The Death of Krishna, and His Rebirth as God

Death of the Yadavas

A friend recently asked me to write about the death of Krishna. I redirected him to a summary of Mausala Parva, which contains an account of how the Yadavas come to ruin by fighting among themselves with clubs made of eraka grass. At the end of this book, a hunter’s stray arrow finds Krishna’s foot and kills him.

Historical basis for the story

The Yadavas were known to be a hostile people, quick to reach for their weapons, so even allowing for poetic exaggerations and later interpolations, we can accept the theory that their race ended by infighting. In her excellent book, Yuganta, author and researcher Irawati Karve says this about the death of the Yadavas:

The story above is full of contradictions and absurdities. Neither the Harivamsha nor the Jain versions of the story are any less confusing. That the Yadavas were destroyed in a drunken quarrel is the core of all the versions. The curses of Gandhari and the Brahmins seem to be obvious later interpolations, as does the ban on drinking among the Yadavas. One of the most improbable aspects of the story is that Krishna who had worked all his life for the welfare of the Yadavas, killed most of them himself.

Apparently the Yadavas were outside Dvaraka on an outing when a quarrel broke out and they started killing each other. It seems that there were also hostile bands of people that chose this opportunity to attack. The grass that changed to iron could well have been stiff iron-tipped reeds used as lances and arrows.

Peace in Death

Krishna is perhaps the most stoic of all Indian heroes. Throughout the Mahabharata, he comes across as someone who can be everything for everybody, and yet nothing for anybody. In a popular Telugu song, he’s called ‘the one who belongs to everyone and yet is attainable by no one’. He welcomes death too with the same unemotional aloofness that is typical of his character. After the massacre of the Yadavas:

Krishna had to take the initiative in providing for the safety of the others. He brought the women and children into the city and returned to stand by Balarama, to whom he had been loyal all his life. He found Balarama dead. He was free to go back into the safety of the city but he chose to remain outside. This deliberate choice of death rather than safety fits into the role he had played throughout his life. He was Krishna Vasu-deva, the resplendent one, the one who lacked nothing, the one who gave magnificently. He could not remain with the women and children, awaiting rescue by Arjuna. He could not live under the protection of anyone, even of the Pandavas.

He welcomed death, as all other actions of his life, with conscious deliberation.

Rebirth

At this point in the story, the Pandavas, grieving for their companion and well-wisher, give up their kingdom and go in search of their own deaths. In the next part of the tale, they ascend the mountain of Meru and fall, one by one, until Yudhisthir reaches the top and passes his final test. This marks the end of the age of Dwapara, in which a Great War has been fought and a great cleansing has happened, leaving North Country to embark upon a fresh start.

So far, so good. But in this new age, a strange thing happens. Krishna, the king of Dwaraka, the younger brother of the Yadava king Balarama, gets another life. This time as a cowherd.

Krishna had died. The Pandavas had died. But Krishna was reborn. The Abhiras, the very people who destroyed Dvaraka, brought Krishna back to life by making him their god. As they gradually established kingdoms in western India, like all other newly come rulers in India, they laid claims to Kshatriyahood. They took the name of their predecessors, the Yadavas and made Krishna their god. The Abhiras were keepers of cows and they made their god a cowherd. Stories were elaborated about the child Krishna, stealing butter, playing pranks and making love to the milkmaids.

The transformation

If we were to read the Mahabharata as a sole text – without being swayed by the Bhakti interpolations of magic and omniscience – Krishna is an elusive personality. He is often heard declaring love and friendship to many, but we see him rarely mourn over any death in the Kurukshetra war. No matter what happens, the expression we most associate with Krishna is that of a knowing smile. In the end, he kills his own people, for whose welfare he has given his whole life. If there is one message that could be attributed to the Krishna of the Mahabharata, it is this: do not attach yourself to results and emotions. Perform your duty. Accept the consequences, whatever they may be.

In Ms Karve’s words:

Krishna remains an elusive personality for this very reason. He worked, he thought intensely, he advised, but we do not find him cast down or mourning because his works, thought or advice did not bear fruit. He danced in joy, he killed in anger his own kinsmen as we are told in Mousala-parvan, but we do not find him mouring even after the terrible end of his clan. He made arrangements that the old and the very young and women be taken care of and met his death. This is what he would have called Yoga, this calm, this uninvolvement.

And maybe that’s why, she says, that the Abhiras, who tasked themselves with writing down the story of Krishna in its entirety, chose to compensate for this lack of humanity in their god and gave him all the characteristics that we’ve come to love from Krishna.

It might have been for this reason that when at last he was made into a God, he became a God with the warmest human qualities: the naughty child, the playmate of simple cowherds, and the eternal lover of all the young women of India.

Two Krishnas merged into one

Historically, the story of Krishna’s childhood was written after the original Mahabharata, so this theory may have merit. But maybe segregating the two Krishnas is not necessary. Is it too far-fetched to believe that a loving, naughty, emotional child grew up in his youth to become stoic, unemotional (at least openly) and stern? Maybe that is the true narrative in the Mahabharata, how life shaped a cowherd who loved nothing more than eating butter and playing the flute into the greatest hero (or villain?) of his age. Did he have to become ruthless along the way? Did he have to grow a veneer of toughness? Did he have to kill his emotions?

Sure. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe that’s just part of growing up.

Enjoyed this post?

Interested in reading more stories from Indian mythology? Download my free eBook, 25 Lesser Known Stories From the Mahabharata, by clicking on the below image.

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Question for you…

Of the two Krishnas, which one do you like better?

Image Courtesy: Stories of Gods

Comments

  1. It is very well written! Was an interesting read!

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  2. An extremely interesting read, which addresses one of the conundrums that I have also faced with the character of Krishna. In fact, for somebody who spent a lively, naughty and playful childhood, the transformation in the character from the time he kills Kamsa to the time he oversees the annihilation of his own clansmen by in-fighting is quite remarkable.

    Love it when you say that his entire character can be summed up in these few words “do not attach yourself to results and emotions. Perform your duty. Accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”

    These words to me have always stood for what Krishna represented and will continue to represent for generations to come, I guess 🙂

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    • Yes, Jairam. For someone who is so stoic and detached in his adult life, his childhood is full of emotion and human warmth. I see merit in what Ms Karve says, that we made him that way to compensate his ruthlessness, but thinking of him as one person who changed and ‘grew up’ into the harsh realities of life opens up some possibilities, especially for a fiction writer 🙂

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      • Manu Mayank Yamdagni says:

        There are numerous similarities in Krishna of Gokul and Krishna of Dwarka. Talking about a stoic personality; you must have read Ras-Panchadhyayi. The account which tells how he vanished right in the middle of Maharas and then re-appeared after gopi-gita with a message. That message is very much similar to Gita. Or the account from Mahabharata itself, where Akroor is sent back to Mathura from Dwarka, as he was involved in theft of Samyantaka mani… There is book named “Krishnanka” One chapter by an Englishman goes on to establish that Krishna of Vrindavan and Krishna of Kurukshetra were two different people. His thoughts are obviously backed up by some rational thinking. However, a more rational commentary is also there on the chapter… Probably you will find it interesting.

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  3. Bhanu prakash says:

    krishna killed his own people…………is it really there in original mahabharata(by vyasa maharshi)…..or it is written any others bharata’s…….if you hv time please give me clarification

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    • Hi Bhanu,

      Yes, different Puranas disagree on the ‘details’, but all of them agree that it was infighting that brought about the Yadavas’ death. Krishna and Balarama are often depicted as fighting with their kinsmen to slay them. The reason why this is called the ‘Mausala Parva’ (The book of Clubs) is because they fought with clubs made of ‘eraka’ grass. (Not sure what that is.)

      You can read more about the link to Mausala Parva I added in the post. Yes, this is present in Vyasa’s Mahabharata.

      Hope that helps 🙂

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  4. Nicely summed 🙂 Krishna is one of the best examples of Karma Yogi. One of the main things that helped with the rebirth of Krishna is the Bhagavatha Purana. One cannot read it without shedding a few tears and one of the most pivotal episodes related in it was when Arjuna comes back to Hastinapura, a broken man and a failed warrior who is unable to complete the task that Krishna assigned him to.

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    • Yes, that is the final nail in the coffin for Arjuna, isn’t it? The finest warrior of his age, reduced to the status of a mere mortal. I heard it being said somewhere that the story of Arjuna is the ultimate ‘Faust’ story – where a man is elevated to heights and then pushed off the peak.

      Thanks for the comment, Sumeetha 🙂

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  5. Interesting. Krishna being my favourite diety (after Ganesha) made me read this piece with much interest. Detachment definitely was one of his traits. I have always wondered how could he leave Radha and come to Dwarka and get married to Rukmini when they loved each other so much and being a God it was so easy for Him to be with her. This theory of being emotionless and detachment definitely explains it much better than the unconditional love story angle put forward by my grandmother. This also makes me want to read Iravati Karve’s book. Adding it to my list. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Hi Rekha,

      Thanks for the comment. As Sumeetha said in her comment, Krishna was the ultimate Karma Yogi. We see a huge similarity between his philosophy of life and the Stoic philosophy that comes from ancient Greece. It’s sometimes funny how all cultures of the world seem to have independently stumbled upon the same ‘truths’. It just reinforces that deep down, we’re all the same after all.

      And yes, you MUST read Iravati Karve’s book. Let me know what you think of it once you’ve done so!

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  6. chsuresh63 says:

    Ah! We see the Yadavas as one people but they themselves saw themselves as a set of clans united into a kingdom.

    If I remember right, the destruction of the Yadavas started with a war of words between Satyaki and Kritavarma, the latter accusing the former of cowardice for beheading Bhurisravas when the latter was in a meditative trance after Arjuna had cut off his hand to ensure that Bhurisravas did not kill Satyaki. Satyaki, in his turn, jibed at Kritavarma for having assisted Aswatthama in killing sleeping warriors including the sons of Draupadi. From that point on, the killing started with inter-clan battles ensuing and, if one is to go by the text, Krishna intends to chastise the violent with the reeds and ends up killing them because the reeds turn to iron rods. After the melee starts and becomes a clan war, it is tough to see how Krishna could have avoided killing those who attacked him. Going by the text, the fact that Krishna ended up participating in the destruction of the Yadava clan does not seem to need much rationalization – an uneasy alliance of clans, a drunken brawl which ends up in a full-scale melee.leading to a massacre.

    But, yes, you could read the tale of Krishna as one of a carefree person growing into the role of a statesman and attaining that supreme sense of detachment. Or you could see it as an allegory of how God appears to each person in the form best suiting that person’s approach to God – to the innocent, as a child; to the devoted as a lover; to the troubled as an adviser; to the weak as a protector and to the evil, as a destroyer.

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  7. Krishna can be seen as a person who loved his people (yadavas) very much. His many actions seem to point in that direction (1) He chooses a strong alliance for Subhadra, his sister; relationship with a Kuru prince (Arjuna) can only help his kingdom (2) Before the war when Duryodhana comes to seek arms, K wants to make sure tht his kingdom does not suffer . He takes a middle path of appeasing both parties. The yadava army goes to duryodhana as per D’s wishes. And K himself statys with Pandavas. Anyway it is starnage coinicdence that finally a part Yadava sits on the HAtinapura thone. I am sure you know thta what we now know as Krishna is a mixture from various sources and different times. He alongwith Bhishma and Karna are the three most interesting characters in the epic. thanks

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    • Hi Vishwanath,

      Thanks for your comment. Some say that it’s not really a coincidence that a part Yadava finally sat on the throne of Hastinapura, that it was Krishna’s plan all along. And yes, you’re right too that there are so many different sources from which our current image of Krishna is drawn. The Mahabharata’s Krishna is so practical and ruthless as to be inhuman, whereas in the Bhagavatam, he’s the lover boy, charming and endearing.

      Thanks again for writing your thoughts 🙂

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  8. Krishna killed , he himself was a shocker! at the fag end of his life and that too his own clan!

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  9. Falguni srikanth says:

    Very nicely done..
    In Gujarat near saurashtra region there is a tribe called Ahirs.could it be the same?they too are cowherds and they play dandiya.
    Krishna just practised what he preached in Geeta.He lived detached to fruits of his actions..” Karmanye vadhikaraste ma faleshu kadachana”
    He really showed us how to live freely and happily by his Devine song geeta.
    I love both the krishnas .

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    • Hello Aunty, They could well be the same, though I cannot claim to know for sure. You’re right that the adult Krishna was detached and unemotional as he preached in the Gita, but the child (and adolescent) Krishna was attached to many emotions. Scholars say that this suggests both Krishnas were written by different people, and that view is probably correct. But from a storyteller’s perspective, it is possible to imagine a loving, tender child growing up to become a stoic, stern person.

      That is a much more interesting point of view, I think. Thanks for your comment 🙂

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  10. hi sharath
    t is nice to see some unorthodox views. if you like yu could see the following – called Krishna’s lament
    creative.sulekha.com/krishna-s-last-thoughts_78970_blog

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  11. Peri Subbarao says:

    It is always better to rely on the original version of VYASA BHARATHA.
    PERI SUBBARAO

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    • Hi Subbarao, most of the stuff I put on here is based on the original Vyasa Bharatam. Though I cannot claim to have read it in Sanskrit, I have read it in its English translation. Not all of it, mind, just the parts we’re referring to here.

      Like

  12. Shweta Pankhania says:

    Whoaa…that was quite an eye opener..
    Do not attach yourself to results and emotions…this gave me a lot to think about…

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  13. Very well narrated!

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  14. It was quite contrary to wat v hv been hearing . Gr8 post n ws indeed gud to knw a lot of things. Cnt imagine sum1 like lord krishna who had immense super natural powers too hd to face all such earthly problems . Very interesting n very well written .

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  15. Devi warrier says:

    This was interesting thought, Though Lord Krishna never killed anyone in Kurukshetra by his vow; how did he became the villain?? He truted Arjuna to protect yadava women but fate decreed that the Dwaraka to be under water.He must have kept his yogic qualities to contain greef after everything was lost.He is revered as God due tp this
    detachment and practsing of his own wisdomthe detachemt to illusionary world

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  16. Partha Sarkar says:

    Excelent ,& Thanks

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  17. A very well written post.. The detachment of Krishna is what makes him different from others. That makes him Yogi,adviser and above all Godly for everyone. I have read Narendra Kohli’s Mahasamar, which also depicts Krishna as a human being and tries to clear most of doubts.

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  18. Simply a great read as a desciple of Lord Krishna. I found it lot new as a novice.

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  19. My hero of the Mahabharat epic is Duryodhan. The entire issue in the Mahabharat is the conflict between dharm and Adharm. My question is what is the definition of dharm and Adharm. If asking for equality amongst all human, if being a true friend, if being loyal to your country and it’s people, if being a rebel and not following the conventional rules of the society is Adharm then let be it. I think Duryodhan was a very good ruler and was loved by his subjects. He was an apt king and was just fighting to protect his throne like most of the other “great kings”.

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  20. i heard that krishna was killed by a hunter accidentally who was vali in the previous life

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  21. Well written Sharath…I read Krishna from various sources, its from Iskcon, bhagavatam, geeta,
    (including Osho Rajneesh version of all the 18 chapters). I also read Osho’s version of Krishna
    (Krishna meri drushtime-Hindi and Krishna and his Philosophy in English)
    What fascinates me about Krishna is the death of him… It was he who takes Vishwaroopam in the midst of war…giving the idea that he is possessing super natural powers……but at the end …he dies like a laymen….without making any fuss..as if he simply accepts the arrow…..ordinary death indeed to an extra ordinary persona….

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  22. please write something about the historical evidence of mahabharata & ramayana….and how it can be related with indian ancient history.as far as we know harappan civilization

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  23. Vyom Jayaswal says:

    Very well written…Mahabharata being such an epic, there can be endless discussions on n number of topics in it…

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  24. Lone Voyager Returns says:

    It may sound silly, but when I was about to be born, my father prayed that someone with lord Krishna’s traits comes to him as his child. And voila, I was born!!!
    This piece is an eye opener. It opens up a lot of possibilities that many would consider irrational, even insane. But it points to various facts that are so true and accepted by all. His childhood, his lover boy image, his mischief… everything that endears him to all. Then there’s the part in the Mahabharata where he is open to war between cousins and leads the Pandavas to a near impossible victory. I mean, look at the powers and the numbers at the Kauravas’ disposal. Karna, Bhishma, Drona… any one of these people could have wiped out the Pandavas within a very short period of time. But it was Krishna who changed to course of History or Mythology, whatever you please.
    Personally, I happen to be a fan of Krishna. Not a worshipper but a fan. I can understand his detachment and aloofness. I can say I an undergoing a phase very similar to that albeit on a very miniscule scale.
    I just hope this article guides me to my goal as it has inspired me to read and study more about Krishna.
    I think Yuganta by Mz. Irawati Karve would be a good start. If there’s more that can shed more light on this, please recommend.

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    • Hi Lone Voyager. You’re right. Yuganta is a good start. Many of the other books I’ve read about Krishna have shown influences of the ‘Bhakti’ era. Ramesh Menon’s retellings of the Mahabharata are said to have a very human Krishna, though I cannot confirm that by first-hand experience.

      Search for ‘Ramesh Menon’ on Amazon and you should find both volumes of his Mahabharata. You can also try Ashok Banker’s work, though again I cannot recommend it our of personal experience.

      Happy reading 🙂

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      • Thank you for the reply. I happened to see it just now. I’ll definitely read the recommended books and also update you on Ashok Banker’s works as and when I read them.

        Cheers!!

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      • Thank you very much. I’m sorry I could see this reply just now. I’ll get to reading the books you mentioned. I’ll update you once I have read Ashok Banker’s work too.

        Cheers!!☺☺

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  25. very elaborative, informative and well written. some of the aspects of this character was unknown to me. the vastness and the contradiction makes it even more reliable & loving than other divine figures

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  26. Totally sucking story,Lord krishna is form of maha vishnu the supreme soul paramathma he had no birth no death he is the savior of the whole universe…

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  27. mast hai

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  1. […] The Death of Krishna, and His Rebirth as God. […]

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  2. Vrindavan says:

    Vrindavan

    The Death of Krishna, and His Rebirth as God – Sharath Komarraju

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