KRISHNA: HISTORY BEHIND THE MYTH
By N.S. Rajaram
Historical Krishna: a rational
Having set the stage for our search by clearing
some of the debris accumulated over a century and half, let me next take a look
at the records that are available to us, and define also the problem of the
Historical Krishna as I see it. The first point to note: I don't think it is
advisable to try to decide the date of Krishna or of the Mahabharata War
based on any single record. For instance, some scholars have assigned the date
of birth of Krishna based on his horoscope. I lack the confidence necessary to
do that. I have seen the horoscope it is a later record and we have no
assurance that it is accurate or even authentic. It is very tempting of course,
but my experience in dealing with scientific data tells me that it is a
temptation that must be resisted. I am not saying it is wrong, but only that it
doesn't fit in with my essentially conservative approach from a scientific point
At this time all I am prepared to do is try and
place Krishna and the Mahabharata War within a century or so. And in the method
I follow, it must be possible to arrive at the same approximate date from
several independent records. Ideally, it must also be possible to determine the
date from different kinds of data.
What I think is new in the approach that I have to present here is the use of
archaeological and mathematical records not only from India, but also Sumeria,
Old-Babylonia and ancient Egypt. I am not therefore limiting myself to any
single kind of data from any single place or time.
approach is not new. More than a hundred years ago the great Bengali scholar Sri
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee the poet of Vande
Mataram wrote a remarkable book known as Sri
Krishna Charitra. It is devoted to
a scientific study of the life of Krishna.
My maternal grandfather, the late Sri Ramohalli Vyasa Rao, translated it
from Bengali into Kannada and expanded upon it. It was my reading of this great
Kannada book (I don't know Bengali) that excited my imagination and led me to
the approach that I now use; it is an approach that combines science with
ancient records. This of course is what is done in history of science. Bankim
Chandra's book is now a little dated it is more than a hundred years old
but it is a great pioneering work that may still be read with profit. It is a
true torchbearer a beacon for all future workers.
In building upon this approach, we shall be
finding it useful to examine the following kinds of evidence, but not
necessarily in the order given.
Ecological and geographical evidence
this as background, let me begin to look at each of these, taking one question
at a time. But first, let me give a very brief summary of the latest evidence
about the Vedic civilization in India as science has now revealed. Krishna was
very much a figure of the Vedic Age. But first, in order to approach the Krishna
of history we need to have some background on the picture of Vedic India as
given by science.
Vedic India: latest evidence
Krishna was a Vedic figure. He was a younger
contemporary of Krishnadvaipayana or 'Krishna of the Island' better known as
Veda Vyasa who by tradition was responsible for the organization of Vedic
hymns into their four fold division, the form in which we know them today. This
is one of the most persistent traditions in India. It is nowhere questioned, nor
does it rest on any supernatural claims. It is also supported by the Vedic
literature we have today.
There is no reason to doubt this tradition, any
more than there is to doubt the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Like
Shakespeare's plays the four Vedas are there. Whoever divided them was called
Vyasa the 'Organizer'. The Mahabharata
is the work of several hands compiled over many centuries. But there are
parts of the epic its oldest parts in which the language is so archaic
that it cannot be far removed from the Vedic literature. We may therefore safely
place Krishna and the Mahabharata War in the Vedic Age, for Vyasa is a
participant in the Mahabharata as the
premarital son of Satyavati. She later became the wife of Shantanu the patriarch
of the dynasty. This historical picture is supported also by a great many
records from the Vedic period as we shall soon see. To do this, however, we must
first replace the discredited version of history found in history books with a
new one based on science.
The greatest barrier to a rational study of
ancient history has been this nineteenth century fabrication known as the Aryan
invasion of India. When the ruins of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were discovered
about 70 years ago, this was followed by a new piece of fiction known as the
Aryan-Dravidian wars. Science has now completely discredited both these showing
them to be the products of politically motivated scholars ignorant of science.
In short, it is the product of professionally incompetent but politically
influential people. We now know that the Harappan Civilization came at the end
of the Vedic Age. The Harappan Civilization was in fact the Twilight of the
Vedic Age. All this has been discussed in greater detail in several recent
books, but for the present the following summary will do. (See also my book The
Politics of History, Chapter 1. For a more detailed exposition, see Vedic
Aryans and the Origins of Civilization by Rajaram and Frawley.)
The Age of the Rigveda
The later Vedas and the Brahmanas
Harappan Civilization and the Sutra period
Collapse of ancient civilizations in India, Egypt and
Mesopotamia due to a massive 300 year drought.
c. 1900 BC and later
Partial recovery from the drought based on the
cultivation of dry crops.
am not suggesting that this is the last word on ancient history and chronology,
but it certainly has a great deal more scientific support than what standard
history books contain. The dates which I have given in the above table are based
on the analysis of scientific data and literary records from several sources
from India to Egypt. The Harappan Civilization did not end in 1500 BC due to the
Aryan invasion as stated in many books; it ended around 2000 BC due to
ecological reasons. Its main cause was a gradual depletion of water resources
culminating in a severe drought. In coastal areas at least this was accompanied
by the encroachment of the sea in the form of tidal waves and rising sea levels.
Thus several cities like Dholavira had to abandoned due to this change in
ecology. Much of the area became uninhabitable due to salination. This is now
clear from several major archaeological and satellite based studies in India and
This latest, extremely important evidence shows
that the account of ancient history given in most text books is completely wrong
and unscientific. The break in ancient Indian history and tradition is due to an
ecological calamity around 2000 BC and not any invasion. This affected nearly
all ancient civilizations from India to southern Europe. It led to the collapse
of the Harappan Civilization in India, the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia and
also of the Old-Empire of Egypt. This is one of the most important facts to
emerge from recent research. Ultimately, it is ecology that is the master of
history not any currently fashionable political, sociological or linguistic
recognition has to be central to all future studies of ancient history.
The details of the evidence for all this as well their full implications are not
needed here; for the present this much will suffice. (See The
Politics of History and also Vedic
Aryans and the Origins of Civilization.)
With this picture of the Vedic Age firmly in
place, we are finally in a position to begin our study of the Historical
Was Krishna a historical figure?
Until the coming of modern Europeans and their
study of Indian history and tradition, it had occurred to no one to question the
historicity of Krishna. It is only natural that Hindus should have accepted him
without question. But medieval Muslim scholars and even the ancient Greeks
accepted Krishna as a historical figure. Buddhist and Jain scriptures, while
often hostile to Krishna, nonetheless accepted his historicity. It was only in
the last century and a half beginning with the modern Europeans' study of
India that Krishna came to be regarded as a mythical figure. This of course
was driven at least in part by the needs of Christian missionaries to discredit
him in the eyes of Hindus to gain more converts. As we shall soon see there is
now ample evidence to show that he was indeed historical. This was also the
conclusion of Bankim Chandra more than a hundred years ago, and we now know a
great deal more.
As far as sources are concerned, he Mahabharata is the oldest and the most important source. Since the Mahabharata
is concerned primarily with the history of the Kuru clan (the Pandavas and
the Kauravas), it contains only that part of Krishna's life that had a bearing
on the fate of the Kurus. Recognizing this shortfall, a work known as the Harivamsa literally the 'Dynasty of Hari (Krishna)' was
composed to fill gaps in the life of Krishna found in the Mahabharata account. Another class of ancient works the Puranas
notably the Visnupurana and the Bhagavata
contain more details. All these are later works that are not on the same
level as the Mahabharata as far as
their historical value is concerned. Nevertheless they supply important details
that are not found in the Mahabharata
All this should make us recognize the fact that
we now have ample materials for reconstructing a historical account of Krishna
and his age. When every allowance is made for exaggerations and the introduction
of the miraculous and the supernatural, it can safely be said that we know more
about Krishna than about any other ancient figure with the arguable
exception of Rama. Ancient authors have taken enormous pains to preserve
accounts of his life, times and philosophy even if they have embellished
some of the details.
At the same time, beginning with the Mahabharata, all these are works belonging to a single tradition
the great tradition of itihasa (recent
history) and puranas (ancient
chronicles). The case for the historicity of Krishna will be greatly
strengthened if we can find references to him and his contemporaries in
unrelated works that is to say, in works that are not part of the great itihasa-purana
tradition. This will give us independent support for the historicity of
Krishna. When we look hard, we do indeed find that there exist many references
in both religious and secular works of the late Vedic period. Let me look next
at a few examples beginning with Panini.
Panini, the great grammarian came after the
Mahabharata War. As a grammarian and linguist unconcerned with religion or
history, the references he provides are especially valuable. They have no
sectarian purpose. His masterpiece Ashtadhyayi
contains several important sutras
(short statements) that use examples showing knowledge of the Mahabharata period. Here are a few of them. (I also give in
parentheses the reference to the relevant character or fact from the Mahabharata.)
sthirah 8.3.95 (Yudhisthira)
napannasatyanamuci nakula nakha napumsaka naksatranakranakhesu
probably the most famous sutra given in Ashtadhyayi suggesting
the existence of a cult worshipping Vasudeva (Krishna) and Arjuna in Panini's
vun 4.3.98 (Vasudeva and Arjuna)
the word 'Mahabharata' itself in a well known sutra.
vrihyaparahna grstisvajabala bhara bharata hailihila raurava prvrddhesu
last cited sutra yields the word Mahabharata
which can refer either to the epic itself, or to the episode of the
Mahabharata War which must therefore have taken place before Panini's time.
Perhaps a majority of scholars incline to the latter interpretation believing
that the epic had not yet come into existence at the time of Panini. This is not
entirely justified. Asvalayana, a very early Sutra author records:
sumantu jaimini vaisampayana pailasutrabhasya bharata mahabharata dharmacaryah.
tells us that in Asvalayana's time Jaimini was known as the author of a work
and Vaisampayana of the Mahabharata.
No less interesting is the name of Paila mentioned by Asvalayana, because
Pailas name appears also on at least one of the Harappan seals. The message
on the seal is: adi-sarge paila. This
means Paila (appears) in the first sarga
(or part), as indeed he does in the Adi-parva
of the Mahabharata. So we have
inscriptional evidence dating perhaps to before 2300 BC, attesting to the
existence of the epic and its characters.
it would be rash to claim that the work we have today is exactly same as the one
referred to by Asvalayana (and the Harappan inscription), there cannot be the
slightest doubt that a work by the name Mahabharata
was known in his time. Unlike in the case of the Panini sutra, this passage
admits of no ambiguity at all regarding the meaning of the word Mahabharta; it can only refer to the epic and not the war.
In addition to establishing its historicity this helps us determine the date
of Krishna (and of the Mahabharata War). This is because Asvalayana's date can
be established with some precision.
This identification of Vaisampayana as the
narrator of the Mahabharata is also in
agreement with the tradition as found in the epic itself. He had learnt the epic
from Shuka, the son of Vyasa who is recognized as the first author of the work.
It is stated that the epic was first recited by Vaisampayana to the Kuru king
Janamejaya, son of Parkshit; Parikshit was the grandson of Arjuna and Krishna's
sister Subhadra. This suggests that even in Asvalayana's time the same tradition
was current. Asvalayana himself is placed some five generations or so after the
Mahabharata War. We shall see later that there is a good deal of evidence
Nor are these by any means isolated references.
We have profuse references to these and other personalities of the age in late
Vedic and even the Buddhist literature. They include: Dhritarashtra, son of
Vicitravirya in Kathaka Samhita (X.6);
Sikhandin Yajnasena in Kausitaki Brahmana (VII.4);
Janamejaya the grandson of Abhimanyu in Aitareya Brahmana (VIII.21); and Pariksita in Satapatha Brahmana (XIII.5.4.2). And this list is far from
Among Buddhist works Kunala
Jataka, 536 mentions Krishnaa (i.e., Draupadi) in addition to Bhimasena,
Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva and Yudhittila (Pali for Yudhisthira). Dhananjaya of
the Kuru race (Arjuna) and Draupadi Svayamvara are referred to in Dhumakari
Jataka, 413. The same work refers also to Yudhisthira as an ancestor of the
Kurus of Indapattana (i.e., Indraprastha) and also to Vidurapandita.
In addition to these Mahabharata
characters, Krishna himself is mentioned in Buddhist works such as Sutrapitaka
and Lalitavistara. In these works Krishna has been called an Asura
a derogatory term at the time.1 Since the Buddhists viewed Krishna's teachings of sankhya (rational philosophy) and nishkama karma (detatched performance of duty) as inimical to their
own teachings emphasizing renunciation, it is not altogether surprising that
they should have referred to him in unfavorable terms. But the very fact they
found it necessary to try to discredit him shows that he was accepted as a
historical figure even by them. They did not try to deny his historical
existence as for instance the Pagan Greeks and Romans did in the case of
Returning to the late Vedic literature, one of
the most interesting references to Krishna is to be found in the ancient Chandogya
Upanishad. It goes (my translation):
Ghora of the Angirasas spoke thus to Krishna, son of Devaki (Krishna
Devakiputra) 'Hearing your words I too am now free of thirst.' And till
the end of life he sought refuge in these three principles: 'Thou art
indestructible (aksita). Thou art
eternal (acyuta). Thou art the flow of
life (prana samhita).'
Devakiputra can be none other than Krishna of the Mahabharata.
Some have doubted it claiming that it refers to some other Krishna who came
before the Krishna of the Mahabharata, and
the word 'Devakiputra' was added by a later scribe who confused between the two.
But this is not supportable, for the reference is quite specific and uses the
word acyuta which is one of Krishna's
names. It must be noted that the Chandogya
is a very ancient work that preserves such archaic linguistic traits as
pitch accents used in Vedic chanting.
It is also worth noting that unlike the Harivamsha
or the Bhagavata, none of these works the Upanishads, the Jatakas, the
Sutras or the Brahmanas belong to the historical tradition and had therefore
no reason to use these names except familiarity. With such profuse references to
Krishna and other Mahabharata characters
in so many unrelated works of diverse kinds, written in different periods, there
cannot be the slightest doubt that they refer to historical characters in a
To this may be added the fact that following
the decipherment of the Indus script by N. Jha, both he and I have found the
word 'Vrishni' appearing fairly frequently on the Indus seals. Vrishni of course
was Krishna's clan, dominating the region where they lived. This is also one of
the regions where the Harappan Civilization was thriving.
| Home | Special Focus | This month's Articles | ANILKUMAR ONLINE | How to Contact |