Essence of beauty and relationship,
Quintessence of bliss and compassion,
Embodiment of sweetness and brilliance,
Epitome of artfulness, graceful in love:
May my mind take refuge in Radha,
Quintessence of all essences.
—Prabodhananda Sarasvati

My sister Carol has become a radical feminist in recent years. I watched this develop. As she devoured book after book on the failures of patriarchy and male-made societies, she came to see me—her brother, who worships a “male” God—as a victim of sexist philosophers, duped by men with little regard for women. In other words, she knew that I worshiped Krsna, who is clearly male, and this was enough to put me in league with those who belittled women. It confused her, though, to see that I was not full of macho double-talk, that despite my worship of a male God, I was fair and even-minded—I didn’t speak down to women. She decided I was bright enough to confront directly.

“Why do you worship that blue boy Krsna?” she asked. “Why see God as male at all? Why not envision God as female?”

“Well,” I answered quickly and annoyed, as if a two-minute conversation can sum up a person’s theological perspective, “He’s God.” “And besides,” I added, “we don’t ‘envision’ God as we like. We learn about him from authoritative sources, the scriptures, whether the Vedas, from India, or the Western scriptures, like the Bible or the Koran.”

“But how do you know?” she asked. “Maybe those books are leading you on. I would say that God would have to be the ultimate female, with all the sensitivity and nurturing that implies.”

“But isn’t that sexism, coming from the opposite direction?”

I hoped the question would make her think twice.

“If God is ultimately the supreme female, wouldn’t that leave men out of the equation? Wouldn’t that be saying that the female form is better than the male form? You’d be guilty of the very thing you claim patriarchal religion is guilty of.”

After a pause, she replied, “But you still say that God is male …”

“First of all,” I broke in, “according to Krsna consciousness, God is both male and female. Isn’t that a more egalitarian vision of God?”

“Well, maybe—if it’s true,” she said, still skeptical of a tradition (and a brother) she had all but trained herself to see as sexist.

“Look,” I said, “Krsna is described as God in the Vedic literature because He has all the qualifications of God. How do you know the President of the United States is the President? Because he has the qualifications of the President. He has certain credentials. It’s not that you can just ‘envision’ that somebody is the President and then—puff!—he’s the President. No. So if you study Krsna closely, you’ll see that He is full in all opulences: strength, beauty, wealth, fame, knowledge, and renunciation. Anyone who has these qualities in full is God.”

She was getting restless. She had heard this definition of God from me before and felt I was getting off the subject of God as female.

“But Krsna consciousness goes further,” I continued. “Radharani is the female manifestation of God. She is the ultimate female. So we see God as both male and female.”

Carol smiled. She had something up her sleeve.

“If you acknowledge that God is both male and female, why does your central mantra—that prayer you’re chanting all the time—focus on Krsna, the male form of God?”

The “She” in the Maha-mantra

What my dear sister didn’t know was that the maha-mantra is a prayer to Radha first, and Krsna second.

“Do you know the mantra I chant, the one you’re talking about?”

She recited it: “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”

I was pleased to hear she knew it.

“Do you know what Hare means?”

“No,” she admitted.

“It’s a strong request to Radha. By chanting ‘Hare,’ we beseech Mother Hara, another name for Radha. Hare is the vocative form of Hara. Basically, the mantra is asking Mother Hara, Radha, ‘Please engage me in the Lord’s service.’”

“You mean the Hare Krsna chant is a prayer to the female form of God?”

“Absolutely.”

That got her attention.

“Tell me,” she said with growing curiosity, “what does the word Radha mean?”

“It means ‘She who worships Krsna best.’”

“Aha!” my sister quipped. “Then Radha is not God. If She’s His best worshiper, then She is obviously distinct from Him!”

“That’s not true,” I said. “God is the person who does everything best. As Krsna says in the Gita, He’s the first and best in all fields. Of mountains He’s the Himalayas, of bodies of water He’s the ocean, and so on. So, of worshipers of Him, He’s also best. Who could worship Krsna better than He Himself? No one. Therefore, He manifests as Radha, His female form, and shows that He is His own best worshiper. As Radha He is God the worshiper, and as Krsna He is God the worshiped. Both par excellence.”

“Hmm. Tell me more,” she said.

“OK, but this may get a little technical, “ I said. “From the Vaisnava, or Krsna conscious, point of view, the divine feminine energy (sakti) implies a divine energetic source (saktiman). So the goddess as she manifests in the various Vaisnava traditions always has a male counterpart. Sita relates to Rama; Laksmi corresponds to Narayana; Radha has Her Krsna. As Krsna is the source of all manifestations of God, Sri Radha, His consort, is the source of all saktis, or energies. She is thus the original Goddess.

“Vaisnavism can be seen as a type of saktism, wherein the purna-sakti, the most complete form of the divine feminine energy, is worshiped as the preeminent aspect of divinity, eclipsing even the male Godhead in certain respects. For example, in Srivaisnavism, Laksmi (a primary expansion of Sri Radha) is considered the divine mediatrix, without whom access to Narayana is not possible. In our Krsna conscious tradition, Radha is acknowledged as the Supreme Goddess, because She controls Krsna with Her love. Perfect spiritual life is unattainable without Her grace.

“In traditional Vaisnava literature, Krsna is compared to the sun and Radha to the sunshine. Both exist simultaneously, but one is coming from the other. Still, to say that the sun exists prior to the sunshine is incorrect—as soon as there is a sun, there is sunshine. More important, the sun has no meaning without sunshine, without heat and light. And heat and light would not exist without the sun. So the sun and the sunshine co-exist, each equally important for the existence of the other. It may be said that they are simultaneously one and different.

“Likewise, the relationship between Radha and Krsna is that of inconceivable identity in difference. They are, in essence, a single entity—God—who manifests as two distinct individuals for the sake of interpersonal exchange.

“Let me read you something about this from the Caitanya-caritamrta [Adi-lila 4.95–98]: ‘Lord Krsna enchants the world, but Sri Radha enchants even Him. Therefore She is the supreme goddess of all. Sri Radha is the full power, and Lord Krsna is the possessor of full power. The two are not different, as evidenced by the revealed scriptures. They are indeed the same, just as musk and its scent are inseparable, or as fire and its heat are nondifferent. Thus, Radha and Krsna are one, although They have taken two forms to enjoy a relationship.’”

“But Krsna is still the source. He predominates.”

“Only in a sense,” I said. “In terms of tattva, or ‘philosophical truth,’ He predominates. But in terms of lila, or ‘divine loving activity,’ Radha predominates over Him. And lila is considered more important than tattva.”

Carol was enthralled.

“I had no idea,” she said.

“Few people do,” I told her. “That’s why devotees work hard to distribute Prabhupada’s books—we want this knowledge to get out to people.”

Carol promised me she would start experimenting with the maha-mantra and would never prematurely judge a religion again, especially Krsna consciousness. In addition, she asked me for a prayer that focuses on Radharani’s supreme position, something she could chant as a reminder that Krsna consciousness recognizes—even emphasizes—a female form of God. I thought for a moment, and then I shared with her a mantra composed by Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a great spiritual master from the early twentieth century:

atapa-rakita suraja nahi jani
radha-virahita krsna nahi mani

“Just as there is no such thing as sun without heat or light, I do not accept a Krsna who is without Sri Radha!” (Gitavali, Radhastaka 8)

Carol was thrilled. She confided in me that she had long prayed for a religious tradition that was not sexist, one that recognized a feminine form of the Divine. Of course, she wasn’t fully convinced that this was it, but she was now willing to listen, to give an open ear to Krsna consciousness. She was willing to start with some rudimentary practices, such as chanting and reading Srila Prabhupada’s books. Here was a tradition that definitely seemed to fit the bill, to address her needs as a feminist. Radharani was my sister’s dream come true—an answer to a feminist’s prayer.

Best of the Gopis

Sri Radha is foremost of the gopis, Lord Krsna’s cowherd girlfriends. She is able to please Krsna with little more than a glance. Yet Radha feels that Her love for Krsna can always expand to greater heights, and therefore She manifests as the many gopis of Vrndavana, who fulfill Krsna’s desire for relationship (rasa) in a variety of ways.

The gopis are considered the kaya-vyuha of Sri Radha. There is no English equivalent for this term, but it can be explained as follows: If one person could simultaneously exist in more than one human form, those forms would be known as the kaya (“body”) vyuha (“multitude of”) of that particular individual. In other words, they are the identical person, but occupying different space and time, with different moods and emotions. As Radha and Krsna’s sole purpose is loving exchange, the gopis exist to assist Them in this love.

The gopis are divided into five groups, the most important being the parama-prestha-sakhis, the eight primary gopis: Lalita, Visakha, Citra, Indulekha, Campakalata, Tungavidya, Rangadevi, and Sudevi. Many details of their lives and service—including each one’s age, mood, birthday, temperament, instrument, skin color, parents’ names, spouse’s name, favorite melody, closest girlfriends, and so on—are described in Vaisnava scriptures. These elements form the substance of an inner meditation, or sadhana, designed to bring the devotee to the spiritual realm. Through this meditation one gradually develops prema, or love for Krsna. This advanced form of contemplation, however, is only to be performed by accomplished devotees under the guidance of an acknowledged master. This level is rarely achieved. It is therefore recommended that one practice the chanting of the holy name and take to the regulated path of vaidhi-bhakti—or the practice of devotion under strict rules and regulations—as taught in the Krsna consciousness movement. This will naturally lead to the highest level of spiritual attainment.

Clearly, the Vaisnava tradition in the line of Lord Caitanya sees the love of the gopis as transcendental love of the highest order, countering accusations of mundane sexuality with clearly defined distinctions between lust and love. Like the Bride-of-Christ concept in the Christian tradition and the Kabbalistic conception of the Feminine Divine in Jewish mysticism, the truth behind “gopi-love” is theologically profound and constitutes the zenith of spiritual awareness. Gopi-love represents the purest love a soul may have for its divine source; the only correlation this may have to mundane lust is in appearance, an appearance that falls short once one studies the texts left by the pure, self-realized authorities on these topics.

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  • https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.wood.750546 Jennifer Marigold

    Really interesting article. Unfortunately many people in ISKCON don’t make this clear. i wandered in a spiritual dessert for years because i felt God was too male. i was attracted to Sri Radhe but worried that i was stepping outside of any orthodox Vaishnava belief. i know now that this is not the case – but why do so many devotees keep this a secret when it is such a remarkable part of our philosophy?