Happy Birthday to Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu!
By Tasha Friedman
Chaitanya wrote no books and left few formal teachings, but like ripples from a stone dropped in water, the echoes of his presence spread throughout India and eventually the Western world.
Born in 1486 in West Bengal, young Nimai (“born under a neem tree,” as he was known in his youth) was a beautiful child, brilliant but mischievous. Those who knew him couldn’t help but fall under his charm, although like his beloved Krishna, he caused plenty of trouble for his family and others in his village!
His spiritual inclination was obvious from an early age. Even as a baby, he delighted in hearing the names of Krishna, and by his late teens, he was a respected Sanskrit scholar and debate master.
Yet in his early twenties, after meeting his guru Ishvara Puri, he made the leap from scholar to full-fledged devotee.
Following this encounter, Chaitanya left Bengal and all academic pursuits behind, embarking on a life as a wandering sannyasin and constantly singing to Krishna.
Along the way, he attracted many friends and followers, most notably his close companion Nityananda. A shining example of spiritual friendship, the two of them are frequently invoked together in Vaishnava prayers.
Many guessed that he was a divine incarnation, a combined avatar of Krishna and Radha. Chaitanya apparently confessed to his closest friends that this was true. But he made them swear secrecy, while to the outside world, he always presented himself as only a simple devotee, a servant of servants.
Singing and dancing in ecstatic love for God, Chaitanya left a trail of devotion and inspiration in his wake.
His main practice was kirtan, the exuberant, communal chanting of Divine Names, especially the Maha-mantra (or the “Hare Krishna” mantra). Thanks to his influence, this mantra remains one of the most well-known in the world. He chanted everywhere he went, in houses and out on the street, despite pressure and even threats from leaders who saw the bhakti movement as a threat to their authority.
Contrary to the religious establishment of the time, Chaitanya’s path of devotion was not bound by dogma, social convention, or material interests.
Anyone was welcome to chant the Holy Names: man or woman, rich or poor, with no distinction of caste or status. Many of his most prominent and honored followers were converts or people from low castes who, in those days, were barred from mainstream religion and spiritual teachings.
Kirtan is simple and direct. There is no need for priests and temples, no complicated rituals or proficiency in Sanskrit. All that is required is the willingness to open your heart. If you can love, you can love God—the practice and the goal, all in one.
Lord Chaitanya taught followers to heed the natural longing of the heart. Rather than seek some idea of God, he recommended staying with the feeling of the absence of God. Let that pain of separation grow and grow, like a lover crying to their lost Beloved.
In kirtan chanting, the leader calls, and the congregants respond. Is it the soul calling out to God, and God answers with grace? Or God calling to the soul, summoning the individual back to its source, and the soul responds with devotion?
These two movements are one and the same, in a secret way known only to the devotee.
This paradox of love and separation, unity and duality, is the essence of bhakti. It was this mystery that Lord Chaitanya came to embody: the divine avatar and the lovestruck devotee, Krishna and Radha, all in one.
Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.