Found in Sanga, Sanga 2004.

Q. Professional performance kirtana is starting to become popular in the West and devotees disagree as to whether this kind of kirtana is valuable to spreading the culture of bhakti. Don’t people gain some type of sukrti (spiritual benefit) from hearing kirtana, regardless of the source?

A. If selfless devotees or devotees serving under the auspicious of a selfless devotee with a view to become selfless themselves conduct the kirtana, it has a positive spiritual effect in light of the culture of Krishna bhakti, even if listeners appear uninterested in the philosophy that underlies the kirtana. Scriptures call this result ajnata sukrti, or devotional merit that is attained unknowingly. One does not get the same effect from hearing kirtana from a person who misunderstands or has no faith in bhakti or one who performs kirtana only to make a living. At best hearing kirtana from such persons, whose real interest is something other than bhakti, will result in anitya, or impermanent, sukrti. Kirtana of Krishna nama is not merely the sound of the letters k r s n a, it is the exercise of one’s heart in glorification of Krishna. Sri nama is not lip deep or mere letters of the alphabet, nama aksara bahiraya bate tabu name kabhu naya. Therefore it is only in the broadest sense that we can see such singing of “Krishna Krishna” in a positive light, as much as we can see interest in hatha yoga or any other semi-spiritual activity in the same light.

Gaudiya acarya Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura discusses the two types of sukrti and their effects. He writes:

“There are two types of sukrti, nitya and naimittika. Nitya sukrti bears eternal fruit, and it results in sadhu-sanga and bhakti. Naimittika-sukrti, otherwise known as anitya, or impermanent sukrti, bears temporary results that depend on some cause and leads to material enjoyment and impersonal liberation.”

“Karma, yoga, and jnana all produce naimittika sukrti, whereas the association of bhaktas and contact with acts of devotion produce nitya-sukrti. Only one who has accumulated nitya sukrti over many lifetimes will develop sraddha (faith in bhakti). Naimittika-sukrti produces many different results, but it will not lead to the development of faith in unalloyed bhakti.” (Jaiva-Dharma, chapter 6)

Q. Professional kirtaneers and their audience dismiss scriptural citations against performance of kirtana for personal profit saying they are examples of archaic religious fanaticism. What is your reply to this?

A. It is interesting that an accurate scriptural critique of such kirtana leads some to dismiss the citing of scripture and sadhus as religious fanaticism. Those statements are there in scripture for a good reason. They are there to clearly separate bhakti from business. The great devotee Prahlada says, na sa brtya sa vai vanik: “One should be a servant, not a merchant.” If scriptural citations against making a business out of chanting have been misapplied, those opposing should demonstrate with their own citations and logic as to how this is so. Rather than this, professional kirtaneers, especially those in the West, tend to distance themselves from scripture and religion in order to attract a broader ticket-buying audience. This speaks loudly as to the motives underlying their chanting.

Q. Simply quoting statements from scripture against kirtana for profit and insisting that these statements are the last word in truth can prove disastrous because this leads to the fanaticism that professional kirtaneers object to. As a devotee I don’t think they are totally unjustified in feeling this way because it is a fact that fanatics are always quoting scripture.

A. It is an oversimplification in the least to say that the quoting of scripture leads to fanaticism. While your statement that religious fanatics are prone to quote scripture is not untrue, it is an over generalization to say that all those who quote scripture are fanatics. Fanaticism is defined as the spirit or conduct of intemperate, inordinate, and unreasonable zeal or enthusiasm. While this definition may apply to a religious person of any creed, it does not apply to every person who has faith in the guidelines of scripture. Many people are both temperate and reasonable in the way they view scripture and apply it in their lives.

For example, in this conversation I have reasonably discussed the difference between the kirtana of devotees and that of nondevotee professionals in light of Thakura Bhaktivinoda’s words on the two types of sukrti. My main point was that in coming in contact with each type of kirtana one accrues very different results. Here sadhu and scripture were cited to lend support to my position that the kirtana of bhakti is transcendentally superior to the kirtana of business. At the same time, I tempered my response by stating that in the broadest sense one can see professional kirtana in the same positive light that we see hatha yoga or any other semi-spiritual activity. All considered, our position on the issue is not one of fanaticism. Scripture, like a good parent, can be strict and harmonious at the same time. In either case the motivation is love.

Q. Criticism of professional performance kirtana seems unnecessary to me because in the name of scriptural chastity we might be isolating potential practitioners, including those who make a living by performing kirtana. After all, how can anyone know what is in another person’s heart?

A. In most cases the kirtaneer makes what is in his or her heart abundantly clear. Professional kirtaneers more often than not preach that chanting any name is the same as chanting Krishna nama, and that practitioner can realize that they are God through chanting or some other means. They might call this bhakti yoga and praise Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, but devotees of Mahaprabhu are well aware of the difference between that philosophy (Mayavada) and the actual philosophy of Sri Caitanya. Those who misunderstand the praise of Mayavadis to be no different than that of Mahaprabhu’s devotees need to study the teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu much more, worshipping him with their intelligence.

Of course, we hope that everyone who chants will join Mahaprabhu and embrace the fact that chanting the names of Kali, Ganesa, and so on are not on the same level as chanting Krishna nama. Nothing would please us more. But how will that come to pass if devotees do not point out the difference between what Mayavadis or Karmavadis teach and what Mahaprabhu and his disciples teach? Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura said, rupanuga viruddhapasiddhanta dhvanta harine: that he could not tolerate any philosophical view of Sri Caitanya that was contrary to the conclusions of Sri Rupa Goswami.

My assumption that most professional kirtaneers praise Sri Caitanya while misunderstanding and misrepresenting his teachings is not ill-founded. The Six Goswamis of Vrindavana headed by Sri Rupa are the principal disciples of Sri Caitanya and sastra gurus of Gaudiya Vaisnavism. How can one expect to understand Mahaprabhu in any depth without hearing from Sri Rupa Goswami, the leader of those great souls that Mahaprabhu delegated to represent him? Without a solid philosophical understanding of the teachings of his intimate devotees, how could one expect to understand and represent Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s divine precepts in any significant way?

Professional kirtaneers may praise the name of Sri Caitanya, but most have no concern for the writings of those that he personally chose to present his teachings to the world. Thus what many of these professionals teach is not only different from what Mahaprabhu taught, but in many ways offensive to him.

In service to the Six Goswamis of Vrindavana, Sri Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami wrote about the supernatural pastimes and transcendental vision of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu in his book Caitanya-caritamrta. Regarding the root of bhakti, Sri Krishnadasa has written the following:

krishna-bhakti-janma-mula haya ‘sadhu-sanga’
krishna-prema janme, tenho punah mukhya anga

“The root cause of devotional service to Krishna is association with advanced devotees. Even when one’s dormant love for Krishna awakens, association with devotees is still most essential.”

In Caitanya-caritamrta, Sri Krishnadasa Kaviraja also wrote of how Ramadasa Visvasa constantly chanted Rama nama, but Mahaprabhu showed him no affection because in his heart Rama dasa desired sayujya mukti, impersonal liberation, rather than suddha bhakti. Also in that text we hear how Mahaprabhu’s personal assistant Svarupa Damodara was very careful not to present any poetry to Mahaprabhu that contained elements of Mayavada.

So when the sastra tells us just how high our ideal is and just how precise the path ultimately is, we should be encouraged that we are on such an exalted path and that an advanced devotee has acknowledged our presence there. Suddha bhakti is what it is—sudurlabha (rare). We cannot change that, but following our acaryas we can try to make the path to suddha bhakti accessible and attractive to others. In doing so we do not have to validate any philosophy, even a philosophy in support of kirtana, that is contrary to the teachings of Sri Caitanya and his principal associates.

Although there is a place for encouraging everyone to chant, every discussion on chanting or spirituality cannot be merely one of validating the feelings of others. It is difficult to have a discussion on these issues that takes into consideration everyone’s position and faith. Often what discourages one encourages another. What is too high for some is too low for others. These discussions stir things up and force us to rethink. If we are sincere, we will rethink our involvement and become more serious about our spiritual practice.

Persons with regard for Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu should take the time to study his teachings in depth; this sums up my essential position on this issue. Perhaps partially it is a failure of the modern followers of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu that his teachings have not always been presented in a way that people could fully appreciate and put into practice on some level. As much as this is so, we should try to improve, first by deepening our own understanding through good association, study, and spiritual practice, and then by praying for guidance on how to introduce the genuine teachings of Sri Caitanya to others.

On spreading those teachings, Srila Prabhupada would often say, “books are the basis, utility is the principle, and purity is the force.” Effective preaching is under the jurisdiction of Krishna’s svarupa-sakti (internal energy). Sri Kaviraja Goswami says, krishna-sakti vina nahe tara pravartana: without krishna-sakti one cannot plant the seed of pure bhakti in the hearts of others.

For many external reasons, some not even religious, persons may apparently become interested in the path of pure bhakti; however, according to Sri Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami and Bhaktivinoda Thakura, the real reason one begins to tread that path is nitya sukrti gained by sadhu-sanga, the association of a devotee. The conclusion is that only through sadhu-sanga will one develop faith in the path of suddha bhakti.

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