History is pre-eminently a revelation of God; for, nowhere, perhaps, are the wisdom and goodness of a Divine Providence so manifest as in the apt and timely investment of talents and virtues in the accomplishment of its mysterious dispensations. “Lives of great men all remind us” that there is an ever-watchful Divinity in History that moulds our destinies from good to better and thence to best; that, “or in the natal or the mortal hour,” holds us safe under the protection of its wise and benignant power. In the brilliant deviation of a solitary soul from the rank corruption of its age and land; in the enthusiastic life of a patriot who saves a sinking state and resuscitates its shattered energy; in the glorious career of an awe- inspiring prophet who recalls a wandering nation to the lawful ways of God and Truth, the thoughtful student of History reads a lesson far more instructive and impressive than all that sages can teach. There — amidst the roll of drums and the blare of trumpets, despite carnage and destruction — he discerns an almighty plan which has been constantly piloting the world towards justice, righteousness and unity. There he distinctly discerns that the current of events is not a sport of chance but that “through the ages one increasing purpose runs,” and that an all-guiding finger has been incessantly writing the grand epic of our salvation.
Four centuries ago, the religious life of Bengal was at a very low ebb. The country was sunk in the depths of superstition and immorality. The little faction of Vaishnavas, weak and limited as it was, had lost its hold on the pristine purity of Vaishnava doctrines, and had degenerated into a class noted for extravagant rites and meaningless ceremonies. The people were mostly votaries of Saktaism. Origin- ally a most harmless and thoughtful worship of the Deity’s creative power or force, Saiktaism had in course of time been defiled into a very repulsive creed notorious for unnameable indecency and immorality. Wine and woman were the poison and pestilence of the day. In the name of all that is noble and virtuous in human nature, acts of an extremely vicious and degrading character were committed in clear day-light. The roseate hues of early Saktaism had faded into darkness. Religion had been drawn through” mire and slime and at last gibbeted on the scaffold of the most nefarious acts. Was there no hope to dawn upon Bengal? Were unborn generations doomed to be swept away into the vortex of Tantric charms, nocturnal revels and Bacchanalian orgies? The learned man of the day to whom the few saints in Sodom looked up for help and guidance was himself in sad need of life and light. Stricken by a morbid pride of his erudition, he deemed it the aim and ambition of life to discomfit a learned foe and to successfully thread his way through the most intricate questions that interested few and benefited none. To pass for a learned dialectician was the be-all and the end-all of his existence. His constitution was an entire stranger to that persuasive meekness, that calm earnestness and that ennobling purity, which are the salient features of a religious teacher. The Vaishnavas he scorned; and the Saktas he ignored. Religion was beneath his dignity. He was indifferent to the moral and spiritual well-being of his fellow-men. All hope seemed to be lost; the whole prospect looked dreary. Bengal was longing for truth and righteousness, when relief came from a most unexpected quarter. How and whence we will see presently.
India has always been noted for her bent towards religion. That such was the case even in the pre-historic ages is amply proved by the rich legacy bequeathed to us by our ancestors; while History from its very dawn testifies to this fact. But with the close of that long campaign which defeated and expelled Buddhism; and with the Mahammedan conquest of the country, when the cherished ideas and hoary traditions of the nation were rudely shaken, a scorching gale would seem to have passed over the verdant religious face of India. The popular mind was unhinged and unsettled. A living faith, entering into the daily concerns of the masses, ceased to be current. Abstruse Pantheism and austere Saivism were not wanting. But a demonstrative religion, calculated to appeal to the populace, was evidently conspicuous by its absence. Dull rites and unintelligible observances were the thin mildew thrown out to the hungry millions. A creed potent enough to disturb the lethargy and rouse the latent energy of the nation was, therefore, imminently necessary. And no religion was, perhaps, better fitted to answer the purpose of the day than Vaishnavism. Remarkable for its lofty doctrine of bhakti (devotion) and for its ethical code which, “amidst much abasement,” has a golden core of nobility, Vaishnavism was, we believe, the needed dispensation of the times; and with almost the force of an instinct, the nation turned towards that religion. And with the hour came the men. Ramanujacharya and Madhavacharya had already proclaimed tbe gospel of Vaishnavism in Southern India. Vallabhacharya—that noble epicure of India, whose lofty doctrines have, like those of his western prototype, been woefully abused by his unworthy followers—was shaking the firmament of Western India with his earnestness and eloquence. Ramanand and other sages had carried the faith to Northern India. It would, therefore, have been a strange exception, had Bengal remained unreached by this new spirit. That province was moreover, as we have just attempted to show, in urgent need of relief from the excesses of Saktaism. Benign Providence at last thought fit to vouchsafe a harbinger of peace and light; and on the stage of Bengal appeared the immoratal Saint of Nuddea.
Chaitanya, the apostle of Vaishnavism in Bengal, was born at Navadweepa (Nuddea), in 1485 of the Christian Era; and was, therefore, two years younger than that immortal champion of Christian Protestantism, Martin Luther.* Portents and miracles have always heralded a great man into the world. Nature is supposed to rejoice at the advent of a noble soul, by breaking through its law and uniformity. Chaitanya was in the womb for thirteen months. The termination of an eclipse coincided with the first dawn of the future saint. The leader of the existing Vaishnava cult and bis future disciple, Advaitacharya, visited the infant sage with presents. But we can well afford to pass by these extra-ordinary incidents and turn to the more lasting glories of this inspired life, The family was one of Vaidic Brahmans and originally belonged to Sylhet. But in the days of the grandfather, Upendra Misra, the old man, impelled by a sacred desire to be close by the holy waters of the Bhagiradhi, had migrated with his family to Nuddea, which was even then a great seat of Sanskrit learning. Jagannadha Misra and Sachi Devi, the daughter of Nilambar Chakravarti, were the blessed parents of the future saviour of Bengal. After his acquiring the rudiments of the Bengali language, Chitanya was sent to a Sanskrit School where his eager study and striking precocity were the wonder and admiration of all. To the father, however, the blossoming genius of the son was not a welcome sign. An elder son, Viswarupa, had shunned the world and become a Vaishnava ascetic, after having attained to a high proficiency in Sanskrit, And the loving parent was naturally anxious for the future of his younger son. From the Sanskrit School, Ghaitanya passed over to a quasi-College of Sanskrit where the Darsanas (Systems of Hindu Philosophy) were the main subjects of instruction. The youth became a learned Pandit within a limited period; and at the death of the father, which happened rather early, Chiatanya opened a Sanskrit School of his own. The vast learning of the teacher attracted the attention of all, and from the neighbouring towns and villages pupils came, in large numbers, into the new seat of learning. Chaitanya’s fame spread far and wide. On all hands, he was invited by the nobles and chiefs of the country and honoured with costly presents. However, the thriving Pandit was in matters of religion but a faithful bird of the flock. Not unlike his brethren in learning, Chaitanya would appear, at this time of his life, to have been little troubled by thoughts of religon or by ideas of regenerating his country. The learned men of the day, it is said, we^e supremely indifferent to all spiritual concerns- Indeed, they would go the length of holding up the Vaishnavas to the scorn and ridicule of others; and Chaitanya was by no means the last in doing so.
But the time was fast approaching when there was to be a sudden and thorough change in Chaitanya’s life; when, so to speak, the scorning Saul of the Vaishnavas was to be regenerated into the enthusiastic St. Paul of Vaishnavism. An epoch of religious indifference was to be followed by an epoch of religious ferment. Chaitanya, along with some of his pupils, visits Gaya, to a place long renowned for the countless pilgrims that constantly resorted to it and for its magnificent temples dedicated to Vishnu. Here he encounters a recluse named Eswarapoorie, whose elequent words and austere life convert Chaitanya Vishnavism. Edified by the burning words of the anchorite, Chaitanya forgot the world with all its charms and fascinations; and would fain have spent the rest of his life at Gaya; but a second thought recommended a return to his native place.
Fanned into enthusiasm by his conversation, Chaitanya was, after his return, always in the company of Vaishnavas, feelingly chanting the sweet name of Hari. An imposing presence, it is said, always danced before his eyes; and the name of Hari constantly rang in his ears. The world faded away into empty nothingness. His task by day and rest by night was an enthusiastic singing of the praise and glory of Hari. But after a time, at the earnest request of his friends, Chaitanya reopened his school, but only to close it once for all. On the first day of the reopening, he completely digresses from the topic on hand. “Hari,” he bursts out all of a sudden, “is the soul of all the sastras. Hari is the Almighty Being. Theirs is a fruitless task who endeavour to acquire knowledge without the helping grace of Hari. The learning of the so-called Pandits, unleavened by love of Hari, is like the load carried by an ass. Too much 00learning breeds pride in them; and pride goeth before a fall. But an unlettered man led by his love for Hari, finds a royal road to Heaven. I exhort you there-fore to give yourselves up to Hari.” The pupils were taken aback. They appreciated the teaching; they rejoiced at the change in their master. The latter, when he regained self-possession, found out that he had made a thorough deviation; but was unable to proceed with the lesson for the day. On the day following, he repairs to the school with a firm resolve to fare better but, to his utter confusion, falls into a longer digression. At last, discerning his inability to be a man of the world any longer, he takes leave of his pupils with many a touching exhortation and goes forth to devote his days and nights to Hari. Some of his pupils faithfully followed him into his new life; while the rest repaired to other schools. The Vaishnavas sent up their thankful praises to Hari that one of the foremost among the learned had stooped to advocate their humble cause. The Pandits of the day were satisfied that a great rival was thus removed. And the Saktas were enraged that so rich an acquisition was made to the contemptuous number of their bitter foes. Chaitanya formally renounced the world. A solemn and unmistakable protest had to be made against the degrading sensuality of Saktaism. On the sacred altar of duty he immolated the all-holy filial and conjugal ties. In his own person, Chaitanya set a noble example, for others to note and to follow, of unsparing self-sacrifice and unflinching patriotism. The loving mother might rend the sky with her sobs, the affectionate wife might break her heart in despair; but Brutus can never love Caesar more and Rome less. He set his face stern against all other considerations; and in response to the call of love became an ascetic. Such asceticism may, as a general rule, be objectionable; but the smaller of two inevitable evils must always be preferred; and Chaitanya did this. Now began that famous Sankeerthan which is indissolubly associated with the saint’s name and has, since his time, become, with every religionist, a favourite method of preaching a creed. With the praise and glory of Harion their tongues and with an enthusiastic clapping of hands, Chaitanya and his followers roamed over the streets of Nuddea, inviting one and all to devote their lives to Bhakti. At first, the terror of the Saktas compelled Chaitanya to hold nocturnal meetings; from which we may well infer the difficulty of his position. But with the advent of fresher members and with the increase of earnest faith, the saint boldly pushed himself into public view and asserted his claim to be heard and accepted. For a full year, he continued to be the sole leader of the cause, when a very valuable addition was made in the person of Chaitanya’s famous disciple, Nityananda. Of the same age and temperament as Chaitanya, Nityananda was but an alter ego of his leader in piety and earnestness. Sankeerthan was performed with all the greater enthusiasm. Thousands of persons were converted to the renewed faith. The star of Vaishnavism was cheeringly in the ascendant in Bengal. And at this time Chaitanya took a most daring step which entitles him to the lasting gratitude of posterity. Himself placed on the highest step of the social ladder, this Brahman of Brahmans made bold to wage a crusade against caste. He convened a meeting of his friends and followers to consider the question. Among the assembly was a Mahammedan convert, Haridas by name, who had renounced the faith of his fathers but could not, owing to caste prejudices, get recognition among the Vaishnavites. Touched by the moving example of this devotee, who has since come to be ranked among the early sages of Vaishnavism, and roused by the glowing words of Chaitanya, the assembly accepted the lofty position that “the mercy of God regards no tribe or family” and that the division into castes was an iniquitous distinction. To us, who live in an advanced age, the rare boldness of the step may not be quite patent. But when we remember that Chaitanya lived in the dark ages of Indian History, when caste was riding rampant over Hindu society, when vested interests and conflicting ambitions aided and abetted the worst prejudices of the people, the immortal saint of Nuddea stands forth, encircled by a halo of glory, as one of the most dauntless heroes the world has ever produced. Nothing but a most unshaking faith in the triumph of truth, nothing but an unflinching courage of conviction, could have achieved the easy victory over an inveterate foe that has been bafflling the richest resources of some of the most accomplished sons of India. Let Chaitanya’s degenerate countrymen, in all shame, confess to themselves that, with one bold stroke, a solitary ascetic could eradicate what they all hate yet embrace, abhor yet fondle. Let succeeding generations, when they shall have wiped out this pestilence from the country, yield the crown of glory to one who, long before their appearance, had achieved their victory. Soon after this renunciation of caste, Chaitanya suggested to his followers the advisability of preaching the faith from door to door; and the noble work was at once taken up by Nityananda and Haridas—the Mahammedan convert. The result was the conversion of several thousands, among whom were two most hopelessly lost characters, Jogai and Mathai. Those who would test the efficacy of a faith by its regenerating effect on depraved persons, pause here and note that every faith has that undercurrent of truth which, if found oat and followed, will surely carry one to the haven of bliss. Besides Sankeerthan, Chaitanya introduced another method of attracting the people. This was Jattra, a kind of theatrical performance in which the sage himself would take a prominent part and by his rousing words animate the audience into religious zeal.
Chaitanya was now twenty-five years old. He had done his duty by his native place; and the time was come when he should carry the torch to the benighted wanderers in other parts of the country. Accompanied by Nityananda and some other followers, the saint leaves for Orissa. At Pooree he makes a most remarkable con version, which paves the way for a free progress of Vaishnavism in that Province. A specimen of the learned class and a renowned Pandit attached to the court of the ruler of Orissa, Sarvabhowma Bhattacharya pledged himself to regain the learned Chaitanya from the wild fanaticism of religion. Counting upon his deep knowledge of the Darsanas, he was sure of a victory. But the little David, with his sling and stone of faith, is more than a match for any Goliath. The Pandit goes out to convince and returns converted, Baffled by Chaitanya’s array of arguments and moved by his glowing words and inspiring life, Sarvabhowma saw the sacred truth that, not by learning, not even by laudable acts, but by child-like faith and wife-like devotion alone, can a man know the great Lord of all. The Pandit’s conversion proclaimed the fame of Chaitanya all over the country; and people courted his discipleship in endless numbers. Prom Orissa, the saint travelled into the Deccan. “Remote, unfriended,” the lonely pilgrim made his way to Setubundh Rameswar. Wherever he went, his sacred presence was a compelling call to the people to bow down to him and join his faith. From Rameswar, Chaitanya retraced his steps to Madras; where, it is said, he had a conversation with several Pandits. Thence he found his way, through dangerous tracts, into the Deccan; and passing over the Western Presidency and Guzarat and visiting various places of renown and interest, returned to Pooree after several years. His arrival there was marked with a joyous welcome from his disciples. Vaishnavas from different parts of Bengal repaired to Pooree in large numbers to get a sight of their leader. The king of Orissa himself solicited a visit; but what has a recluse to do with the pomp of royalty? Undaunted by a cold reply, the king personally repairs to the sage in a Vaishnava’s dress and touches the saint’s feet in all humility. Moved by this depth of piety, Chaitanya cordially embraces the visitor; but his wonder is simply to be imagined when he learned that the new-comer was himself the king. Pratapa Rudra thenceforth became a devout follower of Chaitanya.
The saint’s next journey was to Bengal. When at the village of Ram Kali, near Gour, the capital of Bengal, Chaitanya was asked to preach. He consented to do so. Among the audience were two Mahammedans of influential position, upon whom the discourse produced such talismanic effect that instantly they renounced their religion and embraced Vaishnavism. They resigned the high posts they held, distributed their wealth among the poor and followed Chaitanya. As Vaishnavas, they figure under the names of Roopa and Sanathana. If there was one thing more daring than violating the dictates of caste, it was this conversion. By an express order of the paramount Government, it had been ruled that whosoever allured a Mahammedan to change his faith was liable to summary death. But what panoply is securer than an uncorrupt conscience; “what stronger breast-plate than a heart untainted?” He who had staked his all in the name of duty, he who had ventured his life into the most obscure and perilous parts of the country for the sake of his Hari was little likely to be daunted by the cruel orders of a bigot. “He whose trust is God little fears death.” In this degenerate age—the era of hypocrisy, of brag and bluster—every frown of a relative, every taunt of a friend, produces an apostate. But the great men of all countries have been made of sterner stuff. With them to think is to say, to say is to do. May we tread in their footsteps! From Gour Chaitanya goes to Santipur, and thence returns to Pooree.
But a restless soul anxious to sow peace over a nation can never relish rest and enjoyment. He sets out for Madhura to behold the sacred haunts of his favourite God, Krishna. But the simple-minded have in all ages followed the saintly in perplexing numbers. The immense mass of people that accompanied him on his way to Brindavan rendered it impossible for Chaitanya to proceed any distance. He had to postpone the journey for a time; and when he finally satisfied his desire, he could do so only by resorting to obscure and unknown paths. On his way to Madhura, he visited Benares and Allahabad. After spending a full year amidst the classic scenes of Brindavan, Chaitanya retraced his steps to Orissa. On his way he converted several Pathans, afterwards known as Pathan Vairagees; discomfited the head of the Pantheists at Benares; and spread Vaishnavism wherever he went.
Chaitanya’s return was marked by immense rejoicings among his followers. He was not thirty years of age. The next eighteen years he spent in Orissa, making that Province the chief field of his work. Adwaitacharya and Nityananda were in charge of Bengal; and Roopa and Sana tan in that of Upper India. Little is known of the sage’s life during these eighteen years. The probability is that he spent his days and nights in proclaiming the glory of Hari, and in converting people to Vaishnavism. But as years passed on, Chaitanya gave signs of mental abstraction. His disciples could perceive it. A certain evening, when the sky was clear, the moon shone in full effulgence and nature presented a most charming appearance. Chaitanya had gone out for his usual walk. Fancying that the Chilka lake was the river Jumna and that the surrounding scenery represented Madhura, he rushed forth to embrace his favourite Krishna and drowned himself in the lake. Some fishermen caught his body in their nets on the following day. Probably this was the closing scene of a glorious life. But his disciples hold that the name of Hari revived the saint, who afterwards mysteriously disappeared from his followers. Whether or not there be any truth in the statement, it is certain that Chaitanya disappeared from the world in the forty-eighth year of his age, in the year 1533* of the Christian Era.
Such was the holy life, and such the glorious work, of one of the noblest souls that this or any other country has ever produced. Springing from a tribe by no means remarkable for physical prowess, Chaitanya achieved those notable victories of peace before which the proudest trophies of war sink into utter insignificance. In that illustrious career, a thoughtful observer may perceive what singleness of purpose, nobility of aim and purity of life, unaided by rank or wealth, can achieve in a score of years. Wherever he went, he took the people’s hearts by storm. Whatever he said was caught by the hearers with an eager breath. The pageantries of kings fade into shadowy dreams, when compared with the truly regal power he wielded over men’s minds. Nor was his success, to any extent, due to sailing with the current. In waging war against the all-powerful party of the Saktas; in deviating from the beaten track of the savants of the day; in riding rough-shod over caste and other cherished notions of the people; in discomfiting the Pantheists, a sect always in honour among the Hindus, Chaitanya was fighting against immense odds and touching his hearers at the tenderest points. His success was, therefore, entirely due to his genius as a prophet and to the purity of his life. He rose up in war against the favourite fashions of the day; and saved a whole country from decay and death. But, alas, how soon his influence has passed away! While seeing no reason to agree with a learned writer in his statement that “in reality the Vysnub class does not rank high; of men it only gets the refuse of society,and of women prostitutes”, we cannot *but regret most sincerely that Chaitanya’s spirit has so soon passed away from a vast majority of his followers, leaving them “in a most abject condition of formalism and even immorality”.* That the country, “over whose acres walked those blessed feet” that travelled far and wide in proclaiming the doctrine of devotion throughout the length and breadth of the land, should have forgotten so great a benefactor, is simply deplorable. But let us hope and pray that, not only Bengal, but the whole country will work together in reviving the glorious spirit of one who was himself the champion of unity. Let us hope and pray that our countrymen will yet kneel by the tomb of Chaitanya; and, imbibing an iota of bis self-sacrifice and earnestness, work incessantly and work without end, until, stripped of all superstition and evry relic of idolatry, India comes to accept that Great God, “the One only without a second”, the Father, Mother, Friend and Guide of all; until the flag of Monotheism is found to wave triumphant over every “village, tower and town” of our beloved fatherland.
* It may incidentally be mentioned that in his eloquent lecture on Chaitanya (Speeches, Vol. I) Babu Surendranath Banerjee says, “He was thus two years older than another great reformer, Martin Luther.” With the learned lecturer this might have been a mere lapsus lingnoe; but the Editor should, in our humble opinion, have corrected or pointed out the slip, insignificant and evident as it is. It is found in both the editions through which the speeches have passed.
* This, we believe, is the correct date of the sage’s death or final disappearance. But both Babu Surendranath Banerjea (Speeches, Vol.1) and Sir Monier Williars (Religious Thought and Life in India) think that the melancholy event took place in 1527-28 A. D. The point to be decided is, whether it was only twelve years or, as we say, eighteen years that Chaitanya eventually spent in Orissa.
* Rai Sasi Chunder Dutt Bahadur: Bengal.
* Keshub Chunder Sen: Essays, Part 1
SOURCE: The Message and Ministrations of Dewan Bahadur R. Venkata Ratnam, volume 2
by Raghupathi Venkataratnam Naidu
Chapter XXVIII : Sree Chaitanya.
Categories: Hindu History