How can I describe his relentless flute,
which pulls virtuous women from their homes
and drags them by their hair to Shyam
as thirst and hunger pull the doe to the snare?
Chaste ladies forget their lords,
wise men forget their wisdom,
and clinging vines shake loose from their trees,
hearing that music.
Then how shall a simple dairy maid withstand its call?
Candidasa says, Kala the puppet master leads the dance.
In the popular psyche, Krishna and Radha became the universal symbol for the lover and the beloved. Krishna was the ideal nayak (hero), and Radha the ideal nayika (heroine). The use of the word ideal should not be interpreted to mean a monotone image. On the contrary, they were the ideal precisely because their sringara-leela could accommodate a thousand variations. All lovers could not but reflect in their own personality some part (ansh) of the divine love between the two; conversely, the two incorporated in themselves the personality of all lovers. The canvas of their love was seamless, a painting which amplified and mutated itself in a myriad reflections. For this reason, but also as a facade for the expression of human prurience, an invocation of their name became a password to sanction the description of all contact between the sexes.
The meteoric growth in the stature of Radha in Krishna lore was in large measure due to the fact that Krishna was a god specially made for women. Radha acquired pivotal importance because through her feeling and personality she articulated the silent yearnings and fantasies of Indian women as a whole. Around the tenth century AD, women in India lived in considerably repressed conditions. Wifely chastity was an overpowering ideal in an unrepentantly polygamous society. Men could have more than one wife and several mistresses; women could at best strive to retain the attention of their husband. For men dalliance outside marriage had social tolerance if not acceptance; a woman was bounded by the four walls of her husband’s home and even the thought of a romantic foray beyond them was unthinkable. To make matters worse, husbands were often away for long periods. An entire genre of very stirring verse—Baramaasa—came up dealing with a wife’s anguish at the many seasons of the year drifting barrenly by in the absence of her husband. Widowhood was a curse, remarriage was taboo, and the plight of -child-widows pitiable. Sexual frustration was thus rampant under the respectable edifice of ‘stable’ homes and chaste wives.
In Radha, Indian women found a symbol for the vicarious release of their repressed personalities. Radha’s intense yearning for Krishna echoed their own subconscious frustrations. Her uninhibited pursuit of physical fulfillment with him mirrored their own libidinal stirrings. The secretive, illicit and adulterous nature of her affair with Krishna provided a particularly apt framework for them to identify with. Radha, the furtive rebel, determined to clandestinely break the stranglehold of social norms and customs, became an image they could readily internalize.
If Radha was the inspiration, Krishna was the object of the Indian woman’s fantasy. Unlike other gods in the Hindu pantheon, Krishna’s personality had a softness to it that made it conspicuously responsive to the longings and desires of women. As a child, his impish adorability tugged at the maternal instincts of the women of Braj. As an adolescent, his aggressive behaviour with its transparent sexual overtones was secretly understood by them. As a lover, he was prepared to overcome his own initial scruples to respond with equal passion to their overtures. When he danced the rasa he took care to perpetuate the illusion that he was available exclusively for each one of them. In lovemaking, he was both untiring and accomplished. Above all, he was human, treating women nor just as sex objects, but suffering like them in separation and longing. In his company, they could relax the code of conduct imposed by an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. They would assume a stance of familiarity, calling him a thief, a liar, cheat and so on—something they could never do with their husbands.