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.