Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu (also transliterated Chaitanya) (1485-1533) was a famous Hindu mystic and key revivalist in the Vaishnavite movement in Bengal during the sixteenth century. Known by numerous epithets, including his birth name Vishvambharu (“he who sustains the world”), his common nickname Nimai (referring to the legend that he was born under a Neem tree) and his later title Gaura (Sanskrit for "golden one," referring to the complexion of his skin), Caitanya was renowned for his ecstatic worship of Lord Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu), and he was an ardent proponent of bhakti (loving devotion for God). Although he left virtually no writings of his own, his influence is still evident today in the development of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and the growth of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), a worldwide Vaishnavite organization.
Caitanya taught that the path of bhakti, serving and devoting oneself single-mindedly to God, was the highest means to reach God. Other paths, such as jnana (the path of knowledge), karma (the path of action), and yoga (the path of meditation) discriminated against certain types of people, while bhakti was attainable for everyone, regardless of their social status or spiritual purity. Caitanya embraced people from all faiths and castes, and, as such, he was also an exemplar of religious harmony and acceptance of all.
As bhakti is actualized through selfless devotion, Caitanya often described it in terms of conjugal love between a man and a woman. In that supreme state, the relationship becomes reciprocal, and just as between lovers, humans and God draw ever closer through the development of their mutual love. He sometimes illustrated this idea through decidedly erotic imagery, such as the story of the gopis, milk-maids who passionately offered themselves to Lord Krishna, the supreme Lover. For Caitanya, human beings had to be equally submissive to Krishna's loving embrace in order to fully achieve unity with the divine.
Born in February 1486 in the village of Navadvipa, Bengal, Caitanya grew up showing great fondness for the Hindu God Krishna, often crying until those around him proceeded to chant the God’s name. Various accounts claim that Caitanya maintained a playful, energetic demeanor as a child, possessing the ability to dance with divine fervor from a very early age, much to the amusement of his neighboring elders. He was particularly fond of singing praises to Krishna.
Caitanya is reported to have had his first mystical experience at the age of nine during the Hindu sacred thread ceremony, a common initiation for Brahmin boys. During the recitation of the traditional Gayatri Mantra, it is said that the young boy fainted and his body began to shine with an effulgent light. When Caitanya’s mother approached him, the boy allegedly said, “I am leaving this body. I shall come again. The body I am leaving behind me is your son, whom you should tend with great tenderness when I am gone.” This event reinforced the view that the young Caitanya had a special calling to worship God.
During the remainder of his youth, Caitanya excelled as a student, establishing rhetorical skills beyond his years. His father died while he was quite young and Caitanya was forced to assume responsibility over his father’s household. For purposes of sustaining himself financially, he proceeded to set up his own school where he further sharpened his intellectual skills, frequently emerging victorious from drawn-out debates with nearby philosophers. As a result, Caitanya came to great eminence as a scholar while still in his early twenties; however, it is also said that he acquired somewhat of an egoistic vanity in doing so.
Caitanya’s life changed forever in 1508, when he went on a pilgrimage for the purpose of performing a ceremony in memory of his father. After the ceremony was carried out, he traveled to the nearby village of Gakra, fabled home to footprints allegedly made by Lord Krishna himself. Upon seeing the footprints, Caitanya reportedly went into a motionless swoon, his hair standing on end, tears flowing from his eyes, and his body shook with tremors. Thereafter, he frequently relapsed into this ecstatic state at the mere mention of Krishna’s name, and reportedly heard a voice say to him, “You are the lord (…) come to bring love and devotion to the world.” It is said that Caitanya also had a vision of Krishna himself on his journey home. Upon arrival at Navadvipa, Caitanya was a completely changed individual, and his interest in worldly things became almost non-existent, as his concentration dwelt on thoughts of Krishna.
Although Caitanya had been the disciple of Isvara Puri, a religious leader in the Madhava sect that worships Lord Vishnu, Caitanya's own doctrines were actually quite different than those upheld by the Madhava, and while most of his followers link him to Madhava, his actual membership in the sect has been a point of academic contention. It is most likely that Caitanya joined the sect because of his high regard for Puri rather than strictly philosophical reasons. Caitanya closed his school, and spent his days weeping for Lord Krishna, longing for reunion with the divine. Quickly, he became leader of the local Vaishnavites, drawing large numbers to the sect. He renounced the world and was initiated into an ascetic life as a sannyasin at the age of 24. Here he was officially given the name Sri Caitanya (“one who awakens god in the hearts of people”). Caitanya spent the remainder of his life making pilgrimages throughout India, preaching the path of devotion to Krishna and converting others by way of his well-formed theological discussions. It is said that even the most stalwart Islamic rulers were impressed by Caitanya's inherent holiness, such as a Muslim chief in Orissa, who is said to have fallen to Caitanya’s feet upon meeting him, pleading to be accepted as one of his humble servants.
In 1516 Caitanya settled permanently in the city of Puri at Orissa, where he lived the final 24 years of his life in seclusion. These last years were spent counseling disciples and worshipping the local temple deity Jagannath, who Caitanya claimed was actually Krishna himself. Caitanya eventually died in 1534, after a period of time which seemed to mark a continuous communion with Krishna. Numerous accounts of Caitanya's death persist. One asserts that he died of septic fever due to an injury incurred upon his left foot after it was accidentally smashed with a brick. Another account claims that he met his death willfully, leaping into the Yamuna River while in a state of ecstasy brought on by union with Krishna. More legendary folk beliefs assert that Caitanya did not necessarily die, but instead simply transcended the physical plane, his soul merging with the very statue of Jagannath he had so dearly worshipped in his later years.
For Caitanya, there was no greater means of gaining knowledge than revelation, or sabda. Revelation, Caitanya claimed, was the direct communication of knowledge from the absolute, and was not subject to the same flaws as Pratyaksa (perception) or Anumana (inference). The Puranas were viewed by Caitanya as inseparable from the four original Vedic texts. The most important book for Caitanya was the Srimad-bhagavata, a commentary on the Brahma-sutra, which formed the foundation of his teachings.
Caitanya held that revelation is potentially available to all through direct mystical consciousness of truth. Caitanya termed this mystical cognition as Vaidusa Pratyaksa, or "vision of the pure soul." He taught that perception, although flawed, could potentially be purified by devotional love for god. Mystical experience, then, is a revelation of true knowledge. In the view of Caitanya, mystical experience is a “thing” per se; that is, it is not an illusion but rather the antithesis of illusion: within mystical experience is the purest experience possible of reality. Caitanya claimed that mystical encounter is made numinous by way of the influx of suddha sattva, the essence of God’s potency, into a devotee’s consciousness. This potency of god, or samdhini, is the transcendental grounds for all existence, and it is only possible to come into this communion with god’s grace once the mind is purified. Thus, this mystical cognition involves objectivity that goes above and beyond thought, sensation, and logic as the true grounds of knowledge.
Caitanya taught a form of monistic monotheism, which asserts that the Personal Absolute (in this case, Krishna) is the sole supreme entity in the universe. For Caitanya, the Absolute has the ability to manifest Himself in different forms without losing its essential oneness. He described these forms as three gradations of God: Brahman, Paramatman, and Bhagavan. Brahman, the formless, indescribable part of god, which took theological primacy in so many other Hindu systems of thought (such as the non-dualist schools) is the lowest manifestation of God. An unqualified Brahman, since it was beyond thought and speech, was essentially meaningless to Caitanya, forming only a single aspect of the greater, infinitely qualified Absolute, and could be reached through jnana, or knowledge. Paramatman was seen as a step higher than Brahman, representing the principle which controlled and regulated the concrete formations of Brahman, and could be reached through yoga, the path of meditation. Bhagavan was the highest manifestation, identical with the supreme personality of Krishna, infinitely powerful and responsible for all that exists. Caitanya's conception of God, then, forced people to reconcile supposedly contradictory personal and impersonal attributes when conceiving of God, noting that the apparent contradiction exists only in the limited human mind. Bhagavan, Caitanya contended, could only be reached through bhakti, the path of devotion to the personal God.
For Caitanya, the sole means by which to reach god in his purest form was through devotion, or bhakti. Other paths, such as jnana (the path of knowledge), karma (the path of action) and yoga (the path of meditation) were insufficient because they halted the practitioner’s spiritual journey before attainment of the highest manifestation of God. Caitanya noted that these various paths discriminated against certain types of people, while bhakti was attainable for everyone, regardless of their social status or spiritual purity. Further, Caitanya claimed that these other paths all relied on bhakti in some form or another, while bhakti existed independent of the other three. Caitanya held that the fruits of the jnana, yoga and karma paths could all be gained solely through devotional fulfillment, hence bhakti was the only path of devotion one needed.
Caitanya's variation of bhakti insisted that one must serve and devote themselves single-mindedly to Krishna, disregarding all other desires in pursuit of this highest Personal Absolute. Due to the selfless service and sacrifice such devotion demanded, Caitanya often described bhakti in terms of conjugal love between a man and a woman. In fact, the highest stage of devotional love for god, mahabhava (or "supreme love"), was described in such terms. Such a relationship suggests reciprocity, and just as between lovers, human and god were seen as drawing closer together through the development of their mutual love. Such ideas were sometimes illustrated by Caitanya through decidedly erotic imagery. One legendary story which Caitanya frequently cited was that of the gopis, milk-maids who offered themselves to the passionate throes of Lord Krishna. For Caitanya, human beings had to be equally submissive to Krishna's loving embrace in order to fully actualize their love and devotion. Furthermore, Caitanya claimed that devotion could be practiced in spontaneous ways such as bathing in holy rivers and chanting the sacred syllables of his name, or by ritualistic means such as listening to accounts of Krishna's life, worship of his image, and through guidance by learned Gurus. With proper devotions, one can attain priti, which embodies unfettered happiness as well as a deep feeling of intimacy with the beloved Krishna.
Caitanya left no writings of his own, save for a collection of eight verses attributed to him called the Siksastaka. Nonetheless, he inspired numerous secondary works which record his philosophy and have preserved it for future generations. His six primary disciples, commonly known as the Six Gosvamins, were directly commissioned by Caitanya to put his teachings into writing. As such, they produced authoritative works on his seminal religious tenets. Among these are the Bhagavata-samdarbha, consisting of six books, and the Sarva-samvadini, an appendix to the aforementioned work. These works systematized what came to be known as the Gaudiya Vaishnava theology, a system of thought which has had significant influence on Vaishnavism in Bengal and also throughout India as a whole. A celebrated cultural and historical figure in Bengal, Caitanya also inspired several important biographies, most notably the Caitanya-caritamrta, Caitanya-bhagavata, and Caitanya-mangala.
Through the centuries following Caitanya's death, the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition flourished in northeastern India and divided into various branches that were commonly passed down through family lineages. It is alleged that one member of the lineage tracing back to Caitanya himself is Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), also known as the Hare Krishna movement. ISKCON has expanded the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition throughout the world, and has maintained many of Caitanya's principle teachings in its doctrines. For example, the Srimad-bhagavatam, Caitanya's paramount source of revealed truth, is one of ISKCON's core canonical texts, along with the Caitanya-caritamrita. Futhermore, the Maha Mantra, for which the Hare Krishna followers are so well known, involves the repetition of the names of God, a devotional practice which Caitanya had propounded in the cultivation of consciousness of Krishna. Hence, Caitanya's teachings continue on in contemporary times in both the Eastern and Western worlds.
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