Caitanya Mahaprabhu

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Deities of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu (right) and Sri Nityananda (left) at Radha-Krishna temple in Radhadesh, Belgium

Caitanya Mahaprabhu (also transliterated Chaitanya) (1486 - 1534), was an ascetic Hindu monk and social reformer in 16th century Bengal, India (present-day West Bengal and Bangladesh). A great proponent of loving devotion for God bhakti yoga, Caitanya worshiped the Lord in the form of Radha-Krishna. Many Vaishnava followers revere him as an incarnation or avatar of Krishna Himself. He was also known as Gaura (Sanskrit for "the fair / golden one") due to his skin complexion, as well as Nimai due to being born under a Neem tree. There are numerous biographies of Caitanya, the most popular ones being Sri Caitanya Caritamrita of Krishnadas Kaviraja and the earlier Caitanya Bhagavata of Vrindavan Das, both written in the Bengali language.

Caitanya's life

The story of Caitanya's life is at times biographic and at times mythic, often associating him with krishna folk stories.

According to Caitanya Caritamrita, Chaitanya was born as Visvambhar Mishra in 1486 as the second son of Jagannath Mishra and Sachi Devi in the town of Navadvipa in Nadiya, West Bengal. In his youth, Caitanya was an erudite scholar, whose learning and skills in argumentation were next to none. Though religious at heart, Caitanya did not display an active interest in the Vaishnava religion in his younger years.

A significant change in Caitanya's life came about as he traveled to Gaya to perform the shraddhaceremony for his departed father. It is there that he met his guru, the ascetic Ishvara Puri, from whom he received initiation with the Gopala Krishna mantra. Upon his return to Bengal, the local Vaishnavas, headed by Advaita Acharya, were stunned at his sudden change and soon recognized Chaitanya as the eminent leader of the Vaishnavas of the land of Nadiya.

After leaving his homeland in Bengal and becoming an ascetic, Caitanya journeyed throughout the length and breadth of India for several years, chanting the names of Krishna constantly while wandering from place to place.

Caitanya lived the last 24 years of his life in Puri_(city), Orissa, the great temple city of Jagannath. The king of Orissa, Maharaja Prataparudra, regarded him as Krishna incarnate and was an enthusiastic patron and devotee of the religion of Sri Caitanya. It was during these years that Caitanya sank deep into various meditational trances. It has been speculated that Chaitanya suffered from epilepsy to explain various extreme fits and comatose states he experienced. It is also rumored among the Pandas (hereditary priests) of Jagannatha temple that Caitanya was murdered by them within the temple walls because of disagreements regarding Caitanya's acceptance of Muslims and outcastes as disciples.

Caitanya's tradition

Despite having been initiated in the Shri Madhvacharya tradition, Sri Caitanya founded a tradition of his own, having some marked differences with the practices and the theology of the followers of Madhvacharya. He is not known to have composed anything but a series of verses known as the Siksastaka, "eight verses of instruction". He requested a select few among his followers, who later came to be known as the Six Gosvamis of Vrindavan, to systematically present the theology of bhakti he had taught in their writings. The six saints and theologians were Rupa Gosvamin, Sanatana Gosvamin, Gopala Bhatta Gosvamin, Raghunatha Bhatta Gosvamin, Raghunatha Dasa Gosvamin and Jiva Gosvamin, a nephew of brothers Rupa and Sanatana. These individuals were responsible for systematizing Gaudiya Vaishnava Theology.

Narottama_Dasa Thakur, Srinivasa Acarya and Syamananda Pandit were among the stalwarts of the second generation of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Having studied under Jiva, they were instrumental in propagating the teachings of the Gosvamins throughout Bengal, Orissa and other regions of Eastern India. Many among their associates, such as Ramacandra Kaviraja and Ganga-narayana Cakravartin, were also eminent teachers in their own right.

The famous festival of Kheturi, presided over by Jahnava Thakurani, the wife of Nityananda Prabhu, was the first time the leaders of the various branches of Caitanya's followers assembled together. Through such festivals, members of the loosely organized tradition became acquainted with other branches along with their respective theological and practical nuances. That notwithstanding, the tradition has maintained its plural nature, having no central authority to preside over its matters.

Around these times, the disciples and descendants of Nityananda and Advaita, headed by Virabhadra and Krishna Mishra respectively, started their family lineages (vamsa) to maintain the tradition. The vamsa descending from Nityananda through his son Virabhadra forms the most prominent branch of the modern Gaudiya tradition, though descendants of Advaita, along with the descendants of many other associates of Caitanya, maintain their following especially in the rural areas of Bengal.

Gopala Guru Gosvamin, a young associate of Caitanya and a follower of Vakresvara Pandit, founded another branch based in Orissa. The writings of Gopala, along with those of his disciple Dhyanacandra Gosvamin, have had a substantial influence on the methods of internal worship in the tradition.

In the 20th century the teachings of Sri Caitanya were brought to the West by Prabhupada A.C. Bhaktivedanta, a representative of Saraswata (i.e. disciples of Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura) branch of Caitanya's tradition. In the following years Saraswata Gurus and Acharyas, members of the Goswami lineages and several other Hindu sects which revere Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, including devotees from the major Vaishnava holy places in Mathura District, West Bengal and Orissa, also established temples dedicated to Krishna and Sri Chaitanya outside India in the closing decades of the 20th century.

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