The greatest saint of the Bhakti movement was Shri Chaitanya, popularly known as Gouranga Mahaprabhu. He was born in 1486 A.D. at Navadweep in West Bengal in a Brahmin family.
His childhood name was Nimai or Biswambhar Mishra. He was a promising student and mastered all branches of Sanskrit learning.
After formal education he married Lakshmi Devi. But gradually he developed a sense of detachment towards worldly affairs.
At the age of twenty two he came in contact with a saint named Ishwar Puri at Gaya who initiated him with hymns of Lord Krishna. Nimai now became a devout worshipper of Krishna. In 1510, at the age of twenty four, he renounced the world and became a sanyasi. His name was changed from Nimai to Shri Chaitanya and went on pilgrimage to various places like Dwarka, Vrindavan and Mathura. In 1516 he came to Puri and spent the last part of his life here till his death in 1533 A.D.
Teachings of Shri Chaitanya:
Chaitanya’s teachings centred round ‘love’ – from intense human love to divine love. He opened the doors of divine love to all by chanting and singing the glories of Krishna in the form of Kirtans. Kirtan is not merely a religious song, but a feeling of ecstasy emanating from love and devotion, accompanied by singing and dancing of the highest spiritual order when one can feel the presence of Almighty. In fact, Chaitanya believed that by singing Kirtan alone one can realise God, because it transports the mind from the material world to the divine world.
Chaitanya was an exponent of the Radha-Krishna cult. His biographer Krishnadas Kaviraj has summed up his teachings in the following manner:
“If a creature adores Krishna and serves his guru, he is released from this world of illusion and attains Krishna’s feet and leaving these temptations and religious system based on caste, the true Vaishnava takes refuge with Krishna.”
Thus, for him, God was Krishna or Hari who would be pleased only by intense love and devotion of the devotee. He advises his followers to
Listen to the recitation of God’s name
Recollect His kindness
Bow to Him and worship Him
Do what He wills as a servant
Believe Him as a friend
Then dedicate yourself to Him.
This surrender is unconditional (Nishkama).
Such adoration is known as Madliura bhava and Chaitanya’s exposition of Rasalila is one of his most profound contributions to Indian philosophy. Chaitanya was a champion of social liberation. He denounced caste system and stood for the universal brotherhood of man. At the same time he was very much opposed to the domination of the priestly class and superfluous rituals and ceremonies. It was due to his attitude of social liberation that people of socially oppressed classes became his disciples. Indeed, one of his most favourite disciples was a Muslim named Haridas.
True to the Vaishnava way of life Chaitanya stood for truth and non-violence. He led an ascetic life and maintained celebacy. His teachings were simple and, therefore, had a universal appeal. The Radha-Krishna cult and Chaitanya’s preaching through singing Kirtans generated remarkable impact in Bengal and Orissa and the impact continues to be felt even today. Chaitanya died in 1533 in the premises of Jagannath temple at Puri while singing kirtan. His followers believed that Shri Chaitanya merged with Lord Jagannath whom he considered to be the embodiment of Krishna.
After his death his followers put his teachings together, collected his religious songs and organised themselves into a separate sect. The six Goswamis of Vrindavan were his prominent disciples who carried forward their master’s philosophy. Chaitanya’s teachings and message of love still remain a great source of spiritual inspiration to the people of eastern India in particular.