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.
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.
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.
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Question for you…
Of the two Krishnas, which one do you like better?
Image Courtesy: Stories of Gods