Publisher: Folk Books, New
York 1992 (Reprint: Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi 1994)
Editor: Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja dasa)
Scholarship is a wiley animal. It has penetrating eyes
and a sharp tongue. It is a predator that lives on its wits, endowed
with phenomenal memory and keen intellect. It is adaptable, making
its home in almost any climate commanding respect from those around
it. It knows a variety of languages. It is energetic, alert, and
like most creatures of prey hungry for conquest. Ironically, scholarship
is also a lonely beast, for by nature it must remain aloof from
the territories it inhabits, never able to become a part of what
it observes. The object of its desire seems unattainable, as though
attainment were I betrayal of its own nature; it hunts for food
which it is cannot completely digest.
Is there an Uncertainty Principle in scholarship which
says one can either objectively understand a subject's place in
the universe or subjectively realise the truth it contains, but
not both? It appears so, although some scholars have broken the
old and attained what they observed. In Gaudiya Vaisnava history,
Jiva Goswami, perhaps the most Prolific Indian theologian of the
16th century, dovetailed his erudition to a life of devotion after
meeting the great saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. In the 19th century,
Bhaktivinoda-Thakura found the object of his scholarship in a rare
copy of the Bhagavata Purana, gave up his magisterial duties and
dedicated himself to a life of devotion. But these are the rare
An intriguing feature of author Steven Rosen's 25 interviews
(including four with Indian professors and two with women) is that
they permit us to observe an intelligent and deeply committed community
of scholars from behind a nearby curtain, to listen to them from
the next room, and what we see and hear is revealing: it is a profile
of people who have been given a glimpse of the object of desire,
a taste of the fruits of scholarship dangling inches from their
lips, and the ways in which they react.
This unusual and fascinating insight into the scholarly
mind may not have been intentional. Steven Rosen did not intend
his book to be an expose of its subjects; he is not the Barbara
Walters of Indology. He set out questioning what is the Gaudiya
tradition, where did it come from and where is it going. The book
provides positive answers; some explicit answers:
- Vaisnavism, like Christianity. is a living religion, numerically
the largest segment of modern Hinduism, as pervasive in India
as Christianity is in the western countries.
- The basic tenet of Vaisnavism is that we are spiritual beings
living in a material world. Consequently, we live on the surface
of emotions and know only the thinnest veneer of true experience.
Vaisnavas use practical methods, such as chanting and dramatic
performance, to revive spiritual emotion and reach the deeper,
spiritual levels of experience.
- Vaisnavism encompasses the most egalitarian of theologies: the
worship of Radha and Krsna. It is the only religious tradition
to recognise the pre-eminence of both the female and male aspects
of God. (This is most true of the Gaudiya tradition. In Judaism,
Kabbalists also recognise the dual aspects but do not emphasise
- Its goal, divine love of God, is not easily attained, but it
is attainable; there are self-realised Vaisnavas through history
whose lives provide us with examples to study and follow.
The interviewees in this remarkable collection almost unanimously
describe a discovery eminent in their work; and those who do, while
demonstrating academic protocol and exercising professional restraint,
project a mood of excitement about their chosen field. It emerges,
however, only from between the lines of their replies and comments.
There is the impression that, in Studying vaisnavism, their Western
sensibilities underwent a transformation which they are prepared
to acknowledge-but discretely. If proximity to vaisnava doctrine
permitted a vision of life's mysteries that Western academic traditions
did not afford, the vision is to be discussed in subdued whispers.
'What may have been meant by this is...'
'Perhaps what can be seen is...'
'Another way of understanding this might be...'
'As a scholar, all that I can say is...'
From our vantage behind the nearby curtain, we sense people holding
back the emotional side of their understanding, as though it were
improper to reveal how deeply one can be touched by the discovery
of eternity or by other truths found in authentic spiritual traditions
such as Gaudiya Vaisnavism. The restraint may be politically correct,
but for readers it is distinctly uncomfortable; the elation of knowing
the soul's permanence, the soothing poetry of self-realisation,
the bliss of our place in transcendence are not mere sidebars to
the understanding of a people and a tradition. They are the essence.
This reserve nay also be an inherent quality of the scholarly animal;
when it finds its prey, it dissects it ever so politely. There is
no bloodlust in scholarship. The closest it gets to raising its
adrenal flow may be the restrained awe these interviewees demonstrate.
And in that restraint, author Rosen has accomplished his purpose:
the substantiation of Gaudiya Vaishnavism as an authentic spiritual
tradition, not a religious cult; based on.history and theology,
not emotion and sentiment.
Religion is by nature an ecstatic experience. It was the loss of
the ecstatic experience that sent entire communities of young people
scurrying East in their search for spiritual fulfillment and triggered
the subsequent brouhaha over cults and brainwashing. Rosen's subliminal
message is to not throw the rice out with the rinse water. Not all
Indian religious movements to have emerged from the '60s are panafrangi-flavored
panaceas to a spiritually depleted America. Just see how excited
this group of scholars gets over Gaudiya vaisnavism!
The book serves its purpose well. There is very little information
on Bengal from the 13th to the 18th centuries. In his effort to
substantiate the authority and historicity of Gaudiya Vaisnavism,
Rosen has pieced together a significant document in the form of
interviews with contemporary scholars and historians.
Rosen is a subversive writer, if somewhat obviously so: his interviews
stack neatly one on the other, forming a well reasoned validation
of the Gaudiya tradition. Ho even manages to adhere to the sastric
rule of reserving deeper, more intimate subjects for the final few
chapters, much like the Bhagavatam, which admonishes aspirants to
study carefully the first nine' Cantos before attempting to penetrate
the pastimes of Krsna and the gopis described in the tenth.' Rosen's
role as an interviewer is, nonetheless, qualified by is desire to
rectify what he sees as misconceptions.
His talk with associate professor and Chaitanyite biographer Tony
Stewart, for example, explores the concept of inspirational writing.
He argues eloquently for the theological authority of experiential
texts, such as the Vaisnava dramas. Since Chaitanya's time, such
dramas and the accompanying songs (kirtana) were held up as evidence
of the Vaisnava community's sentimentality. The clear distinction
between the deviant behaviour of pseudo-Vaisnavas (sahajiyas) and
the real thing is made emphatically clear. Rosen's interview with
author and professor William Deadwyler drives the point home even
There is an interesting blend to Rosen's choice of interviewees.
There are luminaries, the elite of Indian studies, mixed with less
recognised spokespeople. Some are eloquent about their subject,
others less so in communicating their particular focus. The thread
of eminent discovery binds them all.
It is an ironic mismatch, scholarship and the religious experience.
Scholarship looks to make intelligible, breaks things down into
cause and effect, describes its observations in sequential narrative.
The religious experience, in its pure form, is not rational, disobeys
rule of logic and reason, and the closer scholarship approaches
its core the more religion laughs at its formal attempts to classify
and describe. By drawing on a crosssection of the Vaisnava community-practitioners
as well as observers-Rosen's work manages to temper the irony with
insight and occasional flashes of wit.
Vaisnavism: Contemporary Scholars Discuss the Gaudiya Tradition
is in places an esoteric work. So are the deeper discussions in
most religious traditional like treasure maps drawn with the intention
of dissuading less determined seekers. If treasure were easily attained,
we'd all be rich. If ecstasy were cheap, we'd all be smiling. (One
feels sympathy for teachers such as Dan Smith who struggles to keep
his students interested in the numerous battles of Valmiki's epic,
Treasure maps are also just that: maps showing the way to a destination.
For anyone looking to go the extra distance in their search for
enlightenment, here is a compact work that points out the blind
alleys and pitfalls as well as the major highways and backroads
Joshua M. Greene (Yogesvara dasa)
Book publisher, New York.