The Fading Light of Advaita Ācārya: Three Hagiographies

The Fading Light of Advaita Ācārya: Three Hagiographies

The Fading Light of Advaita Ācārya: Three Hagiographies

The Fading Light of Advaita Ācārya: Three Hagiographies

Synopsis

Rebecca J. Manring offers an illuminating study and translation of three hagiographies of Advaita Acarya, a crucial figure in the early years of the devotional Vaisnavism which originated in Bengal in the fifteenth century. Advaita Acarya was about fifty years older than the movement's putative founder, Caitanya, and is believed to have caused Caitanya's advent by ceaselessly storming heaven, calling for the divine presence to come to earth. Advaita was a scholar and highly respected pillar of society, whose status lent respectability and credibility to the new movement.
A significant body of hagiographical and related literature about Advaita Acarya has developed since his death, some as late as the early twentieth century. The three hagiographic texts included in The Fading Light of Advaita Acarya examine the years of Advaita's life that did not overlap with Caitanya's lifetime, and each paints a different picture of its protagonist. Each composition clearly advocates the view that Advaita was himself divine in some way, and a few go so far as to suggest that Advaita reflected even greater divinity than Caitanya, through miraculous stories that can be found nowhere else in Bengali Vaisnava literature. Manring provides a detailed introduction to these texts, as well as remarkably faithful translations of Haricarana Dasa's Advaita Mangala, Laudiya Krsnadasa's Balya-lila-sutra, and Isana Nagara's Advaita Prakasa.

Excerpt

Advaita Ācārya, a learned Vārendra brahmin, was the forerunner of the Vaiṣṇava bhakti movement in Bengal in the sixteenth century. At a time when the Vaiṣṇavas of Bengal were misunderstood and exposed to banter and ridicule, Advaita Ācārya boldly championed their cause and unified them against their brahminical detractors. He prepared the ground for the emergence of Caitanya as the charismatic leader of the bhakti movement. So great was Advaita Ācārya’s importance that he was honored as the god Śiva and the god Mahāviṣṇu incarnate. He labored very hard to mobilize a large section of the brahmins of the towns of Shantipur and Navadvīpa behind Caitanya’s essentially radical movement. His noncommunal frame of mind was revealed in his fraternization with Brahmā Haridāsa, who was a Muslim.

Advaita Ācārya’s activities are delineated in some detail in the biographies of Caitanya, who was born in 1486 when Advaita was, in all probability, fifty or fiftytwo years of age. Advaita Ācārya’s early life and career are steeped in mystery. It is said that he was born in far Śrīhaṭṭa in eastern Bengal, that he came to Shantipur with his parents at the age of twelve, that he was a disciple of a saint named Mādhavendra Purī, that he married the two daughters of a Vārendra brahmin named Nṛsiṃha Bhāḍurī, and that he was the father of six sons. He was probably a Vedāntic monist, a traveler on the path of knowledge (jñāna), who later developed a marked preference for Vaiṣṇava bhakti. According to traditional accounts, he considered himself a servant (dāsa) of Kṛṣṇa/Caitanya. He played the leading role in the apotheosis of Caitanya during a Vaiṣṇava festival in Purī. In some Vaiṣṇava lyrics he is described as a handsome but potbellied old man who walked in a peculiar manner.

The Vaiṣṇava gurus of the lineage of Advaita Ācārya are well known for their adherence to brahminical norms. Advaita Ācārya evidently did not hold any brief for the so-called madhura bhāva, or the “erotic mood,” which was later interpreted as the fundamental point of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. Although the old savant disliked Nityānanda Avadhūta’s uncommon emotional conduct, he shared his dāsya . . .

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