A perfect example of left-hand right-hand dichotomy among Kṛṣṇa’s devotees is between Rukmiṇī and Satyabhāmā in Dvārakā. As it happened, I came across a story of tulabhāra, quite unexpectedly, and I thought it was a god given boon.
The story has a big presence on the internet but it’s basically one narration repeated with very minor changes, it even has got a place on wikipedia. However, it is never attributed, they simply say it has come down through generations. Maybe, but I think there’s another explanation.
I think it all started with a play written some fifty years ago and turned into a movie. That one is attributed but since it was in pre-internet age tracing the source of the author’s inspiration is all but impossible, save digging through some memoirs and biographies. Perhaps the author heard it from his grandma, perhaps he just made it up himself mixing popular motifs with well-known characters.
The only śāstric reference I could find is from Hari-vaṁśa where there’s one verse about Satyabhāmā tying Kṛṣṇa to Pārijāta tree and then selling Him to Nārada, with Kṛṣṇa’s permission. In this translation the verb if “offered”, not sold, and there’s nothing there about tulabhāra, though there’s a line about Nārada performing many mischievous deeds before finally releasing Kṛṣṇa back. Maybe tulabhāra fell under “mischief” there but the way the story is told now doesn’t match with the rest of Hari-vaṁśa’s account.
So, take it with a grain of salt, but better yet, do not believe any of it and do not make any conclusions for it might be undevotional, as I will try to explain later.
One day Nārada teased Satyabhāmā about her pre-eminent position among Kṛṣṇa’s wives, particularly as compared to Rukmiṇī. He conned her into performing a ceremony to prove that she is, in fact, Kṛṣṇa’s favorite. The tulabhāra ritual is a quite common one where one donates the amount of sugar and coconuts equivalent to one’s own weight. That’s for modern day cheapskates, back in Dvārakā they weighed themselves against gold and jewelry.
Narada’s offer was like this – “You donate Kṛṣṇa to a brāhmaṇa (I’m qualified, I’ll take Him), and then you buy Him back for His weight in gold and jewels, you have enough, don’t you? That will prove your superiority over Rukmiṇī.” Satyabhāmā agreed, Kṛṣṇa also went along with this but silently, without comments, other wives protested but in vain, Satyabhāmā was not going to listen to them. So He was donated, then huge scales were brought in, Kṛṣṇa was placed on one plate and Satybhāmā had already prepared her gold for counterweight. Her servants started piling it up on another plate but scales didn’t move. Well, that was embarrassing and Satyabhāmā had to bring more gold, everything she had, still scales didn’t budge. Kṛṣṇa kept mum.
At this point Satyabhāmā realized that it wasn’t about pride anymore but that she made a huge mistake that needed to be corrected by all means. However hard it was for her to admit defeat, but she had to ask Kṛṣṇa’s other queens to pitch in. Some say that it was her who persuaded Kṛṣṇa to marry 16,100 princesses saved from Narakāsura but her role in this is not mentioned in Bhāgavatam or our Kṛṣṇa book.
It matters in tulabhāra narrative because these queens owed Satyabhāmā and that was the moment she called it in and they couldn’t refuse. They started taking off their gold and jewelry and piling it on the plate but still the scales didn’t budge. Now that was a real defeat, there’s nothing Satyabhāmā could do anymore to fix this, she had no resources left.
Cunning Nārada then told her that one person still could help – Rukmiṇī, and Satybhāmā should go seek mercy of her archrival. That would defeat the whole purpose of the affair and forever cement Satyabhāmā’s inferiority but there was nothing else she could do. She swallowed her pride and went to Rukmiṇī. Rukmiṇī graciously agreed and acted as if she had to step in and help little children who screwed up their toys. She didn’t take any gold or jewels but on the way to the scene of the tulabhara ceremony she picked a single tulasī leaf from a tree in the garden and immediately placed it on the scale. Lo and behold, this one leaf made all the difference. Tulasī, that’s what was missing in this offering.
Moreover, as the game was over and queens were allowed to take their jewelry back, that single tulasī leaf still held the scales. Even with all gold gone it was heavier than Kṛṣṇa Himself in weight. The end.
Now there are plenty of important lessons to learn here, as I said the motifs are well-covered in devotional literature, but because this story comes from unknown sources we have to check for things that are not explicitly mentioned but might contaminate our understanding anyway. When people brought plays like this for Lord Caitanya’s pleasure Svarūpa Dāmodara woudl always check them for compliance with the siddhānta and reject everything that didn’t fit. I suspect this play would have been rejected, too.
First of all the premise, which is that common conditioned souls can adequately present images of spiritual pastimes in Dvārakā based on their own understanding. We will always project our mundane qualities on Kṛṣṇa’s associates and treat them as one of ours, just a bit better.
The person who suffers most from this anthropomorphism here is Satyabhāmā. Yes, we know she probably had pride, we know she probably had a rivalry with Rukmiṇī, but to combine them in this way seems far fetched. Spiritual rivalry is for Kṛṣṇa’s attention and is meant for His ultimate pleasure, not to spite other devotees and establish one’s superiority. That’s what humans would do, not Kṛṣṇa’s eternal associates. In Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes Rukmiṇī is accepted as His first wife and her position cannot be challenged. Everyone knows, sort of, that Kṛṣṇa’s relationships with Satybhāmā are more intense and more of the left-wing nature but it’s not something that would ever be brought in public to usurp Rukmiṇī’s position.
It is also preposterous to suggest that Satyabhāmā did not know the value of tulasī and didn’t realize that bhakti was the missing ingredient. Who are we to teach Satybhāmā these lessons? Perhaps the worst aspect of this story is that it makes us feel superior to one of Kṛṣṇa’s closest devotees. We know about tulasī but she didn’t. We have to purge any thoughts like this from our minds forever. If it is a real pastime to teach Satyabhāmā about devotion and humility, it’s not our place to relish it.
Mother Yaśodā found herself in a similar predicament once, too, but at no point she was acting out of pride and envy of anyone else. It should not be okay to ascribe these qualities to Satyabhāmā.
And then there’s Kṛṣṇa’s role in all of this, too – He kept silent through the whole affair and that is not normal for devotional literature. Hari-vaṁśa’s version glorifies Him at every step but here there’s not a word about Him at all.
Devotees in Dvārakā might not glorify Him at every turn, being very very close to Him and not thinking about His greatness all the time, and it’s fine, they can afford it, but we can’t. We can’t pretend that we are one of them and can tell the whole story without mentioning Kṛṣṇa’s glory and giving Him a central role. We assume this kind of devotion that doesn’t need to be expressed verbally in Dvārakā-vāsīs but we should not assume it in ourselves. We are not in that rasa yet and we shouldn’t act as if we were.
Basically, we shouldn’t treat Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes as one of our own plays, we will never be able to appreciate their spiritual beauty and we will always contaminate them with our materialistic attitudes. We will always see what is not there and miss what is, it’s just inevitable, so we better stick to authorized versions and don’t invent anything ourselves.
By making Kṛṣṇa look like one of us we are not doing ourselves any favors.