A manuscript of Gita Govinda, scribed on ivory, has recently been declared as a National Heritage of India. Many, predictably, are curious to know the greatness of Gita Govinda that has elevated a copy of its manuscript to such high status. For a fair idea about the form and content of this literary creation, a brief account is presented here.

Gita Govinda is a unique Gita-Kabya composed by saint poet Jayadev in the twelfth century. Jayadev was born to Bhojadev and Ramadevi in the village Kendubilva (Kenduli, about 25 kms from Bhubaneswar) in the Prachi Valley of Orissa, rich in socio-religious culture and famous for Madhava worship.

Gita-govinda is a work of lyrical poetry written in Sanskrit. It has twelve chapters (sarga), which are further subdivided into twenty-four Prabandhas. Each Prabandha contains two further divisions, usually comprising eight couplets, called Ashtapadis – poems with eight stanzas. The Ashtapadis are preceded by verses composed in a different meter, which describe the backdrop of the subsequent Ashtapadi. There are about three thousand manuscripts of Gita-govinda written in twenty-two different scripts and fifty seven commentaries.

Jayadev has presented Madhava (Krishna) as the cult hero of Gita Govinda. Kendubilva is surrounded by villages named after the Dasavtar (ten incarnations) of Vishnu, the central invocatory deity of Gita Govinda.

Gita-Govinda describes the mystical love, separation, longing and union of Radha and Krishna, the cosmic duo, symbolizing metaphysically the interplay between Jivatma and Paramatma. Its spiritual essence, mystical imports, sensual overtones, aesthetic depictions and lyrical fluidity have baffled critics, bewildered scholars, mystified saints, charmed lovers, enlightened devotees and involved people at large emotionally and sentimentally.

It has, over centuries, influenced religious faiths and beliefs, culture and traditions, literature and poetics, music and dance forms and has inspired art, architecture, painting and sculpture. Singing of Gita Govinda as a devotional song, before deities in temples and in religious shrines in different parts of India, has been traditionalized since centuries. It used to be the main topic for singing by Devadasis in the Jagannath temple at Puri. All classical dance forms in India include Gita Govinda in their repertoire for enactment and expression of sentiments (Bhava).

Uniqueness of Gita Govinda

It is the first lyrical dance drama (Gitakavya) composed in simplified Sanskrit, including vernacular idioms, which could be easily appreciated by people, compared to classical Sanskrit literature. It used to be enacted as a play with spiritual fervour on religious ceremonies at temple precincts.

The lyrics, sweet, soft and soothing (Madhura, Komala, Kanta, Padavali) set to melodious Raga and Chhanda, with rich metaphors and rhythmic alliteration, touches the heart and soul. The dictions are so stimulating and penetrating that they evoke emotions readily. People sing the songs, at times, even without understanding the theme.

In Gita Govinda, Jayadev, for the first time characterized Radha as the eternal consort of Krishna and his power of bliss (ananda sakti), as per doctrine of Nimbark, which paved the way for worship of Radha-Krishna duo as beloved deities of Vaisnavite cult. The four-handed Vishnu holding Sankha, Chakra, Gada and Padma standing alone or with his consort Lakshmi was replaced by two-handed Krishna holding flute and accompanied in the embrace posture of Radha.

Jayadev, in Gita Govinda revolutionized the concept of Bhakti (devotion), propounded by Vedantin Vaisnavites like Ramanuja, Madhavacharya, Vallabhacharya, Nimbark etc. by introducing the element of Love (Prema) for communion with God and to attain eternal bliss (ananda).

Implanting the Concept of Bhava

Introduction of this concept of devout love (Prema-Bhakti), in twin aspects of Gopi-Bhava and Radha-bhava as the highest path for union with divinity is the innovative philosophy of Jayadev. Radha, through intensely passionate love, constant devotion and self-surrender, attained the goal and enjoyed the eternal bliss (ananda), of unitive experience, which ultimately became the role model for Vaisnavite devotees.

Shri Chaitanya, in the sixteenth century imbibed this philosophy, practiced Radha Bhava (concert mode) and spread the doctrine for adoption by his followers, the Gaudiya Vaisnavas. At present, all Vaisnavite cults including ISKCON, Shyama Shyam Dham etc. follow this concept of Prema-Bhakti.
Jayadev, through his mystical love songs, has highlighted the intense desire of individuals for communion with divinity. This mysticism created far reaching philosophical and metaphysical connotations which had profound influence on the religious mindset and spiritual psyche of devotees.

Jayadev has adopted sensual and erotic depictions (Vilash Kala) in developing the theme of Gita Govinda and in presenting the dalliance of Krishna with Radha and Gopis in accordance to the literary nuances of his era. These depictions, in addition to highlighting the importance of sustained sentiments (Sthayi Bhava), are pleasant to mundane human psyche, craving for passion and pleasure. This is one of the factors which made Gita Govinda very popular amongst the masses.

Consummate Portrayal of Nature

Imaginative descriptions of the landscape and aesthetic panorama covering mountain, forest, river, lake, trees, creepers, herbs, aquatic plants, flowers, animals, birds, reptiles, beetles, sky, clouds, lightning, rainbow, moon, stars, sun, darkness etc. as stimulants (Uddipana bibhav) in effecting sentiments and mood, in developing the theme, is an unique feature of Gita Govinda.

For evocation of emotions and for satisfaction of human senses (Pancha Indriyas), Savda (sound), Sparsa (touch), Rupa (from), Rasa (sentiment) and Gandha (smell), Jayadev has employed skill fully the tangible and intangible elements of nature, which is an innovative approach in Gita Govinda.

The impact of different colours of flowers, their fragrance, perfume, scent and aroma, the sound of birds, beetles, falling leaves, the touch of slowly blowing wind etc. including the panoramic landscape have been fully exploited by Jayadev in developing the theme. Basically three colours, the bright yellow of spring, the dark body of Krishna and the heat of Kama have pervaded the theme of Gita Govinda. The artists and poets have taken ques from these descriptions for their creations in paintings, engravings and literary compositions.

Description of ten incarnations (Dasa avatar) of Lord Vishnu, befitting to the theory of evolution, had universal acceptance. It has profound impact on the religious sentiments of people, who sing the song as a devotional prayer, in praise of the glory of Lord Vishnu.

Setting a Genre

Gita Govinda had a profound impact on the development of art, culture and literature. The photogenic description of landscapes, scenes, characters, dance postures, the mood and attire of characters, with detail of clothing, ornaments, make ups, garlands etc. have been so vivid and captivating that they get imprinted in the mind of the reader/ listener. The latent artistic talent and creativity in them get ignited and inspirations for painting, drawing, scribing, sculpturing and engraving the scenes flow unabated.

Some of the palm leaf manuscripts of Gita Govinda have been enriched with such artistic creation. Different episodes depicting the dalliance of Krishna and the mystical love play find place in the Patta paintings of Orissa in miniature paintings elsewhere.

Jayadev, has imaginatively presented divine love play in terms of human passion which is spiritually sublimating in nature. But the descriptions are so vivid, and scintillating that they cause sensuous impact on the mind of the artists, poets and writers. The impact is exhibited in their creations of painting, poetry and literature.

The theme, form and musical style of Gita Govinda became a model for all Radha-Krishna based Kavyas and poetry. Saint poets of Bihar-Bengal region like Chandidas, Vidyapati and Chadra Datta of Mithila have imitated Gita Govinda in their literary creations. The reeti poets of Orissa like Upendra Bhanja, Dinakrushna, Abhimanyu and lyric poets like Bhakta Charan, Banamali, Gopal Krushna, Baladev Ratha, etc., were inspired and influenced by Gita Govinda in creation of masterpieces of literary works.

The popularity of Gita Govinda can be judged from the fact that 132 imitations (listed by Banamali Ratha) in manuscript and print forms commencing from 14th till 19th century have been created in different languages. Besides about 180 editions of Gita Govinda in all regional languages of India, several translations in English, German, French, Latin, Dutch, Hungarian and Singhalese languages between 18th-20th century have been published. More than 1,500 unpublished manuscripts are still available in different museums in India and abroad and in libraries as well as with individual collectors.

Gita Govinda truly is an immortal creation of saint poet Jayadev, and a literary heritage of Orissa.