By Narendra Murthy
The tales that correlate Krishna with women and their clothes are analogies of the absolute surrender that the spiritual path demands, says Narendra Murthy
Clothes, women and Krishna! What fascinating tales they make up together. How wondrously they are linked. At one point, we find the teenage Krishna stealing the clothes of the gopis, and maneuvering them into exposing their naked bodies to his gaze. Elsewhere, he supplies yards of cloth to protect the modesty of Draupadi who is being publicly disrobed. How do we understand such contradictory acts? Is it possible to make sense of this teenage prankster and the upholder of dharma rolled into one?
Act of surrender
Take the episode with the gopis. The gopis had left their clothes on the river bank to bathe in the river. Krishna arrived on the scene and promptly took the clothes and climbed a tree. When the distressed damsels pleaded with him to return their clothes, he urged them to come out of the water and take the clothes. He was not going to be a good boy and return it to them. They had to come out of the water. Naked. The gopis finally braced themselves and stepped out of the water, but used their hands to cover their breasts and private parts. But Krishna would have none of that. He told them that they had offended Varuna, the god of water, by bathing naked in the river. So they had to ask his forgiveness by raising their hands and joining their palms above their heads in pranam. Only then would they get their clothes back. The gopis go through the prescribed motions and get back their clothes.
What is happening here? Are we dealing with a mischievous voyeur who is taking advantage of helpless girls? Is this a semi erotic tale, and Krishna nothing but a debauch, as some critics have suggested? If this is true, how does one explain the fact that this story appears in the Srimad Bhagavatam which is authored by none other than Ved Vyasa? The same Vyasa who describes Krishna as “The Lord” in the Mahabharata? Isn’t this confusing?
First, a word about the Bhagavatam itself. According to tradition, Vyasa, after compiling the four Vedas undertook the writing of the Mahabharata for people who were debarred from studying the Vedas, to make them understand the principles of dharma, artha, kama and moksha – the four ends of the Hindu life. But still he was not satisfied with his monumental achievements, and was sitting on the banks of the Saraswati river in a dejected mood. It is said that Narada came to him and told him that his mind was not at ease because he had not written about the highest goal of knowledge which is bhakti, or devotion to the Lord. He suggested that Vyasa should write a divine, sacred text which would describe the sublime glory of Lord Vasudeva suffused with the spirit of bhakti. Vyasa immediately took the suggestion, and it is said that he attained perfect happiness and peace of mind after writing the Bhagavatam. And it is here in the Bhagavatam that we find Krishna stealing the clothes to see the exposed bodies of the gopis. How do we reconcile the facts? A story like this involving our hero in a book which is supposed to be the greatest song sung in his glory? Isn’t it perplexing? And how do we counter the criticism that Krishna was a voyeur and a debauch?
Spirit of bhakti
Actually we would never be able to make sense of it unless we understand the spirit of bhakti and what it involves. The story is a symbolic expression of what is demanded of the devotee in order to attain the highest rung of bhakti, where one loses one’s identity in the intoxicating love for the Lord.
Where we stand today, this state of blessedness is not available to us because we are enmeshed in the bonds of samsara. The one who is tied to his bonds is an animal, pashu. (pasha = bond). The pashu has no capacity for freedom and liberation since it is totally imprisoned by the bonds of its instincts and appetites. It cannot shed its pashas. Similarly, we too are nothing but pashus when we act solely under the bondage of our desires and appetites. Bhakti cannot come to us in such a state of bondage.
The gopis were eight and the bonds are also eight. According to Tantra Shastra, the eight pashas are: raga (attachment), moha (delusion), bhaya (fear), lajja (shame), ghrina (disgust), kula (family), sila (custom) and varna (caste). Vedanta interprets the eight pashas as the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch) plus the mind (emotions), intellect and the ego. Whatever the interpretation, the basic idea is, as long as we are tied to the bonds of our emotions, to confining loyalties to our family, to the social mores and to our tribes – as long as we remain sense bound and under the spell of the ego – we cannot attain the state of grace. Bhakti would elude us. It is only when we dare to stand naked – stripped of all these trappings – that we make ourselves fit to receive the grace of the Lord. Only when we are mad enough to empty ourselves without the slightest vestige of the ego, would the love of God pour into us to fill the vessel of our being.
Shedding all bonds
When Krishna stole the clothes of the bathing gopis and made them approach him naked, he took away the artificial coverings which are imposed on man by samsara. Though the gopis loved him, they were still under the thralldom of the eight pashas. The pashas are bonds by which the jeeva remains tied to his mundane life, and loses his way in the maze of samsara. So taking away of the clothes denotes removal of the bonds of samsara. Freed of these, the jeeva is liberated from all bonds arising out of ego, desires, emotions and tribal loyalties. The raising of both the hands above their heads by the gopis and letting go of all body consciousness, is the supreme act of surrender without which bhakti is incomplete. Standing naked – physically and existentially. No body consciousness, no shame, no fears about “what people would think”. Complete giving of oneself in the act of surrender. The shedding of all the bonds. This is the culmination of bhakti.
Now to Draupadi. Her gambling husband Yudhisthira had lost her in a wager. And their angry and jealous cousins were hell bent on making the humiliation of the Pandavas complete. Duryodhana ordered his brother to bring the woman in the midst of the court. Draupadi was having her periods and she was wearing a single cloth. Her cloth was stained with menstrual blood. She pleaded with Dushashan: “Leave me alone! Are you out of your senses? There are elders and learned men in the hall. Look at my condition! To drag me in my periods before a crowd of men…..it is shameful. Where is the dharma of the Kurus?” But Dushashan dragged her by her hair, and brought her into the midst of the hall. How she pleaded with all those present in the court – the great grandsire Bhishma, the invincible warrior Guru Drona; Kripacharya the kula guru; Dhritarashtra, the king, and even to her own husbands. But nobody came forward. All were silent.
The Lord takes over
Thereafter, Dushashan seized one end of Draupadi’s dress and began to pull it off her. Draupadi too pulled and struggled with her dress but in vain. She realised that she would be disrobed and stripped naked in front of a hall full of people. She surrendered. She gave up struggling and all useless attempts to preserve her modesty, and raised both her hands in an act of prayer and called out: “O Krishna, the Atman of the universe! Only you can help me! It is up to you now”. And then it happened! Yards and yards of cloth began to appear and heaps of it began to gather on the floor till Dushashan got tired of pulling at what seemed like an endless stream of cloth. The bhakta has been protected by her Lord.
As long as Draupadi struggled to maintain her modesty herself and pleaded with the elders and her husbands, no help came. In spite of having five husbands, she was an abandoned woman. In one stroke all the pashas were shed and she stood exposed in front of her Lord. So when the actual moment of reckoning comes – name, family, position and wealth – all turn out to be useless. In a real crunch situation, each one is alone. It is then we are called on to make the choice whether we are going to face it with the strength of our ego, or whether we would strip ourselves bare and allow the Lord to take over. As long we wrestle and struggle, the Lord would stand aside. Only when Draupadi raised her hands in the final act of surrender, did the Lord intervene. She saw that there was no security in power and position. To the one who takes refuge in the Lord, to the one who truly surrenders and dares to stand naked, there is redemption and salvation.
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