Listen to this article:
“তোমরা কি আর বুঝাও ধরম |
শয়নে স্বপনে দেখি সে কালাবরণ ||”
চণ্ডীদাসের পদাবলী, (‘সখি-সম্বোধনে’, রাধার কণ্ঠে, পৃষ্ঠা ৮৫, শঙ্করীপ্রসাদ বসু বিরচিত ‘চণ্ডীদাস ও বিদ্যাপতি’, দে’জ পাবলিশিং, কলিকাতা ১৯৯৯ ) থেকে উদ্ধৃত
“It’s needless, your preaching of religion, to me,
I see only the dark one, in sleep, in my dreams.“
From the ‘Padavali of Chandidas’ (As cited in ‘Addressing Companions’, in Radha’s voice, page 85, ‘Chandidas and Vidyapati’, by Shankariprasad Basu, De’s Publishing, Kolkata, 1999. Translated from the Bengali for this article by S. Sengupta)
‘True love knows no boundaries, nor set rules’
‘Radhika Santawanam’ – ’The Appeasement of Radhika’, by Muddupalani, translated from Telugu to English by Sandhya Mulchandani, from the version of the text restored by Bangalore Nagarathnamma, Chapter 1, Verse 67, Page 31, Penguin Classics, 2011
Somewhere, in some warehouse, many Krishnas are making love to many Radhas in the safety and privacy of a lot of cardboard boxes – parcels lost to time – in the limbo of recently cancelled orders and hastily forsaken deliveries.
Outside, in the twilight zone between online self-righteousness and offline humbug, a circle-jerk of Hindutva holy warriors are engaged in a Niras-Lila, a desiccated masquerade of injured piety and wounded pride. They can’t bear to think of the tales of tenderness and desire of the gods they claim to swear by. Some Hindus have been offended by the thought, or the picture, of Radha and Krishna making love. How they managed to do this in the wake of several centuries of Hindus celebrating the carnal (and spiritual) love of Radha and Krishna, in exquisite image, explicit poetry, robust song and esoteric philosophy is beyond my capacity to reason or imagine. But right now, currently, in the 21st century, someone who calls himself Royal Hindustani Bulldozer, and several of his online associates, can’t take the thought of Radha and Krishna making love.
It is the good fortune of Jayadeva, who wrote the Gita-Govinda in the 12th century, or of Vidyapati and Chandidas, the Vaishnava-Sahajiya poets of medieval Mithila and Bengal, and of Muddupalani, the 18th century courtesan and poet who wrote ‘Radhika Santwanam’ (‘The Appeasement of Radhika’) that they are all dead and gone. But we, who live, who read, who listen, who sing, who continue to be moved by what is imagined as happening on the Yamuna river-bank when night falls and a cool breeze blows, have still to contend with the obscenity of those who consider the love of Radha and Krishna to be obscene.
Meanwhile, politicians, pundits and policemen are on standby, waiting to see if there’s another chance being made available for mixing the cocktail of distraction and destruction that passes for the public life of this republic, or whether they should let this scandal-on-the-make run out of steam, just for this time. Either way, it would be safe to say that Krishna and Radha, multiplied through digital reproduction in the middle of their love play, could not care less. Not for Sanatani Nirasta Sanskriti. (That’s ‘Sanatani Cancel Culture’ for you.)
Nevertheless, here we go again.
The cycle of the performance of enraged religiosity has begun spinning, once again, in the predictably anti-clockwise direction of wounded Hindu sentiments.
If we had barely gotten off, all giddy and nauseous, from the furious Ferris wheel spun by 21st century Kali-controllers oblivious of the actual protocols of Kali worship, we’re destined now to be taken for yet another ride. This time the ride is being run by latter-day Krishna-Bhaktas-Bhatkas forgetful of the Lila of their ishtadeva. Traditionally, the distance from Kali to Krishna has never been far. But this ride, piloted by epigones, promises to be a rough one.
It started like this. On Janmashtami (celebrated as the day of the Hindu deity Krishna’s birth) which fell on August 18 and 19 this year, various online stalwarts of Hindutva seem to have been interrupted while festival shopping when they came across an item, a reproduction of a painting offered at a discount, as part of an online ‘Janmashtami Sale’.
The image featured in this reproduction was that of Krishna making love to his consort Radha in what looks like a nocturnal bower, laid between trees, out in the open. Krishna and his lover are naked, save for jewellery and Krishna’s crown. He is above her as they embrace, her hand holds his, which cups her left breast. They seem to be at the threshold which bridges foreplay and intercourse. They are young, they look very much in love, enraptured by each other, and are very beautiful. There is nothing even remotely obscene in this image. If this is obscene, life itself is obscene. Unfortunately, Hindutva does tend to find life obscene, often.
The storm that rose from this image was triggered by a Twitter handle that goes by the monicker <Dr. Banarasi Kanya>, based in Raipur, which describes its bearer as ‘Unapologetic Hindu | Foodie’ on their bio. ‘Dr. Kanya’ asked Amazon India to ‘check what they sell, else they won’t have customers left in India’. The handle went on to tag BJP leaders Kapil Mishra and Tejasvi Surya and sent a fervent appeal to the Bengaluru City Police to take urgent action against the retailer (the Bengaluru-based firm Inkologie) of the ‘offending item’ on Amazon.in.
Very soon, Twitter handles such as <RashtraDharmaWarrior>, <Hindu Jagruti>, <Royal Hindustani Bulldozer>, and many others, began amplifying <Dr. Banarasi Kanya>’s original tweet – and in the process, tagging ‘Exotic India’, another e-commerce portal that had advertised Inkologie’s print, with threats of boycott and worse, if they did not take it down. ‘Exotic India’ buckled swiftly, pulled the item off its portal and offered an apology. The item, along with everything else offered for sale by Inkologie, including innocuous mugs and home decor items, disappeared from Amazon.in. I don’t quite know if the storm has quietened, or whether there are other cultural aftershocks on their way. Paradoxically, as usually happens in instances of manufactured outrage, many more people have now seen the image in question due to angry Twitter forwards, compared to the time before Dr. Banarasi Kanya lost it, or Royal Hindustani Bulldozer got their knickers in a twist. That’s the Ras-Lila, or virality, of an image, online. If the Hindutva Holy Warriors had wanted people not to see the image that so affronted them, then they have succeeded in doing precisely the opposite. No one but they are to blame.
Every image and every incident has a backstory. This image does too, and so does this incident. This image (let’s call it, ‘Image A’) has a twin, another image (let’s call it ‘Image B)’ that triggered another episode of manufactured rage. Even the incident, like the image, has its twin, its shadow. Image A and Image B, and Incident X and Incident Y.
And then the two images have a few other backstories. We’ll come to them, one by one.
First, about the incident (Incident X) that preceded this one. In April, 2017, a man called Rahul Jain, who goes by ‘Rahul Bhaiji’ on Facebook, an activist of the Communist Party of India based in the town of Rahatgarh, near Sagar, in Madhya Pradesh, posted on his Facebook page an image (Image B) which happened to be the twin of the one (Image A) that infuriated Royal Hindustani Bulldozer and Dr. Banarasi Kanya. In Image A, Krishna is on top of Radha. And in Image B, Radha is on top of Krishna. Otherwise, to all practical purposes, the images were made around about the same time, in the same context, perhaps even by the same hands. They both show Radha and Krishna making love.
Predictably, Hindutva holy warriors were just as incensed by Image B in 2017 as they have become by exposure to Image A in 2022.
Five years ago, a man called Krisnakant Tiwari, of the Madhya Pradesh BJP’s IT Cell, purportedly close to the then Madhya Pradesh home minister Bhupendra Singh Thakur, raised a fuss about having seen a nude Radha astride a naked Krishna on Rahul Bhaiji’s Facebook page. An FIR was duly filed, under the appropriate provisions of sections 153(A) and 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code (promoting enmity and hatred towards a religion) and section 67A of the Information Technology Act. The sections were non-bailable. To avoid arrest, the unfortunate Krishna-Bhakta Communist of Rahatgarh went ‘underground’.
This time, the ire of Dr. Banarasi Kanya is directed at the people who have founded and run ‘Inkologie’.
The company’s blog says, “Founded in Bengaluru, India in 2021, Inkologie specializes in transforming ink into beautiful forms for your home, office and gifting.” There are hardly any posts. And just one comment, asking for a phone number. Retrospectively, they are wise not to have put that out online. Inkologie’s contact email address would have won the approval of the medieval poets like Vidyapati and Candidas who celebrated the love of Radha and Krishna with ripe erotic word-play. It just says ‘love’. The ‘transformation of ink into beautiful forms’ is as an innocent (and usually delightful) an activity as can be, but obviously it’s not innocuous enough for Hindutva.
The image offered by Inkologie as a framed print, or poster, is a reproduction. The offended Bhakts are full of rage targeted at entities, presumably outside the pale of Hinduism, who have dared to produce what is to them such an ‘obscene’ vision. The comments on Dr. Banarasi Kavya’s indignant tweet include expressions of anger against the ‘rice-bags’ of Amazon (‘Rice Bag’ is Hindutva speak for Christians, or for people who convert to Christianity, presumably for the price of a rice-bag) and who insult Hindu deities without a blink but, according to these enraged commentators, would never dare to take on Muslim religious figures.
The trouble is, both Image A and Image B were created by devout Hindus, for a devout Hindu patron, inspired by a Hindu devotional text, in a spirit of piety, around the year 1780 of the Common Era, in or around the princely hill state of Guler in the Kangra Valley, in what is now Himachal Pradesh and was then, Punjab. So the idea of a grand anti-Hindu conspiracy unleashed by Christians and Muslims and what the Hindu right likes to call ‘Sickulars’ to demean deities from the Hindu pantheon is a bit difficult to entertain. How else then can we see the Hindutva assault on avowedly, and devoutly, Hindu religious imagery as anything but an instance of the ‘friendly fire’ of self-loathing. Of contemporary Hindus, brainwashed by Hindutva, who can’t deal with the traditions of their own ancestors.
The original form of Image A is titled ‘As Passion Took Over’ – a page from a dispersed series of the Gita Govinda (Song of the Dark Lord) of Jayadeva. On the website of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (its current home, as part of the Alvin O. Bellak Collection), it is listed under its accession number 2004-149-75 . The image, just 15.4 × 13.7 cm, set within a 17 × 15.6 cm sheet of paper, is exquisite, the workmanship, in opaque watercolour with gold on paper, of a very high quality. The Philadelphia Museum of Art does not name the artist.
The original of Image B, known simply as ‘An Illustration from the Gita Govinda’, is ascribed to a ‘Master of the First Generation after Nainsukh of Guler or Kangra’ and is dated between 1775 and 1780. This work came into the market as recently as 2013, when it was auctioned by Christies, the well known international auction house dealing in fine art and antiquities, for $207,750.
The ‘lot essay’ accompanying the published illustration of this painting in the Christies Catalogue for 2013 clearly establishes a relationship of the original of Image B with the original of Image A (‘As Passion Took Over’) in the Alvin Bellak Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In fact, the extensive note on the image and its history in the ‘Lot Essay’ narrows the artist(s) of both images within a particular lineage of remarkable painters who flourished in Guler. The note says:
“Over 35 paintings from this Gita Govinda series have been published, but, according to W. G. Archer, who linked it with a numbered set of drawings in the National Museum, New Delhi, the original likely contained over 150 images. Archer himself speculated that the set may have been the work of Khushala (the renowned painter Manaku’s younger son), and Gaudhu (the second son of Nainsukh’s. another renowned painter in the lineage of Pandit Seu). While this is difficult to substantiate, the paintings do clearly relate to the workshop-lineage of Pandit Seu, Nainsukh, and Manaku…( The Art Historian) B.N. Goswamy believes that the planning and preliminary sketches for this set, or at least many of them, were actually done by the master Nainsukh himself in the last decade of his life He does not, however, attempt to designate an individual hand for the completed paintings, attributing them generally to the workshop and a “master of the first generation after Nainsukh,” active about 1775–80.Vishwa Chander Ohri also attributes the set to painters working in Guler, but dates it slightly earlier, to c. 1760–65.”
If one reads the Gita Govinda carefully, it is possible to identify the exact eight-line verses (ashtapadis) that Image A and Image B illustrate. Both belong to the final Canto, Sarga 12, (‘Supreet Pitambar’ / ‘The Sweet Yellow Clad One’), of the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva. The two images, now dispersed, must originally have been part of a closely linked set of pictures, meant to be viewed together, one after the other, as one read, or recalled, the poetry they pictured. They are small enough to be held in the hand, turned, leisurely, closely, like the pages of a favourite book or album.
The verse illustrated by Image A, (Krishna on Top, ‘As Passion Took Over’, Philadelphia Museum of Art, also the one featured as a print by Inkologie, entangled with incident Y) is the fifth verse of the 12th canto of the poem. And the verse illustrated by Image B, (Radha on Top, ‘An Illustration from the Gita Govinda’, Christies Catalogue, 2013, the image that incensed the Madhya Pradesh BJP IT Cell’s Krsihnakant Tiwari, incident X ) is the 13th verse of the same, 12th canto, of the poem.
Let’s read the two verses, first 12:5, (Image A) and then 12:13 (Image B). The Sanskrit text is from the original Gita-Govinda of Jayadeva, and the English translation is from ‘Gita-Govínda: Love Songs of Radha and Krishna’, by Jayadeva, Translated by Lee Siegel, with a foreword by Sudipta Kaviraj, Clay Sanskrit Library; General Editor, Sheldon Pollock; Edited by Isabelle Onians; New York University Press and JJC Foundation, New York, 2009. Verse numbers of both verses and the page numbers corresponding to where they can be located in the Clay Sanskrit Library edition are indicated after the English translations of both verses.
रिय-परिरम्भण-रभस-वलितमिव पुलकितमति दुरवापम्।
मदुरसि कुचकलशं विनिवेशय शोषय मनसिज-तापम्॥
क्षणमधुना नारायणमनुगतमनुसर राधिके!
Smother love’s fervid flames,
press your breasts against my chest;
Your bristling bosom is hard to hold,
brimming with desire to be caressed.
Obey me, right now, dear Radha –
I, the god Naráyana, have always followed you.
[Gita-Govinda, 12:5, Lee Siegel’s translation, Clay Sanskrit Library Edition, pages 174 and 175]
मारांके रति-केलि-सङ्कुल-रणारम्भे तया साहस-
प्रायं कान्तजयाय किञ्चिदुपरि प्रारम्भि यत्सम्भ्रमात्र।
निष्पन्दा जघनस्थली शिथिलता दोर्वल्लिरुत्कम्पितं
वक्षो मीलितमक्षि पौरुषरस: स्त्रीणां कुत: सिध्यति
When they started making love, as much a deadly battle as a sexy game,
the girl, in an attempt to conquer her lover,
did something rash – she got on top of him!
And then, because of all the energy that demanded,
her pelvis stopped churning, her arms fell limp and loose, her bosom heaved, and her eyes closed.
Is that not just how it goes when a woman tries to display the heroism of a warrior?
[Gita-Govinda, 12:13, Lee Siegel’s translation, Clay Sanskrit Library Edition, pages 178 and 179]
The explicitly erotic nature of the poetry, which both images faithfully render (as is obvious when looking at the images and reading the poetry), is found throughout the Gita-Govinda. It embodies a philosophical stance, that flourished within the Vaishnava-Sahajiya mystical traditions of a robust, embodied form of devotion, practiced and refined in the language of bodily love.
Here, for instance, is another verse – often sung in accompaniment to the performance of the Odissi form of classical dance. Here, the poet Jayadeva addresses Radha, who he reveres as a goddess, directly –
विगलितवसनं परिहृतरसनं घटय जघनमपिधानम्
किसलयशयने पङ्कजनयने निधिमिव हर्षनिदानम् ।।
धीरसमीरे यमुनातीरे वसति वने वनमाली
गोपी पीनपयोधरमर्दनचंचलकरयुगशाली ।।
Lotus eyed Radha, loosen your sash,
Strip off your clothes, bare naked thighs,
On his bed of delight, your loins will be treasured,
an ample delight for his eyes.
By the Yamuna, where the wind wafts winsome,
There in the woods, Krishna rests,
There, where once his restless hands
Caressed cowherdesses’ curvaceous breasts
[Gita-Govinda, 5:13, Lee Siegel’s translation, Clay Sanskrit Library Edition, pages 80-81]
Not only is sexual desire and physical love given a great deal of conceptual heft in Vaishnava-Sahajiya theology – as both metaphor as well as means for the realisation of the longing that humans can experience for the divine, (and this is amply demonstrated, both in the poetry of Jayadeva and the images in the paintings from Kangra/Guler,) there is also a specific kind of attachment that is highly valued. And again, this because of, not despite its contravention of established codes of patriarchal and heteronormative sexual morality. This is the ‘parakiya’ or illicit love, that breaks the hidebound rules of marriage and propriety, the kind that Radha, an older married woman, has for Krishna, her (by marriage) younger nephew.
Rupa Goswamin, the 15th century CE Gaudiya Vaishnava theologian and contemporary of Chaitanya, defines the ‘parakiya-svakiya’ dyad as follows:
“A parakiya woman is she who, having no dependence on ordinary dharma, belonging to another, is attracted to a man and causes him to be attracted to her, but who does not enter into marriage with him…
A svakiya woman is she who has been taken in marriage according to the accepted rites, who is obedient to the wishes of her husband, and who does not depart from the dharma of her wifely vows.”
[Rupa Goswamin, Ujjvala Nilamani (The Bright Sapphire) Krishnavallabha 6, Murshidabad edition, 1935, pages 70, 65, respectively]
In his commentary on Rupa Goswami’s enunciation of the difference between illicit and licit love, the scholar of Bengal Vaishnavism, Edward C. Dimock Jr, elaborates why he thinks the Vaishnava-Sahajiya tradition privileges the love that breaks the laws of love. He writes –
“Separation of lovers and the longing involved in it are called Viraha in both Sahajiya and orthodox traditions, and to both, Viraha is more intense in a relationship with a parakiya woman than a svakiya one. For in a parakiya relationship, nothing at all is certain; any separation might be the final one. Furthermore, there are degrees of validity of the parakiya relationship. Parakiya women can be of two kinds ; parodha, married women, and kanyaka, those who are unmarried…parodha women have more to lose in giving themselves to a man other than their husbands and thus better illustrate the principle of prema (love).
Radha and the Gopis were parodha parakiya women. To orthodox Vaishnavas, their prima for Krishna illustrates the proper love the worshipper should have for God. To the Sahajiyas, the parodha parakiya woman is Radha, and it is with her that one can find salvation. This is not poetic, but metaphysical truth.”
[The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaishnava Sahajiya Cult of Bengal, by Edward.C. Dimock Jr, The University of Chicago Press, 1989, page 17]
Clearly, the Parakiya woman is a strong willed one. She knows, or comes to know, her desires, and is determined to realise them, despite the pain of separation that not being in a sanctioned relationship entails. The Radha of the Gita Govinda and of Vaishnava poetry generally is no chaste Sati-Savitri, no wall flower walkover. She chides, mocks, and occasionally even insults Krishna, and yet at all times is passionately in love with him. A lot of the power in their relationship lies with her, which is also indicated by the fact that she is older than him, and that it is she who, at the very beginning of the Gita-Govinda, triggers their dalliance by taking the initiative. The very first verse, in the first canto of the Gita-Govinda, evokes an oncoming storm, and Nanda, Krishna’s step-father, instructs the cow-herd woman Radha, Krishna’ maternal uncle’s wife, slightly older than Krishna himself, to take the lad safely home. She eagerly agrees, but instead of taking him home, strays to the river bank with Krishna, and initiates him in the art of making love.
मेघैर्मेदुरमम्बरं वनभुवः श्यामास्तमालद्रुमै-
र्नक्तं भीरुरयं त्वमेव तदिमं राधे गृहं प्रापय ।
इत्थं नन्दनिदेशितश्चलितयोः प्रत्यध्वकुञ्जद्रुमं
राधामाधवयोर्जयन्ति यमुनाकूले रहःकेलयः
Dark is this forest of Blackwood trees, and dark tonight the cloud-cluttered sky.
“He’s frightened,” Nanda said. “Radha, you should take him home.”
But Radha and Krishna strayed from the homeward path and into the woods.
Glory to their clandestine games of love on the banks of the Yamuna
[Gita-Govinda, 1:1, Lee Siegel translation, Clay Sanskrit Library Edition, pages 4 and 5]
The Gita-Govinda’s opening lines directly echo the episode that marks the first erotic encounter between Radha and Krishna in the Krishna-Janma Khanda of the Brahma-Vaivartana Purana, the Sanskrit scriptural anthology of mainly Vaishnavite legends, rituals and theological speculations in which Radha makes her first appearance. Here too, Nanda entrusts the older Radha with the safety of the younger Krishna, and she, entranced by his adolescent-boy-form, is enraptured when he is magically transformed into a fetching young man in front of her eyes. This (as Vishnu tells Brahma and Narada in the text of the Purana), is what happens next –
करे धृत्वा च तां कृष्णः स्थापयामास वक्षसि ।। चकार शिथिलं वस्त्रं चुम्बनं च चतुर्विधम् ।।१४८।।
Thereafter Lord Krishna embraced Radha, holding her with his hands, loosening her garments, and kissing her at the same time.
बभूव रतियुद्धेन विच्छिन्ना क्षुद्रघण्टिका ।। चुम्बनेनौष्ठरागश्च ह्याश्लेषेण च पत्रकम् ।।१४९।।
In the battle of sexual pleasure, the small bells studded in the waist band of Radha were broken and her lips became red because of the kissing and the decoration of the chest was disturbed with the embraces.
शृंगारेणैव कबरी सिन्दूरतिलकं मुने ।। जगामालक्तकाङ्कश्च विपरीतादिकेन च ।।4.15.१५०।।
O sage, at the time of conjugal pleasure, the hair disheveled the tilakam; the vermilion and other decorations of the body were disfigured.
पुलकाङ्कितसर्वांङ्गी बभूव नवसंगमात् ।। मूर्च्छामवाप सा राधा बुबुधे न दिवानिशम् ।।१५१।।
At the time of first love sport, the body of Radha became emotional and she fainted, losing consciousness of day and night.
प्रत्यङ्गेनैव प्रत्यङ्गमङ्गेनाङ्गं समाश्लिषत् ।। शृङ्गाराष्टविधं कृष्णश्चकार कामशास्त्रवित्।।१५२।।
Lord Krishna who was well versed in the love-sport united all the limbs of his body with those of Radha and he enjoyed eight types of sexual pleasure with her.
पुनस्तां च समाश्लिष्य सस्मितां वक्रलोचनाम् ।। क्षतविक्षतसर्वाङ्गीं नखदन्तैश्चकार ह ।।१५३।।
Embracing him, she was looking at Krishna with side-glance, smilingly, and he injured all the limbs of her body with the biting of the teeth.
कङ्कणानां किङ्किणीनां मञ्जीराणां मनोहरः ।। बभूव शब्दस्तत्रैव शृङ्गारसमरोद्भवः ।। १५४ ।।
At the time of the sexual pleasure, the armlets, anklets and wristlets of Radha were creating sweet sounds.
पुनस्तां च समाकृष्य शय्यायां च निवेश्य च ।। चकार रहितां राधां कबरीबन्धवाससा ।। १५५ ।। निर्जने कौतुकात्कृष्णः कामशास्त्रविशारदः ।। चूडावेषांशुकैर्हीनं चकार तं च राधिका ।।१५६।।
Thereafter, Krishna who was well-versed in the art of making love, made Radha to sit on the bed and disheveled her hair, unrobing her at the same time. Radha too behaved similarly.
न कस्य कस्माद्धानिश्च तौ द्वौ कार्यविशारदौ ।। जग्राह राधाहस्तात्तु माधवो रत्नदर्पणम् ।।१५७।।
मुरलीं माधवकराज्जग्राह राधिका बलात् ।। चित्तापहारं राधायाश्चकार माधवो बलात् ।।१५८।।
जहार राधिका रासान्माधवस्यापि मानसम् ।। निवृत्ते कामयुद्धे च सस्मिता वक्रलोचना।।१५९।।
प्रददौ मुरलीं प्रीत्या श्रीकृष्णाय महात्मने।। प्रददौ दर्पणं कृष्णः क्रीडाकमलमुज्ज्वलम् ।।4.15.१६०।।
चकार कबरीं रम्यां सिन्दूरतिलकं ददौ।। विचित्रपत्रकं वेषं चकारैवंविधं हरिः।। ।।१६१।।
विश्वकर्मा न जानाति सखीनामपि का कथा ।। वेषं विधातुं कृष्णस्य यदा राधा समुद्यता ।। १६२ ।।
Neither of them was able to cause any harm to either of them because both of them were well-versed in the art of making love. Thereafter, Madhava snatched the mirror of gems from the hands of Radha and she on her part forcibly snatched the flute from the hand of Krishna. Madhava then forcibly stole away the heart of Radha and she too acted similarly. At the end of the sexual play Radha looked at Krishna lovingly and handed over the flute to him. The Lord also returned the mirror to Radha after enjoying the love-sport. He then arranged her hair nicely and decorated her forehead with tilakam and flower leaves. The hair decoration done by Sri Krishna or Radha was beyond even Vishwakarma to do so, what to speak of her female friends.
[Brahma-Vaivarta Purana, Volume 2, Sri Krishna Janma Khanda, Chapter 15, Pages 116-117.
Sanskrit Text with English Translation by Shanti Lal Nagar. Edited with Exhaustive introduction by Acharya Ramesh Chaturvedi, Head, Department of Puranetihasa. Published by Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth and Parimal Publications, New Delhi.]
Has the Royal Hindustani Bulldozer ever read the Brahma-Vaivarta Purana? And if he did, would he call for its ban, because of its frankly sexual depiction of the first encounter between Radha and Krishna? Would there be demands raised for Amazon.in and Exotic India.com to cease selling its copies? Will the copies of the original Sanskrit text and its English, Hindi, Bengali and other language translations of this Purana be confiscated from homes and libraries? Will its publishers be sent to prison? Would the Hindu Religious leaders like Swami Anand Swaroop who are calling for a new Hindutva constitution and the death penalty for ‘Ish-Ninda’ or ‘Blasphemy’ of Hindu deities, wake up and ask for the head of the immortal Krishna Dwaipayan Vyas (Veda Vyas) who is traditionally considered to be the compiler of all the Puranas, including the Brahma Vaivarta Purana? Is this how Vyas will finally embrace mortality? Will Krishna and Radha face police action, as teenage lovers often do, in an increasingly loveless country, which prosecutes those who break the laws that say who can love whom? Is Parakiya Prem feared because it is also a kind of Love Jihad?
Radha’s fierce love is also brilliantly evoked in ‘Radhika Santawanam’ – ’The Appeasement of Radhika’ – an erotic verse novella about the love of Krishna and Radha by the Telugu speaking courtesan (ganika) and poet, Muddupalani, who lived in the court of King Pratapsimha of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, in 18th century CE, as his concubine. The content of the poem, much of which is considered to be autobiographical, tells of Radha gaining, losing and then again gaining the love of Krishna. The language is frank, graphic in its depiction of bodily contact, and intensely erotic. Radha is clearly the protagonist of this work, and it is her will and desire that moves the action. This can be clearly seen at work in the penultimate section of the last chapter of ‘The Appeasement’, where an angry and jealous Radha spurns and kicks Krishna, who takes this to be the greatest sign of her love and regard. Radha then regrets her anger, relents and is reunited with Krishna, in energetic love-making. Muddupalani describes Radha’s ‘appeasement’ in the following delightful terms:
Like flower petals dropping,
She fell on him.
Like breeze circulating,
She spun him around,
Like a mechanized ball,
She bounced around,
Like the spinning top,
Giddily she played him with gusto.
She posed and preened
Slapping his cheeks
Chiding him lovingly
Kissing him incessantly
Touching his organ
Caressing him slowly
They made love,
Bala Hari and his Radhika
[‘Radhika Santawanam’ – ‘The Appeasement of Radhika’, by Muddupalani, translated from Telugu to English by Sandhya Mulchandani, from the version of the text restored by Bangalore Nagarathnamma, Chapter 4, Verse 105, Page 153, Penguin Classics, 2011.]
Like our Image A and Image B, The Appeasement of Radhika though was savagely attacked, when it was published, in a restored version by another courtesan, Bangalore Nagarathnamma, in 1911. Nagarthnamma had proudly stated in the preface to her edition that only another courtesan could have known the reality of love-making as well as Mutthupalani did. For this, and for the content of several verses that seemed too prurient for the polite society of early twentieth century South India, the book was castigated ‘as the work of a prostitute, re-published by a prostitute’. A case of publishing obscene literature was brought against Nagarathnamma. The book again lapsed into obscurity, and would not be well known until it was published again, after independence.
It’s as if the very presence, down the centuries, of the Parakiya heroine Radha, as an autonomous, active agent of her own erotic destiny, were too subversive for the increasingly straight laced and misogynist Brahminical anxiety that would harden into the sexual politics of Hindutva as well as different kinds of secular nationalism in India as a response to colonialism’s devaluation of the open and frank sexual mores amongst both Hindus and Muslims (and others) in South Asia. The English excoriation of Indian ‘effeminacy’ or of being ‘oversexed’, meant that nineteenth and twentieth century Indians began to compete with their colonial masters in a nervous cultivation of the hatred, contempt and fear of the erotic. This translated into an active shame about the vibrant presence of eroticism in Indic cultures, in art, poetry and life. Celibacy, which was only one of the many ways in which Hindus were enjoined to experiment with their sexual lives, gradually came to represent the life-choice of masculine modernity. The upholding of masculine celibacy as an ideal, as we know from the examples of Gandhi, meant that even women associated with men conjugally were forced into a rigorously asexual life. No one asked the wives of men who took the vows of celibacy whether or not they desired to do the same. It was just assumed that they did.
This peculiar style of repression criminalises all passions that cannot be harnessed into the legitimate or safe political channels of the Hindu nation in the making. Because desire, which can come unbidden, often does not heed the regulatory framework of socially accepted conjugation, it is always suspect, especially in the eyes of those who grudgingly accept only two possible purposes of sex –
a) aggression against the designated other (the imperative, or the compulsion, to rape those who are not like oneself)
b) the turning of the women of one’s own community into baby making machines to achieve lasting reproductive dominance.
This is why Hindutva leaders, when they are not busy garlanding rapists, counting condoms in dissident university campuses, or themselves threatening Muslim women with rape (in emulation of Savarkar) are intent on turning Hindu women into zombie-matas, mothers of as many babies, especially male Hindu babies, as their ragged uteruses can bear.
Radha, the woman who makes love, and often, only when she wants to, never when she doesn’t, without ever conceiving or giving birth to a child, is as far apart as possible from the ideal that Hindutva wants to impose on women, as is possible to be. For Radha, the erotic doesn’t have to be utilitarian, nor does it have to be sublimated into some metaphysical or demographic abstraction. It exists as its own cause, because it connects human beings to each other, and to nature, at an elemental, hormonal, rasika level, because it is bliss, and sometimes, pain. Because it is freedom, and subjection. And the basis for understanding the difference between freedom and subjection. Because it is the frail human body’s only passage to the experience of something approximating infinity in the moment of release. Because it is tender, savage, strong and incredibly soft at the same time.
That is why the image of Radha’s freely chosen act to sit astride Krishna, and under him, in Image A, and in Image B, is so disturbing to all those who want to bulldoze human sentience and existence, to flatten our polymorphous incarnations into a majoritarian dystopia that is bereft of all desire.
But it won’t work. Radha and Krishna will always make love. In warehouses, in bowers fashioned from dreams. In licit and illicit places, in cheap hotel rooms for furtive and fugitive couples, in parakiya paradise, regardless of bans, with and without Aadhar cards, across the lines of religion, caste, class, and even sex – because desire laughs at all division, so much so that Radha can cross dress as Krishna whenever she feels like it. Because in the beginning, end and middle of all things, there is always desire. Burning, soothing, waking, dreaming desire.
कामस्तदग्रे समवर्तत मनसो रेतः प्रथमं यदासीत्।
स काम कामेन बृहता सयोनी रायस्पोषं यजमानाय धेहि ॥
In the beginning, there was Kama, Desire, that primal seed and germ, of spirit, of mind
O Kama, that lives on Kama, grow, glow, give, to those who offer sacrifice,
[Atharva Veda 19:52, the Hymn to Kama, to Desire]
Shuddhabhrata Sengupta is with the Raqs Collective in New Delhi.