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Ashtachap – Eight Poets Of Vallabha Sect

Ashtachap is the name used to refer to eight Hindi poets and disciples of Vallabhacharya (1478 – 1530 CE) and Vitthalnath (1515 – 1585 CE). The ashtachap poets were originally designated to perform the eight prescribed rituals of the Vallabha sect. They lived in Braj Bhumi around Vrindavan in North India, and came to be known as the ashtachap poets, as singers and composers of songs. They performed the votive rituals known as ashtayam-seva or the eight prescribed rituals of the day.

The names of Ashtachap poets are

  1. Kumbhandasa (1468-1582/83)
  2. Suradasa (1478-1580/83)
  3. Krishnadasa (1495-1578)
  4. Paramanandadasa (1491-1583)
  5. Govindaswami (1505 – 85)
  6. Chitaswami (1515 – 85)
  7. Nandadasa (1533 – 83)
  8. Chaturbhujadasa (1530 – 85)

The first four were directly initiated by Vallabhacharya and the other four by his son Vitthalnath who established this celebrated order.

The philosophical base of Pushtimarg (divine favor/nourishment) is Shuddhadvaita Vada. In the practice of the path, the sect emphasizes total surrender to young Bhagavan Sri Krishna and constant dwelling upon his legendary activities, lila, or play along with the idea that the godhead then chooses to bless some very favored devotees in a special manner. The ashtachap-poets are considered to be such special chosen devotees.

The eight daily rituals of the pushtimarg sect are to be performed at the shrine of child Sri Krishna. These are mangalacharana (invocation of the deity), sringara (adorning the consecrated image with beautiful clothes, jewelry, flowers, sandal paste, etc), gvala (sending off the cowherd boys for their daily pastoral activities), raja bhoga (sumptuous afternoon meal), utthapana (rising after rest), bhoga (ritual evening meal), sandhya arati (evening waving of oil lamps) and sayana (ritual of putting to bed).

There were special songs describing each activity of the deity and these poets composed new lyrics daily, to be sung at these rituals. Today these contemporaries of the founder and his son are honored as ashta sakha (the incarnations of eight special friends of Bhagavan Sri Krishna).

Apart from the eight daily occasions, there were numerous seasonal and annual events to be celebrated with songs and feasting. The ashta sakha poets composed and sang the padas or bhajans on every festive occasion in accordance with prescribed norms. Compositions in ragas were sung in accordance with the time of the day or the seasonal festival, be it the rains or the early spring. In the morning during mangala arati, it would be a composition in raga Bhairava, Vibhasa or Ramakali; for the morning 9 AM sringara it was Bilavala; for noon, sarangi and so on, as per the rules prescribed in the traditional North Indian Musicology. The eight poets were thus not only dedicated devotees, but adepts at composing these lyrics in classical melodies and had deep knowledge of Hindu music. While they were not all of the same merit as poets, there was no doubting their spiritual zeal. They were considered incarnations of the divine companions of Bhagavan Sri Krishna.

As a poet Suradasa excels them all and perhaps far outshines the others in literary merit. In spite of this congenital blindness, his imagery is astounding and defies all theories of imagination which stipulate a prior cognition of concepts described in such fine detail.

Kumbhandasa has written his Krishnalila in about five hundred padas (musical compositions). Nandadasa is the next famous poet after Suradasa. His Bhramara-gita prasanga, like that of Suradasa, is a particularly memorable contribution, both to Hindi poetry and to the doctrinal refuting of Nirguna Brahman of Shankaradvaitins. He also produced fourteen works some of which were independent of the Sri Krishna lore. Krishnadasa and Govindaswami have two hundred fifty padas each to their credit while Chaturbhujadasa and Chitswami wrote one-hundred-fifty and sixty-four padas respectively.

They emphasized the Ananda (bliss) aspect of the godhead and dwelt mostly on the romantic teenage life of young Bhagavan Sri Krishna as detailed in Srimad Bhagavata Purana. Suradasa is famous for his depiction of vatsalya (filial love of parents for a child). The sensitive portrayal of the childhood antics of baby Krishna, as described by Suradasa, is perhaps unparalleled in world literature. He brings the godhead close to the laity as a delightfully lovable babe-in-arms, an object of unconditional love. Without sounding doctrinal, he thus illustrates the contention of Pushtimarg that even God yearns for unflinching love from his devotees and bestows grace unconditionally.

Out of the eight poets, both Suradasa and Paramanandadasa had been initiated to this vatsalya bhakti (filial devotion) as the deity of Pushtimarg is the boy Krishna, known as Shrinathji in the central temple in Nathdwara. Contemporary Vaishnava sects like the Chaitanya and Radhavallabh sects were developing the devotion to kantabhava or that of the beloved. So gradually all types of devotional love, as friend, beloved, loyal attendant or parent, became acceptable as themes for poems and special festivals, though the eight daily rituals remained centered on the activities of the child deity. Themes relating to the romantic love of Radha and the gopis for Sri Krishna are quite common in the lyric poetry of the ashtachap poets.

A factor, common to all eight poets, was absence of didactiveness. They were more poets than preachers. All were spiritually dedicated and had refused royal patronage or gifts of any kind despite abject poverty.

All of them were good singers. Together they not only enriched the literature of the Pushtimarg, but also that of Braj Bhasha and Hindi literature as a whole.