A personal account of spiritual awakening
in the land of Lord Caitanya’s birth.
by Mandalesvara dasa
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.
The picture above portrays a scene from the life of Lord Caitanya. Here He enjoys a reunion with some of His dear friends. He was at this time living in the coastal city of Puri on the Bay of Bengal in the state of Orissa, and His quarters were near the compound of the famous temple of Jagannatha. The places where He and His dear friends met together and discussed the nectarean topics of love of God are still there, and anyone can visit them. I did. The intimate associates of the Lord and their transcendental pastimes with Him are eternal reality, and anyone can read about them. I do. And I accept them. I have for fourteen years.
But do I understand them? Are my religious beliefs just that—beliefs? Over the years I have often, during a religious or philosophical discussion, had to point out when a person’s beliefs were more lip service than, shall we say, realization. And likewise, I apply the same critical scrutiny within my own heart.
So, it is a simply stated truth: The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Caitanya, appears within this material world accompanied by His eternal associates. Yet it was to understand this truth more fully that several years ago I paid my first visit to the holy places connected with Lord Caitanya’s pastimes on earth.
A series of minor miracles, or so they seemed at the time, somehow brought me during the spring of 1977 far from the place of my birth to the place of Lord Caitanya’s birth in the rural farming district of Nadia, West Bengal, to the village of Mayapur, about ninety miles up the Ganges from Calcutta. Now, except for a two-day visit to the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras back in ’69, I had never even been outside the United States, yet here I was in India! Eight thousand miles from the place where I had taken birth, gone to school, made friends, gotten married. And my first taste of India was Calcutta.
Oh, Calcutta! The plunge was a shock to my system, like an icy bath for my ethnocentric self. For me the shock was not so much the language barrier, or driving on the left, or even the poverty. Was it then the irritating and inescapable pushing, shoving, and jockeying—in the taxi lines, in the ticket queues, at the train platform, on the train seat? Certainly that helped. And what about the exotic foreignness of it all, which hung over Calcutta like smoke over a sacked city and which entered the nostrils, alerting the brain even of one with no eyes to see or ears to hear: “This is Calcutta. India.” And the smell of the air, that mixture of smoke from the cow-dung fires, of dust, of cooking spices, and of warm, perspiring bodies, also helped to submerge me in a cultural malaise, confining me to the uneasy comfort of “the American tourist.” But especially unsettling were the eyes, thousands of brown, restless eyes—seeing me, the Western misfit, the fair-skinned rich man, the sahib. And because I was shaven-headed and wore the dress of a religious Indian gentleman, I provided a touch of mild excitement, generating transcultural double takes wherever I went.
But Calcutta, although one of the world’s largest cities, was for me just a whistle stop. I was bound for Mayapur, ninety miles inland, up the Ganges into the tropical paradise that, five hundred years ago, had hosted the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Caitanya, and His intimate associates. As I left behind the squalor and faded glory of Calcutta and drifted into the tropical splendor of rural West Bengal, I felt more at ease. Oh, there were still the same piercing brown eyes. This was, after all, Bengal, and Bengali eyes, I later learned, were the brightest, most piercing, and most restless in all of India. But I was more comfortable, nonetheless, just to see everywhere, as the train rocked and drifted quickly back into the past, a way of life that was timeless and that was obviously far more in touch with the necessities of life and with the purpose of life than I had ever seen before.
Of course, my real business in India was not to savor the beauty of West Bengal’s fields, jungles, and villages, breathing the fresh country air. And it certainly wasn’t to gawk on the streets of Calcutta. My real purpose was to visit the holy places of Lord Caitanya’s pastimes and to deepen my understanding of the Supreme Lord and His intimate associates. And here in these few pages my purpose is to share that understanding with you. Yet even as I write these words I am reminded that, for some of my readers, the new ideas here will threaten rather than excite, transcultural intercourse being for them something awkward and sterile rather than spontaneous and enriching.
Yet although it may not be possible for one person to fully understand how another feels, I think I can really sympathize with the culturally cloistered mind recoiling at the harshness and foreignness of the unfamiliar. After all, I had my unsettling encounter with Calcutta and an unfamiliar people. My preconception of India and her people was set, preconceived—wrong. Suddenly I was forced to acknowledge that this, and not my preconception, was India. And so it is with any truth, absolute truth included. To reject an idea as wrong simply because it is unfamiliar or doesn’t fit in with our preconception is ludicrous. There was, after all, a time for all of us when the entire world was unfamiliar.
So, taking the unfamiliar (and my subsequent culture shock) in stride, I stepped down from the train at Navadvipa and proceeded toward Mayapur and the places where Lord Caitanya and His intimate associates had enjoyed their transcendental pastimes together.
With all the devotion I could muster, I visited one sacred site after another: the birthplace, where Lord Caitanya had displayed the adorable pastimes and miracles of His infancy, all under the watchful care of His mother, Srimati Sacidevi, and His father, Jagannatha Misra; the place of the all-night kirtanas, where in great ecstasy Lord Caitanya and His dear friends had danced for hours on end, chanting the Hare Krsna mantra. And there were many other places to see and pastimes to remember. I also purchased a ticket on the Puri Express for Jagannatha Puri, twenty-four hours to the south in the state of Orissa. Here I saw—although being a Westerner I could not enter—the ancient temple of Lord Jagannatha (Krsna), nearby which Lord Caitanya had resided as a renounced celibate monk (sannyasi) for the last eighteen years of His life. I walked along the parade route, where every year for eighteen years Lord Caitanya and His devotees had danced and cried and leaped into the air, raising a tumultuous roar of “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna” as they beheld the image of Lord Jagannatha in the centuries-old Ratha-yatra festival.
As reverently I moved from place to place, I felt transformed, convinced. I was lifted out of my petty concerns about being a white American misfit, out of my false identification that I was a twenty-nine-year-old married male from Mississippi taking a religious-oriented trip to holy places in India although suffering a touch of dysentery and more than a touch of culture shock. Of course, these things were to be reckoned with, but they were not all in all; they were not my true identity. They were temporary conditions such as all of us burden ourselves with, and they can easily hamper one’s ability to understand the most important facts about life’s meaning and about one’s own purpose and identity.
So many people (perhaps even you as you read this magazine) let some temporary, external consideration interfere with their understanding spiritual truth: “Oh, that’s from India; I’m an American.” Or, “That’s Hinduism; I’m a Christian.” Or, “That’s religion; I’m an atheist.” On hearing that Lord Caitanya is the Supreme God and that we are all His eternal servants, we should feel conviction. We should feel our consciousness soar beyond the bondage of our death-bound journey and find conviction, realization: “Oh, this is truth; I’ve been in ignorance.”
Now, when I say that I became convinced, I don’t mean to imply that up until that point I had been a doubting disciple or a blind follower. But as one progresses in spiritual life, things that one may have faithfully accepted with the intellect and with the heart may suddenly take on even fuller, deeper meaning. That is called realization, the dynamics of ever-unfolding truth. In the early stages of pure devotional service, one may accept from the scriptures, from the spiritual master, and from other saintly persons: “Lord Caitanya is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and lam His eternal servant.” This is true, absolutely, and even a neophyte can realize it. But as one makes further spiritual progress, that simple’ truth, although never changing, blooms and grows, expanding in meaning and intensity. So when I say I became convinced, I mean that the truths that I had already accepted unfolded within me one more beautiful new petal.
Since 1971, when I had joined the Krsna consciousness movement, my readings about Lord Caitanya had convinced me profoundly and mystically of a supra-mundane quality to the pastimes of Lord Caitanya and His intimate associates. While reading the Teachings of Lord Caitanya and the Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, I had experienced on certain occasions what seemed to be religious ecstasy, and deep within my intelligence and within my very being I had felt a transformation, a profound conviction, one bolstered by the sweetest emotions of love that I had ever known. Thus, not only in my intellect, but throughout my entire being, I had already become convinced about the truth and reality of Lord Caitanya’s pastimes and associates.
Now again, in the early spring of 1977, I was finding renewed conviction, strength, and hope. As I visited each holy site, sometimes reading about the Lord’s dealings with an eternal associate there, sometimes hearing about them from a learned God-brother, I was transported. Each pastime became reality and each associate became an eternal, spiritual personality, imbued with pure love for Lord Caitanya and with causeless compassion for struggling souls like me, entangled life after life in this material world. I felt my ordinary, mundane vision being supplanted by a spiritual outlook: language, nationality, and other bodily designations seemed distant and unimportant. Far from feeling out of place, I felt at home, more so than I had ever felt before at any place before. I belonged—not because of my birth or education or religious beliefs, but because I was an eternal servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Caitanya, and because through the mercy of my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, my own intimate relationship with Lord Caitanya was being awakened.
Thus, as this new petal of the ever-blooming lotus of transcendental realization opened within me, I found all the truths of the pastimes of Lord Caitanya and His dearmost associates confirmed, just as I had studied in Srila Prabhupada’s commentaries. In other words, my realizations corroborated what I already knew to be true and what countless others before me had held to be true—the truth of the Vedic scriptures as explained through the disciplic succession of realized sages and as revealed by my own spiritual master.
Teaching from the Vedic literature, Srila Prabhupada has explained that Lord Caitanya exists eternally in His spiritual abode. That world is beyond this material world of birth and death, creation and destruction. That world is self-effulgent, whereas this material world is “artificially lit” by the sun, without which we would be engulfed in utter darkness. In the Lord’s abode, everything perfectly exists in ever-youthful freshness and beauty, whereas here, perfection is a will-o’-the-wisp, and creation gives way to dissolution and decay, youth succumbs to old age, health to disease, and love turns to disenchantment or even hate. Why, one may well ask, would the Supreme Personality of Godhead leave such a place as the spiritual world and come to such a place as this?
He doesn’t. Oh, He comes all right, but He brings the spiritual realm with Him. In this regard Lord Caitanya and His intimate associates are compared to a lotus flower,
The lotus, although growing within a lake or river, rests on its stem above the water. It grows in the water, but untouched. Also, the petals exude a protective, waxy coating, further insulating the flower. Similarly, because Lord Caitanya is transcendental, it is no hardship for Him to come to the material world.
The fact is, the Lord won’t leave His eternal associates, and they cannot bear to be separated from Him. Therefore, out of His infinite power and intelligence, He has arranged that wherever He is and whatever He does, He is never without His loving, intimate friends. And thus He accomplishes several important things: (1) He doesn’t have to leave His loved ones and go all alone to an unfriendly place. (2) His’ intimate associates don’t have to be deprived of His association, which for them is their very life. (3) He can accomplish many of His purposes through the agency of His fully surrendered servitors-who just happen to be on hand—thus allowing them to receive the credit and glory. (4) He is able to attract the forgetful, suffering souls of the material world to the selfless love that characterizes the spiritual world simply by displaying that love for all to see and learn about and enter into.
And who were these intimate associates? Well, there’s no naming them all, but I should mention a few. Lord Caitanya’s parents, Jagannatha Misra and Srimati Sacidevi, were the same two devotees who had served Him as His parents Nanda and Yasoda during His appearance as Lord Krsna some 4,500 years before. In this way Lord Caitanya was showing that He and Lord Krsna were one and the same. Lord Caitanya’s spiritual master was Isvara Puri. By accepting initiation and guidance from a bona fide spiritual master, Lord Caitanya emphasized the importance of disciplic succession: If even God Himself submits before a spiritual master, who are we to do otherwise? Lord Caitanya’s close friendship with Mohammedan-born Haridasa Thakura taught the world that one needn’t have been born in a Hindu family to be a great devotee of Lord Krsna.
Lord Caitanya Himself wrote only eight Sanskrit verses, but He taught certain disciples, such as Srila Rupa and Sanatana Gosvamis, who wrote and compiled volumes of Vaisnava literature. Thus the Lord gave the honor of making important literary contributions to His confidential associates. Then there were the Lord’s talks with Ramananda Raya, which disclosed the highest, most intimate understanding of the loving affairs of Lord Krsna and His eternal consort, Srimati Radharani. Thus, through His association with these and many, many other devotees, Lord Caitanya personally relished and also made available to everyone the ecstasy of pure Krsna consciousness.
Even today, you and I can become blessed by the auspicious, transcendental pastimes of Lord Caitanya and His associates. As the accompanying painting, which is like a window on the spiritual world, portrays, Lord Caitanya’s pastimes are of the highest degree of loving exchange and devotion. Read the Lord’s pastimes and teachings in the Caitanya-caritamrta, and if at all possible, visit the places in West Bengal, Orissa, and elsewhere where those pastimes were performed. If you do so under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, the transcendental reality of it all will awaken you to your eternal identity.