Although perfect in all his roles as son, brother, husband, friend, father, warrior, king, or mentor, Krishna is best remembered as a lover. His relationship with Radha is considered the paramount paradigm of love. But his disarming charm did not spare any woman in Vrindavan and beyond. Everywhere he went, women gave him their hearts and sought him as their husband and lord. In fact, Hindu mythology ascribes an astounding 16,008 wives to him! Of these, 16,000 were rescued princesses, and eight were principal wives. These eight included Rukmini, Satyabhama, Jambavati, Mitravinda, Kalindi, Lakshmana, Bhadra, and Nagnajiti. Of these, Rukmini is considered the first among equals, and today’s column tells you why.
The princess of Vidarbha
Daughter of king Bhishmaka, Rukmini was a woman of great beauty. She belonged to the city of Kundinapura in the Vidarbha kingdom and hence was also called Vaidarbhi. Her five powerful brothers, especially Rukmi, sought a powerful political alliance through her marriage. Rukmi was particularly interested in forging a match between his sister and Shishupala, the prince of Chedi. But Rukmini had long given her heart to Krishna.
Vaidarbhi’s first brush with Krishna’s magical charm occurred in Mathura. A face-off between the arrogant Rukmi and Balarama became the backdrop of a romance for Rukmini. Krishna, whose tales of beauty and valour she had grown up hearing, was suddenly a reality and she fell in love with the dark cowherd prince. But the occasion made her brother an avowed enemy of the Yadava princes.
A farcical swayamvar
When the time for Rukmini’s marriage came, a swayamvara was organised. However, it was no more than a farce as Rukmi had ensured that only Shishupala would emerge victorious. Rukmini was livid at the idea of such treachery, and would never accept it. She resolved to marry only Krishna or drown herself in the palace well.
She wrote a secret letter to Krishna and sent it to him through a trusted priest named Agni Jotana. In it, she declared her love for Krishna in no uncertain terms and implored him to abduct her. She suggested that they have a rakshasa vivaha – a frowned upon yet recognised form of Vedic marriage where the bride is abducted. Krishna smiled in acknowledgement.
Taking charge of love
In sending off that love letter to Krishna, Rukmini took two path-breaking steps: one, against the patriarchal system of ‘arranged marriage’ and two, for the cause of her heart. In a milieu, when women were supposed to be coy (that still hasn’t changed!), Rukmini’s move was most radical! How could Krishna not respond to this brave call of love?
On the morning of the swayamvara, Rukmini made a customary visit to the temple of goddess Katyayani. Seizing the opportunity, Krishna swiftly lifted her on to his chariot and made a getaway. Those who came after them met arrows of the Yadava army waiting at some distance. But an angry Rukmi did not relent and continued to chase after Krishna’s chariot. Vaasudev almost let loose his fury on him, but was stopped by Rukmini, who pleaded with him to spare her brother’s life. Krishna let him go with just a humiliating head shave.
Once back in Dwarka, Rukmini was welcomed by Devaki and the others and a grand wedding ceremony was held. A recitation of the ‘Rukmini Kalyanam’ is considered auspicious to this day. Krishna proclaimed that she was goddess Lakshmi incarnate, and would forever be by his side. He blessed her with the name ‘Sri’ and said, henceforth, people would take her name before his and call him Sri Krishna. Rukmini started her life as the first consort queen of Krishna, although she would not be the last.
The drama of elopement would not be the last in Rukmini’s life either. A few years into the marriage, Rukmini got disconsolate because she did not bear any children. Only when Krishna prayed to Lord Shiva, were they blessed with a son, Pradyumna – an incarnation of Lord Kama. However, by a strange twist of fate, the infant Pradyumna was snatched from her lap and reunited only years later.
If parting from her child wasn’t bad enough, Rukmini soon had to contend with a string of co-wives. But Rukmini always knew this part of the deal: Krishna could not belong to any one, not to Radha, not to her. He had to answer the prayers of all who sought him. As the paramatma, he had to be everywhere and with everyone at once. Rukmini, however, remained steadfast in her devotion to her lord. Two instances offer proof of her undying love for Krishna.
Not a joke
Once, in order to ruffle her complacent feathers, Krishna teasingly questioned her choice of a husband. He said she had made a mistake by choosing a cowherd over the many princes and kings she could have chosen. He even went so far as to suggest she rectify her ‘mistake’. This fake proposition reduced Rukmini to tears, and made Krishna realise just how much the thought of not being by his side pained her. He sought her pardon and made things right.
But it was in the instance of tulabharam (weighing by scale) that showcased the true extent of Rukmini’s loving devotion. Once her chief rival, Satyabhama, was incited by the sage Narada to give away Krishna in charity. In order to win him back, she would have to give Narada Krishna’s weight worth in gold.
An arrogant Satyabhama thought it was easy, and took on the challenge. Meanwhile, a mischievously complicit Krishna sat on one side of the scale, watching all proceedings. Satyabhama put all the gold and jewellery she could lay her hands on the other side of the scale, but it did not budge. In despair, Satyabhama swallowed her pride and begged Rukmini to help. Rukmini readily stepped forth with just a tulsi leaf in hand. When she placed that leaf on the scale, it moved and finally outweighed Krishna. The strength of Rukmini’s love was there for all to see. She was, indeed, the first among equals.
No mortal love
As compared to the enigmatic Radha or the fiery Satyabhama, Rukmini’s character is relatively docile. Her story begins in youthful defiance but soon matures into a model of wifely devotion. Though not as widely recognised as Radha, Rukmini’s marital status grants her love legitimacy – something of great worth in civil society. Despite Krishna’s many marriages, she remains firm in her love and loyalty. Rukmini surely had to be a goddess to be able to do that, for no ordinary woman would be able to love like that. Like Sita, she becomes the ideal spouse in the realm of Indian mythology, and is reverentially worshipped as Rakhumai alongside her Lord, Vitthal, in Maharashtra.