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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XXI No. 8, August 1-15, 2011
The subjugation of Kaliya
– and an object lesson in peaceful co-existence

The story of how the divine child, Krishna, battled with and subdued the monstrous serpent Kaliya is one of the best-known myths in India and is celebrated in art and literature. The story is told in the Bhagavata Purana, the Vishnu Purana, Harivamsa and elsewhere.

Krishna's subjugation of snake Kaliya – a bronze, circa 16th Century AD (Courtesy: Cobra and Government Museum, Chennai.)

Kaliya originally dwelt in Ramanaka, the home of the serpents. The serpents had to propitiate Garuda (or Suparna), their inveterate enemy, by leaving a tribute at the foot of a tree every month at the Full Moon. But Kaliya, arrogant in the knowledge of the power of his venom, ignored Garuda. Incensed by this rebellion, Garuda swooped down on Kaliya and beat him up with his powerful wings. Kaliya was no match for the ferocious Garuda, and had to jump into the river Yamuna, or Kalindi, to escape further attack. It was clever of him to seek refuge in Kalindi for he knew it was out of bounds for Garuda.

Once, Garuda had caught a fish from Kalindi and, in doing so, had incurred the wrath of a rishi, Saubhari, who was meditating there. The rishi cursed Garuda that if he ever again visited the river, he would pay with his life. Kaliya, therefore, with his many wives, was quite secure in the river Kalindi. But his venom was so noxious that it rendered the waters unfit for use by men and cattle and burnt up the surrounding landscape. Even the birds flying over the river got scorched by the poisonous vapour.

Krishna’s kinsmen and friends were all cowherds, who lived on the banks of Kalindi and they were in despair. And so were their cattle. One day, Krishna was wandering through the forest alone, when he thought of taking a plunge in the river. This infuriated the serpent and he attacked Krishna. Both were formidable and there ensued a mighty battle. Krishna had his superior strength drawn from his divinity, but the serpent was a worthy foe. Krishna was victorious in the end and he hammered down the five hoods of Kaliya with his feet and danced upon them. (That explains the indelible mark on the cobra’s hood.)

Kaliya was now totally vanquished, his body broken and he was vomiting blood. Kaliya’s many wives, thereupon, swam to the site of the battle and entreated the Lord to spare their husband’s life. Kaliya too prayed for his life to be spared. Krishna relented and released the serpent on condition that he abandoned his residence in the river, since it was the fount of life for men and cattle, and go to the remote ocean. As an added token of grace, he conferred on him protection from the wrath of Garuda so that even away from the safe haven of Kalindi, he had no reason to fear Garuda.

In the vanquished Kaliya’s prayer to the Lord, there is a plaintive admission of the helplessness of the serpent to desist from evil. According to the Bhagavata, Kaliya says: “We are born wicked, ignorant and rancorous. And it is hard to get rid of one’s natural disposition, O Lord, because of its tenacious hold on one. Thou hast made, by means of the gunas, O creator, this universe with its infinite diversity and multifarious dispositions, every creature being unique in its nature, strength, energy, heredity, mind and size. Among these, O Lord, we serpents are of a congenitally vicious temper; how can we, deluded creatures, free ourselves by our own efforts from the power of Thy maya, which it is so hard to overcome? As only Thou canst effect that for us, being the Omniscient and
Supreme Lord of the universe, vouchsafe us Thy mercy or deal out punishment, just as Thou wilt”. (Tr. N. Raghunathan). The Lord recognised the force in the argument and decided that what was called for was not the annihilation of Kaliya but his relocation to the ocean so that, even as Kaliya lived his life according to his lights, the men and beasts on the shores of the river could carry on their lives safe and unafraid.

Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943), the German scholar and Indologist, left, at the time of his untimely death, an assorted collection of notes on Indian themes, valuable for their range and perception. Some of these were collected and edited by Joseph Campbell, famous mythologist. In one such note, Zimmer had dealt with the theme of Kaliya’s subjugation by Krishna.

Zimmer sees in the tale of Kaliya and Krishna many layers of meaning. At one level, it was the story of suppression of a primitive serpent cult by the worship of an anthropomorphic divine saviour. “Through the intermediary, Krishna, the special cult of a local demon became merged into the widespread, general cult of Vishnu, the Supreme Bieng, and thus was linked into a context of superior symbolic import, representing concepts and intuitions of a general validity.” He sees a parallel in the account in Greek mythology of Apollo’s conquest of the earthbound serpent lord at Delphi and establishing himself in the serpent’s place as the fount of the Delphic prophecies.

But a better parallel is found in Indian scripture itself. If Krishna had freed the waters of Kalindi from the venom of Kaliya, thus restoring to the waters their life-giving property once again and giving succour to men and cattle, that was similar to what the supreme god, Indra, had done, according to the Rig Veda. The serpent-demon Vritra had imprisoned the rain-bearing clouds in a mountain and scorched the earth below. After a mightry battle, Indra slayed Vritra and liberated the waters.

Coming back to Zimmer, he points out that in the tale of Kaliya’s defeat, “Krishna played the role rather of moderator than of annihilator. He liberated mankind from a threat and a peril, favouring life against the slaying breath of the serpent, and yet recognised the rights of the destructive power; for, the venomous serpent was as much a manifestation of the Supreme Being as were the pious cowherds. It was a manifestation of one of the darker aspects of God’s essence, and had appeared out of the all-producing, primary, divine substance. There could be no elimination, once and for all, of this presence which to Man seemed wholly negative. Krishna effected only a kind of boundary settlement, a balanced judgement as between demons and men. For the good of the human kingdom, Kaliya was assigned to a remoter sphere, but he was allowed to remain unchanged both in nature and in power. Had he been transformed, redeemed, or altogether eliminated, the counter-play between human and demonic, productive and destructive energies would have been disrupted – and such an eventuality was far from the intent of the Highest Being.”

We may recall here the story in Genesis in the Bible. When the serpent in the Garden of Eden betrayed God and tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God had forbidden Adam and Eve from eating, God punished the serpent along with Adam and Eve. They were also banished from Paradise. Later, when God, concerned with the growth of evil on earth, decided to release the Great Deluge to destroy all his creations but wanted Noah to preserve in the Ark seed-stock of all creations for future procreation on a cleaned-up earth, he did not forget or ignore the snake and specifically included “every creeping thing of the earth” to be inducted into the Ark (Genesis). After the Deluge, God also wanted the ‘creeping things’, just as his other creations, to “abound on the earth and be fruitful and multiply on the earth” (Genesis). God, therefore, not only let off the serpent lightly when it committed a major transgression in the Garden of Eden but also, notwithstanding that a convenient opportunity had arisen later to see the last of the serpent when the Deluge overtook the Earth, did not want the serpent and its kin to be wiped out for ever.

Apart from the Bible, the analogous theme of serpent versus divine or semi-divine power is found in Western mythology in the story of Herakles, son of Zeus, the Supreme Lord of the Gods, and hence a semi-divine power himself who, as an infant, strangles the two serpents sent by a jealous Hera, the mistress of Zeus, into the infant’s cradle. Here again, it is worthwhile recalling what Zimmer says: “In the West, the hero-saviours descending from heaven to inaugurate a new age on earth are regarded as embodiments of a spiritual and moral principle superior to the blind, animal life-force of the serpent power. In India, on the other hand, the serpent and the saviour are two basic manifestations of the one, all-containing divine substance. And this substance cannot be at variance with either of its polarised, mutually antagonistic aspects. Within it, the two are reconciled and subsumed.”

Even leaving aside the higher philosophical interpretations of the story of Kaliya and Krishna, the obvious message is the need for men and animals to peacefully co-exist on earth. We, humans, are interlopers on this planet, in a manner of speaking; the innumerable plant and animal species have been here millions of years before we arrived. We made the earth safe for our habitation and productive to suit our needs by destroying these creations using our superior brain-power and the weaponry we designed. But this is not a process that can be carried on for ever. At some stage, Nature will strike back as, indeed, it has in many instances.

No doubt, as a species, we have a responsibility to ourselves to see that we survive and survive in some comfort. This makes it necessary to inflict some degree of violence on nature and on other life-forms. Conversion of vast extents of wilderness to agricultural lands and urban habitations and damming of the rivers have been necessary for human survival. But these have denied their original inhabitants space to exist. This has inevitably led to man-animal conflicts in many places.

We, in India, often hear of stories of elephants and leopards from the forest areas intruding into human-occupied nearby lands thus causing much damage to crops and property and posing a threat to human life itself. A few decades of sensitisation has taught us that the solution to this problem is not to blindly kill the animals. We, therefore, explore the possibilities of avoiding excessive habitat conversion, fence in occupied lands, restore elephant corridors in the forest areas and, finally, translocate wild animals on the periphery of human-occupied lands to safe areas. In fact, in extreme situations, as in the case of conservation of precious tiger populations in ‘protected areas’ such as sanctuaries and national parks, we do even consider translocation of the human population in and adjacent to such ares so as to enable the tigers to live in peace and multiply. The effort is to ensure that, on the one hand, damages to the eco-system are kept down to the minimum or avoided altogether and, on the other, effective ways explored to enable men and animals to co-exist peacefully. This, indeed, is also the message of the story of Krishna’s translocation of Kaliya from the river Kalindi to the recesses of the ocean. (Courtesy: Cobra, journal of the Chennai Snake Park Trust)

In this issue

What is happening at the Adyar Poonga?
Is the beat constable feasible any longer?
The missing Madras bulwark
The subjugation of Kaliya
Bharata Natyam
Other stories

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your diary

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