This is adapted from a talk I gave the National Gallery of Victoria.
We meditate upon that transcendent reality from
Whom the universe springs, in whom it abides
And into whom it returns,
Because He is present in all existing things…
We meditate upon Him who is self-conscious and self-effulgent…
On account of whom the creation shines as a reality and
Who excludes illusion by his own Self-effulgent glory. (Bhagavatam page xiv)
Thus begins the Bhagavatam, the Book of God, one of Hinduism’s most holy texts, the story of the birth, life and death of Lord Krishna. Sages have gathered in a holy city to perform a yagna, a fire ritual and to hear spiritual discourse. They invite Sūta, who they call ‘the master of all the scriptures’ to give a summary on ‘how man will instantly be delivered from this ever-whirling cycle of birth and death.’
Sūta replies saying:
‘Man should constantly endeavor to do that which generates devotion to Lord Krishna—devotion which is motiveless, which knows no obstruction, and as a result of which one realizes the all-blissful God.’(2nd January page I.2)
Many Hindu texts take the form of conversations between a Guru and a disciple. The disciple is in a state of apathy, weighed down by sorrow, and the Guru works diligently to teach the disciple by anecdote, story and example in order to free him or her from suffering.
In the customary style of teaching Sūta narrates a conversation between King Parikshit, who is destined to die in seven days, and Shukadev, a great sage, who has agreed to impart his wisdom to the dying king.
Their conversation goes on uninterrupted for seven days prior to the king’s death, during which the king does not eat, drink or sleep. Shuka tells the king that the true goal in life is to give up sensual enjoyment and embrace the supreme absolute truth, embodied in the teachings and life of Shri Krishna.
Hindu theology differs from Western in that it says the sages, saints, great beings and Gurus, the ‘son of God’ take birth now, and always. There is never a time when a great being does not exist.
The Bhagavatam says there are three types of people incarnating at all times: human beings, wicked people and those inclined toward divinity, or gods, who are known as Avatars, Gurus, sages and seers.
The difference between Gurus, sages and Avatars is that an Avatar is born self-realized, with full knowledge and experience of their divinity and oneness with the Lord. They are souls who ‘descend into the lower realm,’ into the world, for a special purpose. Avatars incarnate when the suffering of mankind is overpowering joy; evil is rising over good; or by the intense yearning of devotees for their beloved Lord to manifest in human form.
Gurus, seers and sages are born with an inclination to know the Self. They are conscious of their separation from the Lord and but must do sadhana, spiritual practice and austerity in order to realize the Self and connect with the Divine.
An Avatar’s life, is a ‘lila’, a play or sport of the Lord and is never ordinary, it is epic. As their lives unfold there are dramatic incidences of violence, unconditional love, confusion, self-realization, knowledge, apathy, sorrow, anger, despair, greed, fear, jealousy, desire, lust and finally, moksha¸ freedom from suffering for there devotees.
‘Whenever there is decline of righteousness here and an increase of sin, then the lord manifests himself.’ (3rd August page IX.24)
Krishna’s life is typical of an Avatar’s, which is full of tests and miracles. As he overcomes the obstacles he teaches those witnessing them and those who are eager to hear the truth. The outcome of each challenge shows how right understanding leads to right action and right action leads to freedom.
The energy of an Avatar represent different aspects of God’s power: Brahma, the creative energy, Shiva, the energy of dissolution and change and Vishnu, the sustaining energy or “that which abides”. Each has a feminine counterpart or Goddess as a consort. She is known as Shakti, the Holy Mother, Maya, or the great Goddess. She is also called Kali, Durga, Devi, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Radha and Parvati; her names are many and represent the female aspect of God. Her responsibility is to manifest the material world, the mission and work of the Lord, the avatar and the Guru. She gives outer form to the Lord’s highest attainment and spiritual goals. She embodies power and energy, compassion and wisdom.
The masculine energy is still, quiet, peaceful, tranquil and calm; the feminine energy is dynamic, powerful, creative. He is a canvas; She is the artist who gives shape, colour and texture. He is a screen; She is the image on the screen. He is a lake; She is the rippling wave on the lake. He is the invisible; She is the visible.
The scriptures say that the masculine and feminine energies unite in cosmic ecstasy to create the whole universe. Although they appear separate they are one and never apart. Shakti is the inner potency of the Lord manifested as the world and is His spiritual inspiration.
The Lord and Shakti incarnate in order to experience themselves as ‘other’ and to play out the dance of separation and oneness. They mirror the positive and negative, the dark and the light, the possibility of liberation and the temptation of destruction. In this cosmic joining the masculine and feminine reflect and manifest the highest spiritual potential, the personal and divine Self of a human being.
Krishna was accompanied by two main Shaktis, Radha, head Gopi, and her friends the cowgirls, who he bewitched and beguiled in his youth and Rukmini, the wife of his elder years.
The exact date of Krishna’s birth was not recorded, however most scholars agree that it coincided with the advent of the Kali Yuga, the age of darkness which began at least 3000 years before the birth of Christ. Some scholars think that Krishna was a folk hero whose valor became legend over generations, and he took on God-like attributes. Some say that he may not have been one person and that his story is a series of fables of different men from different eras morphed into one man. Regardless of whether he was one person or many, today Krishna is worshipped by millions of Hindus as an incarnation of the God Vishnu and is regarded as the “Lord of Love”.
Love inspires everyone. Artists, writers, poets, and actors search for inspiration to give voice to their craft out of love. Others seek love in order to give a focus to life and anchor it. Love settles us and gives us a purpose for living.
Love is the sustaining power of our lives. We create works of art, build a career and a family and sustain life by love, by giving it our attention, energy and good heart. Our lives are reflections of loving thoughts and feelings. When we withdraw love, we stop sustaining what we have created and our life begins to fall apart. When we again turn to our life with love, it flourishes.
Love is the reason and purpose of Krishna’s birth. His mission is to reflect God’s love and to show his devotees how to attain it and hold onto it.
Avatars never take birth alone, not only do they have a Shakti; they are accompanied by a host of companions. Each has a spiritual attitude, a bhav toward the Lord. Some are friends, lovers, wife or husband, colleagues, servants, advisors, gurus, demigods, saints and enemies. They are a mandala, a circle of wholeness and completion, each with a particular role to play in the Avatar’s drama. And so Krishna is accompanied by a retinue of associates who help him fulfill his destiny.
The Radha bhav, the attitude of the Gopis toward Krishna, is said to be the highest spiritual feeling that a person can hold toward God. The Gopis consider Krishna to be husband and lover for Krishna embodies everything that is holy and sacred. They are pulled toward him in order to reach ‘Supreme Love’.
Their love has some of the qualities of personal romantic love, the love we look for when we search for a partner. However, it is much more than the personal love most of us know. Personal love can be contaminated by desire for pleasure and possessiveness. Inevitably, when romance and Eros fade it falls under the influence of fear, desire, anger and attachment.
Radha bhav is complex, mysterious, and contains the bittersweet experience called ‘the bliss of the pain of separation’. The relationship is more piquant from the dance of union and separation, the longing to merge with the Lord or Guru, the pain of separation from Him and finally permanent union with Him.
The Gopis feel an intense attraction, a yearning to be close to their object of love, Krishna. This is partially due to Krishna’s mission, which is to draw them close to him so that they can realise unconditional love and become an inspiration for others. However their love must be free of selfishness or any negative emotion that separates them from Krishna. Their spiritual task is to hold to devotion, the highest understanding and love for Krishna without attachment, without wanting anything in return.
Krishna energy is charming, fickle and playful. Krishna types are usually the naughty boys that girls adore and mothers fear. Mothers have a sixth sense about the Krishna energy and encourage their daughters to avoid it. Of course, they don’t and heartbreak is usually inevitable. In the contemporary novel ‘The Hindi Bindi Club’ one mother’s advice to her daughter is, ‘play around with Krishna but marry Shiva.’ Shiva is loyal, faithful and steady.
The Krishna of the Bhagavatam is much more than a charming young man; he is the Lord of the universe and has a serious purpose. His mission is to return righteousness, divine love and prosperity to the people of the land of Vraja.
As our story begins, at the onset of the age of darkness, violence, greed, dishonesty and jealousy are on the rise. There is great fear and confusion in the land where Krishna is about to take birth. Kamsa, a wicked king whose addiction to pleasure has destroyed his wisdom and compassion, rules the kingdom of Vraja.
Kamsa arranges the marriage of his sister, Devaki, to a local king, Vasudev. On their wedding day Kamsa hears a voice in his mind that tells him that Devaki’s eighth child will slay him. He decides to kill Devaki and her future husband. Upon hearing their fate, Vasudev convinces Kamsa to imprison them both instead of murdering Devaki. Kamsa agrees with a promise that he will slay every child born to them and so he does.
Years pass and evil has risen. It is time for the Lord to incarnate. He speaks to his Shakti and asks Her to incarnate with him saying that:
‘You will earn a place of glory in the heart of humanity. People will erect temples for you and worship you in your various aspects….’(5th August, page X.2)
The night of the birth of the eighth child Krishna, the gates of the prison mysteriously open. Vasudev recognizes the hand of the Lord in this magic. He carries Krishna to Vrindavan, where he exchanges him for the girl child, the newborn daughter of Yashoda, wife of King Nanda, ruler of Vraja who will foster Krishna into manhood.
When Kamsa hears of the birth, he comes to kill the newborn baby girl. She manifests as the Supreme Goddess, the holy mother Mahamaya, and scares him off. Laughing at his folly she says:
‘What is the use of trying to kill me, O fool! Your death has taken birth somewhere else. Therefore, do not harm the innocent.’ (8th August, page X.4)
Since then the divine mother has been worshipped everywhere under many different names. Unable to slay her, Kamsa vows to destroy all babies under the age of ten months.
As the story of Krishna’s birth and Kamsa’s failure becomes known, the people of the valley herald the birth of an incarnation of Vishnu, sent to release them from Kamsa’s tyranny.
As Kamsa’s wickedness grows so too does the divine power of Lord Krishna. From the moment of his birth it is obvious he is not an ordinary person. Miracles happen around him. As a young child he is shepherd to the village cows; he defends them against wild animals and thieves, thereby safeguarding the villagers’ income, food and wellbeing. Krishna’s sweet nature attracts the villagers to him and they share in the ecstasy of his spiritual joy. He plays various roles. He is the magical child who teases the village mothers, steals their butter and hides things from them.
When Kamsa sends a host of demons to slay Krishna and others, he easily wins every battle, even as a young boy. His reputation grows and the whole valley celebrates him as an incarnation of the Lord. He is constantly demonstrating his mystical power that confirms their belief that he is none other than the supreme Lord Vishnu.
Krishna’s older brother, Balaram, who avoided death at the hands of Kamsa by mystical means, always accompanies Krishna. Krishna and his brother enchant the villagers, for a radiant light seems to follow them wherever they go.
‘Here comes Krishna, the protector of Vraja and the cows, with elders bowing to him. He appears fatigued, but even so he is beautiful and delightful to look at, with his garland covered with the dust of the hooves of the cows—his dear ones. As he strolls in, like a little elephant, he removes the distress in our hearts caused by our separation from him during the day.’ (10th September page X.35)
Later in his life he is a great King and wise Guru but for now he is the sustainer of lives and playmate of the Gopis. As Krishna grows up he becomes the enchanter, the playful seducer of tender hearts. He is flirtatious and teases the cowgirls without mercy. He calls them to him and then runs away, thereby increasing their yearning to be in his company. His romantic play of oneness and separation intensifies as he leaves his childhood behind and enters manhood.
‘It was summer. But in Vrndavan, it was forever springtime. The blazing sun shone pleasantly over the valley, bringing warmth but not heat. The air was constantly cooled by the numerous ponds and was laden with the fragrance and the pollen of flowers. The earth was thickly carpeted with many-hued flowers for the Lord to sport on; and the birds and beasts entertained him with their sweet notes. He loved them. He was love.’ (23rd August, X.18/19)
Then autumn followed:
‘As the moon is surrounded by stars, so Krishna, surrounded by his friends, brought delight to the hearts of all. The temperate climate brought relief to the hearts of all except the women of Vrndavan whose hearts had been stolen by Krishna.’
And so the scene is set for Krishna to show the Gopis their spiritual destiny. They had already lost their hearts to him. During the months of December and January they rose early every day and bathed in the river. Afterward they worshipped the goddess Katyayani and prayed:
‘Oh Goddess Katyayani, please make Krishna my husband’. (26th August, X.22)
Upon hearing their prayer Krishna replies:
‘I know your hearts’ desire, O chaste girls, and it shall be fulfilled. Desire directed towards me is no desire at all, even as seed roasted in fire is no seed. You will soon realize the fruit of your worship of the Goddess.’ (26th August, page X.22)
In other words the yearning directed toward the Lord is free of negative consequence. Because their prayer is full of devotion for the Lord, it is only a matter of time before Krishna grants their wishes.
The Gopis are either married or betrothed. Certainly no husband, betrothed or parent would allow his or her daughters to sport unattended with a man, even if he is the Lord. So then, what of their attitude?
The Gopis fear their husbands and parents might disown them for visiting Krishna un-chaperoned and tell Krishna of their doubt. Krishna assures them that there is nothing to fear, and there is not.
Their husbands, parents and betrothed are sporting with Krishna also, in order to know the love of the Self. Aware of his great spiritual power and radiance they curse themselves. They are guilty and embarrassed in front of the knowing eye of Krishna. They admit that many of their religious rites and sacrifices have only worked to make them selfish and greedy. Praying to Krishna they plea:
‘Surely we are blessed to have had these ladies as our partners in life, for through them we too can develop devotion to the Lord’. (28th August, page X.23)
Already the Gopis are fulfilling their spiritual destiny by example of pure devotion that has moved their husbands to self-examination. Krishna counsels all of the villagers to be like a tree saying:
‘Blessed is the life of a tree. They afford food and shelter to all beings, and they never turn anyone away without sharing what they have. By their fruits, leaves, flowers, roots, bark and firewood they serve all. This indeed is the greatest duty—that one serves another and works out one’s salvation with the life, wealth, intelligence and speech that one has.’ (26th August, page X.22)
Krishna takes every opportunity to teach and encourage the villagers.
One autumn day there is a special sweetness in the air. The Gopis are constantly meditating on Krishna, yearning to become one with him, the villagers are pining to catch a glimpse of him, and the whole valley is alive and glowing from his radiance. The atmosphere is intoxicating.
The story goes on:
‘It was autumn and in the clear blue sky the lovely full moon rose. The setting was ideal, thought Krishna, for enacting a divine drama. Krishna was seated in the forest and, wishing to shower his grace upon the gopis, he played a few notes on his flute. The music fanned the flame of love that constantly burned in their hearts of these women.
‘Spell-bound they began to arrive where Krishna was seated. At the moment they heard the flute of Krishna they dropped whatever they were doing and turned their steps towards him. Not one could restrain them. It did not matter if they were not properly dressed and adorned. At the first sound of the music, their hearts, their soul, their very life and already reached the feet of Krishna; the body followed without argument.
‘Some, however, found that all the exits from their house had been bolted and locked. Contemplating Krishna in their hearts they sat with their eyes closed. Intense longing burned in them—and it burned the residue of ignorance and bad deeds. In deep meditation they embraced the Krishna of their soul, and the bliss they enjoyed worked more deeply on the residue of past good karma in them. Thus rid of the consequences of both good and bad karma, and resorting to Krishna, though as a lover, they attained so: one who loves or hates; fears or befriends the Lord is united with him. This is the very purpose of his incarnation: to make himself easily accessible to everyone.’ (2nd September, page X.29)
The Bhagavatam says that any thought, whether positive or negative, when turned toward the Lord, invites the Lord into the heart. And so, even the wicked can attain liberation, even though they meditate upon Krishna with grievance or evil. The Gopis’ work is the opposite, to meditate on Krishna without attachment or grievance.
When they arrive Krishna speaks:
‘Welcome blessed ladies! What shall we do? But, why have you come away from your homes at night? Your parents and husbands will be worried. It may be that you are attached to me, for I am the Self of all in which everyone finds delight. But it is the duty of a married woman to be devoted to her husband, regarding him as a god, even if he is wicked, unlucky, aged, sick or poor. It is not necessary that my devotee should by physically close to me, but should hear and sing my glories and meditate upon me. Hence, return to your homes soon!’ (2nd September, page X.29)
The Gopis reply:
‘Do not spurn us Lord. We have completely renounced all the objects of this world and have resorted to your feet. Kindly accept us as your servants. For even so does the Lord of the universe treat the seekers after liberation. You have taught us that service to our husbands is our foremost duty. Let that be so. But are you not the very self of all beings—hence the very self of our husbands? So, by serving you we are serving them. Even they who perform their duties and scriptural rituals are only worshipping you….
‘Since we touched your lotus feet, our hearts do not wish to hold anyone else dear. The goddess of wealth vies with the sacred basil leaf for the dust of your feet. All the world seeks the blessings of that goddess; but we seek the dust of your feet. Listening to the music of your flute even birds and beasts are entranced. So how could concern for respectability restrain us from being magnetically drawn to you by that music? You have taken birth to save us from all fears and sufferings; hence, we beseech you, place your divine hands on our hearts and on our breasts.’ (3rd September, page X.29)
Krishna, moved by their plea spends time in their company. They sing, and run about in the garden. He leads them to the river bank and plays in the water. As they soak up his loving attention, the mood shifts. Each thinks they are the chosen one, superior to all other women. Krishna the indweller of all, knows their thoughts and in order to destroy their pride he vanishes. They are immediately stricken with grief. One moment their hearts are filled with love and the next overwhelming grief.
‘In the loneliness and silence of the forest they could ask no human being about Krishna’s whereabouts, but they asked the flowers, the shrubs and the vines.’ (4th September, page X.30)
When one Gopi (perhaps Radha) thinks, ‘Krishna loves me best; I am His favorite; or I am the most beautiful’; they lose touch with divinity, their egos expand and the divine vision leaves them. They again find themselves in separation.
Even though Krishna plays with them as an equal, he is their Guru and insists they renounce possessiveness. They must understand that love and oneness is sustained only in the awareness—we are one; Love is one; Krishna belongs to everyone.
For hours they search for Krishna to no avail. He is not to be found while they are in the state of attachment. Eventually realizing their folly they stop searching and sit to pray:
‘Because you were born there, Vraja is even more prosperous. Indeed, the goddess of wealth dwells there permanently now. Beloved, see how your devotees are wandering about in search of you. By the shafts of your love-laden eyes you have robbed us of our very lives. Yet you have indeed saved us, the people of Vraja, time and again from diverse calamities. We know that you are not the playmate of the Gopis, and that you are the indwelling witness of all beings. You have taken birth among the satvata [the pure] at the specific prayer of the creator.’ (6th September, page X.31)
While they are absorbed in meditation Krishna appears, ‘looking like the enchanter Cupid’. He again leads them to the bank of the river where they find a sandy beach that is illumined by a flood of moonlight. There the Gopis prepare a seat for him with their scarves. Krishna sits, surrounded by the beautiful Gopis, a heavenly sight. Sitting close to him they question him:
‘Some love those who love them, others love even those who do not love them, and yet others do not love even those who love them! Can you tell us why?’
‘Friends love one another actuated by selfish interests; there is no true friendliness there, but only self-interest. Others love even those who do not love them—this is like paternal affection; here the love is actuated by duty and friendliness, and it is blameless. Yet others do not love even those that love them: they are either sages who delight in their own self, or those whose desires have all been fulfilled, ungrateful people, or they who hate their own benefactors and elders.’
‘As for me, I do not love even those who love me, so that they may never forget me nor take me for granted, but remain forever immersed in quest of me—like a poor man who found a pearl which he lost and is, therefore, forever looking for it.
‘I disappeared from your midst for awhile but I tell you, even if I am born again and again for many millennia, I will not be able to repay the debt I owe you nor to recompense your pure love for me.’
Enthralled by the loving words of Krishna, the Gopis form a circle around him. By his own divine power he appears between every two and he commences the rasa dance. Sensing this divine play the Celestials gathers in heaven to watch this rare scene. Krishna and the Gopis dance, their bodies sway, rock and whirl. Their dresses and tresses fly around. Some are overcome by fatigue and cling to Krishna’s shoulder; some fondly kiss his arm and swoon in ecstasy; some press his hands to their bosom. Thus they play and sport with the Lord in this magical atmosphere:
‘Embracing them, touching them, looking at them, smiling at them, the Lord sported as a child would play with its own reflection.’
‘It is said that the moon, the stars, the planets and the constellations, stood still, witness this wondrous play of the Lord who was in truth reveling in his own self all the time.
‘Then, surrounded by the Gopis, he entered the waters of the river. There again he played with the gopis who sprinkled him with water as the celestials watched and rejoiced. Afterwards Krishna roamed the groves and gardens on the bank of the river surrounded by the Gopis.’ (8th September, page X.33)
Again the question of propriety arises. King Parikshit who has been listening with deep interest asks:
‘How was it that the Lord, who incarnated as Krishna to establish righteousness, thus sported with others’ wives?’ (8th September, page X.33)
‘What appears to be transgression of duty is noticed in the conduct of the great, but it does not taint them. A wise man would accept their precepts as authoritative and emulate only those actions of theirs, which are in accord with the highest teachings, not others.
‘Non-volitional, spontaneous actions of those who have transcended ego are totally unselfish and are beyond the realm of virtue and vice.’ (8th September, page X.33)
Krishna lives fearlessly without ego. And so the villagers’ spiritual task is to see Krishna with a divine eye, and not with an ordinary ‘human’ eye. He is not an interloper, who has come to tear apart lives, but he is a healer of broken hearts and a destroyer of the negative karma evil brings.
Krishna as an incarnation of the Lord, is the indweller all, of the Gopis and of their husbands. Even though he appears to be a person, a separate human being, he is not. He is not a worldly threat, but a spiritual call to see the world through the eyes of the Lord. Hence the Gopis’ husbands are accepting. Krishna’s love is not carnal and even though the Gopis’ husbands suspect there is physical affection, they are drawn into the spiritual ecstasy resulting from the dance. This was the moment of testing for the Gopis and their dear ones, to see Krishna as the inner Self of all, not as another. This was their opportunity to embrace the Lord in pure love and so be united with him.
Shortly after the dance Krishna was called to Mathura to take up his kingly responsibilities. And so, even though the Gopis personified true and pure devotion to him alas, he left them.
They pined and yearned for him. The yearning to hold the experience of him burned within them. They embraced their destiny by becoming one with him spiritually.
Later concerned about their welfare, Krishna sends his disciple Uddhava to give them a message. Upon seeing he has come from Krishna they ask:
Why have you come here and what will you gain by singing the glory of Krishna to us? Having stolen our hearts once, he has deserted us. What need of our friendship has he? For his sake we have fully controlled our inborn tendencies, likes and dislikes, and are leading the life of mendicants. The very mention of his name fills us with distress and despair. Can you take us back to Krishna?’ (22nd September, page X.47)
‘You have with your own lives laid a unique path to god-realisation—that of supreme love. Hear now Krishna’s special message to you:
‘You can never be separated from me, for I am the life and very self of all. I create, sustain and withdraw the universe, by myself, within myself. The self is ever-pure, it is consciousness itself and should be sought in and through the waking, dream and deep sleep states. At all times remember that this world is not different from an object in a dream. It is not necessary that you should be physically near me as away from me you will be spiritually closer to me.’ (22nd September, page X.47)’
The gopis are delighted to hear Krishna’s message. Moved by their profound understanding and seeing their love for Krishna Uddhava spends many months learning the art of devotion.
‘These village girls have fulfilled the purpose of human life, thought Uddhava. I salute the dust of the feet of the gopis, who uplift the three worlds by remembering and singing Krishna’s name.’ (23rd September, page X.47)
When it is time to leave, Uddhava praises their spiritual attainment saying:
‘May our minds and all our thoughts rest forever in the lotus feet of Krishna. May our speech always glorify him. May our bodies bow to him who is all-pervading, and may we ever serve him. Whatever be our destiny, may we ever be devoted to Lord Krishna.’ (23rd September, page X.47)
This ends the story of Krishna and the Gopis who to this day, remain the shining light of the Bhakti movement, the path of love.
I am not sure if the story of Krishna and the Gopis dispels the confusion and mystery of love or not. One thing is clear, however, that the ultimate test of our commitment to wanting our hearts to be full of love is, paradoxically, according to Krishna and the Gopis, to keep giving our love to God and the Guru in every situation, especially when our hearts break and it is the last thing we want to do.