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The Rasa lila (IAST rāsa-līlā) (Hindi: रास लीला) or Rasa dance is part of the traditional story of Krishna described in Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavata Purana and literature such as the Gita Govinda, where he dances liki with Radha and her sakhis. The Indian classical dance of Kathak evolved from the 'Raslila of Braj and Manipuri Classical Dance' (Vrindavan) also known as Natwari Nritya, which was revived in 1960s by Kathak dancer, Uma Sharma.
The term, rasa meaning "aesthetics" and lila meaning "act," "play" or "dance" is a concept from Hinduism, which roughly translates to "play (lila) of aesthetics (rasa)," or more broadly as "Dance of Divine Love".
The rasa lila takes place one night when the gopis of Vrindavan, upon hearing the sound of Krishna's flute, sneak away from their households and families to the forest to dance with Krishna throughout the night, which Krishna supernaturally stretches to the length of one Night of Brahma, a Hindu unit of time lasting approximately 4.32 billion years. In the Krishna Bhakti traditions, the rasa-lila is considered to be one of the highest and most esoteric of Krishna's pastimes. In these traditions, romantic love between human beings in the material world is seen as merely a diminished, illusionary reflection of the soul’s original, ecstatic spiritual love for Krishna, God, in the spiritual world.
Just as a child plays at its own will with its reflection in a mirror, even so with the help of His Yogamāyā Bhagavān Śrī Kṛṣṇa sported with the Gopīs, who were like many shadows of His own form.
Apart from the definition above, the term also comes from the Sanskrit words rasa and lila, with rasa meaning “juice”, “nectar”, "emotion" or "sweet taste" and lila meaning "act".By taking this etymologic breakdown of the word literally, "Rasa lila" means the “sweet act” (of Krishna). It is often freely rendered as "the dance of love".
Rasa lila has been a popular theme in Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Manipuri and Kuchipudi items. Ras lila is a popular form of folk theatre in the regions of Mathura, Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, especially during the festivals of Krishna Janmashtami and Holi, and amongst various followers of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the region. Raas leela(Raax lila) is also observed as one of the National Festivals of Assam. During Raax lila, several thousand devotees visit the holy temples and Xatras of Assam every year.
In the tradition of Vaishnavism of Manipur Rasa Lila is depicted within classic Manipuri dance, and revolves around the same story of the love between Krishna and the cowherd girls and tells the divine love story of Krishna, svayam bhagavan and Radha, his divine beloved. This form of dance was started by Bhagya Chandra in 1779 and in some parts of India is still performed every year on Krishna Janmashtami (the festival to clebrate Krishna’s birthday). According to different traditions, the rasa-lila is performed either by boys and girls, or by girls only. The dance is performed holding dandi (plural of danda) or sticks and is often accompanied with folk songs and devotional music.
The Traditional Rasa Lila performances in Vrindavan are famous throughout the Vaisnava world as an experience of the spiritual world. Rasa Lila performance was started by Swami Sri Uddhavaghamanda Devacharya in the early 15th Century CE at Vamshivata in Vrindavan, Mathura. He was a prominent saint of the Nimbarka Sampradaya, and disciple of the world-renowned Swami Sri Harivyasa Devacarya. The Vani literature of Vraja is the transcription of the songs that were heard by Swami Harivyasa Devacarya and his Guru, Swami Shri Shribhatta as they meditated on the Nitya Lila of Shri Radha Krishna. These songs describe the eternal spiritual abode of Shri Radha Krishna, the Sakhis and Nitya Vrindavana Dham - or Nikunja Dham.
As many new devotees of that time could not understand the Vraja language, Swami Uddavaghamanda Devacarya trained his Brahmachari students to play the parts that appeared in the songs in order to get a visual representation of the Lila that was being described. Many were sceptical of this, and attempted to thwart the first enactment. However, at the conclusion of the first Rasa Lila, tradition has it, the Lord Himself appeared and gave the actors his own Crown, and decreed that whenever a qualified actor was to take the part of the Lord, from the moment he put on the crown on his head, it should be understood that he represents the Lila potency of God, and treated with due respect. Shri Radha and Krsna shall be known as Shri Radha Rasavihari.
Since then, the traditional form has remained that actors who are young Brahmacharis will join a group led by the Swami of that group. The music remains the typical Dhrupada style of the Vraja Acharyas who penned the songs they heard to the accompaniment of Sitar and Pakhawaj and the songs are sung in Vraja Language, a parent to modern Hindi.
Recently, many people have taken advantage of the religious sentiments and have begun plagiarising this ancient art, and for popularity changing the music to popular music. Yet there are a dedicated few who seek to preserve the traditional form of devotional art known as Rasa Lila.
Esoteric meaning of Raasa Lila
The gopis are considered to be Sati. The word Sati is used to represent a chaste married woman but Sayana in his commentary of the Taittiriya Aranyaka explains that the word “sati” refers to “realized souls”. Krishna plays the flute to call the gopis. The flute is given the status of a teacher, Acharya. The music is knowledge which is Brahma-Vidhya. The music flowing from the flute awakens the thirst for spiritual knowledge in the gopis. This also shows us that we can only learn Brahma-Vidhya through an Acharya. Krishna prefers to use an Acharya as an intermediary to teach us Brahma-Vidhya. Once Brahma-Vidhya is awakened, the gopis abandon their husbands to reach Krishna. The husbands represent our selfish materialistic desires.
True knowledge kills these selfish desires. The gopis want only that which is true and approach Krishna. The Raasa dance takes place in a circle. The gopis represent the jeeva atma. There is one Krishna in the middle surrounded by the gopis. Not only is there a Krishna in the middle but He also appears as a partner for each and every gopi. There are as many Krishnas as there are gopis.
The Krishna in the middle represents Paramatma in His absolute form. The Krishna dancing with each and every gopi represents His Antaryami form. As antaryami He exists as our soul. He is always with us. He exists in each and every one of us. Thus the entire Raasa dance represents the Vishwaroopa Swaroopa of God; He exists as antaryami (soul of every soul) as well as the Absolute God head.
The Raasa dance is performed with the gopis who are women. This represents that all jeeva atmas are feminine. The only male in this entire Universe is Paramatma Sri Krishna. He is known as the Para Purusha or the great Purusha. The Raasa dance shows us one of the nine relationships we share with Paramatma which is that of a husband & a wife. He is our husband. This relationship is a spiritual relationship and differs from the type of spousal relationships we are familiar to.
The gopis encircling Krishna on either side represent students and Krishna is the object of knowledge sought by them. If we look at the two Krishnas encircling a gopi then we see the student in the middle. Knowledge gains importance only when there are students to learn. The two Krishnas encircling a gopi show us the importance of the student or the jeeva atma. The two gopis encircling a Krishna show us the supremacy of the knowledge or Paramatma.
The Raasa dance has deep esoteric meaning and has nothing to do with sensual indulgence. When the esoteric meaning of the dance is illuminated, it helps us to shed our desires for materialistic sensual pleasures. It awakens the thirst to learn Brahma-Vidhya in us; with the help of this knowledge we can reach the feet of Paramatma. The dance takes place at night to show us that the union with Paramatma is beyond time and space. At nighttime the normal boundaries of time and space are not illuminated. Night here represents the transcendental nature of the union of a jeeva atma with Paramatma.
Ref: Indo Aryan Mythology by Narayan Aiyangar copied from Shakti pat seer on Facebook
References and notes
- Richmond, Farley P.; Darius L. Swann, Phillip B. Zarrilli (1993). Indian theatre: traditions of performance. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 197. ISBN 81-208-0981-5.
- Schweig, G.M. (2005). Dance of divine love: The Rasa Lila of Krishna from the Bhagavata Purana, India's classic sacred love story. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ; Oxford. ISBN 0-691-11446-3.
- Bhag-P 10.33.39
- Hanumanprasad, Poddar (1941). Gopīs' Love for Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Gorakhpur: Gita Press.
- Music in traditional Indian theatre: special reference to Raas Leela, by Rani Balbir Kaur. Shubhi Publications, 2006. ISBN 979-8187226993.
- Rasa - Love Relationships in Transcendence, by Swami B.V. Tripurari (ISBN 1-866069-10-7)
- Theatre and Religion on Krishna's Stage, by David Mason, New York: Palgrave, 2009
- "Essays on Indo-Aryan Mythology", by Narayan Aiyangar, 1898 (ISBN 1104832704) (ISBN13: 9781104832704)
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