Les vies simultanées de Krishna (Rajasthan)

Et si la libération s’obtenait en regardant des scènes religieuses et en menant une vie faite de divertissement ? Par l’analyse détaillée d’un pichvai (peinture) du Rajasthan, l’historienne de l’art Saumya Agarwal revient sur des moments marquants de la vie du dieu Krishna et sur des notions phares de l’hindouisme.

Pichvai de Krishna © musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, photo Claude Germain

The Many Lives of Krishna in a Rajasthani Painting

Displayed in the permanent collection of musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac is a cloth painting from a temple town in India. Fascinated by this magnificent work of art, I spent some time observing it, and my interest was piqued by the two sets of images that form the border of this painting. In one set the images are all labelled, and in the other they are not. In the paper that follows, I have attempted to analyse the reason for this difference between these two sets of images. I begin with contextualizing the painting, and exploring the historical traditions which are the mainstay of this temple, and the practices of worship surrounding it. I then briefly delve upon the philosophical notions of creativity and divinity intrinsic to this tradition particularly to analyse the role of such paintings in the ritual practices of the temple. Finally, I attempt to analyse the selective labelling of the two sets of images as a possible symptom of the institutionalization of an originally egalitarian tradition of worship.

Nathdwara: The Temple Town of Shri Nath Ji

A small marble statue from a personal shrine. Krishna is depicted playing a flute. Location: Delhi. Photo Credit: Author.

Situated in Rajasthan in the northern part of India is a 17th century temple town known as Nathdwara. Home to one of the richest temples in India, the town is centred around the idol of Shri Nath Ji[1]. The idol is in bas-relief, carved in black marble stone, and about 4 feet high, and is one form of the Hindu god Krishna.
Hinduism, being a pantheistic religion, has a multiplicity of gods. In this multiplicity, there is a triad of three powerful gods – Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Out of these, Vishnu is said to have manifested himself on earth in various incarnations, at different epochs, for various ends. Amongst the best revered and loved of all incarnations of Vishnu is the incarnation of Krishna. Shri Nath Ji, the main deity of Nathdwara, is a manifestation of Krishna. In this manifestation, Krishna is depicted in the moment when he lifts up a mountain to protect the inhabitants of his childhood home from the wrath of the rain god Indra. The story goes that once the king of gods – Indra – became angry with the villagers of Krishna’s childhood home as they had stopped worshiping him. In his anger, he made it rain endlessly on this village causing devastation. Krishna, then only a child of seven, protected the villagers by holding a mountain aloft like a protective umbrella over the entire village. Krishna, who is a bhagwaan, is more powerful than a deva, even their king Indra. Both the terms bhagwaan and deva are translated as “god” in English, though in Hindu mythology a deva is less powerful than a bhagwaan, as a bhagwaan has a direct influence on the bhagya or fate of the devotees. Vishnu is a bhagwaan, as is his incarnation Krishna. Therefore, when the divine aspect of the child Krishna became evident to Indra, he came apologizing and withdrew the rains.
As is evident, the pantheism of Hinduism does not come merely from a multiplicity of mythological figures, but also a multiplicity of various manifestations of each god-like figure. Refer to the images below for examples of some other forms in which Krishna is worshipped to understand this multivalent nature of Hinduism.

Krishna as a child holding a ball of butter. Location: Nathdwara. Photo Credit: Author.

Pushtimarg Tradition and the Living God:

As there are multiple Gods in Hinduism, so also many ways of worshipping. The singularity of the temple in Nathdwara comes from the fact that the idol of Shri Nath Ji here is treated as a living being. While, in Hinduism, all idols have a certain amount of agency, in the context of Nathdwara it isn’t simply the agency of the idol which is important, but also the possibility of the devotees participating in the life of the idol, as if it were a living being, which becomes paramount.
The agentive nature of the Shri Nath Ji idol is evident from its origin myth. The idol is supposed to have self-manifested, thus there can be no human hand responsible for its creation. The second instance of the agency of the idol involves the idol choosing where his temple would be. It is believed that, in the 16th century, when the idol was being shifted from its original home to another town many miles away, en route the wheels of the cart got stuck in a small village in Rajasthan. This was seen as a sign for the lord deciding where he would reside, and thus, in the middle of arid Rajasthan, you have a glorious temple town which is now home to one of the richest temples in India.
Both these instances are examples of a “remarkable occurrence” (Gell 1998: 118), and lend authority to the idea of the idol as a living god. In keeping with this belief, the building that houses the idol in Nathdwara is not called a temple but a haveli, which means a place of residence. In this house the god is dressed, bathed, he plays, eats and sleeps. This temple, thus, is unique as the idol is not simply seen as a manifestation of god, but as a living embodiment of Krishna, more precisely of Krishna as a child, who needs to be taken care of like a living being. The devotees thus are able to express their devotion by taking care of the idol like it were a doll, and thus enter into a harmonious state of serving the idol through playacting.  It isn’t uncommon therefore to find people cooling the walls of Krishna’s mansions in Nathdwara, during the summer months, by dousing them with buckets of water. The reasoning is simple, Krishna must be feeling warm and so the devotees are serving him by making his surroundings more habitable. Similarly, devotees dress up as village folk from Krishna’s mythical childhood village and celebrate various festivals linked to Krishna’s life, thus participating in Krishna’s earthly existence beyond the constraints of space and time. All these acts express an affection for the idol as experienced by the devotees, and this could be both erotic or like the love of a parent towards a child.
The reason for this emphasis on the idea of the idol as a living being and the possibility of obtaining grace and salvation through physical love and joy is the fact that Nathdwara was established as the main pilgrimage site of the Pushtimarg tradition. Pushtimarg tradition drew on the teachings of the 16th century saint Vallabhacharya who popularised the worship of Krishna as Shri Nath Ji. Renaldo Maduro describes Vallabhacharya’s philosophy as one which interpreted the raas lila (the romantic dalliances between Krishna and the young women of the village) as a quest for the divine. Vallabhacharya idealized the romantic longings of the mythical village women of Vrindavan as  central to an understanding of Pushtimarg, and as a way of showing one’s devotion to Krishna (Maduro1976: 31). According to the Pushtimarg tradition, thus, one can attain salvation through a participation in the life of Krishna by pretending to be a personage from his childhood years, including experiencing the longing that the village women felt for Krishna, after he left his childhood home and became the king of a faraway kingdom –Dwarka.

Lila and Creative Agency

The aspects of love and playacting are central to the concept of lila, which is often defined as divine play, and both are linked to the act of creation. It is through love, which is ontologically akin to a creative force, that the cosmos came into being, and it is through this joyful love that one can gain moksha (salvation) thus attaining liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. The term lila thus functions at an ontological and a cosmological level as creation by a cosmic force. It can also be understood as all creative activity including a playful mimesis by individuals in an attempt to participate in god’s life. There is particular emphasis in the Pushtimarg tradition on aesthetic inventiveness as a way of pleasing the deity (Lyons 2004: 22). Thus, god’s blessings and even salvation can be acquired not just through the consumption of prasaad (ritual food) or darshan (ritualistic viewing of the idol), but through the act of playing.
The path thus to Krishna is not through penance, or any other form of hardship, but a joyful playful participation in the life of a god, who came to this earth in one material form, and continues to inhabit it in another.  This connection between materiality and divinity is an intrinsic part of lila which has been defined by the philosopher guru Sri Aurobindo as a “slow-manifesting birth of God in matter” (Morey 2012: 68).  Lila thus is a complex philosophical conundrum, which can both be a concept and a practise, functioning at various levels, and interpreted differently by various schools of Hindu philosophy. Here my attempt is to illustrate the approachable levels at which the Pushtimarg tradition made it available for the devotees, and to discuss the role of painting in this context, as it is this emphasis on creative agency, both human and divine, which is one of the reasons why Nathdwara, till today, is a significant centre for artistic endeavours, with a particular emphasis on painting.

Pichvai: The Role of Painting in the Pushtimarg Tradition

A pichvai quite literally translates as something in the background, and the term is traditionally used for the decorative cloth paintings inside the temple in Nathdwara. The pichvai is hung behind the idol of Shri Nath Ji and is an indispensable part of the decoration of the shrine. It is instrumental in highlighting the various moods, seasons and occasions being celebrated, at various points of time in the temple. It thus functions almost like a cinematic backdrop highlighting the mood the idol has been made to adorn according to the calendars of festivals. For instance, Tryna Lyons describes a pichvai used in the temple to celebrate the monsoon festival of teej as “…painted with dark clouds, raindrops and streaks of lightning, and portrays a frightened Radha rushing to take shelter beneath Shri Nath Ji’s cape. The cloak is depicted…in such a way that Shri Nath Ji appears to be actually wearing it, and his raised left arm would be seen as reaching out to protect Radha rather than holding up the Govardhan hill“ (2004: 20). The main purpose of a traditional pichvai is to complement the idol in front. The painters of Nathdwara have continued the tradition of creating these pichvais till today.

Examples of contemporary souvenirs which can be bought at Nathdwara. Location: Nathdwara. Photo Credit: Author

The painters though create pichvais, not just for decorative purposes in the temple, but also for pilgrims who would want to carry the image of the god back with them after the darshan, i.e. after the ritualistic beholding of the idol in the shrine. As photography is not allowed inside the shrine, the souvenir like paintings of the stone idol still have a vibrant and thriving market which supports the long tradition of painting in Nathdwara. The painting in the permanent collection of the of the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac is an early 20th century example of such a souvenir painting. We know that it is not a pichvai meant for temple decoration as that would usually be bereft of the image of the idol itself, and mostly be decorated with figures complementing the main stone idol in front. This particular painting though could also have been painted for one of the auxiliary Shri Nath Ji shrines, where it would function as a substitute for the main idol. These auxiliary shrines are located in multiple locations outside of Nathdwara, and are part of the concerted effort to spread the popularity of the sect.

An image from the pichvai, the women are entreating Krishna to return their clothes. Location: musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. Photo Credit: Emily Mae Graf.

In this pichvai there is a central painted figure of Shri Nath Ji being honoured with a variety of ritual foods shaped like a mound. This mountain of food, that is depicted in front of the image of the idol, is to honour the god who has protected the devotees from rain. This is both a show of gratitude and a symbolic reference to the mountain itself that Krishna lifted aloft to protect the village folk. On either side of the central figure are the priests, who are hereditarily associated with the shrine. Furthermore, there are two sets of images that form the border of the pichvai. The series closer to the image of the idol depict various popular events from the life of Krishna. Painted are incidents from Krishna’s childhood and youth, which was spent in a village of shepherds and cowherds, where he was raised by a surrogate family to escape the wrath of his murderous uncle. This set includes scenes like when the boy Krishna stole the clothes of the girls from the village as they bathed, and then sat on the tree playing his flute as they entreated him to return their clothes; or the story of him being born, and then being smuggled to this village by his father in the middle of night. Krishna is also depicted as dancing on the hood of Kaalia, a snake who was tormenting the villagers. The dance is Krishna’s way of controlling the snake and we can see Kaalia’s wives entreating Krishna to spare their husband’s life. The reason why none of these episodes are labelled is because all these vignettes are common knowledge amongst Hindus. These are often the most popular depictions in the pichvai paintings, and also the incidents which the devotees play-act in an attempt to participate in the earthly life of Krishna.

The set of images that form the outer border of the pichvai represent another life of Krishna.The  contemporary life of the idol of Shri Nath Ji as situated inside the shrine of the temple in Nathdwara. In Nathdwara, apart from playacting, the devotees can participate in worshipping the lord by viewing the idol inside the shrine, that is, through the act of darshan (ritualistic viewing).

The Role of Darshan and Rituals in attaining Grace

Darshan[2] is the moment when the devotee beholds the idol and is beheld by it. This is the moment when the god and the devotee enter into a moment of recognition through the medium of sight. The power of seeing and being seen is so significant that eyes are usually the last part painted on most of the idols in Hindu paintings and sculptures. The moment the eyes are painted the idol becomes sacral. From an object the sculpture becomes a deity, that is, divinity enters the material.

The eyes of the Nathdwara idol are sculpted half shut, and are painted as such in the pichvai (Image above). Beautiful and languid, it is imperative that the eyes do not open fully as the joy experienced by the beholder of that vision would be too powerful for a mere mortal. According to Alfred Gell, seeing is equated with touch in the Hindu philosophical tradition in the extromissive sense which extends to all forms of ritual anointing and dressing up of the idol as being part of same contact and the “distributed person-hood” of the deity (1998). The ritual prayers associated with the worship of the deity thus become another form of obtaining grace. These rituals are the domain of the hereditary priests associated with the shrine and it is this ritual aspect and the role of the priests in it that is depicted in the set of painted images that form the outer border of the pichvai.
The set of images on the outer border of the pichvai not only represent the life of the idol but also of the role of the hereditary priests who perform the rituals surrounding the worship of the idol. Each image has a framed representation of the Nathdwara idol of Shri Nath Ji in different shringaars (the clothes and decoration of the idol according to the time of day and the festival being celebrated). On either side of the image of the idol are painted the priests performing the rituals connected with the particular shringaar. In the Pushtimarg tradition there is an emphasis on the cult of the personality, primarily the personality of Vishnu in the form of Krishna/Shri Nath Ji. This extends to importance accorded to the personality of the priests as well, whose portraits are often depicted in the pichvais. In this set of paintings, the priests are not only depicted performing various rituals but information about those rituals is communicated not just through visual markers but also through lexical means. The historical information captured through this coming together of text and imagery is what I would discuss in the next section.

A close up of the image of Shri Nath Ji from the pichvai at musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. Photo Credit: Emily Mae Graf

Institutionalizing Krishna Worship

Devotees come to Nathdwara to view the idol in its various shringaars. In the Pushtimarg tradition, as discussed above, grace and salvation can be achieved through darshan and by participating in the various material manifestations of Krishna’s lila through playacting. These two modes of worship are not opposed to each other but quite often work in tandem. This is also evident in the pichvai with the two sets of coeval images. Yet, the striking difference between the two sets is that written language is being used to communicate information in one and not the other.
At one level, the fact that the set of paintings depicting the life of Krishna are not labelled, and the ones involving priestly rituals are, is symptomatic of how certain temple practices institutionalised Krishna worship since I read the labelling as an attempt to impart information about practices which were and are essentially arcane. The lexical aspect of this particular pichvai, which is intended to fulfil a particular purpose of highlighting the ritual roles performed by priests, also ends up highlighting the contradictions within certain sectarian movements of devotion. The labelling indicates that the ritual aspects of the Pushtimarg tradition required reification through the means of language. Situated as the rituals are in a particular time and place, linked to the inimitable “aura” of the carved idol, these rituals can only be performed by priests from a certain family. Moreover, there are various restrictions, based primarily on caste, on who can behold these rituals. The unlabelled images of Krishna’s life, on the other hand, assume a shared common knowledge indicative of his popularity as a deity that created possibilities of individuals worshipping him, often in ways, which were subversive of established traditions. This prima facie undermined the authority of the priests, and democratized rituals surrounding devotion.

This accessible nature was the mainstay of the Pushtimarg movement and the reason for its popularity. After gaining popularity as a grassroots movement, in the sixteenth century, which was open to all, especially as it stressed an individualised love for the deity, it soon became a cult patronised by the wealthy. This transition was linked to a growing emphasis on temple rituals, where all forms of “undesirables” of certain castes and religions were, and are still not, allowed to enter the shrine. I argue, thus, that even as the labelling is an attempt to inform the ‘literate’ beholder of the pichvai about the rituals surrounding the worship of Shri Nath Ji, it ends up highlighting the gaps between popular shows of devotion versus the proscriptive nature of temple worship.
 Such an analysis though does raise another question about the intentionality behind the need to communicate such information in the first place. Since this is an early twentieth century pichvai, some of the reasons could include the rise in literacy in the twentieth century; religious reforms linked with ideas of nationhood and modernity; as well as institutionalised attempts to spread the popularity of this sect. An in depth analysis of these factors though is beyond the purview of this short article. I have here attempted to discuss, by analysing the role of the written in this otherwise visual artefact, the historical information coded in this pichvai that makes it particularly interesting for further study in the context of the various historical developments in the Pushtimarg tradition.

Saumya Agarwal, doctorante en études transculturelles à l’Université de Heidelberg (Allemagne)

Billet édité par Julien Clément et Clémence Jullien 

Dans le cadre de sa mission de grand département pour les arts d’Afrique, d’Amérique et d’Océanie, le musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac soutient la recherche sur les collections extra-européennes des musées de France. 

La rubrique « Muséo » s’inscrit dans le partenariat noué entre le musée et la revue Terrain, qui conduit à publier, dans la revue papier et sur le blog « Carnets de Terrain », des articles présentant les œuvres de ces collections.

Cette rubrique est coordonnée et éditée par Julien Clément (musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac / LESC) et Clémence Jullien (Université de Zurich / CEIAS-EHESS), avec l’aide de Maïra Muchnik (musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac).

Bibliography

Eck, Diana L. (1998): Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. 3rd ed. New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press.

Gell, Alfred (1998): Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon.

Lyons, Tryna (2004): The Artists of Nathadwara. The Practice of Painting in Rajasthan. Bloomington; Ahmedabad: Indiana University Press; Mapin Pub.

Morey, Matthew W. (2012): Sri Aurobindo’s Lila. “The Nature of Divine Play According to Integral Advaita”, in Integral Review 8 (1), pp. 68–84. Available online at https://integral-review.org/issues/vol_8_no_1_morey_sri-aurobindo%27s_lila.pdf, checked on 1/8/2018.

Maduro, Renaldo (1976): Artistic Creativity in a Brahmin Painter Community. Berkeley: University of California (Research Monograph Series, No. 14).


[1] For a further discussion on the concept of darshan refer to Eck 1998.


[2] The term Nath translates as lord, and both Shri and Ji are honorary affixes.


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