The Rāslīlā

Rendered by Margaret Simpson


The story of Shri Krishna, the Gopis, and the Rāslīlā has been told in India for many centuries. It appears in great scriptures such as the Harivamsha, the Vishnu Purana, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Gitagovinda, the earliest of which date back, in parts, to the fourth century C.E. These texts describe Shri Krishna as an avatar of Lord Vishnu, the sustaining power of the universe, who takes birth whenever righteousness, or dharma, is in jeopardy.

Shri Krishna was born into the royal house of the Yadav dynasty in the capital city of Mathura. At the time of his birth, his parents were prisoners of his uncle, the tyrant Kaṁsa, who had deposed the king. When Krishna was born, around midnight, the prison guards fell into a deep sleep and the doors of the prison sprang open. Krishna’s father, Vasudeva, placed the newborn baby in a basket and carried him away from the prison to keep him safe from Kaṁsa. Vasudeva crossed the raging, chest-high waters of the Yamuna River, holding the basket over his head. He took the infant to Gokul, a small village on the other side. There, in Gokul, baby Krishna was lovingly brought up by Yashoda and Nanda, a family of cowherds. Krishna grew up caring for the cattle with all the other children, bathing in the cool river, and swinging from branches in the trees.

Krishna was known as an especially delightful child, but most of the time, as he grew up among them, the people of Vrindavan were only dimly aware of his divine nature. This was because Shri Krishna was able to invoke the power of maya, or illusion, to conceal his true identity.

The Rāslīlā is a story about one of the times he revealed his divinity. “Rās” refers to the dance created by Lord Krishna when he danced with the gopis. It has been commemorated in the rās garbā, a traditional folk dance in the state of Gujarat. “Līlā” means “play” or “game.” Thus “Rāslīlā” means “the play of the dance,” and is also known as “the dance of divine love.” The story of the Rāslīlā speaks to seekers everywhere about the nature of God and the human longing for spiritual union.