Keeping Faith with Kheturi, Part I

I have been invited to speak at the Rupa Goswami Conference, which is held annually at Gopinath Bhavan (August 27-28 this year) as a part of the celebrations of Rupa Goswami's disappearance day and Jhulan Purnima. Manjari Tennant, the organizer of the conference, has asked me to speak on the Kheturi festival. I have written several articles on this subject, and even though I am a bit rusty on the subject and my research is far from complete [in fact I disagree with some of the things I wrote here], I thought alright, why not? As I did a bit of preliminary rummaging around, I noticed that this old article from Gaudiya Discussions is not on the blog. It is a bit long for a blog, so I split it into four segments. It looks like it is in serious need of some editing. I will try to do that before the conference begins.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Most of the world’s major religions held councils that played an important role in their historical development. Buddhists held three significant councils that had a great impact on the Sangha’s organization, on its canon and doctrine, and which confronted heresies, other doctrinal controversies or schisms. Christianity also had many such councils in its early days, the most important of which was the one held at Nicea, which settled once and for all the questions about the exact nature of Christ and the Trinity and formulated the fundamental Christian doctrines in its famous Creed.

As with most new religious movements, the center of spiritual inspiration for the Gaudiyas was a person, Chaitanya himself, and even though he was far away in Jagannath Puri, the Bengali Vaishnavas’ yearly pilgrimages kept their focus clearly on him. The preachers of the new religion could glorify him and place their attention primarily on Harinam sankirtan as a revolutionary new way of organizing their society spiritually. Nityananda Avadhut and Adwaita Prabhus both had their own personal charisma, as did many other leaders like Narahari Sarkar who had come into contact with Mahaprabhu.

Even so, Gaudiya Vaishnavism never developed any central ecclesiastical authority. It had three basic geographical poles or mandalas—Nabadwip (or Gauda), Puri, and Vraja—each with its own culture and ethos. But Bengal (Gauda) was always the most important of these, because it was the principal source of converts and of spiritual leadership.

Orissan Chaitanya Vaishnavism quickly fell under the dominance of the Pancha Sakhas, and although the Orissans continued to revere Mahaprabhu and the Bhāgavatam, their spiritual and cultural connection to the Gaudiya Vaishnavas was, with a few exceptions, mostly arm’s length. And, as the Gaudiyas considered the Pancha Sakha to be heterodox, the two cultures developed independently of one another. Thus, for instance, most in Orissa think of Jagannath Das as Radha, and have little or no reverence for Nityananda, Adwaita, or Gadadhar.

Vrindavan was mostly important as a destination for renounced Bengali Vaishnavas, and although there were always a certain number of non-Bengalis entering the sampradaya, its domination by Bengalis is indisputable. This may be one of the reasons that some distance developed between them and some important non-Bengali converts in Braj, like Prabodhananda, Harivams and others. Even today, though Bengali and Hindustani Chaitanya Vaishnavas show public respect for one another, social interaction is minimal and the cultures of the two groups are quite different.

Nevertheless, Bengal was the place where the most significant conversion activity took place. But even here, we must remember that Mahaprabhu had only remained in Nabadwip a mere thirteen months after inaugurating the sankirtan movement. His main group of followers was still restricted to a fairly small circle of close associates, many of whom subsequently formed their own circles.

According to the Chaitanya-bhāgavata, even though Murari Gupta, Srivas Pandit and Gadadhar Pandit were the first to “discover” Mahaprabhu, they made a point of informing the seniormost and most respected of the local Vaishnava sympathizers, Adwaita Acharya, as soon as possible, and he was the one who came and, with the namo brahmaṇya-devāya verse, gave approval to the idea that Nimai was the yugāvatara. Nityananda came along a short time later, and in this case, it was Mahaprabhu who offered him recognition in the Vyasa Puja celebration, which is described in Caitanya-bhāgavata (Madhya 5).

But look at the difference in mood between Murari Gupta’s account in his Kharcha and Vrindavan Das’s Caitanya-bhāgavata, written twenty or thirty years later. The latter is full of warnings not to criticize or condemn, nor to think that there is enmity between Gadadhar, Nityananda and Adwaita. And yet, though Vrindavan Das seems to be seeking some conciliation between the factions, he never mentions Narahari Sarkar once, even though he was an important leader of the Srikhanda branch of the Chaitanya movement, and also speaks unfavorably about the “Gaurāṅga-nāgara” doctrine, the particular mode of worship that has its spiritual home in Srikhanda. (Murari himself only mentions Narahari once, 4.17.13) Little wonder then that Lochan Das found it necessary to write another biography of Chaitanya in which Narahari could find a place.

Prema-vilāsa, written by Nityananda Das, a disciple of Jahnava Mata, also writes somewhat disparagingly about Adwaita Prabhu and his penchant for reading and lecturing from the Yoga-vasiṣṭha. Vrindavan Das had told that Mahaprabhu criticized Adwaita for this practice when he was in Nabadwip, but Nityananda Das indicates that he continued doing so even after Mahaprabhu had gone to live in Puri and that many Vaishnavas had been puzzled by this behavior and complained about it. He further spins the story that this was one of the causes of the advent of Srinivasa Acharya and Narottam Das.

Complaints about Nityananda, whose unorthodox behaviour is documented approvingly by Vrindavan Das, were also manifold. Adwaita Acharya, who according to the Caitanya-bhāgavata asked for prema to be given even to the lowborn and the outcastes, seemed to have some problem with Nityananda’s level of sadācāra. Moreover, when Nitai returned to grihastha life, especially one that was conspicuously opulent in style, he attracted the criticisms of many Brahmins. One reason for this, which still affects Nityananda’s descendants, was his exact caste status. Nityananda’s father was an Ojha, or “medicine man,” living in an area that was quite likely marginal to Brahminical culture.

Birbhum is near the Santal Paragana and Jharkhanda areas, which is strongly tribal even today, what to speak of 500 years ago. Despite travelling with a sannyasi from childhood, Nityananda's Brahminical credentials were suspect. Establishing them eventually became necessary in order to gain respectability for the Chaitanya sampradaya in general. Marrying into a Brahmin family would have been an easy way for him to establish a Brahmin identity, for if one segment of the Brahmin community accepted him, it would mean de facto acceptance everywhere.

Nevertheless, it is clear from Caitanya-caritāmṛta and elsewhere that Adwaita, at least, was not altogether comfortable with Nityananda’s caste status, and even though statements of this sort are passed off as good-humored banter among friends in the biographies, a certain real underlying tension can be detected. Caste as an issue in Gaudiya Vaishnavism has always been an underlying problem; such prejudices remained despite dogmatic scriptural assertions opposing them.

But these were the likely criticisms levelled against Adwaita and Nityananda by partisans, some of whom seemed to want to attribute their own leaders with equal or even superior status to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu himself.

In all this, the position of the Gaura Nagaras, for whom Gadadhar was the symbolic (rather than real) leader, was not negligible. And then there were many other minor leaders with their own charisma who were also building up their own bases and claims to guruship, but whose individual expressions were challenged by those (such as Nityananda’s disciples) who claimed some kind of monopoly on access to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

By the 1570’s, 35 years had passed since Mahaprabhu’s disappearance; most of the senior leaders from his time had already departed and those who remained were not much longer for the world. [The accounts of Narottam et al play up this by recounting how they travelled to Nabadwip and Puri to meet with these personalities only to be disappointed.] It became clear that something needed to be done, for the sampradaya was in great risk of splintering into quarrelling factions and falling into irrelevance.

If we look at the written material that would have been available at this time, the texts representing these various schools, we get a bit of a better idea of the problem. They are generally philosophically very thin. In the Gadadhar article and above, we find many indications of the hold that the Yoga-vasiṣṭha seemed to have over Bengali Hindus of the time. Though Vrindavan Das clearly indicates that the Nityananda Vaishnavas rejected the impersonalist doctrine, I would venture to say that in the interactions with the expert Nyaya and Vedanta philosophers of Nabadwip and elsewhere, they, and even the Brahmin converts following Srivas and Adwaita, and even those who had studied the Bhāgavatam according to Sridhar Swami's commentary, would have had a hard time presenting a persuasive competing vision. All they had was their enthusiasm and their faith in their charismatic leaders.

As such, the Chaitanya movement was principally one of piety and zeal. We could say that it was overbalanced toward religion’s emotional or sentimental side. Claims of superiority and inferiority, as the above cursory discussion and the Gadadhar article show, were more about jockeying for ontological position through interpreting Chaitanya’s role as avatar and the specifics of a particular associate’s type of relationship to or degree of intimacy with Chaitanya.

With the departure, one by one, of these charismatic leaders, it became clear that there was a crisis.



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