Śrī Kṛṣṇa Vanquishes Kālīya

Kṛṣṇa defeating Kālīya, with the serpent’s wives pleading for his release; Kangra, circa 1820

“All Braj is gathered at edge of the Jamunā
To see Saṅkarṣaṇ’s brother dance
on the head of Kāliya the snake:
With his feet — thei thei — he sounds out the rhythm
of the deep mridangam drum
And the heavens fill with chariots — courtiers and musicians
whose love and delight make them sing.
Before him stand the wives of the snake,
their eyes pouring streams of tears:
“Beautiful Dark One, grant us a boon.
Let our husband be released.”
Emerging from the water, his dark body flashed
with the brilliance of his jewels and clothes.
Sūrdās says, joy overcame the herdsmen
as they welcomed him with an embrace.”

translated by John Stratton Hawley
from ‘The Memory of Love: Surdas Sings to Krishna’

Śrī Kṛṣṇa, on seeing that the Yamunā River had been contaminated by the poison of the black snake-king Kāliya, desired to purify her waters, and thus banished him from it. In the depths of the river Kālindī (Yamunā) was a lake inhabited by the serpent Kāliya, whose fiery poison constantly heated and boiled its waters. The vapors thus created were so poisonous that birds flying over the contaminated lake would fall down into it.

Kṛṣṇa climbed to the top of the kadamba tree on the banks and prepared himself for battle. Kṛṣṇa then jumped into the waters with a gigantic splahs, and began sporting fearlessly in Kāliya’s lake like a lordly elephant — swirling His mighty arms and agitating the poisonous water. Kāliya saw Śrī Kṛṣṇa, who wore fine yellow silk garments, His attractive body shining like a glowing white cloud, His chest bearing the mark of Śrīvatsa, His face smiling beautifully and His feet resembling the whorl of a lotus flower. Seeing His wonderful appearance, the envious Kāliya furiously bit Him on the chest and then completely wrapped Him in his coils.

When the cowherds saw Kṛṣṇa enveloped in the snake’s coils, motionless, they were greatly disturbed and fell to the ground in lamentation and fear. The earth began to tremble, and the sky turned dark and all those watching shivered in fear. Seeing the inauspicious omens, Nanda Mahārāja and the other cowherd men were fearful, for they knew that Kṛṣṇa had gone to herd the cows that day without His elder brother, Balarāma. All the inhabitants of Vṛndāvana rushed to the banks of the Yamuna in search of their dear Kṛṣṇa, following the path marked by his trascendantal footprints. Upon seeing Kṛṣṇa in the lake, motionless within the coils of the black serpent, they were all overwhelmed with anguish.

Balarāma, upon seeing the residents of Vṛndāvana in such distress, smiled and said nothing, as He knew the extraordinary power of His younger brother. Seeing that Nanda Mahārāja and the other cowherd men trying to enter the serpent’s lake (in preparation to give up their lives for Kṛṣṇa), He held them back.

In the meantime, Kṛṣṇa patiently remained within the coils of the serpent, as if he were an ordinary mortal who was overpowered by Kālīya. But when He saw that the women, children and residents of Gokula were in distress because of their love for Him, He immediately broke free from the tight coils of the serpent. Kāliya, tormented, released Him but raised his hoods to confront Kṛṣṇa, looking for an opportunity to bite. Kṛṣṇa playfully circled around him, with the same as Garuḍa would play with a snake. Having depleted the serpent’s strength with His relentless teasing, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the primeaval master of all fine arts, jumped onto his broad serpentine hoods and began to dance, His lotus feet deeply reddened by the touch of the numerous jewels upon the serpent’s heads. Śrī Hari-vaṁśa says ‘śiraḥ sa kṛṣṇo jagrāha sva-hastenāvanamya’ — “Kṛṣṇa grabbed Kāliya’s head with His hand and forced it to bow down” — in a symbolic act of humbling Kāliya and demanding his submssion to his supremacy.

Seeing the Lord dancing, the Gandharvas, Siddhas, sages, Cāraṇas and the wives of the demigods in the celestial heavens — arrived and began a joyful accompanyment by playing mṛdaṅgas, paṇavas and ānakas. They also made showered upon him songs, flowers and prayers.

When one of Kāliya’s 101 prominent heads would not bow down, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, who inflicts punishment on wrong-doers, would crush that stubborn head by striking it with His feet. Kāliya was soon in the throes of death, vomiting ghastly blood from his mouths and nostrils and in extreme pain and misery. Only then did he finally recognize Śrī Kṛṣṇa as the supreme master of all moving and nonmoving beings, Nārāyaṇa. Thus, within his mind Kāliya took shelter of the Lord. When Kāliya’s wives saw how fatigued and miserable the serpent had become from the striking of Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s heels on his hoods and the weight of the Lord who carries the universe in his abdomen, they were in great distress. With their clothing, ornaments and hair in a disarray, they bowed before Him and pleaded with Śrī Kṛṣṇa to have mercy. “O Lord, we do not know how the serpent Kāliya has attained this great opportunity to be touched by the dust of Your lotus feet. For this, the goddess of fortune had performed austerities for centuries, giving up all other desires and observing vratas. Those who have attained the dust of Your lotus feet never hanker for the kingship of heaven, limitless sovereignty, the position of Brahmā or rulership over the earth. They are not even interested in the perfections of yoga or in liberation itself.”

नमस्तुभ्यं भगवते पुरुषाय महात्मने ।
भूतावासाय भूताय पराय परमात्मने ॥
ज्ञानविज्ञाननीधये ब्रह्मणेऽनन्तशक्तये ।
अगुणायाविकाराय नमस्ते प्राकृताय च ॥
कालाय कालनाभाय कालावयवसाक्षिणे ।
विश्वाय तदुपद्रष्ट्रे तत्कर्त्रे विश्वहेतवे ॥

namas tubhyaṁ bhagavate puruṣāya mahātmane
bhūtāvāsāya bhūtāya parāya paramātmane

jñāna-vijñāna-nīdhaye brahmaṇe ’nanta-śaktaye
aguṇāyāvikārāya namas te prākṛtāya ca

kālāya kāla-nābhāya kālāvayava-sākṣiṇe
viśvāya tad-upadraṣṭre tat-kartre viśva-hetave

Bhāgavata, 10.16.39–41

“Salutations to You, Bhagavān, the Supreme being, one who exists prior to creation and pervades all bhūtas, the Supreme cause and the eternal and supreme Self. Obeisances unto You, the treasure of all knowledge and the absolute truth, brahmaṇ, Absolute Truth, whose power is infinite; who is beyond material transformation (free of guṇas) and is unchanging and primordial. Obeisances unto You, who are time itself, the shelter of time and the witness of all of time in all its phases. You are the universe, yet also its external observer. You are its creator, and also the totality of all its causes.”

नम: कृष्णाय रामाय वसुदेवसुताय च ।
प्रद्युम्नायानिरुद्धाय सात्वतां पतये नम: ॥

namaḥ kṛṣṇāya rāmāya vasudeva-sutāya ca
pradyumnāyāniruddhāya sātvatāṁ pataye namaḥ

“We offer our namaskāra to Kṛṣṇa and Rāma, the sons of Vasudeva, to Pradyumna and Aniruddha and the master of all the saintly devotees (of Viṣṇu).”

Thus praised by the Nāgapatnīs, the Supreme Personality of Godhead released the serpent Kāliya, who had fallen unconscious, his heads battered by the striking of the Lord’s lotus feet. Kāliya slowly regains consciosuness and addresses Kṛṣṇa with humble words of submssion. “O Lord, You are the omniscient Lord of the universe, the true cause of freedom from illusion. Please confer upon me any punishment you see fit.”

With that, Kṛṣṇa banishes Kāliya from the river and instructs him to leave Vṛndāvana and go to the ocean along with his family. Kṛṣṇa adds that “if any mortal were to remember My command to Kāliya and narrate this account at sunrise and sunset, he will never be afraid of you. If one bathes in this place of My vihāras or observes a fast and duly worships and remembers Me, he is sure to become free from all sins.”

“Out of fear of Garuḍa, you left Ramaṇaka Island and came to take shelter of this lake. But because you are now marked with My footprints, Garuḍa will no longer try to eat you.”**

Having been released by Lord Kṛṣṇa, whose pastimes are a source of wonder and pleasure to all, Kāliya joined his wives in worshiping Him with utmost joy and reverence.

** This is a reference to the story of why Kāliya took shelter in the waters of the Yamna in the first place, and is as follows: The Nāgas had the practice of making offerings to Garuḍa on certain days. Kāliya, too proud of his own valour, did not make any offering himself and snatched away offerings made by others. Garuḍa attacked him and, being overpowered by the mighty eagle, Kāliya sought shelter in a deep pool of water in the Yamuna, which Garuḍa had been cursed not to enter.


  1. Bhāgavata Purāṇa translated by Swami Prabhupada

2. ‘The Memory of Love: Surdas Sings to Krishna’ John Stratton Hawley


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