Krishna’s Dance of Divine Love

Complexity: 
Hard

A society can be judged by the kind of education it deems valuable. In ancient Vedic times, the intellectual class was composed of brahmanas, or those whose scholarship was dedicated to understanding the supreme reality, Brahman. Today’s intellectual class prides itself on teaching secular knowledge. And while most universities offer courses on religion, they tend to be slanted and incomplete.

Srila Prabhupada taught that the ideal university would educate students in knowledge of the divinity. He wrote, “Presently many people are interested in receiving degrees from big universities, but education without God consciousness is simply an expansion of maya’s influence. Because knowledge is taken away by illusion, the universities are simply presenting impediments on the path of God consciousness.” (Teachings of Lord Kapila, Chapter 12)

Prabhupada wanted to continue the scholarly diffusion of the philosophy of bhakti begun by his predecessors, especially Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. So Prabhupada encouraged some of his disciples to present Krishna consciousness in universities and correct misconstrued perspectives of God.

Recently, I interviewed Prabhupada’s disciple Garuda Dasa (known in the academic arena as Dr. Graham Schweig), who holds a doctorate from Harvard University in comparative religion and has been a professor of world religions specializing in Indic studies, teaching both college and graduate students in the university setting. With the academic training of a scholar and the devotional vision of a bhakta, he presents the real Krishna to the intellectual world. His recently released book, Dance of Divine Love: The Rasa Lila of Krishna from the Bhagavata Purana (published by Princeton University Press), tackles a subject that scholars have often misunderstood, as the erotic tone of the work can appear to introduce an unethical element. Or scholars simply have not appreciated its depth and rich theological presentation.

I asked Garuda Dasa how he had come to write about the rasa-lila, the story of Lord Krishna’s sacred dance with the cowherd maidens of Vraja, known as the gopis.

“When proposing a dissertation topic for my doctoral work at Harvard,” he told me, “it was never my plan to concentrate on this most sacred and very often misunderstood theme. After I’d spent a year pursuing several topics, my doctoral advisor guided me to focus on the meaning of the rasa-lila for the Chaitanya school of Vaishnavism, since the rasa-lila had received very little scholarly treatment despite its fame.”

Presenting the rasa-lila is a challenge because this lila (pastime) of Krishna’s reveals God’s most intimate exchanges with his devotees. Furthermore, Krishna’s role in the rasa-lila could be viewed as immoral to the uninformed.

In the Introduction to his book, Garuda Dasa summarizes the five chapters of Srimad-Bhagavatam that describe the rasa-lila:

One special evening, the rising moon reached its fullness with a resplendent glow. Its reddish rays lit up the forest as night-blooming lotus flowers began to unfold. The forest during those nights was decorated profusely with delicate star-like jasmine flowers, resembling the flowing dark hair of goddesses adorned with flower blossoms. So rapturous was this setting that the supreme Lord himself, as Krishna, the eternally youthful cowherd, was compelled to play captivating music on his flute. Moved by this beauteous scene, Krishna was inspired toward love.

Upon hearing the alluring flute music, the cowherd maidens, known as the Gopis, who were already in love with Krishna, abruptly left their homes, families and domestic duties. They ran off to join him in the moonlit forest. Krishna and the Gopis met and played on the banks of the Yamuna River. When the maidens became proud of his loving attention, however, their beloved Lord suddenly vanished from their sight. The Gopis searched everywhere for Krishna. Discovering that he had run off with one special maiden, they soon found that she too had been deserted by him. As darkness engulfed the forest, the cowherd maidens gave up their search, singing sweet songs of hope and despair, longing for his return. Then Krishna cleverly reappeared and spoke to them on the nature of love.

The story culminates in the commencement of the Rasa dance. The Gopis link arms together, forming a great circle. By divine arrangement, Krishna dances with every cowherd maiden at once, yet each one thinks she is dancing with him alone. Supreme love has now reached its perfect fulfillment and expression through joyous dancing and singing long into the night, in the divine circle of the Rasa. Retiring from the vigorous dancing, Krishna and the Gopis refresh themselves by bathing in the river. Then reluctantly, the cowherd maidens return to their homes.

The rasa-lila event is spiritual, and the exchanges between God himself as Krishna and those closest to him constitute a pure spiritual love. To ensure that his approach to this sacred text would be authoritative, Garuda Dasa drew exclusively from the works of great saints in the disciplic succession of Lord Chaitanya. He wanted to present readers with an enchanting and detailed picture of what Lord Krishna, the reservoir of all pleasure, finds most pleasurable. To me, his translations and illuminations on the Supreme Lord’s most intimate pastimes succeed in delivering the reader into those realms where pure love abounds.

Garuda Dasa said, “I begin by acquainting the reader with sacred love stories across cultures and their function in expressing passionate love for God. The Song of Solomon has inspired followers of the Jewish and Christian mystical traditions in the West to open their hearts to the intimate dimensions of God. Similarly, the Puranic literature contains the rasa-lila, which Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, a saintly philosopher of the tradition, has called ‘the crown jewel of all acts of God.’

“Within such sacred love stories, religious traditions emphasize a specific phase of divine love as a model for their worship. I point out that eight of these phases of supreme love are exhibited by the gopis: awakening, anticipation, meeting, conflict, separation, loss, reunion, and rejoicing in the triumph of love. For Chaitanya Vaishnavas the spiritual phase most honored is that of separation and loss, or vipralambha-seva, which finds its voice in the Gopi Gita (‘Song of the Gopis’), in the central act of the rasa-lila.

“Another saintly philosopher, Jiva Goswami, presents insights into the gopis’ intense feelings of separation for Krishna that are wonderfully illuminating to me. He wrote, for example, that the purpose of Krishna’s separation from the gopis is to increase their love for him. The verses of the Gopi Gita receive the most attention from Lord Chaitanya’s followers, as they depict viraha bhakti, or the soul’s love in separation from God and the divine madness that characterizes it. This madness of the cowherd maidens, as described in the Bhagavatam, in turn becomes the model for Lord Chaitanya, whose life is famous for his ecstatic madness in devotion to Krishna.”

Poetic Translation

Garuda Dasa spoke of the great challenges of translating this centerpiece of the Bhagavatam’s tenth book, what his former teacher of Sanskrit at Harvard called “the most enchanting poem ever written.”

“I discovered that the rasa-lila Sanskrit texts not only possess some of the ornaments of beautiful Sanskrit poetry (kavya), but in many ways also conform to the conventions of classical Sanskrit drama (natya). For example, the very first verse possesses many elements from these traditions, and I labored long over its translation:

Even the Beloved Lord,

seeing those nights

in autumn filled with

blooming jasmine flowers,

Turned his mind toward

love’s delights,

fully taking refuge in

Yogamaya’s illusive powers.

“Here I attempt to convey some of the dramatic poetic beauty of the original while maintaining a very literal translation. Many pages of the book have been devoted to appreciating the literary and theological power of this first verse.”

The erotic flavor of the rasa-lila has both allured and intimidated thinkers throughout history. The irresistible lure lies in the gopis’ spontaneous and selfless outpourings of love for Krishna. The gopis are the perfect models for all who are progressing on the path of bhakti-yoga, through which souls attain God through devotional love. I asked Garuda Dasa to tell me how this esoteric lila is relevant to the modern-day Hare Krishna movement.

“Although the rasa-lila represents the loftiest vision of supreme love that the Vaishnava traditions possess,”he replied,“it is surprisingly relevant to essential practices in an aspirant’s life of devotion. For example, the maha-mantra—the widely known sacred thirty-two syllable mantra of Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—is the sonic ‘reenactment’ of the rasa dance. As I suggest in the book, ‘The patterned movement of eight pairs of feminine [Hare] and masculine [Krishna and Rama] names of the divine can be observed in the mantra. . . . When practitioners recite the mantra over and over, the divine names form a circular pattern imitative of the exchange between the feminine and masculine partners in the Rasa dance [the many cowherd maidens with the many duplicated Krishnas].’ And I continue: ‘The mantra begins and ends with feminine names, enclosing the masculine names, just as the Gopis engulf Krishna when they encircle him during the commencement of the Rasa dance.’

“Other themes I discuss are also relevant to the modern-day Hare Krishna movement, such as ‘Devotional Yoga Transcends Death,’ ‘Ethical Boundaries and Boundless Love,’ and the distinction between worldly love and passionate love for God in the section called ‘The Vision of Devotional Love.’

“One of the major messages of the text is that pride and love don’t mix. When souls become tainted by pride, God disappears. When we place ourselves as somehow greater than others, when we compare ourselves to others and judge them, God disappears from us, as he does with the gopis by the end of the first chapter of the rasa story. This message on pride is again emphasized in the second chapter when Krishna deserts his favorite gopi, identified as Radha, when she too exhibits pride. Although the gopis’ love for Krishna is exalted, this pride is exhibited as a lesson for all souls striving for pure love of God. The message here is very clear: There is simply no room for pride in pure, unremitting selfless love.”

Religious Unity

My talks with Garuda Dasa can remind us of the interreligious tensions that plague the world. Members of the world’s religious traditions exclude God when they let pride interfere with pure love and understanding and make exclusive claims on divine truth, condemning all others. Contrary to such a parochial view, Srila Prabhupada delighted in how ISKCON’s membership consists of people coming from all religious traditions, uniting together to love God: “We can select our own religion and be Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist, Christian, or whatever, as long as we know the real purpose of religion. Indeed, Srimad-Bhagavatam does not recommend that we give up our present religion, but it does hint at the purpose of religion. That purpose is love of Godhead, and that religion which teaches us best how to love the Supreme Lord is the best religion.” (Elevation to Krishna Consciousness)

At the end of the book, Garuda Dasa leaves his readers with the same profound understanding of theology that Srila Prabhupada describes here. While Dance of Divine Love presents the rasa-lila as an actually occurring transcendent exchange between Krishna and his most intimate devotees, those outside of the Vaishnava tradition could at the very least see the rasa-lila as speaking to them as a compelling symbol of genuine religious pluralism.

“The divine circle of the Rasa dance,” Garuda Dasa writes, “could be seen as symbolizing a genuine religious pluralism in which human beings of different faiths can love God . . . in joyous harmony, and individually, as each soul receives God’s singular and superlative attention. . . . Thus, it is only after devoted souls come together to surround the divinity in a great circle their arms linked in affectionate fellowship that the deity agrees to connect personally with each soul— implying that God is indebted toward those who bond with other souls for the purpose of honoring, serving, and loving him.”

Garuda Das adds to this by expressing the following: “Certainly the world could learn something very valuable from the rasa-lila: how to have that exclusive love and grace from God for which Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike so often long, and yet simultaneously achieve a world unity for which Eastern traditions so often long. The world is desperately in need of this blend of both inclusivistic and exclusivistic religious stances.”

Garuda Dasa is confident that this message about love, presented in the rasa-lila’s exalted vision of the supreme, can be received by intellectuals and others in the Western world. The dance with God in the rasa-lila is open to all souls who qualify themselves.

Furthermore, Garuda Dasa writes, there’s help: “The hearts of those who are already a part of the dance, for whom passionate and exclusive intimacy with God is already attained, melt with compassion for those who have not yet arrived, and yearn for all to delight in the dance of divine love.” From these words it is evident that saintly souls, great devotees, hold the key for the rest of us to enter these lofty regions of supreme love.

I think it’s safe to say that the book Dance of Divine Love, with its careful portrayal of God’s confidential exchanges, allows scholars as well as others to enter into an understanding of the true meanings and messages of the rasa-lila, while also assisting in fulfilling the desires of those who yearn for the spiritual progress of all souls.