Legend of Dwaraka
Krishna- the protector of Mathura, the lord of Dwaraka and the reciter of the Bhagwad Gita on the battlefield of Kurukshetra-is one of the most enduring legends of India. But was he also a mortal, historical figure? Two books look at connections between the ancient texts and archaeology
By T.R. Gopaalakrushnan
After killing Kamsa, Krishna and his brother Balarama placed Ugrasena on the throne and remained in Mathura. This greatly angered Kamsa’s father-in-law Jarasandha, the emperor of Magadha. He repeatedly attacked Mathura to avenge Kamsa’s death. Although Krishna and his small Yadava army were able to defeat Jarasandha’s hordes every time, it was an unequal contest in which superior numbers were bound to tell in the long run. So Krishna led the Yadavas to the west coast. They built the fortified town of Dwaraka on the site of the ancient Kushastali, which became Krishna’s seat for the rest of his eventful life. Dwaraka was submerged in the sea 36 years after the Mahabharata War. Forewarned, Krishna had persuaded the Yadavas to move to higher ground in Prabhas (near modern Somnath). Shortly thereafter, the Yadavas, or at least their leaders, destroyed themselves. Krishna himself died a few days later, killed by a hunter’s arrow.
Does this bare-bones out- line of the colourful story of Krishna have a true, historical core? Are Krishna and Dwar-aka actual historical entities? For a majority of Indians, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Some archaeologists and historians too are now willing to accept that the common man’s faith does have a basis in fact.
RECREATING A PAST THAT WAS CONSIDERED A MYTH: A scale model of coastline and township of Dwaraka displayed in the Birla Science Museum in Hyderabad; (above) The main temple at Dwaraka
The strongest archaeological support comes from the structures discovered under the sea-bed off the coast of Dwaraka in Gujarat by the pioneering team led by Dr S.R. Rao, one of India’s most respected archaelogists. An emeritus scientist at the marine archaeology unit of the National Institute of Oceanography, Rao has excavated a large number of Harappan sites including the port city of Lothal in Gujarat. In his book The Lost City of Dwaraka (Aditya Prakashan, Rs 1500), published in 1999 he writes about his undersea finds: “The discovery is an important landmark in the history of India. It has set to rest the doubts expressed by historians about the historicity of Mahabharata and the very existence of Dwaraka city. It has greatly narrowed the gap in Indian history by establishing the continuity of the Indian civilisation from the Vedic Age to the present day.”
But not all are convinced. Some point to ‘contradictions’ in his findings and lack of other corroboration. Others believe that the entire story of Krishna as written in the Mahabharata is pure mythology, and any claims of archaeological evidence must necessarily be incorrect. As historian R.S. Sharma has written in his history textbook for class X students: “Although Lord Krishna plays an important role in the Mahabharata, the earliest inscriptions and sculpture pieces found in Mathura between 200 BC and 300 AD do not attest his presence.” (The BJP has attempted to have these lines deleted from the textbook.)
But there are archaeological finds that do attest to Krishna as a historical figure. For instance excavations in Bedsa (near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh) have unearthed the remains of a temple of 300 BC in which Krishna (Vasudeva) and Balarama (Samkarshana) are identified from their flagstaff. Krishna’s son Pradyumna, grandson, Aniruddha and another Yadava hero, Satyaki, have also been identified.
A more recent historical record, dated 574 AD, occurs in what are called the Palitana plates of Samanta Simhaditya. This inscription refers to Dwaraka as the capital of the western coast of Saurashtra and states that Krishna lived here.
No one has so influenced the course of India’s religion, philosophy, art and literature as Krishna. Traditional belief is that Krishna lived in Dwaraka at the end of the Dwapara Yuga. Dwaraka, in fact, is considered one of the seven holiest and most ancient Indian cities. The others are Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Varanasi, Kanchi and Ujjain, which together are known as Mokshada-that which leads to salvation.
According to Hindu historical tradition, Kali Yuga began with the death of Krishna more than 5,000 years ago. The Puranas are emphatic on the cultural degradation that set in after the Mahabharata war, which is seen as one of the most important turning points in ancient Indian history. Krishna, according to traditional belief, participated in that transition.
Artefacts recovered from the sea bed, like the reconstructed perforated jar (left) found in Bet Dwaraka, included a low footed stool of basalt and a pestle of granite and a grinder cum pounder of dolerite, among others.
“Krishna very much existed in flesh, blood and bones,” said Madhav Acharya, archaeologist at the Haryana archaeological department. “It is difficult, if not impossible, for a thing like the Mahabharata to be believed till today in the same spirit and faith unless there is some truth to the story. And that truth is the power struggle, and the main characters. One of them was Krishna. The power struggle is not a myth. If the heart of the story is to be believed as a historical event, then Krishna too should be seen as a historical character.”
Excavations all over north and western India, however, show that a highly developed society had existed long before the accepted dates and theories of ancient Indian history. But researchers like N.S. Rajaram and David Frawley argue that the Harappan civilisation represents the material remains of the Vedic Age.
The postulate has its opponents, notably the well-known historian Romila Thapar. “The latest entrants into the field (of history) are Indian scientists from the US, who in the guise of using science and computers are now holding forth on the Aryan problem,” she wrote some time ago in an article. “They are neither willing to acknowledge that they know little about archaeology, history or linguistics nor willing to work with such specialists.”
A few others are straddling the fence. “This debate about ancient Indian history is in fact not at all about finding the truth,” said Dr Bhagwant Josh, professor of contemporary history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. “One side wants to appropriate the glory and pride of what is considered the most systematised civilisation of city dwellers, by linking their past to it, and the others want to deny them that.” On the specific issue of the legend of Dwaraka, Josh said, “Krishna must have been historical as well as mythical. Much before the historical Krishna was born, the mythical Krishna must have existed (there is a reference to a Krishna in the Rig Veda); the historical Krishna would have been named after the mythical one.”
The other important issue is the nature of the connection between archaeology and India’s ancient texts and literature. Pratnakirtim apavirnu, know thy past, exhort the Vedas and Upanishads, which for long had been described as myth and legend or as religious texts without much historical value. Some historians have consistently opposed making any connection between Harappan archaeology and Vedic literature as part of the same historical and cultural stream. A position that is increasingly being challenged. “The core reality of these texts must be taken as the basis of further exploration of the sites of the Mahabharata tradition,” said Rao, “as whatever was there in the late Indus Valley civilisation period is reflected in the civilisation of the Mahabharata.”
Inevitably, some scholars and historians disagree. “No individual character like Krishna or Rama can be found through archaeology,” said Prof. B.D. Chatopadhyay of the Centre for Historical Studies at JNU. “Archaeology can reconstruct the material culture of a people. Krishna is known from legends, epics and puranas. Interpolating archaeology with literature is fraught with difficulties. The efforts of some historians and archaeologists to correlate textual evidence with archaeological finds have not found a consensus even among themselves, and serious archaeologists are questioning the exercise.”
AN ARTIST’S IMPRESSION OF FORTIFIED DWARAKA: The general layout of the city described in ancient texts agrees with that of the submerged city
Not so, said R. S. Bisht, director of excavations and exploration at the Archaeological Survey of India, Delhi, who is a strong believer in correlating archaeological finds with the ancient literature, as he did in the case of the Harappan civilisation and Rig Veda. “The Rig Vedic people were the authors of the Harappan civilisation,” he said. He has little doubt of the historicity of Krishna. “In the Upanishads, as I see it, there are no fictitious kings. So Krishna was a historical figure.”
Other well-known historians like Prof. B.B. Lal, former director-general of ASI and author of a recent book on the Saraswati civilsation, too have said that it is time for a rethink. But while the numbers of those who agree on this point is increasing, there is as yet no consensus on the period mentioned in the texts, especially the Mahabharata, which is pounced upon by critics of this approach. As Chatopadhyay pointed out, “If one is sure about the dates of the texts, then some idea of the society that produced it can be had, but we have no knowledge of the dates, and the Mahabharata was authored over a long-drawn period.”
Leaving aside the date issue for now, it seems reasonable to accept the postulate that the Harappan sites relate to the Vedic culture described in the Vedas, Puranas and the Mahabharata. “The Vedic literature matches with the description of the archeological finds,” said Madhav Acharya. As Rao said, “religion, language, yoga, town planning and maritime activities point to the mature Harappan as the Vedic period. And the connecting link between this and the Mahabharata or late Harappa period is what some call the ochre coloured pottery and what we call late Harappan pottery. Geography also shows similar evidence.”
“Krishna very much existed,” said Madhav Acharya. “If the Mahabharata is to be
believed then Krishna too should be seen as a historical character.”
Rajaram and fellow researcher N. Jha say the Harappan seals are full of Vedic motifs. Madhav Acharya feels that that was a time “when people had language but no script. Till Brahmi, which can be read, there was no script but there was an oral tradition. The Harappan script has not been found in huge volumes.” Rao said people who recited the Vedas might not have written it down because of difficulties with pronunciation. But he is convinced the Harappan civilisation could not have been built without writing and advanced knowledge.
Be that as it may, archaeological finds do show that coastal Gujarat could well have been an important part of the Vedic and pre-Harappan fold. As Rao writes in his book, “Long before the Mahabharata period the Indus valley civilisation had penetrated deep into Kutch at Dholavira and Surkotada by 3000 BC. It reached its climax between 2800-1900 BC at Lothal. They spoke a proto-Aryan language akin to Old Indo-Aryan (Vedic Sanskirt) and their basic concept of cosmic, moral and religious order mentioned in the Indus seals was similar to that of the Rig Veda.”
The underwater discoveries in the Gulf of Cambay subsequent to Rao’s expeditions off Dwaraka, and other excavations off the coast show that the region probably had human settlements from very ancient times, 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. One of them could well have been Krishna’s Dwaraka (known in ancient times as Kushastali or ‘Place of Kusha’), the destruction of which is so graphically described by Arjuna in the Mausala Parva of the Mahabharata: “The sea, which had been beating against the shores, suddenly broke the boundary that was imposed on it by nature. The sea rushed into the city. It coursed through the streets of the beautiful city. The sea covered up everything in the city. I saw the beautiful buildings becoming submerged one by one. In a matter of a few moments it was all over. The sea had now become as placid as a lake. There was no trace of the city. Dwaraka was just a name; just a memory.”
According to the ancient texts, the west coast around Gujarat has been the traditional land of the Yadavas, or Yadus who claimed descent from Yadu, the eldest son of Yayati. Centuries before Krishna, the Yadu king Arjuna Kartavirya had been defeated by Parashurama. Bhrigukaccha, the modern Broach, is named after the Bhrigu clan of Parashurama. (Krishna undertook a sea voyage from Bhrigukaccha to Prabhas, according to Bhagavata Purana.) So Krishna was only returning to the land of his ancestors.
The location and topography of the site selected by Krishna made it safe from Jarasandha’s attacks. Reaching Dwaraka bounded by the sea and Rann was a hazardous task for Jarasandha’s army. Secondly, being a good port, Dwaraka promised prosperity to the enterprising people. Not that it was totally immune from attack. Krishna’s Dwaraka was attacked by the king of Salva (modern Sind) while he was away at Indraprastha to attend Yudhishtira’s rajasuya ceremony.
Many scholars accept all this mainly on literary grounds. What was lacking was archaeological evidence linking Gujarat, Dwaraka and Krishna. Which is what prompted Rao to lead a marine archaeological expedition to the coastal region near modern Dwaraka in search of submerged settlements that might correspond to Krishna’s capital.
The underwater expeditions-which won Rao the first World Ship Trust Award for Individual Achievement-were undertaken after extensive on-shore excavations had yielded incontrovertible evidence of a protohistoric settlement of 1600 BC destroyed by the sea. Conducting 12 expeditions during 1983-1990, Rao identified two underwater settlements, one near the present-day Dwaraka and the other in the nearby island of Bet Dwaraka. In the book The Lost City of Dwaraka describing his discoveries, Rao suggested that Krishna occupied these places around 1500 BC.
In search of submerged human settlements: A diver inspecting the rocky ridge having man-made holes for securing boats
What Rao and his team discovered was a well-fortified township that extended more than half a mile from the shore. The sketch plan of Dwaraka, prepared on the basis of structural remains exposed in the sea-bed, suggests six different sectors of the town all fortified and some interconnected. Two major roads, each about 18m wide, connect a group of three buildings on the east which formed another designated enclosure, in which six bastions were found in a line.
The foundation of boulders on which the city’s walls were erected showed that the land had been reclaimed from the sea some 3,600 years back. The submerged township extended in the north up to Bet Dwaraka (Also known as Sankhodhara-said to have been the pleasure resort of Krishna and his consorts Satyabhama and Jambavati. The area is noted for its conch shell of good quality which was in great demand as a non-corrosive substitute for metal). It extended up to Okhamadhi in the south, and Pindara in the east. (A pearl fishing village for more than 3,000 years, Pindara is a holy place-Pinda Taraka is mentioned in the Mahabharata where sage Durvasa had his hermitage.)
The general layout of the city of Dwaraka described in ancient texts agrees with that of the submerged city and shows evidence of town planning. For example: “Land was reclaimed from the sea near the western shores of Saurashtra. A city was planned and built here. Dwaraka was a planned city, on the banks of the river Gomati. This beautiful city was also known as Dwaramati, Dwarawati and Kushastali. It had well-organised six sectors, residential and commercial zones, wide roads, plazas, palaces and many public utilities. A hall called Sudharma Sabha was built to hold public meetings. The city also boasted of a good harbour.”
The excavations show that Dwaraka was an urban centre with certain specialised industries such as boat building and metal working as evidenced by this copper lota (left) found in the sea bed. Iron too was known to the smiths of Bet Dwaraka.
The Sabha Parva text of the Mahabharata describes houses, but none had survived the sea. A few paved paths, drains, etc. were traced. Some houses or public buildings had pillared halls. “An idea of the houses built of dressed and undressed stones in ancient Dwaraka can be had from the structures laid bare in the Harappan town of Surkotada in Kutch,” said Rao.
Kushastali is the name given to a pre-Dwaraka (or Harappan) settlement that had been abandoned and reoccupied and rebuilt during the Mahabharata period, said Rao, who identifies Bet Dwaraka with Antardvipa of the epic. “The word dvipa as used in the Mahabharata often conveys the sense of any land between two rivers or two waters, although it is also used for a continent,” said Rao. “The Harappan seal inscriptions mention happta dvappa (sapta dvipa-seven lands) and bhadrama dvappa (bhadrama dvipa-a seal found at Kalibanga meaning most auspicious land). Also, “the fort wall and submerged walls in the sea confirm the appellation varidurga, citadel in the water, given to Dwaraka in the Mahabharata.”
Rao also finds confirmation of the reference to Dwaraka as nagara (city) in the epic. The high level of civilisation in ancient Dwaraka is borne out by the engineering skill, advanced technology and the high literacy of the people. “It was an urban centre with certain specialised industries such as boat building, shell working, pearl diving and perhaps metal working also,” said Rao.
The stone mould found in the intertidal zone compares favourably with similar moulds found in Lothal and other Indus towns just as the tidal dock at Lothal built in 2300 BC is seen as the precursor of the port installation of Dwaraka. Iron was already known to the smiths of Bet Dwaraka as attested to by iron stakes, nails and other iron objects. Terracotta wheels of toy carts were also recovered.
By 1500 BC almost the entire township seems to have been destroyed. But while it existed, one later description of the city reads, “The yellow glitter of the golden fort of the city in the sea throwing yellow light all round looked as if the flames of vadavagni (volcano) came out tearing asunder the sea.”
Among the objects recovered from the sea-bed that establish the submerged township’s connection with the Dwaraka of the Maha-bharata was a seal (just 18mmx20mm) with the images of a bull, unicorn and goat engraved in an anticlockwise direction. “The motif is no doubt of Indus origin but the style shows considerable influence from Bahrain,” writes Rao. “The bull, unicorn and goat motif on seals from mature Harappan levels of Kalibangan and Mohenjo Daro is distinct from that of Bet Dwaraka which belongs to the late Indus period.” But the seal does corroborate the reference made in the ancient text, the Harivamsa, that every citizen of Dwaraka should carry a mudra as a mark of identifiction and none without a seal should enter it.
“When we got the seal we were really excited,” said Dr. Rao. “Secondly, we got a stone mound in which they cast some spear heads. So some weapons were definitely locally manufactured. The Mahabharata mentions that when Dwaraka was attacked they inserted iron stakes. We got one of those. These are evidences which corroborate what the texts said. But the evidence that really clinched the issue was the mudra and the references to two Dwarakas at the place mentioned in the ancient texts like Sabha Parva.”
Over 12 expeditions during 1983-1990, with funding for just 20 days in a year: Dr Rao and his pioneering team working off the coast of Dwaraka
The topography of the Okha region reveals seven parts interspersed by the Rann. They may be the seven islands that existed during the Mahabharata period and referred to in later texts. The occurrence of proto-historic (1600 BC) pottery on land suggests there were smaller towns between Dwaraka and Kushastali in ancient times. “With a large port town of Dwaraka, a shipyard in Bet Dwaraka and three other satellite towns at Aramda, Varwala and Nagewsar, the concept of the city state of Darukavana or Dwaravati must have been given a concrete shape,” speculates Rao. If all these settlements are taken as one unit, Darukavana extended over 45 km from north to south and at least 25 km from east to west approximating to eight yojanas, if not more.
Also, the Dwaraka harbour provided the earliest clear evidence of modifying natural rock to serve the needs of a harbour. Two rock-cut slipways of varying width extending from the beach to the intertidal zone were discovered, which “could have been designed for launching boats of different sizes.” This technique was adopted by the Phoenicians much later, around 900-800. The structures and the large stone anchors lying under the sea at Dwaraka are also seen as indicative of large ships being anchored out at sea while smaller boats carried men and cargo up the river.
Among artefacts reovered from Dwaraka and Bet Dwaraka were pottery carrying inscriptions in old Indo-Aryan (Vedic or archaic Sanskrit) script and were found to be 3,528 years old in thermoluminescence testing. Rao deciphers one of the potsherds recovered to read baga (God) in late Harappan characters and assignable to 1800-1600 BC and another as Mahakaccha sah pa, conveying the sense of “sea (or sea god) king (or ruler) protect”-an appeal to the sea god for protection. A similar appeal has been deciphered in a seal inscripion from Mohenjo Daro.
Triangular three-holed anchors weighing 120-150 kg, the biggest weighing 560 kg, found were similar to pre-Phoenician anchors found in Syria and Cyprus and were dated around 1500 BC. Another archaeologically significant find was a lunate shaped moonstone (chandrasila). This and a beam found in the vicinity suggested to Rao’s team that there existed a temple here. Stone artefacts recovered from the sea-bed included a low footed stool of basalt, finely polished found along with brass arches, a pestle of granite and a grinder cum pounder of dolerite. Two single-holed spheroid stone objects, use unclear, datable to 1500-1400 BC were found, besides iron nails, brass objects, a copper bell, a highly corroded copper lota and a few bronze nails. Low zinc brass produced at Lothal in 2300-2000 BC is similar in composition to that found at Dwaraka.
Admittedly, there is not much dispute about the general area of Krishna’s kingdom. “The dating of Rao’s material was done, not by archaeologists, but by scientists at the Physical Research Lab, and that cannot be disbelieved. So it is definitely ancient Dwaraka,” said Acharya. But in terms of time, Rao’s explorations place Krishna and the Mahabharata in the post-Harappan period or after the break-up of the Harappan empire due to natural causes around 2200-1900 BC.
“Generally our findings have been accepted,” said Rao. “There are a few who think that the date 1700-1800 BC that we have assigned is not in consonance with the traditional date of 3102 BC. But so far as the archaeological evidence from on shore and off-shore excavations and thermoluminescence dating is concerned Kushastali with its late Harappan relics where the first Dwaraka was built may be assigned to 1700 BC and the town on the mainland may be slightly later,” Rao said. “Although traditional date of 3102 BC cannot be confirmed by avaiable evidence, it is better to explore deeper waters of Bet Dwaraka,” said Rao. “There is one other possibility. In Bet Dwaraka there are the mudflats. We are not able to dig because you hit water at an early depth and neither diving nor excavations are possible.” (Archaeological excavations show that modern Dwaraka is the seventh settlement of the name on this site. It is now generally accepted that the earlier cities have been, at various times, swallowed by the sea. Interestingly, the only ancient temple for Matsya, Vishnu’s incarnation at the time of the great flood, is to be found at Sankhodhara in Bet Dwarak.)
The structures and stone anchors lying under the sea indicate large ships being anchored out at sea while smaller boats carried men and cargo up the river as visualised in this artist’s impression of the harbour of ancient Dwaraka.
Madhav Acharya too favours the later dates. “There is a difference in the geographic areas as well as the time frame of the Saraswati civilisation that is wholly Vedic, and the setting of the Mahabharata,” he said. According to him, while the Saraswati-or the Harappan-civilisation centres on the Saptasindhu rivers (the Indus, the Saraswati and the five rivers that make up Punjab), the Mahabharata has the Ganga and the Yamuna, besides the Kurukshetra area in Haryana, as the backdrop. “The earliest habitation in the Ganga-Yamuna region does not go back beyond 1200-1100 BC, and in Mathura and the Mahabharata sites there is no evidence of earlier inhabitation.”
The date arguments notwithstanding, there can be no denying the importance of Rao’s findings. With Krishna consigned to mythology, the modernists of course insist that the undersea discoveries must have an explanation different from Rao’s interpretation and correlation with the ancient texts, though they have yet to come up with one. Researchers like Rajaram view Rao’s findings as confirmation of their theories that the Mahabharata belongs to a much earlier period.
Rajaram, in his yet to be published book Search for the Historical Krishna, cites three main reasons as to why the site discovered by Rao is actually a later Dwaraka than the one built by Krishna. First, considering the abundant Vedic symbolism found in Harappan archaeology, which Rao too says, the lack of any Vedic motifs in the artefacts found in the undersea excavations suggests that the settlement was a later one. Rajaram theorises that Krishna’s Dwaraka most probably lies below the existing ruins at a further depth of around 2.5 to 5 metres based on his calculations on the likely rise in sea levels over the past 5,000 years.
Low zinc brass produced at Lothal in 2300-2000 BC is similar in composition to that found in artefacts like this bronze bell excavated at Dwaraka. Also, a stone mould compares favourably with similar mould found in Lothal and other Indus towns.
The second reason cited is that Krishna of the Mahabharata and the archaeology of his Dwaraka must fit the picture of the region and society portrayed in the ancient texts. This, Rajaram says, better fits in the early Harappan (3100 BC) period than the post Harappan period favoured by Rao and some others. Especially since some of the artefacts recovered from the sea-bed show a strong affinity with West Asia, especially the Kassite empire of Babylon.
The third reason is the mismatch between the political situation described in the Mahabharata and the picture given by post-Harappan archaeology. “There can be little doubt that Krishna was a Vedic figure,” said Rajaram. According to the Mabhabharata, Krishna’s links were with the Kurus, the Panchalas and Mathura, all in the Vedic heartland to the north. “Just as there is no denying the Kassite influences on Rao’s Dwaraka, there is no denying the historic Vedic link between the Purus (or Kurus) and the Yadus along the Saraswati river, which should place them before the complete drying up the ancient river around 2200-1900 BC.”
This seal establishes the submerged township’s connection with Dwaraka of Mahabharata. It corroborates the reference in the Harivamsa that says every citizen of Dwaraka should carry a mudra as a mark of identification.
Further, Rajaram argues, the Mahabharata describes India as made up of established kingdoms, with good communications and a common elite language. “It was an age of large kingdoms and empires and imperial aspirations,” he insists. In fact the geography as described in the epic is accepted by many scholars. Historian S.M. Ali is quoted in Rao’s book: “The georgrapahical matter contained in the Mahabharata is immense. It is perhaps the only great work which deals with georgraphic details and not incidentally as other works.” So Krishna’s Dwaraka must fit into the geography and society described in the epic, which obviously corresponds far more to the early Harappan rather than the post-Harappan period which saw the rise of regional cultures, what Rao calls Janapadas, Rajaram argues in his book. (Rao gives the following chronology: Pre-Harappa 3400-3100 BC; mature Harappa 3100-1900 BC; late Harappa 1900-1500 BC.)
The town was well-fortified with engineering skill, as seen in the hemispherical door-socket (left) and literacy as seen in the inscription in the earthern trough (right) in old Indo-Aryan script which Rao deciphers as Mahakaccha sah pa, conveying the sense of “sea (or sea god) king (or ruler) protect”.
Moreover, in looking at the historical basis for the Dwaraka legend, a key question is not just about Krishna but also whether the Mahabharata war and other participants in the war were historical also. One cannot have one without the other. And Rajaram and Jha, in their yet to be universally accepted decipherment of the Harappan seals, say there are many references to Krishna and other Mahabharata characters in the Indus Valley seals, some of which date back to 5000 years.
For instance, one seal they have deciphered as Devapi, the elder brother of Bhishma’s father, Shantanu. Among other names related to Krishna deciphered are Akrura (Krishna’s friend), Yadu (Krishna’s ancestor), and Sritirtha (old name for Dwaraka). Another seal they read as ‘Murari Vrishni anga’ meaning ‘Murari of the Vrishnis,’ and one more as ‘Vrishni varpa,’ implying he had a beautiful body. In fact, Jha and Rajaram say they have found the word ‘Vrishni’ appearing on numerous Harappan seals. Vrishni of course was Krishna’s clan, living in a region where recent excavations have shown that the Harappan Civilisation was thriving.
The identification of Krishna’s Dwaraka thus calls for devising methods of identifying sites and artefacts that belong to the Mahabharata period, though there is little consensus among historians and archeologists on dating this period. For this, it is necessary to get at the root of the main literary source of the period, the Mahabharata. “Recent research has shown that the epic is not a myth but a recreation of history. This is the consensus among most historians and archaeologists,” Rao argues.
While one may or may not agree with Rao’s conclusions, he has made an important contribution by connecting literature and archaeology. He has shown that identifying Krishna’s Dwaraka and other places connected with the Krishna story as well as the larger story of the Mahabharata itself and other ancient texts is possible by looking for similar connections between literature and archaeology, and be the starting point for excavations for other historic and legendary places.
with Vijaya Pushkarna
State too busy to preserve the finds
Has there been any finding elsewhere comparable to your Gujarat ones?
In Poompuhar (Tamil Nadu), there is a structure at a depth of 23 m. This is something extraordinary and unique. Normally, at a depth of 7-10m, you get 3rd-4th century BC material. We did some work and saw that it was a kind of apsidal object. There appeared to be two structures. How to date it is a big question. We suspect it might be very early.
Mahabharata is viewed as a north Indian story…
In Andhra Pradesh, when I excavated two small neolithic sites (new stone age or around 5000 BC), I got Harappan material. In a place called Bandipur Salachenu we got typical Harappan beads How did this happen? What did they give in return? So there was some contact with the south.
Is there any attempt to preserve what you have discovered?
That is the most deplorable aspect. We prepared a project, consulted the navy people and the engineers, who can do underwater conservation. They said it was feasible. We worked out a detailed project report. The cost was Rs 9 crore, because we wanted to not only preserve, but to put acrylic tubes so that people can go and actually see the structures. All this we said in our report to then tourism minister Ananth Kumar two years ago. But nothing was done. If the government allows us to do the work, we will take care of it; it is not difficult to find the money for it. All the artefacts that were recovered are currently at the NIO in Goa. We have again approached Mr Jagmohan and hope a decision will be made soon.
We also wanted to set up an alphabet museum. The Sanskrit University in Tirupati wanted the project and I had prepared a plan. Most of the artefacts are in Delhi.
The Lothal museum is fairly well done. I took a lot of pains over it. But Kalibangan is just a heap of earth. Nothing has been done to preserve it even though it is such an important site. Now it has gone completely. In fact, when the National Geographic people came to India to make a film, they went only to Lothal. Dholavira is all stone. Some measures have been taken to preserve the excavations.
Karmayogi par excellence
“Since time immemorial learned men have known that the affairs of the world are influenced by forces both divine and human. I can only do what I can to control and influence human events. I have no control whatsoever on what the gods might do.”
Reading beyond the myth accumulated over millennia, Krishna is seen to be a many-sided man who lived a rich and varied life. He is, of course, best known as friend and counsellor to the Pandavas and the architect of the Pandavas’ victory over the Kauravas in the great Kurukshetra battle. In fact, but for Krishna’s leadership and strategy, it is quite possible that the Pandavas might not have prevailed. Then there is Krishna, the Vrishni prince of Dwaraka, the uncrowned king of the turbulent Yadu clan.
For all his greatness, Krishna’s career was tinged with tragedy: he failed to prevent the Mahabharata War and failed also to prevent his Yadu clan from destroying itself. The forces of human folly ultimately proved stronger even than Krishna. This also I believe shows that Krishna was entirely a human figure. (This I recognise is ultimately a matter of faith and the statement expresses only my belief.) And yet for all his failures, he left for posterity a message that has never lost its relevance-the message embodied in his philosophy of karma yoga, the principle of action.
‘MISMATCH BETWEEN ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE MAHABHARATA’: N.S. Rajaram
And this brings us to the third Krishna, the most enduring of all, Krishna the reformer and practical philosopher, the sage of karma yoga. Krishna was a reformer who moved away from the ritualistic practices of the Vedic religion of his time to the action-oriented Sankhya philosophy. He lived in the late Vedic Age when rituals of the Brahmanas, deriving mainly from the Yajurveda had begun to dominate. The Rigveda, completed for the most part more than five hundred years before his time was already becoming unintelligible. It was being interpreted by ritualistic priests who had lost contact with the mystical language and the true meaning of the Rigveda.
Krishna saw the futility and irrelevance of such ritual built around practices bereft of meaning and sought reform. That Krishna was himself a peerless Vedic scholar was recognised by all, even by his adversaries like Shishupala. This is also clear from the acquiescence of princes and sages assembled during Yudhisthira’s Rajasuya ceremony where Krishna was honored as the greatest figure of the age. The suggestion to so honor Krishna had come from no less a person than Bhishma, a man old enough to be his grandfather. Veda Vyasa himself was present in the assembly and raised no objection.
Krishna as a romantic hero is a later creation that receives no support from early and reliable sources like the Mahabharata. The image of Krishna that we get from the ancient sources is of an austere and studious man, whose main concerns were political stability and ethical and religious reform. The historical Krishna is the very antithesis of his portrayal in the later literature. Considering his own precarious childhood and youth his concerns are also entirely understandable.
The youthful Krishna was an introspective and philosophic man, profoundly concerned about his role in history. Many years later he volunteered to go on a mission to prevent a calamitous war between his cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Its failure was a foregone conclusion and Krishna knew it. When Vidura asked Krishna why he bothered at all considering that war was inevitable, Krishna told him: “I am thinking not of my place and my time, but of the future. Future generations will think that I allowed a great calamity to befall the world without my lifting a finger to prevent it. Failure is not an excuse for lack of effort…”
This is the central message of the great Bhagavadgita, attributed to him. Krishna firmly believed that one always had to live in action. He told his friend and disciple Arjuna: “There is nothing in the three worlds that I want for myself. There is nothing for which I need to work. But if I let myself follow a course of inaction, so will others follow me… I shall myself be the cause of degeneracy in the world.”
To return to his early life, as befitting a warrior prince, Krishna received a stern education, both in military craft and in Vedic studies. Krishna and Balarama studied under the sage Sandipini. A passage in the Chandogya Upanishad suggests that Krishna was also associated with Ghora of the Angirasa clan on studies relating to the Vedas.
Krishna was something of a child prodigy and soon attained fame both as a warrior and Vedic scholar. And like every genius he quickly surpassed all his teachers, becoming a great innovator in both warfare and philosophy. Whoever was the source of the Gita, it is beyond question that he was a peerless Vedic scholar. Krishna could be its compiler, his ideas put in their final form by Veda Vyasa.
The Gita is now widely studied; at the time when Krishna began to propound his new philosophy, people must have found it radical. This helps explain the hostility shown to Krishna by the rulers of the old established order. He must have seemed to them a dangerous radical with emphasis on action and merit, away from ritual and privilege.