WIT committee member, Katie Lancaster, examines how the Hindu goddess Radha inspires both as a devotee and as an example of the power, not passivity, of female eroticism.
As an overtly sexual woman, not merely a lover but an adulteress, the Hindu goddess Radha occupies a unique space amongst female religious figures, and a space that is particularly unfamiliar to western audiences. One of the primary source texts depicting Radha is Jayadeva’s beloved 12th Century poem the Gita Govinda, which depicts an enthralling tale of two lovers: Radha, a young cowherd girl, and the divine Krishna. Accepted as canonical in numerous Hindu traditions, particularly the Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnava movement, the Gita Govinda continues to be highly influential. Sneaking out each night, Radha is said to abandon all of her worldly, wifely commitments in order to see her lover, Krishna, who draws her out in an erotic trance, filling her with longing through each day that they spend apart.
Far from the chaste, saintly Western religious icons, Radha subverts what we understand as religious excellence, and notably does so through a female lens. Though a large proportion of the Radha-Krishna poetic work distils her to merely a symbol of courtly love, and often even purely a sexual object, having substance only insofar as she constitutes an erotic counterpart to Krishna, these familiar patriarchal pitfalls are symptomatic of the predominantly male authorship of Radha source material. Even so, these one-dimensional depictions are underpinned by a far more exciting and inspirational reality: the idea that love itself is the Absolute, and not merely a traditionally ‘pure’ love.
Despite the perpetual tension between schools of thought which understand Radha as representing either the ‘woman in love’ or as the soul seeking union with God, I find that the most exciting thing about Radha as a religious figure is how she encompasses both. For me, Radha’s is a message of love, and love without boundaries. Indeed, for many Hindus, Radha’s complete abandonment of all her homely ‘duties’ in favour of her passionate, erotic love for Krishna, far from writing her off as a disobedient and shameful woman, raises her to the highest ideal of devotional worship. Radha’s raw sexual expression is the most pure and laudable form of unconditional devotion to the Lord, a devotion which supersedes all duties one might find in society. The celebration of Radha as the model devotee reminds us not only that love ought to be at the heart of faith, but also reframes the traditionally subjugating role of the female lover as an honourable position of power, rather than a shameful position of passivity. As Fourth-wave Feminism begins to establish a brand new status for women as not only deserving of respect and concrete rights rather than objectification, but more so as capable of being distinctly sexual beings whose liberation and freedom is often inextricably linked to sexual liberation and freedom of sexual expression, I find that Radha takes on a new significance as a figure who embodies such ideals.
Writer: Katie Lancaster of Keble College
Editor and illustrator: Mary Whittingdale of Mansfield College