Lord Chaitanya’s Life and Teachings
Lord Chaitanya was born on February 27, 1486, at a time when India was suffering from rampant hedonism, spiritual stagnation, strict caste stratification, the prominence of logic over mystic experience, and domination by Islamic rulers. Socially, morally, spiritually, politically, and intellectually there was need for change.
Lord Chaitanya was born in Navadvipa, a large city straddling both sides of the Ganga. Praised in the scriptures as a holy place, Navadvipa was famous during Lord Chaitanya’s time as a center of learning and culture.
At Lord Chaitanya’s birth, which fell on the full- moon night of the Bengali month of Phalguna, there was a lunar eclipse. As was the custom on such occasions, the people of Navadvipa gathered at the Ganga to purify themselves by bathing and chanting the names of God. Thus Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was born amid the loud chanting of the Lord’s names.
Because astrologers predicted that He would manifest superhuman qualities and deliver the world, His parents, Jagannatha Mishra and Sacidevi, gave Him the name Vishvambhara, or “support of the universe.” And because He was born under a nima tree, He was given the nickname Nimai.
During His childhood He displayed mysterious powers by outwitting thieves, playing with a poisonous snake, and speaking philosophically with His mother. As He grew, His beauty and intelligence began to show more fully. He was a brilliant student who quickly mastered poetics, Sanskrit grammar, and the current fad, navya nyaya, a form of logic. He would often play at defeating His fellow students using logic. While still young, He opened His own school and began teaching grammar and logic.
On the pretext of performing sacred rites on the anniversary of His father’s death, Vishvambhara journeyed to Gaya, in Bihar, with a group of students. There, after receiving Vaishnava initiation from Ishvara Puri, He became transformed. He lost all interest in logic and argument and absorbed Himself in chanting Krishna’s names in devotional ecstasy.
Back in Navadvipa, Vishvambhara gathered a following of other Vaishnavas, including Advaita Acarya, Srivasa Pandita, and Haridasa Thakura, and started the sankirtana movement. First, the movement was confined to the faithful. Doors were locked before the devotees began chanting and relishing the pastimes of Lord Krishna. After a year, however, Vishvambhara ordered His followers to distribute the name of Krishna and the ecstasy of love of God to all the people of Navadvipa.
Vishvambhara’s movement did not recognize the privileges of caste, and had no regard for ascetics involved in yoga, for impersonalists attempting to obtain liberation from the material world, or for the worship of demigods for material benefits. Thus Vishvambhara met with opposition from some sections of the local brahminical community and from Muslim rulers. But when He mobilized thousands of citizens in a sankirtana procession to the Muslim magistrate’s house, He succeeded in convincing the magistrate to sanction the movement.
Seeing the need to spread Krishna consciousness more widely, Vishvambhara decided to take sannyasa, the renounced order of life. At the age of twenty-four He shaved His head and took the name Krishna Chaitanya from Keshava Bharati in nearby Katwa. He also became known as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. To console His mother He promised to stay in Puri, a moderate distance from Navadvipa.
Apart from traveling to South India for four years, and to Prayag, Vrindavana, and Varanasi via Bengal for one year, He spent the rest of His life in Puri, absorbed in ecstatic vision of Krishna, in the mood of Radha. He disappeared from mortal vision at the age of forty-eight in Puri.
Deliverer Of The Religion For The Age
According to the Vedic scriptures, time moves in continuous cycles of four ages, or yugas. In each yuga a specific method of spiritual practice (dharma) is effective. In Kali-yuga, the current age, the dharma is nama-sankirtana, the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. To distribute the yuga-dharma, the Lord descends in each yuga. In Kali-yuga, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu appeared to spread nama-sankirtana. Apart from the function of spreading the yuga- dharma, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu came to expose the world to the highest aspects of spiritual love (prema), which manifest in relation (rasa) to Krishna in His original form in Vrindavana.
The highest expression of rasa is the conjugal rasa in parakiya (outside of marriage). The ideal person in this relationship is Radha. While other Vaishnava lineages worship Krishna, the unique contribution of Lord Chaitanya is His detailed exposition of the higher modes of rasa, which He personified by acting as a devotee of the Lord, experiencing pure love in the mood of Radha. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu gave a complete revelation of God’s love for the souls, and the souls’ love for God. This is unparalleled in any movement or any religion.
How are we to attain this high stage of love? Chaitanya Mahaprabhu wanted that greatest treasure to be given out to as many people as possible. Therefore He has also taught a process—the simplest and most direct process: nama- sankirtana. Chanting the names of Krishna does not require any qualification except faith. Birth, caste, race, country, profession, and education are not considerations in chanting God’s names. The only requirement is a sincere acceptance of one’s own position as the servant, offering service out of selfless love to the most attractive, deserving object: Krishna. Adherence to chanting in a pure manner leads directly to the highest goal, pure love of Krishna.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu encouraged His followers to distribute the name of Krishna freely to all. He Himself desired that not only all of India, but the whole world, take up the chanting of Krishna’s names and attain love of God. He ordered His followers to distribute the name and teach about Krishna. His movement can be summarized as “Taste the name and distribute the name.”
Philosophically, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu explained the relation of God to the world and souls in terms of bheda and abheda, simultaneous difference and non-difference, or oneness. “Difference” refers to the acceptance of (1) a real material world, (2) innumerable real souls, and (3) a God with perfect qualities, form, and action. “Oneness” refers to the acceptance of the existence of one supreme entity, with no differentiation of form, qualities, souls, or spiritual and material world.
Bheda-abheda philosophies are usually rejected because oneness and difference are mutually contradictory: the proposition seems nonsensical. But Chaitanya Mahaprabhu has explained that mutual contradictions can coexist through the inconceivable power of God. Thus His world view is called acintya-bheda-abheda, or oneness and difference joined by the inconceivable (acintya) power of God. By accepting difference we can believe in our own individual existence, with the right to act and choose. By accepting oneness we can acknowledge the perfection that lies behind all the imperfection we perceive.
Only with difference can there be a relationship (rasa) between two objects—the soul and God. Only with difference can we relish the form, qualities, and activities of God. Difference, however, can put a great distance between God and the souls. But through oneness the distance becomes meaningless: the relationship of God to the soul becomes very close.
The philosophy of acintya-bheda-abheda allows acceptance of seemingly contradictory statements in the Upanishads: statements of abheda, or impersonalism, and statements of bheda, or difference. Both types can be accepted, without resorting to indirect interpretation of either type of statement.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s movement therefore presents a complete picture of intimate loving relationships with God, a philosophy consistent with direct statements of scripture to support those relationships, and a simple, practical process to realize them.