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Just Like That | Notes on the love lore of Radha and Krishna

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Holi has just come and gone, and nowhere is it celebrated with greater gusto than in Vrindavan, the stage for the love lore of Radha and Krishna. The beautiful romance between the two beloved deities has captured the imagination of Indians like nothing else. It is interesting though, that before Jayadeva wrote the Gita Govinda in the 12th century CE, there is no mention —at least to my knowledge — of Radha. The Vishnu Purana, the Harivamsha and the Bhagwat Purana speak of Krishna’s raas or love play with the gopis of Vrindavan, but it is a collective dance, where the women form a circle around Krishna as he, while playing the flute, dances with them on the banks of the river Yamuna in the glorious autumn season. But no woman is specifically singled out.

The grandeur of Hinduism is that it harmonises the negation of desire with its simultaneous affirmation. (Shutterstock)

Jayadeva created Radha, as an equally powerful sensual counterpoint to Krishna. If Krishna was sringarmutimam, the very embodiment of the sensual mood, Radha, his love, was raseshwari, the very essence of the flavour of love. The Gita Govinda opened the floodgates of the most exquisite poetry celebrating the love of Radha and Krishna, where they become the ethereal symbol of love. For the squeamish among the Hindus, who want to sanitise any aspect of our past of sensuality as protectors of Hinduism, it would be an eye-opener to read some of the splendid poetry that burst forth thereafter.

There is so much of this poetry that one cannot possibly even get a sense of it all, but here are some illustrative examples. Chandidasa, who lived at the confluence of the 14th and 15th centuries wrote in his native Bengali and is regarded by many as the founder of modern Bengali literature. Here is one of his poems translated by D Bhattacharya:

She lingers out of doors.

She rushes in

And she rushes out,

Her heart is restless.

Breathing fast,

She gazes at the Kadamba wood.

What has happened

That she is not afraid?

The elders chatter

And the wicked gossip.

Is she possessed

By some enchanting god?

Forever restless

Careless of clothes

Startled she jumps in her dreams

Her desire inflamed

By passion and longing.

She reaches for the moon,

Chandidasa says that she is caught

In the snare of Kaliya, the dark.

Vidyapati (1352-1448), a younger contemporary of Chandidasa, lived in Mithala, Bihar, and wrote in the language he knew best, Maithili. In this poem, translated by Bhattacharya, he writes:

There was a shudder in her whispering voice.

She was shy to frame her words.

What has happened tonight to lovely Radha?

Now she consents, now she is afraid,

When asked for love, she closes her eyes,

Eager to reach the ocean of desire.

He begs for a kiss

She turns her mouth away

And then like a night lily, the moon seized her

She felt his touch startling her girdle,

She knew her love treasure was being robbed.

With her dress she covered up her breasts

The treasure was left uncovered.

Vidyapati wonders at the neglected bed

Lovers are busy in each other’s arms.

Bihari (1595-1664) wrote in Braj, and was the court poet of Jayasingha, the ruler of the kingdom of Amber in Rajasthan. In this poem, translated by KP Bahadur, he imagines Krishna and Radha exchanging secret messages as Radha sits in a gathering of elders:

When he saw Radha

Sitting among the elders,

You know what the wily Krishna did?

He brushed his forehead with a lily


“Say yes, dear beloved

See I am even falling at your lotus feet”

Clever Radha


Flashed her mirrored ring

At the sun

And hid away her hands

In the mounds of her breasts

As though to say:

“When the sun sets under the hills

Lover, I will come to you”

The grandeur of Hinduism is that it harmonises the negation of desire with its simultaneous affirmation. Krishna, in Vrindavan, was the lover. Krishna, speaking to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, was the sage who asked him to transcend desire, and follow the path of nishkama karma, the path of duty without desire of reward.

Two new books

The Bhagavad Gita; In Hard Times.
The Bhagavad Gita; In Hard Times.

Last week, I spoke at the launch of two books. The first was The Bhagavad Gita: A Life-Changing Conversation, by Vandana Singh. Vandana is an author, translator, and editor, and the wife of Rakesh Singh, a highly respected bureaucrat, who was the Chief Secretary of Punjab. Rakesh died recently, leaving Vandana bereft. She found solace in the Gita, selecting 251 verses from the 700 in the book, and providing a commentary and interpretation.

The second book was on national security, In Hard Times: Security in a time of Insecurity. It has been edited by strategic analyst Manoj Joshi, and well-known journalists, Praveen Swami and Nishtha Gautam, and has contributions by a galaxy of experts, including Admiral Arun Prakash, Lieutenant General DS Hooda, and Sanjaya Baru. Shashi Tharoor and I spoke on the occasion, and it was a lively discussion witnessed by a full house.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha).

Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers

The views expressed are personal

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