Jayadeva Goswami, the composer of the immortal Sanskrit devotional song Gita Govinda, which depicts the love story of Lord Krishna and his sweetheart Radha, is one of the most celebrated Vaishnava Hindu poets of India.
The life and times of Jayadeva are shrouded in mystery. It is generally believed that he was a poet of the court of King Lakshman Sen, and lived in the 12th century AD, as has been proved by a colophon of an ancient copy of his poem discovered in Kashmir. This means that this poet flourished before the time of Chaucer in English literature. Famous poets of the 14th century - Bidyapati (c.1400-1470) and Chandidas (c.1420-?) - acknowledge Jayadeva to be their great predecessor. Also Sanatan Goswami, a learned Vaishnava writer of the 16th century, speaks of Jayadeva as a poet of the era of Lakshman Sen.
About the life of Jayadeva, very little is known. Romesh Chunder Dutt in his Cultural Heritage of Bengal, writes that he was born in Kenduli, in the district of Birbhum. In early life, Jayadeva left home and began preaching the faith and love of Lord Krishna. After passing a few years in devotion and study, Jayadeva married and settled down in his native village. However, the daily life of the village was ill adapted to the feelings of the ardent poet, and he left home once more and traveled through northern India as far as Vrindavan and Jaipur.
Jayadeva's Magnum Opus
The Gita Govinda inspired millions of people with sincere expressions of divine love. Jayadeva's home district Birbhum became the fountain spring of the songs of Vaishnavas. A few centuries later Chandidas sang his beautiful songs from the village Nannur in the Jayadeva's home district, and Vidyapati, the poet from Mithila, wrote enchanting poems on Radha's love for Krishna. It is said that Shiv Singh, the king of Mithila, conferred the title of 'Abhinava Jayadeva' or 'The New Jayadeva', on Vidyapati. This shows the high esteem in which Jayadeva was held by both Vidyapati and his royal patron. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534), was so fond of the Gita Govinda that he heard its recital every day, and its music (kirtans) became the favorites of the masses of Bengal and Orissa.
The songs in Gita Govinda are known as 'Ashtapadis', and the raga forms used are somewhat different from those of the present time. There is no single or perfect form of rendering the Gita Govinda at present. It is divided into 12 cantos, and there are 24 songs set to 12 classical ragas and five taals.
Gita Govinda in Art & Painiting
Literary traditions also play a great part in art and painting. Manak, the master painter of the Kangra tradition undertook the task of illustrating the text of the Gita Govinda, taking the beautiful Kangra Valley landscape as its setting.
Gita Govinda also found visual expression in paintings of nothern and western artists. The earliest illustrations of the Gita Govinda were painted in Gujarat about 1450. A series of the Gita Govinda paintings were painted in 1590 at Jaunpur, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and are now in the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai.
The great Mughal emperor Akbar, inspite of practising Islam, was a great enthusiast of the mystical lyrics of Jayadeva. In 1615, during Akbar's reign, a manuscript of the Gita Govinda was produced and illustrated with paintings in Mughal style, thus showing that people of all creeds were enchanted with Jayadevaa's song.
Nothing more is known of the life of the poet than that he passed his last days in devotional activities in his native village, where his tomb is yet to be seen surrounded by groves and trees. Even after eight centuries, Jayadeva is loved and revered: an annual fair is held at Kenduli by the Vaishnavas in memory of the great poet. Thousands assemble around his tomb for worship, and Vaishnavas sing of the amorous songs of Krishna and Radha immortalized by Jayadeva.