A milkmaid called Radha

Indian Mythology 33 Comments

First City, Mythos, Dec 2007

It is impossible to think of Krishna without thinking of Radha. Theirs is an eternal love story The stuff of romantic songs. And yet, some of the biggest Krishna temples in India do not enshrine the image of Radha. In Puri, Orissa, Krishna is enshrined with his sister, Subhadra, and his brother Balaram. In Udupi, Karnataka, and Guruvayoor, Kerala, and Nathdvara, Rajasthan, Krishna stands alone as a cowherd boy. In Pandharpur, Maharashtra, and Dwarka, Gujarat, he stands alone with the temple of his wife Rukmini nearby.  Even the most sacred book of Krishna, the Bhagavat Puran, does not mention Radha. To understand this, we have to look at the historical development of Krishna worship in India.

It is difficult for many people to accept that religious ideas have a history of their own. The earliest tales of Krishna, found in the Mahabharat, compiled between 300 BC and 300 AD, only refer to, but do not describe, his early life in the village of cowherds. Later around 400 AD, the Harivamsa was added as an appendix to the Mahabharata. This described in detail Krishna’s life in Gokul including his dalliances with milkmaids. But there was no mention of Radha or any particular milkmaid. The women were a collective with whom Krishna danced and sported. The mood was joyful and carnival like. In the Bhagvata Purana, compiled around 10th century in South India, where the idea of devotion to God visualized as Krishna was elaborated, Krishna disappears when the milkmaids become possessive and seek exclusive attention. The idea that God (Krishna) loves all with equal intensity was visually expressed by making the women dance in a circle, each one equidistant from Krishna who stood playing the flute in the centre.

Around this time Prakrit literature started referring to one Radha who was portrayed as Krishna’s favorite. In Hala’s Gatha Saptasati Krishna removes a dust particle, kicked up by cows, from Radha’s eye thus declaring her exalted position in her heart and humbling the other women. In these songs Krishna is not divine; he is a simple cowherd, a hero of the village folk. The songs lack sensual passion and religious ecstasy. Radha is never wife, and the dominant emotion is one of longing following separation, an emotion that eventually characterizes Radha-Krishna relationship.

In the 5th century, the Tamil epic, Shilapadikaram, refers to one Nal-Pinnai who was the beloved of Mal (the local name for Krishna). Scholars believe that she represents an early form of Radha. This idea of a favorite milkmaid gradually spread to the North and reached its climax with the composition of the Gita Govinda, a Sanskrit song written by Jayadeva in the 12th century AD where the passion of the cowherd god and his milkmaid beloved was celebrated in a language and style that took all of India by storm.

Jayadeva was born in a village near Puri, Orissa, which is renowned for the grand temple complex of Jagannath, lord of the world, a local form of Krishna. Research has shown that he was involved with Padmavati, a temple dancer or devadasi and perhaps even married her. His work was inspired by both his personal experience and his religious beliefs. Each of Jayadeva’s song is composed of eight couplets known as Ashtapadis. 24 Ashtapadis make a chapter and 12 chapters make up the entire work. In it Krishna is identified as the supreme divine being – a radical shift from earlier scriptures where Krishna is one of the many incarnations of Vishnu. The book uses extremely ornamented language to describe in intimate details Radha’s passion. As one moves from verse to verse, one is transported from the physical realm into the spiritual realm. The erotic longing becomes the cry of the soul for union with the divine. Such an approach was revolutionary; it fired the imagination of the priests and dancers who made it part of the temple ritual. Being a major Vaishnava religious centre, hundreds of pilgrims from all over India poured into Puri. Day and night, they heard the priests sing Jayadeva’s song of Radha’s love for Krishna and the devadasis depict her yearning for her beloved in graceful dance steps. Before long they were mouthing the lyrics and taking it back to their villages. In less than a century, Gita Govinda transformed from a temporal parochial literary work into a pan-Indian sacred scripture. It completely revitalized Vaishanvism in the subcontinent and catalyzed the rise of the bhakti or devotional movement in India.

Before Jayadeva, love and eroticism revolved around Kama, god of lust, and his consort Rati, goddess of erotics, who were eulogized by poets such as Kalidasa and scholars such as Vatsyayana. With the rise of monastic orders such as Buddhism and Jainism, Kama was demonized into Mara, who had to be conquered by those seeking enlightenment. In the Puranas, stories were told of how Kama was burnt alive when Shiva, the supreme ascetic, opened his third eye. All things sensual came to be seen as fetters that blocked one’s spiritual growth. But Jayadeva changed all that. Through his song he made sensuality and romantic emotion the vehicle of the highest level of spirituality. His Krishna was a reformed Kama. His Radha was a reformed Rati. He turned kama or lust into prema or romance. Krishna’s love for Radha and Radha’s love for Krishna were expressed in physical terms but they communicated a profound mystical experience.

The centuries before the Gita Govinda had seen the collapse of Buddhist orders and an increased stranglehold of Brahminism based on caste hierarchy and ritualism. God was visualized either as an ascetic (Shiva) or a king (Vishnu). With the arrival of Islam from the 8th centuryAD, the exalted status given to ascetics and kings took a beating. Cities were razed to the ground. Poets and artists took shelter in the rural hinterland and there discovered the simple ideologies of the village folk based on love and devotion. It is in this environment that poets such as Jayadeva were inspired to shape God as a simple cowherd, accessible through the simplest of emotions, stripped of complex scholarly erudition.

Inspired by Jayadeva, in the 14th and 15th century, poets such as Vidypati and Chandidas further elaborated the relationship of Radha and Krishna. It was always described as turbulent shifting between separation and union, jealousy and surrender.  In a rather bold move, these poets saw Radha as a married woman who broke all social norms to be with Krishna. Some folk narratives of this period suggested that she was Krishna’s aunt, married to his maternal uncle. Some said she was older, a mature woman while he was a boy. Even in the Gita Govinda, Radha’s union with Krishna always take place in secret. There is constantly reference to the threat of social disgrace. By making the relationship illicit and clandestine, the poets heightened the emotional quotient of the relationship. It was seen as true love that transcended custom and law. Devotees came to realize that Radha was the symbol of all those who were ‘married’ to social responsibilities, seeking liberation and union with their true love, God, who is Krishna.

Many found use of these extra-marital and incestuous metaphors rather scandalous. They moved towards a different theology in which Radha and Krishna were two halves of the whole. She was the material world; he was the spiritual soul. She was the supreme woman, he was the supreme man. They were Goddess and God whose union gave birth to the universe. The world was seen as Radha, born of Krishna’s delight. She was Krishna’s shakti or power, one who could never be separated from him. This was the svakiya (belonging to Krishna) tradition which distinguished itself from the parakiya (belonging to another) tradition. These were expressed in scriptures such as the Brahma-vaivarta-Purana.

Despite this, across India, Radha is always Krishna’s beloved, never his wife. His wives are Rukmini and Satyabhama. Radha’s relationship is different in nature when compared to Sita’s relationship with Ram. While Ram is the model husband and Sita is the model wife ,Krishna and Radha represent the great lovers who were destined never to unite. Perhaps that is why, except in religious orders of the Gangetic planes that follow the svakiya tradition, Radha is never enshrined in a temple.

Scriptures say that worldly responsibilities force Krishna to leave the village of cowherds and go to Mathura and thence to Dwaraka and Kurukshetra. He has to sacrifice the land of pleasure, vilasa bhumi, for the land of duty, karma bhumi. He has to rescue a world which was descending into anarchy – where women such as Draupadi are being gambled away by their husbands. Radha has to be given up. After leaving her, Krishna never plays the flute for Radha was his inspiration. The later Krishna never danced or made music. He is no more the cowherd; he was the charioteer riding into battle.

In time, Radha became a Goddess in her own right. Without her, Krishna was incomplete. She was the medium through which Krishna could be realized. Metaphysically, Radha came to represent the truth of our soul, the unexpressed, unrequited longings of our heart, suppressed by social realities, which cries out to Krishna. Krishna acknowledges this truth of our being, that society denies, each time he dances with Radha at night, outside the village, in secret.

  • Brilliant, beautiful and so lucid. But you know that already. :-)

  • Piyush

    Thanks Devdutt for this wonderful article….It partially answers my quetion which I asked you on your article on “Darshan”.

  • Abhijit

    Hi devdutt

    Would like to know a bit more about RADHA as a human, some details which can bring out what RADHA means.

    There is one saying
    The flow of river is called DHARA in Marathi and the one who goes across the flow is called RADHA. The opposite of DHARA.

  • Krishna

    Metaphysically, Radha came to represent the truth of our soul, the unexpressed, unrequited longings of our heart, suppressed by social realities, which cries out to Krishna. Krishna acknowledges this truth of our being, that society denies, each time he dances with Radha at night, outside the village, in secret.

    The last explains it all….

    Nice, thanks

  • Bindu

    very explanatory….somethings that i knew but never pieced together.

  • kalimirch

    Hello Devdutt

    Where did you get the dates you mentioned? What according to you are the dates of the MB, Buddha, Sankaracharya, Kapila, and Asoka ?

    I’ve not dug into all your other articles yet so I would like a straight answer for all to read.


  • Rashmi

    Very well presented! a joy to read!….especially loved the last paragraph. Can’t wait to read all the rest of your articles, Devdutt.

  • hai Devdattuji,

    myself shravan, doing my MFA in history of art, Santiniketan. i read ur book myth=mithya and this artical now found it really refreashing, thank u!

    sure i will this whole site!!!


  • saurabh

    It is said that unfulfilled love is most beautiful, so is Radha’s. All love legends with union of the lovers somehow end in tragedy. However, the Radha-Krishna legend has always been so intriguing. It was great to read how Jayadev’s renditions popularised this. But it leaves open the question if it is poet’s imagination or reality. A trip down to Vrindavan stamps the authenticity, but article says otherwise. Anyways I believe it is this eternal and purist love that has made Krishna surreal. It also underlines the fact that you can love the lord, be his beloved but cannot possess him in earthly terms.

  • Akshay

    Hi Devdattuji

    Thank you for the brilliant article. KM Munshi also takes a similar route when he describes the Radha Krishna relationship although he legitimizes it by stating they are married.

    It is an amazing phenomenon that where Radha is missing from all the temple she resides in the heart of most Krishna devotees.

    Their love somehow seems to transcend physicality and spirituality and reaches a plane unexplored. Both spiritual love and physical love are selfish since their is a sense of purpose, an ambition involved. When you read or even see a nice painting of Radha Krishna it reminds you about love as it should be. Love which does not exist for a purpose or a reason, love that does not require a social acceptance or a closure, love that exists only because their can be nothing else between them.

    Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series has an interesting epilogue where he traces the history or Ramayana and how it dramatically evolved over centuries to the point of being unfaithful from the original telling. Its a pity that we as a society value fiction more than the truth we see before our eyes. Thanks again for the amazing article.

  • whatisinaname

    Dutt saab,

    you are super, every article is extremely insightful.

  • Seby

    Dear Devdutt,

    Just read your book, Myth = mithya. Pl shed some light on the story of Anay.

  • anwesh kaushik

    dear dev uncle,
    i am a a std viii student.i thank u very much for ur article –an oceanic churning– appeared in life positive,feb/2010.as a regular reader of the magazine since last few months i found u the first oriya writer in this magazine.i too have a very keen interest in mythology.
    as a am busy in my studies for annual exam,i will write u a long letter later.yours anwesh

  • Suraj

    Great Article! However, I am somewhat surprised that you didn’t comment on the Alwar poetry that preceded Jayadeva by several centuries, particularly that of Andal and Nammalwar who imagined themselves as gopikas pining for Krishna. While neither mention Radha, the same concepts of yearning and erotic mysticism seem to have been well established in Vaishnavite thought well before Jayadeva’s time or the coming of Islam (at least to the South).

  • Bhavesh Karia

    brilliant insight as always – a huge fan

  • raviraj , GMCITE

    hi devdutt, just stumbled on your article on ted.com . i remembered the same old student in GMC who had another dimension to think . nice to hear about you . raviraj khairnar.

  • Guga Saravanan

    Hi Devdutt,
    I bumped into your article ‘Insecure Mentors’in Economic times and than visited your site and the journey was amazing…….I must admit you are fantastic.

  • Pingback: Devdutt » Archive » A milkmaid called Radha | Trends Now()

  • shruti

    Article is ‘beautifully presented’…. are you aware of the curse given by ab Brahmin which separated Krishna & Radha … if you know then please let me know in detail…

  • shruti

    Article is ‘beautifully presented’…. are you aware of the curse given by a Brahmin which separated Krishna & Radha … if you know then please let me know in detail…

  • sachin

    Helllo Sir,
    One Doubt
    Its mean radha was just a creation of 12th century poet nothing else but still she is with krishna in many temples so what is actully true.

  • DOOSRI RADHA alias D. K. PANDA(IPS Rtd.)

    Radha was not a milkmaid. She was the daughter of Vrishbhanu, a rich villager. In Garg Samhita, Brahma performs marriage of Radha and Krishna. Radha was a real person and not the creation of any poet. In Goloka, Radha was cursed by Dama, Krishna’s friend, that she will be separated from Krishna for one hundred years when they come to earth. Lord Krishna approved this curse and so it became effective. Radha also cursed Dama to be born as an Asura on earth. Lord Krishna partly approved this also by making a part of Dama as an Asura. When that Asura was sent by Kamsa to kill Krishna, the Lord killed the Asura and his spirit entered the body of Dama who was present there as a friend of Krishna. The love play (prem leela) of Krishna in Braj was to fullfill the promise the Lord had given in Treta Yuga to fulfill the desire of many persons, including Rishis of Dandakaranya, to get the Lord as their Husband in Dwapara Yuga. Lord Krishna was only fulfilling that promise for which he arranged the Raas when He indulged in love play with eligible gopis only by appearing individually with each gopi for her total satisfaction. Jayadeva’s Gita Gobinda is full of lust (vishaya vasana). The priests of Jagannatha temple in Puri are not doing any service of the Lord by singing such a lustful song. They are only enjoying the erotic thoughts, which leads to bondage and not emancipation. They should stop this foolishness. Instead, they should recite the Purusha Sukta daily in the morning. HARI BOL! Note: I just chanced upon this article while searching some information about Radha. Shri Devadatta has been praised by so many persons. But, as a God-realised Soul, I say that he is creating more confusion. In spiritual science, Radha is of no use; only Lord Krushna or God is important. The aim of every person, in Sanatana Dharma, is to attain moksha. Writing books or taking pleasure on some description of Radha leads to bondage, not mukti. God has said it in so many words in Gita and also in Bhagavata Mahapurana to practise His teachings to attain freedom (mukti) and get out of the cycle of births and deaths. If one does not do so, he is disobeying God, which is bound to result in pain and suffering in births after births. May my Lord and Husband bless you all!

    • Devdutt

      Please….there are many versions….each one from a different parampara….everyone thinks THEIR version is perfect…typical alpha behavior

      • Nithin P Gukhool

        There we go… From where, Mr Devdutt, did you “borrow” the idea of different paramparas? From the equally imported notion of Indology I suppose? Furthermore, this is why scholarly interpretations almost invariably fail at appreciating esoteric meaning. And yes, of course the very name “mythology” is a misnomer and self-defeating from the very beginning. For your edification Mr Pattnaik, there are 4 paramparas each presided over by a different Deity and they are Sri (Laxmi), Brahma, Kumara (the 4 Kumaras), and Siva Sampradaya. Actually this is the bane of syncretism, the idea that an accretion of chronological events and a linear view of time and space eventually “led” to Krishna being accepted as some sort of god… So what is the next step then, the supposition that there is “NO” god at all?

        If you do care for some information, I will leave you with some validated and researched information coming out of academia, especially western academia. I’m not a nationalist, in fact I’m not even Indian born, so don’t brand me with the label that I’m a Hindutva nationalist as is the current trend in India. All bona fide religious traditions and denomination in India swear allegiance to the Vedas and although the best scholarly effort to stick to the best available academic interpretation of the Sanskrit preserved in the Rg Veda is commendable, none can actually come close to what is “experienced” in the guru-disciple relationship or within the system of disciplic succession. In other words, truth is experiential. I wouldn’t mind you having your way of the truth, but for the fact that once again, the hubris of MY idea over YOUR idea seems to prevail. No one is thinking THEIR version is perfect. The truth is ALL versions are fundamentally the same at their roots – so for all those who actually care to “go deeper”, the effort is well worth it. The fundamental unity is seen whether it is in Sanatana Dharma, Christianity, esoteric Islam, Buddhism etc. I leave you with the words of King Janaka from the Mahabharata. With some luck, you are going to try and see the puranic lore from a different angle. The Puranas are the fifth Veda, and the authorship of not several Vyasas but of a single protean Vyasadeva.

        “Whatever is read as declared in the Vedas and in other scriptures is regarded as authority. The authority of the Vedas and other scriptures not inconsistent with the Vedas is eternal.
        “That person who bears in his understanding merely the texts of the Vedas and other scriptures without being conversant with the true sense or meaning of those texts, bears them fruitlessly. Indeed, one who holds the contents of a work in memory without comprehending their meaning is said to bear an useless burden.” (King Janaka, Mahabharata, Santi Parva 306)

        I will refrain from describing the lore behind the personality of Sri Radha, lest it disturbs certain vested interests or biases.

        A web traveller who stumbled across here,

    • Kundan Kumar Chandan

      I am totally agreed with you. You have quoted what actually is in ShreeMad Bhagvat
      Geeta. I was searching the content that which relgious text firstly
      introduced the character Radha, and there are so many confusion in this
      character – like some says – she is Maternal Aunty (Mami – Wife of
      Maternal Uncle) of Shree Krishna, Some says she remains unmarried – I am
      totally unaware about this character. Can you provide some
      link/book/source where can i get these information.

      From above text it reflects that Radha’s character came into existence just after 12th Century!!!!


  • amandah vanlie

    Thank you so much for these writings, they had a profound and meaningful effect on me and I encourage your works tremendously…

  • govindarajulu – Kasturi

    Thanks for the exposition on understanding RAdha in the legend of Radha Krishna

    Very helpful in deciphering all the dialogues that is going around the subject

    with warm regards Shri Dev Duttji

    kasturi G

  • Nimai Saparay

    Hare Krishna everyone, it is not good if we decide from one article whether Srimati Radharani existed in reality or not, u have to read from various sources……in the Srimad Bhagvatam indirectly the name of Radharani is mentioned and directly in Padma puran and Brahma Vaivarta purana ….
    Pls refer to these books of Vyas also…

    Sri Ved Vyas has written many books such as the four Vedas, 18 puranas , Upanishads, Mahabharata,etc…..u have to read all of them without concluding anything and the name of Srimati Radharani has been found ….
    Moreover Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu personally propagated the mood of Srimati Radharani towards Krishna..Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is directly the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the proof is there in Atharva Veda , Chaitanyopanishad…

    Pls read then u will come to know who is Srimati Radharani…
    Thank you
    Hare Krishna