Flowers of Devotion
KairavaSpanning the cusp between the 15th and 16th centuries, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu taught and exemplified complete absorption in divine love through the chanting of the names of God. Mahāprabhu propagated a spiritual discipline that carries the guided practitioner through clearly demarcated stages, beginning with a tentative interest (adau śraddhā) and culminating in an extraordinary exultation of ecstatic spiritual emotions (prema). Mahāprabhu succinctly conveyed this whole adventure in a sequence of eight instructive verses (Śikṣāṣṭaka).
The first of these verses is, in essence, a promise by the author: when the chanting of the name of Kṛṣṇa is fully accomplished, all anomalies and impediments being weeded out (vijayate śri-kṛṣṇa-saṁkīrtanam), the chanter will have experienced seven benedictions or blessings. The aspirant should therefore have faith (śraddhā) in this promise—a guarantee, really. . . .
Mahāprabhu proclaims: “Let there be all victory,” vijayate, for śri-kṛṣṇa-saṁkīrtanam, the consummate practice of the glorification of Kṛṣṇa’s name. Kīrtana means praising, chanting, and so on. The prefix saṁ- indicates that kīrtana is undertaken together, as a social activity; saṁ- also means that the kīrtana is done in a way that is thorough or complete. There is a process for cultivating the divine names, and saṁkīrtana indicates the culmination of that process—when undertaken in the association of devotees, it reaches its full consummation.
Vijayate śri-kṛṣṇa-saṁkīrtanam: These words conclude the verse. The text proceeding them sets forth the seven blessings in the form of predicates that describe or elucidate this saṁkīrtanam. (I’m using “predicate” in its logical rather than its grammatical sense. In logic, a “predicate” is simply something affirmed or asserted about a given subject.) This text achieves a power poetic effect by having all the predicates precede the subject; when the subject is finally announced, the whole meaning of the text is revealed with the single dazzling of a lightning-flash.
Here I just want to share something I’ve learned about the third blessing or benediction. Over the years, I have found the close and detailed study of Śikṣāṣṭaka to be ever rewarding. I will often spend several days or even weeks meditating on a single phrase or verse, for example, and uncover deeper meaning and significance.
Sometimes the text presents the sort of puzzle or problem that sets off some research. This is what happened with the third blessing or benediction.
The first three benedictions take the form of increasingly complex predicates. So before I get to the third, let me just mention the first two.
First: ceto-darpana-marjanam. In Sanskrit, these three words combined form a single compound, a descriptive phrase in grammatical apposition to the final śri-kṛṣṇa-saṁkīrtanam. This first predicate says that saṁkīrtana is that which cleanses (marjanam) the mirror (darpana) of consciousness or intelligence (cetas). Our inward awareness is intended to reflect reality clearly, like a well-polished mirror. But now that mirror of our awareness has become befouled and besmirched by the accumulated crud of lifetimes. What can we see?
Saṁkīrtana is the transcendent cleanser that restores our consciousness to its original flawless and pristine condition. Then we can directly perceive what is always immediately before us: Kṛṣṇa.
Second: bhava-mahā-dāvāgni-nirvāpaṇam. In the second metaphor, our material existence (bhava) is likened to a huge (mahā) forest fire (dāvāgni). Saṁkīrtana is the extinguisher (nirvāpaṇam) of that blazing fire. The material world is the burning forest itself. If we find ourselves engulfed by a monstrous forest fire, terror and suffering are our only fate. The conflagration engulfing us is so monstrous no human efforts can deliver us.
Yet suddenly, the sky opens up, and rain come pouring down, and we are saved. Saṁkīrtana is that rain.
Interestingly, the word nirvāpaṇam (that which causes extinction) is derived from the causative form of the Sanskrit verbal root nir-vā, meaning to put out or extinguish. This same verbal root is the source of the word nirvāṇa. (Thanks to Dvijamaṇi Prabhu for this.)
Now we come to the third benediction: śreyaḥ-kairava-candrikā-vitaraṇam. Here, the word śreyas denotes one’s ultimate benefit. In his tranlation of this verse Prabhupāda rendered it as “good fortune,” but in similar contexts elsewhere he tended to translate śreyas as “supreme benefit,” “ultimate good,” and “eternal good fortune.” He often elucidated the word by contrasting it with the word preyas. For example:
It is a child’s nature to engage all day and night in playing, not caring even for his health and other important concerns. This is an example of preyas, or immediately beneficial activities. But there are also śreyas, or activities which are ultimately auspicious. According to Vedic civilization, a human being must be God conscious. He should understand what God is, what this material world is, who he is, and what their interrelationships are. This is called śreyas, or ultimately auspicious activity.
In the Śikṣāṣṭaka metaphor, our śreyas is compared with a kairava, a “white lotus,” as it is usually translated. The next word in the compound, candrikā, means moonlight, and the final word vitaraṇam means that which emits or spreads. What spreads moonlight is none other than the moon.
The kairava, according to the Monier-Williams dictionary, is “the white lotus-flower (blossoming at night).” . In fact, the dictionary gives, as an appellation of the moon, the compound word kairava-bandhu, “friend of the [kairava] lotus-flower.” In order to blossom, the kairava depends upon the kindness of the moon.
Thus this third metaphor states that saṁkīrtana makes our eternal good fortune manifest, just like the waxing moon, producing a pale and cooling light which spreading throughout the woodlands, causes the white-lotus flower to open its petals.
At one point, I became captivated by the imagery of this line. On trips to India, I asked various devotees what they knew about the night-blooming kairava. A few said they’d heard that the plant was actually not a lotus. The blossoms of the lotus open up during the day, and close up at night, whereas the kairava blossom shuts during the day and opened at night.
In time, I was able to confirm that they are correct.
The lotus, strictly speaking—the “sacred lotus” of India—is the Nelumbo nucifera. Characteristically, it is pink in color and has a distinctive pericarp or seed pod. It is called padma in Sanskrit, and its blossom open up in sunlight, as we can see from a epithet of the sun: padma-bandhu, friend of the lotus.
Padma or “Sacred lotus”
The kairva, strictly speaking, is not a lotus (genus Nelumbo), but a lily, belonging to the Nymphaea genus. However, its specific scientific name is Nymphaea lotus, a nomenclature that probably both reflects confusion and adds to it as well. The kairava’s common names in English include: Egyptian Lotus, Egyptian Water-Lily, Tiger Lotus, Tropical Night-Blooming Water Lily, Waterlily, White Egyptian Lotus, White Lotus, White Water-Lily.
The Tropical Night-blooming White Water-lily (I’m fond of this name) is highly prized for its stunning beauty and fragrance.
These pictures show its beauty, and the last one even attests to its fragrance.
Now I can more fully appreciate Mahāprabhu’s blessing: Love for Kṛṣṇa, opening like the kairava flower under the soothing rays of the bright moon of saṁkīrtana, will present to the world its own captivating beauty and fragrance, just as the kairava ornaments the night with the white stars of its blossoms and suffuses the woodland glades and bowers with its intoxicating aroma.
In the Bhāgavatam (11.5.27) the yogendra Karabhājana tells King Nimi that the Lord descends in Dvāpara-yuga with a complexion of dark blue color (śyāma). This statement is amplified in the purport: “The Lord’s transcendental body in Dvāpara-yuga can be compared to the color of a dark blue flower.” We may wonder, “What dark blue flower?” It turns out that this same Bhāgavatam verse is quoted by Mahāprabhu to Sanātana Gosvāmī, and there Prabhupāda comments: “The śyāma color is not exactly blackish. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Thākura compares it to the color of the atasī flower.”
Monier-Williams tells us that the atasī is the “common flax, Linum usitatissimum.” This highly useful, long cultivated plant provides the fiber that are the source of linen fabrics. Its seeds are rich in lignans and Omega-3 fatty acids, beneficial to health. The flower of the common flax, it turns out, is light blue. However, there is one variety of flax (Linum perenne, the “perennial flax”) that does bear a dark blue flower. This, then, seems to be the śyāma in Śyāmasundara (“dark blue and beautiful”) Kṛṣṇa: