Heidi Pauwels

in Hinduism

ISBN: 9780195399318
Published online June 2012 | | DOI:


Rādhā is the foremost of the gopīs, or milkmaids, of Braj (Vraja), where Krishna (Kṛṣṇa) is believed to have grown up incognito. As Krishna’s childhood and teenage sweetheart, her foremost characteristic is her fervent innocent love, which moved him deeply. The intensity of their secret erotic encounters in the bowers of bucolic Vrindāban, known as (ni)kuñja-līlā (“bower dalliance”), is celebrated in literature and art and figures importantly in the Indian imagination. Rādhā is passion incarnate; metaphorically, she stands for the human soul and its longing for God. Her love for Krishna is usually understood as not sanctioned by marriage and all the stronger for it. Her willingness to break the rules of dharma for her love makes her exemplary for the devotee (bhakta). Several groups in the bhakti movement see her selfless, intimate, mutually passionate relationship with Krishna as the highest achievement of love, called mādhurya bhāva. Yet, Rādhā’s intense love is not always happy: it inspires fits of jealousy due to Krishna’s infidelities, and when Krishna leaves her to take up his royal responsibilities in Mathurā and later Dvārakā, she is left pining for him. This suffering is seen as emblematic of the human condition: ever longing for, but never able to realize more than fleeting moments of unity with God. Rādhā, the ideal subject of devotion, becomes an object of devotion herself, and she is venerated as a goddess in her own right, sometimes even being elevated above Krishna. While she is not mentioned in the influential 9th-century Bhāgavata Purāṇa, her love for Krishna is celebrated in the 12th-century Sanskrit Gīta Govinda and in vernacular poetry from Bengal and Mithilā. She may also have links with the South Indian Nappiṉṉāi. She is celebrated especially in devotional literature in Old Hindi (Braj Bhaṣā) from the 16th century onward. In iconography, Rādhā is most often represented as intimately entwined with Krishna, and sometimes in temples there is not even a separate image for her, because it is said that she is one in body with Krishna. In miniatures, she is portrayed romantically, as the embodiment of ideal Indian feminine beauty, and again often in intimate embrace with Krishna. Rādhā is very much alive today, especially in the pilgrimage center of Braj, and songs celebrating her love for Krishna are sung and performed in temples as well as on the international concert stage and in popular movies.

Article.  8318 words. 

Subjects: Hinduism

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribeRecommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »