Lord Chaitanya and the Renaissance of Devotion
While Europe, as if weary of its medieval concepts of God, turned with new interest toward man and the mundane, a spiritual revolution in India—destined to spread worldwide—was revealing the dynamic nature of the Absolute Truth.
Europe in the fifteenth century was undergoing that awesome social and cultural transformation that the historian Jules Michelet, looking back in reverence, named the Renaissance, the “rebirth.” That long medieval period, with its vision so entranced by splendid images of the eternal that it could hardly spare a glance for this fleeting world, with its mind so obsessed by last things—Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell—that it endured this life only as a hard trial and preparation, with its social body constructed of rigid hierarchies and maintained by a plodding economy—all that was finished. Like a man awakening from sleep and shaking fuzzy images of dreams from his head, Europe came alive to the senses and beheld as if for the first time the whole vast world that lay so enchantingly before it, rich with mysterious promise, beckoning with limitless possibilities.
Pico della Mirandola composed an Oration on the Dignity of Man. Still depicting pious subjects, Michelangelo carved in rock the grace and strength of a perfectly proportioned, smoothly muscled David and shaped a hymn in glorification of the male body, while everywhere painters adorned walls with the supple limbs and lustrous complexions of ripely rounded, exquisitely charming Madonnas. Bold navigators turned their prows into uncharted seas and found new worlds for exploration and exploitation. In the grip of a relentless fascination, Leonardo da Vinci limned in notebooks painstaking studies that delved into the intricacies of human anatomy and the mechanics of birds in flight. Based on a new, man-made kind of wealth, a new, self-made aristocracy arose—“merchant princes” who created far-flung empires of trade, banking, and manufacture. And so it happened that in a great shift of human vision from God to man and matter, the modern world was born.
India in the fifteenth century was also undergoing a renaissance—of a quite different sort. It was indeed almost the opposite of the European one; scholars have called it the “bhakti renaissance,” a great rebirth of devotion to God. The preeminent figure of this powerful religious upsurge was Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
When modern researchers explain historical changes, they, of course, consider only mundane causes—social, political, economic, and other such factors. However, I want to explore here another kind of cause: the divine. The Bhagavad-gita explains briefly how and why God periodically intervenes in human history: “Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice,” Krishna declares, “and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I manifest Myself. To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium” (Bg. 4.7-8).
As an introductory text, the Bhagavad-gita succinctly presents general principles. More advanced texts, like the Srimad-Bhagavatam, furnish further information. Drawing on such works, Srila Prabhupada comments on the statement of the Bhagavad-gita: “It is not a fact that the Lord appears only on Indian soil. He can manifest Himself anywhere and everywhere, and whenever He desires to appear. In each and every incarnation, He speaks as much about religion as can be understood by the particular people under their particular circumstances. But the mission is the same—to lead people to God consciousness and obedience to the principles of religion. Sometimes He descends personally, and sometimes He sends His bona fide representative in the form of His son, or servant, or Himself in some disguised form.”
Why should God have to appear over and over again? After all, if God is perfect, shouldn’t He be able to establish religion perfectly? Shouldn’t once suffice for all? It is, however, the nature of the material world that all things decay in time, and while God is infallible, the human beings who receive and transmit God’s instructions are fallible. Consequently, the religious traditions God establishes become compromised and undermined by a worldly spirit, and so in time they disintegrate. When religion thus declines, and irreligion consequently rises, God descends to rectify the imbalance and restore the principles of righteousness. God’s periodic intervention is crucial. Krishna notes in the Bhagavad-gita that if He did not act in this way, “all these worlds would be put to ruination” (Bg. 3.24),
The Renaissance in Europe offers a clear instance of the decline of religion. Fifteen hundred years earlier, Jesus Christ, the son of God, had appeared in a remote corner of the Roman Empire and had taught, as far as possible, the principles of religion. His followers, adopting and transforming the philosophical heritage of the Greeks and the practical and material legacy of the Romans, had eventually created in Europe a God-centered civilization. But the Renaissance, as a great movement of secularization, signaled the destruction of that civilization. Priestly worldliness and corruption had vitiated the spiritual power of the Church (as anyone familiar with the history of the Renaissance popes can attest). Although Martin Luther and other reformers attempted to restore the purity of Christianity, they unintentionally provided the means for European rulers to break loose from religious control. Thus the Reformation greatly contributed to the dismantling of the medieval God-centered civilization.
If Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries illustrates the sort of religious decline described in the Bhagavad-gita, India in the same period illustrates the divine restoration. The transcendental agent in this case was Sri Caitanya, who appeared in what is now West Bengal in 1486, just four years after Luther’s birth in Germany.
A person should be accepted as an incarnation of God only if He is referred to in scriptures. Many scriptures foretell the advent of Lord Caitanya. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.5.32) says: “In the age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting to worship the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the name of Krishna. Although His complexion is not blackish, He is Krishna Himself. He is accompanied by His associates, His servants, His weapons, and His confidential companions.”
This verse identifies Lord Caitanya as a special kind of incarnation called a “yuga-avatara.” Vedic literature describes history as cyclical, progressing through repeated revolutions of four great ages called yugas. The first age of the cycle, satya- yuga, is a golden age of immense spiritual and material well-being; each subsequent age ushers in a decline. We are now five thousand years into Kali-yuga, the final and most debased age. “In this iron age of Kali,” the Bhagavatam says, “men have but short lives. They are quarrelsome, lazy, misguided, unlucky, and, above all, always disturbed” (Bhag. 1.1.10).
Religious practice has to be tailored to fit the particular characteristics of each of the yugas. The meditational practices suitable for Satya-yuga, for example, will be ineffective in the Kali-yuga. People no longer have the time, the determination, and the peace of mind to meditate properly. The Lord therefore descends in each yuga—as the yuga-avatara—in order to establish the appropriate form of religion. According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Lord Caitanya is the yuga-avatara for this age of Kali.
The Bhagavatam also notes the specific religious practice Lord Caitanya will propagate: sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the name of God. Sankirtana is especially suitable for Kali-yuga, because it is both easy to do and extremely powerful. In this age we are in such a morbid condition of soul that only the strongest of remedies can heal us. And we will refuse the medicine unless it is sweet and easy to take. Therefore, Lord Caitanya disseminated the holy name. No matter how quarrelsome, lazy, misguided, unlucky, and disturbed we may be, we can easily chant Hare Krishna with perceptible spiritual results. We will at once have a taste of transcendental bliss and feel lust, greed, and anger diminish. The immeasurable potency of the divine name will rid even the most polluted mind of the putrefaction of material existence.
Lord Caitanya possessed such immense spiritual power that waves of devotion spread out from Him and inundated all of India with love of God. His life and teachings have been expertly recounted by Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami in Sri Caitanya-caritamrita, universally recognized as a classic of Bengali literature. We can get some idea of Lord Caitanya’s potency from this description of the Lord’s impact on people during His tour of South India:
Whenever Lord Caitanya met anyone, Krishnadasa Kaviraja says, He would ask them to chant Hare Krishna. “Whoever heard Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu chant ‘Hari, Hari,’ also chanted the holy name of Lord Hari and Krishna. In this way, they all followed the Lord, very eager to see Him. After some time, the Lord would embrace these people and bid them to return home, after investing them with spiritual potency. Being thus empowered, they would return to their own villages, always chanting the holy name of Krishna and sometimes laughing, crying, and dancing. These empowered people used to request everyone and anyone—whomever they saw—to chant the holy name of Krishna. In this way all the villagers would also become devotees of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. And simply by seeing such empowered individuals, people from different villages would become like them by the mercy of their glance. When these individuals returned to their villages, they also converted others into devotees. When others came to see them, they were also converted. In this way, as those men went from one village to another, all the people of South India became devotees. Thus many hundreds of people became Vaishnavas [devotees of Krishna] when they passed the Lord on the way and were embraced by Him” (Cc. Madhya 7.98-105).
A unique feature of Krishna’s appearing as Lord Caitanya is that although Lord Caitanya is Krishna Himself, He does not appear as God but rather as a devotee of God. There are two reasons why God assumes the role of His own devotee, one of them external and public, the other internal and private.
The public reason God comes as a devotee is to teach the chanting of the names of God in the most attractive and powerful way. By playing the part of His own devotee—the greatest devotee of all—Krishna is able to show by His own peerless example the splendor of pure devotional service. Since Lord Caitanya is God Himself revealing to us how He wishes to be served, the teachings of Lord Caitanya are most authorized.
God’s private reason for descending as Lord Caitanya is more difficult to grasp, and to understand it we will have to enter into some of God’s confidential, internal affairs. Indeed, it is principally through Lord Caitanya that these matters have become known to us at all. (They are, to be sure. described in ancient scriptures, but Lord Caitanya illuminated the meaning of those texts and made their importance shine forth.)
Krishna’s appearance as Lord Caitanya is really Krishna’s own tribute and testament to the overwhelming attractiveness of pure devotional service and, especially, of His pure devotee. Moreover, when Krishna assumes the features of His own greatest devotee, He has, in fact, a particular devotee in mind: His highest and most intimate devotee. Srimati Radharani.
You may have seen paintings that depict Radha and Krishna together; Lord Krishna appears as a beautiful young man with a dark-blue complexion that glows like a newly formed rain cloud illuminated within by lightning. Srimati Radharani is an equally beautiful young girl; Her complexion is lustrous like molten gold. Krishna plays on His flute, and Radharani, Her hand resting lightly on Krishna’s shoulder, listens in enchantment. It is clear from Their posture and from the way They glance at each other that They are deeply in love.
Westerners often misunderstand Radha and Krishna. An earlier, puritanical generation was appalled at the notion that God should have a consort and enter into a conjugal relationship. Nowadays, one encounters people from a younger generation who are very much “into” sex and are delighted to think that God is too. Both groups radically misunderstand Radha and Krishna, because both share in a common error: that the relationship between Radharani and Krishna is like a mundane sexual relationship.
Male and female and the attraction between them are found in this world only because sexual polarity and attraction exist originally in God, in Radha-Krishna. As above, so here below. But there is a difference also. Worldly sexual relationships are merely perverted reflections of the original and transcendental conjugal relationship between Radha and Krishna, which is pure and spiritual and devoid of any tinge of lust. As long as Our materially besmirched minds are conditioned by worldly desire, we are unable to conceive of the immaculate love between Radha and Krishna. We project our own unwholesome relationships and unholy loves onto God. This is surely a mistake. A person can understand the conjugal love of Radha and Krishna as it is only if he himself becomes free from lust. Lord Caitanya was able to make an unprecedented disclosure of the confidential relationship between Radharani and Krishna because He also taught the chanting of Hare Krishna, which destroys lust and other material impurities with unrivaled efficacy.
We can understand the position of Srimati Radharani by means of the ideas of “potency” (shakti) and the “potent” (shaktiman), that is, of power or energy, on the one hand, and of the possessor of the power, the energetic source, on the other. To use an illustration, fire is the potent, and heat and light are the fire’s potency. But the supremely potent, the ultimate source of all energies, is Krishna; everything else, material or spiritual, is His potency, emanating from Him as heat and light emanate from a fire. (Heat and light are potency in relation to the potent fire; fire, potency in relation to the potent sun; the sun, potency in relation to Krishna, the supremely potent.) The entire content of what is can be exhaustively described as Krishna and His energies.
Three of Krishna’s multitudinous potencies are prominent. One of them manifests the whole material world; another, the innumerable spiritual souls. The third—called the internal potency—manifests the transcendental kingdom of God. This internal potency has three further subdivisions. By one of these transcendental potencies, Krishna maintains His existence and that of the eternal kingdom of God; by another, He knows Himself and causes others to know Him. And by the third internal potency He enjoys transcendental bliss and causes His devotees to feel bliss.
This internal potency of bliss, called hladini- shakti, is Srimati Radharani. As the embodiment of Krishna’s transcendental pleasure-giving potency, Srimati Radharani is Krishna’s most perfect devotee; She lives only for satisfying Him with Her pure devotional love. All devotional service falls under the auspices of Srimati Radharani, and only by Her mercy and care are the devotees able to please Her beloved Krishna. She is the ideal devotee, the exemplar of unconditioned love.
Krishna and Radha are simultaneously one and yet different, just as a fire and its light are one and yet different at the same time. Thus, although Radharani and Krishna are one in Their identity, They have separated Themselves eternally. Radha and Krishna together exemplify the simultaneous oneness and difference of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and His energy, constituting the whole of the Absolute Truth. Thus they illustrate the most profound metaphysical principle.
Radharani and Krishna show that the ultimate nature of God contains internal varieties, and Their endless reciprocation of love is the basis of an internal transcendental dynamic by which Krishna is eternally increasing in beauty and bliss. Although Radha has no desire for her own enjoyment, when She sees Krishna, Her joy increases without bound. Because Her joy increases, Her sweetness and beauty also increase. When Krishna sees Radha becoming more and more beautiful, His joy also becomes greater, making His beauty and His sweetness grow. When Radha sees that She has pleased Krishna, She becomes overjoyed, and as Her joy multiplies, She becomes even more beautiful and sweet. This again increases Krishna’s own joy, beauty, and sweetness… . And so the reciprocation goes on and on, without limit or end.
The name Krishna means “all-attractive,” and knowing the reciprocation of ever-increasing love between Radha and Krishna allows us to appreciate how attractive God is—much more attractive than anything in this world. When God is misconceived as static and without variegatedness, it makes the material world seem more interesting and alluring by comparison. Just this sort of static conception was borrowed by Christian philosophers from Aristotle and enshrined in medieval theology; and this is one reason why the Renaissance turned to the material world for a sense of promise, adventure, and expanding possibilities. For God was philosophically understood as actus purus, which meant that He was everything that He could ever be; He was entirely static, a kind of crystalized, frozen perfection.
It was thought that if God possesses the fullness of infinite perfection, then the divine perfection would be at an absolute maximum and could not increase. But Krishnadasa Kaviraja says that although God is at the fullness of perfection, He still does increase. The apparent paradox may be easier to accept if you consider a similar “paradox” discovered by modern mathematicians in their investigation of the properties of infinite sets. Let us consider, for example, a hotel with infinite rooms, all of which are occupied. Although the hotel is full, you can always add more guests—in fact, an infinite number of guests. Let us imagine that the desk clerk wants to check in a new guest. He blows a whistle, and all the doors open. The occupant of room 1 moves to room 2, of 2 to room 3, … and so on, ad infinitum. The new guest enters the now- empty room 1. Similarly, even though an infinite number of guests check out of the hotel, it will retain full occupancy. The Ishopanishad makes a similar point about the Supreme Personality of Godhead: He is so complete that even though countless energies emanate from Him, He remains complete and wholly undiminished. And although Krishna is full and complete, yet, through His loving reciprocation with Radha, He eternally increases without limit.
Lord Caitanya also embodies another phase in the transcendental psychology of the loving reciprocation between Radha and Krishna. We have already seen how Krishna is ceaselessly fascinated and attracted by Radha. He finds Her love for Him equally amazing. Its selfless purity and its intensity fill Him with wonder. Krishnadasa Kaviraja tells us that Krishna thinks to Himself, “Whatever pleasure I get from tasting My love for Srimati Radharani, She tastes ten million times more than Me by Her love” (Cc. Adi 4.126). Krishna is the supreme enjoyer, but He realizes that Srimati Radharani, by Her love for Him, enjoys even more bliss than He does. Thus Krishna becomes eager to experience for Himself the flavor of Srimati Radharani’s love for Him.
Krishna’s beauty and sweetness are so limitless that they attract the whole universe. Krishnadasa Kaviraja says: “The beauty of Krishna has one natural strength: it thrills the hearts of all men and women, beginning with Lord Krishna Himself. All minds are attracted by hearing his sweet voice and flute, or by seeing His beauty. Even Lord Krishna Himself makes efforts to taste that sweetness” (Cc. Adi 4.147-48). But the one who relishes Krishna’s beauty and sweetness the most is Srimati Radharani. Her immaculate love is like a flawless mirror, and in that mirror Krishna’s own beauty and sweetness shine with ever greater brightness. Thus Krishna desires to experience His own attractiveness in the way that Srimati Radharani does.
For these reasons, then, Krishna desires to take the position of Srimati Radharani. That desire is eternally fulfilled in the person of Lord Caitanya. In His form as Lord Caitanya, Krishna assumes the golden complexion and the devotional feelings of Radha, and tastes for Himself the unlimited bliss of devotional service.
Krishnadasa Kaviraja sets down two verses in which he summarizes the nature of Lord Caitanya: “The loving affairs of Sri Radha and Krishna are transcendental manifestations of the Lord’s internal pleasure-giving potency. Although Radha and Krishna are one in Their identity, They separated Themselves eternally. Now these two transcendental identities have again united in the form of Sri Krishna Caitanya. I bow down to Him, who has manifested Himself with the sentiment and complexion of Srimati Radharani although He is Krishna Himself. Desiring to understand the glory of Radharani’s love, the wonderful qualities in Him that She alone relishes through Her love, and the happiness She feels when She realizes the sweetness of His love, the Supreme Lord Hari, richly endowed with Her emotions, appeared from the womb of Srimati Sacidevi, as the moon appeared from the ocean” (Cc. Adi 1.5-6).
The three transcendental personalities of Radha, Krishna, and Caitanya together manifest the eternal dialectics of divine love, the timeless dynamics of the ever-expanding ocean of transcendental bliss. Lord Caitanya descended to flood the world with that ocean of love by distributing to everyone the chanting of the names of God. Simply by chanting Hare Krishna, anyone can enter into that limitless ocean of the nectar of devotion.
Lord Caitanya inaugurated a bhakti renaissance and turned people’s vision to God at the same time that the Renaissance in Europe turned people’s vision to man and the world. Men like da Vinci, fascinated by the marvelous and cunning complexities of material nature, began to delve into her secrets with an insatiable curiosity and were rewarded with discovery. At the same time, as if in counterbalance, Lord Caitanya, through the renaissance of bhakti, gave to the world an unprecedented view into the inner dynamics of infinite love in the all-attractive Supreme Personality of Godhead. Just as men of the Renaissance tried to open up the world and unlock the secrets of nature, Lord Caitanya and His associates opened up the kingdom of God and unlocked the secrets of love of God.
To the people of the Renaissance, the world and man seemed imbued with limitless possibility and promise. Western civilization to the present day has been following up on that vision, and it becomes more and more apparent that the world and man have not lived up to their promise. The Renaissance shift of vision from God to man and matter has cut people off from any transcendent source of meaning and value, and the resultant relativism and nihilism—the ripened fruit of the Renaissance—have released demonic energies that have devastated the earth in our time. And there is more to come.
Therefore, Lord Caitanya’s appearance was most timely. The civilization born in Europe during the Renaissance has grown to straddle the earth. But there has been a most fortunate counterflux, as the sankirtana movement of Lord Caitanya has also spread over the globe, in fulfillment of Lord Caitanya’s own prophecy. By showing how Krishna is supremely loving and all-attractive, and by making Krishna easily accessible through the chanting of His names. Lord Caitanya has made it possible for us to shift our vision back to God once more. This is necessary. Man and the world cannot answer to the demand we have placed upon them. Only Krishna and His transcendental kingdom, where He eternally revels in pastimes of love, can do that. This alone is the realm that is rich with infinite promise, beckoning to us with limitless possibilities.