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Chaitanya

by Sumanta Sanyal

Lord Chaitanya, or Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as he is lovingly and lingeringly called by his devotees, was a Hindu personage much akin to Jesus Christ of Christianity. Both were prophets who understood the limitations of their times and both were steeped in the scriptures of their respective religions yet neither ever wrote anything down formally. Instead they used simple, uncomplicated words to preach their innate wisdom to the masses who adored them for their uncomplicated sermons. There is ample evidence that both performed innumerable miracles. Both preached absolute love for all beings. Both were also persecuted by the priestly classes of their respective times because both believed in personal devotion and good deeds as means to salvation in contrast to the prevailing customs of those times that advocated extensive, complicated and costly rituals that could only be performed by a priest. In the end both died as a result of that persecution and both remain ingrained in the collective memory of the world as great teachers who continue to guide not only by the sermons that they left behind but also by the personal examples of their lives which are numerously preserved in chronicles and other holy scriptures of Hinduism and Christianity. Lord Jesus professed that he was the Son of God while Lord Chaitanya professed that he was a devotee of Lord Krishna, whom he adoringly called Hari and who was the 8th avatar of Vishnu.

Lord Chaitanya (1486-1533 CE) was born at a time when Hinduism, especially in the Eastern parts of India, was passing through a crisis of identity. The Islamic invaders who had come from the North and Central Asia had conquered large parts of Northern India and had firmly established their rule there. Thus, the upper strata of Indian society, the rulers and the upper echelons, were all Islamic while the lower masses were mostly Hindu. The Islamic rulers also practiced a harsh form of religious persecution that made it more attractive to convert to Islam than to remain a Hindu. The masses, who were mostly Hindu, were without guidance. Though the Brahmins, the Hindu priestly class, retained their religion they were too immersed in their own exploitative practices that further aggravated the conditions of the common folk. Often with active support of their Islamic rulers, who wanted to sustain their dominion over the people, the Brahmins utilized their religion to exploit the gullible common folk and push them down even deeper in the misery they were already in.

Lord Chaitanya, after his education was over and he became aware of these injustices, took up the cause of Hinduism and began to provide proper guidance to the people. They began to look up to him for succor. His simple interpretations of the Hindu scriptures and his easy way of worshiping God, much less complicated and expensive than what the greedy Brahmins advocated, attracted innumerable devotees to his cause. Though the same hostile conditions prevailed the people now had someone they could look up to in times of extreme hardship. Though he could often provide no material support, for which they still had to rely on the Islamic rulers, nevertheless he could morally sustain them in their difficult position. This was the extreme criticality of Lord Chaitanya's birth. He gave a vital fillip to Hinduism that enabled the religion, at least in the Eastern parts of India, to weather the hostility of the foreign invaders and continue in good form to the present age.

Lord Chaitanya was born to Pandit Jagannath Misra and Sachi Devi in 1486 CE at a small village called Nawadwip in what is today the State of West Bengal in India. He was named Viswambar. The intense love his parents felt for him had a sad reason. He was their tenth child. All their previous nine children had either died or had left them. The first eight were girls who were born so weak that they did not survive many days after their birth. Their ninth child, a boy they lovingly named Viswarup (Beauty of the World), grew up to be an endearing youth who was deeply steeped in the scriptures and other holy matters, as was fitting of the son of a pandit or "learned man" in Hinduism. Nevertheless he pained his parents when he ran away the day they told him that they were arranging a marriage for him. Viswarup did not feel that he was ready to enter the common worldly life of a domesticated husband. Instead he felt that he was more suited to an ascetic life that would allow him to serve his God more devoutly. His parents could do nothing to stop him but they were intensely disappointed as he was their only son at that time. Viswarup disappeared from the locale of Nawadwip much before Lord Chaitanya was born. He was never found nor heard of though his parents tried hard to get news of him.

Against this dismal backdrop Viswambar, the future Lord Chaitanya, was born, a child so fair that all those who visited the Pandit's house to see the newborn baby began calling him Gauranga -- "Gaur" for "Fair" and "Anga" for "Body," or rather "The one with the fair body." The village folk in Bengal at that time were extremely superstitious and they also began calling the baby boy Nemai after the bitter Neem tree. This was to ward off evil from one so fair and good. It was also because Nemai was the only living child of his parents and they feared that he too would go away from them if he were not especially cared for. Nemai remains a popular name for Lord Chaitanya in the Bengal of today, particularlyamong rural folk who revere him as an avatar of Vishnu.

Gauranga, as he was most commonly called, soon became a master of all branches of Hindu knowledge -- grammar, logic, literature, philosophy, theology and rhetoric. In those days scholars had to prove their erudition by winning over other competitors in debates that were being continuously arranged at the homes of various pandits. Even at an early age, well within his teens, Gauranga became so adept at these dialectic matches that pandits came from far and wide to contend with him. They all lost and this won him as many admirers among these other erudite men as staunch enemies. In those days, such a person as him so well-versed in all the branches of the Hindu scriptures was considered a demigod in his own right. This is so because, in Hinduism, all scriptures are believed to emanate from Brahma Himself and anyone who has mastered them totally becomes akin to God Himself. Nevertheless, despite the extreme reverence the common folk as well as some of the more knowledgeable pandits held him in, Gauranga constantly professed that all he wanted was to be totally devoted to his God -- Krishna. In the true tradition of Hinduism he wanted his Bhakti (devotion) to be entirely motiveless -- devoid of any personal interest, even of the desire to be considered to be the most devout. Even this last would be self-interest for it would seem that he craved his God so that he may be considered devout. This is the path the highest manner of devotee of God is capable of taking.

While still living with his parents Gauranga opened a "Tol" -- a school pandits set up in their homes to tutor boys from the village in those days. Though Gauranga was a competent teacher and beloved of his pupils his mind was not with him in this pursuit. Gauranga was a very humane person who, as he later actively professed all over India, believed that only love towards all beings can be considered love for God. At this stage, his parents arranged his marriage with a maiden of the village Vishnupriya -- the beloved of Vishnu. He did resist the marriage but his parents were too eager to have him married off. They had already had one child running away to become an ascetic at the name of marriage. So Gauranga was unable to totally desist from marriage and inflict extreme pain upon his parents. Vishnupriya was not only beautiful but also a devout wife who adored her husband but to no avail. Gauranga was too involved in his search for the right direction to his God. Up to this point in time of his marriage to Vishnupriya Gauranga was still not fixed in his path to his God though he understood from the scriptures his future direction.

In 1509 AD, despite tears and cajolings against it of both his mother and Vishnupriya, Gauranga set out on a long and perilous journey to the heartland of Hindu India. He visited the holy cities of Gaya, Brindaban and Varanasi. At Gaya, he met Ishvar Puri, who was a devotee of Madhavacharya -- a great proponent of Lord Krishna. He somehow managed to coax the holy man into accepting him as a disciple. Ishvar Puri taught Gauranga true humility that is so essential to acquire a true love of God. Even his great pride of learning vanished and he became free of all desires other than to achieve his God. At Brindaban he met up with Nityananda, another pious person who was then looking someone he could follow while in his own quest for God. Since the Godheads of both the men was Lord Krishna and since Nityananda immediately understood that Gauranga was no ordinary man they teamed up and Gauranga was accompanied by Nityananda, whom he lovingly called Nitai, for the rest of his pilgrimage. Thereafter they returned to Nawadwip where Gauranga introduced Nitai to his friends and relatives.

But Gauranga was not to rest at this. He restlessly went about Nawadwip, constantly accompanied by Nitai and other devouts, incessantly chanting the name of Lord Krishna and singing songs in praise of Him. His preachings that God could be achieved without complex rituals threatened the livelihoods of the priests there who constantly reviled him and threatened him in turn. Even the hostility of the local agents of the Sultan of Gaur, who controlled Nawadwip at that time, did not deter Gauranga from going about singing in praise of his God. By then he had given up both studying and teaching the scriptures. Common folk revered him even more then and considered him to be an avatar of Vishnu Himself. This further aggravated the priests' angst. At last, Gauranga could no longer stand the restrictions of a life that was still considered domesticated with a wife and a family, though he yet had no child of Vishnupriya.

At the age of 24 Gauranga got himself initiated to "Sanyash" -- asceticism -- by Pandit Keshava Bharati of Nawadwip. His father was already dead but his mother and wife wept bitterly at this decision. He took the name Krishna Chaitanya and decided to renounce worldly life. Chaitanya means the "Awakened One." In essence it means "One who has become aware of Lord Krishna in all His full glory." He left home and roamed the streets and countryside around Nawadwip for a few days, constantly accompanied by Nityananda and a band of faithful followers singing songs in praise of Lord Krishna. In effect Lord Chaitanya never really sang songs. Instead he and his followers danced and constantly chanted the name of Lord Krishna, specifically "Hare Krishna," in many variations. This mode of devotion to the Lord is called "Kirtan" and is specifically still practiced by his followers who believe that if kirtan can be performed diligently enough salvation, or as the Hindus call it "Moksha," can be achieved. Ultimately Lord Chaitanya left Nawadwip for Puri, a coastal town in Eastern India in which the Lord Jagannath Temple is located. Lord Jagannath is one of the manifestations of Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya found peace there worshipping at the feet of the Lord. He was amply supported in this by the then king of Puri who constantly shielded the holy man from the venom of the priests of the temple. The priests were envious of the attention Lord Chaitanya got both from the king and from the common people who adored him and thought of him as an avatar (incarnation) of Lord Krishna.

Soon after Lord Chaitanya passed away in the year 1533 AD. It was the demise of a great teacher who never really formally preached anything. Instead he lived a life that was exemplary in its simplicity, purity and humility. His obvious love of all beings, even the priests and Islamic rulers both of whom constantly opposed him, inspired the people to look more brightly upon a world which seemed full only of difficulties.

Lord Chaitanya's teachings are actively followed and taught by many Hindu subsects in India and abroad. The Gaurio Math, an order of monks and nuns centered in the Indian State of West Bengal, spreads Lord Chaitanya's preaching all over Eastern India. It maintains maths (monasteries) where kirtans are regularly held in praise of the Lord -- Krishna -- according to the precepts of Sri Chaitanya. It also uses these maths as centers for social work like flood relief efforts and distribution of food and clothes to the needy. Another salient institution that practices Hinduism according to the precepts of Sri Chaitanya is the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKON) that is headquartered at Mayapur, very near Nawadwip. The great temple at Mayapur together with relics from Sri Chaitanya's life that still prevails at Nawadwip is visited daily by thousands of devotees both from India and abroad.

Lord Chaitanya is almost deified and regarded as a god in his own right by his followers. He is regarded as an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu who had been sent down to Earth to save it from the iniquities of the time. In effect he saved Hinduism from decline and reinforced its goodwill to such an extent that the effect prevails to the present age. His simplistic manner of worship and his entirely unheeding attitude towards class, sect or race has enabled his followers to successfully spread his preaching all over the world thus gathering for his manner of Hinduism a truly global affiliation.


Article details:

  • Also known as:
    Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu
    Nemai

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