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Rādhā and Krishna: Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda

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Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa

As saffron-bright bodies
Of women rushing to meet lovers
Streak the night
With clusters of light,
Night spreads darkness as dense
As tamāla leaves,
Making a touchstone
To test the gold of love.
– Jayadeva

Once upon a time, the great god Vishnu took human form to walk the earth, and he was called Krishna. There has never been a more beautiful child beneath the stars, with skin the blue of the midnight sky, and eyes that flash like lightening. His voice could be as melodious as a flute, or as terrible as thunder rolling over the hills.

The Purānas tells us that in his youth, Krishna was a simple cowherd. Because of his vitality and great beauty, he drew all the lovely cowherd women to him, as bees are drawn to mango flowers in spring.

One day as Krishna sat beside the waters in a rain that drenched both heaven and earth, a vision appeared before him, more beautiful than the rising sun. It was Rādhā, whose face, the stories say, robbed the harvest moon of splendor.

Krishna loved her with the fierce passion of his immortal heart, and when they joined together, flowers rained from the sky, and all the celestial Apsara nymphs danced like stars turning in great wheels.

Krishna said to his beloved “You are dearer to me than my love, comely Rādhā. As I am, so are you, there is no difference between us. Just as there is whiteness in milk, and heat in fire, and fragrance in the earth, so am I in you always. A potter cannot make a pot without clay, nor a goldsmith an earring without gold. Likewise, I cannot create without you, for you are the soil of creation, and I, invincible, the seed. Come and lie with me, good woman, take me to your breast; you are my beauty, as an ornament is to my body.” (1)

So Rādhā and Krishna are one, and in the act of creation, Vishnu creates through her, and as a complementary pair they complete the totality of the sacred whole.

This is the stuff of the spectacular Hindu Purānas, written in the early first millennium CE during the golden age of Sanskrit poetics, the time of the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad Gītā, and the great poet Kālidāsa, whose play “The Recognition of Shakuntala” is a masterpiece worthy of Shakespeare or Goethe.

From this rich legacy of story, the twelfth century poet Jayadeva composed his Gītagovinda, or Song of the Cowherd, which presents scenes from the courtship of Rādhā and Krishna in a series of songs. Given as we are in the Judeo-Christian tradition to associate divine love with the spiritual agape, and never with eros, it can be startling to contemplate consummating love’s ardor with God. Jayadeva’s verse gives flight to the imagination:

When he quickens all things
To create bliss in the world,
His soft black sinuous lotus limbs
Begin the festival of love
And beautiful cowherd girls wildly
Wind him in their bodies.
Friend, in spring young Hari plays
Like erotic mood incarnate. (2)

A major theme of Jayadeva’s work is Rādhā’s intense jealousy as Krishna’s eye strays to the other girls. She is irresistibly drawn to him, even as his philandering ways drive her to fury and despair:

Her house becomes a wild jungle,
Her band of loving friends a snare.
Sighs fan her burning pain
To flames that rage like forest fire.
Suffering your desertion,
She takes form as a whining doe
And turns Love into Death
Disguised as a tiger hunting prey. (3)

It is interesting to note that just as Jayadeva was composing his testimony to a sacred if unfaithful love, the Minnesingers and Troubadours were praising adultery throughout Europe, and Gottfried von Strassbourg (died c. 1210) was conceiving his great romance Tristan, which would exalt transgressive love as the heart’s highest sacrament. And, at this time, a the praise of love was resounding through the Islamic world, in the verse and philosophy of the Sufi masters Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī (1207-1273) and Ibn ʿArabī (1165-1240).

The prevailing moods of the Gītagovinda are union, love, passion, and delight, and its popularity is attested by the ubiquitous statuettes found of the holy couple across India to this day.

Jayadeva’s masterpiece has inspired countless performances of song and dance. It was only after I was well-acquainted with the Gita as a literary document that it occurred to me that they are intended to be sung. If you have a minute, I very much recommend listening to Gayathri Girish’s sumptuous recording of Song 21 of Gītagovinda in the YouTube video to the right.

Here is a translation of the first few stanzas of the song Girish brings to life, as rendered by Barbara Stoller Miller:

Revel in wild luxury on the sweet thicket floor!
Your laughing face begs ardently for his love.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in a thick bed of red petals plucked as offerings!
Strings of pearls are quivering on your rounded breasts.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in bright retreat heaped with flowers!
Your tender body is flowering.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in the fragrant chill of gusting sandal-forest winds!
Your sensual singing captures the mood.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel where swarming bees drunk on honey buzz soft tones!
Your emotion is rich in the mood of love.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world! (4)

(1) Dimmit C & van Buitenen J. A. Classical Hindu Mythology; A Reader in the Sanskrit Purānas. Temple University Press. 1978. p. 120
(2) Miller BS. Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda. Columbia University Press. 1977. p. 77
(3) Miller, p. 88
(4) Miller, p. 118


Written by Mesocosm

March 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm