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The Krishna Cult

Salman Haidar

By Norvin Hein
Oxford University Press, New York, 1972, 313, 40.00

VOLUME II NUMBER 1 January-February 1977

Mathura is a miracle in itself. In its imperial past, it was a scene of high civili­zation, a centre of attraction for far-flung peoples. It remains a magnet; scores of visitors continue to flock there, drawn now not by temporal glory but by the magic of the Krishna legend. Kushan and Gupta splendour may have crumbled but the allure of Vrindaban does not fade. The milling crowds of pilgrims bear witness to the extraordinary hold of the Krishna cult on popular imagination, especially in north India. This pheno­menon goes back to medieval times and beyond. Though Krishna is a much older deity, it was during the Bhakti movement that he seems to have become definiti­vely established along the banks of the Jamuna, in the forest of Vrindaban, there to play those pranks and perform those feats that have forever enthralled his admirers. Devotion to Krishna invites direct response and participation. The ritual is humanized, within the reach of ordinary people. The ceremonial elements of song and dance often have a popular air. It is an ambience that attracts wandering troupes of entertainers, purveying in popular form some of the eternal truths from the sacred texts. They are a diver­se lot, of varying skill and pedigree, but this is no primitive drama. The players are literate, drawing upon Hindu religious writings and inculcating traditional ide­als. Their skill lies in bridging the gap between the great literary figures and the mass audience. The author's method in recording this drama was to base himself in Mathura for about a year and keep track of as many performances as he could. Inevi­tably there is a random element. The troupes are irregular in their movements; the nautanki players, for one, did not visit Mathura during Dr. Hein's sojourn. Another limiting factor is that the survey took place in 1949-50; not all Dr. Hein's observations remain fully valid today. But even so, he provides a valuable and extensive survey of the popular drama of north India. In Mathura's eclectic atmosphere, the dominance of Krishnaism does not inhibit homage to other deities, witness the popularity of the Jhanki, devoted to Rama. This is a simple drama in modern Hindi, more of a tableau, with Rama and Sita ensconced on a stage while epi­sodes from Tulsidas' Ram Charit Manas are recited and sung. For the audience, this is primarily an act ...

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