A highly posted government officer renounced the world and became a highly posted leader among Lord Chaitanya’s followers.
By Mayapur-shashi Dasa
A brief look at the life of an empowered devotee whose extraordinary service helped set the foundations for Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s movement.
The esteemed Narottama Dasa Thakura (born 1520 CE) taught that to understand the loving affairs of Radha and Krishna we must serve the lotus feet of Sri Rupa Goswami with intense eagerness. He also wrote:
“When will Srila Rupa Goswami Prabhupada, who has established within this material world the mission to fulfill the desire of Lord Chaitanya, give me shelter under his lotus feet?”
Rupa Goswami was born in 1489. His ancestors are generally believed to have come from Karnataka before his family moved to Jessore, now in modern-day Bangladesh.
The area of the world into which Rupa was born had been ruled by successive empires. Buddhism’s and Hinduism’s popularity had alternated in India, and from the thirteenth century the area had been under the control of the Bengal Sultanate. But the expansion of the Mughal Empire saw the area fall under its control and with it the conversion of much of the populace to Islam. India became the wealthiest region in the whole Mughal Empire.
Rupa’s father had been the private secretary of the Sultan of Bengal, Jalaluddin Fateh Shah, until 1487, when the Shah was assassinated by one of his own presidential guards,1 an act which ended the Ilyas Dynasty of Bengal.
Rupa’s brothers were Sanatana Goswami, the oldest, who, like Rupa, became one of the famed Six Goswamis of Vrindavan, and Vallabha (also called Anupama), the youngest, who became a devout follower of Lord Ramachandra. From childhood Rupa and Sanatana were absorbed in pure bhakti. Later they built ponds on their land and called them Radha-kunda and Syama-kunda, and they named their wooded areas after Vraja’s twelve forests.
Perhaps because of their intellectual prowess and their father’s previous employment, these outstanding brothers came to the attention of the new ruler of Bengal, Alauddin Hussain Shah.2 Incredibly for such young men, Rupa was appointed the Shah’s private secretary (in effect equivalent to prime minister) and given the title Dabir-i-khas, while Sanatana became the chief assistant minister with the title Sakara Mallika.3 Anupama became the state treasurer.
One night, Sanatana and Rupa had the same dream – a holy man visited and told them not to become distracted by their vast opulence but to devote themselves to preaching the glories of Lord Sri Krishna. They were amazed to discover that they had shared the same dream. Rupa told Sanatana that he was convinced that Lord Krishna had descended as Lord Chaitanya and that surely He would be able to clarify the meaning of the dream.
The brothers first met Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in 1514, not far from where they lived, at Ramakeli. Unbeknownst to them, the Lord had traveled to Ramakeli specifically to meet them. As Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 1.207–208) describes: “After hearing the prayer of Dabira Khasa and Sakara Mallika, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu said, ‘My dear Dabira Khasa, you two brothers are My old servants. My dear Sakara Mallika, from this day your names will be changed to Srila Rupa and Srila Sanatana. Now please abandon your humility, for My heart is breaking to see you so humble.’”
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu fully understood the humbleness and devotion of Rupa and Sanatana.
The Lord went on to say, “I really had no business in coming to Bengal, but I have come just to see you two brothers.” (Madhya 1.212)
Rupa was first to resign from his government post. He knew that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was living at Jagannath Puri, and he sent messengers to find out how long the Lord planned to remain there. The messengers returned with news that Mahaprabhu was in Prayaga (Allahabad), and Rupa and Anupama quickly made their way there.
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was staying at the house of a South Indian brahmana and inevitably had many visitors wishing to spend time with Him. Rupa chose an appropriate moment to fall at the Lord’s feet with straw between his teeth as a sign of humility. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was delighted to see Rupa again, and Rupa offered these beautiful prayers to the Lord:
O most munificent incarnation! You are Krishna Himself appearing as Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. You have assumed the golden color of Srimati Radharani, and You are widely distributing pure love of Krishna. We offer our respectful obeisances unto You.
We offer our respectful obeisances unto that merciful Supreme Personality of Godhead who has converted all three worlds, which were maddened by ignorance, and saved them from their diseased condition by making them mad with the nectar from the treasure-house of love of God. Let us take full shelter of that Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna Chaitanya, whose activities are wonderful. (Madhya 19.53–54)
Although Rupa and his brothers were from a highly aristocratic brahmana family, the rigid Hindu traditionalists considered them fallen because of their close association with the Muslim Nawab. They no longer accepted them as brahmanas but considered them untouchables. Nevertheless, Vaishnava devotees are above caste and creed, and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu unhesitatingly accepted Rupa as a gosvami.
For ten days in Prayag the Lord empowered Srila Rupa Goswami with the intimate teachings of Vaishnavism.
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu taught Srila Rupa Goswami the ultimate limit of the truth about Lord Krishna, the truth about devotional service and the truth about transcendental mellows, culminating in conjugal love between Radha and Krishna. Finally He told Rupa Goswami about the ultimate conclusions of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
By entering the heart of Rupa Goswami, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu empowered him to ascertain properly the conclusions of all truths. He made him an experienced devotee whose decisions correctly agreed with the verdicts of the disciplic succession. Thus Sri Rupa Goswami was personally empowered by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. (Madhya 19.115, 117)
Consider the bliss that Rupa must have felt after meeting Lord Chaitanya – Lord Sri Krishna Himself in the mood of Srimati Radharani – and receiving clear instructions not only on the philosophy of Vaishnavism but also on his life’s service. He would devote himself wholeheartedly to rediscovering the places of Lord Krsna’s pastimes in Vrindavan, which had long remained hidden. He would write devotional literature and teach others the rules of devotional service (bhakti-yoga).
Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 19.1) reveals the magnitude of Srila Rupa Goswami’s importance:
“Before the creation of this cosmic manifestation, the Lord enlightened the heart of Lord Brahma with the details of the creation and manifested the Vedic knowledge. In exactly the same way, the Lord, being anxious to revive the Vrindavan pastimes of Lord Krishna, impregnated the heart of Rupa Goswami with spiritual potency. By this potency, Srila Rupa Goswami could revive the activities of Krishna in Vrindavana, activities almost lost to memory. In this way, He spread Krishna consciousness throughout the world.”
On to Vrindavan
After the Lord taught and empowered Sri Rupa, He prepared to travel to Benares. Rupa wished never to leave His side, but Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu instructed him to go to Vrindavan, suggesting that they would meet again in Puri. Sri Rupa traveled to Vrindavan with Anupama. They stayed there for a month, and Sri Rupa wrote the introduction to a drama but was unsure how to continue.
They decided to search for Sanatana. He had left his government post, and they believed he must be somewhere along the banks of the Ganges. When they reached Prayag once again, they discovered that Sanatana had been there but had left for Vrindavan by a different route.
Intensely missing Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Sri Rupa decided to meet Him once again in Puri. As they were traveling, Anupama fell ill and passed away. This delayed Sri Rupa’s travels.
When Rupa resumed his journey, he stopped for a night in Satyabhama Pura, Orissa. That night, Satyabhama, one of Lord Krishna’s chief queens in Dwarka, came to Rupa in a dream.
“Write a separate drama about me,” she said. “By my mercy it will be extraordinarily beautiful.” (Antya 1.42)
Rupa understood. He would divide the drama he had started about Lord Krsna’s pastimes in Vrindavan and Dwarka into two separate works.
With Sri Chaitanya in Puri
Absorbed in thoughts of Krishna’s pastimes, he continued his journey to Puri, where he reached the hut of Haridasa Thakura. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu promptly joined them, and the three eagerly exchanged news.
The following day, the Lord introduced Rupa to His intimate associates, declaring to Advaita Acharya and Nityananda Prabhu, “May Rupa Goswami, by Your mercy, become so powerful that he will be able to describe the transcendental mellows of devotional service.” (Antya 1.57)
Rupa Goswami, because of His prior association with Muslims, and Haridasa Thakura, because he was born in a Muslim family, could not visit the Jagannatha temple, but Lord Chaitanya would visit them every day to discuss Krishna’s activities and bring them prasadam.
One day Lord Chaitanya told Rupa, “Do not try to take Krishna out of Vrindavan, for He does not go anywhere else at any time.”
This confirmed the dream in which Satyabhama had appeared before him and told him to split his drama into two.
Rupa attended the Rathayatra festival and saw Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu dance before Lord Jagannatha. It was the Lord’s habit to recite a verse while dancing in front of the chariot, but no one but Svarupa Damodara could understand its meaning.
That very personality who stole my heart during my youth is now again my master. These are the same moonlit nights of the month of Caitra. The same fragrance of malati flowers is there, and the same sweet breezes are blowing from the kadamba forest. In our intimate relationship, I am also the same lover, yet still my mind is not happy here. I am eager to go back to that place on the bank of the Reva under the Vetasi tree. That is my desire. (Antya 1.78)
While this seems to be the ordinary pining of a woman for her lover, Rupa grasped the Lord’s intention and wrote another verse on a palm leaf to reveal what he had heard:
My dear friend, now I have met My very old and dear friend Krishna on this field of Kurukshetra. I am the same Radharani, and now We are meeting together. It is very pleasant, but I would still like to go to the bank of the Yamuna beneath the trees of the forest there. I wish to hear the vibration of His sweet flute playing the fifth note within that forest of Vrindavana. (Antya-lila 1.79)
Rupa then stuffed the leaf into the thatched roof of his hut and went to bathe in the sea. Just then Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu decided to visit Rupa. Seeing the leaf, the Lord pulled it from the thatch and upon reading it was overwhelmed with love of Krishna.
When Rupa returned, the Lord said, “My heart is very confidential. How did you know My mind in this way?”
After saying this, He firmly embraced Rupa. (Antya 1.84)
The Lord then showed the verse to Svarapa Damodara, who understood that Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu must have bestowed His full mercy on Rupa.
Lord Chaitanya’s devotees visiting from Bengal returned there after the Rathayatra festival, but Rupa remained in Puri to be near the Lord.
The Lord asked Rupa about the subject of a book he was writing, and when Rupa showed him a page (leaf) of it, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu declared, “The handwriting of Rupa Goswami is just like rows of pearls.”
The Lord brought others to hear excerpts of Rupa’s writing, and their hearts were all filled with love for the pastimes of Krishna and intense gratitude to Rupa for expressing the Lord’s innermost feelings so perfectly.
Srila Ramananda Raya commented, “Your poetic expressions are like continuous showers of nectar.”
After the Dola-yatra (Holi) festival, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu instructed Rupa to return to Vrindavan and not only to continue to write but also to execute the other missions He had set out for him.
“When you go to Vrindavana, stay there, preach transcendental literature and excavate the lost holy places. Establish the service of Lord Krishna and preach the mellows of Lord Krishna’s devotional service. I shall also go to Vrindavana once more.” (Antya 1.218–219)
Rupa became the exemplar of an austere Vaishnava focused on serving the Lord twenty-four hours a day, barely sleeping, if at all. He lived under trees and ate most simply, usually chickpeas and roti he begged from house to house. His clothes were nothing but torn rags, and yet he chanted the names of the Lord and danced in complete ecstasy, superhumanly achieving the goals Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had assigned him.
Rupa Goswami became a prolific writer. One of his best-known books, Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, was graciously presented by Srila Prabhupada for the English-speaking world as The Nectar of Devotion – in effect a handbook for those following the bhakti-yoga path.
In his purport to Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya-lila 19.132, Srila Prabhupada writes:
According to Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, distributing literature is like playing on a great mridanga. Consequently, we always request members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness to publish as many books as possible and distribute them widely throughout the world. By thus following in the footsteps of Srila Rupa Goswami, one can become a rupanuga devotee.
Indeed, the spiritual line coming to us through the grace of Srila Prabhupada is based on the authority of Srila Rupa Goswami, and thus ISKCON devotees may be called rupanugas – followers in the footsteps of Rupa Goswami.
Sri Rupa Goswami departed from this world in 1564, and his samadhi (tomb) and bhajana-kutir (hut for performing spiritual practices) are in the courtyard of the Radha-Damodara temple in Vrindavan.
1 The assassination is mentioned in A Brief History of Bengal for Diaspora Bangladeshis, by Professor S. Deen. Also: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh (Second ed.)
2 Discussion Paper: Development of Islamic Political System in Bengal (author unknown): “Alauddin Hussain Shah (1493–1519) was founder of Hussain Shahi dynasty (1493–1538) and deliverer of Bengal from Abyssinian tyranny (1487–1493). He assumed the regal title, ‘Khalifah of God by proof and evidence’.”
3 The National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh: “Dabir-i-Khas, a royal prestigious post under the sultanate of Delhi signifying the private secretary of the sultan. During the sultanate period Diwan-i-Insha was the third important department [and] dealt with royal correspondence. Dabir-i-khas presided over this department.” Gopiparanadhana Dasa writes in the front matter of Brihad-bhagavatamrita that in effect Rupa’s activities were equivalent to those of a prime minister.