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The Classical Bhakti (devotional) Vaisnava tradition grew up around the medieval Bengali saint Caitanya (1486-1553) and his followers. Classical (orthodox) Vaisnava was drawn from Vedic literature such as the Bhagavata Gita, the Bhagavata Purana and the Bengali Gita Govinda.

For orthodox Vaisnavas, Krishna is the primordial god and creator of the Universe. Krishna resides in a heavenly pastoral abode, sometimes known as the Golaka (Cow-land) to which all human souls yearn to return. In this idyllic realm, Krishna frolics with the Gopis – the beautiful young cowgirls whom he has enticed away from their husbands. Krishna was also accompanied by ‘cow-boys’, (Gopas) and although they do feature in various of the popular Krishna myths, their appreciation of Krishna’s beauty was said to be ‘chaste’ (at least by the orthodox Vaisnavas). It is said that the Gopas experienced ‘madness’ caused by their grief of being separated from Krishna, just as Radha and the Gopis did. This is the ‘divine love’ (premas) as opposed to human passion (raga).

Much of Classical Vaisnava practice is concerned not only with singing and dancing the praises of Krishna, but also the belief that by identifying with the inhabitants of Krishna’s heaven, devotees are able to return to an eternal loving relationship with Krishna, the supreme god. However, unlike Tantric traditions where devotees would identify with the god or goddess (or both), Vaisnava devotees only identified with Krishna’s companions, and not the god himself. Devotees who identified with the Gopis and in particular, the female attendants of Krishna’s consort, Radha, were thought to experience the most intense divine love, as they visualised the divine couple’s erotic lila (play) in the heavenly world. This reflects a Hindu view that the relationship between the ideal devotee and deity is identical to that of the ideal woman. So, in order to become devotees, men must renounce their masculinity.

This should not be interpreted (as is often done by Western pagans seeking expressions of male-female complementary status in Indian religious practices) as giving prominence to women. If anything, this bhakti supports and reinforces the dominant gender hierarchy – so that ‘service’ becomes not only a matter of duty, but also the only source of authentic fulfilment, particularly for women. So a woman’s dutiful love for her husband is reframed as the highest kind of devotion. Whilst there are numerous examples of males becoming female in Hindu mythology, there are far fewer instances of women becoming men, and these are usually portrayed negatively (see Wendy Doniger, 1980). Moreover, it was very difficult (and remains so) for women to become bhaktas (female devotees). One of the most famous bhaktas is Mira Bai, a 16th century female saint. Accounts of her life mention that her family (she came from the Rajasthani ruling class) disapproved strongly of her devotion to Krishna, reportedly locking her in her room and even attempting to kill her. Whilst the songs and poems of Mira Bai are still popular in modern India, and she is revered as a saint, her renunciate lifestyle, though admired, is still not held up as a model for women to emulate. Religious devotion, it seems, was a legitimate (though extreme) ‘alternative’ to marriage and family life for women.

In Classical Vaisnava doctrine, the erotic love-play of Krishna was largely interpreted in allegorical terms. Although Krishna himself engages in numerous adulterous affairs, this was interpreted as an allegory for god playing with his creation. Human beings should not therefore, seek to mimic Krishna’s passions, and should observe the rules of caste and family values.