The Mother Divine
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By Manjushree Hegde

In a most beautiful description of India, Ananda Coomaraswamy, the renowned Ceylonese scholar, compared India to Cairene girl’s lute. Cairene girl features in a tale called “Nur-al Din and Mariam the Girdle Girl” in Arabian Nights, and her lute is a piece of art. Coomaraswamy recollected a scene in which Cariene girl took out her “green satin bag with slings of gold, and “opening it, shook it, where upon there fell out two and thirty pieces of wood, which she fitted one into other, male into female and female into male, till they became a polished lute of Indian workmanship. Then she uncovered her wrists and laying the lute on her lap, bent over it with the bending of mother over bade, and swept the strings with her fingertips; whereupon it moaned and resounded and after its olden home yearned; and it remembered the waters that gave it drink and the earth whence it sprang and wherein it grew and it minded the carpenters who cut it and the polishers who polished it and the merchants who made it their merchandise and the ships that shipped it; and it cried and called aloud and moaned and groaned; and it was as if she asked it of all these things and it answered her with the tongue of the case.” “Just such an instrument is India”, wrote Coomaraswamy, “composed of many parts, seemingly irreconcilable, but in reality, each one is designed towards a common end; so too, when these parts are set together and attuned, will India tell of the earth from which she sprang, the waters that gave her drink, and the Shapers that have shaped her beginning; nor will she be then the idle singer of an empty day, but the giver of hope to all, when hope will most avail, and most be needed.”

In his series, Krishnavatara, Kulapati K. M. Munshi attempted to do just this: to set together and attune the parts, so India could tell of the earth from which she sprang and the waters that gave her drink. For Munshi, nothing depicted the Indian ideal of character so completely as Lord Krishna, and so, he chose him as the window through which to gaze on India’s past.

Literature on Krishna is, of course, abundant— his life has been told of in epics, songs and stories for centuries. Because of this, much of his fascinating character is overlaid with legends, myths and miracles, and he has come to be credited with exploits of such incredulous nature that it is almost impossible to glean an authentic portrait of Krishna, the man as he might have been. In the Krishnavatara series, Munshi has reconstructed his life with his flamboyant imagination; sifting through all the literature on Krishna— the Mahabharata, Harivamsha, Vishnu Purana, Srimad Bhagavata, and scores of other sources— Munshi has attempted to find Krishna, the man as he must have been, and recreating the incidents of his life, he has tried to bring out his characteristics in them. In doing so, Munshi has captured the ideal of Indian thought itself. 

Indian thought/culture is rather difficult to understand; to fathom it, one must take a good look into its epic poems. Epic poems are, indeed, a repository of the values, beliefs, customs, and cultural attitudes of a people. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, for example, tell us of the life of ancient Greeks, Beowulf constructs for us a picture of the Anglo-Saxon warrior-culture of medieval Europe. So too is the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the works of Kalidasa a fine chronicle of the culture of ancient Indians. From these epics, it can be construed that one of the most conspicuous characteristics of Indian culture was its constant effort to understand the meaning and the ultimate purpose of life. For the ancient Indians, the object of human life was to not waste it in a feverish anxiety and race after physical objects and comforts, but to use it in developing the mental, moral and spiritual powers latent in man. In one scene in Munshi’s Krishnavatara, for example, Guru Sandipini’s son, Punardatta, is kidnapped and sold to the Nagakanyas who live in Nagaloka. Young Krishna, Sandipini’s disciple, sets out to bring him back and restore him to his Guru as gurudakshina. Going to Nagaloka, Krishna finds that Punardatta is quite happy in his situation; he doesn’t want to return to his father. “Krishna, during the year that I have lived here, I have lost all desire to go back to the stern life led by my father”, Punardatta tells him. “I live in luxury here. I have considerable power. Above all, I have known the joys which Larika (a nagakanya, now his wife) alone can give. I cannot go away from her.” Listening to this, Krishna is sad. “What has happened to you, Punardatta?” he asks. “Have you lost the noble impulse to lead a life of tapas? Do you not care for the Dharma of our glorious ancestors? Are you content with good food, good living and sensual delights, which no Arya would ever make as the aim of his life? Has it never struck you, Punardatta, that to lead a life weltering in the delights of the senses is to live like a dog?” From these accounts, we can gather that the ancient Indians were steadfast in their dedication to the pursuit of the purusharthas, and casual offenders were chastised in stern words. Ananda Coomaraswamy notes, “(all of life in India was) ultimately ordered towards man’s Last End, knowing his Self.”

On a different strain, we also find that the society of those times was a free, merry and an aesthetic one. British historian A. L. Basham notes, “…. the general impression (that can be gathered) is that here people enjoyed life, passionately delighting both in the things of the senses and the things of the spirit…. (the average Indian) was willing to accept the world as he found it, and to extract what happiness he could from it.” For example, in his book, India in Kalidasa, Saran Upadhyaya writes, “… (the society) had cultivated almost a Grecian taste in its merriments. Wine and flower were the chief aids to this end…  Not only men but even women indulged in drinking. It was believed that intoxication gave a special charm to women. Iravati, one of the consorts of Agnimitra, is seen in the Malavikagnimitram in a state of intoxication. Indumati, the beloved queen of Aja, receives wine from the mouth of her husband, who directly transfers it to her mouth… (indeed) wine may be said to have been a regular indulgence of the married couple... Music, too, had attained a very high standard both in theory and practice… and evenings were spent in staging plays and story-telling… Flowers played a great part in the aesthetic make up of the people. Men and women wore garlands long enough to reach their knees. Joyous ladies, residing in towns, were accustomed to plucking flowers and utilizing them in abundance in their toilet”. In Munshi’s Krishnavatara, there is a scene where Krishna meets some ascetics in the caves of Muchukunda who, for long hours, sit in a circle of fire in the blazing sun, chanting the name of Mahadeva. One ascetic tells Krishna, “(I came here because) I saw the futility, the wickedness, and the ugliness of life as it was led by men. I was once a powerful chief, with wives, sons and friends. But I gave them up in search of peace and I have found it here.” Krishna disagrees with his attitude of rejection of life. “Revered sir, life is not futility”, he tells him. “It should be lived fully with strength and vigour and with beauty. That is Dharma as I understand it… I have found peace without giving up life… I have found life by living it…” For a common reader, it is difficult to reconcile these two attitudes— the spiritual conduct of the ancient Indians and their common habits of merriment and drinking. How can the two ends meet? We find an answer to this question in the character of Krishna.

To understand Krishna, one may look into one eminent philosopher’s definition of him as “Zorba the Buddha” who noted that his ideal man was one who combined the characteristics of Alexis Zorba and Gotama Buddha. Alexis Zorba, a character in Zorba the Greek, is a perfect epicurean, a man who embraces the whole of life with an unrestrained exhilaration, a man with an infinite trust in life and a deep attunement to the present moment, a man with a living heart, a voracious mouth, and a great brute of a soul. Gotama Buddha, on the other hand, cuts a rather different figure. Sitting still, he watches life pass by, serenely unattached from it all, dwelling in the bliss within. The two must come together to form the perfect man. The epicurean, on his own, is incomplete, as is the ascetic— both of them leave the world to itself in their concern for themselves. The perfect man would pick up his bottle of wine, throw off his inhibitions and dance on the sand, knowing full well in his Buddha wisdom, the ultimate meaning of existence. Indeed, this perfect man would laugh until he became laughter itself; he would love until the ‘lover’ disappeared and only the love remained, he would dance with abandon until the ‘dancer’ disappeared and only the dance remained. 

Just such a man was Krishna— with all of Zorba’s passion and zest for life, and yet tempered by the deep awareness of the Buddha. A flute-player, a ras-dancer, a statesman, a philosopher, a yogi all at once, Krishna personified the teaching, “The wise man is he who is intensely peaceful in the midst of intense action, and intensely active in the midst of intense peace.” In Krishnavatara, Munshi describes him thus: “Wise and valorous, he was, loving and loved, far-seeing and yet living for the moment, gifted with a sage-like detachment and yet intensely human; the diplomat, the sage and the man of action, with a personality as luminous as that of a divinity.”

It is in this dynamic balance of Krishna that we find the ideal of Indian thought. All of ancient India was dedicated to finding the meaning of life— not by turning its back on life, but by learning to see life as it really is— infinite and beautiful, an absolute expression of the Absolute Self. No wonder then that ancient India could give the world not just Vedas and Upanishads, but also Natyashastra, Arthashastra and Kamasutra. India had accepted life in its entirety, with open eyes. With all her passion for renunciation, she never suffered from the blight of imagination which confuses the ideals of the ascetic and the citizen. The citizen was indeed to be restrained; but the very essence of his method was that he should learn restraint or temperance by life, not by the rejection of it. For him, the rejection of life, Puritanism, would be in-temperance. Describing Rajah Dilip of Raghvamsha, (great-grandfather of Rama), Kalidasa captures this ideal in his verse:

jugopātmānamatrastaḥ bheje dharmamanāturaḥ |
agṛdhnurādade so'rthamasaktaḥ sukhamanvabhūt ||

“He looked after his well-being, but there was in him, no fear of death. He always did the right thing, but not in haste (or in fear of God). He earned well, but there was in him, no greed. He delighted in pleasures, but he didn't cling to them”.

It is, indeed, difficult for us, with our materialistic values, to understand the ancient values of Indian culture. I merely invite you to taste the delight of this rhythmic philosophy, this deep, slow breath of thought. From it, we can learn those virtues which, above all others, we need today: tranquillity, patience, unruffled joy ‘like a lamp in a windless place that does not flicker’.

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All pictures courtesy Keshav Venkataraghavan (