The Loves of Krishna in Indian Painting and Poetry
by W. G. Archer
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I am deeply indebted to Dr. A.L. Basham for generous guidance throughout the preparation of this book, to George Keyt for permitting me to quote extensively from his brilliant translation of the Gita Govinda, and to Deben Bhattacharya who supplied me with new translations of later poems and discussed a number of important points. I must also express my deep gratitude to Mildred Archer and to Gopi Krishna Kanoria for valued criticism and advice, to Messrs. Faber and Faber, the Harvill Press, Messrs. Macmillan, the Oxford University Press, the Phoenix House and Messrs. Sidgwick and Jackson for permitting me to quote passages from works still copyright, to Professor J. Brough for an informative note on Bhanu Datta's Rasamanjari and to all those owners of collections who have either allowed me to reproduce pictures in their possession or have kindly supplied me with photographs.

Part of the material for this book was delivered as lectures to the Royal Asiatic Society, the Royal India, Pakistan and Ceylon Society and at the Victoria and Albert Museum.





III THE BHAGAVATA PURANA: THE COWHERD i Birth and Early Adventures ii The Loves of the Cowgirls iii The Death of the Tyrant

IV THE BHAGAVATA PURANA: THE PRINCE i The Return to Court ii Marriages and Offspring iii Last Phases iv The Purana Re-considered

V THE KRISHNA OF POETRY i The Triumph of Radha ii The Gita Govinda iii Later Poetry iv The Rasika Priya









During the twentieth century, a certain type of Indian painting began to fascinate the West. Unlike Mughal art, it was a product of Hindu courts in Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills and unlike Mughal painting, its chief concern was with the varied phases of romance. Ladies would be shown brooding in their chambers as storm clouds mounted in the sky. A girl might be portrayed desperately fondling a plantain tree, gripping a pet falcon, the symbol of her lover, or hurrying through the rainy darkness intent only on reaching a longed-for tryst. A prince would appear lying on a terrace, his outstretched arms striving vainly to detain a calm beauty or welcoming with delight a bashful girl as she slowly advanced. In all these pictures, romantic love was treated as the highest good and physical passion was interpreted with a freshness and innocence unequalled in the world's art.

Such paintings were, at first sight, easy to appreciate. Although they alternated between two methods of expression—the first a style of savage distortion, the second a style of the softest grace—each manner enlivened the common subject.[1] Yet in two respects elucidation was vitally necessary. Just as in Japan, the lover might express his longings by cryptic references to Nature, the Indian artist employed poetic symbols to charge his subjects with romantic ardour. Flowers were never merely flowers nor clouds clouds. The symbols of Indian poetry—the lotus swaying in a stream, the flowering creeper embracing a trunk—were intended to suggest passion-haunted ladies. The mingling of clouds, rain and lightning symbolized the embraces of lovers, and commonplace objects such as dishes, vases, ewers and lamps were brought into subtle conjunction to hint at 'the right true end of love.' What, in fact, might seem at first sight to be a simple portrait, proved on closer understanding to be a study in despair, a revelation of delight or a clue to rapture, each image with its sexual implications contriving to express some nuance of longing. In these pictures, only a part of the meaning was apparent and without a comprehension of the poetry, much of its true significance was lost.

Such an obstacle to understanding was real enough but, as the eye ranged over this new kind of love-painting, a second difficulty appeared. In many pictures, the lover had special characteristics. He was shown with a crown of peacock's feathers, clad in a golden dhoti and in every case his skin was mauve or slate-blue.[2] In certain cases, the lady of his choice appeared bowing at his feet, her pose suggesting the deepest adoration; yet, in other pictures, his role was quite different. He was then a resolute warrior, fighting and destroying demons. It was clear, in fact, that here was no ordinary lover but one who might also be a god. At the same time, other perplexing circumstances were present. The lover's appearance was that of an aristocratic youth and the ladies whom he loved had the bearing of elegant princesses. Yet often the scene of their encounters was a forest thick with flowering trees. His companions were cowherds and the objects of his love were not the ladies of a court but cowgirls. Other activities betrayed the same lowly sphere. In certain pictures, he was shown eating with cowherds, sharing in their sports, grazing the cattle and himself milking cows. That such a lover should dominate the paintings was perplexing in the extreme and just as cultured Indians would be baffled by Italian and Flemish painting unless they already knew the life of Christ, it was clear that part, even the majority, of these pictures would remain obscure unless the character of their central figure was first explained. One further point remained. In many cases, the pictures were not intended to be viewed in isolation but were illustrations of a text. Many were inscribed with Sanskrit or Hindi verses and in each case there was an intimate connection between the content of the picture and the poem's subject. To understand the pictures, therefore, some acquaintance with these texts was necessary for only in this way could the identity and role of the blue-skinned lover be appreciated. He was, in fact, Krishna—an incarnation of God—and in his worship some of the deepest requirements of the Indian spirit found ecstatic release.

The purpose of this book is to throw some light on Indian painting by presenting the story of Krishna in the clearest possible terms. It might be supposed that, of all Indian gods, Krishna was already the one best known to the West and therefore, perhaps, the one least requiring explanation. Among modern poets, Sacheverell Sitwell devotes a whole poem in Canons of Giant Art to describing Krishna's effect.

Rain falls and ceases, all the forest trembles: Mystery walks the woods once more, We hear a flute. It moves on earth, it is the god who plays With the flute to his lips and music in his breath: The god is Krishna in his lovely youth.

Louis MacNeice in Ten Burnt Offerings describes a much-loved cat,

Fluid as Krishna chasing the milkmaids.

And the same Krishna, flute player and lover of milkmaids, is familiar to British audiences from the dancing of Ram Gopal. Yet side by side with this magnetic figure, a second, strangely different Krishna is also known. This second Krishna is the preacher of the Bhagavad Gita, the great sermon delivered on the battle-field of Kurukshetra. It is a cardinal document of Indian ethics, and consoled Mahatma Gandhi during his work for Indian independence. It has for many years been known in the West but has recently attracted fresh attention through a modern translation by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda. This Krishna of the Gita is clearly quite different in character from the Krishna of the milkmaids and, without some effort at reconciliation, the two must obviously present a baffling enigma. Indeed so great is the contrast that many Englishmen, entranced by the lover, might be astonished to hear of a more didactic role, while those who value the Gita might easily be disturbed on finding its author so daringly identified with the theory and practice of romantic love. The truth, if we are to admit it, is that despite considerable acquaintance with Krishna as a name, few educated people in the West have intimate knowledge of his story. In fact, we have only to ask some basic questions to realize how slender is general understanding. What, for example, were the circumstances in which Krishna was born and why did he enter the world? Of which Indian god is he an incarnation? Who were his parents and how did he come to live among cowherds? Who were Radha and Rukmini? In what ways did he love the milkmaids and why has this aspect of his story assumed such big proportions in Indian religion? Why, in fact, is God a romantic lover? Just as few Indians, even highly educated Indians, could survive a friendly cross-examination on details of the New Testament, the majority of cultured Englishmen would find it hard to answer even a few of these simple questions.

It is to remedy in part this situation that I have marshalled the material given in this book. With certain types of issue I have made no attempt to deal. I have not, for example, discussed statements such as 'Krishna was not a god but a hero of a rough tribe of cowherds.' 'The Gita is an interpolation.' 'There is general agreement on the historicity of Krishna.' 'Radha appears to be a late addition.' Higher Criticism, whether applied to the Bible or to the classics of Indian religion must necessarily remain a small scholars' preserve—of vital importance to the few but of little account to the main body of believers or to artists illustrating adored themes. I have rather been concerned to present information about Krishna in the form in which it has actually reached Indian minds and has influenced belief and worship. During the last two thousand years, various texts have dealt with Krishna, emphasizing first one and then another aspect of his character and in the process assembling more and more details. These texts are still revered by Indians and although they are the product of widely separated eras, all of them have still an air of contemporary authority. By considering them in historical sequence, we can understand not only the subject-matter of romantic Indian painting but realize why Krishna, the adored lover, should still enchant religious India.

[Footnote 1: Note 1.]

[Footnote 2: Note 2.]



The first reference to Krishna occurs in the Chandogya Upanishad of perhaps the sixth century B.C. Upanishads were 'forest sittings' or 'sessions with teachers.' Sages and their disciples discussed the nature of life and strove to determine the soul's exact relationship to God. The starting-point was the theory of re-incarnation. Death, it was believed, did not end the soul. Death was merely a stepping-stone to another life, the soul moving from existence to existence in one long effort to escape re-birth. From this cycle, only one experience could bring release and that was consciousness or actual knowledge of the supreme Spirit. When that state was achieved, the soul blended with the Godhead and the cycle ended. The problem of problems, therefore, was how to attain such knowledge. The Chandogya Upanishad does not offer any startling solution to this matter. The teacher who conducts the session is a certain Ghora of the Angirasa family and it is the person of his disciple rather than his actual message which concerns us. The disciple is called Krishna and his mother has the name Devaki. Devaki is the later Krishna's mother and there is accordingly every reason to suppose that the two Krishnas are the same. Nothing, however, is stated of this early Krishna's career and although parts of the sage's teachings have been compared to passages in the Gita,[3] Krishna himself remains a vague and dim name.

For the next few centuries, knowledge of Krishna remains in this fragmentary state. Nothing further is recorded and not until the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, crystallizes out between the fourth century B.C. and the fourth century A.D. does a more detailed Krishna make his appearance.[4] By the end of this period, many vital changes had taken place. The Indian world-view had become much clearer and it is possible not only to connect Krishna with a definite character but to see him in clear relation to cosmic events. The supreme Spirit was now envisaged as a single all-powerful God, known according to his functions as Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. As Brahma, he brought into existence three worlds—heaven, earth and the nether regions—and also created gods or lesser divinities, earth and nature spirits, demons, ogres and men themselves. Siva, for his part, was God the final dissolver or destroyer, the source of reproductive energy and the inspirer of asceticism. He was thought of in many forms—as a potent ascetic, a butcher wild for blood, a serene dancer—and in his character of regenerator was represented by his symbol, the lingam or phallus. The third aspect, Vishnu, was God in his character of loving protector and preserver. This great Trinity was ultimately supreme but under it were a number of lesser powers. Those that represented the forces of good were called devas or gods. They were led by their king, Indra, lord of clouds, and associated with him were gods such as Agni (fire), Varuna (water), Surya the sun and Kama the god of passion. These gods lived in Indra's heaven, a region above the world but lower than Vaikuntha, the heaven of Vishnu. Dancing-girls and musicians lived with them and the whole heaven resembled a majestic court on earth. From this heaven the gods issued from time to time intervening in human affairs. Demons, on the other hand, were their exact opposites. They represented powers of evil, were constantly at war with the gods and took vicious pleasure in vexing or annoying the good. Below gods and demons were men themselves.

In this three-tiered universe, transmigration of souls was still the basic fact but methods of obtaining release were now much clearer. A man was born, died and then was born again. If he acted well, did his duty and worked ceaselessly for good, he followed what was known as the path of dharma or righteousness. This ensured that at each succeeding birth he would start a stage more favourably off than in his previous existence till, by sheer goodness of character, he qualified for admission to Indra's heaven and might even be accounted a god. The achievement of this status, however, did not complete his cycle, for the ultimate goal still remained. This was the same as in earlier centuries—release from living by union with or absorption into the supreme Spirit; and only when the individual soul had reached this stage was the cycle of birth and re-birth completed. The reverse of this process was illustrated by the fate of demons. If a man lapsed from right living, his second state was always worse than his first. He might then be born in humble surroundings or if his crimes were sufficiently great, he became a demon. As such, his capacity for evil was greatly increased and his chances of ultimate salvation correspondingly worsened. Yet even for demons, the ultimate goal was the same—release from living and blissful identification with the Supreme.

Dharma alone, however, could not directly achieve this end. This could be done by the path of yoga or self-discipline—a path which involved penances, meditation and asceticism. By ridding his mind of all desires and attachments, by concentrating on pure abstractions, the ascetic 'obtained insight which no words could express. Gradually plumbing the cosmic mystery, his soul entered realms far beyond the comparatively tawdry heavens where the great gods dwelt in light and splendour. Going "from darkness to darkness deeper yet," he solved the mystery beyond all mysteries; he understood, fully and finally, the nature of the universe and of himself and he reached a realm of truth and bliss, beyond birth and death. And with this transcendent knowledge came another realization—he was completely, utterly, free. He had found ultimate salvation, the final triumph of the soul.'[5] Such a complete identification with the supreme Spirit, however, was not easily come by and often many existences were required before the yogi could achieve this sublime end.

There remained a third way—the path of bhakti or devotion to God. If a man loved God not as an abstract spirit but as a loving Person, if he loved with intensity and singleness of heart, adoration itself might obtain for him the same reward as a succession of good lives. Vishnu as protector might reward love with love and confer immediately the blessing of salvation.

The result, then, was that three courses were now open to a man and whether he followed one or other depended on his own particular cast of mind, the degree of his will-power, the strength of his passions and finally, his capacity for renunciation, righteousness and love. On these qualifications the upshot would largely depend. But they were not the only factors. Since gods and demons were part of the world, a man could be aided or frustrated according as gods or demons chose to intervene. Life could, in fact, be viewed from two angles. On the one hand it was one long effort to blend with the Godhead—an effort which only the individual could make. On the other hand, it was a war between good and evil, gods and demons; and to such a contest, God as Vishnu could not remain indifferent. While the forces of evil might properly be allowed to test or tax the good, they could never be permitted completely to win the day. When, therefore, evil appeared to be in the ascendant, Vishnu intervened and corrected the balance. He took flesh and entering the world, slew demons, heartened the righteous and from time to time conferred salvation by directly exempting individuals from further re-births.

It is these beliefs which govern the Mahabharata epic and provide the clue to Krishna's role. Its prime subject is a feud between two families, a feud which racks and finally destroys them. At the same time, it is very much more. Prior to the events narrated in the text, Vishnu has already undergone seven incarnations, taking the forms of a fish, tortoise, boar and man-lion and later those of Vamana the dwarf, Parasurama ('Rama with the Axe'), and finally, the princely Rama. In each of these incarnations he has intervened and, for the time being, rectified the balance. During the period covered by the epic, he undergoes an eighth incarnation and it is in connection with this supremely vital intervention that Krishna appears.

To understand the character which now unfolds, we must briefly consider the central story of the Mahabharata. This is narrated in the most baffling and stupendous detail. Cumbrous names confront us on every side while digressions and sub-plots add to the general atmosphere of confusion and complexity. It is idle to hope that this vast panorama can arouse great interest in the West and even in India it is unlikely that many would now approach its gigantic recital with premonitions of delight. It is rather as a necessary background that its main outlines must be grasped, for without them Krishna's character and career can hardly be explained.

The epic begins with two rival families each possessed of a common ancestor, Kuru, but standing in bitter rivalry to each other. Kuru is succeeded by his second son, Pandu, and later by Dhritarashtra, his first son but blind. Pandu has five sons, who are called Pandavas after him, while Dhritarashtra has a hundred sons called Kauravas after Kuru, their common grandfather. As children the two families grow up at the same court, but almost immediately jealousies arise which are to have a deadly outcome. Hatred begins when in boyish contests the Pandavas outdo the Kauravas. The latter resent their arrogance and presently their father, the blind king, is persuaded to approve a plot by which the five Pandavas will be killed. They are to sleep in a house which during the night will be burnt down. The plot, however, miscarries. The house is burnt, but unbeknown to the Kauravas, the five brothers escape and taking with them their mother, Kunti, go for safety to the forest. Here they wander for a while disguised as Brahmans or priests but reach at last the kingdom of Panchala. The King of Panchala has a daughter, Draupadi, whose husband is to be chosen by a public archery competition. Arjuna, one of the five brothers, wins the contest and gains her as bride. The Pandavas, however, are polyandrous and thus, on being married to one brother, Draupadi is also married to the other four. At the wedding the Pandavas disclose their identities. The Kauravas learn that they are still alive and in due course are reconciled. They reinstate the Pandavas and give them half the kingdom. Before Arjuna, however, can profit from the truce, he infringes by accident his elder brother's privacy by stumbling on him while he is with their common wife. As a consequence he violates a standing agreement and has no alternative but to go into exile for twelve years. Arjuna leaves the court, visits other lands, acquires a new wife and makes a new alliance. In other respects, all is well and the two families look forward to many years of peaceful co-existence.

The fates, however, seem determined on their destruction. The leader of the Pandavas is their eldest brother, Yudhisthira. He conquers many other lands and is encouraged to claim the title, 'ruler of the world.' The claim is made at a great sacrifice accompanied by a feast. The claim incenses the Kauravas and once again the ancient feud revives. Themselves expert gamblers, they challenge Yudhisthira to a contest by dice. Yudhisthira stupidly agrees and wagering first his kingdom, then his brothers and finally his wife, loses all and goes again into exile. With him go the other Pandavas, including Arjuna who has since returned. For twelve years they roam the forests, brooding on their fate and planning revenge. When their exile ends, they at once declare war. Both sides seek allies, efforts at peacemaking are foiled and the two clash on the battle-field of Kurukshetra. For eighteen days the battle rages till finally the Pandavas are victorious. Their success, however, is at an appalling cost. During the contest all five Pandavas lose their sons. The hundred sons of their rival, the blind king Dhritarashtra, are dead and with a sense of tragic futility, the epic ends.

It is as an actor in this tangled drama that Krishna appears. Alongside the Pandavas and the Kauravas in Northern India is a powerful people, the Yadavas. They live by grazing cattle but possess towns including a capital, the city of Dwarka in Western India. At this capital resides their ruler or king and with him is a powerful prince, Krishna. This Krishna is related to the rival families, for his father, Vasudeva, is brother of Kunti, the Pandavas' mother. From the outset, therefore, he is placed in intimate proximity to the chief protagonists. For the moment, however, he himself is not involved and it is only after the Pandavas have gone into exile and reached the kingdom of Panchala that he makes his entrance. The occasion is the archery contest for the hand of Draupadi. Krishna is there as an honoured guest and when Arjuna makes the winning shot, he immediately recognizes the five Pandavas as his kinsmen although as refugees they are still disguised as Brahmans. When the assembled princes angrily protest at Draupadi's union with a Brahman, and seem about to fight, Krishna intervenes and persuades them to accept the decision. Later he secretly meets the Pandavas and sends them wedding presents. Already, therefore, he is fulfilling a significant role. He is a powerful leader, a relative of the central figures and if only because the feud is not his own, he is above the conflict and to some extent capable of influencing its outcome.

His next appearance brings him closer still to the Pandavas. When Arjuna is exiled for his breach of marriage etiquette, he visits Krishna in his city of Dwarka. A great festival is held and in the course of it Arjuna falls in love with Krishna's sister, Subhadra. Krishna favours the marriage but advises Arjuna to marry her by capture. Arjuna does so and by becoming Krishna's brother-in-law cements still further their relationship.

This friendship has one further consequence, for, after Arjuna has completed his exile and returned to the Pandava court, Krishna visits him and the two go into the country for a picnic. 'After a few days, Arjuna said to Krishna, "The summer days have come. Let us go to the River Jumna, amuse ourselves with some friends and come back in the evening." Krishna replied, "I would like that very much. Let us go for a bathe." So Arjuna and Krishna set out with their friends. Reaching a fine spot fit for pleasure and overgrown with trees, where several tall houses had been built, the party went inside. Food and wine, wreaths of flowers and fragrant perfumes were laid out and at once they began to frolic at their will. The girls in the party with delightful rounded haunches, large breasts and handsome eyes began to flirt as Arjuna and Krishna commanded. Some played about in the woods, some in the water, some inside the houses. And Draupadi and Subhadra who were also in the party gave the girls and women costly dresses and garments. Then some of them began to dance, some to sing, some laughed and joked, some drank wine. And the houses and woods, filled with the noise of flutes and drums, became the very seat of pleasure.'[6]

A little later, Krishna is accorded special status. At the sacrifice performed by Yudhisthira as 'ruler of the world,' gifts of honour are distributed. Krishna is among the assembled guests and is proposed as first recipient. Only one person objects, a certain king Sisupala, who nurses a standing grievance against him. A quarrel ensues and during it Krishna kills him. Krishna's priority is then acclaimed but the incident serves also to demonstrate his ability as a fighter.

One other aspect of Krishna's character remains to be noted. Besides being a bold warrior, he is above all an astute and able ally. During the Pandavas' final exile in the forest, he urges them to repudiate their banishment and make war. When the exile is over and war is near, he acts as peace-maker, urging the Kauravas to make concessions. When he is foiled by Duryodhana, the blind king's son, he attempts to have him kidnapped. Finally, once the great battle is joined, he offers both sides a choice. Each may have the help either of himself alone or of his immediate kinsmen, the Vrishnis. The Vrishnis will fight in the battle, while Krishna himself will merely advise from a distance. The Kauravas choose the fighters, the Pandavas Krishna. Krishna accordingly aids the Pandavas with counsel. He accompanies Arjuna as his charioteer and during the battle is a constant advocate of treachery. As Kama, a leading Kaurava, fights Arjuna, his chariot gets stuck and he dismounts to see to it. The rules of war demand that Arjuna should now break off but Krishna urges him to continue and Kama is killed unresisting. Similarly when Bhima, one of the five Pandava brothers, is fighting Duryodhana with his club, Krishna eggs him on to deal a foul blow. Bhima does so and Duryodhana dies from a broken thigh. In all these encounters, Krishna shows himself completely amoral, achieving his ends by the very audacity of his means.

So far, Krishna's character is merely that of a feudal magnate, and there is nothing in his views or conduct to suggest that he is Vishnu or God. Two incidents in the epic, however, suddenly reveal his true role. The first is when Yudhisthira has gambled away Draupadi and the Kauravas are intent on her dishonour. They attempt to make her naked. As one of them tries to remove her clothes, Draupadi beseeches Krishna as Vishnu to intervene and save her. Krishna does so and by his help she remains clothed; however many times her dress is removed. The second occasion is on the final battle-field of Kurukshetra. Arjuna, seeing so many brothers, uncles and cousins ranged on either side is moved to pity at the senseless nature of the strife and confides his anguished doubts in Krishna. Krishna seems, at first, to be only his friend, his brother-in-law and adviser. He points out that to a warrior nothing is nobler than a righteous war and declares, 'Do your duty always but without attachment.' He then advocates the two paths of yoga(knowledge) and dharma (righteousness). 'Even if a man falls away from the practice of yoga, he will still win the heaven of the doers of good deeds and dwell there many long years. After that, he will be reborn into the home of pure and prosperous parents. He will then regain that spiritual discernment which he acquired in his former body; and so he will strive harder than ever for perfection. Because of his practices in the previous life, he will be driven on toward union with the Spirit, even in spite of himself. For the man who has once asked the way to the Spirit goes farther than any mere fulfiller of the Vedic rituals. By struggling hard, that yogi will move gradually towards perfection through many births and reach the highest goal at last[7].

But it is the path of bhakti or devotion to a personal God which commands Krishna's strongest approval and leads him to make his startling revelation. 'Have your mind in Me, be devoted to Me. To Me shall you come. What is true I promise. Dear are you to Me. They who make Me their supreme object, they to Me are dear. Though I am the unborn, the changeless Self, I condition my nature and am born by my power. To save the good and destroy evildoers, to establish the right, I am born from age to age. He who knows this when he comes to die is not reborn but comes to Me.' He speaks, in fact, as Vishnu himself.

This declaration is to prove the vital clue to Krishna's character. It is to be expanded in later texts and is to account for the fervour with which he is soon to be adored. For the present, however, his claim is in the nature of an aside. After the battle, he resumes his life as a prince and it is more for his shrewdness as a councillor than his teaching as God that he is honoured and revered. Yet special majesty surrounds him and when, thirty-six years after the conflict, a hunter mistakes him for a deer and kills him by shooting him in the right foot[8], the Pandavas are inconsolable. They retreat to the Himalayas, die one by one and are translated to Indra's heaven[9].

Such an account is obviously a great advance on the Chandogya Upanishad. Yet, as we ponder its intricate drama, we are faced with several intractable issues. It is true that a detailed character has emerged, a figure who is identified with definite actions and certain clear-cut principles. It is true also that his character as Vishnu has been asserted. But it is Krishna the feudal hero who throughout the story takes, by far, the leading part. Between this hero and Krishna the God, there is no very clear connection. The circumstances in which Vishnu has taken form as Krishna are nowhere made plain. Except on the two occasions mentioned, Krishna is apparently not recognized as God by others and does not himself claim this status. Indeed it is virtually only as an afterthought that the epic is used to transmit his great sermon, and almost by accident that he becomes the most significant figure in the story. Even the sermon at first sight seems at variance with his actions as a councillor—his repeated recourse to treachery ill consorting with the paramountcy of duty. In point of fact, such a conflict can be easily reconciled for if God is supreme, he is above and beyond morals. He can act in any way he pleases and yet, as God, can expect and receive the highest reverence. God, in fact, is superior to ethics. And this viewpoint is, in fact, to prove a basic assumption in later versions of the story. Here it is sufficient to note that while the Mahabharata describes these two contrasting modes of behaviour, no attempt is made to face the exact issue. Krishna as God has been introduced rather than explained and we are left with the feeling that much more than has been recorded remains to be said.

This feeling may well have dogged the writers who put the Mahabharata into its present shape for, a little later, possibly during the sixth century A.D., an appendix was added. This appendix was called the Harivansa or Genealogy of Krishna[10] and in it were provided all those details so manifestly wanting in the epic itself. The exact nature of Krishna is explained—the circumstances of his birth, his youth and childhood, the whole being welded into a coherent scheme. In this story Krishna the feudal magnate takes a natural place but there is no longer any contradiction between his character as a prince and his character as God. He is, above all, an incarnation of Vishnu and his immediate purpose is to vanquish a particular tyrant and hearten the righteous. This viewpoint is maintained in the Vishnu Purana, another text of about the sixth century and is developed and illustrated in the tenth and eleventh books of the Bhagavata Purana. It is this latter text—a vast compendium of perhaps the ninth or tenth century—which affords the fullest account in literature of Krishna's story.

[Footnote 3: Note 3.]

[Footnote 4: Note 4.]

[Footnote 5: A.L. Basham, The Wonder that was India, 245.]

[Footnote 6: Mahabharata, Adi Parva, Section 224 (Roy, I, 615-16).]

[Footnote 7: C. Isherwood and S. Prabhavananda, The Song of God, Bhagavad-Gita, 86-7.]

[Footnote 8: Plate 2.]

[Footnote 9: Note 5.]

[Footnote 10: Note 6.]



(i) Birth and Early Adventures

The Bhagavata Purana is couched in the form of a dialogue between a sage and a king. The king is the successor of the Pandavas but is doomed to die within a week for having by accident insulted a holy ascetic. To ensure his salvation, he spends the week listening to the Bhagavata Purana and concentrating his mind on Krishna whom he declares to be his helper.[11]

Book Ten begins by describing the particular situation which leads to Krishna's birth. The scene is Mathura, a town in northern India, adjoining the kingdom of the Kauravas. The surrounding country is known as Braj and its ruling families are the Yadavas. Just outside Mathura is the district of Gokula which is inhabited by cowherds. These are on friendly terms with the Yadavas, but are inferior to them in caste and status. The time is some fifty years or more before the battle of Kurukshetra and the ruling king is Ugrasena. Ugrasena's queen is Pavanarekha and a mishap to her sets in train a series of momentous events.

One day she is taking the air in a park, when she misses her way and finds herself alone. A demon, Drumalika, is passing and, entranced by her grace, decides to ravish her. He takes the form of her husband, Ugrasena, and despite Pavanarekha's protests proceeds to enjoy her. Afterwards he assumes his true shape. Pavanarekha is dismayed but the demon tells her that he has given her a son who will 'vanquish the nine divisions of the earth, rule supreme and fight Krishna.' Pavanarekha tells her maids that a monkey has been troubling her. Ten months later a son is born. He is named Kansa and the court rejoices.

As Kansa grows up he reveals his demon's nature. He ignores his father's words, murders children and defeats in battle King Jarasandha of Magadha.[12] The latter gives him two daughters in marriage. He then deposes his father, throws him into prison, assumes his powers and bans the worship of Vishnu. As his crimes increase, he extends his conquests. At last Earth can bear the burden no longer and appeals to the gods to approach the supreme Deity, Brahma, to rid her of the load. Brahma as Creator can hardly do this, but Vishnu as Preserver agrees to intervene and plans are laid. Among the Yadava nobility are two upright persons. The first is Devaka, the younger brother of King Ugrasena and thus an uncle to the tyrant. The second is a certain Vasudeva. Devaka has six daughters, all of whom he marries to Vasudeva. The seventh is called Devaki. Vishnu announces that Devaki will also be married to Vasudeva, and plucking out two of his hairs—one black and one white—he declares that these will be the means by which he will ease Earth's burden. The white hair is part of Sesha, the great serpent, which is itself a part of Vishnu and this will be impersonated as Devaki's seventh child. The black hair is Vishnu's own self which will be impersonated as Devaki's eighth child. The child from the white hair will be known as Balarama and the child from the black hair as Krishna. As Krishna, Vishnu will then kill Kansa. Earth is gratified and retires and the stage is set for Krishna's coming.

Devaki, with Kansa's approval, is now married to Vasudeva. The wedding is being celebrated in the grandest manner when a voice from heaven is heard saying, 'Kansa, the eighth son of her whom you are now escorting will cause your destruction. You shall die at his hand.' Kansa is greatly alarmed and is about to slay Devaki when Vasudeva agrees to yield him all their sons. Kansa accordingly spares her. Each of Devaki's first six sons, however, is delivered up at birth and each is slaughtered.

As the time for fulfilling the prophecy approaches, Kansa grows fearful. He learns that gods and goddesses are being born as cowherds and cowgirls and, interpreting this as a sign that Krishna's birth is near, he commands his men to slaughter every cowherd in the city. A great round-up ensues and many cowherds are killed. The leading cowherd is a wealthy herdsman named Nanda, who lives with his wife Yasoda in the country district of Gokula. Although of lower caste, he is Vasudeva's chief friend and in view of the imminent dangers confronting his family, it is to Nanda that Vasudeva now sends one of his other wives, Rohini. Devaki has meanwhile conceived her seventh son, the white hair of Vishnu, and soon to be recognized as Krishna's brother. To avoid his murder by Kansa, Vishnu has the foetus transferred from Devaki's womb to that of Rohini, and the child, named Balarama, is born to Rohini, Kansa being informed that Devaki has miscarried. The eighth pregnancy now occurs. Kansa increases his precautions. Devaki and Vasudeva are handcuffed and manacled. Guards are mounted and besides these, elephants, lions and dogs are placed outside. The unborn child, however, tells them not to fear and Devaki and Vasudeva compose their minds.

Krishna is now born, dark as a cloud and with eyes like lotuses. He is clad in a yellow vest and wears a crown. He takes the form of Vishnu and commands Vasudeva to bear him to Nanda's house in Gokula and substitute him for the infant daughter who has just been born to Yasoda, Nanda's wife. Devaki and Vasudeva worship him. The vision then fades and they discover the new-born child crying at their side. They debate what to do—Devaki urging Vasudeva to take the baby to Nanda's house where Rohini, his other wife, is still living and where Yasoda will receive it. Vasudeva is wondering how to escape when his handcuffs and chains fall off, the doors open and the guards are seen to be asleep. Placing Krishna in a basket, he puts it on his head and sets out for Gokula. As he goes, lions roar, the rain pours down and the river Jumna faces him. There is no help but to ford it and Vasudeva accordingly enters the stream. The water gets higher and higher until it reaches his nose. When he can go no farther, the infant Krishna stretches out a foot, calms the river and the water subsides. Vasudeva now arrives at Nanda's house where he finds that Yasoda has borne a girl and is in a trance. Vasudeva puts Krishna beside her, takes up the baby girl, recrosses the river and joins Devaki in her prison. The doors shut, the handcuffs and fetters close on them again and as the baby starts to cry, the guards awake. A sentry then carries Kansa the news. Kansa hurries to the spot, seizes the child and tries to dash it on a stone. As he does so the child becomes the goddess Devi and exclaiming that Kansa's enemy is born elsewhere and nothing can save him, vanishes into heaven.[13] Kansa is greatly shaken and orders all male children to be killed,[14] but releases Vasudeva and Devaki.

Meanwhile Nanda, the rich herdsman, is celebrating the birth. Pandits and astrologers are sent for, the child's horoscope is cast and his destiny foretold. He will be a second deity like Brahma himself. He will destroy demons, relieve the land of Braj of all its cares, be called the lord of the cowgirls and be praised the whole world over. Nanda promises to dedicate cows, loads the Brahmans with presents, and summons all the musicians and singers of the city. Singing, dancing and music break forth, the courtyards throng with people, and the cowherds of Gokula come in with their wives. On their heads are pitchers full of curd and as a magical means of ensuring prosperity, they proceed to throw it over the gathering. Nanda presents them with cloth and betel and they depart elated at the news.

Some days later Nanda learns of Kansa's order to seize all male children and, deeming it prudent to offer presents, he collects the cowherds in a body and goes to Mathura to pay tribute. Kansa receives him and on his way back Vasudeva meets him at the river. He dare not disclose his secret that Krishna is not Nanda's son but his own. At the same time he cannot suppress his anxiety as a father. He contents himself by telling Nanda that demons and evil spirits are abroad seeking to destroy young children and urges him to return to Gokula as quickly as possible.

The Purana now concentrates on two main themes: on Krishna's infancy in Gokula, dilating on his baby pranks, his capacity for mischief, the love he arouses in the hearts of his foster-mother, Yasoda, and of all the married cowgirls and, secondly, on his supernatural powers and skill in ridding the country of troublesome demons. These are at first shown as hostile to Krishna only, but as the story unfolds, his role gradually widens and we see him acting as the cowherds' ally, protecting them from harm, attacking the forces of evil and thus fulfilling the supreme purpose for which he has been born. From time to time the cowherds realize that Krishna is Vishnu and adore him as God. Then amnesia intervenes. They retain no recollection of the vision and see him simply as a youthful cowherd, charming in manner, whose skill in slaying demons arouses their love. In this way Krishna lives among them—in fact, God, but in the eyes of the people, a young boy.[15]

The first demon to threaten Krishna's life is a huge ogress named Putana. Her role is that of child-killer—any child who is suckled in the night by Putana instantly dying. Putana assumes the form of a sweet and charming girl, dabs her breasts with poison and while Nanda is still at Mathura, comes gaily to his house. Entranced by her appearance, Yasoda allows her to hold the baby Krishna and then to suckle him. Krishna, however, is impervious to the poison, and fastening his mouth to her breast, he begins to suck her life out with the milk. Putana, feeling her life going, rushes wildly from the village, but to no avail. Krishna continues sucking and the ogress dies. When Yasoda and Rohini catch up with her, they find her huge carcass lying on the ground with Krishna still sucking her breast. 'Taking him up quickly and kissing him, they pressed him to their bosoms and hurried home.'

Nanda now arrives from Mathura and congratulates the cowherds on their escape—so great was Putana's size that her body might have crushed and overwhelmed the whole colony. He then arranges for her burning but as her flesh is being consumed, a strange perfume is noticed for Krishna, when killing her, had granted her salvation.

A second demon now intervenes. It is twenty-seven days since Krishna's birth. Brahmans and cowherds have been summoned to a feast, the cowgirls are singing songs and everyone is laughing and eating. Krishna for the time being is out of their minds, having been put to sleep beneath a heavy cart loaded with pitchers. A little later he wakes up, begins to cry for the breast and finding no one there wriggles about and starts to suck a toe. At this moment the demon, Saktasura, is flying through the sky. He notices the child and alights on the cart. His weight cracks it but before the cart can collapse, Krishna kicks out so sharply that the demon dies and the cart falls to pieces. Hearing a great crash, the cowgirls dash to the spot, marvelling that although the cart is in splinters and all the pots broken, Krishna has survived.

The third attack occurs when Krishna is five months old. Yasoda is sitting with him in her lap when she notices that he has suddenly become very heavy. At the same time, the whirlwind demon, Trinavarta, raises a great storm. The sky darkens, trees are uprooted and thatch dislodged. As Yasoda sets Krishna down, Trinavarta seizes him and whirls him into the air. Yasoda finds him suddenly gone and calls out, 'Krishna, Krishna.' The cowgirls and cowherds join her in the search, peering for him in the gusty gloom of the dark storm. Full of misery, they search the forest and can find him nowhere. Krishna, riding through the air, however, can see their distress. He twists Trinavarta round, forces him down and dashes him to death against a stone. As he does so, the storm lightens, the wind drops and the cowherds and cowgirls regain their homes. There they discover a demon lying dead with Krishna playing on its chest. Filled with relief, Yasoda picks him up and hugs him to her breast.

Vasudeva now instructs his family priest, Garga the sage, to go to Gokula, meet Nanda and give Krishna and Balarama proper names. Rohini, he points out, has had a son, Balarama, and Nanda has also had a son, Krishna. It is time that each should be formally named. The sage is delighted to receive the commission and on arriving is warmly welcomed. He declines, however, to announce the children's names in public, fearing that his connection with Vasudeva will cause Raja Kansa to connect Krishna with the eighth child—his fated enemy. Nanda accordingly takes him inside his house and there the sage names the two children. Balarama is given seven names, but Krishna's names, he declares, are numberless. Since, however, Krishna was once born in Vasudeva's house, he is called Vasudeva. As to their qualities, the sage goes on, both are gods. It is impossible to understand their state, but having killed Kansa, they will remove the burdens of the world. He then goes silently away. This is the first time that Nanda and Yasoda are told the true facts of Krishna's birth. They do not, however, make any comment and for the time being it is as if they are still quite ignorant of Krishna's destiny. They continue to treat him as their son and no hint escapes them of his true identity.

Meanwhile Krishna, along with Rohini's son, Balarama, is growing up as a baby. He crawls about the courtyard, lisps his words, plays with toys and pulls the calves' tails, Yasoda and Rohini all the time showering upon him their doting love. When he can walk, Krishna starts to go about with other children and there then ensues a series of naughty pranks. His favourite pastime is to raid the houses of the cowgirls, pilfer their cream and curds, steal butter and upset milk pails. When, as sometimes happens, the butter is hung from the roof, they pile up some of the household furniture. One of the boys then mounts upon it, another climbs on his shoulders, and in this way gets the butter down.[16] As the pilfering increases, the married cowgirls learn that Krishna is the ringleader and contrive one day to catch him in the act. 'You little thief,' they say, 'At last we've caught you. So it's you who took our butter and curds. You won't escape us now.' And taking him by the hand they march him to Yasoda. Krishna, however, is not to be outwitted. Employing his supernatural powers, he substitutes the cowgirls' own sons for himself and while they go to Yasoda, himself slips off and joins his playmates in the fields. When the cowgirls reach Yasoda, they complain of Krishna's thefts and tell her that at last they have caught him and here he is. Yasoda answers, 'But this is not Krishna. These are your own sons.' The cowgirls look at the children, discover the trick, are covered in confusion and burst out laughing. Yasoda then sends for Krishna and forbids him to steal from other people's houses. Krishna pretends to be highly indignant. He calls the cowgirls liars and accuses them of always making him do their work. If he is not having to hold a milk pail or a calf, he says, he is doing a household chore or even keeping watch for them while they neglect their work and gossip. The cowgirls listen in astonishment and go away.

Another day Krishna is playing in a courtyard and takes it into his head to eat some dirt. Yasoda is told of it and in a fit of anger runs towards him with a stick. 'Why are you eating mud?' she cries. 'What mud?' says Krishna. 'The mud one of your friends has just told me you have eaten. If you haven't eaten it, open your mouth.' Krishna opens it and looking inside, Yasoda sees the three worlds. In a moment of perception, she realizes that Krishna is God. 'What am I doing in looking upon the Lord of the three worlds as my son?' she cries. Then the vision fades and she picks up Krishna and kisses him.

Another day, Yasoda asks the married cowgirls to assist her in churning milk. They clean the house, set up a large vessel, prepare the churning staff and string, and start to churn. Krishna is awakened by the noise and finding no one about comes crying to Yasoda. 'I am hungry, mother,' he says. 'Why have you not given me anything to eat?' And in a fit of petulance he starts to throw the butter about and kick over the pitchers. Yasoda tells him not to be so naughty, sits him on her lap and gives him some milk. While she is doing this, a cowgirl tells her that the milk has boiled over and Yasoda jumps up leaving Krishna alone. While she is away he breaks the pots, scatters the curds, makes a mess of all the rooms and, taking a pot full of butter, runs away with it into the fields. There he seats himself on an upturned mortar, assembles the other boys and vastly pleased with himself, laughingly shares the butter out. When Yasoda returns and sees the mess, she seizes a stick and goes to look for Krishna. She cannot find it in her heart, however, to be angry for long and when Krishna says, 'Mother, let me go. I did not do it,' she laughs and throws the stick away. Then pretending to be still very angry, she takes him home and ties him to a mortar. A little later a great crash is heard. Two huge trees have fallen and when the cowherds hurry to the spot, they find that Krishna has dragged the mortar between the trunks, pulled them down and is quietly sitting between them.[17] Two youths—by name Nala and Kuvara—have been imprisoned in the trees and Krishna's action has released them. When she sees that Krishna is safe, Yasoda unties him from the mortar and hugs him to her.

This incident of the trees now forces Nanda to make a decision. The various happenings have been profoundly unnerving and he feels that it is no longer safe to stay in Gokula. He decides therefore to move a day's march farther on, to cross the river and settle in the forests of Brindaban. The cowherds accordingly load up their possessions on carts and the move ensues.[18]

The story now enters its second phase. Krishna is no longer a mischievous baby, indulging in tantrums yet wringing the heart with his childish antics. He is now five years old and of an age to make himself useful. He asks to be allowed to graze the calves. At first Yasoda is unwilling. 'We have got so many servants,' she says. 'It is their job to take the calves out. Why go yourself? You are the protection of my eye-lids and dearer to me than my eyes.' Krishna, however, insists and in the end she entrusts him and Balarama to the other young cowherds, telling them on no account to leave them alone in the forest, but to bring them safely home. Her words are, in fact, only too necessary, for Kansa, the tyrant king, is still in quest of the child who is to kill him. His demon minions are still on the alert, attacking any likely boy, and as Krishna plays with the cowherds and tends the calves, he suffers a further series of attacks.

A cow demon, Vatsasura, tries to mingle with the herd. The calves sense its presence and as it sidles up, Krishna seizes it by the hind leg, whirls it round his head and dashes it to death. A crane demon, Bakasura, then approaches. The cowherds recognize it, but while they are wondering how to escape, the crane opens its beak and engulfs Krishna. Krishna, however, becomes so hot that the crane cannot retain him. It lets him go. Krishna then tears its beak in two, rounds up the calves and taking the cowherd boys with him, returns home.

Another day Krishna is out in the forest with the cowherds and the calves, when a snake demon, Ugrasura, sucks them into its mouth. Krishna expands his body to such an extent that the snake bursts. The calves and cowherd children come tumbling out and all praise Krishna for saving them. On the way back, Krishna suggests that they should have a picnic and choosing a great kadam tree, they sweep the place clean, set out their food and proceed to enjoy it. As they eat, the gods look down, noting how handsome the young Krishna has grown. Among the gods is Brahma, who decides to tease Krishna by hiding the calves while the cowherd children are eating.[19] He takes them to a cave and when Krishna goes in search of them, hides the cowherd children as well. Krishna, however, is not to be deterred. Creating duplicates of every calf and boy he brings them home. No one detects that anything is wrong and for a year they live as if nothing has happened. Brahma has meanwhile sunk himself in meditation, but suddenly recalls his prank and hurries out to set matters right. He is astonished to find the original calves and children still sleeping in the cave, while their counterparts roam the forest. He humbly worships Krishna, restores the original calves and children and returns to his abode. When the cowherd children awake, Krishna shows them the calves. No one realizes what has happened. The picnic continues and laughing and playing they go home.

We now enter the third phase of Krishna's childhood. He is eight years old and is therefore competent to graze not merely the calves but the cows as well.[20] Nanda accordingly performs the necessary ritual and Krishna goes with the cowherds to the forest.

An idyllic phase in Krishna's life now starts. 'At this time Krishna and Balarama, accompanied by the cow-boys, traversed the forests, that echoed with the hum of bees and the peacock's cry. Sometimes they sang in chorus or danced together; sometimes they sought shelter from the cold beneath the trees; sometimes they decorated themselves with flowery garlands, sometimes with peacocks' feathers; sometimes they stained themselves of various hues with the minerals of the mountain; sometimes weary they reposed on beds of leaves, and sometimes imitated in mirth the muttering of the thundercloud; sometimes they excited their juvenile associates to sing, and sometimes they mimicked the cry of the peacock with their pipes. In this manner participating in various feelings and emotions, and affectionately attached to each other, they wandered, sporting and happy, through the wood. At eveningtide came Krishna and Balarama, like to cowboys, along with the cows and the cowherds. At eveningtide the two immortals, having come to the cow-pens, joined heartily in whatever sports amused the sons of the herdsmen.'[21]

One day as they are grazing the cows, they play a game. Krishna divides the cows and cowherds into two sides and collecting flowers and fruits pretends that they are weapons. They then stage a mock battle, pelting each other with the fruits. A little later Balarama takes them to a grove of palm trees. The ass demon, Dhenuka, guards it. Balarama, however, seizes it by its hind legs, twists it round and hurls it into a high tree. From the tree the demon falls down dead. When Dhenuka's companion asses hasten to the spot, Krishna kills them also. The cowherds then pick the coconuts to their hearts' content, fill a quantity of baskets and having grazed the cows, go strolling home.

The next morning Krishna rises early, calls the cowherds and takes the cows to the forest. As they are grazing them by the Jumna, they reach a dangerous whirlpool. In this whirlpool lives the giant snake, Kaliya, whose poison has befouled the water, curdling it into a great froth. The cowherds and the cattle drink some of it, are taken ill, but revive at Krishna's glance. They then play ball. A solitary kadam tree is on the bank. Krishna climbs it and a cowherd throws the ball up to him. The ball goes into the water and Krishna, thinking this the moment for quelling the great snake, plunges in after it. Kaliya detects that an intruder has entered the pool, begins to spout poison and fire and encircles Krishna in its coils. In their alarm the cowherds send word to Nanda and along with Yasoda, Rohini and the other cowgirls, he hastens to the scene. Krishna can no longer be seen and in her agitation Yasoda is about to throw herself in. Krishna, however, is merely playing with the snake. In a moment he expands his body, jumps from the coils and begins to dance on the snake's heads. 'Having the weight of three worlds,' the Purana says, 'Krishna was very heavy.' The snake fails to sustain this dancing burden, its heads droop and blood flows from its tongues. It is about to die when the snake-queens bow at Krishna's feet and implore his mercy. Krishna relents, spares the snake's life but banishes it to a distant island.[22] He then leaves the river, but the exhaustion of the cowherds and cowgirls is so great that they decide to stay in the forest for the night and return to Brindaban next morning. Their trials, however, are far from over. At midnight there is a heavy storm and a huge conflagration. Scarlet flames leap up, dense smoke engulfs the forest and many cattle are burnt alive. Finding themselves in great danger, Nanda, Yasoda and the cowherds call on Krishna to save them. Krishna quietly rises up, sucks the fire into his mouth and ends the blaze.

The hot weather now comes. Trees are heavy with blossom, peacocks strut in the glades and a general lethargy seizes the cowherds. One day Krishna and his friends are out with the cattle when Pralamba, a demon in human form, comes to join them. Krishna warns Balarama of the demon's presence and tells him to await an opportunity to kill him. He then divides the cowherds into two groups and starts them on the game of guessing fruits and flowers. Krishna's side loses and as a penalty they have to run a certain distance carrying Balarama's side on their shoulders. Pralamba carries Balarama. He runs so fast that he quickly outstrips the others. As he reaches the forest, he changes size, becoming 'large as a black hill.' He is about to kill Balarama when Balarama himself rains blows upon him and kills him instead.[23] While this is happening, the cows get lost, another forest fire ensues and Krishna has once again to intervene. He extinguishes the fire, regains the cattle and escorts the cowherds to their homes.[24] When the others hear what has happened, they are filled with wonder 'but obtain no clue to the actions of Krishna.'

During all this time, Krishna as 'son' of the wealthiest and most influential cowherd, Nanda, has been readily accepted by the cowherd children as their natural leader. His lack of fear, his bravery in coping with demons, his resourcefulness in extricating the cowherds from awkward situations, his complete self-confidence and finally his princely bearing have revealed him as someone altogether above the ordinary. From time to time he has disclosed his true nature as Vishnu but almost immediately has exercised his 'illusory' power and prevented the cowherds from remembering it. He has consequently lived among them as God but their love and admiration are still for him as a boy. It is at this point that the Purana now moves to what is perhaps its most significant phase—a description of Krishna's effects on the cowgirls.

[Footnote 11: Note 7.]

[Footnote 12: Magadha—a region corresponding to present-day South Bihar.]

[Footnote 13: Plate 3.]

[Footnote 14: Note 8.]

[Footnote 15: Note 9.]

[Footnote 16: Plate 4.]

[Footnote 17: Plate 5.]

[Footnote 18: Plate 6. In the Harivansa, the cause of the migration is given as a dangerous influx of wolves.]

[Footnote 19: Note 10.]

[Footnote 20: Plate 7.]

[Footnote 21: Note 7.]

[Footnote 22: Plate 8.]

[Footnote 23: Plate 9.]

[Footnote 24: Plate 10.]

(ii) The Loves of the Cowgirls

We have seen how during his infancy Krishna's pranks have already made him the darling of the women. As he grows up, he acquires a more adult charm. In years he is still a boy but we are suddenly confronted with what is to prove the very heart of the story—his romances with the cowgirls. Although all of them are married, the cowgirls find his presence irresistible and despite the warnings of morality and the existence of their husbands, each falls utterly in love with him. As Krishna wanders in the forest, the cowgirls can talk of nothing but his charms. They do their work but their thoughts are on him. They stay at home but all the time each is filled with desperate longing. One day Krishna plays on his flute in the forest. Playing the flute is the cowherds' special art and Krishna has, therefore, learnt it in his childhood. But, as in everything else, his skill is quite exceptional and Krishna's playing has thus a beauty all its own. From where they are working the cowgirls hear it and at once are plunged in agitation. They gather on the road and say to each other, 'Krishna is dancing and singing in the forest and will not be home till evening. Only then shall we see him and be happy.'

One cowgirl says, 'That happy flute to be played on by Krishna! Little wonder that having drunk the nectar of his lips the flute should trill like the clouds. Alas! Krishna's flute is dearer to him than we are for he keeps it with him night and day. The flute is our rival. Never is Krishna parted from it.' A second cowgirl speaks. 'It is because the flute continually thought of Krishna that it gained this bliss.' And a third says, 'Oh! why has Krishna not made us into flutes that we might stay with him day and night?' The situation in fact has changed overnight for far from merely appealing to the cowgirls' maternal instincts, Krishna is now the darling object of their most intense passion.

Faced with this situation, the cowgirls discuss how best to gain Krishna as their lover. They recall that bathing in the early winter is believed to wipe out sin and fulfil the heart's desires. They accordingly go to the river Jumna, bathe in its waters and after making clay images of Parvati, Siva's consort, pray to her to make Krishna theirs. They go on doing this for many days.

One day they choose a part of the river where there is a steep bank. Taking off their clothes they leave them on the grass verge, enter the water and swim around calling out their love for Krishna. Unknown to them, Krishna is in the vicinity and is grazing the cows. He steals quietly up, sees them in the river, makes their clothes into a bundle and then climbs up with it into a tree. When the cowgirls come out of the water, they cannot find their clothes until at last one of them spies Krishna sitting in the tree. The cowgirls hurriedly squat down in the water entreating Krishna to return their clothes. Krishna, however, tells them to come up out of the water and ask him one by one. The cowgirls say, 'But this will make us naked. You are making an end of our friendship.' Krishna says, 'Then you shall not have your clothes back.' The cowgirls answer, 'Why do you treat us so? It is only for you that we have bathed all these days.' Krishna answers, 'If that is really so, then do not be bashful or deceive me. Come and take your clothes.' Finding no alternative, the cowgirls argue amongst themselves that since Krishna already knows the secrets of their minds and bodies, there is no point in being ashamed before him, and they come up out of the water shielding their nakedness with their hands.[25] Krishna tells them to raise their hands and then he will return their clothes. The cowgirls do so begging him not to make fun of them and to give them at least something in return. Krishna now hands the clothes back giving as excuse for his conduct the following somewhat specious reason. 'I was only giving you a lesson,' he says. 'The god Varuna lives in water, so if anyone goes naked into it he loses his character. This was a secret, but now you know it.' Then he relents. 'I have told you this because of your love. Go home now but come back in the early autumn and we will dance together.' Hearing this the cowgirls put on their clothes and wild with love return to their village.

At this point the cowgirls' love for Krishna is clearly physical. Although precocious in his handling of the situation, Krishna is still the rich herdsman's handsome son and it is as this rather than as God that they regard him. Yet the position is never wholly free from doubt for in loving Krishna as a youth, it is as if they are from time to time aware of adoring him as God. No precise identifications are made and yet so strong are their passions that seemingly only God himself could evoke them. And although no definite explanation is offered, it is perhaps this same idea which underlies the following incident.

One day Krishna is in the forest when his cowherd companions complain of feeling hungry. Krishna observes smoke rising from the direction of Mathura and infers that the Brahmans are cooking food preparatory to making sacrifice. He asks the cowherds to tell them that Krishna is hungry and would like some of this food. The Brahmans of Mathura angrily spurn the request, saying 'Who but a low cowherd would ask for food in the midst of a sacrifice?' 'Go and ask their wives,' Krishna says, 'for being kind and virtuous they will surely give you some.' Krishna's power with women is then demonstrated once more. His fame as a stealer of hearts has preceded him and the cowherds have only to mention his name for the wives of the Brahmans to run to serve him. They bring out gold dishes, load them with food, brush their husbands aside and hurry to the forest. One husband stops his wife, but rather than be left behind the woman leaves her body and reaches Krishna before the others. When the women arrive they marvel at Krishna's beauty. 'He is Nanda's son,' they say. 'We heard his name and everything else was driven from our minds. Let us gaze on this darling object of our lives. O Krishna, it is due to you that we have seen you and thus got rid of all our sins. Those stupid Brahmans, our husbands, mistook you for a mere man. But you are God. As God they offer to you prayers, penance, sacrifice and love. How then can they deny you food?' Krishna replies that they should not worship him for he is only the child of the cowherd, Nanda. He was hungry and they took pity on him, and he only regrets that being far from home he cannot return their hospitality. They must now go home as their presence is needed for the sacrifices and their husbands must still be waiting. So cool an answer dismays the women and they say, 'Great king, we loved your lotus-like face. We came to you despite our families. They tried to stop us but we ignored them. If they do not take us back, where shall we go? And one of us, prevented by her husband, gave her life rather than not see you.' At this Krishna smiles, reveals the woman and says, 'Whoever loves God never dies. She was here before you.' Krishna then eats the food and assuring them that their husbands will say nothing, sends them back to Mathura. When they arrive, they find the Brahmans chastened and contrite—cursing their folly in having failed to recognize Krishna as God and envious of their wives for having seen him and given him food.

Having humbled the Brahmans, Krishna now turns to the gods, choosing Indra, their chief, for attack. The moment is his annual worship when the cowherds offer sweets, rice, saffron, sandal and incense. Seeing them busy, Krishna asks Nanda what is the point of all their preparations. What good can Indra really do? he asks. He is only a god, not God himself. He is often worsted by demons and abjectly put to flight. In fact he has no power at all. Men prosper because of their virtues or their fates, not because of Indra. As cowherds, their business is to carry on agriculture and trade and to tend cows and Brahmans. Their earliest books, the Vedas, require them not to abandon their family customs and Krishna then cites as an ancient practice the custom of placating the spirits of the forests and hills. This custom, he says, they have wrongly superseded in favour of Indra and they must now revive it. Nanda sees the force of Krishna's remarks and holds a meeting. 'Do not brush aside his words as those of a mere boy,' he says. 'If we face the facts, we have really nothing to do with the ruler of the gods. It is on the forests, rivers and the great hill, Govardhana, that we really depend.' The cowherds applaud this advice, resolve to abandon the gods and in their place to worship the mountain, Govardhana. The worship of the hill is then performed. Krishna advises the cowherds to shut their eyes and the spirit of the hill will then show itself. He then assumes the spirit's form himself, telling Nanda and the cowherds that in response to their worship the mountain spirit has appeared. The cowherds' eyes are easily deceived. Beholding, as they think, Govardhana himself, they make offerings and go rejoicing home.

Such an act of defiance greatly enrages Indra and he assembles all the gods. He forgets that earlier in the story it was the gods themselves who begged Vishnu to be born on earth and that many of their number have even taken birth as cowherds and cowgirls in order to delight in Krishna as his incarnation. Instead he sees Krishna as 'a great talker, a silly unintelligent child and very proud.' He scoffs at the cowherds for regarding Krishna as a god, and in order to reinstate himself he orders the clouds to rain down torrents. The cowherds, faced with floods on every side, appeal to Krishna. Krishna, however, is fully alive to the position. He calms their fears and raising the hill Govardhana, supports it on his little finger.[26] The cowherds and cattle take shelter under it and although Indra himself comes and pours down rain for seven days, Braj and its inhabitants stay dry. Indra is compelled to admit that Vishnu has indeed descended in the form of Krishna and retires to his abode. Krishna then sets the hill down in its former place. Following this discomfiture, Indra comes down from the sky accompanied by his white elephant and by Surabhi, the cow of plenty. He offers his submission to Krishna, is pardoned and returns.

All these events bring to a head the problem which has been exercising the cowherds for long—who and what is Krishna? Obviously no simple boy could lift the mountain on his finger. He must clearly be someone much greater and they conclude that Krishna can only be Vishnu himself. They accordingly beseech him to show them the paradise of Vishnu. Krishna agrees, creates a paradise and shows it to them. The cowherds see it and praise his name. Yet it is part of the story that these flashes of insight should be evanescent—that having realized one instant that Krishna is God, the cowherds should regard him the next instant as one of themselves. Having revealed his true nature, therefore, Krishna becomes a cowherd once again and is accepted by the cowherds as being only that.

One further incident must be recorded. In compliance with a vow, Nanda assembles the cowherds and cowgirls and goes to the shrine of Devi, the Earth Mother, to celebrate Krishna's twelfth birthday. There they make lavish offerings of milk, curds and butter and thank the goddess for protecting Krishna for so long. Night comes on and they camp near the shrine. As Nanda is sleeping, a huge python begins to swallow his foot.[27] Nanda calls to Krishna, who hastens to his rescue. Logs are taken from a fire, but as soon as the snake is touched by Krishna, a handsome young man emerges and stands before him with folded hands. He explains that he was once the celestial dancer, Sudarsana who in excess of pride drove his chariot backwards and forwards a hundred times over the place where a holy man was meditating. As a consequence he was cursed and told to become a python until Krishna came and released him. To attract Krishna's attention he has seized the foot of Nanda. Krishna bids him go and, ascending his chariot, Sudarsana returns to the gods.

The Purana now returns to Krishna's encounters with the cowgirls, their passionate longings and ardent desire to have him as their lover. Since the incident at the river, they have been waiting for him to keep his promise. Krishna, however, has appeared blandly indifferent—going to the forest, playing with the cowherds but coldly ignoring the cowgirls themselves. When autumn comes, however, the beauty of the nights stirs his feelings. Belatedly he recalls his promise and decides to fulfil it. That night his flute sounds in the forest, its notes reaching the ears of the cowgirls and thrilling them to the core. Like girls in tribal India today, they know it is a call to love. They put on new clothes, brush aside their husbands, ignore the other members of their families and hurry to the forest. As they arrive, Krishna stands superbly before them. He wears a crown of peacocks' feathers and a yellow dhoti and his blue-black skin shines in the moonlight. As the cowgirls throng to see him, he twits them on their conduct. Are they not frightened at coming into the dark forest? What are they doing abandoning their families? Is not such wild behaviour quite unbefitting married girls? Should not a married girl obey her husband in all things and never for a moment leave him? Having enjoyed the deep forest and the moonlight, let them return at once and soothe their injured spouses. The cowgirls are stunned to hear such words, hang their heads, sigh and dig their toes into the ground. They begin to weep and at last turn on Krishna, saying 'Oh! why have you deceived us so? It was your flute that made us come. We have left our husbands for you. We live for your love. Where are we to go?' 'If you really love me,' Krishna answers 'Dance and sing with me.' His words fill the cowgirls with delight and surrounding Krishna 'like golden creepers growing on a dark-coloured hill,' they go with him to the banks of the Jumna. Here Krishna has conjured up a golden circular terrace ornamented with pearls and diamonds and cooled by sprouting plantains. The moon pours down, saturating the forest. The cowgirls' joy increases. They beautify their bodies and then, wild with love, join with Krishna in singing and dancing. Modesty deserts them and they do whatever pleases them, regarding Krishna as their lover. As the night goes on, Krishna 'appears as beautiful as the moon amidst the stars.'

As the cowgirls' ecstasies proceed, Krishna feels that they are fast exceeding themselves. They think that he is in their power and are already swelling with pride. He decides therefore to leave them suddenly, and taking a single girl with him vanishes from the dance.[28] When they find him gone, the cowgirls are at a loss to know what to do. 'Only a moment ago,' one of them says, 'Krishna's arms were about my neck, and now he has gone.' They begin to comb the forest, anxiously asking the trees, birds and animals, for news. As they go, they recall Krishna's many winning ways, his sweetnesses of character, his heart-provoking charms and begin to mimic his acts—the slaying of Putana, the quelling of Kaliya, the lifting of the hill Govardhana. One girl imitates Krishna dancing and another Krishna playing. In all these ways they strive to evoke his passionately-desired presence. At length they discover Krishna's footprints and a little farther on those of a woman beside them. They follow the trail which leads them to a bed of leaves and on the leaves they find a looking-glass. 'What was Krishna doing with this?' they ask. 'He must have taken it with him,' a cowgirl answers, 'so that while he braided his darling's hair, she could still perceive his lovely form.' And burning with love, they continue looking.

While they are searching, the particular cowgirl who has gone with Krishna is tempted to take liberties. Thinking Krishna is her slave, she complains of feeling tired and asks him to carry her on his shoulders. Krishna smiles, sits down and asks her to mount. But as she puts out her hands, he vanishes and she remains standing with hands outstretched.[29] Tears stream from her eyes. She is filled with bitter grief and cries 'O Krishna! best of lovers, where have you gone? Take pity.'

As she is bemoaning her fate, her companions arrive.[30] They put their arms around her, comfort her as best they can, and then, taking her with them, continue through the moonlight their vain and anguished search. Krishna still evades them and they return to the terrace where the night's dancing had begun. There they once again implore Krishna to have pity, declaring that there is none like him in charm, that he is endlessly fascinating and that in all of them he has aroused extremities of passionate love. But the night is empty, their cries go unanswered, and moaning for the Krishna they adore, they toss and writhe on the ground.

At last, Krishna relents. He stands among them and seeing him, their cares vanish 'as creepers revive when sprinkled with the water of life.' Some of the cowgirls hardly dare to be angry but others upbraid him for so brusquely deserting them. To all, Krishna gives the same answer. He is not to be judged by ordinary standards. He is a constant fulfiller of desire. It was to test the strength of their love that he left them in the forest. They have survived this stringent test and convinced him of their love. The girls are in no mood to query his explanation and 'uniting with him' they overwhelm him with frantic caresses.

Krishna now uses his 'delusive power' in order to provide each girl with a semblance of himself. He asks them to dance and then projects a whole series of Krishnas. 'The cowgirls in pairs joined hands and Krishna was in their midst. Each thought he was at her side and did not recognize him near anyone else. They put their fingers in his fingers and whirled about with rapturous delight. Krishna in their midst was like a lovely cloud surrounded by lightning. Singing, dancing, embracing and loving, they passed the hours in extremities of bliss. They took off their clothes, their ornaments and jewels and offered them to Krishna. The gods in heaven gazed on the scene and all the goddesses longed to join. The singing mounted in the night air. The winds were stilled and the streams ceased to flow. The stars were entranced and the water of life poured down from the great moon. So the night went on—on and on—and only when six months were over did the dancers end their joy.'

As, at last, the dance concludes, Krishna takes the cowgirls to the Jumna, bathes with them in the water, rids himself of fatigue and then after once again gratifying their passions, bids them go home. When they reach their houses, no one is aware that they have not been there all the time.

[Footnote 25: Plate 11.]

[Footnote 26: Plate 12.]

[Footnote 27: Note 11.]

[Footnote 28: Plate 13.]

[Footnote 29: Plate 14.]

[Footnote 30: Plate 15.]

(iii) The Death of the Tyrant

This scene with its crescendos of excitement, its delight in physical passion and ecstatic exploration of sexual desire is, in many ways, the climax of Krishna's pastoral career. It expresses the devotion felt for him by the cowgirls. It stresses his loving delight in their company. It suggests the blissful character of the ultimate union. No further revelation, in fact, is necessary for this is the crux of Krishna's life. None the less the ostensible reason for his birth remains—to rid the earth of the vicious tyrant Kansa—and to this the Purana now returns.

We have seen how in his anxious quest for the child who is to kill him, Kansa has dispatched his demon warriors on roving commissions, authorizing them to attack and kill all likely children. Many children have in this way been slaughtered but Kansa is still uncertain whether his prime purpose has been fulfilled. He has no certain knowledge that among the dead children is his dreaded enemy. He is still unaware that Krishna is destined to be his foe and he therefore continues the hunt, his demon emissaries pouncing like commandos on youthful stragglers and hounding them to their deaths. Among such youths Krishna is still an obvious target and although unaware that this is the true object of their quest, demons continue to harry him.

One night Krishna and Balarama are in the forest with the cowgirls when a yaksha demon, Sankhasura, a jewel flashing in his head, comes among them. He drives the cowgirls off but hearing their cries, Krishna follows after. Balarama stays with the girls while Krishna catches and beheads the demon.

On another occasion, Krishna and Balarama are returning at evening with the cows when a bull demon careers amongst them. He runs amok scattering the cattle in all directions. Krishna, however, is not at all daunted and after wrestling with the bull, catches its horns and breaks its neck.

To such blind attacks there is no immediate end. One day, however, a sage discloses to Kansa the true identity of his enemy. He tells him in what manner Balarama and Krishna were born, how Balarama was transferred from Devaki's womb to that of Rohini, and how Krishna was transported to Nanda's house in Gokula. Kansa is now confronted with the ghastly truth—how Vasudeva's willingness to surrender his first six sons has lulled his suspicions, how his confidence in Vasudeva has been entirely misplaced, and how completely he has been deceived. He sends for Vasudeva and is on the point of killing him when the sage interposes, advising Kansa to imprison Vasudeva for the present and meanwhile make an all-out attempt to kill or capture Balarama and Krishna. Kansa sees the force of his remarks, spares Vasudeva for the moment, throws him and Devaki into jail and dispatches a special demon, the horse Kesi, on a murderous errand.

As the horse speeds on its way, Kansa assembles his demon councillors, explains the situation to them and asks for their advice. If Krishna should not be killed in the forest, the only alternative, the demons suggest, is to decoy him to Mathura. Let a handsome theatre be built, a sacrifice to Siva held and a special festival of arms proclaimed. All the cowherds will naturally come to see it. Nanda, the rich herdsman, will bring presents, Krishna and Balarama will come with other cowherds. When they have arrived the wrestler Chanura can throw them down and kill them. Kansa is delighted at the suggestion, adding only that a savage elephant should be stationed at the gate ready to tear Krishna and Balarama to pieces immediately they enter. He then dismisses his demon advisers and sends for Akrura, the chief of the Yadavas and a leading member of his court. Akrura, he judges, will be the best person to decoy Krishna to Mathura. He accordingly briefs him as to his intentions and instructs him to await orders. Akrura deems it politic to express compliance but secretly is overjoyed that he will thus obtain access to the Krishna he adores.

The first stage of Kansa's master plan is now brought into effect. The horse demon, Kesi, reaches Brindaban and begins to paw the ground and kick up its heels. The cowherds are frightened but Krishna dares it to attack. The horse tries to bite him but Krishna plunges his hand down its throat and expands it to a vast size until the demon bursts. Its remains litter the ground but Krishna is so unmoved that he merely summons the cowherd children to play a game. Squatting with them under a fig tree, he names one of them a general, another a minister, a third a councillor and himself pretending to be a raja plays with them at being king. A little later they join him in a game of blind man's bluff.

This unexpected denouement enrages Kansa but instead of desisting from the attempt and bringing into force the second part of his plan, he decides to make one further effort to murder his hated foe. He accordingly summons the wolf demon, Vyamasura, gives him detailed instructions and dispatches him to Brindaban. The demon hies to the forest, arriving while Krishna and the children are still at blind man's buff. He has dressed himself as a beggar and going humbly up to Krishna asks if he may join in. Krishna tells him to choose whatever game he likes and the demon says, 'What about the game of wolf and rams?' 'Very well,' Krishna answers, 'You be the wolf and the cowherd boys the rams.' They start to play and the demon rounds up all the children and keeps them in a cave. Then, assuming true wolf's form he pounces on Krishna. Krishna, however, is quite prepared and seizing the wolf by the throat, strangles it to death.

Akrura is now sent for and instructed to go to Brindaban and return with Krishna to Mathura. He sets out and as he journeys allows his thoughts to dwell on the approaching meeting. 'Now,' he muses 'has my life borne fruit; my night is followed by the dawn of day; since I shall see the countenance of Vishnu, whose eyes are like the expanded leaf of the lotus. I shall behold that lotus-eyed aspect of Vishnu, which, when seen only in imagination, takes away the sins of men. I shall today behold that glory of glories, the mouth of Vishnu, whence proceeded the Vedas, and all their dependent sciences. I shall see the sovereign of the world, by whom the world is sustained; who is worshipped as the best of males, as the male sacrifice in sacrificial rites. I shall see Vishnu, who is without beginning or end; by worshipping whom with a hundred sacrifices, Indra obtained the sovereignty over the gods. The soul of all, the knower of all, he who is all and is present in all, he who is permanent, undecaying, all-pervading will converse with me. He, the unborn, who has preserved the world in the various forms of a fish, tortoise, a boar, a horse, a lion will this day speak to me. Now the lord of the earth, who assumes shapes at will, has taken upon him the condition of humanity, to accomplish some object cherished in his heart. Glory to that being whose deceptive adoption of father, son, brother, friend, mother, and relative, the world is unable to penetrate. May he in whom cause and effect, and the world itself, is comprehended, be propitious to me, through his truth; for always do I put my trust in that unborn, eternal Vishnu; by meditation on whom man becomes the repository of all good things.'[31]

He goes on to think of how he will kneel before Krishna with folded hands and afterwards put on his head the dust of Krishna's feet—the same feet which 'have come to destroy crime, which fell on the snake Kaliya's head and which have danced with the cowgirls in the forest.' Krishna, he believes, will know at once that he is not Kansa's envoy and will receive him with kindness. And this is what actually ensues. Meeting Krishna outside Brindaban, he falls at his feet, Krishna lifts him up, embraces him and brings him into Nanda's house. Akrura tells Nanda and Krishna how Kansa has oppressed the people of Mathura, imprisoned Vasudeva and Devaki and has now sent him to invite them to attend the festival of arms. Krishna listens and at once agrees to go, while Nanda sends out a town-crier to announce by beat of drum that all the cowherds should get ready to leave the next day. When morning comes, Krishna leaves in a chariot, accompanied by the cowherds and their children.

The news of his sudden departure devastates the cowgirls. Since the circular dance in which their love was consummated, they have been meeting Krishna every evening and delighting in his company. And during the daytime their passionate longings have centred solely on him. That he should leave them so abruptly causes them complete dismay and they are only comforted when Krishna assures them that he will return after a few days.

On the way to Mathura Akrura bathes in the Jumna and is granted a vision of Krishna as Vishnu himself.

Reaching Mathura, Nanda and the cowherds pitch their tents outside the city walls[32] while Krishna with Balarama and the cowherd children go inside the city for a walk. As they wander through the streets, the news of their arrival precedes them and women, excited by Krishna's name, throng the rooftops, balconies and windows. 'Some ran off in the middle of their dinner: others while bathing and others while engaged in plaiting their hair. They forgot all dalliance with their husbands and went to look at Krishna.' As Krishna proceeds, he meets some of Kansa's washermen carrying with them bundles of clothes. He asks them to give him some and when they refuse, he attacks one of them and strikes off his head. The others drop their bundles and run for their lives. The cowherd children try to dress themselves up but not knowing how to wear the clothes, some of them put their arms into trousers and their legs into coats. Krishna laughs at their mistakes until a tailor, a servant of Kansa, repudiates his master, glorifies Krishna and sets the clothes right. A little later, a gardener takes them to his house and places garlands round their necks. As they are leaving, they meet a young woman, a hunchback, carrying a pot of scented ointment. Krishna cannot resist flirting with her and asks her for whom she is carrying the ointment. The girl, Kubja, sees the amorous look in his eyes and being greatly taken by his beauty answers 'Dear one, do you not know that I am a servant of Raja Kansa and though a hunchback am entrusted with making his perfumes?' 'Lovely one,' Krishna answers, 'Give us a little of this ointment, just enough to rub on our bodies.' 'Take some,' says Kubja, and giving it to Krishna and Balarama, she allows them to rub it on their bodies. When they have finished, Krishna takes her under the chin, lifts her head and at the same time, presses her feet down with his toes. In this way he straightens her back, thereby changing her into the loveliest of girls. Filled with love and gratitude, Kubja catches Krishna by the dress and begs him to come and visit her. Krishna promises to go later and smilingly dismisses her.

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