Charismatic Renewal in Gaudiya Vaishnavism (Part I)

Charismatic renewal and institutionalization
in the history of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and the Gaudiya Math

“History is the biographies of great men.” Thomas Carlyle.

If traditional India could be said to subscribe to a theory of history, it would be the “great man theory,” which holds that history moves by the actions of great men upon it. Perhaps the best known of the Bhagavad-gita’s 700 verses is the one in which Krishna promises to appear in the world whenever there is irreligious practice or rampant injustice in human society (Gita 4.7). However different this belief may be from the Shi’a’s belief in the Mahdi or the Jew’s expectation of a Messiah, its influence has been equally pervasive in Hindu society. Not only has it led to messianic hopes for a savior, but also to the conviction that wherever or whenever greatness appears in human society, it is a manifestation of the divine (Gita 10.42). Though such a belief can naturally be exploited for political ends or to buttress the status quo, it has also played a role in the religious sphere as a means of legitimizing change. It thus seems that almost every prominent spiritual leader who makes a mark on Hindu society sooner or later claims to be an avatar, or becomes, as the Indian media disparagingly call them, “a God-man.”

This belief is present in almost every branch of Hinduism, whether Vaishnava, Shakta or Shaiva, though its expression may take different forms. Vaishnavas, who resist the temptation to identify themselves with God as the last snare of illusion, still understand the spiritual master in this way, though this identity is based on his being God’s “dearmost” or “most intimate servant.” Even so, there is a hierarchisation within this category, and particularly powerful individuals may be identified with some mythological figure, a divine being or “eternal companion” of Vishnu or Krishna. Thus Ramanuja is thought to be an incarnation of Ramachandra’s brother Lakshman, while Madhva is taken by his disciples to be an incarnation of the wind-god Vayu. In some cases, the powerful individual may be considered an ordinary person (or jiva) in whom God has invested his potency. The technical name Gaudiya Vaishnavas give such individuals is shaktyavesh avatar.

Thus though the scriptures prescribe the indifferent equation of all spiritual masters with God, a de facto distinction exists between the specially gifted individuals who influence the course of religious history by promoting new understandings and others who act to maintain these new traditions with a more limited charisma based on tradition or legislated rights. The very injunction of the scriptures to see the spiritual master as God is one that needs to be enforced in the post-charismatic phase of a religious movement; in the presence of a genuinely charismatic individual, such an attitude comes naturally.

The history of Gaudiya Vaishnavism may also be analyzed according to the “great man” model. This is facilitated by the sociological categories defined by Max Weber, to whom the “great man” is the charismatic prophet, who breaks from tradition to proclaim a radical new message. Though this volume is primarily concerned with an examination of the post-charismatic phase of the branch of Vaishnavism that spread outside of India and took shape as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness under the leadership of its founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, the scope of this article is to examine two previous charismatic phases of the Gaudiya Vaishnava religion, the first one brought about by Chaitanya himself, the second coming in the 20th century with the creation of the Gaudiya Math, which was founded by Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, the spiritual master of the above-mentioned Bhaktivedanta Swami. I will attempt a comparison of the critique of society and religion against which these two charismatic leaders set themselves, how they legitimized their own charismatic leadership, and the institutional models they left in place to routinize their own charisma and legitimize their succession. To conclude, I will briefly attempt to see whether these findings have any implications for understanding the various directions Vaishnavism is likely to take in the 21st century. I will try to do all this succinctly at the risk of making sweeping generalizations without sufficient documentation.

I. Krishna Chaitanya

Much has been written about the social conditions into which Chaitanya was born and which made an enthusiastic revival of Vaishnavism possible. A primary factor was the presence of Islam, not necessarily as a direct threat, but for the effect it had had on Brahminical society, and by extension, to the rest of Hinduism. The Brahmins had become inward looking: obsessed with purity and ritualism while holding on to social forms that had ceased to have meaning in the changed context where they had no influence on polity and a diminished hold on the rest of society. Though they continued to claim an exclusive monopoly on religious life and practice (ritual, study of scripture, etc.), a large portion of the Brahmin community found this religious life sterile. Some among them also recognized that all members of society had a religious need that extended beyond the orthodox principle of Varnashram Dharma, which declared that everyone “attains perfection through the performance of his prescribed duty,” even though it would take future lifetimes before one could hope to become a Brahmin and attain direct spiritual liberation. The alienated Brahmins, many of whom had already gravitated toward Vaishnavism, were looking for a savior.

Krishna Chaitanya was a young teacher in Nabadwip, the cultural capital of Hindu Bengal at the time. He had shown no particular talent for leadership or religion until he suddenly underwent a conversion experience following his initiation into Vaishnavism. Through his remarkable ecstasies while engaging in sankirtan, or congregational chanting, he quickly established his authority as a leader of the nascent Vaishnava movement in his home town. Within a very short period of time—only thirteen months separated the beginning of his ecstatic experiences and his leaving Nabadwip to live in Puri—the basis of a religious movement that washed over Bengali society was firmly established. This was due in part to his own leadership, but also to a great extent to two deputies—Advaita Acharya and Nityananda Avadhuta—who shared in his charisma and recognized his value as a powerful symbol.

It is said that when Advaita Acharya, a prominent Brahmin and leader of the Vaishnava community, saw the desperate condition of society, he prayed for an incarnation of the Lord. When Chaitanya began publicly going into trance states and claiming to be an incarnation of Krishna, it was Advaita who confirmed his claims and worshiped him with the
mantra (“I bow to you, the god of Brahminical society”). According to Vrindavan Das, Advaita was also the source of the socially liberal religious ethic of the movement.(note 1)

Chaitanya was soon identified as the yuga avatar, the incarnation of Krishna who had come to spread the religious teaching of the age, the chanting of his own names. The success of Chaitanya’s mission was confirmation of his divine status, as Krishna Das wrote in the Chaitanya Charitamrita:
In the Age of Kali, the religious practice of the age is the chanting of Krishna’s names. It cannot be spread successfully by anyone unless empowered by Krishna himself. Since you have successfully set the sankirtan movement into motion, you must therefore possess Krishna’s powers. You have spread the chanting of the holy names throughout the world and anyone who sees you immediately experiences love of God. Love for God is never manifest without the power of Krishna, for Krishna alone is capable of giving love for himself.(CC 3.17.12-14)
Though it is now an article of faith in Gaudiya Vaishnava circles to connect Chaitanya to the Madhva sampradaya, it is important to note that Chaitanya did not derive the legitimacy he enjoyed among his followers from Madhva, even though it may be that he derived a portion of it from his connection to his spiritual master Ishwar Puri, and through him, to Madhavendra Puri, many of whose disciples, including Advaita, became a part of his entourage.(note 2)

The consensus in scholarly circles is that a Krishna devotional movement originating in South India made its way north through a Vaishnava-oriented group of Shankarite sannyasis of the Puri and Bharati orders, including Madhavendra Puri. Their principal authority seems to have been Sridhar Swami, who lived in Jagannath Puri, which was also the home base of these particular sannyasi orders. Despite Chaitanya’s connection with these lines (to the Puris by initiation and the Bharatis by sannyas), however, his followers quickly identified him as an incarnation of Krishna. By so doing, they placed him in a category outside previously established traditions that allowed him to claim an authority that was sui generis.

The post Chaitanya period

Though Chaitanya’s personality was the source of the efflorescence of the religious enthusiasm of the Bengali Vaishnavas, he never exercised any kind of administrative direction. He lived an increasingly reclusive life, and his direct input into the society that developed around him was limited. He did not himself give initiation to anyone.(note 3) He never appointed any individual “successor”; nor was there in his lifetime or ever after a central executive body as such. It is often pointed out that Chaitanya left little in the way of written instruction, though Krishna Das Kaviraj has taken pains to establish him as the source of the teachings found in the writings of Rupa and Sanatan Goswamis, the principal authors of the Gaudiya Vaishnava canon. He also could and did offer advice and act as a final authority on crucial matters. On the whole, however, he served primarily as an inspiration, a divine example and symbolic rallying point, but the nuts and bolts of the movement was left in the hands of others to whom he delegated certain responsibilities.

Of these delegated responsibilities, two are particularly important historically: one was the responsibility to preach, especially among the lower strata of Bengali society, which he gave to Adwaita Acharya, and more so to Nityananda Avadhuta in Jagannath Puri in 1513. (note 4) The other mission was given to Rupa and Sanatan Goswami to lead exemplary lives of spiritual dedication, to develop Vrindavan or Vraja as a pilgrimage center, and to write scriptures on various aspects of Vaishnava theology and practice.

This instruction to write scriptures ultimately had the greatest influence on the history of the sampradaya as it, more than anything, legitimized and unified it by taking it beyond the enthusiastic effusions of a purely popular movement to one that possessed an innovative and thorough theology and also participated more clearly in the pan-Indian Vaishnava tradition.

Three epicenters of Gaudiya Vaishnavism thus grew: the principal one in Bengal, which would always be the main source of converts; Vrindavan, which remained the ideal spiritual center or ultimate destination for retirement and monastic dedication; and Jagannath Puri which, though it lost considerable influence in Bengal after Chaitanya’s death, remained the main center of Chaitanya Vaishnavism in Orissa, not without considerable influence on the religious life of that region. Three distinct institutional patterns, one in each of these places: In Vrindavan the eremetic style of ascetic devotion became the dominant model; in Puri, it was cenobytic monasticism, or the “math”; while in Nabadwip and Gauda, householder guru or Goswami dynasties dominated.

Perhaps predictably, the early period of the fledgling Vaishnava movement in post-Chaitanya times was not without a certain amount of turmoil, particularly in its homeland of Gauda. The principal reasons for this conflict were the conflicting visions of who Chaitanya himself was and the nature of his teaching, as well as a certain amount of jostling for supremacy among the followers of his leading associates, particularly Advaita and Nityananda.

It was only when the influence of the Vrindavan school, carried east by Narottam, Shyamananda and Srinivas Acharya, was brought to bear in the last third of the sixteenth century, that the Gaudiya Vaishnava world was consolidated and took on the characteristics that held it in good stead for several hundred years. The writing of the Chaitanya Charitamrita by Krishna Das in 1612, which reproduced the principal ideas of the Vrindavan school in the Bengali language, may be said to mark the completion of the consolidation process, but the festival at Kheturi in the early 1570s was its defining moment. (note 5)

Along with the theology of Radha and Krishna as the supreme form of the Godhead, the Vrindavan doctrine emphasized the idea that Chaitanya was something more than a yuga avatar—he was the combined form of Radha and Krishna. What this did was to strengthen the basis for the legitimacy of the entire movement by adding layers of meaning to the Chaitanya symbol; the need for him to be legitimized by any external agent became even less important. Thus though certain passages in the scriptures were reinterpreted—and others invented—to support Chaitanya’s claims to incarnation, these played a secondary role in creating faith in his followers and inspiring new converts to the movement.

Expanded liturgical norms were also established at Kheturi, in particular that of lila kirtan. The songs of Jnana Das and Govinda Das in particular, who were both more profoundly influenced by the poetic writings of Rupa Goswami than by the Bhagavata itself, the avowed ultimate scriptural authority of the school, had a tremendous impact on the Bengali popular culture of the time.

Besides firmly establishing the Vrindavan theology, which presented a clear hierarchical understanding of religious experience, culminating in service to Radha and Krishna in the madhura-rasa, the principal doctrine with practical effects for the established at Kheturi was that of the Pancha Tattva.(note 6) This doctrine confirmed the status of Nityananda and Advaita as incarnations of the Deity in their own right, gave specific prominence to Gadadhar as the incarnation of Krishna’s shakti, i.e. Radha, and identified all of Chaitanya’s other associates as descents of Krishna’s eternal companions in the spiritual world.(note 7) This had the effect of confirming the descendants of these now deceased members of the movement’s first generation as participants in their charisma. It is notable that the Gaura-ganoddesha-dipika even identifies Nityananda’s wife Jahnava, as Radha’s sister Ananga Manjari, and Virabhadra, his son, as a form of Vishnu, even though neither of them ever met Chaitanya.

It also seems likely that the particular esoteric practices of identifying of identifying as a participant in Krishna’s pastimes became a part of the Gaudiya Vaishnava culture of raganuga bhakti at this time (siddha pranali).(note 8) This concept first appeared textually in the writings of Gopal Guru and Dhyana Chandra Goswami, the monks responsible for the prestigious Radha Kanta Math, which stood on the grounds of Chaitanya residence in Puri. Jahnava, an important organizer of the Kheturi festival, was a major force in sixteenth century who changed the orientation of the Nityananda group from the mood of friendship to that of madhura-rasa.

Brahmins and kula-gurus

Despite the stresses on Hindu society in the 16th century, the existing social system was based on timeless principles that the Vaishnavas could and did opt into, despite their philosophical recognition of its limitations. The Vaishnava religion was not a radical departure from the Sanatan Dharma, but a particular interpretation of it. As such it shared in the respect for birth in accordance with the karma theory. It was thus accepted that by birth one participated in the charisma of one’s forefathers and that this could be transmitted through to others initiation. With this understanding, the already existing system of hereditary kula gurus serving client families for generation after generation fit perfectly into the operative world view of the time. The Hari-bhakti-vilasa fairly clearly approves of householder gurus;(note 9) on the other hand, there appear to be a clear injunctions against those in the renounced order doing so.(note 10)

Though orthodox renunciates avoided giving initiation, they gained respect for their exemplary spiritual practice. Renunciation, which came to be known simply as bhekh, or “taking the cloth” was open to all castes, and in some cases even became a refuge for lower castes. The dasnami sannyas tradition, which had always been confined to Brahmins only and to which Chaitanya and his spiritual masters had belonged, was categorically rejected, along with its saffron colored cloth.

The babajis, as these renunciates came to be called, could gain a certain amount of social prestige by refusing any claim to social power, i.e., by refusing marriage. If they did get married, any claim to social authority was usually lost and they became marginalized. On the whole, attempts to establish patterns of renounced authority failed in Bengal and tended to collapse into deviant lines or apasampradayas and Jati Vaishnava. (note 11)

Advantages and Disadvantages of the established institutions

Thus, even without the creation of a “hard institution” with a single centre, the Chaitanya Vaishnava movement established itself in Bengal as a single identifiable religion with a strong symbol system and a loose network of “intermediate” institutions of disciplic successions traced to the original associates of Chaitanya.(note 12) Festivals like the one at Kheturi provided informal settings for sadhu-sanga, community bonding or hashing out controversial theological or policy questions. The non-coercive nature of the school permitted a wide degree of variability of value-orientation within the broad Chaitanya Vaishnava standards and there thus existed variations in theology, practice and social ethos among the main branches of hereditary and non-hereditary guru-sishya lines in Bengal. Joseph O’Connell comments on the capacity of these traditional lines to faithfully preserve traditions:
A standard criticism of the hereditary guru-sishya system is that genuine devotion, moral probity and other qualities suitable for spiritual direction cannot be assured by heredity. On the other hand, traditional India seems to have had a rather good record of passing down from one generation to the next the particular expertise and style of performance upon which the reputation and livelihood of such families depend.… Though lacking a centralized mechanism for insuring standards of performance, the Chaitanya Vaishnavas have had subtle ways of exerting peer pressure and influencing reputation within the community as whole. The Vaishnava understanding of guru-sishya relations does allow for abandoning a guru known to be positively bad; and, in the case of an initiating or diksha guru of limited abilities, a disciple may, preferably with the initiating guru’s approval, go to one or more others as instructional or siksha gurus.(note 13)
Liberal Bengali social historians have long lamented the transformation of Bengal Vaishnavism from an egalitarian movement that broke through caste barriers as epitomized by Nityananda, to one that returned to the Brahminical domination as a result of the Sanskrit writings of the Goswamis, such as the Hari-bhakti-vilasa. According to Hitesranjan Sanyal, “The Goswamis of Vrindavan derived their spiritual inspiration from Chaitanya, but did not seem to have the strong social commitment of the Master.”(note 14) Some cynics even argue that Advaita Acharya appropriated the mystic Chaitanya to restore Brahminical influence over a disintegrating Hindu society. The Brahmin Vaishnavas made some cosmetic adjustments to their social doctrine, as powerful elites are wont to do. Some concessions had to be made to the lower castes and these concessions were made, but real control of the movement remained in the hands of the Brahmins. The fact that over 75% of Chaitanya’s associates were Brahmins may be taken as evidence.(note 15) Whatever advances the lower castes made in Chaitanya’s movement, the general feeling is that it simply preserved the status quo.
But the mechanism for social and spiritual relief to the underprivileged and oppressed sections of society developed by the Gaudiya Vaishnavas was overlaid with orthodox ritualism which suppressed the remnants of the spirit of freedom in respect of actual social action. In effect, the dichotomy of Gaudiya Vaishnavism became an effective medium for diffusing social tension growing from the rise of people from the lowest strata into importance and thus for maintaining the status quo. (Sanyal 1981:64)(note 16)
It is quite true that Bengal Vaishnavism did not change the social system as found in Bengal; rather, it made use of it. There are positive ways at looking at the preservation of the so-called “status quo.” Joseph O’Connell, for instance, argues that Chaitanya Vaishnava values helped defused Muslim-Hindu tensions, and also preserved social peace within Hindu society, a benefit that accrued to all, not only the Brahmins.(note 17)

Whatever successes the system may have had, there were certain failures. The critics are not altogether without merit. Thus even though Chaitanya Vaishnavas universally affirmed that Krishna bhakti is available for all—including women, Shudras and sinners, certain lineages retained an abhorrence for contact with lower castes and refused to give initiation to them. In some cases, they may have authorized non-Brahmin disciples to carry out this function amongst outcastes. The inevitable consequences of this are explained by R. K. Chakravarti:
The assertion of Brahminical dominance in a religious movement that was rooted in mysticism, and which was anti-caste and anti-intellectual, inevitably led to the growth of deviant orders. If a Brahmin guru tried to initiate persons belonging to castes lower than the Shudra caste, the motive behind such initiation was questioned and the orthodox elements gave him the bad name of a Sahajiya and expelled him from the Gaudiya Vaishnava order.(1985:324)
Thus the Hindu tendency to enforce social rigidity rather than correct dogma in the world of Vaishnava orthodoxy.


(1) Chaitanya Bhagavata, Madhya 6.167-9: “If it is your intention to distribute devotion, then you must also give it to the women, the lower castes and the uneducated. Those who would withhold devotion or obstruct your devotees out of pride in their knowledge, wealth, social class or ability to practice austerities are most sinful. May they die and roast in hell, while the lowliest outcaste dances in joy at the sound of your holy name.”

(2) There is much reason to believe that the connection to Madhva is a fabrication that became necessary in later times to legitimate the Gaudiya school outside of Bengal and has been preserved for its continued usefulness as a source of such legitimacy. S. K. De has voiced the principal arguments in his work. The Early History of the Vaishnava Faith and Movement, 13-24. See also Friedhelm Hardy, “Madhavendra Puri,” JRAS, 1979. Indeed, most scholars find these arguments against a Madhva connection to be most persuasive, while only followers of Chaitanya Vaishnavism refuse to entertain the possibility. See also my article on this website. For the Gaudiya position, see B. V. Narayan Maharaj’s Five Fundamental Essays , pp. 55-76.

(3) Sanatan Goswami’s commentary to Hari-bhakti-vilasa, 2.1: “Since it is impossible for him to have directly instructed him [in the mantra], as the presiding deity of the consciousness, he is the supreme guru of all beings. Thus it is legitimate for [Gopal Bhatta] to call him his guru.” Joseph O’Connell explains: “There is a standard explanation (or restatement) of the anomaly that Chaitanya, though founding an emergent tradition (or meta-sampradaya) of devotees, seems not to have bestowed diksha himself. It is to say that Chaitanya is the samashti-guru or collective spiritual master for the age, while his several associates are the vyashti-gurus, or particular spiritual masters.”

(4) This incident is described in Chaitanya Bhagavata, Antya 5.222-229. According to the Nityananda-vamsa-vistara, a later book, Chaitanya’s instructions to Nityananda included the order to get married and to establish a hereditary line of gurus.

(5) Chakravarti (1985), 235-38; H. Sanyal (1989), esp. Ch. 10.

(6) Both the doctrine of Chaitanya as the combined form of Radha and Krishna and that of the Pancha Tattva are credited to Svarupa Damodar, a close associate of Chaitanya in Puri. Though the Pancha Tattva idea seems to have come to Kheturi without passing through Vrindavan, the other certainly received is potent force through the theological efforts of the Vrindavan school.

(7) This doctrine was put to paper in the Gaura-ganoddesa-dipika by Kavi Karnapur, who was present at Kheturi, in 1572, around the same time.

(8) The principle was that the possiblity of attaining the ultimate goal of spiriutal life, a role in the eternal pastimes of Radha and Krishna, came through establishing a connection through disciplic succession with Chaitanya’s original companions.

(9) 4.41. Sanatan Goswami’s gloss of amnayagatam.

(10) Bhagavata-purana 7.13.8, quoted in Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu 1.2.113. This is taken as one of the ten principle prohibitions of devotional practice.

(11) The reasons for this have not been fully explored, but may well be traced to local traditions, i.e. the strength of Tantricism in Eastern India.

(12) I borrow the terms “hard, soft and medium institutions” from Joseph O’Connell, who defines a hard institution as one “with centralized executive authority with coercive sanctions, and mechanisms for marshalling extensive mundane resources for community interests or for mobilizing adherents against external threats.” Soft institutions are “symbolic means of articulating their cherished mode of loving devotion to Krishna, prema bhakti. Such ‘soft’ symbolic institutions are bound up with the production and utilization of religious literature (sahitya, shastra) and with a complex repertoire of recommended devotional practices (sadhana).” Intermediate organizational institutions in Gaudiya Vaishnavism are “diverse and diffuse networks of affiliation, formed through groups of religious mentors (gurus) and their disciples (sishyas). Typically, these groups are voluntary and hence non-coercive.” From “Chaitanya Vaishnava Movement: Symbolic Means of Institutionalization.” in Organizational and Institutional Aspects of Indian Religious Movements. Ed. J.T. O'Connell, 1999, 215-239.

(13) ibid.

(14) See Hitesranjan Sanyal (1981:64).

(15) There were others that laid claim to the charisma of one or the other of Chaitanya’s associates, but of these only a few were non-Brahmins, and of the non-Brahmins, only the Thakurs of Srikhanda had widespread influence.

(16) In any case, as R. K. Chakravarti argues, without a change in “means of production,” genuine social change was impossible.

(17) “The Impact of Devotion upon the Societal Integration of Bengal.” Studies in Bengal Literature, History, and Society. Ed. Edward C. Dimock Jr. New York: Learning Resources in International Studies, 1974; reprinted in Studies on Bengal. Ed. Warren Gunderson. East Lansing: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1976, 33-42.

Go to Part II


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