Mark of the Cobra

Indian Mythology 15 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, Dec. 11, 2011


Listen to this story. One day, there was a snake called Kailya, who poisoned the waters of the river Yamuna, killing cows and cowherds who dared take a dip in it. The cows and cowherds complained to Krishna who went to the river and challenged Kaliya to a duel. After a ferocious fight, Krishna managed to subdue the serpent; to celebrate his triumph Krishna danced on Kaliya’s hood cheered by all the cows and cowherds. Defeated, Kaliya left the river and everyone could enjoy the waters of the Yamuna without fear of being poisoned.

Now, listen to this story. Krishna asked Kaliya to leave the river Yamuna as his venom was polluting the waters and killing cows and cowherds. Kaliya refused. When asked why, he replied, “This is the only place where I am safe. If I leave this bend of the river, I will be attacked by Garuda, the eagle, who will eat me. That is why I stay here. I do not want to poison the waters, but what can I do? Where can I go?”

In the first story, Kaliya is a villain. In the second story, Kaliya is a victim. The first story makes us experience rage and heroism. The second story makes us feel sad and compassionate. Which story do we tell our children?

Yes, every story has a hero and villain. But very rarely do we ponder on the origin of villains. No one is born a criminal. Necessity makes us criminal. Then need gives way to greed, and before we know it, crime becomes a habit. Yet, the seed of villainy lies in victimhood. We break rules because we find them oppressive. In breaking rules, we feel liberated. When rules make us insecure and unhappy, we become lawbreakers, hence criminals. Kaliya feared Garuda and this forced him to stay where he was. He lacked the confidence to move on. His fear poisoned the river waters and transformed him into a villain. Krishna realizes that. And so leaves his footprint on the hood of Kaliya. This is the mark of the cobra, created to tell Garuda to leave Kaliya alone. It is the mark of protection.

That is why in Hindu mythology, gods never kill the villains; they do ‘uddhar’. They liberate the criminal. What does this mean? It means Krishna takes the trouble to understand the fetter of fear that transforms Kaliya into a villain. While solving the problem of cows and cowherds, he does not ignore the problems of Kaliya. Every victim has to be saved, even the villain.

Today, we are eager to make people villains – slap them, penalize them, punish them, tie them up, beat them up, throw them in jails. Perhaps along with punishing them we also have to consider paying attention to the concept of uddhar – and deal with crime with more maturity and wisdom rather than self-indulgent outrage. Or is that too much to ask of humans?


  • Giriraj Bhatia

    Till the time Kaliya is not defeated he does not tell his version of the story. He tries to kill Krishna considering him to be an ordinary child.

    Only when he is defeated, he realizes that Krishna is not an ordinary child but someone special who can solve his problem. This makes him tell his side of the story.

    Similarly, unless and until people doing wrong are not made to realize that what they are doing is wrong, they will not come forward and try to change.

    Quantum of action required to make the individual or a group of people understand depends on the resistance power of that individual or that group of people.

    Last but not the least we need leaders like Lord Krishna who act looking at the whole picture.

  • vibha

    @ Mr. Giriraj Bhatia…I agree that we need leaders like Lord Krishna.. but even we are leader in some area, we can at least try to change our vision. As you said, especially if realize our wrong approach or way toward others.
    I am really thankful to Mr. Devdutt, to show another side of coin.
    I am glad to be part of this article. ( as a reader :) )

  • Ravi

    Today, we are eager to make people villains – slap them, penalize them, punish them, tie them up, beat them up, throw them in jails…. Mr Devdutt

    Does Mr Devdutt have Sharad Pawar in mind? If yes what is the pain Mr Sharad Pawar is in?
    Its really difficult to see the other side of the coin when its comes to politicians and leaders.

  • Dora

    again awesome one.

  • aarthi raghavan

    Hi Devduttji,
    Well, I think that is what makes Krishna Krishna. If everyone tries to be as understanding as he then there is no need to fear anything.

  • Being a human, you have your own prejudices and perception about any event or person, this prevent you from thinking through other person’s prejudices and perception.

    Very rarely you could get both the things and hence always at a disadvantage to not able to pass an anonymous and acceptable to all type of correct decision.

  • this is what happened to Chidambaram recently…

  • Rashmi Nair

    A nice read and interpretation…..However, I feel that you can go ‘Uddhaar’ of a person who actually wants to change. There is no point in wasting energies and efforts over people who dont want to change and are hell bent on being what they are!

    • Devdutt

      Who decides who deserves salvation? For every person who thinks they are non-greedy, there is someone who thinks they are greedy.

  • Gopal Soni

    Completely agree with Rashmi Nair. There are greedy people in this world who are not willing to change. They will keep telling their problem and keep shouting, but if someone tries to solve their problem they will also take them wrong and will not listen to them as well.

  • Rajesh

    Great thought in itself…But Very Very Difficult in todays scenario.
    Forget about KRISHNA we dont have leaders Who are moving towards KRISHNA…

    Thank you verymuch sir for such good article.

  • Ankita Suri

    Good thinking…
    i think we are not as smart as we always think we are… so we end up reacting rather than thinking things through… there r exceptions though which is a good thing.. :)

  • Urni

    The story from a different angle changes the entire perspective. Makes me remember a quote from a different perspective altogether, that it is the victor who writes the history, and may be the myth also.

  • Ashish

    the story similarly applies to the industries where they are the main cause of pollution and higher carbon footprints. they are endangering social life and this is where government should really come forward as Lord Krishna and government should act like lord Krishna.

    The Industries may be having some genuine problems but government should tactfully handle this problem.

  • B S

    u create your own imaginative stories in keep screwing sanatam dharm’s plot! ..because there is no fanatism in sanatan dharm so noone can tell u anything …if it were islam they would have choped you ages back. keep taking sanatam dharm for granted …enjoy the freedom of distorting in this only. ..! .if at all u have little sham inside then please stop defaming hinduism ! ….It’s a request ..