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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by A. V. Williams Jackson (1862–1937)

By Jayadeva (c. Twelfth Century)

JAYADEVA was a Sanskrit lyric poet, author of the ‘Gīta-Govinda’ or ‘Shepherd’s Canticle,’ an Indian ‘Song of Songs.’ This passionate lyrist, who is presumed to have lived in the twelfth century of our era, is believed to have been a native of Kinduvilva in the district of Bengal. With all the fervor of a Theocritus piping in the vales of Sicily, he sang in melting strains the divine love of the god Vishnu, incarnate as herdsman and shepherd on the banks of the Indian Jumna. Little is known of his life. A passing mention in his poem implies that his father’s name was Bhoja-deva, and that his mother’s name was Rāma-devī; but that is all. We know also from the poem that he was a religious devotee of the Vaishnavite sect, for the praise of Vishnu forms the burden of the refrains in his song. He is to be distinguished, according to general opinion, from a Sanskrit dramatist of the same name. The article ‘Indian Literature’ should be consulted in order to give an idea of the age in which Jayadeva flourished.

The poem ‘Gīta-Govinda’ (literally “song of the cowherd”) is one of the most celebrated compositions in Sanskrit literature. It is a lyrical-dramatic piece, a musical pastoral, or a sort of Oriental opera in narrative. As before remarked, the theme of this religious canticle is the story of the love of Vishnu, incarnate as Krishna or Hari, for his devoted Rādhā. The half-human yet divine Krishna, a very Apollo in beauty, has strayed from the true love of his heart, the herdsman’s daughter Rādhā, and he disports himself with the gōpīs, or shepherd damsels, in all the enchanting ecstasies of transitory passion. The neglected and grieving Rādhā searches for her erring lover to reclaim him. A handmaiden, her lone companion, bears the messages to Krishna, whose fleeting frenzied passion for the shepherdesses is soon spent, and who longs for reunion with his soul’s idol, the perfect maiden Rādhā. All this is rendered with genuine dramatic power, yet there is no dialogue: the poet simply tells the story, but he tells it in so vivid a way that it is truly dramatic. The handmaid finally brings about the reconciliation of the lovers, and accomplishes their reunion in a moonlit bower amid a scene flooded with Oriental coloring.

Like the Song of Solomon, which should be read in this connection, the ‘Gīta-Govinda’ is frequently interpreted as an allegory, portraying figuratively a struggle of the soul amid human passions and the final attainment of supreme spiritual bliss. Such figurative methods of expression and symbolic imagery in poetry have indeed prevailed in the East since time immemorial, as is seen in the case of Hafez (the article on whom might be consulted); and it is hardly to be questioned that a religious element is present in the ‘Gīta,’ for Jayadeva’s oft-repeated refrains of pious devotion stand out in quite clear tone amid the erotic strains. On the other hand, the sacred erotism of the poem may show something of the sensuality of the Vishnu-Krishna cult. In whichever way we criticize the poem, we must allow the presence of a devotional element and the consequent possibilities, as we would in Solomon’s Divine Song.

As a poem, the ‘Gīta-Govinda’ is a masterpiece of art. To read it in the original is the true way to gain an idea of the charm and artistic finish of the composition. The ever-changing rhythms, the rich rhymes which are often interlaced or concealed, the alliteration, assonance, fanciful metrical devices, and a dozen subtle graces which belong to the Sanskrit art poesy, surprise by their variety and their abundance. The diversity in tone and shade adds to the effect; the feeling is tender and delicate, but sometimes it is passionate to excess, and is expressed with a warmth and fervor or a lavishness of Oriental coloring that is occasionally too exuberant for Occidental taste. The poem is divided into twelve short cantos, and it contains more than twenty lyrical gems. The text provides for musical accompaniments in different measures and modes, suited to the lyrical effusion which forms its burden or which is expressed in its refrain. It is almost impossible in translation to convey a true idea of the finish and delicacy of the original. The German poetical rendering by Rückert is believed to have come nearest to success in this. Sir Edwin Arnold’s paraphrase, ‘The Indian Song of Songs,’ may well be read to catch something of the spirit of the composition. Lassen’s Latin version is one of the classic works on the subject. The prose rendering into English by Sir William Jones in the fourth volume of his Collected Works, in spite of abridgment and some alterations, is sufficiently near to the original to convey a good idea of the merits—and ta our mind, of some of the defects—of this Sanskrit masterpiece. Selections from that rendering, with slight changes in spelling, are appended. Rādhā is searching for her erring lover Krishna.