The Lost City of Sri Krishna (Book Review)

The Lost City of Sri Krishna: The Story of Ancient Dwaraka by Vanamali

Review by Jacob Kyle

Vanamali’s most recent book, The Lost City of Sri Krishna: The Story of Ancient Dwaraka, is a work of pure devotion. While it contains elements of history, philosophy, and mystical revery, it transcends these familiar categories, speaking its truth from the perspective of adoration for the author’s blue-bodied Lord. All 44 chapters of The Lost City are bookended by invocations to Krishna, reminding the reader that this book is the outgrowth of the writer’s spiritual practice and the expression of a certain degree of spiritual attainment. 

In the Vaishnava (or Krishna bhakti) traditions, the term līlā refers to the blissful playfulness of the divine, and Krishna līlās are the stories of Krishna’s incarnation in this world. To some Vaishnava bhaktas, the goal of spiritual practice is to ultimately reside in a dimension where one can play out these līlās with one’s beloved Lord. The Lost City, in some sense, can be read as a transcription of author Vanamali’s own bliss-saturated adventure with Lord Krishna during Krishnavatara (the years Krishna was incarnated on earth). Indeed, she writes that the stories found within are descriptions of her experiences and not mere products of her imagination.

The Lost City features many familiar characters (Draupadī, Arjuna, Yudhiṣṭhira, Duryodhana, etc.), as it traces the timeline building up to the Mahābhārata war. Perhaps because it is the author’s position that this war was real and not simply myth or metaphor, the story-telling is rich, and the world it depicts feels present at hand. Krishna, under Vanamali’s descriptive gaze, is affectionate, kind and relatable, and we, as readers, begin to sense Krishna not as an inaccessible deity, but as an intimate friend. 

If one of the marks of an effective spiritual text is its ability to challenge our assumptions, then The Lost City meets this demand. Vanamali begins the book polemically, criticizing the early Indologists (particularly Max Müller) for their “Aryan Invasion” hypothesis and the British colonizers for their attempt to strip India of its ancient culture by claiming that the content of the Purāṇas and other texts are not history, but mythology. Vanamali firmly claims (and cites evidence to support it) that Krishna did in fact incarnate on this planet, that the Mahābhārata war was real, and that Dwaraka was an actual city, ruled by Krishna, which descended into the sea some seven days following Krishna’s departure from this planet. Claims to the contrary, she thinks, are attempts to reshape India’s self-understanding in ways that have wreaked havoc on Indian cultural and spiritual identities.

These matters are not easy to talk about, let alone resolve, but this aspect of Vanamali’s work encourages all of us to reflect on the problematic reality of colonial history and the ways in which Western hegemony (both at the material level and at the level of ideas) continues to provoke conflict with indigenous understandings. 

Vanamali is a prolific writer who has written devotional works on many deities of the Hindu pantheon. This particular book is an unusual but fruitful encounter with a modern bhakta (or practitioner of bhakti yoga) and scholar as it provides spiritual resources that might nourish and deepen the reader’s relationship to their own iṣṭa-deva, or that chosen expression of the divine that inspires, uplifts, and expands.