CHAITANYA (1486–1533), Vaishnava mystic. Chaitanya, the Bengal Vaishnava mystic and "saint" who gave distinctive emotional flavor to the worship of Krishna, is worshiped by many as the joint incarnation of Rādhā and Krishna in the present degraded age of Kali. Born as Vishvambhara Mishra into a Brahman family in Navadvīpa (West Bengal) in 1486, he received training in the complex logical system (Navya-Nyāyā) that had made Navadvīpa an intellectual center. His pursuit of a scholarly career ended in 1508, when he journeyed to Gayā to perform the rites for his deceased father; he returned home immersed in praise of Krishna. In Navadvīpa, he quickly became the leader—and shortly thereafter the focus—of a Vaishnava group that met in courtyards to chant the names of God (nāmasankīrtana) with an intensity that led to dancing and ecstatic experience of the presence of Krishna. The influence of Vishvambhara's group increased as the chanting and dancing moved from private homes into the streets (nagarasankīrtana), where all could join the experience.
After only two years, in 1510, despite pleas from his wife and his mother, Vishvambhara became a sannyāsi as Krishna Chaitanya and departed for the pilgrimage center of Puri in Orissa. In 1512 he left on pilgrimage to South India, where he had a significant meeting with Rāmānanda Rāya, in which he learned to appropriate the feelings of Rādhā(Rādhā-bhāva) as she lovingly yearned for the absent Krishna (viraha-bhakti); this participation in the love of both Rādhā and Krishna led to the belief that he was the joint incarnation of Rādhā and Krishna. In 1514 he journeyed to Vrindāvana, site of Krishna's early life as described in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa; there he lived his ecstatic participation in the divine play. His devotional focus on the holy sites in Vraja (a region spanning western Uttar Pradesh and eastern Rajasthan) paralleled that of other sixteenth-century Vraja "saints"—Nimbārka, Vallabhācarya, Hit Harivansh, Swāmī Haridās—who transformed the meaning of that region and of Krishna devotion itself. By 1516 Chaitanya had settled in Puri, where his increasingly intense ecstasies probably hastened his mysterious death in 1533. Although he was not a theologian and wrote little or nothing himself, Chaitanya directed and inspired an outpouring of poetry, drama, and theological works, which constituted a distinct Vaishnava path or sampradaya. After his death, three groups, associated with his Bengali disciples Advaitācarya and Nityānanda and with six theologians (called Goswāmis) who lived in Vrindavana, developed Chaitanya's legacy in diverse ways. Three of them, the brothers Rūpa and Sanātana, and their nephew Jīva, wrote the core theological texts for the movement; another, Gopāla Bhatta, provided its devotional and ritual basis.
The biographical tradition reflects the various layers of Chaitanya's character and influence. He was an ardent bhakti "saint" (simply called Mahāprabhu, "great Lord," by Bengalis) who taught the practice of chanting the divine name (Hari nāma), the devotion most apt for the present age. By his ecstatic devotion, he entered Krishna's divine play, tasted the Lord's emotions, and not only communicated this to others but enabled them to participate as well; Chaitanya made Krishna incarnate once again so that his followers could enter their own proper roles in Krishna's divine play. Chaitanya himself focused all of Rādhā's frenzied yearning (viraha) for Krishna and thus is Lord Gaurānga, the "Golden avatāra." The biographical traditions in the decades following Chaitanya's death reflected all these dimensions: saint and savior, model of devotional practice, avatar of Krishna for the present age. The final stage appears around 1615 in the Bengali biography Chaitanya-caritāmrita, by a follower of the Vrindāvana Goswamis, Krishnadāsa Kavirāja, who incorporated their theology and devotional aesthetics to show Chaitanya as the joint incarnation of Rādhā and Krishna.
Chaitanya's enduring missionary impulse in Bengali Vaishnavism led to three waves of teachers to the West: Bābā Premānanda Bhāratī (1859–1914) in 1902; Mahānāmbrata Brahmachāri (1904–1999) in 1933; and A. K. Bhaktivedānta Swami (1896–1977), founder of the Hare Krishna Movement (ISKCON), in 1965.
The most thorough treatment of the biographical traditions about Chaitanya is the unpublished Ph.D. dissertation by Tony K. Stewart, "The Biographical Images of Krishna Caitanya: A Study in the Perception of Divinity" (University of Chicago, 1985). A summary of this biographical development appears in Stewart's introduction (pp. 3–106) to Caitanya Caritāmrita of Krishnadāsa Kavirāja, translated by Edward C. Dimock, Jr. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999). Other significant historical studies of Chaitanya and the Gaudīya Vaishnava devotional tradition include: Ramakanta Chakravarti, Vaishnavism in Bengal: 1486–1900 (Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bandar, 1985); Sushil Kumar De, Early History of the Vaishnava Faith and Movement in Bengal, 2nd ed. (Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1961); David Haberman, Acting as a Way of Salvation: A Study of Rāgānugā; Bhakti Sādhana (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988); and A. K. Majumdar, Caitanya: His Life and Doctrine (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1969).