Five hundred years ago, as today, the public chanting,
dancing, and preaching of Lord Caitanya’s followers
wasn’t always understood. Ah, if they only knew.
by Mandalesvara dasa
When the eastern horizon became tinged with the redness that heralds the rising of the sun, the jewel among the brahmanas, Lord Caitanya, immediately awakened. Taking His devotees with Him, He journeyed through the towns and villages of Nadia. The mrdanga drums resounded and the hand cymbals played in time. Lord Caitanya’s golden form slightly trembled in ecstatic love of Godhead, and His footbells jingled. Lord Caitanya called out to the townsfolk, “You spend your nights uselessly sleeping and your days decorating your bodies! Now just sing the holy names without offense. You have achieved this rare human body. Don’t you care for this gift? If you do not worship the darling of mother Yasoda now, then great sorrow awaits you at death. With every rising and setting of the sun, a day passes and is lost. Why then do you remain idle and not serve Krsna, the Lord of the heart? You should understand this essential fact: Life is temporary and filled with miseries. Therefore carefully take shelter of the holy name and remain always engaged in His service. Desiring to bless all living beings, this sweet name of Krsna has descended to this material universe and shines like the sun in the sky of the heart, destroying the darkness of ignorance.” Arunodaya-kirtana, by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura)
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 poetic description in the caption below,* translated from the Bengali, takes us back almost five hundred years. Lord Caitanya, known then as Nimai Pandita, was married and living in His home town of Navadvipa. He was young, but already He had earned the reputation of a God-intoxicated saint. His charming charismatic power enabled Him to inspire one and all to join Him in the purest ecstasy of chanting Lord Krsna’s beautiful, absolute names.
*[When the eastern horizon became tinged with the redness that heralds the rising of the sun, the jewel among the brahmanas, Lord Caitanya, immediately awakened. Taking His devotees with Him, He journeyed through the towns and villages of Nadia. The mrdanga drums resounded and the hand cymbals played in time. Lord Caitanya’s golden form slightly trembled in ecstatic love of Godhead, and His footbells jingled. Lord Caitanya called out to the townsfolk, “You spend your nights uselessly sleeping and your days decorating your bodies! Now just sing the holy names without offense. You have achieved this rare human body. Don’t you care for this gift? If you do not worship the darling of mother Yasoda now, then great sorrow awaits you at death. With every rising and setting of the sun, a day passes and is lost. Why then do you remain idle and not serve Krsna, the Lord of the heart? You should understand this essential fact: Life is temporary and filled with miseries. Therefore carefully take shelter of the holy name and remain always engaged in His service. Desiring to bless all living beings, this sweet name of Krsna has descended to this material universe and shines like the sun in the sky of the heart, destroying the darkness of ignorance.” (Arunodaya-kirtana, by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura)]
Historically and theologically, Lord Caitanya’s chanting and dancing and preaching (pictured at right) are the basis for the public chanting and literature distribution of the members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness today. And five hundred years ago, as today, the sankirtana movement of Lord Caitanya was not always appreciated.
It so happened that certain Hindus came before Chand Kazi, the Mohammedan ruler in that part of Bengal, to complain of Nimai Pandita’s sankirtana. The Caitanya-caritamrta relates their complaints as follows:
Nimai Pandita was previously a very good boy But now He loudly sings all kinds of songs, clapping playing drums and hand bells and making a tumultuous sound that deafens our ears. . . . He has made all the peoplepracticallymad by always performing congregational chanting. . . . He has spoiled the Hindu religious principles and introduced the irreligion of nonbelievers. Now the lower classes are chanting the Hare Krsna mantra again and again. For this sinful activity, the entire city of Navadvipa will be deserted. According to Hindu scripture, God’s name is supposed to be the most powerful hymn. If everyone hears the chanting of God’s name, the potency will be lost.”
Such complaints as these, though isolated and based on misunderstanding, influenced Chand Kazi to try to oppose the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Yet what to speak of Chand Kazi, no powerful ruler, not even the mythical Lucifer, is a fit competitor for God. Lord Caitanya came to this world to establish the universal, nonsectarian religion for the entire age, and no one can stop Him or His mission. To try to do so, as the story of Chand Kazi will reveal, could be risky.
The Kazi foolishly reassured his petitioners that he would personally put a stop to the public chanting of Hare Krsna. To prove His point, he went out and threatened a group of chanters with arrest, smashing a clay drum used to accompany the chanting But in his dreams that very night, the Kazi saw what appeared to be a greatly fearsome creature, His body likeaman’s, His head like a lion’s, roaring very loudly.
“While I was asleep, the lion jumped on my chest, laughing fiercely and gnashing His teeth. Placing its nails on my chest, the lion said in a grave voice: I shall immediately bifurcate your chest because you broke the mrdanga drum! You have forbidden the performance of My congregational chanting. Therefore I must destroy you!”
Being very afraid, I shut my eyes and trembled. Seeing me so afraid, the lion said, “I have defeated you just to teach you a lesson, but I must be merciful to you. Today, you did not create a very great disturbance. Therefore I have excused you and not taken your life. But if you perform such activities again, I shall not be tolerant.”‘
About that same time, one of the Kazi’s constables attempted to stop a group of devotees from singing Hare Krsna. But when he did so, a flame from no visible source suddenly flared up and burned his beard and blistered his cheeks. This happened on several occasions, with several of the Kazi’s constables.
The fearful Kazi thought it wise to raise his restriction on public chanting, and he did. But now he began receiving reports and complaints that even many non-Hindus were taking up the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra. It was an epidemic!
The Kazi was dismayed to learn that Lord Caitanya was organizing a massive civil disobedience protest. Assembling devotees from all over the Navadvipa area, Lord Caitanya led a great procession of chanters in a march on the home of Chand Kazi. An army of voices thundered with the Hare Krsna mantra as virtually the entire city of Navadvipa converged on the Kazi’s home. Inside, the Kazi cowered, fearing that an irate mob had come to finish him. But by the transcendental power of Lord Caitanya and by the power of the holy name Himself on the lips of the chanters, the crowd remained peaceful.
Lord Caitanya, not by a show of force but by His unequaled charisma, scriptural knowledge, and power of argument, convinced the Kazi of the importance of propagating the chanting of God’s holy names. So the story has a happy ending:
The Lord said, “I wish to beg you for one favor in charity. You must pledge that this sankirtana movement will not be checked, at least inthe district of Nadia.”
The Kazi said, “To as many descendants as take birth inmy dynasty in the future, I give this grave admonition: No one should check the sankirtana movement.”
Hearing this, the Lord got up, chanting “Hari Hari!” Following Him, all the other Vaisnavas also got up, chanting the vibration of the holy name. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu went back to perform kirtana, and the Kazi, his mind jubilant, went with Him.
Lord Caitanya, by His logic, scriptural evidence, and charisma, was able to convince Chand Kazi to chant Hare Krsna.
Today also public leaders should logically and systematically consider the philosophy of Lord Caitanya and try to understand the tremendous value of His movement. Chand Kazi, in cooperating with Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement, derived inestimable spiritual benefit. Although a devout Mohammedan, he became convinced by Lord Caitanya of the higher, nonsectarian principle of glorifying God through singing His names, thus showing that the sankirtana movement is indeed universal.
This victory of Nimai Pandita’s in His home town of Navadvipa was but one of many such victories. In fact, Lord Caitanya, being the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is never defeated. In other words, the sankirtana movement is all part of God’s great plan for creation.
Consider the history . . .
In the beginning, the Supreme Personality of Godhead glanced over His own inconceivable material energy and set in motion the divine mechanism of cosmic creation. Having thus generated the entire creation out of Himself, He then entered within it and gave it life, just as the soul gives life to the physical body. In His feature as the four-armed Lord Visnu, He incarnated permanently within every atom and, side by side with every infinitesimal soul, within the heart of every living being, mammoth to microbe, accompanying the soul on its wayward sojourn through material existence, lifetime after lifetime.
Yet despite the all-pervading personal presence of the Supreme Godhead—within the atoms, within the hearts of others, and within ourselves—we remain strangely blind to that presence. Flaunting our minute independence, we have desired to enjoy apart from God, the creator and controller of everything. And God, to fulfill that desire, has obligingly veiled our original, or Krsna, consciousness. Now, instead of reveling in our true identity as the Lord’s eternal servant, friend, parent, or lover, we labor under one temporary material identity after another, life after life.
This is referred to in the Sanskrit as ahankara, which roughly translates as, “I am this body.” In other words, the Supreme Personality of Godhead has given us over to illusion.
But we asked for it. Without being illusioned, we could not feel satisfied within the miserable restrictions of material existence while we seek out happiness, oblivious to the Supreme Lord and our constitutional position as His eternal servants.
Lord Caitanya, however, wants to give us relief, to revive us to our original consciousness of eternal happiness and illumination. Therefore, in our interest He incarnates again and again, age after age, in various ways and through various eternal forms. Sometimes He sends His representatives, who are like His sons or servants, and who act as His emissaries, executing His will. But Lord Caitanya also comes in person. And when He does so. He prefers to come during the most degraded of times, the age of Kali (which began about 5,000 years ago and extends 427,000 years into the future).
And the particular prescription the Lord offers in this none-too-spiritually-inclined age is, most appropriately, simple and universal: uniting together and chanting the holy names of God. The result: the lifting of the veil of illusion, the revival of our dormant love for God, and the severing at last of our age-old shackle to the chain of birth and death, birth and death, birth and death—lifetime after lifetime. That is the purpose of human life. So Lord Caitanya’s prescription of chanting the holy names of God is no sentimental, religious fanaticism; it is the universal religious practice for our age.
The inception of Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement in the West occurred during the summer of 1966, on New York City’s Lower East Side. It was begun by Lord Caitanya’s own empowered emissary, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, known then simply as Bhaktivedanta Swami or Swamiji. Humbly, this lone individual began his divine mission on behalf of Lord Caitanya. In that tiny storefront at 26 Second Avenue, which by now must be intergalactically famous, and in nearby Tompkins Square Park, Srila Prabhupada founded Lord Caitanya’s International Society for Krishna Consciousness and planted the seed of sankirtana by leading all comers in the nonsectarian chanting of the holy names of God. By dint of his spiritual purity, Srila Prabhupada was able to invoke the mercy of Lord Caitanya and eventually, through his active preaching, to garland the world with the chanting of the holy names, just as Lord Caitanya desired. Like medicine from a time-release capsule, the chanting of the holy names is gradually entering the bloodstream of today’s nations, races, and religions. And gradually we are feeling relief.
Relief does not mean, however, that all the suffering of the world will be removed and all the sinning will continue. Rather, the sincere chanter of the holy names sees that all suffering is due to disobedience to the laws of God: sin. He knows that to achieve complete freedom from suffering, one must give up the hypocrisy of sinful life. The chanting of the holy names, therefore, must be accompanied by the cultivation of transcendental knowledge and the application of the principles of holy life.
To give an example: When firewood is dried, or cured, it can very easily be made to flame. And in a dry forest in summer, a spark and a brisk, driving wind can easily create a conflagration that man’s efforts cannot contain. Similarly, the chanting of Hare Krsna will spread most quickly and powerfully when the masses have been “cured” through the cultivation of transcendental knowledge and the renunciation of hedonism and violence. The members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness have sworn themselves to the path of spiritual knowledge, right action, and regulated chanting of God’s names. Their lives, therefore, are set forth as examples of the transforming, life-lifting power of sankirtana.
The members of the Hare Krsna movement know within their hearts that although they may experience many difficulties, as long as they remain sincere and dedicated, they will be victorious. They know that they are executing the mission of the Supreme Lord Himself and that they are under His protection. The only real threat, therefore, is when the devotees become deficient in the three critical areas mentioned above: (1) chanting the holy names under strict regulation, (2) cultivating transcendental knowledge, and (3) living by the principles of holy life. Naturally, a devotee sometimes feels the urge for sinful life, for philosophical deviation, or for rebellion against the authority of guru or even against his very life support, Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement. But if he remains sincere and faithful to Lord Caitanya’s desires, he participates fully in the great chanting party of God Himself.
In the traditional singing of Hare Krsna, a lead singer chants the mantra and the others respond. Similarly, the sincere devotee of Lord Caitanya is like one who responds to the Lord’s lead. As Lord Caitanya is dancing in ecstasy and drinking the nectar of the holy names, He is also inviting us to join with Him. We have only to shed some of our materialistic misconceptions, raise our hands, open our hearts and mouths, and follow Him: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare / Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
The chanting of this mantra is the very breathing of the eternal soul in the liberated condition, and its meaning is fully spiritual: “O dear Lord Krsna, please engage me in Your transcendental, loving service.” This is the eternal, constitutional function of everyone, and it’s as spiritual as you can get—singing and singing the names of God for all the world and God Himself to hear, praying fervently all the while: “O dear Lord, please engage me in Your transcendental, loving service.”
You can lose yourself in the chanting. There’s no need for any other thought, and as your intensity and sincerity increase, you feel an inner joy that awakens within your heart, like some long-asleep eagle now spreading its wings after eons of stillness. And you begin to soar, slowly at first, taking off from the peak of your highest hopes that God will incline toward your helpless prayer for entrance into His service.
And raising your arms, you take wing and dance—with abandon, yet fully conscious of all that is really important: Who you are. Why you are.
As at last you enter into your spirit element, all material pleasures and goals seem far below you, tiny and insignificant. The brilliant light of transcendental knowledge warms you on your flight. No sentimental, religious rapture, this is real life as it was meant to be, as Lord Caitanya meant for you to have it: eternal life full of bliss and knowledge. This is the sankirtana movement of Lord Caitanya.