Intimate Worlds - Killing the Putana Demon

BY: SUN STAFF - 3.7 2017

A nine-part commentary on collected Krsna-lila masterpieces.

The book Intimate Worlds describes the Alvin O. Bellak collection of India paintings, of which this manuscript page depicting the Putana lila is one. The painting is entitled "The Child Krishna Destroys the Ogress Putana", and is a page from a dispersed series of the Bhagavata Purana from Rajasthan, probably Sirohi, c. 1725, of opaque watercolor and gold on paper.

The authors describe the pastime of Krsna killing the Putana demon in this way:

"…Putana, in the guise of a wetnurse, arrives one day at Yashoda's house in Vrindavan. This pernicious nursemaid does not arouse suspicion, for she is so wondrously beautiful that Yashoda and her companions take her to be the goddess Lakshmi herself.

Putana gathers the infant Krishna into her arms, and prepares to suckle him. Krishna immediately recognizes the disguised ogress for what she is, and knows her breast to be filled with the most virulent of substances. He accepts it nonetheless, and sucks on it greedily. But rather than succumbing to the poison, which would kill any mortal, Krishna drains the beast so forcefully and completely that Putana herself falls into death throes. As she does, the wanton creature reverts to her natural state, her swollen tongue and disheveled hair only adding to the hideousness of her fanged mouth, cavernous nostrils, and mountainous body.

Krishna continues to play at Putana's breast until his nonplussed foster mother sweeps him up with relief and bundles him off for ritual purification. Meanwhile, men set about destroying Putana's colossal corpse, first dismembering it and then beginning to cremate it. To their astonishment, an amazingly fragrant smell issues from the pyre, a divine sign that even one so vile as Putana can be redeemed by contact with Krishna. This promise of redemption has heartened sinful beings to this day."

In Chapter 6 of the Krsna Book, Srila Prabhupada provides elaborate details of the Putana-slaying pastime. Putana is described as being a particular kind of witch known as a khecari, which means she can fly in the sky. We also read that among Yasoda's companions was Rohini, who is seen in the painting reaching up towards Krsna from the demon's feet, while Mother Yasoda reaches down to Him from above the demon's head.

Putana's great beauty, which fooled Mother Yasoda and her associates into thinking the demon was Laksmi, is further described by Srila Prabhupada in this way:

"She appeared very beautiful with raised hips, nicely swollen breasts, earrings, and flowers in her hair. She looked especially beautiful on account of her thin waist. She was glancing at everyone with very attractive looks and smiling face, and all the residents of Vrndavana were captivated. The innocent cowherd women thought that she was the goddess of fortune appearing in Vrndavana with a lotus flower in her hand. It seemed to them that she had personally come to see Krsna, who is her husband."

Krsna Book goes on to describe the circumstances surrounding Putana's meeting with the child Krsna:

"Putana, the killer of many, many children, found baby Krsna lying on a small bed, and she could at once perceive that the baby was hiding His unparalleled potencies. Putana thought, "This child is so powerful that He can destroy the whole universe immediately."

Putana's understanding is very significant. The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna, is situated in everyone's heart. It is stated in the Bhagavad-gita that He gives one necessary intelligence, and He also causes one to forget. Putana was immediately aware that the child whom she was observing in the house of Nanda Maharaja was the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself. He was lying there as a small baby, but that does not mean that He was less powerful."

Intimate Worlds makes mention of the fact that Krsna immediately recognized Putana as a demon, and in this particular scene we see that in the painting Krsna has His eyes wide open. Srila Prabhupada describes at some length the many interpretations attributed to the fact that Krsna has his eyes closed with Putana, presumably during other moments of the lila:

"Krsna showed the nature of a small baby and closed His eyes, as if to avoid the face of Putana. This closing of the eyes is interpreted and studied in different ways by the devotees. Some say that Krsna closed His eyes because He did not like to see the face of Putana, who had killed so many children and who had now come to kill Him. Others say that something extraordinary was being dictated to her, and in order to give her assurance, Krsna closed His eyes so that she would not be frightened. And yet others interpret in this way: Krsna appeared to kill the demons and give protection to the devotees, as it is stated in the Bhagavad-gita: paritranaya sadhunam vinasaya ca duskrtam. The first demon to be killed was a woman. According to Vedic rules, the killing of a woman, a brahmana, cows or of a child is forbidden. Krsna was obliged to kill the demon Putana, and because the killing of a woman is forbidden according to Vedic sastra, He could not help but close His eyes. Another interpretation is that Krsna closed His eyes because He simply took Putana to be His nurse. Putana came to Krsna just to offer her breast for the Lord to suck. Krsna is so merciful that even though He knew Putana was there to kill Him, He took her as His nurse or mother."

The discussion about Krsna's eyes concludes with an interpretation that is very familiar to the Vaisnavas:

"There are seven kinds of mothers according to Vedic injunction: the real mother, the wife of a teacher or spiritual master, the wife of a king, the wife of a brahmana, the cow, the nurse and the mother earth. Because Putana came to take Krsna on her lap and offer her breast milk to be sucked by Him, she was accepted by Krsna as one of His mothers. That is considered to be another reason He closed His eyes: He had to kill a nurse or mother."

Intimate Worlds offers a somewhat incorrect description of the application of Putana's poison, saying Krsna "knows her breast to be filled with the most virulent of substances". But as clarified by Srila Prabhupada:

"Putana had smeared a very powerful poison on her breasts, and immediately after taking the baby on her lap, she pushed her breastly nipple within His mouth. She was hoping that as soon as He would suck her breast, He would die. But baby Krsna very quickly took the nipple in anger. He sucked the milk-poison along with the life air of the demon. In other words, Krsna simultaneously sucked the milk from her breast and killed her by sucking out her life. "

While the book's authors describe Krsna as sucking greedily on Putana's nipple, in fact Krsna displayed His anger upon taking her breast.

Srila Prabhupada goes on to purport some of the most important philosophy demonstrated in this lila pastime:

"Krsna is so merciful that because the demon Putana came to offer her breast milk to Him, He fulfilled her desire and accepted her activity as motherly. But to stop her from further nefarious activities, He immediately killed her. And because the demon was killed by Krsna, she got liberation."

While Intimate Worlds provided a dramatic description of the Putana demon's body and demeanour as Krsna was killing her, a far more elaborate description is given by Srila Prabhupada:

"When Krsna sucked out her very breath, Putana fell down on the ground, spread her arms and legs and began to cry, "Oh child, leave me, leave me!" She was crying loudly and perspiring, and her whole body became wet.

As she died, screaming, there was a tremendous vibration both on the earth and in the sky, in all directions, and people thought that thunderbolts were falling. Thus the nightmare of the Putana witch was over, and she assumed her real feature as a great demon. She opened her fierce mouth and spread her arms and legs all over. She fell exactly as Vrtrasura when struck by the thunderbolt of Indra. The long hair on her head was scattered all over her body. Her fallen body extended up to twelve miles and smashed all the trees to pieces, and everyone was struck with wonder upon seeing this gigantic body. Her teeth appeared just like plows, and her nostrils appeared just like mountain caves. Her breasts appeared like small hills, and her hair was a vast reddish bush. Her eye sockets appeared like blind wells, and her two thighs appeared like two banks of a river; her two hands appeared like two strongly constructed bridges, and her abdomen seemed like a dried-up lake. All the cowherd men and women became struck with awe and wonder upon seeing this. And the tumultuous sound of her falling shocked their brains and ears and made their hearts beat strongly."

Krsna Book also provides great detail on the purification rituals performed by Mother Yasoda, Rohini and the others, as well as on the pastime of burning the demon's corpse.


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The authors of Intimate Worlds go on to critique the technical and aesthetic aspects of the Putana painting, saying"

"This episode is one of the most frequently depicted in the Bhagavata Purana. Most artists select the moment of Krishna sucking the poison from a fallen Putana, probably because the juxtaposition of the grotesque demoness with the divine babe simultaneously demonstrates the powers that Krishna possessed even as an infant and inverts the usual nurturing relationship of mother and child. Others aspire to create more comprehensive images, and render as ancillary scenes of Kamsa dispatching the ogress and a disguised Putana making her way to Krishna's crib.

This artist chooses a singular and less dramatic moment, when Yashoda comes to retrieve her child from the breast of the dead ogress while her companions look on with wonderment. The narrative choice is facilitated in this series by the two images that precede and follow this one, which respectively show a disguised Putana arriving in Vrindavan and the ogress reverting to her horrific form. Here, having finally relinquished Putana's breast, Krishna conveys his triumph over the demoness by kneeling contentedly on her chest. Putana's awkward position, disheveled hair, and distended tongue all indicate a level of distress, but her body and face are otherwise unmarked by the pangs of death, and are still far from the monstrous state that they will assume once more."

It's interesting that the authors describe the manuscript panel following this painting as being one in which Putana is transforming back into her demon form, yet they say that in this painting, Mother Yasoda comes to retrieve Krsna from the dead ogress. This is presumably just an error in the narrative. In the painting, Putana's eyes are open, and she has only begun the transformation.

Intimate Worlds goes on to describe the painting's composition thus:

"Although Krishna is naturally the religious focus of the composition, his small size and position within the contour of Putana's body make it easy to overlook him. Instead, the painting is dominated by female figures, most of whom are quite peripheral to the story. Yashoda and a complimentary figure do reach toward Krishna, thereby directing the viewer toward him, but the three women to the right express undifferentiated surprise and simply fill out the horizontal composition. Indeed, it is their brightly colored clothing, particularly its dense floral patterning, that organizes the painting into busy shapes and voids."

In the above passage we again see the richness that Krsna conscious philosophy brings to the realm of art criticism, with respect to the author's description of the women who dominate the painting's composition. We know that the "complimentary figure" with Yasoda is actually Rohini. What the writer describes as the "undifferentiated surprise" of the gopis is more accurately understood from Krsna Book, which explains that there was actually no danger from the activities of Putana, despite her powers, because the Supreme Lord was personally present. While the women look non-plussed, we read that when they saw Krsna fearlessly playing on Putana's lap, they very quickly came and picked Him up. We are also reminded in this chapter of Krsna Book that when the devotees experience fear they immediately take shelter of the Lord, having no other source of protection. In other words, the "undifferentiated" mood expressed by the writer can be understood in a more refined way as described by sastra.

In the painting, we see that each of the three gopis at right has put a finger to their mouth. While this may indicate 'surprise', it might also be seen as indicating simple bewilderment, i.e., not understanding exactly what Krsna is doing with Putana, but actively gathering him up and moving him off to safety, nonetheless.