“O sakhi, look! The bumblebees are obsessed with the aroma of mango blossoms. The call of cuckoos at play upon the radiant buds mixes with the humming of the bees to make a mellifluous sound. But this clamor is a fever for the ears of separated lovers. They pass their days anxiously remembering their lovers, who are as dear as life itself. By meditating upon their faces in the sorrow of separation, a moment of happiness comes when, just for an instant, they feel the joy of being together. Then they praise that distressful time.”Jayadeva
This enthralling paragraph comes from Gita Govinda, a medieval drama text written by the poet Jayadeva who was also a saint. It also sums up the text very well – as its main topic is the love between Krishna and Radha.
Gita Govinda is dated to around the 12th century A.D. but the topic and the style are surprisingly modern compared to other works from this period.
The main importance of this poem is that it is the first text that fully describes the character of Radha, the goddess of love, and her relationship to Krishna.
Up til that point, the idea of Radha was incomplete in literature.
In this article, we’re going to cover:
- What is Gita Govinda?
- What is Gita Govinda – According To The Writer?
- Who Is Jayadeva, The Writer of Gita Govinda?
- Historical Background
- The Philosophy of Gita Govinda
- Read Gita Govinda Online
What better way to open our article than with the opening verse from Gita Govinda by Jayadeva:
“If remembering Hari enriches your heart..– Gita Govinda
If his pastimes amuse you..
Listen to the Saraswati of Jayadeva,
in the soft words of his songs”
What is Gita Govinda?
Gita Govinda is a lyrical epic written in the twelfth century by Shri Jayadeva.
It tells a story of the pastimes of the god Krishna, and his lover Radha.
The text was written in 24 “ashtapadis”. Each ashtapadi has 8 verses.
It has a huge cultural and religious significance, which we will explore in depth in this article.
In short words, it was the text that gave new life to the movement of Vaishnavism, which was dealing with the inner conflict of different sexts of priests. It was also influenced by Islam at the time.
Through this, they got new guidance and inspiration to progress on their spiritual path, which unified them.
What is Gita Govinda – According To The Writer?
In the previous chapter, we gave a short description of Gita Govinda, from the literary and historical perspective.
But the writer Jayadeva himself also describes what the poem is in its introduction.
He describes the ones who are eligible to read and understand the Gita Govinda (note that Hari is one of the names of Krishna):
“If at all your heart yearns for that remembrance of Çré– Gita Govinda
Hari which bestows all happiness, if you are hankering to
contemplate upon Çré Hari with intense affection, and if you
are overwhelmed with curiosity to know about Çré Hari’s skill
in His amorous pastimes, then by all means read this book.
You may find this poetry very sweet and pleasing, but if you
do not nurture these three desires, then this moving and
lyrical literature is not for you. Only if your heart is full of
intense eagerness to fathom Çré Hari’s love dalliance will you
be able to appreciate my mellifluous and inspiring poetry.”
He has likely written this because he understood his text is too “advanced” and modern for most of the society of that age and that it could be misinterpreted.
He didn’t want the readers to focus on the linguistic charm of the text, but rather to seek its true essence and importance.
He wanted them to understand the transcendental divine love described in the text, which transcends the sensual gratification and identification with the body.
His biographers also speak that he struggled when writing, as he was only a pen in the hand of the universe, and didn’t consider himself worthy to write about the dealings of the Divine.
However, each time he wanted to give up, he picked his pen up again and continued.
And we are so lucky he did. Jayadeva is today not only celebrated for his insane talent in poetry but also as one of the key people to turn Vishnu devotees into the direction of unconditional love rather than dogma and knowledge.
Who Is Jayadeva, The Writer of Gita Govinda?
Jayadeva is a poet who lived in the 12th century CE. He is best known for Gita Govinda, his beautiful take on the love between Krishna and the gopi Radha, although that is not his only work.
This poem became one of the most important texts for the bhakti movement of Hinduism, but Jayadeva is also one of the authors included in the Guru Granth Sahib. This is the main scripture of Sikhism, a religious movement that was developed long after his death.
Jayadeva was born into a Brahmin family, which means he was a part of the priest caste since birth. According to stories, he was a wanderer and married a dancer called Padmavati in Puri.
Other than that, not much was known about his life until recently, when his name was discovered in the inscriptions of several temples. There we can find he got his poetry education in a place called Kurmapataka, near Odisha.
There he also became a teacher. The confirmation that he probably did mainly reside near Odisha comes from the fact that Odisha has a long tradition of rewriting Gita Govinda in different forms.
We can find a large number of manuscripts of the poem there, some accompanied by illustrations. If you ever find yourself there, you can find them in the Odisha State Museum – which holds two hundred and ten manuscripts.
In Odisha, you would also find Jayadeva’s idols, which show what he might have looked like, like the one in Kendubilwa, a nearby village.
To understand the importance of a text, it is always helpful to look at its historical background.
Gita Govinda was written in a period when India was invaded and there were many wars and battles.
That resulted in a number of different cultures and religions, which gave rise to literature to describe and identify them.
So, it is a period of political, cultural, and religious unrest, which led different regions of India to preserve their beliefs by building their own artistic expressions and religious traditions.
As a result, Vaishnavism, the worship of Vishnu and acceptance of him as the supreme manifestation of God, was revived. At the time, Buddhism became more popular, and in Hinduism, the stories of Shiva and his wife Parvati were more prominent.
Slowly, large temples were started being built to encourage greater participation of the community in religion. Until that point, it was mainly practiced only by the elites.
That led to a need for entertainment which would attract the masses, but also comfort the soldiers while away from home.
Gita Govinda was one of the masterpieces which was then created to fill this need – it was performed through dance.
It also gave a touch of romance to Vaishnavism which made it more attractive than Shaivism (worship of Shiva) and more culturally acceptable than Tantrik Buddhism.
It was used for entertainment for the armies and was sung in Vaishnavite centers ever since it was written. As a result of the poem, Radha became more and more popular and her depictions became more prominent.
The Philosophy of Gita Govinda
Written through the symbols of love between Krishna and Radha, and showing his faithlessness and their separation, and the final return, the secret message of this poem is the separation and the final return of a soul to God.
Guru Shri Rama Krishna Paramahansa described the relationship between the devotee and God so beautifully:
“As a devotee cannot live without God, so also God cannot live without His devotee. The devotee becomes the sweetness and God its enjoyer. The devotee becomes the lotus and God the bee. It is also the God-head that has become all these in order to enjoy its own Bliss. That is the significance of the episode of Radha and Krsna”.– Gita Govinda
Some Vaisnava schools teach that God Himself became Krsna and Radha to enjoy the bliss of their love.
At the beginning of the story, Krishna is a child and is afraid to be in a dense and dark forest, so his caretaker Nanda asks Radha to help him get home. However, on the way, Radha and Krsna enjoyed their blissful union.
This forest symbolizes tamas, the quality of darkness and ignorance. When we are in the dark, we suffer, we don’t realize the presence of God and we crave to realize him.
Although we are a part of God and his creation, we forget about him and identify with the body and the illusion of Maya.
To overcome this darkness, we need to work to allow the spirit of Radha to work in us, which raises the love for God and the desire for communion with the divine.
Through this symbology, the poet Jayadeva offers a sweet and ecstatic path to overcome the suffering of life in the material world and mentality.
Some go as far as to say this poem embodies the essence of the Vedas, showing the mutual love between God and his devotees.
Here are a couple of verses in which Jyadeva describes this relationship:
“Impelled by loneliness prior to meeting (pürva-räga), Rädhä revealed her burning desire to meet with Kṛṣṇa to her friend. After consoling Rädhä with reassuring words, that sakhé set off to find Kṛṣṇa. She found him going insane with anxiety in the absence of Rädhä as he sat in a rattan-cane grove (vetasénikuïja) on the Yamunä riverside. Then Rädhä’s intimate friend spoke to Mädhava.”– Gita Govinda
Read Gita Govinda Online
If you are intrigued by this wonderful story, you can read the full Gita Govinda online.
This resource has the full text: https://thegod.wordpress.com/gita-govinda/
And this one accompanies it with more information on the poem as well as a commentary: https://www.purebhakti.com/resources/ebooks-magazines/bhakti-books/english/14-gita-govinda/file
You can also hear it sung in Sanskrit on YouTube. I found this video, which has an English translation on screen:
Gita Govinda is a wonderful example of the profound impact a work of art can have. It has provided hope at a time when India was in great political and cultural distress, and needed its reconnection with what is truly important – our relationship to God.
For bhaktas, or devotees, this text stands as an example of how they can love God, and reunite with him.
For yogis, it shows the path towards self-realization doesn’t have to be only about discipline, but also has its romantic side.
Since there are several resources where you can read Gita Govinda free online, we think it is a no-brainer to read this gem if you feel inspired and have the time.
Alternatively, you can keep learning about other topics and read one of our related articles: