Union in Separation: the Daytime Song of the Gopis


An Excerpt from Ecstatic Couplets by Shyamdas (Pratham Peeth Publications, 2010)

The Eastern yogic paths, as well as other philosophical and spiritual disciplines throughout the world, have been established to guide us through reality toward their own brand of fullness – or even emptiness. Their adherents may see the world as an impermanent illusion; others, as a place of retribution; while still others believe in only its physical substance. Some seek total absorption into the infinite, where all sense of individuality is dissolved into universal consciousness, while other faithful souls seek a personal Beloved who is the source of all things. Some meditate, practice yoga, chant, pray, or follow their own unique path, while some claim to do none of the above.Some aspirants follow dharma paths that come to us through lineages, often handed down from teacher to disciple, while other people find their way according to their individual perceptions. Tempered by time and circumstance, the possibilities are virtually unlimited, as beings situate themselves within a world they fashion from their own inner sense of reality.

Since time immemorial seekers have contemplated the basic question, “What are we doing here?” In the fall of 1972, I left New Haven, Connecticut and traveled to India as one such, nineteen year old seeker. I made a pilgrimage to Vrindavan, the land of Lord Krishna, to meet the renowned saint Neem Karoli Baba, also known as “Maharaji.” After Maharaji left his physical form, additional blessings brought me to the Pushti Marg: the Path of Grace. A greatly respected senior guru of that lineage, His Holiness Goswami Prathameshji, taught me the intricacies of this grace-filled devotional path for the following eighteen years.

I have spent half of my life thus far in the Vraja region, which I like to call “God’s playground.” Thirty-eight years later, I am still exploring the sacred realms, absorbing the teachings of various saints and practitioners. I continue to review the relevant sacred literature, composed mostly in Sanskrit and Brajbhasha, and to present my findings to others.

The latest treasure of sacred teachings I have been inspired to present is the Yugal Gita. The singers of these Ecstatic Couplets, the Gopi dairymaids of Vrindavan, constantly remembered God so clearly and intensely, while sitting in their homes, that He responded by ushering them into His presence. Their path of grace-filled devotion to the Beloved transcends every traditional approach. Their direct dialogue with Lord Krishna is what drew me to their Ecstatic Couplets.

The Gopis sing about their Beloved’s lilas, His delightful plays – enlightenment full of form and movement – and their own place in them. They desire Lord Krishna with such intensity that they literally force Him out of their hearts and into their physical world, drenching everything with His presence. His face and form appear everywhere. Anyone who understands their songs becomes attracted to Him.

While their lovely Krishna wanders the forest during the day with His cows and cowlads, the Gopis’ realization retreats into their hearts, and there, in their inner consciousness, they behold the Lord of Vrindavan more clearly than if He were standing before them. The poet Nandadas explains:

I know there is more joy in separation than in union.
In union, the Beloved is seen in a single place;
In separation, He is everywhere.

Divine longing purifies the soul, while worldly anxiety obstructs worldly pursuits as well as spiritual aspirations. My years in India have taught me to seek ignited company who inspire me to remember God. Exalted association can also always be found in devotional literature. In this text, we receive the Gopis’ association through their utterances. Their words are considered mantras, spoken in a samadhi (trance) language. Their songs inspire even God.

Because the Blessed Lord is neither born nor dies, those who attain relationship with Him acquire His attributes of liberated form and eternity. The Gopis bathe in the ocean of liberation and then reemerge to taste, with purified awareness, a world comprised purely of God. Their story grants entrance into connection with the Absolute, who returns to them in the late afternoon, blissfully fatigued, with a smile like a necklace, casting His spell upon them. The Gopis’ expectations and reactions to God’s presence are the subjects of the Ecstatic Couplets.

In hopes of finding but a grain of sand that lies along their path, I have undertaken this translation the Yugal Gita, found in the first half of the 10th canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam. I have also folded into this text the Sri Subodhini commentary, the “Granter of Beautiful Awareness” composed by Sri Vallabhacharya (1479–1531), as well as the illuminated text called Tippani, written by his illustrious son, Sri Gusainji (1516–1586).

Sri Vallabhacharya, who is seen as an incarnation of Lord Krishna and His beloved Sri Radha, as well as a witness to their plays, appeared to teach the Path of Grace. He expresses his inner devotional views in Sri Subodhini, which is considered the ultimate commentary on the Srimad Bhagavatam. Through his teachings, he bestows non-dual consciousness that overflows with devotion. He is not only the Gopis’ spokesperson but also, in his divine form, their leader. He brings out the inner nuances of the Gopis’ song. His words awaken bhakti and reconnect those souls who hear, remember, and recite his teachings.

When the Gopis sing the Ecstatic Couplets, they have already tasted God; they have danced with Him and enjoyed His intimate company. Now, they return home to spend their days remembering the Beloved. His form has been impressed upon their hearts with loving devotion fortified by wisdom, and their inner reality floods with God consciousness. They constantly seek the nectar they experienced with their Beloved Lord in the world but for now, taste it within their souls. Their condition of union in separation creates a song illuminated by awareness, full of passion, yet nirguna – an enlightened condition that transcends material virtues, yet is replete with the Beloved’s attributes. Although each Gopi has a unique constitution, they are all established in a state of pure consciousness, free from any blemish that arises with karma, time, or individual nature.

Devotional literature of this magnitude is not teaching us how to attain, but rather is defining the attainment. This story refines our taste and directs our consciousness to adhere strictly to God. A good story holds our attention long after the telling of it. The attraction of the adored subject of these verses and the glory of the singers are so alluring that they effortlessly keep the mind focused.

Being a follower is the true dharma of the soul. The Beloved is not moved by concentration or austerities, but by humility. The aim of devotion is simple: to serve God and His people. When you please the Beloved with humble service, there is a chance He will appear. Although beyond sense perception, the Beloved arrives, with grace, in a comprehensible form; then there is entrance into His playground. When loving devotion ignites the soul, the One who resides in all things at all times, beyond the effects of karma, becomes totally recognizable. This is the Gopis’ message.

The blessed experience of arriving face to face arises in Lord Krishna’s lila land, where even the trees feel His presence. There, in lovely groves where every season is perfect, the Beloved sports with the Gopis, the gurus of devotion, who empower us through their Ecstatic Couplets to see the Govardhan Hill shinning full of jewels and to hear the parrots, peacocks and swans serving the blessed Lord with their songs.

Gopihood allows us to glimpse Vrindavan fully alive, with a host of enlightened beings all engaged in serving the lila. The Yamuna River becomes a current of love gushing from the nectar heart of the primal Narayana, flowing unceasingly toward blessed Krishna. The Gopi singers in the Ecstatic Couplets bring us to the lila stage upon which Sri Krishna appears personally, in a realm where everything is God and nothing but God. He is in every tree, residing within every leaf, playing the flute and sitting joyfully with four arms. When the soul becomes connected to her true self, she discovers the foundations of her spiritual being and her connection to infinity. This removes the blinding brilliance that conceals her sweet Lord, and she beholds His face.

Days of Separation
Bhagavata Sloka 1

Sri Shukadeva begins,

“When Krishna goes to the forest, the Gopis’ consciousness follows Him.
Somehow they manage to pass their days of separation
By praising Sri Krishna’s lila.

Subodhini: The Granter of Exquisite Awareness

When the guardian of constant bliss goes to the forest, the Gopis’ minds and hearts merge into Him. They are unable to grasp anything else. They are totally involved with God, their minds and hearts plunged into Krishna.

Their devotion is very subtle and
Unfolds in every direction.
It seizes Hari’s lila, Hari of everlasting joy.

It inspires them to praise Sri Krishna’s lila, His dalliance in the world. Just as Krishna Himself is perfect joy, so is His lila. To show the perfect unity between Krishna and His lila, Sri Shukadeva mentions Krishna twice in the first passage. If Sri Shukadeva had ended this passage “by praising His lila” instead of “by praising Sri Krishna’s lila,” we would understand the lila as merely connected to Krishna and not that the lila is Krishna, the embodiment of constant delight. When you realize that you are separated from Krishna’s everlasting joyful form, nothing except rejoining with that connection seems important. Yet somehow, as the Gopis manage to pass their days with their minds and hearts totally immersed in Hari’s lila, they enter Krishna awareness. While their Beloved is off in the forest, their days are spent in sweet sorrow. The Gopis hold their breath in expectation of the night, when their union with the Beloved will occur again.

Hari’s superb lila takes place after He plays the flute. In every couplet, the first stanza explains Lord’s Krishna flute playing and other activities while the second stanza reveals what happens to the beings that encounter Him. They all become nectar connoisseurs.

The wives of the gods, the cows, and the rivers,
The creepers and the trees as well as the birds and the clouds,
Brahma and the gods, the Gopis, the deer, and the celestial singers,
And, in the last two couplets, the blessed Lord Himself.

The Gopis first describe the effect of the flute upon the females of Vrindavan: the gods’ wives, the cows, and the rivers. They are all obstinate (tamas). The flute also affects the males of Vrindavan: the creepers, the trees, the birds, and the clouds. They are all passionate (rajas). The flute then affects the creator, Brahma; the Gopis; the deer; and the celestial singers, beings endowed with purity (sattva). Everyone and everything is awakened when they hear Sri Krishna’s flute call. Its nectar confers various divine rewards.

Flute-playing Krishna is totally devoted to His followers, and though He appears as a child, He is not oblivious like one. He knows Himself and understands the nature of His own elixir as well as the elixirs of those whose intellects are absorbed into Him. He removes the suffering of His beloved followers, who cannot be consoled by cool moonbeams.

Before these couplets could be sung, Sri Krishna absorbed
The residents of Vrindavan into the pure bliss of Brahman.
Although the liberated abode, it remained incomplete for them
Because it lacked personal devotion to the Beloved.

Lord Krishna brought them out of that abode to grant them the joy of His Self, what is called bhajan ananda. He enabled them to enter and engage in the bliss-filled lila. He gave them the experience of liberation to awaken their blissful nature, to purify their senses, to make the Gopis similar to the splendid goddess Lakshmi and thereby qualified for His enjoyment.

Truly, only Hari enjoys—
Yet, in the height of ecstasy, He is enjoyed.

Two types of Gopis experience Hari’s infinite joy from head to toe. One group is called Sruti Rupas. They are personified forms of enlightenment who came to Vrindavan to directly experience the subject of their teachings. In this world they had worldly husbands. The other Gopis are called the kumarikas, the young, unmarried virgin girls who worked for Mother Yashoda and were enlightened sages in their previous incarnations.

The laws of nectar apply equally to God, to these two types of Gopis, and to all other souls. It is said that the bliss that arises between unmarried lovers is supreme. Although none of the Gopis married Krishna, the Beloved graced them by taking on as many forms as there were Gopis, and each manifestation was in accordance with their individual natures and their abilities to taste His nectar and never-ending acts of love. In the lila, the Gopis’ bodies and senses are spiritual. To make them fit for the joys of His encounter, the Blessed One first touched them with the bliss of Brahman and then absorbed them into His amazing play. The Upanisads explain, “He is full of rasa.” Truly, God comprises sheer ecstasy. Sri Krishna’s actions, lilas, and forms are all ecstatic.

The yoginis of love, who live in Vrindavan, Lord Krishna’s abode, taste elixir that is not known to even the god’s wives. It is experienced in this world wherever the joys of Hari’s worship are revealed. The Gopis are the gurus of lila realization and worship the Beloved with intense, profound bhava. They understand the nature of rasa. Men who can fathom the Gopis’ blessed devotion may enter their joyful devotional world and peer into the eternal activities. The Ecstatic Couplets allow us glimpses into the Gopi-Krishna lila. We begin our devotional story with the song of one very determined Gopi, who sings about the profound effects the sound of Lord Krishna’s flute had upon some of the wives of the gods.

The Goddesses
Bhagavata Slokas 2–3
(6:00 a.m.–7:00 a.m.)

O Gopis! When Mukunda, the Lord of Liberation,
Rests His left cheek on His left shoulder,
He raises His right eyebrow and places the flute on His lower lip.
He then gently runs His fingers along its path of holes and plays enchantingly.

When the wives of the gods, the devis, who are coursing through the sky in their
Celestial chariots with their perfected husbands hear Krishna’s call,
They become spellbound. They dedicate their minds and hearts to the path of love,
Experiencing shame as the ties at their waists loosen. They are distraught and swoon.

Subodhini: The Granter of Exquisite Awareness

The Gopi singing here has attained the joy of Krishna’s worship. She comprehends the flute’s call, Sri Krishna’s Venunada, and because women are foremost in devotion, the wives of the gods are mentioned first. She explains:

“Just see! The moment my Beloved starts to play the flute, the goddesses who cruise the sky in celestial chariots faint. The sound of Sri Krishna’s flute is fivefold, depending on the way He holds it.

When the flute is held to the left, it awakens passion in women.
When it is held to the right, it awakens passion in both men and women.
It awakens passion in the gods when it is raised upward.
When held downward it creates passion in the birds and the beasts.
When held straight it awakens everything, be it conscious or unconscious.

“To awaken the wives of the gods, Hari holds the flute to the left. The question arises: ‘Since the goddesses are superior to humans, how can a sound coming from the human realm infatuate them?’

“O friends! Understand that Lord Krishna not only played the flute but also raised His eyebrow. That eyebrow is said to be ‘the abode of the creator Brahma.’ If His raised eyebrow can bring forth creation, then what can be said of its effect upon a few goddesses? Krishna’s lila play is divine theater. His every movement brings enthusiasm and fills me with the joys of devotion, with bhava. When my Hari puts His left cheek to His left shoulder and then raises His right eyebrow, He becomes spellbinding!

“Now, concerning that flute. When He placed it on His lower lip, the abode of yearning, it did not confer supreme joy upon any goddess in Heaven—it merely aroused their passions. When they heard the flute, they experienced the anguish of separation but could not imbibe the bliss of God’s lila. If my Beloved had only applied a bit more pressure to the holes when He played, the result could have been different. But that is not what He did. Instead, Sri Krishna gently placed His fingers along the length of the flute and played a gentle song. For nectar to arise, the flute must first be played softly in the lower scale. Medium pressure creates the middle octave, and only when the holes of the flute are pressed hard is the higher scale achieved.”

The Gopi who sings this song peers into God’s playground. Possessed, she knows the subtleties of His playground and of His flute playing. She beholds the primal cause behind it all is Mukunda, the granter of enlightenment, at the very least. The call of His flute cleanses the world and grants liberation. It purifies the blessed ones, consecrates them and makes them worthy of His joyful worship.

The Gopi continues, “When the goddesses in their celestial chariots heard the flute, imperfect desires arose.

They are qualified as women,
They are worthy to be enjoyed,
But they do not have the principal qualification
To taste God.

“Sitting with their godlike husbands, those goddesses can grant everything except God. Although excellent singers, when they first heard the flute’s song they became dismayed and aroused. They were ashamed that their husbands, who were sitting with them, would notice their increasing desires. They could not understand the subtle transcendent lila and took the shelter of mundane Cupid. Their confused minds and hearts were offered there, placed like a coward before a killer. Distraught by tormenting passions, some of them even fainted, totally unaware of their loosened drawstrings. My friend! If the flute can have such an overwhelming effect on those goddesses, why should it be of any surprise if we also swoon from its call?”

[An excerpt from Ecstatic Couplets, by Shyamdas. Pratham Peeth Publications, 2010]

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Brahma cannot even follow Krishna’s Gopa cow lads, for they are not a subject of his Vedas. Omniscient Krishna knows all about their wanderings; He sees exactly what they are up to and protects their divine senses. The Vrindavan lila arises in a sphere beyond Brahma’s grasp and jurisdiction. Shiva, Brahma, and Indra reign over past, present, and future as well as over morning, midday, and afternoon, but what can they understand the Sri Krishna’s lila, as it occurs during immeasurable time? Even Mother Yashoda, the best of women, cannot fathom it. — transl. by Shyamdas, Ecstatic Couplets