When Krishna, sweetness and grace itself, played the flute its impact was bewitching. Indeed, his flute, with its obvious phallic connotations, was but an extension of his beauty. The Bhagavata narrates how, on hearing the melody of his flute, the gopis left whatever they were doing and throwing all restraint and caution to the winds rushed to his side as if in a trance. When the strains of his flute wafted through Vrindavan, all things became intoxicated with passion. Not even the wives of gods could resist its call. It was as if all of creation for a moment stopped to listen rapt in attention.
As he played, clouds bent low to come closer to him, plants and creepers swayed in silent salute, the reeds from which his flute was made wept tears of joy, and rivers slowed their pace in involuntary obeisance. Vallabhacharya (AD 1479-1531), the learned saint and founder of the Vaishnava Vallabha sect, has categorized the sound of Krishna’s flute into five kinds: when the Lord played with his flute to the left, passion awoke in women; when his face was to the right, desire surged in both men and women; when his face pointed upwards, kaama infused the gods; when downwards, animals and birds became its prey; and when he played straight ahead, even insentient things could not insulate themselves from its effect.
But Krishna’s physical appeal, his madhurya, and the call of his flute were also linked to the overall ambience of the moment and the setting, moved by which alone he would set forth to evoke the erotic mood. The flute rang out most clear and compellingly with the onset of autumn, when the monsoon had spent itself, the landscape was green and lush, jasmine and coral flowers and water lilies were in bloom, and the nights were clear and full of stars. The Harivarnsa, the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata categorically link Krishna’s love play with the autumnal turn of season when man and nature alike were open to the seduction of Kaamadeva as never before.
In the Harivarnsa, Krishna himself lyrically describes the beauty of autumn, and brings out forcefully why his flute, could now succeed so eminently in overwhelming the shores of restraint around the brimful pool of desire. In this season, he says, the forests are thick with foliage and fruits. Flowers—the red bandhujiva, the yellow asama and the purple kovidava—are in bloom. The skies are clear, the breeze is calm, and the earth washed and clean. Rivers, no longer in spate, flow placidly, their gurgle akin to a woman’s laughter. Flowering vines decorate the banks of the Yamuna. Lakes, ponds and reservoirs are full, and lilies and lotuses bloom in them like so many stars in the night. The fields are awash with the pastel shades of ripening rice. Birds—geese, cranes and curlews—dot the landscape. Cows are well fed and rich in milk, and bulls twice as lusty. There is contentment in the hearts of people, when autumn, like a beautiful damsel, strolls along the countryside.
Krishna’s love play with the gopis was thus one in which the physical was interwoven with melody, grace, madhurya, a sense of moment and the resplendence of nature. Sringara rasa was the outcome of this heady mix. Vallabhacharya makes one of his most perceptive comments in Subhodhini, his commentary on the Bhagavata, when he says that in so far as a person does not subordinate himself to the dominant mood to that extent he lacks aesthetic taste’ (from the translation in James D. Redington’s Vallabhacharya on the Love Games of Krishna). This and not the half-hearted attempts at ‘moral’ reconciliation best captures the essence of the Bhagavata. Indeed, Vallabhacharya goes so far as to say that the male relatives of the gopis— fathers, brothers, husbands, sons—in attempting to restrain the gopis ‘were insensitive to the proper mood of the ultimate reward, since their sole preoccupation was with the means’.
In contrast, the gopis, overcome by sringara rasa, were rightly unable to control themselves. Vallabhacharya gives the example of a boat being carried away in a raging flood that would not stop merely by someone shouting at it to do so. The gopis were similarly beyond moral categories. Without physical union with Krishna, they were in genuine suffering; Krishna, for them, was the destroyer of suffering (artihan) and the destroyer of anxieties (adihan). Making love with him gave them sukha (bliss), joy, and it is at this point that ideologically the carnal and the spiritual make a surprising fusion. According to the Upanishads, creation itself was suffused with sukha and joy as both a reflection and an attribute of the Infinite. The Chandogya Upanishad says: ‘where there is joy there is creation. Where there is no joy there is no creation: know the nature of joy. And in the Taittiriya Upanishad, the seeker of truth finally understands the mystery of Brahma: ‘And then he saw that Brahma was joy: for from joy all beings have come, by joy they all live, and onto joy they all return.’ This ananda, this joy, was also the leitmotif of the gopis love play with Krishna. The rasa leela affirmed the sexual as a window to the divine.