The Perils of Becoming a Gopī

In November 2005 Indian newspapers and television news channels were dominated by a hitherto unremarkable official, D.K. Panda, an Inspector-General of Police from Uttar Pradesh. What was newsworthy was that Panda had announced himself to be Rādhā and had begun to appear in his office dressed as a woman, not only wearing long skirts and makeup, but also anklets, bangles, and a nose ring. A story emerged that some years ago, Panda had experienced a vision of Kṛṣṇa, who had revealed to the Inspector that he was, in reality, Rādhā. Panda renamed herself Doosri Radha (“Second Radha”), dressed as a woman, and began to worship Kṛṣṇa by dancing and singing.1 Although much of the news coverage of Doosri Radha was amusement at her antics, the authorities were less inclined to treat the matter with levity. Doosri Radha was subject to police disciplinary action for breaching the dress code, her wife apparently left her, and later sought maintenance payments from her via the courts. According to some reports, Doosri Radha’s superiors demanded that he be subject to a medical examination to determine if he was suffering from multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, or transvestism. Doosri Radha was eventually encouraged to take voluntary retirement from the police. Other reports suggested that Doosri Radha became annoyed when misgendered, and insisted on being referred to as sakhī (“friend”)—a term often used to denote a female friend, a confidante, or a go-between. However, the term also is the name of a religious group—the sakhī bhavas, female-identified male ascetics who identify themselves completely with the gopīs, the cowherd maidens who are the intimate friends of Kṛṣṇa.

India has many religious traditions in which both female and male practitioners seek to become goddesses or are oriented towards exemplary female models which represent the ideal devotee in relation to the divine. These traditions, which seem to indicate a fluid and mutable approach to gender identities—often rooted in the idea that gender can be exchanged or, ultimately, transcended, are of increasing interest to queer practitioners seeking to examine religious traditions that embody the performative nature of gender.  However, the existence of these traditions is not necessarily an indication that South Asian publics are, for the most part, tolerant or accepting of males who, in the name of devotion, publicly perform femininity, or that such practices necessarily challenge gender norms in South Asian culture.  The Sakhīs are—along with other heterodox Vaiṣṇava traditions such as the Bāuls, Sahajiyās and Kartābhajās, sometimes denigrated as apasampradāyas (“deviant sects”).2 

In this essay I examine the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition—in which both male and female devotees seek to identify themselves with the gopīs—the “cowherd maidens” who participate in Kṛṣṇa’s sacred drama—and how this identification is approached in theology, practice—and its limits. I will begin with a general discussion of the key elements in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology and practice, which relate to the ideal of becoming a gopī, and then move on to examine some issues which circumscribe the “limits” of this practice—the so-called “heresy” of one Rūpa Kavijāra in the eighteenth century. I will close with some observations on to what extent male devotees performing femaleness in this way complicate Western attempts to frame these practices as “queer.”

A personal caveat: when, in the mid-1990s, I began to read Indian literature in the search to validate my own queerness through mythology, I was eager to find stories and characters which seemed to resonate with my own queer sensibility. I was familiar with queer theory’s tendency to read instances of gender-fluidity, males performing femaleness, and homosociality as transgressive or subversive of majoritarian norms of gender and sexuality. Now, some thirty years later, I am less sure. Just because a deity switches gender, or a male character in a story performs femininity, does not necessarily signify queerness in the subversive sense that we have come to understand it in the west. Paradoxically, what looks like queer elements in a situation may, in fact, reinforce rather than resisting normative modes of gender in a culture.3

Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism is primarily structured around the worship of Kṛṣṇa as exemplified by Caitanya (1486-1533) who is considered by Gauḍīyas to be a joint avatar of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā, together in one body. The most popular account of Caitanya’s life is the Chaitanya Charitamrita by Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja (1615) which describes the saint’s travels around the region of Vraj in Northern India. Gauḍīyas believe that Caitanya’s wanderings through the region, such as his visits to the sites associated with Kṛṣṇa’s childhood activities constitute a re-creation of the divine līlā (play or sport) enjoyed by Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā. Simultaneously, Caitanya—as the ideal devotee—revealed the means by which embodied beings could enter into the eternal līlā of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā.

Caitanya did not leave any written texts apart from the eight-verse Śikṣāṣṭaka—describing his intense joy of devotion to Kṛṣṇa. Much of the early Gauḍīya literature was developed by six of his disciples—known as Gosvāmins (“master of cows”). Vaiṣṇava theologians such as Rūpa Gosvāmin, Jīva Gosvāmin, and Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja developed the formal theology and practice required to continue the movement inspired by the example of Caitanya’s life. In doing so they drew upon earlier and competing religious discourses, producing a body of work that includes both creative re-interpretations, accomodations and critiques of other traditions—and—in a manner reminiscent of tantric traditions, subordinated competing traditions; according them a lower ontological status relative to an all-encompassing bhakti.

In Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, ŚrīKṛṣṇa is the ultimate reality. He creates the universe, which is real, and dependent on him. In his undifferentiated aspect, he is Brahman—impersonal, formless; the undifferentiated ground of existence. As Paramātman he is the indwelling self who animates the universes and resides in the heart of all beings. As Bhagavān he is possessed of infinite qualities and innumerable powers (śaktis). However, as Barbara A. Holdrege (2013) points out, the formless, undifferentiated Brahman—the summum bonum of Advaita—is accorded a lower ontological status to Bhagavān—who encompasses both Brahman and Paramātman.4 Correspondingly, the kind of liberation or mokṣa sought through the knowledge of the undifferentiated Brahman is considered to be a limited experience in comparison to bhakti as the highest goal. The Gauḍīyas reject the idea of a mokṣa in which one’s individual identity is dissolved in an impersonal Brahman. Rather, liberation is achieved when the devotee realizes their true nature as a participant in the bliss of Kṛṣṇa’s  eternal play in the divine land of Vraj.


Kṛṣṇa-līlā—Kṛṣṇa’s play—is recounted in the tenth book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa portrays Kṛṣṇa manifesting in the material world and unfolding his līlā in the earthly region of Vraj (North India). For the Gauḍīyas, Kṛṣṇa’s earthly (historical) līlā is a manifestation of his eternal līlā, which occurs within the transcendent Braja-dhāman. Similarly, the various companions of Kṛṣṇa—his foster parents, attendants, friends and the gopīs are considered to be perfect beings who participate in Kṛṣṇa’s essential nature and participate in his eternal līlā

2. Kṛṣṇa, the Chief of the Madhus, along with the cowherding boys, penetrated deep into [the forest] while grazing the cows. Its mountains, rivers and lakes reverberated with the sounds of flocks of birds and of restless bees in the flowering trees. Kṛṣṇa played his flute.

3. The women of Vraj heard that flute music – music which incites Kāma. Some of them described Kṛṣṇa to their confidantes in private.

4. Remembering the activities of Kṛṣṇa, they began to describe them, but their minds became so agitated with the power of Kāma that they were unable [to continue], O king.

5. As his glories were being sung by the band of gopas, Kṛṣṇa entered the forest of Vrndā, which was pleasantly transformed by [the touch of] his feet. His form was that of a superb dancer. He wore a peacock feather head ornament, pericarps of lotus flowers on his ears, garments of a reddish-gold colour, and a vaijayantī garland. The nectar of his lips filled the holes of his flute.

6. The sound of the flute steals the minds of all living things, O king. After hearing and describing it, the women of Vraj embraced each other.

7. The beautiful gopīs said: “We do not know of any higher reward for those who have eyes than this [sight of] the faces of those two sons of the chief of Vraj as they, with their companions, make the animals follow them, O girlfriends. With their two flutes their faces are enchanting, and they cast loving glances which are absorbed by those [who have eyes].

8. Dressed in a variety of garments twined about with garlands of lotuses, lilies, clusters of blossoms, peacock feathers and mango tree sprouts, they are unmistakable as they shine amidst the assembly of cowherders. They are like two actors sometimes singing on a stage.

12. Kṛṣṇa’s nature and form are a delight for women – the celestial women became captivated when they saw it and heard the distinctive tunes played on his flute. The flowers from their braids dropped out, and the belts from their waists slipped off as they went about on celestial air-vehicles, their hearts agitated by Kāma.5

The Gauḍīya theologian Jiva Gosvāmin, in his Bhagavat Sandarbha, presents the gopīs—and Rādhā in particular—as instantiations of Kṛṣṇa’s divine bliss. Kṛṣṇa’s descent to Vraj—along with his divine companions can be thought of as a particular terrestrial manifestation of Kṛṣṇa’s divine, eternal līlā.

A central theme in Kṛṣṇa’s life is his love for the gopīs—the cowherdesses of Vṛndāvana, upon whom the youthful Kṛṣṇa plays many tricks. One of the most popular presentations of the gopīs can be found in the Rasa Lila Panchadhyaya (“the five chapters on the Story of the Rasa dance”) in the Bhagavata Purana (10.29-33). This is the story wherein Kṛṣṇa, inspired by the beauty of the autumnal evening, plays irresistible flute music; charming the gopīs so that they abandon their families, homes, and husbands in order to join Kṛṣṇa in the forest. This results in the famous scene where the gopīs form a great circle around Kṛṣṇa, where he duplicates himself so that he can dance with each of the gopīs simultaneously, although each of them feels that Kṛṣṇa is with her alone.

There is a kind of ethical tension in relation to the gopīs—they are held up as ideal devotees because they abandon the dictates of social convention to be with Kṛṣṇa—seemingly abandoning (or transcending dharma). The idea that the passion of bhakti supersedes all social conventions (such as the hierarchical division of vocations (varṇas) or the stages of life (āśramas) became a key issue within Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. At the same time, the love the gopīs have for Kṛṣṇa is held to be spiritual rather than erotic.

Devotion (bhava) to Kṛṣṇa is the highest end to human existence. All beings have the capacity for this devotion but it is aroused by practice—sādhanā. Sādhanā is divided into two basic forms—Vaidhī Bhakti and Rāgānugā Bhakti. Vaidhī Bhakti is the cultivation of devotion via practices such as listening to/speaking the events of Kṛṣṇa’s līlā; studying scriptural texts, or following the guidance of one’s preceptor. Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology and practice has produced an extensive typology of sentiments or moods that are mapped onto the companions of Kṛṣṇa, which devotees, under the direction of a guru, seek to emulate.

Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana—first established by Rūpa Gosvāmin in his work, the Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu6 is an advanced Vaisnava practice in which the devotee imitates the residents of VrajKṛṣṇa’s companions—who are considered to be divine beings, and hence, exemplars for the devotee. Initiation by a guru is essential, as it is only the guru who has the ability to correctly discern which particular role is appropriate for the devotee within Kṛṣṇa’s divine drama. Practitioners constantly turn their attention to Vraj and become absorbed in the stories of Kṛṣṇa and his companions, which is his divine līlā. Devotees progressively move towards taking an active role, through performing services (sevā) which imitate those of the divine companions.

Rūpa Gosvāmin distinguishes between two kinds of Rāgānugā Bhakti: amorous (kāmarūpa)—for which the divine exemplars are the gopīs; and relational (sambhandarūpa)—where the models are the friends and relatives of Kṛṣṇa. It is kāmarūpa which constitutes, for Rūpa Gosvāmin, the supreme, most intense form of devotional rasa, and, according to the Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu consists of either “desire for erotic enjoyment” (Sambhogecchāmayī) or the “desire to share in their emotions” (Tattadhāvecchātmikā). 

Those who are desirous of the amorous emotional state, after looking at the sweetness of the beautiful image of Kṛṣṇa or after hearing of His various forms of love play, have these two ways as a means of realizing it. This is even the case for men, as is stated in the Padma Purāṇa.  

For example:  Previously all the great sages living in the Daṇdaka forest saw the enchanting Rāma and desired to enjoy his beautiful body.

They were all, therefore, born in Gokula as women, and attaining Hari there by means of passion, they were freed from the ocean of worldly suffering.

One who has intense longing for amorous enjoyment, but serves Kṛṣṇa only by means of the path of Vaidhī Bhakti, achieves the state of a queen in the city.7


What does “erotic enjoyment” constitute?

Rūpa Gosvāmin, in his Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu states:

“283. Amorous Bhakti is that (type of Rāgātmikā Bhakti) which leads the thirst for erotic enjoyment to its perfect state, since it is undertaken exclusively for the pleasure of Kṛṣṇa.

284. It is perfectly accomplished and brilliantly displayed in the gopīs of Vraja. Their distinctive love (prema) attains a special sweetness; since it is the cause of various kinds of amorous activities, the wise have called it “amorous” (kāma).”8

Now kāma – desire – can of course refer to sexual love, but here, Rūpa Gosvāmin gives it a different meaning. Prema is a pure, transcendent love for Kṛṣṇa, an expression of Kṛṣṇa’s own blissful nature, and so we can think of it as a particularly intense form of devotional rapture – sensuous, but not sensual. It is so all-consuming as to obliterate any self-directed desire for personal gratification. 

Viśvanātha Cakravārtin, in his Mādhurya Kādambinī (circa 17th century) compares the devotee’s longing for Kṛṣṇa to a hunger which cannot be satisfied until the sweetness of Kṛṣṇa’s form appears. The devotee may experience flashing glimpses of Kṛṣṇa, and, as he loses all interest in the world of mundane things, his experience of prema deepens, until he is overwhelmed in an ocean of bliss that cannot be measured. He may for instance, feel the touch of Kṛṣṇa’s chest against his own body. When these moments fade, the devotee suffers the anguish of separation from the beloved.

 “Then Bhagavān, full of compassion, bestows the experience of His fourth sweetness, the tender touch (saukumārya) of His lotus feet, hands or chest. Bhagavān awards the touch of His feet to the head of those devotees who are in the mood of servitude. He takes the hands of the devotees who are in fraternal love in His own lotus-like hands. He wipes away with His hands the tears of His devotees imbued with parental affection. And He embraces with his two arms those devotees imbued with amorous love, touching their chests to His, which is marked with Śrīvatsa. In this way, it should be understood that Bhagavān manifests His tender touch according to the bhāva of the devotee.”9

Hence Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas do not seek to emulate or experience (even vicariously) a direct erotic contact with Kṛṣṇa in the sense of sexual love. Sulanya Sarbadhikary explains:

“They emphasize that devotees must rejoice in divine sensuality by vividly imagining Radha-Krishna’s erotic lilas (love-plays), but that direct sexual experience must be reserved for the deities. Thus they imagine themselves as Radha’s young handmaidens, who arrange Radha-Krishna’s secret erotic trysts in Vrindavan’s forests, and even witness them in detail, but never desire similar relations with Krishna. They say that this is the best way to experience erotic passions without allowing them to disrupt a devotee’s humility.”10

The devotee must then – irrespective of their gender or age – cultivate and maintain a selfhood which is that of a selfless young woman – subservient to the needs of others, and entirely devoted to the lord.

How this plays out in practice can be illustrated with another quote from Sulanya Sarbadhikary’s study of contemporary Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava practitioners. Here, she is speaking to a young goswami11, who says:

Gopis [Krishna-lovers] are those who tasted Krishna with all their senses. His name danced on their tongues, their ears heard his flute, their eyes saw those beautiful curls and they smelled lovely flowers on his neck. Like shadows they followed Radha all day and night and arranged her trysts with the dark lord. Keeping their blessings, their foot-dust, on our bodies, we hope to some day taste Vrindavan’s lilas.”

As he spoke, there was a marked change from how he spoke when discussing mundane matters: his voice and hand gestures were distinctly more womanly. This is not specific to him. Many practitioners, when narrating divine lilas, speak softly with calm, shy smiles, and their body language becomes more feminine. This is a significant dimension of their imagining a female persona for themselves.”12


Again, Rūpa Gosvāmin, in his Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu says:

“289. The goal of The Desire to Share in Their Emotions is appreciation of the sweetness of the various emotions of (the gopīs of Vraja).”13

Kṛṣṇa’s primary lover is Rādhā. Here then, the goal of the practice is for the devotee to imagine themselves as one of Rādhā’s girlfriends or handmaidens. This is a practice called Mañjarī Sadhana – the Mañjarī being a special kind of gopī – a female friend (sakhī) of Rādhā who assists her in her love-sporting with Kṛṣṇa. The Mañjarīs serve the divine couple by massaging them, braiding their hair, serving delights such as fruit and betel, cooling them with fans after they make love, and so forth. Haberman notes that this practice is a later development in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava praxis, reflecting a new emphasis on the role of Rādhā14. As with the Sambhogecchāmayī mode of devotion, the emphasis is on selfless service to the divine couple. The distinction between the two modes of devotion can be thought of as imagining oneself to be a gopī in a one-to-one relation to Kṛṣṇa, or in selfless service to Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa.

According to Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology, devotees possess two bodies—the “practitioner body” (sādhaka-rūpa) and the “perfected body” (siddha-rūpa). The siddha-rūpa is the devotee’s eternal form, and the “body” formed through devotional practice, whilst the sādhaka-rūpa is the body “as it presently is”—i.e. the ordinary physical body. After death, the devotee takes on the form of the siddha-rūpa—becoming a gopī companion of Kṛṣṇa. Again, Rūpa Gosvāmin, in Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu, states:

One who is desirous of attaining one of the emotional states of the residents of Vraja should perform services in a manner that imitates them with both the practitioner’s body (sādhaka-rūpa) and the perfected body (siddha-rūpa).15

Becoming Gopīs?

A consequence of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology was that some practitioners took to dressing and behaving like gopīs as their public sevā. This, they believed, intensified their devotion and self-identification to the point where they became seamlessly merged with the gopī with whom they felt an affinity.16 Such behavior was controversial, and, in the early eighteenth century the teachings of one Vaisnava author—Rūpa Kavijāra—which specifically argued for the adoption of an outward female religious persona by male devotees—was denounced by Jai Singh II of Jaipur (1688-1743), and Rūpa Kavijāra and his followers were stripped of their rights to act as religious authorities.

During the last decades of the seventeenth century, various Vaiṣṇava orders (including the Gauḍīyas) had migrated from Vraj into Rajasthan. One of the most important events of the period was the gradual migration of the image of Govindadeva from Vrindaban to Jaipur, where Govindadeva became a state deity, taking up residence in Jai Singh II’s new palace at Jaipur. This influx disturbed the balance of religious power within the state, as new religious groups sought royal patronage—the Gauḍīyas, for example, supplanted the influence of the Rāmānandīs at Jai Singh II’s court. This led to a number of challenges raised by both the Raja and by rival Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas,17 which were debated at a series of councils. The three major issues raised were firstly, the propriety of Gauḍīyas worshipping Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā together (since they were not married); secondly, an argument was made that Visnu should be worshipped before Kṛṣṇa—since Kṛṣṇa is but an avatar of Visnu; and thirdly, that the followers of Caitanya—unlike other Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas such as the Rāmānandīs, Vallabhācāryas, or Nimbārkas—did not constitute an authorized sampradāya.

Jai Singh II presented himself as a dharmaraja—a “protector” of brahminical dharma and undertook a program of reform with regard to social norms and caste conventions, reviving several Vedic sacrifices such as the agnihotra, which he performed daily, and the ancient horse sacrifice. He promoted the Dharmashastras amongst his Hindu subjects and enhanced his popularity enormously by persuading the Mughal Emperor Muhammed Shah to rescind the jizya tax on non-Muslim subjects in 1720. As William R. Pinch (1996) notes, Jai Singh actively discouraged the ascetic orders from bearing arms and obtained pledges from Vaiṣṇava leaders to maintain strict caste rules—for example, not accepting shudras as disciples.18 He was particularly concerned with creating a singular dharmic body or orthodoxy, upholding both the state and the cosmic order. He and his councillors set out to produce a broad Vaiṣṇava dharma which could encompass the various Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas present in the state, whilst at the same time excluding heterodox traditions.

One such heterodox element was the doctrine of Rūpa Kavijāra.19 Rupa’s doctrine was judged to be heterodox as, it was argued, it legitimated a practice whereby Vaiṣṇava devotees physically took on the dress, ornaments, and behaviour of gopīs. According to Monika Horstsmann (2001), there were quite a few religious mendicants who, “in the name of god-madness sported a religiously or otherwise female persona thereby imitating the exemplary female companions of Kṛṣṇa. . . .  These renouncers were thereby felt to be well on the way to making a travesty of their own order and eroding Vaiṣṇavism as a whole.”20 Equally controversial was Rupa’s teaching that as Vaiṣṇava sādhakas advanced along their path, they were exempt from the rituals and social obligations associated with their particular caste. In 1727, the religious authorities in Jaipur ruled that Rūpa Kavijāra’s teaching should not be considered valid by orthodox Vaiṣṇavas.

Rūpa Kavijāra’s arguments for  legitimizing the practice of becoming a gopī can be found in two of his surviving works—the Sārasaṅgraha and the Rāgānugāvivṛtti.21

Rūpa Kavijāra distinguishes between two different bodies. Firstly, there is the taṭastha-rūpa—the “neutral” body—which is simply one’s body as it exists as a physical form, male or female. According to Rūpa Kavijāra, this body is subject to the dharma of normal society; one cannot follow the Vrajaloka, or the gopīs with it. Secondly, there is the “practitioner’s body”—the sādhaka-rūpa. Although, to the uninitiated, this body is indistinguishable from the devotee’s outward physical form, the sādhaka-rūpa is a body upon which has been imposed a gopī-identity (i.e, the siddha-rūpa). The imposition of the gopī-identity occurs at initiation, whereby the guru reveals to the initiate his “true” identity with which, via practice, the devotee fuses. Haberman quotes Rūpa Kavijāra: “Imitating the Vrajaloka with the practitioner’s body means ceasing to think of oneself as male while yet in the physical body.”22

Rūpa Kavijāra makes it plain that the devotee’s body has, via initiation, undergone a profound ontological transformation. He compares the initiatory process to an alchemical transformation, and says that the body of an advanced practitioner is quite unlike that of an ordinary taṭastha-rūpa. As such—and this particular point was also controversial—Rūpa Kavijāra argued that the practitioner’s body was no longer subject to the ordinary rules and standards of society. He insisted that the practitioner, “must not follow the rules of ordinary society with this body, but rather, is to follow the Vrajaloka, meaning the gopīs, “in all ways.”23

Rūpa Kavijāra held the position that to perform one kind of practice outwardly, and another inwardly (that is to say, following the injunctions of varṇāśramadarmah-dharma, whilst taking on the identity of a gopī inwardly) does not lead to a pure state of bhakti. Rūpa Kavijāra’s injunction here can be read as an injunction for the devotee to completely abandon any identification with a male body and to become – as completely as possible, a gopī, dressing, acting, and behaving as an adolescent female, maddened with love for Kṛṣṇa, and beyond the morals and prescriptions of ordinary society, as indeed the gopīs are portrayed, as young women who abandon their husbands and dharma, and rush into the forest for a moonlight tryst with Kṛṣṇa

This sounds more subversively “queer” than the mainstream Gauḍīya practices which I have been discussing so far. Alas, it seemed to be too much for his contemporaries and Jai Singh II.

Rūpa Kavijāra’s teachings were directly opposed by another Gauḍīya theologian, Viśvanānatha Cakravartin. Although Viśvanānatha accepted that the practitioner body sādhaka-rūpa was to be developed using meditative and visualisation practices on the gopīs, he argued that the exemplary models for use with the physical body of the devotee should be quite different: “The lovers of Kṛṣṇa are Śrī Rādhā, Lalitā, Viśākhā, Śrī Rūpa Manjari, etc.; those imitating them are Śrī Sanātana, and Rūpa Gosvāmin, etc. All of them are to be imitated. Imitation with the meditative perfected body is to be done in a manner which imitates Śrī Rādhā, Lalitā, Viśākhā, Śrī Rūpa Manjari, etc. But physical imitation with the practitioner’s body is to be done in a manner which imitates Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmin, Sanātana Gosvāmin, etc.”24

So, in Viśvanānatha’s view, the devotee should identify with the gopīs through meditative practices inwardly—but  for all outward activity, the devotee should model himself on exemplary practitioners such as Rūpa Gosvāmin, who was by that time, as Haberman explains, considered to be an incarnation of Rūpa Manjari—an important gopī who served both Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa.25

This may seem to be a fine distinction to modern readers, but Viśvanānatha’s solution was that whilst internal identification with the gopīs was acceptable, in their worldly lives, practitioners should look to historical ascetic predecessors (such as Rūpa Gosvāmin) in the tradition as models of comportment – following the rules and ordinances of disciplined asceticism. To do otherwise – to become a gopī outwardly as well as inwardly, was to invite social scandal (thus bringing the tradition into disrepute) and potentially, to spell disaster for the devotee, if in their desire to emulate the gopīs was carried too far, caught them within the net of worldly desires, rather than selfless devotion to Kṛṣṇa.

“of little repute”

The ambivalence towards, and sometimes revulsion of heterodox Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas continued into the modern period. During the nineteenth century, as Carola Erika Lorea argues, heterodox Vaiṣṇava lineages suffered oppression and condemnation not only from the British, but also from conservative Hindu and Islamic reformers.26 Orientalist scholars tended to portray Vaiṣṇavas—and in particular, Bengali Vaiṣṇavas as having degenerated from the original teachings of Chaitanya into “love worship” and sexual immorality.27

The cross-dressing practices of the sakhī bhevas (where Rūpa Kavijāra’s teachings may have been an influence) were also taken as evidence of the perverse nature of degenerate Vaiṣṇavism.  For example, Horace H. Wilson describes the sakhīs in his 1862 work Essays and Lectures chiefly on the Religion of the Hindus:

As Rádhá is their preferential and exclusive divinity, their devotion to this personification of the Śakti of KŔISHNA is ridiculously and disgustingly expressed. In order to convey the idea of being as it were her followers and friends, a character obviously incompatible with the difference of sex, they assume the female garb, and adopt not only the dress and ornaments, but the manners and occupations of women: the preposterous nature of this assumption is too apparent, even to Hindu superstition, to be regarded with any sort of respect by the community, and, accordingly, the Sakhi Bhávas are of little repute, and very few in number. . . .28

Such condemnations continued into the twentieth century. Swami Bhakti Hrdya Bon Maharaj, for example, in his commentary on Bhakti-Rasamrta-Sindhuh, v. 295, following Viśvanānatha Cakravartin, says that in the siddha-deha:

Mentally conceived eternal spiritual body one should offer mental services of Śrī Kṛṣṇa under the guidance and direction of Śrī Rādhā, Śrī Lalitā, and others; and in sādhaka-deha (i.e in one’s physical body-practice) follow a spiritual life and serve Śrī Kṛṣṇa in words and deeds under guidance and directions of Śrī Rūpa, Śrī Sanātana, who are also eternal denizens of Braja.” This, he comments, refutes the “wrong and perverse theory” of Rūpa Kavijāra and his followers, who “hold the view that by imitating the Gopīs of Braja in one’s sādhaka-deha (i.e. physical body in the stage of spiritual practices) should serve Śrī Kṛṣṇa physically and by words.29

Some closing thoughts

Both the contemporary case of “Doosri Radha” and the eighteenth-century case of Rūpa Kavijāra show the limits of the acceptability of male devotees performing femininity within Hindu communities. Doosri Radha’s performance of devotional femininity is complicated by issues of caste, education and status, as contemporary sakhī bheva ascetics are typically low-caste groups.30 For a police inspector—a representative of modernity and governmentality—to reject all the trappings of status, authority and family to perform religious femininity, shows the limits of acceptance of such behaviour. There are obvious difference between the case of Doosri Radha and Gauḍīya practice – the former’s gender drift seems to have been the result of religious epiphany as opposed to disciplined sadhana under the tutelage of a preceptor, yet at the same time, it seems that Doosri Radha is performing a kind of femininity which, like that of the Gauḍīya devotee, is highly scripted and bounded. Perhaps she will, over time, gain the status of a saint, as did Lalita-Sakhi (born 1873) who, following initiation, lived their entire life as a woman.31

There also is a similarity with the case of Rūpa Kavijāra—as not only did this teacher advocate the physical enactment of the gopī self, but also that such practitioners were beyond the normative rules of social and cultural behavior. 

The tensions implicit within the performance of gopī selfhood as religious identification also complicate Western models of queerness which valorize sexuality as a form of truth-telling, and seek to find analogues in non-Western cultures. It may seem “queer” to Western eyes that a male devotee should center their religious practice via identification with an idealized representation of a female exemplar, but equally “queer”—in a different sense of the term, that the limit of acceptance is the bodily performance of what is after all, a highly scripted femininity.

Contemporary Queer Theory tends to view gender as performative and a “stylization of the body” as Judith Butler terms it.32 Gender has no prior ontological status beyond the acts, movements and discourses that produce it. The peformance of femaleness—both as internal sādhanā or as bodily practice would seem to fit well into Queer Theory’s configuration of the instability of gender. As Carola Erika Lorea suggests “these gender strategies provide us with powerful vernacular voices for uncovering the performative character of gender.”33

However, I feel it is necessary to sound a note of caution here. The kind of femaleness performed by male Vaiṣṇava devotees is an abstracted and reified set of characteristics which stress devotional subordination rather than a challenge to South Asian gender normativity. For a male devotee to become too female—as in the case of Doosri Radha and the teachings of Rūpa Kavijāra, is a threat to the gender order, constituting a surrender of male power. The potential wildness of the gopīs needs to be carefully managed too—safely kept within the boundaries of the devotee’s interior mindscape rather than out on public display. Rather than a transgression of gender, the female performance of the male devotee rather implies a reification of gender asymmetry, where women are both idealized and simultaneously lack agency outside of male-defined limits. In short, I would argue, although these practices may look “queer” at first glance, on closer inspection, they are neither transgressive nor seeking to subvert the gender order in the way that Western queer practitioners may imagine them.


  1. Accessed 22 Nov 2020.
  2.  Carola Erika Lorea, . “Sectarian Scissions, Vaishnava Deviancy, and Trajectories of Oral Literature: A Virtual Dialogue between the Bengali Songs of Bhaktivinod Thakur (1838-1914) and Duddu Shah (1841-1911).” Zeitschrift für Indologie und Südasienstudien 35 (2018: 83-114, and 91).
  3. See my remarks here for related discussion:
  4.  Barbara A. Holdrege.”The The Gauḍīya Discourse of Embodiment: Re-visioning Jnāna and Yoga in the Embodied Aesthetics of Kṛṣṇa Bhakti.” Journal of Hindu Studies  6 (2013:154-197). Accessed 13 September 2013.
  5.  Bryant Edwin F., trans. 2003. Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God. Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Book X. London: Penguin Books. Chapter 21, The Vision of Kṛṣṇa
  6.  David L. Haberman (trans. & introduction) The Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu of Rūpa Gosvāmin. New Delhi. Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts in Association with Motilal Banarsidass Publishers PVT Ltd. 2003.
  7. David L. Haberman. Acting as a Way of Salvation: A Study of Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana. Delhi. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. (2001: 83).
  8.  David L. Haberman (trans. & introduction) The Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu of Rūpa Gosvāmin. New Delhi. Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts in Association with Motilal Banarsidass Publishers PVT Ltd. 2003: 81
  9.  Mādhurya Kādambinī: A Cloud-Bank of Nectar, Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravārti Ṭhākura Gaudiya Vedanta Publications New Delhi 2018: 405
  10.  Sulanya Sarbadhikary, The Place of Devotion: Siting and Experiencing Divinity in Bengal-Vaishnavism, Oakland, California, University of California Press (2015: 20)
  11.  A renunciate of the tradition.
  12.  Ibid, p78.
  13.  Haberman, 2003: 83.
  14. David L. Haberman. Acting as a Way of Salvation: A Study of Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana. Delhi. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. (2001: 108-114).
  15.  Ibid, 295.
  16.  Frederick M. Smith. The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization. New York: Columbia University Press (2006:352).
  17.  Sampradāya can be loosely translated as a “religious tradition” passed down along a succession of teachers. It is a network of doctrines and practices which gives stability to a religious identity.
  18.  William Pinch. Peasants and Monks in British India. Berkeley: University of California Press, (1996:28).
  19.  Rūpa Kavijāra is also frequently associated (particularly by later commentators) with other heterodox movements such as the sahajiyas—and in some accounts of his life, following his expulsion from the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava community, contracted leprosy due to his spiritual hubris.
  20.  Monika Hortsmann.  “Why Ritual? An Eighteenth Century Debate,” in Jörg Gengnagel, Ute Hüsken, and Srilata Raman (eds). Words and Deeds: Hindu and Buddhist Rituals in South Asia. Wiesbaden. Harrassowitz Verlag (2005: 278).
  21. David L. Haberman.”Imitating the Masters: Problems in Incongruity.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 53.1 (March 1985: 41–50). Accessed January 20 (2014: 44).
  22.  Ibid, 45.
  23.  Ibid, 45.
  24.  Ibid, 47.
  25.  Ibid, 48.
  26.  Carola Erika Lorea. “Sectarian Scissions, Vaishnava Deviancy, and Trajectories of Oral Literature: A Virtual Dialogue between the Bengali Songs of Bhaktivinod Thakur (1838-1914) and Duddu Shah (1841-1911).” Zeitschrift für Indologie und Südasienstudien 35 (2018: 83-114).
  27. See for a discussion of how, during the nineteenth century, representatives of a Vaisnava tradition ended up in the Supreme Court of Bombay charged with immoral practices.
  28.  Horace H. Wilson. Essays and Lectures Chiefly on the Religion of the Hindus. London: Trubner & Co. (1862: 177-178).
  29.  Swami Bhakti Hrdya Bon Maharaj. Bhakti-Rasamrta-Sinduh (Bon Maharaja). Vrindaban U.P. India: Institute of Oriental Philosophy (1965: 139).
  30.  Carola Erika Lorea. “Pregnant Males, Barren Mothers, and Religious Transvestism: Transcending Gender in the Songs and Practices of ‘Heterodox’ Bengali Lineages.” Asian Ethnology 77.1/2 (2018:169–214). Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.
  31.  Ibid, p183
  32.  Judith Butler. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988:519–531). Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.
  33.  Carola Erika Lorea. “Pregnant Males, Barren Mothers, and Religious Transvestism: Transcending Gender in the Songs and Practices of ‘Heterodox’ Bengali Lineages.” Asian Ethnology 77.1/2 (2018:169–214). Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.