In this pool lived the king of nagas (serpents), the five-headed Kaliya. One day Krishna and the gopas tending the herd strayed near Kaliya’s abode. Some of the gopas and cows were inadvertently affected by the pool’s toxic waters. Krishna then climbed a kadambha tree stretching out over the pool and fearlessly jumped into the deadly waters to do battle with Kaliya. Kaliya, the Bhagavata Purana states, ‘caught hold of Krishna and wound his entire length round the form of the young boy; with his five heads he spat his virulent poison on the child.
He dug his fangs deep into all the limbs of the little boy.’ Those watching from the shore looked on with growing horror, and many, including Yasoda, fainted. But soon the Lord escaped from the serpent’s coils, leaped high into the sky and, landing on Kaliya’s outspread hoods, began to dance. The waters of the pool lashed against the shore to provide the music and the waves kept pace with the beat. Under the relentless pounding of his feet, Kaliya, gravely wounded, accepted defeat. His many wives, the nagins, begged the Lord’s forgiveness. In Vishnu Purana they pleaded with the Lord thus:
Thou art recognised, 0, God of Gods!; thou art the sovereign of all . . . have mercy on us. [And Kaliya himself said:] 0, God of Gods . . . Thou art the supreme, the progenitor of the supreme (Brahma): thou art the supreme spirit, and from thee the supreme spirit proceeds . . . It is in the nature of snakes to be savage, and I am born of their kind: hence this is my nature, not mine offence . . . Spare me my life; I ask no more.
And Krishna set Kaliya free but on condition that he, his wives and entourage would leave the Yamuna forever and reside in the ocean. The marks of the Lord’s feet on his hood would protect him there from any further danger.
The manner in which Krishna subdues Kaliya has a fascinating quality about it. The dance to victory, the effortless rhythm of the Almighty’s pace of creation and destruction, the ease, the grace, the sheer play in the manifestations of the Lord’s will, to which wind and water provide enchanted accompaniment, are beautifully brought out in the narrative. Indeed, this is the first inkling in textual material of Krishna as ‘natawara’ (the dancer), an aspect that would see mesmerizing elaboration in the famous rasa dance of his later years.
A distinct cluster of incidents from Krishna’s childhood brings out his superhuman physical powers. When but three months old, he is said to have overturned a loaded cart by a kick of his little legs, described in the Bhagavata Purana as ‘more tender then the creeper clinging to a tree’. Not much later, Gokula was attacked by the demon Trinavarta, a servant ofKamsa. Trinavarta took the form of a blinding whirlwind and carried Krishna away. No sooner had he done so than he realized that the infant’s weight kept dramatically increasing. Krishna clung so tightly to Trinavarta’s throat that the demon’s eyes popped out and he dropped down dead. A very popular incident is of Krishna, the toddler, dragging a heavy wooden mortar to which he had been tied by Yasoda as punishment.
After it had been pulled some distance, the mortar got stuck between two arjuna trees, but such was the child’s strength that they were uprooted. The trees were none other than two Gandharvas, Nalakuvara and Manigriva, who due to a curse in their previous birth, had been imprisoned in the form of trees. The Lord’s touch gave them release, and the cowherds shook their heads in bewilderment at the miraculous feat of this little baby in their midst.