"Within the river Yamuna there was a great lake, and in that lake the black serpent Kaliya used to live. Because of his poison, the whole area was so contaminated that it emanated a poisonous vapor twenty-four hours a day. If a bird happened to even pass over the spot, he would immediately fall down in the water and die.
Due to the poisonous effect of the Yamuna's vapors, the trees and grass near the bank of the Yamuna had all dried up. Lord Krsna saw the effect of the great serpent's poison: the whole river that ran before Vrndavana was now deadly.
Krsna, who advented Himself just to kill all undesirable elements in the world, immediately climbed up in a big kadamba tree on the bank of the Yamuna. The kadamba is a round yellow flower, generally seen only in the Vrndavana area. After climbing to the top of the tree, He tightened His belt cloth and, flapping His arms just like a wrestler, jumped in the midst of the poisonous lake. The kadamba tree from which Krsna had jumped was the only tree there which was not dead. Some commentators say that due to touching the lotus feet of Krsna, the tree became immediately alive. In some other Puranas it is stated that Garuda, the eternal carrier of Visnu, knew that Krsna would take this action in the future, so he put some nectar on this tree to preserve it. When Lord Krsna jumped into the water, the river overflooded its banks, as if something very large had fallen into it. This exhibition of Krsna's strength is not at all uncommon, because He is the reservoir of all strength.
When Krsna was swimming about, just like a great strong elephant, He made a tumultuous sound which the great black serpent Kaliya could hear. The tumult was intolerable for him, and he could understand that this was an attempt to attack his home. Therefore he immediately came before Krsna. Kaliya saw that Krsna was indeed worth seeing because His body was so beautiful and delicate; its color resembled that of a cloud, and His legs resembled a lotus flower. He was decorated with Srivatsa, jewels and yellow garments. He was smiling with a beautiful face and was playing in the river Yamuna with great strength. But in spite of Krsna's beautiful features, Kaliya felt great anger within his heart, and thus he grabbed Krsna with his mighty coils. Seeing the incredible way in which Krsna was enveloped in the coils of the serpent, the affectionate cowherd boys and inhabitants of Vrndavana immediately became stunned out of fear. They had dedicated everything to Krsna, their lives, property, affection, activities--everything was for Krsna--and when they saw Him in that condition, they became overwhelmed with fear and fell down on the ground. All the cows, bulls and small calves became overwhelmed with grief, and they began to look at Him with great anxiety. Out of fear they could only cry in agony and stand erect on the bank, unable to help their beloved Krsna.
While this scene was taking place on the bank of the Yamuna, there were ill omens manifest. The earth trembled, meteors fell from the sky, and the bodies of men shivered. All these are indications of great immediate danger. Observing the inauspicious signs, the cowherd men, including Maharaja Nanda, became very anxious out of fear. At the same time they were informed that Krsna had gone to the pasturing ground without His elder brother, Balarama. As soon as Nanda and Yasoda and the cowherd men heard this news, they became even more anxious. Out of their great affection for Krsna, unaware of the extent of His potencies, they became overwhelmed with grief and anxiety because they had nothing dearer than Krsna and because they had dedicated their everything--life, property, affection, mind and activities--to Krsna. Because of their great attachment for Krsna, they thought, "Today Krsna is surely going to be vanquished!"
All the inhabitants of Vrndavana came out of the village to see Krsna. The assembly consisted of children, young and old men, women, animals and all living entities; they knew that Krsna was their only means of sustenance. While this was happening, Balarama, who is the master of all knowledge, stood there simply smiling. He knew how powerful His younger brother Krsna was and that there was no cause for anxiety when Krsna was fighting with an ordinary serpent of the material world. He did not, therefore, personally take any part in their concern. On the other hand, all the inhabitants of Vrndavana, being disturbed, began to search out Krsna by following the impression of His footprints on the ground, and thus they moved towards the bank of the Yamuna. Finally, by following the footprints marked with flag, bow and conchshell, the inhabitants of Vrndavana arrived at the riverbank and saw that all the cows and boys were weeping to behold Krsna enwrapped in the coils of the black serpent. Then they became still more overwhelmed with grief. While Balarama was smiling to see their lamentation, all the inhabitants of Vrajabhumi merged into the ocean of grief because they thought that Krsna was finished. Although the residents of Vrndavana did not know much about Krsna, their love for Him was beyond comparison. As soon as they saw that Krsna was in the river Yamuna enveloped by the serpent Kaliya and that all the boys and cows were lamenting, they simply began to think of Krsna's friendship, His smiling face, His sweet words and His dealings with them. Thinking of all these and believing that their Krsna was now within the clutches of Kaliya, they at once felt the three worlds had become vacant. Lord Caitanya also said that He was seeing the three worlds as vacant for want of Krsna. This is the highest stage of Krsna consciousness. Almost all the inhabitants of Vrndavana had the highest ecstasy, love for Krsna.
When mother Yasoda arrived, she wanted to enter the river Yamuna, and being checked, she fainted. Other friends, who were equally aggrieved were shedding tears like torrents of rain or waves of the river, but in order to bring mother Yasoda to consciousness, they began to speak loudly about the transcendental pastimes of Krsna. Mother Yasoda remained still, as if dead, because her consciousness was concentrated on the face of Krsna. Nanda and all others, who dedicated everything, including their lives, to Krsna, were ready to enter the waters of the Yamuna, but Lord Balarama checked them because He was in perfect knowledge that there was no danger.
For two hours Krsna remained like an ordinary child gripped in the coils of Kaliya, but when He saw that all the inhabitants of Gokula--including His mother and father, the gopis, the boys and the cows--were just on the point of death and that they had no shelter for salvation from imminent death, Krsna immediately freed Himself. He began to expand His body, and when the serpent tried to hold Him, he felt a great strain. On account of the strain, his coils slackened, and he had no other alternative but to let loose the Personality of Godhead, Krsna, from his grasp. Kaliya then became very angry, and his great hoods expanded. He exhaled poisonous fumes from his nostrils, his eyes blazed like fire, and flames issued from his mouth. The great serpent remained still for some time, looking at Krsna. Licking his lips with bifurcated tongues, the serpent looked at Krsna with double hoods, and his eyesight was full of poison. Krsna immediately pounced upon him, just as Garuda swoops upon a snake. Thus attacked, Kaliya looked for an opportunity to bite Him, but Krsna moved around him. As Krsna and Kaliya moved in a circle, the serpent gradually became fatigued, and his strength seemed to diminish considerably. Krsna immediately pressed down the serpent's hoods and jumped up on them. The Lord's lotus feet became tinged with red from the rays of the jewels on the snake's hoods. Then He who is the original artist of all fine arts, such as dancing, began to dance upon the hoods of the serpent, although they are moving to and fro. Upon seeing this, denizens from the upper planets began to shower flowers, beat drums, play different types of flutes and sing various prayers and songs. In this way, all the denizens of heaven, such as the Gandharvas, Siddhas and demigods, became very pleased.
While Krsna was dancing on his hoods, Kaliya tried to push Him down with some of his other hoods. Kaliya had about a hundred hoods, but Krsna took control of them. He began to dash Kaliya with His lotus feet, and this was more than the serpent could bear. Gradually, Kaliya was reduced to struggling for his very life. He vomited all kinds of refuse and exhaled fire. While throwing up poisonous material from within, Kaliya became reduced in his sinful situation. Out of great anger, he began to struggle for existence and tried to raise one of his hoods to kill the Lord. The Lord immediately captured that hood and subdued it by kicking it and dancing on it. It actually appeared as if the Supreme Personality of Godhead Visnu was being worshiped; the poisons emanating from the mouth of the serpent appeared to be like flower offerings. Kaliya then began to vomit blood instead of poison; he was completely fatigued. His whole body appeared to be broken by the kicks of the Lord. Within his mind, however, he finally began to understand that Krsna was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and he surrendered unto Him. He realized that Krsna was the Supreme Lord, the master of everything.
The wives of the serpent, known as the Nagapatnis, saw that their husband was being subdued by the kicking of the Lord, within whose womb the whole universe remains. Kaliya's wives prepared to worship the Lord, although, in their haste, their dress, hair and ornaments became disarrayed. They also surrendered unto the Supreme Lord and began to pray. They appeared before Him, put forward their offspring and anxiously offered respectful obeisances, falling down on the bank of the Yamuna. The Nagapatnis knew that Krsna is the shelter of all surrendered souls, and they desired to release their husband from the impending danger by pleasing the Lord with their prayers.
....After the Nagapatnis submitted their prayers, Lord Krsna released Kaliya from his punishment. Kaliya was already unconscious from being struck by the Lord. Upon regaining consciousness and being released from the punishment, Kaliya got back his life force and the working power of the senses. With folded hands, he humbly began to pray to the Supreme Lord Krsna: "My dear Lord, I have been born in such a species that by nature I am angry and envious, being in the darkest region of the mode of ignorance. Your Lordship knows well that it is very difficult to give up one's natural instincts, although by such instincts the living creature transmigrates from one body to another." It is also confirmed in the Bhagavad-gita that it is very difficult to get out of the clutches of material nature, but if anyone surrenders unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna, the modes of material nature can no longer act on him. "My dear Lord," Kaliya continued, "You are therefore the original creator of all kinds of modes of material nature by which the universe is created. You are the cause of the different kinds of mentality possessed by living creatures by which they have obtained different varieties of bodies. My dear Lord, I am born as a serpent; therefore, by natural instinct, I am very angry. How is it then possible to give up my acquired nature without Your mercy? It is very difficult to get out of the clutches of Your maya. By Your maya we remain enslaved. My dear Lord, kindly excuse me for my inevitable material tendencies. Now You can punish me or save me as You desire."
After hearing this, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who was acting as a small human child, ordered the serpent thus: "You must immediately leave this place and go to the ocean. Leave without delay. You can take with you all your offspring, wives and everything that you possess. Don't pollute the waters of the Yamuna. Let it be drunk by My cows and cowherd boys without hindrance." The Lord then declared that the order given to the Kaliya snake be recited and heard by everyone so that no one need fear Kaliya any longer.
Anyone who hears the narration of the Kaliya serpent and his punishment will need fear no more the envious activities of snakes. The Lord also declared, "If one takes a bath in the Kaliya lake, where My cowherd boyfriends and I have bathed, or if one, fasting for a day, offers oblations to the forefathers from the water of this lake, he will be relieved from all kinds of sinful reactions." The Lord also assured Kaliya: "You came here out of fear of Garuda, who wanted to eat you in the beautiful land by the ocean. Now, after seeing the marks where I have touched your head with My lotus feet, Garuda will not disturb you."
The Lord was pleased with Kaliya and his wives. Immediately after hearing His order, the wives began to worship Him with great offerings of nice garments, flowers, garlands, jewels, ornaments, sandal pulp, lotus flowers and nice eatable fruits. In this way they pleased the master of Garuda, of whom they were very much afraid. Then, obeying the orders of Lord Krsna, all of them left the lake within the Yamuna."
Krsna Book, Chapter 16
Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Excerpted from text and purport of HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada.