Krishna is often mentioned as belonging to the race of Madhu. He is often praised as Madhava. But he is also frequently mentioned as the slayer of Madhu (see Madhu). In Mahabharata we see that the two titles of Krishna viz. the descendant of Madhu and the slayer of Madhu are indeed competing each other for dominance. Which one among these is true? This conflict in Krishna's title is due to the continuous attempts to edit and re-edit the ancestry of Krishna due to the changing meanings of the terms like Asura and Danava and also due to the now forgotten rivalry between the Ikshwakus and the Yadavas, the races in which Rama and Krishna were born respectively.
Kuvalaswa vs Dhundhu
This Ikshwaku-Yadava rivalry, to dominate in the regions south of river Ganga is explicitly evident from a careful analysis of Mahabharata. The rivalry of Kuvalaswa and Dhundhu is one among them. History of the Ikswaku king Kuvalaswa is detailed in three chapters from Mbh.03.201 to Mbh.03.203 of Mahabharata. He is mentioned as earning the title Dhundhumara by defeating Dhundhu, the son of Madhu. This seems to have happened some where around the dried up Thar desert in Rajastan that resulted due to the disappearance of the Saraswati river. This area was dominated by the Yadavas and the Nishadas at some period of time. In this fight, Kuvalaswa lost many of his sons.
Sagara's sons vs Kapila
Ikshwaku king Sagara's history is detailed in Mbh.3.106. His enemies were Haihaya and Talajangha. Sagara's two wives were from Vidarbha and Sivi kingdoms. Here we find a myth that the Vidarbha princess gave birth to a gourd from which 60,000 sons are born much like the 100 Kauravas are born to Gandhari! Probably this was the total strength of Sagara's army including a few of his sons. These sons were destroyed by sage Kapila (who is associated with the Yadavas) in a sea of sand (desert). Sagara's sons were following the sacrificial-horse as part of Sagara's Aswamedha (horse-sacrifice). The horse was stolen by Kapila or his men. In the dispute that arose, Kapila killed all of the Sagara's sons and the whole of his army. This incident probably took place in the same desert region where Dhundhu was slain by Ikshwaku king Kuvalaswa. This seems like a revenge of the Yadavas upon the Ikshwakus.
Satrughna vs Madhu
Similarly we have Satrughna (the youngest brother of Dasarathi Rama) defeating Madhu (either the founder or a descendant of the Madhava race) whose territory lied in the south-western banks of Yamuna. This territory is identified to be the same as the Yadava kingdom named Surasena in which Krishna was born.
The real Slayer of Madhu
Thus Ikshwakus like Kuvalaswa and Satrughna were the actual slayers of Madhu, a title which was later attributed to Krishna. Satrughna's Satru (enemy) were the Madhava branch of the Yadavas. The Ikshwakus often portrayed their enemies viz. the Madhva-Yadavas as demons, as Asuras and as Danavas. During and after the period of Krishna, when the Yadavas broke free from this negative image, they took the title the slayer of Madhu from their enemies viz. the Ikshwakus and attributed it to their hero viz. Krishna.
Krishna vs the Gandharas (Gandharvas)
See Also:- The Age of the Gandharvas
Krishna had some form of enmity towards the Gandhara kings. Nagnajit was most prominent among them:- Krishna, having speedily smashed the Gandharas and conquered all the sons of Nagnajit, forcibly liberated from confinement king Sudarsana (Mbh.5.48). Amvashthas, the Videhas, and the Gandharvas, were all vanquished by Krishna (Mbh.7.4). These are relevant in the context of Yadava-Ikshwaku conflict when one learn that many Gandhara kings like Suvala (the father of Sakuni) were themselves Ikshwakus. Are the Gandharvas and Gandaras the ancient Ikshwakus who migrated from Saraswati to the west, who wanted to return back to their ancestral territory?
Is Krishna an Asura?
Here a point to be made is that the term Asura had a positive meaning initially. It denoted nobility, power, life-generation etc. In Rig Veda even Indra is addressed as an Asura (the powerful one / the source of life, 'Asu'). Only after a theological split that resulted in the branching off of a group of Vedic people (whom others called the Asuras) did the name Asura started to have a negative meaning. Thus Krishna being born in the Madhava-Yadava lineage which is often described as an Asura lineage or as a Danava lineage has no bearing in the characteristics or qualities of Krishna. But as the terms attracted negative meanings in the course of history, the followers of Krishna had to distance Krishna from the Asura or Madhava ancestry. Hence they started redefining the meaning of the term Madhava as the killer of Madu which actually meant the descendant of Madhu.
They also introduced the story of Madhu and Kaitabha whom Vishnu slew. Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata and Satrughna were often mythologically attributed as partial incarnations of Vishnu (Rama being the major incarnation). Thus Satrughna slaying Madhu can be stretched to Vishnu slaying Madhu and Kaitabha. Krishna too is mythologically attributed as incarnation of Vishnu. In this way, Krishna mythologically becomes the slayer of Madhu though historically it won't be true!
In the Mahabharata narration of Kuvalaswa too we see a mythological explanation on why he was able to defeat Dhundhu, the son of Madhu. It says that the king was inspired with the energy of Vishnu and hence was able to do this feat. The historical fact remains that it was Kuvalashwa who killed Madhu's son and not Vishnu.
Krishna's stand against Indra
Another point in this connection is Krishna's opposition to the worship of Indra. In his village of Vrindavana he abolished the worship of the Vedic god Indra (the giver of rains) and established the worship of the mountain Govardhana. He thus made a statement that it was the mountain which is responsible for giving rains by stopping the rain-giving clouds and thus sustaining life in Vrindavana. In the process he earned the title Giri-dhara, the one who sustained the mountain (over his head). Some interpret that Krishna actually uprooted the mountain and lifted it up over his head! This is simply not true. What Krishna did was the uplifting of the merit of the mountain, in comparison to the merit of Indra-worship, not the uplifting of the mountain itself!
The enemies of Indra is often considered as Asuras. In this way Krishna is an Asura. However note that this in no way changed the characteristics of Krishna irrespective of the meaning attributed to the term 'Asura'.
Krishna's stand on the Vedas
Indra worship was one of the prominent aspects of Vedic thought. If Krishna stood against Indra worship, is he anti-Vedic? Analyzing the Bhagavat Gita, which contains the philosophy of Krishna, we finds that Krishna was not anti-Vedic. But he was not pro-Vedic either, but urged the followers of Vedas to look beyond the Vedas and expand the Vedic thought.
Bhagavat Gita 2.42-43:-
|yam imam pushpitam vacam
|nanyad astiti vadinah
Men of small knowledge are very much attached to the flowery words of the Vedas, which recommend various fruitive activities for elevation to heavenly planets, resultant good birth, power, and so forth. Being desirous of sense gratification and opulent life, they say that there is nothing more than this.
Bhagavat Gita 2.45:-
The Vedas deal mainly with the subject of the three modes of material nature. O Arjuna, become transcendental to these three modes. Be free from all dualities and from all anxieties for gain and safety, and be established in the self.