Shyam: An Illustrated Retelling of the Bhagavata

Yash Agarwal

Shyam: An Illustrated Retelling of the Bhagavata

I will start with a quote from the book. This is about the findings of ancient ruins near modern-day Dwarka.

Historians are not sure. For the faithful, it does not matter.

I am one of the faithful that the above quote refers to. I do not care if Krishna is a real or mythical figure, what matters most is whether I can learn something valuable from his stories. I am not talking about Gita, but the usual stories. Krishna has been one of my most favorite characters from the deities of the Hindu pantheon. I have read a lot about Krishna, but mostly from a religious perspective. This book is a new take on Krishna, and I liked it.

In “Shyam: An Illustrated Retelling of the Bhagavata”, Vyasa narrates the story of Krishna to his half parrot-half human son, Shuka. The story progresses linearly, starting from the prophecy of Kamsa’s death, Krishna’s birth, his time in Gokul and Vrindavan, his return to Mathura, fleeing to Dwarka and so on.

The author has done arduous research in collecting various interpretations of Mahabharata and various Puranas from different parts of India and Southeast Asia. His interpretations and association of these findings with what is supposed to be original are noteworthy.

Here are my notes from the book -

Stories are for those who listen, not those who wander.

Unlike the unenlightened householder, for whom material life is either a burden or an indulgence, Krishna embodies the enlightened householder: he who lives as a householder but thinks like a hermit, is engaged in everything but possessive of nothing.

Images of Madanmohanji, Govinddevji and Gopinathji that were lost and later found in the fifteenth century in Vrindavana by Goswamis and then taken to Rajasthan for protection from Muslim marauders are called Bajrakrit, or ‘made by Vajranabhi’.

In order to help the limited discover limitlessness, the infinite had to descend as the finite.

While Abrahamic traditions speak of God creating the world out of nothingness, in Hindu tradition creation is an act of waking up from a deep slumber and finally gaining full awareness.

The idea of the law of the jungle is expressed in the Bhagavata Purana (1.13.47): those without hands are food for those with hands (ahastani sahastanam), those without feet are food for those with four feet (apadani catus-padam), the weak exist for the strong (phalguni tatra mahatam), life feeds on life (jivo jivasya jivanam). Human beings are the only creatures who can subvert this jungle law and establish dharma where the strong help the weak.

An interesting aspect of the Bhagavata tradition is the concept of reverse-devotion (viparit-bhakti) or devotion expressed through hatred (dvesha-bhakti) that looks at all the enemies of Krishna as his devotees for they keep chanting his name (nama-japa) albeit in hatred. So Hiranayaksha, Hiranakashipu, Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Shishupala and Dantavakra are all devotees who express devotion through their nastiness and by thinking of Vishnu all the time.

Ram and Krishna are complete incarnations of Vishnu. Of these, Krishna is the most complete as, unlike Ram, he is constantly aware of his divinity, is linked with playfulness (leela) and aesthetic delight (rasa), and comfortably embraces his feminine side.

In many Vaishnava traditions, gurus are considered an avatar of Krishna, or the avatar of the avatar (avataravatara). This is why for followers of the Gaudiya Vaishnava parampara there is no difference between Chaitanya and the combined form of Radha-Krishna (Shri-Krishna-Chaitanya Radha-Krishna nahe anya).

Avatar and dharma are both social concepts; avatar is the means by which divinity engages with the world while dharma ignites the human potential to rise above animal instinct of self-preservation.

The standard list of Vishnu’s ten avatars became popular after Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda mentioned it. In the older Bhagavata Purana there are twenty-two avatars, including the Jain leader Rishabha, the enchantress Mohini, the sage Kapila and the swan Hamsa.

The Hindu concept of avatar (infinity becomes finite to enable human beings to find their humanity) is very different from the American concept of superhero (ordinary becomes extraordinary to solve problems).

Psychoanalysts speak of the Oedipus complex where a young man kills his father and marries his mother, indicative of how the younger generation overpowers the older generation. This Greek/Western notion is reversed in the Yayati story. In the Yayati complex an old man feeds on the youth of his children to prolong his pleasure, indicative of how the older generation exploits the younger generation.

Madhura, or Mathura, home of the nagas, the snake people, who were ruled not by kings but by a council of elders. An oligarchy, rather than a monarchy.

If one traces Krishna’s lineage we see that he has the blood of nagas (Yadu’s wives), asuras (Yadu’s mother) and manavas (Yadu’s father).

Many stories about Krishna have Greek influences. In fact, the earliest reference to the rise of the Bhagavata cult comes from coins and inscriptions of Indo-Greek kings or Yavanas who thrived in the northern region of the subcontinent 2000 years ago.

‘Why do we suffer so?’ wondered Devaki. Vasudev replied, ‘Nothing in this world happens without a reason. Our suffering, our children’s suffering must be the result of misdeeds in our past lives. The law of karma which makes the world go round clearly states: every creature is obliged to experience the results of its actions, either in the same life or the next.’

In ancient India, a dark complexion was not considered inferior or ugly unlike contemporary India, where increasingly television shows select fair-skinned actors to play the role of Krishna. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo remarked that the people of India preferred dark skin.

India was called Jambu-dvipa or land of the Indian gooseberry (jamun). The fruit’s dark shiny skin was said to be the complexion of the gods, of Ram and Shyam, of Vishnu and Kali.

Krishna is called Damodara because his mother tied a rope around his belly (udara) and tied him to a mortar.

People tend to relate the story of Matsya saving Manu with that of Noah’s ark. But the flood that Noah experiences is the wrath of God while the flood Manu experiences is pralaya, an event that occurs when culture collapses and mankind behaves like animals, exploiting rather than enabling the meek.

Krishna’s dark complexion contrasts Balarama’s fair skin. Krishna is the dark Vishnu and, in many traditions, Balarama is the fair Shiva. Shiva is karpura gauranga, one who is white as camphor. Together, black and white indicate complementary ideas (world-affirming versus world-rejecting) and appear as a recurring theme in Hindu mythology. And so Ganga is white and Yamuna, her twin river, is dark. The Goddess is the wild Kali who is dark as well as the fair Gauri who is demure and domestic.

Krishna the dancer atop Kaliya is called natawara who entertains the gopis and gopas with his expressive eyes and mesmerizing movements—a contrast to Shiva who is nataraja, whose eyes are shut when he dances, totally immersed like a sage, indifferent to the spectators.

The twelfth-century Nimbarka sampradaya was the earliest Brahmin group to venerate Radha and Krishna as a couple. Nimbarka was clear that one could not get liberation through Krishna alone; one had to go through Radha. This gave rise to the Radha-vallabhi movement where men dressed as women as part of Krishna bhakti. Here Radha is Krishna’s transcendental wife and partner. The two cannot be separated.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism of Chaitanya, institutionalized by the Goswamis, rejects the sterile connection with the abstract notion of brahman, and champions instead the sensory and emotional connection established with bhagavan, embodied as Krishna. This shift elevates the Bhagavata Purana, making it the most venerated bhakti text.

The Manusmriti describes eight different types of marriage in ancient India: where the boy approaches the girl’s father (Brahma-vivah), where the girl approaches the boy and offers dowry (Prajapati-vivah), where the girl is offered as service fee to a worthy service provider (deva-vivah), where the girl is given as gift to a hermit along with a cow and an ox to set up a household (rishi-vivah), where a girl is bought (asura-vivah), where a girl is abducted (rakshasa-vivah), where the boy and girl choose each other seeking no one’s approval (gandharva-vivah) and where a girl is forced into marriage without her approval (pisacha-vivah).

Traditionally, Krishna is offered fifty-six (chhappan) food items (bhog) every day. These are seven dishes cooked by his eight wives served throughout the day.

Vedanta philosophers saw the world as no different from the divine (advaita or abheda school of Madhusudana Saraswati), the world and the divine are separate (dvaita or bheda school of Madhva) and the world and the divine are same and separate simultaneously (bhedabheda school of Ramanuja).

‘When a noble man insults his elder brother, that is as good as murdering him. When a noble man indulges in self-praise, it is as good as committing suicide. Let words do the deed. Let harm be done to the psychological body, not the physical body. Keep the weapons out.’

Krishna is popular as one who twists arguments to get his way. But anyone who twists arguments is not Krishna. To be Krishna, the arguments have to lead towards dharma, where the meek take care of the meek, and where we fight for the meek without hating the mighty.

Ram who follows the rules is called maryada purushottam, the rule-following perfect man. Krishna who breaks rules is called leela purushottam, the game-playing perfect man. A perfect man is neither one who follows rules or bends rules of a game, he is one who upholds dharma, takes care of the weak without appreciating the insecurities of the mighty.

He who seeks to destroy craving with weapons ends up craving those very weapons. He who seeks to destroy craving with charity ends up craving charity. He who seeks to destroy craving with scriptures ends up craving scriptures. He who seeks to destroy craving with truth ends up craving truth. He who seeks to destroy craving with austerities ends up craving austerities. He who seeks to destroy craving with renunciation ends up craving renunciation. Craving cannot be destroyed, but it can be put to good use by locating it in dharma. So seek to destroy dharma, and you will end up craving dharma!

In temples, Krishna’s right foot is always directed towards Radha who stands to his left. When the left foot is directed to the right side, it is considered inauspicious, heralding misfortune and death.

Krishna is purna-avatar because, despite knowing he is God, complete and autonomous, he enjoys all human emotions from parental affection (vatsalya), to friendly delight (madhurya) to erotic yearnings (shringara) that is born from incompleteness and inadequacy. He does not walk away from the yagna; even though he wants nothing, still he gives to receive, and is not attached to anything that is received. This is Vedic wisdom: not escape, but awareness leading to indulgence of the unaware.

It is important to note that texts that tell us the story of Krishna’s life do not emerge chronologically. The 2000-year-old Mahabharata tells the story of Krishna’s adult life and death; his childhood stories are found in the 1700-year-old Harivamsa; his circular dance is first mentioned in portions of the 1000-year-old Bhagavata Purana; his love for Radha is clearly articulated only in the 800-year-old Gita Govinda; and the two become a celestial pair, creators of the cosmos, only in the 500-year-old Brahmavaivarta Purana.

There is much disagreement about the dating of the Bhagavata Purana, the most revered text of Krishna worshippers in which Krishna is the supreme form of the divine, greater even than Vishnu. It clearly came into being after the Harivamsa (1700 years old) and the Vishnu Purana (1500 years old). Conservative scholars believe it is less than 1400 years old, on grounds that it does not refer to famous kings such as Harsha who lived 1300 years ago. However, there are many references to the Advaita Purana of Shankara who lived in the eighth century CE and to the immersive worship of Vishnu-Krishna of Alvar poet-saints dated from the sixth to the ninth centuries ce. Shankara was born in Kerala and moved northwards, while Alvars were residents of Tamilakam. This has led to speculation that the Bhagavata Purana, with its ornate language and rich devotion, reached its final form 1000 years ago and is the work of brahmins from south India. Curiously, the great teacher Ramanuja, who lived in the twelfth century ce, and established the much-revered Srirangam temple complex, does not refer to this most revered Purana. Madhva-acharya refers to this scripture in the thirteenth century.

There is a tendency, driven by political agenda, to homogenize Hinduism over time and space, making it a grove of similar trees rather than recognize it as a dynamic landscape of multiple ecosystems. This has often resulted in an understanding of Hinduism that is centred on north India and Sanskrit, which disregards contributions of the rest of India and its many languages. This prevents us from recognizing that ideas about Krishna emerged not at once everywhere but gradually, in different places, and spread in different times.

The British, however, saw Krishna lore as vulgar. How could a god dance and sing and play with women? In 1862, Sir Mathew Sausse, a British judge of the Bombay High Court, actually pronounced Krishna ‘guilty’ of lewd sensuality. Embarrassed by their colonial masters, many Indians began sanitizing Hinduism, Bhagavata lore in particular.

As urbanization takes us away from nature, Krishna is no longer imagined as a dark-complexioned god, but as blue- and even white-skinned. Once considered inauspicious, white marble, rather than granite and sandstone, is being used to make icons of Krishna that are bathed with fluorescent lights. The experience is very different from seeing a black icon of igneous rock, decked with flowers, in the light of oil lamps. On cartoon channels, Krishna is presented as a ‘cute’ hero who beats up bad guys. Violence has been stripped of wisdom, sex cloaked with shame.

Krishna stands bent in three places while playing the flute. This pose, known as tribhanga, is a feminine pose that Krishna adopts. In art, Krishna is often depicted with a plait, a nose ring, anklets, palms painted with alta, like a woman. It is said that Krishna is so comfortable in his masculinity that he does not shun femininity, unlike hermits.

The shodasopchara or sixteen steps of adoration (upasana) are aimed at making the divine feel welcome as a guest: Invocation (avahan); Offering a seat (asana); Washing the deity’s feet (padyam); Washing our hands (arghya); Washing our mouth (achaman); Bathing the deity (snana); Offering clothes (vastra); Offering sacred thread (yagnopaveeta); Offering fragrances (gandha); Offering ornaments (alankara); Offering flowers (pushpa); Offering incense (dhupa); Offering lamps (deepa); Offering food (naivedya); Offering mouth freshener (tambulam); and Singing songs of praise (aarti).

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