By Catherine Ghosh
THE STORY OF RADHA
In ancient times women would gather in circles under full moons to reveal their hearts – it was their spiritual practice.Unveiling subtle sensitivities, powerful insightfulness, and an ability to love with superhuman fierceness, the hearts of women would beat with deep, intuitive wisdom that left past peoples awed and mystified. Back then people were convinced that women were conduits to divinity. This powerful dialectic between the women in this world and the Divine Feminine inevitably moved entire civilizations to bow before the Goddess and her many forms.
In Hinduism’s bhakti yoga tradition, the divine feminine, or Goddess Radha, takes priority over anything else, as she is seen as the doorway through which souls unite with the sacred. Like other mystical love traditions around the world, the sacred philosophy of bhakti flourishes with depictions of the soul as possessing a feminine identity with feminine attributes. We awaken those attributes, and thus our own spiritual essence, by engaging them in the service of Radha, especially those who embody her sentiments, aligning our hearts with hers.
Radha’s heart is a treasure chest of divine love. Her love is aimed at reciprocating the love she receives from the divine masculine, Krishna. Although practitioners of bhakti yoga worship the love exchanged between the masculine and feminine divine, it is the heart of the Divine Feminine that is believed to hold the secrets to experiencing such divine love, for Radha alone holds the key to unlock hearts.
An open heart is one absorbed in divine love, like Goddess Radha’s, and thus characterizes a person who embodies the Divine Feminine. Radha’s love is so variegated and boundless that it multiplies into innumerable goddesses, called Gopis, each embodying a uniquely personal way of expressing love.
The verses spoken by Radha and the Gopis in the Bhagavat Purana illuminate the nature of divine love more than any others found in the voluminous body of Hindu sacred texts. In exquisite poetry, the voices of these divine women unveil the essence of the sacred philosophy of bhakti: striving for a love so pure that it is characterized as being its own reward – nothing is considered more precious.
Although we find female voices at the heart of this ancient tradition, they have been disproportionately scarce ever since. It is very difficult to find records of the lives of women in the bhakti tradition and, even more unheard of, to find written works, songs or poems by the women themselves. This irony lingers today as women in the bhakti tradition continue to be silenced and denied formal positions as gurus. There are even some temples in India that consider women too impure to perform the ritualistic altar worship of the deities of Goddess Radha and the Gopis.
In Sanskrit, behaving in ways that dishonor practitioners of bhakti yoga, be they male or female, is called aparadha, or literally “away from” (apa) Radha. The message is simple: When women around the world are dishonored, genuine worship of the Goddess gets lost in executing rituals that have strayed from the essence of the tradition and focus instead on externals. In such instances the females of this world are regrettably sacrificed in the name of serving the Goddess.
The story behind Goddess Radha’s appearance draws a poignant parallel between the mistreatment of women in this world, and how close we are to the divine feminine. Goddess Radha did not magically descend from the heavens or bloom out of a lotus flower. In fact, Radha, just like Goddess Sita, was rescued as an infant from an early grave. Her adopted father found her alive in a clay vessel that had been buried in the earth as he farmed. For the story of Radha comes to us from a land in which female genocide thrives to this day, while amazingly images of the Goddess in her many forms are simultaneously being worshiped on every corner.
We are just now beginning to experience a resurgence of the feminine voice as women all over the world are spontaneously gathering in circles (actual or virtual) to resurrect the Goddess. These sangas, or spiritual communities, seem to be blossoming everywhere, both inside and outside the yoga community. We find such a circle at the very heart of the bhakti tradition: it iscalled the Rasa mandala and is made up of Goddess Radha and the Gopis, who meet with Krishna under the full moon in celebration of supreme love.
From the bhakti perspective, the spontaneous gathering in interfaith circles that honor the Goddess is no accident, for circles have been seen as a powerful feminine archetype since the dawn of time. Circles are sacred openings characterized by interiority, interconnectivity, and a fullness of being. They are symbols of peace and communication that foster mutual respect and cooperation, giving all the participants equal value, regardless of faith or gender. In Graham M. Schweig’s ‘Dance of Divine Love,’ he interprets the Rasa circle as a symbol of religious pluralism “…in which human beings of different faiths can love God, or the divine, in joyous harmony…”
Perhaps in casting the Supreme Goddess as a discarded baby girl, saved by a compassionate farmer, we are being asked to consider that within every woman there may very well be a buried goddess, if only we excavate past misogynistic views that suffocate female voices, ultimately muting the voice of the Divine Feminine. For, according to the sacred philosophy of bhakti, there is a direct relationship between honoring the women of this world, and imbibing the Feminine within the divine.
Ultimately, one of the most important ways we can reconnect ourselves, and our religious traditions with the Divine Feminine, is through honoring the voices of our mothers, our sisters, our grandmothers, girlfriends, wives, nieces, and daughters. Through nourishing the individual and collective voices of females in this world, we open ourselves up to hearing the voice of the divine Goddess, which according to the bhakti tradition is continually inviting us to dance with sacred love.