As with Rāma, Kṛṣṇa’s story has been told many times, and elaborate mythologies have gathered around him. Different from Rāma, though, there is no one ancient text which completely encompasses these stories, but they are found in different tellings, including the Śrimad Bhāgavata Purāṇa, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, the Mahābhārata and especially its appendix the Harivaṁsa (Hari is another name for Kṛṣṇa). A very good modern synthesis of these tellings is Vanamālī’s The Complete Life of Krishna, Based on the Earliest Oral Traditions and the Sacred Scriptures.
Kṛṣṇa’s story is very much alive in modern India, where he is still one of the main deities worshipped, and where his cult is strong and prevails in many communities. His story is known to almost all schoolchildren, and has been the subject of films and television. Unlike Rāma, his cult never had that sort of success in SE Asia as a whole, but it was evidently an important part of ancient Javanese beliefs, and the story is told on reliefs at the Prambanan complex in Central Java and Candi Penataran in East Java.
And just as Rāma has his own kakawin in Old Javanese, so we find Kṛṣṇa’s story in a number of Old Javanese texts, including, most famously, the Krĕṣṇāyana. That poem tells only a small part of the story, though, centrered around the abduction of Rukmiṇī, and as far as I can see the episode does not figure in the Prambanan panels.
I give here an outline of the story known to us through various sources. The story naturally falls into two sections: from Kṛṣṇa’s decision to be reborn on earth to the death of his wicked uncle Kaṁsa; then the fight with many of the wicked kings on India, including his role in the Great War recorded in the Mahābhārata.
The good king Ugrasena has been overthrown by his son, Kaṁsa, who rules with force and unjustly. Kaṁsa’s sister, the young and beautiful Devakī is about to marry Vasudeva, and Kaṁsa drives her in a chariot to the wedding. Along the way he heard a divine prediction that Devakī’s eighth son would be his nemesis, and would kill him. He almost killed his sister on the spot, but was persuaded not to by her groom, Vasudeva, who promised to bring to the king every child they bore.
Kaṁsa was at first appeased by this, but later, fearing the worst, killed all six of the children Devakī had given birth to up till then, and locked her and her husband up to prevent any more children being born. This didn’t stop Devakī conceiving though. This seventh child was to be Balarāma, who was incarnating Viṣṇu’s serpent Śeṣa. He was miraculously removed from Devakī’s womb to the womb of Vasudeva’s first wife, Rohiṇī, who was living in the countryside for safety.
Kaṁsa made conditions even more stringent for the couple, and bound them in chains. Viṣṇu gave a vision of himself to Vasudeva, and through the transmission of that vision to Devakī he took his place in her womb. It was, so to say, an immaculate conception, as the couple did not come together physically. When the child was born, he was exchanged with a girl child born to Nanda and Yośadā, who were looking after Rohiṇī and the newly born Balarāma.
Thus it was that, though both were conceived by Devakī, Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa were born and brought up in the countryside, under the protection of the cowherd Nanda and his wife, Yaśoda. The first part of Kṛṣṇa’s story takes place in this rural setting.
As he grew up Kṛṣṇa was a mischievous little boy, who nevertheless managed to steal the hearts of his parents and community. He also won the hearts of the girl cowherds (gopī), especially Rādhā, who fell in love with his winning ways, and who gave herself to him in undying love, as did the other gopīs.
Kaṁsa, however, had learned that his killer had been born, and was living close by, though he knew not where. He therefore decided on the drastic action of killing all the new born children in the land. He employed the rakṣasī Pūtanā to help him kill the children. She posed as a wet nurse and spread poison on her breast so the children would die as they suckled. When she tried to kill Kṛṣṇa in this way, however, he sucked so hard on her breasts that she passed out and retook her rakṣasī form, before dying.
Kaṁsa tried sending many other assassins to kill the young child, but Kṛṣṇa was always more than a match for them, and killed them first, often facilitating their entry into heaven, even as they tried to murder him. In this way he disposed of Ariṣṭa, Keśī, Vyoma and a number of others. Kṛṣṇa also had many other adventures, like holding up the mountain of Govardhana near Vṛndāvana to save the people from Indra’s wrath.
Kaṁsa was by now desperate to find a way to have the boys killed and organised a festival to which all the surrounding villagers were invited. He planned to have Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa killed there, before his very eyes, and so sent Akrūra, Kṛṣṇa’s cousin, to invite them to the festivities.
Kaṁsa had organised a wrestling match, where he had planned to have the boys killed by the best wrestlers in the land. When they came Kaṁsa had an elephant set loose to kill them as they entered the ring, but Kṛṣṇa was more than a match for the elephant, and both he and his mahout died as they attacked.
It fared no better inside the ring as the boys proved to be much stronger than their opponents, who succumbed to the boys. Kaṁsa himself then rushed into the ring and was himself killed, as were his brothers who sought revenge. At the end of this first stage of Kṛṣṇa’s life he restored the good king Ugrasena to the throne, and appointed Uddhava, a pupil of sage Bṛhaspati as prime minister, bringing order back to his people, the Yadavas.
After Kṛṣṇa had defeated Kaṁsa, he was free to spend time with his actual parents, Vasudeva and Devakī, and take up his rightful place in the court of the Yadavas. First though he had to undergo the rites and training necessary for a prince, which he did very quickly under his preceptor Sandīpanī, whose kindness he repaid by bringing his lost son back to life.
The wives of Kaṁsa were sisters to the evil king of Magadha, Jarāsandha, and after Kaṁsa’s death they went to him and pled for revenge against Kṛṣṇa. Jarāsandha mustered together his forces and attacked the Yadavas, but was defeated each time.
It was during these fights that Jarāsandha’s ally, Kalāyavana sought to kill Kṛṣṇa, but Kṛṣṇa deceived his enemy into following him to a cave where lay the sage Mucukunda. Kalāyavana kicked the sage, thinking it was Kṛṣṇa and was burned to a sizzle when the sage angrily glared at him.
Realising that the Yadavas’ capital city Mathurā was too vulnerable to attack, Kṛṣṇa then decided to move his people to a more secure location at Dvāraka, an island fortress which could be better protected.
He also began making marital alliances, the first of which was made by carrying off Rukminī, the daughter of king Bhīṣmaka of Vidārbha. This made him some friends, but some enemies also, as Rukminī had been promised to king Śiśupāla, a friend of King Jarāsandha of Magadha.
We now come to the complicated story of the Great War related in the Mahābhārata, and Kṛṣṇa’s role in that affair. The war arose between two great families: the Paṇḍavas and the Kauravas, who were cousins.
As the whole story cannot easily be related here, it is enough to say that Kṛṣṇa took the side of the Paṇḍavas, which included his great friend Arjuna. He acted only as an advisor, though, and did not fight the Kauravas himself. Kṛṣṇa first helped the Paṇḍavas get settled in new lands by clearing the Khaṇḍava forest, which is where they built their new capital city Indraprastha. He also let Arjuna carry off his own sister Subhadra, and make her his wife.
When the war itself broke out Kṛṣṇa agreed to be Arjuna’s charioteer, but Arjuna had doubts about fighting against his own family. It was at this point that Kṛṣṇa taught the Bhagavadgīta, one of the most famous philosophical texts of Hinduism, and urged Arjuna to fulfil his duty (Dharma) as a warrior (kṣatriya).
After the great destruction of the war, in which the main characters on both sides died, Kṛṣṇa went to try and console Gāndhārī, the wife of Dhṛtarāṣṭra. She cursed him though for failing to prevent the war. That curse took effect decades after the war when Kṛṣṇa was mistaken for a deer, and shot in his heel, his only vulnerable spot, by a hunter named Jarā. From there he ascended back to heaven.
This relates merely a fraction of the Kṛṣṇa story, which has literally hundreds of episodes attached to it, as it seems Kṛṣṇa gathered legends to himself, as his cult grew. Many of the legends are even contradictory. For instance different accounts are given in the various texts as to how many wives Kṛṣṇa had.
On the reliefs at Prambanan it is possible to identify only the first 14 definitely, which take the story up to the killing of Kaṁsa, and in the biography above I have emphasised that part. The remaining 16 reliefs I have been unable to identify, and just give a general description, in the hope someone may be able to understand the stories related there better than I have been.
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The Viṣṇu temple stands to the north of the main Śiva temple, and is the same size as the Brahmā temple, which stands on the southern side. As with that temple when they were first unearthed the reliefs were no longer in place, and it is only due to painstaking work that archeologists were eventually able to piece them back together again.
01 Ugrasena, Padmavatī, Vasudeva and Devakī
The good king Ugrasena and his queen Padmavatī had once ruled at Mathurā, but had been overthrown by his wicked son Kaṁsa, who was one of many bad rulers in India at that time. The previous king also had a daughter, Devakī, who was as good as Kaṁsa was bad, and she had married Vasudeva.
The first panel of the series represents four of the heroes of the book. On the left we see the now dethroned king Ugrasena and his wife Padmavatī. On the right are Vasudeva and Devakī, with haloes behind their heads. On the far right is an unknown character, probably just an attendant.
02 The Prediction
When Devakī was sixteen she was given as wife to Vasudeva. On the way to the wedding king Kaṁsa drove the chariot, as a sign of his love for his sister. As they were going along, the sky became cloudy and a voice declared that Kaṁsa would be killed by Devakī’s eighth child.
On the right we see what must be Vasudeva. He is listening to the gossip of the people in front of him. We can presume they are talking about the prediction of the destruction of king Kaṁsa. We might have expected to see the chariot with Devakī, Vasudeva and Kaṁsa driving; or a scene with a deva speaking from the skies, but they are not shown.
03 Kaṁsa attacks Devakī
When he heard the prediction king Kaṁsa’s initial idea was to kill his sister to prevent the prophecy coming true, but Vasudeva persuaded him otherwise by telling him he would bring each of his children to the king at birth, so he could dispose of them as he wished.
We see king Kaṁsa, looking very much like a rākṣasa, springing on the fallen Devakī with his sword held high. So quick did his love for her turn into hatred. Again it is interesting that the key figure, Vasudeva, is now shown in this panel. Behind Kaṁsa is one of his henchmen, also bearing the appearance of a rākṣasa.
04 Devakī’s Pregnancy
Devakī had six children and Kaṁsa eventually decided to kill them all. He also locked the couple up in a dungeon. The seventh child, Balarāma, was whisked away by the gods and transplated into the womb of Rohiṇī, Vasudeva’s first wife. Viṣṇu then took form as Kṛṣṇa and entered Devakī’s womb, but was swapped with a female child born to Yaśoda, wife of Nanda, the cowherd.
We see that Devakī is pregnant, but we don’t know which child it is. She has two handmaidens nearby, so I tend to think this is the first pregnancy, not the seventh or eighth, which resulted in Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa, both of which took place in prison. The maid holding her hands over the womb looks quite malevolent.
05 Kṛṣṇa tied to a Stone Mortar
Kṛṣṇa grew up in Nanda’s household and his playful ways were quite some trouble to his foster parents, even though he was just a toddler. One day, to restrain him they tied him to a large stone mortar, but he was so strong he simply dragged it around with him and brought down two trees, who regained their divine forms. Hearing the commotion Nanda and Yaśodā came to find the child.
Kṛṣṇa is portrayed as tied to the stone mortar, and I think this must be after the trees have been brought down. That would then mean the other characters are Nanda on the left and Yaśoda on the right. What they are holding though eludes me, but they look unexpectedly threatening.
06 Pūtanā breastfeeds the Brothers
Kaṁsa lived in fear, and not satisfied with killing Kṛṣṇa’s brothers, he wanted to kill all the children in his kingdom. For that reason he employed the rākṣasī Pūtanā who posed as a wet nurse and had placed poison on her breasts to kill the infants suckling there. She also tried to poison Kṛṣṇa in the same way, but he sucked so hard on her breast she passed out, and reassumed her demonic form before dying.
There are two scenes. On the left we see Pūtanā has already grabbed Kṛṣṇa while Yaśoda and Balarāma look on. Balarāma himself seems to have been out catching fish at the time. On the right both boys are sucking painfully hard on Pūtanā’s breasts and her rākṣasī form is reappearing. This is different from the traditional Indian stories, where Kṛṣṇa alone kills Pūtanā.
07 Kṛṣṇa amongst the Cowherds
After some time the community, believing that the place they were in was inauspicious, decided to move to to Vṛndāvana, which is described as a wonderful forest not far from Mathurā. There Kṛṣṇa was an awful lot of trouble to his community, and to his mother especially. He could always be counted on for getting into trouble. One of his main delights was milk and butter and he would detach calves and attach himself to the cows so as to drink to his fill.
We see various scenes from the life of the cowherds, the main work of the villagers. Kṛṣṇa is seen being admonished on the left, and all around there are cows and other small boys living their rustic lives with the herds. On the right we even see a bull and cow mating, a rather indiscrete scene that is usually avoided in Javanese relief work.
08 Kṛṣṇa and the Asuras
Kaṁsa was still pursuing the boy who would be his nemesis, and sent many assassins in various forms to try and kill Kṛṣṇa, including Agha, Pūtanā’s brother, in the shape of a large python; Kaliya, in the form of a poisonous nāga; and Dhenuka, who had the form of a donkey. Kṛṣṇa either killed or banished them all.
There are four scenes on this one panel. On the left Kṛṣṇa is forcing open the mouth of Agha the serpent; next we see Kṛṣṇa dancing with his flute; next we see Kṛṣṇa defeat an unknown enemy, prizing his legs apart; and on the right Kṛṣṇa defeats Dhenuka in the form of an ass.
09 Kṛṣṇa, Ariṣṭa and Keśī
There were still many who were willing to try and defeat Kṛṣṇa, who they thought would be easily overcome. One of the asuras, called Ariṣṭa, changed his form into a bull and tried to run Kṛṣṇa down; another asura called Keśī took the form of a horse, and suffered a similar fate.
On the left we see Kṛṣṇa holding the asura Ariṣṭa aloft. At the front he looks like an asura, but the back shows his bovine leg and tail, from which we can identify him; the right hand section is very worn, but is probably meant to show Kṛṣṇa on the back of the horse Keśī, subduing him.
10 Kṛṣṇa defeats Vyoma
Still more asuras wanted to try their luck against Kṛṣṇa, one of them, Vyoma, changed himself into a cowherd (gopa) so that he could go unseen amongst the herders. Kṛṣṇa, however, could recognise the asura despite his disguise, and managed to kill him, and release the boys he had captured.
On the left is Balarāma who is standing by watching over his brother’s deeds, as he is many times recorded as doing, he has his favourite weapon, the ploughshare, behind him. Meanwhile Kṛṣṇa has hold of the demon and is about to crush him by throwing him on the ground.
11 Kṛṣṇa defeats an Asura
In the Bhāgavata Purāṇa at this point Kaṁsa sends Akrūra to invite the brothers to the capital, where he intends to kill them, and no more fights with asuras or other demons are recorded. The story followed here, however, seems to know of other battles.
Here we see Kṛṣṇa fighting against a giant asura, holding the asura’s legs with one arm, and holding him down with his legs. He almost appears to be dancing on him. The asura’s right arm appears to end in a hoof. Balarāma, with his weapon at the ready, stands on the right hand side.
12 Balarāma and Akrūra
Kaṁsa now decided the best way to kill Kṛṣṇa would be to lure him to his capital, and arrange for his death there. Akrūra, the boy’s cousin, was in Kaṁsa’s service, and he ordered him to go to Vṛndāvana and invite the boys to a festival at the city.
On the left is Balarāma, standing in the same posture he has in many places, and with the ploughshare weapon at his right hand. On the right I think it must be Akrūra, who plays an important part in the story at this point. The third character is unknown to me, it is not clear if he is fighting or massaging Akrūra.
13 Balarāma defeats Muṣṭika
King Kaṁsa had organised a wrestling contest, so he could defeat the brothers. Kaṁsa set a trap for the boys by setting their fights up against the biggest and strongest wrestlers of the day. He also instructed a mahout to let the state elephant Kuvalayāpīḍa attack them as they entered, but Kṛṣṇa killed both the elephant and the mahout. Then they entered the arena and fought against their opponents.
On the left Balarāma is holding the wrestler Muṣṭika is a neck hold and has his legs locked and entwined with his own. We see his usual ploughshare weapon behind him. The carvings on this section look rough and unfinished. Kṛṣṇa, who has been nicely carved, looks on from the right.
14 Kṛṣṇa defeats Kaṁsa
After the wrestlers had been defeated king Kaṁsa himself wanted to try and beat Kṛṣṇa, but he was dragged from his throne and beaten to death in the ring, just as the wrestlers had been. And so were his brothers who tried to avenge him.
On the left we see Balarāma looking on as Kṛṣṇa fights with and upends Kaṁsa, whose face is seen on the far left of the panel. I am not certain this is Kaṁsa, as it looks like it may be the wrestler Cāṇūka, but if so then Kaṁsa’s death would be unrecorded on the panels, and that is hardly credible, as it is a main event in the story.
So far I have been able to follow the story on the reliefs, but even after reading hundreds of pages from various tellings of the story I have been unable to identify the reliefs that follow. It is unclear exactly even where the story breaks off. The young prince in the scenes that follow must be Kṛṣṇa, of course. Therefore below I simply describe what we can see on the remaining reliefs, which are indeed sometimes quite distinctive.
15 Kṛṣṇa receives Visitors
Unfortunately the central characters have been badly, and deliberately, disfigured on this relief. It is clearly a royal couple sitting at ease on the throne. The male figure must be Kṛṣṇa, as he is marked by the halo. On the right is a very elaborate building, presumably a palace.
Three of his visitors are also noble or royal, judging by their coiffure. Two of them sit, while another may be kneeling in the background. In front of him it appears a student sits, holding a plaque. All of them are placed outside under the trees.
16 Kṛṣṇa receives Merchants
Again the panel, and the head of the prince is damaged. The king and queen have haloes behind their heads, so are clearly set aside not just as royal but as saintly also. I presume it would be Kṛṣṇa and Rukminī, one of his queens. On the left what looks like three merchants approach the throne, two of whom are holding conch shells.
On the right a young man, his age marked by the flower in his hair and his apron, sits at attention. Behind him an old brahmin appears ready to give advice. The throne itself has many bowls placed on it, signifying abundance.
17 Kṛṣṇa meets with Ascetics
On the far left sits Kṛṣṇa, marked by the halo. In front of him an ascetic turns away and appears ready to run. Beneath his feet is a snake who looks ready to strike.
On the right is a second scene. An older man, having his hair is a distinctive bundle at the back, stands with his legs apart, after approaching a royal couple. It is outside, as indicated by the trees. It may be a king, with a beard, and a prince without, in any case there is no sign of the breasts which would signify the character is female.
18 An Ascetic carries a Lotus
Unfortunately the left hand side of this relief is missing, so we don’t know for sure who may have been standing or sitting there. What we see on the right is a bearded ascetic carrying a lotus flower and heading away from what we can presume was another character, maybe Kṛṣṇa himself.
There are trees around signifying that the action takes place outside, and we also see a bird perched on what looks like a box, and a small animal, maybe a dog, looking up at the ascetic.
19 Kṛṣṇa sits on a Throne
Again the left hand side of this relief is missing, and it is unclear whether there was a further character placed there. What we do see is Kṛṣṇa on the throne, with an older man, presumably a king, or a previous king, next to him.
On the floor in front of the two main characters sits what is probably a noble young man, and a young student sits behind them. Trees again signify this may be outside.
20 Three Yakṣas above a River
Three characters that look like yakṣas, each of them holding different postures, are sitting above a watery scene. It is not quite clear if they are hovering above the water, or on the water’s edge. Again we cannot understand whether is a river or an ocean. We do, however, see large fish jumping around in the water.
21 Kṛṣṇa and a Yakṣa
The action again takes place at the waters. The character on the left, who looks like a yakṣa, is holding a royal parasol in his left hand. Kṛṣṇa is on the right, and appears to be protecting himself against attack. In the waters we again see large fish, maybe waiting to feast on the loser.
22 Kṛṣṇa receives Visitors
The buildings in this scene look more like farm buildings than town houses, and it may be placed in a village. On the right sit Kṛṣṇa, and what is probably Rukminī. Kṛṣṇa has his open palm facing his visitors which signifies munificence.
Immediately in front of them sit two members of the nobility, both of them male. They are also making gestures. Then we see three characters on the left, one clearly gesticulating, though as we don’t know the story, we cannot say what about.
23 Attacked with a Club
Again the scene is set in a village area, judging by the buildings. On the left a malicious-looking character is wielding a club and is attacking Kṛṣṇa, who is in the centre of the relief. He is fending off the blow, while behind him another character, somewhat worn-down, appears to be fleeing.
24 A Gathering of Kings
Kṛṣṇa is sitting intimately with an elder in the centre of the relief. There are six other similar kingly figures around them, all of them are bearded, except for Kṛṣṇa, of course. There are signs of trees around, so presumably this is once again a countryside scene, rather than a palace scene.
25 An Offering
Kṛṣṇa, marked by the halo, sits outside a building on the right, with two attendants behind him. On the left are two visiting members of the royalty. There is a standing character in the middle who appears to be making an offering to the visitors. There are other baskets of gifts below him.
26 Kṛṣṇa in the Chariot
Much of this relief is damaged, especially on the left. We can see enough to know it must be Kṛṣṇa in the chariot, and his halo is clearly marked. The charioteer sits a little awkwardly on the edge of the driving seat, and the horse have a lot of character.
27 Kṛṣṇa meets with a Sage
The scene looks to be set at a hermitage. There are trees and birds around. Kṛṣṇa is sitting on the left and is gesticulating, though whether because he is speaking, or listening is not clear. On the right sits a sage, who has Rudrākṣa beads around his neck, signalling he is a follower of Śiva.
28 The Brothers fight off a Yakṣa
The carving on this relief is unfinished on the two characters on the left. It is presumably Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma, but this is not certain. They are evidently fighting off what looks like a yakṣa, who has a skull in his coiffure. One of the brothers has his foot on the yakṣa’s back, while the other pulls on his clothes.
29 The Brothers kill Two People
Kṛṣṇa is on the left and has his bow drawn and is shooting at the fallen character on the right. We do not see an arrow though. Above the fallen character, we see another standing with sword and shield. By their hair and open mouths they appear to be rakṣasas.
30 Meeting with a King
We have grown accustomed to Kṛṣṇa being portrayed with a halo, but none of the four characters he could be in this relief have that sign, so it is not sure. If he is pictured here, he must be the one set aside and talking to the king on the far right. Unfortunately this part of the relief is quite damaged, and we cannot see the expression clearly. On the left are the attendants, including one who is mounted on a horse.