The youngest of the Six Goswamis was prominent in laying out the philosophical foundations of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.
By Mayapur-shashi Dasa
The youngest of the Six Goswamis of Vrindavan followed in the divine footsteps of his esteemed uncles.
In The Science of Self Realization, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada declares, “Jiva Goswami . . . was the greatest scholar and philosopher in the world.” In the purport to Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi-lila 10.85, Srila Prabhupada writes:
After the disappearance of Srila Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami in Vrindavana, Srila Jiva Goswami became the acharya of all the Vaishnavas in Bengal, Orissa and the rest of the world, and it is he who used to guide them in their devotional service. In Vrindavana he established the Radha-Damodara temple, where, after retirement, we had the opportunity to live from 1962 until 1965, when we decided to come to the United States of America.
What Do We Know about Srila Jiva Goswami?
Srila Jiva Goswami was one of the revered “Six Goswamis of Vrindavan.” Two of the others, Srila Rupa and Srila Sanatana, were his uncles, and their younger brother, Anupama, was his father. Sri Jiva was the youngest of the Six Goswamis and the last to make Vrindavan his home. Consequently, he is not mentioned in any of the early biographies of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and this may contribute to the discrepancies in different documents regarding the dates of his birth and departure. He is, however, glorified in a number of verses in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, and especially in the Bhakti-ratnakara, by Narahari Chakravarti Thakura.
The year of his birth is often given as circa 1513 CE (a year after Michelangelo completed the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and the year that the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon became the first European to explore Florida), but this is subject to debate as details are sparse and other events, some claim, make this date questionable. Jan Brzezinski gave different dates in the Spring 2007 issue of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies: c.1516–1608. Others have proposed that his birthdate must have been earlier, based on the year that Rupa, Sanatana, and Anupama, supposedly with Jiva, met Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Ramakeli. Suffice to say, his birthdate is somewhere around the start of the second decade of the sixteenth century.
Srila Jiva Goswami’s father, Anupama, left this world on the banks of the Ganges in 1514 as he was traveling through Bengal en route to Puri. It is said that this was so devastating for the infant Jiva that even at such a young age it initiated his determination to renounce this world to follow a path of spiritual learning and practice. Throughout his childhood he studied the scriptures with complete focus and was very fond of reading Srimad-Bhagavatam.1 He declared a strong desire to visit Nabadwip, the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, whom Jiva knew was Lord Sri Krishna Himself.
Travels to Nabadwip, Varanasi, and Vrindavan
Jiva’s determination to visit Nabadwip could not be dampened, even though his mother was loath to agree for her young son to follow his two uncles into a life of renunciation. He achieved his dream of traveling to this most holy place when he was somewhere between the ages of ten and thirteen.2 To gain his mother’s agreement, he made an excuse for why he needed to travel in that direction. His visit is described in Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s Navadvip Dhama Mahatmya. There he met Nityananda Prabhu, whom Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s followers accept as Lord Balarama. Nityananda Prabhu escorted the young Jiva around the many glorious placed of Nabadwip, of course including the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, as well as the nearby house of Srivasa Thakura and the temple of Jagannatha Mishra, Lord Chaitanya’s father.
Nityananda Prabhu advised Jiva to travel to Varanasi, a center of learning, to study before continuing to Vrindavan. This he did. In Varanasi he quickly established a reputation as a great scholar and philosopher, despite his young age. From there he traveled to Vrindavan to join his uncles, arriving in 1535.3
Defeating Rupa Narayana in Debate
Once a materialist named Rupa Narayana, who was very proud of his reputation as a great Sanskrit and religious scholar, approached Jiva’s uncles Rupa and Sanatana and challenged each of them to a debate. He wanted to claim to be the greatest philosopher of all and an undefeated debater. With humility, neither wished to waste time on such a meaningless public display and refused, and instead agreed to simply sign a written statement, which the scholar produced, acknowledging that they had been defeated.
The scholar had heard about the younger Jiva’s reputation as a great philosopher and knew that he could not claim to be the greatest unless he defeated him as well. Thinking that Jiva would do as his uncles had done and simply sign a certificate acknowledging defeat, the scholar proudly showed Jiva the documents his uncles had signed and produced a similar one for him. Jiva refused to sign, however, and said that he would debate with the man. Thus he did, and the great Jiva clearly won.
Srila Prabhupada described the story as follows:
He [Rupa Narayana] was defeated, and the matter was informed to Rupa Goswami that “Your nephew and your disciple, Jiva Goswami, has defeated that learned scholar.” So Rupa Goswami became a little angry superficially. “Why did you bother? He was taking . . .” So some people say that Jiva Goswami was rejected on this ground by Rupa Goswami, but that is not a fact. He was very glad that Jiva Goswami defeated him, but he superficially said, “Why should you take so much trouble and bother? He might have gone with that certificate.” But it is the duty of the disciple that even if the spiritual master or senior acharya agrees to be defeated, it is the duty of the disciple to see that his spiritual master and superior is not defeated. That is the instruction we get from Jiva Goswami’s behavior.4
In addition, Srila Prabhupada writes,
In such cases one should not be humble and meek but must act. One should follow the example given by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Lord Chaitanya says in His Shikshashtaka:trinad api sunichenataror iva sahishnunaamanina manadenakirtaniyah sada harih
“One can chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking himself lower than the straw in the street. One should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige, and should be ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.”
Nevertheless, when the Lord was informed that Nityananda Prabhu was injured by Jagai and Madhai, He immediately went to the spot, angry like fire, wanting to kill them. Thus Lord Chaitanya has explained His verse by the example of His own behavior. One should tolerate insults against oneself, but when there is blasphemy committed against superiors such as other Vaishnavas, one should be neither humble nor meek; one must take proper steps to counteract such blasphemy. This is the duty of a servant of a guru and Vaishnavas. Anyone who understands the principle of eternal servitude to the guru and Vaishnavas will appreciate the action of Sri Jiva Goswami in connection with the so-called scholar’s victory over his gurus, Srila Rupa and Srila Sanatana Goswami.”5
Banished from Vrindavan
One day, the scholarly Vaishnava Vallabha Bhatta met with Srila Rupa Goswami, who showed him the invocation verses to his recently composed Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu. Vallabha Bhatta praised the verses but offered to edit them to make them perfect. Rupa accepted the well-meaning offer.
Vallabha Bhatta then went to bathe in the Yamuna, and Jiva made an excuse to also go to the river, where he asked Vallabha Bhatta what was wrong with his uncle’s draft. Patiently replying, the Bhatta pointed out the sentences he believed needed polishing, but in every case the young Jiva defeated the proposition made. The two continued to discuss scriptures for some time, and the Bhatta was amazed at young Jiva’s insight. On returning to Rupa Goswami, Vallabha Bhatta expressed his pleasure and amazement at having met such a special young man and asked who he was. Rupa explained that Jiva was his nephew and student.
Jiva returned from the Yamuna shortly afterwards, and Rupa Goswami solemnly called him over. He told his student that he should have been more tolerant and understanding because Vallabha Bhatta had offered to edit his verses with no other motive than kindness. He then told Jiva that he should leave Vrindavan immediately and make his home on the other side of the river until his mind was steadier.
Sadly, and with considerable regret, Sri Jiva did as his master ordered and moved to Nanda Ghat, where some say he found shelter in an abandoned crocodile hole. Others describe it as a simple straw hut. He lived in extreme austerity, refusing food that villagers offered him, indeed barely eating at all, and sleeping little. His mind was single-pointedly fixed on his practice of reading the scriptures and chanting Hare Krishna, longing for the time when he could return to Vrindavan.
Sanatana Goswami was worried about his exiled nephew and managed to find out from some villagers where he was staying. When he saw the state that Jiva was in, almost starved to death, he was shocked. His nephew fell at his feet and explained all that had transpired. His uncle reassured him that he would speak to his brother, Rupa Goswami, immediately, and hurried back to Vrindavan. On hearing of the dire situation that Jiva was in, Rupa promptly sent a message for him to return without delay. On his reappearance, the two uncles attentively nursed Sri Jiva back to full health, and he was soon to play a major role in the development of Gaudiya Vaishnava culture.6
Back in Vrindavan
In 1542 Sri Rupa Goswami personally carved from a block of black marble a small deity of Damodara (Krishna) and offered Him to Jiva,7 who served and worshiped Lord Damodara for the rest of his life.
In 1558 Sanatana Goswami left this world and Jiva Goswami purchased the land around Seva Kunj (near the present Radha-Damodara temple), where his uncle Rupa Goswami had based himself, along with many of the other great Vaishnavas. Also, and most significantly, it was here that Sri Shyamasundara eternally enjoys pleasure pastimes with Srimati Radharani and the gopis, including the celebrated rasa-lila. The deed shows that the land was bought from Ali Kant Chaudhari, Emperor Akbar’s local landlord, and included Seva Kunj, Dan Gulli, Imli Tala, Sringhar Sthali, and Rasa Sthali, marked by four boundary trees -–tamarind, banyan, pipal, and kadamba – and the purchase price was thirty rupees.8 The original deed still exists and is kept at the Vrindavan Research Institute.
The Radha-Damodar Mandir
Sometime during this period Sri Jiva Goswami directed the building of the Radha-Damodara temple, although the date is unconfirmed. Some references claim that construction started in 1542, the same year his uncle carved the deity of Damodara, although this date does not appear to tally with other events, such as the document, mentioned above, that confirms that Jiva Goswami didn’t purchase the land around Seva Kunj until 1558. It may, therefore, seem more likely that 1542 was the year when Rupa Goswami placed Damodara into Jiva’s care, and that worship of the deity commenced from that date at this location.
While outwardly modest, the Radha-Damodara temple is indisputably one of the most important to Gaudiya Vaishnavas. It contains the samadhis (memorial tombs) of Jiva and Rupa Goswamis. Also, it is believed that a portion of the ashes of Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami are entombed there, while another portion are at Radha-kunda, where his cremation took place.9 The samadhi of the reclusive Bhugarbha Goswami is also here.
Of immense interest to ISKCON devotees is that it was at the Radha-Damodara temple that Srila Prabhupada stayed for several years translating Srimad-Bhagavatam and preparing for his life’s mission to take Krishna consciousness to the West.
Shortly before Rupa Goswami left this world, in 1564, he gave all his manuscripts to his foremost student, Sri Jiva, and tasked him with writing commentaries. From that time on, Jiva became the foremost amongst the Vaishnavas in Vrindavan. He developed a reputation as being the most systematic of the Six Goswamis in his study, practice, and writings. Many highly respected academics have declared him to be one of the most important theologians born in India. A prolific writer, he compiled at least twenty-five celebrated and greatly respected books on theology, grammar, rhetoric, and poetics. Lance E. Nelson, Professor and Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego, wrote:
His Bhagavata-sandarbha remains without a doubt his most significant achievement. The title suggests a compendium – literally a “stringing or drawing together” of the teachings of the Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad-Bhagavatam. In the Bhagavata-sandarbha, Jiva Goswami “strings together” key verses from this text in a topical arrangement with commentary, so as to create the first thoroughgoing, systematic presentation of Gaudiya Vaishnava teachings. It remains the most authoritative.10
“He was assisting his uncle,” Srila Prabhupada said, “and after hearing from him he composed very scholarly books known as Shat-sandarbha. These Shat-sandarbha are recognized as the most scholarly work in the world. There is no comparison of his philosophical approach to the Vaishnava school. . . . That is the greatest gift of Sri Jiva Goswami.”11
In the first paragraph of the Preface to Gopiparanadhana Dasa’s version of Srila Jiva Goswami’s Sri Tattva-sandharbha, the author comments on Jiva Goswami’s brilliance as a scholar and theologian. However, he emphasizes, “But his greatest attribute was his ardent devotion for Sri Chaitanya.” He continues: “Sri Jiva Goswami, born into a family of avid followers of Lord Chaitanya and showing their same enthusiasm from his earliest years, took as his mission in life to reveal Krishna as the Supreme Lord and give intelligent, spiritually inclined people solid reasons to become attracted to Him.”
Yet despite all of Jiva Goswami’s brilliance as a theologian and scholar, Srila Prabhupada reminds us that Sri Jiva remained always very kind to all the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, providing all who traveled to Vrindavan with a place to stay as well as offering them prasadam. In other words, he never lost his humility.
Three Prominent Students
One of the most important saints in the Gaudiya sampradaya is Srinivasa Acharya. He associated with Rupa and Sanatana Goswamis in Vrindavan, and after they passed away they appeared to him in a dream and told him to take shelter of Gopala Bhatta Goswami. They also told Srinivasa to study under Jiva Goswami with all his heart and soul. This he did, and he soon became close friends with two other important students of Jiva: Narottama Dasa (a disciple of Lokanatha Goswami) and Duhkhi Krishnadasa, whom Jiva renamed Shyamananda. When Jiva Goswami had full confidence in these three top students, he tasked them to take the books of the Goswamis of Vrindavan to Bengal and Orissa for the benefit of Lord Chaitanya’s devotees living in these provinces.
In The Lives of the Vaishnava Saints, Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen) writes:
Sri Jiva began the preparations for the long and arduous journey. These devotees were his best students, and he would spare no pains for their welfare. He had a rich merchant disciple from Mathura supply a large cart, four strong bullocks, and ten armed guards. The manuscripts – original works by Rupa, Sanatana, Gopala Bhatta, Raghunatha Dasa, Jiva, and others – were placed in a large wooden chest, which was bolted and covered with a waxed cloth. Sri Jiva also secured a special passport from the king of Jaipur that his three students would need to show as they traveled to eastern India. Then Srinivasa, Narottama, and Shyamananda left Vrindavana.
As they began traveling, Sri Jiva and several other devotees accompanied them, unable to bear being separated. As the caravan neared Agra, the well-wishers stayed behind. Now the journey was underway. There could be no turning back.
Later in the journey the manuscripts were stolen, and then recovered, finally reaching their destination.
It is said that in the year 1570 the Moghul emperor Akbar visited Vrindavan specifically to meet the esteemed Goswamis. Amongst others, he met Jiva Goswami. He was so impressed that he had a library built at the Radha-Damodara temple to safely keep Vaishnava literature.
The emperor invited Jiva to his palace in Rajasthan for further discussions, but the Goswami refused, as he had made a vow never to leave Vrindavan. Later Akbar sent a splendid carriage and horses with a promise to return Jiva before nightfall, and so he consented. He later praised the emperor for his kindness and Vaishnava outlook.
As with his birthdate, there is no consensus on when Srila Jiva Goswami left this world. Some claim 1598, and others say it was as late as ten years later. Whatever the date, this monumentally important personality remains with us in his books, in much the same was as we will never be separated from Srila Prabhupada if we continue to read his books every day.
Your tendency to give Srila Jiva Goswami the proper position as a philosopher is very much appreciated. Some years back I attended a meeting in Calcutta wherein Pramathanath Tarkabhusan, the learned Sanskrit scholar, was present. He said about Jiva Goswami very highly that there was no comparison with Jiva Goswami and any other philosophers of the world. Gaudiya Vaisnavism is very much proud of having such a great acharya as Jiva Goswami . (Letter, November 3, 1970)
And in a letter dated December 15, 1966, Srila Prabhupada wrote, “My mission is to develop the glories of Srila Jiva Goswami all over the world and I think you should cooperate with my honest endeavour.”
1 Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi-lila 10.25, Purport.
2 Srila Prabhupada, Vaishnava Calendar Description, Vrindavan, March 11, 1972.
3 Prabhupada at Radha Damodara, by Mahanidhi Swami.
4 Srila Prabhupada, Vaishnava Calendar Description, Vrindavan, March 11, 1972.
5 Sri Chaitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila 10.85.
6 Bhakti-ratnakara, Narahari Chakravarti Thakura.
7 Sadhana Dipika, an early-seventeenth-century text by Radha-Krishna Goswami, then head of the Govindaji temple in Vrindavan, says that Srila Rupa Goswami could “prepare deities and draw expertly.”
8 Prabhupada at Radha Damodara, by Mahanidhi Swami.
9 Vraja Mandala Parikrama, by Rajasekhara Dasa Brahmachari.
10 From the Foreword to Gopiparanadhana Dasa’s translation and commentary of Srila Jiva Goswami’s Sri Tattva-sandharbha.
11 Srila Prabhupada, Vaishnava Calendar Description, Vrindavan, March 11, 1972.