beautiful young woman, in the full bloom of her
femininity, once entered the residential premises
of a provincial chief of cowherds. Dressed attractively,
she appeared very comely, what with her raised hips,
nicely swollen breasts, earrings, and the heavily
scented flowers in her hair. The thin waist added
in no small measure to her allure. Her smiling face
captivated the hearts of everyone present and she
found it easy to glide in to the innermost chambers
where the chief's wife was resting along with her
newborn infant son. Approaching the adoring mother,
she offered to suckle the young one from her own
breasts. There was no question of refusing the request.
The lady accepted the child into her open arms and
held him to her bosom. The baby took one breast
in his little hands and started sucking. Then a
strange thing happened. From the look of a strange
triumph, the woman's expression first transformed
into one of surprise and shock and then into agony,
and finally her features contorted into a mask of
anguish and shrieks of pain escaped her lips. Her
efforts to take away the breast from his soft grip
were futile. Her cry was so intense that both sky
and the earth reverberated with its echo. As the
child pressed her breast extremely hard and sucked
out her very life, she fell to the ground. With
her arms and legs spread, she began to cry, "Oh,
child, leave me, leave me!" Suddenly, as she
entered the spasms of death, her beautiful appearance
disappeared, revealing a monstrous personality beneath.
The above narrative describes
a famous episode from the annals of Indian mythology.
The little one is of course the beloved god Krishna,
most popularly celebrated as a child deity. The
lady in question is Putana, an ogress who had been
assigned the job of killing him.
According to the Hindu belief,
there are seven different kinds of women who have
to be venerated as mothers:
1). The real mother.
2). The wife of a teacher.
3). The wife of a king.
4). The wife of a Brahmin.
5). The cow.
6). The woman who nurses.
7). Mother Earth.
Since Putana offered milk from
her bosom to Krishna, she fell into the sixth category
and was duly accepted by him as such. It remains
another matter that she had smeared the tips of
her breasts with poison. True to the Indian ideal,
there is a deeper purpose to the above happening
rather than a mere motive to annihilate a new born
infant, who was perceived as a threat by the king
of the land. According to the Brahmavaivarta Purana,
in one of her earlier lives Putana was born as the
princess Ratnamala. Having laid her eyes on the
Vamana avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, so enraptured
was she by his enchanting beauty that she wondered
if he had been her son, how gratifying it would
have been to suckle him. Now Krishna was a later
incarnation of Vishnu too, and thus by offering
himself up for suckling he fulfilled Putana's desire,
which had remained unfulfilled for ages.
According to another text (Adi
Purana), Putana, in one of her previous births,
was the wife of an accomplished sage. A slave of
physical desire, she once committed the sin of establishing
physical relations with another male even though
she was bound by the sacred ties of marriage. Her
husband, when he came to know of her affair, cursed
her to be reborn as an ugly ogress. On her pleading
to lighten the sentence, the heart of the kindly
sage melted and he prophesized that when Vishnu
would incarnate on earth as Krishna he would extract
the poison of her sin from her body. The Bhagwata Purana elaborates with devotional clarity: 'Putana,
who was an ogress, was killed by the Lord. He had
drunk of her breast and all her sins had been sucked
out of her. She had become purified since she had
touched the Lord and he had had touched her with
An important parallel is drawn
with the important festival of Shivaratri, which
commemorates the occasion when Shiva consumed the
poison generated from the cosmic ocean and thus
saved the world. Similarly did Krishna suck out
the poison from Putana's breasts and redeem the
world. The festival of Holi celebrates Krishna's
this very victory over Putana, and an effigy is
ceremoniously burnt on the night before, replicating
her funeral pyre.
Within the river Yamuna there
was a great lake, and in that lake the black and
venomous serpent Kaliya used to live. Due to the
poisonous vapors emanated by him, the surrounding
area was so contaminated that no living being would
dare venture near the place. The cattle after drinking
the water fell sick, the trees around the pond dried
up, and the birds were asphyxiated just by the fumes
rising out of the water.
In the chapters 10, 15-17 of
the Bhagvata-Purana, there is an account of how
Krishna as Kaliya-damana ("he who subdues the
cobra") forced the serpent demon into submission:
'Krishna, the adventurous seven
year old, came to this dangerous place and curiously
peered into the depths. He brooded, "I shall
vanquish this king of serpents and release the inhabitants
of the country from their continual dread.
The boy then girded his loins,
made his way up a tree, and jumped with great leap
into the depths. Swimming about like a great strong
elephant, he made a tumultuous sound which rattled
Kaliya. Understanding it to be an attack upon himself,
the mighty serpent immediately charged towards Krishna.
For over two hours Krishna remained in the grip
of the serpent, but then he freed himself and began
to expand his body. When the serpent tried to hold
on to Krishna, he felt an enormous strain, on account
of which his coils slackened, and he had to loosen
his hold. Grabbing the opportunity, Krishna pounced
upon him as does Garuda swoop upon a snake. He leaped
high into the sky and, landing on Kaliya's outspread
hoods, began to dance.
rhythmically stamping his feet on the serpent's
heads he trampled Kaliya into submission. The waters
of the pool lashed against the shore to provide
the music and the waves kept pace with the beat.
Finally, under the relentless pounding of Krishna's
feet, Kaliya, gravely wounded, accepted defeat.'
The manner in which Krishna subdues
Kaliya has a fascinating quality about it. The dance
to victory, the effortless rhythm of the Almighty's
pace of creation and destruction, the ease, the
grace, the sheer play in the manifestations of the
Lord's will, to which wind and water provide enchanted
accompaniment, are beautifully brought out in the
narrative. Indeed, this is the first inkling in
textual material of Krishna as 'natwar' (the dancer).
Figuratively, the image of Krishna
dancing over the serpent is a motif symbolizing
the inverted tree of life with the outstretched
hoods signifying its roots. Such a tree is mentioned
in the Bhagvad Gita (15.1) "The universe (or
human body) may be compared to an eternal tree that
has its origin (or root) in the Supreme Being and
its branches below in the cosmos. The Vedic hymns
are the leaves of this tree. One who understands
this tree is a knower of the Vedas."
The human body, a microcosmic
universe or world, may be also compared to a beginningless
and endless tree. Karma is the seed; the countless
desires are its roots; five basic elements are its
main branches; and the ten organs of perception
and action are its sub-branches. Three modes of
material nature (goodness, passion and ignorance)
provide the nourishment, and sense pleasures are
its sprouts. This is the terrestrial tree of life.
Thus, while the earthly tree
derives its sustenance from the material world,
the heavenly tree of life, the knowledge of which
is the goal all the spiritual quest, subsists on
the nourishment it derives from the sacred realm.
By putting the spotlight on Kaliya's outreaching
hoods, Krishna provided a potent motif signifying
the restoration of cosmic order in the world. Indeed,
this is the reason why Lord Vishnu incarnates himself
There is no ready experience
in this world of such a tree. Nevertheless it can
be perceived. It can be found for example beside
a reservoir of water. We can see that the trees
on the bank reflect upon the water with their branches
down and roots up. In other words, the tree of this
material world is only a reflection of the heavenly
tree. Thus is our earthly sojourn but a reflection
of our heavenly lives.
Additionally, Kaliya's name is
derived from 'kala,' the word for time in Sanskrit,
making this a dance of victory over time and death
as well, or in other words, the triumph of the eternal
over the transient.
endearing and simple image, with profound philosophical
consequences, is that of the baby Krishna sucking
his toe, lying on a banyan leaf. On a first glimpse,
such a composition presents no extraordinary significance.
It is just an ordinary adorable infant. But lo,
when it is observed that the leaf, on which lies
Krishna, is floating on a turbulent sea, do we realize
that there is much more here than that meets the
The legend behind such a conception
is recounted in the Markandeya Purana:
'Before the beginning, there
was an end: the end of the old era. . . Black clouds
obstructed the sun and hurled lightning in every
direction. Unrelenting rains lashed the ground.
The seven rivers began to swell and the four oceans
started to overflow. Waves as high as mountains
drowned the earth. This was pralaya, the final dissolution
of the world, before its regeneration. The sole
witness to this deluge was Manu, the primordial
Suddenly, amongst all the confusion,
Manu noticed a banyan leaf floating on the ocean,
tossed by the waves. On this unlikely raft lay a
chubby and adorable child, suckling his right toe,
unperturbed by the calamity that had befallen the
world. It was Krishna as Balaji, the newborn cosmic
The infant's heavenly smile negated
the brutality of the pralaya (cosmic deluge). His
compassionate glance reassured Manu that life would
go on, convincing him that the world never ends,
but only changes.
The infant then sucked Manu into
his body. Inside Manu saw the entire universe and
all that had been consumed by the deluge - the skies,
the seas, the earth, gods, demons, humans, animals
and plants. Manu thus realized that the child was
none other than the cosmic man (Narayana) who had
withdrawn the world into himself. Chanting the blessed
name of Narayana, Manu became one with his savior
and awaited rebirth in the new world. Thus was the
whole manifested world consumed by Lord Vishnu,
only to be recreated.
Relevant to our purpose here
is the fact that Krishna is sucking his toe even
while he is contemplating the creation of the world.
Almost satirical in tone, it pokes fun at the serious
strivings we indulge in to achieve our goals. As
says Deepak Chopra: "Nature's intelligence
functions with effortless ease and abandoned carefreeness.
If you observe nature at work, you will see that
least effort is expended. Grass doesn't try to grow,
it just grows. Fish don't try to swim, they just
swim. Flowers don't try to bloom, they bloom. Bird's
don't try to fly, they fly. This is their intrinsic
nature. The earth doesn't spin on its own axis;
it is the nature of earth to spin with dizzying
speed and to hurtle through space. It is the nature
of the sun to shine. It is the nature of the stars
to glitter and sparkle. And it is human nature to
make our dreams manifest into physical form, easily
and effortlessly." Lao Tzu sums it up beautifully:
" An integral being knows without going, sees
without looking, and accomplishes without doing."
A child naturally exhibits an
unconcerned transcendental aloofness from the world,
which is similar to God's utter self-absorption
and self-delight. God as an infant does not govern
the world from a majestic throne, but makes the
world his playground and even while enjoying himself
maintains the cosmic order. A child too seeks only
to amuse himself, expressing his essential nature
in every action.
theophany of the child god also reveals that as
an infant and a child, Krishna is approachable,
and can be doted upon and coddled. He can be approached
with the intimacy with which a parent approaches
a child. Such a god invites man to dispense with
cumbersome formality and come to him openly, delighting
in him intimately. The adorable, beautiful babe,
so beloved all over, does not demand servitude and
pomp. His simplicity, charm, and infant spontaneity,
invite an affectionate and tender response.
According to David Kinsley: "For
the divine to become embodied as a child is eminently
suitable, for they behave in similar ways. Each
belongs to a joyous realm of energetic and erratic
activity that is pointless but not insignificant;
aimless, but imaginative and rich, and therefore
creative. In play, the mind can go wild; the imagination
is set free to conjure and conquer. With the world
of necessity left behind, the imagination takes
over, eagerly populating a world that knows no limit
whatsoever. So it is with the play of children,
and so it is with the activity of the gods."
In the Harivansha Purana, Krishna's
play is said to be "like the fire in the cremation
ground," leaping and flickering, erratic and
vigorous. The brash and indomitable spirit of the
young Krishna makes the world around him sparkle
with aliveness. His youthful play lights up the
world like a blazing fire illuminates the darkness.
The playful actions of Krishna burst forth to tumble
and romp like the wind in the trees, unpredictable
and free. We have here a description of the other
realm where things are as they are meant to be,
where life goes on joyously and unhampered, where
no thought is given, or need be given, to the future,
where life is lived to the fullest every moment.
Krishna's playful realm is a description of the
heavenly world of gods which is ever fresh, instinctive,
Krishna removes the poison of
evil from this world while he joyously feeds on
a mother's bosom. Similarly, he restores the cosmic
order, symbolized by the inverted tree of life,
while dancing, and if that were not enough, he creates
the world while sucking on his toe. These activities
can easily be observed in any ordinary infant. Thus
is it rightly observed: "The smallest children
are nearest to God, as the smallest planets are
nearest the sun" (Richter). Wordsworth put
it eloquently when he said: "Heaven lies about
us in our infancy." Indeed, all other incarnations
of god that descended on earth illustrate the divine
aspect of the human personality, but Krishna's incarnation
represents the human dimension of the divine.
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