An Offering for Gaura Purnima

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sri-krishna-chaitanya
prabhu-nityananda
sri-advaita gadadhara
srivasadi-gaura-bhakta-vrinda

(I offer my obeisances to Sri Krishna Chaitanya, Prabhu Nityananda, Sri Advaita, Gadadhara, Srivasa and all others in the line of devotion.)

Today is a special Purnima (full moon day)—it is Holi, and it is also the Appearance Day / Birth Anniversary of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.  He walked the Earth 500+ years ago, and he is revered by many as an incarnation of Sri Krishna.  He was the founder of the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya (one branch of which is ISKCON or the “Hare Krishnas”).  For more information on Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, please see Click here.

I wanted to write something today as an offering to Lord Gauranga (another name for Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu) to express my gratitude and reverence for him.  It is only recently that I started developing an affinity for Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, although as a Bengali I have been familiar with him for almost my whole life.  To be honest, I shied away from him earlier in my life because I was scared by the intensity of his bhava, the overwhelming angst of his incessant feeling of separation from Sri Krishna, the almost fanatic zeal of his worship.  As a result, while I made many trips to Vraj Dhama, I never visited Mayapur (Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s birthplace) even though it’s just a few hours from Kolkata, which I visit frequently.

Things began to change several months ago, when at my guru’s instruction, I started daily reciting Sri Radharani Sahasranama (the thousand names of Sri Radharani).  Soon thereafter, I felt the urge to read the life story of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and so I started reading Sri Chaitanya Bhagavata (http://www.bvml.org/SCM/SCB/).  I began to feel more and more inspired by him.  A few months later, I serendipitously found myself in Mayapur—my father wanted very badly to attend a family wedding in Kolkata and my parents, my brother and I traveled to Kolkata together.  In between, I took a few days to visit Mayapur.  It felt like different threads of my sadhana (spiritual practice) were coming together—the recitation of Sri Radharani Sahasranama, the reading of Sri Chaitanya Bhagavata, and other such things—to bring to fruition my trip to Mayapur.  While I went to Mayapur with the anticipation that it would be an auspicious pilgrimage, I was unprepared for how powerfully affected I would be by my time in Mayapur and the myriad ways in which it would change my life afterwards. 

It was in Mayapur that I found a meaningful way to relate to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.  Mayapur is permeated by the mellows of bhakti and a particular type of divine energy—a soft sweetness that is warm, gentle and inclusive.  Jagannatha Das Babaji (an important Vaishnava spiritual leader) wrote about why he preferred staying in Mayapur to Vrndavana, explaining that even in Vrndavana, Yashoda Ma would scold Sri Krishna when he was a child, but in Mayapur, Saci Mata could not ever bring herself to scold her son, Sri Chaitanya.  In Vrndavana, as I’ve found out the hard way, if you do not have the proper attitude or do not have the proper adhikara (competence / qualification), the leelas of Sri Radha-Krishna will be veiled from you.  On the other hand, Mayapur is about awaking in everyone bhakti (devotion) for Sri Radha-Krishna and sharing with everyone the glories of Sri Radha-Krishna.  Mayapur is for everyone, regardless of their adhikara, because everyone has adhikara to start practicing devotion to Radha-Krishna in one way or another.  In other words, the leelas of Sri Radha-Krishna, as manifest in Vrndavana, are accessible only to a qualified few, but the path of devotion to Sri Radha-Krishna, as manifest in Mayapur, is open to everyone and so Mayapur feels welcoming and embracing in a way that is unique.  These vibrations in Mayapur are an expansion of the innate lakshanas (qualities) and vrttis (vibrations) of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. 

I do not consider myself a Gaudiya Vaishnava, notwithstanding that many of my sadhana practices are Gaudiya Vaishnava in orientation.  I consider myself a Smartha (one grounded in the Smriti or texts of Hindu law and worship grounded in the Vedas) follower of the Adi Sankara parampara of Advaita Vedanta and the Shanmata system of worship (worship of Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Ganapati, Skanda and Surya).  However, I consider both Sri Chaitanya and Srila Prabhupada as acharyas who have been instrumental in teaching me whatever little I know about sadhana and bhakti.  I am an ardent supporter of ISKCON and wish for its continued growth and success, as well as that of the other Gaudiya Vaishnava paramparas, because I support them as highly inspirational movements within the broad tent of Sanatana Dharma, and it is with Sanatana Dharma that I primarily identify.

I have not yet formed a close personal relationship with Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu—I find it easier to relate to his second wife, Vishnu Priya Devi, and curiously enough, Srila Prabhupada.  However, I do feel a tremendous reverence and an outpouring of gratitude for Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.  So much of what I have learned about sadhana, about the path of bhakti, has come from him and his teachings as transmitted through ISKCON.  The first prayers to Krishna that I learned to recite were from a book by ISKCON.  The first pujas I learned how to perform were from detailed instructions in English dictated by Srila Prahbhupada that I found on the Internet.  When I was a child, scouring the library bookshelves for some book in English to read to quench my thirst to learn about Sri Krishna, it was only Srila Prabhupada’s English translation of the 10th canto of Srimad Bhagavatam that was available (other than distorted, anti-Hindu derogatory writings about Hinduism that were aplenty).  It is through books written by followers of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu that I have learned about the leelas of Sri Radha-Krishna.

No other Hindu institution has made sadhana and the path of bhakti as per Sanatana Dharma as accessible on a global scale to the masses as has ISKCON, and this is all due to the sankalpa (intention / vow) of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu that the glories of Sri Radha-Krishna be made available to all and spread globally.  As someone born in the USA with little to no background in Sanatana Dharma, if it were not for Sri Caitanaya’s desire to spread the glories of Sri Radha-Krishna and the practices by which to develop bhakti to all people, regardless of caste, creed, gender, I would have been so lost.  So many of the blessings of my life are laid at the feet of Sri Chaitanya and ISKCON.  Through them, I have learned how to properly cook prasada (ritual food offerings subsequently partaken by the devotee after being consumed and blessed by the deity) to please Sri Radha-Krishna, how to recite prayers with which to glorify Sri Radha-Krishna, how to sing and play music with which to worship and commune with them.  Even the dresses I use to decorate them and the materials with which I offer puja comes from ISKCON, because they have such meticulous standards (see http://store.krishna.com/StoreFront.bok).

All this is due to the grace of Sri Chaitanya and his mahabhava, which has been a tremendous force for the past 500+ years in raising Krishna consciousness worldwide.

Oftentimes other Hindus find fault with Gaudiya Vaishnavas, and ISKCON in particular, for not being “Hindu” enough or for being more Christian / Westernized than Hindu.  It is not my intent to get into a polemical debate here or go into philosophical complexities, but what I will say is that a tree should be known by its fruit.  Whatever philosophical differences there may be between Gaudiya Vaishnavism / ISKCON and other branches of Hinduism, the plain truth is that no other sampradaya (tradition) or paraampara (lineage) has done as much as ISKCON in modern history to promote and propagate Dharma, adapting it to the modern, multicultural world.  ISKCON has done this while preserving the authenticity of Sanatana Dharma and rigorously following the traditional canons of ritualistic worship without the slightest degree of compromise.  Just as I feel that all Hindus owe a debt of honor and gratitude to Sikhs for their bravery and valor in defending the rights and survival of Hindus and Hindu temples, regardless of whether Sikhs consider themselves Hindus or not or any other arcane philosophical differences that may exist, I feel that all Hindus should embrace and celebrate in what ISKCON has accomplished under the inspiration of Sri Chaitanya for the sake of Sanatana Dharma.  On this day, let us focus on what unites us as Hindus, on the commonalities that span the various sampradayas and paramparas from which we hail.  It was my earnest desire for a long time to learn orthodox Smartha forms of puja (ritualistic worship), and I found, upon comparison with the pujas I learned in the ISKCON mode, that the basic structure, ethos, guiding principles and process for the different types of puja were largely the same.  Whatever tradition within Sanatana Dharma we embrace, we have much more that is common or identical with each other than we have with other faiths—the underlying ethos, worldview, values and attitudes towards worship and spirituality are substantially the same in the various traditions that comprise Hinduism regardless of which specific sampradaya we are from.  We should focus on unifying rather than dividing ourselves for the sake of strengthening Sanatana Dharma.

When I first went to Puri to visit the Jagannath Mandir there, I stood at the spot from where Sri Chaitanya had taken darshan of Sri Jagannath so long ago.  At that moment, a thrill coursed through my body to be seeing Lord Jagannath through Sri Chaitanya’s eyes.  And so, tonight, while writing this, I discover that perhaps this is how I will find my personal relationship with Sri Chaitanya, not to focus on him as a personality, but instead, to try to see Sri Radha-Krishna through his bhava, to see them with his eyes, to partake of a few drops of the ocean of his bhakti for Sri Radha-Krishna.  After all, that was his legacy to the world, to us all, to share with us the exquisite experience of his communion with Radha-Krishna, to give us darshan through his eyes, to share the glories of Radha-Krishna through the resounding melodies of kirtan, the oral and written transmission of the nectarean pastimes of Radha-Krishna, the establishment of devotional practices to the divine by which our bhakti is deepened. 

I bow my head to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Lord Gauranga, Sacinandana, the son of Saci Mata, the husband of Vishnu Priya Devi, the manifestation of Sri Krishna in the mood of Sri Radharani.  I bow my head to the great one who ushered in the sankirtana movement for the modern age, so ably and lovingly propagated worldwide by Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON from the mid-20th century onwards.  I bow my head to this great, great devotee of Sri Radha-Krishna, who is an acharya for all of us who aspire to walk the path of bhakti.  I bow my head to Lord Gauranga, the golden-hued one, who teaches us the path of bhakti by which we may attain Sri Krishna, the dark-hued Lord of All.     

The author received a B.A. in International Relations, magna cum laude, from Tufts University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. She is a practicing attorney in the greater New York area. She is a co-editor of Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America andhas published several essays in Outlook India. Her other publications include: “Hindu-Americans: An Emerging Identity in an Increasingly Hyphenated World”, which is included in The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America since 1945; “The Hyphenated Hindus”, in Outlook India; “Hindu-American: Both Sides of the Hyphen”, in Silicon India; and “Hindu Pride”, in Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America (Jon Butleret al. eds., Oxford University Press). She is interested in the preservation and revival of the spiritual practices and traditions associated with Sanatana Dharma. Her blog is Click here