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Growing Stories from IndiaReligion and the Fate of Agriculture$

A. Whitney Sanford

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780813134123

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813134123.001.0001

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Balaram and the Yamuna River:

Balaram and the Yamuna River:

Entitlement and Presumptions of Control

(p.56) Chapter 3 Balaram and the Yamuna River:
Growing Stories from India

A. Whitney Sanford

University Press of Kentucky

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the story of the deities Balaram and the Yamuna River, which offers an honest reckoning with human dependence on the earth for sustenance and human entitlements to the earth's production in the context of Balaram's multiple obligations to the earth, his family, and his subjects. It situates Balaram's story in its geographical, religious, and cultural contexts, defines relevant terms and concepts from the Hindu tradition, and explains why devotees understand Balaram as a protector, agriculturalist, and guardian. This story both helps us recognize how a disconnect with the origins of our food both enable and result from assumptions—whether conscious or not—of entitlement to the earth's resources and helps us question why narratives that appear to justify aggression towards the earth prove so enduring. Exploring the moral aspects of food and food production bring this dilemma home and demonstrates that how and why we tell stories about agriculture must be central to our lives.

Keywords:   food, Hinduism, India, Holi, Dharma, Balaram, Shesh, Krishna, Braj, goddess, Vaishnava

THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER, by illuminating the storied nature of food production and industrial agriculture, revealed that these systems are not inevitable but result from human choices. Overloaded restaurant menus and abundantly filled shelves in the grocery store suggest to us in the West that we have more than enough food, an illusion of plenty that assuages any fear that food provision could be a problem. Our clean and colorful supermarkets enact a modern narrative of efficient and abundant food production. As the previous chapter illustrated, however, this cornucopia of packaged foods masks a reality of environmental degradation and rural poverty and obscures the real costs of producing this food. In addition, the endless array of choices offered in these stores offers no hint that farming is relational, a form of negotiation between farmers and the earth.

Narratives of industrial agriculture presume human control over and entitlement to the earth's resources. This chapter challenges these narratives by presenting the story of Balaram and the Yamuna River. Reflecting on this story provides an opportunity for us to honestly assess our existing attitudes and to explore alternative relations for agricultural practice. Exploring the story of Balaram and the Yamuna River helps us work through the human frustration at the illusions of control and recognize the competing responsibilities of farmers who must both feed populations and protect the earth's fertility. Balaram's multiple obligations to the earth, his family, and his subjects render him an appropriate figure through which to ask one of the central questions of this book: How can we balance the human need for agricultural production with the needs of the broader biotic community?

(p.57) Although Balaram's devotees emphasize the agricultural and protective aspects of this story, its complexities express the social and ethical dilemmas inherent in agriculture. This story is not unique within Hinduism; the fact that its narrative structure parallels other Vaishnava stories of protection, anger, and intoxication suggests that this story provides conceptual tools to illuminate relational patterns that have long influenced agricultural practice. The metaphors and entailments behind the interactions between Balaram and the Yamuna River help us focus on the relatedness of agricultural processes and illustrate tensions stemming from human need for control of these processes. I include relationships among humans in this discussion because relations between humans and the earth reflect—and are structured by—relations among humans. Further, the constant retelling of Balaram's story in the context of agricultural need reflects the ubiquity of our own agricultural narratives, such as the justification of industrial agriculture to feed the world. Investigating the social role of this story in turn illuminates social and economic hierarchies that have been naturalized by stories of agricultural need.

So that we can understand how the story of Balaram and the Yamuna River reflects existing agricultural relations, I situate this story in its geographical, agricultural, religious, cultural, and social contexts. These contexts help us understand the story itself as well as local interpretations of it. For example, local temple priests and devotees explain Balaram's actions in terms of his role as a king and as one who maintains dharma, or morality. These explanations that valorize Balaram as protector and guardian of the earth's fertility offer insight into why agricultural narratives that emphasize control and stability have proven so compelling, both in India and in the contemporary United States.

When I first arrived in Baldeo, I intended to focus on the hierarchical relationship between the brothers Balaram and Krishna, to see how a complementary pairing of responsibilities emerged in practice. Text and practice render Balaram subordinate to his popular younger brother Krishna, and the geographical spread of Balaram devotion reflects this subordination. One can see posters and references to Krishna throughout much of India, for example, but this is not the case with Balaram. Balaram's story and related devotional practices are much more localized within the Braj context, and Krishna figures more (p.58) prominently in the Hindu religious imagination. I wondered if Balaram's strong attachment to place, his connections to fertility, and his drunken diversion of the Yamuna River, in contrast to Krishna's pastoral, romantic nature, offered clues to this pattern of subordination. I wanted to understand the puzzling question of Balaram's intoxication in part because the story of Balaram and the Yamuna River is ubiquitous in Baldeo.

Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River occurs in a context of a homecoming. Krishna and Balaram had gone to Mathura to slay the demon Kamsha and had promised to return in a week. Krishna never returned to Braj, but Balaram—the elder brother—did return during the springtime festival of Holi. His return makes all the difference: it demonstrates to devotees his commitment to, and protection of, Braj. Virtually every ritual performed in Baldeo is accompanied by a mantra—a sacred verse—that reiterates the Hindu deity Balaram's trademark act during Holi: Balaram rent the earth with his plow and dragged the Yamuna River to his feet. Balaram's root mantra (mul-mantra) is

  • Om, klim kalindi bhedanaya Sankarshanaya svaha.
  • Om, the Kalindi, split by Samkarshan, svaha!
The Kalindi is another name for the Yamuna River, but Yamuna is the name most commonly used, in text and orally.

Ritual service, or seva, for Balaram is performed in homes and temples in daily and annual cycles, typical of Hindu practice. Each day is divided into eight periods, so this ritual cycle means that some devotees hear this verse up to eight times a day. Although not all devotees visit temples or perform their own seva for each of these eight periods, in Baldeo, the temple priests and guides attend almost all ritual services. Other village residents attend seva in the morning and evening, so life in Baldeo generally revolves around the temple and serving the many pilgrims who arrive each day.

I was struck by the materiality of this mantra, particularly as I considered the obvious need for water in this region. Balaram is both the king of Braj and a deity related to agriculture, fertility, and protection. Devotees and temple priests consistently told me that Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River was related to irrigation, an interpretation that makes sense in a region that has become increasingly desertlike (p.59) over the past several hundred years. So while this local interpretation is probably not the historical meaning of the mantra, it does reflect local conditions and needs. As such, this story has much to tell us about the relationships between violence, agriculture, and human need, and particularly its gendered implications. For example, when the earth and the female body are viewed as property and resources to be exploited, they become commodified and viewed solely in terms of production or the capacity to fill others' needs.

Further, it became clear that Balaram plays a critical balancing role in Braj devotional practice. Krishna's pastoral persona occupies center stage in Braj; but, as I explored text and practice in what is perceived to be the periphery—for example, villages and practices dedicated to Balaram, forms of the goddess, and localized semidivine beings such as serpents, or nagas, and tree spirits, or yakshas—I realized that these practices provide the structural support for Krishna's pastoral realm through their emphasis on agriculture, sustenance, and health.1 Krishna's subordination of Balaram parallels the marginalization of agriculture in multiple contexts, ranging from Braj practice to environmental ethics.

The story of Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River is situated in north India, in a region southeast of Delhi that is significant agriculturally and mythologically. The predominant religious expression of this area is a form of Hinduism that emphasizes devotion to the deified brothers Balaram and Krishna. The brothers live in a landscape populated by beings such as trees and serpents, which are themselves actors in this cosmic drama and reflect a Hindu cosmology imbued with agrarian concerns.

Geographical and Agricultural Context of Balaram's Story

Balaram's story illustrates the human failures that have led to a global agrarian crisis. Places I am most familiar with—the midwestern United States and north India—are both grappling with rural depopulation, degraded landscapes, and rivers polluted with agricultural runoff. For example, the agricultural chemicals that drain into the Mississippi River—once the lifeblood of the Midwest—have created a biological disaster. The Yamuna River's flow—which once nourished the plains of north (p.60) India—is diminished by upstream dams and irrigation channels that have resulted in salinization and later desertification; the remaining flow carries toxic effluent from agriculture and textile mills. Over the fifteen years since I first went to north India, I have observed the growing degradation of the region. David Haberman's River of Love in an Age of Pollution describes the many programs working to restore the Yamuna River, and these efforts do offer hope. My work complements Haberman's and abstracts critical questions and tropes from Balaram's story so that we can use this narrative to think through complexities, asking how we should balance the need for sustenance and equity, for humans as well as fellow citizens in the biotic community.

The discrepancy between mythic depictions of the land and its current condition suggest that we should investigate alternate readings of Balaram and the Yamuna River. Balaram's agricultural role as a provider of water seems clear: he procured water for his region and ensured prosperity. However, it is important to scrutinize Balaram's diversion of the river and his justification for this diversion because this justification parallels narratives that legitimate industrial agriculture. For example, large-scale agriculture promises substantial benefits, but often results in environmental degradation and centralized control of resources; yet the feed-the-world narrative of efficiency and beneficence continues to hold pride of place as the central food narrative in many circles. So, we might step back to ask: Which story gets told, and whose interests does this story represent? Reflecting on these questions illuminates processes by which inequitable social relations and practices come to appear natural and even altruistic. Balaram's actions also manifest a theme of male aggression over female earth- and river-related deities, which is reiterated in Vaishnava agricultural narratives. His demand for resources and productivity reflects human attempts to control the earth's productivity, and this dimension of agriculture is gendered, a subject I explore in the next chapter.

Although large-scale agriculture does produce vast amounts of food, its demands on the earth are unsustainable and have led to immense environmental degradation, even in the once fecund area where Balaram's story is situated: the village of Baldeo in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Today, Baldeo is the center of Balaram devotion and pilgrimage and home to the Dauji temple, Balaram's temple; devotees (p.61)

 Balaram and the Yamuna River: Entitlement and Presumptions of Control

Baldeo and India. (Map by Ken McMurray)

flock to this otherwise sleepy village on festivals that are significant for Balaram. The temple guides, the Pandas of Baldeo, are Ahivasis, a priestly caste with an agricultural heritage. Although most of the Pandas are not actively farming, their agrarian heritage shapes their understanding of Balaram. One Ahivasi Brahman-farmer, Vikram Pandey, stated that Balaram—or Dauji, Krishna's elder brother—is the farmer's god; Ahivasis always have land, and he farms because that is what Balaram does.

The village of Baldeo seems far removed from the urban centers of India. Just east of an oxbow on the Yamuna River, it lies 18 kilometers downstream of Mathura, a holy city located approximately 50 kilometers north of Agra—reputed to be the birthplace of Krishna—itself over one hundred kilometers downstream of Delhi (see map). Baldeo lies in a primarily agricultural district, and the roads to the village are lined with fields of mustard, wheat, and barley. Supplying water for agriculture in this area is a critical concern. While the Yamuna River runs high during the monsoon, her waters become considerably scarcer during the dry months, and water shortages are common in May and early (p.62) June, just before the monsoon. This rural agricultural region abuts the desert state of Rajasthan, and residents are concerned about encroaching desertification. Sadly, once lush forests have given way to scrub land with few trees, and the Yamuna River has become polluted with sewage and industrial wastes. Despite idyllic depictions of Krishna and Balaram's Braj in text and the arts, this sacred land has become a degraded landscape.

Religious and Cultural Context of Balaram's Story

Although India is religiously diverse, approximately 85 percent of Indians identify as Hindu, and the Braj region hosts a significant portion of Hindus who are devotees of the cowherding brothers Balaram and Krishna. This population and their religious orientation so strongly influence the culture of the area that it is crucial to understand some basic elements of Hinduism. In what follows, I first illustrate the Hindu moral universe and outline the reciprocal obligations of humans and deities necessary to sustain that universe. Then, I delineate how divine beings that are important to this analysis, such as Balaram and nagas, fit into a Hindu cosmological context. Finally, I explain those Vaishnava concepts that emerge in the telling of Balaram and the Yamuna River's story.

Sustaining the Universe: Rta and Dharma

Text and local lore interpret Balaram as one who upholds dharma, and as such, his actions help sustain moral, physical, and cosmic realms. The Hindu concepts of rta, cosmic order, and dharma, moral or social order, are fundamental for Hindu ethics and practice and provide the basis for understanding the links between social and agricultural health. These links are based in common sense; that is, societies experiencing hunger or famine are not stable or healthy. These linkages do not exist only in Hindu cosmology; for example, this linkage of agricultural, social, and moral health also has significant parallels in Aztec religion. As religion scholar Kay Read notes in Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos, in Aztec religion the death and decay necessary for regeneration of life is emphasized over a meditative spirituality that is not relevant to everyday life. This distinction is important because Balaram's (p.63) association with these fundamental concerns about fertility and protection renders him anomalous to the Braj pastoral idiom.2

However, my analysis reveals how linkages between social and agricultural health—and the resulting obligations of kings and guardians to provide, protect, and maintain order—emerge in a heroic, romantic narrative that shapes social relations. According to the Hindu understandings of rta and dharma, the universe functions in a predictable, cyclical order. That is, when things go well, seasons change, the sun rises and sets, and crops grow and later die. The moral, social, and cosmic orders are linked, and maintenance of the moral and social orders determines, in part, the continuation of the cosmic or natural order. When the moral order disintegrates, the physical landscape deteriorates. This linkage persists in contemporary explanations for environmental degradation. For example, Ann Gold and Bhoju Ram Gujar's interviews with farmers in Rajasthan revealed their perception that “no dharma, therefore no rain.”3 The farmers connected the degraded landscape to the greed and moral decay of the contemporary era.

Rta and dharma provide theoretical and metaphorical structures for human relationships to the world and to the divine. While both terms translate loosely as something like “moral order,” both connote the active realization of truth and indicate the action of striving for, or performing, the truth.4 Rta is the older concept, particularly important in the Vedic period (approximately 1500–500 B.C.E.), when Hindu religious practice centered on hymns and rituals presented in the Vedas. Numerous Vedic hymns celebrate natural forces and elements, including rain and soil, and personify these forces as deities, revealing continuities between the natural realms and humans.5 The term rta appears first in the earliest of the four Vedas, the Rig-Veda (circa 1200 B.C.E.), and refers to the earth's cyclical processes, such as the changing seasons that regulate agriculture and the constancy of day and night.6 These cycles are necessary for the continued existence of all beings of the natural world, including humans.

What is particularly distinctive about the concept of rta in Vedic thought and practice is that it incorporates human obligation. Humans and deities exist within the cosmic order and are bound through mutual obligation.7 This thread appears explicitly in the agricultural narratives of Balaram and Prthu, but the seeds of this mutuality lie within (p.64) the earliest manifestations of Hinduism. Brahman priests carry the tremendous responsibility of performing rituals to maintain the cosmic and social order according to the Brahmanas, the ritual sections of the Vedas.

As the goddess Prthvi, the earth is understood as a living organism, and Vedic ritual maintains and replenishes the earth and cosmos with life and energy.8 The earth's continued fertility relies upon the input of male potential. Priests perform rituals to ensure cosmic and social order, and most of the rituals in the Vedic texts have concrete goals, such as a good harvest or many sons.9 The concept underlying these rituals is one of mutual obligation, and gifts to the deities are part of a continuing cycle of exchange.10 Continuous gift exchange between humans and deities structures the relationships between Balaram and the earth and between humans and the earth, and the ideas of mutual obligation and gifts emerge in narratives about both Balaram and agriculture. These relations and reciprocities reflect the Upanishadic edict, a core principle of Hinduism, that food is god (annam Brahman).

The Vedic rituals ensure that the cycles necessary for human, plant, and animal existence would continue and would link the social and cosmic order; so, in that way, social health is tied to agricultural health. The priests' obligations lie in performing these rituals according to the complicated directives in the Brahmanas. The directives are specific because the deities were obliged to fulfill the requests if the priests performed the rituals correctly. The priests then function in relationships of obligation and power with the divine and the natural world: if the priests correctly perform the rituals, the results are essentially assured, and social and cosmic order, dharma, is upheld.11

Dharma subsequently eclipses rta and becomes the basis for ethical decision making within the Hindu tradition. Dharma is a nominalization of the verbal root dhr, meaning “to sustain,” and it maintains the protective and sustaining aspects of rta. The moral, social, and physical realms are linked, meaning that moral and righteous behavior is necessary to sustain agricultural processes. While the concept of dharma is the subject of much theological and philosophical discussion, the most common use of the term indicates the duties incumbent on individuals, fulfillment of which holds together the physical and moral fabric of society.12 (p.65) O. P. Dwivedi, who has written broadly on environmental stewardship in India, notes that “dharma can be considered an ethos, a set of duties, that holds the social and moral fabric together by maintaining order in society, building individual and group character, and giving rise to harmony and understanding in our relationships with all of God's creation.”13 Dharma includes not only duties and obligations within the social realm, but also those within the biotic community; thus, all beings are subject to moral consideration.

Hindu Cosmology: Nagas, Agriculture, and Protection

Hindu cosmology includes a range of semidivine beings (devatas) that interact with humans and influence human affairs, including serpents (nagas), celestial musicians (gandharvas), and tree spirits (yakshas). Hindu folklore is replete with tales that recapitulate the interactions of yakshas, nagas, and humans, and contemporary ritual practice acknowledges the influence of these beings. For example, supplicants typically invoke nagas for protection of some sort, such as for healing or protection from illness or mental disturbance.

Traditional Indian lore about nagas—as well as common knowledge about snakes—reveals the nagas responsibility for agricultural health and further indicates that the naga's association with kingship and protection extends to the agricultural realm. Nagas have a special connection to agriculture and fertility because they control the rains and water, a connection that emerges in ritual practice. Serpents live under the ground, within the earth, and their burrowing, tunneling actions reveal a visual analog to the plow. Nagas draw water down to their underworld abodes and return this water during the dry season, so their importance to agriculture is critical.14 They control hydrological cycles that enable agriculture. Nagas, however, are notable for their fondness for drink and are capricious and easily angered, so farmers and others must take care to remain in their good graces. For example, nagas not only send gentle, life-sustaining rain, but also send hailstorms that destroy crops.15 Thus, maintaining good relations with nagas is important for human society and for survival.

As kings and protectors, nagas are typically responsible for specific areas and the sustenance therein. For example, kings are obligated to (p.66) sustain a land's fertility and to protect its resources, such as rivers and trees. Popular folktales from the Buddhist tradition highlight the relationship of guardianship to the protection of agricultural bounty and further demonstrate the correlation between righteousness and rain.16 The causal connection between virtue, or adherence to dharma, and productive agricultural cycles has become an enduring idiom in India. Serpents mediate these concerns about water and agrarian fertility, and contemporary ritual practice directed toward serpents enacts popular beliefs about serpent control over water and fertility. The Nag Panchami (Snake's Fifth) festival provides an example.

Ritual practice during Nag Panchami makes peace with snakes on the fifth day of the dark half (the fortnight in which the moon is waning) of the lunar month of Shravan (August–September). Shravan falls within the rainy season, when most of India is lush and green. On Nag Panchami, farmers do not plow the land to avoid inadvertently harming a snake. They offer snakes milk and crystallized sugar—known favorites—to avoid being bitten by a snake for the coming year.17 This reflects the reality both that snakebite is a significant cause of death in India and that agricultural activities such as plowing can harm or kill snakes. Many lakes or ponds have a resident naga deity to whom propitiatory peace offerings can be made when necessary. Although nagas are typically protective, they are also known to be petulant and can withdraw their favors as quickly as they bestow them. Supplicants leave offerings such as milk at ant hills because ant hills are believed to be the entrances to serpents' dwelling places.

Although nagas are a pan-Indian phenomenon, naga lore and practice tends to display strong regional idioms because of the naga connection to fertility and kingship. In the Braj region, traditional knowledge about nagas exists alongside that of Krishna and Balaram as tightly coupled systems that can be difficult to disentangle. According to Vaishnava theology, Vishnu and Shesh have repeatedly taken form to rid the earth of demons and tyrants, and on one occasion Vishnu and Shesh descended to the earth and took birth as Krishna and Balaram. For Vaishnavas, those Hindus who worship Vishnu and his earthly descents, Balaram's identity as naga is a fundamental theological assumption, and Balaram's naga identity provides a means to mediate concerns about water, fertility, and agriculture.

Vaishnava Concepts Specific to Balaram's Story

(p.67) Balaram is best known in association with his popular younger brother Krishna, and devotion to Krishna and his elder brother Balaram is a primary religious focus of the area. Braj is both a mythologized land as well as a real geographic entity that is defined by its cultural and linguistic characteristics. Textual and iconographic evidence indicates that the pair has been worshipped in some form since at least 300 B.C.E.; but most devotees recognize them as carefree, cowherding boys of Braj, a motif that spread throughout north India in the sixteenth century. Scripture and poetry sing the virtues of this verdant land, filled with plants, animals, and birds all devoted to Krishna and Balaram. This landscape is dotted with temples and sites sacred to the brothers, and the physical site of these mythical activities correlates to a sacred geography.

According to Vaishnava theology, while Balaram's activities occur eternally in an endlessly repeating cosmic drama, Balaram and Krishna also walked this earth five thousand years ago. In the sixteenth century, leaders of the major Braj devotional movements discovered sites in the Braj landscape where Krishna and Balaram's mythic activities occurred, and to this day pilgrims visit these sacred sites.18 Devotees walk barefoot so they can feel the very dust upon which Krishna and Balaram once trod. Sacred text is mapped onto a sacred geography, and the land itself—once touched by the feet of the gods—plays a critical role in devotional practice.

Devotees know Balaram as the patron of agriculture and the king of Braj. Sanskrit texts, such as the epic Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Purana, and popular lore are replete with stories about Balaram, and devotees who hear these stories know about Balaram's commitment to protect his region. For example, devotees who would likely be familiar with the stories about Krishna and Balaram in the Bhagavata Purana know that Balaram helped Krishna rid Braj of multiple demons. Visitors to the temple in Baldeo immediately see a large portrait of Balaram painted on the wall that depicts Balaram holding his trademark plow and mace (see photo). Balaram carries the plow and mace to destroy depravity in the world in addition to his agricultural duties.

Balaram himself is an incarnation of Shesh, the cosmic serpent, and his serpentine characteristics are definitive of his persona. Shesh is routinely depicted as the supporter of the earth; and, to illustrate (p.68)

 Balaram and the Yamuna River: Entitlement and Presumptions of Control

Picture of Balaram painted on a Dauji Temple wall. (Photo by author)

Shesh's grandeur, image and text portray the earth perched upon one of Shesh's thousand heads as if the earth were a mustard seed.19 (Shesh's majesty is reflected in his other name, Anant—“one without limits”—but, for consistency, I will use Shesh throughout.) Devotees of Balaram hail him as (p.69) the king of Braj, and Balaram's identity as Shesh underscores Balaram's identity as a king and protector, particularly in regard to agriculture and fertility. As protectors of bounded areas, nagas and kings assume responsibility for sustenance and agricultural production, and as a naga, Balaram controls the waters—and thus fertility—by shifting the waters from subterranean oceans to the earth's surface as needed within the agricultural cycle. In Baldeo, Balaram's control of the waters is understood in an agrarian context and demonstrates that he fulfills his responsibilities.

The Yamuna River, however, is not just a river, and its role in this story—and in Hindu thought—illustrates Vaishnava theology about the goddess and a cosmology in which nature has agency. The idea of agency accords with Hindu understandings of the cosmos as a living organism; the cosmos is not inert, as in mechanistic worldviews. In Hindu theology, all goddesses—including the earth, the Yamuna River, and the goddess Mahasvarasvati—are aspects of one goddess, Devi. The goddess as the Yamuna River and in her other aspects displays close familial ties with Balaram. For example, the goddess Yogamaya is the personified aspect of the divine responsible for creation and is also Balaram's sister, so their relationship is both familial and bound by obligation and reciprocity, as between a deity and devotee.20 In addition, the goddess Yamuna is sometimes understood to be Krishna's wife and thus Balaram's sister-in-law. Further analysis of Balaram's multiple relationships with the Yamuna River shows how these competing obligations reflect the multiple responsibilities that agriculturalists face.

Balaram's Idyllic Childhood

Balaram descended to earth in response to the earth's pleas for help. The tyrannical King Kamsha ruled in the nearby city of Mathura, and his despotic rule created an enormous burden for the earth and the people of Braj. In desperation, the earth took the form of a cow, an animal that is venerated in the Hindu tradition, and appealed to Vishnu, who at the time lay sleeping upon the serpent Shesh in an ocean of milk. The earth begged for Vishnu's help. To preserve justice on the earth, Vishnu and Shesh would take birth as the sons of Devaki and Vasudeva, the rightful rulers of Mathura. Vishnu took birth as Krishna, who is easily recognized by his blue skin and his iconic yellow clothing and ubiquitous flute, and Shesh (p.70) assumed the form of the elder brother, Balaram. This process became complicated, however, because the sage Narada had warned Kamsha of his impending destruction. In response, Kamsha jailed Devaki and Vasudeva in Mathura and killed their first six children. The seventh and eighth children would be Balaram and Krishna, born to their jailed parents, and the wizardry of the goddess Yogamaya ensured their survival.

Shesh knew the fate of the earlier children and called upon the goddess Yogamaya, who responded immediately to his urgent appeal for help. Yogamaya transferred the embryo of Balaram from Devaki to Rohini, so that he could be born in the safety of rural Gokul, a village that lies across the Yamuna River from Mathura.21 Rohini, Balaram's birth mother, was a wife of the cowherd Nanda, and the cowherding settlement of Gokul provided sanctuary from the murderous Kamsha. Krishna later took birth from Devaki as her eighth child. After Krishna's birth, the goddess Yogamaya used her powers to temporarily blind the residents of both Gokul and Mathura, so that Devaki appeared with a dead female child and Yashoda, another wife of the cowherd Nanda, awoke with an infant son by her side. Iconographic representations of Krishna's escape from Mathura reveal the serpentine protection and support of Vishnu-Krishna. Shortly after Krishna's birth, in the dark rainy night, Vasudeva carried his son Krishna across the Yamuna River, and Shesh shielded the infant from the storm with his many hoods.

Although the boys would be raised in the cowherding settlements across the river from Mathura, their destiny lay in their regal and martial heritage. Garga, the priest of the Yadus, performed the rituals appropriate for boys of the twice-born castes and named the sons of mothers Yashoda and Rohini. Garga declared that Rohini's son would be known as Bala for his strength, Ram for his ability to delight others, and Samkarshan for his ability to draw together the divided Yadus, Balaram and Krishna's clan. The name Samkarshan also denotes the dragging of the embryo from one womb to another.22 Then Garga declared that Yashoda's son would be known as Krishna for his dark complexion and as Vasudeva because he had previously been born in the house of Vasudeva.

The two boys grew up as the adored sons of Nanda, Yashoda, and Rohini. They spent their youth in the idyllic Braj, roaming the forests, herding the cows, and enjoying the simple pleasures of the countryside. The residents of Braj were rarely aware of the boys' divine status. The boys appeared (p.71) especially delightful to the residents, but unbeknownst to them, Krishna and Balaram routinely destroyed the demons Kamsha sent. The threat of the occasional demon (most of which, such as the donkey demon Dhenukasur and Pralamba, were dispatched with relative ease) is one of the few elements that threaten the pastoral idyll of Braj. In this idealized Braj, no serious threat exists, all human needs are met, and the realities of production and agriculture have no role. I discuss Balaram's incongruous relationship with the pastoral in more detail in Chapter 6; at this stage, it is sufficient to note that Balaram's persona represents an intrusion into an idealized landscape, the landscape where Balaram's story develops.

Krishna Defeats the Naga Kaliya

Braj lore depicts Balaram as Krishna's erstwhile companion, but one episode—that of Krishna's submission of the serpent Kaliya—is particularly notable because of Balaram's absence. This story is important to Balaram devotion for two reasons. First, it figures in the lineage of the temple priests of Baldeo, the center of Balaram pilgrimage; and second, the story illustrates Krishna's conquering of a naga.

Braj tradition typically designates the Yamuna River as one of the sites of Krishna's and Balaram's adventures. The banks of the Yamuna provided the romantic backdrop for their amorous adventures as youths, but as children, Krishna and Balaram played in the river along with other Braj boys. Once, though, when Krishna was playing in the Yamuna, he realized that the river's waters were tainted by a poison that killed anything that came in contact with this water. The serpent Kaliya dwelled in a pool in the Yamuna River and was responsible for this poison. Krishna became angry at the poisoning of the river and leapt into the Yamuna's waters. Kaliya thrashed, and the serpent's thrashing created a whirlpool. Amidst the swirling waters, Kaliya wrapped Krishna in his coils. At this time, Balaram was nowhere to be found, and the other Braj boys feared that Krishna was dead. Hearing of this disaster, Krishna's friends and family gathered in shock at the riverbank.

While the serpent tired itself out, Krishna waited—for what seemed like an eternity—then stepped upon the great serpent's head and danced in victory. Krishna danced on each of the serpent's five heads, and his devotees briefly glimpsed him in his cosmic persona as Vishnu resting (p.72) upon the coiled Shesh. Kaliya sought refuge in Vishnu, and the serpent's many wives appealed to the supreme deity for mercy. Krishna did not kill Kaliya, but banished him to the ocean. In subduing the serpent, he rendered the Yamuna River's waters safe and free from the danger of serpents and poison. This episode is anomalous in the boys' typically idyllic Braj childhood because it reveals the nagas as dangerous. Some contemporary readings of this story interpret this story in an environmental context, viewing Krishna as an eco-hero, defeating the pollution-producing Kaliya.23 Although I have heard this explanation offered multiple times in Braj, not surprisingly, I never heard this interpretation in Baldeo, probably because Balaram is so closely identified with serpents.

Although Krishna's victory represents a clear submission of Kaliya, this conquest also freed Kaliya and his family from the danger of the serpent-eating Garuda.24 Garuda is an eagle and the vehicle, or vahana, of Vishnu; each Hindu deity has a vehicle, or animal associate, and the enmity between Garuda and the serpents is notable, despite the fact that they are cousins.

Previously the nagas and Garuda had an agreement: each month, the nagas would offer to Garuda a portion of the offerings given by serpent worshippers. On the new moon day, the serpents would leave this share at the base of a tree in Ramanaka, the serpents' traditional abode. Snakes are the natural prey of eagles, so this arrangement represented a truce of sorts in the animal kingdom. Kaliya, however, ate Garuda's payment and, fearing Garuda's anger, took refuge in a pool of the Yamuna that was inaccessible to Garuda. The sage Saubhari had banned Garuda from this pool because he was depleting the pool of fish and other water creatures. Saubhari felt compassion for the fish's fear and pronounced that Garuda would die if he ate fish from that pool.25 This sage, the great protector of serpents, is the ancestor of the Pandas, the temple priests of Baldeo; my discussion of the Holi festival in Chapter 5 will show how the Pandas understand and enact protection in terms of social, physical, and agricultural health.26

Balaram and Krishna Pin the Demon Kamsha

As Balaram and Krishna grew, they dallied with the cowherding girls, or gopis, who adored them. When the boys were in the prime of their youth, they were called to fulfill their birthright. Kamsha had heard of the boys' (p.73) prowess in defeating demons and called the boys to Mathura for a wrestling match. When, to everyone's delight, the boys won the wrestling match, they were reinstated as the rightful heirs of Vasudeva and Devaki. Garga, the family priest, invested Balaram and Krishna with the sacred thread of the twice-born castes, and the brothers then began their study of the Vedas. Even today when boys begin their studies of the Vedas (signifying a second, or spiritual, birth), they don a sacred thread that they wear throughout their lives.

To the anguish of their adoring gopis in Braj, Krishna and Balaram headed west for Dwarka, the westernmost point on the Indian subcontinent, to assume their adult responsibilities. Krishna never returned to Braj, but Balaram did return; and, for devotees, Balaram's homecoming signified fulfillment of his promise to return. Krishna married Rukmini, King Rukmin's sister, and Balaram married King Revata's daughter.27 The Bhagavata Purana provides a short account of this marriage; the Garga Samhita provides greater detail. Devotees know King Revata's daughter as Revati, which means “prosperity,” but she was known as Jyotishmati in an earlier era, as detailed in the Garga Samhita. The marriage between Balaram and Revati illustrates the importance of Balaram's strength and righteousness, but his “downsizing” of his new wife foreshadows his treatment of the insolent Yamuna River.

Balaram's Marriage to Revati

According to the Bhagavata Purana, King Revata, a king skilled in dharma, had one daughter, named Revati, and sought the deity Brahma's advice about a groom when the time came for her marriage. Brahma, however, lamented the fact that those suitors—and their sons and grandsons—had been swallowed by time long ago because twenty-seven revolutions of the four cosmic ages had since passed. Brahma announced that the best remaining candidate was Balaram.28

What had happened to these suitors? While seeking Brahma's advice, Revata sat in Brahma's hall and listened to the music of the celestial musicians. When Brahma and Revata resumed their discussion, Brahma replied that many eons had passed during the concert. Unfortunately, during this period, conditions had deteriorated, and in the current era of declining morality, Brahma stated that only two suitable kings existed: Krishna (p.74)

 Balaram and the Yamuna River: Entitlement and Presumptions of Control

Picture of Revati painted on a Dauji Temple wall. (Photo by author)

and Balaram. Brahma thought that Balaram would be the better of the two because of his strength. There remained one problem: Revati was much bigger than Balaram. She had been born in the previous era, when people and deities had greater stature. Balaram solved this problem with his plow: his powerful arms placed his plow on Revati's shoulder, and he (p.75) pulled her down to a stature equal to his. This act parallels Balaram's subsequent diversion of the Yamuna River; in both cases, his plow is the instrument by which an uppity female is tamed and made malleable to male desire.

While the Bhagavata Purana offers the basic framework of the story, the Garga Samhita illustrates Revati's great efforts to gain a husband who has Balaram's strength. This story takes us back to Revati's previous birth, when she was known as Jyotishmati. In the previous era, she declared that she wanted the most powerful of all as her groom. The king inquired among the wind, rain, and earth as to which was the strongest, and the earth, the strongest among them, declared that only Balaram as the limitless serpent Shesh might best them.29 Jyotishmati-Revati retreated to the Vindhya Hills to perform austerities to gain Balaram as her husband. For hundreds of thousands of years, out of love for Balaram, she sat amidst fires in the summer, bathed in the river during the rainy season, and submerged herself in cold water during the winter.

As she sat in penance, however, other deities asked her why she carried out such austerities. Jyotishmati-Revati replied that her penance was for the one thousand-headed lord, and immediately the others tried to change her mind. Their attempts infuriated Jyotishmati-Revati, and her anger shook the earth to its depths. She cursed the gods, and the deity Indra responded: he cursed her to have no sons.30

Brahma released Jyotishmati-Revati from her austerities and allowed her to choose her groom. She chose Balaram, but Brahma said that Balaram would only be available after the passing of twenty-seven eons. Jyotishmati-Revati's ire rose yet again, and she threatened to curse Brahma as she did the other gods. Brahma then relented, telling her she could take birth as King Revata's daughter and that the twenty-seven eons would seem an instant. When King Revata asked his daughter about her groom, Revati restated that she wanted to marry the strongest of all. King Revata, his wife, and Revati took their chariot to Brahma's abode to search for this groom, and indeed the twenty-seven eons passed as a moment.31

This narration of Balaram's marriage to Revati makes central Balaram's naga identity as well as his great strength. In addition, his wife's pique and her dedication to morality parallel those attributes of her husband. Similarly, as Alan Entwistle notes, given Balaram's links to agriculture and fertility, it should not surprise us that his wife has links (even if (p.76) they are negative) to the welfare of children. The Mahabharata identifies Revati as a matrika, a goddess connected with children's diseases, and both Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Purana list Revati as one of the evil spirits, or witches, that trouble young infants and children until the age of sixteen.32

Much devotion toward Krishna and Balaram—particularly the tradition that began in the sixteenth century—focuses on Krishna and Balaram's boyhood adventures in Braj. Devotees of Balaram, however, view Balaram as a protector and teacher of morality (dharma) and emphasize his well-known strength and moral propriety, which are demonstrated well in Balaram's exploits after he left Braj. These characteristics shape how devotees know and worship Balaram in Baldeo and bring these later years into greater prominence for devotees there. In Baldeo, for example, devotees frequently invoke Balaram's adult activities as described in the Mahabharata when describing his characteristics. After all, Balaram does return to Braj during the springtime festival of Holi, and, at this time, performs the act he is best known for: diverting the Yamuna River.

Devotees in Baldeo interpret Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River in an agricultural context because his actions protect the region's fertility. While we might read these actions as protective and heroic, they also raise questions about human entitlement to the earth's resources and how such entitlement affects human social relations, questions also germane to U.S. agricultural practice. My analysis of this story in its broader social and ritual context helps us understand how the relationship between agricultural and social stability, or the “need for productivity,” establishes and maintains social hierarchies, and why the narratives of industrial agriculture remain dominant.

Holi: Ritual and Social Context

The story of Balaram diverting the Yamuna River is situated within the springtime agricultural festival of Holi. While in much of North America, spring is a planting season, in north India, spring is when the winter crops are harvested as well as a time for new life. Holi is celebrated—or “played”—throughout India at the start of spring, and ritual elements of Holi, such as the throwing of color, the bonfire, and the temporary abandonment of behavioral codes, bear structural similarities to other historical and contemporary (p.77) harvest festivals. Celtic agricultural traditions, for example, also include a bonfire and the burning of a straw man.33 Devotees in Baldeo describe Holi as a time to reaffirm community ties and to celebrate the promise of spring. These two concerns are intimately related because agricultural success and prosperity underlie social connections and harmony—and vice versa. The stories and practices associated with Balaram in Baldeo reaffirm his status as a protector—as both the king of Braj and as the premier agriculturalist. These stories and practices also raise significant questions regarding the extent to which human need overrides ethical concerns. Understanding how participants interpret Balaram as a protector of agricultural fertility helps us understand human attitudes of entitlement to the earth's productivity.

Most devotees play Holi over a weeklong period; they travel throughout Braj to enjoy Holi on different days in villages where Krishna and Balaram are particularly significant. On the full moon day of the lunar month Phalgun (February–March), devotees arrive in Balaram's village, Baldeo, to play Holi with Balaram. The Holi season lasts for approximately six weeks, starting on Vasant Panchami, the fifth day of the bright half of January–February (Magh). Vasant Panchami is considered the start of spring, and from this day on the temperature begins to rise, signaling the end of the cold winter months. Like most Indian festivals, the dates of Holi are determined according to the lunar calendar, so the dates shift by a few days each year. Each month has a dark half (when the moon is waning) and a bright half (when the moon is waxing). Thus, festivals are intimately linked with natural and agricultural cycles.

Devotees and others play Holi by exchanging color with fellow players, and crowds of devotees attired in newly dyed clothing render this festival visually distinct and exciting. The color takes the form of colored powder or colored water, and methods of exchange range from tenderly applying color to another's cheek to dousing crowds with buckets of colored water. In Baldeo, families and friends visit each other's homes to play Holi together. Many devotees explained to me that exchanging color is a means to renew social bonds, and I experienced this when friends in Baldeo made a point to play Holi with me.34

Balaram's relationship to Holi is significant for two reasons: first, Holi is the time when Balaram (unlike his popular younger brother, Krishna, who never returned home) arrives home after a long absence; and second, (p.78) it was during the festival of Holi that Balaram altered the Yamuna River's course with his plow. These events—the fact of Balaram's return and his diverting the Yamuna River—shape the way in which devotees understand Holi because these actions demonstrate Balaram's commitment to Braj both in social and agricultural terms. Balaram's return home demonstrates his commitment to his community, and his diversion of the Yamuna River is understood as the provision of water for agriculture although, as stated earlier, Balaram's actions also reflect the naturalization of human entitlement over the earth's resources and the naturalization of male over female.

Balaram and the Yamuna River

The story of Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River appears in two sectarian Hindu texts that are particularly important for Vaishnavas. Both the Bhagavata Purana and the Balabhadra Mahatmya (a chapter of the Garga Samhita) recount the story of Balaram's return to Braj during Holi.35 According to the Balabhadra Mahatmya, which offers more detail than the Bhagavata Purana, Balaram's return satisfied a promise he made in a previous life, when he took the form of the serpent lord Shesh. The serpent lord announced that he would take birth as Balaram to assist Krishna in liberating the earth from the tyrannical Kamsha. Shesh reigned over the underworld kingdom that is the traditional abode of nagas. The serpent princesses who served in his underworld court were eager to join him in Braj (as were all those attending in the court), and as a result of their devout asceticism the serpent princesses received the boon of rebirth as the gopis.

Shesh promised, “I will dance with you on the banks of the Yamuna River and fulfill your desires,” and they later danced and frolicked with Balaram when he returned to Braj at the time of Holi. In contrast, the Bhagavata Purana simply states that Balaram missed his friends and family and decided to return to Braj, his childhood home; after this, the textual accounts are in accord. His family and friends were overjoyed to see him; they greeted him with tears of joy and warm embraces. Balaram remained for the two spring months in Braj—the lunar months of Chaitra and Vaishakha—and frolicked with the gopis every night.

Balaram's last night in Braj before he and Krishna left for Mathura to defeat Kamsha is memorable to devotees because, on this night, the night (p.79) of the romantic October full moon (Sharad Purnima), Krishna danced with the gopis who adored him. In this dance, called the Maharasalila, Krishna multiplied himself 16,000 times, so that each and every girl thought that she alone was dancing with Krishna. These girls abandoned their chores and homes, such was their love for Krishna.

Balaram, however, the elder brother, was not invited to dance. While Krishna and the gopis danced under the moonlight, Balaram hid behind a rock and watched.36 This image of Balaram watching from behind a rock encapsulates the theme of Balaram's exclusion from Krishna's pastoral games; Balaram's earthiness in contrast to Krishna's pastoral nature suggests parallels for understanding how agriculture fits into a broader narrative of humans and the biotic community.

The next day, Krishna and Balaram left for Mathura, but they promised to return in a week's time. Krishna, however, never returned, and the trope of this lengthened separation from Krishna is the basis for many devotees' emotional stance toward Krishna. (Despite Krishna's prolonged absence from Braj, most devotees of Krishna presume that he is always at play in this beloved landscape.) Balaram did return, and this return makes all the difference: Balaram is the king of Braj. Devotees in Baldeo note that Balaram's homecoming reflects his protection of, and commitment to, Braj.

On one particularly romantic night of spring in Braj, the night of the full moon, Balaram had his own Maharasalila dance with the gopis, and the repercussions of this event are critical to understanding Balaram's responsibility for Braj's agrarian fertility. On this night the deity Varuna, sovereign of all waters, dispatched his wife Varuni, the goddess of wine, to Braj. Ambrosia flowed from the hollow of a kadamba tree, and its fragrance permeated the forest. Enticed by the scent, Balaram and the women found the honey-beverage and drank. After drinking his fill, Balaram regaled the women with song and staggered through the forest, unable to focus his eyes.

It is at this point that Balaram diverts the Yamuna River. This action is reiterated in every ritual in Baldeo, and it underscores his role as the patron of agriculture. Balaram has an interesting, if not paradoxical, relationship with the Yamuna River. His forcible diversion of the Yamuna demonstrates his power over her, yet the Yamuna River is also Balaram's family goddess, and it is his family duty to worship her. Further, Balaram (p.80) has an even closer relationship with Mahasvarasvati, the goddess associated with wisdom, who bestowed upon him his strength; this combination of strength and wisdom helps him fight evil. Balaram's worship of the goddess is proper, maryada, both because it fills his familial duty and it gives him the necessary strength to fulfill his social duties. Nonetheless, after their evening of dancing and drinking, Balaram and his friends wanted to play in the water.

The Yamuna River had not come near or watched Balaram's games. Balaram demanded that Yamuna approach him so that he could play in her waters. She hesitated. Frustrated and puzzled in his intoxication, he interpreted her hesitation as contempt. It is important to note that this was a reasonable assumption on Balaram's part: typically when a devotee calls upon a deity, he or she appears. He then thrust the pointed edge of his plow into the earth and dragged the Yamuna to his feet. He rebuked her: “Oh, you sinner! You scorned me. I summoned you, and you delayed. Now you will flow in one hundred directions!” The terrified Yamuna lay prostrate at his feet and implored him to show mercy. She praised his majesty and his immense strength and begged him to free her. Satisfied, Balaram released her. That he forever changed the Yamuna's course testifies to Balaram's infinite potency, one of Balaram's definitive characteristics. Today, the Yamuna River bends near Baldeo; from above the river it looks like it was indeed pulled off course.

Balaram then entered into the river and bathed, cavorting with the gopis. According to Vaishnava tradition, when Balaram emerged from the water, the goddess Kanti gave him the blue clothes that he typically wears. She further adorned him with precious jewels and a dazzling golden necklace. Kanti, which means “lovely,” is a name for the goddess Lakshmi, who is the consort of Vishnu and the deity associated with the home and wealth. Kanti, interestingly, is also associated with Durga, a warrior goddess who—like Balaram—is fierce in her protection of the world.

Balaram's Story in Practice

The story of Balaram and the Yamuna provides the background against which Holi is played and interpreted in Baldeo. Residents of Baldeo emphasize that Holi is a time of social renewal because this is the time when Balaram returned home to renew his bonds and to fulfill his promise to the serpent princesses. (Krishna, however, never returned to Braj, and (p.81) devotees emphasize this difference.) Holi rituals also demonstrate an important link to agriculture and fertility because serpents are typically associated with water and fertility. Balaram and the cowherd women are incarnations of the serpents, and this convergence of serpents, fertility, and agriculture shapes devotees' understanding of Holi texts and practices. Balaram's Holi activities embody the nexus between society, water, agriculture, and fertility.

Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River is central to Holi, and the importance of this deed to Balaram devotion cannot be overstated: Balaram's root mantra (mul-mantra), as mentioned earlier, is

  • Om, klim kalindi bhedanaya Sankarshanaya svaha.
  • Om, the Kalindi, split by Samkarshan, svaha!
This verse—which literally restates that Balaram split the Yamuna River—is recited every day, in every ritual, for Balaram in Baldeo and specifically uses Balaram's epithet “Samkarshan,” which refers to creating a furrow. The verse encodes the story of Balaram's diverting the Yamuna to provide water for Braj, and its continued recitation means that Balaram's agricultural connections and his relationship to the river goddess are consistently made central to Baldeo practice. Baldeo ritual practice highlights the point that Balaram's relationship with the goddess Yamuna—referred to as Kalindi in the verse—is integral to his persona and his worship.

Borrowing Balaram

Although the story does not depict an egalitarian relationship, priests at the Dauji temple in Baldeo constantly reminded me that Balaram and the Yamuna River's relationship is one of mutual obligation and reciprocity. Even though I understood how this explanation made sense in a desertlike agricultural region, it still bothered me because it normalized patterns of entitlement to the earth's—and women's—fertility and productivity that are enacted in multiple agricultural and social scenarios. Explanations that valorize idioms of protection, in which aggressive action is deemed necessary for social stability, obscure how such actions render inequitable social hierarchies as inevitable and natural. Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River and the festival of Holi (and similar agricultural festivals) have been read as comedic narratives—that is, as narratives of resolution (p.82) in which social stability is restored. For example, Balaram's entering the river to bathe can be read as integration or resolution, in which both parties move past the original conflict. However, focusing on conflict resolution, integration, or social stability deflects attention from the root causes of these social tensions and appears to condone the behavior that produced the conflict.

Local interpretations of this story highlight Balaram's contribution to agricultural stability, and the obvious need for water in the region provides this argument a certain commonsense truth. However, I have consistently been troubled by this explanation because it rationalizes exploitation under the rubric of need; and as I stepped back to reflect on how this story fits into broader narratives of human need and relations with the biotic community, I realized that this narrative parallels existing justifications for industrial agriculture. In both cases, a narrative of human need justifies aggressive or even exploitive relations with the earth. Balaram's story therefore helps us examine agricultural relations on two levels: first, it reflects human behavior within the biotic community; and second, this story and its prominent, explanatory role suggest why this story holds the pride of place in Balaram devotion.

The story of Balaram and the Yamuna River frustrated me for many years because it reflects deeply embedded assumptions of human entitlement and control over the earth and over women that appear in so many cultures. I have come back to it again and again because it has much to tell us about agricultural relations between humans and the earth and the social conditions that render “natural” existing extractive practices. Although Balaram's story is situated in a South Asian milieu that might appear distant and perhaps irrelevant to those who are not familiar with this context, the salient features of human need and dominance are relevant beyond South Asia. We are all suffering the severe consequences of the dominant agricultural narrative illustrated by this story. Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River and this story's prominent role in Balaram devotion demand that we confront how humans have assumed entitlement to the earth's produce and how frustrated they have felt when control is not possible. Given the severity of the problems caused by industrial agriculture, we must explore stories that have justified existing agricultural practices and then begin to revise them.

(p.83) First, however, we must understand why Balaram's story has had such staying power. In the year I spent in Baldeo, the theme of Balaram's morality and responsibility as a protector emerged again and again, and my conversations with the Pandas and others revealed the mythic and cultural contexts for these interpretations. While I was intrigued by the anomalous aggression of Balaram's actions in the context of the gentle and pastoral Braj, the continually emerging themes of serpents, protection, and the wisdom of intoxication helped me put Balaram's drunken rage into context, and also provide a context for my critique of the disquieting relationship between protection, dominance, and exploitation.

Balaram's actions reveal the gender and power dimensions that exist both in agriculture and society, which is precisely why this story is an effective means to assess human relationships with the earth. This story does not depict a Disneyfied pastoral of a harmonic relationship of humans and nature; instead, Balaram confronts us with the violence inherent in most agricultural practice. Applying Martha Nussbaum's analogy of legal justice can help us contextualize Balaram's actions and, by extension, human behavior in the biotic community. Similarly, using Alasdair MacIntyre's notion of narrative ethics, we can see how these characters provide a standpoint from which to assess our actions and their consequences. Devotees in Baldeo interpret the story of Balaram and the Yamuna in a Vaishnava context, in which deities and humans, males and females, and humans and the earth are embedded in reciprocal—though unequal—relationships of protection and obligation. Investigating the narrative dimensions of human-earth relations as exemplified in this story illuminates the social dynamics, such as class and gender, that are embedded in these narratives—dynamics that encode human behavior toward other human beings and, I suggest, toward the biotic community.

Local Interpretations

Ghanashyam Pandey, founder of the Baldev Research Institute in Baldeo, and other devotees in Baldeo emphasized to me the agricultural implications and interpretations of Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna. As we walked through fields planted with rows of corn, they explained that Balaram brings the water that makes these crops possible. Devotees worship (p.84) Balaram as a guardian and protector of sustenance; diverting the Yamuna River provided water for a desertlike agricultural region. Interestingly, the rendition of this story appearing in the Hindu narrative Harivamsha states that Braj had become barren since Balaram and Krishna's departure and that Balaram returned to restore its fertility.37 I do not want to overstate the agrarian interpretation of Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River because many devotees, particularly those who live outside of Baldeo, emphasize Balaram's desire to worship the river. Nonetheless, the Pandas' Ahivasi agrarian heritage is foundational for their understanding of Balaram, and their views are broadly disseminated among residents and visitors alike.

Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River reflects the frustrating reality that natural forces such as rain are capricious and that nagas also are known to be capricious. In fact, because we are dependent on rain and other apparently unpredictable elements of nature, Balaram's attempt to control the water seems to embody human frustration, perhaps even rage, at our lack of control over these forces, personalized as Mother Nature or the Goddess in the Hindu tradition. Pandey's understanding accords with traditional concepts of the relationship between a male deity and the feminine waters, that the Goddess, embodied as the Yamuna River, performs a protective function through releasing life-giving waters to the earth. These relationships between the deity and the waters are situated in Vaishnava context of protection, but this context raises questions about the connections between agricultural productivity, aggression, and gender. Illuminating these questions in Balaram's story is a means to investigate how these dynamics emerge in the U.S. agricultural context. For example, why has the war on nature—the necessity to vanquish the agency of Mother Nature—rather than an idiom of cooperation or partnership become the dominant idiom for agriculture?

Balaram's relationship with the Yamuna River is complicated because it has multiple dimensions. After Balaram danced with the gopis, he wanted to worship the Yamuna; this is a pattern that appears several times in the Bhagavata Purana. Krishna also danced and then worshipped the Yamuna, and, in both cases, their dances followed Navaratri, a festival honoring the Goddess that is celebrated in both spring and fall. Both Balaram and the Yamuna embody the concept of propriety and so uphold social norms, which is consistent with Balaram's assuming that Yamuna would (p.85) respond to his invocation. In any worship (puja) ceremony, a devotee invokes a god or goddess, and the deity comes in response to the devotee's summons. In addition, the Yamuna River is also Balaram's family goddess, so by worshipping her, he observes his familial duty. Yet Balaram appears to dominate the Yamuna. He forcibly diverts this river and demonstrates his power over her. That Balaram is obligated to worship the Yamuna complicates their relationship, and as such the deities Balaram and the Yamuna do not fit into a clear hierarchical pattern.

The Pandas offered two explanations of why the Yamuna River did not respond to Balaram's call; first, the Yamuna River saw that Balaram was intoxicated and, given this state, she thought she was not obligated; and second, the Yamuna River wanted to dance only with Krishna. One elderly Panda told me that Balaram had assumed Krishna's dark form to appease the gopis who were pining for Krishna. In any case, given the familial as well as the deity-devotee relationship, the Pandas thought that the Yamuna was obligated to come to Balaram.

The relationship between Balaram and the Yamuna River reflects ritual patterns of obligation and reciprocity, and this framework structures ritual practice and the relationship between devotees and the divine. Vedic ritual scholars Stephanie Jamison and Michael Witzel note that Vedic ritual—which provides the prototype for subsequent Hindu ritual patterns—can be likened to a contract, or at least a form of mutual obligation, designed to sustain the universe. That is, the human performance of the ritual obligates the deity to provide results, and ritual becomes a mode of mutual exchange.38 In this way, Balaram and the Yamuna are also bound by ties of mutual obligation: Balaram is obligated to worship the Yamuna, and the Yamuna is obligated to appear and provide water. This obligatory relationship is not equal, but it does replicate the power dynamic between humans and the divine as demonstrated in Vedic ritual, which revolves around the fundamental concepts of rta and dharma.

Balaram himself embodies this connection between the moral and cosmic orders: as a deity, he defends morality, or dharma; and as a naga, he controls the rains and fertility. This discussion of dharma focuses on Balaram as the preserver of dharma because exploring how Balaram protects reveals much about the dynamics of protective relationships. For example, the violence that emerges in his protection of sustenance and the moral order parallels agriculture as a form of violence both in the biotic (p.86) community and potentially as an impulse to violence in human relations. In the discourse of industrial agriculture, the need for productivity is used to obscure, if not justify, damage wreaked upon human and nonhuman communities. For example, herbicides deemed necessary to kill weeds also affect bird and animal habitat and can damage human health.

Stories from texts such as the epic Mahabharata and the tenth-century Bhagavata Purana illustrate how Balaram preserves dharma. Devotees of Balaram know these stories, and they hear them repeatedly in conversation with the temple guides. Balaram's reputation for righteousness and the concept of dharma frames how devotees understand him as a guardian of morality. Balaram's role as a guardian of morality is further contextualized by stories and images of Balaram as a naga, and this persona explains why his inebriation and anger demonstrate his commitment to protection and sustenance.

The temple priests and guides in Baldeo explicate Balaram's actions through his persona as a king and protector of the region's fertility and as a naga. While Balaram's intoxication and rage might appear egregious and anomalous within the devotional pastoral Braj context, the temple guides explain Balaram's behavior as necessary to protect the region.

The temple guides cite multiple examples of Balaram's continuing protection. For example, in one often-repeated story, when the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb's soldiers came to destroy Balaram's image, Balaram sent a swarm of bees, and Aurangzeb immediately realized that this village was protected by the divine. While many devotees and visitors are familiar with the stories, the Pandas hold a repository of knowledge about Balaram and Braj lore and pass along this information to visitors to Baldeo through stories, temple pamphlets, and poetry.

Intoxication and Propriety

For Baldeo temple priests, Balaram's actions depict him as an exemplar of maryada, which translates best as ethical propriety or decorum and is applied to a righteous and upstanding person; the Pandas use this quality to mark the difference between Balaram and Krishna. Prem Pandey, a temple guide, explained to me that Balaram “lets Krishna be Krishna,” meaning that Balaram's protection of and attachment to Braj enable Krishna's more playful activities. Balaram's anger and intoxication are never directed (p.87) at devotees, but are understood to be in service of them. Discussions of Balaram's strength and power reinforce the idea that he functions as a “deity of place,” a local deity who takes care of those within his territory.

The concept of maryada represents a devotional and hierarchical distinction, articulated in the theologies of both Gaudiya Vaishnavism and the Vallabha Sampradaya, the two major devotional communities of the sixteenth century. Maryada connotes a devotion that upholds social norms. This contrasts with pushti, a term which literally means “grace” or “nourishment” but connotes the ecstatic devotion that transcends social norms. Both devotional groups utilize these characteristics and the attribute maryada to establish a hierarchy with Krishna, who is associated with pushti, as dominant. Righteousness and propriety have no role in the pastoral landscape, wherein Krishna is lauded for his irreverence and capriciousness. Balaram's maryada persona, however, establishes him as a guardian and protector of Braj and his devotees.

These qualities are important for a protector or guardian such as Balaram, and devotees praise Balaram for his righteousness as a warrior in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. For example, on numerous occasions, Baldeo temple priests pointed to an episode in the Mahabharata as illustrative: Toward the end of the great war between the Pandavas and Kauravas, mortal enemies and cousins Bhima and Duryodhana (Balaram's student in methods of combat) were engaged in battle.39 Krishna provoked Bhima's rage to the point that Bhima smashed his mace down upon Duryodhana's thighs and shattered them. According to notions of martial propriety, however, the mace should never be struck below the waist. Balaram saw this illegal blow and censured Bhima and Krishna for breaking the rules of fair combat. In this story, then, Balaram is portrayed as an exemplar of fair play, as one who maintains the rules, even in combat.

At the same time, Balaram is fond of intoxicants, and he is aggressive, in this case, related qualities that are also deemed to be maryada because Balaram uses them in the service of righteousness and protection. Similarly, scholar Lindsay Harlan notes the connection between lust, wine, and strength in the Rajputs, the martial class in Rajasthan, India. Meat and wine are important for male Rajputs warriors because they build lust and strength, important traits for professional warriors and kings.40 While many Hindus abstain from both wine and meat, these substances are deemed necessary for upholding dharma in these specific martial circumstances.

(p.88) According to Hindu tradition, nagas are fond of intoxicants, and temple priests gratify Balaram's desire on a daily basis. Every day at 3:00 p.m. Balaram—and the male temple priests who serve him—receive bhang as prasad in his temple in Baldeo. Bhang is a preparation of cannabis that is typically drunk. However, taking bhang is particularly emphasized at Holi because Balaram himself did so at Holi. Although residents note that Balaram takes bhang mostly for the same reasons anyone does, his propensity for bhang endows him with the strength and power to fight enemies. While Balaram becomes intoxicated to achieve power and strength, this linkage evokes the intoxicating effects of power and domination. The accumulation of money or other symbols of power becomes necessary to maintain this state, and this link between power, intoxication, and domination becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

This concept of inebriation in the service of righteousness is well represented in narratives about Balaram, and while this linkage explains why intoxication is necessary to uphold the social order, several incidents raise the question of scale: that is, what level of aggression is necessary for sustenance? The Mahabharata depicts the story of Balaram's killing of Rukmin, which is instructive on this point. During a wedding party, several kings conspired to defeat Balaram in a game of dice. They reasoned that, although he was not particularly good at it, Balaram was addicted to gambling and was therefore a perfect mark. After continued losses to the (cheating) King Rukmin, Rukmin mocked Balaram, saying that dice was a game of kings, not cowherds. Enraged by this insult, Balaram killed Rukmin with an iron bar and knocked out the teeth of another king who had insulted him; the rest of the kings fled in terror.41 While this episode depicts Balaram's attention to propriety as well as his quickness to anger, it presents a problem of scale. Balaram is known as one who adheres to propriety and takes seriously threats to his social status, but it is difficult to account for the magnitude of his response to this insult. This issue of scale ties in with local understandings of Balaram's intoxication and inebriation in that his anger reflects the aggression that is necessary to function as a protector.

In addition, Balaram's destruction of the monkey demon Dvivida demonstrates Balaram's wrath in the defense of the earth and agriculture. This demon had uprooted the hills, drowned the coastal areas with tidal waves, and destroyed the trees of the local hermitages. One day, however, (p.89) Dvivida saw Balaram cavorting with the local women, drunk on the wine of Varuni. The monkey insulted Balaram and the women; he broke Balaram's pitcher of wine and tore at the women's clothes. Finally Balaram grabbed his mace and plow and set out to destroy the monkey. The pair fought with trees, and during the battle Dvivida uprooted an entire forest. When Balaram finally killed the demon, the mountain shook with relief, and the deities and sages shouted their congratulations.42 Thus, in his inebriation and anger, Balaram protected the earth and the women's propriety and upheld order. This story exemplifies Balaram's wrathful and inebriated response to impropriety and foreshadows his later diversion of the Yamuna River.

Shesh, the Philosopher-King

Balaram's intoxication is also understood as the intoxication of wisdom, and his role as a philosopher-king is best seen in the underworld kingdom where the naga Shesh held court prior to taking birth as Balaram. Nagas typically reside in the lowest of the seven watery subterranean regions known as patalas. This underground patala should not be confused with concepts of hell or a dreary underworld; the serpents' abode is depicted as lovely and habitable. Enthroned deep below the earth's surface in Patala, Shesh reigned over the serpents and dispensed wisdom to other deities and semidivine beings such as the wise siddhas and gandharvas.43 As the philosopher-king, Shesh receives devotions from supplicants and requests for blessings from the lovely serpent maiden-princesses. Naga youths, both males and females, are known for their beauty, and numerous folktales depict amorous relations between nagas and humans.44

Shesh's wisdom, however, is tied to his fondness of intoxication. While giving his learned discourses, Shesh's red eyes swim in inebriation; Balaram manifests this red-eyed inebriation when he pulls the Yamuna River toward him. Shesh's inebriation, however, is no ordinary drunkenness, because his wine is the wine of wisdom, and the Bhagavata Purana denotes this intoxication as the self-delusion necessary for creation. As the partial manifestation of the supreme deity, Shesh is the jiva, or the ego, that creates the perception of the I, the individual. The delusion of the ego is necessary to create the appearance of multiplicity, or phenomena. Shesh, then, incorporates the seemingly diverse qualities of wisdom, inebriation, and wrath in service of the moral and social order.

Questioning Balaram

(p.90) Temple priests and devotees laud Balaram for his ability to protect his region. Devotees cite multiple stories that portray Balaram as one who upholds morality, and they particularly praise his commitment to maintain the region's fertility. This responsibility is critical for the survival of his subjects and is a crucial duty of any ruler. President Barack Obama, for example, like his predecessors, must consider food production policies that ensure the agricultural success of the United States, and every five years Congress and the president pass the Farm Bill, which shapes agricultural policies and subsidies for the next five years. As Congress debates which farmers, foods, and policies to support, they, too, must choose which agricultural narrative is most compelling—an industrial agriculture narrative of high productivity and efficient monocultures, or a narrative emphasizing reciprocity and interdependence in the biotic community. The state of contemporary agriculture in the United States makes clear which narrative has remained dominant in both government and financial circles. Narratives of modernity and high productivity have remained plausible solutions to the world's hunger.

As I reflected on these parallel narratives of power and dominance, I wondered why these narratives remain so central and powerful. Their staying power raises questions about which stories get repeated and which become the dominant paradigm. Considering which competing narratives have been shuffled aside or overlooked raises questions about whose narratives become part of the canon and thus are passed on as tradition. For example, Laura Jackson explores competing agricultural narratives in Iowa and cites resentment and resistance to Iowa State's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture emerging from large-scale farms as well as industry representatives. When one Iowa State University scientist calculated that Iowa's population could be fed on 3.5 percent of Iowa's agricultural lands, the dean of the College of Agriculture responded, “What are we going to do with the other 24 million acres?”45

I never heard questions raised about alternate narratives in Baldeo (such as, for example, what if Balaram had not responded with anger and violence?), but I suspect that narratives of resistance do—or have—existed. Today, in India and the United States, farmers and consumers seek alternatives to food produced by industrial agriculture. Resistance to the (p.91) dominant paradigm has produced growing numbers of farmers' markets, CSAs (community-supported agriculture arrangements), and kitchen gardens, efforts that are dismissed as quaint until they become large enough to pose a real economic or social threat. In India, scholars such as Ann Gold and Bina Agarwal have documented women's songs and practices of resistance to male authority and property ownership. Gold notes that she, among other scholars, has observed women's resistance to their scripted roles, but that these women's practices—and research documenting them—are marginalized in social and academic contexts.46 Back home in Iowa, Jean Eells's ethnographic work with women farmland owners reveals that women and their interests “were invisible to agricultural conservation programs” because these organizations could not hear the language through which women expressed their desires for conservation.47 It has been easy to overlook these social and gendered critiques, particularly if these critiques are primarily oral or local. In an August 2009 New York Times article, Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, in critiquing their own field of journalism, wondered why journalists consistently ignore large-scale human rights violations against women, not “considering these to be news,” while the arrest of a single dissident becomes headline news.48 The case of Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, who insisted that uneducated women were the key to protecting forests, is instructive: her persistence and that of her followers demonstrated to her fellow Kenyans and the international community the existence of an alternate narrative for women and the natural world.

An agricultural reading of Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River reinforces existing presumptions of human—and male—entitlement and suggests that aggressively controlling the earth is necessary for human survival and is perhaps the only way of ensuring survival. Balaram's central and oft-repeated action in text and devotional practice prods us to ask, at one level, why this narrative of agricultural dominance and control has remained central in both Braj devotion and contemporary agriculture, and, at another level, what alternate narratives exist. A normative reading of this story emphasizes—like comedy—resolution. That is, Balaram enters the river and bathes. End of story. Asking whether Balaram's actions were the only way to ensure survival and what costs are associated with his actions, however, opens the way to additional lines of questioning. Wondering whether Balaram could have coaxed the Yamuna River using alternate (p.92) methods prompts us to wonder whether we can coax food from the earth without fertilizers and pesticides derived from toxic chemical weapons.

What would happen if Balaram had not diverted the river? Didn't Balaram take the action required for survival? Framed this way, Balaram took the necessary course of action; but framing the question this way closes off possibilities of exploring alternative means of obtaining water. Similarly, the rhetoric of industrial agriculture that asks “Which people do you choose to starve?” also frames discourse so that alternate forms of agriculture and food production appear cruel and misanthropic. Changing the frames to investigate alternative agricultural tropes and practices helps move us beyond continued replication of the Western feed-the-world mantra with all of its entailments and ramifications.

My analysis of Balaram's diversion of the Yamuna River demonstrates why devotees and temple priests interpret this story as an agricultural narrative; as a king and protector, Balaram made the difficult choices that ensured the continued fertility of his region. In exploring this story and its prominent role in Braj devotion, we can extract themes that make this story relevant to a broad audience, and ask, for example, whether agricultural practices are—or ought to be—considered reciprocal or extractive. Local understandings of Balaram and his role in Hindu text and practice provide devotees a foundation for their interpretation, in which human need justifies aggression and entitlement to the earth's productivity.

The following chapter explores the social and gender dimensions of these tropes of protection and productivity. Borrowing Balaram's story helps us consider how narrative legitimates destructive interventions and normalizes hierarchical social relations, such as, for example, how tropes of protection and entitlement justify inequitable social relations, particularly gender relations. Balaram's story enables critique of these narratives, but also includes themes that lay the foundation for agricultural practices that are beneficial for multiple communities.


(1.) Sanford, “Yakshas on the Margin of Contemporary Practice,” 90.

(2.) Read, Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos, 59.

(3.) Gold and Gujar, “Sin and Rain,” 182.

(5.) Chapple, “Toward an Indigenous Indian Environmentalism,” 21.

(7.) Ibid., 68.

(8.) Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses, 178–179.

(10.) Ibid., 63.

(11.) Ibid., 60, 71. Jamison and Witzel note that in this concept of sacrifice and obligation, the deities are not “imprisoned” by the ritual. The deities have some latitude, although it is not clear how much.

(12.) Dwivedi, “Dharmic Ecology,” 125.

(13.) Ibid., 13.

(14.) Vaudeville, “Multiple Approaches to a Living Hindu Myth,” 112. This concept of serpents drawing water highlights an important detail. Balaram's plow is typically used to pull water, not for actual plowing. Vemsani, Hindu and Jain Mythology of Balarama, 75, n. 44.

(15.) Vogel, Indian Serpent-Lore, 4.

(16.) Bloss, “The Buddha and the Naga,” 43.

(17.) Singh and Nath, Hindu Festivals, 118.

(18.) There was not always agreement between these leaders regarding specific sites, so in some cases there are multiple sites assigned to one incident.

(19.) Bhagavata Purana 6.16.33–46.

(20.) The Harivamsha provides an alternate narrative of these births. Based on her reading of this text, Charlotte Vaudeville argues that Krishna's sister must be the dark goddess, Kali. The Harivamsa also states that Vishnu took birth through both Devaki and Rohini and so descends through both brothers (Harivamsa 45): Vaudeville, “The Great Goddess,” 6. Vemsani, Hindu and Jain Mythology of Balarama, 60.

(21.) Bhagavata Purana 10.2.7–13.

(22.) Jaiswal, The Origin and Development of Vaishnavism, 56. Jaiswal argues that the authors of the Bhagavata Purana forgot the original meaning of Samkarshan and reinterpreted it in light of this story.

(23.) Haberman, River of Love in an Age of Pollution, 149–151.

(24.) Bhagavata Purana 10.16.1–67.

(25.) Bhagavata Purana 10.17.1–16.

(26.) Bhagavata Purana 9.6.39–55.

(27.) Entwistle, Braj, 41.

(28.) Bhagavata Purana 9.3.27–36.

(29.) Garga Samhita, “Balabhadra Mahatmya,” 3: 6–15. The Garga Samhita actually refers to Samkarshan, but again I use Balaram for consistency.

(30.) Ibid., 4: 1–24.

(31.) Ibid., 4: 25–36.

(32.) Mahabharata 2.19.20–45; Bhagavata Purana 10.6.27–29; Kinsley, Hindu Goddess, 152–153. Lavanya Vemsani also notes the (indirect) link of Balaram to the welfare of children through Rohini, herself a matrika: Hindu and Jain Mythology of Balarama, 65–69.

(33.) Bose, Cultural Anthropology and Other Essays, 93–94; Crooke, The Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India, 315–318.

(34.) Sanford, “Holi through Dauji's Eyes,” 102.

(35.) Bhagavata Purana 10.65.1–32; Garga Samhita, “Balabhadra Mahatmya,” 2.1–20.

(36.) Bhagavata Purana 10.33.

(37.) Vemsani, Hindu and Jain Mythology of Balarama, 116. She argues that (p.232) Balaram's status as a fertility deity becomes diminished as his subordination to Krishna becomes more pronounced. So, by the Bhagavata Purana, the story emphasizes less the fertility of the land and parallels Krishna's Maharasalila story: 121, 124–125.

(39.) Rajagopalachari, Mahabharata, 287–291.

(40.) Harlan, Religion and Rajput Women, 127. Interestingly, Vemsani notes that the association of liquor with martial heroes does not appear until the time of the Mahabharata; liquor was associated with farmers in the Vedas: Hindu and Jain Mythology of Balaram, 123, n. 90.

(41.) Bhagavata Purana 10.61.22–40.

(42.) Bhagavata Purana 10.67.1–18.

(43.) Bhagavata Purana 6.16.33–46.

(44.) Alter, The Wrestler's Body, 138–139.

(45.) L. Jackson, “The Farmer as Conservationist?” 56–57.

(46.) Gold, “From Demon Aunt to Gorgeous Bride,” 208–210.

(47.) Eells, “Loving the Land Is Not Enough.”

(48.) Kristof and WuDunn, “Saving the World's Women.”