Devi Purana: Krishna's Death and Sati by the Pandavas
The Mahabharata stories of the death of Krishna and the end of the
Pandavas are well known. Krishna dies when he is shot by a hunter while
he was lying in yoga in the jungle wishing to end his life. Some while
after this, the Pandavas undertake a long pilgrimage which eventually
leads them to the Himalayas and beyond, where they meet with their ends –
Draupadi and the four younger Pandavas fall down on the way and die,
and Yudhishthira is taken to heaven while he is still in his body after
he passes a test by Dharma to encounter yet another test in the other
The end of Krishna, the Pandava brothers and Draupadi in the Devi Purana is very different from this.
we go into how the Devi Purana tells this story, a few words about the
Purana itself. Devi Purana, also known as Mahabhagavata Purana, occupies
a place of importance among the eighteen Upapuranas. It is called Devi
Purana because its central theme is the glory of the Goddess. The Purana
describes the transformation of the Primal Goddess into all the other
gods and goddesses and explains the whole universe as her sport –
saktikrida jagat sarvam. Everything comes into being from her,
everything exists in her and everything goes back unto her. The
Taittiriya Upanishad speaks of Brahman as that from which everything
comes into being, in which everything exists and unto which everything
goes back – yato va imani bhutani jayante, yena jatani jivanti, yat
prayantyabhisamvisanti. The Goddess puts this in the Devi Purana as:
"All this is me Me alone and nothing exists other than Me." It is with
the grace of the Goddess that Brahma creates the universe, Vishnu
protects it and Shiva annihilates it in each circle of creation.
The comparatively small Purana consists of around four thousand five hundred verses divided into eighty-one chapters.
To the Devi Purana, Krishna is Kali incarnated as a male; and Radha, Shiva incarnated as a woman.
Purana tells us that one day Shiva was sporting with his wife Parvati
in the solitude of the Himalayas. The Lord of Lords was drinking in the
amazing beauty of Parvati's body with his eyes when a curious idea
enters his mind. Birth as a woman is indeed wonderful, he thinks:
With great tenderness he touches the
face of his beloved. Then, addressing her with great love and
reverence, he tells her: "Supreme Goddess, with your kindness, all my
desires have been fulfilled. There are no more desires in my heart –
except this one desire. Please fulfil this desire of mine too,
Parameshani, if you are really pleased with me."
Devi asks Shiva
to tell her what his desire is and promises she will fulfil it. And
Shiva tells her that she should take birth as a male somewhere on earth
and he shall be born in a female body. She should become his husband and
he, her wife; and they would love each other as they love now.
Goddess promises to do so. She will take birth as a man in the house of
Vasudeva in order to please him – she will be born as Krishna, she
Shiva is pleased. He tells Devi that he will take
birth as Radha, the daughter of Vrishabhanu, and becoming as dear to her
as her very life, he shall sport with her. He also tells her that his
eight murtis shall be born as eight other women – Rukmini, Satyabhama
and so on – and become his wives.
Unlike in the
Mahabharata, Krishna is not killed by Jara in the Devi Purana. Instead
when he completes his missions on earth, one of which is to reduce the
burden of wicked men on Earth, Brahma appears before him and asks him to
reassume his original form and protect the gods. Krishna tells him that
is precisely what he intends to do.
Krishna is the king of
Dwaraka in the Devi Purana, unlike in the Mahabharata where he never
becomes king. Following his conversation with Brahma, King Krishna tells
his ministers that he does not intend to live on earth any more but
will soon go to heaven. He asks them to send messengers to Hastinapura.
They should go there and inform the Pandavas about his decision to
ascend to heaven as suggested by Brahma.
When the Pandavas
receive the message, they grieve over the news and decide to end their
lives too to accompany Krishna to heaven through anumarana. Anumarana is
a common Sanskrit word, which means wilful self-killing following
another's death. It is the ritual death we now call sati. Having made up
their minds to follow Krishna in death, the Pandavas and Draupadi, and
several other women, reach Dwaraka. Large quantities of other people too
reach Krishna's capital with the desire to do anumarana hearing of his
decision to ascend to heaven.
When Krishna sees the Pandavas,
his eyes fill up with tears. He entrusts the people of Dwaraka to them,
telling them that since he is going to heaven, they should look after
his people. Tears well up in the eyes of the Pandavas too at these words
of Krishna. One after the other, beginning with Yudhishthira, they all
inform Krishna that they too are going to give up their bodies and do
his anugamana – follow him on his path.
In the Devi Purana,
Draupadi is born of a part of Krishna-Kali – she is his/her amsaja. When
the Pandava brothers express their desire to leave the earth and go
with Krishna into the other world, Krishna turns to Draupadi and
smilingly asks her if she would stay back on earth or would prefer to go
to heaven with him.
"I am born of a part of you," Draupadi
tells Krishna, "and you are the supreme Kalika, the Primal One. I'll
follow you [merging back into you] as water merges back into water."
aham tavamsa-sambuta tvamadya kalika para
aham tvam anuyasyami jale jalamiva k?a?at. – Devi Purana 58.28
weeping Balarama tells Krishna to take all the Vrishni kings too with
him since none of them would live on the earth without Krishna.
distributes his wealth among Brahmins and goes out of Dwaraka. The
entire Vrishni clan follows him and as do the Pandavas along with their
women and ministers. By the time they reach the sea, people from
numerous other kingdoms too reach there. Nandi appears before them in a
bejewelled chariot driven by lions. Brahma too appears in the skies
along with the gods, bringing along thousands of chariots. At the sight
of Krishna, the gods sing and dance in the skies, playing celestial
drums and other musical instruments, creating a spirit of festivity and
celebration all around.
In the middle of this great celebration,
right before the eyes of Brahma and the gods, as the Pandavas and other
people watch, Krishna changes into Kali. Kali boards the chariot drawn
by lions and the next instant the chariot starts to move in the
direction of Kailasa.
Draupadi touches the water of the sea before her and the next instant she merges back into Kali.
Yudhishthira boards a chariot which takes him to heaven.
is an incarnation of Vishnu in the Devi Purana. Like Draupadi, he
touches the seawater before him and abandons his body. Balarama too does
the same. They are transformed back into the four-armed Vishnu bearing a
conch, the discus, a mace and a lotus in his hands – for, like Arjuna,
Balarama too is the incarnation of a part of Vishnu. Vishnu mounts his
vehicle Garuda and is taken to Vaikuntha. Bhima and the other men there
too abandon their bodies and are taken to heaven. Following this,
Rukmini and the other seven queens of Krishna change themselves into
The Purana does not say anything special about
Radha, so we will have to assume that she too changes back to Shiva as
Krishna's other wives do.
There is an interesting verse at the
end of the chapter that narrates these incidents, a verse that is like a
footnote. The verse says that in a later kalpa, Vishnu, with the
blessings of Shiva, will be born as Krishna in his poornamsha
[completeness] and he will reduce the burden of the earth like this
through his sports [lila]. Which suggests that this is the story of an
The most interesting change in the
Devi Purana rendering of the Mahabharata and Bhagavata story is that
both Krishna and Draupadi are incarnations of Kali and that Radha and
Krishna's eight other wives are incarnations of Shiva and the gender
switch this involves.
The tantric tradition too tells the same
story about the birth of Radha and Krishna, the central difference being
that the idea of gender switch and incarnation occurs to both Kali and
Shiva simultaneously. Here it is in the moments of sexual climax that
the thought occurs to them. United with Kali, Shiva wonders what the
orgasmic experience he is undergoing is like for Kali, the feminine; and
Kali wonders what the experience she is undergoing at the moment is
like for Shiva, the masculine. Each one desires to know through personal
experience what an orgasm is like to the other gender. It is this
curiosity that suggests to both of them the idea of transgender
Among the numerous other changes the Devi
Purana telling of the story introduces is in the nature of Krishna's
end. In the Mahabharata, Krishna dies a lonely death. The epic tells us
how disappointed he became with the Yadavas and their infights. At one
stage, Krishna is so frustrated that he seeks the advice of Narada in
dealing with the Yadavas. He tells the celestial sage that their cruel
speech torments his heart every day. It is as though he is like an
arani which is rubbed against another to produce fire. Speaking of Ahuka
and Akrura and their inability to get along with each other, for
instance, Krishna rhetorically asks Narada, "What can be more painful
than having both Ahuka and Akrura on your side? And what can be more
painful than not having both Ahuka and Ajrura on your side." syatam yasyahukakrurau kim nu duhkhataram tatah
yasya chapi na tau syatam kim nu duhkhataram tatah.
himself totally helpless, Krishna compares himself to the mother of two
brothers who are gambling against each other. She cannot pray for the
victory of either one of them, because that would be the loss of the
other, so she prays for both. When Gandhari curses Krishna and says that
his people would soon come to an end, Krishna accepts the curse and
says that he in fact is endeavouring to bring about their end – meaning,
they deserve to be finished off, so evil have they become. And that is
precisely what he does. The Mausala Parva paints graphically Krishna's
dejection with the Yadavas and his loneliness in the last moments of his
life. For a long time he wanders about in the jungle all alone before
he enters yoga and is killed by Jara the hunter who mistakes him for a
In contrast, Krishna's death in the Devi Purana is a
glorious affair. When the time comes, Brahma, the Creator, comes to him
to tell him that he has completed his missions on earth and time has
come for him to get back to his world and assume his original form, as
Kali. He announces his decision to end his life to his ministers and has
them send ministers to Hastinapura. All the Pandavas decide to do
anumarana with him, as do an endless mass of other men and women from
his own kingdom and from other kingdoms. When the time is ready, he goes
to the seacoast and there a celestial chariot drawn by lions – Kali's
chariot – arrives to take him to his world. Right before the eyes of the
hordes of celestials and humans, he transforms himself into Kali and
boards the chariot that speeds away towards Kailasa. And the mass of
people assembled there accompany him into the other world – including
Draupadi, his wives and the five Pandavas.
The Uttara Kanda of
the Ramayana tells us of the death of Rama, which too is a very public
affair, attended to by masses of people from Ayodhya who all enter the
waters of the Sarayu following Rama and accompany him in his final
journey into the other world. The story that Devi Purana tells us about
Krishna's death is akin to this.
Yet another major change the
Devi Purana makes is in the death of the Pandavas. Yudhishthira's ascend
to heaven is not sasharira – with his earthly body – nor is it a
lonely affair in a desert beyond the Himalayas, but a glorious one in
the sight of a huge assembly of men and women, including his brothers
and all the gods in heaven, on the banks of the sea in Dwaraka. Nor do
the other Pandavas die lonely deaths. Arjuna is transformed into Vishnu
and ascends to heaven on the back of Garuda. Draupadi merges back into
Kali, whose partial incarnation she is.
Part of the differences
could be explained by the devotional nature of the Devi Purana compared
to the dialectical nature of the Mahabharata. Devi Purana is about
bhakti and salvation through the grace of the Goddess. Whereas the
Mahabharata is about living life in tune with dharma, as Vyasa himself
states in his Bharata Savitri. The only life worth living, according the
Mahabharata, is life lived in harmony with dharma. The only society
that is worth living in is the one in which dharma reigns supreme. The
purpose of Krishna's birth in the Mahabharata is establishment of dharma
and teaching the world the path of dharma which they can follow. As the
Gita verses put it beautifully, he creates himself whenever dharma
declines and adharma prospers and his mission is the destruction of
adharma and reestablishment of dharma:yada yada hi dharmasya glanirbhavati bharata
abhyutthanam adharmasya tadatmanam s?jamyaham
paritra?aya sadhunam vinasaya ca dushk?tam
dharmasamsthapanarthaya sambhavami yuge yuge.
dharma declines and adharma prospers, Oh Bharata, then I create myself.
In order to protect the good and destroy the evil, and to establish
dharma, I am born age after age.
In the Devi Bhagavata too,
that definitely is one of the missions of the Goddess who incarnates as
Krishna. But there are also other missions to her Krishna incarnation.
One of them is showing the world her glory so that man turns to her –
salvation comes not exactly through dharmic living, though that too is
essential, but through devotion. Yet another purpose of the incarnation
is pure sport – lila, krida – sport for the sake of sporting, for the
sake of pleasure. The best word to describe that is rasa. The model of
life set before man is not struggling to achieve goals, or even virtuous
living, but the celebration of life, life in tune with the divine,
which, when lived rightly becomes a long rasa. In lila, in krida, there
are no goals to be achieved – there is only one thing to be done:
celebrating life, living life as a sport, which is achieved when man
gives up his individual will and individual goals, and surrenders to the
will and goals of the divine. Kali takes birth as Krishna and Shiva as
Radha and eight other women to sport and celebrate life in yet another
The Pandavas end their life at the ascent of Krishna-Kali
because it is his/her presence in their lives that makes their lives
meaningful and without him/her, their lives are empty.