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The Gaudiya Vaisnava movement is one of the most vibrant religious groups in all of South Asia. Unlike most devotional communities that flourished in 15th-, 16th-, and 17th-century Bengal, however, the group had no formal founder. Today its devotees are uniform in their devotion to the historical figure of Krishna Caitanya (1486-1533), whom they believe to be not just Krishna incarnate, but Radha and Krishna fused into a single androgynous form. But Caitanya neither
founded the community that coalesced around him nor named a successor. Tony Stewart seeks to discover how, with no central leadership, no institutional authority, and no geographic center, a religious community nevertheless comes to successfully define itself, fix its canon and flourish. He finds the
answer in the brilliant hagiographical exercise in Sanskrit and Bengali titled the Caitanya Caritamrita (CC) of Krishnadasa Kaviraja. Written about 75 years after Caitanya's passing, the CC became the proof text of the community. The reason it was so powerful, says Stewart, lies in its deployment of a series of sophisticated rhetorical strategies to persuade its readers without appearing to do so, seeming to defer the arrogated authority to Caitanya himself. Although the CC started as a
hagiography like any other, an index to what was proper and good in ritual and belief, it became a sign pointing the way to salvation, and then an icon, a metonym of the tradition itself, so much so that manuscripts dating from the earliest times can now be found physically worshiped on altars in temples in
Tony K. Stewart is Professor of South Asian Religions and Literatures, North Carolina State University