A saint, a reformer, an avatar of Lord Krishna—Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533) is perceived as all these and many more. In this book on Chaitanya, Amiya P. Sen focuses on the discourses surrounding the mystic’s life, which ended rather mysteriously at the age of 48.
Written in a lucid manner and for a wider audience, this book is a fresh attempt to historically reconstruct Chaitanya’s life and times in Bengal and Odisha, as well as Vrindavan, the key centre of medieval Vaishnavism in north India. This work critically evaluates how Chaitanya has been understood contemporaneously and posthumously, particularly as an icon in colonial Bengal. Addressing an important gap in scholarship, which hitherto concentrated on religious and philosophical discourses, Sen offers a full-length biographical account of Nimai or Gaur by drawing on a wide range of sources in English and Bengali. He also argues against the belief that Chaitanya is the sole proponent of Vaishnava bhakti in Bengal, choosing to situate him in the wider devotional cultures of the region.
Amiya P. Sen is a historian, author, and academician with a special interest in the intellectual and cultural history of colonial Bengal.
This work will please neither the pious Vaishnava nor the probing scholar. In the first case, it might be set aside for a palpable lack of faith; in the second, for not employing a rigorously scholastic apparatus. I have deliberately refrained from using copious notes and citations, which, I now realize, would have added more volume than weight. This work is essentially a story that a historian has narrated to himself, a story that sustains itself largely through an intellectual interest in a life that was quite extraordinary in its public appeal if not also in personal achievements.
All through my writing career I have tried to alternate between serious academic writing, with its burden of methodological rigour and political correctness, and the not so serious yet reflexive works which, thankfully, do not necessarily have to carry that burden. The first is aspirational: writing with an eye on my own intellectual growth; the second I produce for the sheer joy of writing. It is reassuring to know that given all my professional limitations, I have so far been capable of producing both with some regularity.
I have approached this work with some caution and deference. My first worry has been about working on a historical period with which I have never been sufficiently familiar, either in terms of relevant sources or even a general grounding in the subject. I cannot claim to have effectively overcome such limitations at any stage of writing this book and yet, what inspired me, kept my interest alive, and helped overcome most of my inhibitions was the very intensity and grandeur of the tradition that I had chosen to study. The delicateness of feeling and imagination in Vaishnava songs and poetry or the stirrings of deep faith and passion that I have detected in both common people and better known practitioners have moved me considerably. At some level, this study of Chaitanya and the Vaishnava tradition has also been an intensely personal journey that meandered through memory, affect, and nostalgia, rediscovering and reaffirming certain cultural roots that had languished and withered over time through sheer neglect and disinterestedness.
My interest in Bengal Vaishnavism was first aroused in the early 1990s upon reading a book that had been officially banned by the government of West Bengal following considerable public pressure. In the early 1990s though, abruptly withdrawing books from circulation was not as common or as hastily performed as has been the practice in recent times. All the same, but for the fact that I was at the time located in Oxford, I might never have had the opportunity to lay my hands on a book that had dared to put in print only inferences drawn from relevant sources. I remain grateful to the late Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri who, at the time, had very graciously gifted me a copy of the book. Having re-read the book more recently, I could muster only empathy for the hapless author for it would seem as though contemporary authors and publishers have very adroitly and effectively mastered the art of circumventing such publishing disasters. Whereas the book that faced public censure had only hinted at certain scandalous ‘misdeeds allegedly committed by Chaitanya’s close companion Nityananda, a work published as recently as 2013 and which casts doubt on the ancestry of Chaitanya himself, has escaped public attention altogether, simply by locating this within the realm of fiction!
Some scholars and colleagues, I fear, would object to my claims of a discernible movement of Vaishnava revival’ occurring in colonial Bengal. For one, they might consider the term ‘revival’ itself being loaded and problematic. On my part though, I would prefer to set aside this controversy for now and instead draw greater attention to the fact that even in a provincial culture deeply permeated by Sakti worship and Tantra, there really has not come about a comparable movement among Saktas. In terms of the influence that it has cast over the literary and cultural world of the Hindu Bengali, Vaishnava devotional culture—both in pre-modern and modern Bengal—appears to be truly ubiquitous. However, having said that, I would prefer that this culture be taken for what it truly was: many-layered, complexly structured, and polygynous. In substance, I have argued that contrary to commonplace beliefs, Gaudiya Vaishnavism or the religion associated with the life and work of Chaitanya and his close followers is not quintessential Vaishnavism in Bengal but merely the dominant one.
This work does not claim to be a history of Bengal Vaishnavism, far less of Bengali Vaishnavism. I would strongly contest the view that the expressions ‘Bengal Vaishnavism and ‘Bengali Vaishnavism’ could be used interchangeably. In my understanding, the former represents only one of the several Vaishnava sub-schools located within the larger collective we may reasonably identify as ‘Bengali Vaishnavism. Midway through writing my manuscript, it also dawned upon me that I was fast veering towards writing a general history of Vaishnavism in Bengal, which was far from my intentions. I do hope that I have suitably corrected myself. My concern consistently has been with Chaitanya as a biographical and religious subject on whom no critical account has been produced in a long time, at least not in the English language. Given also the fact that this work was intended to be a biography, I have refrained from engaging in any depth or detail with the intricate theology, ritual works, or the literary productions of Gaudiya Vaishnavas, the bulk of which, in any case, appeared well after the passing away of Chaitanya. This work does not also go into the theoretical aspects of bhakti, which many scholars have earlier attempted quite admirably. On the whole, I write from the perspective of a historian and not as a scholar of religious studies.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
Item Code: NAR964 Author: Amiya P. Sen Cover: HARDCOVER Edition: 2019 Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi ISBN: 9780199493838 Language: English Size: 8.50 X 5.50 inch Pages: 226 Other Details: Weight of the Book: 0.4 Kg