The Psychology of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu

By Dayal Nitai

We live in paradoxical times. Although modern society has more access to resources, technology, and scientific achievements than in any previous era, we see an increase in anxiety, depression, chronic stress, and burnout. We have exceptional conditions and amenities, but we do not have satisfaction or inner peace. 

What are we missing? The real-life example of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu can give us the answer. His whole life and psychology (mind and behavior) are a representation of the preferable mode of being for achieving lasting happiness. 

The Imperative for Self-actualization and Self-transcendence

Who is Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu? From the perspective of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, he is Krishna himself, entering this world as a devotee. Once (a term used here only for the sake of convenience), Krishna, bewildered by the devotion of his devotees, fell into an “existential crisis”. He started to ask himself: Who am I to provoke such love? What do they see in me? What is this extraordinary love that they are experiencing? He found out that he was missing something. This transcendental scenario also has its psychological implications. God, the Ultimate Truth, is engaged in a constant process of self-actualization and self-transcendence towards grasping his own depths and the depths of the love of his devotees. This also contains a message about our own nature: inherently, we, too, have this constant impulse for growth and self-improvement – an imperative to actualize our understanding of ourselves and the world, to go beyond, to discover more and more. 

This psychological message resonates with the zeitgeist and with our cultural contexts. As was said in the beginning, we are currently facing a paradox that cannot be explained by our external circumstances. In such situations, to go within is the most meaningful and rewarding direction we can choose. We see that people start to develop an interest in philosophy, spirituality, and personal development as means of finding a solution and counteracting the pandemic of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and nihilism, all of which are on the rise. When we feel that our life is in a state of crisis, we need to go within, as God himself does when he initiates a process of what we might consider as a kind of auto-psychoanalysis in order to go deeper and explore his own personality. This theological idea can be found in psychological theories. In one of the most famous models of human needs and values, Abraham Maslow places self-actualization at the apex of the pyramid and in his latest works further expands it by adding the concept of self-transcendence. 

Love, the Highest Ideal

The culmination of this transcendental moment “gives birth” to Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the most attractive Lord who tries to reach new dimensions of love and who tries to measure the depths of his own self by way of accepting the mood of his topmost devotee, Sri Radha. By doing so, he shows, humbly, that it is not He but rather Love that stands on the top of the universal hierarchy. The Supreme thus bows down to the supremacy of Love herself. This teaches us that our quest for meaning and our search for answers will lead us to find out that self-discovery and growth should be in service of love.

Caitanya Mahaprabhu is a student of love and constantly strives to reach for new depths and heights and to expand his consciousness. In his striving to experience the highest love, we can see a roadmap for our own transformation. In his example, we find confirmation of the proper mode of being for achieving lasting happiness and combating our distress. In this sense, we can say that he teaches us that the culmination of human experience is self-transcendence in the pursuit of love. This is on the top of our ethical structure. Common sense and modern-day research confirm that. Fulfillment comes from love – love, in regard to our biological makeup, provides a sense of safety, and it nurtures our brain and bodily systems. On the psycho-emotional level, it gives serenity and strength and helps foster resilience. On the social level, it provides the basis for satisfying relationships. When we feel loved, we are able to strive, grow, be resilient, and express our authentic selves. The longest Harvard study shows that having loving relationships with others and loving what you do is the key to lasting happiness. But love is inevitably associated with overcoming oneself, stepping out of one’s comfort zone, and growing up. Relationships challenge us to learn and develop our qualities and character. We cannot be self-centered and look for personal comfort.

The Value of Sacrifice 

The ultimate Truth is a servant of Love, the best version of reality. This is the most desirable model of the world. It is true on all levels – biological, psychological, social, and spiritual. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu shows us that, if we want to achieve it, we need to both transcend and sacrifice ourselves for this highest ideal. The idea of sacrifice may sound a bit strange to people in the modern world, but ancient philosophies state that human life is meant to be lived by making constant sacrifices. From the viewpoint of evolutionary psychology, this paradoxical statement is true. The concept of sacrifice is one of the primary factors that separate and distinguish human beings from animals. Committing to something and making sacrifices to attain it is a general pattern of human behavior. We can let go of something we value in the present in order to gain something we value even more in the future. This becomes possible due to our ability to sacrifice instant gratification – to delay the pleasure of here and now for something in the future. 

If we go even further back in time, we will see that it was said five thousand years ago in ancient Vedic texts that human life is meant for self-sacrifice. The word for sacrifice, ‘yagya’, consists of two words, ‘yaj‘ and ‘ya‘. ‘Yaj‘ means ‘worshiping’ or ‘rendering service’, and ‘ya‘ means ‘whom’. But what kind of sacrifice is worthy of our efforts? To sacrifice for the sake of our highest ideal. We must choose our sacrifice and choose our suffering. This choice will determine the depths and heights we can reach. There is suffering that could broaden the field of our consciousness, but there is also suffering that could narrow it. The thing that makes the difference is the meaning we attribute to it. In the words of Victor Frankl, “pain is suffering without meaning.”

As the recent pandemic has shown, our world is a vulnerable place. We cannot escape this reality. Even if we try, neuroscience confirms that attempting to numb negative emotions also numbs the positive ones. Further, trying to indulge only in pleasure leads to a lower baseline level of dopamine (one of our feel-good neurotransmitters) which practically means a decrease in our level of happiness. Through the example of his lifelong quest for developing love for God, Sri Caitanya provides a solution – sacrifice mundane suffering for the sake of transcendental suffering. This transcendental suffering comes as a result of trying to reach the highest ideal. When we find meaning in this goal and put effort into achieving it, we transform our inner world.

New Meaning and Identity

If we follow in the footsteps of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, we will be led to the doorstep of our highest ideal and inner transformation. It is said that what we focus our attention on is what we will get. He concentrated his consciousness on the highest ideal by being absorbed in kirtan and by chanting the maha-mantra, which contains the names of the Divine. To be always concentrated on Divine love means that we accept the sacred narrative: we are more than our physical bodies, and this world is not meaningless and random. Spirituality is based on this narrative. Research done by one of the most famous speakers in the world, Brené Brown, has shown that spirituality is a core factor for resilience. Based on her research, she defines the term spirituality as recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Such spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives. It gives us a new sense of identity in which we develop a more helpful attitude towards the obstacles and calamities in our lives. We establish an ethical structure and a belief system that contribute to our resilience. By being emotionally attached to something that transcends the things in life that are conditioned by time and space, we gain a greater sense of inner peace and more stability. 

By having faith in this higher ideal, we develop a transcendental identity that reveals new layers, new dimensions of our own being such as patience, humility, and compassion. The manifestation of this sense of identity can be seen in the Siksastakam, an eight-verse prayer written by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, where he moves from despair to hope, from bewilderment to full surrender. 

Sacred Rituals 

From this new meaning and identity, new ways of behaving and acting emerge. In our secularized Western world, we have stripped this meaning from our lives, considering it superficial or too abstract. But by doing so we have created a vacuum not only inside of us but also outside, in our daily lives. We have lost the meaning-creating rituals of the past. Modern man is anxious because we have taken away the rituals that connect us to each other, that ground us in empathy, compassion, and togetherness. Instead, we have many routines. They may look similar, but, as psychologist Esther Perel points out, there is a big difference. She explains that routines get us through the day, but rituals guide us through life. Routines can help us develop skills while creating continuity and order. As a result, we can be productive, but we lose touch with our transcendental identity. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu teaches us to revive the rituals that elevate our consciousness, that are performed with pure intention, and that are imbued with meaning. When we do not take the time to nurture this part of ourselves, we will not succeed in reaching the goal of love and we will then find substitutes in vicarious pleasure. As a result, we get lost in consumerism and exploitation, which can ultimately only bring more anxiety and depression. As Viktor Frankl stated, “when a man cannot find meaning he numbs himself with pleasure.” 

Our need for meaning is fulfilled by fixing our mind on the highest ideal. This is the best ritual for steering the processes of self-actualization and self-transcendence. This highest ideal of selfless love is also the means to achieve happiness because happiness is directly connected to the quality of our goals and our sense of identity. Chanting the names of God means bowing down to and recognizing the sacred narrative – the idea that our consciousness is superior to matter. We go from the quantitative world to the qualitative world. This endows us with resilience and also with an identity that is more stable, one situated beyond the constraints of passing time and that is connected to the ideal world, the world of value and meaning, of faith and hope, which give us an existential anchor, a shelter that is more solid and that is not limited by external circumstances.

Inspired by the Example

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu sets for us an example of how in his quest for reaching the highest ideal he found awe, meaning, ecstatic feeling, and aesthetic rapture. His life is an apogee of divine ecstasy. Using Maslow’s terms, his life represents the ideal for self-actualization and self-transcendence. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is one of the historical figures who manifest and embody the highest ideal in such a graceful and tremendous way that they transformed the society they were part of. He teaches that if we want to live a truly fulfilling life we need to elevate our consciousness. The best way in which we can do this is by pursuing the highest ideal and engaging in sacred rituals that cultivate new meaning and sense of identity. 

People who come in touch with his teachings and philosophy through the widening ripples that spread from his dancing in the lake of this Divine ecstasy continue to experience inner change. The life of such a personality provides not only a real example but one that we can call hyperreal: a fact is merely a fact, but the example of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu uncovers an existential pattern that is striking in terms of its universal applicability. 

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