The gods in love

The Hindu tradition of Radha and Krishna calls us to see passion as the kernel of all religion.

Krishna's Longing for Radha, from the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva, circa 1820-1825. In the lush forests on the banks of India?s Yamuna River, the youthful god Krishna waits to rendezvous with his beloved Radha. The artist has rendered his impatience by showing seven Krishnas, in various attitudes of anxious waiting, as though seeing him over a period of time. Meanwhile Radha, dressed in yellow at top right, confers seemingly endlessly with her confidante, as she tries to decide whether she should meet Krishna for the illicit tryst?she is already married and Krishna is prone to flirting with other girls. This scene is a metaphor for how god waits for us to come to him, while the human devotee frets about the bonds of social norms.
Krishna's Longing for Radha, from the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva, circa 1820-1825. In the lush forests on the banks of India?s Yamuna River, the youthful god Krishna waits to rendezvous with his beloved Radha. The artist has rendered his impatience by showing seven Krishnas, in various attitudes of anxious waiting, as though seeing him over a period of time. Meanwhile Radha, dressed in yellow at top right, confers seemingly endlessly with her confidante, as she tries to decide whether she should meet Krishna for the illicit tryst?she is already married and Krishna is prone to flirting with other girls. This scene is a metaphor for how god waits for us to come to him, while the human devotee frets about the bonds of social norms. Creator Unknown. (Photo by Heritage Arts/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Bloodshot from a sleepless night of passion, listless now, your eyes express the mood of awakened love.

In around 1512, the German Renaissance painter Matthias Grunewald sat down at his worktable in Frankfurt to work out the best way of portraying religious love. His solution can be seen in the crucifixion panel of the celebrated Isenheim Altarpiece, an image centred on the twisted body and already greying flesh of the crucified Christ. But let us indulge in an act of imaginary history; let us imagine that Grunewald had drawn on images of religious love from other cultures than the ones known to his Christian audience. Imagine that, if you went today to see the Isenheim Altarpiece, where it hangs in a deconsecrated convent in Alsace, you might look up to see religious love portrayed not in the guise of a serenely suffering man, but as a proud, passionate woman rushing into the forests of North India to make love in the moonlight. What might this mean for our modern ideas of religious love?

The question ‘are you religious?’ as it is posed in the West, has tended to mean either ‘Do you go to a church/synagogue/mosque/ temple?’, or ‘Do you believe in God/ something supernatural?’ Popular culture has conflated religion with institutions and creeds in precisely the ways that thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, Erasmus and Luther, Saint Francis and, most probably, the Galilean rabbi himself opposed. Contemporary society has made little progress beyond the opposition between bland public religion and intense private passion that was made popular by the Romantics whenever they wrote of wild lovers (such as Heloise and Abelard, Cathy and Heathcliff, Mina and Dracula) rejected by pious churchgoers. But those who have given their lives to religion, whether as practitioners or scholars, have often preferred other approaches. Religion can be seen as a realm of intensities, sensual and intoxicating in a way that seems foreign to the genre of image purveyed in Grunewald’s crucifixion.

The story of the West’s difficult history with love, the body and women, has been taken up by thinkers from Ludwig Feuerbach and Friedrich Nietzsche, to Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler. Nietzsche depicts Christian history as a systematic repression of the passions and of the natural, bodily, world-embedded form of experience that they represent. In The Anti-Christ, he argued that more enlightened attitudes could be found in other traditions: ‘All the things that Christianity treated with its unfathomable meanness, procreation, for instance, women, marriage’ are treated in Hindu texts such as the Laws of Manu ‘with seriousness, with respect, with love and trust’.

Yet many writers championed Western repression, claiming that it is a sign of the stoic superiority of the Western spirit. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis tells a tale of Christian history as a triumphalist narrative in which the disinterested concern expressed in acts of charity triumphantly overcomes the egoistic desires of eros. Lewis’s model of the human person goes back to Plato, whose characterisation of the soul in the Phaedo appears to denigrate the unreasoning, acquisitive, chthonic passions – the enemies of the rational element in man. The story continues with passion as the villain: for gnostic thinkers, the passions trap us in the body, with its limitations and impurities. For the medieval Christian orders, the passions seduce aspiring ascetics from their vows. For Calvin, they lead young men and women astray. For modern statecraft and the post-Holocaust philosophers, they counter our good judgement and call us repeatedly toward the very worst in natures. Passion waylays Western culture again and again – in Hitler’s seductive hate-speeches, in the self-destructive urges of the Victorian virgin before the vampire, or the modern junkie before the dealer; we see them at work in the atom bomb, the ruins of the World Trade towers and the electric chairs of Alabama. In this founding myth, passions are the serpent from which ‘religion’ tries repeatedly to save us. Twentieth-century thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and René Girard have strengthened this story by imagining that we in the civilised, rational world have learned to overcome our wayward passions: now, thank goodness, we are able to repress those instincts firmly enough for a social contract of mutual non-passion and thus non-violence to prevail in society. But it is in the face of such rhetoric that the French philosopher Julia Kristeva, in her diagnosis of the New Maladies of the Soul, mourned for a form of religion in which ‘passionate excesses … ceased to be seen as pathological’.

The great irony in this story is that it is in religion itself that some of the most remarkable images of wild and heartfelt passion can be found. There, more perhaps than in any romance or revolution, we see passion as the expression of a uniquely human ability to value something – people or ideals, perhaps – so radically that all one’s thoughts and actions become oriented to it. The world’s religions recount innumerable tales of passion in Christianity, of a young rabbi so committed to his people that he will willingly carry the instrument of his murder to the scene of his sacrificial death; in Islam, of a small community leaving the bountiful Quraysh city of Mecca for the desert because of a utopian passion to establish an upright hanif – way of life. In Buddhism, we see a North Indian prince-turned-renouncer turning back from the edge of nirvana because he has conceived a passion, specifically a ‘compassion’, to save every soul in history. And in Hindu India, we find a tale of a woman in love with an incarnate god, a story aimed at reminding us that religion is not a matter merely of love, but, more specifically, of Cathy and Heathcliff, Romeo and Juliet-style passion.

There is a tradition of Hindu devotional literature, found in early-to-late Indian medieval texts, that envisages religious love in this way: the great deity Vishnu, world-sustainer and soul-saver, chose to be born in the form of a young prince. Due to a prophecy, this young noble, known as Krishna, had to be hidden in the guise of a peasant living on the river plains of north India. Growing up on the banks of the Yamuna River, nourished by the love of his foster mother and his friends, he matured into a youth so ravishing that anyone who saw him playing his bamboo flute on the riverbank, or tending cattle in the forest, conceived a profound love for him. The village’s mothers wanted him for their son, the local cowherds each wanted him as their dearest friend, and all the housewives of the region wholly (and rather embarrassingly) lost their hearts to him. They abandoned their husbands and children to dance with him, flushed and charmingly dishevelled in the forest. But none loved him more than Radha, a proud but intensely passionate woman who, according to many of the poets, was parakiya – already married to a man she did not love. But this did not deter Krishna who, disinclined toward the ascetic temperament that characterises both Jesus and the Hindu deity Shiva, loved Radha with equal force.

Poems and miniature paintings that can still be seen in the forts of the Himalayas and Rajasthan, depict wandering ascetics, lost messengers and nosy peacocks all stumbling across the two lovers from time to time. Radha and Krishna might be found holding each other under a bower while the monsoon stormed around them. Although Krishna would eventually have to abandon the pastoral paradise in which he was reared so that he could return to the royal courts of his birth family, pilgrims have continued to travel those forests in hope of a glimpse of the divine couple.

This celebration of erotic religious love did not arise out of the blue. It was the fruit of a millennium-long intellectual struggle to counter the suspicion of material reality (prakritimaya) and human desire (kama, trishna) found in certain Hindu and Buddhist sects. In comparison with ascetic religion’s negative assessment of worldly life, the story of God’s pastoral youth served as a theodicy, a defence of worldly life and its intensities that portrayed Radha’s love for Krishna as intrinsically valuable, whatever her in-laws might say. It was this Indian debate about the place of the passions that ultimately led, in the medieval period, to a new kind of spiritual hero: the passionate woman in love.

Tales of Radha’s love found their way into painting, statuary, drama and, above all, into poetry. The two lovers became the Romeo and Juliet – or perhaps the Jesus and Simon Peter – of India, while Radha’s in-laws became a sort of Judas and the banks of the Yamuna a Golgotha: the imagination’s stage for acts of ultimate religious love. The story of Radha and Krishna can be traced through Sanskrit myth to modern Hindi village dramas and into Western contexts such as E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, which evokes ‘the dance of the milkmaidens before Krishna and […] the still greater dance of Krishna before the milkmaidens’. And just as Christ-figures have become a staple of Hollywood plots, so the silver screens of India are riddled with Radhas.

One portrayal remains deservedly popular: the Gitagovinda, or ‘Song of the Lord’, a 12th-century devotional poem from the North Indian courts of the Sena kings, describes the love of deity and devotee in considerable psychological and physical detail. The genesis of the poem can be contrasted with that of the Isenheim Altarpiece: Matthias Grunewald appears to have had an unhappy experience of romantic love with a wife who was eventually institutionalised on account of what doctors judged to be ‘demonic possession’. Consequently, he had quite a different model of love in mind, as the monks of St Anthony, for whom he painted it, were renowned hospitallers, particularly famed for their care of plague victims. Grunewald’s interest, then, was in the love that is expressed by unglamorous commitment to hard work, empathy for strangers in need and other forms of care that are integral to the sustenance of social ethics and communal bonds. This was something with which Christianity, formed in the political arena of Roman Palestine and maturing in the context of empire, was particularly concerned.

But 300 years earlier and 4,000 miles away, the alleged author of the Gitagovinda was concerned less with neighbourly care than with breathless passion. Jayadeva is said to have been a Brahmin who fell in love with a young woman dedicated to dancing for Krishna at the temple. Jayadeva’s love for this dancer, Padmavati, so perfectly mirrored the divine romance that he was inspired to compose a verbal portrait of the heavenly affair, weaving his own experiences into a first-person vision of the gods, framed in cosmic proems and decorated with ornamental verses. It blended the Sena kings’ courtly traditions of formal love poetry with the more visceral, rural oral traditions of the villages that they were conquering. It also alternated the ornamental style of Krishna-oriented literatures, with the sharper ascetic imagery associated with the god Shiva, and the powerful tantric images associated with the goddess – both deities who had previously been affiliated with the Sena kings. The result is a combination of the exquisite peacocks and twining vines of Sanskrit pathetic fallacy, with the urgent emotional narrative at the heart of a story centred on a compelling female protagonist.

Its vivid treatment of divine passion was not to the liking of all Sanskrit aesthetes: the 17th-century theorist Jagannatha Panditaraja likened its blustering impropriety to that of ‘wild rutting elephants’. But perhaps that judgement was also due to Jagannatha’s non-dualist, otherworldly theology: the value of a divinity that can be expressed in darting eyes, trembling hands and lips bruised from kissing escaped him.

The 12 short chapters of the Gitagovinda depict the divine in a relationship of passionate love, alternately enchanted and fearful, proud and relenting, joyful and finally exhausted (yet inspired) after a particularly intense night of lovemaking:

Bloodshot from a sleepless night of passion, listless now, your eyes express the mood of awakened love.

Here, there is no discreet turning away from the emotional traumas and physical lovemaking of the incarnate god. ‘Can one depict God in a body, enjoying his body?’ it asks of Hinduism’s incarnational theology … ‘God endowed with the capacity to love … to make love with his creatures? God heart-broken and begging for the love of a woman, who has the power to refuse him?’ One can hardly imagine the Christian god coming to earth and exclaiming:

Glancing arrows concealed by the bow of your brow cause pain in my soft mortal core […]

Your luscious red berry lips, frail Radha, may spread a strange delirium.

How do breasts like magical Mandalas for meditation play havoc with my life?

Her joyful responses to my touch trembling liquid movements of her eyes Fragrance from her lotus mouth […] Even when the sensuous objects are gone My mind holds on to her in a trance.

This is passion – there are sighs and tears of longing, saris unwinding in the forest, there are firm breasts pressed, nails dug in to make crescent-shaped marks on his dark skin, beads of sweat like rows of pearls, glowing in the moonlight.

But in the last chapter of the Gitagovinda, the text makes it clear that it is Radha who is really the exemplar and expert in love. She is not an infatuated teenager like Juliet, or a virginal innocent like Theresa of Avila. Rather, she is an experienced woman who is sometimes reluctant to submit to the wiles of this lush youth; she doubts his seriousness, and is proud, and occasionally even angry. When her friends advise her to give in to his advances, she withdraws and suffers immense pain. We wonder whether she will relent. In one section, Radha imagines that god is cheating on her with some other village beauty, and cries:

The teeth mark she left on your lip creates anguish in my heart. Why does it evoke the union of your body with mine now?

Damn you, go! Leave me! … Cheat, the image I have of you now

Causes me more shame than sorrow.

She knows that passion should not entail humiliation or subjugation, but in the end she is finally persuaded by her friends that her suspicions are unfounded. Krishna loves her. She accedes to his wooing and eventually becomes the dominant force in the consummation of their love:

Displaying her passion as the battle began, She launched a bold offensive above him And triumphed over her lover …

Why does a mood of manly force succeed for women in love?

Through all of this, Radha’s love is so intense that she awakens the god himself to new levels of passion, until finally he kneels before her, anoints her as a goddess and calls her his svarupa – his true essence. Throughout, the poet Jayadeva acts as a spiritual guide through the emotional trajectory of the poem, interjecting in regular exhortations to the audience, ‘Let emotion rise to a mood of joyful love in sensitive people.’ Proud of his priestly function as propagator of love, he writes of himself in the third person:

His vision of reality in the erotic mood, His graceful play in these poems.

All show that master-poet Jayadeva’s soul Is in perfect tune with Krishna.

He depicts divine love as a contagious state of mind, spreading through the medium of poetry to assimilate us all into the divine passion play. The Gitagovinda was enormously popular at every level of Hindu society. It united courtly salons and village squares in a shared religious culture of passionate intensity. But it was other texts that took up the challenge of constructing a theology of passion that would be philosophically commensurable with this heady story. As Christian thinkers worked on problems of incarnation and trinitarian community, so Hindus of various sects reflected on what it means for an eternal divine reality to choose to create a material world and to assume a material form through which to enjoy that world from within. Hinduism contains no doctrine of original sin: the purpose of the incarnations of various deities was less to ‘save’ humanity than to lead humans to greater wisdom, counter specific threats, or simply to enjoy the creation in all its odd, complicated beauty.

Gradually, in counterpoint to the world-escaping theologies found in the yogic school of meditative withdrawal, in Samkhya’s dualistic metaphysics, in the scepticism of the Buddhist schools and the transcendental focus of Hindu non-dualism, more world-affirming theologies developed to support these celebrations of passionate, embodied love. Maya, the visible world, which had been judged nothing more than a magical illusion by the Buddha, was affirmed in the Bhagavad Gita as God’s great drama. Prakrti, the material reality that was previously thought to ensnare souls and keep them from liberation, came to be revered as a powerful goddess of creation. And 15th and 16th-century Vaishnava theologians in North India redirected religious life toward the passionate savouring of our embodied human existence with all of its innate Sturm und Drang.

Behind these developments lay central theological questions that had to be answered in a satisfactory way. Why is it a good thing for the world to exist? And why should we actively engage with it, rather than stoically withdrawing into caves and mountain retreats? One answer was that the drama of the world adds meaning to God’s existence: from the Vedic hymns of the first millennium BC to the medieval Puranas, stories of the gods indicate how desolate the life of a sovereign, immutable deity can be. The Chandogya Upanishad tells us that, in the silence before creation, the divine yearned to escape its loveless, beauty-less, passionless state of solitary perfection and thought, ‘may I be many, may I grow forth.’ The Krishna tradition, in particular, affirmed the creation of the world as an exercise in divine lila or ‘spontaneous activity’. Theologians drawing on the Bhagavata Purana, a first millennium biography of Krishna, described the way in which God generates the cosmos and enters into it, much as a musician plays then puts down his flute to join the dance, or as a spider ventures onto the elaborate web he has himself spun.

The purpose of this divine activity? As the 5th-century philosopher of language, Bhartrhari, puts it, the world exists so that the divine can become, at once, the enjoyer of the world, the world that is enjoyed and the experience of enjoyment. Later 16th-century aesthetic theologians, the Gosvamis, glossed this in romantic terms: the divine manifests as the lover, the beloved and the phenomenon of love that unites them. The implication of this theology for us as divine creatures is clear: if the nature of the universe is to facilitate enjoyment, then our own natures are fulfilled in cultivating enjoyment of reality to the highest degree.

This may sound frivolous, but ‘enjoyment’ is another concept that would benefit from more attention in the West. Increased enjoyment does not arise from increased pleasure (as a number of lucrative industries would have us believe). Pleasure can become rather dull if repeated for too long. Deep enjoyment requires genuine engagement: we must be entranced, caught up, pulled in. Indian aesthetic theory prescribes a method for intensifying passion and this method is sometimes likened to the distilling of nectar from fruit: the proper work of religion is to press the ‘juice’ of our emotions out of life and then to distil those emotions into the intoxicating nectar of genuine, focused, self-aware, world- redeeming passion. The stages of this project were threefold:

(1.) Intensify your desires, loves and interests through emotionally compelling art, such as poetry, drama, music, painting, dance. Art is like the yeast that transforms grapes into wine.

(2.) Refine your passions by churning them through the press of pain, confusion, doubt and reflection, until the emotion has become more mature, multifaceted, and yet profound. Emotions are like spices, waiting to be combined into more complex, delectable flavours.

(3.) Distance yourself sufficiently from the emotion to be able to see the larger picture – the finitude and flaws of the human lover perhaps, or the infinitude of the divine beloved which exceeds us in every way. Then love nevertheless, with still greater intensity and awareness. The passions are ‘mere’ feelings – passing semi-conscious responses – until they develop a self-aware clarity that elevates them into an enduring attitude of the whole self and not merely the passion of a moment.

Radha, the passionate hero, is an exemplar of this process of refining the passions. She knows that her love affair may be tragic, but in full awareness of the situation she chooses love, savouring each movement in the dialectic of attraction, discovery, disappointment, doubt, renewal and eventual emotional abandon. A subtle theologian, Radha knows that, in passion, we are the world doing what it does best. E.M. Forster, that hesitant Indophile, said it well in the words of the enlightened humanist, Mr Emerson: love is ‘one of the moments for which the world was made’.

If Radha was one of India’s first heroes of passion, she served as a model for passionate protagonists of other kinds; the tough Bollywood anti-hero who pauses in the middle of a hard-boiled crime drama to tell his mother how much he loves her is a ‘Radha’. The mahatma, or revolutionary, who sacrifices his life for political ideals, is a ‘Radha’. Any hero who gives his life, not merely out of duty, but for love of a person, place or ideal, is a direct heir of this theology of the passions.

What relation does Radha have to a Christ, Buddha or Prophet? She may seem the inverse of such stoic characters, but almost all of the religious virtues boil down to these higher passions, and almost every saint, prophet, or martyr is a Radha, following an inner compulsion, doggedly pursued and careful considered, but rooted nonetheless in his or her fundamental nature. The story of Radha and Krishna invites us to recast passion as the kernel of all religion, lying at the heart of every ideal. Passion is the means by which, as Robert Frost puts it, ‘we may choose something like a star to stay our minds on and be staid’, something that ‘asks a little of us here’, that ‘asks of us a certain height.’

Perhaps for this reason, back in Renaissance Germany Matthias Grunewald balanced the dark greys and greens of the crucifixion panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece, with another panel on which the resurrection was rendered in aureoles of orange and yellow, showing Jesus rise from his tomb in a mad blaze of divinity, a psychedelic comet that causes the watching soldiers to tumble head-over-heels in shock. His face shines with defiant passion – one might say that he is a Radha in disguise.

So, alongside the imitation of Christ, Confucius, Esther, the Prophet, or the Buddha, one might propose the imitation of Radha. And if religion’s heroes are to be redefined, then why not religion itself, that most controversial of ideas? Instead of an affiliation (I do attend the synagogue/ church/humanist society), or assertion (There is indeed a God /a spirit world/a metaphysical fact), one might prefer to use the German religious existentialist Paul Tillich’s definition of religion as the ‘ultimate concern’ that stands as the central passion of one’s life. Having fled the Nazis and cultivated a new life in the US as an advocate of existential spirituality, Tillich told a University of California student in 1963:

[…] the moment religion comes into the picture, then it is not a matter that is also important, or very important, or very, very important. For then, nothing is comparable with it in importance […]That’s what ultimate concern means.

On this model, we all have a ‘religion’, an ultimate concern that lies at the centre of our personality, shaping our values, desires and ideals. This religion is what calls us to a passionate engagement with life, whether we like it or not. Furthermore, it is a definition that also helps to dissolve the artificial divide between ‘religion’ and ‘atheism’, a divide that clouds so many conversations in the West in contrast to Asia, where religions are often atheist and atheists are often religious. But here, religion becomes a matter of each individual’s living with such ardent concern that it can be said of each of us, as Jayadeva said of Radha in her forest bower, that:

Bloodshot from a sleepless life of passion … our eyes express the mood of awakened love.

This essay originally appeared under the title Religion as passion – the Gods in love in Religion: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, 2014.


Jessica Frazier