The biographical tradition dedicated to the Hindu god-man Kṛṣṇa Caitanya (or Krishna Chaitanya, born Viśvambhara Miśra, 1486–1533 CE), is hagiographical more than historical. With no corroborative texts that are not religiously motivated, reconstructions of his life can only portray what the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition has accepted as the master narrative. These texts proclaim that his followers recognized Caitanya as Krishna (Kṛṣṇa) in several of his forms of avatāra, as God Himself (svayaṃ bhagavān), and ultimately as an androgynous divinity of Rādhā and Krishna fused in eternal union and separation. He is variously identified with multiple forms of Nārāyaṇa and Vishnu (Viṣṇu), and is the mobile form (sacala) of Jagannātha, the presiding deity in Puri. Caitanya himself left only eight Sanskrit stanzas of his own devotional composition, so the community entertains no autobiographical record against which to read their reconstructions of his life. The Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava community coalesced into the form known today only at the beginning of the 17th century through the active propagation of the hagiographical Caitanya Caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja. That seminal text synthesized the theology created by the Gosvāmīs who had been commissioned by Caitanya to articulate the nature of his experience. For Kṛṣṇadāsa, participation in the community was tantamount to participation in Krishna’s world (dhāma), with a place for every guru lineage and every devotee based on the nature of their devotion (bhakti). To approximate Common Era dates, for Bāṅgālā Śaka [BS] add 593; for Gaurābda [GA] add 1486 (birth of Caitanya). Please note that for the last five centuries the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava scholastic tradition has been one of the most prolific Indic religious groups to produce standardized texts, and, importantly, they were among the very first to utilize the printing press in India, starting in the mid-1800s. While many of these citations may appear to be long out of print, virtually everything that follows has been and continues to be reprinted without change, often annually or semi-annually, so older editions are listed with the understanding that these books are still easily available in the markets in Kolkata and in major book repositories around the world.
Contemporary overviews of the life of Caitanya nearly always take the form of the “life and teachings.” De 1961 continues to provide the best single-volume introduction to the tradition through an extraordinary mastery of primary sources. Eidlitz 1968 best utilizes translations of hagiographical materials. Sena 1965 was an attempt to demythologize the life of Caitanya according to scientific principles, but it created an uproar within the community sufficient to have the text withdrawn from circulation by the publisher. Śāstri 1381 BS represents the quintessential Bengali devotional norm. Baṃsal 1980 is the standard survey in Hindi for the theology and literature of the group. Cakravarti 1933 and Sailley 1986 both provide streamlined introductions to Caitanya in the context of Krishna devotion. Majumdar 1969 is the most easily accessible of the accurate summaries of the life of Caitanya in its religious and philosophical context.
Baṃsal, Nareśa Candra. Caitanya sampradāya: Siddhānta aura sāhitya. Agra, Lucknow: Vinoda Pustaka Mandira, 1980.
This work is a classic historical summary of hagiographical, theological, and literary works. In Hindi.
Cakravarti, Sukumar. Caitanya et sa théorie de l’amour divin (prema). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1933.
This book provides a very readable and sympathetic introduction in clear and concise language. In French.
De, Sushil Kumar. Early History of the Vaiṣṇava Faith and Movement in Bengal. 2d ed. Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1961.
This is the chief advanced reference book in English for all facets of early Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavaism. It includes critical analyses of hagiographies of Caitanya and summaries of key theological works.
Eidlitz, Walther. Kṛṣṇa-Caitanya: Sein Leben und Seine Lehre. Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religion 7. Stockholm: Almquist and Wiksell, 1968.
This comes closest to a Western-style religious biography of Caitanya, told almost exclusively in translated passages from Bengali and Sanskrit and placed within a narrative frame; imminently readable. In German.
Majumdar, A. K. Caitanya: His Life and Doctrine. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1969.
This is a well-written and well-organized introduction to the tradition in the context of the larger cultural heritage of India’s stalwart religious figures.
Sailley, Robert. Chaitanya et la dévotion a Krishna. Paris: Dervy-Livres, 1986.
Sailley provides a smooth introduction to the aesthetics of emotion that drive the theology of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas inspired by Caitanya. In French.
Śāstri, Surendramohana. Gaurāṅga līlāmṛta. 4 books in 2 vols. Calcutta: Sāntilatā Devī, 1381 BS.
Of the scores of Bengali retellings of the life of Caitanya, this two volume set is perhaps the most inclusive, normative statement. In Bengali.
Sena, Amūlya Candra. Itihāsera śrī caitanya. Calcutta: Kiraṇa Kumāra Rāya, 1965.
This book was withdrawn from publication after public outrage over the attempt to demythologize the life of Caitanya. In Bengali.
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