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KA , whose name means "black" or "dark," is customarily said to stand alongside Rāma in the Hindu pantheon as one of the two preeminent avatāra s of the great god Viu. Although present-day Hindus do not dispute such divine genealogy, they and most of their ancestors who have lived in the last millennium have found Ka more important to their faith than Viu. In Vaiava circles one often hears it emphasized, in a quote from the Bhāgavata Purāa, that "Ka is God himself" ("Kas tu bhagavān svayam"; 1.3.27), not merely a portion or manifestation of the divine fullness. In the devotion of contemporary Hindus, he more than any other figure symbolizes divine love (prema ), divine beauty (rūpa ), and a quality of purposeless, playful, yet fascinating action (līlā ) that bears a peculiarly divine stamp. In recent centuries Ka has been adored principally as a mischievous child in the cowherd settlement (Vndāvana) where he chose to launch his earthly career and as a matchless lover of the women and girls who dwell there. In earlier times, however, heroic and didactic aspects of Ka's personality have played a more forceful role in his veneration.

Origins and History

Many scholars feel that Ka and Viu were originally two independent deities. On this view, Ka is to be understood as more closely associated with a warrior milieu than Viu, since most early information about him comes from epic texts. Viu, by contrast, appears in the Vedas, so knowledge about him would have been transmitted by brahmans. It is unclear at what point in time the two cults merged, if they were ever truly separate. Certainly this happened by the time of the Viu Purāa (c. fifth century ce), which declares Ka to be an avatāra of Viu; yet there are a number of indications that the interidentification was much older than that. A pillar at Ghoui has often been interpreted as implying that Ka was worshiped alongside Nārāyaa, who in turn is closely related to Viu, in the first century bce; and in a series of icons from the Kushan period (first and second centuries ce) Ka bears a series of weapons associated with Viu: the club, the disk, and sometimes the conch.

The Ka to whom reference is made in each of these cases is usually designated Vāsudeva. This patronymic title is one he inherits as head of the Vri lineage of Mathura. Vāsudeva Ka liberates the throne of Mathura from his evil kinsman Kasa; he struggles with the Magadhan king Jarāsadha for continued control of the Mathura region and apparently loses; he travels to the western city of Dvārakā on the shores of the Arabian Sea, there to establish a flourishing dynastic realm; and he serves as counselor to his cousins the Pāavas in their monumental battle with the Kauravas.

Early reports of these actions are found in various sections of the Mahābhārata, and reference is made to certain of them in Patañjali's Mahābhāya (c. second century bce) and the Buddhist Ghaa Jātaka. None of them, however, is depicted in sculpture before the Gupta period. Instead one finds sets of icons that imply no narrative context. One group of sculptures from the Kushan period depicts Vāsudeva Ka in conjunction with his brother Sakarana/Balaramā and adds a third figure, a sister Ekānaśā, whose role in the epic texts is minimal and not altogether clear. Another set enshrines a different grouping, wherein Vāsudeva is accompanied by his brother and two of his progeny. This set corresponds to a theological rubric in force in the Pāñcarātra and perhaps the Bhāgavata sects, according to which Vāsudeva is said to be the first in a series of four divine manifestations (vyuha s) of Nārāyaa in the human realm.

In addition to the many icons of Vāsudeva Ka that survive from pre-Gupta times, one finds a handful of narrative reliefs, and these depict quite another aspect of Ka. This is Ka Gopāla, the cowherd, and he seems as distinct from Vāsudeva Ka in the texts as he does in sculpture. The texts report that although Ka was born into the Vri lineage in Mathura, he was adopted by the simple bhīra herdspeople of the surrounding Braj countryside for the duration of his childhood and youth. Only as a fully developed young man did he return to Mathura to slay Kasa. The involvements of Vāsudeva Ka and Ka Gopāla are sufficiently distinct that it has been suggested the two figures were initially separate. On this hypothesis, Ka Gopāla would originally have been worshiped by the bhīra clan, a nomadic group that extended its domain of activity from the Punjab and Indus regions to the Deccan and Gangetic plains by the third century ce. As the clan expanded its terrain, it moved into the Braj region and would have encountered the Vris, whose mythology of Vāsudeva Ka was then integrated with the bhīra cult of Ka Gopāla.

The Supremacy of Ka

The Viu and Bhāgavata Purāa s (c. fifth and ninth centuries ce) clearly understood Ka in both his pastoral and royal roles to be an avatāra of Viu. In the Bhāgavata, however, which is the more important of the two, Ka occupies so much attention that the text is preeminently his. The same thing is true in the Bhagavadgītā (c. second century bce), a portion of the Mahābhārata that vies with the Bhāgavata Purāa for the honor of being the most influential Vaiava text in the early twenty-first century. There, too, it is Ka who occupies center stage, not Viu. Indeed, Ka asserts that it is he who has issued forth in several avatāra s, he who comprehends the many forms by means of which the divine makes itself manifest.

In the Gītā one has a glimpse of how Vāsudeva Ka could be interpreted as the supreme divinity. He enters the Gītā not as a combatant but as an adviser to his Pāava cousin Arjuna, who must fight. He himself is not implicated in the battle but is willing to serve as a resource. In the battle of life, similarly, one can act dispassionately by placing trust in the One who is too great to have any narrow interest in earthly conflict. Ka's oblique relation to the Pāavas' battle becomes a metaphor for his transcendence of the world altogether, and it enables Arjuna to transcend himself.

In the considerably later Bhāgavata Purāa one has a comparable vision of Ka's supremacy, but this time the supremacy of Ka Gopāla is more at issue than that of Vāsudeva Ka. Here the playful cowherd dances with all the milkmaids (gopī s) of Braj at once, multiplying himself so that each woman feels he is dancing with her alone. This amorous dance (rāsa-līlā) is an image of divinity and humanity wholly identified in one another, an absorption made possible by intense devotion (bhakti). Like Arjuna's encounter with Ka, this meeting, too, relativizes the importance of worldly involvements. In the rāsa-līlā the idyllic quality that always separated the pastoral life of Ka Gopāla from the royal world of Vāsudeva Ka attains its apotheosis.

The most important icon of Ka as the divine lover becomes prevalent in Orissa and Karnataka in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and later spreads throughout the subcontinent. In this image Ka is shown with his neck tilted, waist bent, and ankles crossed as he plays his irresistible flute to summon the gopī ssymbolically, human soulsfrom their mundane preoccupations.

Two icons that enjoy a great prominence from Gupta times onward suggest still another way in which the supremacy of Ka Gopāla was experienced. One of these represents Ka lifting Mount Govardhana to protect the inhabitants of Braj from the angry, rainy torrents unleashed by Indra when at Ka's advice they turn their veneration away from that distant Vedic god and toward the symbolic center of the nourishing realm in which they live, Mount Govardhana itself. A second popular image shows Ka taming the evil snake Kāliya, whose presence had poisoned the Yamuna River upon whose waters all of Brajhumans and cattle alikedepend. In both moments Ka wrests order from chaos; in both he guarantees safe and habitable space; and in both he displaces and incorporates the powers earlier attributed to other figures in the pantheon. When he lifts the mountain he overcomes the sky gods captained by Indra, and when he tames the snake he subdues the nether spirits symbolized by snake deities (nāga s). The preeminence of these images of Ka as cosmic victor is only gradually displaced by that of Ka as cosmic lover in the course of time.

Two Forms of Love

Ka is principally accessible to the love of his devotees in two formsas a child and as a youthand the affections elicited by each are distinct, though related. In systematic treatises such as the Bhaktirasāmrasindhu of the sixteenth-century theologian Rupa Gosvami, these two are described by separate terms. The first is "calf love" (vātsalya ), the emotion felt by parents and especially mothers for their children, and the second is "sweet love" (mādhurya ), the emotion that draws lovers together. Ka serves as the ideal focus for both sets of feelings. As a child Ka is impish and irrepressible, and modern Hindus adore him as such, displaying his most lovable moments on the calendars and posters that provide India with a great proportion of its visual diet. As a youth he is charming and unabashed; and in Rajput miniature painting as well as a strand of love poetry broad enough to include the Sanskrit Gītagovinda of Jayadeva and the Hindi Rasikapriyā of Keśavdās, he serves as the "ideal hero" or "leading man" (nāyaka ) known to secular erotic literature.

In both these roles there is an element of contrariness that sets Ka apart from others. His mischievous deeds in childhood contribute greatly to his fascination and are epitomized in his penchant for stealing the gopī s' freshly churned butter. Ka's naughtiness and outsized appetite further stimulate the gopī s' desire to have him as their own, yet he can never be possessed. As the young lover he remains unattainable. Though he makes himself present to all the gopī s in his rāsa dance, he does so on his own terms, never allowing himself to be brought within the confines of a domestic contract. The love he symbolizes exceeds the bounds set by any relationship that can be conceived in terms of dharma.

Child or adolescent, Ka is always a thief, for he is a thief of the heart. Hence even Rādhā, the maiden whom tradition recognizes as his special favorite, frequently and powerfully senses his absence. Much of the poetry that has been dedicated to Ka is in the nature of lamentation (viraha ). The women who speak in such poems give voice to the unquenched yearnings of the human heart, as in the following composition attributed to the sixteenth-century Hindi poet Surdas:

Gopāl has stolen my heart, my friend.
He stole through my eyes and invaded my breast
simply by lookingwho knows how he did it?

Mother, father, husband, brothers, others
crowded the courtyard, filled my world,
As society and scripture guarded my door
but nothing was enough to keep my heart safe.

Duty, sobriety, family honor:
using these three keys I'd locked it away
Behind eyelid gates and inside hard breasts.
Nothing could prevail against efforts such as these.

Intellect, power of discretion, wit:
an immoveable treasure, never once dislodged.

And then, says Sūr, he'd stolen it
with a thought and a laugh and a look
and my body was scorched with remorse.

In this mode it is the elusiveness of Ka that gives evidence of his divine supremacy. Intimately accessible as he seems, whether as child or lover, he can never quite be grasped.

Cult and Ritual

Ka is worshiped in homes and temples throughout India and has become the devotional focus of the Hare Krishna movement (International Society for Krishna Consciousness [ISKCON]) beyond Indian shores. Rituals vary from place to place and caste to caste, but some of the most impressive are those associated with the Gauīya and Puimārgīya Sampradāyas, which trace their lineage back to the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century divines Caitanya and Vallabha. In temples and homes belonging to these communities, Ka is worshiped in a series of eight daily darśan s (ritual "viewings") in which the god allows himself to be seen and worshiped in image form by his devotees. His clothing, jewelry, and flower decorations may be altered many times in the course of a day, and different forms of devotional song are sung as the god's daily cowherding routine is symbolically observed. Vestments, food offerings, and musical accompaniment vary seasonally as well, with the festivals of Holī and Kajanmāami occupying positions of special importance.

In the Braj country surrounding Mathura, which attracts pilgrims from all over India in festival seasons, these ceremonial observances are amplified by dramas in which Ka makes himself available in an especially vivid manner to his devotees through child actors. These brahman boys native to Braj are thought to become actual forms (svarūpa s) of Ka and his companions as they present events in Ka's childhood life. A dancing of the rāsa-līlā is the starting point for every performance, hence the genre as a whole is called rāsa-līlā. In Sanskrit aesthetic theory, drama is thought to comprehend all the arts, and owing to his essentially aesthetic nature Ka is more frequently depicted in Indian art, dance, and music than any other god. Drama is a particularly appropriate mode in which to experience him, however, because Ka's antics so clearly embody the Hindu conviction that life itself is the product of divine play (līlā ). To surrender to play, to plays, and to the sense that all life is play, is to experience the world as it actually is.

See Also

Avatāra; Bhagavadgītā; Holī; Kaism; Līlā; Rādhā; Rāma; Vaiavism; Viu; Vndāvana.


Two works serve as basic references for the study of Ka. On the textual side there is the encyclopedic work of Walter Ruben, Krishna: Konkordanz und Kommentar der Motive seines Heldenlebens (Istanbul, 1944), and on the art historical side the somewhat more personal study of P. Banerjee, The Life of Krisha in Indian Art (New Delhi, 1978). A third major work, which calls for a wholesale reexamination of Bhāgavata religion and Ka's place in it from the sixth century bce through the tenth century ce is Dennis Hudson's The Body of God (New York, forthcoming). A recent issue of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies volume 11:1 (2002)explores his ideas.

A broad study of materials relating to Vāsudeva Ka is provided in Suvira Jaiswal's The Origin and Development of Vaiavism (Delhi, 1967), critical portions of which are deepened by recent investigations on the part of Doris Srinivasan, including her "Early Kisha Icons: The Case at Mathurā," in Kaladarsana, edited by Joanna G. Williams (New Delhi, 1981). Several recent studies make it possible to enter imaginatively into the religious world of Braj, which is so thoroughly animated by Ka. My At Play with Krishna (Princeton, N.J., 1981) focuses on the rāsa-līlās of Vndāvana; Margaret Case's Seeing Krishna (New York, 2000) describes the ambience that sponsors and surrounds them; and David Haberman traces a pilgrims' circumference for all of Braj in Journey through the Twelve Forests (New York, 1994). Shrivatsa Goswami articulates an insider's view of Vndāvana in Celebrating Krishna (Vndāvana, 2001) and Robyn Beeche matches it with a set of peerless photographs. The scholarly background for all this is set forth in Alan Entwistle's Braj, Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage (Groningen, 1987). Readers who suspect this focus on Braj of being overly centrist, even hegemonic will appreciate the essays collected by Guy Beck in Alternative Krishnas (Albany, N.Y., forthcoming).

Two large thematic studies relating to Ka Gopāla are Friedhelm E. Hardy's Viraha Bhakti (Oxford, 1983), which emphasizes South Indian materials and focuses on Ka as a lover; and my work Krishna, the Butter Thief (Princeton, N.J., 1983), which emphasizes North Indian material and concentrates on the child Ka; the appendixes provide a digest of information relating to the iconography of Ka Gopāla.

John Stratton Hawley (1987 and 2005)