Chaitanya Charitamrita

Chaitanya Charitamrita of Krishnadasa Kaviraja holds the place of honor as the authoritative final word in the hagiographical tradition devoted to Krsna Chaitanya (1486-1533 AD). The book serves as a compendium of Vaisnava lore that provides the details of Chaitanya’s life, especially the years of his renunciation, and how that life exemplified model devotion. The text outlines the basic theological positions developed by the Gosvamis in metaphysics, ontology, and aesthetics, and provides synopses of rituals appropriate to devotees. Because it is encyclopedic, it is the most often reproduced text within the tradition and serves as a theological standard against which all other writings are measured. It is from this text that devotees first understood the connection between the Gosvami writings as a coherent and systematic theology and the life of Chaitanya, for Krsnadasa was senior among the handful of devotees who studied with all of them.

Writing from Vrndavana, he finished this lengthy book toward the end of his life, although precisely when that was, is still debated within the scholarly community. Citations within the text declare a date some time after 1592, but the consensus argues for a considerably later date between 1609 and 1615. Any of these dates place the text at the end of the creative period of Chaitanya hagiography, which began in Sanskrit with Murari Gupta’s Krsna ‘Chaitanyacharitamrta or Kadacha (c 1533) and the Bengali chaitanya bhagavata of Vrndavana Dasa (c mid-1540s). Although massive in size, the book was frequently copied and widely circulated in Bengal and Orissa in the early decades of the 17th century by a trio of students trained by the surviving Gosvamis and Krsnadasa: Srinivasa, Narottamadasa, and Shyamananda.

The sheer volume of the text undoubtedly contributed to its influence, for in its current critical edition the text stretches to approximately 24,000 lines of Bengali, written primarily in payara couplet with numerous passages in tripadi or three-footed metre. In addition the text intersperses more than one thousand couplets from seventy-five Sanskrit sources starting with the itihasas and puranas, especially the Bhagavata and the Gita, but also numerous citations of ritual manuals (tantra), poetry (kavya), aesthetic theory (rasa-shastra, nataka), and a host of metaphysical, commentarial, and eulogistic texts (tattva, bhasya, stotra, etc). Its size makes it second in length only to the slightly larger Chaitanya Bhagavata, and its organisation likewise parallels that of the Chaitanya Bhagavata.

Like the Chaitanya Bhagavata, the Chaitanya Charitamrta is divided into three sections- adi, madhya, antya - of 17, 25, and 20 chapters respectively. Krsnadasa explicitly drew numerous comparisons between the Chaitanya Bhagavata and his own narrative, which suggests that the mirror organisation was very deliberate. This rhetorical strategy invites the reader to conclude that the Chaitanya Charitamrta simply continued what the Chaitanya Bhagavata began with its narrative some seven or eight decades earlier. While the Chaitanya Bhagavata concentrates on Chaitanya’s life in Navadvipa when he was still a householder devotee, the Chaitanya Charitamrta focuses on his life after renunciation in Puri and on his pilgrimages. The result of these many comparisons has led the tradition tacitly to acknowledge that the Chaitanya Charitamrta is the conclusion of the hagiographical tradition.

Following a strategy of non-contradiction and conciliation, he included each of the current theories of divinity into a progressive or inclusive hierarchy of preferred forms (1.1-4; 2.8; 2.20-21): angsha or 'partial incarnations’, yugavatara for the Kali Age, and all other forms such as manvantara, dashavatara, vyuha, and so forth. This inclusiveness was possible because, following the Chaitanya Bhagavata, Krsnadasa declared Chaitanya not to be simply a descent of God, but svayang bhagavan, the complete godhead, which meant that Chaitanya was the avatarin that included all forms of descent. The mechanism for effecting this wide dispersal of devotion was the community around Chaitanya himself, personified as the pancha tattva composed of Chaitanya, Advaitacharya, Nityananda, Gadadhara, and Shrivasa, who represents the other devotees. But the most novel aspect of this theology was the assertion that Chaitanya was the form assumed by Krsna in order to experience Radha’s love for himself, the so-called androgynous or 'dual’ incarnation: Radha and Krsna fused into a single entity, forever separate, forever in union. This perspective was revealed in the narrative by Ramananda Raya in the famous exchange of questions and answers about the nature of devotion (2.8), but its theory attributed to Svarupa Damodara, Chaitanya’s amanuensis in Puri during the last half of his life. This novel theology has become the standard interpretation for all subsequent Gaudiya Vaisnava interpretations of Chaitanya’s descent.

Organised through the metaphor of the wishing tree of devotion (bhaktikalpataru), the adi lila devotes chapters to Chaitanya’s identity and personal lineage (1.1-4; 1.10), and his closest companions and their paramparas: Nityananda (1.5; 1.11), Advaitacharya (1.6; 1.12), Gadadhara (1.7; 1.12), and the other devotees (1.8-9). This section ends with a brief summary of the years of Chaitanya’s life up to his renunciation (1.13-17), an effective recapitulation of the contents of the Chaitanya Bhagavata.

The madhya lila details his renunciation (2.1-3), stories of Madhavendra Puri (2.4-5), Caityanya’s conversion of the scholar Sarvabhauma (2.6), his pilgrimage south (2.7-10). The mid-portion of madhya lila gives examples of the daily and annual activities of Chaitanya and his devotees during the Jagannatha car festival or rathayatra, and other festivities (2.11-16). The last part of madhya lila details his important meetings with Rupa and Sanatana (2.17-25), and which includes extensive outlines of the theological positions of Gosvami-developed theology and aesthetic theory as applied to practical devotion.

The antya lila begins with surveys of the plays composed by Rupa as vehicles to produce devotional rasa (3.1). Activities of various devotees and occasional critics and their interactions with Chaitanya during the last phase of his life are given anecdotally (3.2-12), especially including significant tales of Haridasa, Raghunatha Dasa, and Jagadananda. Chaitanya’s increasing experience of the searing agony of separation from Krsna known as viraha (3.13-19) is followed by the summary of the life of Chaitanya, and concludes with the famous siksastaka or instruction in eight verses attributed to Chaitanya himself.

Manuscripts are uniform and printed editions vary only slightly. In the same way that writing a biography signified legitimacy for a guru-parampara in the 16th century, printing the text with a commentary established legitimacy in the 19th and 20th centuries, a practice that continues today and which serves to align different groups within the larger Gaudiya group. [Tony K Stewart]

Bibliography Bhaktikevala Audulomi Maharaja ed, Chaitanya Charitamrta of Krsnadasa Kaviraja, 5th edn, Calcutta, 1364 BS, Radhagovinda Natha ed, Chaitanya Charitamrta of Krsnadasa Kaviraja, 6 vols, Calcutta, 1369-70 BS, Bimanbihari Majumdara, ShriChaitanyacharitera upadana, Calcutta, 1959, Tony K Stewart ed & tr, Chaitanya Caritamrta of Krsnadasa Kaviraja, Harvard Oriental Series no. 56, Cambridge, MA, 1999.