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  • Further Thoughts on the Gīta-Govinda
  • Translated by Andrew Schelling (bio)

For people who listen to poetry, the twelth-century Sanskrit Gīta-Govinda by Jayadeva is the original love song of Krishna and Radha, his gopi, cowherd girl. In it Krishna seems the primal force that animates nature—“like the incarnation [mūrti] of erotic love,” Jayadeva says.

Those who keep the deeds and songs of Krishna close to their hearts consider him the cosmic power of the Kali Yuga or Dark Age, the last refuge for humans when times grow desperate.

Krishna has many guises—some of which can be traced to India’s Paleolithic tribes—all suggesting a telluric or fertility spirit. Anthropologists and scholars cannot locate a single source for his mythology, and the story cycles concerning Krishna are tangled. As the charioteer and friend of Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gīta, he is originator and destroyer of the universe, the source of everything. In the rati-keli-kathā, or tales of erotic passion—which Jayadeva acknowledges as his sources for Gīta-Govinda—Krishna plays the flute of the nomadic tribesman, and his tunes lure the village women back to the forest. Some see in this a cultural battle between hunting people—or pastoralists who migrate with their herds and do not regard land as property—and those who live by agriculture, setting clear boundaries between cropland and non-arable badlands. The figure of Krishna exposes the fascination and anxiety with which highly regulated agricultural societies regard wilderness and animist lifeways.

In paintings, his color is that of an approaching thunderhead, a shimmering blue-black. In fact his name means black—I’d call the color raven, to distinguish its opalescent blue gleam from matte-black or coal.

Jayadeva was born in Northeastern India: Bengal, Orissa, or Mathura. He excelled at Sanskrit, trained himself as a poet, then took a vow to become a celibate pilgrim. He said he would never stop longer than a single night under the same tree. His wanderings took him to the renowned Jagannatha Temple in the city of Puri, situated on the seacoast in Orissa. In Puri, a brahman attached to the temple had a vision: Jayadeva should marry the brahman’s daughter Padmāvatī—a dancer dedicated to the temple—settle in town, and write a poem to Krishna. Jayadeva renounced his vows, married Padmāvatī, and wrote the Gīta-Govinda.

Meeting Padmāvatī wakened in Jayadeva the rasa, the bedrock emotion, of [End Page 126] love. What had been distant accounts of spiritual grace, a theme for poetry, or even a set of metaphysical abstractions, came alive in his own body: the merging of spiritual and erotic ecstasy. Later poets would sing of the prem-bhakti-marg, the path of love and devotion, and warn of its razor-sharp edge. But under Padmāvatī’s hands, Jayadeva learnt that the old tales, the yogic teachings, were no far-off vision. They were an experience to be tasted through one’s senses.

In the fifteenth century, Jayadeva’s songs and Padmāvatī’s dances were instituted as the official liturgy for the Jagannatha Temple in Puri. I find this weird but inexplicably fitting. Jagannatha, identified with Krishna in ways I do not quite understand, is a starkly tribal deity. His image has barely traveled the road to human form. He seems a black stump of wood with metal platters for eyes, sticks for rudimentary arms, no hands. In India, tribal deities—in fact most localized deities, or devatā—are generally not iconic: a post, a heap of stones, a cloth-draped tree. On the beach at Puri in 1993 I saw an entire clan of coconuts, dressed in bright gowns, lined up for worship. Jagannatha’s temple, forbidden to non-Hindus, feeds twenty thousand pilgrims a day, “the world’s largest kitchen.” Jagannatha means “lord of the universe.” For six hundred years Jayadeva’s Gīta-Govinda has been Jagannatha’s song.

The Gīta-Govinda occurs in twelve cantos. These contain twenty-four songs set to particular ragas, or musical modes. Between the songs, Jayadeva has woven narrative verses, which recount the shifting phases of...


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pp. 126-129
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