Shri Lilashuka Bilvamangala Thakura, was one of the greatest early Vaishnava acaryas. He lived during the early medieval period in which the science of devotional service to Lord Shri Krishna was promulgated far and wide, especially by Lord Caitanya, along with His principal associates and their followers. Shrila Bilvamangala Thakura’s contribution to the world of transcendental Vaishnava literature, particularly his Shri Krishna-karnamrita, was highly appreciated by Shri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, as well as by all other devotees.

In fact, Shrila Bilvamangala Thakura was so expert in sensitively narrating the transcendental pastimes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, for the pleasure of the perfected pure devotees, that he earned the respectful title, “Lila-shuka,” or “the Shukadeva Gosvami of describing Krishna-lila.” Shri Govinda-damodara-stotram is one of several smaller compositions or anthologies that have traditionally been attributed to Shri Lilashuka. It’s verses have long been popular among the Vaishnavas of many sampradayas.

There isn’t an exhaustive amount of authoritative or reliable information about the life of Shrila Bilvamangala Thakura, and there is an exhaustive amount of confusing folklore. So there are many conflicting versions of who Bilvamangala Thakura was. Many identify him with the well-known Braja poet and devotee of Krishna, Suradasa. Like Bilvamangala Thakura, Suradasa is known to have been blind. However, it is sure that Bilvamangala Thakura was originally from South India, probably from around the areas where the Krishna and Bhima rivers flow (this region comprises the modern states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh). It is also known that Bilvamangala Thakura later went to Vrindavana to worship Lord Krishna. Prabhupada has described Bilvamangala Thakura as follows in his purport to the CC, Adi-lila, 1.57: ” . . . He intensely desired to enter the eternal pastimes of the Lord, and he lived at Vrindavana for seven hundred years in the vicinity of Brahma kunda, a still existing bathing tank in Vrindavana. The history of Bilvamangala Thakura is given in a book called Shri Vallabha-digvijaya.”

Here are the relevant sections from that work, in which Bilvamangalacarya speaks about his parampara:

“Now I shall narrate my previous life. There was a king in Dravida-desha named Vijaya Pandya. His best and most learned priest, Deva-svami, was a devotee of Vishnu who preached sad-dharma. His son was the incarnation of Vishnu, Vishnu-svami.. . . After Vishnu-svami, his disciple Deva-darshana continued his lineage as acarya for seven hundred years. After him, the tridandi Rajavishnu-svami, highly qualified with complete wisdom, was installed upon the simhasana. Rajavishnu-svami went to Dvaraka and established Dvarakadhishvara there. Going to Prayaga, he remained to assist King Pratipa of Pratishthana-pura, in order to defeat the Buddhists. The defeated Buddhists robbed the encampment of Vishnu-svami and burned his books. Then Rajavishnu-svami returned to Kanci along with his disciples. He placed upon his seat the best of Dravidi mendicants, Bilvamangala. Then, having gone to Kaundinyashrama, he attained Vaikuntha. Thus I, Bilvamangalacarya, along with Divodasa, began to protect dharma. . . . Leaving that place, giving the seat to Devamangala, I arrived at Vrindavana. . . . Thereafter, by dint of yogic power, I remained at Brahma-kunda beneath a great tree for seven hundred years.”

Shrila Prabhupada continues his purport (Cc. Adi. 1.57):

“He appeared in the Eighth Century Shaka Era in the Dravida and was the chief disciple of Vishnusvami. In a list of temples and monasteries kept in Shankaracarya’s monastery in Dvaraka, Bilvamangala is mentioned as the founder of the Dvarakadhisha temple there. He entrusted the service of his Deity to Hari Brahmacari, a disciple of Vallabha Bhatta.

“Bilvamangala Thakura actually entered into the transcendental pastimes of Lord Krishna. He has recorded his transcendental experiences and appreciation in the book known as Krishna-karnamrita. In the beginning of that book he has offered his obeisances to his different gurus, and it is to be noted that he has adored them all equally. The first spiritual master mentioned is Cintamani, who was his instructing spiritual master because she first showed him the spiritual path. Cintamani was a prostitute with whom Bilvamangala was intimate earlier in his life. She gave him the impetus to begin on the path of devotional service, and because she convinced him to give up material existence and try for perfection by loving Krishna, he has first offered his respects to her. Next he offers his respects to his initiating spiritual master, Somagiri, and then to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who was also his instructing spiritual master. He explicitly mentions the Bhagavan, who has a peacock feather in His crown, because the Lord of Vrindavana, Krishna the cowherd boy, used to come to Bilvamangala to talk to him and supply him with milk.”

Bilvamangala used to sing for Krishna, who used to come and listen. There is a very popular Brijbasi print of Bilvamangala singing, as Krishna sits next to him like a well-behaved boy, listening appreciatively. Because he was blind, Bilvamangala couldn’t see Krishna, but he knew Krishna was there. Once, he suddenly tried to grab Krishna–only to find the circle of his arms empty; Gopala was too fast and got away. In this connection, the following verse is also ascribed to Bilvamangala Thakura (KK 3.97):

hastam akshipya yato ‘smi
balat krishna kim adbhutam
hridayad yadi niryasi
paurusham ganayami te

“Throwing off my hand, O Krishna, You’ve run away–what is so wonderful about that? I’ll consider You strong only if You can escape from my heart!

The story which Shrila Prabhupada has referred to in the above purport about Bilvmangala’s relationship with Cintamani, the prostitute whom he later came to regard as his vartma-pradarshaka-guru, is a well known one. Here is how Shrila Prabhupada (in a room conversation) tells the story of Shrila Bilvamangala, paraphrasing one the famous verses from Shri Krishna-karnamritam:

“Bilvamangala Thakura, in his previous life, he elevated himself to the loving stage of Krishna. Not exactly, just previous, bhava. It is called bhava, ecstasy. But some way or other, he could not finish, so according to the instruction of Bhagavad-gita, he was given birth to a nice brahmana family. (aside: You can call that Bengali lady. She can hear.) So very rich. Shucinam shrimatam gehe, in that way. Rich family, at the same time, brahmana family. But richness, generally, sometimes glide down to wine, women, and intoxication. So by bad company he became woman-hunter, prostitute-hunter. So he was too much addicted to one woman, Cintamani. So his father died, and he was… He did not marry. In your country it is called girlfriend, and in our country it is called prostitute. So he was that about that prostitute, Cintamani. So he was performing the rituals, but he was thinking of his girlfriend, that Cintamani, “When I shall go there?” Bilvamangala Thakura? Yes. So he asked his servants, “Give me some food. I shall go to Cintamani.” So anyway, he performed… Did not perform. His mind was there. He took some nice foodstuff, and when he went, there was a big river, and it was raining heavily, and the river was flooded. So he thought, “How shall I go the other side?” So one dead body was floating. So he thought, “It is a log,” and he took the help of the log and went the other side. And it was heavy raining. And then, when he reached that Cintamani’s home, he saw the door is locked already. Blocked. So he jumped over the wall, taking the tail of a serpent, and when he reached inside, he knocked the door, and Cintamani was astonished. “How did you come? So heavy rain. You had to cross the river.” He said everything, that “Oh, I cannot stay without you.” So she was much inquisitive: “How did you come? How did you jump over this wall?” And so he showed everything, that there was a big snake, and so he thought it as rope and jumped it. And then, when he went to the riverside, he saw that was a dead body. So at that time Cintamani thought, “Oh, this man is so much addicted to me.” So she told, “Oh, this much attraction if you would have with Krishna, oh, how nice your life would have been.” So immediately he came to his senses because he was lifted to that position in his previous life. So immediately he left and was going alone to Vrindavana. And on the way he saw another beautiful woman. So his business was to be attracted by woman. So he again became attracted. So he was following. So this woman, after entering, she told her husband, “Just see, this man is following from a distant place.” So he asked him, “Oh, come on.” He saw he is nice gentleman. He was a rich man, brahmana. “What is this?” He said plainly, “Oh, I have been attracted by your wife, by the beauty of your wife.” “All right, come on. What is that?” You enjoy my wife. You are brahmana. You are…” So he was received well. And at night, when he was given place, then he asked that woman, “Mother, will you give me your hair pin?” He took the hair pin and pushed in the eyes: “Oh, these eyes are my enemy.” Since then he became blind. And in that blindness he was worshipping Krishna, and Krishna was coming to him. And he would not touch. He’ll sing, dance, and He’ll supply milk and go away. So this Bilvamangala Thakura wrote one book, Krishna-karnamrita. It is very valuable book. That is very highly estimated, Lord Caitanya.”

This is the traditional story of Bilvamangala Thakura, which has been mentioned in the Krishna-karnamrita commentaries of the gosvamis (though they qualify it as hearsay). The opening verse of Krishna-karnamrita, which Shrila Prabhupada has alluded to above, is also found in the Caitanya-caritamrita:

cintamanir jayati somagiri gurur me
shiksha-gurush ca bhagavan chikhi-piccha-maulih
lila-svayamvara-rasam labhate jayashrih

“All glories to Cintamani! All glories to my shiksha-guru Somagiri! All glories to Lord Krishna, who wears a peacock feather in His crown! The tips His lotus-bud toes are the foremost attainment always wished for by Shrimati Radharani (Jayashri).”

Regarding the GDS, many of its verses exist as variants in other works by Bilvamangala Thakura, as well as in the works by others. So it is possible that it is largely anthological. Suggesting this is a verse in the GDS which seems to be quoted from the Shrimad-bhagavatam, 10.39.31 (translated by His Holiness Hridayananda dasa Gosvami):

evam bruvana virahatura bhrisham
vraja-striyah krishna-vishikta-manasah
visrijya lajjam ruruduh sma su-svaram
govinda damodara madhaveti

“After speaking these words, the ladies of Vraja, who were so attached to Krishna, felt extremely agitated by their imminent separation from Him. They forgot all shame and loudly cried out, “O Govinda! O Damodara! O Madhava!”

Here the refrain, “govinda damodara madhaveti,” which also appears after each verse of the GDS, suggests that the above verse from the Bhagavatam was perhaps the very inspiration behind the composition of this work. This verse is also hinted at by Shrila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami in his Shri Caitanya-caritamrita, Antya-lila, chapter 19, verse 58. Since it is cited there as one of those which Shri Caitanya Mahaprabhu would recite, it is possible that Lord Caitanya was also acquainted with the GDS or Bilvamangala Thakura’s other works. There are many other similarities between the GDS and other works as well; one example among them is its concluding verse, which is almost identical to verse 29 of the Mukunda-mala-stotram of the aÿvar Maharaja Kulashekhara. In addition, the phrase “hare murare” appears more than once in the GDS and in the Mukunda-mala-stotra, as well as many other places. Another example is GDS, 15. With the exception of the familiar last line, this verse is found in one of the South Indian Krishna-karnamrita versions; there, the final line reads, “gopam bhaje gokula-purna-candram” instead. On the whole, one gets the impression that the integrity, or even the identity, of his works has not been carefully maintained, though this is common in such literature. There are definitely widely variant editions of this work. A version current in the Vallabha Vaishnava sampradaya consists of but ten verses; all except one of them are included in the present version, though in different order. Several of the verses of the GDS are taken from, or included in, other known writings as well. Even in the Sikh scripture Gurugrantha, there is a vernacular song which quite closely resembles GDS 40.

Perhaps the greatest appeal of the GDS is that it provides, with each verse, a veritable window into the spiritual world, a brief but powerful vision of the Supreme Lord. Bilvamangala was able to produce, in any single verse, an encapsulated glimpse of our eternal home, in a manner that is at once vivid and sensuous, sweet to the ear, and purifying to the heart–and to the intellect as well. He is the abode of mercy for those of us who are scorched by the threefold miseries and consumed by banal worldliness, those who are therefore too dull, jaded, or offensive to have direct darshana of the Lord’s dynamic cid-ananda lilas. His verses can yet produce just such a picture in the pious imagination. And it is as if he himself tacitly recognizes this in the following verse (Krishna-karnamritam, 3.34):

eshu pravaheshu sa eva manye
kshano ‘pi ganyah purushayusheshu
asvadyate yatra kayapi vrittya
nilasya balasya nijam caritram

“In this great current that is the life of man, I believe that the moment to be considered is just that in which the relishable activities of a boy of bluish complexion are experienced by some insight.”

Let us therefore glorify him and beg for his mercy.