The Ashta Chaap Poets and their Bhava


(Excerpt from Krishna’s Inner Circle: The Ashta Chhap Poets, by Shyamdas. Pratham Peeth Publications.)

Raga is one of the main kinds of service offered to one’s deity in the devotional path. Raga may be interpreted as “love,” or as “music.” In the 16th century devotional renaissance in India, poems were sung when recited, and the great mystic poets of those times were often great musicians. Therefore, the poetry composed by the eight Ashta Chhap poets is meant to be sung to music. Its essence is rhythmic invocation, and its real meaning is best expressed when performed as part of devotional service.

Poets of the past were not only usually musicians, but also seers. They were seers both in the sense of one who sees and as prophets. Seeing the Essence makes one a seer, an enlightened being. Seeing only the mundane world keeps one in the mode of eternally returning to that world, the only one known to the unenlightened.

In the midst of this bhakti revival, the Ashta Chhap poets constituted a unique lineage of devotional expression that flowed from their personal experience with Shri Krishna. Their main vehicle for attainment was ‘bhava’. Bhava arises when Krishna is realized. Bhava is bliss; bhava is nectar. Bhava arises according to the relationship between the Blessed Lord and the blessed soul. Bhava, regardless of circumstance, is always perfect; it is the condition of exact devotional view. And so the poets have said,

O, friend!
Worship with bhava
the Lord of bhava.

The poems of the Astha Chhap are in a samadhi language. To grasp their substance one must be susceptible to ‘Lila,’ those lovely movements and forms of Shri Krishna. If you mistake Shri Krishna’s lilas to be only mundane, something born of imagination, there will be no ‘bhava,’ or comprehension of their attainment. The Ashta Chhap poets’ Krishna, although pure Brahman, was mundane to the extent that He allowed them to experience His transcendental realm within the mundane world. They considered this to be the fruit of having senses: to see Shri Nathji, to touch Shri Nathji, to sing to Shri Nathji, to be His friend and lover.

Shri Krishna brought Suradas water when he was thirsty, threw pebbles at Govindadas, stole dairy products with Chatrabhujadas, and engaged in a cooking contest with Kumbhanadas. Through these and other lilas, the Ashta Chhap’s worldly existence became thoroughly divine.

These poets’ love for Krishna was not conditioned by fear. Nor did their devotion, in this stage of fulfillment, depend upon knowing Krishna’s greatness. They were not concerned with any philosophical debates concerning the nature of the Supreme reality: it was experienced. There was no dualism, monism, nor anything besides Krishna. All philosophical contradictions were resolved in the abode of sweetness. Everything was purely Krishna.

Only Shri Krishna can contain the endless contradictions of the world, yet remain perfect. Taking refuge in that birthless One, they became liberated into eternal bondage to Krishna.

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O friend, since I heard Krishna’s name,
I have forgotten my home
and have gone completely mad.
My eyes fill with tears – my mind reels.
My body is transformed.
The fruit of all my fasts and dharma practices
finally arose when I heard the sacred name.
Sings Nandadas, “Look at what happened to her
after truly hearing His name just once –
Imagine what will happen when she sees Him!
— Nandadas