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.