Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism | Gaudiya Vaishnavism


1. Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism

Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism (also known as Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition, Bengali Vaiṣṇavism, or Chaitanya Vaiṣṇavism) is a religious movement in Vaiṣṇava Hinduism, inspired by Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya Mahāprabhu (1486–1534) in India.

"Gauḍīya" refers to the Gauḍa region (present day Bengal/Bangladesh) with Vaiṣṇavism meaning "the worship of Viṣṇu".

Its theological basis is primarily that of the Bhagavad Gītā and Bhāgavata Purāṇa as interpreted by early disciples of Chaitanya such as Sanātana Gosvāmī, Rūpa Gosvāmī, Jīva Gosvāmī, Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī, and others.

The focus of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism is the devotional worship (bhakti) of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa, and their many divine incarnations as the supreme forms of God, Svayam Bhagavān.

Most popularly, this worship takes the form of singing Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa's holy names, such as "Hare", "Kṛṣṇa" and "Rāma", most commonly in the form of the Hare Kṛṣṇa (mantra), also known as Kīrtan.

The movement is sometimes referred to as the Brahmā-Mādhva-Gauḍīya Saṁpradāya, referring to its belief in the succession of spiritual masters (gurus) believed to originate from Brahmā.

Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism is the spiritual and philosophical foundation of the Hare Kṛṣṇa Movement.

It classifies itself as a monotheistic tradition, seeing the many forms of Viṣṇu or Kṛṣṇa as expansions or incarnations of the one Supreme God, Ādi Puruṣa.

2. Living beings

According to Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava philosophy, Consciousness (Chaitanya) is not a product of matter, but is instead a symptom of the Soul.

All living beings (jīvas) are distinct from their current body - the nature of the Soul being eternal, immutable, and indestructible without any particular beginning or end.

Souls which are captivated by the illusory nature of the world (Mā) are repeatedly reborn among the various (8,400,000 in number) species of life on this planet and on other worlds in accordance to the laws of karma and individual desire. This is consistent with the concept of Saṁsāra found throughout Hindu belief.

Release from the process of Saṁsāra (known as Moka) is believed to be achievable through a variety of spiritual practices.

However, within Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism it is bhakti in its purest state (or "pure love of God") which is given as the ultimate aim, rather than liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

3. Supreme Person (God)

One of the defining aspects of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism is that Kṛṣṇa is worshiped specifically as the source of all Avatār incarnations of God.

This is based on quotations from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, such as "Kṛṣṇāstu Bhagavān Svayam", literally "Kṛṣṇa is God Himself".

4. Inconceivable Oneness and Difference

A particularly distinct part of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava philosophy espoused by Chaitanya Mahāprabhu is the concept of Acintya Bheda Abheda,

which translates to "inconceivable oneness and difference" in the context of the Soul's relationship with Kṛṣṇa, and also Kṛṣṇa's relationship with his other energies (i.e. the material world).

In quality, the Soul (Jīva) is described as being identical to God, but in terms of quantity individual jīvas are said to be infinitesimal in comparison to the unlimited Supreme Being.

The exact nature of this relationship (being simultaneously one and different with Kṛṣṇa) is inconceivable to the human mind but can be experienced through the process of Bhakti yoga.

This philosophy serves as a meeting of 2 opposing schools of Hindu philosophy, pure monism (God and the Soul as one entity) and pure dualism (God and the Soul as absolutely separate).

This philosophy largely recapitulates the concepts of qualified non-dualism practiced by the older Vedanta school Viśiṣṭādvaita, but emphasizes the figure of Kṛṣṇa over Nārāyaṇa and holy sites in and around Bengal over sites in Tamil Nadu.

In practice, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava philosophy has much more in common with the dualistic schools especially closely following theological traditions established by Madhvācārya’s Dvaita Vedanta.

5. Bhakti Yoga

The practical process of devotional life is described as bhakti or bhakti-yoga.
The 2 main elements of the bhakti-yoga process are:

a) Vaidhi bhakti, which is devotional service through practice of rules and regulations (Sādhana) and

b) Rāganūgā bhakti, which is taken as a higher stage of more spontaneous devotional service based on a selfless desire to please one's chosen Īṣṭa-deva of Kṛṣṇa or his associated expansions and Avatārs.

Practicing vaidhi-bhakti with a view to cultivate prema creates eligibility for Rāganūgā-Sādhana. Both vaidhi and rāganūgā bhakti are based on the chanting or singing of Kṛṣṇa's names.

Attainment of the rāganūgā stage means that rules of lifestyle are no longer important and that emotions or any material activities for Kṛṣṇa should not be repressed.

Vaidhi-bhakti's purpose is to elevate the devotee to rāganūgā; something which generally takes a long time.

Within his Śikṣāṣṭakam prayers, Chaitanya compares the process of bhakti-yoga to that of cleansing a dirty place of dust, wherein our Consciousness is the object in need of purification.

This purification takes place largely through the chanting and singing of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa's names.

Specifically, the Hare Kṛṣṇa (mantra) is chanted and sung by practitioners on a daily basis, sometimes for many hours each day:

Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa
Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare
Hare Rāma Hare Rāma
Rāma Rāma Hare Hare

Famously within the tradition, one of Chaitanya Mahāprabhu’s close associates, Haridāsa Thakur, is reported to have chanted 300,000 holy names of God each day.

6. Diet and lifestyle

Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas follow a Lacto vegetarian diet, abstaining from all types of animal flesh, including fish and eggs.

Onions and garlic are also avoided as they are believed to promote a more tamasic form of consciousness in the eater when taken in large quantities.

Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas also avoid the intake of caffeine, as they believe it is addictive and an intoxicant.

Many Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas will live for at least some time in their life as monks (Brahmacarya).

Chaitanya Mahāprabhu

Chaitanya Mahāprabhu (18 February 1486 – 14 June 1534) was a Bengali spiritual teacher who founded Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism:

He is believed by his devotees to be Kṛṣṇa himself who appeared in the form of His own devotee in order to teach the people of this world the process of Bhakti and how to attain the perfection of life.

He is considered as the most merciful manifestation of Kṛṣṇa.

Chaitanya was the proponent for the Vaiṣṇava school of Bhakti yoga (meaning loving devotion to God), based on Bhāgavata Purāṇa and Bhagavad Gītā.

Of various incarnations of Viṣṇu, he is revered as Kṛṣṇa, popularised the chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra and composed the Śikṣāṣṭakam (8 devotional prayers) in Sanskrit.

His followers, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, revere him as a Kṛṣṇa with the mood and complexion of his source of inspiration Rādhā.

7. Early growth

Over the 3 centuries following the disappearance of Śrī Chaitanya Mahāprabhu, the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition evolved into the form in which we largely find it today in contemporary India.

In the early years of the tradition, the followers of Nityānandā Prabhu, Advaita Āchārya and other companions of Chaitanya Mahāprabhu educated and initiated people, each in their own locales across Bengal.

Chaitanya Mahāprabhu requested a select few among his followers, who later came to be known as the Six Gosvāmīs of Vrindāvan, to systematically present his theology of bhakti in their writings.

This theology emphasized the devotee's relationship to the Divine Couple, Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa, and looked to Chaitanya as the embodiment of both Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa.

The Six Gosvāmīs were:

1) Rūpa Gosvāmī (1489–1564)
2) Sanātana Gosvāmī (1488–1558)
3) Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī (1503–1578)
4) Raghunātha Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī (1505–1579)
5) Raghunātha Dāsa Gosvāmī (1494-1586)
6) Jīva Gosvāmī (1513 – 1598)

In the 2nd generation of the tradition, Narottama, Śrīnivāsa and Śyāmānanda, 3 students of Jīva Gosvāmī, the youngest among the 6 Gosvāmīs, were instrumental in spreading the theology across Bengal and Orissa.

The festival of Kheturi (approx. 1574), presided over by Jāhnava Ṭhākurani, the wife of Nityānandā Rāma, was the first time the leaders of the various branches of Chaitanya Mahāprabhu’s followers assembled together.

Through such festivals, members of the loosely organized tradition became acquainted with other branches along with their respective theological and practical nuances.

That notwithstanding, the tradition has maintained its plural nature, having no central authority to preside over its matters. The festival of Kheturi allowed for the systemization of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology as a distinct branch of Vaiṣṇava theology.

8. 17-18th century

Gauḍīya Matha historians assert that in the 17-18th century, there was a period of general decline in the movement's strength and popularity,

characterized by decreased preaching and appearance of persons following and promoting degraded teachings and practices. These groups are called Apasaṁpradāyas.

In the 17th century, Viśvanātha Chakravarti Thakur held great merit in clarifying core doctrinal issues over the practice of rāganūgā-bhakti through works such as Rāga-vartma-Candrikā.

His student Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa wrote a famous commentary on the Vedanta-sūtra called Govinda Bhāṣya.

The 18th century saw a number of luminaries headed by Siddha Jayakṛṣṇa Dās Babaji of Kamyavan and Siddha Kṛṣṇadās Babaji of Govardhana:

The latter, a widely renowned teacher of the mode of internal worship (rāga-bhajan) practiced in the tradition, is largely responsible for the current form of devotional practice embraced by some of the traditions based in Vrindāvan.

From the very beginning of Caitanya’s bhakti movement in Bengal, Haridāsa Thakur and others Muslim by birth were the participants:

This openness received a boost from Bhaktivinoda Thakur's broad-minded vision in the late 19th century and was institutionalized by Bhaktisiddhāṅta Sarasvatī Thakur in his Gauḍīya Matha in the 20th century.

9. 20th century renaissance

This period was followed by a renaissance which began at the start of the 20th century:

This change is believed to have happened largely due to the efforts of a particularly adept preacher known as Bhaktivinoda Thakur, who also held the position of a deputy magistrate with the British government.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur's son grew up to be both an eminent scholar and highly influential Vaiṣṇava preacher, known in his later life as Śrīla Bhaktisiddhāṅta Sarasvatī Thakur.

In total, Bhaktisiddhāṅta Sarasvatī Thakur founded in 1918 Gauḍīya Math and later 64 Gauḍīya Matha monasteries in India, Burma and Europe.

The first European preaching centre was established in London in 1933 (London Glouster House, Cornwall Garden, W7 South Kensington) under the name 'Gauḍīya Mission Society of London'.

Soon after the Bhaktisiddhāṅta Sarasvatī's death (1 January 1937), a dispute began and the original Gauḍīya Math mission divided into 2 administrative bodies which continued preaching on their own, up to the present day:

In a settlement they divided the 64 Gauḍīya Math centres into 2 groups:

Śrī Chaitanya Math Branch was headed by Śrīla Bhakti Vilāsa Tīrtha Mahārāj.

Gauḍīya Mission was headed by Ananta Vāsudeva Prabhu, who became known as Śrīla Bhakti Prasad Purī Mahārāj after accepting Sannyāsa for short duration.

Many of the disciples of Bhaktisiddhāṅta Sarasvatī did not agree with the spirit of these newly created 2 fractions, or were simply inspired to expand the mission of their guru on their own enthusiasm, started their own missions:

His disciple Śrīla Prabhupāda (1 September 1896 – 14 November 1977) went to the West in order to spread Gauḍīya-Vaiṣṇavism:

The society he established, the 'International Society for Kṛṣṇa Consciousness' (ISKCON) still functions today and continues its preaching mission.

10. Gauḍīya and other Vaiṣṇava schools

Although sharing a common set of core beliefs, there are a number of philosophical differences which distinguish Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism from other Vaiṣṇava schools:

1) In Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, Kṛṣṇa is seen as the original form of God, i.e. the source of Viṣṇu and not as His Avatār. This is based primarily on verse 1.3.28 of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (Kṛṣṇas tu Bhagavān Svayam) and other scriptures.

This belief is shared by the Nimbārka and Vallabha Saṁpradāyas, but not by the Rāmānuja and Mādhva schools, who view Kṛṣṇa as an Avatār of Viṣṇu.

2) As Kṛṣṇa's consort, Rādhā is similarly viewed as the source of all other Śaktis, including Lakṣmī and Sītā.

3) Chaitanya Mahāprabhu is worshiped as the most recent Avatār of Kṛṣṇa to descend in the current Yuga, or Age.

Other Saṁpradāyas view Chaitanya as a devotee of Kṛṣṇa only, and not Kṛṣṇa himself or a form of Avatār.

According to his biographies, Chaitanya did not display himself as Kṛṣṇa in public, and would, in fact, avoid being addressed as such. In this regard A. C. Bhaktivedanta Svāmī states:

"When addressed as Lord Kṛṣṇa, He denied it. Indeed, He sometimes placed His hands over His ears, protesting that one should not be addressed as the Supreme Lord".

However at times Chaitanya would exhibit a different mood and would welcome worship of himself as the Supreme Lord, and at a few occasions, is said to have exhibited his Universal Form.

Rūpa Gosvāmī, when first meeting with Chaitanya, composed the following verse showing his belief in Chaitanya Mahāprabhu’s divinity:

"O most munificent incarnation!
You are Kṛṣṇa Himself appearing as Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya Mahāprabhu.
You have assumed the golden colour of Śrīmatī Rādhārānī,
and You are widely distributing pure love of Kṛṣṇa.
We offer our respectful obeisances unto You."

Although this viewpoint outside of the Gauḍīya tradition was disputed, Caitanya’s followers prove it by pointing at verses throughout the Purāṇic literatures as evidence to support this claim.

11. Theological sources

Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology is prominently expounded by Jīva Gosvāmī in his Sat-sandarbhas, six elaborate treatises on various aspects of God.

Other prominent Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theologians are his uncles:

1) Rūpa Gosvāmī author of Śrī Bhakti-Rāsamrita-sindhu and
2) Sanātana Gosvāmī, author of Hari-bhakti-Vilāsa,
3) Viśvanātha Chakravarti author of Śrī Camatkāra-Candrikā and
4) Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa, author of Govinda Bhāṣya, a famous commentary on Vedānta Sūtra.

12. Modern Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava Societies

1) Gauḍīya Mission established by Ananta Vāsudeva Prabhu alias Śrīla Bhakti Prasad Purī (1940)

2) International Society for Kṛṣṇa Consciousness established by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda (1966)

3) Śrī Śrī Rādhā Govindaji Trust established by Bhakti Hṛdaya Bon (1979)

Many of them (not all) are autonomous branches of the tree of the Gauḍīya Math and members of the World Vaiṣṇava AssociationViśva Vaiṣṇava Raj Sabhā (WVA—VVRS) which had been established in 1994.