The title of the second anthology edited by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale, Finding Radha: The Quest for Love is very similar to their first collaboration, In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology. At first glance, these exploratory phrases seem rather simple and functional. However, a certain kind of pattern, a trajectory, starts to be formed upon reflection. In their earlier book, the editors set out looking for one heroine, and ten years later, they seem to have found another.

The words in the titles connote an academic quest, but they also allude to the elusiveness of love through two of the most recognisable nayikas of Indian mythology, Sita and Radha. An essay in the new anthology by Oxford University scholar Mandakranta Bose explores the connection between the two. Sita, the perfect, elevated goddess must be sought with respectful devotion, but Radha, the flawed and relatable milkmaid may be found and owned, especially within oneself. From the act of “searching” to the result of “finding”, there is a definitive conclusion, a victory. A victory, perhaps, of instilling thirst. Indeed, these words may as well be about a far bigger pursuit for some – for god.

The blossoming of a legend

Anyone who reads Radha academically knows that she is a comparatively late entrant into the realm of Indian mythology. A known figure in Hindu imagination and faith, she entered the public consciousness in a big way through the Gita Govinda, an erotic composition by the 12th century Odiya poet, Jayadev. Unlike her paramour, Krishna, who may once have been a human hero elevated to divinity through legends, Radha is decidedly fictional. This idea is reiterated in several places in the anthology, including the introduction by Namita Gokhale, and essays by Devdutt Pattanaik, Meghnad Desai and Jawhar Sircar, among others.

Sircar posits that a Radha-like character existed in Hindu lore even before Jayadev’s magnum opus, such as in texts like the Bhagvad Purana, and in the sensual Tamil tradition of Nappinai and Mayon. It is worth noting, he says, that the Bhagvad Purana was composed in Tamil country, although it was a Sanskrit text. Further, he traces the development of the Krishna cult and eventually Radha’s through the work of poets like Chandidas, Surdas and other Vaishnavas of the Gaudiya School.

Desai points to the contribution of Jain/Prakrit texts in the evolution of Radha. He says that Radha’s character as Krishna’s consort was created to complete his – like a Lakshmi to a Vishnu or a Parvati to a Shiva. Already attributed with beauty, bravery and wisdom, Krishna needed a loving counterpart who would then make him the “poornavataar” (the complete avatar of Vishnu).

Makarand R Paranjape’s essay draws our attention to the Ritikal poets of Bihar in the 16th-17th centuries. He also connects the rise of Radha – and thereby the idea of the divine feminine – to the influential Shakta movement in Bengal around the same time.

Renowned art historian Kapila Vatsyayan elaborates in her essay, on the role of art in the proliferation of Radha’s legend. Between the 16th and 20th centuries CE, miniature artistes lapped up the romance of Radha-Krishna and rendered the intense love depicted in Jayadev’s imagination in visual terms. Vatsyayan underlines two important aspects of such art from Rajasthan and Gujarat. The first is the artistic yet fairly accurate representation of the flora and fauna of the place and period, and the second, the deification of the protagonists through halos behind their heads. Slices of botanical history, and influences of Christian (originally, Hellenistic) art, become incidentally visible in the quest for Radha.

Through poetry, art and music, Radha steadily makes place in popular imagination to the extent she becomes the truth. As Desai rightly says, “…in Indian lore, none is as natural and as concocted as Radha.”

Like Radha, like Krishna

The Radha-Krishna legend manifests itself in many oral traditions across India, but Yudit K Greenberg, a US-based Jewish studies expert, finds an interesting parallel outside Indic lore too. She proposes that the Gita Govinda is comparable to the Shir Ha-Shirim (Song of Songs), a text that comprises 24 books of the Hebrew Bible. This is the love song of a shepherdess and a shepherd in Israel that has been elevated to a liturgical status.

Speaking of likenesses, several essays in the book provide intra-textual cases in point. These are equally, if not more, interesting, because they delve into the complex ideas of gender. What is popularly referred to as the “Leela Hava” in Vaishnava parlance is elaborated in Alka Pande’s essay, in which Krishna dons female clothing. In turn, Radha dresses up like a man too, but hers is a kind of longing Krishna can never understand.

This is a second major flouting of social convention in “Krishnology”, the first being the adulterous nature of Radha-Krishna’s relationship. Krishna is perfectly secure in his masculinity and godhood, and gets easily past these transgressions, calling it leela. Radha’s part of the bargain includes constant heartache and censure, but also the greatest place of pride beside Krishna. His 16,000 plus consorts and even principal wives, Rukmini and Satyabhama, are rarely acknowledged. But Radha is ubiquitous in her role as the supreme lover and devotee.

The other kinds of “relationships” explored in this book within the Radha-Krishna paradigm are metaphysical in nature. The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition takes Krishna to be the supreme godhead, and not merely an incarnation of Vishnu. Naturally, Radha is no human milkmaid either, but there is Krishna’s potency, which they call “hladini shakti”. In their respective essays, Shubha Vilas and Shrivatsa Goswami expound the finer points of this philosophy. They present a commonly used metaphor of Krishna and Radha being the sun and the sunshine, to explain how there cannot be one without the other. It becomes a parallel of the better known Samkhya idea of purusa and prakriti, often represented through the figures of Shiva and Parvati.

Further, there is an exposition on the collusion of bhakti and rasa when it comes to loving Krishna. Harsha Dehejia, the noted scholar and author of Radha: From Gopi To Goddess, explains how the shringara (erotic) form of bhakti takes precedence over others in Krishna bhakti, for he is Raseshavara (the lord of Rasa) himself, much like the older god, Kamadeva.

This is best demonstrated in the devotional style of Chaitanya – the 15th century mystic and saint from Bengal – who loved Krishna in Radha’s spirit. The gender-bending ideas, first propagated in Krishna’s leela hava, come a full circle here. Radha is as indispensible for Krishna as she is for anyone seeking him. In Paranjape’s words, “What is standard practice is to regard Radha as allegorising the human soul and Krishna as god, but what makes Radha so special is that she is not an ordinary soul, but a Krishna-catching device par excellence.”

Radha in our throats

Beyond these academic expositions, however, Radha comes truly alive in popular art and culture. Whether in the poetry of Kazi Nazrul Islam or Rabindranath Tagore, whether in short stories or in lyrical references in Bollywood, Radha’s position continues to be affirmed in our collective consciousness. Essays, short stories and translated verses of this nature find place at the end of this book, where an awareness of her presence in heightened. Jayadev and Surdas sing of emphatic desire in one place, Subrahmanya Bharathiyar and Narsinh Mehta imagine the plight of two aching lovers in another, and the widows of Vrindavan become Radha in a third.

The book brings together different voices across different times, trying to bottle the enigmatic incense that is Radha, who in turn, tries to capture the heart of Krishna. Radha, then, becomes symbolic of an endless circle of fulfilment and anguish, reflecting the deepest desire of the atman to merge into the paramatman, and, often, the futility of this quest. Radha’s primal pain is perhaps best articulated in Andal’s words, which beg this question of Krishna: “If he won’t caress me, what use is this howling tenderness?”

Finding Radha: The Quest for Love, edited by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale, Penguin Books.