. Only Krishna comes to her rescue, disregarding all laws. He manages to prevent Draupadi from being disrobed. But he fails to bind her hair. We realize that Draupadi is Kali when she demands the blood of the men who abused her. “I will not tie my hair unless it is washed with the blood of the Kauravas,” she says.

The Mahabharata Krishna caters to the Kali form of the goddess, orchestrating a battle where the earth is soaked with the blood of kings, kings who instead of nurturing the earth as cowherds plunder her resources and abuse her wealth. According to a folk narrative found in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Pandavas once found a talking head called Barbarik on a mountain overlooking Kuru-kshetra. He had a bird’s eyeview of the eighteen days of battle. “Tell us what you saw,” they requested the talking head. Barbarik replied, “All I saw was Krishna’s discus severing the head of kings and Kali holding out her tongue drinking the blood.” Thus Krishna who milks the earth for her milk in the Bhagavata, helps quenches her thirst with blood in the Mahabharata.

In Tantra, milk and blood are forms of rasa, the juice of life. Milk is what is taken from earth and blood is what the earth demands in exchange. In a world where women are loved as Radha is, the earth bursts with milk. But in a world where women are abused as Draupadi is, the earth is covered with blood. Clearly, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata are ancient Indian texts seeking to resolve the conflicts in man’s relationship with the earth, conflicts between culture and nature. It is a story about law, justice, social responsibility and governance. It is about how kings should be and what kings should do.

In the complex web of stories about kings and dharma and social order, it is ironical that Krishna, the pivot of the narrative, is not a king. He is simply a Yadava nobleman (Yadavas were an oligarchy, ruled by a council of elders, and not a monarchy). Presenting himself in forms associated with the lower strata of the caste hierarchy (cowherd in the Bhagavata and charioteer in the Mahabharata) he talks about dharma, the institution and maintenance of social order, which has traditionally been the responsibility of kings and priests, the upper strata of the caste hierarchy. Krishna, the kingmaker not king, thus transforms the Bhagavata and the Mahabharata from merely a devotional or heroic tale into a highly political epic grounded in spiritual thought.

  • Satish Gundawar

    Hi Devdutt,

    What makes you to feel that Mahabharata was written between 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD? I feel range or error of 600 years is very large. Was it written after Buddha’s era?

    I do appreciate that there is no merits in checking when it was written rather than its relevance and its value. However, it creation as indicated by you is unbelievable. Other authers says (including some Germans) it is as good as 5000 years old.


  • devdutt

    Mahabharata reached its final WRITTEN form between 300 BC and 300 AD (the long period is because many writers contributed to it indicated by the many repetitions, shifts in ideology, changes in quality of grammar and language) but it was COMPOSED many hundreds of years ago by bards. Even the version we have alludes to other versions like the original work of Vyasa (the one we have is a retelling by Sauti), the retelling of Vaisampayana, the retelling of Jaimini. The oral tradition was far more ancient that the written tradition. Even today we value written tradition more than oral traditions because of demands of academia.

  • Pallavi

    I think that there were no two Krishnas but Krishna in two life stages. It is perfect example of Balyawastha & Grihasta. Balyawastha, where a person is a slave to his senses and pleasures of the world and Grihasta where a person has mastered his senses, has set his objectives and to do whatever is expected to do for ones family.

    What is interesting about Hindu mythology is that there will always be many takes to the same tale, there is nothing right, nothing wrong, no pure God or pure evil. Unlike the west we don’t follow the ‘Book’ hence debates and arguments are bound to happen and maybe thats why we are such an argumentative race. Anyways whats more interesting, spawning debates and arguments is the best formula for a successful Blog too :)

  • Ganesh.V

    Hi Devdutt,

    First of all Hats of to you for your Great Explation for Milk & blood.

    The Mahabarata was dated around 1300 B.c. (reference) to World’s sixteen crusified saviours.

    You must have known that in Ramayana SUNDAR KAND there is no role play for Rama in SUNDAR KAND Hanuman deliver Ramas message to Ravana as Ambassador. Sita remain in house arrest of Ravana.

    It is said that Lord Vishu Watched this fame of Hanuman & Sita, Decided that in his next Avator he will born in Prison and will do ambassador work.

    One more info for 16,000 Gopi’s. They were all the Vanaras who helped Rama in Ramayana reborn for love they expressed toward Rama. This love expression toward Ram is expressed in Tamil Kamba Ramayana. To satisfy there willing Lord Vishnu offered them a partner role in next Avator. All reborn and loved by him.

    In Vishu purna It is narrated that Both parents where meditation towards him for a single boon. Both want to be his mother. The fact is that one mother asked that “You must born as a son to me in my Womb”. The other one asked that “I Want to enjoy your Childwood act & mischief (indirectly asking Lord’s mothership). Krisha fulfilled both of there boon in Single Avator.

  • Vijay

    Hi Devdutt,
    Your articles in ET were very good .The mythological insights on various situations bring solace in difficult times. It’s a shame that I took a while to reach this site. Thanks a lot for your effort.
    I read the above article and wanted share my view on the possibility of existence on two Krishna’s.
    It’s my view that there might have been only one Krishna but it been portrayal by two different authors Vysya and Suka through their personalities might make us feel there were two.
    Vysya composed Mahabharata after witnessing the events during his lifetime. Vysya in the entire Mahabharata is seemed to have a character which is different to his son Suka .The way he portrays himself as a very level headed person with lesser spiritual quotient. So he might have liked the strategic aspect of” Vasudeva” and would have wanted to highlight this role of Krishna prominently in Mahabharata.
    Vysa too composed Bhagawatam but the world got to know through his son when he narrated it to Parkshit .Its believed that the last part of bhagawatam was composed by Suka himself.
    Bhagawatam speaks more about the ways attain the maximum realization and Suka prominently preaches the Bakthi way through Krishna, personifying his earlier life.
    Stories recount how Suka surpassed his father in spiritual attainment. Once, when following his son, Vyasa encountered a group of celestial nymphs who were bathing. Suka’s purity was such that the nymphs did not consider him to be a distraction, even though he was naked, but covered themselves when faced with his father. Suka is sometimes portrayed as wandering about naked, due to his complete lack of self-consciousness.

    I wanted to share the other possible view and enjoy the variety which our mythological stories especially Mahabharata offers.

  • Ramesh Subrahmaniam

    Dear Dr.
    From the last of your writings, can we surmise that “Rama” avatar was later to Krishna, as the culture become more refined as Oneman/One woman ( Ekapatnivrata) was followed later, instead of Onewoman living Five husbands, and they were also having other wives. Or is it an insertion at a later stage.Kindly clarify.Which avatar could have taken earlier?

    • It depends on whether you think life is getting more refined or more polluted…..all options exist

  • ganesh.V

    Well said Devdutt G.,

    “It depends on whether you think life is getting more refined or more polluted.”

    I wish to remember everyone that Panchali/Draupadi is Yajnaseni, born from a Yagna performed by her father. Inorder to divide kuru clan.

    In Tamil nadu she is worshipped as a mother God we can find made temples on streets even today in villages. The village bards in tamil nadu narrates her as a avathar of shakthi and her husbands as the Pancha bhutha guardian of her since they are born from Demi-gods.

    It is narrated that on the years of exile Draupadi transforms to kali at night and kill the wilds bulls to satisfy her rage against Duruyodan, at one night this was found by the all padavas. Since her husbands seen her in that form, She crounges on them with her nail like a tigeress due to which blood from all pandavas fell on earth from which the upa-pandavas were born.

  • Lovely piece as usual… but the time period mentioned here is much different and varies in every article. I have also mentioned this point in other articles. Please put up one single time scale that you follow and stick to the same. I am sure there is always someone fighting over it which is not our problem; but for people like me it would be good to have a common reference with one author instead of many references

    Absolutely good one… love your work