Dharma According to the Gopis

By Swāmī Śrī Bhaktivedānta Tripurāri, excerpted from Aesthetic Vedanta: The Sacred Path of Passionate Love.

The spirit of the gopīs’ reply is instructive. They were justified in challenging what Kṛṣṇa seemed to say, for it was not at all proper for him to reject such surrendered souls. His words of apparent rejection were not in concordance with the spirit of the sacred texts. When the sacred literature seems to say something that is in contradiction to its own conclusions, we must seek a deeper meaning in those words. The words of the sacred texts must be taken seriously, but their inner meaning must be ascertained if we are to benefit from them. Often, persons cite a text but do not understand its spirit. To be angered by so-called scriptural speech that is divorced from the spirit of sacred literature is a sign of devotion.

The gopīs accused Kṛṣṇa of speaking to them cruelly, for although he initially seemed to welcome them (svāgatam), he was not at all accommodating. Nor was it proper for him to have asked them about the situation in their village, for he knew well that to come to him they had abandoned the village without a thought. For Kṛṣṇa to insist that they return home was contradictory to the innumerable statements of sacred literature that assure us that his realm, arrived at through devotion and love, is the land of no return. They insisted that he accept (bhajasva) their love, just as Viṣṇu accepts the love of his devotees, even though they desired a transcendental relationship with him of greater intimacy than one based on the awe and reverence that Viṣṇu’s devotees have for their Lord. Although the gopis approached Kṛṣṇa with an apparently erotic intent, their feelings were in fact of a religious and spiritual nature, their lover being the original person.1

The gopīs then told Kṛṣṇa that his instructing them on religious principles, in which he is the ultimate authority, was appropriate. Indeed, women should serve their husbands and relatives. In stating this, the gopīs implied that with regard to religious duty (dharma), two things must be considered: dharma must be learned and it must be executed. In order to execute religious principles, one must learn about them from a guru. The guru and his service are thus the basis of dharma. Kṛṣṇa was speaking correctly about dharma as an expert guru, and the gopīs stated that as such he should be worshipped first and foremost. Without worshipping him, how could they properly perform their religious duties, or even know about them?

Understanding the basis of religious life is more important than mindless execution of religious principles. Furthermore, the religious duties pertain for the most part to one’s body, and only indirectly to one’s soul. Successful execution of religious ritual, however, should culminate in an interest in the soul. Thus one who through religious ritual and duty develops interest in the soul and the supreme soul truly executes dharma. The gopīs, being interested in the fullest expression of dharma, saw fit to neglect their bodily obligations and tend to the needs of their soul and the service of the supreme soul, who is the pati, or husband and maintainer, of all souls.2 Thus the gopīs disagreed with Kṛṣṇa by way of agreeing with him, giving their own purport to his words. Their speech was gentle and loving, addressing him as preṣṭha,“dearest one,” as they countered his arguments.

The gopīs continued, “The wise find pleasure in loving you, who are their very self. In comparison, what are husbands and relatives who are sources of suffering for the soul? Therefore, O Lord who bestows blessings, be merciful to us, and do not knowingly cut asunder our ardent and long-cherished desire to love you.”

The gopīs indicate in this statement that wise persons agree with them that service to Kṛṣṇa is true happiness. Dharma must have as its goal a pleasurable end in order for one to be motivated to execute it. The wise who know this understand dharma to be service to the inner self, which in a qualitative sense is one with God. Conversely, wise persons conclude that service to family members cannot be the dharma of the self, for it leads only to suffering by way of perpetuating saṁsāra. Service to family members cannot be dharma because it does not truly have a pleasurable result as its goal. If service to family members constituted true dharma, there would be no saṁsāra.

While the gopīs cite the wise to give support to their argument, they say something to the wise as well. The wise who tread the path of knowledge identify themselves with God, and God loves them as his very self.3 But there is another class of devotees whom he loves more than himself. They are not satisfied with knowledge of their qualitative oneness with the Absolute. They are not content to know God eternally. They desire to serve him actively in transcendence, and in the case of the gopī, to love him passionately. Such love constitutes the fullest expression of dharma.

  1. Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.3.28 []
  2. Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 5.1.13 []
  3. Bhagavad-gītā 7.18 []


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