Vaisnavism designates the devotional or bhakti practice of worshipping Visnu or Krishna as God. Today Vaisnavism in the Bangla-speaking region is nearly synonymous with the Gaudiya School that focuses primarily on the erotic exploits of Krishna. The inspiration and founder of this school was Krishna Chaitanya (1486-1533), whose followers believe him to be the embodiment of Krishna as svayang bhagavan, the supreme lord, and an androgynous fusion of radha and krishna in perpetual union and separation. So completely equated are chaitanya and Krishna that to worship one is to worship the other. The brilliance of Gaudiya theology and the portability of its primary ritual practices - most notably the simple chanting of the name of Krishna in musical kirtana - has for five centuries enabled that community to adapt itself with dramatic success in each reorganisation of Bengal's political fortunes.
While the Braj-centric Gaudiya style of worship dominates the region today, the larger tradition continues to embrace other forms of Vaisnavism, such as the worship of Visnu's consort laksmi, who is centrally incorporated into the women's vows or vratas of the traditional Hindu household. The worship of Jagannatha, emanating from his primary temple in Puri in Orissa, anchors the tradition in ancient Pancharatra state religion and today is accepted as yet another dimension of Chaitanya's own religious orientation while retaining an independent status. Vaisnavism in greater Bengal even stretches to embrace marginal figures such as satya pir, who is equated with satya narayana in recognition of the consonance and harmony of select Islamic religious ideals with Vaisnava standards.
Archaeological evidence confirms that ancient forms of the devotional worship of Visnu and Krishna have prevailed in the northeastern portions of the South Asian subcontinent for more than a thousand years and probably much longer. The inscriptions from the court of laksmanasena at the turn of the 13th century attest to a Pancharatra or old puranic style devotionalism. Sculptures indicate that the traditional avataras like 'Narasingha' the Man-Lion, 'Vamana' the Dwarf, and 'Varaha' the Boar were popular forms of Visnu. Literary production can also be documented to the same period, starting most notably with Jayadeva's Sanskrit Gitagovinda, that text being perhaps the most celebrated poem to Krishna in all of ancient India. The great Vaisnava theologian Ramanuja is reputed to have established a school in Puri, Orissa, during the same period, and sometime later followers of Madhva likewise exerted a considerable influence over the Vaisnavas of the region.
The earliest extant Vaisnava work in Bangla language, however, is not a theological or devotional statement from one of these formal sampradayas or sects, but the popular songs of Badu Chandidasa's ShriKrishnakirtana, composed in the late 14th or early 15th century. Like the Bhagavata Purana and Gitagovinda before it, the text is not automatically considered sectarian simply because it portrays the exploits of the adolescent Krishna with Radha and the other young girls of Braj, but it was subsequently adopted as a statement of devotional sentiment by the Gaudiya community. The text of some thirteen cantos containing 412 songs also marked the beginning of a new Bangla vernacular literature and served as the source and inspiration for later devotional padas in Bangla, Maithili, and Brajabuli. It has been especially revered because of Chaitanya's professed enjoyment of the songs of Candidasa and Vidyapati, although it is not clear that the manuscript and printed version of the text today match the songs Chaitanya sang.
In the 15th century the first Bangla translations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana appeared as court literature, but it was only with the advent of the Chaitanya movement that a truly Vaisnava sectarian literature began to shape a distinctly Bengali form of devotionalism. Songs or padas that originated in public and private kirtana were the first efforts to celebrate the lives of Krishna and Chaitanya with a sectarian perspective; by the 17th century the songs of Govindadasa were generally considered the best of the tradition. Often accompanied by dancing, kirtana swept Chaitanya's community in Navadvipa into a devotional frenzy that quickly caught the imagination of other Vaisnavas in the region. While the rhetoric of the historical and hagiographical documents of the period argues that Vaisnavism was in terrible decay in the region at this time, the upsurge of devotionalism did not result primarily from conversion. The sudden popularity was a rejuvenation of Vaisnavism already in place, the attraction of a new mode of worship that favoured the development of emotional life in a way that enabled the devotee to vicariously participate in the primal activities of Krishna's love of the cowherd girls and his other exploits in eternal Braj. The lives of important devotees, starting with Chaitanya, became the subject of hagiographies that have now provided an uninterrupted history of the community for more than twenty generations. The recorded lives of devotees have served as models for inspiration for generations of Vaisnavas that in turn spurred gradual changes in personal and ritual behaviour.
Group worship emerged in the 16th century at a level never previously seen, and the locus of that activity was domestic and public, the latter in new styles of temples. Temple construction reflected this shift in emphasis, moving from traditional chala (thatched roof) and rekha (curvilinear tower) designs of the Pala and Sena periods that depended on an ancient style of ritual worship, to a completely novel design called the ratna that was used ritually in creative new ways. The ratna style, which comes to full form in the Malla dynasty's erections at Visnupura, combined Sultanate architectural base forms with a new type of upper level and spire where new ritual activity was conducted. Now replicated all over the region as one of the most common types, this new 17th century temple recapitulated in stone and terracotta the mythic basis for the reorientation of Vaisnava worship. The temples revealed a hierarchy of devotional forms that at the base of the structure ranged from ancient images of Visnu's aishvarya in all his sovereign majesty - signifying awe and reverence in the face of an omnipotent lord and all that implies - to the more subtle forms of Krishna's erotic love - signifying the sweet or madhurya dimension of Krishna's personality - portrayed in the upper levels. These new temples captured the primacy of eroticism and the development of emotional bhakti, the symbolically constructed mandala of Braj on the upper level figuratively crowning the traditional royal consecration of the land below.
This emphasis on basic emotion of love, called bhava-bhakti, seeks to take an experience common to all human beings and transform it into a vehicle for salvation. Chaitanya did not expressly write the techniques for this transformation, although he provided the model to be emulated. It is clear from the hagiographical materials that two of Chaitanya's followers in Puri, Svarupa Damodara and Ramananda Raya, were the first to systematise the path. The intellectual underpinnings of the practice fell onto the Sanskrit aesthetic theories of Bharata and Bhoja, the core of classical natya-shastra. But it was Rupa Gosvami who was apparently deputed by Chaitanya to formalise this adaptation of rasa-theory to devotion. The Chaitanya Charitamrta (2.19) of Krishnadasa Kaviraja says that Chaitanya imparted the system to Rupa in a lengthy instructional session as their paths crossed a route to Braj. Subsequently, Rupa composed two Sanskrit theological-cum-aesthetic texts that explored with extreme analytical precision the details of this practice. The Bhaktirasamrtasindhu or the 'River of the Immortal Nectar of the Experience of Devotion' outlined the entire system of emotion-based devotion and the subsequent Ujjvalanilamani or 'The Effulgent Blazing Sapphire' described the ultimate experience of love modeled on that of Radha. These two texts became the foundational documents for nearly all ensuing Vaisnava practices in the Bangla-speaking world, indeed much of north India, and even for the controversial tantrika and sahajiya varieties occasionally found in rural Bengal.
The point of this new devotional practice is to inculcate systematically the feeling of love for Krishna, using as its starting point the basic emotions associated with common eroticism or kama and other less complex or ordinary forms of love felt by all human beings. To effect this transformation of mundane love into something sublime, every devotee regardless of background is instructed to follow a set of basic rituals, styled vaidhi, that is, rituals consistent with the authority of Vedic injunction. Of these sixty-four enjoined acts, the Bhaktirasamrtasindhu (1.2.90-92, 238-45) names five as most efficacious because they provide the foundation for all the rest. These are: 1. chanting the name (nama) of Krishna in kirtana; 2. remembering (smarana) and savoring the narratives of the Bhagavata Purana that reveal Krishna's exploits; 3. reverently and lovingly serving the image of Krishna in the temple; 4. living in the company of holy men (sadhus); 5. and living in the orb (mandala) of Mathura or Braj. It is from the first basic injunction that one hears the most common mantra used to chant Krishna's name, the well-known sixteen repetitions of the names of God: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare //. From this simple activity of chanting the name derives all other forms of devotion, and with those practices the gradual growth of a pure love in the heart and mind of the devotee. The simplicity of chanting and of singing the songs of Chandidasa, Vidyapati, and Govindadasa, appeals to all levels of society, underscoring one of the primary mechanisms by which people found easy entry into the practices of the Gaudiya Vaisnava community.
By constantly thinking and talking about Krishna, the individual initiates a causal process that gradually transforms simple recognition of Krishna into profound devotion. Ordinary emotions are insufficient to attain the state of bliss sought by these devotees, rather the basic human emotions of love must be refined and purified to the point of abstraction, which is believed to transcend this ordinary world. To inculcate this refined emotion, the devotee must learn to recognise all of the contributing factors that intensify or detract from love, the setting and mood of the environment of recitation, the ensuing experience, and all of the subtleties of intricate love play experienced by Radha and the other young women of Braj. The advanced devotee learns how to trigger this experience through meditation, thereby transforming the basic emotion (bhava) of profane love (kama) into a pure unalloyed and selfless love called prema. For the adept practitioner, the sixty-four vaidhi injunctions are transformed from mechanical ritual acts into spontaneous expressions of love, the experience of which is to 'taste' its essence, its rasa. When this takes place, the devotee has moved imperceptibly into Krishna's personal realm, guided by a passion directed exclusively to furthering Krishna's pleasure. This mode of devotionalism is called raganuga, the 'following of passion', and the entry point to a permanent place in Krishna's heavenly Vrndavana. In the more esoteric reaches, this practice becomes a complex form of yogic visualisation, where in the devotee assumes a perfected body (siddha deha) to enter Krishna's presence. How this is possible is explained through the theological perspective of qualified non-dualism as systematised by Jiva Gosvami in the Sat Sandarbha.
The created universe or maya shakti is contained within Krishna, but completely apart from him, for Krishna is pure consciousness or chit shakti. Humans are in that liminal position of inhabiting a world of maya (not illusory at all, but quite real although impermanent as dross physical matter) while infused with the life force and intelligence of the ground of creation, God or Bhagavan. A human as jiva xakti can use this physical world as a platform for escape, systematically eliminating all that is grossly physical by entering a relationship with Krishna that purifies, that turns base emotions such as those that are rooted in physical attraction into higher, sublime experiences of a uniquely spiritual love. The mystery of this relationship between the created world, humans, and God, is described as a simultaneous distinction (bheda) and non-distinction (abheda) that is beyond the grasp of human cognition (achintya), hence the name of its philosophical school: achintya bhed-abheda. While difficult to comprehend in some respects, devotees recognised that the historical figure of Chaitanya demonstrated how this was possible by embodying within himself Radha and Krishna in perpetual union and separation, a divine couple understood in literal terms for many, but allegorised by subsequent theologians as the soul searching for and finding God.
Experiencing the highest forms of devotional bliss to enter Krishna's world is in no way limited to those select few yogic adepts. Any devotee whose mind is completely focused on Krishna will involuntarily display evidence of that devotion. The evidence comes in the form of physical symptoms that to the uninitiated bear a remarkable resemblance to epilepsy. Vrndavana Dasa's Chaitanya Bhagavata graphically depicts these signs that are known collectively as sattvika bhavas. Fainting, roaring, trembling, involuntary jerking, gooseflesh, extreme perspiration, and so forth are telltale marks.
Since Chaitanya's initial organisation of the community around the principles of bava bhakti, the primary criticism has nearly always focused on emotionalism as a potential source of undisciplined behaviour that will lead to a general breakdown of social mores. During Chaitanya's lifetime Shaktas in Navadvipa apparently felt so strongly that they petitioned the local qazi to stop the kirtana sessions before the community was brought to ruin. In subsequent centuries the British and even Bengali social reformers harboured similar suspicions of this behaviour. That suspicion, however, was directed at a decidedly different version of Vaisnavism that had by the 18th and 19th centuries quietly grown in the rural regions, a tantrika interpretation of bhava-bhakti that resulted in the apparent use of sexo-yogic rituals that sought to unite the principles of masculine and feminine in a manner that literally mimicked Chaitanya's androgynous union of Radha and Krishna.
Individual guru lineage perpetuated these practices in isolation under the general rubric of sahajiya; and later groups such as Karta Bhajas and Bauls seem to have adapted some of these techniques to their own ends. These groups provided a parallel or alternative form of Vaisnavism to the mainstream traditions of Navadvipa, Shantipura, Visnupura, Kheturi, Baghanapada, and others. The reformist movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries actively sought to bring the two traditions together again. Educated, urban elite adopted the metaphor of the 'market' from the Karta Bhaja and 'set up shop' in the manner of the English trading companies 'to sell' bhava-bhakti to the masses. The new printing presses of Kalikata (Calcutta) and Murshidabad began to generate vast volumes of Vaisnava literature as the reformers sought to reconstitute the tradition along corporate lines. Individual gurus began to set up mathas as social service organisations as well as centres of instruction and worship.
Today Vaisnavism in the region is dominated in urban areas by large, well-endowed institutions conjoined to temples, and which maintain loose networks of affiliates throughout the rural parts of the country. Authority is now largely vested in the writing and printing of books, which serve to legitimise leadership, and in the institutional backing of these print projects. After five centuries of continuous growth, the Gaudiya Vaisnava traditions have taken a generally conservative turn that protects their central place in society and ensures their prominence across the Bangla-speaking region. [Tony K Stewart]