This article is written by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar of Coimbatore
Everybody loves a good tale. There is nothing like a credible yarn, spun out with skill, to entertain, enlighten and educate us. The erstwhile popularity of Tamil weeklies and monthlies was due in no small measure to the serial stories that appeared in them, regaling the reading public for long years. We hear of readers waiting for the next issue with bated breath, getting through the week somehow and rushing to the newsstands to grab their current copy of Kalki, to learn what befell VandiyatEvan, the life-like hero of “Ponniyin Selvan”. And even today, there are those who would miss even a meal, rather than forego watching the current episode of their favourite mega serial or soap opera. We see pitched battles being fought at home between otherwise harmonious members of the family, over which serial should be viewed at a particular time, when two or more of them are on the air simultaneously in different channels. All this goes to show the incredible power the story wields over people.
However, we find that most of these hot stories and gripping serials fade away from public memory as fast as they surface. If one were to be asked today about supposedly immortal works like “Kadal PurA” or “SivakAmiyin Sapatham”, one would have to recall them with difficulty. If this is the state of affairs within two to three decades of their appearance, one could imagine what their fate could be a decade later–none would have even heard about the works, leave alone remember their contents. Some works survive longer in readers’ minds due to their worthy contents, but again it is only a question of time before they too take a bow, unsung and forgotten. Similar is the fate of serials and motion pictures in the visual media . Whether it be “Sound of Music” or “Chandralekha”, all these are destined ultimately for the forlorn world of the forgotten classics.
On the other hand, we find that even today huge crowds throng lecture halls where the exploits of Rama and Krishna are narrated. The TV serials on Ramayana and Mahabharata were such crowd-pullers that activity ground to a halt in the entire nation, with people dropping whatever they were doing to watch eagerly the next episode of the epic. When Homer’s Iliad and Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam have ceased to enthrall us, within a few centuries of their composition, we find tales of Rama and Krishna still gripping, inspiring in us resolutions of good behaviour, whenever we hear this or that exploit of Sri Rama, highlighting exemplary conduct. We are still moved to tears when we hear of Sri Rama’s uncomplaining acceptance of a sentence of extradition for fourteen long years, added to the loss of throne, or of Sri Janaki’s clumsy efforts to drape Herself with the deer skin on the eve of Her departure for the forests, unused so far to anything but the most luxurious of lives at Mithila and Ayodhya. We are fired by tales of Sri Rama’s bravery in single-handedly disposing of fourteen thousand rakshasas and moved beyond words at His preparedness to grant assylum to the brother of His sworn enemy, and what is more remarkable, to even the dastardly abductor of His beloved wife. All these occurrences of YugAs past are still green in our memory, as if they happened just yesterday. And when you come to think of it, Srimad Ramayana is not that remarkable, as far as the story line is concerned, and could be summarised in a few sentences. This being so, why should it survive where other similar yarns are long dead and gone?
When we analyse the reasons for this phenomenon of some tales being forgotten quickly and others lingering on and on, forever, we find that all accounts of mundane mortals, narrated by authors whose calibre is but the same as that of the characters they create, disappear without a trace after a short run of popularity, while all legends of the Lord and His doings, irrespective of how long back they happened, live on in people’s memories. While all objects of enjoyment in this world are subject to what the economists call the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility, affording less and less pleasure with every increase in the number of units consumed, according to Sri Nammazhwar, the Lord is the significant exception in this regard, the blissful experience He affords never palling upon devotees—“appouzhudaikku appOdu en ArAvamudamE”. So too, tales concerning the Lord appeal to us anew, everytime we hear or read them. Irrespective of the number of times one has heard the Epic, it never bores us, as would any other repetition. Can you imagine how many discourses might have been delivered on the subject of Ramayana, ever since the sons of Rama first sang the lilting verses of Valmiki, holding spell-bound the first ever audience consisting of the citizens of Ayodhya? We are unable to hazard even a guess at the billions of recounting the Epic must have undergone, over several YugAs. And if a recital of the same is able to grip even fickle-minded fireflies like us even today, irrespective of the narrative skills of the racounteur, the magic of the Epic and of its Immortal Hero are beyond dispute. Would anyone listen to tales other than that of Sri Rama, queries Sri Nammazhwar rhetorically, confessing his obsession with the Prince of Ayodhya and His exploits—“karpAr irAma pirAnai allAl mattrum karparO?”. If these tales have been translated into innumerable languages spoken around the world, is it not a testimonial to their undying appeal, cutting across national and cultural barriers? If scenes from the Epic were depicted as murals and sculptures in the ancient temples at Angkor Vat and if such scenes are enacted every year not only in India but in distant lands like Indonesia,Malaysia, Thailand, etc., it puts the universal appeal of Bhagavat Katha beyond dispute.
When we speak of undying tales, perhaps the saga of Sri Krishna ranks no lower in popularity. For sheer entertainment value, if not for its instructive content, nothing can beat Srimad Bhagavatam and especially the tenth skandam thereof, detailing the exploits of the Boy Wonder. One wonders whether Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer”, Richmal Crompton’s “William” and scores of other mischievous and beloved characters might not have been created after a perusal of the life and times of Sri Krishna. Though Bhagavatam does chronicle the endearing misdemeanours of the Divine Cowboy, it was left to Sri Periyazhwar and his illustrious daughter to portray vividly the innumerable exploits of Kannapiran, who was at once the darling and despair of Sri Yasoda. Tales of Krishna enthral us till date, with our delight undiminished by any number of recountings of His thievery of dairy products, His scant regard for property rights as far as milk, butter and curds were concerned, His highly unorthodox ways of obtaining objects of His desire, His romances, sincere and otherwise, with the Gopis of Nandagokulam, His exploits with the numerous asuras dispatched by Kamsa with the sole aim of finishing off the boisterous brat and His growing up amidst cows, calves and cowherds, reeking of dairy products. There are so many tales of Sri Krishna, with sub-plots of their own, that we can easily lose a lifetime listening to them with undying fascination. And millions of authors, right from the venerated Sri Suka Brahmam and Sri Vishnuchitta, to the modern day Kannadasan, accounting for various shades of devotion and scholarship, have delighted in writing of Krishna and His doings.
Here is one of the numerous anecdotes which at once entertain, educate and enthrall. The following sloka from Sri Krishna KarNAmritam of Leelasuka portrays the devious mindset of the mischievous brat, especially when His misdeeds come home to roost. The sloka is set against the background of Sri Krishna’s habit of barging into other people’s homes, appropriating for own use the pots of butter, milk and curds gathered by Gopis with considerable strain and labour. Adding insult to injury, He not only consumes all these delicacies, but also bangs down the empty pots with considerable force, shattering them to pieces. His raids are not only nocturnal, but carried out brazenly in broad daylight too, when the inhabitants of the selected house are away or asleep. And the damage caused is substantial, as the brat always moves about in gangs, of which the other unholy members too have no less an appetite for butter and curds. To avoid the little monster from accessing dairy products, clever Gopis fashion slings and suspend the pots of butter and curds from the ceiling, far beyond the reach of the short Krishna. However, this hardly stops the ingenious infant, who fashions a human ladder to climb and reach the pot. He puts His beautiful hand inside the vessel, scoops out a handful of butter and stuffs it into His pearly mouth. It is at this stage that the suspicious Gopi, who had gone just to the backyard, returns and finds six or seven children in her living room, standing one atop the other, to enable the black one at the top to reach the butter pot. What they are up to is extremely evident, any niggling doubts in this regard instantly dispelled by the large, tell-tale smear of butter on the hands and face of the apple of Yasoda’s eye.
This particular Gopi had been a long-suffering victim of these resourceful raiders and had tried every ruse in the book to trap them “white-handed”, engaged in the consumption of butter, so that she could drag them to Yasoda, who was forever protesting the innocence of her brat, never taking cognisance of complaints unless accompanied by well-documented evidence. And what could be better testimony than catching Him with a hand in the pot? Determined to bring Him to justice today, the Gopi starts the court of inquiry quite innocuously, as if unaware of Krishna’s identity. “Who are you, my boy?” (“Ka: tvam bAla?”) she inquires of the brat. The irony of the situation is brought out extremely well by the poet, that of the unlettered Gopi demanding the Parabrahmam to identify Itself. Perched precariously on the shoulder of His accomplice, who has started shivering in anticipation of imminent reprisal, Sri Krishna puts on a brave face, as if there is nothing extraordinary about the situation in which He has been caught and as if it is an every day occurrence for housewives to find Sri Krishna in their living rooms, perched atop three or four urchins, with His hand inside the butter pot. Lost in the contemplation of ways and means to get out in one piece from the tight spot, Sri Krishna still manages a wily reply to the Gopi, telling her that He is the younger brother of Balarama. While indeed being the elder brother, Balarama is quite a normal and adorable specimen of childhood, respectful to elders and with a finely-developed sense of meum and tuum. All that everybody in Gokulam has for Him are affection and regard. Hence, by playing upon the unblemished reputation of Balarama, Sri Krishna hopes to evade punishment, indirectly pleading with the Gopi to spare Him (Krishna) considering the impeccable conduct of His elder. (This reminds us somewhat of Sri Alavandar’s prayer to the Lord to save him, if only on account of his grandfather Sri Nathamuni-“PitAmaham NAthamunim vilOkya praseeda mat vrittam achintayitvA”).
Marvelling at the little brat’s crafty reply, the Gopi says, “Okay, Balarama’s brother! But what are you doing here, in my living room, without my consent, where you have absolutely no legitimate business? You have definitely not been invited in by me. Then how come I find you here?”. She thinks she has got Him cornered, for there could be no reply to this question, except shameful acknowledgement of trespass, followed by profuse apologies. Savouring her moment of revenge, she awaits Krishna’s reply, if one could be made. However, she forgets that Krishna is never at a loss for words, whether they be true or false. He tells her brazenly that He entered her house, mistaking it to be His own. Even a little child of AyppAdi knows Nandagopa’s palace, being the tallest and most magnificent of residences in the locality, with beautiful doors adorned with mellifluously chiming bells, high-flying flags and fine-looking festoons (“kodi tOndrum tOraNa vAyil kAppAnE! MaNi kadavam tAL tiravAi”). This Gopi’s residence is an extremely humble one, with neither flag nor festoon and with an ordinary wooden door that is unable to keep out mid-day marauders like Krishna. There is thus no possibility of Krishna mistaking this humble home to be His own. However, the Gopi decides to say nothing about this incredible contention, deciding to give Krishna a long rope.
She proceeds logically: “I can even accept that you have barged into my house, mistaking it to be yours.Even if you entered by mistake, you could have found from the interior that it is definitely not yours, and having deduced that, it would have been expected of you to have departed immediately, with appropriate apologies to me. Instead of that, why do I find you with your hand inside the butter pot?”
The Gopi is certain she has floored Krishna with this unanswerable query. How could He reply? Anticipating and relishing in advance His discomfiture in having been caught red-handed, the Gopi awaits the brat’s reply, if at all there could be one. However, pat comes the astounding answer, “Oh mother! One of my calves got separated from the herd, while I was returning home from the hills after grazing the cows. I am just looking whether the lost calf is inside the pot.” It must have been for this particular piece of falsehood, which crowns all others He had uttered in His illustrious career as a facile fibber, that Sri Andal bestowed Him with the sobriquet, “ElA poigaL uraippAn”—the incredible fibber.
Amazed at the preposterous reply, the Gopi marvels at Krishna’s ready tongue, ever ready to utter untruth with fascinating fluency. A lost calf and searching for it inside the butter pot, suspended high from the ceiling! This piece of incredible insolence is the last straw and the Gopi’s patience runs out. Not only was the brat stealing her butter in broad daylight, short-ciruciting all the safeguards she had put in place, but He was also insulting her intelligence with tall stories of calves in butter pots and humble huts being mistaken for splendorous palaces! Nothing like a good spanking to keep errant urchins in line, thinks the Gopi and raises her hand threateningly (the hand would not have made contact, for no one in Nandagokulam can bear to hit Krishna or to see Him beaten, such was the overwhelming love everyone had for Him, despite His misdeeds), when Krishna, feigning fright, starts crying in a shrill voice, enough to rouse the neighbourhood. Even to this day, we find children resorting to this ruse, when all else fails to move parents to comply with juvenile demands. Tears are the ultimate and invariably effective weapons in the armoury of children. The Gopi being no exception to the rule, gets flustered by Krishna’s tears, which have started coursing down His blooming cheeks, just a second after he commenced crying. Her anger all forgotten, she tries to pacify the child, who looks so sad and forlorn, with eyes swimming in tears and uttterly helpless against adult harrassment. Her maternal instinct becoming overactive, the Gopi takes sobbing Krishna into her arms and consoles Him with large helpings of butter or what is left of it after the little thief and His gang have had a go at it. Krishna feasts on the offering with gusto and leaves, after extracting promises from a mellowed Gopi for a repeat banquet of bovine products, the following day.
Here is the beautiful sloka from Sri Krishna Karnamritam-
“Ka: tvam Bala? BalAnuja: kim iha tE? Man mandira AsankayA
Yuktam tat. Navaneeta bhAnda kuharE hastam kimarttham nyadA:?
MAta! Kanchana vatsakam mrigayitum. MAgA vishAdam kshaNAt
ItyEvam vana vallavI birudita: Krishna: sa pushNAtu na:”
What a wonderful tale! And there are practically hundreds like this one, each displaying a particular aspect of the Paripoorna avatAra that was Sri Krishna.
Azhwars have waxed extremely eloquent in recounting numerous such episodes, moving even the stoniest of hearts and melting it with Bhagavat guNAnubhavam. Listening to such tales of the Lord and His exploits purifies the mind of its accumulated garbage, making it an ideal abode for the Supreme Being. It is thus not for nothing that Listening, to tales of the Lord and His devotees, is counted among the best of ways to inculcate and imbibe devotion-“shravaNam, keertanam VishNO:” Sri Kulasekhara Perumal exhorts his ears to listen only to the glorious fables of the Lord—“Achyuta kathA shrotra dvaya tvam shruNu”.
Telling tales might be bad per se, but when the tales are about the Lord, they generate exquisite enjoyment in the teller as well as the listener, says the Gitacharya—“kathayantascha mAm nityam, tushyanti cha ramanti cha”.
This article is written by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar of Coimbatore