Krishna – The Historical Perspective

Krishna, the all-attractive-one is arguably the most popular God of the sub-continent! He is Megh-varna, the color-of-clouds; Go-pal, the protector of cows; Murli-manohar, who steals hearts by the melody of his flute; and Madan-Mohan who can mesmerize Cupid himself with His beauty..

Murli-Manohar Krishna

However, this post is not about Krishna, the God. Enough has been said and written in almost all languages of the world about Krishna’s super-human personality. I kinda wanted to explore the historical origin of His enigmatic life and hence will try to steer clear of ‘FAITH’ and focus more on the ‘FACTS’.

From Krishna the God  TO  Krishna the Man

Image courtesy Grant Morrison’s 18 Days{Art by Mukesh Singh}

I am definitely not the first or the last person to make this effort. More than a hundred years ago, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee had written a remarkable book known as Sri Krishna Charitra,devoted to a scientific study of the life of Krishna.
Over this century, however, there have been many more developments which have shattered the earlier theories (such as the Aryan Invasion Theory) and have pushed back the dates of Vedic literature to much before what was believed by the early historians. Let us examine all such evidence available to us today and try to unravel the Historical perspective of Krishna.

Historical period of Krishna

Shrimad Bhagvatam declares that Krishna arrives on Earth towards the end of the Dwapar Yug of the 7th Manvantar of the 1st Kalpa of the 51st year of the current Brahma.. rather precise timing there!!

Advent of Krishna

For those who do not understand these terms let me enlighten you a little: Each Brahma lives a lifetime of 100 years; each year with 360 days called Kalpas; each day divided into 14 Manvantars; and each Manvantar divided into 71 Maha-Yugas with 4 Yugas each. {For details on the Hindu calculation of time, check this link – Kaalchakra, the Hindu Timeline}.

Currently, we are in the last of the four Yugas called the Kaliyuga which, according to astronomical calculations, began on the 20th of February 3102 BCE. Now, this would place Krishna roughly around 3300-3200 BCE as the Bhagvatam states that Kaliyuga couldn’t begin till Krishna was on the planet!

Annointing the Annointed One – Krishna’s Birth Ceremony

Fortunately, there is a large body of literary and archaeological evidence that can guide us towards an approximate time-period for His presence. The earliest text to explicitly provide detailed descriptions of Krishna is of course the epic Mahabharat.

Mahabharat Manuscript

Since itis primarily the history of the Kurus (Pandavs and Kauravs), Mahabharat contains only that part of Krishna’s life that had a bearing on the fate of Kurus. However, its crown jewel is the Bhagvad Geeta which transforms Krishna from a much adored and cherished Princely diplomat to the Supreme God Himself.

Mahabharat gives Krishna prime importance

As Grant Morrison, the visionary director of world-class Mahabharat-based animation succinctly puts –

The Gita, with its direct, no-nonsense guide to living in the odd universe we all share, is at the very heart of the story; everything else revolves around the moment when Krishna lays it on the line for Arjuna. The conflict is the war between desire and duty, the material and the spiritual, the war that is fought every day by every human being.

Krishna reveals the Geeta to a bewildered Arjuna

It is generally understood that Mahabharat, was not written at one go, but was compiled over some years. The first section of the epic states that Rishi Ved-Vyas dictated the events of that age to Ganesha over a considerable period of time. This unfortunately, makes it difficult to put an exact date to the story and the time-period of Krishna.

HOWEVER, the recent discovery of the dry river-bed of Saraswati , can help us put some conclusive dates to the epic. Mahabharat describes Saraswati as a disappearing river, but also mentions Lord Balrama traveling on Saraswati from Dwarka to Mathura, to immerse the ashes of Yadav martyrs after the battle. 
This implies that the river was navigable at the time of the Mahabharat War and the Epic was written BEFORE it had dried up, which as French scientists have discovered, was at least before 3000 BCE {Read the post Finding River Saraswati for more clarity}.

Another literary work known as the Harivamsha helps to fill the gaps in the account of Krishna’s life that are missing from the Mahabharat. The Vishnu-puran and Bhagvat-Puran contain still more details about the life of Krishna with the latter AGAIN declaring Him – SWAYAM BHAGWAN, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Bhagvatam Manuscript from 1500 CE

Confoundingly though, there haven’t been any authentic dates assigned to these literary works till now. In ancient India, knowledge was transferred ORALLY from the Guru to the Shishya, hence it is difficult to date the texts in a definite manner.

Hence, for the purpose of our quest, we would need to take help of scriptures which are more or less conclusively dated (on the basis of their language, grammar, historical references etc.) so that we can arrive at a somewhat clearer picture.

Conclusive Literary Evidence for Krishna

References to Krishna can be found in almost all major scriptures, and there are profuse references to the famous personalities of that age in Vedic, Jain and Buddhist literature.  

  • The earliest authentically dateable reference to Krishna is from the Chandogya Upanishad (3.17.6). Composed around 900 BCE, itmentions Vasudeva-Krishna as the son of Vasudev and Devaki and the disciple of Ghora Angirasa.

Me in the Ashram where Krishna and Balaram learnt from their Guru

Jain and Buddhist literature also contains profuse references to Shri Krishna and Balaram! Since dating these literatures has been more or less accomplished accurately, they can be a valuable source of information for us..

  • Jain Tradition from around 700 BCE, talks about a Vasudev and his elder brother Baladev in each cycle time. They take birth to rid the world of eveil and kill the Prati-vasudev  or Anti-Krishna (the Anti-Christ??).

Shri Krishna and Balrama are NINTH in this Vasudeva-Baladeva series and according to Jain predictions, Krishna is stated to become the 12th Tirthankar in the NEXT time-cycle. This shows that Krishna was quite popular in Non-Vedic traditions as well.

  • Additionally, Krishna is also described as the cousin of the 22nd Tirthankar Neminath whose historicity is believed by most Jains today.
  • The 24th Tirthankar Lord Mahavir was born in 599 BCE, and since there is a considerable time gap between subsequent Tirthankars (ranging from centuries to millenia), we can safely assume Neminath and his contemporary Lord Krishna to be born much before this time.

The cousins Neminath and Krishna from a Jain painting

  • Yāska‘s Nirukta, (600 BCE), one of the greatest etymological Sanskrit dictionaries, contains a reference to the Syamantaka jewel, from the well known Puranic story about Krishna.
  • Pāṇini, the ancient grammarian and author of Asthadhyayi (6th century BCE) mentions Vāsudev, Kauravs and Pandavs and testifies to them being contemporaries of each other.

As a linguist unconcerned with religion, Panini’s references are especially valuable as they have no sectarian purpose. He mentions Vasudev Krishna and Arjun together as  Vasudevarjunabhyam vun in Sutra 4.3.98.

The characters from Mahabharat were Historical figures

Image courtesy Grant Morrison’s 18 Days{Art by Mukesh Singh}

Similar to the Jain sources, Buddhist literature also contains numerous references to historical figures from the Mahabharata including, of course, Shri Krishna.

  • Buddhist literature records Krishna earliest in the Ghata-Jataka (300 BCE) as an ancient ruler of India and gives an account of His exploits that corresponds quite well with the Hindu tradition. There’s a good record of the presence of Vasudev, Baladev, killing of Kamsa and their cousins the Kurus.
  • Mahaummagga Jataka (around 3rd century BCE), states that Jambavati was one of the consorts of Vasudeva Kanha which matches with the description from the Bhagavatam.
  • Around 150 BCE, Patanjali in his Mahabhashya praises Krishna and Samkarshan (Balrama) and describes dramatic performances representing the killing of Kamsa by Vasudev (Krishna-Kamsopacharam).

Krishna liberates Kamsa

Surprisingly, we even have evidence provided by foreign travelers, such as the Greek scholars, who came to India during and after Alexander’s campaign!!

  • Megasthenes (350BCE), the Greek Ambassador to Chandragupta Maurya,  the first unifier of Medieval India, identifies Krishna with the Greek Herakles or Hercules in his famous work Indica.

He describes an Indian tribe called Sourasenoi, who worshiped Herakles in their land which had two cities, Methora and Kleisobora, and a navigable river, the Jobares.

Inscription from the Indica

The reasons for this mistaken identification are quite understandable: FIRST, the Greek historians tried to make sense of other religions’ gods by equating them with their own divinities and SECONDLY, the 12 Labors of Hercules have a lot of similarities with the acts Krishna performed as a kid!
For example, Krishna subdues the monstrous serpent Kaliya whose very breath could kill someone with its poison; while Hercules kills the equally monstrous Hydra and also beheads the snake-headed Medusa whose single look could turn anyone into stone! 

Krishna subduing the monstrous serpent Kaliya

Hercules defeating the serpentine Hydra

From descriptions  given in the Indica, there’s little doubt that the Sourasenoi refers to Krishna’s dynasty, the Shurasena Yadavs; Methora to Mathura; Kleisobora to Krishnapura, and Jobares to Yamuna, the river from Krishna’s life-story.

  • Quintus Curtius also mentions that when Alexander confronted Porus/Puru on the banks of the Indus, Porus’s soldiers were carrying an image of Herakles in their vanguard.
  • The court scholar of Mauryas, states that the city Polibrotha (Pataliputra or Patna) was founded by Herakles, 138 generations before the reign of King Sandrocottas, the Greek name for Chandragupta Maurya.

Here is one DIRECT piece of information, which can retrospectively help us calculate the tentative time period of Krishna!

Most scholars have assumed the ruling span of each King in those times to be somewhere around 20-25 years based on life expectancy and frequency of coups and family-feuds. The 138 generations would then give us almost 3000 years between Hercules and Chandragupta Maurya giving the time of Krishna somewhere close to 3300 BCE.

Krishna, the King, ruled at least 3000 years before Chandragupta Maurya

This date, fortunately, tallies splendidly with our EARLIER Hypothesis and STRANGELY enough, also coincides with the Early phase of Indus-Saraswati Civilization!! Let us explore this connection a little before moving on to the Archaeological evidence in favor of Krishna.

Indus-Saraswati Evidence for Krishna
The Indus-Saraswati artifacts, present an enchanting picture when we co-relate them with events or personalities mentioned in the Vedic scriptures.
As discussed in previous posts, there are seals which have been identified with the Yogi ShivaMother Goddess, the Holy Bull, (maybe) Emperor BharatRishabh-dev etc.. Let’s see if there exist any relics that can point to a knowledge of Krishna as well!

A steatite tablet which was unearthed from Mohanjodaro in 1931, depicts a young boy uprooting two trees from which are emerging two human figures. It has been considered an interesting archaeological finding for fixing the date of Krishna.

Dr. E.J.H. Mackay, who did the excavation at Mohanjodaro compares this image with the Yamalarjuna episode and Prof. V.S. Agrawal has also accepted this identification.  In this image, the young boy depicted could very well be Krishna and two beings emerging out of the trees, the two cursed Gandharvs Nalkubera & Manigriva, who had turned into Arjuna trees due to a curse and were liberated by Krishna.

The Yamalarjuna episode

This shows that the Indus-Saraswati people probably knew about Krishna�s exploits and stories related to Krishna. This lone finding may not substantiate to the date of Krishna but at the same time it cannot be ignored especially when another indirect evidence can be found in a related find. 

The Indus-Valley seals show an abundance of animal forms ranging from Unicorns to Bulls to Horses to Fish; but what is missing is the depiction of Fauna or Trees! However, interestingly, there is one particular type of tree and its leaves invariably found in all Indus sites  – the Peepal leaves.

Peepal Leaves on Indus-Saraswati seals

Now, in the 10th chapter of Srimad Bhagawad-Gita, Krishna says that amongst the trees he represents the Aswatha or Pipal. I believe, that the ONLY leaf to be represented on ANY Indus Seal – the Pipal leaf, could be the representation of Krishna in His Non-anthropomorphic form!

In the legend of Rishi Markandeya, there is even a mention of Krishna appearing in front of the rishi as a baby lying on a peepal leaf floating in the cosmic waters of dissolution of the World.

Baby Krishna on Pipal leaf from the Markandeya story

It would of course need a complete deciphering of the heiroglyphs on the numerous seals before we can conclusively prove any hypothesis but till now, there is at least nothing to disprove that they at least KNEW about Krishna. We now need to analyze other data avaialable to conclusively prove or disprove our estimate.

Evidence from Marine Archaeology

Recent marine archaeological discoveries in the Gulf of Cambay, off the coast of Gujarat have revealed an entire submerged civilization which has been carbon-dated to somewhere around 7500 BCE! {Check this link for more details – Lost City could rewrite History! – BBC South-Asia report}

Gulf of Cambay

The likelihood of this civilization being OLDER to the Indus-Saraswati Civilization is huge and a possible link with the fabled kingdoms of yore, mentioned in Hindu scriptures, can not be denied. But let’s not jump the gun and wait for more results before we link it to Krishna or any other ancient King.
What CAN be reasonably linked to Krishna is the discovery of another submerged city close to the present city of Dwarka which is believed to be the ORIGINAL city of Krishna because of a plethora of archaeological findings matching the scriptural descriptions!!

Graham Hancock’s documentary on the discovery of Dwarka.

According to the Mahabharat, this city was built by the Architect-god Vishwakarma for Lord Krishna by reclaiming 12 Yojans of land from sea, on the westernmost shore of Saurashtra. The city had six well-organized sectors, residential and commercial zones, wide roads, plazas, palaces and many public utilities alongwith a magnificent sea harbour.

Dwaraka, the Magnificent City of Krishna

The general layout of the city discovered below the Sea agrees REMARKABLY with the descriptions from the texts!! The immense foundations of the walls also support the belief that land was reclaimed from the Sea. Interestingly, scriptures talk about a kind of a PASSPORT system in Dwarka. Its citizens were issued a clay seal with a mythical three-headed-animal (the Greek Cerberus?!?) which had to be presented when they entered or left the massive gates. Interestingly, this seal of Dwarka has been found in the underwater ruins of the city!!

The seal of Dwarika

The details of these discoveries would require a separate article altogether but what is important from our current perspective is the DATING of this find. This particular seal has been carbon-dated to around 1528 BCE bringing it at par with the Late Harappan period. Other artifacts such as Brick walls, citadels, fortifications, Stone anchors for ships, Roman amphoras etc. have been dated from 2500 BCE to the 4th century CE have been found proving that Dwarka was probably the busiest port in the western coast of India for a long, long time!

Other Archaeological Evidence
There are numerous other direct and indirect evidences supporting the knowledge and worship of Krishna around the 1st millennium BCE.

  • A 800 BСE cave painting in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, shows a horse-charioteer about to hurl a wheel on another figure. This episode can potentially be identified as Krishna getting ready to hurl the chariot-wheel on Bhishma-Pitamah from the Mahabharat War!!

Krishna ready to hurl a chariot-wheel on Bhishma Pitamah

Worship of Krishna, in the form of Vasudev can also be traced to as early as 4th century BCE surprisingly, with another Greek connection!
The Greek emperor ALEXANDER�s career more or less came to a halt after his brief encounter with the king of the Indus region, PORUS/Parvateshwar. The Greeks however, had some success ruling as kings in north-western cities such as the one in Taxila/Takshila. They exchanged ambassadors with Indian kings and one such ambassador was Heliodorus who was sent from Taxila to the court of King Bhagabhadra at Videsha (Besnagar, central India).

Greek Embassies in Ancient India

Interestingly, this guy, has left the FIRST historical record of a Greek becoming the devotee of an Indian God, Shri Krishna!

  • On his visit to Vidisha, Heliodorus erected a Garud-pillar in the honor of his ‘God of Gods’ Krishna which is one of the earliest direct archaeological evidence of Krishna-consciousness in this part of the world!

The Heliodorus Pillar and Inscription

This Garuda-column of Vasudev (Krishna),The God of gods,Was erected here by Heliodorus, A worshipper of Vishnu,The son of Dion, and Inhabitant of Taxila,Who came as the Greek ambassador,From the Great King Antialkidas,To King Kashiputra Bhagabhadra, the Savior,Then reigning prosperously in the fourteenth year of his kingship.

Vasudev Krishna, the God of Gods for Heliodorous

  Historians and scholars have recognized Heliodorus as the first western convert to the principles of Vaishnavism!! 

  • Similarly, the Ghosundi and Hathibara inscriptions of 2nd century BCE record the consruction of an enclosure around Narayana Vatika where lay a fossilised stone called the Shaligram for the divinities of Samkarshana & Vasudeva in the east of village Nagari in Udaipur district of Rajasthan.
  • Another discovery of the Indo-Greek period, are the gold coins of Agathocles (200 BCE) bearing the images of Balaram holding his plow on one side and Vasudev Krishna holding the discus (Sudarshan Chakra) on the other!!

Agathocles coins depicting Balarama and Krishna 

This coin was minted in the year 172 BCE and recovered from the Oxus valley at Ai-Khanum in Afghanistan. It happens to be a very important discovery showing the Sudarshan disc-bearer Vasudev and the plough-bearer Samkarshan (Balarama) on the two sides of the coin.

Krishna and Balaram together

  • The evidence for Krishna-Balaram worship can also be seen from the stone graffiti of Chilas cave in Western Pakistan, paleographically datable to the 2nd century BCE  again. Here, Krishna & Balaram are engraved on the rocks and the names engraved beneath the images are Vasudev and Samkarshan respectively. 

Both the coin and the graffiti throw light on the hero worship in the northwestern region of the sub-continent. In the 1st century BCE, there is also evidence of worship of FIVE Vrishni heroes – KrishnaBalaram, Pradyumna (Krishna’s son), Samba (Krishna’s second son) and Aniruddh (Krishna’s grandson).

  • An inscription from a Mora well, 11 kms west of Mathura records the construction of a stone temple by a royal woman, named Tosho, in the honour of Bhagavatam Panchaviranam or Five heroes of the Vrishini clan. 
  • Maues an Indo-Scythian king (85 BCE) was a worshipper of Balarama along with the Greek gods Zeus and Nike. Few of his coins depict a King in a cross-legged seated position and one of his coins minted in 1st century BCE depicts Balarama.

Coin of Maues depicting Balarama

  • The last great Kushan king of North India and Bactria, took the title of Vasudeva I (c. 200CE) and minted coins in honor of Hindu gods.

Coins of Indo-Bactrian king Vasudev I

  • Last but certainly not the least, the Aihole Inscription of King Pulakesin II dated 634 CE states the Mahabharat War was fought 3735 years before the engraving of the inscription which gives the date of 3735-634=3101 BCE. 

You may wonder what all this archaeological data means. The purpose here is to show that Krishna and Balarama were recognized and worshipped as divinities since very early times and all the evidence gathered till now, seems to converge at the same time period we started with, i.e. the 3rd Millenium BCE. There is now just one body of evidence remaining for us to analyze – Astrological Evidence from the scriptures.

Astrological Evidence for dating Krishna

Based on the astrological details given in various scriptures, many scholars have tried to identify the birth year of Krishna. 
Dr Narhari Achar, professor of physics at the University of Memphis, Tennessee, has dated the Mahabharat war using astronomy and calls it the most authentic historical document in human civilizational history.
There are more than 140 astronomical references in the Mahabharat which have been used by Dr. Achar to feed reference points into the path-breaking Planetarium software (used by NASA to launch satellites for probe missions). Through the help of this software, he has placed the titanic clash between Pandavs and Kauravs in the year 3067 BCE.

Dr. Narahari Achar’s presentation in Florida.

 

Using the same software, Dr Achar places the year of Krishna�s birth at 3112 BCE. The astrological references point to a situation so unique (such as three eclipses repeating after 36 years) that they have only occurred once in last 10,000 years!!

Inspired by Dr. Achar’s research, Dr. Manish Pandit, a Nuclear Medicine Physician based in the UK proffers astronomical, archaeological, linguistic and oral evidence to support the case. He has even prepared a documentary that showcases all this evidence in a ready to grasp manner.

Dr. Manish Pandit’s Documentary

Another professor, Dr. P.V. Vartak, has however come up with the possible date of 5561 BCE based on his interpretation of astronomical Tithis and positions described for the Nakshatras.

The difference in their approach seems to be the reason for this differing time period e.g. While Dr. Vartak considers certain celestial bodies mentioned to be the planets Uranus, Neptune and Pluto; Dr. Achar considers them to be visiting comets. Also, there is the consideration of the Precession of Equinoxes we have already seen in the second post {Black Holes and Bhagavatam}.

Sanjay describes 3 eclipses to Dhritrashtra in Mahabharat

Since, the dates by Dr. Achar MATCH the dates we have obtained from the analysis of the Literary and Archaeological data, I am inclined to go with the same until some further evidence comes to light that can change this view of our History.

Historical veracity of Krishna
The Ancient Literature, Archaeological specimens (terrestrial as well as marine), and Astrological references all point towards a particular time period for the presence of Krishna. We may not have the exact date for Krishna’s appearance on Earth, but these evidences narrow it down to at least a tangible time-frame in our history. Through the analysis of all the above data shared with you, the most probable period of Krishna’s stay on Earth would be 3300-3100 BCE.

Krishna, the Historical Enigma

It gives me goose-bumps to think that the MOST popular figure of Indian Culture, Art, Philosophy, Music, Dance, Drama and Religion walked the Earth just about 5 millenia ago!
And it is a credit to the remarkable resilience of the Oral and Cultural traditions of our country that even after 5000 years, the memory of Krishna is still alive and throbbing in the Hearts and Minds of a Billion people. Let us celebrate the same tradition this HOLI, remembering another Avatar of Vishnu, Lord Narsimha‘s slaying of Hiranyakshipu and the end of his evil sister Holika.
I dedicate the following compilation to Krishna, the Delight of Yashoda; the Pride of Gokul; Bliss of the Gopis; Savior of the Downtrodden; Friend of the Righteous; and perhaps most humanly, the Statesman par Excellence.

Happy Holi

Let us embrace the vibrant colors of Spring and immerse ourselves in the Divine Love of Shri Radha and Krishna

Happy Holi to all of You :o)
.Aum Shanti: Shanti: Shanti:

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