For half a millennium, Chaitanya (1486 – 1534) has been revered by millions of Hindus, especially in eastern India, as a unique human manifestation of the divine Kṛṣṇa:
He is understood to be Kṛṣṇa come to bestow devotion (bhakti) and salvation upon even the lowliest of persons, while combining in himself the fair complexion and devotional sentiments of Rādhā, his divine mistress.
Chaitanya is a popular shortened form of Kṛṣṇa-Chaitanya (whose consciousness is of Kṛṣṇa), the religious name taken at his ascetic initiation (Sannyāsa) by Viśvambhara Miśra (1486-1533), an ecstatic devotee and Vaiṣṇava revivalist.
To his devotees, Chaitanya is the paradigm of an emotionally intense, loving devotion (prema-bhakti) to Kṛṣṇa - which humans may aspire to emulate while never reaching the perfection of their divine/human exemplar.
He is also the object of their devout adoration,
affirmed to be God, Kṛṣṇa, appearing within recent human history to establish loving devotion as the religious norm (Yuga-dharma) of the current degenerate era, the Kali Yuga (Kali age).
Viśvambhara (i.e., Chaitanya) was born/appeared at the onset of a lunar eclipse on the full moon day of Phālgun month, February 27, 1486, at Navadvīpa town, the centre of Sanskrit learning in then Muslim-ruled Bengal:
The second son of a Vaiṣṇava Brahmin, Jagannātha Miśra, and his wife Śachī, he became a Sanskrit Paṇḍit, married Lakṣmī, and, after her untimely death, wed Viṣṇupriyā.
At the age of 22, he journeyed to Gayā to perform post-funeral rites (śrāddha) for his late father and first wife:
While there, he was overwhelmed by devotion to Kṛṣṇa and promptly took initiation (dīkṣā) from a Vaiṣṇava Guru, Īśvara Purī. He returned to Navadvīpa overflowing with eagerness to spread devotion to Kṛṣṇa.
Viśvambhara’s charismatic proselytizing led him to be readily hailed by the Vaiṣṇavas of Navadvīpa as their leader:
For about a year, he led devotional singing, acted in devotional dramas, and even challenged the Muslim authorities by leading saṁkīrtana (collective religious chanting) processions through Navadvīpa.
His behaviour, both when in normal consciousness and when in ecstatic states, suggested to his followers that he was in some way God, Hari (i.e., Kṛṣṇa), manifesting himself in human guise.
His engrossing passion for bhakti to Kṛṣṇa brought an end to his career as Paṇḍit and soon culminated in renunciation of domestic life while still childless.
He received ascetic initiation from Keśava Bhāratī in February 1510, when he took the name Kṛṣṇa -Chaitanya.
Soon after taking Sannyāsa, Chaitanya went to the Jagannātha (Kṛṣṇa) deity (i.e., sacred image) in his great temple at Purī in Odisha.
For several years, he travelled intermittently throughout India meeting adherents of diverse religious orientations - appealing all the while for devotion to Kṛṣṇa.
His longest journey was through South India, toward the beginning of which he met Rāmānanda Rāya, whose spiritual sensibilities were remarkably akin to his own. It was Rāmānanda who first declared Chaitanya to be not simply Kṛṣṇa, but Kṛṣṇa combined with Rādhā.
A subsequent journey toward the Vraja region - locale of Mathura and Vrindāvan - via Bengal was cut short after Chaitanya began attracting large crowds.
Chaitanya subsequently did make the much-desired journey to Vraja via wooded tracts of Odisha, where he spread devotion to Kṛṣṇa among tribal peoples.
While in Vraja, he visited traditional sites of Kṛṣṇa’s birth, childhood, and youthful pastimes (līlās), and is said to have discovered still other sites.
From 1516 Chaitanya remained at Purī, where he worshiped Jagannātha, engaged in his private devotions, and counselled disciples:
The latter included prominent devotees from Bengal who would make an annual pilgrimage for the Jagannātha Chariot Festival (ratha yātrā) in June and remain with Chaitanya for the duration of the rainy season.
In his later years, Chaitanya underwent intense and prolonged devotional states, often turbulent and ecstatic, pained by the sense of separation (viraha) from Kṛṣṇa.
Among those who cared for him during these tormented years was Svarūpa Dāmodara,
whose “notes” (kaḍacā), based on his intimate observations of and communication with Chaitanya, had a crucial role in shaping the Vaiṣṇava theology being developed by the Gosvāmīs (pastors) whom Chaitanya had earlier directed to settle in and around Vrindāvan.
There is no confirmed report of the circumstances of his death/ disappearance at Purī in the month of Āṣāṛh (possibly July 9) in 1533. But one early biographer, Jayānanda, mentions an injury that became septic.
Vaiṣṇava tradition affirms his merging with the Jagannātha deity.
There are several extant accounts in Sanskrit and in Bengali of Chaitanya’s life and mission composed within 80 years of his passing:
The earliest is the Sanskrit Kṛṣṇa-Chaitanya-caritāmṛta by a childhood friend and adult disciple, Murāri Gupta.
The most informative are:
- Vṛndāvanadāsa’s Chaitanya-Bhāgavata (c. 1548; in Bengali) and
- Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja’s Chaitanya-caritāmṛta (c. 1612; also in Bengali but containing many Sanskrit verses).
Chaitanya himself, though he inspired men of great learning and piety to compose a massive corpus of Sanskrit texts, may have left at most 8 Sanskrit stanzas, known as Śrī Jagannāthāṣṭakam (also known as Śikṣāṣṭakam) by Śrī Chaitanya Mahāprabhu.
Chaitanya’s teachings in short may be summed as:
1. Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Absolute Truth.
2. Kṛṣṇa is endowed with all energies.
3. Kṛṣṇa is the ocean of rāsa (theology).
4. The Jīvas (individual souls) are all separated parts of the Lord.
5. In bound state the Jīvas are under the influence of matter, due to their tatastha nature.
6. In the liberated state the Jīvas are free from the influence of matter, due to their tatastha nature.
7. The Jīvas and the material world are both different from and identical to the Lord.
8. Pure devotion is the practice of the Jīvas.
9. Pure love of Kṛṣṇa is the ultimate goal.
10. Kṛṣṇa is the only lovable blessing to be received.
Chaitanya’s conception of God and humankind - as elaborated by the theologians he inspired and guided - is grounded in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa.
The Divine is understood to have 3 modes, in order of ascending ultimacy:
1. Brahman (conscious, but undifferentiated ground of being),
2. Param-Ātman (conscious divine soul indwelling all individual souls), and
3. Bhagavān (ultimate conscious reality, personal and possessed of all auspicious forms and qualities, encompassing and surpassing Brahman and Param-Ātman).
Kṛṣṇa is understood to be the personality of Bhagavān (“kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam”; Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1:3:28).
Human souls (jīvas) are minute emanations, paradoxically different and yet not different (acintya-bheda-abheda) from their Divine source.
A soul undergoes rebirth unless and until by divine mercy (kṛpā) it realizes its true nature as devoted servant of Kṛṣṇa.
In the present degenerate age, Kṛṣṇa appears in the merciful guise of Chaitanya to promulgate a simpler, universally accessible religious norm for the Age, namely loving devotion to himself, evoked and expressed best through chanting his names (nāma-kīrtana).
In principle, all persons, and especially such disfavoured classes as women, śūdras, and sinners, are eligible for bhakti, by which they may be delivered from bondage to spiritual ignorance (avidyā), sin (pāpa), and rebirth (saṁsāra).
Devout souls may imitate the roles and sentiments displayed by Kṛṣṇa’s eternal companions:
his servants, parents, friends, and lovers, who are depicted in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and other Vaiṣṇava texts.
The goal of human life is to enter into eternal communion with Kṛṣṇa and his divine and human companions, to participate with them in his transcendent pastimes, expressive of loving devotion.
The myriad theological works in Sanskrit by the Gosvāmīs whom Chaitanya dispatched to Vrindāvan include:
- commentaries on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa by Sanātana Gosvāmī (10th canto) and Jīva Gosvāmī (entire text);
- the Śrī Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu and Ujjavala Nīlamaṇi, 2 reference anthologies by Rūpa Gosvāmī illustrating devotional dramatic theory (bhakti-rāsa-śāstra);
- inspirational dramas and poems by Rūpa Gosvāmī, Raghunātha Dāsa Gosvāmī, and others;
- a liturgical and disciplinary manual, Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, by Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī and Sanātana Gosvāmī;
- Sanātana’s Bṛhad Bhagavatāmṛtā; a “pilgrim’s progress” of a devout soul in search of ever more favoured modes of devotion and ever more intimate self-disclosures of the divine;
- and the Ṣaṭ-sandarbha (or Bhāgavata-Sandarbha), a summa of Vaiṣṇava theology and philosophy by Jīva Gosvāmī (based on a prior outline by Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī).
Chaitanya and the movement (often called Gauḍīya or Bengali Vaiṣṇava) of which he was the fervent catalyst spread devotion to Kṛṣṇa throughout Bengal, Odisha, and Vraja and to a lesser extent Assam, with scattered circles of devotees elsewhere in India.
Restoration and popularization of sites sacred to Kṛṣṇa in the Vraja region owed much to the zeal of Chaitanya and his disciples.
Vernaculars of eastern India, especially Bengali, are far the richer for a host of original sacred biographies and hagiographies plus songs, poems, and other Vaiṣṇava compositions; and for numerous vernacular translations and adaptations based on Sanskrit texts treating Kṛṣṇa, Chaitanya, or Vaiṣṇava bhakti.
Bengali culture as a whole, including its non-Vaiṣṇava Hindu and even Muslim sectors and as refracted through modern creative figures such a Rabindranath Tagore,
has been influenced profoundly by the symbolism, ethos, values, and sensibilities of Chaitanya’s humane and emotionally and aesthetically refined devotion to God as Kṛṣṇa.
Even practitioners of transgressive Tantric yoga - the hybrid Vaiṣṇava- Sahajiyās, many of whom sang Vaiṣṇava lyrics - have claimed to share in the heritage of Chaitanya.
Through the ministering of certain of Chaitanya’s married associates (also called Gosvāmīs), notably the egalitarian Nityānanda and the more elitist Advaita Ācārya and their descendants, as well as Vaiṣṇava ascetics,
the majority of Bengali Hindus in the middle castes and considerable numbers in the upper and lower castes had come to identify themselves religiously as Vaiṣṇava in the tradition of Chaitanya by the time of British Indian ethnographic and census reports.
Even so, Chaitanya Vaiṣṇava prestige was on the wane in urban Bengal by the late 19th century, despite the efforts of many to revitalize, reform, and modernize the tradition.
Notable among these modernizers was Kedāranāth Datta (Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākur, 1838-1914), a deputy magistrate of Kāyastha (scribes) caste:
He wrote numerous Vaiṣṇava texts, launched a vigorous revitalization campaign, and sought to make traditional Kṛṣṇa-Chaitanya bhakti comprehensible to his rationalist contemporaries in Calcutta and elsewhere:
His son, Bimalā Prasād Datta (Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, 1874-1937),
founded the Gauḍīya Math, a pan-Indian network of monastic communities and temples centred in Calcutta and Śrī Mayapur (adjacent to modern Navadvīpa) and dedicated to preaching and publishing about Chaitanya Vaiṣṇava bhakti.
One of Bhaktisiddhānta’s disciples, Swami Prabhupāda (A. C. Bhaktivedānta, 1896-1977), inaugurated the International Society for Kṛṣṇa Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York in 1966:
Its several thousand devotees, mostly non-Indians, currently propagate devotion to Kṛṣṇa-Chaitanya worldwide using modern means of communication combined with traditional chanting of the “great prayer” (mahā-mantra):
“Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa,
Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa, Hare, Hare;
Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma,
Rāma, Rāma, Hare, Hare.”