Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Theo-ethical Problems with Radha Worship

Radha, one of several revered goddesses in the Hindu tradition, provides her worshipers with what is widely considered an appropriate metaphor for the divine-human love affair. David Kinsley writes in his pan-Hindu text/source book, Hindu Goddesses, of the origins of the divine love relationship between Radha and the extremely important male deity, Krishna. Explicit references to Radha in the Hindu cannon do not appear until rather late in the religion's trajectory, most notably in Jayadeva's Gitagovinda (see below post).

Kinsley writes, however, that starting in Northern India in roughly 500 C.E. there began a "mythological tradition surrounding Krishna's sojourn in Vraja and his dalliance there with the gopis, the cowherd women of the village" (p.83). It is from the gopi tradition that the character of Radha truly develops. Although Krishna had long been worshiped as a supreme god, the Vraja mythology additionally gives him the reputation as ideal lover. Kinsley expounds:

The gopis "are all married women, but none is able to resist Krishna's beauty and charm. He is described as retiring to the woods, where he plays his flute on autumn nights when the moon is full. Hearing the music, the women are driven mad with passion and give up their domestic roles and chores to dash away to be with Krishna [...] They are so distraught and frenzied as they rush to his side that their clothes and jewelry come loose and fall off (10.29.3-7). The text makes no attempt to deny the impropriety of the gopis' leaving their husbands and abandoning their social responsibilities in order to make love to Krishna" (p.84).

Indeed, Kinsley continues, "the nature of true devotion, the text [in this case, the Bhagavata-purana] says, is highly emotional and causes horripilation, tears, loss of control, and frenzy (11.14.23-24). Those who love the Lord truly behave like the gopis. When they hear his call they abandon everything to be with him. Even though they are married [...], even though they incur the censure of society, they rush off to be with Krishna when they hear his call" (84-85).

This utter disregard for societal norms and values is thus an appropriate metaphor for how one should act in devotion toward God. Jayadeva takes this gopi model of many cowherdesses and applies it specifically to Radha in his epic, Gitagovinda, elevating Radha's status as a gopi higher and more special to Krishna than the other women, and thus making her a specific object of worship.

Does anyone see something wrong with this story? Look, I imagine that if I had been born female and encountered someone who seemed to be a combination of King David's military prowess and musical skills and King Solomon's ability to pull off some 1,000 wives and still keep the peace in the home, I might be tempted to cheat, too. Even though Kinsley, and to be sure the theologians who are Radha and Krishna devotees, explain that the love affair notion is just a metaphor for how one should act toward his/her god, it seems more than a little problematic to encourage infidelity, metaphorical or not. What kind of example does it send to the men out there? Maybe this is crude, but it's hard not to think of the Krishna paradigm as being misappropriated to encourage extra-marital relationships and upon chastisement using religious texts to justify actions.

I don't know, something about the cheating gopi just doesn't rub me the right way even if it is at the end of the day her choice...


  1. By no means do I condone cheating, but I do feel the need to defend Radha and the other gopis.

    During this time, women were forced into marriages, and pressured to have children at a very young age. These were not love marriages...they were arranged marriages. Their escape was Krishna.

    Krishna for them was "love." He was a personal god...always accessible, and unfailingly responsive. He was a god made for each individual "gopi." All the women in town who tended to Krishna from when he was a young child, were called gopis. There were only a handful of gopis that he was closest to once he became a young adult....out of all of the girls, he loved Radha.

    Radha was not married when she met Krishna...she eventually was married off by her father (Krishna was not around during this time). The story says that Radha did not want to get married; she wanted only to be with Krishna. Since she was being forced into marriage, she stepped out of her body. She took her soul out of her body and kept only a portion of herself...a shadow of her real existence, inside her body. Therefore, the prince that she was married off to, only married her shadow.

    Radha Krishna is the original principle of loving relationships between a couple. The sex principle is there, but only in the purest form...without any impurity, because Krishna is in fact Radha. In other words, the lord is one, and he expands himself to enjoy loving relationships...expansion is Radha and the gopis

    The story of Radha Krishna is actually a very sweet and romantic story of eternal love...till you throw in all that xxx stuff :P

  2. Thank you, Mr./Ms. Anonymous for the thoughtful response.

    My interpretation of the history did not really take into account the daily reality of the village/peasant woman in India. Indeed, the more and more I learn the more I hear about the difficulties women face/d and their corresponding high suicide rates.

    I still hold by my point that encouraging adultery (even in a metaphorical sense) is ethically troublesome -- for Radha to cheat and for Krishna to so glibly participate in the act, but your points are well taken. Thank you and keep the comments coming!

  3. I have been brought up with stories of Radha and Krishna, and quite interestingly, I have never thought of their relationship to be anything other than the embodiment of true love. Even though I have grown up listening to, and admiring their love stories, I can honestly say that I do not support or indulge in infidelity =). I have simply learned to paint a picture of a fantastical love story. I think it is interesting that even if you hold a completely rational argument I, (and many others raised with their stories) cannot characterize Radha to be an adulteress. In India, a common phrase used to describe a match made in Heaven is “Radha- Krishna ki jodi” that is “A Radha -Krishna couple.” To our culture, Radha and Krishna are synonymous of innocent, eternal love. Do the technicalities really matter if people believe and use the stories to exemplify hope and selfless love in today’s world of cutthroat competition?
    The stories of Radha and Krishna are a kindle of hope for those who believe that love transcends all. Infidelity is a label (amongst many others) that society creates to separate right from wrong. But the stories of Radha and Krishna are meant to depict love in its most primitive form- lustful, innocent, unreasonable, and often, incapable of following social norms. The struggle and the torture that Radha endures in Gita Govinda is testimony to true love. It is a feeling that you cannot give up even while it slowly kills you.
    I don’t think the stories are making a statement about fidelity, but simply asking you to be honest to yourself in order to gauge your true feelings for someone.
    Can you stop the way you feel?
    Radha and Krishna stand for an ideal relationship because it is only about them and no one/nothing else. Using their relationship as a prototype is perhaps too idealistic for us in the 21st century, but it certainly is nice to keep high standards!
    Ps— nice post, Jonah. It had me thinking.