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Making sense of Krishna

He promised to be born from age to age, but vanished when his avatar had run its course.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2006 14:46 IST

Krishna, whose birthday falls this year on August 16, is so deeply embedded in many of us that it seems like a wholly unnecessary exercise. And yet, for the sheer pleasure of talking about Him, let’s.

It’s normal in our day to exclaim at what a shrewd wheeler-dealer he is in the Mahabharata’s later chapters. His is the cunning brain that incites Arjuna to ask his father Indra, king of celestials, to trick Karna out of his protective kavach and kundala.

He’s the one who tutors Yudhishthira to lie to his own teacher Drona that his son Ashwatthama is dead, and then mutter under his breath, “Ashwatthama the elephant.” He creates a false sunset to fool Jayadratha, king of the Sindhus, that he hasn’t fulfilled his vow to kill Arjuna by day’s end.

He then sends Jayadratha’s severed head flying into the lap of his father, Bhurisravas, who is seated at prayer with his eyes shut. When Bhurisravas stands up, his son’s head rolls off and his own head bursts, for he had protected Jayadratha with the curse that whoever caused his head to fall should himself lose his head — and who can counter a father’s blessing?

Then, during Bhima’s last desperate fight with his arch-enemy Duryodhana, when Bhima seems to be having the worst of it, Krishna whacks his own thigh from the sidelines. Bhima recalls his vow during the disrobing of Draupadi to break Duryodhana’s thigh — the very thigh on which he lad lewdly invited the dishonoured queen to sit. A rush of rage makes Bhima toss aside the rules of honourable combat and bring his deadly mace down hard on Duryodhana’s thigh, breaking it. The Mahabharata has many more examples of Krishna’s cunning, and many of us have been through the phase of turning up our noses at this ‘ungodly’ behaviour.

But while millions of miles of Hindu commentary exist on this apparent anomaly (that it was all part of Krishna’s lila or divine play, to further the triumph of dharma), it’s interesting to read a well-written explanation on the nature Kali Yuga from Italian scholar and author, Roberto Calasso. (His densely layered book on Hindu myth, Ka, ought to be prescribed reading for cultural literacy).

Calasso writes: “Krishna came down into the world when many possibilities had already been exhausted. Wars no longer took place between gods but between potentates. There were no more rishis, powerful as the beasts of the forest, threatening the heavens with the stillness of their minds. Instead, there were shabby, shaggy ascetics. The Apsaras no longer sallied forth from their celestial palaces in embroidered robes and sparkling sandals to meet together by wood or riverbank. Instead, there were wild-eyed barefooted girls gathering herbs, quick to theft and flight.”

It is the death of the age of heroes and the dawn of the age of diminishment, when pettiness rules and dharma is reduced to a fourth. The old, stern rules required spine and unflinching codes of ‘honour’. The new, flabby epoch instead celebrates guile, shortcuts, bad behaviour of every kind and most deadening of all to the moral fibre, it accepts poor quality, it celebrates mediocrity and tiny talent pretending to be great.

Of what use is a concept like Krishna, then, this most beguiling vision of God who took ‘human birth’ amidst us, made us love Him and went away? Who promised to be born from age to age to set matters right, but vanished when his avatar had run its course, leaving our world bereft and continued prey to anger, violence and destruction?

The only possible answer comes from the unlettered gopis of Vrindavan, who loved instinctively and trusted their hearts. Krishna never came back to them, to the idylls of his boyhood, but the vision of his beauty and sweetness stayed with them, to inspire life forever after. And so you have Adi Shankara, you have the long, luminous line of saints who sang their hearts out for Krishna. Many lovely stories and verses enrich our lives because of them. As to why we must love an avatar so, when we know perfectly well that the Creator is meant to be Formless, why, we are frail human beings after all, and need a beautiful, inspiring focus to sustain us. And who more beautiful than Krishna?

First Published: Aug 12, 2006 14:46 IST