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Lord Chaitanya’s Teachings to Sanatana Goswami

An elaborate description of Lord Krishna, His expansions, and the spiritual world.

The brothers Dabhir Kas and Sakara Mallik were trusted ministers in the government of Nawab Hussain Shah, the ruler of Bengal in the early sixteenth century. After meeting Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, they resigned their lucrative posts to join the Lord’s Hare Krishna movement, shaving their heads and changing their names to Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami. The Nawab as well as many Hindu leaders were astounded. What had caused the brothers to resign, and why were so many other Hare Krishna devotees appearing in nearly every town and village of Bengal with their chanting and dancing? What was Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu teaching?

Previous articles in this series have described the Lord’s teachings to Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami’s escape from the Nawab’s prison.

The Viraja river marks the border between the material and spiritual worlds. Vast and beautiful, its spiritual waters ornamented with brilliant waves churned by mighty storms of transcendental effulgence, it is also known as the Viraja Ocean or the Causal Ocean. On one shore the countless universes of the material nature, with all their planets and solar systems, arise and dissolve in the moments granted them within the jurisdiction of devastating time. On the other shore, time presides without its devastating feature, invigorating the spiritual planets and their denizens, cities, and civilizations with eternal, blissful life in the ever- expanding service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna.

Lord Krishna said little of His spiritual kingdom when He spoke the Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna at Kurukshetra. He said that His abode beyond the material creation is self- effulgent, with no need of sunlight, moonlight, or electricity. And He offered the clue that all beautiful and glorious features of this temporary world spring from only a spark of His splendor. With a single fragment of Himself, He proclaimed, He pervades and supports the entire creation. These hints help us begin to comprehend the spiritual world, where Krishna displays His full opulences, but we have few details. Nor would details necessarily help us, since to the untrained, accounts of the spiritual world sound like so much mythology.

Lord Krishna’s Gita instead details our predicament in the material creation and the means for extricating ourselves from the stranglehold of material time. Krishna explains that the living beings in the material world are eternal fragments of Him. These eternal souls inhabit temporary bodies, struggling hard against material nature. Because we are minute parts of Krishna, our eternal constitution is to surrender to Him and serve Him. Surrender to Krishna frees us from the lethal grip of material time and sets us on our return journey to the spiritual world. At the end of the Gita, therefore, after describing various systems of religion and philosophy, Krishna demands surrender.

To those who are constantly surrendered and worship Krishna with love, He gives knowledge of Himself, of the spiritual world, and of how to return to Him there. To show special mercy to His devotees, He enlightens them from within their hearts, and from without also. Just as we acquire knowledge of a distant land by hearing from travelers, the devotees realize Krishna and His spiritual world by hearing with love from Him and His representatives.

Sanatana’s Inquiry

In the spring of 1514, Sanatana Goswami arrived at Varanasi to surrender to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and join the Lord’s Hare Krishna movement. Sanatana had renounced his affluent position as prime minister of Bengal, escaped from the prison of his former employer, the Nawab Hussain Shah, and completed a dangerous trek through the jungles and hills of Bihar province.

Like Arjuna at Kurukshetra, Sanatana presented himself to the Lord as a man in distress, uncertain of his duty and identity despite wealth, fame, and learning. Like Arjuna, in other words, Sanatana portrayed the plight of the materialist. The greatest leaders and intellects of the material world cannot say with any scientific certaintly what the living energy in their bodies is. So while introducing themselves as Ms. this or Mr. that, Senator this or Professor that, they in fact do not know who they are.

Illustrating this discrepancy, Sanatana confessed to the Lord, “People believe that I am a great learned man, and I am so foolish that I believe it myself. But what to speak of being learned, I don’t even know who I am. Who am I? And why do I suffer in material life?”

“The living entity’s constitutional position,” the Lord replied, “is to be an eternal servant of Krishna, because he is the energy of Krishna, like a molecular particle of sunshine or fire.”

With this concise and eloquent statement Lord Chaitanya effectively summarized the Gita’s final message of surrender, while forgoing the Gita’s elaborate analysis of the spiritual living entity. Lord Chaitanya is Krishna Himself playing the part of His own devotee. From the point where He ended His instructions to Arjuna at Kurukshetra, He began His teachings to Sanatana Goswami at Varanasi. While Lord Chaitanya’s teachings and Lord Krishna’s teachings in the Gita are the same, Lord Chaitanya did not demand surrender. Instead He demonstrated the life of surrender to Krishna in His own activities and freely distributed knowledge of Krishna and love of Krishna.

With the Gita’s message affirmed, Lord Chaitanya broke new ground, describing for Sanatana Goswami the transcendental form of Krishna, who is the origin of both material and spiritual worlds, and whose body is made not of perishable blood and bones, but of eternity, bliss, and knowledge. The ordinary living entity in the material world is different from his body, which is a covering of the real self. But Krishna’s transcendental form and Krishna Himself are the same, whether He is in His eternal abode or visiting His material creation. The Brahma-samhita states:

ishvarah paramah krishnah
anadir adir govindah

“Krishna, who is known as Govinda, is the supreme controller. He has a spiritual body of eternity, knowledge, and bliss. He is the origin of all. He has no other origin, for He is the prime cause of all causes.”

Krishna’s Expansions

Although Krishna is the original person and therefore the oldest of all, He appears as a youth, the son of Maharaja Nanda, never more than sixteen years of age. And although Krishna is one, He expands Himself into innumerable forms. Krishna’s expansion is inconceivable, but within our current experience we know that an individual person exhibits many features. When someone is especially happy or especially angry in a particular situation, we may even say, as a manner of speaking, that he or she is a “different person.” In our own minds, too, we may think of ourselves in various ways according to our roles as, say, parent, child, spouse, employee, or student, and in each of these roles we further show ourselves in various aspects to different people in the course of our activities and occupations. We may also create imaginary or aspirational roles, dreaming of being a conquering hero or a celebrated actress. In all these ways, while we each remain one person, we expand and discover and enjoy ourselves.

We possess the tendency to expand and enjoy and discover because these tendencies are present in Krishna, the original person. The difference is that since Krishna is the Supreme, His expansions are unique and all-powerful. Krishna’s personal expansions, though one and the same personality, are different individuals, not as a manner of speaking but in fact. They are individuals fully endowed with independent action, character, and thought.

Krishna’s innumerable forms are known as plenary expansions because they all have the full power of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Though each of these expansions has activities, bodily features, and other attributes slightly different from the original form of Krishna, they are all identical with Krishna. They are one and the same supreme personality. The Brahma-samhita explains that as one candle can light many other candles, each with the same power of illumination, so Lord Krishna expands Himself into unlimited forms of Godhead.

Lord Chaitanya explained to Sanatana that describing Krishna’s forms is like describing the moon by saying it is in the branches of a tree. To point out the moon in the night sky, we might use the branches of a tree as a reference point, though we understand that the moon is far away. Similarly, descriptions of the Lord provide an indication of Him, although He is otherwise far beyond our experience and powers to fully comprehend.

Krishna’s transcendental form is not compartmentalized like our material bodies. Our mental and physical activities are different. We can think of being a hero or an actress, but our dreams may not come true. For Krishna, however, thinking and doing are the same. When the Lord thinks of Himself as a cowherd boy or as a warrior prince, these “thoughts” of Krishna’s are pastimes performed by His plenary expansions, who also have the power to expand. Thus one transcendental expansion embodies Lord Krishna’s anger, another His abilities as a perfect king, another His literary abilities, and still another His omnipotent capacity for material creation.

While Krishna’s plenary expansions possess His full power and opulence, Krishna’s own attributes are nevertheless more pleasant, so much so that as an ultimate expression of Their individuality, the plenary expansions are attracted to and worship Krishna. When Krishna appeared as Lord Chaitanya, two of His plenary expansions appeared with Him as Advaita Acarya and Nityananda Prabhu and lived as His devotees, rendering loving service.

Krishna’s Home and His Kingdom

Lord Chaitanya informed Sanatana Goswami that a plenary expansion of Krishna presides over each of the innumerable planets in the spiritual sky. These expansions, which have four arms, are called Narayana expansions, and the spiritual sky is known as Narayanaloka.

“The breadth of each spiritual planet,” Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu explained, “is eight miles multiplied by one hundred, by one thousand, by ten thousand, by one hundred thousand, and by ten million. In other words each spiritual planet is beyond our ability to measure.”

Despite their infinite size and number, the planets of Narayanaloka surround Krishna’s personal abode, Krishnaloka, as petals surround the whorl of a lotus. Devotees of the Lord in Narayanaloka worship the majestic, omnipotent Narayana forms with the ceremony and personal distance mandated by their mood of awe and reverence, while on Krishnaloka Krishna enjoys the loving devotion and familiarity of His most intimate devotees and friends. At work, a high-court judge wears the garb and receives the respect appropriate to his or her office, while at home the same judge’s rank and prestige take a back seat or are completely forgotten in the atmospheres of comraderie, affection, and romance created by the presence of friends, lovers, and children. Krishnaloka is Krishna’s home, while Narayanaloka is His kingdom, where in His official capacity as the Supreme Lord He promininently displays His opulences and powers.

All the expansions of Lord Krishna have their residences eternally in the spiritual sky, but when They descend into the material world they are called avataras, or incarnations. Avatara means “one who descends.” The incarnations of Godhead are either expansions of Krishna or expansions of His expansions, but Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself.

“O learned scholars,” the Bhagavatam declares, “just as hundreds and thousands of small ponds issue from great reservoirs of water, innumerable incarnations flow from Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead and the reservoir of all power.”

Lord Krishna’s primary motivation for both His expansion and His descent is to please His devotees. Devotees long to see and serve Krishna in particular ways according to their individual preferences and moods, and the Lord obliges. Krishna sends His expansions to the material creation, and He comes Himself as well, bringing Krishnaloka and its residents with Him.

Eternal Pastimes

Although the pastimes of Krishna and His expansions in the material creation are historical events recorded in Vedic literature, with historical beginnings and ends, these pastimes are eternal. When Lord Krishna Himself appeared on earth five thousand years ago, He stayed for 125 years, performing pastimes beginning with His birth, or appearance, and proceeding through His childhood pastimes, up to the battle of Kurukshetra, and finally to His disappearance. These pastimes are no longer visible here, yet they continue eternally.

To explain, Lord Chaitanya gave the example of the sun, which to our eyes appears and disappears each day, though it is always shining somewhere on earth. Using the regular movements of the sun, we divide the day and night into hours, minutes, seconds, and fractions of seconds, and each of these divisions occurs continuously. That is, it is exactly noon somewhere on earth at any given moment, exactly noon plus a nanosecond somewhere else, and so on. Like the sun, Krishna’s pastimes have an orbit through the material universes, with each pastime in the sequence appearing somewhere at any given moment, and with His pastimes gradually returning to every universe just as the sun returns to noon at each point on earth. The sun of Krishna’s eternal pastimes is continuously visible in Krishnaloka. In the material creation these same pastimes, as well as the pastimes of Krishna’s uncountable incarnations, though still eternal, manifest and disappear in each universe at regular intervals.

Krishna and His plenary expansions display Their pastimes in the material creation to attract us back to the spiritual world, back to Godhead. Their purpose here is transcendental. It is impossible for Them to come under the control of the material nature, because the material nature is Their energy. Though we too are expansions of Krishna, we are not plenary expansions. We are eternally minute individual particles of the Lord, endowed by Him with minute powers. We do fall under the control of matter. Or we can. We are free to either live as servants of the Lord and His expansions on the eternal, blissful spiritual planets or to transfer across the Viraja River into the service of this miserable material creation, thus creating our own suffering.

Whether we reside in the material or spiritual world, however, our unalterable nature as minute souls is service. Just as sugar is unalterably sweet, water unalterably wet, we are by nature servants. To serve our current rebellious desires to expand our lives without Krishna, we use our minute powers to build temporary homes, communities, and civilizations from the elements of material nature provided by the Lord. The same intensity of service, when employed to reawaken our devotion and love for Krishna, lifts us to the spiritual nature, where the opportunities and inspiration for service to the Lord expand eternally in an exhilaration of transcendental bliss and knowledge.

Using an earlier example for emphasis, Lord Chaitanya again asserted that it is not possible to adequately describe Krishna’s transcendental forms and pastimes.

“Whatever I have explained is simply a little glimpse,” He told Sanatana Goswami. “It is like showing the moon through the branches of a tree.”

The Lord’s instructions to Sanatana in Varnasi continued for two months, covering the many categories of avataras, the spiritual planets, devotional behavior, and other spiritual topics almost too numerous to list. Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami, a contemporary of Lord Chaitanya, devotes several chapters of his Sri Chaitanya- caritamrita to the Lord’s teachings to Sanatana. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s remarkable multi-volume translation of Chaitanya- caritamrita, along with the additional intimate insights of his earlier summary study, Teachings of Lord Chaitanya, awaits readers eager to absorb themselves in the life and precepts of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

At the end of two months, Lord Chaitanya sent Sanatana on to Vrindavana and returned to Jagannatha Puri on the Bay of Bengal, following His previous route through the forests of Madhya Pradesh. Before long both Sanatana and his younger brother Rupa Goswami were themselves traveling to Puri to meet again with the Lord.