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The Underlying Message

The Underlying Message

The stairs leading from central London’s Soho Street Radha-Krishna temple down to the street are steep and narrow. Still, it was relatively easy for me, with the help of one other pujari (temple priest) to carry the bright yellow and white wooden image, Lady Subhadra, from the temple room down into the waiting Bentley limousine to join her two divine brothers, Jagannatha and Baladeva for their even easier ride to Marble Arch, where their annual procession to Trafalgar Square would begin. Once there, I helped carefully lift, one after another, the three smiling figures onto their waiting ratha, a modest 38 ft-high brightly colorful replica of its massive sixteen-wheeled and much taller prototype in Puri, Odisha. There, off the Bay of Bengal coast, for many centuries the annual Rathayatra of Jagannatha (Lord of the universe) has drawn hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. They wait for several hours as the three huge images are inched up makeshift ramps by straining scores of priests onto their three separate cars and then are drawn toward Gundica Temple, the procession’s destination two miles distant.

On that summer Sunday in 2003, viewing the procession from Marble Arch toward Trafalgar Square, seeing the three or four thousand British paraders (including many of Indian origin or ancestry) I recalled being here on this same occasion thirty years before, when Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896–1977), the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, had led the procession. It was all strange then, and it was still strange now, to both witness and be part of this odd display, a mixture of ancient and modern, religious and secular life. Vaishnava devotees of Jagannatha (who consider the image “non-different” from the more human-like divinity Krishna), might feel no need to give any but “transcendental” reasons for all this, as the Lord’s divinely playful will, his Lila. Others might well wonder what was the underlying purpose or message.

—From the book “Attending Krishna's Image; Caitanya Vaisnava murti-seva as devotional truth” by Kenneth R. Valpey, 2006.


Sweetness of Krishna-Bhakti 

We could find any number of later literary works that highlight the aspect of “sweetness” that dominates Krishna-bhakti, but in relation to Krishna’s identity as cowherd one or two excerpts may suffice. A Sanskrit work intended as a meditational aid for Krishna-bhakti practitioners is Raghunathadasa’s Vraja-vilasa Stava, “praise song on the pastimes of Vraja” (sixteenth century), which offers an otherworldly vision of Krishna’s cows:

The hooves of Sri Krishna’s Surabhi cows are decorated with sapphires, their horns are gold-plated, and their white cheeks have broken the snow-capped mountain peaks’ pride. I pray these Surabhı cows may protect us. In the company of Balarama [Krishna’s brother] and His other friends, and his own body splendidly covered with the dust raised by their hooves, the prince of Vraja daily enjoys a great festival of protecting and milking the cows. With great happiness he eagerly enjoys pastimes with them in the great forests and on the grand hills and river banks of Vraja. Let me worship these Surabhı cows. Glory to Padmagandha, the favorite bull of the enemy of Baka, whose handsome horns are covered with gold and studded with jewels, whose hooves are splendidly decorated with sapphires, and whose fine neck bears a swinging garland of reddish flowers. Sometimes Lord Krishna feeds the calves, attentively placing small bunches of soft fresh grass in their mouths, and sometimes he very carefully massages their legs. I yearn to one day see these calves of Lord Krishna jumping and frolicking in Vrindavan.

Such eulogistic meditations as this would be used by practitioners of bhakti-yoga—especially by renunciant practitioners—to pursue and enhance their development of constant absorption in remembering Krishna, including his names, forms, attributes, pastimes, and associates, including his cows.

A close associate of Raghunathadasa, Jiva Gosvami, also includes a meditation on Krishna’s interactions with his cows in his lengthy Sanskrit elaboration of the Bhagavata Purana’s tenth book, Gopala-champu. There he describes how Krishna’s foster father Nanda has just decided to permit Krishna to start herding the cows, graduating from herding the calves now that the boy has turned six years old. The first day performing his new duty is rich with delightful formalities:

The arrangements for going to the forest were as follows. Putting the priests in front with songs, music, and auspicious verses, bringing the cows near and worshiping them by offering foot-wash and arghya, feeding them sweet chick peas, respecting them with obeisances and circumambulation, and then offering the same respects to the priests, Krishna, with his elder brother, remained standing in front of Nanda who had his hands folded. Nanda offered him a jewelled stick and Yasoda put tilaka on his forehead.

Significantly, in this passage the cows take the role of venerable deities and Krishna, despite or because of—being the supreme Bhagavad, offers them honour with all the standard ritual forms. That cows come to be regarded as distinctly venerable we have seen from Bhishma’s instructions in the Mahabharata, and this notion prompts us to look briefly at a contemporary Sanskrit ritual manual of ritual details for the honouring of cows.

—From the book “Cow Care in Hindu Animal Ethics” by Kenneth R. Valpey, 2020.