The Hindu deity Krsna is a highly regarded and popular god in Hinduism, known to hold the title of svayam bhagavam (The Supreme Personality of Godhead). The myths of Krsna are displayed in several Hindu texts, primarily in the Bhagavad-Gita, where he epitomizes the ideals of both karma and dharma. The myths depicting Krsna and his adoptive mother Yasoda elaborate on these karmic and dharmic ideals by showing Krsna as the quintessential son and Yasoda in the image of the perfect mother. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krsna “performs actions without attachment, and so persons should do the same. [He] also cautions against indecisiveness and inaction, which is a form of ‘doing’ and carries with it karmic consequences” (Rodrigues 251). The immense popularity of Krsna’s image in Hinduism has been attributed to his accessibility, compared to other gods who are typically depicted as isolated and inaccessible (Rodrigues 314). Through his many myths, Krsna is seen as an ideal infant, child, and adolescent, one who gains much devotion from those who encounter him.
Krsna as a relatable and accessible character is emphasized through most myths and tales that he is depicted in. Hillary Rodrigues supports this, noting that Krsna’s popularity is due to Krsna being “the apple of every mother’s eye, a lively young boy, on whom one can shower maternal love. Devotees may imagine themselves as loving parents, envisioning God as their child. As a teenager, Krsna is the ideal friend, protecting his companions from danger. As a young man, he is the irresistibly attractive lover. When older, he is spiritual advisor and political strategist, friend and ally” (Rodrigues 314). By showing Krsna at many stages of a normal human life, those hearing the myths of Krsna are able to envision actually knowing him and connecting with him, which makes the ideals he espouses much more relatable and attractive to follow.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krsna acts as a guru to Arjuna and describes the duties and necessity of dharma in the world. In one scene, Arjuna hesitates joining a battle, an action which Krsna claims as “unmanliness, weakness, pity, and emotional attachment”; he also elaborates on how to actually perform the actions in a dutiful manner, claiming action as karmic, good, and inevitable (Bryant 79).
The myths describing Krsna’s birth vary in different sources; however, there remains a general consistency to the main themes and episodes of the tale. It begins with an angry king, who is forewarned of a male to be born in his kingdom that will end his reign and, ultimately, his life. He is the king of Mathura, mostly known as Kamsa. [Hawley refers to the king of Mathura as Kan; however, most sources name him Kamsa (Hawley 53)]. The prophecy informs Kamsa that his death will be at the hands of his sister and brother-in-law (Devaki and Vasudeva)’s eighth son. Kamsa is described as being a “man of pride”, “inwardly insecure” and “patently cruel, repugnant of tradition” (Hawley 53). When he hears the prophecy, he immediately attempts to kill Devaki, but Vasudeva is able to calm him when he promises to bring any sons they have to the king. Kamsa imprisons both Devaki and Vasudeva, where the couple gives birth to six children; Kamsa kills each child.
When Devaki is impregnated with her seventh child, a miracle occurs. Hawley writes “the Great God … removes one white hair from the head of the great snake that symbolizes his primordial energy, and one black one from his own. The latter he holds in readiness: it will become Krsna whose very name means ‘black’. With the former, he penetrates the womb of Devaki, heralding a miraculous if not altogether virgin birth: the white Balaram” (Hawley 54). Following this, the fetus was transferred to the womb of another of Vasudeva’s wives, Rohini, who was safe across the river. To those still in the jail, it seemed that Devaki simply had a miscarriage (Bhaktivedanta 11). However, Rohini safely birthed Devaki and Vasudeva’s seventh child, Balarama.
Following this pregnancy, Krsna decides to descend. At this point, there are a few variations in the myth. The version Bhaktivedanta elaborates in his text follows that Brahma, Siva, along with demigods and sages, visited the prison. The great deities all professed that Krsna was “true to His vow” (Bhaktivedanta 11). In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krsna promised to “protect the pious and destroy the impious. … The demigods were very glad that the Lord was appearing to fulfill his mission, and they addressed Him as … the Supreme Absolute Truth” (Bhaktivedanta 14). Some sources claim at this point that a “divine sleep” falls upon the area, to which Krsna’s birth can safely take place (Hawley 55).
When Krsna is born, he takes his true form; he was four-armed, decorated with all the accouterments associated with Krsna, including a conch-shell, lotus flower, jewelry, a helmet, and more (Hawley 24). The myth varies here as well, some claiming Vasudeva urges Krsna to take the form of a normal infant, while some say it was Devaki. Regardless, the parents beg him to look like a mere baby for the sake of Krsna’s own safety. Vasudeva escapes the holds of the prison to deliver Krsna to a place of safekeeping: to his friends’ Nanda and Yasoda’s house in the near town of Gokul, who had just given birth to a daughter of their own. Bhaktivedanta’s version of the myth here states that Nanda and Yasoda’s newborn baby was the “internal potency” of Krsna: Yogamaya (Bhaktivedanta 30). [Krsna is said to have “multipotencies”, of which Yogamaya is the chief of all potencies. This is further explained in many sources, especially in Bhaktivedanta’s work.] With the help of the deity in his arms, Vasudeva is able to see clearly through the darkness of the night on his way to Gokul, and fords heavily flowing rivers with ease. The myth again diverges here, according to which sources are addressed. Because of the divine sleep in some sources, Vasudeva is able to exchange Krsna with Yasoda and Nanda’s baby girl, and Yasoda “has no inkling that the son is not her own” (Hawley 55). In other sources, Yasoda is simply sleep-deprived from the labor of childbirth and “does not remember whether she had given birth to a male or female child” (31). Regardless, the infants are swapped, and Krsna is safe under the protective care of Nanda and Yasoda, and Vasudeva brings back a baby girl rather than the eighth son that Kamsa fears.
Krsna lives his life under the pretense that he is Yasoda’s son; Yasoda is an extremely loving and devoted mother to Krsna for life. Her love of Krsna is elaborated in almost every myth involving the two of them. By hearing these myths, followers of Hinduism gain knowledge of the proper dharmic actions to follow as a mother/son unit.
One of the most well known myths of Yasoda and Krsna is The Vision of the Universal Form, told in the Mahabharata. The tale goes that Krsna, as a child, is playing with his brother Balarama one day, when one of the gopis told Yasoda that Krsna has been secretly eating mud and dirt. Yasoda, fearful for Krsna’s health, runs to him and begins to scold him, to which Krsna claims these are false accusations. Yasoda tells him to open his mouth to prove his innocence. Krsna opens his mouth, and Yasoda sees “the universe of moving and nonmoving things; space; the cardinal directions; the sphere of the earth with its oceans, islands and mountains; air and fire; the moon and the stars. She saw the circle of constellations, water, light, the wind, the sky, the evolved senses, the mind, the elements, and the three guna qualities” (Bryant 123). This understandably shocks Yasoda, who realizes Krsna is no ordinary child, and begins to worship him immediately. Krsna relieves his adoptive mother of this stress and speculation, erasing her memory of this incident. Bhaktivedanta sees this incident as assurance that Krsna is, and always will be, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, despite the form he takes (Bhaktivedanta 62).
Another myth depicting the relationship of Krsna and Yasoda involves a naughty Krsna being punished as a normal child by his mother. Yasoda was churning butter one day, and Krsna “felt hungry, and out of love for His mother, wanted her to stop churning. He indicated that her first business was to let Him suck her breast and then churn butter later” (Bhaktivedanta 64). Yasoda allows him to climb on her lap and suckle; however, when her milk on the fire boils over, she sets Krsna down to attend to matters. Krsna is highly displeased as this, as he feels his hunger is of most importance, so he breaks a butter pot and runs into hiding. Yasoda searches for Krsna to scold him for breaking a pot, simply seeing him as her son who was naughty and misbehaving. She finds him and threatens him with a stick, but when she sees her poor boy’s face stricken with fear and laden with tears, she decides to simply bind him with rope as punishment for his misdeeds (Bhaktivedanta 64). This is an example of Yasoda’s love and devotion for her child, being able to see the emotion in his face, empathizing, and restraining herself from invoking more fear in her beloved son.
When Yasoda attempts to bind Krsna, she discovers that the rope she is using is slightly too short for its purposes, so she lengthens it by adding more rope to the original piece. However, this turns out to be just slightly too short to bind him as well. This occurs a few times, with Yasoda adding more and more rope, each time with it being short enough that Krsna cannot be bound. The myth tells that this because he is Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and it is impossible to bind or subdue (Bhaktivedanta 65). However, Krsna sees how exhausted and frustrated Yasoda becomes, and “appreciated the hard labor of his mother, and being compassionate upon her, He agreed to be bound up by the ropes. Krsna, playing as a human child in the mouth of mother Yasoda, was performing his own selected pastimes. … The Lord feels transcendental pleasure by submitting himself to the protection of the devotee. This was exemplified by Krsna’s surrender unto His mother” (Bhaktivedanta 66).
Yasoda’s love and devotion to Krsna is elaborated in almost every myth they are depicted in together, even when she is a fairly minor character to the story. Bhaktivedanta notes Krsna and Balarama beginning to crawl and teethe as infants, which “intensified their feelings of joy. … To see [their] fun, Yasoda and Rohini would call their neighboring friends, the gopis. Upon seeing these childhood pastimes of Lord Krsna, the gopis would be merged in transcendental bliss. In their enjoyment they would laugh very loudly” (Bhaktivedanta 59). Even when the boys would get into trouble, breaking pots and tormenting animals and babies in the community for fun, the gopis would complain but “when mother Yasoda thought to chastise her boy … she saw his pitiable face, and smiling, she did not chastise Him” (Bhaktivedanta 61). These tales emphasize Yasoda’s willingness to allow Krsna to have fun as a child, scolding him only when his safety is in question.
Bryant states “it has not been Krsna’s influential teachings … or his statesmanship … that have produced the most popular and beloved stories of this deity. Rather, it has been his childhood lilas – play, pastimes, or frolics – during his infancy, childhood and adolescence … that have been especially relished all over the Indian subcontinent over the centuries” (Bryant 111). These lilas show the interaction between Krsna and Yasoda, depicting the epitome of mother/son love and devotion to each other, allowing those following these myths to learn the dharmic ideals of the relationship. There is no question of the love between this mother and son, which seems even stronger since they are not biologically related. Yasoda is the ideal mother, showing restraint, endless love, and joy in watching her son grow. Krsna is the ideal son, able to frolic surrounded by love, who ultimately obeys his mother’s wishes despite the fact that he is a Supreme Godhead. Mothers and sons of the Hindu religion can look to these myths for advice to enhance their love and devotion to each other.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bhaktivedanta Swami, A.C. (1970) Krsna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead; Volume One. Boston: Iskcon Press.
Bryant, Edwin F. (2007) Krishna: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hawley, John Stratton (1992) At Play with Krishna: Pilgrimage dramas from Brindavan. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Preciado-Solis, Benjamin (1984) The Krsna Cycle in the Puranas. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
The Bhagavata Purana
The Bhagavad Gita
The bhakti movement
International Society for Krishna Consciousness
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by Mandy McCullough (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.