In accordance with the long standing colonial tradition of denigrating Hindu deities, Scroll's recent article on Krishna indulges in wild speculation, ignoring glaring evidence, about how Krishna was a 'tribal' deity, later appropriated by Brahmins to preserve their ever weakening authority.
On the auspicious occasion of Sri Krshna Janmasthami, there was an interesting article published on Scroll, the left leaning website, which seemed to argue that Krshna was originally a tribal deity of the Ahirs, or Abhirs, who was later usurped by ‘Brahminical’ Hinduism. For any religious minded Hindu this would sound completely alien and absurd. But then Hindus, thanks to the assimilative nature of Hinduism coupled with the general lassitude towards scriptural authenticity, have allowed themselves to be taken for a ride by all kinds of theories based on motivated scholarship of questionable merit. Indeed the calendar-art version of Hinduism has not been helpful either in this matter. Of all the various deities we Hindus revere, Krshna has been at the center of much misgiving and his story, unfortunately, has been used and abused by everyone who stands to benefit from the decimation of the predominant religious culture of India. It was Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, composer of India’s national song, who wrote a spirited and scripturally-sound defense of Krshna in his book Krishna Charitra in 1886, against ludicrous attacks by Christian Missionaries. However, that was not the last time that such insidious, and motivated attacks on the personage of a revered Hindu deity or religious figure came to the fore. Let us examine how far these claims about Krshna being a non-Aryan deity go.
Claim 1: “Vasudeva were originally heroes of the Satvatta and Vrishni tribes of the Yadava clan who were eventually deified and with time, became synonymous with each other. “
That Krshna and Vasudeva were separate individuals, the Bhagwatam does not deny and is common knowledge. Later his father’s name was added to his name and thus he became Krshna Vasudeva. What is so extraordinary about that? In the Gita, Krishna uses a poignant phrase – vasudevam sarvam iti – during his colloquy in the battlefield, which clearly establishes that he was identified as Krshna Vasudeva right from the time of the Mahabharata war. Both Krshna and Vasudeva were never deified, only Krshna was. His father plays an insignificant role in the itihasa after he and his wife Devaki were released from Kamsa’s prison.
Claim 2: “Brahmins seized upon the devotional cult of Vasudeva-Krishna and recognised it as a form of Narayana-Vishnu to infuse Brahmanical social ethics into this popular cult and re-establish their authority.”
And how exactly is this established? Even in the core text itself there are enough references where highly powerful Kshatriyas and Brhamins like Vyasa (whose father was a Brahmin and the caste-system was based on patriarchy) regarded Krshna as godlike. Moreover, if the later day Brahmins were trying to usurp the story into their fold, why would they add the story about Krshna dissuading the people of Vraja from worshiping Indra, who was clearly one of the chief Vedic gods? Or the episodes where Krshna appears to the wives of the brahmin priests, partakes of the food offered and gives them a blessing whereas their husbands themselves were unable to succeed in their elaborate rituals? Would Brahmins, if this contention had any truth, ever include stories of Krshna which show their own rituals as insufficient? What “Brahmicial social ethics” is the author speaking of?
Claim 3: “Thus, in this period, Krishna-Vasudeva was fused with Narayana-Vishnu and came to feature in the Mahabharata as a war hero and in the Bhagvada Gita as a preacher. Yet, the Mahabharata, in several places, reveals a hesitancy to accept a non-Aryan tribal deity as a higher god. This is why Krishna-Vasudeva is initially described as the incarnation of only a fraction of Narayana-Vishnu.”
If, as the author claims, the Mahabharata came earlier and at a later date “brahmins seized upon the devotional cult of Vasudeva-Krishna”, then why exactly does the Mahabharata contain glorious references to Krishna? Not to mention the 10th and 11th chapter of the Gita where Krshna gets equated to the status of the Supreme Divinity of the Vedic people. In the 43rd chapter of the Bhisma Parva, Vaisampayana, a brahmin priest officiating at the yagya ritual, considers the Gita as “Sarvashastramayi” – containing all the scriptures.
The only people who expressed any hesitation in accepting Krshna were his enemies: Sishupala, Duryodhana and his brother, Jarasandha etc. But that is to be expected if one follows the narrative of the texts. Whereas the Rishis, who were brahmins, always regarded Krshna as a Divine Being, the Mahabharata is also replete with references to Krshna as one of the greatest Aryas, which BTW is not a racial term. In the Gita itself, in the second half of the text, he compares himself to the Vedas. During the official coronation of Yudhisthira, it was Krshna who advised him to perform the Aswamedha to establish his authority. These are all core Vedic rituals. Therefore, from which angle does Krshna become a non-Aryan, assuming the flawed and junk racial theory is indeed true? To put some more cold water into this fantastically absurd theory, Krshna also spoke the very Brahminical language called Sanskrit. Now chew on it! And once again, do remind us how exactly did Krshna become non-Indian, non-Hindu, or non-Aryan, or whatever fancy term is in vogue nowadays?
Claim 4: “Krishna-Gopala (or Krishna the cowherd) surfaced when Krishna was fused with another god of the Abhira (Ahir) tribe.”
This idea first comes from a misleading and selective verse-picking from the book “The Tribes and Castes of Central Provinces of India: part 2” by Robert Vane Russell, published in 1916. While the Ahirs, which some scholars opine is a Prakrit form of the Sanskrit term Abhira, claimed Krshna as their own, Vane Russell states it is mostly speculation on the part of the Ahir community because proofs are scanty. Most likely since Krshna was a cowherd, and Ahirs were cowherds, they started calling themselves as descendants of Vrishnis.
The Bombay Ethnography Survey mentions: – “If the Abhiras had really been the descendants of the cowherds (Gopas) whose hero was Krishna, the name of the rival god Siva would never have formed components of the names of the Abhiras, whom we find mentioned in inscriptions. Hence the conclusion may safely be drawn that the Abhiras were by no means connected with Krishna and his cowherds even as late as about A.D. 300, to which date the first of the two inscriptions mentioned above are assigned. Precisely the same conclusion is pointed to be the contents of the Harivanshi and Bhagwat Purana. The upbringing of Krishna among the cowherds and his flirtations with the milkmaids are again and again mentioned in these works, but the word Abhira does not occur even in that connection. The only words we find used are Gopa, Gopi and Vraja. This is indeed remarkable. For the descriptions of the removal of Krishna as an infant to Nanda, of his childhood passed in playing with the cowherd boys, and of his youth spent in the amorous sports with the milkmaids are set forth at great length, but the word Abhira is not once encountered. From this only one conclusion is possible, that is, that the Abhiras did not originally represent the Gopas of Krishna. The word Abhira occurs for the first time in connection with Krishna legend around A.D. 550.”
This proves conclusively that the connection of Ahirs with Krshna is tenuous at best. To brush aside the gray shades in this theory and state with certitude that Krshna belonged to the Ahir tribe betrays a twisted and agenda-driven scholarship.
Claim 5: “Krishna in the Mahabharata counsels Arjuna to acquire Subhadra, Krishna’s sister, by force and says that would be in keeping his Dharma, or religious law. He thereby hints that this must have been a common practice among Vrishnis.”
Abduction of women was a common practice in the Mughal era too. Akbar the great maintained a harem of over 300 women as per records. So does that mean Krshna was a Turko-Mongol prince? In the era of monarchical kingdoms, abduction of princesses for the purpose of marriage was a phenomenon widely practiced across the world. A very Aryan Kshatriya price Bhisma abducted the three princess – Amba, Ambika and Ambakila – for the purpose of getting them married to Vichitravirya. Does it make Bhisma a member of the Ahirs or Vrshnis? By faulty logic just about anything can be proved. Such proofs, however, have little or nothing to do with the truth.
Claim 6: “Similarly, when Arjuna is escorting Vrishni women, his entourage is attacked by Abhiras, who take the women away.”
His entourage was attacked by bandits. And why exactly are these bandits equated with Abhirs? Now all along the author seems to be arguing that the Abhirs were Vrishnis, then why would Vrishnis attack their own women? As usual the reader is given no proof in this regard, except for a statement from the pulpit.
Claim 7: “It is in the Harivamsa (dated fourth century CE), a later appendage to the Mahabharata, that the Krishna-Abhira identification was given concrete shape.”
Really? Because it suits the author’s agenda, so Krshna must be an Abhira, eh? This theory further fails to explain that if Krshna was actually a member of the pastoral Ahirs, how come the Vrishnis, his clansmen, were regarded as great warriors in the Mahabharata?
As noted above, the Bombay Ethnography Survey mentions that the first association of Krshna with Ahirs happened in 550 A.D. This is a much later date than the original Mahabharata and the Gita, where, we have already seen that Krshna is accorded a very high status of a God incarnate. There is also the episode in the Mahabharata where Krshna convinces Vibhisana that he indeed was Rama in his previous incarnation. His exhorting of Yudhisthira to perform the Ashwamedha, the reverential manner in which many of the Rishis speak to and of him, the glorious epithets used across the text to describe him leave no doubt that he was quite easily offered a very high status, fit for an an Aryan leader.
A discerning study of the primary texts is always the best antidote against agenda-driven dubious scholarship. But then I am afraid the magazine, Scroll dot in, has been trying its best to occupy a leftist, anti-Hindu narrative space in its discourses. So it comes as no surprise at all. After all who would ever allow such pesky, irrelevant matters like facts ever disturb the march of a cozy narrative that fits right into ones pre-determined agenda?