Bhakti In the Gitagovinda as Taught by Sri Chaitanya
‘To complement the ecstasy of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ramananda Raya would quote verses from the books of Vidyapati and Candidasa, and especially from the Gitagovinda, by Jayadeva Gosvami’. ( Chaitanya Charitamrta Antyalila 17.7)
The Gita Govinda is a 12th century religious poem by Jayadeva Goswami. The special character of this poem is that it discusses a devotional sentiment that may well unsettle the mind of many a religious person: erotic love. Generally eroticism is not something persons of most religious groups would associate with god or even religion for that matter. In such traditions relationships with god are generally based on reverence rather than intimacy; fatherhood as opposed to lover; and his almightiness in preference to equality or subordination. Chaitanya (1486-1534), as referred to in the above quote, practiced and taught a different form of religion; a form where intimacy, emotion and eroticism are considered superior devotional sentiments to that of reverential worship. Thus, for Chaitanya and his followers the Gitagovinda serves as an integral religious text, just as the bible is to Christians or the Koran is to Muslims. Chaitanya would regularly listen to the recitation of Gitagovinda and it would bring comfort to his lovelorn heart and afford him closeness to god. His great appreciation for the Gitagovinda is without doubt a historical fact (Ayengar 2000:15) and for that reason it has been canonized for his followers (Miller 1977:6).
This essay will discuss erotic devotion, the subject of the Gitagovinda, and why it is accepted to be the highest and most aspired for form of bhakti or devotion in the Chaitanya tradition. It will seek to show that behind Chaitanya’s emotionalism there is a systematic theory of love; which forms the rationale of erotic expression as a religious experience.
Jayadeva and his Poem
Not much is known about Jayadeva and what is known is based upon various legends (Mishra, P 1995:65). The place of his birth is debated and may have been Orissa,
The poem consists of an invocation and twenty four songs, which are divided into twelve cantos or parts. Each song has a corresponding raga in which it must be sung in order to evoke the appropriate emotions. Jayadeva begins by describing the purpose of his poem: to describe
In essence Jayadeva’s work is an elaborate ‘poetic rendering’ of the
For the followers of Chaitanya,
The Definition of Bhakti
Bhakti which is generally translated as ‘devotion’ (Fuller 1992:156) or ‘devotion to god’ (Fitzgerald 2004:60) is a theistic concept which may trace back to the Vedic period (Matchett 2003:137), however in literature we see the term bhakti first appearing in the Swetasvatara Upanisad and then it appears as a more definitive doctrine in the Bhagavad Gita and the Puranas, specifically the Bhagavat Purana (Lorenzen 2004: 187-194). Lorenzen makes the point that although the Sanskrit verb-root of bhakti: bhaj literally means ‘to distribute’ or ‘to share’, for over two thousand years the primary meaning has been ‘personal devotion to a god or saintly person’ (Lorenzen 2004:185).
In the life of Chaitanya he exhibited the ‘pathological symptoms’ of bhakti to an extreme degree, according to Dasgupta his example was ‘perhaps unparalleled in the history of any other saint that we know of’ (Dasgupta 1922: 389). However, as Chaitanya left no written teachings except perhaps a short prayer (Colas 2003: 262), we have to turn to the writings of his immediate disciple and leading ‘theoretician’ (Clooney and Stewart 2004:176), Rupa Goswami for his devotional philosophy which concludes in erotica.
In the Bhaktirasa-amrta-sindhu, Rupa defines the best devotion (uttama bhakti) as ‘activities performed solely for the pleasure of
When these practices are performed in accordance with the definition and as prescribed by the scriptures they are called vaidhi bhakti or devotion in accordance with the rules. As they develop a spontaneity arising from personal attachment to
Eroticism, an Expression of the Highest Devotion
According to Rupa, each devotee develops their loving disposition in accordance with one of five temperaments (sthayibhavas). These begin with santa or passive adoration, where the devotee remains in a state of blissful ‘awesomeness’ devoid of any sense of personal relationship with god. When the element of service to the ‘personalised form’ of god,
Kamarupa bhakti: Erotic devotion
The srngara temperament is also referred to as kamarupa bhakti which means it is lustful by nature; however Rupa differentiates it from worldly lust (kama) by stating that it is selfless and entirely for the pleasure of
‘The Absolute Pair’
Radha is ‘love incarnate’ and she is recognised by Chaitanya’s followers as a separated form of
Gitagovinda and Chaitanya
Although all the loving temperaments as mentioned before, beginning with santa, are recognised and praised by Chaitanya and his followers, it is evident from their literatures that friendship and parental affection are preferred, whereas erotic love is the choicest (BRS 2.5.38). Kaviraja Goswami, one of the most recognised hagiographers of Chaitanya (Dasgupta 1922: 4.384), explains that Chaitanya is an incarnation of
Nowhere do we find any account of such an ecstatic bhakti in the Puranas, in the Gita or in any other religious literature of India- the Bhagavata-purana has, no doubt, one or two verses which in a way anticipate the sort of bhakti that we find in Caitanya- but without the life of Caitanya our storehouse of pathological religious experience would have been wanting in one of the most fruitful harvests of pure emotionalism in religion’ (Dasgupta 1922: 4.389- 390)
It is interesting to note that during the devotional heights of this remarkable religious saint, only the literatures of Jayadeva, Vidyapati and Candidas- who also wrote about Krishna’s erotic activities taking the lead from Jayadeva, could quench his devotional thirst. This illustrates that Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda is a most important and incomparable religious text for those interested in ‘ecstatic bhakti’ of the highest order.
For Chaitanya and his followers, the Gitagovinda is not merely an erotic poem of some historic and literary importance. It is accepted as an authentic description of the divine love play of
Bibliography and Abbreviations
Ayengar, N.S.R (2000) Gita Govindam.
Bhaktivedanta A.C , trans. and comm. (1975), Sri Caitanya Caritamrta (of Krishnadas Kaviraj).
Bon Maharaj, B.H, trans. and comm. (1965) Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu (of Rupa Goswami).
BP: Bhagavata Purana
CC: Chaitanya Charitamrta
Clooney and Stewart (2004) ‘Vaisnava’ in Mittal and Thursby (2004) pp. 162-184.
Colas, G (2003) ‘History of Vaisnava Traditions’ in Flood,G (2003) pp.229-270.
Das, S (2005) The History and Literature of the Gaudiya Vaishnavas. Chennai: United Bind Graphics.
Dasgupta, S (1922) A History of Indian Philosophy. Cambrige University Press, reprinted (1975)
Fitzgerald, J.L (2004) ‘Mahabharat’ in Mittal and Thursby (2004) pp. 52-74.
Flood, G (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism.
Flood, G (2003) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism.
Fuller C.J (2004) The Camphor Lamp. Oxfordshire:
Kapoor O.B.L (1977) The Philosophy and Religion of Sri Caitanya, the Philosophical Background of the Hare Krishna Movement.
Kennedy, M. T (1925) The Chaitanya Movement, A Study of the Vaishnavism of
Lorenzen D.N (2004) ‘Bhakti’ in Mittal and Thursby (2004) pp.185-209.
Matchett, F (2003) ‘The Puranas’ in Flood, G (2003) pp.129-143.
Miller B.S (1977) Love Song of the Dark Lord. Chichester:
Mishra, N (1995) ‘Introduction’ in Pathy, Panda and Rath (1995) p. xv- xix.
Mishra, P (1995) ‘Legend’ in Pathy, Panda and Rath (1995) pp. 65-71
Mittal and Thursbay (2004) The Hindu World. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
Pathy, Panda and Rath (1995) Jayadeva and Gitagovinda.
Svami, Bhanu trans. (2003) Bhakti-Rasamrta- Sindhu (of Rupa Goswami). Chennia: Sri Vaikuntha Enterprises.
 Jagannatha is the name of the main deity in the temple at Puri, from which the town now takes its name. The name translates as ‘lord of the universe’.
 Jayadeva refers to Krishna by several names throughout the poem, for ease of understanding I will simply use
 Gopis are the cowherd ladies of Vrindavan.
 Radha is
 Kali-yuga, is the fourth and most degraded age in the cycle of ages.
 It is the opinion of several scholars that the Rupa’s theory of Rasa was adapted from Bharat Muni’s Natya Sastra