Sanatana’s Great Escape
by Mathuresha Dasa
One of the original leaders of the Hare Krishna movement uses his diplomatic skills to free himself for the Lord’s service.
Sanatana Goswami resigned his ministerial post in the Muslim government of sixteenth-century Bengal, having decided to dedicate his life to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mission. The Nawab, or governor, imprisoned Sanatana, angered by his resignation. We now hear how Sanatana met Lord Chaitanya in Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) and told of his escape from prison and journey out of Bengal.
Sanatana Goswami entered the city of Varanasi early in the spring of 1514. Having journeyed on back roads and jungle paths through Bengal and Bihar, he was dressed in torn and dirty clothes. His long hair, beard, and mustache were unkempt, and he carried a beggar’s pot in his hand. Pleased to hear that Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had arrived by boat from Allahabad, Sanatana went to Candrashekhara’s house, where the Lord was staying, and sat down by the door.
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu could understand that Sanatana was outside.
“Candrashekhara,” He said, “there’s a Vaishnava, a Hare Krishna devotee, at your door. Please go call him in.”
Candrashekhara went out to look and, seeing no Vaishnava, came back.
“Is there anyone at your door at all?” the Lord asked.
“Only a Muslim mendicant,” Candrashekhara replied.
“Please bring him here,” the Lord said.
Hurrying back to the door, Candrashekhara spoke to Sanatana.
“O Muslim mendicant,” he said, “kindly come in. The Lord is calling you.”
Pleased with this invitation, Sanatana entered the house, where Lord Chaitanya rose with haste to embrace and welcome him and to give him a seat by His side. Lord Chaitanya is the Supreme Personality of Godhead playing the part of His own devotee. In both capacities, as Lord and devotee, He was eager to welcome His Vaishnava guest. Over Sanatana’s protests, He extolled Sanatana’s saintly influence upon even sacred places of pilgrimage like Varanasi. The Lord quoted a verse from Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.13.10): “Saints of your caliber are themselves places of pilgrimage. Because of their purity, they are constant companions of the Lord, and therefore they can purify even the places of pilgrimage.”
Only a few weeks before, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had met Sanatana’s brother, Rupa Goswami, in Allahabad. The Lord had enlightened Rupa about the soul’s evolution, first through the species of material life in this universe and then, upon reentering the spiritual sky, through the transcendental stages of life in the spiritual creation. For the next two months in Varanasi, Lord Chaitanya would elaborate on these and other topics in His teachings to Sanatana Goswami. He would describe how the Supreme Lord expands Himself to individually preside over the innumerable spiritual planets and to create and govern the material universes. He would inform Sanatana about the location and dimensions of the spiritual planets and about the identity and activities of their denizens as precisely as one might describe the continents and nations of this earth. And He would delineate the direct route through the dark and temporary material cosmos to these effulgent and deathless spiritual destinations with as much clarity and detail as the best modern road maps and travel guides.
Despite the exalted, revolutionary nature of these pending transcendental topics, however, Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was Himself curious to know about Sanatana’s recent travels and adventures.
“How did you escape from prison?” the Lord eagerly asked, and Sanatana happily told his story from beginning to end.
Fortunate Jail Keeper
Sanatana recounted how, bound with iron chains at the Chika Mosjud prison near Ramakeli, Bengal, he had received a note from his younger brother Rupa.
“My dear Sanatana,” Rupa Goswami had written, “I have left a deposit of ten thousand gold coins with a local merchant. Use that money to get out of prison and come meet Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Mathura and Vrindavana.”
To further encourage Sanatana, Rupa had included in his note a beautiful and mysterious Sanskrit verse:
yadu-pateh kva gata mathura-puri
raghu-pateh kva gatottara- koshala
iti vicintya kurusva manah sthiram
na sad idam jagad ity avadharaya
“Where has the Mathura City of Yadupati gone? Where has the northern Koshala province of Raghupati gone? By reflection, make the mind steady, thinking, ‘This universe is not eternal.’ ”
Yadupati is a name for Lord Krishna, and Raghupati a name for Lord Ramacandra. Long ago They had appeared on earth and played as human beings, displaying Their eternal pastimes in the city of Mathura and the province of Koshala respectively. Now They had appeared again as Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to entice mankind from the prison of material life in this temporary universe, and Lord Chaitanya was currently on His way to Mathura, followed by Rupa Goswami.
Delighted with the note, Sanatana went to the Muslim jail keeper, an acquaintance from his government days, a simple man with little education or spiritual training. Summoning the diplomatic skills honed during his years as the Nawab’s prime minister, Sanatana began to satisfy the humble warden with praise.
“Dear sir,” Sanatana began, “you are a very fortunate person, a living saint, and a scholar steeped in knowledge of the Koran and similar books. So you must know that if you release a prisoner in accordance with your religious principles then you are blessed by the Supreme Lord.”
Flattered by the compliments from his fellow government servant, the jail keeper could not deny he was indeed a learned scholar and saintly person. He was all ears as Sanatana continued, stressing their long-standing friendship and requesting release as a personal favor.
“Previously I have done much for you,” Sanatana said. “Now I am in difficulty. Please return my goodwill by releasing me.”
Sanatana sweetened their friendship with an offer of five thousand gold coins. By taking the gold and releasing an innocent prisoner, Sanatana explained, his friend the jail keeper would accumulate both piety and material wealth. He would get the best of both worlds.
“Please hear me, dear sir,” the jail keeper replied nervously. “Of course I want to let you go, because you have done much for me and are a fellow public servant. I know that, but I am afraid of the Nawab when he hears you are free. I’ll have to explain. What will I say?”
Sanatana had just the alibi.
“There is no danger,” he assured his friend. “The Nawab has gone south to conquer Orissa. If he returns, tell him that Sanatana went to answer the call of nature near the bank of the Ganges and that as soon as he saw the Ganges, he jumped in. Tell him, ‘I looked for a long time, but I could not find any trace of him. He jumped in with his shackles and drowned, washed away by the current.’
“And don’t worry,” Sanatana added. “No one will find me. I shall become a mendicant and go to the holy city of Mecca.”
The jail keeper now had a forensic alibi for the Nawab, a religious alibi for his own conscience, and a promise of five thousand gold coins. He was still torn and wavering when Sanatana upped the offer to seven thousand coins and carefully stacked the money before him while he watched. Seeing the gleaming pile of gold growing, the jail keeper finally caved in. That night he broke Sanatana’s shackles and let him escape across the Ganges.
Though he now had three thousand coins remaining and hundreds of miles to traverse from Bengal west towards Mathura and Vrindavana, Sanatana left all the gold behind and set out on foot, looking the part of a beggar. The money had bought him release for Lord Chaitanya’s service, but he had no interest in spending for a comfortable journey, nor was carrying gold safe for a lone traveler. As an escaped prisoner, too, and a famous man, Sanatana had to avoid notice. Using back roads and footpaths, he stayed off the highways known as “the way of the ramparts,” which the Nawab had fortified against invasion.
A servant named Ishana followed Sanatana, and despite all his master’s evident precautions, Ishana secretly carried eight gold coins. Crossing what is now Bihar province, Sanatana and Ishana came to a hilly area known as Patada and stopped at a small hotel, where the gold proved nearly fatal. The hotel owner learned of the eight coins through an expert palmist and planned to rob and kill his two guests. In the meantime, he went out of his way to be respectful and attentive to their needs, providing them with food to cook and promising to personally guide them through the hills.
Sanatana went to the river to bathe, and as he had not eaten for two days, he cooked and had his meal. But he was suspicious. As a minister of the Nawab, he had faced many diplomats and sycophants. Here was a hotel owner, a stranger, giving him the royal treatment, though he and Ishana looked like paupers.
“Ishana,” Sanatana inquired, “I think you must have something valuable with you.”
“Yes, I have seven gold coins,” Ishana admitted, partially revealing his cache.
Sanatana became angry and berated his servant.
“Why do you carry this death knell on the road?”
Taking the seven coins, Sanatana went to the hotel owner, holding the coins before him.
“Please take these seven coins,” Sanatana requested, “and help us to cross these hills. I am an escaped political prisoner and cannot go along the way of the ramparts. It will be very pious of you to take this money and get me through the hills.”
The combination of gold and religious sentiments again proved effective. The hotel keeper confessed that he knew that Ishana had eight coins in his pocket and that he had planned to kill both Ishana and Sanatana. Now refusing the coins with embarrassment and chagrin, as an apology he offered to guide Sanatana through the hills for free.
“No,” Sanatana replied. “If you don’t accept these coins, someone else will kill me for them. Better you save me from the danger.”
With this settlement made, the hotel keeper hired four watchmen who through that entire night escorted Sanatana and Ishana across the hills on a jungle path. Sanatana then sent Ishana home with the gold coin Ishana had tried to conceal and traveled on alone, wearing torn clothing, carrying a beggar’s pot, and losing his worries with every step he took.
Walking on and on, Sanatana came one evening to a town named Hajipura and sat down in a garden park. By coincidence a gentleman named Srikanta, the husband of Sanatana’s sister, was in Hajipura on government business. The Nawab had given Srikanta 300,000 gold coins to buy horses. Sitting in an elevated place transacting this business, Srikanta caught a glimpse of Sanatana and later that evening went to see him. The two old friends talked long into the night, and Srikanta heard all about Sanatana’s arrest and escape. Seeing Sanatana, formerly the prime minister, in such a ragged condition distressed Srikanta and got him thinking. With a fortune in gold at his disposal, certainly he could help his wife’s brother get a new start in life.
“Why don’t you stay here with me for a couple of days,” Srikanta urged Sanatana. “You can get rid of these dirty clothes and dress like a gentleman again.”
Sanatana had already foiled a greedy jail keeper and a murderous hotel owner, all the while avoiding the Nawab’s soldiers and agents on his way to meet Lord Chaitanya. Now here was a more formidable obstacle: a loving friend and close relative with money to spare. Sanatana thanked Srikanta but declined his offer.
“I cannot stay any longer,” Sanatana said. “Please help me across the Ganges so that I can leave right away.”
Insisting that Sanatana at least take a valuable woolen blanket, Srikanta helped him across the Ganges and with affection saw him on his way again.
Sanatana had left Srikanta in Hajipura only a few days before. Now, sitting with Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu at Candrashekhara’s house in Varanasi, he was feeling boundless happiness. After hearing about Sanatana’s adventures, Lord Chaitanya in turn recounted His recent meeting with Sanatana’s brothers in Allahabad. Then He asked Sanatana to clean up and get a shave before lunch, and He requested Candrashekhara to provide Sanatana with fresh clothing.
Sanatana’s ragged, unkempt appearance was understandable considering the circumstances of his long journey, but Lord Chaitanya wanted His followers looking like gentlemen. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, writing in the early 1970s, explains: “Due to his long hair, mustache, and beard, Sanatana Goswami looked like a hippie. Since Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu did not like Sanatana Goswami’s hippie features, he asked Candrashekhara to get him shaved clean. If anyone with long hair or a beard wants to join this Krishna consciousness movement and live with us, he must similarly shave himself clean.”
Though offered new garments by Candrashekhara, Sanatana requested a used dhoti cloth instead, then proceeded to rip the cloth in pieces to make two sets of clothing. As for meals, a Maharastriyan brahmana who would later host Lord Chaitanya’s lunch with the sannyasis of Varanasi invited Sanatana to take all his meals with him. Again Sanatana politely declined, preferring to avoid full meals and humbly beg a little food from door to door. Sanatana’s renunciation was extraordinary and cannot as a rule be imitated. He was determined to give up material opulence. Even Srikanta’s new woolen blanket had to go. Sanatana went to the bank of the Ganges and persuaded a surprised Bengali mendicant to take the blanket in exchange for the mendicant’s torn quilt.
Observing all these changes, and at last seeing even the valuable blanket gone, Lord Chaitanya became unlimitedly happy and told Sanatana Goswami, “Lord Krishna has mercifully nullified your attachment for material things. So why would He allow you to maintain that valuable blanket, your last bit of material attachment? After vanquishing a disease, a good physician does not allow any of the disease to remain.”
In the days that followed, Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, being pleased with Sanatana Goswami, began to tell him about Lord Krishna’s real identity, transcendental qualities, and eternal activities. Sanatana, freed from his last piece of material attraction, was fully prepared to listen.
(Next issue: Lord Chaitanya’s teachings to Sanatana Goswami.)