Wave 6:  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, Krishna declares:


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.

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Copyright ©  V. Krishnamurthy  Aug.15, 2006