My talk on Gita Govinda

I had given a talk on Gita Govinda on 18-December-2016 at V-Excel Educational Trust, RA Puram, Chennai. This was one of the preparatory talks, organized by Tamil Heritage Trust for the upcoming site seminar to Orissa. I’m posting a summary of my talk, for those who had wanted to know more about it. A concise version of this should appear in the site seminar’s source book.

Gita Govinda: Jayadeva’s epic love poem

Gita Govinda is a dramatic lyrical poem written about the love between Krishna and the cowherdess Radha. It is believed to have been composed by the 12th century poet Jayadeva. Gita Govinda is considered a unique work in Indian literature and source of inspiration in both medieval and contemporary Vaishnavism. Gita Govinda is also an integral part of culture in Odisha, with several sources claiming that the literary work originated in Odisha.

Legend:

According to some legends, Jayadeva was a wandering poet who would not rest under one tree for more than a night for fear that attachment to the place would violate his vow. His ascetic live ended when he met Padmavati, daughter of a Bramhan in Puri, and got married to her.

king_lakshma_asena_with_his_five_jewelsPopular legend is that once day, Jayadeva got disillusioned with writing love poems that the king had ordered him to. He lamented about it to Padmavati, and suggested that they consider leaving Puri. His wife insisted that he write love poems about Krishna, instead of writing for mortals. Next day, Jayadeva was thrilled when the king ordered him to write about Krishna’s rasaleela. Jayadeva agreed to it, and at once, got on with the job. As he composed, Padmavati danced – thus the Gitagovinda. In this fashion, Jayadeva completed writing 18 poems. In the 19th poem, Jayadeva had conceived the climax of Krishna’s love episode with Radha. And he wrote about Krishna pleading forgiveness to Radha, and asking to place her foot on his head in a symbolic gesture of victory. The poem is as follows:

स्मर गरल खण्डनम् मम शिरसि मण्डनम् देहि पदपल्लवम्  उदारम्

ज्वलति मयि दारुणो मदन कदनानलो हरतु तदुपाहित विकारम्

smara garaLa khaNDanam mama shirasi maNDanam dEhi pada pallavam udAram
jvalati mayi dAruNO madana kadanAnalO haratu tadupAhita vikAram

Meaning: Place your tender feet on my head as an ornament to refute Cupid’s poison. Cupid’s destructive fire burns intensely in me, let your feet take away that disquietude caused by that fire.

Filled with remorse about the story that he had conceived – of Radha placing her foot on the Lord’s head, Jayadeva paused writing and went to the river to bathe. In his absence, Krishna appeared in his guise to complete the poem; then Krishna ate the food that Padmavati had prepared for Jayadeva, and left. When Jayadeva returned, he realized that he had received divine grace in exalting Krishna’s relation to Radha.

Love Poems in literature:

Love isn’t a theme that is new to Indian literature. Several Tamil poems from the Sangam period (4th century B.C – 2nd century A.D) spoke about love – in forms such as இற்செறித்தல், மடலேறுதல், விரைவுகடாதல், விரகம், தூது. The love theme was also in vogue during the Bhakti period (650 – 950 A.D), by poets like Andal, Thirunavukkarasar, Manickavasagar and Tirumangai Azhwar.

So what makes Gita Govinda special? Is it due to its radical departure from the regular theme of Krishna and Gopis? Or is it by virtue of being the popular literary representation of Radha? Or is it Jayadeva’s placement of Krishna – not on a pedestal, but on the same plane as Radha, and the celebration of his playfulness?

Barbara Stoler Miller, in her book “The Gita Govinda: Love Poems of the Dark Lord” says:

“In the Gita Govinda, Radha is neither a wife nor a worshipping rustic playmate. She is an intense, solitary, proud female who complements and reflects the mood of Krishna’s passion. She is Krishna’s partner in a secret and exclusive love, contrasted in the poem with circular rasa dance Krishna performs with the entire group of cowherdesses”

“Krishna disappears after this dance, deserting the cowherdesses but he stays with Radha to admire and ornament her. Her relationship with Krishna culminates in the union and mutual victory (jaya) over each other. In Jayadeva’s view, the profound intimacy of Krishna’s concentration on Radha, in contrast with the diffusion of erotic energy in his play with the cowherdesses, is the perfection of Krishna’s nature”

Radha in literature

radha_krishna_in_moonlit_light_hf39It is impossible to think of Krishna without thinking of Radha. But what was the earliest reference to Radha in literature?

The most sacred book of Krishna, Bhagavata Purana, compiled around 10th century in South India, does not mention Radha. In the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna disappears when the milkmaids become possessive and seek exclusive attention. The idea that God (Krishna) loves all with equal intensity was visually expressed by making the women dance in a circle, each one equidistant from Krishna who stood playing the flute in the centre. But yet there is no Radha!

The Tamil epic Silapadikaram, refers to one Nal-Pinnai (நப்பின்னை) who was the beloved of Krishna. The name நப்பின்னை also finds a mention in Tiruppavai (நந்தகோபாலன் மருமகளே, நப்பின்னாய்) and Naalayira Dhivya Prabandham (நப்பின்னை காணிற் சிரிக்கும் மாணிக்கமே என் மணியே). While some scholars believe that she represents an early form of Radha, the theory didn’t get acceptance by many others. The Azhwar’s works never had a direct reference to Radha.

The earliest known reference to Radha was in the 2nd century AD work Gatha Saptasathi, written by Hala, a Satavahana king. Here Krishna removes a dust particle, kicked up by cows, from Radha’s eye thus declaring her exalted position in his heart and humbling the other women. In these songs Krishna is not divine; he is a simple cowherd, a hero of the village folk. The songs lack sensual passion and religious ecstasy. Radha is never wife, and the dominant emotion is one of longing following separation, an emotion that eventually characterizes Radha-Krishna relationship.

So what drew Jayadeva to the legend of Radha? Whether he stumbled upon the Gatha Saptasathi or other literary works still remains a mystery.

Historical evidence of Gita Govinda

Jayadeva’s birthplace: Although no historical references to Jayadeva’s life exist, his place of birth remains a topic of debate, with both Odisha and Bengal claiming to be the poet’s birthplace.

Traditional accounts record that Ramanuja, the apostle of Sri Vaishnava cult visited Puri in the early part of 12th century and established a school there. It is claimed that he met and influenced the King of Puri and worked to introduce the ritual of Srivaishnavism into the Jagannath temple, against the strong opposition of resident Saivite priests. The king who he met was probably Anantavarman Chodagangadeva, the Ganga king who ruled in Orsissa about 1078-1147 A.D. Records suggest that Chodagangadeva initiated major construction work of the Jagannath temple, that was completed by his grandson Anangabhimadeva in the late 12th century. Scholars in Odisha claim that Jayadeva who was born in Kindubilva reached Puri around this time.

Bengal’s stake to claiming Jayadeva’s birthplace originates from literary inscriptions and temple inscriptions. Saduktikarnamrita, a work by Sridharadasa in 1205 A.D was compiled at the end of the reign of Lakshmanasena, the Sena king who ruled Bengal from 1178-1205 A.D. The work has 2 verses that are in the critical text of Gita Govinda. Temple inscriptions of Lakshmanasena open with a invocation to Vishnu, and describe him a devout Vaishnava. This confirms the shift in sectarian allegiance towards Vaishnavism. Scholars used these records to conclude that Jayadeva must have been born in Bengal, but reached Puri in due course of time. Whether Jayadeva was a court poet of Lakshmanasena remains unknown, but it is at least clear that he must have lived somewhere around Lakshmanasena’s period.

bada-shrugara-beshaOpposition to Gita Govinda : In the 13th century, Gita Govinda came under severe criticism from purists in the Jagannath temple for representing Krishna as a freelance. As a result, Jayadeva’s work was rejected in the Puri temple in the beginning phase. This tone of the rejection has also been written by Sarala Das in his Mahabharata. According to Madalapanji Gita Govinda was sung in front of the deity Jagannatha in the post-Narasimha period. By that time Gita Govinda had spread to other parts of India, and also Jagannatha was totally identified with Krishna. What were the reasons that prompted the revival of Gita Govinda ? How did it become so popular? How did it become acceptable amongst the purist SriVaishnavites ? Such questions remains unanswered.


Inscriptions about Gita Govinda:

earliest_representation_of_gita_govindaThe earliest evidence of Gita Govinda was known in Anahillapatan, Gujarat. A stone inscription dated 1291 A.D of king Sarangadeva Vaghela opens with Jayadeva’s invocation to Krishna in his ten incarnate forms. The inscription records the levying of revised tax towards expense of temple offerings to Krishna. How the Gita Govinda spread to Gujarat, when it was still opposed in Puri remains a mystery.

Another inscription dated 1499 A.D located on the left side of the Jayavijaya doorway in Jagannath temple talks about the Gita Govinda. By this time, it appears that the Gita Govinda was sufficiently popular in Puri. The inscription translates as below :

“On Wednesday, the tenth lunar year of Kakada, bright half in the 9th mark of the warrior, the elephant-lord, the mighty Prataparudradeva Maharaja, king over Garuda and the 90 millions of Karnata and Kalabaraga, orders as follows : “Dancing will be performed thus at the time of food offerings (bhoga) to the Elder Lord (Balarama) and the Lord of the Gita Govinda (Jagannatha). This dancing will continue from the end of the deities’ evening meal to their bedtime meal. The dancing group of the elder lord, the female dancers of Lord Kapilesvara, and the ancient dancing group of Telangana will all learn no song other than the Gita Govinda and the elder Lord. Aum. They will sing no other song. No other dance should be performed before the great God. In addition to the dancing, there will be four singers who will sing only the Gita Govinda. Those who are not well versed in singing the Gita Govinda will follow in chorus – they should learn no other song. Any temple official who knowingly allows any other song or dance to be performed is hostile to Jagannath”

Poetic structure

radha_krishna_in_a_garden_pavilionEach song in Gita Govinda has 8 couplets known as pada-s. Because of this, Gita Govinda is also called Ashtapadi (8 padas). At the end of each pada is a dhruvapada, a fixed unit that is repeated after each pada.

Gita Govinda was a unique literary work in the sense that, it does not conform to the then exiting poetic structure.

If you observe a pada, it consists of a definite, fixed number of syllabic instants i.e. maatra-s. Keeping in mind the erotic mood of the poems, Jayadeva skilfully chose to use very little ‘long’ syllables, as they might look out of place in a love song. However when the long syllables are used, they are restricted either to the beginning or end of each line.

Let us take the example of the 4th poem Chandanacharchitha Neela Kalebhara. In this poem, the sakhi (Radha’s girl-friend) describes to Radha about Krishna’s joyful moments with the women of Brindavan.

चंदनचर्चित नीलकलेबर पीतवसन वनमाली |

केलिचलन्मणि कुंडल मंडित कन्दयुग स्मिथचाली ||

If you take a long syllable as 2 instants and short syllable as 1 instant, and add up the numbers, you will observe that each line in the stanza has a fixed number of 28 syllabic instants.

Jayadeva also employs repetitious sound patterns of alliteration, assonance, consonance and word play throughout all his poems.

Representation in various art forms

The Gita Govinda has been represented in various art forms. It is sung in different musical versions in Odisha, Bengal, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Nepal. Because of the role of the songs in Jagannath temple, the Gita Govinda is sung and venerated throughout Odisha. Their performance is an essential aspect of Odissi dance. In Bengal, the singing of Gita Govinda is prominent at an annual spring fair of Kenduli. In Nepal, the Gita Govinda is sung during the spring celebration in honour of goddess Sarasvati. In much of South India, the poem is sung according to the Carnatic system of music. In the Bhajana Sampradaya of Tamil Nadu, Gita Govinda is a must-have in Radha Kalyanam, a ceremonial wedding involving Krishna and Radha. The 24 Ashtapadis are sung before the wedding rituals are performed. It is also sung during Kathakali performances, but the style of singing is different from that of the Bhajana Sampradaya tradition.

Videos played during the talk

  1. MS Subbulakshmi singing Pralaya Payothijale : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCwfVCS9T88
  2. Kelucharan Mohapatra’s Odissi dance – Rathi Sukha Saare : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zv-xrLGlGNw
  3. Thanjavur Thyagarajan singing Chandana Charchitha :  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEuDZwTW1rg
  4. Bhakta Jayadeva (Telugu) movie – Priye Chaarusheele : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiisxXjMobA

 References:

  1. The Gita Govinda of Jayadeva : Love Song of the Dark Lord – Barbara Stoler Miller (Motilal Banarsidass Publications)
  2. கீத கோவிந்தம் – இலந்தை ராமசாமி (கிழக்கு பதிப்பகம்)
  3. Sound of Sanskrit – S. Swaminathan and Uma Swaminathan
  4. Gita Govinda of Jayadeva and the Temple of Purushottama Kshetra – Research Paper by Kailash Chandra Das
  5. Photos : http://www.exoticindiaart.com, http://www.orissatourismplaces.blogspot.com

10 stories from the Adyar

Yesterday’s monthly talk organized by Tamil Heritage Trust had Venkatesh Ramakrishnan talking about the ‘History of the Adyar River’.

Venkatesh is historian and bilingual author, who has written Tamil books like Kaaviri Maindhan, Thillaiyil Oru Kollaikaaran. His book Gods Kings and Slaves, a non-fiction about Malik Khafur’s invasion of Madurai was a top-seller. Venkatesh runs a group of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ enthusiasts, and has led several walks to areas covered in the novel. Few years back, he and a group of friends did a cultural mapping of the Cooum river. Although I wan’t active on the group, I had the opportunity to accompany them on couple of small trips around the Cooum. At first, I was amused that he was studying a river like Cooum, that has become a cesspool. But his stance was quite clear – ‘If we understand it better, perhaps we will treat it better’. Last year, Venkatesh made several talks around the city to improve awareness about the Cooum. And after the 2015 floods in Chennai that witnessed an overflowing Adyar river, Venkatesh and his team started mapping the Adyar.

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Venkatesh began his talk saying that most civilizations have developed around banks of rivers. Buddha used the Ganges as an example in his teachings. Chola architecture, Carnatic music grew around Cauvery. Culture was always related to perennial rivers. Rain was in abundance, and hence the patronage for arts, culture etc. But what about rivers that have turned into urban sewers ? What civilization can they claim to have developed ?

Studying the history of a river is like a slice of a cake. You get to enjoy a cross-section of various layers. If the Cooum was about the imperialism of the British, Adyar was about the aspirations of people who came to Madras from elsewhere.

The Adyar river doesn’t really join the Bay of Bengal. The opening near the sea is only for the tidal water to come in. This can be seen near the broken bridge. In terms of water quality, Adyar is much better than Cooum due to the tidal waters. It would be unfair to treat it just as a cesspool. In fact Cooum and Adyar came close to each other near the Mambalam tank, where T.Nagar is now located. That leads to the question : Did water from the 2 rivers crisscross many years ago ?

Venkatesh’s talk was so full of facts and anecdotes, that writing down his entire talk would be a mammoth effort. I will try to write 10 very short stories (or episodes) from his talk.

10 stories about the History of Adyar :

(1) The oldest known discovery on the Adyar river was Pallavaram Axe. This was discovered by Bruce Foot (ASI) in the 1800s when he went for walk in Pallavaram Parade Grounds. He was stunned with this discovery that he didn’t mention about it for 1 year. The axe is said to be 1.5 Million years old, which predates the homo-sapiens.

(2) Saint Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ is believed to have visited Madras in the 4th century. Almost all places – Little Mount, St. Thomas Mount, Santhome where Thomas is believed to have lived in Madras are around the Adyar. The first clear evidence about Thomas is from Marco Polo who visits India around 1300. Among other places, he visited Mylapore. He talks about an area where Nestorian Christmas lived, and that Thomas was buried. Legend has it that the river near Santhome once got jammed because of a wooden log, and caused flooding in the town. And Thomas took out his girdle and removed the log.

(3) If the legend of Thomas is interesting, then a similar legend on Thirumangai Azhwar for the same river in Thiruneermalai makes it more interesting. Thiruneermalai is the only padal petra sthaam on Adyar. It is believed that Thiruneermalai gets it name because the river (Adyar) got flooded for around 6 months ! Thiruneermalai also has a connection with Carnatic music. Sonti Venkatramaniah, the Guru of Tyagarajar stayed in Tiruneermalai, sang songs in praise of the Zamindar before he started teaching music. Tiruneermalai is also famous for its secretive weddings. Many celebrities have got married at this temple. It is here that MS Subbulakshmi (who lived near the Adyar river in Kotturpuram towards the later part of her life) got married to Sadasivam.

(4) Several institutes were found along the Adyar. The Trigonometric Society of India which measured and mapped India was started in St.Thomas Mount. The first location to be mapped was the Race Course, which is also on the banks of Adyar. The measurement was started by Lambton and completed by a person named Everest, after whom Mount Everest is named. Lambton’s statue can be found at the St.Thomas Mount. The King Institute of Preventive Medicine in Guindy is along the Adyar. King Institute’s biggest success is from the fact that the medicines produced by this institute were instrumental in eradicating small pox in India. The first Agricultural College in India was at Saidapet when wheat was grown in Mount Road ! The college was later shifted to Coimbatore, and the building in Saidapet now functions as the Teachers’ Training college

(5) Three Bharat Ratnas have lived or studied near the Adyar. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan studied at the Saidapet Agricultural College, MS Subbulakshmi lived at Kotturpuram, MG Ramachandran lived in Gandhi Nagar. Interestingly, there is a movie where 2 Bharat Ratnas – MS and MGR acted together. The movie is ‘Meera’ where MS played the lead, and MGR played a small role as Minister. It is hard to imagine if there will be another movie that will have 2 Bharat Ratnas on its star cast!

(6) The Battle of Adyar River took place in 1746. The battle involved 200 men of the French army, that had captured Madras from the British, and large force of 10,000 men belonging to Anwaruddin Muhammed Khan, the Nawab of the Carnatic, who sought to take Madras from the French. In the battle, which took place near the banks of the Adyar River, the French defeated the Nawab’s forces, and handed over a jolt to the British. The war was significant, as it taught the British the importance of organized armed forces. Few days after the war, Robert Clive would go on to form the Madras regiment, the precursor to Indian army.

(7) There’s some movie history too ! When the Talkies started in 1930s, Meenakshi Movie Tone (the place that later became Sathya Studios, and now MGR Janaki College) where the first talkie was shot. The studio did not have a roof, so the shooting had to be done in sunlight. When sunlight was inadequate, the crew would go eat lunch, and throw excess food on the banks of Adyar. Food attracted crows from the other end of the river (Theosophical Society). And when the crows made noise, it meant that shooting was disturbed. So they hired a person (Joe ?) to shoot the crows. This person’s name was mentioned in the credits of ‘Pavalakkodi’ that had MK Thyagaraja Bagavathar, Tamil cinema’s first superstar in the lead role. The movie also has another Adyar connection. Papanasam Sivan, who wrote 30 songs for Pavalakkodi, also wrote songs on the other side of the banks of Adyar. This was ‘Devi Vasanthe’, penned about Annie Besant in Vasantha Ragam.

(8) Venkatesh was quite vocal in his criticism for Annamalai Chettiar, the founder of Annamalai University. A political animal, Annamalai Chettiar was perhaps one of the most powerful Indians with deep pockets. His wielded tremendous influence on Lord Willingdon, the Governor General of India. He told Willingdon that Madras needed a Mayor, and convinced him to conduct a Mayor Election, that his own son (Raja Muthiah) contests. When it was found that his son was under age by 6 months, he postponed the elections by 6 months ! Later when his son became the Mayor, he becomes the owner of 100 acres of land on Marshall’s road in Egmore that houses the Air India Building – a property still owned by their family ! Albeit never a king, Annamalai Chettiar also gets the title of ‘Raja’ from British. The Chettinad bungalow today is a palatial house on Santhome High Road.

(9) The Theosophical Society is perhaps one of the biggest establishments along the Adyar. Olcott and Balavtsky started secret society Cairo, New York and India. Olcott school has the earliest mid-day meal schemes, which even Kamarajar acknowledges. Maria Montessori taught at TS, and being an Italian, she was arrested in India during WW2. Margaret Cousins who set the Jana Gana Mana to tune spent her last days in Theosophical Society, and was cremated in Adyar. The Indian National Congress had its genesis under the Banyan Tree. One of the 3 meetings held under the Banyan tree led to the formation of INC. Another famous personality – Jiddu Krishnamurthy is discovered on the banks of the Adyar.

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(10) In his magnum opus ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, Kalki wrote several lines praising the river Cauvery. Kalki wrote his novel sitting at his residence in Gandhi Nagar on the banks of the river Adyar. He even says that the Ponni river got its name from the pon (golden) color of the water. One can see glimpses of that in Adyar river while while driving across Kottur bridges during sunrise.

Video of the talk available at :

(Photos Courtesy : Facebook)