A saint, a reformer, an avatar of Lord Krishna—Chaitanya
Mahaprabhu (1486-1533) is perceived as all these and many
more. In this book on Chaitanya, Amiya P. Sen focuses on the
discourses surrounding the mystic’s life, which ended rather mysteriously
at the age of 48.
Written in a lucid manner and for a wider audience, this book is a fresh
attempt to historically reconstruct Chaitanya’s life and times in Bengal
and Odisha, as well as Vrindavan, the key centre of medieval Vaishnavism
in north India. This work critically evaluates how Chaitanya has been
understood contemporaneously and posthumously, particularly as an
icon in colonial Bengal. Addressing an important gap in scholarship,
which hitherto concentrated on religious and philosophical discourses,
Sen offers a full-length biographical account of Nimai or Gaur by drawing
on a wide range of sources in English and Bengali. He also argues against
the belief that Chaitanya is the sole proponent of Vaishnava bhakti
in Bengal, choosing to situate him in the wider devotional cultures of
Amiya P. Sen is a historian, author, and academician with a special
interest in the intellectual and cultural history of colonial Bengal.
This work will please neither the pious Vaishnava nor the probing scholar. In the first case, it might be set aside for a palpable
lack of faith; in the second, for not employing a rigorously scholastic apparatus. I have deliberately refrained from using copious notes
and citations, which, I now realize, would have added more volume than
weight. This work is essentially a story that a historian has narrated to
himself, a story that sustains itself largely through an intellectual interest
in a life that was quite extraordinary in its public appeal if not also in
All through my writing career I have tried to alternate between serious academic writing, with its burden of methodological rigour and
political correctness, and the not so serious yet reflexive works which,
thankfully, do not necessarily have to carry that burden. The first is aspirational: writing with an eye on my own intellectual growth; the second
I produce for the sheer joy of writing. It is reassuring to know that given
all my professional limitations, I have so far been capable of producing
both with some regularity.
I have approached this work with some caution and deference. My
first worry has been about working on a historical period with which I
have never been sufficiently familiar, either in terms of relevant sources
or even a general grounding in the subject. I cannot claim to have effectively overcome such limitations at any stage of writing this book and
yet, what inspired me, kept my interest alive, and helped overcome most
of my inhibitions was the very intensity and grandeur of the tradition
that I had chosen to study. The delicateness of feeling and imagination
in Vaishnava songs and poetry or the stirrings of deep faith and passion
that I have detected in both common people and better known practitioners have moved me considerably. At some level, this study of Chaitanya
and the Vaishnava tradition has also been an intensely personal journey
that meandered through memory, affect, and nostalgia, rediscovering
and reaffirming certain cultural roots that had languished and withered
over time through sheer neglect and disinterestedness.
My interest in Bengal Vaishnavism was first aroused in the early 1990s
upon reading a book that had been officially banned by the government
of West Bengal following considerable public pressure. In the early
1990s though, abruptly withdrawing books from circulation was not as
common or as hastily performed as has been the practice in recent times.
All the same, but for the fact that I was at the time located in Oxford, I
might never have had the opportunity to lay my hands on a book that
had dared to put in print only inferences drawn from relevant sources.
I remain grateful to the late Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri who, at the
time, had very graciously gifted me a copy of the book. Having re-read
the book more recently, I could muster only empathy for the hapless
author for it would seem as though contemporary authors and publishers have very adroitly and effectively mastered the art of circumventing
such publishing disasters. Whereas the book that faced public censure
had only hinted at certain scandalous ‘misdeeds allegedly committed by
Chaitanya’s close companion Nityananda, a work published as recently
as 2013 and which casts doubt on the ancestry of Chaitanya himself, has
escaped public attention altogether, simply by locating this within the
realm of fiction!
Some scholars and colleagues, I fear, would object to my claims of a
discernible movement of Vaishnava revival’ occurring in colonial Bengal.
For one, they might consider the term ‘revival’ itself being loaded and
problematic. On my part though, I would prefer to set aside this controversy for now and instead draw greater attention to the fact that even
in a provincial culture deeply permeated by Sakti worship and Tantra,
there really has not come about a comparable movement among Saktas.
In terms of the influence that it has cast over the literary and cultural
world of the Hindu Bengali, Vaishnava devotional culture—both in
pre-modern and modern Bengal—appears to be truly ubiquitous.
However, having said that, I would prefer that this culture be taken
for what it truly was: many-layered, complexly structured, and polygynous. In substance, I have argued that contrary to commonplace beliefs,
Gaudiya Vaishnavism or the religion associated with the life and work
of Chaitanya and his close followers is not quintessential Vaishnavism in
Bengal but merely the dominant one.
This work does not claim to be a history of Bengal Vaishnavism,
far less of Bengali Vaishnavism. I would strongly contest the view that
the expressions ‘Bengal Vaishnavism and ‘Bengali Vaishnavism’ could
be used interchangeably. In my understanding, the former represents
only one of the several Vaishnava sub-schools located within the larger
collective we may reasonably identify as ‘Bengali Vaishnavism. Midway
through writing my manuscript, it also dawned upon me that I was fast
veering towards writing a general history of Vaishnavism in Bengal,
which was far from my intentions. I do hope that I have suitably corrected myself. My concern consistently has been with Chaitanya as a
biographical and religious subject on whom no critical account has been
produced in a long time, at least not in the English language. Given also
the fact that this work was intended to be a biography, I have refrained
from engaging in any depth or detail with the intricate theology, ritual
works, or the literary productions of Gaudiya Vaishnavas, the bulk of
which, in any case, appeared well after the passing away of Chaitanya.
This work does not also go into the theoretical aspects of bhakti, which
many scholars have earlier attempted quite admirably. On the whole, I
write from the perspective of a historian and not as a scholar of religious
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