We are going through a Ratha Yatra season with many ISKCON centers holding their annual festivals in addition to the original one in Puri, this year it started on July 3. Festivities in Puri are already over but ISKCON’s events are still going in full swing. I don’t want to go into the dispute about arbitrary dates, different from Puri, it’s a giant waste of time, I believe.
It’s rather the significance of the trip itself that interests me today.
In Puri, Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra visit Gundici temple and then, on the way back, stop at their auntie’s temple where they spend a week before returning home. It’s all nice but I prefer the story about Krishna meeting gopis in Kurukshetra where they went to see the solar eclipse.
I don’t know the origin of this version, everybody knows it from the first days in ISKCON, though, so it must be true.
Gopis, of course had lived in Vrindavana in separation from Krishna for many many years by then but they certainly couldn’t forget Him. According to Lord Chaitanya their love in separation is the highest possible form of devotion to Krishna. When Uddhava, Lord’s dearmost devotee in Dwaraka, visited Vrindavana to see the gopis he was humbled by their devotion – they were so intensely absorbed in thoughts of Krishna they talked to animals and insects about Him, they saw Him everywhere.
Krishna was their first and only love. Everyone knows about the power of first love. Some call it puppy love because it’s immature and eventually goes away but when it’s there it’s the most powerful, selfless feeling in the world.
Young people in love have absolutely no regard for their own self interest or self preservation. Romeo and Juliet, in fact, killed themselves when they realized they couldn’t be together, and theirs is not the only example.
Young people in love are known to do all kinds of crazy things – they elope, they sneak out of the house at night, they make unbelievable promises, they follow the objects of their adoration to the end of the world, they are completely blind to any faults and deficiencies of their lovers. We all know it.
What normally happens is that they have to be broken, like horses and circus animals. In fact, until a young boy or a girl has suffered his or her first real heartbreak no one takes them seriously. They need to learn cynicism. We laugh at their idealism because we know their will can and should be broken, “for their own good”.
The worst part of it is not the heartbreak itself, it’s the forceful surrender and inevitable compromise with the realities of their bodies. You can’t have your lover, it’s “for your own good”, but we also force you to “love” someone else. Give enough time and your hormones will assert their power. You might hate yourself for giving up on your first love but you WILL eventually want someone else and you WILL settle. No one can be allowed to remain pure and innocent.
I hope gopis had it easier then. They managed to remain pure and innocent and no other man had ever entered their hearts, and they suffered for it. They suffered immensely. I’m sure there was pressure on them to accept life with their regular husbands. The scriptures avoid that point but I can’t easily imagine a scenario where all the gopis were allowed to stay single forever, some of them had husbands even when Krishna was there.
This looks like a very very painful exercise – faithfully serve your given husband, provide him with all the comforts your body can provide, yet keep you heart pure for Krishna. I don’t know how it worked. Maybe they had some form of reprieve, or maybe they really didn’t think much about it – too busy thinking of Krishna.
I wish I could perform my material duties with similar detachment and unwavering concentration on Krishna. So far I fail miserably.
Anyway, many years have passed and gopis surely thought to themselves that they were going to die without seeing Krishna again, and then Nanda Maharaj announced a trip to Kurukshetra to see the solar eclipse and that Krishna was going to be there, too.
What a joy! What a reprieve! Gopis were surely losing their minds in ecstasy.
Finally they were there, Krishna was there, too, they caught a glimpse of Him as He talked to Nanda and Yashoda first. He was within their reach but they couldn’t say a word or make a move – they had social etiquette to observe. I’m sure they were just stunned and lost control of their senses, their bodies were trembling with anticipation. Anyone who has ever met the object of their intense love after a long separation knows the feeling, it’s overwhelming.
Lord Balarama quietly excused Himself and finally Krishna sneaked out to the private area for the meeting – that’s according to the Bhagavatam, and I don’t particularly like that version.
According to our Ratha Yatra story gopis tried to pull Krishna’s chariot back to Vrindavana and Krishna, suddenly remembering His first love and seeing gopis unprecedented devotion for Him fell into a trance, His limbs became shorter and went inside of His body and His eyes became wide and round and He lost consciousness.
This version is so touching that I bet everyone had goosebumps at least once when thinking about it. I’ve heard of simple Orissa man who had tears streaming down his face when he heard this story in an assembly. Of course he was born in the dhama and so is not your ordinary person but I doubt there’s any devotee anywhere whose heart is so stone cold that it hasn’t softened at least once.
Anyway, I have a little issue with Bhagavatam account of that meeting. It is definitely less romantic and cynical minds like mine see Krishna in a somewhat unfavorable light there.
Here how it goes according to my understanding. Krishna saw the gopis, had to go outside for a little meet, and He blew them off, mercilessly.
He gave them vedic version of the “don’t worry about your broken heart” talk. First He laughed. Yeah, seeing all these heartbroken girls who hadn’t still grown up was surely a lot of fun. He talked to them about laws of nature and karma, about clouds, blades of grass, wisps of cotton and particles of dust, and the will of the Supreme Lord. Anything but His own feelings and responsibility.
He basically told them that there are more important things to do than to wallow in teenage fantasies. There are enemies to kill and friends to protect, and, most importantly, there are thousands of women to marry and have children with. That’s real life, not your teenage romance, grow up, will you?
There’s no trance here, no wide eyes, no pulling chariots, just a vedic version of “why I didn’t call” excuses.
Gopis weren’t taking it seriously, too. According to comments by Srila Visvanatha Chakravarti Thakura and Sridhara Swami that are quoted in the purports to our translation gopis playfully told Krishna that His excuses were ridiculous – He is the Supreme Lord and He Himself brings wisps of cotton and blades of grass together, and, moreover, all this “serious” talk is lost on devotees who don’t care a bit about all this knowledge, they just love Krishna no matter what.
Maybe that can be construed as another sign of gopis’ perfection – you can’t possibly blow them off and hurt their feelings. There’s absolutely no way you can make them un-love Krishna, no matter how rude and heartless He might appear.
Well, for Him it’s probably manifestation of His supreme renunciation but for us, aspiring devotees, it’s actually a very convenient way out – we don’t really need His mercy to be happy. In the matters of mercy and affection Krishna is not very reliable but if we learn to love Him we won’t care in the least whether He reciprocates or not. We get special kinds of hearts that just can’t be broken.
I need one of those for myself, pronto.