Divine Oddities: Krishna’s Birth Story in Hindu Mythology

This month Hindus around the world celebrated Janmashtami, or Lord Krishna’s birth story. Hindu tradition holds that there are ten avatars, or manifestations, of Vishnu. The last avatar, Kalki, is still to come, and is said to usher in a new world while riding in on a white horse and wielding a shining sword. Tradition differs on exactly which place Krishna holds among the other incarnations, but he is listed as either 8 or 9.

Why is Lord Krishna so widely worshipped in Hinduism?

Lord Krishna holds broad appeal in Hinduism. As one of the latest avatars, he takes a human form, which is more relatable than the various half-human forms of Vishnu’s early incarnations. The fish, tortoise, boar, lion, and dwarf … they’re all anthropomorphic, not exactly the most user-friendly ways to envision God. Krishna is depicted as a baby, as a naughty child, as a handsome youth, as a lover, and as the charioteer for Arjuna in the epic battle of the Mahabharata. Something for everybody, right?

As a parent, one can relate the love felt for one’s own child to love for God. Whether that child is a baby or a mischievous toddler, we can comprehend loving a child.

Similarly, the handsome, brave youth who flirts with all the local girls holds broad appeal, too. Whether you like him for his warrior ways or for his handsome face and skilled flute-playing, Krishna as a young man is also easy to like. The various feats he (and his brother) performed are awe-inspiring and certainly worthy of a god. Carrying the mountain on his pinky to protect his village from a flood, defeating the hydra in the river that was eating all the livestock, and killing his evil uncle … the list of Krishna’s victories is long and fascinating.

Finally, possibly the most famous Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita, details the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna as they prepare to ride into the great battle of Kurukshetra.

The Battle of Kurukshetra and Krishna's Birth Story in Hindu Mythology

Janmashtami and Krishna’s Birth Story

The Hindu holiday, Janmashtami, celebrates Krishna’s birth story. “Jan” means birth, and “Ashtami” is a reference to the eighth day of the rainy season when Krishna was born.

Krishna’s parents, Devaki and Vasudeva, were imprisoned as newlyweds when Devaki’s brother, King Kansa, was told that their 8th child would kill him.

For reasons I’m still struggling to comprehend, Kansa thought it was a good idea to imprison the two of them in the same cell with nothing to do. For someone determined to defeat a prophecy, he could have used two cells (two brain cells!), which would have perhaps made the begetting of eight children a little more challenging.

Of course, Hindu mythology is rife with examples of apparently celibate people who managed to receive the divine spark and bear children. So perhaps two separate cells wouldn’t have been quite enough to prevent the birth of his nieces and nephews. Kansa, though described as a powerful and evil king, supposedly did love his sister and didn’t want to make her suffer unduly, so perhaps that’s why he didn’t keep Devaki and Vasudeva apart.

Now the part that really doesn’t sit right with me is what Kansa does with each of the infants when he finds out Devaki has given birth. He throws the babies against the stone wall of his dungeon to kill them. Only one of the first seven children escapes this fate, in a very scientifically roundabout way. Krishna’s older brother, Balaram, apparently is the biological child of Vasudeva and Devaki, but he was born to a surrogate, one of Vasudeva’s other wives, Rohini. She apparently was not imprisoned with her husband and Devaki. Divine intervention and all that, and Krishna gets an older brother.

I digress. Given that the prophecy referenced the 8th child, what need did Kansa have to kill the first seven?

Now, the mother in me notes that Kansa also didn’t know much about kids. I’m nearly positive that if Devaki was chasing after a handful of children, maybe four or five of them, particularly in the confines of a prison cell, she’d likely have been too worn out to even consider having eight children. Babies are a lot of work! Children demand a lot of attention. Prison cells are really small. But instead, Kansa kept a married couple trapped in a prison cell with nothing to do. Is anyone really surprised that they managed to have eight children?

I’ve always loved the next part of the story, where on the night of Krishna’s birth, the guards fall asleep and the shackles unlock. Vasudeva sneaks out of the prison with his infant son in a basket, carries him across the river to the home of Yashoda and Nanda. A great serpent protects them from the heavy rain, and the water parts for Vasudeva so that baby Krishna doesn’t get splashed.

Krishna's Birth Story: Vasudeva Crossing the Yamuna River with baby Krishna

How Vasudeva knew that his cousin’s wife had just delivered a baby we can only conjecture, but he switches the baby girl for his son and carries the girl back to the prison. When Kansa comes to kill the infant, the goddess Durga tells him that he has failed and that Devaki’s eighth child has survived.

Mind that he still doesn’t free his sister and her husband, though, which a lot of scholars believe he initially intended to do once the eight children were born and summarily killed. Not until Krishna actually kills Kansa does he go to the dungeon to free Devaki and Vasudeva and meet his birth mother for the first time.

So it’s fair to say Kansa wasn’t a great king or a very logical thinker. Krishna’s birth story and subsequent accomplishments provide a broad scope for Hindu worship. The famous Amar Chitra Katha comic (which you can read for free here) does an excellent job of illustrating Krishna’s early adventures. I vividly remember the frames where Krishna holds up the mountain, where he fights in the river with the monster, and when he engages in hand-to-hand combat with his uncle.

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