The Festival of Lord Krishna in E.M. Forsterís A Passage to India

        The influence of Lord Krishna, a distinguished god in the Hindu religion, is evident in almost all aspects of Indian philosophy and culture. Geetha Kumar, a native-born Indian, explains that whether Lord Krishna is depicted as a child, a diplomat, or a teacher of philosophy, devotees admire and love Him. Furthermore, she says, devotees believe that "Lord Krishna resides in the heart and contributes toward the spiritual uplift of the soul"(Kumar interview). Meera Rao, a disciple of Hinduism, says that through association with Krishna worshipers, reading Krishna's folktales, and hearing lectures on the Lord, Hindus with spiritual connections to other gods, such as Lord Rama, can develop a high regard for Krishna(Rao interview). 
        As a Hindu, I have been exposed to Lord Krishna since an early age. I have performed Indian classical dances about Krishna folklore, seen pieces of artwork that depict Krishna in various poses, and sung countless bhajans, or religious songs, concerning Krishna. Through this exposure, I have developed an appreciation not only for Lord Krishna's bravery in destroying evil, but also for his vigorous spirit. Because I realize Krishna's influence, I encountered little difficulty understanding the role that he plays in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. The description of the festival of Krishna's birth near the end of the novel serves as an event where characters reunite and begin a spiritual journey. The cause for the illustrious celebration begins with the story of Lord Krishna's birth. 

Before Krishna was born, the cruel King Kansa ruled over Mathura, a kingdom by the Yamuna River. One day, Kansa's kind sister Devaki wed a benevolent man, Vasudeva. As Kansa rode in his chariot with them, a booming voice from the heavens startled him. The voice authoritatively proclaimed, "The eighth son born to Devaki will kill you!"(Viswanath 6). Fueled by fury, Kansa raised his sword to kill his sister Devaki. After frantic pleading, Vasudeva convinced Kansa not to end Devaki's life. 

Yamuna River Bank in Agra

As an alternative, Kansa threw Devaki and Vasudeva into his palace dungeon. Each time a new child was born to Devaki, Kansa would promptly arrive at the dungeon and abruptly murder the offspring. When the eighth child, Krishna, was born, he quickly assumed the appearance of Lord Vishnu. He instructed Vasudeva to take him across the Yamuna River to Gokul. When Vasudeva ventured outside, the relentless rain dampened the grounds, but not a drop of water soiled baby Krishna. Because Vasudeva's friend Nanda, the ruler of Gokulam, and his wife Yasodha had recently had a baby girl, Vasudeva was able to switch Krishna with Yasodha's baby and return to Mathura. When Kansa came to the dungeon and threw the girl against the wall, she did not die; instead, she flew to the heavens saying, "Kansa! He who will destroy you still lives"(21). 

In Gokul, Krishna grew up among the cowherds. From the moment of his arrival, the men and women held him dearly in their hearts, as devotees do today. Rao says that vatsalya is the type of devotion in which Hindus view Lord Krishna as a child(Rao interview). In common folklore, Krishna is depicted as stealing butter. Butter implies the essence, and by stealing butter, Krishna confirms that he receives the essence of everything. Often portrayed as a cheerful but naughty child, Krishna sneaked into the houses of the milkmaids, or gopikaas, stole their butter, and ate it with his friends. According to Rao, the butter that Krishna stole represented the hearts of the gopikaas.

                                                                                                                                         Water Buffalo on Yamuna River Bank

        Fully satisfied with everything he already owns, Krishna steals the butter to steal hearts and have "loving exchanges with his devotees" (Rao interview). From a young age, gopikaas easily fell in love with Lord Krishna. They spent many days chasing him, and he often reciprocated the teasing. Krishna is also widely known for the melodious music he produced on his flute. Gopikaas, enthralled by his songs, danced joyously around him while cows flocked together to listen. Kumar explains that in artwork, Krishna is frequently portrayed playing the flute to show his desire to "spread the melody of love to all people" (Kumar interview). 
        I have mimicked Krishna mischievously devouring butter and creating mellifluous music with his flute in numerous Indian classical dances I have performed. One of the songs I have danced is entitled, "Krishna Baro," which loosely translates to "Come here, Krishna." In A Passage to India, Professor Godbole sings a similar song. Godbole, a Hindu, explains to Mrs. Moore that he has placed himself in the position of a gopikaa for the song. He beckons Krishna, "Come! Come to me only" (Forster 80). Upon Krishna's refusal, the gopikaa relents: "Do not come to me only. Multiply yourself into a hundred Krishnas, and let one go to each of my hundred companions, but one, O Lord of the Universe, come to me"(80). So enchanted by the Lord, the gopikaa would rather sacrifice Krishna's exclusive attention than forego all of his love. Displaying slight concern at Krishna's refusal to appear, Mrs. Moore asks whether Krishna will come in another song. Through her query, Mrs. Moore's unfamiliarity with Hindu mythology is evident. By sincerely awaiting Krishna's arrival, Mrs. Moore fails to comprehend the actual relationship between the gopikaas and Krishna: an incessant cycle of chasing and teasing, in which Krishna never fully satisfies the gopikaas. Songs such as Godbole's and stories of the gopikaas' pursuits of Krishna are often told during the festival of Krishna's birth. 
        Gokul Ashtami is the Hindu festival that celebrates Krishna's birth. Also called Krishna Janmashtami or Krishna Jayanti, Gokul Ashtami typically falls toward the end of August on the Christian calendar. Celebrating in a subdued manner, South Indians decorate their houses with leaves from mango trees(Rao interview). Devotees place modest statues of Krishna and Devaki in their homes, and pooja less extravagant than that in North India is performed. Kumar's definition of a pooja, also spelled puja, is a ritual offering of flowers, fruit, and food to the god to receive His blessings(Kumar interview). During pooja, various names of the god are recited. Prasadam, composed of milk, curds, and sugar, is offered first to the god and then given at the end of the pooja to the devotees. Because my family is South Indian, we perform prayers and offerings in this manner. Every year, my mother prepares a scaled down feast for the festival. In my basement, we perform pooja on silver idols of Krishna and Devaki. Afterwards, we celebrate by eating prasadam and inviting other families to our house to sing bhajan. The fact that my uncle is named Krishna because he was born during the festival illustrates the distinct importance of the festival to my family. 
        The celebration of Krishna's birth occurs in one of the final scenes in A Passage to India. As part of the celebration, Aziz, a Muslim doctor, observes statuettes decorated with flowers and brilliant cloths advancing through a courtyard: "As [the statuette] rose from the earth on the shoulders of its bearers, the friendly sun of the monsoons shone forth and flooded the world with color"(Forster 305). Near Mathura, Krishna's birthplace in North India, the Gokul Ashtami festivities are correspondingly lavish. North Indians create an aesthetic palanquin of Krishna with colorful decorations, as the people of Mau do in A Passage to India: "In the fairway stood the Ark of the Lord, covered with cloth of gold and flanked by peacock fans and by stiff circular banners of crimson"(Forster 305). North Indian villages, such as Gokul, Krishna's home as a youth, and Vrindavan, celebrate with similar grandeur and gaiety.
        The palanquin is taken out in a procession, and devotees offer Krishna sweets and pray to him in a grander manner than in South India. As Aziz and his friend Ralph Moore go boating out on the water amid chants of "Radhakrishna, Radhakrishna," they observe the Hindus' palanquin of Krishna descending into the water. Other offerings, such as baskets of corn and husks, are thrown into the water alongside Krishna. At midnight, when the birth of Krishna is officially announced, the devotees who have fasted all day can eat(Ganguly 44). Groups of children play a game, Dahi-handi, following the official ceremony. Dr. Sushila Singh of Banaras University explains the game: "Earthen pots, or handi, are filled with curds, puffed rice, and milk and strung high above the streets"(Singh interview). Enthusiastic boys and girls form human pyramids to reach these and break them open, the way Lord Krishna and his friends naughtily behaved so they could steal and eat butter. On the holiday, both South and North Indians pray to Lord Krishna. Gokul Ashtami, as celebrated in North India, serves as the setting for a sequence of events in Forster's A Passage to India.
        The final scene of the novel occurs in a place called Mau, but I have failed to find whether any such place truly exists in India. I have assumed that Mau is a fictional place that resembles the real Indian village of Mathura, Krishna's birthplace, because of the geographical setting of the novel's fictional city, Chandrapore. Many have speculated that Chandrapore is a north Indian city close to Mathura. Furthermore, the manner in which the Hindus of the novel celebrate Krishna's birth resembles that of the Hindus of Mathura. The Hindus celebrate with the distinct fervor and liveliness of North Indians. Forster chooses the ceremony of Gokul Ashtami to be the background festivity because its characteristics allow it to represent a symbolic unification and the commencement of a new journey for Cyril Fielding and Aziz. 
        The celebration of Gokul Ashtami is a lengthy ritual with complex customs that demand detail. Because Krishna is highly revered among Hindus, most celebrate Gokul Ashtami with merriment. According to Singh, Gokul Ashtami, "symbolic of collective life in India," unifies all the Hindus honoring Krishna and partially integrates the onlookers of other faiths(Singh interview). Along with other Hindu idols, "tiny tazias after Mohurram," are tossed into the river(Forster 314). The allusion to tazias, miniature tombs made of bamboo during the Islamic Mohurram Festival, suggests the incorporation of Islam into the ceremony. The festival possesses the unique capacity to fuse together varying religions, which symbolizes the union of Aziz and Fielding after a phase of regression in their friendships. Singh affirms that the day of the festival is observed as a national holiday, and India television and All India Radio broadcast the proceedings of some celebrations(Singh interview). These examples serve as another key factor in the theme of unification, for Hindus all over India are temporarily linked through a common bond: the commemoration of Krishna's birth. A Passage to India's characters, Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, and Cyril Fielding, a Christian, are also strongly connected through their inability to comprehend the reasons for the ceremony: "Aziz could not understand [the ceremony], any more than an average Christian could"(Forster 304). Yet he, a Muslim, participated nonetheless. Despite their individual cultural differences, Aziz and the Englishmen bond through the mystification they feel while watching the ceremony.
        According to Singh, some of the small tokens thrown in the water beside the palanquin, as mentioned earlier, are cherished items that belong to the members of the community(Singh interview). Forster notes these "emblems of passage" in the conclusion of the festival(Forster 314). The "passage" he mentions denotes not only the progression of time, but also suggests that the characters are embarking on a spiritual journey. As the characters struggle to reunite after a period of separation, they are reluctant to elevate themselves to a state of pure joy, as the celebrating Hindus can. Aziz "was puzzled that Mau should suddenly be purged from suspicion and self-seeking"(304). Disconcerted by a brief separation from his friend, Aziz cannot understand the Hindus' ability to disentangle themselves from all their troubles for the sake of a religious ceremony. Forster implies that although it may take some time, Aziz and Fielding will begin a spiritual journey that is "not easy, not now, not here, not to be apprehended except when it is unattainable"(Forster 314). The "unattainable" quality of the journey is Forster's allusion to Hindus' continual quest for salvation. Kumar states that another name for Hinduism is Sanathana Dharma, which means "the eternal quest"(Kumar interview). When the characters have matured spiritually enough to understand the passage they have embarked on, they will realize they still have much farther to go. 
        For the present time, however, Aziz and Fielding are exposed to the happiness that the festival brings the religious Hindus: "The festival flowed on, wild and sincere, and all men loved each other, and avoided by instinct whatever could cause inconvenience or pain"(304). Singh explains that Hindus look upon each religious festival as an auspicious occasion, and they are mindful of their behavior and treatment of fellow human beings on that day(Singh interview). The Hindus' celebration of Gokul Ashtami reveals to the Islamic Aziz and Christian Fielding the happiness they can acquire from abandoning their sorrows and, consequently, beginning their spiritual journeys. The festival of Krishna teaches Aziz and Fielding to love one another as friends, to shelve their differences, and to unveil their spirits to achieve propitious futures. 


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Rao, Meera. Telephone Interview. 16 Sep. 2001.
Singh, Sushila. Personal Interview. 24 Sep 2001.
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