Prashant Bhushan and the Impiety of the 'Pious'

Under the guise of upholding Indian tradition and protecting women, an anti-modern cultural imperialism is taking shape, which will not hesitate to erase the very idea of equality from Indian civilisation.

Lord Krishna with gopikas. Credit: Abhi Sharma/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Lord Krishna with gopikas. Credit: Abhi Sharma/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

These days, the stars up in heaven seem determined to make trouble by creating perverse controversies. Otherwise, there is no earthly explanation for the wrath that fell on well-known lawyer and human rights advocate Prashant Bhushan when he commented on the Uttar Pradesh government’s move to form anti-Romeo squads and drew similarities between the Romeos of today and the god Krishna, who, as all know, enjoyed the company of gopikas.

The problem is that while there is a great deal of talk in the political arena about what is and what is not religiously acceptable, the anger on display is based not on some deep philosophical thought but on a superficial understanding of religion. The moment party workers raise the slogan of hurt religious sentiments based on such interpretations, questions are asked and punishments decided in a manner befitting a school classroom.

It is not as if all political leaders who make use of religion for non-religious purposes are unaware of this reality. But whether in politics or elsewhere, it is far easier to silence those who pose an ideological challenge by casting aspersions on them and cornering them through mobs with inflamed sentiments.

By bringing mutually opposed social forces together and building as huge a public mandate as possible, today’s political parties are turning into crowds that have no understanding. This does not benefit anybody, especially those who want to create a new system. However, due to their need for larger numbers of supporters they are reluctant to shun those with outdated views. In fact, they themselves may not consider religion the sole constitutional basis for the politics of a secular nation. In spite of that, when they see a leader capable of building a huge public mandate by claiming the mantle of religion, they end up acknowledging the leader as incomparable. Because of this, the country’s democracy has become much like the elephant whose life is in danger, very often on account of just one ant.

The fact is the Bhagavata Purana and many other puranas are full of stories about Gopal Krishna (the young Krishna), with detailed descriptions of Krishna, the symbol of love, and his charming ras-lila with married gopikas. In fact, in Bengal’s Chaitanya sect, parakiya love – love that goes beyond the bounds of marriage – is accorded a high and pure status.

It was much later that the Bhagavata katha was given an altogether different meaning (by the Vallabha sect) to prove that all the gopikas were actually Krishna’s wives. According to Pandit Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, parakiya love finds mention in Buddhist texts such as the Kathavatthu Jataka and Majjhima Nikaya (mid-length discourses of the Buddha).
To those who believe otherwise, the poet ‘Thakur’ says (on behalf of the gopikas):

I shall scream at the top of my voice, listen, I am in love with Krishna,
If you like it fine, if you don’t, well then you can lump it!

Prashant Bhushan has clarified that his words were misunderstood. By recalling Krishna the lover he was merely bringing in another dimension to make those in power realise the sheer pointlessness of appointing anti-Romeo squads to police young hearts as part of government policy.

The issue was raised to fever pitch, so much so that groups of irate protestors went straight to Bhushan’s house and defaced his name plate. The house – one has to say it – is located in that part of the national capital region which falls within the state of Uttar Pradesh, whose police representatives were captured on TV saying that there can never be any friendship between a young man and woman. If there is a desire to meet each other, a boy and a girl should meet at home in the presence of parents.

That is to say, under the guise of upholding Indian tradition and protecting women, the older generation’s anti-modern stance is strengthening a kind of cultural imperialism which will not hesitate to erase the very idea of equality from Indian civilisation. A community brought up on spurious ghee can stay alive, but a community brought up on spurious ideas such as these will not survive.

In a way Hindi films profoundly represent contemporary popular taste. Peer into the mirror provided by recent box office hits and you will find a societal attitude towards young love that is not so different from the Vaishnava tradition. This tradition sees Krishna as symbolising ‘Sachidananda’ (the ultimate being) who takes refuge in the idea of Radha’s lila (in the northern Vaishnava sects), thus establishing a complete absence of distinction between Radha and the gopikas, merging them into one identity.

If that is the case, then why should these self-proclaimed devouts in power (and a large section of the media mimicking them) read disagreeable meanings into any mention of Krishna’s lila with the gopikas or Radha and immediately raise a stink?

Such people, bogged down in dry ritualism and averse to any rasa or pleasure, seem to be foremost in Surdas’s mind when he uses the pretext of Uddhav (Krishna’s messenger who consoles the gopikas of Vrindavan the advaita way, that Krishna may be in Mathura but he is with them at all times). Through the voice of the gopikas, Surdas says it all:

Keep (O Uddhava) to yourself your ascetic’s remedies for love: asanas, gestures, and breathing exercises!
We the young women of Braj do not care for them at all!

Mrinal Pande is a writer and senior journalist who was formerly the editor of Hindustan.

Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan. The couplets have been translated by the author of the article.

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