Krishna and the Gopis

Some readers of BTG might be surprised to find that the opening article in this issue – Srila Prabhupada’s “Founder’s Lecture” – is about the gopis. Prabhupada was very cautious about speaking about the gopis, whose relationship with Krishna is more intimate than that of any of His other devotees. For his daily Srimad-Bhagavatam class, Prabhupada spoke on the verses as they came up. So while he was speaking on the chapter of the First Canto where Bhishmadeva is about to depart from this world to enter the spiritual world, a verse about the gopis came up, and Prabhupada naturally spoke about them.

The question of the suitability of discussing the gopis in BTG was touched on in a meeting between Prabhupada and the BTG staff in 1969. When Prabhupada expressed approval for an article that talked about the gopis, one of the editors asked, “That means that we can make reference to the gopis?”

Prabhupada replied, “The policy should be that the people may not understand gopis like ordinary girls or like that. You should be careful to present the gopis. It does not mean that ‘We shall not utter even the name of gopis. We have taken a vow to boycott the gopis.’ No. They are our worshipable devotees. How we can avoid them?”

The editor’s question reveals the mood on this subject that Prabhupada instilled in his disciples. Prabhupada was especially concerned that we not “jump ahead” to Krishna’s romantic exchanges with the gopis. Narrations of these exchanges appear in the Vedic scriptures, but they are rare in comparison to many other topics. They are intended for advanced devotees, especially the most advanced devotees.

Most of us here in the material world, even if seriously committed to the practice of bhakti-yoga, are what Prabhupada referred to as “conditioned souls.” That means we have not realized our eternal spiritual identity and still identify with our body and mind. But, granted, there is a wide gulf of difference between someone with no spiritual inclination and a dedicated practicing devotee. Therefore, although devotees may not yet be liberated souls, they can cautiously, with Prabhupada’s guidance, hear about the exchanges between Krishna and the gopis.

An illustration of this point is that in Prabhupada’s book Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, his summary study of the Tenth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Prabhupada didn’t skip the five chapters that describe Krishna’s rasa dance with the gopis, even though Prabhupada published this book early on. But Prabhupada’s retelling of this most confidential pastime includes repeated reminders of its transcendental nature. It has nothing to do with mundane romance. It’s the highest expression of the purest spiritual love, without a speck of selfish desire.

As exemplified in his lecture in this issue, when Prabhupada spoke about the gopis it was almost always to point out their exalted spiritual status. He was speaking most often to practicing devotees, and it was important that they understood the characteristics of Krishna’s dearest devotees.

Of the many philosophical points that Prabhupada would make in reference to the gopis, an essential one to understand – in order to avoid offending Krishna and His dearest devotees – is that there is nothing immoral in the loving exchanges between Krishna and the gopis. The gopis are part of Krishna’s essential nature, or svarupa-shakti. Specifically, they are expansions of His hladini-shakti, or pleasure potency. Therefore, when He is enjoying the gopis, He is enjoying His own energy.

We can realize the nuances of this deep topic with ongoing study of Srila Prabhupada’s books and steady, determined progress in Krishna consciousness.

– Nagaraja Dasa