We are visiting the labyrinth of the night forest of Vrndavana. Krishna has just disappeared and the gopis are fleeing through the sacred groves in every direction. When the rasalila abruptly ended they awoke with a start, as if from enchantment; immediately each was seized by the twin coils of shame and desire. Shame, because they knew they'd left their homes and families to cavort with a lover; Desire, because they were desperate to consummate a forbidden act of love that had ended almost before it began. The gopis threw themselves headlong down the forest's thousand and one paths searching for Krishna in every direction except the one in which he could be found—up.
There is only one perspective from which it is possible to view a labyrinth in its entirety, and that is from above. Krishna had simply climbed a moonbeam until he could look down on his many lovers at once. What he saw startled him. The briars and brambles of the forest were shot through with a hundred shades of red. Each belonged to a scrap of cloth torn from the sari of a gopi as she darted first this way, then that. These flashes of bright crimson radiated outward from the clearing where the rasalila took place, like embers bursting from a burning log, like hyper-oxygenated blood cells escaping from the heart into the arteries, veins and capillaries of a panicked captive.
What did Krishna feel when he was confronted with this sight? Pity? Regret? Love?
Exactly what does a god feel for his devotees? This is not a rhetorical question; I really want to know. Krishna's dalliance with the gopis is traditionally explained as a game, a sport, a play of consciousness in which the divine lover entices the human heart to leave behind its mundane concerns and become enraptured with the eternal. But, if the gopis could never hope to follow Krishna when he would retreat to his eternal nature as Vishnu, to what end did he entice them? It is the quality of sport that unnerves here; Krishna may have been only playing, but no one likes to have their heart toyed with, least of all by god.
Which begs a further question—what was the gopis' experience? When they danced with their own personal Krishna did they feel they were standing at the threshold of the divine? Or, were they seduced by a perfect lover who, against all odds, had chosen them—a poor, wide-hipped farm girl to be his one true love?
It's said that the gopis each danced with a Krishna who conformed to her exact desires. That's why, when some brushed their breasts against his chest it was a deep indigo, others danced with a lover whose skin was the color of hyacinth, others sighed after a Krishna whose pale flesh was stained blue only along its veins. The differing colors of Krishna's skin may be seen as a visual metaphor for the varying guises the divine lover adopts for each gopi. For many, of course, Krishna was the dashing prince depicted in miniature paintings of the rasalila—handsome, flirtatious, attentive—the exact opposite of the brutish husbands who awaited them at home and demanded to be treated as a household god. Others, perhaps, were more enchanted by the adolescent Krishna, the trickster who hid behind the sandalwood trees with his posse of teenage boys, impatiently waiting to jump out and scare the younger gopis so that, trembling with excitement, they spilt their milk pails. Still others might well have lusted after the mature Krishna, brave warrior and steadfast charioteer for Arjuna on the battle-field of Kurukshetra, father-figure extraordinaire.
I can equally imagine a gopi who had lost her only child when he was just a toddler, leaving her marriage bed to wander in the forest following after the giggles and squeals of a small child. Reaching the clearing where the rasalila is to take place, she bends and sweeps the baby Krishna into her arms, that little thief whose mouth and chest are slick with stolen butter from the jar he grasps in tiny, chubby hands. After dancing with him she returns to her bed, her breasts now smeared with butter too, and when her husband sleepily reaches out for them she smacks his hand and rolls away, unwilling to let him nuzzle nipples still tender from suckling a god.
What do all these Krishnas have in common? Each is uniquely capable of satisfying the deepest longings of the gopi he dances with. He alone is able to fill the void she feels in her soul. Only in this guise will she permit him to lure her away from family, friends, the duties of hearth and home. Only dancing with this form does she allow herself to become totally vulnerable, opening up so completely that Krishna, the thief who could steal anything, finds no need to abscond with her heart, she has already placed it in his cupped hands.
We are all of us gopis. Thinking of Krishna's endlessly mutable nature reminds me of the verse we chanted together in the Guru Gita countless times:
"Salutations to Shri Guru. In order to receive the true understanding of the world, I consider you to be my father, my mother, my brother and my God."
Here we might add: sister, lover, grandfather, best friend, only friend, co-conspirator, disciplinarian, high-priestess, advocate, counselor, story-teller, sorceress...
The four roles mentioned in the above verse are not meant to delimit the Guru, rather they stand for any role, every role that the devotee needs the Guru to play. Between Bade Baba, Baba Muktananda and Gurumayi, these were practically endless for the followers of Siddha Yoga. My principle relationship to the Guru was with Gurumayi, and after receiving shaktipat I clung to her for many years like a child clings to the skirts of his mother. After much sadhana, I began to see her in a different way—as a sister. I felt that she was calling me to rise and stand shoulder to shoulder with her like Balarama stood with Krishna, or Lakshmana stood with Rama. This evolution was emblematic of a deep healing of my psyche. I had lost my mother when I was two years old. Too young to remember her at all. Growing up, when other children talked about their mothers, I was silent. For me, my mother was present only as an absence—negative space inhabiting the margins of the pages of my life's story. My relationship with Gurumayi somehow filled up that space, allowed me to engage with a maternal presence and so to grow, and to grow up. And then, just when I felt that we had attained a species of equality that would enable us to work together as one—she was gone.
The abandonment I had experienced with the death of my mother—sudden, unexplained and unfathomable loss—was repeated. It remains to be seen if the recurrence of this absence will prove to be another opportunity for radical re-integration and healing—or simply a further devastation.