Quite probably Hinduism's most famous and widely encountered epithet for divinity conceived as ceaselessly and actively solicitous of human welfare is Bhagavat ("having shares"). Bhagavān (the more commonly cited nominative singular form of the word) occurs as early as the Ṛgveda. It expressly refers to Rudra-Śiva in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (5.4), and it is the common honorific of the Buddha in the Pali texts. But Bhagavān doubtless is most familiar in reference to Viṣṇu-Nārāyana/Vasudeva-Kṛṣṇa. Indeed, bhāgavata ("related to/devoted to Bhagavān") may be the most common, even earliest, general designation of a devotee of Viṣṇu.
If it is readily agreed that history's most prominent bhāgavata s are Viṣṇu bhakta s, there is disagreement and not a little confusion concerning what—if anything—distinguishes them from pāñcarātrika s and other Vaiṣṇavas. In fact, bhāgavata frequently has meant simply a Vaiṣṇava (or proto-Vaiṣṇava) as such without further characterization. Until perhaps the eleventh century, this nonsectarian sense generally prevailed, and bhāgavata s were part of a growing but diffuse movement that emphasized a personal, active devotional relationship between the human and the Absolute but did not have a single, fixed set of specific beliefs and rituals. The variety of attitudes is readily seen by comparing Bhagavatism's most famous texts, the Bhagavadgītā and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. The Bhagavadgītā is formal and intellectualized, and offers bhakti as a refined yoga, a way of release. Thus, its tenor contrasts distinctively with the vibrant emotionalism of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa's bhakti. Further, the religion of the Bhagavadgītā harkens expressly to Vedic sacrificial models, whereas the religious inspiration of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa is more varied.
Some have claimed that Bhagavatism and, indeed, the "bhakti idea" are rooted outside of Vedic ceremonialism altogether—that they originated from "indigenous" or "tribal" sources or perhaps are linked to extra-Indian (Iranian) prototypes. Suggestions that they are ultimately alien impositions or incursions, however, ought to be treated cautiously. For one thing, the available evidence will allow only the most hedged, vague, and inadequate historical account. For another, no aspect of Bhagavatism is encountered apart from the embracing set of characteristics of Hindu religious civilization that interpenetrate and link it with Vedic/Brahmanic values. Extant texts and current practices are embedded in this larger context, and this enables a reference without discomfort to "Hinduism" and to mean by it more than a mere collocation of discrete sects. As the śāstri s and paṇḍit s—the erudite commentators whose explications are the dynamics and the definition of Hindu tradition—have consistently attempted to show, often with considerable ingenuity, it is diversity rather than simple pluralism that ultimately characterizes Hinduism.
Linguistically, bhaga, Bhagavat/Bhagavān, and bhakti are derived from the Sanskrit root bhaj, meaning "apportion, distribute" as well as "partake, participate, choose." Already in the Ṛgveda Sa ṃhitā, bhaga means "portion, share," inter alia, and it occurs also as the name of one of the divine Ᾱditya s. Bhagavān thus denotes "having a share(s), lucky, fortunate, blessed." But the Bhagavān is more than simply fortunate. He is someone (human or divine) who both "takes a share in" and bestows shares. Being lucky encompasses beneficence.
Crucially, the Bhagavān known to the historical Bhāgavata movement is no other than the Absolute itself. Bhāgavatas identify themselves as beneficiaries of the Bhagavān's essential nature: "choosing, loyal to, devoted to" the Bhagavān. While "sectarian" Bhāgavatas answer variously when asked the precise nature of their relation with the Bhagavān and how they, as bhaktas, can achieve some kind of union with Him, they often refer to a "perfect embrace."
Earliest BhĀgavatas and the PĀÑcarĀtrikas
Perhaps the earliest inscriptional evidence of Vaiṣṇava bhāgavata s dates from about 115 bce, at a temple site at Beshnagar (Bhilsa District, Madhya Pradesh). Here, Heliodoros, native of Takṣasilā and ambassador of the Greco-Bactrian king Amtalikita (Gr., Antialkides), declares himself a bhāgavata in the dedication of a Garuḍadhvaja (a column with Garuḍa, the bird that is Viṣṇu's distinctive vehicle, as its capital) to Vāsudeva, devadeva, "lord of lords." The inscription attests to Vāsudeva-Viṣṇu worship in North India in the late second century bce among "foreigners" as well as native Indians (Heliodoros's mission was to king Bhāgabhadra, apparently another bhāgavata ). Despite his name, of course, it is not known how "foreign" this Heliodoros was; and the suggestion that the Vasudeva "sect's" popularity among foreigners indicates its distance from Brahmanic convention, or even its particular success among the kṣatriyas (nobles), is only conjecture.
Somewhat later—in the first century bce—a cave inscription at Nanaghat (Western Maharastra) includes reference to Vāsudeva and Saṃkarṣaṇa (the latter known from the Mahābhārata as Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa's brother); at Ghosundi (Rajasthan), Vāsudeva and Saṃkarṣaṇa are also invoked in a fragmentary inscription at what is presumed to be a temple enclosure. Similar evidence is found near Mathurā (Uttar Pradesh), a celebrated center of Kṛṣṇa devotion.
These lithic records, in addition to references in the Pali Buddhist Niddesa, Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī (4.3.92–95), and Patañjali's Mahābhāṣya seem to confirm the existence of a bhāgavata movement in north-central and northwest India in the centuries immediately preceding the common era. Still, none of this evidence clears up Vāsudeva's background or the way he became identified with Viṣṇu. There is unmistakable evidence of identifications but no clear pattern of the process(es) whereby they emerged. Even in the face of the most familiar evidence there is controversy. Witness, for example, J. A. B. van Buitenen's insistence that Viṣṇu "does not figure at all in the Gītā as author of the Kṛṣṇa avatara " (The Bhagavadgītā in the Mahābhārata, Chicago, 1981, p. 167; cf. pp. 27–28), and Alf Hiltebeitel's counterargument that such claims (that Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavadgītā "is not yet identified with Viṣṇu") are made "despite the clear evidence of the text" ("Toward a Coherent Study of Hinduism," Religious Studies Review, 1983, vol. 9, p. 207).
Beyond the psychological likelihood that certain aspects of Vedic belief and ceremony engendered at least some "proto-bhakti " sentiments, there are more substantial hints of bhakti -like attitudes discernible in a few hymns of the Ṛgveda Saṃhitā. Surely the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad shows that the basic elements of a Bhāgavatism are essentially in place, even though the Bhagavān in this text is Rudra-Śiva. However, it is in three works—the Mahābhārata (Book Twelve), the Harivaṃsa and the Bhagavadgīta —that a quite elaborate "Vaiṣṇava" Bhāgavatism first emerges in literature. Ironically, though, the Mahābhārata 's Nārāyaṇīya section (12.326–352) is almost too rich a source. It refers to "Sāttvatas," "Bhāgavatas," "Ekanti-bhāgavatas," and the "Pāñcarātra;" and, again, it is difficult to tell if these designate essentially one and the same movement or discrete sectarian groups.
Commonly, Bhāgavata and Pāñcarātra are held to be distinct movements. It also has been proposed that the Pāñcarātrikas are historically the first Bhāgavata sect or school. In both views, the majority of Bhāgavatas are considered to be both "eclectic" and conservative, concerned with reconciling and integrating bhakti with Vedic social and ritual order. Pāñcarātrikas, on the other hand, are characterized as coming from the fringes of the Aryan cultural and religious universe. This view tries to persuade one to see Bhāgavatas in a strict sense as smārta s ("orthodox" brahmans) of sorts and, by extension, gṛhastha s ("householders"). By contrast, the original Pāñcarātrikas would be socially marginal renunciant-ascetics—even "proto-tāntrikas." Some scholars also point out that the absence of the distinctive Pāñcarātra notion of vyūha s ("manifestations" of the divine) or, indeed, of any direct reference to the Pāñcarātra in either the Bhagavadgītā or the Bhāgavata Purana signals discrete historical traditions. Similarly, some have argued that the cosmogony and cosmology depicted in the Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās (the earliest of which date perhaps from the sixth century ce) emphasize distinctively the world-creating and world-maintaining instrumentality of Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa's śakti, whereas the Bhagavadgītā, in making roughly the same point, draws rather on other imagery: the Bhagavān is fully and freely at work in the world without being limited by it in any way.
But early Bhāgavatas and Pāñcarātrikas seem rather to represent different tendencies of conceptualization and ritual orientation than formally distinct sects. Early Pāñcarātrikas, then, may well have been certain among the Bhāgavatas who were closely associated both with renunciant and with formal ritualist traditions. Their developing ideas and ritual practices possibly yielded, in their Saṃhitās, the first sectlike tradition among the Bhāgavatas. As Adalbert Gail put it succinctly, all Pāñcarātrikas were Bhāgavatas but not all Bhāgavatas were Pāñcarātrikas. (Adalbert Gail, Bhakti im Bhāgavatapurāṇa, Wiesbaden, 1969, p. 7.)
BhĀgavatas, SmĀrtas, and VaikhĀnasas
Although it would be entirely wide of the mark to think of the earliest Bhāgavatas principally as brahmans accommodating ideas newly discovered by renunciant adventurers or encroaching from tribal or other extra-Vedic populations, the manifest processes whereby Bhagavatism becomes an idiom of Hinduism center among brahmans. Of them, those who carefully uphold and observe the precepts set forth in Vedic Smārtasūtras are known as Smārta brahmans. Historically, this appellation has come to designate in particular those brahmans who adhere to principles and teachings usually attributed to Śankara (or, occasionally, to Kumārilabhaṭṭa). These Smārtas are often mistakenly identified simply as Śaivas, but in fact, Smārta ritual centers expressly on observances enjoined by the sūtra s and performance of pañcāyatanapūjā to five divinities: Śiva, Viṣṇu, Durgā, Sūrya, and Gaṇeśa.
Even taking into account Śaṅkara's (or Kumārila's) traditional reforming role, most scholars see in the Smārtas not a sect but rather a formalization and renewal of persisting Vedic values better thought of as constituting a Hindu "orthodoxy" or "orthopraxy." And, too, reaffirming obligations to Smārtasūtra injunctions was to some extent a reaction to the emerging strength and popularity of the general bhakti/bhāgavata movement. In a sense, then, the Smartas are an "antisect."
Some have claimed that it is precisely among groups or "schools" of careful adherents to one or another Smārtasūtra that there is found a Bhagavatism that is consciously concerned with linking itself to Vedic and Brahmanic proprieties. Hence it has been suggested that the Vaikhānasas represent either a Vedic ritual school accommodating Bhāgavata elements or a group of Bhāgavatas attempting Brahmanic legitimation by adopting the trappings of Smārtahood. Which hypothesis is closer to the historical truth cannot be determined now, but certainly Vaikhānasas are Bhāgavatas; and Vaikhānasas differ from Pāñcarātrikas in important part by identifying themselves as strict vaidikas (i.e., conforming to the Vedas) who carefully maintain Smarta standards.
Early BhĀgavatas of Tamil Nadu: The ĀḺvĀrs
Although assumed to be rooted in North India, both Pāñcarātra and Vaikhānasa traditions are historically more prominent in south India than in the north, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The spread of such movements as the Pāñcarātra, however, most likely was not the first introduction of Viṣṇu bhakti to the South, for Tamil literature of the first and second centuries already attests to the existence of a Viṣṇu cultus. Together with the Śaiva Nāyaṉārs, the most famous early South Indian bhakta s are the Ᾱḻvārs, Tamil Vaiṣṇava poet-ecstatics who apparently lived and sang praise to Viṣṇu from the seventh to the ninth centuries.
In fact, what is especially noteworthy about these Tamil Bhāgavatas—a fitting designation although the word Bhagavān does not appear in their poetry—is the strongly emotional nature of their bhakti. In an important sense, it is in and through the Ᾱḻvārs that bhakti and Bhagavatism acquire a voice independent of Vedic or Vedantic formalism. With the Ᾱḻvārs, bhakti is neither the crowning achievement of yoga nor, as Śaṅkara especially would have it, the foremost among preliminary practices prior to final realization; rather, it is a self-validating expression of sentiment and a definition of the human-divine relationship. In the Ᾱḻvārs' Tamil poetry, bhakti is first heard in its independent maturity—as song.
The BhĀgavata PurĀṆa and Its Influence
Certainly written in South India and receiving more or less final form by the tenth century, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa was strongly influenced by the Tamil Alvars to such a degree that some portions of the text are little more than paraphrases or outright Sanskrit translations of Alvaric originals. It is in Bhāgavata Purāṇa that an intellectually and emotionally rich Bhāgavata perspective first appears in Sanskrit literature.
Only subsequent to the appearance of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa does a vigorous, specifically sectarian Bhagavatism emerge; the most famous Vaiṣṇava devotional sects trace their origins or crucial reforms to a period from the twelfth and (particularly) the thirteenth centuries to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Especially prominent among these are the four so-called classical sampradāya s ("traditions, sects"), all linked in one way or another to South India: Rāmānuja's Śrīsampradāya, Madhva's Brahmasampra-dāya, Nimbārka's Sanakādisampradāya, and Viṣṇusvāmin's Rudrasampradāya, this last-named absorbed by Vallabhā-cārya's Vāllabhāsampradāya. Connecting these sects are commentaries in which their founders elaborate not only Bhāgavata devotional attitudes but also alternative interpretations of the Vedantic pramāṇatraya ("three authorities"): the Bhagavadgītā, the Upaniṣads, and the Brahma Sūtra. Through these commentaries Vaiṣṇava Bhagavatism becomes a full, articulate participant in Vedantic Brahmanism. No doubt the adherents of Hinduism's various sects have tended to be relatively few. Most Hindus are not sectarians in any rigorous sense, identifying rather with individual sampradāyas without becoming initiates or being strictly bound to their teachings and practices. But if it could be written at all, a "history" of Bhagavatism would trace the rise of individual Bhāgavata sects, and, cumulatively, the particularities of each would highlight the concrete actualities of Bhagavatism.
The BhĀgavatas of Karnataka and the MĀdhvas
The movement founded by Madhva (also known as Ᾱnandatīrtha; 1199–1278) is commonly held to be the first founded solely on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. (Although the preexistent Śrisampradāya of Rāmānuja is usually considered a Pāñcarātra-based sectarian development, its principal indebtedness may be rather to the Ᾱḻvārs.) Earlier than Madhva and even the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, a formal Bhāgavatasampradāya had emerged in the Kannara/Tulu country of western Karnataka. Probably influential in the development of Madhva's thought and still active today, this group descends from certain Smārta brahmans who became increasingly attached to Viṣṇu (possibly due to the growing general popularity of an informal Bhagavatism flowing in particular from the Maharashtra region).
Madhva's fame in the history of Vedantic thought rests on his unconditionally "dualist" position. According to him, the ineradicable distinction between the Absolute and humans must be understood. Madhva's goal is neither to become one with the Absolute nor to realize essential unity with it but rather to participate in it. Knowledge and its concomitant joy in eternal individuality are the heart of Madhva's teaching, which represents the most eloquent articulation in traditional Vedantic idiom of devotees' heartfelt sentiments. And it is perhaps in Madhva's traditions and practices that the complexities of earliest Bhagavatism most authentically survive.
VĀrakarĪs and Others: Bhaktas of Maharashtra
Bhāgavatas are known to have existed in Maharashtra from before the beginning of the Common Era. A particularly vigorous and complex vernacular Maratha bhakti tradition began to emerge in the thirteenth century, however, partly in consequence of the coming together of several traditions both within and beyond Maharashtra. Most significant of these appear to have been the Mādhvas, the Nāthas, the Sants, and the resurgent Vārakarī tradition.
The so-called Haridasas or Vaiṣṇavadāsas, vernacular hymnists to Viṣṇu, seem to have been inspired directly or indirectly by Madhva's teachings. Their influence quickly spread beyond the Kannada-speaking area, partly because of increasing attention they paid to Viṭhobā/Viṭṭhal, the regional divinity whose cult center was and remains Pandharpur in Maharashtra. Viṭhobā may originally have been (partly) the focus of a Śaiva cult, but the identification "Viṭhoba-Kṛṣṇa-Rāma" quickly established Pandharpur as the principal pilgrimage center for Maharashtrian Bhāgavatas—a very significant factor in the spread of this popular, vernacular Bhagavatism in Maharashtra and also farther south and east.
In the mid-1200s the "radical" and secretive Mahānubhāva (Manbhau) sect arose in Maharashtra, founded by Cakradhāra, who was a Gujarati. This Kṛṣṇa-centered movement evidences influences as various as Pāñcarātra and Vīraśaiva. But toward the end of the century, Jñāneśvar (or Jñāneśvara; also known as Jñāndev or Jñānadeva) founded or "reformed" the Vārakarī order, which was to become the most celebrated of Maharashtra's bhakta traditions. The Jñāneśvari, a Marathi commentary on the Bhagavadgītā, is Jñāneśvar's best-known work. His abhaṅga s (lyrical devotional hymns), however, may well have been more influential in the development of Maharashtrian bhakti, remaining a favored devotional vehicle of his successors. Tradition has it that Jñāneśvar's father had been a Nātha, which suggests that there were some Śaiva influences on the development of Jñāneśvar's own thought.
Possibly more important even than Jñāneśvar for the growth of the Vārakarīsampradāya was Nāmdev (or Nāmadeva; 1270–1350?), a native of Pandharpur. Maharashtrian Bhagavatism owes to Nāmdev a strong tradition of depreciating the externalities of devotional service. Giving up pūjā and pilgrimages and rejecting monkish asceticism, Nāmdev celebrated an inner quest for purity of spirit and direct communion with the Bhagavān through reciting his holy names. This rejection of the image cult has suggested an Islamic influence, but although Muslims were a significant minority in Maharashtra in Nāmdev's time, no clear evidence supports this suggestion. In addition, Nāmdev's influence has remained strong, even though subsequent important Maharashtrian Bhāgavatas such as Eknāth (or Ekanātha; 1548–1598?) and Tukrām (or Tukārāma; 1608–1649) did not advocate abandoning pūjā and the image cult. However, they stressed that cult images are more significant as "symbolic" aids to worship than as the literal, living presence of divinity.
Another noteworthy feature of Kṛṣṇa Bhagavatism in Maharashtra is the emphasis on Kṛṣṇa as the faithful husband of Rukmiṇī, herself viewed as embodying the Bhagavān's dynamic and creative nature. This contrasts markedly with the focus of many Kṇa-Bhāgavatas farther north and east—especially in Bengal and Orissa—for whom the central female is rather Rādhā, Kṛṣṇa's "mistress" and the personification of the Bhāgavata's longing for the Lord.
Young Kṛṣṇa's amorous play with the gopī s epitomizes the many ways that bhakti is "new" in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Kāma ("desire"), traditional enemy of the spiritual quest, is transformed through erotic imagery and becomes a symbol for the Bhāgavata's devotion to the Bhagavān. Selfless maternal affection for the child Kṛṣṇa influences the gopī s' love for the mature Kṛṣṇa. Their passion becomes prema, kāma transcendent: a love transcending the worldly, selfish love in the structured dharmic realm of spouse and family. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa hints that one gopī may be special to Kṛṣṇa, but does not name her. By the twelfth century, however, Rādhā is known in North India as Kṛṣṇa's favorite, eventually taken as an avatāra of Śri-Lakṣmī. Rādhā is first celebrated in Sanskrit in Jayadeva's Gītagovinda (early thirteenth century?). Subsequently, Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa together are central to Bhāgavata sects founded by Viṣṇusvāmin, Nimbārka, Vallabha, and Caitanya.
Possibly a friend of Jayadeva and a contemporary of Madhva (though doctrinally linked rather to Rāmānuja), Nimbārka (thirteenth century?) was a Telugu brahman who settled early and permanently at Vṛndāvana. As was characteristic of Bhāgavatas, Nimbārka was captivated by the problem of the relation of the Absolute to the world. As a Vedantin, he proposed an alternative to the positions of Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, and Madhva through a realistic dvaitādvaita doctrine of bhedābheda, "distinct yet not different [from the phenomenal world]."
Unfolding in Nimbārka's writings (all in Sanskrit) is the notion of prapatti ("surrender"); the idea was derived from Rāmānuja and was especially elaborated by certain of Rāmānuja's successors. According to Nimbārka, this is the necessary first of two stages of the Bhāgavata's right relationship to the Bhagavān. The roles of human and divine in the drama of salvation are at issue; prapatti proposes that the initiative for this process is exclusively the Bhagavān's. The Bhāgavata can only surrender utterly to the Bhagavān's grace, abandoning all sense of personal capacity for efficacious action. To the sincere prapanna ("suppliant") the Bhagavān gracefully bestows direct perception of himself.
Although Nimbārka's Sanakasampradāya, extensively reformed in the fifteenth century, is itself generally restricted to an area around Mathurā and to some centers in Agra and in Bengal, Nimbārka's influence seems apparent in the teachings of Caitanya. Strongly influenced by Ramanujist tradition, Nimbārka distanced himself from an early, rather eclectic smārta Bhagavatism, emerging as among the most adventuresome of those Bhāgavatas who explored bhakti's more radical implications.
ViṢṆusvĀmin and Vallabha
Viṣṇusvāmin was the reputed founder of the Rudrasampradāya, which was regarded, along with those of Rāmānuja, Madhva, and Nimbārka, as one of the four great Bhāgavata schools or sects. Viṣṇusvāmin lived perhaps in the thirteenth century and, according to one account, was the mantrī ("minister") of a South Indian prince. Some traditions hold that Viṣṇusvāmin was a teacher both of Maharashtra's Jñāneśvar and of Madhva, but the evidence is meager and conflicting. And, although Viṣṇusvāmin apparently was a Vedantin, his commentaries on the Bhagavadgītā and the Brahma Sūtra have not survived. Tradition holds that he was a "dualist" who taught that "creation" was inspired by Brahmā's primordial loneliness and that individuals and the world itself proceeded from the Absolute as sparks leap from a flame.
Apparently, it is in Vallabhācarya's teachings that Viṣṇusvāmin's thought survives. Vallabha (1479–1531), son of a Telugu brahman and Yajurveda schoolman, was born in what is now Madhya Pradesh and spent his childhood mostly in Banaras. His Vedantic teachings are known as śuddhādvaita ("pure, or purified, nondualism"). In his view, Vallabha "corrected" or "purified" Śaṅkara's advaita by demonstrating that māyā ("appearance, illusion") is entirely a power of the Absolute (that is, Kṛṣṇa), and thus is in no sense independent of it. Real fragments of that Absolute, individuals are lost in forgetfulness and egotism until Kṛṣṇa manifests himself. That crucial act of grace inaugurates the puṣṭimārga ("way of sustenance [of the soul]"), leading to eternal, joyous (re-)union with Kṛṣṇa.
Vallabha's personal example was no less consequential than his theology. Tireless pilgrim, dedicated attendant on images, he became for his followers the preeminent, paradigmatic sevaka ("servant") of Kṛṣṇa. Decrying external acts empty of sincere emotion, Vallabha the ritualist urged that all acts be performed fully in a spirit of sweet and playful joy, a spirit captured most impressively in the raslīlā celebrations associated with the Vallabhācārīs.
In literature, the emotional fervor engendered amongst the Vallabhācārīs is particularly evident in the poetry of Sūrdās (1483–1563). Occasionally, the emotional abandon urged by Vallabha's example and nurtured by his successors led to "excesses" that, in the nineteenth century, even summoned restrictions from civil authorities. The teachings of Vallabhācārya are part of the inspiration for the "radical" Rādhāvallabhī and Sakhībhava movements in which Rādhā rather than Kṛṣṇa becomes central, Sakhībhava adherents going so far as to wear women's clothing and to attempt to lead the life of Rādhā. Overall, Vallabhācārya's puṣṭimārga —prominent and influential across North India—is a particularly impressive and vital expression of Bhagavatism and its pervasive influence on learned tradition and popular piety.
Bengal's Sena dynasty (fl. twelfth through thirteenth centuries) championed the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and its spirit is witnessed early in the Bengal/Orissa region in the Sanskrit Gītagovinda as well as in the devotional Bengali lyrics of such poets as Ḍimboka, Candidāsa, and Vidyāpati, who flourished from the twelfth through the sixteenth century. Doubtless the most famous Bhāgavata of this complex cultural region is Viśvambara Miśra, known best by the name he assumed as a saṃnyāsin: Kṛṣṇacaitanya. Born in Nadiya, probably in 1486, Caitanya is reported first to have been influenced by an itinerant Madhva teacher, though it is reasonable to assume that vibrant local devotional traditions were very significant as well. A definitive "conversion" to Kṛṣṇa Bhagavatism seems to have occurred in his early manhood. Henceforth, Caitanya was a phenomenon rarely observed even in Bengal's diverse culture. He became an extreme example of "god-intoxication"; and, swept at one moment by the ecstasy of experiencing Kṛṣṇa directly, and at the next moment by the agony of separation (viraha ), he is reported to have staggered, fallen, danced, sung, roared, wept, laughed, and ranted in ways that attracted, challenged, and even threatened many of his contemporaries.
Only a few lines traditionally attributed to Caitanya survive. But his personal example and direct teachings drew about him disciples whose biographical, ritual, and theological writings—especially in the course of the sixteenth century—quickly and securely established an enduring religious movement that is the basis of the Gauḍīyasampradāya and the Hare Krishna group of the present time.
From the writings of his principal immediate disciples, the Gosvāmins, it is learned that Caitanya's "religious Vedanta" is most aptly characterized as acintyabhedābheda: Kṛṣṇa, the Absolute, and the individual jīva s ("souls") are "inconceivably discrete (yet) not different." But it is less for this variant on a familiar theme of Vaiṣṇava Vedānta than for the living example of his person that Caitanya is most significant historically. From "intentional" enactment of Kṛṣṇa's sports Caitanya drifted almost insensibly to a personal sense of reactualizing them, or, at least, so he was experienced by many of his followers. Devotees and object of devotion lost clear-cut boundaries in such "performances," which became nearly a "Tantric" sādhana ("actualization"). As such, these witness also the potent influence of Bengal's (ultimately Buddhist?) Sahajiya tradition. However, the latter's monistic thrust properly differentiates it from the fundamentally dualistic vision evident in Caitanya's alternating joy and despair in his separateness from Kṛṣṇa. Caitanya, as other Bhāgavatas, remained a bhakta, a devotee whose enduring problematic was also his raison d'être.
Jan Gonda's Die Religionen Indiens, vol. 2, Der jüngere Hinduismus (Stuttgart, 1963) continues to be the single most valuable general account of Bhāgavata backgrounds and individual sectarian developments; the notes contain numerous important bibliographical references. Anne-Marie Esnoul's "Le courant affectif à l'interieur du Brahmanisme ancien," Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême Orient (1956): 141–207, is a stimulating and beautifully nuanced comprehensive account. Although dated, R. G. Bhandarkar's classic Vaiṣṇavism, Saivism, and Minor Religious Systems (1913; reprint, Varanasi, 1965) and J. N. Farquhar's An Outline of the Religious Literature of India (Oxford, 1920) remain obligatory reading.
Among the most significant and appealing of relevant primary sources in English translation are A. K. Ramanujan's translation of selected hymns of Nammāḻvār, Hymns for the Drowning (Princeton, 1981); Barbara Stoler Miller's rendering of Jayadeva's Gītagovinda, Love Song of the Dark Lord (New York, 1977); and Edward C. Dimock, Jr. and Denise Levertov's translation of representative Bengali lyrics, In Praise of Krishna (1967; reprint, Chicago, 1981).
G. R. Welbon (1987 and 2005)