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When Biographical Narratives Disagree: the Death of Krsna Caitanya

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The conflicting death narratives of Krsna Caitanya (1486-1533), who was the inspiration for the Vaisnava movement of Bengal, provide insights into the way members of a believing community reveal historical information about themselves and the way that they think, rather than about their ostensible subject. According to the mainstrean theologians of this group, it is improper to speak of Caitanya's death because he is Krsna, svayam bhagavān, and as such he only descends to earth and ascends back to heaven. Four of the hagiographers underscore this by refusing to speak of the event, making clear that it carries no soteriological significance. Fourteen other authors, however, provide four alternatives: Caitanya disappears into the temple of Jagannātha, into the temple of Gopīnātha, or into the waters of the sea, or he dies from a foot infection. In spite of the obvious differences, the surface narratives follow a distinct pattern of action: devotional action, transition or separation in the locale of an axis mundi, and reintegration to heaven. The pattern, in turn, parallels basic Gaudiya Vaisnava conceptions of ontology, the steps of devotional sādhana, and the progression of devotional consciousness, which suggests that the tripartite structure is more than a coincidence, that it is endemic to their conceptual worlds. Because all of these explicit narratives curtail Caitanya's divinity by depicting his death, they are theologically heterodox, yet the underlying pattern demonstrates that their vision is conditioned by conceptualizations consistent with orthodox thought.

Affiliations: 1: Dept. of Philosophy and Religion North Carolina State University Raleigh, NC 27695-8103, USA


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