Chaitanya Movement | History
Most of us know them – especially inhabitants of large Western cities – those males, clean shaved, and girls – dancing and singing aloud some Indian mantras and songs – and may be asking for donations or trying to sell the books of their great leader - Prabhupāda Bhaktivedanta...
We all know them, some make jokes of them, some look with sympathy or even join them, others think critically – and consider it a totalitarian cult or sect – trying to kill all with an ancient book.
The Book – Bhagavad Gītā – is good indeed. Nobody owns it – except the God.
Is it from Veda?! Does it contain Vedic wisdom?!
- We believe it contains, but it comes not from 4 Vedas, which Brahma received, but from Secondary Vedic Scriptures - Smṛiti, “that which is remembered” – from the ancient epic history – Mahābhārata – it comes.
What those singing guys sell – is Prabhupāda Bhaktivedanta they sell, His religious wisdom and understanding they sell, and his Religious Organization – known as ISKCON – or International Society for Krishna Consciousness – they sell.
ISKCON – in turn – forms a part of much bigger Indian Religious tradition – what we call also Gaudīya Vaishnavism – or Vaishnavism of Bengal – a form of Vaishnavism mostly spread in Indian states of Bengal and Odisha (Orissa);
- and when we say – Gaudīya Vaishnavas – we mean to say – the movement of followers of the great Bengali Saint of 16th century - Chaitanya Mahāprabhu (18 February 1486 – 14 June 1534)
– to which later were attached the Theological teachings of much earlier saint – Mādhva Āchārya (1238–1317) (in a slightly adapted way).
What follows below and in the following attached pages – is a treatise on the History of this Chaitanya Movement – from its beginnings – in 16th century Bengal – when Chaitanya Mahāprabhu lived – up to the 1925 – when Prabhupāda Bhaktivedanta – was still a young and learning men, but didn’t create new religious organizations and teachings, as of yet...
The book which follows – The Chaitanya Movement or A Study of the Vaishnavism of Bengal – is written by a third party – uninterested but sympathetic British professor - Melville T. Kennedy. M.A. – living and researching in Bengal, India, in 1920-s – as it was in his times....
The Background of the Movement
Social and Religious Conditions
The Bengal where Chaitanya was born, more than 400 years ago, was no Utopia, social or religious. Various factors united to produce a state of society commonly looked back upon as the dark period of Bengal history.
Chief among these was alien rule:
The Moslem conquerors of India had extended their sway eastward until practically all of Bengal lay in their power. Thus the country was dominated by a force alien both in race and religion.
Friction was the natural result. Repression and religious persecution became features of Hindu life.
Although the ordinary life of the people went on in accustomed ways without much open molestation, yet there was ever present the sense of an alien power above and about them, at enmity with all things Hindu, and ready to make that enmity felt in forceful ways as occasion offered.
Hindu temples had been transformed into mosques in large numbers in the early days of Moslem rule, and instances were not lacking of the continuing "will to power" of the Islamic rulers, expressed in rigorous suppression or aggression, forced conversions, and the like.
Hinduism was hated by them and heartily despised; its festivals, images and worship tolerated with difficulty; its obliteration desired. Naturally the religious life of the people was not wholly at ease.
Within Hinduism itself the oppressive aspects of the caste system were not lacking. To the tyranny without was added a social tyranny within.
Out of the more or less chaotic conditions left by a disintegrating Buddhism, the Brahman architects of Hinduism had sought to ensure stability by laying the caste foundations solid and strong:
The climax of this effort is seen in the great work of Raghunandan Bhaṭṭāchārya, who was a famous scholar in Chaitanya's boyhood:
His laborious compilation from the law books, codifying the huge mass of rules governing social usage within caste, is still the absolute authority in Bengal Hindu life today.
This famous work was doubtless the crowning expression of a process long going on, by which the social structure was being fixed in unchanging forms.
Within the lines thus laid down the life of the people proceeded with no idea or opportunity of change, no escape from the burdens involved, no incentive to advancement.
The domination of the Brahman over much of society was the crowning feature of this social order. There was no escaping the rule of the Brāhmanic hierarchy in all matters of worship. Excepting among aboriginal cults and the remnants of Buddhism, their service as priests was absolutely essential.
Their spiritual superiority to all men was firmly established and recognized everywhere, almost divine honour being paid them by many.
They alone could teach the sacred law, perform the ancient sacrifices, or conduct the manifold rites and ceremonies essential to Hindu life.
The innumerable forms enjoined by the law books to be observed by all good Hindus were absolutely dependent for their efficacy upon their being performed by the Brahman.
This amazing control over the religious life of the people made the Brahman master, practically, over the whole of life, since in India no social fact falls outside the purview of religion.
Every important event in the individual and family life from birth to death has its appropriate observance, the ritual of which is prescribed in the law books,
to be interpreted and administered only by the Brahman, and to be neglected or defied at the risk of complete social ostracism in this life and utter misery in the hereafter.
Rarely, if ever, has any social order conferred on one group of men power over their fellows so far-reaching and so unlimited.
Irrespective of this Brāhmanic control, the religious life itself was at low ebb in Bengal at the time of Chaitanya's birth:
The worship of deities hardly above the animistic stage was strongly entrenched in every village. Over these, following the priestly policy, had been loosely thrown the mantle of Hinduism.
Cults of aboriginal origin, such as that of Manasā Devī (the serpent goddess), Dharma Thākur, Dakṣiṇā Rāi (the tiger god), Chaṇḍī, and many others attached to the Śakta sect, were widely prevalent.
The poison of the Tantric practices left behind by Buddhism and also deep set in current Hinduism had gone far in the social order, and exercised a peculiarly debasing influence on religious thought.
The Śakta sect, which was probably the principal element in the Hinduism of that day, was neither a spiritual nor an aesthetic influence in religion:
Its animal sacrifice was a coarsening feature, while the tantric strain of licentiousness in the theory and practice of its Vāmāchāra school gave it tremendous power for evil.
If we may judge from contemporary works, the conditions of religious life were in sore need of reformation.
To be sure, most of these contemporary writers were Vaishnava, and therefore liable to a charge of sectarian bias in their animadversions.
But something more than the charge of partisanship is needed to explain away the volume and unanimity of reference in the numerous Vaishnava works of the sixteenth century to the widespread evil aspects of religious worship and practice in their day.
It was amidst such conditions that Chaitanya was born; in a society often sorely pressed upon from without, and at a low ebb, both morally and spiritually, within.
The city of Navadvīpa, his birthplace and the home of his youth and early manhood, added to the conditions enumerated a somewhat materialistic but highly intellectual atmosphere, characteristic of the Sanskrit learning which gave it fame.
It was no mean city for a reformer's birthplace:
The reputation of its Sanskrit Schools drew scholars from all parts of India, for in the Navya Nyāya, the new system of logic, they were second to none.
The names of many of the Navadvīpa Pandits are still reckoned among the great names of Sanskrit scholarship. One author states that at this period the city covered an area of 16 square miles.
The spirit of its learning was largely secularist, its chief interest being academic rather than deep concern with the problems of the soul and the Infinite.
The result was an atmosphere sceptical rather than sympathetic, and anything but warmly receptive to the type of religious revival soon to spring up in its midst.