Author: Steven J. Rosen
Publisher: Continuum International, New York, 2000
Books about spiritual paths, God, yoga, the mysteries, always leave
me a bit apprehensive. Are they a waste of time? Wouldn't it be
better to just go and do it, and then talk? But wait, perhaps this
writer knows what he is talking about and it will remind me of similar
experiences and then, maybe I am not alone. So we continue to read.
Steven J. Rosen has written Gita on the Green - The Mystical
Tradition Behind Bagger Vance with something similar in mind.
Perhaps you are against war, he ventures, perhaps you don't care
about spiritual matters, perhaps, as I have done, you are
looking for a life that has more meaning following the teachings
of the Bhagavad-gita, as I have done. But if this text is
too esoteric for you, what about golf? Let me tell you how the game
of golf is precisely what the Gita is teaching about life's
mysteries. As Rosen says: 'It [The Legend of Bagger Vance]
places the spirit of the Gita on a new playing field'. (p.
Golf equals Gita? The greens on a golf course equal the
rough soil of life? Not everybody wins? There is only one victor,
Krsna? And what about the others on the course, what about those
who do not make the cut? And those who always finish second, or
in the top ten - are they equal to Krsna? Is the 'sport' of golf
equal to the 'lila' of Krsna? One would think that the writer
has found himself the perfect slogan: 'Have metaphor will travel'.
One can easily hear the old mystical motorcycle of Zen and the
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance riding down the road once again.
Rosen bases his metaphorical approach on Steven Pressfield's 1995
novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, which was recently made
into a major motion picture. Pressfield was so taken with Rosen's
book that he has written a glowing foreword for Gita on the Green.
Both Pressfield and Krsna loom large in this book, and centuries
of Gita commentaries influence every page. Interestingly,
Rosen's approach to the Gita is far from metaphorical - it
comes smack in the literal tradition of the Vaisnava sages.
Metaphors can only go so far. For instance, the author of Gita
on the Green doesn't play golf - at least it seems this way
to me - so he has no experience of that 'zoning' phenomenon so close
to and also so distant from the 'oceanic experience' of religious
ecstasy. In the 'zoning' of golf, the most the player gets is a
release of endorphin, giving him/her a momentary high. In sport
- as much as in hallucinogenic-induced experiences - all the bodily
mutations of the participant are simply biochemical. In the truly
religious experience, on the other hand - the experience that is
a product of religious practice, yoga or the Bhagavad-gita
- the change is electromagnetic, a whole new human emerges.
So you see, the game is more serious than it might appear by the
use of golf as a metaphor. This is lila, no longer merely
a sport. A detached movement from one self to the other and back
with more than what one started with at the beginning of the trip.
For this description alone the book Gita on the Green is
worth reading. In the chapter entitled 'Tee for Two' (pp. 31-8),
Steven Rosen describes with candid fervour the relationship of Krsna
and Radha and how Krsna, to be Krsna, also has to be Radha, and
in this lila exchange He becomes the complete Krsna - the
one who without Radha He would not have been able to become.
'The "One Reality,"' the author writes, quoting a sage named Krsnadasa,
'is simply an inferior, impersonal manifestation of Radha and Krsna.
If you study our Indian scriptures closely, you'll see that the
One is not really One but it is Two.'
'His words,' the author continues, 'struck me like a ton of bricks
... Here I was in India, halfway around the world, looking for the
ultimate One Reality - and now they tell me that the One is ultimately
It is obvious that the author has raised the bar when playing the
Gita. His search is unrelenting. Much later on, as he starts
to glimpse the complexities of spiritual life, Steven Rosen asks
his teacher, 'Do the Two ever become One again?' 'Yes!' 'Yes' is
the answer, and thus he is introduced to Caitanya and the Vaisnava
The rest of the book, which presents Rosen's interpretation of
the Gita, is bathed in the loving ink of medieval Hindu mystics,
like Madhva and Caitanya, and the modern holy man Prabhupada. The
main thrust of the book is bhakti, consecrated devotion to
the ideals of the Gita as passed to him by this tradition.
And the work is sound and personal and contemporary. For this reason,
Gita on the Green will be of use to those teaching Bhagavad-gita
in academia. Rosen shows that the Gita can be explained in
a contemporary context, using golf and a novel about golf to illuminate
the Gita's teachings and philosophy. This will allow today's
students an entrance into an otherwise difficult text.
Rosen divides the Gita into three parts: The first six chapters
discuss karma, or action. The second six focus on bhakti,
or loving devotion, and the final six are on jnana, or knowledge.
This is a convenient way to understand the Gita, making the
text readable and accessible for a modern audience. He goes through
each chapter with care, all the while keeping in mind the golf metaphor
and the story of Bagger Vance.
The first chapters on the Gita are dedicated to the crisis
of Arjuna, the warrior in turmoil. As the battle of Kuruksetra is
about to begin, Arjuna starts to tremble and shake, his hair stands
on end, his bow falls from his hands - he is in a deep crisis. Rosen
correctly focuses on the fact that this refers not just to war but
to every action a human performs, as Krsna explains and the author
echoes: 'We are all spiritual warriors ... there is war raging within.'
(pp. 53-4) Throughout the second and third chapters Krsna's philosophical
counselling helps Arjuna to gain distance, and Arjuna begins to
talk, act - to find his swing. He goes through first one yoga, then
another, memories of the past that are embedded deep within, all
leading to the one spot he has avoided - his heart. The author summarises
this quest for love - bhakti - in what he considers the essence
of all the teachings of the Gita, which is found in chapter
ten. Rosen calls these the 'nutshell' verses and describes what
they say in seven broad strokes:
These verses from 8 through 11 affirm that (1) Krsna is the origin
of everything. (2) Those who are wise engage in his loving service.
(3) They always think of him. (4) Discuss his attributes - and
this (5) brings them great pleasure. (6) Krsna grants (them) full
enlightenment, and concomitantly (7) destroys their ignorance.
The rest of Rosen's Gita on the Green focuses on knowledge
and how knowledge, properly guided, can lead to love. He shows the
cosmic form of Krsna, with exciting parallels from The Legend
of Bagger Vance, and explains how a man of knowledge might be
recognised. The teaching of this section, aptly understood by Rosen,
may be summarised with the following slogan: 'Act always with detachment
from the accompanying sensations that come with the fruits of every
action'. In Sanskrit this is called phalabhogaviragah. People
usually translate this as detachment from action. This is false.
Detachment can only be from the bhoga, the enjoying spirit,
or the accidents that accompany action, joy, depression, highs,
lows. Action is inevitable. Wise action is only possible with open
frontal lobes as a result of an open heart. The rest is history,
and this is what most interpreters of the Gita have given
us - merely history. Fortunately, Steven Rosen gives us more, and
for this reason his book should be read by those trained in the
art of spiritual love. And by those who would like to be so trained.
There is one final point that, unless explained, might baffle the
reader. The author tells a fictitious story, as the book comes to
a close, of the man who loved golf and at the end of his life went
to Hell and found out that in Hell they had beautiful greens, top-of-the-line
irons - but no balls. This, for the golf-lover, was hell. Unfortunately,
this story does not really work in the case of the Gita.
Or, shall we say, there is a deeper way to view the truths expressed
herein. This becomes clear if we consider the following: What we
have in the Gita is a passage from crisis to action with
freedom and detachment. All this is achieved through the process
of yoga, and what is yoga if not a game of golf without a ball;
a whole imaginative technology that guides the body imaginatively
to be other bodies, other embodiments and other liberating and liberated
forms of action. In other words, the example of golf without a ball
would rather refer to life on this earth with a body and the skills
of yoga rather than to Hell. Hell with green, irons, caddies and
no balls would be heaven for a golfer of the spirit, or as the author
seems to suggest, the life of the spirit is real hell for a golfer
without a ball.
Antonio T. de Nicola