Anyone reading Bhagavat Purana, with blind devotion, has no reason to suspect existence of 16k wives of Sri Krishna.
However picture gets murky, yet clear, as one goes backwards in time to Harivamasha, the khila parva of Mahabharata and then Mahabharata itself.
The ride takes us from 16k to 14k to many wives of Krishna. However the ride won’t stop there. It would take us back in further antiquity, even before the time of Krishna.
This loss in number in the wives of Krishna, is not unlike Moses losing five of the 15 commandments in Mel brook’s ‘History of the world’.
We have something similar occurring in the story of 16K wives of Krishna, except in a reverse order.
Bhagavat Purana (~1650 BCE), late work of the 3 works of Bhagavat purana, Harivamsha (sometime after Mahabharata but before Bhagvat Purana) and Mahabharata (~5480 BCE), has at least 11 instances (by my count) where 16k wives of Krishna are mentioned.
I would encourage all readers to read corresponding narration from Srimad Bhagavat Purana, in the original, to comprehend extent of embellishments and exaggerations.
When I started reading Bhagavat Purana, sometime in 1988 CE, somehow 16k did not make sense to me, however I had nothing more to go by, other than rationalizing this as a typical embellishment of ancient literature, in this case referring to many wives of Krishna.
All the references to 16k wives of Krishna, at the beginning of this blog article, are from Bhagavat Purana.
Sometime in early 90’s I made a conjecture/prediction that this reference of 16k is due to two reasons:
(1) ‘Sahastra’ as referring to ‘many’
(2) And ‘Shodash’ as referring to ‘young girls’ or ‘young women’
(3) And thus together, referring to ‘many young girls’, which in later times might have been distorted, due to transcription or other errors, and led to current myth of ’16k wives of Krishna’.
I was disappointed, however, to find no distinct evidence, within Bhagavat Purana, that would allude to ‘many’ and ‘young girls’.
Harivamsha is considered a Khila Parva (appendix) of Mahabharata, however, it is completely removed from Mahabharata, in the rigor and realistic emphasis of narration’. Thus, Harivamsha is much closer to ‘Purana’ literature rather than closer to ‘Itihas’ literature such as Mahabharata or Ramayana.
Fortunately, amidst embellishments and exaggeration, Harivamsha preserves for us evidence of this ’embellishments and exaggeration’ in making (in situ)!
It tells us that while Narakasur did have many girls of Gandharvas and Devas in his possession, Narakasur had not tortured them in any way. Rather these young girls were living in that beautiful place, in happiness. They also lived their with austerity.
Harivamsha, Vishnu Parva 65:24-27
Harivamsha also refers to their number (although post Narakasur narration, and in the context of their participation at a festival near Dwarka) as 16k.
Harivamsha, Vishnu Parva 65:7
However, another reference (in the context of Narakasur narration), Harivamsha refers to these maidens as equal to 14k.
The original verse is worth quoting…
Harivamsha,Vishnu Parva 63:13
Not only the original verse, but it’s ‘wrong’ translation (from GP edition, in Hindi) is also worth quoting …
The translator has translated 14k as 16k. In reality, the number mentioned is 14121.
It is my speculation that originally these maidens were referred to as ‘many (sahastra)’ ‘Young (14 or 16 year old)’ girls, not unlike Sanskrit verses referring to young girls as ‘Shodasha’. In later times, someone modified and combined ‘young (14 or 16)’ with ‘many (sahastra)’ to turn them into 16000 or 14000!
Do note that even the Harivamsha verse that refers to 14k is translated by GP translator as 16k.
This is another instance and evidence of how, once accepted, even an exaggeration or embellishment loses its original character and embellishment/exaggeration is treated as factual, to an extent, where obvious words are wrongly translated per newly established notion.
Mahabharata mentions two different instances where story of Narakasur is mentioned.
In this first instance, it confirms my conjecture that the story simply referred to ‘many’ girls or women kept in captivity by Narakasur.
While Udyoga Parva (GP 130:43-44) mentions Krishna killing Narakasur, freeing up many girls and eventually marrying them……
In this second instance, the narration removes any connection of Narakasur with Krishna.
Vana Parva (GP 142:12-28)) refers to Vishnu killing Narakasur and sage Lomash showing Pandavas the hill that was made up of bones of Narakasur. Sage Lomash refers to incident of Vishnu killing Narkasur as an incident of the past/antiquity, with respect to the time of Mahabharata and thus of Krishna.
This may mean that the story of Narakasur, with additional embellishments and exaggerations, were added in Harivamsha, after Krishna’s deification and when he was closely identified with Vishnu. Bhagavat Purana, it appears, began with this seedling from Harivamsha, and expanded the story further with its own imagination by dropping original references to Vishnu and replacing them, ostensibly, with Krishna.