Who Is Lord Caitanya?
Western scholars say He was a great Bengali saint,
but biographers of His time authoritatively established His identity as God.
by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
The first in a special series of articles commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of the appearance of Lord Caitanya. By His life and teachings. He inaugurated the Krsna consciousness movement.
As we begin to celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the appearance of Sri Krsna Caitanya (in March 1986), many people who have never heard the name Caitanya (and perhaps even some who have never heard the name Krsna) will ask, “Who is Krsna Caitanya, and what is His significance?”
If we turn to academic sources for an answer, we will find considerable historical data. A New History of India, by Stanley Wolpert, states, “In Bengal the most popular of all bhakti Hindu preachers was the teacher Caitanya.” In A History of Indian Philosophy, the respected Surendranath Dasgupta writes, “The religious life of Caitanya unfolds unique psychological symptoms of devotion which are perhaps unparalleled in . . . history. . . .” And the Encyclopaedia Brittannica refers to Lord Caitanya’s “profound and continuing effect on the religious sentiments of his Bengali countrymen.” The Brittanica also states that Lord Caitanya propagated “the community celebration [sankirtana] of Krsna as the most powerful means of bringing about the proper bhakti attitude.”
From the historical records about Lord Caitanya, we certainly see a picture of a God-conscious saint who appeared in India during the sixteenth century. But we have to seek further—into the devotional Vedic literature—to understand the full, spiritual significance of Lord Caitanya and the bhakti movement that He inaugurated.
We should consult the biographies of Lord Caitanya, especially the Caitanya-bhagavata, by Vrndavana dasa Thakura, and the Caitanya-caritamrta, by Krsnadasa Kaviraja. Both of these works were compiled in the sixteenth century and are filled with first-hand accounts of Lord Caitanya’s acts and teachings. They also give us an accurate picture of the social and religious setting in which Lord Caitanya lived. The Caitanya-caritamrta is especially valuable, because the author quotes extensively from the Sanskrit Vedic scriptures to authoritatively and logically establish the divinity of Lord Caitanya.
One of the opening verses of Caitanya-caritamrta boldly asserts that Lord Caitanya is none other than the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krsna Himself:
What the Upanisads describe as the impersonal Brahman is but the effulgence of His body, and the Lord known as the Supersoul (Paramatma) is but His localized plenary portion. He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna Himself, full with six opulences [wealth, fame, strength, beauty, knowledge, and renunciation]. He is the Absolute Truth, and no other truth is greater than or equal to Him.
The author of Caitanya-caritamrta does not expect us to accept this statement without proof; therefore, he carefully argues on the basis of guru, sastra, and sadhu to support his assertion about Lord Caitanya. (According to Vedic knowledge. spiritual truth is revealed through three harmonious sources: the scriptures [sastra], the disciplic succession of previous saints and teachers [sadhu], and one’s own spiritual master [guru]. When these three authorized sources agree, then information is conclusive.)
As a follower of Lord Caitanya, I accept the statement of Caitanya-caritamrta that Lord Caitanya is Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. I, along with many thousands of other Westerners, have come to accept this conclusion from the great spiritual master of the Krsna consciousness movement in the modern age, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who has done more than anyone else to spread the teachings of Lord Caitanya all over the world. It is, therefore, by Srila Prabhupada’s grace that I attempt to demonstrate that Lord Caitanya’s teachings are a nonsectarian, spiritual science and can be accepted by serious thinkers regardless of nationality, race, or religion.
The verse I have quoted from Caitanya-caritamrta, which asserts that Lord Caitanya is the Supreme Lord, contains two important Sanskrit terms. Brahman and Paramatma. According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the Absolute Truth is manifest in three features. The impersonal feature is called Brahman, or the formless, eternal existence beyond the dualities of this temporary world. Brahman is the highest truth for the speculative, Vedanta philosophers and for certain mystic yogis.
Paramatma refers to the Supersoul, the personal form of God as He appears in the heart of every living being. This expansion of God grants liberation from birth and death to those highly elevated yogis rapt in meditation on Him.
The third feature of the Absolute described in Vedic literature is Bhagavan, or the original, personal form of Godhead as He eternally exists in His own spiritual abode. This form of the Absolute is the cause of both Brahman and Paramatma and is the highest truth of eternity, bliss, and knowledge. Bhagavan, or the Personality of Godhead, can be realized, however, not by philosophy or good works or yoga, but only by pure devotion.
The conception of Bhagavan is the pure monotheistic idea described (though not very clearly) in Biblical references to the loving, all-powerful, all-knowing Father in heaven, the creator. In other words, God is more than an eternal force or law. Ultimately He is a loving person, and the goal of human life is to know Him, serve and love Him, and attain to eternal life in His blissful spiritual kingdom.
According to Vedic literature, Bhagavan, or the Personality of Godhead, appears in this world in various incarnations foretold in the scriptures. The Srimad-Bhagavatam gives a comprehensive list of the prominent incarnations and then concludes: ete camsa-kala pumsah krsnas tu bhagavan svayam. This means that all of the listed incarnations are parts of the Godhead , but the appearance of Lord Krsna is special because Krsna is bhagavan svayam, the original Personality of Godhead from whom all incarnations emanate.
This is the conclusion of all the Vedic literatures—the Upanisads, the Puranas, and the Mahabharata and Bhagavad-gita. In the Gita Arjuna refers to the great authorities who accept Lord Krsna as the Supreme: “You are the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the ultimate abode, the purest, the Absolute Truth. You are the eternal, transcendental, original person, the unborn, the greatest. All the great sages such as Narada, Asita, Devala, and Vyasa confirm the truth about You, and now You Yourself are declaring it to me.”
In accepting Krsna as the Supreme Lord, the author of Caitanya-caritamrta is one among many millions, but when he asserts that Lord Caitanya is the same Lord Krsna, he reveals a more confidential understanding of the Absolute Truth. Commenting on Caitanya-caritamrta, Srila Prabhupada describes the progressive logic of the Caitanya-caritamrta’s author, Krsnadasa Kaviraja: “The author wants to establish first that the essence of the Vedas is visnu-tattva [or Bhagavan], of which the highest category is Lord Krsna. It is also the conclusion of the Vedic literatures that there is no difference between Lord Krsna and Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. This the author will prove. If it is thus proved that Sri Krsna is the origin of all tattvas, namely, Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan, and there is no difference between Sri Krsna and Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, it will not be difficult to understand that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is also the same origin of all tattvas.”
Although Lord Caitanya Himself never declared that He was Krsna, the Vedic literature reveals that He was. The Bhagavatam, for instance, not only identifies Lord Caitanya but also describes His mission:
yajanti hi sumedhasah
“In the age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting to worship the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the name of Krsna. Although His complexion is not blackish, He is Krsna Himself. He is accompanied by His associates, servants, weapons, and confidential companions.” [SB11.5.32]
Still, even if we grant that Lord Caitanya is Krsna, we may ask, “Why did Lord Krsna appear in this form?” The answer: Lord Krsna in His form of Lord Caitanya most generously distributes love of God to the fallen people of the age of Kali. When Lord Krsna appeared on earth five thousand years ago, He blessed the world with His loving pastimes in Vrndavana and with His teachings in the Bhagavad-gita. But with the passage of time, it became more and more difficult for people to fully appreciate and take advantage of that blessing. The present age, the age of Kali, is characterized by the deterioration of spiritual values and understanding. In the course of time, therefore, people became confused about Lord Krsna’s teachings in the Gita. Also, the unfortunate people of this age are unable to practice austerities for self-purification in spiritual life. To rescue these fallen souls, therefore, Lord Krsna has again appeared, but this time as His own pure devotee. Lord Caitanya.
The specific mission of Lord Caitanya was, by both example and precept, to distribute the religion (dharma) specifically ordained for this age, the chanting of the holy names of God. Historically Lord Caitanya may be described as a Bengali saint, but His mercy is not intended merely for the Bengalis. It is for the entire world. He even predicted that the chanting of the name of Krsna would one day be known in every city, town, and village in the world.
The chanting of the holy names of God as delivered by Lord Caitanya is not only an easy practice, but it is also the topmost method for achieving spiritual perfection. No one but the Supreme Lord Himself could distribute the highest form of devotional service, and thus Lord Krsna Himself appeared as a devotee. That is Lord Caitanya.
Lord Caitanya is Lord Krsna in His most merciful feature. Therefore, even if one doesn’t understand Lord Caitanya’s identity as the Supreme Lord, but accepts Him as a saintly person or as a social reformer and philosopher, one can still derive the highest benefit by chanting the names of God. Without knowing anything at all about Lord Caitanya, people throughout the world have enthusiastically participated in Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement of chanting, dancing, and partaking of spiritual food (prasadam). Through the growing Hare Krsna movement, Lord Caitanya’s prediction is quickly coming to pass, and the holy name of Krsna is known everywhere. The day will soon come when knowledge and appreciation of Lord Caitanya will also become widespread, because whoever chants Hare Krsna becomes Lord Caitanya’s follower, and He then enlightens the devotee from within, revealing the highest transcendental knowledge of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krsna Caitanya.