By Madhava Smullen on 27 Feb 2010
On Wednesday, thousands of devotees returned to ISKCON’s headquarters in Mayapur to celebrate Gaura Purnima, the appearance day of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, after spending a week walking a pilgrimage through holy spots relating to his life.
Temples around the world will celebrate Gaura Purnima on Sunday February 28th, honoring the fifteenth century saint who is worshipped as none other than God Himself, in one of the biggest festivals of the ISKCON calendar.
But devotees lucky enough to attend the event at ISKCON’s Mayapur Chandradoya Mandir in the West Bengal location of Mahaprabhu’s birth, and especially those who participated in the Navadvipa Mandala Parikrama pilgrimage, may find themselves most deeply absorbed in thoughts of Lord Chaitanya.
Devotees registered for the Parikrama on February 17th, seeking the Lord’s blessings for the trek ahead at Yogapith, the exact place of his appearance in 1486.
They also prayed to the Lord for the health of ISKCON guru Jayapataka Swami—a staple of the Parikrama since its inception in the 1970s—who is still recovering from the two brain hemorrhages he suffered in October 2008.
Preparing for the pilgrimage, Jayapataka Swami’s peer Lokanath Swami quoted the great Vaishnava saint Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura: “Develop Sri Navadvipa Dhama Parikrama,” he instructed his son Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. “For by its performance, all people of the world can be liberated.”
His words rang true at this year’s Parikrama, which saw more devotees from around the world participating than ever before.
“There were three separate groups,” explains pilgrim Shyamagopika Dasi. “A 2,500 devotee Bengali group, a 1,000 devotee international group, and, for the first time ever, a separate 900-devotee Russian group.”
Day One – February 18
Singing Krishna’s names as they set off from Srila Prabhupada’s Bhajan Kutir on the ISKCON Mayapur property, the international group first headed to the Prabhupada Ghat bathing area of the river Ganga. Hopping into wooden boats, they set off for Godrumadvipa, one of the nine “islands” that make up Navadvipa. As they rode on the calm waters, they meditated upon how each island represents one of the nine processes of devotional service to Krishna: Antardvipa, the central island where Mayapur sits, represents surrendering everything to the Lord, while Godrumadvipa stands for chanting His holy names.
The first pilgrimage stop on this island was the town of Nrismhapalli, where an ancient deity of Krishna’s half-man half-lion avatar Nrsimhadeva, said to date back to the Satya-yuga, is worshipped. The story goes that many millennia ago, Nrsimhadeva washed and rested in Nrsimhapalli after killing the demon Hiranyakashipu.
Devotees also visited the place where the great fifteenth century devotee Pradyumna Mishra prayed and served. “Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu changed the name of Pradyumna Mishra, or Pradyumna Brahmacari, to Nrsimhananda Brahmachari,” Srila Prabhupada writes in the Chaitanya Charitamrita, “For in his heart Lord Nrsimhadeva was manifest. It is said that Lord Nrsimhadeva used to talk with him directly.”
After being entertained by a drama from ISKCON Delhi’s Vaikuntha players, the pilgrims left Nrsimhapalli for Harihara Ksetra, a very unique location featuring a black and white deity that is half Vishnu (Lord Hari) and half Siva (Lord Hara). The Lord manifested Himself in this form, it is said, to show how dear Lord Siva is to Him. According to Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura, if one passes away in Harihara Ksetra, Lord Siva—known as the best of the Vaishnavas—chants the name of Lord Chaitanya in his ear, thus transporting him to the spiritual world.
There, devotees settled down for the night. It would be another busy day tomorrow.
Day Two – February 19
The next morning, the parikrama group travelled to Ama-ghata, where Lokanath Swami narrated one of the most unusual and wonderful stories of Lord Chaitanya.
According to Krishnadasa Kaviraja’s epic biography the Chaitanya Charitamrita, the Lord was chanting in a Harinama party with all his followers one day, when they all became greatly fatigued and sat down. Sri Chaitanya then sowed in the ground one mango seed, which immediately sprouted into a fully-grown tree as the devotees looked on in wonder. Picking about two hundred of the ripe fruits, the Lord washed them, offered them to Krishna, and then fed them to all the devotees.
What’s more, these were no normal mangos. They had no seeds or skins, and were so full of sweet, nectarean juice that every devotee was fully satisfied by eating only one. Not only that, but the tree continued to give fruit for the next year, and every day, after chanting, the devotees would enjoy a mango-eating festival.
“Listening to that story, we all wished that we could be fortunate enough to taste those sweet mangoes,” laughs Shyamagopika Dasi.
From Ama-ghata, the devotees proceeded to Suvarna Vihar, where the great King Suvarna Sena had once ruled, and then on to Gauradaha, where they were served breakfast. Next, they visited Svananda Sukhada Kunja, where Bhaktivinode Thakura resided and wrote many of his newsletters and books, and where he had two astonishing visions which came to fruition.
One night, while he was chanting on his verandah, the Thakura saw a golden effulgence emanating from the other side of the Jalangi River which flowed in front of his house. In it, he saw Lord Chaitanya and his closest associate Nityananda Prabhu chanting and dancing.
The next day, he went searching in the place from which he had seen the vision arise, and came to an area covered in sacred tulasi plants in a Muslim village called Meeyapour. After extensive research, and the divine confirmation of the great devotee Jagannatha Dasa Babaji, Bhaktivinoda Thakura established the location—which from then on came to be known as Mayapur—to be the lost site of Lord Chaitanya’s appearance.
On another day, while watching the horizon of Mayapur, Thakura Bhaktivinoda had a vision of what he described as, “One exceedingly wonderful temple which will broadcast the eternal service of Lord Gauranga [Chaitanya] throughout the world.”
Incredibly, the Thakura was looking across the Jalangi River, at the exact site where one day, in February 2010, ISKCON—which spreads Lord Chaitanya’s glories throughout the world—would begin building its long-awaited Temple of the Vedic Planetarium.
Day Three – February 20
The next day, the devotees left Godrumadvipa for Madhyadvipa, which represents remembering Lord Krishna. There, they paid their respects to the Gomati River and to the Siva temple Hamsa Vahana.
As Navadvipa is said to contain all holy places, they also visited representations of holy places that are originally in other locations, such as Brahma Pushkara, Kuruksetra—where Krishna spoke the Bhagavad-gita—and Naimisaranya, where Suta Goswami spoke the Srimad-Bhagavatam to an assembly of sages.
Next, crossing the Ganga by boat, the devotees headed towards Koladvipa, which represents serving the lotus feet of the Lord, and which serves as the present-day Navadvipa town. There, they visited the Samadhi (mausoleum) of Jagannath Dasa Babaji, chanting Hare Krishna along the way.
Day Four – February 21
Day four saw the Parikrama move on to Ritudvipa, which represents worshipping the Lord. There the participating devotees visited Samudragarh, Champahatti, Ritupura—a replica of the holy lake Radha Kunda of Vrindavana—and Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya’s birthplace, Vidyanagar.
Born in 1460, Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya was a great philosopher, although an impersonalist who did not agree with Lord Chaitanya’s teachings of a personal God. Once, when Mahaprabhu fainted out of intense spiritual feelings in the Jagannath temple in Puri, Orissa, Sarvabhauma took him to his home nearby and cared for him. He was an extremely hospitable host, even welcoming and feeding the many devotees that crowded into his home to see the Lord when he regained consciousness.
But when his own brother-in-law Gopinatha Acharya, who was a follower of Sri Chaitanya, explained—with authoritative quotes from the scriptures—that Mahaprabhu was God Himself, Sarvabhauma would not accept it. While affectionate towards Chaitanya, he seemed to think he needed a bit of help setting his reality straight, and suggested that he teach him Vedanta philosophy.
The Lord accepted, and listened to the Bhattacharya speak for a full seven days, yet remained silent the entire time. When Sarvabhauma finally asked him if he was understanding the lessons, Lord Chaitanya replied somewhat cheekily, “Sir, I can understand Vedanta philosophy very clearly—but I cannot understand your explanations.” He then proceeded to debate and defeat the Bhattacharya, proving that his conceptions were incorrect and that the Absolute Truth was not impersonal, but in fact the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Finally, Lord Chaitanya revealed his true identity as Sri Krishna to Sarvabhauma, who offered his obeisances and became known thereafter as a pure Vaishnava and one of the greatest devotees of the Lord.
Day Five – February 22
The next day, the parikrama proceeded on to Jahnudvipa, which represents praying to the Lord. Devotees first visited visit the birthplace of Vrindavana Dasa Thakura, who wrote Chaitanya Bhagavata, the first full-length biography of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Bengali. Vrindavana Dasa Thakura was closely connected to Sri Chaitanya—he was the last disciple accepted by Nityananda Prabhu, the Lord’s foremost associate, and his mother Narayani was the niece of Srivas Pandia, another of the Lord’s closest confidantes.
Close by, the pilgrims visited a temple of Madan Gopal established by Vasudeva Datta, of whom Vrindavana Dasa Thakura writes: “Vasudeva Datta was such a powerful devotee that Krishna was purchased by him.”
It’s easy to understand why. Once, Vasudeva Datta famously asked Lord Chaitanya, “My Lord, my heart breaks to see the sufferings of all the conditioned souls; therefore I request You to transfer the karma of their sinful lives upon my head. My dear Lord, let me suffer perpetually in a hellish condition, accepting all the sinful reactions of all living entities. Please finish their diseased material life.”
In turn Lord Chaitanya, being so pleased at Vasudeva Datta’s incredible selflessness, would say with affection, “I am only Vasudeva Datta’s man.”
The devotees finished their pilgrimage on Day Five with a visit to Belpukur, where Lord Chaitanya’s mother Sacimata was born, and where her father Nilambara Chakravarti’s worshippable Sri Madhan Mohan deities reside.
Day Six – February 23
With the Parikrama nearing its end, devotees entered Simantadvipa, which represents hearing about the Lord. There they visited the temple of Simantini devi, or Parvati, as well as the Samadhi (mausoleum) of the Chand Kazi.
Chief magistrate of Navadvipa during Lord Chaitanya’s time, the Chand Kazi was entrusted with keeping law and order and punishing criminals.
But he put a foot wrong when one day he forcibly stopped a kirtan being held by Lord Chaitanya’s followers. Breaking a mridanga drum, he announced: “No one should perform sankirtana on the streets of the city. The next time I see someone performing such sankirtana, certainly I shall chastise him by not only confiscating all his property, but also converting him into a Muslim.”
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was furious when he heard the news, and organized a mass Sankirtana party that danced through the streets of Navadvipa before ending at the Kazi’s house. There, he debated the Kazi and proved on the strength of the scriptures that the highest form of worship was love of Radha and Krishna—which was expressed by chanting the holy name.
Convinced, the Chand Kazi then told Lord Chaitanya that neither he nor future generations of his family would ever bother the Sankirtana movement again. And to this day, his descendants—who still live in the area—have stayed true to the Kazi’s word.
Wrapping up the day’s walking, the pilgrims next visited the Jagannatha Mandir in Rajapur. There, in a place called Kolavecha Sridhar Angan at the back of the temple, ISKCON Mayapur’s famous twin priests Pankajanghri Dasa and Jananivasa Dasa performed a surprise drama, playing Kolavecha Sridhar and Lord Chaitanya respectively.
Kolavecha Sridhar, an associate of Lord Chaitanya in his youth, was a simple seller of bananas and leaf plates, and was sometimes obliged to live only on meals made of tamarind leaves. Still, he would offer fifty per cent of his income to the worship of the sacred river Ganga. He was such a great devotee, however, that when Lord Chaitanya told him to ask for any benediction, he said that he simply wanted to continuously remember the Lord’s sweet pastimes.
That evening, Bhakti Purusottama Swami conducted a quiz on the nine islands of Navadvipa for all the devotees. Surprising everyone with their sharp responses, students from the local Bhaktivedanta National School emerged victorious.
Sitting in the temple after the quiz, the devotees felt elated and imbued with the Lord’s mercy. “It seemed as if with their big smiles, Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra were congratulating us all on our completing the parikrama,” Shyamagopika says.
Day Seven – February 24
Returning to Yogapitha in Mayapur the next day, all three Parikrama parties—international, Bengali, and Russian—converged, happily greeting each other on successful completion of their pilgrimage. As the holy names of Krishna and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu rang out, the devotees were all greeted with garlands, juice and sandalwood paste at the entrance gate of ISKCON’s Sri Mayapur Candrodaya Mandir.
“It was so ecstatic to be on Parikrama,” says Shyamagopika Dasi, recalling the experience. “To immerse ourselves in hearing the transcendental pastimes of Sri Mahaprabhu, to sit in the very same place where these pastimes took place, to chant and sing the holy names, to walk in the dust of the the sacred places, to take bath in the holy Ganga, and to be in the association of devotees.”
She smiles. “Everyone should try it at least once.