These renowned devotional biographies recount the lives and songs of the Ashta Chaap. For these 16th century poets, Shri Krishna was not an image, but the living Supreme Being. Their poems reveal the intimate divine plays of the Lord as well as the greatness of the Lord, guru, and fellow practitioners. They are like mantras, able to evoke the seed of devotion and yield the divine fruit of bhava realization divine mood. For the exceptional, bhava-inspired soul, Krishna's Divine Plays (Lila) can be experienced anytime and anywhere. For the rest of us, the bhava of accomplished ones like the Ashta Chaap should be relished and emulated.
Shyamdas was born in America and came to India in the early 1970s to meet the saint Neem Karoli Baba. His devotional practice developed under the tutelage of his guru, His Holiness Goswami Shri Prathameshji, then head of the Pushti Sampraday Pratham Peeth. Shyamdas writes and translates literature on the Path of Grace, while searching for the divine moods and visions described by the Ashta Chaap poets.
Ashta Chaap means "Eight Seals." In the past, when a king promulgated an order, he stamped the document with his royal seal to make it official. Likewise, when the Lord wants to make an official statement about Himself, He puts His seal upon the one who will declare it. This is the sense of the word Chhap in the title conferred upon these eight great 17th century poets. Chhap also refers to the stamp of the poet's name, which is included in the last line of each of their compositions.
The Ashta Chaap poets lived in a divine locale a t a remarkable time. A bhakti renaissance took place in North India during the late 16th century, creating a resurgence of Vaishnava devotion in the sacred region of Vraj, where Shri Krishna Himself had appeared 5000 years previously to delight in sporting plays with the cowlads and dairymaids of Vrindavan. One of the outstanding exponents of Krishna worship at that time was Shri Vallabhacharya (1479-1531 CE), whose teachings swept through central and western India (Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat). Shri Vallabh appeared for the sole purpose of uplifting divine souls such as the Ashta Chaap.
While Vallabhacharya was on a walking pilgrimage in South India, Shri Krishna appeared before him. The Lord told him that He had manifested as Shri Nathji on top of the Govardhan Hill in Vraj and gave him the divine command to proceed there and begin His worship. Vallabhacharya left immediately for Vraj, where he met Shri Nathji (Shri Krishna's divine form as the Mountain Holder), established His worship, and accepted many of the local people as disciples. Shri Nathji commanded Shri Vallabhacharya, "Make My worship famous."
Shri Vallabhacharya established a mode of divine worship in which Shri Nathji was adorned and offered food and songs daily. Surdas was the first appointed temple singer. He was followed by Paramananda Das, Kumbhandas and Krishnadas. Shri Nathji's worship continued for many years before being greatly expanded and embellished by Vallabhacharya's son, Shri Vitthalnathji (Gusainji). Four of Shri Gusainji's disciples, Nandadas, Chita Swami, Govindadas, and Chaturbhujadas joined Shri Nathji's divine singing group, increasing the ranks to a perfect eight. These eight poets became known as the Ashta Chaap.
Shri Nathji's divine worship, or seva, is divided into eight different periods of the day. He is first awakened and offered breakfast, then adorned, worshipped as a cowlad, and offered lunch in the forest. Later He is awakened from an afternoon nap, offered fruits in the forest, returns home with His cows at dusk, and then engages in evening lilas with the dairymaid Gopis. The poetry of the Ashta Chaap follows this divine sequence of a day in the life of Shri Krishna. They reveal Shri Nathji's plays with His family and friends as well as His loving plays with the Gopis.
The seva of Shri Nathji supports infinite varieties of devotion. Can the Supreme Being wake up, get dressed and herd cows? Why not? If the Blessed One can bring forth light and fill the oceans with water, why can't He have a little fun, too? According to tradition, Shri Krishna and His divine consort, Shri Swaminiji once felt the separation from the divine souls who had scattered throughout the world. The divine Couple then manifested Themselves together in the form Shri Mahaprabhu Vallabhacharya. On the same day that Shri Vallabhacharya was born in Champaranya, Shri Nathji's face appeared from within the Govardhan Hill.
Vallabhacharya's divinity was recognized everywhere he went, including on three circumambulations of the Indian subcontinent. The philosophy Vallabhacharya established is so astounding that even accomplished scholars of Vedic philosophy are forced to double-take when they examine the teachings of his Path of Grace. In the Pushti Path, nectar-filled Krishna falls under the sway of His bhaktas (devotees). Attainment of Krishna is never dependent upon any means. Resorting to means for attainment is actually an obstacle on this path. Even knowledge of the Lord's greatness can obstruct the path of love. Shri Vallabhacharya awakened the hearts of the Ashta Chaap poets and countless others. Meanwhile, the blessed Lord as Shri Nathji began to appear throughout India to those with initiation and blessed by Shri Vallabhacharya.
In the midst of this bhakti revival, the Ashta Chaap poets created a unique volume of devotional expression, flowing from their personal experience with Shri Krishna. Their main vehicle for attainment was bhava. Bhava, the divine mood, can only arise when Krishna is realized. Bhava is bliss - nectar. Bhava is unlimited and arises according to the relationship between the blessed Lord and the blessed soul. Bhava, regardless of circumstance, is always perfect; it is the condition of precise devotional view. The state of liberation, without bhava, could not have inspired a single poem of the Ashta Chaap. 50 the poets have said, "O friend, worship with bhava the Lord of bhava."
The poems composed by the Ashta Chaap are sung in various ragas, or melodies, varying according to the season, time of day, and festive calendar. This style of praise offered to Shri Krishna which depicts His Lila plays is called Lila Kirtan. These songs are still among the main vehicles of worship in the tradition of bhakti and can be heard in nearly any temple devoted to Krishna and every performance of classical Indian music and dance. The Ashta Chaap also composed poems of supplication which reveal the greatness of the blessed Lord, the guru, and fellow practitioners.
Raga is one of the main aspects of the worship offered to Krishna in the Path of Grace. Raga may be interpreted as "love" or as "music." Poems were traditionally sung when recited, and the great mystic poets of those times were often great musicians. The poetry composed by the Ashta Chaap is meant to be sung with musical accompaniment. Its essence is rhythmic invocation, and its real meaning is best expressed when performed as part of devotional service.
Poets of the past were not only musicians, but also seers. Seeing essence makes one a seer, an enlightened being. Seeing only the mundane world causes one to eternally return to that world - the only one known to the unenlightened.
In the ancient times of Indian civilization, when the wisdom compilations known as the Vedas (literally, "knowledge") were conceived, wisdom was received aurally. The seers, prophets and poets heard the verses, which were later compiled into the wisdom texts considered to be revelations. The most ancient repository of wisdom, the Rg Veda, became song in the Sama Veda. The verses which had been revealed and sung were conscious of their own wisdom. Yet, they were unaware of the supreme divine Essence and confused by the seeming contradiction between the formless Supreme and the Supreme with form. They prayed that their confusion be resolved. Shri Krishna, pleased with their sincere request, granted them the sight of His divine realm, Vrindavan. Enraptured by the vision, they requested to be a part of that Lila play. The blessed Lord agreed that when He appeared as Krishna, they would appear as the dairymaid Gopis of Vrindavan. Then, they too would be able to enjoy the bliss which they had praised for eons without actually experiencing. Those lines of sacred scripture took birth as cowherd women in Vraj when Krishna, the Supreme Being, took a human form.
These Ashta Chaap poets' vartas, or devotional biographies, recount the lives of Krishna's poet playmates. The vartas and poems are written in Vrajbhasha, or 'medieval Hindi.' It is the indigenous language of Vraj and the mother tongue of Shri Krishna. In fact, the poems of the Ashta Chaap are written in a samadhi language - arising from perfect absorption in the divine. To grasp their essence, one must be susceptible to Lila - the lovely forms and movements of Shri Krishna. To mistake Shri Krishna's lilas for something mundane or born of imagination prevents both the comprehension of the poems and the experience of bhava. The Krishna who played with and inspired the Ashta Chaap, although pure Brahman, allowed them to experience His transcendental realm within this world. Yet, He is by no means worldly or mundane. Rather than wait for his beloved souls to rise to the lofty heights of some unattainable divine realm, Shri Krishna brought His perfect reality directly to them.
Through the grace of a teacher, a dream, contact with other practitioners, or simply when higher intuitions rise into the realm of experience, those who are divinely inquisitive somehow manage to make contact with the dharma wheel. As I discovered when I first came to Vraj - Lord Krishna's playground in the heart of India - the best way to become familiar with deep spiritual reality is not through study, but through the lives of the bhaktas. It is ideal to have their physical association, but when that is not possible, contemplating their lives and poems is also effective. The nectar contained in their tales keeps the devotional heart animated and inspired.
The fruit of the bhakta's senses is to see Shri Krishna, to touch Him, to sing to Him, to be His friend and lover. Shri Nathji brought Surdas water when he was thirsty, threw pebbles at Govindadas, stole dairy products with Chaturbhujadas, and invited Kumbhandas to a cooking contest. Through these and other lilas, the poets' worldly existence became thoroughly divine. Their love for Krishna was not conditioned by fear, nor did their devotion depend upon knowing Krishna's greatness. There were no philosophical problems for them concerning the nature of the Supreme reality, for it was directly experienced. There was no dualism, monism, nor anything besides Krishna. All philosophical contradictions were resolved in Krishna's form, the manifested abode of sweetness. Everything was purely Krishna. Shri Krishna alone can contain the endless contradictions of the world yet remain perfect. Taking refuge in that birthless One, the poets became liberated into eternal bondage to Him.
Three levels of expression must be considered in order to grasp the beauty of this body of literature. Worldly poets create from the power of kalpana, or imagination. It arises purely from the speculative mind. A poet may write that Krishna is beautiful as a billion love gods, but without beholding that staggering beauty, its description remains in the realm of imagination. As such, words are not born of experience, they can neither taste nor bestow nectar. Imagination' of Krishna Lila creates misrepresentation.
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