Brief Biography of
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu
Five hundred years ago on February 18, 1510, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of devotional Vaishnavism (Bhakti Cult) also known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism, set his pious feet on the sacred land of Puri, the abode of Lord Jagganath.
Puri or Nilachal as it was known then, was already an established centre of Vaishnavism with the five traditional Vaishnava sects - the Madhava, the Srivaishnava, the Vishnuswami, the Nimbarkite and the Vallabhachari all existing in the pre-Chaitanya era. But of these there were two trends that were predominant. One was the purely devotional religion based on Krishna worship and the other was devotion mixed with knowledge, directed particularly to Lord Jagannath, who was considered as the Buddha.
When Chaitanya began to propagate his faith based on the cult of Radha (the foremost 'bhakta') – those previous Vaishnavite trends devoted to Krishna worship were gradually absorbed in the main stream of the new Vaishnavism preached by him. But the second maintained its separate existence for sometime even after Chaitanya. The integration was completed at the instance of Shyamananda who was an associate of Srinivas (disciple of Jiba Goswami) and Narottam (disciple of Lokanath Goswami). Shyamananada and his brother Rasikananda, who were both sons of Odisha, completed the work of spreading neo-Vaishnavism in Odisha. The devotional doctrines of Vaishnava as propounded by the six great followers of Chaitanya (better known as the six Goswamis) –Srila Rupa, Sri Sanatana, RaghunathaBhatta, Sri Jiba, GopalaBhatta, and Raghunatha Dasa of Vrindavan, became the predominant religion of the Odiya people in the latter part of the 16th century and the beginning of 17th century. That was the culmination of the process started by Sri Chaitanya at Puri.
In assessing the role of Chaitanya in the history of Vaishnavism it should therefore, be taken into consideration that even before Chaitanya's arrival at Puri, Vaishnavism was already prevalent in Odisha, though in different, diverse forms.
As we set about to revitalize the Radhakanta Matha, the institution founded by Sri Chaitanya, it is appropriate to remember Sri Chaitanya and what he stood for. He remains as relevant today as he was then. In fact, now he is worshipped in far greater numbers – in the millions all over the world, through ISKCON.
BIRTH AND EARLY LIFE OF SRI CHAITANYA
Sri Chaitanya descended on this earth on February 27, 1486 to a learned family of Srihatta (now Sylhet, in Bangladesh). He was the tenth child of Jagannath Mishra and Sachi Devi. Prior to his birth, his grandmother had had a vision that the Lord would be coming down to earth as Sachi Devi's son and that he would be born on the banks of river Ganga. To welcome the Lord as specified in the revelation, Jagannath Mishra and his family migrated to Navadwipa – a distance of some 600 kilometres crossing many mighty rivers - before the time of Sri Chaitanya's birth.
His mother named him “Nemai” after the neem tree under which he was born. His maternal grandfather prophetically named him “Visvambhara” (the savior and sustainer of the universe). Giving early glimpses of his divinity, Nemai in childhood used to cry incessantly unless he heard the holy name of “Hari”. The house of Jagganath Mishra therefore, always echoed with blissful “Hari-nam” kirtan.
ADOLESCENCE AND YOUTH
Visvambhara was educated in Sanskrit grammar, literature, Navyanyay (Logic) and systems of philosophies. His great proficiency and, at times acerbic, debating skills established his intellectual eminence. So much so, in fact, it earned him the considerable ire of the established orthodoxy. On completion of his education he started a school in Navadwipa and his fame spread far and wide both as a teacher and as a scholar.
After a comparatively brief spell at the school, Visvambhara set out on a pilgrimage to Gaya to perform the “Pinda Dan” (annual rites of making offerings to ones deceased father and forefathers). On visiting temples, sacred sites and meeting learned people, the divine light within him got ignited. The religious awakening was intense and it transformed him completely. He was enveloped in an ecstasy of love towards the Lord and the intensity of this emotion was visible to one and all.
At Gaya, Nemai embraced Ishwar Puri, an ardent Vaishnava savant of the Madhava sect, as his spiritual guide – Diksha-Guru. When he was initiated with the Krishna mantra, Visvambara wept and wailed that Krishna was his life, and his beloved had disappeared after stealing his heart. This was the beginning of Sri Chaitanya's spiritual journey in the path of unconditional, unalloyed and unbridled love for the Lord.
This feeling persisted on return to Navadwipa, and Nemai abandoning teaching, spent his time in devotional kirtan – singing in chorus to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals. He was so much in love with the Lord, and so deeply immersed in kirtan, that he was completely oblivious of the caste, creed or religion of his fellow participants.
His preaching of the love of Krishna and ideal of universal love and compassion appealed to the imagination of the general populace. In a society that was deeply divided along caste and religious lines, the flavor of equality and brotherhood offered by the kirtan of Sri Chaitanya was instantly embraced by all. Soon the kirtan became bigger and began to be organized as Nagar (street) Sankirtan processions carrying the devotional appeal of Krishna's love from house to house in the town. This was the origin of the Bhakti Movement.
During such kirtans, Chaitanya would frequently get transported to a trance like state – something akin to “Bhava Samadhi”. In such states Nemai's consciousness ceased to exist among the mundane even while his body functioned normally. His soul used to merge with Lord Krishna. With the passage of time such occasions increased in frequency and they became a permanent feature of his religious life. And soon, Nemai desired to renounce everything and become a sanyasin.
INITIATION TO MONASTIC ORDER
At the young age of twenty three Nemai was formally initiated into the monastic order by the famous Bengali ascetic Keshava Bharati and assumed the name of Sri Krishna Chaitanya. Much to the grief of his mother, he expressed a desire to go to Vrindavan/Mathura to preach his tenets. But, he was only able to secure her consent for a move to Nilachal, the home of Lord Jagganath. Sri Chaitanya's forefathers originally hailed from Jajpur in Odisha and this was probably the most compelling reason for her to make this suggestion. Also, she desired that he be nearby so visitors could go back and forth bringing her news of him regularly. Puri in Odisha thus became the fulcrum of the Bhakti cult from where it spread far and wide.
Historians analyzing the move feel that neither the Islamic government nor the establishment of orthodox Brahmins in Navadwipa (whose pretentions he had already exposed by his scholarship through intellectual debates), would have tolerated the continuation or development of the egalitarian Bhakti movement of Sri Chaitanya, and speculate that his family members possibly apprehended even serious risk to his life.
PURI, THE SEAT OF LORD JAGANNATH BECOMES THE HOME OF CHAITANYA
The stature that Kalinga commanded during that period in history may be established from the fact that Kalinga was the only Hindu independent kingdom in whole of Eastern and Northern India. Its King, Prataprudra Dev, was not only capable of unconquerable military might, but patronized art, architecture, literature and religion. Vaishnavism was the state religion of Kalinga with Lord Jagannath standing at the apex as “Rastradevata”.
Legends chronicle that as Chaitanya stepped into Puri and saw the tall spire of Jagannath temple he was overwhelmed with joy and ran to the temple imagining that Krishna was calling him. On reaching the temple he jumped up on the platform and clasped the huge idol to his bosom before falling down before it in a swoon. According to Vrindaban Das author of “Chaitanya Bhagavat” who was beholding the scene, Vasudev Sarabhauma took the unconscious Chaitanya to his house. Sarbhabhauma was the foremost logician of the time and the most erudite scholar of the monistic school of Sankaracharya. In appreciation of his great scholarship he had been made the court pundit of Raja Prataprudra Dev. During Sri Chaitanya's stay at his house, the great savant expounded to Chaitanya the aphorisms of the “Brahma sutras” for a week - on the lines of the commentaries of the impersonalized school of Sankara. When Sarvabhauma noticed Chaitanya's indifference, he enquired the reason thereof. Whereupon, Chaitanya explained those aphorisms strictly on the foundation of pure theism. Overawed and attracted by the truth, beauty and harmony of the expositions, Sarvabhauma bowed down his head before him and converting, became Sri Chaitanya's first disciple in Nilachal.
Chaitanya made Puri his home. From there he travelled to South India and North India on several pilgrimages but spent the last eighteen years of his life at Puri in an unbroken spell. During his trip to South India he conclusively broke away from the orthodox line of thinking of the Madhava School of Vaishnavism mainly because of their strict emphasis on the observance of the “Varnashram Dharma” (caste segregation).
DEVOTIONAL WORSHIP AND DEMOCRATIZATION OF RELIGION
For Chaitanya, nothing – no religion, no caste nor the regimentation of Varnashram – could come between the love and devotion of a true devotee and the Lord. Oblivious to everybody and unaffected by the opinions of others, he evolved and practiced his own style of devotional worship that was built around sankirtan – collective chanting of the Lord's name accompanied by dance to rhythmic music from mridangam and cymbals. During kirtan Sri Chaitanya's emotional fervor used to be so intense that he used to jump up to great height and his followers had to be always alert to save him from injury as he fell down to earth. He was perpetually in a state of semi trance.
This unique form of unalloyed Bhakti pouring out from the depths of the heart endeared one and all – the poor, the outcast and the rich. This was pure love not constrained and bound by logic or intelligence. The poor not blessed with education, intelligence or the advantages of birth had found themselves out of the mainstream of religious activities. These 'outcasts' were prohibited to take part in rituals because they were considered to be impure. Chaitanya's kirtans obliterated these manmade barriers. King Prataprudra Dev, being a learned Vaishnavite and ardent follower of Lord Jagannath, also embraced this Bhakti practice wholeheartedly. He had already been deeply influenced by Vasudeva Sarbabhauma's conversion immediately on Sri Chaitanya's arrival at Puri. Royal patronage paved the way for the rich and the upper classes to embrace this form of participatory Bhakti as well. Chaitanya's movement democratized religion, and God and religious practice was no longer the prerogative of the rich and the upper class.
Sri Chaitanya made it a practice to lead a group of his ardent followers in sweeping and washing the Jagannath temple thoroughly, especially before Rath Yatra. This may have led to the Jagannath temple being thrown open to the low caste Hindus as well. In those days of strict Varnashram regimentation this was indeed a remarkable revolution. King Prataprudra Dev, following the tradition and practice of “Cherra Panhara” used to, of course, sweep the path of Lord Jagganath with his own hands (using a gold broomstick) and sprinkle sandal water on the ground on the day of Rath Yatra and Chaitanya’s practice reinforced this tradition.
IMPACT ON MIGHT OF KALINGA
One of the most profound, though disputed, effect of the spread of Sri Chaitanya's cult in Odisha was that Kalinga became militarily weak and docile.
Historians argue from both sides of the divide:
Some say that the vigorous and energetic Odias who thwarted Muslim rule for so long and built marvelous and huge temples, became weak in spirit and energy. They say this because King Prataprudra Dev is believed to have renounced war - like Ashoka – under the influence of Chaitanya’s pacifist and devotional philosophy. Some of his prominent officers like Rai Ramananda, Governor of the South at Rajamahendri, and Bhabananda Patnaik, Governor of North at Midnapore, became devotees of Chaitanya and resigned from their posts, thereby making administration of the kingdom weak.
However, according to other prominent historians, when Sri Chaitanya arrived at Puri, King Prataprudra was away in the South to arrange defences against a possible invasion by Krishnadev Raya of Vijayanagar. Then on return from the south, the king had to chase the invader Hussain Shah, Sultan of Bengal, and compel him and his army to take shelter at the Manderia fort in Midnapore. The fort was under siege for a long period which had to be lifted when General Govinda Vidyadhar betrayed the king. They say that though Prataprudra Dev had a great regard for Sri Chaitanya, there is no record to show that the king had made any grant to Sri Chaitanya or his devotees. This might prove lack of any overwhelming influence.
Dr. Anil Chandra Banerjee was of the view that Chaitanya's sway did not extend to temporal affairs and it did not turn the king into an ascetic. Prataprudra's indifference to military and political affairs in his later years was due to the humiliating peace with Vijayanagar and the premature death of his son.
Dr. Prabhat Mukherjee writes in his book 'The history of medieval Vaishnavism in Odisha' that, “...the real cause of the fall of the empire was not the acceptance of neo-Vaishnavism, but the weakness of the successors. ... The tottering empire, surrounded by powerful foes, was like the bow of Ulysses which only a strong man could handle.” Dr. Mukherjee further states that, “It is difficult to link this sickening tale of moral turpitude with the Chaitanya movement, which taught mankind to be faithful and honest. ...Thus Vaishnavism or no Vaishnavism – the succession of weaklings, the moral degeneration of high officials of the state and the decline in the military strength of the nation would have brought about the downfall, sooner or later.”
The resignation of just two of his governors is unlikely to have influenced the general political condition of the state which degenerated to one of the darkest periods in Odisha's history after King Prataprudra Dev. Treachery, intriguing, and rivalry became the order of the day and Kalinga eventually succumbed to Muslim invasion. Odisha's decline was thus due to many causes and even included, “...interruption of her commercial operations with the East Indies by Muslim ascendancy over the seas.”