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On the perils of becoming a Gopi – I

India has many religious traditions in which both female and male practitioners seek to become goddesses or are oriented towards exemplary female models which represent the ideal devotee in relation to the divine. As a follow-up to Ardhanarishvara and other conundrums of gender I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at the Gauḍīya Vaisnava tradition – in which both male and female devotees seek to identify themselves with the gopis – the “cowherd maidens” who participate in Kṛṣṇa’s sacred drama – and how this identification is approached in theology and practice – and its limits. For this first post, I’m going to briefly discuss some of the key elements in Gauḍīya Vaisnava theology and practice which relate to the ideal of becoming a gopi. In future posts, I will examine some issues which circumscribe the “limits” of this practice – such as the so-called “heresy” of Rūpa Kavijāra in the eighteenth century, and heterodox movements influenced by Gauḍīya Vaisnavism – such as the Sakhibhavas and Sahajiyās.

Gauḍīya 1 Vaisnavism is primarily structured around the worship of Kṛṣṇa 2 as exemplified by Caitanya (1486-1533) who is considered by Gauḍīyas to be a joint avatar of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā, together in one body. The most popular account of Caitanya’s life is the Chaitanya Charitamrita by Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja (1615) which describes the saint’s travels around the region of Vraj. Gauḍīyas believe that Caitanya’s wanderings through the region, such as his visits to the sites associated with Kṛṣṇa’s childhood activities constitute a re-creation of the divine līlā (play or sport) enjoyed by Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā. Simultaneously, Caitanya – as the ideal devotee – revealed the means by which embodied beings could enter into the eternal līlā of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā.

Caitanya did not leave any written texts apart from the eight-verse Śikṣāṣṭaka – describing his intense joy of devotion to Kṛṣṇa, and much of the early Gauḍīya literature was developed by six of his disciples – known as Gosvāmins. Vaisnava theologians such as Rūpa Gosvāmin (whose Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu – “The Nectar-Ocean of Devotional Relish” – I will take a look at in a moment), Jīva Gosvāmin, and Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja developed the formal theology and practice required to continue the movement inspired by the example of Caitanya’s life. In doing so they drew on earlier and competing religious discourses, producing a body of work that includes both creative re-interpretations, accomodations and critiques of other traditions – and – in a manner reminiscent of tantric traditions, subordinates competing traditions; according them a lower ontological status relative to the all-encompassing bhakti.

Krishna and GopisIn Gauḍīya Vaisnavism, ŚrīKṛṣṇa is the ultimate reality. He creates the universe, which is real, and dependent on him. In his undifferentiated aspect he is Brahman – impersonal, formless; the undifferentiated ground of existence. As Paramātman he is the indwelling self who animates the universes and resides in the heart of all beings. As Bhagavān he is possessed of infinite qualities and innumberable powers (śaktis). However, as Barbara A. Holdrege (2013) points out, the formless, undifferentiated Brahman – the summum bonum of Advaita – is accorded a lower ontological status to Bhagavān – who encompasses both Brahman and Paramātman. Correspondingly, the kind of liberation or mokṣa sought through the knowledge of the undifferentiated Brahman is considered to be a limited experience in comparison to bhakti as the highest goal. The Gauḍīyas reject the idea of a mokṣa in which one’s individual identity is dissolved in an impersonal Brahman. Rather, liberation is the fullest realisation of one’s true nature as a participant in Kṛṣṇa’s eternal līlā.

Kṛṣṇa-līlā – Kṛṣṇa’s play – is recounted in the tenth book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa portrays Kṛṣṇa manifesting in the material world and unfolding his līlā in the earthly region of Vraja (North India). For the Gauḍīyas, Kṛṣṇa’s earthly (historical) līlā is a manifestation of his eternal līlā which occurs within the transcendent Vraja-dhāman. Similarly, the various companions of Kṛṣṇa – his foster parents, attendants, friends and the gopis are considered to be perfect beings who participate in Kṛṣṇa’s essential nature and participate in his eternal līlā. The Gauḍīya theologian Jiva Gosvāmin, in his Bhagavat Sandarbha presents the gopis – and Rādhā in particular – as instantiations of Kṛṣṇa’s divine bliss. Kṛṣṇa’s descent to Vraja – along with his divine companions can be thought of as a particular terrestrial manifestation of Kṛṣṇa’s divine, eternal līlā.

The Gopis as examplars
A central theme in Kṛṣṇa’s life is his love for the gopis – the cowherdesses of Vṛndāvana, upon whom the youthful Kṛṣṇa plays many tricks. One of the most popular presentations of the gopis can be found in the Rasa Lila Panchadhyaya (“the five chapters on the Story of the Rasa dance”) in the Bhagavata Purana (10.29-33). This is the story wherein Kṛṣṇa, inspired by the beauty of the autumnal evening, plays irresistable flute music; charming the gopis so that they abandon their families, homes, and husbands in order to join Kṛṣṇa in the forest. This results in the famous scene where the gopis form a great circle around Kṛṣṇa, where he duplicates himself so that he can dance with each of the gopis simultaneously, although each of them feels that Kṛṣṇa is with her alone.

There is a kind of ethical tension in relation to the gopis – they are held up as ideal devotees because they abandon the dictactes of social convention to be with Kṛṣṇa – seemingly abandoning (or transcending dharma. The idea that the passion of bhakti supersedes all social conventions (such as the hierarchical division of vocations (varṇas) or the stages of life (āśramas) became a key issue within Gauḍīya Vaisnavism.

Devotion (bhava) to Kṛṣṇa is the highest end to human existence. All beings have the capacity for this devotion but it is aroused by practice – sadhana. Sadhana is divided into two basic forms – Vaidhī Bhakti and Rāgānugā Bhakti. 3 Vaidhī Bhakti is the cultivation of devotion via practices such as listening/speaking the events of Kṛṣṇa’s līlā; studying scriptural texts, following the guidance of one’s guru, etc. 4

Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana – first established by Rūpa Gosvāmin in his work, the Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu – is an advanced Vaisnava practice in which the devotee imitates the residents of Vraja – Kṛṣṇa’s companions – who are considered to be divine beings, and hence, exemplars for the devotee. Initiation by a guru is essential, as it is the guru who has the ability to correctly discern which particular role is appropriate for the devotee within Kṛṣṇa’s divine play. Practitioners constantly turn their attention to Vraja, and to become absorbed in the stories of Kṛṣṇa and his companions, which is his divine lila – play. Devotees progressively move towards taking an active role, through performing services (sevā) which imitate those of the divine companions. Rūpa Gosvāmin, in his Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu, states:

“The practitioner of Rāgānugā Bhakti should dwell continually in Vraja, absorbed in its various stories, remembering Kṛṣṇa and the intimate companions to whom he is most attracted.” (294)
(transl. Haberman, 2001, p83)

Rūpa Gosvāmin distinquishes between two kinds of Rāgānugā Bhakti – amorous (kāmarūpa) – for which the divine exemplars are the gopis; and relational (sambhandarūpa) – where the models are the friends and relatives of Kṛṣṇa. It is kāmarūpa which constitutes, for Rūpa Gosvāmin, the supreme, most intense form of devotional rasa, and, according to the Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu consists of either “desire for erotic enjoyment” (Sambhogecchāmayī) or the “desire to share in their 5 emotions” (Tattadhāvecchātmikā):

“Those who are desirous of the amorous emotional state, after looking at the sweetness of the beautiful image of Kṛṣṇa or after hearing of His various forms of love play, have these two ways as a means of realizing it. This is even the case for men, as is stated in the Padma Purāṇa.

For example:
Previously all the great sages living in the Daṇdaka forest saw the enchanting Rāma and desired to enjoy his beautiful body.

They were all, therefore, born in Gokula as women, and attaining Hari there by means of passion, they were freed from the ocean of worldly suffering.

One who has intense longing for amorous enjoyment, but serves Kṛṣṇa only by means of the path of Vaidhī Bhakti, achieves the state of a queen in the city.”
(transl. Haberman, 2001, p83)

According to Gauḍīya Vaisnava theology, devotees possess two bodies – the “practitioner body” (sādhaka-rūpa) and the “perfected body” (siddha-rūpa). The siddha-rūpa is the devotee’s eternal form, and the “body” formed through devotional practice, whilst the sādhaka-rūpa is the body “as it presently is” – i.e. the ordinary physical body. After death, the devotee takes on the form of the siddha-rūpa – becoming a gopi companion of Kṛṣṇa. Again, Rūpa Gosvāmin, in Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu, states:

One who is desirous of attaining one of the emotional states of the residents of Vraja should perform services in a manner that imitates them with both the practitioner’s body (sādhaka-rūpa) and the perfected body (siddha-rūpa).”(295)
(transl. Haberman, 2001, p83)

becoming Gopis?
A consequence of Gauḍīya Vaisnava theology was that some practitioners took to dressing and behaving like gopis as their public sevā. This, they believed, intensified their devotion and self-identification to the point where they became seamlessly merged with the gopi with whom they felt an affinity (Smith, 2006, p352). Such behaviour were contraversial, and, in the early eighteenth century the teachings of one Vaisnava author – Rūpa Kavijāra – which specifically argued for the adoption of an outward female religious persona by male devotees – was denounced by no less an authority than Jai Singh II of Jaipur, and Rūpa Kavijāra and his followers were stripped of their rights to act as religious authorities. More of which in part 2 of this essay.

Jessica Frazier, Becoming the Goddess: Female Subjectivity and the Passion of the Goddess Radha in Pamela S. Anderson (ed) New Topics in Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Springer, 2010)
David L. Haberman Acting as a Way of Salvation: A Study of Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana (Motilal, 2001)
David L. Haberman, (transl., introduction) The Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu of Rūpa Gosvāmin (Motilal, 2003)
Barbara A. Holdrege The Gauḍīya Discourse of Embodiment: Re-visioning Jnāna and Yoga in the Embodied Aesthetics of Kṛṣṇa Bhakti (Journal of Hindu Studies, 2013; 6:154-197)
David Kinsley The Divine Player: A Study of Kṛṣṇa Līlā (Motilal, 1979)
David Kinsley Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition (University of California Press, 1988)
Graham M Schweig The Divine Feminine in the Theology of Krishna in Edwin Bryant (ed) Krishna: A Sourcebook (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Frederick M. Smith The Self Possessed (Columbia University Press, 2006)


  1. “Gauḍīya” refers to the Gauda region – now West Bengal & Bangladesh
  2. otherwise considered to be an avatar of Vishnu
  3. Rāgā can be translated as “passion” and Vaidhi as “based on rules”.
  4. The Chaitanya Charitamrita gives a list of 64 regulative principles which devotees – regardless of their attainment – must abide by.
  5. i.e. Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā

One comment

  1. Steved
    Posted February 23rd 2014 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this Phil-looking forward to part two. Am I right in recollecting that Caitanya himself engaged in ecstatic cross dressing as an expression of Rahda?
    Have you had any discussions with any contemporary Vaishnavas as to how they view these practices? My own experience with Iskon friends was that gender roles seemed quite fixed.