Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #28 – Songs of Devotion

July 9th, 2018

Surprisingly, my grandfather affectionately grabbed my grandmother’s hand. They had three children together when they were young, but almost no romance or affection after that. After their third child was born when they were in their mid-twenties, my grandfather became a bit distant. Although my grandmother suffered there was no question of divorce. She just tolerated her fate. My mother (their daughter) and father had brought them to the Imperial Theatre on Broadway for their fiftieth wedding anniversary to watch Fiddler on the Roof, a play about matchmaking and romance in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. The play powerfully moved them, especially as they had migrated to America from Odessa in the early 1900s, which was about the same time period in which the play was set.  When the theme song “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” broke out even my grandfather was moved. He affectionately clasped his wife’s hand. My grandmother was so excited, as related to me by my mother, that she turned to her daughter sitting to her right, smiled and discreetly pointed to my grandfather’s display of affection as if to say, “Look! Look!” Oh, the power of drama and song!


A good song, poetry, or drama goes beyond just communicating or explaining an emotion, it embodies the emotion and makes one feel it. That same power of song or poetics to nourish or incite emotion is integral to the development of the sentiment of bhakti. That was the example of Śrī Caitanya, especially in His twilight years (the antya-līlā).


Śrī Caitanya Mahaprabhu spent the last eighteen years of His life fulfilling His internal mission, which was to taste the love of Śrī Krishna’s topmost devotee Śrī Radha at the height of Her love. He passed his time in the Gambhīra, a small cave-like room near the Jagannath Mandir, where day and night he chanted the holy name in the mood of separation from Krishna seeking to attain this special devotion.


His practice or means for achieving His goal was absorption in the holy name. Every object has a śakti or potency and objects and acts of devotion have a bhakti śakti, an energy that draws out devotion from our hearts, ultimately in the form of rāsa, our mature relationship with Krishna. But how to achieve that full absorption?


To deepen His absorption in the holy name of Krishna, Śrī Caitanya interspersed His constant chanting with the songs and stories of Krishna, the person whose name He was chanting. These songs and stories, especially of Śrī Radha’s intense love for Śrī Krishna, were perfectly composed to imbue the particular devotion that Śrī Caitanya longed for. But there was one problem. Śrī Radha’s mood of separation was so deep and confidential there was a paucity of such compositions.


Understanding Śrī Caitanya’s quandary, poets and qualified followers eagerly began to try to write such compositions to be carefully screened by Svarūpa Dāmodara for use in Śrī Caitanya’s bhajan or practice.  In other words, properly composed poetics in the form of stories (drama), poetry, and song were absolutely essential for the bhajan of Śrī Caitanya to increase His absorption in the holy name and nourish His aspiration. But what does this have to do with us struggling practitioners? Well, everything.


Śrī Caitanya’s life was ācāry-līlā, a perfect example meant to teach us how to gradually awaken and nourish our own relationship with Krishna. As songs of devotion were essential to this practice, so are they to ours. To foster that mood, whether it is to develop a deeper disposition of humility and longing, or in a more advanced stage to develop affection for Krishna in a particular mellow, our ācāryas, especially Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura and Narottama dāsa Ṭhākura, have left a treasure of songs that encapsulate devotional moods and nurture whatever spark of worthy sentiment rests in our hearts. If my grandfather’s heart could be moved by a dynamic Broadway drama with songs embodying romance, why cannot our hearts melt with devotion by the bhakti laden poetics of our rich tradition? Learn them and hear them and deepen your absorption in the holy name!


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