Who was Radha, and why has she
captured the imagination of so many
writers across centuries? 0 other
goddess combines the elements of
bhakti and shringara quite as exquisitely
as the divine milkmaid. She spans a
vivid rainbow of imagery-from the
playfulness of the Raas Leela to the
soulfulness of her undying love, from
the mystic allure of her depictions
in poetry, art and sculpture to her
enduring legacy in Vrindavana. In a way
that sets her apart from other female
consorts, Radha is idealized and
dreamed of in a way that is almost
more elemental than mythical.
Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal, who
brought us In Search of sita: Revisiting
Mythology, now present an anthology on
the mysterious Radha, the epitome of
love, who defies all conventional codes
yet transcends social prohibitions
through the power of the spiritual
and the sensual, the sacred and the
erotic. Finding Radha is the first of its
kind: a collection of poetry, prose and
translation that enters the historical as
well as the artistic dimensions of the
eternal romance of Radha and Krishna.
MALASHRI LAL, professor in the English
department of the University of Delhi, recently
retired from her academic and administrative
positions. Currently she is member of the
English Advisory Board at the Sahitya Akademi.
Her specialization lies in literature, women and
gender studies, and she has to her credit around
fifteen books including The Low of the Threshod: Women Writers in Indian English, Speaking for Myself; An Anthology of Asian Women’s Writing, In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology and Tagore and the Feminine: A Journey in Translations. Lal has
been a senior consultant to the Ministry of
Culture, a University Grants Commission IUGC)
nominee on committees and a member of
international book-award juries.
NAMITA GOKHALE is a writer, publisher and
festival director. She is the author of sixteen
works of fiction and non-fiction. Her acclaimed
debut novel, Paro: Dreams Dreams Passion, published in
1984, has remained a cult classic and has been
issued in a double edition with its sequel, Priya.
Gokhale has worked extensively across genres
on Indian mythology, including her retelling
of the Indian epic in the Puffin Mahabharata,
and her novel for young readers, Lost in Time:
Ghatotkacha and the Game of Illusion. The edited anthologies Himalaya: Adventures, Meditations Life and the Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-east provide valuable resource material on
the culture and politics of the region. Gokhale
is also founder and co-director of the Jaipur
Literature Festival and of Mountain Echoes,
the Bhutan literature festival. She is director of
Yatra Books, a publishing house specializing
HOW DID RADHA come to me? Perhaps it was when I was
roaming the narrow lanes of Vrindavana, in search of these elusive
mysteries. Amidst the groves of ancient basil bushes stood a room
with a bed in it, designed in the style of a government guest house in
a minor mofussil town. It had iron shutters through which I could
glimpse a postered bed. It was here that they met, those two, in a
timeless nocturne, through the yugas, across the ages.
The attendant priest handed me a bundle of prasad. The packet
he gave me contained some sweet crumbling pedas, fragrant tulsi
leaves, a folding mirror, some bindis, glass bangles, a bottle of
cheap fluorescent-pink nail polish. The last three items constituted
a traditional 'suhag ka pitara', a gift symbolizing the auspicious
feminine. It as a moment of illumination. The importance of it,
the crucial nuance, came to me in a flash. The mirror was a gateway
to the recognition of selfhood. The bangles were a form of armour.
I don't ever wear bindis, but they represent the awakening of the
third-the inner-eye. It was the nail polish that moved me the
most, it spoke to me of hopes and yearnings and betrayals, the
entire tradition of shringara rasa', the evocation of the mood of
romantic and erotic love from the Natyashastra that is such a deep
undercurrent of Indian culture.
We began this quest for Radha some years ago, after Dr Malashri
La! and I had completed our edited anthology In Search of Sita. Radha
is an all-too-human goddess, a sublime yet sensual emblem of mortal
and divine love. She is subversive in that she possesses an autonomy
rarely available to feminine deities. She lives by her own rules, and
not those of the world. She is the essential Rasika, the aesthete of
passion, and her wild heart belongs only to herself.
Like Sita, Radha is also a manifestation of Lakshmi. Radha is
the essential Shakti of Krishna, just as Sita is the consort of Rama.
Yet their lives span very different arcs. Sita is the sterling emblem
of familial duty, who unflinchingly complies with the dikrats of her
patriarchal and hierarchical world. She is relentlessly questioned and
tested, and subjected not once but twice to the 'Agni pariksha', the
test by fire, driving her to relinquish the harsh obligations of royal
conduct and return deep into the womb of the earth mother.
Radha, the bucolic milkmaid, follows the dictates of her heart,
of her instincts, of her passion, to seek union with her innermost self.
She is her own mistress even in the act of surrender to her beloved.
And it is this aspect of her that is worshipped, if not emulated, in
shrines, temples and festivals all across India even today.
The enigma of Radha and the example of Sita coexist and are
both contained in the apparent paradoxes and composite unity of
the Hindu religion. The lack of any textual references to Radha
in the Mahabharata, and the only indirect allusions in the Srimad
Bhagavatam, establish that the rebellious figure of Radha was born
of the a historical collective consciousness of religion and culture. She
was born of the need to establish a direct emotional and mystical
relationship, a sensual, tactile, immersive connect, with the sacred.
Radha's divine lover, Krishna, was later married to Rukmini, and to
Satyabhama, and later in some texts, to Jambavanti. Yet he remained
hers, and she his, in the hearts and minds of the devout.
India's great epics and scriptures were born of orality; they
have been retold, reinterpreted and remained through millennia.
Even as the plasticity and porous narrative of oral traditions yielded
to the stricter boundaries of textual veracity, the format of palm-
leaf manuscripts was amenable to interpolations and imaginative
embellishment. These acts of appropriation and interpretation and
translation through successive generations, through the centuries,
led to the continuous rediscovery of the core stories, and kept them
relevant and contemporary across the passage of time. They were
birthed anew and belonged to each poet, scribe or bard, each dancer
and sculptor, who bestowed them with form and creative reality.
The figure of Radha was first mentioned in the medieval period,
in the exquisite Gita Govinda of the poet Jayadeva of modern-day
Odisha, and in the maha-mantra of Radha and Krishna extolled
by Nimbakacharya in the 11th and 12th centuries. This anthology
carries many perspectives on how the visualization and iconography of
'Radharani' evolved, through the Chaitanya school of Vaishnavism,
and the philosophical and poetic interpretations of the Bhakti
movement. These traditions were continued in the late 15th century
in the magnificent poetry of Chandidas of Bengal and Vidyapati of
Mithila, and later in the verses of the blind seer Surdas.
The essence of the relationship between Radha and Krishna
resides in its spontaneous acquiescence to the moment of joyous
union, and its disregard for imposed social boundaries in love, sacred
or profane. This sense of abandonment, of surrender, would have
been, and still is, exhilarating and liberating in a prescriptive and
The sensory and the physical are as profound as all the navel-
gazing in the cosmos. Our duplicitous and illusory world belongs to
the realm of what is described as maya, and we are all entangled in
the 'maya jaal , in the phantasmagorical web of the virtual and the
unreal. The amorous frolics of the divine lovers are described not as
Maya jaal as Leela, as the eternal play of consciousness, the dream of
As with depictions of Shiva and Parvati, there is a remarkable
gender fluidity in images of Radha and Krishna. She is him as he
is she; together they are 'ardha Radha Venudhara' the two halves
of one self, joined in the ultimate rasa of spiritual rapture. In the
complicated inversions that come so easily to Hindu mysticism,
Shri Radha is Krishna himself represented in female form. Her
relationship with the other milkmaids, the gopis, is one of sisterhood.
The sakhi, or female and confidante, is an important motif in the tales of Radha and Krishna, Celebrating sorority and the dance of Love.
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