I'm calling it: the sage Kaṇha of DN 3 should be identified with Krishna after all

Ancient divine and mythological figures are shifty characters. Names change, adopt multiple meanings, and epithets and attributes slip and slide.

You know Krishna of course. What a lovable scamp!

In DN 3 Ambaṭṭhasutta we meet a certain Kaṇha, which is just the Pali spelling of Sanskrit Kṛṣṇa. Like many of the famous gods of Hinduism, Krishna does not appear in his recognizable from until many centuries after the Buddha, but he clearly draws on multiple ancient stories and archetypes. Kanha, likewise, is supposed to be a figure from ancient Brahmanical legend.

I’ve written before about the “dark hermit” archetype. These essentially appear in Pali narratives as local shaman or wizards with the power to disrupt conventional notions, especially those of lineage and ancestry. Our Kaṇha is one of them, and as is normal he is associated with the south. That’s where he goes to learn his powerful magic.

Kaṇha is dark-skinned and the son of a slave girl. The word dāsa “slave” also probably originally had racial connotations, referring a tribe of the native inhabitants of India. The whole of DN 3 is shot through with this perspective.

After returning from the south, he asks the great king Okkāka (legendarily associated with Kosala) for the hand of his daughter Maddarūpī. The king was so outraged he fixed a razor-tipped arrow to strike down the upstart. But due to Kanha’s magic, he wasn’t able to release the bow, and moreover, if he pointed it at the ground there would be an earthquake, and if he pointed it at the sky there would be a drought. He could only relax it by pointing at the crown prince. he did so, and the prince was safe. The king was so awed he presented Kanha with his daughter’s hand.

Now, some of the incidental details are reminiscent of Krishna. Both the stories focus on their childhoods, a unique feature in the “dark hermits”. Both originate in the same general Kosalan area. Both leave home for an extended period where they accrued their power and abilities, although Krishna moved only locally to Vrindravana. Other details are different. Krishna’s mother was the princess Devaki, not an unnamed slave girl from a local tribe. His father is not unnamed as in DN 3, but was the great king Vasudeva. Of course it is normal for myths to emphasize the lineage of their heroes. Perhaps it is because the slave lineage was forgotten that the story of the disruption had to be changed. For both Krishna and Kanha return to oppose the king, but in the Krishna myth this is the tyrant Kamsa, who is foretold to die at Krishna’s hands.

Thus far is suggestive, but also includes motifs found in many stories. But I just came across one detail that I think is too specific to be a coincidence.

Krishna had many wives, one of whom is Lakṣmaṇā, who is sometimes known as Madri, which is immediately reminiscent of the Pali Maddarūpī. Lakṣmaṇā’s father grants her the syamamvara, the wedding by her own choice of suitor. According to Wikipedia:

Another tale describes how Krishna wins Lakshmana in the svayamvara, by acing an archery contest. The kings Jarasandha and Duryodhana miss the target. The Pandava prince and Krishna’s cousin Arjuna, described as the best archer at times, missed his aim at the target with the arrow so that Krishna could win the hand of Lakshmana. Arjuna’s brother Bhima refused to participate in deference to Krishna. Ultimately, Krishna wins by hitting the target.

That’s good enough for me! Both Krishna and Kanha win their wife Maddarūpī/Madrī in an archery contest. Together with the above-mentioned details, I think we must conclude that the stories of Krishna and Kanha draw at least partly from similar sources, and share some of the same background.

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What I found interesting about this is how so many things related to Indic folklore in the suttas seem to relate to or be found in the Mahābhārata or slightly later epics. Whether this means the sutta material is late, the Mahābhārata is recording earlier material, or most likely, a mix of both seems relatively impossible to determine with much precision. Many of the depictions or descriptions of devās and other beings, for instance, are true of the Mahābhārata but not older pre-Buddhist literature.

Of course, the earlier strata of suttas do not have this tendency. The ones that seem to be building on mythological and cosmological development though tend towards it.

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I mean, the Mahābhārata declares of itself:

धर्मे चार्थे च कामे च मोक्षे च भरतर्षभ

यदिहास्ति तदन्यत्र यन्नेहास्ति न तत् क्कचित्।

dharme ca arthe ca kaame ca mokshe ca bharatarshabha;

yadihāsti tadanyatra yannehāsti na tat kkachit.

“O Bull among Bharatas (as spoken by Vaisampayana to Janamejaya), everything related to the four purushārthas (of) dharma, artha, kāma and moksha, that is found in the epic may also be found elsewhere; but what is not here (in the Mahābhārata) is nowhere else.”

| Ādi Parva; 62:53 |

It was intended to be an encyclopedic work, so it’s not surprising that many of the same stories are in there.

But I don’t believe everything a book says just because it is in Sanskrit. My Sanskrit teacher’s opinion was that what is not included in the Mahābhārata means Buddhism.

I would have thought the sutta material is normally earlier, given that the Mahābhārata reached its final form in about the 4th cent CE.

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So, I wrote a long post with all kinds of examples. And then, in the blink of an eye, it was all deleted :laughing: I’ll try and condense this one a bit for time while still offering the breadth of correspondences.

Exactly! This is what I find so interesting and at times elucidating. This material is post-Buddha, and yet there are so many correspondences in the development of the mythology of the suttas with the later epics.

At DN 17, the devaputta Vissakamma corresponds to Skt. Viśvakarmān as taking orders from Sakka to build a nice palace for a king. In the pre-Buddha literature, Viśvakarmān is never subservient to Indra nor would he be: he is a higher creator deity with lots of power. However, in the Mahābhārata and later epics, he becomes the first artist of the gods who builds things for them like chariots.

The nandana vana (Grove of Delight) of the gods of the thirty-three is nowhere mentioned in earlier literature but is found for the gods in the later epics (Mbh, Harivaṁśa). Similarly, the great tree of these gods is called pārichattaka (Skt. pārijāta). This detail too is only found in works like the Mbh and no pre-Buddha literature. The assembly palace of these gods, sudhamma sabhā, is another detail only found in later epics.

In SN 1.49/Snp 3.10 we find mention of the river of Yama/the dead, Vetaraṇī (Skt. Vaitaraṇī). This river is only found in later epics such as the Mbh where it too is a frightful hellish river. The concept of the dead crossing a river is of course older, probably dating back to the Proto-Indo-Europeans themselves, but not this hellish river with this name.

At MN 99, a brahmin lists meritorious things they do along with brahmacariya. This list is only found in the Mahābhārata. Similar lists are found in some earlier Upaniṣads, but they are not identical.

At e.g. SN 1.37, SN 56.39, DN 20, DN 29, Dhp 7, Snp 2.1 there is reference to Indra’s pillar (indakhīla, Skt. indrakīla). All mentions of this are late, found in e.g. the Mbh, BauDS, etc. They also use the term Inda rather than Sakka which itself can be indicative in a context like this.

At Snp 5.1, we read inda sujampati, Indra Husband of Sujā. This same epithetit (sujampati) is given to Sakka in various places, where Sujā is said to be a demon/asura girl married to Sakka. Only in later epics like the Mbh or even later Harivaṁśa is Indra’s wife a demon girl (albeit from a rākṣasa rather than asura). The epithet for Indra being a husband is itself later. A similar epithet is found in the Atharvaveda where he is called ‘śacīpati’ (Lord of Skill). This was later interpreted to mean ‘Husband of Śacī,’ and it is ‘Śacī’ who is said to be a demon maiden in these epics. Earlier mentions of Indra’s wife are only female forms of the name, etc. with no detail of her descent.

In some suttas like SN 56.11, AN 7.69, and MN 31, there is an additional category of Earth devas given (bhumma). The bhūmideva are found only in the Mbh on and in no pre-Buddha literature.

At DN 21, the mythology involving Pañcasikhā and other related beings belongs to the Mahābhārata, no earlier literature. Likewise, there seems to be a development in the depiction of the gandhabbas in the suttas—some earlier and some later. The later depictions are reminiscent of them in the later epics, whereas the earlier depictions clearly draw from pre-Buddha concepts. The same is true for the nāgas: the few suttas which depict them as mighty sea monsters have more in common with the epics than any pre-Buddha depictions, and the more common depictions of them seem to be of especially elephants, snakes, and some non-Vedic ideas related to these, etc.

You can find this information in the thesis Early Buddhism and its Relation to Brahmanism. A Comparative and Doctrinal Investigation.

Point being: there is a clear development, evolution, and continuing interest in the mythological depiction and classification of devas in the suttas. Oftentimes, these later developments end up being related to Sanskrit epics, not pre-Buddha literature, and this can be quite prevalent in the texts.

The other side of this I’d call out: sometimes Buddhist cosmology is understood as a plain rip-off of Vedic cosmology. And yet so many of the realms/deities present are actually not Vedic. The correspondences we do have tend to be more or less minor and have more to do with showing Buddhism > Brahmanism than anything else. All the many different Brahmā deities, the deities related to Creation and Controlling Creation, the Māras, the Four Great Kings, the Arūpa realms, Tusita heaven, the Pure Abodes, etc. are not Vedic or Brahmanical and are, for the most part, Buddhist innovations. So this is interesting to consider as well!

Mettā :pray:

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Awesome post, I was thinking of doing something similar, but this is better!

It expands even further when you get into the Jatakas, where you have versions of stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata. Like the cases you mention above, these are clearly earlier.

In fact there is a whole range of cases, among which I would now include Kanha/Krishna, where a now-familiar Hindu story or person is found first in Buddhism. Of course that doesn’t mean that Buddhists invented them, just that our sources are often older.

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One more detail I just noticed. When born, the baby Kanha immediately speaks:

‘Wash me, mum, bathe me! Get this filth off of me! I will be useful for you!’

This shows that from the start he was no ordinary child. The only other case in the Buddhist texts of this, IIRC, is the Buddha himself. It seems, in fact, that Kanha’s words are chosen to deliberately contrast with the Bodhisatta’s own experience of birth, which was free of any impurities.

I’m looking to see if Krishna was also said to speak at his birth, and I can’t exactly find that. But the Harivamsa, one of the earliest sources, depicts his father Vasudeva speaking to him, at which the boy persuaded him to help him hide away.

There are other parallels between the two births; most of them are generic and don’t necessarily establish a specific link. From the Harivamsa:

  • the mother saw the child in her womb as if in a dream
  • the conception took place by the deliberate conscious act of a deity
  • various devas celebrated the birth
  • divine marks were seen on the boy
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Question about this:

Is there record of or the modern continuation of the ‘Kanhāyana’ mentioned in the text, i.e. a lineage that has Krishna as the historical head figure?

Mettā

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I was hoping someone else would answer because I don’t know.

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Related? The fact that Krsna Devakiputra is mentioned as a student of Ghora Angirasa in the Chandogya Upanishad has sometimes been a little uncomfortable for some Krsna bhakts.

But not uncomfortable for others:

This may only tangentially related but I found a book that has detailed descriptions of various “festivals” in ancient India including the Bow and archery festival mentioned in the earlier posts.
Ancient Indian Folk Cults: https://archive.org/details/dli.ernet.107774/page/39/mode/2up

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