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(i) The Return to Court

The death of Kansa brings to a close the first phase of Krishna's career. His primary aim has now been accomplished. The tyrant whose excesses have for so long vexed the righteous is dead. Earth's prayer has been granted. Krishna has reached, in fact, a turning-point in his life and on what he now decides the rest of his career depends. If he holds that his earthly mission is ended, he must quit his mortal body, resume his sublime celestial state and once again become the Vishnu whose attributes have been praised by Akrura when journeying to Brindaban. If, on the other hand, he regards his mission as still unfulfilled, is he to return to Brindaban or should he remain instead at Mathura? At Brindaban, his foster parents, Nanda and Yasoda, his friends the cowherds and his loves the cowgirls long for his return. He has spent idyllic days in their company. He has saved them from the dangers inherent in forest life. He has kept a host of demon marauders at bay. At the same time, his magnetic charms have aroused the most intense devotion. If he returns, it will be to dwell with people who have doted on him as a child, adored him as a youth and who love him as a man. On the other hand, Mathura, it is clear, has also strong claims. Although reared and bred among the cowherds, Krishna is, in fact, a child of Mathura. Although smuggled from the prison immediately afterwards, it was in Mathura that he left his mother's womb. His true father is Vasudeva, a leader of the Yadava nobility and member of the Mathura ruling caste. His true mother, Devaki, is related to the Mathura royal family. If his youth and infancy have been passed among the cowherds, this was due to special reasons. His father's substitution of him at birth for Yasoda's baby daughter was dictated by the dire perils which would have confronted him had he remained with his mother. It was, at most, a desperate expedient for saving his life and although the tyrant's unremitting search for the child who was to kill him prolonged his stay in Brindaban, his transportation there was never intended as a permanent arrangement. A deception has been practised. Nanda and Yasoda regard and believe Krishna to be their son. None the less there has been no formal adoption and it is Vasudeva and Devaki who are his parents.

It is this which decides the issue. As one who by birth and blood belongs to Mathura, Krishna can hardly desert it now that the main obstacle to his return—the tyrant Kansa—has been removed. His plain duty is to his parents and his castemen. Painful therefore as the severance must be, he decides to abandon the cowherds and see them no more. He is perhaps fortified in his decision by the knowledge that even in his relations with the cowgirls a climax has been reached. A return would merely repeat their nightly ecstasies, not achieve a fresh experience. Finally although Kansa himself has been killed, his demon allies are still at large. Mathura and Krishna's kinsmen, the Yadavas, are far from safe. He can hardly desert them until their interests have been permanently safeguarded and by then he will have become a feudal princeling, the very reverse of the young cowherd who night after night has thrilled the cowgirls with his flute.

Following the tyrant's death, then, a train of complicated adjustments are set in motion. The first step is to re-establish Krishna with his true parents who are still in jail where the tyrant has confined them. Krishna accordingly goes to visit them, frees them from their shackles and stands before them with folded hands. For an instant Vasudeva and Devaki know that Krishna is God and that in order to destroy demons he has come on earth. They are about to worship him when Krishna dispels this knowledge and they look on him and Balarama as their sons. Then Krishna addresses them. For all these long years Vasudeva and Devaki have known that Krishna and Balarama were their children and have suffered accordingly. It was not Krishna's fault that he and Balarama were placed in Nanda's charge. Yet although parted from their mother, they have never forgotten her. It pains them to think that they have done so little to make her happy, that they have never had her society and have wasted their time with strangers. And he reminds them that in the world only those who serve their fathers and mothers obtain power. Vasudeva and Devaki are greatly touched by Krishna's words. Their former woe vanishes and they embrace Krishna and Balarama fondly.

Having acknowledged Vasudeva and Devaki as his true parents, Krishna has now to adjust his social position. Since Nanda and the cowherds belong to a lower caste than that of Vasudeva and the other Yadavas, Krishna and Balarama, who have eaten and drunk with the cowherds and have been brought up with them, are not true members of the Yadava community. The family priest is accordingly consulted and it is decided that a ceremony for admitting them into caste must be performed. This is done and Krishna and Balarama are given the customary sacred threads. They are now no longer cowherds but true Yadavas. At the same time they are given a spiritual preceptor who instructs them in the sacred texts and manuals of learning. When they have finished the course, they express their gratitude by restoring to him his dead son who has been drowned in the sea.

One further obligation springs from their new position. We have seen how in the epic, the Mahabharata, Krishna stands in a special relation to the Pandavas, the faction which emerges victorious from the great feud. The mother of the Pandavas is called Kunti and it is Kunti who is the sister of Krishna's father, Vasudeva. Since he is now with his true father, rumours concerning Kunti reach Krishna and he learns that along with her sons, the five Pandavas, she is being harassed by the Kaurava king, the blind Dhritarashtra, egged on by his son, the evil Duryodhana. Being now a part of his father's family, Krishna can hardly be indifferent to the fate of so intimate a relative. Akrura, the leading Yadava diplomat, whom the tyrant had employed to bring Krishna to Mathura, is accordingly despatched on yet another mission. He is to visit the Kauravas and Pandavas, ascertain the facts, console Krishna's aunt, Kunti, and then return and report. Akrura reaches the Kauravas' capital and discovers that the rumours are only too correct. Relations between the two families are strained to breaking point. The blind king is at the mercy of his son, Duryodhana, and it is the latter who is ceaselessly harrying Kunti and her sons. A little later, as we have already seen, a final attempt on their lives will be made, they will be induced to sleep in a new house, the house will be fired and only by a fortunate chance will the Pandavas escape to the forest and dwell in safety. This, however, is in the future and for the moment Kunti and her sons are still at court. Akrura assures Kunti of Krishna's abiding concern and returns to Mathura. Krishna and Balarama are perturbed to hear his news, deliberate on whether to intervene, but decide for the moment to do nothing.

The second adjustment which Krishna has now to make is to reconcile the cowherds to his permanent departure from them and to wean them from their passionate adherence to his presence. This is much more difficult. We have seen how on the journey to Mathura, Krishna has been accompanied by Nanda and the cowherds and how during the closing struggle with the tyrant they also have been present. When the fight is finally over, they prepare to depart, taking it for granted that Krishna and Balarama will come with them. Krishna has therefore to disillusion Nanda. He breaks the news to him that it is not he and Yasoda who are actually his parents but Vasudeva and Devaki. He loads Nanda with jewels and costly dresses and thanks him again and again for all his loving care. He then explains that he has now to stay in Mathura for a time to meet his castemen, the Yadavas. Nanda is greatly saddened by the news. The cowherds strive to dissuade him but Krishna is adamant. He retains a few cowherds with him, but the rest return to Brindaban, Krishna promising that after a time he will visit them. On arrival Nanda strives in vain to console Yasoda and is forced to tell her that Krishna has now acknowledged Vasudeva as his true father, that he has probably left Brindaban for good and that his own early intuition that Krishna was God is correct. Yasoda, as she thinks of her lost 'son,' is overwhelmed with grief, but recovers when she realizes that actually he is God. As to the cowgirls, their grief is endless as they recall Krishna's heart-ensnaring charms.

Such a step is obviously only the first move in what must necessarily be a long and arduous operation. Finding it impossible to say outright that he will never see them again, Krishna has committed himself to paying the cowherds a visit. Yet he realizes that nothing can be gained by such a step since, if his future lies with the princely Yadavas, any mingling with the cowherds will merely disrupt this final role. Yet clearly he cannot just abandon his former associates without any regard at all for their proper feelings. Weaning is necessary, and it must above all be gradual. He decides, therefore, that since he himself cannot go, someone must be sent on his behalf. Accordingly, he instructs a friend, Udho, to go to Brindaban, meet the cowherds and make excuses for his absence. At the same time, he must urge the cowgirls to give up regarding Krishna as their lover but worship him as God. Udho is accordingly dressed in Krishna's clothes, thereby making him appear a real substitute and is despatched in Krishna's chariot.

When Udho arrives, he finds Nanda and Yasoda still lamenting Krishna's absence and the cowgirls still longing for him as their lover. He begs them to regard Krishna as God—as someone who is constantly near those who love him even if he cannot be seen. Krishna, he says, has forbidden them to hope for any further impassioned ecstasies and now requires them to offer him their devotion only. If they do penance and meditate, Krishna will never leave them. From the day they commenced thinking of him, none have been so much loved as they. 'As earth, wind, water, fire, rain dwell in the body, so Krishna dwells in you; but through the influence of his delusive power seems to be apart.' Udho's pleading shocks and embitters the cowgirls. 'How can he talk to us like that?' they ask. 'It is Krishna's body that we adore, not some invisible idea high up in the sky. How has Krishna suddenly become invisible and imperceptible, a being without qualities and form, when all along he has delighted us with his physical charms. As to penance and meditation, these concern widows. What woman does penance while her husband is alive? It is all the doing of Kubja, the girl of Mathura whose charms have captivated Krishna. Were it not for Kubja and other beauties of Mathura, Krishna would now be with us in Brindaban. Had we known he would not return, we would never have let him go.' In such words they repudiate Udho's message, upbraid Krishna for his fickle conduct and demonstrate with what intensity they still adore him.

Udho is reduced to silence and can only marvel at the cowgirls' bliss in abandoning everything to think only of Krishna. Finally they send Krishna the message—that if he really desires them to abandon loving him with their bodies and resort to penance, he himself must come and show them how to do it. Unless he comes, they will die of neglect.

A few days later, Udho returns to Mathura bringing with him milk and butter as presents to Krishna from Nanda and Yasoda and escorting Rohini, Vasudeva's other wife and Balarama's mother. He gives Krishna the cowgirls' message and reports how all Brindaban longs for his return. 'Great King,' he says, 'I cannot tell you how they love you. You are their life. Night and day they think of you. Their love for you is complete as perfect worship. I gave them your advice concerning penance, but I have learnt from them perfect adoration. They will only be content when they see and touch you again.' Krishna listens and is silent. It is clear that efforts at weaning the cowgirls from him have so far failed and something further must be attempted.

Yet his resolve to sever all connections with his former life remains and it is perhaps symbolic of his purpose that he now recalls the hunch-back girl, Kubja, takes Udho with him and in a single ecstatic visit becomes her lover. As he reaches her house, the girl greets him with delight, takes him inside and seats him on a couch of flowers. Udho stays outside and then while Krishna waits, the girl quickly bathes, scents herself, combs her hair and changes her dress. Then 'with gaiety and endearment' she approaches Krishna. Krishna, however, takes her by the hand and places her near him. Their passions rise and the two achieve the utmost bliss. Krishna then leaves her, rejoins Udho and 'blushing and smiling' returns home.

The third step which Krishna must take is to deal with the political and military situation which has arisen from the slaying of the tyrant. We have seen how Kansa, although actually begotten by a demon was officially a son of Ugrasena, the king of Mathura, and as one of his many demon acts, had dethroned his father and seized the kingdom for himself. Ugrasena is still alive and the obvious course, therefore, is to reinstate him on the throne. Ugrasena, however, is unwilling to assume power and he and the other Yadavas implore Krishna to accept the title for himself. Krishna, however, has no desire to become king. He therefore overcomes Ugrasena's hesitations and in due course the latter is enthroned.

This settles the succession problem, but almost immediately a graver issue arises. During his reign of terror, Kansa had made war on Jarasandha, king of Magadha. He had defeated him but as part of the peace terms had taken two of his daughters as queens. These have now been widowed by his death and repairing to their father's court, they rail bitterly against Krishna and beg their father to avenge their husband's death. Jarasandha, although a former rival of Kansa, is also a demon and can therefore summon to his aid a number of demon allies. Great armies are accordingly mobilized. Mathura is surrounded and the Yadavas are in dire peril. Krishna and Balarama, however, are undismayed. They attack the foes single-handed and by dint of their supernatural powers, utterly rout them. Jarasandha is captured but released so that he may return to the attack and even more demons may then be slaughtered. He returns in all seventeen times, is vanquished on each occasion but returns once more. This time he is aided by another demon, Kalayavana, and seeing the constant strain of such attacks, Krishna decides to evacuate the Yadavas and settle them at a new base. He commissions the divine architect, Visvakarma, to build a new city in the sea. This is done in one night, the city is called Dwarka[35] and there the Yadavas with all their goods are transported. When this has been done, Krishna and Balarama trick the demons. They pretend to be utterly defeated, retreat from Mathura and in despair ascend a tall hill. The demon armies surround them and there appears to be no possible way of escape. Jarasandha orders wood to be brought from the surrounding towns and villages, piled up round the hill, saturated with oil and then set fire to. A vast flame shoots up. The whole hill is ablaze but Krishna and Balarama slip out unseen, take the road to Mathura and finally reach Dwarka. When the hill is reduced to ashes, Jarasandha concludes that Krishna and Balarama have perished. He advances to Mathura, occupies the empty town, proclaims his authority and returns to Magadha.


Dwarka is sited on the western seaboard, 300 miles north-west of Bombay.

(ii) Marriages and Offspring

The immediate position, then, is that Krishna has abandoned his life among the cowherds, has been accepted as a Yadava, has coped with the difficult and dangerous situation arising from the tyrant king's death and finally has saved the Yadavas from extinction by demons. This, however, has meant the abandonment of Mathura and the movement of the Yadavas to a new city, Dwarka. The same problem, therefore, which faced him earlier, confronts him once again. Having obtained immunity for the Yadavas and brought them to a new land, can Krishna now regard his mission as accomplished? Or must he linger on earth still longer? The answer can hardly be in doubt; for although the Yadavas appear to be installed in good surroundings, demon hordes still range the world. The tyrant Kansa was only the worst and most powerful member of the demon hosts. The war with Jarasandha has rid the world of many demons, but vast numbers remain and until their ranks have been appreciably reduced, Krishna's mission will be unfulfilled. Only one course of action, therefore, is possible. He must accept a permanent position in Yadava society, live as an honoured noble, a prince of the blood royal and as occasion warrants continue to intervene in the struggle between the good and the bad.

Such a decision is taken and Krishna installs himself at Dwarka. Before he can fulfil his duties as an adult member of the race, however, certain preliminaries are necessary and among them is the important issue of his marriage. Both he and Balarama require wives and the question is how are they to get them. Balarama's problem is easily settled by a marriage to Revati, a princess. Krishna's, on the other hand, is less straightforward and he is still undecided when news is brought that the Raja of Kundulpur has a daughter of matchless loveliness, her name Rukmini. Her eyes, it was said, were like a doe's, her complexion like a flower, her face dazzling as the moon. Rukmini in turn has overheard some beggars reciting Krishna's exploits, has fallen in love with his image and is at once delighted and disturbed. In this way each is fascinated by the other. Almost immediately, however, a crisis occurs. Rukmini's brother, Rukma, urges her father to marry her to a rival, Sisupala. Krishna's claims as Vishnu incarnate are advanced in vain and he is ridiculed as being just a cowherd. Against his better judgment her father acquiesces and arrangements for a wedding with Sisupala go forward. Rukmini now takes the daring step of sending a message to Krishna, declaring her love and asking him to save her. Krishna reads it with delight. He at once leaves for Kundulpur, finding it gay with flags and banners, golden spires and wreaths of flowers. Sisupala has arrived, but in addition, there is Krishna's old enemy, Jarasandha, encamped with an army of demons. Rukmini is in despair until she learns that Krishna also has arrived. A little later Balarama reaches the scene, bringing with him an army. Sisupala is dismayed at his arrival and both sides watch each other's movements. The wedding day now dawns and Rukmini, guarded by Sisupala's soldiers, goes outside the city to worship at a shrine to Devi.[36] As she nears the shrine, Krishna suddenly appears. Rukmini gazes with adoration at him. He springs among the soldiers, lifts her into his chariot and rushes her away.

This summary abduction is more than Sisupala can bear. Troops career after Krishna. Armies engage. A vast battle ensues. As they fight, Rukmini looks timorously on. At last, Balarama vanquishes the demon hosts, 'as a white elephant scatters lotuses.' Sisupala and Jarasandha flee, but Rukmini's evil brother, Rukma, returns to the fray, strives feverishly to kill Krishna, fails and is taken captive. His life is spared at Rukmini's behest, but he is led away, his hands tied behind his back and his moustaches shaven off. Balarama intercedes and effects his release and Rukma goes away to brood on his discomfiture and plot revenge. Krishna now returns to Dwarka in triumph, is given a rapturous welcome and a little later celebrates his marriage with full ritual. 'Priests recited the Vedas, Krishna circled round with Rukmini. Drums resounded. The delighted gods rained down flowers; demi-gods, saints, bards and celestial musicians were all spectators from the sky.'

Having married Rukmini, Krishna has now the full status of a grown prince. But he is nothing if not supernormal; and just as earlier in his career he has showered his affection on a host of cowgirls, he now acquires a whole succession of further wives. The first is Jambhavati, the second Satyabhama. Satyabhama's father is a certain Sattrajit who has obtained from the sun the boon of a jewel. The jewel flashes with light and Krishna advises him to surrender it to King Ugrasena. The man refuses; whereupon his brother seizes it and goes away to the forest. Here a lion pounces upon him, devours the man and his horse and hides the jewel. The lion is then killed by a bear who centuries earlier had served with Vishnu's earlier incarnation, Rama, during his campaign against the demon king of Lanka.[37] The bear carries away the jewel and gives it to its mate. When Sattrajit hears that his brother is missing, he concludes that Krishna has caused his death and starts a whispering campaign, accusing Krishna of making away with the jewel. Krishna hears of the slander and at once decides to search for the missing man, recover the jewel and thus silence his accuser for ever. As he goes through the forest, Krishna finds a cave where the dead lion is lying. He enters it, grapples with the bear but is quickly recognized by the bear as Krishna himself. The bear bows before him and begs him to accept his daughter Jambhavati in marriage. He includes the jewel as part of the dowry. Krishna marries the girl and returns. Back at the court he upbraids Sattrajit for falsely accusing him. 'I did not take the jewel,' he says. 'The bear took it. Now he has given the jewel to me and also his daughter. Take back your jewel and be silent.' Sattrajit is overwhelmed with shame and by way of amends gives Krishna his own daughter, Satyabhama. Krishna marries her and Sattrajit begs him to take the jewel also. Krishna refuses and the jewel remains with its owner. A little later, Sattrajit is murdered and the jewel once again stolen. The murderer thief is tracked down by Krishna and killed, but only after many delays is the jewel at last recovered from Akrura—the leading Yadava who earlier in the story has acted first as Raja Kansa's envoy to Krishna and later as Krishna's envoy to Kunti. Krishna orders him to return it to its owner, Sattrajit's grandson. Akrura places it at Krishna's feet and Krishna gives it to Satyabhama. The upshot, then, is that the slander is ended, the jewel is regained and in the process Krishna acquires two further wives.

These extra marriages, however, by no means end the tally of his consorts, for during a visit to his relatives, the Pandavas, now returned from exile and for the moment safely reinstalled in their kingdom, he sees a lovely girl, Kalindi, wandering in the forest. She is the daughter of the sun and has been sent to dwell by a river until her appointed bridegroom, Krishna, arrives to claim her. Krishna is delighted with her youth, places her in his chariot and on his return to Dwarka, celebrates their wedding. A little later other girls are married to him, in many cases only after a fierce struggle with demons. In this way, he obtains eight queens, at the same time advancing his prime purpose of ridding the world of demons.

At this point, the Purana embarks on an episode which, at first sight, appears to have very little to do with its main subject. In fact, however, its relevance is great for, as a consequence, Krishna the prince acquires as many female companions as he had enjoyed as a youth. The episode begins with Earth again appearing in heaven. Having successfully engineered Krishna's birth, she does special penance and again beseeches the supreme Trinity to grant her a boon. This boon is a son who will never be equalled and who will never die. Brahma, Vishnu and Siva agree to give her a son, Naraka, but on the following conditions: he will conquer all the kings of the earth, rout the gods in the sky, carry off the earrings of Aditi (the mother of the gods), wear them himself, take the canopy of Indra and place it over his own head and finally, collect together but not marry sixteen thousand one hundred virgin daughters of different kings. Krishna will then attack him and at Earth's own behest, will kill Naraka and take to Dwarka all the imprisoned girls. Earth says, 'Why should I ever tell anyone to kill my own son?' and is silent. None the less the boon is granted, the conditions are in due course fulfilled and after a furious encounter with Naraka at his city of Pragjyotisha,[38] Krishna is once again victorious. During the battle, Muru or Mura, the arch demon, aided by seven sons, strenuously defends the city. Krishna kills him by cutting off his five heads but has then to resist whole armies of demons assembled by the sons. When these also have been destroyed, Krishna meets Naraka and after a vicious contest finally kills him, recovering in consequence the earrings of Aditi and the canopy of Indra. Naraka's palace is then opened and reveals the bevy of imprisoned girls. As they gaze on Krishna, their reactions are reminiscent of the cowgirls'. They implore Krishna to take them away and allow them to lavish on him their impassioned love. Krishna agrees, chariots are sent for and the vast concourse of passion-stricken girls is transported to Dwarka. Here Krishna marries them, showering affection on each of the sixteen thousand and one hundred 'and displaying unceasing love for his eight queens.'

Such an incident revives an aspect of Krishna's early character which up to the present has been somewhat obscured by other events. Besides slaying demons he has all along been sensitive to feminine needs, arousing in women passionate adoration and at the same time fulfilling the most intense of their physical desires. It is these qualities which characterize his later career.

Having on one occasion given Rukmini, his first consort, a flower of the heavenly wishing tree,[39] Krishna finds that he has aroused the jealousy of his third consort, Satyabhama. To please her, he accordingly undertakes to get for her not merely a flower or branch but the tree itself. He therefore goes to Vaikuntha, the paradise of Vishnu, and takes the opportunity to return the earrings of Aditi and place the canopy over the lord of the gods. He then sends a message to Indra asking for the tree. Indra as the tree's custodian recalls his former discomfiture in Brindaban when Krishna had abolished his worship and venerated the hill Govardhana in his place. Despite his subsequent surrender to Krishna, and abject worship of him, Indra is still incensed and bluntly refuses. Krishna then goes to the tree, wounds its guardians and bears the tree away. Indra is tempted to do battle but realizing Krishna's superior power calls off his hosts. Back in Dwarka, Krishna instals the tree in Satyabhama's palace but returns it to Indra a year later.

On another occasion, Krishna and Rukmini are making love on a golden bed in a palace bedecked with gems. The sheets are white as foam and are decorated with flowers. Pictures have been painted on the walls and every aid to pleasure has been provided. Rukmini is lovelier than ever, while Krishna, 'the root of joy,' dazzles her with a face lovely as the moon, a skin the colour of clouds, a peacock crown, a long garland of flowers and a scarf of yellow silk. As he lies, he is 'the sea of beauty, the light of the three worlds.' After making love, Krishna suddenly asks Rukmini why she preferred him to Sisupala. He points out that he is not a king and is therefore quite unworthy of her, that since he has rescued her from Sisupala, her wish has been accomplished and it is best that she should now leave him and marry a prince of the royal blood who will be worthy of her name. Rukmini is stunned at the suggestion. She collapses on the floor, her hair obscuring her lovely face. Krishna raises her up, sits her on his knees, and strokes her cheeks. When at length Rukmini revives, Krishna hastens to explain that he was only jesting and that in view of her deep love he will never abandon her. Rukmini assures him that nowhere in the world is there Krishna's equal. The beggars who recited his praises and from whom she first heard his name, were in fact Brahma and Siva. All the gods revere him. To adore him is the only joy. Those who love Krishna alone are happy. If blinded by pride a man forgets him, Krishna abases him. It was because Rukmini besought his compassion that Krishna has loved her. Hearing her simple sincerity, Krishna is greatly moved and says, 'Love of my heart, you know me through and through. You have given yourself to me, adored me and known my love. I shall love you always.' Rukmini hears him with deep contentment and the two make love.

Such a declaration however is not intended to imply a cold neglect of his other wives for it is part of Krishna's role that he should please and satisfy all. Accordingly, when Narada, the sage, makes one of his recurring appearances—this time in order to investigate how Krishna contrives to keep happy so vast a concourse of women—he finds Krishna everywhere. With Rukmini he reclines at ease, with Jambhavati he plays dice, at Satyabhama's house, he is having his body rubbed with oil, at Kalindi's, he is asleep. In this way, wherever Narada goes, he finds Krishna with one or other of his queens. In fact, the same 'delusive' powers which he had earlier employed when dancing with the cowgirls—making each believe he was dancing with her and her alone—are now being used to satisfy his wives.

In this way Krishna continues to live. Sometimes his wives caress his body, ply him with delicacies or swathe him in perfumed garments. Sometimes to ease their passion they make little figures of him or let themselves be dressed by him. One night they go with him to a tank and there make love in the water. Everything in the scene reminds them of their love and they address first a chakai bird. 'O chakai bird, when you are parted from your mate, you spend the whole night sadly calling and never sleeping. Speak to us of your beloved. We are Krishna's slave-girls.' They speak to the sea. 'O sea, you lie awake night and day, heaving sighs. Do you grieve for a loved one who is far away?' Then they see the moon. 'O moon, why do you grow thin? Are you also filled with longing? Are you fascinated by Krishna?' In this way they address birds, hills and rivers, seeking from each some consolation for their frenzied love.

In due course, each of the sixteen thousand one hundred and eight bears Krishna ten sons and one daughter and each is beautiful as himself.


Plate 18.


Lanka—modern Ceylon.


Note 12.


A sight of the heavenly wishing-tree, the kalpa or parijata, which grew in Indra's heaven, was believed to make the old young.

(iii) Last Phases

This gradual expansion of his marital state takes Krishna even farther from the adoring loves of his youth, the cowgirls of Brindaban. Indeed for months on end it is as if he has dismissed them from his mind. One day he and Balarama are sitting together when Balarama reminds him of their promise that after staying for a time in Mathura they will assuredly visit them. Krishna, it is clear, cannot go himself, but Balarama is less impeded and with Krishna's approval, he takes a ploughshare and pestle, mounts a chariot and speeds on his way.

As he nears Brindaban, the familiar scenes greet him. The cowherds and cowgirls come into view, but instead of joy there is general despair. The cows low and pant, rejecting the grass. The cowherds are still discussing Krishna's deeds and the cowgirls cannot expel him from their minds. As Balarama enters their house, Nanda and Yasoda weep with joy. Balarama is plied with questions about Krishna's welfare and when he answers that all is well, Yasoda describes the darkness that has descended on them since the joy of their hearts left. Balarama now meets the cowgirls. Their hair is disordered, they are no longer neat and smart. Their minds are not in their work and despite Krishna's absence, they are filled with passionate longings and frenzied desires. Some of them marvel at Krishna's love and count it good even to have known him. Others bitterly upbraid Krishna for deserting them. Balarama explains that his visit is to show them that Krishna has not entirely forgotten them and as proof he offers to re-enact the circular dance and himself engage with them as lover.

In this way the circular dance is once again performed. The full moon pours down, the cowgirls deck themselves and songs rise in the air. Flutes and drums play and in the midst of the throng Balarama sings and dances, clasping the cowgirls to him, making love and rousing them to ecstasy. Night after night the dance is performed, while each day Balarama comforts Nanda and Yasoda with news of Krishna. One night as his visit is ending, he feels exhausted and commands the river Jumna to change its course and bathe him with its water. The Jumna fails to comply, so Balarama draws the river towards him with his plough and bathes in its stream. From that time on, the Jumna's course is changed. His exhaustion now leaves him and he gratifies the cowgirls with fresh passion. With this incident his visit ends. He bids farewell to Nanda, Yasoda and the cowgirls and leaving the forest returns to Dwarka.

Krishna's relations with the cowgirls are now completely ended, but on one last occasion he happens to meet them. News has come that the sun will soon be eclipsed and accordingly, Krishna and Balarama take the Yadavas on pilgrimage. They choose a certain holy place, Kurukshetra, and assembling all their queens and wives, make the slow journey to it. When they arrive, a festival is in progress. They bathe and make offerings. While they are still encamped, other kings come in, including the Pandavas and Kauravas. With them are their wives and families and Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, is thus enabled to meet once more her brother, Vasudeva, the father of Krishna. A little later, Nanda and Yasoda along with the cowherds and cowgirls also arrive. They have come on the same pilgrimage and finding Krishna there, at once throng to see him. Vasudeva greets his old friend, Nanda, and recalls the now long-distant days when Krishna had lived with him in his house. Krishna and Balarama greet Nanda and Yasoda with loving respect, while the cowgirls are excited beyond description. Krishna however refuses to regard them and faced with their ardent looks and impassioned adoration, addresses to them the following sermon. 'Whoever believes in me shall be fearlessly carried across the sea of life. You gave me your bodies, minds and wealth. You loved me with a love that knew no limit. No one has been so fortunate as you— neither Brahma nor Indra, neither any other god nor any man. For all along I have been living in you, loving you with a love that has never faltered. I live in everyone. What I say to you cannot easily be understood, but as light, water, fire, earth and air abide in the body, so does my glory.' To the cowgirls such words strike chill. But there is nothing they can say and when the festival is over, Krishna and the Yadavas return to Dwarka, while Nanda with the cowherds and cowgirls go back to Brindaban. This is the last time Krishna sees them.

This dismissal reveals how final is Krishna's severance from his former life, yet provided the cowherds are not involved, he is quick to honour earlier relationships. One day in Dwarka his mother, Devaki, tells him that she has a private grief—grief at the loss of the six elder brothers of Krishna slain by the tyrant Kansa. Krishna tells her not to mourn, descends to the third of the three worlds, interviews its ruler, Raja Bali, and effects the release of the six brothers. Returning with them, he gives them to his mother and her joy is great.

On another occasion he is visited by Sudama, a Brahman who had lived with him, when, after slaying the tyrant, he and Balarama had gone for instruction to their spiritual preceptor. Since then Sudama has grown thin and poor. The thatch on his hut has tumbled down. He has nothing to eat. His wife is alarmed at their abject state and advises him to seek out Krishna, his chief friend. 'If you go to him,' she says, 'our poverty will end because it is he who grants wealth and virtue, fulfils desires and bestows final happiness.' Sudama replies that even Krishna does not give anyone anything without that person giving him something first. As he has not given, how can he hope to receive? His wife then ties up a little rice in an old white cloth and gives it to Sudama as a present to Krishna. Sudama sets out. On reaching Dwarka, he is admitted to Krishna's presence, is immediately recognized and is treated with the utmost kindness and respect. Krishna himself washes his feet and reveres him as a Brahman.[40] 'Brother,' he says, 'from the time you quitted our preceptor's house, I have heard nothing of you. Your coming has purified my house and made me happy.' Krishna then notices the rice and laughingly asks Sudama what present his wife has sent him and why it is hidden under his arm. Sudama is greatly abashed but allows Krishna to take the bundle. On taking it, Krishna eats the rice. He then conducts Sudama within, feasts him on delicacies and puts him to bed. During the night he sends Visvakarma, the divine architect, to Sudama's home, with instructions to turn it into a palace. The next morning Sudama takes leave of Krishna, congratulating himself on not having asked Krishna for anything. As he nears home, he is dismayed to find no trace of his hut, but instead a golden palace. He approaches the gate-keeper and is told it belongs to Sudama, the friend of Krishna. His wife comes out and he finds her dressed in fine clothes and jewels and attended by maid-servants. She takes him in and at first he is abashed at so much wealth. Krishna, he reflects, can only have given it to him because he doubted his affection. He did not ask Krishna for wealth and cannot fathom why he has been given it. His wife assures him that Krishna knows the thoughts of everyone. Sudama did not ask for wealth, but she herself desired it and that is why Krishna has given it to them. Sudama is convinced and says no more.

All these incidents provide a clue to Krishna's nature. They illustrate his attitudes, confirm him in his role as protector and preserver and show him in a new light—that of a guardian and upholder of morality. He is still a fervent lover, but his love is sanctioned and formalized by legal marriage. Moreover, a new respect characterizes his dealings with Brahmans and his approach to festivals. Instead of the young revolutionary, we now meet a sage conservative. These changes colour his final career.

As life at Dwarka runs its course, Krishna's activities centre more and more on wars with demons and his relations with the Pandavas. Despite his prowess and renown, demons trouble the Yadavas from time to time, but all are killed either by Krishna wielding a magic quoit or by Balarama plying his plough or pestle. On one occasion, a monkey demon runs amok, harassing the people and ravaging the country. He surprises Balarama bathing in a tank with his wives, despoils their clothes and defiles their pitchers. A great combat then ensues, the monkey hurling trees and hills while Balarama counters with his plough and pestle. But the outcome is hardly in doubt and at last the monkey is killed.

On another occasion, Krishna is compelled to intervene in force. Following his marriage with his first queen, Rukmini, a son, Pradyumna has been born. He is no less a person than Kama, the god of love, whom Siva has burnt for disturbing his meditations. When grown up, Pradyumna is married to a cousin, the daughter of his uncle, Rukma. Rukma has never forgiven Krishna for abducting and marrying his sister, Rukmini, and despite their intimate alliance is sworn to kill him. His plot is discovered and in a final contest, Balarama kills him. Meanwhile, Pradyumna has had a son, Aniruddha, who grows up into a charming youth, while at the same time Vanasura, a demon with a thousand arms, has a lovely daughter, Usa. When Usa is twelve years old, she longs for a husband and in a dream sees and embraces Aniruddha. She does not know who he is, but describes him to a confidante. The latter draws pictures of all the leading royalty, and among the Yadavas, Usa recognizes her love, Aniruddha. The confidante agrees to bring him to her and going through the air to Dwarka, finds him sleeping, dreaming of Usa. She transports him to Usa's palace and on waking. Aniruddha finds himself alone with his love. Usa conceals him, but the news reaches her father and he surrounds the palace with his demon army. Aniruddha routs the army but is caught by Vanasura, who then imprisons the two young lovers. News now reaches Krishna who rushes an army to the scene. A battle ensues during which Vanasura loses all his arms save four. He then worships Krishna, and Aniruddha and Usa are married.

Meanwhile Krishna is carefully maintaining relations with the Pandavas. We have seen how immediately after the slaying of the tyrant he sends an envoy to inquire after his aunt Kunti, the sister of his father, and mother of the five Pandavas. We have also noticed how during a visit to the Pandava court, he has acquired a new queen, Kalindi. He now embarks on several courses of action, each of which is designed to cement their relations. During a visit to his court, Arjuna, the brother whose lucky shot won Draupadi for the Pandavas, falls in love with Subhadra, Krishna's sister. Krishna is delighted to have him as a brother-in-law and as already narrated in the epic, he advises Arjuna to marry her by capture. A little later Krishna learns that Yudhisthira will shortly proclaim himself a 'ruler of the world' and decides to visit the Pandava court to assist at the sacrifice. He takes a vast army with him and advances on the court with massive splendour. As he arrives, he learns that Jarasandha whose feud is unabated has now imprisoned twenty thousand rajas, all of whom cry to be released. Krishna decides that Jarasandha's demon activities must be ended once for all and taking two of the Pandavas with him, Bhima and Arjuna, he sets out to destroy him. Jarasandha elects to engage Bhima in single-handed combat and for twenty-seven days the fight proceeds, each wielding a club and neither securing the advantage. Krishna now learns that Jarasandha can only be killed if he is split in two. He directs Bhima, therefore, to throw him down, place a foot on one of his thighs and catching the other leg with his hand, tear him asunder. Bhima does so and in this way Jarasandha is destroyed. The captive rajas are now released and after returning home they foregather at the Pandavas' court to assist at the sacrifice.

As arrangements proceed an incident occurs which illustrates yet again the complex situation arising from Krishna's dual character. Krishna is God, yet he is also man. Being a man, it is normally as a man that he is regarded. Yet from time to time particular individuals sense his Godhead and then he is no longer man but God himself. Even those, however, who view him as God do so only for brief periods of time and hence the situation is constantly arising in which Krishna is one moment honoured as God and then a moment later is treated as a man. And it is this situation which now recurs.

As we have already seen in the epic, part of the custom at imperial sacrifices was to offer presents to distinguished guests, and according to the epic the person chosen to receive the first present was Krishna himself. The Purana changes this by substituting gods for guests. Yudhisthira is uncertain who should be worshipped first. 'Who is the great lord of the gods,' he asks, 'to whom we should bow our heads?' To this a Pandava gives a clear answer. Krishna, he says, is god of gods. 'No one understands his nature. He is lord of Brahma, Siva and Indra. It is he who creates, preserves and destroys. His work is endless. He is the unseen and imperishable. He descends upon the earth continually for the sake of his worshippers and assuming mortal form appears and acts like a mortal. He sits in our houses and calls us 'brothers.' We are deluded by his power and consider him a brother. Yet never have we seen one as great as him.' He speaks in fact as one who, knowing Krishna, has seen, for the moment, the god beyond the man. His vision is shared by the others present. Krishna is therefore placed on a throne and before the vast concourse of rajas, Yudhisthira worships him.

Among the guests, however, is one raja to whom the vision is denied. He is Sisupala, Krishna's rival for the hand of Rukmini, and since Rukmini's abduction, his deadly enemy. Krishna's elevation as a god is more than he can stomach and he utters an angry protest. Krishna, he says, is not god at all. He is a mere cowherd's son of low caste who has debased himself by eating the leavings of the cowherds' children and has even been the lover of the cowgirls. As a child he was an arrant pilferer, stealing milk and butter from every house, while as a youth he has trifled with other men's wives. He has also slighted Indra. Krishna quietly listens to this outburst. Then, deeming Sisupala's enmity to have reached its furthest limit, he allows his patience to be exhausted. He reaches for his quoit and hurling it through the air, slays Sisupala on the spot. The ceremonies are then completed and Krishna leaves for Dwarka. As he nears the city, he discovers the Yadavas hard pressed by an army of demons. He and Balarama intervene. The demons are either killed or put to flight and the Yadavas are rescued. When a little later Sisupala's two brothers bring an army against him, they too are vanquished.

Twelve years now intervene. Yudhisthira in the moment of triumph has gambled away his kingdom. The Pandavas have once again been driven into exile and the old feud has broken out afresh. As the exile ends, both sides prepare for war and Krishna also leaves for the battle. Balarama is loath to intervene so goes away on pilgrimage. After various adventures, however, he also arrives on the scene. As he comes, a series of single-handed combats is in progress with Krishna and other Rajas looking on. Duryodhana, the son of blind Dhritarashtra, the king of the Kauravas is fighting Bhima, the powerful Pandava and just as Balarama arrives he is dealt a foul blow and wounded in the thigh. Balarama is shocked to see so many uncles and cousins involved in strife and begs them to desist. Duryodhana replies that it is Krishna who has willed the war and that they are as puppets in his hands. It is Krishna who is actively aiding the Pandavas and the war is only being carried on because of his advice. It is Krishna also who has sponsored foul play. Balarama is pained at such accusations and strongly criticizes Krishna. Krishna, however, is ready with an answer. The Kauravas, he says, cheated the Pandavas of their kingdom by the game of dice. Duryodhana had told Draupadi to sit on his thigh and so he deserved to have it broken. So unjust and tyrannical are the Kauravas that any methods used against them are fair. Balarama keeps silent and a little later returns to Dwarka.

This incident concludes the Purana's references to the war. Nothing is said of Krishna's sermon—the Bhagavad Gita. No mention is made of Krishna's role as charioteer to Arjuna. Nothing further is said of its deadly outcome. Krishna's career as a warrior, in fact, is ended and with this episode the Purana enters its final phase.

As Krishna lives at Dwarka, surrounded by his wives and huge progeny, he wearies of his earthly career. By now his mission has been accomplished. Hordes of demons have been slain, cruel monarchs killed and much of Earth's burden lifted. There is no longer any pressing need for him to stay and he decides to quit his body and 're-enter with all his emanations the sphere of Vishnu.' To do this, however, the whole of the Yadava race must first be ended.[41] One, day some Yadava boys make fun of certain Brahmans. They dress up one of their company as a pregnant girl, take him to the Brahmans and innocently inquire what kind of child the woman will bring forth. The Brahmans immediately penetrate the disguise and angered at the youth's impertinence, they reply, 'A club that will crush the whole Yadava race.' The boys run to King Ugrasena, relate what has happened and are even more alarmed when an iron club is brought forth from the boy's belly. Ugrasena has the club ground to dust and thrown into the sea, where its particles become rushes. One part of the club, however, is like a lance and does not break. When thrown into the sea, it is swallowed by a fish. A hunter catches it and taking the iron spike from its stomach lays it aside for future use. It is an arrow made from this particular spike which a little later will bring about Krishna's death. Similarly it is the iron rushes which will cause the death of the Yadavas. Already, therefore, a chain of sinister happenings has been started and from now onwards the action moves relentlessly to its grim and tragic close.

As the final scene unfolds, the gods, headed by Brahma and Siva, approach Krishna begging him to return. Krishna tells them that everything is now in train and within seven nights he will complete the destruction of the Yadavas and return to his everlasting home.

Signs portending the destruction of Dwarka now appear. 'A dreadful figure, death personified, haunts every house, coming and going no one knows how and being invulnerable to weapons by which he is assailed. Strong hurricanes blow; large rats multiply and infest the roads and houses and attack persons in their sleep; starlings scream in their cages, storks imitate the hooting of owls and goats the howling of jackals; cows bring forth foals and camels mules; food in the moment of being eaten is filled with worms; fire burns with discoloured flames and at sunset and sunrise the air is traversed by headless and hideous spirits.'[42] Krishna draws the Yadavas' attention to these omens and advises them to leave Dwarka and move to Prabhasa, a site farther inland.

Udho, who earlier in the story has acted as Krishna's envoy to the cowgirls quickly realizes that the end is near and approaches Krishna for advice. 'Tell me, O Lord, what it is proper I should do. For it is clear that shortly you will destroy the Yadavas.' Krishna then tells him to go to a shrine high up in the mountains and by meditating on Krishna obtain release. He adds minute instructions on the technique of penance and ends with some definitions of the yoga of devotion. He concludes by telling Udho that when all the Yadavas have perished, he himself will go to heaven and Dwarka will be swallowed by the ocean. Udho bows low and leaves for the mountains.

Krishna now assembles the leading Yadavas and leaving behind only the elders, the women and children, escorts them to Prabhasa, a town inland, assuring them that by proper worship they may yet avert their fate. At Prabhasa the Yadavas bathe and purify themselves, anoint the gods' statues and make offerings. They appease the Brahmans with costly gifts—'thereby countering evil omens, gaining the road to happiness and ensuring rebirth at a higher level.'

Their worship however, is of no avail for almost immediately they fall to drinking. 'As they drank, the destructive flame of dissension was kindled amongst them by mutual collision, and fed with the fuel of abuse. Infuriated by the divine influence, they fell upon one another with missile weapons and when these were expended, they had recourse to the rushes growing high. The rushes in their hands became like thunderbolts and they struck one another with them fatal blows. Krishna interposed to prevent them but they thought that he was taking part with each severally, and continued the conflict. Krishna then, enraged, took up a handful of rushes to destroy them, and the rushes became a club of iron and with this he slew many of the murderous Yadavas; whilst others, fighting fiercely, put an end to one another. In a short time, there was not a single Yadava left alive, except the mighty Krishna and Daruka, his charioteer.'[43]

With the slaughter thus completed, Krishna feels free to leave the earth. Such Yadavas who have been left behind in Dwarka have been spared, but the greater part of the race is dead. He therefore makes ready for his own departure. Balarama, who has helped Krishna in the brawl, goes to the sea-shore, performs yoga and, leaving his body, joins the Supreme Spirit. Sesha, the white serpent of eternity, issues from his mouth and hymned by snakes and other serpents proceeds to the ocean. 'Bringing an offering of respect, Ocean came to meet him; and then the majestic being, adored by attendant snakes entered into the waters of the deep.'[44]

Krishna then seats himself by a fig tree, lays his left leg across his right thigh, turns the sole of his foot outwards and assumes one of the postures in which abstraction is practised. As he meditates he appears lovelier than ever. His eyes flash. The four arms of Vishnu spring from his body. He wears his crown, his sacred thread and garland of flowers. As he sits, glorious and beautiful, the same hunter, who earlier had salvaged the iron spike from the fish, chances to pass by. His arrow is tipped with a piece of the iron and mistaking Krishna's foot for part of a deer, he shoots his arrow and hits it. Approaching the mark, he sees Krishna's four arms and is horrified to discover whom he has wounded. As he begs forgiveness, Krishna grants him liberation and dispatches him to heaven.

Daruka, Krishna's charioteer, now comes in search of his master. Finding him wounded, he is overwhelmed with grief. Krishna tells him to go to Dwarka and inform the surviving Yadavas what has happened. On receiving the news they must leave Dwarka immediately, for the sea will shortly engulf it. They must also place themselves under Arjuna's protection and go to Indraprastha. 'Then the illustrious Krishna having united himself with his own pure, spiritual, inexhaustible and universal spirit abandoned his mortal body.'[45]

Daruka goes mournfully to Dwarka where he breaks the news. Vasudeva with his two wives, Devaki and Rohini, die of grief. Arjuna recovers the bodies of Krishna and Balarama and places them on a funeral pyre. Rukmini along with Krishna's seven other queens throw themselves on the flames. Balarama's wives, as well as King Ugrasena, also die. Arjuna then appoints Krishna's great grandson, Parikshit, to rule over the survivors and, after assembling the remaining women and children, removes them from Dwarka and travels slowly away. As they leave, the ocean comes up, swallowing the city and engulfing everything except the temple.


Plate 19.


Note 13.


Note 14.


Note 7.


Plate 1 and Note 7.


Plate 2 and Note 7.

(iv) The Purana Re-considered

Such an account gives us what the Mahabharata epic did not give—a detailed description of Krishna's career. It confirms the epic's view of Krishna as a hero and fills in many gaps concerning his life at Dwarka, his relations with the Pandavas, his life as a feudal prince and finally, his death. It makes clear that throughout the story Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu and that his main reason for being born is to aid the good and kill demons. At the same time, it shows him in two important new lights—firstly, as one whose youth was spent among cowherds, in circumstances altogether different from those of a prince and secondly, as a delightful lover of women, who explores to the full the joys of sexual love. The second role characterizes him both as cowherd and prince but with important differences of attitude and behaviour. As a prince, Krishna is wedded first to Rukmini and then to seven other wives, observing on each occasion the requisite formalities. Even the sixteen thousand one hundred girls whom he rescues from imprisonment receive this formal status. With all of them Krishna enjoys a variety of sexual pleasures and their love is moral, respectable and approved. Krishna the prince, in fact, is Krishna the husband. Krishna the cowherd, on the other hand, is essentially a lover. The cowgirls whose impassioned love he inspires are all married and in consorting with them he is breaking one of the most solemn requirements of the moral code. The first relationship has the secure basis of conjugal duty, the second the daring adventurousness of romantic passion.

The same abrupt contrast appears between his character as a cowherd and his character as a prince. As a youth he mixes freely with the cowherds, behaving with an easy naturalness of manner and obtaining from them an intense devotion. This devotion is excited by everything he does and whether as a baby crying for the breast, a little boy pilfering butter or a young man teasing the married girls, he exerts a magnetic charm. At no time does he neglect his prime duty of killing demons but this is subordinated to his innocent delight in living. He is shown as impatient with old and stereotyped forms of worship, as scorning ordinary morality and treating love as paramount. Although he acts continually with princely dignity and is always aware of his true character as Vishnu, his impact on others is based more on the understanding of their needs than on their recognition of him as God. When, at times, Krishna the cowherd is adored as God, he has already been loved as a boy and a young man. In the later story, this early charm is missing. Krishna is frequently recognized to be God and is continually revered and respected as a man. His conduct is invariably resolute but there is a kind of statesmanlike formality about his actions. He is respectful towards ritual, formal observances and Brahmans while in comparison with his encounters with the cowgirls his relations with women have an air of slightly stagnant luxury. His wives and consorts lavish on him their devotion but the very fact that they are married removes the romantic element from their relationship.

Such vital differences are only partially resolved in the Bhagavata Purana. Representing as they do two different conceptions of Krishna's character, it is inevitable that the resulting account should be slightly biased in one direction or the other. The Bhagavata Purana records both phases in careful detail blending them into a single organic whole. But there can be little doubt that its Brahman authors were in the main more favourably inclined towards the hero prince than towards the cowherd lover. There is a tendency for the older Krishna to disparage the younger. Krishna the prince's subsequent meetings with the cowgirls are shown as very different from his rapturous encounters with them in the forest and the fact that his later career involves so sharp a separation from them indicates that the whole episode was somewhat frowned upon. This is especially evident from the manner in which Krishna addresses the cowgirls when they meet him during the eclipse of the sun. By this time he has become an ardent husband constantly satisfying his many wives. He is very far from having abjured the delights of the flesh. Yet for all his former loves who long for him so passionately he has only one message. They must meditate upon him in their minds. No dismissal could be colder, no treatment more calculatingly callous. And even the accounts of Krishna's love-making reflects this bias. The physical charms of the cowgirls are minimized and it is only the beauty of Rukmini which is stressed. It is clear, in fact, that however much the one tradition involved a break with morals, the second tradition shrank from countenancing adultery and it was this latter tradition which commanded the authors' approval. Finally, on one important issue, the Purana as a whole is in no doubt. Krishna's true consort is Rukmini. That Krishna's nature should be complemented by a cowgirl is not so much as even considered. The cowgirls are shown as risking all for Krishna, as loving him above all else but none is singled out for mention and none emerges as a rival. In this long account of Krishna's life what is overwhelmingly significant is that the name of his supreme cowgirl love is altogether omitted.

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