Meaning: Radha calls out to Krishna, Krishna calls back. This is a love dialogue between the soul (Radha) and God (Krishna), both longing for reunification.
– Translation: Austin Sanderson
The Rasa Lila is an enchanted space designed by Lord Krishna to bring about a profound understanding of union. In Sanskrit, rasa means “aesthetics” and lila means to “act” or to “play, which roughly translates into “play of aesthetics.” The term “aesthetics” could be referring to a concept of “beauty,” but that would be a very shallow interpretation. In relation to the Rasa Lila, aesthetics on a deeper level is referring to the set of principles concerning our relationship with the Divine (in this case, Krishna) and how those principles can be played with as part of the interaction. The lila allows our perspective to be altered, flipped, or even turned upside down so that we can grow spiritually. Anything can happen in Krishna’s magical Rasa Lila.
When talking about the Rasa Lila, it is impossible to think of Lord Krishna without thinking of his beloved, Radha, and the bond between the two. Radha was the wife of another gopa (cow herder) in the village but she was the closest of all the gopis (milkmaids) to the young and handsome Krishna. During the time he lived in Vrindavan, the two were lovers. This love affair was forbidden because Radha was married. In the Krishna Bhakti (bhakti meaning “devotion”) tradition of Vaishnavism (the worship of Vishnu, which is another name for Krishna), the female Radha is interpreted as symbolizing the human soul and the male Krishna as symbolizing God. The two lovers would meet in the safety of the Rasa Lila.
If at this point the concept of female and male identity causes you to see Krishna Bhakti as just another form of oppressive gender roles, think again – remember, this is the Rasa Lila, where identity is neither fixed or static.
One day, Radha was feeling oppressed and sad about her status as a woman and wife, and said to Krishna, “You don’t know what is like to be me, a woman. Sometimes I wish I were a man, like you! It must be liberating to have so many freedoms that we women do not possess. I want to know what it is like to be Krishna.” Without a word, Krishna started to take off his clothing. Radha said, “What are you doing?” and Krishna replied, “Radha, take off your sari: you want to experience what is like to be me, I want to experience what is like to be you. We will switch roles. You will become the man and I will become the woman.” Radha started taking off her clothing, stripping away the identity that she felt was keeping her from experiencing what Krishna experienced. This act of cross-dressing gives the lovers insights into each other’s experience, allowing them to turn things upside down and see the world from a different perspective.
In the end, Radha realizes that although her appearance has changed and the world around her interacted differently while she was dressed as a man, her heart still longed for Krishna. Her longing to be one with him had not changed. She realized that the soul – no matter what physical form it occupies – still wishes to be closer to God. Only through the act of cross-dressing could Radha have this spiritual realization.
This story is known as “gore gvala ki leela” (the game of the fair cowherder), and Krishna’s cross-dressing is called “Krishna stri-vesha” (Krishna as girl). This is not the only story about Krishna putting on women’s clothing or transforming himself into a full woman: in a Tamil Nadu folktale, he transforms into Mohini (meaning “enchantress”), so that a doomed soldier has a “lover” to weep and mourn over his dead body at the end of a bloody war.
Stories like this point to a gender fluidity that yogic tradition has embodied for thousands of years. The mood that Krishna evokes with his willingness to move from one gender identity to another is one of love and compassion, breaking the rigid control and domination of binary culture. It also points to the fact that our relationship with the Divine (whatever name you call divinity) should have a spontaneity that is not limited by our own self-imposed rigidity and preconceived ideas of who we are, because the soul is beyond the body and mind.
The yoga practice offers many tools for us to gain new insights. Inversion asanas are a great way for us to turn things upside down and experience the world from a different point of view. Also, while in meditation, when we ask the question “who am I?” we can start to break down fixed concepts and ideas. We can act freely. We let go of the preconceived judgments we project on ourselves and others. We begin to “play” with those “aesthetics,” which allows us to realize our true our true Divine nature, crossing over and embracing a new identity.
Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu