In Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam it is stated that the rāsa dance took place on the full-moon night of the śarat season. From the statements of previous chapters, it appears that the festival of Govardhana-pūjā was performed just after the dark-moon night of the month of Kārttika, and thereafter the ceremony of Bhrātṛ-dvitīyā was performed; then the wrath of Indra was exhibited in the shape of torrents of rain and hailstones, and Lord Kṛṣṇa held up Govardhana Hill for seven days, until the ninth day of the moon. Thereafter, on the tenth day, the inhabitants of Vṛndāvana were talking amongst themselves about the wonderful activities of Kṛṣṇa, and the next day, Ekādaśī, was observed by Nanda Mahārāja. On the next day, Dvādaśī, Nanda Mahārāja went to take a bath in the Ganges and was arrested by one of the men of Varuṇa; then he was released by Lord Kṛṣṇa. Then Nanda Mahārāja, along with the cowherd men, was shown the spiritual sky.
In this way, the full-moon night of the śarat season came to an end. The full-moon night of Āśvina is called śarat-pūrṇimā. It appears from the statements of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam that Kṛṣṇa had to wait another year for such a moon before enjoying the rāsa dance with the gopīs. At the age of seven years He lifted Govardhana Hill. Therefore the rāsa dance took place during His eighth year.
From the Vedic literature it appears that when a theatrical actor dances among many dancing girls, the group dance is called a rāsa dance. When Kṛṣṇa saw the full-moon night of the śarat season, decorated with various seasonal flowers—especially the mallikā flowers, which are very fragrant—He remembered the gopīs' prayers to Goddess Kātyāyanī, wherein they prayed for Kṛṣṇa to be their husband. He thought that the full-moon night of the śarat season was just suitable for a nice dance. So their desire to have Kṛṣṇa as their husband would then be fulfilled.
The words used in this connection in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam are bhagavān api. This means that although Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and thus has no desire that needs to be fulfilled (because He is always full with six opulences), He still wanted to enjoy the company of the gopīs in the rāsa dance. Bhagavān api signifies that this dance is not like the ordinary dancing of young boys and young girls. The specific words used in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam are yogamāyām upāśritaḥ, which mean that this dancing with the gopīs is on the platform of yogamāyā, not mahāmāyā. The dancing of young boys and girls within the material world is in the kingdom of mahāmāyā, or the external energy. The rāsa dance of Kṛṣṇa with the gopīs is on the platform of yogamāyā. The difference between the platforms of yogamāyā and mahāmāyā is compared in the Caitanya-caritāmṛta to the difference between gold and iron. From the viewpoint of metallurgy, gold and iron are both metals, but the quality is completely different. Similarly, although the rāsa dance and Lord Kṛṣṇa's association with the gopīs appear like the ordinary mixing of young boys and girls, the quality is completely different. The difference is appreciated by great Vaiṣṇavas because they can understand the difference between love of Kṛṣṇa and lust.
On the mahāmāyā platform, dances take place on the basis of sense gratification. But when Kṛṣṇa called the gopīs by sounding His flute, they very hurriedly rushed toward the spot of the rāsa dance with the transcendental desire to satisfy Kṛṣṇa. The author of Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja Gosvāmī, has explained that lust means sense gratification, and love also means sense gratification—but for Kṛṣṇa. In other words, when activities are enacted on the platform of personal sense gratification, they are called material activities, but when they are enacted for the satisfaction of Kṛṣṇa, they are spiritual activities. On any platform of activities, the principle of sense gratification is there. But on the spiritual platform, sense gratification is for the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Kṛṣṇa, whereas on the material platform it is for the performer. For example, on the material platform, when a servant serves a master, he is trying to satisfy not the senses of his master but rather his own senses. The servant would not serve the master if the payment stopped. That means that the servant engages himself in the service of the master just to satisfy his own senses. On the spiritual platform, however, the servitor of the Supreme Personality of Godhead serves Kṛṣṇa without payment, and he continues his service in all conditions. That is the difference between Kṛṣṇa consciousness and material consciousness.