In Orissa, to this day, devotees sing the Muslim poet Salbeg’s lyrics to welcome Lord Jagannath. And the image of Krislina is a recurring theme in the outpourings of Malik Moliammad Jaise, the author of the first great epic in Avadhi.
A certain eclecticism, a revolt against stifling narrowness, has been an important element of the Krishna cult. The very exuberance of Krishna’s personality militated against a very formalized, rigid, exclusive or hierarchical structure of worship. Ecstasy rather than dogma, fervour rather than bigotry, and bhakti rather than shuddhi, have been the dominant traits of Krislina worship, in accordance with the defining parameters of the Bhakti and Sufi movements as a whole. The Bhagavata Purana had laid the basis for such an approach when it stated categorically: ‘I believe that even a Brahmin equipped with twelve qualities (wealth, family status, knowledge, yoga, intellect, etc.) who has turned his face away from the lotus feet of god (Krishna) is inferior to the chandala (outcaste) who has laid his mind, speech, work, wealth and life at god’s feet; that chandala saves his whole family, while the Brahmin, arrogant of his station, cannot even save himself.
Not surprisingly, there is very little reference throughout Krishna’s sojourn in Vrindavan to traditional Hindu society. In Vrindavan, Braj happily coexists with Bengali as the second most important language of the area. Mathura, where Krishna was born, was, and to some extent still is, an important area for the Jain and Buddhist faiths. The Govindji Temple in Vrindavan, built in AD 1590, has a Hindu elevation, a Christian ground plan and a roof of modified Saracenic character. The musical entourage of one of the most well-known Kathak exponents of the rasa has a Muslim vocalist, a Muslim percussionist and a Muslim sarodist. These are random examples but they are definitive pointers to the basic catholicity of the Krishna faith.
In India, Krishna lives on not only as a symbol of faith, but as a reflex and unquestioned presence in the daily lives of millions of people, a participant in their hopes and joys, sorrows and grief, in their song and dance and music and creative pursuits, in festivals and ceremonials, in laughter and gaiety. In a sense his multilayered personality mirrors the harmonious schizophrenia of the Hindu mind, which effortlessly operates at two apparently dichotomous levels—one of make-believe, ritual, rampant mythology and love, and the other transcendent, beyond categories, serene in the realization of the metaphysical unity of divinity. It is not uncommon to see in a representative Hindu home a picture of Krishna surrounded by nude women gazing passionately at him, and another picture of him giving upadesha to Arjuna on the imperatives of quenching desire and understanding the self within.
To a foreigner, the diversity of godly attributes in one divine persona could well appear bizarre, but not so to the Hindu, who, forever conscious at one level of Krishna’s celestial status, has nevertheless joyously—even extravagantly— humanized him within the framework of his mortal world. It is only when conscious of such a perspective that one can understand why in the temple of Jagannath at Puri, devotees are free to loudly abuse Krishna. It is an aggressive yet overt gesture of proprietary familiarity. There is a personal bond of intimacy between worshipper and deity that defies conventional logic. I have been told that until recently, and perhaps even today in many parts of India, particularly northern India, young widows would be given a laddoo Gopal—an image of the child Krishna—to adopt. The image, of metal or clay, would then become a living child and the lady would be absorbed in the daily routine of bringing up her Gopal.
It was an activity not very different from playing with a doll. However, significantly enough, other members of the household would view this preoccupation as quite normal. If the lady was busy, a visitor would be told without hesitation: she is busy bathing Gopalji,
Much in India has changed today, and the process of transition is still ongoing. Mobility, economic opportunity, industrialization, the widening of the political base and the impact of the mass media, have set adrift old traditions, customs and habits, without as yet another set of enduring beliefs to replace them. The metamorphosis is most clearly in evidence in the bigger cities, where the ‘new’ culture is described best by the absence of cultural content, a nondescript if more egalitarian drift whose most recognizable element is a gross and increasingly aggressive materialism. The manner in which Krishna survives in this new milieu is yet to be seen. generation earlier, Janamashtami was celebrated with commitment by the entire extended family, with the children in particular spending days absorbed in building a tableau to recreate the ambience of the place of his birth; today Janamashtami often comes and goes without the younger generation being aware of its advent, and certainly quite ignorant about the manner of its celebration. The cause for this is almost certainly because of new challenges, new goals, and the greater burden of survival in a vastly more competitive environment.
But, it would appear, for all of this, Krishna will survive. Perhaps it is the neurosis of these uncertain times that the numbers of those flocking to his temples show no signs of decrease. Or perhaps his legacy, through a process of osmosis thousands of years old, has been assimilated so imperceptibly by a people that it cannot be mutated without the Hindu psyche itself undergoing a major cataclysmic change. Perhaps, with a twinkle in his eye, he has himself shown a divine agility to change according to the times. For, are there not devotees today in distant and strange lands—the USA, Australia, Russia, Europe and elsewhere—who have given up their own faiths to chant reverentially, ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’ and build temples in his honour and ashrams in his name that seek to recreate Gokula and Vrindavan? And so the saga of his rasa goes on every day (nitya rasa), through all the seasons, in spring (basanta rasa), and in autumn (kunj rasa), and then in that full moon night in early winter, the night of the maharasa, when in spite of ourselves, everything in the cosmos halts, to dance once again to the magic of his eternal leela.
Om Tat Sat