9. Krishna's Youth

At the foot of Mount Meru stretched a fertile valley, green with pastures and surrounded by vast forests of cedar trees, where the pure air of Himavat sighed gently. In this high valley lived a tribe of herdsmen over which the patriarch Nanda, friend of the anchorites, ruled. Here Devaki found refuge from the persecutions of the tyrant of Madura, and here in Nanda's home she brought her son, Krishna, into the world. Except Nanda, no one knew who the stranger was nor where this son came from. The women of the area simply said, "It is a son of the Gandharvas,13 for Indra's musicians must have been present at the love-making of this woman who resembles a celestial nymph, an Apsara." The marvelous child of this unknown woman grew up among the flocks and shepherds under the care of his mother. The shepherds called him "The Radiant One" because his presence alone, his smile and his big eyes had a way of spreading joy. Animals, children, women, men, everyone loved him and he seemed to love everyone, smiling at his mother, playing with the lambs and the young children of his own age, or speaking with the old men. The child Krishna was fearless, full of daring and performed astonishing feats. Sometimes he was found in the woods lying on the moss, wrestling with young panthers and holding their mouths open, without their daring to bite him. Above all things and all beings, Krishna adored his young mother, so beautiful and so radiant, who spoke to him of the heaven of the Devas, of heroic battles and of the wonderful things she had learned from the anchorites. And the shepherds who led their flocks beneath the cedars of Mount Meru would say, "Who is this mother, and who is this soil? Although she is dressed like our women, she looks like a queen. The amazing child was raised with ours, yet he does not look like them. Is he a genius? Is he a god? Whoever he is, he will bring us happiness."

When Krishna was fifteen years old, his mother Devaki was summoned by the leader of the anchorites. One day she disappeared without saying goodbye to her son. When he saw her no longer, Krishna went to look for the patriarch Nanda and asked him, "Where is my mother?"

Nanda answered, bowing his head, "My child, do not question me. Your mother has gone on a long journey. She has returned to the country from which she came, and I do not know when she will return."

Krishna said nothing at all, but he lapsed into such a deep reverie that all the children kept away from him as if gripped by a superstitious fear. Krishna deserted his friends, left their games, and, lost in his reflections, went alone to Mount Meru. He wandered for several weeks. One morning he came to a high, wooded peak where his view reached over the chain of the Himavat Mountains. Suddenly near him he saw a tall old man in the white robe of an anchorite, standing under the giant cedars in the morning light. He seemed one hundred years old. His snow-white beard and his bare head shone with majesty. The lively child and the centenarian gazed at each other for a long time. The eyes of the old man rested benignly upon Krishna, but Krishna was so startled at seeing him that he remained silent in admiration. Although Krishna saw him for the first time, it seemed as if he knew this aged man.

"Whom do you seek?" the old man asked at last.
"My mother."
"She is no longer here."
"Where shall I find her?"
"With Him who never changes."
"But how shall I find Him?"
"And shall I see you again?"
"Yes, when the daughter of the serpent incites the son of the bull to crime, then you will see me again in a purple light. Then you will kill the bull, and you will crush the head of the serpent. Son of Mahadeva, know that you and I are but one in Him. Seek, always seek."

And the old man extended his hand in a gesture of benediction. Then he turned and took a few steps under the high cedars in the direction of the Himavat. Suddenly it seemed to Krishna that the old man's form became transparent and disappeared with a luminous vibration in the shimmering glow of the fine-needled branches.14

When Krishna came down from Mount Meru, he appeared to be transformed. A new energy emanated from his being. He gathered his companions together and told them, "Let us fight the bulls and snakes; let us defend the good and subdue the wicked!" With bow in hand and sword at his side, Krishna and his companions, sons of the shepherds, now transformed into warriors, began to beat the forests, fighting the wild beasts. In the depths of the woods one could hear the roaring of hyenas, jackals and tigers, and the young men's cries of truimph over the defeated animals. Krishna killed and tamed lions; he made war on kings and freed oppressed peoples. But sadness remained in the depths of his heart. This heart had but one deep, mysterious desire; he longed to find his mother and to see the strange, august old man again. He asked himself, "Did he not promise me that I would see him again when I crushed the head of the snake? Did he not tell me that I would find my mother again with Him who never changes?" But it was useless for him to fight, conquer, kill -- he had not seen the majestic old man nor his own glorious mother.

One day he heard people speak about Kalayeni, king of the serpents, and he asked to fight with his most terrible serpent in the presence of the black magician. It was said that this creature, trained by Kalayeni, had already eaten hundreds of men, and that its glance could paralyze the most courageous with fear. Krishna saw a long, greenish-blue reptile come from the depths of Kali's dark temple at Kalayeni's call. The serpent slowly raised its thick body, distended its red crest, and its piercing eyes lit up in its monstrous head, covered with shiny scales. "This serpent," said Kalayeni, "knows many things. It is a powerful demon. It will tell them only to the one who kills it, but it kills those who fail. It has seen you; it is looking at you; you are in its power. All that is left for you to do is worship it or die in a senseless struggle." Krishna was indignant at these words, for he felt that his heart was like the tip of a lightning bolt. He looked at the snake, then threw himself upon it, seizing it beneath the head. Man and serpent rolled on the steps of the temple. But before the serpent could encircle him in its coils, Krishna cut off its head with his sword.

Disentangling himself from the still writhing body, the young conqueror triumphantly raised the head of the serpent in his left hand. But this head was still alive. It kept looking at Krishna, and said, "Why did you kill me, son of Mahadeva? Do you think you will find truth by killing the living? Foolish one, you will only find it in dying yourself. Death is in life, life is in death. Beware the daughter of the serpent and spilt blood. Be careful! Be careful!" With these words, the serpent died. Krishna let the head fall and went away, filled with horror. But Kalayeni said, "I have no power over this man; Kali alone can subdue him with a spell."

After a month of ablutions and prayers on the banks of the Ganges, having purified himself in the light of the sun and in the thought of Mahadeva, Krishna returned to his native country, among the shepherds of Mount Meru.

The autumn moon showed its shining orb above the cedar forests and the night air was perfumed with the scent of wild lilies in which the bees had hummed all day long. Sitting beneath a large cedar tree at the edge of a meadow, weary of the vain battles of earth, Krishna dreamed of heavenly combats and of the boundless heaven itself. The more he thought of his glorious mother and the august old man, the more his childish exploits seemed despicable and the more celestial things came to life within him. A consoling charm, a divine recollection flooded his entire being. Then a hymn of thankfulness to Mahadeva arose from his heart and overflowed from his lips in a sweet, divine melody. Attracted by this wonderful song, the Gopis, daughters and wives of the shepherds, left their houses. The first, having spied the heads of their families coming home, returned immediately after having pretended to pick flowers. Some came nearer, calling, "Krishna! Krishna!" Then, very ashamed, they ran away. Gradually becoming bolder, the women surrounded Krishna in groups like timid, curious gazelles, charmed by his melodies. But, lost in his dream of the gods, he did not see them. More and more enchanted by his song, the Gopis began to grow impatient at not being noticed. Nichdali, Nanda's daughter, with eyes closed, had fallen into a kind of ecstasy. But Sarasvati, her sister, bolder than she, quietly moved near Devaki's son, pressed against his side and said in a soft voice, "O Krishna, don't you see that we are listening to you, that we can no longer sleep in our homes? Your melodies have cast a spell upon us. O adorable hero, we are captivated by your voice, and can no longer do without you!"

"O keep singing!" a young girl said. "Teach us to sing!"

"Teach us dancing," said a woman.

And Krishna, coming out of his dream, looked favorably upon the Gopis. He spoke kind words to them and, taking their hands, made them sit on the grass near the huge cedars, in the bright moonlight. Then he told them what he had seen within himself. He told them the story of the gods and heroes of Indra's wars and of the exploits of the divine Rama. The women and young girls listened, captivated. These tales lasted until dawn. When pink Aurora arose behind Mount Meru and the kokilas began to chirp beneath the cedars, the Gopi girls and women furtively returned to their homes. But the next night, as soon as the crescent moon appeared, they returned more eagerly than ever. Seeing that they were enchanted by his narratives, Krishna taught them to sing and to portray in gestures the sublime actions of the heroes and the gods. To some he gave vinas with strings which vibrate like souls, to others resounding cymbals like the hearts of warriors, to others drums which imitate thunder. And choosing the most beautiful, he inspired them with his thoughts. With arms extended, walking and moving about in a divine dream, the sacred dancers portrayed the majesty of Varuna, the anger of Indra killing the dragon, or the despair of abandoned Maya. Thus the battles and everlasting glory of the gods, which Krishna saw within himself, came to life again in these happy, transfigured women.

One morning the Gopis had scattered. The sound of their musical instruments and their singing, laughing voices had faded in the distance. Krishna, who had remained alone under the huge cedar tree, saw Sarasvati and Nichdali, Nanda's two daughters, coming toward him. They sat down beside him. Sarasvati, throwing her arms around Krishna's neck, making her bracelets jingle, said to him, "In teaching us the sacred songs and dances you have made us the happiest of women; but we shall be the most unhappy ones when you have left us. What will become of us when we shall see you no longer? O, Krishna, marry us! My sister and I will be your faithful wives, and our eyes will not have the pain of losing you." While Sarasvati spoke thus, Nichdali closed her eyes as if she were falling into an ecstasy.

"Nichdali, why do you close your eyes?" Krishna asked.

"She is jealous," answered Sarasvati, laughing. "She does not wish to see my arms around your neck."

"No," replied the blushing Nichdali, "I am closing my eyes in order to look at your image, which is engraved deep inside me. Krishna, you can leave, but I shall never lose you!"

Krishna became thoughtful. Smiling, he loosened Sarasvati's arms which were passionately wound about his neck. Then he looked at the two women and embraced them. First he kissed Sarasvati's lips, then Nichdali's eyes. In these two long kisses, young Krishna seemed to explore, to taste all the pleasures of earth. Suddenly he trembled, saying, "You are beautiful, O Sarasvati! You, whose lips have the perfume of amber and all the flowers! You are adorable, O Nichdali! You, whose eyelids veil intense eyes, and who know how to look within yourself! I love you both . . . But how could I marry you, since my heart would have to be divided between you?"

"O, he will never be in love!" said Sarasvati spitefully.

"I shall love only with an everlasting love."

"And what is required for you to love in that way?" asked Nichdali tenderly.

Krishna had stood up. His eyes were aflame. "To love with an everlasting love?" he asked. "Daylight must disappear. Thunder must fall upon my heart, and my soul must flee beyond myself into the heights of heaven!"

While he spoke it seemed to the young girls that he increased in height. Suddenly they were afraid of him and returned home sobbing. Krishna took the road to Mount Meru alone. The following night the Gopis met for their games, but they waited for their teacher in vain. He had disappeared, leaving them only an essence, a perfume from his being: the sacred songs and dances.


Notes for this chapter:

13. These are the genii who, in all Hindu poetry are represented as presiding over love and marriage.

14. It is a definite belief in India that the great ascetics can make themselves manifest at a distance in visible form, while their bodies remain plunged in a cataleptic sleep.


10. Initiation

The Great Initiates