Govardhana Śila – A Gauḍīya Hallmark: Original and Modern Approaches

We encounter worship of (or via) stones in many diverse cultures across the world. It is a particularly fascinating phenomenon because it uniquely exemplifies “aniconic” worship. In contrast to the more prevalent iconic worship of an idol/statue, worship of a sacred stone is aniconic because the stone does not have visible correspondence to the deity or principle it enables worship of.

The most prevalent stone-worship in Indian culture centers on stones found near the town of Shaligram, in the Kali-gandaki River (a location now considered Nepal). All sorts of “Hindus” worship these “Śālagrāma Śila,”[i] especially Vaiṣṇavas, including Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas. The Gauḍīyas, however, also have their own unique sacred stone, introduced by their founder, Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya: the Govardhana Śila, a stone from Vraja’s foremost hill (originally a mountain), famous as a direct manifestation of Krishna, whose beautiful glens, valleys, rivers, lakes, and caves host Krishna’s countless sports and dalliances, including the most intimate springtime rāsa-līlā.[ii]

In this article I will demonstrate how Govardhana Śila worship very clearly exemplifies the core ideals of Śrī Caitanya’s Gauḍīya School, and I will compare his definition of the worship with modern conceptions.

Original Approach

Caitanya Caritāmṛta, the hagiography of Śrī Caitanya written in Bengali and Sanskrit by the outstanding Kavirāja, Śrī Kṛṣṇa dāsa, contains a brief but extremely useful section[iii] describing the origin of Govardhana Śila worship, as it was practiced by Śrī Caitanya and passed on to his follower Śrī Raghunātha dāsa, one of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism’s famous “Six Goswāmī’s of Vṛndāvana.”

Caitanya Caritāmṛta on the Origin of Govardhana Śila Worship

śaṅkarānanda-sarasvatī vṛndāvana haite āilā
teṅha sei śilā-guñjā-mālā lañā gelā
pārśve gāṅthā guñjā-mālā, govardhana-śilā
dui vastu mahāprabhura āge āni’ dilā [288-289]

Śaṅkarānanda Sarasvatī brought this [Govardhana] stone and Guñja necklace from Vṛndāvana, and gave them to Mahāprabhu, bound together.

dui apūrva-vastu pāñā prabhu tuṣṭa hailā
smaraṇera kāle gale pare guñjā-mālā
govardhana-śilā prabhu hṛdaye-netre dhare
kabhu nāsāya ghrāṇa laya, kabhu śire kare [290-291]

Prabhu was pleased to obtain these two rare things. When meditating he would wear the Guñja necklace on his neck, and hold the Govardhana-stone — sometimes to his heart, sometimes to his eyes, sometimes smelling it with his nose, and sometimes putting it on his head.

netra-jale sei śilā bhije nirantara
śilāre kahena prabhu — ‘kṛṣṇa-kalevara’ [292]

That stone was constantly wet from his tears. Prabhu said, “This stone is Krishna’s body.”

ei-mata tina-vatsara śilā-mālā dharilā
tuṣṭa hañā śilā-mālā raghunāthe dilā [293]

Like this, he kept the stone and necklace for three years. Then he was pleased to give them to Raghunātha.

prabhu kahe, — “ei śilā kṛṣṇera vigraha
iṅhāra sevā kara tumi kariyā āgraha
ei śilāra kara tumi sāttvika pūjana
acirāt pābe tumi kṛṣṇa-prema-dhana [294-295]

Prabhu told [Raghunātha]. “This stone is Krishna’s form, serve it very attentively. Worship this stone with your sattva [heartfelt sentiment, sincerity, and purity] and before long you will obtain a treasure of divine love of Krishna.

eka kuṅjā jala āra tulasī-mañjarī
sāttvika-sevā ei — śuddha-bhāve kari
dui-dike dui-patra madhye komala mañjarī
ei-mata aṣṭa-mañjarī dibe śraddhā kari’  [296-297]

Offer one cup of water and Tulasī buds [mañjarī], with heartfelt attention and pure emotions. Put your heart into offering eight buds, the soft young buds of each flanked by a leaf on each side.

śrī-haste śilā diyā ei ājñā dilā
ānande raghunātha sevā karite lāgilā [298]

After giving these instructions, his beautiful hand gave the stone, which Raghunātha blissfully accepted and began to worship.

eka-vitasti dui-vastra, piṅḍā eka-khāni
svarūpa dilena kuṅjā ānibāre pāni [299]

To help Raghunātha take up the worship, Svarūpa [Dāmodara] gave him a wooden table, two short lengths of cloth, and a cup for the water.

ei-mata raghunātha karena pūjana
pūjā-kāle dekhe śilāya ‘vrajendra-nandana’ [300]

Raghunātha worshipped as advised. While worshipping, he saw that the stone was Vrajendra Nandana.

‘prabhura svahasta-datta govardhana-śilā’
ei cinti’ raghunātha preme bhāsi’ gelā [301]

“Prabhu gave this Govardhana-stone with his own hand!” Thinking about this flooded Raghunātha in an inundation of divine love.

jala-tulasīra sevāya tāṅra yata sukhodaya
ṣoḍaśopacāra-pūjāya tata sukha naya [302]

The happiness that arose from these attentive offerings of water and Tulasī could not be matched by the happiness that arises from elaborate sixteen-item worship.

ei-mata kata dina karena pūjana
tabe svarūpa-gosāñi tāṅre kahilā vacana
“aṣṭa-kauḍira khājā-sandeśa kara samarpaṇa
śraddhā kari’ dile, sei amṛtera sama” [303-304]

Like this, he worshipped for some days. Then Svarūpa Gosāñi said, “Make an expensive offering of sweets (khājā and sandeśa). By putting your heart into the offering, it will be equal to offering heavenly nectar.”

tabe aṣṭa-kauḍira khājā kare samarpaṇa
svarūpa-ājñāya govinda tāhā kare samādhāna [305]

On Svarūpa’s order, Govinda made arrangements to pay for the expensive sweets to be offered.

raghunātha sei śilā-mālā yabe pāilā
gosāñira abhiprāya ei bhāvanā karilā
“śilā diyā gosāñi samarpilā ‘govardhane’
guñjā-mālā diyā dilā ‘rādhikā-caraṇe’ ” [306-307]

When Raghunātha got that stone and necklace, he grasped the inner meaning of the Gosāñi’s gift. “By giving me the stone, Gosāñi granted me a place at Govardhana. By giving me the necklace of Guñja, he granted me a place at Rādhikā’s feet.”

Govardhana Śila & Rāga-Mārga

Pādas 290-292 in the above section describe how Śrī Caitanya worshiped the Govardhana stone: He wore the Guñja necklace, embraced the stone with great emotion, and constantly bathed it in his tears. This shows Govardhana Śila as a deity saturated in the trademark Gauḍīya focus on rāga-mārga, which emphasizes the importance of internal significance in external practices.[iv] It does not depict Śrī Caitanya worshiping the stone with any significant external formalities, as are so pervasive in the brahmiṇical approach to ritual worship. It depicts him engaged in the emotion-based worship that is a definitive hallmark of his school.

The passage also describes how he passed Govardhana Śila worship on to Raghunātha. In the 295th pāda he instructs Raghunātha to worship the Govardhana Śila with sāttvika pūja. This means, “Worship with purity, in sattva-guṇa.” The ultimate purity is the consciousness itself (sattva), so the advice ultimately means, “worship with heartfelt concentration.” In the next line, Kṛṣṇa dāsa clarifies this, sāttvika-sevā ei — śuddha-bhāva, “this sāttvika worship is done by pure bhāva [emotion].”

Thus, our first discovery on investigating the subject of Govardhan Śila is that it is primarily an internal, emotional affair, whose external actions are secondary and minimal, serving simply to symbolically support the internal bhāva in the sattva of the devotee. In more technical terms, it is rāga-mārga worship. It is, after all, quite appropriate that Govardhana Śila worship fully integrates rāga-mārga, since Govardhana Śila and the rāga-mārga are both unique hallmarks of the Gauḍīyas.

Internal Significance of External Actions

In ritual, especially in the rāga-mārga, every external act or object overflows with internal significance. To begin with, as should be obvious for any path, not just raga-mārga, the worshipper does not experience the stone itself as merely a stone. Pādas 292 and 294 explain how Śrī Caitanya saw the stone, and how he advised Raghunātha to see it. Śilāre kṛṣṇa-kalevara — “This stone is Krishna’s body.” Ei śilā kṛṣṇera vigraha — “This stone is Krishna’s form.”

In pādas 296 & 297, Śrī Caitanya defines the main items to be used for worshipping Govardhana Śila: a cup of water and eight Tulasī buds (mañjarī), each one soft and young, and flanked by two leaves. All of these are very simple items, but each has opulent internal significance. I will now suggest the analogues.

Water was likely used to bathe the stone, as that is an essential part of Śila worship[v]. Perhaps it was also offered as drinking water. Water has cross-cultural symbolic connection with the inner mind and its emotional reflections. In Vaiṣṇava (and especially Gauḍīya) connotations, liquidity and water is particularly associated with bhāva (emotion), and prema (love).[vi] Thus, a possible internal significance of pouring water over the Govardhana Śila is to express the desire to pour ones emotions over the divine body of Krishna.

Tulasī is famous for her connection to Viṣṇu in the clandestine-romantic parakīya-mādhurya-rāsa,[vii] which Gauḍīyas supremely revere in the divine context as the most intimate, powerful expression of divine love. Therefore offering Tulasī to Krishna is ripe with internal significance. Śrī Caitanya specified that Raghunātha should offer tulasīmañjarī, not just her leaves. Amongst modern Gauḍīyas, the word mañjarī has become laden with a great deal of extrapolated definition and is the focus of a great deal of attention. It is far outside the scope of the current article to unravel all this. For our current discussion, I hope it will suffice to say that the word mañjarī literally means, “a cluster of blossoms; a budding flower.”[viii] In horticulture, the term refers to flowers clustered together, exactly as the Tulasī and other basils flower. The term is mainly used in Gauḍīya literature to indicate a young woman freshly blossoming into womanhood, and to indicate a “blossom” directly connected to the main “blossom” (Śrī Rādhā). Although it is beyond our scope to explore the word more thoroughly here, we can at least see that tulasī-mañjarī are symbolic of the young gopīs who are Krishna’s clandestine lovers.

Śrī Caitanya specifies that Raghunātha should offer eight mañjarī. Eight is a significant number because the closest friends of Śrī Rādhā are eight in number (aṣṭha-sakhi). Thus, the eight tulasī-mañjarī clearly symbolize these eight blossoming gopīs.

Śrī Caitanya specifies that each mañjarī should be flanked by two leaves. The Tulasī-mañjarī is not offered alone. Some foliage accompanies it. The symbolism here is that the worshipper of Govardhana Śila does not bring the aṣṭha-sakhī to Krishna without their young assistant maidens. With these simple metaphors, the external act of the offering of tulasī to Govardhana Śila expresses the Gauḍīya’s desire to assist the romantic services rendered to Krishna by Rādhā’s eight associates and their assistants.

Guñja is another absolutely essential item of Raghunātha’s Govardhana Śila worship. The 307th pāda describes Raghunātha thinking, “By giving me the necklace of Guñja, he offered me a place at Rādhikā’s feet.” So it appears that the Guñja necklace signifies Rādhā. Perhaps the metaphor centers on the fact that Rādhārāṇī always desires to embrace Krishna, just as a necklace wants to embrace the shoulders and neck. There may also be symbolic affinity between the primarily red colors of the Guñja beads and Śrī Rādhā’s passionate affections for Krishna. It is understandable that Śrī Caitanya would wear the necklace while worshipping Govardhana Śila, since Gauḍīyas identify him as Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. Śaṅkarānanda-sarasvatī, on the other hand, kept the necklace wrapped around the stone, symbolizing Rādhā’s embrace of Krishna.

A cup for the water, two bits of cloth, and a wooden table are practical items given by Śrī Svarūpa Gosāñi to support the worship. Their simplicity is congruous with Raghunātha’s lifestyle as an extremely spartan ascetic. Generally a simple thing is less desirable than an opulent thing. No one would choose a free night at a one-star hotel over a free night at a five-star hotel. Kṛṣṇa dāsa said, however, “The happiness that arose from these attentive offerings of water and Tulasī could not be matched by the happiness that arises from elaborate sixteen-item worship.” In this case, the externally “one-star” approach was more wonderful than the externally “five-star” approach.

This is because Raghunātha’s simplicity evoked the Vṛndāvana-mood, the happiness of which excels the happiness of the Vaikuṇṭha-mood. Gauḍīya’s say that in Vaikuṇṭha, opulent majesty is a conspicuous component of the bhakti-ānanda, but in Vrndāvana the sweetness of bhakti-ānanda is so intense that it makes one relatively oblivious to the opulence and majesty of divinity. Denizens of Vṛndāvana therefore experience the opulent surroundings of divinity as if they were rustic, rural, cozy and simple.

The rustic, simple accouterments of Raghunātha’s worship resonate with this Vṛndāvana mood. That is not to say that the Vṛndāvana mood never commands external opulence. Quite the contrary, the powerful sweetness of the Vṛndāvana mood subjugates (i.e. utilizes and exploits) the greatest opulence. But in Raghunātha’s specific case, being a penniless renunciate, the extremely spartan setting is more appropriate.

A point worth considering here is that when the accouterments are fancy, the worshipper may rely upon them to make the worship suitable. If the accouterments are minimal, the worshipper must rely upon sincerity. A sincere worshipper can, however, utilize opulent accouterments in worship, similar to how Svarūpa Gosāñi soon advised Raghunātha to include another, more opulent element – yet still quite personal and romantic: sweets.

Replacing Śālagrāma Śila?

Some may express the opinion that Śrī Caitanya’s giving Raghunātha Govardhana Śila is tantamount to denying him Śālagrāma Śila. They say that only the Brahmin caste was permitted to perform such worship, so Śrī Caitanya declined to grant Raghunātha the Śālagrāma Śila, because Raghunātha was a Kayastha (an inferior derivation of the Brahmin caste who had brahminical literacy and intellect but applied it mainly to financial-political record-keeping).

Proponents of this theory may cite that Śrī Caitanya inspired Raghunātha’s compatriot, Gopāla Bhaṭṭa (a pure Brahmin) to worship twelve Śālagrāma Śila.

This theory has flaws. Śrī Caitanya was a Brahmin, but he worshipped the Govardhana Śila for three years. This plainly contradicts the idea that he considered Govardhana Śila something for those whose caste prevented them from worshiping the Śālagrāma-stone. Additionally, the depiction of Śrī Caitanya as being significantly encumbered by the caste system does not match the universally accepted descriptions of his personality.[ix]

It doesn’t seem accurate to suggest that Govardhana Śila worship was born from a caste issue. It seems far more in keeping with the known nature of Śrī Caitanya to say that he introduced Govardhana Śila worship out of his special affection for Vraja Dhāma, especially Govardhana Hill.

Gopāla Bhaṭṭa does not contradict this view, he simply stands as important evidence that Śālagrāma Śila worship is also a valid part of the Gauḍīya rāga-mārga.

Contemporary Approaches

We have familiarized ourselves with the conception of Govardhana Śila worship given by Śrī Caitanya to Raghunātha. In summary: The stone itself is Krishna, embraced by Rādhārāṇī in the form of a strand of Guñja, decorated by Rādhārāṇī’s eight principle friends and their assistants in the form of eight fresh Tulasī mañjarī each flanked by two leaves. Now we will review the modern Gauḍīya approaches to worshipping Govardhana Śila, and discuss how they harmonize with or differ from Śrī Caitanya’s original conception.

The Govardhan Shila of Śrī Raghunātha dās Goswāmī
The Govardhan Shila of Śrī Raghunātha dās Goswāmī

I have observed, in both Śalagrama and Govardhana Śila worship, a trend towards iconism. Contemporary Śila worshippers often draw or affix eyes, mouth, and tilok on the stone, and dress it with a turban, crown, etc. If Raghunātha and Śrī Caitanya treated their Śila similarly, Kṛṣṇa dāsa failed to record it here. I don’t think it is likely they did, since the stone purported to be the one given to Raghunātha by Śrī Caitanya to this day remains unadorned except for the embrace of the Guñja necklace.

I do not mean to infer that inconism is bad or contrary to rāga-mārga. My observation is simply that stone-worship is inherently aniconic, yet over the centuries seems to have become more iconic. This trend is paralleled amongst the icons as well: Those fashioned centuries ago are approximations compared to the elaborate realism found in those fashioned today. It seems to be a trend that spans many sects. I do not believe it to be a negative trend. It has its advantages, as does the older style. The older style of deity strikes me as being akin to reading a book, while the newer style is like watching a movie. It’s more exciting and easier to watch a movie, but a book often leaves significantly more room for the mind to explore the story.

Another observation is that today’s worship of Govardhana Śila tends to be significantly more opulent than Rāghunatha’s. This, however, seems quite natural, since Raghunātha was an exceptionally austere renunciate. I don’t think it reasonable to say that everyone who worships Govardhana Śila should be as absolutely renounced as he. Govardhana Śila worshipers will come from many walks of life, and it is a principle of sādhana to offer Krishna the things that are nearest and dearest to oneself, [x] so I don’t think it necessary to preserve the utter simplicity we observed in Raghunātha’s worship. Nonetheless, I think it good for every worshipper of Govardhan Śila to be aware that the main focus intended by Śrī Caitanya was internal participation in the worship, not external details.

Worship Outside the Mādhurya-Bhāva

It seems quite clear that Śrī Caitanya and Raghunātha worshipped the Govardhana Śila with mādhurya-rati, symbolized by the central importance of the Guñja-māla and eight Tulasī mañjarī. Modern Gauḍīya approaches, however, also include other emotional relationships like sakhya- and vatsalya-rati. It would not seem right to denigrate these alternative approaches, since Śrīmad Bhāgavatam (the ultimate authority for Gauḍīyas) clearly states that Bhagavān manifests in exactly the form and mood appropriate to the heartfelt feelings of his worshipper.[xi]

Some modern Gauḍīyas who approach Govardhana Śila in the friendly sakhya mood worship multiple stones as both Krishna and Balarāma. Again, this is not exactly consonant with Śrī Caitanya’s system, but need not be branded heterodox, since Śrī Bhāgavata clearly indicates that Krishna is the source of all expansions of Bhāgavan.[xii] One could argue that since Śrī Caitanya declared the Śila to be Krishna, it can be worshipped as any of his avatāras or Bhagavān-expansions.

In Chapter Five of his book Subjective Evolution of Consciousness, the contemporary Gauḍīya ācārya Śrīdhāra Mahārāja goes so far as to suggest that Govardhana Hill is, along with other natural features of Vṛndāvana, a component of the passive śānta-rasa. In my opinion this statement is more about śānta-rasa than it is about Govardhana. It glorifies śānta-rasa because any rasa with Krishna is worshipable, and śānta-rasa is the basis and foundation of all others. It is clear that the author embraced Śrī Caitanya’s original idea that Govardhana is Krishna himself, for he writes in the same section, “Apparently it is a hill, but Govardhana is worshiped as Krishna Himself.” This acknowledgement that Govardhana is Krishna is a tacit indication that the surrounding statements about it being a component of śānta-rati cannot be taken at face-value, for, in Bhaktirasāmṛta Sindhu Śrī Rūpa clearly specifies that Krishna himself is not involved in śānta-rati.[xiii]

Govardhana as Rādhā Krishna

Some contemporary Gauḍīyas worship two (or more) Govardhana Śila simultaneously as Krishna and Rādhā (and other Gopīs). Again, it does not seem heterodox but is not identical to the original conception. In Śrī Caitanya’s original system, the Śila is Krishna and the Guñja and Tulasi-mañjarī are Rādhārāṇī and the Gopīs. In this modern approach, multiple Śilas are Krishna, Rādhārāṇī and the Gopīs, rendering redundant the Guñja and Tulasī-mañjarī.

Govardhana as a Devotee

Some Gauḍīyas worship Govardhana Śila as Krishna in the mood of a devotee. Gauḍīya principles certainly uphold the concept that Bhagavān sometimes behaves as a devotee of himself. Rāma’s brother Lakṣmaṇa and Krishna’s brother Balarāma are examples, as is Śrī Caitanya himself, whom the Gauḍīyas revere as Krishna in the mood of Rādhā.[xiv]

Garga Saṁhitā explains one way Govardhana acts as the servant of Krishna: by becoming his “umbrella,” shielding the entire township of Vraja from the most ferocious downpours Indra could set loose.[xv]

A famous expression of how Govardhana excellently serves Krishna is found in Śrī Bhāgavata, wherein a Gopī (Rāghunātha says it was Rādhārāṇī herself [xvi]) exclaims: “Oh girls, this mountain is the best servant of Hari. Delighted by the touch of [Bala]rāma and Krishna’s feet, along with all their cowherd friends and cows, he serves them delicious water, vegetables, and grasses, and gives them lovely dells to play in.”[xvii]

Śrī Caitanya cried out this verse while rushing towards a hill in Orissa that he mistook for Govardhana.[xviii] Yet he directly told Raghunātha that Govardhana is Krishna and should be worshipped as such. The fact that Govardhana serves Krishna does not alter the fact that it is Krishna.

In Śrī Bhāgavata, Krishna says: śailo ’smi – “I am this mountain.”[xix]

Govardhana is Krishna because it simply is what it literally is: a hill in Vraja. This makes it an integral part of vraja-dhāma. The dhāma is an integral part of Krishna’s vastu-svarūpa;[xx] therefore any integral part of the dhāma is an integral part of Krishna himself.

Govardhana is a servant of Krishna because it simply is what it literally is: a hill in Vraja, a landscape that provides an ideal arena for Krishna’s līlā. Any integral part of the dhāma is identical to Krishna, and simultaneously serves Krishna most excellently. So it is not inconceivable that an entity could be Bhagavān and also serve Bhagavān (thus having the “mood” of a Bhakta). Just as I can buy myself an ice cream cone, Krishna can serve his own līlā.[xxi]

Therefore it is certainly not wrong to see Govardhana as Krishna with a devotee’s mood. Followers of some contemporary gauḍīya ācāryas, however, stress the conception with such enthusiasm as to warrant some points made as counterbalance. Some of them say that worshipping Govardhana Śila as a devotee is better than worshipping it as Krishna. Others go still further, describing it as a misconception to worship the Śila as Krishna.[xxii] They also claim that Raghunātha worshipped Govardhana Śila in this mood, since his poems glorify Govardhana as a devotee of Krishna, and since he seems to have realized the Śila to be Govardhana itself, not Krishna, when he said, ‘By giving me the śila, the Gosāñi granted me a place at Govardhana.’

The following are my observations in this regard.

It Says in Black and White…

In the 300th pāda Krishna dāsa gives a direct statement describing how Raghunātha worshipped the Śila: ei-mata raghunātha karena pūjana, pūjā-kāle dekhe śilāya ‘vrajendra-nandana’: “Raghunath worshipped as advised. While worshipping, he saw that the stone was Vrajendra Nandana.”

“Worshipped as advised,” indicates that Raghunātha followed Śrī Caitanya’s advice, which includes the advice to see the Śila as Krishna (“ei śilā kṛṣṇera vigraha”). “While worshipping, he saw that the stone was Vrajendra Nandana.” This spells everything out clearly and leaves little or no room for entertaining the idea that he did not see the Govardhana Śila as Krishna.

Logical Flaws

(A) Govardhana Hill is the best devotee of Hari.

(B) Raghunātha saw the Śila as Govardhana Hill.

(C) Therefore Raghunātha worshipped the Śila as the best devotee of Hari.

This logic has the flaw of being non-sequitor because it lacks word only in Statement “A” and “B”. Raghunātha did not only see the Śila as Govardhana Hill (as per pāda 307), he also saw it as Krishna (as per pāda 300). Govardhana is not only the best devotee (as per Bhāgavatam 10.21.18), it is also Krishna himself (as per Bhāgavata 10.24.25).

I believe the best way to frame the correct logic is like this:

(A) Govardhana is Krishna, and serves Krishna.

(B) Raghunātha saw the Śila as Krishna, and as Govardhana itself.

(C) Therefore Raghunātha worshiped the Śila as Krishna and also saw it as a servant of Krishna.

Propriety in the Elements of Worship

If the Śila is a devotee, or is in the mood of a devotee, is it not inappropriate to make Rādhārāṇī embrace it (as the Guñja), and to bring her young Gopī friends to serve it (as the Tulasī-mañjarī)? [xxiii]

It’s Better to Worship the Devotee?

Śrī Rūpa defines bhakti as anukūlyena-kṛṣṇānuśilanam:[xxiv] “The expression of affection towards Krishna.” Jīva and Viśvanātha do comment that this can include expansions and devotees of Krishna, but the central figure of bhakti is Krishna himself. Śrī Rūpa’s definition of bhakti-rasa clarifies that Krishna is always the object of bhakti (viṣaya-alambana-vibhava), and Krishna’s devotee is always reservoir of bhakti (āśraya-alambana-vibhava).[xxv] Thus, devotees of Krishna should come into kṛṣṇānuśilaṇam as the āśraya, not as the viṣaya of bhakti.

Govardhana Śila (Krishna) attended by the Guñja and Tulasī (Krishna’s devotees: Rādhā and Gopīs) perfectly facilitates this paradigm of worshipping the object of bhakti (Krishna) in context of the reservoir of bhakti (Rādhā and the Gopīs). If Govardhana Śila is not Krishna, but another bhakta, it is unclear how the Govardhana-Guñja-Tulasī scenario facilitates Śrī Rūpa’s paradigm. It would seem that every element in the worship would then represent the bhakta; none would represent Krishna. This seems to lose cohesion with the Gauḍīya core and possibly gain some sympathy for the Śakta paradigm (worshiping śakti independent from śaktimān) and/or the Kartābhajā approach (worshipping the devotee/guru independent from Krishna).

Gauḍīyas certainly revere devotees, but within the context of their service to Śrī Krishna, not as independently worshipable beings. The Padma Purāṇa considers it devotionally-antithetical (aparādhā) to worship any being, even Śiva, independently from Viṣṇu.[xxvi] Gauḍīyas never worship the deity of Śrī Rādhā, for example, independently of the deity of Śrī Krishna. We could argue, “Krishna is implicit within the devotee’s heart,” and, “We worship the devotee because Krishna loves him and he loves Krishna.” These are valid statements, but the fact that there are no Gauḍīya altars dedicated solely to Rādhā or other devotees casts doubt on the utility of using these truths to worship a devotee without also explicitly worshipping Krishna at the same time. On certain occasions, Gauḍīyas worship a devotee as Śrī Guru, a representative of Vyasa, on account of his implicit role in connecting them to Krishna. But they never conduct this worship with items meant only for worshipping Krishna, such as Tulasī. They worship Guru by offering him Krishna-prasāda, or items of general utility in traditional worship.

Śrī Rūpa quotes a famous verse from Ādi Purāṇa, “My dear Partha, one who claims to be My devotee is not so. Only a person who claims to be the devotee of My devotee is actually My devotee.”[xxvii] In the very next verse, however, he explains the context of such statements, “The wise know that almost all ways of worshipping Bhagavān include worshipping his devotee.” Gauḍīyas consider it important to worship devotees with Bhagavān, not in preference him.

Some say they are worshipping to attain prema, so it is better to worship the devotee, who has prema. It is true that Krishna empowers his devotee to deliver prema,[xxviii] but this does not render him incapable of bestowing it directly. Śrī Rūpa definitely states that Krishna can directly bestow prema.[xxix] Gauḍīyas identify Krishna as pūrṇa-śaktimān[xxx], rendering it unreasonable to claim that he lacks the most important of all śakti, the ānanda-śakti, prema. It is however, more effective and practical to seek prema from the blessings of a devotee, no Gauḍīya could deny this.

This, however, does not change the nature of sādhana. Śrī Rūpa clearly says that kṛṣṇa-prema arises by sādhana, which consists of various ways to focus the heart on Krishna.[xxxi] This does not contradict the view that prema comes from the devotee, because the devotee teaches us how to apply ourselves to the sādhana. The sādhana itself, however, is focused on Krishna, not the devotee. In rāgānugā-sādhana, Śrī Rūpa advises us to focus on Krishna with a particular devotee.[xxxii] The original conception of Govardhana Śila, inaugurated by Śrī Caitanya, represents this perfectly: The sādhaka fixes their heart and mind upon prema-viṣayī Krishna as the central figure, the Śila, along with prema-bestowing devotees, Śrī Rādhā and her Gopī friends, as the Guñja and Tulasī-mañjarī.

Govardhana as Govardhana

It seems Raghunātha had several attitudes towards Govardhana. While worshipping, Raghunātha saw Govardhana Śila as Krishna himself, Kṛṣṇa dāsa could not have been more clear about this. At other times, however, Raghunātha glorifies and beseeches blessings from Govardhana Hill as a great devotee. And it certainly is fascinating that Raghunātha thought, “By giving me the Śila, the Gosāñi granted me a place at Govardhana.” It seems to me that Raghunātha worshipped the Śila as Krishna, and this includes seeing it practically, literally, as a stone from Govardhana Hill, an integral part of the dhāma manifest by Krishna’s vastu-svarūpa. Thus, when Śrī Caitanya gave him the stone, Raghunātha felt that the Gosāñi had literally given him a piece of Govardhana. By keeping the stone near him at all times, he felt that he gained the chance to live always at the foot of Mount Govardhana.


In the original form of Govardhana Śila worship given by Śrī Caitanya to Raghunātha, the Śila is Krishna, embraced by Rādhārāṇī in the form of a strand of Guñja, decorated by Rādhārāṇī’s eight principle friends and their assistants in the form of eight fresh Tulasī mañjarī. This Govardhana Śila worship has thrived over the centuries. We have surveyed several ways that it has expanded from the original blueprint. In the author’s subjective opinion, the original conception given by Śrī Caitanya to Raghunātha is the most exquisite. At the very least, we can objectively state that it is the most purely Gauḍīya approach to the Gauḍīya hallmark: Govardhana Śila.


[i] Śila simply means “stone.”

[ii] “Direct manifestation of Krishna” – see Bhāgavata 10.24.25, śailo ’smi. “Springtime rāsa-līlā” – see Sri Govardhanasraya-dasaka (Raghunātha dās Goswāmī), text 7.

[iii] Antya 6.288 ~ 307

[iv] A central practice of rāgānugā-sādhana is to perform external spiritual practices with internal cognition of their relevance to the desired perfection. (See BRS 1.2.294-296, especialy seva-sādhaka-rūpea siddha-rūpea cātra hi)

[v] I do not have an exact reference for this, but heard the late Aindra dāsa (a renowned worshipper of Śālagrāma and Govardhana Śila) say, “The śāstra says the minimum standard for Śālagrāma worship is to touch Them with water and Tulasī.” He may have been citing Padma Purāṇa. I have also noted that “anointing” with liquids is a cross-cultural aspect of stone worship.

[vi] For example: BRS 1.3.1: rucibhiś-citta-māsṛṇya-kd-asau bhāva ucyate — “Bhāva is that which melts the heart, allowing its affections to flow.”

[vii] The well-known story of origin of Śālagrāma Śila, from Padma Purāṇa, centers on clandestine romance (out-of-wedlock) between Viṣṇu-Krishna and Tulasī Devī, resulting in his becoming a stone and her becoming a bush.

[viii] Monier-Williams

[ix] For example, Śrī Caitanya’s intimate associates consisted of Brahmins and non-Brahmins quite equally. He flatly declared, kibā vipra, kibā nyāsī, śūdra kene naya yei kṛṣṇa-tattva-vettā, sei ‘guru’ haya “He who understands Krishna thoroughly is a guru. It doesn’t matter if he is a [Brahmin] Vipra and Sannyāsī, or if he is a Śūdra.” (Caitanya Caritāmṛta, Madhya-līlā 8.128) He also said, “‘I am not a brāhmaṇa, I am not a kṣatriya, I am not a vaiśya or a śūdra. Nor am I a brahmacārī, a householder, a vānaprastha or a sannyāsī. I identify Myself only as the servant of the servant of the servant of the lotus feet of Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the maintainer of the gopīs.” (Caitanya Caritāmṛta, Madhya-līlā 13.80)

[x] Bhaktirasāmṛta Sindhu 1.2.199: nija-priyopaharaṇam

[xi] For example, 3.20.25, which describes that Brahmā ran to Hari – who takes away all problems and bestows all blessings, and who affectionately shows himself to his devotees in a form perfectly suited to their devotion (anugrahāya bhaktānām anurūpātma-darśanam).

[xii] Bhagavatam 1.3.28 (ete cāḿśa-kalāḥ puḿsaḥ kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam)

[xiii] Bhaktirasāmṛta Sindhu 3.1.7

[xiv] Caitanya Caritāmṛta Adi-līlā 1.5: caitanyākhyaṁ prakaṭam adhunā tad-dvayaṁ caikyam āptaṁ

[xv] Garga Saṁhitā 2.2.15. By thus defeating Indra (rain) the enemy (eroder) of mountains, Govardhana did what no other mountain could, and thus earned the title, “Girirāja” (king of hills)

[xvi] Śrī Govardhana-vāsa-prārthana-daśaka, verse 8

[xvii] Śrī Bhāgavata 10.21.18

[xviii] Antya-līlā 14.85-87

[xix] Śrī Bhāgavata 10.24.25

[xx] Śrī Bhāgavatam 1.1.1: dhāmnā svena sadā

[xxi] There is no flaw of selfishness in this, because Krishna manifests his līlā for the sake of sharing his inherent ānanda with multitudes of conscious entities (See Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.6: so ‘kāmayata bahu syāḿ prajāyeya – “for the sake of pleasure I will become many.”)

[xxii] See, for example, a lecture given by B.V. Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja in Badger, California on May 7, 2001, entitled The Glories of Giriraja Govardhana; and Sri Giri Govardhana Prayers, page 4, by Gaura-govinda Swāmī.

[xxiii] Accordingly, some who practice this approach do not offer the Śila worship Tulasī-mañjarī and Guñja-māla.

[xxiv] Bhaktirasāmṛta Sindhu 1.1.11

[xxv] See Bhaktirasāmṛta Sindhu 2.1.12-300, especially texts 15 and 16.

[xxvi] Brahma Kanda, 25.16: śivasya śrī-viṣṇor ya iha guṇa-nāmādi-sakalaḿ dhiyā bhinnaḿ paśyet sa khalu hari-nāmāhita-karaḥ.

[xxvii] Quoted in Bhaktirasāmṛta Sindhu 1.2.218

[xxviii] Mādhurya Kādambinī, 1.6 & 7

[xxix] Bhaktirasāmṛta Sindhu 1.4.9

[xxx] Caitanya Caritāmṛta, Adi-Līlā 4.96

[xxxi] Bhatirasāmṛta Sindhu 1.2.2: kṛti-sādhyā bhavet sādhya-bhāvā sā sādhanābhidhā. nitya-siddhasya bhāvasya prākaṭyaḿ hṛdi sādhyatā.

[xxxii] Bhaktirasāmṛta Sindhu 1.2.294: kṛṣṇaṁ smaran janaṁ cāsya preṣṭhaṁ nija-samīhitam.

This article originally appeared as Vraja Kishor, Govardhana Śila – A Gauḍīya Hallmark:  Original and Modern Approaches, Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Volume 23, issue Number 2, Spring 2015, pages 47-62. Used with permission.

By Vraja Kishor dās

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  1. Hare Krsna. I was recently asked about the significance of worshipping Govardhan, and this has been very helpful thank you. Only a small question, the word Gosāñi seems in context to refer to Lord Caitanya, is this correct?


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