suklastami karttike tu
smrta gopastami budhaih
tad-dinad vasudevo ‘bhud
gopah purvam tu vatsapah
“The eighth lunar day of the bright fortnight of the month of Kartik is known by authorities as Gopastami. From that day, Lord Vasudeva served as a cowherd, whereas previously He had tended the calves.”
-Srimad Bhagavatam 10.15.1, translation
Many important pastimes take place on Gopastami. One pastime takes place on this day a few years after Krishna first started tending the cows. On this day, Jatila once forbade Srimati Radhika to perform her customary puja at the distant Surya Kunda, concerned that her daughter-in-law was spending too much time outside home. Being restricted to the confinement of her in-laws’ house, Sri Radha felt dejected and began to cry an ocean of tears– of what use was Her life if it was devoid of Her Prananath, Krishna?
Krishna was waiting nearby, waiting for His Prana-sakhi to come, but once He learned that She was confined and not allowed to come, His zeal turned to sorrow. Feeling intense separation, Sri Madhava tearfully exclaimed to His dear friend Subala, “O friend! I place My life in your hands. Bring Radha here one way or another.”
Subala looked at the other boys for help, and received nothing. He replied with deep empathy, “Friend! How can I bring Her here in broad daylight? Wait until nightfall. Then Your desire will be fulfilled.”
Krishna wasn’t content with this answer; He felt that with every passing moment, a millennium passed by, and surely within a few hours, He would meet His bitter end. Understanding the seriousness of the situation, Subala headed to the house of Abhimanyu.
Subala’s family is closely connected with Abhimanyu’s, so he was able to enter the house unsuspected and unannounced. As fate would have it, he was able to go all the way to Srimati Radharani’s quarters without being noticed. Knowing Subala to be a priya-narma-sakha, or extremely intimate friend of Sri Krishna, the gopis welcomed him in, and explained the entire situation. Seeing that his dear friend Krishna and Sri Radha suffered from the same disease, and would meet the same end, Subala devised a plan.
According to Sri Sri Radha Krishna Ganoddesa Dipika, Subala is a twelve-and-a-half year old gopa, whose luster, complexion and facial features are very similar to those of Srimati Radharani. In order to make his plan work, he and Sri Radha would have to trade clothes. Once they had dressed in each other’s clothes, a wandering calf looking for its mother passed by. On the orders of Subala, Lalita Devi quickly dispatched some girls who quickly returned, pushing and pulling the reluctant calf.
To reassure Radharani and Her friends that his scheme was foolproof, Subala boldly spoke the following words: “Friends! I will remain in the house and pretend to be a sick Radha. Meanwhile, She will leave to meet with Krishna dressed as me, carrying this calf to conceal the only visible difference between us.” They all laughed and applauded his quick thinking.
Without further delay, Srimati Radhika lifted the calf in Her arms and walked out of Her chambers, while Subala stayed inside. She went down the hall and out into the open courtyard. Unaware that Subala had previously entered, Jatila and Kutila, Srimati Radharani’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law, were surprised to see Subala leaving. Before they could say anything, clever Radha said in a perfect imitation of Subala’s voice, “This rowdy calf has run amok! Straying from the herd, it ran into your house. I will take it back and tie it up with its mother so it doesn’t run away, but I must hurry so that the herd of Nanda’s son can move on.”
At the mention of Krishna, Jatila’s attention shifted from “Subala’s” surprising presence to the dangers posed by Krishna’s being near her home and daughter-in-law. Raising her hand in blessing she said, “Quickly, take your calf to its mother and let the herd continue to the pastures. The further a certain black cowherd is from this house the more secure is the integrity of my family. Now go!”
Lowering Her head to hide Her irrepressible smile, Sri Radhika answered in Subala’s voice, “As you order, mother. As you order,” and walked right out. Subala’s plan had worked! Reunited at last, Sri Radha and Madhava enjoyed wonderful pastimes together.
On Gopastami day in Sri Mayapur Dham, Sri Sri Radha Madhava are offered a special, brand new outfit made by the combined efforts of the Mayapur community. This is the only day of the year on which the lotus feet of Srimati Radhika and the gopis are seen, because on this day Srimati Radharani and Her gopi friends go out to see Madhava herd the cows and They hold up Their skirts so that the skirts don’t get dirtied with mud and cow dung.
On this day, all the devotees head to the ISKCON Mayapur Goshala to worship, feed, brush and play with the cows. Some matajis and even prabhus dress up as gopas with dhotis and beautiful turbans to enter into the festive atmosphere. After all, it is the glorious day when Sri Madhava got promoted from herding calves to herding cows. There is wonderful katha by many esteemed senior devotees, talking about the glories of our mother the cow, and the pastime of Gopastami.
After a wonderful session, a beautiful yajna (fire sacrifice) takes place, which signifies Madhava reaching the age of pauganda (six to ten), and now being old enough to herd the cows. Once the yajna is completed, an arati is performed to Mother Cow, followed by bathing and cleaning the cows. Once they are nicely cleaned, the devotees feed the cows many treats, such as chapattis and gur, fresh green grass, and fruits and vegetables. To conclude the festival, a delicious feast is served to all the devotees who participated in the festival.
*resources: Srimad Bhagavatam; pastime adapted from HH Sivarama Swami’s Nava Vraja Mahimamrta; Vedabase