gopala gopala devakinandana gopala
Child Krishna, son of Devaki, friend of cows
Gopal, or Gopala, is a name for the child Krishna. Gopala means “cowherd”—go means “cow,” and pala means “protector.” To Hindus, the cow is seen as a symbol of the Earth: it gives and gives, selflessly, and asks very little in return; the cow lives gently and gracefully, yet with strength and dignity. Go can also mean “senses.” When the Divine decides to take a human incarnation, it is sometimes as a king, a religious leader or other powerful figure, but in this case, it was as an ordinary cowherd whose role is to protect what is really important. Unlike in Western religions, Gopal offers devotees the opportunity to have a relationship with God as a child to be cared for and nurtured, rather than as a parental figure.
Krishna was an active and mischievous child. Many of his exploits are recounted in Chapter 10 of the Srimad Bhagavatam, an ancient Sanskrit scripture focused mainly on devotion to God (bhakti). When he was only 3 months old, he kicked and broke apart a cart filled with utensils creating a huge crash just to get his mother’s attention. As a boy, he loved to make his cowherd friends laugh by imitating the songs of bees, parrots, cuckoos, swans and other animals, and by dancing like a peacock. Gopal could also be very naughty, especially toward the cowherd girls (gopis) who were all madly in love with him. He once followed the gopis to a river where they were going to bathe and say prayers in the hope of securing him as their husband, and once they were in the water naked, he stole their clothes and climbed with them up a tree. He then called out to the gopis and teased them mercilessly, even though they were shivering in the water and feeling embarrassed. When they left the water to retrieve their clothes, he even made them hold their hands on top of their heads instead of using them to maintain some privacy. But afterward, moved by their devotion, Gopal agreed to spend the following nights with them, and they were thrilled.
One of baby Krishna’s most well-known and symbolic pranks was stealing butter. He was relentless, and when there was no butter to be had, he got angry. He would pile pots on top of chairs so he could climb up to where the adults had hidden the butter, and he even walked to neighbors’ houses to steal their butter and break their butter pots, which made the neighbors complain. Once, when Gopal broke his mother’s churning pot to get to the butter she had been churning, she tried to tie him down, but the rope was two finger-widths too short. She went to get another rope to join to the first one, but still the combined rope was two finger-widths too short. After repeating this many times with the same outcome, Gopal saw that his mother had become exhausted and sweaty, so he relented and allowed her to bind him.
Gopal’s pranks are not just playful antics; they teach us something about ourselves and God. The stories are allegorical—not meant to be taken literally, but to reveal deeper spiritual teachings. For example, butter symbolizes simplicity (mother’s milk), unconditional love (produced to nourish the offspring) and disciplined practice (through the work of churning). The gopis at that time had commodified butter, which was not a scarce resource, by putting it in jars, counting it, storing it and claiming it as their own. To have accepted butter freely offered would have been to endorse that aspect of prevailing culture and would have tainted the love and purity represented by the butter with the relationship that would have come into being through the acceptance of hospitality. Gopal wanted to maintain the purity of love, untainted by desire or attachment from the gopis or even from his mother, so he took the love on its own terms by stealing it. Krishna's childhood pastimes also illustrate the nature of Divine love, which is compassion. While some of his pranks could be considered mean (stealing and teasing), Krishna also feels what the objects of his pranks feel—primarily devotion to him—and ultimately he yields and gives them what they want. While Krishna commands the entire universe, he is himself commanded by those who are devoted to him.
Yoga practices give us an opportunity to tap into the nature of Gopal. Gopal accepts the nurturance of his mother and the other adults around him, but he escapes childhood without being limited by that acceptance—he makes his life on his own terms, which ordinary humans generally cannot do. But as Sharon Gannon teaches, yoga has the ability to dismantle our present culture. When we practice asana, meditation, kriya, yamas, niyamas, etc., we see ourselves and the world from a different perspective; we create space in all of our bodies, and in that space we discover who we really are and what the nature of reality is. That awareness enables us to see the ways that culture limits us and with that, we become empowered to live beyond culture, like Gopal. Perhaps we could even see time as a present-day analog to the gopi’s butter (which in our animal-exploiting, industrialized society can hardly be seen as a symbol of simplicity, unconditional love and disciplined practice). Our culture certainly has commodified time and does not offer any culturally-sanctioned ways of escaping time. But meditation and other yoga practices are just that: they are means of stopping—or stealing—time, connecting to eternity.
Asana practice can be seen as a stylized form of baby Krishna’s playfulness—we imitate other animals and move our bodies in ways that humans normally do not. Also, in the asana practice we often try to "bind" ourselves by reaching or striving to achieve a particular result. We keep at it over and over, year after year, always seeing how we fall short of our goal. But eventually, we may let go and soften towards ourselves, and then we become like Gopal relenting and allowing his mother to bind him. With compassion anything is possible. When we love ourselves so much that we can accept ourselves as we are, then all our limitations dissolve. And the yoga practices of japa and kirtan—chanting the Names of God—are direct means to access the Divine. Sanskrit is a vibrational language, so that when we intone a Sanskrit word, we not only invoke the meaning of the word, but we experience the meaning of the word vibrationally at all levels of our system—physical, energetic, mental, emotional and spiritual—even if we do not actually know what the word means. When we chant the name Gopal, we see the world through Gopal’s eyes.
Perhaps the most dramatic anecdote about Gopal is that once when he was an infant and lying on his mother’s lap, he yawned, and when his mother looked down, she saw the entire universe in his mouth. We are not what we seem to be; we have the whole universe inside us. Yoga practice opens a door to the inside, and Gopal serves as inspiration to step through the door.
—Gopal (Paul) Steinberg
When I first read this essay by Gopal Steinberg I must admit that was worried about the references to cows and butter, etc. I felt it would be very difficult to get past the dairy products in order to come to some enlightened, inspiring teachings. I asked myself, “How will Jivamukti Yoga teachers, committed to veganism and animal rights, deal with this? How will they be able to teach a whole month of classes focusing on a baby Krishna who steals butter, when to us we are over butter and have long since switched to Earth Balance or some other vegan alternative?” But when I delved into the essay deeper I discovered that there were many ways that the points conveyed in the essay could lead to some very interesting and perhaps provocative approaches to teaching for this month.
As a teacher you can take the opportunity during this month to address some very controversial issues in regards to the Hindu, as well as the yogic, tradition, which religiously supports drinking milk and the eating of other milk products. As Jivamukti Yoga teachers we do not support the exploitation of other animals for any reason, including exploiting cows for the milk they give when pregnant or recently having given birth to a baby. As teachers you can speak to the issue of true ahimsa and how as our consciousness expands our compassion also expands to include a wider perception of life worthy of our consideration, kindness and compassion.
As a teacher you can discuss how everyday occurrences and practices that are considered so common that they are neither challenged nor even questioned grow and grow in magnitude over time, and eventually the underlying cruelty and exploitation which was unseen before becomes blatantly apparent. I remember that as a child I was obsessed with the idea of the difference that quantity and proportion can make. I even wanted to write a children’s book about it entitled, This is What Would Happen If Everybody Did. At that time, one of my first investigations focused on stepping on a cat’s tail. Yes it is certainly unpleasant and painful for the cat when some clumsy human steps on the cat’s tail, but then the cat quickly forgives and the human feels remorse and vows to be more careful in the future. But what if everybody did that? What I mean is, what if everybody stepped on the cat’s tail? I would ask myself questions like this and try to visualize the outcome. What would the world be like then? When I asked that question immediately what came to mind is a vision of thousands, millions, billions of people stepping on the cat’s tail! Well of course the outcome is obvious. The cat’s tail and indeed the cat herself would soon be destroyed if they had to endure such a barrage of people stepping on their tail. Well this is just the situation we have in the world today.
Something done thousands of years ago when only a half a billion humans walked the Earth, as opposed to the 7 billion who comprise the current human world-wide population, can appear very different now than it did then. With the knowledge and perspective we have now, we could never support keeping cows and exploiting them for their milk and/or babies at any time in the past, present or future. But the past was the past, and we should move on and learn from our mistakes, rather than rest on the lame excuse that “that’s how we have always done it.”
The Hindu stories found in scriptures such as the Srimad Bhagavatam were written thousands of years ago when most humans did not have the consciousness to realize how something that seems benign like the milking of a cow could lead to the situation that we have in the world today—one of intense animal slavery, exploitation and cruelty. As we all know, every dairy cow ends up at the slaughterhouse when they can no longer produce the amount of milk to make them a profitable commodity. We would do well to examine our history from the eye of wisdom gained with time and see where things can lead and instead of continuing to condone something because it has been done for thousands of years, find the courage to change, to let go of the habit, the practice, that doesn’t serve any positive aim now.
Even though Bhagavan, the supreme Cosmic person, may have incarnated as a cowboy some five thousand years ago and lived with cows and other human cowboys and cowgirls, do we have to take the stories in the scriptures literally and use them to condone the drinking of milk today on religious grounds? The essay suggests that we could take the references to milk and milk products symbolically. This way of seeing demands that we delve deep to be able to imbibe the essence—the essential nectar, the secret teachings—hidden deep underneath the outer layers of perception. When we risk looking this deep, through the surface level of the stories, we find that Gopal, like we as yogis, was a radical—he rejected the culturally-sanctioned practices he observed around him; he saw through them to their essence and crafted a life based on love, kindness and compassion. The particulars of the stories—the milk, the butter, and many other things—must be seen within the contexts of their particular culture and time. But viewing them in terms of their deeper symbolic meanings makes them relevant throughout time and to all cultures, including to us today.
Remember another great avatar, Jesus, who incarnated as a carpenter—if we read the Biblical stories literally, we could take them as meaning that we should all spend our time sawing wood, building houses and making furniture. The point is that instead of taking things literally, we could take these stories of the early childhood years of an incarnated avatar into a working class family to mean that God appears where He/She chooses—God is not bound by cultural conventions, wealth or status. Also, we must take things in their cultural context. According to Hinduism, avatars have not always appeared in human form, but in the form of other animals too. This is a perennial teaching that reminds us that godliness abounds in all creation. In the Bhagavad Gita we find the teaching: Whenever there is a decline in righteousness and evil is on the rise I appear (verse IV.7). Perhaps God appears as the baby Gopal in a cow herding family to overturn the butter jar to upset the unquestioned cultural convention of herding cows, and the full teaching has not be able to be grasped and thus revealed until now. Think of it—a thousand years ago or a hundred years ago or even thirty years ago not many people would even think twice about discussing the negative implications inherent in these ancient scriptural stories where cows, milk and butter play such a central role, and yet here we are today examining and questioning it.
Regardless, for me, there is no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think we can still be animal rights, vegan activists and be devoted to Krishna. Besides meaning cow, the Sanskrit word go also means “senses,” so Gopal could be interpreted as the one who captures our senses and pulls or herds them towards Love. Krishna means the all-attractive—Krishna is unconditional Love, and as baby Gopal He guides our senses towards our ultimate goal: Supreme Love. When we recite or sing the name of God as Gopal, our hearts open and we are led by a charming young boy into the realms of heavenly delight.
Janmastami is an important holy day celebrated in India during this month of August as the birthday (or appearance day) of Krishna. As a teacher you can spend time this month chanting Sanskrit songs or playing recorded versions that focus on the childhood name of God as Gopal. There are kirtan chants in the Jivamukti Chant Book you could draw from to help create this celebratory birthday mood.
Another angle that you might explore as a teacher this month is the concept of perceiving God as a child. Outside of India many of the religious systems in the world today, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, see God as a judgmental old man, a father figure who is ready to punish you for your sins. To relate to God as a mischievous little child is quite a departure from that notion. It can be quite upsetting, as it reverses the roles and puts the devotee in the place of the responsible parent or on a more equal level as the friend of God. To share this kind of teaching with students this month can instigate a shift in perception and cause people to question deeply held assumptions relating to who they are and what possibilities life might hold. If God can be not only an old father figure but a baby and a mischievous child as well, then perhaps God can also be a pig, a lamb, a chicken or a tuna…and if so, then perhaps God can even be an ant, a fly or a cockroach…and if so, then perhaps God can even be a mountain, a river, a wheat field or a rock…. The possibilities are limitless when we let go of our deeply ingrained belief systems, and dwelling in the limitless possibilities is dwelling with God. Asana practice can provide us with a direct experience of this as we begin to see that we are physically capable of far more than we thought. And that realization inevitably leads us to examine what we are capable of emotionally, mentally and even spiritually.
Focusing on Gopal, the childlike form of God, has the potential to turn our preconceived notions about ourselves, others and God upside down as we open to new explorations with a childlike curiosity, a sense of adventure and wonder. For that reason, it could be good to focus on inversions this month—headstand, handstand, forearm stand and shoulderstand—because of how these asanas affect our consciousness. They stimulate the master glands in the body and in doing so result in a more expansive, more inclusive sense of awareness. As we already know, for example, through the practice of shirshasana we activate the sahasrara (crown) chakra and are thus able to access our karmic relationship with God. Inversions provide powerful opportunities to shift perceptions of how you see God, the world, others and yourself. As the biblical saying goes, “A child shall lead them…”