Vastra Harana Lila

The lila in which Krishna stole the clothes of the young maidens occurred during the month of Agrahayana (November-December), the beginning of hemanta, the winter season. It is described in chapter twenty-two of the tenth canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam in twenty-eight verses. A controversial chapter to the uninformed, it provides important insight for serious spiritual practitioners regardless of their tradition and especially for Gaudiya Vaisnavas, whose acaryas, Sanatana Goswami, Visvanatha Chakravarti, and Jiva Goswami, have revealed its esoteric significance.

The vastra-harana lila is a prakata (manifest) lila in which the participating milk maidens are nitya-siddhas, or eternally liberated souls. The practice they undergo to attain Krsna as their husband is all part of drama of Krsna-lila.

Sukadeva Goswami begins the narration of this lila thus: hemante prathame masi nanda-vraja kumarikah. The word kumarikah is significant, as it refers to young unmarried girls. From the use of this word it is understood that the principal maidens of this lila are different from those mentioned in the previous chapter. In Venu-gita, chapter twenty-one in which the maidens glorify Krishna’s flute, these maidens are referred to as gopis, not kumaris. They were already married by the arrangement of Paurnamasi, whereas the kumaris in this chapter were not yet spoken for.

The marriage of the gopis is itself a complex theological subject. In reality, they belong to no one other than Krishna. The mystic illusion of their marriage to young cowherds has been explained in various ways by the Gaudiya commentators. Here it will suffice to say that their marriage, although illusory, is real inasmuch as this apparent marriage to others makes it possible for the gopis and Krishna to experience the acme of sacred rapture, transcendental paramour love. This paramour love never deteriorates into taking one’s lover for granted, and the element of risk involved in it intensifies the experience of conjugal love. Such intensified romantic love gives Krishna the greatest pleasure in sacred rapture (rasa), and the extent to which Krishna is pleased determines reality. Satisfying God is reality, whereas satisfying one’s material ego is illusion.

The kumaris, being younger girls, were not married when the illusion of the older gopis‘ marriage was arranged by yoga maya, appearing in Krishna lila as the elderly Paurnamasi. However, as maturity approached they spontaneously developed a desire to live in the house of Nanda Maharaja with Krishna as their husband. With this in mind, they prayed constantly that they might become brides of Krishna. On the first day of Agrahayana, to the surprise of one another, they met on the banks of the Yamuna, having gone there separately, all with the same intention.

The secret each of the kumaris kept locked within their hearts, to be shared only with the gods, shone brightly like the sun on one anothers’ faces. Each saw their own heart reflected on one another’s face, and in the language of love they acknowledged that which they had in common. At that exact moment, in the midst of consoling one another, the natural spiritual environment of the sacred forest responded to their heart’s necessity: the forest gopi Vrinda arrived at the banks of the river.

Vrinda gopi was acutely aware of the kumaris‘ love for Krishna, and from Paurnamasi she received instruction on the performance of the Katyayani vrata (sacred vow). Katyayani is one of the many forms of Durga. As such she has both a material and spiritual manifestation. Vrinda devi instructed the kumaris how to petition her, observing a vrata for one month with the intention of being wedded to Krishna.

Sukadeva Goswami says, cerur havisyam bhunjanah. During the one month observance, they subsisted on havisya, unspiced rice and dhal boiled together. This is not a very palatable dish, but these young girls were willing to undergo this austerity in order to get Krishna as their husband. Implied here is the fact that young girls in general underwent this type of dietary regimen merely for the sake of getting a good husband. How much should we as sadhakas then be prepared to undergo dietary restrictions when they are favorable for serving Krishna?

Daily at sunrise, the coldest time of the day during the winter season, they gathered on the banks of the Yamuna to bathe and observe ritualistic worship of goddess Katyayani. From the earth they fashioned a deity of the goddess and then offered aromatic substances such as incense, flower garlands, and sandalwood pulp along with fruits, betel nuts, leaves, lamps, clothing, ornaments, and other items to her. While offering worship they chanted the mantra given to them by Vrinda, “O Katyayani, you who are the great potency of God, great mystic, and powerful controller,” nanda gopa sutam devi patim me kuru te namah, “Please make the son of Nanda my husband.”

This ritualistic worship was but an extension of the spiritual practice that the kumaris had cultured in their previous life. The goddess petitioned was one form of the presiding deity of their mantra. One cannot petition one’s worshipable deity in pursuit of that which the deity itself does not have. The manifestation of Durga who presides over maya has a particular function in relation to Krishna. Her service to him is not liberating souls, rather keeping them in bondage and thereby providing negative impetus for spiritual pursuit. Here the kumaris worshipped Krishna’s internal potency, not his external potency. However, if one is unaware of the authoritative statements of the tantras that speak about the goddess Durga who represents Krishna’s internal spiritual energy, he may insist that the names Katyayani and Bhadrakali found here in the text indicate the goddess presiding over the material world. Even if, for the sake of argument, we accept this claim, still we are taught in this chapter that the Goddess presiding over maya cannot give love of Krishna. Were it possible for her to do so, love of Krishna would be within the jurisdiction of the material world and Krishna’s theft of the kumaris‘ clothes questionable.

As we shall see, when the kumaris completed their vow, the goddess never appeared to grant them the benediction they sought. Were she the goddess presiding over the material world, she would have appeared to grant the boon of a material husband to the girls petitioning her thus. If it was this goddess that the kumaris worshipped, they worshipped the wrong person with the right idea. Their heart being properly situated in terms of loving Krishna, the goddess would have directed their worship to the department that could deal with their request.

Some people worship the right person for the wrong thing, others the wrong person for the right thing. However, If we worship Krishna for the fulfillment of material desire, rather than the god or goddess whose primary function is to fulfill that particular desire, or if we worship a god or goddess other than Radha Krishna with a desire to attain love of Krishna, in either instance, we will ultimately attain love of Krishna. In the first case, Krishna will fulfill our material desire first, and eventually give us knowledge, and then love of God. This is mentioned in the seventh chapter of the Bhagavad-gita. If out of ignorance we petition the wrong god or goddess with a desire to love god in a way that only Krishna reciprocates, in reverence of that very desire itself the god or goddess petitioned will defer our heart’s longing to the lotus feet of Radha Krishna.

The spiritual conclusion is that the kumaris‘ spiritual passion alone made possible the fulfillment of their desire. Their spiritual passion, fueled initially by the eagerness to attain Krishna as their husband, in the end amounted to the transformation of the presiding deity of the Gopala mantra herself, appearing in their purified hearts. As Rupa Goswami has said in Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu, suddha sattva visesatma prema suryamsu samyabhak, “Bhava is the transformation of the suddha sattva appearing as a ray of the sun of prema in the devotee’s heart.” Such is the nature of spiritual emotion (bhava) and love (prema). It constitutes an infusion of Krishna’s internal energy into the heart of the sadhaka. This infusion is a combination of hladini and samvit-sakti of the suddha sattva.

Spiritual passion for loving Krishna begins with an acute eagerness to love him as one of his eternal associates does. This eagerness is called lobha, sometimes translated as greed. In proportion to one’s spiritual greed, one traverses the sacred path of passionate love. On this path, constant chanting of Krishna’s holy name and mantra dhyana on Gopala mantra as prescribed by the spiritual preceptor, brings the sadhaka to svarupa-siddhi. This is the Bhagavatam‘s version of liberation, muktir hitvanyata rupam svarupena vyavastitih. It involves not merely removal of the negative influence of ignorance, but more, becoming situated in one’s own spiritual nature or identity in relation to serving Krishna. In the course of progressing to this stage, devotees pass through stages of meditation (smaranam), which are energized by continued chanting of Krishna’s holy names (kirtanam). In the stage of svarupa-siddhi, mantra dhyana has fulfilled its function, while chanting Krishna’s name in a post-liberated status furthers our love of God.

Sukadeva Goswami continues the narration in text six with mention of how the kumaris engaged in sankirtanam (congregational chanting). He says, usasy utthaya gotraih svair anyonyabaddha-bahavah krsnam uccair jagur yantyah kalindyam snatum anvaham: “Daily they rose at dawn, calling one another by name. They held hands and loudly sang in glorification of Krishna, as they went to the Kalindi (Yamuna) to take their bath.”

We should follow the example of the kumaris, rising early, bathing, and engaging in sankirtanam with like-minded devotees. This practice is highly recommended for the present age. It is both sadhana (spiritual practice) and sadhya (spiritual perfection).

The events described in the first six verses of this chapter are a general description of that which the kumaris did for the entire month of Agrahayana. Verses seven through twenty-eight describe the full moon day on which the kumaris completed their sacred vow. It was on this day that Krishna stole the maiden’s clothes. Acarya Visvanatha Chakravarti envisions that on this day other married girls featured in the previous chapter accompanied the kumaris to celebrate the completion of their vow. Owing to their exuberance resulting from the completion of their vow, the girls remained playfully within the water for some time, their colorful clothes strewn on the shore.

Sukadeva Goswami then addresses Krishna as Yogesvaresvara, an extension of his famed title as Yogesvara from the Bhagavad-gita. He is thus not only the master of yoga and mysticism, but the master of masters in this regard. Sukadeva implied that Krishna was the master of the maha-yogini, Katyayani, whom the gopis thus addressed in their matrimonial mantra. He also addressed Krishna as Bhagavan, God, possessor of all opulence, as he was now about to steal the maiden’s clothes. This act of thievery is only play for God, for when one steals from himself, it is nothing more than this.

Bhagavan tad abhipretya, God knew what the kumaris were doing. He could see in his mind’s eye their hearts voiced in a petition to the goddess and shining now on their lotus faces. Thus he went there in the company of his intimate chaps to crown the kumaris‘ endeavor.

Part Two

Krishna has many cowherd friends. There are four basic groups, sakhas (ordinary friends), suhrt sakhas (well-wishing friends), priya sakhas (dear friends), and priyanarma sakhas (bosom buddies), who accompany him in his cowherding adventures. Rupa Goswami has also identified two secondary groups, vidhusakhas (jokers) and vitas (artists). Both the priya sakhas and the priyanarma sakhas are aware of Krishna’s affairs with the gopis, as is the famous vidhusakha, Madhumangala. The priyanarma sakhas headed by Subala are directly involved in these affairs; indeed, Rupa Goswami calls their love for Krishna ‘sakhi bhava‘ in his Radha Krsna Gannodesa Dipika. Their friendship is mixed with conjugal love such that they can expertly council Krishna in his love plight with the gopis. However, his priya sakhas, although aware of his secret love, never speak about it, and they are not directly involved in it. It is interesting that the pals of Krishna accompanying him on this day were his four most intimate priya sakhas, Sridama, Sudama, Vasudama, and Kinkini.

Of the priya sakhas, Sridama is the foremost. He is the brother of Radha. In the central meeting shrine (yoga pitha) of sakhya rasa, Sridama stands at the western gate, Sudama at the northern gate, Vasudama the eastern, and Kinkini at the southern gate. In the center stand Krishna and Balarama, and on the eight petals of this hexagonal lotus stand Stoka-Krishna, Angshuka, Bhadrasena, Arjjuna, Subala, Vilasa, Mahabala, and Vrsabha. On the central, golden hexagon is carved the kama bija, klim, which is sva sadhya (self-accomplishing).

The Gautamiya tantra identifies the four principal priya sakhas as manifestations (antahkaranarupa) of Krishna’s intelligence (Sridama), ego (Sudama), heart (Vasudama), and mind (Kinkini). As one can not go anywhere without these four, these boys, either manifest or unmanifest, are always with Krishna. Appropriate to their relationship with him they are silent with regard to his conjugal life. Although personally present on this occasion, they remained as if unaware of the implications of the event that was to ostensibly constitute a virtual marriage in disregard of socio-religious convention. In terms of the divine drama, the acaryas have described them at this time as being too young to comprehend what was actually taking place.

As they walked with Krishna to the Yamuna, they repeatedly asked where he was taking them. The kumaris were bathing in a place otherwise unknown to males. As they neared the river, Krishna crouched and observed, forbidding his friends to laugh lest they be found out. Then he stole the maidens clothes, tasam vasamsi upadaya.

Krishna next climbed to the top of a kadamba tree with his friends and all five of them laughed loudly in unison, especially his fun loving friends who had thus far been restrained. Hearing the laughter, the girls recognized the deep voice of Krishna with surprise and inner delight. Looking up they saw him and his pals in the tree, their clothes no longer on the shore. Quickly they lowered their breasts into the Yamuna so that only their faces could be seen. It was as if the flower of their faces had bloomed out of season. As Krishna looked on, the bumblebee of his eyes drank the honey of the kumaris‘ flowering lotus-like faces.

Krishna then suggested that they come out of the water and take their clothes. He insisted that this was no joke, stayam bruvani no narma, biting his tongue in indignation as the girls suggested there might be something improper about his proposal. Krishna told them that compassion should not be misconstrued regardless of what form it takes. They were fatigued from their vow and now, freezing in the cold winter water, yad yuyam vrata-karsitah, while he was the solution to their predicament, their clothes in his hands.

Could Krishna’s honesty be questionable? Na mayodita-purvam va anrtam, “I have never ever lied, tad ime viduh, and these boys are my witness. Let one of you come, or all come together, O slender waisted girls.”

Krishna’s friends’ testimony was hardly what the kumaris considered credible. They laughed at what was obviously his jest with a sense of fulfillment, for he was joking with them as if they were his wives. They nonetheless remained too shy to leave the water, yet too cold to remain within.

The cold winter water of the Yamuna provided the perfect opportunity for the girls to express their hearts to Krishna and at the same time deny their heart’s ambition should anyone else find out, or in the unlikely event that Krishna did not accept their proposal. This latter concern is relative to the very nature of conjugal love of Krishna. Each and every cowherd boyfriend of Krishna feels that he is the favorite of Krishna, and each and every one of them is right. The milk maidens, however, feel just the opposite. Each girl continually doubts Krishna’s love for her, even while it is all-pervading.

The girls sensed that Krishna was trying to bring them out into the open. He wanted to hear directly from their lips the essence of that which they secretly uttered in worship of goddess Katyayani. The cold water of the Yamuna provided the pretext for them to do so. Such is the friendly nature of the Vraja environment, the bitter cold water’s current appeared favorable to the girls. Indeed as their hearts melted hearing Krishna’s request, the cold water afforded them some sense of composure that made them all the more becoming. This is the vision of the highest devotees: that which would otherwise be unfavorable is perceived by them as favorable. Their vision turns the world of adversity into an abode of joy, visvam purnam sukayate. The magical, mythical land of Vraja lies in this vision. One must learn to flow with the eternal current of God’s will.

Then they said it: syamasundara te dasyah karavama tavoditam, “O Syamasundara, we are your maidservants, and we shall do whatever you say.” The girls followed this heartfelt submission wrapped in the pretext of physical distress with a reminder for all of us. In asking for their clothing again, they declared Krishna to be the knower of dharma, dehi vasamsi dharma jna. There was nothing remotely irreligious in what he had requested. This affair was an example of paro dharma, as it demonstrated ahaituky apratihata yenatma samprasidati. The gopis love, that is, was without motive and without reservation as to what they would do for the satisfaction of the Supreme, whose satisfaction is the criterion of religious perfection, samsiddhir hari tosanam.

Spiritual truth of the matter aside, absorbed in the drama of apparent irreligiosity, the girls intended, by calling attention to dharma, that it was enough that Krishna was insisting that they bare themselves before him, and therefore he should not add insult to injury by not returning their clothes once they left the river. The feeling of their addressing Krishna as “dharma jna” was thus: “Don’t arm yourself with untruth as you prepare to do battle with the very essence of religion.” A thinking person should conclude that a relationship between boy and girl out of wedlock is the antithesis of spiritual love, even while it wraps its nature in a sense of freedom and spontaneity that we sense to be at the heart of that which is spiritual. One who develops feeling for this drama of divine love will never again be troubled by the call of the wild, the voice of the mind and senses that steal the heart of the soul.

The young maidens then threatened to report Krishna to the king if he did not return their clothes once they came out of the water. Both this and their previous statement came as Krishna hesitated to respond, which had in turn heightened the uncertainty of the young maidens. His hesitation revealed his own amazement at the depth of the girls love. He had no fear of King Kamsa, although had they intended to tell King Nanda, his father, one might think that there could have been cause for concern. However, Krishna knew the girls had no intention of telling anyone, and his fearless nature called upon by their idle threat, thus came to the surface.

Krishna responded through the voice of Sukadeva as he continued the narration, addressing Krishna as Bhagavan. In order to conceal the actual reason for his hesitation, Bhagavan said: “Well if you are willing to become my maidservants, what are you waiting for? If you really intend to do as I say, then come here. Right now you are neither acting as maidservants nor coming to get your clothes. If you really want to do as I say, then come here wearing only your smiles and each of you can take your clothes from me. If you don’t do as I say, it is you who will be known as untruthful. Then what will the king say to a compassionate person like myself, who tried to help ordinary girls like you, even while you have nourished false hopes?”

We should do our service to Krishna cheerfully, not begrudgingly. The latter is not service at all. Although we will be asked to perform many difficult tasks, these tasks are not difficult in and of themselves. The difficulty lies in our attachment to a false sense of identity. This false identity is not easy to give up. Krishna asked the girls to wear only their smile as they came out of the water. Similarly, we should never begrudge one who asks us to bare our soul. We must allow ourselves to be exploited for a purpose greater than our own mentally conceived ideal. The world of the mind is mean spirited, and we should not allow it to vent itself towards those who are our well-wishers, those whom the mind can never fully understand.

Now the girls became silent and proceeded to exit the river, desperately hoping that Krishna’s words about false hopes were words only. Their bodies had been practically immobile due to shyness more than the temperature of the water. And as they moved forward, their shivering too was only apparently due to the cold. Stepping out of the river, they covered their pubic area with their hands, their long black hair on bowed heads covering their breasts, as the shorter girls stood in front of the taller ones.

As Krishna watched the embarrassed girls one by one climb out of the water, he was satisfied with the measure of their love. He sensed that their hesitation that caused them to cover themselves even after they had come out of the water was due to nothing else than the fear that he might not accept them. They themselves had the conviction that should he turn away from them, they would give up their lives. Such was the intensity of the sacred vow they had undertaken. Krishna wanted to satisfy further his thoughts, as well as the minds of his buddies, with visible evidence as to the cause of the girls fear. Thus he spoke in jest with the appearance of gravity, assuring his pals that the girls had not yet reached menstruation, as if this changed the equation.

As Sukadeva changed the meter of his poem, Krishna told the girls, “Your religious observance is flawed, for you bathed in the river without clothes. Varuna, the God of the waters, must be appeased. Fold your hands above your heads in respect and only then will I give you back your garments.”

Distracting Krishna’s chums by telling them they heard someone coming, the girls did as Krishna ordered, editing his mandate thus: they paid respect with hands folded above their heads to him, with the sense that the wife’s husband represents the gods for her in the religion of the Veda. As they did so, Krishna returned their garments to them.

Sukadeva then interrupted his own narrative with these reflective words. “Although the girls had been completely cheated and deprived of their modesty, laughed at and played with like toys, their clothes stolen, they felt no enmity towards Krishna. Rather, they were overjoyed to have been able to have the company of their beloved.”

Quickly the girls put on their clothes. While Krishna’s chums assumed the whole affair was now finished and pulled on one another to go, the girls sat motionless. They waited in anticipation. As is done in the marriage ceremony, they wanted to touch his lotus feet.

Krishna then spoke to them. Accepting them, he assured them that the vow they had undertaken would bear fruit. He told them that the desire they cherished for uniting with him in love was pure. “Such pure desire can never lead to anything else but the fulfillment of its own objective. As fried seeds have no potential to sprout, even though they continue to look like seeds that can, the desire seed to love me can never give rise to material fruits, even though it looks like that is what it is all about.” Mysterious indeed is the nature of the highest love.

While the girls expected Krishna to perform a Gandharva marriage then and there, he told them that marriage itself is all about the feelings they shared, rites and rituals were subsidiary. Then he promised to consummate the affair on a future night. To reach that night of spiritual union, sadhakas must first pass through many long days and nights of service in separation.