Gopi Vastra-harana Lila: Part One
The lila in which Krishna stole the clothes of the young maidens occurred during the month of Agrahayana (November-December), the beginning of hemanta, the winter season. It is described in chapter twenty-two of the tenth canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam in twenty-eight verses. A controversial chapter to the uninformed, it provides important insight for serious spiritual practitioners regardless of their tradition and especially for Gaudiya Vaisnavas, whose acaryas, Sanatana Goswami, Visvanatha Chakravarti, and Jiva Goswami, have revealed its esoteric significance.
The vastra-harana lila is a prakata (manifest) lila in which the participating milk maidens are devotees who have reached the stage of svarupa-siddhi in their spiritual practice. Svarupa-siddhi is the final stage before entering Krishna lila forever, never to return to material life. Eternal participation in the drama of Krishna lila is called vastu-siddhi. From svarupa-siddhi, in which the devotee is situated in his or her spiritual body and takes “birth” wherever Krishna lila is manifested in the material world, such devotees associate directly with Krishna’s eternal associates. In this association, they intensify their prema (love) in developmental stages relative to their particular relationship with Krishna (sneha, mana, pranaya, raga, anuraga, bhava, mahabhava).
In their previous life, the maidens of this lila were sages living in the Dandakaranya forest in South India. In their spiritual practice, they engaged in mantra dhyana (meditation) on the Gopala mantra. The form of God described in this mantra is Gopala Krishna, the cowherder of Vraja and lover of the gopis. The presiding deity of this mantra is Durga, from whose influence it is difficult (dur) to go (ga), or, she whom it is difficult to go to.
Durga is an expansion of Radha, Krishna’s eternal consort. She presides over the material nature as maya-sakti, and is thus difficult to go beyond. Indeed, Krishna has said in Bhagavad-gita that this maya of his is insurmountable (mama maya duratyaya) unless one surrenders unto him (mama eva ye prapadyante), in which case passing beyond maya is easy (mayam etam taranti te). Passing beyond maya is, however, not all that is involved for one desiring to enter Krishna’s lila. Along with a passport to leave the material world, one requires a visa to enter the divine play of Krishna. That eternal drama is conducted under the influence of another sakti.
Krsnadasa Kaviraja Goswami has written, radha krsna-pranaya-vikrtir hladini saktir asmad: “The transformation of love that is Radha Krishna is conducted under the influence of hladini sakti (ananda potency).” Radha herself is the essence of this sakti (radhika hayena krsnera pranaya-vikara), and thus it is she who presides over Krishna’s life and love. This sakti, personified as Radha, brings the Absolute to life. Without Radha, there is no meaning to Krishna.
It is by one’s energy that one accomplishes that by which he becomes known, and thus the extent to which we know a person’s energy, we know them in terms of both their person and potential. Knowing Krishna comprehensively implies entering his lila, and this is not very easy to do. Without the grace of Radha it is impossible. As much as it is difficult to go beyond the snare of maya it is just as difficult to go to that realm where Radha presides. In the tantric literature it is mentioned that Durga is another name for Radha.
The sages of Dandakaranya meditated on the Gopala mantra as a regular practice. One day during their meditation, the Rama avatara of Krishna passed through the Dandakaranya forest during his exile from Ayodhya. When the sages saw Ramacandra, they desired to be his consorts and assume spiritual bodies like that of Sita. However, Rama told them that in this incarnation he had taken a vow to have only one wife (eka patni vrata). Yet consorthood with the Absolute was indeed the furthest reach of the Gopala mantra‘s efficacy, and Rama was the Absolute himself now appearing before the sages. Although they had the direct darsana of Ramacandra, they were still not perfect in their spiritual practice in terms of their spiritual aspiration for divine consorthood. Rama told them that he would again come in the next millennium as Krishna, and at that time he would accept their proposal. In the gopi vastra-harana lila, these sages acquired the spiritual bodies of young maidens and Krishna stole their clothes while they bathed in the Yamuna.
Sukadeva Goswami begins the narration of this lila thus: hemante prathame masi nanda-vraja kumarikah. The word kumarikah is significant, as it refers to young unmarried girls. From the use of this word it is understood that the principal maidens of this lila are different from those mentioned in the previous chapter. In Venu-gita, chapter twenty-one in which the maidens glorify Krishna’s flute, these maidens are referred to as gopis, not kumaris. They were already married by the arrangement of Paurnamasi, whereas the kumaris in this chapter were not yet spoken for.
The marriage of the gopis is itself a complex theological subject. In reality, they belong to no one other than Krishna. The mystic illusion of their marriage to young cowherds has been explained in various ways by the Gaudiya commentators. Here it will suffice to say that their marriage, although illusory, is real inasmuch as this apparent marriage to others makes it possible for the gopis and Krishna to experience the acme of sacred rapture, transcendental paramour love. This paramour love never deteriorates into taking one’s lover for granted, and the element of risk involved in it intensifies the experience of conjugal love. Such intensified romantic love gives Krishna the greatest pleasure in sacred rapture (rasa), and the extent to which Krishna is pleased determines reality. Satisfying God is reality, whereas satisfying one’s material ego is illusion.
The kumaris, being younger girls, were not married when the illusion of the older gopis‘ marriage was arranged by yoga maya, appearing in Krishna lila as the elderly Paurnamasi. However, as maturity approached they spontaneously developed a desire to live in the house of Nanda Maharaja with Krishna as their husband. With this in mind, they prayed constantly that they might become brides of Krishna. On the first day of Agrahayana, to the surprise of one another, they met on the banks of the Yamuna, having gone there separately, all with the same intention.
The secret each of the kumaris kept locked within their hearts, to be shared only with the gods, shone brightly like the sun on one anothers’ faces. Each saw their own heart reflected on one another’s face, and in the language of love they acknowledged that which they had in common. At that exact moment, in the midst of consoling one another, the natural spiritual environment of the sacred forest responded to their heart’s necessity: the forest gopi Vrinda arrived at the banks of the river.
Vrinda gopi was acutely aware of the kumaris‘ love for Krishna, and from Paurnamasi she received instruction on the performance of the Katyayani vrata (sacred vow). Katyayani is one of the many forms of Durga. As such she has both a material and spiritual manifestation. Vrinda devi instructed the kumaris how to petition her, observing a vrata for one month with the intention of being wedded to Krishna.
Sukadeva Goswami says, cerur havisyam bhunjanah. During the one month observance, they subsisted on havisya, unspiced rice and dhal boiled together. This is not a very palatable dish, but these young girls were willing to undergo this austerity in order to get Krishna as their husband. Implied here is the fact that young girls in general underwent this type of dietary regimen merely for the sake of getting a good husband. How much should we as sadhakas then be prepared to undergo dietary restrictions when they are favorable for serving Krishna?
Daily at sunrise, the coldest time of the day during the winter season, they gathered on the banks of the Yamuna to bathe and observe ritualistic worship of goddess Katyayani. From the earth they fashioned a deity of the goddess and then offered aromatic substances such as incense, flower garlands, and sandalwood pulp along with fruits, betel nuts, leaves, lamps, clothing, ornaments, and other items to her. While offering worship they chanted the mantra given to them by Vrinda, “O Katyayani, you who are the great potency of God, great mystic, and powerful controller,” nanda gopa sutam devi patim me kuru te namah, “Please make the son of Nanda my husband.”
This ritualistic worship was but an extension of the spiritual practice that the kumaris had cultured in their previous life. The goddess petitioned was one form of the presiding deity of their mantra. One cannot petition one’s worshipable deity in pursuit of that which the deity itself does not have. The manifestation of Durga who presides over maya has a particular function in relation to Krishna. Her service to him is not liberating souls, rather keeping them in bondage and thereby providing negative impetus for spiritual pursuit. Here the kumaris worshipped Krishna’s internal potency, not his external potency. However, if one is unaware of the authoritative statements of the tantras that speak about the goddess Durga who represents Krishna’s internal spiritual energy, he may insist that the names Katyayani and Bhadrakali found here in the text indicate the goddess presiding over the material world. Even if, for the sake of argument, we accept this claim, still we are taught in this chapter that the Goddess presiding over maya cannot give love of Krishna. Were it possible for her to do so, love of Krishna would be within the jurisdiction of the material world and Krishna’s theft of the kumaris‘ clothes questionable.
As we shall see, when the kumaris completed their vow, the goddess never appeared to grant them the benediction they sought. Were she the goddess presiding over the material world, she would have appeared to grant the boon of a material husband to the girls petitioning her thus. If it was this goddess that the kumaris worshipped, they worshipped the wrong person with the right idea. Their heart being properly situated in terms of loving Krishna, the goddess would have directed their worship to the department that could deal with their request.
Some people worship the right person for the wrong thing, others the wrong person for the right thing. However, If we worship Krishna for the fulfillment of material desire, rather than the god or goddess whose primary function is to fulfill that particular desire, or if we worship a god or goddess other than Radha Krishna with a desire to attain love of Krishna, in either instance, we will ultimately attain love of Krishna. In the first case, Krishna will fulfill our material desire first, and eventually give us knowledge, and then love of God. This is mentioned in the seventh chapter of the Bhagavad-gita. If out of ignorance we petition the wrong god or goddess with a desire to love god in a way that only Krishna reciprocates, in reverence of that very desire itself the god or goddess petitioned will defer our heart’s longing to the lotus feet of Radha Krishna.
The spiritual conclusion is that the kumaris‘ spiritual passion alone made possible the fulfillment of their desire. Their spiritual passion, fueled initially by the eagerness to attain Krishna as their husband, in the end amounted to the transformation of the presiding deity of the Gopala mantra herself, appearing in their purified hearts. As Rupa Goswami has said in Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu, suddha sattva visesatma prema suryamsu samyabhak, “Bhava is the transformation of the suddha sattva appearing as a ray of the sun of prema in the devotee’s heart.” Such is the nature of spiritual emotion (bhava) and love (prema). It constitutes an infusion of Krishna’s internal energy into the heart of the sadhaka. This infusion is a combination of hladini and samvit-sakti of the suddha sattva.
Spiritual passion for loving Krishna begins with an acute eagerness to love him as one of his eternal associates does. This eagerness is called lobha, sometimes translated as greed. In proportion to one’s spiritual greed, one traverses the sacred path of passionate love. On this path, constant chanting of Krishna’s holy name and mantra dhyana on Gopala mantra as prescribed by the spiritual preceptor, brings the sadhaka to svarupa-siddhi. This is the Bhagavatam‘s version of liberation, muktir hitvanyata rupam svarupena vyavastitih. It involves not merely removal of the negative influence of ignorance, but more, becoming situated in one’s own spiritual nature or identity in relation to serving Krishna. In the course of progressing to this stage, devotees pass through stages of meditation (smaranam), which are energized by continued chanting of Krishna’s holy names (kirtanam). In the stage of svarupa-siddhi, mantra dhyana has fulfilled its function, while chanting Krishna’s name in a post-liberated status furthers our love of God.
Sukadeva Goswami continues the narration in text six with mention of how the kumaris engaged in sankirtanam (congregational chanting). He says, usasy utthaya gotraih svair anyonyabaddha-bahavah krsnam uccair jagur yantyah kalindyam snatum anvaham: “Daily they rose at dawn, calling one another by name. They held hands and loudly sang in glorification of Krishna, as they went to the Kalindi (Yamuna) to take their bath. “
We should follow the example of the kumaris, rising early, bathing, and engaging in sankirtanam with like-minded devotees. This practice is highly recommended for the present age. It is both sadhana (spiritual practice) and sadhya (spiritual perfection).
The events described in the first six verses of this chapter are a general description of that which the kumaris did for the entire month of Agrahayana. Verses seven through twenty-eight describe the full moon day on which the kumaris completed their sacred vow. It was on this day that Krishna stole the maiden’s clothes. Acarya Visvanatha Chakravarti envisions that on this day other married girls featured in the previous chapter accompanied the kumaris to celebrate the completion of their vow. Owing to their exuberance resulting from the completion of their vow, the girls remained playfully within the water for some time, their colorful clothes strewn on the shore.
Sukadeva Goswami then addresses Krishna as Yogesvaresvara, an extension of his famed title as Yogesvara from the Bhagavad-gita. He is thus not only the master of yoga and mysticism, but the master of masters in this regard. Sukadeva implied that Krishna was the master of the maha-yogini, Katyayani, whom the gopis thus addressed in their matrimonial mantra. He also addressed Krishna as Bhagavan, God, possessor of all opulence, as he was now about to steal the maiden’s clothes. This act of thievery is only play for God, for when one steals from himself, it is nothing more than this.
Bhagavan tad abhipretya, God knew what the kumaris were doing. He could see in his mind’s eye their hearts voiced in a petition to the goddess and shining now on their lotus faces. Thus he went there in the company of his intimate chaps to crown the kumaris‘ endeavor.
To be continued…