W.G. Archer.

The Loves of Krishna in Indian Painting and Poetry online

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he is not having to hold a milk pail or a calf, he says, he is doing a
household chore or even keeping watch for them while they neglect their
work and gossip. The cowgirls listen in astonishment and go away.

Another day Krishna is playing in a courtyard and takes it into his head
to eat some dirt. Yasoda is told of it and in a fit of anger runs towards
him with a stick. 'Why are you eating mud?' she cries. 'What mud?' says
Krishna. 'The mud one of your friends has just told me you have eaten. If
you haven't eaten it, open your mouth.' Krishna opens it and looking
inside, Yasoda sees the three worlds. In a moment of perception, she
realizes that Krishna is God. 'What am I doing in looking upon the Lord of
the three worlds as my son?' she cries. Then the vision fades and she
picks up Krishna and kisses him.

Another day, Yasoda asks the married cowgirls to assist her in churning
milk. They clean the house, set up a large vessel, prepare the churning
staff and string, and start to churn. Krishna is awakened by the noise and
finding no one about comes crying to Yasoda. 'I am hungry, mother,' he
says. 'Why have you not given me anything to eat?' And in a fit of
petulance he starts to throw the butter about and kick over the pitchers.
Yasoda tells him not to be so naughty, sits him on her lap and gives him
some milk. While she is doing this, a cowgirl tells her that the milk has
boiled over and Yasoda jumps up leaving Krishna alone. While she is away
he breaks the pots, scatters the curds, makes a mess of all the rooms and,
taking a pot full of butter, runs away with it into the fields. There he
seats himself on an upturned mortar, assembles the other boys and vastly
pleased with himself, laughingly shares the butter out. When Yasoda
returns and sees the mess, she seizes a stick and goes to look for
Krishna. She cannot find it in her heart, however, to be angry for long
and when Krishna says, 'Mother, let me go. I did not do it,' she laughs
and throws the stick away. Then pretending to be still very angry, she
takes him home and ties him to a mortar. A little later a great crash is
heard. Two huge trees have fallen and when the cowherds hurry to the spot,
they find that Krishna has dragged the mortar between the trunks, pulled
them down and is quietly sitting between them.[17] Two youths - by name Nala
and Kuvara - have been imprisoned in the trees and Krishna's action has
released them. When she sees that Krishna is safe, Yasoda unties him from
the mortar and hugs him to her.

This incident of the trees now forces Nanda to make a decision. The
various happenings have been profoundly unnerving and he feels that it is
no longer safe to stay in Gokula. He decides therefore to move a day's
march farther on, to cross the river and settle in the forests of
Brindaban. The cowherds accordingly load up their possessions on carts and
the move ensues.[18]

The story now enters its second phase. Krishna is no longer a mischievous
baby, indulging in tantrums yet wringing the heart with his childish
antics. He is now five years old and of an age to make himself useful. He
asks to be allowed to graze the calves. At first Yasoda is unwilling. 'We
have got so many servants,' she says. 'It is their job to take the calves
out. Why go yourself? You are the protection of my eye-lids and dearer to
me than my eyes.' Krishna, however, insists and in the end she entrusts
him and Balarama to the other young cowherds, telling them on no account
to leave them alone in the forest, but to bring them safely home. Her
words are, in fact, only too necessary, for Kansa, the tyrant king, is
still in quest of the child who is to kill him. His demon minions are
still on the alert, attacking any likely boy, and as Krishna plays with
the cowherds and tends the calves, he suffers a further series of attacks.

A cow demon, Vatsasura, tries to mingle with the herd. The calves sense
its presence and as it sidles up, Krishna seizes it by the hind leg,
whirls it round his head and dashes it to death. A crane demon, Bakasura,
then approaches. The cowherds recognize it, but while they are wondering
how to escape, the crane opens its beak and engulfs Krishna. Krishna,
however, becomes so hot that the crane cannot retain him. It lets him go.
Krishna then tears its beak in two, rounds up the calves and taking the
cowherd boys with him, returns home.

Another day Krishna is out in the forest with the cowherds and the calves,
when a snake demon, Ugrasura, sucks them into its mouth. Krishna expands
his body to such an extent that the snake bursts. The calves and cowherd
children come tumbling out and all praise Krishna for saving them. On the
way back, Krishna suggests that they should have a picnic and choosing a
great _kadam_ tree, they sweep the place clean, set out their food and
proceed to enjoy it. As they eat, the gods look down, noting how handsome
the young Krishna has grown. Among the gods is Brahma, who decides to
tease Krishna by hiding the calves while the cowherd children are
eating.[19] He takes them to a cave and when Krishna goes in search of
them, hides the cowherd children as well. Krishna, however, is not to be
deterred. Creating duplicates of every calf and boy he brings them home.
No one detects that anything is wrong and for a year they live as if
nothing has happened. Brahma has meanwhile sunk himself in meditation, but
suddenly recalls his prank and hurries out to set matters right. He is
astonished to find the original calves and children still sleeping in the
cave, while their counterparts roam the forest. He humbly worships
Krishna, restores the original calves and children and returns to his
abode. When the cowherd children awake, Krishna shows them the calves. No
one realizes what has happened. The picnic continues and laughing and
playing they go home.

We now enter the third phase of Krishna's childhood. He is eight years old
and is therefore competent to graze not merely the calves but the cows as
well.[20] Nanda accordingly performs the necessary ritual and Krishna goes
with the cowherds to the forest.

An idyllic phase in Krishna's life now starts. 'At this time Krishna and
Balarama, accompanied by the cow-boys, traversed the forests, that echoed
with the hum of bees and the peacock's cry. Sometimes they sang in chorus
or danced together; sometimes they sought shelter from the cold beneath
the trees; sometimes they decorated themselves with flowery garlands,
sometimes with peacocks' feathers; sometimes they stained themselves of
various hues with the minerals of the mountain; sometimes weary they
reposed on beds of leaves, and sometimes imitated in mirth the muttering
of the thundercloud; sometimes they excited their juvenile associates to
sing, and sometimes they mimicked the cry of the peacock with their pipes.
In this manner participating in various feelings and emotions, and
affectionately attached to each other, they wandered, sporting and happy,
through the wood. At eveningtide came Krishna and Balarama, like to
cowboys, along with the cows and the cowherds. At eveningtide the two
immortals, having come to the cow-pens, joined heartily in whatever sports
amused the sons of the herdsmen.'[21]

One day as they are grazing the cows, they play a game. Krishna divides
the cows and cowherds into two sides and collecting flowers and fruits
pretends that they are weapons. They then stage a mock battle, pelting
each other with the fruits. A little later Balarama takes them to a grove
of palm trees. The ass demon, Dhenuka, guards it. Balarama, however,
seizes it by its hind legs, twists it round and hurls it into a high tree.
From the tree the demon falls down dead. When Dhenuka's companion asses
hasten to the spot, Krishna kills them also. The cowherds then pick the
coconuts to their hearts' content, fill a quantity of baskets and having
grazed the cows, go strolling home.

The next morning Krishna rises early, calls the cowherds and takes the
cows to the forest. As they are grazing them by the Jumna, they reach a
dangerous whirlpool. In this whirlpool lives the giant snake, Kaliya,
whose poison has befouled the water, curdling it into a great froth. The
cowherds and the cattle drink some of it, are taken ill, but revive at
Krishna's glance. They then play ball. A solitary _kadam_ tree is on the
bank. Krishna climbs it and a cowherd throws the ball up to him. The ball
goes into the water and Krishna, thinking this the moment for quelling the
great snake, plunges in after it. Kaliya detects that an intruder has
entered the pool, begins to spout poison and fire and encircles Krishna in
its coils. In their alarm the cowherds send word to Nanda and along with
Yasoda, Rohini and the other cowgirls, he hastens to the scene. Krishna
can no longer be seen and in her agitation Yasoda is about to throw
herself in. Krishna, however, is merely playing with the snake. In a
moment he expands his body, jumps from the coils and begins to dance on
the snake's heads. 'Having the weight of three worlds,' the _Purana_ says,
'Krishna was very heavy.' The snake fails to sustain this dancing burden,
its heads droop and blood flows from its tongues. It is about to die when
the snake-queens bow at Krishna's feet and implore his mercy. Krishna
relents, spares the snake's life but banishes it to a distant island.[22]
He then leaves the river, but the exhaustion of the cowherds and cowgirls
is so great that they decide to stay in the forest for the night and
return to Brindaban next morning. Their trials, however, are far from
over. At midnight there is a heavy storm and a huge conflagration. Scarlet
flames leap up, dense smoke engulfs the forest and many cattle are burnt
alive. Finding themselves in great danger, Nanda, Yasoda and the cowherds
call on Krishna to save them. Krishna quietly rises up, sucks the fire
into his mouth and ends the blaze.

The hot weather now comes. Trees are heavy with blossom, peacocks strut in
the glades and a general lethargy seizes the cowherds. One day Krishna and
his friends are out with the cattle when Pralamba, a demon in human form,
comes to join them. Krishna warns Balarama of the demon's presence and
tells him to await an opportunity to kill him. He then divides the
cowherds into two groups and starts them on the game of guessing fruits
and flowers. Krishna's side loses and as a penalty they have to run a
certain distance carrying Balarama's side on their shoulders. Pralamba
carries Balarama. He runs so fast that he quickly outstrips the others. As
he reaches the forest, he changes size, becoming 'large as a black hill.'
He is about to kill Balarama when Balarama himself rains blows upon him
and kills him instead.[23] While this is happening, the cows get lost,
another forest fire ensues and Krishna has once again to intervene. He
extinguishes the fire, regains the cattle and escorts the cowherds to
their homes.[24] When the others hear what has happened, they are filled
with wonder 'but obtain no clue to the actions of Krishna.'

During all this time, Krishna as 'son' of the wealthiest and most
influential cowherd, Nanda, has been readily accepted by the cowherd
children as their natural leader. His lack of fear, his bravery in coping
with demons, his resourcefulness in extricating the cowherds from awkward
situations, his complete self-confidence and finally his princely bearing
have revealed him as someone altogether above the ordinary. From time to
time he has disclosed his true nature as Vishnu but almost immediately has
exercised his 'illusory' power and prevented the cowherds from remembering
it. He has consequently lived among them as God but their love and
admiration are still for him as a boy. It is at this point that the
_Purana_ now moves to what is perhaps its most significant phase - a
description of Krishna's effects on the cowgirls.

[Footnote 11: Note 7.]

[Footnote 12: Magadha - a region corresponding to present-day South Bihar.]

[Footnote 13: Plate 3.]

[Footnote 14: Note 8.]

[Footnote 15: Note 9.]

[Footnote 16: Plate 4.]

[Footnote 17: Plate 5.]

[Footnote 18: Plate 6. In the _Harivansa_, the cause of the migration is
given as a dangerous influx of wolves.]

[Footnote 19: Note 10.]

[Footnote 20: Plate 7.]

[Footnote 21: Note 7.]

[Footnote 22: Plate 8.]

[Footnote 23: Plate 9.]

[Footnote 24: Plate 10.]



(ii) The Loves of the Cowgirls


We have seen how during his infancy Krishna's pranks have already made
him the darling of the women. As he grows up, he acquires a more adult
charm. In years he is still a boy but we are suddenly confronted with
what is to prove the very heart of the story - his romances with the
cowgirls. Although all of them are married, the cowgirls find his presence
irresistible and despite the warnings of morality and the existence of
their husbands, each falls utterly in love with him. As Krishna wanders in
the forest, the cowgirls can talk of nothing but his charms. They do their
work but their thoughts are on him. They stay at home but all the time
each is filled with desperate longing. One day Krishna plays on his flute
in the forest. Playing the flute is the cowherds' special art and Krishna
has, therefore, learnt it in his childhood. But, as in everything else,
his skill is quite exceptional and Krishna's playing has thus a beauty all
its own. From where they are working the cowgirls hear it and at once are
plunged in agitation. They gather on the road and say to each other,
'Krishna is dancing and singing in the forest and will not be home till
evening. Only then shall we see him and be happy.'

One cowgirl says, 'That happy flute to be played on by Krishna! Little
wonder that having drunk the nectar of his lips the flute should trill
like the clouds. Alas! Krishna's flute is dearer to him than we are for
he keeps it with him night and day. The flute is our rival. Never is
Krishna parted from it.' A second cowgirl speaks. 'It is because the flute
continually thought of Krishna that it gained this bliss.' And a third
says, 'Oh! why has Krishna not made us into flutes that we might stay with
him day and night?' The situation in fact has changed overnight for far
from merely appealing to the cowgirls' maternal instincts, Krishna is now
the darling object of their most intense passion.

Faced with this situation, the cowgirls discuss how best to gain Krishna
as their lover. They recall that bathing in the early winter is believed
to wipe out sin and fulfil the heart's desires. They accordingly go to the
river Jumna, bathe in its waters and after making clay images of Parvati,
Siva's consort, pray to her to make Krishna theirs. They go on doing this
for many days.

One day they choose a part of the river where there is a steep bank.
Taking off their clothes they leave them on the grass verge, enter the
water and swim around calling out their love for Krishna. Unknown to them,
Krishna is in the vicinity and is grazing the cows. He steals quietly up,
sees them in the river, makes their clothes into a bundle and then climbs
up with it into a tree. When the cowgirls come out of the water, they
cannot find their clothes until at last one of them spies Krishna sitting
in the tree. The cowgirls hurriedly squat down in the water entreating
Krishna to return their clothes. Krishna, however, tells them to come up
out of the water and ask him one by one. The cowgirls say, 'But this will
make us naked. You are making an end of our friendship.' Krishna says,
'Then you shall not have your clothes back.' The cowgirls answer, 'Why do
you treat us so? It is only for you that we have bathed all these days.'
Krishna answers, 'If that is really so, then do not be bashful or deceive
me. Come and take your clothes.' Finding no alternative, the cowgirls
argue amongst themselves that since Krishna already knows the secrets of
their minds and bodies, there is no point in being ashamed before him,
and they come up out of the water shielding their nakedness with their
hands.[25] Krishna tells them to raise their hands and then he will return
their clothes. The cowgirls do so begging him not to make fun of them and
to give them at least something in return. Krishna now hands the clothes
back giving as excuse for his conduct the following somewhat specious
reason. 'I was only giving you a lesson,' he says. 'The god Varuna lives
in water, so if anyone goes naked into it he loses his character. This was
a secret, but now you know it.' Then he relents. 'I have told you this
because of your love. Go home now but come back in the early autumn and we
will dance together.' Hearing this the cowgirls put on their clothes and
wild with love return to their village.

At this point the cowgirls' love for Krishna is clearly physical. Although
precocious in his handling of the situation, Krishna is still the rich
herdsman's handsome son and it is as this rather than as God that they
regard him. Yet the position is never wholly free from doubt for in loving
Krishna as a youth, it is as if they are from time to time aware of
adoring him as God. No precise identifications are made and yet so strong
are their passions that seemingly only God himself could evoke them. And
although no definite explanation is offered, it is perhaps this same idea
which underlies the following incident.

One day Krishna is in the forest when his cowherd companions complain
of feeling hungry. Krishna observes smoke rising from the direction of
Mathura and infers that the Brahmans are cooking food preparatory to
making sacrifice. He asks the cowherds to tell them that Krishna is hungry
and would like some of this food. The Brahmans of Mathura angrily spurn
the request, saying 'Who but a low cowherd would ask for food in the midst
of a sacrifice?' 'Go and ask their wives,' Krishna says, 'for being kind
and virtuous they will surely give you some.' Krishna's power with women
is then demonstrated once more. His fame as a stealer of hearts has
preceded him and the cowherds have only to mention his name for the wives
of the Brahmans to run to serve him. They bring out gold dishes, load them
with food, brush their husbands aside and hurry to the forest. One husband
stops his wife, but rather than be left behind the woman leaves her body
and reaches Krishna before the others. When the women arrive they marvel
at Krishna's beauty. 'He is Nanda's son,' they say. 'We heard his name and
everything else was driven from our minds. Let us gaze on this darling
object of our lives. O Krishna, it is due to you that we have seen you and
thus got rid of all our sins. Those stupid Brahmans, our husbands, mistook
you for a mere man. But you are God. As God they offer to you prayers,
penance, sacrifice and love. How then can they deny you food?' Krishna
replies that they should not worship him for he is only the child of the
cowherd, Nanda. He was hungry and they took pity on him, and he only
regrets that being far from home he cannot return their hospitality. They
must now go home as their presence is needed for the sacrifices and their
husbands must still be waiting. So cool an answer dismays the women and
they say, 'Great king, we loved your lotus-like face. We came to you
despite our families. They tried to stop us but we ignored them. If they
do not take us back, where shall we go? And one of us, prevented by her
husband, gave her life rather than not see you.' At this Krishna smiles,
reveals the woman and says, 'Whoever loves God never dies. She was here
before you.' Krishna then eats the food and assuring them that their
husbands will say nothing, sends them back to Mathura. When they arrive,
they find the Brahmans chastened and contrite - cursing their folly in
having failed to recognize Krishna as God and envious of their wives for
having seen him and given him food.

Having humbled the Brahmans, Krishna now turns to the gods, choosing
Indra, their chief, for attack. The moment is his annual worship when the
cowherds offer sweets, rice, saffron, sandal and incense. Seeing them
busy, Krishna asks Nanda what is the point of all their preparations. What
good can Indra really do? he asks. He is only a god, not God himself. He
is often worsted by demons and abjectly put to flight. In fact he has no
power at all. Men prosper because of their virtues or their fates, not
because of Indra. As cowherds, their business is to carry on agriculture
and trade and to tend cows and Brahmans. Their earliest books, the Vedas,
require them not to abandon their family customs and Krishna then cites as
an ancient practice the custom of placating the spirits of the forests and
hills. This custom, he says, they have wrongly superseded in favour of
Indra and they must now revive it. Nanda sees the force of Krishna's
remarks and holds a meeting. 'Do not brush aside his words as those of a
mere boy,' he says. 'If we face the facts, we have really nothing to do
with the ruler of the gods. It is on the forests, rivers and the great
hill, Govardhana, that we really depend.' The cowherds applaud this
advice, resolve to abandon the gods and in their place to worship the
mountain, Govardhana. The worship of the hill is then performed. Krishna
advises the cowherds to shut their eyes and the spirit of the hill will
then show itself. He then assumes the spirit's form himself, telling Nanda
and the cowherds that in response to their worship the mountain spirit has
appeared. The cowherds' eyes are easily deceived. Beholding, as they
think, Govardhana himself, they make offerings and go rejoicing home.

Such an act of defiance greatly enrages Indra and he assembles all the
gods. He forgets that earlier in the story it was the gods themselves who
begged Vishnu to be born on earth and that many of their number have even
taken birth as cowherds and cowgirls in order to delight in Krishna as
his incarnation. Instead he sees Krishna as 'a great talker, a silly
unintelligent child and very proud.' He scoffs at the cowherds for
regarding Krishna as a god, and in order to reinstate himself he orders
the clouds to rain down torrents. The cowherds, faced with floods on every
side, appeal to Krishna. Krishna, however, is fully alive to the position.
He calms their fears and raising the hill Govardhana, supports it on his
little finger.[26] The cowherds and cattle take shelter under it and
although Indra himself comes and pours down rain for seven days, Braj and
its inhabitants stay dry. Indra is compelled to admit that Vishnu has
indeed descended in the form of Krishna and retires to his abode. Krishna
then sets the hill down in its former place. Following this discomfiture,
Indra comes down from the sky accompanied by his white elephant and by
Surabhi, the cow of plenty. He offers his submission to Krishna, is
pardoned and returns.

All these events bring to a head the problem which has been exercising
the cowherds for long - who and what is Krishna? Obviously no simple boy
could lift the mountain on his finger. He must clearly be someone much
greater and they conclude that Krishna can only be Vishnu himself. They
accordingly beseech him to show them the paradise of Vishnu. Krishna
agrees, creates a paradise and shows it to them. The cowherds see it and
praise his name. Yet it is part of the story that these flashes of insight
should be evanescent - that having realized one instant that Krishna is
God, the cowherds should regard him the next instant as one of themselves.
Having revealed his true nature, therefore, Krishna becomes a cowherd once
again and is accepted by the cowherds as being only that.

One further incident must be recorded. In compliance with a vow, Nanda
assembles the cowherds and cowgirls and goes to the shrine of Devi, the
Earth Mother, to celebrate Krishna's twelfth birthday. There they make
lavish offerings of milk, curds and butter and thank the goddess for
protecting Krishna for so long. Night comes on and they camp near the
shrine. As Nanda is sleeping, a huge python begins to swallow his foot.[27]
Nanda calls to Krishna, who hastens to his rescue. Logs are taken from
a fire, but as soon as the snake is touched by Krishna, a handsome young
man emerges and stands before him with folded hands. He explains that he
was once the celestial dancer, Sudarsana who in excess of pride drove his
chariot backwards and forwards a hundred times over the place where a
holy man was meditating. As a consequence he was cursed and told to
become a python until Krishna came and released him. To attract Krishna's
attention he has seized the foot of Nanda. Krishna bids him go and,
ascending his chariot, Sudarsana returns to the gods.


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