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Vasudeva Krishna and Mathura: The God, the temple, the history

Author: Abhinav Agarwal
Publication: The Sunday Guardian
Date: January 8, 2022
URL:      https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/news/vasudeva-krishna-mathura-god-temple-history

As to the historicity of Vasudeva Krishna, Meenakshi Jain writes that after examining the Chandogya Upanishad, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita, historian and epigraphist D.C. Sircar concluded that ‘the weight of evidence attested to the human character of Krishna’.
Historian and Padma Shri awardee Meenakshi Jain’s latest book, “Vasudeva Krishna and Mathura”, takes the reader on a journey of more than three thousand years in a couple of hundred pages—of Krishna the god, Krishna an incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna the son of Vasudeva and Devaki, Krishna the historical person, and of the Keshava Deva temple at Katra Keshavadeva.

While the Rig Veda mentions Vishnu, it is in the Upanishads that the doctrine of Atman and Brahman begins to dominate, with the Katha, Isa, Mundaka, and Svetasvatara Upanishads building on a “theistic movement” and the growth of a “personal divinity”. Sanskrit grammarian Yaska’s treatise, Nirukta, provides us with a glimpse of the transition from “the gods of sacrificial fires to the deities of the Epics and Puranas”. Then we have the emergence, with bhakti, of “images (murti, vigraha, pratima)” where they “served the same purpose as Agni in Vedic rites”. Over a period of time, the earlier Vedic gods were incorporated into later creeds, Bhagavata and Vaishnava merged, and Vasudeva Krishna came to be identified with the Vedic Vishnu. In the early centuries of the CE we see that Krishna “emerged as the foremost figure”. Among the five Vrishni heroes (Samkarshana, Vasudeva Krishna, Pradyumna, Samba, and Aniruddha), Krishna became the principal one as identified with Vishnu and Narayana. Sutra IV.3.98 of Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, dated to the 5th century BCE, is one of the generally acceptable historical records that gives us “one of the few certain pieces of evidence” that tells us about the “antiquity of the Bhagavata religion”.

As to the historicity of Vasudeva Krishna, Meenakshi Jain writes that after examining the Chandogya Upanishad, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita, historian and epigraphist D.C. Sircar concluded that “the weight of evidence attested to the human character of Krishna”. Indologist R.N. Dandekar and Professor E.W. Hopkins were also of the opinion that the Devakiputra Krsna and the Krishna represented in the Chandogya Upanishad were very likely one and the same.

Krishna worship was prevalent in the time of Greek historian Megasthenes (350-290BCE). More tellingly, Roman historian Quintus Curtius wrote that “an image of ‘Hercules’ (Krishna, sometimes also written as Herackles) was carried in front of the army of Porus as he advanced towards Alexander on the Jhelum river”.

Moving to inscriptional artefacts, the Heliodorus column, located in Besnagar (near Vidisha, in Madhya Pradesh), is the earliest record available to us. This pillar “was erected in honour of Vasudeva, God of gods, by Heliodoris of Takshashila”, and has been dated to the 2nd century BCE. At Mathura itself, we have a doorjamb, dating to 15 CE, discovered in the Mathura cantonment. Eight and a half feet in height, its inscription was translated as referring to a quadrangle built at the shrine at the mahasthana of Bhagavata Vasudeva. The Mora (about 10 kilometres from Mathura) doorjamb and well inscriptions are more artefacts of Krishna worship at Mathura. Katra Keshavadeva (also known as Janmasthan, or the birthplace of Krishna) was a sacred place and for over two thousand years is also corroborated by “fragmentary epigraphs recovered from Katra Keshavadeva”.

The second part of the book takes the reader to the period when Mahmud Ghaznavi attacked and plundered Mathura in 1071. Al-Utbi recorded the destruction, describing a beautiful temple that would take “two hundred years” and “hundred thousand red dinars” to replicate, and which had five idols made of red gold, each five yards high. Ghaznavi had all the temples burnt and levelled to the ground. Alberuni, an Iranian chronicler in the eleventh century, wrote that Mathura was venerated “because Vasudeva was there born”.

A temple built at Katra by Jajja (a vassal in charge of Mathura) in 1150 CE was destroyed by Qutubuddin Aibak, general of Muhammad Ghori. Meenakshi Jain writes that Hindu power went into decline in the 12th century and “all Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu shrines in and around Mathura” were destroyed. While “Buddhism never recovered from the assault… for the next four centuries any Jain or Hindu shrine constructed, was demolished”.

Moving to a few hundred years later, Sikandar Lodi continued the desecration and vandalization of Hindu temples, and which this was by Ferishta, an Iranian historian in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and later by Abdullah, a historian during the reign of Mughal king Jahangir. Temples were turned into rest-houses and stone images were given to be used as meat-weights by butchers.

It was during Jahangir’s reign (r. 1605-1627 CE) that political compulsions allowed Bir Singh Deo Bundela, to whom Jahangir owed the throne, the opportunity to rebuild the Keshava Deva temple. When completed, this temple, in the words of Niccolao Manucci, Venetian writer and traveller, “was of such a height that its gilded pinnacle could be seen from Agrah”. French merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689 CE) wrote it was “one of the most sumptuous buildings in all India”. Built at an estimated cost of 3.3 crore rupees, Mahmud Balhi, a Central Asian traveller, visited this temple in 1625 and described it as being “more than a hundred yards” in height and with a black stone idol six yards high. By way of perspective, the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur is 208 feet tall.

Two generations later, Mughal king Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) prohibited Holi and Diwali celebrations and cremations of the dead on the banks of the Yamuna in 1665. In 1669, he “issued a general order for the demolition of Hindu schools and temples, and in 1670, specifically ordered the destruction of the Keshavadeva temple”. Chronicler Saqi Musta’id Khan recorded the destruction of the Keshavadeva Temple as having taken place on January 27th, 1670. He wrote that “the destruction of this strong foundation of infidelity was accomplished and on its site a lofty mosque was built by the expenditure of a large sum… The idols, large and small, set with costly jewels, … were brought to Agra, and buried under the steps of the mosque of the Begum Sahib in order to be continuously trodden upon.”

A hundred years later, an ascendant Maratha power wrested Agra and Mathura from a declining Mughal empire and declared the entire Katra Keshavdeva area as nazul (government land) in 1770. When the Marathas were defeated by the East Indian Company in 1803, the land continued to be treated as nazul land.

Alexander Cunningham, founder Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, did several surveys of Mathura, and examined several slabs on the pavement (at the Jama Masjid at Mathura), some of which contained dates and other Nagari inscriptions. His conclusion was that “it is certain that the Hindu temple was still standing at the beginning of his (Aurangzeb) reign”. Based on his measurements, Cunningham wrote that “the temple of Kesava Deva must have been one of the largest in India”.

In 1815, the “entire land of Katra Keshavadeva (13.37 acres) was sold by auction to Raja Patnimal of Banaras and was duly recorded in revenue and municipal records”. Several decrees passed reinforced the ownership of the land with the heirs of Raja Patnimal, while multiple cases filed by Muslims against this sale were dismissed by the courts and British administration—in 1832, 1897, 1920, 1921, 1928, 1929, and other years. Multiple judges concluded that Raja Patnimal’s ownership of the land was indisputable, the land in dispute did not belong to the mosque, the plaintiffs (the Muslim plaintiffs) had not been in possession of the land, and that Katra Keshavadeva had never been described as Katra Idgah, nor had the Krishna Chabutara called Tehkhana.

The last major development took place in 1944 when Rai Kishan Das, heir of Raja Patnimal, transferred the entire Katra Keshavadeva together with all rights and interests in favour of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya and others, the purchaser being Seth Jugal Kishore Birla, who created the Sri Krishna Janmabhumi Trust and endowed all his rights and interests in favour of the trust in 1951.

One can end with Ghulam Husain Samin’s vivid eyewitness account of the destruction wrought by Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Abdali’s massacre at Mathura and Vrindavan in 1757. Samin was present at the invader’s camp and wrote in details what he observed. These were translated by historian William Irvine. Abdali offered his troops a reward of 5 rupees for every infidel head they brought. After the sack, each horseman brought back with him “ten to twenty horses, each attached to the tail of the horse preceding it”. He wrote that “every horseman had loaded up all his horses with plundered property, and atop of it rode the girl-captives and the slaves. The severed heads were tied up in rugs like bundles of grain and placed on the heads of the captives… an order was given to carry the severed heads to the entrance gate of the chief minister’s quarters, where they were to be entered in registers, and then built up into heaps and pillars. Each man, in accordance with the number of heads he had brought in, received, after they had been counted, five rupees a head from the State. Then the heads were stuck upon lances and were taken to the gate of the chief minister… It was a marvellous state of things, this slaying and capturing, and no whit inferior to the day of Last Judgement.”

Meenakshi Jain’s book emulates what her earlier books have achieved—sift through the copious records, go over the material with a scholar and historian’s eyes, and present them in a readable and accessible manner to all concerned. The copious endnotes, references, and index add to the value the book’s information.
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