Aug 31, 2013

The recurring motif


A powerful, tyrannical king hears a forecast that a certain baby will grow up to usurp his kingdom. The king sends out mercenaries to kill the child, but the child survives all odds. He grows into a healthy young man, comes back and kills the king, and takes over the kingdom.


krishna fights kamsa

This is the story of Krishna, a popular Hindu god. But it is also the story of Christ: it was forecasted to Herod that a child would come to usurp him, after which he sent mercenaries to kill all newborn males. Many people have wondered why the story of Krishna and Christ are similar, or, even, if Christ’s story was copied from Krishna’s, since Krishna is dated 4,000 years older than Christ. But is that all there is to the story?

In fact, the roots of this motif go far, far deeper in Indo-European cultures. In the earliest of Greek myths, Ouranos, the king of the world, is told that his son will overthrow him. His son Chronus castrates his father and becomes King. 

chronus eats his child
Chronus is again told that his son will supersede him. He swallows five of his children but his wife hides the sixth one (like Kamsa who kills seven of his sister’s children but cannot kill the eighth). Zeus grows up to rescue his siblings from his father’s belly and imprison his father.

In fact, the exact motif of Krishna’s story is found in another Greek story. Acrisius is told that his sister’s son will kill him, and imprisons his sister (his daughter in some accounts). Unlike Kamsa, this man had the sense not to imprison a couple together, but Zeus outsmarts him by creeping into the girl’s room as rain. Once Danae is pregnant, Acrisius releases her into the ocean, hoping she will die. Zeus’s jealous wife Hera (like Kamsa) sends mercenary after mercenary to kill the little one, but he survives and goes on to kill his uncle.

danae and perseus left t o die

The Bible itself has many precedents from which Christ’s story has a better chance of being inspired than Krishna’s story. The most famous of them is of Moses. He was born to a Jewish servant, at a time when the Egyptian king ordered all newborn Jews killed.  His mother floats him down a river, where he is found and raised by an Egyptian princess. He grows up to kill the Egyptian king and rescue fellow Jews from slavery.

princess finds moses

Merlin Stone writes in her book When God was a Woman, that these stories are remnants of an even older tradition of ritual regicide. Before the advent of patriarchy, Stone writes, when men were hunters and women controlled the homes, offices, and religious institutions, kingdoms were passed down along matriarchal lines. It was normal for younger kings to kill older ones and marry the reigning queen. Such was the tale of Ouranos, who killed his father Chaos to marry his mother Gaia. Such also was the tale of Chronus, who castrated his father to marry the next queen, his sister Rhea. It was also normal for queens, afraid of a king’s growing hold on power, to end it through the popular ritual of regicide, and marry younger men, usually their sons. Such was the story of the Near Eastern Goddess Ishtar and her boy lover Tammuz, who she killed and took new lovers.

cronus castrates ouranos

Due to developments such as agriculture, men no longer needed to hunt, and started staying home. That was when the next generation of stories began: those that depict the foundations of patriarchy. Zeus, after killing his father, defended his position. The prophecies were made even for him, but he overcame them. When he hears that the son of Thetis will grow up conquer his father, he gets Thetis married off to a mortal instead of fathering a child on her as he intended to. He ended the cycle of regicide, and patriarchy supplanted matriarchy. What better way to represent it than by the story of Metis. When Zeus hears the same prophecy about Metis, who was already pregnant with his children, he simply swallows her.


zeus swallowed metis, forever subduing her son, her daughter was born form his head

Then came the stories like Oedipus, where the pre-patriarchal practices were explicitly banned. Oedipus’s marriage with his mother is depicted as a sin, and the regicide, his father’s murder, an even bigger sin. This value system was a wide departure from the stories of Egyptian Goddess Isis, who, though famously depicted as nursing her son Horus, was eventually depicted as his beloved consort. This relationship was portrayed as normal and positive, a viewpoint found in many dead Indo-European religions. In Hinduism, the relentless march of patriarchy for several centuries has destroyed the stories of such practices. (Although it is notable that Aphrodite is considered to be derived from matriarchal goddesses like Ishtar and Isis. Aphrodite had many boy lovers. Her Hindu parallel, Rati, is perhaps the only Hindu goddess to love a boy she nursed. Pradhyumna grew up to marry her.) However, vestiges of these practices remain, in stories that warn against them.

oedipus, shamed for sinning

The stories parallel Oedipus’, and explicitly forbid relationships with mothers and mother figures. Many folktales exist of estranged sons falling in love with their mothers and impregnating them. The story that follows is about expiating such a sin. Also in this category are tales that warn us of the consequences of frequent regicide. In Shishir Basanta ko Katha, Shishir ends up in a town where every day the queen’s new bridegroom is killed, and there are no young men left. So desperate are the townspeople for a king that they will crown any young man, which happens to be Shishir. The same folktale also exists in Newar community. Bisket Jatra tells the story of a hero who beheads the snake responsible for killing previous kings to become permanent king.

death of adonis, sometimes thought to be a remnant of the tradition of ritual regicide

In some versions of the Nepali folktale, a son is standing guard over his mother when snakes climb out of her nose. He kills the snakes, but spatters blood on his mother. Afraid to wipe it with his hands, he stoops to lick the blood off her breast, remembering that he suckled at it as a baby. In the older stories, this is the moment when the son deposes the father and marries his mother. But in the new story, the king is on the verge of executing his son for incest, but stops when the son explains that a mother’s breast is sacred to sons. This version establishes that a mother is a just a nurturing figure and not a sexual object for sons.

Coming back to Krishna and Jesus, they are among a myriad stories, leftovers of the old motif, which have everything but the offending incest and patricide, offering a socially acceptable alternative to the old mechanisms of succession. Among them are folktales of a king who hears a forecast through chhaiti ko bhabhi or something like that, and orders the killing of a child. But the child survives, eventually coming to destroy the king and marry his daughter. Krishna’s story is no different. Interestingly, Mahabharata, the oldest source of Krishna’s story, gives very sketchy details of Krishna’s early life. It only mentions in passing the murder of Kamsa and some other enemies. The background story (of the forecast, the mercenaries sent to kill him, etc) was built from folktales over generations, before finally being compiled in Bhagwat Puran and other Puranas.

Did he ever claim this?
Perhaps it is not surprising that a tried and tested pattern was used to furnish his background. The motif was so powerful that it was even squeezed into the story of Jesus Christ willy-nilly. Scholars trace the image of Mary nursing Jesus to the images of Isis and Horus. Even though Christ, with his death, effectively gave up any claim to kingship, his followers still see him as the rightful king, though of heaven. Like Horus who was reassembled from pieces of flesh, Jesus is believed to have risen from the dead. As new kings were celebrated every year after a regicide, Jesus is resurrected from death every year.

isis and horus?

At the end of the day, this is a story of transfer of power, of social rules for how inheritance should work (perhaps it is no coincidence that Oedipus and his father fought over the “right” to the road). Depending on the ending, one method is legitimized and another outlawed. The violent matriarchal system sought to limit male power and lineage through murder. The patriarchy that followed has been quite limiting for women. Any system where one sex seeks to kill or confine the other is ultimately self destructive. This series of stories seems to be still evolving, having still not arrived at an ending satisfactory to everyone. However, in passing this series does show that our values are not set in stone. Even the ones we hold as sacred and dear as the purity of mother-child relationship, are arbitrary, and subject to change with the vagaries of time. 

Note: The idea for this post came from a suggestion by fellow blogger Subodh :)
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3 comments:

chirayur said...

I wondered that about Krishna's birth too, why keep mother and father in the same room?
You seem to know a lot about religions. I'd like to read from you-
1. Where did we Hindus come from?Nirad C. Chaudhary tells we were actually Europeans (greeks?)that migrated.
2. About these Abrahamic religions- christians,muslims and Jews. Their rituals have uncanny resemblance still.. Aamen!

curly locks said...

Chirayu, myths are really my passion, umkiun bhanda pani ghumi firi tyahi pugchhu.
i will try to find out about hindus, though i think that is a vast subject and may take many years :)
about the abrahmic religions, it is no secret that they all have the same root, their holy books are derived from Jewish books, the oldest of them. Christians have added a new part, the new testament which talks about Christ, who was prophesied in the old testament. The Qoran also goes back tot he same roots, and they even revere Jesus Christ as a great prophet

Subodh Rana said...

Great research! You might want to visit this site for similar story line

http://www.indianweekender.co.nz/Pages/ArticleDetails/25/692/In-focus/Krishna-striding-through-ancient-histories

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