Krishna, The Butter Thief

Krishna, The Butter Thief

by John Stratton Hawley

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The author traces the development of the theme of Krishna as butter thief from its earliest appearance in literature and art until the present. He focuses on the dramas (ras lilas) of Krishna's native Braj and on the Sur Sagar, a collection of verse attributed to the sixteenth-century poet Sur Das that is as familiar to Hindi speakers as Mother Goose is to


The author traces the development of the theme of Krishna as butter thief from its earliest appearance in literature and art until the present. He focuses on the dramas (ras lilas) of Krishna's native Braj and on the Sur Sagar, a collection of verse attributed to the sixteenth-century poet Sur Das that is as familiar to Hindi speakers as Mother Goose is to us.

Originally published in 1983.

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Krishna, the Butter Thief

By John Stratton Hawley


Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06551-9


The Tradition in Literature

Sur and His Sources

No one has described the childhood of Krishna more lovingly than Siir Das. Every nuance and naughty caper of childhood seem to have been second nature to Sur, and for half a millennium his compositions describing Krishna's infancy have reigned as the most popular in Braj Bhasa, Hindi's most influential literary dialect. Of all these poems, the most highly prized are those that tell of how Krishna pirated butter from his mother and the other gopis. This series of vignettes has come to be known as the butter thievery game (makhan cori lila in Braj Bhasa, navanitacaurya in Sanskrit), but there are two variations on the theme of thievery that also make their appearance. One is the dan lila, in which a slightly older Krishna blocks the road as the gopis make their way to nearby Mathura to sell their milk products. In this somewhat more sophisticated form of butter thievery Krishna demands a tax, a tithe in butter and curd, before he will let the girls pass — or as the title of this episode or game (lila) ironically puts it, a "gift" (dan). The other is the cir haran lila (in Braj Bhasa; vastraharana or vastrapaharana in Sanskrit), in which Krishna spirits away the gopis' clothes as they perform their early-morning ablutions in the Jumna River.

For a Westerner it is striking that a divinity should be depicted so young and so scandalous, and to a certain degree it is uncharacteristic even within the Hindu tradition. Classical brahmanical Sanskrit texts scarcely hint at Krishna's kleptomania; certainly they do not emphasize it. Hence there is ample reason to wonder where all this comes from. Most people, peasants and scholars alike, say that Sur derived his inspiration in this respect, as in all others, from the Bhagavata Purana, the tenth-century text that has become, along with the Bhagavad Gital the most influential Sanskrit work describing Krishna. Such a source would indeed legitimate the almost scriptural authority that Sur's poems have come to bear, but there is little in the Bhagavata Purana or any other brahmanical narrative composed before Sur's time to justify the attribution. For these products of high culture are only the tip of the vast iceberg of tradition. The legacy of the butter thief is ancient indeed — Sur did not invent this obstreperous god out of whole cloth — but it was a popular legacy, so it came to expression primarily in vernacular and nonbrahmanical texts and in the eloquent realm of art.

In this and the following chapter we will take the measure of that heritage, determining the age and distribution of the various motifs that had come to be associated with Krishna's butter thievery by the time Sur began to sing. Sometimes the sources are plentiful, other times so meager that we shall be forced to analyze minute details in order to get some sense of the movement of the tradition. Often it can be shown that Sur was aware of a given motif, but we must always remember that we have no way of gauging whether he knew any particular expression of such a motif. For Sur was probably an oral poet, not a man of letters. Early manuscripts of the Sur Sagar almost force us to this conclusion, since each orders the poems in its own fashion, lists its own total, and includes many variants that can best be explained by postulating oral transmission. It is doubtful that Sur could read, certainly doubtful that he could read Sanskrit, and he may not have traveled widely enough to be acquainted first-hand with any of the sculptures we shall discuss — if he had eyes to see them at all. Hence the descriptions of the butter thief we shall survey were Sur's sources in only the general, not the specific sense.

In India literary critics recognize this possibility. They distinguish between translation in the narrow, literal sense (sabdanuvad) and the sort of translation that bodies forth the spirit or meaning of its antecedent (bhavanuvad). Sur's relation to the heritage of literature and sculpture that preceded him was the latter. In no way was he literally translating the Bhagavata. Only one or two early poems in the Sur Sagar even refer to the Bhagavata by name, and no early manuscript was organized so as to echo its plan. Figuratively, however, there is a certain cogency in the claim that Sur was translating the Bhagavata. For many who make this claim, the Bhagavata is not so much the symbol of the high tradition as it is of the sum total of ancient learning about Krishna, and in this broader sense Sur was indeed "translating the Bhagavata." In their aggregate expression the poems collected in early manuscripts of the Sur Sagar — those we can most easily identify with Sur Das himself — give an ample, coherent, and eloquent vernacular rendering of the most important traditions about Krishna. Many of the details and compositional techniques in Sur's portrait of the butter thief are doubtless original, but for the fundamental strokes and outlines he was indebted to a long and rich tradition.

Earlier Works in Sanskrit and Prakrit

Both literature and sculpture provide narrative accounts of Krishna's childhood, and it is important to study both. Whereas the written texts ordinarily give fuller details about each of the episodes in the narrative of Krishna's deeds (krsnacarita), the sculptural materials are often noteworthy for the divergences from the texts that they display, and are crucial for understanding the changes of emphasis through time in people's appropriation of the narrative. The literary sources are relatively few and, moreover, can sometimes be only approximately dated, whereas the sculptural sources are more numerous and often can be dated with greater precision. This matter of date poses a serious problem, particularly in regard to early Sanskrit and Prakrit documents, and until it is resolved these sources can hardly yield a straightforward impression of how the butter thief tradition grew. We have no choice, therefore, but to delve into matters of dating before we can approach our central thematic concern.

There are several puranic versions of the story of Krishna from his birth in Mathura to his return to that city to vindicate dharma by deposing its wicked ruler, his maternal uncle, Kamsa. The oldest is the epic account contained in the Visnuparvan of the Harivmasa Purana (adhyaya 46ff.), which in the form we know it may be dated approximately to the first three centuries of the common era, but whose style marks it as a survival of a considerably earlier age. When in the Sabhaparvan of the Mahabharata Sisupala refers disparagingly to several of the more well-known feats of Krishna as a boy, he is likely thinking of a form of the story that is something like what we have in the Harivamsa, for aside from the general similarity of the Sisupalavadha and the Harivamsa with respect to their epic style and language, there is the specific point that Sisupala thinks of Putana as a vulturous bird, a depiction we find in the Harivamsa but in no other brahmanical document.

Next after the Harivamsa comes the Krishna story told in the first twenty-one chapters of the fifth book of the Visnu Purana and in chapters 181 to 194 of the Brahma Purana. With the exception of a few additional verses in the Visnu Purana, these narratives are almost identical, word for word. The Visnu Purana as a whole must have been compiled in something like the fifth century A.D., but some of the verses that distinguish this section of it from the Brahma Purana may have been added somewhat after that date. The Brahma Purana as a whole is often dated considerably later, but its Krishna cycle must be early; in fact, as Kirfel has argued, at least as early as what we find in Visnu Purana. There are a number of correspondences between verses common to the Visnu and Brahma Puranas and those of the Harivamsa, often pivotal or distinctive ones. Because such verses are almost invariably parts of narrations that are simpler overall in the Harivamsa Purana, closer to an oral or folk idiom, we assume they first had their place there or, alternatively, were part of a common store of legend that more closely resembled the account we now have in the Harivamsa than it did what we now have in the Visnu and Brahma Puranas.

A considerable time was to pass before the Bhagavata Purana, subsequently to be so influential, took its final form in the ninth or tenth century. Its language, and the places and even the literature to which it refers, suggest that it was compiled in the south of the Indian subcontinent. Though tradition takes it as the direct model for the Sur Sagar, six or seven centuries have yet to elapse before the time of Sur Das; and a number of other works composed in the interval or even before deserve our attention. The one most closely related to the Bhagavata Purana is the Padma Purana, chapter 272 of whose final book (uttarakhanda) contains a condensation into some three hundred slokas of the story of Krishna's youth. Ruben has considered the possibility that it be understood as a forerunner of the Bhagavata Purana, but the uttarakhanda, which is appended to the Padma Purana only in its southern recension, is by all accounts a late addition, and the digest of the Krishna story that it contains seems more likely to represent the synthesizing work of someone who knew both the Visnu and Bhagavata Puranas.

Four other works that did not arise out of the formal brahmanical tradition provide additional clues about the butter thief. These are the Balacarita, a Sanskrit play attributed to Bhasa, and three Jain versions of the Krishna legend that are to be found in the Harivamsa Puranas of Jinasena and Puspadanta (Pupphayanta), the former in Sanskrit and the latter in Apabhramsa, and in the Sanskrit Trisastisalakapurusacaritra of Hemacandra.

The Balacarita is an intriguing document. We cannot say for certain that Bhasa himself wrote it; in fact there are a number of indications that it may have been composed somewhat later. It does seem, however, to have belonged to an ambiance in which the old Harivamsa was the great statement of the story of Krishna, for the two divine brothers are known primarily as Damodara and Samkarsana, and Krishna's dance with the gopis is called hallisaka rather than rasa. The peculiarly important role of the Goddess, called Kartyayani, reminds one not only of the Harivamsa but even more so of sculpted krsnacarita at Badami and Ellora, of which the latter by its organization suggests an indebtedness to the same Harivamsa ambiance. Another clue for locating the Balacarita in time and space is provided by the position of the episode in which Krishna tames the black snake Kaliya: at the end of the play. Sculptures from west and central India dating to the eighth and ninth centuries, unlike earlier ones, also tend to give a relatively late placement to the Kaliya incident. One must remember, however, that in the Balacarita Krishna's battle with the snake is treated as a separate act with its own dramatic unity; it is not narrated at the time that one of the players reels off a sequence of other accomplishments to Krishna's credit. A firmer hint about dating comes from the fact that the large cart (sakata) Krishna overturns as a tiny infant is portrayed as a demon. This is a feature we know neither in sculpture nor in literature before the seventh century. If we take all this together, it appears that we have in the Balacarita a work of about the seventh to ninth centuries, perhaps composed in the Deccan, where the strongest sculptural correlations obtain.

If one had only the brahmanical Puranas to go by, a number of details in the Balacarita would seem quite idiosyncratic. Some of them remain so on closer inspection, too: the fact, for instance, that Kuvalayapida, the vicious elephant whom Kamsa sends against Krishna, is called not that but Utpalapida; or that Krishna ascends the kumbhapalasa tree to jump on Kaliya rather than the kadamba or nipa. But many others that fit ill with brahmanical treatments of Krishna's adventures are accepted features of the Jain Puranas. The late position of the confrontation with Kaliya; the fact that Krishna was sent to Kaliya's hole to gather lotuses for Kamsa; the conception of Krishna as the seventh rather than eighth son of Devaki, his mother, at birth; the meeting that follows between Vasudeva and Nanda, his real and adoptive fathers, to exchange their babies — all these are anticipated in the Harivamsa Purana of Jinasena, whose colophon dates it to saka 705, or A.D. 783. It contains, however, only a skeletal rendering of the Krishna story, all squeezed into one hundred thirty verses or so (J 35.1-36.51, 66.52-54).

The later work of Puspadanta is similar but considerably fuller in detail. Whatever Jinasena's Harivamsa and the Balacarita have in common, Puspadanta repeats. If these two differ in detail, as for instance on the question of whether or not Balarama, Krishna's older brother, was present at the exchange of babies, Puspadanta will follow his Jain predecessor (T 85.3, J 35.26). And if the Balacarita omits an episode that one finds in Jinasena's Harivamsal one will find it retained in Puspadanta. An example is the visit of Krishna's mother Devaki to see her son in his new home in Gokula, that is, Braj (J 35.49-63, T 85.13). If Puspadanta expands Jinasena's sometimes telegraphic accounts of various episodes in the Krishna story, however, we find him in close agreement with the Balacarita. These two seem to share much of the same tradition. In both, Putana insinuates her way into the cowherd settlement by assuming the guise not just of any woman but of Yasodaj and in both, Balarama's heroic role is sharply reduced (B, act 3; T 85.9). When Puspadanta expands even further, as he sometimes does, it is with the intent of further anchoring the Krishna story in a Jain context, and that, of course, the Balacarita does not share.

But the common ground of the two is great; hence it is noteworthy that the general date we have proposed for the Balacarita falls not long before the date we can clearly specify in the case of Puspadanta. Puspadanta says enough about himself for us to be able to determine that he, born into a Jain family living in Kancipuram, wrote his Tisatthimahapurisagunalamkara or "MahaPurana," of which the "Harivamsa" or "Nemicarita" is a small part (chapters 81-86), in the Rastrakuta capital of Manyakheta in what is now Andhra Pradesh somewhat after the middle of the tenth century. The Balacarita would have been composed one or two centuries before.

A century after Puspadanta, finally, Hemacandra was to add another chapter to the history of the Jain Harivamsa by incorporating it into his voluminous Trisastisalakapurusacaritra. Like Puspadanta, he made several changes, altering and expanding the tradition. The most notable of these was to effect a greater integration than had yet been known between the legends of Krishna and Rama, the two major avatars of Visnu. He replaces Balarama by Rama himself, so that the latter becomes the "Rama" who is Krishna's boyhood companion.


Excerpted from Krishna, the Butter Thief by John Stratton Hawley. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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