To be able to even begin to write about the character of Krishna is not just a difficult task, but also most perilous. The distance between our understanding and the sublime reasons for his avatar, is much too vast for us to bridge. Yet we all continue to hazard penning our thoughts, or more precisely those which we have read or heard from Srimad Bhagavatam commentators, if for nothing else, then for the love of the subject.
When the life of even a saint is full of subtleties, then what can be said of God himself! Talking specifically of Krishna, his life is even more complex to describe due to the colossal cloak of common perception. His span on earth is perceived to be full of pranks in childhood, merriment in youth, and truancy in adulthood, when he is seen as a flouter of all rules. But just as tumultuous waves hide deep within them the stillness of the ocean, Krishna’s character is full of gravitas and ache.
That’s from day one. As a baby just born he is torn away from his mother even before she has fully embraced him. His birth itself takes place in the shadow of death in a jail, and on a night whose fury was beyond comparison. His father, Vasudeva, steps out with the newborn in this treacherous clime. Placed in a wicker basket, the child is fully exposed to the wild winds and beating rain. Swollen streams lick his delicate feet while lightening, thunder and complete darkness hurl a thousand impediments on his father’s path towards a safe haven. A child other than divine would surely not have survived.
With a one last wistful look, Vasudeva leaves him with his friend Nanda, and in the bed of a woman who is not even a relation. That Yashoda loved him more dearly than any real mother, eventually only added to his anguish, when he left his foster parents for good as a teenager.
In his childhood days, one after the other, threat follows his young life. Imagine a woman feeding a child with a poison-laced breast, or the successive assaults by several Asuras (Demonic characters) sent on the behest of his Uncle Kansa. Not a year passed without an attack on his life in his growing up years.
Take the other case, when the venomous serpent in the belly of River Yamuna tries to strangulate him or the wild forest fires threaten to consume him. His every step is full of hazards.
Having survived each time successfully, his own demigods don’t spare him. First, Lord Brahma doubts his divinity and kidnaps his friends. Later Indra unleashes his wrath because his ego is hurt when the village community of Gokul doesn’t offer him annual prayers.
Most misunderstood is his Lila with the Gopis. Despite ourselves being wretchedly inadequate, we do not fail to point a finger on his character. We do so, even when the Bhagavatam clearly states that these Gopis were none other than reincarnated Vedic hymns or the Evolved Sages of Dandakvan, who had earned a boon of proximity from Lord Ram in the previous Yuga.
The common pitfalls of Lust, Anger, Greed, Delusion and Ego had been eliminated from the very being of those who participated in the divine dances called Raas. Simply put, the Raas, under the sky of moonlit nights can also be seen as a dance between the Lord and his Saints, whom he perceived as his own extension. Gender had nothing to do with it. Yet Krishna has, till the present age, faced the vile of severe criticism for his acts; not once do we take account that his age during the Lila was all of eleven!
Looking from a more human prism, by the time he was fourteen, Krishna needed to face the bitter truth that those whom he loved most dearly, were not his parents. He was torn apart from them and taken to Mathura, where he faced the most direct challenge from his Uncle. After defeating Kansa, and restoring the rule to his maternal grandfather, Krishna often sat alone in his room, going without food at times, just remembering how Yashodha used to feed him. The hurt of separation would make him restless and he would send letters through Uddhava to Vrindavan, to ask after his foster parents, and the Gopas and Gopis, including his beloved Radha; yet he fully realized that a reunion with them was impossible.
Others used his love for the Vraja folk to needle him. Though born into royalty as a Kshatriya, he was often taunted by many Kings as a gwala or milkman. He bore it all with a smile. More mysterious was his battle in Mathura with Jarasandha, whom he later vanquished. He fled from this battle in Mathura and took the blot of being called a Rann Chhod (person who flees from battle as a loser). Could lack of courage really have crippled the prowess of Lord incarnate? There had to be another reason. According to commentators, probably he did not want his maternal family to feel that he was laying claim to their kingdom.
The clash with Jarasandha may have provided the right opportunity to move away to another land – Dwarka where he established an independent empire. Even in Dwarka, he never laid claim to the crown, though he deserved it more than anyone else, simply because it was he who had won the territory. Yet all his life he was never declared a king.
In Dwarka too there were at least two heart wrenching accusations. After Krishna killed Narakasur, he not just freed over 16,000 women who were being held captive, he also consented to marrying them on their request, knowing well that they had nowhere to go, and that they would be exploited.
In turn, Krishna has for years been blamed for being, to put it bluntly, a Casanova. Could Krishna be compared to an ordinary promiscuous creature? Rishi Narad too was looking for an answer. But when he visited the palaces of Krishna, he was both ashamed at his curiosity and confounded by what he saw. In all the palaces, he saw multiple Krishnas…one with each wife engaged in different domestic duties…all at the same time. There could have been no greater proof of his divinity, yet tongues continue to wag.
A second blasphemous accusation came from Krishna’s family itself. When Syamantaka, a precious jewel, which belonged to his wife Satyabhama’s father, was stolen, many accused Krishna of being a thief! Worse, among those who suspected him included his closest companion and brother Balrama. Knowing well the misgivings the disappearance of the jewel had evoked, a deeply hurt Krishna did not rest till he found the real culprit.
When someone like Shishupal hurled abuses at Krishna, it was bad enough, but when his own injured him, the sting is felt multi-fold. That Krishna who had served at the Pandavas Yagna by picking up soiled utensils, that Krishna who had saved Draupadi from public disgrace, that Krishna who saved the Pandavas on the Kurukshetra battlefield from the onset till the end; finally got only ungrateful words in return. Draupadi, whom he lovingly addressed as Krishna (to be differentiated in pronunciation from Krsn), after the killing of her sons by Ashvatthama, asked the unquestionable, “Mere Putro ki mrityu mey kya tumhari sahmati thi.” (Was there your will behind the death of my sons?)
Krishna listened disbelievingly, but remained silent. It may well have been the sorest moment of his life. It would have been a long night at his camp after such a bitter statement. Would he have not tossed away the hours thinking of all that he had done for the Pandavas, saving their lives repeatedly? Giving courage at crucial moments. Had it not been his words which had propelled Arjuna to fight on when he had exclaimed that his great Gandiva was slipping from his grip seeing his loved ones in front of him.
Yet again, after that night, Krishna took one more decision to help Pandavas. Knowing well the state of mind of Gandhari, the mother of the now slain Kauravas, he pushed ahead of Pandavas and presented himself to her before they could. The result, a curse that his family, which was unmatched in number, might and virtue, will be annihilated. Thus, he saved the Pandavas yet again from extinction and sacrificed his family instead.
In fact, when the last progeny of Pandavas was threatened, it was Krishna who saved their dynasty. He protected Parikshit who was still in Uttara’s womb from Ashvatthama’s Brahmastra, the most lethal of weapons. In doing so, he gave us a glimpse of what he really was and cleared a lot of misconceptions that plague his life.
The precondition for returning the Brahmastra or to blunt its effect is that a person had to necessarily be eternally celibate. Knowing well his mental dissociation from the physical realm, Krishna valiantly declared: “If I have not uttered an untruth in my life, if I have never fled from a battle, if I have lived a righteous life and loved those who are righteous, if I have not been jealous of another’s prosperity, if I have used the righteous means to kill Kansa and Keshi ..”
“If all that I say is true, let the child of Uttara come alive.” Parikshit lived and because of him and the great son of Vyasa, Sukadeva, we got the Srimad Bhagavatam. Parikshit’s life itself is a testimony of Krishna’s innocence and his untarnished and great character.
The pity is that we continue to view him through our tainted vision. That Krishna’s life was full of pathos is stated above. His ending was even more tragic. Gandhari’s words came to play. A practical joke by the Yadu children on some sages evoked such anger in them, that they too cursed that the metal used by them in the stunt would end the last of them. Not one in the Yadu clan thought it needful to consult Krishna about how to overcome the curse of the Brahmins! The result was most horrific.
Drunk and engaged in vice, the mighty Yadu clan killed each other. Not one survived. Imagine a patriarch who sees his kith, kin and children drunk and destroying each other. Krishna had to see all this with his eyes, walk through those bloodied streets with not a person to share a tear. Quietly, he left Dwarka for the forests.
Physically and mentally exhausted by the events that had unfolded, and by his subsequent long journey, he sat in solitude in a thicket. There are different viewpoints about whom Krishna yearned to meet in his last hours; many say it was Arjuna, others feel he remembered Vidura and Uddhava, but there is yet another thought which may well have been true…authoritative commentators feel that the one person that Krishna wanted to see before he departed was Draupadi…his Sakhi (intimate friend), the love and bond that the two shared was shackled by Maryada (societal norms), but she is believed to be one of those few people who may have truly understood Krishna …but alas she too never came.
Twang, came an arrow from a hunter who mistook Krishna’s foot for an animal. He was fatally hurt. The metal which the Yadu children had used to play the trick, had travelled from sea in a fish, and was used by the hunter to make an arrowhead. Krishna had taken the curse on himself. The metal pierced his foot and thus took the life of last of the Yadus. Krishna, the illuminator of an entire epoch, departed unloved and unnoticed.
If only we choose to closely examine his life and see what is beyond the obvious, Krishna as the protagonist of some sensual chapters …he appears untouched. Amidst wallowing luxury…he appears an ascetic. Through the war cries in battlefield of Kurukshetra…he appears the observer in physical form but a doer in the divine. And in the entire panorama of his life and times, indeed, a loner. Because of all these reasons, amongst all the avatars …perhaps the least understood.
Krishna who had come to bless the world all alone on a stormy night, departed in painful loneliness. And all his life while he shared his joys and showered bounty, each of his travails has been distinctly marked by silence …his suffering by absolute aloneness. This perhaps was the price he had to pay for being Krishna.