The present work is an humble attempt at exhibiting the genesis and development of Bengal Vaisnavism focusing its distinctive features and abiding essentials in its historical perspective. Though an inalienable segment of mediaeval pan-Indian Bhakti movement, Bengal Vaisnavism is an area of fascinating study, unique in its articulation of Acintya-bheda-bhedavada, as a doctrine of Philosophy and Kanta-Prema as the summum bonum of human life, the only way to God realization thus establishing the superiority of Bhakti over Karma and Jnana. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is the fountain head and leading personality of this religious creed and movement which was, however, vitalised and replenished by a host of outstanding religious luminaries especially the six vrndavana Gosvamins who were interested in emotional enlightment and emancipation of mankind. This treatise presents in a lucid and engrossing manner all these aspects of Bhakti movement in Bengal upto its recent development in ISKCON. It will serve as a dependable manual of Bengal Vaisnavism.
Ranjit Kumar Acharjee (born 1935) retired as Reader in Philosophy, Ramakrishna Mahavidyalaya, a Govt. Degree Collage of North Tripura after serving this institution for thirty years with dedication and distinction. For more than twenty years, he had been contribution articles and papers on various topics of Philosophic and religious interests to several journals of India. His area of specialisation is Bengal Vaisnavism, Sri Aurobinda’s Philosophy, social Philosophy and Sirfism. Apart from this, he is an accomplished reviewer of numerous important books including doctoral dissertations which were published in the form of Reviews and Review-articles in Prabuddha Bharata, a monthly journal of Ramakrishna order, Kolkata. He was also elected member of the Senate of Tripura University for a term of four years. Sri Acharjee has not discontinued his academic pursuits even after his retirement from service.
Vaisnavism is a distinct religious faith within the multifaceted religious spectrum of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism, as it is popularly called. It is a form of Monotheism which advocates worship of a personal God in the image of Visnu, Rama, Krsna or in any-other form of his divine incarnation. Its genesis can be traced in the ancient scriptural texts, such as, the Vedas, the Puranas, the Mahavarata, Ramayana and Bhagavad-Gita and other important works of the great acaryas. It is not that Vaisnavism maintained a uniform appearance all through. As a matter of fact, it manifested itself in various forms and shades throughout the Indian sub- continent. Worship of Visnu is one of the forms of Vaisnavism, a prominant and well-recognised form of it
Etymological derivation suggests that Vaisnavism centres round Visnu. Visnu is one of the principal deities of Hinduism conceived as the supporter and protector of the universe. Worship of Visnu was prevalent in the Vedic age and he is still a dominent image of worship in the modern times. Though Visnu is respected and worshipped by the followers of Sanatana Dharma in general, there arose in course of time, some distinct religious sects worshipping Visnu alone. These exclusive worshippers of Visnu came to be known as Vaisnavas and their doctrine and cult as Vaisnavism, within the parameter of Sanataria Dharma. Visnu, as suggested earlier, is mentioned in most of the ancient scriptural texts with his multifarious attributies and activities. In most cases, he is mentioned along with his consort or Sakti, Laksmi. Some sects of Vatsnavas worship Visnu alone while others worship both of them jointly. Again, this deity Visnu is designated by different names by different devotees hailing from different regions of India. But one thing which is common to all of them is that they follow and practice the Bhakti-yoga, the path of devotion and pure love. (Prema-bhakti)
Prema-bhakti towards Visnu/ Ksnna is adequately portrayed and delineated in the Bhagavata Purana through the lila of Sri Krsna with his parents, friends, gopis and other devotees professing disinterested love and devotion. Sri Krsna of the Bhagavata Purana is said to be an incarnation of Visnu in human form with human qualities and sentiments though endowed with divinity. In course of time, Krsna became the deity of many Vaisnava devotees to whom Krsna with his human qualities and sentiments appeared to be more appealing and attractive. In course of time, Radha came to be recognised as the consort of Krsna to some sects of Krsna devotees who introduced worship of Krsna along with Radha the sakti of Krsna, Radha is an ideal devotee or lover of Krsna, who craves nothing for her disinterested love for Krsna. The divine, pure and supersensuous relation between Krsna and Radha is difficult to be comprehended by a man with human sensibilities. But for centuries,devotees went on worshipping Krsna and Radha as their icons even without fully realising the true significance of the superhuman relation between the two. A time came when corrupt minds began to bring down the divine love between Krsna and Radha to the mundane level and devalued the spiritual aspect of the Bhakti- cult of the true Vaisnavas.
Sri Caitanya incarnated to demonstrate and vitalise pure Bhakti cult of the Vaisnavas and revived the Vaisnava cult by the consorted endeavours and Sadhana of his associates and followers who led a life of purity and devotion untamed by sensuous cravings and desires. Sri Caitanya infused a new vigour of spirituality in this religious movement and enkindled a new life in it. Vaisnavism revived by Sri Caitanya and his followers is known as Gaudiya or Bengal Vaisnavism, a distinct form of Bhakti-yoga of the Vaisnava heritage exhibiting the dominent role played by Radha and Krsna.
Professor Ranjit Kumar Acharya has very aptly and scholarly dealt with Bengal Vaisnavism in its historical perspective and its contribution towards revival of the faith through the noble and luminous personality of Sri Caitanya, his six Goswami followers and other lay disciples. The author's elucidation has rendered the subject matter discussed in the present study really interesting to all the readers of the religious history of India. Influence of Bengal Vaisnavism on art, literature, social-religious and cultural life of Eastern India has also been discussed with scholarly insight and historical judgement. The book is mainly a collection of valuable articles published in different journals of international repute and highly appriciateed by the scholars. It is believed that this treatise will serve as a manual of Bengal Vaisnavism and it is hoped that casual readers, scholars and devotees alike will find it enlightening and rewarding.
Bengal Vaisnavism with its intricacies and ramifications presents an engrossing and facinating study which especially captivates the attention of the people of devotional temperament. It had been and still now an area of intensive study and research of the scholars and experts in this field. The Vaisnava Religion with its highly emotional content was a significant cult in Bengal during 14th & 15th centuries, an expression of the mediaval pan-Indian Bhakti movement. The belief that union with God can be achieved through love and devotion (Prema-bhakti) alone finds expression in the ancient Bhakti sutras advocating the importance of Bhakti-Marga. Bengal Vaisnavism is in the line of this trend though exhibiting some distinctive features of its own, one of which is Kantaprema, the highest form of devotion enabling 'the devotees to enjoy the sweetness of the Lord.
A vast and scholarly literature in different languages authored by competent scholars has been published concerning Vaisnavism and obviously necessity of an additional one might be questioned. This needs a little bit of explanation. Author's interest in Bengal Vaisnavism was first enkindled by Rev. Swami Bhajananandaji Maharaj, the then editor of Prabuddha Bharata, a monthly journal of the Ramakrishna order. He suggested and inspired the author to contribute articles on Vrndavana Gosvamins and this opened before him the gateway of the rich and variegated arena of Bengal Vaisnavism. The present treatise is the fruit of the study and enquiry of which eleven chapters had already been published in the journals in the form of independent articles. An attempt at accomodating these articles along with some others within the covers of a single volume was subsequently made in the hope that this enterprise might enable the readers to have a glimpse of the basic outline of what Bengal Vaisnavism is and stands for. It is not claimed that the present work has trodden on a new horizon hitherto unknown. Author's modest claim is that his discourse might reveal to the readers the basic rudiments of Bengal Vaisnavism which will again serve as a preparatory ground for those interested in further study and research in this rich religious tradition.
The book is divided in two parts -Part-I deals with the historical perspective of Bengal Vaisnavism whereas in Part-Il, life, thoughts and sadhana of the principal personalities, who enriched Vaisnava faith in Bengal by their valuable contributions, have been discussed with special care and tenderness. In the very first chapter, the genesis and historical development of Vaisnavism in India is treated, though it is by no means a comprehensive one Bengal Vaisnavism is undoubtedly a definite and distinct form of it. In the cultural history of mankind, it is noticed that social environment and some other allied factors account for the outflowering and vitality of any creed or movement. The socio-religious conditions of Bengal in Pre-Caitanya days and the contributions of medieval Bengal literature to the development of Caitanyaite Vaisnavism from the subject-matter of chapters 2 and 3 respectively of the book, Life of Caitanya, the leading figure of Vaisnava devotional movement of Bengal is unique as a perfect embodiment of devotional love, a shining example of Prema-bhakti. A sketchy account of the life of Caitanya along with dismal picture of Bengal Vaisnavism after his untimely death has been outlined in chapters 4 and 5. The cultic aspects of Bengal Vaisnavism which constitute its structural framework exhibiting its emotional content have been delineated in chapter 6 of the present discourse Six Vrndavana Gosvamins and other Vaisnava Saints, who nourished and replenished this faith and gave it a definite shape and form by their reflections and spiritual exercises have been brought into focus in Part- II. The philosophical foundation of Bengal Varsnavism had been raised by -Jiva Gosvamin, a gifted and versatile metaphysican of the sixteeth century and subsequently supported by Baladeva Vidyabhusan of Orissa in his Gobinda Bhasaya- a commentary of Brahma sutra. A glimpse of the philosophical basis of Bengal Vaisnavism can be obtained from the chapter entitled 'An outline of the philosophy of Jiva Gosvamin'. Life history and sadhana of Thakur Haridasa is almost unparalled in the religious history of mankind who set a shinning example of one-pointed devotion to the Divine through his religious practices and performances. The depth of his spiritual practice, the breadth of his vision and catholicity of his outlook, all these evoke our awe and respect and this has been treated in chapter 12 of the treatise. No study of Bengal Vaisnavism can leave out from the perview of its discussion the significant contribution made by two important personalities of Vaisnava Bhakti movement in Bengal, namely, Advaitacarya and Nityananda who vitalised this movement with rare missionnary zeal. A brief study has been undertaken in chapter 13. For having a synoptic view of Bengal Vaisnavism, its vision and mission, a conspectus of Bengal Vaisnavism has been included in the concluding chapter.
Most of the chapters of the book, as stated earlier, had been published as independent articles in the journals and as the idea of bringing these articles within the cover of a single volume is an after-thought, obviously, therefore repetition of certain ideas and thoughts found unavoidable for the "reason that proper editing at a later stage had not been undertaken for various reasons. However, a cohesive link is discernable all through the work. The method adopted in this treatise is mainly historical and descriptive, though critical reflections and assessment are not altogether absent. Admittedly, this is not a book on the philosophy of Bengal Vaisnavism, nor is it a study purely from Vaisnava viewpoint which can only be undertaken by one wedded entirely to 'Visnavata', as Kavlraj Gosvamin so aptly put it and the author does not pretend to be one of them.
The writer records here his profound gratitude and indebtedness to Rev. Swami Bhajanandaji Maharaj, the then editor of Prabuddha Bharata for his valuable suggestion and inspiration for the study of Bengal Vaisnavism but for his advice and encouragement, Bengal Vaisnavism would have remained an unknown, horizon to him. The idea of publishing the scattered articles in a single volume was first put forwarded by Dr. Dilip Kumar Mohanta, a distinguished pupil of mine and at present, Reader in Philosophy, Calcutta university who ungrudgingly took the initiative of shouldering the entire responsibility of seeing the book through the press. I shall be failing in my duty if I miss to acknowledge with deep gratitude the cooperation extended to me by Dr. Mohanta in this enterprise. I also express my gratitude to Dr. Satchidananda Dhar, M.A.(Triple) Ph.D, who inspite of his pressing academic commitments and advanced age, has so kindly contributed a gracious 'Foreword' to the present work. I am thankful to the editors of Prabuddha Bharata (Kolkata) and Tattva Darsan, (Chenni), Vedanta Kesari (Chenni) for permitting me to include in this book articles published in their journals. My thanks are also due to my Wife Srimati Lila Acharjee, two daughters Mahua and Madhumita, son Ratnadip and my friend Sri Rakhal Chandra Deb for their constant inspiration and encouragement in my academic pursuits.
My thanks are also due to Sri Prasanta Bhattacharya, Proprietor, Punthi Pustak, Kolkata who gladly undertook the publication of the work.
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