An exploratory look into one of India’s most treasured stories
Every year, from the smallest villages in the foothills of the Himalayas, to opulent temples in America, to yoga retreats in exotic locations, literally millions of practitioners of yoga gather together with devout worshipers of one of India’s most sacred texts, the Bhagavat Purana, to narrate the popular stories colorfully outlined therein. The festival is called a Bhagavat Saptaha, or seven days in which to give aural audience to these ancient stories. Among the most popular are the stories of Krishna, the supreme Divinity in the Bhakti Yoga tradition, which are often the most fantastic and controversial.
Most of the controversy has surrounded Krishna’s famous romantic rendezvous with his many female lovers, The Gopis, or cowherd maidens of Vraja, who were married to others. This subject has fascinated theologians and scholars alike who have delved into the subject in an attempt to make sense of the lessons it has to teach us. After all, the tradition views the Gopis passionate love for Krishna as symbolizing the most pure devotion to Divinity. How such pure love is illustrated within what is typically misconstrued as an ethically and morally questionable context is what continues to draw the criticism of feminists and women’s right’s leaders in India, each year during the Bhagvat Saptaha festivals. These feminists groups maintain that the telling and retelling of such stories perpetuates the abuse of women.
Second in popularity to the stories of Krishna and the Gopis are the stories of Krishna as a baby. These stories however, do not stir up such controversy. Yet at their center, we find a story that has as much potential to offend child rights activists, as the story of the Gopi’s inflames women’s rights groups. However, no one seems to be as eager to speak up for the rights of children as they are for the rights of women.
In the esteemed stories of Krishna as a baby, we find his mother, Yashoda, threatening him with a raised stick. Although Yashoda, doesn’t ever hit him with the rod, Krishna does show considerable fear, even to the point of shaking. Seeing the toddlers pitiful state, his mother then decides against hitting him with the stick and proceeds to restrain him with a rope instead. Which she does, after much effort, leaving Krishna in tears, tied up to a wooden mortar outside. Just as moralists outside the yoga tradition have mistakenly called Krishna’s amorous meetings with the gopis as debauchery, child psychologists might call baby Krishna’s terrified reaction to his mother’s rod the traumatic effects of child abuse, for it certainly appears that way.
In American society, any educated, compassionate individual who witnessed the abuse of a child would be moved to call the police, who would then contact child protection services. Upon arriving on the scene, and finding a toddler tied to a blunt object, alone, outside, crying and shivering in fear, the police would certainly file a case of child abuse. Emotions run high when children are being abused. Americans have legally declared that civilized societies are intolerant of inflicting violence upon children. And yet, in a recent survey of American parents regarding the use of corporal punishment on their children, more than a third of parents surveyed used corporal punishment on their infants! This violence then reaches a peak of 94% for parents of children who were three to four years old.
Growing up as a love child of the sixties who was never struck by her pacifist parents, it is utterly unconscionable to me to even imagine a parent inflicting violence, or even the threat of violence, upon their own child, what to speak of their own infant! Nevertheless, while I was raised to believe that violent force was not a sign of the strong but of the weak and ignorant, and that violence worked in direct opposition to love, when juxtaposed with the rest of the world’s parents, mine were, sadly, a rare bred indeed. For, the history of the human race is littered with accounts of engaging violence as a form of parental discipline.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, one can tell just how civilized a culture is by how they treat their children and their elderly. How ironic it is then, that Gandhi belonged to the very same society that holds as the most precious part of their civilization, the stories of Krishna and his mother. After all, these are not the ordinary stories of an ordinary Indian village woman abusing her ordinary toddler, but rather, they are recognized as sacred stories of Divinity himself, and his divine mother, inflicting divine child abuse? Mmmm. Let us consider this further.
At the time that this ancient text was composed, disciplining children with rods was common practice in India. In fact, it was common all over the world! Yet, I cannot imagine that people found stories of any two year old child being abused amusing! But I suppose the idea of God as a toddler being chased with a stick can prove humorous to some, even endearing. Students of the Bhagavat Purana report that it pulls at one’s parental protective instincts and increases one’s nurturing sentiments towards the child being frightened. If this child happens to be Krishna, then we have automatically increased our affection towards Divinity. So, in our modern culture, when we see a mother chasing her young child with a stick, and then restraining him with ropes we should call the police, but, when we read the ancient stories of Krishna being treated this way by his mother, we should delight in them? Interesting. One thing is for certain: we should never imitate them! Yet it all traces back to the rod, doesn’t it?
The most commonly used disciplinary weapon internationally is the bamboo, or wicker rod; known to inflict considerable pain on the victim with little effort from the victimizer. The availability of the rod throughout history has also worked to increase it’s popularity. We find the use of the rod on children in numerous and diverse bodies of literature, dating back thousands of years with their origins in oral traditions and folklore. From Oriental to Abrahamic, African to Middle Eastern, popular stories have been told and retold, generation after generation, in which children are hit, or threatened to be hit with bamboo rods.
As families became more urbanized and the availability of the bamboo rod decreased, parents got more creative with their punishing, or disciplining weapon of choice. In cities the rod is often replaced with leather belts, metal coat hangers, extension cords, etc. I was exposed to the specific types of wounds such objects left upon children when I took a college course designed to familiarize it’s participants with the physical and psychological damage displayed in children who had become victims of such abuse. Although I enrolled in that course 26 years ago, the disturbing images remain clearly imprinted in my memory to this day.
Mothering energy is by nature, joyful, life-giving energy. The nurturing sentiments that characterize motherhood are defined within the Yoga tradition as vatsalya-rasa. The Sanskrit word rasa encompasses a rich variety of meanings all pointing towards loving relations. The specific flavor of vatsalya, or motherly love expresses itself through a selfless offering of nourishment. Though most often associated with parental figures (maternal ones especially), any one of us is capable of emitting nurturing affection towards another person, or out into the world. Compassionate global citizens apply the energy of vatsalya rasa like a healing balm upon the wounds of our planet and communities. Perhaps nothing speaks more loudly of peace than the open arms of a loving mother. This mothering love is the opposite of war. Instead of destroying, it builds. It creates spaces in which others can thrive and grow. It has nothing to do with violence, or raised sticks. Mothering love is ahimsa in action. And yet, each year in the name of mothering, over 40 million children worldwide become victims of household violence.
During my first trip to India over 20 years ago, I stayed in ashrams that unbeknown to me then, employed teachers who used sticks to hit their young pupils with. Today, many of those students (now adults) suffer the psychological effects of the abuse and are suing the ashrams. On my last trip to India, I witnessed the use of the bamboo cane, or rod, on goats, buffalo, cows, cats, monkeys, dogs, elephants, vagrants, women, the elderly, and yes, children. Those using the sticks all considered themselves to be practitioners of yoga. Some of the individuals swinging the rods were in positions of authority, functioning as yoga teachers or gurus, or as the architects of grand temples. The use of the sticks was public, and most onlookers expressed apathy, some even laughed. Cringes were rare.
The apparent lack of empathy and compassion towards children who were being harmed by sticks was something my circle of Californian, yogini mothers could not relate to at all. Together we formed a circle of mothers who all shared similar values and parenting styles. We had our yoga parenting ideals, we made mothering our seva practice, but we were also human. We had days when one of us needed a break, and so the other one would take the kids. We helped each other out with cooking, and laundry and going to the market. We gave each other time alone to meditate, to walk to the beach, to chant, to take bubble baths and naps, or go through a flow of asanas without hearing a little voice call out: Mama! Never once did my girlfriends and I ever feel the need to resort to the use of sticks, ropes and fear to discipline our babies with. And yet, according to classical yoga texts, apparently God’s mother, Yashoda, felt she did. Does this make God a victim of child abuse? From a mundane perspective it certainly would, although the stories of baby Krishna and Mother Yashoda, are anything but mundane! And, as their presenters strongly caution us not to compare our ordinary lives to those of such divine beings, some say that the stories of Krishna are nevertheless designed to engage us emotionally.
The Bhakti Yoga tradition which holds most dear the stories of Krishna, informs us that emotions are divided into two categories. In the simplest of terms, those emotions that move our consciousness closer to Krishna, (Divinity), and those that don’t. It then goes on to describe that once one’s consciousness is absorbed by Krishna, spiritual emotions, or bhavas, can be experienced as one listens to, or narrates the stories of the Bhagvat Purana. Until then, the stories will trigger mundane, or conditioned, emotional responses in us. Spontaneously objectionable subject matter (like Krishna’s stories of apparent debauchery with the gopis and the stick incident with his mother) instantly engages an audiences emotions. When an audience is emotionally charged, it works like instant publicity for the story. Making certain a story is worthy of repetition was particularly essential within traditions of oral origins, such as the yoga tradition. Because sensationalistic narratives are more likely to be repeated, sacred texts from nearly every tradition abound with agitating story lines. While a sacred narrative’s potential to affect an audience in this way may indeed depend on culture, and education, any story that grips human hearts (in either a pleasant or disruptive manner) will usually bear repetition. Sages of antiquity knew how to capitalize on such psychological phenomena.
The role our emotions play in how superficially or deeply we enter into a subject, was one that particularly fascinated teachers of the Bhakti Yoga tradition, such as Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. Bhaktisiddhanta was an erudite monastic who even valued the negative, emotionally-charged attention received by a sacred text, as it automatically opened up a space for dialogue to occur. Engaging such opportunities, he pioneered exchanges with western modern academicians aimed at informing their misinterpretations of Indian’s most ancient and most revered literature, including the questionable stories of Krishna, which they often dismissed as immoral and unethical. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta then devoted his life to presenting the stories of the Bhagavat Purana in light of the deep philosophical and theological tenets that are hermeneutically embedded within them.
After nearly three decades of hearing the stories of Krishna, I must say that the efforts to create palatable and philosophically rich presentations of the Bhagavat Purana for modern audiences is an ongoing, organic process that strives to continue the Bhagavat Saptaha tradition, minus the potential for misinterpretation or misapplication of the popular stories. To what degree a sacred text is being negatively interpreted is perhaps most easily measured by the most objectionable defining characteristics held by the society that reveres the text, and may often tell us more about the interpreter of the text, than the text itself! Yet this subjective experience of yoga texts may be precisely, in part, what forces one to excavate the stories for their deeper meanings. A deeper meaning is one that, in a yoga context, would increase our connection with divinity. Yoga traditions declare that such penetration into the deeper meaning of yoga texts, and thus their practical application to one’s yoga practice can be arrived at most swiftly through very personal, individual processes, when they are informed by the intended meaning of the tradition itself. So what does the bhakti-yoga tradition tell us about Yashoda’s questionable parenting?
According to the most ancient yoga tradition, the story of Mother Yashoda frightening and binding Krishna is a story about love. Not just ordinary love, but sacred love, the purest love! How odd then that these ancient Sanskrit texts deliver stories of pure love in external narrative casings or packages that so closely resemble the most impure, damaging social traits! (Like violence towards children.) Is the pairing up of these two apparently contradicting subjects in India’s most sacred texts mere coincidence? Is it necessary to juxtapose love with fear in order to communicate the philosophical and theological tenets that illumine the mysteries of divine love?
Without unraveling a whole other essay solely on that subject, I’ll leave you with this to contemplate upon: I have spent decades witnessing educated pacifists, and gentle doulas, and loving, American mothers who practice ahimsa, (including my own) all laugh and be genuinely moved to tears of joy as they imagined chubby, little Krishna running away from his mother’s bamboo rod. The story amazingly pulls at one’s heart strings! This certainly causes one to ponder it’s enamoring potency as originating beyond our familiar, ordinary realms of existence. In Sanskrit, the language of these sacred tests, this phenomenon is called lila, and it defines extraordinary events performed by divinity designed to delight ordinary souls. As illuminated by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta in his presentations of the Bhgavat Purana’s most controversial lilas, the text itself offers us a formula as to how these questionable narratives are to be understood. Found at the core of the work, in the fifth act of the rasa-lila, is a clear warning that imitation of such extraordinary acts would be as dangerous as imitating Lord Rudra (Siva) swallowing poison. Instead, the fantastic narratives are meant to enchant us into delving deeper into their teachings, which never fail to point at the way in which divine love engages everything when revealing itself to us, especially including the most controversial presentations.
(Artwork courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc. www.krishna.com.)