Chaitanya Movement | History | I - 2

The Vaiṣṇava Heritage

It is a mistake to think of Chaitanya as in any sense the originator of Vaiṣṇavism in Bengal. This faith had had its adherents here for centuries, and although never very numerous they were not an unimportant group.

Some of the chief figures among Bengal's poets drew their inspiration from the Vaiṣṇava scriptures:

- Jayadeva with his Gītagovinda, in melodious Sanskrit;

- Vidyāpati, the sensuous singer of Mithilā (modern Bihar) whose songs in Bengali dress have been more popular than in their original tongue;

Umāpati and Chaṇḍī Dās - these great names in Bengali literary history all owe much to Vaishnavism, and witness to its influence long before Chaitanya’s day.

It is necessary at this point to attempt a very brief sketch of the development of Vaishnavism, in order that the Chaitanya movement may be understood in its proper setting:

Since it shares the Krishna cult and the fundamental theology of that cult with other sects of Vaishnavism, it is well to trace the rise of these ideas as a whole.

The worshipper of Vishnu can claim a long tradition, for this god is found in the Vedas. He early became a popular figure, around whom grew up a sectarian cult in which the incarnation idea played a prominent part.

Very early in this Vishnu cult, probably, appeared the icon worship of the temples, as opposed to the worship of sacrifice of the Vedic tradition.

A distinctive feature, also, of this widespread cult was the rise of bhakti as the heart of worship, an emotional service of love and devotion to the god.

The figures of Rāma and Krishna early arise as incarnations of Vishnu, and become supreme objects of devotion leading to the varied development of the sects.

The great epics, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata, enshrine the stories of Rāma and Krishna and the theology that arises out of them.

Krishna was at first the god of a petty black clan, it seems, then came under the wing of Vishnu, and was called the son of Vasudeva. Later he becomes an incarnation of Vishnu.

Parallel with this development there arose the great Hindu philosophies - the Vedanta, the Sānkhya and the Yoga - all having great influence.

About the beginning of the Christian era a notable point in the history is reached, with the attempt on the part of some keen mind to combine these philosophies and appropriate them for the exaltation of Krishna worship.

This effort is made in the Bhagavad Gītā, a remarkable work which identifies Krishna with the eternal Brahman, but retains his personal nature and thus forms a truly monotheistic faith.

After the philosophies and epics, there arose the Purāṇas, which are important in Vaishnava literature. They are full of mythology, but also contain much theology.

Later came the Saṁhitās, practical works, each meant to be the guide-book of some Vaishnava group in all matters of theology, ritual, construction of temples and images, etc.

Of the great sects of Vaishnavism, the Śrī Vaishnavas of the Tamil country are the most inclusive, forming their system on the whole of Vaishnavism and recognising all the incarnations of Vishnu.

The other sects are devoted to particular incarnations, with the figure of Krishna most popular. The Krishna of these sects, however, is a very different figure from that of the Gītā, and yet is identified with him:

Here he is the youthful cowherd of the Braj country, hero of wonderful feats and amorous exploits among his milkmaid companions, the Gopīs of Vrindāvan.

This Krishna-gopī legend arose early in the neighbourhood of Vrindāvan.

It is hardly mentioned in the Mahābhārata, where, in the older sections, Krishna appears as a powerful deity or divine hero, and only in the later portions as an incarnation of the Supreme.

The story develops in the Harivaśa and in the Vishṇu Purāṇa, and comes to full bloom in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa:

This work, written some time about A.D. 900, has had a most notable influence upon the course of Vaishnavism:

Its purpose is the glorification of the Vrindāvan līlā, the story of Krishna and the gopis, and it exalts this legend as the ideal of bhakti with a wealth of emotional fervour that gives it great creative power.

Most of the later important sects of Vaishnavism are dependent upon this writing.

In the Bhāgavata Purāṇa there is a suggestion of a favourite gopī with whom Krishna wanders and sports alone, but she is unnamed.

Some later and unknown writer, possibly as early as A.D. 1000 and probably at Vrindāvan, enlarged upon this theme and created the figure of Rādhā, the chief of the gopis and the beloved mistress of Krishna.

From this time on the cult of Rādhā-Krishna developed, Rādhā occupying a position of very great importance.

This cult spread eventually throughout the north and into the south, only the Śrī Vaishnavas, the Mādhvas and the Vaishnavas of the Maratha country refusing to be drawn to the worship of Rādhā.

The Mādhvas, founded by Madhvācārya early in the 13th century, was probably the first sect based on the Vrindāvan līlā.

His work is dependent on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, but he does not go beyond it and therefore Rādhā has no place in the sect's devotions.

Mādhva was dualistic in his philosophy:

Although he exalts bhakti to Krishna this is not made the exclusive worship. The sect is particularly strong in the south.

The Viṣṇusvāmīs, who developed next, had little to distinguish them from the Mādhvas, except their worship of Rādhā in conjunction with Krishna. Otherwise their system is much the same as that of the Mādhvas. This group have largely disappeared as a sect.

A third group arose in the 13th century led by Nimbārka:

He developed a middle position in his philosophical system, called bhedābheda or dvaitādvaita, a dualistic monism, by which God and the soul are conceived of as at the same time one and yet distinct.

His sect is important for its exaltation of Rādhā not simply as the chief of the gopis, as in the Viṣṇusvāmī sect, but as the eternal consort of Krishna become incarnate with him in the Vrindāvan scenes.

Nimbārka made the worship of Rādhā-Krishna exclusive in his sect, thus departing from the orthodox Smārta position.

It will be noted that Nimbarka rescues Rādhā from the immoral implication of much of the literature, and gives to her a dignity unattained elsewhere.

No other Rādhā-Krishna sects seem to have arisen for a period of two centuries.

But early in the 16th century the Vallabhācārya and the Chaitanya sprang up at about the same time.

Vallabhācārya was much nearer Śaṅkara's monism in his philosophical position than is true of these other sects, but in his theology he seems to have followed Nimbārka's theory of Rādhā and Krishna.

There has always been a close connection assumed between the Vallabhācārya and the Viṣṇusvāmī, but the Rādhā-Krishna ideas, as well as the philosophical positions, are quite different.

It is a fact, however, that the Viṣṇusvāmī sect was largely absorbed by the younger and more vigorous body.

The time and manner of the spread of the Rādhā-Krishna cult into Bengal is very difficult to determine. There is no history of the process, and the literary records are far from complete.

Indeed, we are in the dark about the whole early history of the Rādhā story, and how it spread across north India.

It seems a reasonable supposition, as we have said, that the name appears and her cult begins at Vrindāvan sometime in the 11th century, but what happened then is not clear.

Enthusiastic popular songs in the vernacular probably sprang up, and in this way it is likely that the flame of this ardent worship spread across the country.

That it did spread is clearly shown by the fact of Jayadeva's Gītagovinda, glowing verses in Sanskrit on Rādhā and Krishna written in Bengal about the end of the 12th century.

This fact constitutes one of the difficulties of our theory; how is it that the first-known lyrics about Rādhā are found in far-away Bengal? 

Another difficulty is the lack of any material evidence of the cult in the Braj country. No great temples were dedicated to Rādhā before the 16th century, even the Viṣṇusvāmī and Nimbārka sects having only small shrines.

The development of this cult in Bengal was coloured by conditions more or less peculiar to this province.

The particular relation of the Chaitanya movement to the preceding sects, and its indebtedness to them, will be dealt with in succeeding chapters. It is our concern here to indicate the influence upon this Vaishnava tradition of the environment into which it came.

In Bengal, Rādhā–Krishna-ism came into contact with Tantrism in both Hindu and Buddhist guise. This growth had had a long history in Bengal, the earliest tantras, both Buddhist and Hindu, appearing about the 7th century A.D.

These strange scriptures had a marked development on the erotic side, and produced a gross and debasing system both in idea and practice.

The Vāmāchāra school of the Śakta sect is the Hindu product, and the Sahajiyā cult (the way of nature) seems to have been its counterpart in the decaying Buddhism of the centuries previous to Chaitanya's day.

This is the sort of thing with which Vaishnavism came into contact in Bengal. There can be no doubt of the widespread nature of the Tantric teaching.

The sect most influential in Bengal before Chaitanya, and with which he seems to have had most connection, was the Mādhvas. His personal relationships, with friends and teachers, were all within this sect.

The actual Vaishnava community does not seem to have been numerous, at least in or about Navadvīpa:

The leading figure in this group at the time of Chaitanya’s birth was Advaitācārya, a Brahman of considerable learning, who afterward became one of the two leaders associated with Chaitanya in the new movement.

Around him were gathered a number of devout men, unsatisfied in the midst of a materialistic worship, and finding an outlet for their spiritual longing in the emotional abandon of the Krishna bhakti.

These men gathered daily in certain homes to listen to the reading of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and to sing ardent hymns to Krishna and Rādhā. As a religious group they do not seem to have had much standing in the community.

They were regarded with indifferent scorn by the Brahmans and the proud scholars of the tols.

In this small group, however, were present in latent form most of the characteristic features which were to mark the spread of the vigorous movement ever since associated with the name of Chaitanya.