Category Archives: c. Vaisnavism

Krsna and Kamsa

Amongst the many manifestations of the god Visnu, Krsna is one of the most celebrated and popular of them all. He is revered by his followers for being the eighth incarnation of Visnu, and is considered to be a part of him as well, making him a divine character. Despite his massive following and devotion in Hinduism, Krsna is considered to be a relatively new god figure when compared to the other deities. He is not mentioned in the Vedas, but is first heard of in the Chhandogya Upanisad when they reveal that he is the son of Devaki, who is also the daughter of the king, Ugrasena (Crooke 2). Kamsa, the second half of this topic, is known to be Krsna’s uncle (or sometimes his cousin, based on the interpretation found in one book), who overthrew his father, King Ugrasena (Crooke 7). He was later defeated and killed by Krsna in battle.

Kamsa, after securing the throne, heard of a prophecy about the one that would usurp and kill him. It was said that his killer would be born as the eighth son of Devaki, who happened to be Krsna’s biological mother, Kamsa’s sister, and Ugrasena’s niece. Narada, a sage that appears frequently in the Puranic texts, is the one to tell Kamsa about how Devaki’s child would be a child of the earth and a part of Visnu himself (Sheth 43). [A more detailed description of Narada can be found in Sheth (1984)]. Kamsa then summoned his sister Devaki and her husband, Vasudeva, to Mathura in order to keep an eye on them and their growing family.

Every time Devaki gave birth, Kamsa would kill the child soon after. However, with Devaki’s seventh pregnancy her baby was transferred to the womb of Vasudeva’s second wife, Rohini. Because of this, Krsna was considered to be Devaki’s seventh son instead of her eighth. When Krsna is born, his parents (in the Visnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana) seen him in his “divine form” (Sheth 44) but forbid him to display his divinity for fear of him being killed by Kamsa. In other versions, Krsna is sent down the Yamuna River, where he is rescued by a couple of cowherds, who swapped him with their baby girl in order to ward off Kamsa’s bloodthirsty pursuit of him (Rodrigues 313). It turned out that the girl was none other than the goddess Devi, who tells Kamsa that Krsna was still alive. Kamsa tried to annihilate Krsna by killing all of the young boys within the kingdom, but was about to get his intended target in the process.

Many ordeals and adventures unfolded as Krsna grew up. He defeated the demoness Putana by draining her of her life force, and revealed the entirety of the cosmos to his adoptive mother, Yasoda, in his mouth. When he was older, Krsna ventured into the forest called Vrndavana, where he defeated the snake Kaliya and stopped it from poisoning the water any further. When the thunder god Indra tried to flood the town that Krsna grew up in, Krsna used Mount Govardhana as a dry haven for his people by holding it up with a single finger while they hid underneath it (Rodrigues 314). At the same time, he stopped Indra from receiving any further sacrifices from the villagers (Crooke 16).

Later on in his life and after overcoming trials of his own, Krsna finally confronts Kamsa after returning to Mathura when he was invited to participate in a wrestling match. Using all of his divine powers and strength, he destroys Kamsa with the weight of the universe (Sheth 59). In this tale, Krsna is the hero, the destined child that slays his evil uncle and restores the throne to Ugrasena.

In the Bhagavata Purana, Krsna is also known as Hari, Visnu, and the Higher Self (Sheth 52). The title of Hari is also seen within the Visnu Purana (it tends to complement its information with the Bhagavata Purana quite a bit). In the Mahabharata he comes to Draupadi’s aid when she asks for his help by allowing her clothes to continuously cover her even as they are being stripped off by the Kauravas when they try to humiliate her (Rodrigues 231-232). Krsna was also a godly advisor to the epic’s hero, Arjuna (the son of the thunder god Indra), and soon became a family friend to both him and his brothers, the Pandavas. Technically, they became brother-in-laws as well, as Arjuna had a child with Krsna’s sister, Subhadra (Rodrigues 138, 232).

In the Harivamsa (a segment of the Mahabharata) the tradition of showing Krsna as a hero continues. He is considered to be more heroic than a divine being, because he possesses the qualities of a traditional hero. These qualifications include a unique birth and childhood, where the growing hero displays powers beyond what an ordinary person would possess. Child-heroes are also known to be exiled, only to return at a later date to prove their worth. They also compete in any contest in order to prove their worth, and relish in fighting and defending their honour. These qualities of proving themselves are further implied within the Visnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana (Sheth 3-4). The nature of Krsna is also described within the Harivamsa, calling him a Brahman, self-born, eternal, the Ancient One, and many other words (Sheth 77). Several stories about Krsna appear in the Harivamsa, such as his battle with the demon called Fever and how he is affiliated with playing the flute (Sheth 102).

Krsna is infamous for having a sensual reputation for enticing cowgirls (gopis) with his flute, bringing them out to the forest where he bides his time. His musical instrument of choice is known to have a seductive trait, which is further seen in the Vrndavana (Kinsley 41). Here the young deity and the gopis engage in blissful passions, such as singing, dancing, and the art of lovemaking. His relationship with the gopis and the cowherds of Mathura are considered an “important theme” in the eyes of bhakti with the keywords being “union” and “separation” (Hardy 52).

There are several times where Krsna is separated from the gopis, either due to him having to leave or getting into a fight with one of them. The final time that the “separation” theme is seen with Krsna in relation with the gopis is when he leaves them all in order to go to Mathura (Hardy 53). In Hindu mythology, the gopis are either seen as a collective group in one myth or having one represented in the limelight of Krsna’s adoration, such as Radha. With her and the rest of the gopis, Krsna shows the possibly of relationships between the gods and the humans (Kinsley 41). Since he is a young god, he is notorious for being a prankster as well (Kinsley 9). He is the “eternal child” of Hindu faith, and acts in every way that a child would behave, hence the spontaneous activities and pranks (Kinsley 12-13).

Krsna’s physical appearance is also famous for having a blue pigmentation in his skin and an incredibly youthful body. His image is usually accompanied by his infamous flute, but there are times where the flute is absent, and instead Krsna would pantomime that the flute is always in his hands, and would instead be called Gopalakrsna during this state. [More is said about Gopalakrsna in Chary & Smith (1991)]. Despite all this, the flute remains pivotal to his image and connection as the Divine One (Chary & Smith 97). In other versions, Krsna can be viewed with a multitude of extra arms holding a variety of objects, such a padma, an iksu, and other similar items. Sometimes he is accompanied by his wives.

In some academic circles there are scholars that attempt to understand Krsna in a historical sense, because he displays many human characteristics as opposed to his divine ones. They try to understand and discover Krsna as an actual person that lived within Earth’s historical timeline. Scholars use evidence toward their theory of him being a human, such as his appearance in the Mahabharata (Hardy 18-19). Krsna is also the most well-known Hindu god outside of India, because of his prominent role in the Bhagavad Gita, which has been translated a great deal into other languages (Chary & Smith 99). [A full explanation of the Bhagavad Gita is shown in Fowler (2012].

Also, Krsna is one of the few gods that has gone through the stages of life: infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (Chary & Smith 100), which would make people unfamiliar with his life story believe that he might have been a real-life figure in Indian history. In the Indian epics (i.e. the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) the heroes grow up and go on episodic adventures, but do not see the gods participate in a familiar, humanistic way. Krsna gets a full explanation of his life compared to the other gods and goddesses. To scholars, it is also known that Krsna married at some point in his adult life to his two wives, Rukmini and Satyabhama, and was equally affectionate and attentive to each of them (Chary & Smith 103). [To learn more about Rukmini and Satyabhama and their significance as Krsna’s wives, see Chary & Smith (1991)].

Krsna is a fascinating god within Hindu mythology and its respective religion. His role in battling and defeating Kamsa (the original “evil uncle,” long before Claudius from Hamlet) dictates him as a famous protagonist that takes on many of the qualities seen within a traditional hero. His unusual birth and journey through childhood and adulthood is what makes him memorable and compelling as a heroic character, even outside of Indian culture. The ability to view Krsna both as a godly figure and as a man with human qualities adds another layer of depth to his persona. Seeing a god indulge himself with sensual and romantic needs make him appealing as a character study, and also to scholars who want to discover if he qualifies to be a historical man of India as well.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Chary, M. Narasimha & Smith, H. Daniel (1991) Handbook of Hindu Gods, Goddesses, and Saints. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.

Couture, Andre & Schmid, Charlotte (2001) “The Harivamsa, the Goddess Ekanamsa, and the Icongraphy of the Vrsni Triads.” Journal of the American Oriental Society; Apr-Jun2001, Vol. 121 Issue 2, p173, 20p, 1

Crooke, W. (1900) “The Legends of Krishna.” Folklore Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar., 1900) (pp. 1-42)

Fowler, Jeaneane D. (2012) The Bhagavad Gita: A text and Commentary for Students. Brighton; Portland: Sussex Academic Press.

Hardy, Friedhelm (1983) Viraha-Bhakti: The Early History of Kṛṣṇa Devotion in South India. Delhi: Oxford.

Keith, A. Berriedale (1908) “The Child Krsna.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. (Jan., 1908), pp.169-175

Kinsley, David R. (1975) The Sword and the Flute: Kālī and Kṛṣṇa, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism—the Ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sheth, Noel (1984) The Divinity of Krishna. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Arjuna

Avatara

Bhagavad Gita

Chhandogya Upanisad

Devaki

Gopalakrsna

Gopi

Harivamsa

Kali

Kaliya

Lila

Mahabharata

Narada

Putana

Radha

Rukmini

Satyabhama

Subhadra

Ugrasena

Vasudeva

Visnu

Vrndavana

Yasoda

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.bharatadesam.com/spiritual/upanishads/chandogya_upanishad.php

http://www.harekrsna.com/philosophy/associates/demons/mathura/kamsa.hm

http://hinduism.about.com/od/lordkrishna/p/krishna_birth.htm

http://www.india-crafts.com/sculpture/hindu-statues.html

http://www.krishna.com/

http://www.krishnabalarama.com/

http://www.krsnabook.com/ch44.html

http://www.purebhakti.com/teachers/bhakti-discourses-mainmenu-61/19-discourses-2000/202-krishna-kills-kamsa.html

 

Article written by Melissa Wall (March-April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Krsna and Yasoda

The Hindu deity Krsna is a highly regarded and popular god in Hinduism, known to hold the title of svayam bhagavam (The Supreme Personality of Godhead). The myths of Krsna are displayed in several Hindu texts, primarily in the Bhagavad-Gita, where he epitomizes the ideals of both karma and dharma. The myths depicting Krsna and his adoptive mother Yasoda elaborate on these karmic and dharmic ideals by showing Krsna as the quintessential son and Yasoda in the image of the perfect mother. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krsna “performs actions without attachment, and so persons should do the same. [He] also cautions against indecisiveness and inaction, which is a form of ‘doing’ and carries with it karmic consequences” (Rodrigues 251). The immense popularity of Krsna’s image in Hinduism has been attributed to his accessibility, compared to other gods who are typically depicted as isolated and inaccessible (Rodrigues 314). Through his many myths, Krsna is seen as an ideal infant, child, and adolescent, one who gains much devotion from those who encounter him.

Krsna as a relatable and accessible character is emphasized through most myths and tales that he is depicted in. Hillary Rodrigues supports this, noting that Krsna’s popularity is due to Krsna being “the apple of every mother’s eye, a lively young boy, on whom one can shower maternal love. Devotees may imagine themselves as loving parents, envisioning God as their child. As a teenager, Krsna is the ideal friend, protecting his companions from danger. As a young man, he is the irresistibly attractive lover. When older, he is spiritual advisor and political strategist, friend and ally” (Rodrigues 314). By showing Krsna at many stages of a normal human life, those hearing the myths of Krsna are able to envision actually knowing him and connecting with him, which makes the ideals he espouses much more relatable and attractive to follow.

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krsna acts as a guru to Arjuna and describes the duties and necessity of dharma in the world. In one scene, Arjuna hesitates joining a battle, an action which Krsna claims as “unmanliness, weakness, pity, and emotional attachment”; he also elaborates on how to actually perform the actions in a dutiful manner, claiming action as karmic, good, and inevitable (Bryant 79).

The myths describing Krsna’s birth vary in different sources; however, there remains a general consistency to the main themes and episodes of the tale. It begins with an angry king, who is forewarned of a male to be born in his kingdom that will end his reign and, ultimately, his life. He is the king of Mathura, mostly known as Kamsa. [Hawley refers to the king of Mathura as Kan; however, most sources name him Kamsa (Hawley 53)]. The prophecy informs Kamsa that his death will be at the hands of his sister and brother-in-law (Devaki and Vasudeva)’s eighth son. Kamsa is described as being a “man of pride”, “inwardly insecure” and “patently cruel, repugnant of tradition” (Hawley 53). When he hears the prophecy, he immediately attempts to kill Devaki, but Vasudeva is able to calm him when he promises to bring any sons they have to the king. Kamsa imprisons both Devaki and Vasudeva, where the couple gives birth to six children; Kamsa kills each child.

When Devaki is impregnated with her seventh child, a miracle occurs. Hawley writes “the Great God … removes one white hair from the head of the great snake that symbolizes his primordial energy, and one black one from his own. The latter he holds in readiness: it will become Krsna whose very name means ‘black’. With the former, he penetrates the womb of Devaki, heralding a miraculous if not altogether virgin birth: the white Balaram” (Hawley 54). Following this, the fetus was transferred to the womb of another of Vasudeva’s wives, Rohini, who was safe across the river. To those still in the jail, it seemed that Devaki simply had a miscarriage (Bhaktivedanta 11). However, Rohini safely birthed Devaki and Vasudeva’s seventh child, Balarama.

Following this pregnancy, Krsna decides to descend. At this point, there are a few variations in the myth. The version Bhaktivedanta elaborates in his text follows that Brahma, Siva, along with demigods and sages, visited the prison. The great deities all professed that Krsna was “true to His vow” (Bhaktivedanta 11). In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krsna promised to “protect the pious and destroy the impious. … The demigods were very glad that the Lord was appearing to fulfill his mission, and they addressed Him as … the Supreme Absolute Truth” (Bhaktivedanta 14). Some sources claim at this point that a “divine sleep” falls upon the area, to which Krsna’s birth can safely take place (Hawley 55).

When Krsna is born, he takes his true form; he was four-armed, decorated with all the accouterments associated with Krsna, including a conch-shell, lotus flower, jewelry, a helmet, and more (Hawley 24). The myth varies here as well, some claiming Vasudeva urges Krsna to take the form of a normal infant, while some say it was Devaki. Regardless, the parents beg him to look like a mere baby for the sake of Krsna’s own safety. Vasudeva escapes the holds of the prison to deliver Krsna to a place of safekeeping: to his friends’ Nanda and Yasoda’s house in the near town of Gokul, who had just given birth to a daughter of their own. Bhaktivedanta’s version of the myth here states that Nanda and Yasoda’s newborn baby was the “internal potency” of Krsna: Yogamaya (Bhaktivedanta 30). [Krsna is said to have “multipotencies”, of which Yogamaya is the chief of all potencies. This is further explained in many sources, especially in Bhaktivedanta’s work.] With the help of the deity in his arms, Vasudeva is able to see clearly through the darkness of the night on his way to Gokul, and fords heavily flowing rivers with ease. The myth again diverges here, according to which sources are addressed. Because of the divine sleep in some sources, Vasudeva is able to exchange Krsna with Yasoda and Nanda’s baby girl, and Yasoda “has no inkling that the son is not her own” (Hawley 55). In other sources, Yasoda is simply sleep-deprived from the labor of childbirth and “does not remember whether she had given birth to a male or female child” (31). Regardless, the infants are swapped, and Krsna is safe under the protective care of Nanda and Yasoda, and Vasudeva brings back a baby girl rather than the eighth son that Kamsa fears.

Krsna lives his life under the pretense that he is Yasoda’s son; Yasoda is an extremely loving and devoted mother to Krsna for life. Her love of Krsna is elaborated in almost every myth involving the two of them. By hearing these myths, followers of Hinduism gain knowledge of the proper dharmic actions to follow as a mother/son unit.

One of the most well known myths of Yasoda and Krsna is The Vision of the Universal Form, told in the Mahabharata. The tale goes that Krsna, as a child, is playing with his brother Balarama one day, when one of the gopis told Yasoda that Krsna has been secretly eating mud and dirt. Yasoda, fearful for Krsna’s health, runs to him and begins to scold him, to which Krsna claims these are false accusations. Yasoda tells him to open his mouth to prove his innocence. Krsna opens his mouth, and Yasoda sees “the universe of moving and nonmoving things; space; the cardinal directions; the sphere of the earth with its oceans, islands and mountains; air and fire; the moon and the stars. She saw the circle of constellations, water, light, the wind, the sky, the evolved senses, the mind, the elements, and the three guna qualities” (Bryant 123). This understandably shocks Yasoda, who realizes Krsna is no ordinary child, and begins to worship him immediately. Krsna relieves his adoptive mother of this stress and speculation, erasing her memory of this incident. Bhaktivedanta sees this incident as assurance that Krsna is, and always will be, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, despite the form he takes (Bhaktivedanta 62).

Another myth depicting the relationship of Krsna and Yasoda involves a naughty Krsna being punished as a normal child by his mother. Yasoda was churning butter one day, and Krsna “felt hungry, and out of love for His mother, wanted her to stop churning. He indicated that her first business was to let Him suck her breast and then churn butter later” (Bhaktivedanta 64). Yasoda allows him to climb on her lap and suckle; however, when her milk on the fire boils over, she sets Krsna down to attend to matters. Krsna is highly displeased as this, as he feels his hunger is of most importance, so he breaks a butter pot and runs into hiding. Yasoda searches for Krsna to scold him for breaking a pot, simply seeing him as her son who was naughty and misbehaving. She finds him and threatens him with a stick, but when she sees her poor boy’s face stricken with fear and laden with tears, she decides to simply bind him with rope as punishment for his misdeeds (Bhaktivedanta 64). This is an example of Yasoda’s love and devotion for her child, being able to see the emotion in his face, empathizing, and restraining herself from invoking more fear in her beloved son.

When Yasoda attempts to bind Krsna, she discovers that the rope she is using is slightly too short for its purposes, so she lengthens it by adding more rope to the original piece. However, this turns out to be just slightly too short to bind him as well. This occurs a few times, with Yasoda adding more and more rope, each time with it being short enough that Krsna cannot be bound. The myth tells that this because he is Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and it is impossible to bind or subdue (Bhaktivedanta 65). However, Krsna sees how exhausted and frustrated Yasoda becomes, and “appreciated the hard labor of his mother, and being compassionate upon her, He agreed to be bound up by the ropes. Krsna, playing as a human child in the mouth of mother Yasoda, was performing his own selected pastimes. … The Lord feels transcendental pleasure by submitting himself to the protection of the devotee. This was exemplified by Krsna’s surrender unto His mother” (Bhaktivedanta 66).

Yasoda’s love and devotion to Krsna is elaborated in almost every myth they are depicted in together, even when she is a fairly minor character to the story. Bhaktivedanta notes Krsna and Balarama beginning to crawl and teethe as infants, which “intensified their feelings of joy. … To see [their] fun, Yasoda and Rohini would call their neighboring friends, the gopis. Upon seeing these childhood pastimes of Lord Krsna, the gopis would be merged in transcendental bliss. In their enjoyment they would laugh very loudly” (Bhaktivedanta 59). Even when the boys would get into trouble, breaking pots and tormenting animals and babies in the community for fun, the gopis would complain but “when mother Yasoda thought to chastise her boy … she saw his pitiable face, and smiling, she did not chastise Him” (Bhaktivedanta 61). These tales emphasize Yasoda’s willingness to allow Krsna to have fun as a child, scolding him only when his safety is in question.

Bryant states “it has not been Krsna’s influential teachings … or his statesmanship … that have produced the most popular and beloved stories of this deity. Rather, it has been his childhood lilas – play, pastimes, or frolics – during his infancy, childhood and adolescence … that have been especially relished all over the Indian subcontinent over the centuries” (Bryant 111). These lilas show the interaction between Krsna and Yasoda, depicting the epitome of mother/son love and devotion to each other, allowing those following these myths to learn the dharmic ideals of the relationship. There is no question of the love between this mother and son, which seems even stronger since they are not biologically related. Yasoda is the ideal mother, showing restraint, endless love, and joy in watching her son grow. Krsna is the ideal son, able to frolic surrounded by love, who ultimately obeys his mother’s wishes despite the fact that he is a Supreme Godhead. Mothers and sons of the Hindu religion can look to these myths for advice to enhance their love and devotion to each other.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

 Bhaktivedanta Swami, A.C. (1970) Krsna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead; Volume One.    Boston: Iskcon Press.

Bryant, Edwin F. (2007) Krishna: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hawley, John Stratton (1992) At Play with Krishna: Pilgrimage dramas from Brindavan. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Preciado-Solis, Benjamin (1984) The Krsna Cycle in the Puranas. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

  

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Dharma

Karma

Visnu

The Bhagavata Purana

The Bhagavad Gita

Mahabharata

Kamsa

Kauravas

Pandavas

The bhakti movement

International Society for Krishna Consciousness

Gopis

Putana

Kaliya

Arjuna

Rukmini

Kurukshetra War

Vaishnavism

Lila

Yadu dynasty

Yogamaya

Balarama

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://hinduism.enacademic.com/922/Yashoda

http://gosai.com/krishna-talk

http://ompage.net/ChristKrishna/krishna.htm

http://www.harekrsna.de/yasoda-e.htm

http://www.harekrsna.de/artikel/krishnas-mouth.htm

http://swami.org/pages/swami/articles.php

http://beta.photobucket.com/images/yashoda+krishna/

Article written by Mandy McCullough (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Narasimha: The Man-Lion Avatara of Visnu

Narasimha is the man-lion avatara of the Hindu god Visnu. This particular incarnation is most well-known for his victory over the demon Hiranyakasipu. Narasimha’s victory required a circumventive nature in order to slip through the loopholes in the boon granted to Hiranyakasipu by the powerful god Brahma, which quite nearly ensured the demon’s immortality (Soifer 3). In later versions of the myth Visnu manifests in the form of the man-lion in order to save Hiranyakasipu’s son Prahlada from the wrath of his powerful father (Soifer 73). Prahlada is saved because of his loving devotion to Visnu which Prahlada maintains despite his father’s forceful efforts to change his son’s beliefs (Soifer 74). The increased importance of the role played by Prahlada alters the portrayal of Narasimha greatly in later versions of the myth (Soifer 74).

Before discussing the depictions, mythology, temples and worship of Narasimha it is beneficial to briefly discuss the nature of the god Visnu whom this avatara embodies. Of little importance in the Rg Veda, Visnu’s popularity grew over time and he became highly influential in the Puranas (Soifer 15). Visnu is described as a benevolent, bountiful guardian willing to help mankind (Soifer 16). He has the ability to take on different forms, avataras, which retain the characteristic of benevolence so central to Visnu’s basic character (Soifer 18). Visnu’s purpose and character is deemed so righteous that even when he performs deceitful acts they are considered to be done in the name of dharma (Soifer 23).

The Narasimha (Man-Lion) Avatara of Visnu (Gwalior Archaeological Museum 2017)

In the most famous versions of the Narasimha myths Visnu takes on the man-lion form which is described as ferocious and beastly in nature with one intent and purpose: to kill Hiranyakasipu and restore order to the cosmos. There are several depictions of Narasimha that show him in exactly this fearsome light. The Philadelphia sculpture of Narasimha’s central focus is on the man-lion’s two arms with claws being plunged into the belly of Hiranyakasipu who lies on Narasimha’s lap with innards spilling along his right side (Meister 291-92). The image of Narasimha found at Madhia also depicts a two-armed Narasimha supporting the demon’s back on his knee as he “leans over, his arms stiff, to thrust his ‘neither wet nor dry’ nails into the demon’s belly” (Meister 297). The image of Narasimha as a threat to demons in general instead of solely to Hiranyakasipu is depicted in the image at Nachna where a four-armed man-lion holding weapons, chases a sword bearing demon who is attempting to flee the fearsome wrath of Visnu’s ferocious avatara (Meister 297).

There are however, less gruesome and ferocious depictions of Narasimha. These images are found primarily in Andhra Pradesh where the Narasimha mythology has evolved to include local traditions, locations, and people. In this region Narasimha is often depicted with Chenchita who was a woman from a local forest tribe that Narasimha is believed to have married. There is a panel in the Korukonda temple that depicts Chenchita with a bow and Narasimha in a sitting posture removing a thorn from her foot (Vemsani 47). The Ahobaleswara temple houses sculptures of the couple that are each one foot tall and show Narasimha with his lion’s face and thick mane holding Chincheta’s chin with his right hand and a bow in his left, “clad from the waist and adorned with elaborate jewelry” (Vemsani 48). The Prahladavaradanarasimha temple houses two sculptures that stand two feet tall and portray Narasimha as having four hands (Vemsani 48). His upper right hand holds a sudarsanachakra (wheel), his upper left hand is obscured from view, the lower right hand touches Chenchita’s chin, and the lower left hand is wrapped around her (Vemsani 48). Again in these sculptures the couple is covered from the waist but in addition to jewels they are both wearing crowns (Vemsani 48). Through these depictions of Narasimha the observer gains a sense of human emotion associated with the powerful deity being a sensitive lover in contrast to his deadly and fierce portrayal in classical Hindu texts (Vemsani 48).

The very different depictions of Narasimha as a fierce demon slayer, and as a gentle, loving husband described above show that beliefs regarding this deity have evolved and changed over time as the myths concerning his exploits changed. The earliest form of the Narasimha myth is short and found in the Mahabharata (Soifer 73). Soifer states that “how the myth arrived at its rudimentary form, and where the figure of the man-lion came from remain unsolved mysteries” (Soifer 73). While the origins of this myth are unknown, Soifer’s study of eighteen versions of the Narasimha myth concluded that “central structural changes in the myths pivoted around the Asura Prahlada” (Soifer 73). As Prahlada’s role in the myths became ever more predominant the tone and structures of the myths changed until eventually they were centered on Prahlada (Soifer 73). It was the increased significance of the role played by Prahlada in later myths that ultimately altered the characterization and role of Narasimha (Soifer 74).

The story of Narasimha had simple origins in the Mahabharata which grew in later versions of the myth. The Mahabharata bluntly describes a part lion, part man who tore the asura Hiranyakasipu apart with his nails and gives no explanation of the motive behind this event (Soifer 75). The Bhagavata Purana describes Hiranyakasipu as a club wielding threat to the gods which provides the motivation necessary for Narasimha to tear the demon apart with his nails, but this version fails to mention the man-lion features (Soifer 76). In the version described by the Agni Purana Narasimha kills Hiranyakasipu, the demon’s brother and all of the other asuras so that the suras, who had been vanquished by Hiranyakasipu, could be restored to their rightful place (Soifer 76). These versions show the first major shift in the myth as the motive for Narasimha’s presence and actions become clear because of Hiranyakasipu increased description as a threat to the gods and the triloka.

The next obvious development in the myth involves the granting of a boon to Hiranyakasipu by Brahma; the boon also begins simply and grows more complex. The Brahmanda and Vayu Puranas both begin by describing the austerities performed by Hiranyakasipu that earned him a boon from Brahma, and end with Hiranyakasipu being torn apart by the nails of the man-lion to restore cosmic order (Soifer 77). The Harivamsa, Brahma Purana, and Visnudharmottara Purana are remarkably similar versions of the myth that claim the events described took place during the Krta Yuga as Narasimha is said to have arrived at the end of this Yuga (Soifer 79). Again in these versions Hiranyakasipu is granted a boon by Brahma for his austerities but the demon specifically seeks invincibility by listing several conditions he wishes not to die from (Soifer 80). These versions describe a reign of terror that followed the granting of Hiranyakasipu’s boon, as well as the displeasure of the gods who are upset with Brahma for granting such a boon to the demon (Soifer 80). The protests of the gods are quelled when Brahma assures them that Visnu will eventually conquer Hiranyakasipu, which he does in the classical man-lion form, however in these stories he kills the asura with one hand instead of the alternative clawing sequence (Soifer 80-81). Thus these versions introduce the idea of a boon given to Hiranyakasipu that upsets the balance of power and requires a clever solution, but also a change in Narasimha’s behaviour as he uses a less animalistic approach in killing his enemy.

The introduction of Hiranyakasipu’s son Prahlada in the Siva and Kurma Puranas marks the beginning of significant change in the focus of the myth as well as Narasimha’s role within it. In these myths Hiranyakasipu is power hungry and wreaks havoc on the world after Visnu’s boar avatar kills his brother, forcing the gods to live on earth in disguise (Soifer 83). In these versions it is the gods who seek Visnu’s aide, who like in the other versions takes on the form of the man-lion, this time setting out at sunset to destroy Hirankyakasipu (Soifer 83). Prahlada is introduced when he announces Visnu’s arrival as the man-lion and advises Hiranyakasipu to submit, but his advice is ignored and the demon is clawed apart on Narasimha’s knee (Soifer 83-4). These myths end not with the gruesome death of Hiranyakasipu, but with Narasimha crowning Prahlada king (Soifer 84). This again is a development in Narasimha’s character that moves him toward human characteristics and away from the original purely beastly mentality.

The final and perhaps most significant factor that influenced the evolution of the Narasimha myths is the introduction, and acceptance, of the concept of bhakti. The Skanda, Bhagavata, and Visnu Puranas depict most clearly the influence of bhakti on the myth. Like some of the versions mentioned above Hiranyakasipu is granted a boon but in these versions he asks that if should be killed, it be done by Visnu in the form of the man-lion (Soifer 93). The marked differences found in these versions are Prahlada’s devotion to Visnu and the fact that he is presented as a child (Soifer 93). Prahlada’s life is threatened several times because of his belief in Visnu and finally Hiranyakasipu demands that Prahlada make Visnu appear from a palace pillar or die by the sword (Soifer 93). As a result of Prahlada’s devotion to Visnu Narasimha appears from within the pillar to tear Hiranyakasipu to shreds with his nails, thus fulfilling the terms of the boon and also saving the devoted child (Soifer 93).

The ever evolving and malleable story of Narasimha gained the deity supreme status among Vaishnavites in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh where several temples to Narasimha can be found (Vemsani 35). The Narasimha temples that will be discussed each have their own local mythology stories associated with the temples and worship of Narasimha (Vemsani 37), however as the evolution of several Narasimha myths have already been traced above this section will focus on the temples themselves and the ritual practices performed in each, instead of the associated myths.

The Simhachalam temple is located in the northern coastal region of Andhra Pradesh and is one of the oldest Narasimha temples in the state (Vemsani 37). There is an image of Narasimha on the hill that is said to have self-manifested where the temple was built, presumably by Prahlada, in antiquity (Vemsani 40). Brahma and several other gods are said to have visited the temple which acts to sanctify the temple.

Worship at the Simhachalam temple is particularly complex because its Narasimha is the composite form of Visnu’s Varaha (boar) and Narasimha avartaras, known as the Varahanarasimha (Vemsani 37). Varahanarasimha is worshipped as a multiple deity because the statue of it located in the Simhachalem temple is a form of Siva on the outside but of Narasimha on the inside (Vemsani 46). This shows the combination of Saiva and Vaisnava traditions by the worship of Narasimha (Vemsani 46). Ritual practices at this temple involve covering the Narasimha with thick sandalwood paste throughout the year so that it comes to resemble a Sivalinga (Vemsani 46). The paste is removed only once per year in the month of Vaisakha on Suklatrtiya for twelve hours during an annual pilgrimage to the temple (Vemsani 46).

There are nine temples in Ahobilam, located on the hills Garudadri and Vedadri which are dedicated to the worship of Narasimha. Each of the nine temples is dedicated to one of nine forms of Narasimha that is said to have manifested in the area (Vemsani 41). The Bhargavanarasimha temple is located near the lake it is named for; similarly Pavananarasimha is located on the river it derives its name from. Yoganandanarasimha is dedicated to the form of Narasimha in meditation. Chatavatanarasimha and Karandanarasimha are both named for the trees they are located under. Ahobalanarasimha is the central temple which is located on the hilltop (Vemsani 41). Malolanarasimha is a peaceful form depicted with Laksmi, while Jwalanarasimha is located in a temple to the fiery Narasimha which is said to be built in the exact location Hiranyakasipu was killed (Vemsani 41). The ninth temple is dedicated to Krodhanarasimha which makes it the second location in Andhra Pradesh where Narasimha is worshipped in the composite form of boar and man-lion avataras (Vemsani 41).

Ritual practices of Ahobilam regard Narasimha as a son-in-law because of his mythical marriage to a local tribeswoman name Chenchita (Vemsani 47). Rituals therefore include a communal performance of the wedding during the annual festival Brahmotsava, as well as the offering of new clothes and gifts to the deity (Vemsani 47). Another festival that takes place in the area is known as paruvetautsava which is a hunting trip that includes a procession of the deity Narasimha through thirty-two villages and may last up to forty days (Vemsani 47).

The temple in Mangalagiri is noteworthy because Narasimha is worshipped not for his well-known victory over Hiranyakasipu, but for the destruction of Namuci (Vemsani 43). The hill that the temple is built upon is said to have been formed by the blood of the slain demon (Vemsani 43). At this temple Narasimha is depicted as Visnu and not just an incarnation of the god which is shown visually by the garland of 108 salagramas which are a symbolic representation of Visnu (Vemsani 43). Rama, Yudhisthira, and the Pandavas are said to have once visited this temple to offer prayers to Narasimha (Vemsani 43).

One of the unique and well known ritual practices at the temple in Mangalagiri involves offering panakam (jaggery water – jaggery is brown sugar) to Narasimha who is represented by a boulder projecting from a back wall (Vemsani 47). Half of the panakam is poured into the mouth of the deity which creates gurgling that is said to be made by the god and is interpreted as the sound of satisfaction, while the other half is given to devotees (Vemsani 47). Another ritual performed at this temple involves embracing palachettu, the tree of milk, which is said to bless people with children (Vemsani 47).

Lastly the temple in Yadagirigutta is found in the naturally formed caves of the western mountain range (Vemsani 44). Within the temple there are stone images of three manifestations of Narasimha including Jwalanarasimha, Yoganandanarasimha and Gandabherundanarasimha (double headed eagle Narasimha) (Vemsani 44). This temple worships Narasimha as a physician who cures the ill and assists people with worldly problems which places the avatara in a new light in which he is not the fierce, animalistic deity of classical texts but instead an amicable and approachable deity (Vemsani 44).

The most common ritual practice performed at the temple in Yadagirigutta is performed by the cured and those wishing to be cured (Vemsani 47). The ritual involves the performance of a mandala pradaksina (circumambulation of the temple), those wishing to be cured first take a dip in the Tank of Visnu and then visit the temple while their clothes are still wet (Vemsani 47).

In conclusion it can be seen that the incarnation of Visnu as Narasimha grew in terms of nature, significance, mythological complexity, visual depictions, and eventually in relation to the types of worship bestowed upon him as well. This is a deity with humble Vedic beginnings that evolved into a supreme deity in a large portion of India who is worshipped by both Vaishnavites and Saivites alike.

 

 

References and Further Recommended Reading

Meister, Michael W. (1996) “Man and Man-Lion: The Philadelphia Narasimha.” Artibus Asiae 56 #3/4: 291-301.

Soifer, Deborah A. (1991) The Myths of Narasimha and Vamana: Two Avataras in Cosmological Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Vemsani, Lavanya (2009) “Narasimha, the Supreme Deity of Andhra Pradesh: Tradition and Innovation in Hinduism-An Examination of the Temple Myths, Folk Stories and Popular Culture.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 24 #1 (January): 35-52.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Avataras

Visnu

Matsya

Kurma

Varaha

Vamana

Parashurama

Rama

Krishna

Balarama

Kalki

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/vishnu.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narasimha

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar

 

Article written by Ashley Malcomson (2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Relationship of Arjuna and Krsna

Arjuna and Krsna have what is described as a perfect warrior-friend relationship

(Katz 82). There are also many hints of the relationship being described as representing a great friendship between a man and god, as Krsna is Visnu, a god incarnate and Arjuna is a man. It is represented in many different stories throughout the Mahabharata. This relationship starts out as one of family members (cousins), both princes from neighbouring lands. It continues throughout the massive epic to grow and change as the two men grow and learn how to deal with life’s lessons and how to be dharmic in every scenario. Learning from one another as much as learning with one another. This is shown particularly in the stories of The Burning of the Khandava Forest, as well as the Great War of Kurukshetra. It is also well represented within the smaller appearances of Krsna in the lives of the Pandavas and Arjunas throughout the Mahabharata. The relationship of the two men grows through the devotion and loyalty shown by Arjuna and it is ultimately the saviour of the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra war (Katz 239-248).

The relationship starts out in the beginning of the Mahabharata with the birth of Arjuna, the son of the god Indra. Spoken by a figureless voice, comparisons between Arjuna to the god Visnu are made (Katz 29). The bodiless voice states that in one way or another Arjuna will bring as much joy to his mother as Visnu brought to his (Katz 29). This early comparison of the god and the man already foreshadows some of the experiences to be had by Arjuna and Krsna later on in the epic. It brings forth the idea that the two men really complete one another and are destined to be brought together in life. The symbolism of the ying and the yang is sometimes used to represent the friendship between these two men (Katz 83). Not that one is either the ying or the yang but that they both complete each other and make full contributions to the relationship (Katz 83). They are even referred to as the two Krsnas in some versions of the Mahabharata, the common meaning being that the two are so completely in sync with one another they are simply one and the same mind but two beings (Bryant 25).

The two men’s bond grows even stronger when Arjuna takes Krsna’s sister, Subhadra, as his wife. He first asks Krsna what his thoughts are on this idea of marriage to his sister and

Krsna approves right away exclaiming that Arjuna is the perfect match for his sister (Katz 63). Arjuna then sneaks into the kingdom where the princess lives and he causes her to fall in love with him. He then abducts the princess causing anger and an uproar within Krsna’s family. Krsna then speaks to his family in favour of the union between Arjuna and Subhadra and convinced his family that his sister’s marriage to Arjuna is not only a good thing but that Arjuna is the most suitable match for Subhadra (Katz 63). This shows a preference for Krsna’s friendship with Arjuna over that of his family’s wishes. It shows a strong commitment to a friendship in choosing Arjuna over his family. After this union of families Krsna and Arjuna are now brothers-in-law. This only strengthens their friendship as they are even closer relatives now; it also draws a parallel to them being actual brothers and therefore causing them to share an incredibly tight bond. They celebrate their new found brotherhood by going out to play in the water of a river, and so begins the story of The burning of the Khandava Forest.

In this story the two men show the reciprocity of their respect for one another and the equality of their relationship by teaming up and defeating gods and animals. This story starts out with the two, now brothers, running into the fire god Agni, who is hungry and asks to be fed. The two men comply with his requests and decide to burn down the entire forest and all the creatures within it (Rajagoplachari 41). According to C. Rajagoplachari editor of Mahabharata 6th ed. this story can be thought of as a connection of the two men’s souls as the growth of their friendship causes them to act as one/two people with one mind. It is about two men who are about to prove themselves to their fathers, themselves and their worlds (Rajagoplachari 79). This defeat of gods and father gives the description of the two men being outside of society’s judgments, as they are going against most of the lessons taught throughout the Mahabharata and killing the entire forest, alive with animals and plants (Rajagoplachari 79). This new opposing lesson causes reader/listeners to draw out the idea that these men must both have a deeper understanding of dharma and how to uphold it (Katz 79). Another similarity taken from this story would be that the two men know how to complement one another and by doing so how to fight off other warriors sufficiently. In the end of the story the men are granted a favour from the god Indra, who has now been defeated by Arjuna, a proven man to his father (the god Indra). Krsna chooses to remain close companions with Arjuna for all his life as his wish (Katz 82). This is an incredible request that lets us see the true companionship that Krsna feels with Arjuna and not just the devotion that is normally shown of Arjuna toward Krsna.

Part of the closeness between Arjuna and Krsna can be seen in its opposing relationship, between Krsna and Duryodhana. At one point Krsna goes to Duryodhana and shows him a truth. Much the same as when he shows Arjuna his true identity as the god Visnu in the story of the Bhagavad Gita. When Krsna does this Duryodhana, unlike Arjuna, denies Krsna’s truth and even threatens him (Katz 234). This little side story to the Mahabharata only accents the commitment and devotion that Arjuna holds for Krsna (Katz 234). The devotion that is shown by Arjuna for Krsna is a model throughout the Mahabharata. It shows up in many of Arjuna’s actions and words. For example when Arjuna stands at the foot of Krsna’s bed instead of the head, where Duryodhana stands, this shows Arjuna to be a humble man who is attached to the idea of Krsna as a great alliance rather than simply a strong weapon.

There are also references to the relationship between the gods, Indra and Visnu. Indra who is Arjuna’s father and Visnu, who is Krsna, represent fathers to both the men. The two gods have a friendship themselves and the friendship between Arjuna and Krsna hints at the same friendship as the one shared between the two father gods (Katz 83). This is an interesting side note as it leads to the idea of a strong eternal friendship between two equals.

Right after the Pandavas are exiled for thirteen years by Duryodhana they begin their journey into the forest. Krsna, hearing of their exile, rushes out to say goodbye to them and to see them off. He finds the Pandavas and appears to them in the forest. He comforts them, especially Draupadi, who is upset over her disrobing scene. He then assures vengeance on the Kauravas, then says goodbye and is on his way. This may represent the idea that god is always with you/always finds you (Mahabharata 54).

Before the great war of Kurukshetra, Arjuna and his cousin Duryodhana race to Krsnas kingdom in efforts of recruiting him for either side of the war. Krsna then gives Arjuna the choice of either using Krsna’s army for the war or Krsna himself as an advisor. Arjuna chooses Krsna as his advisor and chariot driver. In choosing Krsna as his advisor, Arjuna shows his loyalty and support in his friendship with Krsna.

At some points it is said that Arjuna is Krsna’s companion and in others it is said that Krsna is Arjunas companion (Katz 82). This friendship grows out of its equality, stability and emotional support on both sides. It is Krsna’s duty to guide Arjuna through life and keep him on the path of his dharmic duties (Bryant 8). Sometimes Krsna is needed to show Arjuna the path of dharma and this is what he does through some of the stories in the Mahabharata (Katz 83).
This way of the dharmic path Krsna shows to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita when he tells Arjuna what to do in the war in many different scenarios that make the dharmic path confusing even for such a man as Arjuna, son of a god, with such intensity, that of a true warrior (Rosen 12). This need for a teacher as well as another warrior that Arjuna possesses is a common theme throughout this history of literature as well as human life. It shows up in almost all aspects of his life, when he needs someone to help him convince people of things, or when he needs another set of hands to defeat enemies. He also needed a teacher to help him with his duties in his life as a warrior. The theme of the warrior friendship seems to hold common place among many stories throughout history [e.g., Patroklos and Achilles (Katz 82)]. Most often the friendships have a bit of a hero complex, meaning that one man is greater than the other, or is seen as more important than the other (Katz 82). It represents a relationship with god himself and how humans should treat god and be treated by god. It is seen as the perfect friendship with complete trust, enlightenment, teaching and support (Katz 82). The devotion of Arjuna to Krsna is spoken about in Arjuna and the Mahabharata by Katz. She writes about how Arjunas’ devotion to Krsna is what makes him the best of all his brothers (Katz 233). It is the extra characteristic he holds that completes him as a perfect being. As well as this unconditional devotion to Krsna shows him to be representing of the warrior class and their specific dharma (Katz 235).

The idea to take away from Arjuna and Krsna’s relationship in this myth would be that god is one’s true companion in whom rests a perfect relationship (Katz 83). The Mahabharata is a story told that portrays a friendship between two men. One who represents the great hero who is a perfect student and is in search of the truth (Katz 15); the other who portrays an advisor, seen as god or a more aware/enlightened version of the first man (Katz 15). When put together these two men makeup a great team, which seems to represent god and man working together as one. Together the two of them are unbeatable and working as equals who are supportive and respectful of one another, it is the perfect relationship between two people-god and man.

 

References and Further Recommended Readings

Bryant, Edwin F. (2007) Krishna: A Sourcebook. Oxford University Press.

Hiltebeitel, Alf (1990) The ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata. State University of New York Press.

Katz, Ruth Cecily (198) Arjuna in the Mahabharata: Where Krishna is, there is Victory. University of South Carolina Press.

Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1970) Krsna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

Rajagopalachari, C. (1950) Mahabharata 6th ed. New Delhi: Hindustan Times.

Rosen, Steven (2007) Krishna’s Song: A New Look at the Bhagavad Gita. London: Praegers Publishers.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Duryodana and Krsna’s relationship

The meaning of Krsna’s instructions

The Dharma of Krsna

Krsna as a trickster

 

Noteworthy websites

 

http://www.hinduhumanrights.info/why-did-krishna-choose-arjuna-instead-of-karna-drona-o-bhishma/

http://krishna.org/arjuna-is-krishnas-friend-eternally/

http://www.krishna.com/dharma-bhagavad-gita

 

 

Article written by Jolene Anderson (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

 

The Ten Avataras of Visnu

Visnu, one of the most prominent gods within the Hindu tradition, and is said to have descended to earth in the form of various avatars to intervene with worldly matters. Scholars researching the incarnations of Visnu proposed that like worldly matter, thinngs that are not attended to will slowly decay over time. The same can be said for dharma. Like physical objects, time withers dharma and leads to adharma without maitenance (Swamigal, 10). Each of Visnu’s incarnations can be linked to decay within the cosmic order; furthermore, all beings are put at risk when there is decay in dharma. Although there are ten main incarnations that Visnu is said to have taken which are outlined in the Garuda Purana, in other texts such as the Bhagavata Purana and elsewhere, there is mention of upwards of twenty different avatars that Visnu took. Though this may be the case, the ten avatars mentioned in the Garuda Purana, also known as the dasavatara, are considered to be the most important due to their profound impact on Hinduism. Common to most of the stories surrounding Visnu’s avatars is that he does not destroy his foes but either punishes them for a short time or defeats them in such a way that they are liberated in the process (Klostermaier, 89). Scholars have noted the progression of the dasavatara follows a sort of plausible model for evolution beginning with a simple water-dwelling organism and advancing to a human form.

1. Matsya

This is the fish avatara that is said to be the first incarnation that Visnu assumed. Matsya is considered to be the first avatara both chronologically and evolutionarily in that this is the least advanced of all the animal forms he embodied. In the Matsya Purana, it is said that the Vedas were stolen from the god Brahma by a demonic form born from a conch shell called Somaka. The Vedas housed the creative energy of the universe and were now going to be used by Somaka for evil purposes. Visnu then descended in the form of a gigantic fish and slew Somaka while subsequently returning the Vedas to their rightful owner. Matsya was also said to have saved creation from a disastrous flood by instructing Satyavrata, a pious king, to bring all manner of seeds with him in a boat when the floods came (Swamigal, 3). In this way, Manu saves not only himself but all material life on earth. This story has many parallels in other cultures, the Western equivalent being the biblical account of Noah (O’Flaherty, 181).

Fresco with Visnu's matsya (fish) avatara in a palace in Orchha, India
Fresco with Visnu’s matsya (fish) avatara in a palace in Orchha, India

2. Kurma

This is the tortoise incarnation of Visnu. In the account of Kurma, Indra was said to have met with a sage who gave him a divine garland. The garland was trampled by Indra’s elephant and Indra found it humorous. The sage was insulted and cursed Indra saying that he would lose all of his riches to the sea along with his divine position. Once this happened, giants invaded Indra’s domain and he was defeated. At this point, he approached Visnu for help and Visnu in turn told him to go with the giants and churn the ocean with a hill using a snake as a rope. This action of churning the waters can be equated to the Tantric practice of trying to taste Ambrosia (Reddy, Moorthy, & Reddy, 96). As they did this, the hill began to sink into the ocean and they prayed to Visnu for help who then appeared in the form of a tortoise to support the hill. Although crisis seemed to be averted, at that moment a poison appeared because Indra had not worshipped Siva or Vinayaka. Visnu ate the poison and they were saved (Swamigal, 7).

The Kurma (Tortoise) avatara of Visnu depicted on this pillar bas-relief at Srirangam Temple in Tamil Nadu
The Kurma (Tortoise) avatara of Visnu depicted on this pillar bas-relief at Srirangam Temple in Tamil Nadu

3. Varaha

Varaha is the boar incarnation that Visnu is said to have taken. In the account of Varaha, Vishnu’s two attendants, Jaya and Vijaya denied two sages seeking Visnu access to him. The sages cursed the two and the two became giants within the earthly realm. The two attendants in giant form, now named Hiranyaksha and Hiranya are considered to be cruelty personified, who then declared Visnu to be their enemy and attacked and conquered the minor gods. Included in the gods conquered by the two was Varuna, the lord of the waters. Hiranyaksha began to push earth down to hell [Rasatala]. As all this chaos ensued, Mother Earth prayed to Visnu for help. Visnu assumed the shape of a boar and bore the earth on his shoulders as he lifted it out of hell. Hiranyaksha challenged Visnu to mortal combat where Visnu killed him (Swamigal, 10). Though the Garuda Purana mentions the boar as one of Visnu’s incarnations, this particular avatar may have been originally attributed to the goddess Prajapati (Radice, 185).

Large bas-relief depicting Visnu in his descent as a boar (Varaha Avatara), in order to rescue the earth goddess, Bhu Devi; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas-relief depicting Visnu in his descent as a boar (Varaha Avatara), in order to rescue the earth goddess, Bhu Devi; Mahabalipuram, India

4.Narasimha

This is the man-lion incarnation of Visnu. Narasimha is the most fearsome of Visnu’s avataras In this myth, Hiranyaka, the giant brother of Hiranyaksha who Visnu had killed, proclaimed himself king of the universe and decided to have revenge against Visnu for the his brother’s death. Meanwhile, Hiranyaka’s wife gave birth to a giant son, Prahlada, who was a devotee to Visnu. This angered Hiranyaka and he tried through many means to convert his son and turn him against Visnu. The giant tried through non-violent means such as persuasion to do so, but after these failed, he resorted to more violent methods such as having the boy bitten by snakes, stung by scorpions, and trampled by elephants among other things (Swamigal, 14). Then Hiranyaka pointed to a pillar and asked if Visnu could be found there and struck the pillar (Bharadvaja, 332). After the giant struck the pillar, Visnu burst out as a half-man, half-lion and cut out his stomach, drank his blood, and wore his intestines as a garland. Soon after, Visnu appointed Prahlada king of the giants (Swamigal, 15).

5. Vamana

In the account of Vamana, it is said that Visnu took the incarnation of a dwarf. This incarnation is important when studying the dasavatara as a form of evolutionary structure because Vamana could perhaps be equated to an early form of human such as Australopithecus or the early homo. Some scholars say that this is why Vamana appears before any of the other human incarnations (Reddy et al., 96). In the account of Vamana, Visnu disguises himself as a dwarf who was supposedly of such great beauty and strong spiritual aura that no one could refuse him anything (Swamigal, 20). The king Bali, who had claimed the earth was so charmed that he offered Vamana anything he wanted. Vamana asked only for a piece of land the size of himself. Bali agreed to this. The Vamana lay down and began to rapidly grow until he covered the entire surface of the earth thereby reclaiming the earth for the gods (Hopkins, 89).

Visnu's Vamana (Dwarf) avatara sends the demon Bali to the underworld
Visnu’s Vamana (Dwarf) avatara sends the demon Bali to the underworld

6. Parashurama

This incarnation is actually of Rama, but an axe-wielding version of Rama. In this tale, Parasurama and Rama coexist in the same time period and even interact toward the end. The story goes that at one point, petty princes and czarinas were entrusted with the care of the world but were conducting themselves in an adharmic fashion. Parashurama defeated these knightly communities twenty-one times (Reddy et al, 93; Bhardvaja, 333). He later learned that Rama had broken Siva’s bow at Janaka’s house and was enraged. In his rage he confronted Rama and challenged him to wield his bow. Rama did so with ease and Parasurama detected the presence of Visnu within Rama. Realizing his purpose as avatara was over and went away (Swamigal, 29).

7. Rama

The account of Rama, although mentioned in the Garuda Purana, can be found in full detail within the Ramayana. As the hero and central figure of the Ramayana, Rama is an important figure within Hinduism. Even as a young child Rama was involved in heroic exploits. As a boy he accompanied a sage to protect him while he made a sacrifice and in the process slew a demon (Wilson, 548). According to Klostermaier (87), Rama was conscious of his divinity in his every move. Though he knew this and was troubled by the prospect, he behaved as any other ordinary man. At different points throughout his life, Rama engaged in epic adventures. He became involved in the politics of a monkey kingdom and befriended Hanuman. His wife Sita was captured by a demon named Ravana and through a series of events, Rama and his companions rescued Sita, killed Ravana, and destroyed Lanka, an island where a demonic kingdom was located (Radice, 198).

8. Krsna

The avatara of Krsna is mentioned briefly in the Garuda Purana, but he is more widely known for his role in the Mahabharata. Krsna is widely held to be the most important incarnation of Visnu, but Krsna is not an avatar in the regular sense. Some claim that Krsna was the true form of Visnu manifested on earth rather than a disguise or alternate form. Though he could be considered Visnu in human form, he still possessed human qualities such as love, disobedience, and youthfulness, which makes Krsna a seemingly approachable figure. In the Mahabharata he serves as a companion and advisor to the Pandava brothers and aids in their victory over the adharmic Kauravas. He is the only avatara to have an entire cult devoted exclusively to his worship (Klostermaier, 95).

9. Buddha

The Buddha incarnation is a politically charged avatara. The Buddha that is Visnu’s incarnation is in fact Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. In the Visnu Purana, there is a war between gods and demons in which the gods lose. Their destruction is imminent until Visnu appears as the Buddha and distracts the asuras from their agendas by converting them to Buddhism. The Buddha, also called the magic deluder, makes fun of traditional Hindu practice such as fire sacrifices. The demons are distracted from their original intentions and the gods wage war on them and defeat them. It was simply an unfortunate byproduct of Visnu’s necessary action that people were converted to Buddhism (Radice, 231). Though negative anecdotes exist about the Buddha avatara, the Buddha is not viewed in an entirely negative light.

10. Kalki

This final incarnation of Visnu is seen as the future avatara that will not come until the end of the Kali yuga, which is the current yuga. Right before Kalki’s appearance, the world is supposedly going to degenerate into an adharmic place. Men will engage in unnatural relations with their mothers and daughters, people will become fond of nudity and unrighteous conduct, all manner of natural disaster and plague will occur, and only pockets of pious devotees will remain and will incessantly chant the name of Visnu in hiding. The world will be completely overtaken by vice and the like. At this point, Visnu will assume the form of Kalki, a black colored avatar wielding a fiery sword, riding a horse, and accompanied by a parrot. Upon his arrival, Kalki is predicted to destroy the wicked inhabitants of the earth and usher in a new age (Swamigal, 65).

Bibliography

Bhäradväja, K (1981) A Philosophical Study of the Concept of Visnu in the Puränas. New Delhi: Pitambar Publishing Company.

Coogan, Michael D (ed.) (2005) Eastern Religions Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hopkins, Thomas J (1971) The Hindi Religious Tradition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Klostermaier, Klaus K (2000) A Short History of Hinduism. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

O’Flaherty, Wendy D (ed. and trans.) (1975) Hindu Myths. London: Penguin Books.

Pulla Reddy, A (1981) “Evolution and Incarnations of Lord Vishnu: An Analysis of Dasavatara” Folklore 22, no.5.

Swamigal, Pandrimalai (1982) The Ten Incarnations of Dasvatara. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Wilson, H.H (trans.) (1989) The Visnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition. Delhi: Nag Publishers.

Related Terms

Dasavatara

Garuda Purana

Visnu Purana

Ramayana

Mahabharata

Related Websites

http://www.slagram.net/Dasavatara-page.htm

http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Religions/Avatars/Vishnu.html

Written by Joel Butler (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Ram(a) Navami and the Ramlila

Rama/Ram Navami/Ramlila

The Ram Navami is a yearly festival celebrating the birth of Lord Rama. He is the seventh incarnation of Lord Visnu, who was born to kill the demon Ravana. Rama was born in Ayodhya and is the eldest son of king Dasaratha and Queen Kausalya. He has three brothers named Bharata, Laksmana, and Satrughna. Rama was married to Sita on the occasion on Vivaha panchami (festival of marriage), which, was held on Margashirsha shukla panchami according to Valmiki. This day is also known as Sri Rama Navami, which marks the ninth day of the Shukla Paksha in the Chaitra month (March). Ram Navami also marks the end of the auspicious Navaratra period. The observance of this Vrata (vowed ascetic observances) is said to pardon one from all sins. Men of all grades and ranks including kings observe this Vrata for obtaining prosperity, long life, happiness and wisdom (Sharma 109). It is a popular festival and one that is adorned by Hindus across the world.

The celebration usually goes for nine days and concludes on Ram Navami- the ninth day. On this sacred day one would begin with a prayer to the sun at the temple of Rama in the early morning after bathing. Many people fast during this time some fast only on the first and last day of Chaitra, eating only fruit (phalahar). Some Hindus also make a small shrine at home and put a picture of Sri Rama Panchayatan in it and offer prayers of puja. Temples are decorated in the image of Lord Rama and the idol of Rama is also decorated and worshipped. Some devotees put a statue or photograph into a cradle and rock it to celebrate the birth of Rama. The holy book, Ramayana, is read in temples and pujas are conducted at mid-day in temples. They also have special havans (fire ritual) along with chanting of mantras and offerings of fruit and flowers (Kartar 37). An event that is popular in India is the Ram Navami procession the main attraction is a decorated chariot carrying four persons dressed as Rama, his brother Laksmana, wife Sita, and disciple Hanuman. Several other people dressed in ancient costumes, as Ramas soldiers accompany the chariot. It is the only festival that cultural programs are given such importance. Musical presentations discourse on the Ramcharitmanas (epic poem) and recitations of the Ramanyana composed by Valmiki go on for nine days Harikathas (stories of the lord) are arranged and conducted in some places for a month. (S.P. Sharma 98). Ayodhya being the birthplace of Rama is the center and focus of the festival and celebrations and a huge fair is there two of the nine days. The Kirtanists chant the holy name of Rama and celebrate the marriage between Sita and Rama. The ceremony is quite colorful and highly inspiring and enlightening. In Andhra Pradesh the festival is celebrated with great religious enthusiasm (Khartar 37)

The Ramanavami festival offers us an opportunity to understand some of the ideals and spirit preserved in Rama. On this grand day Lord Rama is worshipped, prayers are offered to him in order to absorb his ideals. One who approaches his lotus feet with love, devotion, and humility becomes noble, large hearted, pious, peaceful, master of senses and the beloved of the wise. (Manish 56) On this occasion people take a vow to devote themselves more to their spiritual and moral evolution. Rama nam is a great magic mantra and is like a wish-fulfilling tree (kalpa vriksha) and must be repeated, recited and meditated upon every now and then (Manish 56).

It is believed that Rama was sent to this world to destroy evil and uphold righteousness. He is said to hold the highest ideals of man and is called Maryada Pushottam, which means the perfect man. Rama is the ideal son, an ideal ruler, an ideal husband, and an ideal brother (Kartar 39). Ramraja (the reign of Rama) has become synonymous with a period of peace and prosperity and those who wish to achieve something worthwhile in life are to worship and absorb Rama (Kartar 39).  These characteristics of Rama and the devotion that Hindus pay to him is the reason that Ram Navami festival is so significant and so widely celebrated.

The Ramayana epic, which means the “ways of Rama”, is a story about Rama (Manish 56). The Ramayana receives great admiration as a great epic because it embodies human ideals and sums up the character pertaining to Indian reality. As a popular religious epic and great literary work the Ramayana is inspiring (Manish 56). It reveals why Hindus admire him and why there is a festival dedicated to him, the epic teaches moral lessons. Rama is the compliant and obedient son and the ideal king that is told in the epic Ramayana.

The Ramanyana shows the dedication and dharma that Rama showed in keeping his word and moral duties. Ramanyana is one of two great Indian epics and shows why his birth is celebrated with such high regard amongst Hindus. The Ramayana is about a King Dashratha who was from Ayodhya. He had three wives. King Dasharatha and his queen Kaushalya had a son named Rama. His brothers were Bharata, Laksmana and Satrughna (Gupta 98). Laksmana accompanied Rama on his in journey into manhood with Visvamitra in which he successfully killed the demoness Tataka. Rama then was requested to attend svayamvara, a ceremony where princess Sita in Mithila would choose a husband. King Janaka had challenged suitors to string a bow and Rama was the only one that was able to string the bow, and therefore won Sita’s Hand and brought her to Ayodhya. After Rama was crowned, Queen Kaikeyi had Rama banished to the forest for 14 years because she wanted her son Bharata to rule the kingdom.  After they reached the forest demoness Surpanaka made advances on Rama, Laksmana cut off her nose and ears. She then sought revenge from her brother Ravana, a ten-headed raksasa the greatest of all demons. Surpanaka told her brother how beautiful Sita was and Ravana then wanted her for him, so he went into the forest disguised as a deer and tricked Rama and stole Sita. Ravana tried to make Sita his wife but she refused and stayed loyal to Rama. Rama set out to find and save Sita with the help of brother Laksmana and disciple Hanuman. After they defeated Ravana and saved Sita they returned to Ayodhya. This epic is acted out in the drama Ramlila

Ramlila literally meaning “Ramas sport”(Hein 279) is an act of the Ramayana epic in a sequence of scenes that include, dialogue, recital, narration, and song. This traditional festival is usually performed in the Northern part of India during the festival Dussehra, which is a celebration of Rama killing Ravana. The ritual takes place during the month of October and November. This Drama is produced by several different kinds of troupes, but the performances, which go by this name, are always based upon the Ramayana. (Hein 279). They cover the main incidents narrated in his Ramcaritmanas in a series of performances lasting many days. They employ an unusual stage technique, which combines recitation of the sacred text with simultaneous acting and dialogue. (Hein 279) The sacred texts refer to the story of Rama, who was the hero of the Epic Ramayana.

The Rama Navami is a very important festival in the Hindu religion. It signifies the birth of Rama and him as a great epic hero. The Ramlila act of the Ramanyana epic is admired and enjoyed as devotees watch the story of Rama unfold. The festival is not only celebrated in India, but around the world. The Rama Navami has grown in admiration and is adorned by many Hindus.

Bibliography

Cath, Senker (2007) My Hindu Year: New York, NY: The Rosen Publishing Group.

Freek L. Bakker (1951) The Birth of Jesus and Rama in Christian and Hindu Sacred Texts: An Exercise in New Comparative Theology:Exchange 39 (2010) 121-146 brill.nl/exch

Kartar, Singh Bhalla (2005) Let’s Kknow Festivals of India: New Star Dehli.

Maithily Jagannathan (2006) South Indian Hindu Festivals and Traditions: Abhinav Publications.

Manish Verna (2000) Fasts And Festivals of India: Delhi: Diamond Pocket books (P) Ltd.

Shobhna, Gupta (2002) Festivals of India: Postak Mahol Delhi: Har-Anand Publications.

S.P. Bansal (2004) Lord Rama: Dehli: Diamond Pocket books (P) Lyd.

S.P. Sharma, Seema Gupta (2006) Fairs and festivals of India: Unfolding the colourful heritage of India: Pustak, Mahal,Delhi.

Sterling Press Pvt. Ltd.(2002) Ramayana. Reprint 2008.

Usha, Sharma (2008) Festivals In Indian Society (2 vols. Set): Mittal Publications.

Vālmīki, Manmatha Nath Dutt (1891) The Ramanyana. Volumes 1-2: Calcutta: Printed by Girish, Chandra Chackravarti.

Hein,Norvin (1958) The Ram Lila: New Haven Conneticut: The Journal of American Folklore.

Related Topics

Visnu

Laksmi

Brahma

Krsna

Avatar

Havan

Temple

Ayodhya

Valmiki

Hanuman

Siva

Rsi

Mahabharata

Ravana

Sita

Related Websites

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rama_Navami

http://festivals.iloveindia.com/ram-navami/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana

http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangible-heritage/16apa_uk.htm

http://www.yavanika.org/classes/reader/hein.pdf

Article written by Natasha Duke (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Swaminarayan Movement

The Swaminarayan religion was founded by Sahajanand Swami in the 19th century. Though two hundred years old the Swaminarayan religion is still considered new, “a modern development in Hinduism” (Williams 1984:xi), for the Hindu religions of India are very old, reaching back as far as 1500 BCE in the case of the Vedic religions. The faith took form in India’s western most state of Gujarat during a time when the British still held control. As the British developed political supremacy Sahajanand also spread forth his movement in the area. Sahajanand Swami’s movement was one of reform that came about when Gujarat was in the midst of rebellion, famine, social and political change. During this time Sir John Malcolm, the British governor of Bombay, also sought out similar reforms and looked for aid from respected Indian leaders such as Sahajanand Swami to help institute these reforms. The meeting between the two figures is today displayed in pictures in many Swaminarayan temples showing that two men of very different worlds both strived for the common goals of social order and harmony. In 1830 Sahajanand Swami died and left his disciples the teachings and ideas that he had tried to pass onto to others. The Swaminarayan faith is called a sampradaya, “a tradition which has been handed down from a founder through successive religious teachers and which shapes the followers into a distinct fellowship with institutional forms” (Williams 1984:xii).

The Swaminarayan religion is categorized as one that follows Vaishnaivism. This is to say that the followers are worshippers of the Hindu God Visnu and the avatars associated with him such as Rama or Krsna. During the beginning of the 19th century the Indian state of Gujarat was experiencing civil war, famine, and disaster. It was also going through political and social change under the influence of the British who had established control in the area. Followers of the Swaminarayan faith believe that these times coincide perfectly with the rise of Sahajanand Swami his movement. As Vaishnavites it is traditionally believed that “such periods of decay and despair call forth a great religious teacher, a manifestation of god, to bring peace and order” (Williams 2001:8). Sahajanand Swami was born in a village outside of Gujarat called Chhapia. Chhapia is located near Ayodhya, the birth place of Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana. His day of birth falls upon the day of the festival that celebrates the birth of Rama. His birth name, Ghanashyam, is also known as one of the childhood names of Krsna who in the Hindu epic Mahabharata is an avatar of Visnu. All this reaffirms the belief of Swaminarayan followers that Sahajanand Swami, also called Swaminarayan, was an incarnation of Visnu manifested on Earth to bring balance. It was during this time of depression and plight that the Swami took stage and developed a following of people, guided by the ideas of reform that he brought into action in the state of Gujarat.

Devotees of the Swaminarayan movement must all take vows, which Sahajanand required of all those who followed him. All followers are required not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to eat meat, not to drink intoxicants, and not to receive food from another person who belonged to a caste that was lower than their own. Those devotees who desired to become ascetics out of devotion to the Swami were required to take further vows such as the renunciation of worldly goods, abstaining from all forms of violence, and a vow of absolute celibacy. The reasoning for this high level of discipline required of the Swaminarayan followers was due to the chaotic state of Gujarat society that Sahajanand believed was the cause for the breakdown of ascetic discipline. The Swaminarayan faith sought reform and change from the disorganized and uncontrolled state that many people had fallen into, requiring committed discipline that its followers must adhere to. Some ascetics during the beginning of the movement and at the point of greatest resistance were initiated to the Swami’s highest state of asceticism. This state was known as Paramhansa, a state of “total renunciation, no rules or regulations that are prescribed in the scriptures applied to them and they had no actions to perform” (Williams 2001:22). This extreme from of asceticism was used so that the members of the Swaminarayan movement would go unnoticed by their enemies. By ridding themselves of all outwardly marks they would be invisible to those around them. Those of the Paramhansa status were characterized by ending their names in “ananda” to signify this status. These high class ascetics, however, were only temporary for the beginning of the movement. They were no longer ordained by Sahajanand after the Swaminarayan became more established and less targeted by those that did not support the movement. At this point, the movement was aided by the British who had established solid control in Gujarat during this time.

Further reform developed in the Swaminarayan works that strived to benefit the social welfare of the area. Followers of the movement helped rebuild destroyed buildings, dig new wells, and repair roads. This broke from regular custom found in Hindu society. Devotees of higher caste found themselves helping those of lower class. Ascetics who were believed to be above the station of those who did manual labor were found doing just that. All followers of the Swaminarayan movement were found working as carpenters, masons, and other professions to build homes, temples, and any other structures thought needed to construct a better society. During times of famine and plague the ascetics opened what could be called early day soup kitchens to provide aid for the sick and hungry affected by disaster. In this way the Swaminarayan faith and its followers are characterized by their project works to benefit social welfare. This particular show of compassion also resulted in converting many people to the faith once the realization was gained that even the ascetics, those who some considered a burden, were laboring just like everyone else. The people were attracted to the ideas put forth by the movement, “Sahajanand followed a strict moral code and had a profound influence for good in the lives of his followers, many of whom came from the least restrained portion of the population” (Williams 2001:69). The idea of those of higher caste giving aid in those places of lower caste was an alluring aspect.

The Swaminarayan movement experienced a lot of controversy because of its reforms. One such aspect that caused others to frown upon the movement was its attitude towards the caste system. Although prescribed in their vows not to accept food from those of lower caste, the Swaminarayan movement still acts in a manner as to help others, which includes the high class ascetic Brahmins helping those of lower classes. Being a vegetarian and being against all forms of violence were both vows that needed to be taken by all followers. With these ideals held high and strictly followed, many traditional customs and practices of regular Hindu society were considered for change. Sacrificial rituals, for instance, could not be done by the Swaminarayan. To ritually sacrifice an animal involved both the killing of an animal and an act of violence. Such actions were condemned by the faith. Sahajanand believed that rituals could be done in a different manner, “In AD 1808 he staged a large sacrifice (yajna) without animal sacrifice in Ahmedabad” (Williams 2001:24). This was not taken well by more traditional Hindus. Other large bloodless sacrifices were performed as demonstrations to others that such traditions could still be done without the need for spilled blood. Eventually it was decided upon that sacrifices would no longer be used to preach the ideals of the Swaminarayan. Instead it was decided upon that the Swaminarayan would congregate in organized meetings of members of the faith that would be held twice a year. Other ritual such as the sati, a ritual in which the wife of a dead husband burns herself on the funeral pyre along with the deceased is also condemned by the Swaminarayan sect.

The Swaminarayan is a monotheistic group, but not in the Western religious sense. As stated the Swaminarayans are Vaishnavites or followers of Visnu. As a reformer, Sahajanand moved away from several traditional beliefs and practices that other Hindu religious sects followed. Not all people were ready to throw away such beliefs and their worship of more than one God but some were. Although the Swaminarayan devotion focused mainly on Visnu, they still gave worship to four other deities that were deemed very important “Siva, Ganapati, Parvati, and Surya, the major deities worshiped by Smarta Brahmins” (Williams 2001:25). This did not mean that they did in fact worship more than one God. In March of 1825 Sahanjanand Swami met with the Bishop Heber and discussed the Swaminarayan religion with him. The main focus that the Bishop was interested in and topic they discussed most was the monotheistic ideals that the Bishop had heard the Swaminarayan followed. In Sahajanand’s opening statements to the Bishop he said “Many names there may be, and have been, given to him who is and is the same, but whom we as well as other hindoos call brihm” (Williams 2001:70) which is to say that there are many ways to say the name God or as the Hindu people call it, Brahman. To identify God with another name such as Visnu is only to give character to one aspect of that which is Brahman. It is not to say that all deities they give worship to are called God.

Today the Swaminarayan movement is still thriving. In 2001 it was estimated that the faith was numbering upwards of five million members, the bulk of which reside in the homeland of Gujarat. However, it is important to note that there are two main divisions of the Swaminarayan movement. At the time in 2001 it was believed that “3.5 million associated with Vadtal and Ahmedabad and 1.5 million associated with the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushattam Sanstha” (Williams 2001:68) but it is hard to tell exactly how many belong to each division and how many follow both. It is difficult to judge just how many there are but it is reasonable to believe that there may be even more devotees today. One thing that is now used to gather hundreds of thousands of people are modern mega-festivals. These festivals attract “both faithful followers and the idly curious – to religious events that concentrate the transmission of tradition in various media at a single site over a specific period of a few days or a month” (Williams 2001:176) which relates all the way back to when Sahajanand Swami decided to have large organized meetings with the members of his faith instead of non-violent sacrifices. The Swaminarayan are mostly consolidated in India but have expanded all over the world in smaller numbers.

References and further recommended readings

Williams, R. B. (1984) A New Face of Hinduism: The Swaminarayan Religion.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, R. B. (2001) An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press

Related topics for further investigation

Ahmedabad

Vadtal

Bochasanwasi akshar purushottam sanstha

Muktas

Smarta Brahmin

Paramhansa

Sampradaya

Gujarat

Vaishnavism

Note Worthy Websites

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swaminarayan#cite_note-73

http://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/sects/swaminarayana.asp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaishnavism

http://www.indianetzone.com/8/sahajananda_swami.htm

http://www.religionfacts.com/hinduism/sects/vaishnavism.htm

http://philtar.ucsm.ac.uk/encyclopedia/hindu/devot/swamin.html

Article written by: Kevin Storoz (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

(Revised on April 10, 2010)

Krsna and Radha


Krsna and Radha are known to be the two legendary lovers; their story is believed to be the epitome of true love for devotees. Krsna is depicted as the charismatic and irresistible deity who enchants the gopis (cowherd girls) with his flute playing. Radha is the gopi whom he finds himself most fascinated by (Seth 59). This mutual fascination of each other turns in to a mythic love story which is infamous in Hinduism. Many influential texts have been written to explain this complex relationship. The content differs depending on the author and their interpretation of the Bhagavata Purana [Hindu Puranic text focusing on Krsna]. The most influential text is the poem, Gitagovinda by Jayadeva which focuses on Radha’s jealousy of the other gopis (Majumdar 193). Candidasa is another poet who has written many poems on Krsna and Radha, but his focus is on the obstacles faced by the two lovers (Majumdar 197). Krsna Kirtana, by Ananta Badu Candidasa, is known for its malign and atypical accounts of Krsna (Majumdar 201). It depicts a very distinctive story in which Krsna is depicted as being malevolent. Rupa Gosvamin’s Vidagdhamadhava is a powerful play which enacts the tale of how these two lovers secretly meet while overcoming hurdles (Wulff 45). Krsna and Radha’s relationship also has devotional components generally those between God and devotee.  Radha’s affiliation with Krsna gives her more prominence from worshippers (Hawley & Wulff 70).

Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda

Gitagovinda deals with the bond between the two beloveds over a period of approximately twenty four hours (Majumdar 195).The poem starts with Radha being distressed by her separation from Krsna. She goes on an anxious search for him during a spring night. When she finally finds him, she sees him mingling with the other gopis. Krsna acknowledges Radha and her beauty by giving her recognition over the others. Although he pays her attention, she still feels neglected and insignificant. Radha leaves the setting discontented but not angry. Radha’s love for Krsna is portrayed as being so strong that although his actions were unjust, she cannot be angry at him. In a state full of sorrow, she confides in a friend and asks to find a plan that would allow her to unite with her beau. On the other end of the line, Krsna finds himself feeling remorseful over what he has done. He starts to imagine Radha moving in front of him and begs her for forgiveness, promising never to neglect her again (Majumdar 193-194).

Radha’s friend notifies Krsna of her condition and Krsna tells her to console Radha and to tell her that he is also feeling the pain of separation. This message is delivered to Radha and she waits impatiently for him to come meet her. As time passes, and Krsna does not show up, Radha begins to suspect that he might have forgotten about her and gone to another mate (Majumdar 194). “She, therefore, prays that her life may be taken away by the five arrows of Cupid”; the night passes with these thoughts running through Radha’s mind (Majumdar 194). At the crack of dawn, Krsna finally appears and falls at her feet but she does not accept his apology, thinking he has been unfaithful. She tells him to go back to the lady whom he spent the night with. When Krsna leaves, Radha regrets her actions. Krsna and Radha’s mutual friend plays matchmaker again and advise her to accept Krsna (Majumdar 194). Krsna comes to meet Radha again and he assures her that “she is his ornament, and she is his very life” (Majumdar 194). “He assures her that no other woman has got any place in his heart. He goes so far as to suggest that Radha should place her feet on his head and thus alleviate the pain he is suffering from” (Majumdar 194). A reunion of the pair ends the renowned poem.

Candidasa’s Poems

The various works of Candidasa depict Radha having blind love for Krsna, to the extent that his affiliation with the other gopis do not affect her to the degree that they did to Jayadeva’s Radha.  Although she is married, she does not care if her acts are ethical or unethical :

“Dearest! Thou art my life. To Thee have I surrendered my body and mind, my life and my honour. Immersing my limbs and my thoughts in thy love have I consecrated at thy feet. Thou are my lord. Thour are my destiny. Nothing else appeals to me. People call me fallen, I do not grieve at it. To put on for thee the necklace of bad name is my greatest happiness. Loyal or disloyal, thou knowest all. I know not good or evil. At thy feet, says Candidasa, sin and virtue are both the same think” (Majumdar 197)

In one of his poems, Candidaser Padavali, Radha’s unconditional love for her mate is illustrated through the morning union of the two. Krsna arrives to meet Radha “with marks of teeth and nails of the lady with whom he spent the night” (Majumdar 197).Radha does not scold him in any way; rather, she shows him compassion and offers to look after him. This selfless act puts Krsna to humiliation and he is mesmerized by her (Majumdar 197).

Multiple poems by Candidasa are dedicated to the various disguises taken by Krsna while trying to meet Radha in secrecy. Krsna takes on the disguise of “a magician, a peddler woman, a female barber, a nun, a garlandmaker and a physician to a hoodwink the inmates of the family of Radha’s husband” (Majumdar 197).The latter disguise is so successful that even Radha fails to unfold it.

In Candidasa’s work, the pain Krsna feels from the distance between Radha and himself is also exemplified. At one point, he is so upset that he declares to Radha’s grandmother that he would welcome death if it would end his torment. He goes as far as to asking her to cremate his dead body near the route which Radha takes while drawing water in the morning and afternoon (Majumdar 198).

Ananta Badu Candidasa’s Krsna-Kirtana

This text is regarded as being one of the most controversial poems recounting the chronicles of the duo. “Nowhere else in the whole range on Indian literature has Krsna been vilified so much as in this poem” (Majumdar 201). Radha is revealed to be around the age of eleven in this poem while Krsna who is her senior by two or three years is portrayed as a young boy around the age of fourteen (Majumdar 202).

Krsna hears about Radha’s beauty from her aunt and orders her “to play the part of a procuress” (Majumdar 202). When Radha is approached with the fiendish proposal, she slaps her aunt. This news is brought back to Krsna and they both devise a plan to take vengeance. The poem describes this plan in detail, which involves Krsna enacting a role of a toll officer under a tree. He intends to seize Radha’s milk products, jewellery, and all her other belongings. He plans to charm her so she falls in love with him and then snub her off as if he has nothing do with her. This scheme is carried out and Krsna succeeds in his exploits (Majumdar 203).

After this incident, Radha refuses to go out to sell milk again but her aunt convinces her to do so by taking another path. While on her way, she sees Krsna on a boat and is forced to accept Krsna’s offer to float to her destination. Halfway, the boat starts to leak and Krsna advises “her to throw off all her milk and even her apparels so that the burden on the boat might become light” (Majumdar 203). Taking full advantage of the situation, he also demands that Radha kiss him so he gets the strength to carry on. Considering the circumstances, Radha obeys his wicked commands, causing further distress upon Radha. Krsna drowns the boat and starts to take advantage of her in the water. Not allowing him to take further advantage from her, Radha orders him to return her ornaments and he agrees. Realizing that she has a bit of control over him, she asks him to “carry her goods on his shoulders” (Majumdar 203). This is seen as being a demeaning work for Krsna and Radha’s purpose to put Krsna to shame is accomplished. However, Krsna agrees to all her commands “on condition of getting physical enjoyment” (Majumdar 204).

Ananta Badu Candidasa’s interpretation of Krsna and his intimate relationship is very different from those of other poets. Krsna “has been depicted throughout the book as a gross sensualist, spiteful in nature and boastful of his prowess” (Majumdar 205). The events in Krsna Kirtana are more based on the vision of the author rather than being in compliance with the events from the Bhagavata Purana (Majumdar 201).

Rupa Gosvamin’s Vidagdhamadhava

In this play, Gosvamin brings to life the “love of Radha and Krsna from its first awakening to the first meeting of the couple” (Majumdar 212). Radha is married to Abhimanyu who spends most of his time out of town. Radha is left at home with his blind mother, Jatila. This allows the two lovers, Krsna and Radha, to meet. Abhimanyu’s mother is suspicious of Radha’s relationship with Krsna who she refers to as the “snake toward young women” (Wulff 45).

At one point of the play, Abhimanyu starts to suspect Radha to the point that he decides to take his wife and mother with him. Finding this unbearable, “Krsna dressed himself as the goddess Gauri and placed himself in her temple, where Radha came to meet him” (Majumdar 212). During the couple’s union in the temple, Abhimanyu and his mother, Jatila suddenly appear. Abhimanyu and Jatila are told by the other individuals present at the temple that Gauri was so impressed by Radha’s devotion that she appeared in human form while she was asking for a “boon” (Majumdar 212). This makes Abhimanyu curious as to what exactly Radha was asking for. Krsna then appears as Durga and says that “Radha was praying for the aversion of a terrible calamity which was going to overtake her husband” (Majumdar 212). Krsna elaborates stating that Abhimanyu’s boss has plans to kill him. This leaves the mother and son awfully concerned; Krsna then offers them a solution which involves Radha staying at their hometown and worshipping Durga. Fearing Abhimanyu’s life, Jatila and her son agree to the condition (Majumdar 212). This incident is one of the many cunning ways Krsna keeps Radha close to himself.

Devotional Aspects of Krsna and Radha

Krsna is depicted as the god figure while Radha is portrayed as being the soul (Seth 59). Through Radha’s devotion to Krsna, “she becomes the mediator of his grace (prasada) and compassion (krpa)” (Hawley & Wulff 69). Krsna sends his love to his devotees through Radha and thus she is also worshipped alongside Krsna. In the Brahmavaivarta [One of the eighteen major Puranas], Krsna states that he will not grant moksa ( liberation) to anyone who does not honor Radha because her worship is more satisfying to him than his own (Hawley & Wulff 69).  Radha is also depicted as being an ideal devotee. The intensity of her undying love is seen as a model for followers. In many poems by various poets, including those mentioned above, Radha declares that she would choose death over separation from Krsna (Hawley & Wulff 29). Radha (devotee) is completely dedicated and attached to Krsna (God)


References and Further Recommended Reading

Hawley, John Stratton & Gosvami, Shrivatsa (1992) At Play with Krishna. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass.

Hawley, John Stratton & Wulff, Donna Marie (1982) The Divine Consort:Radha and Goddesses of India. California: Graduate Theological Union.

Keyt, George (1940) Sri Jayadeva’s Gita-Govinda: The Loves of Krsna & Radha.Bombay: Kutub-Popular Pvt. Ltd.

Kinsley, David R. (1979) The Divine Player (A Study of Krsna Lila).Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass.

Klaiman, M.H. (1984)Baru Candidasa Singing the Glory of Lord Krishna. California: Scholars Press and the American Academy of Religion.

Majumdar, Bimanbehari (1969) Krsna in History and Legend. Calcutta, India: Calcutta University Press.

Mukhopadhyay, Durgadas (1990) In Praise of Krishna: Translation of Gitagovinda of Jayadeva. Delhi, India: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Redington, James D. (1983) Vallabhacarya on The Love Games of Krsna. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass.

Sanford, A. Whitney (1961) Singing Krishna: Sound Becomes Sight in Paramanand’s Poetry. New York: State University of New York Press.

Seth, Kailash Nath (2002) Gods and Goddesses of India. New Delhi, India: Diamond Pocket Books Pvt. Ltd.

Wilkins, W.J. (1975) Hindu Mythology: Vedic and Puranic. New Delhi, India: Rupa & Co.

Wulff, Donna M. (1984) Drama as a Mode of Religious Realization: The Vidagdhamadhava of Rupa Gosvami. Chico, California: Scholars Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Bhagavata Purana

Gaudiya Vaisnavism

Gopis

Hare Krsna

Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda

Krsna Janmashtami

Krsnaism

Mathura

Radhastami

Ras Lila

Rupa Gosvamin

Vidagdhamadhava

Vishnu

Vrindavan

Yamuna

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://hinduism.about.com/od/scripturesepics/a/lovelegends.htm

http://www.holifestival.org/legend-radha-krishna.html

http://www.iloveindia.com/spirituality/goddesses/radha/legends.html

Article written by: Maria Rana (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Harihara

Some Hindus believe that Harihara is the Supreme God. In the Hindu tradition the supreme gods are Visnu and Siva.  Visnu is known as Hari and Siva is known as Hara. In Sanskrit Hari means a yellowish or khaki color, which represents the sun and the Soma plant. Put together Hari and Hara are Harihara, which is a combination of the two gods. Harihara is also commonly known as Shankaranarayana; “Shankara” is Siva while “Narayana” is Visnu. Devotees believe that Siva and Visnu are different aspects of the same reality. Sometimes they are thought to have been brought together because they were ‘rivals’ but there is no evidence to show that this is the case. Harihara is occasionally used in philosophical terms to indicate Visnu and Sivas unification of different aspects of the Supreme God (Olson). The most famous philosophical analogy is the yogurt and milk analogy, which says that yogurt is a groundwork of milk but yogurt cannot be used as milk. Siva is an expansion of Krishna but Siva cannot act as Krishna. Also Siva has a connection with the material world while Visnu and Krishna do not. It is thought that Visnu is a part of Krishna as the whole.

Harihara image (Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi)

Harihara was very popular in Cambodia in the beginning of the seventh century. It is thought to be popular in Cambodia because previous Cambodian rulers had worshiped Siva in the seventh and eighth century. The rulers tried to maintain and control southern Cambodia, which had a strong connection to Visnu. The northern rulers wanted an icon that would represent the unification of the south and north, which lead to Harihara. Evidence of Harihara worship was most commonly found deity during the seventh century in the Preangkorian Khmer empire (see Lavy 22-31). Archaeological evidence relates to clay Harihara figurines, which suggest that Harihara was the main deity being worshiped in seventh century Cambodia.  The worship of Harihara did not spread to India or Southeast Asia until many centuries later. The worship of Harihara began to die out of the Khmer culture in the thirteenth century.

Temple for worship of Harihara are very rare. One of the main temples for worship is in Shankaranarayana village. Shankaranarayana is located east of Kundapura in Karnataka, India. The village gets its name from the temple. The temple is thought to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World that was created by Maharshi Parashurama (Meister 167-170).

The main festival for Shankaranarayana is the Shankaranaraya Jaatre. The festival begins four days before Makar Sankranti, and celebrates the sun passing from one zodiac sign to another, and runs for a week. The first six days of the event consist of a variety of rituals devoted to Harihara. The last day of the festival is the main event, when Rathotsava is celebrated. This occasion frequently falls on January 16. At the Rathotsava festival, more then ten thousand people from different parts of India come to worship (Meister 170-173).

When Harihara is depicted with four arms, the right side is shown as Siva while the left side is Visnu. Siva is portrayed as being the destroyer and in his right upper hand holds a trident; the points on the tridents are believed to represent trinities for example, past, present, and future or creation, maintenance and destruction. Some people also believe that it represents the three channels of energy or nadis. The right side of the head of Harihara consists of Siva’s matted locks with a headdress. Siva’s third eye is visible on the right side of the forehead as well. On the left side of Harihara Visnu is shown calm and holding in his upper left hand the wheel emblem; his head is also portrayed with a crown; the crown represents Visnus’ supreme authority while the wheel represents the circle of life, unity, the sun, and reincarnation (Lavy 21).

Although not widely known, Harihara is a significant and interesting deity within the Hindu tradition.

References:

Lavy, Paul A. (2003) Journal of Southeast Asia Studies: “As in heaven, so on earth: the politics of Visnu, Siva and Harihara images in Preangkorian Khmer civilization.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Meister, Michael A. (1976), Artibus Asiae. Vol. 38, Artibus Asiae Publishers.

Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation:

Cambodian History

Preangkorian

Rothotsava

Siva

Visnu

Related Websites:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harihara

http://shankaranarayana.org/

http://hinduism.iskcon.com/index.htm

http://www.dlshq.org/download/lordsiva.htm#_VPID_127

Article written by: Rose Naigus (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Jayadeva and the Gitagovinda


Among the myriad of Indian epic poets, Jayadeva, the twelfth century composer of the unparalleled Gitagovinda (Song of the Cowherd), stands alone as a poet of paramount prominence. As a fervent devotee of Krsna, there is a strong undercurrent of Vaisnava faith (the worship of Visnu or his associated avatars, principally as Rama and Krsna, as the original and supreme God) and bhakti (loving devotion) in his articulation as he sings of the mystical amours between Krsna and Radha. As Jayadeva elaborates the love of this cosmic duo, he creates an aesthetic atmosphere of sringararasa or erotic-mystical mood that is bliss for the devotees of Krsna. Indeed, the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva, divinely adorned and devotionally oriented, is a source of religious inspiration in both medieval and contemporary Vaisnavism [for a detailed analysis of Vaisnavism, see Dimock (1966)].

The widely renowned lyrical composition and religious eroticism of the Gitagovinda earned sainthood for Jayadeva, and has been a powerful influence on several genres of creative and performing arts in various parts of India. It is the incredibly vivid imagery of this devotional text finds itself as an ideal subject for India’s visual and performing arts (Kaminsky 2). It is Jayadeva’s intent, not only to rouse the devotional depths of the bhakta (those engaged in devotional worship or bhakti), but to transport one literally into the heart of the love scene. The sensory imagery of Jayadeva’s poetry allows the reader or devotee to be a honey bee on a lotus blossom: seeing, touching, smelling the flora and fauna of the enchanting Indian forest. One gets close enough to “taste the sweat glistening on the upper lip of the young maiden [Radha]”(Kaminsky 2), experiencing the beatific delights of sporting with her lover. The jingling of the bells draping Radha’s waist titillates and tantalizes the soul’s inner ear as the reader sways with the melodious motion of their lovemaking. For the bhakta, it is in the union of this woman and the deity in the form of a man that the soul can find a path to oneness with the cosmic essence of the divine [on the depiction of tangible and intangible elements in Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, see Mahapatra (2008)].

The birth and life of Jayadeva are masked in the various legends and regional paeans of the provinces of West Bengal and Orissa, each province claiming him to be their own (Kaminsky 24). Indeed, after completing the Gitagovinda, such was Jayadeva’s fame and eminence, that numerous local versions of this legend grew into disagreeing traditions about Jayadeva’s origin and poetic activity. Contemporary scholars of Bengal, Orissa, and Mithila have published claims locating the hamlet of his birthplace in their respective regions. Indeed, two strong traditions say that “Kindubilva” mentioned in the Gitagovinda is either a village near Puri in Orissa or a village in the modern Birbhum district of Bengal. A third tradition recognizes the village of Kenduli near Jenjharpur in Mithila as Jayadeva’s place of birth (Miller 3-5). Sources are ambiguous on whether or not he wrote the Gitagovinda while he was the court poet of Laksmanasena Kam, the last Hindu king of Bengal (1179-1209) (Siegel 209-210), but it is generally accepted that after the completion of the Gitagovinda, Jayadeva and his wife went on a pilgrimage to Vrndavana.  For now, it is relatively safe to say that Jayadeva resided and wrote in eastern India during the latter half of the twelfth century (Miller 4).

Despite the difference in opinion of Jayadeva’s origin, all accounts that sanctify Jayadeva’s life reveal that he was born into a Brahman family and that he became a gifted student of Sanskrit and a skilled poet. In spite of this, he abandoned scholarship at a young age and assumed an ascetic life, devoting himself entirely to God. As a wandering poet and mendicant, he would not rest underneath the same tree for more than a night for fear that attachment to the place would breach his vow of asceticism (Miller 3).

His life of renunciation and denial came to an end when a Brahman in Puri (in Orissa along the eastern coast of India) claimed that the god Jagannatha, “Lord of the World” [Jagannatha is considered to be a form of Visnu, although some scholars maintain that Jagannatha was Buddha (also considered by Hindus to be the 9th avatara or incarnation of Visnu). Others assert that he is really Krsna, the 8th of Visnu’s avataras. For a more detailed analysis of Jagannatha see, Raya (1998)] himself had ordained the marriage of Jayadeva to the Brahman’s daughter. The Brahman’s daughter was Padmavati, a young girl who was dedicated as a devadasi (religious dancing girl who gave praise to the gods and shared the tales of their greatness through dance for devotees) in the temple. Jayadeva agreed to the marriage. Padmavati served her husband and he shared her devotion to Jagannatha. As Jayadeva composed, Padmavati would dance — whence came the inspiration for the Gitagovinda (Kaminsky 25).

While composing the Gitagovinda, Jayadeva envisioned the climax of Krsna’s supplication to Radha as a command for Radha to place her foot on Krsna’s head in a symbolic gesture of victory. But the poet was reluctant to complete the couplet, in respect to Krsna, which would place Radha in a position superior to that of Krsna, as well as commit an ancient taboo of touching anyone with the foot –a symbol of spiritual pollution (juta). Leaving the poem incomplete, Jayadeva went to bathe in a river and, as the story goes, in his absence Krsna appeared in his guise to complete the couplet; Krsna then ate the food Padmavati had prepared for Jayadeva and left. When Jayadeva returned, he realized that he had received divine affirmation in exalting Krsna’s loving relation to Radha.

The Gitagovinda, deceptively simple in its exterior beauty, that is, in its exotic and sensual crust, has an abundance of meaning embedded in structurally complex forms. It is expressed as a sequence of songs interspersed with recitative portions in cadenced forms of classical kavya verses (classi­cal Sanskrit verse) (Miller 7). There are twelve main parts which can be referred to as cantos, divisions of a long poem. The Sanskrit term for this is sargah and will be used from this point on. Within each sargah are short narratives and songs, and each song has a particular tala and raga associated with it. Talas are rhythmic cycles which lie beneath the structure of an Indian musical piece and a raga is a melodic form that evokes a particular mood, most of which are selected for specific times of day, year, weather conditions, emotional states. These states of emotion are known as rasa (Kaminsky 46-47).

Several types of Indian dance and vocal music tell the legends of Radha and Krsna through these musical modes and rhythmic cycles. As it has been generally acknowledged that Jayadeva was inspired by the religious dancing of his wife, this is a likely explanation for the melodic structure of the Gitagovinda (Kaminsky 47).

While dramatizing the amours of Krsna and Radha on the surface, the Gitagovinda simultaneously conveys the deep ethos of devotion of the individual soul, its yearning for God realization and finally achieving the consummation in service of God. Or again: outwardly it describes the love, separation, longing and union of Radha and Krsna, the cosmic duo, in the mystical forest, Vrindavan, along the bank of river Yamuna. But metaphysically it expresses the pining of the individual soul (jivatma) for the mystical union with the divine soul (paramatma). Indeed, in the words of one scholar: “through the thrilling love episode of Radha and Krsna, the poet Jayadeva takes us stage by stage to the highest pitch of God consciousness and God realization” (Tripathy 5).

Indeed, while the poem’s subject is the estrangement of Radha and Krsna caused by Krsna’s dalliances with the other gopies (cowherd girl), Radha’s anguish at Krsna’s abandonment, and the rapture which attends their final reunion, the poem reverts repeatedly to devotion of Krsna as God:

If in recalling Krsna to mind there is flavour

Or if there is interest in loves art

Then to this necklace of words–sweetness, tenderness,

Brightness–

The words of Jayadeva, listen ( Miller 69).

In fact, Jayadeva’s objective is inducing “recollection of Krsna in the minds of the good” (Archer 65) and inserts a vivid description of the Indian forest in springtime exclusively, he says, in order once again to stir up remembrance Krsna. When, at last, the poem has come elatedly to a close, Jayadeva again insists the reader to adore and venerate Krsna and “place him forever in their hearts, Krsna the source of all merit” (Archer 65).

The story of the Gitagovinda may be briefly told. The poem opens with a description of the occasion when Radha and Krsna first join in love together:

“Clouds thicken the sky.

Tamala trees darken the forest.

The night frightens him.

Radha, you take him home!”

They leave at Nanda’s order,

Passing trees in thickets on the way,

Until secret passions of Radha and Madhava [the epithet of Krsna which also means “honey like” and “vernal”]

Triumph on the Jumna riverbank (Miller 69).

In this way the love of Radha and Krsna arises — the love which is to govern their hearts with ever growing fervour. Next, the reader, or the devotee, is captivated by Krsna and Radha’s surroundings: the trees are lush and thick with leaves, and flowering creepers are intertwined within their branches–symbolic of the lovers’ embrace. Spring is fully aroused, the birds are lively, love is ripe in the air. The couple are dressed in splendid colours of gold, red, and yellow and they are draped in gold and pearls.

Krsna is the eighth avatara (incarnation) of Visnu, and the first sargah continues with the heart touching, vivid and melodious account of the ten incarnations based on the evolutionary process of the creation and development of the animal world, each of which “came to the rescue” in various ways. According to the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, when virtue subsides and vice prevails, God manifests himself to establish righteousness [It is on this that the theory of incarnations of God is based, see Tripathy 5-9].

The poem then leaps a period of time and when the drama opens, a crises has occurred. Radha, after long enjoying Krsna’s passionate embraces, finds herself abruptly abandoned. Radha‘s friend, sakhi, tells her of Krsna’s amorous play with the other gopies, his feet stroked by one of them, his head cushioned on the bosom of another whose “heaving breasts are tenderly outspread to pillow it” (Miller 76). One beautiful damsel murmurs sweet words of praise into his ear, others care for him tenderly. He himself embraces one of them, kisses another and fondles a third (Archer 93).

As Radha broods on his behaviour, she is filled with bitter sadness; Radha’s yearning and lamenting in a faltering voice choked by heavy tears made even the water birds weep sorrowfully (Miller 1975: 659-665). Yet her love for Krsna is so strong she cannot bring herself to blame him. Radha’s pain of separation (viraha) from Krsna draws her interest away from worldly concerns and leads to meditation on Krsna which is the essence of bhakti that leads to the attainment of spiritual union with Krsna who is the quintessence of divinity (Siegel 66). It is Radha’s intuitive, unfaltering, all-inclusive dedication to union with Krsna which serves as a paradigm for many followers of bhakti. In this sense, one scholar has commented: “the pain of separation from the divine is in itself a source for joy as it encourages, or forces, one to meditate on the qualities with which one longs to unite” (Kaminsky 27).

As Radha sits longing for him in misery, Krsna suddenly repents, is filled with remorse and abruptly goes in quest of her. He does not know, however, where to find her and as he wanders he expresses his grief. The third Sargah reveals Krsna as he searches for Radha and laments:

She saw me surrounded in the crowd of women

And went away

I was too ashamed,

Too afraid to stop her.

Damn me! My wanton ways

Made her leave in anger (Miller 82).

Seated alone in his arbor of love, Krsna dwells on the thought of his devotee, Radha, and presently Sakhi comes to him to assure him of her passionate love for him. Without him she cannot bear to live, for every moment is filled with suffering and misery. Surely he, the source of love, will respond to her need.

It is well into the evening, the crescent moon in the sky. It looks as if Krsna will spend the night alone in misery. It is said that because of her ego, the Lord, Krsna was kept away. Due to Radha’s jealousy, or impure thoughts, Krsna, as the divine, is unable to reach her (Greenlees xvi). The idea here is that without ego, one is released to accept god’s grace.

Then, well into the darkness of the night, Sakhi finally convinces Radha to overcome her jealousy and pride which have been keeping her apart from her beloved. The scene is exceedingly dark, but the rushing Yamuna river coming from between the feminine curves of the undulating hills can be seen. Sakhi coaxes Radha to enter the bower of Krsna who sits in anticipation. In this way, Sakhi is like the guru who is responsible for uniting the human soul with the Divine (Kuppuswamy 41):

Loosen your clothes, until your belt, open your loins!

Radha, your gift of delight is like treasure in a bed of vines.

In woods on the wind-swept Jumna bank,

Krsna waits in wildflower garlands (Miller 93).

Krsna is splendid in his brilliance. His gold and pearl jewellery, white floral garland, and the white of his eyes brighten the darkness and provoke Radha to come to him. Now, Radha becoming less timid raises her eyes to meet those of Krsna. One can get a sense of an impending passionate unite.

The subsequent stanzas of the poem then reveal a reversal of devotion. Krsna asks Radha to place her feet on his head and declares his devotion to her. God is expressing his dedication to the human soul. Or as later Vaisnava texts have revealed, Radha is actually a goddess sprung from Krsna’s divineness (Kaminsky 49).

To the delight of the reader, or devotee, the lonely night ends with the ecstatic reunion (samyoga) of the lovers. The entire twelfth sargah offers the reader the full flavour of the ecstatic reunion of Radha and Krsna:

When her friend had gone

Smiles spread on Radha’s lips

While love’s deep fantasies

Struggled with her modesty

Seeing the mood in Radha’s heart,

Hari spoke to his love;

Her eyes were fixed

On his bed of buds and tender shoots (Miller 122).

Jayadeva continues:

[Radha’s] beautiful loins are a deep cavern to take the thrusts of love–

Cover them with jewelled girdles, clothes, and ornaments, Krsna! (Miller 124).

Finally Radha, the individual soul (jivatma), has achieved union with Krsna, the divine soul (paramatma).  Then with a final remembrance of Krsna as God and celebration of the song itself — its words “sweeter than sugar, like loves own glorious flavour” — the poem ends.

The dramaturgy and the poetics in the Gitagovinda have been skilfully crafted to touch the innermost core of the disciple and inspire the noblest of emotions. For this reason it is a literary legacy of India. Its spiritual essence, mystical imports, erotic undertones, sensory imagery and lyrical fluidity have perplexed critics, bewildered scholars, mystified saints, enthralled lovers, enlightened devotees and engaged people at large emotionally and sentimentally. Jayadeva, through his mystical love songs, has brought to light the strong desire of individuals for communion with divinity, and this mysticism has created extensive philosophical and metaphysical connotations that have had a profound influence on the religious outlook and spiritual psyche of devotees.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Archer, W.G (1957) The Loves of Krsna in Indian Painting and Poetry. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Dimock. E. C (1966) The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisnava- sahajiya Cult of Bengal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Greenlees, Duncan (1979) The song of divine love: Gita-Govinda of Sri Jayadeva. Madras: Kalakshetra Publications.

Kaminsky, Alison M (1988) Radha: The Blossoming of Indias Flower in art and Literature. PhD diss., Long Beach: California State University.

Kuppuswamy, Gowri and Muthuswamy Hariharan (1980) Jayadeva and Gītagōvinda: a study. Michigan: College Book House.

Mahapatra, Gadadhar (2008) “Depiction of Tangible and Intangible Elements of Nature in Gita Govinda Kavyam.” Orissa Review 14.10, pp. 22-27.

Miller, Barbara Stoler (1975) “Radha: Consort of Krsna’s Vernal Passion.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 95.4.

Miller, Barbara Stoler (1977) The Gitagovinda of Jayadeva: Love Song of the Dark Lord. New York: Columbia University Press.

Raya, Bidyutlata (1998) Jagannātha cult: origin, rituals, festivals, religion, and philosophy. Michigan: Kant Publications.

Siegel, Lee (1978) Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love in Indian Traditions as Exemplified in the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Avatara

Bhakti

Brahman

Devadasis

Gopi

Guru

Jagannatha

Jagannatha temple

Jivatma

Juta

Kavya

Krsna

Laksmanasena Kam

Orissa

Parematma

Radha

Raga

Rasa

Srimad Bhagavad Gita

Tala

Vasnavism

Visnu

Yamuna river

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.geetagovinda.org/Jayadev.html

http://www.goloka.com/docs/gita_govinda/index.html

http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/J/Jayadeva/index.htm

http://vodpod.com/watch/84037-kelucharan-mohapatra-orissi-dance-gita-govinda

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BNcIjWTwBo&feature=PlayList&p=2CEA33B0D977D011&index=2

Article written by: Stephenie Madany (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.