Religions (Aug 2020)

The Carving of Kṛṣṇa’s Legend: North and South, Back and Forth

  • Charlotte Schmid

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 11, no. 9
p. 439


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This paper emphasizes the role played by the sculptural tradition in the elaboration of religious narratives that today are mostly studied through texts. It aims to demonstrate that according to the documents we know, the legend of Kṛṣṇa has been built through one continuous dialogue between different media, namely texts and carvings, and different linguistic areas, Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. Taking the motif of the butter theft as a basis, we stress the role played by the sculptural tradition and Tamil poetry, two elements less studied than others, at the foundation of a pan-Indian Kṛṣṇa-oriented heritage. We posit that the iconographic formula of the cowherds’ station as the significant background of the infancy of Kṛṣṇa led to the motif of the young god stealing butter in the texts, through the isolation of one significant element of the early sculpted images. The survey of the available documents leads to the conclusion that, in the southern part of the peninsula, patterns according to which stone carvings were done have been a source of inspiration in Tamil literature. Poets writing in Tamil authors knew texts transmitted in Sanskrit, Prākrit, and Pāli, and they certainly had listened to some others to which we have no access today. But we give reasons to assume that the authors of the said texts were also aware of the traditional ways of representing a child Kṛṣṇa in the visual domain. With these various traditions, poets of the Tamil country in the later stage of Tamil Caṅkam literature featured a character they may not have consciously created, as he was already existent in the visual tradition and nurtured by the importance of one landscape animated by cowherds in the legend of Kṛṣṇa.