Krishna Leela: Krishna As God: Part - I

In Vrindavan, they still believe that every night Krishna and Radha meet to enact their rasa leela. The city is more concrete than jungle, overcrowded and dirty, like so many other cities in India caught in the penumbra of development, neither metropolis nor village. An unexpected expanse of green greets the visitor when he enters Madhuvan, a large walled-in courtyard full of stunted but green amarvraksha trees, remnants, it is said, of the lush grove where Madhu and his beloved met on moonlit nights in sensual dalliance.

They say Rang Bhavan—the garden pavilion in the centre of the shrubbery—still has traces every morning of their passionate love play. Betel leaves inexplicably adorn the floor. There is a broken bangle or two. And often also parts of a gajra, the weave of the flower strings undone, but the flowers still in bloom. They say that no man or beast can stray into this garden of love at night. Retribution for encroaching on the privacy of the divine lovers is severe. Those who have tried have been maimed, or robbed of their senses, or rendered deaf and dumb. In nearby Sevakun), where it is believed Krishna and Radha rest after their rasa, a bed (shayya) decorated with flowers is still prepared every evening. The doors are reverentially locked at night so that none may stray in inadvertently to disturb their rest. And on a sandy stretch along the river Yamuna—the Raman Reti— people still build sand-houses in the hope that the Yugal Sarkar—Krishna and Radha—strolling hand in hand in the wind-caressed nights, may walk over the edifices, and thus bless them.

Krishna and Radha live on in and around Vrindavan, not as lore or legend but simply as faith. Every year, hundreds of devotees happily chant their way on foot on a pilgrims' trail that leads from Mathura to Vrindavan, to Gokul, Nandgaon, Barsana and Goverdhan. Goverdhan, the mountain which Krishna so effortlessly lifted on his little finger, can hardly be seen. It is at best an indifferent hillock, but this hardly tests the faith of the worshippers. They are aware of the belief that the more sin proliferates in the world, the more the mountain is diminished, and they complete the 22 km parikrama of the elevation with gusto. At Goverdhan, there is a water tank. It is said that its waters were brought forth by Krishna by merely scratching the soil with his flute—an art of mental invocation. The Sarovar is thus called Mansi Ganga, and huge crowds gather on its steps during the festival of Diwali.

At Barsana, Radha's village, not far from Vrindavan, the entire area is sprinkled with sites commemorating her love for the blue god. Radha Kund is the pond where she swam with Krishna; Anjanokh is the bower where he lovingly put collyrium in her eyes; Mor Kuti is the spot where he disguised himself as a peacock and danced for her; and Sankhet is the place where the two met secretively to make love. In the post monsoonal verdant countryside, people gather also to celebrate another sport associated with Krishna: wrestling.

The arenas are makeshift, and the audience is happy to watch from tree perches or tractor tops, but the enthusiasm is in no way less than what it must have been when Dau and Mohan took on Kamsa's famed wrestlers, Chanura and Mustika. In spring, the colourful if tumultuous festival of Holi is another mass invocation of the name of Krishna. When Krishna and the gopas smeared Radha with colour, or when she, with her sakhis, took Krishna by surprise and drenched him in coloured water, it was but one aspect of their manysplendoured love play. The men and women of Braj still play Holi as though each of them was Krishna or Radha, a gopa or a sakhi. There is a popular local saying: Jag Holi Braj Hola (The world plays holi; the people of Braj, hola). A sensuous undercurrent permeates the celebrations and sometimes, given the social sanction of this occasion to the public interaction between the sexes, the latent eroticism is more than overt, a conscious negation of inhibition in the name of divine precedent. The animating mythology takes on different forms.

At Barsana, it is Lathmar Holi, where the women take sticks and beat the men who have improvised shields to protect themselves; at Cirkula, the ladies strip the men of their clothes, and use the shreds to whip them; in Javgaon, there is the excitement of the forbidden, as wives play uproarious Holi with their husband's elder brothers. The parallel here is of Radha and Balarama. Masti is a word typical to India and difficult to render in the English language. It is a combination of ecstasy and joy and heedless abandon. They say that during Holi in Braj, masti was at such a peak that Balarama abandoned the restraint normally expected of an elder, and played Holi with Radha, who too jettisoned the customary reserve of the bahu, the daughter-in-law. Balarama has been profiled as the strong, earthy, uncomplicated, gentlemanly hedonist. His Holi was horanga, famed for its vigour and lack of inhibition. Fond of wine, his Bacchanalian exploits included dragging Yamuna, the river, by her hair closer to himself to quench his thirst. The bend in the river, at Ramghat, is attributed to this tantrum. At Baldevgaon, close to Vrindavan, there is a temple where he is worshipped along with his consort Revati. On Holi, devotees gather and offer cannabis to him and there is much rakish revelry in evidence.

Rasa leela, amateur theatre, enacting incidents from the life of Krishna, draws huge crowds in Braj, particularly during the days preceding Janamashtami. The rasacharyas of Vrindavan are respected doyens of this local theatrical tradition. Their repertoire includes over a hundred rasa leela plays, covering mostly Krishna's life from birth to the slaying of Karnsa Karnsa vadha.

Devotees reach the Ram-Mandap—open air theatrical arenas—in the evening, having spent the day completing the ritual ablutions (snana), prayer (puja) and worship at the temple (murti darshan). The microphones are often faulty, the actors hardly professionally rehearsed, but the mood is devotional, with spontaneous public participation in the singing, dancing and music. And when, in the midst of the play, the actor and actress playing the roles of Krishna and Radha are brought out in tableau (jhanki), the spectators offer monetary offerings to them, seeing in this human portrayal the reflection of the divine.

At the famous temple of Nathdwara, near Udaipur in Rajasthan, Krishna is worshipped as Shrinathji—Lord of Shri. The entire worship in the temple is premised on the assumption that the image of Krishna in the sanctum sanctorum is living. Shrinathji is ceremonially woken up every morning—the mangala darshan—and actually offered a light breakfast, consisting of fruits, and his favourite—butter. A little later in the day, during the sringara darshan, he is, as part of prescribed ritual, shown a mirror to check his appearance and a flute is placed in his hands. The gwala darshan, where he is dressed as a cowherd, coincides with the time when he would have taken the cows out to graze. In the afternoon, the temple is closed for a while, for it is his time of rest.

Following the siesta, devotees can see him being offered the afternoon meal. The last darshan is just before he sleeps and some food is left by the side of his bed, in case he feels hungry at night. His clothes change according to the time of the day and season of the year. At the height of summer, he is given a ceremonial bath. The Snana Yatra—bathing festival— is a popular occurrence. Srinathji is lovingly placed in a silver chariot and taken out in procession. This is the time when the mangoes have come to fruit, and an offering of 25,000 of the best of the harvest is offered to the god who makes no secret of his love for the good things of life. In the adjacent states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the monsoon sees the Jal Jhilani festival, which celebrates the bathing of the cowherds in the rain. When the clouds gather, Krishna is set out in the open and bathed with his young friends in the rain amidst a great deal of fun and revelry.

Across the land from Udaipur, at Puri, on the eastern coast, Krishna is worshipped as Jagannath—Lord of the world. The Jagannath temple at Puri is an extremely important centre of Krishna worship. The image of Krishna here shows definite tribal influence and the iconography is unusual in that he is flanked by his sister, Subhadra, and brother, Balarama. As in Nathdwara, Jagannathji is ceremonially bathed in May or June, but what is interesting is that after the Snana Yatra is over, the deities are kept in a sick chamber for fifteen days out of public view as they are said to have contracted fever from bathing at midday! The most famous festival at Puri is the Rath Yatra—the Car Festival. Every year in June or July, Jagannathji is placed in a wooden chariot and taken to his summer residence—the Gundicha temple some 3 km away. The chariot is pulled by over 4000 special coolies—the kalebetiyas—who enjoy hereditary concessions in neighbouring villages for this service. The distance is short but such are the vast crowds that the journey can take up to three or four days. A sea of humanity greets the eye and there is much vociferous if benevolent confusion, and even greater devotional fervour, as each devotee seeks to contribute to the pulling of the chariot.

The Jhoolan Yatra, the festival of swings, is another popular celebration in Puri. In the month of July or August, an icon of Krishna, along with Radha, is placed on a swing gaily decorated with images of dancing girls and musicians made of paper or metal foil. The swing is gently swayed by a relay of priests while goti puas, young boys dressed as girls trained to dance professionally, dance to the lyrics of Jayadeva's Gitagovinda. In Nathdwara, a similar swinging ceremony—the Phul Dol—takes place in February or March. The image of Krishna as Navanitapriyaji—the child on all fours crawling with a ball of butter in his hand—is placed on a flower-bedecked swing and rocked reverentially.

Each ritual is wrapped in its own myth, its own *mythologized' kernel of history encased in its own specificities of devotion. An interesting legend relates to the establishment of the Guruvayoor temple, deep in the south of the subcontinent, in the lush green state of Kerala. On the eve of his death, Krishna entrusted an image of Narayana, which he used to worship himself, to his friend Uddhava, who in turn gave it, in safekeeping, to the Guru of the Gods—Brihaspati, who, assisted by his disciple Vayu, brought it to its present location, where Shiva himself consecrated the installation. Hence the name: Guruvayoor.

The murti at Guruvayoor is considered by many to be the most resplendent. Krishna is dressed in a robe of yellow silk, with a shining crown on his head. The disc, the conch, the mace and the lotus can be seen in his four hands. Ornamental drops glisten in his ears, the vanamala garland adorns his neck and the lustrous kausthubha jewel rests on his chest. Shri, the Goddess of Prosperity, and Dhara, the Goddess of Earthly Wealth, hold him on either side in loving embrace. His face is in smiling repose. An unending stream of devotees throng the temple. Hundreds of children are brought every day for their first feed of cereal—annaprasam. Dozens of couples are married in its precincts daily, for it is believed that this ensures a happy marital life. The Guruvayoor Utsava (festival) takes place in February or March and lasts for ten days. The entire township appears spruced up for the event—houses are white-washed, fencing and tiles repaired, and the streets along which the procession will pass festooned with arches and ornamentation. A distinctive feature of the festival is the avoidance of loud fire-crackers, for these are likely to frighten Unnikrishna—the boy Krishna. The celebrations are a visible community event, with the multitudes thoroughly enjoying the daily engagements, culminating in a mass dip in the temple-tank, and an elephant chase, whose din and furore and devotional ecstasy is said to have a miraculous curative impact on patients suffering from rheumatism and paralysis. Within the temple structure there hangs today the photograph of the great vocalist Chembai Vaidhyanatha Bhagavatha. It is said that in 1938 he was to give a performance at the Zamorin's palace at Calicut but people were amazed to see that not a sound came from his silently moving lips. Chembai rushed to Guruvayoor and craved the mercy of the Lord. Miraculously, his voice was restored.

But who could confine Braj Bihari within the confines of a temple? As he had danced with Radha in the groves of Vrindavan and, as the notes of his flute had wafted beyond the groves to be carried along the ripples of the Yamuna, so did he dan;e and sing and paint his way into the lives of the common folk in a hundred enticing ways. He was Akhila Kaladi Guru — the apostle of all arts and the embodiment of all that was beautiful. It is believed that all the arts emanated from his dance on the hood of the serpent Kaliya. In that moment of creative rhythm, beautiful in its frenzied control, subtle in its balance, and unparalleled in the vigour of its impact, poetry was born, and taala, and poetry in movement. If Shiva, in the awesome grandeur of his tandava was Nataraja, Krishna, in the delicate seduction of his movements, was Natwara.

He is the main theme of the Manipuri dance of the north-east, of Kathak in the north, and of Odissi in Orissa. In Karnataka, the Yakshagana dance form celebrates his aishvarya bhava, the heroic exploits of the Chakravartin Krishna; in Andhra, the Kuchipudi dance style relives his daring theft of the Parijata tree for Satyabhama; and in Tamil Nadu, he is one of the main subjects of the classical Bharatnatyam dance. In Kerala, Prince Manavendra wrote eight dramas on Krishna, drawing from the Gitagovinda and the Bhagavata Purana. From the plays was born the dance form of Krishnaattam— the dance of Krishna, a forerunner of the more popular Kathakali. In Gujarat, the more folksy Lakuta and Dandiya rasa are inspired by him; and, in Maharashtra, the vibrant Tamasha folk theatre depicts with abandon his audacious dan leela. In Assam, we have the local dramatic tradition of the Ankia nat and the immensely popular plays ofSrimanta Sankaradeva, the great saint-reformer of the fifteenth century.

Sankaradeva was a great devotee of Krishna. His collection of poems— Kirtana Ghosh—is regarded as the most sacred religious book by the Hindus in Assam. He wrote six dramas of which five were on Krishna. In Bengal, the Chaitanyainspired yatra dramas are extremely popular, and in the tribal belt of Chattisgarh, the Jhumar songs and Rahas dance, celebrating the love of Krishna and Radha, keep improvised gatherings enthralled the entire night, night after night.

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