Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami is the Editor of Backto Godhead.
IN HIS BOOK Teachings of Lord Caitanya, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada describes how Sanatana Gosvami, a learned scholar and expert politician, became an important member of the Krishna consciousness movement. Five hundred years ago, Sanatana Gosvami was a central figure in the government of Bengal, but by leaving his governmental responsibilities to surrender to Lord Caitanya, he fulfilled a far more important responsibility to both himself and humanity in the service of the Supreme Lord.
Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the father of the Krishna consciousness movement, was a householder for the first twenty-four years of His life, and He began the Hare Krishna movement before He was twenty. But He gave up His wife and home and entered the renounced order, sannyasa, to facilitate His mission of preaching Krishna consciousness.
For the first six years of His life as a sannyasi, Lord Caitanya traveled all over India performing sankirtana, the congregational chanting of Hare Krishna, singing and dancing with thousands of people and thus overflooding the land with love of God. While thus engaged, He came to a village in Bengal named Ramakeli, and there He met Sanatana Gosvami and his brother Rupa.
Although the two brothers, then known as Sakara Mallik and Dabhir Khas, appeared exalted in their posts as ministers in the Mohammedan government of Nawab Hussain Shah, they were actually degraded. They had been highly placed Hindu brahmanas (intellectuals), but their acceptance of posts in government service had jeopardized both their intellectual and religious standing. Indeed, because of the brothers’ association with worldly, sinful people addicted to meat eating, illicit sex, intoxication and worldly power, the other brahmanas considered them fallen and ostracized them from the Hindu community.
That the Hindus had rejected the brothers, considering them half-Moslem, did not concern Lord Caitanya, for He was a universal teacher who declared that He was neither Hindu, brahmana nor sannyasi, but was a servant of the servant of the servant of the Supreme Lord. Krishna declares in Bhagavad-gita that He is the father of all living entities, not the God of any one sect or religion, and He asks everyone to surrender to Him. Therefore Lord Caitanya, while distributing the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra, taught as a devotee that one should surrender to Krishna. When the two brothers Sanatana and Rupa met Lord Caitanya at Ramakeli, they decided to resign from their governmental posts and join the Krishna consciousness movement. And later, despite his former aristocracy, Sanatana Gosvami admitted that Lord Caitanya had saved him from a hellish life.
Once in office, most politicians, being interested only in gratifying their own senses, scheme to stay in office until they die or their constituents kick them out. But Sanatana wanted to disentangle himself from the service of the State. Nawab Hussain Shah, the ruler of Bengal, liked to hunt and conduct military campaigns, and he usually left the government in Sanatana’s hands. Therefore, since Sanatana was practically guiding the entire government, how could he leave his post? His resignation would be comparable to our modern Secretary of State’s suddenly resigning to become a renounced monk of the Hare Krishna movement.
Nawab Hussein Shah entered the assembly and demanded to know Sanatana’s intentions.
Nevertheless, after handing over his official responsibilities to his immediate assistants, Sanatana stayed home to study Srimad-Bhagavatam intensively with ten or twenty brahmanas. Srimad-Bhagavatam is called the spotless scripture because it leaves behind all compromising philosophies and religions, teaching only pure love of God. Lord Caitanya has declared that for spiritual perfection one need study no books other than Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, and therefore His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the spiritual master spearheading the modern resurgence of Krishna consciousness, is translating the Bhagavatam into English with elaborate purports to teach knowledge of Krishna to the people of the West.
Sanatana absorbed himself in studying the Bhagavatam because simply hearing the Bhagavatam can change one’s life. One should not think that Krishna consciousness is meant only to give shelter to economic failures, for although he was a wealthy aristocrat, a learned scholar in Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian, and a successful and influential politician, Sanatana Gosvami, considering such opulences insignificant, aspired only to be a humble student of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
While preparing himself in this way to join Lord Caitanya, Sanatana submitted reports of sickness to the Nawab, but since the ruler was anxious to get Sanatana’s advice on governmental affairs, one day he appeared at Sanatana’s home. When he entered the assembly of Sanatana and the brahmanas, they all stood up to receive him, but unfortunately the Nawab was not interested in hearing Srimad-Bhagavatam.
“You have submitted reports of sickness,” he said, “but I sent my physician to see you, and he reported that you have no illness. Your behavior greatly perturbs me.” When the Nawab demanded to know Sanatana’s intentions, Sanatana answered that he was unable to work any more and that it would be kind of the Nawab to appoint someone else to do his work. The Nawab then left in anger, and shortly afterwards he went off to conquer the province of Orissa, ordering the arrest of Sanatana Gosvami until he returned.
It is unfortunate that the Nawab did not see the value of Srimad-Bhagavatam, for it would have been valuable to his administration. Formerly great leaders consulted the Bhagavatam and its brahminical devotees for practical guidance in organizing a peaceful and prosperous society according to principles of God consciousness. But the Nawab, being a rather low-minded hunter, did not take the Bhagavatam seriously.
Despite Sanatana’s apparent misfortune in being imprisoned, one should not think him an ordinary conditioned soul entangled in a snare of material circumstances. As confirmed by revealed scriptures, Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu is Lord Krishna Himself, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. To make the knowledge He formerly taught in Bhagavad-gita easily available to everyone, Lord Krishna appeared in India five hundred years ago to propagate love of God by chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Sanatana Gosvami is an eternal servant of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and he appeared in this world to assist the Lord in His pastimes. He was never under the influence of material contamination, but difficulties beset him only so that he might set an example of how to act in Krishna consciousness.
Dedication to Krishna consciousness is a declaration of war against material illusion. Freeing oneself from sinful life is sometimes difficult because of one’s previous attachments, but if one is sincere, like Sanatana, and depends on the Lord, he will emerge from all difficulties and be able to engage freely in devotional service. Therefore, although Sanatana appeared to fare badly as soon as he took to Krishna consciousness, his apparent setback was but another feature of his glory, for he had escaped a hellish life and was on the path to becoming a gosvami, or master of the senses, who always feels transcendental ecstasy.
Sanatana did not stay long in prison, for his brother Rupa heard of his plight and came to his aid. Rupa, who had been able to leave his governmental post and start for Jagannatha Puri to meet Lord Caitanya, arranged to make ten thousand gold coins available for Sanatana’s release. On hearing that this money was available, Sanatana offered five thousand coins to the jail keeper as a bribe for letting him go. The jail keeper expressed fear that he would be caught, but when Sanatana raised his offer to ten thousand coins, the jail keeper agreed, and Sanatana then set out to meet Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, traveling not by the open roads but through the jungles.
One might ask, “You describe Sanatana Gosvami as a saint, yet he did not hesitate to bribe a government official to release himself. What kind of saintliness is that?” To understand Sanatana’s purity, however, one must first understand that a devotee’s foremost duty is to satisfy the Supreme Lord. A devotee always acts to please Krishna, not whimsically but as directed by the scriptures and his spiritual master. Since Krishna is the absolute morality and the absolute good, one who strives in this way only to please Krishna is the greatest, purest moralist.
Impure and selfish men who do not understand that everything belongs to Krishna and should be offered to Him try to enjoy God’s property themselves, not properly recognizing the Lord’s ownership. Despite their social standing and their reputation as public-spirited citizens, it is such men who are actually cheaters and thieves, whereas devotees like Sanatana, who work not for their own purposes but only to serve Krishna, are thereby able to make the greatest contributions to human society.
After escaping from prison, Sanatana, traveling on foot with one servant, reached a place in Behar called Pabda, where he rested at a hotel. But when the hotel keeper’s astrologer calculated that Sanatana had eight gold coins with him, the hotel keeper formed a plot to kill Sanatana. Treating him with artificial respect, the hotel keeper said, “My dear sir, just rest here tonight, and in the morning I shall arrange to get you out of this jungle trap.”
Sanatana, however, suspecting the man’s insincerity, asked his servant, Isana, if he had money with him. When Is’ana admitted that he indeed had seven gold coins, Sanatana, angry at him for secretly carrying money, demanded, “Why do you carry this death knell on the road?” He then took the seven coins and offered them to the hotel keeper.
“I understood that you had eight coins with you,” the hotel keeper admitted, “and I was thinking of killing you to take them. But I understand you are a good man, and you don’t have to offer me the money. I’ll help you out of the jungle in any case.”
But Sanatana insisted, “if you don’t take this money, someone else will kill me for it. Please take it.” The hotel keeper agreed, and that very night he helped Sanatana past the hills.
When clear of the jungle, Sanatana sent his servant home. Although he was supposed to have been Sanatana’s menial helper, he was secretly carrying eight gold coins, and when his master asked about them he lied, saying he had only seven, so he could keep one coin for himself. It is not that one may not use money in Krishna’s service-indeed, one may collect and spend millions of dollars to build temples and publish books glorifying the Lord. But a devotee, especially one in the renounced order, should be wary of collecting money for his own sense gratification.
Realizing the contaminating influence of his former wealth and aristocracy, Sanatana wanted to divest himself of his opulence and approach Lord Caitanya in a spirit of purity and humility, not as a dollars-and-cents man. To Sanatana, material acquisitions were burdens that weighed him down. He understood that they lead only to future bondage in birth and death. As stated in Bhagavad-gita, “The wise, engaged in devotional service, take refuge in the Lord and free themselves from the cycle of birth and death. Thus, by renouncing the fruits of actions in this world, they obtain the place beyond all misery.”
After the departure of his servant, Sanatana Gosvami, feeling completely free, wearing torn clothing and carrying a water pot in his hand, proceeded toward Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. While traveling he met his rich brother-in-law, who was surprised to see him traveling alone in the guise of a beggar. Sanatana was no longer eager to associate with worldly men, but his brother-in-law insisted that he take an excellent blanket, and Sanatana accepted it.
Lord Caitanya embraced Sanatana in the courtyard of Candrasekhara’s house.
Sanatana finally arrived in Benares, and he was glad to hear that Lord Caitanya was indeed in the city. When he approached the house of Candrasekhara Acarya, where the Lord was staying, the Lord, understanding that Sanatana had arrived, asked His host to go outside and ask the great devotee standing by the door to come in.
Candrasekhara went outside, but when he came back he reported to the Lord, “There is no great devotee out there, but only a wretched man with a beard.”
“The man you saw,” Lord Caitanya replied, “is actually a pure devotee. Have him come in at once.” Thus we can understand that unless one already has genuine spiritual knowledge, one cannot recognize a great devotee simply by seeing him. So many false svamis and yogis make money by growing long beards, dressing up in saffron robes and pretending to be saints. Therefore one should recognize a great spiritualist not by his appearance but by his words. The best way to recognize a genuine pure devotee is by his teachings.
When Sanatana entered the courtyard of the house, Lord Caitanya ran to receive and embrace him. He touched Sanatana with His hand, but Sanatana, thinking himself a lowly, contaminated man, pleaded, “My dear Lord, please do not touch me.”
But the Lord replied, “I am touching you just for My purification because you are a great devotee. By your devotional service, you can deliver the whole universe and enable everyone to go back to Godhead.” He then quoted a verse stating that one who fully engages in devotional service is the most valuable person, regardless of his birth or any other consideration.
After Sanatana explained how he had gotten free from custody, the Lord introduced him to Candrasekhara. The Lord asked Candrasekhara to take Sanatana to a barber and make him gentle because he had grown a long beard that Lord Caitanya did not like. Candrasekhara also offered Sanatana new clothes, but Sanatana accepted only used garments. When Candrasekhara invited him to have lunch with him every day, Sanatana replied, “As long as I stay in Benares I shall beg from door to door.”
When Lord Caitanya heard about this behavior of Sanatana, He was greatly pleased. But He noticed the blanket given Sanatana by his brother-in-law, and although He said nothing about it, Sanatana understood that the Lord did not approve of his wearing it. Therefore he immediately went to the bank of the Ganges, and when he saw a mendicant there washing an old quilt, he asked him to trade the quilt for his valuable blanket.
The poor mendicant thought Sanatana was joking with him. “You appear to be a nice gentleman,” he said. “Why are you mocking me?”
“I am not joking with you,” Sanatana informed him. “I am serious. Will you kindly take this blanket for the torn quilt?” Then Sanatana exchanged his blanket for the quilt and came before the Lord.
Lord Caitanya was pleased, and He thanked Sanatana. “Being intelligent,” He declared, “you have now left behind all your attraction for material wealth.”
Sanatana Gosvami then brought forward his inquiries about spiritual life. Falling down at the feet of the Lord with great humility, he asked about his own identity. “I have been born of a low family,” he said, “and my associations are all abominable. I am the most fallen and wretched of men. Suffering in the dark well of material enjoyment, I never knew the actual goal of my life. I do not know what is beneficial for me. Although in the mundane sphere I am known as a greatly learned man, I am in fact so much of a fool that I even accept that I am learned. You have accepted me as Your servant and delivered me from the entanglement of material life. Now please tell me my duty in this liberated stage of life.”
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada comments: “We see by this plea of Sanatana’s that liberation is not the final word in perfection. There must be activities in liberation. Sanatana clearly asks, ‘You have saved me from the entanglement of material existence. Now, after liberation, what is my duty? Kindly explain it to me. Who am I? Why are the threefold miseries always giving me trouble? How can I be relieved from material entanglement?’ “
Sometimes people think liberation is the end of spiritual life, but here we see that although the Lord considered Sanatana already liberated from all material connections, this did not mean that his business in spiritual life was finished. Now he had to take on the activities of spiritual life because acting in Krishna consciousness is the true essence of renunciation.
Thus by placing his sincere and relevant questions before the Lord with all humility, Sanatana Gosvami provided Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu with the opportunity to expound upon the true meaning of liberated life. Sanatana accepted Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu as his spiritual master, not as a matter of fashion or to dominate the spiritual master as one might a pet, but to surrender unto Him and ask sincerely and seriously for direction.
The teachings of Lord Caitanya to Sanatana Gosvami begin where the instructions of Bhagavad-gita leave off. In the Gita’s last instruction, Krishna, the Supreme Lord, answering the questions of Arjuna, said that one should surrender unto Him and thus realize true happiness. But now Krishna Himself in the form of Lord Caitanya, answering the questions of Sanatana Gosvami, explained the transcendental activities of a surrendered soul. These instructions give the essence of devotional service to the Lord.
The Lord instructed Sanatana not only in the basic principles of liberated life but also in its scientific details. He explained the symptoms of a wise man, how to approach God, and what the expansions and avataras of Godhead are. Describing Krishna as the original source of all other forms of God, He explained the Lord’s opulence and the practicalities of rendering service unto Him and attaining the highest stages of attachment and ecstasy. Srila Prabhupada’s Teachings of Lord Caitanya describes these instructions in detail.
Lord Caitanya requested Sanatana to explain these teachings by writing books about devotional service, but Sanatana prayed, “My dear Lord, You have taught me so many things, and now You are asking me to explain the principles of devotional service in books for devotees in the future. But I belong to the lowest caste. I have no knowledge, nor do I know how I can execute such an important task. But if you kindly give me some hints about the preparation of such books, then I may become qualified to write.”
The Lord then blessed him, saying, “By the grace of Krishna, whatever you write will come from your heart to be accepted as you have asked. I shall give you some notes to take down. The first and foremost thing is that one should accept a bona fide spiritual master, for that is the beginning of spiritual life.”
After receiving elaborate instructions from the Lord, Sanatana Gosvami went to Vrndavana, where he faithfully carried out the orders of the Lord, thus becoming one of the six Gosvamis who propagated the immortal teachings of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
Lord Caitanya Himself wrote only eight verses, which describe the essence of His teachings, but He entrusted to the six Gosvamis the task of explaining the teachings in their fullness. Thus it is the grace of the six Gosvamis that they scientifically explained devotional service, establishing it firmly on the basis of the ancient Vedic scriptures.
Not only did Sanatana and the other Gosvamis write books, but they also taught the meaning of these books by the examples of their own lives. Commissioned by Lord Caitanya, Sanatana Gosvami, as a transcendental archaeologist, uncovered all the, places where Krishna had engaged in His pastimes 5,000 years ago in Vrndavana, such as the Govardhana Hill and the area of the rasa dance. With the other Gosvamis, Sanatana helped construct seven important temples in Vrndavana for the worship of Lord Krishna in the land where Krishna appeared. Sometimes writing, sometimes dancing and chanting by the River Yamuna, always feeling the ecstasy of Krishna’s love for the gopis and faithfully carrying out the orders of Lord Caitanya, the Gosvamis hardly slept at all-perhaps one or two hours a night-and they lived very austerely; but they were always feeling great happiness in executing devotional service to the Lord. Although Sanatana had given up an exalted position, he considered it insignificant, and he felt no remorse, for he had gained the great treasure of love of God.
Thus Sanatana Gosvami, formerly an aristocratic minister of a materialistic ruler, became a humble servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and a confidential assistant in Lord Caitanya’s mission of distributing love of Godhead to the fallen souls of this age. Teachings of Lord Caitanya describes him as follows: “Sanatana Gosvami was a great devotee of the Lord, and he was directly instructed to spread the cult of bhakti by writing many books. His brother, Rupa Gosvami, was also a minister in the government, but both of them gave up their lucrative government service and became mendicants to serve the Supreme Lord. Within their hearts they were full of transcendental loving service, but externally they were just like ordinary mendicants with a great liking for the cowherd boy of Vrndavana (Krishna). Sanatana Gosvami was very dear to all pure devotees of his time.”