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Krishnadasa Kaviraja


Krishnadasa Kaviraja was a Vaisnava devotee living in Vrindavana during the last half of the 16th century and best known as the author of the most theologically significant hagiography of Krishna chaitanya (1478-1533), the chaitanya charitamrita. The Chaitanya Charitamrita is a hybrid Bangla and Sanskrit biographical and theological text of some 24,000 lines. Krishnadasa also composed the aesthetically sophisticated Sanskrit kavya titled Govindalilamrita, extolling the love play of Radha and Krishna in Vraja, and he authored a Sanskrit commentary on Bilvamangala's Krishnakarnamrita. He wrote several short eulogistic works on Krishna as well.

A vaidya by birth, Krishnadasa got his start with the Vaisnava theologians known as the Gosvamis when he was instructed in a dream by Chaitanya's long-time companion Nityananda to move from his home village of Jhamatapura (near Naihati in the Burdwan district of West Bengal) to the pilgrimage centre of Braj (CC 1.5.159-77). Krishnadasa's guru in Braj was Raghunatha Dasa, and his xiksa guru Rupa, both of whom he extols repeatedly throughout the Chaitanya Charitamrita. Krishnadasa studied and interacted with each of the original eight Gosvamis, the first and perhaps the only scholar to have done so.

The significance of this connection is manifested in the theological synthesis of the Chaitanya Charitamrita, which provides synopses of and integrates the major works of the Gosvamis, which include the devotional adaptations of the aesthetic theories of rasa (rasatatya) by Rupa, the metaphysical speculation of Jiva, the ritual synthesis by Sanatana and Gopala Bhatta, and evidence of the devotional musings of the other Gosvamis - Lokanatha, Bhugarbha, Raghunatha Dasa, and Raghunatha Bhatta. It was in the person of Krishnadasa, the student of all these great devotees, that the Gosvami writings were synthesized into a system, which was held together by the brilliant application of this theology to the life of Chaitanya himself, for only after Krishnadasa wrote the Chaitanya Charitamrita did the Gosvami writings became the standard measure of Gaudiya theology. Such was his own greatness in this regard that he is often substituted for Bhugarbha or Lokanatha as a member of the eight Gosvamis adopted for meditative practice by later Vaisnavas.

Krishnadasa's hagiography of Chaitanya was taken back to Bengal and widely circulated by a trio of Gosvami-trained students: Shrinivasacharya, Narottama Dasa, and Shyamananda. Tradition has it that the book was stolen by the Maharaja of Visnupura, Vira Hangvira, whom the ain-i-akbari of Abul Fazl places in the closing decades of the 16th century. In a highly disputed passage of the printed edition of Nityananda Dasa's Prema Vilasa (ch. 24), when news of the loss of the book reached Braj, Krishnadasa instantly fell down dead. This would place his death around 1599, but many scholars believe that the text was finished some fifteen years after that date. While the story is not at all implausible, there is no other corroboration save Krishnadasa's own report in the text itself that he was very old when the book was completed.

Krishnadasa notes repeatedly that he fears he will die before finishing this work. In the last chapter he writes with a practised humility, 'I am old and worn out, and deaf and blind; my hand trembles, my mind is not steady. I am devoured by disease; I can neither sit nor move, and day and night I suffer the pains of the five diseases' [of ignorance, egotism, anger, malice, and clinging to the physical world]' (CC 3.20. 84-85). He wrote the book at the behest of a number of devotees resident in Braj who had never met Chaitanya and were eager for details of his ascetic years in pilgrimage and Puri (CC 1.8.60-79), details that Krishnadasa's guru, Raghunatha Dasa, knew perhaps better than anyone, having served Svarupa Damodara when the latter was Chaitanya's personal amanuensis. The decision, he reports, was confirmed by his tutelary deity, Madanagopala, from whose image a garland fell as a sign that he was to undertake the task (CC 1.8.68-79).

But if the Vivarta Vilasa of Akinchana Dasa is to be believed, not everyone was initially pleased that Krishnadasa had revealed so much in his text. According to the Vivarta Vilasa, a tantric Sahajiya commentary on the Chaitanya Charitamrita, the conservative Jiva Gosvami was so annoyed that he hurled the book into the waters of the Radhakunda where Krishnadasa lived, but the book floated back unscathed, convincing Jiva that he had been hasty in his condemnation (VV, vilasa 2). That 'water test' of course is a familiar trope in mythologies of great people, leading most scholars either to reject the story or read it metaphorically.

There are precious few additional details to add to this sketch. Without citing their sources, scholars have generally accepted that Krishnadasa was born sometime between 1517 and 1528, that his father was Bhagiratha, an Ayurvedic phyisician, and his mother Sunanda, both whom died when he was very young, leaving him and his younger brother Shyamananda to be raised by relatives. Krishnadasa reports one incident where during a kirtana session his brother was in conflict with the prominent Vaisnava devotee Minaketana Ramadasa over the relative virtues of Chaitanya and Nityananda, much to the humiliation of Krishnadasa (CC 1.5.139-58). The Gauraganoddexadipika of Kavikarnapura lists Krishnadasa's identity in the nitya-lila of Krishna to be Kasturi Manjari, a handmaiden to Radha and other gopis, whose special service focuses on the preparation and serving of food. [Tony K Stewart]