Feb 18 2009

Lover & Beloved – 3. A Taste of Bhakti

Published by at 10:07 am under Lover & Beloved

Today let’s experience a taste of bhakti – devotion and love for God. This isn’t a vague, bland, intellectual, or prim sort of love. The Bhakti’s love is passionate, powerful, all-consuming.

When he quickens all things
To create bliss in the world,
His soft black sinuous lotus limbs
Begin the festival of love
And beautiful cowherd girls wildly
Wind him in their bodies.
Friend, in spring young Hari plays
Like erotic mood incarnate.

– Jayadeva ( 12th century, India )

Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda
Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller

Bhakti poetry is passionate and erotic, but it is also highly spiritual, sung daily in many Indian temples.

Vaishnava Krishna Bhakti poetry tells us of the love play, separation, and union between the God-man Krishna and the cowherdess Radha.

/ Photo by solidariat /

When spring came, tender-limbed Radha wandered
Like a flowering creeper in the forest wilderness,
Seeking Krishna in his many haunts.

– Jayadeva
Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda
Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller

Another great Bhakti poet, Vidyapati, sings–

My friend, I cannot answer when you ask me to explain
what has befallen me.
Love is transformed, renewed,
each moment.
He has dwelt in my eyes all the days of my life,
yet I am not sated with seeing.
My ears have heard his sweet voice in eternity,
and yet it is always new to them.
How many honeyed nights have I passed with him
in love’s bliss, yet my body
wonders at his.
Through all the ages
he has been clasped to my breast,
yet my desire
never abates.
I have seen subtle people sunk in passion
but none came so close to the heart of the fire.

Who shall be found to cool your heart,
says Vidyapati.

– Vidyapati ( 1340? – 1430, India )

In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali
Translated by Edward C. Dimock, Jr. and Denise Levertov

With these selections, do you notice whose voice we hear in the poems? It is Radha’s, or sometimes Radha’s friend advising or taunting her – not Krishna’s, not the man’s. Even though most (not all) of this sort of poetry is written by men, we typically get the woman’s voice in the poetry.

/ Photo by Faithful Chant /

Even when the poet enters the poem more directly, the role is still that of Radha’s:

I am true to my Lord,
O my companions, there is nothing to be ashamed of now
Since I have been seen dancing openly.

In the day I have no hunger
At night I am restless and cannot sleep.
Leaving these troubles behind, I go to the other side;
A hidden knowledge has taken hold of me.

My relations surround me like bees.
But Mira is the servant of her beloved Giridhar,
And she cares nothing that people mock her.

– Mirabai ( 1498 – 1565?, India)
tr. by F. E. Keay

Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present: Volume 1
Edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita

So why do these poems give us Radha’s perspective? Because we are all, male and female, Radha.

In the Krishna tradition, the divine couple are Krishna and Radha. But Krishna is also God. That implies something very special about Radha too.

We find these divine couple pairings throughout the Hindu pantheon: Krishna and Radha, Rama and Sita, Shiva and Shakti/Durga/Parvati/Kali. In Hindu metaphysics, when we come across this male-female division, the male aspect is usually understood to represent the absolute, the eternal, God beyond manifestation; the female represents Shakti or divine power, that which is active and becomes the manifest reality of matter. (In fact, the word “matter” comes from the root, meaning Mother.)

So, in the broadest sense, the love of Radha for Krishna is the love of creation for the Eternal.

On a more personal level, Radha is the soul. She represents consciousness engaged in material existence and experience, desperately seeking Krishna – the Absolute.

In the traditional Bhakti cycle of love poetry, Radha goes through an emotional journey of first glimpsing and falling in love with Krishna, then losing sight of him and feeling abandoned. Radha seeks her beloved everywhere but is tormented when she realizes that Krishna is enjoying dalliances with other women (other souls).

/ Photo by preciouskhyatt /

My heart values his vulgar ways,
Refuses to admit my rage,
Feels strangely elated,
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?

– Jayadeva
Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda
Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller

Finally, Radha overcomes her jealousy and she and Krishna meet in a secret place, experiencing blissful, passionate union.

Bhakti poetry manages to describe a pathway to return to Oneness with the Divine – while using the immense power of the erotic impulse to hold our attention and draw us ever deeper into the spiritual drama.

He’s there among the scented trees,
playing the notes he has taught you.
Too late for embarrassment, shy doe
nibbling at the forest’s edge,
shawled in deep blue shadows.
He’s calling you. The flower of your soul
is opening, little deer.
The river of scent will lead you
deep into the trees where he waits.
The bihanga also plays tonight —
do you hear his more distant flute?
Black bees carry the moon’s luster
from flower to flower.
The rest of the grove will bloom tonight, I think.
How he looks at you, young animal.
He shames the moon with his own dark light.

Let’s bow down before the young Lord,
the deep blue flowers at his feet.

– Rabindranath Tagore ( 1861 – 1941, India )

The Lover of God
by Rabindranath Tagore / Translated by Tony Stewart

I point out these symbolic gender roles here because they come up again and again, not only in Indian Bhakti poetry, but in Sufi poetry, in Christian poetry, in Jewish poetry… The lover, the seeker, the soul, is traditionally the woman; and the Beloved, God, is the man.

I’ve opened a cultural can of worms, haven’t I? We’ll look more deeply at the esoteric meaning behind these male-female roles in upcoming installments.

For now, let’s leave all inhibition behind, and step into the arms of the Beloved…

/ Photo by Sabrina Campagna /

All my inhibition left me in a flash,
When he robbed me of my clothes,
But his body became my new dress.
Like a bee hovering on a lotus leaf
He was there in my night, on me…

– Vidyapati
tr. by Azfar Hussain

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Lover & Beloved – 3. A Taste of Bhakti”

  1. Amiya Chatterjeeon 18 Feb 2009 at 9:29 pm


    A big hug Ivan for your contribution about the Vaishnav approach to the LILA of Radha and Krishna.Joydeva, Chandidas were just few of the great poets who composed songs on the love of Radha and Krihna. From ancient times the love of Radha and krishna had been the theme of innumerable plays, songs ,religious festivals
    folk dramas (JATRA) in india specially in villages.

    But I have another way of loking at the whole episode of love of Radha and Krishna.You have touched the point in your writing .I am just going to elaborate on that.
    You see RADHHA is the symbol of everything finite,everything visible,audible, everything limited. Krishna is the symbol of infinite,invisible ,inaudible ,unlimited.
    Everything finite is longing to merge into the infinity.Infinity’s language of inviting the finite towards HIM is the tune of the flute.When the finiite hears the call he or she ignores all obstruction of the earthly attraction and rush to merge with te infiniity.Could we consider LIFE as Radha and Death as KRISHNA.Are we not longing for that final union since the creation ?

  2. Jim Atwellon 19 Feb 2009 at 9:05 am

    Does passion travel but one way?
    Is the earth plane just a one way ticket to eternity?
    Perhaps the Divine has a commuter pass and
    Comes and goes as She pleases.
    We are living in the loins of Divinity,
    The bedroom of passion,
    Come, play with me, merge with me, be me,
    I am you.
    We can clap our hands together and celebrate our oneness.
    Perhaps the children won’t hear.

    Much love
    Jim Atwell

  3. Helen Robertson 19 Feb 2009 at 10:24 am

    Share my thoughts on this note? I don’t know that I dare……

    This poetry, more than other forms for me, reflects the longing for the Beloved in ways that conjour up the intense passion of the physical realm without losing the spiritual, emotional and mental aspects. If I tried to make any further comment I would not, I think, be able to hold that balance – it would just sound mainly erotic.

    I really honour the Vaisnava Krishna devotees. I had some precious friends many years ago who were devotees and they were extremely beautiful outstanding people. I was very young and did not understand them properly. I hope they know how much I still love and thank them for all they taught me – even though it took years for it to sink in and mature in me.

    Thank you Ivan for this very special selection. I hope you and Michelle are very well. Love, Helen

  4. Jim Atwellon 20 Feb 2009 at 6:03 am

    Tangled Forms

    My passion abounds
    My form entwines
    I seep into your soul
    Around and around
    Let us play with our oneness
    On planets and space
    Let us Love one another
    With passions in place
    Let us merge into oneness
    We may loose our place
    For sometimes I can’t tell
    Where I am in this place
    My form entwines passion
    And form all around
    Let us make Love together
    Our passions abound.

    Much Love
    Jim Atwell

  5. narinderon 20 Feb 2009 at 6:26 am

    dear Ivan,

    thank you for Jayadeva’a poem, and the hearts joy in love that you express in your commentaries ……..

    To Krishna …….

    Beloved Krishna
    In the game of twoness
    You have smiled as One-ness.
    In the bliss of one-ness
    You have danced as two-ness!
    Loving, Govinda, is real; You and I false
    You are false, Govinda, You are false
    You do not exist, nor I
    Only Love exists.

    When I say ‘I love You Govinda’, why do you smile?
    Love is real
    Love alone is real
    In its mad dance of loving
    It chooses to become for one moment
    You , The Lord of Lords
    And I, Your eternal plaything, your slave, your beloved
    Pining and yearning for You
    Ecstatically seeking oblivion
    In Your look
    In Your smile
    In your touch.


    narinder bhandari

    ( narinder_bhandari@yahoo.co.in )

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply