Krishna in the form of Govinda is eternal, but He has revealed Himself in the course of history.
By Satyaraja Dasa
The story of one of the first deities of Krishna to be installed after His time on earth.
I have always had a personal relationship with Krishna in the form of Govinda. Though I’m not sure why, the very utterance of His name makes me happy. For me, there is something beautiful about its simple sound: “Go-vinda.”
From my earliest days in the Krishna consciousness movement I was mesmerized by Radha-Govinda, the deities in Brooklyn, the first forms of Sri Sri Radha-Krishna I had ever seen. Likewise, from early on I was fascinated by the ancient Sanskrit text Brahma-samhita, with its evocative refrain, govindam adi-purusham tam aham bhajami (“I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord”). I am still transported by the melodious prayers from the text chanted congregationally each dawn in ISKCON’s global network of temples. And even at home or in the car, the recording of Mangalananda Dasa (Michael Cassidy) still arouses my deepest emotions as he sings his original heart-changing contemporary rendition of the song: “O Govinda within my heart – celestial herdsman, lotus-eyed one.”1
Srila Prabhupada, my spiritual master, initially worshiped Radha-Govinda too, small deities at his ancestral dwelling in Kolkata:
Prabhupada: This Radha-Govinda deity is a very old deity of the Mullik family. . . . And we had the opportunity of seeing this Radha-Govinda from our very childhood. When I was three or four years old I used to visit this Radha-Govinda daily. . . And that is the inspiration of my devotional life. Then I asked my father, “Give me Radha-Govinda deities; I shall worship Them.” So my father was also a Vaishnava. He gave me small Radha-Govinda deities. I was worshiping Them in my house. Whatever I was eating I was offering to Them, and I was following the ceremonies of this Radha-Govinda with my small deities.2
Govinda is a Sanskrit name for Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Prabhupada tells us that go can indicate cows, senses, or land. Thus the name Govinda conjures images of Krishna in His original form as a rustic cowherd who gives the highest pleasure to the transcendental senses of His devotees as He tends the cows in the land of Vrindavan.
Additionally, vinda means “finding,”3 which has subtle implications that speak to the most profound aspects of Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy. This is so because Govinda is the deity who embodies “the path” – abhidheya tattva – to divine love (prema), or the techniques used to “find” the ultimate goal of life. This contrasts with Madana-mohana and Gopinatha, the other two prominent Vrindavan deities in the Gaudiya tradition, who respectively represent sambandha tattva (the truth that initially establishes one’s relationship with Krishna) and prayojana tattva (the goal of that relationship).
Srila Prabhupada writes,
By the practice of devotional service, beginning with hearing and chanting, the impure heart of a conditioned soul is purified, and thus he can understand his eternal relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. That eternal relationship is described by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: jivera ‘svarupa’ haya—krishnera ‘nitya-dasa.’ “The living entity is an eternal servitor of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” When one is convinced about this relationship, which is called sambandha, he then acts accordingly. That is called abhidheya. The next step is prayojana-siddhi, or fulfillment of the ultimate goal of one’s life. If one can understand his relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead and act accordingly, automatically his mission in life is fulfilled. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 7.142, Purport)
The mechanics of that action, or the “path” of Krishna consciousness, is overseen by Govinda. He is thus the presiding deity of abhidheya tattva.
In more common parlance, throughout the Indian subcontinent Govinda is simply and directly a name for Krishna, who is also known as Gopala, protector of cows. The names Govinda and Gopala, in fact, appear respectively as the 187th and the 539th names of the Lord in the Mahabharata’s Vishnu-sahasra-nama (“The Thousand Names of Vishnu”) and are often used interchangeably.
Finally, scholars say that the word govinda can also refer to one who finds Vedic truth, since the prefix go can mean veda in addition to the already mentioned land, cow, and senses. This correlates with Krishna’s statement in the Bhagavad-gita (15.15): “By all the Vedas, I am to be known.” In other words, when used as a name for Krishna the word govinda can mean the Supreme Person in whom one can “find” the import of Vedic knowledge. And when used generically it can mean that through ardent study of the Vedas one will “find” Krishna.
Govinda’s Unveiling, Part I
Krishna in the form of Govinda is eternal, but He has revealed Himself in the course of history, thus creating an interesting story. In the Garga Samhita (Ashvamedha-khanda, 62.26–30) and in Prabhupada’s book Krishna (chapter 90), we learn about Krishna’s son Pradyumna, who had a son named Aniruddha, who in turn had a son named Vajranabha (Vajra), Krishna’s great-grandson. When the entire Yadu dynasty destroyed itself just before the beginning of Kali-yuga, Vajra survived and became king of Mathura. He wanted the world to remember his great-grandfather, so in Krishna’s own kingdom Vajra installed the first Krishna deities after Krishna’s departure. To this end, he searched out the sites in Vrindavan (also known as Braj) where Krishna had enjoyed pastimes with His beloved cowherd friends. After ascertaining various pastime sites, he named each one according to the pastime performed there.
The Garga Samhita tells us that, having located these sites, Vajra had Vishvakarma, architect of the demigods, carve eight deities: in Mathura, Dirgha-Vishnu (Keshava); in Vrindavan, Govindadeva; in Govardhana, Harideva; in Gokula, Baladeva. These were the first four. Additionally he carved two “Nathas” – Sri Nathaji, originally at Govardhana and now in Nathdwara, Rajasthan, and Sri Gopinatha, now in Jaipur. Add to this the two “Gopalas” known as Sri Madana Gopala, renamed Sri Madana-mohana, now in Karoli, Rajasthan, and Sakshi Gopala, now in Orissa, near Puri, and we have the eight. Vajra also commissioned the carving of four Shiva deities and four deities of the goddess, Shiva’s consort, totaling sixteen.
Vajra never saw Krishna when He walked the earth, so he had the Krishna deities modeled after descriptions given by Uttara, the mother of Maharaja Parikshit, and by the great devotee Uddhava. With their guidance he began with three different images, but none of them, it is said, perfectly represented what Krishna actually looked like.
1 Govindaji’s face resembled the Lord’s4
2 Madana-mohana resembled Krishna from the navel down to the lotus feet, and
3 Gopinatha resembled the trunk of the body, from the navel to the neck.
The main point is that these three deities together reveal the entire truth of Gaudiya Vaishnavism – sambandha, abhidheya, and prayojana – with Sri Govinda as the Lord’s smiling face. The Chaitanya-charitamrita (Adi 1.19) says,
ei tina thakura gaudiyake kariyachena atmasat
e tinera charana vandon, tine mora natha
“These three deities [Madana-mohana, Govinda, and Gopinatha] have absorbed the heart and soul of the Gaudiya Vaishnavas. I worship Their lotus feet, for They are the Lords of my heart.”
Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to this verse:
Worship of Madana-mohana is on the platform of reestablishing our forgotten relationship with the Supreme Lord. In the material world we are presently in utter ignorance of our eternal relationship with the Supreme Lord. Pangoh refers to one who cannot move independently by his own strength, and manda-mateh is one who is less intelligent because he is too absorbed in materialistic activities. It is best for such persons not to aspire for success in fruitive activities or mental speculation but instead simply to surrender to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The perfection of life is simply to surrender to the Supreme. In the beginning of our spiritual life we must therefore worship Madana-mohana so that He may attract us and nullify our attachment for material sense gratification. This relationship with Madana-mohana is necessary for neophyte devotees. When one wishes to render service to the Lord with strong attachment, one worships Govinda on the platform of transcendental service. Govinda is the reservoir of all pleasures. When by the grace of Krishna and the devotees one reaches perfection in devotional service, he can appreciate Krishna as Gopijana-vallabha, the pleasure Deity of the damsels of Vraja.
The same truths are reflected in one of the sacred Vaishnava Gayatri mantras chanted three times a day by ISKCON brahmanas worldwide: Madana-mohana, Govinda, and Gopinatha are referred to in this mantra, though in slightly veiled form. Traditionally, the word krishnaya (“unto Krishna”) in the mantra is taken to refer to Madana-mohana, govindaya to Govindadeva, and gopijana-vallabhaya to Gopinatha. These three deities, according to the Gaudiya sampradaya, represent the full embodiment of the Absolute Truth.
After generations of worship, these deities were lost until, some five hundred years ago, They were again unearthed by the Goswamis of Vrindavan.
Govinda’s Unveiling, Part II
In the sixteenth century Lord Chaitanya sent Rupa and Sanatana Goswamis to Vrindavan, where they were given the loving charge of writing books on the science of Krishna consciousness and, like Vajranabha, finding the lost places of Radha-Krishna’s pastimes. They learned that Vajranabha had installed the beautiful deity of Govinda at a place known as Yogapitha, the seat of Radha and Krishna’s union. The two Goswamis were eager to find the area and the lost deity.
“O Govinda! O Govinda!” they cried as they wandered throughout the Braj region.
One day a brahmana boy told Sri Rupa that the Yogapitha was now in an area called Goma-tila. Every day, he said, an extraordinary cow emptied her udder into a hole at the very top of this hill (tila). Realizing why this cow was special – and what Goma-tila actually represented – Rupa Goswami asked the residents of Braj to perform massive excavations in the area. After extensive digging, they unearthed an exquisite black deity of Krishna, whereupon the devotees gleefully chanted, “Govindadeva ki jaya! Govindadeva ki jaya!” (“All glories to Lord Govinda!”)
That occurred in the 1530s, and the local residents worshiped Govindadeva in a simple temple on that exact spot for more than half a century. Then, in 1590, decades after Sri Rupa had left our mortal world, the Lord was installed in the most elaborate temple ever built in North India – also in the same spot – sponsored by King Man Singh I (1550–1614) from Amber, Rajasthan. The king was a disciple of Raghunatha Bhatta Goswami.
The temple was distinguished by its massive seven-story red-sandstone structure, decorated with ornately carved images. The altar was made of marble, silver, and gold. The deity of Govindaji was later to be accompanied by His consort Radha, sent by the king of Orissa.5
Vrindadevi, the goddess of Vrindavan, and Yogamaya, the Lord’s internal energy, were also prominent in attached shrines. A huge engraved lotus embellished the highest dome, in the center of the temple, intricately rendered with care and love. The stone panels on the outside of the temple informed visitors of the structure’s history and purpose. One states that Man Singh built the temple with stone donated by Emperor Akbar. Another informs us of the completion date and the names of those involved in the structure’s creation and glorifies Govinda with scriptural verses.
Less than one hundred years after its construction, Aurangzeb (1618–1707), a Mogul ruler who didn’t share the interreligious perspective of his predecessors, vowed to disrupt the worship of all non-Muslims in his domain. Aurangzeb was the most feared political figure of his time for his numerous campaigns against religious diversity. An unprecedented iconoclast, he engaged in widespread execution of his opponents.
In or near the year 1670, while standing on the ramparts of his fort at Agra, Aurangzeb noticed a bright light shining in the distance many miles away. When his constables informed him that the spectacle came from a large ghee lamp burning in the tower of the Govindaji temple, he was enraged, envious that a Krishnaite shrine was more glorious than any Muslim structure of the period. He quickly ordered its destruction.
The devotees in Vrindavan, however, were apprised of Aurangzeb’s imminent invasion. So by the time his soldiers arrived, Govindaji – and all the other major deities of Vrindavan – had been moved to safer regions. But this did not stop the emperor’s militant forces from devastating the area. All the sacred Vaishnava temples were desecrated, and Vrindavan temporarily became a shadow of its former self. Even Govindaji’s magnificent structure was not spared. Much to his delight, Aurangzeb demolished the deity chamber and mutilated all the stone carvings on the walls of the temple, his handiwork still visible today. Where there were once seven glorious stories, there are now only three.
Govinda’s Unveiling, Part III
Sri Sri Radha-Govinda were moved some six times before arriving at Their permanent home in Jaipur, Rajasthan, with temporary temples built along the way at Radha-kunda, Kaman (today called Kamyavan), Govindapura, and elsewhere. Under the protection of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II (1688–1743), the deities were finally placed in the garden temple behind the City Palace. They reached this destination in about 1728, which means that the Lord and His consort had to wait some sixty years to get there. But in many ways, history now shows, the wait was not without purpose – thousands of devotees now daily worship the deities with full regalia, more than ever before.
On the altar, in addition to Radha-Govinda, is a small golden deity of Krishna named Gaura-Govinda, once worshiped by Kashishvara Pandita, an intimate devotee of Sri Chaitanya. To the left of the deities is a popular maha-prasadam booth. But the chief attraction, the devotees all know, is the darshana, or viewing, of Lord Govinda Himself. This is evident from the main prayer of the temple, recited before the deity every day. In translation: “We hunger for the sight of Your face, which consistently places You in our thoughts. This life may be an ocean of material responsibilities, and we ourselves are in the middle of that ocean. But with Your blessings we can be relieved of life’s burdens and serve Your lotus feet in an ongoing way.”
Meanwhile in Braj: Sometime in the second decade of the nineteenth century, a local Brajbasi (inhabitant of Braj) named Nanda Kumar Basu opened a new Radha-Govinda temple in Vrindavan. This temple stands behind the original Govindaji temple and looks like a natural extension of it. In 1873, nearly two hundred years after the Moguls dismantled the original Govindaji structure, Mathura district magistrate F. S. Growse, who founded the Mathura Museum, supplemented Nanda Kumar Basu’s work, renovating the temple complex and establishing it as a historical monument protected by the Indian government.
On the altar we now find a replica deity (pratibhu) of Govindadeva, as well as smaller Radha-Krishna deities. Additionally there are forms of Gaura-Nitai, Giridhari-shila, Laddu Gopala (infant Krishna carrying a traditional confection), and Lord Jagannatha. A deity of Yogamaya, said to have been one of Rupa Goswami’s deities, is worshiped in an underground temple beneath the main structure, where she was hidden from invading Moguls in the seventeenth century. The deity of Vrindadevi worshiped by Sri Rupa was brought to Kamyavan just before Aurangzeb ransacked the area, and can still be found there, revered by visiting pilgrims daily.
Govinda Comes West
As we can see from the above, Sri Sri Radha-Govinda are unique deities with a rich history – but there is another component to Their story, one that involves the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the Lord’s desire to spread His message beyond the borders of India.
In February 1972, ISKCON founder-acharya Srila Prabhupada brought some of his Western followers to Jaipur. Kaushalya Devi Dasi, one of his early American disciples who happened to be staying there, saw to her spiritual master’s accommodations: “I arranged for his stay on the City Palace grounds with the pujari of the temple. None of the other devotees were allowed to stay on the grounds except Prabhupada’s direct servants. The others had to stay in nearby rooms.”
Kaushalya almost single-handedly arranged elaborate tent programs for Prabhupada, with his presence generating excitement throughout Jaipur.
“We organized and paid for the pandal programs with donations from several prominent citizens,” writes Kaushalya. “As a result, we were invited to Gayatri Devi’s home – she was keenly interested in meeting Srila Prabhupada.”
Rajamata Gayatri Devi (1919–2009) was the Queen of Jaipur at the time, and she was fully supportive of Prabhupada’s stay at the City Palace. While there, Prabhupada regularly lectured from a stage set up for him. Taken by his presence, purity, and the profundity of his words, Queen Gayatri Devi offered him a special gift: an elegant and stately residence on the grounds of the City Palace. Prabhupada wanted to use the building for his mission in India, but for various reasons the transaction was never completed.
Around this same time, Srimati Devi Dasi, another of Prabhupada’s early female disciples, arrived, and with Kaushalya searched in Jaipur for deities on behalf of the New York temple, which was then in Brooklyn (439 Henry Street).
Kaushalya writes, “Srimati visited the finest murti walla [deity sculptor] and then she saw Them – a beautiful black marble Krishna and white marble Radharani with conch shell eyes. When Srila Prabhupada and the devotees arrived, there was great jubilation. . . . He was very pleased with the deities and conducted the installation ceremony as part of the pandal program, and since the ceremony was to take place next to Govindaji, he named them Radha-Govinda.”
Sometimes it is said that Gayatri Devi donated these deities, but They actually appeared by the grace of Prabhupada’s two disciples Kaushalya and Srimati.
Sri Sri Radha-Govinda arrived in New York on March 1, 1972, and Their appearance was celebrated two days later on Gaura Purnima, the appearance day of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The western devotees vowed to learn the science of worshiping Them properly, and they did.
Radha-Govinda’s international journey has been colorful and interesting: Govinda is installed by Vajranabha not long after Krishna’s time on earth and rediscovered by the Vrindavan Goswamis in the sixteenth century. Radha joins Govinda, and They are moved to Jaipur nearly two hundred years later. In new forms, they travel from Jaipur to Henry Street, Brooklyn, in 1972, then on to 340 West 55th Street, Manhattan, in 1975, and to Seventh Avenue in Manhattan five years later. Finally, on November 1, 1982, They move to Their current temple at 305 Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn, where They have given Their abundant mercy to committed devotees and temple visitors ever since.
It was in Brooklyn, at the Henry Street temple, that I had the good fortune to see Them for the first time, and after that I journeyed to India to see Their original manifestation in Jaipur and Their facsimile expansions in Vrindavan.
I conclude with the words of Rupa Goswami, who discovered the original deity and who is the original acharya of the “path” (abhidheya) of Krishna consciousness:
My dear friend, if you are indeed attached to worldly relationships, do not look at the smiling face of Lord Govinda as He stands on the bank of the Yamuna at Keshi-ghata. Casting sidelong glances, He places His flute to His lips, which seem like newly blossomed twigs. His transcendental body, bending in three places, appears very bright in the moonlight. (Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu 1.2.239)
1 You can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSFVgHVXUlk
2 Talk at Radha-Govinda Mandir, Calcutta, March 24, 1976.
4 According to some versions, it is Gopinatha’s face that perfectly depicts the Lord’s face.
5 It is said that King Purushottama Jana, the son of Gajapati Emperor Prataparudra, sent Radha deities for both Madana-mohana and Govindadeva. Srimati Jahnava Devi, consort of Nityananda Prabhu, sent the Radha deity that now accompanies Gopinatha in Jaipur.