“India’s Spiritual Renaissance: The life and times of Lord Chaitanya is an excellent synopsis of the career and teachings of one of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders, based on traditional devotional biographies and supplemented by the views of modern scholars. The author has added a further dimension by weaving into his narrative the insights of contemporary Western devotees of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu…The result is a very accessible introduction to Chaitanya and his message that should inspire readers to explore the rich resources so temptingly summarized in this volume.”
From high in the snowy Himalayas, the sacred River Ganges flows across the plains of Indian for almost 2,000 miles before it reaches the town of Navadvip (Mayapur), in west Bengal. Some 500 years ago, in this simple village atmosphere, Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (Mahaprabhu means “The Great Master”) taught the forgotten essence of ancient Vedic wisdom – the timeless and universal message of love of God, revealing its most profound dimension.
Although unfamiliar in he West, Lord Chaitanya is known to the people of India as the child prodigy who casually defeated India’s most prominent scholars; the young revolutionary who organized India’s first civil disobedience movement; the social reformer who laid bare the blind rigidity of the Hindu caste system; the humble ascetic to who common people, religion us leaders, and even kings surrendered their lives; and, above all, they know Lord Chaitanya as the Golden Avatar, the predicted incarnation of God who inaugurated the sankirtan movement and emphasized the meditative process of chanting the holy names.
By this simple process, Lord Chaitanya taught, one can revive one’s innate spiritual consciousness regardless of occupation or situation in life. Thus, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s timeless message bears special relevance for today’s world, where work – a – day life leaves little time for spiritual pursuits. India’s Spiritual Renaissance: The Life and Times of Lord Chaitanya serves the dual purpose of conveying the life of this most important religious reformer in chronological sequence (thus putting it into historical perspective) and showing the practical application of the non – sectarian process he lovingly bestowed upon the world.
I first heard the name “Lord Chaitanya” in May 1973, during my second visit to the New York Hare Krishna temple. I had been invited to the temple a week earlier by a devotee, and I was unimpressed with my first visit. In fact, I had no intention of returning. Nonetheless, my devotee friend had insisted that I visit him one more time, for the following week his guru was scheduled to arrive from India.
“What was the point of seeing his teacher?” I asked myself. “What could the guru give me that the disciple could not?” I was soon to learn the answer, for somehow or other I decided to visit the temple one last time. Or so I thought.
His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the movement’s founder an spiritual preceptor, was indeed in town that weekend lecturing on the teachings of Lord Chaitanya. As I sat in front of him, struggling to understand his words through his heavy Bengali accent, I found myself listening with rapt attention.
Although I had never met a genuine saint, I could immediately understand that Shrila Prabhupada definitely fit into that category. The contrast between Prabhupada and any other religious person I had ever met was more than glaring. I remember that I was amazed, in fact, at the confident and yet pure, humble and sincere manner in which he spoke. I was also moved by his complete dedication to his subject. And his subject was God. This, too, was unique. Many religious leaders, it seemed to me, were often side-tracked by superficial rituals and mundane piety, neglecting to teach the masses about God and the essence of spiritual life. In their sermons, and even in their traditional scriptures, I could barely find answers to the basic questions of human life: Who am I? Why am I here? Who is God? Where is His Kingdom?
Years earlier, I had practically begged my rabbi to answer questions that Prabhupada was almost nonchalantly addressing in this lecture about Lord Chaitanya. My rabbi never answered those questions, and for a time, I had given up the quest for spiritual knowledge. There were, I am sure, others who could have answered my questions, but my rabbi was not able to.
Yet Prabhupada’s complete absorption in spiritual knowledge was obvious, and he was willing to share this knowledge with all who would listen. I, for one, was becoming more and more desirous for hearing Prabhupada speak about his method of attaining spiritual enlightenment – especially because he presented it not as his method but as the original method of saints and sages of the past. And he supported everything he said with authoritative quotes from scripture and personal realization. Here, I thought, is someone who takes religion seriously.
The more he spoke, the more my desire to adhere to his process increased. He repeatedly asserted that Bhakti – yoga, “devotional service to God,” is the nonsectarian, spiritual path for which everyone was inwardly looking, the path that would fulfill the desire of anyone who traversed it. He said that the essence of this path can be found in the chanting of the maha – mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Rama (pronounced Ha – ray, Krish –nah and Rah – mah). And e asked his listeners to read his book called The Teachings of Lord Chaitanya.
I took this book home with me and spent the entire night reading it. Soon after, I purchased Shrila Prabhupada’s other books and gradually became convinced that there was great validity to his teachings. Remembering, however, that he had described Bhakti – yoga as an ancient path and not simply his own concoction, I decided to do some research on my own.
Who Is Lord Chaitanya?
Lord Chaitanya, I discovered, was considered an especially confidential and esoteric incarnation of God by the orthodox Gaudiya Vaishnavas who base their conclusion on prophesies from the ancient Vedic scriptures. These scriptures foretold that God Himself would descend in the current age as a perfect devotee, and that He would start a movement based upon the chanting of the holy name of the Lord. The prediction, in fact, came to pass, for Lord Chaitanya spearheaded a spiritual renaissance in sixteenth – century India that had as its foundation the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha – mantra.
To be sure, there have been great religious reformations and spiritual uprisings in the Western world. But to my mind the depth and profundity of the tradition that was revitalized by Lord Chaitanya is incomparable to anything before or since. And Shrila Prabhupada represented the tenth generation of perfect masters in an esoteric line of disciplic succession (parampara) from the Lord Himself. (See chart on page xii.) Enthusiastic if also unqualified to become part of that prestigious disciplic chain, I was initiated by Shrila Prabhupada in July 1975.
As I continued my research, I found that Lord Chaitanya’s achievements were not simply abstract or philosophical. Five hundred Years before Gandhi, this remarkable personality inaugurated a massive nonviolent civil –disobedience movement against the Islamic occupational government in India. He swept aside many of the stifling restrictions of the hereditary caste system and made it possible for all people to transcend social barriers and achieve the highest platform of spiritual enlightenment.
In doing, so, He freed India’s religious life from the stranglehold of proud, intellectual elite. Superceding popular but outmoded rituals and superficial formulas, He introduced a revolutionary spiritual movement based on the world’s oldest and most comprehensive religious scriptures, the Vedas. This movement, He taught, would have universal appeal because it was base upon the Absolute Truth, which transcends sectarian notions of race or creed. Lord Chaitanya’s theory has today been proven; His movement has been spread to every nation of the world by Shrila Prabhupada and his International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
Although many biographies of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu have been written in the 500 years since His appearance, this book is the first one – volume life written by a direct disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. It fulfills a distinct purpose, condensing the biographical information from the authoritative seventeen – volume rendering of Krishnadas Kaviraj Goswami’s Chaitanya Charitamrita by Shrila Prabhupada into an easily readable and authorized form.
Steven Rosen’s book is a faithful rendering of the gist of Chaitanya Charitamrita, to which he has added historical facts gathered from research into the life and times of Lord Chaitanya. The historical facts occur like tasty spicing or chutney added to a meal. But the main fare is the telling of the glorious activities of Lord Chaitanya, from the spiritual parampara point of view.
The synopsis form adopted here is fundamental, but its value should not e minimized. Mr. Rosen writes as a patient, humble worker, carefully following the accounts given by Krishnadas Kaviraj and His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and therein lies the book’s greatest asset. When describing activities of the supreme Lord, concoctive interpretations are like deadly poison. The important quality of the spiritual biography is the author’s depth of realization and his faithfulness to the disciplic succession. Thus Shrila Prabhupada writes in the introduction to his own translation and commentary on Chaitanya Charitamrita:
This edition of Shri Chaitanya Charitamrita is presented for the study of sincere scholars who are really seeking the absolute truth. It is not the arrogant scholarship of the mental speculator but a sincere effort to serve the order of a superior authority whose service is the life and soul of this humble effort. It does not deviate even slightly from the revealed scriptures, and therefore anyone who follows in the disciplic line will be revealed scriptures, and therefore anyone who follows in the disciplic line will be able to realize the essence of this book simply by the method of aural reception.
Mr. Rosen follows on this path. He also points out in several places how academic and nondevotional biographers have interpreted aspects of Lord Chaitanya’s life is a mundane way, in some cases even falsifying the authentic records of His magnanimous deeds. Mr. Rosen analyzes these deviant theories, and gives evidence why we should accept only the accounts of the authoritative biographers.
It is a boon to get so much in such a small volume. India’s Spiritual Renaissance is thus a good introduction for those who have not yet read the life of Lord Chaitanya, and it will also sere as a convenient reference for those who have already read the Chaitanya Charitamrita, who will relish hearing the pastimes (Lila) of Lord Chaitanya in brief.
Krishnadas Kariraj, the author of Chaitanya Charitamrita, suggests that there is a great joy awaiting one who makes a serious study of Lord Chaitanya’s life: “If you are indeed interested in logic and argument, kindly apply it to the mercy of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. If you do so, you will find it to be strikingly wonderful.” By an impartial study into Lord most magnanimous of all teachers and welfare workers. Most educators and philanthropists perform their activities in connection with the body, whereas Lord Chaitanya’s activities are performed in connection with the eternal soul. Without neglecting the necessities of the body. Lord Chaitanya imparted the science of spiritual advancement for purifying the troubled condition of humanity. He distributed love of Godhead freely and taught spiritual truths that were never revealed by previous masters or incarnations.
Without interrupting flow of the biographical narrative. Mr. Rosen gives ample evidence of the sublime teachings of Lord Chaitanya. The reader will especially benefit from he account about the chanting of the holy names of God, as taught by Lord Chaitanya. According to the Vedic scriptures, spiritual disciplines that wee possible in former ages cannot be successfully practiced by people in today’s fallen age of quarrel and hypocrisy (Kali Yuga). Only the chanting of the holy name is effective, and it can be adopted very easily. How Lord Chaitanya taught this process of chanting, and how it has come down in disciplic succession today, is one of the most important episodes conveyed in this book.
I will not delay the reader any longer, but I encourage you to now directly relish the pastimes of Lord Chaitanya.
To understand the life and times of Lord Chaitanya (1486-1534), it is necessary to have background information about the fifteenth-century period in which He appeared, to know the historical setting and philosophical climate of the day. In Europe, at that time, culture and learning were undergoing rebirth, so to speak. This epoch in world history was subsequently dubbed the Renaissance, which in fact literally means “rebirth” or “renewal.” For many, this period evokes a brilliantly colored picture of an age when all life was a work of art, an age of versatile craftsmen and cultured princes. One naturally thinks of Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, or other divinely inspired painters and sculptors.
This unique time in the life of European culture also gave birth to religious upheaval, with Martin Luther’s reformation of Christianity in Germany and much earlier, St. Francis’ move toward pantheism in Italy. But while the Renaissance undoubtedly produced individuals who were fascinated, and even obsessed, with God, it is more commonly remembered for its almost Aristotelian perception of the world. Renaissance philosophers, in particular, elucidated upon this materialistic world view. The works of Machiavelli, Bohme, Erasmus, Descartes, and Montaigne moved toward a philosophy of humanism in which emphasis shifted from God to man. According to many historians, it was the Renaissance that ushered in the scientific age-man became self-sufficient and had little need for a transcendent “God.”
Because the Renaissance effected such a drastic change in man’s attitude toward himself and the world around him, it has been widely accepted as one of the most noteworthy movements in European history. Indeed, this short time period, from the late 1400s to the early 1600s, changed the entire Western world, and its influence continues to affect our lives.
In India, too, this period was one of great renewal. But the Eastern flow moved in the opposite direction, and the resurgence of a deeply spiritual tradition inundated the Asian subcontinent. At the heart of this devotional renaissance was Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, believed by His followers to be the Supreme Lord Shri Krishna in the guise of His own devotee. So intense was the movement inaugurated by Lord Chaitanya and His followers that the reverberations are still heard and felt around the world.
East Meets West
Lord Chaitanya’s teaching reached western shores by the grace of Shrila Bhaktivinode Thakur (1838-1914), a pure devotee of the Lord who was the first to express Mahaprabhu’s teaching in English. He wrote many books that he mailed to academicians and scholarly institutions in both the United States and Europe. His son, Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati (1874-1936), was a pure devotee as well, and he was to become widely known as the greatest authority on Lord Chaitanya’s teachings since the time of the Lord’s immediate disciples.
It was Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta, in fact, who encouraged his foremost disciple, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), to personally come west and fulfill Lord Chaitanya’s prophecy: “In every town and village of the world, My name will be sung, and the chanting or Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare will permeate the globe.”
This could only have been accomplished by Shrila Prabhupada, a pure devotee of Krishna, a scholar, and a religious leader of unassailable character and integrity. In 1965, at the age of sixty-nine, Shrila Prabhupada sailed alone and penniless from India to the United States and, after a year of great personal struggle and sacrifice, founded and incorporated the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York City. His movement then expanded rapidly throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
By the time Shrila Prabhupada passed away in 1977, he had established more than one hundred Krishna conscious temples, ashramas, farms, and schools worldwide, and the public chanting of Hare Krishna, inaugurated by Lord Chaitanya, had become a colorful, familiar sight on the streets of most major cities. To date, the movement has distributed well over one hundred million copies of the sacred literatures of India (based on Lord Chaitanya’s teachings) in some thirty languages.
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