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- Chaitanya and the Vaishnava Poets of Bengal - 1/3 -


Language: English

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CHAITANYA AND THE VAISHNAVA POETS OF BENGAL

THE INDIAN ANTIQUARY,

A JOURNAL OF ORIENTAL RESEARCH

IN

ARCHAEOLOGY, HISTORY, LITERATURE, LANGUAGES, PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION, FOLKLORE, &c., &c., &c.

EDITED BY

JAS. BURGESS, M.R.A.S., F.R.G.S.

VOL. II.--1873 [Bombay, Education Society's Press] {Scanned and edited by Christopher M. Weimer, May 2002}

CHAITANYA AND THE VAISHNAVA POETS OF BENGAL.

STUDIES IN BENGALI POETRY OF THE FIFTEENTH AND SIXTEENTH CENTURIES.

BY JOHN BEAMES, J.C.S., M.R.A.S. &c.

THE PADKALPATARU, or 'wish-granting tree of song,' may be considered as the scriptures of the Vaish.nava sect in Bengal. In form it is a collection of songs written by various poets in various ages, so arranged as to exhibit a complete series of poems on the topics and tenets which constitute the religious views of the sect. The book has been put together in recent times, and takes the reader through the preliminary consecration, invocations and introductory ceremonies, the rise and progress of the mutual love of Radha and K.rish.na, and winds up with the usual closing and valedictory hymns.

Before beginning an analysis of this collection so remarkable from many points of view, it will probably be of some assistance even to those who have studied the history of Vaish.navism, if I state briefly the leading points in the life of Chaitanya, and the principal features of the religion which he developed, rather than actually founded.

Bisambhar (Vishvambhara) Misr was the youngest son of Jagannath Misr, a Brahman, native of the district of Sylhet in Eastern Bengal, who had emigrated before the birth of his son to Nadiya (Nabadwipa), the capital of Bengal. [Footnote: The facts which here follow are taken from the "Chaitanyacharitamrita," a metrical life of Chaitanya, the greater part of which was probably written by a contemporary of the teacher himself. The style has unfortunately been much modernized, but even so, the book is one of the oldest extant works in Bengali. My esteemed friend Babu Jagadishnath Ray has kindly gone through the book, a task for which I had not leisure, and marked some of the salient points for me.] His mother was Sachi Debi, daughter of Nilambar Chakravarti. She bore to Jagannath eight daughters who all died young; her first-born child, however, was a son named Biswarup, who afterwards under the name of Nityanand became the chief disciple of his more famous brother. Bisambhar was born at Nadiya in the evening of the _Purnima_ or day of the full moon of Phalgun 1407 Sakabda, corresponding to the latter part of February or beginning of March A.D. 1486. It is noted that there was an eclipse of the moon on that day. By the aid of these indications those who care to do so can find out the exact day. [Footnote: There was an eclipse of the moon before midnight Feb. 18, O.S. 1486.] The passages in the original are:--

Sri K.rish.na the Visible became incarnate in Nabadwip, For forty-eight years visibly he sported; The exact (date) of his birth (is) Saka 1407, In 1455 he returned to heaven.

And again--

On the full moon of Phalgun at even was the lord's birth At that time by divine provision there was an eclipse of the moon. --_Ch._ I. xiii. 38.

In accordance with the usual Bengali superstition that if a man's real name be known he may be bewitched or subject to the influence of the evil eye, the real name given at birth is not made known at the time, but another name is given by which the individual is usually called. No one but the father and mother and priest know the real name. Bisambhar's usual name in childhood was Nimai, and by this he was generally known to his neighbours.

In person, if the description of him in the Chaitanyacharitamrita (Bk. I. iii.) is to be considered as historical, he was handsome, tall (six feet), with long arms, in colour a light brown, with expressive eyes, a sonorous voice, and very sweet and winning manners. He is frequently called "Gaurang" or "Gaurchandra," _i.e._, the pale, or the pale moon, in contrast to the Krishna of the Bhagvat who is represented as very black.

The name Chaitanya literally means 'soul, intellect,' but in the special and technical sense in which the teacher himself adopted it, it appears to mean perceptible, or appreciable by the senses. He took the name Sri K.rish.na Chaitanya to intimate that he was himself an incarnation of the god, in other words, K.rish.na made visible to the senses of mankind.

The Charitamrita being composed by one of his disciples, is written throughout on this supposition. Chaitanya is always spoken of as an incarnation of K.rish.na, and his brother Nityanand as a re-appearance of Balaram. In order to keep up the resemblance to K.rish.na, the Charitamrita treats us to a long series of stories about Chaitanya's childish sports among the young Hindu women of the village. They are not worth relating, and are probably purely fictitious; the Bengalis of to-day must be very different from what their ancestors were, if such pranks as are related in the Charitamrita were quietly permitted to go on. Chaitanya, however, seems to have been eccentric even as a youth; wonderful stories are told of his powers of intellect and memory, how, for instance, he defeated in argument the most learned Pandits. A great deal is said about his hallucinations and trances throughout his life, and we may perhaps conclude that he was more or less insane at all times, or rather he was one of those strange enthusiasts who wield such deep and irresistible influence over the masses by virtue of that very condition of mind which borders on madness.

When he was about eighteen his father died, and he soon afterwards married Lachhmi Debi, daughter of Balabhadra Acharjya, and entered on the career of a _grihastha_ or householder, taking in pupils whom he instructed in ordinary secular learning. He does not appear, however, to have kept to this quiet life for long; he went off on a wandering tour all over Eastern Bengal, begging and singing, and is said to have collected a great deal of money and made a considerable name for himself. On his return he found his first wife had died in his absence, and he married again one Bishnupriya, concerning whom nothing further is said. Soon after he went to Gaya to offer the usual pi.n.da to the _manes_ of his ancestors.

It was on his return from Gaya, when he was about 23 years of age, that he began seriously to start his new creed. "It was now," writes Babu Jagadishnath, "that he openly condemned the Hindu ritualistic system of ceremonies as being a body without a soul, disowned the institution of caste as being abhorrent to a loving god all whose creatures were one in his eyes, preached the efficacy of adoration and love and extolled the excellence and sanctity of _the_ name, and the uttering and singing of _the_ name of god as infinitely superior to barren system without faith." Chaitanya, however, as the Babu points out, was not the originator of this theory, but appears to have borrowed it from his neighbour Adwaita Acharjya, whose custom it was, after performing his daily ritual, to go to the banks of the Ganges and call aloud for the coming of the god who should substitute love and faith for mere rites and ceremonies. This custom is still adhered to by Vaish.navas. The Charitamrita veils the priority of Adwaita adroitly by stating that it was he who by his austerities hastened the coming of K.rish.na in the avatar of Chaitanya.

I praise that revered teacher Adwaita of wonderful actions, By whose favour even the ignorant may perceive the (divinity) personified. --Ch. I. vi.

Thus in Sanskrit verses at the head of that chapter which sings the virtues of Adwaita: by in the Bengali portion of the same chapter it is asserted that Adwaita was himself an incarnation of a part of the divinity, e.g.--

The teacher Adwaita is a special portion of god.

And the author goes on to say that Adwaita was first the teacher then the pupil of Chaitanya. The probability is that Adwaita, like the majority of his countrymen, was more addicted to meditation than to action. The idea which in his mind gave rise to nothing more than indefinite longings when transfused into the earnest fiery nature of Chaitanya, expanded into a faith which moved and led captive the souls of thousands.

His brother Nityanand was now assumed to be an incarnation of Balaram, and took his place as second-in-command in consequence. The practice of meeting for worship and to celebrate "Sankirtans" was now instituted; the meetings took place in the house of a disciple Sribas, and were quite private. The new religionists met with some opposition, and a good deal of mockery. One night on leaving their rendezvous, they found on the door-step red flowers and goats' blood, emblems of the worship of Durga, and abominations in the eyes of a Vaish.nava. These were put there by a Brahman named Gopal. Chaitanya cursed him for his practical joke, and we are told that he became a leper in


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