The Madhusudana Mystery

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Since we don’t hear of a demon named Madhu in Krishna’s pastimes, why does Arjuna address Krishna as “the killer of Madhu”?

Madhusudana. The name always seemed curious to me. Where did it come from? In the Bhagavad-gita, one of our most sacred texts, Krishna is referred to as Madhusudana, or “the killer of the Madhu demon,” no less than five times (1.35, 2.1, 2.4, 6.33, and 8.2). And yet, Krishna didn’t kill a demon named Madhu. I looked through the vast storehouse of Krishna’s pastimes over and over again. No Madhu, at least not in the form of a demon.

Most commentators, including Srila Prabhupada, tell us that by referring to Krishna in this way, Arjuna, the hero of the Gita, is poetically indicating that Krishna should now slay Arjuna’s doubts, just as He had slain the three-dimensional foe of His past. But, again, where did that slaying take place? When did Krishna kill a demon named Madhu?

My research leads me to Baladeva Vidyabhushana, an eighteenth-century Vaishnava commentator. He writes that the Gita’s use of the name Madhusudana implies that Krishna can kill the grief (shokam) of Arjuna just as He had killed Madhu in the past (madhusudana iti tasya shokam api madhuvan nihanishyatiti bhavah). But I’m still wondering just where this Madhu demon is described, and why Arjuna would refer to him at all. By the time of the Kurukshetra war, Krishna had killed many demons, and Arjuna could have referred to any one of them—”O slayer of Putana,” “O conqueror of Kamsa,” and so on. So, to me, it was obvious that Arjuna had a specific reason for using the name Madhusudana.

With a little digging I found that, sure enough, Madhu was not killed by Krishna at all, at least not by Krishna in His original form. Rather, it was Vishnu—Krishna’s expansion—who did away with the Madhu-Kaitabha threat (a story I will discuss in detail below). More specifically, Vishnu killed Madhu through His Hayagriva incarnation, who has a horselike body and is celebrated in the sacred texts known as the Puranas. In identifying Krishna as Madhusudana, then, the Gita is making a somewhat covert connection between Krishna and Vishnu, thus offering readers a glimpse of Krishna’s divinity.

This is not to say that Krishna’s divinity is somehow dependent on His identity with Vishnu. Actually, it is the other way around, for Krishna is the source of all divine forms and incarnations. (See Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.3.28.) But the common conception of God—all-powerful and awe-inspiring, embodying grandeur rather than simplicity, invoking praise instead of intimacy—is more in line with Vishnu. And so, even in Vedic times, the word Vaishnavism (”the worship of Vishnu”), not Krishnaism, was the preferred name for sanatana-dharma, or the eternal religion of soul. Indeed, many scholars of the Gita—traditionalists as well as Western academics—tend to see as the Gita’s climax the “great revelation” in the Eleventh Chapter, wherein Krishna majestically shows Arjuna His all-encompassing universal form. Their assumption stems from the sheer magnificence and opulence of the revelation. But our great acharyas, in their wisdom, place more emphasis on Arjuna’s humble request that Krishna again show His more intimate—though superior—two-armed form. And they prefer, instead, to focus on the instruction at the end of the Gita (18.66) to abandon all varieties of religion and simply surrender unto God (Krishna) with a faithful heart of love and devotion.

What’s in a Name?

The Madhusudana appellation first appears in the First Chapter, before Krishna reveals to Arjuna that both He and His loving devotee Arjuna had taken many births in the past (Chapter Four), and before He shows His divinity to Arjuna in any conclusive way (Chapter 11). The implications are significant: Arjuna’s illusion is just lila, a transcendental pastime, arranged by the Lord. That is to say, he is placed in a temporary state of forgetfulness so that Krishna might speak the Gita, to instruct Arjuna and, through him, each of us. Otherwise, how does Arjuna know, right from the beginning, that Krishna is indeed Vishnu, who incarnated previously to kill the Madhu demon?

Of course, followers of Srila Prabhupada knew this all along. In the Introduction to his commentary on the Bhagavad-gita, Prabhupada writes: “Being an associate of Lord Krishna, Arjuna was above all ignorance, but Arjuna was put into ignorance on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra just to question Lord Krishna about the problems of life so that the Lord could explain them for the benefit of future generations of human beings . . .”

Yet it’s interesting to see how this plays out in the Mahabharata, of which the Gita is a small section: In text 3.41.1–4 Shiva had told Arjuna something about Arjuna’s divine partnership with Narayana as Nara. And in 3.42.17–23 Yamaraja, the lord of death, told Arjuna, “With Vishnu you will lighten the burden of the earth.” This all occurs prior to the Sixth Book, in which the Gita appears. Krishna also revealed His divine form to those assembled in the Kaurava court while He is on His peace mission for the Pandavas, and when the Pandavas chose Him, instead of His armed forces, for their side in the Kurukshetra war. Thus, by the time of the Bhagavad-gita the main combatants clearly understood Krishna’s divinity. Arjuna certainly knew it, and yet he knew it not—like Mother Yashoda, who saw the entire universe in baby Krishna’s mouth yet still thought of Him as her own son.

The epithet Madhusudana comes up repeatedly in the Mahabharata before the Gita, usually spoken by Vaishampayana, the narrator. But Arjuna, Draupadi, and the demon Sishupala use the name as well. So, early in the Mahabharata and the Gita, Krishna’s identity as Vishnu is clear.

The Story of Madhu

The story of the demon Madhu is revealed in the Kalika Purana, the Devi Bhagavata, and the Mahabharata. Srila Prabhupada briefly mentions the story in his book Krishna (in the chapter “Prayers of Akrura”) and in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.9.37, purport).

At the beginning of time, the spiritual world brought forth the material universe, within which Lord Vishnu then reclined in deep cosmic slumber on Sesha, His serpent bed. While Lord Vishnu slept, a lotus stem grew from His navel. Atop of the stem was a lotus flower, on which appeared Brahma, the first created being. Lord Vishnu gave him the charge of creation, and he meditated on how he would accomplish his God-given task.

It is said that as Brahma sat in deep meditation, “ear wax” (karna-shrotodbhava) flowed from Vishnu’s ears. Two ferocious demons, Madhu and Kaitabha, were born out of that wax. They performed great penance for thousands of years. Pleased by their penance, Lakshmi, the Lord’s consort, appeared before them and granted them the boon that they would die only when they so desired. Proud of their newly acquired asset, the demons became outrageously arrogant. They attacked Brahma, still meditating on his lotus stem, and stole from him the four Vedas. Though furious, Brahma was helpless in the presence of such powerful adversaries. He rushed to his one and only shelter, Vishnu, asking for help.

Vishnu, however, was in deep sleep and did not wake up, even though Brahma tried his best to awaken Him. Realizing that the Lord slept for reasons of His own, Brahma decided to pray to Yoga-nidra, who is none other than Goddess Lakshmi herself in a special form to assist in the Lord’s yogic sleep. As Brahma had hoped, she showed mercy on him and awakened the Lord.

Brahma then told Lord Vishnu about the nefarious deeds of Madhu and Kaitabha and begged Him to destroy them. Lord Vishnu manifested as Hayagriva, the beautiful horse incarnation, and fought with Madhu and Katabha, ultimately retrieving the Vedic scriptures. But they could die only when they wanted to, as their boon had stated. And so Vishnu cleverly told them that just as Goddess Lakshmi had given them a boon, they should give Him one. After all, He told them, they were so powerful they should show Him the same courtesy that His feminine half, the embodied form of His mystic energy, had showed them.

In their arrogance, they fell for His ruse.

“What boon do you want from us?” they asked. “We will give you anything You want.”

“I want your death!” the Lord replied.

And so Hayagriva put an end to their menace once and for all.

Srila Prabhupada writes in Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.9.37, purport):

The Supreme Personality of Godhead in His transcendental form is always ready to give protection to His devotees. As mentioned herein, the Lord in the form of Hayagriva killed two demons named Madhu and Kaitabha when they attacked Lord Brahma. Modern demons think that there was no life in the beginning of creation, but from Srimad-Bhagavatam we understand that the first living creature created by the Supreme Personality of Godhead was Lord Brahma, who is full of Vedic understanding. Unfortunately, those entrusted with distributing Vedic knowledge, such as the devotees engaged in spreading Krishna consciousness, may sometimes be attacked by demons, but they must rest assured that demoniac attacks will not be able to harm them, for the Lord is always prepared to give them protection.

Madhusudana Revisited

There is one final, and more esoteric, consideration when discussing the name Madhusudana. Not only does it mean “He who defeated the demon Madhu,” but it also means “He who defeats honey [madhu] in sweetness.” Thus, the great commentator Sridhara Svami defines the name as follows: “False ego is as sweet as honey and resides in the heart of everyone, making one forget his own identity. It intoxicates everyone. He who destroys false ego with the torchlight of knowledge is called Madhusadana.” By extension, the word madhu has come to refer to both the bumblebee and Krishna. Just as bees tend to enjoy the honey of the lotus, Krishna enjoys the honey of His devotees’ love. Srila Rupa Goswami, the great Vaishnava saint of sixteenth century, uses this dual meaning of Madhusudana in Act Five of his devotional drama Vidagdha Madhava:

Once, when Radha and Krishna were sitting together, a bee was disturbing Radharani by flying near Her. Krishna requested a friend to chase away the bee, and after finishing the task the friend came back proclaiming that madhu was gone. As the word can refer to either the bee or Krishna, Radharani “mistakenly” took it in the latter sense and began to cry, thinking Krishna was now gone. Even though She was right there in Krishna’s arms, She was totally gripped by vipralambha-bhava, the mood of separation, a level of divine love aspired for by advanced Vaisnavas. Seeing Radharani’s tears of love, Krishna also began to cry, and their tears mingled together to become the sacred pond known as Prema Sarovara in present-day Vraja (Vrindavana).

My reading of the Gita, which Prabhupada refers to as an introductory spiritual text, inspired my research into the name Madhusudana. Now the name conjures up for me the most intimate aspects of divine knowledge, specifically the Lord’s ecstatic exchanges with His feminine counterparts. Ultimately, Radha is responsible for Krishna’s becoming Madhusudana, both by Her ecstasy of imagined separation from Him, and by expanding Herself as Lakshmi and Yoga-nidra, chief actors in the pastime of the Lord’s killing the demon Madhu.

About the Author: 

Satyaraja Dasa

Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine.