They had spent their lives waiting for this moment, and now that it had come and their son of whose exploits they had heard so much, was in front of them, they stood awkwardly inhibited, overawed by his divine presence. But Krishna, always at ease in the human realm, used his powers of ‘maya’ to appear before them as nothing but their son. A tearfully joyous reunion followed aas much too short—for it was time also for Nanda and Yasoda to say farewell. Their role of custodian was over. One phase of life had come to an end. Krishna and Balarama, so inseparable from them thus far, had to move on to the next. This was the inevitability of the chasm between Vrindavan and Mathura.
Krishna reinstated his maternal grandfather, Ugrasena, on the throne of Mathura. It was time now for Balarama and him to prepare themselves to don the mantle of their princely heritage. They may have vanquished Kamsa but they were still cowherds waiting to acquire the training of their Kshatriya lineage. As rustic youths, so dear to the gopis, they may have mastered the fine art of ‘barjori’, but to become accomplished princes they now needed to master the formal disciplines of logic, prosody, grammar, phonetics, astronomy and etymology.
The strength and daring of the killer of the dreadful asura Kesin may have been fabled; but the grandson of Ugrasena, ruler of Mathura, needed also to know about the science of warfare and the relative merit of all the weapons used in battle. The gopis of Vrindavan may have been content to see a garland of wild flowers around Govinda’s neck; but the scion of Mathura had to undergo the ‘upanayana’ ceremony where a sacred thread was put on his body. In Vrindavan, Kanha’s flute was enough to give the gopis an insight into the divine; but in Mathura, Krishna’s mind had to be given a formal grounding in the Vedas and the Upanishads. Balarama and he spent sixty-four days and nights in the custody of Guru Sandipani, renowned for his learning and wisdom, and emerged masters in all the sixty-four arts and crafts.
The Bhagavata narrates an interesting episode during Krishna and Balarama’s sojourn in Sandipani’s ashram. It was customary for disciples to pay one’s guru his fee in the form of guru dakshina. As his ‘dakshina’, Sandipani asked the two brothers to rescue his son who had been kidnapped to the kingdom of Prabhasha in faraway Saurashtra. In an adventurous journey, described with colour and verve in the Puranas, Krishna and Balarama finally rescued the boy from the very clutches of Yama, the God of Death. Shorn of mythological additives, the incident, if it is based upon historical memory of a real expedition of this nature, is perhaps indicative of the first foray of Krishna outside the Vrindavan-Mathura region, and his first contact with the west coast of India, where he would later opt to set up his own kingdom at Dwarka.
At Mathura, Krishna’s career as a warrior began by a decision to withdraw from the battlefield. Kamsa’s wives—Asti and Prapti—were the daughters of the powerful ruler of Magadha, Jarasandha. Jarasandha had sworn to avenge the widowing of his daughters and, true to this oath, attacked Mathura as many as seventeen times in the years following Kamsa’s death. Krishna and Balarama stoutly defended the city; the city did not fall, but Jarasandha was not defeated either. It was an unacceptable impasse, which was taking a heavy toll of the people of Mathura. Then Jarasandha was joined in his depredations by an ‘outsider’, Kalayavana, who besieged the city at the head of his huge army of ‘mlechchas’ It was at this time that Krishna decided that discretion was the better part of valour.
It was better to retreat to fight another day, than to fight when defeat was certain. Such a clinically realistic approach to warfare was something new. It went against the grain of the prevailing Kshatriya code of honour, which upheld values of sacrifice and valour over those of strategy and expediency. A Kshatriya’s code was to fight. To retreat in a fight was tantamount to betraying that immutable code. Krishna’s decision to withdraw from Mathura must therefore have had its strong detractors in his time from even amongst his own followers. One evidence of this is the somewhat derisive epithet ‘Ranchhor’— relinquisher of the battlefield—that has survived to this date in association with his name. In the town of Dwarka he is, in at least one important temple, even worshipped by that name—evidence, if any were needed, that over time the overwhelming appeal of his myth made palatable even those of his actions which were not entirely explicable in terms of traditional expectations.