Great spiritual authorities like Vyasadeva and Sukadeva Gosvami praise Lord Krishna's apparently immoral acts.
When we tell someone that we worship Lord Krishna , they are often taken by surprise: “How can you worship a God who is immoral?” They refer to Krishna's stealing the garments of the young gopis (the cowherd damsels of Vrindavan) and later dancing with them. How could Krishna dare to take away the clothes of young girls and force them to stand naked before Him? How could He dance with other men’s wives in the middle of the night? And for all this, He is worshiped as God? That’s outrageous!
This argument is not totally unfounded, because India has been the home of many ideologies that encouraged some of the most perverted forms of sexual exploitation. In the name of spirituality many pseudo yogis and spiritual teachers have indulged in all kinds of illicit relationships with women and even encouraged their followers to do so. Falsely claiming to be on the highest spiritual platform, such people justify their activities by saying they are following Lord Krishna , the “god of love.” This has led to much confusion and misunderstanding.
The activities of Krishna with the gopis are some of the most misunderstood pastimes of Lord Krishna . Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a great nineteenth-century saint, predicted that one of the challenges for the modern person in understanding the Srimad-Bhagavatam would be the Tenth Canto, where Krishna's loving pastimes with the gopis are discussed. One may wonder, how can a book that is considered the summum bonum, the culmination of all philosophical understanding and the highest wisdom of a tradition, glorify such activities as most worshipable? Bhaktivinoda Thakura answers this question by posing a counter-question: If a layperson can know that such activities are abominable, wouldn’t Vyasadeva, the author of the Bhagavatam, and Sukadeva Gosvami, the narrator of the Bhagavatam, know this fact? Vyasadeva was the literary incarnation of God, and Sukadeva Gosvami was a paramahamsa, a person in the highest renounced order of life. Why would they discuss immoral topics?
Throughout the first nine cantos of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Vyasadeva condemns material attachment and the degrading power of lust. Through the stories of Ajamila, Saubhari, and Purürava, for example, we learn of the dangers of illicit and immoral sex. Therefore, when Vyasadeva introduces Krishna's apparent immorality in the Tenth Canto, we should realize that this is something drastically different from what we have encountered so far. These activities must be special – supramundane and transcendental.
Lust and Love: The Perversion and the Original
The Vedic understanding is that God has both a male and female aspect of divinity. This divinity manifests in the form of Radha-Krishna , Laksmi-Narayana, Sita-Rama, and other expansions and incarnations of Radha-Krishna . The Caitanyacaritamrta (adi 4.56) explains:
radha-Krishna eka atma,
anyonye vilase rasa
“Radha and Krishna are one and the same, but They have assumed two bodies. Thus They enjoy each other, tasting the mellows of love.”
Both members of the divine couple are God in identity, but both are not God in personality. One person manifests two personalities. The female form Radharani (and similarly Laksmi and Sita) is God in identity but without the personality of God. She has a female form and a female mood, and in that way she exchanges love with Krishna . So Krishna is the Supreme God, and Radharani is the same God in the form of His topmost devotee. Radharan i’s confidential associates, the gopis and sakhis, are Her female expansions who assist Her in Her service to Krishna . They too are not God in identity but devotees of God.
Before we can understand and appreciate the esoteric exchanges between the male and female divine forms, we need to understand that because we are spirit souls distinct from the body, our material identity as male or female has no spiritual significance. And therefore we can never judge Krishna's activities based on the activities of men and women in this world.
The Bhagavad-gita (15.1) explains that everything in the material world is a perverted reflection of things in the spiritual world, where everything exists in its original pure state. The human male and female forms are fashioned according to the divine male and female forms of God. God and the spiritual world are perfect and complete, but their reflected forms in the material world are influenced by the three modes of material nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance. As we see, one of the strongest relationships in this world is the one between a male and a female, and the whole world is moving under its spell. Unfortunately, this relationship often takes many ugly and horrible forms under the spell of the modes. The spiritual world, being free from the influence of the modes, presents this relationship in its pristine form.
The Gopis’ Love For Krishna Is Supreme
Before introducing Krishna's loving pastimes with the gopis, the Srimad- Bhagavatam discusses Krishna's intimate love for many other devotees in His various incarnations to show how love is the main ingredient that attracts the Lord, not the external, physical form. Described in great detail are Lord Narasimhadeva’s love for Prahlada, Lord Rama’s love for Hanuman, Lord Visnu’s love for the residents of Vaikuntha, Lord Krishna's love for the Pandavas and Pariksit, and His love for His cowherd boyfriends and His parents Nanda and Yasoda. Great sages like Narada Muni and the four Kumaras, demigods like Lord Brahma and Lord Siva, and kings like Ambarisa and Bharata have expressed their deep devotion through their prayers. In this way, through the multiplicity of human-divine relationships, the Srimad-Bhagavatam reminds us about God’s unlimited love for us – to inspire us to give up our attachment to the temporary world of matter and instead cultivate our lost love for the Supreme Lord. The focus is not on malefemale relationships alone, but on the relationship between God and His devotee. Whether Lord Narasimhadeva embraces Prahlada, or Lord Rama embraces Hanuman, or Krishna embraces the gopis, all such dealings are based on pure spiritual love. Despite dramatic differences among devotees, their devotional mood is always the common element that comes out of each story.
Once we understand this fundamental principle behind each narration of the Bhagavatam, we can safely venture into understanding Krishna's dealings with the gopis. Krishna is not an ordinary male but the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and the gopis, headed by Radharani, are not ordinary women but the topmost devotees of Krishna . This of course does not mean that the male and female forms, or any other form in the spiritual world, are unimportant. Once we understand that spiritual dealings are untainted by material contamination, and once we appreciate the substance of devotion, the Bhagavatam then reveals the higher reality about various levels of devotion.
Ordinarily we would say that lust, or the desire to satisfy one’s own senses, is selfish, so naturally love would mean selflessness. But to distinguish love from lust, Krishna dasa Kaviraja Gosvami goes one step further. He writes:
tare bali ‘kama’
dhare ‘prema’ nama
“The desire to gratify one’s own senses is kama [lust], but the desire to please the senses of Lord Krishna is prema [love].” (Caitanyacaritamrta, adi 4.165)
The important thing to note in this definition is that Krishna has senses, just as we have ours. God is not just an abstract impersonal concept; He has eyes, ears, and other senses. More than getting over the selfish desire to satisfy one’s own senses, the desire to satisfy Krishna's senses is the complete definition of love. The highest summit of selflessness is when our desires are God-centered.
There are five primary devotional mellows (relationships or flavors) in which devotees serve Krishna : santa (neutrality), dasya (servitorship), sakhya (friendship), vatsalya (parenthood), and madhurya (amorous love). Each mellow, or rasa, is meant to give Krishna pleasure in a specific way, and each devotee in the spiritual world serves Krishna in one of these rasas. Even the santa-rasa – the lowest in the transcendental hierarchy – is characterized by complete detachment from material desire, which means the love is not based on the external appearance as a male or female.
Among the five rasas, the madhurya-rasa is considered the highest, and the devotees serving Krishna in this rasa are the topmost. The gopis want to offer the best food and drinks to Krishna , they decorate themselves beautifully so Krishna is happy looking at them, they sing the best songs to please Krishna , they dance for Krishna's pleasure, and in this way they try to satisfy Krishna in all possible ways. Radharani, the gopis, and all the devotees have their individual spiritual forms, and they please Krishna in their own ways.
This is the real point of transcendence. Spiritual life is a living, loving reality, where every individual has a specific mood and form. What we see in this world hints at the reality of the spiritual world. The human female is suited to offer the best service to the human male. Modern women may reject this as male chauvinism, but a look at the robust traditional family units in India will reveal this to be true. When love and trust exist in a relationship, there is no exploitation. The male-female relationship is based on mutual service, but the service the male offers the female differs from the service the female offers the male. This cooperative and loving relationship has its origin in the spiritual relationship between the male and female forms of God.
The selfless nature of the gopis’ love was proved when once Krishna pretended to be sick and no physician could cure Him.
“If I put the dust from the feet of My devotees on my head,” Krishna said, “I can be cured.”
But who would dare to put his or her foot-dust on Krishna's head? Everyone refused – except the gopis. When they learned of Krishna's suffering and how to relieve it, they immediately agreed to take the dust from their feet and put it on His head. They didn’t care about the consequences, and they were prepared to suffer in hell for the rest of eternity if they could give a moment’s pleasure to Krishna . This selfless nature of the gopis qualifies them as the topmost devotees of Krishna , and their female forms allow them to offer the highest service in madhurya-rasa.
Krishna Upholds Morality
Many young gopis had worshiped the goddess Katyayani to get Krishna as their husband. They didn’t want to marry anyone else, and they eagerly hoped that Krishna would marry them. Understanding the hearts of the gopis, Krishna decided to fulfill their desire. One day as the gopis entered the Yamuna’s waters, leaving their clothes on the riverbank, Krishna suddenly appeared there, took all their garments, and climbed a nearby kadamba tree. He demanded that to get their clothes back, the gopis would have to come out naked and collect them.
In commenting on this pastime, Srila Prabhupada explains that in the Vedic culture a woman’s wealth is her chastity. She can appear unclothed only in front of her husband. When Krishna demanded that the gopis appear naked in front of Him, He was not hankering to enjoy their naked beauty – if that were His intention, He could have exploited them without returning their clothes. Instead He was eager to fulfill their desires and accept them as His wives. He was accepting the mood and purpose behind their act.
In the Mahabharata, when the Kauravas attempted to insult Draupadi in an open assembly, Krishna miraculously appeared and protected her chastity by supplying her an unlimited amount of cloth. He protects and upholds the morality of His devotees.
Krishna Demands Transcendental Morality
Following moral principles, though superior to immorality, is not the perfection of spiritual life. Krishna demands that one transcend all morality for the sake of achieving transcendence, which is beyond the confines of even moral principles.
After instructing Arjuna on many subjects, Krishna towards the end of the Bhagavad-gita (18.66) urges him to give up all varieties of religion and surrender to Him completely:
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksayisyami ma sucah
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.”
In the Srimad-Bhagavatam we read about the wives of the ritualistic brahmanas. When they heard that Krishna and Balarama and Their cowherd boyfriends were hungry, they immediately collected all the food they’d prepared for their husbands’ sacrifice and took it to where Krishna was. Disregarding all the threats from their husbands and elders, they approached Lord Krishna and pleaded with Him to accept them as His surrendered servants. In other words, they transcended all social customs and achieved the perfection of life by surrendering everything to Krishna . Interestingly, Krishna advised them to go back to their homes and follow their household duties. He assured them that they need not fear rejection from their families. They could remain united with Him by constantly remembering and chanting His glories.
When the gopis came to dance with Krishna in the middle of the night, He similarly advised them to return to their homes. Like the brahmanas’ wives, the gopis too had disregarded their elders to serve Krishna . They were ready even to give up their chastity in relation to their husbands and risk being ostracized from society. Unlike the brahmanas’ wives, however, out of their intense love for Krishna they could not follow His order to return home. And Krishna could not refuse to accept their love.
The gopis thus demonstrated the supreme level of renunciation, and that is why they are known as the greatest devotees of Krishna . They transcended all moral obligations and surrendered their lives completely to Him.
In ordinary human dealings, a woman who gives up her husband to go with her paramour is considered immoral and scandalous, because her action is based on selfish sensual pleasure. But in transcendental immorality, one gives up morality for the sake of serving Krishna , and that is supremely glorious. Giving up sinful activities and selfish temptations is certainly good, but giving up even pious activities and our attachment to the good of this world for the sake of devotion to God is the highest good, the supreme religion. The gopis exemplified this quality to its perfection.
Lord Krishna Proves His Godhood
Sukadeva Gosvami explains to Pariksit Maharaja that Krishna's violation of moral principles for the sake of His devotees proves His position as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. If He were bound by moral codes of human society, how could He be called God? Krishna is above all morality and immorality, not vice versa. When He appears to violate morality, He is not being immoral but is demonstrating His supremacy over morality. Unlike us, who may break moral principles under the force of alluring temptations, Krishna is never motivated by selfish desire. He is always motivated by love, and everyone gets the supreme benefit whenever He breaks any moral principle.
We can understand from the activities of Krishna and the gopis that neither morality nor God reigns supreme. Love reigns supreme, even above God. Krishna does not care to display His supreme divinity in front of His most confidential devotees. The residents of Vrindavan do not like to treat Krishna as God. All they know is that Krishna is their most lovable object. Under such circumstances, Krishna is forced to conceal His divinity. And as a result, He feels free to exchange the most loving relations in the sweetest possible manner.
Mukundamala Dasa is a member of the BTG India editorial team.