Heroine and Beloved
As heroine and beloved, Devi comes down to earth and her exemplary life provides an inspiring model for women. Devotees admire and adore these manifestations of Devi because of the greatness of personal sacrifice and commitment to moral obligation; the portrayal of courage, and outspokenness; or the disregard of social norms in the face of overwhelming love.
[IMAGE: Radha and Krishna Dressed in Each Other's Clothes (Lilahava). India, Punjab Hills, Kangra, 18th century. Opaque watercolor on paper. Lent by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Don and Corky Whitaker. Standing with a symmetrical landscape of yellow flowering creepers emerging from the greenery of trees, Radha, holding Krishna's flute, has donned her divine lover's peacock-feather crown and saffron-colored dhoti. Blue-complexioned Krishna, in turn, wears Radha's earrings, red skirt, blouse, and transparent shawl. Holding hands, the two gaze into one another's eyes. This unique visual motif of the clothing exchange serves as a metaphor for Radha and Krishna's shared essence. Radha's and Krishna's donning of each other's garments signifies that the two are identical, as is suggested in this verse by an unknown poet.
She wears his peacock feather,
he dons her lovely, delicate crown;
She sports his yellow garment,
he wraps himself in her beautiful sari
How charming the very sight of it. . .
The daughter of Vrsabhanu [Radha] turns [into] Nanda's son [Krishna],
and Nanda's son, Vrsabhanu's girl.
(Srivasta Goswami, trans. The Divine Consort, 87)]
Sita, heroine of the Ramayana epic, faithfully follows her husband Prince Rama (as incarnation of the god Vishnu) into exile. She has been lauded through the ages as the ideal wife. Abducted by the demon king Ravana and imprisoned for months in his palace before she is finally freed by Rama, she must prove her purity by entering blazing flames from which Agni, god of fire, delivers her intact to Rama. Sita is upheld as the model of wifely love and adherence to duty.
[IMAGE: Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana in the Forest. India, Punjab Hills, Kangra, ca. 1790. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Lent by the San Diego Museum of Art: Edwin Binney 3rd Collection. For over two millennia, the famed Ramayana has been told and retold in many regional versions. Painted manuscripts of the epic were repeatedly commissioned by Hindu monarchs. This folio depicts the forest exile of Rama, Sita, and Rama's brother Lakshmana, who left the kingdom clad in the stark bark-and-leaf garments of ascetics. Beneath a tree's richly detailed greenery, Rama and Sita exchange a look of ardent affection as Sita proffers a meal in a leaf bowl to Rama. In spite of his repose, Rama keeps his sword on his lap and a bow by his side, while his quiver of arrows hangs from a nearby branch. To the left, Lakshmana attentively skins a black buck in preparation for a meal of roasted venison kebabs. The naturalistic modeling of graceful figures in soft colors, depicted against the undulating hills of the surrounding countryside, situate these mythic events within the region of the Punjab Hills.]
[IMAGE: The Sage's Wife Clothes Sita. India, Punjab Hills, Kangra, ca. 1780. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Lent by the San Diego Museum of Art: Edwin Binney 3rd Collection. During their exile in the forest, Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana arrive at the hermitage of the sage Atri, represented by a simple hut amidst trees draped with flowering vines. Seated beneath a tree, from which hangs a shawl, the meditating sage is seen holding his prayer beads. The tranquility of the setting is further enhanced by the tame deer and the sacred tulsi (basil) plant. Within the hut, Sita meets with the sage's wife, Anasuya, herself an illustrious ascetic. Anasuya approves of Sita's accompanying Rama into the forest and blesses her with the gifts of heavenly raiment that will never wear out, fine jewelry, a garland, and an unguent that would guard against the rigors of the forest climate. We see Sita twice. In the first appearance she receives the gift of clothes from Anasuya and exchanges her leaf-and-bark dress for a red skirt and blue shawl; in her second appearance she displays the gift to Rama.]
Draupadi, heroine of the Mahabharata epic, is bold and forthright even in adversity. Her husband Yudhisthira succumbing to his weakness for gambling, stakes and loses all (in a rigged game), including his wife. Draupadi challenges the assembly and demands to know how it is possible for one who has staked and lost his own self to retain the right to wager her. Duryodhana, the winner of the bet, insists that Draupadi is indeed his to do with as he pleases and orders that she be disrobed. Furious at this insult to her honor, Draupadi loosens her coifed hair and vows that she will not knot it again until she has washed it in Duryodhana's blood. As she begins to disrobe, the more her sari is pulled away the longer it becomes. It is this event which turns Draupadi from a contented, but strong willed wife into a vengeful goddess.
[IMAGE: The Disrobing of Draupadi, attributed to Nainsukh (1710-1778). India, Punjab Hills, Basohli, ca. 1765. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Lent by the Howard Hodgkin Collection, London. In this evocation of a momentous scene from the Mahabharata epic, the imperious expression and outstretched arm of the Kaurava prince Duryodhana direct attention to the miracle unfolding below. Duryodhana's brother Dushasana forcibly attempts to disrobe Draupadi in the center of the assembly hall. Draupadi's husbands, the Pandavas, who have lost her as well as their kingdom in a crooked game of dice, sit helplessly to the right. As Dushasana repeatedly tries to strip Draupadi, Krishna's divine grace provides her with an unending length of material as a sari, thus sparing her further humiliation. The episode of the dice game and the disrobing of Draupadi is the most important drama enacted in an eighteen-night festival held in many towns and cities. This inauspicious event, which tarnishes Draupadi's honor, marks her metamorphosis from contented wife into vengeful goddess.]
[IMAGE: Draupadi and Ashvatthaman. India, Punjab Hills, Basohli, 1720-30. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Lent by a private collection. This story from the final part of the epic Mahabharata features Ashvatthaman, a Kaurava soldier who massacred Draupadi's sleeping sons in a loathsome and infamous manner. The Pandavas spare Ashvatthaman's life but punish him by removing the miraculous protective jewel crest that has been embedded in his forehead since birth. They also curse him to spend thousands of years in pain, shunned by humans and enveloped by the stench of decaying flesh. The painting shows Draupadi sitting with her husbands, the five Pandavas, within an orange chamber, her upraised hand indicating that she is speaking. Initially Draupadi demanded the death of the murderer but finally agreed to the lesser punishment out of respect of Ashvatthaman's father. Outside the pavilion, we see Ashvatthaman skulking away with his turban bedraggled and head bleeding from the removal of his jeweled crest.]
The third influential heroine and beloved is Radha, a cowherdhess whose story is narrated in the twelfth-century poem, Gita Govinda (Love Song of the Dark Lord). Having once experienced the ecstasy of divine love with Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu), Radha is separated from Krishna and yearns with single-minded intensity for reunion. In the Gita Govinda Radha is human and Krishna divine, and the poem is interpreted metaphorically in terms of the longing of the human soul for the divine. The final reunion symbolizes the bliss of salvation. By the sixteenth century, Radha was transformed into a goddess, and is honored as the heavenly queen of Krishna's celestial world.
[IMAGE: Lotus-Clad Radha and Krishna. India, Punjab Hills, Basohli, ca. 1730. Opaque watercolor on paper. Lent by the Girsjaran and Elvira Sidhu Collection. Clad entirely in lotus petals and sitting on lotus thrones, Radha and Krishna here gaze intently into each other's eyes. Images of Radha and Krishna in flower adornment (phulsajjya) are somewhat rare, and the absence of inscription to accompany such paintings prevents a precise definition of the significance of the iconographic formula. Lotuses, however, are multivalent symbols with a long history of use in the religious imagery of the Indian subcontinent. Since lotuses rise gleaming and fresh out of muddy ponds, they generally represent fertility and purity. The lotus-petal garments further suggest a common act of devotional worship through the offering of flowers to the gods. Within the specific context of the worship of Radha and Krishna, the lotus may refer to the blissful union of the two in the land of Brindavan, Krishna's childhood home. Pilgrimage maps often depicted Brindavan in the shape of a lotus. Radha's lotus braid is a charming extra detail added by the artist.]
[IMAGE: Radha and Krishna Entwined. India, state of West Bengal, 20th century. Bronze. Lent by Leo S. Figiel, M.D. This folk style image of Radha and Krishna indicates the extent to which their legend with its easy charm and immediate appeal, has spread through various levels of society in India. The image of Radha entwining herself around Krishna is a charming piece that captures the charismatic quality of their love. While Krishna plays upon his flute (now missing), Radha creeps up behind him and presses herself against him. She envelops him in embrace, wrapping one leg around him and drawing him close with both arms. This exquisitely modeled twosome is an arresting presentation of Radha's utterly rapturous love for Krishna.]
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The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560.