Krishna Leela

Krishna As Child

The image of Krishna the butter thief has caught the imagination of both believers and non-believers in a way few other images have. Krishna, on all fours, holding a ball of butter in his hand (laddoo Gopal), is a ubiquitous icon all over India. It is an aspect which has found pervasive reflection in both sculpture and painting, and is a favourite theme in the folk songs, poetry and plays depicting his life. For those initiated in his lore, whether by birth, faith or exposure, the acceptance of this theme of his childhood is unquestioning, even axiomatic: For those not so initiated, it is a matter of some surprise that a god, who ought to be the very symbol of rectitude, should in fact be celebrated for his stealing. It is worthwhile, therefore, to dwell a little on this ‘peculiar’ trait of the blue god.

The world, according to Hindu mythology, was created as an extension of the Almighty’s leela or divine play, the effortless unfolding of his unbounded energy. In this sense, the Supreme, when incarnate in the form of a human ‘avatar’, merely continues that play. This leela is beyond conventional morality, but not because that is its essential character. It is beyond such categories because it emanates from Him who is goodness incarnate. Thus, the butter thief is but one more manifestation of his infinite, untainted and joyous energy. It is god merely playing a role, but with gusto. Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, and also an avatar of Vishnu, was known as Maryada-Purushottam (rectitude personified).

In contrast, Krishna’s appellation is that of Leela-Purushottam (playfulness personified). He is also regarded as being the ‘puma avatar’ (the complete incarnation). Krishna, the complete god, had to be, therefore, the complete child-not only good but also mischievous, not only obedient but also wayward, not only well-behaved but also troublesome. His was not a portrayal of the divine accepting the human mantle with reluctance. As the butter thief, he is the uninhibited child, wilfully pursuing his aim, oblivious to the categories of right and wrong in adult life. This boisterous conduct is expected of him, and he cannot but live up to this image. And there is to his stealing a projection of overwhelming innocence. He takes what he wants because he has not yet learnt that he is not expected to do so. He asks for what he wants and throws a tantrum if denied, because he knows no other way of getting his way. The gopis* anger at his conduct is never sustained for long. They complain to Yasoda but mostly in mock indignation. Yasoda scolds him, even punishes him, such as when she ties him to the wooden mortar, but her stern visage is perpetually on the verge of breaking down under an upsurge of maternal affection. Indeed, his mischief is so attractive in its aggressive innocence, that the gopis- quite hopelessly in love with this adorable child-miss it when he fails to raid their homes.


The cult of the ‘child-god’ was based upon, and grew on, the dynamic tension inherent in such an appellation. A child is particularly accessible and capable of appropriation; but the simultaneous knowledge that in reality the child is the Almighty, merely-and graciously -allowing himself to be approached in such a form, fuses the feelings of affection and love with awe and reverence.
Surdas, to whose contributions we will come a little later, was particularly adept at bringing out this dynamic tension in his poems dealing with Yasoda and Krishna.

Quoting from Kenneth E. Byrant’s Poems to the Child God.

  • The mother says ‘Dance!, Krishna, dance and I’ll give you butter!’
  • His tiny feet pound and stamp upon the earth, his ankle bells ring;
  • Sur sings the praises of his name, earth and heaven resound with his fame,
  • but the Lord of the Three Worlds, dances for his butter.

Or again,

  • He whose glances frighten Time itself
  • Him his mother threatens with a stick.
  • He, the fear of whom drives wind and water, sun and moon,
  • He moves at the threat of a little stick.
  • Which form pervades earth and sea, yet is not to be found in the Vedas
  • That form you cause to dance at a snap of your fingers, here in your own very yard.

The vulnerability and approachability of infancy became the flip side of the infinite power and grandeur of god. Several stories of Krishna’s childhood play on precisely this vibrant dualism image. Yasoda scolds Krishna for eating mud and, when he denies doing so, forces him to open his mouth. In his mouth she sees the entire universe-the stars and the planets and all the galaxies, all things animate and inanimate, even the senses and the mind. She goes into a trance but the Lord, through his power of ‘maya’, makes her forget this vision, and he is back again as the erring, defenceless child, feigning innocence before his angry mother. Another favourite story is of Yasoda catching Krishna stealing butter. Her patience tested beyond control, she resolves to punish him by tying him to a wooden mortar. But every time she attempts to tie the knot, the rope falls slightly short. Finally, seeing her vexed, the childgod allows her to succeed, but only to later happily crawl out, effortlessly dragging the heavy mortar behind him.

There is also the story of a gopi rushing to tell Yasoda that her darling son, caught stealing butter, has been locked up by her. But her amazement knows no bounds when she sees Krishna playing about in Yasoda’s home. Stunned, she rushes back to her home and finds Krishna locked up as she had left him. The child, supposedly under her control, had once again given dramatic evidence of his essential self that was beyond such control. Such evidence was usually in the form of a flash, a momentary vision, deliberately willed by him to quickly lapse into the normal relationships and situations
dictated by his human role.

The recognition of such duality-child and god- could produce startling outpourings of piety. In fact, from the tenth or eleventh century to the fourteenth or fifteenth, there developed a specific genre of Tamil writing called ‘pillai Tamil’-poetry of the child-which formalized into ten sections the ritual celebration of childhood.

In Krishna, the Butter Thief, J.S. Hawley says, these ten sections were:

  • Kappuparuvarn-the invocation of the deities for the protection of the child;
  • Cenkiraipparuvarn-literally, ‘wavering’, as a blade of grass waves in the wind and as the head of a young child wobbles before the infant can hold it up steadily;
  • Talapparuvarn-cradle songs, lullabies;
  • Cappanipparuvarn-clapping;
  • Muttapparuvarn-when the child learns to kiss;
  • Varanaipparuvarn-summoning the child;
  • Ampulipparuvarn-playing with the moon;
  • Cirrilparuvarn-when the child builds small houses of sand or mud;
  • Ciruparaipparuvarn-when the child learns to beat a small drum;
  • Ciruterparuvarn-in which the child drags a small wagon or cart behind him.

The worship of the child Krishna with its plentitude of nuance came to the fore with Surdas* Sursagar, written in the sixteenth century, and Bilvamangala’s Krishnakarnamrita, composed around AD 1300. Hitherto, the stock of incidents in the life of Krishna as a child were limited. But the works of Surdas and Bilvamangia removed all constraining parameters in the imagery elaborating the child-gold’s activities. The Sursagar contains several hundred poems of which a substantial number are devoted to the child Krishna. The few examples given below provide an inkling of the amazing spectrum of Sur’s portrayal and his deep insight into the psychology of a child’s behaviour.

Krishna in the cradle

  • Yasoda lulling Hari to sleep,
  • Shaking the cradle, cuddling and fondling,
  • Singing to him a song.
  • My darling is sleepy
  • Why doesn’t sleep come along?
  • Come sleep, come quickly Kanha for you does long.
  • Sometimes he closes his eyes Sometimes his lips are aflutter.
  • Thinking he has fallen asleep Yasoda stops her singing.
  • Awake still, he’s up suddenly
  • Enjoying Yasoda’s song.
  • Such joy as Yasoda feels
  • Is unattainable to the gods.

Krishna crawling:

  • Chuckling, Kanha came crawling,
  • Trying to catch his reflection
  • In the bejewelled courtyard of Nanda.
  • One moment he would stare at his shadow
  • Then move his hands to hold it
  • Chuckling in delight, two teeth showing
  • Again and again he would try.
  • Calling Nanda to come and see Yasoda watched in joy
  • Then covering Sur’s Lord with her ‘aanchal’
  • She began to feed her boy.

Krishna begins to walk:

  • Kanha walks
  • Two steps at a time,
  • Yasoda’s desires see Fulfillment sublime.
  • ‘Runuk jhunuk’ sing his anklets,
  • A sound So pleasing to the mind.
  • He sits, But then is up immediately,
  • A sight difficult to describe.
  • All the ladies of Braj tire
  • Of seeing such beauty divine.

Krishna denying he stole the butter:

  • 0, mother mine,
  • I did not eat the butter
  • Come dawn, with the herds,
  • You send me to the jungle,
  • 0, mother mine, I did not eat the butter,
  • All day long with my flute in the jungles
  • At dusk do I return home.
  • But a child, younger than my friends
  • How could I reach up to the butter?
  • All the gopas are against me
  • On my face they wipe the butter,
  • You, mother, are much too innocent,
  • You believe all their chatter.
  • There is a flaw in your behaviour,
  • You consider me not yours,
  • Take your herd-stick and the blanket
  • I’ll dance to your tune no longer.
  • Surdas, Yasoda then laughed,
  • And took the boy in her arms,
  • Mother mine I did not eat the butter

Many of the child Krishna’s activities spilled over into his adolescence, but with decidedly amorous overtones. His demands of milk and butter from the gopis became, as he grew older, less a childish prank and more a pretext for dalliance.

The adorable Balgopal grows up to be the precocious Kanhaiya; both were irresistible in their attractiveness, but whereas the one evoked filial affection the other provoked sexual attention. This transition is demonstrated best in the tradition of the dan leela, wherein Krishna waylays the gopis as they take the milk products for sale to Mathura and demands a ‘tax’ from them in the form of a gift. The discovery of sexual attraction in both Krishna and the gopis is mutual. Krishna’s behaviour shows it. He is now not only seeking the butter and the milk, but in obtaining them, he is forcing physical contact with the gopis.

The gopis are initially unable to give form to this new dimension to their feelings for someone whom till the other day they fondled as a child. They ask Krishna to state clearly what he wants. If it is only their wares, he can have them, but where is the need for the ‘barjori’, the use of force, the attempt to physically molest them? Krishna, on his part, continues to mask the overt sexuality of his actions under the conventional demand for milk and butter. But the imagery becomes transparently overloaded with double entendre. When
he says that he wants to ‘taste’ a gopi’s wares, the connotation is entirely different from the guileless context of his childhood stealing. His breaking of the gopis ‘matkis’-earthenware pots containing milk products-has an equally powerful sexual imagery. The asking of milk from a woman is not that innocent when the request is made by an adolescent with a rakish look in his eye. It does not take time for the gopis to understand how the situation has changed. They still sometimes complain to Yasoda about her son’s behaviour, but when Yasoda protests that he is still but a child, they smile to themselves and steal sidelong glances at his lips.

Perhaps the most famous of Krishna’s adolescent pranks was the stealing of the gopis’ clothes as they bathed in the river Yamuna. The gopis had gone into the water nude. Krishna, watching from a nearby kadambha tree, stealthily stole their clothes and hung them up like so many fluttering banners on the branches of the tree. Discovering the theft, the gopis hurriedly reentered the river to hide their nakedness. They implored Krishna to return their clothes, but he insisted that they come to him for them. Shivering in the cold water, the gopis had no option but to forget their shame and come out. With one hand they tried to cover their breasts and with the other their private parts. Krishna now insisted that they raise their hands in obeisance to him before he
would give the clothes. Shyly, the gopis raised one hand, the other still somehow trying to cover their exposed bodies. But Krishna said the obeisance must be performed with both hands. Only when the gopis had raised both hands and stood naked before him did he give them their clothes.

The Bhagavata describes this incident in detail. The explosive sexual tension is not underplayed, but a religious motif is granted in explication. The gopis, by entering the waters of the holy Yamuna nude, had offended the gods; their transgression had to be brought home to them. In asking them to overcome their shame and modesty, Krishna was teaching them the importance of total surrender to him, the very baring of their souls, as it were, to him. The dip in the river was itself part of a religious ritual performed by unmarried girls every year in the first month of winter in honour of the goddess Katayani, who would answer their every prayer. Needless to say, the gopis’ only prayer was that they get the son of Nanda as their husband. Krishna was aware of this and appreciated the ‘purity’ and ‘chastity’ of their sentiments. When they had bashfully put their clothes on, he promised them that their prayers would not remain unanswered. ‘You will spend the nights in autumn with me,’ he said, and, in so doing, he freed them forever from the cycle of birth and rebirth.

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