Since ancient times India’s ascetics and holy men have endeavoured to realize the absolute truth by the culture of spiritual knowledge. Some of them followed in the footsteps of Buddha, practicing ahimsā, the path of nonviolence, seeking prākṛti–nirvāṇa as the highest attainment. Later in history some, preferring to renounce work, followed Śaṅkaracārya, and by the practice of sense control, they fixed their mind in meditation, merging the individual ego into Brahman, the ultimate state of oneness. In the development towards a transcendental theism, others, following Rāmānuja and Madhva on the path of devotion, considered realization of the self as an eternal servant of Godhead – one in purpose with the Supreme – as the highest goal. But while Rāmānuja and Madhva established theistic schools of thought based on Vedānta (as opposed to Śaṅkara’s ultimate monism), it was not until the advent of Śrī Caitanya that Vedantic theism’s limits were unveiled.
Śrī Caitanya appeared in this world at Māyāpura, Navadvīpa-dhāma, West Bengal on February 18, 1486 in the home of Jagannātha Miśra, a scholarly brāhmaṇa priest of the Vaiṣṇava community. At the time of his appearance the moon was eclipsed, and thus all the noble residents of Navadvīpa-dhāma had gone to take their bath in the Ganges. Everyone was in a happy mood, and according to the customs of their time, everyone chanted Vedic mantras and the names of God as they bathed in the Ganges. Due to the chanting of these mantras the atmosphere became surcharged with spiritual vibrations, and at that auspicious moment, Śrī Caitanya advented.
The life history of Śrī Caitanya has been told by historians, scholars, and devotees alike. But there is an esoteric description of his appearance as well, and it is within this internal analysis that his teaching is based – a teaching that might well be considered the zenith of theism. Within this school of thought the prospect for an intimate relationship with a personal God beyond the duality of the world of time and space invites the devoted to participate in a labor of love which culminates in an eternal life of ecstatic rapture.
The Bengali classic Caitanya-caritāmṛta, compiled in the sixteenth century by Kṛṣṇa Dāsa Kavirāja Gosvāmī, reveals the inner identity of Śrī Caitanya which is accepted by all his followers. In this book the author describes Śrī Caitanya as Godhead himself, who in this incarnation disguises himself as his own devotee. Kṛṣṇa Dāsa emphasizes that Śrī Caitanya is the personal manifestation of the absolute truth in full, and he urges his readers to regard him in that way in order to enter into an understanding of the confidential nature of his life and precepts. According to Kṛṣṇa Dāsa, Śrī Caitanya is the Kali-yuga-avatāra described throughout the Vedic literature. (1)
The idea that Parambrahma (the Absolute) is ultimately personal, making possible eternal devotion, and that Śrī Caitanya is that transcendental person, has also been explained in detail by his modern-day followers such as the eminent professor of Indian philosophy, Dr. O.B.L. Kapoor. Kapoor says that the appearance of Śrī Caitanya in this phenomenal world is the culmination of a transcendental dialectic which is inherent in the very nature of the Supreme Being. Parabrahma, says Kapoor, is rasa or concentrated bliss, which assumes a transcendental figure. The figure is that of Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Within rasa there must also be rasika, or the ability to taste transcendental bliss, says Kapoor. Thus in Kṛṣṇa the unity of rasa and rasika bursts and blooms into the duality of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā. In that duality Kṛṣṇa is rasa, the highest thing to be relished, and Rādhā is rasika, the greatest enjoyer of rasa. After reaching the highest state of divine love called prema–vilāsa–vivarta, in which Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa, the potent and the potency, are fully absorbed in one another’s love, the transcendental duality of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā again combines.
According to Kapoor, “This union of love between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa, however, does not imply a monistic union, as does the Advaitic conception of formless Brahman or the Neo-Platonic concept of God as an experience, in which the loss of individuality of the devotee or the sādhaka is complete and irrevocable. It is…like the union between fire and a piece of iron. A piece of iron, when put for a long time in fire, becomes red-hot like the fire. Every part of it is animated by fire and acquires the characteristics of fire. Still, iron remains iron and fire remains fire. Similarly, both Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā retain their identity. They are so absorbed in each other’s love and lost in each other’s thoughts that there is hardly any room in their hearts for the thought of anything else. Śrī Caitanya is the substantial or personalized form of this union.”
Thus the birth of Śrī Caitanya in this world at Māyāpura was not like that of an ordinary child, but rather it was of the nature of divine descent.
After the birth of Śrī Caitanya, all the women of the village loved to see him every day. His uncle, who was a famous astrologer, foretold that the child would be recognised as a great personality in time, and he named him Viśvambhara (maintainer of the universe). The child’s mother Śacī Devī, however, preferred to call him Nimāi since there was a nīma tree near the place where he was born.
As a child Nimāi liked to play with his friends on the banks of the Ganges, and as boys will be boys, Nimāi and his friends would often get into mischief. Sometimes the boys would even splash water on the yogis who came to the banks of the river to meditate. However, when the adults came to chastise Nimāi for his tricks, they became charmed by his cunning behaviour. Everyone came to love Nimāi as if he were their own son. In his fifth year Nimāi was admitted into the school of Gaṅgā Dāsa Paṇḍita, where he mastered Bengali and Sanskrit in two short years. After that, Nimāi studied at home, and by his tenth year he was already renowned as a great scholar, now known as Nimāi Paṇḍita. His scholarship was such that in his youth he defeated the greatest scholar of the time, Keśava Bhaṭṭa of Kashmir. In doing so he vanquished the pride that accompanied the scholarship of the paṇḍita. While Śrī Caitanya himself was a great scholar, he consistently deprecated the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. In his view, learning was connected with reality only inasmuch as Godhead was served thereby.
Nimāi had an older brother named Viśvarūpa who left home to become a sannyāsī, a member of the renounced order of life. This came as a tremendous shock to Jagannātha Miśra and Śacī Devī, but Nimāi, in his usual way, consoled his parents in their grief and showered them with love. Shortly after the loss of their older son, Jagannātha Miśra himself expired from this world, leaving his wife to widowhood with only Nimāi to look after her.
On the request of his mother, Nimāi married Lakṣmīpriyā, a charming girl from a nearby village. But just after his fifteenth birthday, while Nimāi was away from his village, Lakṣmīpriyā died after being bitten by a snake. Although at the request of his mother he had accepted another wife, Viṣṇupriyā, this marriage was also not to last for long, for shortly thereafter while visiting Gayā, Śrī Caitanya accepted initiation from his celebrated guru Īśvara Purī. This initiation marked a turning point in his life. When Nimāi returned to Māyāpura, he was no longer interested in scholastic achievement: his mind turned instead toward spiritual matters. Externally he appeared to have lost interest in conventional duties; from then on Nimāi was a man transformed, as if God-inspired.
In the evenings Nimāi would gather his intimate followers together in the house of Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura and perform saṅkīrtana, the congregational chanting of the names of God. In those chanting sessions Nimāi would sometimes exhibit ecstatic symptoms of love of God, and sometimes he would reveal his form to be the same as that of Śrī Kṛṣṇa. For almost eight years Śrī Caitanya continued to live at Māyāpura.
In the daytime Śrī Caitanya used to send his followers from door to door to request every man, woman, and child to chant the names of God. He taught that simply by chanting the names of God one would easily realise his eternal relationship with God, whose name is non-different from Himself. In this way he taught the yuga-dharma for the age of Kali.
Śrī Caitanya instructed his followers that there are no hard and fast rules for chanting the names of God. Regardless of one’s position in society, anyone and everyone was eligible to take part in this process. This, however, drew objection, and certain members of the priestly caste who “held a monopoly” on spiritual blessings opposed him. He had started the movement of chanting the names of God to uplift all classes of human society, announcing love of God to be the birthright of everyone, yet thinking him to be only an ordinary human being, foolish, self-motivated persons objected.
Contemplating in this way, Śrī Caitanya Devised a plan. Knowing that a sannyāsī, a member of the renounced order of life, was respected by everyone – even by the atheists – he decided to accept sannyāsa. Thus even the nonbelievers would benefit by showing him respect. Once Śrī Caitanya had decided on his course of action, nothing could turn him back.
Early one morning in January, at the end of his 24th year, Śrī Caitanya bid farewell to hearth and home. Without the notice of anyone except his mother, he swam across the Ganges River and ran to Katwa, a distance of some 25 miles. At Katwa he went to the āśrama of Keśava Bhāratī and requested him to kindly give him sannyāsa. At that time, he was given the name Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya. Now more than ever before, he was inspired to bless the world with divine love. Taking a small group of followers with him, he immediately started for Jagannātha Purī. Along the way, whoever saw him became absorbed in the mellows of ecstatic love, and whomever he met he requested to chant the holy names of God. Indeed, he was just like a great ocean that inundated everything and everyone with love of God.
At Jagannātha Purī Śrī Caitanya converted Sārvabhauma Bhaṭṭācārya, who was at the time the greatest logician in all of India, into a follower of his movement of divine love. Sārvabhauma then became one of his principal associates. Śrī Caitanya remained at Jagannātha Purī for some time, and then he decided to tour south India. For the next six years he traveled almost continuously and preached his doctrine of love.
On the banks of the river Godāvarī Śrī Caitanya met Rāmānanda Rāya, the governor of Vidyānagara, and for several days had enlightening discussions with him on the topic of prema–bhakti, devotional service in pure love of God. The followers of Śrī Caitanya maintain that the apex of theistic thought was revealed in those discussions. Rāmānanda Rāya was a great devotee of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, and Śrī Caitanya solicited from him higher and higher truths regarding the nature of spirit at every moment of their conversation. The climax of their dialogue disclosed that the highest transcendental sentiments of love for God were those shown by the gopīs (milkmaids) of Vṛndāvana during the advent of Śrī Kṛṣṇa. In their service to Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the gopīs exhibited the topmost platform of surrender and unalloyed love in which even social conventions of mundane morality were transcended, thus showing that although the morally stout serve as a good example of religious life, there is yet a higher plane where adherence to law is overruled by love, and that pure love must ultimately be free from the type of calculation found in the theistic conclusions of Rāmānuja and Madhva.
According to Dr. Kapoor: “…Never before was bhakti described as both the means and the end. Śrī Caitanya’s characterization of love as the supreme goal is the most important landmark in the history of philosophy and religion. According to Śrī Caitanya, the centre of reality is love, not Godhead. Love is the centre not only for the devotee, but also for God. Love governs both. Though Godhead is the embodiment of love itself, he has an ever-growing desire for love. Love is a gravitational force that works at two ends: it draws the devotee to Godhead and Godhead to the devotee.”
Continuing on his journey, Śrī Caitanya then visited all the important places of pilgrimage in south India and eventually returned to Jagannātha Purī. After some time at Purī, he decided to visit Vṛndāvana, the land of Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Taking one servant named Balabhadra Bhaṭṭācārya with him, he traveled along the banks of the river Yamunā and through the Jharikhaṇḍa forest where, according to Balabhadra’s diary, Śrī Caitanya caused wild beasts to chant and embrace, losing their natural enmity towards one another.
When he reached Vṛndāvana, Śrī Caitanya exhibited his ecstatic mood of dancing and chanting and many thousands of people came to see him every day. There, through his transcendental vision, he revealed the places of Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s līlās (pastimes) which were otherwise lost for thousands of years. Later, under his direction his principal disciples excavated the whole area of Vṛndāvana with the help of wealthy patrons, establishing temples at those holy places of Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s līlās. To date these temples are the principal places of worship in that holy land.
After leaving Vṛndāvana, on his return to Jagannātha Purī, Śrī Caitanya stopped at Allahabad where he instructed Rūpa Gosvāmī about the process of devotional service, and after instructing him in the details of spirituality, he sent him to Vṛndāvana to write books on the science of bhakti and excavate the places of Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes. From Allahabad he went to Banaras, where he met the brother of Rūpa Gosvāmī, Sanātana Gosvāmī. On the banks of the Ganges he instructed Sanātana in confidential spiritual matters, and after one month he sent him to join his brother at Vṛndāvana. Later it was these two brothers and their nephew Jīva Gosvāmī who, along with others, established the literary support for Śrī Caitanya’s theology based on the Vedic literature.
Wherever Śrī Caitanya went, monists such as the highly renowned Prakāśānanda Sarasvatī of Banaras raised strong objections against him for his public dancing and chanting the names of God. They contended that he was a misguided sentimentalist without any real understanding of the Vedānta-sūtra, which was at that time considered the single most important Vedic literature. They maintained that the sole duty of one in the renounced order was to study the Vedānta-sūtra commentaries of Śaṅkara. Unaware of the conception of transcendental emotion, they assumed that Śrī Caitanya’s chanting and dancing were mere mundane sentimental outpourings.
Śrī Caitanya maintained that there was no need of any commentary on Vedānta–sūtra since Vyāsadeva, its author, had already written his own commentary in the form of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. He taught that the Vedānta–sūtra propounded acintya–bhedābheda–tattva – that the absolute truth in the ultimate issue is simultaneously and inconceivably one and variegated – the soul is part and parcel of God, but neither one nor any number of finite souls combined is equal to Godhead in full. Śrī Caitanya advocated that proper study of the Bhāgavatam would culminate in God-realization and a state of transcendental emotion, as opposed to the dry, emotionless Advaitic monism.
In the words of Kapoor, Śrī Caitanya taught that the ānanda-brahman of the monists, “is the formless expansive glow (aura) of Godhead, just as moonlight is the formless expansive glow of the moon. In ānanda-brahman, rasa is dormant, still and motionless. It is not rasa in the real sense…rasa-brahman (on the other hand) is dynamic, restless, effulgent, ever-flowing, and ever-growing. It is astonishingly new and relishable – passing every moment beyond itself to new levels of rasa-consciousness.”
After traveling and canvassing for several years, Śrī Caitanya finally returned to Jagannātha Purī. There he stayed for the remaining 18 years of his life until his disappearance from the sight of mortal men during his 48th year. Śrī Caitanya’s biographers have commented that during those last 18 years, he was surrounded by numerous followers, all of whom were on the highest level of devotion, distinguished from the common people by their character and learning, firm religious principles, and spiritual love for Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa.
Historically, Śrī Caitanya has been regarded differently by different individuals. His immediate followers have accepted him as the supreme deity, Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Others have regarded him as a bhakta–avātara, a divine incarnation to distribute love of God. But that he was a noble and holy teacher is accepted by all who have come in contact with his life and teachings with an unbiased spirit. Śrī Caitanya did not appear in this world to deliver a certain section of human beings in India, but rather his purpose was to uplift all souls in all countries of the world to the pure and sublime platform of ecstatic love of God, the eternal religion of all souls.
It is my conclusion after having gone through the teachings of the spiritual masters of India chosen in this series to demonstrate a theistic development over thousands of years, that among Buddha, Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Madhva, and Śrī Caitanya, there is no contradiction in that each represents a particular stage of enlightenment on the path of the ultimate truth. They all agree that our present egoistic preoccupation must be transcended, if we are at all to know any peace. There is visible in them a continuity of theistic evolution from one to the next, starting with the Buddha and culminating in Śrī Caitanya.
Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths” – there is suffering, suffering has a cause, suffering can be surpassed, and there is a method by which one can attain freedom from suffering – have laid the foundation for the premise that there is a higher attainment, a higher goal in life than that which is generally accepted as reality. Buddha was then followed by Śaṅkara who, improving on the premise of Buddha, established that eternal spirit (ātmā), and not simply negation of material existence, is an abstract positive reality. Rāmānuja then developed the theistic conception found in Śaṅkara from abstract monism to concrete monism, describing a Brahman with transcendental attributes. He founded a movement of bhakti, or devotion, based on the inherent nature of the living spirit. Madhva then continued the development from Rāmānuja, emphasizing the eternal existence of both the soul (ātmā) and the Oversoul (Paramātmā) as necessary for the dynamics of bhakti. Finally Śrī Caitanya presented a love not of self-sacrifice, but one of self-forgetfulness, in which love itself, personified as Śrī Rādhā, becomes the centre for both Godhead and his devotee.
The late Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, a biographer and proponent of Śrī Caitanya’s school of divine love, has given a valuable word of advice to all sincere souls who are hankering to know the absolute truth when he said, “Party spirit – that great enemy of truth – will always baffle the attempt of the inquirer who tries to gather truth from the religious works of his nation, and will make him believe that absolute truth is nowhere except in his old religious book.” Therefore, the adherent of the path of self-realization should always have a comprehensive, gentle, generous, honest, sympathetic, and above all, an impartial approach, in order to acquire the greatest hope of attaining success on that path.
- The Vedas describe four ages (yugas), the last of which in a continuous cycle is Kali-yuga, the iron (industrial-technological) age of quarrel. For each age there is an avatāra who teaches the recommended spiritual discipline for that particular age (yuga-dharma).