Indian Culture · Indian Religion · Inner View · Words of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo

The Love of the Gopis

A special post on Krishna Janmashtami

Since times immemorial, Sri Krishna and His Lila remain a captivating source of inspiration for painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, dancers, storytellers and all types of classical, folk, traditional and contemporary artists in India. Krishna as balgopal stealing butter, his childhood antics and pranks, his acts of remarkable and extraordinary valour and courage, his friendship with Sudama, his yogi-avatar of Bhagvad-Gita, all these and more have been captured by innumerable artists over and over -by artists who are world-renowned as well as by artists who are forever anonymous.

One popular theme portrayed in such Krishna art is that of Raas Lila, the eternal dance of Krishna with Radha and other Gopis. Inspired by the portrayals and accounts given in the Bhagavata Purana and Gita Govinda, such artworks exemplify in various forms and depictions the greatest feeling of bhakti, love, devotion and surrender which moved Radha and other Gopis to answer the call of Krishna’s flute and spend whole night dancing with him in the forest of Brindavan.

For this special post I have selected four such portrayals of Raas Lila, as depicted in one particular style of Indian painting. Patachitra, the traditional painting style from Odisha, famous for its Krishna related themes inspired from Vaishnava traditions of Hinduism, remains to this day one of the most appealing and popular art forms of India.

The photographs featured here were taken at the art gallery of Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat at Bengaluru. As is generally the case with patachitra paintings and other such traditional art forms we don’t know the names of the artists.

The selected passages and quotes from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother beautifully capture the essence of the Divine Love that eternally binds Krishna with Radha and Gopis.

~ All photographs by Suhas Mehra

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Radha is the personification of the absolute love for the Divine, total and integral in all parts of the being from the highest spiritual to the physical, bringing the absolute self-giving and total consecration of all the being and calling down into the body and the most material Nature the supreme Ananda.

~ Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga-II, CWSA, 29: 494

Radha’s consciousness symbolises perfect attachment to the Divine.

~ The Mother, Words of the Mother-III, CWM 15: 15

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Nari-ashva, a popular motif in Krishna inspired Patachitra, depicting the ultimate surrender of Gopis for Krishna, the Divine flute-player

The Gopis are not ordinary people in the proper sense of the word—they are extraordinary by their extremeness of love, passionate devotion, unreserved self-giving. Whoever has that, however humble his position in other respects, learning, external sanctity etc. etc., can easily follow after Krishna and reach him; that seems to me the sense of the symbol of the Gopis. There are many other significances, of course—that is only one among the many.

~ Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga-II, CWSA 29: 493

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The story of Brindavan…has a Puranic origin and it could be maintained that it was intended all along to have a symbolic character. At one time I accepted that explanation, but I had to abandon it afterwards; there is nothing in the Puranas that betrays any such intention.

It seems to me that it is related as something that actually occurred or occurs somewhere; the Gopis are to them realities and not symbols. It was for them at the least an occult truth, and occult and symbolic are not the same thing; the symbol may be only a significant mental construction or only a fanciful invention, but the occult is a reality which is actual somewhere, behind the material scene as it were and can have its truth for the terrestrial life and its influence upon it, may even embody itself there.

The lila of the Gopis seems to be conceived as something which is always going on in a divine Gokul and which projected itself in an earthly Brindavan and can always be realised and its meaning made actual in the soul. It is to be presumed that the writers of the Puranas took it as having been actually projected on earth in the life of the incarnate Krishna and it has always been so accepted by the religious mind of India.

These questions and the speculations to which they have given rise have no indispensable connection with the spiritual life. There what matters is the contact with Krishna and the growth towards the Krishna consciousness, the presence, the spiritual relation, the union in the soul and, till that is reached, the aspiration, the growth in bhakti and whatever illumination one can get on the way.

To one who has had these things, lived in the presence, heard the voice, known Krishna as Friend or Lover, Guide, Teacher, Master or, still more, has had his whole consciousness changed by the contact, or felt the presence within him, all such questions have only an outer and superficial interest. So also, to one who has had contact with the inner Brindavan and the lila of the Gopis, made the surrender and undergone the spell of the joy and the beauty or even only turned to the sound of the flute, the rest hardly matters.

But from another point of view, if one can accept the historical reality of the incarnation, there is this great spiritual gain that one has a point d’appui for a more concrete realisation in the conviction that once at least the Divine has visibly touched the earth, made the complete manifestation possible, made it possible for the divine supernature to descend into this evolving but still very imperfect terrestrial nature.

~ Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga-I, CWSA 28:  483-4

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Vaikuntha and Goloka are human conceptions of states of being that are beyond humanity. Goloka is evidently a world of Love, Beauty and Ananda full of spiritual radiances (the cow is the symbol of spiritual light) of which the souls there are the keepers or possessors, Gopas and Gopis. 

~ Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga-I, CWSA 28: 140


It is not the heart of the devotee but the mind of the observer that questions how it is that the Gopis were called or responded at once and others…were not called or did not respond at once. Once the mind puts the question, there are two possible answers, the mere will of Krishna without any reason, what the mind would call his absolute divine choice or his arbitrary divine caprice or else the readiness of the heart that is called, and that amounts to adhikāri-bheda.

A third reply would be—circumstances, as for instance, the parking off of the spiritual ground into closed preserves. But how can circumstances prevent the Grace from acting? In spite of the parking off, it works—Christians, Mahomedans do answer to the Grace of Krishna. Tigers, ghouls must love if they see him, hear his flute? Yes, but why do some hear it and see him, others not?

We are thrown back on the two alternatives, Krishna’s Grace calls whom it wills to call without any determining reason for the choice or rejection, his mercy or his withholding or at least delaying of his mercy, or else he calls the hearts that are ready to vibrate and leap up at his call—and even there he waits till the moment has come. To say that it does not depend on outward merit or appearance of fitness is no doubt true; the something that was ready to wake in spite, it may be, of many hard layers in which it was enclosed, may be something visible to Krishna and not to us. It was there perhaps long before the flute began to play, but he was busy melting the hard layers so that the heart in its leap might not be pressed back by them when the awakening notes came. The Gopis heard and rushed out into the forest—the others did not—or did they think it was only some rustic music or some rude cowherd lover fluting to his sweetheart, not a call that learned and cultured or virtuous ears could recognise as the call of the Divine?

There is something to be said for the adhikāri-bheda. But of course it must be understood in a large sense,—some may have the adhikāra for recognising Krishna’s flute, some for the call of Christ, some for the dance of Shiva—to each his own way and his nature’s answer to the Divine Call. Adhikāra cannot be stated in rigid mental terms, it is something spiritual and subtle, something mystic and secret between the called and the Caller.

~ Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga-II, CWSA 29: 491-2

To enjoy more Krishna Janmasthami special posts, click HERE and HERE.

Linking with ABC Wednesday, G: G is for Gopis

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29 thoughts on “The Love of the Gopis

  1. I vividly remember how my family used to visit the ISKCON temple, it was like a ritual. As a kid, I would just stare at the huge paintings on ceiling and the walls, Lord Krishna romancing and playing with so many Gopis!! I just loved being there as I would imagine one of the dancing Gopi is me 🙂 and I picked the prettiest one and closest to him too 🙂

  2. Adhikari-bheda. The grace will come when the heart is ready or when one calls out sincerely. I remember reading an account where Uddhava asks Krishna why he never helped the Pandavas when they lost at the game of dice. If he wished, he could have stopped the carnage that was to follow. He replied that the Pandavas merely followed their duties and never paused to call him, unlike Draupadi who totally surrendered and called out to Him. Hence he ran to her help but could only helplessly watch the Pandavas succumb to pressure at the game. He also needs to be called out at times. At other times, he bestows grace when the heart is ready.
    Lovely, lovely account, Beloo, of the Pattachitras and the explanations of Sri Aurobindo. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you so much Uma for sharing this lovely story demonstrating yet another way how Krishna’s Grace works. You made me recall what I heard someone say once how the whole essence of Gita is actually also summarised in the way Draupadi calls for Krishna’s help and how Krishna responds to the call. It was a beautiful explanation and I was so moved by it when I heard it. Indeed, it is the power of true surrender to the Divine that creates the opening and receptivity within us for Divine Grace.
      Really, really appreciate your beautiful comment. It really adds so much to what the post is trying to convey. Thank you so much!

  3. Lots of people are there who does not have proper knowledge about Raas Leela, these types of posts will help people to know what actually raas-Leela?Gopis is and are. Heard/read almost all the writings of Risihi Aurobindo. good to read all these again here. Thanks for such an informative post.

    1. Yes, that’s the thing. No matter how many times we have read these beautiful passages from the Master’s works, everytime we go through them we find a deeper and deeper truth in them. That’s the Force of His Consciousness, I suppose. I am happy you read this post, and thank you for sharing your comment.

  4. first of all hope janamashtami went great for you and family ..

    Those are lovely pics and than you for the post I learnt something new today , I had no clue about it all.

    I think the biggest issue we have is that there have been very POOR religious teachers , people have not explained everything , they have explained things according to their own view point and then over years it has all filtered down..

    1. Hi Bikramjit, sorry for this late reply. Hope you had a good Janmashtami as well. I am happy you enjoyed the pictures and also found the passages educational. I agree with you, so much of our own traditions hasn’t been taught to us in a mature, intelligent way and we are suffering because of that ignorance. I really hope things change in the times to come. Thanks for stopping by!

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