Para-Brahman as Ecstatic Mystic, Bhakti Revivalist, and Founder of a Bhakti Lineage

Śrī Krishna Caitanya is an extraordinary person of the sixteenth century whose example of ecstatic embodiment is unique in the world. His contagious spiritual emotions and kirtan flooded the Indian subcontinent and demonstrated the power of bhakti to dispel the deluding power of maya and bring one to love as an eternal state of being.

In Journey to Gorakhpur: An Encounter with Christ Beyond Christianity, Christian theologian John Moffitt writes, 

Of all the saints in recorded history, East or West, he [Sri Caitanya] seems to me the supreme example of a soul carried away on a tide of ecstatic love of God. . . . His life in the holy town of Puri is the story of a man in a state of almost continuous spiritual intoxication. Illuminating discourses, deep contemplation, moods of loving communion with God, were daily occurrences.

Śrī Caitanya’s metaphysics and striking, unparalleled ecstasies are delineated in his biography Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, a work of mature theological scholarship. The descriptions of Caitanya’s unprecedented bodily transformations of divine love are corroborated by numerous other biographers who were society’s elite intellectuals, littérateurs, ministers, and nobleman. 

We hear that Caitanya [1486 – 1534] would swoon and lose consciousness for hours simply on hearing the Hare Krishna mahā-mantra. It would take significant effort on the part of his associates to bring him back from these states. These remarkable incidents were not rare events but daily occurrences, and toward the end of his life he was rarely in external consciousness. 

Caitanya explained that the names of the Supreme are identical with the Supreme and therefore we can come into direct personal contact with Reality by chanting his names and be transported beyond time and space. Whenever Caitanya returned from his many spiritual trances, he spoke of accessing the realm of bhakti – the world of affection – a realm available to everyone in any position, at any time, without cost, without ritual, and with or without a pure heart – simply by chanting the mahā-mantra in a mood of humility. 

When the Raja of Puri first observed Śrī Caitanya’s group kirtan (saṅkīrtana) in the streets of the town, he was amazed. He had never witnessed that kind of kirtan, so full of love and ecstatic dancing. As he ruled over a city that hosted millions of pilgrims annually, he was well acquainted with a variety of spiritual practices. But this kirtan stood out. His brother-in-law Gopinatha said, “This is prema-kīrtana; it is the creation of Śrī Caitanya.” 

Kirtan of the Hare Krishna mantra is known as prema-kīrtana because it awards prema-bhakti, the highest reach of bhakti, and bhakty-ānanda, the bliss (ānanda) of pure love, the self’s fullest potential of being, in an intimate relationship with the self’s divine source. Ānanda is imported from the world of consciousness into the world of matter through prema-kīrtana. When sung by one immersed in the culture of Krishna-bhakti, the kirtan is imbued with the full power of the Divine Person and can reveal the hidden world of consciousness in the heart of the participants. 

We already are what each of us seeks so desperately to become: eternal, blissful, loving individuals. Prema-kīrtana grants us the eyes to see this about ourselves and act on this level. If we repeatedly hear and sing kirtan, prema-bhakti will melt the stone of our heart’s resistance and confer on us the ecstasy Śrī Caitanya embodied. 

Not all forms of kirtan offer prema. But the kirtan of Śrī Krishna Caitanya is about prema alone. Caitanya even made light of mukti, a liberated state, which he considered insignificant compared to prema, for beyond achieving peace and ending suffering, there is the pursuit of love.

We want peace and love. And not just mundane love, which always fails us. We want to experience unprecedented, undying love. Prema-bhakti is such a love that it even attracts the nondual Para-Brahman (Supreme Consciousness). 

Prema is the condensed form of happiness. We’re searching for enduring happiness, but it’s always just beyond our reach. As we gain experience, we learn that we’ll have to take up a spiritual practice if we want permanent happiness. There are three kinds of transcendent happiness: the happiness of self-realization, of oneness, and of bhakti.

When the false self is finally extinguished by a serious aṣṭaṅga yoga practice of following all eight limbs of yoga, we achieve the happiness of self-realization, or atmānanda. When we look closely, it’s more accurate to say that level of spiritual achievement is the negation of suffering. It’s meager happiness because the self is a small fragment of spirit and therefore one’s happiness is limited. By nature the self is happy, but alone it cannot experience its fullest potential.

Brahmānanda, or merging into the Brahman effulgence (oneness), can be reached by those on the jñāna-mārga. It is a destination that awards eternal peace. The peace is similar to what we experience in deep sleep. You’re peaceful because you’re not troubled by anything: the senses, mind, and ego are shut down. It’s an existence of contentless awareness where the individuality of the self is killed and we go into an eternal coma.

Bhakti awards bhakty-ānanda and peace, or peace and love. Prema is the ever-new, ever-fresh ecstasy of intimate exchanges with our Divine Other in the homeland of the heart. 

In the world of consciousness, everyone is engaged in an unlimited variety of activities for the pleasure of the Supreme. These activities imbue the atmosphere with joyous appreciation, gratitude, and satisfaction. Existing to love is the full expression of individuality for the self who comes to live with infinite variety, nourished by the ever-expanding possibilities of the spiritual environment. 

The unique and charming insights of the bhakti texts usher us into the bold concept – undisclosed elsewhere – that the self can attain an intimate relationship with Reality as a servant, friend, doting elder, or lover. Imagine, if just for a moment, looking your Divine Other in the eyes and conversing or joking with him, or taking his hand in yours, in one of these intimate and personal moods! This is bhakti’s promise to us.

Kirtan, or glorification through singing, speaking, chanting, and hearing, is the main aṅga (limb), or practice, of bhakti. Bhakti‘s defining characteristic is kirtan’s power to deliver transcendent results to anyone regardless of his or her qualifications. What kind of kirtan has this power?

As described in the Kali-santaraṇa Upaniṣad (5–6):

iti ṣoḍaśakaṁ nāmnāṁ
kali-kalmaṣa nāśanam
nātaḥ parataropāyaḥ
sarva vedeṣu dṛśyate
hare kṛṣṇa hare kṛṣṇa
kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa hare hare
hare rāma hare rāma
rāma rāma hare hare

These sixteen names can destroy all the degrading, illusory effects of Kali [the current cosmic season of discord and hypocrisy]. In all the Vedas, no higher or more sublime way is to be found. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

Śrī Caitanya said that kṛṣṇa is the most perfect divine name of the Supreme because it reveals the secret heart of Reality. It’s a transcendental wish-fulfilling stone. Krishna’s names serve to acquaint us with the fullness of our self, the fullness of our Divine Source, and the fullest potential of love.

Why is the name Krishna significant? When we study the etymology of the two syllables kṛṣ and ṇa, a picture of the Supreme as love personified begins to form. Kṛṣ means existence, and ṇa means bliss. Combined, the two roots indicate that Krishna is nondual Para-Brahman who blissfully embodies all aspects of existence and consciousness. Pure bhakti is the essence of the Absolute, who controls with love, is controlled by love, and responds only to love. Love’s embrace is charming and reciprocal, and the height of love’s sweetness fully manifests in the form of Krishna – more so than any other feature of the Supreme. Krishna describes an irresistible, all-attractive feature of the Absolute as the master of divine intimacy and playfulness. 

Although prema-kīrtana brought about profound emotions in Śrī Caitanya and his followers, the path of devotion is thoroughly grounded in reason, Vedānta philosophy/theology, requisite practice, and spiritual discipline. Bhakti runs on two tracks – rational and heartful. Bhakti has to be well informed to mature fully into prema.

Scholar Klaus Klostermaier writes that of all the traditions in India, “perhaps the most subtle and detailed system of gradual ascent to God by means of love has been developed in the Caitanya school of Vaishnavism [bhakti].” 

Śrī Caitanya established the spiritual lineage known as Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇavism. He himself wrote only eight stanzas, known as the Śikṣāṣṭaka. In these prayers he promotes faith in the efficacy of exclusive Śrī Krishna kirtan, and his own example of unprecedented ecstasy establishes the truth of Krishna’s existence. For there to be love, the object of love must exist. 

Though his own written contribution is limited, his disciple’s literary output was extraordinary. Following Śrī Caitanya’s revelation of the bhakti truths found throughout Vedānta, hundreds of bhakti texts establish Caitanya’s acintya-bheda-ābheda metaphysics, supported by extensive references from the Upaniṣads, Vedānta-sūtra, Purānas, Itihāsas, Mahābhārata, Bhagavad-gītā, and Pañcarātras (tantra).

In his early years, Śrī Caitanya was known as the most erudite scholar in Navadvipa. At the time, Navadvīpa rivaled Vārāṇasī (Benares) as a hub of intellectual giants. Śrī Caitanya’s ecstatic swoons began after his initiation by his guru, and he took the congregational kirtan (saṅkīrtana) into the streets throughout India. Though he left the school where he taught, his teaching continued as he traveled India on foot to give bhakti to the masses. Primarily he taught by example, constantly chanting. But he also engaged with other prominent teachers of the era.

When he arrived in Vārāṇasī, the scholarly seat of nondual philosophy, he created a commotion: this young mendicant was not behaving according to the Vedic codes – or so the scholars thought. He was emotional, not sober, and apparently not focused on studying Vedānta. 

Prakāśānanda, the scholar-sannyāsī leader of thousands of nondualists, initially criticized Śrī Caitanya, referring to him as an emotional pretender. When they finally met and spoke, Prakāśānanda said, “You have explained the codes of the Vedānta-sūtra and Upaniṣads as they are and enlightened even me. Please further explain the Vedānta-sūtra so we may all be fully benefited.” Afterwards, Prakāśānanda and his followers took to the way of bhakti.

In the town of Puri, Sārvabhauma Bhaṭṭācārya, known as India’s greatest logician and a learned minister of philosophy in King Pratāparudra’s court, tried to instruct Śrī Caitanya, who remained silent for seven days while listening to the Bhaṭṭācārya’s explanation of Vedānta. Sārvabhauma asked him if he understood.

Śrī Krishna Caitanya replied, “Sir, I can understand Vedānta philosophy very clearly, but I cannot understand your explanations.” In the discussion that ensued, Caitanya explained the understanding of the Upaniṣads and Vedānta-sūtra according to the intent of the author, Vyāsa. In their discussion, Caitanya established that the personal feature of the absolute, Śrī Krishna, is the support of nondual Brahman: brahmaṇo hi pratiṣṭhāham (Gītā 14.27). The Absolute Truth, Caitanya explained, is neither impersonal nor without power. Caitanya’s arguments were so forceful and grounded in Vedānta that Sārvabhauma began teaching bhakti metaphysics. Following his lead, most of the state and the king took to bhakti

Śrī Caitanya was also known as Krishna Caitanya. Caitanya means “consciousness,” and Krishna means the person Krishna, who is the speaker of Bhagavad-gītā and the subject of the 18,000-verse Bhāgavata Purāṇa.

The name Krishna Caitanya translates as “Krishna consciousness.” Within the bhakti tradition, the person who is the pure embodiment of Krishna consciousness is Rādhā, Krishna’s feminine counterwhole. Krishna’s love – supreme love – takes a form. Rādhā is the full embodiment of the Supreme’s love. She is the living vessel of unmatched love and is known as Bhakti Devi, the personification of prema. Rādhā demonstrates that prema is so powerful it can conquer the Supreme. Prema’s power is such that dispelling the powerful, deluding hold of the material energy is a mere side-effect. If prema can conquer the Supreme, what can it not do?

The Taittirīya Upaniṣad (2.7.1) describes Brahman as rasa: raso vai saḥ. Rasa means the taste or flavor of an emotion. The highest pleasure is derived from love. One name for the Absolute is Rasa Rāja, or the “king of love.” Rasa Rāja Krishna is the preeminent connoisseur of love. He knows everything about every kind of love, finds his own happiness only in love, is moved only by its most elevated expression, and is capable of reciprocating with unlimited numbers of souls, for he is the soul of all souls.

Although Krishna is irresistibly charming, Rādhā surpasses him in beauty, love, charm, and knowledge of the arts. Her love is pristine and selfless. Krishna is overwhelmed and captivated by Rādhā’s love. He cannot sit still without her love, so he dances and plays enchanting melodies on his flute to attract her attention. 

Krishna thinks, “I’m the king of love, but in Rādhā I see love and joy that exceeds anything I’ve experienced. Her love is greater than mine! Her love eclipses my ability to reciprocate; therefore, in the competition between us, Rādhā’s love triumphs.” Thus, Krishna hankers to taste Rādhā’s love. He can only do that by stepping into her mood. 

Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, the author of Caitanya’s biography Caitanya-caritāmṛta, describes that Śrī Caitanya is Krishna himself who has come to this world in the mood of Rādhā.

We can appreciate the significance of the revelation that Śrī Caitanya is identical to Krishna by examining bhakti’s core metaphysic a little closer. Throughout Vedānta, Brahman is known as nondual. By definition the Supreme must be one, in a singular category, otherwise it/she/he cannot be supreme. At the same time there are śaktis, or energies. How do these energies relate to Brahman? This is the key metaphysical question that all spiritual lineages attempt to answer. 

Śrī Krishna Caitanya’s metaphysic is known as acintya-bheda-ābheda – inconceivable simultaneous oneness and difference between the energetic (śaktimān) and the energies (śaktis) – and is unique in the philosophical and theological worlds. Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (6.8) says, “The Supreme is naturally endowed with knowledge, will, and action [shaktis, energies], which act so perfectly that all consciousness, strength, and activity are directed solely by his will.”

As the self-manifest origin of everything, Brahman has multiple energies. The spiritual world, material world, and living beings (who inhabit both worlds) are all energies of the Supreme Brahman. All of these energies are dependent upon the Supreme; they have no existence without him. Because all these manifestations come from the Absolute and are sheltered by him, they are identical to him. In that sense, he is known as nondual. But these energies also have distinct features, functions, and powers, and so his energies are perceived as different from him. Therefore, he is known as dual. 

Unity/diversity, nondualism/dualism, oneness/difference, personalism/nonpersonalism, immanence/transcendence – all exist simultaneously at the heart of Reality. In bhakti, we move beyond material duality/nonduality as well as spiritual duality/nonduality. The self-manifest nondual Consciousness who exists without a second, who is without need to derive power elsewhere and can harmonize all opposing elements, is inconceivably simultaneously one and different.

Further, Consciousness is described as sac-cid-ānanda: being, knowing, and loving. Being (sat) and knowing (cit) are static, or passive, features of the Supreme. Only loving (ānanda) is dynamic and active. Ananda is the highest expression of Consciousness.

To understand the metaphysical completeness of ānanda, contemplate the following truisms: 

One who exists does not necessarily know or love. 

But if one knows, one must exist, though one may not love. 

However, if one loves, then one both exists and knows.

As being is enhanced by knowing, both being and knowing are improved by loving. A loving existence is the largest, most fulfilling existence. Therefore, love is the highest expression of consciousness. 

The ānanda feature of the Supreme is a reservoir of love, and it causes all varieties of love to manifest. Because love requires two and must be exchanged between individuals, this manifestation of the Absolute must necessarily be a person. The Supreme Person loves and causes love and all its dynamic movement in a world of love. The doing, causing, and feeling of prema, wise-love, harmonizes unity (oneness/nondualism) and diversity (individuality/dualism). In love, two people refer to themselves as “we.” In the metaphysical, the soul and the Supreme Beloved are one in heart and intent through love. 

Śrī Krishna exists eternally with his energies. Rādhā and Krishna are one but exist eternally as two. Their love for each other is so consuming, so deep, that they want to become one. They fulfill their desire and become one again as Śrī Caitanya. The one becomes two becomes one in a dynamic way to experience the full measure of love. This is the inconceivable nature of the independent Absolute.

Driven by love with a desire to experience the deepest, most fulfilling love, Śrī Caitanya came as a devotee to show the step-by-step way to achieve the unadulterated love and enduring happiness that we all hanker for at every moment.

As spiritual beings, we’re fit to experience prema, a state of being beyond mere liberation or extinguishing the self. Beyond sleeping eternally, there is a spiritual destination where we can express the highest variety of individuality in love. Bhakti blooms in our hearts when we culture feelings of separation from our Beloved, call out his names, hear about him, speak about him, and offer service as Śrī Caitanya illustrated by his own example.

Śrī Caitanya’s love of the Absolute was like a young girl’s maddened infatuation for her young lover. Embodying Rādhā’s love for Krishna, everything Caitanya experienced – a flower garden, the sound of a musician’s flute, a sand dune, a forest path, a river, a boy herding calves, a bird singing, the smell of a breeze moving over fragrant trees – reminded him of Krishna and his divine activities. This is the nature of bhakti. For the devoted, the entire creation is an impetus for diving into wise-love. In fact, the creation is a love affair!

By absorbing his thoughts in remembering the names, activities, forms, and qualities of the Supreme, Śrī Caitanya experienced ecstatic feelings of separation from his beloved Krishna. He took up the mood of deep longing expressed by Rādhā in this poetic verse:

O lord whose heart softens
at seeing the condition of the unfortunate!
O lord of Mathura, when will I see you?
My heart is filled with the pain of your absence
and is confused, O my love!
What can I do?

Śrī Caitanya explains that when we associate everything with the Absolute, our lives take on the qualities of the Supreme. Through the touch of this mercy, the inconceivable realm opens to our view and experience. By remembering the Absolute and serving in separation – with a heightened emotion of anticipation and need – the self is quickly brought into the presence of its Beloved. Through the prema-kīrtana of Śrī Caitanya, we’re offered a method to experience Rādhā’s love for Krishna, a love that captures God’s heart, endears us to him, and awards us a place in our own eternal love story.

Śrī Caitanya orients us to the self, prompts us to use everything we have and are as an offering to the Supreme, and guides us to chant the divine names and drink the nectar-wisdom of the poetic Bhāgavata Purāṇa. When we chant with a sincere cry of the heart, the Absolute makes himself ours. This, Śrī Caitanya says, is the highest aim of life, and in achieving this final goal, one’s place in the homeland of the heart is secured.