First of all, what is the Ras Lila?
If we take the exposition of the Shrimad Bhagwat as standard, we might call it that episode in the life of Shri Krishna in which He played the flute by the banks of the Yamuna, in the moonlight, deep in the night, attracted the gopis from their household occupations, lectured them on family ties and exhorted them to return to their husbands, was delighted with their devotion when they refused to listen, arranged a circular dance for them then and there in the woods, hid Himself from their gaze when they began to feel pride in the intoxication of the dance, and finally reappeared among them after they had given further proof of their devotion by pathetically re-enacting amongst themselves the scenes of His life in an attempt to assuage the pangs of their sense of absence.
The word “Lila” means, in this context, “episode in the divine sports of Shri Krishna.” The tenth Book of the Shrimad Bhagwat, in which the sports of the Lord are described, is traditionally divided into a number of episodes, such as those of the childish sports, the raising of the mountain, the stealing of the clothes, the killing of the water-serpent, etc., and of these episodes the “Ras Lila”, the five chapters describing the events mentioned in the previous paragraph, is one. As for the word “Ras”, its origin is a matter of dispute. Some deny it is of Sanskrit origin, and maintain that it was the popular name for some folk-dance or group of folk-dances traditional in the area of Braj. But the more orthodox view is that it is indeed an original Sanskrit word and derives from the Sanskrit word “rasa”* meaning “savour”. The connection of the term “Ras” with the word “rasa” has itself received varying interpretations.
* The word spelt here “Ras” is pronounced like “brass” minus the initial b; The word spelt here “rasa” is pronounced in Northern India today like the “rus’ in “rustic”, though in Sanskrit it should strictly be pronounced to rhyme with “fusser”.
According to the tradition of the schools of Rhetoric (Alan- kara), the supreme literary savour (rasa) is that evoked by the spectacle of the love between man and woman, Shri Krishna is the most accomplished lover, and the Ras Lila is that episode in which He displays this art to the full. According to its classical Sanskrit commentators, Jaya Deva’s Gita Govinda is a description of the Ras Lila in this spirit. But according to a more mystical traditional view, there is cosmic symbolism in the Ras conception. For the Upanishads declared that the Absolute is savour. Shri Krishna is the Absolute. And the Ras Lila is an expression of the mysterious longing of the Highest Principle for an associationship with its Supreme Creative Principle, which is in fact ever achieved.
The theme of the Ras Lila underwent development from simple origins in the course of time. The earliest surviving account of the episode later called the Ras Lila is contained in the Hari Vansha, a supplement to the Maha Bharata in the style of a Purana composed during the course of the first half of the first millenium A.D. By comparison with later accounts, the account here is still very unsophisticated. There is no mention of Krishna’s disappearance or of the gopis hunting for Him, nor of any particular gopi such as Radha being associated with Krishna. The dance is between cowherds and gopis and Shri Krishna does not take part in it apart from supplying the music on His flute. But the setting of the dance in the moonlit woods to the accompaniment of the flute connects it unmistakably with the later Ras Lila.
The dance is not called a Ras but a Hallisaka, which is a standard name in the traditional treatises on dancing for a circular dance in which the numbers of those taking part are not absolutely fixed but in which there should be twice as many women as men, so arranged that each man has a woman on either side of him, while the women have a man on one side and a woman on the other. In later artistic expressions of the Ras Lila we sometimes see this prescription adhered to, so that when Shri Krishna becomes multiplied He has a gopi on either side. But in other cases Shri Krishna is represented as multiplying Himself so as to be able to dance individually with each gopi.
The account in the Vishnu Purana, which is a later work than the Hari Vansha, is more circumstantial. A special companion of Shri Krishna is named, though not yet called Radha. The incident of Shri Krishna’s withdrawal is also found, when the gopis can only find His footprints. Afterwards Shri Krishna manifests among them again and the dance begins. Left to themselves, the gopis cannot get themselves into a circle. Shri Krishna Himself forms them up, and the dance begins to the jingling of anklets. Songs are sung appropriate to the autumnal season, and Shri Hari sings a song in praise of the various kinds of lotuses.
The standard account and the root of all later accounts is that of the Shrimad Bhagwat. The date of this truly great work is not known, but it seems to have made little or no impact before the thirteenth century. Neither Shankaracharya nor the great Vaishnava Acharyas who followed him, such as Bhaskara, Yadavaprakasha, Yamuna and Ramanuja, show any knowledge of it, and then suddenly in the thirteenth century it bursts into prominence with Madhva and Nimbarka as the supreme authority, equal if not superior to the Upanishads. The new features here are the detailed account of the playing of the flute in the woods, the lecture given to the gopis and the exhortation to return to their husbands and other details. As everywhere in the Shrimad Bhagwat, the style and sentiment are at a peculiarly high level of inspiration.
When it declares that the gods and the moon were amazed to look down and see the dance, we have the germ of an idea that was greatly to be developed by the Hindi poet Sur Das. In the account in the Shrimad Bhagwat, Shri Hari at first multiplies Himself so as to appear once between each pair of gopis. But later He manifests Himself individually to each gopi. A feature of all the accounts mentioned so far, including that of the Hari Vansha, is that the intervals of rest between the dancing were occupied with love-making. Though the Shrimad Bhagwat mentions a special companion of Shri Krishna it does not name her Radha, a circumstance which suggests that the composition of this Purana may have been earlier than the evidence of the Yedantic literature would have led us to suppose.
If we compare the Vishnu Purana and Shrimad Bhagwat accounts, the latter represents an enlargement and a wholly successful embroidery on an already beautiful theme. The same may be said, with some reservations, of the work of Sur Das (sixteenth century) if compared with that of the Shrimad Bhagwat. The events described in the Bhagwat seem to the protagonists to last but one night, though they actually occupy six months. In Sur the dance lasts for a whole world-period and is at one point described as eternal (nitya). Not only time but space also shrivels before the dance. The flute reverses the flow of the Yamuna, silences the wind, halts the moon in the sky, disturbs the gods and celestial minstrels, breaks the contemplation of Shiva and establishes its hold over birds, beasts, trees, gods and sages. In Sur’s account there are no less than sixteen thousand gopis, and a single blast on the flute sounds to each of them like her own name.
What is the flute for Sur Das ? It is the instrument through which the Lord draws forth effects from causes and keeps every creature intent upon its own peculiar part in the cosmic drama. The drive of the gopis towards Shri Krishna is the drive of the individual souls towards the Highest Self. At some point the stream flowing towards more transmigratory experience must be halted and reversed, like the Yamuna. But this is a process which upsets the soul in its relations with others in worldly life. Only a gopi-like one-pointed love of the Lord is sure of standing firm against the counter-attack of the world. The devotee must abandon attachment for home and family, as the gopis left all. It is a good sign if he becomes a little mad. The gopis are drunk with the sense of Krishna. They try to fit their necklaces over their arms and legs in place of their anklets and bangles. They do not notice the thorns as they force their way through the moonlit woods.
There is not space to say more. Sur develops the theme of Radha with great tenderness and spiritual insight. Less elevating though in several ways interesting, is the account of the Ras Lila in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, an approximately contemporary work in Sanskrit. Here the original Ras is an eternal dance taking place in Goloka or the heaven of Vishnu. The earthly Braj is but a copy. Radha is the Shakti or creative power of the Lord. Billions of gopis issue from the pores of her body. To judge at second hand from accounts of this work, it deals for the most part in bloodless abstractions and lacks that blend of the divine, the concrete and the human found in such high measure both in Sur and the Bhagwat. The interesting feature of the Brahma Vaivarta Purana is the glorification of Radha to supreme cosmic creative principle. The tendency to worship God as a woman is very old in India, and is apt to assert itself in many traditions. The tendency to magnify Radha is even more accentuated in the eighteenth century poet Hita Harivansha, one of the few poets who have written in Braj and Sanskrit with equal facility, and the attitude persists late into the next century with the work of Harischandra, perhaps the last great poet to write in the language of Braj.
While some fundamentalist schools admittedly exist which reject allegorical interpretations of the Ras altogether, one must surely be thankful that there have existed a variety of others to draw out different shades of meaning from so suggestive a theme. The strict followers of the Upanishads see in the Ras an allegory of the “That thou art”. Krishna represents “that”, the gopis “thou”. Their union is no exhibition of erotic literary “savours” but a representation of the union of the individual soul with the Absolute. For the practicants of technical Yoga, the music from Krishna’s flute is the “unstruck” music (anahata) heard by the advanced yogi. Radha is the Kundalini. The beautiful Brindavan forest is the thousand-petalled lotus in the crown of the head, where the individual soul merges blissfully with the Highest Self and his now perfected energies perform a divine dance (Ras) with the cosmic energies of the Lord.
Perhaps it may be of interest to conclude by mentioning one traditional interpretation along Adhyatma Yoga lines. Here the cows (go) are taken as sense-organs. The gopis are the powers presiding over the functioning of the sense-organs. Shri Krishna is the Self. The music of Shri Krishna’s flute attracts the gopis as the bliss inherent in the Self attracts the powers presiding over the senses. The bodily merging of the gopis with Krishna represents the merging of the senses and mental modifications in the mind that takes place at a given stage on the yogic path. But the gopis feel pride in the intoxication of the dance and Shri Krishna withdraws from them. This symbolizes how spiritual advance can itself engender feelings of pride and selfsuperiority which prevent the total immersion of the soul in God. But when the natural light of the Self is occluded by egoism, suffering inevitably follows, and with it the possibility of the maturing of a deeper desire to root out egoism. Hence the “sense of absence” endured by the gopis is a blessing in disguise. It deepens their faith in and reliance on the Lord, after which He yields Himself in intimate proximity. So the soul attracts God through suffering from the sense of His absence, and loses his egoism, the last bond which prevents him from merging with the Supreme.