Walking a Theological Tightrope

Controversies of Sampradaya in Eighteenth Century Caitanya Vaisnavism

Ravi M. Gupta (Radhika Ramana Dasa)

This article takes us to a time and place of special importance in the history of Caitanya Vaisnavism. The first half of the eighteenth century was a period of dynamic growth, prestige, and prosperity for the followers of Sri Caitanya, especially in the Rajput kingdom of modern-day Rajasthan. But with the growth and success of any community, crucial questions of identity and legitimacy arise. How do we define ourselves as a community? From where do we derive our authority? How do we represent ourselves to those who are not members of our community? In the Indian religious context, such questions usually centre on the important concept of sampradaya, or disciplic tradition. So also in the history of Caitanya Vaisnavism, questions of sampradaya have caused some controversy, particularly in regard to the issue of affiliation with the Madhva tradition. Some members of the tradition argue that Sri Caitanya and his followers were affiliated with Madhvacarya, others argue to the contrary. The author’s purpose here is not to decide the debate either way or even present all the evidence; rather to show how controversies of this sort can become opportunities for clarifying a community’s sense of identity and purpose. One acarya in particular, Baladeva Vidyabhusana, seized such an opportunity when it arose and used it to preserve and strengthen the tradition.

It is ironic that the nature of a community’s religious identity is often most clearly revealed when that identity is called into question. The delicate network of relationships that lends stability to a notion of religious identity is clarified precisely when that network becomes unstable. A challenge from outside the community, a controversy from within, or changing socio-political circumstances can bring issues of identity into sharp focus.

In the Hindu context, such disturbances are often centred on the important category of sampradaya. The word ‘sampradaya’ can be loosely translated as ‘tradition’ or ‘religious system’, although the word commands much more power and respect in the Indian context than do its translations in English. Perhaps sampradaya is more analogous to ‘cumulative tradition’, in the way Wilfred Cantwell Smith uses the phrase.2 Sampradaya is a body of precept, practice, and attitudes, which are transmitted to, and redefined by, each successive generation of followers. Participation in sampradaya forces continuity with the past, but at the same time provides a platform for change from within the community of practitioners.

Besides this human locus, however, sampradaya also has a divine genesis, an origin which continually re-presents itself in successive generations. The notion of sampradaya is closely tied to the concrete reality of guru-parampara—the lineage of spiritual masters who are both repositories and transmitters of tradition. William Pinch writes of the relationship between sampradaya and parampara,

What requires emphasis, however, is the fact that the institutional memory implicit to guru parampara defined the contours of sampraday [sic] for every individual. Each is linked to the others by a common memory, binding Ramanandis [members of the sampradaya] in the present by connecting them collectively to the past. Sampraday is predicated upon a remembered past lined with charismatic preceptors deriving inspiration from a divine origin. (Pinch, p. 40–1)

This continuity with the past and appeal to divine inspiration go hand in hand with issues of legitimacy and authority. Bestowing legitimacy, whether to a theological doctrine, a ritual procedure, or to an individual in the parampara, is one of the primary functions of sampradaya. Membership in, and appeal to, a sampradaya not only lends authority to one’s truth claims, but allows one to make those claims in the first place. An oft-quoted verse from the Padma Purana states, sampradayavihina ye mantras te nisphala matah: ‘Mantras which are not received in sampradaya are considered fruitless.’

Because of the multi-faceted role sampradaya plays in the formation, transmission, and perpetuation of communal religious identity, it naturally becomes the locus of many challenges to that identity. These challenges, in turn, become fruitful places to look at for the constituents of religious identity. But for most observers, controversies regarding sampradaya usually mean controversies of succession. These are controversies at the human end of the parampara, over ‘who is the legitimate representative of a particular line, or . . . whose “level of divine realization” is superior’ (Jarow, p. 60). What is often ignored is that the divine end (or rather, divine beginning) of the parampara, the transcendental origin of the lineage, can be equally problematic. This is especially the case with the younger sampradayas of North India, whose members often have to look to older lineages to establish the legitimacy of their line. Questions such as, ‘Who is the founder of, or primary inspiration for, our sampradaya? Did he in fact found a new sampradaya, or was he simply transforming and renewing one that already existed? In either case, did he establish his legitimacy by accepting initiation in an existing sampradaya, or is his authority self-manifest?’ Questions such as this invert the locus of controversies, and in a sense deepen it, because they challenge the identity structure of every member of the lineage. Whereas a controversy over succession may cause the sampradaya to branch under two leaderships, controversy over divine origin threatens to split the sampradaya into two distinct lines, with only one point of intersection—namely, the common inspirer of both.

In many ways, such controversies over origin of lineage reflect the much larger Indian concern over parentage. This concern operates at many levels, including the religious, and is closely tied to issues of identity and legitimacy. At the most basic, individual level, membership in a legitimate sampradaya is akin to having legitimate parentage in social circles. Even as producing a genealogy ensures respectability in society, initiation into a parampara community brings acceptability in religious circles.

But the force of parentage does not stop here. The parampara community itself must prove its legitimacy in order to gain an identity for the community as a whole. As Wright and Wright put it, ‘If one cannot prove natal legitimacy, one may be cast out as a bastard. The same social standard applies to religious organizations. If a religious group cannot prove its descent from one of the recognised traditions, it risks being dismissed as illegitimate.’ (Wright and Wright , p. 162) This meta-parentage, so to speak, is the divine end of sampradaya, the non-human source which gives ‘birth’ to the line of human teachers. This higher order of legitimacy can be secured by a community in two ways: either by making an independent claim to direct descent from God himself, or by aligning oneself with another sampradaya which has already secured its meta-legitimacy. The second option is easier, because it allows one to make the leap to a divine origin simply by connecting to the human end of another sampradaya. But it also means less prestige for the younger group, as it gets ‘tagged on’ to a larger and more soteriologically important community. Thus, a younger group might choose both options, professing allegiance to a recognised parampara in order to gain acceptability, while claiming divine status for its founder and an independent theology.

This, then, brings us to the heart of the identity issue I wish to focus on here, namely, the controversy over meta-parentage that was and still is played out in the Caitanya Vaisnava sampradaya of Vrndavana and Bengal.

The Caitanya school of Vaisnavism, also known as Gaudiya Vaisnavism because of its Bengali origins, was founded in the sixteenth century by the ecstatic saint and spiritual teacher, Sri Krsna Caitanya. Sri Caitanya, also known to his followers as ‘Mahaprabhu’, the great master, taught that unmotivated bhakti (devotion) to Krsna is the highest human goal. Caitanya Vaisnavas prefer to worship Krsna as the blue-hued cowherd-boy sporting in forests of Vrndavana, his childhood home. This Krsna is the Supreme Godhead, the source even of Visnu, and all living entities are his natural servitors. The ideal of selfless devotion and surrender to Krsna is exemplified by the gopis of Vrndavana, Krsna’s cowherd girlfriends, and of all the gopis, Srimati Radha is the topmost. Thus, in Caitanya Vaisnava temples, Krsna is worshipped along with his eternal consort, Radha.

Caitanya himself is considered by members of the sampradaya to be a combined incarnation of Radha and Krsna.3 This fact is not insignificant for our study, because the founder’s dual identity provides the theological underpinnings for the sampradaya’s issues over identity. As both Radha and Krsna, Caitanya plays a dual role in the lives of devotees. He is both the ideal worshipper (sadhaka) and the worshipable goal (sadhya), he is both the best devotee (bhakta) and the Supreme Lord (bhagavan), and he is both the teacher (acarya) to be emulated but also the Lord (isvara) who is not to be imitated. Caitanya’s dual role encapsulates the tension that unfolds itself in the controversy over the meta-parentage of the sampradaya. Who is Sri Caitanya? As God himself, is he the self-illuminating founder of a new and independent sampradaya? Or as the ideal devotee, did he take initiation into an already-recognised sampradaya to set a proper example? Do his followers owe allegiance to a parampara that predates Caitanya, or are they recipients of a new dispensation who need answer to no one?

In the case of Caitanya Vaisnavism, the senior sampradaya in question is the Madhva sampradaya, founded by the South Indian acarya Madhva in the eleventh century. Defendants of the view favouring affiliation claim that Caitanya’s guru’s guru, Madhavendra Puri, was initiated by a teacher of the Madhva school, Laksmipati Tirtha. Defendants of the separatist view claim that the connection is spurious.

Proponents of either side agree that Caitanya is both devotee and God; the question is simply which of the two identities is most relevant for issues of sampradaya. O. B. L. Kapoor, in a systematic defense of the view favouring affiliation, writes,

We have no intention of questioning the faith of the Sampradaya regarding the divinity of Sri Caitanya . . . It is a fact that he took Mantra diksa from his Guru, Isvara Puri, and he must, from that point of view be regarded as formally affiliated with the Sampradaya to which Isvara Puri belonged [namely, the Madhva sampradaya]. Even the uniqueness of his position of Bhakta-Bhagavan involves this aspect, since as Bhakta, who must seek initiation before he can start his Sadhana, he must be linked with some Sampradaya. (Kapoor, p. 45)

For Kapoor, Caitanya’s identity as devotee necessitates his adherence to the formality of initiation. But Radha Govinda Nath, an early twentieth century devotee-scholar to whom Kapoor responds in his essay, argues that Caitanya’s identity as God makes sampradaya affiliation redundant and unwanted. Nath quotes the eighteenth century commentator Sri Isvari in support of his point,

‘Therefore . . . Sri Krsna Caitanya, who is the Supreme Godhead Himself (svayam bhagavan), is the propagator of the sampradaya and his associates only are the gurus of the sampradaya, not anyone else.’ . . . By this statement it is clear that Sriman Mahaprabhu himself is the propagator of the ‘Gaudiya Sampradaya.’ Therefore it is indeed appropriate to call it the ‘Caitanya Sampradaya’ [as opposed to ‘the Madhva sampradaya’].4 (Nath, pp. 22, 33)

Whether or not Caitanya’s prestige is diminished by his membership in another sampradaya is a question that must be resolved theologically within the tradition itself. What is clear, however, is that the issue of sampradaya affiliation was not near as important to the early followers of Caitanya as it became for later generations. The immediate disciples of Caitanya, especially the six Gosvamis, argue neither for nor against affiliation with any particular sampradaya. Caitanya’s position as their leader and spiritual master was quite obvious to them. Although they were aware that he was affiliated with another sampradaya by virtue of the fact that he received both mantra-diksa and sannyasa-diksa from gurus of already-existing sampradayas, they saw no reason to emphasise that affiliation.5 At the same time, they did not see themselves in opposition to other lineages, and were quite happy to use the acaryas of these traditions as authoritative sources in their writings.6

It was at the beginning of the eighteenth century that the issue of sampradaya affiliation took centre stage and became a point of serious controversy both within and beyond the Caitanya tradition. The events and literature of this period provide us with a concrete example of how the tradition was transformed on the inside when its identity structure was challenged on the outside. A brief account of the historical context surrounding the controversy will put the issues at stake in sharper focus.

Since the time of Caitanya himself, the village of Vrndavana, Krsna’s childhood home, has been the spiritual, intellectual, and administrative centre of the Caitanya Vaisnava movement. Because of its proximity to Delhi and Agra, as well as its importance as a centre of trade and pilgrimage, the Mathura-Vrndavana region, in present day Uttar Pradesh, was held under close supervision by the Mughal rulers of India. When Aurangzeb issued an edict in 1669 to ‘destroy with a willing hand the schools and temples of the infidels’, the Vaisnavas of Vrndavana saw a real threat to their lives, property, and deities (Edwardes, p. 116).

As a counterbalance to the Mughal rule, however, the Rajput kings of Eastern Rajasthan also held considerable sway in the Vrndavana area.7 Since the time of Akbar, the Mughal rulers had given considerable autonomy to the Rajputs, or more specifically, the Kachavahas, in exchange for their political loyalty and military support (Spear, p. 52). The Kachavahas, who became the highest ranking officers of the Mughal court (Horstmann, p. 2), saw themselves as guardians of the Hindu tradition and were given direct charge of several Vrndavana temples belonging to the Caitanya sampradaya (Horstmann, p. 3).

The most important of these temples was the one dedicated to Govindadeva, a form of Krsna established by Rupa Gosvami. The image of Govinda is accompanied by his consort, Srimati Radha, and together they are the aradhya (worshipable deities) for all followers of Caitanya.8 The Kachavaha kings had long-standing affinity for the deities of Radha and Govinda, and through them for the Caitanya sampradaya. Monika Horstmann describes Govindadeva’s increasing significance for the Kachavaha rulers:

Around 1669, the images of GD [Govindadeva] and his consort, Radha, . . . were removed from Vrindaban and taken to the Kachavaha territory. The period from 1670 to 1739 is characterized by the gradual transformation of GD from the Lord of Braj’s Vrindaban . . . to the Lord of the Palace of Jaipur, a Lord who demanded tribute from the entire Jaipur State. This glorious transformation was achieved by Jai Singh II. (Horstmann, p. 3)

With the rising fortunes of Govindadeva, his caretakers, the Caitanya Vaisnavas, also gained prominence in matters of ritual procedure and royal ceremony. Over time, they superseded another sampradaya which had so far enjoyed precedence in the kingdom, namely the Ramanandis. This Vaisnava sampradaya, founded by the fourteenth-century North Indian teacher Ramananda, reveres Lord Rama as the Supreme Godhead. Although the Kachavahas had long venerated Rama as their forefather and family deity, ‘since the time of Jai Singh II Govindadeva has superseded Sitarama in the hearts of the rulers and in certain ceremonies’ (Clementin-Ojha, p. 57, quoted in Horstmann, p. 7).

This rise to prominence, however, was not always smooth for the Caitanya Vaisnavas, as the new arrivals faced many challenges to their legitimacy, especially in their role as caretakers of Govindadeva. Questions were raised by both rival sampradayas and by Jai Singh himself, and were always mediated in the court of the King.9 During the first quarter of the eighteenth century, three main challenges were brought forward, hitting at Caitanyite theology, ritual, and sampradaya. First, the propriety of worshipping Radha and Krsna together was questioned since they are apparently not married. Second, it was argued that one should worship Visnu before worshipping Krsna, since Krsna is an avatara of Visnu, yet the Caitanya Vaisnavas did not follow this order. And lastly, it was alleged, the followers of Caitanya did not belong to an authorised sampradaya, since there are only four recognised Vaisnava sampradayas, namely, those founded by Ramanuja, Madhva, Visnusvami and Nimbarka.10

The first two objections strike at the heart of what is unique to Caitanya theology and practice. Krsna’s pre-eminence as the Supreme Godhead and Radha’s inseparability from him are beliefs that are held dearly by devotees. Any possibility of Radha’s being separated from Krsna would have caused much consternation in the community, for it would have stripped the devotees of their very impetus to perform worship. The most serious objection, however, is the third, since, as we have noted, without sampradaya, the followers of Caitanya would lose the very ability to defend their theology and practice.

Around 1723, the issue of sampradaya legitimacy came to a head and, in the traditional manner of settling religious disputes, Maharaja Jai Singh invited all parties to a conference at his court11 (Elkman, p. 43). On the Caitanya side, a young scholar named Baladeva Vidyabhusana12 was deputed for the defense. Before joining the Caitanya sampradaya, Baladeva had been an initiated member of the Madhva sampradaya,13 and so had an advantage when it came to establishing his legitimacy in the assembly. In fact, Baladeva argued that Caitanya himself was affiliated with the Madhva sampradaya through his guru’s guru, Madhavendra Puri, and thus all Caitanya Vaisnavas were members of a legitimate Vaisnava parampara. In response to this, however, Baladeva was asked to name a commentary on the Brahmasutra that was acceptable to the Caitanya Vaisnavas. Traditionally, a Brahmasutra commentary has been the defining work of any Vedantic school of philosophy since the time of Sankara. If the Caitanya Vaisnavas claimed legitimate status, they would have to argue their theology either on the basis of Madhva’s commentary, or else produce their own.

It is here that the difficulty of establishing meta-parentage for a sampradaya becomes clear. If Baladeva were to completely identify the Caitanya Vaisnavas with the followers of Madhva, and use Madhva’s Brahmasutra commentary, he would be unable to defend the doctrines and practice unique to Caitanya Vaisnavism (such as the worship of Radha and Krsna). On the other hand, the Caitanyas had no commentary of their own, for they regarded the Bhagavata Purana as the perfect, natural commentary, making a human commentary redundant.14 This, of course, was unacceptable to followers of other sampradayas, and arguing this position would have alienated the Caitanya Vaisnavas from the very sampradaya with which they claimed affiliation. Thus, Baladeva chose a middle course, deciding to write a commentary himself,15 but drawing heavily from Madhva for his explanations within it.16

The delicate balancing act that Baladeva was engaged in might be seen most clearly in another work called the Prameyaratnavali, which was probably written around the same time as a supplement to his commentary on the Brahmasutra.17 In the Prameyaratnavali, Baladeva Vidyabhusana summarises Caitanya Vaisnava theology in nine prameyas (theses). These prameyas are short, didactic statements, concerning such things as the nature of God and the means of knowing him, the living entities, the world, and the relationship between them. Baladeva systematically states each prameya, and then argues for its validity by citing numerous scriptural passages and dealing with possible objections.18

Now, the idea of summarising one’s theology in nine points was not Baladeva’s; it had already been done by Vyasatirtha, an eminent philosopher of the Madhva school19 (Sharma 1981, p. 297). At the beginning of the Prameyaratnavali, Baladeva paraphrases Vyasatirtha’s prameyas and then identifies them with his own, saying, ‘So taught the great master, Sri Caitanya’. 20 In other words, by utilising a pedagogical technique that was widely known as belonging to the Madhva sampradaya, Baladeva was clearly identifying his tradition with that of Madhva. At the same time, the prameyas were only brief and non-specific statements, allowing Baladeva enough theological leeway to argue for the unique aspects of Caitanyite doctrine and practice. For example, Baladeva’s first prameya says, ‘Visnu is supreme’, and Vyasatirtha’s first says, ‘Hari is supreme’. On the surface both prameyas are nearly identical. Yet in his exposition of this prameya, Baladeva replaces Visnu with Krsna and cites a plethora of scriptural passages establishing Krsna’s pre-eminence. He writes, ‘Because Krsna is the [original] cause, because He is the resting place of qualities like eternity, intelligence, and bliss, and because He eternally possesses Laksmi and other energies, therefore Krsna is considered supreme’21 (paragraph 10). In this way, Baladeva responds to the question of ritual priority brought against the Caitanya Vaisnavas.

The Prameyaratnavali also shows clear signs of responding to the other challenges brought before the sampradaya. Baladeva devotes an unusually long section in the first prameya to Radha’s position as the inseparable sakti (energy) of Krsna and source of all other Goddesses, such as Laksmi and Durga.22 Most significantly, in the introduction to the Prameyaratnavali, Baladeva makes a clear statement regarding the issue of sampradaya. After offering homage to Madhvacarya, 23 he cites the verse from the Padma Purana identifying the Vaisnava sampradayas as only four in number. He then lists his own parampara tracing the succession of gurus from Madhva to Sri Caitanya.

Although I have argued here that the Prameyaratnavali displays the concerns associated with the establishment of meta-legitimacy in the Caitanya community,24 specifically in regard to its affiliation with the Madhva sampradaya, this claim is far from universally accepted. The conference at Jai Singh’s court is interpreted entirely differently depending on one’s stance on the issue of affiliation. Radha Govinda Nath, for example, is unwilling to concede that Baladeva was in any significant way influenced by the Madhva sampradaya. He regards the guru-parampara at the beginning of the Prameyaratnavali as an interpolation (Nath, p. 46). In order to account for the obvious Madhva connection in the Prameyaratnavali, Nath asserts that Baladeva wrote the work before he converted to Caitanya Vaisnavism (Nath, p. 51), and thus all references to Caitanya in the text are spurious. Although this seems to be a difficult position to defend,25 we must realise that for Nath, the very purpose of the debate was to establish the Caitanya Vaisnavas as an independent sampradaya, and so any move by Baladeva towards affiliation would have been dishonest. Nath’s reasoning is simple: Baladeva was a follower of Caitanya. But the views of Madhva and Caitanya differ in significant ways, as we saw in the different interpretations of the first prameya; therefore Baladeva—or for that matter any Caitanya Vaisnava—could not possibly have aligned himself with Madhva’s lineage (Nath, p. 52).

This argument is countered by O. B. L. Kapoor, who believes that Nath assumes a faulty premise, namely that in every case a disciple must adhere to the views of the sampradaya into which he is initiated. Although this is ordinarily required, says Kapoor, history shows that a powerful acarya may offer a new set of teachings, while still accepting membership in the sampradaya to set a proper example (Kapoor, p. 42). Kapoor agrees that Caitanya differs significantly from Madhva, and so concludes that their connection is purely formal, though not meaningless (Kapoor, p. 45). Baladeva Vidyabhusana brought this historical connection into the limelight, but by no means did he invent it.26

There is yet a third side to the debate over meta-parentage, and that is the perspective of the parent sampradaya in question. In general, scholars of the Madhva sampradaya have been cautious in accepting Caitanyite claims of affiliation. With neither complete agreement in theology nor formal, institutional cooperation, there is little reason for the Madhvas to include the followers of Caitanya in their fold. The official parampara lists of the South Indian Madhvite centres do not include Laksmipati Tirtha or Madhavendra Puri (Sharma 1981, p. 525). Syamadasa, a contemporary Caitanyite scholar who rejects affiliation, recalls several exchanges he has had with leaders of the Madhva sampradaya wherein they denied any familiarity with the life or teachings of Caitanya (Syamadasa, pp. 13–14).

At the same time, Madhva scholars recognise the considerable influence that their theology has had on writers of the Caitanya school, and admit the real possibility of parampara connections.27 The words of Bannanje Govindacharya, a respected Madhva author from Udupi, exemplify the general ambivalence towards the Caitanya tradition.

There are definite differences [between the two traditions] although there are many parallels as well. Besides Gaudiyas accept Caitanya Mahaprabhu as the Deity, whereas Madhvas accept him as a great devotee. Who can say? . . . I think a closer link would be Baladeva Vidyabhusana, who was definitely influenced by Madhva’s thought. (Govindacharya, p. 15).

What is important to note here is the confidence regarding Baladeva and his connection with Madhva. B. N. K. Sharma displays similar confidence, ‘It may therefore be observed that till the days of Jiva Gosvamin, the Bengal Vaisnavas were only partially influenced by the writings of Madhva and his followers. . . . It was in the 18th century that this influence became very pronounced and predominant [author’s italics]’ (Sharma 1981, p. 528). Sharma assures us that although Baladeva was ‘an enthusiastic follower of Caitanya’, ‘of his zealous acceptance of and devotion to Madhva Sampradaya, there can be no doubt’ (Sharma 1981, p. 529). And in a recent article in the Journal of Vaisnava Studies, Sharma enthusiastically endorses the Caitanya connection,

If the leaders of Madhva thought among the intelligentsia would take advantage of the existing common ground of tradition between Dvaita philosophy and the Caitanya school, with its modern offshoot of ISKCON, it may be expected to open a new chapter in the history of Vedantic Realism in India. (Sharma 1997, p. 20)


We have thus seen a myriad of attitudes and responses to the Caitanyite controversy over sampradaya. The arguments on each side involve theological, historical, and institutional considerations, but the underlying issue is the same: the formation and transformation of communal religious identity. Using a common body of literature and history as evidence, each side arrives at a different conclusion, endorsing or rejecting the Madhva connection to varying degrees. In the midst of all this, Baladeva Vidyabhusana and his text, the Prameyaratnavali, perform a delicate balancing act between the parties. Despite the different views, it is significant that each side claims Baladeva for itself. Those against affiliation are convinced that because Baladeva wrote a new commentary on the Brahmasutra, he was establishing an independent identity for the followers of Caitanya. But those favouring affiliation claim that Baladeva was a champion of their view because he proved a connection with the Madhva sampradaya and thus defended the Caitanya Vaisnavas from allegations of illegitimacy. The followers of Madhva are not quite sure what to make of either side, but they are sure about one thing: Baladeva Vidyabhusana was one of them. If Baladeva’s purpose in writing was to mediate between the various parties, and if the current situation is any measure of the past, then Baladeva Vidyabhusana seems to have done remarkably well. He quite smoothly walked a theological tightrope in the Caitanya sampradaya.

This balancing act between identity and difference is one that has been performed many times in the Indian context, with varying degrees of subtlety and success. The Ramanandi sampradaya, for example, went through its own crisis over meta-parentage some two hundred years after the Caitanya Vaisnavas. Until the second decade of the twentieth century, Ramanandis considered their lineage to be a branch of the South Indian sampradaya of Ramanuja. By 1921, however, after a debate held in Ujjain, Ramanuja had been ‘purged from the institutional memory of the Ramanandi sampraday, and Ramanand was declared to have acted independently in originating Vaishnavism in the north’ (Pinch, p. 37)28.

A study of this sort of identity transformation as it has occurred in different traditions would be quite rewarding, bringing out many fruitful points of comparison.29 If it is true that the constituents of a community’s religious identity are brought into sharper focus when that identity is challenged, then we should have no shortage of opportunities to gain insight into the theological and institutional dynamics of communal religious identity.


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1 An abridged version of this essay was originally presented at the Eastern International Regional Conference of the American Academy of Religion in April 2002. The essay is dedicated to the sacred memory of Tamal Krishna Goswami, who was a D.Phil. candidate at the University of Cambridge when he passed away. He gave me valuable guidance for the presentation. I am also thankful to my professors and colleagues at the University of Oxford for their comments.

2 Smith defines the term in the Meaning and End of Religion. ‘By “cumulative tradition” I mean the entire mass of overt objective data that constitute the historical deposit as it were, of the past religious life of the community in question: temples, scriptures, theological systems, . . . and so on; anything that can be and is transmitted from one person, one generation, to another, and that an historian can observe.’ (Smith, pp. 156–7). About the Hindu tradition he says, ‘It is diverse, it is fluid, it grows, it changes, it accumulates. It crystallizes in material form the faith of previous generations, and it sets the context for the faith of each new generation as these come along. But it neither includes nor fully determines that later faith.’ (p. 159)

3 See Krsnadasa Kaviraja’s Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila 1.5.

4 I have translated this passage from the Hindi.

5 There are, however, explicit references to affiliation with the Madhva sampradaya in early Caitanyite literature. See footnote 26.

6 See Jiva Gosvami’s Tattvasandarbha, Anucchedas 26–7.

7 For a description of the Rajput involvement in Vrndavana, especially in relation to the Caitanya Sampradaya, see Entwistle, Braj Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage; Horstmann, In Favour of Govinddevji; and Margaret Case, ed., Govindadev: A Dialogue in Stone.

8 See Krsnadasa Kaviraja’s Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila 1.16.

9 For a thorough and carefully reasoned account of this period in Caitanya Vaisnava history, see Adrian Burton’s doctoral dissertation, ‘Temples, Texts, and Taxes’, section 3.2. Burton argues that instead of a single debate instigated by the Ramanandis, as is usually portrayed in traditional accounts (e.g. Wright and Wright), there were probably a series of conferences, called by the Maharaja himself in an attempt to reconcile and organise the many younger sampradayas in his kingdom. All the issues described in the traditional accounts were no doubt real and crucial, but they were addressed, says Burton, in a series of debates rather than one.

10 This claim is based on the Padma Purana, but the oft-quoted verses cannot be located in any edition of the Purana available today.

sampradaya-vihina ye mantras te viphala matah
atah kalau bhavisyanti catvarah sampradayinah
sri-brahma-rudra-sanaka vaisnavah ksiti-pavanah
catvaras te kalau bhavya hy utkale purusottamat

‘Those mantras which are devoid of a sampradaya are considered fruitless. Therefore, in the age of Kali, there will be four founders of sampradayas—Sri, Brahma, Rudra and Sanaka. These Vaisnavas purify the world, and in the age of Kali, they will arise from the Supreme Person in Utkala.’

11 The debate took place in Galta, near Jaipur.

12 Taking the available records into account, Burton places Baladeva between about 1700 and 1793. (Burton, p. 108)

13 There are not many sources available on the life of Baladeva Vidyabhusana. A fresh, well-researched account is provided by Burton in his doctoral dissertation (pp. 82–100). A very readable hagiography, focusing especially on the debate in Jaipur, is given by Michael and Nancy Wright in The Journal of Vaisnava Studies. Surveys of Baladeva’s philosophy are found in A History of Indian Philosophy, by Surendranath Dasgupta, and The Vaisnava Philosophy According to Baladeva Vidyabhusana, by Sudesh Narang.

14 See Krsnadasa Kaviraja’s Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 25.91–100.

15 Baladeva named his commentary Govindabhasya, in appreciation of the inspiration he received from Govindadeva. Tradition says that he was given only eighteen days (or one month) to compose the work.

16 Just how much Baladeva’s commentary owes to Madhva is a matter that merits careful study. B. N. K. Sharma believes that ‘Baladeva is virtually in agreement with Madhva on all the fundamental points of his system’ (Sharma 1981, p. 596).

17 I say this because the book’s content strongly reflects the issues at stake during the debate. Furthermore, the opening verses of the Prameyaratnavali are identical to those of Suksmatika, a commentary on the Govindabhasya written by Baladeva himself.

18 The nine prameyas are as follows: (1) Visnu is supreme; (2) He is to be known by all the Vedas; (3) The universe is real; (4) There is difference [between Visnu and the world]; (5) The living entities are servants of Hari [Krsna]; (6) There is gradation among the living entities; (7) Liberation is the attainment of the feet of Visnu; (8) Spotless worship of those feet is the cause of liberation; and (9) the means of proof are three, beginning with pratyaksa.

19 Vyasatirtha’s famous prameyasloka goes like this:

sriman-madhva-mate harih paratamah satyam jagat tattvato
bhedo jiva-gana harer anucara nicocca-bhavam gatah
muktir naija-sukhanubhutir amala bhaktis ca tat-sadhanam
aksadi-tritayam pramanam akhilamnayaikavedyo harih

20 sri-madhvah praha visnum paratamam akhilamnaya-vedyam ca visvam
satyam bhedam ca jivan hari-carana-jusas taratamyam ca tesam
moksam visnv-anghri-labham tad-amala-bhajanam tasya hetum pramanam
pratyaksadi-trayam cety upadisati harih krsna-caitanya-candrah
Compare this verse with Vyasatirtha’s prameyasloka above.

21 hetutvad vibhu-caitanyanandatvadi-gunasrayat
nitya-laksmyadimatvac ca krsnah paratamo matah

22 See paragraphs 18–24. For example:

purtih sarvatriki yady apy avisesa tathapi hi
taratamyam ca tac-chakti-vyakty-avyakti-krtam bhavet

‘Although each form of Laksmi is complete, and although there is no difference between them, still there may be a gradation caused by the appearance or non-appearance of their powers.’

. . .

gautamiya-tantre ca—
devi krsna-mayi prokta radhika para-devata
sarva-laksmi-mayi sarva-kantih sammohini para

‘And in the Gautamiyatantra, “The supreme goddess is Radhika. She is completely imbued with Krsna, and she is the supreme enchantress. She possesses all of the Laksmis, and all of their loveliness combined.”’

23 ananda-tirtha-nama sukha-maya-dhama yatir jiyat
samsararnava-taranim yam iha janah kirtayanti budhah

‘May the ascetic named Anandatirtha, who is an abode full of happiness, be ever victorious. Learned persons glorify him, who is the boat in the ocean of samsara.

24 There is a commentary on the Prameyaratnavali called Kantimala which shows further signs of responding to these issues. The Kantimala is usually attributed to Baladeva Vidyabhusana himself (Dasgupta, p. 438), but sometimes to Krsnadeva Sarvabhauma (Sastri, p. 1).

25 Caitanya is mentioned five times in the text, and the theological content is thoroughly Caitanya Vaisnava. For example, the doctrine of three saktis, the five types of rasa relationships, and the supremacy of Krsna are all discussed in the Prameyaratnavali.

26 Indeed, since the time of Sri Caitanya himself, Caitanya Vaisnavas have affiliated themselves with the Madhva sampradaya. Parampara lists connecting Caitanya to Madhvacarya are found in several works from Orissa written during or just after the time of Mahaprabhu. These include Bhaktijnanabrahmayoga by Acyutananda Dasa (a close associate of Caitanya in Puri) and a list by Gopalaguru Gosvami, a disciple of Vakresvara Pandita. Outside of Orissa, the most significant claim to the Madhva connection is the parampara list given by Kavi Karnapura in his Gauraganoddesadipika, which is quoted in Visvanatha Cakravarti’s Gauraganatattvasvarupacandrika and in the Bhaktiratnakara. Lala Dasa’s Bhaktamala also supports the Caitanya-Madhva link. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that early writings of the Vallabha sampradaya also make mention of Madhavendra Puri as a Madhva sannyasi, even though they consider him to be part of their own sampradaya. For a discussion of the available textual evidence, see Elkman, pp. 32–9 and Kapoor, p. 38.

27 B. N. K. Sharma suggests that a link may be found in Visnu Puri, the author of Bhaktiratnavali, who is said to have been a disciple of the Madhva sannyasi Jayadhvaja (or Jayadharma). ‘Most probably, it was this Visnu Puri, who was the real founder of the Bhakti Movement in the North and the teachers Laksmipati, Madhavendra Puri and Isvara were descended from him . . .’ (Sharma 1981, p. 526).

28 For a historical analysis of the controversy, see William R. Pinch, Remembering Ramanand. Pinch’s description elicits many comparisons with our own discussion of meta-parentage. ‘A central referent in the debate over Ramanandi tradition was the integrity of Ramanand as a form of Ramchandra. Though Ramanand’s god-like status was practically assumed by Ramanandis at the turn of the century, by 1918 a group of Ramanandis chose to reject in vehement terms the possibility that Ramanand was originally a member of someone else’s sampraday, and insisted rather that he single-handedly founded the Ramanandi sampraday as part of his own divine plan. This radical element could stomach no presentation of Ramanand that compromised in any way his complete and total control over his own destiny and the destiny of his religious community. Inasmuch as a radical position demands either allegiance or refutation, one either remained a Ramanandi or became a “Ramanujite” accordingly.’ (Pinch, p. 41)

29 Another place to look would be the Haridasi tradition of Vrndavana, which also diverged over issues of sampradaya affilation. Haynes writes, ‘One of the major points in the controversy between the two branches of the Haridasi sampradaya is Svami Haridas’ own sectarian affiliation. The sadhus say it was the Nimbarka Sampraday, the Gosvamis insist he belonged to the Visnusvami Sampraday. There is the third possibility that Haridas belonged to neither of these two sects, since a clear theological orientation in the history of the Haridasi Sampraday appears first with the attempt at governmental regulation in the time of Jaisingh in the early eighteenth century.’ (Haynes, p. 225)