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Finding Radha: The Quest for Love, an anthology edited by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale, is a celebration of the Radha in every woman.
“Of all the characters, human or otherwise, in Indian lore, none is as natural and as concocted as Radha.” ~Meghnad Desai, in his essay, Radha And The Completion of Krishna, included in Finding Radha: The Quest for Love.
In spite of my interest in mythology, I never had much interest in Radha. In a constellation of female characters like Sita, Kaikeyi, Gandhari or Draupadi, who had complex storylines and personalities, Radha’s story, as Krishna’s abandoned lover, didn’t seem interesting enough. And even though I had bowed before her image, standing next to Krishna, in numerous temples, I never counted her as a goddess. It took a trip to Vrindavan, in my late teens, to really open my eyes.
Radhe Radhe, is the greeting in Vrindavan. Not Hare Krishna. I was astonished and asked one rickshaw driver, why in a place so closely associated with Krishna, it is not his name, but Radha’s that was on everyone’s breath. “Because she is His beloved. He may not come if you call him. But where Radha is, there Krishna will surely come,” he replied.
I realized then that she was more than the milkmaid Krishna left behind. Finding Radha: The Quest for Love, edited by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale, reaffirms this, by showing us that Radha is a feminist icon, and a symbol of a faith that is inclusive and free of restrictions.
The book begins with an introduction by Namita Gokhale, in which she talks about how a suhag ka pitara, which included fluorescent nail polish, led her to Radha, because it spoke to her of the sacred feminine and the tradition of ‘shringara’ rasa. Malashri Lal’s introduction begins with a similar imagination, of how an elderly woman – Radha herself, maybe, helps the sculptor of the statue Lord Krishna at the Govind Devji temple in Jaipur, get it right.
The many essays and stories in this anthology attempt to find Radha in different ways. And this is necessary, because as Makarand Paranjpe points out, “The reasons for the rise of Radha are not merely historical, but theological, metaphysical and spiritual too.”
Some essays attempt to find Radha in the written word, from the barest wisp of a mention in the Bhagavata Purana to the reigning heroine of the Gita Govinda, and later poems. Some of the poems referred to in these essays are presented together in a later chapter, Songs of Radha, allowing the readers to experience this literary joy for themselves.
Others look for her in art, music, dance and culture. This approach can be seen in essays like Radha in Bollywood Cinema by Alka Kurian. Some authors seek Radha by exploring religious and spiritual ideas associated with her, such as Harsha V Dehejia in the essay, The Heart-Throb of Chaitanya. Other writers indulge their imagination, and use the power of storytelling and poetry to create enduring images of Radha. A Flute called Radha by Debotri Dhar, and Kanupriya by Dharamvir Bharati, are two such examples.
Radha: The Unfading Mystic Blossom in Our Midst by Renuka Narayanan and Sita and Radha: From Human to Divine by Mandakranta Bose delve deep into Hindu mythology, locating Radha by comparing her to the heavenly kadamba flower and Sita, respectively.
One of my favourite essays in the book, Radha and the Completion of Krishna, by Meghnad Desai, fits into many of these categories. In a quest to answer why it was necessary to create the character of Radha, it arrives at this beautiful conclusion: “She is not a trophy he can show off. She is ephemeral but luminuous –a dazzling, beautiful and erotic presence in his life. In her he finds fulfilment and in no other.” Another favourite essay, Radhe Radhe by Madhureeta Anand, speaks about the widows of Vrindavan and their abject state—a conflicting truth of a place that celebrates a woman, Radha.
The composite picture that emerges of Radha, after all this reading, is of a wilful goddess, who refuses to be pinned down by tradition or scripture. As Meghnad Desai points out, there are “subversive aspects to Radha. She is an afterthought but she also emerges from the periphery of Bharatvarsha rather than the centre of Brahmanical culture.” This makes her, in every sense, the people’s heroine. She, in the words of Makarand Paranjpe, “not only defies the whore vs virgin-mother dichotomy that has plagued most cultures of the world in their fear and exaltation of female sexuality but she has also managed to embody an unfallen Eros, so rare in romantic traditions of the world.”
All in all, this makes Radha a feminist icon.
The book also offers a glimpse of a Hinduism based on acceptance and love; unshackled from the demands of rituals. The Bhakti movement, and its openness to people of all genders, castes and religions is a version of Hinduism that sits well with modern, liberal values.
I look back at my initial fascination with the greeting of Radhe Radhe, a fascination shared by Madhureeta Anand, who writes, “perhaps the greeting of ‘Radhe Radhe’ is not a greeting, but, in fact a call to invoke the Radha quality in those who inhabit and visit Vrindavana –because in each of us resides that quality of surrender that is the path to joy and love.”
And, so, I leave you with a recommendation to find Radha for yourself. This book will help. Radhe Radhe.
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