We think Lord Caitanya descended and then disappeared some five hundred years ago. On one hand it’s an undeniable fact, on the other hand it betrays our materialistic way of thinking about these things – in this version He gets born and dies as an ordinary human, we only use different words like “descended”, “appeared”, or “disappeared” for the sake of etiquette. What we mean, what we perceive in our minds, is actions of “birth” and “death”, so using more respectful terms doesn’t help very much. I think there’s a way to expand our understanding of what’s going on here.
In the introduction to Śrī Caitanya Caritāmṛta Śrīla Prabhupāda explains the meaning of Caitanya as “living force”. In the first few chapters Śrīla Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja explains the mission of Lord Caitanya in various ways and one aspect of it is to propagate chanting of the Holy Name and to purify the whole world through this chanting. In the introduction Śrīla Prabhupāda explains it in terms of “living force in immortality” or “character of the living force in immortality” and how the Lord makes it happen for the souls born in Kali yuga. Why not take it as the actual definition?
I mean under materialistic way of thinking “Lord Caitanya” means a person who was born and died five hundred years ago, that’s the main definition, and then we add the details with information about His divinity, mercy and so on. What I propose is to take “giver of immortality to the living force” as primary definition instead and THEN start filling it with details about when He was visible, what He looked like etc.
In relation to our gradual awakening from the dreams of māyā Lord Caitanya appears as He who gives the sound of the Holy Name and fills it with spiritual realizations. Prior to Him chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra was absent from this world and without His mercy it does not produce desired effects. Technically, the mantra itself was known, of course, but no one paid much attention to it, and now, when everybody is aware of its existence and benefits of its chanting, hardly anyone actually becomes a devotee – without Lord Caitanya’s mercy it’s not possible.
Lord Caitanya was also Kṛṣṇa Himself who appeared in the mood of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī but I can’t personally relate to it (yet), what I do know is that chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra effects changes in myself. I won’t argue if to other people Lord Caitanya means Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa nahe anya, but I would argue that to me it means gradual spiritual awakening, which is a legitimate part of His mission and He and His mission are non-different.
If I accept that this is how Lord Caitanya appears in my life then I can’t say “He disappeared in 1534” because that doesn’t make sense now. In fact, He NEVER disappears because His presence as “immortality of the living force” which fills the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra with spiritual potency does not go away, ever. Well, I can commit offences and stop chanting as a result or chanting would become ineffective but something tells me it would only be temporary and Lord Caitanya’s mercy would reach me even at my own worst.
Lord Caitanya is addressed as mahā-vadānyāya and kṛṣṇa-prema-pradāya in his praṇāma mantra. At this stage prema-pradāya practically means “giver of devotion”, exactly what I’m talking about, and mahā-vadānyāya means supremely merciful and magnanimous so there’s no way to avoid Him, means in this aspect of His personality He never disappears.
I remember this when I chant Hare Kṛṣṇa, my mind gets absorbed in mundane thoughts, and suddenly I wake up and purge them from my consciousness – it’s the appearance and mercy of Lord Caitanya. I might think it’s my own effort but it isn’t, I falsely appropriate it. Why do I remember to stop thinking nonsense things? Because of Lord Caitanya, who is ever present, ever ready to help, ever putting meaning in words “Hare” and “Kṛṣṇa” and “Rāma”, ever filling them and myself with living force and immortality. He didn’t disappear five hundred years ago, He is always here, with me, even if I don’t fully appreciate it yet.
Okay, but what to do with the fact of Him taking birth in Navadvīpa and then living for forty eight years “on Earth”, in materialistic speak? First of all, accepting materialistic worldview means accepting a timeline, which is also linear, not cyclical like in Vedic science, so let’s distance ourselves from that first. Lord Caitanya’s existence and appearances are not restricted by time, place, or circumstances, only by our readiness, devotion, and His mercy. If we accept ourselves as parts of the materialistic community based on science and history then we can’t see Him because that time has passed. If we realize that we are not a part of that world then we might pray for Lord Caitanya’s full appearance right now, subject to our readiness, devotion, and His mercy.
In one place, I can’t find it right now, Śrīla Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja describes Lord Caitanya as mercy personified, which I take to mean that mahā-vadānyāya aspect has a form and that form is of a tall, large man with lotus eyes, long arms, and golden complexion. It might take a while for us to realize that feelings like mercy can have forms but we can start with the fact that we recognize things like “look of compassion” or “manifestation of mercy”. Mercy isn’t impersonal, in relation to our beings it takes forms suitable to us so that we at least recognize it as “mercy” and not as “malice”. Like a crying baby who perceives mother’s mercy first as sound of her saying “Coming!”, then adds a perception of her figure appearing in his view, then the gentle touch of her arms and warmth of her body, then a sensation of nipple in his mouth, and then the taste of mother’s milk, so Lord’s appearance in our lives is also gradual. It starts with the sound of the Holy Name and graduates in Goloka, just have patience and keep crying for Him. His mercy WILL take more perceptible forms, we just have to start somewhere and keep going.
Engrossed in materialistic thinking we do not recognize that the power which shakes off our distractions as we chant the Holy Name IS Lord Caitanya Himself, we take it for granted. There’s a similar situation with our thinking about atoms I heard many many years ago. We think that atoms have nucleus and there are orbiting electrons (not entirely correct but the most common model) but Vedic science would look at the same atom and say “it occupies space – either, there’s movement – air, there’s energy – fire, there’s bondage between parts of nucleus – water, and there subatomic particles themselves – earth”. Same thing, different perspective, different science. Materialists take existence of space or movement for granted but in Vedic science those are fundamental elements making matter, not protons and electrons.
Materialistic worldview and their understanding of the universe or history do not have any independent sources of existence, they are not objective reality. It’s a degraded “Vedic culture”, in the simplest terms, and periodic decline of religion was mentioned by Kṛṣṇa in Bhagavad Gīta, so every now and then the Lord appears even before the eyes of the degraded population so that some of us get to see Him “for real”. On average, I’m removed by about twenty five generation from Lord Caitanya and my ancestors were nowhere near India at the time. They didn’t see Him, how can I expect this body produced by them to see the Lord? They weren’t even among those who only heard of Lord Caitanya, or even heard of the chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa. Those events, however, were recorded and accepted as “real” even by atheists. My ancestors were not qualified for that particular manifestation of Lord’s mercy, there were nowhere near it, so I get this mercy in the form of chanting that only begins to make sense, which is a solid start. What’s there to complain?
I know devotees who had a much better perception of Lord Caitanya’s mercy that me so I can see a gradient, which means it’s real and progress can be actually made.
The main point is to appreciate Lord Caitanya in the form we can perceive rather than raise our expectations in line with our materialistic upbringing where it’s all or nothing – you can either see God or He doesn’t exist. No, He DOES exists, and there ways to sense His presence other than “seeing”, we just not paying attention.