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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sri Ramanuja sampradaya to Chaitanyite Vaishnava

Krishnadas Kaviraj’s Chaitanya-charitamrita, Shri Chaitanya began His walking journey throughout South India in the summer of 1510. After many days, He came to Shri Rangam, a small city located on the banks of the Kaveri River in the district of Tanjore (about ten miles west of Kum-bhakonam). Famous as one of the most important centers of Krishna worship in all of India, it is more accurately a center for the worship of Lakshmi and Narayana, an expansion of the divine couple Radha and Krishna. Nonetheless, Shri Rangam’s main temple is the largest Vishnu (Narayana) temple in all of India, and pilgrims come from hundreds of miles to see Ranganath Swami, the Deity of Narayana in the main sanctum.

It was here that Shri Chaitanya met Vyenkata Bhatta and his brothers, Prabodhananda Saraswati and Tirumalla Bhatta. These were brahmanas of vast learning, and they welcomed Shri Chaitanya, the travelling sannyasi mendicant, to be a guest in their home. At this time, too, Shri Chaitanya met Vyenkata’s seven year old boy, Gopal Bhatta, who would one day be known as Gopal Bhatta Goswami.

The three brothers and young Gopal Bhatta lived near the Ranganath temple and, consequently, as brahmanas, were dedicated servants of the Deity. This being the case, they were naturally aligned with the Shri (Ramanuja) sampradaya, one of the four authentic lineages of disciplic descent. As such, they favored the aishvarya feature of the Lord, worshiping His grandeur and majesty. In fact, their sincere devotion to the awe-inspiring and opulent Lakshmi-Narayana manifestation of the Supreme was so pure that Shri Chaitanya felt great satisfaction for them (prabhura tushta haila mana), even though He was teaching the worship of Radha and Krishna. Despite being pleased with their high level of devotion, Shri Chaitanya could not help promoting the original Vedic perspective of Shri Krishna’s supreme and original position. Consequently, He once jokingly said to Vyenkata Bhatta: “Your worshipable Goddess of Fortune, Lakshmi, always remains at the chest of Narayana, and She is certainly the most chaste woman in creation. However, My Lord is Lord Shri Krishna, a cowherd boy who is engaged in tending cows.“Why is it” Shri Chaitanya continued, “that Lakshmi, being such a chaste wife, wants to associate with My Lord? Just to associate with Krishna, Lakshmi abandoned all transcendental happiness in Vaikuntha [the kingdom of God] and for a long time accepted vows and regulative principles and actually performed unlimited austerities.”

Vyenkata Bhatta countered by saying that Krishna and Narayana are in actuality one and the same, and it is thus natural that Lakshmi would approach Krishna. After all, Krishna is simply Narayana in another dress. What was the harm if she approached Her husband in one of His other manifestations? It is still, in essence, the same person. In this way, Her action cannot be considered unchaste. Vyenkata did admit, however, that Krishna represented a superior manifestation. “Although there is in one sense no difference between the forms of Narayana and Krishna,” said Vyenkata, “in Krishna there is a special transcendental attraction due to the conjugal rasa (“relationship”), and consequently He surpasses Narayana.”

Shri Chaitanya replied: “I know that there is no fault on the part of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune, but still She could not enter into the rasa dance. This was reserved only for Krishna’s most intimate devotees. We hear this from revealed scriptures.” Vyenkata Bhatta, now slightly vexed, said: “I cannot understand why Lakshmi was not allowed to join in the rasa dance. I am an ordinary human being. Since my intelligence is very limited and I am easily agitated, my mind cannot enter within the deep ocean of the pastimes of the Lord.”Next, Vyenkata acknowledged the divinity of Shri Chaitanya and then asked Him to reveal the mystery of Lakshmi’s inability to enter into the rasa dance. After all, he (Vyenkata Bhatta), as an ordinary living entity, may be subject to misinformation or faulty interpretation, but Shri Chaitanya, he knew, was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and, as such, had access to all information regarding these esoteric subjects.

Shri Chaitanya replied: “Lord Krishna has a specific characteristic. He attracts everyone’s heart by sweet interpersonal relationships of conjugal love. These sweet relationships reach their zenith in Vraj, the highest level of God’s kingdom, and there they may manifest in any of the primary rasas, such as that of servitude, friendship, parental expression, or, at last, conjugal love. At that point, Krishna’s Godhood becomes unimportant, and an incomparably sweet exchange ensues.

“Only those who follow in the footsteps of these inhabitants of Vraja,” Shri Chaitanya continued, “attain the Lord in His highest and original feature. There He is known as Vrajendra-nandana, or ‘the son of Maharaj Nanda.’ And there He is conquered by the spontaneous love of His most intimate servitors. The highest of these are the gopis [Krishna's cowherd girlfriends], whose superlative love for Krishna is totally unconditional and unmotivated. In order to enter the rasa dance, one must follow in their footsteps.

“The Goddess of Fortune,” Shri Chaitanya concluded, “wanted to enjoy Krishna’s association and at the same time retain Her spiritual body in the form of Lakshmi. This form is certainly magnificent from the spiritual point of view, with all of the opulence and power of godly majesty. However, She did not follow in the footsteps of the gopis in Her worship of Krishna. Consequently, all of the opulence and power in the world could not gain Her entrance into Krishna’s most esoteric pastime.”

In this way, Shri Chaitanya succeeded in showing Vyenkata Bhatta the superiority of love over power, of sweetness over opulence, of Krishna over Narayana. It was these conversations that won not only Vyenkata Bhatta and his two brothers over to Chaitanyite Vaishnavism, but they also won over the young Gopal Bhatta Goswami, who would regularly sit and listen to these talks.

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