An Interview with Vishnu Dasa
The life-long mission of an ISKCON artist.
Svahadevi: First I would like to ask how you began painting this subject matter of Krishna art. What inspired you?
Vishnu Dasa: I joined ISKCON in 1970 and even though I already had some training in painting, my sole reason for joining was not to paint at all. It was at a point when I had serious questions about life: Why am I here? Why is society divided into so many religious and political factions? Who’s wars are we fighting? etc. . . I was involved in the anti-war protests in those days along with some friends from Reed College in Oregon. My artwork came in handy making demonstration posters and banners. I wanted to do something to contribute to awakening our world and making it a happier place. When I met the devotees and became initiated by Srila Prabhupada, I realized I found the real “Peace formula”, which came through Srila Prabhupada’s lectures and books.
Svahadevi: How did you get involved in painting for Srila Prabhupada’s books?
Vishnu Dasa: In 1972 His Holiness Mukunda Goswami happened to come through the Portland temple while I was there. He saw a painting of Lord Caitanya I did, so he mentioned that I may be interested in painting for Prabhupada’s books in New York. I was excited about that idea, so I flew to New York and soon I was helping illustrate the Caitanya-caritamrta and Srimad-Bhagavatam series of books. I also began painting bigger canvas versions of the popular ISKCON artwork of the time. These were sent to temples which were starting up around the world.
Svahadevi: It must have been rigorous work to produce so many paintings!
Vishnu Dasa: Not really. It was my service to guru. Probably because I painted fast and could make big paintings look almost identical to the smaller originals, someone nicknamed me “the human camera.” I always felt encouraged in the association of the other artists I worked with: Bharadraja Dasa, Pariksit Dasa, Jadurani Dasi, Puskara Dasa and Muralidhara Dasa.
Svahadevi: Did Srila Prabhupada ever give you personal instructions or encouragement in your service of painting?
Vishnu Dasa: He would sometimes come to the Brooklyn temple and would be eager to see the artists’ latest paintings. We would gather in his room, and I remember the first time he saw one of my paintings, the Bhaktivinoda Thakura painting, he smiled and said “Very nice.” So many paintings we worked on like assembly line workers, each artist was assigned to a particular part of each painting. Those paintings were not signed.
As time moved on we all made our own paintings and signed them. I got more into temple wall mural painting on a big scale.
In 1976 at the Manhattan temple Srila Prabhupada saw my airbrushed murals of Krishna’s pastimes all around the temple walls. I had worked intensively on the last mural from 9:00 pm until 4:00 am the next morning. I wanted to complete the final wall in the temple room before Srila Prabhupada would come into the temple for mangala-arati. So this new mural of Lord Caitanya dancing was of particular interest to him as he didn’t see it there the day before. He stopped and said to the devotees there “He has done this so fast?!” That morning on Srila Prabhupada’s walk with devotees he asked, “What is that boy’s name who has done the paintings?” A devotee said “Vishnu Dasa” and so Srila Prabhupada said, “He should come to India and do paintings there.” I am paraphrasing, but it’s written in Prabhupada’s Folio. So he told the temple president to send me to India. I unfortunately was not on that walk with him as I was exhausted after my mural marathon.
Svahadevi: Please say something about your experience in India.
Vishnu Dasa: The most memorable experience there was speaking with Srila Prabhupada a few times. I asked him what is the best way to paint Krishna, how can I paint so that people realize Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and a real person? Srila Prabhupada replied, “First understand that He is the most beautiful, the strongest, and never alone, He is always with His associates.”
I asked if Krishna could be shown with just some animals and trees as these are mentioned as being also His associates. Srila Prabhupada said, “Yes, even the trees, flowers, birds, cows are all His devotees, you can paint.”
I asked if I should try to create better high quality paintings. Srila Prabhupada explained “You know the art, I have seen. But your service has no limit. So flood the world with these paintings, everywhere.”
I was incredibly inspired by Srila Prabhupada’s vision of flooding the world with art about Krishna and His pastimes. I felt like I was part of a great new renaissance of Krishna art. I got back into the techniques of the 19th century masters of fine realism. I wanted to bring Krishna art to the next level, so to speak. Prabhupada coined Krishna paintings as “windows to the spiritual world,” so his vision helped his artists to develop a style which I like to call “transcendental realism.” So these windows to the spiritual world take you to a reality which transcends time, space and place beyond this objective world of our mundane sensual experience.
Svahadevi: So is that why your “All-Attractive Couple” painting of Radha and Krishna has this quality of realism and detail?
Vishnu Dasa: That painting was actually my first limited edition lithographic print, and yes, by then I was applying fine art techniques of the masters to create it.
It took me about a year to get it to the printers as I kept re-painting over certain areas until I was satisfied. Nowadays I work slow and carefully. I guess I’m no longer the “human camera.”
Svahadevi: How many prints of the “‘All Attractive Couple” have you sold so far?
Vishnu Dasa: Last we checked it was over nine thousand. I’m just one artist, so I thought this is my small contribution to honoring Srila Prabhupada’s request to “flood the world with Krishna Art.” With all the new temples springing up around the world I can forsee in the future lots of opportunities for artists to help Prabhupada’s mission to inundate the world with Krishna Art.
Svahadevi: One thing I noticed about ‘All-Attractive Couple’ and also your new painting of ‘Sri Krishnachandra’ is that They are looking directly at us, the observer, which you don’t see too often in Krishna art. Is there a purpose behind this?
Vishnu Dasa: Yes, to inspire the desire for a personal relationship with Them is the purpose. When studying the masters of portraiture you can notice how they bring you into the subject’s personal world through the eyes. I’ve had this same experience, as many have, by looking at the deities in temples. They are looking at us, inviting us into Their realm, into a personal relationship or ‘rasa’ with Them. The greatest masters of portraiture have that ability to capture a person’s image in 3D on a 2D canvas. In the case of a portrait of Radha and Krishna, the same ideas are there, as They are the original inspiration of pure devotion and are forever inviting us into Their dhama (divine abode). Krishna is Paramatma and Bhagavan, the observer from within and without, so He is always seeing us and through us.
Svahadevi: Is there a certain style of art that should be used to best illustrate “Krishna Art”?
Vishnu Dasa: Krishna deserves the very best that artists can provide with their skills, which need not be limited to one style or another, but it’s actually only the sincere devotion that attracts Krishna. And that is always the goal of a Krishna artist, to please the spiritual master and the Lord with works of devotion.
Svahadevi: Can you tell me something about your new painting of Sri Krishnachandra?
Vishnu Dasa: I became very interested in Sri Krishna’s astrological birth chart and wanted to know more about His moon, as I have seen so many paintings with Sri Krishna shown with a full moon in the background. I found that at birth, Lord Krishna’s Moon was full and in the naksatra of Rohini, exalted in Taurus, the sign of the bull. The bull is the symbol of dharma (the constitutional spiritual function of the soul).
Krishna appeared just at the proper time to fulfill His mission of establishing dharma, enliven His devotees, and do away with the tyrannical rulers and demons. Then I remembered that somewhere I had read about Krishna’s likeness is that of the full moon in appearance. I thought I should paint Krishna in this way. As my research continued to find reference for this painting I found the descriptions in Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 21 where Lord Caitanya describes to Sanatana Gosvami the wonderful moonlike features of the Lord. This was the information I needed and was inspired by for this painting.
CC Madhya 21.125: “Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is identical with the Vedic hymn known as the Kama-gayatri, which is composed of twenty-four and a half syllables. Those syllables are compared to moons that arise in Krishna. Thus all three worlds are filled with desire.
CC Madhya 21.126: “The face of Krishna is the king of all moons, and the body of Krishna is the throne. Thus the king governs a society of moons.
CC Madhya 21.127: “Krishna has two cheeks that shine like glowing gems. Both are considered full moons. His forehead is considered a half moon, and the spot of sandalwood there is considered a full moon.
CC Madhya 21.128: “His fingernails are many full moons, and they dance on the flute in His hands. Their song is the melody of that flute. His toenails are also many full moons, and they dance on the ground. Their song is the jingling of His ankle bells.
CC Madhya 21.129: “Krishna’s face is the enjoyer king. That full-moon face makes His shark-shaped earrings and lotus eyes dance. His eyebrows are like bows, and His eyes are like arrows. His ears are fixed on the string of that bow, and when His eyes spread to His ears, He pierces the hearts of the gopis.
CC Madhya 21.130: “The dancing features of His face surpass all other full moons and expand the marketplace of full moons. Although priceless, the nectar of Krishna’s face is distributed to everyone. Some purchase the moonrays of His sweet smiles, and others purchase the nectar of His lips. Thus He pleases everyone.
CC Madhya 21.131: “Krishna has two reddish, widely spread eyes. These are ministers of the king, and they subdue the pride of Cupid, who also has beautiful eyes. That face of Govinda, which is full of happiness, is the home of the pastimes of beauty, and it is very pleasing to everyone’s eyes.
CC Madhya 21.132: “If by devotional service one gets the results of pious activities and sees Lord Krishna’s face, what can he relish with only two eyes? His greed and thirst increase twofold by seeing the nectarean face of Krishna. Due to his inability to sufficiently drink that nectar, he becomes very unhappy and criticizes the creator for not having given more than two eyes. (Please refer to Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya-lila Ch. 21 to read these descriptions in full.)
Svahadevi: How long did it take to complete your painting of Sri Krishnachandra?
Vishnu Dasa: It took me about two years of off and on work to complete. He did not appear quickly to me, but it took a lot of research, meditation and patience.
The spiritual world is a timeless place, so if I can continue painting there when I leave this body, I won’t need to worry how long a painting takes, will I?
Svahadevi: Sri Krishnachandra is such a beautiful painting and He really does defeat the beauty of the Moon! Do you feel that this is your best work yet?
Vishnu Dasa: To me this painting is the culmination of all I have learned in fine art over the years, although I feel there is always room for improvement, especially when glorifying the Supreme Absolute Truth. We should always feel humbled in our attempts to understand what Krishna really looks like, but we can always remember what His pure devotee, Srila Prabhupada once said: “First understand that He is the most beautiful, the strongest, and He is always with His associates.” At one point I walked away from this painting and thought “I will never finish it.” I came back later that day and looked scrutinizingly again, then something inside said, “It is done.” Others had told me months before that it was already finished . . . . Only Sri Krishnachandra knows for sure.
More of Vishnu Dasa’s artwork can be seen at www.Krsnaland.com
Vishnu Dasa is a householder devotee and worships his personal deities Radha-syamasundara. He is engaged fulltime in Krishna paintings, without stop. He lives near the Saranagati farm community in Ashcroft, B.C., Canada.