Hindu Gods And Heroes, Studies in the History of the Religion of India
Lionel D. Barnett author
CHAPTER III - I
THE EPICS, AND LATER
We now enter upon an age in which the old gods, Indra and Brahma, retire to the background, while Vishnu and Siva stand in the forefront of the stage.
The Hindus are of the same opinion as the Latin poet: ferrea nunc aetas agitur. We are now living in an Iron Age, according to them; and it began in the year 3102 b.c., shortly after the great war described in the Mahabharata. The date 3102, I need hardly remark, is of no historical value, being based merely upon the theories of comparatively late astronomers; but the statement as a whole is important. The Great War marks an epoch. It came at the end of what may be called the pre-historic period, and was followed by a new age. To be strictly correct, we must say that the age which followed the Great War was not new in the sense that it introduced any startling novelties that had been unknown previously; but it was new in the sense that after the Great War India speedily became the India that we know from historical records. A certain fusion of different races, cultures, and ideals had to take place in order that the peculiar civilisation of India might unfold itself; and this fusion was accomplished about the time of the Great War, and partly no doubt by means of the Great War, some ten centuries before the Christian era.
The story of the Great War is told with a wild profusion of mythical and legendary colouring in the Mahabharata, an epic the name of which means literally "The Great Tale of the Bharata Clan." It relates how the blind old King Dhritarashtra of Hastinapura had a hundred sons, known as the Kuru or Kaurava princes, the eldest of whom was Duryodhana, and Dhritarashtra's brother Pandu had five sons, the Pandava brethren; how the Pandavas were ousted by the Kauravas from the kingdom, the eldest Pandava prince Yudhishthira having been induced to stake the fortunes of himself and his brethren on a game of dice, in which he was defeated; how the five Pandavas, with their common wife Draupadi (observe this curious and ugly feature of polyandry, which is quite opposed to standard Hindu morals, but is by no means unparalleled in early Indian literature) retired into exile for thirteen years, and then came back with a great army of allies, and after fierce and bloody battles with the Kauravas and their supporters in the plain of Kurukshetra at last gained the victory, slew the Kauravas, and established Yudhishthira as king in Hastinapura. Among the Pandavas the leading part is played by the eldest, Yudhishthira, and the third, Arjuna; of the others, Bhima, the second, is a Hercules notable only for his strength, courage, and fidelity, while the twins Nakula and Sahadeva are colourless figures. Krishna plays an important part in the story; for on the return of the Pandavas to fight the Kauravas he accompanies Arjuna as his charioteer, and on the eve of the first battle delivers to him a discourse on his religion, the Bhagavad-gita, or Lord's Song, which has become one of the most famous and powerful of all the sacred books of India.
Now if the Mahabharata were as homogeneous even as the Iliad and Odyssey, which give us a fairly consistent and truthful picture of a single age, we should be in a very happy position. Unfortunately this is not the case. Our epic began as a Bharata, or Tale of the Bharata Clan, probably of very moderate bulk, not later than 600 b.c., and perhaps considerably earlier; and from that time onward it went on growing bigger and bigger for over a thousand years, as editors stuffed in new episodes and still longer discourses on nearly all the religious and philosophic doctrines admitted within the four walls of Hinduism, until it grew to its present immense bulk, which it claims to amount to 100,000 verses. Thus it pictures the thought not of one century but of more than ten, and we cannot feel sure of the date of any particular statement in it. Nevertheless we can distinguish in a general way between the old skeleton of the story, in which the theme is treated in simple epic fashion, society is far freer than in later days and no one objects to eating beef, from the additional matter, in which the tale is recast in a far more grandiose vein and is padded out with enormous quantities of moral, religious, and philosophic sermons. The religion too is different in the different parts. In the older portions the gods who are most popular are Indra, Agni, and Brahma—not the neuter abstract Brahma, but the masculine Brahma, the Demiurge, who corresponds more or less to Prajapati of the Brahmanas and is represented in classical art as a four-headed old man reciting the Vedas—and Krishna seems to figure only as a hero or at best as a demigod; but the later parts with fine impartiality claim the supremacy of heaven variously for Siva, Brahma, and Vishnu; and Vishnu, as we have seen, is sometimes identified with Krishna, notably in the chapters known as the Bhagavad-gita.
The gods have changed somewhat since earlier days. Indra has settled down in the constitutional monarchy of Paradise assigned to him by the Brahmanas; he now figures as the prototype of earthly kings, leading the armies of the gods to war against the demons when occasion requires, and passing the leisure of peace in the enjoyment of celestial dissipation. His morals have not improved: he is a debonair debauchee. Brahma the Creator, a more popular version of Prajapati, is still too impersonal to have much hold on the popular imagination; the same is the case with Agni the Fire-god. Plainly there was a vacancy for a supreme deity whose character was powerful enough to move men's souls, either through awe or love; and for this vacancy there were two strong candidates, Vishnu and Siva, who in course of time succeeded to the post and divided the supremacy between them.
Vishnu has altered immensely since last we met him. First, after an extraordinary change in his own character, he has been identified with Narayana, and then both of them have been equated with Krishna. The development is so portentous that it calls for a little study.
We have seen that in the Vedas Vishnu appears to be, and in the Brahmanas certainly is, the embodied Spirit of the Sacrifice, and that ritual mysticism has invented for him a supreme home in the highest heaven. But in the Epics he has developed into a radiant and gracious figure of ideal divinity, an almighty saviour with a long record of holy works for the salvation of mankind, a god who delights in moral goodness as well as in ritual propriety, and who from time to time incarnates himself in human or animal form so as to maintain the order of righteousness. Symbolism has further endowed him with a consort, the goddess Sri or Lakshmi, typifying fortune; sometimes also he is represented with another wife, the Earth-goddess. The divine hawk or kite Garuda, who seems to have been originally the same as the eagle who in the Rigvedic legend carried off the soma for Indra, has been pressed into his service; he now rides on Garuda, and bears his figure upon his banner. I have already suggested a possible explanation of this evolution (above, p. 41): owing to his close association with Indra, the most truly popular of Rigvedic deities, the laic imagination transfused some of the live blood of Indra into the veins of the priestly abstraction Vishnu. To the plain man Indra was very real; and as he frequently heard tales of Indra being aided in his exploits by Vishnu, he came to regard Vishnu as a very present helper in trouble. The friend of Indra became the friend of mankind. The post of Indra had already been fixed for him by the theologians; but the functions of Vishnu, outside the rituals, were still somewhat vaguely defined, and were capable of considerable expansion. Here was a great opportunity for those souls who were seeking for a supreme god of grace, and were not satisfied to find him in Siva; and they made full use of it, and wholly transformed the personality of Vishnu.
One of the stages in this transformation was the absorption of Narayana in Vishnu. Narayana was originally a god of a different kind. The earliest reference to him is in a Brahmana which calls him Purusha Narayana, which means that it regards him as being the same as the Universal Spirit which creates from itself the cosmos; it relates that Purusha Narayana pervaded the whole of nature (SB. XII. iii. 4, 1), and that he made himself omnipresent and supreme over all beings by performing a pañcha-ratra sattra, or series of sacrifices lasting over five days (ib. XIII. vi. 1, 1). Somewhat later we find prayers addressed to Narayana, Vasudeva, and Vishnu as three phases of the same god (Taitt. Aran. X. i. 6). But was Narayana in origin merely a variety of the Vedic Purusha or our old acquaintance Prajapati? His name must give us pause. The most simple explanation of it is that it is a family name: as Karshnayana means a member of the Krishna-family and Ranayana a man belonging to the family of Rana, so Narayana would naturally denote a person of the family of Nara. But Nara itself signifies a man: is the etymology therefore reduced to absurdity? Not at all: Nara is also used as a proper name, as we shall see. Probably the name really means what naturally it would seem to mean, "a man of the Nara family"; that Narayana was originally a divine or deified saint, a rishi, as the Hindus would call him; and that somehow he became identified with Vishnu and the Universal Spirit.
This theory really is not by any means as wild as at first sight it may seem to be. Divine saints are sometimes mentioned in the Rig-veda and Brahmanas as being the creators of the universe; and they appear again and again in legend as equals of the gods, attaining divine powers by their mystic insight into the sacrificial lore. But there is more direct evidence than this.
In the Mahabharata there are incorporated two documents of first-rate importance for the doctrines of the churches that worshipped Vishnu. One of these is the Bhagavad-gita, or Lord's Song (VI. xxv.-xlii.); the other is the Narayaniya, or Account of Narayana (XII. cccxxxvi.-cccliii.). Their teachings are not the same in details, though on most main points they agree; for they belong to different sections of the one religious body. Leaving aside the Bhagavad-gita for the moment, we note that the Narayaniya relates a story that there were born four sons of Dharma, or Righteousness, viz. Nara, Narayana, Hari or Vishnu, and Krishna. In other places (I. ccxxx. 18, III. xii. 45, xlvii. 10, V. xlviii. 15, etc.) we are plainly told that Nara is a previous incarnation of Arjuna the Pandava prince, and Narayana is, of course, the supreme Deity, who in the time of Arjuna was born on earth as Krishna Vasudeva, and that in his earlier birth Nara and Narayana were both ascetic saints. This tradition is very important, for it enables us to see something of the early character of Narayana. He was an ancient saint of legend, who was connected with a hero Nara, just as Krishna was associated with Arjuna; and the atmosphere of saintliness clings to him obstinately. Tradition alleges that he was the rishi, or inspired seer, who composed the Purusha-sukta of the Rig-veda (X. 90), and represents him by choice as lying in a yoga-nidra, or mystic sleep, upon the body of the giant serpent Sesha in the midst of the Ocean of Milk. Thus the worship of Vishnu, like the worship of Siva, has owed much to the influence of live yogis idealised as divine saints; though it must be admitted that the yogis of the Vaishnava orders have usually been more agreeable and less ambiguous than those of the Saiva community.
We must briefly consider now the religious teachings of the Bhagavad-gita and the Narayaniya, and then turn to the inscriptions and contemporary literature to see whether we can find any sidelights in them. We begin with the Bhagavad-gita, or The Lord's Song.
The Bhagavad-gita purports to be a dialogue between the Pandava prince Arjuna and Krishna, who was serving him as his charioteer, on the eve of the great battle. In order to invent a leading motive for his teaching, the poet represents Arjuna as suddenly stricken with overwhelming remorse at the prospect of the fratricidal strife which he is about to begin. "I will not fight," he cries in anguish. Then Krishna begins a long series of arguments to stimulate him for the coming battle. He points out, with quotations from the Upanishads, that killing men in battle does not destroy their souls; for the soul is indestructible, migrating from body to body according to its own deserts. The duty of the man born in the Warrior-caste is to fight; fighting is his caste-duty, his dharma, and as such it can entail upon him no guilt if it be performed in the right spirit. But how is this to be done? The answer is the leading motive of Krishna's teaching. For the maintenance of the world it is necessary that men should do the works of their respective castes, and these works do not operate as karma to the detriment of the future life of their souls if they perform them not from selfish motives but as offerings made in perfect unselfishness to the Lord. This is the doctrine of Karma-yoga, discipline of works, which is declared to lead the soul of the worshipper to salvation in the Lord as effectually as the ancient intellectualism preached in the Upanishads and the Samkhya philosophy. But there is also a third way to salvation, the way through loving devotion, or bhakti, which is as efficacious as either of the other two; the worshippers of Siva had already preached this for their own church in the Svetasvatara Upanishad. Besides treating without much consistency or method of many incidental questions of religious theory and practice, Krishna reveals himself for a few instants to Arjuna in his form as Viraj, the universal being in which all beings are comprehended and consumed. Finally Arjuna is comforted, and laying the burden of all his works upon Krishna, he prepares in quiet faith for the coming day of battle.
There are four main points to notice in this teaching. (1) The Supreme God, superior to Brahma, he who rules by grace and comprehends in his universal person the whole of existence, is Vishnu, or Hari, represented on earth for the time being by Krishna Vasudeva. The author makes no attempt to reconcile the fatalism implied in the old theory of karma-samsara with his new doctrine of special and general grace: he allows the two principles to stand side by side, and leaves for future generations of theologians the delicate task of harmonising them. (2) Three roads to salvation are recognised in principle, the intellectual gnosis of the old Upanishads and the Samkhya, the "way of works" or performance of necessary social duties in a spirit of perfect surrender to God, and the "way of devotion," continuous loving worship and contemplation of God. In practice the first method is ignored as being too severe for average men; the second and third are recommended, as being suitable for all classes. (3) The way of salvation is thus thrown open directly to men and women of all castes and conditions. The Bhagavad-gita fully approves of the orthodox division of society into castes; but by its doctrine that the performance of caste-duties in a spirit of sacrifice leads to salvation it makes caste an avenue to salvation, not a barrier. (4) The Bhagavad-gita has nothing to say for the animal-sacrifices of the Brahmans. It recognises only offerings of flowers, fruits, and the like. The doctrine of ahimsa, "thou shalt do no hurt," was making much headway at the time, and the wholesale animal-sacrifices of the Brahmans roused general disgust, of which the Buddhists and Jains took advantage for the propagation of their teachings.
I have previously spoken of the solitary passage in the Chhandogya Upanishad in which Krishna's name is mentioned, as receiving the teachings of Ghora Angirasa, and it will now be fitting to see how far these teachings are reflected in the Bhagavad-gita. Ghora compares the functions of life to the ceremonies of the diksha (see above, p.68): and this is at bottom the same idea as the doctrine of karma-yoga preached again and again in the Bhagavad-gita. "Whatever be thy work, thine eating, thy sacrifice, thy gift, thy mortification, make of it an offering to me," says Krishna (IX. 27); all life should be regarded as a sacrifice freely offered. Then Ghora continues: "In the hour of death one should take refuge in these three thoughts: 'Thou art the Indestructible, Thou art the Unfailing, Thou art instinct with Spirit.' On this there are these two verses of the Rig-veda:
Thus upward from the primal seed From out the darkness all around We, looking on the higher light, Yea, looking on the higher heaven, Have come to Surya, god midst gods, To him that is the highest light, the highest light."
In the Bhagavad-gita (IV. 1 ff.) Krishna announces that he preached his doctrine to Vivasvan the Sun-god, who passed it on to his son the patriarch Manu; elsewhere in the Mahabharata (XII. cccv. 19) the Satvata teaching is said to have been announced by the Sun. Ghora in his list of moral virtues enumerates "mortification, charity, uprightness, harmlessness, truthfulness"; exactly the same attributes, with a few more, are said in the Bhagavad-gita to characterise the man who is born to the gods' estate (XVI. 1-3). Ghora's exhortation to think of the nature of the Supreme in the hour of death is balanced by Krishna's words: "He who at his last hour, when he casts off the body, goes hence remembering me, goes assuredly into my being" (VIII. 5; cf. 10). These parallels are indeed not very close; but collectively they are significant, and when we bear in mind that the author of the Bhagavad-gita is eager to associate his doctrine with those of the Upanishads, and thus to make it a new and catholic Upanishad for all classes, we are led to conclude that its fundamental ideas, sanctification of works (karma-yoga), worship of a Supreme God of Grace (bhakti) by all classes, and rejection of animal sacrifices (ahimsa) arose among the orthodox Kshatriyas, who found means to persuade their Brahmanic preceptors to bring it into connection with their Upanishads and embellish it with appropriate texts from those sources. Very likely Krishna Vasudeva, if not the first inventor of these doctrines, was their most vigorous propagator.
Now what are the teachings of the Narayaniya? It appears to contain two accounts. In the first we have the story of king Vasu Uparichara, who is said to have worshipped the Supreme God Hari (Vishnu) in devotion without any animal-sacrifices, in accordance with doctrines ascribed to the Aranyakas, i.e. the later sections of the Brahmanas, including the older Upanishads. This fully agrees with the standpoint of the Bhagavad-gita. The second account gives the story of a visit paid by the divine saint Narada to a mysterious "White Island," Sveta-dvipa, inhabited by holy worshippers of God who are, strangely enough, described as having heads shaped like umbrellas and feet like lotus-leaves and as making a sound like that of thunder-clouds; they are radiant like the moon, have no physical senses, eat nothing, and concentrate their whole soul on rapturous adoration of the spirit of God, which shines there in dazzling brightness to the eye of perfect faith. Narayana there reveals himself to Narada, and sets forth to him the doctrine of Vasudeva. According to this, Narayana has four forms, called murtis or vyuhas. The first of these is Vasudeva, who is the highest soul and creator and inwardly controls all individual souls. From him arose Samkarshana, who corresponds to the individual soul; from Samkarshana issued Pradyumna, to whom corresponds the organ of mind, and from Pradyumna came forth Aniruddha, representing the element of self-consciousness. Observe in passing that these are all names of heroes of legend: Samkarshana is Vasudeva's brother Bala-rama, Pradyumna was the son and Aniruddha the grandson of Vasudeva. Narayana then goes on to speak of the creation of all things from himself and their dissolution into himself, and of his incarnations in the form of the Boar who lifted up on his tusk the earth when submerged under the ocean, Narasimha the Man-lion who destroyed the tyrant Hiranya-kasipu, the Dwarf who overthrew Bali, Rama Bhargava who destroyed the Kshatriyas, Rama Dasarathi, of whom we shall have something to say later. Krishna Vasudeva the slayer of Kamsa of Mathura, the Tortoise, the Fish, and Kalki. Then follow some further details, among them a statement that this doctrine was revealed to Arjuna at the beginning of the Great War—a clear reference to the Bhagavad-gita—that at the beginning of every age it was promulgated by Narayana, that it requires activity in pious works, that at the commencement of the present age it passed from him to Brahma, from him to Vivasvan the Sun-god, from him to the patriarch Manu, etc., that it does not allow the sacrifice of animals, and that for salvation the co-operative grace of Narayana is necessary. Most of this doctrine is already in the Bhagavad-gita; what is not found in the latter is the account of the mysterious White Island, the theory of vyuhas or emanations, which represents Vasudeva as issuing from Narayana and so forth, and the details of Narayana's incarnations. It is therefore a distinct textbook of the Satvata or Pañcharatra church, not much later than the Bhagavad-gita. According to it, the Supreme Being is Narayana, the Almighty God who reveals himself as highest teacher and saintly sage, whose legendary performance of a five-days' sacrifice (above, p. 76) has gained for his doctrine the title of Pañcharatra. Next in order of divinity is Krishna Vasudeva, whose tribal name of Satvata has furnished the other name of this church; then follow in due order Samkarshana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha, all of his family; and with Vasudeva is closely associated the epic hero Arjuna, a prototype for this mortal pair being discovered in the legendary Nara and Narayana.
Comparing then the Bhagavad-gita with the Narayaniya, we see that in all essentials they agree, but in two points they differ. Both preach a doctrine of activity in pious works, pravritti, in conscious opposition to the inactivity of the Aupanishadas and Samkhyas; but the Narayaniya does not dwell much on this topic, and limits activity to strictly religious duties, while the Bhagavad-gita develops the idea so as to include everything, thus sketching out a bold system for the sanctification of all sides of life, which enables it to open the door of salvation directly to all classes of mankind. Secondly, the Bhagavad-gita says nothing about the theory of emanations or vyuhas in connection with Vasudeva; probably its author knew the legends of Samkarshana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha, but he apparently did not know or at least did not accept the view that these persons were related as successive emanations from Vasudeva. We must therefore look round for sidelights which may clear up the obscurities in the history of this church.
Our first sidelight glimmers in the famous grammar of Panini, who probably lived in the fifth century b.c., or perhaps early in the fourth century. Panini informs us (IV. iii. 98) that from the names of Vasudeva and Arjuna the derivative nouns Vasudevaka and Arjunaka are formed to denote persons who worship respectively Vasudeva and Arjuna. Plainly then in the fifth century Krishna Vasudeva and Arjuna were worshipped by some, probably in the same connection as is shown in the Mahabharata. Perhaps Vasudeva had not yet been raised to the rank of the Almighty; it is more likely that he was still a deified hero and teacher, and Arjuna his noblest disciple. But both of them were receiving divine honours; they had been men, and were now gods, with bands of adorers.
Our next evidence is an inscription found not long ago on the base of a stone column at Besnagar near Bhilsa, in the south of Gwalior State, and must have been engraved soon after 200 b.c. It reads as follows: "This Garuda-column of Vasudeva the god of gods was erected here by Heliodorus, a worshipper of the Lord [bhagavata], the son of Diya [Greek Dion] and an inhabitant of Taxila, who came as ambassador of the Greeks from the Great King Amtalikita [Greek Antialcidas] to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra the Saviour, who was flourishing in the fourteenth year of his reign"; and below this are two lines in some kind of verse, which announce that "three immortal steps ... when practised lead to heaven—self-control, charity, and diligence." Here, then, in the centre of a thriving kingdom probably forming part of the Sunga empire, Vasudeva is worshipped not as a minor hero or teacher, but as the god of gods, deva-deva; and he is worshipped by the Greek Heliodorus, visiting the place as an ambassador from Antialcidas, a Hellenic king of the lineage of Eucratides, who was reigning in the North-West of India. Doubtless the act of Heliodorus was a diplomatic courtesy, in order to please King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra. But observe the nature of his act. He caused to be erected a Garuda-column, that is, a pillar engraved with the figure of Garuda, the sacred bird of Vishnu; and he added a verse about "three immortal steps" (trini amutapadani), as leading to heaven, which sounds suspiciously like an attempt to moralise the old mythical feature of the three Steps of Vishnu. Plainly Vasudeva had now risen in this part of the country from being the teacher of a church of Vishnu-Narayana to the rank of its chief god, with which he had become fully identified.
Another inscription, a few years later in date, has been found in Besnagar. It is a mere fragment, but it supplements the other; for it states that a certain bhagavata, or "worshipper of the Lord," named Gotama-puta (Gautama-putra in Sanskrit) erected a Garuda-column for the Lord's temple in the twelfth year from the coronation of King Bhagavata. This king is perhaps the same as the person of that name who appears in some genealogical lists as the last but one of the Sunga Kings.
Next in date is an inscription on a stone slab found at Ghasundi, about four miles north-east of Nagari, in Udaipur State. It was engraved about 150 b.c., and records that a certain bhagavata, or "worshipper of the Lord," named Gajayana, son of Parasari, caused to be erected in the Narayana-vata, or park of Narayana, a stone chapel for the worship of the Lords Samkarshana and Vasudeva. Here their worship is associated with that of Narayana.
Passing over an inscription at Mathura which records the building of a part of a sanctuary to the Lord Vasudeva about 15 b.c. by the great Satrap Sodasa, we note that the grammarian Patañjali, who wrote his commentary the Mahabhashya upon Panini's grammar about 150 b.c., has something to say about Krishna Vasudeva, whom he recognises as a divine being (on IV. iii. 98). He quotes some verses referring to him. The first (on II. ii. 23) is to the following effect: "May the might of Krishna accompanied by Samkarshana increase!" Another (on VI. iii. 6) speaks of "Janardana with himself as fourth," that is to say, Krishna with three companions: the three may be Samkarshana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha, or they may not. Another verse (on II. ii. 34) speaks of musical instruments being played at meetings in the temples of Rama and Kesava. Rama is Bala-rama or Bala-bhadra, who is the same as Samkarshana, and Kesava is a title of Krishna, which was applied also to Vishnu or Narayana according to the Bodhayana-dharma-sutra, which may be assigned to the second century b.c. The Ovavai, or Aupapatika-sutra, a Jain scripture which may perhaps belong to the same period, mentions (§ 76) Kanha-parivvaya, wandering friars who worshipped Krishna. Thus literature as well as inscriptions shows that Krishna Vasudeva and his brother Samkarshana were in many places worshipped as saints of a church of Vishnu-Narayana about 150 b.c., and that in some parts Vasudeva was recognised as the Almighty himself about 200 b.c.
In another passage (on III. i, 26) Patañjali describes dramatic and mimetic performances representing the killing of Kamsa by Vasudeva. Altogether his references show that the legend and worship of Vasudeva bulked largely in the popular mind at this time in India north of the Vindhya mountains. Vasudeva was adored as the great teacher and hero-king, in whom the gods Vishnu and Narayana were incarnated; and he was associated with two great cycles of legend, the one that related his birth at Mathura, his victory over the tyrant Kamsa, his establishment of the colony at Dvaraka, and his adventures until his death and translation to heaven, and the other telling of his share in the Great War as ally of the five Pandava brethren. Both cycles represented him as supported by princely heroes. The Mathura-Dvaraka legend gave him his brother Bala-bhadra or Samkarshana, his son Pradyumna, and his grandson Aniruddha, whom theologians about the beginning of the Christian era fitted into their philosophical schemes by representing them as successive emanations from him; and the Mahabharata furnished him with the Pandavas, whose heroic tale soon created for them a worship everywhere. As we have seen, there were adorers of Arjuna already in the fifth century b.c.; and in the first century b.c. there seems to be evidence for a worship of all the five together with Vasudeva, for an inscription has been found at Mora which apparently mentions a son of the great Satrap Rajuvula, probably the well-known Satrap Sodasa, and an image of the "Lord Vrishni," probably Vasudeva, and of the "Five Warriors." Already the poets of the Mahabharata have taken the first step towards the deification of the Pandavas by finding divine fathers for each of them, making Yudhishthira the son of Dharma or Yama, the god of the nether world, Arjuna son of Indra, Bhima son of Vayu the Wind-god, and Nakula and Sahadeva offspring of the Asvins. Hundreds of caverns throughout India are declared by popular legend to have been their dwellings during their wanderings; and a noble monument to their memory has been raised by one of the great Pallava kings of Conjevaram who in the seventh century a.d. carved out of the solid rock on the seashore at Mamallapuram the fine chapels that bear their names. Doubtless all these heroes from both cycles were once worshipped in the usual manner, with offerings of food, incense, lights, flowers, etc., and singing of hymns on their exploits—chiefly in connection with Vasudeva; but all this worship is now utterly forgotten, except where echoes of it linger in popular legend.
Our survey of the religion of Vasudeva has brought us down to a date which cannot indeed be exactly fixed, but which may be placed approximately in the second century of our era. This religion, as we have seen, arose and grew great in the fertile soil of the spiritual needs and experiences of India. It began by moulding a personal God out of ancient figures of myth and legend, and it surrounded him with a hierarchy of godly heroes. Though its doctrines were often philosophically incongruous and incoherent, its foundation was a true religious feeling; it gave scope to the mystic raptures of the ascetic and the simple righteousness of the laic; and it claimed for its heroes, Vasudeva and his kindred and his friends the Pandava brethren, a grave and dignified hero-worship. In short, it is a serious Indian religion with an epic setting.
And now suddenly and most unexpectedly an utterly new spirit begins to breathe in it. To the old teachings and legends are added new ones of a wholly different cast. The old epic spirit of grave and manly chivalry and godly wisdom is overshadowed by a new passion—adoration of tender babyhood and wanton childhood, amorous ecstasies, a hectic fire of erotic romance.
Of this new spirit there is no trace in the epic, except in one or two late interpolations. But the Hari-vamsa, which was added as an appendix to the Mahabharata not very long before the fourth century a.d., is already instinct with it. It adds to the epic story of Krishna a fluent verse account of his miraculous preservation from Kamsa at his birth, his childhood among the herdsmen and herdswomen of Vraja (the Doab near Mathura) with its marvellous freaks and wonderful exploits, his amorous sports with the herdswomen, in fact all the sensuous emotionalism on which the later church of Krishna has ever since battened. About the same time appeared the Vishnu-purana, which includes most of the same matter as the Hari-vamsa; and some centuries later, probably about the tenth century, there was written a still more remarkable book, the Bhagavata-purana, of which a great part is taken up with the romance of Krishna's babyhood and childhood, and especially his amorous sports. In the Bhagavata the later worship of Krishna found its classic expression. In the Hari-vamsa and Vishnu-purana religious emotion is still held under a certain restraint; but in the Bhagavata it has broken loose and runs riot. It is a romance of ecstatic love for Krishna, who is no longer, as in the Vishnu-purana, the incarnation of a portion of the Supreme Vishnu, but very God become man, wholly and utterly divine in his humanity. It dwells in a rapture of tenderness upon the God-babe, and upon the wanton play of the lovely child who is delightful in his naughtiness and marvellous in his occasional displays of superhuman power; it figures him as an ideal of boyish beauty, decked with jewels and crested with peacock's feathers, wandering through the flowering forests of Vraja, dancing and playing on his flute melodies that fill the souls of all that hear them with an irresistible passion of love and delight; it revels in tales of how the precocious boy made wanton sport with the herdswomen of Vraja, and how the magic of his fluting drew them to the dance in which they were united to him in a rapture of love. The book thrills with amorous, sensuous ecstasy; the thought of Krishna stirs the worshipper to a passion of love in which tears gush forth in the midst of laughter, the speech halts, and often the senses fail and leave him in long trances. Erotic emotionalism can go no further.
Where did this new spirit come from? Some have laboured to prove that it had its source in Christianity; others have argued that it was Christianity that was the debtor to India in this respect. Both theories are in the main impossible. This cult of the child Krishna arose in India, and, with the possible exception of a few obscure tales, it never spread outside the circle of Indian religion. But how and where did it arise? That is a question hard to answer; there is no direct evidence, and we can only balance probabilities. Now what are the probabilities?
The worship of Krishna as a babe, a boy, and a young man among the herdsfolk of Vraja seems to have no relation with the older form of the religion as set forth in the epic textbooks. It is a new element, imported from without. The most natural conclusion then is that it came from the people who are described in it, some tribe that pastured their herds in the woodlands near Mathura. Perhaps these herdsfolk were Abhiras, ancestors of the modern Ahir tribes. If so, it would be natural that their cult should attract attention; for sometimes Abhiras counted for something in society, and we even find a short-lived dynasty of Abhira kings reigning in Nasik in the third century a.d. Be this as it may, it seems very likely that some pastoral tribe had a cult of a divine child blue or black of hue, and perhaps actually called by them Krishna or Kanha, "Black-man" (observe that henceforth Krishna is regularly represented with a blue skin), a cult in which gross rustic fantasy had free play; that it came in some circles to be linked on to the epic cycle of Krishna Vasudeva; and that some Bhagavatas, seeing in it latent possibilities, gave it polished literary expression and thereby established it as a part of the Vasudeva legend. It quickly seized upon the popular imagination and spread like wild-fire over India. For it satisfied many needs. The tenderness of the father and still more of the mother for the little babe, their delight in the sports of childhood, the amorist's pleasure in erotic adventure, and, not by any means least, the joy in the romantic scenery of the haunted woodlands—all these instincts found full play in it, and were sanctified by religion.