The moralistic standards set by Abrahamic religions have had a devastating impact on the psyche of modern Hindus.
The social media outrage machine has already pumped out more than the required bits and bytes over Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s clip on Krishna Lila, which surfaced suspiciously after his foray into the #freetemples movement. This writer has no intention of adding to that cacophony!
Instead, this article is an observation and a rebuttal to a phenomenon that this outrage cycle exposed – that the modern Hindu seems to view the Rāsa Lilā predominantly through an Abrahamic/Victorian lens, which prevents an understanding and appreciating of Rāsa Lila in its myriad range of meanings. This article attempts to answer these questions: Does the Srimad Bhagavatam attest to a physical interpretation of Rāsa Leela? Is such a Rāsa immoral? Should we then never interpret it literally? What makes us avoid a literary interpretation today?
In almost every puranic story, we can draw symbolic, psychological and/or highly spiritual meanings. While a search for the profound and symbolic in such stories is essential and valid, the modern Hindu seems way too eager to brush off the literal meaning. Is there proof that a literal reading of the story did not happen? Or are we just embarrassed about the literal reading for fear of being labelled superstitious with our western “scientific” and Abrahamic-tainted mindset?
This mindset has infected our interpretations of Rāsa Lila – probably even more so than with other stories since a literal Rāsa with sexual elements contradicts moral and social codes, a contradiction that our Abrahamic-influenced prudery cannot digest anymore.
With this puritan mindset, we desperately seek and accept only symbolic interpretations of Rāsa Lilā . Social media comments from the learned to laymen alike regurgitate – “Rāsa Lilā is not at all sexual”, “It is only about the Jeeva seeking oneness with Krishna, the Paramatma and not physical”, “Rāsa Lilā is only a symbol of love” and Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev’s unoriginal explanation in his follow-up video, “Rāsa symbolizes the juice of life” (If that is the case, it is unclear why it was necessary for Krishna to grow up for Yashodā to participate in Rāsa, as he originally claimed)
Very few will dispute the above symbolic interpretations – undeniably, that is the lofty purpose of our Puranas. Krishna Himself states in the Bhagavad Gitā 9.11 – “avajānanti māṁ mūḍhā mānuṣhīṁ tanum āśhritam” – “only fools who don’t know Me regard Me as a human”. However, even while clearly knowing His paramatma-nature, many bhaktas during the time of His avatāra as well as later have approached Him with different bhāvas.
While bhakti is a single emotion, its expression differs according to personalities. Saints mention five basic rāsas in which bhakti expresses – vātsalya, dāsya, sakhya, śānta and mādhurya. To cite examples, Ma Yashodā’s bhakti expresses as vatsalya, Uddhava’s as dāsya, Arjuna’s as sakhya, Bhishma/Kunti’s with śānta bhāva and finally, Rukmini, Rādhā and the gopis through mādhurya bhāva. Each expression is unique to that person. Can one imagine powerful Bhishma in a servile dāsya bhāva or a motherly Yashodā in an unemotional śānta bhāva?!
While the expressions are vastly different, what is common among the rāsas is that intensity leads to complete identification with that role. So, even after witnessing Krishna’s omnipotence several times, Yashodā cannot let go of her vātsalya bhāva and swoons much like any mother when He fights with Kāliya. Arjuna cannot but feel intense sakhya bhāva, which leads him to choose Krishna to be at his side as a charioteer but also surrender to his advice.
Similarly, with intense mādhurya rāsa, a gopi sees Krishna as her husband, in fact, as more real than her worldly husband. This leads to complete identification with the role of a loving wife to her husband. And like every loving husband-wife relationship, it manifests in various expressions – caring for him, cooking favourite foods for him, dressing up for him, rejoicing at his arrival, pining in his absence, and enjoying the physical union. (Needless to say, this expression is not born not out of lust as in casual flings or one-night stands but out of the deepest love possible in a perfect conjugal relationship). Why then should this mādhurya bhakti make us uncomfortable?
Some have difficulty swallowing this literal interpretation since the Rāsa Lilā flouts social norms with, for example, the young age of Krishna and many gopis, both unmarried and married. However, we see that many bhaktas have disregarded social and even moral codes. There are countless examples: some Saiva Nāyanmars abandoning their wives and a couple even offering their child as a sacrifice; Meerābāi disobeying her husband; Akkā Mahādevi of the Veerasaivās discarding her clothes in public; minister-saints Manickavāchakar or Bhadrāchala Rāmadasu redirecting royal funds to temples. We generally accept and even admire when their intense bhakti supersedes such social and moral codes. Why then is mādhurya bhakti an exception?
Granted, the literal readings of Rāsa Lilā are not for the public sphere. What can be read or contemplated by advanced devotees who have mastered their senses cannot be presented to the masses. Hence, most discourses on Srimad Bhāgavatam present only the symbolic Rāsa Lila as an expression of the Gopis’ love for Krishna leading to jeeva-ishwara aikyam – oneness.
However, is there evidence in Srimad Bhāgavatam or anywhere else that it was not physical? No. In fact, Sri Suka not only describes the physical and erotic acts, but he specifically quotes Sri Krishna warning the married gopis about adultery. The Gopis’ openly declare that they are willing to abandon social ties to attain Him. If their act was only emotional, what social more was broken?
This is also clear from the final question on the topic from Parikshit Mahārāja who says:
‘In order to establish the dharma and to subdue the defiant souls, the Supreme Lord descended with Balarâma. How could He, the original creator, executor and protector of the codes of moral conduct, behave so to the contrary by touching the wives of other men? What did He, being satisfied within, have in mind with this no doubt contemptible performance? Please dispel our doubt about this.’
If the Rāsa Lilā was not at all physical, Sri Suka could have easily dodged that question by claiming it was only symbolic. But he does not. In fact, he does not even provide Krishna’s māyā as the answer. Sri Suka replies:
“How can one speak in terms of right or wrong concerning the Controller of all the created beings, animals, human beings and denizens of heaven? In order to show His mercy to His devotees, He, assuming a humanlike body, engages in such amorous pastimes, that one hearing them becomes devoted to Him.”
It is also worth questioning why Sri Suka or Vyāsa would painstakingly describe physical Rāsa if it did not happen – what purpose would it serve? It is also worthwhile noting that many medieval saints continued to explore Rāsa in their compositions. Sri Vallabhācharya expands on it in his commentary on the Srimad Bhāgavatam. Sri Jayadeva, of course, mastered that genre – his Gita Govinda celebrates the viraha and the coming together of Rādha and Krishna. Interestingly, Saint Tyāgaraja, whose oeuvre is otherwise quite puritanical, throws a surprise in Naukā charitram, his take on Rāsa Lilā. Pushti mārga, Gaudiya Vaishnavas and today’s ISKCON have not shied away from the literal reading though they do warn that only highly evolved bhaktas should study or contemplate on the Rāsa.
Clearly, the warning is important. Poor adhikāris can make wrong inferences. However, Sri Suka has the last word on it,
“If you want to perform literal Rāsa Lilā like Krishna, be prepared to drink the Hālāhala poison literally too like Rudra!”
In summary, let us continue to draw out the symbolic and spiritual meaning from our treasure trove of Puranas, but let us not rebuff the literal reading due to western/Abrahamic prudery.