That dark and stormy night in Mathura
That dark and stormy night in Mathura

Renuka Narayanan

The story that I would like to retell this week properly belongs to Janmashtami, which falls in early September this year.

The story that I would like to retell this week properly belongs to Janmashtami, which falls in early September this year. But I cannot resist it because today is a monthly Jain fast called Rohini Vrat. Men and women reportedly observe this fast to help shake off karmic bondage. Rohini, meaning ‘the red one’ in Sanskrit, is the bright star Alpha Tauri or Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus. It is the fourth of the 27 nakshatra in Jain and Hindu tradition.

Among Indians, Rohini is said to bestow charisma and eloquence on those born under its influence and give them large, bright eyes to charm the world with.

It was chosen by Sri Krishna as his birth star, hence this story, which we can find in the Srimad Bhagavatam, Section 10. So it’s also a chance to share the incantatory description of Sri Krishna’s advent from this heritage book:

Mahavishnu meditated in the heavens before taking his eighth avatar or descent on earth, as Sri Krishna. The Unborn One put himself through these hardships because, as the Preserver, he was sworn to protect the good, punish the wicked and set the world right from age to age.

As Krishna, he chose to be ‘born’ in jail. His earthly mother, Devaki, and his earthly father, Vasudeva, had laughed and waved from their wedding carriage at the cheering people of Mathura. Devaki’s brother, Kamsa, drove the carriage himself for them to greet the people. But a bodiless voice had silenced them all when it rang to say that Devaki’s eighth child would kill Kamsa.

Kamsa had drawn his sword at once to kill his sister. But Vasudeva had bravely caught his sword arm. “It is not your sister’s fault, monarch,” he said steadily, shielding his bride. “Take our eighth child if you must but do not kill Devaki.”

Kamsa then locked them up in Mathura jail and each time a child was born to them, he had rushed in and dashed the baby to death. Poor little mother, poor young father.

How afraid Vasudeva and Devaki had been when she conceived the dreaded eighth child. But as her time drew near, their faces grew calm and resolute. They would not let their suffering be in vain. They had clearly been chosen for a task beyond their understanding and they would meet it with courage, whatever it was.

Devaki felt sure that her child would be born on the eighth night of the moon’s dark fortnight in the month of Shravan. And so it was.

There came that glorious hour, says the Srimad Bhagavatam, when the star Rohini arose in the dark night sky and all the planets stood in the best possible alignment. The stars shone softly, while on Earth, there was a sense of well-being in the cities, villages, fields, pastures and even the underground mines. A great peace fell on the world at that hour.

The rivers sparkled crystal clear and the lakes suddenly bloomed with lotuses although it was night. The birds awoke and chirped softly in joy while swarms of bees buzzed gently in the forests, making pleasant music. The breezes blew sweet scents everywhere, free of dust, touching tired, sleeping bodies gently. Oil lamps burned brighter than ever before. The troubled minds of the people who were oppressed by cruel Kamsa grew calm in sleep as though they sensed the approaching birth of the Unborn One.

Unheard by mortals, the singers in heaven sang sweet songs of welcome in pure, clear voices. Holy men prayed with fervour and celestials showered flowers on Earth.

Heaving masses of clouds began to fill the sky and move as if in a great dance with the deep, rolling waves of the sea. All creation seemed to hold its breath, when Krishna, the world’s well-wisher, emerged from the body of Devaki. He appeared among the heartsore and the weary like the full moon rising.

For one dazzling moment, Devaki and Vasudeva saw their wonderful child stand tall in godly splendour. He smiled, and his eyes held all the compassion in the world. Overcome by the vision, they fell at his feet. The glow faded and in its place lay a baby with curly dark hair, whose beauty made them weep like lost children who suddenly found themselves safe at home.

A voice told them what to do next. Their fetters fell off and the heavy doors of Mathura jail swung open past the sleeping guards. Vasudeva walked out with the baby towards the Yamuna, trying to shield his child from a sudden downpour.

The river was in full spate and roared and tumbled with great force. But trusting in God’s mercy, Vasudeva set his trembling feet in her waters, and the great river parted to let him cross.

However, a wave leapt up to touch the baby’s foot for Yamuna could not let him pass without a welcome. As Vasudeva stumbled across, a dark shadow glided forward and spread its hood above Vasudeva to shelter him and the baby from the rain.

Intent on crossing, Vasudeva did not notice that it was the great serpent Adisesha who had come to serve Mahavishnu in this new game. Are we not all players in his game? Who can blame Yamuna for her impulsive leap? She brims with many memories and surely the sweetest must be of that dark, rainy night in Shravan.

As directed, Vasudeva made his way to the hut of the cowherd chief Nanda at Gokul and exchanged babies. He made his way back to Mathura across a now calm river. Back in jail, he placed the baby girl he had brought home in place of his son in Devaki’s arms. Their fetters sprang back.

Devaki and Vasudeva sat down exhausted, leaning against each other. Kamsa would come in the morning to wreak his worst. But the world would go on. The Lord had descended and gone away from Mathura.

(The writer is a commentator and columnist on religion and culture)