Intimate Worlds: Brahma Offers Homage to Krsna
BY: JAHNAVA DEVI
Brahma Offers Homage to Krishna, Bhagavata Purana, c. 1575
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Aug 9, CANADA (SUN) Krsna consciousness in art criticism.
In our continuing exploration of Indian paintings from the Bellak collection, we consider the curatorial notes and art criticism offered by the authors of Intimate Worlds, the book showcasing this extraordinary collection. These paintings are now held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose art experts have written essays on each of the paintings featured in the book.
Today we focus on a painting entitled 'Brahma Offers Homage to Krishna', a manuscript leaf from a dispersed series of the Bhagavata Purana. This piece was painted in Northern India, probably Rajasthan, c. 1570-75. It was done in opaque watercolor on paper, and measures 7 x 9 1/8 inches.
The painting depicts the pastime of Lord Brahma stealing the cowherd boys and calves, and Krsna bewildering him in the process. In this image, we see Lord Brahma offering prayers to Lord Krsna, after realizing the Lord's hand at work in the drama.
The pastime is described in the following way by the art critics in Intimate Worlds:
"Brahma's spellbinding abduction of cowherd boys and their cattle, and their subsequent mystical reduplication by Krishna, events that preceded the episode depicted in a painting from an earlier series of the Bhagavata Purana (cat. 7) here form part of a similar illustration. The duplicate youths and cattle have flourished for a year, daily becoming dearer to their families, who intuitively recognize the pervasive presence of their lord.
Balarama asks his brother Krishna to explain this phenomenon to him, and Krishna happily obliges. Brahma requires no such explanation, for finding that even he cannot distinguish the real figures he has abducted from Krishna's replacements, he experiences a vision of each cowherd as Krishna himself. Brahma thereupon prostrates himself before Krishna, arises, and begins to sing his praises."
Upon reading Srila Prabhupada's Krsna Book, we get a much more explicit and accurate narration of this pastime. As the scene unfolds, Krsna encourages his cowherd friends to sit down and enjoy their lunch together, while the calves graze nearby. However the calves wandered off, so Krsna went off to locate them, leaving the boys behind to enjoy their meal. Not only couldn't the calves be found, but Krsna returned to find that his cowherd friends had also disappeared.
Lord Brahma, who had just observed Krsna's pastime of killing the Aghasura demon, had hidden all the calves and cowherds in hopes of having an opportunity to see more of the Lord transcendental pastimes. Not wanting to return home to the village without his two- and four-legged friends, Krsna simply expanded himself as the cowherd boys and calves, so the mothers of Vrindavan would not be in distress. For one continuous year, Krsna expanded Himself as the calves and cowherds, and in this way went on with his pleasurable pastimes on the pasturing grounds of Vrindavan.
It was Balarama who discerned the trick. Having noticed the increasing ecstatic affections between the calves and their mothers, and between the cowherd boys and their parents, Balarama realized that Krsna had expanded Himself in such a way. Lord Brahma then returned after a "moment" of time (calculated as Brahma's time) and saw the cows and cowherds all present. Becoming very bewildered, he tried to understand how his own mystic powers had been thwarted, and thus he came under the spell of his own mysticism.
To alleviate his confusion, Krsna transformed all His expansions into four-handed Visnu Forms, bluish and dressed in yellow clothing. This was followed by the manifestation of many other demigods and living entities of all sorts. All this display of the inconceivable potency of the Supreme Personality completely perplexed Brahma. Krsna then mercifully put Brahma under the protective curtain of yogamaya so that he would not suffer from his total bewilderment.
Now able to see the transcendental view of Vrindavan from his common eyes, Lord Brahma immediately offered his prostrate obeisances to the Krsna. In Krsna Book chapter 13, Srila Prabhupada writes:
"Repeatedly he fell and rose as he recalled the wonderful activities of the Lord. After repeating obeisances for a long time, Brahma stood up and smeared his hands over his eyes. Seeing the Lord before him, he, trembling, began to offer prayers with great respect, humility and attention."
Circumambulating the Lord three times, Brahma then returned to his abode, Brahmaloka, and Krsna reappeared in the original lunch pastime with His friends, taking up where He had left off, as though only seconds had passed.
In Intimate Worlds, the Bellak critic writes:
"The duplicate youths and cattle have flourished for a year, daily becoming dearer to their families, who intuitively recognize the pervasive presence of their lord."
What is described here as the 'intuitive recognition' by the mothers and women of Vrindavan, and by the cows mothering their calves, is described very perfectly in sastra. In Chapter 13 of Krsna Book we read:
"Actually the cows' affection for their calves and the elderly gopis' affection for the boys causelessly increased. Their affection increased naturally, even though the calves and boys were not their offspring. Although the cows and elderly gopis of Vrndavana had greater affection for Krsna than for their own offspring, after this incident, their affection for their offspring increased exactly as it did for Krsna."
Similarly, we read the description of Balarama's observance of the cowherd men taking care of the older cows on top of Govardhana. Upon seeing the calves and boys down below, the cows raced down to greet them, thereby distressing the men who ran after them. Seeing the boys, the fathers became overwhelmed with joy, kissing them, smelling their heads, and affectionately associating with them. Srila Prabhupada explains:
"When Balarama saw this extraordinary exchange of affection between the cows and their calves and between the fathers and their children--when neither the calves nor the children needed so much care--He began to wonder why this extraordinary thing happened. He was astonished to see all the residents of Vrndavana so affectionate for their own children, exactly as they had been for Krsna. Similarly, the cows had grown affectionate for their calves--as much as for Krsna. Balarama therefore concluded that the extraordinary show of affection was something mystical, either performed by the demigods or by some powerful man. Otherwise, how could this wonderful change take place? He concluded that this mystical change must have been caused by Krsna, whom Balarama considered His worshipable Personality of Godhead."
So the "intuitive recognition" of the mothers, fathers, women and cows of Vrindavan was actually the workings of their affections under the same yogamaya that Krsna eventually put Brahma back under.
The authors of Intimate Worlds go on to describe the technical aspects of the painting:
"This Isarda Bhagavata Purana painting is less spatially ambitious than 'Krishna Shares Food with Balarama and the Cowherds During the Rainy Season. The protagonists - Brahma, Krishna and Balarama - are sequestered again in the familiar red rectangle, but here the artist does not attempt to disguise the arbitrariness of its shape, which juts downward to contain Brahma's standing form, thereby stripping its apparently structural frame of any semblance of logic. Similarly, he places the rectangle without subterfuge, allowing it to float unsupported above the cowherds rather than anchoring it along the common baseline, as is normally done in the Isarda series"
In describing the painter's use of structure in this scene, the art critic appears to conclude that the artist's use of space was arbitrary and illogical. Personally, I don't find this to be the case. As we read in the passages above from Krsna Book, this pastime is all about the inconceivable potency of the Lord, and Lord Brahma's own confusion in attempting to use his mystical powers to trick Krsna and His associates. Not only do we have the mystery of the disappearance of the cows and cowherds brought on by Brahma, but also Krsna's inconceivable 'replacement' of them. There is the transcendental mystery of the ecstatic affections showered on boys and calves by their parents and friends, what to speak of the inconceivable nature of time as it is employed by Krsna in this pastime. Given all that, I think the painter has very wonderfully conveyed this bewildering set of transcendental circumstances in his framing of the piece. The uneven lines of the slanting floor and the odd jutting angle all serve to create a sense of things out-of-balance, skewed and unusual. I see this as an intentional device on the artist's part, not a whimsical or illogical stylistic choice.
Our art critic goes on to write:
"He [the artist] accommodates the many cowherds and cows by reducing the figure scale, and accordingly limits the setting to a lone tree and a rose-tinted band of sky."
We see in a great many Indian paintings, of this school and others, that personalities depicted in lila pastimes are made smaller in comparison to the Lord Himself. The artist has included a delightful collection of cowherd boys and calves, but again, this is not simply an artistic device to entertain the reader's eye. Rather, it is a depiction of the transcendental nature of the pastime, which in part is instructive as the unique nature of the individual spirit soul. In Krsna Book Chapter 13 we read:
"In the Vedas it is said that the Supreme Personality of Godhead expands Himself in so many living entities by His energy. Therefore it was not very difficult for Him to expand Himself again into so many boys and calves. He expanded Himself to become exactly like the boys, who were of all different features, facial and bodily construction, and who were different in their clothing and ornaments and in their behavior and personal activities. In other words, everyone has different tastes; being individual soul, each person has entirely different activities and behavior. Yet Krsna exactly expanded Himself into all the different positions of the individual boys. He also became the calves, who were also of different sizes, colors, activities, etc. This was possible because everything is an expansion of Krsna's energy. In the Visnu Purana it is said, parasya brahmanah saktih. Whatever we actually see in the cosmic manifestation--be it matter or the activities of the living entities--is simply an expansion of the energies of the Lord, as heat and light are the different expansions of fire.
Of the author's various comments on the style and technical elements of the painting, I find the critique of the artist's depiction of the figures somewhat annoying. She writes:
"The figures have the same swelling chest seen throughout the series; because they are seated with their arms lowered, they are not subject to the quirky anatomical problem that plagues some of their counterparts, who stand with their arms upraised, namely, the head slipping back to an odd off-center position on the shoulders. Only Brahma shows signs of the shortcomings of such a fundamentally segmented conception of the body, as his feet protrude well beyond the axis of his massive trunk and cluster of heads."
As devotees, we have an abiding affection for all the personalities depicted in this super-excellent transcendental pastime. The cowherd boys, described as having "quirky anatomical problems", are to my eye expertly and beautifully depicted. Their postures, directions of gaze, dress, ornamentation, and bodily proportion are lovely, sweet and striking. I find a great mood of health, vitality and confidence in the full chests of the cowherds. Like the calves, their eyes are cast in many directions, which again lends strength to the mystical nature of the pastime. In fact, while the author makes no mention of it, we see two fascinating shapes of calves on the left margin. While some might consider them 'illogically unfinished", they are indicative of not only the theme of the missing calves, but also of the mystical passage of time. Similarly, like Krsna searching for His friends, the eyes of the calves and cowherds are looking in all directions.
With respect to the critic's idea that Lord Brahma's form suffers the shortcomings of a "fundamentally segmented" body, this seems a perfect depiction of Brahma to me. The very forward placement of Brahma's feet is not unusual in depictions of many-headed demigods or expansions. It seems a fitting technical expression of the inconceivable nature of a Being with so many arms, heads, items of paraphernalia, etc.
Lord Brahma's golden complexion and ornate headgear are also described in the Krsna Book narration:
"Immediately Brahma descended from his great swan carrier and fell down before the Lord just like a golden stick. The word used among the Vaisnavas for offering respect is dandavat. This word means falling down like a stick; one should offer respect to the superior Vaisnava by falling down straight, with his body just like a stick. So Brahma fell down before the Lord just like a stick to offer respect; and because the complexion of Brahma is golden, he appeared to be like a golden stick lying down before Lord Krsna. All the four helmets on the heads of Brahma touched the lotus feet of Krsna."
Upon inspection of the blowup image of Lord Brahma, we see what might be considered a technical error by the artist, by way of a golden line moving from the eye at furthest right, down to Brahma's earring. But in Chapter 13 of Krsna Book, we read that after repeatedly paying his obeisances to Krsna, Brahma "stood up and smeared his hands over his eyes. Seeing the Lord before him, he, trembling, began to offer prayers with great respect, humility and attention." It seems likely that the line coming from Brahma's eye is a depiction of this aspect of the pastime.
A final element that we find interesting, and which is not mentioned by the art critic, is the various hand mudras depicted in the painting. Sri Krsna holds a single finger aloft, and this posture typically indicates the Lord benedicting His devotees. But here we also see that the cowherds are displaying various hand mudras. This writer is unsure of the significance of the mudras. At this point in the scene, while Brahma was paying homage to Krsna, the calves and cowherds were still expansions of Krsna. Previously each was briefly displaying a four-armed Visnu form, holding various paraphernalia. Here we see them back in their cowherd forms. These hands mudras may simply be an indication that the boys are actually expansions of Krsna Himself.
Altogether, this is a magnificent painting. Lord Krsna and Balarama are splendidly appointed, dominating the upper portion of the scene. While little is said in the critique about their Forms here, we can see that Their incomparable beauty sets the mood for the entire piece, flowing outwards from Them across the canvas.