Intimate Worlds - Aristhasura

BY: JAHNAVA DEVI - 4.7 2017

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

Pictured here is another of the exceptional Indian paintings featured in the book Intimate Worlds, which showcases the exquisite Alvin O. Bellak collection. This painting, entitled "Krishna Slays Arishta, the Bull Demon", is a page from a dispersed series of the Rasikapriyaof Keshavadasa painted in Malwa, Central India, c. 1640. This piece is done in opaque watercolor and gold on paper.

The authors of Intimate Worlds describe Sri Krsna's pastime of killing the Arishta demon:

"Krishna and his cowherd companions enjoy many a blissful day at Braj and its environs. On one occasion, however, their tranquil existence is shattered by the demon Arishta, who, in the form of an enormous bull, rampages into their midst, fouling the earth and terrorizing the populace with menacing snorts and glares.

The cowherds rush to seek the aid of their protector. Krsna arrives and taunts Arishta, prompting the bull to charge him. But Krsna quickly catches hold of Arishta's horns and demonstrates his obvious supremacy by dragging the beast about at will. Refusing to concede defeat, the enraged Arishta charges again. This time Krsna grabs him by the horn and wrestles him to the ground, where he pins him with the force of his foot. Then, wrenching one of Arishta's horns from his head, Krsna dispatches the mighty demon to his death by impaling him with his own horn."

In Srimad Bhagavatam 10:36:1-16, Sukadev Goswami describes the transcendental truths behind Lord Krsna's pastime of killing Arishtasura:

"The demon Arishta then came to the cowherd village. Appearing in the form of a bull with a large hump, he made the earth tremble as he tore it apart with his hooves. Arishtasura bellowed very harshly and pawed the ground. With his tail raised and his eyes glaring, he began to tear up the embankments with the tips of his horns, every now and then passing a little stool and urine.

My dear King, clouds hovered about sharp-horned Arishtasura's hump, mistaking it for a mountain, and when the cowherd men and ladies caught sight of the demon, they were struck with terror. Indeed, the strident reverberation of his roar so frightened the pregnant cows and women that they lost their fetuses in miscarriages. The domestic animals fled the pasture in fear, O King, and all the inhabitants rushed to Lord Govinda for shelter, crying, "Krishna, Krishna!"

When the Supreme Lord saw the cowherd community distraught and fleeing in fear, He calmed them, saying, "Don't be afraid." Then He called out to the bull demon as follows. You fool! What do you think you're doing, you wicked rascal, frightening the cowherd community and their animals when I am here just to punish corrupt miscreants like you! Having spoken these words, the infallible Lord Hari slapped His arms with His palms, further angering Arishta with the loud sound. The Lord then casually threw His mighty, serpentine arm over the shoulder of a friend and stood facing the demon. Thus provoked, Arishta pawed the ground with one of his hooves and then, with the clouds hovering around his upraised tail, furiously charged Krishna.

Pointing the tips of his horns straight ahead and glaring menacingly at Lord Krishna from the corners of his bloodshot eyes, Arishta rushed toward Him at full speed, like a thunderbolt hurled by Indra. The Supreme Lord Krishna seized Arishtasura by the horns and threw him back eighteen steps, just as an elephant might do when fighting a rival elephant. Thus repulsed by the Supreme Lord, the bull demon got up and, breathing hard and sweating all over his body, again charged Him in a mindless rage. As Arishta attacked, Lord Krishna seized him by the horns and knocked him to the ground with His foot. The Lord then thrashed him as if he were a wet cloth, and finally He yanked out one of the demon's horns and struck him with it until he lay prostrate.

Vomiting blood and profusely excreting stool and urine, kicking his legs and rolling his eyes about, Arishtasura thus went painfully to the abode of Death. The demigods honored Lord Krishna by scattering flowers upon Him. Having thus killed the bull demon Arishta, He who is a festival for the gopis' eyes entered the cowherd village with Balarama.

Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada.

The authors of Intimate Worlds also describe the technical and aesthetic merits of this beautiful painting:

"The illustration itself is a fine example of painting from Central India. Although the Malwa region was among the first to fall under Mughal control in the mid-sixteenth century, its artists absorbed few features of Mughal painting until the second half of the seventeenth century.

The large-headed figures here, for example, are only slightly more rounded and finely featured than those of the Palam Bhagavata Purana made a century earlier; in fact, the sole concession to contemporary metropolitan styles is the plumed Jahangir-period turbans that the cowherds spot. This conservatism is a virtue in many respects, for the Malwa style retains much of the raw vigor of early Indian painting.

The cowherds, for example, assume forceful, angular poses as they hasten to assist Krishna. For his part, Krishna grasps Arishta's horn in a most untenable way, and lands what can only be a glancing blow with his foot; despite the pictorial imprecision of these actions, there is no doubt that Krishna will subdue the demon imminently.

Two monkeys, creatures ubiquitous in this series, leap from tree to tree, simultaneously echoing the agitation of the scene below and enlivening the upper stretches of the composition.

This work, like the best of early Malwa painting generally, strikes a compelling balance between areas of detail - restricted to a few elements such as Krishna's plumed crown - and large blocks of primary color. The simple backdrop, which in this series alternates between dark blue and canary yellow, accentuates the painting's strong two-dimensional quality and imparts a sense of timelessness to its actions."

The art critics who wrote the above passage failed to mention a few aspects of this painting that are obvious from the Krsna Consciousness point of view. For example, the postures of the cowherd boys, which the author describes as 'forceful and angular', are also very interestingly posed. While the postures indicate motion or action, there is also a sense of formality in this tableaux which speaks to the fact that this is a lila pastime scene. The cowherd boys are not just Krsna's little friends, but are actually divine personalities who have manifest in the Lord's many other lila pastimes, playing various roles. Like actors on a transcendental stage, their actions frame the central drama - Sri Krsna's pastimes of killing the demons and protecting the devotees.

Compared to the solidity of the bodies of the cowherds, flesh-coloured with white and red clothing, Sri Krsna upper body is depicted as an ephemeral bluish form. The golden striping of His shawl and the bracelets on His arms create a mystical view of the Lord which sets Him apart from (and above) the other cowherds. The above passage from Srimad Bhagavatam describes Sri Krsna's "mighty, serpentine arm", which has been beautifully depicted by the painter in this way.

At the center is Arishtasura, who is bleeding from the mouth as Krsna grabs him by the horn. The red staffs of the cowherds cross the air against a deep blue background, in contrast to the absence of weapon's in Krsna's hands.

In the bottom right hand corner of the painting is one of the most interesting elements: four cows, completely sectioned off from the main scene, and set against a bright red background. Typically in Indian paintings of this type we find that the panel depicting the most important action is framed against a red background, while the quieter shades of blue or green indicate a secondary aspect of the scene. Here, we see four intriguingly beautiful cows gazing upwards at the scene of Arishta's deliverance. With their ears prominently cocked, they stand at full attention. Again, the artist has added weight to the fact that this is a transcendental pastime of the Lord. These cows are not tucked back behind the trees, but rather stand separated, sentinels watching the unfolding pastime.

We can also see in the way the painter has isolated the cows from the scene that they are under the Lord's protection. While the cowherds are fighting the demon, right in the thick of things, the cows are sheltered away from the brawl, where the much larger Arishta cannot harm them. Noting again the bold red background, we can see that the most important aspect of this painting is framed on red - that is, Krsna is protecting His devotees from the demons. "I am here just to punish corrupt miscreants like you!"