Navadwip, a town in the Nadia district of Bengal, situated on the river Ganges, 75 miles north of Calcutta, was a great trading centre and seat of Hindu learning in the 15th century.
Sanskrit logic (nyáy) for which Bengal is most famous among all the provinces of India, was very highly developed and studied here, and the fame of its scholars was unsurpassed in the land. But, if we may believe the biographers of Chaitanya, the atmosphere of the town was sceptical and unspiritual. There was a lack of true religious fervour and sincere devotion. Proud of their intellectuality, proud of the vast wealth they acquired by gifts from rich Hindus, the local pandits despised bhakti or devotion as weak and vulgar, and engaged in idle ceremonies or idler amusements. Vedantism formed the topic of conversation of the cultured few; wine and goat’s meat were taken to kindly by the majority of the people, and such Shakta rites as were accompanied by the offering of this drink and food to the goddess and their subsequent consumption by her votaries, were performed with zeal and enthusiasm.
Jagannáth Mishra, surnamed Purandar, a Brahman of the Vaidik sub-caste, had emigrated from his ancestral home in Sylhet and settled here in order to live on the bank of the holy Ganges. His wife was Shachi, a daughter of the scholar Nilambar Chakravarti. One evening in February or March, 1485 A.D., when there was a lunar eclipse at the same time as full moon, a son was born to this couple. It was their tenth child; the first eight, all daughters, had died in infancy, and the ninth, a lad named Vishwarup, had abandoned the world at the age of sixteen when pressed to marry, and had entered a monastery in the Madras presidency.
The new-born child was named Vishwambhar. But the women, seeing that his mother had lost so many children before him, gave him the disparaging name of Nimái or ‘short-lived,’ in order to propitiate Nemesis. The neighbours called him Gaur or Gauránga (‘fair complexioned’) on account of his marvellous beauty. That the child was born amidst the chanting of Hari’s name all over Navadwip on the occasion of the eclipse, was taken to be an omen that he would prove a teacher of bhakti. Passing over the lucky signs of his horoscope, and the miracles and Krishna-like antics with which pious imagination has invested his boyhood, we may note that he showed great keenness and precocity of intellect in mastering all branches of Sanskrit learning, especially grammar and logic.
On the death of his father, Vishwambhar, while still a student, married Lakshmi, the daughter of Vallabh Acharya, with whom he had fallen in love at first sight. He now became a householder, and began to take pupils, like many other Brahmans of Navadwip. As a pandit he surpassed the other scholars of the place and even defeated a renowned champion of another province, who was travelling all over India holding disputations.
On his return from a scholastic tour in East Bengal, in which he received many gifts from pious householders, he found that his wife had died of snake-bite during his absence. After a while the widower married Vishnu-priya. At this time his head was turned by the pride of scholarship, and his victories in argument made him slight other men. During a pilgrimage to Gayá, he met Ishwar Puri, a Vaishnav monk of the order of Mádhaváchárya and a disciple of that Mádhavendra Puri who had first introduced the cult of bhakti for Krishna among the sannyásis. Vishwambhar took this Ishwar Puri as his guru or spiritual guide.
A complete change now came over his spirit. His intellectual pride was gone; he became a bhakta; whateyer subject he lectured on, the theme of his discourse was love of Krishna. Indeed, he developed religious ecstasy and for some time behaved like a mad man: he laughed, wept, incessantly shouted Krishna’s name, climbed up trees, or raved in abstraction imagining himself to be Krishna. He now made the acquaintance of the elderly scholar and bhakta Adwaita Acharya, and was joined by a sannyási named Nityánanda, who became to him even more than what Paul was to Christ.
Many people of Navadwip now believed Chaitanya to be an incarnation of Krishna and did him worship, while Nityananda came to be regarded as Balaram, (the elder brother of Krishna). Religious processions were frequently got up, in which the devout, headed by the two, went dancing and singing through the streets or assembled in the courtyards of houses. This was the origin of the nám-kirtan (‘chanting God’s name’) which has ever been the most distinctive feature of this creed. Chaitanya’s greatest achievement at this time was the reclamation of two drunken ruffians, Jagái and Mádhái, who were a terror to the city. The apostles of bhakti had also to face mockery and persecution from scoffers and unbelievers (páshandi),—which were overcome by supernatural signs.
We pass over the scenes of ecstasy, tireless exertion in kirtan, madness and miracles, which form the extant history of this period of Chaitanya’s life. But the conversions among the learned were few, and Chaitanya at last in despair resolved to turn hermit for their salvation, arguing thus, “As I must deliver all these proud scholars, I have to take to an ascetic life. They will surely bow to me when they see me as a hermit, and thus their hearts will be purified and filled with bhakti. There is no other means.” So, he induced Keshav Bhárati to initiate him as a sannyási (1509) under the name of Krishna-Chaitanya, usually shortened into chaitanya, which we have anticipated in this sketch. He was then 24 years of age. His mother, who had often before urged him not to desert her as his elder brother had done, was heart-broken at the loss of her sole surviving child, but Chaitanya consoled her in every possible way, and bowed to her wishes in many points in his after years as obediently as he had done before renouncing the life of a householder.
The next six years were passed by him in pilgrimages to Orissa, the Southern Land, and Brindaban, and in the preaching of bhakti in many parts of India, as described in detail in the present volume.
Thereafter, at the age of 30, he settled at Puri, and spent his remaining days in the constant adoration of Jagannáth. Disciples and admirers from many places, chiefly Bengal and Brindaban, visited him here; and he edified them by his discourses, acts of humility, and penances. Towards the close of his life he had repeated fits of religious ecstasy in which he acted in utter disregard of his life,—once leaping into the blue ocean, at another time battering his face against the walls of his room.
At last in June-July, 1533, his physical frame broke down under such prolonged mental convulsion and self-inflicted torments, and he passed away under circumstances over which the piety of his biographers has drawn the veil of mystery.
In his lifetime his disciples had organized a mission. In Bengal the new creed was preached and spread far and wide by Nityananda, who afterwards came to be regarded as a god, co-ordinate with Chaitanya. Modern Brindaban, with its temples, Sanskrit seminaries and haunts for recluses, is the creation of the Bengali Vaishnavs, and it has eclipsed the older city of Mathura. Here the brothers Rup and Sanátan,—descended from a Prince of Karnat who had settled in Bengal and whose descendants had become completely Bengalized, joined Chaitanya’s Church. These two and their nephew Jiv Goswámi were great Sanskrit scholars and their devotional works, commentaries, & c. encouraged a revival of Sanskrit studies in general in that Muslim age.
These three, with Gopal Bhatta, nephew of the celebrated Vedantist Prakáshánanda who was latterly converted to bhakti by Chaitanya and changed his name into Prabodhánanda, and Raghunáth Bhatta, son of an up-country Brahman bhakta, and the last Raghunath-das, a Káyastha saint of the Saptagrám zamindar family of the Hugli district and the guru of our author, formed the six Fathers of Chaitanya’s Church. Except Rup and Sanátan, most of the other disciples of Chaitanya adopted the Bengali tongue as their medium, and greatly enriched it with their songs, biographies, poems, travels, and translations of the bhakti literature from Sanskrit. The Vaishnav Goswámis, both at Brindaban and Navadwip, have kept up the study of Sanskrit to our own day.
Source: Chaitanya’s Life and Teachings (1913) by Krishnadas Kaviraj, translated by Jadunath Sarkar