What is the origin or source of all this? Is it Jayadeva’s imagination, fancy or invention? No. It all goes back to Shrimad BhagavataM of Vyasa. In the tenth skanda of Bhagavatam, there are five chapters (#s 29 to 33) known as ‘RAsa-panchAdhyAyi’. These five chapters describe the Raas LeelA of Krishna with the Gopis of Brindavan. But wait, before we come to that, we must tune our minds the right way in order to appreciate it all.
So let us go back to the famous story of Krishna’s theft of the clothes of the Gopis while they were bathing in the river. (Bhagavatam, Skanda X, Ch.22). It looks like an immoral story, with a child of six as the central figure. It is spoken of as though he were a full-grown man, insulting the modesty of women. Look at Annie Besant’s handling of this story. She writes:
‘The Gopis were Rishis, and the Lord Supreme as a babe is teaching them a lesson. But there is more than that. There is a profound occult lesson behind the story. When the Soul is approaching the Supreme Lord at one great stage of initiation, it has to pass through a great ordeal. Stripped of everything on which it has hitherto relied, stripped of everything that is not its inner self, deprived of all external aid, of all external protection, of all external covering, the soul itself, in its own inherent life, must stand naked and alone, with nothing to rely on save the life of the Self within it. If it flinches before the ordeal, if it clings to anything to which it has hitherto looked for help, if in the supreme hour, it cries out for friend or help, or even the Guru himself, the soul fails in that ordeal. Naked and alone it must go forth, with absolutely none to aid it save the divinity within itself. And it is that nakedness of the soul as it approaches the supreme goal, that is told of in that story’.
This defence of the conceptual fabric of Hindu spirituality is important for the proper understanding of the Raas LeelA of Krishna. In addition, there is another perspective that should never be missed in any discussion of the Raas LeelA. It is the divinity of Krishna himself.
The first description of His birth comes to us from the pen of Vyasa himself in his famous Bhagavatam. It was on that Ashtami day after Shravan Poornima, when the moon was in the asterism Rohini that Krishna was born in that famous prison of Kamsa of Mathura. According to the hair-raising description of that birth in the Shrimad Bhagavatam, tenth canto, third chapter, it was in the dense darkness of that fateful night, the Lord appeared – mark the word, appeared, not born – as an unusual child from the womb of Devaki, just like the moon rising on the eastern horizon! Oh, what a sight it was! Continues the BhagavataM: (X – 3 -9,10):
Either you believe in all this or you don’t. If you don’t believe in all this then Raas LeelA of Krishna is also a fiction in the imagination of Vyasa and there is nothing more to discuss except some poetry in the literature. If you believe in all this, then Raas-LeelA of Krishna should also be believed to be true. Not only should it be believed to be a true happening but you also get a justification for it. So when doubts arise as to the good or bad of Raas LeelA, remember, you have accepted that the birth of Krishna in the above manner is true and that means Krishna is the all-powerful Absolute Divine.
A discussion of Raas-LeelA thinking that Krishna was an ordinary person like you and me is a misnomer and a non-issue. We shall not enter the discussion of Raas-LeelA that way. We shall only discuss Raas-LeelA, with the full conviction that Krishna is the Absolute Transcendental Divinity that is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. Lacking this conviction we would have denied ourselves the fundamental eligibility to discuss Raas LeelA, and more so the prerequisites to be able to appreciate it.
Now let us come to the actual story part. Remember Krishna was a ten-year old boy at that time. Probably even less. The Gopis of Brindavan did a month-long Katyayani vrata. The purpose: To get Lord Krishna as their husband (pati, in Sanskrit). The vrata itself was a very complicated one: Bathing in the Yamuna at daybreak, making an image of the Goddess Parvati with sand on the river bank and worshipping Her with all the formalities. It was at the end of this month-long worship, the incident (as described earlier) of the robbing of their clothes by the Lord happened. The Lord chastised them that they had no business to bathe naked in the river, particularly when they were supposed to be engaged in this Katyayani vrata. After telling them that his treatment of them was in punishment of their misbehaviour, he gave them back their clothes; but also promised them that very soon their desire for sporting with the Lord, for which they did the Katyayani vrata, would be fulfilled. And in this context, he makes a very important statement which is significant for our understanding of the Ras Leela:
‘In the case of whomsoever that has turned their minds towards Me, the desire or lust that thereby arises in them would not result in bad, just as a fried or baked seed would not sprout again’ (X -22 – 26):
na may-yAveshita-dhiyAM kAmaH kAmAya kalpate /
bharjitA kathitA dhAnA prAyo bIjAya neshhyate //
Note: Recall that all books of Vedanta tell us how a man of wisdom (Brahma-jnAni) has no karma chasing him, because they are like a fried seed in his case and it will not sprout!
The night of that fulfillment arrived in the autumn following. The requisites for the divine play were all created by Him by His mAyA. “yogamAyAm-upAshritaH” (resorting to His yoga-mAyA) says the text (10-29-1). On that moonlit night, His melodious note on His flute, played in the woodlands adjoining the Yamuna, went all the way to the ears of the gopis and enraptured them. It pleasantly distracted every one and everything from normal activity and enchanted them to revel in ecstasy. Even shrubs and trees, flowers and leaves, birds and animals ‘stood enchanted’ with that rapturous divine musical rendering.
No sooner the Gopis heard the music of His flute, than they were all captivated by the symphony of joy that emanated from it. They came from all sides to the spot where He was playing the flute. Some were milking their cows, some were serving food to their husbands, some were keeping busy with their cosmetics, some were cleaning their houses, — but all of them dropped their work just where it was and ran towards Krishna. Their husbands, brothers and parents did try to stop them but of no avail. The minds of the Gopis had been lured away by the music of the flute and by the thought of Lord Krishna and they forgot all about themselves.
Some of the gopis, however, could not manage to get out of their houses, and instead they remained home with eyes closed, meditating upon Him in pure love. For these gopis the intolerable separation from their beloved caused an intense agony that burned away all impious karma (“tIvra-pApa-dhutA-shubhAH” – X-29-10). By meditating upon Him they realized His embrace, and the ecstasy they then felt exhausted their material piety. Although Lord Krishna is the Supreme Soul, these girls simply thought of Him as their lover and associated with Him in that intimate mood. Thus their karmic bondage was nullified and they abandoned, as it were, their gross material bodies.
At this point, King Parikshit asks a pertinent question to Sage Suka who is narrating the story: O sage, the gopis knew Krishna only as their lover, not as the Supreme Absolute Truth. So how could these girls, their minds caught up in the waves of worldly love, free themselves from material attachment? And the Rishi replies: Since even Sisupala, who hated Krishna, achieved perfection, then what to speak of the Lord’s dear devotees. The Supreme Lord is inexhaustible and immeasurable, and He is untouched by Prakrti because He is its controller. His personal appearance in this world is meant for bestowing the highest benefit on humanity. Persons who constantly direct their lust, anger, fear, protective affection, feeling of impersonal oneness or friendship toward Lord Hari are sure to become absorbed in thought of Him. You should not be so astonished, Oh King, because you are the unique one who had the benefit of seeing His beatific presence even while you were in your mother’s womb. (X-29-13 to 16).
Krishna saw them all coming, and when they had gathered, he told them to go back. He waved them back saying that their first duty was in their home with their husbands and relatives. He says: “I know you have ties of attachment for Me. It is but proper. All creatures in the world will find delight in Me (‘prIyante mayi jantavaH’ : X-29-23). But your duty is elsewhere. For a woman from a respectable family, petty adulterous affairs are always condemned. They bar her from heaven, ruin her reputation and bring her difficulty and fear”. And He ends this sermon by making a famous declaration (X-29-27) which He himself repeats later:
shravaNAt darshanAt dhyAnAt mayi bhAvo’nukIrtanAt /
na tathA sannikarshheNa pratiyAta tato gRhAn // meaning,
“Transcendental love for Me arises by the devotional processes of hearing about Me, seeing My Deity form, meditating on Me and faithfully chanting My glories. The same result is not achieved by mere physical proximity. So please go back to your homes”.
But the Gopis don’t listen. To his argument that their duty is to their husbands and families, they reply that He is the pati, the husband of the entire world and therefore of them all, and so their first duty is to Him. “Not only that, Oh Lord, our minds which were all along with our families and our work have now been totally captivated by You. Our hands and feet are not ours. Our minds are not ours. They are all yours. They refuse to do any work which is not directed at You. So don’t throw us back. Deign to accept us as your servants”. And they were steadfast in this determination. Seeing their steadfastness, Krishna decided to please them.
iti viklavitaM tAsAM shrutvA yogeshvareshvaraH /
Prahasya sadayaM gopIH AtmArAmo’pyarIramat // X-29-42
Smiling upon hearing these despondent words from the gopîs, Lord Krishna, the supreme master of all masters of mystic yoga, mercifully satisfied them, although He is Himself Self-satisfied.
He was Himself AtmArAma, that is One who is fulfilled in Himself, by Himself for Himself. He has nothing to obtain which He does not already have. (cf. nAnavAptam-avAptavyam, … Gita III-22). When He thus moved in intimate terms with the Gopis, very soon they thought highly of themselves. They thought they were the greatest women on Earth. And the Lord became aware of their pride and arrogant thought, and intending to bless them with the right kind of spirituality, immediately vanished!
And then begins a long wailing and searching, by the Gopis. They could not stand this separation from the Lord. They lose their head and become really mad for Him. This is called the experience of ‘viraha’, separation. It is said by all exponenets of bhakti that the highest form of bhakti is the experience of this viraha from the Lord. We think we are all very devoted to God. But do we feel the pangs of separation from Him as the gopis felt?
People say God does not take the offering we give Him ; but do we offer it the way Sabari offered Him? [ “lok kahte hai bhagwAn khAte nahiM; kyA haM shabarI kI taraH khilAte haim?” ].
People say that God does not come to our rescue; but do we call Him with that conviction and pangs of anxiety that was characteristic of Draupadi’s call? [ “lok kahte hai bhagwAn Ate nahiM; kyA haM draupadI kI taraH bulAte haiM?”].
People say that God does not bless us; but do we love Him with that intensity of Radha’s love? [“lok kahte hai bhagwaan prasAd karte nahiM; kyA ham rAdhA kI tarah pyAr karte haiM?”].
To continue our story. The Gopis keep roaming about in the woods, searching for Him. In the process of this roaming, they identify the footsteps of their Lord and try to follow those footsteps. Lo and behold! They do not find their Lord but they find one more pair of footsteps side by side with the Lord’s footsteps! And they look at it carefully. They recognize it as a woman’s footsteps. Their jealousy knows no bounds. How come!
One of their own group, has found it possible to be with the Lord and is now enjoying the privilege of His company all alone! What a supreme fortunate circumstance for her! She must be the most beloved of Krishna among all of them!
On the other hand that single gopi who was with Krishna had an interesting experience. She certainly enjoys the company of the Lord, all alone. But that very enjoyment puffs up her head and she tries to aspire for more of the Lord than the others. Instead of walking up along with the Lord, she suggests to Him that He may carry her on His shoulders, and to her great satisfaction the Lord agrees to do that. He says “Alright, get up on my shoulders” and he poses for her. But when she attempts to climb up on His shoulders, He is no more there – He has vanished! That was the end of her puffed up pride! And the rest of the company joins her now and together they all search for the Lord.
Incidentally, this single gopi is perhaps the Radha of later literature. The name Radha does not occur in the Bhagavatam.
When finally the moon went behind the clouds and there was no more moonlight, they all returned to their starting place and spent their time talking about Krishna. Their minds absorbed in thoughts of Him, they conversed about Him, acted out His pastimes and felt themselves filled with His presence. They no more remembered their homes as they loudly sang the glories of Krishna’s transcendental qualities: The shloka which says this, namely,
tad-guNAn-eva gAyantyaH nAtmAgArANi sasmaruH // X-30-43
is one of the most famous quotes from Shrimad Bhagavatam, because it characterises the supreme prema-bhakti of the Gopis. It is considered to be at the apex of all bhakti forms. In fact, it reflects exactly what Krishna himself describes in the Gita (V-17):
gacchanty-apunar-AvRttiM jnAna-nirdhUta-kalmashhAH //
Those who have their intellect absorbed in That, whose Self is That, who are steadfast in That, who have That as their supreme Goal-they attain the state of non-returning, their dirt having been removed by Knowledge.
This kind of total absorption in God is the ultimate in Bhakti. That is why the Gopis are cited as the supreme example of self-effacing bhakti. There have been several types of devotees all over time and all over the world. But the Lord values only such selfless bhakti. The bhakti of the gopis is unique in all of history, because, they did not achieve that kind of superlative approbation from the Lord by any of the usual means of spiritual living, namely, charity, ritual sacrifice, ritualistic vrata, religious discipline, penance, philosophical speculation, or yogic practice. None of these they had. None of these can give that kind of union with the Lord as the constant mental association with Him that they did have. (Narayaneeyam: 94-10):
tvat-sangenaiva gopyaH kila sukRti-tamAH
bhakteSh-vanyeShu bhUas-svapi bahu-manuShe bhaktim-eva
tan-me tvad-bhaktim-eva dRDaya hara gadAn kRShNa
That state of supremely blissful union with Thee, which is difficult to obtain through (disciplines like) charity, (ritual) sacrifices, observance of vows, self-control, austerities, knowledge (sAnkhya), and yoga, was attained by the blessed gopikas of Brindavan, through just personal attachment to Thee as their own beloved. Numerous are Thy other devotees, but it is this loving personal devotion of the gopikas that has received Thy highest appreciation. Therefore Oh Krishna, Oh Lord of Guruvayoor, May Thou strengthen devotion in me and destroy my ailments.
In fact this underscores the importance of personal involvement with the Lord in intimate terms, from the heart of hearts. All the formalities of our religious observances pale into insignificance before such a personal relationship with God. Whatever we may do, we must strive to see that this innate feeling of love for the Lord becomes the undercurrent. This is the only thing He asks from us. More than intellectual understanding of the various nuances of scriptures and philosophy, what He expects from us is this self-negating love for Him and all that stands for Him, namely, the universe. One may recall here Gita IX – 34:
manmanA bhava madbhakto madyAjI mAM namaskuru /
mAmevaiShyasi yuktvaivaM AtmAnaM mat-parAyaNaH //
meaning, Saturate your mind with me; be devoted to me; work for me; bow down to me; having thus united your whole self with me, taking me as the supreme Goal, you shall come unto me. This self-negating love has been defined by Narada in his bhakti-sutra, as follows (Sutra 54):
guNa-rahitaM kAmanA-rahitaM pratikShaNa-vardhamAnaM
avicchinnaM sUkShma-taram anubhava-rUpaM.
Meaning, (This pure love is) without attributes, without the poison of desire, every moment increasing, unbroken, subtlest, and of the nature of sheer immediate experience. In fact almost every exponent of bhakti says the same thing.
Let us come back to the story. The Gopis, having lost track of Krishna in the physical world, spend their time now singing about Him in all ecstasy. This singing as told in 18 delightful verses of Shrimad Bhagavatam is called “gopikA-gItaM”. It is chapter 31 of Skanda 10. In traditional India these 18 verses are usually taught to young girls for them to obtain the fullest grace of God, particularly with respect to their marriage. Jayadeva’s Gita Govindam derives inspiration from this. Let us see just three shlokas out of the 18. In the practical performance of the dance of gopikA-gItaM it is common to use the word ‘kRshhNa’ repeatedly to keep the beat:
jayati te’dhikaM (kRshhNa) janmanA vrajaH
shrayata indirA (kRshhNa) shashvad-atra hi /
dayita dRshyatAM (kRshhNa) dikshhu tAvakAH
tvayi dhRtAsavaH (kRshhNa) tvAM vicinvate // (X-31-1)
O beloved, Your birth in the land of Vraja has made it exceedingly glorious, and thus Indirâ, the goddess of fortune, always resides here. It is only for Your sake that we, Your devoted servants, maintain our lives. We have been searching everywhere for You, so please show Yourself to us.
na khalu gopikA (kRshhNa) nandano bhavAn
akhila-dehinAM (kRshhNa) antar-Atma-dRk /
vikhanasArthito (kRshhNa) vishva-guptaye
sakha udeyivAn (kRshhNa) sAtvatAm kule // (X-31-4)
You are not actually the son of the gopî Yas’odâ, O friend, but rather the indwelling witness in the hearts of all embodied souls. Because Lord Brahmâ prayed for You to come and protect the universe, You have now appeared in the Sâtvata dynasty.
tava kathAmRtaM (kRshhNa) tapta-jIvanaM
kavibhir-IDitaM (kRshhNa) kalmashhApahaM /
shravaNa-mangaLaM (kRshhNa) shrImad-AtataM
bhuvi gRNanti te (kRshhNa) bhuridA janAH // (X-31-9)
The nectar of Your words and the descriptions of Your activities are the life and soul of those suffering in this material world. These narrations, transmitted by learned sages, eradicate one’s sinful reactions and bestow good fortune upon whoever hears them. They are filled with spiritual power. Certainly those who spread the message of Godhead must have been munificent.
At the end of it all, Krishna reappears. The Gopis are agog with excitement. It was as if their lives returned to them (“tanvaH prANaM iva AgataM” X-32-3). All the varieties of human emotions that can arise at such an event are described here without inhibitions. It is a no-holds-barred description. At the end of it all, Krishna, whose seat is in the hearts of great yogis, now sits encircled by these gopis on an elevated sand dune on the bank of Kalindi, lit up splendidly by the abundant autumnal moonlight and starts talking with them in very intimate terms. It is said that each gopi had the feet of the Lord on her lap.
Mark this statement. Here starts the full sway of the mAyA of the Lord. There were at least a hundred gopis. In fact the numbers that are mentioned in the Bhagavatam will make our heads reel. Anyway there were several of them. If each one had the feet of the Lord on her lap, and if each one was having the feeling that the Lord was talking to herself with His feet on her lap, the Lord must have replicated himself as many times as there were gopis there. This point is mentioned when the actual Raas Leela starts, but even here the magic of the mAyA has started!
Now Krishna starts talking. In fact they have raised an important question for Him to answer. Some people reciprocate the affection only of those who are affectionate toward them, while others show affection even to those who are indifferent or inimical. And yet others will not show affection toward anyone. Dear Krishna, please properly explain this matter to us.(X-32-16), say the Gopis. And He explains very patiently, in shlokas 17 to 22:
So-called friends who show affection for each other only to benefit themselves are actually selfish. They have no true friendship, nor are they following the true principles of religion. Indeed, if they did not expect benefit for themselves, they would not reciprocate. Some people are genuinely merciful or, like parents, naturally affectionate. Such persons, who devotedly serve even those who fail to reciprocate with them, are following the true, faultless path of religion, and they are true well-wishers.
Some people, being spiritually self-satisfied, do not reciprocate others’ affection because they want to avoid entanglement in mundane dealings. Other persons do not reciprocate simply out of envy or arrogance. And still others fail to reciprocate because they are materially satisfied and thus uninterested in new material
I do understand that simply for My sake you had rejected the authority of worldly opinion, of the Vedas and of your relatives. But I acted as I did only to increase your attachment to Me. Even when I removed Myself from your sight by suddenly disappearing, I never stopped loving you.
Therefore, My beloved gopîs, please do not harbor any bad feelings toward Me, your beloved. I will not be able to repay My debt for your spotless service, even within a lifetime of Brahmâ.
(na pâraye ‘ham niravadya-samyujâm
sva-sâdhu-krityam vibudhâyushâpi vah) X-32-22
Your connection with Me is beyond reproach. You have worshiped Me, cutting off all domestic ties, which are difficult to break. Therefore please let your own glorious deeds be your compensation.
This passage speaks volumes about the love of the gopis towards Krishna and how he acknowledged it. It is the charter that gives the universally glorified sanctity to the spotless Krishna-Bhakti of the Gopis. Great devotees are not great because they call themselves so (if at all), but because the Lord calls them great!
And now begins the Raas LeelA, the most enchanting of all His leelAs. They all linked their arms together and thought they were encircling Him. But actually between each pair of gopis there was a Krishna. Each Gopi felt the left hand of Krishna on her right shoulder and the right hand of Krishna on her left shoulder. She was thinking therefore that Krishna was dancing in front of her, facing her with His hands on her shoulders. But what was happening was that she had one Krishna on her left and another Krishna on her right! The yogeshvara that Krishna was, he had enveloped the entire assembly of Gopis in His mAyA and their minds were not their own now. They thought whatever He wanted them to think! But they all enjoyed an eternal bliss in the play of Raas LeelA! There were actually three such plays.
One in water (‘jala-kRIDA), one in the woods (‘vana-kRIDA’) and one on open ground (‘sthala-kRIDA’). The night itself got extended because the elements had all halted. Heaven and Nature watched this magnificent divine romantic dance of the several Krishnas with the several Gopis. And the beauty of it all was, that, back home, in every house of the gopis, the gopi’s husband did not miss his wife; as far as he knew she was there with him!. The whole world was in trance, as it were! That was the greatness of the Raas dance!
Well, let us come down to terra firma. When this whole thing had been narrated by Suka, King Parikshit asks the most relevant question: “Well, let me take it that Krishna had nothing to achieve, because He is always self-fulfilled. But what he did does not appear to be ethical, from any worldly angle. Why, then, did he do that? Should He not set the right example?” (X-33 – 27 to 29).
Note that Parikshit’s question is not the question we ourselves raised at the beginning of this article. We said that we shall not be discussing this issue if it had the assumption that Krishna was an ordinary human being. King Parikshit postulates his acceptance of the divinity of Krishna. But his question is: Why does the Lord set a bad example for mankind?
And Suka answers: (X – 33 -30 to 38): The status of Ishvara is not harmed by any apparently audacious transgression of morality we may see in Him, for He is just like fire, that devours everything fed into it and remains unpolluted. We ordinary people should never imitate the behavior of such ruling personalities, even mentally. If out of foolishness an ordinary person does imitate such behaviour, he will simply destroy himself, just as a person who is not Rudra would destroy himself if he tried to drink an ocean of poison. It is the words of Ishvara which we should follow, not those of His actions which are inconsistent with those words. When these great persons who are free from false ego act piously in this world, they have no selfish motives to fulfill, and even when they act in apparent contradiction to the laws of piety, they are not subject to sinful reactions. How, then, could the Lord of all created beings have any connection with the piety and impiety that affect His subject creatures?
Material activities never entangle even the devotees of the Supreme Lord, who are fully satisfied by serving the dust of His lotus feet. Nor do material activities entangle those intelligent sages who have freed themselves from the bondage of all fruitive reactions by the fact that they have disassociated themselves with their body, mind intellect. Then, how could there be any question of bondage for the Lord Himself, who assumes His transcendental forms according to His own sweet will?
The Actionlessness of the Lord is well-known from his statements in the Gita:
By Me was created the four varNas, in accordance with their GuNas and karma. Know Me as its doer and know Me also as the imperishable non-doer. (Gita IV-13)
Those works do not bind Me. I sit, indifferent as it were, unattached to those actions. (Gita IX – 9)
In fact Actionlessness is a central concept in the understanding of the actions of a man of wisdom (brahma-jnAni). The nAhaM kartA (I-am-not-the-doer) attitude is the core of all of Krishna’s advice to Arjuna. For more on this, go to http://www.geocities.com/profvk/livehappily_11.html
He who lives as the sAkshhI (overseeing witness) within the gopîs and their husbands, and indeed within all embodied living beings, assumes forms in this world to enjoy transcendental pastimes. When the Lord assumes a humanlike
body to show mercy to His devotees, He engages in such pastimes as will attract those who hear about them to become dedicated to Him.
For us, devotees of Krishna, we are told by Suka himself, that those who listen to these stories of this great Raas LeelA of Krishna, will not only become great devotees of the Lord, but would be able to conquer the ingrained lust in the human psyche!
LokAs samastAs sukhino bhavantu.