Amiya Sen calls his book Chaitanya: A Life and Legacy: 1) a biography of Chaitanya, 2) a story that he has ‘narrated to himself’1 as a historian and ‘not as a scholar of religious studies’2, 3) a ‘not so serious yet reflexive’3 work which he believes will not please either the pious Vaishnava (‘for a palpable lack of faith’4) or a probing scholar (for the lack of application of ‘rigorous scholastic apparatus’5). He states that his concern is to critically engage with Chaitanya as a ‘biographical and religious subject’6 and he explicitly distances his work from being a general history of Vaishnavism in Bengal, Bengal Vaishnavism, Bengali Vaishnavism and a hagiography of Chaitanya.
In the author’s own estimate, one of the strengths of his book is its purpose to generate a ‘meaningful conversation’7 between English and Bengali scholarship. His recount, in the preface, of previous works include those of AK Majumdar (termed closest to being an ‘authoritative and critically framed biographical account’)8, Melville T Kennedy (credited as ‘insightful and informative’),9 Sushil Kumar De (whose book, according to the author, is not only chronologically delimited to early 17th century but also allocates less than 5% of the total book to the ‘Life and Personality of Chaitanya’),10 Ramakant Chakravarti (his book labelled ‘sprawling, inclusive and unwieldy’11 resulting in a diffused focus on Chaitanya), Oudh Bihari Lal Kapoor and Steven J Rosen (their works being labelled as hagiographies).
Sen’s book comprises five chapters: an Introduction, followed by ‘Sources on the Life of Chaitanya’, ‘The Life and Times of Krishna Chaitanya’, ‘Chaitanya’s Companions, Associates, Devotees, and Followers’, ‘Chaitanya in His Times and in Ours; six appendices: Appendix A: Chronology of Events in Chaitanya’s life, Appendix B: Printing History of Major Sanskrit and Bengali Hagiographies of Chaitanya (c.19th-20th Century): Select Editions, Appendix C: Major Biographical Works on Prominent Devotees and Followers of Chaitanya in Print (c.19th-20th Century): Select Editions, Appendix D: List of Prominent Temples to Chaitanya and Nityananda: Bengal (c. 16th-19th Century), Appendix E: Major Anthologies of Vaishnava Verse in Print (c.19th-20th Century), Appendix F: Bengali Translations of the Bhagavat Purana (in part of whole) in print (c. 19th Century); an annotated bibliography and an index. At about 22% (47 of 216) of the total number of pages (excluding Preface and Glossary), the appendices and bibliography are, in hindsight, clearly my favourite part of this book. Anyone with a genuine interest in Chaitanya (scholarly or otherwise), whatever her or his lens might be, would find that Sen’s six appendices—comprising a succinct yet effective 19-point chronology of Chaitanya’s life, chronologically-arranged list of 22 Bengali and 11 Sanskrit works (the label ‘hagiography’ notwithstanding), alphabetically-sequenced list of 19 devotees and followers (Abhirama Dasa, Advaita Acharya, Haridas Thakur, Jahnava Devi, Narhari Sarkar, Narottam Das, Nityananda, Prabodhananda Saraswati, Raghunath Das Goswami, Ramananda Ray, Rasik Murari, Goswamis Rup and Sanatan, Sita Devi, Sribas Srinivas Acharya, Shyamananda, Vamsivadan Thakur, Vishnupriya Devi) combined with a listing of a total of 70 works associated with them, a 30-item List of Prominent Temples dedicated to Chaitanya and Nityananda: Bengal (c.16th-19th Century) [tabulated with columns ‘Icon(s)’, ‘Location’, ‘Constructed in’, ‘Constructed by’], a 32-item list of Extant Terracotta Figures of Shadabhuja (Six-Armed) Chaitanya: Bengal c.17th-19th Century [tabulated with columns ‘District’, ‘Location’, ‘Constructed in’], an 8-item list of Images of Chaitanya and Nityananda on Terracotta Panels: Bengal c.19th-20th Century [tabulated with columns ‘District’, ‘Location’, ‘Date of Installation’], a 25-item list of Sankirtana Processions Depicted on Terracotta Panels: Bengal c.18th-19th Century [tabulated with columns ‘District’, ‘Location’, ‘Date of Installation’ and a total of 66 Prominent Chaitanya Temples in Odisha in two separate tabulations: Solitary Images of Chaitanya [‘Location’, ‘Remarks’] and Chaitanya Maths and Temples [‘Math/Temple’, ‘Location’], a 53-item list of Major Anthologies of Vaishnava Verse in Print (c.19th-20th Century)—are extremely valuable.12
Beyond these, and the sumptuous bibliography, though, the degree to which one would appreciate Sen’s book might depend on how much one cares for the lenses Sen deploys to see the impressive quantum of sources he marshals, in suggesting some of the qualifications to (what he terms) ‘popular conceptions’13 and the lenses that I find Sen prioritizes include those of caste, gender, sexuality, politics, power, conflict, hierarchy, Brahminphobia and much less often, spirituality and philosophy.
The rest of this review, whilst hardly a comprehensive representation of the entire gamut of critical reactions that emerged while reading the book, will focus on what came across as two key arguments Sen is advancing: the first one, which has to do with the place of the tradition that can be attributed to Chaitanya and the second one, about how Chaitanya himself has been perceived by some. Right in the preface, Sen states one preference and one argument: the former, that, ‘Vaishnava devotional culture’14 be taken as what he sees it as to have truly been: ‘many-layered, complexly structured and polygynous’15; the latter, that Gaudiya Vaishnavism is not—in contrast to (what he terms ‘commonplace beliefs’)—’quintessential 18 Vaishnavism in Bengal but merely the dominant one’16 [Emphasis added].
The argument stated in the preface promptly reappears, not verbatim, in the very first paragraph of the introduction and the way it is presented might, in my view, catch the attention of anyone with critical thinking skills. Given the centrality accorded to the argument stated above, any reader of this review would perhaps be better served to judge this critique for herself (or himself), based on a reading of Sen’s own words (and hence cited verbatim):
‘First, there is the issue of whether or not Chaitanya could be rightfully acknowledged as the founder of the Vaishnava religion and culture in Bengal; second, whether Chaitanya Vaishnavism is justly called Gaudiya Vaishnavism; and third, whether historically the term ‘Gaudiya Vaishnavism’, also known as ‘Bengal Vaishnavism’, could be interchanged with ‘Bengali Vaishnavism’. … Upon assuming that Vaishnavism in Bengal did indeed originate with Chaitanya, the third question loses much of its significance. We are then (wrongly) led to believe that the Vaishnavism launched by him and his associates was quintessential Vaishnavism in Bengal rather than the dominant form among many overlapping streams of Vaishnava religious and cultural consciousness. In this work I have argued to the contrary.’17 (Emphasis added)
First, consider the portion in emphasis above. Restating it simply, the author effectively posits that if one assumes Vaishnavism in Bengal originated with Chaitanya, then one is (wrongly) led to believe that Vaishnavism launched by him is quintessential Vaishnavism in Bengal rather than the dominant one. Clearly, at least two critical-thinking related questions lurk:
1) Can the quintessentialness of anything (in this case ‘Vaishnavism in Bengal’) be reduced to being only causally linked to a mere temporality of one of its forms (in this case, whatever it was that originated with Chaitanya)?
2) Does what the author characterize as ‘dominant’, necessarily have anything to do with its temporality?
An analogy to illuminate the questions above might not be too out of place: what, today, would constitute ‘quintessential’ Christianity in Europe? Is it simply the oldest form of Christianity? Is it, the—to use the author’s word— ‘dominant’ form of Christianity in Europe? Can any form of Christianity, one practised by a fairly large number of Europeans, be disqualified as not being ‘quintessential’ or be labelled ‘dominant’ simply because it is not the oldest form of Christianity? What Sen does with this questionable (but clearly purposive) framing—linking only temporality attribute to quintessential (while there are evidently other attributes, see footnote 18: ‘perfect’, ‘most typical’, ‘most important’ amongst others)—is to dismiss the claim of those who consider Chaitanya Vaishnavism to be the quintessential form of Vaishnavism in Bengal, without actually making a logically-sound argument to contest that claim before going on to impose an arbitrary power-semantic: ‘dominant’. This questionably-framed argument, appearing as it does first in the preface and then in the very first paragraph of the introduction, heightens a particular radar-instinct that then nets some other debatable ‘understanding’ and assertions of the author, one of which (on ‘Reform’) follows. Furthermore, in my reading of the book, I could not find an explicit resolution to at least the second of three questions Sen raises in the very first paragraph of his introduction (cited above).