The supreme personality of Krishna and His Lilas have been an awesome phenomenon since ages. Swami Vivekananda called Him “the most rounded man, wonderfully developed equally in brain, heart and hand”. The character of Krishna as taken from Srimad Bhagavata, Harivamsa and the Bhagavad Geetha is stupendous, as the deodorised God-king, Super hero and divine lover.
The married life of Krishna has been an enigma to many. A perfect yogi like Krishna did not need marriage in his life. It is an established truth that He is the means and the end. Yet He seems to undergo all the proceedings of a householder, not once but several times, for what better reason than as an object lesson to mankind on man-women relationship. Swami Chidbhavananda in his book, ‘Sri Krishna, the manifest Divinity’, mentions that the disciplined mind of an ascetic is his wife. With the help of this mind he carries on an ideal married life. Conforming to this usage Krishna had eight wives in His eight yoga powers. Yoga power controls and guides the life force called prana, which has two divisions called mukhya prana, five in number and upaprana, five in number. This way man’s life is dominated by ten pranas. This position is transferred on Krishna as having ten sons by each wife.
Mythology is famous for introducing fiction into facts, particularly pertaining to great characters. Thus Krishna is supposed to have married 16 thousand and eight wives and begotten ten sons from each one of them. Polygamy existed even during the vedic times as being practised by kings and rich gentry. The Vishnu Smriti also makes a reference to polygamy. Hence it was easy to portray Krishna as espousing many women.
The number, Ashta or eight in Hindu terminology seem to be an auspicious one. In astrology it stands for ancestry and inheritance. The exact significance to the eight in this context is unknown unless deeply explored in the previous lives of Krishna. The Ashta bharyas by name were Rukmini, Satyabhama, Jambavati, Kalindi, Mitravrinda, Nagnajiti, Bhadra and Lakshmana.
In the Krishnavatara of Vishnu, Lakshmi joins her husband taking the form of Rukmini. She unites with Him in all His incarnations in one form or the other. She is also believed to appear as Radha in the first part of the Krishna story and as Rukmini, His wife in the second half. Rukmini and Radha are in fact two halves of Lakshmi. Rukmini was the daughter of Bhishmaka, king of Vidarbha, who had decided to marry her off in a swayamvara. Rukmini having fallen deeply in love with Krishna sent a message to Him to come and rescue her. Krishna as the popular story goes, abducted Rukmini, and married her in Dwaraka.
In the temple of Jagannath, on the eleventh day of Jyestha, the story of the elopement of Rukmini is enacted with the metal images of Lakshmi and Lord Vishnu, or the proxy of Jagannath would go to the neighbouring garden to abduct Rukmini at night and marry her in the garden.
Many books reveal that Krishna loved Rukmini the most as she was His principal wife. In His palace, built by the divine architect Visvakarma, one section had a high dome covered with gold and this was set apart for His beloved wife Rukmini. As the incarnation of the enlightened Lakshmi, Rukmini bore all the qualities of a divine consort in human form. The Mahabharata mentions an incident where, after the death of Krishna, when Arjuna visited Dwaraka, he cried aloud seeing the dilapidated city without rulers and wives without husbands. Rukmini as the partial upholder of the cosmic plan, ran to him, seated him on a golden throne and consoled him. She even requested Arjuna to lead the other wives of Krishna to a safe place.
The Syamantaka jewel episode relates the story of Jambavati and Satyabhama and their union with Krishna. Satyabhama was the daughter of Satrjit and Jambavati of the bear king Jambavan. Krishna married them while on the process of retrieving the lost Syamantaka jewel. The story is quite popular as it is related after Ganesh puja to release people, who have seen Chandra (moon), from falling prey to defamation, as is Krishna in the story. Satyabhama in her previous birth was one of the Lord’s dependants. She is believed to have undergone a lot of suffering in her previous life until she sought refuge in Vaikunta. There as she complacently served the Lord He promised to take her as His wife in her next birth. Hence in the Krishnavatara, He grants all her wishes and sees that she is kept happy all the time.
The tenth canto of the Bhagavata, deals with the other five wives married by Krishna. After Maya built Indraprastha for the Pandavas, Krishna decided to spend a few days with them. While Krishna and Arjuna strode on the banks of Yamuna, they saw a beautiful maiden performing penance, and when Arjuna approached her, she told him that she was Kalindi, the river Yamuna personified and her only intention was to have Lord Vishnu as her husband. When Krishna heard this, He took her in His chariot to Dwaraka and married her. Kalindi is not introduced into Krishna’s life here for the first time. When Krishna was born, Vasudeva stealthily removed the child to Ambadi, crossing the river Kalindi. Due to heavy rains the Kalindi was overflowing and Vasudeva begged Kalindi for a passage and the river gave way. Kalindi is one of the seven tributaries of the Ganga. One who drinks its water will be liberated from all sins. The encyclopaedia on Hinduism says that the colour of Kalindi is black because Shiva jumped into it to get rid of His exited condition when Kama shot an arrow at Him.
Mitravrinda, the sister of the kings of Avantipura, Nagnajiti or Satya, the daughter of the king of Kosala, Bhadra, the daughter of Krishna’s aunt and Laksmana, the daughter of the king of Madras province became the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth wives of Krishna. They were all married in the Swayamvara fashion where they chose Krishna as their husband.
The Narakasura episode relates the story of the slaying of Naraka, the demon who was tormenting the gods by carrying off the maidens of the gods, saints and kings and shutting them up in his palace. He had also stolen the celestial nectar dripping earrings of Indra’s mother Aditi. When the gods complained to Krishna, He rushed to confront Naraka. In the fierce battle that took place, Naraka was slayed, the earrings restored and 16 thousand women captured by Naraka were freed. Considering their plight, Krishna married them all, and thus saved them from disgrace.
These 16 thousand women were in fact, Narakasura’s daughters in their previous lives. Cursing them for eyeing Lord Vishnu (who came in the form of a rishi) salaciously, their father shut them in the palace until Brahma promised them that they could marry the Lord in their next birth. These women are in fact believed to be partial incarnations of Lakshmi.
After marrying the 16 thousand and eight women Krishna went to live with them in Dwaraka. He built for each one a beautiful palace so that there would be no jealousies and quarrelling in the household. Yet like a true human being (the form He had adorned)He would often be frivolous and dally with His wives, teasing and baiting them. His wives often wondered whom He loved the most and questioned Him endlessly to which the mystic lover would only give a diplomatic answer.
Krishna as a complaisant householder catered to the needs of His wives in different ways. He did not as a regular strongman, take the women successfully in a long bout of love, but as the supreme god, magically divided Himself in many exact doubles and in this way satisfied all the ladies at the same time. This lifts Him from the level of a simple strong man to that of the cosmic, universal god of Indian mythology. Once, the sage Narada was curious to know how Krishna was faring. So he decided to pay a visit to all their houses and verify whether Krishna was personally present there. To his amazement he found that Krishna was not only present there but actively taking part in the various affairs of the household. He joined one wife to tend the child, another to graze the cattle, the third to make purchases in the market and so on. The Bhagavata presents Krishna as the divine prototype of the householder dedicated to the three aims of life- Dharma, Artha, and Kama.
From the Bhagavata, we have evidence of the Ashta bharyas, leading a happy married life until the end of the Yadu dynasty. We are not sure what exactly happened to Krishna’s spouses, although some books say that they committed ‘sati’. But during the time of Mahabharata, there seems to be no instances of ‘sati’. Satyabhama is said to have retired to the forest for penance. After the Bharata war, not a single widow is known to have burnt herself on the funeral pyre of her husband and the Mahabharata is unaware of any of the yadava widows having committed ‘sati’. Whereas the later Padma Purana says that anointed wives like Rukmini and Jambavati entered his funeral pyre while Arjuna lead the remaining wives away from Dwaraka. On their way, forest dwellers attacked them and to escape from their clutches some of them jumped into the river Sarawati and died.
Krishna’s relationship with His wives has been glorified as something unique as for His giving pleasure. It has been equalled to self-realisation, for which one has to undergo austerities and penance. But the Ashta bharyas simply by being attached to Krishna in conjugal love in a life of luxury and opulence attained the highest salvation.