Chaitanya Bhagavata of Vrindavana Dasa was the first full length hagiography in Bangla and the longest early work to document the remarkable life of the religious figure Krishna Chaitanya, ne Vishvambhara Mishra (1478-1533). Written in an earthy style, the Chaitanya Bhagavata celebrates the wondrous advent of chaitanya, whom followers had accepted as Krishna himself. Vrindavana Dasa himself grew up in Navadvipa in the house of Chaitanya';s close companion Srivasa, who was brother-in-law to Vrindavana Dasa';s mother, and so benefited from the experiences of those who knew Chaitanya well. Although Chaitanya passed many hours in Shrivasa';s house, it would appear that the author was too young to have ever met him personally. Vrindavana Dasa';s guru, Nityananda, the sometimes-controversial intimate of Chaitanya, commissioned the book shortly after Chaitanya';s passing (1.1.60-61; 2.2.39-40). Scholarly opinion dates its completion to the mid-1540s when Vrindavana Dasa probably would have been in his twenties.
The text focuses on the early life, from the condition of Bengal before his birth, up to the time of Chaitanya';s renunciation. The narrative is a series of succinct episodes, which alternates between two types of tales. The first type of story is the connected narrative that follows the basic sequence of events established by Sri Murari Gupta in his notable Sanskrit Krisnachaitanyacaritamritam or in the Ka'd'ach'a, the first hagiography still extant. This narrative frame includes extensive portrayals of key life cycle events, such as his birth, his schooling, his first marriage, and the gradual formation of the devotional community around Chaitanya. The second type of story is the anecdotal tale interspersed within that narrative frame and indicative of typical events in the life of Chaitanya. These anecdotes serve as a primer of devotionalism by illustrating how the basic forms of devotional activity came about, such as the spontaneous development of kirtana in the courtyard of Chaitanya';s companion Shrivasa, or the different ways that devotees came to recognise the sure signs of the presence of love, prema.
The significance of the Chaitanya Bhagavata reaches far beyond its role as the primary source of narrative for Chaitanya';s early life. The text set a standard for hagiography that has been imitated by numerous subsequent authors, not only in its basic content and organisation but theologically as well. Vrindavana Dasa asserted that Chaitanya was not just an avat'a'ra or simple portion of Krishna come to earth, but was svayam bhagav'a'n, the Lord Himself, who provided a new model of devotion for the age. All subsequent authors accepted this assertion of Chaitanya as the purveyor of a new model of devotion and simultaneously the object of that devotion.
Most important among his imitators was krishnadasa kaviraja, who copied the organisation of the Chaitanya Bhagavata, accepted completely Vrindavana Dasa';s sequence of events for the early period, and most importantly, claimed his own text finished what Vrindavana Dasa began. This overt imitation and pairing had a significant impact on the way the community came to read and interpret the life of Chaitanya: the Chaitanya Bhagavata provided the early life in its unalloyed simplicity, the dawning of devotion, and the early stages of a community that was just discovering that it was making a new religious history; the Chaitanya Charitamrta in turn provided the story of Chaitanya';s later life, the ascetic years of Chaitanya';s pilgrimage, the subsequent devotional ecstasy in the Vaisnava city of Puri, and perhaps most importantly, a subtle and sophisticated theological interpretation of that life. Together the two texts provided the effective beginning and end of the creative period of Chaitanya hagiography.
It is precisely its direct and vibrant language describing the wonder of Chaitanya';s appearance that has made the Chaitanya Bhagavata the most popular and accessible of the hagiographies. Krishnadasa himself frequently referred to Vrindavana Dasa as the Vyasa of Chaitanya';s acts and so he continues to be characterised today, the Chaitanya Bhagavata doing for Chaitanya what the Bhagavata Purana did for Chaitanya';s alter-ego, Krishna.
The text itself is more than 12,300 Bangla payar and tripadi, interspersed with about one hundred Sanskrit shlokas and is divided into three sections: adi khanda which begins with Advaitacharya';s lament over the demise of devotionalism in the area and takes the reader through Chaitanya';s birth and early life which is reminiscent of Krishna';s (1.1-3), the young Vishvambhara';s schooling (1.4-5), his marriage to Laksmipriya (1.7), and vanquishing of various scholars (1.8-9). He makes his famous trip to East Bengal, only to return a widower, and subsequently married Visnupriya (1.10). The section closes with his trip to Gaya to perform his father';s obsequies, the trip where he meets Ishvara Puri and emerges God-maddened (1.12). In parallel narratives, Nityananda';s background (1.16) and Haridasa';s tribulations (1.11) are given in detail.
The madhya khanda documents this awakening of devotion and traces the special period in Navadvipa when the community gradually coalesced as the devotees join one by one: Advaitacharya, Nityananda, Haridasa, Shrivasa, Murari, Vidyanidhi, et al (2.1-14), spurred by the dancing and singing in kirtana. The last half of the madhya khanda includes the famous conversion of the two miscreants Jagai and Madhai (1.15) and the confrontation with the local qazi over the noise made by kirtana (1.23), but ends with Chaitanya';s restlessness and eventual renunciation (1.24-26). The antya khanda portrays his mother Shachi';s lament and the general confusion immediately following Chaitanya';s renunciation (3.1) and his trip to Puri and initial meeting with Sarvabhauma (3.2-3), before he continues his pilgrimage south (3.4). The remainder of the text provides details about others in the tradition as they interacted with Chaitanya in Puri, especially Nityananda, but also Advaitacharya, Raghava, Gadadhara, Shrivasa, et al (3.5-10), and the annual pilgrimage of devotees to Puri (3.9-11).
The text ends abruptly, but in spite of this the hand-written manuscripts reveal a remarkable uniformity. Printed editions are nearly identical in content, although the chapters are frequently broken differently, especially in adi khanda. The text is widely available and prominently featured among all groups professing a Gaudiya Vaisnava association. [Tony K Stewart]
Bibliography' Bhakti Siddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami ed, Chaitanya Bhagavata of Vrindavana Dasa (Gaudiya bhasya), 3rd. edn, Calcutta, 475 GA, Radhagovinda Natha ed, Chaitanya Bhagavata of Vrindavana Dasa, 6 vols, Calcutta, 1373 BS, Bimanbihari Majumdara, Sri Chaitanyacharitera upadana, Calcutta, 1959.' [Stewart, Tony K Director, Center for South Asian Studies, North Carolina State University, USA]