HOW DID RADHA come to me? Perhaps it was when I was roaming the narrow lanes of Vrindavana, in search of these elusive mysteries. Amidst the groves of ancient basil bushes stood a room with a bed in it, designed in the style of a government guest house in a minor mofussil town. It had iron shutters through which I could glimpse a postered bed. It was here that they met, those two, in a timeless nocturne, through the yugas, across the ages.
The attendant priest handed me a bundle of prasad. The packet he gave me contained some sweet crumbling pedas, fragrant tulsi leaves, a folding mirror, some bindis, glass bangles, a bottle of cheap fluorescent-pink nail polish. The last three items constituted a traditional ‘suhag ka pitara’, a gift symbolizing the auspicious feminine. It was a moment of illumination. The importance of it, the crucial nuance, came to me in a flash. The mirror was a gateway to the recognition of selfhood. The bangles were a form of armour. I don’t ever wear bindis, but they represent the awakening of the third—the inner—eye. It was the nail polish that moved me the most, it spoke to me of hopes and yearnings and betrayals, the entire tradition of ‘shringara rasa’, the evocation of the mood of romantic and erotic love from the Natyashastra that is such a deep undercurrent of Indian culture.
We began this quest for Radha some years ago, after Dr Malashri Lal and I had completed our edited anthology In Search of Sita. Radha is an all-too-human goddess, a sublime yet sensual emblem of mortal and divine love. She is subversive in that she possesses an autonomy rarely available to feminine deities. She lives by her own rules, and not those of the world. She is the essential Rasika, the aesthete of passion, and her wild heart belongs only to herself.
Like Sita, Radha is also a manifestation of Lakshmi. Radha is the essential Shakti of Krishna, just as Sita is the consort of Rama. Yet their lives span very different arcs. Sita is the sterling emblem of familial duty, who unflinchingly complies with the diktats of her patriarchal and hierarchical world. She is relentlessly questioned and tested, and subjected not once but twice to the ‘Agni pariksha’, the test by fire, driving her to relinquish the harsh obligations of royal conduct and return deep into the womb of the earth mother.
Radha, the bucolic milkmaid, follows the dictates of her heart, of her instincts, of her passion, to seek union with her innermost self. She is her own mistress even in the act of surrender to her beloved. And it is this aspect of her that is worshipped, if not emulated, in shrines, temples and festivals all across India even today.
The enigma of Radha and the example of Sita coexist and are both contained in the apparent paradoxes and composite unity of the Hindu religion. The lack of any textual references to Radha in the Mahabharata, and the only indirect allusions in the Srimad Bhagavatam, establish that the rebellious figure of Radha was born of the ahistorical collective consciousness of religion and culture. She was born of the need to establish a direct emotional and mystical relationship, a sensual, tactile, immersive connect, with the sacred. Radha’s divine lover, Krishna, was later married to Rukmini, and to Satyabhama, and later in some texts, to Jambavanti. Yet he remained hers, and she his, in the hearts and minds of the devout.
India’s great epics and scriptures were born of orality; they have been retold, reinterpreted and reimagined through millennia. Even as the plasticity and porous narrative of oral traditions yielded to the stricter boundaries of textual veracity, the format of palm- leaf manuscripts was amenable to interpolations and imaginative embellishment. These acts of appropriation and interpretation and translation through successive generations, through the centuries, led to the continuous rediscovery of the core stories, and kept them relevant and contemporary across the passage of time. They were birthed anew and belonged to each poet, scribe or bard, each dancer and sculptor, who bestowed them with form and creative reality.
The figure of Radha was first mentioned in the medieval period, in the exquisite Gita Govinda of the poet Jayadeva of modern-day Odisha, and in the maha-mantra of Radha and Krishna extolled by Nimbakacharya in the 11th and 12th centuries. This anthology carries many perspectives on how the visualization and iconography of ‘Radharani’ evolved, through the Chaitanya school of Vaishnavism, and the philosophical and poetic interpretations of the Bhakti movement. These traditions were continued in the late 15th century in the magnificent poetry of Chandidas of Bengal and Vidyapati of Mithila, and later in the verses of the blind seer Surdas.
The essence of the relationship between Radha and Krishna resides in its spontaneous acquiescence to the moment of joyous union, and its disregard for imposed social boundaries in love, sacred or profane. This sense of abandonment, of surrender, would have been, and still is, exhilarating and liberating in a prescriptive and regimented society.
The sensory and the physical are as profound as all the navel- gazing in the cosmos. Our duplicitous and illusory world belongs to the realm of what is described as maya, and we are all entangled in the ‘maya jaal’, in the phantasmagorical web of the virtual and the unreal. The amorous frolics of the divine lovers are described not as Maya but as Leela, as the eternal play of consciousness, the dream of the awakened.
As with depictions of Shiva and Parvati, there is a remarkable gender fluidity in images of Radha and Krishna. She is him as he is she; together they are ‘ardha Radha Venudhara’—the two halves of one self, joined in the ultimate rasa of spiritual rapture. In the complicated inversions that come so easily to Hindu mysticism, Shri Radha is Krishna himself represented in female form. Her relationship with the other milkmaids, the gopis, is one of sisterhood.
The sakhi, or female friend and confidante, is an important motif in the tales of Radha and Krishna, celebrating sorority and the dance of love.
Radha consciousness, so deeply rooted in this soil, continues to emerge in the most unexpected ways. Manipur is in the north- east of India, bordering Burma, and has a special connect with the Mahabharata, as the ancient lineage of its royal family supposedly traces it genealogy from the Pandava prince Arjuna and his wife, Chitrangada, who was from these parts. I encountered the Manipuri Raas Leela in the translated memoirs of the great writer Princess Binodini. This is how she describes it.
During the offering of Maha Raas to Lord Govinda, in the episode called The Disappearance of Krishna, Tamphasana would wear ritually pure clothes and enter the enclosed circle of the performance hall of Lord Govinda very early on. Later, at the time of Krishna’s disappearance, she would sing the role of Krishna. I remember the song even today as it was rehearsed often in our house. It went like this:
When you can walk no more Beloved Radha Place your feet upon my shoulder My dear Subadani
This is how I remember it. How sweetly my frail sister sang it! I remember how, when she sang, my father would hasten from his royal seat, and weep as he offered his turban and prostrated himself before the Brahmin dance teacher. In those days it was not the custom to enter the dance circle in the performance hall to offer scarves or money. It was especially prohibited at the palace. If anybody offered anything, it could only be to Lord Govinda.1
Vaishnavism came to Manipur around 1470, and the 17th-century monarch Rajarshi Bhagya Chandra established the practice of ritual
Raas Leela, incorporating the Meitei interpretation of Vaishnavism into the spiritual force of a dance form in the tender Madhura Raas and the devotional Bhakti Raas.
Be it the continuity of dance traditions in Manipur or the ever- popular devotional songs of Meera Bai, interpreted through cinema, Radha lives on in everyday life around us. The emotions invested in her are intense and intuitive.
Then there is the intriguing figure of self-admitted spiritual guru Radhe Maa, whose videos from various jagrans have gone viral on the Internet. Radhe Maa was born Sukhvinder Kaur to a Sikh family in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab. Initiated at the age of twenty- three by the Paramhans Dera in Hoshiarpur to become ‘Radhe Maa’, she gained an influential disciple early on, whose family owned a chain of successful sweet shops. Her clothes, lipstick, the furniture, carpets and curtains, even the ceilings in her bungalow in Borivili, Mumbai, are all painted red, as are the lifts in the building. Her life as a self-proclaimed god-woman and cult leader has been mired in controversy and litigation. Her website and Facebook account reveal a standard sanctimonious tone interspersed with whacky photographs. She looks like a downmarket model, with good skin and an admirable figure for her fifty-plus age group. A ‘hot avatar’, she poses in red miniskirts and boots. She has an eye for the news, and there are photographs of her in a red bikini in circulation. The Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, the apex body of Hindu sadhus, has mentioned her on their list of fourteen ‘Fake Spiritual Leaders’.
What does Radhe Maa of Borivili have to do with her namesake Radha, the beloved of Krishna, and their pastoral romance? I pondered this, and I do not know. It is one of the mysteries of Hinduism, where everything becomes the opposite of what it once was.
The ignominies of popular culture and social media natter continue to embarrass my online research. An evocative thread describes Radha ‘becoming like a side character of a movie, disappearing after the interval’.
So let me return to stories of long ago, and a tale I encountered in a now-forgotten book, of how Radha, as an aged woman, travelled to Dwarka to meet Krishna. She was old and tired, and the journey
took its toll on her. When they met, the intervening years fell away, and their hearts beat as one. She feasted her eyes, and her spirit, on the divine presence of Krishna, though no words were exchanged between them. No one in the splendorous city of Dwarka, with its spired roofs and silver domes, knew who the wrinkled woman was, but she was given shelter and a place to stay.
One day she set off for the forest. She and Krishna were still one, as they always had been. He followed her and they met, once again, in the dark night, amidst the scented jasmine bushes. Radha’s time was near, and she was about to leave her body.
He asked what she wished of him. ‘Play the flute for me,’ she said. And so Krishna coaxed a divine melody from his wooden flute and dedicated the raga to Radha, the milkmaid of Gokul. As she listened to him, her soul left her body and merged into his. His flute fell silent. Infinitely saddened, yet secure in her presence within him, he broke the flute into two and threw it away. He never played the flute again, but the melody to Radha remained ever in his heart.