While pointing out some of the excesses that have crept into the popular tales around Kr̥ṣṇa, the author asks us not to shirk them but to look at them in the light of discernment.
Śrī Kr̥ṣṇana Vyaktitva (The Personality of Śrī Kr̥ṣṇa) in Kannada, written by a prodigious scholar of recent times Śrī S.K. Rāmachandra Rao, and published by Abhigyāna, attracts us at first sight. Who does not want to know more about our most beloved of Gods?
Professor Rao begins by posing his typical question- was Kr̥ṣṇa a human being or a God? He confesses that his regular Rāmāyaṇa pārāyaṇa especially during Navarātri had helped him so immensely that he was afraid to pose the same question about Rāma. At this point, I thought I should drop this book! Like most Indians, devotion to God Kr̥ṣṇa was a given and this question seemed irrelevant and even frightening.
Professor Rao’s further introduction allayed all my fears:
“Kr̥ṣṇa and Rāma are the most important figures responsible for the greatness of India’s culture. It is only natural that we revere them as Avatārs. We need to know them more and appreciate them more. But this reverence must not end at blind belief, – it should lead towards awareness. I hope that this effort of mine will be a precursor to many more such explorations.” (translation mine)
He explains how his reading of the Bhagavad was very satisfying but he did not feel the same about the Bhāgavata, Purānās or Harivamṣḥa. The elements of fantasy and unearthly qualities attributed to Kr̥ṣṇa may be suitable to many who are content with the fervour of Kr̥ṣṇa Bhakti. But in the great ocean of Kr̥ṣṇa Bhakti tradition, Kr̥ṣṇa’s personality seems to have drowned, he opines.
He rightly points out that some western scholars write about Kr̥ṣṇa only with the head and no heart and tell us that there was no Kr̥ṣṇa at all, and some of our own scholars blindly follow suit. Prof Rao assures us that Kr̥ṣṇa is both a human being and an Avatār and to understand this we need not look beyond our own traditions.
Kr̥ṣṇa in the Vedic, Buddhist, and Jain literature
The next couple of chapters take us through his search for the historical Kr̥ṣṇa. There are references in the Vedas and the Chāndōgya Upanishad to a risḥi named Kr̥ṣṇa. Edicts in Rajasthan, as early as several centuries BCE show Balarāma and Kr̥ṣṇa among the five revered warriors of the Vrishni dynasty. Balarāma the warrior, considered the incarnation of the divine snake Śēṣa, became hyphenated with his younger brother Kr̥ṣṇa. They came to be known as Rāma – Kr̥ṣṇa, Baladēva – Vāsudēva. Over time Kr̥ṣṇa’s popularity rose and overtook that of his brother’s.
It is not clear when exactly Kr̥ṣṇa came to be known as Vāsudēva, a title of great reverence. Interestingly, Vāsudēva cannot be extrapolated as Vāsudēva the son of Vasudēva because, during Kr̥ṣṇa’s time, it was the mother’s name that was taken on, so Kr̥ṣṇa should have been Rohini Kr̥ṣṇa!
The Buddhist text- Ambaśtaka sutra, several centuries before the Purānās, shows Kr̥ṣṇa as a man who became a risḥi. Jain texts tell us about Kr̥ṣṇa being one among the many Vāsudēvas and not just – the One, emphasizing Kr̥ṣṇa’s human side.
These and many more interesting references to Kr̥ṣṇa make for engaging reading. If Kr̥ṣṇa indeed walked the earth like the rest of us, how do we explain his superhuman and Godly side?
Kr̥ṣṇa in the Mahābhārata
Prof Rao says, the Mahābhārata, popular several centuries BCE considers Kr̥ṣṇa both as an Avatār as well as a venerated human being. Incidentally, the intriguing history of the concept of Avatār too is traced here. The Mahābhārata itself kept transforming from a work with 24,000 shlokas to one of 1,00739 shlokas! It is a compendium of not just the main story, but upakatās – stories within stories, counsels, deliberations and became an Itihāsa Purānā. It is difficult to say when exactly the idea of Kr̥ṣṇa as an Avatār entered the text.
The Mahābhārata describes him as a great warrior, powerful, just, and righteous; a dharmātmā, well versed in the Veda-Vēdāṅgas. These are the very adjectives Bhīṣma uses while justifying the honour conferred on Kr̥ṣṇa at the Rājasūya yajña by Yudhiṣṭhira.
Then, how does one explain his role in the Gītā? Prof Rao reminds us that Kr̥ṣṇa was a student of Sāndīpini Risḥi in his younger days with a keen interest in spiritual sādhana.
“In the Shanthi parva, Yudhiṣṭhira observes Kr̥ṣṇa rising early and meditating with a great stillness – ‘like a wall, a piece of wood, unwavering as a flame protected against the wind.’” (translation me)
So, when Kr̥ṣṇa the hitherto human, reveals his Viśvarūpa to an overwhelmed Arjuna, he is only revealing the highest extent of Yogic state that is possible by an extraordinary life of sādhana. The state where there is only oneness and nothing else. The Br̥hadāraṇyaka Upanishad says it is a state where the sādhaka becomes the dēvatā he is worshipping and realises the greater Self that lies in each one of us. Kr̥ṣṇa the human being through his extraordinary achievement reached that state of an Avatār/God, becoming a guiding light to the entire humankind. Archarya Śaṅkara calls this state, “Ārṣa darshana,” true to a risḥi.
“After the Mahābhārata war, when Kr̥ṣṇa is getting ready to return to Dvārakā, Arjuna asks him, ‘Can you please reveal what you said to me in the battlefield once again? – I seem to have forgotten’. An annoyed Kr̥ṣṇa replies, ‘You fool, you should have retained what I told you, how can I repeat what occurred at an exceptional Yogic moment? Kr̥ṣṇa himself reveals his human side.’” (translation mine)
Kr̥ṣṇa in the later texts
By the time of the Purānās, Harivamṣḥa and Bhāgavata, which all came several centuries after the Mahābhārata – Kr̥ṣṇa was completely a God. The image of the revered warrior made way for Godly miracles and superhuman strengths. The Purānās are unambiguous about saying that he is an Avatār-a God who comes down to protect us. It is but natural in literature to take stories of great personalities and embellish them with superhuman qualities.
The common thread in all the texts is, Kr̥ṣṇa, a great revered warrior of the Vr̥ṣṇi dynasty along with his brother Baladēva lived in Mathura / Dvārakā. They killed Kamsa and Jarāsandha and became not simply great warriors but liberators and heroes.
The change in the personality of Kr̥ṣṇa over time
So how did the hero of Vr̥ṣṇi dynasty turn into a cowherd who dances with Radha, the Gopis, and has 16000 wives! All those fantastic stories of Kr̥ṣṇa and his tackling of the demons single-handedly, aren’t these incompatible with the Yogi or warrior Kr̥ṣṇa wonders Prof Rao. These incredible tales sadly led Kr̥ṣṇa to be abused as a thief, philanderer, a warmonger, a deceiver (kapaṭanāṭaka sūtradhāra) etc!
Professor Rao faults the Purānās for embellishing these epithets to Kr̥ṣṇa’s life. These stories were no doubt taken from folklores, full of valorous heroes and their love lives. They made Kr̥ṣṇa immensely popular, but his human side took a back seat.
These are explained away as “leelas,” by the Purānās, unsatisfactorily for Prof Rao. The “leelas” have undoubtedly led to some of the greatest mystical traditions of Kr̥ṣṇa Bhakti. They have inspired our arts, music, dance, sculpture and serve the purpose of instruction along with entertainment. These very same stories became the basis of the Gītā Gōvinda of Jayadēva considered the blockbuster work of his times. But should we accept epithets such as a warmonger and as the one who is unfairly partial to the Pāṇḍavas – “Pāṇḍava pakṣapāti”?
Professor Rao’s Kr̥ṣṇa Bhakti is made of different mettle. It is important to him that we see Kr̥ṣṇa for what he was and to clear him of the abuses that have been unfairly thrown at him.
“Read the original Mahābhārata!”, he exhorts. He highlights innumerable instances where Kr̥ṣṇa strived till the end to avert war. War ensues due to Duryodhana’s stubbornness and not due to Kr̥ṣṇa. Despite he himself being immensely powerful with a large standing army, he decides to stay out of the war and agrees to join the Pāṇḍavas when he recognises that dharma is on their side. Even in the killing of Jarāsandha by Bhima, he proposes a duel to prevent the loss of lives in the event of a full-scale war.
Was Kr̥ṣṇa partial to the Pāṇḍavas? We all know of the incident when Duryōdhana and Arjuna come to him for help before the war.
“Duryōdhana himself says, “You have the same affection towards me and Arjuna,” and Kr̥ṣṇa promises to help both equally. It is Duryodhana who choses Kr̥ṣṇa’s army over him while Arjuna choses Kr̥ṣṇa. Just because he chose the Pāṇḍava side did not make him hate the Kauravas.
While discussing the next move at King Virāṭa’s court before the war, Kr̥ṣṇa says, ‘Let us find a solution that is fair to both Yudhiṣṭhira and Duryōdhana ………..’” (translation mine)
The book should be read to appreciate these and many more such anecdotes and nuggets. I hope the publishers come out with an English version soon so that it can reach a lot more of us.
“Emotional persons find history bland; philosophers find the Purānās overindulgent, ordinary people respect and adore stories of valour, sādhakas long for symbolic meanings and so on. Kr̥ṣṇa appears to each as per his own nature, like Kr̥ṣṇa himself says in the Gītā. Perhaps this is the true significance of the allure of Kr̥ṣṇa in our tradition!” (translation mine)
While pointing out some of the excesses that have crept into the popular tales around Kr̥ṣṇa, the author asks us not to shirk them but to look at them in the light of discernment. The mystics have their place in our hearts and so do the inquiries in our minds. For the inquirers among us, fantastic tales alone are inadequate, and we are guided to the Yogi Kr̥ṣṇa himself for the way forward. By humanising Śrī Kr̥ṣṇa, Prof Rao refreshes our perspective of him and makes him more accessible to us.