“Nondevotees cannot give any nomenclature for the Supreme Personality of Godhead, yet the Lord is known as Shyamasundara and Giridhari. Similarly, the Lord is known as Devaki-nandana and Yashoda-nandana because He accepted the role of son for mother Devaki and mother Yashoda, and He is known as Gopala because He enjoyed the sport of maintaining the cows and calves.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 10.2.36 Purport)
One of the countless names for Bhagavan is Gopala. This name is especially relevant in certain sections of the Shrimad Bhagavatam, also known as the Bhagavata Purana. Bhagavan is the highly fortunate one, and the work that best describes Him is Bhagavata. Devotees are also known as bhagavata since they are always connected to Him in yoga.
The beautiful name of Gopala has several meanings, and they each fit the Supreme Lord. Proof is there in His activities, descriptions of which the saints have kindly passed down from generation to generation.
1. Protector of the cows
This is a common depiction of Bhagavan. In paintings and pictures, He is in a youthful form, associated with one or many cows. One of His other names is Govinda, which has a meaning of “giver of pleasure to the cows.”
Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religion – this is one of the conditions for the Divine descents. That accounts for the when, but the where is not always the same. Perhaps the most famous descent, or avatara, is Shri Krishna, who spends a significant portion of time in the farm community of Vrindavana.
A neighboring place, considered part of greater Vrindavana, is Gokula. This is the family of cows, and Krishna’s foster father Nanda Maharaja owns thousands of them. This is not for killing later on or selling to a butcher. The cows are protected for life, and because of that they produce a seemingly endless supply of milk. The resulting products are used to sustain the community. Tax to the neighboring town of Mathura is paid in the form of these products, as well.
Krishna is Gopala because He gives protection to the cows. He looks after them. Even at a young age He gets responsibilities. He and His friends take the calves out every day to the fields. If the sacred animals should happen to wander astray, there is no worry. Gopala simply climbs to the top of Govardhana Hill, plays His flute, and watches everyone come back. That lovely sound grabs the attention of the pure devotees, which Vrindavana is full of, for every kind of species.
Cows are very dear to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. A person may ask why a cow over other animals. They may ask what is the need for caring so much about one kind of species, when the human birth is meant for escaping the cycle of birth and death, which is fueled in one way through strong attachment.
Aside from the physical evidence in the form of Krishna’s lila, or pastimes, there is the fact that cows are one of the most important mothers in the world. Mothers should always be protected, and the cow provides so much value to society otherwise. The auspiciousness should simply be accepted at first, and confirmation of the principle will arrive later on through continued connection to Gopala in yoga.
2. Protector of the senses
“Pala” refers to a protector or keeper, and “go” can also refer to the senses. Controlling the senses, which include the mind in the proper analysis, is very difficult. The great bow-warrior Arjuna compares the mind to the wind, something which cannot be caught.
Without control of the senses, a person cannot become a yogi, and without becoming a yogi a person cannot completely escape the cycle of birth and death. One obvious route is to practice sense control. Don’t eat so much. Don’t sleep too much. Keep an eye on attachments. The benefits are already known even in material life.
An easier way is to surrender to Shri Krishna. As Gopala He will help in protecting the senses. His help is known to be without blemishes. That is to say if I try myself I’m not guaranteed to succeed. I might be in a yogic trance for thousands of years, and suddenly it gets broken.
Whereas with bhakti-yoga, even if I slip up Krishna will bring me back on track. This is provided my desire to be with Him is sincere. Consciousness is the key, and in bhakti-yoga the Supreme Consciousness acts as the greatest purifying agent.
3. Protector of the land
Gopala is also the protector of the land of Vrindavana. Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu has declared that as Krishna is worshipable, so is His land. One might say that the entire universe originally comes from God, so does this mean that everything is worshipable? If I go up to any patch of grass, am I connecting with the Supreme Lord?
Certainly a wise person sees the presence of the Supersoul, Paramatma, in every situation and in every place, but worship of Krishna is the more direct method. Therefore certain places are known to be more associated with Him, i.e. there is a direct connection.
It is said that Krishna never leaves Vrindavana; He is there right now. Through purification resulting from practice of bhakti-yoga under the guidance of authority the eyes are able to realize this amazing truth. Gopala is everywhere in His favorite pastime places, protecting the land, the cows, and the people who reside there, never forgetting them.
Favor to the calves and cows shown,
Reason for as Gopala is known.
So much pleasure to the senses giving,
That in yoga even mistakes forgiving.
Also carefully watching over land,
Providing attentive protecting hand.
Who to everyone still visible clear,
In their hearts Gopala always dear.
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