RĀDHĀ . The cowherd woman (gopī) whose passionate love for the god Kṛṣṇa has been celebrated in song and story throughout the Indian subcontinent since medieval times, Rādhā has been revered by Vaiṣṇava devotees not only as Kṛṣṇa's earthly beloved but also as his eternal consort, as one half of the divine duality. Her name may be a feminine form of the Vedic rādhās ("desired object"). Epitomizing the ideal of prema bhakti ("loving devotion"), she has herself been an object of Vaiṣṇava worship, sometimes as a mediator but often as the highest reality, surpassing even Kṛṣṇa.
Origins and History
Despite the considerable scholarly attention that has been devoted to Rādhā's origins, the matter remains veiled in obscurity. Available evidence points to possible literary beginnings, perhaps in the songs of the Ᾱbhīrs, a cattle-herding community of North India. From the earliest source material—a succession of stray verses in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Apabhraṃṣa from roughly the third century ce that celebrate the love of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa—it is clear that her association with him was established throughout much of the subcontinent by the close of the first millennium.
The transfiguration of Rādhā from literary heroine to object of religious devotion was a complex and gradual process. The Gītagovinda of Jayadeva gives evidence that already in the twelfth century she was viewed as Kṛṣṇa's eternal consort. In the succeeding centuries, especially in eastern India, she continued to appropriate designations earlier applied to such goddess figures as Devī or Durgā, notably, śakti (strength, power), prakṛti (nature), and māyā (the creative energy of illusion). Recent studies have revealed her kinship with Ekānaṃśā-Durgā, whose complexion is also fair, and suggested that she may be in part a transformation of Durgā. Her counterpart and possible precursor in the South, Pinnai, who is portrayed as Kṛṣṇa's consort and wife among the cowherds, likewise appears to have had connections with Ekānaṃśā-Durgā. Both Rādhā and Piṉṉai have also assimilated aspects of Viṣṇu's consort Śrī-Lakṣṃī, especially her role as mediator between God and human souls.
Although there are references to Rādhā in the Purāṇas, the most characteristic and important arena of her development is not narrative myth but poetry, or, more strictly, song, for Hindu poetry is composed to be sung. Building on the literary tradition of the courts, the poets of eastern India (and, to a lesser extent, of the North) sensitively and feelingly portrayed every phase and mood of her love with Kṛṣṇa: her shyness and ambivalence at its first dawning, her fulfillment in union with him and her subsequent hurt and jealous anger (māna ) when he betrays her, and her final agony of separation when he leaves the cowherd village to fulfill his destiny by slaying the demon-king Kaṃsa. Most of the poets and dramatists who developed this theme appear to have presupposed that Rādhā was already married, leaving to the theologians the awkward task of reconciling her status as a parakīyā heroine—one who belongs to another—with her role as consort of Kṛṣṇa, who as lord of the universe is the upholder of the moral order (dharma). In one such resolution, the Bengali Vaiṣṇava Rūpa Gosvāmī (sixteenth century) explains that Rādhā and the other gopī s belong eternally to Kṛṣṇa; their marriage to earthly cowherds is thus an expedient designed to enhance the intrigue of Kṛṣṇa's līlā.
Theology and Worship
Although the gopī s have been depicted with Kṛṣṇa in images dating from the seventh century or even earlier, it is not known whether they were at that time themselves objects of worship. It is only much later, from approximately the time of Caitanya (1486–1533), that one finds clear evidence for the worship specifically of Rādhā with Kṛṣṇa, often in the characteristic yugala-mūrti ("paired image," the two side by side) that can still be seen in temples in Bengal and Vṛndāvana. Rādhā's worship, however, is not confined to those communities that place her image next to his; in the main Rādhāvallabha temple in Vṛndāvana, for example, she is represented simply by a throne cushion over which hangs a golden leaf that bears the inscription of her name. Nor need her presence be marked even to that degree: Members of the Nimbārka and Vallabha communities regard Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa as indistinguishable from one another, and hence a devotee worshiping Kṛṣṇa is considered to be worshiping Rādhā as well. The Nimbārkīs in fact interpret the honorific element "Śrī" in "Śrīkṛṣṇa," a title of Kṛṣṇa used throughout India, as explicitly designating Rādhā; thus, "Śrī-Kṛṣṇa." Her paramount importance for residents of Vṛndāvana is also reflected in their use of the vocative form of her name, "Rādhe," as a standard mode of greeting. Members of the Rādhāvallabha community further honor her name by writing it on vines, stones, and pieces of wood placed in certain sacred spots. Like Kṛṣṇa's name, then, Rādhā's functions as a mantra, a group of syllables embodying sacred power.
In addition to worshiping Rādhā through her images and her name, devotees attend performances in which episodes from the love story of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are sung and enacted by professional and amateur performers. In Bengal, for example, where she has always been especially popular, the medieval verses celebrating her love for Kṛṣṇa are sung in a semidramatic musical form known as padāvalī-kīrtan. In a typical performance, the lead singer, assisted by several other singers and two or three drummers, spins out a single episode in the divine love story over the course of three or four hours, interspersing narrative and dialogue with the lyrical verses describing and reflecting on Rādhā's feelings. These songs play on the central juxtaposition of the physical and the metaphysical as well as the paradox of the human-divine encounter. Devotees respond with expressions of wonder at the intensity, depth, and steadfastness of Rādhā's love, which, while representing the heights of human passion, also symbolizes the religious ideal of selfless, unswerving devotion to God. Her unexpected triumph over the lord of the universe, which is indicated, for example, by his abject submission as he begs for her forgiveness, invariably evokes exclamations of astonishment and delight.
The chief basis for the worship of Rādhā is thus the transcendent quality of her love for Kṛṣṇa; even when the theological designation śakti is applied to her, its meaning shifts from its usual Tantric sense of strength and activity to one of love. That she is the personification of love is indicated by a common designation for her: mahābhāva ("great emotion"). So exalted has this love rendered her that many Vaiṣṇavas since the time of Caitanya have felt that one should not imitate her directly; they have chosen rather to assume in their devotion the role of a humble maidservant of hers, a mañjarī, who is privileged to assist her and thereby enjoy vicariously the bliss of her union with Kṛṣṇa.
Rādhā's nature contrasts with that of all other major Hindu goddesses. She is neither mother goddess nor fertility deity, neither angry and destructive goddess nor social paradigm. Worshiped solely in relation to Kṛṣṇa, she has never become an independent deity. Yet her importance for Vaiṣṇava devotion since the sixteenth century can scarcely be overestimated. In the intensity and steadfastness of her love for Kṛṣṇa, especially in her separation from him, she serves as the highest inspiration to the devotee. The strength of Rādhā and her friends and the superiority of their devotion provide a valorization of the religious capacities of women that has had social implications as well. Finally, as the embodiment of supreme love, Rādhā in her eternal relation to Kṛṣṇa represents ultimate reality, for love (prema ) itself, in the Vaiṣṇava vision, is the highest principle in the universe.
Two books serve as major sources for the study of Rādhā. The most comprehensive treatment of her, a work in Bengali by S. B. Dasgupta, Śrīrādhār kramabikās darśane o sāhitye (Calcutta, 1952), is a judicious, well-documented account of her origins and development that traces her relations to other goddesses and to Indian conceptions of śakti. A more recent volume, The Divine Consort: Rādhā and the Goddesses of India, edited by John Stratton Hawley and me (Berkeley, Calif., 1982), contains articles on the religious significance of Rādhā in various texts and traditions, together with an extensive annotated bibliography.
Two other articles, as well as portions of two books, treat particular aspects of Rādhā. In "A Note on the Development of the Rādhā Cult," Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 36 (1955): 231–257, A. K. Majumdar surveys evidence for the worship of Rādhā. Bimanbehari Majumdar's Kṛṣṇa in History and Legend (Calcutta, 1969) includes two chapters documenting her importance in religious literature. In a more recent article, "Rādhā: Consort of Kṛṣṇa's Vernal Passion," Journal of the American Oriental Society 95 (October-December 1975): 655–671, Barbara Stoler Miller surveys early verses in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Apabhraṃśa on the Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa theme. Finally, Friedhelm Hardy's Viraha-bhakti: The Early History of Kṛṣṇa Devotion in South India (Delhi, 1983) distinguishes the primarily secular early poetic traditions of the love of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā from the epic and Puranic traditions of Kṛṣṇa and the gopī s.
Four studies contain portraits of Rādhā as she is presented in particular literary works and performance traditions. In her Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva's Gitagovinda (New York, 1977), Barbara Miller includes a chapter on the figure of Rādhā. My own Drama as a Mode of Religious Realization: The Vidagdhamādhava of Rūpa Gosvāmī (Chico, Calif., 1984) discusses and illustrates through summary and translation the treatment of Rādhā by the Bengali Vaiṣṇava theologian and playwright Rupa Gosvami. Finally, two works of John Hawley throw new light on the interpretation of Rādhā in the Braj region of North India. The introductions and translations in his At Play with Krishna: Pilgrimage Dramas from Brindavan (Princeton, N.J., 1981) present Rādhā as she is portrayed in the rās līlās, and a chapter of his Sur Das: Poet, Singer, Saint (Seattle, 1984) traces the conception of Rādhā through the successive layers of the Sūr Sāgar, the collection of poetry attributed to the sixteenth-century poet Sūr Dās.
Banerjee, Sumanta. Appropriation of a Folk-Heroine: Radha in Medieval Bengali Vaishnavite Culture. Shimla, 1993.
Hawley, John S., and Donna M. Wulff, eds. Deva: Goddesses of India. Berkeley, 1996.
Donna Marie Wulff (1987)
A second factor in the evolution of Rādhā as central religious figure was evidently the teaching of the theologian Nimbārka (14th/15th cent.?). By him Kṛṣṇa is regarded as identical with Brahman, and Rādhā as co-natural with him. Similar ideas are expressed by many subsequent theologies.
The poetry about Kṛṣṇa's love for Rādhā cannot avoid describing Kṛṣṇa as totally devoted and subservient to Rādhā, due to his love and passion for her. At least in the case of the Rādhāvallabhīs, this is not just seen as denoting an ultimate unity of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā as Brahman, but has been developed into a form of ‘Rādhāism’: theologically speaking, Kṛṣṇa is dependent on Rādhā as the Absolute.