As the storm lashed the city of Mathura, the capital city of the Kingdom of Vrishni, a celestial event, foretold by the sages, was unfolding in a prison cell attached to the royal palace. Devaki and Vasudev, the royal prisoners, and relatives to the cruel despot, Kansa, were expecting their eighth child. As the day had advanced, so had the storm and also Devaki’s labour pains. It was evident to Vasudev that the child would come tonight. A message was sent to the deposed former King, Ugrasen, himself under arrest, through the network of the few faithful servants left, that his help was sorely needed. This child needed to be saved from the clutches of the tyrant Kansa. Vasudev and Devaki had been lodged in this cell for several years and had seen six of their children being born and killed by Kansa in this very cell. They were determined, this time, not to let that happen again.
Kansa was the son of Ugrasen, the benevolent King of the Kingdom of Vrishni, with its capital at Mathura. Kansa was powerfully built and was well known for his prowess in wrestling and the art of combat. Several years ago he had led the forces of Mathura against the much superior army of Jarasandh, the King of Magadha, and had defeated them in battle. Jarasandh, had been impressed with the young man’s valour and had offered to marry his two daughters to him. Though Jarasandh lost the war, but he had forged an important alliance. The proximity between the two had grown since then and Kansa had slowly built a powerful circle of warriors around him, like Chanur, his confidante and wrestling partner, and Banasura and Narakasur, both of royal lineage from Pragjyotisha, the Kingdom that lay in the hills towards the North-East of Bharatvarsha, the land of the Gods. Using this alliance with Jarasandh and his circle of powerful warriors, Kansa had deposed his father from the throne and taken over the reins of Vrishni in his hands. Later his astrologers and soothsayers had looked at his charts and warned him of an impending danger to his life and his throne. They had told him that the eighth son of Devaki, his sister, and Vasudev would be his nemesis. This eighth son, they said, would kill him and reinstate his father to the throne of Mathura. Kansa was beyond himself with rage. He had caught Devaki by her hair and would have beheaded her had Vasudev not fallen at his feet and pleaded with him to spare Devaki’s life in return for the lives of all their future offsprings.
So it came to pass that Kansa imprisoned Ugrasen, and Vasudev-Devaki in separate cells of the royal prison and had waited for Devaki to conceive and deliver her children one by one. The soldiers guarding the prison had been instructed to inform Kansa of the birth of any child immediately, but otherwise leave the royal couple alone, to lead their miserable lives in their cell. As the years passed by, Devaki had conceived and delivered six children in the prison. The soldiers had dutifully conveyed the message to Kansa, and he had come to the cell and killed them himself by smashing their heads against the floor or the walls of the cell. The poor parents could only watch helplessly, in horror, as the children were sent to their gruesome deaths, one by one, by the cruel despot. The seventh child was, unfortunately, a stillborn. Devaki had been grief stricken at the tragedy, but also relieved by the thought that at least Kansa did not get to slaughter her child mercilessly. And now this eight son, the one they said was an ‘avatar’, or incarnation, of Vishnu, the God of the Gods, was about to be born.
As the labor pains increased that evening, Devaki tried her best not to scream, so as not to let the guards know that she was in labor and the child was on his way. The network of faithfuls had been activated, with the blessings of the old King and supplemented by lots of gold that changed hands. Outside the palace, a storm was brewing; the occasional thunder, dust storms, and a few large drops of rain signaling the turbulence that lay ahead. By nightfall, a heavy rain had started to beat down upon the city, accompanied with thunder and lightening. As the night deepened, so did the storm. The guards, supplied with ample amounts of liquor, laced with sedatives, from the old King’s store were tipsy and nearly falling to sleep by the time Devaki went into labour. The crash of thunder had suppressed whatever little sound came out of the cell. As predicted by the learned sages throughout the country, exactly at midnight, the eighth son of Vasudev and Devaki, mother of God, was born into this world. He was a healthy and strong baby, dark as the clouds that thundered outside; his parents named him Krishna.
For several months preceding this, Vasudev and the old King had been conspiring on how to save the child. It had been agreed upon that the child should be whisked away from Mathura, beyond the great river Yamuna, to the small village of cowherds called Gokul, which was far enough and small enough for Krishna to live in without attracting undue attention to himself. Their leader Nanada and his wife Yashoda were gentle people, and also related to Vasudev. So emissaries had been sent, in secret, to Nanda to ask for his willingness, as he would have to not only keep Vasudev’s child in his house as his own, but also give one child in return so as not to arouse Kansa’s suspicions. Though this was too much to ask from anybody, but the circumstances were such that Nanda agreed, without telling his wife Yashoda, that he would secretly substitute Vasudev’s child for his own. This had been possible only because Yashoda was also with child at the same time as Devaki, and could be expected to deliver a newly born soon, which could be exchanged for Krishna.
And thus, the night Krishna was born, a woman had materialized miraculously outside the prison cell of Vasudev-Devaki, with a wooden basket and some clothes in her hands. The guards were already sound asleep, and she had quietly opened the door of the cell and handed Vasudev the basket. Vasudev dressed up Krishna in layers of old clothing so that a casual observer may not realize it was a child he carried in the basket. Having done that, he quickly bid a tearful goodbye to his wife and followed the woman outside the prison. Once outside, the woman disappeared as mysteriously as she had appeared. Vasudev stood alone, in the storm, with the wooden basket over his head and thought about his next move. He would walk down to the river Yamuna and try to cross it, where it was the shallowest, to reach Gokul on the other side of the river.
Thus, carrying the basket on his head, with the infant Krishna hidden in a heap of clothes he started out towards the river. The night was dark and the only way he could find his way around was due to the occasional lightening that split the sky and lighted the night. Thunder crashed incessantly and the downpour was heavy, causing rivulets of water to run on the roads of the city of Mathura. Vasudev worried for his child. The newly born child would get soaked in the rain and could fall ill, thus endangering his life that they were trying so desperately to save. He had covered the wooden box with a lid made of reeds, but he knew that that would not be enough. And so, worrying constantly, Vasudev trudged through the streets of Mathura, carrying Krishna on his head. He did not notice that, though it was raining heavily, he, or even the box, was hardly wet! Oil lamps flickering in the houses by the streets, and the occasional lightening that forked in the sky, threw strange shadows all around. Vasudev thought he saw strange creatures roaming the streets that night and one time when he looked up, he thought he saw a giant many-hooded serpent form a canopy over him and his child. ‘It must be a figment of my imagination’, thought Vasudev, ‘ stemming from my fears and the strange happenings tonight.’ And so he hurried through the streets of Mathura, carrying the infant Krishna on his head, sheltered by the serpent that the sages called ‘Shesha’. He did not look back, he did not look up, he just ran and ran, reaching the banks of Yamuna in no time.
Reaching the banks of the great river, he was surprised to see how much water flowed in the river that night. The incessant rains had caused the water level of the river to rise, and the storm winds that lashed the waters caused great waves to arise in the mighty river, making it look like the ‘Ksheer-saagar’, the infinite ocean! Vasudev walked to and fro along the banks of the river, unsure of what to do next and how to cross this mighty water body. ‘The river is the shallowest here’, came a voice from behind, startling Vasudev. Turning behind, he saw a small, midget of a man, with a shaved head and forehead smeared with sandalwood paste, carrying a small wooden umbrella barely large enough to cover his small frame, standing behind him in the rain. The dwarf Brahmin or ‘Vaaman’, was strangely dry too, considering the amount of rain that was falling all around them. ‘The river is shallowest here’, Vaaman repeated, pointing with his finger to an area of the bank with stone steps, used for bathing or washing clothes, not far from where they stood. ‘Come, I will show you the way’, said the Vaaman and turned to lead the way. Vasudev followed meekly, not knowing why he was heeding the advice of a total stranger and how or why this Vaaman was here at this time of the night. Vasudev was too preoccupied with the safety of Krishna to dwell on such questions for long and merely did what he was instructed. Reaching the ‘ghaat’ or the stone steps of the river, the Vaaman struck the river with the small wooden stick he carried in his hand, ‘ Here, you can cross here’, he said. The ‘Shesha’ seemed to hiss in approval. ‘I must be losing my mind to listen to a dwarf and a snake’, thought Vasudev, but carried on anyway. As he neared the edge of the water, the water seemed to recede. Vasudev was surprised! Was this possible? In a trance, he kept walking towards the water and the water kept walking away. ‘It must be the ‘madira’, the alcohol, that the guards drank. I must have inhaled its vapors, that is why I am hallucinating’, thought Vasudev. As he descended the steps of the ‘ghaat’ into the bed of the river, followed by the ‘Shesha’ behind him, the riverbed nearly ran dry. Perplexed, curious and scared, Vasudev kept walking, faster and faster. He could see the river on both the sides, its waters throbbing with a tempestuous energy, the edges pulsating, threatening! He forced himself to look away from the waters that surrounded him or the serpent that canopied him; he held onto the basket firmly and hurried along the bed of the Yamuna. Some time later he found himself ascending the slope of the river on the other side. He dared not look back; he knew the serpent was still there, but he also knew that the waters of the river, held back so long by the Vaaman, had crashed back to the bed. The river flowed majestically as before, like nothing had happened.
Vasudev hurried on, his mind focussed on reaching Gokul now, where an anxious Nanada waited for him.
To be continued in Part – II……….