In more ways than one, the word “movement” captures the essence of Lord Caitanya’s religion of the holy name.
I offer my respectful obeisances to the devotees of the Lord. Simply by their hearing the two syllables Krishna, their bodily hairs stand up in ecstasy and they become moved to dance in ecstatic bliss. With their sandals they expertly extricate the fallen souls deeply sunk in the fetid mud of the ocean of repeated birth and death.
( Rupa Gosvami, Padyavali, Text 54)
Krishna, the original form of God, is the great cosmic dancer. He exists beyond creation, in the spiritual realm, where every word is a song and every step is a dance (katha ganam natyam gamanam, Brahma-samhita 5.56). He revels in pastimes of love, without direct involvement in the material world. To create and maintain the creation, He expands as Visnu. In the end, He expands as Lord Siva, known as Nataraja, “the king of dancers,” who with his rhythmic steps brings material existence to its inevitable close. Dance, then, exists “before the beginning” and winds things up as well.
Dancing exists in God and has important resonance in the world of created beings. Devotees don’t dance whimsically. They prefer that the Lord pulls their strings. That is to say, while devotional dancing is ideally spontaneous, coming from the heart, it manifests because of God’s direct intervention. It is a natural reaction to His beauty and pastimes and to the sound of His holy name.
The Divine Puppeteer
In a poem Srila Prabhupada wrote aboard the ship when he first arrived in America, he indirectly addressed the tension between surrender and spontaneity in regard to devotional dancing: “O Lord, I am just like a puppet in Your hands. So if You have brought me here to dance, then make me dance, make me dance. O Lord, make me dance as You like.” Dancing requires the freedom to move rhythmically to some outward sound, but it is also generally executed in measured steps. Prabhupada is here using this idea as a simile for giving himself over to God, praying that God will take full control of his life. The simile comes to life in the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition by actualizing in the form of dance, literally as well as figuratively.
By using this simile, Prabhupada is echoing Ramananda Raya, a great devotee of Lord Caitanya from the sixteenth century: “I dance [ami nata] because You are the puller of the strings [tumi—sutradhara]. The way You make me dance is exactly the way I dance [yei mata nacao, taiche cahi nacibara].” (Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 8.132) This idea and its implications permeate Krishna dasa Kaviraja Gosvami’s Caitanya-caritamrta, the book Prabhupada brought with him on the ship as he sailed to America from India in 1965.
For example, in the adi-lila (5.142) we find, “Lord Krishna alone is the supreme controller, and all others are His servants. They dance as He makes them do so.” Lord Caitanya says, “I firmly believe in these words of My spiritual master, and therefore I always chant the holy name of the Lord, alone and in the association of devotees. That holy name of Lord Krishna sometimes causes Me to chant and dance, and therefore I chant and dance. Please do not think that I intentionally do it. I do it automatically.” (adi 7.95–96)
Regarding the puppeteer part of the simile, Kaviraja Gosvami uses it himself: “Actually Sri Caitanyacaritam rta is not my writing but the dictation of Sri Madana-mohana [Krishna ]. My writing is like the repetition of a parrot. As a wooden doll is made to dance by a magician, I write as Madana-gopala orders me to do so.” (adi 8.78–79)
Vrndavana Dasa Thakura, who wrote an earlier biography of Lord Caitanya, used the simile, too, in the opening verses (Mangalacarana) of his Nityananda-caritamrta: “I find no beginning or end to the pastimes of Lord Nityananda [Lord Caitanya’s intimate associate]. I write whatever He inspires me to write. Just as a puppet dances only by the control of the puppeteer, whatever I describe is only by the direction of Lord Nityananda.”
Finally, in the nineteenth century, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a great teacher in our Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition, also found value in the comparison of a puppeteer and used it as a metaphor in his poetry, specifically in his song Sata Sandhi Jara Jara: “A dancing puppet of a hundred joints, your mortal coil in its last moments: this physical form is doomed to destruction. . . . My dear mind, hear the truth attentively: the panacea for this malady – chant Krishna ’s name constantly; Krishna is the life of immortality.”
The two primary elements of the comparison represent two of the most important aspects of life: fully giving oneself over to God, i.e., allowing Him to be the “puppeteer” in one’s life, and dancing in glorification of God.
Again, dancing is found in God Himself. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) famously said, “If they want me to believe in their god, they’ll have to sing me better songs. . . . I could only believe in a god who dances.”
In all likelihood, Nietzsche wasn’t aware of Radha-Krishna , Lord Caitanya, or Lord Caitanya’s movement. But if he were, he would have been pleasantly surprised. His aversion to, and even disbelief in, God as He was commonly understood by the Judeo-Christian tradition of his time – e.g., a remote, aloof entity on high who feels little need to enter into personal relationship with His creation – is entirely understandable.
Nietzsche intuitively knew that if God exists at all, He must be an entity who can dance, a warm and giving being privy to all of the joyous, loving, and lovable activities available to His children. The Bible asks, “Who shall dance with God?” (Hebrews 11:17–22)
Krishna , the Great Cosmic Dancer
The earliest Puranic texts make clear that God does engage in pleasurable activities. He loves, dances, plays His alluring flute, and interacts in countless fulfilling ways with His eternal associates. From the Srimad-Bhagavatam we learn of Krishna ’s pastimes in idyllic Vrndavana. The flowers are always in bloom there, birds perpetually chirp, peacocks crow and dance, bees sweetly hum, and cuckoos sing for the pleasure of all. Krishna , always at center stage, makes beautiful music with His flute, hoping to please His elder brother Balarama and the other cowherd boys who sport with Krishna in countless fields for tending cows. Within this setting, Krishna and His associates happily dance and sing. As Krishna dances, some of the cowherd boys sing, and others play on flutes or blow buffalo horns or clap their hands in time with Krishna ’s movements. In the midst of all this, they glorify Krishna : “Dear brother, You are dancing most excellently.”
The ultimate dance is found in chapters 29 through 33 of the Bhagavatam’s Tenth Canto. Here we find the story of Lord Krishna ’s rasa-lila, the intimate round dance He enthusiastically enacts with the gopis, the cowherd maidens of Vrindavan, His most intimate loving devotees. In a pastime of transcendent pleasure, Krishna lured the young girls into the middle of the forest, where they danced with complete abandon on a fullmoon autumn night. Miraculously, Krishna appeared between each pair of gopis, dancing simultaneously with each one as if He were with her alone. The rasa dance is beyond the material world, a fully spiritual exchange embodying the essence of divine love.
Srila Prabhupada writes:
The rasa dance of Krishna with the gopis is on the platform of yogamaya. The difference between the platform of yogamaya and mahamaya is compared in the Caitanya-caritamrta to the difference between gold and iron. From the viewpoint of metallurgy, gold and iron are both metals, but the quality is completely different. Similarly, although the rasa dance and Lord Krishna ’s association with the gopis appear like the ordinary mixing of young boys and girls, the quality is completely different. The difference is appreciated by great Vaisnavas because they can understand the difference between love of Krishna and lust. (Krishna , the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Chapter 29)
Kirtana: The New Rasa-Lila
In our age of quarrel and hypocrisy, known as Kali-yuga, we are unable to witness – not to speak of enter into – the rasa-lila unless we become highly qualified by spiritual practice or by the mercy of a pure devotee. Instead, we are encouraged to take advantage of the special yuga-dharma, or the religious process of the age, as promulgated by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu some five hundred years ago: chanting and dancing in glorification of the Lord. This is called nama-sankirtana.
Sri Caitanya and His eternal associates inaugurated namasankirtana in the courtyard of Srivasa Pandita’s home in Navadvipa, West Bengal. Gaudiya Vais- navas consider that location the rasasthali (stage for the rasa-lila) of Lord Caitanya’s era. The correlation between the rasa-sthali of Vrindavan and that of Srivasa Pandita’s courtyard can be traced to Locana Dasa Thakura’s Caitanya Mangala (sixteenth century):
Clutching Narahari’s hand in His other hand, Mahaprabhu reenacted the rasa dance within Srivasa Pandita’s courtyard. The assembled devotees saw Gauranga [Caitanya] transform into Syamasundara [Krishna ]. Gadadhara then turned into Radharan i, and Narahari became Madhumati-sakhi. All others chanted, “Haribol! Haribol!” as they saw Vrindavan appear before them. The son of Saci manifested the supreme abode, complete with Gopala [Krishna ], gopis, and cows. The cowherd boys and girls of Vraja [Vrindavan] became the brahmana companions of Lord Gaurahari in the age of Kali. ( Caitanya Mangala, Madhya 1.188–194)
With this as a basis, our Gau- diya Vaisnava acaryas have emphasized the importance of kirtana as a means to enter the rasa-lila. In the same way that Radha and Krishna danced with their gopi companions in the groves of Vrindavan (the original rasa-sthali), the divine couple appeared again, this time as one person in the form of Lord Caitanya, to reenact their rasa-lila in a way more suited to the age: They performed sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the holy names, a practice that can be followed by one and all.
Although these two lilas – the original rasa-lila and the kirtana in Srivasa Pandita’s courtyard – are superficially different, they serve the same purpose: the Lord’s highest pleasure. Furthermore, they both bestow love of Krishna in the most dynamic and thorough way.
Kaviraja Gosvami’s Caitanyacaritam rta underscores the harmony of these two lilas by adding a further dimension: he shows how the rasa-lila correlates with Mahaprabhu’s sankirtana pastime at the Rathayatra festival in Puri. At that festival, Sri Caitanya mystically multiplied Himself so that He could enter into seven groups of dancers, with each group feeling He was only with them. As the Caitanyacaritamrta (Madhya 13.53) records it: “Everyone said, ‘Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu is present in my group. Indeed, He does not go anywhere else. He is bestowing His mercy upon us.’” This calls to mind the rasa-lila, wherein Krishna replicated Himself for each gopi in the circle, and each felt she alone was with Him.
Kaviraja Gosvami further articulates the comparison: “Just as Lord Sri Krishna formerly performed the rasa-lila dance and other pastimes at Vrindavan, Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu performed such uncommon pastimes moment after moment. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s dancing before the Rathayatra car could be perceived only by pure devotees. Others could not understand. Descriptions of Lord Krishna ’s uncommon dancing can be found in the revealed scripture Srimad- Bhagavatam. In this way Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu danced in great jubilation and inundated all the people with waves of ecstatic love.” (Madhya 13.66–68)
Following Sri Caitanya’s lead, the tradition has consistently emphasized song and dance. The next generation, especially, led by Srinivasa acarya, Narottama Dasa Thakura, and Syamananda Prabhu, showed marked enthusiasm for singing and dancing in glorification of Krishna :
Everyone was drunk with dance. Such astounding streams of tears flowed down the faces of all, their bodies glistening with garlands and sandal. Narottama became intoxicated singing of Gaura’s qualities – and that Gaura Raya appeared, agitated, and with his company. He brought Nityananda, Advaita, Gadadhara, Murari, Svarupa, Haridasa, . . . When they became perceptible, visible to the eyes of everyone present, they were ecstatic. Every person there forgot completely both himself and the time, as if they were transported into the great pandemonium that swept Navadvipa . . . Saci’s son [Caitanya] danced with each of them. Nityananda Prabhu was overwhelmed with bliss and danced beside the beloved Narottama. Advaitacarya danced, carrying along Ramachandra, Shyamananda, and all the rest . . . The manner of that dance intoxicated the worlds, filling them with delight; the earth shuddered from the tramping of feet. Both the manifest and unmanifest came together as one. Just how amazing to be possessed in that dance – that experience cannot be fully disclosed. Hearts were thrilled at the wonderfully exhilarating music, accompanied by clapping cymbals and the yells of all present. Drowning in the liquid nectar of those songs, whose body could cling to the solid firmament of the shore? Moment to moment the waves of different emotions welled over them.
The “Swami Step” Comes West
When Srila Prabhupada arrived in the Western world, he carried this ecstatic tradition of song and dance in his heart. Sanatana Gosvami had written in Brhad-Bhagavatamrta (1.4.18), “Beginners in sadhanabhakti [devotional service in practice] should dance and sing as a matter of duty.” Besides pleasing the Lord and His pure devotees, dancing in kirtana creates auspiciousness for the world: “O king, when the devotees of Lord Krishna dance, their steps crush the inauspiciousness of the earth, their glances destroy the inauspiciousness of the ten directions, and their upraised arms push away the inauspiciousness of the demigods’ planets.” (Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya 20.68)
Srila Prabhupada comments in The Nectar of Devotion (Chapter 9):
In the Dvaraka-mahatmya the importance of dancing before the Deity is stated by Lord Krishna as follows: “A person who is in a jubilant spirit, who feels profound devotional ecstasy while dancing before Me, and who manifests different features of bodily expression can burn away all the accumulated sinful reactions he has stocked up for many, many thousands of years.” In the same book there is a statement by Narada wherein he asserts, “From the body of any person who claps and dances before the Deity, showing manifestations of ecstasy, all the birds of sinful activities fly away upward.” Just as by clapping the hands one can cause many birds to fly away, similarly the birds of all sinful activities which are sitting on the body can be made to fly away simply by dancing and clapping before the Deity of Krishna .
Srila Prabhupada didn’t force anyone to dance; he taught by example. During the early kirtanas at 26 Second Avenue in New York City, the first Krishna temple in the West, he would sometimes get up and dance, and the sincere followed suit.
Such dancing is natural. For example, small children sometimes try to attract their parents’ attention by raising their arms in the air, dancing around, and calling out with great feeling. Similarly, devotees call out to God, the ultimate parent, by chanting, dancing, and at an advanced stage of spiritual development, rolling on the ground and crying with heartfelt enthusiasm. This is a legitimate way to petition the Lord with prayer.
After a brief jaunt into Washington Square Park in the summer of 1966, Prabhupada began regularly taking the devotees into Tompkins Square Park, where they would chant and dance in great happiness. Brahmananda Dasa and Acyutananda Dasa were the first to get up and dance as they had seen Prabhupada do back at the temple – swinging their bodies from side to side, left foot to right side, right foot to left side, in time with the one-two-three rhythm. They called it “the Swami step.” Aside from the joy prompted by the chanting, they were no doubt trying to get Prabhupada’s attention, and he, as a loving spiritual father, was naturally pleased by their humble endeavors. How were they to know they were following the example of Lord Caitanya and His associates, or, more, that they were calling to mind the Lord’s rasa-lila? Only Prabhupada knew, and he would share this information with them in due course.
Satyaraja Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a BTG associate editor and founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. He has written more than thirty books on Krishna consciousness and lives near New York City.
This article was inspired by an earlier paper written by Pika Ghosh, “Dance, Trance, and Transformation: Movement in Gaudiya Temples,” Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Spring 2013, Vol. 21, No. 2.