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|| आ नो भद्राः क्रतवो यन्तु विश्वतः || Let nobel thoughts come to us from everywhere, from all the world || 1.89.1 Rigveda ||
Section : Literature

Gīta Govinda: Readers’ Delight, Translators’ Nightmare
Tradition has it that Jayadeva would sing his aṣṭapadis to Jagannatha of Puri, while Padmavati would dance to them. Gīta Govinda’s songs are all naṭanīyāḥ not paṭanīyāh—designed to be sung and danced to, not read. Jayadeva himself suggests a raga and tāla for each aṣṭapadi.

By Suhas Mahesh

Most translations of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda stumble in their purpose, yet the original uses simple subjects and transforms them into something extraordinary.

स्मरगरलखण्डनं मम शिरसि मण्डनं देहि पदपल्लवमुदारम् |

Place your foot on my head—
A sublime flower destroying poison of love!
(Translation by Barbara Stoler Miller)

Legend has it that after Jayadeva put these words into the mouth of Krishna in his poem, he was suddenly taken aback by his own hubris. How could he place a woman’s feet on the highest God’s head? Jayadeva quickly scratched out the sacrilegious lines and went to have an oil bath. Krishna then appeared in the poet’s guise, restored the lines, ate his food and left. When Jayadeva returned, he was surprised to see his wife Padmavati having food before serving him. Jayadeva soon put two and two together and fell at Padmavati’s feet — she had been blessed with a meeting with Krishna that even he had been denied.Having obtained divine mandate, Jayadeva completed the Gīta Govindam, and introduced himself in the work as Padmavati’s husband padmāvatī-caraṇa-cāraṇa-cakravartī “the ruler of Padmāvatī’s dancing feet”.

Tradition has it that Jayadeva would sing his aṣṭapadis to Jagannatha of Puri, while Padmavati would dance to them. Gīta Govinda’s songs are all naṭanīyāḥ not paṭanīyāh—designed to be sung and danced to, not read. Jayadeva himself suggests a raga and tāla for each aṣṭapadi.

The Gīta Govinda is really more music than literature, making it a translator’s nightmare. Barbara Stoler Miller, the author of the most popular translation Love Song of the Dark Lord, went to “heroic lengths to find the appropriate words for her translation—studying the metrical intricacies of Sanskrit verse, recording the verse recited, sung and danced to, learning the Indian flute, discussing interpretations with Indian scholars and referring her efforts to Sanskrit authorities”. Yet, her translation, as you can see, is paler than the shadow of the ghost of Jayadeva’s original.

Gīta Govinda revolves around the age old theme of vipralambha (separation) ending in sambhoga (union). The plot is about Krishna and Radha’s love, estrangement and reunion. There are just three characters — Krishna, Radha and her friend, simply called Sakhī. The remarkable feature of Gīta Govinda, as Goethe remarks, is the “extremely varied motives by which an extremely simple subject is made endless”. Before Jayadeva, the theme of Rādha as Krishna’s primary consort was almost non-existent. It was Jayadeva who picked up the few tenuous strands and wove them into a fine tapestry. The effect was such that when the Brahma Vaivarta purāṇa was written a few centuries later, Rādha had displaced Rukmiṇī as Krishna’s object of adoration.

Gīta Govinda opens with few verses establishing the theme, and comparing Jayadeva to other poets (and calling himself better). In the third verse, Jayadeva makes it clear that the devotee in him sees no difference between the sacred and the erotic—

यदि हरिस्मरणे सरसं मनो यदि विलासकलासु कुतूहलम् । मधुरकोमलकान्तपदावलीं शृणु तदा जयदेवसरस्वतीम् ॥

If your mind is fixed upon Hari,
And if it’s curious about erotic play,
Listen to Jayadeva’s speech
In these sweet lyrical songs.

Jayadeva established attachment as a path, rather than an obstacle to liberation. The Vaiṣnava ideology is a strange paradox — searching for liberation in bondage. Appayya Dīkṣita makes a nice comment on this in his vairāgyaśataka-

त्यक्तव्यो ममकारस्त्यक्तुं यदि शक्यते नासौ । कर्तव्यो ममकारः किं तु स सर्वत्र कर्तव्यः ॥

Possessiveness must be abandoned.
If you can’t, be possessive— but about everything.

The logic is that the ship going too far west goes east. The first is Śiva’s path, the second is Krishna’s. It was the acceptance of this tenet of Jayadeva that became the nucleus around which the rest of the Vaiṣnava Bhakti tradition crystalised in the later centuries. Of course, Jayadeva is not without critics. The last great aesthetician, Jagannatha (the irony of the name!), calls Jayadeva a rutting elephant describing the Gods inappropriately and bulldozing through propriety. There were also many Indologists, whose Victorian sensibilities did not permit them an appreciation of Jayadeva. Many interpretations have been given which strip away the erotic by providing nebulous, sanitised meanings. C.R. Srinivasa Iyengar is quoted providing this fantastically obscure interpretation in the History of Classical Sanskrit Literature :

Rādha is not a woman but a thing representing the materialism, and the whole is a gradual story of the pilgrimage of the soul up to the path of glory.

The Gīta Govinda (like the amaruśataka), is not an allegorical work and attempts to force-fit allegories will not yield anything of substance.

The Gīta Govinda is divided into twelve cantos, which have 24 aṣtapadis unequally divided between them. The first aṣtapadi is the famous pralaya-payodhi-jale (here in the voice of M.S. Subbulakshmi), which describes the ten avatars of Viṣnu—

I urge you to listen to the wonderful collection of aṣtapadis rendered in various styles collected on this blog:

There is not much engaging discussion that can be had on the literary merits of Gīta Govinda. Stock-metaphors are the building blocks of Gīta Govinda. There is not much originality to be seen. However, we must remember that a tight-rope walker cannot be expected to tap-dance. What Jayadeva achieved within the constraints he set for himself is remarkable.Perhaps the Gīta Govinda is one of the few Sanskrit works that cannot be enjoyed in translation at all. Some translators like Lee Siegel have attempted to preserve the original sound effects—

lalita-lavaṅga-latā-pariśīlana-komala-malaya-samīre |
madhukara-nikara-karambita-kokila-kūjita-kuñja-kuṭīre ||
viharati haririha sarasa-vasante
nṛtyati yuvati-janena samaṃ sakhi virahi-janasya durante ||

When winsome westerly winds caress comely creeping cloves,
As bumblebees’ buzz-buzzing and cuckoos’ coo-cooing resound in huts, in groves;
In springtime, the sensual season so languorously long for forlorn lovers,
Krishna strays and plays, my friend, dancing with young girls.

But clearly, the idiom of English does not support such acrobatics, while maintaining aesthetic beauty! Lee Siegel has only force-fitted a round peg into a square hole. The only way to enjoy the Gīta Govinda perhaps, is to learn Sanskrit. (Prod, prod!) As an aside, our hero for today, Jayadeva, despite seeming like a stauch Vaiṣhnava, has even written a verse on Śiva, found in the saduktikarṇamṛta!

भूतिव्याजेन भूमीममरपुरसरित्कैतवादम्बु बिभ्रल् लालाटाक्षिच्छलेन ज्वलनमहिपतिश्वासलक्ष्यं समीरम् ।
विस्तीर्णाघोरवक्त्रोदरकुहरनिभेनाम्बरं पञ्चभूतैर् विश्वं शश्वद्वितन्वन्वितरतु भवतः सम्पदं चन्द्रमौलिः ||

Bearing the earth in guise of the ashes smeared on his body,
Water in guise of the heavenly river Gangā,
Fire under the guise of his third eye,
Air in the guise of his great snake’s breath
and ether in guise of the cavity inside the Aghori Shiva’s mouth,
And perpetually manifesting the universe through the five elements
May the moon-crested Shiva grant you prosperity!

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