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Srinivasa Acarya: Part One

Srinivasa Acharya is one of the most important personalities in the religious history of Bengal, perhaps the most important Vaishnava teacher in the generation immediately following Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He is chiefly remembered as the illustrious disciple of Gopala Bhatta Goswami and Jiva Goswami. His achievements include delivering the writings of the Goswamis from Vrindavana to Bengal, converting King Birhambir to Vaishnavism, and originating the Manohar Shoy style of kirtana. At Kheturi, Bengal, he co-organized the first Gaura Purnima Festival (celebrating the anniversary of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s appearance in this world), which Narottama, Shyamananda, and thousands of other Vaishnavas attended.

Srinivasa’s Parents

Srinivasa Acharya’s parents—the brahmana Gangadhara Bhattacharya and his wife, Lakshmi Priya—lived in the small village of Chakhandi, on the bank of the Ganges in the Burdwan district of Bengal. They longed to raise a child who would be a great devotee, but until the birth of Srinivasa, they were child-less for many years.

Gangadhara was himself a great devotee of the Golden Avatara, Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the incarnation of Sri Sri Radha and Krishna predicted in the scriptures. Lord Chaitanya had appeared in Navadvipa and was currently in the world. Gangadhara spent much of his time hearing and retelling the stories of Lord Chaitanya’s pastimes (lila) with the Lord’s intimate associates. He wanted to see Lord Chaitanya, but social and familial obligations kept him at home, so he resolved to meditate on the Lord in separation. In 1510, however, he could not tolerate the separation any longer. He set out for Navadvipa to see the Lord of his life. After only seven miles, as far as the village of Katwa, he learned that Nimai of Nadiya—Chaitanya Mahaprabhu—was in that very village taking sannyasa, the renounced order of life.

“What?” cried Gangadhara. “Why must my Lord take the renounced order? This austerity is reserved for human beings like me so we can overcome our attachments to this world. Certainly there is no need for Sri Nimai, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, to live the harsh life of an ascetic.”

But Gangadhara’s reservations were mixed with excitement: he would soon see his Lord face to face. When he approached the sacrificial area where Sri Nimai was taking sannyasa, he saw the Lord’s intimate associates—Nityananda Prabhu, Chhandrashekhara Acharya, Mukunda Datta, and many others. He saw Madhu Sila, the barber, preparing to cut Nimai’s beautiful locks of raven black hair.

“No!” the onlookers were saying. “Please stop!” They, like Gangadhara, could not conceive of the Lord in the renounced order of life. Even Madhu, who had the good fortune to touch the Lord’s head, could cut His hair out of duty only, weeping profusely. Madhu and the others knew that the Lord had decided to set an example for the entire religious world and stress the importance of renunciation. There was nothing they could do.

“Chaitanya Dasa”

Keshava Bharati, the sannyasa-guru, gave Nimai His new sannyasa name, “Sri Krishna Chaitanya.” The crowd was in shock: “Beautiful Nimai is really taking sannyasa!” They couldn’t believe their eyes, from which tears were flowing incessantly. But the deed was done.

Madhu fainted. Why had he shaved the Lord’s head? It was as if he had been controlled by the Lord’s own hand to fulfill the Lord’s own desire. “Chaitanya! Chaitanya!” said Gangadhara Bhattacharya to himself. “Chaitanya! Chaitanya! Chaitanya!” he repeated again and again. His eyes pleaded with everyone there: he wanted to understand what had just happened, but all he could do was mutter in a stupor of mixed emotions.

Gangadhara found himself calling the Lord’s names aloud with uncontrollable enthusiasm—“Chaitanya! Sri Krishna Chaitanya! Sri Krishna Chaitanya!”

He returned to Chakhandi, half mad with ecstasy, unable to stop repeating the Lord’s names. He told his wife what had happened, and she too was overcome with ecstasy. As the days passed, their ecstasy increased, and the whole town of Chakhandi marveled at Gangadhara’s transformation. Seeing Gangadhara’s absorption in Sri Chaitanya’s name, his wife and the other villagers began calling him Chaitanya Dasa.

Journey To Puri

Chaitanya Dasa and his wife went to Jagannatha Puri, where Lord Chaitanya had gone after accepting the renounced order. When the couple arrived, they went to Sri Chaitanya and surrendered at His feet.

“Lord Jagannatha is very happy that you have come here,” the Lord said. “Go to the temple and see His Deity form. The lotus-eyed Lord is extremely merciful, so please go see Him.”

Govinda, Lord Chaitanya’s personal servant, accompanied Chaitanya Dasa and his wife to the temple, where they offered many prayers at the feet of Lord Jagannatha. Weeping tears of divine love, the happy brahmana couple were soon escorted to the luxurious accommodations Lord Chaitanya had arranged for them. They spent several happy days with Sri Chaitanya in Jagannatha Puri.

One day Lord Chaitanya told His servant of His plans for the couple. “Govinda,” the Lord said, “although Chaitanya Dasa and his wife have not mentioned it to Me, I know they would like to have a child. They said so in front of Lord Jagannatha, who is nondifferent from Me. They have prayed sincerely, and I know their hearts. Their desired offspring will soon appear. His name will be Srinivasa, and he will be a greatly beautiful child. Through Rupa and Sanatana I will manifest the bhakti-shastras, and through Srinivasa I will distribute them. Chaitanya Dasa and his wife should quickly return to Chakandhi.”

The Appearance of Srinivasa

In Chakhandi the couple had a beautiful baby boy, whom they named Srinivasa. He was born in the second or third decade of the sixteenth century on the auspicious full-moon day of the month of Vaishakha (April-May). Lakshmi Priya’s father, Balarama Vipra, a learned astrologer, told the happy couple that their son was a mahapurusha, a divinely empowered soul.

The boy had a broad chest and a long, elegant nose, and his beautiful eyes extended like lotus petals. Like Lord Chaitanya, he had a bodily luster resembling molten gold and arms that extended down to his knees. According to custom, Chaitanya Dasa and Lakshmi Priya gave charity to the brahmanas, and the brahmanas blessed the child.

Srinivasa’s Youth

Lakshmi Priya would constantly sing the glories of Lord Chaitanya into the child’s ears, and the melodious sounds made him joyful. As Srinivasa grew, he learned to chant the names of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Radha-Krishna. Soon this small crescent moon known as Srinivasa grew full and was known as the brightest and most beautiful boy in Chakhandi. He studied under the famed Dhananjaya Vidyavacaspati, who taught him all branches of Vedic learning, including religion, logic, poetry, political science, grammar, and Ayurveda.

According to the Prema-vilasa, Dhananjaya Vidyavacaspati said that he had nothing to teach Srinivasa. The Prema-vilasa also relates that the goddess of education appeared to Srinivasa in a dream and told him she would make him proficient in all areas of learning, especially the scriptures. Still, Srinivasa became known as Dhananjaya Vidyavachaspati’s prize pupil, and as such he was the pride of Chakhandi. He was loved by all the townspeople, who saw him as a precious gem.

Narahari Sarakara Thakura

Because of Srinivasa’s popularity, he met Narahari Sarakara, an intimate associate of Lord Chaitanya from nearby Srikhanda. Narahari Sarakara’s intense devotion had pleased Lord Chaitanya, and Narahari had the distinction of being allowed to sing the Lord’s glories in the Lord’s presence, although the Lord, out of humility, would not let anyone else do so. This distinction impressed young Srinivasa, and he accepted Sri Narahari as his first instructing guru.

After meeting Narahari Sarakara, Srinivasa began to show signs of ecstasy. Narahari told Srinivasa to go to Puri to see Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. While Srinivasa was considering how to execute the instruction, his father passed away from this mortal world after seven days of fever. It was a shock to the family, and Srinivasa did all he could to console his mother.

Meanwhile, the omniscient Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was preparing His associates for Srinivasa’s arrival. He had already written to Rupa, Sanatana, and Gopala Bhatta Goswamis requesting them to teach Srinivasa spiritual life. And He asked Gadadhara Pandita in Jagannatha Puri to teach Srinivasa the Srimad-Bhagavatam.

Narahari Sarakara advised Srinivasa to see to his mother’s care in Jajigram, where her father and brothers had moved from Chakhandi. Then Srinivasa was to proceed to Puri to associate with Lord Chaitanya. Srinivasa asked Narahari to initiate him into the chanting of Krishna’s name, but Narahari told him that Lord Chaitanya wanted him to take initiation from Gopala Bhatta Goswami.

Meeting with Gadadhara Pandita

Still a boy, Srinivasa set out with a companion for Puri. On the way, he learned that Sri Chaitanya had left this world. Then Lord Chaitanya—along with Nityananda Prabhu, who had also passed away—appeared to Srinivasa “on the pretext of a dream” and consoled him. The phrase shopna chaley (“on the pretext of a dream”) appears frequently in Bengali literature of the period and is usually taken to mean “in a spiritual vision.”

Still, Srinivasa remained grief-stricken. He went to the Gopinatha temple in Puri to take shelter of Gadadhara Pandita. The Pandita was overcome with separation from Lord Chaitanya, and tears always flowed from his eyes. Srinivasa bowed at Sri Gadadhara’s feet and introduced himself.

Gadadhara Pandita became joyful. “I’m glad you have come and introduced yourself,” he said. “Just before passing away, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu told me to teach you the Bhagavatam. He knew you would arrive in Puri one day, and He asked me to explain Krishna-lila to you.”

Gadadhara Pandita’s joy—he could now fulfill this order of the Lord—again turned to sadness. “I cannot teach you Bhagavatam at this time, O young Srinivasa,” he said, “for the manuscript in my possession has become illegible from the tears I have cried onto its pages.”

Srinivasa touched the sacred book to his head and felt ecstasy arise within himself. Nonetheless, the problem of studying a book that had been rendered illegible remained. But Sri Gadadhara and Srinivasa would not be swayed from their purpose. The will of Mahaprabhu could not be obstructed. Sri Gadadhara sent a message to Narahari Sarakara in Bengal asking him to secure another manuscript of Srimad- Bhagavatam. Narahari replied that another copy was available and that a messenger should be dispatched immediately. Gadadhara sent Srinivasa himself and told him to hurry. The separation from Lord Chaitanya was intolerable, he said, and he didn’t know how long he could stay in this world.

Before leaving, Srinivasa fulfilled a long-cherished desire to see Lord Chaitanya’s associates. He went to the homes of Ramananda Raya, Sikhi Mahiti, Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya, Vakreshvara Pandita, Paramananda Puri, Gopinatha Acharya, and many others. He also went to see King Prataparudra, but according to the Bhakti-ratnakara the king had gone away in solitude to lament the Lord’s passing.

Srinivasa as Gaura Shakti

Srinivasa reminded the great personalities in Puri of Lord Chaitanya. Seeing his intense and unprecedented love of Godhead, the devotees could understand that he was Gaura Sakti, the embodiment of the energy of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. According to the Prema-vilasa, Srinivasa is an incarnation of Lord Chaitanya’s ecstasy. The Lord’s intimate associates could naturally perceive this and could understand that through Srinivasa the eternal message of Lord Chaitanya—the message of the Vedic literature—would be widely distributed.

Lord Chaitanya had broken open the storehouse of nectarean love of God, and the Goswamis, by writing books, had taken that nectar and placed it in tangible vessels. Srinivasa would see that these vessels were circulated among all sincere souls. The intimate associates of the Lord gave Srinivasa instructions and advice for carrying on the mission.

When Srinivasa arrived in Bengal and received the copy of the Bhagavatam from Narahari Sarakara Thakura, he learned that Gadadhara Pandita had passed away. The news was a terrible blow, and Srinivasa lamented. Then Gadadhara Pandita appeared to him on the pretext of a dream and encouraged him to go forward.

Srinivasa reflected on the inconceivable will of the Lord. Why had He taken away the person who was to teach him the Bhagavatam? Was there a new plan? Was someone else to teach him the sacred scriptures? Some say that Srinivasa fell despondent at this time, but not much is known about the years that followed Sri Gadadhara’s passing from this world. It is generally assumed that Srinivasa spent this time at first in a heartbroken state and then in serious meditation. He probably continued his studies, as he was still in his teens.

When Sri Jahnava Devi, the wife of Nityananda Prabhu, went to Vrindavana, Rupa Goswami asked her to send Srinivasa to Vrindavana as soon as possible. On her return to Bengal, she relayed the message to Narahari. Sri Chaitanya had told the Goswamis of Vraja to train Srinivasa, and Narahari advised him to hasten to Vrindavana so that the Lord’s command should not be violated.

The request heightened Srinivasa’s desire to study bhakti literature with Rupa and Sanatana. Had he gone to Vrindavana then, he would have met Rupa and Sanatana. But he decided to visit the homes of Lord Chaitanya’s principal associates on the way, stopping at Navadvipa to visit Sri Chaitanya’s home.

Association with The Navadvipa Devotees

This was the second time Srinivasa delayed a journey: first the journey to see Gadadhara Pandita, and now Rupa and Sanatana. Perhaps Srinivasa’s enthusiasm to associate with Lord Chaitanya’s direct followers in Puri and Navadvipa was so overwhelming that he was unable to heed the advice of his forebears. Some say that all of this was the will of providence, so that Srinivasa would take initiation from Gopala Bhatta Goswami. Others say that Srinivasa, by his example, was teaching the importance of pilgrimage and association with devotees.

Srinivasa was enthralled with the home of Sri Chaitanya in Navadvipa (Mayapur), where he met Vishnupriya Devi, the Lord’s revered widow, and her esteemed servants, Vamshivadana Thakura and Ishana Prabhu. They all blessed Srinivasa, and he stayed with them for several days, hearing the pastimes of Lord Chaitanya.

During those days he watched Vishnupriya Devi perform severe austerities. For example, she would chant the maha- mantra—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—over each grain of rice she was to eat. When she was finished with her daily chanting, she would eat only the grains she had set aside.

“Truly,” Srinivasa said, “this is a wife who was worthy of Sri Chaitanya.”

Srinivasa also met Damodara Pandita, Suklambara, Murari Gupta, and other early friends and intimates of Lord Chaitanya in Navadvipa. From there Srinivasa went to nearby Santipura, where he was warmly greeted by Sri Advaita’s wife, Sita Thakurani, and her sons Acyuta and Gopala.

Srinivasa Meets Jahnava Devi

Then Srinivasa visited the house of Nityananda Prabhu in Khardaha, where Jahnava Devi, her son Birabhadra, and others greeted Srinivasa as if he were part of their own family. But Jahnava Devi encouraged him to start for Vrindavana without delay because Rupa and Sanatana would soon rejoin the Lord in the spiritual world.

On the way to Vrindavana, Srinivasa stopped at the well- known Abhirama Thakura’s house in Khanakul Krishnanagar to deliver a letter from Jahnava Devi. The Thakura greeted him with three loving lashes from an extraordinary whip, but this unusual greeting was a benediction. The whip, known as Jai Mangala, would bestow love of God on anyone it touched. Sri Abhirama and his wife, Malini, showed deep affection for Srinivasa. Not only did they bless him with their famous whip, but they gave him valuable instructions and reiterated the importance of going to Vrindavana as soon as possible.

While continuing his journey, Srinivasa stopped in Katwa, where his father had seen Lord Chaitanya adopt the renounced order. Next he passed through Agradvipa, where the three famous Ghosh brothers—Vasudeva, Govinda, and Madhava—had established their temple, and then he proceeded to Ekachakra, the birthplace of Nityananda Prabhu. Finally, Srinivasa made one last stop in Jajigram to say farewell to his aging mother and to visit Narahari Sarakara, his beloved guru. Narahari was concerned about Srinivasa’s delay in going to Vrindavana and asked him to leave immediately.

And so, without further delay Srinivasa set out for Vraja. By this time he had achieved adulthood.

The Journey to Vraja

Meanwhile, Sanatana Goswami had left this mortal world, and Rupa Goswami could not bear the separation. Sri Rupa felt that he, too, might not survive to instruct Srinivasa, so he asked his distinguished disciple (and nephew) Jiva Goswami to care for Srinivasa.

Traveling in those days, mostly by foot, was difficult. Nonetheless, Srinivasa was making determined progress, stopping briefly on the way in Benares to visit the house of Chandrashekhara Acharya, where Lord Chaitanya had lived for two months. Here Srinivasa met an elderly disciple of Chandrashekhara who invited him for a meal and showed him the places associated with Sri Chaitanya.

Next, Srinivasa reached Prayag (known today as Allahabad) and spent the night there. Four days before arriving in Vrindavana, he heard that Sanatana had passed away four months earlier. And when he reached Mathura, he learned that Rupa Goswami had passed away only three days earlier. Srinivasa fell to the ground, crying like a madman. He felt himself the most unfortunate person in the universe. He had failed to meet Lord Chaitanya and to study the Bhagavatam with Gadadhara Pandita. Now he had failed to meet Rupa and Sanatana.

While Srinivasa sat beneath a tree wishing for his own death, Rupa and Sanatana appeared to him on the pretext of a dream and told him he was the embodiment of Lord Chaitanya’s love. They encouraged him to proceed to Vrindavana to take shelter of Gopala Bhatta Goswami and to study under Sri Jiva with all his life and soul.

(continued in the next issue)