Steven J. Rosen ( Satyaraja Das) is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, a biannual publication exploring Eastern through. He is also associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine and the author of over twenty books on Indian Philosophy. His recent titles include Essential Hinduism ( Praeger, 2006), Krishna’s Song: A New Look at the Bhagavad Gita ( Greenwood, 2007), and The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting ( FOLK Books, 2008). He is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
In the 1950s, an Austrian named Walther Eidlitz published a book called Unknown India. He writesof his quest for truth and of his subsequent relationship with Shri Maharaj his guru, whom he met in the Himalayas in the 1930s. The story if familiar: a Western seeker finds an Indian teacher and decides to adopt a traditional form of Eastern spirituality.
But the story continuous. As the years pass, Eidlitz finds himself in an India beset by World War II and is placed in a prison camp for nearly six years. During his internment he meets Sadananda, a German gentleman in Indian dress, who is also a prisoner. They forge a friendship and Sadananda introduces Eidlitz to Vaishnavism (“ the worship of Vishnu, or Krishna”). Sadananda had been initiated into this esoteric tradition by Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur, a saint and scholar from Bengal and was axious to share his knowledge with others specifically with Eidlitz comes to call Sadananda’s zealousness “ aggressive grace”.
Impresed by Sadananda’s knowledge and wisdom, Eidlitz feels that Sadananda has augmented the knowledge received from Shri Maharaj and consequently accepts Sadananda as his new guru. Thus “ the unknown India” that Eidlitz writes about is not the exotic land itself, nor is it the teachings commonly associated with Hinduism. Rather, Eidlitz comes to see Vaishnavism as the hidden glory of India.
Still one wonders why Vaishnavism would be considered “hidden”. The 1996 Britannica Book of the year asserts that Vaishnavas make up 70% of the 800 million Hindu constituency ( 25% are Shaivites worshippers of Shiva; 2% are neo-Hindus or reform Hindus of various leanings and the balance is made up of adherents to other Indic faiths). Thus, Vaishna vism constitutes the majority of the Hindu world. Nonetheless the West is unfamiliar not only with the term “ Vaishnavism” but with the tradition it denotes.
The obscurity of Vaishnavism is in part due ti the 1893 World Religions Conference in Chicago, which hosted Swami.
Vivekananda of the Ramkrishna Mission as India’s representative of Hinduism. At that conference, Vivekananda popularized for the West a Hinduism that embraced a plethora of gods and ultimately Advaita Vedanta ( an impersonalist View of reality). Had a Vaishnava been invited to that consequential gathering of religious representative we in the West might now have a very different perspective o Hinduism.
Vaishnavism in sharp contrast to the “ Hinduism” of Vivekananda is not only monotheistic but highly personalistic in its view of God Krishna may have expansions and avatars (incarnations) but he is seen as the one Supreme Lord, the Father of all that lives and the Creator of the cosmos.
In other words while Vaishnavism may not be the most well known form of Hinduism it is India’s richest and most significant religious tradition. Unlike many books that explore India or Eastern spiritually this work will focus squarely on the Vaishnava tradition including its most contemporary and far-reaching manifestation-the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), founded in 1996 by his Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada ( referred to popularly as Shrila Prabhupada). Incidentally, Shrila Prabhupada was also initiated by Sadananda’s guru, Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur.
Readers of this work may be familiar with the images of Krishna Shiva, Ganesh, Brahma and so on but now these images will take on a new significance they will be described in terms of their Vaishnava origin.
Vaishnavism is understood by its practitioners as a universe non sectarian theistic tradition. Originally the Vaishnava tradition is called Sanatan Dharma, “ the eternal religion”, or “ the eternal function of the soul” Vaishnavas see it as universal truth, application to East and West alike. Krishna for example is viewed not as an “Indian” god but as the same God who is worshipped in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Brahma, Shiva, Ganesh and theother divinities are regarded as highly elevated beings like angels. It is this all encompassing Vaishnava spirituality that the present work is meant to convey. Specifically the focus is on Gaudiya Vaishnavism the Vaishnava religion propounded by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533) who is revered as an incarnation of Krishna.
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