From Back to Godhead
The supreme controller is controlled – and still remains in control.
Prayer is the universal language by which the human heart communes with the divine heart. Poetry is an artistic means for verbalizing the heart’s deep emotions. Singing is a popular method to express one’s emotions.
The integration of these three – prayers composed poetically and sung individually or collectively – is a powerful and joyful way to channel human emotions towards the divine. In the world’s great theistic traditions are found many examples of beautiful prayer-songs. Such prayers are usually composed by saints who verbalize their love and longing for the Lord.
In the bhakti tradition, singing poetic prayers is an important devotional practice. One such prayer-song is the Damodarashtaka found in the Padma Purana and composed by the great sage Satyavrata Muni (krishna.com/damodarastakam). In the Vaishnava bhakti tradition, during the sacred month of Karttika (October-November) this song is sung daily, often both morning and evening. Singing the Damodarashtaka and offering a lamp to Lord Damodara is a treasured form of devotional service that attracts thousands the world over to come to Krishna temples.
The song’s title is a combination of two words: Damodara (a name of Krishna) and ashtaka (a composition with eight parts). This title reveals both the song’s theme and its literary structure. It is about the Lord, whose belly (udara) was bound with a rope (dama), and it is in the genre of ashtakas. As the bhakti tradition considers the number eight auspicious, many prayers are composed as songs of eight stanzas.
Damodarashtaka is essentially a meditation on a Krishna pastime described in the bhakti texts, especially the Srimad-Bhagavatam. The meditation integrates narration and exposition in a seamless poetic flow.
Verse 1: The uncatchable is caught
The song’s first verse begins with the mode of expression found throughout: the offering of obeisance. The object of obeisance is predictably the Supreme, but He is referred to with a significant name: the controller (ishvara). This pastime centers on the theme of how the supreme controller becomes controlled and still remains in control. It depicts a form of God that can seem diminutive and ungodlike to the devotionally uninformed. God is usually conceived of and revered as the supreme ruler of all of existence. The bhakti tradition acknowledges this divine majesty, but focuses on a far more personable manifestation of God – as a loving and loveable cowherd who in His childhood play seems an ordinary child. Lest hearers be misled by appearances, the song begins with an assertion of the protagonist’s divinity by identifying Him as the controller. Further underscoring His transcendence, the song declares that His form is made of eternity-knowledge-bliss (sac-cid-ananda vigraha).
The verse conveys His beauty by referring to one of His ornaments: His effulgent earrings. Bhaktisavants explain that whereas we humans wear ornaments to enhance our beauty, Krishna’s beauty is complete in itself, not needing any ornaments. When He wears ornaments, they don’t beautify Him; He beautifies them. Thus, He is celebrated as the ornament of all ornaments (bhushana–bhushanangam, Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.2.12).
Among Krishna’s various ornaments, why are the earrings singled out for mention? The Vaishnava saint Sanatana Goswami explains in his illuminating commentary Dig-darshini-tika that the earrings alone get to kiss Krishna. When He runs, the earrings move back and forth, thus getting to touch (“kiss”) His cheeks.
After this philosophically and poetically pregnant introduction, the song orients us in space by mentioning the arena of the action: the effulgent Gokula ( gokule bhrajamanam).
The song has also introduced us to the protagonist and the venue, and now it starts describing the action. In fear, Krishna ran away from His mother Yashoda but was caught by her (the gopi, or cowherd woman), who ran faster than Him.
The backstory is that once when Krishna was sleeping, Yashoda was churning butter. Krishna woke up, went to her, and started tugging at her sari, conveying His hunger for her milk. She lovingly placed Him on her lap and started breastfeeding Him. While Krishna was feasting on the milk, suddenly Yashoda smelled the milk on a nearby stove spilling over. She hastily put aside Krishna and rushed to take the milk pot off the stove. Just as someone savoring a delicacy becomes indignant on suddenly finding it whisked away, Krishna became indignant.
Hungry and angry, Krishna looked around for some quick relief. He saw the butter pots His mother had been churning. Breaking them, He ate the butter. His hunger was somewhat mitigated, but His anger still remained. However, He also became apprehensive about being punished for His naughtiness in breaking the pots. So, He fled to another room where butter pots were hung from the roof. Noticing a grinding mortar just below a pot, He climbed atop it, cracked open the pot, and started eating more butter. The fragrance and noise attracted several monkeys from the vicinity. When they gestured, asking for the butter, Krishna gleefully shared it with them. While they were thus enjoying the butter, suddenly the monkeys’ mouths dropped open in alarm. Krishna whirled around and saw His mother creeping up on Him. Panicking, He jumped off the mortar and fled.
Yashoda had returned to the churning room to find a mess. Krishna’s absence and the trail of His butter-marked footprints had given away the mischief-maker’s identity and escape route. Following the trail, she had come to catch Krishna and discipline Him.
The song presumes familiarity with the pastime, so it eschews a linear narrative and includes only sections relevant to its exposition.
Krishna ran here and there to escape from Yashoda, but she managed to catch Him. The Ishopanishad(Mantra 4) declares that the Supreme supersedes everyone in speed and can’t be approached even by the gods. Yet here He is not just approached but also caught by Yashoda. The next verse reveals what enables her to achieve this astonishing feat.
Verse 2: Bound not by the rope’s length but by the devotion’s depth
The second verse begins with an activity extraordinary for the Supreme: crying. Crying is what we mortals do when afflicted by the world’s many miseries. And crying is what sometimes impels us to go to the Lord for relief. The Bhagavatam (3.28.32) states that meditating on the Lord’s beautiful smile can evaporate an ocean of tears. But here the one who relieves everyone’s tears is Himself in tears. How is this to be understood?
The bhakti tradition explains that such tears are categorically different from our tears. The emotions underlying them are spiritual, not material. The transcendental realm is not devoid of emotions, but is permeated with pure spiritual emotions. The Lord of that realm, Krishna, is the supreme relisher of emotions and is celebrated as Rasaraja (the king of those who relish rasa, spiritual emotion). We too can enter that realm by purifying our emotions and directing them towards Him. In fact, much of bhakti’s widespread appeal comes from its utilizing emotions as pathways to the divine.
This verse states that Krishna was weeping and rubbing His two eyes with His two lotus hands. The Bhagavatam (1.8.31) elaborates this scene, stating that He had lowered His head in fear that His mother would punish Him. Here it is indicated He also stole glances at her with terror-filled eyes ( satanka-netram). Due to His earlier running and present crying, His chest moved rapidly up and down. This motion caused three lines to appear on His throat – lines that became visible when He looked up at His mother. Three lines on the throat indicate a well-formed body that is neither too fat nor too thin, just as six-pack abs are considered nowadays a sign of health and handsomeness.
The verse then condenses the action, mentioning only that Krishna was tied by His mother. The Bhagavatam describes how Yashoda struggled to tie Him. She just couldn’t get the rope to go round His body – it remained short by the width of two fingers. She lengthened the cord by tying two ropes; still it remained two fingers short. No matter how many ropes she tied together, still the lengthened rope remained two fingers short.
Through this mysterious event, Krishna conveyed His infinitude. He was in a tiny form that barely extended across the mortar to which He was being tied; still, by His supreme mysticism He made it impossible for any rope to extend around Him.
Bhakti commentators explain that the gap of two fingers can be filled, metaphorically speaking, by human endeavor and divine grace. Our endeavor can neither replace grace nor force grace to manifest. But by endeavoring in a devotional mood, we can attract divine grace. Yashoda wanted to tie Krishna not just because His mischievousness had angered her but also because she was lovingly concerned that His mischievousness would mar His prospects in life. While she struggled in vain to tie Krishna, her mood changed from anger to appreciation of her son’s extraordinariness. As her disposition became increasingly devotional, Krishna became increasingly satisfied by the purity of her intention and the sincerity of her effort. So, He allowed Himself to be tied. The song conveys that she succeeded in tying Him not because of the rope’s length, but because of her devotion’s depth (bhakti-baddham).
The last line of this stanza contains the first of the three references to the title’s eponym, Damodara. The other two references come in the sixth and seventh texts.
The poetic refinement of this stanza is evident in its placing the most significant words at the start and at the end (rudantam and bhakti-baddham).
Verse 3: When sweetness supersedes greatness, love conquers the beloved
From the third verse, the song shifts from narration to exposition, dwelling on the significance of what has just happened. By such pastimes, Krishna inundates His devotees in a lake of bliss (ananda-kunda) and teaches those attracted to His majestic form that He is conquered only by intimate devotion.
God is both great and sweet. Awareness of His greatness evokes submission, whereas awareness of His sweetness evokes affection. Devotee seekers need to be aware of both features, for submission and affection symbiotically reinforce devotion. For exalted devotees such as Yashoda, however, their awareness of Krishna’s greatness is almost entirely eclipsed by their absorption in His sweetness. Yashoda is concerned not about how great Krishna is, but about how greatly He depends on her. If she doesn’t feed Him, He will become weak and may even die. If she doesn’t invoke auspiciousness for Him by her prayers, evil may befall Him. If she doesn’t discipline Him, He will become spoiled. Such intense love that is oblivious to His greatness is supremely endearing to Krishna – it enables Him to relish the full gamut of relationships. When His devotees are too aware of His greatness, that awareness inhibits their expression of love for Him, thus limiting the range of possible loving reciprocations.
In this pastime, Krishna lets Himself be tied, conveying that He is conquered by pure love. Thus, He encourages all devotees to rise in their God consciousness towards the level of unfettered love.
Meditating on Krishna’s loving nature, the poet Satyavrata Muni becomes overwhelmed by love and offers obeisance – not once, but hundreds of times.
Verse 4: Love desires nothing other than the beloved
The song now addresses a theme common to most prayers – an appeal for benedictions. Satyavrata Muni acknowledges the Lord’s capacity to give benedictions by addressing Him with two pertinent names: varam deva and varesha – both meaning “the Lord of benedictions.” But he follows that acknowledgment by immediately refusing the benediction of liberation.
To appreciate the magnitude of this refusal, we need to understand the underlying worldview. People in general are materialistic, and their materialism carries into their religion. So, when they approach God, they pray for various material things. The Vedas encourage such pious materialism as a steppingstone towards pure spiritual love. The Vedic worldview is based on a tri-level cosmology with the earth occupying an intermediate level between the upper heavenly realms and the lower hellish realms. In this worldview, ascent to heaven is often considered the highest benediction. But Satyavrata Muni’s devotion is so exalted that the heavens are not even mentioned – even for the sake of rejection.
The Upanishads go beyond the pious materialism of the Vedas to a world-rejecting transcendence. In the Upanishadic worldview, liberation is often considered the ultimate attainment. Satyavrata Muni’s rejection of liberation suggests he aspires for something higher. Does he aspire for God’s personal abode, Vaikuntha? No, for he also rejects the benediction higher than liberation, which Sanatana Goswami explains is the attainment of Vaikuntha. Then the sage refuses any other benediction that might be considered worthwhile. All this negation is the buildup to the climactic expression of his cherished aspiration: constant meditation on the Lord, who has manifested in the form of a cowherd boy.
This aspiration is a riveting testimony to the purity of his love. In pure love, we desire our beloved more than anything else and turn away from anything that turns us away from the beloved. Here meditation on this love-filled Damodara pastime has triggered such a rapture of devotional ecstasy in the sage that nothing else holds any appeal. Thus, he desires to forever meditate on this supremely relishable pastime. Reiterating his aspiration, he concludes by asking rhetorically: What other benediction is desirable?
Verse 5: Devotion catapults us to the summit of yogic meditation
The fifth verse moves from rejection of the negative to elucidation of the positive. It describes the beauty of the form on which the sage desires to constantly meditate. Comparing the Lord’s face to a lotus, he mentions some of its striking features: the silken locks of hair that frame the face, the beautiful reddish lips, and the marks of Yashoda’s loving kisses. He desires fervently that his mind be absorbed perennially in such contemplation. Stressing the intensity of his aspiration, he proclaims that millions of other benedictions are of no value to him.
The sage’s expression echoes the Bhagavad-gita’s description (6.20–23) of samadhi, the state of the topmost absorption in transcendence. Yogis thus absorbed feel there is no gain greater than this. That the sage has attained a similar level of unflappable absorption indicates that he is situated in samadhi.
And he has attained it simply by meditating on the Lord’s pastimes. Whereas yoga focuses on stopping the negative, material emotions of the mind, bhakti focuses on activating the positive, spiritual emotions of the soul. As emotions are natural to us, activating pure emotions is easier than rejecting all emotions. Thus, bhakti makes progress towards transcendence easier, faster, and sweeter. Pertinently, the Gita’s chapter on yoga concludes (6.47) with the declaration that the topmost yogis are those who are devotionally absorbed in Krishna.
Verse 6: Two strategies for begging
The sixth verse expresses the sage’s longing for the direct darshana (sight) of Krishna, distinct from the constant inner darshana he has sought in the previous two verses. Knowing that such a direct darshana is an extremely exalted boon, he delays verbalizing his request till the end of the verse, prefacing it by glorifying the Lord and expressing his own wretched condition.
Seeking grace is akin to begging. While asking for alms, beggars often praise the donor’s magnanimity and express their own penury, thus hoping to invoke compassion. A similar dual strategy can be applied when we beseech the Lord for mercy.
The sage spontaneously resorts to one of the best means to please the Lord and invoke his compassion: reciting His names. While offering obeisances, he refers to the Lord by six relevant names. Sanatana Goswami explains how these forms of address reinforce his prayer:
O Deva: You have a divine form, hence I desire to see You.
O Damodara: You are so affectionate to your devotees, so You will certainly appear.
O Ananta: You are unlimitedly merciful.
O Vishnu: You are all-pervasive, so You can easily appear before me.
O Prabhu: You are the master with limitless powers; so, even if not perceivable with mundane senses, You can appear to me.
O Isha: You are the supremely independent controller; so You can bestow Your mercy even upon the unfit.
The sage then conveys his wretched condition in three ways. He states that he is fallen and is also ignorant, not knowing how to come out of his fallen condition. And he metaphorically conveys the extent of his misery by declaring that he is drowning in an ocean of misery. This reference to a body of water contrasts poignantly with an earlier reference to a body of water – the third verse stated that Krishna is drowning the devoted residents of Gokula in a lake of ecstasy.* When He blesses His devotees thus, how can He let another devotee drown in an ocean of distress?
Satyavrata Muni begs the Lord to cast a merciful glance (kripa drishti) on him and relieve him of his suffering. Significantly, the ocean afflicting the sage is not the ocean of material existence, but the ocean of separation from Krishna. So, in the verse’s conclusion, he voices his request: Please become visible to these eyes (edhy akshi drishyah).
Verse 7: The bound is still the liberator
In the seventh verse, Satyavrata Muni, recognizing that Krishna grants darshana only to those who have devotion, prays for devotion and creatively links his request with a continued narration of the pastime. After Krishna was tied to the mortar, He moved towards two giant trees in the courtyard, dragging the mortar with Him. When the mortar got stuck between the trees, Krishna tugged at it and – wonder of wonders – the two trees came crashing down, and from them emerged two celestial beings. These beings were Nalakuvara and Manigriva, sons of the treasurer of the gods, Kuvera. Due to licentious behavior in their previous life, the sage Narada had cursed them to lose their celestial bodies and become incarcerated in arboreal forms. When they begged forgiveness, Narada assured them that they would becomes trees in Krishna’s courtyard and would be delivered by Him. Wanting to fulfill His devotee Narada’s promise, Krishna now liberated them by not just freeing them from their tree bodies but also granting them devotion.
Satyavrata Muni cites this narrative as a precedent for the Lord’s bestowing mercy on the unqualified. Just as He had blessed the two celestials with devotion, the sage requests that he too be similarly blessed. And he reinforces that request by declaring (for the third time in the song) that he doesn’t desire liberation. Such repeated rejection of liberation suggests that what is conventionally called liberation is not really liberation, especially when it takes one away from the Lord and His service. The Bhagavatam (3.29.13) asserts that devotees refuse such service-bereft liberation even if it is offered to them. Thus, the Bhagavatam and the Damodarashtaka concur that devotional service to the supreme liberator is itself the supreme liberation.
This verse centers on poetic use of the motif of bondage and liberation. The Lord is the giver of liberation from all bondage, yet in this pastime He Himself was bound (baddha-murti). That is not the only wonder. Those who are bound need others to free them – and they can’t usually free others. But even when Krishna was bound, He remained omnipotent and freed those who were bound (mocitau).
Verse 8: The unlimited Lord offers unlimited ecstasy
The last text reveals how those with devotion cherish not just the object of devotion but also the things connected with that object. Thus, the sage begins by offering obeisance not to the Lord, but to the rope that binds the Lord’s belly. The rope is glorified in two ways: first by declaring it to be effulgent, and then by stating the glory of the object that it bound – the Lord’s abdomen, the source and abode of the whole universe. In bhakti cosmology, the universe arises from the abdomen of a manifestation of the Lord through a complex sequence of expansions and emanations.
The sage then offers obeisance to Radha, Krishna’s beloved consort. As the romantic pastimes of the Lord are confidential, the bhakti tradition stresses that they not be publically discussed. And yet a song about the glory of devotion calls for at least a reference to the supreme devotee, Radha.
Radha is not directly present in this pastime; still, indirectly She pervades it and is in fact its essence. The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition explains that Radha is not just the topmost devotee. She is also devotion personified. Here personification refers not to a literary device, but to an ontological reality – in the person of Radha resides all devotion. By offering obeisance to Her, the sage beseeches Her mercy so that he too may be enriched with devotion.
And the final obeisance is predictably to the Lord, but with a significant definer: He is the performer of unlimited pastimes (ananta-lila). While the word ananta was used in the sixth text as a noun to refer to the Lord, here it is used as an adjective to describe His inexhaustible pastimes.
Given that this song has described the immense ecstasy in meditating on one pastime, the concluding obeisance conveys that the Lord, being the performer of unlimited pastimes, is the reservoir of unlimited ecstasy. In loving Him, all our heart’s deepest and greatest longings for happiness will be perennially and perfectly fulfilled.
*The third verse of Damodarashtaka is quoted in Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 19.230). There Srila Prabhupada translates sva-ghosham (His personal associates) as “the gopis.”