Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya was one of the great Vedic scholars of sixteenth-century India and an appointee to the court of the king of Orissa. Historical Bengali accounts tell of his encounter with Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu—a meeting that in many respects changed him. A logician and the dean of the state faculty in Sanskrit literature, Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya had a speculative mind and a hard heart. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu dismantled his pride, altered his bad disposition, and converted him into a great devotee of Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
The liberation of Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya took place in the sacred city of Puri on the Bay of Bengal. There, an awe- inspiring temple memorializes Lord Krishna’s pastimes as the King of Dvaraka fifty centuries ago. When Chaitanya Mahaprabhu entered this temple for the first time, and beheld the Deity of Krishna known as Jagannatha (“Lord of the Universe”), Sarvabhauma was present. He saw Chaitanya Mahaprabhu become overwhelmed in love of God and fall on the floor unconscious.
The Bhattacharya wanted to scrutinize the symptoms of the unconscious pilgrim. He knew that charlatans would sometimes feign a trance just to attract the innocent and take advantage of them. In this case, however, the symptoms appeared to be genuine. Sarvabhauma was unable to detect any movements of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s abdomen. The beating of the heart, the breathing, and all bodily activities were in complete suspension. But multiple symptoms of ecstatic trance, technically called suddipta-sattvika, were visible in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s body. Although surprised, Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya understood in light of certain Vedic writings with which he was acquainted that such symptoms could be exhibited only by an eternally liberated soul, someone in complete forgetfulness of material existence.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was twenty-four at the time and, having recently entered the renounced order (sannyasa), was traveling with some companions. He had just left their company and had walked ahead to Puri to see Lord Jagannatha. He’d lost external consciousness due to intense, ecstatic love for Lord Krishna. Yet within, Sri Chaitanya remained actively engaged in loving service to the Lord on the transcendental plane. His friends arrived at the temple and heard about an unconscious mendicant who had been taken to the house of Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya. Just then, Sri Gopinatha Acharya, Sarvabhauma’s brother-in-law, arrived, and he took the pilgrims to see Sri Chaitanya, whom they revived by loudly chanting the holy names of God: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Then, at the Bhattacharya’s request, they all bathed in the sea and returned to his house for lunch.
When, out of customary respect for the sannyasa order, Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya offered to become Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s servant, Sri Chaitanya spoke humbly to him as follows: “Because you are a teacher of Vedanta philosophy, you are the master of all the people in the world and their well-wisher as well. You are also the benefactor of all kinds of sannyasis. I am a young sannyasi, and I actually have no knowledge of what is good and what is bad. Therefore I am taking shelter of you and accepting you as a spiritual master.” By agreeing to become Sarvabhauma’s student, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu exhibited exemplary behavior for a sannyasi, whose duty is to study the Vedanta philosophy.
The Bhattacharya belonged to the order of Sankara, a ninth- century teacher who appeared after Buddhism had spread in India. Sankara imposed an impersonal interpretation on Vedanta philosophy by positing that the individual soul and God are identical and that spiritual existence ultimately lacks variety and personality. Sri Chaitanya, being a Vaishnava sannyasi (a devotee of Lord Vishnu, or Lord Krishna), disapproved of Sankara’s view. He accepted the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the original, direct commentary on the Vedanta philosophy, written by the author, Srila Vyasa.
Despite this difference, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya met in a very pleasant mood one morning at the Jagannatha temple. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu listened to the Bhattacharya’s comments on the Vedanta philosophy for seven days without asking a question or even speaking a word. Sarvabhauma, therefore, could not tell whether his student was properly understanding or not. In India many sannyasis hear the Vedanta philosophy as a formality, without understanding the meaning. Sri Chaitanya knew this and, by remaining silent, posed as one of them, a sannyasi in name only. He thus condemned their mechanical, superficial approach to the Vedic literature. On the eighth day, after being asked by Sarvabhauma whether the teaching made sense, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu denounced it as an imaginary, incomprehensible attempt to establish the Absolute Truth as impersonal.
The personal understanding is more complete than the impersonal understanding, because it explains why everything we see is full of variety. That we have come from an impersonal source devoid of personality, qualities, and form is not logical. The source of everything must also have personality and form. After all, you cannot give what you have not got.
But the Supreme Lord is not limited like us. No one is equal to or greater than God. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, possesses in full all the wonderful qualities we have in minute degree: beauty, wealth, knowledge, strength, reputation, and renunciation. Unfortunately, because our mortal bodies are full of ignorance and misery, we think that for God to be eternal, cognizant, and blissful, He must be formless or impersonal.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu turned Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya around, an alteration Sarvabhauma at first accepted reluctantly. As Sri Chaitanya criticized Sankara’s ideas, the Bhattacharya offered unlimited rebuttals. However, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu refuted all his arguments and established three important truths: (1) Krishna is the central point of all relationships; (2) devotional service to Krishna is everyone’s real occupation; and (3) life’s ultimate goal is to love Krishna. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu also explicated the meaning of a famous verse from the Srimad-Bhagavatam which states that Krishna attracts to His loving service even persons who are self-satisfied and free from material desires. This erudite exposition elicited the Bhattacharya’s rapt admiration.
Vaishnavas hold that Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya are both the original Personality of Godhead. Fifty centuries ago Krishna ordered everyone to become Krishna conscious: “Think of Me, worship Me; in this way you will come to Me.” Unfortunately, people are fallen, and Krishna’s instructions proved difficult to accept. Therefore, Krishna returned five centuries ago with the same mission, but a different method. Krishna “disguised” Himself as Lord Chaitanya, the ideal devotee, to teach everyone how to surrender to Krishna. Lord Chaitanya is Krishna Himself in the role of His own devotee. The account continues:
To show Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya mercy, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu allowed him to see His Vishnu form. Thus He immediately assumed four hands.
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu first showed him the four-handed form and then appeared before him in His original form of Krishna, with a blackish complexion and a flute to His lips.
When Sarvabhauma saw the form of Lord Krishna manifested in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, he immediately fell down flat to offer Him obeisances. Then he stood up and with folded hands began to offer prayers.
The following morning, just before sunrise, Lord Chaitanya went to the Jagannatha temple and received from the priest some flower garlands and food that had been offered to the Deity. These He carried to Sarvabhauma’s house. Sarvabhauma was getting up, and the Lord took pleasure in hearing him chant the holy name “Krishna, Krishna” as he arose. When they sat down together inside the house, Lord Chaitanya placed the food offered to Lord Jagannatha in Sarvabhauma’s hands. The Bhattacharya then quoted two verses which state that one should eat the remnants of food offered to Lord Krishna immediately upon receiving them. Pleased to see Sarvabhauma’s faith in Krishna, Lord Chaitanya quoted a verse stating that the duty of the spirit soul is to perform devotional service to the Supreme Soul and that one who wants to realize his true identity and receive the Lord’s mercy should not consider the body to be the self. From that day on, Sarvabhauma was a very affectionate, staunch devotee of Lord Chaitanya.
The next day, Sarvabhauma went to see Lord Chaitanya and asked Him, “Which item is most important in the execution of devotional service?” Lord Chaitanya replied that the most important item was the chanting of the holy name of the Lord. He elaborately explained how chanting the holy name rids one of the bodily concept of life.
Sarvabhauma, who had previously been in the darkness of speculative arguments, now understood the conclusion of the revealed scriptures: devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. One day he came before Lord Chaitanya and quoted a prayer to Lord Krishna from the Srimad- Bhagavatam: “One who seeks Your compassion and thus tolerates all kinds of adverse conditions due to his past deeds, who engages always in Your devotional service with his body, mind, and words, and who always offers You obeisances, is certainly a bona fide candidate for becoming Your unalloyed devotee.”
While reciting this verse, Sarvabhauma changed the original word mukti-pade to bhakti-pade. Lord Chaitanya immediately pointed this out and asked the Bhattacharya about his intention. The Bhattacharya replied that pure love of God, or bhakti, far surpassed mukti, or impersonalistic liberation from material life. Lord Chaitanya then explained that mukti-pade also indicated Vishnu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. To attain mukti, or liberation, He said, was to attain the service of the Lord. But Sarvabhauma, who for so many years had read and taught impersonalism, now hated the word mukti because of its impersonalistic connotations. This change in the Bhattacharya was possible only by the mercy of Lord Chaitanya. Such devotional fervor in one who had previously been so staunchly nondevotional was further proof to everyone that Lord Chaitanya was none other than Krishna. After this incident, all the inhabitants of Jagannatha Puri came to take shelter of the Lord.