“Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami has very concisely explained the essence of all the scriptures in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita.” – Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati
By Satyaraja Dasa
Why this monumental work on Lord Chaitanya’s life and teachings is held in the highest esteem.

The religious texts of the world are said to be on different levels for people at various stages of spiritual progress. Srila Prabhupada compared the native scriptures of India to an unabridged dictionary, and scriptures such as the Bible and the Koran to abridged dictionaries, being less comprehensive. This is not a mere value judgment but an objective assessment.

While the Bible and the Koran tell us that God is great and that His kingdom should be our desired destination, the Vedic texts tell us not only this but also just how great He is, with more details than the human mind can accommodate. The Vedic literature also describes the various levels of His kingdom with such graphic particularity that it all but takes you there. These ancient wisdom texts from India thus augment the information given in other religious traditions.

But even within this excellent literature, one finds gradation, with some texts overshadowing others. Spiritual authorities in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, originating with Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, say that Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana), and Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita are the best. And among these, Chaitanya-charitamrita stands supreme.

This superlative text is known in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) as the postgraduate study of spiritual learning. In other words, as one properly advances in Krishna consciousness, this work offers detailed information, secrets, and transcendental joy not available anywhere else, facilitating further advancement on the spiritual path. As Srila Prabhupada writes:

Actually, the Chaitanya-charitamrita is not intended for the novice, for it is the postgraduate study of spiritual knowledge. Ideally, one begins with the Bhagavad-gita and advances through Srimad-Bhagavatam to the Chaitanya-charitamrita. Although all these great scriptures are on the same absolute level, for the sake of comparative study the Chaitanya-charitamrita is considered to be on the highest platform. (Introduction to Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita).

Rich and Complex

The Chaitanya-charitamrita (Cc) resists summarization. Its size is formidable, and its subjects the most complex and rich in the history of religion. Its central theme is the life and teachings of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534), who is Lord Krishna in the mood of His greatest devotee, Srimati Radharani. In explicating Sri Chaitanya’s life, the text moves through various levels of spiritual knowledge, ranging from the most fundamental to the most exalted. We learn everything from the soul’s essential nature to the soul’s relationship with God; from basic concepts of divinity to the supreme forms of Radha and Krishna and how to relate with Them in a mood of divine love (prema).

The text was completed in 1615 by Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami (ca. 1496–?), a senior disciple of Raghunatha Dasa Goswami and overall student of the highly revered Six Goswamis of Vrindavan. Clearly, Kaviraja Goswami was exceptionally learned and devoted, as is evident from his extant works: Chaitanya-charitamrita, Govinda-lilamrita, and Saranga-rangada (a commentary on Sri Krishna-karnamrita). As opposed to his other two texts, written in Sanskrit, the Cc is primarily in Bengali, though a large number of quoted and original Sanskrit verses are included as well.

According to Vaishnava scholar Brijbasi Dasa,

In the Chaitanya-charitamrita Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami has quoted more than 90 different sources (among them he quoted Srimad-Bhagavatam the most – 404 times). The book consists of 62 chapters (“paricchedas”) divided into three parts (“lilas”) and 11,555 verses, out of which 97 Sanskrit shlokas were composed by the author himself, 933 Sanskrit verses were quoted by him from many different sources, and the remaining 10,525 Bengali verses (“payaras”) were, of course, composed by Srila Kaviraja Goswami [himself].

In the 1970s Srila Prabhupada gave the Cc to the western world by publishing a deluxe seventeen-volume English edition, complete with original text, word-for-word transliteration, translation, and commentary (based on the Amrita-pravaha-bhashya and Anubhashya commentaries of Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, respectively). His edition included award-winning paintings, executed by his own disciples under his direction, in which various incidents from Lord Chaitanya’s biographical narrative virtually make the text come to life. This Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) edition, translated into numerous languages, has been distributed in mass quantities worldwide.

The Best of Books

When Srila Prabhupada came west by ship in 1965, it was the Cc that gave him solace. His diary written during the voyage does not emphasize the Gita or the Bhagavatam. His preference was clear. As he records in the Jaladuta Diary,

Till 4 o’clock afternoon we have crossed over the Atlantic Ocean for twenty-four hours. The whole day was clear and almost smooth. I am taking my food regularly and got some strength to struggle. There is slight lurching of the ship and I am feeling slight headache also. But I am struggling and the nectarine of life is Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita the source of my all vitality.

On the following day, there is a similar entry:

Today the ship is plying very smoothly. I feel today better. But I am feeling separation from Sri Vrindaban and my Lords Sri Govinda, Gopinath, Radha Damodar. The only solace is Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita in which I am tasting the nectarine of Lord Chaitanya’s Leela.

Prabhupada’s preference echoes that of his guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati:

Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita was Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s favorite book. He regarded it as a matchless devotional work and the most important biography of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, because it succinctly yet definitively imparts His teachings and gives significantly more insights into the nature of the Lord’s highest ecstasies than do Sri Chaitanya-bhagavata or other narratives. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati himself read both Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita and Sri Chaitanya-bhagavata 108 times and told others to do likewise. Especially in his later life, whenever he got time he generally read Sri Chaitanya-caritamrta. (Bhakti Vikasa Swami, Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava, Vol. 1, pp. 277–278)

An interesting story in the life of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura highlights his preference for the Cc, and even briefly explains why he viewed it as a superior text.*

One day, while in the presence of Rajarshi Saradendu Narayana Raya, then Chairman of Philosophy at the University of Lahore in Agastya Villa, Darjeeling, Sarasvati Thakura turned to him and asked, “If you were forced to live without the association of devotees, but could keep just one spiritual text with you, which text would you choose?”

Without missing a beat, Rajarshi Saradendu replied, “Srimad Bhagavad-gita.” By way of explaining his verdict, he cited four verses from the Gita-mahatmya, a text traditionally attributed to Sankaracharya. Rajarshi Saradendu thought texts 4 and 7 were particularly persuasive:

“One should attentively and regularly hear and read Bhagavad-gita. What is the need to read any other Vedic literature? This one book is sufficient, since it contains the essence of the Vedic literature, having emanated from the lotus mouth of Sri Krishna.” (text 4)

“Sri Krishna’s divine song (Bhagavad-gita) is the topmost scripture among all holy scriptures.” (text 7)

What more needed to be said? But Sarasvati Thakura wanted him to go deeper. In fact, using the same words that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu uttered when discussing the goal of life with Ramananda Raya  – “speak further” (age kaha ara) – the Thakura expressed his dissatisfaction with Rajarshi Saradendu’s answer.

Knowing full well that Sarasvati Thakura was pushing him forward for his own good, Rajarshi Saradendu now offered a more considered response: “Srimad-Bhagavatam.

He then cited several verses to support his conclusion, including 1.1.2, 1.1.3, 1.7.7, 12.13.15, as well as a verse from the Garuda Purana and one from the Chaitanya-bhagavata.

The quoted verses make clear that the Bhagavatam is the most sublime scripture of all, revealing the highest knowledge of the Absolute Truth. Rajarshi Saradendu’s carefully chosen texts indicate that “there is no need to hear or follow any scripture other than Srimad-Bhagavatam,” and that “simply by aural reception of this text, devotion, or bhakti, arises in one’s heart, extinguishing the fire of lamentation, illusion, and fear.”

Rajarshi Saradendu concluded by saying, “There are many other verses in various scriptures that similarly glorify Srimad-Bhagavatam. One can therefore conclude that this text is the topmost among all Vedic scriptures. In my opinion, there is no scripture superior to Srimad-Bhagavatam.”

With a knowing smile, Sarasvati Thakura again said, “age kaha ara –‘speak further.’”

But Rajarshi Saradendu replied, “I am unqualified to say anything beyond this.”

Sarasvati Thakura then spoke, offering conclusive words as a world acharya:

Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita is the most glorious scripture. If I were alive to witness the entire world being submerged in water at the time of its destruction (maha-pralaya), I would preserve no other scripture than Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita; I would protect it by keeping it on my chest while swimming. The void left by the annihilation of all the Vedic literatures would be filled simply by the existence of Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita.

In order to gloriously reveal the extraordinary and divine character of Sriman Mahaprabhu, the author of Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami, has described nityananda-tattva, shri-guru-tattva, krishna-tattva, radha-tattva, and advaita-tattva, as well as Sri Krishna’s special manifestation as panca-tattva.

In narrating the pastimes of Rathayatra and the cleaning of the Gundicha temple (gundicha-mandira-marjana), Srila Kaviraja Goswami has established the glories of Vraja, the Vrajavasis, their surrender and service mood to Sri Krishna, and the superiority of the Vraja-gopis among all the devotees of Sri Krishna.

Through the narration of Raya Ramananda Samvada, he has presented the essence of all the Vedic literature by way of a comparative and progressive analysis of the significant instructions of all the various scriptures, and has established the most astonishing glories of parakiya-rasa.

In Rupa-shiksha and Sanatana-shiksha, he has provided analyses of the subtlest aspects of sambandha-, abhidheya-, and prayojana-tattvas [i.e., the way, the means, and the goal]. Through his narration of the pastimes of Namacharya Srila Haridasa Thakura and others, he has established the splendid glories of Harinama [i.e., the importance of chanting the holy name of the Lord].

In describing Sriman Mahaprabhu’s discussions with Sri Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya and Sri Prakashananda Sarasvati, he has recorded the Lord’s thorough rejection of the principles of Advaitavada (non-dualism) and His establishment of the doctrine of Achintya-bhedabheda-tattva (inconceivable, simultaneous oneness and difference) by citing references from shastra.

Moreover, the way Srila Kaviraja Goswami has described the multifarious pastimes of Sriman Mahaprabhu, in which the Lord has imparted teachings through His exemplary behavior and conduct, is extremely beneficial for the living entities in this Kali-yuga.

Abiding by the sutramitam cha saram cha vaco hi vagmita – essential truth spoken concisely is true eloquence,” Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami has very concisely explained the essence of all the scriptures in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita.

Qualifications to Study the Cc

Thus, both Srila Prabhupada and his guru consider Chaitanya-charitamrita the best of books, and although it contains extremely advanced subjects, one can approach it and enter its understanding as long as one observes an important caveat: One must study under the direction of a bona fide spiritual master.

Srila Prabhupada’s edition, with elaborate purports, or devotional explanations, allows readers – perhaps for the first time, especially in the western world – to absorb the mysteries of this esoteric text. Prabhupada urged,

So study this Chaitanya-charitamrita. Now we have got this English edition, very elaborately described, following the footsteps of our Guru Maharaja, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada. So there is no such edition of Chaitanya-caritamrta, very elaborately described. But it can be understood by the advanced student. . . . Advanced means at least one should understand that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. If you simply understand these two words, that Krsna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, then you are advanced. It is not very difficult. (Lecture on Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi-lila 1.1 – Mayapur, March 25, 1975)

In the concluding verse of Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Kaviraja Goswami articulates his indebtedness to his readers: “Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita is filled with the activities of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who is the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself. It invokes all good fortune and destroys everything inauspicious. If one tastes the nectar of Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita with faith and love, I become like a bumblebee tasting the honey of transcendental love from his lotus feet.”

*See Bhakti Vijnana Bharati Goswami Maharaja, Vishuddha Chaitanya-vani: An Anthology of Hari-katha, Vol. 1 (Kolkata: Visuddha Chaitanya-vani Publications, 2016), pp. 78–81.

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.