Archive for May, 2016

Monday Morning Greetings #22 – What Makes Something Funny?

May 30th, 2016

What Makes Something Funny?
During my research for a talk on What Makes Something Funny, which was meant to follow a performance by the B.Centered Comedy group, I was surprised that every great philosopher from Aristotle to Kant had a theory on comedy. I read through one thinker after the next trying to understand “what makes something funny?” but I found the most profound theory espoused by none other than Groucho Marx who succinctly said:
“Humor is reason gone mad.”
It may be funny that Marx trumps Schopenhauer, but it seemed to make the most sense, as it was similar to a theory of comedy I had espoused many years before based on the Bhagavad-gītā (
I posited that everything in this world serves the purpose of the world, which is liberation.  As the Gītā says, when you are forced to act helplessly according to the modes of nature you are a fool. I surmised that comedy is a parody of that. On the other hand, if you describe someone who acts very thoughtfully, it is not funny, but sobering.  I thus theorized that humor discourages conditioning by laughing at it. And now 15 years after writing my thesis on what makes something funny, while studying the theories of all major philosophers on the theory, ironically I am convinced of the validity of my theory—that humor is part of the Absolute Reality meant to discourage our folly—by the insights of Marx (not Karl):
Humor is Reason Gone Mad!

Monday Morning Greetings #21 – What I Learned From a Pickpocket About Krishna Consciousness

May 23rd, 2016

About three years ago a friend sent me an eight-minute talk by Apollo Robbins called the art of distraction. Apollo Robbins is arguably the world’s greatest pickpocket and his demonstration showed why. I watched in awe as he pickpocketed a man on stage in front of hundreds of people, with neither the man nor audience having a clue when he did it. After Apollo finished he rewarded the man for good sportsmanship by giving him a beautiful watch, the man’s own! The man was shocked. He then proceeded to return the man’s wallet, credit card, and so on before an incredulous audience. And for a finale, he pointed out to the audience that he was wearing a different shirt from the one he started the show with. One could almost hear the audience sigh in collective astonishment, “How in the world did he do that!” Unbelievable? Just watch the video at the end of the article to witness it for yourself.
In his presentation, Apollo explained the art of distraction. His basic premise is that perception is not just based on the senses, but our attention. Stop reading this article and hear the sounds around you. Why are you hearing them now, and not when reading this article? It wasn’t because the sound vibration wasn’t in the air, but because your mind was focused someplace else, hopefully on what I am saying here. In a similar way, Apollo described and demonstrated that by manipulating a person’s attention, an expert pickpocket can rob one before their very eyes, and in this case before a packed audience.
There is such a forceful and clear point made here, a point that almost seemed to jump out of Apollo’s demonstration as a mantra:
Perception is dependent on attention
This concept is a little challenging. If perception is dependent on attention, do I actually hear or perceive the holy name when inattentive? Apollo indirectly dealt with that question also.
At the beginning of his short talk, Apollo put on an overhead screen an illustration about what constitutes actual perception. He projected a picture of the outline of a head with little man inside operating a control panel that could choose and direct the acceptance of different perceptive apparatus such as microphones coming from the ear and cameras coming from the eyes and so on. Behind him within the head was a storeroom representing the memory. He showed, for example, that when one is asked to remember something and scroll one’s memory, the little man in the head (representing one’s focus or attention) would turn around to do so, no longer giving direct attention to accepting input from the other sensory apparatus one directs. In the same way, when daydreaming and scrolling our memory it can be questioned if we actually hear the holy name. Hearing the holy name is not only about hearing the sound vibrating within our auditory apparatus. It is also dependent on the man in our head who focuses our attention on the sense of hearing, allowing the sound into our consciousness.
There is another important lesson learned by the relation between perception and attention. Just as there is very little effect from engaging with objects of devotion when we are not attentive, when we focus with concentration the effect can be exponentially profound. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī illustrates this point in his commentary on the second verse of the Bhāgavatam.
The second verse states that by hearing the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam just once the Lord is captured in our heart immediately without delay. Śrī Jīva then raises an interesting question. Why doesn’t this happen to us? His answer adds another dimension to the question of what causes distraction, or on the flip side facilitates attention. His answer is simple: We don’t hear messages when we don’t like those messages. Thus when we don’t like the message of the Bhāgavatam, which is to fully surrender to guru and Kṛṣṇa, we can’t hear it, nor experience Kṛṣṇa in the pages of the Bhāgavatam, as the message of the Bhāgavatam is Kṛṣṇa incarnate (according to the Bhāgavatam itself). If that is true, then what to speak of Kṛṣṇa being captured in the heart, at once and without delay. Śrī Jīva then gives us hope. By hearing it again and again, Śrī Jīva informs us, we become gradually purified and eventually hear it with acceptance and full faith. Kṛṣṇa then appears in the heart by just once faithfully accepting that message.
Another dimension here has been added to this discussion of the art of distraction, or conversely the art of attention. Our perception is not only affected by our attention, but by our attitude or faith. The faith or acceptance of an object of devotion as non-different from Kṛṣṇa inspires our focus and allows the divine to touch our heart, just as ignorance or doubt closes our heart to the same experience. That’s why the śāstra informs us that whether it’s Kṛṣṇa in the form of the Bhāgavatam, his Holy Name, or His mahā-prasāda, when taken with full faith just once, sinful reactions are removed and divine love awakens.
When I begin these Monday Morning Greetings I have no idea where they can take me. This week my subject is opening up to practically a whole book, so I will stop now and summarize.
If we are distracted even if objects are before our senses then we don’t perceive them. In the practice of bhakti, attentiveness and faith thus allow the objects of devotion to enter our senses and awaken the heart. Let me leave this Monday Morning Greeting with two mantras:
Perception is dependent on attention.
Attention is based on faith.
Please check out this video and you will understand why I become inspired with these points:
Apollo Robbins: The Art of Misdirection

Monday Morning Greetings #20 – Lessons from the CC: Antya-lila, Chapter 1

May 16th, 2016

Dhanurdhara Swami will add once a month an excerpt from a new book he is writing called “Lessons from the CC”. It will contain chapter by chapter summaries of all the instructions in Vaiṣṇava behavior contained in the Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta. He is starting with Antya-līlā, Chapter 1.
Lessons from the Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Antya-līlā, Chapter 1
Lesson 1: To remove impediments to our spiritual endeavors one should acknowledge one’s shortcomings and pray for the mercy of great spiritual teachers. 
Śrīla Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja humbly admitting his frailties (he was already near the end of life) fervently prays for the mercy of the saintly devotees before beginning the most confidential subject of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s antya-līlā..
“My path is very difficult. I am blind, and my feet are slipping again and again. Therefore, may the saints help me by granting me the stick of their mercy as my support.” Antya-līlā 1.2
“I pray to the lotus feet of the six Gosvāmīs — Śrī Rūpa, Sanātana, Bhaṭṭa Raghunātha, Śrī Jīva, Gopāla Bhaṭṭa and Dāsa Raghunātha — so that all impediments to my writing this literature will be annihilated and my real desire will be fulfilled.”  Antya-līlā 1.3-4
Lesson 2: A Vaiṣṇava feels great urgency to enlighten others and thus seeing impending death due to old age meditates on how to finish his legacy.  
Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, fearing that he won’t be able to complete the Caitanya-caritāmṛta due to his advanced age, had summarized what he is about to speak in Madhya-līlā.
“I am now almost an invalid because of old age, and I know that at any moment I may die. Therefore I have already described some portions of the antya-līlā.” Antya-līlā 1.11
Lesson 3: A Vaiṣṇava is very liberal hearted in terms of giving shelter to others.
Śivānanda Sena took responsibility for arranging and managing all aspects of the Bengali Vaiṣṇavas long journey to Purī to join Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Even when a dog took shelter of his group he gave it shelter.
“While going to Jagannātha Purī, Śivānanda Sena allowed a dog to go with him. He supplied it food to eat and maintained it.” Antya-līlā 1.17
Lesson 4: A Vaiṣṇava fully accepts his responsibilities without excuse for mistakes.
Śivānanda Sena gave shelter to a dog who joined his pilgrimage party. When he disappeared because the dog was not given food in his absence, he himself fasted after learning that the dog was nowhere to be found.
“When the men returned without success, Śivānanda Sena became very unhappy and fasted for the night.” Antya-līlā 1 .23
Lesson 5: A Vaiṣṇava is very humble and seeks forgiveness for his mistakes.
Śivānanda Sena gives shelter to a stray dog. Under his care the dog is then lost. He fears it is due to his neglect. His reaction when the dog is found:
“When he saw the dog sitting in that way and chanting the name of Kṛṣṇa, Śivānanda, because of his natural humility, immediately offered his obeisances to the dog just to counteract his offenses to it.”  Antya-līlā 1.31
Lesson 6: The association of advanced devotees is inconceivably powerful and we should eagerly seek it out.
The results of Śivānanda Sena’s favor to even a stray dog:
“The next day, no one saw that dog, for it had obtained its spiritual body and departed for Vaikuṇṭha, the spiritual kingdom.”
Purport: “This is the result of sādhu-saṅga — consequent association with Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu and promotion back home, back to Godhead. This result is possible even for a dog, by the mercy of the Vaiṣṇava. Therefore, everyone in the human form of life should be induced to associate with devotees. By rendering a little service, even by eating prasādam, what to speak of chanting and dancing, everyone can be promoted to Vaikuṇṭhaloka.”  Antya-līlā 1.32
Lesson 7: The most important and powerful practice of devotional service is taking shelter in a pure devotee and invoking their mercy and shelter.
Śivānanda Sena accepted responsibility for a dog that took shelter of his pilgrimage party to Purī. When the dog was not fed in his absence he lamented. Upon arriving in Purī the devotees were astonished to see the dog eating the remnants of green coconut pulp thrown to him by Śrī Caitanya and chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra again and again. The next day the dog was gone because it went back to Godhead showing that regardless of one’s elevation in consciousness, if somehow or other one humbly seeks shelter of a Vaiṣṇava one can achieve the highest destination.
“We may conclude that even as dogs we must take shelter of a Vaiṣṇava. The benefit will be the same as that which accrues to an advanced devotee under a Vaiṣṇavas care.” Purport, Antya-līlā 1.24
“The next day, no one saw that dog, for it had obtained its spiritual body and departed for Vaikuṇṭha, the spiritual kingdom.”  Antya-līlā 1.32
Lesson 8: When Vaiṣṇavas meet after a long time, they sit together and discuss good news (about Kṛṣṇa consciousness).
Upon his arrival at Jagannātha Purī, Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī meets Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu and Haridāsa Ṭhākura at the latter’s hut.
“Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu then sat down with Haridāsa and Rūpa Gosvāmī. They inquired from one another about auspicious news and then continued to talk together for some time.”  Antya-līlā 1.49
Lesson 9: The glory of mahā-prasadam.
“When they [Śrī Rūpa and Haridāsa Ṭhākura] received the remnants of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s prasādam through Govinda, they respected it, and then they both began to dance in ecstasy.” Antya-līlā 1.64
Lesson 10: Tests are necessary to strengthen one’s resolve in spiritual life.
While Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, accompanied by his most confidential devotees, was going to visit Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, Śrī Caitanta Mahāprabhu praised Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī profusely to test those devotees and observe their reaction.
“Just to examine Sārvabhauma Bhaṭṭācārya and Rāmānanda Rāya, the Lord began to praise the transcendental qualities of Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī before them.” Antya-līlā 1.106
Why does the Lord test his devotees? Just like we shake a nail it to test if is secure enough to withstand the initial blow of a hammer, the Lord or spiritual master tests a devotees capability to contain their mercy before bestowing it.
Lesson 11: A Vaiṣṇava is averse to personal praise.
Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu was exceptionally impressed with Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī’s poetry and he requested him to share it with the devotees. Śrī Rūpa’s reaction to his request shows how a devotee responds to personal praise:
“When Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu ordered Rūpa Gosvāmī to read the verse they had previously heard, Rūpa Gosvāmī, because of great shyness, did not read it but instead remained silent.” Antya-līlā 1.112
Lesson 12: A devotee is patient and works steadily towards his goal.
The six Gosvāmīs made great literary contributions. Even their works of philosophy were composed in verse. The books that we enjoy were thus not produced overnight, but after years of austerity. Below Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta reveals that the Vidagdha-mādhava, one of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī’s dramas, took almost twenty years to compose showing the steadfastness and patience of a devotee in working towards his goal.
“Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura informs us in this connection that Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī finished the drama known as Vidagdha-mādhava in the year Śakābda 1454 (A.D. 1532) and the Lalita-mādhava in Śakābda 1459 (A.D. 1537). The discussion between Rāmānanda Rāya and Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī at Jagannātha Purī took place in Śakābda 1437 (A.D. 1515).” Purport, Antya-līlā 1.126
The discussion being described was about the introductory verse to the Vidagdha-mādhava. So if the introductory verse was existent in at least 1515, and the book was finally published in 1532, it means that the work took at least eighteen painstaking years to finish!
Lesson 13: Kṛṣṇa consciousness is beyond duality.
Śrīla Rāmānanda Rāya requests Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī to chant some of his poetry. This particular verse describes how Kṛṣṇa consciousness is beyond duality as it describes how on the absolute platform even the greatest distress is the greatest happiness:
“ ‘My dear beautiful friend, if one develops love of Godhead, love of Kṛṣṇa, the son of Nanda Mahārāja, all the bitter and sweet influences of this love will manifest in one’s heart. Such love of Godhead acts in two ways. The poisonous effects of love of Godhead defeat the severe and fresh poison of the serpent. Yet there is simultaneously transcendental bliss, which pours down and defeats the poisonous effects of a snake, as well as the happiness derived from pouring nectar on one’s head. It is perceived as doubly effective, simultaneously poisonous and nectarean.’ ”  Antya-līlā 1.148
Lesson 14: Despite substantial accomplishments a devotee never feels proud.
Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī’s reaction to Śrīla Rāmānanda Rāya’s profuse praise of his poetry:
“Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī said, ‘In your presence, which is just like brilliant sunshine, I am as insignificant as the light of a glowworm.’ ” Antya-līlā 1.173
Lesson 15: One cannot understand the pastimes of Śrī Kṛṣṇa by scholarship alone.
When Śrīla Rāmānanda Rāya asks Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī to further recite his poetry he quotes the following from the Lalita-mādhava (1.23) spoken by Paurṇamāsī in a conversation with Gārgī.
“‘The dust from cows and calves on the road creates a kind of darkness indicating that Kṛṣṇa is returning home from the pasture. Also, the darkness of evening provokes the gopīs to meet Kṛṣṇa. Thus the pastimes of Kṛṣṇa and the gopīs are covered by a kind of transcendental darkness and are therefore impossible for ordinary scholars of the Vedas to see.’” Antya-līlā 1.188
People who are covered by passion and ignorance cannot understand Kṛṣṇa. In Vṛndāvana, however, even in a hazy storm of dust or the dark of night devotees can understand what Kṛṣṇa is doing. Śrīla Prabhupāda thus describes that “the purport of this verse is that under no circumstances is Kṛṣṇa ever lost to the vision of exalted devotees like the gopīs.”
Lesson 16: Only by poetry can one describe love (bhakti).
“Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu praised the metaphors and other literary ornaments of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī’s transcendental poetry. Without such poetic attributes, He said, there is no possibility of preaching transcendental mellows.” Antya-līlā 1.198
To effectively communicate love one not only has to describe the sentiments of love, but one has to recreate those feelings of love. This can be done in writing only by metaphors and other literary ornaments and thus poetry is the most effective medium to invoke emotions.
Lesson 17: If we write poetry it should have a profound effect.
“‘What is the use of a bowman’s arrow or a poet’s poetry if they penetrate the heart but do not cause the head to spin?’” Antya-līlā 1.195

Monday Morning Greetings #19 – Do you have spiritual prejudice?

May 9th, 2016

Do you have spiritual prejudice?

“Spiritual prejudice” is a phrase I coined myself, so I guess I also get to define it:

Spiritual prejudice: Prejudging the pastimes of Kṛṣṇa based on misapplying our previous experience to them and thus seeing the pastimes of Kṛṣṇa as mundane.

An explanation about the foundation of prejudice may help us understand how we can also avoid spiritual prejudice.

Prejudice means judging something not on actual experience, but on a preconceived opinion formed by either generalizing a past experience or worse, by categorizing an individual or group based on misinformation or propaganda.

To illustrate this concept of prejudice let’s use the example of two young boys in terms of their perception of their teacher, one from a normal family (Boy A) and one from a dysfunctional family (Boy B).

Boy A gets corrected by his teacher and laments that he has done something wrong. The teacher is genuinely dedicated to his student’s welfare and Boy A sees that and respects him. Boy B, however, gets corrected for the same thing and sees his teacher as mean or oppressive. His teacher is not mean or oppressive, but because Boy B’s parents were abusive or neglectful he distrusts all authorities and projects his bad experience with authority on his teacher. Prejudice thus clouds perception because it prevents us from understanding something as it is.

Perhaps I am not using the word prejudice in the more common way in its application to race, gender, or ethnicity, but my point here is just to illustrate the foundation of prejudice: preconceived notions that give negative or harmful impressions and prevent us from experiencing things as they are.

What does this have to do with spiritual prejudice?

In a similar prejudicial way, we tend to misjudge the transcendental pastimes of Kṛṣṇa as mundane by projecting on them our own experience in comparable relationships.

In reality, the forms of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are not in the least mundane, but rather are the essence of God’s internal or spiritual potency. Even their most amorous exchanges are exclusively imbued with selflessness and pure devotion. Rādhā embraces Kṛṣṇa, but her thoughts remain singularly “How can Kṛṣṇa be pleased?” To see them in any other way has little value and at worst can harm our spiritual life by intensifying mundane lust.

Understanding the benefit of hearing the pastimes of Kṛṣṇa and the ill effect of being covered from them by prejudice, we are left with one last question:

How does one overcome spiritual prejudice?

The best way to know Śrī Kṛṣṇa in truth is by regularly hearing the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, a brilliant text in 12 cantos. It is brilliant in that the first nine cantos are carefully composed to step-by-step educate one on the science of Kṛṣṇa and gradually purify one of attachment. By doing so one can eventually come to the platform of properly hearing the pastimes of Śrī Kṛṣṇa in the Tenth Canto faithfully without prejudice.

And the great teachers who have undergone this Bhāgavata process can also speak and present the beautiful pastimes of Kṛṣṇa in an appropriate way even to most neophytes, which is what Śrīla Prabhupāda did in his summary presentation of the Tenth Canto called Kṛṣṇa Book. By carefully couching the pastimes of Kṛṣṇa within carefully worded explanations of the science of Kṛṣṇa to inoculate one against misconceptions, he could recommend even at the very beginning of his mission to his inexperienced disciples:

“If you read Kṛṣṇa Book every day you will be happy.”

Oh, the joy of being freed from spiritual prejudice!

Monday Morning Greetings #18 – Yoga Made Easy by Music: How Kirtan Works

May 2nd, 2016

(Kirtan refers to devotional singing, but it also refers to the recitation of spiritual poetry and drama or even just speaking about spiritual subjects. In the school of Śrī Caitanya, when devotional singing is done in a group with musical accompaniment it is specifically called sankirtan; the prefix “san” comes from samyak, which means “complete”. It is called sankirtan, or complete, as the group experience of kirtan is more absorbing and moving than the individual one. For the purpose of distinguishing group from individual kirtan, when I refer to devotional singing and music in a congregation I will use the word “sankirtan”, although it is commonly known as just kirtan.)

I was happy to read that “sankirtan (chanting with others) is superior even to kirtan (chanting alone) because it produces such extraordinary feelings”.[1] That has always been my conviction, but here was a declarative statement by Śrī Jiva Gosvāmī, one of the greatest Vaiṣṇava scholars in his classic work Śrī Bhakti Sandarbha.

Although I was happy to find a supportive statement for the magnificence of sankirtan, the question still remained, why? Why does sankirtan produce such extraordinary feelings? Luckily the answer came soon. While thumbing casually through a book containing the personal correspondence of my spiritual master, Śrīla Prabhupāda, I chanced upon the following statement:

“The hearing tendency is made easy and still more favorable by songs and music of spiritual value to be equally shared by all classes of men namely the highest educated and the lowest illiterate.” [2]

The answer was simple and clear: “hearing made easy by music!” The test of any meditational practice is its ability to facilitate focus on the object of one’s mediation, usually a mantra that is heard. As proper melody and rhythm spontaneously allure the mind, mantra couched in music naturally makes mantra meditation easier.  And as the focus in sankirtan is the very object of the practitioner’s devotion (the divine names of God), extraordinary feelings, such as devotion and joy, naturally arise as one’s meditation deepens.

The power of music is not the only reason why sankirtan invokes more astonishing feelings than chanting alone. Being inspired by the reference about sankirtan from Śrī Jiva, I delved further into why this practice is considered exceptional. As bhakti and kirtan are the main components of sankirtan, I naturally began my study there.

Bhagavad-gītā clearly distinguishes bhakti as the topmost yoga.[3] It also implies why:

In bhakti, the object of meditation is Brahman (the Divine) designated in divine names such as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, which are considered non-different from Brahman. Thus unlike in classical yoga where to quell the mind one chooses an arbitrary object as a prop for meditation, the bhakta selects an object of loving relationship. Consequently, the bhakta is spontaneously drawn to meditation out of faith and devotion, rather than will-power alone, making it the best means of focusing the mind.

Furthermore, the Divine names as an object of meditation are alive and personal. They thus can reciprocate the practitioner’s devotion by bestowing the desired fruits of practice, even samādhi, which is the final goal. Because in bhakti the fruits of devotional meditation can even exceed the practitioner’s yogic effort, bhakti is therefore called the path of grace and highly praised.

As mentioned above, the use of songs and music in mantra meditation is deemed particularly powerful, even within the path of bhakti. Why? Among sense objects sound is considered particularly absorbing, and especially gripping in good music. The mind is thus naturally allured to the designated mantra embedded in musical sounds. In addition, the melodies, or rāgas, accompanying kirtan are composed to stir devotional feelings, which are the very force behind the bhakta’s meditation.

Attraction to music is imbedded deep within the psyche. Many great thinkers affirm this. Plato in The Republic, for example, recommended that a child’s education be mostly composed of good music to harmonize or spiritualize the mind. Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī, a prominent 17th century Vaiṣṇava scholar, went even further. In his commentary on Kṛṣṇa’s famous midnight dance with the cowherd maidens (the gopīs) of Vṛndāvan, he described the number of melodies the gopīs sang as one for every 16,000 species of life, implying the innate connection between the essential nature of each species and a particular melody. It is precisely this instinctive connection between tune and being that so powerfully weds mantra and music in the heart and mind of the chanter and makes the experience of sankirtan so potent.

Still it is not the resource of music alone that elevates sankirtan over even other practices of bhakti. The full capacity to evoke grace, the power of group petition and the superiority of shared bliss are also enhancing characteristics of sankirtan.

For the followers of Śrī Caitanya, the inaugurator of the sankirtan movement, perhaps there is no greater reason why sankirtan is considered so effective than the grace it attracts to help one advance on the path of bhakti.

As the inaugurator of the sankirtan movement, Śrī Caitanya is glorified in Caitanya-bhāgavata as sankirtaṇaika-pitarau, the father of sankirtan. The best way to please the father is to serve his son. Śrī Caitanya’s followers therefore trust that by wholeheartedly giving oneself to that which is born of Śrī Caitanya (sankirtan), they will gain His blessings. This is strongly the culture and philosophy of traditional India: by honoring the predecessors of one’s tradition, the power of what they exemplified, practiced and taught flows to one’s heart. The fullest manifestation of Śrī Caitanya’s teachings is prema (divine love), which manifests to those fully absorbed in the sankirtan of the holy names born from Him.

The Bhāgavata gives another interesting perspective on the efficacy of sankirtan in its description of the events leading to Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s advent. The story begins with Mother Earth in the form of a distressed cow tearfully approaching the chief executive of the universe, Lord Brahma. She seeks relief from the burden of the increasing number of militaristic rulers plundering her planet. Concerned, Lord Brahmā, accompanied by Śiva and all the demigods, leaves for the sacred milk ocean to petition the Lord’s advent. One commentator rhetorically questions why Lord Brahmā brought such an entourage of luminaries with him, when he was perfectly qualified to gain direct access to the Lord by the purity of his own prayer. [4] The answer: Lord Brahmā was instructing by example that in prayer, all things being equal, group petition is more powerful than individual prayer. Bhakti is the path of entreaty. Accordingly, sankirtan, the kirtan of collective appeal, invokes extraordinary feelings of grace and delight.

Ideally in sankirtan all qualified participants share in the musical devotional offering, especially the sentiments being expressed. As they are shared they tend to be more intense. This type of phenomena can be clearly seen in drama. One purpose of good theater is catharsis, the literary effect where the audience (or the characters) is overcome with the strong emotion of the drama, a shared experience that uplifts the audience in a unique way. Abhinavagupta, one of Indian’s most respected theorists on mystical and aesthetic experience writes extensively on the necessity for the experience of rāsa to be in the company of like-minded souls. He even went so far as to say that the fullness of joy in theatre and mysticism occurs only when every participant fully shares the experience.[5]

One of my favorite examples of this is the scene describing the day Śrī Caitanya left home to take sannyāsa. He is effulgently sitting amongst His devotes who remain unaware that their master will leave in the evening. His splendid form is covered with the many exquisite garlands his associates have piled with love around his neck. Fresh sandalwood paste has also been affectionately patted across his forehead. Their unbounded bliss reaches its height as “they gazed upon him as if with a single pair of eyes!”

For this reason, the power of shared feelings and extraordinary devotional emotions tend to increase in communal kirtan.

I remember a kirtan I joined one summer evening in 1986 in the Indian town of Farrukhabad where the accomplished B.B. Govinda Swami was leading our sankirtan group in the town’s annual Rāma Bharata procession. Almost one million people from the district lined the streets for this yearly commemoration of the wedding of Sītā and Rāma. I could barely stand the heat on this muggy August day, but it was the portable lanterns on the heads of the dozens of coolies walking by our side to light our way that created an especially intolerable setting. One can’t imagine how many bugs even a single lantern attracts on a muggy summer night in India! The Swami is not an ordinary kīrtanīyā. As a child he grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, the son of a famous music agent. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash regularly frequented his house and often held him on his lap. Anyway, whatever soul he imbibed from his birth was later channeled into kirtan in his youth. In the early 70s he became a devotee of Kṛṣṇa and lived in Vṛndāvan at the feet of some of the greatest kirtan masters. On that muggy night in August his sweet, powerful, melodious kirtan accompanied by a host of expert Bengali and African American mṛdaṅga players was exceptionally potent. I remember it well. Due to my discomfort, when it began all I could think of was, “when will this end!” Shortly, however, the mantra, the melody, the rhythm, the camaraderie and the grace, sent us to another world, as it did the throngs of Indian villagers lining the streets. I closed my eyes and absorbed myself in the sankirtan. What seemed a relatively short time later I opened them. It was five in the morning! I was startled! “How did that happen?” I pondered. Now I know: Yoga made easy by music!



[1] Śrī Bhakti Sandarbha, Anuchheda 269

[2] Correspondence of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, letter to Seth Mangumal Amarsingh, Bombay 24 July, 1958

[3] Śrī Kṛṣṇa says in Bhagavad-gītā 6.47 ‘Of all yogis one who worships me with faith and devotion is the best of all.’

[4] The Absolute Reality is called Brahman, which can manifest in various ways. When the Absolute Reality is fully manifest in sound (śabda), it is called śabda brahman, sound, which is Absolute Reality.

[5] See Acting as a Way of Salvation, David Haberman,  p. 16-29

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