Published on 29th May, 2016, in Mumbai Mirror.
Ever since the British came to India, there has been a terrible need to explain Hinduism using homogenous terms. Take Krishna for example. Academics want to see him as a single entity whose story is clearly told in a book called Bhagavata Purana, as clearly as the story of Jesus is told in the New Testament in the Bible or the story of the Prophet Muhammad is told in the Hadith. But a textual understanding of Krishna will always be incomplete. For the Krishna experience is also embedded in rituals and festivals that are part of temple culture, details of which are transmitted orally through generations of priests, temple servants and devotees. Thus what you experience in a temple enshrining Krishna, say in Assam, or in Odisha, or in Kerala, or in Rajasthan, or in the Gangetic plains may not quite match what the texts say. And truth, for the Hindu, will always be what the ‘anubhava’ (experience) is. Not what the shastra (text) says.
To me temples are centres of installation and performance art. Through these art forms, which include music, food, fashion, painting, poetry, dancing, every sense is aroused to experience the divine. Every temple has its own flavour. The experience of Krishna as Vitthala of Pandharpur presented through the lyrical march of the Varkaris is very different from the Krishna experienced amidst the colourful chariots of Jagannatha of Puri, Odisha. No one tries to standardise this experience.
It is important to keep this in mind when we visit house of Srinathji at Nathdwara near Udaipur in Rajasthan. Notice, I used the word house, not temple. For the deity is enshrined in a ‘haveli’ and not a ‘mandir’. There is no shikhara (curvilinear done) here with a kalash (pot) on top of the deity that characterises a Hindu temple. Why? This has to do with the history of the temple.
The image was first worshipped on the Govardhan hill near Mathura in Vraja-bhoomi, the sacred land associated with tales of Krishna’s childhood. In the 16th century, only the upraised arm of the image was visible and assumed to be a serpent god, until the great Vedanta scholar, Vallabhacharya who hailed from the court of Krishna-deva-raya came here on pilgrimage and recognised the ‘Naga’ to be merely the upraised arm of the deity. He removed the mud around and the full image revealed itself. The deity had unique boat-shaped eyes, and its upraised arm held the Govardhan mountain shielding the residents of Gokul from torrential rains unleashed by Indra, Vedic god of sky and rain.
To devotees, the image is swayambhu (self-created) and swarupa (self-image, not representation) of the seven-year old Krishna. Vallabh-acharya named this image Gopal. Valabha-charya’s son, Vitthalnathji also known as Gusainji, renamed him as Shrinathji, and established an elaborate worship pattern based on raga (music), bhoga (food), vastra (clothing) and shringara (adornment). This transformed the deity into a world-affirming God. This is the essence of Pushti-marga, which sees the pleasures of the world as a manifestation of God’s grace and enjoys them along with God.
The deity was worshipped in the Gangetic area until the 17th century, and then was moved on a bullock cart to Rajasthan area, to protect it from idol breaking activities of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb. Modern historical scholarship, like the works of R. M. Eaton, seek to downplay the iconoclastic attacks of Muslim kings of India, claiming it to be ‘merely political’ and ‘not ideological’ but in the folklore of India and many a temple lore, this is a vivid memory. The cart carrying the deity got trapped in soft mud in the place that we now know as Nathdwara, gateway to the Lord.
Not wanting to attract attention, no temple was built. Instead the deity was enshrined in a house and like a house the haveli has various rooms such as baithak (drawing room), rasoi-ghar (kitchen), phool-ghar (store house for flowers), doodh-ghar (store room for milk), mishri-ghar (store room for sweets), paan-ghar (store room for betel leaves and nuts), gahna-ghar (store-house for jewelry), kharcha-bhandaar (treasury), a stable for horses, and a shed for hundreds of cows, each with a bell around their neck, who devotees can feed to their heart’s content and experience the joys of rural life that shaped Krishna’s childhood.
This temple was protected by Rajputs of Mewar, and has been patronised by Gujarati Vaishnavas, many of them traders, entrepreneurs and businessmen. Shrinathji presents himself to his devotees briefly a few times a day. These darshans are called jhanki, or glimpses of divine life. When the curtain is parted, eight times a day, we see the deity adorned. Clothes are not repeated, and there are a whole range of clothes he wears. There is even a Mughalvesha, dressing up as a Mughal nobleman, and a Stri-vesha, dressing up as a lady. And the clothes are always presented with a particular backdrop, like a stage background, known as picchvai, elaborate paintings of Vrindavana and Madhuvana, full of images of peacocks and cows and deer and rainclouds and lotus flowers.
In the narrow lanes that lead up to the haveli are tea-stalls where you can see people telling each other stories of the haveli, of the clothes that the deity is wearing, of how many darshans they have had during this visit. Considering that Gujarati businessmen are located in every corner of India and the world, you can sense the international flavour of those who gather. Srinathji roots them all to his home. As a matter of respect, he is referred to only as Thakurji, the master of the household.
I reached at time where darshan would have been impossible. But having travelled a long distance, and enjoyed the experience of feeding the cows at the Goshala, I was determined at least to see the haveli. Then, to my surprise, I was told, the deity had stayed up late the previous night as part of Holi festivities and so he woke up late and so was granting darshan to latecomers too. I was delighted. This transformation of a deity into a living being who stays up late to party, and gets up late as a child would, is what temple rituals do. God then leaps out from texts and become a sensory and emotional experience, not just abstract knowledge, but if you are willing to participate in the performance art.