An introduction to one of the greatest poets of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition.
By Tattvavit Dasa
Kavi-karnapura is revered by the Gaudiya Vaishnavas as one of their best poets, blessed with his extraordinary poetic talent by Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Himself.
The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition’s most influential Bengali work, Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, completed in 1615, does not mention Orissa’s temple of Jagannatha, where Sri Chaitanya worshiped, becoming empty for twenty-four years (1568–92), thirty-five years after Sri Chaitanya left the world (in 1533). An Afghan army in Bengal invaded Orissa and plundered the temple in Puri.1
For centuries, the temple had been the pride and symbol of Orissa’s rulers. The Oriyan king Gajapati Prataparudra Deva favorably served Sri Chaitanya in Puri for twenty years, before passing on in 1540 – two years before the teenaged Vaishnava poet Kavi-karnapura completed his first book, Chaitanya-charitamrita-maha-kavya, a Sanskrit poem wherein devotees mourn Sri Chaitanya’s absence and share consoling memories of His life.
Although in the 1570s Kavi-karnapura wrote major works, there is no hint of the political tumult in his devotional writings in praise of Sri Krishna and Sri Chaitanya, because he writes about the relatively peaceful Bengal and Orissa of Sri Chaitanya’s time (1486–1533). However, his main account of Sri Chaitanya’s life, the drama Chaitanya-chandradoya (“The rise of the Chaitanya moon”), in 1572, recalls not just a lost time but a now lost temple culture. Kavi-karnapura saw himself as continuing the literary culture of Puri. He did not live there, but as a baby and as a young boy, when visiting Puri with his father he had extraordinary encounters with Sri Chaitanya. About these, he wrote that Sri Chaitanya’s compassion was the source of his “splendor of speech” (vag-vibhuti), as he called his own style of poetry. Before hearing more about him, however, consider the culture he himself continued.
A Culture Linked to Poetry and Theology
The Puri culture hinged on praising Krishna and hearing about Krishna’s divine play – two main practices of devotion illuminated in texts like the Bhagavata Purana, the most influential sacred text in east India when Sri Chaitanya moved to Puri in the early sixteenth century. Some of the Vaishnavas were writing Sanskrit poetry and drama in praise of Krishna and Vishnu that adhered to strict rules of literary embellishment to infuse rasa:2 the emotions belonging to the world of the main characters, and also a reader’s or audience’s heightened experience of the emotions.
Rasa is drawn from a long history of dramaturgy and poetics. Kavi-karnapura derived his understanding of the rasa theory from the works of the eminent preceding authors and critics. With originality he reworked and adapted their ideas, writing about devotional rasa not out of an interest in the earlier mundane literature, but rather because the borrowed notion of rasa is useful in analyzing devotional experiences. The characters of Kavi-karnapura’s poems – God and His devotees – are eternal, so the poems both have rasa and produce it. In the Chaitanya theology a key concept is devotional rasa, the tastes and humors in the relationships between Krishna and His transcendental associates.
What makes the accomplished and respected Kavi-karnapura unique in the poetic tradition of Chaitanya Vaishnavism is that he also wrote its most elaborate and probably most influential work on literary theory, the Alankara-kaustabha. Kavi-karnapura’s work on poetics proper sees rasa as the soul of poetry and explains how poetic language can embody this soul.
His poetic masterpiece is Ananda-vrindavana-campu, his longest, most sophisticated poem about Krishna’s play in Vrindavan. Kavi-karnapura’s writing style conveys theological ideas but also is intended to touch the reader and contribute to the realization of rasa. Through what is known as shabdartha-vaicitriya (“a marvellousness of sound and sense”), he evokes and articulates specific emotions (rasa) while also conveying particular theological ideas about God, devotion, and the community of devotees.
Prior to Sri Chaitanya, composing Sanskrit poetry had gone on for some centuries in South India, and a blending of devotional and secular courtly poetry had flourished in Bengal and Orissa. Jayadeva, a poet in the twelfth-century court of Bengal, composed the pioneering Gita-govinda, a work that catalyzed the rise of Krishna devotion in Bengal and beyond. By the late thirteenth century Gita-govinda was sung daily to Jagannatha in Puri as part of the grand temple’s ritual culture. For centuries Jayadeva’s poem inspired innumerable similar works.
During the reign of Gajapati Prataparudra Deva (1497–1540), the prominent court poet Ramananda Raya Pattanayaka became one of Sri Chaitanya’s closest companions. So the “lively literary culture at the court was reflected in the circle of Sri Chaitanya’s disciples,” writes Rembert Lutjeharms in his study of Kavi-karnapura’s poetic works, A Vaishnava Poet in Early Modern Bengal. (p. 4) Thus the disciples’ interest in the Sanskrit court poetry – and Bengal’s “vibrant culture of vernacular poetry in praise of Krishna” – was nothing new. (p. 15) “What is remarkable about the Gaudiya Vaishnava interest in poetry, however, is the importance the practice of poetry gained in the tradition’s theology and the importance of theology for their practice of poetry.” (p. 5)
Theology was crucial to devotional poetry, since a work that erred theologically could not establish the conclusions of the ocean of devotional service to Krishna (bhakti-siddhanta-sindhu) – a point made in a story that Lutjeharms opens his book with: Svarupa Damodara, Sri Chaitanya’s secretary, screened each literary work’s mood, theology, and composition before deciding whether it was fit to present to Sri Chaitanya. (Chaitanya-charitamrita 3.5.91–158)
Sri Chaitanya’s disciples, especially Rupa Goswami, frequently used poetic concepts in theological treatises, and cited poetry alongside sacred texts to establish theological truth. More than eighty literary works written by Sri Chaitanya’s immediate disciples survive. Given poetry’s undeniable importance to the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, by examining Kavi-karnapura’s poetry “in the light of his own poetics and . . . his distinct theology” derived from his guru, Srinatha Pandita, Lutjeharms’s book spotlights both the practice of poetry in the “tradition and pre-modern South Asia” and “the intellectual heritage of those early Bengali Vaishnavas.” (pp. 16–17)
Having considered the cultural contributions of Kavi-karnapura, now hear about the descriptions of him given in another chapter of Lutjeharms’s book. Kavi-karnapura (“he who adorns the poets’ ears”) is how Paramananda Dasa Sena was popularly known. His father, Shivananda Sena, first met Sri Chaitanya in Puri, in 1512. Chaitanya requested Shivananda, who was influential and immensely wealthy, to provide for the Bengali devotees during their annual journeys to Puri to celebrate the cart processions of Jagannatha. Thereafter, using all his wealth to support the pilgrims, Shivananda Sena became Sri Chaitanya’s respected and trusted follower, and the hagiographies depict him as one of the most selfless servants of Sri Chaitanya and the Vaishnavas. Paramananda Dasa, Shivananda’s third and youngest son, and his two brothers “naturally earned respect from the Vaishnava community.” (p. 28) He speaks highly of his father, mentioning him several times as “his source of knowledge on Chaitanya and his followers.” (p. 52)
Shivananda once hosted Sri Chaitanya at his home in Kumarahatta, the only place for which Sri Chaitanya specifically traveled to Bengal after He settled in Puri. Sri Chaitanya made this short trip because Kumarahatta was the birthplace of ?shvara Puri, His guru, and He stayed with Shivananda’s family because He considered this family His own. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya 12.51)
In or near Kumarahatta lived prominent Vaishnavas: Srinatha Pandita, Kavi-karnapura’s guru; Vrindavana Dasa, the author of Chaitanya-bhagavata; Nityananda (when he married – after charismatically and successfully marketing the devotionalism of Sri Chaitanya in Bengal); the retired Srivasa Pandita (at whose home in Navadvip Sri Chaitanya’s followers held their first devotional gatherings); Jiva Goswami’s mother (after the death of her husband, she raised Jiva there, which was once her ancestral home); Jagadananda Pandita, an intimate companion of Sri Chaitanya in Puri; and Vasudeva Datta, a gifted singer, known for requesting to take the whole world’s sins on himself. Kumarahatta’s cosmopolitan character “was thus not dominated by a single individual and a single devotional mood – rather, it became a confluence” of various forms of devotionalism. (p. 24)
In 1576, Kavi-karnapura presented Gaura-ganoddesha-dipika, a broad, unified vision of the companions of Sri Chaitanya living in the various communities of His movement (Kumarahatta, Puri, Navadvip, Santipura, and Srikandha). Through his father, Shivananda Sena, he had extensive contact with these communities and most likely knew their leaders. Gaura-ganoddesha-dipika “perhaps best reflects the ecumenical spirit he imbibed from his father,” who annually united Chaitanya’s many followers. (p. 52) The book, based on the testimony of devotees in Bengal, Orissa, and Mathura, indicates how Kavi-karnapura and his contemporaries saw Sri Chaitanya’s companions. In two hundred verses, the book lists Sri Chaitanya’s associates and “provides their identities in Krishna’s eternal play in the transcendent Vrindavan.” (p. 43) The work had a profound and pervasive impact. “Few texts have shaped the Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition’s self-understanding so markedly,” and this is the book “by which he is perhaps most popularly known in contemporary Chaitanya Vaishnava circles.” (p. 68)
Kavi-karnapura’s two works on Sri Chaitanya deeply influenced Krishnadasa Kaviraja, the author of the Chaitanya-charitamrita. (p. 63) Kavi-karnapura’s drama is the only hagiography quoted in the Chaitanya-charitamrita. Most of the quoted verses praise Rupa, Sanatana, and Raghunatha Dasa, three of the six Vrindavan Goswamis. Kavi-karnapura’s influence on Krishnadasa, however, went “beyond these dozen quotes. As [scholars] have pointed out, much of the second (madhya-lila) and third part (antya-lila) of the Chaitanya-charitamrita can be traced back” to Kavi-karnapura’s narrative frameworks. (p. 63)
Kavi-karnapura is revered by the Gaudiya Vaishnavas as one of their best poets, “blessed with his extraordinary poetic talent by Chaitanya himself.” (p. 7) Nowhere is Kavi-karnapura’s standing as a poet “as strongly established and praised as in the Chaitanya-charitamrita, where three little anecdotes created the image all future Vaishnavas had of him.” (p. 68)
Krishnadasa held Kavi-karnapura in high esteem because of what happened to him in Sri Chaitanya’s presence. Chaitanya told Shivananda Sena what to name the baby when he was still in the womb. The following year in Puri, when Shivananda introduced the baby, Chaitanya put his toe in the baby’s mouth. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya 12.50) A few years later, on one occasion Chaitanya repeatedly asked the child to chant the name of Krishna, but the boy remained silent despite his embarrassed father’s attempts to induce him to say Krishna’s name. Sri Chaitanya’s intimate companion Svarupa Damodara addressed Sri Chaitanya and explained, “You have instructed this child to chant the name of Krishna as a mantra, and he therefore does not say the name in front of everyone, but recites it within his mind.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya 16.71–72)
A few days later, Sri Chaitanya asked the boy to speak, upon which Paramananda Dasa extemporaneously composed a Sanskrit verse in the arya meter:
shravasoh kuvalayam akshnor anjanam
akhilam harir jayati
“The blue lotus on their ears,
the kohl on their eyes,
the sapphire necklace on their chest –
all glories to Hari,
the entire ornament of the women of Vrindavan.” (p. 30)
That an uneducated seven-year-old exhibited poetic genius was taken by those present as a proof of the greatness of Sri Chaitanya’s grace, the glory of His mercy. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya 16.73–76) “Kavi-karnapura himself does not mention the incident, but he does claim to be blessed by Chaitanya.” (p. 30) “Vaishnavas depict him as an extraordinary devotee, who as a mere boy attained the grace of God and shared this divine gift with others through his poetry.” (p. 68)
Aside from these few substantial anecdotes, almost nothing is told of his youth or adulthood. Later authors retold these incidents to explain Kavi-karnapura’s singular position. Vishvanatha Chakravarti, “the most influential theologian in the Chaitanya tradition after the Vrindavan Goswamis,” starts his commentary on Kavi-karnapura’s Ananda-vrindavana by writing that Chaitanya’s toe “invested the child with poetic powers, by giving him the essence of true poetry – devotional rasa . . . although ‘the skill of a divine poet’ . . . was not revealed until he was asked by Chaitanya . . . and the boy composed extemporaneously the couplet in praise of Krishna.” (pp. 31–2)
The little known of Kavi-karnapura’s adulthood suggests that he probably married and lived in Bengal until the 1570s. His guru’s influence on him was profound, which suggests that he must have lived a considerable time with Srinatha in Kumarahatta. The biographies of Srinivasa and Narottama Dasa, who spread the teachings of the Vrindavan Goswamis in Bengal at the end of the century, mention Kavi-karnapura as an honored guest at large devotional gatherings organized by them in four cities. He was also said to be present at the deathbed of Chaitanya’s senior associate Adwaita Acharya.
By examining the way the tradition variously viewed Kavi-karnapura, we see that he was the most prolific author among Gaudiya Vaishnavas in Bengal and among the most popular. He was the most prominent of several Bengali authors who wrote in Sanskrit, and he also wrote theology. He was the only author of that period to write two lengthy biographical works on Sri Chaitanya and, besides Murari Gupta, the only other to do so in Sanskrit. The wealthy environment in which he grew up made possible his training in classical Sanskrit poetry, poetics, grammar, logic, and Vaishnava theology. He wrote his first book as a teenager; in adulthood, with an immense command of Sanskrit, and at ease with the classical poetic conventions, he shone as a virtuoso, in graceful verses, ornate prose passages, and the ingenuity of dramatic action.
Early History of Chaitanya Vaishnavism
The Chaitanya-charitamrita (1.10.107) lists Srinatha Pandita, Kavi-karnapura’s guru, as the forty-ninth branch of “the Chaitanya tree.” Kavi-karnapura writes about Srinatha Pandita in the drama Chaitanya-chandradoya: Adwaita introduced Srinatha to Sri Chaitanya, and Sri Chaitanya asked Svarupa Damodara to befriend him. Adwaita and Svarupa Damodara were Srinatha’s teachers, so their theology passed from Srinatha to Kavi-karnapura. Kavi-karnapura’s work shows the development of the theology of these Bengali Vaishnavas.
The important works of the Vrindavan Vaishnavas did not reach Bengal until near the end of the sixteenth century, and thus it’s unlikely that Kavi-karnapura knew the Vrindavan Goswamis’ works when he completed his major works in the 1570s. The Vrindavan theology, being more systematic and comprehensive, shaped the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition from the seventeenth century onward, and the unique takes of the Bengali school were not further developed.
Srinatha is best known as the author of a commentary on the Bhagavata. Very few manuscripts of Srinatha’s almost forgotten Bhagavata commentary survive. It was published only twice (most recently in the 1950s). It is undated but could be the earliest commentary on the Bhagavata from the Chaitanya tradition, and it certainly reflects the early intellectual development of the tradition in Bengal. The title of Srinatha’s commentary, Chaitanya-mata-manjusha, means “the treasure chest containing the ideas of Chaitanya.” The hermeneutical strategy in Srinatha’s commentary is to show that the entire Bhagavata teaches the ideas of Chaitanya mentioned in its famous opening verse. Quoted and explained fifty times by Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON’s founder-acharya, it is often wrongly attributed to Vishvanatha Chakravarti, because Srinatha Pandita was also known as Srinatha Chakravarti.
The son of Vraja’s king [Krishna] is the worshipable Supreme Personality of Godhead. His abode is Vrindavan. The lovely method of worship performed by the gopis is the highest. The scripture Bhagavata is the spotless means of knowledge, and love, prema, is the ultimate goal of life. This is Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s thought, and for us there is nothing other than this.3
Kavi-karnapura is “the first author to fully articulate the doctrine of the ‘five principles’ (panca-tattva),” the quinary manifestation of Krishna who teaches the world devotion. (p. 52) These five are Chaitanya, the form of the devotee (bhakta-rupa); Nityananda, the Lord’s personal manifestation (svarupa-prakasha); Adwaita, the Lord’s partial descent (amsha-avatara); Gadadhara, the Lord’s potency who is a devotee (bhakta-shakti); and the Lord’s devotees headed by Srivasa (isha-bhaktan). Kavi-karnapura claims that this notion originates with Svarupa Damodara. Sri Chaitanya is Krishna Himself, now in the role of His own devotee; Nityananda is Krishna’s brother, Balarama, or Sankarshana, the servant God who facilitates devotion; Adwaita is Sadashiva, the avatara of Krishna, who is both identical to and different from Krishna; Gadadhara embodies Krishna’s potency Radharani, the embodiment of Vraja prema, love for Krishna; and Srivasa is Narada, the great devotee.
Kavi-karnapura is thus important for understanding the early history of Chaitanya Vaishnavism. He furthers the teachings of his guru and prominent Bengali Vaishnavas, whose thought developed independently of the Vrindavan Goswamis. Kavi-karnapura’s greatly respected works helped shape the tradition, though he was primarily a poet, not a theologian, as his title “Kavi-karnapura” attests.
- Richard Eaton’s The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760 describes the political clashes. Afghans came to Bengal in 1537 and overthrew the Shah Sultanate. Around that time Humayan’s Mughal army from Delhi also invaded Bengal. The Afghans fought Mughals for the rest of the century. Gajapati Prataparudra’s dynasty in Orissa quickly faded, so Mukundadeva, a former army commander, became the king in 1557; he allied with Humayan’s son and successor, Akbar, and was at war with the Afghans in Bengal. Eleven years later, the Afghans captured the Jagannatha temple, and they came to rule all of Orissa after Mukundadeva died. Akbar conquered the Afghani capital in northern Bengal in 1574, beginning Bengal’s Mughal era, which stabilized in 1610, during the reign of Akbar’s son. After the Mughal annexation of Orissa in 1592, Jagannatha (“Lord of the universe”) became reinstated in the temple.
- Rasa literally means “taste” or “sap.”
- For Srinatha to show that the entire Bhagavata teaches these teachings of Sri Chaitanya, he “admits that he often offers novel interpretations and sometimes goes against widely established readings of the text,” but he justifies these by references to various scriptures and to specific authoritative grammatical rules or different breakings of the connected words. (p. 50)