By Yugala-kisora dasa
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“When I read a story, I relive the moment from which it sprang. A scene burned itself into me, a building magnetized me, a mood or season of Nature’s penetrated me, history suddenly appeared to me in some tiny act, or a face had begun to haunt me before I glanced at it.”
— Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973), British novelist, story writer, and essayist
For sure, we all loved them when we where small — stories. Whether true or imaginary, a well written or narrated story has almost magic power to captivate the mind of its audience. In Hindu scriptures stories are very prominent, widely and popularly known. Whereas an average Indian may not be so well conversant with the philosophy of Krishna or Buddha, many would know in great detail various Puranic incidents involving Krishna’s incarnations or different episodes from the life of Buddha. In the Hindu cultural milieu stories serve as a medium for preserving traditional beliefs, customs, history, and parents tell their children about them, and the children tell their children and so on.
“According to Bopadeva, the Vedas, Purana, and Kavya (poetry) advice us like the master, friend or beloved respectively. But the Bhagavata synthesizes the function of these three and guides us.” (Tagare, 1999, xxi). The Bhagavata Purana is full of stories about creation, heavenly splendor, lives of kings and sages, and the Lord’s pastimes. As the tradition points out, the intention of these stories is to steer a person towards the divine and enthuse him or her to take up the spiritual path in life.
This essay focuses on the story of Putana from the tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana. Employed by the demonic king Kamsa, Putana, an ugly and evil-looking witch, transforms into a dazzlingly beautiful woman and tries to kill baby Krishna. “Putana Rakshasi’s heart was fierce and cruel,” Bhagavata Purana (10.6.9) tells us, “but she looked like a very affectionate mother. Thus she resembled a sharp sword in a soft sheath.”
Looking on the incident from the Gaudiya Vaishnava perspective, I explain how Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura associate Putana with pseudo spiritualists, a symbol for false gurus that deliberately deceive their disciples. Bhaktisiddhanta also likens her to religious institutions that adhere more to the established managerial forms at the expense of the actual teachings.
Before describing the symbolism, I briefly outline the story with some embellishments from Brahma Vaivarta Purana and Hari-vamsa. I start with a brief but vital part about the nature of Lord’s pastimes in the Bhagavata Purana and their significance for the Gaudiya Vaishnava theology. I predominately draw from the Bhagavata Purana, but also use the work of David Haberman and Daniel P. Sheridan.
2. Divine play
When Lucy walked through the wardrobe into Narnia, she entered into another world, a world where imagination defies reality. In Narnia animals can talk, fairy-tale creatures roam around and some beings know the art that invokes supernatural powers. In C. S. Lewis’s tale Narnia is a fantasy land, created by the author as a prime location for his series of seven novels for children, The Chronicles of Narnia. It is a literary work based on the imagination and not necessarily on fact.
However, as the each world religion claims, the ultimate reality depicted in their sacred scriptures is not a product of creative writing or anthology of interesting stories. It is the result of realization of great sages renowned for their profound wisdom and deep spiritual insight. Whether they identify that ultimate reality embodied in a personal and loving God, as an impersonal being or as an eternal truth that governs the universe, that reality is perfect, eternal, and unchanging. It supersedes the relative reality perceivable by the material eye.
For the Gaudiya-Vaishnavas that ultimate reality was revealed in the form of the divine play, Krishna-lila, performed in his ‘home land’ called Vraja. Common translation of lila is pastime, mere sport, or play. When applied to the reality of the Supreme Being (Bhagavan) or Krishna as the Bhagavata Purana (1.3.28) identifies him, it refers to his activities performed in the earthy Vrindavana, the 168-square-mile area in the district of Mathura, India.
This lila goes on eternally, but the Gaudiya-Vaishnavas maintain that it was revealed on earth in historical time. It is important to note that the Vrindavana-lila is not a mere symbol or divine allegory, but a literal fact of religious history. This exemplary historical event is recorded in scripture, particularly in the Bhagavata Purana in the form of a narrative. The narrative relates the entire life of the Ultimate Reality in its highest personal form, the cowherd Krishna. (Haberman, 1988, 45)
According to Bhagavata Purana (1.2.34), the purpose of Lord’s descent into the world of mortal beings is to teach them how to live and reclaim those in the mode of goodness. Because he comes to instruct the eternal duties for all humanity (dharma), his activities serve as an illustration of divine glory and a prototype of ideal life. He also assumes various forms only to reciprocate with the desires of his devotees. Hearing about these activities simultaneously pleases the heart and disinfects it from unwanted desires (anarthas) and karmic reactions.
The first nine cantos describe Krishna in his various manifestations. He appears as Nrisimhadeva, the half-man, half-lion incarnation only to save the devoted Prahlada, or as Varaha, the gigantic boar incarnation of Lord Krishna that kills Hiranyaksha, the demoniac son of Kasyapa. All these diverse incarnations establish Bhagavan’s celestial grandeur and, as Sheridan (1986, 68) points out, “form a prologue, teaching indeed about Bhagavan Krishna, but only in order to show forth his full glory and splendor in the tenth canto.” Bhagavan Krishna veils his Godly majesty in the Tenth Canto only to allow a special kind of intimacy that would not be possible otherwise.
He [Krishna] was dark blue in color, and wearing a golden garment. He was dressed like an actor with fresh shoots, minerals, a peacock feather and a forest garland. One hand was placed on the shoulder of a companion, the other was twirling a lotus flower. His smiling lotus face had curls on the cheeks and lotuses behind the ears. (Bryant, 2003, 108).
In Caitanya-sikshamrita Bhaktivinoda Thakura describes the two-fold nature of Krishna’s activities. In Goloka-Vrindavana, Krishna’s personal abode and the highest spiritual planet in the kingdom of God, his eternal pastime (nitya-lila) unfolds. Lord’s nitya-lila primarily refers to the so called ashta-kaliya-lila, or his sweet exchanges with the inhabitants of Vrindavana performed in the eight periods of the day. In the earthly sphere, or Gokula-Vrindavana, occasional pastimes (naimittika-lila) coincide with the ashta-kaliya-lila. Bhaktivinoda (2004, 259) explains:
Krishna going from and returning to Vraja and his killing of demons are occasional pastimes. These occasional pastimes of Krishna are unavoidable for the devotees still living in the material world. They are present in Goloka in an indirect way, but present fully only within the material world. Furthermore, the occasional pastimes, which are unfavorable to unbroken meditation upon the daily eightfold pastimes, have a symbolic significance for the instruction of the aspiring devotees. By remembering these pastimes, the devotees aspire to destroy their own sinful conduct.
3. The story
Besides the account given in the Bhagavata Purana, the story about Putana, a demoness who was sent by Kamsa to kill baby Krishna but who was killed by him, appears in the other Puranas as well. Although the descriptions differ in some details, for the most part, they are closely similar and compatible with each other. While the Bhagavata Purana gives the most detailed overall version, the other Puranas highlight some fine points not mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana.
According to Brahma Vaivarta Purana (4.10.11), Putana could change her form at will by the power of a mantra given to her by Durvasa Muni. One night, in an angry mood, the witch came to Gokula in the guise of a female bird. She then assumed the form of a beautiful woman and, as Hari-vamsa (2.6.22-25) says, hid herself under the axle of a cart. The beauty of her form captured the interest of all, including Yasoda and Rohini who, allured by her delusion, allowed her to breastfeed baby Krishna.
Upon seeing her, Krishna immediately closed his eyes. Then Putana placed Krishna on her lap and gave the child her breast, smeared with a deadly poison. Holding with both of his hands, the Lord squeezed the breast tightly and, along with the poison, sucked out her life breath. “Stop, release me, release me, suck my breast no longer,” cried out anguished Putana, but the Lord did not let go. When the gigantic body of the witch fell to the ground, it pulverized the trees in the twelve miles radius. Ironically, these trees, loaded with edible and most pleasurable fruits, were located in Kamsa’s personal garden. After the ladies of Vraja performed protective rites on Krishna’s behalf, the men armed with axes cut the body of the dreadful ogre into pieces and deposited it at the distance.
4. Putana — the symbolism
Putana is the first demon killed by little Krishna. According to Bhaktivinoda (2004, 259), she represents a deliberately deceptive guru, who teaches either sense enjoyment (bhukti) or liberation from the illusory material existence (mukti) as an ultimate goal of life. Although liberation is one of the ten major topics of the Bhagavata Purana, for the Bhagavata liberation is not the goal intended to be attained. Rather, liberation only supplements devotion as a secondary and sometimes unexpected consequence of untainted desire to serve and worship God. This easy and simple path to Bhagavan surpasses and replaces other means of salvation. In canto three Maitreya says:
Nothing remains unachieved when the Supreme Personality of Godhead [Bhagavan] is pleased with someone. By transcendental achievement one understands everything else to be insignificant. One who engages in transcendental loving service is elevated to the highest perfectional stage by the Lord Himself, who is seated in everyone’s heart.
Since bondage comes from identification of oneself as the material body because of absorption in the illusory energy of the Lord (maya), a person has to seek liberation in oneness with the Lord. Oneness from the Bhagavata perspective does not mean residence in the Vaikuntha heaven (salokya), the possession of divine powers (sarshti), personal association with the Lord (samipya), the possession of the divine form (sarupya), or absorption in his being (ekatva). It refers, as Sheridan (1986, 92) rightly observes, to a state of being — service at the Lord’s lotus feet as one’s essential nature and constitutional designation. Bhaktivinoda thus concludes that such understanding of oneness with the Lord is possible only under the protective guidance a bona fide guru. A genuine guru ‘reads between the lines’ and is able to grasp the meaning of scripture beyond its literal sense. For that reason Bhaktivinoda writes in Krishna–samhita (8.14):
Persons who are on the path of attachment [raga-marga] should avoid the first obstacle, accepting a bogus guru, by discussing Putana’s arrival in Vraja in the guise of a nurse. (. . .) One who accepts arguments as his guru and who learns the process of worship form such a guru is said to have accepted the shelter of a bogus guru. When argument poses as nourishment for the living entities’ constitutional duties, this may be compared with Putana’s falsely posing as a nurse. (. . .) The external guru is he from whom the science of worship is learned.
(Bhaktivinoda, 1998, 129).
Bhaktisiddhanta reasons similarly when he says that the strict dictionary meaning or lexicographical interpretation of the scripture cannot lead one into the absolute domain. Knowledge of the grammatical arrangement of words in sentences does not reveal the true purpose of eternal religion revealed in the scriptures. “The lexicographical interpreters,” he writes, “are employed by Kamsa in putting down the first suspected appearance of any genuine faith in the transcendental.” (Bhaktivinoda, 1998, 201). He also equates Putana with the pseudo-teachers of religion that emphasize religious organization and clerical conventions at the expense of true spirituality and genuine religious values. Indeed, “the idea of an organized church in an intelligible form,” he says, “marks the close of the living spiritual movement. The great ecclesiastical establishments are the dikes and the dams to retain the current that cannot be held by any such contrivances.” (Bhaktivinoda, 1998, 203).
Of course, deceitfulness and duplicity do not appear only in Vraja. All religious institutions become influenced by it. If even Yasoda and Rohini, Lord’s pure devotees and personal associates, could not detect pretentious behavior, what chance do we have? Here Bhaktisiddhanta observes that only God can recognize and wipe out hypocrisy. “No human contrivance can prevent those Putanas from obtaining possession of their pulpits. This is due to the general prevalence of atheistic disposition in the people of this world.” (Bhaktivinoda, 1998, 202).
By trying to drive Putana out apart from Krishna, such people resort to the same means that she advocates — empiricism that consists of mundane logic and dry intellectual pursuits. Hence, they become defeated by her. Rather than fighting against Putana externally, one has to take Lord’s shelter within. Surrounded by Lord’s protective coverings that provide protection from all difficulties, one can ‘slay’ the pretentious demon inside. Exterior conditions, no mater how insurmountable they appear, ultimately always fail to retain the current of a living spiritual force.
But as soon as theistic disposition proper makes its appearance in the pure consciousness of the awakened soul, the Putanas are decisively silenced at the very earliest stage of their encounter with the new born Krishna. The would-be slayer is herself slain. This is the reward of the negative services the Putanas unwittingly render to the cause of theism by strangling all hypocritical demonstrations against their own hypocrisy. (Bhaktivinoda, 1998, 203).
Meanwhile, for offering her breast to the Lord, Putana achieved the eternal status in the spiritual abode of the Lord. In the Bhagavata Purana (3.2.23) Uddhava admires Lord’s lenient and compassionate treatment of Putana, “although she was unfaithful and she prepared deadly poison to be sucked from her breast.” Unlike the other demons killed by Krishna who merged with his bodily luster, because Putana’s milk was drunk by the Lord, she attained the position of Lord’s nurse, same as mother Yasoda and Rohini. This is an example of Lord’s astonishing mercy, even to those that resist or even try to kill him. Admiring Lord’s amazing grace, in his commentary to Bhagavata Purana (10.6.35) Visvanatha Cakravarti writes:
If a person offers service with an attempt to kill the Lord and attains the goal of life, how much more will a person attain who offers with a neutral attitude? How much more will a person attain who offers with faith? How much more will a person attain who offers with pure bhakti? If a person worships an avatara of the Lord, he will attain the supreme destination. But, how much more will a person attain who worships Sri Krishna, the source of all avataras (sarva-avatari)? (Cakravarti, 2004, 68).
Unlike the fairytale Narnia, which is a work of fiction, for the Gaudiya-Vaishnavas Krishna-lila depicted in the Bhagavata Purana portrays fully the nature of ultimate reality. The faithful community treats it as an ontological fact, a piece of religious history that happens in our time and space. By the power of pure devotion unto the transcendental Lord, devotees aspire to enter that reality and participate in the eternal lila together with the Lord. With his descend to this world he brings that reality into our world and helps his devotees to destroy the obstacles (demons) that separate them from entering that reality.
As explained in this essay, for Bhaktivinoda Putana represents fake guru that deliberately deceives his or her disciples. However, perhaps even more importantly, Putana also represents falsity within, worldliness and desire for sensual pleasures. To protect the newborn affection of the devotees for him, Krishna appears to kill Putana or the insincerity within. If one is sincere, Bhaktisiddhanta writes, “no adverse efforts of the empirics (. . .) can dissuade any person from exclusively following the truth when he [Krishna] actually manifests his birth in the pure cognitive essence of his soul”. (Bhaktivinoda, 1998, 203).
Bhaktisiddhanta also equates Putana with religious careerists who, pretending to be devoted and with intention to deceive, use religious institution to fulfill their selfish motives. Veneered in humility, faithfulness and loyalty to God, their only motive is public reputation, desire for name, fame or high position. However, one does not need to go on a crusade against them. Rather than fighting against the demons, Bhaktisiddhanta warns, one has to fight for God in oneself.
In the end, as Shakespeare would put it, “all’s well that ends well.” Even though she pretended to be an affectionate mother allowing Krishna to suck her breast, Lord Krishna accepted the motherhood of Putana. In the traditional Puranic manner, at the end of the chapter there is also the phala-sruti, the promise of success to one who hears the story of Krishna killing the wicked demoness. Bhagavata Purana (10.6.44) proclaims:
Any person who hears with faith and devotion about how Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, killed Putana, and who thus invests his hearing in such childhood pastimes of Krishna, certainly attains attachment for Govinda, the supreme, original person.
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