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HomeExpositionsTheologyChaitanya Mahaprabhu Jayanti 2024: Know Gaudiya Vaishnavism

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Jayanti 2024: Know Gaudiya Vaishnavism

Gaudiya Vaishnavism is a religious movement within Vaishnava Hinduism that originated in India under the influence of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu

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The birth anniversary of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, known as Shri Chaitanya Jayanti, is observed on the full moon day in the month of Falguna, also referred to as Phalgun Purnima. This festival, also called Gaura Purnima, is celebrated in various regions of India, particularly in Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, and Jharkhand. Gauranga is the popular name for Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who served as a social reformer in eastern India during the 16th century.

Adherents of Gaudiya Vaishnavism view him as an incarnation of Lord Krishna. He promoted the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and revered Lord Krishna and Radha throughout his life. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is also called Nimai due to his birth beneath a neem tree.

The 538th birth anniversary of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu will be commemorated on Monday, 25 March this year. As per Drik Panchang, the auspicious timings for observing the occasion are as stated below:

  • Purnima Tithi commences at 09:54 on 24 March 2024
  • Purnima Tithi concludes at 12:29 on 25 March 2024

Dating Chaitanya Mahaprabhu according to Vikram Samvat and Gregorian calendar

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and a renowned spiritual leader, resided on the earth from CE 1486 to CE 1534. His teachings attracted a significant following, known as the Gaudiya Vaishnavas. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s birth took place in the year 1542 of Vikram Samvat, specifically on Phalguna Purnima, as per the Hindu lunar calendar.

Hence, the followers of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu commemorate Phalguna Purnima as Gaura Purnima, marking his birth anniversary. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was born on 18 February CE 1486. as per the Julian calendar, as the Gregorian calendar was not yet established during that period. According to the proleptic Gregorian calendar, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was born on Saturday, 27 February CE 1486.

Many people globally are followers of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu from the Hare Krishna movement. With a complexion akin to molten gold, he is affectionately known as Gauranga or Gaura. His followers commemorate Gaura-Purnima on his birth anniversary. To seek the blessings of Shri Chaitanya and gain his grace, individuals frequently offer prayers and make special delicacies during Shri Chaitanya Jayanti.

About Gaudiya Vaishnavism

Gaudiya Vaishnavism, also referred to as Chaitanya Vaishnavism, is a religious movement within Vaishnava Hinduism that originated in India under the influence of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The term “Gaudiya” pertains to the Gaura or Gauḍa region of Bengal, encompassing present-day Malda district of West Bengal and Rajshahi district of Bangladesh, while “Vaishnavism” signifies the worship of Vishnu. Specifically, it is categorized under Krishnaism, which emphasizes devotion to Lord Krishna within the Vaishnavite traditions.

The theological framework of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is primarily rooted in the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana (revered as the Srimad Bhagavatam within the tradition), as expounded by early adherents of Chaitanya, including Sanatana Goswami, Rupa Goswami, Jiva Goswami, Gopala Bhatta Goswami, and others.

Central to Gaudiya Vaishnavism is the practice of devotional worship, known as bhakti yoga, directed towards Radha and Krishna, along with their various divine incarnations as the supreme manifestations of God, Svayam Bhagavan. Predominantly, this worship involves chanting the holy names of Radha and Krishna, such as “Hare”, “Krishna”, and “Rama”, commonly through the Hare Krishna mantra, also known as kirtan, accompanied by dancing.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism serves as the spiritual and philosophical underpinning of the renowned International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon), popularly known as the “Hare Krishna Movement.”

Philosophy

By the Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy, consciousness is not a result of material substances, but rather a manifestation of the soul. All living beings, including animals and trees, possess a soul that is distinct from their physical body. The soul is eternal, unchanging, and indestructible, without any specific birth or death. When the body perishes, the soul does not cease to exist but instead transmigrates into a new body and takes on a new birth. Souls that are entangled in the illusory nature of the world (Maya) undergo repeated rebirth among the diverse 8.4 million species of life on this planet and other realms, by the laws of karma and individual desires. This concept aligns with the notion of samsara found in Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist beliefs.

Attaining liberation from the cycle of samsara, known as moksha, is believed to be attainable through various spiritual practices and is generally considered the ultimate goal in life. However, within Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the ultimate aim is considered to be bhakti in its purest form, or “pure love of God,” rather than liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The Gaudiya Vaishnav tradition emphasizes that in the current age, known as Kali Yuga, singing and chanting the sacred names of God (Krishna) are sufficient for spiritual liberation.

Theology

One key characteristic of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is the worship of Krishna as the ultimate source of all divine incarnations. This belief is rooted in references from the Bhagavata Purana, including the statement “Krsnastu bhagavan svayam” (Krishna is God Himself).

Jiva Gosvami refers to this declaration as the “paribhasha sutra” (definitive rule) of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology and a mahavakya (governing proposition).

The Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy, as expounded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, highlights the concept of Achintya Bheda Abheda, meaning “inconceivable oneness and difference” about the soul’s connection with Krishna and Krishna’s interaction with his various energies, including the material world.

According to this philosophy, the soul (jiva) is essentially identical to God in quality, yet in terms of quantity, individual souls are infinitely smaller compared to the Supreme Being. The nature of this dual relationship with Krishna, where the soul is both the same as and different from Him, is beyond human comprehension but can be realized through the practice of Bhakti yoga.

This philosophy represents a fusion of two conflicting Hindu philosophical schools: pure monism (viewing God and the soul as one) and pure dualism (seeing God and the soul as completely separate). While it echoes the principles of qualified nondualism found in the older Vedantic school of Vishishtadvaita, it places a stronger emphasis on Krishna rather than Narayana and focuses on sacred sites in Bengal rather than those in Tamil Nadu. In practice, Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy aligns more closely with dualistic traditions, particularly following the theological teachings of Madhvacharya’s Dvaita Vedanta.

Jiva Goswami authored the Sat Sandarbhas, which serves as a comprehensive analysis of the Bhagavata Purana, aiming to expound upon the philosophical teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The six treatises within this work are as follows:

  1. Tattva: This treatise defines the concept of absolute reality, delving into the realms of epistemology and ontology. It establishes the Bhagavata Purana as the supreme pramana (evidence).
  2. Bhagavat: This treatise elaborates on the nature of Bhagavan, who is considered the complete manifestation of the three aspects of absolute reality mentioned in Bhagavata Purana 1.2.11.
  3. Paramatma: Here, Paramatma is described as a partial manifestation of Bhagavan.
  4. Krishna: This treatise emphasizes the supremacy of Krishna.
  5. Bhakti: It elucidates the process of attaining love for Krishna, known as bhakti or devotion.
  6. Priti: This treatise argues that priti (love) for Bhagavan is the prayojana (ultimate need) of life.

Jiva Gosvami extensively discusses Gaudiya Vaishnava theology in his Sat-Sundarbans, a collection of six comprehensive treatises that delve into various aspects of God. Notable Gaudiya Vaishnava theologians, including his uncles Rupa Gosvami and Sanatana Gosvami, have also made significant contributions to this theological tradition. Rupa Gosvami authored Sri Bhakti Rasamrta Sindhu, while Sanatana Gosvami wrote Hari-Bhakti-Vilasa. Additionally, Visvanatha Chakravarti, the author of Sri Camatkara Candrika, and Baladeva Vidyabhushana, the author of Govinda Bhashya, are esteemed figures in Gaudiya Vaishnava theology.

Throughout the Sat Sandarbhas, Jiva Gosvami frequently cites Sridhara Swami, particularly drawing from Sridhara Swami’s commentary on the Bhagavata Purana (Bhavartha Dipika). In the Paramatma Sandarbha’s Catuhsutri section, Jiva Gosvami also refers to Ramanuja’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras.

Bhakti Yoga

The act of performing devotional acts in one’s life is referred to as bhakti or bhakti-yoga, and it is supported by nine different types of activities. There are two distinct divisions of sadhana-bhakti, namely vaidhi-bhakti and raganuga-bhakti. According to Rupa Goswami, vaidhi-bhakti is the type of devotion that is practised not out of natural inclination, but based on scriptural injunctions. He further explains that the highest forms of bhakti are bhava-bhakti (devotion through intense emotional feelings) and prema-bhakti (devotion of love). These two categories represent different levels of emotional expression in participating in devotion. On the other hand, raganuga-bhakti follows ragatmika-bhakti, which is the devotion present in Krishna’s eternal associates and is driven by a natural absorption in the object of service. Jiva Goswami concludes in Bhakti Sandarbha that raganuga-bhakti is the only recommended viable process, known as abhidheya, according to the Bhagavatam.

In his Siksastaka prayers, Chaitanya compares the process of bhakti-yoga to cleaning a dirty place filled with dust, where our consciousness is the object that needs purification. This purification primarily occurs through the chanting and singing of the names of Radha and Krishna. Practitioners chant and sing the Hare Krishna mantra daily, sometimes for several hours each day. It is well-known within the tradition that one of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s close associates, Haridasa Thakur, chanted 300,000 holy names of God every day.

Diet and lifestyle

Gaudiya Vaishnavas adhere to a vegetarian diet, refraining from consuming any animal flesh, fish, or eggs. Additionally, they steer clear of onion and garlic due to the belief that these ingredients can stimulate a tamasic and rajasic state of mind in individuals. Certain Gaudiya Vaishnavas, particularly those associated with ISKCON and Gaudiya Matha, also choose to avoid caffeine consumption, viewing it as both addictive and intoxicating.

Sects and traditions

A guru-disciple tradition signifies a lineage of teachers and students within a specific school or tradition. In the case of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, it is considered a part of the Brahma Sampradaya, one of the four main Vaishnavite schools. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is believed to have been a disciple of Isvara Puri, who was a disciple of Madhavendra Puri, who in turn was a disciple of Lakshmipati Tirtha, who was a disciple of Vyasatirtha from the Madhva Sampradaya. The followers of Gaudiya Vaishnavism refer to their tradition as the “Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya Sampradaya,” tracing its origins back to Brahma, with Madhvacharya as the original acharya and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as the acharya-successor.

Nevertheless, this traditional connection is subject to debate. Some contemporary scholars and religious authors question the association of Gaudiya Vaishnavism with the Madhva tradition. For instance, prominent American Indologist and religious historian Guy L Beck highlights certain historical events related to the Chaitanya Sampradaya.

The idea of Gaudiya Vaishnavism being linked to the Brahma-Madhva tradition was first proposed by Baladeva Vidyabhushana in the 18th century. Interestingly, there is no historical record of Chaitanya in the Madhva Sampradaya. From a secular perspective, this suggests the originality and independence of Gaudiya Vaishnavism from other pre-existing branches. However, scholars generally agree that Chaitanya received initiation from two gurus associated with a Vaishnava-oriented group within Adi Shankara’s Dashanami order.

The Prameya Ratnawali, authored by the renowned Gaudiya-acharya Baladeva Vidyabhushana, presents a comprehensive list of the disciplic succession. This lineage includes prominent figures such as Krishna, Brahma, Narada, Vyasa, Madhva, Padmanabha, Nrihari, Madhava, Akshobhya, Jayatirtha, Gyanasindhu, Dayanidhi, Vidyanidhi, Rajendra, Jayadharma, Purushottama, Brahmanya, Vyasatirtha, Lakshmipati Tirtha, Madhavendra Puri, Isvara Puri, and Chaitanya.

Within the Gaudiya tradition, there is a unique aspect regarding the succession of spiritual masters. Chaitanya, the revered acharya, did not formally initiate disciples but instead provided inspiration and guidance to his followers. He did not establish a specific community or designate a successor. As a result, the sampradaya, from its inception, branched out into various lines of succession that remain distinct to this day. One such lineage is the Gaudiya-Sarasvata Sampradaya, which is affiliated with the renowned Iskcon.

Gaudiya and other Vaishnava schools

Gaudiya Vaishnavism distinguishes itself from other Vaishnava schools by viewing Krishna as the original form of God, not as an avatar of Vishnu. This belief is supported by scriptures like the Bhagavata Purana. Similarly, Radha is considered the source of all other Shaktis in this tradition. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is worshipped as the ninth avatar of Krishna in the current age, although other schools see him as a devotee of Krishna. In this regard, AC Bhaktivedanta Swami states, “[When] addressed as Lord Krishna, He denied it. Indeed, He sometimes placed His hands over His ears, protesting that one should not be addressed as the Supreme Lord.”

Despite not publicly displaying himself as Krishna, Chaitanya did exhibit moments of accepting worship as the Supreme Lord and even showed his Universal form on a few occasions.

Rupa Goswami, when first meeting with Chaitanya, composed the following verse showing his belief in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s divinity:

O most munificent incarnation! You are Krishna Himself appearing as Sri Krishna Caitanya Mahaprabhu. You have assumed the golden colour of Srimati Radharani, and You are widely distributing pure love of Krishna. We offer our respectful obeisances unto You.

Despite the controversy surrounding this perspective outside the Gaudiya tradition, Chaitanya’s adherents substantiated it by referencing verses from various Puranic texts to validate their assertion. The Krishna Varnam verse SrimadBhagavat 11.5.32, for instance, has been subject to diverse interpretations by scholars, with Sridhara Svami, recognized as an authoritative figure by Mahaprabhu, being among them.

The Gaudiya Vaishnava community in India largely adhered to the traditional, loosely organized tradition, which was different from the strictly centralized form of church-type organization and the concept of an unconventional spiritual master (uttama) introduced by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati and his Gaudiya Math. Various modern organizations have since emerged as separate branches of the Gaudiya Math tree.

Gaudiya mutt and offshoots

  • Gaudiya Mission: Established by Ananta Vasudev Prabhu alias Srila Bhakti Prasad Puri (1940)
  • Gaudiya Vedanta Samiti: Established by Bhakti Prajnan Keshava (1940)
  • Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Mutt: Established by Bhakti Rakshak Sridhar (1941)
  • Sri Guru Prapanna Ashram: Established by Patitpavan Gosvami Thakura(1952)
  • International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon): Established by AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1966)
  • Science of Identity Foundation: Established by Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa (1977)
  • Sri Sri Radha Govindaji Trust: Established by Bhakti Hridaya Bon (1979)
  • Sri Caitanya Sangha aka Gaudiya Vaishnavite Society: Established by Tripurari Swami (1985)
  • The Vaishnava Foundation: Established by Kailasa Candra dasa & Eric Johanson (1986)
  • ISKCON Revival Movement (2000)
  • Bhakta Bandhav (2010) Disciples of Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayan Goswami Maharaj
  • Sri Caitanya Prema Samsthana: Established by Shrivatsa Goswami (1972)

Several Gaudiya Mutt branches are affiliated with the World Vaisnava Association — Visva Vaisnava Raj Sabha (WVA–VVRS), which was founded in 1994 by certain Gaudiya leaders. Nevertheless, since its inception, there has been minimal genuine collaboration among Gaudiya organizations.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism followers can be found across various social classes in India, with a noticeable trend: Bengali Vaishnavas are predominantly from the lower or middle castes, whereas the upper castes, as well as the lowest and tribal communities in Bengal, are primarily followers of Shakta tradition.

History

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, is regarded as a Bengali spiritual teacher. His devotees firmly believe that he is the incarnation of Krishna himself, who appeared in the form of a devotee to impart the knowledge of Bhakti and guide people towards the ultimate perfection of life. These claims are supported by various scriptural evidence.

According to the accounts, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was a disciple of Isvara Puri, who in turn was a disciple of Madhavendra Puri. Madhavendra Puri was a disciple of Lakshmipati Tirtha, who was a disciple of Vyasatirtha from Madhvacharya’s Sampradaya. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is considered to be the most compassionate manifestation of Krishna. He propagated the Vaishnava school of Bhakti yoga, which emphasizes loving devotion to God, as described in the Bhagavata Purana and Bhagavad Gita.

Among the various incarnations of Vishnu, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is particularly revered as Krishna. He popularized the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra and composed the Siksastakam, a collection of eight devotional prayers in Sanskrit. His followers, known as Gaudiya Vaishnavas, hold him in high esteem as a Krishna who embodies the mood and complexion of his eternal inspiration, Radha.

Following the disappearance of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition underwent significant changes over the course of three centuries, eventually taking the form that is predominantly observed in contemporary India. During the early years of this tradition, the followers of Nityananda Prabhu, Advaita Acharya, and other companions of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu played a crucial role in educating and initiating individuals in their respective regions across Bengal.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu specifically requested a select group of his followers, who later became known as the Six Gosvamis of Vrindavan, to systematically present his theology of bhakti through their writings. This theology placed great emphasis on the devotee’s relationship with the Divine Couple, Radha and Krishna, and regarded Chaitanya as the embodiment of both Radha and Krishna. The six individuals who fulfilled this task were Rupa Goswami, Sanatana Goswami, Gopala Bhatta Goswami, Raghunatha Bhatta Goswami, Raghunatha dasa Goswami, and Jiva Goswami. In the subsequent generation of the tradition, Narottama, Srinivasa, and Shyamananda, who were students of Jiva Goswami, played a pivotal role in spreading this theology throughout Bengal and Orissa.

The festival of Kheturi, which took place around CE 1574 and was presided over by Jahnava Thakurani, the wife of Nityananda Rama, marked the first gathering of leaders from various branches of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s followers. Through such festivals, members of this loosely organized tradition had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with other branches and gain insights into their respective theological and practical nuances. Despite this, the tradition has maintained its pluralistic nature, lacking a central authority to govern its affairs. The festival of Kheturi, however, facilitated the systemization of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology as a distinct branch within the broader realm of Vaishnava theology.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a period of decline in the movement’s strength and popularity, known as its “lethargic state.” This era was marked by reduced public preaching and the emergence of individuals who followed and promoted tantric teachings and practices, referred to as apasampradayas by the Chaitanyaits.

In the 17th century, Vishvanath Chakravarti Thakur played a significant role in addressing fundamental doctrinal issues related to raganuga-bhakti through works like raga-vartma-chandrika. His disciple Baladeva Vidyabhushan authored a renowned commentary on the Vedanta sutra known as Govinda Bhashya.

The 18th century witnessed the presence of notable figures such as Siddha Jayakrishna Das Babaji of Kamyavan and Siddha Krishnadas Babaji of Govardhan. The latter, a highly respected teacher of the internal worship practice (raga-bhajan) within the tradition, greatly influenced the current form of devotional practice followed by certain Vrindavan-based traditions.

From the very inception of Chaitanya’s bhakti movement in Bengal, individuals of Muslim background such as Haridasa Thakur actively participated. This inclusive approach gained momentum with the broad-minded vision of Bhaktivinoda Thakur in the late 19th century, the mission of Baba Premananda Bharati in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, and the establishment of the Gaudiya Math by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur in the 20th century.

A cultural and intellectual revival took place at the dawn of the 20th century, both in India and the Western world. One of the pioneers of the Gaudiya Vaishnavite mission in the West was Baba Premananda Bharati (1858–1914), who authored “Sree Krishna, the Lord of Love” (1904) – the first comprehensive exposition of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in English. In 1902, he founded the short-lived “Krishna Samaj” society in New York City and constructed a temple in Los Angeles. He belonged to the circle of followers of the guru Prabhu Jagadbandhu, whose teachings bore a resemblance to the later ISKCON mission. His disciples formed various organizations, including the now-defunct Order of Living Service and the AUM Temple of Universal Truth.

The transformation and modernization of traditional caste-based Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the 19th century is largely attributed to the efforts of an exceptionally skilled preacher named Bhaktivinoda Thakur, who also held the position of deputy magistrate under the British government. Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s son, who grew up to become a renowned scholar and influential Vaishnava preacher, was later known as Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. In 1920, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati established the Gaudiya Math in India, followed by the establishment of sixty-four Gaudiya Matha monasteries in India, Burma, and Europe. In 1933, the first European preaching centre, named “Gaudiya Mission Society of London,” was established in London (London Glouster House, Cornwall Garden, W7 South Kensington).

Following the passing of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati on 1 January 1937, a dispute arose, resulting in the division of the original Gaudiya Math mission into two separate administrative bodies that still exist today. As part of a settlement, the sixty-four Gaudiya Math centres were divided into two groups: the Sri Chaitanya Math, led by Bhakti Vilasa Tirtha Maharaj, and the Gaudiya Mission, led by Ananta Vasudev (Bhakti Prasad Puri Maharaj).

Many of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s disciples did not agree with the approach taken by these two factions and either started their missions or expanded their guru’s mission. In the 1960s, AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, one of his disciples, travelled to the West to propagate Gaudiya-Vaishnavism and establish the Iskcon, which is considered “the most successful of the Gaudiya Math’s offspring” and continues to thrive today.

However, despite the active missionary efforts of the reformed Gaudiya Math and its followers, the majority of the Gaudiya Vaishnava community in India remained under the influence of hereditary Brahmins-Goswamis. These Brahmins-Goswamis oversee renowned ancient Gaudiya temples, such as the Radha Raman Temple in Vrindavan, along with their distinguished scholar-acharya, Shrivatsa Goswami.

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