The Mahabharata stories of the death of Krishna and the end of the Pandavas are well known. Krishna dies when he is shot by a hunter while he was lying in yoga in the jungle wishing to end his life. Some while after this, the Pandavas undertake a long pilgrimage which eventually leads them to the Himalayas and beyond, where they meet with their ends – Draupadi and the four younger Pandavas fall down on the way and die, and Yudhishthira is taken to heaven while he is still in his body after he passes a test by Dharma to encounter yet another test in the other world.
The end of Krishna, the Pandava brothers and Draupadi in the Devi Purana is very different from this.
Before we go into how the Devi Purana tells this story, a few words about the Purana itself. Devi Purana, also known as Mahabhagavata Purana, occupies a place of importance among the eighteen Upapuranas. It is called Devi Purana because its central theme is the glory of the Goddess. The Purana describes the transformation of the Primal Goddess into all the other gods and goddesses and explains the whole universe as her sport – śaktikrīdā jagat sarvam. Everything comes into being from her, everything exists in her and everything goes back unto her. The Taittiriya Upanishad speaks of Brahman as that from which everything comes into being, in which everything exists and unto which everything goes back – yato vā imāni bhutāni jāyante, yena jātāni jivanti, yat prayantyabhisamviśanti. The Goddess puts this in the Devi Purana as: “All this is me Me alone and nothing exists other than Me.” It is with the grace of the Goddess that Brahma creates the universe, Vishnu protects it and Shiva annihilates it in each circle of creation.
The comparatively small Purana consists of around four thousand five hundred verses divided into eighty-one chapters.
To the Devi Purana, Krishna is Kali incarnated as a male; and Radha, Shiva incarnated as a woman.
The Purana tells us that one day Shiva was sporting with his wife Parvati in the solitude of the Himalayas. The Lord of Lords was drinking in the amazing beauty of Parvati’s body with his eyes when a curious idea enters his mind. Birth as a woman is indeed wonderful, he thinks: nārījanma atiśobhanam.
With great tenderness he touches the face of his beloved. Then, addressing her with great love and reverence, he tells her: “Supreme Goddess, with your kindness, all my desires have been fulfilled. There are no more desires in my heart – except this one desire. Please fulfil this desire of mine too, Parameshani, if you are really pleased with me.”
Devi asks Shiva to tell her what his desire is and promises she will fulfil it. And Shiva tells her that she should take birth as a male somewhere on earth and he shall be born in a female body. She should become his husband and he, her wife; and they would love each other as they love now.
The Goddess promises to do so. She will take birth as a man in the house of Vasudeva in order to please him – she will be born as Krishna, she tells him.
Shiva is pleased. He tells Devi that he will take birth as Radha, the daughter of Vrishabhanu, and becoming as dear to her as her very life, he shall sport with her. He also tells her that his eight murtis shall be born as eight other women – Rukmini, Satyabhama and so on – and become his wives.
Unlike in the Mahabharata, Krishna is not killed by Jara in the Devi Purana. Instead when he completes his missions on earth, one of which is to reduce the burden of wicked men on Earth, Brahma appears before him and asks him to reassume his original form and protect the gods. Krishna tells him that is precisely what he intends to do.
Krishna is the king of Dwaraka in the Devi Purana, unlike in the Mahabharata where he never becomes king. Following his conversation with Brahma, King Krishna tells his ministers that he does not intend to live on earth any more but will soon go to heaven. He asks them to send messengers to Hastinapura. They should go there and inform the Pandavas about his decision to ascend to heaven as suggested by Brahma.
When the Pandavas receive the message, they grieve over the news and decide to end their lives too to accompany Krishna to heaven through anumarana. Anumarana is a common Sanskrit word, which means wilful self-killing following another’s death. It is the ritual death we now call sati. Having made up their minds to follow Krishna in death, the Pandavas and Draupadi, and several other women, reach Dwaraka. Large quantities of other people too reach Krishna’s capital with the desire to do anumarana hearing of his decision to ascend to heaven.
When Krishna sees the Pandavas, his eyes fill up with tears. He entrusts the people of Dwaraka to them, telling them that since he is going to heaven, they should look after his people. Tears well up in the eyes of the Pandavas too at these words of Krishna. One after the other, beginning with Yudhishthira, they all inform Krishna that they too are going to give up their bodies and do his anugamana – follow him on his path.
In the Devi Purana, Draupadi is born of a part of Krishna-Kali – she is his/her amśaja. When the Pandava brothers express their desire to leave the earth and go with Krishna into the other world, Krishna turns to Draupadi and smilingly asks her if she would stay back on earth or would prefer to go to heaven with him.
“I am born of a part of you,” Draupadi tells Krishna, “and you are the supreme Kalika, the Primal One. I’ll follow you [merging back into you] as water merges back into water.”
aham tavāmśa-sambutā tvamādyā kālikā parā
aham tvām anuyāsyāmi jale jalamiva kṣaṇāt. – Devi Purana 58.28
A weeping Balarama tells Krishna to take all the Vrishni kings too with him since none of them would live on the earth without Krishna.
Krishna distributes his wealth among Brahmins and goes out of Dwaraka. The entire Vrishni clan follows him and as do the Pandavas along with their women and ministers. By the time they reach the sea, people from numerous other kingdoms too reach there. Nandi appears before them in a bejewelled chariot driven by lions. Brahma too appears in the skies along with the gods, bringing along thousands of chariots. At the sight of Krishna, the gods sing and dance in the skies, playing celestial drums and other musical instruments, creating a spirit of festivity and celebration all around.
In the middle of this great celebration, right before the eyes of Brahma and the gods, as the Pandavas and other people watch, Krishna changes into Kali. Kali boards the chariot drawn by lions and the next instant the chariot starts to move in the direction of Kailasa.
Draupadi touches the water of the sea before her and the next instant she merges back into Kali.
Yudhishthira boards a chariot which takes him to heaven.
Arjuna is an incarnation of Vishnu in the Devi Purana. Like Draupadi, he touches the seawater before him and abandons his body. Balarama too does the same. They are transformed back into the four-armed Vishnu bearing a conch, the discus, a mace and a lotus in his hands – for, like Arjuna, Balarama too is the incarnation of a part of Vishnu. Vishnu mounts his vehicle Garuda and is taken to Vaikuntha. Bhima and the other men there too abandon their bodies and are taken to heaven. Following this, Rukmini and the other seven queens of Krishna change themselves into Bhairava Shiva.
The Purana does not say anything special about Radha, so we will have to assume that she too changes back to Shiva as Krishna’s other wives do.
There is an interesting verse at the end of the chapter that narrates these incidents, a verse that is like a footnote. The verse says that in a later kalpa, Vishnu, with the blessings of Shiva, will be born as Krishna in his poornamsha [completeness] and he will reduce the burden of the earth like this through his sports [lila]. Which suggests that this is the story of an earlier kalpa.
The most interesting change in the Devi Purana rendering of the Mahabharata and Bhagavata story is that both Krishna and Draupadi are incarnations of Kali and that Radha and Krishna’s eight other wives are incarnations of Shiva and the gender switch this involves.
The tantric tradition too tells the same story about the birth of Radha and Krishna, the central difference being that the idea of gender switch and incarnation occurs to both Kali and Shiva simultaneously. Here it is in the moments of sexual climax that the thought occurs to them. United with Kali, Shiva wonders what the orgasmic experience he is undergoing is like for Kali, the feminine; and Kali wonders what the experience she is undergoing at the moment is like for Shiva, the masculine. Each one desires to know through personal experience what an orgasm is like to the other gender. It is this curiosity that suggests to both of them the idea of transgender incarnations.
Among the numerous other changes the Devi Purana telling of the story introduces is in the nature of Krishna’s end. In the Mahabharata, Krishna dies a lonely death. The epic tells us how disappointed he became with the Yadavas and their infights. At one stage, Krishna is so frustrated that he seeks the advice of Narada in dealing with the Yadavas. He tells the celestial sage that their cruel speech torments his heart every day. It is as though he is like an arani which is rubbed against another to produce fire. Speaking of Ahuka and Akrura and their inability to get along with each other, for instance, Krishna rhetorically asks Narada, “What can be more painful than having both Ahuka and Akrura on your side? And what can be more painful than not having both Ahuka and Ajrura on your side.”
syātām yasyāhukākrurau kim nu duhkhataram tatah
yasya chāpi na tau syātām kim nu duhkhataram tatah.
Calling himself totally helpless, Krishna compares himself to the mother of two brothers who are gambling against each other. She cannot pray for the victory of either one of them, because that would be the loss of the other, so she prays for both. When Gandhari curses Krishna and says that his people would soon come to an end, Krishna accepts the curse and says that he in fact is endeavouring to bring about their end – meaning, they deserve to be finished off, so evil have they become. And that is precisely what he does. The Mausala Parva paints graphically Krishna’s dejection with the Yadavas and his loneliness in the last moments of his life. For a long time he wanders about in the jungle all alone before he enters yoga and is killed by Jara the hunter who mistakes him for a deer.
In contrast, Krishna’s death in the Devi Purana is a glorious affair. When the time comes, Brahma, the Creator, comes to him to tell him that he has completed his missions on earth and time has come for him to get back to his world and assume his original form, as Kali. He announces his decision to end his life to his ministers and has them send ministers to Hastinapura. All the Pandavas decide to do anumarana with him, as do an endless mass of other men and women from his own kingdom and from other kingdoms. When the time is ready, he goes to the seacoast and there a celestial chariot drawn by lions – Kali’s chariot – arrives to take him to his world. Right before the eyes of the hordes of celestials and humans, he transforms himself into Kali and boards the chariot that speeds away towards Kailasa. And the mass of people assembled there accompany him into the other world – including Draupadi, his wives and the five Pandavas.
The Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana tells us of the death of Rama, which too is a very public affair, attended to by masses of people from Ayodhya who all enter the waters of the Sarayu following Rama and accompany him in his final journey into the other world. The story that Devi Purana tells us about Krishna’s death is akin to this.
Yet another major change the Devi Purana makes is in the death of the Pandavas. Yudhishthira’s ascend to heaven is not sasharira – with his earthly body – nor is it a lonely affair in a desert beyond the Himalayas, but a glorious one in the sight of a huge assembly of men and women, including his brothers and all the gods in heaven, on the banks of the sea in Dwaraka. Nor do the other Pandavas die lonely deaths. Arjuna is transformed into Vishnu and ascends to heaven on the back of Garuda. Draupadi merges back into Kali, whose partial incarnation she is.
Part of the differences could be explained by the devotional nature of the Devi Purana compared to the dialectical nature of the Mahabharata. Devi Purana is about bhakti and salvation through the grace of the Goddess. Whereas the Mahabharata is about living life in tune with dharma, as Vyasa himself states in his Bharata Savitri. The only life worth living, according the Mahabharata, is life lived in harmony with dharma. The only society that is worth living in is the one in which dharma reigns supreme. The purpose of Krishna’s birth in the Mahabharata is establishment of dharma and teaching the world the path of dharma which they can follow. As the Gita verses put it beautifully, he creates himself whenever dharma declines and adharma prospers and his mission is the destruction of adharma and reestablishment of dharma:
yadā yadā hi dharmasya glānirbhavati bhārata
abhyutthānam adharmasya tadātmānam sṛjāmyaham
paritrāṇāya sādhunām vināśāya ca dushkṛtām
dharmasamsthāpanārthāya sambhavāmi yuge yuge.
Whenever dharma declines and adharma prospers, Oh Bharata, then I create myself. In order to protect the good and destroy the evil, and to establish dharma, I am born age after age.
In the Devi Bhagavata too, that definitely is one of the missions of the Goddess who incarnates as Krishna. But there are also other missions to her Krishna incarnation. One of them is showing the world her glory so that man turns to her – salvation comes not exactly through dharmic living, though that too is essential, but through devotion. Yet another purpose of the incarnation is pure sport – lila, krida – sport for the sake of sporting, for the sake of pleasure. The best word to describe that is rāsa. The model of life set before man is not struggling to achieve goals, or even virtuous living, but the celebration of life, life in tune with the divine, which, when lived rightly becomes a long rāsa. In lila, in krida, there are no goals to be achieved – there is only one thing to be done: celebrating life, living life as a sport, which is achieved when man gives up his individual will and individual goals, and surrenders to the will and goals of the divine. Kali takes birth as Krishna and Shiva as Radha and eight other women to sport and celebrate life in yet another form.
The Pandavas end their life at the ascent of Krishna-Kali because it is his/her presence in their lives that makes their lives meaningful and without him/her, their lives are empty.