By Satyaraja Dasa

Yes, Krishna appeared as a newborn in a prison cell, but there’s a lesser-known fact of His birth.

Last year on Janmashtami, the celebration of Krishna’s appearance in this world, numerous Indian newspapers and magazines reminded readers that two years earlier they had celebrated the 5,125th anniversary of Krishna’s birth. The New Indian Express (October 1, 2015), echoing reports found throughout the subcontinent, boldly proclaimed that through archaeoastronomy and similar technologies, scientists and theologians could ascertain when Krishna was born: July 27, 3112 BCE, according to the Gregorian Calendar.

Whether or not their methods are adequate or their findings accurate, a far more important consideration is who Krishna is and what His birth and activities really mean. Of course, first and foremost, Krishna, or God, is ultimately “unborn,” and therefore His appearance in the world is less about when and more about why: His “birth” should be seen as an act of grace, a show performed for our benefit. His appearance in the material world is meant to cure us of our spiritual amnesia by reminding us of our real life in the kingdom of God and encouraging us to return there.

As commonly understood, Krishna appeared over fifty centuries ago in Mathura, India, as the divine child of Devaki and Vasudeva in the jail cell of the tyrant Kamsa, a demon in human guise. Why were they in a jail? King Kamsa, while transporting his sister Devaki and her new husband by chariot after their wedding, heard a voice from the sky, telling him that her eighth child would kill him. His initial response was to kill Devaki outright, thus nullifying the chance that any of her children might slay him. But Vasudeva pleaded for her life, saying that he would deliver any child she bore into Kamsa’s hands. The demonic king agreed to this proposition but went one step further: he locked them in his prison, so there would be no possibility of their deceiving him and letting their children go free.

The Lord chose to begin His earthly sojourn in a prison, but we should never think that His situation is like ours. Our life in the material world is tantamount to a prison sentence, and we are trapped until we develop love for God. Only then can we know release from material suffering and attain the freedom to return to our spiritual home. Krishna’s birth, on the other hand, was not ordinary: He not only appeared before His parents as God – first in His majestic four-armed Vishnu form, in full regalia, and then in the form of a divine baby – but He was also not forced to take birth by the laws of material nature. He appeared according to His own sweet will.

As soon as Vasudeva and Devaki began to delight in their newborn, by Krishna’s mystic potency the jail guards fell asleep and the heavy prison doors flew open. Vasudeva knew what to do. He picked up baby Krishna and carried Him across the Yamuna, from Mathura to Gokula (in the Vrindavan area). Entering his stepbrother Nanda Maharaja’s house, he saw that Yashoda (Nanda’s wife) had just given birth to a baby girl, Subhadra, also known as Yogamaya, the Lord’s spiritual energy. By Krishna’s arrangement, Yashoda and everyone else in her house were fast asleep. Leaving baby Krishna in the girl’s place, Vasudeva took the female child and returned to Mathura. He reentered the prison and shackled himself as before, so no one would know he had gone.

When Kamsa learned that Devaki had given birth, he viciously burst in to kill the infant. With intense desperation, he tried to smash the baby against the stone floor. But the baby girl manifested a frightening eight-armed form. Yogamaya turned into Mahamaya – or Durga, the goddess of the material spheres.

“Fool!” she said. “You can’t kill me. And know this too, Kamsa: The child who will be your undoing is already born.”

With these frightening words, she disappeared.

Kamsa soon sent numerous demons, one by one, to hunt down Krishna and kill Him. Some of them found Him in Nanda and Yashoda’s safe hamlet across the Yamuna, but the Lord easily destroyed them. The pastimes of Krishna’s subduing the demons convey the truth of good conquering evil. While they are literal stories of Krishna’s manifest actions, they also provide metaphors by which devotees live.

We generally understand that Nanda and Yashoda were Krishna’s foster parents, a notion that, while true, is only part of the story.

The Full Version

According to Vaishnava tradition, it is important to hear these stories, not only because of the philosophical points they convey but also because they free us from the cycle of birth and death. As Krishna Himself says in the Bhagavad-gita (4.9), “One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.” The word janma (birth) is used in this verse in relation to Krishna’s appearance. In other words, devotees are mandated not only to learn the mysteries of the Lord’s activities, but also how He appears in this world. His “birth” is instructive, telling us about His true nature and thus liberating us from material existence. But we must know His birth and activities in truth, and this is where one would do well to hear them from a master in disciplic succession, one who has “seen” this truth.

If one does so, one becomes privy to esoteric nuances that would otherwise remain hidden. While the common narrative related in the Srimad-Bhagavatam and other traditional texts tells us what happened on the face of it, there is also an “inside story,” a deeply philosophical reading that highlights Krishna’s true nature.

The more common narrative tells us that Krishna was born in Mathura and was transferred to Vrindavan when Vasudeva carried Him across the Yamuna. But this contradicts the notion that Krishna never leaves Vrindavan, as articulated by Srila Rupa Goswami in Sri Laghu-bhagavatamrita (1.5.461) and quoted by Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami in Chaitanya-charitamrita (Antya 1.67):

krishno ’nyo yadu-sambhuto
yah purnah so ’sty atah parah
vrindavanam parityajya
sa kvachin naiva gachchati

“The Krishna known as Yadukumara is Vasudeva Krishna. He is different from the Krishna who is the son of Nanda Maharaja. Yadukumara Krishna manifests His pastimes in the cities of Mathura and Dwarka, but Krishna the son of Nanda Maharaja never at any time leaves Vrindavana.” With this as a backdrop we could legitimately ask, how is it that Krishna takes birth in nearby Mathura if He never leaves Vrindavan? Wouldn’t being born in Mathura mean that He was at one point – at least during birth and soon thereafter – outside His sacred village?

But before going on to explain this, a few words are in order about what Srila Rupa Goswami is saying in the above verse. It is not that there are “many Krishnas,” as some scholars have mistakenly theorized and as a superficial reading of this verse might indicate. Rather, what is being referred to here is the complex topic of expansion and incarnation, so thoroughly detailed in Vaishnava texts. Sri Rupa’s verse tells us that the original form of Krishna, i.e., Vrindavan Krishna, expands into plenary forms and other manifestations for specific purposes. Thus, when the Lord apparently ventures out of Vrindavan, He actually remains there in an unmanifested state. Meanwhile, He continues on in His unfolding pastimes in one of His other forms, such as Vasudeva Krishna (Krishna, the son of Vasudeva).

Now, having understood Sri Rupa’s comment according to the tradition itself, let us reexamine the story of Krishna’s birth in light of the fact that He never leaves Vrindavan. According to the acharyas, Yashoda had actually given birth to twins, a boy and a girl. The boy was Krishna in His original form, and when Vasudeva arrived with his baby, an expansion of Krishna (Vasudeva), the expansion merged into Krishna’s original form, the son of Yashoda. After this, Vasudeva returned to Kamsa’s cell in Mathura with the baby girl, as the traditional story reveals.

This unique version comes to us, once again, from Gaudiya Vaishnava theologian Rupa Goswami. In his Sri Laghu-bhagavatamrita (1.5.452–456) he writes:

To give pleasure to His loving associates and even to relish His own wonderful pastimes, Sri Krishna manifested in Vraja [Vrindavan]. Because the parental love of Nanda and Yashoda is without parallel, Lord Krishna eternally thinks Himself their son. In ancient times, devotees revealed that the Lord appeared in His Vasudeva expansion in the home of King Vasudeva, and at the same time He appeared in His original form in the village of Vraja. It was thus said that Sri Krishna and Yogamaya were the twin children of Yashoda in Vrajabhumi. When Maharaja Vasudeva arrived there, he entered Yashoda’s maternity room, seeing only Yashoda’s daughter. The Vasudeva expansion that King Vasudeva had brought with him from Mathura entered the body of the original Sri Krishna, who had just taken birth as the son of Yashoda. In this way the two forms of Vasudeva and Krishna became one. Because this pastime is very confidential, it is not conveyed in Srimad-Bhagavatam and other texts. Nevertheless, Shukadeva Goswami and other great devotees have indirectly described it in their writings.

There are hints of these truths in Sanatana Goswami’s Brihad-bhagavatamrita, where the gopis deny that Vasudeva and Devaki are Krishna’s actual parents (2.6.287), and where Akrura says outright that Krishna is simply not Vasudeva’s son (2.6.304, Sanatana’s own commentary). But once Rupa Goswami fully articulates it, as seen above, the complete story can be found throughout the Gaudiya canon, most famously in the third chapter of Jiva Goswami’s Gopala-campu and in Vishvanatha Chakravarti’s Tenth Canto commentary, Sarartha-darshini (Chapter Three, verses 47–55). In two particular verses of his Sri Krishna-sandarbha (Anuccheda 149), Srila Jiva Goswami is emphatic: (3) “Krishna became the son of Nanda and Yashoda. He was not the son of anyone else”; (16) “Nanda and Yashoda, and not Vasudeva and Devaki, are the real parents of Sri Krishna.”

Confirmed by Srila Prabhupada

As the greatest ambassador of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the modern world, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada supports the conclusions of his predecessors. The subject at hand is no exception. For example, in commenting on the Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.3.47), he writes:

Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura discusses that Krishna appeared simultaneously as the son of Devaki and as the son of Yashoda, along with the spiritual energy Yogamaya. As the son of Devaki, He first appeared as Vishnu, and because Vasudeva was not in the position of pure affection for Krishna, Vasudeva worshiped his son as Lord Vishnu. Yashoda, however, pleased her son Krishna without understanding His Godhood. This is the difference between Krishna as the son of Yashoda and as the son of Devaki. This is explained by Vishvanatha Chakravarti on the authority of Hari-vamsha.

The late Gour Govinda Swami, one of Srila Prabhupada’s prominent disciples, lectured on this subject in Bhubaneswar (August 18, 1995) and elsewhere:

Exactly at the same time when Yashoda-mata gave birth to Krishna in Vrindavan, Devaki also gave birth to a child in the prison house of Kamsa. That is described in the Tenth Canto of the Bhagavatam. On one hand, the son of Nanda and Yashoda is Svayam Bhagavan, the original Supreme Personality of Godhead . . . . On the other hand, manifesting from the womb of Devaki came the four-handed form Vasudeva, who is a prabhava-prakasha expansion of Krishna. In other words, the Adi Purusha complete original Supreme Personality Krishna took birth from mother Yashoda, while [an expansion as] Lord Narayana (Vishnu) simultaneously manifested from the womb of mother Devaki.

[As] Vasudeva was leaving the prison of Kamsa, Yashoda-mata gave birth to yet a second child, a daughter. So, Yashoda-mata gave birth to one son and one daughter. Vasudeva Maharaja arrived in Vrindavan, put down the prakasha expansion, and then picked up the daughter. While he was doing those things, he did not see Yashoda’s son, Krishna. How could such a thing happen? Well, by her own potency, Yogamaya kept the son of Nanda hidden, and Vasudeva could not see Him. Vasudeva only saw the daughter. The son of Vasudeva and Devaki is a four-handed plenary portion of Krishna. So when Vasudeva put Him on the lap of Yashoda, that plenary portion entered into the child, Syamasundara Krishna, who already was lying there.

Prabhupada again refers to the dual birth in his commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.5.1–2, when describing Nandotsava, the birth celebration that took place in Nanda Maharaja’s home:

The jata-karma ceremony can take place when the umbilical cord, connecting the child and the placenta, is cut. However, since Krishna was brought by Vasudeva to the house of Nanda Maharaja, where was the chance for this to happen? In this regard, Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura desires to prove with evidence from many shastras that Krishna actually took birth as the son of Yashoda before the birth of Yogamaya, who is therefore described as the Lord’s younger sister. . . . According to the opinion of some authorities, Krishna was actually born as the son of Yashoda. In any case, . . . we can accept that Nanda Maharaja’s celebration for the ceremony of Krishna’s birth was proper. This ceremony is therefore well known everywhere as Nandotsava.

From the time of Krishna to the present, Nandotsava is celebrated on the day after Janmashtami. Chapter Five of Prabhupada’s book Krishna (and thus the fifth chapter of Srimad-Bhagavatam’s Tenth Canto) elaborates on the significance of this day, explaining that when Krishna was born, Vrindavan’s many saintly villagers came to see Him and congratulate the new cowherd parents. Nanda Maharaja, taking advantage of the auspicious occasion, gave many valuables in charity to all his guests, such as clothes, ornaments, and cows. The festival is considered the most glorious moment associated with the day of Krishna’s appearance. In fact, Nandotsava is in some ways the real Janmashtami because it is the initial celebration of Krishna in His original form.

In 1896, Prabhupada himself appeared in this world on Nandotsava, the day after Krishna’s appearance day, thus infusing an already auspicious day with even greater potency. For members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, while Janmashtami is one of the most important days of the year, Nandotsava will always have special meaning, not only because of its relation to the original Personality of Godhead, but because it is the appearance day of the person who gave us that Supreme Personality. Indeed, without Srila Prabhupada, the secrets and mysteries of Krishna’s appearance would remain far, far away.