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, Bengal or Mithila. Some scholars feel the balance of evidence is on the side of Bengal (Chatterji 1973, referred to by Miller 1977:4) while others write elaborately that it must be Orissa (Mishra, N 1995: xv-xix). It is therefore, perhaps safest to say that Jayadeva was from Eastern India. Born into a Brahmin family, Jayadeva was possessed of great learning at a young age; however after several family tragedies he became a ‘wandering mendicant’. He then went on to settle in Jagannatha Puri, Orissa, and by the ordination of Lord Jagannatha[1], he married Padmavati. Around this time Jayadeva compiled the Gitagovinda, and as he would sing the poem, Padmavati, a trained dancer would perform. From here on the popularity of Gitagovinda spread far and wide. This is acknowledged by the fact that the Gitagovinda was known in western India by the thirteenth century, in Nepal by the fourteenth and Gujarat and Mewar by the mid fifteenth centuries. At this time it was officially ‘incorporated’ into the temple worship at Jagannatha Puri and by the sixteenth century it was well known all over northern India (Miller 1977:6-7).

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 Krishna’s[2] love dalliance and he encourages those with taste and curiosity to listen. He then glorifies Krishna as ‘Lord of the universe’, while describing his ten incarnations and their great deeds. After having established Krishna’s all mightiness, he proceeds to set the scene for his love play by describing the Vrindavan forest in all of its spring and love inspiring beauty. In the forest Krishna enjoys amorous pleasure with the Gopis[3] while Radha[4] afar, pines in deep separation from him. Feeling the absence of Radha’s presence, Krishna also expresses his lovelorn feelings. Through the medium of Gopis carrying messages, Radha and Krishna hear of each other’s love sickness which then contorts and intensifies until finally the sportive and proud Krishna submits himself before Radha. With the prompting of her friends, Radha then unashamedly gives in to his embrace. Throughout the poem Jayadeva offers his readers various encouragements to remember Krishna, to bow to Krishna and allow his presence to awaken in their hearts. He also offers benedictions of happiness and freedom from the miseries of kali-yuga[5].

In essence Jayadeva’s work is an elaborate ‘poetic rendering’ of the Krishna’s amorous activities found in the Bhagavata Purana (Clooney and Stewart 2004:175). In the tenth chapter of this Purana, the narration of Krishna’s life is described, including his erotic relations with the Gopis. Although there is one very prominent Gopi mentioned in the Bhagavata, there is no direct mention of her name being Radha.

Krishna, not just a Hindu God

For the followers of Chaitanya, Krishna is not just one of the Hindu gods, and neither is he an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu. He is the supreme omniscient and all powerful god, one without a second, the ultimate creator maintainer and destroyer of the universe. Vishnu and the various incarnations are all part of his being; they are his expanded forms with specific attributes and purposes. (CC. Adi lila chapter 2). Although they are considered to be one in truth or manifestations of the same person, what sets Krishna aside is that he is the primary origin (svayam bhagavan) and far more abundant in rasa or nectar (BRS. 1.2.9). Krishna is considered to be the embodiment of beauty, charm and sweetness (madhurya). Thus his name, Krishna, is often interpreted to mean the ‘all attractive’ or ‘whose being is ecstasy’ (CC. Madhya lila 9.30). Of all his manifestations he has the greatest capacity for love and he reciprocates with all loving temperaments, even their highest form erotica.

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 Krishna, devoid of all material motivations, and not obscured by Vedic ritualism (karma) or by the Upanishadic ideas of ‘oneness’ or aspirations for impersonal liberation (jnana). The various forms (angas) of such devotion are listed as sixty four, however special emphasis has been given to the five most potent: association with Krishna devotees (sadhu sanga), chanting Krishna’s names (nama kirtana), hearing the Bhagavata Purana (bhagavata sravana), residing in Mathura (Mathura vasa) and worshiping the deity of Krishna with faith (sri murtira sraddhaya sevana). The core purpose of these devotional forms is complete absorption in Krishna.

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 Krishna, which no longer depends upon scriptural instruction, they are called raganuga bhakti or spontaneous devotion. This spontaneous bhakti then matures to become a deeply emotional and absorbed state (bhava), which then reaches its zenith in pure love (pema) where the love takes on a sense of possessiveness (mamata) for the object of the love, Krishna. Such love dominates and pervades the devotees being, directing their every move and every thought. It is very rare to attain and has the power to attract Krishna (krsnakarsini) and bring him into subjugation.

Eroticism, an Expression of the Highest Devotion

According to Rupa, each devotee develops their loving disposition in accordance with one of five temperaments (sthayibhavas)[6]. 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, Krishna, is added to santa, but wherein his majesty remains predominant without room for familiarity, the temperament is called dasya or servitude. In the next three temperaments, the love is considered to be more intense and dominant, it causes one to perceive and relate to god as the love dictates and it blinds one to his almightiness. Therefore to love Krishna in the mood of sakhya or friendship means the love naturally causes one to relate to him as an equal; in vatsalya or parental affection, he is perceived and loved like a dependent child requiring care and nourishment. Then above all the others is srngara or conjugal love which expresses itself in eroticism. God in this case becomes the object of one’s passionate love. As each temperament contains the qualities of those which proceeding it, srngara is the most complete, having all the qualities of the others as well as its own amorous nature.

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 Krishna. While performing the regular practices (angas) of bhakti externally (sadhaka rupa), this srngara temperament is cultivated internally (siddha rupa), by male or female alike. However, such love is only possible in a heart purged of all materialism (Das 2005:37), even its contemplation is prohibited ‘as long as our minds and senses are not purified’ (Kapoor 1976: 219). The ideal of erotic devotion is found in the gopis of Vraja, and those who aspire for such love are required to follow their example. Amongst the gopis, Radha’s love is special and surpasses that of all the other gopis; she is therefore the most beloved of Krishna. What distinguishes Radha’s love is that it is of blazing intensity (sudipta). By her mere embrace Krishna is thrown into a state of unconsciousness; she will accept unbearable pain in order to please Krishna; when she is separated from Krishna her anguish causes the entire universe to be overcome by sorrow, even the animals will exhibit tears; she craves death so that the composite elements of her body may merge themselves within all that serves Krishna, and she acts in delirious ways, talking uncontrollably. (Kapoor 1976: 208-210).

‘The Absolute Pair’

Radha is ‘love incarnate’ and she is recognised by Chaitanya’s followers as a separated form of Krishna for the purpose of his pleasure pastimes (lila). Radha and Krishna are thus two aspects of the one whole, the potent and his potency, the object of love and the abode of love. They are as inseparable as ‘musk and its scent’: the ‘absolute pair, not a single person’ (Das 2005:34-36). Radha is the pleasure potency of Krishna, from whom all goddesses emanate and of whom ‘bhakti’ is a manifest particle. All that pleases Krishna is Radha, his own potency manifested in unlimited and multifarious forms. Their love play, which exists beyond the realm of human morality, is the ultimate experience and expression of rasa or enjoyment. The highest pleasure for the individual soul is to taste that rasa , which is the explicit subject of Gitagovinda.

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 Krishna who came to taste and to distribute his own love. Seeing the magnificence of Radha’s love for him, he desired to experience it for himself, however he could not do that as Krishna- the object of love (visaya vigraha) he had to take on the mood of Radha- the abode of Love (asraya vigraha) (CC. Adi Lila: 4.134). In the last twelve years of his life, Chaitanya’s consciousness turned completely inward and he remained in a small solitary room attended to by a few of his most intimate followers in Jagannatha Puri. During this time he was in a state of uncontrollable devotional ecstasy, akin to Radha’s when she experienced separation (viraha) from Krishna. By the effects of such love, he would be drenched in tears, trembling all over his body, of faded complexion and perspiring profusely. He would laugh, cry, dance, sing and then fall to the ground unconscious (CC. Madhya lila 2.73). At such times he would request his followers to sing songs that would enhance his devotional ecstasy. When his close associate Svarupa Damodara would sing Gitagovinda, Chaitanya would begin to dance enthralled with devotion, all the ecstasies within his body would compete with each other for prominence. Then insisting that Svarupa would sing the same verse again and again, he would continuously delight in its meaning. Seeing Chaitanya’s fatigue, Svarupa would stop singing and the other followers would calm him by fanning and reciting Krishna’s name (CC. Antya lila 15. 82-92). On another occasion upon hearing someone singing verses from Gitagovinda, Chaitanya fell into a state of devotional madness and ran through thorny thickets to embrace the person. Govinda, his servant, realising that it was a woman ran after Chaitanya and upon catching his shouted ‘it’s a woman, it’s a woman’. Chaitanya coming back to sane state, and being a renounced sannyasi, thanked Govinda for saving his life (CC. Antya lila 13.79- 88). Commenting on the profound nature of Chaitanya’s devotional ecstasies, Dasgupta writes:

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 Krishna, the absolute personality of godhead and Radha, the embodiment of his pleasure potency. The bhakti or devotion that it describes is not a demonstration of worldly lust; it is the expression of most intensified form of selfless love (srngara). It is a love realised only by those free from all material conceptions and interests. In their opinion, for a god who is love absolute, the love of a devotee which seeks reciprocation or which is paralyzed by the understanding of his majesty (mahatmya jnana prema); is no comparison for the intimate love of friend, parent or paramour (kevala prema) who wants nothing in return. Such love is considered to be so strong, that it causes god, the all powerful, to exhibit his most profound characteristic- subordination to his devotees’ love (BP. 10.9.19). The thought of god bowing so low before anyone was incomprehensible for Jayadeva. As he wrote the nineteenth song of Gitagovinda in which Krishna beseeches Radha to forgive him for his absence, he envisioned Krishna requesting her to place her feet upon his divine head, signifying his defeat, but he could not write it. Instead he left to take his midday bath and in his absence Krishna came to his home. Disguised as Jayadeva, Krishna completed the verse, ate the food that Padmavati had prepared and left. When Jayadeva returned he soon realised what had happened: Krishna himself had certified in writing his subordination to such love.

Bibliography and Abbreviations

Ayengar, N.S.R (2000) Gita Govindam. Delhi: Penman Publishers.

Bhaktivedanta A.C , trans. and comm. (1975), Sri Caitanya Caritamrta (of Krishnadas Kaviraj). Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

Bon Maharaj, B.H, trans. and comm. (1965) Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu (of Rupa Goswami). Institute of Oriental Philosophy Calcutta: Navan Printing Works Private Ltd.

BP: Bhagavata Purana

BRS: Bhaktirasa-amrta-sindhu

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) Delhi:

Fitzgerald, J.L (2004) ‘Mahabharat’ in Mittal and Thursby (2004) pp. 52-74.

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Fuller C.J (2004) The Camphor Lamp. Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press.

Kapoor O.B.L (1977) The Philosophy and Religion of Sri Caitanya, the Philosophical Background of the Hare Krishna Movement. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers PVT.

Kennedy, M. T (1925) The Chaitanya Movement, A Study of the Vaishnavism of Bengal. Mysore: Wesleyan Mission Press.

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Matchett, F (2003) ‘The Puranas’ in Flood, G (2003) pp.129-143.

Miller B.S (1977) Love Song of the Dark Lord. Chichester: Columbia University Press.

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

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Pathy, Panda and Rath (1995) Jayadeva and Gitagovinda. New Delhi: Harman Publishing House.

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[1] 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’.

[2] Jayadeva refers to Krishna by several names throughout the poem, for ease of understanding I will simply use Krishna.

[3] Gopis are the cowherd ladies of Vrindavan.

[4] Radha is Krishna’s most beloved consort (CC Adi lila 4.215).

[5] Kali-yuga, is the fourth and most degraded age in the cycle of ages.

[6] It is the opinion of several scholars that the Rupa’s theory of Rasa was adapted from Bharat Muni’s Natya Sastra

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