On the eighth day of the waning half of the lunar month of Bhadrapada (August-September), the horizons were suffused with a new joy. The fires in the hearths of holy men burnt without smoke. A gentle wind blew, the sky was clear, and the stars shone with unusual brilliance. Rivers, their waters sweet and clear, flowed with serenity, the lakes were full of lotuses, the trees were in splendid blossom, and the waves of the sea made music. As the midnight hour approached, it appeared as if all of creation was drenched in the moonlight. And then, as the glorious moment arrived, the earth and the oceans trembled. The gods showered flower petals upon the earth. The notes of the divine 'dundubhi' rent the air. Heavenly spirits and nymphs-gandharvas and apsaras-danced and sang in abandon. There was a burst of light as fires, long dead, rose high in obeisance. A deep thunder, awesome like the roar of the ocean, rumbled across the clear sky. There fell a hush, and Krishna, the protector of the world, the incarnation of Vishnu, eighth child of Devaki, son of Vasudeva, and nephew of the wicked king Karnsa, was born.
His birth was not an accident. Prithvi, Mother Earth, had suffered long from the depredations of evil and wicked men and women, who had forgotten dharma, the law of righteousness. Crime and persecution had become rampant and, in dread, religion and justice had fled. Karnsa, who ruled Mathura, having usurped the throne from his good father, Ugrasena, was foremost among the wicked. His cruelty was matched only by his arrogance and lack of repentance. Unable to bear this state of affairs any more, Prithvi, assuming the form of a cow, went to Mount Meru, where the gods-Indra, Shiva and Brahma-had assembled. Hearing her tale of woe, Brahma approached Vishnu as he lay on his serpent couch in the Milky Sea, and begged the limitless author of creation, preservation and destruction to come to the assistance of Prithvi. Vishnu, ever compassionate, agreed. Plucking out two of his hairs, one black and one white, he said: 'This, my black hair, shall be incarnate in the eighth child of the wife of Vasudeva, Devaki, and shall kill Karnsa, who is none other than the great demon Kalenemi.' The white hair, the Lord said, would also be born to Devaki, as her seventh child. Together the two would kill the demons and rid the world of its accumulated evil.
Karnsa became aware of his impending fate on the day of the marriage of his sister Devaki to Vasudeva, son of Sura, an important chieftain of the clan of the Yadava, who were descendants of Yadu, son of King Yayati of the Lunar race. As Vasudeva prepared to take his newly wedded wife home, a celestial voice proclaimed: 'Karnsa, you fool, this woman, your sister, will be the cause of your death. Her eighth son will kill you.' In a flash, Kamsa's sword left its scabbard to kill
Devaki, but Vasudeva pleaded with him to spare his wife's life on condition that he would hand over to him all their sons. Karnsa relented and put Vasudeva and Devaki in prison under heavy guard. There Devaki in time had six sons, all of whom Karnsa mercilessly put to death. Devaki's seventh son was declared to be a miscarriage, but in reality. Lord Vishnu had commanded the goddess Yoganidra, who is described in the Vishnu Purana as 'the great illusory energy of Vishnu, by whom, as utter ignorance, the whole world is beguiled', to transfer the embryo-formed of a portion of Sesha, the many-headed serpent, which was a part of Vishnu-to the womb ofRohini, another wife of Vasudeva, residing in nearby Gokula. This child was Balarama, also known as Sankarsana, since he was extracted from his mother's womb.
The Lord himself became incarnate in the eighth conception of Devaki. Yoganidra simultaneously entered the womb of Yasoda, the wife of Nanda, the gentle leader of the cowherd settlement at Gokula. A day after Devaki-now luminous from the lustre of the embryo she carried-gave birth to Krishna, Yasoda delivered a girl, who was none other than the goddess Yoganidra. Vasudeva picked up his infant son and carried him out of the prison, whose guards, under the mysterious influence of Yoganidra, had fallen into a deep sleep. It was raining, but Sesha spread his hoods over father and son to accord protection. The deep and turbulent Yamuna rose momentarily to be blessed by the feet of the child in Vasudeva's hands, and then fell low, rising not above the knees of Vasudeva. Across the Yamuna Vasudeva reached Gokula, placed the infant Krishna next to Yasoda and carried her daughter safely back to Kamsa's prison. Under the powerful influence of Yoganidra, neither Gokula, nor Yasoda, nor Nanda, nor Kamsa's guards, knew of what had occurred.
On being informed that Devaki had given birth to her eighth child, Karnsa immediately went to the prison, and ignoring the piteous entreaties of Devaki, dashed the child against a stone. But no sooner had the child touched the stone than it rose into the sky and expanded into a gigantic figure, having eight arms, each wielding a formidable weapon. This terrific being laughed aloud, and said to Karnsa, 'What avails it thee, Karnsa, to have buried me to the ground? He is born who shall kill thee, the mighty one amongst the gods, who was formerly thy destroyer. Now quickly secure him, and provide for thine own welfare.' Thus having spoken, the goddess vanished before the eyes of Karnsa.
Karnsa, in much perturbation, went into conference with his advisers. As a protective measure, he ordered that a full search be made for all children less than a year old) and that they all be killed. Meanwhile, Gokula woke up, as if from a trance, to the joyous news that Yasoda had given birth to a son. Krishna, Lord of Lords, began his incarnate life in the humble abode of the cowherd chief Nanda, in the sylvan surroundings of Gokula.
The early years of Krishna's life were spent in the pastoral setting of Gokula and nearby Vrindavan. The cattle herders' commune provides the backdrop to Krishna's childhood adventures, described in the early texts-the Harivarnsa, the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana-which deal with his life. (The extracts from the Harivarnsa in this work have been taken from the lyrical translation by Francis G. Hutchinson, Young Krishna, those from the Vishnu Purana from the scholarly and pioneering translation by H.H. Wilson and those from the Bhagavata Purana unless otherwise indicated from the summarized but comprehensive rendering of its text by Kamala Subramanian, Srimad Bhagavatam.)
The story of the child Krishna's victory over theserpent Kaliya is a particularly popular one. No play or ballet on the life of Krishna is complete without the enactment of this dramatic feat. In the waters of the Yamuna, as it flowed along the shores of Vrindavan, there was, so the lore goes, one viciously noxious pool.
The Harivarnsa, in typical poetic hyperbole, describes the pool thus:
Even a God could scarcely have crossed it. This pool was as deep and blank as a motionless .sea. Its surface burned with the brilliance of a bushfire. Its stagnant depths were impenetrable) like the sky when thick with clouds. It was difficult to walk along its shore, which was pitted by large snake holes. The air above was empty of birds. Fumes rose from the water like smoke from a putrid fire.
In this pool lived the king of nagas (serpents), the five-headed Kaliya. One day Krishna and the gopas tending the herd strayed near Kaliya's abode. Some of the gopas and cows were inadvertently affected by the pool's toxic waters. Krishna then climbed a kadambha tree stretching out over the pool and fearlessly jumped into the deadly waters to do battle with Kaliya. Kaliya, the Bhagavata Purana states, 'caught hold of Krishna and wound his entire length round the form of the young boy; with his five heads he spat his virulent poison on the child. He dug his fangs deep into all the limbs of the little boy.' Those watching from the shore looked on with growing horror, and many, including Yasoda, fainted. But soon the Lord escaped from the serpent's coils, leaped high into the sky and, landing on Kaliya's outspread hoods, began to dance. The waters of the pool lashed against the shore to provide the music and the waves kept pace with the beat. Under the relentless pounding of his feet, Kaliya, gravely wounded, accepted defeat. His many wives, the nagins, begged the Lord's forgiveness. In Vishnu Purana they pleaded with the Lord thus:
Thou art recognised, 0, God of Gods!; thou art the sovereign of all . . . have mercy on us. [And Kaliya himself said:] 0, God of Gods . . . Thou art the supreme, the progenitor of the supreme (Brahma): thou art the supreme spirit, and from thee the supreme spirit proceeds . . . It is in the nature of snakes to be savage, and I am born of their kind: hence this is my nature, not mine offence . . . Spare me my life; I ask no more.
And Krishna set Kaliya free but on condition that he, his wives and entourage would leave the Yamuna forever and reside in the ocean. The marks of the Lord's feet on his hood would protect him there from any further danger.
The manner in which Krishna subdues Kaliya has a fascinating quality about it. The dance to victory, the effortless rhythm of the Almighty's pace of creation and destruction, the ease, the grace, the sheer play in the manifestations of the Lord's will, to which wind and water provide enchanted accompaniment, are beautifully brought out in the narrative. Indeed, this is the first inkling in textual material of Krishna as 'natawara' (the dancer), an aspect that would see mesmerizing elaboration in the famous rasa dance of his later years.
A distinct cluster of incidents from Krishna's childhood brings out his superhuman physical powers. When but three months old, he is said to have overturned a loaded cart by a kick of his little legs, described in the Bhagavata Purana as 'more tender then the creeper clinging to a tree'. Not much later, Gokula was attacked by the demon Trinavarta, a servant ofKamsa. Trinavarta took the form of a blinding whirlwind and carried Krishna away. No sooner had he done so than he realized that the infant's weight kept dramatically increasing. Krishna clung so tightly to Trinavarta's throat that the demon's eyes popped out and he dropped down dead. A very popular incident is of Krishna, the toddler, dragging a heavy wooden mortar to which he had been tied by Yasoda as punishment. After it had been pulled some distance, the mortar got stuck between two arjuna trees, but such was the child's strength that they were uprooted. The trees were none other than two Gandharvas, Nalakuvara and Manigriva, who due to a curse in their previous birth, had been imprisoned in the form of trees. The Lord's touch gave them release, and the cowherds shook their heads in bewilderment at the miraculous feat of this little baby in their midst.
A host of demons, in the form of different animals, reptiles, or birds, were killed by the child Krishna and Balarama. Vatsasura, sent by Karnsa, came in the guise of a calf; Krishna recognized him, and catching him by the hind legs and tail, swung him round until he fell dead on top of a wood apple tree. Bakasura took the form of a giant crane and caught Krishna in his beak, but the Lord effortlessly ripped his beak apart as though it were a blade of grass. Aghasura, the brother of Putana, transformed himself into a huge python. Such was his size that his mouth appeared like a huge cavern, and the young gopas unsuspectingly walked in. Inside the demon's belly, Krishna miraculously increased his size; Aghasura's passage of breath was checked and he fell down dead. The asura, Arishta, in the form of a terrible bull, under whose hooves the very earth trembled, attacked Krishna, but the divine lad pushed him back eighteen feet, tossed him to the ground, and wrenching out one of his horns, battered him to death with it. Kesin, another dreadful asura sent by Karnsa, came in the lorm of a wild horse; fire spewed from his mouth, his eyes were red like embers, his body was black, and his size and speed sent the clouds scattering. Krishna caught him by his hind legs and threw him as easily as he would a discus. Wounded but not yet dead, Kesin came charging again, but the God of Gods stuck his fist into his mouth and choked him to death. (Hence Krishna is also called Kesava-the conqueror of Kesin.) Balarama was equally capable of such 'acts of valour. The ass-demon Dhenukasura infested a palm grove, preventing the gopas from eating the fruit. Fearless Balarama caught hold of the dreaded demon by his hind legs and whirled him around till he fell dead on top of the trees.
These tales of valour must have been based on reallife incidents of a heroic figure. The nomadic-pastoral community subsisted at the edge of thick and dense forests in which wild beasts abounded. Feats of courage and bravery in encountering such animals were probably in due course woven into folklore, which, by the time of the Puranas, coalesced into material for the Krishna legend. The historical Krishna must have himself been such a figure. From the religious point of view, what is noteworthy is that his depletion in such situations is of one who remains supremely unruffled, achieving his ends without the slightest trace of effort, as though the adversary was created merely to provide him with a means to casually unfold his jvill. The beast could be more ferocious than anything the human mind could imagine, but Krishna, always unperturbed, dealt with the situation with a smile on his face, in flawless control, as if he were at play. Since the world itself was deemed to be a manifestation of his play, any overt act of will on his part, in however difficult a situation, could not but be an extension of that play. However, in striking contrast to the portrayal of the unmoved and unblemished Lord is the description of the destruction of his demonic victims. The Puranas excel themselves in painting the most gory accounts of their death, the blood oozing out, the limbs breaking, their frenzied threshing about in pain, and the final death convulsions.