By Karuna Dharini Devi Dasi
Mahaprabhu’s Victory – Over the Mayavadis at Benares
From Back to Godhead
Desiring to drown everyone in the flood of love of God, Lord Caitanya made a special effort to capture misinformed impersonalists.
In 1486 CE, Lord Krishna appeared in West Bengal as Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Though Krishna Himself, Lord Caitanya comes in the mood of a fully Krishna conscious devotee and teaches us pure bhakti, the personal, loving, service relationship of the soul with the Supreme Lord. To awaken that relationship, Lord Caitanya recommended the singing of the holy names of God, especially the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu and the many persons who joined Him sang and danced throughout West Bengal. The sweet mood of appreciation and revelry among a broad network of persons in the bhakti movement became so widely established during that time in India’s history that Mahaprabhu’s biographers compare what they experienced to a flood of love of God. True lovers of God were described as drowned in the love, while others floated.
Not surprisingly, other types of spiritualists stood aside to avoid the inundation. One particular group, the Mayavadis, remained quite dry, making them a special target of Lord Caitanya’s mercy.
Mayavada Philosophy Opposed to Bhakti
Pure love of God is rarely seen in the material world. Today, impersonal concepts usually influence spirituality. People are taught to contemplate spiritual energy with no form or personal identity. That is Mayavada philosophy. Caitanya Mahaprabhu taught that true love of God is found only in the personal relationship between the living entity and God, an eternally existing person. Caitanya Mahaprabhu considered the Mayavada philosophy a great obstacle to awakening that relationship.
The title of Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami’s epic biography on Mahaprabhu Sri Caitanyacaritam rta translates as “the character of the eternal living force.” That spiritual force is not without identity, personal qualities, and characteristics. For example, sometimes Lord Caitanya is referred to as Gaurasundara (gaura, golden; sundara, beautiful) because His pure spiritual complexion is golden and very appealing. He was a learned teacher, and He had a loyal devotee wife and a very affectionate devotee mother. He was a scholar who was so popular that He gathered hundreds of followers everywhere He went to establish sankirtana, or public chanting of Krishna’s names. So He was never without personal characteristics. Nor were His followers. The Caitanya-caritamrta describes a kind of spiritual family tree with fascinating branches and sub-branches of inspiring, sometimes amusing, descriptions of the character and behavior of hundreds of pure devotees of Krishna who were special followers of Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
The Mayavadi philosophers, strict followers of Sankaracarya, prefer their spirituality sans descriptions and characteristics. As shown by his commentary on Vedanta-sutra, Sankaracarya interpreted the Vedas as saying that spirit is without form or personality. Caitanya Mahaprabhu argued that Sankaracarya misrepresented the clear meaning of Vedanta-sutra, written by Srila Vyasadeva. The Mayavadis are therefore misled. Srila Prabhupada explained that the word mayavadi is composed of two elements: maya, matter, and vadi, one who sticks to this principle. Mayavadis simply want to negate because they have no positive information.
Many contemporary or New Age spiritual sects similarly focus on “that which is not” (a literal translation of maya) as the basis of their belief system. They even chant the name of Krishna as a novel feature to help them establish a following. Srila Prabhupada described Mayavada philosophy as a covered form of atheism.
Mahaprabhu in Benares
For four nights, Lord Caitanya stayed in Benares at the house of a devotee named Tapana Misra, to whom He had awarded spiritual initiation in Bengal. Tapana Misra was delighted to have the Lord in his home, and during His stay many people became attracted to chanting with Him.
But Benares was filled with Mayavadis, and when they got word that Mahaprabhu was staying in their town, they badmouthed Him. The Mayavadis had little appreciation for the singing of the holy names of Krishna. Since Caitanya Mahaprabhu was a sannyasi like them, they considered His actions improper: “Although a sannyasi, He does not take interest in the study of Vedanta but instead always engages in chanting and dancing in sankirtana. This Caitanya Mahaprabhu is an illiterate sannyasi and therefore does not know His real function. Guided only by His sentiments, He wanders about in the company of other sentimentalists.” (Caitanya-caritamrta, adi-lila 7.41–42)
On hearing of these complaints, the Lord did not speak with the Mayavadi sannyasis or defend Himself.
On another occasion in Benares the Lord stayed at the house of Candrasekhara acarya, a devotee physician, but took His meals at the home of Tapana Misra, a clerk, thus flouting the rule that a sannyasi should eat only at the house of a brahmana. Simultaneously, when the Mayavadi sannyasis repeatedly invited Mahaprabhu to dine with them, He declined.
At Candrasekhara’s house the Lord instructed Sanatana Goswami, a highly qualified disciple, for two months on the details of Vaishnava philosophy and behavior. Sanatana became a great bhakti scholar and a leader in Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s movement.
Tapana Misra’s young son, later known as Raghunatha Bha††a Goswami, was another significant devotee of the Caitanya family tree. He served the Lord at their home by washing His dishes and massaging His legs. The boy became filled with love of Krishna and later in Vrindavan became a personal assistant to Rupa Goswami, Sanatana’s brother. All these devotees were highly elevated in Krishna bhakti.
While the Lord’s second blissful visit to Benares was very productive for the future of the Vaishnava tradition, there was an increase in unseemly rumors coming from the Mayavadi sannyasis. Tapana Misra and Candrasekhara were unhappy about this.
“How long can we tolerate the blasphemy of Your critics against Your conduct?” they asked Caitanya Mahaprabhu. “We should give up our lives rather than hear such blasphemy. We cannot tolerate such criticism, for this blasphemy breaks our hearts.” (Cc. adi 7.50–51)
Though Candrasekhara acarya and Tapana Misra were fully devoted to the Lord as their spiritual teacher, they were not competent enough to refute the arguments of the Mayavadis. They felt helpless to stop the intolerable pain they were feeling.
A Fortunate Coincidence
At that time a brahmana arrived to meet Lord Caitanya. The brahmana knew very well that Caitanya Mahaprabhu was the only Vaishnava sannyasi in Benares. He understood something about both parties. He fell at Mahaprabhu’s feet and begged Him to please come to have a meal in his home, where many Mayavada sannyasis would be in attendance.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu smiled. Through this invitation He could address the concerns of His devotees and make Himself available to interact with the Mayavadis. He accepted the brahmana’s request.
Srila Prabhupada explains that a Vaishnava acarya is very strict in his principles and will not meet with persons averse to understanding Krishna. An acarya can be as hard as a thunderbolt in his attitude toward such persons, yet sometimes he is as soft as a rose. In this instance Mahaprabhu exhibited His gentle nature by accepting an invitation to meet with persons who had no appreciation for Him.
The next day Mahaprabhu walked barefoot to the brahmana’s house. Traditionally, as a part of their renunciation, sannyasis would walk barefoot, and when they entered a home or a temple they would wash their feet. Caitanya Mahaprabhu washed His feet upon entering the brahmana’s home and then He sat down at the foot-washing place, which was considered unclean.
As described in the Caitanya caritamrta (adi-lila 7.60–61), “After sitting on the ground, Caitanya Mahaprabhu exhibited His mystic power by manifesting an effulgence as brilliant as the illumination of millions of suns. When the sannyasis saw the brilliant illumination of the body of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, their minds were attracted, and they immediately gave up their sitting places and stood in respect.”
The sight of the purity and brilliance of Lord Caitanya changed the leader of the Mayavadi sannyasis, Prakasananda Sarasvati. When he saw Lord Caitanya sitting near the foot-washing area, he felt sorry. He supposed the Lord was aggrieved over something.
“Why are you lamenting?” he asked.
“I belong to a lower order of sannyasis,” Caitanya Mahaprabhu humbly replied. “Therefore I do not deserve to sit with you.”
Moved by the Lord’s meek posture and humble reply, Prakasananda Sarasvati caught the young sannyasi by the hand and pulled Him up to seat Him with great respect in the midst of the assembly.
The Lord’s Explanation
The Mayavadi sannyasis asked, “You belong to our Sankara-sampradaya and live in our village, Benares. Why then do You not associate with us? . . . You look as brilliant as if You were Narayana Himself. Will You kindly explain why You have adopted the behavior of lower-class people?” (Cc. adi 7.67, 70)
Mayavadis address each other as “Narayana” because they think they are all going to become Narayan a or merge into the energy of Narayana when they reach perfection. Seeing Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s gorgeous effulgence, they were astonished. Perhaps He had achieved their desired goal. They could not appreciate that the Supreme Personality of Godhead Narayana was in front of them. Lord Caitanya replied, “My spiritual master considered Me a fool. He told Me I am not qualified to study. He said to just chant Hare Krishna, which is the essence of the Vedas. He told me that simply by chanting the holy name of Krishna one can obtain freedom from material existence. Indeed, simply by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra one will be able to see the lotus feet of the Lord.” (Cc. adi 7.71–73, paraphrased)
The Hare Krishna maha-mantra is known as the great mantra for deliverance. Anyone who chants sincerely can get positive results. By chanting we become free from the miserable material misconceptions about ourselves and others that keep us bound to our karma in this world. The Lord then recited a verse often quoted by devotees of Krishna:
harer nama harer nama
harer namaiva kevalam
kalau nasty eva nasty eva
nasty eva gatir anyatha
“In this age of Kali there is no alternative, there is no alternative, there is no alternative for spiritual progress than to chant the holy name, the holy name, the holy name of the Lord.” (Brhan-naradiya Purana 3.8.126)
Caitanya Mahaprabhu explained that when He began chanting on the order of His spiritual master a peculiar thing happened to Him. Simply by His attentive chanting He felt a pure happiness that triggered a loss of His ordinary sense of self. He experienced feelings He had never felt before. He laughed, cried, and danced, and others thought something was seriously wrong with Him. When He finally collected His patience, He considered that perhaps the holy name was at fault for distracting Him from spiritual knowledge.
When He inquired from His spiritual master as to the nature of all of this, His spiritual master only smiled. He was greatly pleased with Him. He told Him that it is the nature of the Hare Krishna mahamantra that anyone who chants it develops loving ecstasy for Krishna.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu told the Mayavada sannyasis that His spiritual master had said to Him, “It is very good, my child, that You have attained the supreme goal of life by developing love of Godhead. Thus You have pleased Me very much, and I am very much obliged to You. My dear child, continue dancing, chanting, and performing sankirtana in association with devotees. Furthermore, go out and preach the value of chanting Krishna-nama [Krishna’s name], for by this process you will be able to deliver all fallen souls.” (Cc. adi 7.91–92)
The Actual Vedanta
The Lord’s explanation moved the Mayavadi sannyasis. They acknowledged that to achieve such wonderful love for God one must be very fortunate.
Still they asked, “There is no objection to Your being a great devotee of Lord Krishna; everyone is satisfied with this. But why do you avoid discussing the Vedanta-sutra? What is the fault in it?”
The Lord smiled slightly. “My dear sirs, if you don’t mind I will say something to you regarding Vedanta philosophy.”
Caitanya Mahaprabhu explained that Sripada Sankaracarya, the scriptural authority of the Mayavadis, gave indirect meanings to the statements of the Vedic literature. According to the direct meaning, the Absolute Truth is the Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu told them that Sankaracarya is respected as an incarnation of Lord Siva and his commentary on the Vedas, called Sariraka-bhasya, is very influential. But it was written as a compromise between theism and atheism. It does not represent the actual conclusion of Vedanta. It was originally written merely as a means to attract atheists to spiritual concepts.
“According to the direct understanding, the Absolute Truth is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who has all spiritual potencies. No one can be equal to or greater than Him. Everything about the Supreme Personality of Godhead is spiritual, including His body, opulence, and paraphernalia. Mayavada philosophy, however, covering His spiritual opulence, advocates the theory of impersonalism.” (Cc. adi 7.111–112)
The Mayavadis became interested to hear more about the direct meaning of the Vedanta-sutra.
Lord Caitanya described for them the relationship of the living being with the Supreme Lord in three stages: sambandha, abhidheya, and prayojana. Sambandha-jnana means “knowledge of the whole relationship.” This is an understanding of four items: one’s self, the universe, God, and the relationship between these. Once this is clearly established, the next program is a course of action to act in that relationship. This is the stage called abhidheya, or devotional service to the Lord. After executing the prescribed duties of abhidheya, one achieves prayojana-siddhi, the fulfillment of the human mission: love of God. This fulfillment can be had by one who sincerely and attentively chants Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Lord Caitanya explained many details of this subject, and his fellow sannyasis became gentle and humble toward Him. After taking lunch with them, the Lord returned to His residence.
Following this incident, the many Mayavadi sannyasis of Benares felt some of the symptoms of love of God. They began to visit Lord Caitanya and relish His association. The entire town began to praise Lord Caitanya and chant the holy names of the Lord.
Hearing of the arguments of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and seeing His extraordinary victory, Candrasekhara, Tapana Misra, and Sanatana Goswami were extremely pleased. They were happy that their spiritual master had given a good lesson to the party of offenders they had found impossible to reason with.
In this way the impossible became possible: Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu was able to turn the staunchly critical Mayavadi philosophers toward the path of love of Krishna. This event brings to mind Krishnadasa Kaviraja’s request to all logicians, impersonalists, and experts in philosophical debate: “If you are indeed interested in logic and argument, kindly apply it to the mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. If you do so, you will find it to be strikingly wonderful.” (Cc. adi 8.15)