Keeping Faith with Kheturi, Part II

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

In the accounts of the lives of the three second-generation saints, Shrinivas Acharya, Narottam Das and Shyamananda, we are informed right away that this was the situation: Shrinivas, especially, is described wandering from one holy site to another, hoping to get the association of one or the other of Mahaprabhu’s companions, and each time missing the opportunity by a few days or months. Though most of these near-misses were no doubt exaggerated, authors like Narahari Chakravarti and Nityananda Das are simply trying to tell us that Mahaprabhu’s associates were quickly disappearing, and that this was a terrible disappointment to him and everyone else. In their search for leadership and guidance, they eventually turned to Braj where Rupa, Sanatan and the other Goswamis had been diligently establishing a disciplined theology.

According to the Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Mahaprabhu instructed Rupa and Sanatan to write scriptures on philosophy and sad-ācāra, but clearly writing these works was only a first step—finding worthy students to master them and then disseminate them was also necessary.

Shrinivas, Narottam Das and Shyamananda spent several years in Braj, studying, doing bhajan, and imbibing the Vrindavan mood. We should not underestimate the effect that residence in the dry, hot climate of Braj had on these young Bengalis. This was a foreign land for them, and though the Goswamis were leading contributors to the Braj Krishna bhakti culture, they were not alone in it.

Krishnadas shows a bit of Bengali chauvinism in the CC when he rather haughtily quotes Mahaprabhu saying that the Westerners (i.e., Hindustanis) were mūḍha-anācāra (Cc 1.10.86) and that one should not mingle with them too much, but in fact, it is more likely that, at least in some respects, the Bengalis like Rupa participated in the flourishing of the Braj culture which was in full ferment at the time; they made important contributions to it and were in turn influenced by it, especially in the early period (before ca. 1550). The Bengali Vaishnavas took on a certain different spirit in contact with the Vallabhis, Radhavallabhis, Nimbarkis, Haridasis, etc., one that concentrated marvellously on Radha Krishna, that challenged and consequently changed their perspective on Chaitanya by casting it in the Radha-Krishna mood. [Of course it is possible to see this development as being completely internal to Chaitanya and his followers.] This mood was rather different from the somewhat diffuse Vishnu/Krishna bhakti of the Caitanya-bhāgavata, for instance.

As travellers went back and forth from Vrindavan, some of these influences began to show in the texts of Gaudiya writers like Lochan Das, but the real power of the Braj influence began to show when Jahnava herself went to Vrindavan and spent some time studying with Jiva Goswami.

Two of the mystery dates of Gaudiya Vaishnava history are (1) when did Narottam, Srinivas and Shyamananda return from Braja with the Goswami books, an important bit of information that would make clear exactly which books were in that first shipment, and (2) in exactly what year the Kheturi festival took place.

Rupa Goswami disappeared probably in 1568 [some accounts say 1558], before any of this famous triumvirate arrived in Braj. We know that all of Rupa and Sanatan’s books must have thus been available to the three acharyas, and probably the six Sandarbhas of Jiva. However, the Prema-vilāsa reports the Caitanya-caritāmṛta to have been in this shipment, which would have been impossible. A number of other works by Jiva, such as Gopāla-campū, as well as Krishna Das’s Govinda-līlāmṛta, etc., were not in this first instalment of Goswami literature.

It seems almost certain that two or three years separate the arrival of Shrinivas et al in Bengal from the Kheturi festival, enough time for Jahnava and Narottam Das to travel all around Bengal and as far as Puri in order to drum up interest in Goswami scriptures.

R.K.Chakravarty places Kheturi in about 1580. Although I originally thought this is a little too late, I am now convinced that it was held to commemorate the first centenary of Mahaprabhu's appearance in 1585. Though Gaura-gaṇoddeśa-dīpikā seems to have been a major contributing factor to the kinds of conclusions that became integral to the way the Gaudiyas conceived of Chaitanya and his incarnation and legacy. It was written in 1576 and the writing of Caitanya-maṅgala and Caitanya-candrodaya at around the same time (1572) seems significant. These works must have been in composition for some years before, but it seems that their completion had some direct relation to the festival, which was, after all, convened on the “Gaura Purnima,” or celebration of Mahaprabhu’s appearance day. In Narottama-vilāsa, it is said that Caitanya-bhāgavata and Caitanya-maṅgala readings/performances formed part of the festivities. [Had Caitanya-caritāmṛta come East with Shrinivas et al, surely it would have been recited at this time also.]

This is important, as it is not yet clear exactly how complete the Chaitanyology* [*I coin the term as a calque on Christology, as I have Prabhupadology, in order to designate the body of discussions establishing the ontology of Chaitanya, i.e. answering the questions “Who and what was Chaitanya?”] found in the Caitanya-caritāmṛta already in place at the time of Kheturi, but Svarupa Damodar's verses clarifying the status of the Pancha Tattva are a significant element in Gaura-gaṇoddeśa-dīpikā. Nevertheless, Kavi Karnapur does not cite the two most influential Chaitanyological verses by Svarupa Damodar, nor does he have any citations from the stotras of Rupa and Raghunath that are quoted in the Caitanya-caritāmṛta and are supportive of them.

At any rate, the tireless efforts of Jahnava, Srinivas and Narottam made clear to the Vaishnavas of Bengal that something special was going on. Their presentation of Sanatan and Jiva’s commentaries on the Bhāgavata and Rupa Goswami’s discourses on rasa theory were clearly powerful and convincing. There was nothing in Bengal Vaishnavism at the time that could hold a place in comparison. Thus though Rupa and Sanatan are mentioned in the Caitanya-bhāgavata, in the Caitanya-candrodaya, they are glorified:

kālena vṛndāvana-keli-vārtā
lupteti tāṁ khyāpayituṁ viśiṣya
kṛpāmṛtenābhiṣiṣeca devas
tatraiva rūpaṁ ca sanātanaṁ ca
In the course of time, tidings of Krishna’s divine sports in Vrindavan had been lost. To make them known again in detail, the Lord drenched Rupa and Sanatan with his mercy in that very land. (CCN 9.38)
The principal idea of the Goswami interpretation of the Bhāgavatam was the institution of a hierarchy in the different forms of God based on rasa. Of course, they shared the wider philosophical basis of Hinduism and participated in its debates—but the idea of understanding the hierarchy of divine manifestations according to rasa was both startlingly novel and persuasive.

It is hard to imagine the charismatic power that Jahnava, Srinivas and Narottam must have had to be able to convince their respective constituencies of the Goswamis’ vision, which ultimately won the whole Gaudiya Vaishnava world over.
The role of Jahnava Mata at the Kheturi festival should be properly highlighted. Within the Gaudiya sampradaya, diverse philosophical conceptions were coming to force, such as Gaura-nagara-bhava, Rasaraja, Gaura-paramyavada, Nitai-paramyavada, Adwaita-paramyavada, and other variations as well. …Jahnava, as the leading Vaishnava of the time, mediated on behalf of all these camps and resolved their differences to the satisfaction of the Gaudiya orthodoxy. (Steve Rosen, The Lives of the Vaishnava Saints, 91-92)

Jahnava Devi’s importance in the post-Chaitanya Vaishnava movement is evidenced by the leading role she played in organizing the Kheturi festival sometime after 1580. Three Vaishnavas organized the festival—Narottam Das of Kheturi, Shrinivas Acharya of Jajigram, and Jahnava Devi of Khardaha. It is indeed significant that all three of them had been trained by the goswamis of Vrindavan. Jahnava Devi was regarded as a goddess (īśvarī). She tried very hard to remove the sectarian and regional differences. Just before the Kheturi festival she ceaselessly travelled to and fro. She consulted the leaders of the different groups. She scrupulously refrained from building up a subsect of her own, though she had many disciples. The unifying character of her efforts is best seen in the Prema-vilāsa of Nityananda Das, who was her disciple. The Prema-vilāsa in its present form is considered apocryphal, but the work is absolutely free from sectarian bias. It puts emphasis on the activities of all groups and group leaders. (R.K. Chakravarti, Vaishnavism in Bengal, 176)


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