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Vaisnava Movement


Vaisnava Movement The religious and social movement introduced by Sri chaitanya (1486-1533). The movement was also known as Bhakti Andolan or devotional movement. Its purpose was to counter the caste system and religious and social superstitions of the Hindu society of the time.

The Vaisnava movement originated before Chaitanya essentially through the Vaisnava lyrics written by the pre-Chaitanya poets, mainly chandidas (14th century) and vidyapati (c 1380-1460). Chaitanya added a new dimension to the movement, and it was through his leadership that it developed into a social movement. It assumed the name of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, or simply vaisnavism. Although there already existed in Hinduism a religion based on love and devotion for the divine, Chaitanya made it into a new religion by adding to it ideas about liberal humanism and social equality deriving from Sufi philosophy. He adopted the concept of jivatma (the human soul) and paramatma (eternal soul) and added to it the idea of dvaitadvaita tattva, the idea of the simultaneous diversity and unity of God and soul. According to this concept, radha is the personification of krishna's power of ecstasy. So though in physical form they are two, they are also essentially one. The love of Radha and Krishna is a manifestation of their longing to become one and shows that through love and devotion the human soul can attain union with the eternal soul.

kirtan formed an integral part of the Vaisnava religion. Chaitanyadev, however, introduced devotional recitation and singing of religious songs in processions through villages and cities. This public recitation and singing was a powerful publicity weapon and these city processions were meant to demonstrate organisational power. The Vaisnava practice of singing the name of Hari until they achieved a state of ecstasy is believed to be derived from the practice of sufism. Scholars believe that some other features of Sufism, such as the concept of the lover and the beloved and dancing and singing in groups, also influenced Vaisnavism. Because of their devotional practices, the Vaisnava movement is also known as the Bhakti or devotional movement. It is also known as the 'Chaitanya movement' because of Chaitanyadev's contributions to the movement.

There were two compulsions for Chaitanyadev to start his movement: one, to reform his own religion and society and, two, to counteract the ever-increasing influence of Islam, thanks to the patronage of the Muslim rulers. During this period Hindu society was severely constricted by the caste system and social discrimination and by such practices as Satidaha, kulinism, child marriage, excommunication, penance etc. New religious rites introduced by Pandit raghunandan bhattacharya had made the people slaves of rites by dangling the hope of reward in the next world and by imposing myriad religious and social restrictions. Chaitanyadev fought against the social abuses of the Hindu higher castes and also gave the common people equal rights in his religion of love. He endeavoured to create a Hindu society in which people of all castes would follow the same religious rites and thus come closer to each other. By breaking the stagnation that had set in Hindu society, Chaitanyadev infused into it the vitality of humanism. He firmly declared that all devotees of Krishna were equal and that there were no distinctions of caste or creed among them.

This was the strength of the Vaisnava movement. Such equality was almost incomprehensible in the caste- ridden Hindu society of the time where the brahmans were at the top and the shudras at the bottom. There was great difference between the socially and culturally privileged Brahmans and the disadvantaged chandals. After the Turkish conquest the severity of the religious and social rites of the Hindu society increased further. Chaitanyadev, the son of a Brahman, tried to bring all classes of Hindus under the bond of unity through love for Krishna. All were permitted to join his Kirtan recitations. Chaitanyadev used to say that he would ensure everyone's salvation through devotion. While Chaitanyadev accepted the importance of deities, devotion, worship and the glory of the supernatural, he also believed in, and propagated, the idea of the greatness of human beings and the importance of this world.

According to chaitanya bhagavata, while visiting the city of Navadvip Chaitanya first went to the house of a weaver and accepted the gift of a piece of new cloth. Then he went to the house of a milkman and accepted the gift of some milk products. Similarly, he visited the houses of people belonging to different castes and professions to invite them to join his movement. His companions included Brahmans like Rupa, Sanatan and Jiva Goswami, Vaidyas like murari gupta and Advaita Acharya, kayasthas like Raghunath Das and Narottam Das, non-Hindus like Haridas, Subarna Vaniks like Uddharan Datta and Sadgopas like Shyamananda Das. All classes of people found accommodation in his religion of love and devotion. This social mobility was revolutionary in the context of a Hindu society that was ridden by the caste system at that time.

To resist the ever-increasing influence of islam, Smrti scholars like Raghunandan, Devibar Ghatak and Dhrubananda Mishra adopted the policy of enforcing Hindu social rites even more severely. By-passing that path, Chaitanyadev absorbed the liberal teachings of Islam. The gurus of the Vaisnavas are nearly similar to the pirs of the Sufis and their akhdas (places of assembly) to the khanqahs of the Sufis. The akhdas worked as centres for religious exercises. The akhdas at Shantipur in Nadia, Kheturi in rajshahi, Srikhanda in Burdwan, Banavishnupur in Bankura and Khardah in Hughli earned considerable fame. Each of these akhdas used to be run by a goswami or guru. Whoever was considered by Chaitanyadev to have achieved knowledge of Krsvatattva (the idea that Krishna could be realized through devotion) was made a guru, whatever his caste. A special feature of the Vaisnava movement is to show the deepest respect to a guru and to surrender to him totally. Women were also accepted as gurus among the Vaisnavas. Jahnabidevi, youngest wife of Nityananda and stepmother of Virbhadra, established a Vaisnava centre at Khardah and propagated the religion from this centre. In the eyes of the devotees she was an Ishvari or deity. Hemlata Thakurani, daughter of Vishnupur's Srinivas Acharya, was also authorized to run an akhda, induct devotees, and propagate the religion. Mainamati, possessing great wisdom in the Natha way, was also authorized to act as a guru. By allowing women and men the same rights in propagating the religion, the Vaisnavas demonstrated their progressive ways.

Chaitanyadev contributed significantly to the development of Bangla language and literature while strengthening the Vaisnava movement by using Bangla as his medium for propagating religion. The high-caste Hindus adopted sanskrit and the Muslims adopted arabic and persian as the medium for higher education and learning. To write or translate anything in Bangla was treated as sacrilegious. Chaitanyadev himself and many of his companions were Sanskrit scholars. Yet they chose Bangla to write about their religion of love and devotion. The Vaisnava poets used to treat their lyrics as part of their devotion. Thus, innumerable Vaisnava lyrics were composed between the 16th and the 18th centuries.

They also composed monumental biographical works on Chaitanyadev and his followers as well as chronicles and scriptural poems. These enabled the Vaisnava movement to gain a firm foundation. Their biographies and religious compositions carry the impress of acute intellect and deep knowledge. A class of educated intellectuals grew up around the life and work of Chaitanyadev. sushil kumar de has commented that the huge amount of Vaisnava literary work in Sanskrit and Bangla was a distinct outcome of the Chaitanya movement. Chaitanyadev not only gave the stagnant Hindu society mobility but also made it creative. The Sufis in Bengal also adopted Bangla to express their spiritualism and propagate their thoughts, but their efforts were not as well organised as those of the Vaisnavas.

Although religion had its importance in the Vaisnava movement, Chaitanyadev laid greater emphasis on love for human beings. He did not leave behind any sacred book or set of commandments and rituals. However, after his death, six monastery heads of Benares prescribed many rites and rituals in an attempt to formalize the Vaisnava religion. This scripture-oriented influence obstructed the flow of Chaitanyadev's religion of love and gradually stultified it. Meanwhile, the liberal Vaisnavas refused to accept these rigours and moved towards the sahajiya concept by taking to gurus and akhdas. A group of shaven-headed followers of Virbhadra, son of Chaitanyadev's companion Nityananda, went a step forward and established the baul community.

While Chaitanyadev was alive, the high caste Hindus opposed humanistic Vaisnavism because they could not accept its violations of the caste system. In due course, when the Brahman reforms gained force, the high caste people turned away from Vaisnavism for fear of losing their social status. This obstructed the induction of new blood into the religion. Because of these reasons, within the next hundred years the Vaisnava movement waned and by the 18th century it had lost its position as a social force. [Wakil Ahmed]

Bibliography SK De, History of the Vaisnava Faith and Movement in Bengal, Calcutta, 1961; Gopal Halder, Bangla Sahityer Ruparekha, 1st Part, Calcutta, 1970; ME Haq, Muslim Bangla Sahitya, Dhaka, 1965; Kshetra Gupta ed, Sri Chaitanya: Ekaler Drstikon, Calcutta, 1986.