Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Literary Tradition and Historicity of Krishna

The character we know today as Krishna is the product of an evolving literary tradition. So, talking about the life of Krishna is really an exercise in tracing the development of the literary tradition about him.

The name Krishna is mentioned in passing as receiving a teaching from someone else, in the Chandogya Upanishad 12:6 (c. 500 B.C.), but that is not usually considered a reference to the later Krishna.

Krishna as we know him first appears in the epic tale called the Mahabharata, which took form between the 400 B.C. and the 400 A.D. The Mahabharata is huge, and is better known for just one of its books, the Bhagavad-Gita, of which Krishna is the star.

Here is one description of the whole of the Mahabharata:
“To understand the character which now unfolds, we must briefly consider the central story of the Mahabharata. This is narrated in the most baffling and stupendous detail. Cumbrous names confront us on every side while digressions and sub-plots add to the general atmosphere of confusion and complexity. It is idle to hope that this vast panorama can arouse great interest in the West and even in India it is unlikely that many would now approach its gigantic recital with premonitions of delight.” from

In the Mahabharata, Krishna is primarily portrayed as a feudal hero, leading the intrigues, dramas, and betrayals of a civil war. On only two occasions, contained in the Bhagavad-Gita, does Krishna take the role of Vishnu, and no where else does he even claim any religious status.

As the author quoted above puts it:
“Between this hero and Krishna the God, there is no very clear connection. The circumstances in which Vishnu has taken form as Krishna are nowhere made plain. Indeed it is virtually only as an afterthought that the epic is used to transmit his great sermon, and almost by accident that he becomes the most significant figure in the story. Even the sermon at first sight seems at variance with his actions as a councilor. “

The obvious conclusion is that the religious Krishna was a late insertion into the Mahabharata, having no organic connection to the military Krishna who was the original subject. The integration was done poorly and abruptly, leading to an appendix being added to the text, some time around 700 A.D.

This appendix, called the Harivansa or the Genealogy of Krishna, provided all those details missing from the epic itself. The exact nature and history of Krishna is recounted, including his birth, his youth and childhood, integrated with the story of Krishna the feudal warrior. This basic biography is maintained in the Vishnu Purana, another text written around 700 A.D.

Krishna’s bio undergoes another expansion by the year 1000 A.D., in the tenth and eleventh books of the Bhagavata Purana. The Purana introduces the ideas of Krishna as playful cowherd boy, later a prince. In both roles he was the ultimate lover, partaking the full joys of sexual intercourse, usually with the wives of other men, while also fulfilling his primary role as slayer of demons. In the Purana, Krishna is often recognized and adored as a manifestation of Vishnu, and he acts with full self-knowledge of his divine status.

The final literary development of the Krishna character occurs in the poetry written after 1200 A.D., such as the Gita Govinda and Balagopala Stuti, representing the full flower of his role as lover, the divine object of bhakti worship. Romantic love is depicted as the most exalted experience in life (and described in great detail), and the impassioned adoration of Krishna was depicted as the most valid of spiritual paths.

The problems of the historicity of the Mahabharata, the earliest record of Krishna, are manifold. For example, there are no contemporary records of those events to corroborate it or compare it to. In fact, nothing in the Mahabharata has any outside written corroboration, nothing at all. It is not even clear from the text itself when it occurred in history. If we take the text seriously in its own accounts, such as its genealogies of kings, the events took place in an ancient time when they could not possibly have taken place (such as describing historical anachronisms like technology before they were invented, or massive kingdoms when only low-population villages existed).

It is acknowledged by all that the books of the Mahabharata came to be written down in stages over the course of centuries, and was based on oral stories before it was ever written down. Indian historians have long since admitted that there is no basis to consider the Mahabharata as history, but regard it simply as the product of myth and storytelling. For example, R S Sharma, professor emeritus of the department of history at Patna University, states, "Although Krishna plays an important role in the Mahabharata, inscriptions and sculptural pieces found in Mathura dating back to 200 BC and 300 AD do not attest to his presence. Because of this, ideas of an epic age based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata have to be discarded." As another historical analyst described it: “At the most optimistic level, there may perhaps be a basis for the Jaya, the description of war, which started at a local level. However, a collective imagination and the work of a thousand years added considerably to the repository, and took it away from the realm of history to a new realm of mythology. Therefore, any archaeological co-relation with the text would first require the de-stratification (i.e. the removal of interpolations and the excavation of the basic Jaya core) of the text, an impossible task.”

Seen from the religious angle, we know for a historical fact that Krishna worship did not begin until after the year 1000 A.D., and only picked up with the sensual poetries of the post-1200 period. Whereas according to the Mahabharata, Krishna lived in the year 3000 B.C. or earlier. Why the God-man incarnated on earth would only come to be worshipped 4000 years after he existed, and only in response to his erotic adventures being published, well, that is a question that strives mightily to be answered by the thoughtful observer.

By the way, most educated Krishna worshippers today freely acknowledge that Krishna is not historical, but has merit only as a symbol, a symbolic guide to the role of the self and the divine. Much like Buddhists who don’t care if the historical Buddha existed or not, theirs is a legitimate religious position. As I have stated before, I personally am not attracted to worshipping fictional gods. But I do acknowledge their position, especially to point out that my discussions are not attacks on them as people or their symbolically-based spirituality, but simply the weighing out of historical evidence, and attempting to propagate the truth of the matter for those who are interested in the historical bases of religion.