Some time ago, I wrote a blog expressing the need for a scholarly exploration of just who the historical Krishna Chaitanya really was. Recently, a friend commented on it saying, “let’s get the ball rolling.” Having some time available, I make some comments on what we may actually know, especially when such material may provide a new view of Chaitanya rather than the doctrinal one.
My primary source will be: Dimock, Edward C., Jr., Trans. Chaitanya Charitamrita of Krishnadas Kaviraj. Ed. Tony K. Stewart. Cambridge, Harvard Oriental Series, Harvard University, 1999. This is the most authoritative, scholarly English rendition of the Chaitanya Charitamrita available. Edward Dimock spent his life working on it starting in 1955. Tony Stewart began studying the text with Dimock in the 1970s. Both are leading scholars in the field. I provide brief excerpts from their one hundred forty three page introduction along with some brief comments of my own. Click here to order from Amazon.
Dimock writes, “Neither they [his friends, colleagues, and teachers] nor I, in the mid-50’s, had any idea that the Vaishnavas, a small, geographically limited religious group would in two decades spread out through the western world with an extraordinary, and sometimes aggressive missionary zeal. (xvii)”
They see Chaitanya not as the founder of the Bengal Vaishnav movement but its revivalist since he became the leader of an already existing group of devotees. They also say,
Despite protestations from many of his biographers, very little is known about Chaitanya’s early life; incidents are so mingled with stories of the child Krishna as told in the BhP that it is hard to separate fact from fancy. . . . His biographers are understandably anxious to make him out to be a great philosopher, rhetorician, and poet, but there is no reliable evidence to suggest that he was any of these things, or that he had any significant amount of education in them. (11)
I have to agree with their conclusions.
As has been described elsewhere, certain of his [Rai Ramanand’s] practices as well as his reported conversations would seem to indicate that he was a Sahajiya or Tantric Vaishnava, and his doctrinal position might well have influenced Chaitanya’s own attitudes. . . . it was Ramanand who revealed Chaitanya’s own Radha-bhav, his personality as Radha, to Chaitanya himself (CC 2.8). He saw Chaitanya as both Radha and Krishna: and from that time Radha manifested herself more and more in Chaitanya’s person, until in the anguish of his pain of separation from Krishna she took him over completely, and he became irrevocably withdrawn from the world of ordinary men–mad, as it seemed to worldly human sight (19).
The historicity of Chaitanya’s conversion of Prakashanand is open to serious question for a number of reasons such–as it not being mentioned by biographers other than Krishnadas and Krishnadas’ animosity toward Prakashanand.
The manner of Chaitanya’s death is a mystery. . . . Jayananda records the least orthodox, least acceptable, and probably the most accurate, in this case, account: that near the end of the Car Festival Chaitanya injured his left foot while dancing, and after being in great pain for six days, died from an infection of the wound (JCM 9.119-56) (22).
If we cut away like this all the stories of Chaitanya’s life which are told to bolster the idea of Chaitanya’s identity with Krishna, and all the miracles and all the hyperbole, and all the lengthy argument and instruction so lovingly presented by Krishnadas, we are left with really very little to tell us about Chaitanya the man. It is clear that he was an ascetic and withdrawn individual, having at the same time an extraordinary personal magnetism. He was almost certainly, especially in the later stages of his life, mad, whether this be interpreted as the divine madness of the holy fool, the random madness of the irresponsible child, or, as A.C. Sena prefers, epilepsy. And he seems, when lucid, to have been a gentle man, though not above sustained and bitter anger, as when he drove poor Chota Haridas to suicide for a minor offense (CC 3.2.100-170). There was one thing he was not: he was no theologian, and this fact had profound effect on the movement after his death (23).
They call Nityanand “a Tantric avadhut” (13) and later say,
Nityanand . . . seems to have been deeply concerned with the lower social orders. He himself was a casteless avadhut, and began a popular phase of the movement, perhaps one involved with the Tantric or Sahajiya beliefs, which found itself in opposition to that which Advaitacarya led (24).
Nityanand married Basudha and was given her sister Jahnava as part of the dowry. Basudha was Nityanand’s wife and bore his children. Jahnava was his tantric partner or “shakti” who bore him no children but raised his children after her sister’s early death. After Nityanand’s death, Jahnava inherited his mantle of spiritual leadership and is the founder of my lineage.
Of all the Gosvamins, Raghunath probably knew Chaitanya best. It was from him that Krishnadas knew most of the stories of the life of Chaitanya, as it was from Jiva and Rupa that he learned most about how to interpret them.
Dimock and Stewart point out that the Chaitanya Charitamrita is “a book not of the acts (charita) but of the nectar of the acts (charitamrita), in which personalities would be out of place (26).”
Krishnadas himself was writing decades after Chaitanya’s death, and in Vrindavan, nearly eight hundred miles from the worlds of Navadvip and Puri, and in this sense developed a perspective that only distance could bring, for the events were to him remote in time and space, however inspired he was. . . .
This did not matter for his purposes, which were to present the basic ideas of Bengali Vaishnavism in terms of Chaitanya’s life, and not to give a historically accurate account of the life itself. (29)
As has been suggested, in some ways the Bengal branch of the movement was becoming more divergent from the theological “orthodoxy” which the Gosvamins were tying to establish. In the matter of the relation of the gopis to Krishna, for example, the Gosvamins were explaining that they were intrinsic to him, parts of him (svakiya), and that the BhP’s statements that they belonged to others (parakiya) should not be taken literally; the bhaktas of Bengal, on the other hand, were clinging to the notion of the religious importance of the parakiya idea, holding that transgression of social norms is a necessary part of true love. So it is likely that Krishnadas chose to write in Bengali not only to reach non-Sanskrit-reading people, but to reach people who were deviating from the Gosvamins’ doctrine, to bring them back, so to speak, to the fold. The essential thought of the movement had gone from emotionalism and immediacy to rational and dogmatic statements as to the meaning of that; it was necessary to bring that thought back down from the rarified atmosphere of scholasticism to the fertile earth of Bengal (33-34).
Krishnadas was not a historian. He often confuses sequences of events, and as the irreverent A. C. Sena points out, he puts quotations from the Brahma Samhita into the mouth of Ramanand Rai during that worthy’s first meeting with Chaitanya, before the latter had gone on his southern pilgrimage (2.8. sl.29, sl.39). Yet it does not bother Krishnadas to inform us that Chaitanya brought that text back with him from southern India, and that it was not known in the north until he did (2.1.111; 2.9.295-97; 2.11.127-29). There are many examples of this kind of thing, and some of them will be pointed out in the commentary. It is tiresome, and irrelevant, to catalogue all these impossibilities and ahistoricities. . . . He was writing a hagiography, not a history; it was the meaning of the Chaitanya-lila that was important to him, not the historical facts. . . . One is never entirely sure, due to Krishnadas’ intention and to lack of gender in the pronoun and suffixal forms of the language, whether Radha is being spoken of, or Chaitanya, or both at the same time. Vrindavan and Puri, Chaitanya and Krishna, Krishna and Radha, gopa, gopi and bhakta are all superimposed upon one anther. People move back and forth between the human and divine, the finite and the infinite, with breathtaking ease, and as this is a characteristic of the faith as a whole, so it is a characteristic of this book, and historical fact loses its significance (35).
“Krishnadas was writing for the people of Bengal, and so emulated the form which would, for this kind of content, have been familiar to them (39).” Authors usually write for the people of their time and place. I certainly do. We need not stick with old, foreign, outmoded expressions of spiritual truth that we cannot relate to. To be a relevant, living way in the West, it must grow, evolve, and adapt, not remain stagnant.
Tony Stewart’s unpublished dissertation “analyses the evolution of the idea of Chaitanya’s divinity from its origins in the earliest text, Murari’s KCC, through the five intermediate biographies to Krishnadas’ CC (78).” Jesus’ divinity in the four gospels evolved in a similar manner. In Mark, the earliest, Jesus is most human and in John, the last, most divine, like the CC.
There are seven complete biographies extant to the sixteenth century. Each biographer is inescapably bound to his own historical circumstance and, more important here, to his or more probably his guru’s personal devotional perspective. . . . the CC of Krishnadas . . . is, both literally and figuratively, the final word in shaping the sacred image of Chaitanya (82).
Krishnadas proposes a final, novel image of Chaitanya as the dual-incarnation of Radha and Krishna, an androgynous divinity that encompassed the full range of devotional possibilities between humans and God. When devotees envisioned him as a model for emulation–that is, as Radha–he served as the subject of devotion; at other times, he was approached as the object of that devotion–Krishna (83).
Srivas Pandit’s sister-in-law, Narayani is the mother of Brindaban Das, author of the popular Chaitanya Bhagavat.
Vrindavan Das’ father is never mentioned, which raises the specter of illegitimacy; and second, Narayani is reputed to have consumed Chaitanya’s leftover food, a privilege associated with intimacy, but also a standard mythic variant for insemination (CBh 2.2.319; 2.10.288-94) (85).
Brindaban Das was a disciple of Nityanand and wrote at his command. Most scholars date Chaitanya Bhagavat at 1548, which
argues heavily for its historical accuracy–or at least a version of events acceptable to the community–for many of Chaitanya’s close companions were still alive and probably had the opportunity to read the text. . . . Vrindavan Das provides details of the puzzling dissociative states experienced by Chaitanya when he was possessed of the various bhavas of devotion. His descriptions are vivid and passionate, capturing the spectacle of Chaitanya’s profound religious experiences (86).
The Chaitanya Bhagavat is also available in English.
Most early biographies, including Kavikarnapura’s own KCCM, emphasized the regal and resplendent power (aishvarya) of Chaitanya, the incarnation of the sovereign lord Krishna as a major component of his divinity; but the CCN, focusing on his other-worldly ascetic life, promotes his role as purveyor of divine love, the sweeter, gentler side of Krishna-bhakti (madhurya). These two positions, as will be seen in the CC, are a complementary pair of defining features, poles around which Krishna’s personality has been historically articulated, and like Krishna before him, so must Chaitanya be presented (91).
In Kavikarnapur’s hands, Chaitanya is no longer the simple avatara of the early tradition, but an increasingly complex figure whose image serves different theologies that develop within their group during the sixteenth century (92).
The Chaitanya Mangal of Lochan Das . . . for the first time in the hagiographical tradition . . . promotes the loving aspect–the essential sweetness or madhurya of Chaitanya–nearly to the exclusion of his identity as cosmic overlord–the majestic aishvarya (93).
Chaitanya’s divinity found several outlets, a perspective which recognized that both masculine and feminine features were complementary parts of the whole, thus for the first time Chaitanya’s biographical image was very consciously fashioned as alternating or serial androgyny (95).
Krishnadas claims that he follows Svarup’s version of that critical meeting between Chaitanya and Ramanand Rai (2.8.63), the revelation of Chaitanya’s androgynous dual-incarnation. While Krishnadas credits the Gosvamins with all of his explanations for Krishna’s divinity and Radha’s love, he credits Svarupa with every major theological innovation regarding Chaitanya’s divinity and how that relates to Radha and Krishna (97).
The CC is well-known for its comprehensive summaries of Gosvamin theology . . . Krishnadas weaves together all of the prevailing theories of Chaitanya’s divinity and then hierarchizes them into an integrated structure that assigns relative values to each and explains how these apparently competing interpretations might be unified. He brings together the popular devotional styles of Bengal and the highly analytic theological reflection of scholars in Puri and Vrindavan to provide a comprehensive theological statement that would eventually serve to unite the different communities of followers. His argument serves as a blueprint and justification for the group we have come to know as the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya. (99-100)
The “internal” cause of the avatara, then, was to taste that intimate sweetness (madhurya) of prema rasa, and in so doing, to propagate a new devotional form, the raga marga, the way of passionate love (1.4.14) (101)
The internal reason for Chaitanya’s appearance is to spread the way of natural devotion because its sweet, passionate nature is all that really satisfies God-dess. This “new devotional form” has yet to catch on in the West because the Saraswati sampradaya which introduced Chaitanyaism to the West repressed it. Universalist Radha-Krishnaism seeks to remedy that by introducing natural devotion, “the way of passionate love.”
Krishnadas’ book endures as the classic biography of the tradition; and . . . is arguably the best commentary of this biographical tradition. It has been so effective that there have been few significant new formulations of Chaitanya’s divinity since; but so convincing is this theology that after reading the CC, one is invariably led to ask if this work is about Chaitanya at all, or is it really about Radha and Krishna? (106)
To some extent, this aspect of the belief [the power of the name] has been overemphasized in some modern forms of Vaishnavism, and those forms take on the aspect of mantrayana, the tantric system which believes that all power is vested in the word itself. It is true that in CC 3.7, Chaitanya praises Haridasa for the propagation of the greatness of the name, and for his discipline in repeating the name “three lakhs of times” each day (vv. 35-36). But in that same passage he also praises Sarvabhauma for his great learning . . . and Ramanand for the depth of his understanding of bhakti (vv. 18-28). It is also true that nama-samkirtana, the singing of the name of Krishna, is given as one of the five most important forms of sadhana bhakti, the prescribed ritual (vaidhi); but equal place with it is given to association with holy men, listening to the reading of the BhP, dwelling at Mathura (Vrindaban), and honoring and serving the image of Krishna (CC 2.22.74-75) (112-13)
Again, Universalist Radha-Krishnaism corrects this imbalance and provides a more natural, intuitive approach to devotion which encourages practitioners to use whatever methods work best for them personally in their unique context.
It would in fact be possible to characterize the whole system as one which conjoins seeming opposites (a position which one ordinarily thinks of as a characteristic of the tantras, and which in fact allows a Shajiya or tantric interpretation of Vaishnavism). . . . One has to realize that to Vaishnava thinking there is only a series of continuums, between human and divine, between male and female, religion and esthetics, and between bhakti and samnyasa (119).
One concentrates all one’s activity and power of mind on one or another of the characters of the BhP story, preferably a gopi. And with the constant application of sixty-four types of discipline, . . . a change takes place in the psychic state. One knows one’s self as that gopi upon whom one has been concentrating; and knowing is becoming (121).
This very concisely presents the means and goal of Universalist Radha-Krishnaism.
J.A. Honeywell in an article called “The Poetic Theory of Vishvanatha,” in the Journal of Esthetics and Art Criticism . . . writes . . . Thus the poetic world recommended by Vishvanatha is two steps removed from the natural world of particular objects. First, it is a world in which natural objects are represented in their generality rather than in their particularity; second, and only possible because of the first step, it is a world in which supernatural objects are acceptable as natural objects (123-24).
This helps explain our understanding of Braj, Radha-Krishna’s spiritual realm.
The subject of Vaishnava poetry is reality, and the world of that poetry is real; as Ignatius said, “the composition will be to see with the eyes of imagination the corporeal place where the thing I wish to contemplate is found.” . . . Beauty is truth; art reflects the divine pattern. . . . Religious and poetic truth are identical (128).
Commenting on a poem by Govindadas, Stewart and Dimock point out:
Govindadas is also saying that Radha is the material creature, and Krishna the immaterial. The implication is that the immaterial needs the material to contain it and make it real and potent. As Krishna needs Radha, God needs man. It also means that Krishna can be known through the material being, that there is a direct link between the physical world, including the body, to the deity, and that therefore the physical world, including the body, is real (134-35).
Universalist Radha-Krishnaism agrees that God-dess is best realized and served by embracing life fully and seeing God-dess’ presence in all things which spiritualizes them and us. The spiritual world is the model for this world. Our life in this world works best when conformed to the spiritual life in its higher manifestations.
Perhaps these excerpts and comments have raised more questions than they answered, and perhaps that was their intent. I just want to get the ball rolling. I would like to see some creative discussion of this subject here as well as in scholarly circles. Publication of Tony Stewart’s dissertation would certainly be helpful. Meanwhile, I highly recommend this edition of the Chaitanya Charitamrita to all serious students of Chaitanyaism. Click here to order it from Amazon.