In the 16th century
something remarkable happened in a small verdant region of Northern India: the
city of Kṛṣṇa’s youth, Vrindavan, finally emerged into Hindu consciousness.
Bhakti found its most sensuous and passionate manifestation in the Braj region.
The greatest poet saints of India— Vallabhācharya, Swami Haridās, Harirāmvyās,
Hit Harivaṃś, Sūrdās—rekindled and revitalized the devotional worship of Kṛṣṇa in
Vrindavan, which until then was largely a sparsely populated forested region.
The bewildering variety of Kṛṣṇa
sects—Puṣṭimārga, Haridāsis, Caitanyas, Nimbārkas, and many others now extinct—made
the region of Braj the focus of their activities and devotion. Caitanya Mahāprabhu,
who was born in Bengal and spent most of his life in Puri, sent his five chosen
disciples (called Gosvāmī) to Vrindavan to reclaim and resacralize the
spiritual geography of the Braj region. The recovery and revival of Vrindavan
as the seat of Kṛṣṇa worship was, arguably, a response to the retreat of
Hinduism in much of medieval North India.
One of the chosen disciples of Caitanya
was the great bhakta, Rūpa Gosvāmī. A classically trained
saint-scholar, he composed a dazzling array of works on aesthetics, theology,
and Sanskrit drama. He, along with his brother Sanātana Gosvāmī and
nephew Jīva Gosvāmī, provided an intellectual foundation to the still-fledgling
Caitanya Vaiṣṇava movement. His two most important works on aesthetics—Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu and
its sequel Ujjwalanīlamaṇi—together form an expansive treatise
on bhakti as a rasa. He radically transformed the rasa theory
into the Vaiṣṇava rasaśāstra.
Rūpa Gosvāmī was operating in an era
when the nature of bhakti had become very intense and personalized. Caitanya
personified this intensification of bhakti. He had an extraordinary
capacity for emotion and for evoking emotion in others. He, along with his
devotees, would loudly chant the name of Kṛṣṇa and start singing and dancing
until tears welled up in his eyes. This emotional fervour was further enhanced
by the use of musical instruments such as drums and cymbals. This group singing
and dancing (saṃkīrtana), upon reaching a crescendo, “worked upon the
emotion as well as on the senses (of devotees), and produced ecstatic thrills
and copious perspiration, wild fits, trembling and weeping……until they brought
an exhaustion and unconsciousness, ending in mystical trances.”1
Such a form of bhakti, however, is
not an indiscriminate emotion but the result of an intentional method and a
committed engagement to realize the Kṛṣṇa consciousness.2 For the Gauḍīyas, and
for the other schools of Hinduism, the ultimate reality is a play, a līlā of
Kṛṣṇa. The Braj-līlā is the highest form of play and the rāslīlā is
the culmination of all rasas that an actor can experience in the
play. Imagining himself as an actor (or a character) in this līlā of
Vrindavan, Caitanya would assume the role of Radha, and take on the intentional
mood of virahabhakti (devotion in absence), enacting it with
remarkable depth and intensity. This kind of bhakti values the
tremendous power of emotion because intense emotion on a chosen object produces
intense concentration which bridges the gulf between the subject and the
object, bringing about the mystic union with the divine.3
Rūpa Gosvāmī, a disciple of Caitanya,
theorized and systematized this form of devotion into a conceptual framework
that could then be adapted by other devotees who did not have direct access to Caitanya.
Rūpa Gosvāmī’s remarkable insight was that if the world is a līlā of
the Lord and we are all actors in this drama, then the entire tradition
of rasaaesthetics of the Nātyaśāstra, which incidentally also
developed in the context of the drama, can then be employed to delineate the
various emotional moods of the devotees who participate in this cosmic līlā.
In this schematic, religion becomes a drama, the devotee an actor and his
religious emotions a rasa.
Rūpa Gosvāmī conceives of bhakti in
a 3-level hierarchy from lower to higher form: sādhanā bhakti, bhāva bhakti,
and prema bhakti. Sādhana-bhakti is further divided into Vaidhi
bhakti and rāgānugā bhakti. Vaidhi bhakti is done according
to the rules and regulations prescribed in the śāstras. As the name
suggests, this bhakti is done according to convention (vidhi).
However, passionate souls are beyond the laws of convention and their bhakti derives
from their inner selves, which leads us to rāgānugā bhakti.
Rāga means a natural, deep and
inseparable absorption in Kṛṣṇa. It consists of devoted meditation or recollection
of Kṛṣṇa by adopting a particular bhāva (Rādha bhāva, sakhi bhāva, vātsalya
bhāva etc) to achieve the same emotional state that the actual characters
as depicted in the Bhāgavata had in the divine life of Kṛṣṇa.
The bhaktas participate in the divine drama of Kṛṣṇa by mentally
assuming the role of Kṛṣṇa’s lovers, parents, friends, relatives, messenger,
This requires immense concentration
as the devotee’s entire subjectivity is ‘reincarnated’ when entering the mental
world of the Kṛṣṇa-līlā. A devotee can
assume any role according to their natural temperament but they can never
assume the role of the object of bhakti, Kṛṣṇa. The experience of love requires
an object and a subject.
Once this practice becomes advanced
enough, the devotee enters the stage of bhāva bhakti. It is
the sattva-dominated state of mind, when the ‘heart melts’ and the supreme
emotion of Kṛṣṇa-love is generated. Rūpa Gosvāmī declares that
this supreme bhāva of religious experience is a very rare state that
arises either through the rāgānugāsādhanā or directly through
the grace of Kṛṣṇa. The final state, when this supreme bhāvabecomes
further intensified is called prema bhakti. This is the Rasa state,
higher than the liberation of the yogis!
This rasa is experienced
differently according to the type of bhaktas or the type of bhāva that the bhaktas assume.
The primary bhakti rasas are śanta, prita, sakhi, vātsalya,
and madhura. These rasas correspond to the five kinds of character that
the devotee adopts while entering the līlā – ascetic,
servants, friends, parents, and lover. But of all the five major forms of bhakti
rasa, the supreme amongst them is the madhura rasa because it is
based on the bhāva of the most
intense and the highest of love - the love of Vrindavan gopis for Kṛṣṇa. It is
the ultimate perfection among all the perfect primary rasas.
Gosvāmī writes an entire
treatise, Ujjwalanīlamaṇi, to expound and elaborate on the madhura
rasa. Madhura rasa, says Rūpa, is different from sṛṇgāra rasa,
which is at the mundane level of sensuous enjoyment of objects, while madhura
rasa is “the enjoyment of the inseparable fusion of the Lord with the
beloved through various stages of intense pangs of separation, longing, and
entreaties for protection, vision, acceptance, union, and identification.”4
Attaining the state of rasa is
the culmination of bhakti. Transcending one's subjectivity by taking on a
certain bhāva is a
prerequisite for success in this sādhana. Rasa cannot be savoured if the
devotee is at a distance or at the removed position of the audience. For
instance, to generate this inner emotion of vātsalya rati the
devotees, through sādhana, must mentally transform themselves into
mother Yaśodā as depicted in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. The spiritual
distance between the Yaśodā of the Bhāgavata and the devotee
must collapse for the vātsalya rasa to be experienced.
it is only through a drama that bhakti attains fruition. In a drama,
the devotee channels his deep emotions through a certain predefined character.
This emotion becomes intensified as it is controlled and directed, through a
proper technique, towards a particular object, rather than dissipated away
through unrestrained outburst. An uncontrolled emotional bhakti will lead to
nervous exhaustion rather than liberation.
To conclude, there is only one drama, the greatest
and the eternal drama of Kṛṣṇa, and there is only one source of rasa, Kṛṣṇa.
Inside this līlā, every emotion of a devotee is a rasa. This conceptualization
of religion as an aesthetic action by Rūpa Gosvāmī so completely transformed
our understanding of bhakti that it can now only be understood in terms
of rasa. The terminology has become so common that even today,
outside of academia, rasa is understood in terms of bhakti rather
than secular literature. Rūpa Gosvāmī’s seminal contribution to bhakti
traditions deserves wider audience rather than being confined to Vaiṣṇava