Oftentimes we look at people, cultures, belief systems, artistic productions as complete uniform wholes. For example, in history books, the northeastern parts of India are illustrated only in light of few markers like the “bamboo dance” or “Manipuri dance” without any further explanation. Or say, religions are classified by common symbols— the Om sign for Hinduism, the Holy Cross for Christianity, the Crescent Moon for Islam and so on. Although one might argue that these images are the product of common representation across mediums, this act of homogenising groups into one specific trait or stereotype subdues particularities that carry an entire historical trajectory on their own. In an effort to shed light on one of many such divergences, this article explores the “myth” of Ashtashakas. In the 15th century, a community began forming as a reaction to Hinduism’s growing asceticism.
Centred around North India, especially Nathdwara, Rajasthan, this group called the Pushti Marg (translated “Path of Grace”) started practising a form or sub-tradition of Vaishnavism. Their practices were unique for it blended a mix of devotional principles and art practices. Among these expressions, the art of Pichhwai gained popularity. However, even as Nathdwara and the Pushti Marg sect drew attention, a certain sect encased between the movement’s folds was enshrined in mystery; they were the Ashtashakas.
Composed of eight figure heads, Ashtashakas, literally Ashta being “eight,” and Shaka being “friend/companion/devotee,” were understood as being devotional poets or the ideal Vaishnavas of Pushtimarg. The first four Ashtashakas namely, Shri Surdasji, Kumbhandasji, Krishnadasji, and Paramananddasji were disciples of Shri Vallabhacharya the founder of Pustimarg. While the other four Govindswamiji, Chhitswamiji, Nanddasji, Chaturbhudasji were disciples of Shri Gusainji, the direct descendant of Vallabhacharya. Present at the court of their respective gurus, these poets held the designated roles of being renowned kirtaniyas (translated “worship-singers'') of Shrinathji, a younger form (or baalak “boy”) of the Hindu deity Krishna.
The pads (translated as “songs”) composed by these poets were not simple compositions, but rather held in their lyrics an extreme kind of devotion with an element of wholehearted seva (“worship”). Mixed with oral folktales recanting the golden days of Krishna as he grew up around the famed city of Vrindavan, these songs included images of Radha, cowherds, animals, parrots and so on. Some common themes such as references to Govardhana Shila which is a symbolic rocky hill structure situated in present day Vrij, Uttar Pradesh, drew a wide range of listeners across sects and borders. The mention of Govardhana is particularly interesting to study because even in today’s religious articulations, the followers of Pushtimarg worship Shrinathji in a form of a small stone representing the hill. The mysticism of a higher being finding communion with materiality within people, is not an anomaly to say the least. In Judaism, the Ark of the Covenant containing two stone tables with the Ten Commandments inscribed on it (a chest made of acacia wood with wings in gold and protruding handles) served as a guiding platform symbolic of the relationship between Heaven, God, and Earth. In similar strains, devotees believe the hill and Krishna himself to be non-different from each other.
The Pushtimarg online archive explains the special elements of pads composed by the Ashtashakas. While poets of the world or secular poets rely on their kalpana (imagination), and other religious poets compose based off of scriptures, true devotional poets utter lyrical lines stemming from self-realising their experiences with God. They fully comprehend the Divine swaroop (“forms”) and perform worship as per their calling. The Pushtimarg archive also defines kirtan as a constant evocation of listening, expressing, practising, and remembering.” It is safe to understand then that these meticulous rumminations were not merely compiled in a sense of scholarly accomplishment— although there was definitely a lyrical tradition inscribed in its composition— rather these were emotive, spiritual, and spontaneous renderings spawn out of not just personal but also communal experiences. These songs drew inspiration from the Leela (“the Divine Play”) as well as from its surrounding ecology. As per the present devotees’ testimonies, one Ashtashaka Shri Surdasji (the disciple of Shri Vallabhacharya) is said to have composed over 1,25,000 pads until his passing at the ripe age of 108 years old. It is noteworthy to mention that these songs were intricately woven into everyday life. From various rutu (“seasons”) of ushnakal (“winter”), sheetkal (“summer”), to varsha (“winter”), the poem-songs knitted itself into community fabric. It is said that the poets, in particular Nanddasji (the disciple of Gusainji) composed pads (“songs”) in Braja bhasa (colloquial dialect) for better dissemination much to the chagrin of Brahmin pandits from Mathura!
In addition to tales of awe-inspiring devotion still being retold by people, the Ashtashakas continue to hold a legendary sort of remembrance. Like folk heroes and icons in numerous cultures whose lives are memorialised through narratives, stories of the Ashtashakas’ encounters with Emperor Akbar, Tulsidas, and even the famous court minister Birbal continue to hold reverence in people’s imaginations. So much so that even after 500 years, their fleeting lives have had so much effect for years to come. As one reaches the end, a phrase from the Pushtimarg blog comes to mind. The writer after an exhaustive exaltation of all eight Ashtashakas writes, “The story [really] has no end.”
~ Illustrations by Saba Solanki
- VALLABH PUSTI SAMAJ OF CAROLINA: Ashtasakhas of Pushtimarg
- On Kirtan Seva: https://pushtimarg.net/kirtan/
- On the Ark of the Covenant: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Chronicles+16-18&version=NLT
- Lutzker, Mary-Ann. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 56, no. 4 (1988): 765–67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1464465.
- On Govardhan Hill: https://web.archive.org/web/20071106214755/http://www.salagram.net/parishad77-g.htm#OriginofGovardhan:
- Pushtimarg: ASHTSAKHA OF SHREE SHREENATHJI
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