Thursday, January 6, 2022

Krishna Vasudeva and Mathura, by Meenakshi Jain - Review

Vasudeva Krishna and Mathura, by Meenakshi Jain


Indians may know Mathura as an important railway station on the way to Agra, as the site of a large oil refinery and a place of connection with the Hindu god, Krishna. But not many will know of its significance in India’s socio-political landscape. Even fewer will know enough to separate fact from fiction. Meenakshi Jain’s Vasudeva Krishna and Mathura attempts to summarise, in a short and readable book, the available literature about Mathura, its history, and association with Vasudeva Krishna over the ages.

While the book is divided into 10 chapters, it can be broken into three logical parts. In the first part, going back to almost 3,000 years, ancient Sanskrit grammarian Yaska’s treatise Nirukta gives an indication of the transition from “the gods of sacrificial fires to the deities of the Epics and Puranas”. The Svetasvatara Upanishad propounded the idea of bhakti and there was also the emergence of images (murti, vigraha, pratima) where “images served the same purpose as Agni in Vedic rites”. There was a gradual merging of Bhagavata and Vaishnava, with Vasudeva Krishna being identified with the Vedic Vishnu.

So if Vasudeva Krishna was associated with the Vedic Vishnu, was Krishna a historical person? Without getting into his divinity, the question of his historicity has been examined and settled based on the evidence presented. Historian and epigraphist DC Sircar concluded that the “weight of evidence attested to the human character of Krishna”. Indologist RN Dandekar and Sanskrit scholar EW Hopkins also expressed similar views. Further corroborating evidence came in the form of literary attestations from the Greek historian Megasthenes (350-290 BCE) and also the Roman historian Quintus Curtius.

The Heliodorus column, located in Besnagar (in Madhya Pradesh), is the earliest inscriptional evidence available that references Krishna. This pillar “was erected in honour of Vasudeva, God of gods, by Heliodoris of Takshashila” and has been dated to the 2nd century BCE. An eight-and-a-half feet tall doorjamb, dating to 15 CE, is the earliest discovered epigraphic artifact in Mathura. Its inscription referred to a quadrangle at the shrine at the mahasthana of Bhagavata Vasudeva.

The second part of the book covers the medieval history and the destruction of temples at Mathura. Mahmud Ghaznavi attacked and plundered Mathura in 1071. His secretary Al-Utbi recorded this destruction, writing that Ghaznavi ordered “all the temples should be burnt with naptha and fire, and levelled to the ground”. It was in Jahangir’s reign (1605-1627 CE) that Bir Singh Deo Bundela, ruler of Orchha, rebuilt the Keshava Deva Temple at an estimated cost of Rs 33 million (when gold was priced at Rs 10 per tola). French merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier

(r. 1605-1689 CE) described it as “one of the most sumptuous buildings in all India”. Niccolao Manucci, Venetian writer and traveller, wrote that the temple “was of such a height that its gilded pinnacle could be seen from Agrah”. Mughal king Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) 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 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”.

The third part of this book covers the legal status of the land and the challenges thereof. It was only in 1770 that control over the entire Katra Keshavadeva area was wrested out of Mughal by the Marathas and the area declared as nazul (government land). Even after the defeat of the Marathas at the hands of the East India Company in 1803, the land continued to be treated as nazul. A few years later, in 1815, it was sold by auction to Raja Patnimal of Banaras and was duly recorded.

Alexander Cunningham, the founder Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, did several surveys of Mathura and estimated that “the destroyed temple would have had a total length of 250 feet, with an extreme breadth of nearly 72 feet… Judging from these dimensions, the temple of Kesava Deva must have been one of the largest in India”. Several decrees passed reinforced the ownership of the land. The next major development came in 1944 when Rai Kishan Das, heir of Raja Patnimal, transferred Katra Keshavadeva 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 in favour of the trust in 1951.

On September 26, 2020, a group of devotees moved a civil court in Mathura on behalf of Bhagwan Shree Krishna, asking for the removal of the encroachment and superstructure. While the book ends with this last update, the last word on the matter has not been written, nor will be for years to come. Jain’s book emulates what her earlier works have achieved—sift through copious literature, go over it with a scholar’s rigour and historian’s eyes and present them in a readable manner. The endnotes, references and index are valuable. The colour illustrations add to the appeal of this timely and scholarly book.

Publisher: ‎ Aryan Books International (14 October 2021)
Hardcover: ‎ 234 pages
ISBN-10: ‎ 8173056587
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-8173056581

This review was first published in The New Indian Express on 13 February, 2022.

© 2022, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.