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Why are Vishnu’s avatars, Ram and Krishna, opposites?

Published : Dec 9, 2018, 12:58 am IST
Updated : Dec 9, 2018, 12:58 am IST

Krishna married eight women and gave protection to 16,100 women.

The Upside-Down King: Unusual Tales about Rama and Krishna by Sudha Murty, Penguin Random House, Rs 250
 The Upside-Down King: Unusual Tales about Rama and Krishna by Sudha Murty, Penguin Random House, Rs 250

When it is raining “mythology” left, right and centre and the poor readers are almost drowning in this tsunami of tales, the question naturally arises, “Why one more?” “Which one to pick and why?” Well, a cursory look at this mountain of “mythological tales” and a serious reading of these two books, The Upside Down King and Ashtamahishi, one thing is clear — the authors and publishers are targeting the young urban audience, deprived of story-telling sessions by their grandparents, especially children living outside India.

While the first book by Sudha Murty covers Rama as well as Krishna, the second book, as is evident from the title, focuses only on Krishna and his wives. Both Rama and Krishna are believed to be the human incarnations of Vishnu but present entirely different shades of human nature. Rama, worshipped as an ideal man, son and ruler, was devoted to his wife, Sita. His actions and thoughts were shaped by dharma and dharma only.

Shaddon Pallock opines that Rama’s life is a tale of a divine human and a masterpiece that offers a framework to represent, conceptualise and comprehend the world and the nature of life. Rama’s reign, Rama Rajya, was perfect with no crime, poverty or discrimination. Or was it really so? Was justice done to Sita?

Unlike the monogamous Rama, Krishna is a romantic, polygamous man. Rama is serious but Krishna is playful. Rama had only one enemy but Krishna had multiple enemies. Krishna, regarded as a Purna-avatar, a combination of Vishnu, Narayana and Krishna, is the god of compassion and love. Rama is all dharma and Krishna is only love and love.

Is it a sheer coincidence or a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to start her book, The Upside Down King with the story of a divine cow? In her simple narration of stories,

Sudha Murty, in order to present a human side, has tried to instill some logic, some rational explanation to the use of certain customs, beliefs and practices. Why do people use expressions like “Ramabana”, “Nakshatrakal” and “Trishanku”? What is nimisha and why it is called so? Why do we distribute wealth on the tenth day of Ashwayija? Why the shami tree is called the tree of gold? And Ravana was after all not an evil force which mythological history has made out to be. His ten heads symbolised ten-fold knowledge and he was credited with many talents including the creation of a game called Chaturanga.


Sudha Murty has also referred to various versions of Ramayana. In the Jain Ramayana, Lakshmana, not Rama, battles against Ravana, kills him and brings Sita back to her husband. In Thailand, Hanuman is not a brahmchari but has many partners, like Krishna.

Krishna and his eight wives is the central idea of the book by Radha Viswanath but she has tried to present a negation of the patriarchal system through the use of another age-old custom, that is, swayamvara. Outwardly it seemed that women were given a choice to choose their husband but in reality it was a sham.

Daughters of royal families were used as pawns to achieve political objectives. Krishna, whose mission was to re-establish dharma, opposed this custom and argued that marriage should be based on mutual respect, love and trust.

Krishna married eight women and gave protection to 16,100 women. But why did Krishna marry so many times’? In fact, in one year he married four times.

The answer is simple, “What can Krishna do if princesses send emissaries requesting him to come and marry them” (page 136). “They were the ones who chose him as their husband. He only respected and honoured their desire. How could he be faulted for that?” (page 139). In fact Krishna’s wives regarded themselves as the lucky flowers who had reached his feet.

D. Dennis Hudson views Krishna’s eight wives (ashtamahishi) as a metaphor where each wife signifies a different aspect of him. The Indian narratives argue that eight wives were in fact eight Lakshmis — Adi, Dhana, Santana, Veera, Vidiya, Gaja, Dhanya and Vijaya (Sudha Murty, page 156). To marry them was a part of dharma.

But what is dharma and adharma?  Was it proper to abduct women? Is it wrong to seek revenge? Is Krishna a God or who is God? Radha Viswanath, while presenting Krishna’s wives, has touched upon the philosophy of life as well. The book is full of pearls of wisdom and mystical questions.  

Can we talk about Krishna without mentioning Radha? Alas, there is just a fleeting mention of her name. If the book was on Krishna’s wives only then why did the author cover Draupadi in detail? The filmi description of the chapters irritates you.

The only character which comes alive is of Satyabhama. She appears to be real, always questioning Krishna and providing some life to an otherwise bland book. The same goes for the first book.

It seems to be quite a journey for Sudha Murty from Dollar Bahu and Three Thousand Stitches to mythology writing. She is so occupied churning out books on mythology that some of the chapters are of one page only, less than 300 words. You start reading a story and lo and behold, it ends within a nimish (a second). Ravana is given a good coverage from page 47 to 72.  I think her next book will be on Ravana.

Well, if you ask me, you can read both the books, but only once.

Kulbir Kaur teaches sociology at Shyama Prasad Mukherji College, Delhi University

Tags: krishna, book review, sudha murty, vishnus avatars