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No other goddess combines the elements of bhakti and shringara quite as exquisitely as Radha, the divine milkmaid. An excerpt from Finding Radha edited by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale:

HOW DID RADHA come to me? Perhaps it was when I was roaming the narrow lanes of Vrindavana, in search of these elusive mysteries. Amidst the groves of ancient basil bushes stood a room with a bed in it, designed in the style of a government guest house in a minor mofussil town. It had iron shutters through which I could glimpse a postered bed. It was here that they met, those two, in a timeless nocturne, through the yugas, across the ages.

The attendant priest handed me a bundle of prasad. The packet he gave me contained some sweet crumbling pedas, fragrant tulsi leaves, a folding mirror, some bindis, glass bangles, a bottle of cheap fluorescent-pink nail polish. The last three items constituted a traditional ‘suhag ka pitara’, a gift symbolizing the auspicious feminine. It was a moment of illumination. The importance of it, the crucial nuance, came to me in a flash. The mirror was a gateway to the recognition of selfhood. The bangles were a form of armour. I don’t ever wear bindis, but they represent the awakening of the third—the inner—eye. It was the nail polish that moved me the most, it spoke to me of hopes and yearnings and betrayals, the entire tradition of ‘shringara rasa’, the evocation of the mood of romantic and erotic love from the Natyashastra that is such a deep undercurrent of Indian culture.

We began this quest for Radha some years ago, after Dr Malashri Lal and I had completed our edited anthology In Search of Sita. Radha is an all-too-human goddess, a sublime yet sensual emblem of mortal and divine love. She is subversive in that she possesses an autonomy rarely available to feminine deities. She lives by her own rules, and not those of the world. She is the essential Rasika, the aesthete of passion, and her wild heart belongs only to herself.

Radha is an all-too-human goddess, a sublime yet sensual emblem of mortal and divine love. She is subversive in that she possesses an autonomy rarely available to feminine deities.

Like Sita, Radha is also a manifestation of Lakshmi. Radha is the essential Shakti of Krishna, just as Sita is the consort of Rama. Yet their lives span very different arcs. Sita is the sterling emblem of familial duty, who unflinchingly complies with the diktats of her patriarchal and hierarchical world. She is relentlessly questioned and tested, and subjected not once but twice to the ‘Agni pariksha’, the test by fire, driving her to relinquish the harsh obligations of royal conduct and return deep into the womb of the earth mother.

Sita is the sterling emblem of familial duty, who unflinchingly complies with the diktats of her patriarchal and hierarchical world.

Radha, the bucolic milkmaid, follows the dictates of her heart, of her instincts, of her passion, to seek union with her innermost self. She is her own mistress even in the act of surrender to her beloved. And it is this aspect of her that is worshipped, if not emulated, in shrines, temples and festivals all across India even today.

The enigma of Radha and the example of Sita coexist and are both contained in the apparent paradoxes and composite unity of the Hindu religion. The lack of any textual references to Radha in the Mahabharata, and the only indirect allusions in the Srimad Bhagavatam, establish that the rebellious figure of Radha was born of the ahistorical collective consciousness of religion and culture. She was born of the need to establish a direct emotional and mystical relationship, a sensual, tactile, immersive connect, with the sacred. Radha’s divine lover, Krishna, was later married to Rukmini, and to Satyabhama, and later in some texts, to Jambavanti. Yet he remained hers, and she his, in the hearts and minds of the devout.

The enigma of Radha and the example of Sita coexist and are both contained in the apparent paradoxes and composite unity of the Hindu religion.

India’s great epics and scriptures were born of orality; they have been retold, reinterpreted and reimagined through millennia. Even as the plasticity and porous narrative of oral traditions yielded to the stricter boundaries of textual veracity, the format of palm-leaf manuscripts was amenable to interpolations and imaginative embellishment. These acts of appropriation and interpretation and translation through successive generations, through the centuries, led to the continuous rediscovery of the core stories, and kept them relevant and contemporary across the passage of time. They were birthed anew and belonged to each poet, scribe or bard, each dancer and sculptor, who bestowed them with form and creative reality.

These acts of appropriation and interpretation and translation through successive generations, through the centuries, led to the continuous rediscovery of the core stories, and kept them relevant and contemporary across the passage of time.

The figure of Radha was first mentioned in the medieval period, in the exquisite Gita Govinda of the poet Jayadeva of modern-day Odisha, and in the maha-mantra of Radha and Krishna extolled by Nimbakacharya in the 11th and 12th centuries. This anthology carries many perspectives on how the visualization and iconography of ‘Radharani’ evolved, through the Chaitanya school of Vaishnavism, and the philosophical and poetic interpretations of the Bhakti movement. These traditions were continued in the late 15th century in the magnificent poetry of Chandidas of Bengal and Vidyapati of Mithila, and later in the verses of the blind seer Surdas.

The essence of the relationship between Radha and Krishna resides in its spontaneous acquiescence to the moment of joyous union, and its disregard for imposed social boundaries in love, sacred or profane. This sense of abandonment, of surrender, would have been, and still is, exhilarating and liberating in a prescriptive and regimented society.

The essence of the relationship between Radha and Krishna resides in its spontaneous acquiescence to the moment of joyous union, and its disregard for imposed social boundaries in love, sacred or profane.

The sensory and the physical are as profound as all the navel- gazing in the cosmos. Our duplicitous and illusory world belongs to the realm of what is described as maya, and we are all entangled in the ‘maya jaal’, in the phantasmagorical web of the virtual and the unreal. The amorous frolics of the divine lovers are described not as Maya but as Leela, as the eternal play of consciousness, the dream of the awakened.

Excerpted from Finding Radha edited by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale with permission from Penguin.

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