Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #21 – The Kīrtana Sūtras

May 22nd, 2017

Have you ever heard of the Kīrtana Sūtras? Probably not, as I recently coined the term. It’s a fitting title for the Śikṣāṣṭakam, the eight verses comprised by Śrī Caitanya, the father of the modern day kīrtana movement, which are the only direct writings He left behind. This term is appropriate because the purpose of a “sūtra” is to codify a larger body of thinking into condensed phrases that allows the students of a tradition to more easily memorize and understand its teachings. In that way, the Siksatakam is like other collections of sūtras as it systematizes the teachings of Śrī Caitanya into a series of terse verses packed with the glories of saṅkīrtana, the major tenet of His teachings.
Sūtras traditionally begin with the word “atha” (now) to indicate the significance of the school that will be discussed and the urgency to undertake its study. “Atha” (now) is thus not just a unit of time, but hierarchical, meaning the moment of time when one has reached the summit. In other words, “atha” (now) that you have studied so many other things you have finally come to the conclusion of all spiritual paths, whether that “now” is referring to the school of yoga in the Yoga Sūtras, as in atha yogānuśāsanam, the school of Vedanta in the Vedanta Sūtras, as in athāto brahma-jijñāsā, or the school of bhakti in the Nārada-bhakti-sūtra, as in athāto bhaktiṁ vyākhyāsyāmaḥ and so on.
Similarly, in the first verse of the Śikṣāṣṭakam, the school of Caitanya is also introduced by a hierarchical expression of time. Śrī Caitanya says “paraṁ vijayate” meaning the topmost (paraṁ) special glory (vijayate), in this case referring to śrī-kṛṣṇa-saṅkīrtana as not only the apex of all spiritual processes, but the summit of all paths or practices of devotion as well. In other words, now that you have engaged in so many spiritual practices it is time to do śrī-kṛṣṇa-saṅkīrtana, to humbly chant the holy name loudly and with others, accompanied by mṛdaṅga and kartalas, not only for your benefit, but for the benefit of others as well. [1]
The history of the composition of the Śikṣāṣṭakam as described in the “Śikṣāṣṭakam Prayers”, the title and subject of the concluding chapter of Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, [2] also points to the nature of the Śikṣāṣṭakam as a summary of Śrī Caitanya’s teaching. The “Śikṣāṣṭakam Prayers” opens by describing Śrī Caitanya in the highest ecstasy of love of Godhead, the fulfillment of His mission. Overwhelmed by ecstasy, but reflecting on its cause, He suddenly quotes a verse from the eleventh canto of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam describing that in this age, people who are exceptionally intelligent will do saṅkīrtana. [3] While relishing the meaning of that verse, the eight verses of the Śikṣāṣṭakam spontaneously pour forth from His heart, systematically describing the effect of the holy name at different levels of faith from śraddhā, the preliminary stage of devotion based on initial faith, to prema, the highest level of devotion. For example, Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, describes that the first verse of the Śikṣāṣṭakam, describes chanting at the level of faith. What is that faith? Paraṁ vijayate śrī-kṛṣṇa-saṅkīrtanam: the most glorious spiritual practice is saṅkīrtana. In a similar way, Bhaktivinoda then proceeds to describe how each verse of the Śikṣāṣṭakam corresponds to a particular stage of devotional development awakened by the chanting of the holy name and inspired by deepening levels of humility and devotion. In this way, by the nature of the Śikṣāṣṭakam’s succinct message and by its history, it becomes self-evident that in these verses Śrī Caitanya indeed was codifying His mission around saṅkīrtana.
Another relatively unique feature of a sūtra is that often a core concept is defined and then its meaning is unpacked by succeeding verses. For example, after yoga is defined in verse two of the Yoga Sūtras as yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ, the proceeding verses unpack the meaning of each word. Verse three through four describe citta, the options of awareness for the mind; verses five through eleven the vṛttis, the various fluctuations of the mind; and verses twelve through sixteen nirodhaḥ, how the mind is stilled. In a similar way, the first verse of the Śikṣāṣṭakam delineates the progressive glories of saṅkīrtana and with each succeeding verse those same glories as mentioned in its first verse are expanded further. [4]
Although Śrī Caitanya was a great scholar, He only composed these eight verses at the end of His life, which was the culmination of the fulfillment of His mission based on its foundation, śrī-kṛṣṇa-saṅkīrtana. Is it not fair to assume that indeed He was codifying his mission in something that could aptly be called the Kīrtana Sūtras?

[1] In his commentary on the verse kṛṣṇa-varṇaṁ tviṣākṛṣṇaṁ (Bhāg. 11.5.32) Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī comments that saṅkīrtana means meeting with many people to blissfully sing about Śrī Kṛṣṇa and do so loudly for the benefit of others. Not sure of the meaning here?
[2] The main biography of Śrī Caitanya by Śrī Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja.
[3] “In the age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting to worship the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the names of Kṛṣṇa. Although His complexion is not blackish, He is Kṛṣṇa Himself. He is accompanied by His associates, servants, weapons and confidential companions.” (Bhāg. 11.5.32)
[4] There is a definite progression of spiritual attainment described in the first verse of the Śikṣāṣṭakam. The proceeding seven verses also describe a gradual elevation of spiritual attainment. Although the correlation between the progression of attainment from śraddhā (preliminary faith) to prema (love of God) and the eight verses of the Śikṣāṣṭakam is definitively described by Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, he doesn’t mention the correlation between the glories of the holy name mentioned in the first verse and the succeeding verses of the Śikṣāṣṭakam, although both describe progressive levels of spiritual levels of spiritual attainment. In his commentary on Śrī Bhajana-rahasya, Śrīla B.V. Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja does make that correlation.

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