Essence of Caitanya’s teaching

Intersecting Paths: Exploring the Confluence of Bhakti and Advaita in Caitanya’s Spiritual Journey

Since we do not find any Caitanya’s (1486-1533) personal writings except eight Siksastaka verses, for more details on his philosophical doctrine we rely on the biographies about him. Although six full biographies were previously written, it is accepted that Krishnadasa Kaviraja’s (1496-?) Caitanya-caritamrta from 1581 offers the most authoritative insights on Caitanya’s life and teachings. This biography is written as the complement to the earlier which systematizes and extends previous beliefs on Caitanya. Krishnadasa profusely quotes the vast number of scriptures that makes his arguments very authoritative and Caitanya-caritamrta as a classic amongst the Caitanya’s biographies. Glorifying Krishnadasa’s work, Dimock (1999, 82) says that it is ‘literally and figuratively the final word in shaping the sacred image of Caitanya’. 

Although accepted as the most authoritative biography, still some parts of Caitanya-caritamrta are puzzling not only for scholars, but also for the religious practitioners (Elkman, 1986, 123). Since Caitanya’s teachings and lineage is world-widely accepted as a part of Madhva’s sampradaya (tradition or disciplic succession) and since Madhva’s dvaitavada doctrine is always in the strongest opposition to Sankara’s advaita school, it is the reason for expecting that Caitanya behave like a dedicated Madhva’s follower. It is interesting that in the Caitanya-caritamrta we can read just the opposite; Caitanya took sannyasa into the Advaitin lineage and he excitedly glorified Sridhar Swami, the famous Advaitin in Sankara’s line, and in interaction with the leader of Madhva’s tradition, he used only sharp words. 

This paper explores Sridhar Swami’s real historical position and Caitanya’s relation towards him. Additionally, I am trying to find the reasons for Caitanya’s taking sannyasa into Sankara’s lineage. By doing so I hope to find the key guiding principle of Caitanya’s teachings, which also gives the answer on his sometimes ‘strange’ behaviour even towards his own background.

Sridhara Svami’s devotion

Caitanya-caritamrta is the only biography that retells the incident wherein Caitanya directly speaks about Sridhara Svami, a devoted Advaitin and Sankara’s follower. When a Vaisnava named Vallabha Bhatta approached Caitanya with a new Bhagavata commentary, wherein he refutes Sridhara’s Bhavartha-dipika explanations as inconsistent, Caitanya become very displeased:

You are a pandita and a great bhagavata. Wherever these two qualities are, there is no mountain of pride. You produced your own commentary, scorning that of Sridhara Svami; you hold such pride that [you say] ‘I do not honor Sridhara Svami.’ We know the Bhagavata through the grace of Sridhara Svami; Sridhara Svami is the guru of the world, and I honor him as guru. Whoever will shame Sridhara out of pride, writes foolishness, and people will not respect him. But who writes following Sridhara, all the people accept him and respect him. So follow Sridhara in explaining the Bhagavata; leave your pride and worship Krishna-Bhagavan (Dimock, 1999, 878).

These words raise the question how is it possible that Caitanya admired Sridhara so much, though he was a follower of Sankara’s Advaita school? Until that period two famous Vaisnava commentaries already existed: Ramanuja (1017-1137) and Madhva (1238-1317) practically challenged everything that Sankara stood for. This makes us wonder even more why Caitanya took position of such a strong loyalty to Sridhara Svami.


One of the key elements in understanding Sridhara’s real position is the historical relationship between Bhavartha-dipika, his main work and commentary on the Bhagavata and Bhagavata Purana, Caitanya’s most favourite scripture. Sridhara’s interpretations are synonymous with the Bhagavata’s, as proven by a traditional saying: “Vyasa knows, Suka knows; whether the king (Pariksit) knows or not, Sridhara knows everything, because of the blessings of the Man-lion god” (Sheridan, 1996, 46).

According to Sheridan (1996, 49), modern scholarship is entirely mistaken by compounding Sridhara Svami’s interpretations with Sankara’s teachings. Although Sridhara was initiated in Sankara’s lineage, his teachings emphasise bhakti and the Lord’s transcendence and do not give importance to Sankara’s views on maya, as was done by his great predecessor. B.N.K. Sharma confirms: “Sridhara is frankly dualistic in his interpretations, even where monistic one could be thought of (…). He is even anti-monistic at times.” As such, Bhavartha-dipika caused a great effect amongst the Advaitins of his time (Sheridan, 1996, 49). Sridhara’s position as the first Bhagavatam commentator is misunderstood by most twentieth-century scholars. Sridhara should be perceived more in the historical context of the fourteenth century when the Advaitic sampradaya became strongly influenced by bhakti (Sheridan, 1994, 46). 

Importance of bhakti

One reason for Caitanya’s extolment of Sridhara certainly could have been an intelligent technique for spreading his own teachings. Already during Caitanya’s life Sridhara had the status of an absolute philosophical authority all around India, and affiliation with him naturally gave authority to the Gaudiyas’ teachings in Krishna’s supreme position. If someone seeks approval for faith, first what should be looked at is a reference to some older source that is already unreservedly accepted. Older referencing material certainly lends more authority and Sridhara Swami is the best choice.

Certainly a better argument of Caitanya’s great esteem for Sridhara Svami clearly arises out of Sridhara’s acknowledgement of the importance of bhakti and sentimental feelings for Vishnu (Krishna) and his expansions (Brzezinski, 2004). Explaining reasons why four Kumaras left the impersonal path and turned into Vaisnava devotees simply by smelling the leaves offered to Vishnu, Sridhara confirms the unsurpassable position of devotional service:

The bliss of devotional service to the Lord is greater even than the bliss of directly seeing the Lord. This is described in this verse, where Lord Brahma says: “When the breeze (vayuh) carrying the aroma (makaranda) of tulasi leaves (tulasi) from the toes of the lotus feet (padaravindakinjalka) of the Personality of Godhead (tasya) entered the nostrils (svavivarena) of those sages, they experienced a change (sanksobham) both in body (tanvoh) and mind (citta), even though they were attached to the impersonal Brahman understanding (aksarajusam)” (Bhagavata-sandarbha, 27).

In another place Sridhara shows devotional feelings for vishnu-murtis, divine forms of the Lord: “The glory of these transcendental forms was not even to be touched (asprsta-bhuri-mahatmyah) by the jnanis engaged in studying the Upanishads (upanisad-drsam)” (Bhagavata-sandarbha, 55). Of course, not all Sridhara’s commentaries are devotionally tinged; as a formal Advaitin from time to time his writing is according to strict Sankara teachings. Referring to those tendencies, Baladeva Vidyabhusana, author of the Gaudiyas’ commentary on Vedanta-sutra, lucidly points that “the Advaitic statements of Sridhara are like meat on the end of a hook, meant to lure fish” (Elkman, 1986, 121). The purpose of using meat is not to feed, but to catch the fish. In the same way, Sridhara Svami’s purports are not meant for giving Advaitic interpretations but if he does not do that then the impersonalists will not be attracted and they will not read his commentaries and become devotees. 

Analysing Sridhara’s approach, it has to be concluded that he did the best he could from his position to bring his reader towards the path of devotion to Vishnu. Even officially accepted as an Advaitin, Sridhara Svami’s commentaries are very close to Vaishnava ideas. Finally, his recognition on quantitative distinction between God and the soul, which is contrary to Advaitin doctrine, brought him into a controversial position within Sankara’s community (Deadwyler, 1992, 140).

Acting for the Ultimate Benefit

In the one sense we can recognize Sridhara Svami as a Caitanya’s role model; whatever Caitanya is doing is for the sake of bringing the conditioned souls closer to the devotional path to Krishna. Living beings are eternal Krishna’s servants (jivera svarupa haya—krsnera nitya-dasa), and Caitanya’s mission is to reconnect them with Krishna by nama sankirtana, chanting his name. According to Krishnadas’s theological presentation, Caitanya is the highest truth; there is no supreme principle superior to Krishna as Caitanya. Actually, Caitanya is Krishna who came to establish simple process for self—realisation suitable for this age (Dimock, 1999, 150). For this essential goal, Caitanya is ready to go beyond almost all recognized exterior considerations. Still, since people in kali yuga, this age, are averse and indifferent to spiritual matters, Caitanya decided to present himself as  a sannyasi to whom they could bear at least some respect:

“Unless people accept Me they will all be destroyed.” Thus the merciful Lord accepted the sannyasa order. “If a person offers obeisances to Me, even due to accepting Me only as an ordinary sannyasi, his material distresses will diminish, and he will ultimately get liberation” (Bhaktivedanta, 1973, 163).

Despite the fact that Caitanya’s precious gift, Krishnabhakti or love for God, is completely independent (svatantra), which means that it can unconditionally appear in everyone’s heart; still for that is needed bhakti ajnata-sukrti, unknowingly performed devotional service. That pious devotional action is needed like a prerequisite impetus, which gives a pull to the further development of bhakti (Dhanudara, 2000, 52). Respect and honour which Caitanya will get amongst the people as a sannyasi would be their initial step towards Krishna. 

Caitanya’s Advaita Sannyasa

Considerations presented above resolve another Elkman’s (1986, 182) objection that Caitanya’s clear Advaitin tendencies are incorrigible through connection to his sannyasa guru Kesava Bharati who belongs to Sankara’s sampradaya. Steven Rosen (2007), one of the present day’s most popular Vaisnava writers, categorically rejects it, saying that ”no legitimate scholar claims that”. Still, even if we accept this as a suitable argument, Caitanya’s Advaitin connection had further meaning and reasons.

It is true that only advaitin renunciants in that time were highly respected in the Indian society. As one of them, Caitanya was able to approach and convert even those who were off from the path of bhakti on account of their own ignorance and self-conceit. Although Caitanya had a remarkable preaching success even before sannyasa, still some persisted in their attitude of scornful indifference towards the new-born bhakti movement: 

The impersonalists, fruitive workers, false logicians, blasphemers, nondevotees and lowest among the student community are very expert in avoiding the Krishna consciousness movement, and therefore the inundation of Krishna consciousness cannot touch them. Seeing that the Mayavadis [Advaitins] and others were fleeing, Lord Caitanya thought, “I wanted everyone to be immersed in this inundation of love of Godhead, but some of them have escaped. Therefore I shall devise a trick to drown them also.” Thus the Lord accepted the sannyasa order of life after full consideration (Bhaktivedanta, 1973, 22-23).

Before all, we cannot find any information that Kesava Bharati made any impact on Caitanya’s spiritual dispositions, either before or after the initiation ceremony. De (1986 ,82) suggests that he was chosen for sannyasa guru because he happened to be a well-known sannyasi near at hand. Being known as Kesava Bharati’s sannyasa disciple, to Caitanya it would have meant more influence and authority for spreading teachings about Krishna. 

It seems that this formality for Caitanya made little difference; he anyway never adhered to the formal or conventional modes of any typical ascetic order in later life (Chatterjee, 1984, 6). Still, we can not say that Caitanya was unaware of his sannyasa background. During the conversation with Ramananda Raya he said: “… I am sannyasi who is mayavadi; I do not know the truth about the bhakti. I float in mayavada” (Dimmock, 1999, 442). This playing with the words is the key of Caitanya’s role as an Advaitin sannyasi, in fact he is the one who taught others about Krishna bhakti. On account of his being known as an Advaitin sannyasi, he was successful in attracting their attention and converting them to the bhakti-path. It is proved in the cases of a famous logician in Jagganatha Puri, Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, and Prakasananda Sarasvati, the most prominent Advaitin sannyasi from Benares (Kapoor, 1994, 51).

Krishna Bhakti is Purusartha of Life

Struck with an eccentric sannyasi who ‘sentimentally’ sings Krishna’s name, the old scholar Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya’s wanted to protect Caitanya by teaching him the Vedanta philosophy. Caitanya accepted Sarvabhauma’s proposal as a service and sign of affection. Still, after seven days, Caitanya observed that the ultimate meaning of Vedanta was already known to him before, but Sarvabhauma’s explanations were covering it. According to Krishnadasa’s final outcome of this discussion was Sarvabhauma’s conversion and Caitanya’s establishment of superiority of Krishna-bhakti in philosophical terms: “Do not hamper with this explanation. Please take it from me that devotion to god (and not emancipation of the soul) remains the ultimate goal or ‘Purusartha’ of life” (Chatterjee, 1984, 7). Although always suspicious in his commentaries on accounts from Caitanya’s life, even De (1984, 90) admitted that Sarvabhauma founded something ‘real and arresting’ in the religious attitude of Caitanya worthy of his submitting to him as a disciple. The truth probably is that Sarvabhauma was won to a living interest in bhakti by the powerful appeal of Caitanya’s rapturous devotion and the charm of his personality (Kennedy, 1924, 34). Whatever it was, this was Caitanya’s first public Vaisnava interpretation of the Vedas. Conversion of Sarvabhauma who was one of the most noted scholars of his time brought a great fame to young sannyasi and his movement. 

Meeting with Prakasananda Sarasvati is similar incident to which Krishnadasa is giving high importance mentioned it twice in Caitanya-caritamrita and omitted by other biographies. Prakasananda Sarasvati is aware that “the great scholar, Sarvabhauma Bhatacarya has gone mad after Caitanya” and he promised that “Caitanya’s sentimentality will not be sold in Varanasi [Benares]” (Kenedy, 1924, 49). Still, after the meeting and practically the same discussion which occurs with Sarvabhauma Prakasananda’s attitude was completely changed. Even though he and his disciples never formally joined sankirtan movement they accept his way of thinking. In later Prakasananda’s book Vedanta-siddahanta-muktavali, he admitted that life of jackal in Vrindavan, supreme abode for Vaisnavas, is the more blessed and meaningful that any kind of moksa (liberation) (Chatterjee, 1984, 24). The debate with Prakasananda brought great fame to Caitanya that after gaining a reputation of such a great scholar none did dare to debate with him. 

It is important to observe that Caitanya in every other philosophical debate depicted in Caitanya-caritamrita tries to prove that bhakti to Bhagavan is the supreme end of human life, but also a means which includes other forms of worship. This Caitanya’s idea occupies the highest place in order of realisation and that idea gets further establishment in the light of the following verse of the Bhagavata is highly referred by Caitanya’s followers:

Bhakti towards Krishna remains to be the supreme end although people having their intelligence clouded by maya have spoken of the excellence of the ways of jnana, karma and yoga (Chatterjee, 1993, 108).

Since bhakti towards Krishna is the essence of Caitanya’s teaching, we can find many definitions of bhakti by later Caitanya’s followers. Rupa Goswami, one of the Caitanya’s main disciples, gives maybe the best definition saying that pure devotional service connotes whole-hearted service to Krishna for His satisfaction alone, without being in any way influenced by the desire for philosophical knowledge, karma, and while remaining disinclined to worldly affairs (Chatterjee, 1993, 108).


Confusion on Caitanya’s philosophical standing arises from the absence of direct Caitanya’s writing. To know more about Caitanya’s personal character, nature of his devotion, and essence of his philosophy, we rely mostly on biographies written by his later followers. Often those biographies have been written with the purpose of glorifying Caitanya, and therefore it is extremely difficult to point out anything as being the real philosophy of Caitanya (Surendranath, 1975, 384). The consequence is that some scholars are doubtful in real authenticity of those writings. 

Although in all other biographies Caitanya is presented as harsh and almost inimical towards the Advaitins, the incident with Vallabha Bhatta in regard to Sridhar Svami depicted in Caitanya-caritamrta left much speculation about Caitanya’s real teachings. Some hint that the opportunity for spreading his own teachings or common philosophical Advaitin background is the main reason for Sridhara’s veneration by Caitanya. 

Taking in concideration Sridhar’s devotional dimension, there is no doubt that Caitanya’s alignment with him is more than natural. Since Sridhara’s commentaries are undoubtedly devotional, Caitanya’s declaration of Sridhara’s glory means approval of his devotion. Caitanya loves Sridhara because he sees him as a great Vaisnava who possesses, in essence, Krishna-bhakti. As Krishna in Bhagavad-gita states that He accepts someone’s offering in love and devotion, Caitanya as His devotee has the same criteria. Caitanya is exclusively interested in bhakti, devotion towards Krishna, and from that stance it is not surprising that he is also giving critique to his own tradition criticizing unnamed Madhva’s followers from Udupi:

Those who follow karma and jnana are both devoid of bhakti; I see those two signs in your sampradaya. In all I see one good quality in your sampradaya: having considered vigraha as true, you have established it as Isvara (Dimock, 1999, 477-8).

Caitanya is purposely distancing himself from Madhva’s lineage, saying ‘your sampradaya’, communicating the same message he gave to Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya and Prakasananda Sarasvati: Krishna-bhakti cannot be developed by pursuing the path of fruitive activities or path of developing philosophical knowledge. Although part of Madhva’s sampradaya, Caitanya’s teachings and lineage is known as Gaudiya Vaisnavism. One of the meanings of word ‘Gaudiya’ is ‘sweetness’, which refers to loving relations towards Krishna. Adherents consider Gaudiya Vaisnavism the cap in the Madhva’s sampradaya, which brings sweetness, Krishna-bhakti, unknown before Caitanya’s time, which is ultimately the main principle of his teachings.


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Course name: Caitanya-Caritamrita

Date: 08.06.2007

Tutor: Kenneth R. Valpey (Krishna Ksetra dasa)

Essence of Caitanya’s teaching

(An analysis of Caitanya’s behaviour in the light of Advaitin influences on him)

Student: Dario Knez (Dina Dayala dasa)