Even a cursory reading of the textual material available on Krishna's life leaves one in no doubt that he sported with and made love to the gopis. Here is what the Harivarnsa has to say:
With a young, new moon sailing untroubled through the balmy autumn nights, Krishna felt playful and exuberant . . . sometimes, stirred on by pleasurable emotions, he sported with girls from the camp through the dark, warm nights. The girls ecstatically drank in his countenance as if it were the moon come to earth. With his bright arm bands and wild flower garlands, Krishna's glowing presence made all Vraja glow. Entranced by his graceful ways, the girl herders greeted him joyously as he strolled about. They pressed their full, swelling breasts against him, their eyes darting about. Eluding the restraint of mothers, fathers, and brothers, the pleasure drunk girls dashed through the night to his side. Forming a row, they sang praises of his deeds, each girl striving to outdo the others . . . Their limbs were soon covered with dust and dung as they struggled to satisfy Krishna, like excited female elephants topped by an aroused bull elephant. With wide eyes beaming with love, the deer eyed girls
thirstily drank in their lover's dark form. Then others had their chance to find pleasure in his arms. When he sighed with pleasure, the girls joyously echoed his melodious sounds. Their hair, once carefully bound and parted, lay strewn about as they fell back fulfilled, stray hairs caressing the nipples of their breasts. On many a moonlit autumn night, Krishna and the herder girls joined in these revels, amusing themselves in delicious play.
The Vishnu Purana states:
. . . Krishna, observing the clear sky bright with the autumnal moon, and the air perfumed with the fragrance of the wild water-lily, in whose buds the clustering bees were murmuring their songs, felt inclined to join with the gopis in sport. Accordingly he and Balarama commenced singing sweet low strains in various measures, such as the women loved; and they, as soon as they heard the melody, quitted their homes, and hastened to meet the foe of Madhu (Krishna). One damsel gently sang an accompaniment to his song; another attentively listened to his melody; one calling out upon his name, then shrunk abashed; whilst another, more bold, and instigated by affection, pressed close to his side; one, as she sallied forth, beheld some of the seniors of the family, and dared not venture . . . Thus surrounded by the gopis, Krishna thought the lovely moonlight night of autumn propitious to the Rasa dance . . . As each of the gopis, however, attempted to keep in one place, close to the side of Krishna, the circle of the dance could not be constructed, and he therefore took each by the hand, and when their eyelids were shut, by the effects of such touch, the circle was formed. Then proceeded the dance to the music of their clashing bracelets, and songs that celebrated in suitable strains the charms of the autumnal season. Krishna sang of the moon of autumn, a mine of gentle radiance, but the nymphs repeated the praise of Krishna alone . . . When leading they followed him; when returning, they encountered him; and whether they went forward or backwards, they ever attended on his steps. Whilst frolicking thus with the gopis, they considered every instant without him a myriad of years; and, prohibited in vain by husbands, fathers, brothers, they went forth at night to sport with Krishna, the object of their affection.
The description in the Harivarnsa is matter of fact, its brevity reinforces its sincerity. There is in its narration the glimpse of a spontaneous folk culture unburdened with the constraints of structured morality. The Vishnu Purana bases itself on the Harivarnsa narrative, but elaborates and embellishes it, using literary flourishes and the occasional overtone of piety to depict the transparent burgeoning of passion and desire profiled in the Harivarnsa, It also makes a much more defined and specific reference to the rasa dance. The rasa emerges as a spontaneous and joyful chorus in which movement was transparently fuelled by the physical attraction between Krishna and the gopis. The dance could be fatiguing, lasting the entire night and for several nights thereafter, a conduit for the release of sexual tension and a forum for its expression.
It was human choreography naturally articulating a need that demanded celebration. But even at this point it is very clear that the behaviour of the gopis with their god-like beau, and his behaviour with them, was in opposition to the accepted morality of the society in which they lived. The Harivarnsa is unambiguous in asserting that the girls eluded the restraints of their mothers, fathers and brothers; and the Vishnu Purana is unequivocal in noting that the gopis were prohibited in vain by their husbands, brothers and fathers.
On the beginnings made by the Harivarnsa and the Vishnu Purana, the Bhagavata Purana built a complex edifice dealing with Krishna's love games. Seeing the jasmine come to full bloom in the cool autumn nights, the Lord, the Bhagavata writes, made up his mind to commence his love play. Hearing his flute and stirred by the moonlight caressing the forest in a gentle glow, the gopis, breaking all restraints, rushed to him. Having enticed them, Krishna, paradoxically, asked the ladies to return home since adultery would not be approved of. The gopis were however adamant; they fervently professed their love for him and explained the suffering they would undergo if denied union with him. Krishna relented and on the cool sands of the banks of the Yamuna with the heady perfume of the lilies in the air, made love to them.
By stretching out his arms and embracing them; by playfully caressing their hair, by pleasurably stroking their thighs, loosening their waist cloths and fondling their breasts; by engaging in battles with fingernails; and by playful derision, glances and smiles the Lord aroused the women of Vraja to the peak of passion, and made love to them.
Fulfilled in their desires, the gopis begin to look upon themselves as superior; conceit and pride enter their
feelings, and to remove these Krishna suddenly disappears from their midst, leaving them utterly distraught. Their suffering is so acute that they lose all sense of their person or surroundings. In their agony some of them begin to imitate Krishna. Others, almost insane from the pangs of separation, begin to search for him in the forest, singing in high pitched voices songs in his praise, and asking the bees and plants, the creepers and animals, of his whereabouts.
At this point Krishna reappears in their midst and starts the rasa. The Bhagavata Purana introduced a new element in the dance performance. According to the Vishnu Purana, Krishna, through his touch, created the impression in the minds of the gopis that each them was holding his hand. The Bhagavata states that Krishna actually physically multiplied himself, putting one of his arms round the neck of each gopi, so that for sixteen gopis there were eight Krishnas. Each gopi thus had Krishna for herself, and together they danced the rasa with vigour and passion. During the dance their breast cloths and the knots of the girdles and braids came loose, but in their fervour they cared not, 'delighted by the touches of Krishna*. The Bhagavata describes the finale of the love play thus:
After multiplying Himself so that there were as many forms of Him as there were cowherd-women. His Blessed Lord made love with these gopis—even though His delight is in Himself, playfully—as a game.
The gopis were exhausted by this excess of love play, and He, compassionate, wiped their faces lovingly . . . with His most blessed hand. The gopis . . . honouring their virile lover, sang in praise of the sacred works He had done, filled with joy by the touch of His fingernails.
Vibrantly erotic, Bhagavata, like the Harivarnsa and the Vishnu Purana, makes it clear that the gopis' liaison with Krishna was in the case of the unmarried ones, illicit, and in the case of the married ones, adulterous. The love play was also carried on in explicit defiance of the prevailing norms and code of morality. But the Bhagavata, written around the tenth century AD, reflects the cumulative legacy of several centuries of legitimizing desire and eroticism as a strand of Hindu outlook and tradition. Krishna, the lover, was the ultimate rasik— he who knows of rasa, is immersed in it and can arouse it in others.
When Krishna, sweetness and grace itself, played the flute its impact was bewitching. Indeed, his flute, with its obvious phallic connotations, was but an extension of his beauty. The Bhagavata narrates how, on hearing the melody of his flute, the gopis left whatever
they were doing and throwing all restraint and caution to the winds rushed to his side as if in a trance. When the strains of his flute wafted through Vrindavan, all things became intoxicated with passion. Not even the wives of gods could resist its call. It was as if all of creation for a moment stopped to listen rapt in attention.
As he played, clouds bent low to come closer to him, plants and creepers swayed in silent salute, the reeds from which his flute was made wept tears of joy, and rivers slowed their pace in involuntary obeisance. Vallabhacharya (AD 1479-1531), the learned saint and founder of the Vaishnava Vallabha sect, has categorized the sound of Krishna's flute into five kinds: when the Lord played with his flute to the left, passion awoke in women; when his face was to the right, desire surged in both men and women; when his face pointed upwards, kaama infused the gods; when downwards, animals and birds became its prey; and when he played straight ahead, even insentient things could not insulate themselves from its effect.
But Krishna's physical appeal, his madhurya, and the call of his flute were also linked to the overall ambience of the moment and the setting, moved by which alone he would set forth to evoke the erotic mood. The flute rang out most clear and compellingly with the onset of autumn, when the monsoon had spent itself, the landscape was green and lush, jasmine and coral flowers and water lilies were in bloom, and the nights were clear and full of stars. The Harivarnsa, the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata categorically link Krishna's love play with the autumnal turn of season when man and nature alike were open to the seduction of Kaamadeva as never before.
In the Harivarnsa, Krishna himself lyrically describes the beauty of autumn, and brings out forcefully why his flute, could now succeed so eminently in overwhelming the shores of restraint around the brimful pool of desire. In this season, he says, the forests are thick with foliage and fruits. Flowers—the red bandhujiva, the yellow asama and the purple kovidava—are in bloom. The skies are clear, the breeze is calm, and the earth washed and clean. Rivers, no longer in spate, flow placidly, their gurgle akin to a woman's laughter. Flowering vines decorate the banks of the Yamuna. Lakes, ponds and reservoirs are full, and lilies and lotuses bloom in them like so many stars in the night. The fields are awash with the pastel shades of ripening rice. Birds—geese, cranes and curlews—dot the landscape. Cows are well fed and rich in milk, and bulls twice as lusty. There is contentment in the hearts of people, when autumn, like a beautiful damsel, strolls along the countryside.
Krishna's love play with the gopis was thus one in which the physical was interwoven with melody, grace, madhurya, a sense of moment and the resplendence of
nature. Sringara rasa was the outcome of this heady mix. Vallabhacharya makes one of his most perceptive comments in Subhodhini, his commentary on the Bhagavata, when he says that in so far as a person does not subordinate himself to the dominant mood to that extent he lacks aesthetic taste' (from the translation in James D. Redington's Vallabhacharya on the Love Games of Krishna). This and not the half-hearted attempts at 'moral' reconciliation best captures the essence of the Bhagavata. Indeed, Vallabhacharya goes so far as to say that the male relatives of the gopis— fathers, brothers, husbands, sons—in attempting to restrain the gopis 'were insensitive to the proper mood of the ultimate reward, since their sole preoccupation was with the means'.
In contrast, the gopis, overcome by sringara rasa, were rightly unable to control themselves. Vallabhacharya gives the example of a boat being carried away in a raging flood that would not stop merely by someone shouting at it to do so. The gopis were similarly beyond moral categories. Without physical union with Krishna, they were in genuine suffering; Krishna, for them, was the destroyer of suffering (artihan) and the destroyer of anxieties (adihan). Making love with him gave them sukha (bliss), joy, and it is at this point that ideologically the carnal and the spiritual make a surprising fusion. According to the Upanishads, creation itself was suffused with sukha and joy as both a reflection and an attribute of the Infinite. The Chandogya Upanishad says: 'where there is joy there is creation. Where there is no joy there is no creation: know the nature of joy. And in the Taittiriya Upanishad, the seeker of truth finally understands the mystery of Brahma: 'And then he saw that Brahma was joy: for from joy all beings have come, by joy they all live, and onto joy they all return.' This ananda, this joy, was also the leitmotif of the gopis love play with Krishna. The rasa leela affirmed the sexual as a window to the divine.
The gopis became jivatmas (individual souls) seeking merger with the paramatma (the absolute). Physical passion became an aspect of bhakti (devotion). The erotic was sanctified; the spiritual was sexualized, and once the sacred and the profane were so bridged, all worrying superimpositions of guilt with reference to conventional moral standards could be discarded, opening the floodgates for the fullest 'humanization' of Krishna, the lover. The imagination would now not rest at seeking him only as an impersonal if accomplished lover, available to all the gopis. He had to have a preference. His personality was now free to be embellished with the entire gamut of emotions in the spectrum of love—desire, jealousy, pride, anger, remorse, self-pity, ecstasy, union and fulfillment. His eroticism now had unfettered social sanction.
His love play could
therefore legitimately be a canvas for infinite themes, themes in which human emotion and sentiment would be uninhibited participants. Krishna, the lover, was now ready for acceptance as an absolute theme in itself. The Puranic lover was ready to be replaced by the myriad nuances of the romantic hero.
The Sanskrit classic, Gitagovinda (Songs of Govinda) written by Jayadeva in the twelfth century AD, became a powerfully evocative landmark in this process. Jayadeva was the court-poet of King Lakshmanasena (AD 1179-1205) of Bengal. Born in a Brahmin family, he was in early life an ascetic. But, marriage to Padmavati, a dancing girl in the temple of Lord Jagannath (another name for Krishna) of Puri, transmuted the ascetic into a wonderfully lyrical exponent of the relevance of human love. Apart from its intrinsic literary merit which is of an exceptionally high order, the Gitagovinda is of special importance for its path-breaking deification of Radha, Krishna's consort. Radha finds no mention in the Mahabharata and the Harivarnsa, or in the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana. The Bhagavata does mention one gopi who appeared to have temporarily won special attention from Krishna, but she is not mentioned by name and later efforts by Vaishnava theologists to derive the name Radha from 'aradhita'—the term used for the gopi in the Bhagavata—are hardly convincing.
Starting from the second century AD, Radha does find mention in one or two Prakrit texts. The most notable of these is the Satasai of Hala, variously dated to a period between the first to seventh century AD. In Sanskrit literature, she is mentioned for the first time in the inscriptions of the Paramara king, Vakpati Munja of Malwa (AD 97394). In Tamil Aalvaar poetry there is the mention of Pinnai or Nappinai as the wife of Krishna, but there is not enough ground to postulate that she was the same as Radha, or even that this lady was the inspiration for the scattered references to a Radha in Prakrit and Sanskrit literature.
The truth appears to be that Jayadeva intentionally elevated Radha from a somewhat obscure, even peripheral, personage to a central deity of worship. In doing so he was making a conscious break with the past. The author of the Bhagavata must also have known of the existence in earlier literature of Radha. But the intention in the Bhagavata was to portray the non-exclusivity of Krishna's erotic energy. Its theological imperative was solely to essay Krishna's love play as an aspect of his divinity. Jayadeva's purpose went beyond.
He wanted to create an appropriate foil for Krishna's erotic personality. His aim was to give to his love play the dramatic content of a duet, in which Krishna's passion would have an individual focus worthy of its intensity. His goal was to bring the rasa leela down from its pedestal of powerful but diffused intent to a stage where all the emotional props were drawn from an emphatically human idiom. Thus, Jayadeva's Radha had to be created. If Krishna was Sringaramurtirnam, Radha, the object of his love, had to be Raseshvari—the very goddess of that mood. If Krishna was the God of Love, Radha had to be Rati (Rati is also the wife of Kaamadeva in Hindu mythology), passion personified. Krishna could not be portrayed as cosmically aloof. He had to be portrayed as symbolizing, in the tradition of Hindu mythology, the cosmic unity of purusha and prakriti. Together with his consort, Krishna was complete. Alone he was devoid of rasa (nirasa). Each was the object of the other's love. And both were the subject of each other's passion.
In theGitagovinda, Jayadeva succeeded eminently in his purpose. Indeed, the profile of Radha as Raseshvari emerged so strongly that Jayadeva appears to have been daunted by his own effort. Stories of Jayadeva's life recount that the poet was hesitant to complete his work, afraid that he had gone too far in the portrayal of Krishna abashed at the bower of Radha. One day, so the story goes, Jayadeva had gone to the river for his bath, when Krishna, assuming his form, completed the last couplet of the work and ate the food prepared by Padmavati. When Jayadeva discovered the stanza completed and his food eaten, he interpreted it as divine sanction for the content of his work. This little story is interesting in reinforcing the point made earlier that Jayadeva*s exaltation of Radha was in such measure a new step that it needed the projection of divine approval to ensure acceptability in the audience of that time.
The story of the Gitagovinda is both simple and complex. It is simple because the essential plot is structured, as in the rasa leela of the Bhagavata, on the unitary theme of separation (vipralambhasringara) and union (sambhogsringara) of love. The theme is complex because of the qualitatively new emotions it unleashes. The joy of union with Krishna and the unbearable pangs of separation from him—the story of the Bhagavata— are subsumed in a startling array of sentiments that accompany the amplification of this theme. Krishna is no longer the detached lover, reciprocating the passion of the gopis with consummate equanimity. He suffers and agonizes like Radha, who emerges as the unquestioned central concern of his amours. Her portrayal goes far beyond the plaintive, desire-besotted gopis of the Bhagavata. The new heroine in Krishna's life is a strikingly compelling woman: beautiful, aloof, proud, sensitive, brooding, wilful and passionate.
The Gitagovinda begins with Nandalal, Krishna's foster-father, asking Radha to take Krishna home since night was falling and dark clouds were threatening the sky. Radha obeys, but on the way home disappears into
a thicket of trees with her ward, and the two make love. The secret, illicit character of the relationship is established ab initio. Jayadeva's Radha is not Krishna's wife. According to tradition—probably oral and textually scattered—but of which Jayadeva was aware, Radha was several years older than Krishna. She was the daughter of Vrishbhanu, a clan chief like Nandalal, and belonged to Barsana, a settlement not far from Gokula. The residents of Barsana migrated to Vrindavan before those of Gokula. On the way to Vrindavan, they passed Gokula, and it was then that Radha first saw Krishna. He was but a toddler then; Radha, a young girl, took him into her arms as a mother would her child. The Oedipal undercurrent in the Radha-Krishna liaison is plausible.
The concept of the Mother-Goddess existed in India since prehistoric times and had been assimilated into Hindu mythology. In several sects the devi, or goddess, was not merely the consort of a male god but a supreme power in her own right, pursuing her own purpose and nurturing her followers in a protective and possessive manner. Perhaps it was the echo of such a tradition that prompted the necessity to give Radha at one level a mother-image vis-a-vis Krishna. The concept of purusha and prakriti could also provide a metaphysical explanation for Radha's greater years. According to the Samkhya-Yoga school of Indian philosophy, all of creation consists of purusha and prakriti. Prakriti is the all-embracing material substratum of things. Purusha is sentience personified. Prakriti, which has always existed, remains in a state of dissolution (pralaya) until the mere presence of purusha (purusha-samnidhi) disturbs the state of its latent equilibrium, and evolution (sarga) is set in motion. For evolutionary activity, therefore, the presence of purusha is crucial, but prakriti in its state of dissolution exists even without it. Radha, the cosmic symbol of prakriti, had thus to exist prior to the arrival of Krishna, purusha incarnate.
Radha was supposedly betrothed to one Ayana (or Rayana) while still a child. Ayana, who was much older than her, is said to have been the brother of Yasoda, Krishna's foster-mother. On marriage, Radha would be Krishna's aunt. In some accounts, Radha is already married to Ayana when she meets Krishna, and this adds a somewhat surprisingly incestuous dimension to the relationship.
The tradition has had a not insignificant following and has persisted over the centuries. One example is the highly sensitive writings of Muddupalani (1730-90), a courtesan in the court of the Nayaka kings ofThanjavur. In Radhika Santlvanam, a Telugu text consisting of 584 poems, she describes Radha as Krishna's aunt. Krishna is to marry Ila Devi, a girl brought up by Radha, and Radha even advises Krishna on how to behave with her on the wedding night.
Given the seminal importance of the Gitagovinda in the evolution of the Krishna cult, it is useful to dwell on it a little longer. After their night of love in the thicket on that darkening eve, Krishna deserts Radha, and she, delirious in separation, imagines a love tryst with him.
Krishna soon abandons the other cowherd girls, and is deeply remorseful. He asks for forgiveness but Radha is unrelenting. She in her agony imagines how another woman must have made love to Krishna. (Extracts from the Gitagovinda unless otherwise indicated are from the excellent translation by Durgadas Mukhopadhyay, In Praise of Krishna.)
- Dressed suitably for the sport of love
- her hair loosened
- with flowers disarrayed,
- some other woman excelling me in charm
- revels with the enemy of Madhu . . .
- She looks at her lover
- and blushes with a smile.
- She murmurs softly
- in all the many ways of love
- lost in its bliss.
- Her body shudders and trembles
- Her passion blossoms
- with sighs and eyes closing.
Krishna appears abashed before Radha but she taunts him angrily.
- Your drowsy red eyes
- for being awake through the night
- betray the intensity of passion
- that you cherish for that other woman.
- Alas! Alas! Go Madhava! Go Kesava! leave me!
- Do not try to deceive me with your artful words.
- Go after her, you lotus-eyed one
- she who soothes your grief.
Krishna now uses a combination of remorse and flattery to break Radha's pride. He praises her moonlike face and the nectar of her lips, describes her as the very ornament of his life, professes that only she can arouse passion in him, and assures her that a rival to her has no place in his life.
- 0 anxious one,
- abandon fear, imagining
- me devoted to other women,
- You alone entirely occupy my heart
- with your voluptuous breasts and hips.
- None other than the god of love—
- the bodiless one, is blessed
- to enter my heart.
- 0 my beloved, be content in this
- and allow me to embrace you.
- Crush me with your hard breasts,
- entwine me in your vine-like arms
- bite me with your merciless teeth
- inflict upon me, 0 beautiful one,
- any punishment that you wish and be happy.
- Let my life not end
- under the blows of Love
- the five-arrowed one,
- the undignified one.
Radha's friend again urges her to meet Krishna's mood without shame. The moment and the mood, she says, are ripe for love. Finally, Radha relents.
- So the encounter in love began,
- when the shuddering of bodies
- hindered firm embrace;
- where the joy of contemplating one another
- with searching looks
- was interrupted by blinkings;
- where the mutual sipping
- of the honey of each other's lips
- was impeded by the utterances
- of small love-cries.
- Yet even these seeming hindrances
- enhanced the delight in love-play.
- Though entwined in her arms
- though crushed by the weight of her breasts
- though smitten by her fingernails
- though bitten on the lips by her small teeth
- though overwhelmed by the thirst of her thighs
- his locks seized by her hands
- inebriated with the nectar of her lips
- he drew immense pleasure from such sweet torments.
- Strange indeed are the ways of love!
The Gitagovinda ends in a delightful mood of post-coital languidness, when, with the tension resolved, Krishna meekly obeys Radha's commands.
- Adorn my breasts with leaf designs of musk
- put colour on my cheeks
- fasten the girdle around my hips
- twine my heavy braid with flowers
- fix rows of bangles on my hands
- and jewelled anklets on my feet.
- And thus requested by Radha
- Krishna who wears the yellow garment
- did as she has asked him to, with pleasure.
From the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, a host of poets carried forward the legacy of Jayadeva. However, unlike Jayadeva who wrote in Sanskrit, these poets wrote in the language spoken by the common man. Chandidasa, who lived at the confluence of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, wrote in his native Bengali; Vidyapati (1352-1448) wrote in Maithili; Surdas and Bihari (1595-1664) composed in Braj; and Govindadasa, in the sixteenth century, wrote in Brajaboli. The cumulative result was that the love lore of Krishna and Radha moved out from the sanctum sanctorum of the temple to the dust and din of daily life. Their erotic love play made a transition from the refined, if passionate, milieu of Sanskrit poetics to the earthy and seductive medium of the lingua franca of the masses. The Lord and his consort were removed from the rarefied atmosphere of lotus-leaved arbours and ethereal jungle thickets, and placed with poetic adroitness in more familiar settings. Their rasa leela continued with unabated ardour, but in new situations that were inspired by the humdrum routine of ordinary people.
Two poems, the first by Govindadasa (E. Dimock, Jr. and D. Levertov, In Praise of Krishna, Songs from the Bengali) and the second by Vidyapati (Love Songs of Vidyapati, translated by D. Bhattacharya), beautifully capture the joyful turbulence of the first time Radha and Krishna make love. Radha is afraid and nervous, but that master-lover will brook no delay, and she, against her own resolve, yields' to him. It is an indescribably evocative profile of the tension between a girl's diffidence and a woman's passion, the awakening of love and the losing of innocence in that sudden, pleasurable discovery of sex.
- Fingering the border of her friend's sari, nervous and afraid,
- sitting tensely on the edge of Krishna's couch,
- as her friend left she too looked to go
- but in desire Krishna blocked her way.
- He was infatuated, she bewildered;
- he was clever, and she naive.
- He put out his hand to touch her; she quickly pushed it away.
- He looked into her face, her eyes filled with tears.
- He held her forcefully, she trembled violently
- and hid her face from his kisses behind the edge of her sari.
- Then she lay down, frightened, beautiful as a doll;
- He hovered like a bee round a lotus in a painting;
- Govindadasa says, Because of this,
- Drowned in the well of her beauty,
- Krishna’s lust was changed.