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Dhanurdhara Swami

Yoga Made Easy By Music: How Kirtan Works

(Kirtan refers to devotional singing, but it also refers to the recitation of spiritual poetry and drama or even just speaking about spiritual subjects. In the school of Sri Caitanya, when devotional singing is done in a group with musical accompaniment it is specifically called sankirtan. The prefix “san” comes from samyak, which means “complete”. It is called sankirtan or complete as the group experience of kirtan is more absorbing and moving than the individual one. For the purpose of distinguishing group from individual kirtan, when I refer to devotional singing and music in congregation I will use the word sankirtan, although it is commonly known as just kirtan.)

I was happy to read that “sankirtan (chanting with others) is superior even to kirtan (chanting alone) because it produces such extraordinary feelings”. 1 That has always been my conviction, but here was a declarative statement by Sri Jiva Gosvami, one of the greatest Vaisnava scholars, in his classic work Sri Bhakti Sandarbha.

Although I was happy to find a supportive statement for the magnificence of sankirtan, the question still remained, why? Why does sankirtan produce such extraordinary feelings? Luckily the answer came soon. While thumbing casually through a book containing the personal correspondence of my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, I chanced upon the following statement:

“The hearing tendency is made easy and still more favorable by songs and music of spiritual value to be equally shared by all classes of men namely the highest educated and the lowest illiterate.” 2

The answer was simple and clear, “hearing made easy by music!” The test of any meditational practice is its ability to help focus the mind on the object of one’s meditation, usually mantra. As proper melody and rhythm spontaneously allure the mind, mantra couched in music naturally makes mantra meditation easier. And as the focus in sankirtan is the very object of the practitioner’s devotion (the divine names of God), extraordinary feelings, such as devotion and joy, increasingly arise as one’s meditation deepens.

The power of music is not the only reason why sankirtan invokes more astonishing feelings than chanting alone. Being inspired by the reference about sankirtan from Sri Jiva, I delved further into why this practice is considered exceptional. As bhakti and kirtan, are the components of sankirtan, I naturally began my study there.

Bhagavad-gita clearly distinguishes bhakti as the topmost yoga. 3 It also implies why:

In bhakti, the object of meditation is the Divine (Brahman) designated in mantras containing holy names such as Rama and Krishna, which are considered non-different from Brahman. 4 Thus unlike yoga, where to quell the mind one chooses an arbitrary object as a prop for meditation, the bhakta selects an object of devotion. Consequently, the bhakta is spontaneously drawn to meditation out of attraction, rather than just will power, making it the best means of focusing the mind.

Furthermore, the Divine names as an object of meditation are alive and personal. They thus can reciprocate the practitioner’s devotion by bestowing the desired fruits of his practice, even samadhi, the final goal. For this reason, that in bhakti the fruits of devotional meditation can even exceed the practitioner’s yogic effort, bhakti is called the path of grace and is highly praised.

As mentioned above, the use of songs and music in mantra meditation is deemed particularly powerful, even within the path of bhakti. Why? Among sense objects, sound is considered particularly absorbing, and especially gripping in good music. The mind is thus naturally allured to the designated mantra embedded in musical sounds. In addition, the melodies, or ragas, accompanying kirtan, are composed to stir devotion, the very force behind the bhakta’s meditation.

Philosophers throughout history describe how attraction to music is embedded deep within the psyche. Plato in The Republic, for example, recommended that a child’s education be mostly composed of good music to harmonize or spiritualize the mind. Srila Viswanath Cakravarti, a prominent 17th century Vaisnava scholar, went even further. In his commentary on Krishna’s famous midnight dance with the cowherd maidens (the gopis) of Vrindavana, he described the number of melodies the gopis sang as one for every 16,000 species of life, implying the innate connection between the essential nature of each species and a particular melody. It is precisely this instinctive connection between tune and being that so powerfully weds mantra and music in the heart and mind of the chanter and makes the experience of sankirtan so potent.

Still it is not the power of music alone that elevates sankirtan over other practices of bhakti. Other important enhancing characteristics of sankirtan are the full capacity to evoke grace, the power of group petition, and the superiority of shared bliss.

For the followers of Sri Caitanya, the inaugurator of the sankirtan movement, perhaps there is no greater reason why sankirtan is considered so effective than its potency to invoke Divine grace. They understand it in this way:

Sri Caitanya is glorified in Caitanya Bhagavat as sankirtanaika-pitarau, the father of sankirtan. The best way to please the father is to serve his son. Thus by wholeheartedly giving oneself to that which is born of Sri Caitanya (sankirtan), they will gain His blessings. This is consistent with the culture and philosophy of traditional India: by honoring the predecessors of one’s tradition, the power of what they exemplified, practiced and taught flows to one’s heart. The fullest manifestation of Sri Caitanya’s teachings is prema (divine love), which manifests to those fully absorbed in the sankirtan of the holy names born from Him.

The Srimad Bhagavatam gives another interesting perspective on the efficacy of sankirtan in its description of the events leading to Sri Krishna’s advent. The story begins with Mother Earth in the form of a distressed cow tearfully approaching the chief executive of the universe, Lord Brahma. She seeks relief from the burden of the increasing number of militaristic rulers plundering her planet. Concerned, Lord Brahma, accompanied by Siva and all the demigods, leaves for the sacred milk ocean to petition the Lord’s advent. The question has been raised why Lord Brahma brought such an entourage of luminaries with him, when he was perfectly qualified to gain direct access to the Lord by the purity of his own prayer. Learned commentators on the Bhagavatam have shared this interesting insight: Lord Brahma was instructing by example that in prayer, all things being equal, group petition is more powerful than individual prayer. Bhakti is the path of entreaty. Accordingly, sankirtan, the kirtan of collective appeal, invokes extraordinary feelings of grace and delight.

Ideally in sankirtan all qualified participants share not only in the musical devotional offering, but also in the deep sentiments being expressed. And as the sentiments are shared they tend to be more intense. This type of phenomena can be clearly seen in drama. One purpose of good theater is catharsis, the literary effect where the audience (or the characters) is overcome with the emotions of the drama, a shared experience that uplifts the audience in a unique way. Abhinavagupta, one of Indian’s most respected theorists on mystical and aesthetic experience, writes extensively on the necessity for the experience of rasa to be in the company of like-minded souls. He even goes so far as to say that the fullness of joy in theater and mysticism occurs only when every participants fully shares the experience. 5

One of my favorite examples of this is the scene describing the day Sri Caitanya left home to take sannyasa. He is effulgently sitting amongst His devotes who remain unaware that their master will leave in the evening. His splendid form is covered with the many exquisite garlands that His associates have piled with love around His neck. Fresh sandalwood paste has also been affectionately patted across His forehead. Their unbounded bliss reaches its height as “they gazed upon Him as if with a single pair of eyes!”6

For this reason, that shared feelings are so powerful, devotional emotions tend to increase in communal kirtan.

I remember a kirtan I joined one summer evening in 1986 in the Indian town of Farrukhabad where the accomplished BB Govinda Swami was leading our sankirtan group in the town’s annual Ram Bharat procession. Almost one million people from the district lined the streets for this yearly commemoration of the wedding of Sita and Ram. I could barely stand the heat on this muggy August day, but it was the portable lanterns on the heads of the dozens of coolies walking to light our way that created an especially intolerable setting. One can’t imagine how many bugs even a single lantern attracts on a muggy summer night in India! The Swami is not an ordinary kirtaniya. As a child he grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, the son of a famous music agent. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash regularly frequented his house and often held him on their laps. Whatever soul he imbibed from his birth was later channeled into kirtan in his youth. In the early 70s he became a devotee of Krishna and lived in Vrindavana at the feet of some of the greatest kirtan masters. On that muggy night in August his sweet, powerful, melodious kirtan accompanied by a host of expert Bengali and African American mrdanga players was exceptionally potent. I remember it well. Due to my discomfort, when it began all I could think of was, “when will this end!” Shortly, however, the mantra, the melody, the rhythm, the camaraderie, and the grace sent us to another world, as it did the throngs of Indian villagers lining the streets. I closed my eyes and absorbed myself in the sankirtan. What seemed a relatively short time later, I opened them. It was five in the morning! I was startled! How did that happen, I pondered? Now I know: Yoga made easy by music!

Dhanurdhara Swami’s essay Yoga Made Easy by Music: How Kirtan Works is also posted at his website Waves of Devotion.

More articles by Dhanurdhara Swami.

  1. 1.Sri Bhakti Sandarbha, Anuchheda 269
  2. 2.Correspondence of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, letter to Seth Mangumal Amarsingh, Bombay
    24 July 1958
  3. 3.Sri Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita 6.47 “Of all yogis one who worships Me with faith and devotion is the best of all.”
  4. 4.The Absolute Reality is called Brahman, which can manifest in various ways. When the Absolute Reality is fully manifest in sound (sabda), it is called sabda brahman, sound, which is Absolute Reality.
  5. 5.See Acting as a Way of Salvation, David Haberman, p. 16-29
  6. 6.Caitanya Bhagavat, Madhya-lila Ch. 28, text 24
Dhanurdhara Swami

Kirtan Insights from Aindra Das

The following is an interview with Sripad Aindra das done in 2009 for the forthcoming book Kirtan Meditations – The Mood and Technique of Bhakti Kirtan compiled by Dhanurdhara Swami and Akincana Krishna dasa.  Due to the unexpected loss of this great soul I decided to release his interview quite before the editing has been finished. More can be read at wavesofdevotion.com. I hope it gives some pleasure and solace to the congregation of the devotees feeling the loss of this great soul. Dhanurdhara Swami

Chanting with purity

Harinam-sankirtan means to loudly chant the holy name for the benefit of others.  We should seriously consider to what extent we are benefiting others, and also to what extent we are benefiting ourselves. There is apparent kirtan and real kirtan. Only sankirtan where the pure name is chanted is real sankirtan.  If someone is making offenses to the name, simply articulating the syllables “Hare Krishna,” that is not real sankirtan.  One must thus carefully consider the offenses to be avoided in the matter of chanting.

Can you talk about the different types of chanting?

There is bhukti-nama, offensive chanting, which results in material gain; there is mukti-nama, shadow chanting, which results in liberation, and there is prema-nama, pure chanting, which results in prema-bhakti, pure love of Godhead.

Bhukti-nama means offensive chanting. By chanting offensively, you can benefit others only by increasing their material piety.  Bhaktivinoda Thakura therefore states that a pure devotee should not participate in kirtan led by offenders to the holy name.  Who are those offenders?  Those who do kirtan for ulterior motives–who chant for money, or to augment their sex appeal, or do it for name and fame.  Such chanting can at best result in material gratification.

Then there is mukti-nama or namabhasa. By such chanting one not only gradually becomes freed from all material contamination, but also liberates others from material existence. In other words, by hearing someone’s loud chanting of namabhasa, one can attain liberation from material existence. Sounds good, right? It’s certainly better than staying bound in the material world. But by such kirtan alone you cannot inculcate bhakti into the hearts of those who hear that kirtan, because namabhasa kirtan is only a resemblance of the holy name and not the pure name.

Lord Caitanya’s movement is the prema-nam-sankirtan movement. Its purpose is to give the highest benefit, pure love of Godhead.  Therefore if one actually wants to give oneself and others the highest benefit, one must awaken pure devotion to Radha and Krishna and for Sri Caitanya.  To achieve that purpose we have to chant purely.

Jagadananda Pandit in Prema Vivarta thus recommends that if one wants to elevate their chanting to the platform of the pure name, one should perform sankirtan (as well as japa) in the association of those who are chanting the pure name. Only then can sankirtan can give the highest benefit.

Purity is the main thing – musical style is secondary

The most important ingredient in kirtan is the mood in which it is done. If one is either chanting the name with offenses, or chanting for liberation, one will not get bhakti, nor will one be able to offer it to anyone else.

It doesn’t matter whether one is accompanying the kirtan with kartalas, mrdangas and harmonium1, using a drum set, electric keyboard and bass guitar, decorating the kirtan with flute and violin, or even just clapping one’s hands. One can chant with very melodious classical ragas, or one can sing raucous, hellacious, heavy metal chanting to attract certain people.  One can sing ten tunes an hour or sing one tune every ten hours, sing in complex rhythmic patterns or simple rhythmic one. One can have jumping dancing kirtan or a very slow, contemplative kirtan. No matter what you do, no matter how you decorate the kirtan, if such chanting is not done with pure devotion, it will never ever inculcate bhakti into the heart of anyone.

The real question is: Are you chanting suddha-nama?

On the other hand, if you are chanting suddha-nama2, you will get prema3, the greatest need of the soul.  Such chanting is real kirtan and it gives authentic, eternal benefit, by elevating ones soul as well the souls of others.  It is real welfare work, not simply material altruism or liberation from repeated birth and death.  It is thus the work meant to help others reconstitute their original dormant love of Godhead and uplift their soul to the platform of real satisfaction based on unalloyed pure devotion.

If one has the power, by the grace of suddha-nama, to do that kind of good to others, then it doesn’t matter how you decorate the kirtan with accompaniment and skill.

The real question is then, are you doing real good for others by chanting suddha-nama?

If we are only chanting a lower stage we shouldn’t perform sankirtana?

No, I’m not saying that.  But we should know that we are not actually manifesting the real form of kirtan unless we are chanting without motive where suddha-nama, manifests.

Raga kirtan

It is also important to know the meaning of raga kirtan. In a musical sense raga refers to appropriate melodies. The classical Indian system of ragas are thus certainly useful in kirtan, but real raga kirtan, goes beyond  just musical consideration  It is kirtan on the platform of bhava, devotion with spontaneous feeling.

Raga literally means attraction or affectionate attachment. In kirtan it refers to melodies that create an attractive atmosphere to affect the heart and increase affection.  This doesn’t mean that raga is just meant for making the music attractive for us and others.  It means to perform kirtan in such a way that Krishna becomes attracted to our kirtan. It is kirtan where Krishna is attracted to the expression of our love expressed by the atmosphere we have generated for His pleasure.

And that principle of attraction is expansive.  When you satisfy Krishna you satisfy the whole creation. Thus everyone is automatically pleased and attracted by performing sankirtan solely for the pleasure of Krishna.

Instrumentation in kirtan can thus be likened to so many zeros.  Zeros, even many zeros, have value only if one is added before them. You then get ten, 100, 1,000 or even a million. Similarly musical talent in kirtan has no value within itself, but expands exponentially in value when one, when suddha-nama, is added before it.  And without the one of suddha-nama, the mood of offering the kirtan for the pleasure of Krishna, all the best music and instrumentation, is simply zero.

We should note, however, that we don’t see in Govinda Lilamrta4. the gopis concerned about Krishna not accepting their hundreds and millions of zeros, their unlimited musical talent in the performance of kirtan.  That is because their kirtan is solely for his pleasure. They never thought, “Oh we better not make the musical instrumentation too nice because we may get trapped by our own desires to enjoy the musical vibration and then Krishna won’t accept our kirtan.”  Rather the gopis’ used  whatever complex musical and rhythmical arrangements found in the music of Lord Brahma and the residents of the higher planetary systems and beyond that the even more difficult musical arrangements performed by Laksmi Narayana and the residents of Vaikuntha.  But whatever musical embellishments they used were all simply done without any tinge of ulterior motive.

It is said in sastra5 that when Krishna plays his flute it is so complex and astounding that demigods like Lord Brahma become bewildered  and Lord Siva  falls off Nandi the bull, unconscious.  So we can’t insist that only simple tunes and melody satisfy Krishna.  Krishna enjoys a variety of flavors, many of which are intricate.  If Krishna only enjoys simple presentations then why do we change the dress of the Deities’ dress twice a day? It is the same Krishna, but the new dress allows us to appreciate him in a fresh way.  Similarly when we see Krishna decorated in a different ragas or tunes, the attractive atmosphere created enhances our appreciation of the beauty of Krishna In the form of his name.  Instead of decorating him in only one dress, a red dress all the time, we decorate him sometimes in a blue dress, or yellow dress, that contrasts so stunningly against Krishna’s black body.  But then sometimes we dress Him in a pink dress which brings out Krishna’s beauty in a slightly different way.  Sometimes He is dressed with simple ornamentation, and sometimes with very complex ornamentation. The simple ornamentation makes Krishna’s bodily form look a little more complex, whereas the complex ornamentation brings out the simple beauty and sweetness of Krishna in another way. In the exact same way we can bring out the unique beauty of the holy name with various decorations of ragas.

Why is it that we offer Krishna a feast and not just khichari.  Of course Krishna was satisfied to eat Sanatana Gosvami’s wheat balls without any salt, because it was offered with devotion, but that is all he had. Do you think that the gopis only offer khichari6 to Krishna every day?  Why is it that Radharani never cooks the same milk preparation twice?   To entice Krishna, to add his appetite, to enchant him, to make him think that Radharani really loves him.  So in the same way, when we make a nice feast for Krishna we offer Him so many different varieties.

So there is scope in Krishna consciousness for making everything first-class, better than first-class, and offering all these hundreds and thousands of zeros of first-class arrangements for the pleasure of Krishna. Therefore if the kirtan arrangements are all first-class and done simply for Krishna’s pleasure without any other consideration involved, that is raga kirtan.

Does Krishna like Indian classical music the most?

Yes, why not, but the over riding principle is Krishna’s pleasure? Govinda Lilamrta describes that the gopis were using hundreds of ragas and they weren’t even performing the ragas according to the strict rules of time consideration. They were performing all varieties of ragas, daytime ragas, seasonal ragas, any type of ragas, within the course of one night’s rasa lila.  Not only did they relish varieties of previously established ragas, but they mixed ragas and they created new ragas, combined with extremely complex mrdanga playing and extremely complex dancing. It describes how one gopi came out into the middle of the arena and she tapped her feet once, then twice, then thrice, to prove to the audience that her ankle bells were working, and then began to dance in such an unprecedented way that in spite of all of her intricate footwork, her ankle bells did not sound.  Krishna and Radharani and all the sakhis7 exclaimed bravo, bravo, well done! She had such so much talent, but it was for the pleasure of Krishna and all the devotees.

At the same time, however, when Srila Prabhupada asked a pujari8 to identify a carob-peanut butter sweet on the Deity plate that he was not familiar with he disapproved.  “Do not offer it to the Deities. I have given you so many varieties of sweets that Krishna likes to eat.”  So there are things that Krishna prefers. The Indian classical raga system is something like that–a musical system that Krishna appreciates, but that doesn’t mean that Krishna cannot appreciate new ragas beyond the old established ragas that are created for His pleasure.

Personal Meditations

In both my japa meditation, and in my performance of sankirtan, I begin by meditating on and worshiping Sri Sri Gauranga9 and Nityandana in Navadvipa. Then I gradually enter through the mood and bhava of Sri Caitanya into the chanting of the madhurya nama hare krishna maha-mantra and meditation on Radha and Krishna. Gaura-nama is audharya-nama, the name of compassion, and Radha-Krishna nama is madhurya-nama, sweetness personified. The audharya-nama-sankirtan can very quickly elevate the devotees to the platform of suddha-nama- sankirtan. And suddha-nama-sankirtan, as we have discussed before, has the power to inculcate bhakti-sakti into the heart of the people associated with the kirtan.

Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita “first surrender, then bhakti, or prema, comes later.” Gaura is so merciful, however, that he says without considering who is fit and who is not fit, “Just take love of Godhead.”  Surrender comes later. But how can one just take love of godhead if one doesn’t take gaura-nama first?

What is the difference between japa and kirtana?

There are two prominent ways that the gopis are absorbed in the services of Radha and Krishna.  One is in nikunja seva, where one serves Radha-Krishna alone. The other is rasa-lila – dancing and singing and serving Krishna with all the gopis.

Similarly as all the gopis have their individual kunjas for individual personal service, we chant nama japa in the mood of nama seva, to assist in personal intimate service.  Nama japa is thus like facilitating the meeting of Radha and Krishna alone.

So nama japa is a more secluded, personal affair. You may even pull your chaddar over your face so that no one can see your emotions. Japa is your own relationship to Radha and Krishna without the consideration that your feelings are shared with others. One is thus free to allow the heart to flow and express one’s desperation for the eternal loving service to the holy name in a way that one can’t do in public assembly.

However, nama japa is not simply a matter of only one’s personal relationship with Radha and Krishna. We also perform nama japa to become inspired to share our devotion to Radha and Krishna with others in the form of nama sankirtana. In that way japa is never a selfish affair. So japa can either be chanted for the satisfaction of Radha and Krishna or chanted to attain the spiritual experience necessary to have real compassion on others.  In either case, the aim is never selfish or self aggrandizing.

As practicing devotees, it’s powerful to chant nama japa in the mood of separation – especially a type of separation called purva raga, which means the intense, desperate anticipation to meet Radha and Krishna.  The idea is that you meditate on the types of services that you would like to do for Radha and Krishna and pray, “When, oh, when will that day be mine?” That is purva-raga.

Sankirtan, on the other hand, can be performed in the spirit of Krishna’s rasa lila. The rasa lila acts as an appetizer to wet Krishna’s appetite for more intimate reciprocation with his gopis. In Ujjvala nilamani10, however, there is a description that says that the rasa lila generates in Krishna a happiness that far surpasses even the experience of His complete intimate union with Srimati Radharani and the gopis. One may ask “How is it possible for rasa-lila to be the highest when the culmination of all pastimes is Radha-Krishna enjoying alone in the forests of Vrindavana? “The answer is vipralambha; it is the mood of separation. In the rasa lila Krishna although so close is so far away as well. He is dancing with the gopis, but not yet in his most intimate association with them.  The rasa lila is thus like the hors d’oeuvres that are served before the meal. The meal is the real objective, but hors d’oeuvres can often be more tantalizing, more piquant and full of rasa than the feast itself.  In the same way the most exuberant expression of nama-bhajana is not being alone with Krishna in japa, but in the performance of nama-sankirtan with others.

By nama-kirtan Krishna also sees that you are serious about sacrificing your egocentricity for the purpose of helping others to gain access to the holy name. An attraction thus naturally awakens within Krishna to the soul who is performing that yajna. It induces him to relish deeper with that devotee even more intimate, loving reciprocation in the form of nama japa In that way, nama-sankirtan and nama japa are always inter-supportive

Nowhere, however, it is said that nama japa is the yuga-dharma, the specific spiritual practice for this age. The yuga-dharma is nama-sankirtan, loud chanting for the benefit of others. And that’s what brings nama seva to the highest level.

The yuga-dharma facilitates the proper result from the performance of all other practices of devotional service. Therefore without performing sankirtan, one cannot gain the highest benefit and deepest realization of the purpose of hearing the Bhagavata, chanting nama japa, taking first-class sadhu-sanga11, worshipping the Deity, or of residing in the holy dhama12.  In other words, one cannot gain the highest result from engaging in any other practice of devotional service without spending sufficient time in the direct performance of nama-sankirtan.

How does one achieve the highest benefit in all devotional practices by nama-sankirtan? When Krishna sees that someone is helping others by giving them the opportunity to hear the holy name, then Krishna from within and from without lifts the curtain of yogamaya from that person.  He thus allows them to see the actual nature of the Deity and to penetrate and realize the deepest imports of the Bhagavata, the path of spontaneous devotion.  And by serving  guru and Krishna on the path of raga, or at least by practicing serving them on that path, ones  understanding of Bhagavata and ones relish of the Deity becomes even further enhanced. Then all one’s practices enter the raga dimension and helps one evolve to the plane of raganuga bhava, vraja bhava. That is real sankirtan. That is the sankirtan of Lord Caitanya and his associates – the relish of vraja bhava in the course of performing sankirtan-yajna.

It is essential that devotees who are actually very serious about advancing in Krishna consciousness, advancing to the perfectional stage, to come to this position of performing raga-mayi-sankirtan, kirtan laden with spiritual emotion. Only then can one help others awaken their deepest appreciation of the Bhagavata and their deepest appreciation of all gifts that Srila Prabhupada and all the acaryas13 have left.

Aindra’s style

I have more or less coined the name for my style of kirtan as progressive kirtan. Just like there is progressive rock, so I have more or less named my way of doing kirtan as progressive kirtan. The kind of kirtan that I have been influenced by is a northern Indian classical style called kayal.  Kayal, as far as I understand, means fantasy. I haven’t gotten deeply into that style, but I have incorporated elements of that style in my humble attempt.

What I see about the kayal style is that it leaves room for improvisation more so than the dhrupad style. Dhrupad style is more rigid. Dhrupad style is more concerned with the letter of the law of musical ragas, whereas the kayal style more or less accentuates the spirit of the law of musical ragas.  In the kayal style you may add a note to a raga, for example, for the purpose of inspiration or generating a bhava. That kind of reflects the gopis’ mixing of ragas or creating new ragas.  The basic principles of the raga remain intact, but some extra note may be added just to enhance the flavor.  In that way it tends to enhance the beauty of a raga in some ways.

Getting devotees to chant

When you’re leading kirtan we not only benefit people by giving them a chance to hear, but benefit them a hundred times over by giving them a chance to chant. In the Hari-bhakti-vilasa14 it said that one who is hearing is benefited, but one who chants is benefited a hundred times more.

Some devotees complain about the complexity in my style, but I think that if you actually listen to the vast majority of my kirtan, it is quite simple if one just pays attention. One thing I try to do is keep people on their toes, forcing devotees who participate with me in kirtan to tune in and listen more attentively, instead of just putting their mind on automatic.

In the kind of kirtan that I prefer, there are many varieties of tastes being generated, along with progressive rhythmic patters. We’ll use the mrdanga and kartalas to change up, change over, shift gears, and bring the kirtan into new dimensions. I try to use a variety of technical musical embellishments which I feel enhance the attractiveness of the kirtan.  My practical experience is that putting the kirtan through changes helps to keep the devotees who are participating in the kirtan alert. It gets them out of the automatic mode and gets them into the thinking mode. From the thinking mode you can come to the conscious mode. Conscious of what you are doing, conscious of how the kirtan is developing, conscious of the mood that the kirtan leader is trying to inspire in the hearts of the other participants, whether it is direct inner circle participants, or outer circle public. From what I gather, many devotees take inspiration from the style of kirtan that I have developed.

No one said that leading a kirtan is meant to be a cakewalk. It is a sacrifice, an austerity. It is not easy. It is difficult to have the necessary clout, purity of purpose and intention in chanting to inspire people from within to come forward to help. Personally I don’t claim to be so powerful, or so expert, so I have to struggle sometimes just to wake people up to get them to chant. It’s not that the tune is too complicated; it is that people are not attentive. So sometimes you have to remind those people again and again “Prabhu, haribol! Chant!” because they are going to get much more benefit by participating in the responsive chanting.

Breaking down false ego

In the Caitanya-caritamrta15 in the chapter called the bheda kirtanas we see a description of how Lord Caitanya divided the devotees into various kirtan groups. There were four kirtan groups each having two mrdanga players, and eight kartal players, That’s sixteen kartala players and six lead singers, simultaneously singing the lead with six lead responders simultaneously responding.

I have incorporated that standard to a large extent in my own endeavors to perform kirtan, largely because my voice has been destroyed due to so many years of very intense kirtan.  My voice has its limitations, but I see that as Krishna’s mercy in a few different ways.

I can’t be falsely proud about how beautiful my voice is, because it is not anymore.  I ask for others to help me sing the lead when I perform kirtan, which helps to generate enthusiasm and bring more devotees on board. Devotees are naturally eager to help when they see someone needs help, and they become enthusiastic when they are part of the leadership. I may still give the impetus to the progressive direction of the kirtan, but for the most part it is other people who are singing more than me. So when we go up to the high parts to, as Jayadvaita Swami would say, “kill my voice,” then other devotees come and kill their voices too. I reason that the louder the voice the more Lord Caitanya will acknowledge our attempt to selflessly cooperate for his pleasure and bestow his mercy on us.

So when I do kirtan, it’s not a one-man show. That checks the tendency for one person to exploit the kirtan for personal self aggrandizement.  Then even if it is not the pure name, it helps us come a lot closer to the offense-less platform. And others become inspired that the kirtan is selfless.

When Lord Caitanya organized the bheda kirtans not only did he have six kirtan leaders singing, but he had six lead kirtan responders.  There is a very good reason for that.  The mass of people are not going to be so expert at picking up what tune was just sung, but if there are expert kirtan responders singing the correct tune, the rest of devotees will more likely be able to follow.  This is very useful.

“We’re all in it together”

If the kirtana leader is singing without playing an instrument, or if he’s playing the harmonium, which is not a rhythmic instrument, then the mrdanga player must tune in and pick up on where the kirtana leader wants to go with the kirtan. The idea for the mrdanga player is to serve and enhance the mood of the kirtan leader. Then kartals should follow the mrdanga. The mrdanga player should not be so self centered that his mrdanga playing becomes more important to him then the kirtan forcing the kirtan leader to surrender to whatever he is doing.

I have experienced that with a few different mrdanga players. They are neither interested in, nor capable of, understanding my mood or musical preferences.  They just can’t pick on what I am doing to effectively inspire and engage others. When the mrdanga or kartal player is insensitive to what the kirtan leader needs, then the kirtan loses direction and the leader becomes very frustrated.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no room for self-expression, for innovativeness, or for artistic finesse on the part of the different instrument players, because after all, even though the kirtan leader is the person in charge, it is not his performance alone.  Sankirtan is a congregational effort. Everyone is in it together.

Love is always a two-way street. In real kirtan there is thus a give and take among the performers.  Sometimes the mrdanga player has a good idea, or the kartal player has a good idea. And if it is good idea, the kirtan leader benefits by surrendering to what the mrdanga player has to offer. There is natural reciprocation between good kirtan performers.  That’s called jamming.  It’s sharing inspiration with each other.  That sharing brings kirtan to another dimension of spontaneous dynamism which increases the inspiration, enthusiasm and appreciation of each other as cooperative constituents in Lord Caitanya’s lila.

Playing with expertise and playing in tune

There is place for expertise. Prabhupada expressed great pleasure with Acyutananda’s mrdanga playing. At that time Acyutananda was pretty expert compared to most of the rest of us. Prabhupada complemented him, telling him “You are playing just like a professional.” That wasn’t a criticism, “what the hell are you doing trying to play like a professional!”  He was complimenting him that “you’re playing just like a professional.” He was exhibiting a certain level of competence and Prabhupada appreciated it.  Not that professionalism supersedes the principle of purity, but there is need to understand the instrument that you are playing.

There is also a need to tune the instrument that you are playing.   I personally demand that devotees who are playing the mrdangas understand that the first lesson in playing any instrument is how to tune it.  Just like if you are going to play a guitar, or a sitar, the first thing you have to do before you start playing it, is you have to tune the instrument.  Similarly a mrdanga needs to be tuned properly to have the proper vibration.

In any musical performance you’ll have soprano instruments, mid range instruments and base instruments. The mrdanga is supposed to be a bass instrument. That is madhura mrdanga bhaje, very low and sweet – very moving to the heart.  The professional kirtan players, sahajiya16 as they may be, they know how to tune their instruments. You’ll hear them playing very low, very sweet, deep resounding mrdangas.  Mrdangas constitute the bottom of the kirtan.

Similarly, it is important to understand what it is to have a tuned pair of kartalas. If one kartal is lower in pitch than the other kartal, if they are not the same pitch, then it can create an awfully discordant vibration that breaks the ear. And rather than attracting people to the kirtan, it drives them away.  Kartals constitute the high end.

So you have bottom and high end complementing the mid range, which is the voice. If the mrdanga is not tuned low, then the mrdanga intrudes upon the mid range, where the voices are singing.  Rather than enhancing the kirtan of the holy name, an un-tuned mrdanga intrudes on the chanting and spoils the kirtan.

Just like when you are coming down the street and hear a hari nama party, what is the first thing you hear?  Kartals because it has the highest range and is automatically louder. The last thing you hear is the mrdanga. You hear kartals the voice and finally the mrdanga.

According to Prabhupada the mrdanga should be half the volume of the voice, and the kartals should be half the volume of the mrdanga. So if you are going to have four mrdanga players, you should have six men leading the kirtan. It is not that there should be four mrdangas playing competing on the mid range, frequencies with a single voice making it difficult for the leader to sing.  So mrdanga must be tuned very low. It then not only creates the bass frequencies on the bottom of the kirtan and allows the mid range vocals to shine through, but it is madhurya, very sweet and moves the heart.  Most important it t allows the holy name to shine through, which is the whole purpose of the kirtan.

Playing and singing

Prabhupada said that the instruments should not be played in way that one cannot sing along with them at the same time.  That’s another problem. Sometimes devotees become so absorbed in trying to play their instruments in complicated way that they can’t chant while they play.  That means they haven’t learned to play them properly.  If one is not competent, or if one did not learn properly, he may know how to play intricate beats on the mrdanga, but not how to sing at the same time — which is a hundred times the benefit of only hearing.

So if one is playing the mrdanga properly by following the kirtan leader and serving the holy name and at the same time hearing, that’s great. But higher than that, better than that, is being able to play the mrdanga and sing at the same time, at least as much as possible.

Sometimes when the kirtan gets very heavy and it is really taking off, then the mrdanga player may have to back out of chanting to execute the changes the kirtan leader is putting the kirtan through. But that should be the exception, not the rule. As a general rule, as much as possible, the mrdanga players should also respond with chanting.

As far as the kartal players are concerned – I have seen people playing the kartal, or playing the gong, or playing the whompers, or playing the shakers, or banging on instruments just for their own high, completely oblivious to the fact that they should be chanting.  And honestly speaking – that boils my blood!

Play it the Vedic way

If devotees can learn how to play instruments in the Indian classical style, it goes a long way to enhance the transcultural experience of sankirtan. If you learn how to play the mrdanga nicely, according to a traditional mantra system, that generates the type of vibration which takes the kirtan to another cultural dimension.  Similarly with the violin—someone may play the violin in a western classical style, but I think for kirtan it is much better to play with an Indian classical style. Have you ever heard Indian classical guitar playing?  It’s outrageously good, tremendous.  Have you ever heard Indian classical clarinet? It’s tremendous. Have you ever heard classical Indian flute? Compared to the occidental style of flute or violin playing, the Indian classical style is much more appropriate for kirtan.  When you play those instruments in kirtan in a western style, I think it’s not as harmonious. The same can be said for harmonium playing. Srila Prabhupada played harmonium in an Indian classical style.  He didn’t use chords.  It’s not that the Vedic culture doesn’t lend itself to higher cultural expression than other so called cultures of the world. The highest cultural expressions in the world are Vedic cultural expressions. It’s not like you are going to lose something by learning how to play the instruments in accordance with the Vedic way.


I go by Srila Prabhupada’s instruction on the matter. First Srila Prabhupada said that the harmonium should not be played in the temple. Why did he say that? I think it was because he didn’t like harmoniums being played with western chords.

That becomes evident by the time he wrote the third letter on this point.  First Prabhupada said that harmoniums couldn’t be played in temples, only for festival programs. Then he said that harmonium could be played in the temple but not during the arati. And then the third and last letter that came out, Prabhupada tells said that harmonium can be played during an arati, but melodiously.”  Melodiously means following the melody line, not hanging on chords. Melodiously means following the way Srila Prabhupada taught us to play harmonium.  He recorded the harmonium not just that we can enjoy hearing, but so that we can learn how to play the harmonium.

One time Srila Prabhupada was asked “Srila Prabhupada, what kind of instruments are there in the spiritual world?” and Prabhupada answered, “Well, there is mrdanga, there are kartalas,” and then he said, “and there is a little harmonium.” Prabhupada appreciated the harmonium enough to import it to the spiritual world. Prabhupada himself played harmonium.  And even members of the Gaudiya Matha appreciated that Prabhupada’s playing of the harmonium was very expert. Prabhupada said that the harmonium creates a nice atmosphere.

Therefore I learned how to play harmonium, and I use the harmonium in temple kirtanas because Prabhupada said it was okay.  He gave his permission.  I don’t feel that it is altogether wrong to play the harmonium.  But I do feel that it is at least somewhat wrong to allow the harmonium to play you.  In other words, if you are going to play the harmonium you should be expert enough to play the harmonium like Srila Prabhupada, or at least according to his instructions.  Not that you can’t get around on the keyboard and that forces your tune to conform to whatever chord you find on the harmonium.  Chords destroy the raga system, or imprison it, as Vaiyasaki would say.

Advice to junior kirtana leaders

If someone is not expert in following in a kirtan he is actually not an expert leader. An expert leader is expert at both leading and following. It is not that one puts on a big show of being the kirtana leader, but when someone else is leading, he is either disinterested in or incapable of following others. Just like someone is expert in harmonium only by reading music, but the real expert is one who can play just by hearing. He is one who also can follow the tune that the other leader is singing. That is actual expertise.

Why is it that Lord Caitanya organized so that there were six kirtana leaders? First of all there were no microphones, so you need six kirtana leaders to be heard. After all you have four mrdangas and sixteen pairs of kartalas to compete with. And don’t think that the mrdangas and kartals weren’t played loudly. They were played very loudly. It is described in the sastra how they were played resounding like thunder.  It is not that in Lord Caitanya’s time the kirtana was only very mellow and contemplative and soft. They didn’t have microphones so those who are not so expert can’t overkill it with tone deaf singing.  Not that Lord Caitanya had to resort to that in organizing his kirtanas. Rather he had six expert kirtana leaders who were able to understand themselves enough to go in the next phase of the kirtana, cooperating together to sing louder enough so that the thousands of people who participated in the kirtanas could hear.

Supplementary instruments

Instruments are important, but we already have all the instruments we need – we have a tongue, and we have ears. So we have to remember that our performance of nama sankirtan is primarily based on those instruments. Everything else should be seen as supplementary, or supportive, a decoration to enhance. So then any other instruments should actually enhance and not detract from the chanting with the tongue and ear.

That’s why I don’t allow djembes when I perform sankirtana.  At one time I allowed it, but after gaining experience as to what happens when I allow it, I decided that definitely I shall not allow djembe to accompany my kirtana. The djembe has its appeal perhaps because it is easier to play than a mrdanga nicely.  But the djembe is a tamasic instrument, which totally overpowers and obliterates the beauty of the madhurya mrdanga vibration.  Of course someone could argue that Lord Caitanya didn’t have a harmonium, but certainly Lord Caitanya didn’t have a djembe in his sankirtana parties. If the djembe must be used at all, it should be used outside. But even then the tendency is for it to overpower the mrdanga and to impede the beauty and sweetness of its vibration to move the heart which in and of itself is a transcendental sound which moves the heart toward Krishna.

Personally, I don’t prefer to have a bass guitar cranked up so loud that it obliterates everything else, although it doesn’t have to be cranked up so loud. I know that when an expert plays the bass guitar it can be a little tasteful if it is not cranked up very loud.  I’m not into enhancing the kirtaa with bass guitars. In my opinion it doesn’t do much for the kirtana.

I hate accordions.  The sound is weird and it brings back memories of Russian bar music.  That’s why I have developed this other style of small harmoniums, to offer an alternative to the accordion.

The main mantra

One thing is, I always emphasize the importance of chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Although Prabhupada said that the Gosvamis’ songs are the extensions of the maha mantra, still more important than all of them is the mukhya mantra, the chief mantra. So many times devotees become side tracked because of lack of taste for chanting the maha-mantra due to not chanting enough. They are thinking that the kirtana is boring if you don’t switch to “Govinda Jaya Jaya”, or “Radhe Radhe”, or whatever jaya, jaya, jaya. Undoubtedly Srila Prabhupada’s instruction is that the main focus of the kirtana should be the maha-mantra. Here in Vrindavana for the 24-hour kirtana we exclusively chant the maha-mantra. That is the main and best sankirtana mantra for this age. So even though there is Hari Haraye Namah Krishna, another way of chanting the maha-mantra given by Lord Caitanya, still, the 16-syllable maha-mantra mentioned in the sastra is the main mantra.

The 24-hour kirtan

Why akhanda-nama, 24-hour kirtana? Why? People are forced to become pious by even entering into an atmosphere where a kirtan had been performed as the ethereal atmosphere still remains purifying.  So how much more one is forced to become pious when one walks into a place where the kirtana performance is going on and one hears the holy name. And how much even more purifying is the place where the holy name is being heard 24-hours a day, nonstop. When you chant non-stop in a place the power of that place simply increases, increases and, increases, but when the kirtana breaks, it loses power.

The akhanda kirtan also forces people to surrender more, because they can’t just start talking about something or even stop to eat. One has to sacrifice. There is also a greater degree of responsibility toward the other members of the team as they are working very hard to keep hari-nama continuously manifest in the atmosphere.

If you are doing akhanda-nama-kirtan for years and years, the atmosphere that has been generated by the continuous manifestation of nama becomes so powerful that it not only purifies one from material contamination, but purifies the egoism of the soul, bringing the soul to its original egoism, the mood of a resident of Vrindavana.

Related Posts: In Loving Memory of Aindra Das, Kirtan Podcast 2

Dhanurdhara Swami’s Interview is also posted at his website Waves of Devotion.

  1. 1. Indian cymbals and two headed clay drum, and a hand-pumped, reed keyboard instrument
  2. 2.the pure name
  3. 3.love of God
  4. 4.an esoteric work explaining the daily pastimes of Krishna and his associates in Vrindavana by the 16th century bhakti saint Krishna das Kaviraja
  5. 5.sacred texts
  6. 6.a simple stew of rice and lentils
  7. 7.the girlfriends of Radharani
  8. 8.temple priest
  9. 9.another name for Sri Chaitanya
  10. 10.an esoteric work by the 16th century bhakti saint Rupa Goswami
  11. 11.the company of saintly people
  12. 12.holy places
  13. 13.great teachers
  14. 14.a bhakti manual adressing the observance of vows and rituals by the 16th century bhakti saint Sanatana Goswami
  15. 15.an important biography of Sri Chaitanya by Krishna dasa Kaviraja
  16. 16.one who takes bhakti cheaply
Kaustubha das

Sita Sings the Blues

I was both delighted and disappointed by Sita Sings the Blues. Delighted by its creativity, but disappointed by its narrow understanding of the ancient story of Sri Rama. Sita Sings the Blues is an award winning1, 80 minute film, written, directed, produced and animated by artist Nina Paley. It is her personal retelling of the Ramayana. Sita Sings the Blues has a captivating beauty of its own. But the Ramayna’s beauty, traditionally exemplified in the character of Rama, is often displaced by Paley’s resentment toward her ex-husband.

With this observation, I am not engaging in psychoanalysis at a distance. The connection is clear in the film itself. Paley’s narrative of Rama and Sita is cleverly interwoven with the narrative of her own painful divorce. Speaking of her marriage, Paley says, “the way that it fails is uncannily similar to the way Rama and Sita’s [relationship fails].”2 Similar maybe, but there are obvious relevant differences as well. And in failing to recognize the differences, Paley allows the character of Rama to morph from the Ramayana’s hero into its villain.

But before elaborating on this criticism, I’d like to share some of what I found to be so great about Sita Sings the Blues. Unlike other animated Ramayanas which have been presented as children’s cartoons, Sita Sings the Blues is a mature artistic achievement. Its often fast paced progression is bursting with the colors and styles of India. It dazzles with wit and charm. From beginning to end, I was astonished with Paley’s cleverness. She masterfully combines several styles of animation. Shaded, squiggly drawn figures and collage style photography are combined to illustrate Paley’s own story. The bulk of the Ramayana story is animated with several styles of Indian painting as well as something resembling Betty Boop cartoons. Traditional South Asian shadow puppets with Indian voices are used as informal narrators. As they struggle to recall the details of the Ramayana story, and chuckle at the ones they find implausible, a variety of Hindu images enter and exit the screen illustrating their discussion. The result is not only captivating and humorous, but also brilliant as it considers some of the most puzzling questions about the Ramayana in a way that feels like a casual chat amongst friends sitting in a restaurant waiting for their masala dosas to arrive.

Then, of course, there is the music. From time to time, the story breaks to allow Sita to sing of her love and woe to the tune of 1920’s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. Mirroring my feelings about the entire film, I found these segments to be both exceptionally clever and often unbefitting the subject matter. As a Westerner with an interest in art and music, I found the choice of these unfamiliar songs to fit perfectly with the style and humor with which the story was being told. Paley’s dusting and polishing of these old gems allowed me to gain an appreciation for a style and era of music to which I’ve never given much thought. But as a sadhaka who has devoted decades of contemplation and reflection to understanding the profound meaning of the Indian epics, this portrayal of Sita had my eyes rolling. I’ve always known Sita as the embodiment of beauty, grace, and virtue. I would never associate her pain, which I believe can only be understood by penetrating into the esoteric subject of bhakti-rasa 3, with that of a speakeasy crooner lamenting the loss of her man.

I understand that an artist should be free to express themselves according to their inspiration. And I decry the kind of backlash that Paley has received from Hindu fundamentalists that see no merit in her work.4  And while I embrace much of the feminist platform, I believe that to try to understand the Ramayana through the lens of feminism, particularly that which is fueled by resentment, is to miss its true value. While such an approach may be appropriate for interpreting an Alanis Morisette song, applying it to the Ramayana results in a very warped retelling. The greatness of the character of Rama, his heroism, kindness, wisdom, honor and the tenderness of his love for Sita, which are fundamental to the Ramayana, are entirely missed by Paley. Essentially, Paley takes parts of the Ramayana’s story and uses them to express her own feelings of pain and redemption. She is admirably frank about this: “I didn’t set out to tell the Ramayana, only my Ramayana. I wanted to be very clear about my point of view, my biases”. 5

In his review of Sita Sings the Blues, film critic Roger Ebert, who admittedly knows nothing of the Ramayana, writes “It tells the story of a brave, noble woman who was made to suffer because of the perfidy of a spineless husband…It is about a prince named Rama who treated Sita shamefully, although she loved him and was faithful to him.” A narrow and skewed idea of Rama, to be sure. But for one unfamiliar with the Ramayana, Paley’s film can lead to no other conclusion.

Paley has written that “I understand this project treads a fine line between entertainment and offense”. 6 It does, and so I’ve consciously cut her some slack and set aside my traditional understanding of the Ramayana, to appreciate her otherwise fantastic film. But I can’t help but see some humor in all this. I find Sita Sings the Blues to be fairly vivid example of how our our own experiences tend to color our perception, sometimes to ridiculous extremes. I’m reminded of the Siendfeld episode where Jerry describes the colored perception of his uncle Leo: “He’s one of these guys that anything goes wrong in life, he blames it on anti-Semitism. You know what I mean? The spaghetti’s not al dente? Cook’s an anti-Semite. Loses a bet on a horse. Secretariat? Anti-Semitic. Doesn’t get a good seat at the temple. Rabbi? Anti-Semite.”

Now in all fairness, there are elements in the Ramayana which can easily be interpreted as cruelty towards Sita. But then what to make of Rama’s evident virtue? How to reconcile the apparent contradiction in his character? His manifest virtue is indeed the reason that Sita’s banishment is such a problematic issue. There would be no confusion were he merely a narcissistic, selfish man. According to Paley “the question that I asked, and the question people still ask is, “Why”? Why did Rama reject Sita? Why did my husband reject me? We don’t know why, and we didn’t know 3,000 years ago. I like that there’s really no way to answer the question, that you have to accept that this is something that happens to a lot of humans.”

Here I have to disagree. Traditionally, to get answers to these kind of questions, one would approach someone who’s devoted themselves to understanding the subtleties of India’s great devotional literature. Ideally that person would not only have gained an academic grasp of the subject, but also lived a holy life and walked the path that these books lay-out. Someone who has repeatedly alternated between study, inquiry, contemplation and back again and who, in quiet moments has allowed the literature to speak to them and clarify its message. It’s a process in which one very consciously tries to set aside the biases developed though his or her own experiences and open oneself up to the possibility of coming in touch with a timeless truth.

The subject of Rama’s banishment of Sita has been questioned, contemplated and commented on by a variety teachers and holy people over the course of the history of the people of India. People existentially committed to the texts and whose questions are motivated by deep, living concern. The answers range from the exoteric (often involving the need for a leader to sacrifice for the good of their followers or for their character to be beyond reproach), to the esoteric (usually dealing with the depth of emotion experienced through love in separation). One such explanation can be found in the article previously published on The Bhakti Collective entitled “Radhanath Swami on Sita’s Banishment”.

Sita Sings the Blues will remain for me a film of interest, even an inspiration, but not as a genuine telling of the Ramayana. It’s narrow and irreverent approach leaves me feeling a bit estranged.  Still, I don’t want to come off as too stuffy. I really enjoyed Sita Sings the Blues and I’ll definitely be watching it again. And while it had its moments of disappointment, there were far more moments of delight.

I‘ve included a slideshow with stills from the film (below) as well as the film itself (above). (By clicking the box in the bottom right corner you can expand the film to full screen.) I encourage you to watch it and to share your thoughts below.

Jaya Sita-Ram

Kaustubha das

Related Posts: Radhanath Swami on Sita’s Banishment

  1. 1.Awards include Annecy, June 2008, Cristal grand prix for best feature film, France/Avignon, June 2008, Prix Tournage for Best American Feature Film, France/Athens International Film Festival, Sept. 2008, Best Script Award, Greece/Montreal’s Festival du nouveau cinéma, Oct. 2008, Grand Prix Z Télé, Grand Prize chosen by the public, Canada/Starz Denver Film Festival, Nov 2008, Fox 31 Emerging Filmmaker Award, CO, USA/Gotham Independent Film Awards, Dec 2008, Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You, NYC, NY, USA/Les Nuits Magiques, Dec 2008, Audience Award for Best Feature Film, Begles, France/Santa Fe Film Festival, Dec 2008, Best Animation, NM, USA/Boulder International Film Festival, Feb 2009, Best Animated Film, CO, USA/Film Independent’s Spirit Awards, Feb 2009, Nominee/ Acura Someone to Watch Award, Los Angeles, CA, USA/Fargo Film Festival, March 2009, Ruth Landfield Award and Honorable Mention, Best Animation, ND, USA/Festival MONSTRA, March 2009 Jury’s Special Prize, Lisbon, Portugal/Cairo International Film Festival for Children, March 2009, Jury’s Special Mention, Cairo, Egypt/Tiburon International Film Festival, March 2009, Best Animation, Tiburon, CA, USA/Big Cartoon Festival, March 2009, Grand Prix Sirin, Krasnoyarsk, Russia/ANIMABASAURI5-ANIMABASQUE, March 2009, Jury Special Award, Bilbao, Spain/Akron Film Festival, April 2009, Best Feature Film, Akron, OH, USA/Philadelphia CineFest, April 2009, Archie Award for Best First Time Director, Philadelphia, PA, USA/Salem Film Festival, April 2009, Grand Jury Award, Salem, OR, USA/Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, April 2009, Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature, Los Angeles CA, USA/Talking Pictures Festival, May 2009, Best Animated Film, Evanston, IL, USA/Connecticut Film Festival, June 2009, Best Animated Film, Danbury, CT, USA/Festival Internacional de Cine DerHumALC, June 2009/ Signis Award, Best Film of the Official Competition, Buenos Aires, Argentina
  2. 2.Interview, Wired.com “One-Woman Pixar’s Animated Film Premieres at Tribeca
  3. 3.Bhakti-rasa – the emotional experience of loving surrender to God
  4. 4.For one example click here
  5. 5.sepiamutiny.com, March 25, 2009, “Sita Sings the Blues, Just for You
  6. 6.www.sepiamutiny.com April 21,2005 Comment 10 on “Sita Sings the Blues
Dhanurdhara Swami


“Is there therapy in the Vedas?” I was a bit taken aback by this inquiry from a young and dedicated yoga practitioner. He had been struggling for years with psychological problems. Although he had embraced a traditional path of yogic transformation, he found the help he needed in a more modern self-help process based on contemporary psychology. As I thought about his inquiry, however, the answer seemed obvious. Rich in a tradition of intact family and community support, those born in traditional India did not need to rely on specialists to sort out mental afflictions caused mostly by social dysfunction. Classical Indian philosophy, especially its traditions of yoga, does, however, have detailed information on the nature of the mind. 1

Inspired by my young friend’s question and desiring to organize that information in a relevant way to help address the mental challenges so many people face today, I categorized the basic tenets of yoga psychology into five broad principles:

1.The mind is malleable.
2.There is a correlation between the form the mind assumes and how one feels.
3.The mind is swayed by the power of three main factors—karma, environment, and actions.
4.By controlling the form or mode the mind takes, one can substantially influence how one feels.
5.Full satisfaction can ultimately only be achieved by transcending the mind and realizing the true self.

The mind, like any mechanism, can be used more effectively when one knows its workings. This is especially important as the proper use of the mind is the basis of self-fulfillment. Yoga psychology thus speaks to the most important of all human aims: true happiness.

The Basic Principles of Yoga Psychology:

One: The mind is malleable.

Subtle things are often described in more concrete ways to help us understand them. In the school of Yoga the mind is thus often described as supple, almost like clay, in that it can be easily molded and that external influences make indelible impressions.

The significance of this description of the mind as supple (Principle One) is the correlation between the shape the mind assumes and one’s accompanying moods (Principle Two) and that by understanding the main factors by which the mind is molded (Principle Three) one can influence how one feels (Principle Four). Most important, by this understanding, one can learn to shape the mind as a vehicle for its own transcendence and attain ultimate satisfaction (Principle Five).

Two: There is a correlation between the form the mind assumes and how one feels.

Like everything in the world, the mind is composed of a combination of three modes of nature—sattva guna (goodness), raja guna (passion) and tamo guna (ignorance)—which are in flux. These subtle strands of matter, which are the elemental substrata of creation, also have specific intrinsic characteristics with particular symptoms and effects. Because there is a direct correlation between the modes of nature and how one feels, by identifying the present form or mode of the mind, one can also comprehensively understand its influence.

Three: The mind is swayed by the power of three main factors—one’s karma, one’s environment, and one’s actions.

The modes of nature are constantly competing within the mind for influence. A particular mode gains prominence by its association with one of three factors: the weight of one’s karma, the nature of one’s environment, and the tenor of one’s actions. How each affects the mind is comprehensively described in classical Indian thought:
1. The positive effect of karma (destiny) on consciousness is described in three basic ways:

  • A.  By understanding the message of destiny: Destiny is the language of God. Each event we experience is the Divine in the form of time (kala) telling us something essential about ourselves to help us grow.
  • B.  By understanding the proper response to destiny: Sastra (Indian sacred texts) also describes the appropriate response to each circumstance of destiny to ensure the healthiest development of the mind.
  • C.  By understanding how to align oneself with our innate nature born of destiny: Our basic nature is composed of latent impressions in the subconscious (samskaras) posited there at birth as a result of karma. Sastra describes the science of living in harmony with one’s nature, which is the foundation of a peaceful mind.

2. The subtle effects of the diverse forms of the environment on consciousness are described by a thorough classification of the various objects of perception (sights, sounds, and so on) into a gradation of modes that shape the mind according to their influence.
For example, music within a specific mode can move the mind accordingly, either towards lethargy (music in the mode of ignorance), restlessness (music in the mode of passion), or peacefulness (music in the mode of goodness). All objects of perceptions can similarly be classified with predictable affects on the consciousness.

3. Similarly, the subtle effects of the diverse forms of action are classified according to motive and understanding with their corresponding influence on the mind.

For example, if one acts for self-purification or just adheres to moral or spiritual principles (actions in the mode of goodness) one’s mind becomes more lucid, increasingly peaceful, and strong in will, the symptoms and effects of goodness.

This understanding of how actions influence the mind also leads to a basic understanding of dharma. Dharma is the correct choice in any circumstance to ensure the healthiest affect on the mind. This very subtle science of prescribed action (dharma) is elaborately described in sastra.

Four: By controlling the form or mode of the mind, one can substantially influence one’s desires and feelings.

All forms of therapy and self-help deal with guiding one to a greater self-awareness and personal satisfaction. By offering a system that accurately describes the nature of the mind, including a description of the internal and external factors that influence it, Classical Indian philosophy contributes substantially to the science of mental transformation.

Five: Full satisfaction can ultimately be attained only by rising above the mind and experiencing the real self.

As the material mind is not the true self, no matter how much one transforms the mind to conform to higher forms of nature, perfect mental satisfaction will evade one for the following reasons:

  • 1. The pleasure experienced by the mind is ultimately superficial, a joy experienced by identifying with something external to the self. Seeking such pleasure is akin to a person enjoying the pleasure of a dream.
  • 2. It is also a form of happiness that is temporary and therefore full of duality. Duality means that alongside this pleasure — which is connected with a false sense of self — there must also be the distress of pleasure lost when the body ends.

In this regard there is a tradition of Sankhya (analysis) that identifies all 24 material elements, including the mind, for the purpose of isolating the eternal or spiritual self for the attainment of happiness that is real, eternal, and non-dual.

Although yoga promotes an integrated, peaceful mind, it is not meant to be an end in itself, but a means to stabilize the mind for its highest purpose—realization of a higher state of consciousness. This is classically achieved through the practice of three core paths—work (karma-yoga), knowledge (jnana-yoga), and devotion (bhakti-yoga).

The Fundamental Nature of the Mind

To understand the mind properly a basic understanding of its function is essential. One therefore has to be familiar with its context or purpose in the cosmos.

In Yoga, Sankhya, and much of Vedanta, this world is described as pure awareness (purusa or soul) entangled or misidentified with matter (prakrti). Although the ultimate beginning of this dilemma is not a major concern for most, the immediate cause of this unwholesome juncture is; Out of egotism when the soul rejects its pure state of selfless awareness, its consciousness is projected on a particular field of matter called the body (which includes the mind). As the changes in one’s life that evoke duality and fear, such as disease and death, are happening in the body, not the true self, this unnatural and temporary state of identification is the root of suffering. Awakening from it, or emancipation (moksa), is thus life’s ultimate objective.

In context of this cosmic paradigm, the mind, called the citta, is the first sheath or covering of the soul. It functions as an instrument whereby the soul (purusa) enveloped in matter can either view the world to serve the false self (and suffer) or the pure self (and feel fulfilled). Bhagavad-gita thus aptly describes this function in the simple duality as the mind being either the friend or enemy of the soul.2 Similarly, the Yoga Sutras describe thoughts born of the mind as either unhealthy (klistha) or healthy (aklistha).3

To fulfill this dual role, the mind has different functions of thought. Although different schools ascribe slightly different roles to the different divisions of the mind, there is a basic agreement that the mind has three essential functions of thought:

  • 1. manas – impulsive synthesis and response (initial categorization of all phenomena received through the senses and one’s spontaneous like or dislike of them)
  • 2. buddhi – reflective examination (judgment and will)
  • 3. ahankara – relational response (self-identity and self-conceit)

Any system of transformation, whether to improve basic mental health or to achieve self-realization, is based on an understanding of at least some facsimile of these divisions.

Once the mind categorizes an object through a combination of these three functions of thought—our feelings, judgment, and sense of relationship—an impression of that object is imbedded within the mind. These latent impressions, called samskaras, created both in this life and the past, determine how we view, feel, and respond to the world. They are the single most important factor in over-all well-being.

The first function of any system of self-improvement is thus to help one judge whether one’s present thoughts based on these latent impressions represent the true nature of things. It then helps one create a more accurate perception through the tools available from that system. 4

The Healthy and Unhealthy Mind

As mentioned, the nature of the mind is the samskaras imbedded within it. We are born in a basic mental condition due to such samskaras carried from past lives and also face certain conditions and events in life that foster further samskaras.

Our formative years, where buddhi (intelligence) is underdeveloped, especially fashions the basis of one’s mental health. Buddhi functions as a medium between the information coming through the senses and the final impression such data leaves on the consciousness. In other words, intelligence functions to translate our experiences in a reasonable way before they make impulsive and unhealthy samksaras. A child is thus especially susceptible to distorted impressions and even trauma because of this inability to digest his or her experiences by proper analysis into reasonable memories. 5

Stable parents, who affectionately monitor their child to protect him or her from such stirring events, and who deal properly with them, instill good samskaras in their child. Good samskaras mean impressions that reflect the true nature of things and produce thoughts that help one grow. Such parents especially provide a nurturing environment. Deep impressions of affection in the mind enable one to see the world with promise and to feel secure even in challenging circumstances. Bereft of such memories, one is prone to depression.

A child also needs reasonable boundaries set by the parents. Without a relatively fixed world set by the protective figure, the child lives in a world of flux determined by his whims and demands. As a result, impressions of anxiousness are imbedded in the child’s mind, making him susceptible to excessive anxiety as he grows up to face a world of challenge and change.

Parents are the most important factor in the development of a strong mind. Thus a culture that is not structured to facilitate appropriating nurturing and reasonable boundaries molded by strong traditions of child rearing and community support will produce in various degrees mental instability, even if not at the level of trauma.

Although the foundations of mental health are set in the formative years, it is important to remember that the mind is malleable. With the proper process of transformation, mental health can be attained at any stage of life.

Attaining Mental Health

Especially in the modern world, people find themselves in societies where the support of community and family has been substantially eroded. Much of modern society thus relies on specialists in therapy and self-transformation to attain good mental health.

Although sound mental health was integral to traditional Indian society and therapy as a specialized field dealing with mental disorders was virtually non-existent, still within the scope of yogic knowledge there is a wealth of in-depth information on the workings of the mind, including knowledge applicable to restoring mental health.6 Some of that knowledge was alluded to in the beginning of this article when the basic principles of yoga psychology were described, especially the three factors by which the mind is swayed—our karma, the environment, and our actions. Each of these will now be discussed in more depth:

Karma and the Mind

Karma is a powerful factor in influencing the mind. What comes to us in our daily lives by destiny is often disconcerting. Powerful mental states may also suddenly arise as a result of past actions. Due to karma we are also born with a set mental nature, which conditions the mind. Our response to these three manifestations of destiny is the main factor in forming our mental state.

Practically all classical Indian schools of thought accept destiny as an eternal moral order, a force to help us grow provided we comprehend the message it bears and respond properly. Sastra, to a large degree, is a compendium of archetypal stories of destiny with lessons on how to understand and respond to various circumstances. That all tribulations of destiny are filled with messages of self-transformation is attested to by the fact that most individuals would not trade the difficulties they underwent if they had to also relinquish the valuable lessons they learned from them. According to yoga psychology, optimum mental health cannot be achieved without some connection to a tradition of knowledge that teaches one to understand and respond to each situation in life in a way that molds one’s mind towards goodness.

Although we can substantially change our nature by guidance and self-discipline, we are still born with a certain basic karmic nature. Part of that nature includes inborn occupational proclivities, for instance the longing to be creative, make money, or become learned. Another part of our psyche carries innate social tendencies such as the degree of our detachment or attachment to worldly life. If unhealthy attachments are pronounced, they cannot be transcended by will power alone, nor is it healthy to do so. Repression causes frustration and anger, which molds the mind towards ignorance, making one susceptible to the result of that mode: inactivity and depression. Sastra thus helps identify one’s occupational and social proclivity and prescribes suitable duties based on those inclinations, such as recommendations for career and marriage. Only by the regulation of strong attachments, and not by the unrestricted indulgence or thoughtless repression of them, both which degrade the mind, can one be elevated to a higher state of mental well-being.

Optimal mental health is thus very hard to achieve without carefully understanding one’s nature and engaging it properly.

Environment and the Mind

Bhagavad-gita confirms the importance of the environment in molding the mind towards goodness when it deems the knowledge found in the fourteenth chapter7, where the modes of nature are comprehensively analyzed, best of all. Traditional Indian culture, ideally ordered in goodness, was itself influenced by this knowledge. Thus just living in such a society, where many aspects of life were carefully guided by this knowledge, from the objects of sound (music) and sight (art) to moral behavior, was therapeutic.

Although today one has little access to such an environment, still everyone has at least some control over his or her immediate surroundings. For example, the parts of the day that are in different modes, are usually within one’s rule. Thus if we simply wake early, just before and around sunrise8, which is the time of the day substantially in the form of sattva guna (goodness), the mind will be given a significant boost towards goodness. Of course, the factors that influence the mind are numerous, but even such a simple adjustment of taking avail of the early morning hours will substantially engender peacefulness and clarity of mind.

All five objects of the senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste) can manifest in different modes and thus everything from our diet to the people we associate with, from the places we frequent to our level of cleanliness9, can be molded in a way to influence the mind to a higher state of well-being.

Those concerned with strong inner well-being, whether to make an unhealthy mind healthy for the purpose of general contentment, or to make the healthy mind more fit to facilitate meditation, must know the science of how the environment affects the consciousness.

Actions and the Mind

There are three groups of action geared for positive transformation: actions with an innate spirit of attachment, but restrained by regulation (karma-yoga), restrained actions (jnana) 10, and dedicated actions (bhakti).

For the sake of discussing action in terms of how it affects the supple mind, I have divided action into four categories. The three groups of action above will be explored within those categories 11:

I.     Dharma
II.    Programming
III.   Spiritual practice in general
IV.   The path of devotion (Bhakti)

How Actions Affect the Mind

Before discussing the four categories of action in relation to the mind, it is helpful to review the mechanics of how information from the senses and one’s response to it create the general tenor of one’s mind:

Information entering the mind12  through the senses makes latent impressions called samskaras that form one’s basic psychological make-up. Samskaras are imprints in the subconscious that push to be filled or nor filled with the same experiences that caused them. They can also be called attachments, latent desires, or memories of pleasures.13 Based on those samskaras, one responds to future data by ascribing some feeling (like or dislike) towards it. As a result one is impelled to once again act, to have new experiences and thus either create additional samskaras, or strengthen old ones. In either case, the tenor of the mind is altered.

For example, if one drinks alcohol and becomes gladdened, a memory of that particular pleasure, a samskara, is imbedded in the psyche. The desire for intoxication thus becomes part of one’s psychology. Although that imprint may remain latent (in that one may not always feel like drinking) when that samskara is activated by some circumstance, for example going to a party where alcohol is served, one is impelled to drink. In this way, a further imprint for drinking is imbedded in the psyche, increasing one’s desire for alcohol and also the likelihood of drinking in the future.

In other words, a single act and the accompanying experience can entangle the soul in a continual cycle of the creation and fulfillment of impulses. Within this karmic circle the samskara at the root of the initial action is then perpetually strengthened so that a predominant psychological nature is formed.

It can’t be stressed enough how important properly translating the information we receive through the senses is, as the samskara made by sense data is ultimately determined by one’s interpretation of it. In other words, the very same information can produce imprints that foster either enlightening or degrading thoughts (and consequent actions) depending on how such data is computed.14

Pertaining to this subject, the role of buddhi, or intelligence, as the function of the mind with the capacity to properly digest or comprehend information has already been discussed. Properly comprehended or digested sense data means understanding the true nature of things.

This correlation between understanding reality and mental health and the parallel between ignorance and suffering is at the core of yoga psychology. This connection is also not foreign to most schools of psychological therapy where most fears, phobias, anxieties, and mood swings are not considered fundamental conditions of reality, but mistaken conceptions of it, the only difference being the differing methods stressed to bring one to a higher level of cognition. Most schools also recognize the transforming or therapeutic affect of bringing one to a stage of appropriate action based on higher cognition and the positive affect that has on the mind.

In conclusion, actions have a very influential affect on the condition of the mind, and inspire positive mental transformation when they are in response to a solid understanding of the world. All four categories of action are thus based on producing healthy imprints related to an understanding of the true nature of objects and situations.

I. Dharma

As discussed, knowledge of the true nature of things and responding to the world based on that understanding creates the best disposition of mind. The science of doing this is called dharma.

In the introduction dharma was defined as:

“The correct choice in any circumstances to ensure the healthiest affect on the mind is called dharma. This very subtle science of prescribed action (dharma) is elaborately described in sastra.”

Dharma is subtle because it is prescribed according to one’s individual nature, which varies from person to person. In fact, it varies right from birth where a fraction of an almost unlimited stock of a person’s past karma, including strong samskaras, is funneled into one’s particular field of activities (the gross and subtle bodies). Dharma is thus always done in careful consideration of one’s individual nature, although certain actions are obviously more universal prescriptions, such as The Ten Commandments or the yamas (moral restraints) of the Yoga Sutras.

An example of this principle of dharma being prescribed according to one’s nature, and not universally applied, is the appropriate response to the objects of sex desire. Like all potential responses to pleasure, the first consideration is the degree of one’s attachment towards the object of that pleasure. Thus if sexual attraction is at a depth where it cannot be transcended, then dharma is to act on that desire, but under careful regulation, in this case limiting the fulfillment of sex desire at the least to the sphere of marriage, if not solely for procreation. If the depth of one’s attachment is minimal, however, dharma is the opposite, renunciation of those desires. The same paradigm is applicable to all prescriptions of dharma—attachments that cannot be transcended have to be carefully worked through according to prescribed regulation. The result is also the same —the mind is favorably transformed by carefully doing one’s duty.

An especially important application of this model of action is the choice of suitable work. Occupation is an activity that occupies most of our day and thus a key element in how the mind forms itself. When our work is lined up with our inborn nature and done in the proper way, when it is dharma, the mind is positively transformed. When it is not, one is frustrated. Day after day tolerating boredom or frustration due to occupational work against one’s nature can easily activate either a strong desire for unwarranted indulgence in sense pleasure or excessive inactivity. Unfortunately, such desires must be carried home for fulfillment often crimping in mode and time our ability to put our mind towards direct spiritual practice.

Positive mental transformation, for most, cannot be separated from a socio-occupational system designed to provide both meaningful work (varna) and an appropriate and supportive social status (ashram). Such a system, such as the social structure that was an ideal for Classical Indian society15, was also best supported by a simple agrarian based economy. Its purpose was not only to supply suitable psychophysical occupational and social engagement, but to free one’s time and energy for spiritual practices geared for direct mental transformation.

Although modern society is not particularly structured to support mental health or spiritual growth, and one often finds oneself in stressful occupational and social situations16, one seeking to maximize mental and spiritual development cannot neglect a holistic approach, one that seeks, as far as possible, to align one’s social and occupational life with one’s psychophysical nature.

In summary, there are two choices for incorrect action (adharma) and two choices for correct action (dharma):

Incorrect action 1: To impulsively indulge one’s unhealthy attachments. Such action is in the mode of ignorance and molds the mind accordingly.

Incorrect action 2: To repress one’s desires whimsically. By doing so one’s mind is occupied further by those attachments leading to frustration, anger, and bewilderment. Repression thus also eventually molds the mind towards ignorance, the worst mode.

Correct action 1: To satisfy one’s attachments by prescribed regulation. Regulation affords one the advantage of both the satisfaction and renunciation of desire. By prescribing conditions to fulfill desire, one not only thinks less of those desires, but avoids the foibles of repression. Regulation also means that beyond the limited prescription for enjoyment, one is renouncing passions, thus ruling them by goodness and gradually moving the mind towards that mode.

Correct action 2: To renounce the object of the senses by one qualified to do so. By renunciation at the level of true indifference, one attains the platform of dispassion, and quickly brings the mind to its most purified state.17

Suitable mentors must thus not only clearly know that one is not the body, but they must help people understand what the body is. If one is not able to reasonably assess a person’s level of attachment, but is only able to highlight the duality between mind and body, action cannot be prescribed in a way that fosters a peaceful and functional mind, either for living in the world or for pursuing transcendence. Such guides must also be qualified to inspire and teach renunciation to gradually move people towards that goal.

II. Programming

Regardless of one’s level of renunciation, one can learn to program or condition the mind to give up bad habits and to develop good ones. This is described in the Yoga Sutras as consciously supplanting bad samskaras with good ones.

To understand how programming works, one should first understand the duality between pleasure and happiness, that samskaras that may give momentary pleasure, such as intoxication and fault-finding, also simultaneously mold the mind towards distress. Understanding this duality, one can then program the mind to supplant the samskaras impelling one to indulge in a bad habit by associating it with ones that highlight the suffering it causes. For example, one may give up smoking by regularly visualizing the distress caused by it, such as lung disease and the lack of character such addictions reflect, so that eventually a healthy samskara of aversion (smoking is bad) supersedes the unhealthy imprint of attachment (smoking is good).

As one can displace the root of a bad habit by creating a distressful imprint in the mind, one can also uproot a bad habit by nurturing another attachment that gives one more pleasure, but sits in opposition to that tendency. For instance, one can be attached to being truthful and then vow to never smoke. Every time one then desires to smoke, the desire for truthfulness is activated, overpowering the craving to smoke. Of course, this is provided that the samskara for honesty is deeper than the samskara for smoking, or whatever bad habit one is trying to overcome.

These are just simple examples to illustrate how the mind can be programmed or conditioned to change one’s nature. They also illustrate the importance of integrity. Integrity means to make one’s thoughts and actions one or integral with one’s principles. A strong taste for honesty makes it so much easier to undergo the discipline required for transformation. Without such integrity, our commitment to overcome bad habits will often be rationalized away. Yoga psychology is thus always accompanied by a culture that diligently programs honesty, by the values it stresses, the exemplars it promotes and the literature it recommends.18

Again, although we may be at a disadvantage in the modern world where good samskaras, such as integrity, are generally not sufficiently cultured, it doesn’t mean that we can’t find practical means to program the mind to be true to our principles. For example, one can still consciously seek exemplars in character. Exemplars in character, those who have strong attachment to principles, are one of the most powerful ways to instill impressions of character, especially if one can develop a relationship of respect and service to such persons. We naturally try to give up habits that are antithetical to the lives of those we admire. One can also hear about such people, especially if they are saints of the past.19

Of course, the ability to subdue passions is also affected by the strength of the habit we are trying to control. When such imprints have become extremely deep by repeated reinforcement, they are called addictions. At that level they forcibly supersede good judgment and take a more concerted effort to overcome.

In that regard, the 12-step program is an apparently successful method of overcoming addictions. An interesting study would be an analysis of exactly how that is accomplished in terms of yoga psychology, especially in terms of programming. From those I have known in the midst of such programs, it is clear to me that it is an ingenuous way of superseding very deep, bad samskaras by strongly reinforcing and creating good ones, such as humility, integrity, the distress of bad habits, the pleasure of good habits, and respect for exemplars of non-addiction. I am especially intrigued by the spiritual aspect of the program. By admitting one’s helplessness (the first step) and petitioning a higher power (the second step) one creates or reinforces the good samskaras of humility and dependence. Such qualities allow one to experience affection, which strikes against the root of all addiction—the lack of memory in the subconscious of nurturing that fosters depression and impels one to mistakenly fill that void of happiness with repeated sensual stimulation.

To transform the mind it must be reconditioned. Yoga psychology, by describing how the mind works, offers a working model of how to positively program the mind.

III. Spiritual Practice (sadhana)

The objective of yoga psychology is not just to stabilize the mind, but to perfect it. This was described in the introduction:

“Yoga psychology deals with the transformation and stabilization of the mind, not as an end in itself, but as means to attain a higher state of consciousness beyond the mind where the purusa, or soul, imbibes in its own pure nature.”

To attain that state, however, the support of the mind is necessary. The mind is called antar-karanam, the internal instrument. Like all instruments, the mind requires tuning or sharpening to function best. To succeed in spiritual life, one must therefore gradually mold the mind to higher forms of cognition.

In terms of transforming the mind, we have already discussed the importance of properly structuring our environment and adhering to moral actions within our day to day lives. To achieve optimum transformation and ultimate transcendence, however, it is of utmost importance to reserve a time and place to exclusively engage with the mind for the purpose of transforming it. Such a prescribed exercise is called sadhana, or spiritual practice. The foundation of sadhana is meditation.

To understand how meditation transforms the mind, one first has to understand its goal — to bring the mind to its pure state. This state can be compared to the original condition of a perfectly tuned instrument where its maximum potential is realized. The mind thus functions best in sattva, the most wholesome state of matter. In other words, in sattva the discriminating ability of the mind is sharpened to the degree where the soul can perfectly distinguish itself from its encasement, the mind and body. In terms of this ability to foster true perception, this optimum state can also be compared to a properly formed and thoroughly cleansed lens.

Spiritual practice is thus the process of cleansing the mirror of the mind of its distortions, called vrttis or thoughts, especially those born of passion and ignorance, which like a distorted lens skew the soul’s vision.20 Meditation accomplishes this by the practice of undeviating concentration on a single object of focus. By such focus for an uninterrupted and prolonged time, all other fluctuations of the mind, which distort the natural lucidity of sattva, are neglected and thus quelled, especially when that practice is accompanied by vairagya, a rigorous cultivation of dispassion towards those impulses.

IV. Bhakti

So far we have discussed transformation based on individual effort. The path of bhakti adds the aspect of grace to our discussion, help beyond individual effort. Grace thus implies the conviction in a unique supremely potent and omniscient soul, a being with total power to direct the laws of nature and thus cleanse one’s mind simply by grace. Bhakti as a process of transformation is thus the act of giving oneself to God in devotion and petitioning that grace.21

Patanjali Muni indirectly alludes to the path of grace in the Yoga Sutras. In the first chapter, he describes isvara pranidhana (surrender to the Lord) as an optional method of meditation and also outlines its main practice—chanting mantras such as aum, which are not only signifiers of the Lord, but non-different from Him and full of spiritual potency. In the chapter that follows, he outlines “surrender to the Lord” in a somewhat different context, as one of the six mandatory moral observances that are prerequisite for meditation. Also listed there are the different benefits of adhering to each of the six classic moral observances including samadhi, the benefit of perfectly practicing isvara pranidhana. Samadhi, full spiritual trance, is the goal of meditation. As “surrender to the Lord” is the lone moral observance paired with a spiritual result22, and also the only object of meditation that is an active transformative agent, it is also logically the inferred choice for meditation.23 Commenting on isvara pranidhana, Vyasa, the main commentator on the Yoga Sutras, directly confirms why “simply by the yogi’s longing, God bestows His grace upon the yogi. When this happens the fruit’s of samadhi becomes quickly available.”24

Bhakti as a process of transformation in relation to grace as described in the Yoga Sutras thus works something as follows:

By repetition of the Lord’s names and thinking of their meaning, which is a call to surrender, devotion naturally arises in the heart. Imbued with devotion, the presence of the Lord is then naturally felt everywhere until thoughts of devotion pervade the mind. The Lord, in reciprocation, naturally bestows His grace upon such a devoted soul by awarding him or her samadhi, but without the same effort usually required to attain such a wholesome state.25

In this sense, the process of bhakti works through the transformation of the material mind as other processes do. Sri Caitanya, certainly one of the most prominent proponents of the Bhakti tradition, thus declares in the first verse of His seminal composition Siksastakam, “ceto darapana marjanam” –that chanting cleanses (marjanam) the mind (ceto), which is like a mirror (darpanam). In ways, this is a classical yogic description of attaining samadhi, where the material mind of the embodied soul regains its pure condition where the soul can be reflected on it without distortion, the stage before one transcends the corporeal sphere altogether.

Of course, how the mind recovers its pure condition on the path of bhakti, and how it does so in other processes, is also quite different. On the path of bhakti, real devotion, selfless devotion, is not just a mental or physical activity, but an expression of the soul.26 Thus unlike other paths, which work, so to speak, from the outside in, that is they deal directly with the transformation of mind as a way to achieve pure inner awareness, bhakti is the opposite. Bhakti is first a rousing of the soul with devotion that then purifies the mind. In other words, as consciousness flows through the sheaths of the conditioned soul to animate it, including the mind, when that consciousness is awakened to its true nature of selfless devotion, the mind is gradually transformed to more and more conducive states for higher realization. This transformation thus happens simultaneously as bhakti imbues the soul with devotion:

“Devotion, direct experience of the Supreme Lord, and detachment from other things—these three occur simultaneously for one who has taken shelter of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in the same way that pleasure, nourishment, and relief from hunger come simultaneously and increasingly, with each bite, for a person engaged in eating.” (Bhag 11.1.42)

Obviously, the degree to which bhakti inspires the soul and transforms the mind depends on the purity of our practice and our level of devotion. Real transformative devotion is thus rag bhakti, where attachment (rag) to the Lord, not just obligation and duty, is the motivating force for our action.

Bhakti, action done with pure love for God, is thus a powerful transformative agent as it invokes grace, stirs the soul, and flows naturally away from egoism and exploitation, the core obstacles to yoga. In Bhagavad-gita it is thus deemed the best of transformative paths.27


Yoga psychology gives a practical, workable, and holistic paradigm for transformation, which thoroughly explains the effect of one’s nature, actions, environment and heartfelt devotion on the development of a healthy mind.

Dhanurdhara Swami’s essay Yoga Psychology is also posted at his website Waves of Devotion.

More articles by Dhanurdhara Swami.

Related Posts: Ishvara in the Yoga Sutras, The Mother, the Mind and Food

  1. The prime source for my study of yoga psychology was the recently published “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” by Dr. Edwin Bryant, North Point Press, which is not only a translation of the Yoga Sutras, but is a translation and commentary on all the major commentators on the Yoga Sutras as well. I began this paper before the book was officially published, so I would like to personally thank Professor Bryant for sharing with me, in advance, some excerpts of his work. The author is not only an established academic, but a long time student and practitioner of yoga as well, which makes for an especially insightful and readable translation and commentary.
  2. Bhagavad-gita, 6.5
  3. Yoga Sutras 1.5
  4. Inherent in most systems of Indian yogic thought, and most methods of mental health, is the concept that distress lies not in reality, but in our perception of it,, and thus mentors by carefully freeing us from ignorance also make us more mentally healthy.
  5. An example would be a young child who has bad experiences with his parents and thus develops a bad impression towards all authority and who then distrust all elders, even kinds ones.
  6. Problems of restoring mental health were also dealt with in the social structure, including family and priests. Extremely serious mental problems were also dealt with by certain types of tantrics.
  7. Bhagavad-gita, 14.1
  8. In Indian time there are 36 48-minute divisions called muhurtas. The brahma muhurta, the 48 minutes before sunrise, was considered the most conducive for spiritual life.
  9. Cleanliness is the object of sight in the mode of goodness and will naturally make one more peaceful and clear minded.
  10. Yoga is generally considered part of the path of jnana
  11. These four categories are my own divisions of action based on my study of the texts of the Indian yoga tradition.
  12. Specifically, sense data enters the mind through the manas, the function of thought dealing with the initial categorization of phenomena.
  13. A samskara can also be a memory of an unpleasant experience, an attachment then to avoid a certain object that previously caused pain or discomfort.
  14. For example, one can even be mistreated by another person and feel deep hate or even compassion for that person depending on how one’s intelligence is trained to digest that particular encounter.
  15. Traditional Indian social structure was not the caste system fixed at birth, but one based on one’s qualification. See Bhagavad-gita, 4.13
  16. By karma one may be stuck in work that is not suitable for one’s nature. Of course, one should seriously seek a change in employment, but if not possible, then one has to respond to one’s work like one responds to any unpleasant karmic situation that is difficult to change, by humbly seeing God’s hand to purify one of attachments.
  17. There is a third choice for correct action, dedicating one’s activities out of a natural devotion for God. This choice will be discussed separately in the section on Bhakti.
  18. The two most popular books in Indian culture are the Mahabharat and Ramayana, which basically promote integrity.
  19. In the Yoga Sutras I.37 one recommendation for meditation is to meditate on one who is free from desire.
  20. Not all Yogic paths consider all thoughts material. Some also ascribe some thought and agency to the soul, although all schools agree that the fluctuations of the material mind (vrttis) ultimately need to be stilled.
  21. On the path of bhakti there is deep discussion about the origin of grace, to what extent it can come from God and to what extent it must come from His devotee. That discussion is beyond the scope of this paper.
  22. Except for isvara pranidhana, which is paired with samadhi, all other niyamas (moral observances) are paired with “prakrtic” or material benefits, such as understanding one’s past lives and so on.
  23. A very strong case can be made from the Yoga Sutras that Pantanjali was a theist and that isvara pranidhana (surrender to the Lord) was his recommended object of meditation, even if still optional. See “Pantanjali’s Theistic Preference”, by Edwin Bryant, Journal of Vaisnava Studies Vol 14, No. 1/Fall 2008, p. 7
  24. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” by Dr. Edwin Bryant, North Point Press, p.82
  25. The practitioner of bhakti must still arduously practice meditation, but as his practice is a petitioning for the Lord’s grace, the result can be attained much easier by grace.
  26. There are many verses cited in the Bhakti tradition from various scriptures describing how bhakti is beyond the senses and mind. For example, often quoted from the Padma Purana and cited in the Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu 1.2.34 is “atah sri krishna namadi na bhaved grahyam indriyaih” –that the soul and God cannot be understood through the material senses.
  27. Bhagavad-gita, 6.47
Kaustubha das


patram pushpam phalam toyam / yo me bhaktya prayachati
tad aham bhakty-upahritam / ashnami prayatatmanah

“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.”

Bhagavad-gita 9.26

On January 31, 2009 photographer Stephan Crasneanscki shot the annual Pushya Abhishek Festival at the Radha Gopinath Temple in Mumbai. Below are some of the photos as well as an excerpt of the inaugural talk given by H.H. Radhanath Swami Maharaja.

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Excerpt From the Inaugural Talk

“This wonderful festival is a festival of devotion. Please don’t see just with your eyes, see through your heart. Through the wisdom we receive from the Holy Scriptures and the great saints. It is a shower of our combined intent to please Krishna, to purify our own hearts and ultimately to be instruments of love in every aspect of our life.”

“The world is in turmoil, economically, ecologically, emotionally, psychiatrically. According to the World Health Organization depression, mental illness, is the number three disease that causes pain and death. Why? Externally we have so much, but internally so little. The jewels of divine love within our hearts have been plundered by the thieves of greed, envy, anger, arrogance, selfish passion and illusion. Driven by those thieves, enemies within us, even the pure soul creates havoc within this world. There is a great need to understand what is really of value. Things like character, integrity, humility, self- control, a selfless spirit of compassion towards other living beings, which are all part and parcel of love for God. These are the greatest needs within this world.”

“Today hundreds and hundreds of devotees have been plucking flower petals. It is really beautiful to see, and to really appreciate it you have to know the people. There are simple taxi drivers, simple waiters who work in restaurants, simple people who are unemployed, living in little huts. And they are sitting next to multi, multi millionaires who are industrialists with international corporations. And together they are just plucking the petals. Little children are sitting next to PhD, IIT graduate engineers. Anyone can do it. We are all united in our combined efforts to just offer this very, very simple service to the Lord. It is said that all people are created equal. On the spiritual level we are all created equal but as long as we think ourselves American, Russian, European, or any of these other things, we are not equal. As long as we think ourselves man or woman, young or old we are not equal. There are no two snowflakes, since the beginning of time, that are identical. There are no two cats, two dogs or two human beings that are the same. We all have our karmas, conditionings, and attributes. Real equality is on the spiritual platform. In our devotion to the Lord we are equal. It was beautiful to see this.”

“India has been condemned because of its caste system, which is a perverted conception as it is lived and understood today. On the spiritual platform we are all servants of God and we can be united in that love, on a real level, not just a sentimental level. So we are all together plucking flowers and the result is baskets and baskets of flower petals, more than one ton. How beautiful! How much does the flower petal weigh? The endeavor to get so much made everyone so happy. People go to Bollywood movies, people work so hard to get a Mercedes Benz, or good clothes. They go to the gyms to get strong. Nothing against these things, but as far as happiness is concerned, none of these could compare to plucking the flower petals. Why? Because it awakens such ecstasy in our hearts if we do it with the right intent. And we really all become brothers and sisters, united. And the culmination of so many people plucking is that, although not one of them is getting paid, they are happy because they are doing it out of love in the spirit of service.”

“The culmination is that we get to see every single tiny flower petal made an offering of our united devotion. Our meditation while offering these flower petals is that we are making a prayer for the purification of our own hearts, for the awaking of the love that is dormant within us. We are praying for the blessing of the Lord within all living beings. We are praying for the spiritual prosperity of every living being. That is the mood of the offering of each of those millions and millions of petals. And after the offering there will be the festival where of all the maha prasada flower petals showered upon all of us.”

H.H. Radhanath Swami Maharaja

Click here to hear the entire talk, and for more photos and descriptions of the festival.

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Radha Govinda Temple / Photos by Robert Stoetzel

presthalibhih sevyamanau smarami

In a temple of jewels in Vrndavana, underneath a desire tree, Sri Sri Radha Govinda, served by Their most confidential associates, sit upon an effulgent throne. I offer my humble obeisances unto Them. [Sri Caitanya Caritamrita Adi 1.16]

The Radha Govinda Temple is seen as one of the most impressive examples of North Indian architecture. It sits in the middle of the Yogapitha, the sacred place where Radha and Krishna would meet.

The deity of Govinda, believed to have been established thousands of years ago by Krishna’s grandson Vajranaba, was rediscovered by Srila Rupa Goswami in the 16th century. The construction of the temple was begun under the direction of Raghunath Bhatta Goswami and his disciples, headed by Raja Man Singh (a general in the Army of Emperor Akbar) and was completed in 1590. Jiva Goswami praised Emperor Akbar in his Govindam Mandir Astakam (Eight Prayers in Glorification of the Govinda Temple), which is carved into the temple’s stone. The inscription reads “Emperor Akbar is a very kind-hearted person and a Vaishnava. I give my blessings to Emperor Akbar. In his kingdom all the Vaishnavas are living very peacefully.”

Less than 100 years later Emperor Aurangzeb ordered the temple’s destruction. Before his soldiers arrived the deities of Radha and Govinda were moved. They now reside in the grand Govindaji temple in Jaipur.

Before its destruction the temple stood seven stories high. Just two stories remain. Still, the Radha Govinda Temple remains a towering monument to Lord Govinda and a place where one can feel a connection to the great saints of the past and the history of Krishna devotion in Vrindavan.

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Robert Stoetzel is a New York based photographer traveling and photographing in India trough March 2009.

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Kirtan Podcast 4 – Karnamrita “The Story of Pingala”

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Among all the kirtan singers out there, it would be hard to find one with a voice more pure or beautiful than Karnamrita. She’s been singing kirtan since her early childhood and was trained in Indian classical vocals in Vrindavan. This track, “The Story of Pingala”, is from the CD Dasi–Prayers by Women, a compilation of songs and prayers by or about great women in the Krishna Bhakti Traditions. This brilliant and exciting recording is composed of verses taken directly from a section of the Srimad-bhagavatam’s 11th Canto known as the Uddhava-gita.

The Uddhava-gita is a rich resource of teachings on bhakti. Responding to Uddhava’s request for instructions on renunciation, Krishna relates an avadhutas account of his twenty-four gurus. These twenty-four gurus are an eclectic group of people, animals and other natural phenomena – for instance, the earth, the wind, the sky, the moon, the python, the moth, etc. The avadhuta‘s account shows how one can develop wisdom and conviction in bhakti through observing one’s surroundings.

One of the guru’s, the prostitute Pingala, is the subject of this song. These verses are an expression of her frustration with sensual pursuits and her joyous awakening of detachment and devotion.

I’ve included the Srimad-bhagavatam verses below, both in the original Sanskrit and the English translation. I highly recommend the CD which has a variety of beautiful songs.

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To Purchase the CD Dasi – Prayers by Women Click Here

The Story of Pingala From the CD Dasi – Prayers by Women

Vocals: Karnamrita
Melody composed by: Yuddhistira and Karnamrita
Tablas: Yuddhistira
Kartals: Chaitanya Nitai
Hand Claps: Ron Marinelli
Produced by Karnamrita and Ron Marinelli
Mixed and mastered by Ron Marinelli

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From Srimad-Bhagavatam 11th Canto, Chapter 8

aho me moha-vitatim
ya kantad asatah kamam
kamaye yena balisa

The prostitute Pingala said: Just see how greatly illusioned I am! Because I cannot control my mind, just like a fool I desire lusty pleasure from an insignificant man.

santam samipe ramanam rati-pradam
vitta-pradam nityam imam vihaya
akama-dam duhkha-bhayadhi-soka-
moha-pradam tuccham aham bhaje ‘jna

I am such a fool that I have given up the service of that person who, being eternally situated within my heart, is actually most dear to me. That most dear one is the Lord of the universe, who is the bestower of real love and happiness and the source of all prosperity. Although He is in my own heart, I have completely neglected Him. Instead I have ignorantly served insignificant men who can never satisfy my real desires and who have simply brought me unhappiness, fear, anxiety, lamentation and illusion.

nunam me bhagavan prito
vishnuh kenapi karmana
nirvedo ‘yam durasaya
yan me jatah sukhavahah

Although I most stubbornly hoped to enjoy the material world, somehow or other detachment has arisen in my heart, and it is making me very happy. Therefore the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vishnu, must be pleased with me. Without even knowing it, I must have performed some activity satisfying to Him.

maivam syur manda-bhagyayah
klesa nirveda-hetavah
yenanubandham nirhritya
purushah samam ricchati

A person who has developed detachment can give up the bondage of material society, friendship and love, and a person who undergoes great suffering gradually becomes, out of hopelessness, detached and indifferent to the material world. Thus, due to my great suffering, such detachment awoke in my heart; yet how could I have undergone such merciful suffering if I were actually unfortunate? Therefore, I am in fact fortunate and have received the mercy of the Lord. He must somehow or other be pleased with me.

tenopakritam adaya
sirasa gramya-sangatah
tyaktva durasah saranam
vrajami tam adhisvaram

With devotion I accept the great benefit that the Lord has bestowed upon me. Having given up my sinful desires for ordinary sense gratification, I now take shelter of Him, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

santushta sraddadhaty etad
yatha-labhena jivati
viharamy amunaivaham
atmana ramanena vai

I am now completely satisfied, and I have full faith in the Lord’s mercy. Therefore I will maintain myself with whatever comes of its own accord. I shall enjoy life with only the Lord, because He is the real source of love and happiness.

[Translation from Srimad-bhagavatam, courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc. Used with permission.]

Kaustubha das

December Vrindavan

As the busy month of Kartik1 reaches it’s end, the crowds of pilgrims in Vrindavan gradually thin. December’s cold brings a thick fog and with the change in ambiance comes a change in mood. The spirit shifts. It feels like Vrindavan is calling the soul to move from festive celebration to hushed, solemn contemplation and prayer. In the mornings one can circle the path around the town visiting holy spots veiled in haze.

Early in the morning, Keshi Ghat, usually lively with pilgrims and sadhus bathing in the holy Jamuna, becomes a lonely place. Boats sit idle on the bank. Beautifully carved sandstone piers invite you to rest a moment, take a few drops of holy water on your head, gaze up river toward the Madan Mohan Temple, and offer a prayer in silence.

This is the place where Krishna killed the horse demon Keshi who represents false pride, an obstacle on the path of bhakti. In the Bhagavad-gita Arjuna refers to Krishna as Keshi-nishudana (slayer of Keshi). His hope was that, by his divine instructions, Krishna would slay the doubts which hindered his spiritual conviction. At this spot, Krishna bhaktas have been offering similar prayers for thousands of years.

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Robert Stoetzel is a New York based photographer traveling and photographing in India trough March 2009.

Related Posts: Gopurams in Sepia / Portraits from the Kunds of Govardhan / Murals of the Krishna Balaram Temple

  1. Kartik is the eighth lunar month of the Hindu calendar. It is characterized by many religious festivals especially in the North Indian holy town of Vridavan.
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Murals of the Krishna Balaram Temple

Vrindavan is a town of literally thousands of Krishna temples, some small and mostly unnoticed, some popular and festive. Many date back hundreds or even thousands of years and new ones are always springing up. Among the most visited is the Krishna Balaram Mandir (temple) which was personally established by Sri Bhaktivedanta Swami in 1975. The temple is situated in Raman Reti, Vrindavan, where it is said that Lord Sri Krishna displayed His lilas 5,000 years ago. Sri Krishna and his brother Balaram would herd their cows at Raman Reti near the Yamuna River.

Approaching the temple, one passes under a grand marble archway connecting the samadhi (sacred tomb) of Sri Bhaktivedanta Swami, with a matching structure used for greeting and feeding guests. Next, one descends a few steps to enter through the temples large ornate doorway and, passing over the checkered marble floor, one comes to a sunken, open courtyard which provides a charming space for celebrating festivals or for simply resting and taking in the divine atmosphere. Past the courtyard, one steps into the temple itself where kirtan is held and scripture is discussed at the foot of the three magnificent alters dedicated to, on the left, Sri Caitanya and Nityananda, in the center Sri Krishna and Balaram, and on the right Sri Sri Radha Shyamasundara (Radha and Krishna).

Around the courtyard are large panels which serve as frames for murals depicting, on the left, the lilas of Sri Krishna and, on the right, the lilas of Sri Chaitanya. Other murals are squeezed into corners or fill open spaces. Collected here are photos of just some of the murals, to give the viewer an idea of the temples beauty and spirit of devotion. The photos are by Gitapriya dasi and unfortunately I don’t know the identity of the artists who painted the murals. If any viewer has information about the artists please feel free to leave a comment. I’ve included verses, relating to the lilas depicted in the murals, as captions.

For more photos and video of the Krishna Balaram Temple one can follow the links below.

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Photos of the Krishna Balaram Temple

Video of the Krishna Balaram Temple

Related Posts: Gopurams in Sepia / Portraits from the Kunds of Govardhan

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Kirtan Podcast 3: In the Temple of My Heart

Bhaktivinode Thakurmama– my, mana– mind or heart, mandire– in the temple
Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinode Thakura was a nineteenth century religious reformer in the Chaitanya or Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya. He was a prolific author, songwriter, poet and proponent of Krishna bhakti.
In this beautiful Bengali song, Bhaktivinode Thakur expresses his ardent desire for Lord Krishna to reside in his heart, where he can make his offerings of love. I find this song serves as a reminder and inspiration that behind all religious ritual lies the purpose of the transformation of the mind or heart, and that ultimately, the heart is both the place of genuine worship as well as the truest and most pleasing item to be offered in devotion.

The song is sung by the bhajana group Spiritual Skyliner, which was a traveling group of Vaishnava brahmacaris from Germany. The angelic lead singing is by Gadadhara Das. Musically this song is unique in that each verse is sung in a different melody. Mama Mana Mandire appeared on the cd Spiritual Skyliner: Sacred Mantras. More of their music can be found here and here.

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Mam Mana Mandire
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Mama Mana Mandire

by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura

(1) mama mana mandire raha nisi-din
krsna murari sri krsna murari

Please abide in the temple of my heart
both day and night, O Krsna Murari, O Sri Krsna Murari!

(2) bhakti priti mala candan
tumi nio he nio krsna-nandan

Devotion, love, flower garlands, and sandalwood- please accept them,
Delighter of the Heart!

(3) jivana marana tava puja nivedan
sundara he mana-hari

In life or in death I worship You with these offerings,
Beautiful One, O Enchanter of the Heart!

(4) eso nanda-kumar ar nanda-kumar
habe prema-pradipe arati tomar

Come, son of Nanda, and then, O Son of Nanda
I will offer Your arati ceremony with the lamplight of my love.

(5) nayana jamuna jhare anibar
tomara virahe giridhari

The waters of the Yamuna river cascade incessantly from my eyes
in your separation, O Holder of Govordhana Hill!

(6) bandana gane tava bajuk jivana
krsna murari sri krsna murari

May I pass my life absorbed only in songs of Your praise, O Krsna Murari, Sri Krsna Murari!

Related Posts: Kirtan Podcast: As Kindred Spirits / Kirtan Podcast 2: Aindra Das

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Kirtan Podcast 2: Aindra Das

Aindra Smile

Whenever I stay in Vrindavan, I make a point of spending every evening in the Krishna Balaram Temple with hundreds of bhaktas singing in kirtan led by Aindra Das. An American who moved to Vrindavan in the early 8o’s, Aindra das leads a group of kirtaniyas who maintain kirtan 24 hours a day, everyday in the temple. He lives simply, he’s learned in the teachings of bhakti and he is deeply devoted to kirtan. One can always witness and experience the most amazing things at his kirtans, not just occasionally, but every evening. Here’s one example. It’s a fifteen minute recording that starts slow and gradually builds. The rhythms may feel unfamiliar at first, but if you relax and give it a little time I think you’ll find a special treasure here.

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Aindra Das Kirtan
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Related Posts: PODCAST: As Kindred Spirits

Aindra Kirtan

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The Nature of the Self: A Gaudiya Vaisnava Understanding

Sri ChaitanyaA primary task of every Vedantic tradition is to provide an analysis of the nature of the self according to the Upanishads and allied texts. In terms of theory, such descriptions are meant to provide insight into the coherent message which unites Upanishadic literature. In terms of practice, they guide the inner life of sadhakas in the attempt to recover their deepest selves. Gaudiya Vaishnavas (the followers of Sri Chaitanya) are no different in this regard. Practitioners aspire to recover their genuine self which is currently obscured by various upadhis (illusory designations). In truth, the Gaudiyas claim, the self is a small spark of the divine shakti (energy) of Brahman, in a sense one with, yet in another sense different from it’s source.

In the following paper, Ravindra-svarupa dasa provides an introductory presentation on the nature of the self according to the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. It was originally presented at the Vaisnava-Christian Conference on January 20-21, 1996 at Buckland Hall, Powys, Wales.

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The Nature of the Self: A Gaudiya Vaisnava Understanding

The Sparks of God

The soul, or self (atma), is described as a separated, minute fragment of God, the Supersoul (paramatma). God is like a fire; the individual souls, sparks of the fire. As the analogy suggests, the self and the Superself are simultaneously one with and different from each other. They are the same in quality, for both the soul and the Supersoul are brahman, spirit. Yet they differ in quantity, since the Superself (param brahman—“supreme brahman”—in Bhagavad-gita 10.12) is infinitely great while the individual selves are infinitesimally small.

In the Upanisads some texts assert the identity between the individual soul and the Supreme Soul, while others speak of the difference between them. The way the Vaisnava Vedanta resolves this apparent contradiction recognises identity and difference as equally real.

Such a reconciliation is conveyed in the Katha Upanisad (2.2.13) in the words nityo nityanam cetannas cetananam eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman. (“There is one eternal being out of many eternals, one conscious being out of many conscious beings. It is the one who provides for the needs of the many.”) This text states, in effect, that there is a class division in transcendence. It says that there are two categorically different types of eternal, conscious—hence, spiritual—beings. One category is singular in number (nityo), a set with only one member. This, then, is the category of God, who is one without a second. The other class is plural (nityanam), containing innumerable members. This is the category of the souls. The members of both classes are brahman, spirit. Yet one of them is unique, peerless, in a class by Himself, for He is the singular, independent self-sustaining sustainer of all others. Each of the others possesses a multitude of peers, and all of them alike are intrinsically dependent upon the one. The one is the absolute, the many are relative.

The Energies of the Absolute

Fundamental to the Vaisnava Vedanta is the doctrine that the Absolute Truth possesses energies. (The impersonalistic Advaita Vedanta, in contrast, denies the reality of the energies.) The energies are divided into different categories; one of them is comprised of the innumerable individual souls.

The “Absolute Truth” denotes that from which everything emanates, by which it is sustained, and to which it finally returns. The products of the Absolute are thought of as its sakti, its energy or potency. Heat and light, for example, are considered the “energies” of fire. Just as the sun projects itself everywhere by its radiation yet remains apart, so the Absolute expands its own energies to produce (and, in a fashion, to become) the world while remaining separate from it. Unlike the sun, the Absolute can emanate unlimited energy and remain undiminished. (The arithmetic of the Absolute: One minus one equals one.) In short, while nothing is different from God, God is different from everything.

The host of souls makes up the category of divine energy called the tatastha-sakti. Tata means “bank,” as of a river or lake. Tatastha means “situated on the bank.” The souls are characterised as marginal or borderline energy because they are, as it were, between two worlds. They can dwell within either of the other two major energies, the internal (antaranga-sakti) and the external (bahiranga-sakti). The internal potency is also known as the spiritual energy (cit-sakti), and the external potency is also called the material energy (maya-sakti). The internal potency expands as the transcendental realm, the eternal Kingdom of God. The external potency expands as the material world, which is sometimes manifest and sometimes unmanifest.

Because souls are spiritual, their original home is the spiritual kingdom. Almost all souls dwell there. These are called eternally liberated souls. Only a tiny minority of souls inhabit this material world. These are called fallen, or conditioned, souls.

Souls are small samples of God. Hence they possess a minute quantity of that freedom which God possesses in full. Although they are eternal, full of knowledge and bliss, and although their dharma, or essential nature, is to serve God, they may still, in the exercise of that freedom, wilfully turn away from divine service. Thereupon these souls fall into the inhospitable realm of the external, material energy.

Because souls are constitutionally servants, even the rebellious souls remain under God’s control, but that control is now exercised indirectly and unfavourably through the agency of material nature. Souls do not have the freedom not to be controlled by God, but they do choose freely how they wish to be controlled. Those who will not voluntarily be controlled by the Lord are controlled involuntarily by material nature. For this reason, spiritual souls become incarcerated within matter. Under the superintendence of the Lord, there is a confluence of the marginal and the external energies, and the creation arises.

Spirits in the Material World

The presence of spirit within the material world is disclosed immediately to us by consciousness. Consciousness is the symptom of the soul. It is the current or the energy of the soul. Consciousness does not arise as a by-product of the material energy. A material object like a table or chair is entirely an object and in no way a subject. It does not undergo experiences. It has no significance for itself. An embodied soul, a living being, on the other hand, is a subject; it has significance for itself as well as for others; it undergoes experiences. The claim that the soul is a “metaphysical entity” beyond all possible experience is simply false. Not only do we experience the soul; the soul is the very condition for our having any experiences at all.

Thus, souls are fundamental, irreducible entities in the world. Each living, conscious being is of a different category from the material energy which embodies and surrounds it. The Upanisads declare: aham brahmasmi, I am brahman, I am spirit. The corollary is: I am not matter. And further: I am not this body. Human beings achieve their full potential when they realise this.

The material elements, of which living bodies are made, are traditionally given as eight: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false ego. They are arranged in sequence from the grossest to the subtlest, that is, from the most apparent to our senses to the least. The first five are the gross elements (maha-bhuta-s); the last three, the subtle elements (suksma-bhuta-s). The gross elements become more intelligible to us when translated as: solids, liquids, gases, radiant energy, and space. The subtle elements, taken together, make up what we in the West generally call the “mind.” The subtle element manas, or mind, is the locus of habit, of normal thinking, feeling, and willing according to one’s established mind-set. Buddhi, or intelligence, is the higher faculty of discrimination and judgement; it determines mind-sets and comes to the fore when we undergo conversions or paradigm shifts. Ahamkara, or the sense of self, is the faculty by which the embodied soul assumes a false or illusory identity in the material world.

Conditioned souls attain human form after transmigrating upward through the scale of beings; thereupon they become capable of self-realisation and liberation. Liberation means giving up the false identification of the self with the gross and subtle material coils and regaining one’s original spiritual form as a servant of God.

Even in the conditioned state, the soul always remains a spiritual being. Like a dreamer who projects his identity onto an illusory, dream-self, the conditioned soul acquires a false self of matter. Although the self is by nature eternal, full of knowledge and full of bliss, this nature becomes covered by illusion. Identifying with the material body, the soul is plunged into the nightmare of history, trapped in the revolutions of repeated birth and death (mrtyu-samsara). This false identification by the embodied souls with their psychophysical coverings is the cause of all their suffering.

The quest by conditioned souls for happiness in this world inevitably fails. The eternal souls naturally seek eternal happiness, yet they seek it where all happiness is temporary. The fulfillment of the most common and basic desire, that of self-preservation, has not once met with success. Indeed, the deluded souls do not know that matters are just the opposite of the way they seem. Gratification of the senses is in fact the generator of suffering, not happiness. This is because each act of sense gratification intensifies the soul’s false identification with the body. Consequently, when the body undergoes disease, senescence, and death, the materially absorbed living beings experience all these as happening to themselves. Death is an illusion they have imposed upon themselves owing to their desire to enjoy in this world. So enjoying, their agony continues unabated. A mind brimming with unfulfilled yearnings propels them, at the time of death, into new material bodies, to begin yet another round.

Recovering the Authentic Self

Fallen souls have been granted a false material identity because they reject their authentic spiritual identity. The traces of that rejection are found everywhere. We see that all organisms, from microbes on up, are driven by the mechanism of desire and hate, by “approach” and “avoidance.” This duality is the reverberation of the original sinful will that propelled them into this world. The original sinful desire is: “Why can’t I be God?” And the original sinful hate, “Why should Krishna be God?”

When souls evince the desire to become the Lord, the Lord responds by granting them the illusion of independent lordship. They enter the material kingdom, to be provided with a sequence of false identities—costumes fabricated out of material energy—along with an inventory of objects which they think they can dominate and enjoy. Even so, the Lord accompanies them in their wanderings, dwelling in their hearts as He works to bring about their eventual rectification and return from exile. When the soul in the depth of his being again turns to God, the Lord makes all arrangements for his inauthentic, illusory life to end.

The renovation of real life is called bhakti-yoga—reconnecting the soul with the Supersoul (yoga) by loving devotional service (bhakti). Bhakti rests upon the principle that desire and activity are not in themselves bad. The soul itself is the source of desire and activity. The original, pure desire of the soul is to satisfy the senses of the Lord. This is called prema, or love. When souls contact matter, their love becomes transformed into lust (kama), which is the desire to satisfy one’s own senses. The practice of bhakti-yoga reconverts lust into love. Desire is not suppressed or repressed; it is purified. One may call this “sublimation,” but it should be understood that when desire is thus sublimated it returns to its own natural and aboriginal state.

The world, the body with its senses, the sense objects are not to be enjoyed, but neither are they to be renounced. The world is God’s energy, and it should not be decried as false or evil. Rather, the elements of this world are to be engaged in divine service. When that is done, the veil of illusion is lifted, and everything and everyone are seen in their true identity: in relationship to God. The way to see divinity everywhere and in everything is to utilise everything in the Lord’s service. God is the first of fact, but our materially contaminated senses cannot perceive Him. When, however, the senses become purified by being engaged in the Lord’s service, they regain their capacity to perceive God directly.

Such purified souls are fully joyful. They neither hanker nor lament. Their happiness does not depend upon the course of circumstance. They see all living beings as the same. They see that all the agony and hopelessness of the world is exorcised when the illusion that has rendered us oblivious to our own identity is dispelled, and they engage themselves in the highest welfare work of rousing sleeping souls from their nightmare. For themselves, they take no mind of what becomes of the future of their lives.

Because they have no material desires, there is no further birth for them in this world. Instead, they attain their original spiritual forms in the kingdom of God, spiritual bodies suitable for pastimes of love with the Lord.

Spirits in the Spiritual World

The Absolute Truth has both an impersonal and a personal feature, but the personal feature is the last word in Godhead. To say the Absolute is a person is to say that it has senses (indriya-s). Traditionally, the senses are ten: those through which the world acts upon us (instruments of hearing, touching, seeing, tasting, and smelling), and those through which we act upon the world (instruments of manipulation, locomotion, sound production, reproduction, and evacuation). The mind is often considered the eleventh sense. A body, accordingly, may be thought of as an array of senses organised around a centre of consciousness. Thus, to say that the Absolute is a person is to say that the Absolute has body or form.

The body of God is not material. It is a spiritual or transcendental form—sad-cit-ananda-vigraha, an eternal form of bliss and knowledge. Though differentiated by limbs or parts, a spiritual body is nevertheless completely unified and identical with its own possessor. Therefore, in God, there is no difference between body and soul, mind and body, soul and mind. Every limb or part of that body can perform all functions of every other limb.

Because the Absolute is a person, the souls, the offspring of God, are also persons, and they fully manifest their authentic identity only in relationship with the Supreme Person. When conditioned souls act under the impetus of sense gratification, their bodies evolve materially. But when the souls act in their constitutional position, their love toward God displays itself as the soul’s proper spiritual bodies. Thus, the selves achieve their full personal identity and self-expression as lovers of God.

All relationships in this world are dim and perverted reflections of their real prototypes in the kingdom of God. The taste or flavour of a relationship is called rasa (literally, “juice”). It is said that there are five primary rasa-s a soul can have toward the Lord. In order of increasing intimacy, they are passive adoration, servitorship, fraternal, parental, and conjugal.

God and His devotees engage in eternal pastimes of loving exchanges in spiritual forms that are sheer embodiments of rasa. Such bodies are the unmediated concrete expressions of spiritual ecstasies. These unceasing, uninterrupted, ever-increasing variegated ecstasies are nondifferent from the souls and from the spiritual bodies that bear them. The forms and activities of the Lord and His devotees all possess transcendental specificity and variegatedness. The forms of love are not abstractions and their relations are not allegories. In the kingdom of God life is infinitely more full, vivid, and real than anything of the thin shadows that flicker here, on and off. Here, we are not what we are. There, we are truly ourselves again because we are truly God’s.

(This article has been previously published on Ravindra Svarupa Dasa’s weblog So It Happens, and has been used here with his kind permission.)

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Dravida dasa chants *


Dravida dasa is a Vaishnava monk, editor, musician, poet, and walking encyclopedia of devotional Sanskrit verse. He possesses a deep love for the Sanskrit language, and his mind and voice are always engaged in bhakti song and poetry. Here he immerses himself in the elaborate prosody of the Mukunda-mala-stotra of Kulasekhara Alvar. This podcast is forty-five minutes long with Sanskrit verses and English translation. I highly recommend setting some time aside, putting in the earphones and listening to the entire stotra with concentration for a very cathartic meditation. The translation is by Sriman Kushakrata dasa. Below, I’ve also included an excerpt from the introduction to the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust’s edition entitled Mukunda-mala-stotra, The prayers of King Kulasekhara. For more recordings from Dravida dasa click here.

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Of the many hundreds of poetic Sanskrit stotras-songs of glorification offered to the Supreme Lord, His devotees, and the holy places of His pastimes-King Kulasekhara’s Mukunda-mala-stotra is one of the most perennially famous. Some say that its author conceived it as a garland (mala) of verses offered for Lord Krishna’s pleasure. It has long been dear to Vaishnavas of all schools, and our own spiritual master, Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, frequently enjoyed citing certain favorite stanzas from it. King Kulasekhara was part of the Sri-sampradaya, the Vaishnava school founded by Lord Vishnu’s divine consort, Sri. This school’s most prominent representative, Ramanuja Acarya (eleventh century), built on the work of his predecessors Natha Muni and Yamuna Acarya and established the systematic philosophy of Sri Vaishnavism. But these acaryas came in an already old tradition, that of the ecstatic mystic poets called Alvars. The twelve Alvars appeared at various times in South India, in the area roughly corresponding to present-day Tamil Nadu. According to the tradition of the Sri Vaishnavas, the earliest Alvars lived more than five thousand years ago, at the start of the present age, Kali-yuga, while the most recent lived in the first millennium A.D. The Alvars’ Tamil poetry was collected in the Tiruvaymoli, revered by Sri Vaishnavas as their own vernacular Veda. On the strength of the Tiruvaymoli’s devotional authority, the Sri Vaishnavas claim to follow Ubhaya-vedanta, the dual Vedanta philosophy founded on both Sanskrit and Tamil scripture. Some Alvars were atypical renunciants: the third, Andal, was a woman, and three were involved in governing. Among these was the tenth Alvar, Kulasekhara Perumal, who was a ruling king in the Cera dynasty of Malainadu, in what is now Kerala. Modern scholars say he may have lived during the ninth century A.D. A traditional history of King Kulasekhara states that once, as he slept in his palace quarters, he had a brilliant and distinct vision of Lord Krishna. Upon awaking he fell into a devotional trance and failed to notice dawn breaking. The royal musicians and ministers came as usual to his door to wake him, but after waiting some time without hearing him respond, they reluctantly took the liberty of entering his room. The king came out of his trance and described his vision to them, and from that day on he no longer took much interest in ruling. He delegated most of his responsibilities to his ministers and dedicated himself to rendering devotional service to the Lord. After some years he abdicated the throne and went to Sri Rangam, where he remained in the association of the Krishna Deity of Ranganatha and His many exalted devotees. At Sri Rangam Kulasekhara is said to have composed his two great works: the Mukunda-mala-stotra, in Sanskrit; and 105 Tamil hymns, which were later incorporated into the Tiruvaymoli under the title Perumal-tirumoli. As the other Alvars do in their mystic expressions, in his Perumal-tirumoli King Kulasekhara emulates the roles of some of Lord Ramacandra’s and Lord Krishna’s intimate devotees: King Dasaratha; two of the Lord’s mothers, Kausalya and Devaki; and some of the young cowherd women of Vrindavana. But Maharaja Kulasekhara expresses no pride in realizing such confidential devotional moods. On the contrary, with deep humility he repeatedly begs simply to be allowed to take his next births as a bird, fish, or flower in the place where Lord Krishna enacts His pastimes, and in this way to enjoy the association of His devotees. The Mukunda-mala-stotra, although composed in elegant Sanskrit, is a simple expression of King Kulasekhara’s devotion to Krishna and his eagerness to share his good fortune with everyone else. Being thus a very public work, it does not delve into intimate personal revelations or abstruse philosophical conundrums. Like most other works of the stotra genre, it aims less at presenting a plot than at vividly and honestly expressing the true feelings of a lover of God. With this much we the readers should be completely satisfied, because it is a rare opportunity for us when a devotee of King Kulasekhara’s stature opens his heart so freely-and in a way just appropriate for us, with all our imperfections, to appreciate.

Text from Mukunda-mala-stotra, The prayers of King Kulasekhara, courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc. Used with permission.

Matthew Dasti

Ishvara in the Yoga-sutras


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Patanjali’s Yoga-sutra 1.23-28 presents Ishvara (God, the highest Self) as an object of meditation and suggests that he may be contemplated through the sacred syllable OM. Various commentators have provided elaborate analysis and elucidation upon the role of Ishvara within the practice of Yoga. In the following excerpt from his forthcoming book, a translation and extensive commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras (see publication information below), Dr. Edwin Bryant examines the classical commentaries on this section of text while providing his own insights.

Edwin Bryant is a professor of religious studies at Rutgers University, specializing in Hinduism. He is also a longtime practitioner and scholar of yoga and various forms of bhakti, and conducts workshops at yoga centers throughout America. I was fortunate to be a student of Edwin’s during my time at Rutgers, and I feel still more fortunate to count him as a friend. He has always struck me as a model of frank, objective scholarship mixed with sympathetic involvement and care for the subjects of his inquiry. We are grateful that he has been kind enough to share parts of his study of the Yoga-shastras with us.

To view the article, follow the link above.


Dr. Bryant’s bio-data:

Edwin F. Bryant received his Ph.D in Indic languages and Cultures from Columbia University. He taught Hinduism at Harvard University for three years, and is presently the professor of Hinduism at Rutgers University where he teaches courses on Hindu philosophy and religion. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, published six books and authored a number of articles on Vedic history, yoga, and the Krishna tradition. In addition to his academic work for the scholarly community, Edwin’s Penguin World Classics translation of the Srimad Bhagavata Purana, the traditional source for the story of Krishna’s incarnation, is both for Indology specialists as well as students and those interested in Hinduism from the general reading public and the yoga community.

As a personal practitioner of yoga for 28 years, a number of them spent in India studying with traditional teachers, where he returns yearly, Edwin strives to combine academic scholarship and rigor with sensitivity towards traditional knowledge systems. In addition to his academic course load, Edwin currently teaches workshops on the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and Hindu Philosophy at yoga studios and teacher training courses throughout the country. His forthcoming translation of and commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) is specifically dedicated to contributing to the growing body of literature on yoga by providing insights from the major pre-modern commentaries on the text with a view to grounding the teachings in their traditional context.

Edwin Bryant’s website: http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~edbryant/

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Indirect Perception Of Brahman in the Bhagavad-gita

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The Bhagavad-gita’s chapters are replete with references to the discernment of the wise. Contrasts in perception are drawn between the yogi of disciplined mind who sees the truth, and those bewildered by ego who chase the illusions of this world.

But how does one’s vision shift from seeing stones and gold as vastly different, to seeing them as the same? How can one view friends and enemies with an equal eye? How does one perceive God within this world, a recurrent theme in the Gita?

Matthew Dasti’s paper Indirect Perception of Brahman in the Bhagavad-gita uses a contemporary account of indirect seeing to examine religious experience within the Bhagavad-gita. It was originally delivered at the Seventeenth Annual Congress of Vedanta, held at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, September 20-23, 2007.

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PODCAST: As Kindred Spirits

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He Gopal (Yasomatinandana)
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From the CD Nectar of Devotion, Hey Gopal (Yasomati-nandana)

On this track As Kindred Spirits blend the traditional chant “Krishna, Govinda, Govinda, Gopal, Nandulal” with the bhajan Sri Nama Kirtan (Yasomati-Nandana) composed by Vaishnava theologian and songwriter Bhaktivinode Thakura. In Sri Nama Kirtan Bhaktivinode Thakura employs a lyrical device wherein nearly the entire song consists of Krishna’s names, each of which serve to rouse remembrance or meditation of the Lords many lilas (pastimes). You can find the translation below.

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From the CD’s liner notes:

“Adapted from a melody performed at the world famous Radha Ramana Temple in Vrindavan, this song is composed of names of Lord Sri Krishna. Vaisnavas love to sing the names of Krishna – amala harinam amiya-vilasa. ‘These pure, holy names of Lord Hari (Krishna) are full of sweet, nectarean pastimes.’ If you know what to listen for, you’ll also hear a riff from one of the sweetest devotional Indian movies ever made, called, Sita Swayamvara.”

More Information on As Kindred Spirits

Purchase the CD

Gaura Vani: Lead vocal, Harmonium arrangements and recording engineer
Sandeep Mody: Tabla, Sarod, Violin, arrangements, and backing vocals.

Sridhama, Bhakti, Tuka, Radhika, Ani, Rombhoru, Ketu, Radha Madhava, Nandu, Sunanda, Jayananda, Jagannath Chandan, Bali, Mitrasena, Shyam, Sita and Krpa: All vocal and instrumental accompaniment.

Bada Haridas, Bhakta Jim Sater: Sound mastering, mixing, and additional technical assistance.

Sri Nama-Kirtana

(by Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura)

yashomati-nandana, braja-baro-nagara
gokula-ranjana kana
gopi-parana-dhana, madana-manohara

amala harinam amiya-vilasa
vipina-purandara, navina nagara-bora
bamshi-badana suvasa

braja-jana-palana, asura-kula-nashana
govinda madhava, navanita-taskara
sundara nanda-gopala

jamuna-tata-chara, gopi-basana-hara
rasa-rasika kripamoya
shri-radha-vallabha, brindabana-natabara


(1) Krishna is the beloved son of Mother Yashoda; the transcendental lover in the land of Vraja; the delight of Gokula; Kana [a nickname of Krishna]; the wealth of the lives of the gopis. He steals the mind of even Cupid and punishes the serpent Kaliya.

(2) These pure, holy names of Lord Hari are full of sweet, nectarean pastimes. Krishna is the Lord of the twelve forests of Vraja. He is ever-youthful and is the best of lovers. He is always playing on a flute, and He is an excellent dresser.

(3) Krishna is the protector of the inhabitants of Vraja; the destroyer of various demoniac dynasties; the keeper and tender of Nanda Maharaja’s cows; the giver of pleasure to the cows, land, and spiritual senses; the husband of the goddess of fortune; the butter thief; and the beautiful cowherd boy of Nanda Maharaja.

(4) Krishna wanders along the banks of the River Yamuna. He stole the garments of the young damsels of Vraja who were bathing there. He delights in the mellows of the rasa dance; He is very merciful; the lover and beloved of Shrimati Radharani; the great dancer of Vrindavana; and the shelter and only refuge of Bhaktivinoda Thakura.

Related Posts: An Expression of Conviction in Bhakti

Matthew Dasti

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and Raganuga Sadhana Bhakti

by Dhanurdhara Swami

BS with dates

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Dhanurdhara Swami’s paper, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and Raganuga Sadhana
explores a central point of contention regarding the influence
of Vaishnava reformer and modernizer, Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati (1874 – 1937).
The following is meant to serve as a brief introduction, as the paper’s primary
audience are those persons who are somewhat familiar with the Gaudiya
tradition and the main forms of sadhana which it advocates.

Like other traditions of late-Medieval Indian spirituality, Gaudiya
Vaishnavism, the tradition stemming from Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu
(1486-1533), developed visualization techniques to aid the meditation of
adept practitioners. Such techniques are often passed down from guru to
disciple in some form of initiation. The purpose of these practices, called
Raganuga Sadhana Bhakti (“the devotional practice which follows from deep
attachment”) is well summarized by scholar David Haberman:

The goal of Raganuga Bhakti Sadhana is to shift identity. . . [to] the
“perfected form” (siddha-rupa), which is one’s true and ultimate identity.
Salvation, to the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, is unending participation in the
cosmic drama, and the skills of the actor are employed in pursuit of the
true identity which allows such participation. (Acting as a Way of
, Motilal Edition, 4)

Such practices are traditionally nourished by absorption in kirtan, which,
for Gaudiyas, takes the form of nama-sankirtana, meditation on God’s
(Krishna’s) names. It should be underscored that the visualization practices
involved in raganuga sadhana bhakti are highly esoteric. Most members of the
tradition (including non-renunciates and most lay persons) do not engage in
it, though, doubtless, they engage in some kind of kirtana. Most hope to
eventually practice some form of Raganuga sadhana when they are spiritually

Dhanurdhara Swami’s paper discusses the decision by Sri Bhaktisiddhanta to
deemphasize certain developments of Raganuga sadhana, particularly what is
called ekadasa-bhava, where a guru imparts to the disciple different
features of his or her siddha-rupa at the time of initiation.
Bhaktisiddhanta instead focused on the performance and promulgation of
kirtana. This was part of Bhaktisiddhanta’s adjustments to Gaudiya Vaishnava
tradition in the face of modernity, and is a source of no small contention
among his critics. What makes Bhaktisiddhanta and his reforms so important
is that his followers are largely responsible for the global awareness of
Gaudiya Vaishnava religion and culture (including kirtana). Dhanurdhara
Swami argues that Bhaktisiddhanta’s reforms are quite within the tradition’s
boundaries–in fact, he argues, they help manifest the heart of the
tradition, not obscure it. He further argues that both critics and followers
of Bhaktisiddhanta must understand the spirit behind such reforms, lest they
forget Bhaktisiddhanta’s deep engagement with tradition.


To read the article follow the link above.

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Gopurams in Sepia

Some captions were adapted from the following sources.

Introduction to Indian Architecture, text by Bindia Thapar, Periplus

India, John Howley, Spiritual Guides

India, DK Eyewitness Travel Guides

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My Studies with Sri Krishnamacharya

by Srivatsa Ramaswami
Previously published in NAMARUPA magazine Issue (No. 6)

Krishnamacharya Deerskin

Sri Krishnamacharya during Class at his residence in RK Puram. Photograph by Dr. Radhakrishnan.

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If one were to search for the origin of what is being taught in one of today’s Western yoga studios, in most cases that path would lead to the gentleman pictured above, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Sri Krishnamacharya, (1888-1989), taught many of the key figures in modern-day yoga, including B.K.S. Iyengar (founder of Iyengar yoga), Pattabhi Jois (the founder of Ashtanga yoga), the late Indra Devi, T.K.V. Desikachar (his son), as well as the article’s author Srivatsa Ramaswami.

When a practice belonging to the distant past is handed down and disseminated globally, crossing national and cultural barriers, one would expect to find both revision and mutation. Sometimes the degree of change can be so significant that the original propose is entirely lost. The Bhagavad-gita speaks of the uncertainty of successions.

evam parampara-praptam
imam rajarsayo viduh
sa kaleneha mahata
yogo nastah parantapa

This knowledge, known to the sage-kings, was thus gained through disciplic
succession. But in course of time the succession was interrupted, and the
link broken, Arjuna.
(Bhagavad-gita 4.2)

This thorough account takes us back in time and provides a view of yoga, beyond the superficial, as the powerfully transformational practice it was designed to be. I found the importance Sri Krsnamacharya placed on the devotional dimension within the practice of Ashtanga Yoga particularly interesting.

“Mantra yoga was a very important and integral part of Sri Krishnamacarya’s yoga. Chanting, or mantra parayana, especially of Vedic and other Puranic mantras, is practiced by hundreds of thousands of Bhakti Yogis. When Sanskrit mantra portions are recited with an understanding of their meaning, the mind achieves an excellent one-pointedness, called ekagrata, an important goal of Raja Yoga. Mantra japa, or repetition of the same short mantra such as the Gayatri or Pranava, the Siva or Narayana mantras, over and over again, helps reinforce devotional fervor and the ekagrata in the yogi. Mantra yoga and Bhakti yoga were very important ingredients in Krishnamacharya’s yoga; every yoga school would do well to add this dimension to the yogic topics they teach.”

“Sri Krishnamacharya would point out that, in Kali Yuga the main or the only means of spiritual salvation is surrender to the Lord, or Isvarapranidhana. He remarked the Isvarapranidhana is mentioned in all three levels of yoga, viz, Nirodha Yoga of the first chapter; and Kriya Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga of the second and third chapters. Surrender to the Lord, or the appropriate Isvarapanidhana (worship of the Lord) such as puja in Kriya Yoga, doing Ashtanga Yoga with a sense of total surrender to the Lord, or constant meditation on Isvara with a sense of devotion for the highest level—each forms a complete Isvarapranidana practice of yoga.”

To read the article follow the link above.

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Portraits from the Kunds of Govardhan

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Prayers to Govardhan


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Sri Govardhana-Vasa-Prarthana-Dasakam
Ten Prayers for Residence at Sri Govardhan

Mexican architect Luis Barragan defined architecture as an art wherein one “creates aesthetic emotion in the atmosphere and when this environment produces well being.” By this definition, Govardhan Hill can be seen as the central architectural feature of the divine landscape of Vrindavan. Its fourteen mile circumference crowded with holy sites, Govardhan is a literal mountain of aesthetic stimuli for meditation on Krishna’s lila (divine play). For centuries it has remained the desired place of residence and pilgrimage for Krishna devotees.

Composed by the 16th century Chaitanya Vaisnava saint, Raghunath das Goswami, Sri Govardhana-Vasa-Prarthana-Dasakam is a poetic meditation on Govardhana Hill as the premier servant of Krishna lila, as well as a call for grace, via the refrain “nija-nikita-nivasam dehi govardhana! tvam”, “O Govardhana, please grant me residence near your side”.

Govardhana is seen as unique by Krishna devotees, being both a direct manifestation of God, as well as a servant of divine lila by providing a variety of idyllic environments just suited for the eternal soul’s loving union with the supreme deity.

In his book, Dance of Divine Love, Graham M. Schweig notes, “The special nature of lila is both playful and didactic. Although lila is for the pleasure of Krishna and His devotees, and everything that occurs in lila contributes to the delight and celebration of supreme love and beauty, there are aspects that also instruct those who have yet to enter into it’s esoteric domain.” Similarly, Raghunath das Goswami’s prayer not only celebrates Krishna’s divine play but also frames it as both a focal point of meditation and a model of servitude for the bhakti-yogi. Simultaneously, Raghunath das points to Govardhan as the ideal setting for sadhana (spiritual practice) for those with the aim of direct perception of Krishna lila as the Ultimate Reality.

Sri Govardhana-Vasa-Prarthana-Dasakam is composed in the meter known as malini, having fifteen syllables per quarter, and is sung here by Nityananda das, a student at the Srimad-Bhagavata Vidyapitam, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust’s Sanskrit school at the foot of Govardhana Hill.

Below, find the Sanskrit transliteration and English translation for the ten verses and an eleventh verse which serves as the phala shruti, (fruit or boon of hearing).

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Sri Govardhana-Vasa-Prarthana-Dasakam
Ten Prayers for Residence at Sri Govardhan

nija-pati bhuja dandacchatra-bhavam prapadya
prati-hata madadhrishtod-danda-devendra-garva
atula-prithula-saila-sreni-bhupa! priyam menija-nikata
-nivasam dehi govardhana! tvam

O Govardhana! You became the umbrella which was held by the arm of your own Lord Krsna! In this way Sri Krsna diminished Indra, the king of the demigods, who was intoxicated by great pride. You are the incomparable king of all the big mountains, please allow me to live close by you.

pramada-madana-lilah kandare kandare te
racayati nava-yunor-dvandvam asminn-amandam
iti kila kalanartham lagna-kastad-dvayor me
nija-nikata-nivasam dehi govardhana! tvam

O Govardhana! The young Divine Couple, Sri Sri Radha-Krsna, play splendid wild loving games in your every cave, so I became very eager to see Them there. Please allow me to live close by you.

saha bala-sakhibhih sangkhelayan sva-priyam me
nija-nikata-nivasam dehi govardhana! tvam

O Govardhana! In topmost joy Krsna plays together with Balarama and the cowherd boys in your incomparable jeweled pavilions and thrones, in the hollows of your trees, in your caves, and valleys. Please allow me to live close by you!

rasa-nidhi-nava-yunoh sakshinim dana-keler-
dyuti-parimala-viddham syama-vedim prakasya
rasika-vara-kulanam modam asphalayan me
nija-nikata-nivasam dehi govardhana! tvam

O Govardhana! You are the witness of Radha and Krsna’s tax game (In which Krsna charges tax from the ghee the gopis carry on their heads) which is an ocean of mellows. You increase the joy of the mellows of the devotees with your display of bluish platforms that are full of splendour and fragrance. Please allow me to live close by you!

hari dayitam apurvam radhika-kundam atma-
priya-sakham iha kanthe narmana ‘lingya guptah
nava-yuva-yuga-khelas-tatra pasyan raho me
nija-nikata-nivasam dehi govardhana! tvam

O Govardhana! You affectionately and secretly embrace the neck of your own dear friend, Sri Radha Kunda, the place which is very dear to you and Lord Hari. Please allow me to live close by you and show me the intimate pastimes of the Divine Young Couple there!

sthala-jala-tala-sashpair-bhuruhacchayaya cha
prati-padam anukalam hanta samvardhayan gah
tri-jagati nija-gotram sarthakam khyapayan me
nija-nikata-nivasam dehi govardhana! tvam

O Govardhana! You make your name, “nourisher of cows”, successful by constantly giving land, water, grass and the shade of your trees to the cows and thus you are famous in the three worlds. Please allow me to live close by you!

sura-pati-krita-dirgha-drohato goshtha-raksham
tava nava griha-rupasy antare kurvataiva
agha-baka-ripunoccair-dattamana! drutam me
nija-nikata-nivasam dehi govardhana! tvam

O Govardhana! Your glories are increased by the enemy of Aghasura and Bakasura, Sri Krsna, when He protected the Vrajavasis and vanquished Indra by quickly using you as their new shelter from the rain. Please allow me to live close by you.!

giri-nripa! haridasa-sreni-varyeti-nama-
mritam idam uditam sri-radhika-vaktra-candrat
vraja-nava-tilakatve klripta ! vedaih sphutam me
nija-nikata-nivasam dehi govardhana! tvam

O Govardhana! King of mountains! Because the nectar of your name as Hari’s best servant emanated from Srimati Radharani’s pearl-like mouth, which was revealed by Vedic scriptures like Srimad Bhagavatam (10.21.18), you are called the new tilaka (because of your long thin bluish shape at the edge of Vraja) of Vraja. Please allow me to live close by you.

vraja-nara-pasu-pakshi vrata-saukhyaika-datah
aganita-karunatvan-mam uri-kritya tantam
nija-nikata-nivasam dehi govardhana! Tvam

O Govardhana! You are the only giver of joy to Sri Sri Radha Krsna and Their associates, that are always surrounded by the people, animals and birds of Vraja in the mood of friendship. Please mercifully accept me and allow me to live close by you.

nirupadhi-karunena sri-sachi-nandanena
tayi kapati-satho ‘pi tvat-priyenarpito ‘smi
iti khalu mama yogyayogyatam tamagrihnan
nija-nikata-nivasam dehi govardhana! tvam

O Govardhana! Although I am vile and deceitful, the causelessly merciful Sri Sacinandana(Sri Chaitanya) submitted me to you. Therefore, do not consider whether I am qualified or unqualified and accept me. Allow me please to live close by you.

rasada-dasakam-asya srila-govardhanasya
sa sapadi sukhade ‘smin vasamasadya sakshach-
chhubhada-yugala-seva-ratnam apnoti turnam

Anyone who carefully recites these ten verses praising the king of mountains Srila Govardhana, the giver of divine mellows, will swiftly attain a place to live close by Govardhana, the bestower of bliss, and he will attain the precious jewel of the auspicious loving service of the Divine Couple, Sri Sri Radha Krsna.

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