Śrī Caitanya told the renowned Vedāntist Prakāśānanda Sarasvatī of Vārāṇasī that His spiritual master instructed Him to chant kṛṣṇa-nāma and kṛṣṇa-mantra, and that by doing so He would attain liberation and ultimately the shelter of the lotus feet of Kṛṣṇa, kṛṣṇa-mantra haite habe saṁsāra mocana kṛṣṇa-nāma haite pābe kṛṣṇera caraṇa. This instruction is the essence of Vedānta and the practice of all Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas. Within the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava sampradāya today, kṛṣṇa–nāma has become identified with the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā–mantra, whereas kṛṣṇa-mantra refers to the eighteen syllable mantra found in Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad: klīṁ kṛṣṇāya govindāya gopījana-vallabhāya svāhā. Thus kṛṣṇa–mantra is sometimes referred to as the aṣṭa-daśākṣara–mantra, and more commonly as gopāla–mantra. Invoking the gopāla–mantra in mantra–dhyāna and kṛṣṇa-nāma in kīrtana is a very potent spiritual practice.
Śrīla Bhakti Rakṣaka Śrīdhara Deva Gosvāmī Mahārāja has given an example to help us understand the relationship between gopāla–mantra and kṛṣṇa–nāma:
“An example is given of larger and smaller circles. The holy name of Kṛṣṇa is the larger circle. It extends from the highest to the lowest. The mantra circle is a smaller circle within the larger circle. The holy name can extend itself down to the lowest position. The mantra gives us entrance into liberation, and then the name carries us further.”
Thus kṛṣṇa-nāma seeks no qualification. In the form of His name, He extends Himself to the fallen souls. The holy name then gradually qualifies these souls such that they can receive the kṛṣṇa–mantra. Chanting the holy name in conjunction with the mantra liberates the conditioned soul. At that time, while the mantra’s efficacy has been reached and it thus retires, kṛṣṇa-nāma takes the soul into the nitya–līlā and ultimately vastu–siddhi.
The liberation effected through mantra-dhyāna of gopāla–mantra is that which is described in the Śrīmad–Bhāgavatam. Mukti is defined therein as twofold, muktir hitvānyathā rūpaṁ svarūpeṇa vyavastitiḥ. In the Bhāgavata conception of liberation, we are delivered from the negative influence of material life and situated positively in our normal position, our svarūpa. This stage of development is called svarūpa–siddhi, that stage of life in which one realizes his spiritual identity in kṛṣṇa-līlā.
One who has attained svarūpa-siddhi has experienced the fruit of gopāla-mantra dhyāna. It is said that the muni-cāri-gopīs, who are sādhana–siddha–gopīs, attained svarūpa–siddhi by perfecting the chanting of this dīkṣā–mantra. According to Padma Purāṇa, Gāyatrī herself desired gopī–bhāva and thus incarnated as Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad, in which the kāma–bīja and gopāla–mantra are revealed.
Jīva Gosvāmī explains in his commentary on Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad that the śruti brings up questions posed by various ṛṣis to Brahmā in order that the mystery of the 18 syllable gopāla-mantra might be revealed. They ask plainly and confidently without hesitation about confidential matters, thus indicating their adhikāra for rāgānugā–sādhana. Brahmā is driven by the inquiries of the sages to contemplate “How can a special taste in devotional practice be attained?” Thus he begins to explain the import of the gopāla–mantra.
The seed of the mantra is klīm. From its seed it expands six fold, kṛṣṇāya, govindāya, gopījana, vallabhāya, svā, and hā. Klīm is known as the kāma–bīja or desire seed. From it the world above and the world below manifest.
Unlike other well known spiritual paths such as Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism that consider cessation of desire the sum and substance of spiritual perfection, Gauḍīya Vedānta conceives of desire as the very basis of life, both material and spiritual. Without desire there is no life. The seed of desire is the kāma-bīja, which represents the desire of the Absolute, its life. This desire is a natural result of its fullness, the overflowing of joy. Unlike material desire, it arises out of fullness rather than out of any necessity born of incompleteness. Material desire is its reflection. In material life, we desire out of the sense that we are incomplete, that we need to add something to our lives. This is the result of misidentifying with the material world. When we theoretically understand that we, as a unit of consciousness (cit-kaṇa), are different from matter, we are in a position to pursue our real life. If we receive the gopāla-mantra prefaced by the kāma-bīja, through its utterance we can move practically from the world of material desire to the heart of the Absolute, its transcendental desire that is the essence of Śrī Caitanya.
The kāma-bīja expresses the transcendental reality of Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa, and thereby that of Śrī Caitanya as well. When this seed of desire is reflected in the material world, it gives rise to the variety of material aspirations that bind conditioned souls. Desire is thus the basis of all life material and spiritual.
Brahmā chanted gopāla–mantra preceded by the kāma–bīja for success in creation. Along with this mantra he chanted its corresponding gāyatrī (kāma–gāyatrī). Thus he was successful in his desire to create. As his desire to create was not entirely unrelated to the selfless desire to serve the Absolute in love, he was successful in the work of creation and later through the same mantra he was successful in attaining the spiritual world. He thus progressed from sākāma devotion to niṣkāma devotion. He combined his worldly aspiration with his desire to serve the Absolute and thus taught us the secrets of devotion in the utterance of the sacred mantram.
With regard to the world below and Brahmā’s work of creation, the letters forming the kāma-bīja correspond with its basic ingredients. Ka indicates water, as this is its dictionary meaning. La indicates earth, as laṁ is the bīja–mantra of this element. The long vowel ī following ka and la connects these consonants. In the kāma–bīja it represents fire. Followed by the anusvāra in the shape of a half moon, the moon itself is indicated. The bindu within the anusvara indicates ether. Such is the explanation of Gautamīya Tantra, in which the Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad is described as chief of all śrutis. Gopāla–tāpanī itself informs that the heavens and earth, sun, moon, and fire are all represented in the kāma-bīja, klīm. This has been determined upon analysis of each letter as well as their particular combination as klīm. Having received the gopāla-mantra preceded by the seed klīm, Brahmā’s desire to create for the Lord was fulfilled.
Situated in his own planet, Brahmā also chants this mantra meditating on Goloka, the world above. Kṛṣṇa Dāsa Kavirāja Gosvāmī relates:
yāṅra dhyāna nija-loke kare padmāsana aṣṭa-daśākṣara-mantre kare upāsana
“Brahmā, sitting in the padmāsana in his own abode meditates upon the eighteen syllable mantra and thus worships Kṛṣṇa.”
Rasollāsa Tantra states that the kāma–bīja is Kṛṣṇa Himself, the transcendental cupid, Kāmadeva. Bṛhad Gautamīya Tantra informs that ka of kāma–bīja indicates Kṛṣṇa, the supreme puruṣa and embodiment of eternality, knowledge, and bliss. In the same text, the letter ī in klīm is said to indicate the supreme prakṛti, Śrī Rādhā. Their mutual ecstatic exchange of transcendental love is implied by la, and the anusvāra and bindu indicate the ecstatic sweetness of their most blissful kiss.
Śrī Brahma Saṁhitā describes the gopāla–mantra in terms of its representing the abode of Kṛṣṇa, Goloka. The six fold gopāla-mantra corresponds with the hexagonal center of the lotus of this ultimate spiritual dimension. In the center of the hexagon, Rādhā Kṛṣṇa, the objective of the mantra, eternally reside represented by the kāma-bīja (klīm). Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, following the commentary of Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī, has explained the balance of the mantra in his commentary on Brahma-Saṁhitā thus:
The word kṛṣṇāya in this mantra represents the intrinsic form of Kṛṣṇa. Govindāya represents the intrinsic form of His pastimes. Gopī-jana indicates the intrinsic form of His intimate attendants, the gopī-jana. Vallabhāya indicates the intrinsic form of self surrender in the sentiment of the gopi-jana. Sva indicates the pure soul and ha the intrinsic nature of the soul to render service unto Kṛṣṇa.
To the sage’s question in Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad: “Who is Kṛṣṇa, who is Govinda, who is Gopī-jana-vallabha, and who is svāhā” Brahmā answers, “Kṛṣṇa is He who destroys our sins; Govinda is He who is known to the cows, the earth, and the Vedas; Gopī-jana-vallabha is He who inspires wisdom and the arts of the gopīs; svāhā is his māyā.” Here Brahmā means that from the etymological perspective Kṛṣṇa can be derived from karṣana, which means to ‘cause something to disappear.’ One who is known for this quality of making sins disappear is He who can be identified by this name. As Kṛṣṇa is also explained to indicate the qualities of eternity, consciousness and bliss in the famous verse, kṛṣir bhu vacakaḥ śabdo ṇaś ca nirvṛty vācakaḥ, and these qualities are unattainable by the sinful, Kṛṣṇa is He who destroys all sins.
Govinda is he who is known in relation to the three things indicated by the word go: cows, earth and the Veda. Kṛṣṇa is well known for His association with the cows of Nanda and His love for them, as He is well known on earth as its protector. He is also known in the Vedas, indeed He is their objective. Thus Govinda is the same Kṛṣṇa, destroyer of sins, who’s pastimes with the cows liberates the earth, and who is to be known by study of the Vedas.
Gopī-jana-vallabha refers to the same Kṛṣṇa in a particular form of relationship with the gopīs. By knowing this form, all forms of Godhead become known. Thus Govinda and Gopī-jana-vallabha are the same Kṛṣṇa whom we are to serve, described in terms of His cowherd pastimes and His special relationship with the gopīs. If we feel in our bhajana that it is Kṛṣṇa we worship who has cowherd pastimes and who is the lover of the gopīs we will enter in perfection in dāsya–rati. If we feel it is Govinda, Lord of the cows, who is also the eternal Kṛṣṇa, the lover of the gopīs that we aspire to meet, we will enter into sakhya-rati. If in the optimum we feel it is Gopī-jana-ballabha, who is known also as the eternal Kṛṣṇa and cowherd Govinda that we love, we will enter into śṛṅgāra-rasa. Such is the fruit of gopāla-mantra.
Gautamīya Tantra states, svā-śabdena ca kṣtrajña heti cit-prakṛtiḥ parā. Here svā is said to indicate kṣtra-jña, the soul and hā the higher transcendental nature. By uttering svā and hā, one offers oneself in divine service. Such utterance of the mantra from the perspective of one’s aspired for relationship, awakened through spiritual culture is the perfection of mantra–mayi-upāsana. Subsequently the devotee realizes the divine eternal flow of kṛṣṇa-līlā, svārasikī, and he becomes a siddha. The words svā and hā when placed together as they are in this mantra, represent māyā, the śakti of Kṛṣṇa who makes the world go round. This is the māyā that is associated with yoga, yoga-māyā. Thus kṛṣṇāya govindāya gopī-jana-vallabahāya and svāhā, His internal śakti, assembled together in this mantric formula are non-different from the Absolute replete with His śakti.