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Caitanya


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(c.1486–1533)

The initiator and figurehead of the bhakti movement that developed into Gauḍīya (Bengal) Vaiṣṇavism. According to the hagiographic accounts, Caitanya (whose given name was Viśvambharamiśra) grew up as an orthodox Vaiṣṇava brahmin in the town of Navadvīpa (Nadiā) in Bengal. At the age of 22, while in Gayā (in Bihar) to perform śrāddha for his father, he had a sudden and overwhelming religious experience, triggered by a South Indian ascetic, who then initiated him into Kṛṣṇa bhakti. Abandoning his life as a married householder, Caitanya thereafter devoted himself to praising God. This took the form of organizing and participating in the collective singing of kīrtana about Kṛṣṇa's life with the gopīs in Vṛndāvana, and the erotic love between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa, a practice that induced ecstatic trances in Caitanya, during which he was effectively possessed by the deity. In 1510 he was initiated as a saṃnyāsin (with the name Śrīkṛṣṇacaitanya) and, after years of ecstatic wandering, settled in Purī in Orissa, although he continued to make pilgrimages to South India, and to Vṛndāvana. In Purī, his devotion was focused on the famous Jagannātha image of Kṛṣṇa in the main temple.

The only work ascribed directly to Caitanya is an eight verse poem called Śikṣāṣṭaka (‘The Eight Verse Teaching’), evoking the bliss experienced through his devotion to Kṛṣṇa. Drawing on sources favoured by their teacher, such as the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and Jayadeva's Gītagovinda, it was Caitanya's immediate followers, the six Gosvāmīs, who composed the works of aesthetic theology and ritual that became the scriptural basis for the Gauḍīya tradition. The popular view, expressed in the Gauḍīya Bengali sources, as opposed to the more Advaitin stance of some of his Sanskritic followers, is that Caitanya was himself either an avatāra of Kṛṣṇa or identical with the god. Caitanya's influence is evident in a number of other Vaiṣṇava traditions, including the Rādhāvallabhīs and the Tantric Sahajiyās, who regarded him as their teacher, the joint incarnation, in one body, of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa.

Subjects: Hinduism.


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