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Friday, March 4, 2011

The Cult of Krishna

Were its origins in South Indian Neolithic?

Contrary to our belief that Krishna and his Cult of Bhagavatas belonged to the actual Mahabharata War period, literary evidence and the archaeological material show the presence of such a cult only at the beginning of the Christian era. Krishna probably was a historic hero who had lived in a misty past, remembered fondly for his deeds – some of them might have been factual and many - exaggerations and even fictional.
But there was clear material evidence of a faith akin to the mainstream Vaishnavism by the 1st century BCE.
There were some mentions of Greek writers of the Post – Alexandrian period with regard to  popular worship of Heracles in India, who certainly resembled the Krishna – Vishnu complex of deities.

The Garuda pillar at Besnagar (Vidisa) of Heliodorus, erected by a Greek ambassador to the Shunga court who had called himself a ‘Bhagavata’ happened to be the first material reference to the belief.
Some coins of the plough-wielding Balarama and the Chakra wielding Vasudeva of Agathocles from Afghanstan from second century BCE also confirm the existence of the cult.
The earliest but vague archaeological evidence comes from Mathura region, especially of the Cult of Samkarshana; and the Chittorgadh and Gosundi inscriptions in Rajasthan.

Now, let us try and push the dates of the original protagonist of all the myriad legends back as far as it is logically possible:
If we pursue, with reason, we must try and locate and establish his traces firstly in the orthodox tradition attributable to a very early date.

The compendia of Vedas are entirely bereft of his references.

The Chandogya Upanishad mentions a sage named Krishna, Son of Devaki, only in name and with no resemblance to the later day hero.
Of course, the final rendering of the epic Mahabharata belongs to a date slightly later. But the story is a record of every ancient tradition and collective memory dear to the orthodox renderer.

The earliest could only be the Puranic tradition assuming that, even though the accepted compilations belong to a much later period, they contain the kernels of some historic fact. Even they place him in a period marked by two significant events: Mahabharata Battle and the Submergence of Dwaraka.

From the archaeological reports of Prof. S R Rao of the ruins of Dwaraka, on the coast of Gujarat, its date of submergence falls sometime in the middle of the second millennium BCE, and arguably gives a clue to the probable date of the epic hero.

The date matches quite accurately with the king-lists and references in the Puranas duly corroborated by Megasthenes, of a 1040 year gap between the Mahabharata battle and the coronation of Nandas, which traditionally took place 90 years before the usurpation by  Chandragupta Maurya, whose date thankfully, can be determined due to the 13th Rock Edict of his grandson. If we go by the accepted dates of Chandragupta’s coronation, which is 321 BCE, we may arrive at the date of Mahabharata battle as 1450 BCE.

The ‘Prince of Mathura’ and the ‘King of Dwaraka’ became a hero in the popular milieu only at the beginning of the historic period: A gap of more than a millennium for the tradition to consolidate and the divinity of Krishna to be established within the orthodoxy, provided we agree on the date of submergence of Dwaraka and its association with the life of this legendary hero.

Is this tradition truly a product of a single man’s heroics or a consolidation of local beliefs and rituals crystallizing into the godhead ‘Vasudeva Krishna’?
In the complex called ‘Krishna’, we see four clearly discernible streams which had crystallized later into a single person:

1 A king and vanquisher of unorthodox / demonic enemies.
2 A mentor and a spring of religious thought, the ultimate Guru.
3 A godhead which drew heavily from the early tradition, yet crystallizing the new post Vedic milieu.
4 A fall back to the earliest pastoral lifestyle and the memories of Neolithic shamanistic strata.

‘The last of the above streams seems to be the most popular and enduring set with the common believer. And the others probably were later embellishments to fill out the character and draw support from its popularity to their emerging ideology.
Therefore, evidence to the kernel of Krishna legend in its pastoral setting must be available well before the third century BCE in the Neolithic remains in the region. Significantly, the material evidence from the early Neolithic remains of Northern sub-continent do not show any evidence of this cult.

Does this give us enough reason to look for antecedents south of Vindhyas?

Probably, yes.

Lets hypothesize that the kernel of Krishna thought had its origins in the Neolithic Milieu; and we perforce look for its evidence in the vast material remains there.

Let’s Explore:

I had some inspired encouragement from Prof. Korishettar, which drove me to visit this extraordinary site on top of a little hill, near the modern town of Bellary. Though the locals called this hill ‘Hiregudda’ meaning the ‘Big Hill’ in their vernacular, it is nothing but a hillock with a rocky outcrop resembling the head of large bird, probably an eagle. The colonial surveyors called it a peacock, but its semblance to a raptor is unmistakable.

A local guide, Linganna was the first to set my mind on this course by his unpresumptuous comment, “It is the head of Garuda”

 The Garuda Hill?

As we climbed up the granite hillock crowned by a dyke of a Dolerite trap, we were treated to a profusion of petroglyphs dating to the Neolithic times. The presence of ash-mounds and an extremely large dolerite tool making workshop nearby reasonably establish the time horizons for the site: from 3000 BCE to the beginning of the current era.
The hill is even today considered sacred by the local land-holding castes: Kurubas and Gollas, and those names stirred a vague resonance between them and the two dominant tribes of Mahabharata period – the Kurus and the Yadavas.
It may be far fetched; but the feeling continued as I started clicking with a pocket camera. As the evening progressed it grew stronger.
Now let me share some of those pictures and their likely connection with some of the legends associated with Krishna as I saw them.

Pic. 1 ‘Sudarsana’
It was made by interweaving the pictures of cows creating a symbol which loosely resembled the later day representations of Sudarsana Chakra and the Yantra.

Pic. 2 ‘Baka-asura’
The ‘Crane’ being attacked by a man – diminutive compared to its size. Could this be a representation of the legend – ‘Killing of Baka-asura’ - the Crane Demon by Krishna?

Pic. 3 ‘Raas Lila’
The ‘Hero’ being serenaded by dancing girls: The area also abounds with many erotic glyphs. Could it be an early depiction of Raas?

Pic. 4 ‘Kaustubha’
Symbol of Kaustubha: the jewel or tattoo which adorned the chest of Vishnu and Krishna.

Pic. 5 ‘Kaliya mardhana’
The hero stamps the snake: interestingly, the presence of footprints: Probably an early portrayal of the legend of Kaliya, in which the hero had left his footprints on the hood of the king of Nagas as a protection from the threat of Garutman.

In addition, there were many glyphs depicting cattle which dominate the site: in varied moods from docile to belligerent – being ridden, chained or fought. Illustrating the pastoral milieu of the Yadava tribe ?

Krishna Pāda
Finally, there was an abundance of foot marks. My initial reaction was that they are of some votive value, left there by the pilgrims or the visitors. Their resemblance to the current practice of marking the footprints of Krishna at the doorsteps of the Hindu households on Janmashtami day as propitiation and welcome symbol is rather striking.

Until the dawn of history in South Asia, which coincided with the period of Alexander, we do not find any material evidence of Krishna / Vasudeva / Bhagavata cult in both literary and archaeological contexts. Yet, there was strong popular belief in this complex godhead in the masses: For many foreign kings – Indo-Greek and Kushanas had taken the names demonstrating conformity.
The origins of this popular belief cannot be traced to the orthodox Vedic milieu.
The strong tradition arising out of the Neolithic – Pastoral genre forming a dominant part of the Vasudeva – Krishna legends had not left any significant traces in the Neolithic material of North India.
Whereas, the Neolithic site at Hiregudda, in the Sanganakaallu – Kupgal complex shows  probable evidence of this belief, and the time horizons take the belief back to second and third millennium BCE, making it probably the earliest trace of such belief.

It may be worthwhile to explore the vast number of Neolithic sites in Deccan for further evidence.

Strangely, most of the Neolithic Pastoral sites in Deccan are found in the region drained by the river system, which even today is known by the name ‘Krishna’.

• The author is not a qualified historian or an archaeologist. There is an eminent possibility that these conclusions were arrived at by other professional scientists / researchers earlier. The author would happily cede credit to them in such case. Failure to acknowledge them is entirely due to his ignorance of their work if it exists.

1. Though the presence of southern Neolithic was recognized as early as the late nineteenth century by such pioneers as Sewell, Foote et al, and pursued by the eminent archaeologists like Allchins and Prof. Paddayya; the most significant contributions came recently with the rediscovery of Kupgal - Sanganakallu complex by the South Deccan Pre-History Project co-directed by Nicole Boivin, Ravi Korishettar, Dorian Fuller and Michael Petraglia.


  1. It is said that the Harappan UoM called angulam was 1.7 cms. Were you able to apply this factoid to this site and the others you visited? And if yes, did it match up?

  2. Angulam is freely translated as the british inch by us now. the original angulam or 'width of a phalange' was different in various regional milieu. The best commentary was given by Hsuen Tsang. which varies from our telugu measures of length, 4 angulams is a betthe, two of them a jaana and two jaanas is a moora. There was aample confusion whether mura is equal to a cubit or jaaana. Another problem with angulam is whether it meant a length of phalange bone or the width of a finger. The standard brick of harappa is 1:2:4. if 4 is a cubit the working backward could make a angulam anything between 1.9 cm to 3.8 cm or by hsuen tsang's derivation 1.7 to 3.4. Even hsuen tsang said the measures varied from place to place.
    Finally how do i check measurement units when the art was free hand?

  3. Thank you for the wonderful information, I have used some photos and information on a web page. I site you as a reference. I am attempting to connect these ancient megalithic sites with ancient trade routes. If you have a moment please read the article, any more information or insight in this matter would be greatly appreciated.

  4. As someone who, admittedly, did not take much of an interest in the ancient history of India before, I find your writing truly fascinating to read. Your rational and analytic approach renders our complex tangle of myths and superstitions far more interesting and accessible to me, because it aims at achieving a true understanding of the land and its people. I greatly appreciate your efforts and hope others have and will come to do the same. Cheers!

  5. hello sir your comment on rock art not there any prof or not any practical support