Intimate Worlds - Killing Dhenakasura

BY: SUN STAFF - 13.7 2017

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

In the book Intimate Worlds, which showcases the Indian paintings collection of Alvin O. Bellak, we see a beautiful manuscript illustration entitled "Krishna and Balarama Hear About the Demon in the Palm Grove". This painting is thought to be a page from a Bhagavata Purana from Punjab Plains, c. 1870-80, painted with opaque watercolor on paper.

The book's authors begin their description of the Krishna lila pastime in this way:

"Many of the tales of Krishna's early life told in the Bhagavata Purana juxtapose his outward identity as a rambunctious young cowherd with his reality as the ultimate deity, Vishnu, through his destruction of an array of colorful demons. Often in these stories it is also shown how Krishna's brother Balarama also partakes of the godhead."

This paragraph presents a philosophical misconception typically found in books of mundane art criticism about transcendental artworks. As clearly stated in sastra, Sri Krsna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, from whom even Vishnu is an expansion. The idea that Vishnu is the "ultimate deity" and that Krishna somehow comes from him is a common misunderstanding.

In the passage above, the writer refers to Balarama's role in this and other lila pastimes in which he "also partakes of the godhead". As the Vaisnavas understand, Balarama is actually a unique personality and is the immediate expansion of the Lord, being Krishna's first Vishnu-tattva manifestation. Balarama is the expansive source of Krsna's abode and paraphernalia, and the whole spiritual creation, and in that way he actually "partakes of the godhead".

Intimate Worlds goes on to describe the lila pastime:

"Three lines of Sanskrit verse on the back of this painting tell the beginning of the story, when the cowherd (gopa) Shridama, together with Subala and Stoka-Krishna, comes to Krishna and Balarama with a problem. Nearby there is a grove of palm trees filled with delicious fruit, ripe and falling to the ground. The fruit tempts the gopa boys, but is well guarded by Dhenuka, a cannibal asura (demon) in the form of a donkey.

Dhenuka and his retinue viciously devour anyone - bird, cow, or man - daring to approach. Shridama begs the divine brothers to help retrieve the fruit. They and the gopas enter the grove, where Balarama kills Dhenuka by grabbing his legs, whirling him overhead, and skewering him atop a tall tree; together, Balarama and Krishna then use the same technique to destroy the demon's party."

In chapter 15 of Krsna Book, Srila Prabhupada gives a more detailed and philosophically complete version of the Dhenukasura pastime:

"His most intimate friends Sridama, Subala and Stoka Krsna began to address Krsna and Balarama with great love and affection thus: "Dear Balarama, You are very powerful; Your arms are very strong. Dear Krsna, You are very expert in killing all kinds of disturbing demons. Will You kindly note that just near this place there is a big forest of the name Talavana. This forest is full of palm trees, and all the trees are filled with fruits. Some are falling down, and some of them are very ripe even in the trees. It is a very nice place, but because of a great demon, Dhenukasura, it is very difficult to go there. No one can reach the trees to collect the fruits. Dear Krsna and Balarama, this demon is present there in the form of an ass, and he is surrounded by similar demon friends who assume the same shape. All of them are very strong, so it is very difficult to approach this place. Dear brothers, You are the only persons who can kill such demons. Other than You, no one can go there for fear of being killed. Not even animals go there, and no birds are sleeping there; they have all left. One can only appreciate the sweet aroma that is coming from that place. It appears that up until now, no one has tasted the sweet fruits there, either on the trees or on the ground. Dear Krsna, to tell You frankly, we are very attracted by this sweet aroma. Dear Balarama, let us all go there and enjoy these fruits. The aroma of the fruits is now spread everywhere. Don't You smell it from here?"

When Balarama and Krsna were thus petitioned by Their smiling, intimate friends, They were inclined to please them, and They began to proceed towards the forest, surrounded by all Their friends."

Absent from the art critic's version of the pastime is the depth of understanding Srila Prabhupada provides about the sweet relationship between the cowherds, Krsna and Balarama. Sridama, Subala and Stoka Krsna are the Lord's intimate friends, and their request to Krishna and Balarama is made out of great love and affection. Of course, in this transcendental lila none of the gopas realize that Krishna is God, or that Balarama is his primary expansion. Like the gopis, the cowherds simply love the brothers unconditionally due to the extremely nectarian relationship they share. They know that the brothers have great strength and bravery, as these qualities have been exhibited in so many other Vrindavan pastimes with the cowherds. Naturally, they come to the brothers for help and shelter.

While Intimate Worlds describes the death of Dhenukasura by saying that Balarama killed the demon by grabbing his legs, whirling him overhead, and skewering him atop a tall tree, we read in Krsna Bookthat Dhenukasura was actually killed as a result of Balarama whirling him around overhead. So the demon was already dead when he landed on the treetops, crashing them to the ground, one on top of another.

The conclusion of this pastime is thus described in Krsna Book:

"Immediately upon entering the Talavana, Balarama began to yank the trees with His arms, exhibiting the strength of an elephant. Because of this jerking, all the ripe fruits fell down on the ground. Upon hearing the sound of the falling fruits, the demon Dhenukasura, who was living there in the form of an ass, approached with great force, shaking the whole field so that all the trees began to move as if there were an earthquake. The demon appeared first before Balarama and kicked His chest with his hind legs. At first, Balarama did not say anything, but the demon with great anger began to kick Him again more vehemently. This time Balarama immediately caught hold of the legs of the ass with one hand and, wheeling him around, threw him into the treetops. While he was being wheeled around by Balarama, the demon lost his life. Balarama threw the demon into the biggest palm tree about, and the demon's body was so heavy that the palm tree fell upon other trees, and several fell down. It appeared as if a great hurricane had passed through the forest, and all the trees were falling down, one after another. This exhibition of extraordinary strength is not astonishing because Balarama is the Personality of Godhead known as Ananta Sesa Naga, who is holding all the planets on the hoods of His millions of heads. The whole cosmic manifestation is maintained by Him exactly as two threads hold the weaving of a cloth.

After the demon was thrown into the trees, all the friends and associates of Dhenukasura immediately assembled and attacked Balarama and Krsna with great force. They were determined to retaliate and avenge the death of their friend. But Krsna and Balarama began to catch each of the asses by the hind legs and, exactly in the same way, wheeled them around. Thus They killed all of them by throwing them into the palm trees. Because of the dead bodies of the asses, there was a panoramic scene. It appeared as if clouds of various colors were assembled in the trees. Hearing of this great incident, the demigods from the higher planets began to shower flowers on Krsna and Balarama and beat their drums and offer devotional prayers.

A few days after the killing of Dhenukasura, people began to come into the Talavana forest to collect the fruits, and animals began to return without fear to feed on the nice grasses grown there. Just by chanting or hearing these transcendental activities and pastimes of the brothers Krsna and Balarama, one can amass pious activities."

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

The authors of Intimate Worlds offer a technical description of the Dhenukasura lila painting, which they describe in this way:

"Here Krishna, Balarama, and the gopas first approach the palm grove. At the far right of the group, the mustached Shridama (identified by an inscription over his head) and, presumably, Subala and Stoka-Krishna, excitedly point to the grove and describe the lurking asura to Krishna and Balarama. The remainder of the gopas talk among themselves, their agitation contrasting with the poised listening of Krishna and Balarama.

The grove itself occupies the right half of the central ground of the painting, a major element in the composition. Along the bottom third runs a river; small pink and blue stones border its banks, the huge gray fish, shown in full side view as if lying on the surface, swim within it. The left half of the central distance is taken up with the group of gopas, clutching their herder's staffs, gathered in an arch around the crowned figures of white-skinned Balarama and blue-skinned Krishna."

This lila scene is beautifully depicted by the artist and is quite aptly described by the book's authors. There is a great sense of anticipation in the painting, set by the distance of the palm grove to the waiting group. The rolling hills suggest movement, and their predominantly downward slope directs the anticipated action into the nearby grove.

While the writer describes the agitation of the waiting cowherd boys, we actually see little agitation or anxiety reflected in their faces or postures. The artist has expertly created a sweet and relatively serene mood, as the gopas look on in untroubled anticipation of Krishna and Balarama getting them access to the lovely fruits. This mood reflects the relationship of the brothers and their cowherd friends, who share many nail-biting pastimes with various demons, but always come away unscathed, laughing and joking about their forest conquests.

The author of Intimate Worlds goes on to describe the painting's scene:

"The cowherds are distinguished from one another by clothing and skin color (some light, some dark), by full face or profile depiction, by hairstyle, and by body pose, yet they are essentially the same figure with the same face - slightly blunter and fuller than those of the brothers - repeated eleven times.

There is a distinct lack of ornament and sartorial detail in the painting of the figures that, taken together with the unpainted border, may indicate the artist left unfinished some final touches. However, in other images from this group, where cowherds appear in conjunction with more elaborately clad figures, the gopas likewise lack ornamentation."

The lack of ornamentation is not surprising, and may simply be the artist's way of communicating the 'transcendental ordinariness' of the scene. As mentioned above, the cowherd boys are simply enjoying a typical day of tending the cows with their dear friends Krishna and Balarama, and the lack of ornamentation lends itself to such an idyllic scene.

The faces of the Vrindavan residents are painted in a delicate hand, their fine features made more gentle by the long, thin herder's staffs. Interestingly, a few of the cowherds appear to be sporting mustaches, although they are a bit young for that.

The writer ends by describing the general layout of the painting:

"The landscape here, although depicting a far horizon, does not have the sense of deep space nor of delicate detail seen in earlier Pahari works. Instead, its distance is created by schematically layered hills with tops outlined in regular lines of lighter green, dotted with varying sized cannonball-bushes perched on the rises in sets of two or three. Stands of deciduous trees peek from the valleys in the middle distance, and wet daubs of white, orange, and gold form the clouds stretching across the narrow section of sky. The palm grove itself appears as a pattern of perfect circles of triangular fronds and spindly trunks with patchwork shading."

The critic's description of the landscape is pleasant to read. We see that the 'cannonball' shrubs dotting the surrounding hillsides are also reminiscent of the round fruits, whose scent beckons the gopas. The sandy beach along the Yamuna River is also unique, appearing somewhat like the lower portion of the sun, with rays symmetrically extending out to meet the water.

Altogether, the painter has done a wonderful job depicting the pastime scene. Given that we have not yet had a glimpse of the actual demons hiding in the grove, we can easily imagine how this peaceful and expectant scene will transform as the demons are spun to their death, crashing palm trees down all around.