We hear that the gopīs are married to the gopas, and not to Kṛṣṇa. The gopīs accept Kṛṣṇa as their lover, or paramour. Isn’t this highly immoral?
Many bhaktas think that the topic is beyond discussion given the conditioned nature of the jīvas and therefore is not to be discussed publicly or privately. Others wax eloquent about the greatness of Kṛṣṇa, and the fact that He is God Himself and that His acts cannot be immoral. They appeal to emotion without ever actually addressing the essence of the problem. The essence is simple: gopīs are married to the gopas and not to Kṛṣṇa and so their relationship with Him is immoral.
So it was a real relief to finally get to learn from Śrī Babaji about Śrī Jīva Goswami’s teachings on this subject. Far from an appeal to emotion, Śrī Jīva Goswami systematically establishes precisely how the relationship between the gopīs and Kṛṣṇa is not immoral.
The virtual and the real gopī
Anuccheda 177 is the longest Anuccheda in the Kṛṣṇa Sandarbha. There, Śrī Jīva Goswami presents an amazing explanation that emphatically puts to rest any doubts about this subject. I present the essence of his explanation below.
There are two types of gopīs – virtual gopīs and real gopīs. They are identical in appearance, but different in substance. The virtual gopī can be thought as a sort of hologram of the real gopī. On the day of marriage of the gopīs to the gopas, it is the virtual gopīs that get married. When the husband and wife are alone together, it is the virtual gopī who acts as the wife. At all other times, the virtual gopīs become unmanifest and the real gopīs take their place.
So the reason that the relationship between the gopīs and Kṛṣṇa is not immoral is simple – the real gopīs are not married to the gopas at all, neither in the sense of ceremony nor in any other sense!
Now, the real gopīs have the self-concept that they are the wives of the gopas and not of Kṛṣṇa. Like we think we are the body when we are not, they think that they are Kṛṣṇa’s paramour when they are not. This concept is put in their minds to enhance the rasa between them and Kṛṣṇa by introducing obstacles in their path to Him. And the seamless switch between virtual and real forms nourishes the illusion. So there is no real immorality, only apparent or ‘virtual’ immorality. In reality, the gopīs belong to Kṛṣṇa, being His svarūpa śakti.
Those who have followed this site know that Śrī Jīva Goswami does not appeal to emotion for anything he presents in the Sandarbhas – his sole approach is logical analysis of scripture, and he establishes the above concepts based on an exhaustive examination of the Bhāgavata. I strongly recommend hearing Śrī Babaji’s lectures on this topic – he additionally addressed many many questions on the topic.
How relevant is the paramour relationship for bhakti practice?
First, one has to understand that the paramour relationship is virtual and not real – just like we may mistake a rope for a snake – the snake is not real. It is only a concept in the mind of the gopīs to enhance rasa. This concept, however, is not for the sādhaka to harbor! (see below for more on this). It also has another purpose – to teach Caitanya sādhakas about the greatness of the gopīs. Despite their concept (albeit false) that they were married to the gopas, the gopīs still give up everything, including their own morality and their reputation for Kṛṣṇa. This teaches sādhakas the essence of rāgānuga bhakti, the raison d’etre of the Caitanya sampradāya, that service to Kṛṣṇa comes above everything.
At the same time, the sādhaka should clearly understand that there was nothing really immoral about the gopīs’ actions. To understand this, there are two approaches:
a) The approach of Śrī Jīva Goswami – he establishes that the gopīs are actually married to Kṛṣṇa, and the notion that they are not is put in their minds only in the prakaṭa līlā. When the prakaṭa līlā ends, they are informed of their actual status as wives of Kṛṣṇa in the aprakaṭa līlā. Thus their actions are not immoral in reality, but only immoral from their own point of view.
b) The approach of Śrī Visvanatha – in his approach, the gopīs continue to maintain the concept that they are not married to Kṛṣṇa even in the aprakaṭa līlā. But he agrees with Śrī Jīva Goswami on the existence of the real and virtual gopī. Thus the actions themselves are again not immoral – the immorality is only from the gopīs’ conceptual point of view. They are Kṛṣṇa’s svarūpa śakti – non-different from Him.
The only goal here is to understand the greatness of the gopīs. Other than that, the svakīya and parakīya controversy is utterly irrelevant for sādhanā.