“Dear Krishna, You are known as Hari. You destroy all the miseries of all living entities, specifically of those who have left their homes and family attachment and have completely taken to You. We have left our homes with the hope that we shall completely devote and dedicate our lives to Your service.” (Gopis speaking to Lord Krishna, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 29)
Though the most pleasurable of Shri Krishna’s pastimes, the rasa-lila is generally not discussed in public forums, even amongst devotees. The most intimate of the Lord’s interactions with His pleasure potency expansions depict divine love in its highest form. To the outsider accustomed to material attachment and the pursuit of temporary rewards, which vanish at the time of death, the interactions between Krishna and the gopis of Vrindavana seem like ordinary dealings between boys and girls. In fact, under this mindset Krishna is taken to be a defiler of women, someone who enjoyed in a way that went against the standard codes of conduct. But through enough education on the subject, especially on the real position of the hero of the situation, the purpose of the interaction is learned. In addition, that which was previously considered sinful or to be imitated gets understood to be a beautiful exchange indicative of how the Supreme Lord will grant anything to His dearest servants.
The fact that Krishna is the Supreme Lord is the most important, the point from which to begin learning about the highly confidential subject matter. Without this knowledge the rest of the analysis is academic. We would not be talking about a young boy dancing with young girls if the boy in question wasn’t someone special. Men and women meet together all the time, sometimes through proper channels and sometimes through illicit means. The rasa-lila is famous because it involves someone who previously had lifted an entire hill from the ground and held it up above His head for seven days. Many years later, He would deliver the essence of Vedic wisdom to a despondent warrior on the eve of a war to end all wars. Thus His intermediate pastimes became equally as noteworthy, worth hearing about and remembering.
By the way, Krishna held up that hill as a young child. Not to be confused with the mother who suddenly finds the strength to lift a car in an emergency situation to protect her child, Krishna can do anything while in any of His forms. Through His impersonal energy which pervades through the material nature He holds all of the massive planets in orbit and controls the heat and the rain. Through His deputies the system of fairness known as karma is instituted, which fuels the engine of reincarnation, or the changing of bodies.
In Vrindavana as a young child some five thousand years ago Krishna held up the mighty Govardhana Hill after there was an onslaught of rain instigated by a vengeful Lord Indra, the deity in charge of the clouds and the thunder. The residents of Vrindavana were not overly powerful, and they were not prepared for the flash flood. They were set to be washed away until Krishna stepped in and remedied the situation. He took the neighboring hill that was just worshiped at His insistence and held it up above His head to act as an umbrella. Everyone gathered around and took shelter under Krishna and His hill, and thus Indra’s plot was foiled.
Krishna, as an adult in terms of years passed since His initial arrival in Vrindavana, delivered the essence of Vedic wisdom to His cousin Arjuna. The Pandavas were looking to regain a kingdom that rightfully belonged to them. In order for that to happen, they had to defeat the opposing army consisting of their cousins, spiritual guide and other close friends and family members. Arjuna, the best fighter for the Pandavas, was hesitant to fight, not wanting to cause harm to people he cared about. Krishna used this uncertainty borne of misplaced affection as an opportunity to speak on the glories of action without attachment, on the need for following prescribed duties without giving attention to the result. Most importantly, Krishna revealed that He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and that worship of Him is the highest dharma, or system of religion. Arjuna would go on to fight under Krishna’s direction and not only succeed but remain free of sinful reaction at the same time.
To understand the rasa-lila, the interested party is advised to first study the first nine cantos of the sacred Shrimad Bhagavatam, which explain in detail Krishna’s superior position, which is presented scientifically and also through accounts of historical events. The idea is not to accept Krishna on a whim or a matter of blind faith. Rather, the intelligence and corresponding reasoning ability of the sincere listener are appealed to. The mind of the listener is asked to ponder the meaning of life and what should actually be accomplished between the time of birth and the time of death.
So many analogies can be used to understand the importance of context with respect to learning about foreign concepts. Think of an ice hockey game where there is a fight. In ice hockey, the fights are a little strange to see because, for starters, they are actually allowed. In other professional sports, if you fight you get kicked out of the game and likely suspended for subsequent games. In hockey, a fight is meant to occur fairly, with both participants willing to drop the gloves. There are codes to the fisticuffs as well, such as only punching someone when they are up to the challenge and looking directly at you. Also, once the fight is over, there should be no cheap shots or any other type of ill will harbored. Sometimes the fighters will even acknowledge the opponent’s fighting prowess after the bout is over.
To the casual spectator watching all of this going on, the fighting seems ridiculous. Why would people settle their disputes in this barbaric way? But to those who know and follow the game, the fighting serves a viable purpose. There are the star players, who are more skilled than they are physical. This means that if someone should take a run at them or check them with intensity, they will have no way to defend themselves. The designated enforcers on the team serve as a sort of protection, a way to guard against aggressors on the opponent’s side taking runs at the star players. It is also believed that sanctioning fighting helps to prevent other types of illegal attacks, such as those made with the hockey stick, which can be more violent in nature.
Krishna is intimately linked to the cowherd damsels of Vrajubhumi. They are considered His greatest devotees because they follow devotion to Him unflinchingly and through the most difficult circumstances. It is one thing to excel in a particular endeavor when your environment is conducive to that success. For instance, if you become an expert lawyer after having attended a prestigious law school, the feat is not that surprising. If, on the other hand, you grew up in circles where education was limited, where you basically had to teach yourself, and you still reach the same end, the achievement is more noteworthy.
The gopis of Vrindavana did not have time to sit in quiet meditation or study Vedanta philosophy. They were not formally educated, as the tradition of the time called for girls to get married at a young age. After marriage they would tend to the household affairs. It is said that many of the gopis were brahmanas in a previous life. They desired the intimate association of Lord Rama, an incarnation of the same Krishna, but the Lord’s vow in that appearance was to have only one wife. Thus the brahmanas were granted the benediction of taking birth in Vrindavana and gaining Rama’s association in His original form of Shri Krishna, whose name references the Lord’s all-attractiveness.
Though the gopis were married and involved in household affairs throughout the day, they never could stop thinking about Krishna. They didn’t care about the law codes of society. Their only objective was to stay connected with Krishna through love. That being the case, how could Shyamasundara ever deny their requests? If they wanted to dance with Him, Yashoda’s son would not only dance, but He’d expand Himself into so many identical forms so that each gopi could dance with Him individually.
In the progressive march towards enlightenment, there is no pressing need to understand the rasa-lila right away. Rather, the beginning period is better spent learning about Krishna, an understanding best accelerated through hearing. That hearing is created by the constant chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Chanting is the authorized method of worship for the modern age because it calls to Krishna in a mood of love and it also references the gopis and their leader, Shrimati Radharani. Thus one gets the association of the same participants of the dances that took place on the moonlit nights in Vrindavana, but in a purified way. To the surrendered soul sincerely desirous of learning about the Supreme Lord and His real position, all the knowledge necessary for attaining the highest end is gradually revealed.
To enjoy with Krishna gopis never to miss a chance,
Into the forest on a moonlit night they go to dance.
Enjoying with Him they together move hand in hand,
By mundane wisdom these pastimes we can never understand.
That same Krishna previously Govardhana Hill lifted,
And then later on sublime Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna gifted.
Sacred Shrimad Bhagavatam dedicates cantos numbering nine,
To explain Krishna’s position as Supreme Lord, both yours and mine.
To study details of rasa-dance no need to be eager,
Krishna to reveal all knowledge to divine pleasure seeker.