A hardened scholar encounters a saintly young pilgrim,
philosophical defeat, and spiritual emancipation.
by Tattva-Vit Dasa
Meek, humble, and very beautiful in full fledged youthful life, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu sat in the temple of Lord Jagannatha before the scholar Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya and listened to him recite an impersonalistic interpretation of the Vedanta philosophy. For seven continuous days, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu did not ask one question or speak even a word.
Continuing a special series of articles commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of Lord Caitanya’s appearance in Mayapur, West Bengal. By His life and teachings, He inaugurated the Hare Krsna movement.
Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya was one of the great Vedic scholars of sixteenth-century India and an appointee to the court of the king of Orissa. Historical Bengali accounts tell of his encounter with Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu—a meeting that in many respects changed him. A logician and the dean of the state faculty in Sanskrit literature, Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya had a speculative mind and a hard heart. Caitanya Mahaprabhu dismantled his pride, altered his bad disposition, and converted him into a great devotee of Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
For Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, God had no concretely personal qualities. The Bhattacarya derived his philosophical knowledge by logical hypothesis. For example, he reasoned: “Everything is created. So there must be a higher power that has created this world. But that great power cannot be a person, because persons have limited power.” Many of us have a similar, impersonalistic conception of creation. Late twentieth-century life is characterized by our alienation in a universe felt to be a field of force rather than a divinely ordered harmony. Even persons of religious faith sense this estrangement if their understanding of God is weak, abstract, or formless. Yet by the grace of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, anyone who hears with faith and love about Sarvabhauma’s liberation from the net of philosophical speculation very soon is able to come to a full, personal understanding of God.
The liberation of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya took place in the sacred city of Puri on the Bay of Bengal. There, an awe-inspiring temple memorializes Lord Krsna’s pastimes as the King of Dvaraka fifty centuries ago. When Caitanya Mahaprabhu entered this temple for the first time, and beheld the Deity of Krsna known as Jagannatha (“Lord of the Universe”), Sarvabhauma was present. He saw Caitanya Mahaprabhu become overwhelmed in love of God and fall on the floor unconscious.
The Bhattacarya wanted to scrutinize the symptoms of the unconscious pilgrim. He knew that charlatans would sometimes feign a trance just to attract the innocent and take advantage of them. In this case, however, the symptoms appeared to be genuine. Sarvabhauma was unable to detect any movements of Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s abdomen. The beating of the heart, the breathing, and all bodily activities were in complete suspension. But multiple symptoms of ecstatic trance, technically called suddipta-sattvika, were visible in Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s body. Although surprised, Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya understood in light of certain Vedic writings with which he was acquainted that such symptoms could be exhibited only by an eternally liberated soul, someone in complete forgetfulness of material existence.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu was twenty-four at the time and, having recently entered the renounced order (sannyasa), was traveling with some companions. He had just left their company and had walked ahead to Puri to see Lord Jagannatha. He’d lost external consciousness due to intense, ecstatic love for Lord Krsna. Yet within, Sri Caitanya remained actively engaged in loving service to the Lord on the transcendental plane. His friends arrived at the temple and heard about an unconscious mendicant who had been taken to the house of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya. Just then, Sri Gopinatha Acarya, Sarvabhauma’s brother-in-law, arrived, and he took the pilgrims to see Sri Caitanya, whom they revived by loudly chanting the holy names of God: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Then, at the Bhattacarya’s request, they all bathed in the sea and returned to his house for lunch.
When, out of customary respect for the sannyasa order, Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya offered to become Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s servant, Sri Caitanya spoke humbly to him as follows: “Because you are a teacher of Vedanta philosophy, you are the master of all the people in the world and their well-wisher as well. You are also the benefactor of all kinds of sannyasis. I am a young sannyasi, and I actually have no knowledge of what is good and what is bad. Therefore I am taking shelter of you and accepting you as a spiritual master.” By agreeing to become Sarvabhauma’s student, Caitanya Mahaprabhu exhibited exemplary behavior for a sannyasi, whose duty is to study the Vedanta philosophy.
The Bhattacarya belonged to the order of Sankara, a ninth-century teacher who appeared after Buddhism had spread in India. Sankara imposed an impersonal interpretation on Vedanta philosophy by positing that the individual soul and God are identical and that spiritual existence ultimately lacks variety and personality. Sri Caitanya, being a Vaisnava sannyasi (a devotee of Lord Visnu, or Lord Krsna), disapproved of Sankara’s view. He accepted the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the original, direct commentary on the Vedanta philosophy, written by the author, Srila Vyasa.
Despite this difference, Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya met in a very pleasant mood one morning at the Jagannatha temple. Caitanya Mahaprabhu listened to the Bhattacarya’s comments on the Vedanta philosophy for seven days without asking a question or even speaking a word. Sarvabhauma, therefore, could not tell whether his student was properly understanding or not. In India many sannyasis hear the Vedanta philosophy as a formality, without understanding the meaning. Sri Caitanya knew this and, by remaining silent, posed as one of them, a sannyasi in name only. He thus condemned their mechanical, superficial approach to the Vedic literature. On the eighth day, after being asked by Sarvabhauma whether the teaching made sense, Caitanya Mahaprabhu denounced it as an imaginary, incomprehensible attempt to establish the Absolute Truth as impersonal.
All Vedic literature examines the Absolute Truth, the source of everything. The Absolute Truth is sometimes described as impersonal Brahman and sometimes as the Supreme Person, Krsna. We distort the real meaning of Brahman if we try to explain the Absolute Truth without the personal understanding. Wherever the Vedic literature employs impersonal descriptions, the intent is to establish that the Supreme is eternally free of mundane qualities and attributes. For example, when it is stated that God has no eyes yet He sees, this means that His eyes are not limited, like ours. With His perfect eyes, He can see past, present, and future—everywhere, in every comer of the universe and in every corner of everyone’s heart. Vedic texts that mention an impersonal truth are meant only to prove in the end that the Absolute Truth has an eternal body with spiritual senses. The Absolute Truth, therefore, is the Supreme Person, Krsna, the origin of everything.
The personal understanding is more complete than the impersonal understanding, because it explains why everything we see is full of variety. That we have come from an impersonal source devoid of personality, qualities, and form is not logical. The source of everything must also have personality and form. After all, you cannot give what you have not got.
But the Supreme Lord is not limited like us. No one is equal to or greater than God. Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, possesses in full all the wonderful qualities we have in minute degree: beauty, wealth, knowledge, strength, reputation, and renunciation. Unfortunately, because our mortal bodies are full of ignorance and misery, we think that for God to be eternal, cognizant, and blissful, He must be formless or impersonal.
One might ask why Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, being a Vedic scholar, mistook the Absolute Truth to be impersonal. The answer is that understanding the Absolute Truth fully is not possible unless one obtains the mercy of Lord Krsna’s pure devotee. As Krsna Himself says in the Bhagavad-gita (4.34), “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.” Fortunately, Sarvabhauma received that benediction: Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu instructed him on the real meaning of Vedanta and enabled him to know perfectly that Krsna is the source of everything spiritual and material.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu turned Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya around, an alteration Sarvabhauma at first accepted reluctantly. As Sri Caitanya criticized Sankara’s ideas, the Bhattacarya offered unlimited rebuttals. However, Caitanya Mahaprabhu refuted all his arguments and established three important truths: (1) Krsna is the central point of all relationships; (2) devotional service to Krsna is everyone’s real occupation; and (3) life’s ultimate goal is to love Krsna. Caitanya Mahaprabhu also explicated the meaning of a famous verse from the Srimad-Bhagavatam which states that Krsna attracts to His loving service even persons who are self-satisfied and free from material desires. This erudite exposition elicited the Bhattacarya’s rapt admiration.
It also made Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s identity apparent to Sarvabhauma. Previously he had heard from Gopinatha that Sri Caitanya was Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself. Since the Bhattacarya was an impersonalist, with no idea of a Supreme Person, he had accepted Caitanya Mahaprabhu as simply a great devotee. Scriptural evidence provided by Gopinatha that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu was the Supreme Lord did not sway Sarvabhauma, either. He was such a dry speculator that Gopinatha’s quoting scriptural references was as fruitless as sowing seeds in a barren field. Gopinatha therefore told Sarvabhauma that while he should understand the Supreme Lord through scriptural evidence, he would not be able to do so until he received a tiny bit of the Lord’s favor. Now Gopinatha’s prediction was fulfilled. Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya understood Caitanya Mahaprabhu to be Krsna in person, and denouncing his pride and offenses, he took shelter of the Lord.
In this room of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya’s house in Puri, West Bengal, Sarvabhauma received and became acquainted with Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who later converted him and all the inhabitants of Puri into devotees of Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Vaisnavas hold that Lord Krsna and Lord Caitanya are both the original Personality of Godhead. Fifty centuries ago Krsna ordered everyone to become Krsna conscious: “Think of Me, worship Me; in this way you will come to Me.” Unfortunately, people are fallen, and Krsna’s instructions proved difficult to accept. Therefore, Krsna returned five centuries ago with the same mission, but a different method. Krsna “disguised” Himself as Lord Caitanya, the ideal devotee, to teach everyone how to surrender to Krsna. Lord Caitanya is Krsna Himself in the role of His own devotee. The account continues:
To show Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya mercy, Caitanya Mahaprabhu allowed him to see His Visnu form. Thus He immediately assumed four hands.
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu first showed him the four-handed form and then appeared before him in His original form of Krsna, with a blackish complexion and a flute to His lips.
When Sarvabhauma saw the form of Lord Krsna manifested in Caitanya Mahaprabhu, he immediately fell down flat to offer Him obeisances. Then he stood up and with folded hands began to offer prayers.
Overcome with ecstatic love of God, the Bhattacarya composed and recited one hundred beautiful verses. Two verses are especially famous:
Let me take shelter of the Supreme Person, Sri Krsna, who has descended in the form of Caitanya Mahaprabhu to teach us real knowledge, His devotional service, and detachment from whatever does not foster Krsna consciousness. He has descended because He is an ocean of transcendental mercy. Let me surrender unto His lotus feet.
Let my consciousness, which is like a honey-bee, take shelter of the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who has appeared as Sri Krsna Caitanya Mahaprabhu to teach the ancient system of devotional service to Himself. This system has almost been lost due to the influence of time.
Lord Caitanya heard the verses and happily embraced Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya.
The following morning, just before sunrise, Lord Caitanya went to the Jagannatha temple and received from the priest some flower garlands and food that had been offered to the Deity. These He carried to Sarvabhauma’s house. Sarvabhauma was getting up, and the Lord took pleasure in hearing him chant the holy name “Krsna, Krsna” as he arose. When they sat down together inside the house, Lord Caitanya placed the food offered to Lord Jagannatha in Sarvabhauma’s hands. The Bhattacarya then quoted two verses which state that one should eat the remnants of food offered to Lord Krsna immediately upon receiving them. Pleased to see Sarvabhauma’s faith in Krsna, Lord Caitanya quoted a verse stating that the duty of the spirit soul is to perform devotional service to the Supreme Soul and that one who wants to realize his true identity and receive the Lord’s mercy should not consider the body to be the self. From that day on, Sarvabhauma was a very affectionate, staunch devotee of Lord Caitanya.
The next day, Sarvabhauma went to see Lord Caitanya and asked Him, “Which item is most important in the execution of devotional service?” Lord Caitanya replied that the most important item was the chanting of the holy name of the Lord. He elaborately explained how chanting the holy name rids one of the bodily concept of life.
Sarvabhauma, who had previously been in the darkness of speculative arguments, now understood the conclusion of the revealed scriptures: devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. One day he came before Lord Caitanya and quoted a prayer to Lord Krsna from the Srimad-Bhagavatam: “One who seeks Your compassion and thus tolerates all kinds of adverse conditions due to his past deeds, who engages always in Your devotional service with his body, mind, and words, and who always offers You obeisances, is certainly a bona fide candidate for becoming Your unalloyed devotee.”
While reciting this verse, Sarvabhauma changed the original word mukti-pade to bhakti-pade. Lord Caitanya immediately pointed this out and asked the Bhattacarya about his intention. The Bhattacarya replied that pure love of God, or bhakti, far surpassed mukti, or impersonalistic liberation from material life. Lord Caitanya then explained that mukti-pade also indicated Visnu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. To attain mukti, or liberation, He said, was to attain the service of the Lord. But Sarvabhauma, who for so many years had read and taught impersonalism, now hated the word mukti because of its impersonalistic connotations. This change in the Bhattacarya was possible only by the mercy of Lord Caitanya. Such devotional fervor in one who had previously been so staunchly nondevotional was further proof to everyone that Lord Caitanya was none other than Krsna. After this incident, all the inhabitants of Jagannatha Puri came to take shelter of the Lord.