In November 1992, the god Krishna appeared to a group of devotees in the town of Vrindavan in north India. He manifested in the form of a large black bee or beetle, and he appeared three times; his image was irrefutably captured on videotape. I was present at all three appearances; when I tell the story, people often ask, “Do you believe it was really Krishna?” My answer has come to be, “It all depends. In the context, yes.” And context is everything.
The first appearance of the black bee (bhramara) in Jaisingh Ghera, the Goswamis’ ashram on the banks of the Yamuna River in Vrindavan, was during the final hours of preparation for an aṣṭayāma-līlā—an enactment on stage of a day in the eternal life of Krishna. An aṣṭayāma-līlā is presented in eight performances, each about three hours long, around the clock on successive days. The first one starts at about 3:30 in the morning, the second at 6:00 A.M., and so on. The week-long production is a major undertaking, prepared over the course of months.1
The Krishna of the aṣṭayāma-līlā is older than the beloved butter-stealing child of popular song and story, younger than the advisor to warriors and kings of the Bhagavad Gita. Here Krishna is the playful cowherd boy, beloved son of the cowherd chief Nanda and his wife, Yashoda, and the loving companion of the beautiful village girl, Radha. The time is the distant past, and now, and eternity. The place is Vrindavan, the “basil forest” (now a pilgrimage town) in the land of Vraja, the region of the north Indian plain south of Delhi and north of Agra. The stories of Krishna’s deeds in Vraja provide the material for a rich variety of the living arts all over India—painting, drama, sculpture, and dance. They have also been the basis for highly refined philosophical and theological writing; they have formed the moral framework of Vraja life and of a wider Vaishnava society and provided inspiration for the rulers of the historically powerful states of Rajasthan. They are for millions of people the spiritual “glue”—as well as “lubricant”—that holds together individuals and families and eases the frictions of family life.
This stretch of the bank of the Yamuna is thus given stories in eternal time and in the golden days of Krishna’s lifetime. But remains of buildings along the river bring us somewhat closer, into historical time. Bricks that date to the Mauryan period, about the third century B.C.E., have been found less than a mile upstream from the place where Radha talked to the black bee, in the foundation of the present temple of Madanamohana on the banks of the Yamuna.
In the third century B.C.E., the nearby city of Mathura was a thriving center, and there was probably a settlement in Vrindavan. But we know little about the site until the sixteenth century. In 1515 C.E., Vrindavan was again a virtually uninhabited forest when the Bengali saint Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu visited this land of Krishna’s idylls. Here he identified many of the sites of Krishna’s Mas, and over the years other holy men identified others. Those who follow the Chaitanyaite tradition believe that the saint used to sit for his spiritual exercises near the place where Radha and Krishna had come for their trysts. Chaitanya charged six of his ablest followers, later called the Six Gosvamis, to establish Vrindavan as a center of devotion to Krishna. Temples were built, and small groups of Chaitanya’s followers settled here and in nearby places in Vraja.
About two hundred years later, Raja Sawai Jayasimha (Jaisingh) of Amera (Amber), one of the most powerful ministers of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and a devout worshiper of Radha and Krishna, established a retreat for himself in Vrindavan while he was governor of the Mughal province of Agra. The site he chose was on the riverbank where Radha and Krishna trysted and where Chaitanya used to sit. He acquired six parcels of land, about two and a half acres altogether, where he constructed a house for himself; a pavilion on the river front, where Chaitanya had sat; behind it, a shrine to Chaitanya and two of his close companions; steps leading down to the river at the divine couple’s landing places; and a temple for his personal deity, Nritya Gopala (see plan, Figure 1). Beside his house, he built a large platform where rāsa-līlās, musical dance dramas depicting the activities of Krishna and his companions, were performed.
Figure 1. Plan of Jaisingh Ghera. Drawing by Nat Case.
The Goswami family, who now live on the property, reason that Savai Jayasimha must have stayed here whenever he could for twenty-odd years, and it is known that he attracted notable philosophers, artists, and scholars here, making it a spiritual and cultural center. He sponsored within his compound a periodic rāsa-līlā festival, with the support of the maharajas of Kotah and Jodhpur; this was the first time that theatrical performances of rāsa-līlās were performed outside temple auspices in Vraja. It was probably in this compound that he planned the new city of Jaipur, built in the early eighteenth century, and the great astronomical observatories, the jantar mantar, for which he is widely known. In any case, Sawai Jayasimha was not only an outstanding soldier and administrator, astronomer and scholar, but also a connoisseur, patron, and devotee of Vraja.
The compound as a whole came to be known as Jaisingh Ghera (or Jayasimha Ghera), and today the buildings are still standing. In this century, part of the land was used as a wrestling ground; the wrestlers worshiped their patron deity Hanuman in a small shrine established next to the rāsa-līlā platform by Sawai Jayasimha in 1699. After Independence, the compound was auctioned of by the government of Rajasthan and came into the possession of Sri Purushottama Goswami Maharaja (“Maharaj jl”), a priest in the service of the nearby Radharamana temple. Under his direction, Savai Jayasimha’s rāsa-līlā platform was transformed into a great hall with a proscenium stage for the performance of rāsa-līlās and other traditional dance and music. Over Savai Jayasimha’s residence and the performance hall were built accommodations for devotees and visiting scholars. A library and other facilities for research were established over the course of two or three decades, and Jaisingh Ghera once again became an important cultural center, sponsoring many of the traditional Vaishnava arts of Vraja. (A Vaishnava here may be taken to mean one who reveres Krishna as the highest deity. The word more generally means a worshiper of Vishnu in his various forms, which most notably include, besides Krishna, Rama, the protagonist of the Ramayana.)
Part of the property along the river had been leased by the Rajasthan government to a small school, and because of Indian tenancy laws, this area could not be used by the Goswamis until some agreement could be reached with the tenants. In the summer of 1992, the school was at last vacated, and Jaisingh Ghera was once again virtually complete, lacking only the temple built by Sawai Jayasimha for Nritya Gopala in the center of the compound. This remained in the hands of the Rajasthan government, for temples cannot be bought and sold. (A passageway from the street to this temple permits access to it without entering Jaisingh Ghera, and it is a stop on the regular pilgrim tour of sacred sites in Vrindavan.) During the monsoon that year, when the Yamuna rose to the height of the banks along the river, excavations were begun, uncovering the structures that Sawai Jayasimha had built to accommodate the nightly landing of the divine couple. Krishna’s landing place consists of a flight of stone steps (ghat) down to the level that must once have been the Yamuna’s shore.
Punctuating the stairs are nine platforms—a larger central one for Krishna to stand on and eight smaller ones, on different levels, for the eight attendants. Was this in Saval Jayasimha’s time perhaps the setting for an enactment of Krishna’s evening activities? Separated from Krishna’s space by a wall through which there is a small doorway, Radha’s space includes a covered flight of stairs leading down to a small pool protected by high walls, which form half an octagon. Halfway up the stairs, also under the roof, there is a small room to one side, where Radha could be dressed and adorned by her friends. The stairs leading into the pool also number eight—one for each of the attendants.
Excavation of the river front coincided with preparations for the staging of an aṣṭayāma-līlā in the performance hall of Jaisingh Ghera in the autumn of 1992. Various dimensions of this eight-day drama are explored at greater length in the following chapters, for an aṣṭayāma-līlā is not merely a performance, but a process of revealing the reality of the eternal world. Before the lila could begin, therefore, it was necessary to invoke the eternal performers. On the morning of October 29, a worship service (puja) was performed at Krishna’s landing place—also called Bhramara Ghat (“black bee’s stairs”)—by the Goswamis’ family priest, Acharya Pran Gopal Mishra, who performs all of their public and life-cycle rituals. The family and perhaps a hundred devotees who had come from all over the country for the aṣṭayāma-līlā sat on the steps of the ghat during the ceremony. Then the Goswamis and the devotees went through the doorway in the wall to Radha’s ghat. There puja was again performed.
That evening, the deity was evoked in the performance hall by the dancer Birju Maharaj, whose choreography for the occasion was based on the text of the Govinda-līlāmṛtam (“Ambrosia of the Sport of Govinda”). This poetic text, which also provided the framework for the script of the aṣṭayāma-līlā, describes a day in the life of Krishna in the eternal Vrindavan.
The whole next day was devoted to a more intense preparation. For the entire twenty-four hours, a relay team of Vaishnavas chanted the mahamantra (great mantra): “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare; Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare,” marking out time and space with names of the deity. Around-the-clock recitation of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa at Bhramara Ghat was begun that day. Blessings by the spiritual personages of Vrindavan were also arranged. Five groups of thirty-one brahmans and others were invited to come during the morning and afternoon and be honored by Maharaj ji: ritual priests, scholars of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, secular scholars and teachers, pilgrim guides, and the men and boys who would be performing the rāsa-līlās. All were male; the ritual aspects of Chaitanyaite Vaisnavism, especially in Radharamana temple, remain staunchly conservative, although in many other respects that temple has led the way in opening up to the modern world. Each participant was ceremonially greeted by Maharaj ji, assisted by his sons, Shrivatsa and Venu Gopala, who washed their feet and presented them with yellow cloths to wear. Each then spoke briefly about Bhramara Ghat and its significance. The whole event was recorded by a professional video team to be preserved as part of the ashram’s archives.
These ceremonies all took place under a large white tent (pandal) that covered the open space behind Bhramara Ghat, including the site traditionally believed to be the bower where Krishna and Radha rested after adorning themselves for their tryst. On the rear wall of the tent was a large painted hanging that had been created especially for the occasion; it depicted Radha and her companions under a tree, staring at a large black bee at Radha’s feet (Figure 2).
Figure 3. Sonal Mansingh speaking just before the black bee appeared.
After dark had fallen, when all the men had spoken, Maharaj ji asked one of his devotees, Sonal Mansingh, a gifted dancer, to speak. She was the only woman to have taken the microphone that day (Figure 3). As she began her invocation, a large black beetle, about two inches long, flew into the tent from the direction of the river and landed on the ground in front of her. Astounded, those devotees who were close enough to see what was going on rose to their feet, exclaiming “Jai ho!” and “Jai Sri Radhe!”—literally, “Let there be victory!” and “Victory to Radha!” exclamations of acclaim and approval used generally in Vrindavan. But how could a black beetle be understood immediately as the same as the black bee of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa? It will be clear at several points in this book that things are often understood as both one thing and another, at the same time—acintya-bhedäbheda, inconceivable difference in nondifference.
The visitor danced on the ground and flew up to dance in the air, alighting two or three more times—long enough to be captured on video—before flying off again toward the river. Maharaj ji, deeply moved, spoke, saying that the divine spirit can take any form, and for those who could see with devotion and love, it was Krishna’s presence that had become visible. Encouraged by the other leaders and priests present, he declared that a beautiful bower would be created to commemorate this manifestation. He also declared that he would not leave Vrindavan for a year and that the Bhāgavata Purāṇa would be reads daily on this spot for perpetuity.
The devotees who had gathered in Jaisingh Ghera for the aṣṭayāma-līlā, although sincere believers, were also people who live in this ordinary world, and the general reaction that evening and the next day was happiness, but not complete acceptance that a miracle had occurred. A wonderful, unusual event, yes—the appearance of this visitor, never before seen in this area, with such perfect timing—but to accept fully that this was a manifestation of divinity was difficult. Trying to help his followers absorb what had happened, Maharaj ji told the devotees that four factors contributed to this miracle: first, this was the site of the original bhramara‘s appearance; second, the deity was summoned by the devotion of the people gathered there; third, this was the site of the eternal aṣṭayāma-līlā; and fourth, the day of the bee’s appearance had been spent in concentrated spiritual activity by the 155 honored guests, which had summoned the black bee.
One can recognize here elements of both devotionalism and the logic of ritual performance, by which it is believed that there is such power in words rightly said and rituals rightly performed (by those who are qualified) that the universe itself is affected. As Maharaj ji’s son Shrivatsa later explained, the world, which is the body of God, can be shaped by that unique physical property which is all-pervasive and immutable: sound. God can be invoked through sound and, in fact, is incarnated only when invoked. The invoking sound is the mantra, and when the mahamantra (“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna . . .”) was sounded in the context of that place and that time, in the midst of the devotion of all present, the deity had no choice but to appear—and in the form of a bee, his authentic form in that context.
Right on schedule, at 3:36 in the early morning of the following day, the aṣṭayāma-līlā began in the great hall, watched by a packed house of about 1,500 enthusiastic devotees of Krishna. The next night, the second lila began at 6:00 in the morning. This was a day in the lunar ritual calendar that is considered a time when any action taken will not decay (aksaya navami). So Maharaj ji had decided to consecrate the site of the bower that evening. An octagonal platform was prepared from the sand of the Yamuna River, on which were placed small figurines of Radha’s eight companions, as well as flowers, banana-pith carvings, and auspicious patterns drawn with colored powders. In the center was an eight-petaled lotus made of banana pith.
To dedicate a shrine to a deity, an image is needed. A Polaroid photograph had been made from the videotape of the black bee, placed in a silver frame, and kept to one side until the priest would need it. During the first part of the ritual, all went as planned. But then, as the ritual specialists were reciting their mantras in powerful voices that resounded through the pavilion, and just at the moment when the priest asked Maharaj ji for the photograph of the bee to be placed on the lotus in the middle of the platform, the bhramara itself appeared. It flew in again from the north and landed on the ground next to the octagonal platform, opposite the priests. A devotee picked it up carefully on a leaf and placed it on the platform, where it walked directly to the central lotus, and installed itself underneath the flower. There it stayed quietly throughout the rest of the ceremony.
Pandemonium broke out. This time everyone saw the visitor and shouted and pushed to come closer. The consecration ceremony continued, and after things had quieted down a bit, Maharaj ji led the chanting devotees in circumambulating the platform, transforming the bedlam into ecstatic celebration. Meanwhile, a brahman sat quietly a few yards away, continuing to read the chapters of the Bhāgavata Purāëa. Throughout that evening and the next day, the conviction was strengthened among the devotees that the bhramara‘s perfectly timed appearance and precisely appropriate behavior signified a manifestation of Krishna.
The bhramara appeared yet again two days later, on the night when the gods are awakened from their four-month sleep during the monsoon season (devotthāna ekādaśī). This was the first occasion on which the newly established shrine was used for a regular ritual observance. A small group had gathered in the white tent for the puja, and a few of the women were singing devotional songs at the end of the ritual. The black bee flew in from the river again, and as the group stood to watch, it flew just over our heads and among the lights under the tent. Every so often, it stopped and rested behind the group, and then flew again, around the lights. After several minutes, Maharaj ji said the lights should be turned off and the group should disperse. The black bee was never seen again.
The story was told and retold in the months and years to come. The videotape was eagerly viewed by visitors to the ashram. One small detail was changed in the retelling, however—it was said that on its second visit the bhramara landed directly on the platform, not that it landed beside it and was helped up by a devotee. The video footage that showed it being lifted up was edited out. For many Westerners who hear the story, this jumps out as the most interesting part of it—Aha! Doctoring the evidence to fortify belief! A somewhat more analytic—and sympathetic—view brings to bear another question: what exactly is meant by “seeing” the divinity in this context? Where are we? Are we in the traditional story of the coming of the black bee, or in the twentieth century, documenting a celebration on video? But why either/or? Is not the truth both/and? And if the truth is both/and, what may be lost in factuality is gained in emphasizing the congruence between the two worlds. Certain details, “factual” though they might be, detract from the “reality” of what is seen. The process may be broadly compared with the formation of a traditional icon, which may be anatomically improbable, but which conveys a way of seeing that points to awareness of the coexistence of two worlds.
Extracted from Seeing Krishna: The Religious World of a Brahmana Family in Vrindavan. Oxford University Press, 2000.