This article is called 'The Case of Subhadra' because what started off as a seemingly simple question with what would appear to be a straightforward answer, turned out to be a case study.
The initial question was, "Is Subhadra yogamaya?" The answer many of us have heard is "Yes" and rightfully so. But it is not as easy as all that. A simple ‘Yes’ doesn't work in all circumstances.
When we hear the name Subhadra what comes to mind? Naturally one thinks of the sister of Krishna. So what is the history of Krishna's sister? Where is she born? Who are her parents? What potency is she?
There is Krishna's sister who is born simultaneously with Krishna in Gokula in the house of Nanda Maharaja. There is Krishna's sister who marries Arjuna in Dvaraka, who was born of Rohini in Mathura, and there is Krishna's sister who stands between Krishna and Balarama on the altar in Jagannatha Puri. But are all these the same personality? Now with the help of shastra and previous acharyas we will examine the Case of Subhadra.
Srimad Bhagavatam, Hari-vamsha and Mahabharata are three principle shastras that mention Krishna's sister. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu accepted Srimad Bhagavatam as the amala-purana (spotless purana) so we will quote Bhagavatam first.
bhagavan api vishvatma
viditva kamsajam bhayam
To protect the fearful Yadus from Kamsa's attack, the Supreme Soul of all, ordered Yogamaya as follows. (Bhag.10.2.76)
gaccha devi vrajam bhadre gopa-gobhir alankritam
rohini vasudevasya bharyaste nanda-gokule
anyas ca kamsa-samvigna vivareshu vasanti hi
O My auspicious potency, who are worshipable for the entire world and whose nature is to bestow good fortune upon all living entities, go to Vraja, where there live many cowherd men and their wives. In that very beautiful land, where many cows reside, Rohini, the wife of Vasudeva, is living at the home of Nanda Maharaja. Other wives of Vasudeva are also living there incognito because of fear of Kamsa. Please go there." (Bhag. 10.2.7)
devakya jathare garbham sheshakhyam dhama mamakam
tat sannikrishya rohinya udare sanniveshaya
Within the womb of Devaki is My partial plenary expansion known as Sankarshana or Shesha. Without difficulty, transfer Him into the womb of Rohini. (Bhag. 10.2.8)
athaham amsa-bhagena devakyah putratam subhe
prapsyami tvam yashodayam nanda-patnyam bhavishyasi
O all-auspicious Yogamaya, I shall then appear with My full six opulences as the son of Devaki, and you will appear as the daughter of mother Yashoda, the queen of Maharaja Nanda. (Bhag. 10.2.9)
arcishyanti manushyas tvam sarva-kama-vareshvarim
By sacrifices of animals, ordinary human beings will worship you gorgeously, with various paraphernalia, because you are supreme in fulfilling the material desires of everyone. (Bhag. 10.2.10)
namadheyani kurvanti sthanani ca nara bhuvi
durgeti bhadrakaliti vijaya vaishnaviti cha
kumuda chandika krishna madhavi kanyaketi cha
maya narayanishani sharadety ambiketi cha
In different places on the surface of the earth, people will give you different names, such as Durga, Bhadrakali, Vijaya, Vaishnavi, Kumuda, Chandika, Krishna, Madhavi, Kanyaka, Maya, Narayani, Ishani, Sharada and Ambika. (Bhag. 10.2.11)
Above, Srimad Bhagavatam says that the daughter that was born to Nanda and Yashoda was indeed Yogamaya but she is not known as Subhadra. The word bhadra used in verse 10.2.7 means auspicious. In verse 10.2.11 Krishna says that in the material world his Yogamaya potency will be known as Durga, Bhadrakali, Vijaya, Vaishnavi, etc, but again Subhadra is not mentioned.
In his Sarartha-darshini commentary to verse 10.2.10 Vishvanatha Chakravarti says: "Your amsa, material maya, will be taken by Vasudeva to cheat Kamsa. You will be worshipped in various forms at the Vindhya Hills and other places. All men will worship you because you are the supreme goddess of those who have all types of material desires."
It seems clear that the daughter born to Yashoda was indeed Yogamaya, but that the female child that Vasudeva took to the palace dungeon of Kamsa was Mahamaya, the external potency of Krishna. In neither instance is she known as Subhadra.
Hari-vamsha says as follows:
lebhe jyeshtham sutam ramam saranam shatham eva cha
durdamam damanam shvabhram pindarakam ushinaram
chitram nama kumarim cha rohini tanaya dasha
chitra subhadra iti punar-vikhyata kuru-nandana
Vasudeva begot his eldest son Rama (Balarama) in Rohini; and their other sons are: Sarana, Shatha, Durdama, Damana, Svabhra, Pindaraka, and Ushinara; O descendant of Kuru, they also had a daughter by the name of Citra, who is renowned by the name of Subhadra. (1.35.5-6)
Mahabharata says as follows:
mamaisha bhagini partha saranasya sahodara
yadi te vartate buddhirvakshysmi pitaram svayam
This is my sister, O Partha, and born of the same mother as Sarana (this refers to Rohini, the mother of Sarana). May you be blessed. Her name is Bhadra and she is the favorite daughter of my father. (Adi-parva 221.17)
Hari-vamsha mentions Krishna's sister as being Subhadra and Mahabharata mentions Krishna's sister as being born of Rohini. Both these references are to Krishna's sister born in Mathura to Vasudeva and Rohini who later married Arjuna in Dvaraka, not to the twin of Krishna born to Yashoda and later taken to the dungeon of Kamsa.
From previous acharyas we have quotes regarding Subhadra, some stating that she is Yogamaya, some that she is Mahamaya and some that she is bhakti-svarupa. The exercise is in how to harmonize the statements of different acharyas. Some quotes from A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada are as follows:
Subhadra is Yogamaya, The spiritual energy is called Yogamaya. And she had 16 different expansions. Out of these 16 expansions, Subhadra is one. The Mahamaya of the material energy is also expansion of the energy of Yogamaya; and both Yogamaya and Mahamaya are equally important to Krishna as much as any government department is equally important for functioning the government. (Letter to Madhusudana – Montreal 29th July 1968)
Regarding your question about Subhadra and Durga, they are not at all the same. Durga's other name is Bhadra, not Subhadra, and Durga's activities are within the material world. Subhadra does not work as Durga. Subhadra is internal energy, and Durga is external energy. As energy they have a relationship as much as we are energies of Krishna, but the energies are working in different capacities. (Letter to Hamsaduta – LA, 9th Feb.1969)
"Regarding your question, 'Is Subhadra, Lord Krishna's sister, the same as Durga or Maya?' the answer is that originally Krishna's energy is one; that is spiritual energy. But according to different functions, the Maya is represented differently. In the material world the energy is called Bhadra, and in the spiritual world the same Maya is called Subhadra. The only distinction is 'su' and without 'su'. ‘Su’ means auspicious. So in the spiritual world the same Maya works auspiciously, and in the material world the same Maya works inauspiciously. (Letter to Upendra – LA, 5th July 1969)
In 1872 Sri Bhaktivinoda Thakura wrote an essay for a newspaper in Cuttack, Orissa about the Deities of Jagannatha, Subhadra and Baladeva as they are manifest in the temple at Jagannatha Puri. An excerpt follows:
In the middle room [of the temple], there is an elevated seat on which stand four different forms, viz., Jagannatha, Balarama, Subhadra and Sudarshana. According to the Vedanta, God is one without a second, but He has infinite energies and attributes which are not fully known to man. But then man perceives only three energies in God, because he has no other corresponding sides to understand the other powers. From one of the energies proceeds matter in all its different forms and properties and this energy is styled the maya-shakti of God. From the second energy proceeds all spiritual creation, in all its relations and phases. This power is entitled the jiva-shakti of God. The third energy perceivable by man is the energy of Will, which is called chit-shakti. God moving in creation is what is meant by this infinite energy.
Jagannatha is the emblem of God having no other form than the eyes and the hands. They mean to show that God sees and knows and creates. Balarama is jiva-shakti of God; Subhadra is the maya-shakti and Sudarshana is the energy of will." (The Temple of Jagannatha at Puri, 1872)
Before bringing this article to a conclusion we shall also quote from the archives of the acharya, Swami B.R. Sridhara Deva Goswami Maharaja as follows:
Subhadra-devi represents the lila of Krishna. She is there in Dvaraka. She has got no administrative function. Subhadra is not Yogamaya. Subhadra has got no mundane function. She is there in dvaraka-lila of Krishna.
Subhadra-devi has been said to be the representation of bhakti in general, devotion. Balarama, Jagannatha, Subhadra. Guru, bhakti and Krishna -- the ultimate end, the devotional process and Baladeva as guru to help. Subhadra – bhakti-svarupa. Not shakti or other svarupa. Subhadra was not in Vrindavana, she was born in Mathura.
From our previous Gaudiya Vaishnava acharyas we have three opinions on the ontological position of Subhadra. Prabhupada says she is Yogamaya. Bhaktivinoda says she is Mahamaya. And Sridhara Maharaja says she is bhakti-svarupa. How to harmonize?
Subhadra is Yogamaya when she appears in Gokula and she is Mahamaya when she is taken to the dungeon of Kamsa in Mathura. Prabhupada is referring to Subhadra in Gokula and Bhaktivinoda is referring to her capacity in Mathura.
After chastising Kamsa in her multi-armed form while in the dungeon in Mathura, that supremely wonderful Goddess (Mahamaya) left that place to go to the Vindhya Hills to be worshiped in the forms of Durga, Bhadrakali, etc. Hence, she did not return as such to take part in the lila of Krishna.
Sridhara Maharaja calls the Subhadra born of Vasudeva and Rohini in Mathura, after Krishna had killed Kamsa, bhakti-svarupa. This refers to Subhadra not only as a shakti, Yogamaya, but as bhakti-svarupa indicating that Subhadra not only manifests as Yogamaya acting merely as a facilitator of the devotional service to Krishna, but she herself is also bhakti-svarupa — a personification of pure loving devotion to her brothers Krishna and Balarama. Thus Subhadra is there on the altar with Krishna and Balarama in Jagannatha Puri. She is sometimes considered as Yogamaya, Mahamaya or bhakti-svarupa.
In some instances Devaki is called the mother of Subhadra, but this is due to her being a co-wife of Vasudeva along with Rohini and others. Although the biological mother of Subhadra was Rohini, she is taken to be the sister of Krishna in the same way that Balarama (also born of Rohini) is taken to be Krishna's brother.
Ultimately, the internal energy of Krishna is one, which manifests as many according to the Lord's will and the requirement of His lila (achintya-bhedabheda). It has also been noted that the use of the word ’yogamaya’ in the vocabulary of the acharyas is interchangeable with the word ‘mahamaya’. Accordingly, the sister of Krishna is one-energy manifesting as different personalities (Yogamaya, Mahamaya and bhakti-svarupa) according to the required service.