Nama-Kirtana: The Essence of the Bhagavata

kirtanBy Dhanurdhara Swami

Sri Caitanya sat attentively at the feet of his divine master, Sri Isvara Puri, who had just promised to disclose to him the verse that is the essence of the Bhagavatam. Emphatically, but devotionally, Isvara Puri recited:

“One who chants the names of one’s beloved Lord without material attachment or inhibition awakens deep attachment to his Lord. As his hearts melts with ecstatic love, he laughs very loudly or cries or shouts. Sometimes he sings and dances like a madman oblivious to public opinion.”1

No serious student of the Bhagavatam questions that nam kirtan is stressed in the text as the best means for realizing the Absolute Reality.2

How does that, however, make it the fundamental ingredient of everything spoken, the topic that weaves together the myriad subjects found within the text that are geared to establishing Krishna as the full manifestation of Godhead?3

To decipher the actual theme of any book the first place to look is the history of its composition, specifically the intention of the author in writing the text. That account is told in the Bhagavatam itself:

Sri Vyasa, the empowered editor of the eternal Vedas, had just failed in his attempt to present the Vedas in a relevant way for this present age of discord. Seeing his despondency, Sri Narada, his spiritual master, confirmed what Sri Vyasa had already suspected, that he had not sufficiently glorified Krishna. Shaken by his teacher’s mild rebuke, Sri Vyasa entered a deep meditation to attain greater realization. The result was the Bhagavatam, a text systematically and directly glorifying Krishna in 18,000 beautiful verses meant to be read and sung in various melodies. The Bhagavatam is therefore kirtan itself.

Srila Visvanatha Thakura supports the continuity of the composition as kirtan in his commentary on verse three of the Bhagavatam. Commenting on the phrase describing the Bhagavatam as “the mature fruit of Vedic knowledge” he affirms everything in the text as an expression (kirtan) of the highest devotion:

“The inherent nature of this fruit is rasa (perfected devotion), which implies that there are no parts like the seed or skin that are to be rejected.”4

There are nine main devotional practices beginning with hearing (sravanam), chanting (kirtanam) and remembering (smaranam) each traditionally represented by a particular exemplar.5 Saintly Sukadeva Goswami, the main speaker in the Bhagavatam,6 is the exemplar for kirtan for having devotionally recited the text non-stop for seven days, further affirming the Bhagavatam as kirtan.

We have discussed the Bhagavatam as kirtan itself. Another way to understand kirtan, specifically nama-kirtan as the essence of the Bhagavatam, is to understand the message the song delivers. What is the message of theBhagavatam?

To decipher the theme of a complex text, classical hermeneutics places stress on, among other things, the first and last thing spoken in the text. The crux of the Bhagavatam is the question of King Pariksit (a dying ruler and great devotee) to that same Sukadeva Goswami, the saintly monk that appears at his death to enlighten him. The King asks Sri Sukadeva:

“What is the duty of a man who is about the die and what should he not do?”7

The first thing said in answer to this seminal question points not only to kirtan, but nama-kirtan as the prime message of the text:

“O King, constant chanting of the holy name of the Lord after the ways of the great authorities is the doubtless and fearless way of success for all, including those who are free from all material desires, those who are desirous of all material enjoyment, and also those who are self-satisfied by dint of transcendental knowledge.”8

The very last verse of the Bhagavatam also supports nama-kirtan as the text’s fundamental teaching:

“I offer my respectful obeisances unto the Supreme Lord, Hari, the congregational chanting of whose holy names (nama-sankirtanam) destroys all sinful reactions, and the offering of obeisances unto whom relieves all material suffering.”9

Every age (yuga) has a particular practice effective for its time. As Bhagavatam was written specifically for the present age called Kali-yuga, evidence for nama-kirtan as the prescribed practice for Kali-yuga would also support nama-kirtan as the essence of the Bhagavatam.

Such evidence is found in the eleventh canto of the Bhagavatam, where the recommended spiritual practice for each age is listed along with the incarnation that inaugurates that practice. For Kali-yuga, nama-kirtan is recommended:

“In the age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting (sankirtan) to worship the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the names of Krishna[…]”10

Although nama-kirtan is certainly highlighted in the Bhagavatam, how is one to understand the many other diverse subjects that are apparently unrelated to nama-kirtan? If the essence of something is that which pervades everything, how then is nama-kirtan the svarupa (the inherent nature) of such assorted and apparently unconnected topics as calculation of time from the atom to the dynasty of kings?

Sri Jiva Goswami gives the clue to the resolution of this quandary. At the beginning of Sri Bhakti Sandarbha he describes the two ways in which one can approach the text: for good instruction or to relish one’s relationship with Krishna.11 First we need good and repeated instruction to finally surrender to Krishna. Then having realized one’s relationship with Krishna, the approach changes. No longer needing instruction one just relishes each statement in the Bhagavatam, including the instructional ones, as inspiration for one’s relationship with Krishna.

In other words, for an advanced devotee each and every text of the Bhagavatam nourishes one’s relationship with Krishna, which is the foundation of full absorption in chanting,12 while the apparently diverse subjects of the text provide instruction to attain and support that stage.13

For example, after Sri Sukadeva answers Maharaja Pariksit’s initial inquiry about one’s ultimate duty in life by instructing him to do nama-kirtan, he immediately describes non-attachment, seeing God in the world, meditation and other favorable conditions for spiritual life.14

We can understand the supplementary topics in the Bhagavatam in relation to kirtan in yet another way. If the purpose of the Bhagavatam is to chant the holy names of the Lord with devotion, then the text must also explain his worthiness for such dedication. The importance of this connection between understanding and devotion is confirmed in one of the key verses in the Bhagavad-gita where Sri Krishna affirms that the learned (budha) become devoted (bhajante). The term budha here is not referring to mere scholarship, but an understanding of the Absolute Reality, in this case realization that Krishna is the absolute source of all. If such knowledge, appropriately called sambandha-jnana (knowledge of relationship), is lacking and one misunderstands one’s relationship with God by thinking oneself God, then what is the question of chanting with devotion? True devotion is for others, not oneself.

The essence of the Bhagavatam according to the text15 is thus not to just chant the holy name, but to do it with sambandha, with a sense of relationship. Relationship, which is the foundation of devotion, also requires an understanding of the relationship of God with matter and the relationship of the soul with matter, all subjects covered extensively in the Bhagavatam. For example, if one misunderstands the relationship of God with matter, and thinks God to be material,16or misunderstands the soul’s relationship with matter, and thinks one is the body, then what is the impetus or ability to chant with devotion, the essence of the Bhagavatam?17Thus to support devotional kirtan the Bhagavatam is full of metaphysical knowledge that clearly establishes the ontological position of Krishna and detaches one from the bodily concept of life.

The Bhagavatam, as described in the second canto of text,18 is thus comprised of ten subjects, the first nine primarily meant to give one sambandha-jnana,19 an appropriate understanding of Krishna, the proper object of devotion, whose full nature with pastimes is delineated in the tenth canto, which is the tenth subject, the asraya.20

The tenth canto, although just one of twelve cantos, is thus by the far the most substantial in both its depth and sheer number of verses. Any analysis of the Bhagavatam as nama-kirtan must therefore also show the relevance between Krishna’s pastimes and nama-kirtan.

Hearing the pastimes of Krishna is essential for the practitioner of nama-kirtan as a mature sense of our relationship with Krishna, the key to devotional chanting, is primarily awakened and nourished by hearing about the activities of one’s beloved, especially with those devotees whose relationship one inherently covets.21)

And although it is true that the practice and goal of bhakti is to absorb oneself fully in thoughts of Krishna, the full manifestation of that contemplation being his lilanam kirtan still remains the foundation of such remembrance as within his name also rests his form, quality, and pastimes.22 That is seen within the initial verse cited about the essence of the Bhagavatam where the result of chanting the names of one’s beloved Lord is crying, laughing, and other emotions. Such symptoms of pure chanting are the spontaneous response to the awakening of various lilas in one’s heart.23 And nowhere is it recommended to give up nama-kirtan at this stage. Rather nama-kirtan remains the root of remembering the Lord’s pastimes, especially for that person who has properly heard them as delineated in the tenth canto. And that was the example of Sri Caitanya, especially in the last 18 years of his life in Puri. There in the gambhira24 he continuously chanted the holy name and nourished his relationship with Krishna, in this case the mood of Sri Radha, with narrations and songs based on the Bhagavatam spoken and sung by his most confidential associates, Sri Ramananda Roy and Sri Svarupa Damodara.25

It should be noted here also, that Sri Caitanya’s example also shows the healthy relationship between nama-kirtan and the other forms of kirtan. Although nama-kirtan remained the base practice, the others forms of kirtan are not to be neglected. The genuine rupa-guna-, and lila-kirtan based on the Bhagavatam are also essential in the life of serious practitioner.

One question remains: if nama-kirtan is the essence of the Bhagavatam, is it the main mode of expression of the residents of Vrindavan as described in the tenth canto? The answer is no. The residents of Vrindavan are not chanting kirtan as a practice to achieve love of Godhead. Rather their kirtan is an expression of such love (the goal of practice) which manifests accordingly as calling Krishna’s name (nama-kirtan),26speaking about his form (rupa-kirtan), talking about his qualities (guna-kirtan), or singing his pastimes (lila-kirtan).27

Nama-kirtan, however, remains the essence of the Bhagavatam for the reasons mentioned above; it is the main process recommended in and supported by the Bhagavatam to achieve the goal of life: love of Godhead.

Conclusion: The essence of any text and path of yoga is samadhi, absorption in the object of one’s meditation to the point of non-awareness of anything external to that object. In bhakti-yoga such absorption in Krishna is best attained by the practice of nama-kirtanNama-kirtan is thus the essence of the teachings of the Bhagavatam best exemplified by the spontaneous nama-kirtan of eternal residents of Sri Vrindavana:

“O virtuous lady, if trees or other obstacles block Krsna from sight even briefly, his companions at once shed tears and call in anxious drawn-out voices, “Sri Krishna! Sri Krishna!”28

  1. Srimad Bhagavatam 11.2.40 []
  2. It should be noted that the Bhagavatam specifically recommends Sri Krishna kirtan. You will not find the practice of kirtan emphasized in the texts regarding the worship of Shiva, Durga, or even Vishnu to nearly the extent it is promoted in the Bhagavatam in relation to Sri Krishna. []
  3. In Tattva Sandarbha, Sri Jiva Goswami describes SB 1.3.24, which declares Sri Krishna the original personality of Godhead, as the theme verse of the Srimad Bhagavatam. []
  4. Srimad Bhagavatam 1.1.3 Commentary by Vishwanath Cakravarti. []
  5. The exemplars of the various types of devotionals service are described in the Bhakti-rasamrita sindhu in chapter 14. []
  6. Sri Sukadeva Goswami is the son of Vyasa and the first speaker of the Bhagavatam .The story of Sri Sukadeva speaking the Bhagavatam to King Pariksit is the crux of the Bhagavatam itself. []
  7. SB 1.19.24 []
  8. SB 2.1.11 []
  9. SB 12.13.23 []
  10. SB 11.5.32 []
  11. Sri Bhakti SandarbhaAnuchedda 1 []
  12.  Verse 11.2.40, our seed verse, recommends full non inhibited chanting of the names of one’s beloved Lord. []
  13. It should be noted that the various subjects in the Bhagavatam are also meant to attract a wide variety of people to devotional service. []
  14. In the purport to SB 2.1.14, which comes right after Sukadeva’s initial instruction to do nama-kirtan(2.1.11) and just before his description of a gradual process to deepen one’s meditations, Srila Prabhupada introduces that process with his comment, “The rituals are not formal, but there are also some favorable conditions, which are required to be carried out, as instructed hereafter.” []
  15. This specifically refers to text 11.2.40 quoted at the beginning of the paper. []
  16. This conception is at the core of Mayavada philosophy – that Krishna is also material and thus illusory. []
  17. If one identifies with the body and thus is overwhelmed with selfish impulses what is the question of chanting purely? []
  18. SB 2.10.1 []
  19. Sri Jiva Goswami at the beginning of Sri Bhakti SandarbhaAnuccheda I, explains that the Bhagavatam is primarily sambandha-jnana, metaphysical knowledge of Krishna. Such knowledge automatically implies that one should adopt the means to realize him (abhideya) and attain the goal (prayojana), although the means and the goal are also certainly described in their own right. []
  20. Sri Jiva Goswami describes the tenth canto as the asraya, ultimate shelter. Other Vaishnava lines such as Vallabha have a different delineation of which cantos represent which subjects. []
  21. In the first of his seminal verses outlining the practice of raganuga bhakti, Srila Rupa Goswami writes, “The devotee should always think of Krishna within himself and one should choose a very dear servitor of Krishna in Vrindavan. One should constantly engage in topics about that servitor and his loving relationship with Krishna […]” (BRS 1.2.294 []
  22. Described in Sri Bhakti Sandarbha by Srila Jiva Goswami []
  23. In the commentary to 11.2.40 Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti has described the cause of emotional symptoms mentioned in the verse as a manifestation of the Lord’s lila: “Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakur has given a very nice example to illustrate ecstatic laughing and other symptoms of love of Godhead: ‘Oh, that thief Krishna, the son of Yasoda, has entered the house to steal the fresh butter. Grab him! Keep him away!’ Hearing these menacing words spoken by the elderly gopi Jarati, Krishna immediately prepares to leave the house. The devotee to whom this transcendental pastime is revealed laughs in ecstasy. But suddenly he can no longer see Krishna. He then cries in great lamentation, ‘Oh! I achieved the greatest fortune in the world, and now it has suddenly slipped from my hands!’ Thus the devotee cries loudly, ‘So my Lord! Where are you? Give me your answer!’ The Lord answers, ‘My dear devotee, I heard your loud complaint, and so I have again come before you.’ Upon seeing Lord Krishna again, the devotee begins to sing, ‘Today my life has become perfect.’ Thus overwhelmed with transcendental bliss, he begins to dance like a madman.” From BBT translation on 11th canto. []
  24. Sri Caitanya spent the last 18 years of his life in a small cave-like room in the house of Sri Kasi Misra, the pandit to the King of Puri, called gambhira. []
  25. “Two people—Ramananda Raya and Svarupa Damodara Gosvami—stayed with the Lord to pacify him by reciting various verses about Krishna pastimes and by singing appropriate songs for his satisfaction. “ – Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya 6.9 []
  26. A particularly beautiful example of nama-kirtan in the Bhagavatam is when Krishna asks the cowherd boys to do kirtan of the names of Balaram and himself to awaken the Vedic Brahmanas from slumber. See 10.23.4. []
  27. A brief list of kirtan as the main activity in Goloka, based on the Bhagavatam:

    • Mother Yasoda’s kirtan – 10.9.1
    • Kirtan of elderly gopis – 10.16.21
    • Kirtan in morning – 10.15.2
    • Kirtan in the forest with cowherd boys – 10.15. 10-12.
    • How to do kirtan – 10.15.16
    • Kirtan returning from forest – 10.15. 41
    • Kirtan of gopis – 10.21.4, 10.30.43
    • Kirtan of cowherd boys – 10.21.5 []
    • Brhad Bhagavatamrta 1.6.122, spoken by Rohini to Devaki. []

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2 Responses to Nama-Kirtana: The Essence of the Bhagavata

  1. Very nice article and well supported demonstrating how nama-kirtana is emphasized and highlighted in Srimad-Bhagavatam.

    I particularly appreciated the point how nama-kirtana evolves into other manifestations of kirtana in the perfected stage.

    “One question remains: if nama-kirtan is the essence of the Bhagavatam, is it the main mode of expression of the residents of Vrindavan as described in the tenth canto? The answer is no. The residents of Vrindavan are not chanting kirtan as a practice to achieve love of Godhead. Rather their kirtan is an expression of such love (the goal of practice) which manifests accordingly as calling Krishna’s name (nama-kirtan),26speaking about his form (rupa-kirtan), talking about his qualities (guna-kirtan), or singing his pastimes (lila-kirtan).27

    • Yes, very nice. Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja explains that in perfection the holy name recedes to the background and seva comes to the foreground. This is what Maharaja is saying in his article as well, adding that some form of chanting also remains.

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