He was also sometimes referred to by the names Gaura (Sanskrit for “the fair / golden one”) due to his light skin complexion, and Nimai due to his being born underneath a Neem tree. There are numerous biographies available from the time giving details of Chaitanya’s life, the most prominent ones being the Chaitanya Charitamrita of Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami and the earlier Chaitanya Bhagavata of Vrindavana Dasa Thakura (both originally written in the Bengali language but now widely available in English and other languages) and the Chaitanya Mangala, written by Lochana Dasa Thakura.
According to the biography, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Nimai was born on the full moon night of February 18th 1486 at the time of a lunar eclipse. His parents named him ‘Visvambhar’ – he was the second son of Jagannath Mishra and his wife Sachi Devi who lived in the town of Navadvipa in Nadiya, West Bengal. Chaitanya’s ancestry is a contentious issue between the people of Orissa and West Bengal with Chaitanya having family roots in Jajpur, Orissa, from where his grandfather, Madhukar Mishra had emigrated to nearby Bengal.
In his youth, Chaitanya was primarily known as an erudite scholar, whose learning and skills in argumentation in his locality were second to none. A number of stories also exist telling of Chaitanya’s apparent attraction to the chanting and singing of Krishna’s names from a very young age, but largely this was perceived as being secondary to his interest in acquiring knowledge and studying Sanskrit. When traveling to Gaya to perform the shraddha ceremony for his departed father Chaitanya met his guru, the ascetic Ishvara Puri, from whom he received initiation with the Gopala Krishna mantra. This meeting was to mark a significant change in Mahaprabhu’s outlook and upon his return to Bengal the local Vaishnavas, headed by Advaita Acharya, were stunned at his external sudden ‘change of heart’ (from ‘scholar’ to ‘devotee’) and soon Chaitanya became the eminent leader of their Vaishnava group within Nadiya.
After leaving Bengal and receiving entrance into the sannyasa order by Keshava Bharati, Chaitanya journeyed throughout the length and breadth of India for several years, chanting the names of Krishna constantly. He spent the last 24 years of his life in Puri, Orissa, the great temple city of Jagannath. The king of Orissa, Maharaja Prataparudra, regarded him as Krishna incarnate and was an enthusiastic patron and devotee of Chaitanya’s sankirtan party. It was during these years that Chaitanya is believed by his followers to have sank deep into various meditational trances (samadhi) and performed pastimes of divine ecstasy (bhakti).
Despite having been initiated in the Madhvacharya tradition, Chaitanya’s philosophy is sometimes regarded as a tradition of his own within the Vaishnava framework – having some marked differences with the practices and the theology of other followers of Madhvacharya.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is not known to have written anything himself except for a series of verses known as the Siksastaka, “eight verses of instruction” which he spoke were recorded by one of his close colleagues. The eight verses created by Mahaprabhu are considered to contain the complete philosophy of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in condensed form. Chaitanya requested a select few among his followers (who later came to be known as the Six Gosvamis of Vrindavan) to systematically present the theology of bhakti he had taught to them in their own writings. The six saints and theologians were Rupa Goswami, Sanatana Goswami, Gopala Bhatta Goswami, Raghunatha Bhatta Goswami, Raghunatha dasa Goswami and Jiva Goswami, a nephew of brothers Rupa and Sanatana. These individuals were responsible for systematizing Gaudiya Vaishnava Theology.
Narottama Dasa Thakur, Srinivasa Acarya and Syamananda Pandit were among the stalwarts of the second generation of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Having studied under Jiva Goswami, they were instrumental in propagating the teachings of the Goswamis throughout Bengal, Orissa and other regions of Eastern India. Many among their associates, such as Ramacandra Kaviraja and Ganga Narayan Chakravarti, were also eminent teachers in their own right.
In addition to his deep influences on Hinduism (some contend that Hinduism in Bengal might have been eradicated but for him), Chaitanya’s cultural legacy in Bengal remains deep, with many residents performing daily worship to him as an avatar of Krishna. Some attribute to him a Renaissance in Bengal, different from the more well known 19th century Bengal Renaissance. Salimullah Khan, a noted linguist, maintains, “Sixteenth century is the time of Chaitanya Dev, and it is the beginning of Modernism in Bengal. The concept of ‘humanity’ that came into fruition is contemporaneous with that of Europe”. Chaitanya also influenced the Baul movement of Bengal, which some say was established by the son of his close friend Nityananda and is credited with locating a fragment of the lost scripture, Brahma Samhita.