Krishna & The Gopis: Gender & Spiritual Practice


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Krishna saw his own self – as the Infinite – In the throng of lovely gopis. They experienced in Krishna, O wonder, Their own self – but as the Absolute. And when, in play, he stole their veils, He wished to see himself in Truth’s naked ray.

Atma and Maya: light and mirror. God is Love and He loves His image.

This poem by Frithjof Schuon (translated from the German) tells the story both of the historical Krishna - a man & teacher of great spiritual power - in his relationship with the gopis - women who were his devotees; and also (at the level of an extended metaphor) of the relationship between God/the Infinite/Atma and living beings/the finite/Maya.

The poems itself is lovely, and - like all poems - is its own answer to the question: what does it mean? So I won’t pretend to have anything to “add" to it … But will share some of what the poem evokes for me, on this February morning, warmish & windy in the Rocky Mountains near Red Feather Lakes, Colorado … particularly in relation to how sex, gender & sexuality interact with spiritual practice …

My favorite part of this poem is: And when, in play, he stole their veils, / He wished to see himself in Truth’s naked ray. How God (our own Higher Self, the “masculine" Krishna) “plays" with those parts of us (the “feminine" gopis) still trapped in duality by “stealing their veils" i. e. dissolving what prevents those aspects from realizing themselves as God. And why does he do this? There is a desire, a wish, perhaps even a need, that God has to “see himself in Truth’s naked ray, " to see himself reflected in the awakened/naked/transparent play of Maya.

Now many volumes have been written by those exploring - from psychological, sociological, philosophical & many other points of view - sex (the biological aspects of what makes us “men" or “women"), gender (how this biology interacts with social constructs), and sexuality (how sex & gender play out in our intimate relationships, in how we define ourselves in relation to *** desire & practice). Exploring these literatures can be a great way of becoming more conscious of our social conditioning around these issues and - if we’re on a spiritual path - beginning to unwind some of these patterns (these “veils of Maya").

There was a time in my life when I was quite passionate about explorations such as these. Recently my passion has been more along the lines of yoga & qigong & meditation: techniques for transcending all levels of conditioning (including those woven of sex, gender & sexuality). Yet frequently the two paths overlap: My exploration of Egyptian Yoga, for instance, revealed that certain Egyptian cultures had eight different categories of “sexual identification, " of variations on the theme of considering oneself to be “heterosexual" or “homosexual. " So the view & enactment of desire was much more fluid than it is in our culture.

And Taoist philosophy & practice (the foundation for qigong) is built upon a sophisticated understanding of the interactions between yin & yang: how the “feminine" and “masculine" principles are in constant flux, one becoming the other, continuously; how this movement depends upon the essence of yang always already existing within yin, and the essence of yin always already existing within yang; how they depend upon each other (like Krishna depending upon the unveiled gopis, and vice versa).

And how the process of yoga asana (as a Hindu path) involves drawing the energies that - when we’re still caught in duality - flow in the Ida & Pingala (feminine & masculine) channels, into the Shushumna Nadi (the central channel of the yogic body, representing Unity Consciousness, the “marriage" of the masculine & feminine). And how that energy of nonduality (or an awakened Kundalini) can then flow out again into the appearances, the play of Maya, representing this blissfully unified masculine & feminine energy.

And how Yidam practice of the Buddhist vajrayana path utilizes the imagery of *** union between male & female deities as a skillful means for accessing aspects of awakened mind. Though at the level of actual consort practice (with or without a physical partner), the yogi or yogini is able to manifest either a masculine or a feminine form (since this is all unfolding at the level of the subtle body, which is not bound or defined by biological sex) … so not only are women are able to act as consorts/supports for men (the “traditional" arrangement), but men also are able to act as consorts/supports for women; as well as women and men acting as consorts/supports for practitioners of their own sex.

And how the path of Buddhist or Hindu Tantra (as well as Taoist Inner Alchemy) involves the skillful transformation of the energies of desire (that yearning of the finite for the infinite) into the nectar of spiritual awakening … and the subsequent infusion of all aspects of life with this awakened energy.

And how all these thoughts/verbal expressions are nothing more than the play of conceptual mind, until one actually finds oneself in the Presence of an Enlightened Master: a Being (a woman or a man) already flowing with the energy of Krishna. At which point one becomes (men & women alike) - for better or for worse - a gopi, in love with ones own Self as reflected in that Being. At which point ones spiritual practice becomes the practice of surrendering, of allowing ones conceptual veils to be “stolen, " and generating devotion - endless devotion - to that which is being reflected back: the nakedness of our own Divinity. Sobeit.

Elizabeth Reninger is an independent scholar & and essayist, who has been exploring Yoga - in its Buddhist, Taoist & Hindu varieties - for more than twenty years. For more yoga-related writing & resources, please visit her website “Alchemy Of The East" at:


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