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KRISHNA: HISTORY BEHIND THE MYTH

By N.S. Rajaram

 

Historical Krishna: a rational approach

            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 of view.

            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.

This 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.

 

            1            Literary evidence

            2            Ecological and geographical evidence

            3            Archaeological evidence

            4            Astronomical evidence

 

            With 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.)

 

            Before 3500 BC            The Age of the Rigveda

            3500-3000 BC            The later Vedas and the Brahmanas

            3000-2000 BC            Harappan Civilization and the Sutra period

            2200-1900 BC            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.

 

            I 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 Mesopotamia.

            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 theory. This 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 Krishna.

 

Was Krishna a historical figure? Literary evidence.

            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.)

 

            gaviyudhibhyam sthirah 8.3.95 (Yudhisthira)

            striyamavantikuntikurubhyasca 4.1.176 (Kunti)

            nabhran napannasatyanamuci nakula nakha napumsaka naksatranakranakhesu             6.3.75 (Nakula)

 

            Next, probably the most famous sutra given in Ashtadhyayi suggesting the existence of a cult worshipping Vasudeva (Krishna) and Arjuna in Panini's time:

           

            vasudevarjunabhyam vun 4.3.98 (Vasudeva and Arjuna)

 

            Finally the word 'Mahabharata' itself in a well known sutra.

 

            mahan vrihyaparahna grstisvajabala bhara bharata hailihila raurava prvrddhesu             6.2.38             (Mahabharata)

 

            This 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:

 

            pracinaviti sumantu jaimini vaisampayana pailasutrabhasya bharata mahabharata dharmacaryah.                                   Asvalayana Grhyasutra, III.4

           

            This tells us that in Asvalayana's time Jaimini was known as the author of a work called  Bharata and Vaisampayana of the Mahabharata. No less interesting is the name of Paila mentioned by Asvalayana, because Paila’s 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.

Though 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 supporting this.

            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 exhaustive.

            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 Jesus Christ.

            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).'

 

            Krishna 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 historical era.

            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.  

                                                                                                      

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