Just Like That | Lord Krishna's enduring presence in life and culture
Janamashtmi, the birth of Lord Krishna, is celebrated with devotion across India. Krishna's multifaceted legacy lives on in Hindu daily life.
Janamashtmi, the day of the birth of Lord Krishna, has just been celebrated with customary devotion and gusto all across India. My book, Krishna: The Playful Divine (Penguin) – which was later republished several times in a slightly abbreviated form as The Book of Krishna – has five chapters: Child, Warrior, Lover, Saviour, and God. The unique facet of the Blue God is that he is effortlessly multifaceted. In terms of sheer attraction, he certainly ranks among the most popular deities in Hinduism.
What is remarkable is that his many-splendoured legacy lives on as part of the daily lives of Hindus. In Vrindavan, they believe that even now, every night, Krishna and Radha meet to enact their raas-leela. His devotees say that at Rang Bhavan, the pavilion in the centre of the walled-in courtyard garden of Madhuvan—where Madhu and his beloved met on moonlit nights—still has traces every morning of their tryst. Betel leaves inexplicably adorn the floor. There is a broken bangle or two. And often parts of a gajra, the weaves of the flower strings undone.
At the famous temple of Nathdwara 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 in the morning—the mangala darshan—and offered a light breakfast, consisting of fruits, and his favourite, makhan or butter. A little later in the day, during the sringara darshan, he is 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 him to take his rest. Following the siesta, he is offered his lunch. 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.
In Puri, on the eastern coast, he is worshipped as Jagannath, Lord of the World. The most famous festival at Puri is the Rath Yatra. Every year in June-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 4,000 special coolies—the kalebetiyas—who enjoy hereditary concessions in neighbouring villages for their services. As in Udaipur, Jagannathji is ceremonially bathed in May-June, but what is interesting is that after this the deities are kept in a sick chamber for 15 days out of public view as they are said to have got fever from bathing at midday!
The continuing impact of Krishna on the arts is phenomenal. He is known as Akhila Kaladi Guru—the apostle of all arts and the embodiment of all that is beautiful. It is said that all the arts emanated from the creative rhythm and subtle balance of his dance on the hood of the serpent Kaliya. If Shiva in the awesome grandeur of his tandava is Nataraja, Krishan in the delicate seduction of his movements is Natwara. He is the main theme of the Manipur classical dance in the northeast, of Kathak in the north, and of Odissi in Odisha. In Karnataka, the Yakshagana dance form celebrates his heroic exploits as a warrior, Chakravartin Krishna. In Andhra Pradesh, the Kuchipudi dance relives his daring theft of the Parijaat tree. And in Tamil Nadu, he is one of the pervasive themes of Bharatanatyam.
His living presence in music is also ubiquitous. In West Bengal, they have a saying: Kanu bina geet nahin (without Krishna there can be no song). He is the focus of a significant number of compositions in Indian classical music, and even more popular in the light classical music genre of thumri, raas, hori, and dadra. In painting, the erstwhile princely states of Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh became the centre of Krishna-related miniature paintings. In Bengal and Odisha, he was depicted on palm leaves, in Bihar in Madhubani art, and in Maharashtra and Karnataka on Paithan paintings.
In Tamil Nadu, Krishna is depicted in the gold and silver inscribed Thanjavur paintings, and in Rajasthan in Pichhavai, painted on cloth in natural vegetable dyes. In poetry, of course, our literary corpus is replete with Krishna, and interestingly, this output was not confined to Hindus only. In the 17th century, Syed Hashim Ras Khan wrote his Rachnavali, in praise of Krishna. Its opening lines are:
“Worthy to be human, are only those Ras Khan
Who dwell among the cowherders of Gokul Gaon
And blessed alone are those animals
Taken to graze with the cows of Nanda’s barn.”
In Odisha, to this day, devotees sing the Muslim poet Salabega’s lyrics to welcome Lord Jagannath. Krishna is also a recurring theme in the writings of Malik Muhammad Jayasi, who wrote in Avadhi.
Krishna is considered the Purna Avatara, the complete divine incarnation, possessing all the 16 qualities that are required for this. Maryada Purushottam Ram has 13 of these gunas. What he does not have are the three elements of sringara, romance and sensuality. By contrast, Krishna is Leela Purushottam, the essence of pure joy.
Even if belatedly, a very happy Janamashtmi to all readers.
Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha).
Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers
The views expressed are personal