Sanatana Goswami: The Teacher of Devotional Service

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July 27 marks the anniversary of the passing of this great devotee, the senior member of the group known as the Six Goswamis of Vrindavan.

The hero turning his back on great riches and privilege to follow a life of complete spiritual devotion, only to be thrown into jail to prevent his leaving, then finding a way to escape, fleeing cross country to meet his (spiritual) hero – it all sounds like the plot to some blockbuster film, but such was the life of Sanatana Goswami.*

Sanatana became a principal disciple of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and wrote several very important books. He was the most senior of the influential Six Goswamis of Vrindavan. The Six Goswamis were an unrivalled and influential group who did much to establish the Gaudiya sampradaya (lineage) of devotion to Krishna, which accepts Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as an incarnation of the Supreme Lord Krishna Himself. Sanatana's younger brother Rupa (originally named Santosha) and their nephew Jiva Goswami also became very influential figures in Vaishnavism. Sanatana's youngest brother, Vallabha (originally Anupama), Jiva's father, was devoted to Lord Ramachandra.

The person we now know as Sanatana Goswami was given the name Amara after his birth in 1488 in Jessore, now in modern-day Bangladesh. Some claim he was born in southern India, but the evidence suggests that while his ancestors originated in southern India, they had moved north to Jessore sometime before Sanatana's birth.

To understand the world into which Sanatana was born, we need to consider that the area in which his family lived saw a succession of Indian empires, with Buddhism and Hinduism vying for dominance. There were plenty of struggles for power, both religious and secular. From the thirteenth century the area had been under the control of the Bengal Sultanate. Then the expansion of the Mughal Empire saw the whole area fall under its control, and with that the conversion of the majority of the populace to Islam. In fact the region became the wealthiest in the whole Mughal Empire. It was in this context that Sanatana was born and brought up.

Religious Childhood

Sanatana and his brothers were from childhood attracted to devotional service. Sanatana and Rupa were especially attracted to Krishna, Vallabha to Lord Ramachandra. Sanatana had an affinity for the study of Srimad-Bhagavatam. In his boyhood he once dreamed that a brahmana presented him a copy of it. The next morning, that same brahmana came to his house and gave him the book. From that time on Sanatana was always immersed in bhagavatamrita, "the nectar of the Bhagavatam." He and his brothers studied rhetoric and the Vedanta-sutras under the tutelage of the famous logician Vasudeva Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya. They also studied under Sarvabhauma's brother, Madhusudana Vidyavacaspati, and it was he who initiated Sanatana in his childhood. Later they made their wealthy estate a suitable place for remembering Krishna by planting groves of kadamba and other trees that grow in Vrindavan, the site of Krishna's pastimes, and by building replicas of Krishna's favorite ponds, the sacred Radha-kunda and Syama-kunda. The brothers also hosted many learned panditas, and discussions of the Bhagavatam and other shastras went on constantly in their assembly.

Government Service

Sanatana's father, Mukunda, had been the private secretary of the Sultan of Bengal, Jalaluddin Fateh Shah, until Jalaluddin was assassinated by one of his own presidential guards in 1487, the year before Sanatana's birth. This event marked the end of the Ilyas Dynasty of Bengal.

Both Sanatana and Rupa were well-known intellectuals and quickly came to the attention of the new ruler of Bengal, Alauddin Hussein Shah, who ruled between 1493 and 1519. The fact that their father, Mukunda, had worked for the previous sultan helps explain why the sons' scholarly expertise might have become well known to the new shah. Perhaps in an attempt to influence local Bengalis, after their father died Alauddin Hussein Shah somewhat forcibly persuaded Sanatana to accept appointment as prime minister. Rupa became the chief assistant minister, and Vallabha the state treasurer.

Despite their youth, the brothers had privileges and wealth heaped upon them. They built several mansions in Ramakeli.

It was at Ramakeli that the three brothers first met Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, in 1514. Despite his privileged position of influence and wealth, Sanatana was still only twenty-five years old. The brothers approached the Lord with great humility, but with determination. In Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 1.206) the two brothers say:

bhavantam evanucharan nirantarah
prashanta-nihshesha-mano-rathantarah
kadaham aikantika-nitya-kinkarah
praharshayishyami sanatha-jivitam

"By serving You constantly, one is freed from all material desires and is completely pacified. When shall I engage as Your permanent eternal servant and always feel joyful to have such a fitting master?" This is in fact a verse from the Stotra-ratna (43) of the South Indian devotee Sri Yamunacharya.

The Lord tells the two older brothers that they are His eternal servants and gives them the names Srila Sanatana and Srila Rupa. The youngest brother became known as Anupama. The brothers were so touched and amazed by what Chaitanya Mahaprabhu told them that they became determined to somehow follow Him and dedicate their lives to spiritual devotion. They knew that their powerful positions in the government meant nothing compared to the spiritual wealth Lord Chaitanya could bestow upon them. But first they would have to find ways to leave their lucrative employment with the Shah's government.

Escaping for Service

For reasons that are unclear, Rupa was allowed to resign from his post but Sanatana was not. This did not deter Sanatana's determination, and his mind was constantly fixed on how he could renounce his position and follow Lord Chaitanya as soon as possible. He stopped attending court and claimed that sickness prevented him from leaving home, but in fact he only wanted to study the Vedas, especially Srimad-Bhagavatam, and to share with others what he learned. Rumors reached the Shah, who thought of Sanatana almost as a family member, and he sent his personal physicians to assess Sanatana's health. They found him in perfect fitness.

When Sanatana showed a strong intention to resign, the Shah, feeling familial affection, essentially said, "While engaged in this destructive business [of military campaigns], I am hoping that you will tend to the administration of the state. Since I, your elder brother, am engaged in such a destructive business, you, being my younger brother, should look after the state management. If you do not, how will things continue?"

Seeing Sanatana's resistance, the Shah made an alternative request.

The Shah was going to attack the province of Orissa, and he told Sanatana Goswami, "Come along with me."

Sanatana Goswami replied, "You are going to Orissa to give pain to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. For this reason I am powerless to go with you."

Having already released Rupa from his duties, the Shah reached the end of his patience and had the elder of the two brothers thrown into jail to prevent him from leaving.

Hearing of Sanatana's fate, Rupa wrote to him and told him that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had left Puri and intended to go to Vrindavan, and that Rupa and their younger brother, Anupama, had decided to travel there to meet Him. Rupa also informed Sanatana of the location of a stash of gold coins he had deposited.

Srila Prabhupada summarizes these events in the purport to Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi-lila 10.84:

Sanatana Goswami took advantage of this money to bribe the jail keeper and get free from detention. Then he left for Benares to meet Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, bringing with him only one servant, whose name was Ishana. On the way they stopped at a sarai, or hotel, and when the hotel keeper found out that Ishana had some gold coins with him, he planned to kill both Sanatana Goswami and Ishana to take away the coins. Later Sanatana Goswami saw that although the hotel keeper did not know them, he was being especially attentive to their comfort. Therefore he concluded that Ishana was secretly carrying some money and that the hotel keeper was aware of this and therefore planned to kill them for it. Upon being questioned by Sanatana Goswami, Ishana admitted that he indeed had money with him, and immediately Sanatana Goswami took the money and gave it to the hotel keeper, requesting him to help them get through the jungle. Thus with the help of the hotel keeper, who was also the chief of the thieves of that territory, Sanatana Goswami crossed over the Hazipur mountains, which are presently known as the Hazaribags. He then met his brother-in-law Srikanta, who requested that he stay with him. Sanatana Goswami refused, but before they parted Srikanta gave him a valuable blanket.

So Sanatana cleverly managed to bribe the jailer, telling him to say that he had escaped while performing his ablutions at the river. Sanatana then crossed the river – the sacred Ganges – and began the long journey to Vrindavan, but along the way he received an urgent message informing him that Lord Chaitanya had already departed Vrindavan and was now in Benares. Sanatana changed his destination and at last succeeded in meeting up with Lord Chaitanya there.

Student of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu

Over a period of two blissful months Sanatana received detailed spiritual knowledge from Mahaprabhu. He learned sambandha-jnana (knowledge of the self and one's relationship with the Supreme) and how one's true natural position as a spirit soul is to be an eternal servant of the Lord. Lord Chaitanya passed on detailed instructions regarding how to revive that relationship (abhidheya) and attain the ultimate goal of life (prayojana).

This is all beautifully described in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, with detailed purports by Srila Prabhupada. Here is one example (Madhya 20.108–109), in which Lord Chaitanya begins to answer Sanatana's enquiries:

jivera 'svarupa' haya╤krishnera 'nitya-dasa'
krishnera 'tatastha-shakti' 'bhedabheda-prakasha'

suryamsha-kirana, yaiche agni-jvala-caya
svabhavika krishnera tina-prakara 'shakti' haya

"It is the living entity's constitutional position to be an eternal servant of Krishna because he is the marginal energy of Krishna and a manifestation simultaneously one with and different from the Lord, like a molecular particle of sunshine or fire. Krishna has three varieties of energy."

PURPORT

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains these verses as follows: Sri Sanatana Goswami asked Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, "Who am I?" In answer, the Lord replied, "You are a pure living entity. You are neither the gross material body nor the subtle body composed of mind and intelligence. Actually you are a spirit soul, eternally part and parcel of the Supreme Soul, Krishna. Therefore you are His eternal servant. You belong to Krishna's marginal potency. There are two worlds – the spiritual world and the material world – and you are situated between the material and spiritual potencies. You have a relationship with both the material and the spiritual world; therefore you are called the marginal potency. You are related with Krishna as one and simultaneously different. Because you are spirit soul, you are one in quality with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, but because you are a very minute particle of spirit soul, you are different from the Supreme Soul. Therefore your position is simultaneously one with and different from the Supreme Soul. The examples given are those of the sun itself and the small particles of sunshine and of a blazing fire and the small particles of fire." Another explanation of these verses can be found in Adi-lila, Chapter Two, verse 96.

The Lord told Sanatana to go to the sites of Krishna's Vrindavan pastimes. This he did, but later he traveled to Puri to meet Mahaprabhu once again, and he received four clear instructions. He was told to spread the philosophy of Gaudiya Vaishnavism through the written word; to establish correct forms of deity worship; to search for and unearth the sacred places related to Krishna's pastimes in Vrindavan; and to write a book that would clearly describe the correct protocols and behavior of devotees.

After returning to Vrindavan, Sanatana knew his mission was clear, and he tackled it without rest. He located various sacred places and directed their excavation. He also established the correct worship of the deity Madana-mohana and arranged for a suitable temple that would become one of the seven most important temples in this most holy of places, Vrindavan.

His Literary Contributions

Fulfilling Mahaprabhu's order to spread Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy with the written word, Sanatana Goswami wrote many great works, of which four are noted as being of exceptional importance.

The Brihad-bhagavatamrita, which is in 2,514 verses and presented in two parts, explains much of Vaishnava philosophy. He also wrote his own commentary on this work, called the Dig-darshini.

Another key work, written jointly with Gopala Bhatta Goswami, is the Hari-bhakti-vilasa ("Performance of Devotion to Hari"). By Lord Chaitanya's request, this book focuses on the rituals and conduct of Gaudiya Vaishnavas.

The third key work was Sanatana Goswami's Krishna-lila-stava ("Glorification of the Pastimes of Krishna"), the shortest of the four works. Written in 432 verses, it is an inspiring offering of praise to Krishna's Vrindavan pastimes as told by Shukadeva Goswami in the Srimad-Bhagavatam.

The fourth major work is the Brihad-vaishnava-toshani ("That Which Brings Great Joy to the Devotees of Krishna"), also known as Dashama-tippani. It is an extensive commentary on the Tenth Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam.

Life in Vrindavan

Sanatana passed forty-three years traveling around the Vrindavan area, fulfilling the mission Mahaprabhu had given to him. He became very popular and loved by all the villagers because of his humbleness, compassion, and spiritual knowledge.

Even in his mid-sixties he kept his vow of offering 1,008 obeisances to Govardhana Hill and completing the Govardhana parikrama (walk-around) daily.

Sri Madana-mohana (Krishna) appeared before him one day and said, "Baba! You are too old. Don't take so much trouble to walk around Govardhana Hill every day."

Sanatana replied, "This is one of the daily activities of my bhajana. I must maintain it."

Madana-mohana responded, "Since you are old you may now give up this vow."

But Sanatana replied, "I will never give up my religious principles."

On seeing the deep-rooted determination in His perfect devotee, the Lord stood on a large, flat stone (shila) from Govardhana Hill and played captivating tunes on His beautiful flute until the shila melted in ecstasy around His lotus feet. The Lord then gave the stone, now showing the impression of His lotus feet, to Sanatana and told him that if he circumambulated it every day it would be the same as circumambulating Govardhana Hill, and hence his vows would not be broken. Unable to argue with the Lord, Sanatana Goswami agreed.

Sanatana Goswami departed from this world in 1558. His samadhi (memorial tomb) was built next to his beloved Madana-mohana temple in the town of Vrindavan.

In his purport to Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 5.203, Srila Prabhupada writes:

Sri Sanatana Goswami Prabhu, the teacher of the science of devotional service, wrote several books, of which the Brihad-bhagavatamrita is very famous; anyone who wants to know about the subject matter of devotees, devotional service and Krishna must read this book. Sanatana Goswami also wrote a special commentary on the Tenth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam known as the Dashama-tippani, which is so excellent that by reading it one can understand very deeply the pastimes of Krishna in His exchanges of loving activities. Another famous book by Sanatana Goswami is the Hari-bhakti-vilasa, which states the rules and regulations for all divisions of Vaishnavas, namely, Vaishnava householders, Vaishnava brahmacharis, Vaishnava vanaprasthas and Vaishnava sannyasis. This book was especially written, however, for Vaishnava householders. Srila Raghunatha dasa Goswami has described Sanatana Goswami in his prayer Vilapa-kusumanjali, verse six, where he has expressed his obligation to Sanatana Goswami in the following words:

vairagya-yug-bhakti-rasam prayatnair
apayayan mam anabhipsum andham
kripambudhir yah para-duhkha-duhkhi
sanatanas tam prabhum ashrayami

"I was unwilling to drink the nectar of devotional service possessed of renunciation, but Sanatana Goswami, out of his causeless mercy, made me drink it, even though I was otherwise unable to do so. Therefore he is an ocean of mercy. He is very compassionate to fallen souls like me, and thus it is my duty to offer my respectful obeisances unto his lotus feet." Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami also, in the last section of the Chaitanya-charitamrita, specifically mentions the names of Rupa Goswami, Sanatana Goswami and Srila Jiva Goswami and offers his respectful obeisances unto the lotus feet of these three spiritual masters, as well as Raghunatha dasa. Srila Raghunatha dasa Goswami also accepted Sanatana Goswami as the teacher of the science of devotional service.

Many more details of the life of Srila Sanatana Goswami may be read in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita and Bhakti-ratnakara. Sri Krishna-lila-stava and Sri Brihad-bhagavatamrita are available through the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

*My main sources for this article were Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Gopiparanadhana Dasa's introduction to Sri Brihad-bhagavatamrita, and discussions with my spiritual master.

About the Author: 

Mayapur-shashi Dasa

Mayapur-shashi Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Keshava Bharati Goswami, is a retired British Army officer living in Taiwan.