Norvin Hein, 1914-2018
Vrindavan/Bethany, 2018.05.18 (Jack Hawley): On April 29, 2018 we lost one of the most venerable of Brajbasis. This estimable, influential man was Norvin Hein, who taught Hinduism and the comparative study of religion at Yale from 1950 to 1985. Prior to that he was living in Braj doing research for his doctoral dissertation. That work laid the foundation for a book that became one of the unshakable pillars in the field of Braj Studies, The Miracle Plays of Mathura. Norvin finished the manuscript in 1964; the book was published by Yale University Press in 1970.
Perhaps you might be wondering, why did Norvin put Mathura in his title, and not Vrindavan? After all, it was Vrindavan where he witnessed most of the lilas that became the subject of his book, and he was very much a part of the life of the town as he did so. There are perhaps two reasons. First, the raslila has roots all over Braj – the entire region that has Mathura as its hub. Vrindavan may be the spiritual center of Braj—and these days its best known theater—but, the ras is not a specifically local form. Norvin appreciated that range, and his objective in the book was encyclopedic. He wanted to catalogue all the raslilas that were performed in his day.
And there was a second reason for putting Mathura in the title. Against the spirit of his times—and specifically against the view put forward by Baba Krishnadas of Kusumsarovar, to whom we owe so much—Norvin wanted to argue that the ras did not originate in the sixteenth century as a product of the revolutions in Braj culture that happened then. Rather, the raslilas go back a full a millennium and a half earlier—to the vernacular dramatic tradition that was a signal part of ancient Mathura’s aesthetic fame. True enough, the Vrindavan we know and love today was built on the banks of the Yamuna only in the time of Chaitanya and Rupa Gosvami and Narayan Bhatt, but, the raslila tradition was many centuries older.
To establish this as fact demanded a great deal of time and patience from Norvin, and an ability to read Sanskrit texts and inscriptions with precision and ingenuity. Many aspects of this sleuthing are fascinating, but one passage in particular seems to me to exemplify the spirit of Norvin’s scholarly work. It concerns the genesis of the raslila as described in the Puranas, the imitation of Krishna’s movements and lilas on the part of the gopis who surrounded him.
Norvin begins by drawing attention to the fact that in the Harivamsa, Vishnu Purana, and Bhagavata Purana, three of our earliest sources, the gopis notice and imitate what he calls Krishna’s “gait.” By using that word—somewhat unusual in English for this context—Norvin seizes on the cognate term for gati to get his point across. (261) Then he goes on to propose that this fixation on “gait” is a common feature of all three accounts—something the writers of the texts evidently found to be fundamental, perhaps a well-known set of dance-like motions. This specific focus may stem from the fact that the ancient Krishna-drama troupes of Mathura were deeply conscious of their own “brand” of dramatic production and the language in which it was conveyed—not Sanskrit, but the vernacular. Their gati mattered.
Norvin suggests that it mattered in two ways. These players could take inspiration from the thought that the gopis themselves were their predecessors, their models. At the same time, they could use the sense of direct transmission as a selling point for their art. They could advertise the fact that the raslila as they performed it was the real thing—a tradition of dance and theatrical representation that could be traced back to Krishna himself, or rather his gopi imitators. This was what they were doing when they shaped the understandings that lay behind these Puranic accounts, and this was what gave them the special cachet that encouraged others to come to their performances and sponsor their travel to distant destinations. Already in ancient times, Norvin proposes, these lila troupes could be found quite far from Braj. He finds an echo of this in a Harivamsa passage where Krishna himself is said to have arranged for a raslila performance—in Gujarat! (236-237)
The puranic picture of how the raslila began—very likely articulated in natural (Prakrit) speech before it was adopted into Sanskrit—thus served as “transcendental sanction for a living theater,” said Norvin. (262) By seeing things this way, he highlighted the delicate but deeply important interplay between the devotional and the practical. This delicate balance was also a key feature of his own scholarly work. In this, he followed the example of the ancient Krishna-players of the Mathura region, becoming a Brajbasi in the deepest sense.
Norvin also established in The Miracle Plays of Mathura that these early raslila performers were mostly adults, and that they included in their number not just men but women. Only later, because of “the deprivations and tabus which Mughal dominance brought” and the importation of traditions of child-actors from Shakta Bengal, did the raslila become a child and adolescent art form (265-270). Others may be dismayed to see that in our own time the art of the raslila seems to be slipping back into a more adult register, but Norvin would have been unfazed. He would smile his knowing smile and recall that such a practice had been anticipated among the Vaishnava actors of Mathura long ago. It’s all still in the family, he might say.
And what about Norvin’s own family? His loving children and care-givers made it possible for him to live happily beyond the 100-year mark in a rural locale not far from Yale. In one way, Norvin’s desire to establish a home some distance away from the bustle of urban life surely reflected his background as an Ohio farm boy. But in another way, this dham was also his Vrindavan. It was a precious gift to be able to stay there into his old age.
Two years ago, I had the good fortune to visit Norvin at this rural home in Bethany, Connecticut. I was lucky enough to go there in the company of a real Brajbasi, Swapna Sharma. Swapna carries on Yale’s tradition of teaching about Braj and Braj Bhasha into a new and different era. When Swapna and I arrived, we found that Norvin’s hearing was almost gone—his hearing but not his mental faculties. He told wonderful stories from his past in both India and the United States, and he asked pointed questions about the state of the Indian nation today and the state of his own scholarly field. He must have known he wouldn’t be able to hear our responses, but that didn’t keep him from asking the questions. Inside his head he was debating important matters right up to the end.
When I arrived in Vrindavan in the mid-1970s to begin work on my own doctoral thesis, the memory of Norvin was still very much alive. I met it for instance in the talented photographer Jagdish Lal Goswami, who had been a special friend of Norvin’s. So, when Shrivatsa Goswami and I made a new attempt to transport the raslila tradition into English—our book At Play with Krishna—we felt we were treading on holy ground.
Norvin too looked to the past. He dedicated his own raslila book to Frederick Salmon Growse, a foreigner from an earlier generation who had become, in Norvin’s words, a “lover of the Braj country.” Yet Norvin did not have only Growse in mind. He also dedicated his book “to the people of Braj.” Without their help and Growse’s, he said, “this book would not have been written.” True enough—but it took Norvin’s special genius, too.
Please join me in remembering Norvin as he passes into Golok Vrindavan. There too they’ll need his scholarly acumen—and perhaps they’ll also value the sly down-to-earth twinkle in his eye. Today, at a memorial service and feast in Bethany, he makes his journey.
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