Five decades after Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s departure, His remaining direct associates join His later followers for a historic festival.
By Satyaraja Dasa
Nearly half a century after Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s time on earth, thousands of Gaudiya Vaishnavas, including some of His elderly direct associates, gathered for what turned out to be a miraculous celebration of the anniversary of His appearance.

Though practitioners of the Vedic/Vaishnava tradition have enjoyed festivals for millennia – and indeed, the Vaishnava calendar lists myriad important days for celebration, with diverse entries for nearly every week – the Kheturi Mahotsava (“Great Festival at Kheturi”), held some five hundred years ago, stands out for reasons I outline in this article. My primary sources are the contemporary literature that documented the event: Bhakti-ratnakara, Narottama-vilasa, and Prema-vilasa.

The date of the Kheturi festival is something of mystery, though it is universally held to have occurred nearly a century after the appearance of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486 CE) as a celebration of His birth. Says Vaishnava scholar Jan Brzezinski:

K. Chakravarty places Kheturi in about 1580. Although I originally thought this is a little too late, I am now convinced that it was held to commemorate the first centenary of Mahaprabhu’s appearance. . . . Gaura-ganoddesha-dipika seems to have been a major contributing factor to the kinds of conclusions that became integral to the way the Gaudiyas conceived of Chaitanya and his incarnation and legacy . . . It was written in 1576, and the writing of Chaitanya-mangala and Chaitanya-candrodaya at around the same time (1572) seems significant. These works must have been in composition for some years before, but it seems that their completion had some direct relation to the festival, which was, after all, convened on the “Gaura Purnima,” or celebration of Mahaprabhu’s appearance day. In Narottama-vilasa, it is said that Chaitanya-bhagavata and Chaitanya-mangala readings/performances formed part of the festivities.1

Thus the festival appears to have occurred in the mid-1570s at the earliest, and in the early 1580s at the latest. But whenever it took place, it will never be forgotten.

Enter Narottama

Why was the festival held in the small village of Kheturi-gram, which lies some thirteen miles from Rajashahi, just off the Padma River in what is now Bangladesh? No doubt it was centrally located, with easy access from all parts of Bengal and Orissa, and so various communities of Vaishnavas could make the journey without issue. But there is, of course, a more transcendental reason as well, one that predicts the coming of a very special devotee.

The backstory involves Sri Chaitanya and a remarkable incident that took place while He bathed in the Padma River.

One day, peering into her deep blue waters while facing the village of Kheturi, He began to feverishly cry out, “O Narottama! O Narottama!”

This was no surprise to Nityananda Prabhu, the Lord’s immediate expansion and constant associate, for Mahaprabhu had on several occasions already exclaimed this name in the midst of exuberant kirtana. In fact, Mahaprabhu had revealed to Nityananda the reason for His heightened ecstasy that day at the Padma.

“Nityananda, on the other side of this river in Kheturi-gram, a great Vaishnava named Narottama will take birth. His appearance will occur in our lifetime. As you know, kirtana is My life and soul, and Narottama will sustain it. There, in Kheturi, he will absorb My kirtanarasa along with the fullness of My love, and I grow anxious for this to occur. For now, I will deposit my intense love in the Padma, and when Narottama comes and bathes here, the Padma will extend My love to him.”

Within a few years of that incident, Narottama Dasa Thakura would take birth and eventually distinguish himself as a superlative kirtana performer as well as a prominent spiritual master in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, and Kheturi, for that reason alone, would become a central pilgrimage place for devotees.

One day, when Narottama was a teenager, Nityananda Prabhu appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Tomorrow, as the sun begins to rise, you should bathe in the Padma River. At that time you will receive the totality of gaura-prema, or love of God.”

When Narottama awoke, he immediately complied with Nityananda Prabhu’s instruction.

As he entered the Padma, he felt himself undergo a vital transformation. Just then, Mahaprabhu mystically appeared before his eyes and affectionately embraced him. As their bodies merged, he felt Mahaprabhu’s very essence engulf his soul. It is said that at that moment Narottama’s naturally dark complexion was transformed to molten gold – Mahaprabhu’s own distinctive hue – and remained thus for the rest of his life. Today, pilgrims visit Prema-tali Ghat, that part of the Padma where this historic event took place.

After this, Narottama became God intoxicated. King Krishnananda, Narottama’s father and the king of Gopalpur, just outside of Kheturi, feared that his “Naru” would run away to adopt the life of renunciation. For a monarch, this would be a terrible fate – his only son, the heir to the throne, leaving home, as though all his riches were worthless. Krishnananda had plans for Narottama’s marriage as well. A renounced life was not what he had in mind for his young Naru. In pursuance of his plans, Raja Krishnananda had his best guards watch the boy from morning until evening, every day.

Ironically, out of love he made his son a prisoner in his own home. Still, Narottama’s singular activity, day and night, was reciting the names of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Radha-Krishna. Day and night Narottama would pray: “Please my Lord, Gauranga Mahaprabhu, liberate me from this distracted life of family attachment and allow me to serve You in the association of advanced Vaishnavas!” This single-minded determination grew so intense that it kept him from sleeping; his mind and heart were com­pletely absorbed in the Lord’s pastimes and mission.

Then, one night, Narottama managed to fall asleep, and Mahaprabhu appeared to him in a dream.

After tightly embracing Narottama yet again, as He had on the banks of the Padma, the Lord said, “O Narottama, as you are anxious to be with Me, I too have become overwhelmed by your intense devotion, and I am anxious to be with you. For now, though, I want you to go to Vrindavan, and there you should take init­iation from My dear associate Lokanatha Goswami.”

This he did. But at that time, going to Vrindavan entailed a lengthy trek across much of India on foot. Being the son of a king, he was not accustomed to the hardship of such a journey, and he experienced fatigue and hunger. After three days, his soft feet began to blister, and at one point, due to exhaustion, he lost consciousness.

After some time, however, he finally arrived in Vrindavan, and he came upon the famous Govindadeva temple. Seeing Rupa Goswami’s magnificent architectural structure practically drove him mad with happiness, and his body exhibited eight symptoms of ec­stasy, such as intense weeping and horripilation. Naturally, Jiva Goswami, Sri Rupa’s nephew, was quickly informed of this new sadhu’s arrival, and he could under­stand that this was the long-awaited Narottama. Rupa Goswami himself had already passed away, and Jiva was now leader among the Vaishnavas of Vraja. He would accept Narottama as his student.

Soon after, Narottama met Srinivasa, who came to Vrindavan to study under Sri Jiva, and the two of them became dear friends. They were Jiva Goswami’s best students, and along with Duhkhi Krishnadasa (Syamananda) they excelled in all of their studies. The residents of Vrindavan saw them as special souls, the pride of the Goswamis in every way.

Eventually, their beloved teacher gave them the special mission of distributing the bhakti scriptures throughout greater Bengal and Orissa. The rich and exciting details of this episode are retold in my book The Lives of the Vaishnava Saints: Shrinivas Acharya, Narottam Das Thakur, and Shyamananda Pandit.2

It was after this journey to eastern India that Srinivasa, in charge of what might be considered Gaudiya Vaishnavism’s first book-distribution party, sent Narottama back home to Kheturi with Syamananda, who would accompany him for some time and then proceed to his own native town in Orissa. Their goal was to teach the Goswami literature to the devotees in eastern India.

The Kheturi Festival

Before returning to Kheturi, Narottama visited many of the holy places and personalities associated with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, deepening his knowledge of the tradition. When he finally arrived home, a letter was waiting for him. It was from his initiating guru, Lokanatha Goswami. In the letter, Lokanatha asked him to establish deity worship in Kheturi-gram, which would be a significant step in the spiritual lives of Narottama’s followers there, who were mounting in number.

Narottama chose the day of Gaura Purnima, the auspicious birth anniversary of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, to hold a huge installation festival. This festival would also offer Narottama an opportunity to spread the teachings of the Goswamis throughout the Bengal area, for numerous Vaishnavas would attend a deity celebration in honor of Mahaprabhu’s appearance. Sri Chaitanya had completed His manifest pastimes several decades earlier, but His birth anniversary had not yet been observed as a mahotsava (“great celebration”). This would be the first time, and so Narottama invited many important Vaishnava leaders from throughout the subcontinent, particularly those in Bengal and Orissa.

Many hundreds of the first- and second-generation associates of Mahaprabhu, as well as their followers, received invitations written in elaborate Sanskrit poetry. Still, Narottama wondered how he would properly accommodate these noteworthy souls, for out of deep respect he wanted to offer them the best possible facilities. As it transpired, Narottama would indeed be able to give his guests first-rate lodging, since Raja Krishnananda and Raja Purushottama (Narottama’s father and uncle, respectively) had both recently passed away, leaving the family’s riches, which were considerable, to Narottama’s cousin and disciple Santosha Datta.

Santosha was anxious to meet his teacher’s peers and other exalted devotees of the period. Consequently, he became the prime mover behind the festival’s organization, and to assist Narottama, willingly bore the entire expense. Over the course of many months, several buildings were constructed, including a huge, ornate temple with a large storehouse for food, an elaborately designed kirtana hall, an adjoining residential building for visiting devotees, and another guesthouse for additional visitors. Also created were an idyllic bathing pond and a colorful, highly wrought flower garden. Messengers were dispatched in all directions to invite not only Vaishnavas, but also kings, landowners, poets, scholars, authors, performers, and other illustrious guests. This was the backdrop of the Kheturi festival.

Devotees Arrive

As expected, numerous exalted souls traveled from their respective towns – largely by walking – gathering new followers and interested seekers along the way. They told everyone they met about the fabulous festival that would soon take place at Kheturi. Hundreds snowballed into thousands, and over the course of a week they all reached the borders of West Bengal. Santosha Datta arranged for dozens of colossal boats to ferry back and forth as devotees needed to cross the river. Once they were in East Bengal, luxurious palanquins and huge oxcarts carried them the rest of the way to Kheturi.

The hosts – Narottama, Srinivasa, and Santosha Datta – greeted everyone as they arrived, offering each guest a flower garland and welcoming them with great affection. All the devotees were given separate accommodations, with personal attendants to see to their needs. The guest of honor, Jahnava Devi, was the senior, most exalted Vaishnava at the event, and so Narottama specifically honored her with not only flowers and sandalwood, but with special prayers, encouraging the other leading devotees to do the same. She was renowned as the exalted widow of Nityananda Prabhu, who had departed this world some years earlier, and she was revered as a prominent guru in her own right. In fact, she was more than an ordinary guru and was known among her peers (and in subsequent literature) as an incarnation of the Lord’s shakti, or spiritual energy. She was therefore often called Thakurani or Ishvari, for she was seen as the feminine form of the divine.3

The role of Jahnava Devi at the Kheturi festival should be properly highlighted. At the time, the Gaudiya sampradaya (tradition) was newly organized, and various factions were developing with diverse philosophical conceptions. Each offered distinct, varying nuances on the teachings of the Goswamis, and what was needed was an authoritative source to harmonize their various conclusions. Jahnava had visited the Goswamis in Vrindavan and knew their teachings well (as did Srinivasa, Narottama, and Syamananda). As the leading Vaishnava of the time, she mediated on behalf of all the existing factions and resolved their differences to the satisfaction of the Gaudiya orthodoxy.

Thus her presence at the festival was especially significant, for it gave the entire event the extra dimension of being an important ecumenical council.

The Festival Begins

After the worship of Jahnava and the offering of proper respect to all the assembled Vaishnavas, special invocation prayers were recited, and a huge kirtana ensued well into the night; this was merely in preparation for the actual festival, which was to begin on the following day.

The next morning, thousands of enthusiastic devotees began the celebration of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Appearance Day with yet another huge, enthusiastic kirtana. After this, Narottama unveiled five magnificent Krishna deities, whose names were Sri Vallabhi-kanta, Sri Vraja-mohana, Sri Radha-kanta, Sri Radha-ramana, and Sri Krishna; he also brought forth a hauntingly beautiful deity of Sri Chaitanya named Sri Gauranga.4 All were to be installed with the blessings of the assembled Vaishnavas.

Srinivasa Acharya presided over the deity-bathing ceremony while experienced orators and kirtaniyas glorified Krishna according to elaborate Vaishnava traditions. Intricate classical dances and various dramatic performances were enacted throughout the day as the whole of Kheturi roared with the holy names of Lord Krishna.

After the deities were installed according to scriptural procedures, samples of the edible offerings and flower garlands were given to Jahnava, the chief guest, as is the custom. She then gave Srinivasa, Narottama, Syamananda, and Santosha Datta her direct remnants. The rest of the devotees then feasted and discussed Krishna for many hours. Finally, the leading devotees led the masses into the specially prepared ornate kirtana hall, where Narottama led a moving, ecstatic kirtana with a new approach, unheard before that time. This came to be known as the Garanhati form of kirtana, with its mellow, unmistakable melodies and its rich emotional content. Stylistically, it was based on classical Dhrupad music, which is simultaneously serene and majestic.

Narottama’s specific method employed sophisticated rhythms (tala), melodic formats (raga), gestures of emotional expression (abhinaya), and developed dance techniques (natyam). His style focused on a slow tempo and long tala for much of a song, speeding up and reaching a crescendo in due course, thus distinguishing it from other current forms of kirtana performance. Indeed, rather than the usual nama kirtana (chanting of the holy names), favored among the Gaudiya Vaishnavas – and by Mahaprabhu Himself – this new technique was basically a series of songs that told a story (lila), correlating chaitanya-lila with krishna-lila. Such “story kirtana,” known as Padavali-kirtana, had been popular in Bengal, but now the added element was Sri Chaitanya.

In this way Narottama inaugurated what came to be called “Gaura-candrika,” or glorification of Mahaprabhu, which was an addition to kirtana as commonly understood at that time. According to Narottama, Gaura-chandrika would add to the richness of truly glorifying Lord Krishna in a proper manner. Through this chanting, the merciful Sri Chaitanya would allow entrance into the worship of Krishna. Gaura-chandrika lyrics, properly sung, seamlessly evolve into Radha-Krishna kirtana, often connecting Chaitanya and Krishna narratives through thematic references and melodic consistency. This was Narottama’s unique contribution to the world of kirtana.5

His unveiling of this technique is elaborately described in Bhakti-ratnakara, which outlines his singing performance at Kheturi. Sri Gauranga Dasa, Sri Gokula Dasa, and Sri Vallabha Dasa were at Narottama’s side with a large number of musicians led by Devi Dasa, an expert mridanga player. After the music had reached a crescendo, Narottama began to sing. Everyone followed along by playing instruments, dancing, and responding to his singing, repeating his words line by line. All wept when they heard Narottama’s incomparable voice as he led them through the chanting with beautiful mantras. It is described that Narottama and the countless waves of devotees looked like the full moon and numberless stars in the sky.

The Lord Descends

The magic of Kheturi is perhaps best conveyed by a miraculous event documented by Vaishnava writers of the period: Mahaprabhu and His associates who had earlier left the mortal world appeared at the festival and danced with the assembled devotees at the height of Narottama’s kirtana. Thousands of attending devotees bore witness to this sacred event.6

The author of Bhakti-ratnakara incredulously asks, “Who can describe the incomparable happiness of the devotees when in the midst of the kirtana the munificent Sri Chaitanya and His associates descended for the pleasure of His devotees? Like a flash of lightning in the middle of a mass of beautiful clouds, Sri Chaitanya Himself appeared within the multitude of His followers.”

According to Prema-vilasa, Mahaprabhu appeared with Nityananda Prabhu, Sri Advaita, Gadadhara, Srivasa Thakura, Haridasa Thakura, Svarupa Damodara, Rupa and Sanatana Goswamis, and many others. Who, indeed, can imagine the heightened ecstasy as Jahnava saw her departed husband in the midst of the kirtana? Who can imagine the feeling of Advaita Acharya’s sons when they saw their father singing and dancing as if he were a young man? How did Srivasa Thakura’s brothers stop themselves from crying when they saw Srivasa dancing in front of Mahaprabhu, just as they remembered him? In fact, they could not control themselves and were carried away by the ecstasy of being reunited with the Lord and His associates. After experiencing heartrending vipralambha-bhava (intense separation), they would all experience blissful sambhoga (divine union).

A Holi Day

Just as Narottama’s kirtana came to an end, Jahnava Devi began new festivities – this was still on Day Two. She approached the newly installed deities and offered a special form of red powder, the kind that Radha and Krishna lovingly throw at each other during the Holi festival, still celebrated throughout India today. After the deities enjoyed the dye, Jahnava Devi instructed the devotees to take the many buckets of colored dye that were arranged for them and commemorate the Holi festival by throwing it at each other. Before the words had even emanated from her lips, the devotees – thousands of them – were already throwing the dye with great enthusiasm, enjoying remembrance of Radha and Krishna’s fun-loving pastime. This took the devotees well into the night, and then they joyfully celebrated Mahaprabhu’s appearance festival with specially composed songs about His divine birth and early pastimes.

The next morning, Jahnava Devi and a team of experienced cooks trained by her prepared breakfast for all the devotees. Then, with a few assistants, she fed the devotees with her own hands, slowly going from one to the other, reaching as many as she could. Only when everyone else had completed their meal did Jahnava sit down for hers. This was her humility. Having enjoyed sumptuous prasadam in the company of many exalted Vaishnavas, the visiting pilgrims gradually made their way back to their respective homes, bringing Vaishnavism with them.

Thus the main part of the festival lasted for three days,7 but for the attending Vaishnavas it was an experience they would never forget. Tony K. Stewart, Gertrude Conaway Chair in Humanities at Vanderbilt University and a specialist in the religions and literature of the Bengali-speaking world, reflecting on the miraculous event at Kheturi, sums up as follows:

Chaitanya had been seen to dance with Srinivasacharya, Chaitanya’s left-hand man Nityananda paired with Narottamdas, and Chaitanya’s right-hand man Advaitacharya with Syamananda and Ramchandra. The remaining key devotees from the time of Mahaprabhu’s Navadvip lila were matched to other prominent devotees who had made the journey to Kheturi (Narottama-vilasa: 94-95). Chaitanya’s dham was made present, but more importantly, it was understood to have been mapped onto the new circle or mandali of Vaishnavas, resulting in a profound realization: wherever Gaudiya Vaishnava devotees are present, there is Chaitanya and his entourage, and where there is Chaitanya, there is Krishna and Radha. To participate in those gatherings was to experience by replication the original impetus of Chaitanya’s devotional world, and simultaneously to participate in the heavenly realm of Krishna. That notion certainly remains steadfast to this day among practicing Vaishnavas.8

To be sure, Vaishnava festivals are meant to put one in the proximity of Krishna, perhaps not as thoroughly as it did at Kheturi, but as a step in that direction.

NOTES

  1. See Jan Brzezinski, “Keeping Faith with Kheturi, Part II” (http://jagadanandadas.blogspot.com/2015/08/keeping-faith-with-kheturi-part-ii.html)
  2. See Steven J. Rosen, The Lives of the Vaishnava Saints: Shrinivas Acharya, Narottam Das Thakur, and Shyamananda Pandit (New York: FOLK Books,1991) and Satyaraja Dasa, “The Embodiment of Lord Chaitanya’s Love, Part Two” (http://www.krishna.com/srinivasa-acharya-part-two). See also Sitala dasi, The Glorious Life of Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura (New Delhi: Inword Publishers, 2017).
  3. Specifically, she is an incarnation of Ananga-mañjari, the younger sister of Sri Radha, i.e., an immediate expansion of the feminine divine. See Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, “Sri Jahnava Devi,” in Sajjana-toshani, Vol. 2, Issue 4 (1885). Also see, Jan Brzezinski, “Women Saints in Gaudiya Vaishnavism (Part I)” (http://jagadanandadas.blogspot.com/2014/06/women-saints-in-gaudiya-vaishnavism.html)
  4. The traditional literature offers an interesting origin story about these deities. Narottama was searching for an appropriate image of Sri Chaitanya to be installed at the Kheturi festival. One day, a brahmana named Vipradasa (who lived in Gopalpur) found Narottama at his front door. Welcoming the famed sadhu from Kheturi, Vipradasa gave him a special seat and a glass of water, as is the custom. As the two Vaishnavas discussed various topics, it became clear that Vipradasa was afraid of the venomous snakes that had slithered into a shed where he stored rice. Fearless, Narottama went directly into the storeroom to confront the serpents. He emerged with a beautiful deity of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The snakes had vanished. Afterwards, Narottama brought this deity to Kheturi for the now famous installation ceremony. Today, the deity is worshiped at a place called Gambilat, southwest of Kheturi in the Murshidabad district.
  5. Padavali-kirtana, i.e., kirtana that conveys lila narratives, telling stories (pala) about Krishna, had been popular in Bengal for centuries. In the time of Narottama, three forms rose to the fore: (1) The Garanhati (Gader Hata) style of kirtana is attributed to Narottama himself; (2) Reneti, another variant, is usually attributed to Syamananda; and (3) Manoharsahi was the name given to Srinivasa’s technique. These various forms of kirtana are named after the provinces in which they arose. Brown University scholar Donna Wulff, who has thoroughly researched this subject, mentioned in personal correspondence (2-13-12) that of these three techniques only Manoharsahi is still practiced. The others are nearly obsolete, and although there are various kirtaniyas who claim to know them, their legitimacy is questionable. For more on Gauracandrika lyrics, see Edward C. Dimock, Jr. “The Place of Gauracandrika in Bengali Vaishnava Lyrics,” in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Volume 78, No. 3 (1958), 153–169.
  6. As a side note: In the biblical tradition, it is taught that the Jewish revelation at Sinai is unique because God revealed His divinity to an entire people, not just to a lone individual as in the case of Jesus or Mohammed. However, this episode at Kheturi seems to indicate that their theory holds true only in regard to Western religious traditions, for here the divinity of Mahaprabhu was revealed before several thousand witnesses. A comparison of this Vaishnava revelation and that of Mount Sinai (the revelation to the multitudes) should be thoroughly researched by historians of religion.
  7. The Kheturi celebration went on and on, with some opining that it lasted for some four weeks. The literature of the period states that Kheturi was actually the fifth in a series of seven festivals bringing together various Gaudiya Vaishnava leaders from numerous parts of Bengal and Orissa to “assemble for days of public kirtan, celebrating the glories of Chaitanya and Krishna, and on several occasions to commemorate the passing of those last remaining devotees to have known Chaitanya personally. . . . The Kheturi mela is thought to have been the largest and longest of these melas, with attendants in the thousands and a duration lasting a month.” See Tony K. Stewart. The Final Word: The Chaitanya Caritamrita and the Grammar of Religious Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 209, 285.
  8. Tony K. Stewart, “Chaitanya and the Foundation of Gaudiya Vaishnavism,” in History of Bangladesh, Sultanate and Mughal Periods, (c. 1200 to 1800 CE), Vol. 2, ed., Abdul Momin Chowdhury (Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 2020), 376.

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.

ISKCON Kheturi Invitation

The devotees of ISKCON Kheturi are happy to welcome visitors. To learn more about the project, including contact information, visit https://iskconbd.org/kheturi-festival/.