Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is understood by devotees to be Sri Krishna Himself, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He appeared in the Kali yuga (the present age), over 500 years ago in 1486 AD, in the mood of His own greatest devotee, Srimati Radharani.
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu appeared in 1486 in Navadvipa, West Bengal, to Jagannatha Mishra and Sachidevi. His birth was accompanied by widespread chanting of Hari bol, since it coincided with a total lunar eclipse. He was named Vishvambhara and nicknamed Nimai, as He had been born under a nima tree.
The only way His parents, Sachidevi and Jagannatha Mishra, could get Him to stop crying when He was a child was by chanting the holy name. Therefore, from the beginning, He induced people to chant the names of God. Studying the scriptures under the guidance of a guru, He became an expert in Sanskrit and logic. At a very young age, He defeated Keshava Bharati, a digvijaya (unconquerable) brahmana from Kashmir. Because of His profound skill and knowledge, He became so well known that, many philosophers were afraid to debate with Him.
When His father died, Sri Chaitanya went to Gaya and was initiated by Ishvara Puri. Thereafter, He became totally absorbed in devotional service to Krishna; constantly chanting and singing the names of Lord Krishna in devotional ecstasy. When He returned to Navadvipa, He would sing the names of the Lord (the maha mantra) with His followers; thus establishing the sankirtana movement.
Sri Chaitanya made no distinction between caste or creed, impersonalists, rich men or poor men. He wanted to show that by chanting the Lord’s holy names, one becomes purified, achieves love of God and becomes spiritually enlightened. When he was 24, He took sannyasa and was given the name Krishna Chaitanya by Keshava Bharati during the initiation.
Mahaprabhu also demonstrated that anyone can become a devotee, by glorifying Haridasa Thakura, a Muslim by birth, who daily chanted 300,000 names of the Lord. He showed that any living creature, be it a learned brahmana, a fallen shudra, a criminal or even animals can become spiritually elevated by chanting or hearing the names of the Lord. He thus showed that love of Godhead is an intrinsic quality of the spirit soul, and can be awakened from its dormant stage by the process of chanting and kirtana.
As one practices the process of chanting, he passes through three stages: the offensive stage, wherein one may desire all kinds of material happiness, the clearing stage, when the material contaminations are cleared and finally the transcendental stage, one of pure love of Godhead. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu taught and showed that this is the highest stage of perfection.
The immediate followers of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, principally, the six Goswamis, wrote many authoritative books based on Vedic scriptures. These were based on the personal instructions given by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to demonstrate that bhakti or love of Krishna is the ultimate goal of the Vedas. Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami and Vrindavana Dasa Thakura wrote authoritative biographies of Sri Krishna Chaitanya known as Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita and Sri Chaitanya Bhagavata, respectively.
Though He inspired His followers to prolific writing, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu left behind the essence of His teachings in only eight verses called the Shikshastaka. Each of these verses is a pearl of spiritual wisdom, which if understood properly, under the guidance of a qualified teacher, can elevate a person from the mundane plane of materialism to the highest form of devotion — bhakti. In addition to this, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu lived an exemplary life that served as a model for people in the Kali yuga to follow and return to Godhead.
He left this world at the age of 48 in 1534.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu predicted that the holy name of the Lord would be spread to every village and town all over the world. He propagated the chanting of the maha mantra:
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare