The Mother Divine
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M. K. Venkatarama Iyer
In the tenth canto of Srimad Bhagavata chapters 29 to 33 are devoted to a detailed description of the Sport of Dance, known as Rasa Krida, which the Gopis of Brindaban enjoyed in the company of Lord Sri Krishna. Those five chapters, called Rasa Panchadhyayi are also spoken of as Rasopanishad since they deal with the relationship between the finite soul (Jiva) and the Infinite self (Paramatman) which is the central problem dealt with in all the chief Upanishads. The description makes free use of the language of earthly love and this fact has created a lot of misunderstanding in the minds of superficial readers. It has also provided a handle for the critics of the Hindu religion to hold it up to ridicule. It is necessary therefore, to take a closer look into this account with a view to ascertaining its true import. We may at first set forth the details of episode in broad outline and then examine its inner meaning.

Desiring to wed Sri Krishna the Gopi maidens of Vraja observed the Katyayani Vrata in the month of Margasira. After a bath in the waters of Yamuna very early in the morning, they used to worship Devi in the form of an image made of sands. One day when they were immersed in the waters, leaving as usual their clothes on the bank, Sri Krishna came to the place with his friends and tying up the clothes in a bundle, got up a nearby tree. When the maidens asked for their clothes, he admonished them for bathing in nakedness. He said he would give their clothes if they expressed their regret for their wrong action by lifting up both their hands over their heads. Since there was no other alternative, the maidens did as they were bidden to do and got back their clothes. In spite of this admonition and humiliation, they neither got angry nor left the place. They kept standing, their faces turned downwards. Sri Krishna said that he understood what was passing in their minds and promised that very soon their inmost desire would find fulfilment.

To keep up this promise he came one evening to the bank of the Yamuna and sitting on a mound, started playing on his flute. The moon was full and the flowers on the river-bank were in bloom. They lent additional charm to his music. The scene was altogether enchanting. It created the proper atmosphere for the enactment of the great drama which was to follow.

The music reached the ears of the Gopis of Vraja. They could not resist its appeal. It went straight to their hearts. It carried an unearthly significance for them. It had the air of the deep calling to the deep. Obeying its powerful call they involuntarily rushed out of their houses throwing aside the house-hold work to take care of itself. It did not even occur to them to find out whether they were properly dressed. They vied with one another in reaching the place as fast as they could. They had yielded their hearts to Sri Krishna and approached him as if he were their illicit lover.

When they came near him, he lectured them saying that women should not stray out of their houses at night time leaving their fathers and husbands to search for them, that a woman's proper sphere of work was her home, that looking to the comforts of their husbands and children was their foremost duty, that they could worship God even in their houses and that they should therefore get back to their houses without loss of time. They had seen the place and there was no reason to stay any longer.

The Gopis said that he had conquered their hearts and that he was the supreme object of their love. The home had no attraction for them. It was impossible for them to leave his presence. They had renounced all their private interests in order to be with him and serve him! Their legs and feet refused to move from that place. They could no longer bend their hands to domestic chores. He should therefore take pity on them and allow them to do service at his feet. Enchanted by his divine beauty even mute animals were attracted to him; much more was it the case with them. It was impossible for any woman however loyal and chaste she might be, not to lose her heart to him.

Responding to their plaintive appeal Sri Krishna got down to the bed of the river and sported with them on the sands, casting sweet glances and rubbing shoulders with them. The Gopis felt blessed but this privilege that they enjoyed went into their heads. They became conceited and began to think that they were the elect of Sri Krishna. To take this conceit from them and to teach them humility, he suddenly made himself invisible.

Being unable to stand the separation they began searching for him. They went from place to place asking the trees for his whereabouts. Like mad creatures they moved hither and thither thoroughly unmindful of what they were saying or doing. They sang his praises at the top of their voice and began to enact all the stories they had heard about his feats. One of them acted the part of Sri Krishna and another that of Putana, one played on the flute and another nodded her head by way of appreciation; one was lying low like the wicked serpent and another placed her foot on her neck, and so on. Their minds were full of him, all their talk was about him, all that they did was in imitation of his actions; they sang his praises and were so absorbed in him that that altogether forgot their homes.

In the course of their search they came to a place where they would discover two pairs of foot-steps intermingled. Seeing flowers scattered all over the place, they concluded that one pair of foot-steps must be those of Sri Krishna and the other of some lady who was dearer to him than themselves. At this discovery their grief knew no bounds. With tears in their eyes they went a little further and to their astonishment they found only one pair of foot-steps, but they were planted so deep in the sandy soil that they were led to think that probably Sri Krishna carried his lady-love on his shoulders. Very soon they came up on the lady whose presence they had suspected. Questioning her they learnt that while she was enjoying the company of Sri Krishna she was foolish enough to ask him to carry her on his shoulders. He bowed down but before she could get up, he had disappeared. Evidently it was to humble her pride.

The name of this lady is not mentioned in the text but Sridhara Svamin, the renowned commentator has identified her with Radha. There is confirmation for this identi¬fication in the Brahmanda Purana where it is said that the lady with whom Sri Krishna was sporting was Radha, daughter of Vrishabhanu and that she was one of those maidens who had joined in the worship of Katyayani in the month of Margasira. The Brahma Vaivarta Purana describes Radha as a paragon of womanly beauty and proceeds to give a full account of her marriage with Sri Krishna. The whole of Jayadeva's Gita Govindam turns on the sports of Sri Krishna with Radha.

All the Gopis, including the new one, now made common cause since all of them had been treated alike by Sri Krishna. The advantage which the new lady enjoyed was as short-lived as that of the first set. Fearing to go deeper into the woods in search of him they returned to the sands of the river and forming themselves into a circle started singing his praises, his great qualities and his marvellous beauty. They mentioned the valuable services that he had rendered to the people of the Vraja. They cried out that they could not stand even a moment's separation from him. When they were in his presence they felt impelled to be looking at him without intermission. It was a pity that the eye-lids closed involuntarily. They went to the extent of finding fault with the Creator for this misfortune. It went hard with them when he drove the cattle to the grazing grounds. They were sorely grieved to think that his tender feet would be hurt by the sharp stones and thorns. They had renounced their hearth and home for his sake. Was it not cruel on his part, they asked, to have forsaken them at dead of night in a lonely place? The chapter (31) known as 'Gopi geetam' contains nineteen stanzas. The traditional belief is that while the last stanza was sung by all in chorus, for the remaining eighteen there were as many ladies in the group, each contributing one song.

This loud, whole-hearted, unselfconscious and thoroughly sincere appeal had the desired effect. Sri Krishna immediately appeared in their midst. His beauty was dazzling. He looked like a super-manmatha. Their new found joy was as great as their sorrow which they now left behind. One of them kept steadily gazing at him for a few minutes and then closed her eye-lids as if to prevent him from escaping. Another never seemed to have her fill of it however long she gazed at him. After a little time they cooled down a bit and, assuming an angry look, addressed a poser to him: "There are three kinds of people in the world, those who return love, for love, those who receive love but never return it and those who are indifferent both towards those who love them and those who do not love them. Pray, tell us to which of these three categories you belong"! The implication was that Sri Krishna belonged to the third. He admitted it and added that he made himself invisible to test the strength of their devotion. He wanted to find out if in his absence they would get back to their homes and fall into the routine. But he was agreeably surprised to see that they remained where they were, thinking of him, speaking of him, singing his praises and rehearsing his deeds. They had completely forgotten their home-attachment which ordinarily is very strong with women. Their devotion to him was an absorbing passion and he did not know how to reward them.

Then began the sport of Dance (Rasa Krida) for which they were longing. The Gopies formed themselves into a ring. Between every two of them there was a Krishna. Looking to her right every Gopi saw a Krishna and looking to her left she saw another Krishna. By his power of Maya he had assumed as many forms as there were ladies.

In their midst he shone like a big-sized emerald between gold beads. The circle whirled round and round, the gopis singing loudly. Their plaited hair got loose, the flowers dropped down and they were in partial dishevel. Unmindful of all this they enjoyed the dance. Each had a chance of coming into bodily contact with Sri Krishna. The sport went on till the small hours of the morning. Before dawn the gopis got back to their houses where, strangely enough, they were never missed by their husbands. As Sri Krishna multiplied himself, even so the ladies doubled themselves. They were in the company of Sri Krishna on the banks of the river and at the same time each one was in her own house.

Questions will naturally arise in the minds of the readers as regards the propriety of this sport. Was it right on the part or the gopis to have deserted their houses and gone to Sri Krishna as to a paramour? Was it right, again, on the part of Sri Krishna to have mixed so freely in the sport? Did it not amount to reprehensible conduct? Can one who came to the world with the professed aim of enthroning dharma act in a contrary manner? Will he not be thereby setting a bad example to ordinary folk? Did not Sri Krishna's sporting at dead of night with the wives of other people amount to placing a premium on immorality? These questions were asked by King Parikshit himself and in spite of the convincing-answers given by Sri Suka, they continue to be asked even at the present day. Such questions are bound to arise in the minds of all thinking people at all times and in all climes.

As regards the behaviour of the gopis, it is wrong to judge their conduct from our limited standpoint. We have no experience of the kind of devotion which possessed their minds. The bhakti which we profess is limited and intermittent. We approach the Lord, not because we are overflowing with love for Him, but because we hope to get this thing or that thing through his intercession. On analysis it will be found that our devotion is to these earthly goods and not to God. If we could manage to get the things we want through other means, we would readily do so and never think of God. Nor is there any guarantee that after getting the things we want through God's intercession, we will continue to think of Him. The chances are that He will fade out of our minds the moment our aims are fulfilled. If we fail to get what we want in spite of our prayer to God, we do not hesitate to revile Him and accuse Him of partiality.

A little reflection will show that this is not true bhakti but the very travesty of it. Devotion to the Lord is genuine only if it is disinterested and thoroughly independent of extraneous considerations. One must feel irresistibly drawn to the Lord, not because He will help us to get over difficulties, regain health or acquire wealth, but because of the unshakable conviction that He is the highest value, that there is no gain higher than getting to His feet, that carrying out His behests is one's true freedom and dedicating one's body, mind and soul to him without reservation of any kind is the highest blessedness. It is this kind of bhakti that is held up as most genuine in the Naradasutras, in the Bhagavat Gita and Srimad Bhagavata. As concrete examples of such genuine devotion to God the foremost place is assigned to the gopis of Vraja.

They did not approach Sri Krishna seeking any personal gain. The love which drew them to him, even granting that it arose in the ordinary way soon underwent a sea change and was transformed beyond recognition. It became an absorbing, all-consuming passion. It left no room for the play of other interests. It made them forget their homes, their husbands and even children. They renounced all this in the conviction that they only served to forge fetters and that real freedom had to be won by throwing off these shackles and substituting the only real value, God, in their place. There are unmistakable indications in the text of Srimad Bhagavata to show that all their thoughts were about Sri Krishna, all their talk centered round Him, all their deeds were in imitation of His feats and that they were literally god-intoxicated. To judge them by our miserable yard-stick and then to attribute carnal motives to them is worse than blasphemy.

There is an element of mysticism in Krishna-bhakti. Those who have tasted it have confessed that it brought them very near to Brahmanubhava. Great advaitins have testified to this effect. Sri Sankara, the founder of the Advaita system of philosophy has said in one of his minor poems, that renouncing all sense pleasure and subsisting only on the waters of the Ganga, he would be content to spend his life-time meditating on Sri Krishna. Madhusudana Saraswati, a great exponent of Advaita, has said that he knows no truth higher than Sri Krishna. Narayana Tirtha, an eminent sanyasin of the advaitic persuasion, has found his highest happiness in singing the praises of Sri Krishna. These songs are very beautiful lyrics. They go by the name of 'Krishna Leela Tarangam.' It is no matter for surprise, therefore, that the gopis of Vraja also came under the spell of Krishna-bhakti.

As regards the Lord overstepping the limits of morality and decency we have to remember that being eternally perfect and eternally satisfied, He stands to gain nothing by mixing in worldly affairs. Good conduct does not promote any particular end of the Lord nor bad conduct spoil any of His ends. In the text it is said in several contexts that the Lord has all the springs of happiness within Himself. The codes and conventions that are current among us do not bind Him. He transcends our notion of right and wrong. He is like a blazing fire who can consume everything. He is a law unto Himself. Our standards do not apply to Him. To bring Him to our level would be the greatest act of sacrilege. As for His setting a bad example, that danger does not arise, if we remember that we are far below Him in every respect. When we cannot perform any of the great feats that are attributed to Him, it follows that we cannot imitate Him in the supposed bad deeds. Can any think of drinking poison merely because Siva drank it? In our relations with the Lord the safest course is to conduct ourselves according to their precepts, but not to follow His example.

Lastly we must remember that the whole episode is an allegory. The sport is a projection of the Lord's Maya. This fact is stated quite at the outset. By the same power Sri Krishna assumed as many forms as there were gopis in the ring. It was again by the operation of His Maya that it became possible for the ladies to be present in two places at the same time. They were with Krishna and also in their homes at the same time. The statement that Sri Krishna sported with the gopis much in the same manner in which a child plays with its own image reflected in a mirror can be rendered intelligible only on this view.

A word of explanation is necessary as regards the use of erotic imagery. Mystic experiences go beyond thought and word. They transcend the distinction between subject and object, knower and known. They are in the nature of communion carrying with it an unearthly sweetness. It is not possible to give adequate expression to them by means of our ordinary language which is competent to deal with our routine affairs. Being eager to communicate their felt experiences to the rest of mankind, mystics generally fall back on the language of earthly love, as it comes nearest to what they have to say. This is the practice with all mystics in all ages and times. "Mysticism has always been accustomed", writes Vaugham, "to express the transports of divine passion by metaphors borrowed from the amorous phraseology of the earth."To elucidate the nature of the communion of the finite soul (jiva) with the infinite (Paramatman) the Upanishad gives the example of the man who becomes oblivious of everything within and without when he is embraced by his beloved. The Yoga Vasishta illustrates the supreme and single-minded devotion to God in terms of the illicit love of a woman to her paramour. The song of Solomon in the Old Testament of the Bible is throughout steeped in the language of human love. We find the same thing in the poems of the Sufi mystics and also in several poems in the Gitanjali of Rabindranath Tagore. We need not, therefore, twitch our brows.

As for the criticism of non-Hindus, we need not be greatly worried by it. They go by the maxim that if Hindu religion is held up to ridicule, their own religion will be automatically exalted.