In his youth, Sri Chaitanya was known as the most erudite scholar in Navadvipa, which rivaled the famous Benares (Varanasi) as a hub for intellectual giants. Despite his scholarship and renown as a teacher, he wrote almost nothing down. Instead, his teachings were passed on through the writings of his direct disciples (Rupa Goswami is one such disciple-author). But attributed to him is the Shikshashtaka. Shiksha means “instruction” and ashtaka means “eight.” Hence the Shikshashtaka is a poem of eight stanzas, and they contain the essence of instruction on maha-mantra yoga.
Embedded in his poem are guidelines for how to change the heart, correct one’s outlook, please the Beloved, and fashion a devotional identity suitable for being welcomed into the spiritual realm to engage in a loving relationship with Krishna. I will comment here only on the first verse of the Shikshashtaka, because it contains the essence of the entire poem. First, I’ll summarize the seven points of this verse, and then comment on each of them one after another.
First verse of Shikshashtaka:
anandambudhi-vardhanam prati-padam puranmritasvadanam
sarvatma-snapanam param vijayate sri-krishna-sankirtanam
Sri Chaitanya begins by encouraging us to come to prema-kirtan with preliminary faith – enough faith to take up the process of chanting. He said that of the nine limbs of Bhakti, chanting is the most perfect, and his life and his Shikshashtaka demonstrate the truth of this premise.
Trust this, he announces: Prema-kirtan is always victorious. You need not engage in any other practice (param vijayate sri-krishna-sankirtanam).”
Prema-kirtan, Mahaprabhu says,
- cleanses the mirror of the mind (cheto-darpana-marjanam)
- extinguishes the blazing fire of material existence (bhava-maha-davagni-nirvapanam)
- spreads the rays of the benediction moon, which then opens the white lotus of good fortune (shreyah-kairava-chandrika-vitaranam)
- is the bride, or life, of transcendental knowledge (vidya-vadhu-jivanam)
- expands the ocean of transcendental bliss (anandambudhi-vardhanam)
- gives the full taste of immortal nectar at every step (prati-padam purnamritashvadanam)
- is free of all limitations of mundane love and awards a spiritual identity to the practitioner (sarvatma-snapanam)
When we chant the sacred names, the mirror of our awareness is gradually cleansed.
Chanting steadily assuredly clears the anarthas, the misplaced values, layers of ignorance, and illusion that work against (an) our self-interest (artha), from the contaminated heart. During this process of purification, chanters are given many insights along with encouragement to do the work of effacing the false ego and developing qualities supportive of their practice. In this way, they gradually develop the ability to directly perceive the self.
At this stage, they have sightings of spiritual truth and experiences of the joy of the self. Though these come and go, they confirm to the practitioners that they’re headed in the right direction, inspiring them to continue on, seeking the constant state.
But already, by taking the first step of chanting the maha-mantra, they’re nearing mukti, realization of the self, which is the end goal of a lifetime of practice for other yoga methods.
The Names extinguish the fire of samsara by removing the roots of karma.
Samsara, or transmigration through the cycle of birth and death, is compared to a raging, all-consuming fire. The feverish heat that rises from our own desires, and the choking smoke of our own suffering cripples our spiritual sensibilities and inclinations.
It’s only possible to put out such a fire with the torrents of rain that pour down from an abundance of rain clouds. Those rain clouds are produced by the pure holy names. In Bhagavad Gita Krishna says that it is impossible to overcome the material energy without his assistance. He is nondifferent from his names.
When the rain saturates the ground, the seeds of desire – the root cause of karma – become waterlogged and cannot sprout. Continuous chanting eventually destroys all the seeds of desire. Thus the Names extinguish the fire and clear the ground – at a depth – of debris so that we can proceed without obstacles or the fear that the fire of karma will reignite.
Without worry, then, chanters embrace the holy names with enthusiasm and determination. And without having to make other types of endeavor they receive the results that other paths only award through intense austerities. Chanters experience a change of heart, as negative qualities like lust, anger, greed, and lamentation are replaced with humility, tolerance, compassion, equanimity, and respectful dealings with all beings.
As we bathe in the moonlike rays of the compassionate Names,
they awaken us to our true nature and auspicious fortune.
The rays of a rising, bright full moon cause the white lotus flowers of good fortune to blossom. At this stage the natural spiritual joy, security, and wisdom of the atma begins to illuminate the soul, and thus we turn our back on the world’s false promises. All that once held our attention now appears insignificant in light of our experience as a pure spiritual being and the growing connection we have with our Source.
Chanters begin to experience the chanting as pure nectar. It’s described that a those suffering from jaundice can’t taste the sweetness of sugar, but as they recover – and part of the treatment is eating sugar candy – they gradually regain the ability to taste sweetness. So moved by their perception of the exalted nature of Radha and Krishna and the ecstasy of their relationship with them, chanters emphatically declare: I want nothing but prema!
Sri Chaitanya states, “I don’t want wealth, followers, beautiful women, wisdom, or other things people glorify in choice poetry. I ask only for unalloyed prema for you, birth after birth.”
Once our material desires are checked, our practice steadies, our purpose becomes unwavering, and our desire to please our Divine Friends, Radha and Krishna, blossoms fully. Until this point, desires for temporary things continuously dragged us away from full absorption in our spiritual truth. Now, we are almost completely released from their grip.
At that point, a deep spiritual longing – a calling from the soul – begins to awaken. We hanker only for a loving relationship with our Beloved. This longing polishes the jewel of divine love, removing the occlusions of other desires and distractions.
Kirtan is the bride, or life, of transcendental knowledge.
When one knows the Omniscient One, everything is revealed. This knowing is an awakening of the soul’s capacity by the descent of divine grace and isn’t attained by reading and studying and trying to fit the inconceivable Infinite within our puppy brains. The Infinite, by his sweet will, reveals himself to his devotee. And at this stage, he reveals his qualities and activities as well – although he also sometimes holds back a direct vision of his form to increase his devotee’s longing. The Name wants us to have the full experience of divine love, so he hides from us for a while longer to fan the flame of love until it blazes.
Now the chanters’ knowledge, their direct perception of the Beloved, is moving from the theoretical to the realized, and they become madly attached to their Beloved.
Sri Chaitanya petitions, “I am your eternal servant, yet because of my own karma I have fallen into this terrible ocean of birth and death. Accept this fallen soul and consider me a particle of dust at your holy lotus feet.”
The successful completion of our journey requires the grace of the Infinite, and grace, we begin to understand, is actually Krishna’s surrendering to our growing love. Love conquers Krishna; he wants to be in our company when we become lovers. We know that love is the only worthy objective. We also know that Krishna is the perfect object of love and the supreme reciprocator of love.
We come to know that divine love is the highest knowledge, and we want that knowing. We want to see our Beloved with our own eyes more than anything else. And so we beg for such a darshan.
We dive into the nectar ocean of ecstatic joy.
Our relationship with our Beloved is thickening along with our desire to be united with him. The Name has revealed much and brought us, by great kindness, to where we begin to experience an ever-increasing, boundless ocean of bliss. Though the soul is atomic, its capacity for spiritual happiness is infinite.
The emotions experienced at this stage of chanting are known, in Sanskrit, as bhava. Chanters at bhava have passed through all the beginning stages of Bhakti: faith, holy association, acts of bhajana [practice], the cessation of obstacles, steadiness, taste, and attachment. Attachment overflows and brings boundless ecstasy. This is the final stage before prema manifests. Bhava expands the natural bliss inherent in the soul. Because this experience is free of imperfections, chanters experience this nectarean state constantly and feel it as ever expanding.
Chaitanya begs, “Allow me to cry tears of love. Submerge me in the ecstatic waves of the ocean of your holy names.” These ecstatic symptoms of genuine spiritual emotions decorated Sri Chaitanya’s body as he sang and danced in prema-kirtan. This is described in his numerous biographies as an unprecedented display of love never before seen in the theological world.
While some of these physical symptoms can be imitated by unscrupulous persons wishing to sham spirituality, the transformation of heart that has occurred through chanting gives rise to genuine spiritual emotions and behaviors that can’t be mimicked. In other words, cheaters can’t impersonate the character of an advanced love of God. Such advanced practitioners are self-controlled, detached, pure, and free from false ego, lust, anger, and pride. They are honest, wise, peaceful, tolerant, compassionate, joyful, and free from material desire.
Standing firmly on this ground of being, the chanters’ spiritual identity takes shape and they begin to embody how they want to serve God in eternity – in which mood they will relate to him. Previously, these chanters still had material desires, so their chanting was mixed with pure desire and an undertow of influence from their material personality. Now, however, they are chanting the pure name, and their progress becomes more rapid.
Bhakti gives the full taste of immortal nectar at every step.
When bhava matures into prema one tastes the full nectar of immortality at every step. Bhava is a perfection of being; prema is even more perfect. The gradations of experience in Bhakti are inconceivable to our current way of thinking. Sri Chaitanya cries, “In separation from you, O Govinda [Krishna], the world appears empty, time tortures me, and tears flow from my eyes.”
When prema begins to shine in our heart, the need to be with our Beloved reaches fever pitch. Our heart melts in the absence of the Beloved and tears flow constantly. In the great paradox, as love due to separation burns our joy knows no bounds.
Marveling at the thorough transformation of his devoted chanter, Krishna becomes completely charmed and embraces us. He cannot ignore love’s call: after separation, there is union.
Answering the call of our love, the Lord appears within our heart – we see him directly – and removes all trace of misfortune, just as the sun removes darkness or a powerful wind drives away clouds.
Prema-kirtan is free of all limitation of mundane love and awards a spiritual identity to the practitioner.
All the unwanted things that we heard and experienced in the material world – every subtle trace – are now thoroughly expelled from the mind and heart. In this final stage, absorption (samadhi) is complete and our spiritual identity is shown to us.
Chaitanya petitions, “O Krishna, I only desire your happiness. A chataka bird waits for pure rain to fall from the sky. In the same way, I await your mercy. I have no other shelter.”
Arriving at the stage of perfection, we’re warmly welcomed into the spiritual world, where we find, at long last, our home.
 These were discussed at the beginning of this chapter.
 Saints and poets use the chataka bird as a metaphor for the ideal spiritual seeker because it quenches its thirst only by drinking the falling rain as it flies and never descends to the “mundane” plane of drinking from lakes and rivers. It’s said that the chataka can live for many days without water, but when it gets thirsty it calls to the rain god to make rain. It’s also said that the chataka’s call is always answered. In literature, therefore, the bird is a symbol of one who waits with hope for the kind munificence of a benefactor.