On one fragrant autumnal full moon night dark-hued Krishna danced with the cowherd girls fair as Champak flowers on the white sands of river Yamuna.
The sweet music of his flute and of a anklet-bells on the joyous dancing feet of the lovely Gopa girls still echoes through enchanting performing arts of the country.
The appeal of ancient Vasudeva-Krishna lore is universal. Amazed by Krishna's all-pervading universal form Arjuna says in the Gita: 'O Lord, you have filled the earth, the heaven, the quarters, the whole cosmos; sun and moon are your eyes.'
He is myth, he is history. He appears with his majestic disk on the coins of Greek king Agathocles. Epics and Puranas sing his ode. Ancient Buddhist and Jai literature speak of him. A Nabab composes opera to celebrate his love for beautiful Radha. A Pavlova enchanted by his Leelas depicts them through a ballet. In real sense he is omni-present universal self-Vishva Rupa.
Indian theatre takes delight in visualizing his lore in all its splendour and magnitude. How does it do this? Please come and see.
Before raising the curtain, as tradition demands, let us sing a benedictory verse, Nandi, to Him in the words of Adi Shankara.
From the Book
'Narayanam Namaskritya', 'I bow before thee Oh Lord Krishna, with deep reverence', says the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, in its opening benedictory verse. The narrator, Ugrashrava Sauti, further informs his august audience assembled in the deep woods of Nimisha, that the epic written by Maharshi Vedavyasa primarily relates the ancient lore of the divine cowherd. 'Bhagavan Vasudevaschya Sanatanah', 'What I am narrating here is the eternal saga of Lord Vasudeva-Krishna, which is a sacred and delightful story', says Sauti in the Adiparva. Krishna is the apex around which the epic is woven. Hence, in addition to calling him Gopi-Shata-Kelikara, the well-known twelfth century Belava inscription respectfully refers to him as Mahabharata Sutradhar. It is the Mahabharata which first gives an elaborate account of Krishna and his ancient cult.
Probably Krishna is as ancient as the great civilization of the Indus valley. Among the tablets excavated at Mohenjodaro, one depicts the Yamalarjuna Bhanjan Leela of Krishna which is later mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana. Some scholars believe that Krishna, black and bountiful like a rain cloud, was a popular deity of the aboriginals of the ancient land. Maybe that is why the Aryan Rig Veda refers to him as Asura.
The swift moving Krishna with ten thousand (demons) stood on the Amshumati; by his might Indra caught him snorting (in water); benevolent to man, smote his malicious (band).
I have seen the swift moving (demon) lurking in an inaccessible place in the depths of river Amshumati. I have seen Krishna standing there as (the sun) in the cloud. I appear to you showerer; conquer him in battle.
Then the swift moving one shining forth assumed his own body by the Amshumati and Indra and Brihaspati and his ally smote the Godless hosts as they drew near.
It is significant to note that the animosity between Krishna and Indra continues in later mythology. But in them Krishna emerges victorious by subduing the lord of heaven on many occasions.
One Rishi Krishna is also mentioned in the Rig Veda. He is seen propitiating the Ashvinis by offering them the delightful Soma drink. However the scholars attach more importance to the mention of Devakiutra Krishna, disciple of Ghor Angirasa, in the Chandogya Upanishada written about 700 B. C. They link him with the Krishna of the Mahabharata.
A very interesting version of the Krishna legend is found in one of the Buddhist Jataka stories written around the same time. In the Ghat Jataka he is described as a son of Devagarbha and Upasagar. Here, in no uncertain terms, the identity of Vasudeva and Krishna (Kanha) is established. He is also called Keshava. Episodes like the killing of Kamsa and his two wrestlers Chanur and Mustik and the final destruction of Vasudeva and Vrishni clan are included in the same Jataka though with some difference. It is disclosed in the final chapter that a well-known disciple of Buddha named Sariputta was Vasudeva in his previous birth. Krishna's unique and formidable weapon, the chakra, a sharp edged disk, is also mentioned there. In Jain literature Krishna is described as a brother of Neminatha, the twenty-second Tirthankara.
The colourful Krishna lore with a folk base manifested itself in Buddhist, Jain and Brahmanical literatures taking different hues. However, the account of Krishna's life and philosophy, primarily related in the Mahabharata and later elaborated upon by the Puranas, Particularly by the Vishnu, Harivamsha, Bhagavata and Brahmavaivarta Puranas, acquired popularity and formed the base of the Krishna cult.
In the process of pantheistical synthesis Vasudeva-Krishna was identified with the Vedic deities, Vishnu and Narayana, and his cult acquired new dimension and prestige. It is significant to note that in the Rig Veda Vishnu is called Gopa, a cowherd. His place is populated with 'many horned swiftly moving cows'. This is, in a way, the Goloka of Krishna described by the later Puranas. The Baudhayana Dharma Sutra also uses the epithets Govinda and Damodara for Vishnu. In fact very few suktas are devoted to Vishnu in the Rig Veda. Probably the importance of Vishnu grew after his association with the popular Krishna cult.
There is ample literary, epigraphical and sculptural evidence to indicate the popularity of the Vasudeva-Krishna cult in the country even before the composition of the Mahabharata. Temples were constructed in honour of Vasudeva and Sankarshana by their devotees. An inscription of c. 100 B. C., found at Ghosundi near Nagari in Chittorgarh district, refers to a stone, wall constructed by a Bhagavata king around a temple of Narayana-Krishna. The Krishna cult is popularly known as the Bhagavata cult. An inscription indicates royal patronage to the Bhagavata religion.
1. (Karito ayam Radnya Bhagava) (te) na
Gajayanena Parashari-putrena Sa-
2. vartatina Ashvamedha-Ya Jina
Bhagava (da) bhya Sankarshana-Vasudevabhyam
3. (Anihatabhyam Sarveshvara) bhyam
Puja-shila prakaro Narayana-vataka
A Satavahana queen's long inscription in the Naneghat cave near Poona in Maharashtra opens with the adoration to Sankarashana and Vasudeva along with Indra, Prajapati and the deities of four quarters-Yama, Varuna, Kubera and Vasava. It clearly indicates the exalted position Vasudeva had at the time in the Brahmanical pantheon. In the prakrit folklore of Maharashtra, compiled by the Hala Satavahana, we find beautiful gathas depicting the Krishna-Gopi amour.
Even the Greeks in the contemporary India came under the influence of the Krishna cult. It is very interesting to note that the earliest representation of Krishna and Balarama is found on the bronze coins of Greek king Agathocles (c. 180-165 B.C.) who along with his brother Pantaleon ruled from Taxila over quite a large portion of Indian territory extending up to the eastern Punjab. The diadem wearing Krishna on the coin is holding circular disk-like weapon chakra in one hand and conch in another. Balarama is seen carrying his mace and plough. Indian territory extending up to the eastern Punjab. The diadem wearing Krishna on the coin is holding circular disk-like weapon chakra in one hand and conch in another. Balarama is seen carrying his mace and plough. The coins are bilingual-Brahmi and Greek. On the coin of Pantaleon 'dances an Indian figure, with tight trousers, long ear-rings and a flower in her ear'. She is identified as Lakshmi. Dion's son Heliodorus, ambassador to the court of Sunga king Kausti-putra Bhagabhadra, erected a tall Garuda pillar at Vidisha in about 126 B. C. in the honour of Vesudeva-Krishna proclaiming himself a follower of the Bhagavata cult. The Brahmi inscription on the pillar reads.
1. (De) va Devas Va (sude) vas Garudadhwaje Ayam
2. Karite (Ea) Heliodorena Bhaga-
3. vatena Dias Putrena Takkhasilakena
4. Yonadutena agatena maharajasa
5. Amtalikitasa upa (m) ta
sakasa (m) rano
1. Trini amutapadani
2. nayamti svaga (m) damo chago apramado
Krishna is called here the God of Gods, the supreme deity. The virtues extolled in the inscription are self-control (damo), Self-denial chago and watchfulness apramado
Krishna images were worshipped at many places. Quoting Curtius, Dr. D. C. Sircar says that an image of Herakles (i.e. Vasudeva-Krishna) was being carried in front of the Paurava army, as it advanced against the Greeks led by Alexander the Great (The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol. 4, p. 115) An interesting terracotta plaque showing Vasudeva carrying the infant Krishna over his head across the flooded Yamuna river, belonging to c. first century is housed in the Mathura Museum. A Mora stone inscription of about the same time refers to images of Bhagavata Vrishni Panchaviras-which were very beautifully carved in stone. A number of sculptures depicting Krishna Leela are to be found in Rajasthan, particularly in the Bikaner and Jodhpur regions. Describing an interesting Dan Leela plaque, Dr. R. C. Agrawala states that the milkmaid with whom Krishna is flirting has put on a Greek dress in the form of a double-fringed skirt. He sees the impact of Gandhara art in the depiction of Krishna who is shown as a full-grown man with a prominent moustache. The plaque belongs to the early Gupta period. Torana pillars at Mandor (Jodhpur) depict many Krishna Leela scenes. Bas reliefs at the Badami caves dated 578 illustrate in stone several episodes from Krishna's life, from his early childhood to his death. Temples at Halebid, Belur, Deogarh, Khajuraho and many majestic gopurams of south Indian temples are adorned with the Krishna saga in its full glory. In the far south, on the turbulent seashore of Mahabalipuram, one can see Krishna milking a cow. He is omnipresent in the art, literature and culture of this vast country. You cannot escape his bewitching presence, wherever you go.
Basically, the Vraja area was the center of the Krishna cult, from where it spread all over the country and even beyond it. Megas-thenes, envoy of mighty Greek King Seleucus Nicator to the royal court of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, exhibits in his work Indika the knowledge of the river Yamuna and the city of Mathura, and acknowledges the existence of the flourishing cult of the Indian Herakles, Krishna, in the Surasena region. Under the Gupta kings the Krishna cult received royal patronage and many temples were built in his honour. The Guptas accepted Garuda as their royal insignia and some of them took pride in calling themselves Parama Bhagavata. The Pabhosa cave inscription refers to the makers of the images of Sri Krishna and the milkmaids. Numerous enchanting sculptures in stone and terracotta depicting the divine acts, divyani karmani, of Krishna and Balarama (Sankarshana) are found in Bengal at Paharpur. Belonging to c. sixth century, they portray scenes showing Vasudeva carrying Krishna across the Yamuna, the dragging and killing of Kamsa by Krishna, Krishna wrestling with Chanur and Mustik, the abduction of Subhadra, Krishna lifting Govardhana, and similar other episodes. Most interesting and significant is the piece of sculpture showing Radha and Krishna in a beautiful standing pose. This is probably the earliest extant representation of Radha in sculpture.
Because of its immense popular appeal, the Krishna cult started spreading fast and reached distant parts of India, far from its original center, Vrajabhumi. According to Greek sources, Pandaia, who was the daughter of Herakles-Krishna, was married to the south Indian king whose kingdom was called Pandya after her. Many south Indian royal families, like the Pandyas, Pallavas, Chalukyas and Kadambas, gave generous patronage to the Bhagavata cult. From the explanation of the word Pandya given by the grammarian Katyayana as 'one sprung from an individual of the clan of the Pandus', and the phonetic similarity of the words Mathura and Madura, a Pandya capital, scholars like Dr Sircar infer that sections of the Vrishni people might have settled in Tamil land. Dr Sircar also refers to the temples of two gods at Madura, Kaveripattinam and other places mentioned in the Tamil classic Silappadikaram, one of whom has been described by the poet Kari-Kannan as the dark-complexioned one bearing the wheel, and the other as the fair-complexioned one bearing a flag of the palmyra.
However the credit of giving popular base to the Bhagavata cult goes to the twelve Vaishnava saints, collectively known as Alvars who flourished in the Tamil country between the fifth and ninth centuries. They composed beautiful song, Prabandham, describing the eventful childhood of Krishna including his romance with the Gopa girls. Alvar Andal, who was called Kodai because she was beautiful and delicate like a garland of jasmine flowers, worshiped Lord Ranganatha with gopi-bhava. She actually married Ranganatha and according to a legend, as she sat on the serpent bed by the side of the reclining Lord, a glow of divine light emerged from the image and Andal vanished into it, symbolizing the divine union of lovers. In her songs, Nappinnai is described as a favourite Gopi of Krishna who delights him by her Ras dance. In one of her songs Andal requests Nappinnai who was sleeping with the Lord throughout the night to free him from the deep bonds of love for a moment as people are waiting to take darshan of the deity in the morning. The Alvars involvement with Krishna was deeply emotional, which set the tone of the bhakti cult. Great Acharyas like Ranganatha Muni and Yamunacharya (ninth century), gave sound metaphysical base to the Vaishnava movement in south India.
From the Jacket:
'Narayanam Namaskritya' - I bow before thee with deep reverence O Lord Krishna - says great Indian epic Mahabharata in its opening benedictory verse.
The impact of Krishna cult on Indian art, literature and culture is stupendous. Krishna worship includes music, dance, drama which delights him most. Bhasa describes him as Sutradhar, string-holder, of the drama of life that is being enacted in all the three worlds. Bhagavata Purana eulogize him as Natavar, supreme actor, and enjoins the devotees to offer him theatricals on festive occasions. Inscriptions speak of the tradition of enacting plays in the Krishna temples.
The tradition still continues as river Yamuna, on whose bank Krishna performed Ras dance, continues to flow. All over India plays based on Krishna theme are enacted. Indian classical dance forms take delight in depicting Radha-Krishna love lore. The Ras Leela of Vraj, Ankia Nat of Assam, Kala of Goa and Maharashtra, Krishna Attam of Kerala, Ras of Manipur, Odissi of Orissa Kathak of Uttar Pradesh are some of the traditional drama and dance forms that depict Krishna lore. Many Krishna plays are there in the repertory of Kathakali, Yakshagana, Kuchipudi, Tamasha and many other folk and traditional theatrical forms of India. In fact some scholars believe that Indian theatre itself has originated from the cult of Krishna that flourished in Surasena region.
This most colourful theatrical saga full of poetry, dance and music is narrated in the book by eminent scholar Shri M.L. Varadpande in a most attractive manner. In a style picturesque and lucid the author tells us how the dark-hued Krishna danced with milkmaids fair as champak flower on the bank of Yamuna and how the Indian traditional theatre and dance forms recreated this romance on the stage. The spectacular rainbow of delightful romance of Krishna's eventful life as seen on Indian stage is charmingly revealed to the readers through the pages of this profusely illustrated book of infinite charm.
It is a sheer joy to read it.
About the Author:
As a serous student of Indian art, literature and culture Shri M.L. Varadpande's contribution to Indological studies is quite significant. He is a scholar with a rare capacity to see historical facts in new perspective and offer original interpretation.
Born in 1936 he is an M.A. of the Nagpur University. For many years past he is associated with Alochana, a journal devoted to art and literature, as its associate editor. One of his books has been published by India's National Akademi of Letters - Sahitya Akademi. It is now being translated into various Indian languages.
His well known works are 'Traditions of Indian Theatre', 'Krishna Theatre in India', 'The Critique of Indian Theatre' (Edited), 'Krishna Opera of Vraj'. He is at present writing a book on Ashta Nayika.
He has widely traveled across the country with the view to reach original source material and study different forms of traditional theatre in their own settings.
He has been awarded a research fellowship by the Indian Council of Historical Research to work on the project 'TEMPLE THEATRE IN INDIA'.
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