By the banks of the Yamuna

Mahabharata 16 Comments

Published in First City, Delhi, March 2005

Why? O why? O lord of Mathura!
Why do you want to go back to Gokul?

These lines are repeated in a soulful song sung by Shubha Mudgal in the film `Raincoat’. I heard it at a friend’s house. The tune was fantastic. The voice rich and earthy. But it was the lyrics that caught my attention. Traditional poetic Hindi. Full of metaphors. Deep in meaning.

Lord of Mathura or Mathura-nagar-pati of this song is Krishna. For millions of Hindus, Krishna is God incarnate. His story is told in the Bhagavata Purana, the chroncile of God. The chronicle refers to two Krishnas: one the prince amongst cowherds who lived in Gokul and Vrindavan, the other the cowherd amongst princes who lived in Mathura and Dwarka. The former is associated with childhood pranks, cows, music and romance. The latter with urban politics, horses, duty and war. The former is Radha Vallabha, the beloved of Radha. The latter is Partha-sarathi, Arjuna’s charioteer. Both Krishnas are famous for their smiles. The former in mischief. The latter in compassion.The former stirs the heart with longing. The latter bridles the head with discipline. Krishna of Gokul is surrounded by swooning milkmaids. Krishna of Mathura is surrounded by slaughtered kings.

The song is full of nostalgia. Krishna, who is lord of Mathura, is being questioned about his desire to return to Gokul? At the time of his birth, Krishna had been smuggled into Gokul in secret by his father intent on saving him from the murderous hands of his maternal uncle Kamsa who he was destined to kill. Krishna grew up in Gokul, and nearby Vrindavan, amongst simple folk, mostly cowherds and milkmaids, enjoying the countryside, playing pranks, stealing butter, playing the flute, herding cows, wooing girls and killing demons who threatened the enchanting tranquillity of his home. Then, duty called. He was summoned to Mathura. He killed Kamsa and liberated the Yadavas from his tyranny. He went on to establish the city of Indraprastha for the Pandavas, all the while fighting or plotting against kings whose ambitions threatened social order.

The story goes that while leaving for Mathura, Krishna promises to return. But he gets so caught up in worldly affairs in duties and responsibilities, in the politics of Mathura and Indraprastha, that he forgets his promise and moves on in life. The last time he meets Radha, he swears never to play the flute again. For she was the inspiration to his music. Radha waits for his return. For his music. But Krishna never comes back.

In the song, Krishna does come back. But it is too late. Radha is no more the beloved who challenged all norms when she ran through the woods at night to be with him. She has a home, a husband who loves her and children she cares for. Krishna’s return threatens her well being. And his.

Krishna here is every one of us who seeks a return to one’s childhood. A return to innocence. But a return to the past is bound to be painful. It opens up old wounds that one pretends have healed or that one has comfortably chosen to forget. That happens to be the theme of the film `Raincoat’ starring Ajay Devgan and Aishwarya Rai.

All this happens on the banks of the Yamuna. Mathura, Gokul and Indraprastha (now called Delhi) stand on the banks of this river.

The Yamuna also known as Kalindi is an essential ingredient of Krishna lore. This river is a recurring image in all stories of Krishna: she watched his father carry him across the river to Gokul, she watched him herd cows and fight demons in the pastures of Vrindavan, she was witness to the clandestine meetings between Krishna and Radha, she kept careful watch so that no one interrupted the Maha-Raas. She saw the milkmaids weep as he left for Mathura, pining for his return. She saw him fight the hordes of Jarasandha who burnt down the city of Mathura with the help of the Indo-Greek mercenary, Kalyavana. She saw his flight to Dwarka and his triumphant return in the company of the Pandavas and their common wife, Draupadi. She saw him organize the burning of the Khandava forest and the building of the magnificent city of Indraprastha. She heard Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna and his conch shell trumpet as he rode into the battlefield of Kurukshetra intent on bathing the earth, and her waters, with the blood of unworthy kings.

The Yamuna is closely associated with Yami, the twin-sister of Yama, god of death, and with Yamini, the night. According to Rig Veda, Yama and Yami were the first mortal twins born of the sun-god. Since there was no one else, she suggested that they produce children together and populate the world. Yama was horrified at the suggestion. He preferred death to incest. He died leaving no offspring behind and so was trapped forever in the land of the dead. He became its ruler, maintaining an account of all deeds and misdeeds done in the land of the living, using the balance book to determine the circumstances of rebirth. Yami mourned for her brother who she would never see. She wept until the gods decided to turn her into Yamini, the goddess of the night, who bridges the despair of sunset with the hope of sunrise.

From Yami’s tears flowed the river Yamuna. Yama said that whosoever bathes in her on the second day of the waxing moon after Diwali will not have to enter the land of the dead; they will be liberated from the cycle of rebirths altogether. This day known as Bhai Dooj in North India is a ritual recognition of the love of brother for sister and an acknowledgement of their sorrowful parting following the marriage of one, an event which marks the end of childhood. On this day the brother pays a visit to his sister’s house, reminding her that she is not forgotten and that childhood memories are still fresh.

It is said that after Hanuman set afire to the city of Lanka, he buried his burning tail in the Himalayan snow to put out the flames. The snow melted to give rise to the Yamuna. That is the reason why the peak next to Yamotri, the source of the Yamuna in the Himalayas, is known as Bandarpoonch or monkey’s tail. The ash made the Yamuna’s waters dark.

The Yamuna’s dark waters are often contrasted with the clear waters of her sister, the river Ganga. There are many tales to explain this.

After losing his first consort Sati killed herself by jumping in the fire-pit of the priest-king Daksha, Shiva lost all interest in worldly life. He held his wife’s corpse and wandered aimlessly in the world until Vishnu cut the corpse into tiny pieces. To rid himself of the sorrow, the gods requested Shiva to bathe in the river Yamuna. His sorrow scorched the river black. Later Shiva took another consort, Parvati, princess of the mountains. Once a demon called Raktabija terrorized the world. Every drop of his blood gave rise to his clone making it impossible for the gods to kill him. To help the gods, Parvati drank every drop of Raktabija’s blood. The blood darkened Parvati’s skin and she became known as Kali, the dark one. This form so terrified Shiva that he looked away. To regain his interest, the goddess bathed in the Yamuna and emerged as Gauri, the radiant one. The Yamuna let the dark colour percolate in her being. The Yamuna has thus been associated with accepting the sorrows and pollutions of the world. That is why her mood is always forlorn.

Yamuna is visualized as a mournful, melancholy, dark goddess riding a turtle, quite totally unlike her bubbly and cheerful sister Ganga whose waters are white and who rides a dolphin. She is the embodiment of Radha, pining for her lost beloved. It is said that when Indraprastha was built Yamuna did not flow by its side. She forced her way towards the city after an unfortunate encounter with Balarama.

Krishna’s brother Balarama, who was paying a visit to the area long after Krishna had moved to Dwarka, felt like bathing in the river. But he was too drunk and too tired to walk to the river. He ordered Yamuna to come to her. She refused. Enraged, Balarama, raised his plough and dragged the river-goddess towards him. Khushwant Singh, in his book Delhi narrates the folk version according to which Balarama dragged Yamuna by the hair and had his way with her. Her struggles gave rise to the many bends of the river around Delhi. The story according to some anthropologists is suggestive of canal irrigation by the Surasena tribe. Balarama with his plough was their god of agriculture while Krishna with his cows was their god of animal husbandry; together they were the gods of the primary economic activities of a civilization that according to archaeologists thrived as early as 600 BC.

After being dragged to Indraprastha, Yamuna begged Krishna to make her his wife. Without him, no one cared for her. Nobody respected her. As Kalindi, she became one of Krishna’s eight principal wives. But he left her to flow in Vraj while he ruled far away in the island city of Dwarka. Still she waits for him. Hoping that Dwarka-pati, the Mathura-Nagar-Pati, will come back to Gokul. She hopes for the magic of the moonlight. The romance of the flute. The secret dance of Radha and the milkmaids. It is said that no man may join this dance. Shiva wanted to join it. Arjuna wanted to join it. Yamuna asked them to bathe in her, shed their masculinity, become women and dance with Krishna accepting them, as she did, as their supreme lord.

  • roshni behal

    extremely nice article

  • Beautifully written, as always. But who was ‘Indo-Greek mercenary, Kalyavana’? I am intrigued.

  • Shrikant

    Hi Dr. D
    Question: I have heard of the terms for these 2 sister rivers as
    Makaravahini Ganga
    Kacchhapvahini Yamuna
    Are the dolphins akin to Crocs as per this tale?
    Was wondering because the ghariyals are/were the primary occupants of the Ganges if the knowledge base I have read refers correctly :)
    Please clarify.
    You are increasing my appetite for mythos and logos so to speak :>

    • There are fresh water dolphins in Ganga….I suspect the Makara refers to them….though some feel it is the Gharial.


        Hi Mr Pattnaik,
        Please correct me here, but isn’t the Crocodile (Makara) the mount (Vahana) of Ganga, and not dolphins?

        • Devdutt

          Crocodile is Magara not Makara

  • A haunting song that kept playing in my head as I was reading this…
    The legendary association of Hanuman with Yamuna can be seen so well around Yamonotri even today, which is reached after crossing Hanuman chatti, where hanuman ganga (a tributary of yamuna) flows besides Hanumaneshwar temple.
    The name Kalindi however always confuses me with multiple references, one river originating in the eastern himalayas around Darjeeling and merging with mahananda, another originating around Brahmagiri in kerala and flowing through wayanad and of course the dark hued yamuna. And i also wonder how the treacherous hill pass, Kalindi khal that connects Badrinath with Gangotri derived its name, despite not being close to Yamunotri.

  • Karthik Hemmanur

    Why is marriage of such great significance in Indian mythology. Like in this case, why did Yamuna ask Krishna to ‘marry’ her. Why did the king of Matsya wanted Arjuna to ‘marry’ his daughter? Why marriage?

  • Kartik Patel

    this is really good article, absolutely loved it, keep up the good work!!!

  • NVRamanan

    Very nice!

  • Abhijit Agrawal

    I thought I will draw your attention to another very beautiful bhajan by Pt. Jasraj where the residents of Gokul are complaining that Krishna does not come back any more and has forgotten Gokul. Highlights the yearning for the good old days is a part of human psychology.

  • mini

    very nice article… it really made me to think & dwell more regading krishna & river yamuna
    Thanks for presenting it


    A very enlightening read yet again! Your explanation of the various forms and connotations of Maa Yamuna is beaufitul!

  • Chaitrali Dhurandhar

    nice article… in fact i have subscribed to this website and have loved every article that i have read so far….

  • seema

    I was filled with differnt emotions as read thorugh this article…

  • deepak

    Let me reveal a supreme secret here . According to vallabhacharya mahaprabhu yamuna is love of krishna. Love means bhakti . So she is krishna swabhav and a shakti too.
    Hence every gopi including radha had to serve yamuna to please krishna . Only yamuna can please krishna when angry not even radha can .