One of the folktales about Krishna relates an incident when the teenage god, wont to flirt with the young women (gopis) in his village, hides amongst the trees when they’re bathing. Naughty as ever, he snatches up all their clothes and runs away to a corner. When they’re done with their bath, they look around for their clothes and realise what he’s done. They plead with him to return their clothes, but he just sits there grinning wickedly, his eyes dancing in merriment. Finally, he challenges them to come and collect their clothes from him one by one, their arms up above their heads so that he can watch them walk towards him, dripping wet in nakedness and vulnerability. He returns their clothes, one bashful woman at a time.
When I first heard this story in my youth, I was chagrined at the blatant sexism and sexual harassment evident in the epic parable. I was shocked that Krishna, my favourite god, could do this to any woman. I hated him for it.
Many years later, after some episode in my life that I’ve now forgotten, I finally understood what this story meant. Since Krishna was not just any man but the Supreme Being Himself, the gopis were not being harassed, they were being blessed. They were being taught the art of surrender, and the divine gift inherent in vulnerability. They were forced to strip themselves of not just their clothes but their ego and their sense of ‘I’, the identity we all create for ourselves. The bathing was symbolic, of course. In Krishna’s merry all-knowing gaze, they were cleansed of their self-delusion and self-importance. In his benevolent smile, they became immortal, their imperfections converted to perfection in the eyes of God, their beauty sealed for eternity.
Nakedness and surrender come together in this ancient story. When we are stripped of all labels and trappings, we can either grapple to recover some clothes and sense of assumed dignity, avoiding humiliation. Or we can surrender and liberate ourselves. In our innocent nakedness, we free ourselves of shame.
Suddenly, I find myself without labels, without the trappings of fame and fortune. In one fell swoop, a major role in my life has been rendered void. Like the gopis in the water, I initially cry and mourn and beg Krishna for cover. Then I see Him sitting there, atop the hill of my salvation, grinning like an imp, beckoning me to walk over in all my naked glory. “You can either cower there in the water forever,” He challenges, “or you can surrender to me, washed of all illusions and delusions of self, and allow me to save you.”
“This is just a game for You,” I say, angrily. “You will do as your whim, how do I trust You? How do I know what further harassment awaits?”
He lays back, His head behind his head, crosses His feet and blows bubbles in the air. “Do you have a choice?”
I grit my teeth in frustration. “I do not,” I call out. “I am forced to trust You.”
He rolls over on one arm, and grins wider. “So who’s blessed now?”
It is time, I realise. Gingerly, I rise above and take a step – in faith and in surrender.