An example where the primary meaning of scripture can be misleading is Kṛṣṇa’s rāsa līlā described in the Bhāgavatam. Here, there are references to intimate interactions between Kṛṣṇa and the gopīs, which appear sexual in nature in their primary meaning, no different from an ordinary book of romance. And yet, at the end of the description, a famous verse concludes that hearing about these descriptions quickly destroys sexual desires from the heart. How is this possible?
To understand the meaning of the rāsa līlā, one needs to understand the society in which the rāsa līlā happens1. The society in which the gopīs live is extremely conservative. To be with a man without marriage or even to look at a man is immoral in this society. The gopīs, who are married, are depicted as sacrificing their reputation and home to participate in the rāsa līlā. The depiction therefore shows the intensity of their love for Kṛṣṇa, the extent of their surrender. If the gopīs just wanted sex, they all had their husbands. The Kavi (Vyāsa) here is showing their complete surrender through vyañjanā-vṛtti.
In reality, the gopīs did not have any sexual relations with Kṛṣṇa. The rāsa līlā has to actually be understood through implied meaning or dhvani. If the rāsa līlā is to be understood in the primary sense, then why did at least one of the many gopīs who participated not become pregnant? Like many other līlās described in the Bhāgavatam, the actual purpose is to demonstrate the nature of an uttama bhakta.
In the sexual act, the participants are absorbed in the experience of their own pleasure. In the rāsa līlā, the only concern of the gopīs was the pleasure of Kṛṣṇa. One purpose of the depictions in the rāsa līlā is to describe this- that even in such an intimate act, the gopīs are so selfless that they are not in it for their own pleasure. For us, this is the only example that can be used to show the height of surrender – because no one has experience of prema, and although people use the word ‘love’, this word means something totally different in Vrindavan from its conventional meaning that we are used to. We can only understand what is in our experience. So scripture uses words and concepts that we can understand, and then establishes the contrast with these concepts. The depiction of physical sex is only for this purpose; in actuality, there is no sex.
The devotion of the gopīs is not conditioned by anything, unlike the devotion of Rukmiṇī which was conditioned on Kṛṣṇa’s marrying her. The day Rukmiṇī arrived in Dwarakā, they were wedded. She would not have stayed with Kṛṣṇa for one day without marriage. Rukmiṇī is also an uttama bhakta, but her devotion is not comparable to the gopīs. The gopīs’ love is not predicated on anything, not even marriage, but is completely unconditional. This is the dhvani-artha to be understood from the rāsa līlā.
Today of course, it is difficult to understand Rukmiṇī’s mindset. The renunciation and sacrifice of the gopīs is even more difficult to understand for the modern mind, because today, relations outside of marriage are ordinary, and everybody seems to be like the gopīs! However, understood in its social setting, one can understand the intensity of the gopīs’ love. They embody uttama bhakti, and this is what one has to understand from the rāsa līlā. To understand the intensity of their love, one has to understand their mood and their social context.
Otherwise it is not possible to read these depictions, or depictions from other intimate depictions of the gopīs with Kṛṣṇa such as the Govinda līlāmṛta, and become free from sexual desires. That is a ludicrous idea.
- भक्ति रसामृत सिंधु lectures, Bhakti Tirtha II, Shri Satyanarayana dasa Babaji, Jiva Institute, Vrindavan. 2017. ↩