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III

THE BHAGAVATA PURANA: THE COWHERD


(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.

[11]

Note 7.

[12]

Magadha—a region corresponding to present-day South Bihar.

[13]

Plate 3.

[14]

Note 8.

[15]

Note 9.

[16]

Plate 4.

[17]

Plate 5.

[18]

Plate 6. In the Harivansa, the cause of the migration is given as a dangerous influx of wolves.

[19]

Note 10.

[20]

Plate 7.

[21]

Note 7.

[22]

Plate 8.

[23]

Plate 9.

[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.

[25]

Plate 11.

[26]

Plate 12.

[27]

Note 11.

[28]

Plate 13.

[29]

Plate 14.

[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 buff.

This unexpected dénouement 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.

Krishna now reaches the gate where the bow of Siva 'as long as three palm trees' and very heavy, is being guarded by soldiers. He picks it up, bends it to the full and breaks it in pieces. When the guards attack him, he kills them and presently slaughters all the reinforcements which Kansa sends. When the battle is over, he strolls calmly back to the cowherds' tents.[33]

Next day, Krishna and the cowherds enter Mathura to attend the sports. Krishna is obstructed by a giant elephant, attacks it and after a great fight kills it. He and Balarama then extract the tusks and parade with them in the arena. It is now the turn of Kansa's wrestlers. Their leader, Chanura, dares Krishna to give Kansa a little amusement by wrestling with him. Krishna takes him at his word and again after a fierce combat leaves the wrestler dead on the ground.[34] At the same time, Balarama attacks and kills a second wrestler, Mustaka. When other wrestlers strive to kill Krishna and Balarama, they also are dispatched. Seeing first one and then another plan go astray, Kansa orders his remaining demons to fetch Vasudeva, Devaki and Ugrasena, declaring that after he has killed them he will put the two young men to death. This declaration seals his fate. In a flash Krishna slays Kansa's demons and then, leaping on the dais where Kansa is sitting, he seizes him by the hair and hurls him to the ground. Kansa is killed and all Mathura rejoices. Kansa's eight demon brothers are then slain and only when Krishna has dragged Kansa's body to the river Jumna and is sure that not a single demon is left do he and Balarama desist from fighting.

[31]

Note 7.

[32]

Plate 16.

[33]

Plate 16.

[34]

Plate 17.





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