Archaeology and Vaishnava Tradition, Part Thirteen

BY: SUN STAFF - 22.1 2019

The Birth of Krsna 

Part Thirteen, the last of a monograph by Ramaprasad Chanda, published by the Archaeological Survey of India, 1998.

The old fortified city of Mahasthan, on the river Karatoya, 7 miles to the north of Bogra in Bengal, is evidently so-called because two spots within it are sacred to the memory of two holy persons: Sila Devi's Ghat, a flight of steps leading to the water of the river wherefrom Sila Devi, the daughter of the last Hindu king of the city, is said to have jumped into the river and drowned herself; and the asthan or tomb of the Muhammadan saint – Mahi-sawar ("the fish-rider"), who is said to have conquered the city. [1]

In our fragment, the absence of any case-ending after mahasthana shows that it is part of a compound word, the other member of which is lost. If I am right in guessing that this lost word denoted 'shrine', to which the four buildings enclosing the quadrangle (chatuhsalam) were attached, mahasthana may be understood to denote a spot sacred to the memory of Krishna-Vasudeva.

According to the Mahabharata, the Puranas, Bhasa's Balacharita and other Brahmanic works, Mathura is the birth place of Krishna-Vasudeva and the scene of one of His most important feats, the slaying of Kamsa. Mathura is still held holy as the janmasthana or birth place of Krishna-Vasudeva. A spot near the modern temple of Kesavadeva marked by a small cell is held sacred as the prison house of Kamsa, where Vasudev and Devaki were confined and where Krishna was born.

Yamuna Ghat, Mathura

In the mahasthana of Vasudeva mentioned in our fragment we have to recognize a spot that was believed to have been either the birth-place of Krishna or the scene of some other notable event in his early career. Pilgrimage to places sacred to the memory of holy men must have been a time-honoured custom as early as the time of the composition of the Mahaparinibbanasuttanta. In this Suttanta Buddha says, addressing Ananda, "There are those four places, Ananda, which the believing man should visit with feelings of reverence and awe (chattari imani Ananda saddhassa kulaputtassa dassaniyani samvejaniyani (thanani)". [2] And the places named are the places where the Tatha-gata was born, where the Tathagata attained to the supreme and perfect insight, where the kingdom of righteousness (dhammacakkam) was set on foot, and where the Tathagata passed finally away. That this commandment of the Blessed One was faithfully carried out in the third century B.C. is shown by the Rumindei pillar inscription which tells us that twenty years after his anointment Asoka himself visited Lumminigama and "worship having been performed, because here was born Buddha the saint of the Sakyas he had a slan of stone bearing a horse made and a stone pillar raised up." [3]

In the Divyavadana, No. XXVII, Asoka says, falling at the feet of Sthavira Upagupta, "O Sthavira, this is my desire. I shall worship the places where the blessed Buddha lived and (thereon) erect monuments (chihnani) for the benefit of posterity." [4]

The prevalence of the custom of making pilgrimage to the thanani (sthanani) or places connected with the life of Buddha in the reign of Asoka on the one hand, and the prevalence of the worship of Samkarshana and Vasudeva in the second century B.C. on the other, warrant us in assuming that the Mahasthana of Vasudeva at Mathura did not suddenly become popular in the time of the Saka satraps, but must have been a place of pilgrimage long before their rise. The statement of the Megasthenes that the Sourasenai who lived in and about Mathura held Krishna (Herakles) in special honour lends support to this view.


The Vaishnava monuments dealt with in this Memoir all together make up a mere handful as compared with the number of ancient Buddhist monuments, and the earliest of them is more than half a century younger than the earliest Buddhist ones. So these few comparatively late archaeological documents can hardly be expected to throw as much light on the growth of Vaishnava traditions as the Buddhist monuments do on those of the Buddhists, and the conclusions set forth above are necessarily tentative in their nature. But these few documents appear to be sufficient to create a belief that the excavation of the ancient sites of Western and Central India, and particularly those of Besnagar and about Mathura, will reveal more materials for the early history of Vaishnavism.

Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India No. 5., 'Archaeology and Vaishnava Tradition' by Ramaprasad Chanda.



[1] Cunningham, Arch. Survey Reports, Vol. XV, p. 107 [2] S. B. E., Vol. XI, p. 90; The Digha-Nikava, Vol. II, p. 140 [3] Ind. Ant., Vol. XLIII, p. 20 [4] Divyavadana, p. 389