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Chaitanya, Sri


Chaitanya, Sri (1486-1533) also known as Krisna Chaitanya, ne Vishvambhara Mishra, was a brahmana-turned-ascetic who through his personal devotion invigorated the Vaisnava community of Bengal and Orissa. He is credited with founding the fifth of the great Vaisnava lineages, the Gaudiya Sampradaya, which today dominates the Vaisnava religious life of northeast India and Bangladesh.

The first half of his life was spent in Navadvipa, in Nadia district (West Bengal), but after his renunciation, he toured all of India in pilgrimage and then returned to Orissa where, except for one short visit to the Braj region, he was based for the remainder of his life. During his residency in Puri, he was surrounded by a growing number of scholars, ascetics, and even the Prajapati king Prataparudra, and visited annually by the devotees of Bengal who saw in him Krsna himself, svayam bhagavan manifested on earth. In this capacity the story of his life serves a dual function within the community, first as revelation of divine presence and second as a model for emulation, for it was his instruction and personal example that fixed the basic modes of theology and ritual that dominate the Gaudiya Vaisnavas today. His activities were recorded in more than a quarter million lines of Bengali and Sanskrit texts composed in the 16th century, and from these records the tradition is in nearly full agreement about the basic outline of his life.

Chaitanya was born in the city of Navadvipa in Nadia district on the auspicious night of a lunar eclipse in the month of Phalguna (February-March) in 1486 (shaka 1407). His father Jagannatha Mishra had migrated from a small village in Sylhet; his mother Shachi was the daughter of another Sylheti brahmana, Nilambara Chakravarti. Raised in the traditional manner, he appears to have had a normal childhood, although many of the tales bear strong resemblance to Krsna's own exploits. He was awarded the pet name of Nimai (a diminutive of the bitter nim leaf, chosen to ward off the interest of demons), and because of his fair complexion, Gaura or 'the Golden One', a coloration later understood to be reminiscent of Radha. Visnu Pandita provided his initial instruction, and for advanced study he attended the Sanskrit tola of Gangadasa where tradition piously ascribes to him great erudition.

It is clear from records that he was charismatic from an early age and attracted people wherever he went. Shortly after his marriage to Laksmi, daughter of local scholar Vallabha Acharya, he set up his own school and soon thereafter visited his ancestral home in eastern Bengal, apparently for financial considerations, although the details are scanty. His older brother Vishvarupa had already taken formal ascetic vows, assuming the name of Shankararanya, his departure undoubtedly putting additional pressure on Vishvambhara. While Vishvambhara was in the eastern regions, his youthful wife is reported to have died of snakebite, so shortly after his return he was betrothed to Visnupriya, the daughter of another local pandita, Sanatana Mishra, although his enthusiasm for this second marriage was apparently muted. At age twenty-two, the young man visited the pilgrimage centre of Gaya to perform the obsequies (shraddha) for his departed father. There Vishvambhara met alone with Ishvara Puri, a Vaisnava devotee and prominent ascetic, and emerged from that meeting overwrought with love for Krsna, transforming him forever.

After returning from Gaya, Vishvambhara quickly entered the centre of Navadvipa devotion, where his personal charisma energized the small band of Krsna devotees. Such was the frenzy of devotional distraction that Vishvambhara was forced to abandon his school, given to prolong intellectual lapses in the rapture of devotion. Advaitacharya, the highly respected scholar-devotee from nearby Shantipura, began to see in Vishvambhara the marks of divinity. With this recognition, the occasional sessions of group singing and dancing, called kirtana, soon became nightly activities as devotees gathered in the courtyard of Vishvambhara's neighbour, the prominent Shrivasa. The avadhuta ascetic Nityananda joined the entourage, and during the course of the year the core community was formed, including such prominent devotees as Narahari Sarkar, Gadadhara, and his first biographer, Murari Gupta.

The bulk of Vrndavana Dasa's chaitanya bhagavata vividly portrays the electric effect of Vishvambhara's devotion, the group working into a frenzy of religious ecstasy, whose signs - weeping, sweating, fainting, roaring, and a host of other physical manifestations of dementia - resembles most closely the disease of epilepsy. These remarkable symptoms subsequently became the uncontrollable signs of true devotion. The commotion from these sessions apparently irritated the local community, especially when the kirtana spilled into the streets, leading in at least one case to a conflict with the local qazi, and in another with local Shaktas, worshippers of the goddess. Perhaps because of this growing apprehension, Vishvambhara soon declared that those who saw it as socially disruptive did not take his devotion seriously, so he would take formal ascetic vows to guarantee that respect. The ascetic Keshava Bharati was in the nearby town of Katoya (Katwa) and initiated the twenty-four year old Vishvambhara in 1510 (shaka 1431). His new religious name was Krsna Chaitanya, the man who would 'make the world aware of Krisna', the name by which he is most commonly known. As news of his renunciation spread, his mother met him at the home of Advaitacharya in Shantipura, where in her grief she extracted from him the promise to reside in Puri. With Nityananda and others he headed for that city in a state of ecstasy.

Puri was the seat of Gajapati kingship, the last major stronghold of Vaisnava suzerainty in eastern India, and the home of the great wooden image of Jagannatha, the Daru Brahma, with brother Balarama and sister Subala. Soon after entering the city, Chaitanya is credited with converting the prominent vedantin Vasudeva Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya, originally a Navadvipa-trained scholar of Navya Nyaya. That accomplishment guaranteed support for Chaitanya and his band of followers, and clearly attracted the attention of the king. Later he would also be credited with converting another great scholar, Prakashananda. Taking with him but one companion, Chaitanya soon left Puri on pilgrimage around the tip Cape Comorin in the south, then up the western coast and into central and northern India. In Kalinga, he met the famous devotee and royal minister Ramananda Raya, who is credited with seeing Chaitanya's divinity not simply as Krisna, but as Radha and Krisna fused into an androgynous single form, in simultaneous union and separation, the interpretation that dominates the tradition's theology today.

On this several year pilgrimage Chaitanya reputedly accepted Raghunatha Bhatta and Gopala Bhatta as devotees, sending them to Braja, where Lokanatha and Bhugarbha had already been sent. After returning to Puri he set off again to Vrndavana, where en route he instructed two extraordinary devotees named Rupa and Sanatana, both of whom had recently been in the employ of husain shah, but had escaped to join Chaitanya's band. They would later turn this instruction into the foundations of Gaudiya theology developed in the growing Gosvami community based in Braja. While in Braja, Chaitanya identified the lost sites of his previous incarnation on earth as Krisna, deputing his followers to restore Braja to its former glory and renew its status as pilgrimage centre by establishing temples. When he returned to Puri, the devotees of Bengal made the first of some twenty annual pilgirmages for the Rathayatra (Jagannatha Car Festival). Chaitanya attempted one more pilgrimage to Vrndavana, but was thwarted by the unseemly spectacle it created and so reluctantly returned to Puri never to leave again.

At about age thirty the pattern for the rest of his life was set. He is said to have lived in a small compound provided by Kashishvara Mishra, from which he emerged each day to visit Jagannatha and join the devotees in kirtana, reciting the names of Krsna, listening to and telling the stories of the Bhagavata Purana, and singing songs from jaydev's Gita Govinda and other works. The chaitanya charitamrita of krishnadasa kaviraja most elaborately details these years in Puri as ones of instruction-by-example to the prominent devotees, such as Svarupa Damodara, Rupa, Sanatana, Raghunatha Dasa, Jagadananda, and the former Muslim Haridasa, who congregated around him. Some time in the month of Asadha (June-July) of 1533 (shaka 1455), Chaitanya passed away, although the details are not recorded. In pious eyes there is no talk of death, he simply returned to heaven. Even though he left no more than eight Sanskrit verses attesting his devotion, Krsna Chaitanya today is revered throughout Bengal and India as a great religious reformer and god-man, the impetus behind one of the most vibrant and intellectually productive devotional communities in all of South Asia. [Tony K Stewart]

Bibliography Bimanbihari Majumdara, Shri Chaitanyacaritera Upadana, Calcutta, 1959, Sushil Kumar De, Early History of the Vaisnava Faith and Movement in Bengal, Calcutta, 1961, AK Majumdar, Chaitanya: His Life and Doctrine (A Study in Vaisnavism), Bombay, 1969; Edward C Dimock and Tony K Stewart, 'Introduction' to The Caitanya Caritamrta of Krsnadasa Kaviraja (Tr. and ed. by Tony K Stewart), Harvard Oriental Series no. 56, Cambridge, MA, 1999.