For Gaudiya Vaishnavas, or devotees of Lord Krishna in His form as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the best samvada is a conversation between Chaitanya and Ramananda Raya, recorded in the seventeenth-century text Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya, Chapter 8). Their conversation in Vidyanagar on the bank of the Godavari River (east coast of south-central India) details the highest and most confidential aspects of Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy.
When Lord Krishna appeared as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Krishna’s eternal associates accompanied Him. Born in Odisha, Ramananda was the eldest of five sons of Bhavananda Raya. In the Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya, 10.53), Lord Chaitanya tells Bhavananda Raya: “You are Pandu, and your wife is Kunti. Your five sons are the five Pandavas.”*
Bhavananda’s home was in Alalanath, also known as Brahmagiri, about twelve miles west of Jagannath Puri. The family was well-to-do and devout.
Ramananda is traditionally regarded as a disciple of Raghavendra Puri and a grand-disciple of Madhavendra Puri, an important predecessor of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Ramananda was a natural Vaishnava in heart and soul.
As Ramananda reached adulthood, he served as the governor of a district known Vidyanagar (around modern-day Rajahmundry) in South India, then part of the Odisha kingdom of Prataparudra Deva, who acceded to the throne in 1497, after his father, Purushottam Deva. Prataparudra’s empire spread from the banks of the Ganges to the southern borders of Karnataka, with his capital in Cuttack. Later, Ramananda served as one of his prominent ministers.
Ramananda Raya’s significance in the pastimes of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu begins soon after the Lord accepted the sannyasa order of life. It was then that Mahaprabhu arrived in Puri and met Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya, the king’s court pandit. Sarvabhauma was a prominent Mayavadi (impersonalist) philosopher who was soon swayed by Mahaprabhu’s charisma and teaching.
The Lord didn’t stay in Puri for long. He left for a tour of South India, to spread the holy name of Krishna to all. But just prior to His departure, Sarvabhauma gave Him paraphernalia for His journey and requested Him to visit Ramananda Raya at Vidyanagar. “Here, you will find a singularly super-excellent Vaishnava,” Sarvabhauma said.
After several adventures on His way south, Mahaprabhu finally arrived at the Godavari, making a beeline for Rajahmundry, the largest city on the river’s banks. It is directly across from an area called Kovvur, where Sri Ramananda often bathed. After enjoying the waters there Himself, at Gospada Ghat, Mahaprabhu sat and waited.
When Ramananda passed by with his stately retinue, on seeing Mahaprabhu’s effulgent form he descended from his palanquin and offered obeisance, enthralled by the Lord’s magnificence. They greeted each other and embraced. Both felt the onset of divine emotions, experiencing the highest forms of transcendental love in each other’s company.
The Sacred Conversation
The spot where Mahaprabhu met Ramananda Raya at the bank of Godavari
Mahaprabhu expressed a desire to hear about Krishna from Sri Ramananda’s pure lips, and so they agreed to spend time together. Normally, the devotee hears from the Lord, and not the other way around. But here, for the Lord’s pleasure, the situation was reversed. Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami relates in his Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 8.1): “Gauranga [Chaitanya] is like the ocean of spiritual truths; He filled the cloud named Ramananda with the nectar of devotion to Himself. Ramananda then rained down that same nectar on the very ocean from which it had come, producing the jewels of transcendental knowledge.” In the Bhagavad-gita Arjuna hears from Lord Krishna, but here Krishna (Sri Chaitanya) hears from His devotee Arjuna (Ramananda Raya).
Mahaprabhu asked Ramananda Raya to explain the ultimate goal of life, using evidence from the scriptures. This he did, and the ensuing conversation might very well be the deepest theological discussion ever noted down for posterity.
Although Ramananda first proposed (as the ultimate goal) observance of the four social and four spiritual orders of life (varnashrama) and executing one’s duties in accordance with this principle, Mahaprabhu quickly rejected this proposal as superficial. Acknowledging this, Sri Ramananda gradually proposed other options, one after another, so that by the end of the conversation the reader sees the full gamut of Vedic knowledge and the numerous goals leading to the ultimate spiritual conclusion. The dialogue takes them from the idea of merely renouncing the fruits of one’s activities to rendering formal service to the Lord; from serving the Lord with devotion mixed with mundane action (karma-mishra-bhakti) to devotion mixed with knowledge (jnana-mishra-bhakti) to pure devotional service without any motivation or mundane desire (prema-bhakti).
Although, as a matter of course, Mahaprabhu agreed that pure devotional service (bhakti-yoga) constitutes entrance into the ultimate goal of life, He urged Ramananda to go further, for there are subtle nuances regarding this supreme truth. In response, Ramananda explained the basic elements of rasa-tattva, or loving attachment to Krishna in servitorship, friendship, parenthood, and romantic love. Even hearing this, however, Mahaprabhu wanted more: “Kindly proceed further and tell Me where it goes from there.”
Sri Ramananda then explained the love of the gopis, Krishna’s cowherd girlfriends, adding that the selfless mood of Srimati Radharani, the topmost gopi, remains super-excellent and unsurpassable. Living beings must aspire to serve Her and to reach for Her level of loving devotion, knowing they can attain only a facsimile of Her love. That aspiration is the ultimate goal of life.
Mahaprabhu was pleased, accepting this conclusion about life’s consummate stage of perfection. But He still wanted to hear more, and so Ramananda obliged Him by singing a song he had composed that sums up Sri Radha’s confidential mood of divine love (prema-vivarta-vilasa). At one point, Sri Chaitanya covered Ramananda’s mouth with His hand, confirming that Ramananda was now expressing the most intimate and confidential spiritual truths, the realization of which can come only through devotional practice. After this, Sri Ramananda elaborated a bit more on the intimate love of Sri Radha and Her gopi attendants.
Finally, Sri Chaitanya and Ramananda embraced, weeping in spiritual ecstasy. They concluded their talk and rested for the night.
The Gaudiya Math at the meeting place of Ramananda Raya and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu
The next evening, Ramananda met Mahaprabhu again. The Lord embraced him with great love and, after comfortably seating him, began to ask questions.
Mahaprabhu: “What is the best education?”
Sri Ramananda: “Devotion to Krishna.”
Mahaprabhu: “What is the greatest activity for a living entity?”
Sri Ramananda: “To be the servant of Krishna.”
Mahaprabhu: “What is the supreme wealth?”
Sri Ramananda: “Love of Radha-Krishna.”
Mahaprabhu: “What is the greatest unhappiness?”
Sri Ramananda: “To not have the association of Krishna’s devotees.”
Mahaprabhu: “What is the highest liberation?”
Sri Ramananda: “Love for Krishna.”
Mahaprabhu: “What is the best song?”
Sri Ramananda: “A song describing the pastimes of Radha-Krishna.”
Mahaprabhu: “What is most auspicious for living entities?”
Sri Ramananda: “The association of a devotee of Krishna.”
Mahaprabhu: “What is the only thing we have to remember?”
Sri Ramananda: “Krishna’s name, qualities, and pastimes.”
Mahaprabhu: “What is the only thing to meditate upon?”
Sri Ramananda: “The lotus feet of Radha-Krishna.”
Mahaprabhu: “Where is the best place to live?”
Sri Ramananda: “Wherever Krishna displays His transcendental pastimes.”
Mahaprabhu: “What is the best thing to be heard?”
Sri Ramananda: “Descriptions of Radha-Krishna’s loving pastimes.”
Mahaprabhu: “What is the only thing to be glorified?”
Sri Ramananda: “The name of Radha-Krishna.”
In this way, Mahaprabhu would ask questions and Sri Ramananda would answer, sometimes in terse, one-sentence responses, sometimes in a detailed way. Over the centuries, the Vaishnava acharyas have elaborated Ramananda’s teachings to make explicit what is mostly implicit in the Chaitanya-charitamrita. Their books constitute a storehouse of literature on love of God.
Mahaprabhu as God
When their talks were nearly complete, Mahaprabhu revealed His divine nature as Radha and Krishna, both mystically appearing in the person of Sri Chaitanya. Seeing this form, Ramananda could not contain himself and fell unconscious. Regaining his senses after some time, he offered spontaneous hymns in praise of the Lord. Mahaprabhu then requested him to keep confidential the truths of His mysterious identity and appearance. He asked Ramananda to transfer to Jagannath Puri, saying that the two of them could remain there together and happily pass their time discussing Krishna. Without delay, Ramananda made Puri his headquarters, continuing to serve under King Prataparudra. He became close friends with Svarupa Damodara Goswami, Mahaprabhu’s private secretary, and spent his time composing plays for the pleasure of Lord Jagannatha.
The Ideal Guru-Disciple Exchange
There is much to be gleaned from Ramananda Samvada, as this conversation is now known, not least the essential exchange between an ideal guru and his disciple. As Srila Prabhupada writes in his book In Search of the Ultimate Goal of Life:
The method of approach and the manner of humility exhibited by Lord Chaitanya to Ramananda is the ideal for approaching a bona fide tattva-darshi, or a master of transcendental knowledge. . . . In the Bhagavad-gita, it is recommended that one approach the spiritual master for supramundane knowledge under the protection of service and surrender accompanied by relevant inquiries. Lord Chaitanya, as the ideal teacher and practical demonstrator of the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita, teaches us by His approach to Ramananda Raya. He shows that a person desirous of knowing the transcendental science must not be proud of his material acquisitions of education and wealth, which are very insignificant to the transcendentally situated spiritual master from whom we should be very keen to understand the science of devotion.
If somebody approaches the bona fide spiritual master with the vanity of mundane pride in respect to his heredity, wealth, education, or personal beauty and without the necessary qualifications of surrender, service, and relevant inquiry, surely such a person will be honored outwardly by the spiritual master, but the spiritual master will decline to bestow transcendental knowledge upon the student who by his attitude of mundane vanity is rendered unqualified. Such a proud student is actually a shudra and he has no access to spiritual knowledge for want of the necessary qualifications mentioned above. Thus the shudra student, instead of availing himself to the mercy of the spiritual master, goes to hell as a result of his mundane vanity.
Sri sri Radha Nayana Abhirama the presiding deity of Ramananda Gaudiya Math
Ramananda Raya was born in the family of a shudra and was also a grihastha in terms of the system of varnashrama-dharma. Lord Chaitanya appeared in the family of a highly cultured brahmana of Navadvipa and was in the topmost rank of the sannyasa ashrama. Therefore, in terms of the varnashrama system, Ramananda Raya was in the lowest status while Lord Chaitanya was in the highest status; yet, because Ramananda was a master in the art of transcendental knowledge, Lord Chaitanya approached him as one should approach a guru. He did so for the benefit of us all.
Today, the art of conversation is not what it used to be. People focus on their computers and cell phones more than on real interpersonal exchange. Technology distracts them from in-depth involvement with others, leading to crude forms of shorthand and impersonal kinds of communication: Many are more inclined to watching a conversation than engaging in one. Spiritual dialogue, too, is having a difficult time of it. The conversation between Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Ramananda Raya brings us back to a time when interpersonal exchange was more prominent, evoking a simpler way of life that stresses the importance of taking one’s time and evolving spiritually.
Of course, no conversation can match the interaction between Mahaprabhu and Ramananda Raya. And reading their conversation makes you part of it, allowing you to enter a dialogue with the Lord.
*According to the Gaudiya tradition, Ramananda Raya is also an incarnation of the gopi Vishakha, one of Radharani’s closest companions, as well as the gopi Arjuniya.