Krishna's Flute:

The Pied Piper and Divine Ecstasy

James W. Maertens, MA, PhD

Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:
"Pipe a song about a Lamb!"
So I piped with merry chear.
"Piper, pipe that song again;"
So I piped, he wept to hear.

--- William Blake, Songs of Innocence

The legend of the Pied Piper presents itself as true history, complete with the exact date of the abduction of the children of Hamelin and yet it has a quality of the uncanny. The enchantment of rats out of the sewers, or the enchantment of children and their abduction strike a deep chord in our souls. The Pied Piper is a mysterious stranger, a man from out of town. He invites us to read him allegorically, then sidesteps our masterful interpretation, giving us the shivers. The Piper is not simply, for example, Death, the Grim Reaper, who takes children as well as rats. Still less satisfying to the imaginal power of the figure is a historical allegory such as reading the Piper as a personification of the Black Death. Making him the Devil in a Christian allegory also seems too simple, even though there is a distinct moral lesson in the story.

It's true that the story has a xenophobic color: the mysterious stranger, the abductor, and his magical power over us. But I rather think the imaginal center of the story lies with our experience of music. He is a Piper, after all, not an ogre. His clownish garb and light-hearted manner make it hard to be satisfied simply treating this figure as a villain. It is his music that captivates animal and child, music and its ability to transport us out of our ordinary states of consciousness into a state of ecstasy.

Listening to a Vivaldi flute concerto, whistling along, I stand outside myself with the wordless sweetness of it. Under music's spell we succumb more easily to love, to passion, to irrational feelings of pure movement where motion and emotion are conflated. We dance, become frenzied or entranced, become swept away with our dreams and desires. Music and the Piper are tricksters. The German word for pipe, Pfiff (whistle), rhymes coyly with Kniff (trick).

The pipe is Pan's instrument. It is primal, perhaps the first musical instrument made by humans, a hollow reed, a blade of grass sent to whistling. It is an extension of the lips, the breath. The dervish poet Rumi used dance and flute to create ecstatic states, whirling to join heaven and earth in love. The Hindu god Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, is at once great god of the universe and shepherd boy beloved of all the shepherd women. His flute made them dance with abandon. The music of Krishna's pipe is Eros freed from the bounds of society, its rules, laws, restrictions, morality. It is the love of the human soul for the universe and the divine in a mystical relationship unsullied by institutions and authorities, unsullied even by language. Logos--words, reason--release their customary grip and let the soul soar on wings that logic and science cannot know.

David Kinsley, writing of Krishna's flute, calls it the "carnival of joy"; a carnival that expresses the union of human's with Nature in love, sex, wildness, spontaneity, primal animal joys. It is a vision calculated to appeal to the Romantic soul: to dance, to escape into the natural landscape and become one with it. And the beautiful piper leads the dance.

Krishna's flute is an extension of his beauty. Not only is it the most beautiful sound imaginable, but it also imparts the essence of Krishna's intoxicating nature. While Krishna is also adept at singing, it is the sound of his flute, not his voice, that echoes throughout Vrindavana, beckoning all to join him in the forest. ...Amid the sounds of the humdrum world, the flute, especially Krishna's flute, is sweet and pure, prancing along to nowhere in particular. It comes from and belongs to that world of abundance and bliss that Krishna rules. (Kinsley 32-33)1

The simplicity of the flute evokes spiritual simplicity and childhood, the states of divine being. Even in Christianity there is emphasis on the infant god, the sense of innocence and approachability, a human form divine divested of all clothing and station, all titles and pomp, even of family status in the low-born Jesus or Krishna. Kinsley quotes this anecdote from Ortega y Gassett, in which Pan, pipe, and the world of bliss emerge from the carnival of a travelling circus.

A clown would stroll in with his livid, floured face, seat himself on the railing, and produce from his bulky pocket a flute which he began to play. At once the ringmaster appeared and intimated to him that here one could not play. The clown, unperturbed, stalked over to another place and stated again. But now the ringmaster walked up angrily and snatched his melodious toy from him. The clown remained unshaken in the face of such misfortune. He waited till the ringmaster was gone, and plunging his hand into his fathomless pocket produced another flute and from it another melody. But alas, inexorably, here came the ringmaster again, and again despoiled him of his flute. Now the clown's pocket turned into an inexhaustible magic box from which proceeded, one after another, new musical instruments of all kinds, clear and gay or sweet and melancholy. The music over ruled the veto of destiny and filled the entire space, imparting to all of us with its impetuous, invincible bounty a feeling of exultation, as thought a torrent of strange energies had sprung from the dauntless melody the clown blew on his flute as he sat on the railing of the circus. Later I thought of this clown of the flute as a grotesque modern form of the great god Pan of the forest whom the Greeks worshipped as the symbol of cosmic vitality--serene, goat-footed Pan who plays the sacred syrinx in the sinking dusk and with its magic sound evokes an echo in all things: leaves and fountains shiver, the stars begin to tremble, and the shaggy goats dance at the edge of the grove. (qtd. in Kinsley 33, n. 49)

This mysterious stranger who is a doorway to the world of abundance is visible in the life of Christ as well, in the story of the loaves and fishes, or the bursting nets of the fishermen. There is even a little something of the Pied Piper and his rats in the way Jesus banishes the legion of demons into the herd of swine and sends them stampeding over the cliff into the sea. Christ insisted on gathering the children to him and associating himself with innocence. He arrived dramatically in town, saying to disciples like James and John, "follow me," demanding that they leave family and duty behind them in pursuit of divine mystery.

Today, in our demythologized world, where storytelling has been left to marketeers and media corporations, the mentality that meets abduction has no way of telling divine ecstasy from criminal kidnapping. It is this confusion, the loss of spiritual abandon in our culture, that causes news stories about abducted children to take on such imaginal power. In Minnesota the disappearance of nine-year-old Jacob Wetterling in 1989 became an obsession that some still defend with an almost religious fervor. He has never been found: vanished without a trace. The communal imagination is deeply affected by such unsolved disappearances. So powerful is this archetypal image that we even manufacture disappearances into the Burmuda Triangle and abductions by UFOs as a techno-epiphany. And even where no one disap-pears, but are only led away into a strange "cult" we are horrified. Cults are the shadow-side of dominant culture: they hold all the projected fears of those who cling so desperately to orthodoxy and sameness.

Japan and the shocked onlooking United States have shuddered at Shoko Asahara and his Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult. The poison gas attacks and alleged plans for a high-tech Armageddon, galvanize our fear of "terrorists" who seem motivated by egotistical madness. Our fears for our children are heightened by the report that many of Asahara's followers were educated young Japanese from professional families. Newsweek writer Michael Hirsh speculates that pressures from Japan's rigid social order have left young people with no place to go except into the system and its endless struggles for status among millions of other "company men"; "In Japan there is no California or Montana to drop out to, no islands of non-conformity where those who think or act differently can made a retreat" (Hirsh 38).

This opinion of Japanese culture may exaggerate the sanity of our own social order. For California is at least as much a center of the rat-race as it is a place where one can escape. But, true, the dream of the beach and the mountain is part of the American Dream: it is the dream desire to escape from a four-bedroom house, two cars, children, corporate pension, and country club. Looked at this way, the Pied Piper who comes to solve the rat-infested social order of Hamelin and its burghermeister is the trickster-shadow of the rat-race itself. In Browning's playful rendering of the legend, the Piper comes in response to the people's outcry against their political leaders and their impotence. The mayor and the "Corporation" cannot solve the problem of the rats who are devouring the town. The rats are the negative shadow of the German town and its corporate market economics: they are (re)production and consumption run amok, out of the control of the adult population. The politicians of the Corporation are the parents of the whole town, the patriarchs in their ermine gowns:

To think we buy gowns lined with ermine
For dolts that can't or won't determine
What's best to rid us of our vermin!
You hope, because you're old and obese,
To find in the furry civic robe ease?
Rouse up, sirs! Give your brains a racking
To find the remedy we're lacking,
Or, sure as fate, we'll send you packing!

It might be any government. The conservative patriarchs of Hamelin find a savior in the Pied Piper, who is conjured, it would seem, out of the mayor's own lack of imagination. The magic stranger walks in looking like some resurrected ancestor, and offers to do the trick for a thousand guilders. After the problems are solved -- the toxic wastes cleared up -- and the Corporation is freed to go about its business of getting and spending, the patriarchs renege on their deal. The moral of this story is that you have to pay the piper. We use that expression to mean that you can't exploit people or Nature or your own body without having to pay the consequences. The subsequent loss of their children, piped off to the same dance tune as the rats, is punishment for the adults of Hamelin. No amount of silver and gold is going to get them back.

But what does it mean, this weighing in the balance of children and money? The silver and gold, the rational scheming, and fiscal rationalizing of the burghers of Hamelin represent the adult myth of control. They want to believe they control Nature. They want to believe that civilization pushes back the wild and its dark mysteries: back, back, until there is no more mystery. The process of becoming an adult is mastering this myth, internalizing it. If one succeeds, one really believes in the power of marketing and science and technology and governments and armies to solve all the problems and mysteries of human existence.

That modern adult mythos leaves no room for gods, no room for Pan or Krishna in particular, for to have a sense of innocent wonder and dance and pipe through the woods or the flocks is childish. Wordsworth touched this nerve in his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," when he described growing up as the loss of imagination and connection to the world of divine creativity. As the boy becomes a man, "shades of the prison house descend." Growing up is too often a process of being narrowed, enclosed, encased in a cynical, materialist realism that tries to cheat the pleasure principle of its joy. The Pied Piper must have thought the children of Hamelin needed to be liberated from their parents.

Of course, this is not to literally endorse the salutary effects of abduction. Rather, I see in the Piper something childlike which, if it is not respected, will result in the loss of our capacity for childish joy and imagination. As William Blake writes in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, exploited chimney sweeps would be better off playing and running on the Echoing Green; and so would their parents and employers: all those worthy citizens bent on controlling children and Nature.

There is another German pun potentially shaping the Pied Piper story. The word Ratte ("rat") bears an unavoidable similarity to Rat ("council" or "advice") as in Rathaus, the name for the grand, turreted city halls of German towns. There is a tricksterish sense in which the infestation of Hamelin with Rattes eating up the cheeses and disrupting the flow of commerce participates in a punning relationship with the investiture of the Corporation, the city council of the Rathaus. Magistrates or rats -- one, the people say, has got to go.

The plague of rats represents a decay of the power of the patriarchs of Hamelin. The issue comes down to Rat Wissen, the "know-how" or rational ability to advise and lead the community. The question is this: is the Rathaus full of rats growing fat in their fur coats, or wise men who know what to do to maintain a healthy society? And the answer, apparently, is -- rats. For the city fathers make the wrong choices. They are intensely class-conscious and value their status and pride above honesty and gratitude.

Like Moses standing before Pharoah, or like a dervish master, the Piper has the baraka, the divine wisdom and know-how to make the world dance. He can see men's hearts and comes to teach them a lesson. He can raise plagues as well as dispel them. And like Moses he leads the children of these pompous factotums to a promised land of wonders -- a land of fantasy and imagination and myth. In the myth of Krishna, it is not children, but their wives that the men lose, for his flute breaks through all their propriety and reserve. The gopis are not, is important to note, loose women; they are virtuous, but are jarred loose from their self-control. Says Radha, the chief consort of Krishna,

At the first note of his flute
down came the lion gate of reverence for elders...
I was thrust to the ground as if by a thunderbolt...
How can I describe his relentless flute,
which pulls virtuous women from their homes
and drags them by their hair to Shyam
as thirst and hunger pull the doe to the snare?
Chaste ladies forget their lords,
wise men forget their wisdom,
and clinging vines shake loose from their trees,
hearing that music. (Kinsley 36-37)

The abandon of the cowherds' wives symbolizes something bigger: a universal power of music and imagination. For even the other gods cannot ignore Krishna's flute:

By means of his flute, Krishna fills himself and the universe with bliss. He distracts everyone and everything from normal activity and enchants them to revel in ecstasy. His flute sends shudders of delight to the very foundations of the world. Natural laws fall away as rocks and trees respond to his call and stars wander from their courses. The sound of his flute puts an abrupt end to man's mechanical, habitual activity as well as to the predictable movements of nature. His music explodes upon the world and society insisting that all else be forgotten. It is time, it proclaims, to join in his symphony of joy, to frolic in the forest, to scamper in play, to realize every dream that one has ever dreamed in his world of infinite possibility. (Kinsley 40-41)

Is it far-fetched to connect the jester of the Grimms' legend with the Hindu god of joyous dance or with the whirling dervishes? Idries Shah, the scholar of Sufism, has suggested that our word jester is a corruption of chisti, the Afghan order of dervishes founded by Abu-Ishak Chishti in the tenth century. The Chishti dervishes "specialized in the use of music in their exercises. The wandering dervishes of the Order... would enter a town and play a rousing air with flute and drum to gather people round them before reciting a tale or legend of initiatory significance" (Shah 127). These Jesters or Wise Fools come to stir things up, to burst the bubble of adults who egotistically believe themselves to control the world. His sublime music points to a world beyond law, control, and words: a divine Otherness.

It is not simply that we must pay the Piper in the sense of writing a check for services rendered. That is the ethic of the marketplace. We must keep our promises, but we must also not put our bellies before our hearts. Paying in this story means attending to the Piper and recognizing him as something more than a poorly-dressed gypsy exterminator. We must see past his motley to the archetypal Trickster. Either we play with him, joining his Rat wissen, or the Pfiffer will be the Kniffer, tricking and trapping us. He will dance off with our childish innocence unless we join him to become wanderers -- letting go of our love of money, makeup, ermine cloaks. Letting go our possessive adult attitude toward our children, our spouses. Letting go our conventional, blinkered, mechanical order to embrace the spontaneous dance of Nature with all its dark dangers and its wisdom.


1 I have taken the liberty of transliterating "Krishna" in consistent spelling where Kinsley uses "Krsna" with diacritical dots.


Browning, Robert. "The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Child's Story" in Robert Browning: The Poems, vol. 1. Ed. John Pettigrew. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981. 383-91.

Hirsh, Michael. "Lost Souls" Newsweek. May 29, 1995. 34-38.

Kinsley, David R. The Sword and the Flute: Kali & Krsna: Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: U of California P, 1975.

Shah, Idries. The Way of the Sufi. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.