By Sharon St Joan
The most ancient myths of India tend to have a magical, timeless quality. Do they happen in this world, in another world? In this time? Or perhaps in all time, or no time? Do they simply transcend our limited, prosaic awareness of the nature of time?
Vrindivan is a town in Uttar Pradesh where it is said that Krishna passed the days of his childhood.
There, the Yamuna River is the second largest tributary of the Ganges. It originates from the Yamunotri Glacier in the Himalayas, at a height of 20,000 feet. It flows through several states and eventually merges with the Ganges.
A long time ago, an ancient story goes, a serpent king, Kaliya, had fled from his original home because he was afraid of Garuda, the great eagle or kite who is the enemy of all serpents. Garuda could not go to Vrindivan because of a curse that prophesied that he would meet his death there, so Vrindivan was a good place for Kaliya to live since his mortal enemy could not come there.
One day when the young boy Krishna and his friends were playing ball by the river bank, and Krishna had climbed up a Kadamba tree that was hanging over the river, the ball fell into the river and Krishna jumped into the water after it. Now Kaliya was a naga, a great serpent who lived in the river. Disturbed by this sudden intrusion of the boy Krishna jumping into the river, Kaliya’s giant head rose up above the surface of the water. A vile poison flowed out of his 110 hoods, poisoning the river and turning it black, killing the fish and all life in the river.
Kaliya wrapped himself around Krishna to strangle him, but, unexpectedly, Krishna grew bigger and bigger. He became so huge that Kaliya finally had to release him. When Krishna glanced at the people on the riverbank and saw that they were very frightened, he knew he had to do something. He leaped into Kalia’s head and took on the weight of the whole universe, then he danced on the naga’s many heads, in time to the beat of the music. Kaliya began to die, and his many wives prayed to Krishna for their husband to be saved from death.
At this moment, Kaliya came to his senses, and, acknowledging the power of Krishna, he surrendered, promising not to hurt anyone ever again. Krishna forgave him and let him go free, to return to his original home, Ramanaka Dwipa.
So ends the tale. Is this a story of the past, the present, the future – does it spell out a warning?
It is hard not to see in it a story of pollution — of polluted, lifeless rivers, which belong very much to our own time – of great black snake-like oil worming it’s way downsteam from one of those endless oil spills that, of course, can never really happen because the pipelines are “perfectly safe,” and we are informed that we are being quite silly to worry that they might be hazardous.
There is, however, a deadly spill; then Krishna, the essence of life and goodness vanquishes the pollution, sending it back to where it belongs and freeing the river from its grasp of death. All ends well.
This story, it seems, is a timeless one, of multi-layered meaning – of the past, the future, the present – of all time – of the physical world and the transcendent, spiritual world. Not just an odd tale from the distant past, but instead a profoundly relevant story of eternal truth – of the reality of evil and also of the recurring victory of good over evil.
Image: A painting by Maler in 1640. / Wikipedia / “The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide.”