“That Krishna himself was a historical figure is indeed quite indubitable.”— Rudolf Otto.
“There is now a general consensus of opinion in favour of the historicity of Krishna.”— Dr. R. C. Majumdar, 20th century.
It is difficult to establish historicity of any pre-historic figure by way of empirical evidence or proof. Be it Krishna or Jesus or Moses or Abraham. The existence of Jesus, though a relatively much recent figure, has long come to be challenged in academic circles. Similarly, in case of Mohammed, though the evidence of Mohammed as an individual is plenty, empirical evidence for Muhammed, the prophet is again nil. However, that doesn’t take away faith of millions for whom Muhammed is prophet of God, Jesus son of God or Lord Krishna God Himself who walked on the Earth millennia ago.
The idea of Krishna being mythological was first advanced by Christian missionaries as this was in sync with Christianity’s worldview that the world itself came into existence only 4000 years before the birth of Jesus!
In fact, it is far more difficult to find empirical evidence of a Historical Krishna than any other religious figure as Krishna belongs to, what we call as, timeless (sanatana) dharma. Sanatana dharma represents mankind’s earliest quest to know ‘what lies beyond’.
Further, just because “empirical” evidence doesn’t exist for a legend shouldn’t lead to terming him or her a myth. Absence of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of absence. Empirical evidence or lack thereof can’t be a valid approach to understand a figure that existed millennia ago.
With the disclaimer that the evidence and proofs have meaning only in our relative physical world and not in absolute world, I have compiled a few of the ‘proofs’ for the existence of a historical Krishna:
A General Agreement on Genealogy of Krishna
Numerous Vedic and non-Vedic (i.e. Jain, Buddhist) texts mention Krishna and His genealogy in detail. 12 out of the 18 major Puranas, for instance, sketch the genealogical tree of Krishna. There is general agreement among them on ancestors and genealogy of Krishna despite these Puranas having been compiled at different periods of time and regions and by different seers. Further, a number of Buddhist, Jain and secular texts too concur the same.
Not just Sanskrit. Sangam literature in Tamil, another classical language, also documents Krishna’s lineage. Pura Nanooru, a Sangam era text, for instance, refers Chera King Irungo Vel as: “King among kings, who ruled from Dwaraka, descending from 49 Generations.”
It will be fallacious to assume that all these compilers from antiquity, though divided in time, space, outlook, personality and ideology somehow came into agreement on the issue of a Krishna who did not historically exist.
Itihaasa Records it
As opposed to modern history that records chronology, facts and prejudices, our history, i.e., itihasa recorded characters, anecdotes and events. As the author DK Hari points out, India has had at least 22 different ways of recording history of her really long heritage. One of the oldest historical texts, the Mahabharata, is centred about Krishna.
Based upon the positions of stars, eclipse, constellations as provided in the Mahabharata, the scientists have been able to infer dates of Mahabharata events such as war of Kurukshetra. The Mahabharata gives an elaborate and detailed system of time-keeping. For instance, Krishna’s time of leaving on peace mission to Hastinapura is described as:
“Krishna leaves for Hastinapura on the diplomatic peace mission in the Maitri Muhurta in the month of Kaumuda, on the day of Revati Nakshatra.” According to the celebrated author DK Hari, using the planetarium software, the above event can be determined to have occurred on 26th September, 3067 BCE as the day when this configuration was observed in the skies.”
Further, Mahabharata sketches not only geographical expanse of Bharat but also her varying customs, traditions, socio-political systems of the day. Dozens of sites sketched in Mahabharat have been discovered all over India with evidence of material culture like Painted Grey Wares, items of antiquities, use of iron (unknown to Harappans), etc. Not just Hastinapur, Sonepat, Indraprastha, the Mahabharata mentions many otherwise non-descript villages, tanks, water streams, hills, which are still identifiable.
Having argued thus, it would be contradiction to say that though the events and places of of Mahabharata war are real, however, its central character Krishna is not.
The Clue to History is in Geography
For a person to be historical, he must have, ipso facto, taken birth (i.e. avatara in case of Krishna) and performed certain activities (i.e. lila in case of Krishna). These events necessarily take place in space. Therefore, places on the Earth must be identifiable where Krishna, if at all historical, was born and died, and performed other activities. There must be collective memories of the people inhabiting those places. And yes, such places do exist long associated with Krishna’s lifetime. So there is Mathura where Krishna was born; Gokul where baby Krishna was taken to by His unsecure father; Vrindavan where Krishna passed his childhood; Govardhan parbat which was lifted by Krishna to provide shelter to His subjects; Ujjain where he was educated in Sandipini Rishi’s ashram; Indraprastha where Krishna displayed his political acumen; Dwaraka, a city that Krishna built for His people after killing Kansa; Somnath where Krishna died. In fact, there are far more material places commemorating specific events, as well as written words, in Krishna’s life than for any other religious figure in the world history. Discarding geography and collective memory of an ancient people will be a narrow approach to pre-historic history.
A Really Long Tradition Of Krishna Worship Around The World
The author Steven J Rosen argues that “There is early evidence for the existence of Krishna worship, and that too lends itself to conceiving of him as a historical reality.” Commenting about the earliest Westerns historians’ observation about India, Edwin F. Bryant asserts:
“According to ancient historians Arrian, Diodorus, and Strabo, Megasthenes described an Indian tribe called the Sourasenoi, who especially worshiped Herakles in their land, and this land had two great cities, Methora and Kleisobora, and a navigable river, the Jobares. As was common in the ancient period, the Greeks sometimes described foreign gods in terms of their own divinities, and there is little doubt that the Sourasenoi refers to the Shurasenas, a branch of the Yadu dynasty to which Krishna belonged; Herakles to Krishna, or Hari-Krishna [or Hari-kul-isha]; Methora to Mathura, where Krishna was born; Kleisobora to Krishna pura, meaning ‘‘the city of Krishna’’; and the Jobares to the Yamuna, the famous river in the Krishna story. Quintus Curtius also mentions that when Alexander the Great confronted Porus, Porus’s soldiers were carrying an image of Herakles in their vanguard.”
just because “empirical” evidence doesn’t exist for a legend shouldn’t lead to terming him or her a myth. Absence of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of absence. Empirical evidence or lack thereof can’t be a valid approach to understand a figure that existed millennia ago
Indo-Greek King Agathocles’ coins depict Krishna and Balarama and Subhadra. Heliodorus, a Greek ambassador to king Antialcidas, proclaimed himself to be a a devotee of Krishna. He must not have been the sole foreigner to worship Krishna in pre-christian era. As Thomas J. Hopkins notes:
“Heliodorus was presumably not the earliest Greek who was converted to Vaishnava devotional practices although he might have been the one to erect a column that is still extant. Certainly there were numerous others including the king who sent him as an ambassador.”
The Mahabharata verses 16.8.40–41 describe the flooding of Dwaraka due to the curse of Queen Gandhari. Arjuna watched Arabian sea breach its barriers and rush into Dwarka as he was escorting the subjects of Dwarka to safety. The Harivamsa talks about Dwaraka being built on submerged land (2.55.778) and “released into the ocean” (verses 2.58.34). In the late 1970s into the 1980s, Indian archaeologist. The modern archaeological excavations, both under water and overland, has revealed numerous pottery, artefacts, relics and monuments indicating the ruins of an ancient city.
Rakesh Krishnan Simha, in an article called “The Historical Krishna,” tells us, “Another important find by our divers was a seal that establishes the submerged township’s connection with the Dwarka of the Mahābhārata. The seal corroborates the reference made in the ancient text, the Harivaṁśa, that every citizen of Dwarka carried such a seal for identification purposes. Krishna had ruled that none without the seal should enter his kingdom. A similar seal has been found onshore as well.”
Further, the veteran archaeologist, Dr. S.R. Rao, in his book, “The Lost City of Dwaraka”, published in 1999, writes about his undersea finds. “The discovery is an important landmark in the history of India. It has set to rest the doubts expressed by historians about the historicity of Mahabharata and the very existence of Dwarka city.”
Though Krishna resides as supersoul in the heart of every sentient being, let’s forget the idea peddled in 19th century that He was a mere mythological figure. The idea of Krishna being mythological was first advanced by Christian missionaries as this was in sync with Christianity’s worldview that the world itself came into existence only 4000 years before the birth of Jesus! However, the modern holistic, multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional approaches to history, as against the Colonial-Marxist strand, has put historical Krishna on rather solid footings. It is high time we un-forget the existence of Krishna who roamed around Bharat, in flesh and blood, millennia ago.