Adventures in Humility

News, Views, and Chews on spiritual issues.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Case of the 16,000 Wives

Originally posted on Gaudiya Discussions:

On another forum a discussion ensued about the nature of Krishna-lila, namely the lila describing Krishna's marriages to 16,108 damsels. Various points were made relating to the symbolic or literal nature of this lila, the former category of points making little sense. There were also some careless errors suggesting that the damsels were gopis, that the marriages themselves were symbolic and not literal, and so on. The main thrust of the 'symbolic' debate is that the lila is a metaphorical rendition of the Kundalini energy's journey to merge with the thousand-petalled lotus Sahasrara-chakra in the brain. Being an advocate of the literal position, I've looked through Srimad Bhagavatam for the references to this lila and have managed to collect various points that show without doubt that the literal interpretation is the one that fits most sensibly within the context of the entire narrative. I make these points here for the pleasure of the assembled Vaishnavas.


The questions first comes up in the very beginning of the narrative, when Maharaja Pariksit humbly asks Sukadev Gosvami to relate to him the entirety of Krishna's life story. He asks several questions for starters; How could Balarama appear first in Rohini's womb before Devaki's? Why did Krishna leave Vraja? Where did He live then? What did He do there? Why did He kill Kamsa? How many years did he live in Dvaraka? And then:

patnyaH katy abhavan prabhoH

"How many of the Lord's wives were there?"
(SB 10.1.11)

Sukadeva Gosvami's immediate and joyful reply was that such narrations destroy the sins of Kali-yuga and that also: vAsudeva-kathA-praznaH/ puruSAmz trIn punAti hi// vaktAraM pracchakaM zroTrMs/ tat-pAda-salilaM yathA//: "Questions about the stories of Vasudeva purify the three parties involved - the speaker, inquirer and listener - just like the Ganges water, which flows from the feet of Vishnu, purifies the three worlds."

The point at which Krishna meets the 16,000 damsels is related in SB 10.59. Briefly, Bhaumasura (aka Narakasura) kidnapped the virginal damsels (33), the daughters of various kings, and held them hostage in his residence. This shows that they were royal princesses instead of gopis, and that immediately upon beholding beautiful Krishna they became filled with the desire to have Him as their husband (35). It is quite common in Indian society (especially the Vedic society of bygone ages) for a woman to be rendered 'impure' after prolonged association with males. To cite just one example of this, we can remember the incident in Ramayana where Sita-devi was subjected to a test of fire to determine Her "purity" after suspicions are aroused due to her kidnap by Ravana. It is highly unlikely that anyone would have married any of these princesses due to the 'taints' of being associated with Narakasura and, considering this fact, is it any wonder that they had no choice but to surrender unto Krishna after having no other shelter?

To counteract the claim that this surrender was itself a spiritual connection and not an actual marriage of sorts, the Bhagavata does confirm that Krishna married them. How did He do this? Did He marry them all at once, or one after the other?

atho muhUrta ekasmin |
nAnAgAreSu tAH striyaH ||
yathopayeme bhagavAn |
tAvad-rUpa-dharo 'vyayaH ||
gRheSu tAsAm anapAyy atarka-kRn |
nirasta-sAmyAtizayesy avasthitaH ||
reme ramAbhir nija-kAma-sampluto |
yathetaro gArhaka-medhikAmz caran ||

"After all this, Bhagavan [Krishna] married those women in different houses simultaneously, according to the appropriate rites. The imperishable oneassumed as many forms as there were women. He lived with them, without leaving, in those incomparable residences. Krishna is immersed in His own pleasure, but He took pleasure with His wives, while performing His household duties, just like anybody else. He performs deeds that are beyond comprehension."
(SB 10.59.42-43)

Does any of this sound symbolic? Rather it speaks of Krishna's incomparable glories and infinite capabilities; fancy expanding into 16,000 forms to live in 16,000 different palaces and carrying out different duties thereof! Critics found it hard to swallow the idea that Krishna could do all of this not to mention more. And what to speak of having children? After all, the Bhagavata does say elsewhere (10.90.31) that Krishna had ten sons with each and every wife! And as if that wasn't enough, the names of eighteen of the 'best' sons are specifically noted. SB 10.90.41 also relates that there were 38,800,000 teachers for the purpose of educating the youth of the Yadu dynasty. How is all of this possible for the material mind to comprehend?

It is easy to see why one would choose to hide behind logic and rationalisty, but the answer to the question is contained in the last line of SB 10.59.43 as quoted above, and this is especially brought out in another episode of Krishna-lila. Upon hearing Krishna's separate marriages to 16,000 damsels and His taking up residence with each and every one of them, Devarsi Narada became astonished!

Sri Suka said: "Hearing that Naraka had been killed, and that one person, Krishna, had married many women, Narada desired to see this. 'It is astonishing that one person with one body has married 16,000 women, and lives simultaneously in many houses.' Saying this, the eager sage of the gods came to see Dvaraka." (SB 10.69.1-3)

Whatever did Sri Narada find there? Upon reaching Dvaraka (with fantastic descriptions of the city's opulences), he was welcomed by Krishna who offered him His own personal seat to sit. After an exchange of reciprocal affection, Krishna asks Narada what he wishes, to which the latter replies that it was enough to have had a darshan of Krishna's lotus feet. Narada then leaves the palace and enters into another only to be welcomed again by Krishna, who is apparently unaware of the previous exchange in the previous palace! See? smile.gif

Narada was amazed. He rose silently and went to another residence. There, too, he saw Govinda, who was indulging His infant children. Then in another residence, Narada saw that preparations had been made for taking a bath. Elsewhere, Krishna was placing oblations in the three sacrifical fires, worshipping with the five sacrifices, feeding the twice-born and eating their remnants. In another place, Krishna was sitting down at dusk and silently chanting japa-mantras. In yet another place He was manoeuvring around in the fencing area with sword and shield.

Elsewhere, Krishna, the elder brother of Gada, was wriding horses, elephants and chariots, and, somewhere else again, He was lying on a couch being eulogised by bards. In one place, Krishna was consulting with His ministers such as Uddhava, while elsewhere He was enjoying sporting in the water surrounded by women and courtesans. In another place He was giving beautifully bedecked cows to distinguished members of the twice-born castes, and listening to auspicious storis from the Puranas and epic histories. At some point, in another beloved's house, Krishna was telling jokes and laughing, while elsewhere He was pursuing dharma, artha or kama. In some other place He was meditating on the supreme being who is beyond prakriti, and serving His gurus with desirable objects, enjoyments and worship. And somewhere else Keshava was preparing for war against certain people, and elsewhere again, alliances with others. In yet another palace, Krishna was contemplating the welfare of the righteous, along with Balarama.

Narada saw Him making arrangements for traditional marriages with due pomp for His sons and daughters, with suitable brides and grooms at the appropriate time. He saw great celebrations by the Lord of the lords of yoga for His children when they were sent off and when they returned. All this astonished the people. In some placs, Narada saw Krishna offering sacrifices to all the gods wth elaborate rituals, of fulfilling His dharma by building monasteries, groves and wells. In other places, He was roaming around in the hunt, mounted on a horse from the Sindh province, and killing sacrificial animals, surrounded by the Yadu heroes. Elsewhere, the Lord of yogis was wandering about in disgust among His ministers in the inner section of the city, wanting to find out the attitudes of each. (SB 10.69.22-36)
Get the idea yet? smile.gif

The mind of the critic runs amok as he tries to comprehend all of these things whereas the devotee, who views the Beloved with eyes tinged with the salve of love, simply sighs joyfully as He exults upon hearing his Beloved and His opulences being glorified in such a beautifully descriptive manner. The devotee who has nothing but pure love for Krishna does not consider any of these opulences a big deal, since pure love is as pure love does and any glorification becomes a background presence. It is worth considering, however, exactly how and by what potency any and all of the above takes place.

"After seeing the exhibition of yogamaya by Krishna, who was following the ways of humans, Narada said to Hrishikesh with a smile: "We know that Your yogamaya is hard to perceive, even for magicians. But it will become manifest, O soul of lords of yoga, by service to Your lotus feet. Give me Your leave, O Lord, for I will wander about the worlds, which are overflowing with Your glories, singing about Your lilas which purify the earth." (SB 10.69.37-38)

Therefore, even though it is surprising that the critics who doubt these things claim to be devoted to Krishna, it can be clearly seen that Krishna's relations with His 16,000 wives are an effortless manifestation of His power, which is incomparable, inconceivable, and which is infinitely astonishing. If insistence is made that all of these things are purely symbolic, the the burden of proof is on such critics to show how this incident is symbolic in the context of the wider narrative. What is the symbolic nature of Krishna's children borne from the 16,000 queens, for example?

Sukadeva Gosvami closes the chapter with a final word:

yAnIha viszva-vilayodbhava-vRtti
karmAny ananya-viSayANi harIz cakAra
yas tv aGga gAyati zRNoty anumodate vA
bhaktir bhaved bhagavati hy apavarga-mArge

"Hari, the cause of the manifestation, maintenance and destruction of the universe, did these things; no one else is able to. Devotion for Bhagavan, who is the path to liberation, will arise in the person who sings about, hears and rejoices in them, dear king."
(SB 10.69.45)


[All translations (some slightly modified) by Edwin F. Bryant.]


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