West indian literature

Afflicted by a hurt feeling? There is a remedy for this: Sanskrit literature

This week you might have missed a bit of heckling if you hadn’t read your Twitter feed carefully. A Bengaluru-based company got into trouble for selling a painting of Krishna in love with Radha, both natural. Once one person tweeted about it, hundreds of people raised objections with Amazon for allowing the listing, threatening to boycott it, targeting the organization selling the painting, calling everyone, from Bengaluru City Police to various public figures, to take action against her.

Unfortunately for those whose feelings were seriously hurt, the painting sold was not by a contemporary artist commissioned by the organization. This is a reprint of a classic 18th century Pahari painting based on a verse by the famous Jayadeva Gitagovinda, currently in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These self-proclaimed guardians of Indian culture do not know that this is a masterpiece of Indian art.

by Jayadeva Gitagovindaalso popularly called the Ashtapadi, recounts Krishna’s erotic exploits with Radha, and is known for its unparalleled lyrical beauty. One of its most outrageous verses (outrageous for those uninitiated in Sanskrit literature) is when Krishna, to appease Radha, angry at her flirtations with other Gopikas, asks her to place his foot on her head and forgive him. It’s rather commonplace for regular readers of Sanskrit poetry, where heroes regularly appease heroines by falling at their feet, including Shiva.

17th century Hindi work Bhaktamal tells the legend behind Jayadeva’s verse. While Jayadeva was composing the Gitagovinda, he composed a verse in his mind where Krishna asks Radha to place his foot on his head, but was struck by the thought that it was disrespectful to imagine Krishna as asking this of a mere human. So he didn’t write it down and went to the river to take a bath instead. When he returned, he saw to his great surprise that the verse he had thought of had been written with the rest of his composition. When he asked his wife who wrote the new verse, she told him that he wrote it himself. It turns out that Krishna himself came, in the guise of Jayadeva, to write the verse that Jayadeva was afraid to write. Overjoyed at this divine sanction of his work, Jayadeva retained the verse in the Gitagovinda. The Bhaktamal seems to tell us then, if you have a problem with the Gitagovindadiscuss it with Krishna himself!

However, for those who are nonetheless unhappy with Jayadeva and the painters inspired by her work, there are two ways out. First, you could write a scholarly tract like the illustrious 17th-century scholar and poet Jagannatha Pandita, explaining why Jayadeva’s poetry violates aesthetic norms. In the words of Jagannatha, “When writing about the gods and their amorous union, one should refrain from explicit details. It brings no pleasure to readers and is as distasteful as describing one’s parents… Just because Jayadeva broke this unanimously accepted rule like a mad elephant does not mean modern writers should follow suit…”

Two, you could be one of the commentators whose puritanism is matched only by their erudition in Sanskrit. These commentators manage to use grammar to reinterpret the erotic verses as a spiritual metaphor for the union of the human and the divine. But if you would rather be a modern crusader of Indian culture on Twitter, I am sorry to inform you that there is more to Indian culture than good clichés like matrudevo bhava and dharmo rakshati rakshitah.

(The author is a Toronto-based Sanskrit scholar who enjoys writing new things about very old things)


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