By Monidipa Dey
Janmashtami is just around the corner (12th August 2020), which will see joyous celebrations of the birth of lord Krishna through various traditional and cultural events, along with religious ones. Janmashtami generally takes place on ashtami or the eighth day of krishna paksha (dark fortnight) of the month of Shravan or Bhadrapad (August or September). The next day is celebrated as Nanda Utsav, when Krishna’s parents Nanda and Yasoda had celebrated by distributing sweets to people. After fasting until midnight, people break their fast and distribute sweets as part of the Nanda Utsav.
This article will however not look into Janmashtami. It has always been a much written about annual event involving pujas, recitation of mantras, bhajans, devotional dances, dahi-handis, kite flying, etc. Instead this will first explore the term Bhakti, and then take a look at the unique bhakti rasa that characterised one of Krishna’s greatest devotee, Sri Chaityna.
The start of Bhakti-ism
The general belief among historians is that the Bhakti movement (symbolised by intense love and mystic devotion towards a deity) was started in south India by the Alvar (Vaishnavites) and Nayanar (Shaivites) saints in the 7th century from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and it slowly spread towards north. The movement reached its zenith between 15th -17th centuries in Bengal and other parts of North India, and continued well into 18th and 19th centuries. These Bhakti movement saints were often highly talented poets and singers, and they spread their messages through their beautiful verses and songs in regional languages, thus making sure that the devotional messages extolling their deities reached the masses. This led to a large collection of devotional literature during the entire Bhakti movement era, now considered as priceless documentation of those times. These poet-saints travelled from one place to another, built temples, and spread the messages of their favoured deities.
While the south Indian Alvar and Nayanar saints played a major role in starting the Bhakti movement, the theory of Bhakti was however conceptualised much earlier, in the Upanishads. While there are some links with the Rig Veda, the Upanishads form a completely different genre of literature by themselves, combining the Vedic and non-Vedic thoughts so seamlessly that the two, akin to a chemical fusion, are completely transformed. Among the various new elements developed from this fusion, the one which is of interest here is ‘Bhakti’ (which denotes both adoration of some people by others, and mystic devotion for a deity), which is mentioned in at least one of the major Upanishads – the Svetasvatara Upanishad (VI. 23).
Yasya Deve Para Bhakti: Yatha Deve Tatha Guro/
Tasyetekathita Hyartha: Prakashante Mhatman: // 23 //
Bhakti is the “belief in one personal god as spiritual being, the faith that his power is sufficient to secure that at the last the good will conquer, and lastly a conception of the nexus that binds together God and his worshippers as mainly moral.” In the later stratum of the Rig Veda there are traces of attempts to create one such moral god into which the other Vedic divinities are merged. Varuna had the honour of being the first Vedic moral god in whom the seeds of Bhakti were sown, but the concept soon got side-lined. However, Panini in his Ashtadhayi sutras clearly mentions the word Bhakti, explaining that “resorting to and then loving the thing resorted to with faith and devotion,” as being the core idea of Bhakti.
Sri Chaityna Mahaprabhu
Perhaps the greatest proponent of Bhakti movement in the late medieval era was Sri Chaityna Mahaprabhu (1486- 1533), whose devotion to Krishna can only be rivalled to Radha. Chaitanya (earlier known as Nimai or Biswambar Mishra) was born to Jagannath Mishra and his wife Sachi Devi as their second son, in the town of Srihatta, Bengal (now in Bangladesh). Now a well-known historical figure, Chaityna’s way of worshipping Krishna was through ecstatic singing and dancing (san-kirtan), which had a deep impact on the minds of the common people. The impact was so widespread the region, which was largely into worshipping Rama (Ramayat Vaishnavism) prior to Sri Chaityna, allowed Krishna to take precedence over their Raghuveer. Thus, a change-over in the Vaishnavism scenario was created through his religious advices, later compiled by his sishyas (the Goswamis) and now known as Gauriya Vaishnavism. Sri Chaityna started the Hare Krishna Maha-mantra chant, and he personally composed 8 slokas known as the Shikshashtakam.
Unlike the other Bhakti saints, Chaitanya did not write any doctrines for his followers. Instead of imparting religious teachings he firmly believed in the philosophy of absolute devotion and love for Krishna, and remained ever absorbed in it. It was out of sheer love for his unique and outstanding personality that people from all walks of lives milled around him and became his devotees, regarding him as no less than a God incarnate. Thus unknowingly, Sri Chaityna had started a social movement in East India that was based on sheer love and devotion for Krishna, where caste and creed did not matter.
It is said there are five rasas (or ways) in showing your Bhakti towards your god, and these are: Dasya (Hanuman), Sakhya (Sudama), Vatsalyo (Yasoda), Madhur (Radha/ Chaityna), and Shanto (Prahlad). One chooses the rasa or way to show his or her bhakti and attain union with the divinity in order to obtain moksha.
(The author is a well-known travel writer and history buff. Views expressed are personal.)