Srila Narottama dasa Thakura
February 2nd, 2007

The following is an excerpt from the book “Vaisnava Saints,” by Satyaraja Dasa:

Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura

In or around the year of Mahaprabhu’s disappearance, 1534, on a full moon day in the month of Magh (January-February), Narottam Das appeared in this world.3 As Mahaprabhu had predicted, he was born in Kheturi (Garer Hata subdivision), which is about seventy-two miles northwest of present Rampur Vojalijar in the Rajashoy District of East Bengal (now Bangladesh). His father was a great king, named Krishnananda Datta, and his mother’s name was Narayani-devi. They were fabulously wealthy and were kayasthas by caste. They raised their son as an honored prince.

During the traditional anna-prashanam ceremony for the newly-born Narottam, when a baby is supposed to eat his first grains, Narottam’s parents were taken aback. It seems that Narottam would not eat, turning his head away from the food in disgust. However, shortly thereafter, when a devout Vaishnava came with similar food that had been offered to Krishna, Narottam ate heartily. All who were present could understand that the only reason he had initially rejected the grains was because the grains were unoffered. This spoke highly of the baby’s devotional demeanor. His parents rejoiced.

As Narottam advanced in years, he became an exemplary student, mastering all academic subjects and religious books as well. His favorite activity, though, was to sit at the feet of an elderly brahmin named Shri Krishnadas, who would daily recite the early, middle, and final pastimes of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Narottam relished these stories throughout his youth and resolved to devote his life to the eternal principles of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

Prema-tali Ghat

One day, soon after Narottam became a teenager, Nityananda Prabhu appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Tomorrow, as the sun begins to rise, you should take your bath in the Padma River. At that time you shall receive the totality of Gaur-prem, or love of God.” When Narottam awoke, he immediately complied with Nityananda Prabhu’s instruction.
Entering the Padma, Narottam felt himself undergo a vital transformation. Just then, Mahaprabhu 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 Narottam’s naturally dark complexion turned to molten gold — Mahaprabhu’s own distinctive hue. Today, pilgrims visit Prema-tali Ghat, in Bangladesh, where this historic event transpired.

His Parents’ Lament

When Narottam did not return home after some time, his parents sent a search party after him. They found him dancing furiously on the banks of the Padma. Who was this madman? Certainly it was not the same Naru. When they brought him home, his parents did not recognize him. Not only was there a change in the color of his skin, but he now bawled like a lovesick adolescent. This was not some ordinary crying, but the tears of a lover of God. Narottam’s parents sensed that it was something to this effect. His mother confronted him directly: “My dear Naru! What has happened to you? Why do you weep in this pathetic way? How can I help you?”
Narottam replied: “Dear mother, this morning, when I went to bathe in the Padma, a golden-colored Divinity — the Supreme Lord — entered into my heart. It is He who is causing these tears. I am feeling His ardent love and I am separated from Him. If you want to relieve my distress, allow me to leave home and to go in search of His lotus feet.” Then, having expressed his inner heart, Narottam went to the palace kirtan hall and started chanting the Lord’s names with great ecstasy: “All glories to Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Lord of my life!” After singing for many hours, he fainted.

King Krishnananda, Narottam’s father, feared that his Naru would run away to adopt the life of renunciation. For a king this would be a terrible fate — his only son, the heir to the throne, leaving as though all his riches were worthless. Krishnananda also had plans for Narottam’s marriage. A renounced life was not what he had in mind for his young Naru. In pursuance of his plans, Raj Krishnananda had his best guards watch Narottam from morning until evening. Ironically, out of love, he made Narottam a prisoner in his own home. Still, Narottam’s singular activity, day and night, was reciting the names of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Radha and Krishna.

After some time, Krishnananda became desperate and called a “spirittamer” to save his “possessed” child. The spirittamer said that the boy was suffering from a common wind disorder, that his body should be rubbed with oil and that a fox should be brought in for the boy to eat. Narottam laughed at this silliness and explained that the killing of animals is forbidden and would in fact only worsen his condition. Narottam’s father relented, but this was the sort of embarrassment that young Narottam had to tolerate.

Day and night Narottam would pray: “Please my Lord, Gauranga Mahaprabhu, liberate me from this insane 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.

“Go To Vrindavan…”

One night, Narottam managed to fall asleep, and Mahaprabhu appeared to him in a dream. After tightly embracing Narottam, as He had done that fateful morning at the Padma River, the Lord said: “O Narottam, 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 Lokanath Goswami.”

When Narottam awakened, he was gripped by love in separation more thoroughly than before. Night after night he would try to sleep, but the Lord would allow him to actually rest only sporadically, every few nights. When Narottam did sleep, the Lord and His associates would show him special mercy during his dreams by allowing him to enter into the spiritual world and the divine lila in which he plays a crucial role.

Narottam Escapes

Some months elapsed, and Narottam’s reputation as a divinely inspired youth spread to all corners of Bengal. When he was sixteen, the Jaygirdar (an influential Muslim governor in the district) requested his presence, wanting to be blessed by the young Narottam. Krishnananda could not refuse a political leader of the Jaygirdar’s stature. But he was skeptical — if he gave Narottam the slightest chance, he knew, the young enthusiast would run off to Vrindavan. Still, Krishnananda felt as if he had no choice.

Upon reaching the court of the Jaygirdar, Narottam found an opportunity to escape. It was now or never. Moving stealthily and furtively past the guards, he managed to run to the forest, determined to find his way to the holy land of Vrindavan. Although Navadvip was comparatively near, he went in the direction of Vraja, not only because Mahaprabhu had ordered him to do so but because nearby Navadvip would be the first place that the guards, if sent after him, would look.

Going to Vrindavan entailed a lengthy sojourn across much of India on foot! Being the son of a king, his delicate and pampered body could barely endure the hardship of the journey, and he began to experience fatigue and hunger. After three days, his soft feet began to blister, and at one point, due to exhaustion, he lost consciousness.

While Narottam was in that exhausted state, Mahaprabhu appeared to him in the form of a golden-skinned brahmin and supplied a pot of milk for him to drink. Not recognizing the brahmin as Shri Chaitanya Himself, Narottam merely fell asleep, submitting once again to exhaustion. As he slept, Rupa and Sanatan encouraged him in a dream: “Narottam, soon your suffering will end. Mahaprabhu has appeared to you and has brought milk for your nourishment. Drink deep and proceed to Vrindavan!” With the words of Rupa and Sanatan still resounding in his heart, he awakened and began to weep joyously.

In the eternal lila of Krishna, distributing milk to Shri Radha and the intimate gopis is one of Narottam’s services as a manjari, but now Krishna in the form of Mahaprabhu was reciprocating by serving milk to his pure devotee. Contemplating the implications of this loving exchange was all the nourishment that Narottam required, and with renewed vigor, he soon continued his journey to Vraja.

The Fire of Devotion

Before leaving the area in which he had been given the milk by Shri Chaitanya, he was discovered by the family guards. Apparently, Krishnananda had sent many men to scout for Narottam and bring him back. One particular party of competent employees actually found the young runaway. When they questioned him about his resolve, he simply said that he was being faithful like a good wife.

“When the husband dies, it is our custom that the faithful wife may follow him into the fire (sati) and burn with his body on the funeral pyre,” Narottam said. “So I too am going into the fire of dedication to God.
“To extend the analogy,” Narottam continued, “when a woman wants to show devotion to her husband in this extreme way, it is natural that well-wishers will try to stop her. They will not allow her to enter the fire.
“So I understand that you do not want me to enter the fire of God consciousness,” Narottam concluded, “but you should also understand that I would be less than a faithful servant of my Lord if I did not attempt to enter that fire.”
Narottam’s simple and poetic analogy so moved the guards that they let him go on his way. One guard even gave him some money for his expenses. This was a common example of Narottam’s spiritual potency and divinely bewitching personality.

Entering Vrindavan

After this incident, he approached Mathura near Lord Krishna’s birthplace and bathed in the Yamuna at Vishram Ghat. That night, he met an elderly brahmin who invited him to stay at his home. This brahmin informed Narottam that Sanatan, Rupa, Raghunath Bhatta, Kashishvara Pandit and others had recently departed from this world to rejoin Mahaprabhu’s lila in the kingdom of God. As the brahmin spoke, Narottam began to cry. He had travelled many miles and had hoped to personally meet all of these exalted personalities.

Contemplating the untimely demise of the teachers he had idolized, he fainted. The biographies concur, however, that at that time all of the exalted souls whom Narottam had wanted to see appeared to him in a spiritual vision. In fact, the fortunate brahmin at whose house Narottam was staying was able to hear much of the discussion that Narottam had with these departed souls. Rupa and Sanatan especially consoled Narottam, encouraging him to seek out Jiva Goswami to study Gaudiya philosophy.
When Narottam finally arrived in Vrindavan, he came upon the Govindadev Mandir. Seeing Rupa Goswami’s magnificent temple structure drove him mad, and his body exhibited eight symptoms of ecstasy, such as intense weeping, horripilation, and change in color. Naturally, Jiva Goswami was quickly informed of this new sadhu’s arrival and could understand that he was the long-awaited Narottam.

Shri Jiva hurriedly walked to the Govindadev temple, and when he saw Narottam he was immediately reminded of Mahaprabhu. Just then, many great Vaishnava mohants arrived, asking “Where is Narottam? Where is Narottam?” and with great love all of the devotees pointed to the young saint who was sprawled across the temple courtyard in a trance-like state. “This, indeed, is young Narottam.”

Narottam’s Initiation

As Narottam met Vrindavan’s most advanced devotees, he was particularly impressed by Lokanath Goswami, whose exceptional sense of humility and austerity was noted by all Vaishnavas. Lokanath was very kind to Narottam and arranged for a portion of the temple’s sacred vegetarian food offering (prasadam) for him to eat. Since Mahaprabhu had revealed to Lokanath the night before in a dream that Narottam would arrive the next day, Lokanath had made preparations so they could eat together; and during that meal Narottam told Lokanath his entire story.

After relating the major incidents of his life, he concluded by saying, “Actually, I have no right to sit with you and take this pure food — I do not even have a guru.”

Hearing this, Lokanath Goswami laughed heartily, reminding him, “You have received the direct grace of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He is the original guru — the guru of the universe. Besides Him, who else do you want for a teacher? He has given you divine love, the same love that most devotees hanker for throughout their entire lifetime. You possess that love. What is the value of having another guru?”
Narottam replied: “My prabhu, I am a poor man, bereft of all good qualities. Your order is my life and soul. But if you will permit me, I would like to say a few more words on this subject.” Lokanath then assured him that he could speak freely.
“It is true that Mahaprabhu is the only real guru,” Narottam agreed, “but He simultaneously has faith in you to be my guru and has asked me to take initiation from you. The guru guides his disciple in practical spiritual life. I have no spiritual insight, and I am feeling separation from the Lord. For this reason, I beg for your mercy.”

Lokanath laughed at his future disciple’s insistence. He countered Narottam by saying, “The scriptures recommend that the prospective disciple chant the holy names of Krishna in a regulated way for at least a year and develop an attachment for the holy name within his heart.” Lokanath, out of humility, had vowed never to accept any disciples; and particularly now that Sanatan and Rupa had passed away — he was grieving their loss. So Narottam was clearly given a rough time of it.

Nonetheless, chanting was not a foreign activity to Narottam, and so complying with Lokanath Goswami’s orders he chanted japa for a full year in Vrindavan. During this time, Narottam listened to Lokanath’s discourses on a regular basis. Out of humility he ate only the remnants of Lokanath’s food, and then he cleaned the area and performed various menial services. A year passed in this way, and Lokanath was still disinclined to give initiation to his worthy disciple.

Narottam was totally devoted to Lokanath and he used to arrive secretly every day near Lokanath’s dwelling late at night to clean the area where Lokanath had evacuated. Once, Lokanath hid in the bushes and discovered that it was Narottam who was cleaning up after him. Nonetheless, Lokanath remained true to his vow and did not initiate Narottam.

After another year of Narottam’s selfless service, Lokanath had a sacred dream. Mahaprabhu appeared to Lokanath and chastised him for not initiating Narottam. “Did I not tell you to initiate him?” Mahaprabhu insisted, “Do not continue in this false humility.” Lokanath now knew that he had to initiate Narottam.

Soon after this incident, Narottam again approached Lokanath for initiation. This time, Narottam offered a very pleasing argument: “I am like a young woman who has already chosen her husband,” Narottam said. “My heart is clear, without any doubt. A young woman who makes up her mind in this way prays that her father will agree with her choice.” Narottam concludes: “I pray that our Father in heaven agrees with my choice.” Lokanath was moved by Narottam’s sincerity and said: “Your fierce determination has exceeded my own — but you are the only disciple I will ever make.” For the remainder of his life, he adhered to this vow.

Lokanath initiated Narottam according to the guidelines of the Gaudiya sampradaya, giving him the confidential Radha-Krishna mantra and the Gayatri-mantra as well. In addition, Lokanath revealed Narottam’s ontological manjari form as Vilas Manjari (or, as he is sometimes called, Champak Manjari), and explained his service in the spiritual world. Generally, the guru does not reveal such esoteric subjects so early in the disciple’s devotional life. But Narottam was clearly an exception in every way. Lokanath concluded the initiation by asking Narottam to take shelter of Jiva Goswami for further instruction.

Boiling The Milk

As the days passed into weeks and then months, Narottam grew in spiritual accomplishment, as did his reputation throughout Vrindavan. One night, a divine Vaishnavi appeared to him in a dream and said, “Dedicate yourself to the feet of your guru and do whatever he asks. Your sincerity and austerity have pleased me, and I will see that you are engaged in a very confidential service. When I meet Krishna every afternoon in the kunja, I see that the sakhis are serving Him with the utmost care. They make a special milk-based preparation for Him, and Champakalata is the most efficient gopi in this service. You shall work under her direction boiling the milk and remember that I become happy if Krishna is happy.”

When Narottam awoke, he quickly ran to Lokanath Goswami’s hut and conveyed the entire dream. Lokanath embraced Narottam, confirming that the Vaishnavi was indeed Radhika, Krishna’s consort. Lokanath was pleased to hear that Narottam was given a special service — boiling milk — by Radharani Herself. Lokanath understood that this was his disciple’s eternal service to Krishna, and that Radhika was merely reinstating him in that service.

After being given this unique chore by Radharani, and having it confirmed by his guru, Narottam would sometimes go into elaborate meditative trances, visualizing himself boiling milk for Radhika and the gopis while in his manjari form. Often, in this visualized siddha-deha, or “perfected form,” he found it useful to use dry wood for the fire, which kept the milk boiling. On occasion, however, the milk would overflow. Whenever this happened, Narottam would try to stop the overflowing milk with his bare hands. During his intense meditations, he would often neglect the fact that his hands were scorched. But when his reverie subsided, he saw that the scorched hands in his mystical vision had accompanied him back to the world of three dimensions. Sometimes he tried to cover his marked hands with a piece of cloth, but all of Vrindavan knew the transcendent way in which he had received the burns.

Jiva Goswami

Complying with the order of Lokanath, Narottam submitted himself at the feet of Shri Jiva Goswami, asking the Goswami to accept him as a student. In response, Jiva Goswami took hold of his hands and immediately requested him to tell the story of how they became so badly burned. Narottam then told his master the recurring events of his inner meditation. As Shri Jiva listened, he felt great satisfaction and spiritual ecstasy. He confirmed that Narottam was indeed Vilas Manjari, and Narottam said, “Yes, Radhika Herself has addressed me in this way.” Hearing this, with boundless glee, Jiva Goswami embraced Narottam, saying, “You are the manifestation of Mahaprabhu’s love, and with this love you will flood the entire universe.”

It was during this period that Narottam met Shrinivas, who came to Vrindavan to study under Shri Jiva, and the two of them became dear friends. They were known as Jiva Goswami’s best students and along with Dukhi Krishnadas (Shyamananda), they excelled in all of their studies. Consequently, Jiva Goswami bestowed distinguished titles upon them — Narottam Das Thakur Mahashoy, Shrinivas Acharya Prabhu, and Shyamananda — and he gave them the special mission of distributing the Bhakti-rasa scriptures throughout greater Bengal and Orissa.

Kheturi-gram

When the Bhakti-rasa scriptures were stolen by King Birhambir, Shrinivas resolved to get them back, and so he stayed in Vana Vishnupur, as mentioned in the previous chapter. At that time, however, Shrinivas sent Narottam back home to Kheturi, in East Bengal, with Shyamananda, who would accompany Narottam for some time and then proceed to his native town in Orissa.

At first, Narottam and Shyamananda travelled rather aimlessly, intoxicated with divine love but heartbroken by the disappearance of the Bhakti literature. As they walked from town to town, Narottam, being senior, instructed Shyamananda in the devotional books of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. He had been studying under Shri Jiva for a longer period and Shyamananda relished hearing his explanations. In this way, they passed many days and nights together.

Eventually, they made their way to Kheturi, in East Bengal, where they contacted Narottam’s relatives. When Narottam’s long lost family members saw him with his saintly friend, these pious people immediately fell to the ground with tears of joy, realizing for the first time just how much they had felt Narottam’s separation. Their “Naru” had returned! He was happy to see everyone as well. He told them all about his stay in Vrindavan, and they were in awe as he explained the secrets of the Goswamis’s Bhakti literature.

After ten days, according to plan, Shyamananda Pandit left for Orissa, and Narottam provided him with the necessary travel funds. Words cannot express the sadness that the two saints must have experienced as they left each other’s side, though the Bengali biographies do their best to convey the pathos. Months passed, and during this period Narottam often kept to himself, chanting Radha-Krishna mantra and meditating on his eternal service according to the techniques of Raganuga-bhajan.

By this time, Narottam had begun to initiate disciples. Some of the most important writers, poets and devotees of India came to him for shelter. Among those first disciples are his cousin (Santosh Datta), Shri Devi Das, Shri Gauranga, Shri Gokula, Ganga-narayana Chakravarti, Raj Narasingha, Queen Rupamala, Raj Chand Roy, Santosh Roy, and many others. Prema-vilas lists 123 disciples. Under Narottam’s direction they were able to break open the storehouse of love of Godhead and distribute every drop of nectar to the thirsty inhabitants of Kheturi-gram and its neighboring villages.

Navadvip and Puri

Longing to travel to the holy places directly associated with Mahaprabhu’s pastimes as Shrinivas had done some years earlier, Narottam now explored all of Gaur-mandala with great relish. He visited all of the surviving associates and the second generation devotees as well, embracing the company of Shuklambar Brahmachari, for example, and in the ruins of Mahaprabhu’s house he spent time with Ishan Thakur as well. Narottam visited Damodar Pandit and he met Shrivas Thakur’s two brothers, Shripati and Shrinidhi; he also associated with Achyutananda (Adwaita Acharya’s son), Hridoy Chaitanya (Shyamananda’s guru), Abhiram Thakur, Jahnava-devi and Birbhadra (her son), and others. Narottam was also fortunate enough to meet Narahari Sarkar and Raghunandana Thakur.

When Narottam came into the presence of these special souls, he fell into fits of ecstasy — crying, shouting, laughing, muttering as if in a stupor, and even fainting. He thus happily interacted with these saintly persons and saw such divine camaraderie as an extremely significant and thrilling part of his spiritual development.

Engulfed in the mood of association, he went to Puri and visited Gopinath Acharya, Gopal Guru Goswami, and others; and since they were direct witnesses, he asked them penetrating questions about the final lila of the Lord. He then travelled to Jajigram and was temporarily reunited with Shrinivas Acharya. After some time, he visited Katwa, where the Lord had entered the renounced order of life, and finally, he arrived at Ekachakra, the place where Nityananda Prabhu had first appeared in this world. Some of Narottam’s biographers, such as Narahari Chakravarti (in his Bhakti-ratnakara), for example, stress the importance of this pilgrimage, especially his visit to Nityananda Prabhu’s birthplace. As stated in the Prema-vilas, Narottam was an incarnation of Nityananda Prabhu’s ecstasy, and so his visit to the lila-sthali of that divine soul was viewed as a most significant mystical occurrence.

Returning to Kheturi

After visiting many of the holy places and personalities of Chaitanya-lila, Narottam returned to Kheturi. When he arrived, a letter was waiting for him. It was from his diksha-guru, Lokanath Goswami. In the letter Lokanath asked him to establish Deity worship in Kheturi-gram, because although there were many sincere devotees at Kheturi, according to Lokanath, they would develop best with the archa-vigraha to worship on a daily basis.

This would be a significant step in the spiritual lives of Narottam’s disciples. He chose the day of Gaur-purnima, the auspicious birth anniversary of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, to inaugurate a huge installation festival. This festival would also offer Narottam an opportunity to spread the teachings of the Goswamis throughout the Bengal area, for all important Vaishnavas would attend a celebration in honor of Mahaprabhu’s appearance. The Lord had completed His manifest pastimes several decades earlier, but His birth anniversary had not been observed as a big mahotsav (“great celebration”). This would be the first time, and so Narottam invited many important Vaishnava mahonts (“great souls”) from throughout the Indian subcontinent, particularly in Bengal and Orissa. Although there is tremendous scholarly debate over the exact year of this festival, it can safely be said that it occurred between the sixth and eighth decade of the sixteenth century.

Hundreds of the first and second generation associates of Mahaprabhu and their followers received invitations written in elaborate Sanskrit poetry. Still, Narottam 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, Narottam would indeed be able to give his guests such first-rate lodgment, since Raj Krishnananda (Narottam’s father) and Raj Purushottam (Narottam’s uncle) had both passed away, leaving the riches of the kingdom to Santosh Datta (Narottam’s very close cousin).

Santosh had recently become Narottam’s disciple and was anxious to meet Narottam’s peers and other exalted devotees. Consequently, Santosh became the prime mover behind the organization of the festival, and under Narottam’s order he willingly bore the entire expense. Laboring for many months a huge and ornate temple was constructed, with a large storehouse for food; an elaborately designed kirtan hall; an adjoining residential building for devotees; an idyllic bathing pond; a colorful and highly-wrought flower garden; and another guest house for additional visitors. Messengers were dispatched in all directions to invite not only Vaishnavas, but also kings, landowners, poets, scholars, authors, performers, and other illustrious guests.

Devotees Arrive

The devotees of Jajigram came together with Shrinivas Acharya and Govinda Kaviraj. Ramchandra came as well, providing the opportunity for his friendship with Narottam to blossom. From Narasinghapur, in Orissa, came Shyamananda Pandit and his followers, including Rasik Murari. Jahnava Ma and her entire entourage came from Khardaha. From the Shrikhanda district came Raghunandana Thakur and many other devotees. Shrivas Thakur’s brothers came from Navadvip, and Adwaita Acharya’s sons came from Shantipur. Hridoy Chaitanya travelled from Ambika Kalna, as did many other Gaudiya mohants. This is just a brief sampling of the devotees who attended.

Since all of these exalted souls travelled from their respective towns — largely by walking — they gathered new followers along the way, telling everyone they met about the fabulous festival that would soon take place at Kheturi. Hundreds snowballed into thousands, and over the course of one week they all reached the borders of West Bengal. Santosh Datta arranged for dozens of colossal boats to ferry back and forth as devotees needed to cross the river. Once the devotees were in East Bengal, luxurious palanquins and huge oxcarts carried them to Kheturi-gram.

The hosts — Narottan, Shrinivas, and Santosh 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 servants to tend to their needs. The guest of honor, Jahnava Ma (Acharyani), was the senior and most respected Vaishnava at the event, and so Narottam specifically worshiped her with flowers and chandan, and encouraged the devotees to do the same. Actually, the role of Jahnava Ma at the Kheturi festival should be properly highlighted. Within the Gaudiya sampradaya, diverse philosophical conceptions were coming to the fore, such as Gaur-nagari-bhava, Rasa-raj, Gaur-paramyavad [the teaching that Mahaprabhu is the Ultimate Godhead], Nitai-paramyavad, Adwaita-paramyavad, and other variations as well. Each of these conceptions embodied distinct nuances, too complex to illuminate in this short book. Jahnava, as the leading Vaishnava of the time, mediated on behalf of all these camps and resolved their differences to the satisfaction of the Gaudiya orthodoxy. Thus, her presence was especially appreciated by Narottam Thakur.

After worshiping Jahnava-devi in the appropriate way and showing proper respect to all the assembled Vaishnavas, Raghunandana Thakur sang the invocation prayers signifying an extremely holy event. A huge kirtan ensued well into the night as a preparation for the actual festival, which began on the following day.

The Festival Begins

The next morning, thousands of enthusiastic devotees began the celebration of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Appearance Day Festival with a huge, enthusiastic kirtan. Then Narottam unveiled five sets of Radha Krishna Deities, whose names were Ballabhi Kanta, Shri Krishna, Vraja Mohan, Radha Kanta, and Radha Raman and also two gorgeous Deities of Shri Chaitanya and His consort — all to be installed with the blessings of the assembled Vaishnavas. The purpose of such Deity worship centers around the Vaishnava belief, grounded in the scriptures, that Krishna agrees to accept service through His properly installed archa-vigraha and that the devotees can thus develop a personal conception by focusing their mind and senses on God in a plainly visible form.

Shrinivas Acharya presided over the abhishek ceremony, or the traditional bathing of the Deities. Meanwhile, experienced orators and kirtaniyas glorified Krishna according to elaborate Vaishnava traditions; without cessation intricate classical dances and various dramatic performances were enacted as the whole of Kheturi roared with the holy name of Lord Krishna.

After the Deities were installed according to the strictures of smriti-shastra, the edible offerings as well as the flower garlands were given to Jahnava, who then gave Shrinivas, Narottam, Shyamananda and Santosh Datta her direct remnants. Then, the rest of the devotees feasted and discussed Krishna for many hours. Finally, the devotees went into the large, ornate kirtan hall, where Narottam began to lead a moving, deliberate kirtan in his own distinct style. This came to be known as the Garan-hati form of kirtan, with its mellow, unmistakable melodies and its rich emotional content. It was based on the classical drupada technique, which is serene and majestic.

Narottam’s Kirtan

Narottam Das Thakur employed the most sophisticated rhythms (tala), melodic formats (raga), gestures of emotional expression (abhinaya), and developed dance techniques (natyam) in his kirtan at Kheturi. This is elaborately described in Bhakti-ratnakara. Shri Gauranga Das, Shri Gokula Das, and Shri Ballabha Das were at his side with a large number of musicians led by Devi Das, an expert mridanga player. After the musicians had reached a crescendo, Narottam appeared on the stage and began to sing. Everyone followed along by playing instruments, singing and dancing, and all wept when they heard the recondite voice of Narottam Thakur, leading them through the chanting of the beautiful mantras. It is described that Narottam and the countless waves of devotees looked like the full moon and the numberless stars in the sky.

Also significant is the fact that Narottam was inaugurating what came to be known as Padavali kirtan, a dramatic singing technique that begins with Gaur-chandrika, or glorification of Mahaprabhu, and then gradually evolves to Radha-Krishna kirtan in a very beautiful way, often connected through thematic references and melodic consistency. It is said that this method was originally inspired, at least in seed-like form, by the melodious voice of Swarup Damodar, the Lord’s intimate associate, but was not systematized at that time. It was developed further by the three Ghosh brothers — Madhava, one of the greatest mridanga-players of all time, Govinda, known as a preeminent pujari, and Vasu, who was a fabulous singer and wrote many Gaur-chandrikas — but now it was brought to new heights by Narottam at the Kheturi festival.

The Lord Descends

It is said that Narottam’s kirtan, more than anybody else’s, had reached a perfected state. This is accepted by Gaudiya Vaishnavas as an objective fact for a number of reasons, not least of which may be the miraculous occurrence that has been documented by all biographers of the period: Mahaprabhu and all His associates, many of whom had left the mortal world more than fifty years earlier, personally appeared at the Kheturi festival and danced at the height of Narottam’s blessed kirtan. 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 kirtan the munificent Shri 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, Shri Chaitanya Himself appeared within the multitude of His followers.”

According to the Prema-vilas, Mahaprabhu appeared with Nityananda Prabhu, Shri Adwaita, Gadadhar, Shrivas Thakur, Haridas Thakur, Swarup Damodar, Rupa-Sanatan, and many others. Who, indeed, can imagine the heightened bhava as Jahnava saw her departed husband in the midst of the kirtan? Who can imagine the feeling of Adwaita Acharya’s sons when they saw their father singing and dancing as if he were a young man? How did Shrivas Thakur’s brothers stop themselves from crying when they saw Shrivas himself 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. By experiencing Vipralambha-bhava (intense separation) they were all to experience sambhoga, or divine union.

As the devotees danced more and more, each one felt his or her body become soaked with tears as they completely lost themselves in Narottam’s kirtan. For a time, Shrinivas was able to control himself, but Narottam could not, and his kirtan reached irrepressible proportions. Some devotees shouted in Narottam’s ear: “Thank you, my master. Your devotional power has enabled us all to see Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in His unending spiritual dance with Adwaita Acharya and the other eternal associates.”

Mahaprabhu had told Narottam in a dream the prior evening that He would come with His associates and ecstatically dance in his kirtan performance; so Narottam was waiting for this moment and would not abandon it so easily. In fact, the kirtan lasted many hours, deep into the night. But it seemed endless, and for many it was, for they took the event with them and lived in its memory (lila-smaranam). Externally, it had to come to a halt, and when it did, the devotees knew the phenomenon of love-in-separation as a firsthand experience.

The Unending Festival

Just as Narottam’s kirtan came to an end, Jahnava-devi began new festivities. She approached the newly installed Deities and offered a special form of red powder, the kind that Radha and Krishna throw at each other during their Holi festival. After the Deities enjoyed the dye, Jahnava Ma instructed the devotees to take the many buckets of colored dye and commemorate the Holi festival by throwing it at each other. Before the words had emanated from her lips, however, the devotees — thousands of them — were 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 Jahanava Ma and a team of experienced cooks, trained by her, prepared breakfast for all of the devotees. Then with a few assistants she personally fed the devotees with her own hands. Only when everyone else had completed their meal did Jahnava herself sit down and enjoy the remnants. This was her humility.

The festival lasted for three days, but for the attending Vaishnavas it was the experience of a lifetime. Many stayed in Kheturi for several weeks, but in due course they all returned to their original villages. Only Ram Krishna Acharya and Ganga-narayana Chakravarti did not leave, because their love for Narottam would not allow them to bear being separated from him. Eventually, however, they too left under Narottam’s instruction, and later by their enthusiastic preaching they succeeded in making the country of Manipur a Vaishnava kingdom. It is said that a great devotee named Bhagyachandra also preached in Manipur on Narottam’s behalf and solidified what Ram Krishna Acharya and Ganga-narayana Chakravarti had begun.

Mission Accomplished

For a number of complex reasons, the Kheturi festival is considered one of the most important milestones in Vaishnava history. First of all, since the Goswami literature was stolen, Narottam did not initially have the asset of books with which to spread the message of the Goswamis. So he had to use a different medium. This he did through the Kheturi festival, which eventually became an annual event and continued to be a source of inspiration even after the Goswami books were recovered. By gathering Vaishnavas from many different lands in one place, Narottam was able to convey to them the conclusions of the Vrindavan Goswamis in an organized way, and he was able to get the impressions of the Vaishnava pilgrims as well.

Brahmin/Vaishnava

Narottam quickly became the most famous Vaishnava guru in all of Bengal. His profound poetry, which successfully elucidates all of Gaudiya philosophy, and his magnificent singing voice, which made him a proverbial legend in his own lifetime, had brought disciples to him from all over India. Moreover, his intense purity inspired people from all walks of life — from kings to brahmins — to take full shelter at his feet.

In late-sixteenth-century India, caste distinctions were very powerful considerations, and many who subscribed to the brahminical orthodoxy did not look fondly upon Narottam, who was born in a kayastha-shudra family, because he was initiating those of the brahminical class. In fact, there were elaborate philosophical debates centering on this issue, and in several instances there were threats upon Narottam’s life. This volatile controversy has continued into the current age, even though Narottam and his intimate disciples convincingly quoted all of the pertinent scriptural sources and predecessor gurus to silence these caste-conscious agitators. In fact, Narottam’s supporters were able to convert even those who had initially thought of committing murder.

Nonetheless, the problem became so severe that at a subsequent Kheturi festival Birabhadra (Jahnava Ma’s son) delivered a lecture on this very subject, and all who listened understood that caste should not be determined by birth but by qualification and work.11 According to the scriptures and the Vaishnava tradition, these latter considerations were more important. More important still was love of God. The possessor of this, say the scriptures, transcends mundane classification, such as the caste system. The fortunate persons who actually met Narottam and who had prolonged exposure to his contagious love did not doubt the truthfulness of this statement.

There was a certain class of people, though, who heard of Narottam’s activities only from afar and did all that was within their power to defame him. As these men inflamed each other’s fears and insecurities, they formed a large group to obliterate Narottam’s inappropriate “non-brahminical” leadership. To this end, they sought the assistance of the local king, who, at that time, was a pious man named Raj Narasingha.

The Ruse

Raj Narasingha, who ruled the province of Pakapalli, was consistently harassed by the orthodox brahmin community in regard to Narottam. They said that Narottam was a low-born person and should therefore not have taken sannyasa nor should he have accepted as disciples those who were brahmins by birth, such as Ganga-narayana Chakravarti and Ramachandra Kaviraj. They insisted that the king inflict a severe punishment on Narottam for his impertinence.

The Raj sent a message to Narottam asking how a genuine sadhu such as he could possibly violate the injunctions of scripture by committing the alleged atrocities. Narottam responded by sending a letter which flatly stated that there was nothing in the scriptures, properly interpreted, to uphold the views of the caste-conscious brahmins, and that he was willing to attend a public debate to prove his point of view. Narottam assured the king that if his perspective on this subject was proven wrong, he would amend his ways.

By the time the Raj finished reading Narottam’s humble letter, he was convinced of the validity of Narottam’s position. Nonetheless, he gathered together a group of his greatest scholars, including the famous Rupa-narayana,12 and they marched toward Kheturi to debate with the Vaishnava saint. In the interim, however, Narottam’s two dearmost brahmin disciples, Ganga-narayana Chakravarti and Ramchandra Kaviraj, devised a clever ruse to show the real glory of their respectworthy teacher.

One of the brahmin disciples disguised himself as a potter; the other as a seller of betel nuts. They quickly set up small shops in an area known as Kumarapur, just outside Kheturi-gram, because this was on a roadway along which the king’s men would have to pass. When the scholars came marching through, the two devotees called them over to buy their necessary supplies. This gave them the opportunity to engage in polite conversation, discussing various issues of the day.

To the surprise of the scholars, however, these shopkeepers spoke in perfect Sanskrit, which only the most learned men were able to do! How is it, they considered, that simple shopkeepers in Narottam’s town are such accomplished scholars? If simple working men are as sophisticated as this, what would the actual scholars be like? And what would Narottam be like?!

The king’s men decided to see how knowledgeable these shopkeepers actually were and began to debate the issue of Narottam’s status as a guru of brahmins. With the greatest ease, Ganga-narayana and Ramchandra defeated the king’s scholars. As the royal academics referred to scriptural quote after quote, Narottam’s men showed them how they were taking the citations out of context or misinterpreting them altogether. Totally frustrated, they turned to the king and admitted their pathetic defeat.

The king himself was eager to see how Rupa-narayana would deal with the two scholarly shopkeepers, but in due course he was also defeated. Finally, the two sadhus revealed who they actually were. The king then turned to his men: “If you cannot defeat Narottam’s disciples, how can you defeat Narottam?” These painful words resounded in their ears. Eventually, they all became Narottam’s disciples.

His Literary Work

Unlike Shrinivas and Shyamananda, once Narottam left Vrindavan, he never returned. Rather, he spent his years in the vicinity of Kheturi-gram, cultivating devotees and writing his resplendent poetry. Govinda Kaviraj described Narottam as a great king of prema (divine love) and Ramchandra as Narottam’s minister. These two (Narottam and Ramchandra) spent much of their day studying and teaching the Bhagavat Purana and the literature of Rupa, Sanatan, and the other Goswamis. Since Narottam was the prince of a wealthy state — he was known as the raj-kumar in his youth! — he had the opportunity to study with many great scholars of his day. Taking advantage of this, Narottam became eloquent and prolific, and conveyed all of the tenets of Gaudiya Vaishnavism through the medium of poetic language.

His most important work is the Prarthana, a compendium of thirty-three Bengali songs. This is divided into 258 verses arranged in fifty-five sections. He succinctly deals with such subjects as prayer; self-criticism; mental training; spiritual happiness; the agony of the soul in separation from God; the superiority of Vaishnavism; the topmost aspirations; the guru/disciple relationship; residence in Vrindavan; the importance of asceticism; and the humility of a Vaishnava. In addition, twenty-seven sections of Prarthana focus on manjari-sadhana, which is the esoteric form of Gaudiya practice in which one visualizes oneself as a servant of Shrimati Radharani; since She is very dear to Krishna, this is the secret way to Krishna’s heart.

Also important is Narottam’s Prema-bhakti-chandrika, a lengthy poem (120 verses divided into nine sections) that elucidates the full gamut of Gaudiya philosophy in seed-like form. This poem has to have been written after the first Kheturi festival and the death of his dear friend Ramchandra Kaviraj, because Kaviraj’s passing is mourned in one particular verse. Many of the same themes of the Prarthana are dealt with in this masterpiece of Bengali poetry. Vishvanath Chakravarti, a later Vaishnava commentator, has written a Sanskrit explication of this work to the great satisfaction of the Vaishnava community.

In addition to his two major works, Narottam wrote many shorter poems, which were later included in important Vaishnava anthologies. In the twentieth century, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was fond of singing Narottam’s poetry and of quoting him in his lectures, which attests to the abiding value and relevance of Narottam’s achievement.