The Holy Kirttana
The Kirttana Ghoshā (commonly referred to as the Kirttana) is the magnum opus of Sankaradeva. It is the book of devotional songs or 'kirttana' written primarily for the purpose of congregational prayer. This monumental work of the saint is held by the Assamese in the highest esteem. It is the first of the four sacred texts (cāri-puthi) and is spoken of in the most reverential tone. In the daily prayer services (prasanga) in the Nāmghar, the Kirttana is recited by both men and women.
The Kirttana is actually an anthology of more than two dozen epics of various magnitudes. Seen in this light, it is not a kavya but a kavya-kosh. Most of the poems are renderings or adaptations from the Bhagavata Purana.
Compilation by Madhavadeva
From the caritas, it can be gleaned that the different sections of the Kirttana Ghosha was composed by the Saint at different periods. After Sankaradeva's Departure, Madhavadeva, his foremost disciple, brought together all the sections of the holy text. Under Madhava's guidance, these sections were collated and copied onto sanchipat (manuscript) as one book.
The entire work, divided into 23 sections, each being divided into a number of songs or kirttanas [and each kirttana consisting of one ghosha or refrain and couplets (padas)], consists of more than 2,000 couplets in various metres.
A Synopsis of the Text
Each kirttana of the Kirttana Ghosha has a ghoshā or refrain. The prayer-leader (nām lagowā) is to initialize the prayer by reciting the ghosha (twice). The assembly then sings it accordingly along with clapping of hands. The leader then sings a couplet (pada) or a line from the poem and the party is to repeat the refrain at the end of each couplet (or line).
The first poem of the Kirttana is Caturvimsati Avatara Varnana (the description of the twenty-four incarnations of the Lord) and the first refrain here is:
jaya Hari Govinda Nārāyana Rāma Kesava
Hari Rāma Rāma Kesava Hari
After this refrain, the narrative starts with the following verse:
prathame pranamo brahma-rupi sanatana
sarva avatarara karana Narayana
First I pay obeisance to the One who is Eternal, who assumes the rupa (form) of Brahma -
Nārāyana, the cause of all incarnations.
The first section has 4 kirttanas, first with 6 verses, second with 8, third with 10 and the fourth with 9 verses, thus giving a total number of 33 verses.
The second section of the Kirttana is Namaparadha, the source of which is said to be the Svarga Khanda of the Padma Purana. It consists of 2 kirttanas, the first having 14 and the next 24 verses. The effects of repitition of the Lord's name are enumerated in the form of a discussion between Narada and the four Siddhas. It is said that even the most sinful people are rescued if they take refuge at the feet of Hari.
Pasanda Mardana is the third section. In this khanda, Sankaradeva quotes many Puranas and Samhitas besides the Bhagavata Purana . It has 4 kirttanas with a total of 74 verses. The first has 16, second 18, third 17 and the last kirttana has 21 verses. The Guru declares equal rights for all classes of people in matters of religion:
kariya kalita kirttana ati
pawe vaikunthaka chautrisa jati
By chanting the Name of God in the Kali age,
people of all the thirty-six races (can) reach Vaikuntha
sito candalaka garistha mani
yahara jihvagre srave Hari vani
sehise kulina vedaka buje
yahara mukhe Hari nama vije
That Candala, on whose lips is ever the Name of Hari, is superior (to all other people), and he is to be regarded as of high order. He who sings the Name of God, alone is to be considered as a man of high caste, understanding the Vedas
nalage deva dvija rsi huibe
nalage sambhrta sastra janibe
michate mare ana karma kari
howanta bhakatite tusta Hari
One need not be a God or a Brahman or a sage;
and there is no need of knowing all the scriptures.
It is in vain that people perform other rituals and get mortified in doing them.
The Lord is pleased simply by bhakti.
Further, it is here that the Guru discourages such ceremonies as holy bath, pilgrimage and idol worship, for the piety to be earned by all these can be acquired in the holy company of a Vaisnava. The fourth section is Dhyana Varnana. The Guru here describes Vaikuntha and its Lord in the first kirttana, which contains 10 verses. The next kirttana is a description of the seat of the Lord in 18 verses. This small poem is a fine piece of writing with splendor and sweetness.
Ajamila Upakhyana is the story of a fallen Brahman, named Ajamila. It is adapted from the Bhagavata Purana. The story illustrates the efficacy, nay the power of the Lord's Name and shows how even the blackest of sins could be washed away even by involuntarily uttering His name and that too, even once. The first and second kirttana consist of 10 and the remaining two have 11 verses in them.
The next section is Prahlada Carita. The life of Prahlada, the great Vaisnava, particularly that of his childhood, is here described. Sankaradeva has very clearly propounded the merit of bhakti through this story in simple words. The source of the story is the Bhagavata Purana, Books III and IV. It is a most popular poem used profusely in prayer-services. The poem may be divided into 2 parts- the first 7 kirttanas comprise the first part. The rest deals with the story of Prahlada and the Nrisimha or the Man-Lion incarnation of Visnu. The first kirttana has 11 verses, the second 12, the third 14, the fourth 11, the fifth and sixth 10 verses each and the seventh kirttana consists of 9 verses. The eighth kirttana has 10 . The ninth and the tenth have 13 each, the eleventh kirttana has 11 verses, the twelfth 10, the fifteenth 12, the sixteenth 13, the seventeenth 11, the eighteenth 14, the nineteenth 13, the twentieth 9, the twenty-first 12 and the last ie the twenty-second kirttana has 14 verses.
A true bhakta, Prahlada's character is described in the following way:
indriyaka karila niyama
pranika dekhanta atma sama
nitante Harike kare dhyana
Hari vine nedekhanta ana
He controlled his senses, and considered all living beings as himself. He wholeheartedly meditated on Hari and saw nothing but Hari everywhere.
Prahlada advised his school-mates to regard every being as the Lord Himself. The necessity of a Guru and satsanga (company of the Holy) is also emphasised.
To become a true devotee, one should take the company of a staunch devotee of Visnu and one should accept him as preceptor.
To Prahlada, God was present in every element, and so he declared : “If a person worships Thee, he really worships Himself, as one can see his own face by looking at the mirror.”
The seventh part, Gajendra Upakhyana, having 3 kirttanas with a total of 38 verses, is taken from the Bhagavata Purana, Book VIII. Sankaradeva has effectively used his own imagination in the description of the Trikuta Hill. Distinguished by excellent poetic beauty with majestic diction, the poem undoubtedly maintains a classic dignity.
Hara-mohana (The Enchanting of Hara or Siva) contains 10 kirttanas, with a total of 98 verses. It is also adapted from the Bhagavata Purana, Book VIII. It is one of the best pieces of poetry in all Sankaradeva. His originality and descriptive skill are fully at play here. The second kirttana expounds philosophical doctrines so as to be easily understandable to the common man. Hara (Siva) prays to Visnu saying:
tumi pasu paksi surasura taru trna
ajnanata mudhajane dekhe bhinna bhinna
Thou art all beasts and birds, all gods and demons and all trees and shrubs. Due to ignorance, people find them different.
The next poem is Bali Chalana (The Deceiving of Bali). The poem has 33 verses, divided into 5 kirttanas. Sankaradeva has written the entire story of the demon king Bali, grand-son of Prahlada. Like Prahlada Carita, this poem and the next, Sisulila, are constantly used in the nama-prasangas.
Next comes the most popular poem, Sisulila, the lila of sisu (child) Krishna. It contains 11 kirttanas with 165 verses. Although derived from the Bhagavata Purana Book X (the Adi Dasama), the narrative in Sisulila as a whole has become more homely and sweeter. Various activities of child Krishna are depicted in a beautiful and pleasant popular tone. In the third, fourth and eighth kirttanas , some philosophical matters are brought forward in easy language. In the eighth kirttana, Brahma, the creator, prays to Lord Krishna :
sariraka mai buli buddhi bhaila hata
hiyata haraila tumi khojo bahirata
By identifying myself with my body, my intellect has diminished
Missing Thee in my heart, I look for Thee outside
Rasa Krida, from the Bhagavata Purana Book X, is another beautiful poem, having 18 kirttanas with 218 verses. The poet-saint paints the scenes of nature in his own inimitable style. He puts much emphasis on the absolute devotion of the Gopis or the cowherdesses of Vraja. In spite of the so-called erotic facade of the subject matter, this passage from the Bhagavata only illustrates the absolute devotion of the gopis towards Lord Krishna. And Sankaradeva time and again takes care to lay stress upon this fact. In his rendering, he maintains the dasya tone of bhakti. Thus, reading this chapter is vital to understanding the kind of bhakti preached by Sankaradeva and also for the delineation of its main tenets and practices. Differences between Sankaradeva's school of Vaisnavism and other schools like Gaudiya Vaisnavism are also to be found here The name of Radha does not figure here, so unlike in almost all other Vaisnava schools of India.
In the Kamsa Vadha, we have 15 kirttanas with a total of 214 verses. In the 24th kirttana, Akrura prays:
najani loke ana deva puje
siyo vidhihine tomake yaje
yehena nada nadi samudaya
aneka pathe sagaraka dhaya
Just as all rivers and streams run on to the sea through different courses, so also irreligious people worship other gods due to ignorance; but even while doing so, they are (actually) worshipping Thee
Next poems are Gopi Uddhava Samvada, Kujir Vancha Puran and Akrurara Vancha Puran. These are a single kirttana each. The first has 24 verses, the second has 11 and the last contains 12 verses.
Jarasandha Yuddha, Kalyavana Vadha and Mucukunda Stuti are the succeeding three sections of the Kirttana Ghosha. The first section consists of 3 kirttanas with 47 verses, the second has 2 kirttanas with 21 verses and the last section has 4 kirttanas with 51 verses. The last section is characterized by a deeply devotional fervour.
Another very popular section of the Kirttana Ghosha is the next section named Shyamantaka Harana, which has 9 kirttanas with a total of 79 verses. The story-interest and the appropriate rhythm of the verses have been considered to be the causes of its great popularity.
Naradar Krishna Darsana contains 5 kirttanas with 51 verses. Likewise, Vipra-putra Anayana has 4 kirttanas with 52 verses. These sections are also retold from the Bhagavata Purana Book X. Damodara-Vipra Akhyana has 4 kirttanas with 35 verses and Daivakir Putra Anayana has 3 kirttanas with the same number of verses.
The Veda Stuti section has 3 kirttanas with 26 verses. Sankaradeva has rendered much philosophical matter in a lucid manner so that it may not be beyond the reach of the common people.
Lila Mala, considered to be one of the most sacred portions of the Kirttana Ghosha, summarises all the activities of Lord Krishna. The section contains 109 verses divided into 7 kirttanas.
There are 19 kirttanas with a total of 135 verses in the last section, Sri Krishnar Vaikuntha Prayana. The Guru puts there the rules of conduct to be followed by a bhakta. Krishna says to Uddhava:
vaisnavara sanga sito laiba prathamata
mohora caritra sunibeka bhakatata
mora nama kirttana kariba sarvaksane
hrdayata mora rupa cintiba yatane
He(the bhakta) will at first associate himself with the Vaisnavas
He will listen to my glories from the devotees
My Name he will sing every moment
(and) In his heart my form he will think of
brahmanara candalara nivicari kula
datata corata yara drsti eka tula
Do not enquire about the caste of a Brahmana or of a Candala
look upon both the giver and the taker with an equal eye
Sankaradeva's Kirttana Ghosha practically ends here.
Udesa Varnana, though written by Sankaradeva, forms no integral part of it. It is generally placed at the end of the work, as one of the appendices to the text. Likewise, Sahasra Nama Vrttanta by Ratnakara Kandali and Ghunuca Kirttana by Sridhara Kandali are also sometimes appended to the Kirttana Ghosha but the latter poem, (as also the Udesa Varnana) is not generally sung in the ceremonials of the Satras and the Namghars. Another section, the Bhagavata Tatparyya (2 kirttanas with 21 verses, is sometimes seen to be placed before or after the Udesa Varnana section.
The Kirttana's Universal Appeal
The Kirttana has an universal appeal. It attracts all classes of readers:
All the sentiments - pleasure and pain, love and separation, anger and forgiveness - are equally blended in the Kirttana. It affords pleasure to all classes of readers. To the children, it gives stories and songs for amusement; it delights the young with true poetic beauty and the elderly people find here religious instructions and wisdom.