The Feast of Loveby McKim Marriott
Published in Krishna: Myths, Rites and Attitudes, (ed.) Milton Singer, University of Chicago Press, 1971 (1966), pp. 201-212.
I rather pompously said that this article was known more for its being entertainingly written than for its contribution to anthropology. I take that back. Marriott did not become one of the most prominent anthropologists in the world for nothing. The fact that he was a talented writer no doubt contributed to his reputation, but this little article is chock full of interesting information, including a little bit about why Indian women beat men with sticks. Remember, Marriott did his research in the 1950's.
I shall try here to interpret Krishna and his cult as I met them in a rural village of northern India while I was conducting my first field venture as a social anthropologist. The village was Kishan Garhi, located across the Jumna from Mathura and Vrindaban, a day's walk from the youthful Krishna's fabled land of Vraja.
As it happened, I had entered Kishan Garhi for the first time in early March, not long before what most villagers said was going to be their greatest religious celebration of the year, the festival of Holi. Preparations were already under way. I learned that the festival was to begin with a bonfire celebrating the cremation of the demoness Holika. Holika, supposedly fireproofed by devotion to her demon father, King Harnakas, had been burned alive in the fiery destruction plotted by her to punish her brother Prahlada for his stubborn devotion to the true god, Rama.
I observed two priests and a large crowd of women re constructing Holika's pyre with ritual and song: the Brahman master of the village site with a domestic chaplain consecrated the ground of the demoness's reserved plot; the women added wafers and trinkets of dried cow-dung fuel, stood tall straws in a circle around the pile, and finally circumambulated the whole, winding about it protective threads of homespun cotton. Gangs of young boys were collecting other combustibles--if possible in the form of donations, otherwise by stealth--quoting what they said were village rules, that everyone must contribute something and that anything once placed on the Holi pyre could not afterward be removed. I barely forestalled the contribution of one of my new cots; other householders in my lane complained of having lost brooms, parts of doors and carts, bundles of straw thatch, and an undetermined number of fuel cakes from their drying places in the sun.
The adobe houses of the village were being repaired or white washed for the great day. As I was mapping the streets and houses for a preliminary survey, ladies of the village everywhere pressed invitations upon me to attend the festival. The form of their invitations was usually the oscillation of a fistful of wet cow-dung plaster in my direction, and the words, "Saheb will play Holi with us?" I asked how it was to be played, but could get no coherent answer. "You must be here to see and to play!" the men insisted.
I felt somewhat apprehensive as the day approached. An educated landlord told me that Holi is the festival most favored by the castes of the fourth estate, the Shudras. Europeans at the district town advised me to stay indoors, and certainly to keep out of all villages on the festival day. But my village friends said, "Don't worry. Probably no one will hurt you. In any case, no one is to get angry, no matter what happens. All quarrels come to an end. It is a lila--divine sport of Lord Krishna!"
I had read the sacred Bhagavata Purana's story about Prahlada and had heard many of its legends of Krishna's miraculous and amorous boyhood. These books seemed harmless enough. Then, too, Radcliffe-Brown had written in an authoritative anthropological text that one must observe the action of rituals in order to understand the meaning of any myth. I had been instructed by my reading of B. Malinowski, as well as by all my anthropological preceptors and eiders that one best observes another culture by participating in it as directly as possible. My duty clearly was to join in the festival as far as I might be permitted.
The celebration began auspiciously, I thought, in the middle of the night as the full moon rose. The great pile of blessed and pilfered fuel at once took flame, ignited by the village fool, for the master of the village site had failed to rouse with sufficient speed from his slumbers. "Victory to Mother Holika !" the shout went up, wishing her the achievement of final spiritual liberation rather than any earthly conquest, it seemed. A hundred men of all twenty-four castes in the village, both Muslim and Hindu, now crowded about the fire, roasting ears of the new, still green barley crop in her embers. They marched around the fire in opposite directions and exchanged roasted grains with each other as they passed, embracing or greeting one another with "Ram Ram! "--blind in many cases to distinctions of caste. Household fires throughout the village had been extinguished, and as the assembled men returned to their homes, they carried coals from the collective fire to rekindle their domestic hearths. Many household courtyards stood open with decorated firepits awaiting the new year's blaze. Joyful celebrants ran from door to door handing bits of the new crop to waking residents of all quarters or tossing a few grains over walls when doors were closed. As I entered a shadowy lane, I was struck twice from behind by what I thought might be barley, but found in fact to be ashes and sand. Apart from this perhaps deviant note, the villagers seemed to me to have expressed through their unified celebration of Holika's demise their total dependence on each other as a moral community. Impressed with the vigor of these communal rites and inwardly warmed, I returned to my house and to bed in the courtyard.
It was a disturbing night, however. As the moon rose high, I became aware of the sound of racing feet: gangs of young people were howling "Holi!" and pursuing each other down the lanes. At intervals I felt the thud of large mud bricks thrown over my courtyard wall. Hoping still to salvage a few hours of sleep, I retreated with the cot to the security of my storeroom. I was awakened for the last time just before dawn by the crash of the old year's pots breaking against my outer door. Furious fusillades of sand poured from the sky. Pandemonium now reigned: a shouting mob of boys called on me by name from the street and demanded that I come out. I perceived through a crack, however, that anyone who emerged was being pelted with bucketfuls of mud and cow-dung water. Boys of all ages were heaving dust into the air, hurling old shoes at each other, laughing and cavorting "like Krishna's cowherd companions"--and of course, cowherds they were. They had captured one older victim and were making him ride a donkey, seated backward, head to stern. Household walls were being scaled, loose doors broken open, and the inhabitants routed out to join these ceremonial proceedings. Relatively safe in a new building with strong doors and high walls, I escaped an immediate lynching.
I was not sure just what I could find in anthropological theory to assist my understanding of these events. I felt at least that I was sharing E. Durkheim's sense (when he studied Australian tribal rites) of confronting some of the more elementary forms of the religious life. I reflected briefly on the classic functional dictum of Radcliffe-Brown, who had written that the "rites of savages persist because they are part of the mechanism by which an orderly society maintains itself in existence, serving as they do to establish certain fundamental social values." I pondered the Dionysian values that seemed here to have been expressed, and wondered what equalitarian social order, if any, might maintain itself by such values.
But I had not long to reflect, for no sooner had the mob passed by my house than I was summoned by a messenger from a family at the other end of the village to give first aid to an injured woman. A thrown water pot had broken over her head as she opened her door that morning. Protected by an improvised helmet, I ventured forth. As I stepped into the lane, the wife of the barber in the house opposite, a lady who had hitherto been most quiet and deferential, also stepped forth, grinning under her veil, and doused me with a pail of urine from her buffalo. Hurrying through the streets, I glimpsed dances by parties of men and boys impersonating Krishna and company as musicians, fiddling and blowing in pantomime on wooden sticks, leaping about wearing garlands of dried cow-dung and necklaces of bullock bells. Again, as I returned from attending to the lacerated scalp, there was an intermittent hail of trash and dust on my shoulders, this time evidently thrown from the rooftops by women and children in hiding behind the eaves.
At noontime, a state of truce descended. Now was the time to bathe, the neighbors shouted, and to put on fine, fresh clothes. The dirt was finished. Now there would be solemn oblations to the god Fire. "Every cult," Durkheim had written, "presents a double aspect, one negative, the other positive." Had we then been preparing ourselves all morning by torture and purgation for other rites of purer intent? "What is it all going to be about this afternoon?" I asked my neighbor, the barber. "Holi," he said with a beatific sigh, "is the Festival of Love!"
Trusting that there would soon begin performances more in the spirit of the Gita-govinda or of Krishna's rasa dances in the Bhagavata Purana, I happily bathed and changed, for my eyes were smarting with the morning's dust and the day was growing hot. My constant benefactor, the village landlord, now sent his son to present me with a tall glass of a cool, thick green liquid. This was the festival drink, he said; he wanted me to have it at its best, as it came from his own parlour. I tasted it, and found it sweet and mild. "You must drink it all!" my host declared. I inquired about the ingredients--almonds, sugar, curds of milk, anise, and "only half a cup" of another item whose name I did not recognize. I finished off the whole delicious glass, and, in discussion with my cook, soon inferred that the unknown ingredient—bhang--had been four ounces of juice from the hemp leaf known in the West as hashish or marijuana.
Because of this indiscretion, I am now unable to report with much accuracy exactly what other religious ceremonies were observed in the four villages through which I floated that afternoon, towed by my careening hosts. They told me that we were going on a journey of condolence to each house whose members had been bereaved during the past year. My many photographs corroborate the visual impressions that I had of this journey: the world was a brilliant smear. The stained and crumpled pages of my notebooks are blank, save for a few declining diagonals and undulating scrawls. Certain steaming scenes remain in memory, nevertheless. There was one great throng of villagers watching an uplifted male dancer with padded crotch writhe in solitary states of fevered passion and then onanism; then join in a remote pas de deux with a veiled female impersonator in a parody of pederasty, and finally in telepathic copulation--all this to a frenzied accompaniment of many drums. I know that I witnessed several hysterical battles, women rushing out of their houses in squads to attack me and other men with stout canes, while each man defended himself only by pivoting about his own staff, planted on the ground, or, like me, by running for cover. The rest was all hymn singing, every street resounding with choral song in an archaic Shakta style. The state of the clothes in which I ultimately fell asleep told me the next morning that I had been sprayed and soaked repeatedly with libations of liquid dye, red and yellow. My face in the morning was still a brilliant vermilion, and my hair was orange from repeated embraces and scourings with colored powders by the bereaved and probably by many others. I learned on inquiry what I thought I had heard before, that in Kishan Garhi a kitchen had been profaned with dog's dung by masked raiders, that two housewives had been detected in adultery with neighboring men. As an effect of the festivities in one nearby village, there had occurred an armed fight between factional groups. In a third, an adjacent village, where there had previously been protracted litigation between castes, the festival had not been observed at all.
"A festival of love?" I asked my neighbors again in the morning.
"Yes! All greet each other with affection and feeling. Lord Krishna taught us the way of love, and so we celebrate Holi in this manner.
"What about my aching shins--and your bruises? Why were the women beating us men ?"
"Just as the milkmaids loved Lord Krishna, so our wives show their love for us, and for you, too, Saheb!"
Unable at once to stretch my mind so far as to include both "love" and these performances in one conception, I returned to the methodological maxim of Radcliffe-Brown: the meaning of a ritual element is to be found by observing what it shares with all the contexts of its occurrence. Clearly, I would need to know much more about village religion and about the place of each feature of Holi in its other social contexts throughout the year. Then perhaps I could begin to grasp the meanings of Krishna and his festival, and to determine the nature of the values they might serve to maintain.
There were, I learned by observing throughout the following twelve months in the village, three main kinds of ritual performances--festivals, individual sacraments, and optional devotion. Among sacraments, the family-controlled rites of marriage were a major preoccupation of all villagers. In marriage, young girls were uprooted from their privileged situations in the patrilineally extended families of their birth and childhood. They were wedded always out of the village, often many miles away, to child husbands in families that were complete strangers. A tight-lipped young groom would be brought by his uncles in military procession, and after three days of receiving tribute ceremoniously, he would be carried off with his screaming, wailing little bride to a home where she would occupy the lowest status of all. Hard work for the mother-in-law, strict obedience to the husband, and a veiled, silent face to all males senior to herself in the entire village--these were the lot of the young married woman. Members of the husband's family, having the upper hand over the captive wife, could demand and receive service, gifts, hospitality, and deference from their "low" affines on all future occasions of ceremony. Briefly, sometimes, there would be little outbreaks of "Holi playing" at weddings, especially between the invading groom's men and the women of the bride's village: in these games, the men would be dared to enter the women 's courtyards in the bride's village and would then be beaten with rolling pins or soaked with colored water for their boldness. Otherwise, all ceremonies of marriage stressed the strict formal dominance of men over women, of groom's people over bride's. When married women re turned to their original homes each rainy season for a relaxed month of reunion with their "village sisters" and "village brothers," the whole village sang sentimental songs of the gopis’ never-fulfilled longing for their idyllic childhood companionship with Krishna and with each other. Sexual relations between adults of humankind were conventionally verbalized in metaphors of "war," "theft," and rape, while the marital connection between any particular husband and his wife could be mentioned without insult only by employing generalized circumlocutions such as "house" and "children," and so on. The idiom of Holi thus differed from that of ordinary life both in giving explicit dramatization to specific sexual relationships that otherwise would not be expressed at all and in reversing the differences of power conventionally prevailing between husbands and wives.
Aside from the Holi festival, each of the other thirteen major festivals of the year seemed to me to express and support the proper structures of patriarchy and gerontocracy in the family, of elaborately stratified relations among the castes, and of dominance by landowners in the village generally. At Divali, ancestral spirits were to be fed and the goddess of wealth worshiped by the head of the family, acting on behalf of all members. The rites of Gobardhan Divali, another Krishna related festival, stressed the unity of the family's agnates through their common interest in the family herds of cattle. On the fourth day of the lunar fortnight which ends at Divali--indeed, on certain fixed dates in every month--the wives fasted for the sake of their husbands. On other dates they fasted for the sake of their children. The brother-sister relation of helpfulness, a vital one for the out-married women, had two further festivals and many fasts giving it ritual support; and the Holi bonfire itself dramatized the divine punishment of the wicked sister Holika for her unthinkable betrayal of her brother Prahlada.
At each other festival of the year and also at wedding feasts, the separation of the lower from the higher castes and their strict order of ranking were reiterated both through the services of pollution-removal provided by them, and through the lowering gifts and payments of food made to them in return. Since the economy of the village was steeply stratified, with one third of the families controlling nearly all the land, every kind of ritual observance, sacramental or festival, tended through ritual patronage and obeisance to give expression to the same order of economic dominance and subordination. Optional, individual ritual observances could also be understood as expressing the secular organization of power, I thought. Rival leaders would compete for the allegiance of others through ceremonies. A wealthy farmer, official, or successful litigant was expected to sponsor special ceremonies and give feasts for lesser folk "to remove the sins" he had no doubt committed in gaining his high position; he who ignored this expectation might overhear stories of the jocular harassment of misers at Holi, or of their robbery on other, darker nights.
Once each year, a day for simultaneous worship of all the local deities required a minimal sort of communal action by women, and smaller singing parties of women were many, but comradeship among men across the lines of kinship and caste was generally regarded with suspicion. In sum, the routine ritual and social forms of the village seemed almost perfect parallels of each other: both maintained a tightly ranked and compartmentalized order. In this order, there was little room for behavior of the kinds attributed to Krishna's roisterous personality.
"Why do you say that it was Lord Krishna who taught you how to celebrate the festival of Holi ?" I inquired of the many villagers who asserted that this was so. Answers, when they could be had at all, stressed that it was he who first played Holi with the cowherd boys and with Radha and the other gopis. But my searches in the Bhagavata 's tenth book, and even in that book's recent and locally most popular adaptation, the Ocean of Love (Prema-sagara) could discover no mention of Holi or any of the local festival's traditional activities, from the bonfire to the game of colors. "Just see how they play Holi in Mathura district, in Lord Krishna's own village of Nandgaon, and in Radha's village of Barsana!" said the landiord. There, I was assured by the barber, who had also seen them, that the women train all year long, drinking milk and eating ghee like wrestlers, and there they beat the men en masse before a huge audience of visitors, to the music of two hundred drums.
"I do not really believe that Lord Krishna grew up in just that village of Nandgaon," the landlord confided in me, "for Nanda, Krishna's foster father, must have lived on this side of the Jumna River, near Gokula, as is written in the Purana. But there in Nandgaon and Barsana they keep the old customs best."
The landlord's doubts were well placed, but not extensive enough, for, as I learned from a gazetteer of the district, the connection of Krishna, Radha, and the cowgirls with the rising of the women at Holi in those villages of Mathura could not have originated before the early seventeenth-century efforts of certain immigrant Bengali Gosvamin priests. The Gosvamis themselves--Rupa, Sanatan, and their associates--were missionaries of the Krishnaite devotional movement led by Chaitanya in sixteenth-century Bengal, and that movement in turn had depended on the elaboration of the new notion of Radha as Krishna's favorite by the Telugu philosopher Nimbarka, possibly in the thirteenth century, and by other, somewhat earlier sectarians of Bengal and southern India. The village names "Nandgaon" (village of Nanda) and "Barsana" (to make rain--an allusion to the "dark-as-a cloud" epithet of Krishna) were probably seventeenth-century inventions, like the formal choreography of the battles of the sexes in those villages, that were contrived to attract pilgrims to the summer circult of Krishna's rediscovered and refurbished holy land of Vraja. Of course, privileged attacks by women upon men must have existed in village custom long before the promotional work of the Gosvamis--of this I was convinced by published studies of villages elsewhere, even in the farthest corners of the Hindi-speaking area, where such attacks were part of Holi, but not understood as conveying the message of Lord Krishna. But once the great flow of devotees to Mathura had begun from Bengal, Gujarat, and the South, the direction of cultural influence must have been reversed: what had been incorporated as peasant practice and local geography into the Brahmavaivarta Purana and other new sectarian texts must have begun then to reshape peasant conceptions of peasant practice. At least the Krishnaite theology of the "love battles" in Kishan Garhi, and possibly same refinements of their rustic hydrology and stickwork, seemed to have been remodeled according to the famous and widely imitated public performances that had been visible in villages of the neighboring district for the past three centuries or so. The Mathura pilgrimage and its literature appeared also to have worked similar effects upon two other festivals of Krishna in Kishan Garhi, in addition to Holl.
To postulate the relative recency of the association of Radha and Krishna with the battles of canes and colors in Kishan Garhi was not to assert that the entire Holi festival could have had no connection with legends of Krishna before the seventeenth century. Reports on the mythology of Holi from many other localities described the bonfire, not as the burning of Holika, but as the cremation of another demoness, Putana. Putana was a demoness sent by King Kamsa of Mathura to kill the infant Krishna by giving him to suck of her poisonous mother's milk. The Putana story could no doubt claim a respectable antiquity, occurring as it did in the Visnu Purana and the Harivamsa; it was known in Kishan Garhi, although not applied currently to the rationalization of the Holi fire, and represented an acquaintance with a Krishna senior in type to the more erotic Krishna of the Bhagavata Purana and the later works. Even if I peeled away all explicit references to Krishna, bath aider and mare recent, I would still have confronted other layers of Vaishnavism in the Holi references to Rama, whose cult centered in the middle Gangetic plain and in the South. And then there was the further Vaishnava figure Prahlada, another of ancient origin.
Finally, I had to consider the proximity of Kishan Garhi to Mathura, which was mare than merely generically Vaishnavite in its ancient religious orientations: Mathura was thought to have been the original source of the legends of the child Krishna and his brother Balarama, as suggested by Greek evidence from the fourth century B.C. as well as by the Puranic traditions. Assuming that urban cults may always have been influential in villages and that such cults often carried forward what was already present in rural religious practice, I thought it probable that the ancestors of the people of Kishan Garhi might well have celebrated the pranks of same divine ancestor of the Puranic Krishna even before their less complete adherence to the cults of Rama and other gods later known as avatars of Vishnu. If these historical evidences and interpretations were generally sound, if Krishna had indeed waxed and waned before, then what both I and the villagers had taken to be their timeless living within a primordial local myth of Krishna appeared instead to represent rather the latest in a lengthy series of revivals and reinterpretations mingling local, regional, and even some quite remote movements of religious fashion.
Beneath the level of mythological enactment or rationalization, with its many shifts of contents through time, however, I felt that one might find certain more essential, underlying connections between the moral constitution of villages like Kishan Garhi and the general social form of the Holi festival--so the functional assumption of Radcliffe-Brown had led me to hope. Superficially, in various regions and eras, the festival might concern witches or demonesses (Holika or Halaka, Putana, Dhondha), Vishnu triumphant (as Rama, Narasingha, or Krishna), Shiva as an ascetic in conflict with gods of lust (Kama, Madana, or the nonscriptural Nathuram), or others. Festival practices might also vary greatly. Were there enduring, widespread features, I wondered?
From a distributional and documentary study by N. K. Bose, I learned that spring festivals featuring bonfires, a degree of sexual license, and generally saturnalian carousing had probably existed in villages of many parts of India for at least the better part of the past two thousand years. Spring festivals of this one general character evidently had remained consistently associated with many of India's complex, caste-bound communities. Even if only same of such festivals had had the puckish, ambiguous Krishna as their presiding deity, and these only in recent centuries, many seemed since the beginning of our knowledge to have enshrined divinities who sanctioned, however briefly, some of the same riotous sorts of social behavior.
Now a full year had passed in my investigations, and the Festival of Love was again approaching. Again I was apprehensive for my physical person, but was forewarned with social structural knowledge that might yield better understanding of the events to come. This time, without the draft of marijuana, I began to see the pandemonium of Holi falling into an extraordinarily regular social ordering. But this was an order precisely inverse to the social and ritual principles of routine life. Each riotous act at Holi implied some opposite, positive rule or fact of everyday social organization in the village.
Who were those smiling men whose shins were being most mercilessly beaten by the women? They were the wealthier Brahman and Jat farmers of the village, and the beaters were those ardent local Radhas, the "wives of the village," figuring by both the real and the fictional intercaste system of kinship. The wife of an "eider brother" was properly a man's joking mate, while the wife of a "younger brother" was properly removed from him by rules of extreme respect, but both were merged here with a man's mother-surrogates, the wives of his "father's younger brothers," in one revolutionary cabal of "wives" that cut across all lesser lines and links. The boldest beaters in this veiled battalion were often in fact the wives of the farmers' 1owaste field laborers, artisans, or menials-the concubines and kitchen help of the victims. "Go and bake bread!" teased one farmer, egging his assail ant on. "Do you want some seed from me?" shouted another flattered victim, smarting under the blows, but standing his ground. Six Brahman men in their fifties, pillars of village society, limped past in panting flight from the quarterstaff wielded by a massive young Bhangin, sweeper of their latrines. From this carnage suffered by their village brothers, all daughters of the village stood apart, yet held themselves in readiness to attack any potential husband who might wander in from another, marriageable village to pay a holiday call.
Who was that "King of the Holi" riding backward on the donkey? It was an older boy of high caste, a famous bully, put there by his organized victims (but seeming to relish the prominence of his disgrace).
Who was in that chorus singing so lustily in the potters' lane? Not just the resident caste fellows, but six washermen, a tailor, and three Brahmans, joined each year for this day only in an idealistic musical company patterned on the friendships of the gods.
Who were those transfigured "cowherds" heaping mud and dust on all the leading citizens? They were the water carrier, two young Brahman priests, and a barber's son, avid experts in the daily routines of purification.
Whose household temple was festooned with goat's bones by unknown merrymakers? It was the temple of that Brahman widow who had constantly harassed neighbors and kinsmen with actions at law.
In front of whose house was a burlesque dirge being sung by a professional ascetic of the village? It was the house of a very much alive moneylender, notorious for his punctual collections and his in sufficient charities.
Who was it who had his head fondly anointed, not only with handfuls of the sublime red powders, but also with a gallon of diesel oil? It was the village landlord, and the anointer was his cousin and archrival, the police headman of Kishan Garhi.
Who was it who was made to dance in the streets, fluting like Lord Krishna, with a garland of old shoes around his neck? It was I, the visiting anthropologist, who had asked far too many questions, and had always to receive respectful answers.
Here indeed were the many village kinds of love confounded- respectful regard for parents and patrons; the idealized affection for brothers, sisters, and comrades; the longing of man for union with the divine; and the rugged lust of sexual mates-all broken suddenly out of their usual, narrow channels by a simultaneous increase of intensity. Boundless, unilateral love of every kind flooded over the usual compartmentalization and indifference among separated castes and families. Insubordinate libido inundated all established hierarchies of age, sex, caste, wealth, and power.
The social meaning of Krishna's doctrine in its rural North Indian recension is not unlike one conservative social implication of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon admonishes severely, but at the same time postpones the destruction of the secular social order until a distant future. Krishna does not postpone the reckoning of the mighty until an ultimate Judgment Day, but schedules it regularly as a masque at the full moon of every March. And the Holi of Krishna is no mere doctrine of love: rather it is the script for a drama that must be acted out by each devotee passionately, joyfully.
The dramatic balancing of Holi-the world destruction and world renewal, the world pollution followed by world purification-occurs not only on the abstract level of structural principles, but also in the person of each participant. Under the tutelage of Krishna, each person plays and for the moment may experience the role of his opposite: the servile wife acts the domineering husband, and vice versa; the ravisher acts the ravished; the menial acts the master; the enemy acts the friend; the strictured youths act the rulers of the republic. The observing anthropologist, inquiring and reflecting on the forces that move men in their orbits, finds himself pressed to act the witless bumpkin. Each actor playfully takes the role of others in relation to his own usual self. Each may thereby learn to play his own routine roles afresh, surely with renewed understanding, possibly with greater grace, perhaps with a reciprocating love.