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Of the Historical and the Hagiographic

Amiya P. Sen

By Shanta Rameshwar Rao . Paintings by Bulbul Sharma
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 156, Rs. 750.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

It is interesting that popular stories often bordering on the scandalous and the profane should now be so freely and evocatively retold in the English language for, as a student of history, I am apt to recall that only about a hundred years back, the same had been indignantly assailed by the first crop of English educated Indians. Following Renan and his bid to separate the Christ of history from that of Christian mythology, the Hindu Renaissance too had looked to discover the historically verifiable Krishna. Also, deeply influenced as it was by Anglo Protestantism and the emerging philosophical moods in contemporary Europe, this Renaissance attempted to understand Krishna not so much as god but as a man who might justifiably be elevated to the status of god. There was, besides, a polemical side to this since Krishna was, for most Hindu protagonists, a more exemplary figure than Christ.   Over a period of time, this tendentious rhetoric led to the fragmentation of the Krishna lore and legend; the playful pastoral figure from Vraj country was deliberately suppressed in favour of the strategist and philosopher associated with the great Bharata war. The latter, evidently, was more easily appropriated by an emerging Hindu nationalism which saw in the divine charioteer, qualities reminiscent of a Gladstone or Bismarck. The 19th and 20th centuries, as we know, was replete with commentaries upon the Gita and numerous vernacular translations of this text. Sadly, the continuing attempt to sanitize the figure of Krishna threw into considerable disrepute the web of enchanting stories woven around the folk Krishna. In the late 19th century, the novelist Bankim Chandra sharply rebuked a poet of the class of Jaideb (of Gita Gobinda fame) for wantonly clouding the life of Krishna with amorous poetry. In his own treatise on Krishna (Krishnacharitra), Bankim remained preoccupied with questions like whether or not Krishna had multiple wives or the ‘profound’ allegory that lay behind his scandalous stealing of women’s garments as described in the Bhagavat Purana. Modern Hinduism, in other words, discursively reinforced the figure of Krishna while taking away in good measure, the human spontaneity and charm that traditional images of this god evoked.   This collection of Krishna stories put together by Shanta Rameshwar Rao adopts an interesting mix of the historical and the hagiographical. In a sense, this work reads like a biography even when interspersed with superhuman feats and extraordinary ...

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