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On the perils of becoming a Gopi – II

Then, smiling, Prabhu showed to him his true form: Rasaraja (Krishna) and Mahabhava (Radha), the two in one form. And when he saw this, Ramananda was faint with joy; he could not control his body and fell to the earth. … Embracing him Prabhu comforted him. “Except for you, no one has seen this form. It is because of your perception of the tattva of the rasa of my play (lila) that I have shown this form to you. The golden-coloured body is not mine but is the touch of the body of Radha: she touches no one except the son of Gopendra. I experience in my heart and soul everything she feels; then I taste the rasa of the sweetness of myself.
Caitanya Caritamrta

In the first post in this series I discussed some aspects of Gauḍīya Vaisnava theology and practice which relates to the object of identifying – and becoming one of Kṛṣṇa’s gopis. For this post, I’m going to examine an eighteenth-century controversy surrounding one Rūpa Kavijāra. In 1727, the doctrine and practice propogated by Rūpa Kavijāra and his followers was declared heterodox, and they were deprived of the authority to teach, and rights to religious estates (and associated income) was removed. Study of Rūpa Kavijāra’s written works was also made a punishable offence. These decrees were passed by the maharaja of Āmer 1 Jai Singh II (1688-1743).

Jai Singh II presented himself as a dharmaraja – a “protector” of brahminical dharma and undertook a programme of reform with regard to social norms and caste conventions, reviving several Vedic sacrifices such as the agnihotra – which he performed daily, and the ancient horse sacrifice. He promoted the Dharmashastras amongst his Hindu subjects, and enhanced his popularity enormously by persuading the Mughal Emperor Muhammed Shah to rescind the jizya tax on non-Muslim subjects (1720). He was, by all accounts, a formidable warrior, possessing a powerful army equipped with modern weapons (i.e. muskets). He also had a considerable reputation as a scholar, with a particular interest in astromony. 2

Jai Singh II was particularly concerned with curbing the activities of religious mendicants. As William R Pinch notes (1996, p28) Jai Singh actively discouraged the ascetic orders from bearing arms 3 and obtained pledges from Vaisnava leaders to maintain strict caste rules – for example, not accepting shudras as disciples. 4

During the last decades of the seventeenth century, various Vaisnava orders (including the Gauḍīyas) had migrated from Vraj into Rajasthan. 5 One of the most important of these was the gradual migration of the image of Govindadeva from Vrindaban to Jaipur, where Govindadeva became a state deity, taking up residence in Jai Singh II’s new palace at Jaipur. This influx disturbed the balance of religious power within the state, as new religious groups sought royal patronage – the Gauḍīyas, for example, supplanted the influence of the Rāmānandīs 6 at Jai Singh II’s court. This led to a number of challenges raised by both the Raja and by rival Vaisnava sampradayas, which were debated at a series of councils. The three major issues raised were firstly, the propriety of Gauḍīyas worshipping Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā together (since they were not married); secondly, an argument was made that Visnu should be worshipped before Kṛṣṇa – since Kṛṣṇa is but an avatar of Visnu; and thirdly, that the followers of Caitanya – unlike other Vaisnava sampradayas such as the Rāmānandīs, Vallabhācāryas, or Nimbārkas – did not constitute an authorised sampradaya. 7

Jai Singh II was particularly concerned with creating a singular dharmic body or orthodoxy, upholding both the state and the cosmic order. He and his councillors set out to produce a broad Vaisnava dharma which could encompass the various Vaisnava sampradayas present in the state, whilst at the same time excluding heterodox traditions (such as some of the tantric elements 8).

One such heterodox element was the doctrine of Rūpa Kavijāra. Rupa’s doctrine was judged to be heterodox as, it was argued, it legitimated a practice whereby Vaisnava devotees physically took on the dress, ornaments, and behaviour of gopis. According to Monika Horstsmann (2001), there were quite a few religious mendicants who “in the name of god-madness sported a religiously or otherwise female persona thereby imitating the exemplary female companions of Kṛṣṇa … These renouncers were thereby felt to be well on the way to making a travesty of their own order and eroding Vaisnavism as a whole”. Equally controversial was Rupa’s teaching that as Vaisnava sadhakas advanced along their path, they were exempt from the rituals and social obligations associated with their particular caste.

Two works by Rūpa Kavijāra have survived – the Sārasaṅgraha and the Rāgānugāvivṛtti. According to David Haberman (1985), these works contain an argument which can be read as legitimising the practice of becoming a gopi.

As I noted in the previous post, a central element in Gauḍīya Vaisnava body theology is the distinction between the the “practitioner body” (sādhaka-rūpa) and the “perfected body” (siddha-rūpa) – the siddha-rūpa being both the devotee’s eternal form, and the “body” formed through devotional practice.

Rūpa Kavijāra distinguishes between two different bodies. Firstly, there is the taṭastha-rūpa – the “neutral” body – which is simply one’s body as it exists as a physical form, male or female. According to Rūpa Kavijāra, this body is subject to the dharma of normal society; one cannot follow the Vrajaloka, or the gopis with it. Secondly, there is the “practitioner’s body” – the sādhaka-rūpa. Although to the uninitiated, this body is indistinguishable from the devotee’s outward physical form, the sādhaka-rūpa is a body on which has been imposed a gopi-identity (i.e, the siddha-rūpa). The imposition of the gopi-identity occurrs at initiation, whereby the guru reveals to the initiate his “true” identity with which, via practice, the devotee fuses. Haberman quotes Rūpa Kavijāra: “Imitating the Vrajaloka with the practitioner’s body means ceasing to think of oneself as male while yet in the physical body”. Rūpa Kavijāra makes it plain that the initiate’s body has, via initiation, undergone a profound ontological shift. He compares the initiatory process to an alchemical transformation, and says that the body of an advanced practitioner is quite unlike that of an ordinary taṭastha-rūpa. As such – and this particular point was also controversial – Rūpa Kavijāra argued that the practitioner’s body was no longer subject to the ordinary rules and standards of society. He insisted, Haberman says, that the practitioner “must not follow the rules of ordinary society with this body, but rather, is to follow the Vrajaloka, meaning the gopis, “in all ways” (Haberman, 1985, p45).

Rūpa Kavijāra also outlines four phases, through which the devotee moves towards the ideal state of the sādhaka-rūpa. Haberman (2001) explains these as follows. Firstly there is the “outer state” (bāhya-daśā) in which one’s identity is bound up in one’s outward form, i.e. “I am a male brahmin”. Secondly, there is a half-inner, half-outer state (antar-bāhya-daśā) of dual identification, i.e. “I am externally a male brahmin and inwardly a female gopi. Thirdly, there is a state which is just prior to complete identification with the gopi (pῡrvāntar-daśā) – i.e. “I am a gopi with some remaining identification to this male brahmin form”. Finally, there is the supreme state of total identification (parāntar-daśā) – i.e. “I am a gopi.” Rūpa Kavijāra states that when the devotee attains the supreme state, performance with both ‘bodies’ – the siddha-rūpa and the sādhaka-rūpa becomes one, and explains this as follows:

“The siddha-rūpa and the sādhaka-rūpa are similar to a viṇā and a viṇā player. Even though the two [viṇā and viṇā player] are distinct there is a oneness of their songs, because their essence is similar; just so, even though the two bodies are distinct their performances (sevā) are similar and even simultaneous. As the song produced on the viṇā is situated in the mind of the viṇā player, so the performance which which occurrs in the siddha-rūpa is situated in the sādhaka-rūpa. When seperated, there is no rasa in the music of the viṇā and viṇā player; likewise, when seperated there is no Vrajabhāva born in the performance [of the siddha-rūpa or the sādhaka-rūpa].
(Haberman, 2001, p102)

Rūpa Kavijāra’s teachings were directly opposed by another Gaudiya theologian, Viśvanānatha Cakravartin. Although Viśvanānatha accepted that the practitioner body sādhaka-rūpa was to be developed using meditative and visualisation practices on the gopis, he argued that the exemplary models for use with the physical body of the devotee should be quite different: “The lovers of Kṛṣṇa are Śrī Rādhā, Lalitā, Viśākhā, Śrī Rūpa Manjari, etc.; those imitating them are Śrī Sanātana, and Rūpa Gosvāmin, etc. All of them are to be imitated. Imitation with the meditative perfected body is to be done in a manner which imitates Śrī Rādhā, Lalitā, Viśākhā, Śrī Rūpa Manjari, etc. But physical imitation with the practitioner’s body is to be done in a manner which imitates Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmin, Sanātana Gosvāmin, etc.”

So the devotee should identify with the gopis through meditative practices inwardly – but all for all outward activity, the devotee should model himself on exemplary practitioners such as Rūpa Gosvāmin, who was by that time, as Haberman explains, considered to be an incarnation of Rūpa Manjari – an important gopi who served both Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa.

It is unknown whether Rūpa Kavijāra himself ever took on the form of a gopi as a practice, but later commentators certainly saw his doctrine as legitimising such practices. Swami Bhakti Hrdya Bon Maharaj, for example, in his commentary on Bhakti-Rasamrta-Sindhuh, v.295, following Viśvanānatha Cakravartin, says that in the siddha-deha – “mentally conceived eternal spiritual body one should offer mental services of Śrī Kṛṣṇa under the guidance and direction of Śrī Rādhā, Śrī Lalitā, and others; and in sādhaka-deha – i.e in one’s physical body-practice, follow a spiritual life and serve Śrī Kṛṣṇa in words and deeds under guidance and directions of Śrī Rūpa, Śrī Sanātana, who are also eternal denizens of Braja.” This, he comments, refutes the “wrong and perverse theory” of Rūpa Kavijāra and his followers, who “hold the view that by imitating the Gopis of Braja in one’s sādhaka-deha i.e. physical body in the stage of spiritual practices should serve Śrī Kṛṣṇa physically and by words. Therefore, to surrender to the Feet of a Spiritual Master (Guru), observance of Ekadasi, service of Salagrama and Tulasi, etc. are not necessary for a sadhaka, who is to follow the Ways of the Denizens of Braja, because the Gopas and Gopis of Braja did not observe them!”:

“It is sometimes noticed that men with perverse mentality act wrongly in the name of Raganuga Bhakti. For example, if a man has been blessed with the burning craving for the service of the Lord in the wake of the feelings and sentiments of the Braja-Gopis, he will maintain a strict behaviour in the physical world and would in his mind conceive a Gopi-deha; but if any man takes to the imitation, of the ways and behaviour of a lady and dresses himself like a woman, he must be considered to be a man of perverse mentality and should be kept aloof with the contempt he deserves.”

Rūpa Kavijāra is also frequently associated (particularly by later commentators) with other heterodox movements such as the sahajiyas – and in some accounts of his life following his expulsion from the Gauḍīya Vaisnava community, contracted leprosy due to his spiritual hubris.

Some closing thoughts
There are several interesting points of departure here – such as the intersection between religious heterodoxy, kingship, and the state and the production of Gauḍīya Vaisnava orthodoxy in part, as a result of contestations from other, competing Vaisnava movements. Rūpa Kavijāra’s “heresy” appears to have centred not only around his doctrine which advocated initiates adopting a “worldly” gopi-persona, but – more troublingly for other Gauḍīyas and Jai Singh II – his rejection of the obligations to follow normative caste obligations and social rules, and of the requirement of practicing Vaidhī Bhakti under a guru.

to be continued…

Edward Dimock, The Place of the Hidden Moon (University of Chicago Press, 1989)
Ravi M. Gupta, The Caitanya Vaisnava Vedānta of Jīva Gosvāmī: When knowledge meets devotion (Routledge, 2007)
David L. Haberman Imitating the Masters: Problems in Incongruity (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, LIII/I, 1985, pp41-49)
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)
Monika Hortsmann Visions of Kingship in the Twilight of Mughal Rule (Jan Gonda lecture, 2001)
Monika Hortsmann Why Ritual? An Eighteenth-Century Debate in Jörg Gengnagel, Ute Hüsken, Srilata Raman (eds) Words and Deeds: Hindu and Buddhist Rituals in South Asia (Harrassowitz, 2005)
Robert Montgomery Martin, Puraniya, Ronggopoor and Assam (W.H Allen And Company, 1838)
William R Pinch Peasants and Monks in British India (University of California Press, 1996)
Frederick M. Smith The Self Possessed (Columbia University Press, 2006)
Swami Bhakti Hrdya Bon Maharaj, (translation & commentary) Bhakti-Rasamrta-Sindhuh (Institute of Oriental Philosophy, 1965)
Kenneth Russell Valpey Attending Krishna’s Image: Chaitanya Vaishnava Murti-seva as Devotional Truth (Taylor & Francis, 2006)


  1. later, Jaipur, in Eastern Rajasthan.
  2. He established several observatories throughout Jaipur during his reign.
  3. it’s possible that this was prompted by clashes between armed Vaisnava and Saivite ascetics
  4. Jai Singh also imposed restrictions on movements such as the Dādūpanthīs and the Lāldāsīs.
  5. In part, this was due to the predations of Aurangzeb’s iconoclasts.
  6. Vaisnavas who revere Ram.
  7. This latter argument was successfully refuted by Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa, a prominent Gauḍīya Vaisnava theologian at the court of Jai Singh II.
  8. There were many tantrik streams active in the region, such as the Kaulas.