Krishna's Dance with the Female Cowherds - A Joyous, Spiritual Narrative

Article of the Month - Jun 2006

This article by Nitin Kumar

(Viewed 81565 times since Jun 2006)

After having returned the clothes of the unclad maidens bathing in the sacred waters of river Yamuna, Krishna congratulated them for their unflinching devotion towards him and promised that he would sport with them during the forthcoming autumn nights.

Desire and Its Fulfillment

True to his word, when he observed the blooming jasmines, and the moon smearing the eastern sky a brilliant crimson red (like a lover returning after a long absence makes his beloved blush with his touch), all being conducive, Krishna let forth from his flute a breathtaking symphony, which stole the hearts of the beautiful women of Vraja (modern day Mathura and Vrindavana).

In the enchanting process, he made them so excited to join him that they did not even bother to finish whatever chore they were performing at the moment. Thus, for example, the milking of cows;suckling of infants; serving of food to the family (or themselves) or waiting upon husbands, all such businesses were left unfinished as they rushed out to meet Krishna.

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In their eagerness, the gopis did not, as much as take a second look at their outward appearances. Some, for example, were cleansing or painting their bodies, a few were applying collyrium (anjan) to their eyes, these cosmetic attempts at adorning themselves were left in between, and in their anxiety, some even put the lower clothes on their upper bodies and vice versa.

This vivid description from the Bhagavata Purana (29.10.1-7) makes it obvious that in their enthusiasm to meet their beloved lord, the gopis gave no thought to their physical appearance, however awkward, nor did they think twice before giving up their worldly duties. The revered guru Shankaracharya says in his philosophical poem, Viveka Chudamani:

'There is no liberation for the being attached to the body, and the liberated being has no attachment to the body. One who is asleep is not awake, and one who is awake does not dream, for these refer to two different states.' (Verse: 338)

 An Inspiring Instance of Women's Liberation:

The gopis' escape from the shackles of worldly life was not however without event. Their husbands, fathers and brothers, all tried to restrain them but to no avail. As per the Manu Smriti, the ancient text laying down a model code of conduct:

"A female should be under the control of her father during childhood, the husband in youth, and her children after the husband dies." (Manu 5.148)

"A woman should follow life-long a husband whom she is given to by her father, or her brother in consultation with the father." (5.151)

Terrace Krishnaleela

By disobeying every enumerated male relative, paying no heed to their supposed authority, the women of Vraja successfully unburdened themselves of each link of the chain binding them. Thus says the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (4.3.22)

'(In such a state) the father is not a father, mother not a mother, the world not the world, the gods not the gods and the Vedas not the Vedas. At that time, such a being, has no relation to either virtue or sin.'

Truly, Krishna is the ultimate attraction, much like a magnet draws iron files towards it, so does he attract his devotees, who care two hoots for their worldly duties, however pressing they may be. Indeed, some have imagined the first letter in his name, rendered in Sanskrit as symbolic of his 'grip' over his devotees, because of the hook-like shape in its lower half.

Transcending Karma:

Some of the women however, were physically detained from leaving their houses, being locked up inside. These closed their eyes and imbibed Krishna in their hearts. The intense suffering produced by the unbearable agony of separation was sufficient enough to wipe over the negative residue accumulated due to unfavorable karma over all their previous lives (and the present one). No sooner had they meditated upon their lord than they felt themselves embracing him and the ecstatic bliss thus generated similarly washed off the positive effects of all their meritorious karma. Thus united with the Supreme Soul, who is the self of all (param-atma), even as a beloved would do with her paramour, they were completely relieved of all karmic bonds.

Ancient commentators have believed that the Bhagavata Purana, on which the above narrative is based, is actually a commentary on the most exalted text of Indian philosophy, the Brahma Sutras. Consider what the latter has to say on the destruction of karmic residue:

Srimad Bhagavata Purana - In Two Volumes

"On attaining the highest reality (Brahman), the earlier and later sins are destroyed, which do not originate again." (4.1.13)

"The good deeds also do not cling to the one who has attained Brahman." (4.1.14)

Indeed, authoritative texts are unanimous on the point that one who has attained union with the Supreme Soul is free from the effects of karma. The Chandogya Upanishad says:

"As water does not cling to a lotus leaf, so will future sins not cling to him." (4.14.3)

"The accumulated sins of the past will be destroyed, as the fibers at the tip of a reed are burnt up when laid on fire." (5.24.3)

The Mundaka Upanishad puts it clearly:

"All the actions of a such a soul are destroyed." (2.2.8)

Here, it is interesting to observe that, even though the innocent ladies of Vraja did not recognize Krishna as the Supreme Soul, the very fact that they had intense desire for him led to their emancipation and release from the bondage of karma. It is said:

"Persons who continuously cherish love, anger, fear, affection, identity and friendliness unto the lord, ultimately attain one-ness with him." (Bhagavata Purana 10.29.15)

The idea being that whatever emotion is directed towards god, it should be intense and continuous. Sage Vyasa has the following to say in his commentary on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras:

'Virtuous deeds ripen quickly when brought to completion with intense force (tivra sam-vega). Evil deeds too come to a speedy fruition when repeatedly performed due to intense afflictions (tivra klesha).' (2.12)

The Gopis Meet Krishna:

For those of the gopis who managed to get away, Krishna's reaction on seeing them was a far cry from what they had expected. He welcomed them in extremely formal terms calling them "Highly blessed ladies," and then enquired of what service he could be to them.

The women felt dejected at his words. Formality is not for those intimate with each other, where being taken for granted is the usual norm. Krishna however, by making himself dearer, was only aiming to intensify the gopis' desire. In shringar rasa (aesthetics of love and beauty), it is most often the female who acts pricey. Here, the situation is reversed.

Krishna Meets Gopis

In either case, the fulfillment of any intimate situation is naturally heightened when one partner feigns restraint, kindling the other's desire to an elevated, aggressive pitch.

He, further on, explicitly discouraged them, even mildly chiding them for the negligence of their duty:

"It is the supreme duty of women to render service to their husbands with sincerity of heart, and to look after the well-being of relatives and nourish children." (Bhagavata Purana 10.29.24)

"Resorting to illicit intercourse with a paramour by women of noble families is fraught with miseries and dangers." (10.26)

The Gopis' Reaction:

Hearing Krishna's unfavorable words, the cowherd women grew despondent, as their expectations were frustrated. With downcast faces they started scratching the ground, as if imploring mother earth to gobble them up to save them from shame. Their breath, heated due to distress, dried up their otherwise juicy, red lips.

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The perfumed saffron they had lovingly applied on their breasts, so that the offending sweat from their bodies would not bother their beloved Krishna, was washed off by a torrent from the eyes. The tears became black on account of the collyrium (kajal). It was befitting that they attained this color, since they were weeping for Krishna, who is himself dark. Indeed, in true love, we have to forgo our own hues, and instead get drenched in the colors of our beloved. Thus did the gopis wash off the soothing red (their own) from their chest and instead rendered it black (Shayama-ranga), the color of Krishna (also known as Shyama), loudly proclaiming that they had wiped off their own egoistic identities, establishing the one Universal Soul into their hearts.

Or perhaps, frustrated by his refusal to make love to them, the gopis thus symbolically smeared off the ornamentation on their bosoms and instead blackened them. However, the tears dried up as soon as they reached the breasts, due to the excessive inflammation generated in their hearts. The two black lines, from the eyes to the breasts, seemed to trace a carpenter's saw, out to hack them into two, such intense was their emotion at the rejection. Tormented, restless and shivering with affectionate wrath, the gopis wiped their tears and urged Krishna:

"Dear lord, we have taken the refuge of your feet only after renouncing the material world and its desires. True indeed are your words that we women should perform our duties towards our families. But O Supreme Person, do tell us what, when your eternal presence is available to us, are we to gain by serving our husbands or sons who are nothing but a source of misery (due to their mortality)?"

Stream Of Emotions Flowing Under The Kadamba Tree

"Our hearts, which were lodged happily in our households and the hands, engaged in serving them, have all been enchanted by your magic and leaving your lotus feet we do not wish to move one step. Dear friend, do defuse the fire in our hearts by the torrential flood of nectar flowing from your lips (since the blaze is enormous it requires a flood rather than a mere sprinkle to quench it)."

"Having seen your face covered with curling locks of hair, cheeks shining with refulgent earrings and lips brimming with nectar, your charming smile, sidelong glances and mighty arms reassuring protection, we have become your committed servants. Which woman in the three worlds could resist the ravishing melodies of your flute and not deviate from the noble path of the ancients (arya-maryada). O friend of the distressed, do place your lotus hands on the love-fired breasts of your humble servants (you will not be scorched by the heat in our bosoms, just like the burning sun does not hurt a lotus) and keep your hands on our heads (blessing us that you will never ever reject us again)."

Listening to their distressed voices, even though he is self-contended and revels solely in his own self (atman-ram), Krishna smiled and mercifully began to sport with them.

Krishna's Love Games (Initial Installment):

With their faces now blooming, the gopis gathered around Krishna, whose magnificent smile radiated the splendor of his jasmine-like teeth. He looked like a full moon surrounded with stars. The gopis sang of his glory, and sometimes Krishna reciprocated with his own compositions praising them. The lord next embraced them by spreading out his arms wide. He then excited the women by pressing their arms, hair, thighs, waists, breasts, and indulged in light jokes, pricking them gently with his nails.

Radha and Krishna Playing the Game of Chaupara

Pride Emerges in the Gopis:

Receiving such enormous honor from Lord Krishna, the gopis puffed up with pride and each regarded herself as special, superior to all women on earth. Perceiving their conceit at having betrothed the lord and their misplaced pride at their beauty, Krishna, for curing them of their malady, immediately vanished from their midst.

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