The wife of Nityananda Prabhu was a leading figure in the movement Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu after His departure.
By Satyaraja Dasa
After Nityananda Prabhu’s departure from this world, his wife played a leading role in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s movement.
“If a woman is perfect in Krishna consciousness [she can be guru]. . . . Just like Jahnava Devi, Lord Nityananda’s wife, she was acharya. . . . She was controlling the whole Vaishnava community.” – Srila Prabhupada
The Krishna conscious tradition has always viewed men and women in an equitable way. This holds true even if male and female devotees have sometimes known the usual difficulties facing all embodied souls. After all, humans have foibles, and this will manifest in a plethora of ways, regardless of their underlying philosophy. But the philosophy of Krishna consciousness is that all beings are spirit souls, and on that level there is no difference between us. Moreover, the ultimate Deity of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, founded by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, is Radharani, the female absolute, and the greatest devotees are the gopis, the female cowherd maidens of Vraja, whose single-minded love remains the preeminent model for all practitioners in the tradition.
Indeed, the earliest Gaudiya Vaishnavas recognized female leaders who stood strong amid their male counterparts. Of all these women, who admittedly were few in comparison to the men, Jahnava Devi, the wife of Sri Chaitanya’s chief associate, Nityananda Prabhu, is prominent.1 In the sixteenth century she was a preeminent guru in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. As Prabhupada confirmed in conversation with the late Joseph T. O’Connell, renowned professor emeritus in the Department of Religion at the University of Toronto:
Who Is Jahnava Devi?
In the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Jahnava is commonly referred to as Ishvari, the female form of ishvara, or God. She is also sometimes known as Srimati and Thakurani, indicating not only her divine status as Nityananda Prabhu’s wife (Nityananda is Balarama) but also the fact that she was considered a leader among the Gaudiyas of her time.
Regarding background, Suryadasa Sarakhela and his four brothers were great devotees of Sri Chaitanya and Nityananda Prabhu, and they lived a few miles from Navadvipa in an area called Saligrama, though they eventually relocated to Ambika-kalana. Suryadasa was employed as an accountant/treasurer (sarakhela) in the Muslim government of the time. He and his wife, Bhadravati, were blessed with two beautiful daughters, Vasudha and Jahnava, who was the younger of the two. According to the Gaura-ganoddesha-dipika (65–66), in their prior incarnations these two girls were the wives of Balarama: Varuni and Revati. Additionally, the same text informs us that Vasudha and Jahnava were incarnations of Ananga Manjari, Radharani’s younger sister, a fact to which we will return.3
Since the two girls are eternal shaktis of Lord Balarama, they became the wives of Nityananda Prabhu, His incarnation in Chaitanya-lila. Polygamy was common at the time in Bengal. But more to the point in our present context, when the Lord descends He often appears with a triad of associates: two consorts and His transcendental place of residence – i.e., the energies Sri, Bhu, and Nila (or Lila). Sri is the personification of His direct potency, Bhu is an expansion of that potency, and Nila refers to the land that replicates the spiritual world. For Nityananda, these manifest as Jahnava, Vasudha, and Ekacakra/Navadvipa.
Jahnava did not bear any child, whereas Vasudha gave birth to two: a girl, Ganga, who was the personification of the Ganges River, and a boy, Virabhadra. In the Gaura-ganoddesha-dipika (67) Virabhadra is mentioned as an incarnation of Kshirodakashayi Vishnu. Vasudha passed away prematurely, and the children were raised by Jahnava.
Both the Prema-vilasa and the Nityananda-vamsha-vistara tell us that when Virabhadra sought a spiritual master, he approached Sita Thakurani, the wife of Sri Advaita, the third member of the Panca Tattva (“five principal spiritual truths”), along with Mahaprabhu, Nityananda Prabhu, Gadadhara, and Srivasa Thakura. She told him that he should look for a guru closer to home, and Virabhadra understood this to mean his own mother. But he was unconvinced that Jahnava would be an appropriate guru for him, especially because of their familial closeness. Nonetheless, one day he saw her as she was completing her bath. While she was drying her hair, her wet sari slipped below her shoulders. To conceal her nakedness, she produced two extra arms to catch the dangling cloth. Virabhadra was startled by this show of divinity – four arms, like Vishnu! – and immediately asked her to initiate him.4 He soon grew into a significant leader in the Gaudiya Vaishnava community.
Virabhadra was not Jahnava’s only important disciple. She had numerous followers, many of whom would take initiation from her and go on to lead the Vaishnavas of Bengal. Significant among them was Ramachandra Goswami, grandson of Vamshivadana Thakura, who took care of both Saci Devi and Vishnupriya Devi, Mahaprabhu’s mother and wife, respectively, after Mahaprabhu’s departure from the world. Jahnava adopted Ramachandra as her son, and he received special treatment as her youngest, so much so that she allowed him to accompany her on her last trip to Vraja. There he witnessed her dynamic leadership and studied the bhakti scriptures under her able guidance. He later founded the Baghnapada branch of Goswamis, now famous throughout Bengal. It is these Goswamis who gave Bhaktivinoda Thakura his title Bhaktivinoda, which means “the pleasure of devotion.”
It is said that Jahnava’s most significant contribution to the Gaudiya tradition was the organization and systematization of Chaitanya’s Vaishnavism as it labored to consolidate diverse theological views while still in its infancy. At the time, many tangential teachings threatened to dilute the pure message of the Six Goswamis, such as Gaura-paramyavada and Gaura-nagaravada, whose divergent theories are too complex to describe here. She was able to accommodate these variations within the scheme of the pure teachings of the Six Goswamis. This took place during the famous Kheturi festival of the 1570s or ’80s, the first major celebration of Mahaprabhu’s appearance in this world. It was a major ecumenical council attended by all prominent Gaudiya Vaishnavas of the period, including Narottama Dasa Thakura, Srinivasa Acharya, and Syamananda Prabhu. Jahnava was not only considered the guest of honor, but predominated as the leading Vaishnava of the festival, venerated by all. Everyone was in awe of her learning, spiritual stature, and natural Vaishnava qualities.
Jahnava in Vrindavan
After the ceremony at Kheturi, Jahnava went to confer with the Goswamis of Vrindavan. Even while she journeyed there – let alone while in Krishna’s holy land itself – her exploits were transformative for many. She converted newcomers, had loving exchanges with deities, and so on, not unlike Mahaprabhu Himself during His stay in Vrindavan. Once she arrived, she studied under the Goswamis and endeared herself to all. Even the most exalted Vaishnavas came to accept her as the preeminent authority on spiritual practice. The area at Radha-kunda where she bathed became known as Jahnava Ghata, with a small shrine in honor of her sitting place, called Jahnava Ma Baithaka. To this day those who perform parikrama under the guidance of advanced Vaishnavas visit this holy spot.
Her pastimes in Vrindavan further established her divine status, and the scriptures talk about her stay in the holy land at some length. A couple of colorful events should suffice in giving a taste for her activities there. One day, while at Radha-kunda, Jahnava heard the alluring melody of Krishna’s flute. Startled, she looked here and there, hoping to spy the source of the sound. Finally, she saw the graceful threefold-bending form of Krishna sweetly playing on His instrument beneath a kadamba tree, surrounded by Radharani and the gopis. She became transfixed, feeling inexpressible spiritual ecstasy. On another occasion, when she was brought to Rama-ghata, the area along the banks of the Yamuna where Balarama enjoyed a rasa dance with His beloved companions, her spiritual rapture increased a thousandfold. This was because Nityananda-Rama (Balarama) is her eternal consort, and the area of Rama-ghata thus naturally enhanced her already incomparable love for Him.
While Jahnava’s journey to Vrindavan is detailed in all the standard biographies of the period,5 there is some question as to whether she traveled there two or perhaps three times. The question arises because when she attended the Kheturi festival, she was already seen as someone who could adjudicate the siddhanta of the Goswamis, reconciling it with prevailing theories in Bengal. It is thus understood that she had gone to Vrindavan and studied under Rupa, Jiva, and so on, and there is indeed evidence for this in the texts. But that would have been her first trip. She is then said to have traveled to Krishna’s holy land after Kheturi, and this is the journey detailed most clearly. However, it is described that she went back to Bengal after this visit as well. Consequently, another journey to Vrindavan is implied, for she is said to have merged into the famous Gopinatha deity of Vraja when she departed this world. In other words, she returned again after her stay in Bengal. This part is unclear, and she may have indeed stayed after that second visit.
According to Bengali historian Ramakanta Chakravarti,
Religious scholar Joseph T. O’Connell, with whom, it may be remembered, Prabhupada spoke about Jahnava, gives an overview of her accomplishments:
In other words, from a historical point of view Jahnava was among the most important figures in the early Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. It was she who first emphasized the teachings of the Six Goswamis in Bengal, the homeland of the Gaudiya tradition, and encouraged Srinivasa Acharya to go to Vraja to study among the Goswamis in Vrindavan; she was also instrumental in encouraging Srinivasa, Narottama, and Syamananda to return to Bengal with the Goswamis’ books, so that Bengali Vaishnavas might become well grounded in the scriptures; indeed, she was behind the movement’s first ecumenical conference at Kheturi, thus affording a sense of harmony and solidarity in the early days of the tradition.
But despite all of this, Jahnava’s name will always be linked to Vrindavan in particular. This is due to her relationship with the highly intimate deities of Radha-Gopinatha, considered to be among the most esoteric forms of Krishna in the Gaudiya tradition because they represent prayojana-tattva, or the ultimate attainment of Krishna consciousness. To this day her deity form stands alongside Radha-Gopinatha in Vrindavan and Jaipur. She accompanies Radha-Gopinatha in Vrindavan not only because she is so loved in there, but also because, as stated, she is Ananga Manjari, Radhika’s younger sister. This is significant in terms of Gopinatha’s unique position – and hers. Jahnava and her alter ego Ananga Manjari are considered the very emblem of madhurya-rasa, or the quintessence of romantic love on the spiritual platform. Radha-Gopinatha are the deities best suited to receive that love.
Jahnava had supervised the placement of her deity in this temple, specifying exactly where each form should be positioned on the altar: Gopinatha stands with her (Ananga Manjari) to His left and Radhika to His right. The famous gopis Lalita and Vishakha are there as well, flanking them as loving servants.
An alternate version of this story explains that the Jahnava/Ananga Manjari deity arrived after Jahnava’s departure from this world. It is said that when visiting Vrindavan years earlier, she fell deeply in love with the deity of Gopinatha. Sometime after her second visit, one of her followers, ostensibly at her behest, came to Vrindavan from Bengal carrying a Jahnava deity to be placed at Lord Gopinatha’s side. That very night, Gopinatha appeared to the temple pujari in a dream, revealing that Jahnava is nondifferent from Ananga Manjari, further saying that the Radha deity should be moved to the right of Gopinatha and the Jahnava deity placed on the left.
Still another version of the story involves the size of the deity who originally accompanied Lord Gopinatha: “When Lord Nityananda’s wife, Jahnava Mata, visited Vrindavana on pilgrimage in the year 1582, she felt that the Deity of Radharani being worshipped in the temple was far too small, and when she returned to Bengal she asked one of her disciples to carve a new Deity of Radharani for the Gopinath temple. This new Deity was then sent to Vrindavana and immediately installed next to Sri Gopinath. When all the devotees in Vrindavana saw the new Deity of Radharani, they felt that it looked just like Jahnava Mata.”8
Tradition has it that, feeling the deepest love, she merged into this very deity of Gopinatha, who today stands in Jaipur, having been moved there from Vrindavan in the seventeenth century. It is said that Gopinatha pulled her onto the altar and placed her on His right, where she resumed her eternal Vraja-lila form as Ananga Manjari. Some say she merged into her own deity, who stands by His side.9
A Prayer to Jahnava Devi
“One of the positive results of the Chaitanya movement was the elevation of the social and religious status of women in Bengal,” writes Ramakanta Chakravarti. “This remarkable development was first seen in the assumption of ecclesiastical leadership by Jahnava Devi, second daughter of Suryadas Sarkhel and second wife of Nityananda.”10 Great women Vaishnavas have existed throughout the ages, and they have demonstrated that the qualities of leadership, scholarship, intelligence, wisdom, and devotion are affairs of the heart and mind, irrespective of gender. Jahnava Devi, no doubt, was among the best of such Vaishnavis, and we are honored to have her as part of our Gaudiya tradition.
- Jahnava is a variant of Jahnavi, which refers to the river Ganga. Literally, the word means “from Jahnu’s clan” or “the daughter of Jahnu,” as per Rgveda 1.116.19. Jahnu was a king of the Vedic era who adopted the river Ganga as his daughter.
- Conversations with Srila Prabhupada (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1990), Volume 22 (Toronto, 6.18.76), 19–20. The issue of women acting as gurus is an intriguing one. Those who hold that women should not serve as guru might object, averring that Jahnava was an exception because she was an eternal associate of the Lord, i.e., not an ordinary woman. Prabhupada clearly disagrees with this perspective, saying that women in general can be gurus, and he cites Jahnava as evidence. Indeed, the great souls of the early Gaudiya period act as acharyas. That is, they teach by example, and thus if it were inappropriate for a woman to adopt the position of guru, Jahnava would never have done so. When one couples that with the fact that she was not the only female guru — Sita (Advaita’s wife) and Hemalata, among others, occupied this position — it becomes clear that this was already an established part of Vaishnava culture.
- The fact that Jahnava was an incarnation of Ananga Manjari is reaffirmed by Vishvanatha Chakravarti’s Gaura-gana-svarupa-tattva-candrika, trans., Demian Martins (Vrindavan, U.P.: Jiva Institute, 2015), Text 51, p. 21. “Ananga Manjari, who was as dear as life to Radharani, has now become Lord Nityananda’s most beloved wife named Jahnavi.” Also, in the Murali-vilasa (chapter nine), Rupa Goswami tells the devotee Ramachandra that he had heard this truth from Srimati Jahnava directly: she confided in him that she is none other than Ananga Manjari! This same Ramachandra later wrote a work called Ananga-manjari-samputika in which he describes the nature of Ananga Manjari and identifies her with Srimati Jahnava. Finally, in Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s Bhaktivinoda Vani Vaibhava we read, “Who is Sri Jahnava-devi? How did she benefit the Vaishnava society? . . . The many wonderful activities performed by Sri Jahnava-devi, who was the energy of Sri Nityananda Prabhu and who was nondifferent from Ananga-manjari, are almost unknown to the Vaishnava society.” See Sripada Sundarananda Vidyavinoda (Compiled under the direct order of His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada), Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s Bhaktivinoda Vani Vaibhava (produced and published by Ishvara dasa, translated by Bhumipati dasa, Kolkata: Touchstone Media, n.d.), 54.
- According to the Prema-vilasa: “When he saw the goddess with four arms, Vira fell on the ground out of deep respect, asking her to initiate him. He would have no need to go to Santipura to look for a guru,” that is to say, to approach Advaita’s wife. See Nityananda Dasa, Prema-vilasa (Kolkata: Jashodalal Talukdar, 1913), 252–253. Jahnava is not the only woman to have manifested such a four-armed form. The tradition tells a similar story about Hemalata Thakurani, the daughter of the important third-generation Gaudiya Vaishnava leader Srinivasa Acharya.
- Primary sources for Jahnava’s visits to Vrindavan are Murali-vilasa 15–17; Narottama-vilasa 6–9; Prema-vilasa 14–16; Bhakti-ratnakara 11 and 13; and Nityananda-vamsha-vistara, Madhya 1 and 2.
- Ramakanta Chakravarti, Vaishnavism in Bengal: 1486–1900 (Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, 1985) 175.
- See Joseph T. O’Connell, Chaitanya Vaishnavism in Bengal Social Impact and Historical Implications (New York: Routledge, 2019), 91.
- See https://sthalapurana108.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/radha-gopinath-temple/. There is another deity of Jahnava, though far from Vrindavan, at Nityananda Prabhu’s birthplace: Ekacakra-grama. Within the main temple there is a deity of Krishna said to be established by Nityananda Prabhu Himself. The name of the deity is Bankima Raya or Banka Raya. Prabhupada writes: “On Bankima Raya’s right side is a deity of Jahnava, and on His left side is Srimati Radharani. The priests of the temple describe that Lord Nityananda Prabhu entered within the body of Bankima Raya and that the deity of Jahnava-mata was therefore later placed on the right side of Bankima Raya. . . . Afterwards, many other Deities were installed within the temple. On another throne within the temple are Deities of Muralidhara and Radha-Madhava. On another throne are Deities of Manomohana, Vrindavana-chandra and Gaura-Nitai. But Bankima Raya is the Deity originally installed by Nityananda Prabhu.”
- Both Murali-vilasa and Vamshi-shiksha describe Jahnava’s amalgamation into the Gopinatha deity; some traditions teach that she merged with Gopinatha while the divine image was in Kamyavana, en route to Jaipur, and others while He was in Vrindavan proper. Various Vaishnava groups question the accuracy of these texts, though overall it is agreed that they convey the basic narrative of her generation of devotees. For the disappearance story in particular, see Premdasa Mishra, Vamshi-shiksha (Nabadwip: Nimaicanda Goswami, n.d., reprint), 187. The text says, “After five years in Kamyavana, there was a ‘coming together’ [or ‘union’] (milana) of the goddess (devira) and Gopinatha.” Some consider this a colloquial way of saying that she passed from this world at this time; others say it means that she merged with the deity; still other opine that she merged into her own deity who stands on that same altar. See also Raja-vallabha Goswami, Murali-vilasa, Chapter 16 (Mathura: Sri Krishna Janmasthana Seva Samsthana, 1987, reprint), 136: “Then, when the time came for her to come out of the temple, Gopinatha instead grabbed on to the hem of her garment and pulled her in.” Also, in Manohara Dasa’s 1696 work the Anuraga-valli, we read that Jahnava “made her residence/stayed” (kaila vasa) with Gopinatha (taha laiya gopinathe asi kaila vasa). Indeed, gopinathe asi could be read either as she “came to the Gopinatha temple” or “came/entered Gopinatha himself.”
- See Ramakanta Chakravarti, op. cit., 174.
Satyaraja Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a BTG associate editor and founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. He has written more than thirty books on Krishna consciousness and lives near New York City.