Review: Krishna’s Other Song
Published on May 8th, 2011 | by Harmonist staff13
Steven J. Rosen, Krishna’s Other Song: A New Look at the Uddhava Gita. Praeger: Santa Barbara, 2010.
Reviewed by Bhrigupada dasa
Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is one of the most prolific of our modern Gaudiya Vaishnava authors, with innumerable books and articles to his credit. Not only is his production large, it is also extremely variegated: he has authored everything from Vaishnava hagiography (Black Lotus: The Spiritual Journey of an Urban Mystic) to interfaith dialogues (Krishna Consciousness and Christianity: East-West Dialogues), popular presentations on vegetarianism and spirituality (Diet for Transcendence: Vegetarianism and the World Religions), and scholarly presentations on Vaishnava Hinduism (Essential Hinduism). Additionally, in several books he has engaged in a fruitful dialogue with popular culture (e.g. In Defense of Reality, Jedi in the Lotus: a Hindu Perspective on Star Wars). Many are the young Krishna devotees that have been inspired by his way of showing that one can walk the bhakti path without turning into an automaton or losing one’s sense of what’s happening. On top of this, Steven Rosen is also founding editor of Journal of Vaishnava Studies, an important academic journal that will soon celebrate its twentieth year of continuous publication.
In Krishna’s Other Song, Steven Rosen attempts something new: scriptural commentary. As the title indicates, he has done so with Krishna’s better-known Gita before (Krishna’s Song: a new look at the Bhagavad Gita, 2007), but while Krishna’s Song was a collection of essays on the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna’s Other Song is a translation of and commentary on the original verses of a related text, the Uddhava-gita. The reason for this difference is not difficult to understand: while there are many different Vaishnava Bhagavad-gitas readily available, there is a clear need for a readable Uddhava-gita from Vaishnava perspective. By leaving out the Sanskrit and keeping the commentary short and to the point, Rosen manages to present the whole Uddhava-gita in less than 300 pages. Hardbound and with an attractive cover, this makes for very appealing packaging.
What about the contents, then? First of all, it is no mean feat that Rosen has managed to engage noted Hinduism scholar Charles S.J. White to write a brief but very informative and positive Foreword. This is followed by a brief Introduction, in which Rosen locates the Uddhava-gita within its larger context, the Bhagavata Purana, but also offers the reader some hints into the uniquely Gaudiya Vaishnava insights on Uddhava, as detailed in works such as Rupa Goswami’s Uddhava Sandesha. Rosen then gives a very useful summary of the Uddhava-gita as a whole, ending with a few lines about his translation and commentary.
As Rosen himself writes, his edition is not meant to be a literal translation. Since Rosen is not a Sanskritist, that would probably not have been possible, but most of all, such a translation would not have accomplished his purpose: to bring out the essential devotional meaning of the Uddhava-gita by paraphrasing the text according to the understanding of the Gaudiya Vaishnava teachers. In practical terms, this means that the verses of the original text have been rendered into separate pieces of easy English prose in the style of Srila Prabhupada. In terms of layout, the translations are indented and printed in bold. This is graphically not a very attractive solution, especially in the cases where there is little commentary.
I should have wished for a little more stringency in the translations. Sometimes for example the term bhakti is left untranslated, sometimes it is translated as “spiritual devotion” and at other times as “devotional service”. Phrases such as “make no mistake” and “this is the point” or terms such as “spiritual seekers” may make for easy reading, but at least to my ears, they sound rather too modern in an ancient text. But in general, the translation is very clear and readable, and since that is Rosen’s explicit goal, he must be said to have succeeded well.
However, I do have one other gripe with the language: while the book downplays or even hides the connection between the author and Iskcon—Srila Prabhupada and even some present Iskcon gurus are mentioned several times but never the movement itself—the language is to a large extent the same old Iskcon lingo. Since Steven Rosen in no way is an insulated temple devotee, it is both surprising and disappointing to see him use words such as sun planet, pastimes, or deity worship when trying to reach a general, spiritually interested audience.
While much of the commentary simply elucidates difficult concepts in the text itself (such as some of the details of Varnashram society), one consistent thrust is aimed at refuting a non-dualist understanding of the Uddhava-gita. Considering that the best-known translation available of this text (by Swami Ambikananda Saraswati) is heavily slanted in this “mayavadi” direction, this decision is both understandable and corrective, but I think a more nuanced understanding could have been possible. Rosen himself hints at this when he speaks of the “advaitic theism” of the Bhagavata Purana (p. 7), borrowing Daniel Sheridan’s apposite phrase. Another general theme is comparisons with the Bhagavad-gita and, to a smaller extent, Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra, which is often quite useful. From time to time, Rosen also engages in interreligious comparisons (e.g., 7, 28, 268), but the limited amount of space at his disposal perhaps restrained him here.
This limitation of space also limits the usefulness of the commentary. I would especially have liked to see more of what I feel Rosen does best: presenting ancient teachings in a way relevant for people of today. There are attempts at this here and there, particularly in the last chapter (on bhakti-yoga), but Rosen must have felt restrained by the format of the book. It seems to me that he would have come into his own if another devotee (e.g. Graham Schweig) had done a straight translation and he could have written a separate book on the Uddhava-gita instead.
In closing, it should be noted that whatever negative critique I have offered above has been stated with much reluctance. It is doubtful whether any other living Gaudiya Vaishnava has done more to bring Srila Prabhupada’s teachings into new circles: popular, spiritual and academic. In doing this, Rosen has several times had to take stern criticism from more fundamentalist quarters of Iskcon, but he has not let it change his agenda. I have personally benefitted greatly from both his books and his journal, in the latter case both as a reader and contributor. If Steven Rosen would permit it, though I doubt he would, I would hold his feet on my head. This book is an important addition to the library of any spiritual seeker. The Uddhava-gita deserves many more readers, and will surely find many of them through Rosen’s new edition.
I deeply appreciate this review and think it will help readers understand the purpose of my text.
However, I felt it was somewhat off base to say that I was “hiding” my ISKCON affiliation in the book. I do not think it necessary to cite organizational affiliation in the things I write, and anyone who does a little research will know where my allegiances lay. Most people who write books on theological subjects DO NOT bore their readers with their personal sojourn and there is certainly no need to, unless one is writing “confessional” literature. If it were relevant, I would have mentioned it, as I have in several of my other books. I have nothing to hide.
On a related note, in terms of language — the “common ISKCONisms” that I sometimes use are practical and clear. That’s why I use them. I find that intellectual devotees, especially, are unusually sensitive about such words, perhaps overly sensitive, and tend to veer away from them unnecessarily. There is always a method to my madness. 😉
For instance, as you noted, I sometimes leave “bhakti” untranslated. This is because I have translated it already earlier in the text and because the Sanskrit word itself carries a certain bhava with which I want my readers to become accustomed. In any case, these judgement calls were deliberate, and not some unconscious mistake. All this being said, I, again, appreciate the review, and i thank you for writing it. –SR
I have started to compile Sri Uddhava-gita based on the commentary and purports by Srila Prabhupada. A majority of the content of the book will contain purports from Srimad-Bhagavatham. I have used the method of cut-copy and paste. Hopefully, it would become a big success.
I would like to know if this would be agreeable to the world.
Om SriKrishna Parabrahmane Namaha OM.
Namaskar Shri Karunakar
I would love to see your work on Uddhava Gita. If possible, can you send it to me.
I recently purchased Steven Rosens uddhava Gita on amazon and am awaiting it. I have read vivekanandas eleventh canto In the Bhagavatam and would appreciate any thoughts.
In particular I am dismayed in the above review that it appears Mr. Rosen is still carrying along this rather staid attack on Advaita. For one to say that Bhagavatgeeta is not in many parts very redundant of Mandukyopanishad I feel is misreading. Further all homage to vaishnavism being said there would be no Hinduism at all today but for Adi Shankar. Truly, I don’t understand why ISKCON doesn’t give these attacks up. It turns off many people and makes you look like religious zealots. Maybe we are reading different parts of the eleventh canto or the tenth chapter where Gopal declares He is the sacred syllable. But yet, there is not one without a second? Clearly I’m missing something here and would really wish you’d all cease these attacks.
I think that to say there would be no Hinduism but for Sri Sankaracarya is highly overstating it. Other views on the nature of the Absolute existed before him and many have evolved after him. Yes, his doctrine has been very influential in India and most outside India equate Hinduism with Advaitavada, but that is nothing more than an uninformed opinion.
According to the Vaisnava perspective Sankaracarya presented a one-sided view of Ultimate Reality. In doing so he emphasized certain passages from the Upanisads like tat tvam asi and aham brahmasmi while not giving equal consideration to statements like raso vai sah. While the former statements can be construed, as Sankara did, to refer to a purely non dual Absolute statements like the latter one imply difference as well, since there can be no taste (rasa) without a taster and an object of taste. For this reason, as well as Sankara’s idea that the form of Bhagavan is not eternal but rather composed of sattva-guna, the Vaisnavas have sought to bring a balance to Sankara’s Advaitavada. That they sometimes did (and do) so strongly speaks to the depth of their faith in their object of love–Bhagavan.
I am humbled by your authoritative knowledge of shakaracharya. My comments on Hinduism were limited only to the time of Adi Shankar’s earthly appearance. As you will recall, Sanatan Dharma had descended into many of the licentious practices associated with ISKCON today, e.g., sex manual books written by so called Swamis with rather dubious lineages back. So, at the time that Hinduism had become increasingly associated with meat eating, sex and black magic, the Lord ordained that the Shankaracharya appeared. Would He had not ordained it, Hinduism as we know it would have likely been completely supplanted on the Indian Subcontinent by Buddhism.
Moreover, respectfully, your statements on the non dual Advaita of Shankaracharya are incomplete. For this, the Saundarya Lahiri composed at the end of His life certainly depart from the rather insipid approach to Vedanta ISKCON has long ascribed to Him. This antipathy likely relates more to the resistance of what ISKCON has long disdained as the “yoga societies” descended from the lines of Vivekananda-Rama Tirtha-Yogananda, which had been long in place prior to Prabhupada’s landing in New York, than likely anything else. See, rupa Goswami, Planting The Seed, 112-114.
If Srila Prabhupada arrived penniless, blessed by the Lord with a heroic mission, the young Dravidian boy arrived on the scene in India even less so and accomplished nothing less heroic. Let us honor both accomplishments. Hari Bol,
1.This is not an Iskcon website.
2. Sankaracarya is great
3. Advaita-vedanta differs philosophically from the schools of Vaisnava-vedanta in ways that make it difficult for Vaisnavas to appreciate it.
The Soundarya Lahari is remarkable in many respects but the claimed authorship of Sankaracarya in relation to it is far from being in the domain of established fact. That book is basically a tantric work that has little to do with most of what Adi Sankara concerned himself with in his short yet remarkable sojourn on earth. Unarguably, he was through and through a Vedantin, and in his deliberations on Veda and Vedanta, explicitly referred to Vishnu only as Saguna Brahman.
It is also known beyond reasonable doubt that one of his most significant compositions was the famed Moha Mudgara ‘Bhaja Govindam,’ with its explicit Vaishnava devotional orientation, if only at the vyavaharika level, as perhaps intended by the Acarya. Set against this backdrop, the overt emotional inclination towards Shiva and Shakti that is unambiguously evident in the Soundarya Lahari does strike one as somewhat inconsistent, not to say contradictory, considering the clear gist of Sankaracarya’s overall spiritual career. I say this notwithstanding the fact that contemporary traditional Advaitins almost always sport the Shaiva Tripundra instead of the Vaishnava Urdhva-pundra, and that puja in most Smarta temples is principally centred around the worship of Lord Shiva’s linga. Nonetheless, I have yet to come across any reference to Saguna Brahman made by Sankara that did not apply to Lord Vishnu solely. However, none of the above takes anything away from the undoubted beauty of the SL.
Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the energy to debate this matter with you in greater depth or detail. So, make what you will of this. Pranams
My obeisances and I touch your feet
All glories to Adi Shankara. OM and Prem,
Respectfully, Adi Shankar did write Soundarya Lahari. You confuse The authorship of Ananda Lahari Mantram 1-41 which is authored by Rudra Himself. Moreover, there is no philosophical inconsistency among Bhagavatam, Geeta, and Saundarya if one accepts Gaudapadacharya as authoritative. Therefore, respectfully, compare, Mandukyopanishad with Geeta, X-25; Bhagavatam 11th Canto-Chap. X; Soundarya Mantram 60.
The above picture on Mr. Rosen’s book shows Bhagavan in a Forest with a bunch of Trees in it. Uddhava has found Gopal in the forest, despite the trees.
OM Namah Shivaya.
‘Respectfully, Adi Shankar did write Soundarya Lahari.’
Respectfully, the matter is far from settled, and the point of view I’m representing is held not by some modern scholars alone, but also by traditional Vedantins – Sri Vaishnavas and Madhvaites come to mind. For me anyway, it’s difficult to say whether Sankara is the actual author of the SL or not, nor do I wish to belabour the issue. You have the right to disagree, but that is merely your personal belief, nothing else.
‘there is no philosophical inconsistency among Bhagavatam, Geeta, and Saundarya if one accepts Gaudapadacharya as authoritative.’
Clearly, many, many people have trouble swallowing the orthodox Kevala-Advaita gloss on Vedanta, which explains why various philosophical schools exist in the first place.
Respectfully, Just to dispense with this needless debate entirely having now gotten through half of Mr. Rosens book I must agree with Srila Prabhupada whose words seem particularly applicable here:
“Eventually all these people will come around to performing devotional service. ”
There’s no way that any person can read this book with an open heart and fail to be moved. As Arjun might say standing on the verge of the beatific vision in Chap. XI
“Oh Lord, How great thou art.”
Proving humbly the merits as to not criticizing something until you’ve read it.
OM Shanti shanti shanti
With respect, you’re the one who started this, and you should therefore be able to stomach strongly held opinions that may run counter to the ones you yourself favour, but which are predicated on fact and substance, especially when they’re agreed upon by people from diverse walks of life and with differing existential stances. You are right in advancing, however, that this is leading nowhere, and should best be wrapped up forthwith.