Dialogue  July-September  2008, Volume 10  No. 1

The Gita-Govinda, a twelfth century Sanskrit poem travels West

 Kapila Vatsyayan*



There is a need to reinvent comparative literature as a way of engaging responsibly with cultural difference in a wide – or even global - temporal and spatial frame’. And ‘trans-cultural literary studies could play a crucial role in the refurbishment of comparative literature by providing a deeper view of the literary cultures of the world and by making them, and their inter-relationships, more comprehensible to students of literature and to a wider audience’.  It is also true to a very large extent that the discourse largely, though not always, is ‘heavily dominated by a Western perspective’ and that ‘such notions are often rather insensitively applied to cultures and eras whose perspectives on texts these notions did not form a part of’.

     I thought it may be interesting and perhaps educative to trace the journey of a short but seminal text from the India to the West. It would be pertinent to draw attention to the cultural context of the text, and its diachronic position in the literary history of Sanskrit, the content of the text at the level of theme, the language of the text and the characteristic employment of myth, metaphor and memory, of course the genre of the text within the tradition, and the impact of the text in the broad cultural area of India.  Once the text is placed within the original cultural context and the literary history, one set of issues arise,

and this is a vast field unto itself.  The next set of issues arise when the   text is interpreted, or translated, or both, by those outside the cultural context, in another era and temporal moment. What are the tacit assumptions and the reasons, and how they affect the interpretation and translation of the text?  The ‘text’ is now lifted out of the original spatio-temporal frame and placed inadvertently or by volition in another cultural context. Logically national boundaries are crossed.  Nevertheless, the interpreter, translator, succeeds in communicating either ‘narrative’ or myth, in some cases ‘essence’, despite the limitations of comprehension of the total original cultural ambience.  What is the process and how does it succeed or fail to recreate a text with a measure of ‘fidelity’, but not total authenticity?  Additionally there are the issues of ‘genre’ and ‘form’ of the text and the employment of ‘metaphors’, imagery which is contextually loaded as also rhyme, metre in the case of a poetic work.  In the case of Sanskrit, the multiple levels of meaning are inherent in the language and semantics. How are these communicated or contained transcultural context?

      The Gita-Govinda, a Sanskrit poem, composed in the twelfth century (1147 AD ?), provides an excellent example for a case study of the issues enumerated above.  I have divided my presentation in two parts: the first briefly reviews the text within the cultural context and the history of Sanskrit literature, and the special place of the Gita-Govinda in the literary history of Indian literatures (i.e. regional languages of India ).  Besides, there is an extensive and complex history of interpretation of the text within the Indian cultural context between the thirteen and the nineteenth century.  During this period it overwhelmingly impacts the other arts, specially miniature painting, music, drama and dance.   Importantly it becomes a ritual text essential for worship in some parts of India .  Apart from these dimensions, the text becomes the basis of a theory of aesthetics and poetics. It continues to be popular today, specially in the performing arts. Contemporary Indian dancers include excerpts from the Gita-Govinda in their repertoire.  It is presented in village gatherings, metropolitan theatres and at international forums.  The musicians of the South and North render the text in varying musical modes.

      Obviously it is not possible to give even a summary of this extensive and variegated history of the text and its spread within the cultural context of India over a period of seven hundred years.1  Indeed, an endeavour to reconstruct this journey of the text within the Indian cultural context has engaged many scholars including me for decades.  There are no definitive accounts despite the fifty-three commentaries and over two hundred critical works on different facets, and nearly five thousand miniature paintings in different schools.2                                              However, what is the text?  A deceptively simple text of the love of a boy and a girl, Krishna and Radha.  A third character, the friend companion (Sakhi) is the bridge between the lovers.  A meeting of the lovers is suggested in the beginning of the poem, but for the most part they are separated and meet at the penultimate canto to be separated again.

      An attempt has been made to narrate the thematic context in a most skeletal form.

     In the second part, I shall address the questions of the interest of the West in the text.  The politico-historical moment of the so-called discovery of the text, the cultural context in which it is translated, are relevant.

       An examination of the politico-historical moment reveals that a text of the 12th century is the subject of curiosity, admiration, interpretation and translation in the 18th and nineteenth centuries. From the facts given below it would appear that the text in the translated language acquires its own life.  A translation in English, German or French becomes the basis of translations in other European languages, e.g. Dutch, Italian, Hungarian and Finnish, possibly Swedish.  (I am not sure of the last.)  For purposes of comparison only, very few stanzas, specially one, are taken up for detailed analysis.

     So to return to the text and thematic structure of the poem.


The Text                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The Gita-Govinda, known as mahakavya, also laghukavya (genres in Sanskrit literature), is attributed to Jayadeva, a poet, who was born either in Bengal or in Orissa (possibly, the latter) in the 12th century.  The poem marks the culmination of classical Sanskrit poetry and heralds the advent of literature and poetry in many regional languages of India .  Unique in its brevity, precision, multilayering of meaning and symbolism, the poem is known in two recensions only, although there are over 3000 manuscripts of the poem in nearly fifteen scripts. They belong to the period the thirteen to the nineteenth century.                                            The poem is deceptively simple, revolving around only two characters – Krishna and Radha – and a third, a lady friend or messenger, called Sakhi or Duti. It is divided into 12 sargas (parts) and 24 prabandhas (cantos) of unequal length. It begins with a simple description of an overcast sky, thick clouds, dark forests and the directions of Nanda – foster father of Krishna – who asks Radha to take Krishna home. This sets the tone of the poem. Jayadeva never lets his reader forget that the two are not mere human characters, they are archetypal figures.  This is evident from the first benedictory verse to the last.                                                                                                                        The poet reminds his reader ‘if your mind is passionate in remembrance of Hari, if it is curious about vilasakala (the art of love), then listen to Jayadeva’. By a dramatic turn the poet begins the next part with a description of the ten incarnations of Vishnu.  This reminds the reader that Krishna here is the transcendent Lord, one amongst the ten avatars of Vishnu, that the human story to be narrated is indeed a divine play.  In the second prabandha (canto), the poet moves to a description of Hari – another name of Krishna - who rests on Sri (Lakshmi), thus without making it explicit Krishna is Vishnu, Radha, Sri.   The drama then is in primordial time – not human terrestrial time - space also is of another order.

      After this dramatic entry, the poet returns to his theme of Radha’s taking Krishna ‘home’.  Much seems to have happened between the first and the third and the fourth prabandhas (cantos), for now we are already at a moment where Krishna and Radha are separated.  It is only in remembrance, through memory or through the words of the Sakhi, the messenger, that each knows the state of the other.  In breathtaking intertwined metaphors, which conjure up the season of spring, when soft sandal mountain winds caress the quivering vines of cloves and fresh leaves absorb scents of deer musk, love blossoms and it is cruel time for deserted lovers.  In the third and fourth songs (cantos) the messenger (sakhi) describes Krishna ’s dance with those other gopis.  Indeed they are multiple forms of his own being.  This is the joyful Krishna . In the second sarga (part fifth song) we hear Radha’s own voice - Radha’s remembrance (smaranam) of the first moment of meeting, its ecstasy and joy, and now the anguish of separation.   This is careless Krishna . Jayadeva always juxtaposes the moments of anguish and separation with the memory of joy and union. With the delicacy of filigree work, Radha describes the moment of the first meeting, the tenderness and the ecstasy of its ‘memory’; loops and counter loops in time now and time past are made. This is the poem’s inner structure.  Jayadeva – the narrator – walks into the poem always in the penultimate verse to evoke Krishna through myriad epithets to remind the reader of the divinity of the two characters.

      In the second sarga Krishna was carefree, wanton, revelling in his own play with the gopis. Radha, that other self, walks away, and Krishna (in the third part, seventh song) is now perplexed and bewildered.  Abandoning the other women, he is repentant and despondent and longs for Radha.  ‘Damn me, my wanton ways made her leave me in anger’.  He suffers as a God in pain.  He calls out to Kama (Eros), ‘this is a lotus stalk on my chest, not a necklace of serpents, this is a row of lotus petals, on my neck not the streak of poison.  This is the sandal dust, not ash smeared on my love torn body … do not attack me, mistaking me for Hara (Siva).   Oh, bodiless love God (Mara), why do not rush at me in rage?’   Radha haunts him, appears and disappears before his mind’s eye and he would plead for forgiveness if only she would relent.    He waits helplessly on the banks of the Yamuna.

     It is in this state of desolation and of repentance that the sakhi (messenger) speaks to Krishna in the fourth portion two cantos (eighth and ninth song).  In one she describes Radha’s suffering to Krishna through symbols and metaphors which evoke the cosmos. ‘Radha’s face is the moon which is dripping with nectar from cuts of the eclipse’s teeth.  Oh Madhava, she is distressed and distraught’, says the sakhi.  ‘She suffers in her separation from you.  She clings to you in fantasy, oh tender Krishna ’.  In the fifth sarga (part song ten), the sakhi moves to Radha and describes to her the state of Krishna, the lotus-eyed Krishna , longing for her love. He the wild flower garlanded one who suffers in her desertion.  He waits on the bank of the Yamuna making a lotus bed.  When a leaf stirs, the wind whispers, he imagines it is Radha.  Sakhi pleads with Radha (eleventh song), Rati Sukhsara, to give up her pride, to cloak herself only with the clouds, it is time to meet.

     The descriptions of the separation of the two culminate in the 6th prabandha, where Krishna is helpless and Radha powerless, each in their aloneness. (Sixth part twelfth song).  Sakhi describes her state.  Radha sees him everywhere (pasyati disi disi).  Each sense perception of seeing, hearing, smell, touch, evokes his image.  More, she fancies herself as Krishna embraces the rain cloud and thinks it is he, the indolent Krishna .  In the seventh part, sarga, (13th song), we hear Radha’s own voice. In pitiful sobbing, she says death would be preferable, for no longer can she bear the separation and desolation.  The despondency works itself into a frenzy of anger, jealousy, suspicion and doubt (fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth song).  For her Krishna is the clever cunning cheat. Her state of anger and despondency is juxtaposed with reader’s knowledge that Krishna lies helpless waiting for her on the banks of the Yamuna.  The poet sustains the suspense of this drama, of the inner journey of the psychical self. 

       Sargas sixth and seventh are a transition, almost an interregnum, of the dark night of the soul, before the poet takes to the eighth sarga (seventh song) with only one prabandha (canto).   Now we see the abashed Krishna .  At early dawn Krishna arrives.  The inner suspicions and fears of Rahda do not allow her to receive him.  Instead, she cries out in bitter anger, even disdain.   ‘Hari, Hari, go Madhava, go Kesava’.  Do not plead with me with your lies.  ‘Yahi Madhava, Yahi Kesava’.  He stands before her in supplication. She denounces him in one intense outburst.  But at the same time she pines for him, and a moment after is full of repentance.  Her remorse matches her outcries, with the realisation that perhaps she has turned away the Lord himself.  She is exhausted with no power to move.  To one thus in despair, the sakhi gives wise counsel (ninth sarga, eighteenth canto) (song).  The sakhi reminds her that she must be prepared when Madhava comes.  Don’t turn wounded pride on Madhava, she tells her.  ‘When he is tender, you are rough, when he bends down in obeisance, you are unbending.  Oh, piqued, perverse woman, do not turn him away.  He is languishing for you’.  This is the languishing Krishna .  Although Radha softens, her pride will not allow her to take the first step.  She must abandon her pride and ego.  It is at this moment that Hari appears in the tenth sarga (nineteenth song.  For quickening arms).  He speaks to her tenderly.  She is the moon, he is the Cakora bird.  ‘You are my adornment, you are my life, you are my jewel in the ocean of existence’.  At last Radha relents and the sakhi coaxes her to move to the thicket where Hari awaits her.  (Eleventh part, twelfth song of the blissful Krishna ).  The sakhi, messenger, assures her that Krishna , her tormentor, is faithful.  ‘He is faithful to you, you fool, follow him, Radhika!’                                                         At last persuaded, she moves slowly for the journey of the inner self of the giving up of false pride and outer adornments and she enters Madhava’s world (twenty first song).  The descriptions are couched in an imagery of war and love, of the beauty of nature and the dense dark night and expectancy.  Human as the two are, the meeting is the coming together of Vishnu and Sri.  In the 22nd prabandha song, Radha approaches Hari and then ‘in the moment of beholding the most beloved, all his deep locked emotions broke when he saw Radha’s face like the sea waves cresting when the moon appears’.  In response Radha’s eyes transgressed their bounds straying to reach beyond her ears.  They fell on him with trembling pupils; when their eyes met heavy tears of joy fell like streaming sweat.  It is then that blissful Krishna becomes the ecstatic Krishna (12th part sarga, twenty third song).                                                                                                                                  The friends leave her and Radha enters the world of the delighted yellow robed one.                                                                                                  With consummate mastery, Jayadeva makes Narayana declare his fidelity and faithfulness to her.  ‘Radha, Narayana is faithful now.  Love me Radha.  Radha, make your jewelled girdle cords echo the tone of your voice’.  The poet piles metaphor upon metaphor to create a cosmic drama of union.  The words and the imagery move concurrently on many planes.  Ultimately Krishna is supplicant before her and pleads with her to leave her lotus foot on his bed of tender shoots.  Each is incomplete without the other, whether seen as the Earth and Sky or human and divine. The tender humanity of this coming together is communicated through the recreation of all sense perceptions as also of the recreation of symbols of fertility known to the Indian tradition.  Radha is Sri.  She is both fertility and power.  He is She, She He.  The morning after (in the last twenty fourth canto song) she asks him to re-adorn her.  The imagery suggests renewal, the fertility of the earth, enriched, filled with sap and honey and yet the two are distinct again.  Radha’s human form is compared to a full brimming vase (Mangal Kalasa) symbolising earth; her ears are the music of the sphere (sruti mandala), her hair, the swarming bees over a lotus.   The yellow robed lover ( Krishna ) does what she asks.  In short, the lord omniscient re-adorns the universe with fertility of the universe, and appropriately the poem concludes on a note of obeisance: ‘let blissful man of wisdom purify the world by the singing of the Gita-Govinda’.     The power of poetry, the joy of the ecstasy, is contained in the last line, which reminds us that the poem is only of devotion and Bhakti.  ‘Let the Gita Govinda,’ declares the poet, ‘be in the voice of the devotees like sage Prashar’.                             Even from this altogether too brief a narration it will be clear that the deceptively simple story encapsulates a complex multilayered texture full of allusions, myths, metaphors.  Each appellation and metaphor can be expanded at multiple dimensions.  Each is contextually loaded at the level of myth, as also perceptions of senses of body, mind and spirit.                                      A further complexity (or richness) is provided by the poets assigning a musical melody (Mode/Raga) and a metre (rhythm, cycle, i.e. tala) to each canto comprising eight verses.                                                     The imagery is loaded with descriptions of flora, fauna, particularly flowers with specific colours and aromas.  Each ‘image’ has its own history within the Sanskrit literary tradition.  There are other deeper levels – the words are only symbols or codes for exploring those levels.  The language of the senses, sense perceptions, the sensuous, even the sensual is simultaneously a symbol of the ‘sacred’ and the transcendental.  The profane and the sacred are not binary opposites, nor is this an allegory in the Western tradition.

      The poem chisels the metaphors as also the alankaras (figures of speech) of the Sanskrit tradition to their ultimate limits.  The alliteration and the metres are intrinsic to the text.  As has been pointed out at the very outset, this poem is the culmination of a long history of Sanskrit poetics.  Post 12th century there is manifestation of diverse developments in Sanskrit literature as also in other regional literatures of India .  The text travels to different parts of India with rapidity.  There is an impressive tradition of interpretation of the text in commentaries.  The commentaries are the discourse within the cultural context.  This was the situation until the 18th century when the text attracts the attention of the West.


Journey to the West


       The Europeans arrive in India . The English evince an interest in the literature and history of the ‘natives’.  The interest in the poem has to be placed within the framework of the eve of enlightenment, the British presence in India , and the European, particularly the German and French interest in Oriental languages and literature and concomitantly in philosophy and what has been termed as the spiritual heritage of India .  This history is today too well known.  It has been critiqued by scholars from the East and the West alike.  The details need not detain us.                 William Jones, linguist and legal administrator and founder of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta in1784, is acknowledged for the translation of the Laws of Manu, but more for his translation of Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Sakuntala.  This brought fulsome praise from many including Goethe.  His poetic words are recounted in every history of the Orientalist’s discourse or Sanskrit literature.                                                     

     It was soon after the ‘discovery’ of the manuscript of Kalidasa’s play Abhijnana Sakuntala that William Jones found a text of the Gita-Govinda, again through the help of a pundit (i.e. native informant in post-colonial discourse).  This was considered a rare discovery, although thousands of manuscripts were extant in India . Obviously both his informant and he were oblivious of their existence. William Jones published the text in the Asiatica Researches in 1792.  Concurrently he was curious about Indian music, and wrote an essay entitled ‘Musical Modes of the Hindus’.3   William Jones appears to have been drawn to the Gita-Govinda through his curiosity in Indian music, because he noticed that each of the cantos of the poem had indicated a musical mode (raga) and a metrical cycle (tala).  William Jones was quick to discern that there must be a textual tradition of Indian music for the poet to indicate specific musical modes for specific cantos of the poem.  He thus advocated the search for treatises (texts on Indian music).  In a telling passage he expresses his admiration as also his despair at not being able to locate the living traditions.  The passage has been quoted several times but will take repetition for our purposes.

‘Had the Indian empire continued in full energy for the last two thousand years, religion would, no doubt, have given permanence to systems of music invented, as the Hindus believe, by their Gods, and adapted to mystical poetry, but such have been the revolutions of their governments since the time of Alexander, that, although the Sanskrit books have preserved the theory of their musical composition, the practice of it seems almost wholly lost (as all the Pandits and Rajas confess) in Gaur and Magadha, or the provinces of Bengal and Behar.  When I first read the songs of Jayadeva, who had prefixed to each of them the name of the mode, in which it was anciently sung, I had hopes of procuring the original musick; but the Pandits of the south referred me to those of the west, and the Brahmens of the West would have sent me to those of the north; while they, I mean those of Nepal and Cashmir, declared, that they had no ancient musick but imagined, that the notes to the Gitagovinda must exist, if anywhere, in one of the southern provinces, where the poet was born; from all this I collect, that the art which flourished in Indian many centuries ago, had faded for want of due culture, though some scanty remnants of it may, perhaps, be preserved in the pastoral round lays of the Mathura or the loves and sports of the Indian APOLLO’.

       This seminal passage, re-read today, makes it clear that while Jones identified the relationship of religion and music, as also poetry and music, his terms of reference understandably were from his own culture.  Krishna for him was neither the hero of the Mahabharata nor the child god or adolescent of the Bhagavata Purana  (both texts until then not subject of western scrutiny); instead, Krishna of the Gita-Govinda is ‘Apollo’ of Greek mythology. Comparative literature or not, the comparison itself would lead his English readers to take a journey totally different from the original cultural context of the poem.  Through this one comparison the myth of Krishna in the history of Sanskrit literature is lifted from one cultural context to another. Krishna and ‘Apollo’ have distinctly different trajectories. Understandably the renderings of the theme are conditioned by his own cultural context.                            However, once he enters the text of the poem he is enchanted by the imagery, although the full import of the first stanza of the poem where the poet opens up a drama of cosmic proportions encompassing many orders of time and space is beyond Jones’ grasp.    He renders the first stanza thus:

‘The firmament is obscured by clouds; the wood lands are black with Tamala trees, that youth, who roves in the forest, will be fearful in the gloom of night: go, my daughter, bring the wanderer home to my rustick mansion.  Such was the command of NANDA, the fortunate herdsman; and hence arose the love of RADHA and MADHAVA, who sported on the bank of Yamuna, or hastened eagerly to the secret bower’.

    The text plays on the word ‘griha’, home, throughout the text.   Nowhere is it Nanda’s ‘rustick mansion’.                                                                         Jones then chooses to skip the subsequent stanzas, but shifts to the second canto, where the poet declares rather explicitly that the poem is about Vishnu and his consort.  Here he selects what he considers important and ignores what he believes does not explicate the theme.  This method can be discerned throughout the prose translation which was received with extraordinary enthusiasm in Europe .  William Jones was sensitive to the importance of the refrain, and therefore takes care to print the refrain in italics.   His prose renderings of some of the passages, particularly those that deal with the regret and remorse of Krishna , are poignant, although they continue to be at the descriptive level.  The question to be asked is, what was it that aroused the curiosity of the European and western world for this little great poem, translated in prose with selective passages? Obviously it was not the comparison with Greek Apollo.   The rich descriptions of Nature brought resonances of an idyllic world of pastoral drama. The nascent beginnings of romanticism, German, French, appear as compelling reasons for the attraction.  Europe and England had been too preoccupied with the Reformation and the aftermath; perhaps this world of Sakuntala and Gita-Govinda opened a window to memories lost and forgotten.  There was something ‘imaginative’, mysterious about the poem, away from the tales of chivalry.  The love and separation of the two characters, Krishna and Radha, held a promise for a world of imagination in timeless space.                                                          

William Jones’ translation, inadequate as it may have been, ignited interest, not only from the philological point of view, but those interested in poetry qua poetry. Soon after William Jones, Von Dalberg FH translated the Gita-Govinda into German in 1802. 4   By and large Dalberg followed in the footsteps of William Jones. It was Dalberg’s German rendering which Goethe read. He wrote: ‘what struck me as remarkable are the extremely varied motives by which an extremely simple subject is made endless’.5    

Yet another translation appeared in 1802 in  German by Majer FR from Weimar.6  A third translation, also based on William Jones, appeared in1816 by Riemenschneider A.W. from Halle , Germany 1818.7  

      While one group of the German scholars were engaged in translations based on William Jones, Christianus Lassen made an attempt to locate original manuscripts.  On the basis of four manuscripts Lassen produced a Sanskrit text annotation, textual interpretations and a Latin translation in 1836. Now, Lassen’s text became a kind of Ur text for the West.8 William Jones’ text was thus considered an impressionistic general rendering and Lassen’s the authentic text.  Another train of translations and interpretations followed in German, French and Italian and Dutch until 1913.  Amongst the more important was the translation of the Gita Govinda in French by Hippolyte Fauche in 1850.9                                             Another English translation appeared in 1875 by Edwin Arnold.  He admitted being guided by the interpretations of Lassen. The text is interpreted by Arnold like Lassen as an allegory, depicting Krishna as  the human soul, the gopis (cowherdesses) as delights of the illusory world and Radha the symbol of the spirit of intellectual and moral beauty.  Edwin Arnold describes the Gita Govinda as a ‘Sanskrit idyll of little pastoral drama’.  He adds: ‘The Gita Govinda with the refrains and musical accompaniments named and prescribed by the directions embodied in the text must have been a species of Oriental opera’.  Arnold discusses the musical aspects in his preface but does not add anything substantially to William Jones’ observations on musical modes. However, his rendering of the first verse is distinctly different from William Jones’.  It reads:

‘The sky is clouded; and the wood resembles

    The sky, thick-arched with black Tamala boughs;

 O Radha, Radha! Take this Soul, that trembles

    In life’s deep midnight, to Thy golden house.’

 So Nanda spoke, - and, led by Radha’s spirit,

    The feet of Krishna found the road aright;

 Wherefore, in bliss which all high hearts inherit,

    Together taste they Love’s divine delight’.

The ‘rustick mansion’ of William Jones is now Radha’s golden house. The interest in the Gita Govinda continued well into the twentieth century.  During the period many other Sanskrit works are edited and translated, histories of Sanskrit literature are attempted.  By the thirties of the twentieth century there is an Orientalists’ discourse in Europe under the aegis of the International Congress of Orientalists, as also the emergence of a generation of Indian scholars who are also addressing themselves to reconstructing the history of Sanskrit literature.  The names of A B. Keith, Macdonnel, and S. K. De are well known.  French scholarship is equally vibrant.  There was the translation by Gaston Courtillier - Le Gita-Govinda Pastoral de Jayadeva, with a preface by Sylvain Levi.10                                                                                           

Other translations by George Keyt (1940-1965)11 and Duncan Greenlass (1957)12  follow.  Besides, there are many Indian translations into English, including an important one by Monica Verma13.  This is followed by three other translations in English by scholars - a prose translation by Lee Siegel14 with a commentary; a translation by Stella  Sandhal (1977)15; and finally the more meticulously researched text and translation of Barbara Stoler Miller (1977)16 .                                                                     

 From this brief enumeration of the chronology of the interest in the Gita-Govinda between 1792-1913 and1935-1977, it will be perhaps self-evident that the journey of the Gita-Govinda to the West has to be situated within the context of the Orientalists’ interest in the literature of Orientals (Hindoos in this case) as also the socio-political cultural context of Europe in relation to the nascent beginnings of German romanticism, and finally English ‘romanticism’.  The keen interest in the Gita-Govinda, unlike the Upanishads and the epics, can perhaps be attributed to the seemingly simple love story of two characters, who were obviously not just two human beings.  They appear to symbolise two levels of consciousness, also two levels of living, physical and metaphysical.  These levels may not have been communicated to the Western scholars and yet it engaged them.  It attracts the first group in their effort to communicate the meaning of the text, by equating the character of Krishna to Apollo, as in the case of William Jones, or Adonis in the case of others.  At the level of structure, all European interpreters, except the last two, identify the text in terms of genre as ‘pastoral drama’ and do not speak of it within the tradition of the Kavya (mahakavya) or laghukavya, very specific literary genres of the Sanskrit traditions.  Neither Goethe, nor Lassen, William Jones or Edwin Arnold are aware of or curious about the theory of aesthetics (i.e. the theory of Rasa), indigenous to Sanskrit literature and applicable in full measure to the Gita-Govinda.   Further, since the text now leaves the space of its cultural context, the interpreters are led to compare it with pastoral drama, or an idyllic lyrical piece. At the level of interpretation the pendulum swings from idyllic love to allegory of the soul and the spirit.  The consciousness of the relationship of text and the musical mode is evident in most of the translations and editions.  Whether it was a Sanskrit opera or not, it is clear that all recognise the integral relationship of word, phrase and musical note.  This is evident in all the translations.

Most illuminating is the preface of Sylvain Levi to Courtilliers’ translation.  Sylvan Lavy too considers it a pastoral lyric, relates it to Virgil and other Latin poets, but is not particularly charmed by it.  Now Krishna is Adonis, playing the flute, attracting the ‘shepherdess’ Radha, he relates to the feminine principle, and gives an account of the prevalence of the Kali cult.  The preface is a fine example of a scholar who moves freely in space, time and cultures to comment on the Gita-Govinda. Sylvain Levi was convinced that Sanskrit drama evolved from the rasa dances of Krishna like the miracle plays of Europe .  So the descriptions of the rasa (the circular dance) are in temptation for him to give an account of his participation in one such performance in Nepal .  As far as the feminine principle Kali and Radha is concerned, he moves to nineteenth Bengal, Calcutta and speaks of Keshab Chand Sen, the reformist.  A scholar whose contribution to indology and to Sanskrit literature is seminal, alas, is unable to grasp either the essence or the form. This in turn is the starting point of another train of interpretation of the text in Europe .                   


Edwin Arnold in contrast, as one concerned with moral and ethical issues, focusses on the text as an allegory.  Krishna in his text often ‘sins’ – as the human soul.  The word occurs several times in the translation and provides an undercurrent to the translation. Lee Seigal, coming much later, makes a brave effort to reconcile the dimensions of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’. Fascinating as his explanations are, they continue to be situated in the acceptance of the bipolarity of the sacred and the profane.  Time does not permit a closer examination of his interpretation or his prose translation. It is Barbara Stoler Miller who tries to enter into the cultural context of the original, as also the textual interpretation within the culture.  Consequently her translation is comparatively the most satisfying of all, readable and as closely as possible faithful to the original. Just as comparison with the translations of Jones and Arnold quoted above, Barbara’s rendering may be relevant.

                ‘Clouds thicken the sky.

                 Tamala trees darken the forest.

                 The night frightens him.

                 Radha, you take him home!’

                They leave Nanda’s order,

                 Passing trees in thickets on the way,

                 Until secret passions of Radha and Madhava

                 Triumph on the Jumna riverbank.

Barbara Stoler Miller appropriately retains the quintessential ambiguity of the word ‘home’.  Examples from other stanzas can be given.       This rather hurried and perhaps inadequate survey of the journey of the Gita-Govind  to the West and its translation in English and European languages will perhaps make it clear that the transposition of a ‘lyrical text’ within a cultural context, a history of myths, symbols and metaphors in much more difficult than abstract philosophic and speculative thought. This is not to say that the Vedas and the Upanishads were easier.            Also, as mentioned earlier, a literary creation in its very nature, acquires a life of its own, both within the cultural space as also beyond it.  Within the cultural space and the passage of time it has one trajectory, as in the case of the Gita-Govinda and its interpretations in India through commentaries, paintings, musical texts and practice, and quite another in the cultural space and context of Europe . And despite these distinctly different trajectories, there is an ‘essence’ which captivates and holds attention.  The enigma and the mystery of the Gita-Govinda continues today in the recesses of the dark womb houses of temples, in international theatres and as scholarly enterprise.


1. Chhavi: Golden Jubilee Volume II, Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi . Vatsyayan, Kapila.  Gita Govinda and its influence on Indian Art (1971).


2. To cite only few published works:

  (i)  Motichandra. Portfolio of Paintings from Gita Govinda. New Delhi :                        Lalit Kala Akademi, 1965.

  (ii)  Vatsyayan, Kapila.  Jaur Gita Govinda.  New Delhi : National Museum ,1979.

 (iii)  Vatsyayan, Kapila. Miniatures of  the Gita Govinda – 17th Century Manuscript                         of North Gujarat . Jaipur: Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, 1980.

   (iv) Vatsyayan, Kapila, The Bundi Gita Govinda. Varanasi : Bharat Kala Bhavan,                           1981.

   (v) Vatsyayan, Kapila and Neog, Maheswar. Gita Govinda in the Assam School            of  Painting. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam , 1986.

  (vi) Vatsyayan, Kapila.  Mewari Gita-Govinda, New Delhi : National Museum ,                1987.


3. Jones, William, Gita Govinda or the Songs of Jayadeva. Calcutta : Asiatick Researches, Vol. III, 1792, ps. 185-207; The Musical Modes of the Hindus, written in 1784 and since enlarged by the President. ps. 55-87.  Asiatick Researches; or, Transactions of the Society Instituted in Bengal, for inquiring into the History and Antiquities, the Arts, Sciences and Literature, of Asia . Calcutta , 1801.


4. ‘Had the Indian empire continued in full energy for the last two thousand years, religion would, no doubt, have given permanence to systems of music invented, as the Hindus believe, by their Gods, and adapted to mystical poetry, but such have been the revolutions of their governments since the time of Alexander, that, although the Sanskrit books have preserved the theory of their musical composition, the practice of it seems almost wholly lost (as all the Pandits and Rajas confess) in Gaur and Magadha, or the provinces of Bengal and Behar.  When I first read the songs of Jayadeva, who had prefixed to each of them the name of the mode, in which it was anciently sung, I had hopes of procuring the original musick; but the Pandits of the south referred me to those of the west, and the Brahmens of the West would have sent me to those of the north; while they, I mean those of Nepal and Cashmir, declared, that they had no ancient musick but imagined, that the notes to the Gitagovinda must exist, if anywhere, in one of the southern provinces, where the poet was born; from all this I collect, that the art which flourished in Indian many centuries ago, had faded for want of due culture, though some scanty remnants of it may, perhaps, be preserved in the pastoral round lays of the Mathura or the loves and sports of the Indian APOLLO’.  

5.. Dalberg, F.H.  Gita-govinda, oder die Gesange Jajadeva’s, eines altindischen Dichters.  Aus dem Sanskrit ins Englische, aus diesem ins Deutsche ubersetzt mit Erlauterungen. Erfurt : Beyer und Maring, 1802.

6.. Note to Schiller dated January 22, 1802, quoted from Correspondence between Goethe and Schiller. Translated by L. D. Schmitz. London : 1909, Vol.2, ps. 395.

7.. Von Majer, Fr. Gita Govinda, Aus dem Sanskrit ins Englische, aus diesem ins Deutsche ubersetzt. Weimar : Asiat.  Magazin 2, 1802. page 294


8. Riemenschneider, A. W. Gita-Govinda.  Metrisch bearbeitet.  Halle , Germany ,



9. Lassen, Christianus. Gita Govinda Jayadevae Poetae Indici Drama Lyricum. Bonnae ad Rhenum: Koenig et Van Borcharen, 1836.


10. Fauche, Hippolyte. Le Gita-Govinda et le Ritou Sanhara, Paris: Chez tous les libraires assortis en ouvrages de litterature orientale, 1850.


11. Courtillier, M. Gaston. Le Gita-Govinda - Pastorale de Jayadeva, with a preface by M. Sylvain Levi. Paris : Ernest Leroux, 1904.


12. Keyt, George. Sri Jayadeva’s Gita-Govinda , the loves of Krsna and Radha.  

Rendered into English from Sanskrit and illustrated.  Bombay : Kutub-Popular, 1965 (Premiere edition: 1940).


13. Greenlees, Duncan.  The Song of Divine Love (Gita-Govinda) of Sri Jayadeva.  Translated into English poetry in 1945, with a life of Jayadeva and a running commentary added in 1957. Madras : Kalakshetra Publications, 1962. (Premier edition: 1957).


14. Verma, Monica. (Tr.) The Gita-Govinda of Jayadeva.  Calcutta : Writers Workshop, 1968.


15. Seigel, Lee. Sacred and Profane – dimensions of love as exemplified in the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva. London / New York , Oxford University Press, 1978.


16. Standahl-Forgue, Stella. Le Gita Govinda: tradition et innovation dans le kavya.  Stockholm : Almgvist and Wiksell International, 1977.


17. Miller, Barbara Stoler. Love Song of the Dark Lord – Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda. 

New York : Columbia University Press, 1977.



Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati