Biographies > Lord Chaitanya - Divya Unmada


By Peter Holleran


   Lord Chaitanya (1486-1533) was the founder of the Krishna cult in medievil India. Devotees consider him to have been the promised avatar for the kali yuga. His followers attempted to achieve mystical ecstasy, bliss, and God-communion by chanting the name of Krishna. Chaitanya (whose name means "consciousness") taught one and all to:

   "Be humbler than a blade of grass,
   Be patient and forebearing like the tree,
   Take no honor to thyself,
   Give honor to all,
   Chant unceasingly the Name of the Lord."


   Although alot of water has flowed under the bridge since Chaitanya's time, our series of historical essays would not be complete without mentioning his life, influence, and realization. Whether he was a true divine non-dual realizer or just a dissociative ecstatic mystic we cannot tell, but that his life contains some kernels of wisdom we can be fairly certain.

   Chaitanya (known as Visvambhur) was a householder and scholarly philosophy school master until the age of twenty-two, when, while paying a visit to Gaya to offer oblations to the soul of his deceased father, a preceptor of his father named Isvara Puri gave him a mantra for worshipping Krishna. This changed his life, and henceforth he became a devotee, chanting and singing in the streets. Inwardly a jnani, he propounded the gospel of love and devotion, countering the dry pedantry of his day. He renounced the world and was formally ordained a monk on January 23, 1510, taking the name Chaitanya. While on a pilgrimage of South India he stopped in Puri, Orissa, where he achieved fame by converting a widely respected scholar of Vedanta to his bhakti doctrine (In this he was similar to Ramanuja, who humbled the proud Yadavaprakasha by the power of his devotion to Vishnu). Some have suggested that he was really a jnani, as the name, "chaintanya," meaning consciousness, implies. According to Swami Lokeswarananda, Chaitanya, like Ramakrishna (who was said to have been Chaitanya in his past incarnation), was inwardly a jnani, and outwardly a lover of God. (1)   His scholarship even before becoming a Krishna devotee was profound, and it is said he overcame the challenge of a group of Buddhists not only through his knowledge but with the help of divine powers.

   For five years Chaitanya traveled, and in 1515 set out on foot for Vrindivan, the birthplace of his beloved Krishna. It was there that he had his realization, the exact nature of which the texts do not tell us. For the next seventeen years he lived in Puri, and frequently passed into devotional ecstasy during his devotion to Krishna, and taking others along with him into samadhi. In these later years he was often in a trance-like condition and was looked after by his attendant Govinda. His body became worn down by his emotional frenzy; he would often shout, laugh, weep, talk incoherently, and behave like a demented person. In search of Krishna, once he ran into the ocean, thinking it to be the Jamuna river. He was carried out to sea where his unconscious but still living body was recovered by a fisherman.

   To the modern mind, such activity seems to be emotionally unbalanced, but to the bhakta, it is symbolic of the highest form of intense devotion, manifested in the madness of divine love. Sri Ramakrishna said:

   “You talk glibly about prema. But is it such a commonplace thing?...Chaitanya had this ecstatic love.”

   Sources differ as to the manner of his death. Some claim that he translated directly into light, body and all, on either April 27 or June 29, 1533. (2) This phenomenon (shared by Elijah, Jnaneshwar, Tukaram, and Ramalingar (3) is known in the yoga sutras as agni yoga dharana, or a yogic process of radiating inner fire to reduce the body to a subtle form or to consciousness itself without actually burning it. It is a possible but not necessary accompaniment of the ultimate stages of certain yogic processes - definitely not a common or necessary event!

   It is important to understand that the apparently similar phenomenon known as the 'Great Transfer/Rainbow Body' in Dzogchen (also found in some Taoist and Hindu teachings), where genuine, is not a siddhi like the dematerialization/bi-location capacity so often demonstrated by various masters. The latter is a power that derives from the ability to manipulate the elements - not just the physical elements per se, but to be able to translate matter/energy in and out of the various planes. For instance, if one visualizes an orange clearly in one's mind, and then with adequate concentration, infuses this elemental that one has formed of an orange with the earth element, it will precipitate in the physical world. This is one basic method of materialization. Conversely, if one take any physical object, or one's own body, and through mind-power concentrates on removing the earth element from it, then it will dematerialize, though it will now continue to exist in the astral plane, all objects and beings always having an astral counterpart to their physical form. This is a siddhi that is based on will-power, however subtle and sublime, and profound knowledge of the elements. It has been done by great adepts in the Theravadin, Tibetan, Hindu, Sant, and other traditions. A more spectacular example is Milarepa, or in modern days Dipa Ma, 'diving' into the earth and coming up drenched, thus transmuting earth into water. Or perhaps a saint accomplished in bi-location, manifesting and demanifesting, or translating into light, body and all, at the time of death. But the Great Transfer of Dzogchen is not such siddhi. It is considered, where genuine, to be the expression of so fully integrating nondual realization into the human form that it is transformed at a more fundamental level directly into soul or one's essence. The adepts in the tradition who achieve such 'Total Realization', at the time of death, usually retire for seven days (sometimes more), when their body shrinks and disappears into its subtle elemental light essences, leaving only the hair and nails behind, these being considered its impurities and used as relics by the common people.

   This means that one has not only to have attained sahaja samadhi or stabilized nondual realization in the ordinary state, but also so illuminated the lower bodies with this realization that all karma is 'spontaneously liberated', and the body itself (which is a product also of Nature) is also, in a sense, liberated. It essentially means, using other terms, that the Primordial Shakti-Holy Spirit-Wisdom/Energy inherent in the body is profoundly assimilated into the Self-Realized Soul of the practitioner. [Note: Dzogchen and Buddhism in general do not use this terminology of Soul; however, we use it in these writings liberally, in a context where its traditional limiting connotations are understood].

   Adriano Clemente, translator of a text by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, writes:

   "The rainbow body ['ja' lus] is the transmutation of the physical constituents of the body into the essence of the five elements of which it is composed: the five lights. Thus an immaterial body, invisible to the physical eye, continues to exist, actively working for the benefit of all sentient beings....Higher than this accomplishment is the "great transference into the rainbow body" ('ja lkus 'pho ba chen mo), in which the yogin achieves the rainbow body while still alive, without undergoing the process of death." (3a)

   [It is not easy to understand how this is different than an 'immortalized' subtle body of a great saint performing the same function, and to our knowledge has not been explained adequately so far in any tradition. In our opinion, the importance of the rainbow body is two-fold: one, the depth of nondual realization itself, which can be considered a 'death-in-life' regardless of any special 'light body ' created thereby; and, two, the 'enrichment' of the soul or spirit of the practitioner that such a process as actual reabsorption of the body may produce. This aspect of the process has not been adequately recognized in any tradition either].

   Those who are not fully 'transferred' or psycho-physically integrated during life may yet be able to shrink their bodies down and disappear at death; this must be understood as implying a profound but somewhat lesser degree of realization. It is still not 'siddhi', accomplished by a willful effort, but rather an allowance of the full extent of realization that the death process affords, but was not completely accomplished while alive.

   This discussion of Dzogchen is only to make clear that we do not know under which category the light bodies of these great masters from the various traditions falls. In any case it may or may not be necessary or inevitable, or even 'better' than that of those siddhas who do not exit that way. Buddha said he was capable of so doing, in fact he said that he could even maintain a "Nirmanakaya' or 'physical' body until the end of the kalpa" if he so desired, but he chose not to so that his disciples would not deify him.

   Even Ramana Maharshi admitted such a possibility as the rainbow body when he said that, inasmuch as the body is a condensed form of mind, when the mind resolved into the Self, the body might itself do likewise.

   Indeed, a similar phenomenon occured to Ramana:

   "On several occasions Sri Bhagavan had had an unusual experience in which his body would disappear in a flash and disperse into its component atoms. A little later a smoke-like form would appear and the atoms would come together in a form that resembled particles of mist. Finally, the body would reappear in its normal form. Sri Bhagavan used to have this experience whenever he remained in the same position for a long time or when his body got emaciated because he was not taking enough food. This state, in which the body disintegrates into atoms and merges with the five elements, is known as 'pranava body'." (4)

   This is a rare form of siddhi associated with advanced yogic development, and is not to be equated with the equally rare and unexplainable phenomenon of spontaneous combustion, whereby ordinary persons literally burn up without apparent cause:

   "The shower was cold but she complained of being hot. After that, smoke started pouring out of her ears and mouth. Then she caught fire and started screaming" ... the young woman burned intensely for about ten minutes. When the flames subsided, all that remained was ash ... "There was no source of heat or fire visible to her teachers and classmates. She obviously started to burn spontaneously from the inside out.” (5)

   The outward emotional signs displayed by Chaitanya in his ecstasy are sometimes considered signs indicating spiritual enlightenment, and immature followers have attempted to emulate or strive after them. Paul Brunton was of the view that Chaitanya's behavior gave indications that he was a mystic and not a philosopher, or one who had transcended personal attachment to subtle states to realize the lofty impersonal serenity of a sage. Yet such signs can be of spiritual significance, in so far as they accompany advancement of the spiritual process beyond identification with the lower verbal mind and physical body as well as the opening of the chakras at and above the subtle heart-center, and this itself is an uncommon attainment, although still far from ultimate realization per se. We also have the example of Ramakrishna, who PB's teacher Iyer himself felt to be a sage, yet who practiced and exemplified diverse sadhanas and states, including the madhura bhava of Chaitanya for the benefit of his followers. Indeed, the Chaitanya Charitamrita was a favorite book of Ramakrishna.

   Chaitanya's devotional ecstasies helped popularize the practice of "kirtan" , or heart-felt singing and dancing in praise of the divine, which even jnanis such as Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Nisargadatta were known to engage in, as they did not feel it was necessary to exclude anything from their non-dual realizations. Many Hindus, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda included, considered Chaitanya to have been a divine incarnation.

   Sri Nisargadatta gave his view on the merits of chanting:

   N: "It is a matter of temperament. You too are right. For you, singing the praises of God is enough. You need not desire realization, nor take up a sadhana. God's name is all the food you need. Live on it."

   Q: "This constant repetition of a few words, is it not a kind of madness?"

   N: "It is madness, but it is a deliberate madness. All repetitiveness is tamas, but repeating the name of God is sattva-tamas due to its high purpose. Because of the presence of sattva, the tamas will wear out and will take the shape of complete dispassion, detachment, relinquishment, aloofness, immutability. Tamas becomes the firm foundation on which an integrated life can be lived." (6)

   Chaitanya taught by example the life of Divine Madness, or "divya-unmada." A popular Hindu verse reflects the attitude of the Chaitanyavadins:

   “I do not understand Brahman. I do not understand maya; I also do not understand human beings. I do not understand all this talk about Vedanta. I do not understand time. I do not even understand myself or whether or not I exist. I have only Krishna. I know only Him.”

   Chaitanya revived the Vrindavan lila of Radha and Krishna, which exemplified the mood known as madhura bhava, or ecstatic love for God as a paramour of lover. Ramakrishna in turn revived this as a legitimate path in the modern world. He warned, however, that it was a difficult path, in that it could only be undertaken by one with extreme renunciation and abandonment of the I-am-body-idea. Lokeswarananada writes:

   “Before [Chaitanya] came, people thought the Radha-Kirshna lila was a mere superstition, and that the mood of ecstatic love was imaginary. We see, however, that Radha’s mood of intense yearning was vividly reflected in Sri Chaintanya. Sri Ramakrishna said, ‘Inwardly Sri Chaintanya was an Advaitin, a non-dualist; outwardly he was a devotee who practiced the madhura bhava for the welfare of the devotees.’ Living an extremely austere life, Chaitanya was the embodiment of renunciation. One cannot practice the madhura bhava unless one has complete renunciation.” (7)

   Sri Ramakrishna practiced the madhura bhava for six months in his early sadhanas, even dressing like a woman, wearing a sari, jewelry, and a wig:

   “When Sri Ramakrishna was engaged in the madhura bhava he suffered so acutely from separation from Sri Krishna that he completely forgot about eating and sleeping. Sometimes blood oozed from the pores of his skin, and he lost external consciousness. The Master’s agony of separation paralleled the experiences of both Radha and Chaitanya.” (8)

   Swami Vivekananda said:

   “The madhura bhava is not wrong; nowhere else can we find such freedom from desire and the lack of body-consciousness. As long as a person has even a little body-consciousness, he cannot understand the madhura bhava. if this path is undertaken by unfit people, the madhura bhava becomes perverted, because of this danger Swamiji repeatedly warned that this attitude should not be taught to all and sundry because ordinary minds cannot comprehend it.” (9)

   It is painful to leave such an inspiring legend to paint a sordid picture, but one basic lesson to be learned of the dangers of dropping ones discrimination, or Buddhi, for an emotional bhakti path, just as Swami Vivekananda had warned, is that a fanatic devotion to a God image, or guru, can produce a nearly unlimited fanaticism, with all that entails. To prove the point one need look no farther than the end results of the New Vrindivan Krishna community in West Virginia. The successor to Swami Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta (by most accounts a traditional Krishna devotional teacher), apparently was carried away by the lure of western distractions, ranging the gamut from sex, drugs, and even murder. David Gold, a longtime student of American gnana yogi/philosopher Richard Rose, in his book After the Absolute, a chronicle of his time with Mr. Rose, writes a detailed account of Rose's struggles with the Krishnaites who had obtained a 99-year lease of his land for their community. The story covers scandals of child abuse, prostitution, and guru worship within New Vrindivan carried to the extreme. Another source, a 1988 Rolling Stone piece, "Dial 'Om' for Murder", told a similar tale, as did John Hubner and Lindsay Gruson in their book, Monkey on a Stick.

   In Chaitanya's days, there was a basic sense of morality expected when one approached a teacher. And, as mentioned, while Chaitanya had seemingly converted from jnani to Krishna devotee, his teaching was not that of slavish or immature devotion. For what exactly was the message of Krishna in the famous Bhagavad-Gita? We find two apparently different teachings, for different levels of intellectual development: one of yoga, especially what would come to be known as raja yoga (the view espoused by Paramhansa Yogananda in his interpretation of the Gita), and the other gnana, or gnana yoga, or simply the "secret" Yoga, to which, according to V.S. Iyer, Chapter Four especially was dedicated.

   Krishna states in the often-quoted Chapters VIII and X:

   ""All the gates of the body restrained, the mind confined within the heart, one's life force fixed in the head, established in concentration by yoga." (10)

   "He who utters the sacred syllable Om, which is Brahman, remembering Me as he departs, giving up his body, he goes to the highest goal. he who does so, at the time of his departure, with a steady mind, devotion, and strength of yoga and setting well his life-force in the center of the eyebrows, he attains to this Supreme Divine Person." (11)

   "I, O Gudakesa (Arjuna), am the Self seated in the hearts of all creatures. I am the beginning, the middle and the very end of all beings." (12)

   The first two of the above quotes portray the highest goal for the ego-soul and most auspicious orientation to one's physical death for one so identified. They give the raja, kriya, or patanjali yoga side of the Gita. The third quote reveals the one Overself present in all beings. Chapter Four gives the more philosophical, less religious and mystical, orientation. Vedantist V.S. Iyer considered the the works of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, from whose Gita the above quotes were taken, to have been more of a religionist than a philosopher, and missed the highest message of Lord Krishna, that "Buddhi (Reason or discrimination) was the way to Him." He writes:

   "In Chapter IV, v.2 Krishna confesses that the oldest wisdom of India (our true Advaita philosophy) has been lost: people misinterpret and falsify it today as they did then. It is not yoga but philosophic truth. But nobody knows it. The teachers of philosophy and leaders of mysticism or religion do not want to inquire into truth and have no time for it."

   "In Chapter IV where Krishna says, "This yoga has been lost for ages" the word yoga refers to Gnana yoga, not other yogas: the force of the word this is to point this out. Krishna describes some of the other yogas, but devotes this chapter separately to Gnana yoga. So you see that even in those ancient days people did not care for Advaita; they wanted religion, hence Gnana got lost. That is why Krishna calls it "the supreme secret." Krishna points out that the yogi must see "Brahman in action."

   "In Chapter IV: "He who achieves perfection in Yoga finds me in time." This means that after his yoga is finished, he begins inquiry into ultimate truth and in due course this inquiry produces realization of the universal spirit as the result."

   "Krishna points out, "the foolish regard me as the unmanifested coming into manifestation." Here the word 'foolish" means people of small intelligence. Such people follow orthodox religion and believe that the world was created by God. But how do they know that he did so? All religions which begin with "God created the world," are fit only for children...In the Gita it says, "Though you see me in various forms, when you know the truth you know that I am the All."


   There is little doubt that the scope of the Gita encompasses all yogas: karma (telling Arjuna it was his dharma to fight), bhakti ("turn to me"), raja ("fixing ones life force in the head"), and gnana ("few know me in Truth"). Iyer says that after granting a Arjuna the stupendous and terrifying Cosmic Vision, and returning him to his normal state Krishna said, "Now I will teach you." Teach what? - according to Iyer, the higher teachings of gnana, advaita or philosophy, beyond religion and mysticism, the successful pursuit of which will grant one universal vision and sympathy for all creatures. The man of knowledge, unconcerned with his personal salvation, is then free to work in the world for the good of the whole. For Iyer, this shows that gnana, not spiritual experiences - even great ones like the overwhelming savikalpa samadhi shown to Arjuna - was the essential message of the Gita. He continues:

   "Chapter 6 deals with meditation, verse 11 and 12. It says "Yoga is for purification." This means it is not for truth but discipline. Chapter 5 deals with renunciation. The Gita says throughout the book, not to rely on Yoga, but to rely on Buddhi (discrimination between real and unreal)."

   "Chapter X v.10 God will never give you final liberation. His best reward to His devotees is Buddhi --Yoga, i.e., discriminative intelligence. When you have first rate intelligence of this sort, only then, says Krishna, can you come to Me."

   "Chapter XVIII: 73: says that until Gnan dawns, there must be doubts. Doubt is good because it means that you are thinking. Doubts must come but they do so only after you have had sufficient disappointments in life. Such disappointments cannot arise to children, owing to lack of experience, but to adults who have tried one thing or other to get satisfaction or truth."

   "Chapter II: v.63 shows that however perfectly you practice yoga, unless you add sharp Reason - Buddhi - you cannot get Gnan. This verse plainly says that Brahman is grasped by Buddhi....Buddhi is that which distinguished truth from falsehood."
(13)

   "To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I grant the concentration of understanding by which they come unto Me. Out of compassion for those same ones, remaining within My own true state, I destroy the darkness born of ignorance by the shining lamp of wisdom." (14)


   One can see that this understanding is a far cry from chanting on a street corner selling flowers for the guru or working oneself into a self-hypnotized emotional frenzy in the name of religious devotion - and even beyond ordinary yoga and mysticism. Krishna called for the exercise of the highest part of the mind, that which distinguishes the real from the unreal. "Through Buddhi one comes to Me (Atman)," remains the highest, if not the most beloved, teaching of the Gita. It is by nature only for the few, however, while bhakti is for the many. The enduring legacy of Sri Chaintanya is the yearning of the soul for its divine spouse. Whether the lila of Vrindivan ever really took place is not so important. As Sri Ramakrishna used to sing: ‘Go seek Vrindivan in your heart.’ What is to be remembered is the intense longing of Radha for Krishna. That is what takes one to the highest. As Ramana Maharshi once said, “If the longing is there, realization will be forced on you whether you want it or not.”

For more biographical detail, please click here. Also see this Wikipedia entry.

Click here for the complete on-line Chaintanya Chairamrita.

1. Swami Lokeswarananda, The Way to God As Taught by Sri Ramakrishna (Calcutta, India: The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1992), p.
2. Prabat Mukherje, History of the Chaitanya Faith in Orissa, p.
3. Ramalingar (1823-1873), a contemporary of Sri Ramakrishna, demonstrated many signs of bodily transfiguration by spiritual illumination while alive. At the age of fifty-three, dismayed that he could not find any serious disciples, but only those fascinated with miracles, Ramalingar "closed up shop": He entered his room, locked the door, sealed all of the windows and disappeared, never to be seen again. He completed the last of his literary works, a poem presaging this awesome event, one hour before. Ramalingar predicted the formation of the Theosophical Society, saying that a Russian (Madame Blavatsky) and an American (Henry Steel Olcott) would come to India and start a movement for universal brotherhood. The Society was formed in New York in 1875 and permanent headquarters were established in India in 1882.
3a. Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, Rainbow Body: The Life and Realization of a Tibetan Yogin, Togden Ugyen Tendzin, trans, ed., and annotated by Adriano Clemente (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2012), p. ix, 84
4. Godman, David, The Power of the Presence, Part Two (Boulder, CO: Avadhuta Foundation) p. 115
5. see Weekly World News, Jan. 17, 1989: "Girl Bursts Into Flames - In Shower"
6. I AM THAT, p. 432-433
7. Swami Lokeswarananda, op. cit., p. 275
8. Ibid, p. 278
9. Ibid, p. 260
10. S. Radhakrishnan, trans., The Bhagavad-Gita (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), p. 231, VIII:12
11. Ibid, p. 231-232, VIII:13, 10
12. Ibid, p. 262, X:20
13. V.S. Iyer, Commentaries, Vol. 1, p. 335-341
14. Radhakrishnan, p. cit., p. 259, X:10-11