Is Jiva Gosvami’s philosophy the same as Sri Caitanya’s?
Dina Dayala dasa (Dario Knez)
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Jiva Gosvami (1513-1598) is the youngest of the six Gosvamis of Vrindavana[i] who are honoured as genuine representatives of the teachings and faith of Caitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534). All of them, except Jiva Gosvami, were personally inspired, instructed or commissioned by Caitanya. (Kapoor, 1984, 54). It seems that Jiva did not have the privilege to associate with and learn from Caitanya; in 1535, at the time he joined Vrindavana’s group, Caitanya had already left the world. At the same time, Jiva was fortunate to be trained by the two Gosvamis’ leaders, his uncles, Sanatana (1488-1558) and Rupa (1489-1564). From Rupa he received initiation.
Speaking about Jiva, Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the present-day most influential Gaudiya-Vaisnava organisation, ISKCON, said: “The Vaisnavas are by far the greatest philosophers in the world, and the greatest among them was Srila Jiva Gosvami.” (Bhaktivedanta, 1983, 354). Jiva is not only praised amongst the followers; acknowledging his greatness, Benares Hindu University dedicates an entire department to the study of his works.
Jiva Gosvami’s importance and role in the beginning days of the Gaudiya–Vaisnavas movement cannot be underestimated. As a leader of the first generation of devotees after Caitanya, he finalized the organisation of and systematized the philosophy of the young Gaudiyas movement. S. K. De writes: “Jiva became the highest court of appeal in doctrinal matters as long as he lived.”[ii] For that purpose, Jiva was exceptionally prolific; he wrote about four hundred thousands Sanskrit verses, which is four times more than the numbers contained in the world’s biggest epic Mahabharata. His six treatises on Srimad-Bhagavatam, called Sat-sandarbhas are certainly one of his most important works and methodically present the whole of Caitanya’s philosophy.
Although Jiva is widely honoured for this philosophical contribution, still some scholars have strong reservations about the validity of his presentation of Caitanya’s doctrine in Sat-sandarbhas. Stuart Elkman grounded his doubts about a correspondence between Caitanya and Jiva on that of Sridhara Svami (1378-1414), called Bhavartha-dipika, the oldest complete Bhagavatam comment. Elkman’s objection is that Jiva’s Sandarbhas follow Sridhara as much as he has to:
When we examine the contents of this work, however, it becomes clear that Jiva was not nearly as happy with Sridhara’s commentary as was Caitanya, and it seems likely that Jiva’s claim to follow Sridhara represents more a concession to Caitanya’s beliefs than a personal preference on his own part. (Elkman, 1986, 180).
Elkman’s suspicion that Jiva’s misunderstood Caitanya is grounded on the hypothesis that Caitanya’s admiration for Sridhara’s is also an indication of his own Advaitic tendencies. On the other side, Jiva’s use of Sridhara’s commentaries “on only the most minor points” and “ignoring all of his Advaitic interpretations” constitute an argument that Jiva ultimately does not follow Caitanya. (Elkman, 1986, 180).
This paper starts to examine Jiva’s faithfulness and the dynamic of his connection to Caitanya’s teachings based on their individual relationships towards Sridhara Svami, an ardent follower of Sankara’s (788-820) Advaitic school. Since it looks like Sridhara is closely connected to both Jiva and Caitanya, clarification of Sridhara’s position will give a more precise answer to the question “Is Jiva Gosvami’s philosophy the same as Sri Caitanya’s?”
Svami is the teacher of all
Since Caitanya did not produce any writings except a series of verses known as Sri Siksastaka, for more details on his life and philosophical doctrine we rely on the biographies about him. Although there are several, it is widely accepted that Krsnadasa Kaviraja’s Caitanya-caritamrta, finished in 1581, is the most popular and offer the most authoritative insight on Caitanya’s life and teachings.
Caitanya-caritamrta is also 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 Bhagavatam commentary wherein he apparently refutes Sridhara’s explanations as inconsistent Caitanya become very displeased:
You have dared criticize Sridhara Svami, and you have begun your own commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam, not accepting his authority. That is your false pride. Sridhara Svami is the spiritual master of the entire world because by his mercy we can understand Srimad-Bhagavatam. I therefore accept him as a spiritual master. Whatever you might write due to false pride, trying to surpass Sridhara Svami, would carry a contrary purport. Therefore no one would pay attention to it. One who comments on Srimad-Bhagavatam following in the footsteps of Sridhara Svami will be honored and accepted by everyone. Put forth your explanation of Srimad-Bhagavatam following in the footsteps of Sridhara Svami. (Bhaktivedanta, 1975, 63).
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 what Sankara stood for. This makes us wonder even more why Caitanya took a position of loyalty to Sridhara.
Krsna-bhakti is the only criteria
Although Caitanya’s extolment of Sridhara can reflect his actual beliefs, some suggest (Ek, 2004), that it 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’ beliefs. 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’s Bhavartha-dipika is the best choice.
There are opinions that the highest admiration for Sridhara is natural and expected because of Caitanya’s connection to his sannyasa guru Kesava Bharati who belonged to the Sankara sampradaya. Although Krsnadas, in Caitanya-caritamrta, is trying to underestimate that connection, this dialogue with Vallabha reveals the truth. (Elkman, 1986, 182).
Caitanya’s Advaitic connection had further meaning. The truth is that only Advaitin renunciants were highly respected in society. As one of them, Caitanya was able to convert even those who were off the from path of bhakti on account of their own ignorance and self-conceit. It is proved in the cases of a famous logician Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya and the most prominent Advaitin sannyasi from Varanasi, Prakasananda Sarasvati. (Kapoor, 1994, 51). Caitanya directly speaks about his own sannyasa mission:
I shall accept the sannyasa order of life, for thus people will offer me their obeisances, thinking of me as a member of the renounced order. Offering obeisances will relieve them of all the reactions to their offenses. Then, by my grace, devotional service [bhakti] will awaken in their pure hearts. (Bhaktivedanta, 1986, 264).
From all this we conclude that Sridhara’s Advaitic background is not at all an issue for Caitanya, who also has a formal Sankara’s connection. As Krsna in Bhagavad-gita states that He accepts someone’s offering in love and devotion, Caitanya as His devotee has the same criteria. Since Sridhara’s commentaries are undoubtedly devotional, as will be explained in the following paragraphs, Caitanya’s declaration of Sridhara’s glory means approval of his devotion.
Sridhara Svami as devotee
Caitanya’s great esteem for Sridhara clearly arises out of his acknowledgement of the importance of bhakti and sentimental feelings for Visnu (Krsna) and his expansions. (Brzezinski, 2004). Explaining the Bhagavata verse (3.15.43), where in the four Kumaras left the impersonal path by turning into Vaisnava devotees simply by smelling the leaves offered to Visnu, Sridhara confirms the absolute superiority of devotional service to the Lord:
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 (padaravinda-kinjalka) of the Personality of Godhead (tasya) entered the nostrils (sva-vivarena) 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 (aksara-jusam).” The change of body experienced by the four Kumaras was the ecstatic symptom of hairs on the body standing up, and the change of mind they experienced was intense happiness in the mind. (Bhagavata-sandarbha, 27).
In another place Sridhara shows devotional feelings for visnu-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 Upanisads (upanisad-drsam).” (Bhagavata-sandarbha, 55).
Of course, not all his Bhagavata commentaries are devotional; as a formal Advaitin Sridhara he was from time to time writing according to strict Sankara teachings. Referring to those tendencies, Baladeva Vidyabhusana, author of Gaudiyas’ commentary on Vedanta-sutra said: “…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 comments on Srimad-Bhagavatam but if he does not do that then the impersonalists will not be attracted and they will not read his commentaries.
Position of Bhavartha-dipika
One of the key elements in understanding Sridhara’s real position is historical relationship between his Bhavartha-dipika and Bhagavata Purana. 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, 1994, 46).
We have to know that Sridhara’s lack of emphasis on maya as ignorance that comes from superimposition of the material world on Brahman, and his emphasis on bhakti reflect a four-century gap between Sankara’s teaching and him, during which time the Advaitins’ teaching become more devotionally tinged. (Sheridan, 1994, 49). Another consideration is the awareness that Bhavartha-dipika is also a much later text then the original Bhagavata. Those two considerations help us to see Bhagavata in more holistic light, without necessarily an Advaitic prejudice. Because of historical misconceptions Bhagavata Purana is not fared well nor been adequately contextualized in its historical setting:
Ultimately, the Bhagavata conceives of and envisions God as a distinct supreme being in a preeminetly personal form. At the same time, however, it promotes God’s identity with, and close connection to, the individual self and universe. Therefore, the Bhagavata merges dualistic and theistic philosophy with a unique form of “Advaitic Vedanta”. (Sheridan 1994, 45).
According to Sheridan modern scholarship is 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. This is well presented in his commentary on 1.7.6 of the Bhagavata:
The learned (Vyasa) composed the satvatasamhita for people who do not know bhaktiyoga for Adhoksaja, which directly removes unwanted things.[Sridhara’s commentary:] It is stated: Isvara, who possessed all saktis, who knows everything, who has an eternally manifest, supremely blissful form (svarupa), controls maya by his knowledge-sakti. (Gupta, 2005, 74).
The explanation of the Lord who possesses all energies, who has an eternal form, and who controls illusion is the concept also used by Gaudiyas and opposed to Sankara’s understanding of the Isvara’s illusion. B.N.K. Sharma writes: “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, 1994, 49).
Generally, reading Sridhara through Sankara’s Advaitic affiliation creates the impression that the Bhagavata is an eclectic and clumsy synthesis of Advaita and Visnu theism. That misunderstanding also presents the Vaisnavas’ writings on the Bhagavata as sectarian.
Jiva and the Svami
Although in the Sat-sandarbhas Jiva quotes the traditional Vaisnava sources as Ramanuja and Madhva, he mostly quotes Sridhara’s Bhavartha-dipika. Jiva relies on Sridhara’s writing so much that Sridhara’s commentaries are introduced simply by the words “tika ca”: “and the commentary says”. (Gupta, 2005, 69). Jiva is not hiding that the main reference in his writing is Sridhara:
I salute the venerable Sridhara, the sole guardian of bhakti. This commentary, bearing the name Krama-sandarbha, should be understood to function as clarifying what was not clearly stated by Svamin, or mentioning what was occasionally left unsaid. (Sheridan, 1994, 45).
Jiva perceives Sridhara as a Vaisnava who mixed in Advaitic ideas for the benefits of members of his own sampradaya. But if some of those ideas do not conforming to a strict Vaisnava standpoint, Jiva simply does not use them or he adds new ones. Commenting on text 2.2.35 of the Bhagavatam Jiva is consistent in using with Sridhara’s explanations and at the same time adding more Gaudiya ideas:
By psychical objects (drsyair) such as the intelligence, by his own self (svatmana), by characteristic (laksanair), and by arguments that lead one to make inferences, Bhagavan Hari perceived in all beings as the seer. (Gupta, 2005, 77).
This verse is an answer to the question how one can know Lord (Bhagavan). According to Sridhara Svami antaryami or inner controller who is present in all living entities, can be inferred by logical tools from those things what are seen (physical objects). Jiva follows Sridhara’s argumentation by adding soul (jiva) and Bhagavan. Since there are two sva-atmanas in the body (individual and supreme), Jiva distinguishes them. With the adding of Bhagavan, Jiva ensures that in the Gaudiyas’ doctrines one aspect of God (Bhagavan) is always above any connection to this world. (Gupta, 2005, 78-9).
Jiva and Caitanya
Considering the relationship between Jiva and Caitanya, Elkman (1986, 180) detects that “Jiva nowhere claims to be presenting either the teachings or views of Caitanya”. De is also not so confident of Jiva’s representation of Caitanya’s own views because “Jiva was the youngest of the Gosvamins, who never came in contact with Sri Caitanya.” (Kapoor, 1994, 54). Finally, there is even a concern which raises the question of Jiva’s integrity in writing and commenting on the basis of Bhagavatam:
Thus, considering the harsh criticism which Caitanya levelled against Vallabha for contradicting Sridhara’s commentary and interpreting Bhagavata from his own point of view, one may legitimately wonder whether Caitanya would have been any more pleased with Jiva’s nominal regard for Sridhara and his original interpretations of the Bhagavata. (Elkman, 1986, 181).
Although all interesting observations, these remarks should be accepted from the external platform only. Jiva never states that the Sandarbhas’ are his own works. He pays homage to Gopala Bhatta Gosvami, another of Caitanya’s associates, as the original author and presents himself as one who rewrites and puts in order the whole work. Concluding Tattva-sandarbha Jiva states that it was written according to the instructions of his teachers, Rupa and Sanatana Gosvami. (Tattva-sandarbha, 63). By showing allegiance to his authorities, he shows his meekness and humility, two of the most important Vaisnava qualities. All this indicates in Jiva’s complete validity in representation of Caitanya’s teachings.
In Sat-sandarbhas Jiva wants to prove that Srimad-Bhagavatam is the purest and the supreme Vedic scripture and Caitanya’s philosophy is explained in Bhagavata. The conclusion is that Caitanya’s philosophy is the topmost.
Some scholars doubt Jiva’s authenticity because of his too systematic and well-defined presentation of Caitanya’s philosophy. Caitanya’s life was “continuous and absorbing devotional ecstasies… [which] throw considerable doubt upon his personal responsibility in such scholastic pursuit.”[iii] This argument can be rejected as false and without a basis in any true evidence. Accepting Caitanya’s devotional ecstasies as real and the philosophy around him as accidental is an argument based on false understanding. Is it possible that Caitanya is surrounded with such powerful personalities while he as their teacher is disconnected from the world surrounding him? As the Gosvamis’ writings show their intellectual greatness, we can just imagine the greatness of their source of inspiration, Caitanya.
The incident between Caitanya and Vallabha Bhatta depicted in Caitanya-caritamrta only left much speculation about Caitanya’s real teachings. Although in all other biographies Caitanya is presented as harsh, almost inimical towards Advaitins, this episode demonstrates Caitanya’s genuine admiration for Sridhara Svami, Sankara’s committed follower.
Neither Caitanya’s Advaitin sannyasa connection, nor the advantage for spreading his own teachings were the real motives for Caitanya’s glorification of Sridhara Svami. The ultimate reason for his glorification is the devotion for Krsna that flows from Sridhara’s writings on Srimad-Bhagavatam. Caitanya loves Sridhara because he sees him as a great Vaisnava who possesses, in essence, Krsna-bhakti.
On the other hand, Sridhara’s position as the first Bhagavatam commentator is misunderstood by most twentieth century scholars. Sridhara should perceive more in the historical context of the fourteenth century when the Advaitic sampradaya became strongly influenced by bhakti. At the same time the original Srimad-Bhagavatam was intended to be without Advaitic influences. (Sheridan, 1994, 46).
It is also concluded that “Jiva’s claim to follow Sridhara represents more a concession to Caitanya’s beliefs than a personal preference on his own part” is not the truth. (Elkman, 1986, 180). Sridhara is for Jiva the “guardian of bhakti” and Jiva writes Sat-sandarbhas mainly relying on Sridhara’s commentaries.
From the above it can be concluded that Jiva’s writings in his Sat-sandarbhas are aligned with Caitanya’s teachings.
——————————————————————————–[i] Their names are Rupa Gosvami, Sanatana Gosvami, Raghunatha Bhatta Gosvami, Raghunatha dasa Gosvami, Gopal Bhatta Gosvami and Jiva Gosvami. [ii] De, S.K. (1961). Early history of the Vaisnava Faith and Movement in Bengal, Calcutta, p150 Quoted in Elkman (1986, 23). [iii] De, S.K. (1961). Early history of the Vaisnava Faith and Movement in Bengal, Calcutta, p85 Quoted in Kapoor (1986, 23).
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