One day Krishna decided that his elder brother and he himself, both barely out of their childhood, absolutely needed education. It must have occurred to the avatar that no matter how many asuras he punished or how many mountains he lifted on his finger tip, how many serpents he chastised or gods he humbled, none of these or even all of these together would compensate for his lack of literacy and knowledge of the shastras. So with elder brother Balarama he went to a well known preceptor of those days, named Santipani (better known as Sandipani). He told him that they had lived among people who were all unlettered and ignorant of the shastras. They had never heard the Vedas even once where they grew up. All they knew was how to graze cattle, milk cows, churn milk, and some silly things like playing pranks and the like. The language people used there was uncouth, and the talk was mostly about catching someone, beating someone up, etc. With so much quarrelling and fighting all around, they had learnt the language of quarrelling. No one ever arranged for their education, or even felt that they needed education. Now they had left it all behind them, left home and parents as well, and had come to him to learn. In all humility they pleaded with him to accept them as his pupils. Santipani was kind-hearted, and he agreed to teach them. He was impressed with their sincere desire to learn and had not failed to notice that they were very different from children of their age, that they were truly exceptional. They almost looked like devas, he thought. He had lost four sons and only his youngest son alive who was still a child. Santipani and his wife felt that looking after these two extraordinary children would bring them some solace.
The guru ritually started their education. He first taught them the script (most certainly the Odia script!): the alphabet, the markers, the diacritics and other symbols, compound letters, etc. They mastered these in no time. In fact, as their teacher was writing the letters and the markers, Krishna and Balarama learnt them by just looking at them. They needed no practice and the teacher did not have to teach them anything the second time. Then he taught them spelling, and again they learnt it as Santipani was teaching them. Teach us more, the pupils would say, and the teacher was astonished at the speed of their learning. This must not surprise us for which knowledge needed time for the avatara to internalize whose consort was the goddess of learning herself!
Then Krishna and Balarama learnt languages: Odia, Telugu, Nagari, Marathi, languages of the South, among others – altogether sixty languages, as the poet tells us, and many scripts. Then they learnt the four Vedas, astronomy and astrology, kama shastra (science of desire), tantra, yoga, archery, military arts, among many others, which according to Sarala, numbered many thousands. We need not be curious about what these were.
One day Santipani had gone to bathe in the sea and his son, Saudasi, was with him. As he was bathing, a big wave washed away the child from the beach. The unfortunate parents had lost four sons before and now they lost their fifth. The grief-stricken parents decided to go on pilgrimage and at the completion of it, end their life by sacrificing themselves ritually in the sacred waters at the holy Prayag. Krishna asked his preceptor why he was so distraught. Life is an opportunity for those who have done some virtuous act, and the sinners die early, he told him, so he should not think of ending his life, grieving over the death of his sons. He said that Balarama and he, being his pupils, were like his sons, and that he should look upon them as such and enjoy parenthood. They had a good deal more to learn from him, he told him, so his responsibility for them was not over yet. In those words Santipani experienced grace flowing on to him. He had always wondered whether Krishna and Balarama were not manifestations of Narayana and Shiva. Since his pupils were insisting, Santipani told his wife that they should postpone their pilgrimage plans and stay home for some more time. His wife, who was no less fond of those wonderful god-like children, agreed.
So Krishna and Balarama studied again, but Sarala does not tell us what they studied since according to his narrative, the guru had already told them that he had taught them all he knew. Sarala had nothing to tell really, he knew that the pupils were pretending. They had simply wanted to comfort Santipani and his wife. The couple were happy; how could they not be when Krishna and Balarama had taken it on themselves to make them happy?
Now Krishna knew that they could not stay there for long. One day Krishna most humbly sought Santipani and his wife’s permission to leave. The guru told him that once they left, they would go on pilgrimage, have a ritual bath in the Ganges at Manikarnika, and then have a darshan of Madhava at Prayag and having done so, consign themselves to the sacred waters there. That was how they would be able to put an end to their suffering on account of the death of their sons. Krishna decided to do his preceptor a favour and give him just whatever he wanted. If he wanted his sons to return to him from Yama’s loka, he would let it happen. But he did not tell him anything.
He requested Santipani to tell him what he wanted from Balarama and him as guru dakshina. The guru said that he did not want anything from them. Wealth and possessions had become meaningless to him because he had no child to inherit the same. The young pupil insisted that he ask for his guru dakshina, because the knowledge they had obtained from him would be useless if they did not give him dakshina.
Guru dakshina was the teacher’s fee. That was an important source of the teacher’s livelihood and the maintenance of his ashram. At the end of his education, when the pupil would leave, he was duty-bound to request his guru to name his dakshina. The guru might not always demand his dakshina, but once requested by his pupil, he was obliged to mention what he wanted, because it was believed that unpaid for education would not be useful for the pupil. The teacher was obliged to ask the pupil as his dakshina what was reasonable and was within his capacity to give. If offering guru dakshina was the pupil’s dharma, asking for proper dakshina In the above sense was the teacher’s dharma.
When Krishna insisted, Santipani named his dakshina. He and his wife wanted their five sons back. The guru needed nothing else. If Krishna and Balarama were not willing to give that dakshina, then he would happily exempt them from the requirement of dakshina. Krishna asked him whether being the wise person that he was he thought it proper and reasonable to ask even for his elder sons who had died eighty years ago. How could they return alive now after all those years, and wasn’t he thereby asking for the impossible, he asked him. The guru was unfazed and unrepentant. If he thought it improper, he must not worry about guru dakshina and return home with his blessings, he told his shishya. Krishna, who had decided, as we know, unknown to his preceptor of course, to give him his sons, assured him that he would not shy away from guru dakshina, and would try his best. But he wondered how his wise preceptor, after all those days of their being together, remained unaware of who he really was, and how he did not ask for moksha, and how badly he was caught in the snares of moha (attachment) for his sons. He asked Balarama to return home and he proceeded towards the sea where the guru had lost his youngest son.
He entered the waters and the god of the waters, Varuna, hurried to welcome him and pay his obeisance. The avatara, who was completely aware of his Self and of his essence as Narayana, asked him sternly why he had stolen his guru’s children. Varuna prayerfully said that it was not his doing, and that it was Yama’s. Under the spell of the god of life and death of all mortals, they had entered the deep waters and perished. Only Yama would know their whereabouts, he told him.
Krishna invoked the mighty Garuda, his vahana (carrier), and immediately went to Yama loka. On arrival there he blew his conch, Panchayajna, and Yama rushed to welcome him. His presence redeemed the sinners in that loka who were undergoing Yama’s punishment. Yama prostrated at his feet, offered him worship, and in great humility asked him how he had decided to grace him by his visit. In a reprimanding tone Krishna told him that he had heard about his unjust doings, about how he took children’s lives, whereas he should be taking the lives of those who had lived their full time in the mortal world. Children are no sinners, he told him, so why did he punish them with death, he asked.
We need not be puzzled about the avatara’s conflicting words. He had told his guru that sinners would die early and had not exclude childhood as not counting for the computation of “early” and was now telling god Yama that children are no sinners – presumably, as we understand, because they have not lived long enough to commit sins! He said things that would serve his purpose best. From another point of view, Krishna was unaffected by maya, cosmic illusion, and was beyond dualities. As for his words, then, what sense would truth and lie make! Only those caught in maya would interpret things in terms of duality, such as truth and untruth,
To return to Yama, he was reverential in his response. He did no injustice, he told the avatara with folded hands. The death of children was not due to their karma in their present life or even their earlier lives, but to the karma of their parents, in particular, the sexual wrong doings of their parents, he told him. He detailed various transgressions of sexual conduct and said that when the children are born out of such unethical unions, they come to the world with the destiny of short lives. That was the law, he told him, that humans must abide by, so he should not be blamed for the death of children. People in their lack of understanding blamed him, he told Krishna, but he was only going by the law and doing his assigned role as the dispenser of justice.
Then Yama said something totally unexpected in the context of their dialogue. He confronted him. How can one blame the ordinary people when the fully manifest avatara himself in his unlimited power and arrogance indulged in the wildest, most irresponsible and unethical sexual union with whosoever he liked?, he asked Krishna. He was respectful but firm. Didn’t he set a very disturbing example? When the great leaders of the society engaged themselves in unethical activities, ordinary people would not only follow their example but would also justify their own reprehensible conduct, Yama told Krishna.
Given the law, the logic of the god of justice and of death was impeccable, and his charges just, but Krishna was unembarrassed and unfazed. If that was the logic of the death of children, then Yama must consider untainted all the children born out of union with him. He conceded that he had committed the sin of impermissible sexual union with others’ women, but at the same time he directed Yama not to view all these women as violators of the ethical code and his union with them sinful. Yama could administer justice according to the law elsewhere but must leave his off springs untouched. Yama bowed to his instruction. “Bada lokanku uttara nahi (there is no answer to the great men, i.e., the powerful, are above the law)”, as goes the Odia proverb.
Then he asked him where his five brothers were. They had become his brothers by virtue of being his guru’s sons, Krishna told Yama. He said that they had been reborn in the world and were living their life as thieves and robbers. Sarala Dasa was a great devotee of Bhagavan Krishna. So in his narrative, the cosmic wheel of events and time had to move backwards to materialize Krishna’s wish. We need not go into that story here.
As Santipani and his wife were preparing to sacrifice themselves in the waters at Prayag, Krishna arrived with their five children and offered them to them. The parents were extremely happy and very much surprised as well. A little later, when the euphoria was over and normalcy returned to the guru, he wondered how the impossible had taken place. He now became absolutely certain about what had often occurred to him before – that Krishna was Narayana Himself. He felt a biting sense of regret and sorrow that he had not asked his shishya for release from the karmic cycle – for moksha. It was too late now; having given his guru dakshina, the avatara had gone far away on the back of the mighty Garuda. Santipani must have realized that when the defining moment comes, it is always nara who fails Narayana, never the other way round.