This week my halo slipped a bit. I lost my temper with someone quite unnecessarily and snarled at them. I went back to say sorry and sincerely repented my little outburst. But then I thought of someone quite the opposite, who is actually celebrated for having his foot in his mouth. Here’s His picture, done in the 18th century Tanjore glass painting style.
The painting embodies a famous concept of Infant Krishna at perfect peace floating in his luminous beauty and purity (hence the ‘child’ image) on a banyan leaf (that holds the earth) on the ocean (of existence).
This is an important key to the Hindu religion.
The abstract concept is ‘personified’ with suitable earthly metaphors, so that when we feeble humans look at a picture of Baby Krishna, we are eased with grace into the vast, terrifying Unknown, Immeasurable, Omniscient, Infinite concept of God.
This idea is explored in both painting and poetry.
Its most famous expression in verse is the Balamukundashtakam, the Eight Verses to the Holy Child.
Hear this preview of Carnatic singer O.S. Arun singing it in his 2003 album Yadava Madhava.
These verses were composed by the medieval saint-poet Bilvamangal whose story many of us have almost certainly read in good old Amar Chitra Katha. He was quite a rake (think hot St Augustine of Hippo) and his favourite person was the courtesan Chintamani.
One stormy night (quite like two other great Vaishnava saint-poets, Tulsidas and Siddhendra Yogi of Kuchipudi), he swam across a flooded river to get to his ladylove and climbed the wall of her house by grabbing a rope that turned out to be a cobra!
Reproached soundly by Chintamani for being so addicted to a mere ‘bag of bones and flesh’ as she called herself, instead of to Immortal God, Bilvamangal turned the proverbial new leaf.
He went off to Vrindavan, blinding himself on route to kill his ‘lustful gaze’ and found a guru, Somagiri.
Like that other famous reformed rake, Narayana Bhattadri, who composed the Narayaneeyam about Krishna (the official text at Guruvayoor, just as Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda is the official text at Puri Jagannath), he sublimated all his sexual experience into ecstatic, mystical poetry evoking Sri Krishna’s Rasakrida (Dance with the Gopis). They began to call him ‘Lila-suka’ (the parrot who sings of the Divine Play).
Bilvamangal founded a whole sampradaya (tradition) of Radha-worship at Vrindavan. It was taken up by other gifted, intense men, enchanted by the perfection of the emotional-erotic transference from the mundane to the mystic in Radha-worship. The resulting poetic legacy was mind-blowing and a huge bandwidth of Indians has stayed blown for about 500 years.
‘Radhey-Radhey!’ remains the daily greeting to this day in Brij-bhumi, not ‘Ram-Ram’ as elsewhere in North India.
Anyhow, our present business is with the Balamukundashtakam: it is quite a favourite in many South Indian homes and children are taught to say it early on (I wasn’t, I got to it a lifetime later).
Here’s the first verse from the Sanskrit and below is the translation of the entire eight. (Unlike our love poetry, our devotional poetry doesn’t always shine in English, but wotthehell).
Do note how Bilvamangala starts off with deceptive simplicity, describing the ‘obvious’. But what a humongous concept already, to tuck into that first line!
As he proceeds, recalling incidents from Krishna’s childhood, each verse deepens with further meaning and by Verse Eight, the full portent, glory and grandeur of God imaged in that tiny baby is openly resounded.
The contrast is complete.
The mind finds the paradox just too scrumptious, for Hinduism likes its notions layered.
vat?asya patrasya put?esayanam´
balam´ mukundam´ manasa smarami
TRANSLATION of Bilvamangala’s Eight Verses
1. I meditate on that Holy Child who sleeps on the banyan leaf with his lotus-like foot in his lotus-like hand, placed in his lotus-like mouth.
2. I meditate on that Holy Child who sleeps holding all the worlds together on the leaf of a banyan tree, in a form with no beginning or end. He is the incarnation of God for the welfare of all mankind and the Lord of all.
3. I meditate on Bala Mukunda (the Holy Child) in my heart, whose body is delicate as a blue lotus, whose foot is worshipped by all the deities. He is the wish-fulfilling tree for those who take refuge in him.
4. I meditate on that Bala Mukunda in my heart who has hanging curls and necklaces and beautiful teeth that show so playfully. His lower lip is as red as a bimba fruit and he has wide, beautiful eyes.
5. I meditate on that Bala Mukunda in my heart, who pretended to sleep, having emptied the hanging yogurt pots of the Gopis while they were away.
6. I meditate on Bala Mukunda whose beautiful face resembles the autumn moon, who dances happily in the Kalinda pond on the hood of the serpent Kaliya, holding its tail with his hand.
7. I meditate on Bala Mukunda who has beautiful eyes like the petals of a full-blown lotus, who bravely broke the pair of tall yamala-arjuna trees despite being tied to a mortar.
8. I meditate on Bala Mukunda: God, replete with truth and pure consciousness, of infinite divine form; the lotus-eyed one who gazed fondly at his mother as she nursed him.