The Kings Kingdoms of the Kaliyuga : A short history of upto the time of the maurya-s

The suggestion that Indians as a people lack a sense of history repeated often with little scrutiny. The beginnings of Indian historiography have been attributed to the marunmatta-s and mleccha-s ignoring a much older native tradition of chronicling the past. The beginnings of historiography date back much earlier, to the period of oral transmission as reflected purANa-s and itihAsa-s. Likewise the nAstika-s have their own histories preserved in the biographical works of the jina-s and sthavira-s of their sect. Various other historical traditions were preserved within the narrative work the bR^ihatkathA. In addition there exists a vast corpus of historical plays. Several of these sources contain what appear to be reasonably accurate records of historical events that occurred long before their composition, suggesting that they drew upon pre-existing literature much of which is lost today. While the absolute dates are only speculative, much of the relative chronology is beyond doubt

The bArhadratha-s

The territory of magadha lay to the east of Aryavarta, (southern Bihar of the present day) separated from its northern neighbor vaishAlI by the ga~NgA. It had for its capital the town of girivraja, a town surrounded by the five hills – vaibhAra, varAha, vR^iShabha, R^iShigiri and chaityaka and supposedly founded by the legendary king vasu chaidya, the progenitor of its earliest dynasty the bArhadratha-s

It was in the line of bArhadratha-s that the villainous monarch jarAsandha was born. At the dawn of the kaliyuga the ruling monarch of the line was his grandson somAdhi.  Very little other than the names of its kings of this dynasty is known.

A great deal of error has crept into the purANic accounts with regard to the following period. The purANa-s describe the pradyota-s as capturing power in the period following the fall of the bR^ihadratha-s and the vItihotra-s. The purANa-s seem to have mistakenly placed them amidst the dynasties of magadha, whereas they were the rulers of avantI

The pradyota-s

The last vItihotra king was assassinated by his general puNika who placed his son pradyota on the throne of avantI, c. 598 BCE. The murder of a brother of pradyota, by a tAlajangha named vetAla at the festival of mahAkAla mentioned by bANabhatta may have been an act of revenge by a member of the former royal clan.  pradyota earned the epithet chaNDa-pradyota or mahAsena, on account of his powerful army remained feared by his neighbours. He led two campaigns against shatAnIka of kaushambI, while the first ended in failure, it was during the second that shatAnIka met his end. An impending attack by him on ajAtashatru is mentioned in the majjhima nikaya. The jaina tradition also alludes to a war with on udrAyaNa of king sindhu and sauvira which ended in defeat

Following a 23 year long reign he was succeeded by his second son pAlaka (r. 475 – 451 BCE), his elder son gopAla having abdicated the throne, an event that coincided with the nirvANa of mahAvIra according to jaina accounts. After a ruling for 23 years he was overthrown by his nephew Aryaka (r. 451 -430 BCE) the son of gopAla, (This event is mentioned in the mR^ichchhakaTika) who reigned for 21 years. The kingdom then passed into the hands of avantivardhana, the son of pAlaka. Their rule came to an end following defeat at the hands of shishunAga soon after assuming control of magadha, as narrated in the purANa-s.



The bimbisArids

The purANa-s place the shaishunAga-s after the pradyota-s whose fame shishunAga is said to have destroyed. This would mean shishunAga reigned after the time of bimbisAra who was a contemporary of pradyota, and the later redactors of the purANa-s have mistakenly considered bimbisAra a descendant of the latter.

The overthrow of ripu~njaya the bArhadratha was carried out by a predecessor of shreNika bimbisAra (a contemporary of the buddha), likely his father named kshemajit/kshatraujas in the purANa-s and bhaTiya in the mahAvaMsa an event that can be dated c.550 BCE. The mahAvamsA makes bimbisAra (b. 571 BCE) 5 years junior to the buddha and attributes to him a reign of 52 years following his accession at the age of 15, on the other hand the purANa-s assign to him 28 or 38 years of rule.  However given his close association with the buddha, the bauddha dates may be given priority though seemingly excessive suggesting that he reigned from 446 – 494 BCE. It was during his reign that a~Nga was conquered under its last monarch brahmadatta. He was also responsible for the establishment of the new town of rAjagR^iha.

ajAtashatru (r. 494 – 469 BCE) identified in the jain accounts by the epithet kUNika imprisoned and later assassinated his father seizing control of the kingdom. In the initial years of his reign he faced attacks by prasenajit of kosala and pradyota and the majjhima nikaya mentions preparations to strengthen the fortifications of rAjagR^iha following threat of an invasion by pradyota. Disputes also arose with the vR^ijji-s to the north, and the dIghanIkaya mentions the building of fortifications at pATaligrAma to hold out the invaders. A few years later (A little before the buddha’s nirvANa c. 486 BCE) the brAhmaNa minister varShakAra was planning a campaign against the vR^ijji confederation. The war with the vR^ijji-s led by the lichchhavI chieftain cheTaka lasted twelve years after which ajAtashatru emerged victorious breaching the fortifications of vaishAlI. The beginning of this war that coincided with the death of maskarin goshAlaka occurred sixteen years before mahAvIra’s death c.491 BCE. The purANa-s assign to him reign of 25-27 years and the bauddha’s 32, which may have included a period of governorship over anga.

The reign of his successor darshaka, (r. 469 BCE –  460?) mentioned only in the purANa-s but whose existence is vouched for by his mention in the svapnavAsavadattam of bhAsa and within the bR^ihatkathA tradition. Although assigned a reign of 25 years by the purANa-s his reign is likely to have been but a short interregnum leading to it being neglect by the nAstika traditions. udayin (460 BCE -?  another son of ajAtashatru succeeded darshaka. Astika and jaina traditions attribute the foundation of pATaliputra at the site of the village of pATaligrAma on the southern bank of the ga~NgA to the king udayin. The Jaina-s assign to him 60 yrs, the purANa-s 33 and the Buddhists 15-16 years, the first number though may be a life figure. While no definite dates can be assigned to him his reign likely ended around 430 BCE. The reigns of the successors of udayin are obscure, muNDa named only in the southern and northern bauddha texts, but is encountered in the anguttara nikaya as a king of pATaliputra. He was succeded by another obscure ruler aniruddha. These two rulers together reigned a total of 8 years. The final ruler of the dynasty nick-named nAgadAsa assumed the throne after killing his father. He was ousted by the people of magadha tired of partricidal rulers. Within the pAlI tradition itself two different reign lengths are mentioned 24 years, however if the reason for his removal is correctly mentioned it is unlikely to have happened 24 years into his reign

The shishunAga-s

The first king of this line to rule over magadha was the obscure ruler shishunAga (r.411? – 396 BCE), who was as per certain commentaries on the mahAvamsha was a minister of nAgadAsa hailing from the lichchhavI clan invited to invade magadha by its citizens who resented the patricidal rulers of biMbisAra’s line. The purANa-s state that shishunAga shifted the capital back to girivraja from pATaliputra and placed his son on the throne of kAshI. Certain pALI Accounts suggest that his native town vaishAlI may have been retained as the centre of administration.

He was succeeded by his son kAlAshoka (‘ashoka the black’) also known as kAkavarNin (‘The crow coloured’). The nanda of tAranatha corresponds to the same individual and it may be that mahAnandin was one of his titles, and was duplicated as a separate king by later compilers of the purANa-s. He is said to have ruled at the time of the second Buddhist council at vaishAlI which occurred in the tenth year of his reign and the hundredth year after the buddha’s nirvANa. He was also responsible for presiding over the shift of the magadhan capital to pATaliputra once and for all, after which the city of rAjagR^iha slowly fell into obscurity. The purANa-s state that he ruled for 36 yrs from around (396 – 360 BCE) bANabhatta’s harshacharita refers to kAkavarNin shaishunAgi as having been murdered in the vicinity of his capital by having his throat slashed. A similar incident is recorded by the jaina-s but the murdered predecessor of the nanda-s is identified as udAyin.  This incident was known to graeco-roman writers. His successor was ugrasena ‘mahApadma’ nanda who ruled initially as a guardian of kAkavarNI’s sons. They are named as bhadrasena, kAraNDavarNa, sarva~njaya, jAlika, R^iShabha, sa~njaya, kauravya and nandivardhana (possibly identical with the nandivardhana of the purANa-s).


Other contemporary dynasties

The Vatsa-s : The ruling clan of vatsa was an offshoot of the kuru-s, and claimed descent from parIkshit. They had their seat at kaushambI. sahasrANIka vasudAna the twentieth in line from parIkshit probably reigned in the mid 6th century. He was succeeded by his son shatAnIka parantapa who was a contemporary of mahAvira and the buddha. The jaina tradition alludes to his victories over dadhivAhana, the king of angA who may have been the penultimate ruler of that province. He was succeeded on his death by his young son udayana, who also reigned during the last years of the buddha.  udayana married vAsavadatta the daughter of pradyota and later padmAvatI the sister of darShaka, an alliance engineered by his minister yaugandharAyaNa to fend of the invasion by AruNi the king of the pa~nchAla-s. Famed for his mastery over the vINA, the stories of his romances were the subject of several plays and remained popular centuries after his death. He was succeded by his son naravAhanadatta (vahInara) whose reign seems to have partially overlapped with that of his uncle pALaka over ujjayinI. The line became extinct three generations after naravAhanadatta probably following a defeat at the hands of mahApadma nanda

Kosala : At the time of the buddha, kosala was ruled by prasenajit, the son of sa~njaya mahAkosala who had annexed the neighbouring kingdom of kAshI. ajAtashatru of magadha is known to have waged war with him over the non-remittance of revenues from a village in kAshI given to his father as dowry. The war ended in a truce and a matrimonial alliance. He was succeded by his son virUDhaka/kshUdraka . The AikShvAku-s too lost their independence three generations later under the reign of sumitra probably annexed by the rising magadha under mahApadmaG

Gandhara: gandhAra fell under the control of achaemenid Iran around c. 500 BCE, and is named along with hindush (sindhu ?) amongst the achaemenid satrapies in the behistun inscription of Darius the great. Previously at the time of the buddha it was ruled by the king puShkarashakti. It seems to have regained independence soon after, it being several smaller principalities in the time of Alexander



The nanda-s

The nanda-s are conventionally identified as a set of nine rulers, a father and his eight sons in the Astika and jaina traditions or as nine brothers by the pAlI tradition. Both the Astika and jaina traditions identify the nandas as a clan of low birth, though differing in explaining their relationship to the previous ruling clan, the purANic accounts identify the senior nanda as the son of mahAnandin through a shUdra wife while the jaina-s identify him as the son of a barber.  The latter account seems to tally better with the accounts of graeco-roman writers, who identified the father of the king contemporary to Alexander as a barber who having seduced the queen murdered the reigning monarch. The first nanda may be identified as ugrasena nanda of the pAlI chronicles, and elsewhere known by his epithet mahApadma  on account of his being an extremely wealthy mahApadmapati. The bauddhas and Astikas characterize nanda rule as a period of adharma characterized by oppression and extortion which lead to much resentment amongst the people. Such was the wealth of the nanda-s of pATaliputra that even the poets from the Dramila country have alluded to it. mahApadma nanda in addition was perhaps the first emperor since the decline of the kuru-s of old. He managed to capture vast tracts of land, the purANa-s compare him to bhArgava of the treat-yuga, in being a vanquisher of kshatriyas. Interestingly the vamshAvalI-s of the ikshvAku-s, pradyota-s and kuru-s end abruptly a few generations after those contemporary to the Buddha. His reign included most of the Gangetic plain, extending south to ashmaka, kuru in the north-west and to kalinga in the east. He was succeeded upon his death by his 8 sons who ruled in succession. Only two sons dhana and suhalya (also mentioned in the divyAvadhAna )are mentioned in the purANa-s. The pALI tradition names them as pANDuka, pANDugati, bhUtapAla, rAShTrapAla, goviShANaka, dashasiddhaka, kaivarta and dhana. dhana nanda the youngest was the emperor at the time of chandragupta’s conquest. The greek name agrammes is possibly a rendering of the patronymic augraseniya. Justin on the other hand refers to the reigning monarch as nandrus or nanda.  . The PurANic accounts give the dynasty a century long rule, with the reign of mahApadma variously identified as either eighty eight or twenty eight years and a twelve year reign attributed to his sons. An eighty eight year reign is impossible while two generations ruling for a century seems unlikely. The jaina-s attribute a similarly unlikely figure  for the reigns of the nanda-s, a periof of either 155 or 90 years. The la~Nkan chronicles on the other hand reduce the reign of the entire nanda line to 22 yrs. This can probably be reconciled with the purANic chronology if the period under (which mahApadma reigned on behalf of) the sons of the previous murdered king, mentioned to be 22 years. Thus the reign of the nanda-s can be said to have lasted around 40 yrs. Thus mahApadma nanda began his reign around 360 BCE, initially governing in the name of the princes perhaps as long as 22 yrs until his death around 332 BCE. He was succeeded by his sons who ruled until c. 320 BCE


The maurya-s

The Origin of the maurya-s remains obscure, while later Astika traditions identify them as a line of kings of shUdra descent  (The purANa-s do not make any pronouncements on this matter, the purANic statement “tataH prabhR^iti rAjAnaH bhaviShyAH shUdra yOnayaH” while describing the usurpation of power by mahApadma nanda seems to refer only the succeeding kings of that line, for the kings of successor dynasties including the shU~Nga-s, kANva-s and perhaps the Andhra-s were know to be brAhmaNa-s as well), the bauddha-s identify them as a kShatriya clan from pippalivana and are mentioned as one of the kShatriya clans vying for a share of the tathAgata’s remains in the mahAparinibbAna sutta. Irrespective of their ancestry, it appears that at the time of capturing power they were a family of limited means. There is sufficient reason to believe the tradition that he was assisted by the scheming brAhmaNa chANakya in his attempt to overthrow the nandas, as attested by Astika, bauddha and jaina sources, during which he managed to establish a vast empire. He even defeated seleucus I nikator, who ceded to him territories to the west of the sindhu perhaps as far west as arachosia. He was succeded upon his death by his son bindusara amitraghAta (known to the Greeks as amitrochates). Little is known about his reign and he was eventually succeeded by his son ashoka, the last great maurya after whose death the empire seems to have been divided up between his grandsons dasharatha in the east and samprati in the west. The dynasty was brought to an end with the murder of of bR^ihadratha, by his brAhmaNa general puShyamitra.

Dating the Maurya’s : A clue as to the date of ashoka is from his inscriptions that mention the names of various contemporary yavana kings that reigned beyond his borders – antiyoka (Antiochus), turamAya (Ptolemy), magA ( Magas) antekina (Antigonos), alikasudara (Alexander) identifiable (based on the estimated age of the edicts) as Antochus I (280 -261BCE) or II (261 -246BCE) of Syria, Ptolemy II of Egypt (285 -247BCE), antigonos of Macedonia (280 -261BCE)  , Magas of Cyrene  (300 -250 BCE) and Alexander of Corinth(252 – 250BCE)   or Epirus(272 -255 BCE). This would mean the edicts were commissioned between 272 and 250 BCE. Since the edicts were composed after the thirteenth year of his reign when the mahAmAtras were appointed, his rAjyAbhiSheka must have been performed not later than 286 – 264 BCE.

Hellenic accounts of the reign of his grandfather chandragupta maurya (known to the Greeks as sandrocottus of palibothra) help in further refine the chronology of the mauryas. These accounts suggest that chandragupta rose to power in the time following Alexander’s death (323 BCE). His rise to power must have occurred before 302 BCE when seleucus I of Syria returned to capadocchia following his campaigns in the east during which his Indian territories were lost to chandragupta maurya.  The length of the reigns of chandragupta and his son bindusAra as furnished by the Sinhalese chronicles and the puraNa-s are as follows. 49 – 53 yrs between the establishment of mauryan rule and ashoka’s abhisheka.  This would mean Chandragupta became king of magadha between 223 and 217 BCE. Interestingly traditional jaina accounts offer a close date to chandragupta maurya 255 yrs before the commencement of the vikrama era i.e. 312 BCE

Was ashoka priyadarshI of the inscription’s kumAragupta ?

A misguided theory that has gained currency amongst H-s completely dismisses the mainstream, chronology of the maurya-s as a colonial imposition. In this narrative devAnAmpriya ashoka of the inscriptions is identified not as ashoka maurya but as kumAragupta, thereby trying to push back the chronologies of ancient Indian dynasties by ~700 yrs. unfortunately this creates more questions than answers. Ashoka, is identified by name in his inscription at maski, while the bairaT edict identifies him as a king of magadha. Inscriptions closely related in style, script and language bearing the name of a king devAnAmpriya dasharatha, put all doubts about the identity of the king priyadarshI to rest. The purANa-s know of only one ashoka of Magadha, ashoka maurya succeeded by his grandson dasharatha (Mt.P. & Va.P.) There is little evidence any of the gupta kings having been known as ashoka, nor any named dasharatha.  kumAragupta’s coins bear little evidence of his having adopted the tradition of the tathAgata. Further the ornate script and language of established gupta inscriptions is entirely different from the crude style of those of ashoka. Thus there is little reason to doubt that the famous edicts of priyadarshI were in indeed established by ashoka maurya, the champion of bauddha dharma


The date of the buddha and mahAvIra

Given that the jaina and the bauddhA traditions refer to the dates of contemporary kings relative to the dates of their founders, it becomes necessary to ascertain their chronology. The mainstream shvetAmbara tradition places the nirvANa of mahAvira in the year 527 BCE (540 BCE as per some of the digambara-s) ie 470 yrs before vikrama era. This it appears is derived from the following reigns, 60 yrs of pAlaka who took the throne on the night of mahAvIra’s death, 155 years of nanda rule, 108 of the Maurya,30 of puShyamitra, 60 of bhAnumitra and bAlamitra, 40 of nabhovAhana, 13 of gardabilla and 4 years of the shaka’s. While this yield’s a reasonably reliable estimate for the beginning of mauryan rule the pre-mauryan chronology seems suspicious. 155 years of nanda rule is an impossibility, while palaka was a ruler not of magadha but avantI. hemachandra on the other hand offers a different chronology, placing the nirvANa 155 years be. The lengths of intermediate reigns ( udAyin 60 years and 90 years of the nandas) is once again suspicious,  however this chronology fits well with the chronology of sthAvira-s attested within jaina tradition. suhastin a disciple of sthUlabhadra who died in the year 215 after nirvANa  for example becomes patriarch 245 years after the nirvANa is attested to have been a contemporary of ashoka’s grandson samprati whom he converted. Whose accession would have occurred 249 years after nirvANa as per hemachandra’s calculation or 309 years after nirvANa as per the dates of the gAthA’s.  likewise legends associating  the AchArya bhadrabAhu who died in the 170th year after nirvANa with Chandragupta are possible only if the latter chronology were true.  Thus the nirvANa of mahAvira may be dated to around 475 BCE, and given that he was 72 years old at the time he was born around 545 BCE

That the buddha and mahAvira  were contemporaries is borne out by multiple statements. The canonical texts of the bauddha-s refer to mahAvira, as the nirgratha jnAtaputra, a reference to his kShatriya clan the jnAta or jnAtrika clan of kuNDagrAma and he is one of the chief rivals of the buddha. Besides this both contain references to shreNya bimbisAra and  his son ajAtashatru, the former usually referenced as shreNika and the latter as kUNika in the jaina texts but occasionally referring to the former as bibbhisAra/bambhasAra leaving no doubts as to his identity. Besides this both were contemporaries of the teacher the AjIvika-s mAskarin goshAlaka, who died 18 years befor mahAvIra. The pALI tradition identifies the date of the birth of the buddha at 644 BCE and the nirvANa 80 years later at 564 BCE, however this appears to be a later tradition with an older nirvANa era at 482 BCE. Further the traditional date would conflicts with the established date for ashoka whose coronation occurred 218 years following the nirvANa.The dotted record of canton that consists of a series of dots placed yearly since the date of the nirvANa suggests a date of 386 BCE. This is however in conflict with certain northern Buddhist texts that date the reign of ashoka to 100, 116 or 160 years after the buddha. However there is reason to believe that this date arose out of the confusion between ashoka kAkavarNin and dharmashoka. It is significant that several northern texts including the divyAvadana, the Aryama~njushrI mUlakalpa and the lama tAranAtha place ashoka within their relative chronologies not after Chandragupta and bindusAra as would be expected but before the nanda-s. Unfortunately the latter date has gained great traction amongst mleccha buddhologists, with its chief proponent going so far as to suggest a date as late as 350 BCE for the buddha. One may dismiss this chronology as nonsensical, ignoring as it does the socio-political history of India. There is little reason to doubt the existence of ajAtashatru, udayin or the two generations of the nanda-s, in addition there is significant reason to believe that at least darshaka, muNDa, kAkavarNin and his sons were historical figures as well. To reduce all these kings to a period of 20 years is absurd. However the long chronology is not without problems as well. While several bauddha texts refer to the buddha as outliving mahAvira, this is directly contradicted by the jaina tradition. (It is questionable though how well informed the Buddhists were about a rival teacher given elsewhere they confuse his gotra with that of one his disciples and mistook pAvA in magadha where mahAvira breathed his last for the more famous  for the more famous pAvA of the malla-s). Secondly the long chronology assumes unusually long life spans  for the bauddhA AchArya-s between upAlI and mahIndra with an average of close to 90 years. While the corrected long chronology seems to best explain various circumstances, it is not possible to entirely rule out a date closer to 420 BCE as proposed by some.


While much more can be said about the date of the great grammarian pANini, I shall write only briefly on the topic. pANini uses the word yavana, a derivative of the old Persian yauna referring to Ionian Greeks, suggesting that his work belongs to the period succeeding the achaemenid invasion. This is supported by the presence of the word lipi, another borrowing from old Persian. The aShtAdhyAyI also indicates a familiarity with certain (Buddhist) monastic custom and the existence of ascetics of the school of maskarI. All this suggests that the aShTAdhyAyI belongs to the period beyond the mid-fifth century. The tradition of the kashmIrian bR^ihatkathA and the Aryama~njushrImUlakalpa make him a contemporary of nanda. tAranAtha however places him at the time nanda the predecessor of mahApadma. However pANini recognizes the existence of shUrasena, avantI, kosala and ashmaka as independent state and seems to indicate no familiarity with a unitary empire. On this basis his work can be assigned to the last decades of the fifth century allowing him to be a contemporary of mahAnandin ie kAlAshoka.

The early history of Krishna worship – Part IV


Early representations of kṛṣṇa

The earliest stages of Hindu iconography remain poorly understood, since the earliest idols were likely made of perishable material.

It is therefore only to the śunga era that the earliest identifiable kṛṣṇaite imagery belong. While the numbers of surviving icons from the śunga era are relatively few they provide valuable insight into the early evolution of vaiṣṇava theology. Iconographic representations of kṛṣṇa from the next few centuries become more steadily more common


Likewise the lack of written legends on punch-marked coins makes the images hard to decipher. The earliest unambiguous representations of vāsudeva and saṃkarṣaṇa date to the early 2nd century BCE on the coins of Agathocles on which they are identified by their characteristic weaponry


The ghosuṇḍī inscription, from nagarī, rājasthān from the late 2nd century BCE or the early first century records the establishment of a sanctuary for the worship of worship of vāsudeva and saṃkarṣaṇa as was popular at the time and is one of the Interestingly the language is closer to classical saṃskṛta rather than the prakṛt vernaculars of the time and maybe considered one of the earliest inscriptions in the deva bhāṣā. Similar inscriptions of comparable antiquity from Hāthibāḍā and Vidishā suggest that by the beginning of the common era , the worship of kṛṣṇa had become well established and several shrines were being erected in his honour.


The Greeks and kṛṣṇa cult in the Northwest

The worship of kṛṣṇa seems to have found followers in north-western India from an early period (inferred from its mention by pāṇini) and it seems to have become popular amongst the yavanas, śakas and other foreign peoples who occupied these territories as well.

Early Graeco-roman accounts refer to the worship of an Indian deity, whom they identified with Herakles. Quintus Curtius Rufus a Roman historian of the 1st century mentions that an image of Hercules was carried at the head of porous’ army and venerated by its soldiers. This deity has been identified variously as vāsudeva, saṃkarṣaṇa or an amalgamation of the duo, who were often depicted wielding a club in early images.  The descriptions of Megasthenes (As quoted by Arian) the Greek ambassador to the Maurya realm help identify this deity as kṛṣṇa.  He refers to the Herakles worshipping Sourasenoi (śūrasenas) with their chief cities of Methora (mathurā) and kleisobora (kṛṣṇapura ?) on the banks of the iobanes (yamunā), a region was closely identified with the kṛṣṇa cult and its legends even in later times. He also connects herakles to the kingdom of Pandion (paṇḍyas) similarly named city of madurā in the south. Interestingly the Pandiya rulers were connected to the lineage of kṛṣṇa and the pandavas in some narrations. It has also been suggested that the city of madurai owes its name to the similar sounding city of mathurā in the north.

Excavations in the North West have yielded a number of interesting finds, dating back to the same period, including what is possibly a the earliest depiction depicting vāsudeva and samkarśaṇa slaying the demon keśi. takṣaśilā has also yielded evidence of what could possibly be one of the earliest shrines dedicated to vāsudeva (the structure currently identified as Jandial C is a possible candidate).

The Pillar of Heliodoros from Vidishā provides a glimpse of the vāsudeva cult in the centuries before the Common Era. The pillar was erected by Heliodoros a Greek from takṣaśilā, who had been sent as an envoy by the Indo-Greek king antialcidas to the court of the śunga ruler bhāgabhadra, in the 2nd century BCE honouring vāsudeva who he views as the pre-eminent deity. It reads;

devadevasa vā(sude)vasa garuḍadhvaje ayaṃ

kārite i(a) heliodoreṇa Bhagavatena  

diyasa putreṇa takhkhasilākena

yonadūtena āgatena maharajasa

aṃtalikitasa upaṃtā sakāsam rāño

kāsiputasa bhagabhadrasa tratarasa

vaseṇa (chatu)daseṇarājena vadhamanasa


trini amuta padāni (su)anuṭhitani

nayaṃti svaga dama chāgo apramāda


He identifies himself as bhāgavata. and it also refers to what were probably ideals of his tradition – restraint, sacrifice and cautiousness (dama, tyāga and apramāda )


kṛṣna in peninsular India

While the worship of kṛṣna had its beginnings in the northern plains watered by the gangā and the yamunā , within the scope of a few centuries its influence began to extend far beyond its birthplace The nāṇāghāṭ inscription of the śātavāhana queen nāganikā, dating back to the 1st century BCE elaborately describes the piety of the widowed queen and lists the sacrifices performed under her patronage. It begins by invoking vāsudeva and saṃkarṣaṇa amongst other deities from Vedic pantheon including yama, varuṇa, indra, kubera and kumāra, indicating that the duo were considered were considered important deities prior to the common era, even in peninsular India. As his popularity rose Kṛṣna found mention in early southern poetic anthologies including the partly contemporary sangaṃ corpus and the gāthāsaptaśatī




[1] Quintus Curtius his history of the wars of Alexander. Tr. by J. Digby

[2] Materials for the study of the early history of the Vaishnava sect, H.C Raychaudhuri

[3] Vaishnavism, Shaivism and minor religious sects, R.G Bhandarkar

[4] Early Vaishnava imagery: Caturvyuha and variant forms, Dorris Srinivasan

[5] Development of Hindu iconography, J.N Bannerjea

[6] Indian Epigraphy, Richard Saloman

[7] History and Inscriptions of the Satavahanas The Western Kshatrapas, V.V Mirashi

[8] Vishnuism in the Indo-Greek area, Claude Rapin


The early history of Krishna worship – Part III

The Arthashastra on Krishna worship

Tradition attributes the arthaśāstra to kauṭilya, who conspired with chandragupta maurya to overthrow the nanda empire (around 320 BCE). This ancient work contains several interesting allusions to the vāsudeva cult and its mythology. The chapter 1.6 titled indriyajayaḥ or ‘The conquering of the senses’, asserts that kings who fail to control their senses face destruction and substantiates this statement with a list of examples, among which the destruction of the vṛṣṇis at the hands of dvaipāyana is alluded to;


atyāsādayan vṛṣṇisanghaścha dvaipāyanaṃ”

‘The vṛṣṇi’s disrespecting dvaipāyana (were destroyed)’   


The next pertinent reference is in the chapter 13.3 apasarpapraṇidhiḥ, ‘on spies’ refers to the association of balarāma and his devotees with the consumption of spirituous liquor.  He suggests spies disguised as worshipers of sankarṣaṇa with a shaved head or wearing braided hair feigning piety may overcome enemies while drugging them with wine


 “sankarṣaṇadaivatīyaḥ va muṇḍajaṭilavyañjanaḥ prahavaṇakarmaṇā madanarasayogābhyāmatisandadhyāt”


Chapter 14.3 titled pralambhane bhaiṣajyamantraprayogaḥ – ‘ṭhe usage of drugs and incantations in deceit’ contains the following ‘sleeping spell’ invoking kṛṣṇa


“baliṃ vairochanaṃ vande  śatamāyaṃ cha śambaraṃ

nikumbhaṃ narakaṃ kumbhaṃ tantukachchhaṃ mahāsuram

armālavaṃ pramīlaṃ cha maṇḍolūkaṃ ghaṭobalaṃ

kṛṣṇaṃ kaṃsopachāraṃ cha paulomīṃ cha  yaśasvinīṃ

abhimantrayitvā grhṇami siddhārthaṃ śavaśārikāṃ

jayatu jayati cha namaḥ śalakabhūtebhyaḥ svāhā

sukhaṃ svapantu shunakā ye ch grāme kutūhalāḥ

sukhaṃ svapantu siddhārthā yamarthe mārgayāmahe

yāvadastamayādudau yāvadarthaṃ phalaṃ mama


iti svāhā”


I salute bali, son of vairochana, śatamāya, śambara, nikumbha, naraka, kumbha and tantukachchhaṃ mahāsuram

On addressing armālava, pramīla, maṇḍolūka, ghaṭobala, kṛṣṇa, the service of kaṃsa and the famous paulomī, to achieve my goals I hold the piece of a corpse.

Victory to the spiders. svāhā. May the village dogs sleep peacefully. May those whose goals have been achieved, whom we seek, sleep peacefully

From dusk to dawn, until my invocation bears fruit’




Krishna and the Nastikas

Of the two nāstika sects that have survived unto the present, the jaina tradition is the more ancient one. In contrast some of the Buddhist texts available today are more ancient than the oldest surviving Jain texts. Though the Buddha is believed to have preached in an ancient Māgadhī dialect, his teachings are no longer available in the language of their origin. The oldest extant works are in pāḷi, an early central middle indo-aryan language and were compiled in the centuries immediately following the Buddha‘s passing (c.400 BCE) though written down only at the time of the 4th Buddhist council in the 1st century BCE. The Niddesa is a text belonging to the khuddaka nikāya of the pāli canon in the form of a commentary on the sutta nipata. It was probably composed around the time of Aśoka in the 3rd century BCE. A list of cults prevailing at that time occur in the following passage of the Mahāniddesa, among which the worship of vāsudeva and baladeva find mention          

“Sant’eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā vattasuddhikā. te hatthivattikā vā honti ,assavattikā vā honti, govattikā vā honti, kukkuravattikā vā honti, kākavattikā vā honti, vāsudevavattikā vā honti, baladevavattikā vā honti, maṇibhaddavattikā vā honti, pūṇṇabhaddavattikā vā honti aggidevavattikā vā honti, nāgavattikā vā honti, supaṇṇa vattikā vā honti, yakkhavattikā vā honti, asuravattikā vā honti, gandhabbavattikā vā honti  mahārājavattikā vā honti, chandavattikā vā honti, suriyavattikā vā honti, indavattikā vā honti, brahmavattikā vā honti, devavattikā vā honti, disavattikā vā honti. ime te samaṇabrāhmaṇā vattasuddhikā; tena vattena suddhiṃ visuddhiṃ parisuddhiṃ muttiṃ vimuttiṃ parimuttiṃ paccenti


‘Some śramaṇas and brāhmaṇas practice purification through the fulfillment of vows (pa. vatta/vata – sa. vrata). They keep vows to (worship) elephants, horses, cows, dogs, crows, vāsudeva, baladeva, maṇibhadra, purṇabhadra (yakṣa deities), the fire god, serpents, garuda, yakṣas, asuras, gandharvas, kubera, the moon, the sun, indra, brahma, the gods or to the directions. These śramaṇas and brāhmaṇas practice purification through the fulfillment of vows. They believe purity is by means of these vows’


The Jātakas are a collection of stories detailing the previous lives of the Buddha. While a few of the Jātakas are later additions, many of them date back to the lifetime of the buddha. The ghaṭa jātaka details the lives of ghaṭa panḍita and vāsudeva depicted as previous identities of the buddha and śāriputra respectively. It broadly follows the outline of the story as narrated in the harivaṃśa but contains certain marked deviations. The Jātaka narrates that devagabbhā was held captive when it was prophesied that her son would be the killer of her brother the king kaṃsa of añjana. Though secluded from the world except for the maid nandagopā and her husband andhakaveṇhu, prince upasāgara of mathurā chanced upon her and the two fell in love. Following their wedding, kaṃsa promised to kill any son born to the couple, though agreeing to spare any daughters born to the couple. their first offspring was the princess asitañjanā, following which they had ten sons; vāsudeva, baladeva, chandadeva(chandra), sūriyadeva(sūrya), aggideva(agni), varuṇadeva, ajjuna(arjuna), pajjuna(pradymna), Ghaṭa paṇḍita and aṃkura(akrūra). Each time they were saved by exchanging with the daughters born to the the maid nandagopā. Here it is clear that in the character of nandagopā is preserved a memory of  vāsudeva’s foster parents, while andhakaveṇhu is an allusion to the andhakas and vṛṣṇis, kṛṣṇa’s tribesmen.

Paralleling the legend in the harivaṃśa, the brothers were invited by kaṃsa to wrestle chaṇūra and muṭṭhika, whom they killed. vāsudeva then decapitated kaṃsa by throwing a wheel at him, a reference to the deity’s weapon of choice.


The narration proceeds to describe the conquests by the brothers and their settling at dvāravatī. The crux of the narration is a discourse by ghaṭa paṇdita to the grieving vāsudeva kaṇha upon the occasion of his son’s death. It then describes the describes the familiar story of the clan’s annihilation due to the wrath of  sage kaṇha dīpāyana (kṛṣṇa dvaipāyana vyāsa, who interestingly was himself viewed as a previous incarnation of the buddha). This substitution of durvāsa with kaṇha dīpāyana and the iron mace with a wooden one is interesting and may in fact be a more archaic telling supported as it is by archaic sources such as the by arthaśāstra as seen earlier. This version is also corroborated by the following lines from the saṃkicca jātaka “Assailing black Dīpāyana the men of Vishṇu race; with Andhakas sought Yama’s realm, each slain by other’s mace” [4]. The jātaka ends by describing baladeva’s end at the hands of a goblin and vāsudeva’s end at the hands of Jara, the huntsman who mistook his foot for a pig. Most importantly vāsudeva is described as teaching a science before he died, a possible reference to a precursor of the bhagavad gītā.


The mahā ummagga  jātaka refers to vāsudeva, one of the ten brothers who ruled dvāravatī  as having married jambāvatī, a chaṇḍālī by caste. In later narrations jāmbavatī was considered a daughter of the bear jambavan, and her legend was tied to that of the syamantaka maṇi. Intrestingly the jātaka refers to kaṇha as the name of vāsudeva’s clan. [5]


vāsudeva and baladeva found a place  within the jaina cosmology as śalākapuruṣas. The earliest reference to the pair as distinguished beings occurs in the kalpasūtra a śvetāmbara text composed in the 1st century. “It never has happened, nor does it happen, nor will it happen, that Arhats, chakravartins, Baladevas, or Vāsudevas, in the past, present, or future, should be born in low families, mean families, degraded families, poor families, indigent families, beggars’ families, or brahmanical families.  For indeed Arhats, chakravartins, Baladevas, and Vāsudevas, in the past, present, and future, are born in high families, noble families, royal families, noblemen’s families, in families belonging to the race of Ikshvâku, or of Hari, or in other suchlike families of pure descent on both sides.”[6] . Other early texts such as the śvetāmbara text samavayanga sūtra and the ṣaṭkhaṇḍagama an early digamabara scripture also mention the Vāsudevas.




[1] The Arthasastra, with commentary by T Ganapati Sastri, No 454

[2] Niddesa Vol. I, Vallee Poussin and E.J Thomas, suddhaṭṭhakasuttaniddesa

[3] The Jataka, Vol. IV, tr. by H.T. Francis, No 454

[4] The Jataka, Vol. V, tr. by H.T. Francis, No. 530

[5] The Jataka, Vol. VI, tr. by H.T. Francis, No. 546

[6] Jaina Sutras, Part II, tr. by Hermann Jacobi,

The early history of Krishna worship – Part II


The Testimony of Early Indian Grammarians                                         

yāska an etymologist, who authored nirukta over five centuries prior to the commencement of the common era indicates his familiarity with the legend of the syamantaka maṇi, which has kṛṣṇa as a key character.  While presenting the etymology of the word daṇḍa, he refers to akrūra, the the vriṣṇi who held the syamantaka maṇi in his possession, evidence of the ancientness of some of the kṛṣṇa legends[1]

akrūro dadāte maṇim; nirukta 2.2


Around a century later, the grammarian Pāṇini alludes to the worship of vāsudeva alongside arjuna in aṣṭadhyāyi, evidence that the cult of vāsudeva (suggesting the term vāsudevaka for the followers of vāsudeva) was already in existence and known as far west as Gandhāra. He also refers to a kāvya, the śiśukrandīya possibly an early poem describing the childhood of kṛṣṇa.[2]

Pāṇinī refers to the suffixes to be attached to denote bhakti, what bhakti means here has however been disputed. It has been suggested that vāsudeva is referred to merely as a kṣatriya in the sūtra 4.3.98, vāsudevārjunābhyāṃ vun; However this interpretation is questionable given that vāsudeva would have taken the suffix as per the next sūtra; gotrakṣatriyākhyebhyo bahulam vuñ 4.3.99 The answer must be that vāsudeva was not merely a kṣatriya but a deity. This also suggests that arjuna too might have been worshipped in Pāṇinī’s era. [3]



 The mahābhāṣya which can be definitively dated to around 150 BCE contains numerous phrases provided as examples to illustrate various grammatical rules. An assessment of these examples seems to indicate that patañjali, was fairly familiar with the legends of kṛṣṇa and viewed them as events of a distant past. A counter-example of Pāṇinī’s sūtra 3.2.111 (On the usage of the imperfect past tense) reads jaghāna kaṃsaṃ kila vāsudevaḥ, vāsudeva killed kaṃsa, the tense in use indicates that the events occurred in a distant past and could not have been witnessed by the speaker. Another illustration contains the phrase asādhurmātule kṛṣṇaḥ, kṛṣṇa was not on good terms with his uncle. A demonstration Bahuvrihi compounds, introduces the phrase saṃkarṣaṇadvitīyasya balam kṛṣṇasya vardhatām, May the Power of kṛṣṇa who is accompanied by saṃkaṛṣaṇa increase. On yet another occasion the terms vāsudevavargyaḥ and akrūravargyaḥ (follower of vāsudeva and akrūra respectively)  are used and elsewhere the expression kaṃsam ghātayati, meaning he narrates the killing of kaṃsa. The treatise also mentions a form of Dramatic narration wherein performers are divided among followers of kaṃsa and those of kṛṣṇa, characterized by their faces painted black and red respectively. [4] A reference to music being played in the temples of (bala)rāma and kṛṣṇa also exists[5]. Thus by the 2nd century BCE, not only were the legends of vāsudeva well established, narration and dramatization of his heroism were commonplace too.




[1] Krishna: Edwin Bryant

[2] India as Known to Panini: V.S Agarwala pg 339

[3]Vasudeva of Panini IV.3.98 Journal of the Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 1910

[4] Allusions to Krsna in the Mahabhashya,Vol III The Indian antiquary 1874

[5] H.Raychaudhuri, materials for the study of the early history of the vaishnava sect


The early history of Krishna worship – Part I

The Subversion of Indian Traditions

Right from its very conception, the primary motive of western indology has been to showcase superiority of protestant civilization over that of the Indians. There was an attempt to deny the antiquity and continuity of the Hindu tradition, further ascribing its achievements to borrowings from the west. In the 19th century there were several attempts made to prove that the mahābhārata was composed in the 16th century. Homegrown Raktadhvaja historians have in the present day chosen to follow in the footsteps of their colonial masters. As a result millions of Hindus have grown up knowing little about the birth and evolution of their tradition. In this blog I attempt to highlight the evolution of the cult of kṛṣṇa providing primary sources wherever possible


The Historical Krishna

From the vast amount of literature on the life of kṛṣṇa, an attempt can be made to write a short biography, giving greater importance to older material. vāsudeva kṛṣṇa, the son of devakī was born among the vṛṣṇi clan of yādavas in mathurā. He is likely to have lived in the early part of the 1st millennium BCE. Myths make balarāma or saṃkarṣaṇa, his brother a constant companion. He overthrew the tyrant kaṃsa, and reigned over his clan. Several early traditions also link him to the western city city of dvārāvatī. Besides his role as a warrior-prince, he was associated with a set of teachings of some sort. He is also linked to the rise of the five kuru princes, the pāṇḍavās. It has been suggested that vāsudeva was his proper name while kṛṣṇa was a title accorded to him on account of his belonging to the kāṛṣṇāyana gotra.[1] 


Vasudeva in the Vedic corpus and allied literature                            

The earliest mention of kṛṣṇa Devakīputra is in the Chhandogya upaniṣad (9th – 6th century BCE) as a student of ghora āngirasa(3.17.6). Some of ṭhe doctrines imparted by the ṛṣi to kṛṣṇa as recorded in the upaniṣad has close parallels in the gītā. [2]    Some have doubted his identification with the vṛṣṇi hero.  While kṛṣṇa was not a rare name, his matryonomic was fairly uncommon making the identification likely.  A verse in the Taittiriya Aranyaka equates vāsudeva with viṣṇu, the verse though might be a relatively late addition to the text.


oṃ nārayaṇāya vidmahe vāsudevāya dhīmahi

tanno viṣṇuḥ prachodayāt TA. 10.1.6


baudhāyana dharmasūtra, one of the earliest works of the dharmaśāstra (6th-4th century BCE) genre identifies mādhava, keśava and govinda as epithets of viṣṇu, suggesting that the deity was identified with vāsudeva . (praśṇa II adhyāya 5 kaṇḍikā 9, oṃ I libate, keśava, nārāyaṇa, mādhava, govinda, viṣṇū, madhusudana, trivikrama, vāmana, śrīdhara, hriṣīkeśa, padmanabha, damodara)


[1] R.G Bhandarkar, vaisnavism, saivism and minor religious systems

[2] H.Raychaudhuri, materials for the study of the early history of the vaishnava sect