10.7.1 : KRISHNAVATARA , THE MIRACULOUS
Janmashtami is celebrated all over India and all over the Krishna-conscious world in the memory of Lord Krishna’s birth said to have happened 5000 years ago. Vyasa’s Mahabharata is full of Krishna’s exploits. But it is in one of his later works, namely, the Shrimad Bhagavatam, that we find a systematic account of the graphic details of Krishna’s birth and of his life, which was full of miracles. Any other account of Krishna which was written much later, traces its source to these accounts of Vyasa. Vyasa’s account is therefore the earliest record of one of the oldest events of human history that mankind is remembering and celebrating, year after year. In fact it is the second such oldest event of human history, the first one being the birth of Lord Sri Rama.
Those who remember Krishna can be broadly divided into two types. The first type is that of the emotional and sentimental, who are charmed and mesmerised by Krishna’s miraculous birth and exploits. The second type is that of the intellectual and the analytic, who are fascinated by Krishna’s Bhagavad-Gita. This latter shall be our starting point.
It was a major world war, again around 5000 years ago, in which every king of India was involved. The armies arrayed on either side totalled 18 akshauhinis. One akshauhini is 21870 units, each unit comprising one chariot, one elephant, one horse, five warriors on these and five soldiers on foot. There were 11 akshauhinis on the side of Duryodhana and 7 akshauhinis on the side of Yudhishtira. Everybody talked of the foremost heroes of the war on either side, Karna and Arjuna. The dominant personality throughout the one-month long preparation for the war was Lord Krishna who donated all his armies to Duryodhana and stood by himself weaponless, to be the charioteer for Arjuna.
On the fateful first day of the War, everything was almost set for the beginning, the first arrows were going to be shot – and right at that time, Arjuna collapsed in total frustration at the sight of his having to fight his own kith and kin, elders and masters. He threw down his bow and arrow and sat down, refusing to take any step further – in fact wanting to retire to the forest as a sannyAsi. Krishna had to use all his miraculous ingenuity to quell the excitement of ignorance and compassion that had arisen in Arjuna’s mind. Krishna talks of the great truths of Vedanta embodied in the Upanishads, how the Self has nothing to do with what happens to the body and mind, how one has to do one’s duty, come what may, and how the misplaced compassion in Arjuna’s mind ill becomes him.
Arjuna asks several questions, including the million dollar question: If you extol the quality of Detachment and Renunciation so much why are you prodding me to kill? Then comes an elaborate explanation from the Lord on what Karma Yoga means, how actions fulfilled in total desireless attitude do not bind the person, how Karma Yoga is the only resort of mankind since man cannot but keep acting.
And Krishna adds: I have taught this long ago to the Sun-God, who taught it to Manu, who taught it to the first king Ikshvaku and from whom it has come down from generation to generation.
Arjuna suddenly wakes up from his frustrated state of helplessness, becomes his own dynamic self of courage, intelligence and inquisitiveness and asks: You were born just a few years before me. How can it be true, that you taught it to the Sun-God and all that? How is it possible? Arjuna behaves at this point like any intelligent rational human being. Till now for the earlier two chapters of the Bhagavad-Gita, the preacher and his disciple had been talking just like any other teacher and student, just on the academic plane. Arjuna’s question shakes off the self-imposed humility, as it were, from the Lord and He replies, in a few of the most inspired shlokas of the Gita (IV – 5, 6, 7 and 8):
bahUni me vyatItAni janmAni tava cArjuna /
tAnyahaM veda sarvANi na tvaM vetha param-tapa//
ajo’pi san-navyayAtmA bhUtAnAm-Ishvaro’pi san /
prakRtiM svAm-adhishhTAya sambhavAmy-Atma-mAyayA //
yadA yadA hi dharmasya glAnir-bhavati bhArata /
abhyuthAnam-adharmasya tadAtmAnaM sRjAmyahaM //
paritrANAya sAdhUnAM vinAshAya ca dushhkRtAM /
dharma-samsthApanArthAya sambhavAmi yuge yuge //
Note that till now, the Gita reads as if it were just an academic thesis on the truths of Hinduism. But at this point the Gita starts its character as a religious work. In the western world, religion and philosophy are considered to be two isolated independent facets of human activity. But not so in the eastern world of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Here the daily living of a religious life is based on a philosophical understanding of Man’s innate nature. That is why it is very difficult to separate religion from philosophy in the understanding of ancient Hindu traditions. In these shlokas, Krishnadeclares:
I have gone through many lives and so have you. I know them all, you don’t know a thing. Though I am ever unborn, and my Self is imperishable and though I am Master of all beings, ruling over My own Nature, out of my own Free Will, I manifest myself as a visible Being. Whenever there is a decline of Dharma and whenever there is a rise of Adharma, I incarnate myself for the protection of the Good, and for the destruction of the wicked, and for the establishment of Dharma, I create myself, again and again, yuga after yuga.
These shlokas constitute the Avatara rahasya, the secret of the concept of Avatar, in the Gita and it has not come forth so majestically an so powerfully in any other portion of Hindu religious literature. When Arjuna asked the question as to how it is possible that Krishna, who was sitting before him in flesh and blood and who was just under forty years of age, could have taught the Sun-God ages ago, Arjuna was naturally referring to that birth of Krishna about which his mother Kunti had told him several times.
It was on that Ashtami day after ShrAvan Poornima, when the Moon was in the asterism Rohini – corresponding to the star Aldebaran, in modern terminology – that Krishna was born in that famous prison of Kamsa of Mathura. According to the hair-raising description of that birth in the Shrimad Bhagavatam, tenth canto, third chapter, it was in the dense darkness of that fateful night, the Lord appeared – mark the word, appeared, not born – as an unusual child from the womb of Devaki, just like the full moon rising on the eastern horizon!. Oh, what a sight it was! Continues the Bhagavatam:
tam-adbhutam bAlakam-ambujekShaNaM caturbhujam shanka-gadAdyudhAyudhaM /
shrIvatsa-lakShmaM gala-shobhi-kaustubhaM pItAmbaraM sAndra-payoda-saubhagaM//
mahArha-vaiDUrya-kirITa-kuNDala-tviShA pariShvakta-sahasra-kuntalaM /
uddAma-kAnchyangada-kankaNAdibhiH virAjamAnaM vasudeva aikShata //
Vasudeva saw that wonder child with four hands, holding a conch, a mace, a chakra (discus) and a lotus; with Srivatsa emblem on his chest; with Kaustubha gem on the neck; with cloth of golden hue, as beautiful as the blue water-filled cloud; with dense hair flowing around amidst the adornments of crown and ear-rings radiant with precious gems; and excellently brilliant with bracelets around the hip and arms.
Struck with awe and wonder at the sight, Vasudeva praises the Lord and His glory and Devaki, his wife, also joins him in the prayer. Devaki is naturally scared of the possibilities of Kamsa, her brother, hearing of the birth and walking in any moment to kill the new-born child, who has been predicted, as the eighth child of Devaki, to turn out to be the killer of Kamsa. So she pleads that the baby should become a natural baby immediately and she wants to think of some way of hiding the baby. The Lord (in the form of the baby) speaks, reminds them of their previous births, how she and her husband had done a massive tapas for ages, and the Lord had promised them that He would incarnate as their issue. And then, right in front of their view the child assumes a normal human form and then all the story that we know took place.
Now let me raise the major question that arises in the mind of a skeptic or in the mind of the teen-agers or in the mind of an enquiring intellectual.
Was all this true? Did something like this really happen? Could it have happened? Is it a historically accurate account that is written in the book of Shrimad Bhagavatam or is it the fantastic imagination of an over-zealous superstitious fanatic Vyasa who any way had a vested interest in promoting his brand of religion?How can we believe such a thing as a newly born baby with four arms, with flowing hair, with bracelets and anklets, and speaking to its parents in that way?
In fact, if we pursue the story further, it says that the gates of the prison opened themselves for Vasudeva to carry the child to the other side of the Yamuna, and to exchange it for the other child (the Yoga Maayaa as it is referred to in the book) born there in distant Gokulam and all that story of Kamsa coming and getting totally disappointed and scared by the fact that the eighth child had been a female child and even that child would not stay in his hands until he could crush it, and more amazingly, the child speaks from the heavens, as it were, to announce that the real killer of Kamsa has been born somewhere else already. All this is totally unbelievable, if you approach it from a rational point of view. It all looks like a fairy tale story fit only for the kindergarten. So let us examine it.
Why don’t we want to believe it? Let us analyse this behaviour of our modern mind in a logical manner. There are two kinds of disbelievers of this story.
Some people say they believe in God alright, but they are not prepared to take this story as historic. According to them, some well-meaning person, Vyasa, perhaps, has invented these stories for purposes of instilling faith in the masses, in our religion. According to them it is not necessary to believe in such stories in order to understand the principles and practices of the ancients. If you ask them whether they believe the words of the Lord himself in the Gita they will have a hard time explaining how they are prepared to take the teaching given in the Gita as Gospel but still they cannot digest the supposedly historical accounts mentioned in the fourth and eleventh chapters of the Gita.
The other kind of disbelievers go one step further bcause they don’t believe in the concept of God itself – much less its avatar.
But both kinds of disbelievers, if asked to pinpoint their reasons for their disbelief in these stories, would say something like this:
One, it is so unnatural, extraordinary and ridiculous an event to have happened in reality.
Two, it is against scientific spirit and rationale to believe in something for which you have no convincing evidence of the kind accepted by modern science.
And thirdly, there is no documentation of the event which has been preserved in a scientific way.
All these three reasons and some kind of modifications and combinations of them exhaust all possible alibis for not believing the birth of Krishna in the way it is told in the Bhagavatam.