A Meeting in Varanasi, Part 1

Complexity: 
Easy

One of the greatest scholars of his day is about to meet the source of all knowledge.
The city of Varanasi lies four hundred miles northwest of Calcutta on the northern bank of the Ganges River. Terraced stone landings, or ghats, leading down to water’s edge extend for four miles along the riverbank. Throngs of pilgrims descend to bathe in the sacred water or climb to explore narrow, winding streets and visit the city’s more than 1,500 temples. While there are historical records of pilgrimages to Varanasi dating back to the seventh century, to the faithful this most sacred of destinations has existed as a bustling holy city for much longer. Many of Varanasi’s temples were destroyed in the seventeenth century during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, yet today the view from across the Ganges at Ramnagar suggests timeless splendor.

The preeminent scholar in Varanasi at the beginning of the sixteenth century was Prakashananda Saraswati, a renounced priest, or sannyasi, in the line of Sripada Sankaracharya. Prakashananda and his colleagues were masters of the Vedas, the Sanskrit literature that includes extensive writings in every basic field of knowledge. There are Vedic texts on law, art, medicine, mathematics, and other worldly sciences, as well as on yoga, religion, philosophy, and mysticism. Veda means “knowledge,” and in the broadest sense all knowledge is part of the Vedas.

Prakashananda Saraswati was particularly adept at analyzing the codes of the highly philosophical Vedanta-sutra. The Vedic texts, divided by Srila Vyasadeva, the literary incarnation of God, culminate in the Vedanta-sutra, in which Vyasadeva expounds upon the eternal nature, origin, and purpose of existence. Anta means “end,” so the Vedanta-sutra establishes that all fields of knowledge are meant to reach the end, or goal, of knowledge by understanding the meaning of life.

During a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968 Srila Prabhupada challenged his audience to explain why, with all the fields of knowledge at their university, they didn’t have a department to study the difference between a living body and a dead body. We study medicine to keep our bodies healthy, politics and sociology to keep them organized, psychology to manage our minds. All these departments benefit living bodies and minds, but what is that life, that living energy we so attentively serve? Where is that knowledge? Or in other words, where is Vedanta? Lacking a Vedanta department, the other departments are incomplete.

There was no such lack at Varanasi. As a peerless commentator on the Vedanta-sutra, Prakashananda Saraswati was dean of the Varanasi scholars, who as professors of the Vedas were not mere dogmatists spouting creeds but genuine researchers, writers, and teachers drawn to essential truth. The city of Varanasi had long been a great center of learning and culture. With students arriving from all over India to obtain a comprehensive education in the Vedic wisdom, Varanasi was a hotbed of enlightenment. Prakashananda and his associates presided, enjoying their intellectual pursuits, their followings, and their tenure as leaders of an academic and cultural mecca.

The only disturbance to the peaceful academic atmosphere—a disturbance that has also surfaced today in modern college towns and other centers of enlightenment—was a noisy, enthusiastic band of Hare Krishnas chanting and dancing through the streets. With no apparent respect for even minimal academic decorum, these apparent fanatics, beating on drums and clashing hand cymbals, were gathering a following, Prakashananda noticed, among some of the simpler students and townspeople. Their twenty-eight- year-old leader, Sri Krishna Chaitanya, who lived in Bengal, had a golden complexion and a thundering voice. Like Prakashananda and his colleagues, He was a sannyasi in the disciplic line of Sripada Sankaracharya. But Sankaracharya had taught his followers to give up worldly pleasures like singing and dancing and to instead always study the Vedanta- sutra. So who did this Krishna Chaitanya think He was, and what did He think He was doing?

Prakashananda began to openly criticize: “Krishna Chaitanya, although a sannyasi, does not take interest in the study of Vedanta but instead always engages in congregational chanting and dancing. He is illiterate and therefore does not know his real function. Guided only by his sentiments, he wanders about in the company of other sentimentalists.” (Sri Chaitanya-caritamrita, Adi- lila 7.41-42)

It may have disturbed Prakashananda more to know that Krishna Chaitanya was far from illiterate. Before accepting the sannyasa order at the age of twenty-four, He had been known as Nimai Pandita and had run a popular Sanskrit academy of His own at Navadvipa, in what is now West Bengal. Navadvipa was an even more important center of learning than Varanasi. At this time in India, as in previous ages, scholarship had some of the flavor of modern sports events, with learned panditas challenging each other to compete in displays of erudition. While still a schoolboy, Nimai Pandita defeated many champion scholars, including Keshava Kashmiri, a brahmana from Kashmir who had won titles all over India. When Keshava Kashmiri came to Navadvipa looking for some action, the local scholars hid in fear, leaving the contest to Nimai.

Nonviolent Protest

After several years of showing His intellectual prowess, Nimai Pandita focused His energies on promoting sankirtana, public congregational chanting and dancing in glorification of God. In Navadvipa the loud chanting of Krishna’s names had provoked the local Muslims to complain to Navadvipa’s magistrate, or Kazi. The Kazi descended upon a chanting party one evening, broke a sankirtana drum, and forbid further chanting on the streets of the city. In response Nimai Pandita organized a nonviolent protest, surrounding the Kazi’s house with thousands of chanting, dancing demonstrators. The Kazi was intimidated by the crowd, but Nimai’s demeanor was peaceful. In a friendly exchange He convinced the Kazi of the importance of chanting the Lord’s names.

Like Prakashananda Saraswati, Nimai Pandita was highly learned in the Vedanta-sutra, but not for scholarship’s sake. He knew well the many statements in the Vedas declaring that in the Kali-yuga, this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, the means of self-realization (the goal of Vedanta) is to chant the names of God. A verse in the Brihan-naradiya Purana emphasizes this point by repetition: “Chant the holy names, chant the holy names, chant the holy names. In this age of quarrel there is no other way, no other way, no other way to achieve the goal of human life.”

Although Nimai chanted the Hare Krishna mantra in particular, He taught that this “no other way” applies to any place and time, and to any recognized name of the Lord. A verse in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Srila Vyasadeva’s own commentary on his Vedanta- sutra, states that in previous ages meditation, religious rituals, or worshiping in the temple may have sufficed, but in this age these methods are effective only in conjunction with regular chanting. And again in the Bhagavatam, Vyasadeva writes that Kali-yuga is an ocean of faults with one saving quality: simply by chanting the glories of the Lord we can free ourselves of the material miseries and attain the highest perfection of spiritual life.

The Kali-santarana Upanishad is even more specific, citing the full Hare Krishna mantra—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—and then asserting, “These sixteen words destroy the faults of the Age of Kali. After searching through all the Vedas, you will not find a better means of self-realization for this age.”

With these and other verses on His lips and with the assistance of His many associates, Nimai spread his sankirtana movement throughout Navadvipa and into East Bengal. He married at an early age, but as a householder traveled frequently, leaving His young wife and elderly mother at home. Sankirtana so absorbed him that He introduced a system of Sanskrit grammar based on Krishna’s names. Every word from His mouth was either chanting or glorification of the chanting.

On a pilgrimage to Gaya, Nimai became a disciple of Ishvara Puri, a great devotee of Krishna in the line of Srila Vyasadeva, and when Nimai returned to Navadvipa, his enthusiasm for the holy names grew ecstatic. It appears that Nimai had a familiar youthful bent for loudness and all-nighters, so much so that this time it was the Hindus who complained to the Kazi:

Nimai Pandita was previously a very good boy, but since He has returned from Gaya He conducts Himself differently. Now He loudly sings all kinds of Krishna songs, clapping, playing drums and hand bells, and making a tumultuous sound that deafens our ears. We do not know what He eats that makes him so crazy. He has made all the people practically mad by always performing congregational chanting. At night we cannot get any sleep; we are always kept awake. (Adi 17.206-9)

Even Nimai Pandita’s students began to criticize what they considered His excessive absorption in the holy names. Although not personally bothered by the criticism, Nimai took seriously His sankirtana movement. He ambitiously desired to spread sankirtana to every town and village of the world, giving everyone, whether educated or illiterate, access to Vedanta and to the perfection of life through the chanting of the holy names. If even His own students took Him lightly, how could He expand His mission?

Nimai’s Sannyas

So in the year 1510, at the age of twenty-four, leaving home for good, Nimai traveled to the village of Katwa and accepted the sannyasa order from Keshava Bharati, a sannyasi of the Sankarite school. It is still the custom in India to offer respect to a sannyasi, and this was even more the case five hundred years ago. Nimai wanted that public respect and attention for the benefit of the sankirtana movement, which was, in turn, for the public’s highest benefit. Although Nimai abhorred Sankaracharya’s quasi-Buddhist philosophy, Sankaracharya’s influence was so strong that people thought one could accept sannyasa only in the Sankarite disciplic succession. So in pursuance of His mission, Nimai took sannyasa from Keshava Bharati, receiving the name Sri Krishna Chaitanya.

Prakashananda Saraswati might have collected some of these details about the tall, golden sannyasi now dancing and chanting through Varanasi’s narrow streets had he asked around town. As dean of Varanasi’s scholars he might have thus avoided his criticism of Krishna Chaitanya.

The Identity of Sri Krishna Chaitanya

The fuller answer to “Who is Krishna Chaitanya, and what is He doing here in this center of quiet scholarship?” lay right under Prakashananda’s nose in his rightly esteemed Vedic literature. In the Mahabharata, the Vishnu-sahasra-nama-stotra (“The Thousand Names of Vishnu”) describes the Supreme Lord appearing as a householder with a golden complexion and an attitude of peaceful devotion and later accepting the sannyasa order. The Bhagavatam confirms that the Lord appears in different ages in different colors—white, red, black, and yellow. White, red, and black having been accounted for in previous ages, the incarnation for the Age of Kali is yellow, or golden. The Bhagavatam also states that in Kali- yuga the incarnation of God inaugurates the sankirtana movement, always chants the name of Krishna, and is in fact Krishna Himself with a golden complexion:

krishna-varnam tvishakrishnam
sangopangastra-parshadam
yajnaih sankirtana-prayair
yajanti hi su-medhasah

“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, servants, and confidential companions.”

Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya is known as the channa avatara, or “hidden incarnation,” because He never presented Himself as God or allowed anyone to call Him God. He always acted as God’s servant and as the servant of the Lord’s devotees. This age is so full of incarnation wannabes, so ridden with philosophies asserting that in the end we are all God, that God Himself demonstrates and relishes devotional service to Himself through the chanting of His names. As a grade-school teacher, to teach her students how to learn, sometimes pretends to be learning her ABC’s, so in the form of Sri Krishna Chaitanya the Lord takes the role of His own devotee and demonstrates the art of His own devotional service.

Hearing of Prakashananda’s criticism, Lord Chaitanya demonstrated how members of the sankirtana movement should be unconcerned with their own prestige. To further sankirtana the Lord had planned a trip to the holy city of Vrindavana, just south of present-day Delhi, and didn’t see any reason to alter His itinerary to defend His reputation by crossing swords with Varanasi’s elite. Intellectual tournaments were a thing of His past, of His heady school days. There was no need to interrupt His preaching for a debate. Better to push on the chanting of the holy names. There were plenty of receptive ears and many followers who needed His personal attention and instructions.

But Lord Chaitanya’s followers in Varanasi were upset by Prakashananda’s remarks. It broke their hearts to hear their beloved Lord labeled an illiterate fool. At the same time they weren’t confident enough to confront Prakashananda themselves. What were they in comparison to this celebrated leader of Varanasi’s many faculties and academic departments? How could they present their case for the divinity of Sri Krishna Chaitanya and for the transcendental stature of sankirtana to a critic who could so expertly quote the Vedic scriptures, brandishing his learning and credentials?

When Lord Chaitanya returned to Varanasi from Vrindavana, He stayed at the house of Chandrashekhara, took His meals at the home of Tapana Mishra, and spent two months instructing Sanatana Gosvami, the former prime minister of Bengal’s ruler, Nawab Hussein Shah, on the science of devotional service.

While Lord Chaitanya in this way remained peacefully absorbed in building His sankirtana movement, His two hosts grew increasingly unhappy, until one day both Chandrashekhara and Tapana Mishra appealed to Him: “How long can we tolerate the blasphemy of Your critics against Your conduct? We should give up our lives rather than hear such blasphemy. The local sannyasis are all criticizing Your Holiness. We cannot tolerate hearing such criticism, for this blasphemy breaks our hearts.”

Hearing this plea, Lord Chaitanya remained indifferent to the criticism of Himself, but felt compassion for His hosts and other followers, understanding their distress. At that moment a brahmana came to the Lord with another appeal, this one an invitation.

“My dear Lord,” the brahmana said, “I have invited all the sannyasis of Varanasi to my home for lunch. My desires will be fulfilled if You also accept my invitation. My dear Lord, I know that You never mix with other sannyasis, but please be merciful unto me and accept my invitation.”

It was a long-standing custom for the brahmanas of Varanasi to take turns inviting the local sannyasis to their homes. In this way there was a daily gathering of sannyasis, a moveable faculty lunch. Lord Chaitanya had always been absent, declining all invitations until this one, which He gracefully accepted to please Chandrashekhara, Tapana Mishra, and the brahmana. Here was a timely opportunity, made possible by His own omnipotent arrangement, to meet Prakashananda Saraswati in a congenial setting as fellow guests at a brahmana’s home.

Tapana Mishra and Chandrashekhara were overjoyed. They didn’t know how to answer Prakashananda themselves. They didn’t yet have confidence in their own learning or debating skills. But they had firm faith that their spiritual master, Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya, was the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He was Krishna Himself, the author and final authority on Vedanta-sutra, acting as His own devotee. In Bhagavad-gita (15.15) Krishna declares, “I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge, and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas, I am to be known. Indeed, I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.”

As faithful servants of Lord Chaitanya, Chandrashekhara and Tapana Mishra aspired to become expert preachers of His mission who knew perfectly and could teach that Vedanta, the end of knowledge, is loving service to Krishna, the supreme person, through the chanting of His names. For now, however, what they knew, giving them joy and relief in anticipation, was that Lord Chaitanya, their own teacher, had agreed to meet Prakashananda Saraswati, head of Varanasi’s intellectual elite, for lunch.