Like Naomi, I have been thinking about Hindu gods that travel. In particular, I have been reading about Krishna, who is among the most famous of Hindu deities in, and beyond, South Asia.
Among my more interesting readings this week was a paper by Anne Monius. The paper is entitled ‘Dance before Doom: Krishna in the Non-Hindu Literature of Early Medieval South India’ (in Alternative Krishnas: Regional and Vernacular Variations on a Hindu Deity, SUNY, Albany, 2005, pp.139-149). Monius provides a description and analysis of two appearances of Kṛṣṇa in Tamil literature (one example that is likely to be Jain, the other explicitly Buddhist). In both examples, reference is made to a dance involving Kṛṣṇa, which is of great beauty. The first text is the Cilappatikāram (assumed to be Jain) and the second is the Maṇimēkalai (which is Buddhist). Monius questions interpretations of these passages as merely indicators of a – now lost – devotional dance tradition and instead focuses on their role in the narratives of which they are a part. She contends that, in both cases, the efficacy of devotion to Kṛṣṇa is being questioned. This is because, in both stories, the central protagonists come to a sticky end in spite of having made offerings to Kṛṣṇa. She argues that this is not because of a deep-seated rejection of Hindu practice, but rather due to a fundamental commitment in both texts to the inevitability of karmic consequences. She states (rather elegantly):
The beauty of Krishna, without an accompanying understanding of the power of karmic forces at work in human lives, is a portent of doom in these early medieval non-Hindu texts.The dance to ward off evil becomes instead a prelude to the suffering of karmically unaware royal patrons and devotees. (p. 147)
This paper potentially raises some rather interesting issues for our project; it appears, in Monius’ analysis, that what is at issue here are what I shall term the ‘limits of grace’. The idea that a given deity or practice is powerful, but limited, and capable of being surpassed either by the power of another being (or not at all, as in the examples above), is one that recurs in, for example, Sikh hagiographical literature, where a wide variety of significant non-Sikh figures appear (some of historical record, some legendary), such as the Tantric sage Gorakhnāth. These figures are offered respect, but are, ultimately, subordinated to Gurū Nānak. What I particularly like about Monius’ example is that this is not a simple case of character-driven ‘one-upmanship’, but rather reflects a deep-seated assumption about how the universe works – namely that karma is inevitable -, which is worked into a delightful, albeit implicit, rebuttal of the extent of the power of a key deity from another tradition.