Gaudiya Vaishnavas

Doctrines Gaudiya or Bengal Vaishnavism is based on the life and teachings of Caitanya (1486-1533), the founder of the sect, who is also called Krishna-Caitanya, Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and Gauranga ("Fair-limbed"). Gaudiya Vaishnavas are also called Caitanyas. Caitanya wrote only a Sanskrit poem of eight verses on his rapture at the embrace of the deity, though his ecstatic singing and dancing as he experienced the love of Krishna and Radha inspired others. Among these followers were the Six Gosvamins ("pastors") , who wrote a theology of the sect. The influence of Madhva, founder of the Dvaita school of Vedanta, can be traced in the sect for Caitanya was initiated by a Madhva ascetic and Nityananda, the organiser of the sect, was a former Madhva ascetic.
The teachings of Caitanya are based on the Srimad bhagavatam, in which Brahman, transcendent reality, is fully personal (bhagavan) and Krishna is the quintessence of this divine person. Humans emanate from the divine source and are not fundamentally different from it. Rebirth continues until divine mercy allows the soul to realise its true nature, which is the devoted servant of Krishna.
The intense bhakti, devotion, of Caitanya caused popular tradition to regard him as an avatara, incarnation, of Krishna in a form with the fair complexion and emotions of Radha so that he can experience in one body the blissful union with his shakti, energy. Caitanya is also seen not as an avatara of Krishna but as Krishna himself. There is an erotic element in worship, for the devotee feminises himself as a gopi, cowherdess, to be seduced by Krishna. Radha is married to another and this is interpreted as love for the deity should overcome all conventional obstacles.
The Gosvamins wrote their theological works in Sanskrit. Sanatana and Jiva wrote commentaries on the Srimad bhagavatam, Rupa wrote on the aesthetic theology of bhakti as well as poems and inspirational plays as did Raghunathadasa and others. Gopala Bhatta and Sanatana produced the Haribhaktivilasa, a liturgical and disciplinary compendium, and Sanatana wrote the Brhadbhagavatamrtam, an allegory of the pilgrimage of the soul.
Many Vaishnavas in Orissa believe that Caitanya is Krishna in his Buddha incarnation as Jagannath-Buddha in Puri. Jagannath was conceived as Adi (Primordial) Buddha and the ninth avatara of Vishnu.

History Caitanya's given name was Visvambhara Misra and he was born at Nadia (Mayapur) in Bengal, sixty miles north of Calcutta beside the sacred river Bhagirathi. Nadia was once the capital of Bengal and has famous schools of Sanskrit. Born of Vaisnava brahman parents, he became proficient in Sanskrit grammar by the age of ten, and after his father died when he was fourteen or fifteen, he married and set up a Sanskrit school in his own house. His wife was Laksmipriya, daughter of the famous teacher Vallabhacharya. While Visvambhara was away on a scholarly tour in East Bengal, Laksmipriya died. He soon remarried, to Vishnupriya, daughter of a local pundit.
In 1508 when he was twenty-two he travelled to Gaya and performed Sraddha, observances for the dead, for his father and first wife. There he was overwhelmed with devotion to Krishna and met Isvara Puri, a Madhva ascetic. who later initiated him into the Bharati order of Shankara's Dashanamis. Back in Nadia, Visvambhara led kirtana, religious chanting, groups praising Krishna. This challenged the Muslim authorities. He soon became the charismatic leader of the Vaishnavas in Nadia. In 1510 he renounced at the feet of the ascetic Kesava Bharati and changed his name to Krishna-Caitanya ("he whose consciousness is Krishna").
Caitanya now adopted a mendicant life and for six years wandered from shrine to shrine all over India chanting the names of Krishna and calling for devotion to Krishna. He spent four months at Srirangam in South India and in 1515 visited Vrndavana, which is associated with Krishna legends, and fell into trances when he discovered the Radha-kunda (tank). He returned to Puri in Orissa, his special place, and in 1516 settled there for the rest of his life. At Puri he worshipped Lord Jagannath in the great temple as Krishna. His father's first name had been Jagannath. There is a tradition that on first seeing the Jagannath image, Caitanya fainted and merged himself into the image. Caitanya was to become a leader of the singers and dancers who accompanied the huge car of Jagannath in the annual procession. Yearly pilgrimages to Puri started to be made by Bengali Vaishnavas to visit Caitanya and continued for twenty years. This was an arduous journey for pilgrims in the sixteenth century.
Caitanya did not organise a sect around himself but his magnetism attracted men of great learning such as Sarvabhauma, the greatest authority on logic, and Advaita, leader of the Vaishnavas in Bengal, and men of power and wealth like the King of Orissa, Pratapa Rudra and his brahman minister, Ramananda Ray. Nityananda, a former Madhva ascetic, became the organiser of the sect. Caitanya sent a group of theologians to Vrndavana to write a theology of the sect. These became the Six Gosvamins of Vrndavana. The historical development of Vrndavana was mainly due to these disciples of Caitanya, who were to be known as Gaudiya Vaishnavas. Two brothers, Rupa and Sanatana Gosvamin, built the first of the temples of Vrndavana with the help of wealthy rajas from Rajasthan.
The death of Caitanya in 1533 is a mystery. According to the Gaudiya Vaishnava texts, Caitanya is the avatara of Krishna and thus any question of his death is absurd. Isvara Dasa and Achyutananda state that Caitanya disappeared into the image of Jagannath. One myth is that he saw a vision of Krishna on the waves and walked into the sea to him and was drowned. The Vaishnava community of Bengal was stunned and crushed by the passing of Caitanya.
Nityananda continued to organise the Gaudiya Vaishnavas and to give rules of conduct, and his son Virachandra carried on this work. The community in Vrndavana continued to grow and wrote commentaries, dramas, and lyrics, and the sacred sites around Mathura and Vrndavana were found and a pilgrimage to them established. The beneficent rule of Akbar enabled the building of a series of magnificent temples at Vrndavana. During the first half of the seventeenth century there were many brilliant writers of hymns in Bengal. Overall, the Gaudiya Vaishnavas gave to Bengal a wealth of devotional literature in Sanskrit and Bengali.
Caitanya was an important influence on the Brahmo Samaj with Keshab Chandra Sen leading kirtana processions through Calcutta. In the 1880's there was a neo-Krishna movement which led to the rediscovery of early Gaudiya Vaishnava literature. This resulted in the organisation of the Gaudiya Math (see separate entry) and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) or Hare Krishna movement (see ISKCON).

Symbols There are popular temples to Caitanya in Nadia and other small temples throughout Bengal and Orissa in places which have some association with the life of Caitanya. Mitra at the end of the nineteenth century in his Antiquities of Orissa claimed there were 800 Caitanya temples in Orissa alone. In Nadia is an image of Caitanya which tradition says was carved for his dying wife Laksmipriya from the nim tree which sheltered his birth. The Golden-image temple contains a life-size gilded image of Caitanya as Gauranga. In Dhakkadakshin, the birthplace of Caitanya's father, there is a temple where Caitanya is worshipped as an avatara of Krishna. At Vrndavana only the Govindji temple has images of Caitanya and Nityananda.
Caitanya is usually represented as a shaven-headed robed monk. In the Jagannath temple at Puri there is a seated image of Caitanya with a shaven head. At Pratappur the image is clothed with a robe that starts as a curious conical hat. Temples also contain images of Krishna and Radha and a salagrama, a round black stone that is a traditional symbol of Vishnu. Most temples also have images of Advaita and Nityananda. Kardaha, north of Calcutta, is associated with Nityananda and here are the oldest temples of the sect. Nityananda and Caitanya images, called Gaur-Nitai, are found side by side in the temples. One temple has old tantric symbols, suggesting tantric influence on the founders of the sect. There is a shrine in Nadia to Sachi and Vishnupriya, mother and wife of Caitanya, with images of these ladies.
Various relics of Caitanya are kept in different temples. The footprints of Caitanya where he stood near the Garuda pillar in the Jagannath temple to witness Jagannath are in a small chapel. Caitanya visited Adi Varaha temple near Jajpur on his way to Puri and his footprints are covered by a small temple. There are other footprints at Cuttack and Chaudwar. At the Alalnath temple in Orissa is a body impression of Caitanya on a large flat stone. The Radhakanta Math in Puri has the wooden sandals sent to Caitanya by Vishnupriya.
At the end of the nineteenth century images of Gauranga with six arms became popular, as did the worship of Gauranga-Vishnupriya in the first half of the twentieth century.
The tilak, sectarian mark, is two vertical lines on the forehead that meet between the eyes. Vairagis, ascetics of the sect, also place twelve tilaks on the body, each representing a name of Krishna. These are put on with a special mantra, sacred utterance, for each one. Often footprints of Krishna or the name Hare Krishna are stamped all over the body. Garlands are worn, the tulasi (basil, sacred to Vishnu) mala (necklace) being essential. Puja, worship, involves offerings of water, rice, durba grass, scents, flowers, incense, fruits, sweets, and betel. The Radha-Krishna mantra is used for the worship of Caitanya as he is the avatara of Radha-Krishna.

Adherents The majority of Bengali Hindus in the middle castes and considerable minorities in the upper and lower castes followed Krishna-Caitanya until a decline in the nineteenth century. Revitalisation came with the Gaudiya Math (see separate entry). There are large numbers of adherents also in Orissa with Puri being an important centre. Vrndavana in Uttar Pradesh is a pilgrimage centre and new temples are still being built there. The descendants of Nityananda live in Nadia and are the spiritual leaders and gurus of the sect. The grihasthas, householders, are the laity, and the vairagis are the ascetics of the sect. The vairagis live in akhras, monasteries. There are also female ascetics called vairaginis.
Other sects are associated with Caitanya. The Damodariya sect in Assam has maths, monasteries, on the island of Majula in the Brahmaputra River. The Bauls of Bengal, wandering religious singers and poets, claim to have been founded by Caitanya but they do not recognise the Gosvamins. Other sects with some Caitanya connection are the Kartabhajas, the Darbesh and a branch called the Shains, and the Kishoribhajas. The Jaganmohini sect do not claim any connection with Citanya but they are very similar to the Caitanyas.

Main Centre
 Mayapur (Nadia), Bengal, India.