Traversing the Lives of Radha: In Conversation with Harsha Dehejia

Traversing the Lives of Radha: In Conversation with Harsha Dehejia

in Interview
Published on: 07 September 2018
Dr Harsha V. Dehejia, editor of the book 'Radha: From Gopi to Goddess', speaking on the changing character of Radha across literature, times and spaces. (June 2015, Mumbai)


Q. What was so unique about Radha’s character that made you write, compile and edit a book solely dedicated to her.


A. Well, Radha is an amazing character in the entire mythic treasure of India. You take all the goddesses, semi-goddesses, celestial women, semi-celestial women, Shalabhanjika, Swarasundaris, Radha occupies a unique place. She was obviously a mythic character and I think it is important to leave her at that because when you try and conflate myth and mystery, then it loses its charm. And then all kinds of questions come up, unnecessary questions. So she is born from poetry―she is kavyamai. But then she traverses dynasties, philosophic systems, different parts of India and emerges in different ways at different times. And it is still a very endearing character or person, whatever you want to call her.


So, when we talk of any mythic event or person, we cannot totally divorce it from socio-historic conditions of the day. This applies also to our wisdom traditions and philosophic systems. Some hold a view that philosophic systems just arise from nowhere, de novo as they say. I hold the view, along with many others, that philosophic systems, mythic beings, mythic events arise as a result of or on a background of certain socio-political, historic conditions of the day.


When we talk of Radha, she really appears for the first time in her concrete form in Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda and that is about the 12th century CE, roughly. So we need to examine what was going on in the 12th century. Why did Radha appear at that time in her concrete form? Why not earlier? Why not later? I think one of the main reasons according to me is that in the 12th century, there was a kind of a shift in our philosophic traditions―from Advaita to Dvaita. The Advaita traditions which started in the Upanishads held a sway over the Hindu mind, the Indian mind for well over a thousand years. That was the mainstream philosophic system.​ And that is what happened in the Bhagavata Purana. The Bhagavata Purana, which is roughly from the 9th century, particularly the 10th book (Dhasham Skanda) of the Bhagavata Purana is the story of Krishna’s romantic episodes and involvement with the gopis of Vrindavan. But these are all gopis―there is no Radha there. And it is very important to understand that. The people who wrote the Bhagavata Purana were probably Tamil Brahmins because the Bhagavata Purana really is an outgrowth of Tamil Bhakti poetry. They could have put Radha there, if they wanted to, as the prime beloved of Krishna. Why did they not, that is the question. Because Radha as a character was lurking in the minds of people for a long long time, for centuries, for millennia. The folk literature, the tribal literature, always had that beloved of the flute playing person. But the Bhagavata Purana does not have Radha in it. And for very good reason. Because the Bhagavata Purana is an Advaitic document. It was important for the Bhagavata Purana to remain Advaitic and not break away from the Upanishads. It breaks away slightly from the Vedic tradition because the Dashama Skanda begins by Krishna lifting the Govardhana mountain and going against the dictates of Indra which itself sends a signal that the Vedic hegemony on the Indian mind was coming to an end. And it was time to put away with the Vedic yagnas, the rituals and so on and commence another way of looking at ourselves, looking at our traditions, our wisdom, our philosophy. And therefore the Bhagavata Purana remains Advaitic although it is erotic and life affirming.


So, the Bhagavata Purana was the coming together of three streams of thought, the northern Advaitic Upanishad stream, the erotic stream of the tribal people and the life affirming stream of the Aham Tamil poets. But yet there was no role in that for Radha because it had to maintain that Advaitic, non-dualistic position which comes through very nicely at the end of the Rasaleela when Krishna disappears and the gopis are left longing for Krishna and then discover Krishna within their own selves. So, that must be said even before we start talking of Radha.


Even the Pushtimarg Vaishnavism of Vallabhacharya, that grew out of Bhagawata, also maintains an Advaitic stand. Vallabhacharya calls it Shudh advaita. He departs slightly from the Bhagavata because he does not totally subscribe to the Bhagavata although his doctrine, Pushtimarg doctrine, is an outgrowth of the Bhagavata.


But by 12th century, the hold of Advaita on the Hindu mind, Indian mind, was decreasing because the dualistic traditions of Nimbarka and Madhavacharya were taking hold that Advaita. At the end of the day it is not an easy doctrine. Because in Advaita you are completely eliminating the object and relying completely on the subject and eventually your own subjective presence is also eliminated and it dissolves in the supreme self―the parmatman. It is easy to talk about, but not easy to do because being humans we want to hang on to our objective being, our ego, mind, intellect and so on. And, therefore, the dualistic traditions of Madhavacharya and Nimbarka were sprouting up. They were taking hold of the Indian mind. They were enjoying the dualistic traditions. It is in that background that Jayadeva comes along and introduces Radha as a principal character of the Gita Govinda.  


Now Jayadeva also came from a background of Bengal and Orissa where the Shakti tradition was very strong, although, in other parts of India as well. And, therefore, he introduces Radha as the beloved of Krishna but underlying the character of Radha in the Gita Govinda is the whole Shakti tradition, that Radha is not only the beloved of Krishna but she is the Shakti figure. It is there in a seminal form and it was later picked up by Chaitanya.


Why Jayadeva chose to write about Krishna is hard to answer. Obviously, Krishna had made an appearance in the Bhagavata Purana―the romantic Krishna. Where did he come from we don’t know. Probably a composite figure of the erotic, tribal, the flute playing, romantic person gets concretised in the body and persona of Krishna. So, Jayadeva taps into that but refuses to remain Advaitic―wants a consort or beloved of Krishna and he chooses Radha.


Now a lot of questions that we ask like why Radha? What is the meaning of the term Radha? Some people have suggested that vaguely in the Bhagavata Purana that there is a seminal Radha, a gopi who is in love with Krishna and Krishna has a special affection for her and they disappear and so on. So, there is that seminal suggestion of Radha in the Bhagavata Purana without her name but Jayadeva brings her in Gita Govinda and in no uncertain terms. There she is the all-powerful beloved of Krishna who not only is in love with Krishna but humanises him, really brings him to his knees as it were. And once she appears in the Gita Govinda, she never leaves. She is there to the present day.


As I said, Jayadeva introduces the whole dualistic idea of Radha―Radha in love with Krishna and the interesting thing is that when there is a dualistic relationship between Radha and Krishna, what are we? In the Bhagavata Purana we are all gopis―man, woman and child, we are all females and we are all gopis directly in love with Krishna. And that remains the hallmark of Pushtimarg Vaishnavism that all the Pushtimargis are essentially gopis in love with Krishna. When Radha comes as the main beloved of Krishna, something interesting happens. Can we love Krishna as the gopis did in the Bhagavata Purana? Or can we not because Radha is his principal beloved there? Where do we fit in? How do we read the Gita Govinda? How do we become a part of Krishna’s love at that point? Here, Jayadeva introduces the character of the sakhi (friend). There is no sakhi in the Bhagavata Purana. This sakhi is the person who is the intermediary between Radha and Krishna. She is the one who arranges meetings. She is the one who carries messages and, assuages one or the other when they have a fight and so on. And, therefore, we become the sakhi in the Gita Govinda and that is a very important difference. We, who participate in the Gita Govinda cannot be the gopis who directly love Krishna. We have to love Krishna through Radha. But Radha is the consort, Radha is the shakti. So, that whole idea comes in very strongly in the Gita Govinda and it changes the way the whole romantic relationship evolves from the Gita Govinda.


It is Chaitanya who picks that up. He makes Radha- the Shakti―the Devi and the consort of Krishna. Not only that but he also insists, says and behaves that all of us must imitate Radha. We must placate Radha. He even dressed himself like Radha. So here we don’t have direct access to Krishna, it is only through Radha and we as sakhis of Radha who can then have access to Krishna. So, already a couple of hundred years after the Gita Govinda, the character of Radha has changed. She is no longer just the beloved of Krishna in a romantic work. Chaitanya converts the very beautiful Gita Govinda into theological text. For Jayadeva, Gita Govinda is just a romantic poem. He had no idea that within a hundred years of his writing the Gita Govinda, it would spread all over India. It is amazing how within a couple of hundred years of the Gita Govinda was written, spread and started influencing the painting tradition. The whole miniature painting tradition picked up the Gita Govinda and started making very beautiful paintings from it. It is very interesting that how quickly it spread.


It is said that next to the Bhagavata Purana and probably the Rasikapriya, Gita Govinda is the most celebrated text in the whole Krishna tradition. So there you are―there is Jayadeva, there is Radha, there is the Gita Govinda and that is where we should start looking at Radha.


Q. So, in a sense, it is Radha from the nayika in the Gita Govinda, she becomes like a Devi with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.


A. Correct. She becomes a Devi. Now Vallabhacharya’s Pushtimarg Vaishnavism is still going on quite nicely. Jayadeva although gave a different twist to the whole romance of Krishna, it does not inhibit the Pushtimargis. They are going on quite nicely and strongly in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Most of the Rajput kings were Pushtimarg Vaishnavas. So, on the west coast of India, Pushtimarg Vaishnavism was progressing quite nicely with its headquarters at Nathdwara, near Udaipur. And here we are on the eastern side of India with Chaitanya taking his stand on the Gita Govinda and creating Radha as a Devi and the whole Shakta tradition that springs up on the east coast of India, Bihar, Orissa, mainly.


There are interesting conflicts that take place between the Pushtimargis and the Chaitanya. Followers of Chaitanya’s Vaishnavism are also called the Gaudiyans of Bengal. Chaitanya’s Vaishnavism is also called Bengal Vaishnavism as opposed to Pushtimarg Vaishnavism. They progressed independently but there are conflicts because Chaitanya’s Gaudiya Vaishnavism was a very proselytising kind of Vaishnavism. They wanted converts. They wanted to spread their word and Chaitanya himself deputes two of his disciples―Jiva Goswami and Rupa Goswami to go to the present day Mathura and, kind of, recreate Vrindavan, the mythic Vrindavan that existed in the Bhagavata. They wanted to recreate it in actuality. So, all the stories of Radha and where she was born, like Barsana, and so on come up in present day Vrindavan. Now that is the creation of the Gaudiyas. And the Gaudiyas wanted to come down and take over Pushtimarg, the Nathdwara tradition, but they were resisted. They were thrown out of the Nathdwara area. Even Kota, Udaipur and so on were staunchly Pushtimargis. Gaudiya Vaishnavism couldn’t come there. Whereas, Gaudiya tradition got a stronghold in the areas around Jaipur with a number of temples that came up, where Radha is present as a consort. But the interesting thing is that Radha does not come as a murti―as an icon there. She is suggested/ represented sometimes by a mound of earth on which some jewels are kept and so on.


The iconic Radha is a very modern development. Radha-Krishna that we are so used to seeing in calendar prints, in temples, Madhubani paintings, the Radha-Krishna divine pair but the iconic development of Radha is very very late. Even in Pushtimarg and Nathdwara Radha is suggested―she doesn’t appear. And she is again suggested through her clothes. In the final darshan of Krishna when he is put to sleep, they put the clothes of Radha next to him suggesting that there was Radha there. For instance, even in the Jagannath temple, there is no Radha. Radha comes there through the chanting of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda because Jayadeva started the tradition of chanting the Gita Govinda.


So, when we talk of Radha, we must also talk about the whole epistemology of viraha or longing. The concept of longing is brought in also in the Bhagavata Purana. For instance, the godhuli vela, when Krishna returns with the cows at the end of the day―Krishna has gone for the day and the gopis long for him―where has he gone. Even in that few hours there is that feeling of viraha for the gopis. And then of course that intense viraha comes in after the Rasaleela ends. Because in the Bhagavata Purana, at the end of the Rasaleela Krishna leaves Vrindavan never to come back again. Although, Chaitanya and some others change that. But in the Bhagavata Krishna does not return. So why was the story constructed that way? Very simply, to bring in the concept of viraha. And to very simply bring in the whole essence of Advaita that unless there is viraha or that intense longing you are not able to move from shringar to ‘shringar bhakti’. As long as Krishna is in front of you, playing, romancing, dallying, playing his flute in Vrindavan, you are in the position of shringar, you don’t want to lose him. You want him to be in front of you. You want to touch him, to be sensuously involved with him all the time. And, therefore, at that point there cannot be bhakti. You are just totally involved. Romance is too strong, too exciting, too pleasurable at that point. It is just sensual enjoyment of Krishna and that is the way he wants it. Krishna very clearly says that please enjoy me sensuously through my songs, through my dance, through my words, through my gestures, through my clothes and whatever I wear and so on. I mean his whole appearance in the Bhagavata with the pitambar, the vanamala, the peacock feathers, all very suggestive metaphors. It is not accidentally done.


So, at the end of the Rasaleela when Krishna leaves, the gopis are in a state of utter painful longing and first initially with great anguish, anger, and despair. When Uddhav comes carrying a message from Krishna who wants to know, ‘Please find out how the gopis are doing? I am thinking of them.’, it is then that they really realise that they don’t need Krishna in front of them, Krishna is within them. The flute is heard within them. And that is where really ‘shringar rasa’ becomes ‘shringar bhakti’.


So am I saying that you need that sense of longing to develop Bhakti? I have to say, yes, there can be a different kind of bhakti when the icon, the idol, of the person is in front of you but real shringar bhakti can only come because of longing and viraha. Because it changes the way you look upon your beloved at that point. And, therefore, of course Jayadeva also brings in viraha but on both sides. Jayadeva brings in the viraha of Radha and viraha of Krishna both.


But Chaitanya then picks up on the viraha idea also because we as sakhi who are not privy to being with Krishna because Krishna can only be with Radha. So, we are sort of removed from Krishna in Gaudiya Vaishnavism. And, therefore, we have that intense longing for Krishna and it is in that longing that shringar is transformed into shringar bhakti. Chaitanya also says that any shringar does not necessarily lead to shringar bhakti. It is only shringar of Krishna that leads to or is transformed into shringar bhakti where sensuality is transformed into spirituality. Where the objective Krishna disappears in front of us and it is only the subjective Krishna that remains with us and, therefore, shringar becomes shringar bhakti. And it is that that really sustains.


You do know that some very prominent people in 19th century India, like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, felt that the Dashama Skanda should be confined to the flames because it is a very decadent text according to them. Now obviously if you are stuck at a sensuous level, if you are not able to transform shringar into shringar bhakti, there is always that danger that from sensuality it could become profane, it could become lewd. There is always that danger with shringar rasa. And, therefore, it should always be transformed into shringar bhakti which, of course, Chaitanya does very nicely. And that is the contribution of Chaitanya. One of his main contributions is that we are not privy to Krishna and, therefore, there is no shringar rasa there but automatically this is shringar bhakti. That, of course, then goes through the centuries till we come to modern times where Radha is looked upon as Krishna bhakta and so on. But then in modern times the whole texture in the character of Radha changes. She becomes too flat in contemporary times―in modern times. In arts, feelings, stories, narratives, Bollywood, Radha becomes a kind of a two-dimensional character and that earlier mythic, mystical character of Radha disappears. But, again to restate, the viraha is the backbone, is the underpinning of shringar rasa. So, that is the importance of viraha.


Q. I find it so interesting how Radha’s character embodies this movement from shringar rasa to shringar bhakti and that her character develops over time. This brings us also to the visual semantics because, when you say, it is a question of the medium because poetry is so multi-dimensional and so her poetic character can be so multi-dimensional. For e.g. when she is transformed into the miniature paintings where it becomes almost two-dimensional and then if you take that on to screen, it loses that multi-dimensionality. How has the medium or the visual semantics played a role in shaping her character?


A. I think you have said it very well. Jayadeva had no idea that the Gita Govinda and therefore Radha and Krishna could be converted to painting. Miniature painting, as we know it today, did not exist at the time of Jayadeva, otherwise he would have commented or done something different. Miniature painting comes a couple of hundred years later than Jayadeva. Radha is essentially kavyamai. That is how Jayadeva brings her in and that is how he celebrates Radha.


But Chaitanya makes it into a theology. He moves away from romantic poetry. But by that time Radha had started appearing very strongly in miniature paintings and, therefore, as you correctly said, when you depict Radha in painting (change the medium in which Radha is celebrated), how do you bring in that spiritual aspect of Radha? That is a very interesting and important question that different artists would use different techniques to show the longing of Radha and make it more spiritual. And that is why I think it is very important that in miniature painting we always enjoy it tandem with poetry. The whole concept of holding up a miniature painting in a book, in a print or in a museum, when just looking at it, changes the whole character of the whole narrative. But the whole ideal way of enjoying the miniature painting which is where she appears strongly over five hundred years from roughly the 15th to the 19th century, in most of the Rajput courts in Gujarat, Malwa and then in the Pahadi region.


But one should go back and think about how were these miniature paintings enjoyed. Imagine a court soiree in the evening where the patron, the raja, is sitting. And next to him the poet would sit, the actual poet. For instance, Keshavdas who wrote Rasikapriya, would preside along with Raja Indrajit, in Orchha, when he would recite poetry. But in the absence of the actual poet, some other poet would recite the poetry. And then there would be a dancer and a singer who would enact that whole couplet or the ashtapadi. And then there would be the court librarian who would explain the whole thing to the artist and it is only then that the paintings would be created. So we who are just looking at the paintings, five hundred or thousand years later, must recreate that in our own mind to enjoy the painting. And as you said painting, as such, uses another dimension altogether and Radha becomes rather flat and it is only through poetry and its depiction in painting that the whole concept of longing and viraha and bhakti really comes in. Therefore, one must enjoy the entire character of Radha along with the paintings, poetry, narratives, songs, dance and so on. Enjoying just one piece of art by itself is likely to give you a very truncated and uni-dimensional view of Radha.


Q. What is very fascinating about Radha is that it is almost like her character inverses Hindu philosophy from ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ to ‘I am You’. Like she is boldly stating that as if she has almost understood that there is no separation. So it is like the bhakta speaking. All the time when the texts speak to you we understand it. But she is embodying the philosophy and then expressing her understanding of it. Do you think that would be probably one way of looking at her? And that is why people connect to her character so much because she gives us a way of expressing our understanding of oneness.


A. I think you have said it very beautifully. I would say that when Advaita changes to Dvaita, this is exactly what happens. Both the subject and the object are equally important in that relationship. It is interesting that when you talk of the love or romance of Shiva and Parvati, it is a mirror image romance of Radha and Krishna. In the Shiva-Parvati romance, Shiva is the subject, Parvati is the object and Shiva is in love with Parvati and it is Parvati who eventually transforms Shiva and brings knowledge.


In the case of Radha and Krishna, it is Radha who is the subject and Krishna is the object of love. And something quite different happens in the Radha-Krishna model where Radha becomes knowledge. And, therefore, what you are saying is so true that Radha epitomises a whole different way of understanding knowledge that it is through the persona, the love of Krishna, Radha becomes knowledgeable or full of knowledge herself. I think that is one really interesting way of looking at it.


Q. And maybe how she is depicted in Bhakti poetry and folk cultures, is very different from her miniature painting depictions. Are there multiple Radhas?


A. You see in folk culture and tribal culture in particular, Radha is a very robust and a kind of an aggressive character. And I think that some of it one sees in Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda because obviously Jayadeva must have been privy to a lot of folk and tribal poetry. And yes, I quite agree that in folk and tribal poetry Radha comes through very differently―strongly, robustly, aggressively and is very confident of her love. There is no question of her being inhibited or diffident about her love. She is sure about her love for Krishna. And asserts it and is firmly rooted in that love. And I think that is a character of the folk tradition. The folk tradition lacks that inhibition. It is very outward, robust and very expressive. And even today in the tribal societies, present day, the whole relationship between a man and a woman, one sees that a woman is extremely confident, outward and not shy, coy and so on.


And yes, therefore I certainly agree that when you look at the folk traditions, which one must in understanding Radha, particularly older folk traditions but then what happens in the so-called calendar art and the popular songs of Radha and Krishna, there is that ambivalence. If you look at Hindi literature, with which I am slightly familiar, the different poets bring in Radha in a different way. Some talk of that coy, demure Radha who is always giving herself up.


In times modern, around 20th century, some interesting things begin to happen to Radha, very importantly in the Riti kavya. The father of Riti Kavya is Keshavdas (1591). Keshavdas creates a courtly Radha. Not the Radha of Vrindavan, not of the forest, the coy, not of the folk poetry but an altogether new Radha comes in there and that is the Radha of Rasikapriya, which is the creation of Keshavdas. Followed by almost 300 years of Riti Kavya because there was Keshavdas, Bihari, Matiram, and a host of other poets who bring in the courtly Radha―Radha of the courts. Now there she is different. There also she is in love with Krishna but she is more assertive. She is not the coy or demure Radha of the forest. And that really, it is the Riti Kavya that takes us to the Radha of modern poetry.


And I think there as it were, as you said very nicely, the rural Radha which also comes in in poetry but there is the kind of an urban, more assertive Radha who says: ‘But look, I am not going to wait for you forever.’ She tells Krishna: ‘If you want you can come, otherwise don’t.’ Things like that. So there is that modern, should I use the word feminist Radha that comes in.


In Kolkata yet another trend comes in where Radha becomes a ‘kalankini’, where she is portrayed as the kind of fallen and the bad woman who lures men away from their marriages and breaks up marriages and so on. And there is a very interesting poetic reference to that where there is Radha along with her friends, this is situated in Bengal, and she wants to become the abhisarika. She leaves in the middle of the night to meet Krishna. And the other friends ask her saying: ‘where are you going in the middle of the night?’ So she is startled and scared. So what is she going to say? Because she is a Bengali woman in that narrative she said: ‘Oh! I am going to worship Kali in the middle of the night.’ And Krishna who was waiting for her in the forest realises what has happened, of course, and Krishna changes his whole appearance to that of Kali except that he looks a little blue and some of his peacock feathers still remain. So, there is some confusion there. But the situation is saved for that Radha. But there that Radha ‘kalankini’ comes in Kolkata quite a lot in some of Bengali poetry.


So, there we are from that seminal Radha in the Bhagavata Purana, without naming, to the strong presence of Radha in the Gita Govinda to the suggested Radha in Pushtimarg Vaishanavism, the Ashtachhap kavis. They are also a little late in appearance. Surdas initially does not talk much about Radha but it is because of Vithalnath, Vallabhacharya’s son, that he starts talking about Radha. And then of course Gaudiya, the Rasikapriya, the courtly Radha and then Radha in the folk literature, cinema and so on. So, she is a marvellous character. She, sort of, tantalises us and therefore that quote from that little poem: ‘Who are you after all, Radha, who are you?’ Which incidentally is a take-off from Vidyapati. Vidyapati was another poet who is called the second Jayadeva in Mithila. And he writes very lovingly of Radha. He had the heart of Radha it is said. And he writes this poem in the words of Radha asking Krishna: ‘Who are you after all, who are you Krishna’. I just turned it around and said: ‘Who are you Radha’. So, I think we could end with that question saying: ‘Who are you really Radha, who are you?’ We need to think about that.