The word "avatar" conjures up images of blue human-like beings with tails from James Cameron's popular science fiction movie. However, "avatar" is a Sanskrit word that describes the Supreme being or God when He descends to Earth. "Ava" means "down" and "tr" refers to "cross over." Thus it refers to God who crosses over the line between the spiritual realm and comes down to the material sphere. In the movie, the consciousness and mind of the human being are linked to their avatar counterparts on the planet Pandora. In the Hindu tradition, God is said to descend in varying forms, at different times, and those forms are known as avatars.
Shri Chaitanya, the most recent avatar of Krishna or God, took birth on this day, in the small town of Navadvip in West Bengal in the year 1486. In the Bengali language, Navadvip means "nine islands." He is known as the golden avatar of love because his skin resembled the color of molten gold and because he came to freely distribute love of God to anyone who was willing to accept it. He didn't consider a person's caste or creed when distributing spiritual knowledge and welcomed all to partake in the spiritual practice of calling out the names of God.
He appeared not as God, but as a devotee and kept his divinity hidden from most. He did this to demonstrate the mood and behavior an adherent should aspire for. At an early age of 24, he decided to leave home adopting vows of renunciation as a monk. Chaitanya then began to travel all throughout the land of India ecstatically dancing and chanting the names of Krishna. After traveling to many of the holy places in India, he decided to settle in the coastal town of Jagannath Puri in the Eastern part of India.
One of his main tasks was to demonstrate that no matter what our social status or position in society, we all need to maintain the mood of a humble servant towards each other and God. Not only did he preach this message, but also demonstrated it in his own life. He would take his followers to the temple and engage everyone in cleaning. He would personally pick up a broom and clean along with all his associates showing that even though he was a monk who was respected and followed by many, he was still a simple servant in the house of God. The superintendents of the temple even suggested that this type of menial work wasn't befitting someone of his stature, but he insisted.
An earlier time when Krishna was present on earth, approximately 5000 years ago, he first took the role of being a teacher for his good friend Arjuna, but later accepted the position of a simple charioteer allowing himself to be ordered around by the same Arjuna. God doesn't have an ego trip.
Chaitanya was the one to introduce the very popular Krishna mantra (sacred sounds repeated for prayer and worship) to the residents of West Bengal which later spread throughout the world:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
He explained that since the minds of people are extremely disturbed and turbulent, the easiest method for making spiritual advancement in the present age is by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. He suggested there is no hard and fast rule for reciting the mantra. One can chant while sitting, standing, and even while dancing. In fact, Chaitanya would lead groups of devotees into the streets creating a very musical and rhythmic procession with brass cymbals and clay drums (mridanga). He encouraged the people to joyfully sing and dance while chanting the mantra from deep within ones heart. The sound vibration of Krishna's names would purify the mind, heart, and soul from anger, greed, pride, envy, and illusion. Such chanting also allows one to have union and eventually develop love for God which is the ultimate purpose of yoga. Not only would the one reciting the names achieve cleansing of the mind, those hearing would receive the same benefit. Therefore, he suggested that we chant privately and publicly for the benefit of all.
It is because of this, we see the followers of Shri Chaitanya, known to the Western world as the "Hare Krishnas" singing in the streets with drums and cymbals while ecstatically dancing. Chaitanya's mood of openness to people of all backgrounds was carried to the U.S. by Swami Prabhupada, who then made it available to the Western audience. He made temple worship available, which was formerly strictly restricted to men born in the family of Hindu priests, to non-Hindu men and women. This is one reason so many Western people have taken an interest in the teachings.
The only written work Chaitanya left behind are the eight Sanskrit verses known as the Shiksastakam ("shiksa" meaning "teachings" and "astakam" meaning eight). Through these eight simple yet profound verses, he wanted to teach that even though we may not have a taste for spiritual life, if we, in a mood of humility and tolerance towards others, while not seeking prestige and followers, sincerely chant the names of God, anyone regardless of one's background can achieve the highest ecstatic love of God which will thoroughly satisfy all the hankerings of the soul and elevate us into the personal association of Krishna in the spiritual world.