Published on 8th July, 2018, in The Hindustan Times.
We’ve all grown up listening to stories of Lord Krishna. He’s a butter thief, a mischief-maker, an exuberant imp with the literal ability to move mountains. He’s also very romantic and plays the flute with divine grace. He’s also a god, you learn as you grow older. So you think you know him — but actually no one does. The story of Krishna from start to finish is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, with anecdotes from here, there and everywhere.
In his new book, Shyam, mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik finally puts together the whole story of Krishna. What you will read below is not an excerpt from the book, but eight things that Devdutt himself learned about one of Hinduism’s most popular gods.
The story of Krishna from start to finish is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, with anecdotes from here, there and everywhere
1. Story in fragments.
Krishna’s story comes to us in fragments via Sanskrit literature, first in the Mahabharata (that speaks of Krishna’s adulthood amongst the Pandavas), then in the Harivamsa (that speaks of his pastoral foster family), then in the Vishnu Purana (that refers to him as Vishnu’s avatar), then the now popular Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (that refers to the dance with milkmaids at night) and the Geet Govind of Jayadeva (that introduces us elaborately to Radha).
Of course, Krishna’s story may have been transmitted in its entirety orally for thousands of years before being put down in writing. That we will never know. What we do know is that the Mahabharata reached its final textual form about 2,000 years ago, Harivamsa around 1,700 years ago, Vishnu Purana around 1,500 years ago, the final layers of the Bhagavata Purana came together 1,000 years ago, and the Geet Govind about 800 years ago.
2. Paradise of cows and heaven.
Few retell the story of Krishna from birth to death sequentially, as they do for Ram. Of course, the devout will never say Ram, or, Krishna died! They will speak of their descent from Vaikuntha as avatars, and their return to Vaikuntha.
Ram is different from Krishna because Ram does not know he is Vishnu, while Krishna does. Ram is the seventh avatar and Krishna is the eighth in popular traditions. For Krishna devotees, Krishna is the greater avatar of Vishnu. The greatest even: the complete avatar (poorna-avatar), the most perfect personal manifestation (saguna brahman) of the impersonal divine (nirguna brahman).
So, for many devotees, Krishna’s heaven of Goloka stands higher than Vishnu’s heaven of Vaikuntha. Vaikuntha is located in the ocean of milk, but all this milk comes from the udders of cows located in Goloka. These cows voluntarily release their milk because they are so moved by the music of Krishna who, inspired by the beauty and love of Radha, plays the flute as he stands under the celestial Kadamba tree which, in Goloka, takes the form of Kalpavriksha, the divine wish-fulfilling tree.
3. Global Krishna in Local Form.
While there are many common and continuous stories of Krishna across India, Krishna is different in different parts of India, and the world.
In Maharashtra, people connect with Krishna through the image of Vithoba of Pandharpur. Poet-saints of Maharashtra such as Eknath, Tukaram, and Gyaneshwar brought Krishna to the masses. In Rajasthan and Gujarat, Krishna is accessed through Shrinathji of Nathdwara.
People from Odisha connect with Krishna through the local image of Jagannath in Puri temple. In Assam, it is through the many Namghars, which was established over 500 years ago by Shankardev. Here, there are no images of Krishna. He is accessed through chanting, singing, dancing and performances.
In Tamil Nadu, Krishna is rarely distinguished from Vishnu. He inspired the collective of poets known as Alvars. In Kerala, about 400 years ago, the Sanskrit poetry known as Narayaniyum was composed. It tells the story of the Bhagavata Purana in a very short form and it is popular in the Guruvayur temple. North India is completely unaware of these traditions.
In South East Asian countries like Cambodia, Krishna is heroic. He wrestles and defeats demons, but there are no references to his pastoral roots.
So the Krishna who became popular in South East Asia over 1,000 years ago is Vasudev Krishna of the Mahabharata, not Gopal Krishna of the Bhagavata. Krishna is thus very different when seen through the lens of geography, as he is when seen through the lens of history.
4. Intellectual Bhagavad Gita and emotional Bhagavata Purana.
The Mahabharata is traditionally considered inauspicious because it deals with bloodshed and the break-up of a family. This is why people prefer retelling stories of Krishna’s childhood and youth with his mother Yashoda and his beloved Gopikas from the Bhagavata Purana. The only auspicious part of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, a summary of Hindu philosophy narrated by Krishna to Arjun on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Had there not been a Bhagavad Gita, people would not have given so much value to the latter half of Krishna’s life.
There are stories full of household quarrels; Krishna multiplies himself to give attention to each of his 16,108 wives.
The Bhagavad Gita introduces us to bhakti yoga 2,000 years ago. The Bhagavata Purana elaborates it in fine detail nearly 1,000 years ago. The former gave an intellectual foundation to the latter’s emotional approach to God that swept across India as the bhakti movement about 500 years ago. In this period, local poets such as Meera of Rajasthan and Salabega of Odisha and Narsi Mehta of Gujarat and Vidyapati of Mithila and Tukaram of Maharashtra composed songs on Krishna, bringing him closer to the masses. In their songs, stories of the Bhagavata Purana blended with the philosophy of Bhagavad Gita.
5. Krishna of Jains and Buddhists.
Stories of Krishna abound in the Buddhist and Jain traditions. In the Jain Mahabharata, the battle is not between the Kauravas and Pandavas. The battle is between Krishna of Dwaraka and Jarasandha, the emperor of Magadha, in which the Pandavas support Krishna and the Kauravas support Jarasandha. It is important to note that the Jain Mahabharata runs along the east-west axis of India: Jarasandha is in Magadha, in the east, and Krishna is in Dwaraka, in the west.
The Buddhist Jatakas make no direct reference to Krishna, but a Krishna-like character appears in the Ghata Jatakas, where his quality as a wrestler is highlighted. When he mourns the death of his son, he is consoled by Ghata-Pandita, who is the Bodhisattva.
6. Householder, husband and father.
Krishna’s life in Dwaraka is something of a mystery: few stories of Krishna, the husband and householder are retold. People are familiar with his two most well-known wives, Satyabhama and Rukmini. Many of the Puranas refer to his eight senior queens, and there is also reference to over 1,000 junior wives he gave shelter to after the conquest of Narakasura.
These stories are full of household quarrels. Krishna has to be a good husband to maintain domestic harmony between competing wives. There are stories about how he multiplies himself to give full attention to each of his 16,108 wives. These are, of course, metaphors explaining at one level Krishna’s ability to manage complex situations, and at another level establishing him as divinity.
7. Comfort with androgyny.
Some folk narratives of Krishna draw attention to his androgynous nature. Look at Krishna’s statues in Odisha: he bends like a dancer, which is not how a modern macho man would stand, and he has a braid and nose rings to connect with his mother and to Radha.
In many temples, his image is dressed in female attire (Stri-vesha) on festival days to remind us of Krishna’s feminine form, Mohini. In one South Indian folk story, Krishna and Arjun go around the country, dressed as an old woman and a young girl respectively, tricking villains to do their bidding.
The Mahabharata is traditionally considered inauspicious because it deals with bloodshed and the break-up of a family.
In a tale from north Tamil Nadu, Arjuna’s son, Aravan, by a Naga woman called Ulupi, has to be sacrificed before the war at Kurukshetra. But he refuses to be sacrificed until he gets married. Since no woman is willing to marry him, Krishna takes the form of Mohini and becomes his bride for one night. The next day, Mohini wails for him as a widow.
In the raas leela, only Krishna is supposed to be male. So when Shiva wants to participate in the raas leela, he takes the form of a gopika and so is worshipped in Vrindavana even today as Gopeshwar Mahadev. Likewise, Arjun and Narada both take the form of women to gain access to the raas leela as per the Padma Purana.
8. Kindness towards villains.
The Krishna stories are unique for their great compassion for the villains. Kamsa, Jarasandha and Duryodhana are the three main villains in Krishna lore. All three are said to have traumatic childhoods: Kamsa is a child of rape who is rejected by his mother at birth. Jarasandha is born malformed at birth; his father’s two queens each give birth to half his body, and the two halves are then fused together by the ogress called Jara. Duryodhana’s mother is blindfolded in solidarity with his blind father, so he is unseen by his parents all his life.
This explains that people perceived to be evil often have been wronged, which makes them so insecure that they become insensitive and dehumanised.