What is the history of Gaudiya Sampradaya?

By editor - 22.6 2017

Gaudiya Vaishnavism (also known as Chaitanya Vaishnavism and Hare Krishnas) is a Vaishnava religious movement founded by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534) in India in the 16th century. Caitanya Mahaprabhu rejuvenated the culture of Krsna bhakti. "Gaudiya" refers to the Gauda region (present day West Bengal & Bangladesh) and Vaishnavism meaning "the worship of Vishnu". Its philosophical basis is primarily that of the Bhagavad Gita and Bhagavata Purana, as well as other Puranic scriptures and Upanishads.

The focus of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is the devotional worship (bhakti yoga) of Radha and Krishna, and their many divine incarnations as the supreme forms of God – Svayam Bhagavan. Most popularly, this worship takes the form of chanting or singing Radha and Krishna's holy names, such as "Hare", "Krishna" and "Rama", most commonly in the form of the Hare Krishna mahamantra. The movement is also referred to as the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya sampradaya, referring to its traditional origins in the succession of spiritual masters (gurus) originating from Lord Brahma. It classifies itself as a monotheistic tradition, seeing the many forms of Vishnu as expansions or incarnations of the one Supreme God (adipurusha) – Krishna. Although sharing a common set of core beliefs, there are some philosophical differences which distinguish Gaudiya Vaishnavism from other Vaishnava schools. The primary difference is that Lord Krishna is seen as the original form of God, not as an avatar of Vishnu. Over the three centuries following the disappearnace of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Gaudiya Vaishnava 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 Nityananda Prabhu, Advaita Acharya and other companions of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu educated and initiated people, each in their own locales across Bengal.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu requested a select few among his followers, who later came to be known as the Six Gosvamis of Vrindavan, to systematically present the eternal theology of bhakti in their writings. This theology emphasized the devotee's relationship to the Divine Couple, Radha and Krishna. The six were Rupa Goswami, Sanatana Goswami, Gopala Bhatta Goswami, Raghunatha Bhatta Goswami, Raghunatha dasa Goswami and Jiva Goswami. In the second generation of the tradition, Narottama, Srinivasa and Shyamananda, three students of Jiva Goswami, the youngest among the six Goswamis, were instrumental in spreading the theology across Bengal and Orissa.

The festival of Kheturi (approx 1574), presided over by Jahnava Thakurani, the wife of Nityananda Rama, was the first time the leaders of the various branches of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu'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. The festival of Kheturi allowed for the systemization of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology as a distinct branch of Vaishnava theology. In the 17th century, Vishvanath Chakravarti Thakur held great merit in clarifying core doctrinal issues over the practice of raganuga-bhakti through works such as Raga-vartma-chandrika. His student Baladeva Vidyabhushan wrote a famous commentary on the Vedanta-sutra called Govinda Bhashya. Gaudiya Math historians assert that in the 17th-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 apasampradayas. 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 Vaishnava preacher, known in his later life as Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. In total, Bhaktisidhanta Sarasvati Thakur founded sixty-four Gaudiya Math monasteries in India, Burma and Europe. One of Bhaktisiddanta Sarasvati’s disciples, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada went to the west on his guru’s order, and in America founded ISKCON (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness) or the Hare Krsna movement, in New York, in 1966.

From the very beginning of Chaitanya's bhakti movement in Bengal, Haridasa 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 Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur in his Gaudiya Math in the 20th century. The present day ISKCON continues the broad-mindedness and allows people from all religions to participate in the Bhakti movement.