“Of course, it is bewildering, O soul of the universe,
that You take birth, though You are the vital force and the unborn.”
by Mandalesvara dasa
Lord Caitanya’s appearance as the son of Jagannatha Misra and Srimatl Sacidevi was a transcendental event.
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.
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who was born 499 years ago in West Bengal, India, to Jagannatha Misra and Srimati Sacidevi, and who propagated the chanting of the names of God, is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
You won’t find that last part stated in the encyclopedias and history books where Lord Caitanya’s name and biographical sketch are given, but after all, what can encyclopedias and history books teach us about the science of God? Perhaps persons whose interest in God and spiritual life is but superficial might find satisfaction in some academic biographical sketch. But those who want to know the truth about the identity of Lord Caitanya and the transcendental nature of His birth and activities will have to consult the Vedic literature. Although usually associated with the grand civilization of ancient India, the Vedic literature is for all people and for all times. Provided we study it respectfully and intelligently under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, it is fully applicable today. And there’s really no other way of understanding the deep, mystical concepts of the science of God.
Often, when people hear that we accept Lord Caitanya as God, they immediately pose certain questions about Him, trying, understandably, to get a handle on what to them is a new religious concept. They want to know where and when He was born, what His teachings and activities were, and so on.
You’ve had the experience—you try to fit a new idea into your scheme of things. So you may try to evaluate Lord Caitanya in terms of, say, what was going on in Europe at the time: Renaissance, Reformation, Columbus, or what have you. The natural tendency will be to see Lord Caitanya as a social or historical phenomenon, a product of His times and a reaction to them, just as was Luther, Thomas Aquinas, or any other important religious figure. When you hear that Lord Caitanya was born fifteen centuries after Christ, you conclude that Lord Caitanya’s is a new religion. And when you remind yourself that you never discussed Lord Caitanya or read about Him in school and haven’t really heard of Him before, you conclude that He is of minor significance.
But wait a minute. To understand a personality of the stature and magnitude of Lord Caitanya, you will have to break from your conventional ways of considering new ideas. You will have to broaden your outlook and admit information from new sources (new to you, that is). True, you need at first a few quick answers, some superficial facts. To be sure, someone did the same for me fourteen years ago, when I first began integrating myself into the spiritual movement started by Lord Caitanya and disseminated by His pure devotee, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder and spiritual master of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. But superficial facts, although handy for a fill-in-the-blank quiz, tell us little of the transcendental nature of Lord Caitanya’s birth and activities. That’s why, as I was saying, we have to consult the Vedic literature.
Birth of the Unborn
According to the Vedic literature and to the rigorous philosophical and devotional tradition known as Gaudiya-Vaisnavism, Caitanya Mahaprabhu is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krsna Himself. The main distinction between Lord Krsna and Lord Caitanya is that when Krsna appears as Himself, He reveals Himself as God, whereas when He appears as Lord Caitanya, He plays the part of a pure devotee of God. To understand the transcendental nature of Lord Caitanya’s birth, therefore, we can do no better than to refer to the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, wherein Lord Krsna explains the transcendental nature of His own birth. In other words, although in the Gild Lord Krsna is speaking of His own transcendental birth, since He and Lord Caitanya are one and the same, the philosophy stated there is as applicable to Lord Caitanya as it is to Lord Krsna.
In the Gita the Lord says that He does not actually take birth; He is unborn (ajah), although He appears in the material world at various times. What to speak of God, even ordinary beings like you and me do not take birth. Just as God is eternal, so we, being part and parcel of Him, are also eternal. Of course, birth is a common, everyday occurrence, but what is that birth, really? You, I, and all other living beings are eternal spirit souls, transmigrating from one body to another, one species to another—birth after birth. And in each birth we forget entirely our previous material identity. Thus, in one life we may be an American, in the next a Russian; in one life we may be a human being, in the next an animal or plant. Yes, unborn and eternal we are, but we take birth again and again in the sense that we assume completely new material identities again and again.
Lord Caitanya, however, exists beyond this world of birth and death, in His own eternal identity. When He takes birth within this material world, therefore, His birth is not like ours; He appears in His transcendental form of eternity, bliss, and knowledge.
The transcendental body of Lord Caitanya is described in the Sanskrit language as avyayatma. Avyaya means “eternal, indestructible,” and atma refers to body, mind, and also soul. So, here we have an important distinction between our birth and the birth of Lord Caitanya. Although we are eternal, we inhabit a temporary material body. For Lord Caitanya, however, body and soul are one; both are spiritual. Therefore, of the Lord it is said, ajo ‘pi sann avyayatma: He is unborn, and His body is not material,but is transcendental and eternal.
Perhaps we can better understand the Lord’s transcendental birth with an analogy: the sun. The sun is always present in the sky, but it is not always visible to us. At sunset the earth comes between our eyes and the sun. Then twelve or so hours later, at sunrise, we can again see the sun. So although the sun may appear to be coming and going—taking birth and dying, according to some primitive peoples—it is always present. And like the sun, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is also always present. But because of our limited position, sometimes we see Him and sometimes we do not. When we speak of Lord Caitanya’s appearing some five hundred years ago, we say He took birth. But actually, He had always been existing in His eternal, spiritual form and always will be. Thus the Lord’s birth is transcendental. In the Vedic literature the Lord is addressed as follows: “Of course, it is bewildering, O soul of the universe, that You take birth, though You are the vital force and the unborn” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.30).
Now what about the fact that Lord Caitanya appeared as an infant and then grew to childhood,to youth, and to manhood? Does this mean that His body was ordinary, temporary, and material? No, not at all. The Lord is never afflicted by the material energy and is not subject to material laws. We, however, are under the illusion of matter, so much so that we view the Lord’s birth and activities as material. Again, for a clear understanding let’s refer to our analogy of the sun.
Which is greater, a cloud or the sun? The sun, of course. In fact, the sun creates the cloud. And yet at times a cloud may appear to cover the sun. This does not, however, attest to the sun’s limitation but to ours. We, not the sun, are covered by the cloud. Similarly, matter is a creation of God, and like a cloud, it prevents us from seeing Him. What to speak of God, even our very selves we cannot see, for we too are spirit (although at present, because of the covering of material illusion, maya, we can see only matter). When, for whatever reason, we judge the form or the activities or the birth of God to be material, that is because we, in our finite position, cannot see beyond the cloud of matter. It is our vision, and not the Lord, that is material.
Now what this should all come down to is the humbling realization that we are eminently unqualified to see or to know spirit, to comprehend the eternal form of God, to understand the transcendental birth of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. This metaphysical handicap plagues all living beings and would prevent us from ever rising out of our suffering repeated birth and death. But compassionately, Lord Caitanya appeared on earth five centuries ago so that we, despite our limited senses and mind, could perceive His gorgeous form, hear His incomparable teachings, grasp His transcendental meaning, and thus be lifted out of the muck of material illusion. To consider His birth material, therefore, would be imprudent.
Another analogy: The chief of state may enter a government prison, but that does not make him a prisoner. Only a fool would scoff, “Ha! The president is a prisoner, like me.” Not only is the president not a prisoner, but he has the authority to free one who is. Similarly, because of our rebelling against God since time immemorial, this material world has become our prison, and we are incarcerated within these material bodies, serving a life-after-life sentence. When Lord Caitanya, the supreme ruler of this prison (as well as of the eternally liberated realm beyond) comes here to free us, it behooves us to acknowledge His exalted position and not, like so many coarse prisoners, try to drag Him down to our level. By properly understanding the birth of Lord Caitanya, we will attain the perfection of life. Therefore Lord Krsna explains in the Bhagavad-gita (4.9), “One who understands the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode.”
Lord Caitanya’s taking birth seemingly like an ordinary infant is one of the most relishable topics for the Lord’s pure devotees. Of course, most people tend to fixate on a conception of God as the Almighty, the Creator. But hurling worlds into orbit and-parting seas do not constitute the greatest glories of God. A much higher and more intimate understanding of God is revealed in His humanlike birth and activities. Certainly Lord Caitanya did not need to take birth as an infant; He could have simply manifested Himself, without any so-called mother or father. After all, He is the father of all living beings and of all existence. Ages ago, when the Lord appeared as the half man, half lion, Nrsimhadeva, He burst forth in one explosive moment from a stone pillar; towering and terrifying, He shook the entire universe with His power and rage. But in His appearance as Lord Caitanya, a golden infant on the lap of His enraptured mother, He was no less God. In fact, experts in the bhakti science have ascertained that the Lord’s appearance as the child of two of His most exalted devotees displays the greatest mercy, both for His parents and for those so fortunate as to hear about His birth and childhood pastimes.
Lord Caitanya came to this prison of the material world not like you and me, forced by the inexorable law of karma, but of His own free will. This is always the case when God descends. Forty-five centuries before Lord Caitanya, Lord Krsna had enunciated the essence of spiritual instruction in His Bhagavad-gita: “Give up all religious duties and spiritual paths and simply surrender to Me.” Lord Caitanya also came to teach surrender to Krsna, but, by perfectly playing the role of a pure devotee of Krsna, He not only taught surrender but also demonstrated it, specifically through chanting the holy names of God. Lord Caitanya had other reasons for appearing, but these are beyond the scope of our present discussion. His propagation of the chanting of the holy names, however, was central to His mission.
According to the Vedic literature, Lord Caitanya appeared during this present degraded age called Kali-yuga to establish the specific religious principle for all humanity. As the Sanskrit scriptures say, He came to establish the yuga-dharma, “the religion for the age.” And the yuga-dharma is the chanting of the holy names of God: kalau tad dhari-kirtanat. It is most fitting, therefore, that on the night of Lord Caitanya’s birth, the holy name also advented.
On that night there occurred a full lunar eclipse, and as was the custom among strict followers of Vedic culture, millions of sincere devotees of God took their sacred bath standing waist-deep in the sea or in a holy river such as the Ganges. Throughout the duration of the eclipse, everyone remained standing in the water and, as was also the custom, chanted the holy names: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Even those who did not understand began mocking the chanting, until practically the whole of India resounded with the holy names.
This, of course, was no coincidence, but was an arrangement by the Lord to indicate the special significance of His birth: “I have come out of My mercy to lead the world back to Godhead. Everyone chant the holy names: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”