The description in the Harivarnsa is matter of fact, its brevity reinforces its sincerity. There is in its narration the glimpse of a spontaneous folk culture unburdened with the constraints of structured morality. The Vishnu Purana bases itself on the Harivarnsa narrative, but elaborates and embellishes it, using literary flourishes and the occasional overtone of piety to depict the transparent burgeoning of passion and desire profiled in the Harivarnsa, It also makes a much more defined and specific reference to the rasa dance. The rasa emerges as a spontaneous and joyful chorus in which movement was transparently fuelled by the physical attraction between Krishna and the gopis. The dance could be fatiguing, lasting the entire night and for several nights thereafter, a conduit for the release of sexual tension and a forum for its expression.
It was human choreography naturally articulating a need that demanded celebration. But even at this point it is very clear that the behaviour of the gopis with their god-like beau, and his behaviour with them, was in opposition to the accepted morality of the society in which they lived. The Harivarnsa is unambiguous in asserting that the girls eluded the restraints of their mothers, fathers and brothers; and the Vishnu Purana is unequivocal in noting that the gopis were prohibited in vain by their husbands, brothers and fathers.
On the beginnings made by the Harivarnsa and the Vishnu Purana, the Bhagavata Purana built a complex edifice dealing with Krishna’s love games. Seeing the jasmine come to full bloom in the cool autumn nights, the Lord, the Bhagavata writes, made up his mind to commence his love play. Hearing his flute and stirred by the moonlight caressing the forest in a gentle glow, the gopis, breaking all restraints, rushed to him. Having enticed them, Krishna, paradoxically, asked the ladies to return home since adultery would not be approved of. The gopis were however adamant; they fervently professed their love for him and explained the suffering they would undergo if denied union with him. Krishna relented and on the cool sands of the banks of the Yamuna with the heady perfume of the lilies in the air, made love to them.
By stretching out his arms and embracing them; by playfully caressing their hair, by pleasurably stroking their thighs, loosening their waist cloths and fondling their breasts; by engaging in battles with fingernails; and by playful derision, glances and smiles the Lord aroused the women of Vraja to the peak of passion, and made love to them.
Fulfilled in their desires, the gopis begin to look upon themselves as superior; conceit and pride enter their feelings, and to remove these Krishna suddenly disappears from their midst, leaving them utterly distraught. Their suffering is so acute that they lose all sense of their person or surroundings. In their agony some of them begin to imitate Krishna. Others, almost insane from the pangs of separation, begin to search for him in the forest, singing in high pitched voices songs in his praise, and asking the bees and plants, the creepers and animals, of his whereabouts.
At this point Krishna reappears in their midst and starts the rasa. The Bhagavata Purana introduced a new element in the dance performance. According to the Vishnu Purana, Krishna, through his touch, created the impression in the minds of the gopis that each them was holding his hand. The Bhagavata states that Krishna actually physically multiplied himself, putting one of his arms round the neck of each gopi, so that for sixteen gopis there were eight Krishnas. Each gopi thus had Krishna for herself, and together they danced the rasa with vigour and passion. During the dance their breast cloths and the knots of the girdles and braids came loose, but in their fervour they cared not, ‘delighted by the touches of Krishna*. The Bhagavata describes the finale of the love play thus:
After multiplying Himself so that there were as many forms of Him as there were cowherd-women. His Blessed Lord made love with these gopis—even though His delight is in Himself, playfully—as a game. The gopis were exhausted by this excess of love play, and He, compassionate, wiped their faces lovingly . . . with His most blessed hand. The gopis . . . honouring their virile lover, sang in praise of the sacred works He had done, filled with joy by the touch of His fingernails.
Vibrantly erotic, Bhagavata, like the Harivarnsa and the Vishnu Purana, makes it clear that the gopis’ liaison with Krishna was in the case of the unmarried ones, illicit, and in the case of the married ones, adulterous. The love play was also carried on in explicit defiance of the prevailing norms and code of morality. But the Bhagavata, written around the tenth century AD, reflects the cumulative legacy of several centuries of legitimizing desire and eroticism as a strand of Hindu outlook and tradition. Krishna, the lover, was the ultimate rasik— he who knows of rasa, is immersed in it and can arouse it in others.