BORN: February 4, 1485 • Navadvipa, West Bengal, India
DIED: June 14, 1533 • Puri, Orissa, India
Indian religious leader
Caitanya (also spelled Chaitanya) Mahaprabhu was an Indian Hindu ascetic and mystic who lived during the sixteenth century. An ascetic is someone who gives up the pleasure and comforts of the world to lead a life of self-denial and religious devotion A mystic is a person who claims to have direct knowledge of God and of spiritual truth. Caitanya was the founder of a sect, or division, of Hinduism called Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Vaishnavas, or those who practice Vaishnavism, regard Krishna as the supreme, original God. In this respect they differ from members of other schools of Hinduism who see Krishna as an avatar of Vishnu. Vishnu is one of the major Hindu gods and is regarded as the preserver of the universe. An avatar is an incarnation, or birth in human form, of a Hindu god. All Hindu gods are considered to be representations of the one God, Brahma.
"One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself lower than the straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and should be ready to offer all respect to others."
The movement Caitanya founded declined after his death, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it experienced a rebirth. In the twenty-first century, the teachings of Caitanya are followed by many Hindu communities throughout the world. His most readily recognized followers are members of the Hare Krishna movement.
Birth and early life
Caitanya was born on February 4, 1485. His father, Jagannath Mishra (or Misra), was a Brahmin, meaning he belonged to the highest caste, or social class, in India. His mother was Sachi Devi. The couple had had eight daughters, all of whom died soon after they were born. The couple's ninth child, a son named Viswarup, survived. Caitanya was their tenth child.
Caitanya was born in the town of Navadvipa in West Bengal, India. Caitanya's name at birth was Visvambhar (also spelled Viswambar) Mishra, but in his youth he acquired two nicknames. One was Nimai, taken from the name of the Neem tree under which he was supposed to have been born. The other was Gaura, meaning "the fair," or "the golden one," referring to his fair skin.
Many of the details recorded by biographers about Visvambhar's early life may or may not be true. He became such a mythical figure among his followers that some of what was later written about him may have been exaggerated. According to his early biographers, the young Visvambhar was an extremely intelligent student. At a school founded by a famous guru, or teacher, named Vasudev Sarvabhauma, he studied logic, grammar, literature, rhetoric (language), philosophy, and theology (religion). He was a student of Nyaya, a school of logic dating back to the second century. According to legend, one of the teachers at Visvambhar's school had written a book on Nyaya and sought to become the world's leading authority on the subject. While still in his teens Visvambhar also wrote a book on Nyaya. When Visvambhar shared what he had written with the teacher, the teacher wept because he recognized that Visvambhar's book was the better of the two. As an act of humility and kindness, Visvambhar dismissed his own book as nothing but dry philosophy and threw it into the river.
At the age of sixteen Visvambhar started his own school. He married Lakshmi, the daughter of a highly respected teacher named Vallabha. While Visvambhar was traveling, his wife was bitten by a snake and died. He later remarried, to a woman named Vishnupriya. He continued to accept students and gained a reputation as an accomplished teacher. Up until this time he had not shown any particular interest in religious concepts, although he was a devout Hindu. That changed, however, after the death of his father. In 1509 Visvambhar went on a pilgrimage to the northeastern Indian city of Gaya in honor of his father. In Gaya he met another famed guru, Ishvar Puri. Under the guru's instruction Visvambhar became a follower of the god Krishna. He then returned to West Bengal, where the local Vaishnavas saw that a major change had come over him. They recognized him as the leader of their sect.
The life of a sannyasi
Visvambhar spent the rest of his relatively short life as a sannyasi. A sannyasi is an ascetic, a person who has given up worldly pleasures in favor of a life of religious devotion. It was at this point in his life that Visvambhar took the name Caitanya Mahaprabhu. During his final years he traveled throughout India, preaching to people and attracting followers to his sect. He finally settled in the town of Puri. He often forgot to eat or drink and he slept naked on the ground. He constantly chanted the name of Krishna.
During this period Caitanya attracted the attention of Maharaja Prataparudra, the king of Orissa, a region of India. (India was a collection of separate kingdoms in the sixteenth century. Orissa is now a modern-day Indian state.) The king saw Caitanya as an incarnation of Krishna and gave him considerable support, allowing the sect to grow in numbers and influence. At one point Caitanya and a well-known scholar named Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya held a debate about the meaning of a verse from Hindu scripture. According to legend, Sarvabhauma was able to explain nine different meanings of the verse. Caitanya was able to explain sixty-one meanings. The scholar was overcome with humility, knowing that Caitanya had bested him. Sarvabhauma realized that he had lost his devotion to God. Under Caitanya's influence, he converted to the Gaudiya Vaishnavism sect and became a more devoted follower of Krishna.
Caitanya spent much of his time in deep meditation, or focused thought with the goal of attaining greater spiritual understanding. He was also given to outbursts of ecstasy, or periods of uncontrolled emotion, and often fell into a trance. Modern-day scholars believe that Caitanya may have suffered from epilepsy, a disorder of the nervous system, and that his trances were actually seizures. Believers, however, insist that his periods of ecstatic chanting and dancing, as well as his trances, resulted from his deep religious faith.
Caitanya left behind little in the way of written materials. In fact only eight of his verses have survived. These verses, called Sikshashtaka, are regarded as prayers by his followers. Below are some excerpts from these verse-prayers, as found on the Divine Life Society Web site.
Glory to the Shri Krishna Sankirtana [chanting of God's names by worshippers], which cleanses the heart of all the dust accumulated for years and extinguishes the fire of conditional life, of repeated birth and death. This Sankirtana movenment is the prime benediction [blessing] for humanity at large because it spreads the rays of the benediction moon…. It increases the ocean of transcendental [beyond the universe or material existence] bliss, and it enables us to fully taste the nectar for which we are always anxious.
O my Lord, Your holy name alone can render all benediction to living beings, and thus You have hundreds and millions of names…. There are not even hard and fast rules for chanting these names. O my Lord, out of kindness You enable us to easily approach You by Your holy names, but I am so unfortunate that I have no attraction for them.
One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself lower than the straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and should be ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.
O Almighty Lord, I have no desire to accumulate wealth, nor do I desire beautiful. Women, nor do I want any number of followers. I only want Your causeless devotional service birth after birth.
A number of miracles have been attributed to Caitanya. One concerned two brothers, Jagai and Madhai, who were well-known drunkards, robbers, and murderers. Caitanya took upon himself the task of converting them into members of his sect. He and a group of his followers went to the brothers' camp, chanting the name of Krishna. Madhai assaulted one of Caitanya's followers, wounding him severely, and was about to kill the man when Jagai stopped him. Caitanya pushed to the front of the group, tended to his follower's injuries, and embraced Jagai for his act of kindness. According to legend Jagai then fell to the ground in a trance. When he awoke, he confessed that he was a sinner and asked Krishna for forgiveness. Madhai, too, fell into a trance and was converted. The two brothers swent on to become saints.
Caitanya made converts of many people in much the same way. One story tells how Caitanya encountered a man washing clothes in a river. Caitanya approached the man, who believed that Caitanya was simply a beggar. Caitanya first persuaded the man to repeat the name of Krishna, then he embraced him, and the man immediately began dancing and chanting in a state of ecstasy. The man's wife called the villagers to help her husband, thinking he had gone mad. As the villagers approached the man, he embraced each one. At that point they too began to dance and chant. In this way, the entire village was converted. Another legend claims that Caitanya healed and converted a leper by embracing him. Leprosy is a disease that causes deformities and rotting of the flesh. Lepers were outcasts, and at that time one would never touch a leper for fear of getting the disease.
In another story Caitanya leapt into the sea in a fit of devotional ecstasy. He was very thin and frail because of his constant fasting (not eating), so he was soon lost in the waters. His followers searched frantically up and down the seacoast but were unable to find him. Meanwhile, a fisherman had cast his net into the sea and pulled up what appeared to be a human body. He was frightened because the body was making noises. He left his boat and walked along the shore, not knowing what to do. He encountered a pair of Caitanya's followers and told them the story. They rushed to the fisherman's boat, freed Caitanya from the net, and brought him back to consciousness.
Regardless of whether any of these legends are true, they show how highly Caitanya's followers respected him. Indeed, followers of Gaudiya Vaishnavism believe that Caitanya was the latest avatar of Krishna. As he neared his death, Caitanya selected six of these followers to spread his principles of devotion. These six formalized the teachings of Gaudiya Vishnavism and spriead them throughtout eastern India, primarily in Bengal and Orissa. In fact some historians of religion believe that Hinduism in Bengal might not have survived if not for Caitanya's influence. To keep Gaudiya Vaishnavism alive, Caitanya's followers established lineages, or family lines, that passed the traditions of the sect down from generation to generation. These lineages still exist in the early twenty-first century, and many of the members have become noted Hindu scholars and teachers.
The tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnavism spread farther in the twentieth century due to the teachings of Swami Prabhupada (1896–1977), who established temples in the West (the countries in Europe and the Americas). Swami Prabhupada is also generally regarded as the founder of the Hare Krishna movement. Members of this group can often be seen in public places chanting "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare; Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare." Hare means something like "the devotional energy of God," although it is often translated simply as "O," as in "O Lord." Rama means loosely "the supreme personality of God," so it is another name for Krishna. Followers of the Hare Krishna movement believe that people have to awaken their "Krishna consciousness," or love for God, by repeating this mantra, called the "maha-mantra," or "great chant," repeatedly.
Caitanya died on June 14, 1533. Although no firm evidence supports the theory, he may have been murdered by priests of the temple of Jagannath in Puri. The priests disagreed with Caitanya regarding whether Muslims and "Untouchables" could be accepted at the temple as disciples of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Caitanya once commented on the caste system, according to Srila Vrindavan das Thakur, saying: "Only the most wretched sinner will discriminate a Vaisnava's caste, race or nationality, and for doing so he suffers the pangs of repeated birth in the lower species of life." As noted in "Lord Gauranga (Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu)," he spoke the following words before dying: "Oh Lord, I ask not for wealth or followers, or for poetic genius. May my motiveless devotion to Thee continue in me whenever I take birth." This was a reference to the Hindu belief in reincarnation, or being born into a new life.
For More Information
Thakur, Bhaktivinode. Sri Chaitanya: His Life & Precepts. San Rafael, CA: Mandala Publishing, 2002.
Tirtha, B. V. Chaitanya: His Life and Associates. San Rafael, CA: Mandala Publishing, 2001.
das Thakur, Srila Vrindavan. Chaitanya Bhagavat. http://www.acbspn.com/books/cb/cb_madhya10.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Sivananda, Swami. "Lord Gauranga (Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu)." The Divine Life Society. http://www.dlshq.org/saints/gauranga.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).
"Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu: His Life and Precepts." Lord Caitanya, Prabhupada Hare Krishna News Network. http://caitanya.krishna.org/Articles/2000/06/00016.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).