One of the most popular anecdotes related to Krishna is the Raas Leela. ‘Raas’ means divine pleasure or dance, and ‘leela’ implies play or magic, in Sanskrit. According to Shrimad Bhagavata Puran, Maha Raas was performed by Krishna, as a six-year-old, for his devotees. Gita Govinda also mentions Raas Leela.
In dwapara yuga, when Krishna was a boy, the gopis — the milkmaids of Vrindavan — were besotted with and drawn to the mellifluous tunes of his flute. It is said that the gopikas were sadhus reincarnated so they could spend time with Krishna.
According to the narrative, one moonlit night, Radharani and gopis surrounded Krishna in the forests on the banks of River Yamuna, enchanted by the songs flowing through his flute.
Krishna manifested into many Krishnas and was present with Radharani and every gopi simultaneously because everyone wanted his exclusive presence.
When the gopis become arrogant because they felt special, Krishna disappeared, but then reappeared when they cried of viraha (separation).
According to ancient texts, during the event, Krishna turned this time period into a ‘Brahma night’, equal to 4.32 billion years. The place where Raas Leela is said to have taken place is Madhuban, now called Nidhiban in the Vrindavan city of Mathura district. The Braj region of Uttar Pradesh encompassing Vrindavan-Mathura as such is famous for Krishna’s many stories, especially the aforementioned spiritual dance.
Inspired by the narratives, this folk dance and song sequence is now a big part of Krishna Janmashtami and Holi celebrations.
Raas Leela is also well-known in Manipur and Assam, and also presented as a theme in some Indian classical dance forms. It has not only inspired myriad folk art and modern artworks, stage performances and plays in India, but even the Western community.
In the Braj region, Raas Leela is played out as folk dance and theatre. In this dance-based storytelling, dancers dressed as gopis and Radharani & Krishna enchant viewers.
At times, boys dress up as Krishna, Radharani and her sakhis. Krishna, dressed in golden-yellow and mustard silks, and adorned in peacock feathers, a crown, jewellery, a flute and the chakra, is a spectacular sight. Radharani and Krishna dance together while gopis circle them in synchrony. Colours predominant in such folk renditions are gold, yellow, orange, red, green and blue, tinged with glitter and sheen, and they enhance the joyous celebration and play.
Raas Leela is the story of an eternal bond between Krishna —an embodiment of universal love — and his devotees. A universal truth that masculine and feminine energies floating in a sea of love and devotion is transformative — that’s the essence of Raas Leela.