First-class Krishna, dreaming Vishnu, and a zoo of incarnations: revamping Noah, avenging Macbeth, and the warrior on a white horse.
After attending church and visiting Bangalore palace, I took a rickshaw to the Sri Radha Krishna temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the full name of the Hari Krishna movement. Wearily sitting on a wall, I counted 70 sardines in one of 7 queues, on one of two entrance levels, yielding a guestimated 1000 souls in Purgatory. I later learned that 20,000 visit per day in the weekend and only 7-10,000 on weekdays, so Sunday was a bad choice. My mounting disinclination to bother was strengthened by signs warning against pickpockets. I gave up and was on the way out, when I stumbled across a counter selling express tickets.
I paid 150 rupees (NZ$5), was rushered through sandal, bag and camera check-in, metal detection and pocket pat-down, and entered an exclusive lane (the “Krishna class” perhaps). I like to think I’m more spiritually sincere than many a “mere tourist”, but I felt slightly guilty about buying the privilege. I viewed the shrines at leisure and up close while real devotees streamed past behind me with only a distant glimpse.
The hilltop complex combines the white marble of temple towers with the blue-tinted glass of a high-rise office. In the main hall, frescoes of Krishna’s life covered the ceiling and classical Indian musicians played in the centre. Lamps, incense, food and money were offered to three pairs of richly clothed statues: Krishna and his consort Radha. I kept a hand near my wallet when my luxury lane merged with the commoners’ crush.
My ticket included a clay pot of raison-nut-rice prasad, a banana-leaf plate of rice, and a complimentary book. I chose the Nectar of Instruction that Hare Krishna acquaintances are studying back home, and some postcards to show them. All in all, it was one of my most expensive days: four auto-rickshaw rides, two entry fees, two simple meals, two water bottles, half an hour Internet, 25 postcards and two slim books totalled 750 rupees or NZ $25.
Hare Krishnas are a type of Vaishnavite Hindu, following the way of bhakti or personal devotion to Vishnu as the supreme Lord. Their foreheads are smeared with white paste in a pattern resembling a tuning fork or the Greek letter psi, which represents, I’m told, the foot of Vishnu. Hare Krishnas worship Vishnu in his incarnation as Krishna, regarding all other gods as his manifestation in different forms.
Vishnu literally means the all-pervading, encompassing all space and time. He sleeps on the serpent Ananta who floats on the cosmic ocean. As Vishnu dreams, the long stalk of a lotus sprouts from his navel with the next Brahma sitting on the blossom. Vishnu wakes, Brahma opens his eyes, and a new universe comes into being, supported on one of Ananta’s thousand hoods. Millions of years pass until Vishnu’s day ends and he slumbers. Universe and Brahma fade into nonexistence, the lotus withers. Nothing exists through Vishnu’s long night, until he again wakes and the cycle repeats. It reminds me of the verse that 1000 years in God’s sight are as a single day (Psalm 90:4).
Vishnu is mostly shown with blue skin, the colour of the endless sky or ocean. At times he rides on the back of his Eagle Garuda, after which the Indonesian airline is named. Vishnu has had 10 incarnations or avatars, appearing in physical form to protect the virtuous, overcome evil and restore righteousness at times of spiritual darkness.
Vishnu’s first came as a fish to rescue Manu, the first man and law giver, from a global deluge. He carried the ship containing Manu’s family on his head – echoes of Noah’s Ark. Subsequent incarnations as a tortoise and a boar ascend the evolutionary scale.
Long ages later, the demon Hiranyakashipa was growing in power and Brahma had awarded him a boon. He would not die inside or outside his house, by day or by night, on the ground or in the sky. He could be killed by no created being, no human or animal or demon. No weapon could slay him, nor anything living or non-living. Rather like Macbeth after the witches prophesied that he could not be killed by anyone born of woman, Hiranyakashipa thought himself immortal. He claimed to be the supreme Lord without equal and resented his son Prahlada’s worship of Vishnu as supreme and omnipresent.
As he tried to kill Prahlada, Hiranyakashipa mocked, “Is your Vishnu here? Is he there? Where is he? If he is everywhere, why is he not present before me in this pillar?” Prahlada replied, “He was, he is, and he will be… He is in pillars, and he is in the least thing.” In a rage, Hiranyakashipa shattered the pillar with his mace. Vishnu sprang forth in his fourth avatar as a man with a lion’s head and Hiranyakashipa discovered, as did Macbeth, that prophetic contracts can have loopholes.
As a god Vishnu is uncreated, neither human nor animal nor demon. He seized Hiranyakashipa and dragged him to the threshold of his house (neither within nor without) and lifted him onto his lap (neither earth nor sky) to await dusk (neither day nor night), when he ripped Hiranyakashipa open with his nails (weapons that are neither living nor non-living) and sucked out the scoundrel’s blood.
Vishnu’s most beloved incarnations are less bloodthirsty and in human form. His seventh and eighth avatars are Rama and Krishna. Rama is a mighty prince and archer, mostly seen with a long bow, while Krishna stands playing a flute with crossed legs beneath a peacock feather, or frolics with enraptured maidens tending cows.
At the end of this current age of darkness, Vishnu will return in his tenth incarnation as the warrior Kalkin on a white horse, wielding a flaming sword to judge the wicked and reward the good. The description is so similar to Christ’s return in the Apocalypse (Revelation 19:11-15), that some suspect Christian influence on the myth.