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CAITANYA . For half a millennium, Caitanya has been revered by millions of Hindus, especially in eastern India, as a unique human manifestation of the divine Ka. He is understood to be Ka come to bestow devotion (bhakti) and salvation (uddhāra/nistāra) upon even the lowliest of persons, while combining in himself the fair complexion and devotional sentiments of Rādhā, his divine mistress. Caitanya is a popular shortened form of Ka-Caitanya (whose consciousness is of Ka), the religious name taken at his ascetic initiation (sanyāsa) by Viśvambhara Miśra (14861533), an ecstatic devotee and Vaiava revivalist. To his devotees, Caitanya is the paradigm of an emotionally intense, loving devotion (prema-bhakti) to Kawhich humans may aspire to emulate while never reaching the perfection of their divine/human exemplar. He is also the object of their devout adoration, affirmed to be God, Ka, appearing within recent human history to establish loving devotion as the religious norm (yuga-dharma) of the current degenerate era, the kaliyuga (Kali age).


Viśvambhara (i.e., Caitanya) was born/appeared at the onset of a lunar eclipse on the full moon day of Phālgun month, February 27, 1486, at Navadvip town, the center of Sanskrit learning in then Muslim-ruled Bengal. The second son of a Vaiava Brāhma, Jagannātha Miśra, and his wife Śacī, he became a Sanskrit pait, married Lakmī, and, after her untimely death, wed Viupriyā. At the age of twenty-two, he journeyed to Gaya to perform post-funeral rites (śrāddha) for his late father and first wife. While there, he was overwhelmed by devotion to Ka and promptly took initiation (dīkā) from a Vaiava gurū, Īśvara Purī. He returned to Navadvip overflowing with eagerness to spread devotion to Ka.

Viśvambhara's charismatic proselytizing led him to be readily hailed by the Vaiavas of Navadvip as their leader. For about a year, he led devotional singing, acted in devotional dramas, and even challenged the Muslim authorities by leading sakīrtana (collective religious chanting) processions through Navadvip. His behavior, both when in normal consciousness and when in ecstatic states, suggested to his followers that he was in some way God, Hari (i.e., Ka), manifesting himself in human guise. His engrossing passion for bhakti to Ka brought an end to his career as pait and soon culminated in renunciation of domestic life while still childless. He received ascetic initiation from Keśava Bhāratī in February 1510, when he took the name Ka-Caitanya.

Soon after taking sanyāsa, Caitanya went to the Jagannāth (Ka) deity (i.e., sacred image) in his great temple at Puri in Orissa. For several years, he traveled intermittently throughout India meeting adherents of diverse religious orientationsappealing all the while for devotion to Ka. His longest journey was through South India, toward the beginning of which he met Rāmānanda Rāya, whose spiritual sensibilities were remarkably akin to his own. It was Rāmānanda who first declared Caitanya to be not simply Ka, but Ka combined with Rādhā. A subsequent journey toward the Vraja regionlocale of Mathura and Vrindavanvia Bengal was cut short after Caitanya began attracting large crowds. Caitanya subsequently did make the much-desired journey to Vraja via wooded tracts of Orissa, where he spread devotion to Ka among tribal peoples. While in Vraja, he visited traditional sites of Ka's birth, childhood, and youthful pastimes (līlās), and is said to have discovered still other sites.

From 1516 Caitanya remained at Puri, where he worshiped Jagannātha, engaged in his private devotions, and counseled disciples. The latter included prominent devotees from Bengal who would make an annual pilgrimage for the Jagannātha Chariot Festival (ratha yātrā) in June and remain with Caitanya for the duration of the rainy season. In his later years, Caitanya underwent intense and prolonged devotional states, often turbulent and ecstatic, pained by the sense of separation (viraha) from Ka. Among those who cared for him during these tormented years was Svarūpa Dāmodara, whose "notes" (kaacā), based on his intimate observations of and communication with Caitanya, had a crucial role in shaping the Vaiava theology being developed by the Gosvāmins (pastors) whom Caitanya had earlier directed to settle in and around Vrindavan. There is no confirmed report of the circumstances of his death/disappearance at Puri in the month of Āāh (possibly July 9) in 1533. But one early biographer, Jayānanda, mentions an injury that became septic. Vaiava tradition affirms his merging with the Jagannātha deity.

There are several extant accounts in Sanskrit and in Bengali of Caitanya's life and mission composed within eighty years of his passing. The earliest is the Sanskrit Ka-caitanya-caritāmta by a childhood friend and adult disciple, Murāri Gupta. The most informative are Vndāvanadāsa's Caitanya-bhāgavata (c. 1548; in Bengali) and Kadāsa Kavirāja's Caitanya-caritāmta (c. 1612; also in Bengali but containing many Sanskrit verses). As remarked by Edward C. Dimock Jr. and Tony K. Stewart in their introduction to the former's definitive translation of this masterpiece of Caitanya Vaiava literature, "it is far more than a simple biography; it is a compendium of historical fact, religious legend, and abstruse theology so complete and blended in such proportions that it is the definitive work of the religious group called Vaiava, since the time of Caitanya the most significant single religious group in all of eastern India" (1999, p. 3).

Caitanya himself, though he inspired men of great learning and piety to compose a massive corpus of Sanskrit texts, may have left at most eight Sanskrit stanzas, including the following (in Dimock's translation):

He who knows himself as humbler than the grass, who is more forbearing than a tree, who feels no pride but gives honor to other men, he should practice always the Hari-kīrtana. (3:20:Sl. 5) He may crush my breasts in embracing me, a slave to his feet, he may destroy my heart by not appearing to me, he may be a libertine wherever he wants, but still he is the lord of my heart, and there is no other. (3:20:Sl. 10)


Caitanya's conception of God and humankindas elaborated by the theologians he inspired and guidedis grounded in the Bhāgavata Purāa. The divine is understood to have three modes, in order of ascending ultimacy: brahman (conscious, but undifferentiated ground of being), paramātman (conscious divine soul indwelling all individual souls), and bhagavān (ultimate conscious reality, personal and possessed of all auspicious forms and qualities, encompassing and surpassing brahman and paramātman ). Ka is understood to be the quintessential bhagavān ("Kas tu svayam Bhagavān"; Bhāgavata Purāa 1:3:28).

Human souls (jīvas) are minute emanations, paradoxically different and yet not different (acintyabhedābheda) from their divine source. A soul undergoes rebirth unless and until by divine mercy (kpā) it realizes its true nature as devoted servant of Ka. In the present degenerate age, Ka appears in the merciful guise of Caitanya to promulgate a simpler, universally accessible religious norm for the age, namely loving devotion to himself, evoked and expressed best through chanting his names (nāmakīrtana). In principle, all persons, and especially such disfavored classes as women, śūdras, and sinners, are eligible for bhakti, by which they may be delivered from bondage to spiritual ignorance (avidyā), sin (pāpa), and rebirth (sasāra). Devout souls may imitate the roles and sentiments displayed by Ka's eternal companions: his servants, parents, friends, and lovers, who are depicted in the Bhāgavata Purāa and other Vaiava texts. The goal of human life is to enter into eternal communion with Ka and his divine and human companions, to participate with them in his transcendent pastimes, expressive of loving devotion.

The myriad theological works in Sanskrit by the Gosvāmins whom Caitanya dispatched to Vrindavan include commentaries on the Bhāgavata Purāa by Sanātana (tenth canto) and Jīva (entire text); the Bhaktirasāmtasindhu and Ujjvala-nīlamai, two reference anthologies by Rūpa Gosvāmin illustrating devotional dramatic theory (bhakti-rasa-śāstra); inspirational dramas and poems by Rūpa Gosvāmin, Raghunāthadāsa, and others; a liturgical-cum-disciplinary manual, Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, by Gopāla Bhaa and Sanātana; Sanātana's Bhad-bhāgavatāmta, a "pilgrim's progress" of a devout soul in search of ever more favored modes of devotion and ever more intimate self-disclosures of the divine; and the a-sandarbha (or Bhāgavata-sandarbha ), a summa of Vaiava theology and philosophy by Jīva (based on a prior outline by Gopāla Bhaa).


Caitanya and the movement (often called Gauīya or Bengali Vaiava) of which he was the fervent catalyst spread devotion to Ka throughout Bengal, Orissa, and Vraja and to a lesser extent Assam, with scattered circles of devotees elsewhere in India. Restoration and popularization of sites sacred to Ka in the Vraja region owed much to the zeal of Caitanya and his disciples. Vernaculars of eastern India, especially Bengali, are far the richer for a host of original sacred biographies and hagiographies plus songs, poems, and other Vaiava compositions; and for numerous vernacular translations and adaptations based on Sanskrit texts treating Ka, Caitanya, or Vaiava bhakti. Bengali culture as a whole, including its non-Vaiava Hindu and even Muslim sectors and as refracted through modern creative figures such a Rabindranath Tagore, has been influenced profoundly by the symbolism, ethos, values, and sensibilities of Caitanya's humane and emotionally and aesthetically refined devotion to God as Ka. Even practitioners of transgressive Tantric yogathe hybrid Vaiava-Sahajiyās, many of whom sang Vaiava lyricshave claimed to share in the heritage of Caitanya.

Through the ministering of certain of Caitanya's married associates (also called Gosvāmins), notably the egalitarian Nityānanda and the more elitist Advaita Ācārya and their descendants, as well as Vaiava ascetics, the majority of Bengali Hindus in the middle castes and considerable numbers in the upper and lower castes had come to identify themselves religiously as Vaiava in the tradition of Caitanya by the time of British Indian ethnographic and census reports. Even so, Caitanya Vaiava prestige was on the wane in urban Bengal by the late nineteenth century, despite the efforts of many to revitalize, reform, and modernize the tradition. Notable among these modernizers was Kedarnath Datta (Bhaktivinode Thakur, 18381914), a deputy magistrate of kāyastha caste. He wrote numerous Vaiava texts, launched a vigorous revitalization campaign, and sought to make traditional Ka-Caitanya bhakti comprehensible to his rationalist contemporaries in Calcutta and elsewhere. His son, Bimalprasad Datta (Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, 18741937), founded the Gauīya Mah, a pan-Indian network of monastic communities and temples centered in Calcutta and Sri Mayapur (adjacent to modern Navadvip) and dedicated to preaching and publishing about Caitanya Vaiava bhakti. One of Bhaktisiddhanta's disciples, Abhaycaran De (A. C. Bhaktivedanta, 18961977), inaugurated the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York in 1966. Its several thousand devotees, mostly non-Indians, currently propagate devotion to Ka-Caitanya worldwide using modern means of communication combined with traditional chanting of the "great prayer" (mahā-mantra): "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare; Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma, Rāma, Hare, Hare."

See Also

Bengali Religions; International Society for Krishna Consciousness; Ka, Kaism; Rādhā.


An excellent source in English for studying the life, devotional image, and impact of Caitanya is the Caitanya Caritāmta of Kadāsa Kavirāja: A Translation and Commentary by Edward C. Dimock Jr., with an "Introduction" by Dimock and Tony K. Stewart (Cambridge, Mass., 1999). Valuable analyses of the textual sources for Caitanya's life are Sushil Kumar De's Early History of the Vaiava Faith and Movement in Bengal, 2d ed. (Calcutta, 1961); Bimanbehari Majumdar's Śrīcaitanya-cariter Upādān, 2d ed. (Calcutta, 1959); and assessments by Radhagovinda Nath in his editions of the Caitanya-caritāmta, 6 vols. (Calcutta, 19621963) and Vndāvanadāsa's Caitanya-bhāgavata, 6 vols. (Calcutta, 1966). Other academic studies of Caitanya and his devotees' perceptions of him include: A. K. Majumdar's Caitanya: His Life and Doctrine (Calcutta, 1978), Walther Eidlitz's Ka-Caitanya: Sein Leben und seine Lehre (Stockholm, 1968), Deb Narayan Acharyya's The Life and Times of Śrīka-Caitanya (Calcutta, 1984), and the less-than-sympathetic book by Amulyachandra Sen, Itihāsera Śrīcaitanya (Calcutta, 1965). Sixteenth-century accounts (besides the Caitanya-caritāmta ) of Caitanya and his disciples available in English translation include the Caitanya-candrāmta of Prabodhānanda, translated by Bhakti Prajnan Yati Maharaj (3d ed.; Madras, 1978), and several by Kusakratha Dasa of the Krishna Institute (Los Angeles) and by other devotees. For analysis of the tension between historicity and theology-cum-mythology as reflected in each of the sacred biographies, see Tony K. Stewart's "The Biographical Images of Ka Caitanya: A Study in the Perception of Divinity" (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1985).

For academic studies of the theological-philosophical tradition stemming from Caitanya, see O. B. L. Kapoor's The Philosophy and Religion of Śrī Caitanya (Delhi, 1978), Sushil Kumar De's Early History of the Vaiava Faith and Movement in Bengal, 2d ed. (Calcutta, 1961), Radhagovinda Nath's Gauīya Vaiava Darśan, 6 vols. (Calcutta, 19561959), Sudhindra Chandra Chakravarti's Philosophical Foundation of Bengal Vaiavism (Calcutta, 1969), and Mahanamabrata Brahmachari's Vaiava Vedānta: The Philosophy of Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī (Calcutta, 1974). Modern devotees' presentations of Caitanya and the teachings associated with him include Sisir Kumar Ghosh [Ghoshe]'s Śrī Amiya Nimāi Carita, 14th ed., 6 vols. (1907; Calcutta, 1975); Bhakti Vilas Tirtha's Śrī Chaitanya's Concept of Theistic Vedānta (Madras, 1964); and A. C. Bhaktivedanta's The Teachings of Lord Chaitanya (New York, 1968).

Among well-translated compositions of devotional literature in the Caitanya Vaiava tradition are Śrī Bhad Bhāgavatāmta of Sanātana Gosvāmī, 2 vols. (Los Angeles, 20022003), translated by Gopīparānadhana Dāsa; Mystic Poetry: Rūpa Gosvāmin's Uddhava-Sandeśa and Hasadūta (San Francisco, 1999), translated by Jan Brzezinski; In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali (Garden City, N.Y., 1967; reprint, Chicago, 1981), translated by Edward C. Dimock Jr. and Denise Levertov; and Sukumar Sen's History of Brajabuli Literature (Calcutta, 1935). Donna Marie Wulff's Drama as a Mode of Religious Realization: The Vidagdhamādhava of Rūpa Gosvāmī (Chico, Calif., 1984) and David Haberman's Acting as a Way of Salvation: A Study of Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana (New Delhi, 1988) provide detailed expositions of how Vaiava religious training (sādhana) draws upon devotional literature and dramatic theory.

A remarkably thorough survey of all aspects of the Vaiava tradition in Bengal from Caitanya's time through the nineteenth century is Ramakanta Chakrabarty's Vaiavism in Bengal: 14861900 (Calcutta, 1985). For Orissa, see Prabhat Mukherjee's History of the Chaitanya Faith in Orissa (New Delhi, 1979) and for Vraja, Alan W. Entwistle's Braj: Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage (Groningen, Germany, 1987). Sociocultural implications of the Caitanya movement are examined by Melville T. Kennedy's The Chaitanya Movement: A Study of Vaishnavism of Bengal (Calcutta, 1925), Hitesranjan Sanyal's Bālā Kīrtaner Itihās (Calcutta, 1989), and Joseph T. O'Connell's Religious Movements and Social Structure: The Case of Chaitanya's Vaiavas of Bengal (Shimla, India, 1993). For the Vaiava-Sahajiyā phenomenon, see Edward C. Dimock Jr.'s The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaiava-Sahajiyā Cult of Bengal (Chicago, 1966). Modern developments in the Caitanya tradition in India are treated in Shukavak N. Dasa's Hindu Encounter with Modernity: Kedarnath Datta Bhaktivinoda, Vaisnava Theologian (Los Angeles, 1999) and in North America by J. Stillson Judah's Hare Krishna and the Counterculture (New York, 1974).

Joseph T. O'Connell (2005)