Summary of the Poem
The Gita Govinda — a cycle of Sanskrit
songs, commentaries and invocations depicting Krishna's courtship of
the cowherdess Radha — was the most popular and influential poem to
emerge from medieval India. The text was added to temple inscriptions,
set to music, choreographed for dance, and studied as a religious text.
Contemporary poems, recitations, songs and dances point to its
continuing popularity. With frank and tender lyricism, the Gita Govinda
explored the many aspects of sexual passion, from first awakening
through fierce regrets and jealousies to the rapture and contentment of
bodily possession. On one level it narrates the loves of Radha and
Krishna as simple cowherds, but the poem also celebrates nature's
regeneration through sexual congress, the interplay of the human and
divine, and the profound mystery of erotic experience.
The poem can be dated to the twelfth century and was almost certainly
written in north-eastern India, as it shows familiarity with Jagannath
sects in Orissa and mentions fellow poets at the court of the last
Hindu ruler in Bengal, Maharaja Laksmanasena (AD 1175-1200). Many lines
of evidence point to Jayadeva being born in Orissa, probably in Kenduli
Sasan village, which lies in the Prachi valley of the Khurda district
of Odisha, then under the rule of the Ganga dynasty king Chodaganga
Deva. In Orissa Jayadeva probably continued to live, the Laksmanasena
connection possibly arising over confusion with another poet of the
same name in Bengal. If, as some scholars believe, Gita Govinda was
first performed on the Srimandir and the coronation of Kamarnava as the
crown prince in 1142 AD, the Laksmanasena lines must be a later
interpolation. Whatever the details, Jeyadeva appears by this
interpretation part of the Oriya culture that built the erotic temples
of Konark, Puri and Bhubaneswar. Poets are chameleon characters,
however, and Jayadeva himself is reputed to have been a saintly ascetic
induced to settle by marrying the temple dancer, Padmavati, and take up
writing the Gita Govinda.
The latter was apparently a model wife, modest and devoted to Jayadeva, and very different from Radha, who is the typical heroine of classical Sanskrit poetry: proud of her heavy breasts and hips, consumed by longing, but also playful, sulking, jealous, tempestuous and despairing. Krishna is the eternal male: urgent and charming and uncommitted. Radha submits to his entreaties, but feels abandoned when Krishna returns to his other women. The ten long parts of the poem that separate Radha's first submission to her final reconciliation with Krishna, in which the lovers declaim and despair, appearing to say a few verses to each other or sending the go-between to plead their cause, allow Jayadeva to explore the changing moods of attraction, which are both natural to the situation, and what audiences expected. Krishna repents, longs for Radha, commiserates with her distress, waits for her, makes her jealous, importunes and praises her, enjoys and assures her of his love. Radha sulks and despairs, wastes away, flies into tempers, rails at Krishna, consents and finds joy and contentment with him.