Monday Morning Greetings 2024 #20 – The Birth of the Śikṣāṣṭakam

May 13th, 2024

After just completing this week’s Monday Morning Greeting based on my theory of when and how the Śikṣāṣṭakam was written, I found a verse indicating that my theory was wrong. So, I was not left with much of a choice—either post a reprint or post what I have written with an explanation. I really try to avoid posting reprints, so I have chosen the latter. I reasoned that even though I came to the wrong conclusion on the historicity of the Śikṣāṣṭakam, I think my post gives an interesting and important view on Śrī Caitanya’s relationship to the holy name in terms of His mission and how philosophical speculation works and what can be gleaned from it.[1] Therefore, I have added this introduction, and I will include another short paragraph following my original post highlighting what I think were the important points one could gather from this week’s Greetings.


The Birth of the Śikṣāṣakam


This post is an attempt to pinpoint when Śrī Caitanya wrote the Śikṣāṣṭakam, His only literary contribution of eight verses summarizing His mission. Within the biographies of Śrī Caitanya, there is in no definitive description of Him writing the Śikṣāṣṭakam, nor in those descriptions of His God-intoxicated life is there even any indication that writing, which was a very cumbersome process at the time, was an activity He would have given His time to. I have a theory, however, how the Śikṣāṣṭakam was born based on the twentieth and last chapter of the Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, His main biography, titled “The Śikṣāṣṭaka Prayers”. To elucidate my point, I need to first explain and analyze the beginning of the chapter. Please bear with me as the relevance of my initial analysis won’t be clear until I come to the part where Śrī Caitanya begins to recite His seminal composition.


“The Śikṣāṣṭaka Prayers” begins with a description of the various intense emotions Śrī Caitanya felt towards the end of His life produced by ecstatic love for Śrī Krishna. These sentiments parallel the deepest sentiments of Śrī Radha that fulfill the internal reason for the Lord’s descent, which is to taste Śrī Radha’s feelings at the height of Her love. Besides this internal cause of the Lord’s appearance (why He appeared for Himself) there is an external cause for His descent (why He appeared for others), which is to distribute such devotion. The fulfillment of His external mission is described in the chapter that directly precedes “The Śikṣāṣṭaka Prayers”, Chapter Nineteen. There it is described how Śrī Advaita Ācārya, who first petitioned the Lord to appear, and is therefore considered one of the prime causes for His descent, sent Śrī Caitanya a cryptic message strongly indicating that His mission had been fulfilled and that He could now return to His eternal abode. In other words, “The Śikṣāṣṭaka Prayers”, this last chapter of Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, which is set at a time at the end of His life, begins with a clear indication that both missions of the Lord have now been fulfilled.


Next what is described is how Śrī Caitanya tasted the devotional sentiments that He had attained with His two most confidential associates. He would sing songs and recite verses imbibing the rasa (mood) of Śrī Radha, at times losing Himself throughout the night in a particular mood or pastime expressing those feelings. Amid such intense joy and reflecting on the success of His descent, which He is now tasting, He suddenly turns to His associates and gratefully acknowledges the cause of the fulfillment of His mission.


“In great jubilation, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu said, ‘My dear Svarūpa Dāmodara and Rāmānanda Rāya, know from Me that chanting the holy names is the most feasible means of salvation in this Age of Kali.’” (Antya-līlā 20.8)


From here on in, rather than return to His discussion of the pastimes of Śrī Śrī Radha and Krishna, Śrī Caitanya continues to elaborate with deep emotion on the glories of the holy name. It’s almost as if He is getting carried away with a personal ecstasy. Then after expressing the glories of the holy name in a conversational, non-poetic manner, a formal composition of those same thoughts, the first verse of the Śikṣāṣṭakam, spontaneously flows from His heart. He then, in a seeming continued trance of personal ecstasy, continues to extol the glories of the holy name and progressively produce in a similar manner the remaining verses of the Śikṣāṣṭakam.


My theory in summary: After completing His mission and relishing the fruits of His attainment in association with His confidential associates, and in acknowledgment of the cause of such fortune, the Śikṣāṣṭakam comes from His heart in an ecstatic trance, conveniently codifying His legacy at the end of His pastimes in this world. And we know from His biography that this type of extraordinary wordcraft was well within His ability. In His mid-teens, when He was a brilliant student of Sanskrit and before He had awakened ecstatic love of Godhead, in a debate with Keśava Kāśmīrī, the top scholar in India at the time, Śrī Caitanya was able to spontaneously memorize and correct on the spot the most minor grammatical defects of the one hundred verses composed about the Ganga by the renowned pandit extemporaneously. And that’s my theory of the birth of the Śikṣāṣṭakam, having no other indication in the biography of Śrī Caitanya of how and when He wrote anything.


After finishing the above essay and going over Chapter Twenty again, I came upon a verse that sunk my theory. Although it doesn’t indicate when He wrote the Śikṣāṣṭakam, Śrīla Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja writes:


“The Lord had formerly composed these eight verses [pūrve aṣṭa-śloka kari] to teach people in general. Now He personally tasted the meaning of the verses, which are called the Śikṣāṣṭaka.” (Antya-līlā 20.64, emphasis mine)


There is still no light, as far as I know, when Śrī Caitanya wrote the Śikṣāṣṭakam, but what hopefully comes out in my attempt to resolve that quandary, even if wrong, is just how much nāma-saṅkīrtana is at the root of what Śrī Caitanya gave, for even when relishing the height of devotion with His two closest associates, still thoughts of appreciation and gratitude for nāma-saṅkīrtana still overwhelmed Him. Could I have been wrong, but for the right reason?



[1] There is difference between mental speculation, which Vaiṣṇavas reject, and philosophical speculation which they accept. In mental speculation you reason to find out if the philosophical conclusions in a tradition are true, In philosophical speculation you speculate how they are true. In this case, I am accepting the authority of the Śikṣāṣṭakam and that its author was Śrī Caitanya, and I am just trying to figure out how it was composed.


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