Published on April 14th, 2022 | by Harmonist staff1
Balarāma’s Romantic Life
By Swami Sri Bhaktivedanta Tripurari, excerpted from his forthcoming book, Circle of Friends as part of a series of articles concerning Balarāma Tattva.
In Vraja, Balarāma is Kṛṣṇa’s best friend, but he is not directly involved in Kṛṣṇa’s romantic life, and his own romantic life in Vraja is but an afterthought. Because Balarāma is Kṛṣṇa’s older brother, this precludes his being directly involved in the romanticism of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa that is central to the Vṛndāvana līlā. His direct involvement or presence would inhibit the intimacy of Kṛṣṇa’s romantic love for Rādhā. As Kṛṣṇa’s elder brother, he is the maryādā puruṣa in his younger brother’s life, ably assisting Yaśodā in looking out for him and assuring Kṛṣṇa’s maryādā (appropriate behavior). But while he will report on Kṛṣṇa’s behavior, he does not report Kṛṣṇa’s secret romantic rendezvous to the elders. Instead, he facilitates them during the day by occupying in play those of Kṛṣṇa’s friends not inclined to participate in these affairs. Thereby he assures these friends’ restful nights filled with dreams of fraternal sport, and at the same time, he indirectly facilitates Kṛṣṇa’s midday love sports accompanied by his most intimate friends. Surely if Balarāma does not report on Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa’s romantic affairs, they are no more than rumors. This is what Rāma’s elders make of his silence. Thus, in the drama of the Vraja līlā, Balarāma is an important supporting actor. His own romantic life is like that of the hero’s best friend, who also has a wife, but in the drama, the audience does not even know her name.
The first reference to Rāma’s romantic life appears in the fifteenth chapter of the tenth canto of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa referred to above. As Kṛṣṇa concludes his eulogy of Rāma, his humor heightens. While ostensibly glorifying Balarāma, in this line he humorously refers indirectly much more to himself:
The gopīs are fortunate because you directly embrace them to your chest, which is desired even by Lakṣmī.17
Here, Kṛṣṇa’s glorification of Balarāma refers more directly to himself because it is Kṛṣṇa’s chest that Lakṣmī desires to embrace, not Balarāma’s. However, there is truth in jest, and as such Balarāma does have his own gopīs and romantic life. But as we shall see, romanticism is not central to his life as it is to Kṛṣṇa’s līlās.
Balarāma’s gopīs first appear in the Bhāgavata’s thirty-fourth chapter of the tenth canto. The setting is the eve of Holī, the “festival of colors” as it is popularly known around the world today. This gathering is categorically different from Kṛṣṇa’s late-night secret rendezvous with his gopīs. Holī, in contrast, is publicly celebrated by young and old alike throughout Vraja. It is the religious play following the observance of Śivarātri, as opposed to a paramour tryst of adolescent longing and lovemaking.18 This chapter describes both Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma frolicking together with Vraja’s young milkmaidens while notably also accompanied by their many cowherd friends.19 This līlā also involves the aiśvarya of slaying the lustful Śaṅkhacūḍa. Jīva Goswāmī writes about Balarāma in this līlā that “along with Balarāma, filled with the joy of sakhya, the group gathered together.”20
However, the seed of what will become love’s longing is sometimes sown in such settings.21 As such, a particular group of young gopīs fell in love with Balarāma during Holī, and it is to this seed of their love that Balarāma eventually tends many years later, albeit with some measure of hesitation. As we shall see, he married these gopīs only with prodding from others upon returning to Vraja from Dvārakā in the context of delivering Kṛṣṇa’s message to Kṛṣṇa’s gopīs.22 In order to better understand the secondary nature of Rāma’s personal romantic life in comparison to his primary preoccupation with Kṛṣṇa’s friendship—his sakhya-rati—it will be helpful to examine the essence of this līlā—Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 10.65—drawing upon the Gauḍīya commentaries and related texts.
Kṛṣṇa’s longing to return to Vraja from Dvārakā was also shared by Balarāma. Rāma wanted to return to Vraja and wanted Kṛṣṇa to return along with him. However, day after day Kṛṣṇa made excuses for not returning, to the point that Rāma began to question his brother’s love for Vraja—for their parents, friends, servants, cows, and for the young gopīs that had fallen in love with Kṛṣṇa. Thus, Rāma finally confronted Kṛṣṇa. Reassuring Rāma of his love for his devotees, Kṛṣṇa explained his dilemma: Nanda had instructed him to follow the orders of Vasudeva, who would not allow him to depart to Vraja. Thus, he suggested that Rāma return without him, bearing news of him and reassuring everyone in Vraja of his love for them. In particular, he gave Rāma a message to deliver to the gopīs who had risked their reputations for him. As an aside, Kṛṣṇa also told Balarāma to marry the young gopīs who had fallen in love with him during the Holī celebration, who had not really been on Balarāma’s mind. Thus, Rāma departed for Vraja. As he approached the village, he changed his clothes into rustic attire to reunite with his rāga-mārga devotees. Once there, he reassured them of Kṛṣṇa’s love for them, and with further prodding, he also married the gopīs who had fallen in love with him during the Holī celebration.
Rāma met with his parents first and then his friends. It was abundantly clear to him that his friends and well-wishers were internally unhappy without Kṛṣna but went through the motions of caring for their cows externally in an effort to please him during his visit, and this in turn brought a constant flow of tears to his eyes. His friends said:
O Bala, will you and Kānu soon play again together with us? Our lives and the cows’ lives are now in a precarious position. Please revitalize us so that we can live and play as we did previously.23
Then, after two or three days Balarāma made arrangements to meet with Kṛṣṇa’s gopīs. This meeting is the very heart of his return. It is really what the chapter is all about: Rāma’s ability to represent Kṛṣṇa before those gopīs who gave their lives to him during the rāsa-līlā.24
Viśvanātha Cakravartī comments on Śukamuni’s description of Balarāma’s meeting with Rādhā and her companions: The sage’s words, rāma-sandarśanādṛtāḥ—honoring Rāma after having had his darśana—have a twofold meaning. They imply not only that the gopīs show deference to Rāma but also that Balarāma bows to the mahabhāva exhibited by Kṛṣṇa’s gopīs.25 In his rendering of this līlā in the Gopāla-campū, Śrī Jīva depicts Balarāma referring to Kṛṣṇa’s gopīs “respectfully.”26 Śukadeva then invokes Balarāma’s epithet Saṅkarṣaṇa, implying that Balarāma had the ability to represent and thus attract Kṛṣṇa, or draw his attention and thus his presence, in such a way that Kṛṣṇa actually appeared there before the gopīs in the person of Balarāma. From the oral tradition, it is thought that this resulted in Rāma’s assuming the complexion of Kṛṣṇa, even as he never thought of enjoying Kṛṣṇa’s gopīs for himself. It was in the confidence—viśrambha—central to sakhya-rasa that Kṛṣṇa had entrusted Rāma with this task of pacifying the gopīs in ways that previously Uddhava was unable to do. Rāma did so by causing Kṛṣṇa’s presence to be felt and then promising to go to Dvārakā and bring Kṛṣṇa there by force in a manner that Uddhava could not. This is an example of Balarāma’s expertise in representing Kṛṣṇa. After this, only at Rādhā’s compassionate request and not without permission from his elders did Balarāma separately meet with the unnamed gopīs,27 who were attracted to him in youth during the Holī celebration:
Rādhā said, “We accept your promise to bring Kṛṣṇa back. Now, if you will accept all of my associates who have preserved their youthful chastity all along for you alone, rejecting their own enjoyment and remaining in their homes, thin and as if infirmed, then I will keep these women close to me, while you go and bring your brother.
To which Balarāma replied, “Although this is not the time for that, still I shall do it somehow in order to console all of you. But still, I must first receive the permission of the elders.”28
The elders gave their permission. Indeed, they repeatedly requested him to do the needful, yet still, Rāma hesitated to participate in a marriage celebration in the absence of Kṛṣṇa. As such, Balarāma hesitatingly married these anonymous gopīs by the gandharva rite in a secluded area—Rāma Ghāṭa—just north of the great banyan tree at the base of which Rāma, Kṛṣṇa, and their sakhās often met together to sport and strategize. The marriage took place with no formal arrangement and no wedding guests, with Rāma intoxicated and in the midst of majesty, chastising the river Yamunā and miraculously dragging her to him with his plow. While Śrīmad Bhāgavatam employs five lengthy chapters in describing Kṛṣṇa’s rāsa-līlā—the centerpiece of the entire text—this Gauḍīya grantha-rāja employs only four verses to describe the so-called rāsa-līlā of Balarāma at Rāma Ghāṭa (10.65.17–18, 21–22), the last two of which do not appear in all manuscripts of the text.29
His gopīs’ anonymity underscores in the least the inability of the sādhaka to follow their example, as is essential in rāgānuga-bhakti. Furthermore, Rāma’s majestic display on this occasion is telling for the discerning devotee.30 In his commentary on Caitanya-bhāgavata, Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswatī Ṭhākura writes that the difference between Rāma’s rendezvous with his gopīs at Rāma Ghāṭa and Kṛṣṇa’s rāsa-līlā is one of maryādā as opposed to rāga.31 In other words, the romantic affairs of Rāma are not an example of the kāma-rūpā bhakti experienced between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa but rather bhakti in the mood of maryādā—vaidhī-bhakti. On the other hand, Rāma’s fraternal love is an example of the rāga-bhakti referred to as sambandha-rūpa, which involves dāsya, sakhya, or vātsalya-rati. Thus, Balarāma’s rāsa-līlā, as Vṛndāvana dāsa refers to his gandharva marriage at Rāma Ghāṭa, is anticlimactic in the chapter that it is described.32 Indeed, Gauḍīya theologians commenting on this līlā stress the fact that Rāma has his own gopīs only with a view to emphatically assert that he does not consort with Kṛṣṇa’s gopīs, and they open no window into Rāma’s relationship with his wives through which a sādhaka can pass.33
17 Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 10.15.8
18 On the eve of Holī, fires are lit in memory of the burning of Hiraṇyakaśipu’s sister, who unsuccessfully tried to burn Prahlāda to death.
19 Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 10.34.20. See Vaiṣṇava-tosaṇī and Jīva Goswāmī’s reference to Bhaviṣya Purāṇa. Furthermore, in his commentary to Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 3.5.23, Jīva Goswāmī depicts Balarāma during Holī with parental feelings for Rādhā.
20 Prīti-sandarbha 403
21 In his Ānanda-vṛndāvana-campū, Kavi-Karṇapūra mentions a mutual attraction between Balarāma and his gopīs that arose during the Holī festival, comparing it to Kṛṣṇa’s relationship with his gopīs. He does this even as he invokes Balarāma’s majestic epithet Haladhara and ignores the fact that the love between Rāma and his gopīs as seen through the lens of the Vṛndāvana Goswāmīs is svakīya in nature rather than parakīya.
22 Notably, at this time Balarāma was already married to Revatī, a Dvārakā līlā marriage arranged and performed by Kṛṣṇa himself. Balarāma married Revatī only to please Kṛṣṇa, while he himself was reluctant to marry. Jīva Goswāmī explains, “Previously, following Kṛṣṇa’s example, Balarāma was not inclined to marry. However, fearing the fault of going against Kṛṣṇa’s desire and in deference to public opinion, he accepted marriage” (Gopāla-campū 2.15.28).
23 Gopāla-campū 2.20.28
24 In this līlā, Baladeva exhibits sympathy for the romanticism of Kṛṣṇa and the gopīs, a rare instance in which he serves like a narma-sakhā. Jīva Goswāmī explains that at this time his sakhya was mixed with mādhurya. See Prīti-sandarbha 173. However, in his commentary on this section of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, Viśvanātha Cakravartī finds Balarāma experiencing the vātsalya feature of his saṅkula sakhya-bhāva.
25 Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 10.65.9
26 Gopāla-campū 2.20.45
27 Kavi-Karṇapūra does mention a gopī named Pūrṇānandā, describing her only as “Balarāma’s dear-most girlfriend,” and he identifies this gopī in part with Gadādhara dāsa of Gaura lilā, whom he also identifies with Candrakāntī-gopī. See Gaura-gaṇoddeśa-dīpikā 155. Garga-saṁhitā describes Balarāma’s gopīs as “nāga girls.” The text describes the worship by which these snake-girls attained Balarāma. This upāsanā is in the mood of aiśvarya and involves worshiping Balarāma along with his Dvārakā wife, Revatī.
28 Gopāla-campū 2.20.49
29 That Bhāgavata verses 10.65.21–22 describing Rāma’s romantic encounter with his gopīs are not found in all manuscripts is the opinion of Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswatī Ṭhākura stated in his commentary on Caitanya-bhāgavata 1.1.28. He bases his opinion on the fact that Śrīdhara Swāmī, Sanātana Goswāmī, Jīva Goswāmī, and Viśvanātha Cakravartī have not commented on these verses, while Vīrarāghava Ācārya of the Rāmānuja sect and Vijayadhvaja Tīrtha of the Madhva sampradāya have. Thus, only two verses are dedicated to describing Rāma’s rāsa-līlā in some manuscripts.
30 It is also notable that the romanticism of both the Holī festival and the gandharva rite at Rāma Ghāṭa, unlike the rāsa-līlā of Kṛṣṇa, does not include sādhana-siddhas entering these līlās.
31 Caitanya-bhāgavata 1.1.22
32 Vṛndāvana dāsa emphasizes Balarāma’s “rāsa-līlā” only in the context of asserting that he too, like Kṛṣṇa, is God. In doing so, Vṛndāvana dāsa also conflates Balarāma’s gandharva marriage at Rāma Ghāṭa described in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 10.65 and the text’s description of Holī in 10.34. His basic argument is that while sages consider such romantic affairs between men and women a stumbling block to spiritual progress, Rāma’s romanticism, like Kṛṣṇa’s, is glorified in the Bhāgavata. He argues so in the context of building a case for the divinity of Nityānanda-rāma. Thus, Vṛndāvana dāsa also cites other verses from the Bhāgavatam in this section of Caitanya-bhāgavata to establish the divinity of Balarāma for his readers.
33 To be clear, it is not that Balarāma does not have a robust romantic life. He most certainly does. This side of Balarāma is the focus of his devotees at the Daujī Mandira in Baldeo within the Vraja-maṇḍala. There, he is the kula-devatā of the Ahivasi Gaur brāhmaṇas, and as such from their angle of vision, Balarāma displaces Kṛṣna and takes his place as the protagonist in the līlā. For these devotees, Daujī reigns supreme accompanied by Revatī-devī. From this angle of vision, Balarāma is a kṣatriya and older brother who is stronger and more righteous than Kṛṣṇa. In Baldeo, the virtues of Balarāma’s maryādā are extolled over the capricious nature of Kṛṣṇa. At Daujī Mandira, one will not hear the Gauḍīya tattva-sūtra “kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam.” However, at Baldeo textual support for the centrality of Balarāma is lacking.