Many readers may be familiar with the #MeToo campaign, a social media innovation that was meant to encourage those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment to come forward in order to underscore the pervasiveness of the problem. However, on Diwali, one social media user—Indian Quotes— linked the pervasiveness of sexual violence against women in India to Hindu traditions, and in particular, a lila from the Bhagavata Purana. Such attempts to connect Hindu stories to sexual violence are not new—see, for instance, my Huffington Post column from March 2016 on the subject.
Indian Quotes’ post shows a picture of gopis with speech bubbles carrying the hashtag #MeToo as Bhagavan Shri Krishna holds their change-of-clothes in his hand atop a nearby tree. The comment along with the post reads,
“Teach religion, culture and tradition from a woman’s point of view. Then you will know what harassment is.”
I found Indian Quotes’ use of this particular motif highly problematic and belonging to a series of pop-cultural reinterpretations of Krishna as a womanizer, a “player.” But given the fact that women’s experiences ought to drive discussions around sexual harrassment, I decided to follow Indian Quotes’ advice of seeking out several, more well-informed points-of-view of the vastraharan lila by asking my female colleagues and friends in Hindu Stuents Council (HSC) how they viewed Indian Quotes’ post.
I first asked Sucharita Jayanti, HSC’s VP of Education and Advocacy for her take.
“The vastra haran lila is only part of the Bhagavata Purana and here, Krishna himself is considered fully aware of his divinity and therefore exists on a different philosophical plane than humans. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are itihasas, which literally translates to ‘like that it happened.’ So, with the exception of normal literary techniques, the originals are supposed to be a factual account of what happened. However, the Puranas are philosophical scriptures,” she differentiated. Then, her point really crystallized for me.
“They are primarily an easily understandable version of Hinduism’s deep philosophy. The clothes in that painting don’t represent physical clothing, but rather the mental, emotional, and psychological barriers we place between ourselves and just surrendering to God. Similarly, the women are not women in the usual sense. In the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna is the only true male and all the humans are women. The goal is that with bhakti, you love Krishna and devote yourself to him.”
HSC’s Director of Communications and Krishna devotee Allegra Lovejoy seemed to echo Jayanti’s argument. “Like many other lilas, vastra haran has a very deep and esoteric meaning—one aspect of which is Kirshna’s request to the gopis, and by extension, to all aspiring devotees, to be completely vulnerable before Him. To hide nothing, since ultimately, He sees everything, anyway; and to not let attachment, position, image, or ‘being proper’ get in the way of that true heart connection with the Divine.”
She also shared with me another depiction of vastra haran, which shows gopis in a state of bliss and excitement, rather than the apparent discomfort present in the image Indian Quotes shared. This makes it clear that Indian Quotes’ assertion
“in many of the pictures depicting this lila, the women are shown begging for clothes, some are hiding their face, some are crying in shame. If they are enjoying this, why are they responding like this? Shouldn’t they be jumping in joy?”
is based purely on the stylistic form of the painting that he chose and not in a genuine reading or understanding of the lila itself. In fact, a cursory image search reveals that depictions of this lila in artwork, too, run counter to his assertion.
The social media user also attributed resistance to his point-of-view as stemming from a conditioning from “a similar pattern on movies where the hero harasses the heroine for love,” popular cultural motifs that normalize the sexual gaze of the male, effectively terming Krishna “a player.” This itself is quite a laughable assertion since Krishna left with Akroor for Mathura at the age of eleven, which would make his age during this lila that of a child. Thus, even in a problematic reduction of the lila to the human plane, giving it overt sexual connotations smacks of a prejudiced mind attempting to make feeble connections that simply could not exist.
This broader pattern of viewing Krishna as a philanderer has broader roots in Indian popular culture. From my conversations with HSC leader Rishika Dewan during our time at Princeton together, I remember her dismay at the way in which Bollywood lyrics often put Krishna and Radha on a sexualized plane. For instance, in Student of the Year (2012)–
Gopiyon sang ghoome Kanhaiya // Krishna moves around with the Gopis
Raas rachaiya Radha na jaaye re // But Radha does not go with the enactor of raas
Abb saanwra na bhaaye re // Because the dark-complexioned one no longer sways her
Radha on the dance floor
Radha likes to party
Radha likes to move that desi (sexy) Radha body
Panghat pe aake saiyyan marode baiyaan // At the watering well, Krishna twists Radha’s arm
And everybody blames it on Radha
Chhedde hai humka daiyaan, bairi Kanhaiya // That vengeful Krishna bothers me so much!
And everybody blames it on Radha
In particular, Dewan was irked by the lyrics of this song from the movie Ready (2011)—
“Ishak Ke Naam Pe Karte Sabhi Ab Raas Leela Hai // Everyone does raas-lila in the name of love
Main Karoon Toh Saala Character Dheela Hai” // But when I do it, people say I have a loose character (morals)!
— spoken from the perspective of a modern-day flirt, which attempt to provide cover for his actions by appealing to Krishna’s many lilas with the gopis of Vrindavan.
This type of revisionist casting of Krishna in the popular mind gives fodder to the type of inane garbage social media users like Indian Quotes post. What is most troubling is not that someone had the mistaken views that Indian Quotes did, but that people on social media in India were so quick to lap up what is so obviously false. The post went viral with thousands of shares and even more likes. The trouble with discussions– particularly on social media and especially in India– is that individuals have effectively pigeonholed themselves into silos and are all too ready to accept already deeply held, preconceived notions that may or may not be true.
What all of this underlines is the growing need for Hindus to speak up about the mistaken perceptions that people—even within India’s elite circles—have about Hinduism. The absence of such an even-handed, assertive ownership of our own traditions and stories risks them becoming understood under the type of distortionary lens deconstructed above. Today, there is a growing desire to look back on traditions and decipher the ways in which they subtly code us to act in ways that discriminate against others— in this instance, women. Such a review is welcome, and has indeed been a part Hindu spiritual tradition and debate across millennia. What is unacceptable is the type of misrepresentation and holier-than-thou preaching that we constantly see from people who do not even practice or have basic knowledge about the tradition.