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Institutionalizing Prema-bhakti - Joseph T. O'Connell

Jagat - Tue, 06 Apr 2004 18:31:54 +0530

Institutionalizing Prema-Bhakti

by Joseph T. O'Connell

I think that there are some concepts in this article that need to be well understood, especially by those of us who are not members of Iskcon or the Gaudiya Math. It will give insight into the pre-GM methods of organization in Chaitanya Vaishnavism, as well as defining the "genetic code" of Chaitanya Vaishnavism. Please note that this book has not yet been published. This is a copyrighted document. Please, therefore, do not reproduce it on any other website. Thank you.

The objective of this chapter is to identify and analyze those means of institutionalization that have been most relied upon by Chaitanya Vaishnavas for propagating and perpetuating the value orientation of prema bhakti, which they cherish as the raison d’être for their existence as a community, or communion, of devotees. That Chaitanya Vaishnavas continue to exist in their millions in eastern India and Bangladesh, augmented by significant presences elsewhere in India, most prominently in the Braj region, and more recently by small but vital clusters of devotees worldwide, testifies to their success in coping with what have been called the dilemmas of institutionalization. How they have managed to do so, how they have traded off opportunities for success in terms of mundane communal power and influence in the interests of successful preservation of their mode of prema bhakti, poses an interesting topic for inquiry.

Some comments on definitions are in order at the outset. “Value-orientations,” as used here, refers to the basic cognitive and evaluative standards shared by a group of people: their fundamental ideas and feelings about what is most real, right and valuable. In the present case, it is prema bhakti, loving devotion to Krishna that is the basic value orientation of Chaitanya Vaishnavas. As for “institution,” as used here, it means some social construct comprised by several interrelated roles. An institution so understood is a culturally defined set or pattern of interactions expected to occur in certain situations. Its violation would bring cultural sanctions of some sort. An institution, thus, is not the particular persons who interact according to reciprocal role expectations, nor the building or plot of land where the expected interaction takes place. Rather it is the abstracted pattern of that interaction, i.e., the mutually anticipated set of roles. The related term, “institutionalization,” accordingly, refers to the process by which value orientations are embedded in institutions and thereby made replicable and transferable to persons across time and space.

One recurrent theme that runs through this chapter (and the book as a whole) is that Chaitanya Vaishnavas by and large have tended to avoid institutions that would rely on centralized or coercive authority within the community of devotees, or ones that would invite conflict with other groups over mundane social, economic, or political resources. Those institutions through which Chaitanya Vaishnavas have preferred to articulate authority, prestige and responsibility have been, barring some past exceptions and some recent innovations, decidedly non-coercive, decentralized and diverse. “Hard institutions,” to coin an expression, e.g., centralized executive authority with coercive sanctions, and mechanisms for amassing mundane resources or for mobilizing adherents against external threats, have been conspicuously modest in scope, rare or absent among Chaitanya Vaishnavas. On the other hand, they have developed to a high degree what might be called “soft institutions,” e.g., symbolic means of articulating loving devotion to Krishna, prema bhakti. Such soft symbolic institutions are bound up with the production and utilization of religious literature (sahitya, shastra) and with a complex repertoire of recommended devotional practices (sadhana). Such “soft” symbolic institutions may be shared throughout the community of devotees and across time. But they tend to be anchored concretely and applied locally through diverse and diffuse networks of affiliation, especially through groups of religious mentors (gurus) and their disciples (sishya). Typically, these groups are voluntary and hence non-coercive. Such organizational institutions may be characterized as “intermediate,” i.e., lying between the “soft” symbolic and “hard” coercive institutions.

This chapter, for the most part, examines the wide range of non-coercive intermediate organizational institutions devised or adapted by Chaitanya Vaishnavas. It does not, however, ignore the richly elaborated and remarkably resilient soft symbolic institutions embedded in their sacred literature and religious practices. It is these soft, symbolic means of institutionalization, conserved by intermediate organizational networks of gurus and disciples, rather than hard centralized coercive institutions, that have enabled Chaitanya Vaishnavas to pass on to the twenty-first century much the same devotional value orientation exemplified by Chaitanya and his associates in the sixteenth.

Organizational (“Intermediate”) Institutions: Authority

Authority within the Chaitanya Vaishnava community is radically diffused. Chaitanya himself, although he rapidly emerged in his young manhood as a charismatic leader, never exercised regular administrative direction of the community coalescing around him. He could and did, however, act as final authority on crucial matters and offered advice in effective ways for those who would develop various aspects of the movement that was becoming a community, but there never was any acknowledged individual “successor” to Chaitanya, nor was there in his lifetime or ever after a central executive body as such.

Chaitanya’s mode of leadership could well be the paradigm for what the sociologist Max Weber called “charismatic authority.” Weber makes the further claim that charismatic authority, after the death of the charismatic leader, tends to transform into either of two other types of authority: rational-legal or traditional. In the Chaitanya Vaishnava case, it seems clear enough that it was not rational-legal authority, with its emphasis on bureaucratic, universalizing institutions, that replaced the charismatic. On the other hand, a host of traditional institutions—many of them already operative before and during Chaitanya’s lifetime, but recalibrated to reflect his influence—flourished after his passing. What is especially significant, however, is that those traditional institutions that acquired some share of the authority radiating from Chaitanya and his associates also managed to retain something of the charismatic quality of that authority. This perpetuation of charismatic authority in combination with traditional institutions of authority was fostered systematically by the development of the dense repertoire of soft institutions. Such charismatic-cum-traditional institutions provided a familiar and stable, yet flexible, framework within which to celebrate and perpetuate the charismatic experience of Chaitanya and his entourage in the collective devotional life of the Vaishnavas.

As Chaitanya became more reclusive in his later years, practical responsibility, authority and prestige devolved upon a host of individuals with diverse functions and styles of leadership. Among the functional types of leaders that emerged were theological scholars, authors of Sanskrit devotional texts and saintly figures renowned for the intensity of their devotion and asceticism. Leaders of these types might reside anywhere, but they tended to cluster around the commmunity’s epicenters of Braj, Nabadwip, and Puri. There were also prominent associates of Chaitanya who, acting as initiating gurus, propagated devotion to Krishna Chaitanya in Bengal and sired offspring who would continue to function in this role. Some of these were Chaitanya’s relatives, but most were not. Many were Brahmins, but not all. Notable composers and singers of vernacular devotional songs (padävali) and custodians of places and objects sacred to the community had their respective spheres of influence. Philanthropic patrons of Vaishnava persons (e.g., mendicants, gurus, singers), activities (e.g., community meals, festivals, pilgrimages) and establishments (e.g., temples, maths, ashrams) would have considerable influence within the community of Chaitanya Vaishnavas throughout its history. In the seventeenth and later centuries, leaders of hybrid cults like Kartabhaja and various Vaishnava Sahajiya disciplic lineages appeared on the periphery of the community. In recent centuries, vigorous reformers, rivalists and proselytizers have risen to prominence in their respective sectors. Despite the diffusion of authority and diversity of types of leaders, the Chaitanya Vaishnava community expanded rapidly and has persisted, though not without setbacks and internal divisions, down to the present. Its mainline (orthodox-orthoprax) sector has maintained remarkable fidelity to the distinctive mode of devotion articulated by Chaitanya and his associates. In the marginal sects and hybrid offshoots, on the other hand, there has been considerable deviation from the pattern that is so elaborately and lucidly articulated in texts from Chaitanya’s time and soon after.

Guru-disciple relationship

One of the most basic institutions of any Vaishnava community is the guru-sishya relationship, i.e., that between spiritual master and disciple. There are varying forms of the relationship, including informal non-exclusive leader-follower relationships, but the most crucial is that exclusive bond forged in the act of diksha (initiation), whereby a mantra (sacred, and usually secret, words of spiritual power) is bestowed and the initiand is “reborn” as the spiritual offspring of the initiating guru and through him (or, less frequently, her) as member of a spiritual kinship group of initiated Vaishnavas. Extending the individual initiating guru-sishya institution into past and future time, and spiritually into transcendental realms, is the collective institution of sampradäya. Literally, sampradaya means tradition, “that which is handed down,” i.e., the spiritual lineage within which the initiatory mantra and related spiritual instruction are passed from one generation to the next.

Most Vaishnava sampradayas trace their lineage back to a famous Vaishnava saint-theologian and through him to a form of the deity. There is no universally agreed upon number or arrangement of such sampradayas, though it became common in some contexts to speak of four Vaishnava sampradayas, each of which claimed a distinctive form of Vedanta, namely those associated with Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka and Vishnuswami-Vallabha. The Chaitanya Vaishnavas, however, do not readily fit into this scheme, though some claim to be derived from Madhva’s sampradaya, while others that by virtue of a commentary on the Vedanta-sutras by Baladeva Vidyabhusana, they constitute a fifth Vaishnava Vedantic sampradaya. Others—including, it would seem, Chaitanya and his major contemporary associates—have seen their community as of another order altogether. From their standpoint, the entire Chaitanya Vaishnava community can be seen as a meta-sampradaya that in principle transcends and envelops all prior Vaishnava sampradayas. It is the community of devotees stemming directly from Krishna descended anew as Chaitanya to promulgate the dharma of the age.

For Chaitanya Vaishnavas, the guru-sishya institution (along with its extension, sampradaya) is as ambivalent as it is important. For one thing, Chaitanya himself may not have given diksha to anyone, or at most to very few and in such confidence as to leave little or no unambiguous evidence of his having done so, even though a number of devotees are said to pertain to his branch or shakha of the community. Thus one of the most direct ways of defining a religious community or sampradaya—spiritual descent through formal initiation traced back to the founder—does not apply. A further complication is that although several contemporary followers of Chaitanya had received Vaishnava diksha from different Vaishnava sampradayas, they and their successors give initiation as if into a common Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition. There is a standard explanation (or restatement) of the anomaly that Chaitanya, though founding an emergent tradition (or meta-sampradaya) of devotees, seems not to have bestowed diksha himself. It is to say that Chaitanya is the samañöi-guru or collective spiritual master for the age, while his several associates are the vyañöi-gurus or particular spiritual masters. Chaitanya’s role, thus, was to provide the divine example and set the devotional community in motion; that of his associates was to apply his initiative through individual initiation and specific instruction.

A further ambiguity arises in that, while it is strongly urged that an earnest devotee seek out a guru and receive Vaishnava diksha, it is also held that genuine devotion and participation in the communion of devotees is not necessarily limited to those who have received diksha. (“Truly he in whose mouth there is once the name of Krishna is a Vaishnava. Honor him.”) Accordingly, we find that while the guru-disciple relationship is indeed a fundamental institution among Chaitanya Vaishnavas, it is not a universal formal requirement for devotional participation or solidarity with the universal community or communion of devotees.

During Chaitanya’s lifetime, there were three main epicenters of devotional activity and charismatic authority for his Vaishnava disciples: Nabadwip and the surrounding region in Gauda, or western Bengal, where he was born and raised; Jagannath Puri and district in Orissa, where he spent his mature ascetic years; and Braj, the region of Mathura-Vrindavan, whereto he sent disciples to compose a theological corpus and rediscover the sacred sites of Krishna’s lilas. This multiplicity of epicenters is itself indicative of the decentralized, functionally differentiated character of Chaitanya’s community, both in organization and symbolism.

Nabadwip, the birthplace of Chaitanya, is a strong emotive symbol for Chaitanya Vaishnavas. As a geographic site for locating institutional establishments, however, Nabadwip town itself has in the past been rather limited. But, if one considers a radius of thirty miles from the town and somewhat further up and down the Bhagirathi (Hugli) River, one finds a great deal of diffused institutional elaboration, especially seats of guru-sishya branches and sub-branches, but also additional sacred places marked by temples, festivals and the composition and recitation of devotional literature.

Chaitanya himself remained in Nabadwip less than a year after his emergence as charismatic champion of Krishna bhakti. He had neither children nor married siblings who might have carried on hereditary guru lineages, though more distant relatives in Sylhet did launch such a Goswami line. Chaitanya’s mother and wife remained at Nabadwip and devotees visited them there to pay their respects. However, the subsequent departure of leading Vaishnavas, hostility to Vaishnavas by Shakta Brahmins going back to Chaitanya’s time, and even the changing river course lessened the prominence of Nabadwip as a destination for Vaishnava pilgrimage and spiritual retreat, despite the conviction that Krishna in the form of Chaitanya had manifested himself there.

Elsewhere in the region surrounding Nabadwip, however, there were many seats (sripats) of major and lesser associates of Chaitanya. The most prominent of his associates in Bengal, Nityananda and Advaita, established hereditary lineages of Goswamis at Khardaha and Shantipur respectively, both located south of Nabadwip on the east bank of the Hugli. In several cases, hereditary successors (vaàça-dharas) of Chaitanya’s associates built up large clienteles of initiated disciple families, which tended to become hereditary. In yet other cases, married disciples of an ascetic Vaishnava saint (e.g., Gadadhar and Narahari Sarkar) would sire lines of hereditary gurus distributing the mantra and teaching deriving from him. A major line of gurus, typically called Goswamis (if Brahmin), Thakurs (if Baidya or Kayastha), Adhikaris (or some other title, if of a lower caste), might authorize certain qualified disciples to launch their own hereditary or non-hereditary guru-disciple lines.

Branches and sub-branches: shakha and upashakha

The expressions shakha and upashakha, “branch” and “sub-branch,” aptly characterize a spiritual genealogical tree and suggest heuristically how one might conceive of the processes of growth and decay and the interrelations of the branching lines of the community. The more successful, at least in numerical terms, of the branches would send off junior members to new localities, where they would “take root” and build up their own congregations in relatively virgin territory. James Wise reported an arrangement whereby Bengal was divided into zones reserved for the respective branches of a Goswami lineage, but I have found no confirming evidence of this, plausible though such an arrangement would be. In demographic and economic terms, the system would seem to be a good one for steady growth so long as there continued to be ample potential converts. On the other hand, saturation or loss of attractiveness of the Vaishnava ideal could lead to gradual impoverishment, competition and deterioration of community morale. In recent times the multiplication of heirs to the rights to serve at the central temple of a lineage can result in a particular Goswami having as his share only a day or two a month—amid much litigation over rights to such a diminishing source of income and prestige.

A standard criticism of the hereditary guru-sishya system is that genuine devotion, moral probity and other qualities suitable for spiritual direction cannot be assured by heredity. On the other hand, traditional India seems to have had a rather good record of passing down from one generation to the next the particular expertise and style of performance upon which the reputation and livelihood of such families depend. Moreover, alternative systems of institutionalization have their own inherent shortcomings. Modern criticisms of hereditary gurus has been severe, but how much the criticism is justified is yet to be demonstrated by systematic research. Though lacking a centralized mechanism for insuring standards of performance, the Chaitanya Vaishnavas have had subtle ways of exerting peer pressure and influencing reputation within the community as whole. The Vaishnava understanding of guru-sishya relations does allow for abandoning a guru known to be positively bad; and, in the case of an initiating (diksha) guru of limited abilities, a disciple may, preferably with the initiating guru’s approval, go to one or more others as instructional (siksha) gurus.

The shakha or branch system of organization tends, among other things, to induce a degree of variability of value orientation within broad Chaitanya Vaishnava standards. Among the main branches of hereditary and non-hereditary guru-sishya lines in Bengal, there are some interesting variations in theology, practice and social ethos. For instance, devotees in the Brahmin Gadadhar line, and also in the closely aligned Narahari Sarkar line of Baidya gurus centered at Srikhanda, tend to stress what is called nagara-nagari-bhava, visualizing Chaitanya as the amorous Krishna and his disciples as being drawn to him in the way the gopis were to Krishna, with Gadadhar Pandit being visualized as Radha in human form. The lines stemming from Advaita and Nityananda respectively stress the eminence of their respective forebears in relation to Chaitanya (Advaita as Shiva to Vishnu, Nityananda as Balaram to Krishna) and tend to reflect their forebears’ distinctive nuances of the common devotional value orientation, the former being more restrained and doctrinaire, the latter more exuberant and pragmatic.

Within the Nityananda line, there was a considerable shift in theological conception in mid-late sixteenth century. Earlier in the century the cluster of Nityananda-related shakhas had emphasized that Nityananda was Balaram and that their favoured mode of bhakti was that of Krishna’s male cowherd friends. But, through the efforts of Nityananda’s childless junior wife, Jahnava, who was a major force in sixteenth century Vaishnava affairs in Bengal, the Nityananda shakha came to accept the Vrindavan Goswamis’ conception that Chaitanya was Krishna and Radha combined and that the preferred mode of devotion is that inspired by the love of the divine cowherdesses, the gopis, for Krishna.

Even though Chaitanya Vaishnavas universally affirm that Krishna bhakti is available for all, certain lineages of Goswamis such as those descended from Advaita Acharya and from Brahmin disciples of Gadadhar are reputed to be more restrictive in the castes to whom they will offer Vaishnava diksha than are, for instance, the Nityananda Goswamis. However, by a process of subinfeudation, as it were, Goswamis could initiate persons of lower caste status and authorize them to give diksha to persons beyond the range of their own immediate clientele, thus extending the network of guru-disciple linkages down through the caste ranks.

The religious seat (sripat) of a prominent disciple of Chaitanya, or even of a later Vaishnava of note, could serve as the locus for a number of related institutional practices. These could include a temple (or several, if junior sub-branches had enough resources to sustain temples of their own) and a repertoire of ritual and cultural activities associated with the place, seat and temple: votive offerings, seasonal festivals, Vaishnava feasts (mahotsavas), musical and dramatic events, etc. There would be a small or large entourage of household and temple staff, craftsmen, musicians and other retainers, many perhaps being of the “casteless subcaste,” the Jati Vaishnavas. Wandering Vaishnava mendicants would likely be hosted at such establishments, and perhaps some scholarly or reputedly pious Vaishnavas would take up long-term residence at or near the Goswami’s seat.

Some Goswamis (or Thakurs or Adhikaris) would go on tour with a suitable retinue to visit their disciples, receive hospitality and gifts, impart Vaishnava service and radiate charism; some would organize pilgrimages to near or distant Vaishnava sites. All told, the guru-sishya branches, scattered throughout western Bengal early in the sixteenth century and extending eastward from later in the century, supported a broad spectrum of religio-social and cultural activities for disciples, travellers and nearby lay populations.

There is evidence that some of the gurus, most notably Narottam Das in the late sixteenth century, used their influence on local landholders and chieftains to become devotees of Krishna Chaitanya while at the same time giving up their resistance to the Mughal administration of Bengal. The relations between the Malla kings and their Vaishnava gurus, beginning with Srinivasa Acharya in the mid-late sixteenth century, had significant religious, cultural and even political implications in southwestern Bengal. On a lesser scale elsewhere in the smaller Hindu kingdoms on the periphery of Muslim-dominated Bengal, the influence of Vaishnava gurus on their royal disciples had significances extending beyond purely devotional matters.

Gopalas, Mohantas, Chakravartis

Cross-cutting the natural and functional image or category of branches (shakhas) are several conventional or nominal categories by which prominent early devotees were designated by some Chaitanya Vaishnava writers. These seem, however, to be classificatory schemes without specific organizational implications, and need not take much attention here. The category of (usually twelve) Gopalas (cowherds) refers to a cluster of Nityananda’s major disciples who propagated and presumably experienced the type of devotion manifested by Krishna’s and Balaram’s male cowherd friends in the Vrindavan lilas.

The title Mohanta (“eminent”; further elaborated to give Mohantara and Mohantama, “more eminent” and “most eminent”) seems to have been an honorific designation of some early disciples. The number sixty-four became conventional. In later times (if not also earlier), however, Mohanta came to refer to the head of Vaishnava and other Hindu ashrams, maths or akharas. The institution of the Mohanta and his religious residential establishment was especially important in the popular hybrid cults on the margins of the Chaitanya Vaishnava community that proliferated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Bengal, but need not be explored here. The Chakravartis (“wielders of the discus”) seem to have been a group several early Brahmin devotees, most or all of whom bore the not uncommon Brahmin surname, Chakravarti.

Institutional initiatives in Orissa, especially Puri

During the latter half of Chaitanya’s lifetime, Puri was the focal point of Chaitanya Vaishnava activities. The definitive manifestations or revelations of Chaitanya’s loving devotion took place at Puri, and it was during those few years that fundamental discussions and decisions were made on the value orientation of the Chaitanya Vaishnava community and on how it would be propagated, i.e., how be institutionalized over wider and wider areas. Many of those decisions would be implemented in Braj or Bengal rather than Puri itself.

One of the most important institutions affecting Vaishnavas in Bengal during Chaitanya’s later years was the annual pilgrimage to Puri to visit Chaitanya and take darshan of the Jagannath deity. This, like any strenuous pilgrimage, would have had profound personal impact upon those undertaking it, but visiting Chaitanya had wider symbolic and organizational implications. It enabled Bengali devotees to maintain, for nearly two decades, direct personal experience of the master, thus contributing to the sense of intimacy with him that permeates the sacred biographies and lyrics (padavali) celebrating him, and enabled subsequent generations of devotees to feel an immediate affective bond with him. It also permitted regional leaders from Bengal to learn from Chaitanya what was and was not an acceptable understanding of bhakti. Moreover, under Chaitanya’s charismatic influence they could resolve major differences and work out with one another and with devotees residing at Puri their plans for propagating Krishna bhakti in Bengal, Orissa, Braj and elsewhere.

Chaitanya’s own intense devotion to Jagannath (Krishna) became in its own way an institution: the ideal model of the relationship between an ecstatic devotee and his deity. Couched within the more inclusive institution of temple activity, Chaitanya’s mode of devotion to Jagannath both legitimated and gained legitimation from the temple’s traditional rites. Chaitanya’s disciples tended to share the conviction that he was Hari or Krishna in human form, and some were coming to the further conviction that he was also in some way Radha longing for Krishna as manifested in his attitude to Jagannath. By observing Chaitanya’s devotional behavior while with him at Puri, visiting disciples could further clarify and reconfirm their own understanding of who he really was, and what genuine devotion should mean. These convictions, born of long term residence or extended visits with Chaitanya, would find their way into the oral traditions and sacred biographies of Chaitanya and thus shape the devotional mentality of Chaitanya Vaishnavas in perpetuity.

With the passing away of Chaitanya, however, Puri ceased to be the center of the Chaitanya community—indeed, there never again was one single center. Some of his closer associates left for Vrindavan or Bengal. The Bengalis’ journeys to Puri reverted to being traditional pilgrimages to see Jagannath, though with the added dimension of visiting the places hallowed by Chaitanya. There did develop in Orissa an extensive regional community of Chaitanya Vaishnavas using the Oriya language, the history of which lies beyond the purview of this volume. For the Chaitanya Vaishnava community as a whole, however, Puri ceased to be the main locus for policy-making and guidance.

Crucial institutions at Vrindavan and Braj

Though Chaitanya only visited Mathura-Vrindavan once, he directed several scholarly devotees to go to Vrindavan to discover and restore the sites hallowed by Krishna’s divine sports (lilas), to cultivate their own devotional piety, and to compose theological texts in Sanskrit. These celebrated Goswamis of Vrindavan established a select circle of scholar-devotees, some of whom would remain permanently in Braj, some of whom would, after undergoing study and spiritual exercises there, return to their native localities to practice and propagate the Vrindavan mode of bhakti. Whereas both Puri and Nabadwip waned as centers of institutionalized Chaitanya Vaishnava activities after Chaitanya’s demise, Vrindavan developed steadily as a locus of institutionalized Chaitanya Vaishnava life in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As a place of pilgrimage and intensive devotional exercises, as a potent symbol for Radha Krishna lila, and as the source of authoritative religious texts, Vrindavan (and the wider Braj area) became a crucial factor for institutionalizing the Chaitanya Vaishnava value orientation of prema bhakti (loving devotion), not only in Bengal but throughout India, and eventually worldwide.

The original Goswamis at Vrindavan were ascetics, in contrast to the married Goswamis in Bengal, but they were not Dasnami sannyasis, as were Chaitanya and many of his contemporary disciples. Interestingly, from the very next generation of Chaitanya Vaishnava ascetics, formal Dasnami sannyasa was virtually abandoned in favour of purely Vaishnava forms of renunciation (vairägya, tyäga, veçäçraya). Although they were ascetics, some of the early Vrindavan Goswamis (notably Jiva) evidently had good organizational and political sense. They purchased land, assembled an impressive library, arranged for installation and service of deities, secured donations for large temples, and oversaw temple management. As more and more temples went up, so did the numbers of visitors and residents. It is not clear just how much of the general round of activities at Vrindavan the celibate Goswamis and their ascetic disciples managed directly and how much was done by non-ascetic functionaries, but the presence, initiatives and oversight of the ascetic Goswamis set the pace and tone for much of the sixteenth century build-up of Vrindavan. Other groups of Vaishnavas who became prominent in Vrindavan in that century included the Pushtimargis (disciples of Vallabha), Radhavallabhas (Hit Harivams), and Nimbarkas (Sribhatta, Swami Haridas). Many other Vaishnava orders and their subdivisions would subsequently establish maths, ashrams and temples there.

Sending the early Goswamis to Vrindavan to develop a theological corpus in Sanskrit and to restore sacred sites also gave the Chaitanya Vaishnava community a more India-wide orientation, whether by coincidence or, more likely, by design. The site was close to the Lodi and later the Mughal capitals and to trading routes to northern, western and southern India. The Sanskrit language was pan-Indian. The early Chaitanya Vaishnava Goswamis included non-Bengalis, some of whom had had experience at the Husain Shahi court at Gauda. Even prior to Akbar’s accession, the Vrindavan Goswamis had been allowed to erect some smaller temples as well as restore sacred sites. The long reign of Akbar, in league with his Rajput allies, provided favourable conditions for a major reassertion of Krishna bhakti at the heart of the Mughal empire, an opportunity that the contemporary Goswamis, especially under the second-generation leadership of Jiva Goswami, did not miss. The most prominent of several Rajput nobles who patronized the Goswamis of Vrindavan was Man Singh, Raja of Amber, who built the grand Govindaji temple for the deity worshipped by Rupa. This Rajput-sponsored surge of temple building, especially by Kachhwahas of Amber, so close to the Mughal capitals of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri presumably constituted not only an institutionalization of devotion to Krishna, but an implicit legitimization of the Mughal-Rajput entente.

Neither Jahangir nor Shah Jahan was especially sympathetic to the Vaishnava and other Hindu establishments in the Braj area, but by and large they allowed the tolerant status quo to remain. In the late seventeenth century, however, under Aurangzeb, various repressive measures against Hindus adversely affected Mathura, where temples were razed to the ground, and less drastically Vrindavan, where the largest temple, Govindaji, had its upper stories dismantled. As the Mughal-Rajput alliance became strained under Aurangzeb and central authority weakened, there was a rise of banditry and resistance by Jats in Braj. Most of the major deities in Vrindavan (excepting Radharaman) were removed for safekeeping to Rajasthan, and most never returned. Thus the relatively harder institutions of the Chaitanya Vaishnavas at Vrindavan—those incorporating richly endowed temples and symbiotically bound to Mughal-Rajput politics—collapsed within a century; their softer institutions, however, endured. Pilgrimages to the holy places continued to be made, Vaishnava ascetics continued to pursue their private devotions, and the theological texts of the Goswamis continued to set the standards for mainline Chaitanya Vaishnavas.

In the 1720s, Sawai Jai Singh of Amber managed to subdue the Jats and for a time resided at Vrindavan as Mughal governor. He involved himself deeply in religious affairs, especially in regulating the orders of armed Vaishnava ascetics that had sprung up in the chaos of that period, primarily as a defense against armed Shaivaite ascetics. Chaitanya Vaishnavas themselves seem not to have had armed orders of ascetics, but they did become involved in deliberations before Sawai Jai Singh at Jaipur in order to establish that they were a legitimate Vaishnava sampradaya fit to serve the temple deities. They were, in fact, involved in a series of deliberations and decisions at Rajput courts over several generations. In the intermittent periods of recovery at Vrindavan after Aurangzeb’s demise, the Chaitanya and Vallabha sampradayas prospered relatively less than the Nimbarkas and Ramanandis, who had considerable Jat patronage.

The eighteenth century in northern India generally was a time of conflict and turmoil involving Mughals, Marathas, Rajputs and Jats. The worst moment came in 1757 with the beheading of thousands of Hindus at Mathura and Vrindavan by the forces of the Afghan, Shah Abdali. One result of the military and political instability of the period was that elites of the various Hindu groups struggling for power in the region came to appreciate Vrindavan, pay it visits and fund an ever-increasing and ever more diverse array of temples, rest houses, bathing ghats and the like.

The Chaitanya Vaishnavas, however, with their major deities mostly gone to Rajasthan and their original bases of demographic strength in distant Bengal, Orissa, and elsewhere in eastern India, did not begin to regain ground until the turn of the nineteenth century. By then, Calcutta businessmen were beginning to retire to Vrindavan and support religious establishments there, a development that was greatly enhanced by the building of the railway. At the same time, scholarly interest in Chaitanya and Vaishnava literature in Calcutta and several new revival and reform movements among Chaitanya Vaishnavas also quickened Bengalis’ interest in Vrindavan once again.

The Vrindavan Goswamis as theologians and teachers

The early Chaitanyaite Goswamis of Vrindavan were influential in institutionalizing Krishna bhakti not only in Braj, but, from late sixteenth century onward, in Bengal and wherever else Chaitanya Vaishnavas might be found. Though several of the original “six Goswamis of Vrindavan” came from Bengal, they did not themselves return there after settling in Vrindavan. Some, however, carried on correspondence with Vaishnavas in Bengal, and there was a steady stream of pilgrims, disciples and messengers moving between Vrindavan and the Vaishnavas in Bengal and those at Puri, especially during Chaitanya’s later years. Throughout the middle years of the sixteenth century, several of the Goswamis (Sanatan, Rupa, Gopala Bhatta, Raghunath Das, Jiva) had been steadily composing and compiling a monumental corpus of Sanskrit texts setting forth and validating their Chaitanya-inspired conception of Krishna bhakti. But it was not until well into the latter half of the sixteenth century that a major effort was made to propagate in Bengal the whole corpus of their theology, which spanned systematic doctrinal texts, ritual manuals, guidelines for spiritual exercises, and narrative, poetic and dramatic literature designed to inspire devotion. The main human instruments for this “transfer of sophisticated theological technology” were Srinivas Acharya, Narottam Das and Shyamananda, three very capable Bengalis apparently selected through consultation and consensus among senior devotees in Bengal. Among them, the trio represented a considerable range of Bengali geography (west-central, east-central, southwest) and social status (Brahmin, Kayastha, Sadgop). After extended periods of study at Vrindavan, they began effective missions of propagation of the Vrindavan Goswamis’ mode of prema bhakti in their respective regions of Bengal—and through a series of celebrated mahotsavas, the most important being that held at Kheturi, the paternal residence and religious seat of Narottam Das.

The theological corpus of the Vrindavan Goswamis covers the whole range of matters considered integral to understanding Krishna bhakti in the tradition of Chaitanya. Indeed the completeness of scope and excellence of execution of the Goswamis’ theological corpus is such that it established the channels within which Chaitanya Vaishnava theology thereafter would develop. In a sense the early Vrindavan Goswamis may have been too successful: their work may have discouraged later mainline theologians (as distinct from formulators of deviant and hybrid paths) from striking out creatively in new directions. Instead, subsequent Chaitanya Vaishnava theologians tended to write commentaries on the early Goswamis’ texts, or to confine themselves to explicating positions already chalked out in substance by their predecessors. But, from the point of view of perpetuating a highly valued system of ideas, symbols, values and practices, i.e., of institutionalizing a value orientation, the early Goswamis were eminently successful. Even Vaishnava authors and preachers using Bengali rather than Sanskrit found themselves translating or paraphrasing Vrindavan Goswamis’ texts or applying their categories of bhakti and bhakti-rasa-çästra (devotional poetics-cum-dramaturgy) in their songs and homilies. However one judges the literary or aesthetic quality of post-Chaitanya Vaishnava padavali in Bengal, it is evident that the canons of the Vrindavan Goswamis were embedded in that very popular form of Bengali devotional song. Through such devotional song, the symbolism and values of Chaitanya Vaishnava bhakti were institutionalized not only within the communion of Vaishnava devotees, but in some measure in the common sensibilities of the Bengali population at large.

Festivals (mahotsavas) as a means of instititionalization

Chaitanya Vaishnavas do not have ecumenical councils or synods as such, nor a Caliphate, nor even an organized sangha of monks or panchayat of elders such as might attempt to resolve important matters. What they have had since the sixteenth century is a typical gathering of devotees, leaders and laypersons alike, called mahotsava, “great festival.” Ordinarily, mahotsavas occur on a modest local scale to celebrate the annual or monthly cycle of Vaishnava sacred days, including those special to the place or spiritual lineage hosting the festival. For special occasions like marking a conversion or expressing repentence or gratitude, an individual may sponsor a mahotsava. The more guests, and the more prominent in Vaishnava affairs or in other status are the guests, the more impressive is the event. One important sociological implication of such mahotsavas is that they provide recurring occasions at which representatives of the various branches in a region may reaffirm their moral solidarity by inviting one another and accepting one another’s invitations.

On occasion, the mahotsava has been the institutional forum through which major decisions affecting the Chaitanya Vaishnava community in all of Bengal have been confirmed—if not actually thrashed out and decided on the spot. The most celebrated, and probably most significant, of such policy-establishing mahotsavas was hosted by Narottam Das at Kheturi, near Rajshahi, now on the western edge of north-central Bangladesh. Also prominent in arranging the event was Nityananda’s junior widow, Jahnava. After much preliminary consultation, the Kheturi mahotsava secured virtual consensus among prominent Chaitanya Vaishnava leaders of late sixteenth century Bengal on a major policy decision. The theological corpus developed by Goswamis in Vrindavan would become the pre-eminent (though not exclusive) standard of theological thought and practice for devotees throughout Bengal. There are scattered reports of other earlier and more recent mahotsavas at which matters of some substance have been resolved, or failed to reach resolution.

Modern institutional organizations

There developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a variety of sectarian organizations on the periphery of the mainline Chaitanya Vaishnava community—some clearly hybrid and deviant, others less so, though offering a more simplistic and less orthodox conception of devotional life. Many are mentioned in nineteenth and twentieth century ethnographic reports; some have been studied in detail by Bengali scholars. Apart from a discussion of the anomalous Jati Vaishnavas in Chapter 6 and a critique in Chapter 7 of the view that there were Sahajiyas among the prominent disciples of Chaitanya in his lifetime and shortly thereafter, I shall not go into these ambiguous and marginal groups in detail in this book. Further systematic study of them in relation to the orthodox Chaitanya Vaishnava community is, however, to be desired.

Within the mainline body of Chaitanya Vaishnavas, there have been many institutional innovations in the last two centuries, which again are not elaborated upon in this volume. The following are just a few examples out of a much wider array: a surge of Vaishnava rural theatre (jatra) in eastern Bengal as profits from jute and other trade temporarily subsidized Vaishnava religious and cultural activities; the publication of numerous Vaishnava periodicals and a surge of scholarly and popular books and pamphlets; the Hari Sabha movement in Calcutta and other urban centers, individual initiatives such as Kedarnath Datta’s Nama Hatta movement (itinerant revivalist programs of Vaishnava homily and devotional music); restoration of Vaishnava sacred sites in Bengal and Puri by Radharaman Charan Das Babaji, and the revitalization of Vaishnava kirtan by his disciple, Ramdas Babaji, and the Pathbari Ashram group; the network of devotees (including the scholarly Dr. Mahanambrata Brahmachari) and ashrams inspired by Jagadbandhu Sundar (worshipped by his devotees as Krishna Chaitanya reborn); and, most notably, the Gaudiya Math and its offshoots.

The Gaudiya Math began in the early twentieth century as a tightly organized network of temples and maths, i.e., residences for brahmacharis and sannyasis, many of them well-trained in preaching and polemics. With the death of its founder, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, the Gaudiya Math fractured into several competing, but very similar networks, each with maths and temples in Nabadwip (Sri Mayapur), Calcutta, Puri and Vrindavan and elswhere in India. Several individual erstwhile Gaudiya Math ascetics, such as the scholar-monk B.H. Bon Maharaj at Vrindavan, established their own ashrams for the propagation of Chaitanya Vaishnava devotion. The highly centralized, tightly organized, confrontational character of the Gaudiya Math and its successor maths constituted a dramatic change in mode of institutionalization among Chaitanya Vaishnavas. The Gaudiya Math’s sustained polemics against the hereditary Goswami families and against hybrid and deviant sects claiming to represent Chaitanya Vaishnava bhakti was itself a marked deviation from the traditionally accommodating ethos of the Chaitanya Vaishnavas.

A direct offshoot of the Gaudiya Math, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), since 1965 has carried much the same “reformist” version of Chaitanya Vaishnava bhakti to many countries worldwide and has contributed to the popularity of Chaitanya Vaishnava devotion within India itself. Like the Gaudiya Math, ISKCON is tightly organized and skilled in the use of modern communications media to project its version of Krishna bhakti. Unlike the Gaudiya Math, ISKCON did not break up into hostile factions at the death of its founder, Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta, in 1977, though it did subsequently experience defections and exclusions of individual members and localized opposition to its Governing Body Commission. The polemic against hereditary Goswamis and hybrid or deviant sects in Bengal has not been a priority for this international projection of the Chaitanya Vaishnava community.

The Gaudiya Math, its successor maths and ISKCON all represent a marked departure from the traditional Chaitanya Vaishnava modes of institutionalizing prema bhakti, and not only in their centralized organizational structure. They also depart from the Chaitanya tradition by restoring formal Dasnami sannyasa, by de-emphasizing the amorous madhurya aspect of Krishna lilas, by discouraging (if not quite suspending altogether) the practice of siddha-deha and siddha-praëälé, i.e., having advanced devotees so initiated as to conceive of themselves as manjaris, handmaidens of Radha Krishna in the Braj lilas. However, these modernizing groups continue to foster study of Chaitanya Vaishnava sacred texts, with the result that some mature devotees find their way back to those aspects of traditional Chaitanya Vaishnava bhakti that the Gaudiya Math and ISKCON have tended to de-emphasize or discontinue. Such modern and rather innovative movements, along with their impact on more traditional ways of institutionalizing Chaitanya Vaishnava bhakti, merit more study. This has already begun in earnest for ISKCON and will likely spread to earlier nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments in the Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition.

Symbolic (“Soft”) Means of Institutionalization

Symbolism as genetic code

Despite the diffused and variable character of its “intermediate” organizational institutions, the mainline Chaitanya Vaishnava community has maintained for five centuries a significant degree of solidarity and interaction among its devotees and remarkable fidelity to its core value orientation of prema bhakti to Krishna. Looked at from this perspective, the heuristic image of the branch or shakha used to characterize the organizational structure of the community continues to be quite apt. Though one branch may break off or decay, others may survive and flourish. Fresh branches may spring out from amidst otherwise dying trunks. Reformist pruning may enhance the vitality of the bush or tree, if not so radical as to destroy the tree itself. Whatever their size and situation, branches generally give rise to similar leaves and fruit, allowance being made for varying soil, weather and occasional mutation. One can even adapt the branch image to the grafting on of alien shoots, the fruit of which, though nourished by the the host plant, may be quite alien, or have a hybrid character.

What gives all the branches their characteristic form and accounts for their renewability might be called their genetic structure, or genetic code. In the Chaitanya Vaishnava community, the function of genetic code is served by its densely packed, internally coherent system of religious symbolism. In its barest essentials, Chaitanya Vaishnava devotional symbolism may be said to develop outward from its core or nodal understanding of the ultimate divine Krishna, conceived of as Bhagavan, Paramatman and Brahman; as the transcendent source of interior, intermediate and external powers (shaktis); as having a host of expansions or manifestations (lilas) which may be depicted in iconographic, mythic, dramatic and poetic forms; and as revealed within recent history in the form of Chaitanya and his associates propagating prema bhakti to him though singing his names and other devotional practices.

Using the the shakha or branch image once again, it may be suggested that Chaitanya Vaishnavas typically have valued fidelity to the genetic pattern more than the mundane interests of any branch of their spiritual community, which like the banyan tree has no single trunk. Two encompassing media in which the symbolic genetic code of Chaitanya Vaishnava prema bhakti is embedded and through which imparted to the devotees are devotional texts, both literary and didactic (i.e., sähitya and çästra), and devotional practices (sadhana).

Devotional Literature: sahitya and shastra

There is no single “sacred scripture” for the Chaitanya Vaishnavas (though the Bhagavata Purana has primacy of place) but rather a whole literature, in Sanskrit and several vernaculars, especially Bengali. Immense devotional energy went into fashioning the Vrindavan corpus of Sanskrit theological texts, as well as other Sanskrit and vernacular compositions. The latter include lyrics, didactic poems, adaptations of Sanskrit texts and the sacred biographies of Chaitanya. Much attention has been, and continues to be, devoted to reading, reciting, singing and delivering homilies based on this devotional literature. As a whole, the Chaitanya Vaishnavas, and especially their more prominent figures, have been an atypically literate and literary community of devotees. Their commitment to religious formation through immersion in oral and written literature goes right back to Chaitanya’s boyhood friend, Murari Gupta, who became his first biographer. It continues down to contemporary devotees, in India and abroad, who translate such large and densely packed texts as the Bhagavata Purana and the Caitanya Charitamrita and comment upon them at great length. Modern Chaitanya Vaishnava leaders likewise devote much time and energy to writing and speaking on Vaishnava themes and their words are seized upon by eager devotees as a means of their own spiritual formation.

Devotional exercise (sadhana) as means of institutionalizing prema bhakti
The Chaitanya Vaishnava literature is to be read or heard, but not merely that. It is to be read or heard so as to inspire one to strive for truer devotion, to guide one through proper devotional practice, and to fill the reader or hearer with rich symbolic content for meditation and visualization. Chaitanya Vaishnava sadhana, like the literature that guides and informs it, is detailed and subtle, offering a wide choice of modes and variations. It ranges from the very simple reciting of divine names to more and less elaborate puja (worship of deities in iconic form), to profound meditational experiences wherein one visualizes and spiritually participates in the open-ended repertoire of divine dramatic sports called lila.

Understanding the notion of lila, as already discussed above in the previous chapter, and recognizing how it functions in the personal formation or transformation of a devotee is crucial for appreciating the effectiveness of devotional symbolism as a means of institutionalizing the Chaitanya Vaishnava value orientation of prema bhakti. The Chaitanya Vaishnava notion of lila, as we have seen, affirms that the divine Krishna takes dramatic personal forms and engages in delightful interaction, in spontaneous play, with his eternal associates. This conception of lila also affirms that with divine grace a human devotee may directly visualize these delightful pastimes, may attune his or her heart to the same mood or taste (rasa) that is being relished by Krishna and his lila-companions. Indeed, fortunate devotees may even transcend their mundane persona, if only for a time, and participate directly in the lila through their spiritual persona or siddha-deha.

There is also the second, more proximate, theatre of lila in which the Chaitanya Vaishnava devotee is urged by devotional literature to participate through sadhana, namely Chaitanya lila or Gaura lila. The sacred biographical literature and many padavalis make Chaitanya lila present to the Vaishnava reader or listener as Krishna’s pastimes in human form. To the extent that individuals succeed transforming themselves through the sadhana of “remembering” (i.e., visualizing and realizing) themselves as participants in the lilas of Krishna and of Chaitanya, they are in effect internalizing prema bhakti, i.e., institutionalizing the core value orientation of the Chaitanya Vaishnavas.


It is indeed striking and a touch ironic that the most authentic and “authoritative” mode of devotion for Chaitanya Vaishnavas—prema bhakti in the mode of sweetness or delicacy (madhurya)—explicitly excludes coercive authority (aisvarya) from the essential core of devotional experience. But it is fully in keeping with the paramountcy of the madhurya rasa (mood of sweetness) that the most appropriate means for evoking and preserving such devotional sentiments are poetic and dramatic compositions and those private or congregational devotional practices that evoke such affective-aesthetic modes of bhakti.

Accordingly, it is not surprising that from the time of Chaitanya to the present, the devotional community inspired by him has relied very little upon “hard” institutional means to define and transmit its core value orientation. Instead, as we have seen, a broad array of “intermediate” means of institutionalization were brought into play. Foremost among these decentralized, loosely coordinated organizational mechanisms with limited non-coercive authority are a diverse network of guru-disciple branches and sub-branches. Supplementing these are a panorama of sacred places, temples, festivals, etc. Together these mutually reinforce an overall Vaishnava devotional orientation; individually, they provide a wide range of specific emphases and options, in keeping with the flexibility and richness of texture of the Chaitanya Vaishnava conception of prema bhakti to Krishna and his transcendental companions.

But Chaitanya Vaishnavas did not leave such a crucial matter as institutionalizing prema bhakti (imbued with madhurya) altogether to the mercies and exigencies of their intermediate organizational institutions. Rather, from avatar generation, their very first generation as a distinct community or communion of Krishna Chaitanya devotees, their primary means of guaranteeing faithful transmission of the cherished value orientation of prema bhakti was through what I have called “soft” symbolic means of institutionalization. These comprise an extensive and virtually self-explanatory corpus of inspirational and didactic literature (sähitya and çästra) and a repertoire of sadhana, individual and congregational devotional practices that are coordinated with that literature.

Once the basic conception of Krishna Chaitanya prema bhakti had been articulated thoroughly in systematic form and precise detail in both classical Sanskrit as well as vernacular texts, it became difficult for later generations to deviate markedly from that prototypical pattern. Were there to be deviation, it was always possible to detect it by comparison with the textual corpus. It was also possible to restore the authentic value orientation of the avatar generation by recourse to the same corpus of devotional literature and resuming the corresponding devotional practices. Thus, in the last analysis, it is these “soft” symbolic means of institutionalization that provided the strongest guarantee that the value orientation of Chaitanya and his companions would be preserved within the Chaitanya Vaishnava community.