Govindadāsa


Govindadāsa
(15th century)
   Govindadāsa is the name of one of the best-known poet-saints of the Vaishnava sect (those devoted to worship of Vishnu as god), a part of the Hindu spiritual movement called bhakto (“sharing [in god]”). In general these bhakti poets expressed a passionate devotion to god, independent of the strict Brahmanical tradition, and wrote their poetry for people largely uneducated in classical Sanskrit. Thus the lyrics of the bhakti poems were written in the language of everyday people, in Govindadāsa ’s case in the early Bengali dialect of northeastern India.
   Like his fellow Bengali Vaishnava poet-saints CHANDIDAS and VIDYāPATI, Govindadāsa chose as the subject for his lyrics the Hindu myth of Krishna, most popular incarnation of the god Vishnu, and his love affair with the gopī or herding woman named Rādhā. But with all of these poets, the question of authorship is a complex one for two main reasons. First, later poets would sometimes ascribe their own poems to a prestigious earlier poet to give their own religious views the authority that name provided. In addition bhakti devotees generally assumed a new religious name, and many people might therefore choose the same name, especially a name that ended in the suffix -dāsa (that is, “servant”). Since Govinda was a name frequently used to address Krishna, particularly in his role as lover of gopī, since it meant, essentially, “herdsman,” the name Govindadāsa means “servant of Krishna”—a name almost certain to be popular with bhakti devotees of Vishnu.
   Thus we cannot be sure that the Govindadāsa whose name appears in the signature lines (or bhanitās) of many lyric poems is always the same poet. The poems themselves, however, are simple, vivid, and memorable. They tend to be written in the conventional bhakti style called mādhuryabh āva, a style that speaks of Krishna in the role of divine lover. In these poems the narrator conventionally speaks in the voice of Rādhā, who represents, metaphorically, the human soul longing for god. The yearning for sexual unity by the lovers becomes the vivid image of a passionate spiritual longing. In one of Govindadāsa’s poems, the speaker’s longing for unity with her love is expressed in images that dissolve her own identity into his:
   Let the water of my body join the waters
   of the lotus pool he bathes in.
   Let the breath of my body be air
   lapping his tired limbs.
   (Dimock and Levertov 1967, 58)
   In another the pain of her lover’s imminent departure is too much to bear, and in the bhanita that ends the poem, Govindadāsa takes on the persona of gopī companions of Rādhā, who, abashed by the intimacy of the scene, softly steal away:
   —Where has he gone? Where has my love gone?
   O why has he left me alone? . . .
   Taking her beloved friend by the hand,
   Govinda-dāsa led her softly away.
   (Dimock and Levertov 1967, 23)
   Bibliography
   ■ Dimock, Edward C., and Denise Levertov, eds. and trans. In Praise of Krishna. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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