The Milkmaid, Raja Ravi Varma
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“And of course, that brings us to the story of Krishna,” said August Altmann.
“No doubt a very different one than most Hindus believe,” Justus Fowler suggested.
“Well, probably. But not in ways that are important for most people. It may not be what is in the Mahabharata, but it is the story I have to tell. And remember, even Hindu scriptures vary on the details. But the details of the story are not the point, it is the underlying message.”
“So tell me, was Krishna really the child of a king and queen? That is what the story says. But I have always suspected that the royalty made that the story up after he became important.”
Annie Altmann spoke up in a tone that seemed at once reflective and determined. “He was an orphan whose mother gave him away as she died by the roadside.” She paused. And then she said. “His father had been killed in the wars. His mother was from a wealthy family, but had become separated from them. Perhaps she was royal, but she was not the queen.
“He was so beautiful.” She paused, and then went on. “He was so small, just able to stand and take his first steps. And as she lay by the side of the road, knowing that she would soon die, she tried to give her little son to anyone who would take him, so he could be cared for and live.
“Again and again, she called to people who were passing by, asking them to take her little boy. But they just kept on walking. She wept. She was desperate. He was the joy of her life, more precious than any jewel, and no one wanted him. No one would tend him, and he would die alone of thirst and hunger. Abandoned.
“Just as she had nearly lost all her strength, two people, a man and a woman, bent over her and asked who she was. When she asked them to raise her son, they took him, and they took her with him, so before she died, she could see where he would live.
“They were not wealthy. He was a huntsman and game keeper for the king. She was a cowherd, what they called a “gopi.” They looked kind and loving, and the young mother could see that he would be protected.
“She died, feeling grief that she had abandoned her son by dying. Her sorrow was so great that did not pass with death. It outlived her body and lives on in her soul to this day.” Annie was choking up a bit at this point.
“It was not until after she died that they noticed that she had the soft hands of a woman who had never worked, and they found the jewels she was wearing under her rude clothes.” Annie asked to be excused, got up, and went into the store.
Justus looked at Gus with a sense of astonishment and asked “Is that what happened?”
“Surely, it happened sometime. I don’t know whether that boy was Krisha. He might have been some other incarnation of Vishnu. He might have been someone altogether different. I just don’t know.”
The other people sitting on the porch of Altmann’s hardware store might have had their own thoughts on the subject, but no one spoke. Most of them looked off to the distant storm, pretending to wonder whether it would hit them.
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Krishna was raised by a woman named Yasoda, who tended cattle, and her husband, Nanda Baba, a huntsman and game warden for King Vasudeva. They were simple folk. Nanda Baba had been a soldier, and was actually a relative of the king. He had been injured in combat, with a cut ankle tendon, so he had difficulty walking. But he had other abilities that were useful in the field, so the king gave him a job as a game warden.
Nanda and Yasoda raised their little adopted son in surroundings that were full of love and joy. They were delighted with him. He was the child of their dreams. And like them, he was filled with love and laughter.
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“He was a scamp who stole butter and took the gopis’ clothing as they bathed so they would have to come to him naked to get them back,” Justus said.
“But they loved him all the same,” Dora replied.
Gus added to this, “He was small and full of playful tricks, but he was not malicious. It was a game, I think, to all of them. Perhaps, if he had acted that way when he was ten years older, they would have felt differently. As it was, they all loved him dearly and each treated him as though he were her own child.
“There was a saying about Krishna. ‘When he was a little child, all the gopis were his mother. When he flowed with youthful vigor, all the gopis were his lover. When he came to be quite old, all the gopis were his daughter.’ Of course, they were talking as though the gopis were all women, which nearly all were in those days.
“Justus, you already know many of the stories of Krishna. Perhaps I should just tell you the parts that you would have missed, because you could not have read about them. For example, there is a rarely told story of how Krishna got his magic flute.”
“That I want to hear.”
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There was a good reason why Nanda Baba was made a game warden instead of being given some other job when he was disabled, despite the fact that he could not walk easily. It was that he was highly skilled at calling birds and animals. These were skills he started teaching Krishna almost as soon as the boy could talk.
Of course, Krishna had very little interest in calling birds or beasts. By the time he was six, he understood that the skills he was learning could provide him with a livelihood. But at that age, he was much more interested in other things. Indeed, his place in life, he thought, was most likely to be a gopi, a cowherd, just like all the women around him. It had not occurred to him that there was a reason the gopis were almost all women.
It is an odd fact that in those days, in that place, nobody whistled music. They sang and played instruments, but it seems no one had ever heard anyone whistle tunes. Krishna, who loved music and dancing, decided that if the birds could whistle their songs, he could do the same, and so he started whistling music. After only a very little time passed, his whistling was good enough that he sounded like a flute.
The people around him were astonished when they heard him. Krishna made the effect on them all the more powerful by pretending to hold an invisible flute as he whistled. When that happened, the people came to believe that he actually had a magic instrument. They concluded that there was something very special about him. Some came to wonder whether he was a god.
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“So that was the magic of the flute,” Justus said, with a tone of disgust. “It was not magic at all. It was just a fraud.”
August looked at him for a moment, and then he turned and asked, “Is Warren Andersen here?”
“Over here!” came a quick reply.
“Warren, what were you telling me the other day about magic?”
Warren Andersen was a mining engineer by profession, but his inclinations went more toward his hobby, the history of mathematics and science. He had gone to work briefly in the mines to the west of Gorse as an engineering consultant, some years before. When the train that was taking him back home stopped in Gorse for water, he stepped off to stretch his legs, and he never got back aboard. There was something about the tiny city that made him feel it should be his home. Warren replied to the question, “Magic is just science that is not yet understood.”
“It was magic,” August said, “because no one understood it. It was not a magic object. It was a magic skill. It was not something Krishna could have given to a flute player to use. But it was something Krishna could have taught other people to do. Today, the magic of Krishna’s flute is a common skill, and people do not think of it as magic. Nevertheless, many remember that Krishna’s flute was magical, what they had thought it to be originally.”
“You make it sound so trivial,” Justus told August.
“It was a creative act, an act of genius, if you like. From a local point of view, Krishna, as a young boy, invented the art of whistling. And perhaps that is magic.”
“But it sounds like you think magic is rather uninteresting.”
“In a sense, I think it is. Krishna’s flute is rather inconsequential, except that it provided a step to his being able to do some really important things, because it set him apart in a way that was necessary.
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When the people started to understand that Krishna could have magical abilities, some of them got very worried. The people in power, the royalty, the aristocrats, and the priests, quickly understood that there were things about Krishna that they had not seen before They saw that there might be a hero for ordinary people in the land. To them, Krishna might be a threat, who could cause the common people, on whom the powerful people depended, to rise up in revolt.
Even the ordinary folk, those of the countryside who worked to raise food, and wove cloth, and turned pots from clay, people who did manual work, were often troubled by the idea. For them the fact that they might have had a hero, possibly even a savior, was sometimes overshadowed by a feeling of risk. This came to a head when he advised them, when he was still very young, not to make a sacrifice to the god Indra for good weather.
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“Now you’re going to tell that ridiculous story about holding a mountain over a village.” Justus’ tone was sarcastic. He added, under his breath, “What drivel!”
“Like most people, Justus, you miss entirely the point of the story,” August replied. “Whether he literally uprooted a hill and held it over a village to protect it from a deluge is utterly irrelevant. The point is that when he advised people to look to the welfare of their children and themselves before they gave up some of their desperately needed food for a ritual sacrifice, Indra was not offended by Krishna, as people expected him to be.”
“I thought he was offended.”
“He wanted the people to eat good food and live good lives, just as the other gods did.” It was Tom Allenby speaking. “He was grateful that the people were given that message. Sacrifices did him no good. He did not need them.”
“So what was that mountain thing all about?”
“It was just part of the story, told in a way that made clear that Krishna was more than just a boy with a magic flute. The fact that Krishna could stand up to Indra and be heard, despite his being just a little boy, suggested to the people that he was at least intimate with the gods. It made many more people believe he was a god himself, possibly one who had come to save them from a cycle of misery.
“Look, you knew that story, except for what I think is its most important point, and I have told you that. Perhaps I should go on to some other part of the life of Krishna that you don’t know.”
“Tell him about the dam!” Annie exclaimed. She had returned and settled in next to August. “Everyone should know about the dam! And nobody ever does!”
“Yes!” Dora chimed in. “You tell Justus about that dam, and some of us will go gather wood for a bonfire!”
“What does a story about a dam have to do with a bonfire?” Justus asked.
“Fred Williams has that old wagon he got from Herman Bauer.” Warren suggested. “He said it was useless.”
“It is useless for any other purpose. I have taken every part off I could save.” Fred Williams said. He smiled as he added, “What could be more appropriate?”
“Okay, have a bonfire, if you wish. But please promise to clean up after it tomorrow.”
“We will make the spot immaculate,” Warren said. And then he, Fred, and about six or eight others walked off to Williams’ Livery to fetch the wagon.
August shook his head and chuckled. He looked off into the the distance and commented, “That storm is getting closer. We might get some action here after all.”
Justus replied, “If we get a good downpour, it will put that bonfire out. It seems like a wasted effort. We will all just huddle here on the store’s porch as the rain comes down, like so many bored cats.”
“Where were we?” August asked.
“You were just about to start the story of the dam,” Dora answered.
“Should I wait for them?”
“Naw. They all know about the dam already.”