Once, Radharani, the foremost and Krishna’s favorite of the gopis (wives of the cowherds in Vrndavana, where Krishna grew up), came to visit Krishna in Dwaraka, where he had established his kingdom. All of Krishna’s wives honored her graciously. Rukmini, Krishna’s principal queen and wife, personally tended to her and offered her a glass of hot milk. Radha drank the milk without waiting for it to cool, so immersed was she in thoughts of Krishna. The scalding hot milk burned her throat but she did not even realize it, lost as she was in meditation upon Krishna. Krishna, sitting nearby, suddenly began coughing and gasping in pain.
Krishna cannot bear for a moment for his devotees to feel an iota of pain. He, the conqueror of all the worlds, who is bound only by the rope of love to his devotees – Bhava Grahi Janardana – takes their pain away and takes it upon himself.
At that moment, Rukmini understood the greatness of Radha and the greatness of Krishna.
How can one describe the love of Radha and Krishna – how can one even conceive of it? It is the most maligned and misunderstood of the forms of bhakti (devotion) and love.
It is not possible to properly understand the esoteric relationship between Radha and Krishna, between the gopis and Krishna, without having requisite antahkarna shuddhi (inner purity developed through sadhana (spiritual practice)). Krishna himself is inscrutable, so what can be said of his relationship with the gopis that is rahasya (secret) in nature? Without proper grounding in dharma and sadhana, it is impossible to understand Krishna or his relationship with Radha and the gopis.
Radharani epitomizes the love of the gopis for Krishna, and the love of the gopis for Krishna is the sweetest and most sublime of all the modes of devotion / bhakti. The selfless devotion of the gopis for Krishna is illustrated beautifully in an incident from the life of Krishna.
Once, Krishna appeared to be afflicted by a terrible headache and fever. He was writhing in pain, and everyone was in great distress to see him in physical pain. Many physicians tried to cure him but to no avail. His wives rushed to give him all sorts of medicines, but nothing worked. Krishna announced that he knew the cure, but that no one would agree to it. He said he needed the dust from the feet of a true bhakt / devotee.
Alas, his devotees – even his wives – were too humble to agree to this. He was the Lord of the universe; how could they possibly allow their feet to come into contact with his head? They would surely be consigned to hell for such an insult towards their lord.
At wit’s end, Narada asked Krishna what was to be done. Krishna sent him to Vrndavana to see if the gopis would offer the dust from their feet. As soon as Narada appeared in Vrndavana, the gopis immediately asked after their Kanha. As soon as Narada explained the situation, all the gopis shook the dust off their feet and poured it into his hands for their beloved Kanha. Even though only a small amount was required, they collected more and more of the dust from their feet, so that if Krishna were to get ill again he would not have to wait again to be cured
The gopis did not care that they would go to hell for this offense. All that mattered to them was Krishna’s wellbeing.
Our devotion is inherently transactional. We struggle to love Krishna, to bring ourselves to go to the temple and worship him, to sing his praises, to listen to his glories – and even the little we do, we do like medicine that is good for us. We pray to Krishna, so that he will grant us moksha or take us to Vaikuntha, so that he will remove our worries. This is not pure love; this is not pure devotion. It is of an inferior variety.
The gopis cared for none of that. While others loved Krishna because it was their dharma to do so, because he could give them what they ultimately wanted and what was good for them, while others served him in order to be virtuous, the gopis loved him selflessly and unconditionally. They gave up Dharma itself for him – they gave up their families, their own happiness and wellbeing, merely to serve Krishna, even when they could not be with him, even when all he brought them was suffering upon suffering. Such is the exalted nature of the devotion of the gopis for Krishna.
Krishna was cured by the dust of their feet, and his wives humbled at the purity of devotion of the gopis.
None of these stories in praise of Radha and the gopis should be construed as a slight against Rukmini or the others of Krishna’s wives. Each had their role and value in the leela (divine play) of Krishna’s life. Rukmini is the abode of all virtues; she is Lakshmi herself, the first and foremost of Krishna’s queens and wives, and none could replace her or take that place. Only Lakshmi herself can be the wife of Narayana’s avatar. In his role as the scion of the Yadu dynasty, as the ruler of Dwaraka, Krishna needed Rukmini as his wife, partner, as the mother of his children, and in fulfilling that role, her value is no less than that of Radha and the gopis.
And Radha – what to say of Radha? She who is human and yet divine, who is Krishna’s consort but not his wife, who is inseparable from Krishna now but once was not even acknowledged in the official records of his life and times.
The love of Radha for Krishna bewilders even Shiva, Brahma, and Krishna himself. Her love humbles the rishis and sages, who grew their beards long and white worshipping Krishna, into abandoning their penance, their intricate rites, in order to be born again as humble creepers and blades of grass in the vicinity of Vraj, to just once come into contact with the dust of her feet, to pray to take birth as a servant of a servant of a servant of Radha to experience the glories of her leelas with Krishna and her unparalleled bhakti.
Once, Radha was sitting in Krishna’s lap, with her sakhis and gopas nearby. Radha, head and body adorned by the most beautiful of flowers, and her face itself so resembling of a blooming flower, was being tormented by a bumblebee. Krishna requested a friend to chase away the bee, and after doing so, the friend came back and announced that Madhu was gone.
The word Madhu can be used both as a word for ‘bee’ and also as a name for Krishna. Radha, always so afraid of losing her beloved, began to cry, thinking that Krishna was gone, even though she was right there in his arms. This mood of separation (vipralambha-bhava), this longing for the beloved, this intensity of spiritual love, wherein the slightest distance is unbearable, where the beloved is closer and more real when absent than present, is epitomized in Radharani.
Seeing the tears of Radha, Krishna too was overcome by tears, and their mingled tears formed Prema Sarovara, a sacred pond in Vraja.
Some say that Krishna’s time in Vraja, with Radha and the gopis, was just a passing phase of boyhood, something for him to grow out of before he moved on to greater deeds at Mathura and Dwaraka. But Radha and the gopis represent something more – they are the other half of the Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita.
Imagine the life of Krishna. Hunted from before the time he was born, his childhood tormented by all the demons he had to slay while still playing the part of a child, leading his family and clan from Gokul to Vrndavana to an ever more illusory safety, whiling away his childhood and boyhood in the forests of Vraj, knowing always that another destiny was calling him away – to forever leave behind at a tender young age, without a single glance backwards, his friends and family to kill his uncle and take up a precarious throne, to face Jarasandha again and again in battle, always winning, but never enough to defeat him, finally having to accept the ignominy of being ranchod (one who flees the battelefield) in order to protect his people and kingdom, rebuilding his kingdom in the far west of Dwaraka, spending his precious adult years protecting and plotting on behalf of the plagued Pandavas, enduring insult after insult and doubts about his status as a prince, let alone as a god, pulled in each and every direction by troublesome devotees begging him to rescue from this and that, and doing it all with smile.
Would not even the Supreme Lord want one place of respite, one place of sweetness, one site of a divine leela that was for his pleasure alone? For one whose life had to be ruled by ruthless pragmatism, how sweet it would be to have even one moment of idyll. How could not the one who had to break every rule of dharma for the sake of dharma itself, be drawn to the one who broke all the rules of dharma – as a wife, as a woman – to love him even in separation? For the one who was the supreme avatara, the only sampoorna avatar, how sweet it must have been to have one place where he was loved simply as Kanha.
How beautiful, how sublime, how special, how exalted must be Radhika – to attract the one who attracts all the others in the universe. Srila Prabhupada once said that Krishna’s face is so beautiful that if you saw it, you would fall unconscious, but, if even for a moment, you saw the face of Radharani, she is so beautiful that you would die.
All that is soft and sweet and beautiful in this world, all that is precious, rests in that sweet face of Radharani, curved into a gentle smile, in those innocent, bewildered, wide eyes always gazing at Krishna with love and longing, framed by curly locks of hair – Radha, she who presides over Vraja, who makes the flowers bloom, who gives joy to the cows, deer, birds, bees, who makes the sylvan glades of Vraja sweeter than Vaikuntha itself.
No, Radha and the gopis could never do what the Pandavas did to protect the world and restore dharma. But they represent all that is worth protecting in this world. They are what makes the war of the Mahabharata worth fighting. They are the other half of Krishna, without whom he would be incomplete.
Where does the sweetness of Radharani come from? She is neither human nor divine. She is in fact often jealous and possessive, prone to fits of rage when Krishna leaves her side or teases her for even a moment. But in her these qualities are transcended into something beautiful, a leela that pleases Krishna – even in maan-leela, when she confronts him in a mood of anger, even that to him is sweet. Like fire, that purifies anything that is poured into it, the power of Krishna purifies all the qualities of the devotee that are poured into the fire of that devotion into something divine and transcendental.
Krishna is the master of all sixty-four traditional forms of the arts and knowledge, and in order to please Krishna, Radha through her love for him equally masters all sixty-four herself. Her love for Krishna transforms her into Devi. The uniqueness of Radharani is that, through love alone, she becomes everything. Her love is so sweet that the gopis find more pleasure in witnessing her loving pastimes with Krishna than in being with Him themselves. No genuine devotee of Krishna wants to take the place of Radha – one simply wants to be a servant of a servant of a servant of her.
You will never find Radha in the Srimad Bhagavatam or the Mahabharata. In so many tellings of Krishna’s life, she is not there. And yet, if you think that she is not real – go once to Vrndavana, where every single blade of grass utters her name, where the leaves of all the trees, the waves of all the sacred ponds, the cries of all the birds and the mooing of all the cows, the greetings uttered by all the denizens of Vraj, say only one thing – Radhe, Radhe.
Vraj is covered by the twin footprints of Radha and Krishna. She is there, the source of sweetness, for he who is madhuram akhilam (sweetness and sweetness alone). She, without child, is the mother to us all who are ever at her feet, seeking her blessings to bring us to him. Krishna may ignore us, but she never will.
Perhaps it is true that Radha was not there in the beginning. But after the mountains of this earth crumble, after Pralaya itself dissolves this universe and creates it anew, she will be there – so long as Krishna remains in this cosmos, she will be the only one who remains with him until the end.
Jai Sri Radhe.