So today we’re marking the life of a great saint in our tradition who lived 500 years ago. He was the son of a Sri Vaishnava brahmana, Venkata Bhatta, and was born in a village near the famous temple town of Sri Rangam, on the banks of the Kaveri River.
Born around 1500 AD, he was 11 years old when Sri Chaitanya ‘the great master’ came and stayed with his family for the four months of the rainy season. His father served Chaitanya meals and washed his feet out of profound respect for his guest.
During his time with them, Sri Chaitanya told them about love for the Supreme in the form of Radha-Krishna. Venkata Bhatta and his family listened with affection, as did the brothers Trimalla and Prabodhananda. Chaitanya asked the young Gopala to come and meet him in Vrindavan when he could.
When he was 30 years old and his parents had departed, Gopala Bhatta came to live in the Vrindavan region with the two brothers, Rupa and Sanatana, who treated him like a family member. Chaitanya was very pleased to hear that, 19 years later, Gopala had come to Vrindavan. He sent him his wooden sitting place and some of his garments, which the young man was overjoyed to receive.
Sadly, only four years later, Chaitanya himself was to depart and Gopala was deeply saddened. One night he had a dream of Chaitanya who told him that if wanted his darshan he should go to Nepal. Once there, Gopala Bhatta took bath in the cold Kali-Gandaki river whereupon some small black, round stones came into his water pot. Placing them back in the water three times he decided that these Vishnu stones, or shaligram shila, actually wished to come with him. So he took 12 of them with him back to Vrindavan.
On the day of Narasimha Chaturdasi a rich man came to Vrindavan and gave the sadhus cloth and jewellery for their deities. Gopala spread these items before his shilas and prayed that he might have a Lord to whom these items could be offered.
The next morning, after his bath, he saw that the largest stone had changed shape, manifesting as a form of child Krishna with flute-playing hands raised and feet gracefully crossed.
In 1542 Gopala Bhatta opened the temple for his lord Radha Ramana and to this day worship has continued at a very high standard. The continuity of archana has been accomplished by a line of family descendants. Although Gopala had no sons, and his disciple Gopinatha never married, Gopinatha’s brother Damodara had three sons: Harinatha, Mathuranatha and Harirama. From them came the priestly and family line which exists in its 18th generation today.
Gopala Bhatta was asked by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to help Rupa and Sanatana write books, so he took to the task seriously. His contribution was immense. His speciality was the culture of service and worship of the temple image, and the rules and rituals of daily life of the Vaishnavas.
He wrote a treatise on temple worship based upon the ancient Pancharatra procedures he’d witnessed in his youth. It was titled the Laghu Hari Bhakti Vilasa. Later. Sanatana expanded it and kindly put Gopala’s name to it, although Gopala only claimed that he wrote the introduction. This book was the Hari Bhakti Vilasa, and from this, some sections of the later book by Rupa Goswami, the Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu, were formed.
For those with children, Vedic culture has all manner of ceremonies for the various life stages. These involve various rituals and fire sacrifices and are known as samskaras. Although most of them invoke the blessings of the gods, Gopala Bhatta wrote a new treatise on samskaras that worshipped only Vishnu. Indeed the first section of the book goes into great detail as to why only Vishnu is to be worshipped. This book is known as the Sat Kriya Sar Dipika.
One of Gopala Bhatta’s disciples was Srinivasa Acarya, who famously formed the first party of book distributors and preachers along with Narottama and Shyamananda.
Gopala Bhatta Goswami lived for some 45 years in Vrindavan and his legacy lives on today in the form of ISKCON’s temple ritual and ceremony, it’s publications and its daily Vaishnava sadacara.
When Sri Chaitanya was in Sri Rangam, he fashioned vigraha of Jagannatha Swami, or Lord Krishna as he had seen him in Puri. These three small images are still worshipped today, just over the road from the home of the present day descendants of Venkata Bhatta. The Sri Radha Ramana temple is well known in Vrindavan and can be visited daily, and especially for evening darshan. The original cloth of Chaitanya can be viewed on one day every year.