Hinduism Jayadeva and the Gītagovinda
Jesse Knutson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0204


The Gītagovinda (Govinda in Song) is a highly celebrated Sanskrit song-poem by Jayadeva, a poet at the court of king Lakṣmaṇasena of Bengal at the turn of the 12th into the 13th century. Taking as its theme the illicit love affair of the cowherd-damsel Rādhā and the cowboy libertine-deity Kṛṣṇa, the poem explores the mood of love in separation (viraha, vipralambhaśṛṅgāra). The tale becomes the central mystery or allegory of the individual’s relationship to the divine in much later Vaiṣṇava tradition, and Jayadeva’s poem is the earliest extant version of the full Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa romance, a quintessentially medieval contribution to Hindu mythology. The Gītagovinda is recognized as the quintessentially medieval work in the Sanskrit literary tradition (kāvya) for its negotiation of classical and popular registers, as well as Hindu devotionalism (bhakti). It conducts a synthesis of studied simplicity and luxuriant classicism, interspersing passages of song—evocative of rustic, vernacular style—with medleys of verse in high classical art meter. These two contrasting style-scapes are replete with unparalleled effects of hypnotic alliteration; and part of the poem’s enduring popularity lies in the fact that its sensuous musicality can be appreciated independently of its learned language. It is easily the work of Sanskrit belles-lettres with the strongest history of wider popularity in South Asia. Apart from learned commentaries and scholarly studies, there have been Jayadeva comic books (Amar Chitra Katha 1980, cited under Jayadeva Legends) (1980), television serials (2005), and even a series of Jayadeva postage stamps (2008). The work’s wide popularity is inflected by the status Jayadeva began to acquire in the centuries following his lifetime as a quasi-vernacular-style poet-saint. This status—emanating from the poem’s high art devotionalism—endures in contemporary Hindu and Sikh traditions. This later tradition has to some extent occluded awareness of the historical Jayadeva’s courtly location and intimate relationship with the ruling Sena dynasty of Bengal. After all, the work begins with a list of the main figures of the Sena salon (Gītagovinda1.3)—several of whose major works survive—and numerous verses attributed to the Sena kings themselves are unmistakably modeled upon or redolent of Jayadeva’s distinctive style. The Gītagovinda maintains an ongoing legacy in South Asian vernacular literary traditions, especially, but not restricted to, those of the eastern regions: Bengali, Oriya, Maithili, Assamese, etc. Several adjacent, eastern regions of the subcontinent—Bengal, Orissa, and Mithila—maintain competing traditions regarding his home and birthplace.

General Overviews

There are several short books and articles that provide excellent overviews of the main issues in Jayadeva studies, debating how to characterize the Gītagovinda’s unique genre and relationship to vernacular precedent and style. Chatterji 1973 is still unsurpassed as a general introduction, though the introduction to Miller’s translation (Miller 1977, cited under Notable Translations and Trans-creations) adds considerable detail, and an evocative account of Jayadeva’s status in later tradition: the way he metamorphoses into a musical poet-saint in later tradition, and the massive history of reception in music and dance, especially in Orissa (as witnessed by Gītagovinda performance being made the exclusive song and dance of the Jagannātha temple at Puri, first concretized in an Oriya decree of King Pratāparudra written in 1499 declaring that anyone performing or teaching any other song will be considered “hostile to Jagannātha” [quoted in Miller 1977, p. 6]). The “Lyrical Structure of the Gītagovinda,” which Miller evokes, is key to this unfolding dance and music tradition, and she describes the unusual folksy meters of the work’s songs, albeit without a strong conclusion as to their origin. Apart from form, the overview treats fundamental questions about the plot, pointing out that the key character of the Kṛṣṇa (Krishna) mythos, his illicit lover Rādhā, is only fragmentarily attested prior to the Gītagovinda. In this reading, Jayadeva has perhaps to a large extent composed this aspect of the Kṛṣṇa mythos. Several works (Chakrabarti 1999, Dasgupta 1982) also lay out the fundamental elements of literary-historical background, including quotations from the other poets of the Sena salon (mentioned by Jayadeva himself in the Gītagovinda’s third verse): Umāpatidhara (author of the Deopara Inscription of Lakṣmaṇasena’s grandfather, Vijayasena), Śaraṇa, Govardhana (author of the Āryāsaptaśatī), and Dhoyī (author of the Pavanadūta). These works trace common themes in the poetry of the Sena salon, such as rustic poverty, and thereby reveal a community not just of people, but of form and content. Pischel 1893 and Chakravarti 1906 were among the first to establish the contours of a “Sena period” renaissance in Sanskrit literature, emphasizing the salon’s studied classicism. The qualitative and quantitative surge in Sanskrit poetry is here read against the backdrop of a Brahmanical revival, hinted at by contemporary compendia on Brahmanical practice: tomes such as Halāyudha’s Complete Guide for Brahmins (Brāhmaṇasarvasva); a compendious scholarly work on ritual donation by Lakṣmaṇasena’s father Ballālasena, The Ocean of Donation (Dānasāgara); as well as another on omens and prognostication, The Ocean of Wonders (Adbhutsāgara), purportedly begun by Ballālasena and later completed by his son.

  • Chakrabarti, Dhyanesh Narayan. “Lakṣmaṇa Sener Rājasbhāy Saṃskṛtacarcā.” In Kṛṣṭir Dṛṣṭite. By Dhyanesh Narayan Chakrabarti, 104–144. Kolkata: Progressive Book Forum, 1999.

    [In Bengali]. Compiles a picture of a high degree of Sanskrit cultivation in the context of Brahminical revival, drawing upon verses attributed to poets of the Sena salon, and tracing shared themes such as scenes of rustic life and hardship.

  • Chakravarti, Manmohan. “Sanskrit Literature in Bengal during the Sena Rule.” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 2.5 (1906): 163–169.

    A careful collation of the anthologies, and other works attributed to the Sena poets; establishes the contours of the Sena salon, drawing attention to the scale and refinement of cultural production, which he refers to as an “Augustan period” of Sanskrit literature in Bengal. The perfection of Jayadeva’s classicism is here emphasized against the backdrop of a new standard of cultural production.

  • Chatterji, Suniti Kumar. Jayadeva. Makers of Indian Literature. Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1973.

    This foundational introduction situates Jayadeva historically as “the last of the ancients and the first of the moderns”; explores the historical-linguistic background (suggesting the poem may have originally been composed in Apabhraṃśa or Old Bengali and translated into Sanskrit); contextualizes major features of form, content, and performativity.

  • Dasgupta, Prasanta. Jayadeva and Some of His Contemporaries. Calcutta: Sanskrit Book Depot, 1982.

    This is an English version of Dasgupta’s earlier monograph in Bengali (Jayadeb o Jayadebgoṣṭhī. Kokata: Indian Publications, 1974), which examines both the Gītagovinda and Āryāsaptaśatī; draws on the works to explore questions of social and religious history, explores relationships with other texts such as the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and broadly sketches Jayadeva’s later influence.

  • Pischel, Richard. Die Hofdichter des Lakṣmaṇasena. Göttingen, Germany: Dieterichsches Verlags-Buchhandlung, 1893.

    Through a careful exploration of the many verses of the Sena poets from the anthologies (Saduktikarṇāmṛta, Śārṅgadharapaddhati, etc.) alongside their other individual compositions, Pischel paints a picture of the distinctiveness of Sanskrit cultivation at the Sena court. Argues that the unusual style and genre of the Gītgaovinda point to the fact of its being a translation from a popular, probably vernacular source.

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