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Book Review: Gita on the Green:
The Mystical Tradition Behind Bagger Vance
 
Author: Steven J. Rosen
Publisher: Continuum International, New York, 2000
ISBN: 0-8264-1301-3

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. 21)

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 Two!'

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 tradition.

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

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