• By V S R K.
  • June 16, 2022
  • Know about the uniqueness, style and substance of the Gita Govinda. What makes it popular? GG portrays Sri Krishna as an ardent lover.

Uniqueness of Gita Govinda

We have many gods. But the one god who is closest to our heart is Sri Krishna. We worship Him as a child, boy, adolescent, householder, hero and guru. He plays many roles in the epics and the Puranas. He can be clever and cunning, charming and graceful, benevolent and bountiful, playful and protective. We look upon Him as the Redeemer of the fallen, the Refuge of the distressed and the upholder of righteousness (Dharma). The Gita Govinda portrays Him as an ardent lover. Therein lies its uniqueness.


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.


A Sacred Poem Love is a nuanced word. At the level of ordinary human relationship, it is affection of varied intensity. When it is turned towards God, it is devotion. In the Gita Govinda, we have a picture of the love of a women towards God which is reciprocated. The language used is Sanskrit, one of the world’s few classical languages. The expression is poetic. The flavour of the poem is that of romance. The sentiment that is handled is the emotion of love-Shringara-rasa. It has the sweetness of deep affection.


Hence the Gita-Govnda is described as ‘Shringara-madhura-prema-kavya’. It has acquired sanctity through singing in temples and bhajans (group singing) in celebration of Radha-Krishna Kalyana Mahotsava - the marriage of Radha and Sri Krishna.


Style and Substance

A poem to become popular - ‘Gita Govinda’ is undoubtedly a popular poetic-song - needs to be outstanding in style and substance. 


Gita Govinda, with its bejewelled phrases, smooth diction, lyrical notes, figures of speech and rhythmic movement is stylistically a marvel of literary composition. It is said that no other poem has lent itself to musical charm with such ease as the Gita Govinda.


The substance is about the separation in love - vipralambha shringara in Sanskrit rhetoric - of Sri Krishna and Radha and their union (sambhoga). The dhvani or suggestiveness of the poem elevates it to the peak of literary excellence. It suggests the yearning of the human heart (soul) for union with the Divine Being (oversoul). What is striking is that the intensity of the ardour of love was mutual and reciprocal. Though there are transgressions of literary propriety (auchitya) in places, the poem on the whole has an uplifting effect. Hence its popularity.


Structure of the poem

The poem consists of 197 couplets (verses) divided into 24 ashtapadhis (a group of eight verses) and 12 chapters, each with one, two, three or four ashtapadhis. There are besides 90 separate slokas (verses of four lines) which link up the ashtapadhis. In view of the importance of the ashtapadhis (they are the poetic pieces that form the substance of Gita Govinda), the poem itself is called, particularly in Kerala, as the Ashtapadi.


The Radha-Krishna episode is based on accounts given in the Brahmhavaivarta Purana and the Devi Bhagavata. (the familiar and better known Bhagavata of Sri Krishna does not refer to Radha at all). The scholarly interest that the poem despite its strong erotic flavour has evoked, has given rise to 64 commentaries in Sanskrit. It has been translated into most of the Indian and European languages.


The ashtapadis are rendered musically in various regards, the melodic patterns. Though Jayadeva, the composer, had originally assigned some ragas, modern musicians and musicologists have changed them.

Jayadeva with wife Padmavati.

Birth and Upbringing

The composer of the poem is Jayadeva - he mentions this in the poem itself - who belonged to the 12th century. Details about his life are scanty. He was born of Bhojaraja and Ramadevi in a village called Kindubilva, on the banks of the Ganges, in West Bengal (Odisha also claims his birth). Even to this day thousands of people gather at Kindubilva to celebrate his birth on Makara Sankaranti Day in January, coinciding with Thai-Pongal. The festival goes on for three days during which ashtapadhis are sung.


Jayadeva was learned in the Vedas, the epics and the Puranas. He knew music and dance. From his early days he was god-minded and the small Radha-Krishna temple in his village drew him close.


Jayadeva was married to Padmavati belonging to the holy temple town of Puri in Odisha. She was a dancer dedicated to Lord Jagannath of Puri. It is said that even as Jayadeva composed his ashtapadhis, Padmavati danced to them with abhinaya expressive of their idea and the correlated emotions. Legend has it that the Lord Himself came to Jayadeva’s aid in composing verse 7 of Ashtapadhi 19 (Smaragarala khandanam mama shirasi... the refrain of the ashtapadhi Priye Charuseele is a popular one and scholars attach much significance, moral and spiritual).


The devout couple went on a pilgrimage to all the holy places associated with Sri Krishna. They sang and danced before the deities of the temples they visited. To their visit to the Sri Krishna temple at Guruvayur in Kerala is traced the present vogue of ashtapadhi- singing in all the Sri Krishna temples of Kerala (12th century). Sri Krishna Chaitianya’s visit to Guruvayur in the 15th century reinforced and popularised the singing both in the south and the north. 


Jayadeva passed away when he was past 90.


Two unique features of Gita Govinda may be mentioned. Jayadeva hails Sri Krishna as Kesava in the first ashtapadhi. He looks upon Kesava, not Vishnu, as the God who manifested Himself in ten forms beginning from the matsya-avatara (in the form of a fish). He doesn’t mention Krishna as the ninth avatar. Instead he mentions ‘Buddha’. Scholars say that this Buddha is not the Sakyamuni Gautama the Buddha but a Buddha mentioned in the Skanda Purana. The latter Buddha was also against animal sacrifice.    


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 15 July 2018 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


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