“I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”

8 04 2021
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The body of the Lord was just like a field of sugarcane into which the mad elephants of ecstasy entered. There was a fight amongst the elephants, and in the process the entire field of sugarcane was destroyed. Thus transcendental madness was awakened in the body of the Lord, and He experienced despondency in mind and body. In this ecstatic condition, He began to speak as follows.

“ ‘O My Lord! O dearest one! O only friend of the universe! O Kṛṣṇa, O restless one, O only ocean of mercy! O My Lord, O My enjoyer, O beloved to My eyes! Alas, when will You again be visible to Me?’ ” (CC Madya lila 2.64-65)

Here I get to talk about something familiar to me – something that I have written about copiously – the grotesque. While Srimad Bhagavatam has its extremely odd and even risque moments, the Chaitanya Charitamrita has an earthiness to it due to its closeness to us in time and mood. In some ways, the Chaitanya movement parallels the devotio moderna and other popular religious movements developing in Europe during the same period. Indeed, all Gaudiya theology unfolds in a very baroque manner, with flourishes and complexities that seem to reveal another unexpected face of Vedantic religion.

As mentioned previously, Lord Chaitanya would lead large parties of hundreds dancing publicly in the streets, and often fall into ecstasy. These ecstasies didn’t appear particularly pleasant or edifying to the modern observer. Srila Rupa Goswami, an early follower of Lord Chaitanya akin perhaps to St. Paul in the Christian tradition for codifying the raw experience of the gaura-lila into a system of doctrine and practice, would describe these ecstatic symptoms of love of God through such phenomena as hairs standing on end, rolling on the ground, shedding copious tears, and so on. Instead of a sober and edifying compunction, a modern Western observer might think that Lord Chaintanya was an “emotional wreck,” or that He was having a mental breakdown; ecstasy manifesting itself in disturbing psychosomatic symptoms.

Yet these emotional and physical convulsions are like two halves of God rushing toward each other but not quite meeting. In the Vedic understanding, the Absolute Truth is never without the feminine aspect, the Person is never without His energy or activity. Thus, Srimati Radharani is just as much “God” as Krishna is; indeed, when we chant the Mahamantra, we are invoking Radha as the Energy of God (Hare), and the Energy is always mentioned first (Radha-Krishna, Sita-Rama, Lakshmi-Narayana). Krishna only takes pleasure in one Person, and that is Srimati Radharani; one could even say that She “controls” Him. In Lord Chaintanya, we see Krishna trying to experience the love that only Srimati Radharani can have for Him, and it turns out that the highest love is in separation: it is only when the beloved is absent that love reaches its most dizzying height. This love is always on the verge of breaking Lord Chaintanya, both mentally and physically.

One is reminded here perhaps of those Christian saints known as stigmatists who experienced the wounds of the Crucified Jesus on their own bodies. They were so filled with love of God in Jesus Christ that the Lord’s wounds impressed themselves in their own bodies. All throughout the late Middle Ages and in the early modern period, religion in Europe began to soak itself in blood, guts, and agony. Arguably this had been gradually unfolding in the Christian imagination since the Dark Ages. Perhaps the definitive founding moment of this spirituality was in the impressions of the wounds of Christ on St. Francis. His disciple, St. Bonaventure describes St. Francis receiving the stigmata while he was on retreat in a cave. There, a seraph appeared to St. Francis and impressed the wounds of Christ on St. Francis’s hands, feet, and side. He died two years later.

After St. Francis, a number of other Catholic saints received the stigmata, including a large number of women. Some bore the wounds of Christ for decades, and more often than not they were quite painful. These stigmatists also manifested other feats of supernatural behavior, such as surviving only on the Eucharist for years, clairvoyance, and even bi-location (literally being able to be two places at once). But the reception of the wounds of Christ always came from a desire to suffer alongside Christ for the sins of the world. They concentrated so much on the suffering of Jesus that it manifested on their own bodies.

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When the Lord fell to the ground, sometimes His breathing almost stopped. When the devotees saw this, their lives also became very feeble. Water flowed from His eyes and sometimes through His nostrils, and foam fell from His mouth. These flowings appeared to be torrents of nectar descending from the moon. The foam that fell from the mouth of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu was taken and drunk by Śubhānanda because he was very fortunate and expert in relishing the mellow of ecstatic love of Kṛṣṇa. (CC Madya 13: 108-110)

The physicality of previous manifestations of devotion should rightly repel us now, but not totally. Srila Prabhupada said that, if any devotees started acting up during kirtan to put on a show, say by rolling on the ground or otherwise carrying on, the appropriate thing to do was to kick them and see how they react. If they take offense, the ecstasy was obviously fake. Otherwise, in Christianity, such displays are common in denominations such as Pentecostalism and Catholic charismaticism. I grew up in the latter movement, at least briefly, and honestly, the speaking in tongues and general agitation in worship freaked me out. My aversion to it probably put me off even considering the Hare Krishna way of worship for a couple of decades. I preferred the peace and quiet of my paternal grandmother’s religion rather than the Holy Roller version of my other side of the family, even if it also had the Virgin of Guadalupe and rosaries. People mistake material emotion for spiritual experience, and that is not what the Chaitanya movement was about.

The other side of the coin is that, when Lord Chaitanya manifests His pastimes, none of the “gross” things He does are material. I guess my Catholic side can identify with this, though perhaps people took it too far when they, for example, bit off the fingers of the corpses of holy people in order to have a first class relic. Or when they drank the water used to wash the wounds of lepers like St. Catherine of Siena. These exceptional actions, drinking the spittle of the Supreme Personality of Godhead or wearing the teeth of saints as a necklace, are more things to be marveled at now rather than imitated. We can’t pretend that these things aren’t off-putting to us as modern people. We should probably seek the devotion behind them by other more common means.

My Lord, please do not touch me. I fall at Your lotus feet. I am the lowest of men, having been born of a low caste. Besides that, I have infections on my body.” Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, however, embraced Sanātana Gosvāmī by force. Thus the moisture oozing from the itching sores touched the transcendental body of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. – CC Antya 4: 20-21

If someone were to write a basic Hare Krishna catechism, the first article might be: “We are not this body.” Yet the Chaitanya Charitamrita is a very corporeal book. From the child Nimai Pandit playing on top of a garbage heap to the physically painful pastimes of Lord Chaitanya prior to His disappearance, at every turn one can imagine the sweat, the tears, the blood, and the pain that characterized this hidden avatar of Kali Yuga. This is the sharp contrast of the gaura-lila. Lord Chaitanya’s teaching of the public and loud chanting of the Holy Names of God arrives at the lowest point in the cycle of human time, yet it offers the easiest path to the highest manifestation of the love of God: the mood of Srimati Radharani and the gopis. It offers a means to achieve service in the celestial Vrindavan during an infernal time when dharma has almost been wiped out. It is no wonder that it looks so painful.

The major difference with Baroque Catholicism is that there is nothing “redemptive” about physical suffering in Hare Krishna understanding. Lord Chaitanya takes on even more Christlike qualities during the chastisement of His devotee, Haridasa Thakura. Haridasa was a Muslim by birth who took to the chanting of the Holy Names of Krishna and was subsequently punished by the local Muslim authorities for his apostasy by being publicly whipped in twenty-two marketplaces. He came out of the ordeal unscathed, but Lord Chaitanya later showed Haridasa the scars on His own back, demonstrating that He took the beating in His devotee’s stead. The lesson is that the Lord will protect His true devotees just as He protected Prahlada Maharaja from his demonic father Hiranyakashipu. This is a stark contrast to Christian martyrdom, where physical martyrdom is the archetype of personal holiness.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu

I do not know whether the corpse I found was the ghost of a dead brāhmaṇa or an ordinary man, but as soon as one looks upon it, the ghost enters his body. “The body of this ghost is very long, five to seven cubits. Each of its arms and legs is as much as three cubits long. “Its joints are all separated beneath the skin, which is completely slack. No one could see it and remain alive in his body. “That ghost has taken the form of a corpse, but He keeps his eyes open. Sometimes He utters the sounds ‘goṅ-goṅ,’ and sometimes He remains unconscious. “I have seen that ghost directly, and He is haunting me. But if I die, who will take care of my wife and children? -CC Antya 18: 51-55

The last part of Lord Chaitanya’s life is frankly hard to read. He is living in Jagannath Puri with a small circle of intimate devotees. He is actively experiencing the separation from Krishna that Srimati Radharani feels, and it has essentially driven Him to madness. He escapes and is frantically searched for by His devotees, who often conclude that He is dead. In the above pastime, Lord Chaitanya almost drowns to death in the ocean mistaking it for the River Yamuna in Vrindavan. A poor fisherman catches the Lord in his net, and concludes that he caught the body of a ghost or some monster. The fisherman is distraught that finding this body has brought ruin upon him. It’s only when the the devotees perform loud sankirtan that the Lord is revived and His body returns to normal. The Lord is resurrected several times in this manner prior to His disappearance.

Unlike in the Christian mystery, this monstrous morphing of mind and body isn’t the result of sin, but of the unfathomable love that a paramour has for Her lover. This isn’t just a temporary agony and groaning waiting for the redemption of a fallen creation, but a theophany from another world. These tears and anxieties exist eternally before all else. Granted, no one is becoming disjointed or is foaming at the mouth in Goloka Vrindavan, but the separation that the gopis feel apart from Krishna is just as bad, if not worse. In Lord Chaitanya’s pastimes, they spill into matter and make a big mess, at least to our eyes. But it is a mess most pleasing to the Supreme Lord in His intimate abode.

For me, this is a satisfying synthesis of the agony and earthiness of Hispanic Catholicism and the ethereal insights of Platonism or the Vedanta popularly understood. We see very poorly here, but the grotesque can exist in the heart of the Godhead even if we understand it little now. The baby Krishna defecates and urinates in the houses that refuse to give Him butter. He is covered in sweat, dirt, and blood at the Battle of Kurukshetra. The young dark cowherd boy sweats and feels the palpitations of love during the rasa-lila, and so on. These aren’t material things, but eternal, and beyond eternal. Eternity issues forth from them almost like an afterthought.

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Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

-John Donne


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