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‘Krishna’s Playground: Vrindavan in the 21st Century’ review: At play with Krishna in a changing Vrindavan

There is a story for and of each place. Some are good, some not so good, as we learn to realise over time. John Stratton Hawley’s book on the present and future of Vrindavan is like a documentary on a real and imagined place, “focused on the Vrindavan of myth and glory.” Is the Vrindavan of unending ras lilas, musical plays on the life of Krishna, giving way to another “wilderness”, of the concrete jungle kind?

A sense of foreboding

There is a sense of foreboding as one turns the pages of this systematic exploration of Vrindavan as a place that unfolds on the multidimensional map of a virtual future. A sense of the unreal grips us, a sense of total loss too, of being swept away by forces beyond the control of the individual and even the community, region, country and all the things that we hold dear and are able to recognise as real.

In fact, this is a book that one cannot easily put away. What the future holds for this once tiny hamlet on the banks of the Yamuna where Krishna is supposed to have played with his gopis — a place that is not too far from Delhi and Agra – is what Hawley sets out to explore. Vrindavan is in many ways the opposite of Mathura, that ancient and archetypal city of temples. “Mathura symbolises city: Vrindavan symbolises forest.”

Vrindavan is both van (forest) and gram (village). Vrinda means tulsi, the sacred basil. This van that is the forest which is Krishna’s abode is currently undergoing a tremendous transformation. Huge highways, mega dams and high-rise buildings are turning this mythic place into another Disneyland. It might be that this is the ultimate destiny of this village, as we come to recognise from the picture that unfolds in the pages.

Old and new

And yet, Krishna’s playground is not just another paradise lost, it is also a paradise regained. As globalisation and economics liberally alter the face of all reality there is a significant change in the manner in which we perceive that reality too. The eight chapters of this book take the reader on a dizzying roller coaster ride: here you will come across highways and supermalls, a massive sky-touching temple, the Vrindavan Chandrodaya Mandir, is being built and corporate giants are vying with each other to get a foothold in the lord’s own playground.

The new Vrindavan mocks the old Vrindavan ‘s longstanding sense of wilderness as home by covering it with an ideology of moneyed leisure. Hawley writes that “What we see in Vrindavan today is a new tectonic plate crashing into the old. Vrindavan stands at a special juncture, with Uttar Pradesh on one side and Delhi on the other. Uttar Pradesh — India’s poorest, most populous region — shows what happens when an ancient fertile plain can no longer support the life that once thrived there: Delhi exhibits the horrors of a galloping global urbanisation.”

Krishna’s dalliances with the gopis might have been seen as part of the moral blight by colonial reformers and there have been several “corrective” endeavours from Indian intellectuals to show that Krishna was not a ladies’ man but rational, intellectual and practical. And as Hawley shows such flexing of masculinist muscles and the great desire to build a plush monument in his honour has brought Vrindavan to the brink of extinction. It warns us that our known world has exploded. Our actions have consequences and they are often not the consequences we wish. Krishna’s Playground is an admonition for all those who stand for total control.

Krishna’s Playground: Vrindavan in the 21st Century; John Stratton Hawley, OUP, ₹895.

The reviewer is an academic and an artist.


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