Historical Krishna

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Krishna, in a historical perspective

Some people are remembered for a few years after their demise. Some are famous enough to be remembered for centuries. Only there are a few who are remembered by humanity for many millania. Vasudeva Krishna, Yadava, was such a great personality. Most conservative historical estimate place Krishna to be born before 1000 BC. Krishna was the son of the Yadava chief Vasudeva and his wife Devaki. Hence he was known as Vasudeva Krishna or Vaasudeva. In this blog I am trying to analyze Krishna's personality as a human being. We all know the divinity of Krishna and the influence he has on Hindu religion and on the devotees spread across the world. I am here focusing on the life of Krishna as a statesman, political reformer and a great philosopher.

References: Mahabharata, Krishna

Krishna's revolt against the caste system

Krishna was born in the race of Yadu, the son of Aila king Yayati and Devayani (daughter of the Asura priest Sukra). Devayani was a Brahmana while Yayati was a Kshatriya. The son of a Kshatriya upon a Brahmana woman was considered as a Suta whose occupation was to ride chariots of kings and to become assistants of kings. Though during the time of Yayati, caste was very flexible and not well defined, during the later stages it started becoming rigid. The race of the Yadus was not given the same status as of the race of the Purus (Yayati's younger son) even in the days of Yayati. Instead of calling Yadus to be Sutas, it was proclaimed that the Yadu-clan is cursed. The reason for the curse was explained away as a fable. (Yayati cursed his son Yadu when Yayati asked Yadu to take his old-age and Yadu refused). Puru was the son of Kshatriya Yayati and his Kshatriya wife Sarmistha (the daughter of king Vrishaparva of Asura race). Puru and his race was not cursed since Puru's birth follows the dictates of the caste-system. (But the fable won't say this but give a different explanation: Puru agreed to what Yadu refused and so he was awarded the throne and his race was blessed). The Bharatas and the Kurus descended from the race of Puru and had the same contempt for the Yadus or the Yadavas.

Thus Krishna was not considered a high-born by birth, especially by the conservative sections of the Kurus and their Brahmana priests, since he belonged to the Yadu's race. Yet he became a great statesman, war-strategist and philosopher of his age. He was a younger contemporary to yet another statesman Vidura who was the minister of Kuru king Dhritarashtra. Krishna played more or less similar role to the Yadava king Ugrasena that Vidura did as a minister to Kuru king Dhritarashtra. Vidura was believed to be the son of a Sudra women and was a low born like Krishna. He was also contemporary to Karna who lived as a Suta. Karna was actually born to Kunti the mother of the Pandavas, thus an elder brother of the five Pandavas. But since he was adopted by Suta Adhiratha and his wife Radha, he was known to the world as a Suta, thus considered to be low-born. Krishna had to suffer humiliation at the hands of many like Jarasandha, Sishupala and especially Duryodhana due to his low birth, while the Pandavas and Vyasa acknowledged his greatness. Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata himself was born of a Sudra woman Satyavati, who later became the queen of Kuru king Santanu. Similarly Karna too had to suffer humiliation by others like Bhima and Kripa due to his caste. Vidura too because of his low birth could not get sovereignty of the kingdom in spite of his unparalleled wisdom. Vyasa was not accepted by many of his contemporaries, which is evident from many passages in Mahabharata that tries to defame him. Out of all these men, Krishna was of a spirited soul and his charismatic nature won a lot of admiration from everybody with whom he interacted, even from hard hearted men like Duryodhana. Mahabharata also has several passages where Krishna is mentioned as having affectionate interactions with Vidura, Karna and Vyasa, as all of them shared the burden of low-born status. Though the Pandavas had glorified fables about their births, they too was considered by many to have a questionable birth. This was even so for Panchali, the queen of the Pandavas. Thus they too shared a common bond with Krishna.

Many hostile men like Duryodhana considered him to be of the status of a Suta. Knowing that many among the Kurus consider the members of the Yadu clan to be Sutas, Krishna intentionally chose to become a chariot-driver of Arjuna which is the job of a Suta. But Krishna turned it to a joyful exercise and mocked the caste system that was strengthening its tentacles into the Indian society. He converted it into a philosophical symbolism where the intellect (Krishna) guides the soul (Arjuna), in a chariot (the body), driven by the senses (the horses). He also proclaimed in his Gita sermon that the four orders of caste are based on once nature (guna) and acts (karma). Thus he denies caste which is based on ones birth. He also consider himself to be the creator of this new definition of caste (chatur-varnya) and the destroyer of the old definition based on birth.


cātur-varṇyaḿ mayā sṛṣṭaḿ
tasya kartāram api māḿ
viddhy akartāram avyayam

Vidura silently accepted his low status in the society but shone high with his wisdom. Vyasa's fight with the evils of the society including the caste system was evident in his own history embedded in Mahabharata and the way he devised his epic history Jaya to grow into the great epic Mahabharata. Vyasa seems to ally with Krishna in establishing a new political system, a new philosophy and a new religion as well as a new way of life by demolishing the systems that prevailed in their time.

Contrast this with the fight of Karna against his perceived low birth. His dislike of Arjuna started when Kripa proclaimed that he cannot have a dual fight with Arjuna in a fighting competition since he was a Suta. He also disliked Bhima as Bhima too humiliated him for his caste. He thus disliked all the five Pandavas due to his dislike of Arjuna and Bhima. He became the great friend of Duryodhana who immediately opposed Bhima and upgraded Karna's status by making him the king of Anga, though this was an opportunistic move. He also hated Panchali who refused to allow him to participate in the archery competition to win her as bride, invoking his Suta caste and as revenge Karna instigated Duryodhana to disrobe her in the midst of the royal assembly hall. He also derived pleasure in making Shalya, a king and a Kshatria, to be his chariot-driver! Though Karna was a victim of caste system, he was a supporter of this system, as is evident from his contempt of the culture of Shalya, (Bahlika Culture) which was more liberal on caste. Shalya's culture permitted one to be a Brahmana and later become a Kshatriya or a Vaishya as one choses or vice versa. One member in a family can be a Brahmana while others can be a Kshatriya, a Vaisya or a Sudra. But Karna criticized all these and rebuked Shalya for having such a culture. No wonder Krishna cannot be on the side of Karna, despite some common traits they shared. Both were raised by foster parents. Karna was raised by foster parents Adhiratha and Radha where as Krishna was raised by foster parents Nanda Gopa and Yasoda. Their philosophy was never similar. However Krishna shared the same philosophical ground with Yudhisthira, who in his famous conversation with Naga, Nahusha proclaimed that caste was not based on birth but based on once merit and conduct. No surprise why Krishna allied with Yudhishthira and worked for making Yudhishthira the ruler of the land.

It is sad to see that the later society of India, failed this vision of Krishna and Yudhisthira. Krishna is made into a God to be worshiped in temples and king Yudhisthira was forgotten into the dark corners of history, nay, mythology. The society dipped into the worst form of caste system from which it is recovering only now.

Krishna as a statesman and a political reformer

Krishna was the key political figure, in overthrowing Kansa the king of the Kingdom of Surasena (Mathura district in Uttar_Pradesh, India). The kingdom of Surasena was the native kingdom of the Yadava clans constituted by the Andhakas, Vrishnis and Bhojas. It was a beautiful kingdom situated on the banks of river Yamuna and lied to the south of the powerful kingdom of the Kurus (Faisabad district in Uttar Pradesh as well as eastern parts of Hariyana). Its capital was Mathura, a city which retains its name even today. By overthrowing Kansa, Krishna re-established the old king Ugrasena on the throne and stabilized the kingdom, from collapse due to factional fighting within the kingdom. The next threat came from outside the country, from the kingdom of Magadha (Patna district in Bihar, India). The ruler of Magadha, Jarasandha, attacked Surasena many times and weakened its millitary. Krishna and other Yadava chief tried all thier best to hold on. Eventually they had to flee from their native kingdom to the south and to the west.

Later, with the initiative of Krishna, the Yadavas who fled from Surasena formed a new kingdom called Dwaraka. Its capital was Dwaravati a city well protected by mountains on all sides, in an island, not far from the Gujarat coast. This made it immune to attacks from land. The kingdom prosepered by sea trade, with sea-faring kingdoms. Dwaraka had ancient roads connecting it to kingdoms like Kamboja (Jammu district, and areas to the west of it in Pakistan) and with major trade routes like Uttarapatha (the Northern Path). Dwaraka's influenced reached to as south as Kerala along the western sea-coast of India, leaving many cultural establishments in Gomanta (Goa), Gokarna (in Karnataka) and Guruvayoor (in Kerala).


Krishna with the five Pandavas

Krishna established a tie-up of Yadavas with the Pandavas, a faction of Kurus, who were fighting against the established Kuru Kingdom. This tie up prooved profitable to the Yadavas, stratagically. With the help of the Pandavas they overthrew the Magadha king Jarasandha who were thier biggest enemy. Thus the rising power of the Magadhas as a prominent power of ancient India was subdued and the Kurus continued as the major political power of ancient India during the period of Mahabharata epic. For the assistance rendered by the Pandavas in overthrowing Jarasandha, Krishna in turn helped the Pandavas to win the Kurukshetra War against the Kurus headed by Duryodhana. Thus the rule of the Pandava Yudhisthira was re-established by Krishna at Indraprastha (Delhi).


The Thee Krishnas. Krishna-Vasudeva-Yadava (right), Krishna-Dwaipayana-Vyasa-Parasarya (left) and Krishna-Draupadi-Panchali (top) in the assembly hall of the Pandavas

In his endevour of supporting the Pandavas, Krishna faced opposition from his own men, including his own brother Bala Rama and other leaders like Kritavarman. However the leaders like Satyaki and Chekitana stood besides him. But Krishna had to pay a price for this polarization among his own people. The Yadava chiefs faught the Kurukshetra War, on both sides, and even after the war ended, the enimity among the Yadava leaders continued. After 36 years, since the Kurukshetra War, another war broke among the Yadavas, in their own kingdom. This resulted in the absolute destruction of the Yadava kingdom in Dwaraka.

But the help Krishna extended to the Pandava Yudhisthira, paid off. When the rule of Yudhisthira ended, he established the Yadava prince Vajra on the throne of Indraprashta along with the Kuru prince Parikshit, at Hastinapura. Thus the royal lineage of the Yadavas continued through the prince Vajra.

The following sections shows glimpses of Krishna's political life, as a supporter of the Pandava cause, and as a mediater among his own kinsmen.

When Pandava Arjuna eloped with the Yadava Princess Subhadra, Krishna pacified his kinsmen with the following words:- (Mahabharata, Book 1, Chapter 223) "Even this is my opinion: go ye cheerfully after Dhananjaya and by conciliation stop him and bring him back. If Partha goes to his city after having vanquished us by force, our fame will be gone. There is no disgrace, however, in conciliation."

During the preparations for the Kurukshetra War Pandavas held many discussions camping at Upaplavya (a city in the Kingdom of Matsyas, identified to be in the Alwar district of Rajasthan). Everybody knew that the war will cost a great deal of destruction of human life and wealth. Pandavas, Krishna and other kings discussed on peaceful resolution of the dispute with the Kuru king Duryodhana. Krishna expressed his openion as follows:- (Mahabharata, Book 5, Chapter 5) "As we are desirous of adopting a politic course, this is, no doubt, our first duty; a man acting otherwise would be a great fool. But our relationship to both the Kurus and the Pandus is equal, howsoever these two parties may behave with each other. If that chief of the Kuru race should make peace on equitable terms, then the brotherly feelings between the Kuras and the Pandus will sustain no injury. If on the other hand, the son of Dhritarashtra should wax haughty and from folly refuse to make peace, then, having summoned others, summon us too, for war. "

Krishna also offered aid in war for both Pandava Arjuna and Kaurava Duryodhana as both were his kinsmen. (Arjuna was married to Krishna's sister Subhadra and also was the son of his aunt Kunti, the sister of Vasudeva. Duryodhana's son Lakshmana was married to Krishna's daughter).


Krishna and Arjuna as partners in battle

Arjuna was the beloved friend of Krishan and so secretly wished to help him than Duryodhana and spoke thus:- (Mahabharata, Book 5, Chapter 7) "There is a large body of cowherds numbering ten crores, rivalling me in strength and known as the Narayanas, all of whom are able to fight in the thick of battle. These soldiers, irresistible in battle, shall be sent to one of you and I alone, resolved not to fight on the field, and laying down my arms, will go to the other. You may, first select whichever of these two commends itself to you." Arjuna chose Krishna and Krishna's army went to Duryodhana. Krishna served as the key war-strategeist for the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra war.

Krishna was chosen by the Pandavas to approach the Kurus as an ambassedor of peace. Mahabharata, Book 5, Chapter 83):- "I will go to king Dhritarashtra, desirous of accomplishing what is consistent with righteousness, what may be beneficial to us, and what also is for the good of the Kurus. "

Krishna was always troubled by the in-fighting among the Yadava chiefs. Here is a passage describing the dialemma of Krishna, thinking about his freinds who quarrel among each other:-
(Mahabharata, Book 12, Chapter 80):- "I never behave with slavish obsequiousness towards my kinsmen by flattering speeches about their prosperity. I give them half of what I have, and forgive their evil speeches. As a fire-stick is grinded by a person desirous of obtaining fire, even so my heart is ground by my kinsmen with their cruel speeches. Indeed those cruel speeches burn my heart every day. Might resides in Sankarshana (Balarama); mildness in Gada; and as regards Pradyumna, he surpasses even myself in beauty of person. Although I have all these on my side yet I am helpless. Many others among the Andhakas and the Vrishnis are possessed of great prosperity and might, and during courage and constant perseverance. He on whose side they do not range themselves meets with destruction. He, on the other hand, on whose side they do range themselves, achieves everything. Dissuaded (in turns) by both (viz., Ahuka and Akrura,) I do not side either of them. What can be more painful for a person than to have both Ahuka and Akrura on his side? What, again, can be more painful for one than not to have both of them on his side I am like the mother of two brothers gambling against each other, invoking victory to both. I am thus, afflicted by both."

Battles of Krishna

The epic Mahabharata describes many battles fought by Krishna, and his conquest of various kingdoms. He defeated the king Naraka of Prakjyotisha (Gohati). He also conqured Bana or Vana of Sonitapura (Sonitpur of Assam), to the east of Prakjyotisha. (Some historians consider the location of Prakjyotisha and Sonitapura to be along the Sindhu river in Pakistan). Bana later became an ally, as Krishna's grandson Aniruddha married Usha, the daughter of Bana. He belonged to the Daitya clan of Asuras. In (Mahabharata, Book 5, Chapter 62), Krishna is described as the slayer of Vana and Bhumi’s son (Naraka). Krishna married Rukmini, his first wife, by abducting her from the Vidarbha Kingdom (Vidarbha retains it name as the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra). He also abducted and married a Gandhara princess in the same manner. Krishna aslo attacked and conqured the Pandya Kingdom in the south.

More research is needed to ascertain if these battles indeed occurred or if they were later interpolations to portray Krishna as a war-hero, which he was not and which is unnecessary. One suspect-point is the reference in Mahabharata that king Naraka of Prakjyotisha was slain by Bhagadatta and not by Krishna. Bhagadatta succeeded Naraka at Prakjyotisha as king. Some interpolators has styled Bhagadatta as the son of Naraka who succeeded Naraka, but actually it seems he succeeded Naraka as king of Prakjyotisha but after defeating Naraka, not because he was son of Naraka. Bhagadatta seems to be a Yavana chief.

Krishna's battle with the the southern Pandyas too is shrouded in mystery. However in Kurukshetra war we see that Pandya king sided with the Pandavas based on the advise and initiative of Krishna. It is possible that some other Yadava chief battled with the Pandyas on the advise of Krishna, as the Pandyas in the south and the Dwarakas in the west were competing each other to get territories in the southern Indian peninsula.

Krishna's battle with the Vidarbhas and the marriage with Rukmini seems to be real. The battle with Gandharas could be real, given the opposition and competition between Dwaraka and Gandhara for economical and political dominance.

Krishna as a Philosopher

The best internet resource for Bhagavat Gita (MP3 Audio of each Sanskrit-verse in 18 chapters with translation to any language of choice, Hindi and English included):- http://www.bhagavad-gita.org

One of the most astonishing aspect of Krishna was the Philosopher in him. He is attributed as the originator of the famous Bhagavat Gita. How he amassed this great knowledge is revealed in the Anugita chapters of Mahabharata, which stats that he got this knowledge by interactions with many learned men, and by his own meditations.

The following was what Krishna told to Arjuna when later told to repeat what he discoursed as Bhagavat Gita, in the midst of the Kurukshetra War.

Krishna and Arjuna as partners of philosophical discourse

Bhagavat Gita in Krishna's own Words (Mahabharata, Book 14, Chapter 16):- "I made thee listen to truths that are regarded as mysteries. I imparted to thee truths that are eternal. Verily, I discoursed to thee on Religion in its true form and on all the eternal regions. It is exceedingly disagreeable to me to learn that thou didst not, from folly, receive what I imparted. The recollection of all that I told thee on that occasion will not come to me now. Without doubt, O son of Pandu, thou art destitute of faith and thy understanding is not good. It is impossible for me, O Dhananjaya (Arjuna), to repeat, in detail, all that I said on that occasion. That religion about which I discoursed to thee then is more than sufficient for understanding Brahma. I cannot discourse on it again in detail. I discoursed to thee on Supreme Brahma, having concentrated myself in Yoga."
Krishna mentions about the knowledge he obtained from a certain Brahmana. (Mahabharata, Book 14, Chapter 16):- "On one occasion, a Brahmana came to us. Of irresistible energy, he came from the regions of the Grandsire. He was duly reverenced by us. Listen, to what he, said, in answer to our enquiries.The Brahmana said, That which thou askest me, O Krishna, connected with the religion of Moksha (Emancipation), led by thy compassion for all creatures and not for thy own good,—that, indeed, which destroys all delusion, O thou that art possessed of supreme puissance I shall now tell thee duly. Do thou listen with concentrated attention as I discourse to thee." - words of Krishna.

It seems sage Kapila, a predecessor of Krishna and belonging to the Yadava lineage, too had great influence on Krishna. Kapila's Samkhya philosophy was described in great detail by Krishna in the second chapter of Gita. Krishna's own philosophy of Karma Yoga which is at variance with asceticism and with ritualistic Vedism has its basis upon Samkhya philosophy.

Extracts from Bhagavat Gita the Philosophy of Krishna

(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 26):- "There is no objective existence of anything that is distinct from the soul; nor non-existence of anything possessing the virtues of the soul. This conclusion in respect of both these hath been arrived at by those that know the truths of things. Know that the soul to be immortal by which all this [universe] is pervaded. No one can compass the destruction of that which is imperishable. It hath been said that those bodies of the Embodied soul which is eternal, indestructible and infinite, have an end."

(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 26]):- "As a man, casting off robes that are worn out, putteth on others that are new, so the Embodied (soul), casting off bodies that are worn out, entereth other bodies that are new. Weapons cleave it not, fire consumeth it not; the waters do not drench it, nor doth the wind waste it. It is incapable of being cut, burnt, drenched, or dried up. It is unchangeable, all-pervading, stable, firm, and eternal. It is said to be imperceivable, inconceivable and unchangeable. "

(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 26):- "All beings (before birth) were unmanifest. Only during an interval (between birth and death), O Bharata, are they manifest; and then again, when death comes, they become (once more) unmanifest. "

(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 27):- "In this world, two kinds of devotion; that of the Sankhyas through knowledge and that of the yogins through work."

(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 29) Arjuna said,—"Thou applaudest, O Krishna, the abandonment of actions, and again the application (to them). Tell me definitely which one of these two is superior." The Holy One said—"Both abandonment of actions and application to actions lead to emancipation. But of these, application to action is superior to abandonment. He should always be known to be an ascetic who hath no aversion nor desire. For, being free from pairs of opposites, he is easily released from the bonds of action.
(Mahabharata, Book 6, Chapter 29):- "He who is wise never taketh pleasure in these that have a beginning and an end. "

Other Dimensions of Krishna's Personality

Mahabharata is the oldest text mentioning about Krishna and is authentic about his true charecter. Harivamsa, a later addition to Mahabharata as well as Mahabhagavata_Purana speak about his childhood and his role as a lover among the milk-maids (Gopikas) in the villages (Gokula and Vrindavana) where Krishna passed his childhood and tean-age days. The Bhakti cult which describe Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu ( a Vedic God ), gave more importance to this aspect of Krishna, viz that of a charming and carishmatic child who did miracles and that of a tean age lover.

While there is no harm in any of these interpretations, one should not forget the real personality of Krishna and his teachings. It is the tendency of lazy humans to deify a fellow human who did things which are beyond ordinary human capacity, ignoring all the human-effort they put in. It is an excuse for not trying hard, so that one can say:- well Krishna and Raama were able to do all these things that they did because they were gods; don't expect same effort from me since I am just a human. Some others on the other hand try to find only faults and use them in support for their falsehood, justifying polygamy and the like. Like one is made to believe by the Puranas, Krishna never married 16,008 women, nor did he lusted around women. Krishna treated both men and women equally, with no difference in interacting with them and spread his philosophy of Yoga to both men and women equally. Hence he had many followers among men and women.

References: Mahabharata, Krishna

Mahabharata Wiki Mahabharata Nouns Mahabharata Word
Mahabharata Video Mahabharata Article Kuru
Historical Krishna Human Migration and India The myth of Aryan Dravidian Divide
De-Mystifying Myths The Age of the Gandharvas Origins of Aila Kings
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Created by Jijith Nadumuri at 24 Nov 2009 16:20 and updated at 09 Jul 2012 04:37

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