Dr. A K Chatterjee is a seasoned writer with more than 330 blogs in English and Bengali and 10 books mostly on travel, trekking and temples.
Balarama, the elder brother of Shri Krishna
Key words (Vernacular words are in italics)
Avatar, Shesha Naga, Vishnu, Avatar, Krishna, Balarama, Kansa, Basudeva, Devaki, Rohini, Yogamaya, surrogate, Embryo-transfer, Hal, Mushal, demon, Apsara, Divyangana, Naga Kanya, Gopi, Gokul, Krishna Leela, Pasha, Bramhaloka, Bramha, Revati, Bhima, Duryodhana, Pandava, Kaurava.
The name "Balarama" is almost inseparable from the name of Lord Krishna. Balarama was the elder brother of Lord Krishna, and like Krishna, he himself was an Avatar of Lord Vishnu, or as some people believe, an avatar of Shesha Naga, the celestial Snake on which Lord Vishnu lies in the Kshirod Sagara. Lord Krishna, on the other hand, though sometimes considered as an Avatar of Lord Vishnu, is believed by most people, especially the Vaishnavites, as not an Avatar of Lord Vishnu, but the Supreme Lord himself.
In this regard Shri Vishnu Purana states that Balarama and Krishna were born from two strands of hair of Lord Visnu - Balarama from a white hair and Krishna from a black hair.
Whatever their status, it is a very common experience to note that almost everywhere Lord Krishna is praised and discussed and worshiped, while Lord Balarama is a little ignored. Like Lakshmana of the Ramayana who played second fiddle to Lord Rama, Balarama also played the role of the second man behind the dazzling presence of Lord Krishna.
Incidentally, the similarity between Lakshmana and Balarama does not end here. Actually, it is said that Balarama in his previous incarnation was Lakshmana.
In this article, I'll try to portray Balarama as the hero, not the side player. This article will be in two parts. The first part deals with the life of Balarama as told in scriptures. The second part will describe the presence of Balarama in the decorations of temples of West Bengal.
Balarama and Shri Krishna
Who was Balarama?
As already stated, in earthly life, Balarama was the elder brother of Lord Krishna. His father was Basudeva, but regarding his mother the story is a bit complicated.
As per the scriptures go, Devaki was the Biological mother of Balarama, but his surrogate mother was Rohini, the second wife of Basudeva. We'll come to the rather bizarre story later.
Was Balarama an Avatar? If yes, then whose Avatar was he?
The first question is quite easy to answer, and the answer is "Yes". Balarama was an Avatar.
But the second question is a bit difficult.
In one school of thought (Shrimad Bhagabat, Shri Vishnu Purana etc.) Balarama was the 8th Avatar of Lord Vishnu, in another, he was the Avatar of Shesha Naga, the celestial Snake on which Lord Vishnu lies in the Kshirod Sagara.
Birth of Balarama
The king of Mathura Kansa (often spelt Kamsa) imprisoned his sister Devaki and her husband Basudeva as he was mortally afraid that the 8th child of Devaki will kill him. Kansa killed first six children of Devaki immediately after their birth. Balarama was conceived by Devaki in her 7th pregnancy. Lord Vishnu, who was ready to come as the 8th child of Devaki, sent Yogamaya, the Supreme Mother, to do what we call now-a-days an "Embryo Transfer". Yogamaya did that with perfection -- she extracted the embryo from the uterus (womb) of Devaki and placed it in the womb of Rohini, Basudeva's second wife who was staying at Gokula under the care of Nandaraja. So, Rohini acted as the surrogate mother, and in due time a male child was born to her. This boy was named "Rama" by the sage Garga. Later, for his immense physical strength ("Bala") the boy was called "Balarama".
Balarama was also called "Sankarshana" (meaning "he who was forcibly extracted") for this "embryo transfer".
Life story of Balarama : names
As this is a vast subject, only some important incidences are mentioned here.
1. Names - Besides Balarama and Sankarshana, he has other 998 names, thus making it a nice round number 1000. The sage Garga described these 1000 names of Balarama to the Gopis. The Kaurava Prince Duryodhan learnt these 1000 names of Balarama from the sage Pradwipak or Pryodwipak.
Some of the important names are Balabhadra, Baladeva, Halayudh or Haladhara (He who carries a "Hal" or plough), Achyutagraja (Elder brothder of Achyuta or Lord Krishna), Ananta, Kalindibhedak, Mushalee (He who carries a "Mushal" or mace) etc.
Interestingly, the list of these 1000 names of Balarama includes few names which are usually reserved for Lord Krishna; examples are Hari, Baasudeva and Madhava.
Those who are interested in the full list, may google for it.
Balarama : General appearance
Balarama was fair complexioned (in contrast to Krishna, who was black), had a very stout and powerful physique, always wore blue dresses (in contrast to Krishna, who wore yellow), wore a garland of wild flowers around his neck and many other ornaments. He also always carried a "Mushal" (mace) named Sunanda and a "Hal" (plough) which were his "Ayudha" (weapons).
Balarama : General appearance
Balarama : Habits and Nature
Balarama was very short tempered, and fond drinking (alcohol) a lot.
Like Krishna, he was also very fond of playing with Gopis, the ladies of the Yadav clan. But there is a big difference here. While the Gopis with which Krishna played and did many mischiefs were Divyanganas or Apsaras (heavenly nymphs) in their previous birth, the Gopis with whom Balarama played were "Naga Kanyas" (Ladies of the Naga clan, often described as snakes or half women-half snakes) in their previous lives.
Balarama : Nature and habits
Balkarama : Some important life events
From childhood, he was the inseparable companion of Lord Krishna, hence took part in almost all of the events of the life of Krishna ("Krishna Leela").
These are some examples.
a) "Tal Bhakshan" (Eating fruits of Toddy Palm or Borassus flabellifer) and Dhenukasura Badh (Killing of the demon Dhenukasura) : Dhenukasura was a demon who lived in "Tal Van", one of the 12 "Van" (forests) of Vrindavan. Krishna and Balarama went there to eat the palm fruit. Dhenukasur in the form of a donkey attacked them. Balarama instantly caught the donkey by the hind legs and forcibly threw him to his death.
b) Pralambasura Badh (Killing of the demon Pralambasura) : while playing "Harinakreedan", the demon tried to abduct Balarama by carrying him on his back. But Balarama by his divine power increased his own weight so much that the demon was crushed and killed.
c) Girigovardhana Dharan : When Indra, the king of gods, tried to punish Krishna for not worshiping him, he started incessant rains over Gokul and Vrindavan. Krishna then lifted the Girigoivardhan hill and kept it over the region like a huge umbrella. Balarama was by Krishna's side during this event.
6. When Lord Krishna left Gokul and went to Mathura with Akrur in a chariot sent by Kansa, Balarama accompanied him. In Mathura, Kansa tried to kill Krishna first by sending wrestlers Chanura and Mushtika, but Krishna killed Chanura and Mushtika was killed by Balarama.
Then Kansa sent a dangerous elephant named Kubalayapeera who was killed by Balarama.
Finally Krishna killed Kansa, and made Ugrasena, the father of Kansa, the new king of Mathura.
7. After that, Krishna and Balarama went to the school of the sage Sandipan (also called Sandipani) in Ujjain.
8. Then Krishna and Balarama fought with Jarasandha, the king of Magadha, who was the brother-in-law of Kansa, and defeated him 18 times.
9. Krishna never returned to Gokul, but Balarama returned there and stayed for two months. During this stay, he punished the river Yamuna for not obeying him, and thus became to be known as "Kalindibhedak" (Kalindi means Yamuna, Bhedak means who pierces something).
10. Balarama was a passionate "Pasha" (dice) player. But when he was cheated and insulted in a dice game by Rukmi, the brother of Rukmini, Krishna's favorite wife, he was furious and killed Rukmi.
11. Balarama killed Dwibida, an evil monkey, who was a close friend of the evil demon Narakasura who was killed by Lord Krishna.
Life events of Balarama
Balarama and the battle of Kurukshetra
Balarama was neutral in the great war of Kurukshetra between the Pandavas and their cousins Kauravas (Krishna joined the war as the charioteer of Arjuna), as he thought both were equal.
During the war, Balarama went to pilgrimage and traveled all over Bharatvarsha. He returned to find that Bhima and Duryodhana were just beginning their famous mace-fight. As both Bhima and Duryodhana were his students in the techniques of mace-fight, Balarama stayed there to watch it. But as Bhima killed Duryodhana illegally in the duel, Balarama was so enraged at the treachery of Bhima that he was ready to kill Bhima with his plough, but was restrained by Krishna.
Marriage of Balarama
Balarama was married to Revati, the daughter of King Raivata. There is an interesting story about this marriage. Raivata was a king in the Krita (Satya) Yuga. He went with his daughter Revati to Bramhaloka (the abode of Lord Bramha) to find a suitable match for Revati. Brahma told him that Balarama was the God-selected life-partner of Revati, and asked him to return to earth.
But when Raivata returned to earth, he was amazed to find that millions of years had passed by the short time he was in Bramhaloka (a rudimentary idea of Time Dilation?), and Dwapara Yuga was prevailing. He found that everything had changed, even the men and women were now much shorter and lightly built.
Anyways, he met Balarama and asked him to marry Revati. Balarama agreed, but before marrying the bride who was much taller and bigger than him, he dragged Revati down by his plough and made her matching in height and size.
The couple had two sons -- Nishadh and Ulmuka.
Balarama and Revati
Death of Balarama
Balarama died before the death of Shri Krishna and the destruction of the Yadav clan. Balarama left his mortal body by deep meditation. It is said that at his death an enormous red-coloured snake with thousand hoods (supposedly the snake was Shesha Naga himself) escaped from his mouth and went into the sea.
Part II : Balarama in Bengal temple decorations
In this part we'll discuss the presence of Balarama in the decorations of temples in West Bengal.
Few introductory words
1. Decorations of temples in West Bengal are primarily done by terracotta plaques, with stucco and stone works to some extent. Besides these, wood carvings (in temple doors and wooden pillars) and mural/fresco occupy a miniscule fraction.
2. The present study is done by detailed analysis of photographs of about 80 temples taken by the author. The temples are from different districts, mainly Birbhum, Bankura , Bardhaman (East and West) and Hooghly.
3. These temples were constructed mostly in the 19th century CE, though some are dated as of 18th century.
4. Sometimes in old and weathered terracotta or stucco plaques, it is very difficult to figure out what a particular figure portrays, so there is some inevitable guessing game.
Balarama in Bengal temple decorations
Forms of Balarama in temple decorations
Basically, Balarama is portrayed in two forms :
1. As an Avatar of Lord Vishnu/ Shesha Naga where Balarama is depicted alone with the "Hal" (plough) on one shoulder and a "Mushal" (mace) in the other hand.
2. In the "Krishna Leela" panels.
However, the panels of the second group are often misleading, mainly because of the weathering factor just told above.
Balarama as an Avatar
Avatar Balarama is characterized by his "Ayudh" (weapons) viz. "Hal" (plough) and "Mushal" (mace).
But in some cases the "Mushal" is missing, and Balarama is depicted with the plough only.
In a third type of panels, Balarama is seen with the plough and a "Shinga" (Horn) like thing, often held in his mouth. Is it a horn to blow, or a "Panpatra" (a vessel to hold drinks)?
Balarama in Krishna Leela scenes
The pictures of Balarama in Krishna Leela scenes fall into 3 groups :
A. With Krishna, where Krishna is active and Balarama is a passive spectator:
Examples are 1) Aghasura badh (Killing of Aghasura, the Snake Demon), Bakasura Badh (Killing of Bakasura, the Bird Demon), Kansa Badh (Killing of Kansa by Krishna).
B. Where Balarama himself is active :
Examples are 1) Pralamban badh (Killing of demon Pralamban), 2) Kubalayapeer Badh (Killing of Kubalaypeer, the rogue elephant sent by Kansa), Mushtik Badh (Killing of Mushtik, the assasin-wrestler).
C. Where both Krishna and Balarama are active :
Examples are 1) Gostha Leela (life as cowherds), 2) Tal Bakshan (Climbing the Toddy Palm tree to eat the fruits), Gokul Tyag (Leaving Gokul).
Forms of Balarama in Bengal temple decorations
What I did not find
For any analytical study, positive and negative findings are equally important. So, I'm listing here some of the important landmark events in Balarama's life which are not found in the temples included in this study.
These are :
Dhenukasura Badh (Killing of Dhenukasura, the Donkey Demon), Balarama and Yamuna, Balarama's Ras Leela or playing and dancing with the Gopis (There are so many pictures of Raas Leela, but identifying Krishna and Balarama in those weathered terracotta plaques is not possible), Balarama's wedding, Balarama watching the mace-fight between Bhima and Duryodhana, Balarama's death etc.
With a comparatively small number of temples under study (n=80) the present article is at the best a Pilot Study. If anyone does a study with a bigger series of temples, more information may come up. Awaiting for that future field-research.
1. Shri Vishnu Purana - Gita Press, Gorokhpur.
2. Dashavatar - Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
3. Different internet sites.
All photos are by the author.
© 2022 Dr A K Chatterjee