Wednesday, April 15, 2009

SKK 2: Dāna-līlā (Part I: Preliminary Summary)

This article is becoming rather long, so I shall divide it into three sections. This is the introductory portion containing general observations. The next two will cover specific themes.

The dana-lila is the longest chapter in the SKK, even if we take into account the many missing pages. I previously calculated that the average chapter probably contained 25-30 songs, each of which would probably have made a single evening program of song, or pala. There were two (*) folios missing from the dana-lila part of the manuscript, but the total number of songs is still at least 109, the real total probably being three or four more than that.

It is hard for me to believe that this same particular pala could have been run for four consecutive nights, especially since there is, on the whole, a great deal of repetition, which no matter how good the singing, etc., would have tested the patience of any audience. The overall narrative is not much more complex than Krishna going, “Yes, yes!” and Radha, “No, no!” until finally she gives in.

There are some incidents, but these are not clearly defined narrative-wise. Krishna pulls on her clothes, he breaks her earthenware pots carrying yogurt, he eats the yogurt, etc., or at least Radha says he does, but then suddenly he is threatening to do so again.

There are certain subthemes that arise in the back-and-forth dialogue between Radha and Krishna and take up blocks of three or four songs, but whether those break the monotony enough to justify continuing this single story line over four nights is debatable.

Nevertheless, there is a denouement, when Radha finally does give in, Badai is sent away, and Krishna enjoys rati with her. Over the course of the 109 songs, one can detect a gradual weakening of Radha's resolve as Krishna keeps persisting in his dhamali, or aggressive flirtation.

Generally, entire songs are ascribed to either Radha or Krishna, and then certain songs are spoken as dialog, a verse by either protagonist followed by a response. These back-and-forth songs are usually the most entertaining, since they contain immediate responses to specific statements, something like the Shuka-Shari debates in Govinda-lilamrita, where claims are made and then shot down. Just like in those exchanges, Radha gives a bit better than she gets. She seems to have the upper hand in wit and intelligence, Krishna only in brawn and bullying.

The basic premise is of course that Krishna stops Radha on the road to Mathura and tells her:

Krishna: You have been coming to Mathura regularly to sell your wares, without paying a toll on your goods. You have now accumulated back taxes going back twelve years.

Radha: Hang on there! I am only twelve years old! How can that be possible!

Krishna (unheeding): So, according to my calculation, you owe about 900,000 cowries. Pay up or stay here in custody. Or, perhaps, if you like, we can find a way around these niggling rules. You can give me a little kiss and we will forgive your debts. You are so beautiful and as soon as I saw you I became enflamed with passion. You have to be merciful and give me your embrace.

There is a little contradiction in Radha's age. In one place she says she is only eleven (!), in another twelve. This might mean the lila was spread over a longer period of time. This would require Krishna having let her go at least once. Whatever the case, the theme of her being too young is repeated many times. Radha says that making love to her will not be pleasurable since she is like an unripe fruit. Krishna’s answer being, “Youth does not last long. Take advantage while you have it, otherwise you will regret it in the end.”

Krishna repeatedly tries to “browbeat” Radha into accepting him as Gaya’s Gadadhar, Prayag’s Madhava, Narayan, Madhusudana, Deva Vanamali, and other names [an index of which would be interesting in itself]. He mentions having appeared as several avatars, but most of all he tries to impress upon Radha that they were husband and wife in a previous life and that she is his, and not the wife of some cowherd named Aihan.

Krishna: “If you give in to me, you will get divine blessings. If not, well, watch out.”

Radha: “Give me a break. You are an uneducated cowherd, and it shows. I know you as Nandanandan, my nephew, actually. You want to have sex with someone else’s wife and so you are here playing at being a toll-collector. If anyone is in trouble, it is you. Wait till Kamsa finds out. Wait till Aihana, my heroic and pious husband finds out. You are going to get a good drubbing.”

Krishna: “You are Padma and I am Padmanabha. In a previous life we were married.”

Radha: “Yeah sure. Anyway, even if we were married in a previous life, who knows that now? We are not married in this life, and it would be a great scandal if anything happened between us.”

Krishna is the one who brings up the claim that Aihan is impotent, though Radha defends his good qualities in numerous places, including his heroism. When she tries to thwart Krishna's advances by threatening repercussions from Aihan or Kamsa, Krishna simply brushes it off. "I dealt with Putana when I was a baby, I lifted Govardhan. In a previous life I did in Ravana, etc., so do you think I will have any problem dealing with Aihan or even Kamsa?"

In the repartee it is Radha's refusal to accept Krishna's claims of aishwarya and her debunking of them that are a principal source of amusement. Indeed, it appears to be an extension of Krishna's abuse of power: He is not just representing the king and taking advantage of his position to coerce an innocent woman into granting him sexual favors, but is using a claim of divine status to do the same thing.

I can see how there would be an element of discomfort in a more sensitive environment to Krishna's aggressive approach. We have seen that there is a bit of confusion amongst Indian males who think that aggressivity (even "rape" as ACBSP is notoriously noted to have said) is much appreciated by women. Surely women like expressions of attraction, within limits, but Chandi Das goes even further with it.

Let us say that here at least Chandi Das's Krishna is at least waiting for Radha to give permission--though not giving permission does not seem to be an option.

So, sexual harassment, child abuse, or what? I expect that such kinds of abuse of power would have been a fact of life for many women in the audience, especially those from lower castes faced with precisely this kind of situation [and would be even today].

Is this trying to make a silk purse out of a really smelly sow's ear? Should we look at Chandi Das as giving a [dominant patriarchical macho] justification for that kind of abusive behavior?

Since the lila was obviously meant to amuse, and I assume that both men and women would have to be entertained, a certain suspension of disbelief would have been necessary. After all, Radha does give in in the end, but only because she has been forced to do so, not because she believes that Krishna is God.

We have to assume that, in a country where the Gita Govinda would have been firmly established culturally, the audience would have been in on it, and have accepted on faith that this is indeed God’s lila. “I have appeared,” Kahnai says, “only to enjoy with you.”

পৃথিভীত আহ্মে আবতার কৈল তোর সুরতীর আশে (৪৩-৩)

An awareness of the distinction of human and divine would legitimize the behavior only in Krishna's case, as indeed is found in the concluding verses of the Rasa-lila. But as I have discussed before in this blog, the warnings to follow the devotee's attitude instead of Krishna's are an attempt to redirect what would be the normal psychological tendency of an audience. Women would have identified with Radha, there is little doubt of that. Would men have identified with Krishna? And if so, to what extent? Would they have been sympathetic. Would they have recognized his behavior as childish infatuation and hardly heroic, and not to be admired or emulated? In other words, would they have spontaneously heeded the Rasa-lila's warning?

When Radha finally gives in, Chandi Das gives a description of their lovemaking that takes only one verse. It is followed, however, by a strange followup. Instead of treating Radha with affectionate adoration, or indeed in any kind of romantic way, he deprives her of all her jewelry and sends her home without it. Sankshipta sambhoga?

I remember the first time I read SKK and how this apparent callousness here, and indeed at the time that Krishna leaves for Mathura at the end, was the most strikingly disturbing feature of Chandi Das's Krishna. The Dana-lila is still early in the book and am suspending judgment until much later before I come to any conclusions.

But my preliminary instinct is that despite the fact that Mahaprabhu appears to have been familiar with the SKK and it influenced Rupa and Raghunath in their writing of Krishna lila, there were many things in it that clashed with their vision of Radha and Krishna's pure and perfect loves. This is one of the reasons that I am also looking for evidence that Chandi Das knew the Bhagavatam as I go through this.

What I am embarking on here is an effort to analyze and enumerate the different themes. Some of these have already been raised in this introduction. In the next posts, we will look at specific examples of:

  1. External situation: Krishna demands toll, etc. Radha describes what Krishna has done.
  2. Prima facie lust. Krishna describes Radha's beauty, asks for mercy, etc. Radha replies that she is too young, not ready, incapable, etc. Married woman. Illicit love.
  3. Identity. Krishna says he is Narayan, etc., Radha is Lakshmi. Radha says Krishna is a cowherd, and her nephew, etc.
  4. Krishna and Radha threaten and insult each other in various ways.
  5. Radha gradually capitulates and strange conclusion.

I am not yet in a position to cross-reference with other Dana-lila related texts, which is really the ultimate purpose. If we know clearly what is in Chandi Das, then we can see clearly what is not. At the same time, we will be able to see what the Goswamis have held onto and what they have rejected, both in language and in mood. Already from Tambula-khanda, we are beginning to get some idea of the kinds of things that have been dropped. But we will get into that more fully after we have completed our preliminary analysis.

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