Last week, two leading Odissi dancers, Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy of Nrityagram, Bengaluru, took first Chennai and then New York by storm with their beautiful interpretation of the early-12th-century text Jayadeva's Gita Govinda. As it happens, Jayadeva's 'disappearance day' is Paush Sankaranti or Makara Sankaranti, which was celebrated across India by various names on January 14.
The Gita Govinda is a Sanskrit poem in 24 sections called prabandha. Each prabandha has sets of eight couplets. These sets are called ashtapadi or 'eight steps', denoting the verse structure.
In my view, an ashtapadi takes you to the heart of Sanatana Dharma so directly that you can put away anything you ever read about 'Hinduism'. It tells you why a fair number of people from Manipur to Malabar remain enrapt in this culture, refreshing their spiritual and mental health with the things it tells them about their relationship with the 'divine'.
Using the old ritual image of tulabharam (weighing on scales), I would even say that you can place every book on 'Hinduism' on one scale and, on the other, place a single line from the Gita Govinda to outweigh it all. That line, known to make audiences weep as they watch it danced and its meaning overwhelms them, is: 'Smara gharala khandanam mama sirasi mandanam dehi padapallavam udaaram', unsatisfactorily rendered as 'Calm the fire of my love with the touch of your lotus-like feet on my head'.
Krishna, believed to be a divine avatar, says this to Radha, a mere human being and no exalted seer or law maker but a rustic unlettered woman.
He begs her forgiveness for having offended her in any way and, as a sign of her forgiveness, wants to touch his head to her feet.
How did another mere mortal, no iconoclast or satirist but a devout 12th-century Sanatani man, dare to express such an extraordinary thought? The story goes that when this line entered the poet's head it struck him as inappropriate. Had he gone too far in describing the One Moving Spirit, the Almighty of the Ten Avatars as a cajoler and caresser of milkmaids? To clear his head, Jayadeva left his palm-leaf manuscript as it was and went for a swim in the river. Meanwhile, his wife Padmavati finished making prasad for worship and called out to him. Krishna, disguised as Jayadeva, appeared, added something to the manuscript, accepted the prasad and went away. When Jayadeva came home from his swim, Padmavati was puzzled that he wanted prasad and he saw the very line in his head written out, with the ink still wet.
'How could this really happen?' doesn't seem to be the point. This is a teaching story that says 'God' is man's creation, born of our emotional need. That need is 'love', universal love poetically imagined and ennobled as gopi-God love.
As an interdependent species, we often let each other down. Having a God who craves our love restores our amour propre and helps us re-route our connection to humankind through the beautiful and uplifting route of poetry, song and dance.
Do we dare follow the brave poet?