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Radha in the Erotic Play of the Universe

by David C. Scott

David C. Scott is Emeritus Professor of religion and culture at United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Born in India the son of United Methodist missionaries, Dr. Scott received his M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary, New York City, and his Ph.D. in South Asian Religions at the University of Wisconsin. He is ordained in the United Methodist Church and has a distinguished career teaching in India at Lucknow Christian College, Lucknow; the Christian Retreat and Study Centre, Rajpur; Leonard Theological College, Jabalpur; and most recently in Bangalore. He is author of several books, the most recent being Re-Visioning India's Religious Traditions (ed.), Bangalore: United Theological College, 1996. The article is used by permission of the author and was prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.


FORWARD

I have long been intrigued by the crossing of boundaries, which is at several points significant to this paper. Certainly the crossing of forbidden boundaries is central to an adequate understanding of Radha bhakti. This plays itself out in the transgression of moral and legal limits in the illicit relationship of Radha and Krsna, a theme accentuated by the intense yearning of viraha [love in separation]. Further, in the intimacy of the bhakti relationship the male bhakta, by experiencing himself as female partner violates his primal sexual demarcation as a male.

In this paper I have endeavoured to create an opportunity to explore these elements in Hindu bhakti and possible points of contact with elements in Christian tradition & experience. I see questions of religious language: reality, analogy and metaphor as being important.

The exploratory character of paper is evident in its lack of sharp focus. Many questions are posed and suggested answers are tentative. The reader will find many asides and references which not pursued, which may be merely suggestive and hence frustrating. One could, for instance, have included another story of longing love, of Layla & Majnun [Mad One], and with it attempted to explicate a sufi understanding of human search for divine. I have further, no more than mentioned in a note the issue of puberty rituals for women. Perhaps it would have been enlightening to have dealt the association of woman, sexuality, temptress and sin in the dominant Christian tradition. Only passing reference has been made to the role of rationality & reason in the western Enlightenment tradition and how this has displaced categories of the cosmic and of mystery. Obviously this paper is not intended as an exhaustive discussion, but more of a suggestive exploration. My purpose is not to suggest universal categories by means of which the entire divine-human inter-relationship is to be explained. Rather the paper looks at one aspect only, that of symbolising mystery, though one might want to argue that it is too much neglected. Perhaps the exercise may indicate new directions and spark interest in following them further. Finally, then, if the paper stimulates continuing wide-ranging, open discussion, full of creative insights and ideas, my purpose in writing it will have been amply satisfied.

 

 RADHA IN THE EROTIC PLAY OF THE UNIVERSE

"There is passion in the universe: the young stars, the whirling galaxies - the living, pulsing earth thrives in the passionate embrace of life itself. Our love for one another is the language of our passionate God....It is desire that spins us round, desire that sends the blood through our veins, desire that draws us into each other's arms and onward in the lifelong search for God's face". (1)

 

When religion is anthropocentric it has very little to tell us that is good news about passion and desire. When this happens culture secularises sexuality and misuses it. Pornography substitutes for mystery. (2) There is, however, mystery at the core of the Radha-Krishna tradition in this land. Here passionate love became sacralised as an expression of bhakti: the loving-woman's longing became devotion and love-making became worship.. It is the intention of this essay to begin to explore this mystery, and then to look for evidence of it in our Christian tradition also. The love of Radha, the beautiful gopi, who later became a goddess for some cults, and Krishna, the youthful dark deity, who is the object of widespread devotion, is less a story remembered than a random succession of episodes seen and heard, sung and danced. Over the centuries their love has been portrayed in thousands of exquisite miniature paintings, which depict the lovers in separation and union, longing and abandonment. The love story is heard whenever we listen to the great vocalists of Indian classical music sing the devotional songs of medieval bhaktas who in their poems sometimes observe, and at other times participate in the love play as Krishna's beloved. The story grips our imagination every time we encounter the animated expressions, flashing eyes and sinuous movements of a dancer, who - as Radha - expresses her anger at Krishna's infidelities, or - as Krishna - begs forgiveness for his impetuous dalliance. The love affair is recreated each time a Krishna bhakta participates in the communal singing of an episode from the story and especially when she or he, possessed by the spirit of one of the lovers, feels impelled to get up and ecstatically dance as the Lord or his beloved. The Radha-Krishna legend, then, is not a story in the sense of an orderly narrative whose protagonists have a shared past and are progressing towards a tragic or happy future. It is more an evocation and elaboration of the here-and-now of passionate love, an attempt to capture the exciting, fleeting moments of the senses and the baffling ways in which love's pleasures and pains are felt before retrospective recollection, trying to regain a lost control over emotional life, edits away love's inevitable confusions.

A long line of bards and balladeers, most of them indebted to the twelfth century Sanskrit poet, Jayadeva, who decisively shaped the legend's outlines, have often described the setting of this legend of love. A pious Hindu needs only close his or her eyes and `remember' in order to see Vrindavan, a Hindu garden of Eden, spring into existence. In the perpetual sunshine of the myth, distinct from the perpetual mists of history, a forest thicket on the banks of the River Jamuna awakens to life on a tropical spring day. The mustard fields at the edge of the forest, with their thick carpet of brilliant yellow flowers, stretch far into the distance. The air is redolent with the perfume of pollen shaken loose from newly blossomed Jasmine and bunches of flame coloured mimosa flowers hanging round and heavy from the trees. The ears are awash in the humming of bees, the cries of the cuckoos and the distant tinkling of cow bells. The seductive call of Krishna's flute comes floating through the forest thicket, further agitating the already unquiet senses, making for an inner uprising and an alien invasion. The legend, aiming to fix the essence of youthful love, has an amorous rather than a geographical landscape as its location; its setting is neither social nor historical, but sensuous.

In the falling dusk, Nanda, Krishna's foster father and the chief of a community of cowherds, asks Radha to escort Krishna home through the forest. On the way, in a grove, their `secret passion triumphs'. Radha's thoughts come to be absorbed by Krishna who, however, is unfaithful to her as he sports with other gopis - hugging one, kissing another and caressing yet another dark beauty.

When he quickens all things

To create bliss in the world,

His soft black sinuous lotus limbs

Begin the festival of love

And beautiful gopis wildly

Wind him in their bodies.

Friend, in spring young Hari [Krishna] plays

Like erotic mood incarnate. [I.46] (3)

Radha is jealous as she imagines the `vines of his great throbbing arms circle a thousand gopis', but more than jealousy she is infused with all the perplexing emotions of a proud, passionate woman who feels deserted by her lover.

My heart values his vulgar ways,

Refuses to admit my rage,

Feels strangely elevated,

And keeps denying his guilt.

When he steals away without me

To indulge his craving

For more young women,

My perverse heart

Only wants Krishna back.

What can I do? [II.10]

Solitary grief and images of a love betrayed and passion lost, recreated in reverie, alternate and reinforce each other:

My eyes close languidly as I feel the flesh quiver on his cheek,

My body is moist with sweat; he is shaking from the wine of lust.

Friend, bring Kesi's sublime tormentor to revel with me!

I've gone mad waiting for his fickle love to change. [II.14]

The power of Radha's yearning produces a change in Krishna. Of all the gopis, interchangeable suppliers of pleasure and feelings of conquest, Radha begins to stand out in Krishna's mind as someone special who is desired in her uniqueness. From the `heroic lover' for whom no woman is exceptional and who simply desires a variety of amatory dalliances, Krishna becomes the `romantic lover' impelled toward a singly irreplaceable mistress. The unheeding pursuit of pleasure, a bewildered Krishna discovers, has been brought to a halt by pleasure's arch-enemies - memory and attachment.

Her joyful responses to my touch,

Trembling liquid movement of her eyes,

Fragrance from her lotus mouth,

A sweet ambiguous stream of words,

Nectar from her red berry lips--

Even when the sensuous objects are gone,

My mind holds on to her in a trance.

How does the wound of her desertion deepen? [III.14]

Having been the Lord who strove to please himself alone, Krishna has become a man for whom his partner's well-being assumes an importance which easily equals his own. He discovers that he would rather serve and adore than vanquish and demand. As a tale of love, this transformative moment from desire's sensations to love's adoration, gives the story of Radha and Krishna its singular impact. (4)

To continue the tale, hearing of Krishna's remorse and of his attachment to her, Radha, dressed and ornamented for love, awaits Krishna at their trysting place in the forest. She lingers in vain, for Krishna does not come. Radha is consumed with jealousy as she imagines him engaged in an amourous encounter with a rival. When Krishna finally does appear, Radha spurns him angrily:

Dark from kissing her kohl-blackened eyes

At dawn your lips match your body's colour, Krishna.

Damn you Madhava! Go! Kesava leave me!

Don't plead your eyes with me!

Go after her, Krishna!

She will ease your despair. [VIII.3]

But, in separation, Radha and Krishna long for one another with a mounting sense of desolation. Eventually, Radha's friend persuades her to abandon her modesty and pride and go to her lover.

Your full hips and breasts are heavy to bear.

Approach with anklets ringing!

Their sound inspires lingering feet.

Run with the gait of a wild goose!

Madhu's tormentor

Is faithful to you, fool.

Follow him, Radhika! [XI.3]

In the full throes of a sexual excitement when even her `modesty left in shame,' Radha rushes to meet an equally ardent (and repentant) lover. Krishna sings:

Throbbing breasts aching for loving embrace are hard to touch.

Rest these vessels on my chest! Quench love's burning fire!

Narayana [Krishna] is faithful now. Love me, Radhika! [XII.5]

Offer your lips' nectar to revive a dying slave, Radha!

His obsessed mind and listless body burn in love's desolation.

Narayana is faithful now. Love me Radhika. [XII.6]

Once the ecstatic love-making subsides momentarily in orgasmic release, a playful Radha asks Krishna to rearrange her clothes and her tousled hair, and

also:

"Paint a leaf on my breasts!

Put colour on my cheeks!

Lay a girdle on my hips!

Twine my heavy braid with flowers!

Fix rows of bangles on my hands,

And jewelled anklets on my feet!"

Her yellow-robed lover

Did what Radha said. [XII.20]

Jayadeva, legend has it, hesitant to commit sacrilege by having deity touch Radha's feet, was unable to pen the last lines, and went out to bathe. When he returned he found Krishna himself had completed the verse in his absence.

The legend of Radha and Krishna as it has come down to us today, differs from Jayadeva's version in only one significant respect. Jayadeva merely hints at the illicit nature of their love when he mentions that an older Radha changes from young Krishna's protective escort to become his lover, thereby defying the authority and instructions of the chief of cowherds.

"Clouds thicken the sky.

Tamala trees darken the forest.

The night frightens him.

Radha, you take him home!"

They leave at Nanda's order,

Passing trees in thickets on the way,

Until secret passions of Radha and Madhava

Triumph on the Jamuna riverbank. [I.1]

Later poets (notably Vidyapati in the fifteenth century), who tend to focus more on Radha and her love than on Krishna, (5) gave the illicit element in the story a more concrete cast and specific content. Radha is parakiya, another-man's woman, (6) and her liaison with Krishna, whatever its powerful meaning in mystical allegory, is plainly adulterous (7) in human terms. Radha is certainly no paragon of the womanly virtues detailed in Hindu texts; nor does she come close to any of the `good' or `bad' mother-goddesses of Indian mythology and religion. In her passionate craving for her lover and in her desperate suffering in his absence. Radha is simply the personification of mahabhava, that `great emotional state' that is heedless of social proprieties and unbounded by conventions. As various scholars have pointed out, (8) many different Indian traditions - religious and erotic, classical literary and folk - have converged and coalesced in the poetical renditions of the myth, especially Jayadeva's Gitagovinda, to give that particular work an allure that extends over large parts of the sub-continent. About this, more anon.

But Radha and Krishna, although linked to the heroine and hero of classical Sanskrit love poetry in many ways, are primarily products of the bhakti movement, whose principal mood has always been erotic. (9) In contrast to much of Western poetry of sexual mysticism, though, Radha and Krishna are not figures of erotic allegory. Bhakti extols possessing and being possessed by God. For it sexual love is where the fullest possession, the `closest touch of all,' takes place. With this the creators and audiences of bhakti poetry seek to project themselves into Radha's love for Krishna through poems that recount all its passionate phases. For bhakti is preeminently feminine in its orientation, and the erotic love for Krishna (or Siva, as the case may be) is envisioned entirely from the woman's viewpoint. Male devotees, saints, and poets must all adopt a feminine posture and persona to recreate Radha's responses in themselves. We shall have more to say about this. Radha's passionate love of Krishna, raised to its highest intensity, is not an allegory for religious passion; it is religious passion. (10) Jayadeva, thus does not need to make a distinction, or choose between the religious and the erotic when he introduces the subject matter of his poem by saying:

If remembering Hari (Krishna) enriches your heart,

If his arts of seduction arouse you,

Listen to Jayadeva's speech

In these sweet soft lyrical songs. [I.4]

The adi-guru of the Radha-Krishna cults, Jayadeva knows that the enrichment of the heart and the arousal of senses belong together.

Not only this, there is a powerful sense of eros as the underlying force motivating all attractions.

Eros is seen as pervading the universe, binding all things together, infusing life with creativity and exuberance, drawing beings to one another in love, and the love between man and woman is viewed as an intense participation in this ongoing erotic play of the universe. (11)

A major source of this erotic excitement in the treatment of Radha and Krishna is the forbidden crossing of boundaries. First, in the pervasive presence of the adulterous in the narrative, there is an illicit transgression of moral and legal limits. Accentuating this is the intense yearning of love-in-separation (viraha). Second, in a striving to entertain the erotic feelings and sensations of the other sex, a lover would violate his primal sexual demarcation as a male. Arousal is provoked, preserved and brought to a pitch by the stealth and secrecy in which the crossing of such bounds takes place. As much has been written on these elements, singly and together, (12) we shall only briefly refer to them.

The most obvious manifestation of the illicit, involving the crossing of boundaries set by social mores and norms, is found in the persistent adulterous character of the narrative. But even the later accounts which saddle Radha with a husband, throwing in a mother-in-law for good measure, persistently underline the adulterous nature of her love for Krishna. There was, of course, much theological uneasiness regarding this circumstance. Some commentators went to great lengths to explain why, since Krishna is divine, he could have not actually coveted the wife of another. Others went to even greater lengths to prove the contrary, explaining that precisely because Krishna is divine he is not bound by normal human restrictions. In the end, and perhaps inevitably, the community's quest for pleasure triumphed over its theological scruples in firmly demanding that the mythical lovers be accepted as unambiguously adulterous. (13)

The fifth century Tamil epic Shilappadikaram is perhaps the earliest illustration of the contrasting attractions of the adulterous and the conjugal for the Indian man. (14) The sensuality and abandon in the description of Kovalana's relationship with his mistress Madhavi in this epic, provide a strong counterpoint to the tenderness and uxorious dependability of his wife, Kannaki.

Significantly, the bhakti cults gave more exalted reasons for making Radha an adulterous parakiya. For them the adulterous was symbolic of the sacred, the overwhelming moment that denies world and society, transcending the profanity of everyday convention, as it forges an unconventional (and unruly) relationship with God as the lover.

Not surprisingly, viraha was idealised as the necessary condition of the intense yearning which characterises the adulterous relationship.

As the clouds scatter, her tears flow,

as night deepens, her sighs increase;

Like a bird in flight, her laughter vanishes,

lightning strikes and robs her of her sleep.

Like a cataka, she cries out "Piu, piu!"(15)

waves of fierce heat rise up within her.

Listen, says Kesav, this is her condition:

there is no fire, but her limbs are burning. (16)

It is a complex relationship, for the devotee is the `same as and yet different from' the Lord, and so even in the joy of union there is the pain of separation. Indeed, the highest form of devotion, according to Yamunacarya, comes not in union but after the union, in the `fear of new separation'. (17) Thus the passionate Radha became the prototype of the passionate devotee. The entire life of the bhakta was to consist of a `holy yearning', the intense desire caused by separation. More on this, too, anon.

The crossing of individual sexual boundaries is another major source of erotic excitement in the treatment of Radha and Krishna. In painting, the depiction of this crossing ranges from the portrayal of the lovers in the traditional Orissa school, where they appear as one androgynous entity, to some of the paintings from the Himalayan foothills where Radha and Krishna are dressed in each other's clothes, or Radha is seen taking the more active `masculine' role. In poetry, Sur Das would speak in Radha's voice.

You become Radha and I will become Madhava, truly Madhava; this is the reversal which I shall produce. I shall braid your hair and will put (your) crown on my head. Sur Das says: Thus the Lord becomes Radha and Radha the son of Nanda. (18)

The inversion of sexual roles is even more striking in Jayadeva's depiction of what are usually regarded as `feminine masochistic' sexual wishes. Krishna, not Radha, sings.

Punish me, lovely fool!

Bite me with your cruel teeth!

Chain me with your creeper arms!

Crush me with your hard breasts!

Angry goddess, don't weaken with joy!

Let Love's despised arrows

Pierce me to sap my life's power! [X.11]

It was only under the influence of nineteenth century Western androcentricity, one of the more dubious `blessings' of British colonial rule, that many educated Indians would become uneasy with this accentuation of femininity in a culture hero. The prominent Bengali writer, Bankim Chandra Chatterji, the proponent of a virile nationalism, found in Krishna the perfect embodiment of the ideal culture-hero, and when he contrasts the representation of the life of Krishna in the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Gitagovinda, he regretted that the obvious allegory of the relation of purusa (spirit) to prakrti (matter) represented by Krishna's love with the gopis had vanished in the Gitagovinda. (19) In the Radha-Krishna cults, where the devotee must create an erotic relationship with Krishna, the transcendence of the boundaries of gender becomes imperative for the male devotee, who endeavours to behave like a woman in relation to the Lord. Here, Krishna not only demands such a reversal from his male devotees, but he has himself set the compelling exemplar. Consequently, tales of Hindu saints who have succeeded in feminising themselves are legion. In support, we may cite only a couple of illustrations. The fifteenth century Gujarati bhakta Narsi Mehta writes.

I took the hand of that lover of gopis [Krishna] in loving converse....I forgot all else. Even my manhood left me. I began to sing and dance like a woman. My body seemed to change and I became one of the gopis. I acted as a go-between like a woman, and began to lecture Radha for being too proud....At such time I experienced moments of incomparable sweetness and joy. (20)

A.K. Ramanujan tells us that the voice of the Tamil saint-poet Nammalvar, who composed 370 poems on the theme of love, was always that of a woman, Krishna's beloved, the girlfriend who consoles and counsels, or the mother who restrains her and despairs over her daughter's lovesick fantasies. Nammalvar's love poems alternated with other kinds of poems and a thirteenth century commentary explained these shifts: "In knowledge, his own words; in love a woman's words." (21) A legend has it that Amaru, one of the earliest and greatest Sanskrit poets of love, was the hundred and first incarnation of a soul which had previously resided in the bodies of a hundred women.

Narsi Mehta, Nammalvar and countless other, unknown devotees of the Radha-Krishna cults perhaps bear testimony to the primal yearning of men, ensheathed and isolated by their masculinity, to yield their heroic trappings and delight in womanliness, woman's and their own. The mother has figured early on as the omnipotent force of a parental universe, making things, including fathers and other males, materialise as if at will. It is she whose breast and magic touch had long ago soothed the savage instinctual imperatives, she whose fecund womb seemed the very fount of life. Such maternal and feminine powers are earthly yet mysterious and transcendent, undiminished by the utter sensuousness in which they are manifest. Indeed, Krishna's erotic homage to Radha conveys something of the aching quality of the man's fantasy of surrender at the height of sexual excitement.

The profusion of the imagery of darkness and night in the meetings of Radha-Krishna underscores the secret nature of these fantasies. The paintings which depict Radha and Krishna surrounded by darkness while they themselves are lit by a sullen glare from the sky, or portray the lovers enclosed in a triangle of night while the inhabitants of Vrindavan unconcernedly go about the day's tasks, are visual metaphors for a sensualism which is simultaneously hidden from the world and from the lovers' awareness. For Radha, night and darkness are excitement's protectors as are the silence and secrecy of friends.

Leave your noisy anklets! They clang like traitors in love's play.

Go to the darkened thicket, friend! Hide in a cloak of night! [XI.11]

In a Basholi painting from Rasmanjari the text describes the seated lovers

thus:

Fear of detection does not permit the eager lovers' gaze to meet.

Scared of the jingling sound of armlets, they desist from embracing.

They kiss each other's lips without the contact of teeth.

Their union, too, is hushed . (22)

Many other portraits of Radha reveal that it is not only other people who must be unaware of her sexual arousal. Radha, too, when in a state where "love's deep fantasies/struggle with her modesty," [XII.1] would feign ignorance of her true condition, as if it were a secret another part of her self must not admit knowing. It is given to the poet to perceive correctly her struggle.

Words of protest filled with passion,

Gestures of resistance lacking force,

Frowns transmuted into smiles,

Crying dry of tears - friend,

Though Radha seeks to hide her feelings,

Each attempt betrays her heart's

Deep love for demon Mura's slayer. (23)

Identifying with Radha's pounding breasts as she steals out at night to meet Krishna, other poets graphically describe her fear while merely hinting at the suppressed thrill of her sortie, the arousal sharpened by the threat of discovery. They give us images of storm, writhing snakes, scratched and burning feet.

We imagine that on hearing Radha's plaint, Krishna, whose gaze into the recesses of the human heart is as penetrating as it is compassionate, smiled to himself in the dark. He would surely have known that the strains of his flute are the perennial and irresistible call of the human senses caught up in the throes of love.

And what do darkness and night mean to Krishna as he passively offers himself to Radha's embraces? Here, too, only under the cloak of night does the Lord reveal what may be the deepest `secret of man' - that he, too, would be a woman. In the night, in the jungle, visual and discrete modes of perception are replaced by the tactile, the visceral, and the more synesthetic forms of cognizance. Representations of the self and beloved fade and innermost sensate experience comes to the fore. As the illusions of bodies fused, androgynously, the fantasies around womanliness and sexual excitement feed each other and Krishna "knows" Radha not with the eye but with the flesh.

If it has not become so already, surely it is now obvious that our consideration of Radha's and Krishna's relationship has brought us to encounter the issue of eroticism and sexuality in the human-divine love relationship. And we Christians are forced to face the question why it is that dominant Christian traditions have shunned the slightest suggestion of passionate desire in Christian faith.

When I reflect on what dominant Christian traditions teach us about sexuality, two things come to mind. The first, paradoxically, is silence - no puberty rites, no effective rites of passage for our young to celebrate the incredible experience that they are now fit and able to pass on the mystery of human life. (24) A pat on the head or tap on the cheek at confirmation does not make up for this cosmic silence. A second response to sexuality from various religious traditions, including our own, is moralising. But telling us about all the sins we are capable of with our sexual organs does not enlighten us about our sexuality. I believe it is the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel who has observed that those who reduce mystery to a problem are guilty of a grave perversion. There certainly has been a great deal of perversion performed by religion; in the name of moralising, the mystery of sexuality has been all too often reduced to moralistic problems.

Why must Christian love be totally gratuitous, disinterested, and passionless? Indeed, why, given its importance to and power in human life has passionate relationship not been central in the Christian tradition? Surely, as many in our day are suggesting, relationship and interdependence, change and transformation, not substance, changelessness, and perfection, are the categories within which an adequate theology for our day must function. Indeed, should not important personal relationships be prime candidates for expressing the Christian gospel as a relational, inclusive, nonhierarchical vision of fulfillment?

As the most intimate of all human relationships, as the one that to the majority of people is the most central and precious, the one giving the most joy - as well as the most pain - does it not contain enormous theological potential? Could a relationship be of such crucial importance in our existence and be irrelevant in our relationship with God? Does this not suggest dualistic thinking, that the divine and human, the spiritual and the physical have no intrinsic relationship? Are we not saying that the most intimate and important kind of human love is inappropriate for expressing some aspects of the God-human relationship? The love of parents to children and perhaps friend to friend is allowed but not lover to beloved. But why not? What is wrong with desire, with passion? More appropriately, what is good, appropriate and right about desire, about passion as a means of talking about the God-human relationship? In these brief comments we are by no means attempting a full or systematic answer to the question, but are only trying to dispel some of the incredibility surrounding the metaphor.

We shall consider, very briefly and tentatively a few ways in which desire or passion, though not exhaustive of the love between lovers, is an important dimension both of the relationship between human beings as well as the relationship between God and humans. We begin with the simple reminder that the Song of Songs is part of our scriptural tradition. Many have ignored the poem or found it an embarrassment, but it has served to check those who would argue that the Christian tradition has no place for passion, except for the sake of procreation. Significantly, biblical exegete Phyllis Trible begins her analysis of the Song of Songs in a way that further counters this tendency of the tradition to ignore passion.

Love is bone of bone and flesh of flesh. Thus I hear the Song of Songs. It speaks from lover to lover with whispers of intimacy, shouts of ecstasy, and silences of consummation. At the same time, its unnamed voices reach out to include the world in their symphony of eroticism. (25)

Although the Song of Songs praises human love, and nowhere mentions deity, some, especially medieval mystics, have not hesitated to use it as an analogy for the relationship between the soul and God. (26) Whatever one may think of such mystical theology, the imagery powerfully expresses divine passion for human beings as well as extraordinary intimacy between God and human beings. Indeed, the Judeo-Christian tradition has often turned to the love relationship in order to express closeness, concern, and longing between God and human beings. There are, for instance, the image of God as the faithful husband in Hosea, and the New Testament metaphors of the soul as the bride of Christ. Some of these images are, of course, sexist in subordinating the female to the male, especially the bridal ones, and some are individualistic, especially the mystical ones, yet they serve as a reminder that the Judeo-Christian tradition, however wary of the lover image, and preferring to keep it well within the safe boundaries of marriage, has nonetheless not been able to eliminate it entirely.

This is in spite of the fact that while we Christians speak of God as love, we are afraid to call God beloved/lover. However, a God who relates to all that is, not distantly and bloodlessly, but intimately and passionately, is appropriately called beloved/lover. God is the one who loves not with the fingertips but totally and passionately. God is the one who deigns to wrestle with Jacob, to debate with the stricken Job. God is not jealous of human creative passion, but rather is supportive of all human attempts to love God. Nor is the Good News of Jesus the Christ a call to passively await God's action in history. To be passionate is not to coopt God's love; to be creative is not to coopt God's creativity. Augustine's `holy yearning', then, is no mere trivial petty piety. Truly, "our hearts are restless till they rest in thee, O Lord", as we have seen Radha painfully agitated until she is united with Krishna, and even beyond. Indeed, God is the moving power of love in the universe, the desire for unity with all beloved, the passionate embrace that spins the living, pulsing earth around, sends blood surging through our bodies, and draws us into one another's arms.

This is a poetic way of saying what others have said of eros: from Plato - love is the "everlasting possession of the good," (27) to Tillich - love is the desire for union with the valuable. (28) This is the love that finds goodness and beauty in the other and desires to be united with it. (29) By itself, unqualified by other types of love, eros can become aesthetic and elitist, but its importance is that it expresses better than any other kind of love the valuableness of the beloved. In a time such as ours, when the intrinsic value of persons and the world must be stressed, eros as the love of the valuable is a necessary aspect of both divine and human love. Here we come to understand salvation to be the making whole or uniting with what is attractive and valuable, rather than the rescuing of what is sinful and worthless. (30)

The assumption that eros is the desire for union with, or possession of, the valuable suggests, however, that it lacks what it would have. It assumes a situation of separation, a situation of alienation, in contrast to a situation of original unity. And it is this lack or need - what Tillich calls the "urge toward the reunion of the separated" - that is the point of identity in all forms of love, from epithymia (desire, including sexual desire), to agape, eros, and philia.(31) In fact, one sees it most clearly in sexual desire. Indeed, the act that both brings new life into being and gives the most intense pleasure to all living creatures is a powerful symbol of the desire for unity with others that is shared by all forms of life. Or as Tillich has it, "The appetitus of every being to fulfil itself through union with other beings is universal..." (32) Agape, the love that gives with no thought of return; eros, the love that finds the beloved valuable, and philia, the love that shares and works for the vision of the good - none of these can be reduced to sexual desire, but all of them in different ways attest to the oneness of love, so evident in sexual union, as "that which drives everything that is towards everything else that is." (33) Love cannot be reduced to sexuality, but it cannot escape it either, for if it tries, it becomes bloodless, cold and sterile, no longer the embrace that spins our pulsing earth, sending blood surging through our bodies and drawing us into each other's arms.

However, bhakti is no mere attachment to any attractive object or entrancing personality, whether natural or superhuman. In both Vaisnava and Saiva traditions, bhakti is attachment to Ultimate Reality. But how can there be attachment or connection between the finite and the Infinite? And, if a loving relationship is difficult between a superior and an inferior on the human level, how much more difficult must such a relationship be between the infinitely superior One and such creaturely beings as ourselves? The scriptures to which the bhakti poets so frequently refer affirm the hierarchy, yet they also recount efforts of God to cut through the hierarchy and sometimes even to reverse human and divine roles. How to make sense of such reversal?

Surely, without the emphatic affirmation that bhakti is a one-sided relationship - God's supremacy and fidelity outdistancing anything humans can imagine - the devotee's confidence in resting on the ultimate ground of his or her own being would have no basis. On the other hand, without the dramatic and poetic expression of the reversal in God's love play, when Krishna is conquered by Radha and the divine bows to the human, the full reality that the devotee experiences would not be expressed. The Gitagovinda thus points to the crux of this vision of reality, the heart of its philosophical difficulties but also the source of its remarkable power - indeed, "amazing grace."

Certainly, human sexuality is God's gracious gift, a fundamental dimension of our created and our intended humanness. We need to recognise our alienation from our sexuality and to lay bold claim to the gospel's promise of reconciliation to our embodiment, and then to explore some of the ways in which sexuality enters into our experience of Christian faith. Do we not have the promise? The Word became - becomes - flesh. The embodied Word dwells among us, full of grace and truth [John 1:14]. The embodiment of God is, in faith's perception, God's decisive and crucial self-disclosure. Our human sexuality is a language, and we are both called and given permission to become `body-words' of love. Indeed, human sexuality - in its fullest sense - is both the physiological and psychological grounding of the human capacity to love. (34)

From another perspective, Christine E. Gudorf, in a chapter on "Regrounding Spirituality in Embodiment", (35) observes that contemporary Christians are creating new forms of spirituality based in reflection on embodied human experience. She notes that until the twentieth century, Christianity, indeed, much of the Western world, has demonstrated for nearly 2000 years an otherworldly, ascetic spirituality in which materiality, and especially sexuality, were suspect, if not actually sinful. Now, Gudorf contends, present inroads on this tradition insist that: "1) bodily experience can reveal the divine, 2) affectivity is as essential as rationality to true Christian love, 3) Christian love exists not to bind autonomous selves, but as the proper form of connection between beings who become human persons in relation, and 4) the experience of bodily pleasure is important in creating the ability to trust and love others, including God." (36)

Finally, returning to our paean of love, we find the lovers emerging "out of the wild, up from the desert....leaning and holding" [Song of Songs 8:5] onto one another. To make love is to enter the cosmological wilderness, to go beyond the human artifacts of city and civilisation, to return to the depths of darkness where spirit embraces matter and the Cosmic Christ (37) is realised as earthy and untamed. The sexual experience for these lovers is an encounter with the wild, with the wilderness within and among them, with that part of divinity and the Christ that is wild, not soft or tamed. The Jewish people first encountered Yahweh "in the wilderness" and the prophets spoke of going into the wilderness where God will speak "heart to heart". Jesus, too, wrestled in the wilderness with the cosmic forces of angels and demons in coming to grips with the Cosmic Christ in him - an invasion of grace. And so it is that the ancient Hebrew love poet reminds us that, even in the midst of an often unjust and violent world invasions of grace yet occur, the passionate Cosmic Lover still meets us in the flesh of our days. We are given a vision that the winter shall be past, the flowers shall appear on the earth, the time of singing shall come, and the voice of the turtle dove shall be heard in the land [Song of Songs 2:11-12].

The entire poem, so ecstatic about the discovery of the Christic mystery in another, and indeed in the relationship that two lovers forge, ends with an urgent invitation when the woman sings: Come! Be swift my lover! Be like a gazelle, or a wild young stag! Come! Play on the spicy mountain! [Song of Songs 8:14]

 

FOOTNOTES

1. From a drama on the subject of God as lover, by Sandra Ward-Angell, quoted in Sallie McFague, Models of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 130.

2. The very concept of mystery is suspect in our time, of course. If Newton is correct and our universe is essentially a machine, who needs mystery? There is no mystery in a machine-universe. Indeed, in an anthropocentric era of culture, education and religion, there is no need of mystery. The very concept of "mystery" itself is reduced to an "unsolved problem". Mystery as the dark silence behind all being and the deep unfathomable presence that grounds all being is banished. The Enlightenment banished mystery and mysticism, relegating the latter to extraordinary states of consciousness on the periphery of things.

3. The critically edited Sanskrit text of the Gitagovinda prepared by Barbara Stoler Miller serves as the basis for my translations in this essay. See Barbara Stoler Miller, Jayadeva's Gitagovinda, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978). Without sacrificing basic meaning, I have attempted to convey the intensely lyrical character of the original. The references are to this edition.

4. In a remarkable coincidence, three of the world's best-known works of romantic love which occupy pivotal positions in their respective cultures - Beroul's Tristan and Isolde in Europe, Nizami's Layla and Majnun in the Islamic world, and Jayadeva's Gitagovinda in India - were all produced at roughly the same time, in the twelfth century CE. Whether this represents happenstance, coincidence, or springs from sociohistorical trends coalescing across the globe is beyond our present scope. However, it is striking that the poetry of passion should predate and possibly prefigure important cultural-historical changes in Europe, India and West Asia. It is as if the unfolding discovery of each other portrayed in the love story sheds light on what is fundamental to the human spirit.

5. In the nineteenth century there was a reverse turn in the fortunes of Radha veneration. Later in this paper we note Bankim Chandra Chatterji's disdain for all the Radha represents. In contrast to Mahatma Gandhi's profound love for Krishna, his silence about Radha is eloquent. There is also a rejection of Radha in modern Hindi poetry. Indeed, the adoration of Radha during the last hundred years seems to have been once more to a religious subculture.

6. The rhetorical texts classified the heroine in terms of her relationship with the hero as svakiya or one's own woman, parakiya or another man's woman, and sadharanastri or the prostitute, who was not depicted except in farces. The parakiya nayika was subclassified further into parodha or another-man's wife and kanyaka or the maiden, who is another-man's daughter.

7. If Radha is parodha parakiya, which she is in some sections of the later cult, then her relationship with Krishna is adulterous. However, if she is kanyaka parakiya, technically she cannot be called adulterous. However, here we use the term adulterous in the general sense of an illicit relationship of two persons not married to one another.

8. For example, S.K. De, Ancient Indian Erotics and Erotic Literature, (Calcutta: K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1959), 82; Norvin Hein, "Radha and Erotic Community," in The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India, John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984), 121; Barbara Stoller Miller, Fantasies of a Love-Thief, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 125-26; Lee Siegel, Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love in Indian Traditions, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978), 233.

9. Krishna in the north become the objects of bhakti's impassioned devotion, and bhakti poetry, brimming with love for the Lord flowers in the vernacular languages which, to some extent, take over from the language of `high' culture, Sanskrit. Drawing on the conventions of the classical literature of love and using an existing pan-Indian stock of symbols and figures of speech, the bhakti poets nevertheless strive for spontaneous, direct, personal expression of feeling rather than a rarified cultivation of aesthetic effect and the `emotion recollected', preferred by the Sanskrit poets. See A.K. Ramanujan, Hymns for Drowning, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 127-33.

10. It is perhaps the obvious thematic similarities between the Gitagovinda and the Song of Songs which predisposed the first Europeans who read Jayadeva's poem to consider it an allegory. For further discussions see Edward C. Dimock, Jr., "On Religious and Ertoic Experience," The Sound of Silent Guns, Edward C. Dimmock, Jr. ed., (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989), 11-20; Norvin Hein, "Radha and Erotic Community," in The Divine Consort, Hawley and Wulff, eds. 116-124; Lee Siegel. Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love, 178-84; A.K. Ramanujan, Hymns for the Drowning, 152-57.

11. Karine Schomer, "Where Have All the Radhas Gone?" in The Divine Consort, Hawley and Wulff, eds., 108.

12.See for example, W.G. Archer, The Loves of Krishna, (New York: Grove Press, n.d.); Roy C. Armore & Larry D. Shinn, Lustful Maidens and Ascetic Kings, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); Edward C. Dimmock, Jr. & Denise Levertov, In Praise of Krishna (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967), Sudhir Kakar & John M. Ross, Tales of Love, Sex and Danger, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986) M.H. Klaiman, ed., Singing the Glory of Lord Krishna, (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984); Lee Siegel, Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love in Indian Traditions; Milton Singer, ed., Krishna: Myths, Rites, and Attitudes, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).

13. The question of whether Radha was svakiya or parakiya became an important doctrinal issue for the medieval Vaisnava theologians, an issue which ultimately separated the orthodox from the Sahajiya Vaisnavas and marked a distinction between the Krishna-bhakti poets writing in Hindi and those writing in Bengali. Indeed, a formal debate to decide whether Radha was svakiya or parakiya was held in 1717 at the Court of Nabak Jafara Khana, and those advocating the parakiya position won. The prevailing argument was that bhakti must be passionate and that the parakiya relationship creates greater passion than the svakiya one. See Edward C. Dimmock, Jr., The Place of the Hidden Moon, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 201-15.

14. Ilankovatikal, Shilappadikaram (The Ankle Bracelet) by Prince Ilango Adigal, A. Danielou, tr., (New York: New Directions, 1965).

15. The cataka is a bird that drinks only raindrops, and whose poignant cry, "piu, piu" is heard from springtime to the coming of the monsoon rains.

16. Visvanath Prasad Misra, ed., Kesav-granthavali, 3 vols., (Allahabad: Hindustani Academy, 1954). I.146-47.

17. Charlotte Vaudeville, "Evolution of Love Symbolism in Bhagavatism", Journal of the American Oriental Society LXXXII (1962), 39.

18. W.G. Archer, The Loves of Krishna, 84

19. See Jogeshcandra Bagal, ed., Bankim-racnavali, (Calcutta: Sahitya Sansad, 1969), 3:98, quoted in Barbara Stoler Miller. "The Divine Duality of Radha and Krishna", in The Divine Consort, Hawley and Wulff, eds., 25.

20. A.J. Alston, The Devotional Poems of Mirabai, (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980), 24-25.

21. Acaryahrdayam, "The Master's Heart," by Alakiyamanavala Nayanar cited in A.K. Ramanujan. Hymns for the Drowning, 154.

22. M.S. Randhawa and S.D. Bambri, "Basholi Paintings of Bhanudatta's Rasamanjari," in M.H. Klaiman, ed. Singing the Glory of Lord Krishna, 23-47.

23. Vidagdhamadhava VII.38. Quoted by Donna Marie Wulff, "A Sanskrit Portrait: Radha in the Plays of Rupa Goswami," in The Divine Consort, Hawley and Wulff, eds., 39.

24. The custom of families and close friends celebrating the menarche of a young woman has, as far as I know, virtually disappeared. Traditionally, of course, the onset of womanhood brought a number of social restrictions on the young woman which are not liberative, and so are not to be celebrated.

25. Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 144.

26. For example, Bernard of Clairvaux takes a line by the woman to her lover, "O that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth"(1:2) as an analogy for the incarnation: Jesus is God's "kiss"! "Happy kiss in which God is united to Man...," writes Bernard in On the Love of God, (London: A.R. Mowbray & Co., 1950) cited in Phyllis Trible, op. cit., 146. 2

7. From Plato's Symposium, as quoted by David L. Norton & Mary F. Kille in Philosophies of Love, (London: Rowman & Allanhead, 1983), 91.

28. Paul Tillich, Love, Power and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), 30-31.

29. Though frequently equated, eros is very different from lust, which can best be described as the desire to sexually possess or dominate another person. Sexual feelings should not be equated with lust. For further elaboration of this distinction see Marie M. Fortune, Love Does No Harm, (New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1995), 47-49.

30. Prominent expositions of this understanding of salvation are to be found in the works of Matthew Fox, especially Original Blessing, (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company, 1984) and The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).

31. The entire passage reads, "In spite of the many kinds of love, which in Greek are designated as philia (friendship), eros (aspiration toward value), and epithymia (desire), in addition to agape, which is the creation of the Spirit, there is one point of identity in all these qualities of love, which justifies the translation of them all by "love"; and that identity is the `urge toward the reunion of the separated,' which is the inner dynamics of life. Love in this sense is one and indivisible." Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol.3, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 137.

32. Tillich, Love, Power and Justice, 33.

33. Ibid. 25

34. For a fuller exploration of these themes see James B. Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978).

35. Christine E. Gudorf, Body, Sex and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics, (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1994), 205-219.

36. Ibid. 217-18.

37. Lutheran scholar of the history of Christianity, Jaroslav Pelikan believes all too little reflection on the Cosmic Christ is going on in our Protestant theological colleges and churches. This, he suggests, is a result of the Enlightenment. "The Enlightenment's quest for the historical Jesus was made possible, and made necessary, when Enlightenment philosophy deposed the Cosmic Christ." Certainly, the Cosmic Christ is not a doctrine to be believed in and lived out at the expense of the historical Jesus. Rather, "a dialectic is in order, a dance between time (Jesus) and space (Christ); between the social/personal and the cosmic; between the prophetic and the mystical. This dance is a dance away from anthropocentrism." Quoted in Mathew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, 77-78.


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