IN 1967 AT ISKCON'S FIRST TEMPLE, at 26 Second Avenue, New York City, Srila Prabhupada had just received a postcard from his disciples in Montreal. The city was hosting the World's Fair Expo '67 and the devotees were asking if he had any paintings they could display at the Fair. Prabhupada showed me the postcard and asked if we had any.
"Well, Swamiji," I said, "We have a painting of Lord Varaha just finished by Kancanabala Dasi. But I don't think people will believe it."
After all, the picture showed Lord Varaha, Krsna in His incarnation as a giant boar, holding the Earth on his tusks and fighting with a big demon. The demon was at least ten times bigger than the Earth itself.
Prabhupada didn't care for my objection. Instead, he told me a relevant story about Lord Caitanya.
"When Lord Caitanya was thinking of going to Benares, the devotees told Him not to waste His time there. The people there were all impersonalists, and they wouldn't believe in or take part in the chanting of Hare Krsna. But Lord Caitanya said, 'If they don't like what I have to sell, I'll take it back.' "
Prabhupada then raised his arms in the air, imitating Lord Caitanya. "So He chanted Hare Krsna and danced and everyone bought it."
He was impressing upon me, as he often did, to present Krsna "as He is" and not be overly concerned about "so-called public opinion."
Some months later Srila Prabhupada began dictating his translations and commentaries for the Third Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, which includes the story of Lord Varaha. He would send a cassette tape to Satsvarupa Dasa, the president of the Boston temple, who would transcribe it and send it back to Srila Prabhupada. Prabhupada would then erase it and dictate the next set of texts and purports on the same tape. Before we sent a tape back to Prabhupada, I used to listen to it while I painted. Sometimes I'd copy the dictaphone tape onto a regular tape before sending the original back.
After listening to the story of Varaha, I wrote to Srila Prabhupada to ask if I could paint the descriptions.
He wrote back, "Yes, try at your convenience to paint pictures from the Bhagavat statement, in terms of the purport and explanation."
Lord Varaha appeared in this universe when a demon named Hiranyaksa forced the Earth to fall from its orbit into the Garbhodaka Ocean at the bottom of the universe. Lord Varaha saved the Earth by picking it up in His huge tusks and killing the giant demon.
I began trying to paint "from the Bhagavat statement." I had to ask Prabhupada questions on specific details that were not described on the tape. I asked him about the demon who was fighting with Lord Varaha. "How big could that demon have been?"
He replied on February 15, 1968.
"I thank you very much for your nice letter of February 10. As always, I am so happy to hear about all the nice artwork you and your associates are doing. The demons could assume any gigantic shape they liked. They can play jugglery; they are not ordinary human beings. You must know that a person with whom God had to fight is not an ordinary person. He could play almost equally with the Lord, but nobody can excel the Lord. Therefore, he was killed. To expand and reduce the body is sometimes performed by a successful yogi."
I asked him about Lord Varaha Himself. Was He half human and half boar as I'd seen in Indian sculptures and paintings? And how could a boar be a beautiful incarnation of God? Or could God have incarnations that aren't beautiful?
"Yes," he replied, "Varaha is very beautiful. Generally the Boar picture is depicted as half human and half boar, but in the Bhagavatam it's stated that He's a full boar. You can make the first two legs as two hands and the rear legs as legs, and make it as beautiful as possible."
Prabhupada had written in one of his books that the boar incarnation was red, and in another book he said He was white. "Which one was He?" I asked.
"Yes, there are two Boar incarnations; one is reddish, and the other whitish. Varaha is the first. He is reddish just like a boar."
With the help of Bharadvaja Dasa and Muralidhara Dasa, I finished the painting about a year later. A few years later it was printed in the Second Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Yadurani Devi Dasi is project head of CIVA (Cultural Institute for the Vedic Arts), which is producing Krsna conscious picture books and comics. She lives at ISKCON's New York temple.