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Simon Ray

India (Basohli)
Height: 30 cm Width: 40.2 cm

Opaque watercolour heightened with gold on paper.

An illustration from a Bhagavata Purana series.

Inscribed in devanagari on the verso with a group of three verses, of which the first reads:

“Kamsa begged, ‘My dear sister and brother-in-law, please be merciful to such a poor-hearted person as me, since both of you are saintly persons. Please excuse my atrocities.’ Having said this, Kamsa fell at the feet of Vasudeva and Devaki, his eyes full of tears of regret.”

This verse is Bhagavata Purana, Book X, chapter 4, verse 23. The other two verses have not been identified. They do not seem to be from chapter 4 of the Bhagavata Purana and the whole group of three verses is numbered v. 12. However, below the main block of three verses written in black is a single line in red that identifies the text as the fourth chapter of the Bhagavata Purana. To the top is a takri version of chapter 4, verse 23, and to the side of this, the painting is numbered “12” in the series.

It is the morning after Vasudeva has smuggled the baby Krishna to Gokula and brought back Yashoda’s daughter as a substitute. The doors of the palace, which had magically opened at night, now appear closed and locked securely.(1) The guards are woken by the sound of a crying child and rush to inform Kamsa of Devaki’s delivery. Agitated and dishevelled, Kamsa stumbles from his bed to Devaki’s chamber to seize the child as it is Devaki’s eighth, the one prophesied to bring about his demise. Despite the piteous implorations of his sobbing sister to leave her one daughter after he has already killed her six sons (she has, it seems, a miscarriage of the seventh, when Balarama is transferred to Rohini’s womb), he grabs the child by its feet and dashes its head against a rock. Flying from his grasp, the child rises to the sky and reveals her true form as the eight-armed Yogamaya, a manifestation of the Great Goddess. She laughs and asks him, “What will be achieved by killing me, you fool? Your enemy from a former life, the bearer of your death, has already been born somewhere else.”(2) She then vanishes.

Astonished, Kamsa reveals a softer, more compassionate side that demonstrates the possibility of good within even the most evil of characters. He frees Devaki and Vasudeva from their chains and addresses them with utmost courtesy. On the right of the painting, we see Kamsa falling at their feet, begging for their pardon. He compares himself to a cannibal devouring his own children and recognises that he is an evil person, a sinful reprobate now damned for having killed the children of his own sister. Appealing to their innate nobility, Kamsa utilises his profound understanding of the concept of advaita (non-duality) to comfort them for the loss of the children he has killed. He reasons that their deaths though at his hands, are the result of karma from deeds in previous lives and hence cannot be avoided.

Furthermore, no living entity can remain in one place for ever. All lives are temporary, whatever their timespan, before the innermost self or soul is reabsorbed into the atma (unchanging pure eternal consciousness) from which nothing can be differentiated. The perception of reality as separate from atma is the cause of all illusion and sorrow in the world. After these extraordinary passages of philosophising, Kamsa bursts into tears and grasps the feet of his sister and brother-in-law. Pacified by this glimpse into the true nature of reality, though afforded by a murderous tyrant, they forgive him. Vasudeva even comments with a smile, “O noble one, things are indeed as you say. The consciousness of ‘I-ness’ and ‘other-ness’ is due to ignorance… [People] do not perceive that it is this very mentality that is causing them to kill each other.”(3)

The irony of this discussion in the light of Kamsa’s actions will not be lost on the reader, or the viewer of this painting, where on the left, Kamsa is depicted the following morning being advised by his demoniac ministers to seek out and kill all babies ten days old. Supressing his own better nature, Kamsa listens to his counsellors with rajasic (self-interested) dispositions who act with minds bewildered by tamas (inertia, illusion and anger). We see in Kamsa the co-existence of wisdom and folly, good and evil, all aspects of the one absolute truth (brahman). It is the qualities he cultivates that determine his fateful outcome.

Mrs F.K. Smith, sold at Sotheby’s, London, 1st February 1960, lot 2.
The Anthony Hobson Collection

We would like to thank Jerry Losty for his expert advice.

1. The story is taken from Edwin F. Bryant (trans.), Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God (Srimad Bhagavata Purana, Book X), 2003, chapter 4, pp. 24-28.
2. Ibid., p. 25, verse 12.
3. Ibid., p. 26, verse 26.

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all text & images © Simon Ray
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