Śrī Caitanya sat attentively at the feet of Śrī Īśvara Purī, his spiritual master, who had just promised to reveal to Him the one verse that embodies the essence of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. Īśvara Purī then revealed the conclusion, a verse that would form the foundation of Śrī Caitanya’s mission.
“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.” (Bhāg. 11.2.40)
No serious student of the Bhāgavatam questions that nāma-kīrtana is highlighted within the text. How does that, however, make it its essence, the one topic that helps unify the myriad of subjects found within the Bhāgavatam that are geared to establishing Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead?
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 Bhāgavatam itself:
Śrī Vyāsa, the empowered editor of the Vedas, had just failed in his attempt to edit them in a relevant way for this present age of discord called Kali. Seeing his despondency, Śrī Nārada, his spiritual master, confirmed what Śrī Vyāsa had already suspected: he had not sufficiently glorified Krishna. Shaken by his teacher’s rebuke, Śrī Vyāsa entered into meditation to garner the realization necessary to properly complete his task. The result was the Bhāgavatam, a text systematically and directly glorifying Krishna in 18,000 beautiful verses meant to be read and sung in various melodies. The intention and final composition of the author of the Bhāgavatam is therefore kṛṣṇa-kīrtana, the praise or glorification of God in His fullest manifestation as Krishna.
A study of the standard practices of devotion also reveals the same truth. There are nine practices, beginning with hearing (śravaṇaṁ), chanting (kīrtanaṁ), and remembering (smaraṇaṁ). Each is traditionally represented by a particular exemplar. Śukadeva Gosvāmī, the main speaker of the Bhāgavatam is the specific exemplar for kīrtana because he devotionally recited the text non-stop for seven days, thus further affirming the Bhāgavatam as kīrtana.
We have discussed the Bhāgavatam as kīrtana in itself to support the contention of kīrtana as the book’s soul. Another way to understand kīrtana, specifically nāma-kīrtana, as the essence of the Bhāgavatam, is to understand the key message the song delivers. What is the main message of the Bhāgavatam?
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 Bhāgavatam is thus initially revealed in the first exchange between King Parīkṣit (a dying ruler and great devotee) to that same Śukadeva Gosvāmī, the saintly monk that appears at his death to enlighten him.
The King asks:
“What is the duty of a man who is about the die and what should he not do?” (Bhāg. 1.19.24)
“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.” (Bhāg. 2.1.11)
As Śukadeva’s first instruction points to nāma-kīrtana, similarly the very last verse of the Bhāgavatam and Śukadeva’s final instruction to Maharaja Parīkṣit also supports nāma-kīrtana as the text’s fundamental teaching:
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto the Supreme Lord, Hari, the congregational chanting of whose holy names (nāma-sankīrtanaam) destroys all sinful reactions, and the offering of obeisances unto whom relieves all material suffering.” (Bhāg. 12.13.23)
Every age (yuga) has a particular practice effective for that epoch. As the Bhāgavatam was written specifically for the present age called Kali-yuga, one would expect the text to represent whatever that practice would be. Thus any evidence for nāma-kīrtana as the prescribed practice for Kali-yuga would also be a kind of support for nāma-kīrtana as the essence of the Bhāgavatam.
Such evidence is found in the eleventh canto of the Bhāgavatam, where the recommended spiritual practice for each age is listed along with the incarnation who inaugurates that practice. The following recommendation is made for this age:
“In the age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting (sankīrtana) to worship the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the names of Krishna […]” (Bhāg. 11.5.32)
Although nāma-kīrtana is certainly highlighted in the Bhāgavatam, how is one to understand the many other diverse subjects that are apparently unrelated to nāma-kīrtana? If the essence of something is that which pervades everything, how then is nāma-kīrtana the svarūpa (the inherent nature) of such assorted and apparently unconnected topics as calculation of time from the atom to the dynasty of Kings?
Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī gives the clue to the resolution of this quandary. At the beginning of Śrī 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. First we need good and repeated instruction to finally surrender to Krishna, at which time one awakens one’s relationship with the Lord. Having thus done so, one’s approach shifts. No longer needing just instruction, one now relishes each statement in the Bhāgavatam, including the instructional ones, as inspiration for one’s particular relationship with Krishna.
In other words, as it is this sense of our relationship with Krishna while chanting the holy name that is the essence of the Bhāgavatam, and each and every text of the Bhāgavatam is ultimately meant to inspire this relationship, it follows then that the whole Bhāgavatam is intimately connected to nāma-kīrtana.
The tenth canto, although just one of twelve cantos, is by the far the most substantial in both its depth and shear number of verses. This is the part of the Bhāgavatam that not only fully delineates Krishna’s pastimes (līlā), but is considered the fruit of all the other subjects in the text studied before. Any analysis of the Bhāgavatam as nāma-kīrtana, must therefore also show the relevance between Krishna’s pastimes and nāma-kīrtana.
Hearing the pastimes of Krishna is directly connected to the practice of nāma-kīrtana because a mature sense of our relationship with Krishna, the key to devotional chanting, is awakened and nourished by hearing about the activities of one’s beloved, especially with those devotees whose relationship one inherently covets.
And although it is true that the practice and goal of bhakti is to absorb oneself fully in thoughts of Krishna, especially His līlā, nāma-kīrtana still remains the foundation of such remembrance as within His name also rests His form, quality, and pastimes. That within Krishna’s name is his pastimes is seen within the initial verse cited about the essence of the Bhāgavatam where the result of chanting the names of one’s beloved Lord are crying, laughing, and other emotions. Such symptoms of pure chanting are the spontaneous response to the awakening of various līlās in one’s heart as a result of chanting the holy name. And nowhere is it recommended to give up nāma-kīrtana at this stage. Rather nāma-kīrtana 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 Śrī Caitanya, especially in the last eighteen years of His life in Purī. There in the Gambhīrā He continuously chanted the holy name and nourished His relationship with Krishna, in this case in the mood of Śrī Rādhā, with narrations and songs based on the Bhāgavatam spoken and sung by His most confidential associates, Śrī Rāmānanda Rāya and Śrī Svarūpa Dāmodara.
It should be noted here also, that Śrī Caitanya’s example also shows the healthy relationship between nāma-kīrtana and the other forms of kīrtana. Although nāma-kīrtana remained the base practice, the others forms of kīrtana are not to be neglected. The genuine rūpa, guṇa, and līlā-kīrtana based on the Bhāgavatam are also essential in the life of the serious practitioner.
One question remains: if nāma-kīrtana is the essence of the Bhāgavatam, is it the main mode of expression of the residents of Vṛndāvana as described in the tenth canto? The answer is no. The residents of Vṛndāvana are not chanting kīrtana as a practice to achieve love of Godhead. Rather their kīrtana is an expression of such love (the goal of practice) that manifests accordingly as calling Krishna’s name (nāma-kīrtana), speaking about His form (rūpa kīrtana), talking about His qualities (guṇa kīrtana), or singing His pastimes (līlā kīrtana). Nāma-kīrtana, however, remains the essence of the Bhāgavatam for the reasons mentioned above; it is the main process recommended by the Bhāgavatam to achieve love of Godhead and it is within itself simply kīrtana.
Conclusion: The essence of any text and path of yoga is samādhi, 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 nāma-kīrtana. Nāma-kīrtana is thus the essence of the teachings of the Bhāgavatam best exemplified by the spontaneous nāma-kīrtana of the eternal residents of Śrī Vṛndāvana:
“O virtuous lady, if trees or other obstacles block Krishna from sight even briefly, His companions at once shed tears and call in anxious drawn-out voices, “Śrī Krishna! Śrī Krishna!” (Bṛhad-bhāgavatāmṛta 1.6.104, spoken by Rohiṇī to Devakī)
Taken with the permission of HH Dhanurdhara Swami’s Waves of devotion. See Waves of Devotions for full references.