Book: Finding Radha: The Quest for Love
Editor: Malashri Lal & Namita Gokhale
Publication: Penguin Books
Price: Rs 399 (paperback)
The editors, Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale, had published their much-acclaimed book In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology in 2009. In 2018, nine years later their book Finding Radha The Quest for Love revisits mythology, this time critiquing the role of Radha as the timeless beloved of Lord Krishna, one of the most powerful Hindu gods with spectacular cosmic powers.
The divine love of Radha and Krishna, the married milkmaid and the much married Krishna, has been cited as a gendered symbol and metaphor for mystic and eternal love, though rooted in earthly human longings of desire, despair, agony and ecstasy gesturing towards a fusion of the erotic and platonic.
Namita Gokhale’s introduction is deeply romantic, as she narrates her visit to Vrindavan and how she became deeply immersed in the mystique aura created by the mythic figures Radha and Krishna, whose unbounded love for each other is recognized as perennial and divine. Gokhale compares Sita and Radha and states that Sita played the role of a dutiful wife as demanded by the patriarchal system while Radha is modelled as a “rebellious” female figure, in terms of her infidelity and transgressions, as she was completely possessed by her overwhelming love for Lord Krishna.
However, one should not overlook Sita’s signature resistance if not rebellion, as eventually Sita refuses to give another public proof of her purity and moral integrity and chooses to commit suicide, by entering the bowels of Mother Earth, a voluntary self-erasure.
In her scholarly introduction, Malashri Lal refers to the themes and variations in the representation of Radha in spiritual texts. The carefully selected compilation of twenty one well-researched essays by eminent scholars on the literary representation of Radha from multiple viewpoints through the centuries is indeed commendable.
Another attractive feature of the book is the inclusion of a selection of competently translated songs and poems on the transcendental love between Radha and Krishna, dating from the 7th century to the 20th century. These poetic texts add to the multiple perspectives that are explored in the book, that track the quest for the quintessential Radha as imagined in the predominantly maleauthored texts.
Interestingly, the poems by the 20th century poets included in the book, specifically the respective poems of Ramakanta Rath and Dharamvir Bharati attribute a voice and mind to Radha, who interrogates her beloved Krishna despite wilful surrender and the pervasive power of mutual eternal love. Interestingly, most of the essays refer to the 12th century poet Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda as the primary source text that narrates the love story between Radha and Krishna though many cite the emergence of Radha in the writings of Hala, Bharata Narayana, Valpati, Anandavardhana among many others that can be traced back to the 7th century.
In its essence Lal and Gokhale’s book Finding Radha tracks a journey of how faith, belief, the evolution of the Hindu religion, the roles of gods and goddesses in times of war, peace and love, are fused in a spirit of romantic playfulness intertwining, coyness, agony, ecstasy and the timelessness of fulfilment in love, rather than the suffering that is integral to unrequited love, a common theme in world literature.
The most singular aspect of the celebrated love relationship of Lord Krishna and his beloved Radha, is the oscillation between the physical and metaphysical, mortal longings and amorousness along with transcendental union that challenge binaries and patriarchal control. The divine lovers merge together in an androgynous union of immortal love as evidenced in the belief systems of the Vaishnava school inspired by Sri Chaitanya (1486-1533) the dedicated follower of Lord Krishna.
In fact so deep was the immersion of Chaitanya in his love for Krishna that he internalized Radha within his conscious self, according to Harsha V Dehejia who states in his essay significantly titled, “The heart-throb of Chaitanya” that Radha and Krishna merged together in the body of Chaitanya, as indicated in Chaitanya Charitamrita.
The concept of the androgynous self is complicated in the Vaishnava discourse, according to Dehejia, as he observes that the concept of the merged identities of Radha and Krishna, “Krishna internally and Radha externally “is” the unique formulation of the Bengal Vaishnava androgyne nature of the Godhead…”.
In his essay on the divine love of Radha and Krishna, Makarand Paranjape expresses romantic rapture as he comments, “Radha-Krishna is the celebration of two becoming one; wherever that happens is sacred, at least we believe so in India…”.
Interestingly, not an irrelevant point of digression can be the recently released much acclaimed Bengali film, Nagarkirtan, wherein we find that a staunch Vaishnava family completely devoted to the worship of Sri Chaitanya, Krishna and Radha find androgyny incomprehensible, are violently homophobic and brutal and regard alternative sexualities and transgenderism immoral. It appears that the immortals are free from social and patriarchal censure but mortals even in the 21st century, are judged as subversive and transgressive if they challenge organised institutions.
TS Eliot’s caveat “humankind cannot bear very much reality” consolidates the binary between mortals and immortals. Jawhar Sircar traces the circuitous historical journey of Radha from a folk deity to an entity in the sacred texts. Sircar states that Radha was first mentioned in Jain commentaries and it was in the 9th century that Radha as Krishna’s beloved is depicted in the Hindu sacred text Bhagavata Purana, thereby becoming an integral figure in Sanskrit literature.
In his characteristic style, Meghnad Desai argues that it was necessary to create Radha, so that the omnipotent Krishna could be invested with a mystic admixture of the human and divine, enabling human devotees to establish a sense of connectivity, if not empathy for a God who otherwise was credited with unlimited powers. So Desai states, “Of all the characters, human or otherwise, in Indian lore, none is as natural and as concocted as Radha.”
In a wry reference to the fact that both Sita and Radha were venerated due to their supreme feminine grace of submission, surrender and total devotion to their mystic partners and not for their agency and independent identity, Mandakranta Bose surmises, “What is undoubtedly surprising is that both Sita and Radha are worshipped with their male consorts and never alone…There is no temple that I know of dedicated to either of them where they are worshipped in their own right. Female dependency holds as true for goddesses as for ordinary women.”
The book will be of immense interest to students and researchers of Indian sacred texts as well as scholars of gender studies, cultural studies, religious studies and readers curious about finding out about the emergence and evolution of Radha in history, literature and culture, as an icon of love.
(The reviewer is former professor, Department of English, Calcutta University)