By Sanghmitra Kumar
Note: The ideas and concepts in the following article are from the author’s research, understanding and perspectives and there is absolutely no intention to hurt any religious or philosophical sentiments. Readers have the right to agree or disagree as per their understanding. I have also referred to the texts as mythology because facts are proven or calculated truths and fiction is imaginary.
We all adore this eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu as the mischief monger, a divine flute player, a romantic. He can move mountains (literally) and He’s the supreme narrator of the Bhagavad Gita (The song of God). To his staunch devotees he is the “poorna avatar” (complete incarnation) – the most perfect personal manifestation (saguna brahman) of the impersonal divine (nirguna brahman). But is that all there is to him? Do we really understand his metaphoric and philosophical presence in our mythology?
There is a belief and a chance that Krishna’s (or Vishnu’s) stories may have been passed on as an oral tradition. Legends of his avatar may have been conveyed verbally, but also in the forms of music and dance. The now classical form of Indian dance, Kathak, finds its roots in folk culture. Gradually, Kathakaars were invited inside temples where they were taught the Vedas and the Kathas (stories) and philosophies of the avatars of Vishnu, predominantly Krishna avatar. In Sanskrit literature, we learn of his life on earth in instalments – of course, the first being from the Mahabharata and the Harivamsa which serves as an appendix to the epic and narrates his parenting and childhood. The Vishnu Purana elaborates on him being the incarnate of Vishnu; The Bhagavata Purana refers to his association with the Gopikaas (milkmaids) and Jayadeva’s Geet Govind extensively unfolds the existence of Radha. Scholars believe that the Mahabharata reached its written form that we know today approximately 2000 years ago; The Harivamsa 1700 years ago, Vishnu Purana 1500 years ago, Bhagavata Purana 1000 years ago and the Geet Govind around 800 years ago. Since, we would never remember our past lives from that long, these dates are always being open for scrutiny.
As artists and performers, we learn and worship His teachings from the Bhagavata Gita in the form of the beautiful but fierce iconography – The Nataraja. The notions of Karma, very fondly known around the world as “what goes around comes around” and the recycling of the soul in births after births are famous, perhaps objectively. Lord Vishnu is the ultimate performer who descends on earth and enacts what he teaches. In the Ramayana, in a tragic turn of events when Sita and Ram separate, “romance” dies yet they establish foundations of love by choosing never to marry again in that lifetime. Hence, Ram is also known as “eka – patnivrata” (He who is devoted to a single wife), “maryada purushuttom” (the supreme upholder of rules) and “eka – vachani” (He, who always fulfils his promises). However, in his Krishna incarnation, He’s the complete opposite, a “chitt chor” (the stealer of hearts), “maakhan chor” (the imp who steals butter) and the “rann chor” (He, who runs from the battle field, only to live and fight another day). He does the “Raas Leela”(The dance of passion) with his consort Radha – something he couldn’t do in his Ram avatar and definitely doesn’t dedicate himself to one wife; he is now “leela purushottam” (The one who alters rules). From such a perspective, the Mahabharata becomes a continuation of the Ramayana but not its end. He recycles himself birth after birth after birth, just the way humans do. He makes the world his “Rang bhoomi” (the theatre stage) and performs his roles unlike Indra (The deity of heaven) who is always in fighting in the “Rann bhoomi” (battlefield).
When Iravan, the son of Arjuna and Naag princess Ulupi, was required to be sacrificed in the great Kurukshetra war, he put forward a condition that he didn’t want to die a single man. When all women refused to get married fearing their fates after Iravan’s death, Krishna took the form of the alluring Mohini and marries him. After Iravan’s death, Krishna doesn’t go back his original incarnate form till he grieves and performs his duties of a widow. Apologies to sexists, chauvinists and those who have issues with the LGBTQ’s, Krishna is perfectly comfortable with his masculine AND feminine attributes. In fact, the glorious Jagannath Temple (from where the word juggernaut was derived) in Odisha, houses the idol of Krishna with a “nath” (nose ring). In many other temples across India, especially on festivals, Krishna’s statues are dressed up in female attire (Stri-vesha) to remind us that males and females, masculine and feminine are equal halves of humanity and divine and that none is greater than the other. Since, in the Raas – Leela, Krishna is meant to be the male, it is said in the Padma Purana, that when Lord Shiva wanted to participate, He had to take the form of a Gopikaa (milkmaid) and so, even today, he is worshipped in Vrindavana (a town in Mathura district where Krishna spent his childhood days) as Gopeshwar Mahadev. Arjuna and Naradamuni are also said to have taken female forms to participate in the Raas – Leela.
The true beauty of Krishna lies in him being compassionate towards the villains of Mahabharata and Harivamsa. A Gandharva named Dramila disguised himself as Ugrasena, the husband of Queen Padmavati and forced himself upon her, impregnating her. It is this thus believed, in some stories, that Kansa – Krishna’s evil maternal uncle was a rape child neglected by his own mother. Jarasandha, Kansa’s father-in-law was born deformed. Duryodhana was born to a blind father and his mother purposely blindfolded herself in solidarity, thus leaving Duryodhana neglected and unseen by his parents his entire life. However, Krishna doesn’t show an inch of hatred towards either of the villains. In fact, he questions Arjuna in the Bhagavata Gita that who decides what is wrong and what is right? What may be wrong to you, could be right for someone else and vice versa. Thus, wisdom lies in empathy (Dharma) which comes from the understanding that we all are products of our own experiences. Actions cause consequences and consequences cause actions, actions again cause consequences and the cycle, like the Prabha – Mandala of The Nataraja is infinite and cyclical with no ending and no beginning. He reminds us:
With great power comes great responsibility
With responsibility comes knowledge
With knowledge comes understanding
With understanding comes compassion
With compassion comes power
With power comes responsibility
To us mortal humans, Krishna is the divine “maarg darshak” (He, who enlightens the path). We turn to him in our sorrows and our dilemmas because he understands that “Dharam – sankata” (Dilemmas) doesn’t exist between the right and the wrong, it exists between two seemingly perfect options. For example, like the “Lakshman Rekha” (The line etched by Lakshman) metaphorically reveals the dilemma faced by Sita – on the side she stands is the “Patni – Dharma” (Duties of a wife) and on the other side of the line is the “Raj – Dharma” (Duties of a Queen). Krishna recognises the methods of a fickle human mind and so never abandons those who seek him. So when Arjuna requests Krishna to retell the Bhagavata Gita, Krishna knows that Arjuna may not be as engrossed as he was during the war and that as time passes Arjuna may forget the teachings again, yet He recites the Anu- Gita (a less philosophical version of the Bhagavata Gita).
Krishna’s metaphoric and fascinating descent in human world provides us with infinite stories we can learn from to perform our roles in this and in every other lifetime. On a lighter note, the song “Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo” in Mera Naam Joker aptly summarises many of Krishna’s stories for me.
Wishing our readers, a Happy Janamashtmi! May your lives be as smooth as butter!