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.