The biography of Visvanatha has been translated from the following Bengali publications: Mihir Caudhuri Kamilya, Narahari Cakravarti: Jivani O Racanavali (Life and works of Narahari Cakravarti) Vol. 1: Biography and collected works. Burdwan, University of Burdwan, 1981, pp. 1-15
Narahari Cakravarti writes as follows in Bhaktiratnakara (Pathavadi ms. no. 2341-24, p. 154 ka, "My father, Vipra Jagnnatha, was a disciple of the famous Visvanatha Cakravarti." Visvanatha stands as a remarkable example of Bengali intellect. His place in the Vaisnava world remains unsurpassed as far as erudition, theological knowledge, poetic talent and appreciation of rasa. He was worshiped by his contemporaries as an example of unblemished ascetic life and an ideal follower of Ragamarga.
Scholars differ in their views regarding Visvanatha's period. According to Syamalala Goswami it was 1626-1708 A.D. (quoted in the book Caitanyottara Yugera Gaudiya Vaisnava p. 98). Murarilal Adhikari writes in Vaisnava Digdarsani that the period was 1646-1754. Madhusudana Tattvavacaspati guesses that Visvanatha was born around 1633-1638 A.D. (1555-60 Saka) and disappeared around Saka 1625-30 (Sri krishna Bhavanamrta, introduction p. 4, published in Bhaktiprabha 1335). Both Nikhilnath Roy and Bimanbihari Majumdar hold that Visvanatha was born toward the early part of the 17th century Saka (see Mursidavadera Itihasa p. 308). In Gaurapadatarangini 1st ed. 1310, p. 183, Jagadbandhu Bhadra argues that in 1664 A.D. (Saka 1586) Visvanatha was born. However proper evidence in support of the above arguments is lacking.
Visvanatha completed Sararthadarsini in 1704 A.D. (1626 Saka), which he himself states at the conclusion of the book. Thus he must have been alive around 1704 A.D. According to Sukumar Sen, Visvanatha disappeared shortly after 1704 A.D. (see Vangala Sahityera Itihasa Vol. 1, Part 2, 2nd ed., 1965, p. 393)
Visvanatha was born at Devagrama (see ms. of Narottamavilasa at Pathavadi no. 2336 (21), p. 31 kha). Some believe that this village belongs to Kasiganj police station of the Nadia district (Gaurapadatarangini, introduction p. 183; Vaisnava Digdarsani p. 120; Jivanikosa by Sasibhusana Vidyalankar, Vol. 5, p. 1773; Nadia: Svadhinata Rajatajayanti Smarakagrantha, krishnagore 1973, p. 25). Others argue that Devagrama falls under Sagaradihi police station of the Mursidabad district (see 'Padakarta Harivallabha' by Harekrishna Mukhopadhyay in Ananda Bajara Patrika special Puja no. 1369, p. 276).
None of the old mss. record the names of Visvanatha's parents. Pathavadi mss. of 'Narottamavilasa" state that Visvanatha's father's name was Ramanarayana Cakravarti. Visvanatha was the youngest child in the family. His eldest brother was Ramabhadra and the next oldest was Raghunatha. Ramabhadra was an accomplished theologian and a disciple of Gopikanta. This Gopikanta was the son of Hariramacarya, the disciple of Ramacandra Kaviraja who belonged to the spiritual lineage of Srinivasa. The second brother, Raghunatha, was also a great scholar (mss. of 'Narottamavilasa' of Pathavadi no. 2336.21, p. 31 kha).
Visvanatha's family was brahmana by caste from the Radha clan, Sandilya gotra, and lineage drawn from Bhattanarayana (see Vaisnavacarya Visvanatha by Nanigopala Goswami in Bharatavarsa 1351).
In the said mss. of 'Narottamavilasa' p. 31 kha, an account is given relating to Visvanatha's birth. It is said that as soon as Visvanatha was delivered a strange halo of light appeared around his body. That light illuminated the entire delivery-room and then disappeared. This account seems to be an interpolation at a later date. Once a highly renowned scholar visited Devagrama and the local pandita's became unnerved upon meeting him. But Visvanatha, a mere adolescent, defeated this scholar in argument.
As a child Visvanatha completed his studies at Devagrama and thereafter went to Saidavad. Some say that Visvanatha was educated under Ganganarayana Cakravarti of Saidavad (Premavilasa J.N. Talukdar ed. pp. 206-7), while others argue that Ganganarayana's adopted son krishnacarana actually taught Visvanatha (H.K. Mukhopadhyaya 'Padakarta Harivallabha'). No evidence in support of these views has yet been found.
Radharamana was the name of Visvanatha's diksa guru. Visvanatha himself writes about his spiritual lineage in one sloka of Sararthadarini. In chapters 2-7 of Stavamrtalahari Narahari also gives details on the spiritual lineage or guru-pranali of Visvanatha as follows:
Radharamana (alias Sri Rama)
(son & disciple)
Visvanatha's guru and parama-guru belonged to the spiritual lineage of Narottama Thakura.
From his childhood Visvanatha was of a detached temperament. At the command of his father, Visvanatha's brother Ramabhadra arranged for Visvanatha's marriage at an early age. However, through studying Srimad Bhagavatam Visvanatha developed a deep spirit of renunciation. After completing his studies he took spiritual initiation and gradually developed an intense love for krishna. Finally, one day, he renounced home, took the vow of a renunciate and went to vrindavana. After visiting several holy places Visvanatha finally sought the shelter of Mukundadasa, a disciple of krishnadasa Kaviraja on the bank of the Radhakunda. The devotees present there urged this young renunciate to return home, which Visvanatha had to abide by (mss. Narottamavilasa pp. 31-32 ka).
Possibly this was the time when Visvanatha went to Patadanja where he is said to have realized his spiritual goal. Visvanatha installed the deity of Gopala (Harekrishna Mukhopadhyaya p. 276)
At the command of his guru, Visvanatha went home for one night to meet his wife. His wife, however, heard nothing other than krishna katha from her husband throughout the night (see mss. Narottamavilasa p. 32 ka). Early the next morning Visvanatha left home and took shelter of his guru. As directed by his guru, Visvanatha began copying Srimad Bhagavatam.
Visvanatha settled on the bank of the Radhakunda in vrindavana. Regarding his spiritual practices Narahari writes as follows, "Being deeply immersed in singing kirtana of the Lord, Visvanatha narrated the pastimes of the Lord in a most fascinating manner. No one is competent enough to speak of his spiritual practices. Anyone who had the good fortune to set his eyes upon Visvanatha felt immediately soothed from the pangs of material existence. Visvanatha served the deity of Sri Gokulananda with great pleasure and devotion."
When Visvanatha arrived in vrindavana he noticed that with the disappearance of the six Goswamis the beauty of that holy place was no longer visible. A large number of Mathas had been destroyed by the Muslims. Priests migrated from vrindavana taking away the deities which were in their charge. A number of deities were left standing alone and received no service. And the devotees were in a state of constant fear. People in general were in no mood to devote attention to the study of the scriptures (see Madhurya Kadambini introduction, p. 4, by Satyendranatha Vasu).
During his stay in vrindavana many loyal workers and scholars such as Baladeva Vidyabhusana were deeply impressed upon seeing Visvanatha's devotion, strength of mind and hard working nature. Visvanatha became determined to bring back the lost glory of vrindavana. The following are some of his achievements.
1. Visvanatha himself installed the Deity of Gokulananda and took charge of serving Govardhana sila. He reinstated different priests to begin the service of the Deities in various places.
2. It was through his initiative that the Sri Vardhana Matha of Kongala and some new Mathas at several other places were set up (Visvakosa V. 19, p. 42). Visvanatha also arranged to renovate a large number of temples.
3. At that time there was little access by the common people to the works of the Goswamis. This was due to the fact that there were no proper analysis and interpretation of these theological treatises. What Visvanatha did was to prepare simple and lucid commentaries for these works, as well as presenting abridged forms of the original works. This enabled devotees of all types to understand and appreciate the essence of the Goswamis' works. Visvanatha also arranged for the wide distribution of books which Vaisnavas needed for daily study and spiritual practices. He also organized classes to be held on them to impart instructions.
Visvanatha was one of the most accomplished preachers of madhurya-bhava in ragamarga. Regarding sadhana (spiritual achievements), Visvanatha's name is placed after Raghunatha dasa Goswami, krishnadasa Kaviraja and Narottama Thakura (CC Sukumar Sen ed. 1.4. p.13).
Visvanatha was an out and out parakiya-vadi. Both in prakata and aprakata lila Visvanatha considered Sri Radha and the gopis as the parakiya heroines of Lord krishna. Visvanatha had deep faith in the astakaliya nitya-lila described by Kavi Karnapura and krishnadasa Kaviraja (Padavaliparicaya 2nd ed. pp. 86-87). Apart from practicing smarana (remembrance), manana (contemplation) and sankirtana, Visvanatha remained deeply absorbed in the service of Radha krishna with loyalty to the Vrajavasis. Due to his own success in practice and realization, Visvanatha was able to write beautifully describing the proper method for astakaliya nitya-lila, a unique analysis of ragamarga sadhana, detailed descriptions of Radha krishna lila, details on the sadhana practiced by sakhi-manjari or kinkari, the mystic significance of bhajan and the method of bhajan.
Another remarkable achievement of Visvanatha's was to establish Gaudiya Vaisnavism and its theology through Baladeva Vidyabhusana, Visvanatha's close follower, at the meeting of Vaisnavas held at Galta, Jaipur in 1718 A.D. (Saka 1640) (see CC introduction 4th ed. p. 396, also Baladeva Siddhantaratna, Gopinatha Kaviraja ed., introduction).
As a youth in Saidavad Visvanatha set up a Sanskrit school and accepted a teaching career. In order to help the students to learn easily Visvanatha wrote a simplified commentary titled 'Suvodhini' on Kavi Karnapura's Alamkara Kaustubha. This is said to be Visvanatha's first literary work. Upon his arrival in vrindavana, Visvanatha sought the refuge of Mukundadasa. This Mukunda dasa was a poet and disciple of krishnadasa Kaviraja. Mukunda dasa had some books to be completed. Noting Visvanatha's devotion and erudition, he thus requested Visvanatha to complete those books. Pathavadi mss. Narottamavilasa p. 32 ka, refers to this but does not give the names of the works.
In vrindavana Visvanatha's literary talent blossomed and beautiful compositions began to flow like many streams of nectar. His complete works can be classified under four groups:
1. Commentary works (Tika Grantha):
At that time most of the manuals and other books which Vaisnavas needed to consult daily were full of difficult theological concepts mostly written in Sanskrit. This made it difficult for the lay-devotee to study and understand the proper conclusions. To remove these obstacles Visvanatha wrote simple Sanskrit commentaries on many of the Goswamis' works. Titles of such commentaries are as follows:
1. Sararthadarsini (1704 A.D.) – tika on Srimad Bhagavatam
2. Sararthavarsini – tika on Bhagavad-gita
3. Sri Caitanya-caritamrtera tika (the first commentary in Sanskrit on a Bengali book)
4. Brahmasamhitara tika
5. Anandacandrika – tika on Ujjvala-nilamani of Rupa Goswami
6. Bhakti-sara-pradarsani – tika on Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu of Rupa Goswami
7. Prema-bhakti-candrika-kirana – a Sanskrit tika on Narottama's Prema-bhakti-candrika
8. Sukhavartini – a tika on Kavi Karnapura's Ananda-vrindavana-campu
9. Mahati – tika on Danakeli Kaumudi of Rupa Goswami
10. Bhakta-harsini – tika on Gopalatapani
11. Hamsaduta tika – tika on Rupa Goswami's Hamsadutam
12. Tika on Rupa Goswami's Vidagdha-madhava
13. Lalita-madhavera tika
Some scholars argue that the tika on Lalita-madhava and Vidagdha-madhava were not works of Visvanatha. They say that krishnadeva Sarvabhauma, a disciple of Visvanatha, was the writer of the Vidagdha-madhava tika, while Radhakrishna dasa, a disciple of Jiva Goswami wrote the tika of Lalita-madhava (see Haridasa dasa Gaudiya Vaisnava Abhidhana, p. 1751-52, 1745)
2. Abridged Works:
Visvanatha felt that many of the Vaisnava works were difficult for the lay-devotee to grasp. He therefore extracted the most relevant information and presented an abridged form of various selected books. Three of these are works of Rupa Goswami as shown below:
1. Kirana i.e Ujjvala-nilamani-kirana on Ujjvala-nilamani
2. Vindu i.e Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu-vindu on Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu
3. Kana i.e. Bhagavatamrta-kana on Laghu-bhagavatamrta
3. Original Works:
Visvanatha's thoughts had originality and depth. He was gifted with the talent of communicating deep philosophical concepts in a simple way, while keeping the unique characteristics of Radha krishna lila in tact. Most of his original works relate to sadhana-bhajan as follows:
1. Sri krishna-bhavanamrta (1679 A.D.): describes astakaliya nitya-lila of Radha krishna
2. Ragavartmacandrika: a guide to and an account of raganuga bhakti and its methods
3. Madhurya-kadambini: reveals the subtle concepts on rupa and madhurya of Lord krishna
4. Aisvarya Kadambini: a scriptural account of Lord krishna's aisvarya (opulence)
5. Camatkara-candraka: mystic sports of Radha krishna
6. Gopipremamrta: reveals the love of the gopis and concepts regarding svakiya and parakiya
7. Mantrartha-dipika: explanation of kamabija and kamagayatri mantras
8. Vraja-riti-cintamani: describes the sites of Lord krishna's Vraja-lila
9. Prema-samputa (1684 A.D.): describes madhurya of Radha
10. Sankalpa-kalpadruma (1678 A.D.): describes prayers to Sri Radha to grant sevavrtti
11. Nikunja-keli-virudavali (1678 A.D.): describes the sports of Radha krishna in the kunja
12. Surata-kathamrta (1678 A.D.): description of the pastimes of Radha krishna in the quiet of midnight.
Some other works by Visvanatha are written like hymns. These reveal Visvanatha's genuine devotion and reverence for his superiors, cherished Deities, and the holy places of Lord krishna's pastimes. The following is a list of these works:
1. Sriman Mahaprabhorastakaliya Smaranamangalastotram: A guide book describing Lord Gauranga's astakaliya lila.
2. Sri Gauranganoddesa-candrika: A brief account on the close associates of Lord Gauranga (a similar manuscript of Visvanatha's dealing with the associates of Lord Gauranga is available in the collection of Barahanagar Sri Gauranga Granthamandir the title of the said mss. is Gauraganasvarupa-tattvacandrika, no.230 B 17)
3. Stavamrta-lahari: This is one of the best works of hymns. It consists of a total of 28 hymns which deal with the guru, the poet's own guru, paramaguru, paratparaguru, Narottama, Lokanatha, Sri Caitanya, Vaisnava acaryas, etc. Then invocation of the mercy of the famous Deities Gopaladeva, Madanagopala, Govindadeva, Gopinatha, Gokulananda and Lord krishna; invocation of the grace of Radha and Vrnda devi; hymns in praise of various lila sites such as vrindavana, Nandisvara, krishnakunda, etc.
4. Padavali Samkalam (compilation of Vaisnava poems)
5. Ksanada-gita-cintamani (known briefly as 'Ksanada' or 'Gitacintamani').
[Ksanada-gita-cintamani mss. Pathavadi no. 2615 (24 ga), 2613 (24 ka), oldest edition 1282 (1875 A.D.). See Vangala Sahityera Itihasa V. 1, Pt. 1, p. 393]
2nd edition 1315 vrindavana Kesighat (krishnapada dasa Babaji)
3rd edition (?) Nitaipada Dasa
4th edition (1332) Nityasvarupa Brahmacari, Calcutta
5th edition (1369) Bimanabihari Majumdar, General Library
While compiling this Ksanada-gita-cintamani containing selected Vaisnava poems Visvanatha had in mind that devotees of raganuga marga may every night perform or listen to nama-guna etc. of their cherished Deities.
Earlier some attempts were made to prepare compilations of Vaisnava poems to some extent by Ramagopala dasa of Srikhanda in his 'Sri Sri Radhakrishnarasa-kalpavalli', by his son Pitamvaradasa in 'Rasamanjari' and Mukundadasa, a disciple of krishnadasa Kaviraja in 'Siddhantacandrodaya'. However it was Visvanatha who first prepared this first compilation. In fact Ksanada is considered "the first perfect Padavali compilation" (Vangala Sahityera Itihasa V. 1, Pt. 2, 2nd ed., p. 102 b 393). The first part of Ksanada is available, but it is thought that Visvanatha disappeared before the later part was completed. Dr. Sukumar Sen argues that this compilation was done before 1704 A.D. (see Gaudiya Vaisnava Sadhana by Harekrishna Mukhopadhyay, 1st ed. p. 136). In this book Visvanatha used the bhanita of 'Harivallabha' or 'Vallabha' on those poems composed by him.
Recently the second part of Ksanada, compiled by Manohara dasa, was found and published (Ksanada-gita-cintamani: Manoharadasa, published by Radhakrishna dasa, Kusumsarovar, P.O. Radhakunda, Mathura). This mss. contains the first to the seventeenth section of Ksanada. It was available from Advaitacarana Goswami, the priest of Radharamana of vrindavana. Haridasa dasa gives information in Gaudiya Vaisnava Abhidhana Vol. 3, p. 1484 that a similar manuscript is available in the collection of Nimbarka sampradaya.
Bimanbihari Majumdar argues as follows: "Since Visvanatha compiled Vaisnava poems for the Bengalis to enjoy he titled them 'Purva Vibhaga' (eastern section) and his contemporary, Manohara dasa, the writer of Anuragavalli, compiled for the readers of western India and hence titled it 'Pascima Vibhaga' (western section)."
In the second compilation there are twenty one poems of Manohara dasa, along with those of Haridasa swami etc. Several of Manoharadasa's poems deal with Lord Gauranga. This compilation consists of Hindi poems. In the 'Pascima Vibhaga' there are six Hindi poems written by Visvanatha, who gave the bhanitas of Harivallabha or Vallabha.
The Purva Vibhaga of Visvanatha consists of a total of thirty Ksanada or themes. These themes are fitted each for thirty nights from the first night of the dark fortnight of one lunar month till the day of the new moon and from the first day of the bright fortnight till the night of the full moon. Varying in size, eight have small and sixteen have big padas. A total of 308 pada are found in Purva Vibhaga containing the bhanita of 48 known and unknown poets (of these the compiler has 53 padas – 40 with the bhanita of Harivallabha and 13 with the bhanita of Vallabha). Some hold that Harivallabha was the name of Visvanatha's guru. Some argue that Harivallabha was the sannyasa name of Visvanatha. However neither of these ideas is supported by evidence. In 'Gitavali' part of the book Stavamrta-lahari of Visvanatha, out of eleven Sanskrit padas two have bhanita of Harivallabha and four have the bhanita of Vallabha.
In 'Mantrartha-dipika' Sri Radha addresses Visvanatha in a state of dream as Harivallabha. Narahari, the son of Visvanatha's disciple, clearly writes that Harivallabha was the name of Visvanatha.
Each Ksanada or section is arranged in such a manner as it could be sung for one night. First there is Gaura Vandana, then follows Nityananda Vandana and concludes with poems of milana (comedy) or sambhaga. In between there are poems/lyrics dealing with abhisara, or aksepanuraga and rasa. All these compositions relate to madhurya rasa. None of these deal with sakhya, vatsalya or even themes relating to Mathura.
This compilation was made with a view to serving aspirants with manjari-bhava eager to enjoy Vrajarasa. Though Visvanatha was a highly imaginative poet he was a perfect erudite too. He never liked to compose poems in a simple, unadorned manner. Sanskrit expression, rhetorically rich language, chiming words and waves of rhythm enriched his poems which were equally rich with fascinating themes and deep rasa.
Visvanatha had an extraordinary command of Vrajvuli, Hindi and Sanskrit. In all three languages Visvanatha composed a total of seventy padas of which the ones in Sanskrit are the best.
It seems that Visvanatha's poems were not appreciated by his contemporaries. Hence in later compilation not many of Visvanatha's poems are found. In Padamrtasamudra of Radhamohana Thakura, almost a contemporary of Visvanatha, there was not any pada of Visvanatha's. The reason for this was that Radhamohana compiled the poems in Bengal while Visvanatha was in vrindavana. Neither can any pada of Visvanatha's be found in Sankirtanamrta, a compilation by Dinabandhu dasa belonging to a bit later period.
Among other compilations of padas there are five padas of Visvanatha's in the total 1169 pada in Gitacandrodaya compiled by Narahari Cakravarti, one pada of Visvanatha's out of a total of 1119 pada compiled in Kirtanananda of Gaurasundara dasa, and three pada of Visvanatha's out of 3101 total pada compiled in Vaisnava dasa's Padakalpataru.
When critically evaluated as poetry Visvanatha's works do not rank in the first category although critics have praised most of his padas (see introduction by Bimanbihari Majumdar ed. Ksanadagitacintamani).
Judged from the standpoint of the preceding Vaisnava acaryas and the quality of rasa, Visvanatha undoubtedly contributed immensely in leading Gaudiya Vaisnavism and sadhana bhakti forward. Most of the difficult treatises of Rupa Goswami were presented by Visvanatha to devotees sometimes by adding simple commentaries and sometimes by preparing abridged editions. Devotees hailed Visvanatha as 'the second svarupa of Rupa' or as 'avatara of Rupa'.
Among the devotees of Visvanatha nothing much is known about others except krishnadasa (see mss. N. Vilasa p. 33 kha), Kanudasa, Nandakisora (see Rasakalika ed. Haridasa dasa, p. 82, p. 154). Some think that krishnadeva Sarvabhauma was a disciple of Visvanatha. Baladeva Vidyabhusana, a disciple of Radhadamodara, revered Visvanatha deeply as his guru.
Visvanatha stands as a remarkable outcome of Bengali intellect in 17th-18th century as poet, musician, thinker, theologian, scholar and above all a devotee and preacher.