Book Review – Krishnavatara

Like most Indians, I can also claim to have grown up listening to stories of Rama and Krishna – Lord Rama, the upholder of human virtue, the unflinching hero who stood for what he thought was right and Lord Krishna, the opportunist, who did whatever was needed to get what he wanted in the end. It is said of them that Rama spent his life telling people he is no god while everyone around revered him and Krishna spent his life trying to convince everyone he is a god while people found it difficult to trust him.

On the face of it, Rama seems to be guided by a set of rather uncomplicated values, following them uncompromisingly. On the other hand, Krishna is an enigma – he is a butter thief, a consummate lover, a devoted husband, a crafty politician, a kingmaker and finally the supreme teacher of Bhagavad Gita…all in one life time. One is naturally left wondering what kind of a being he could have been.

K.M. Munshi’s book Krishnavatara does a beautiful job of capturing this wonderment. Munshi clarifies his approach to the story of Krishna right at the beginning: this is not a retelling of any of the puranas or any other book but the story of Krishna as he knew of Him. Munshi then goes on to write about the man whose life could have been the basis of the legend we know today as Lord Krishna. While remaining largely faithful to the story line of Mahabharata and Bhagavata, the author uses his fertile imagination to romanticize the tale by taking out all the ‘miracles’ and replacing them with rational events.

To start with, Munshi carefully sets the social scenario using the characters of Sage Parashara (Veda Vyasa’s father) and other rishis. Aryaavarta (as India was referred to then) is descending in to lawlessness. People are losing respect for the Arya Dharma. On the political front, the mighty Kuru Empire is crumbling but for the presence of the ageing warrior Bhishma. King Drupada of Panchala refuses an alliance with Kuru’s due to his feud with Drona, the warrior-priest of the Kuru Empire. The rising might of Chakravartin Jarasandha, aided by his tyrannical son-in-law Kamsa, is a threat to the Aryan way of life. The whole of Aryaavarta seems destined to be gobbled up by Jarasandha.

Krishna Vaasudeva is the teenage son of a lesser prince of Yadavas, brought up as a cowherd. He gets catapulted in to this political arena when he kills his maternal uncle Kamsa to fulfill an age old prophecy. Jarasandha promptly declares war on Mathura. Yadavas are marked for destruction even while celebrating their savior. They are a weakened race, broken in spirit by the tyrannical ruler Kamsa. The political pundits of the day write off Yadavas and their teenage upstart savior.

But then the young cowherd surprises the world by starting to call the shots. Faced with the wrath of the Emperor, he refuses the throne of Mathura and the offer of Yadavas to die defending him. Instead, he goes on the run, reaches an impregnable hill and befriends the local tribe called Garudas. Jarasandha starts in pursuit treating it as a mere rabbit hunt. Aided by the Garudas, Krishna and Balarama hand him an ignominious defeat in a surprise night attack. The rise of a military genius gets recognized by the world.

From then on Munshi tracks the political fortunes of Krishna as he leads Yadavas to Dwaraka, forges a formidable kingdom and then goes on to play the kingmaker in the Aryavarta. All the while, Krishna firmly proclaims the one force that keeps him going – a strong desire to see Dharma triumph. At each point of his life, every decision he makes – whether deciding to kill Kamsa or abducting Rukmini or refusing Draupadi’s hand and even the decision to support Pandavas in preference to the Kauravas – is made with that single principle in mind. Lord Krishna still remains an enigma, due to his uncanny ability to see his Dharma clearly even when everyone around him gets confounded by the complication of it all.

At different times during the story, the author brings out the multiple facets of His great personality – a master strategist (engineering Draupadi swayamvara), an insightful leader (uniting Yadavas in to a formidable force), an unparalleled diplomat (avoiding a full scale war with Jarasandha) and above all, a compassionate human being. Munshi leaves the reader in complete awe and reverence for the great human being behind the god that we know of and, as a matter of fact, ignore.

The easily understandable language employed by Munshi makes it a good reading for young readers too (I read the book for the first time when I was 14). The use of archaic, anglicized Sanskrit words in places can be a little off putting but that has its own charm. The only regrettable thing is that Kulapati Munshi could only complete 7 volumes of the book, the 7th one ending with the banishment of Pandavas after the game of magical dice. He passed away leaving the 8th volume, The book of Kurukshetra, incomplete.

The book : Krishnavatara in eight volumes  – The Magic Flute, The Wrath of an Emperor, The Five Brothers, The Book of Bhima, The Book of Satyabhama, The Book of Vedavyaasa – The Master, The Book of Yudhishthira, The Book of Kurukshetra (incomplete) published by Bhavan’s Book University (1970).

The author: K.M. Munshi (1887 – 1971) was an eminent lawyer, a freedom fighter, a member of the constitution drafting committee, and a seasoned statesman. He worked with Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Tilak, Annie Besant, Jinnah and others during the freedom struggle. He was the Home Minister of Bombay, India’s Food Minister, Governor of Uttar Pradesh and India’s Agent General at Hyderabad. He was also acknowledged as the foremost writer in Gujarati in his times, having written novels, dramas, memoirs, history and historical novels in Gujarati and English. He was also the founder director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, for which he is titled ‘Kulapati’.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review – Krishnavatara

  1. As this article starts i too can claim that I have been brought up hearing lots of stories about Mahabaratha and Ramayana. But after reading this article I would like to read the above mentioned set of books. And I will surely post my opinion about the book.

  2. I read all the volumes long time ago. Now the need to recollect arose to inform my 5 year grand daughter who has an inquisitive mind to know everything about Krishna. This review is a great refresher and compels me to reread.
    thanks.

  3. I have read all the volumes and now reading for the second time. Amazing books and it helped me to know all new things about Krishna. Language is excellent and easy to understand. Great work by K.M Munshi

  4. In the book of Vedavyasa, has Munshi ji mentioned about a place where Vedavyasa collected all the vedas available by that time? And I want to know whether he has given any reference to that incident. I have looked into Mahabharata, Vishnu Purana etc. But I have not found any reference to the satra that munshi ji mentions.

    Thanks.

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