Book Reviews

The Harivansha

- The Significance of a Neglected Text

Andre Couture: Krsna in the Harivamsha, vol. 1
—the wonderful play of a cosmic child
DK Printworld, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 362, Rs. 990/-

Mahabharata (MB) scholars tend to dismiss the Harivansha (HV) as a superfluous “appendix” (as they interpret the word khila which the MB applies to it). When Kaliprasanna Singha got the MB translated into Bengali (1858-1866), he omitted the HV finding it to be obviously a later composition on the basis of its language besides being inferior in style. Possibly, because of this K.M. Ganguli did not include it in his English prose translation of the MB (1883-1896). The first English translation of the complete HV was done in prose in 1897 by Manmatha Nath Dutt, the Rector of Keshub Academy, Calcutta, who was the second translator of the MB (1895), besides the Ramayana and the Agni and Garuda Puranas. Dr. K.P.A. Menon’s translation (Nag Publishers 2008, of which Couture appears to be unaware), is of P.L. Vaidya’s “critical edition,” which drastically shortens the extant text from 18000 to 6073 slokas. Recently, an unfinished English prose translation of the complete HV (Chitrashala Press, 1936) by the late Desiraju Hanumanta Rao, A. Harindranath and A. Purushothaman is available online at a site maintained by the nuclear scientist Dr A. Harindranath of Calcutta.

It was left to the French scholar Andre Couture (professor at the Laval University, Quebec, Canada) to show that khila actually means “a complement, or supplement” essential for revealing the significance of the main work. This book collects updated versions of thirteen papers written over a period of three decades analyzing Krishna’s birth and childhood deeds. Usually dismissed as a hodge-podge of pastoral myths, Couture shows that the HV is a carefully crafted narrative with a definite goal. His investigation reveals the importance of Nilkantha Chaturdhara’s commentary, ignored by Indologists, for reaching a proper understanding of the work. Nilkantha explains khila as an addition to a Vedic corpus for a specific reason. The HV is added to the MB because it completes the glorification of Krishna’s deeds: “the meaning of the MB is not complete without the HV.” Couture is the first to state uncompromisingly, “the fact that its parts do not exactly fit the order Western Indologists would prefer is of little consequence…it is more constructive to try to understand the logic underlying the composition of the text as we now find it rather than to resort to radical surgery each time a narrative challenge arises.” Instead of a mechanical comparison of texts to arrive at an “Ur-Text” it is the contents that need to be analyzed to identify recurrent themes and how the episodes are sequenced. It is refreshing to find a Western scholar who dismisses the prevailing theory that Krishna was an ancient vegetation deity whose name “Damodara” refers to wheat sheaves tied with straw. Instead, writes Couture, “only the Indian explanations are worth consideration.”

Couture shows the error in Vaidya’s conception of the HV as a late and random collection of appendices, from which he shears away whatever he deems non-essential. Actually, the HV presents Vishnu as the only god who ensures the welfare of the three worlds, complementing the “Narayaniya” of the MB. His dark form is Shesha who, as Sankarshana, is Krishna’s necessary complement, the shesha (remnant) of Vishnu the shesin. Brahma is the form he takes when creating, Rudra when destroying. Both the HV and the MB regularly allude to the four forms of Vishnu: with one he performs ascesis on earth; another is a witness to all that happens; the third acts in the world; the fourth is in yogic sleep, awakening to emit the cosmos. Couture is critical of Vaidya’s unjustifiable omission of Vishnu’s invocation of the goddess Arya Vindhyavasini that occurs in all versions of the HV, except just three in Malayalam script, and is present in both the Sharada and Newari texts upon which Vaidya relies the most. The hymn is definitely pre-695 CE when it features in a Chinese translation of the Suvanabhassottama Sutra. This goddess plays a critical role in Krishna’s birth under the names Nidra and Ekanamsa, on whom there is a valuable discussion.

The representation of the Kshatriya Akrura as a devotee, bhagavata, suggests a new social environment in which this class led bhakti movements seeking to subsume ritual Brahminism in their views. This a world of kings and of Brahmins visiting courts to make a living. These Brahmins represent Vishnu as the supreme sovereign over all monarchs, to whom total bhakti is due, as seen in the bhagavata Shesha who supports the world and serves as Narayana’s couch. To compete with the onset of Buddhism and Jainism, the concept of a Universal Divine was welcomed by the newly urbanized society which found that the traditional rituals had outlived their day. The period for this development is suggested as the closing centuries BCE. At this time, the Vedas were being enlarged by adding a fifth (the Chhandogya Upanishad’s itihasapuranam panchamam) from which legitimacy was sought. The tales in this fifth category relate to genealogies, royal conduct, gods and heroes. The reciters of this lore sought to re-establish the challenged social order on the basis of shruti and the puranas, as the MB clearly states at the beginning.

Correctly, Couture discounts the prevalent dating of the HV to the first or second century CE merely on the basis of the single occurrence of the word dinarika (Roman denarius). Vaidya argued that Kshemendra’s Bharatamanjari contains summaries of both the MB and the HV which, therefore, must have been completed by 1046 CE. Couture finds no cogent basis for Vaidya’s dating of the HV to 300 or 400 CE. The recent conclusions of scholars like Hiltebeitel, Bailey, Sutton, Biardeau and Fitzgerald that the MB was compiled between 200 BCE and 200 CE as a response to Buddhism, would apply equally to the HV. According to J.L. Masson and Ingalls, the language of the HV cannot be later than the 2nd or 3rd century CE and could go back to the 1st century CE. Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacharita (1st century CE) refers to a story found only in the HV about Bhishma killing Ugrayudha. Couture finds that several similes in it are paralleled only in the HV. Such is the epithet rathavistirnajaghana (chariot-like hips) describing gopis in the HV and shroniratha in Buddhacharita applied to lovely ladies. Further, Kushana iconography from the 2nd century CE reflects descriptions about the Man-Lion avatar and Sankarshana found in the HV. Moreover, only in India did the Kushana kings use the epithet devaputra which is used in the HV to describe Krishna and Balarama. However, on what evidence does Couture conclude that the Mathura described in the HV is evocative of cities of the Kushana era (1st to mid-3rd century CE) and not of the end of the Dvapara Yuga (for which we have no descriptions)?

It would be interesting to see Couture’s reaction to Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s clear opinion in his remarkable Bengali study of the Krishna corpus, Krishnacharitra (1892, available in English translation since 1991 [1]) that the HV is later than the Vishnu Purana. Couture’s bibliography is unaware of this work. It is intriguing that Couture has nothing much to say about the nocturnal sport of Krishna with the gopis. Bankimchandra’s Chapter 6 is “The Gopis of Vraja” as described in the HV. He points out that they are mentioned only in the 76th/77th chapter of its Vishnu Parva, just as they only occur in the 13th chapter of the 5th book of the Vishnu Purana. Instead of the famous raasa, it is the word hallisha that is used in the HV whose chapter-heading itself reads Hallishakridanam. Both words connote a type of dance and there are verses here identical with the Vishnu Purana. The HV account is shorter (usually it embellishes and expands the Vishnu Purana accounts). Bankim opines, “Comparing in detail the poetic quality, high seriousness, scholarship and magnificence of both works, it is clear that the Harivamsha is far inferior in these respects to the Vishnu Purana. The Harivamsha composer has been unable to comprehend the profound truth inhering in the Vishnu Purana’s description of raasa and the achieving of union with the divine Krishna through the bhakti-yoga practiced by the gopis…. The vivacious girl of the Vishnu Purana is restless with joy, while the Harivamsha’s gopis express the sensibility of wantons. In many places the Harivamsha composer is found to display a fondness for the sensual to an excessive degree.”[2] Kaliprasanna Singha must have had the same reaction, because of which he did not include the HV when he translated the MB into Bengali.

Couture analyzes the HV account of the birth and childhood of Krishna in conjunction with the versions in the allied puranas. Couture contends that these are not a hotchpotch of legends taken from pastoral tribes like Abhiras, nor are they purely symbolic, but draw upon Brahminic Vedic tradition to address concerns of their audience. The Bhagavatas (formerly called smaarta) played the major role in constructing a coherent mythic narrative of a hagiography based upon a specific religious ideology. The murder of Devaki’s six new-born sons and her aborted seventh pregnancy leading to the birth of Sankarshana follow precedents of the birth of Martanda in the Rigveda and the Maitrayani and Taittiriya Samhitas, and the births of Bhishma, Aruna and Garuda in the MB. The device presages the birth of a deity or a semi-divine being.

Couture has a very interesting discussion on the place of Sankarshana in Krishna’s birth-story. He is the remnant (shesha) after the pralaya (universal destruction) symbolized by the killing of Devaki’s six sons at birth, which is followed by the supreme divinity, as is the pattern after cosmic dissolution. Recreation is not possible without the collaboration of Yoganidra, who emerges from Rohini in this case, and is named Ekanamsa, to whom Couture devotes a separate chapter. Couture argues that since her birth follows Sankarshana’s and is coterminous with Krishna’s, this evokes the union of Purusha-Spirit and Prakriti-Matter. Thus, no detail in the birth-story is arbitrary.

Similarly, after seven years in the cow-settlement (vraja), wolves emerge from Krishna’s pores, causing destruction. Therefore, they move to Vrindavana, to a new life with the miracle of the Govardhana-lifting to save it from a deluge. Again, this is the pattern of gestation and a new birth. Couture has not noticed that the reasons Krishna gives to his brother for the move are similar to those advanced by Krishna-Dvaipayana-Vyasa to Yudhishthira for moving from Dvaitavana to Kamyaka forest (MB.3.36.37). The black and white hairs Vishnu plucks, manifesting as Krishna and Sankarshana, are, Couture suggests, from the antelope skin used in rites of rebirth for the patron of the sacrifice, not his head. Krishna being the cosmic Purusha and his brother the remnant of the cosmic sacrifice, what is being symbolized in this myth is the cosmic sacrifice. Moreover, at the end of the MB, Jara shoots Krishna taking him to be an antelope. Balarama gets reabsorbed into the ocean as a white snake. The manner of their deaths completes the circle that began with the white and black hairs plucked by Vishnu.

Couture’s research reveals a very important finding: gokula, used so often in the HV and in puranas, is not the name of a particular village but designates a cow-settlement, a synonym for vraja, ghosha, and goshtha. Nanda heads the cow-settlement, which moves from one forest to another. Vrindavana is not a particular forest but simply another great forest like the mahavana in which gokula was first located.

The MB is familiar with some of the childhood deeds and the names Damodara, Govinda and Keshava (cf. Bhishma and Shishupala’s speeches in the Sabha Parva, Dhritarashtra’s in the Drona Parva). In the HV, when Indra names Krishna “Govinda,” he begs him to protect Arjuna, thus linking to the Kurukshetra holocaust beyond the re-establishment of dharma in Mathura by killing Kansa (the asura Kalanemi) and his band of re-born demons. Akrura forecasts that the dying Yadava line will be revived by Krishna whose childhood narrative has local as well as cosmic dimensions. That is why Krishna is the gopa, the herder who protects Earth, the cow. Hence, he is Gopala the cosmic cowherd, who replicates Narayana’s killing of Kalanemi by destroying Kansa. Leading up to this is his breaking a cart as an infant, accompanied by his crying (rud, referring to Rudra the destroyer), emitting wolves who devour all (like Kala-Time of the Gita) and breaking the great bow of the Mathura festival. These signify “the inevitable destruction preceding all renewal.”

In a challenging interpretation, Couture equates Vidura’s parable of the man in the well with the taming of Kaliya naga. Krishna is also walking through the forest of samsara. The pool of the Yamuna in which the five-headed snake Kaliya resides is the world threatened by Kala-Time. Unlike the Brahmin, Krishna is not lost, nor dangling helplessly upside-down from a vine, oblivious of the gaping maw of the serpent, engrossed in the honey dripping down. From the fragrant kadamba tree, not distracted by its scent and the bees, Krishna dives into the pool, gets free of the serpentine coils and dances on the five hoods of the senses. Kaliya reverts to the ocean, just as Indra, defeated at Govardhana, returns to Swarga. The cowherd settlement is preserved by the supreme divinity making all perform their svadharma instead of brutalizing others.

Couture analyzes the Govardhana episode at length, bringing out its replication of several Vedic myths about Indra clipping mountains of their wings and Vishnu as the boar uplifting the submerged earth. However, he is less persuasive when arguing that in tearing off the giant (bird) Putana’s breast Krishna is replicating Indra cutting off the wings of mountains to stabilize the earth and that Govardhana becomes a “mountain bird” sheltering all in its belly. In that feat, Krishna literally becomes a pillar of the earth. Thus, the childhood narrative up to Kansa’s death follows the pattern of the mythic deeds of an avatar and is not a mere entertainment. Like black Agni, Krishna swirls up to engulf Kansa on the throne and ploughs the soil with him. He is, thus, a sacrifice and Krishna’s childhood in the forest is an initiation (manushi diksha, HV 58.8) for this. For making the meaning of the manifestation of Vishnu as the Kshatriya Krishna clear, the Brahminical tradition composed this narrative which brings together the cosmic acts of the deity as creator, preserver and destroyer in the human world. It is not a borrowing from primitive pastoral myths.

In translating the Brahmavaivarta Purana passage about the hunchback woman cured by Krishna, Couture translates kanya as “a twelve-year old virgin” (p. 231), whereas it ought to be “ten-year old virgin”. The discussion provides an interesting nugget of information: in the Brahmavaivarta Purana, the hunchback is Shurpanakha reborn, her disfigurement removed by Rama reborn as Krishna, who also fulfils her unrequited love for Rama. By straightening her back, Krishna is replicating Prithu, the archetypal king, levelling the uneven earth. The curvaceous, fragrant Earth (kubja carries unguents for the king) is the handmaiden (sairandhri in the Bhagavata Purana) to the Raja, but Kansa’s adharmic rule has deformed her. Her breasts are sunk into her belly, her back is a hump, so that though young she appears old. The stinking, gigantic Putana is another symbol of this malformed, aged, infertile earth. Both resemble the sunken, submerged Earth rescued by Vishnu as the boar. In the HV the Earth is a woman who complains to Vishnu that after Parashurama’s slaughters she is stinking with gore (like the dead Putana), impure like a menstruating woman. This is the Earth Krishna rescues by becoming a pillar (Govardhana) upholding her in a deluge, straightening her hump to make her high-breasted and heavy-hipped, fertile, and by sucking out the poison in her (Putana). As Vishnu-the-boar had coupled with the Earth, so Krishna later makes love to kubja, which the Brahmavaivarta Purana typically describes in erotic detail. Their son is Upashloka, according to Ezhuttacchan’s Malayalam re-telling of Bhagavata Purana and the Sanskrit Naryaniyam (a summary of Bhagavata) by his contemporary Melputhur Narayana Bhattathiri, as pointed out by Harindranath and Purushothaman on their Harivamsha resources page. Couture also points to a possible connection with the tantric goddess Kubjika who is young, attractive, dark and hunched and presages the kundalini that has to be uplifted from the base of the spine to join the purusha atop the skull. He suggests that Shaiva tantrism may have appropriated this Vaishnava figure of Earth.

The rope tied around the child Krishna’s belly, Couture shows, is part of the Puranic tradition and not a foreign vegetation myth. It evokes Shesha, Krishna’s inseparable brother Sankarshana. The splitting of the two arjuna trees refer to the twin trees of dharma and adharma (Pandavas and Dhartarashtras) that Krishna refers to in the Udyoga Parva (29.45-46), an image that the MB begins with (1.1.65-66). Krishna is the supreme divine who cannot be bound, who is at play shattering both dharma and adharma, inextricably linked to the remnant of creation.

There is a very interesting chapter on how the winged mountains are a variation on a Vedic theme, with which Couture compares Hanuman’s flight to Lanka and his encounter with the submerged winged mountain Mainaka. Further, he shows how the Govardhana episode mirrors cosmic deluge, preservation of the earth and restoration. Shesha and Vishnu, Sankarshana and Krishna, replace the Vedic mountains as pillars of the earth. Couture even draws in the Buddhist aspect contemporary to the HV, pointing out how Buddha preached Mahayana from the summit of Gridhrakuta, dominating the peak wholly and enlightening the universe.

In discussing the presentation of Vishnu as hamsa, Couture renders it as “goose” whereas “swoose” (a swan-goose hybrid) would be more appropriate. Cowherds are like the freely roaming migratory swoose, as are yogis in the Pushkarapradurbhava section of the HV. Vishnu in human form said roams all the worlds as a master. Krishna is the perfect yogi, the cowherd of the cosmos, Gopala. The simple cowherd Krishna by yoga transforms Govardhana into a vraja (cow settlement) to shelter all. He is seen as the mountain itself, just as Markandeya first saw Narayana in the cosmic ocean, and then saw him as an infant at play on a banyan leaf. The HV reverses the sequence: Krishna is first the child cowherd and then the huge mountain sheltering all. The uplifted mountain peak touched by clouds resembles a swoose, which is the nature of Narayana. This is a passage from the chaos of deluge to ordered svadharma. In the HV, “a Vishnu first described as a goose but who appears as a gopa; a marvelous young cowherd who changes into a winged mountain; cowherds and ascetics who are compared to birds,” form a web of symbols representing total freedom of the supreme divinity that underpins the HV stories.

In sum, Couture’s position is against making a distinction between the cowherd god and the Kshatriya hero. The Rigveda calls Vishnu gopa; the HV refers to the cosmic gopa Vishnu, and the cowherd boy of gokula and vrindavana. The book is valuable for the lengthy excerpts translated from the HV and allied puranas that show how well they are parts of the same tradition. There is a valuable bibliography and an excellent index. There are some errors of idiom in translating from French into English. These, however, are few and far between. One hopes that Couture’s research will prompt a new English translation of the complete HV in verse. We await his exciting revelations about the adult Krishna in the second volume.

A shorter version was published in the 8th Day Literary Supplement of The Sunday Statesman dated 3rd July, 2016.

[1] Pradip Bhattacharya: Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Krishnacharitra, M.P. Birla Foundation, Calcutta, 1991
[2] Ibid. pp. 120-121


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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