Intimate Worlds - Krishna Lifts Govardhana

BY: SUN STAFF - 3.8 2017

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

In the Intimate Worlds collection book, three art experts offer essays about various pieces in the Bellak Collection. Each took a different critical approach, and all are most interesting from an art history standpoint. As one typically finds in mundane books of art criticism, the experts have a great deal of academic understanding of Indian art, but a rather limited understanding of the spiritual philosophy that underlies the images. In this series, we attempt to bring to a finer point those aspects of the painting that are enriched by descriptions of the lila pastimes in sastra, as presented by the Sampradaya Acaryas.

In previous segments we discussed paintings which depicted a number of the Lord's Vrindavan pastimes, including: Monsoon Pastimes; Killing Dhenakasura, Killing the Putana Demon,Aristhasura, and Brahma Honors Krishna.

Today we explore a magnificent piece entitled "Krishna Lifts Mount Govardhana". This illustration from a dispersed series of the Bhagavata Purana was painted by an unknown artist from the Punjab Hills, Mankot, in the northeastern district of Jammu, North India. The painting is dated c. 1700-1725, and was done in opaque watercolor with gold and silver-colored paint on paper.

In the description accompanying the painting, one of the author's of Intimate Worlds writes the following:

"Krishna dominates the center of this scene that depicts his youthful feat of lifting Mount Govardhana to shelter his cowherd village of Vrindavan from a devastating rainstorm invoked by the god Indra, Lord of Storms. Blue-skinned and saffron-clad, wearing an elaborate court sash, blithely whistling on his flute, one sandaled foot crossed at the front - Krishna appears here in his typical iconic posture as Venugopala, the Cowherd Lord, worshiped in shrines and homes across India. His white-skinned brother Balarama and another cowherd stand to his left, his graying stepfather, Nanda, to his right. They hold up thin poles with handles, the flimsy cowherds' staffs that, thanks to Krishna's power, can support the page-spanning bulk of Govardhana."

We know, of course, the story of Sri Krsna's pastime lifting Govardhana Hill, and the details of why Lord Indra became angry enough to create the storm and devastating rains that threatened the inhabitants around Govardhana. In chapter 24 of Krsna Book, "Worshipping Govardhana Hill", Srila Prabhupada explains the events leading up to Indra's creation of the great storm. And in chapter 25, 

"When Indra understood that the sacrifice offered by the cowherd men in Vrndavana was stopped by Krsna, he became angry, and he vented his anger upon the inhabitants of Vrndavana, who were headed by Nanda Maharaja, although Indra knew perfectly well that Krsna was personally protecting them. As the director of different kinds of clouds, Indra called for the Samvartaka. This cloud is invited when there is a need to devastate the whole cosmic manifestation. The Samvartaka was ordered by Indra to go over Vrndavana and inundate the whole area with an extensive flood. Demonically, Indra thought himself to be the all-powerful supreme personality. When demons become very powerful, they defy the supreme controller, Personality of Godhead. Indra, though not a demon, was puffed up by his material position, and he wanted to challenge the supreme controller. He thought himself, at least for the time being, as powerful as Krsna. Indra said, "Just see the impudence of the inhabitants of Vrndavana! They are simply inhabitants of the forest, but being infatuated with their friend Krsna, who is nothing but an ordinary human being, they have dared to defy the demigods.'"

As the dangerous clouds appeared in the sky over Govardhana, Sri Krsna came to the rescue of the inhabitants of Vrindavan:

"I shall give protection to My pure devotees in Vrndavana, who are at present completely at My mercy and whom I have taken completely under My protection. I will save them by My mystic power."

Thinking in this way, Lord Krsna immediately picked up Govardhana Hill with one hand, exactly as a child picks up a mushroom from the ground. Thus He exhibited His transcendental pastime of lifting Govardhana Hill."

In the painting, we see that Krsna is assisted in his efforts by Nanda Maharaja and the cowherds, who are anxious to help in this dramatic pastime. Knowing and loving Him simply as his son, the little cowherd of Vrindavan, Nanda Maharaja immediately offered to help hold up the massive weight of Govardhana. While Krsna displayed His mystic powers, he was so kind-hearted as to let his father and his cowherd friends assist with their rods and by pushing up with their hands. We see Krsna at the center of the painting, casually posed and playing His flute as Govardhan remains elevated due to His transcendental powers. Nanda and the cowherds, meanwhile, have the pleasure of service, helping to hold Govardhana aloft.

Krishna Lifts Mount Govardhana
Bhagavata Purana, North India, c. 1700-1725

In describing the scene playing out on the hill itself, the author of Intimate Worlds writes:

"The mountain itself appears as a dish of flesh pink rocks spotted with trees and shrubs. A host of surprised animals - cobras, antelope, tigers, a leopard, and various birds - inhabit its crags, underscoring both the suddenness and the gentleness of God's action. Above the mountain the rain pounds down in unbroken lines, and dark storm clouds rage across the indigo sky punctuated by bright gold snakes of lightning. The land to the horizon is black, but below the mountain it is dark green, shadowed but peaceful in its haven. The colors are intensely saturated but not limited to the primary; an impressive array of pinks, ranging from lavender to flesh-orange, is used."

The artist has charmingly included a number of snakes, who are moving horizontally through the torrential rains above Govardhana. Govardhana Hill is well known to be the home of many, many snakes, and as Krsna warned the inhabitants of Vrindavan, those who are neglectful of their prescribed duties in offering proper puja and all worship to Govardhana will be bitten and killed by these snakes. In this painting the snakes are appropriately frightening, doubling as bolts of lightening in the black sky.

The author writes:

"On either side of the composition two village women gaze upward at the mountain as they raise their hennaed fingers to their mouths in amazement. Two cowherd boys kneel, each holding a hand above his head as if to ward off the lowering mass. Over-laying the fingers are four cows, smiling in their worship of the Cowherd God. To the far right appears Indra, identifiable by the many eyes spotting his body. He presses his hands together in a gesture of adoration towards Krishna: Indra has called down the torrent, but he yields to defeat and, with the others, recognizes the paramount power of the Lord incarnate."

Again the critic emphasizes that the cowherd boys are holding their hands up in order to "ward off the lowering mass", which infers that their actions are motivated by fear. In fact, they are primarily concerned with helping their dear friend Krsna, who initially pushed the hill upwards on the tip of his finger. The cowherd boys, and all the inhabitants of Vrindavan, know well that Krsna will protect them from even Lord Indra's wrath.

Technical Elements of the Composition

All of the characters depicted in this Govardhan pastime scene are beautifully painted in the Jammu, North Indian style. Their dress and jewelry is rich and elaborately ornamented.

Krsna, at center, is the tallest, just slightly higher than brother Balarama, indicating their true spiritual status amongst all the personalities. Nanda baba and Lord Indra are of similar stature to one another. The cowherds, on the other hand, are depicted as younger, shorter even than the gopis, although we know that Krsna, Balarama and their cowherd friends are approximately the same age. The cowherd between Krsna and Nanda, however, appears to be quite a bit younger than the others pictured here.

Sri Krsna's dress is magnificent, and there are several elements in the painting that I find somewhat unique. One is the striking red ornament worn like a cuff on Krsna's outer ear. Balarama sports a similar ornament. Krsna's scarves are ornamented with a decidedly Moghul pattern, both in the horizontal striping and the floral ornament at the ends of His sash. This floral pattern appears elsewhere in the scene.

The tilak markings all over Krsna's body are unusually ornamented, and cover even His feet, which are encased in bejeweled sandals. Similarly, Balarama's tilak is brilliant red against his white body. Krsna, Balarama and Lord Indra all sport lotus-tipped crowns typical of this North Indian school of painting. While unornamented, the cows are nonetheless extremely sweet, with wide, almond eyes and long lashes.

There's little difference between the two gopis in terms of their dress or ornamentation. We can assume that one is Radharani, however, since this is not a rasa lila painting in which other gopis might be interacting with Krsna on Radha's behalf, without her being present. And, it seems a good assumption that the gopi on Krsna's right (our left), in whose direction He is looking, would be Radha.

The handles of all three of the cowherds' rods are different: two red, one brown. This may have been intended to emphasize the uniqueness of the personalities, also reminding us of the fact that Krsna Himself is the Supreme Personality. Perhaps Nanda's staff is a different color because of the age difference between he and the other two gopas. We also see two staffs lying on the ground, which tells us that there are other cowherds nearby, beneath the elevated hill.

There's one other interesting element, which may or may not have held meaning for the painter of this composition. That is, a small, white stone lying on the ground near Krsna's feet, where it sits near the handle of one of the fallen cowherd rods. We often see Govardhana characterized by her stones. Here, one of these sacred stones has fallen to the ground at Krsna's feet, as the hill is held aloft.