One of the oldest caves (number 27) in Ellora in Maharashtra, has the image of a goddess holding a lotus flower, flanked by two gods. The two gods have been identified as Vishnu on her left, and Balarama on her right. She is identified as Ekanamsa, the portionless one. She is the supreme goddess as well as Krishna’s sister.
But the image on her left is not Krishna, it is Vishnu — indicated by his four arms, bearing lotus, wheel, conch shell and a mace (gada). This indicates two things. Firstly, the story of the mighty cowherd Krishna is being merged with the idea of the Vedic god Vishnu, who is being visualised as a four-armed protector of the world, manifesting through kings.
Secondly, we are witnessing the rise of Hinduism based on images and temples, where gods are being represented as having four-arms. This happened around the 5th century CE, under Gupta rule.
In earlier Buddhist and Jain art, gods have two arms only. But in Hindu art, gods have multiple arms, and heads. This idea of divinity with multiple arms and heads is found in Vedic literature. This establishes an intimate link between the old Vedic traditions, eclipsed by Buddhism and Jainism, and the later Hindu traditions, that went on to eclipse Buddhism and Jainism.
In Vedic times, Brahmins were insular, keeping their ideas secret. With the rise of Hinduism, Brahmins opened up and began merging their ideas with folk wisdom. Thus Balarama and Krishna, two mighty folk gods, linked to farming and herding, became part of the Hindu pantheon.
Balarama would be eventually linked to Shiva, and Krishna to Vishnu. Both would be linked to the goddess, who would be called sister of Vishnu, and wife of Shiva. Many of these ideas would emerge not universally, but locally, in various temple traditions.
Same story, different retellings
Long before any formal denominations existed, people worshipped a god called Hali, as he held the plough, and another god called Chakri, as he held the wheel of carts pulled by oxen and horses. These are the two primary occupations of most people. Both need the earth – Ekanamsa. So the idea of the farming and herding god, with the earth-goddess, between them is an ancient idea, long before they became part of any mainstream religion.
We find images of the wheel-bearing and the plough-bearing god on IndoGreek coins, which are 2,100 years old. The Greeks said the Indians worshipped Heracles. Were they alluding to Hari-kula-esh, worship of Hari’s clan? We can only speculate.
In the most popular Hindu version, we are told that a divine voice announces to Kansa, king of Mathura, that his sister’s eighth son would be his killer. So he proceeds to kill all her children.
This sounds very much like a Greek myth, where a tyrant is warned by oracles that his killer will be born in his family. In Krishna’s story, the seventh child is transplanted into a distant womb and is thus rescued. The eighth child is taken and raised amongst cowherds and replaced by the cowherd’s daughter.
When Kansa tries to kill this female child, she transforms into a goddess. These three surviving children become the triad of Balarama, Krishna and Subhadra. Krishna and Balarama eventually kill Kansa in a wrestling match.
In the Ghata Jataka of the Buddhists, the same story is told a little differently. Kansa hides his sister on a tower, but she secretly has an affair with a prince called Sagara. When this is discovered, Kansa agrees to spare the female children but not the male children. A daughter is born soon after and she is spared.
After this, Kansa’s sister bears 10 sons. They are all replaced by stillborn daughters of her servant, who bears children at the same time. The 10 royal sons are raised in the servant’s family. They grow up to be mighty wrestlers who eventually kill Kansa.
In the Jain narrative, it is not the eighth child; but the seventh child who is said to kill Kansa. The six children are replaced by six still-born daughters. The seventh child is replaced by a living daughter, whose nose is cut to prevent her from marrying a powerful man who could threaten Kansa.
Later in life, we learn that Devaki’s six surviving sons become Jain monks. The seventh son, who is Krishna, kills Kansa. Devaki longs for another child. She has an eighth son, but he also becomes a Jain monk. Thus, seven out of eight sons become Jain monks.
In Jain lore, Balarama is born of another wife, Rohini, and he chooses non-violence as his path. In Jain lore, Krishna’s sister, with her cut nose, becomes a Jain nun. Significantly, in Puri, Odisha, the goddess Subhadra is teased as the flat-nosed one (chepi-naki in Odia), suggesting some Jain connection
While meditating in a forest, tribals offer her fruits thinking she is a goddess. When they shut their eyes, she is attacked by a tiger. She does not resist the attack and does not cry out for help. When the tribals open their eyes, they see blood and entrails at the spot where the Jain nun was sitting. They conclude that the goddess was upset with the offering of fruit and left the place, leaving behind the kind of offerings she wanted – blood and meat. Thus began the tribal practice of offering buffalo sacrifices to the goddess, who it was said resided on the hills of Vindhya (Vindhyavasini), the southern edge of Arya-varta, the old Aryan world.
The story of Subhadra and her brothers was framed in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain lore, most probably north of the Vindhyas, over 2,000 years ago. This explains their appearance on punch-marked Mauryan coins and in rock paintings in caves of Madhya Pradesh. These are all from north of the Vindhyas.
This idea of a Hindu trinity with a goddess between two gods probably began receiving royal patronage only in the Gupta period (1,700 years ago). Gradually through mountain passes in the Vindhya, these stories came to the Deccan region by 500 CE (1,500 years ago). The image was probably carved in Ellora, until then a predominantly Buddhist site, by Vakatakas who had marital ties with the Guptas. The goddess was linked to Shakti.
The two gods beside her were not just her brothers, Balarama and Krishna. They were linked to Shiva and Vishnu. Thus she embodied new Hinduism itself.
However, over time, most of the Hindu world forgot about Ekanamsa, flanked by Hali and Chakri. Preference was given to the male trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva instead.
The only major temple where this image of goddess still persists, with two gods on either side, is at Jagannath of Puri, Odisha. But the current form of the deity is dated only from about the 12th century (800 years ago)
It is speculated that this form was popular amongst local tribals and was incorporated into Odisha’s Vaishnava temples later by the Brahmins there, which explains why the rituals there involve both Brahmins and non-Brahmin tribal priests. The three deities are represented by three wooden pillar-like images. The central one is yellow, and to her left is a deity who is black and to her right is a deity who is black. It is common to identify them as Subhadra, Krishna and Balarama.
However, there are other interpretations in temple lore. Some say, the three embody the three streams of Hinduism: Balarama is Shaiva, Subhadra is Shakta and Jagannatha is Vaishnava.
While some say she is Shakti and the two gods on either side are her caretakers — the black Kala Bhairava and the white Gora Bhairava.
Thus, an ancient memory still survives in its newest, almost unrecognisable, form in this Hindu temple of Odisha located on the eastern edge of the Deccan.