Once when demons had taken over the kingdoms of the earth, nearly destroying it with their wars, Mother Earth took the shape of a cow and went to Lord Brahma, pleading for his help. Brahma and the other demigods went to intercede with Lord Vishnu. Vishnu told the demigods that he would send Krishna to be born into the family of Yadu, to rectify things, and the other demigods should also be reborn into that family, to help Krishna.
Eventually, Krishna was born to Devaki, the wife of Vasudeva, of the Yadu family. Vasudeva and Devaki had been imprisoned by Devaki’s brother Kamsa, who had heard a voice prophesying that Kamsa would be killed by Devaki’s eighth son. He had already killed six of Devaki’s sons. The seventh son (who was, of course, an incarnation of one of the demigods) was mystically transferred to the womb of one of Vasudeva’s other wives, Rohini, who was in hiding at the home of the Maharajah Nanda, in another city. After the “miscarriage” of her seventh son, Devaki became pregnant with her eighth son — Krishna.
Krishna was born at midnight, in his divine form as an avatar of Vishnu: with four arms, carrying his symbols: the conch, disc, club and lotus. Frightened, his mother begged him to take the form of an ordinary human child, so she could hide him from Kamsa. After telling his parents that he had been born in his four-armed form so that they would recognize him for who he was, Krishna transformed himself to a human child.
At the same time that Krishna was born, Yoga-maya, Vishnu’s “spiritual energy” — and his younger sister — incarnated herself and was born as the daughter of Yasoda, Maharajah Nanda’s wife. Yoga-maya also caused all the guards who were watching over Devaki and Vasudeva to fall asleep, and for all the locks of the prison doors to fall off. Vasudeva took Krishna and made his way to Nanda’s home. When he arrived, everyone was asleep, including Yasoda. Vasudeva then traded Krishna for Yasoda’s daughter, and returned to the prison.
When Kamsa discovered that Devati had given birth again, he came and grabbed the baby girl from Devati’s arms, and holding the child by the legs, tried to dash her against a rock. But the baby slipped from his hands and became the goddess Durga, who warned Kamsa that his enemy had already been born, and would kill him. Then she vanished.
Kamsa, frightened, at first repented his ways and freed his sister and brother-in-law, but eventually was talked out of his repentance by his advisors (who were all demons, naturally). These advisors convinced Kamsa that he should kill all the children that had been born in the kingdom within the past ten days, in order to make sure that he destroyed the child who was destined to kill him.
One of the demons that Kamsa sent out to kill the newborn babies was Putana. Putana transformed herself into a beautiful woman and made her way to Gokula, where Nanda and his wife (and their ostensible son, Krishna) lived. She was so beautiful that the people of the city couldn’t believe that she could be bad, and so she was able to make her way unobstructed into the very room where Krishna lay sleeping. She was so loving towards the baby that Yasoda and Rohini (the “mother” of Krishna’s older brother, remember) let her pick up the child, and even to nurse it.
They didn’t know that Putana had smeared her nipples with a deadly poison. But when she picked up the baby to nurse, Krishna clamped down on her breast and sucked out the poison with no ill effects — and then proceeded to suck the life out of Putana.
In great pain, Putana tried to take Krishna from her breast, but couldn’t. She screamed and thrashed, and finally died, reverting to her demonic form. Her giant body toppled all the trees for twelve miles.
And Krishna? He was just fine.
That’s a much abbreviated version of the birth of Krishna and the death of Putana, from the tenth canto of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. You can find a translation of Chapter 6, which starts with the Putana story, at vedabase.com. Though it might be easier to start all the way back at Chapter 1, just so you can keep track of all the dramatis personae. This translation of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam has short synopses at the beginning of every chapter, which helps.
The story of Krishna and Putana (Poothana Moksham) is a popular subject in Kathakali, a classical dance-drama form from Kerala, southern India. I just saw a short version of Poothana Moksham over the weekend, as part of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival’s beautiful program of the eight classical Indian dance forms (you can read my reflections on the whole program over at the Dholrhythms blog).
The heavy makeup of the dancer, combined with her exaggerated facial expressions, reminded me of Noh masks. There’s more similarity to Noh, too: the use of percussion as a dramatic force, the stylized movements and gestures. I’ve seen some Kathakali plays where the story is sung as the actors dance (like Noh, I believe); the version of the play I’ve embedded below has only percussion.
In the version of the story used in Kathakali performances, Putana (or Poothana) falls in love with the baby Krishna when she sees him and regrets what she has to do, but does it anyway, for fear of being punished. That’s the case in the version below, performed by Kalamandalam Vijayakumar (I believe Kathakali performers were traditionally all male). In fact Poothana seems to be agonizing over her decision for a really long time (half the thirteen minute performance) — but Kathakali plays traditionally went on all night, and the story of Krishna and Putana is a fairly short one, so I can imagine every moment becomes highly embellished….
It’s worth watching the whole thing, but if you’d prefer to cut to the chase, then fast-forward to 6:44, when Putana prepares the poison (she spits into her hand) and rubs it on her breasts. She begins to try to tear the baby from her breast about ten minutes in.
Top image: Shiva, Indra, Brahma and the Earth in Form of a Cow Pray to Narayana, Requesting Him to Relieve the Earth’s Burden, Kailash Raj. Image: exoticindiaart.com
Second image: Birth of Krishna. exoticindiaart.com
Third image: The Death of the Demoness Putana. Page from a dispersed Bhagavata Purana (Ancient Stories of Lord Krishna), ca. 1610. Image: Wikimedia