Review: Blazing Sadhus: Or Never Trust a Holy Man Who Can’t Dance

ADSB617_bAchyutananda Das, Blazing Sadhus: Or Never Trust a Holy Man who Can’t Dance. Alachua: CMB Books, 2012.

Reviewed by Gopal dasa

In his review of the 1974 Mel Brooks satire, “Blazing Saddles: Or Never Give a Saga an Even Break,” famed critic Roger Ebert called the film “a crazed grabbag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken.” In that respect, Achyutananda Das’ romping memoir and the cinematic source of its clever title are not dissimilar. The pages of Blazing Sadhus are peppered with jocular observations, risqué innuendos, and episodes of deep seriousness that at times read like a combination of literary free jazz and devotional vaudeville. As if trying to keep pace with a driving backbeat (and adhere to a strict page limit), Achyutananda riffs on themes as varied as Gaudiya siddhanta and bowel movements, pivoting sharply between themes without rest. Yet like an accomplished musician—and Achyutananda is indeed one—he manages to weave his brash and sometimes frenetic literary solo around a more melodic line: that of his devotion to his guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Achyutananda’s (nee Charles M. Barnett) loose narrative has its beginnings in the cultural milieu of 1960’s Greenwich Village, a time and locality now so romanticized and clichéd that his satirical treatment of beatnik philosophy comes as a relief. Although Charles is a participant in the New York counter-culture, within a few pages we share in his eagerness to slip away to the comparatively unhip Lower East Side to see what an unassuming Indian swami might offer in the way of alternative wisdom. Whereas in “The Village” Charles moved with a pre-celebrity crowd—Bill Cosby, John Coltrane, Lenny Bruce—it turns out that a person of even deeper cultural consequence awaits him in a storefront beneath a sign reading “Matchless Gifts.”

26 2nd Avenue may be the most famous street address in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and Achyutananda brings us back to those humble premises and Srila Prabhupada’s adjoining apartment with recollections of the earnest (if not always adept) service of a small corps of dedicated students and their fledging efforts to live and share the swami’s teachings. Although this time period will be familiar to readers of Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita, the multi-volume biographical work by Satsvarupa das Goswami, here Achyutananda’s candid tone is especially effective at conveying his and fellow students’ first steps (and missteps) in devotional Vedanta. More importantly, he casts Srila Prabhupada in intimate and human terms that both charm readers and stand in contrast to writings about Prabhupada that—certainly by comparison to Achyutananda’s telling—emphasize discipline and rules more so than love and flexibility. As Achyutananda shares culinary adventures, improvised initiations, and scrambling efforts to produce literature, we witness a physically cramped apartment and storefront unfold into a vast field of spiritual activity, made spacious by shared affection between a teacher and his students.

Among early episodes, Srila Prabhupada’s pragmatism stands out. This is especially true as it concerns the early development of an institution to support and organize preaching and publishing activities. When proposing the formation of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Prabhupada states simply that the group can be “dissolved” if it does not serve to advance the intended mission. In another instance, his students ask if an initiate might be named “Iskcon das.” Prabhupada responds with an emphatic “No.”

Blazing Sadhus takes an international turn when Charles (now Achyutananda Das) is invited by Srila Prabhupada to accompany him on a visit to post-independence India, a nation nearly as youthful as Achyutananda on paper, yet far more ancient in every other respect. Achyutananda’s stories from the holy dhamas of Vrindavana and Navadvipa at a time when both were free of apartment towers and vehicular traffic may make even younger practitioners feel nostalgic. But the absence of divisions between the spiritual leadership and students of various Gaudiya missions and ISKCON may be the most attractive aspect of the moments in history and the attendant mood captured by Achyutananda.

We join Achyutananda in his visits to mathas and missions as he meets Narayana Maharaja, Bon Maharaja, and B.R. Sridhara Maharaja, among others. It is here especially that Blazing Sadhus, while decidedly non-political (and seldom politically correct), intentionally or not makes a strong statement about the condition of Gaudiya Vaishnavism today, particularly as it relates to siksa and the free flow of faith across now-rigid institutional boundaries. Srila Prabhupada puts Achyutananda Das in the spiritual care of his godbrother, Sridhara Maharaja. Regarding hearing from Prabhupada’s godbrother, Achyutananda remarks, “Although his voice and appearance were very different from Swamiji’s [Prabhupada’s], the strength of the meanings in his words felt the same.” While the book skirts difficult history, we might hope that the veranda sermons parlayed beautifully in Blazing Sadhus will prompt readers to seek further insight into the intimate relationship between Prabhupada and Sridhara Maharaja.

As Achyutananda moves across India in the service of sri guru-parampara, we become privy to a time when Gaudiya Vaishnavism, though perhaps smaller in turns of numeric participation, temple infrastructure, and financial resources, feels more spacious. We see siddhantic unity and a diversity of presentation, and a small world made big by the spiritual relationships that tie Prabhupada and his students to the broader Bhaktivinoda parivara. We also get a glimpse of some of the most intimate and therefore substantial moments in the development of Prabhupada’s own organization. For example, when Srila Prabhupada assesses the completion of a basic cottage in Mayapura built for him and several students—a humble architectural achievement compared with today’s projects in the dhama—he surveys the outcome with satisfaction: “A cool cottage. It shall be named Achyutananda Cottage.” Taking in this sweet episode, the reader may feel that the tiny dwelling was one in which “the whole world could live,” its walls knowing no bounds in the face of Prabhupada’s affection. What heart would not melt in proximity to such blazing krpa?

While Achyutananda’s book is a memoir, it is also a vehicle for bringing out the teachings of Srila Prabhupada and the other acaryas and sadhus whom Achyutananda encounters in the service of his spiritual preceptor. Unfortunately Blazing Sadhus is not a book that will find an audience outside of the community of practicing devotees (unlike Radhanath Swami’s The Journey Home). With substantial editing and rewriting, the work could perhaps be reconceived along more accessible lines and enjoy some crossover appeal. Although Achyutananda may have the experiential and intellectual chops to write such a book, Blazing Sadhus will not be the piece of personal writing (still not manifest in the Gaudiya world) that combines a compelling narrative with unambiguous philosophy in a way that might engage broad, educated readership.

Fortunately for his insider audience, however, Achyutananda’s literary flair carries over into his presentation of siddhanta. At a minimum he couches familiar points in new language and at his best Achyutananda’s insights and realizations exhibit his deepening faith and maturation in bhakti (and, incidentally, make his occasionally juvenile humor pop out to greater effect). Particularly strong is his writing on the inner meaning of the Ratha-Yatra festival and the descending process of “Vaishnava Tantra.” It is apparent here and in other philosophical plunges that Achyutananda has not only listened well to Srila Prabhupada and Srila Sridhara Maharaja, but also taken the teachings to heart in the most meaningful sense of the expression.

On balance, Achyutananda’s memoir is a deeply personal book (as memoir’s should be) in which the character of the writer is not hidden or subsumed by linguistic platitudes or overly reverential language. Achyutananda’s deep reverence for Prabhupada, however, is in no way diminished by Blazing Sadhu’s occasionally irreverent tack. If anything, Achyutananda’s genuine tone pairs beautifully with his sincere discipleship. We might hope to hear more from Achyutananda Das in the coming years, especially at a time when other, less humanizing versions of Srila Prabhupada and his early mission may otherwise become the standard narrative. In that respect, Achyutananda’s voice—trained as it is in devotional music, and supported by obvious realization—is a welcome one, even if Blazing Sadhus muffles a few political low notes and plays with greater comfort in a higher, comedic register.


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11 Responses to Review: Blazing Sadhus: Or Never Trust a Holy Man Who Can’t Dance

  1. My impression is that Achyutananda is not trying to muffle anything nor is he trying to assert anything. He does not seem to have any political agendas, but simply presents his memories as they appeared to him, and as seen through the lens of his unpretentious candid personality.

    His book is simply a straight-forward collection of impressions of Krishna consciousness “as it was” experienced by him in his youth at a time when getting a handle on “who am I?”, “Why am I here”, and “What is the meaning and purpose of life?” were the fabric of his existence.

    He is not looking for a best seller. He is simply saying, “Here’s how is was for me. If you are interested, great.”

    Any comparison to the writings of Radhanatha Swami make me cringe. While Radhanath’s writings have all the trimmings of Hollywood and soap operas that present him as an overly-romanticized seeker scaling the Himalayan peaks by his fingernails (figuratively speeking) in his relentless search for God, Achyutananda is saying, “This is who I was and such was my simple personal experience.” In that sense his writing is refreshing. But coming from very similar roots, I was not really very interested his experience of life before meeting Srila Prabhupada.

    Still, the book stands on its own in portraying a realistic vision of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in India in that time, as well as its humble beginnings in the western world.

  2. Ishan das prabhu,

    I appreciate your comment.

    I hope I am clear enough that I am comparing Achyutananda’s work with the writing of Radhanath Swami only to the extent that they both employ a narrative or memoir format.

    To your point, reaching a wide audience is not within the intended scope of Achyutananda’s present work. Likely such reach is of no interest to Achyutananda in general.

    Personally, however, I am very keen on narrative as a vehicle for sharing experiences with and beyond the community of practitioners. I do introduce this sentiment in my review — not so much to critique the present work, but rather to point out that when used responsibly the format holds vast and largely unexplored possibilities for GV writing.

    Achyutananda’s candid tone bespeaks integrity, and integrity is really the foundation of personal histories such as this. In that respect, I agree that Blazing Sadhus is quite devoid of ambition or agenda, beyond as you say: “Here’s how is was for me. If you are interested, great.”

    • Dear Gopal das Prabhu,

      Hare Krishna! Please accept my humble obiesances!

      Prabhu, you are a gentleman, and from your style of writing I can see that you are a scholar as well.

      You have been very kind in responding to my assertions in a gentle way. It is devotees like you who bring out the better aspects in my make-up. I tend to have some rough edges, and the permissiveness of the Harmonist site therefore gives me the opportunity to embarass myself from time to time, by making that apparent.

      Everyone has their own style, not only as an author, but as a human being. Srila Prabhupada used to say that we should find the devotees who’s natures we were compatible with. And it’s not necessary to find fault just because someone’s stlye goes against the grain. I should simply practise remembering that devotees are very rare and very special beings, and be grateful to them for being devotees.

      Your writing has a very professional vibe.

      My personal feeling is that Achyutananda has a wealth of understanding and spiritual acumen to share with the body of devotees. He’s a wonderful speaker and a real master of Bhajan singing. But he has no interest in playing social games, and that can be frightening to those who are very much involved with rank and power. They know they can’t control someone like that, so they tend to not include him. That can be a loss for all of us.

      Just as in the case of our Swami BVT. They know he won’t play their game, don’t know what to make of him, and so they resort to trying to discredit him. Fear.

      If somehow we could show our appreciation for Achyutananda, we could perhaps encourage him to share with us, and we’d all be the richer for it.

      • Hare Krishna
        dandvats, All glories to Shrila Prabhupada.
        I agree with you that everyone has their own style, as an author or as an individual human being. We ( who have not been with Shrila Prabhupada ), are most fortunate to read personal memoirs written by his direct disciples. Some of them may be interested in pursuing their own realization. But someone has to take charge , someone should also be bothered to take power and move the mission on the direction of Shrila Prabhupada. We all work as per our own nature.
        In my opinion both the memoirs , of HH Radhanath maharaj and of HH Achyutananda Maharaj , are very enriching for devotees, gives us the insight into their lives, whether it is written purely on their personal experience, or presented for a broader masses does not matter.
        Let us concentrate on the nectar we can derive from their writings, rather than comparing their writings.

        • Respectful greetings – bit pressed for time, so forgive the brevity of this response.

          It’s not a question (on my part) of camparing for the sake of comparing. However, as a part of the Iskcon congregation since 1968, I have seen a lot of behavior that has been less than illustrious, to say the least. On top of that, such behavior has been as much as endorsed and rewarded by the so-called leadership, after Srila Prabhupada’s departure. And as far as I can understand this is still the M.O. in a variety of ways.

          Radhanatha’s writing is clearly sensationalistic, an obvious take-off on Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi”. So many pages filled with irrelevant sensationalistic, soap-opera descriptions of activities and interactions that no one in our lineage needs to read. Any sincere author would highlight the interations with the real acharya, and leave out the garbage. But therein, it is all included, simply for the purpose of self-glorification. That is my candid impression. And the book embarasses me. That a vaishnava should write in that way is an embarassment to all of us.

          • After the expression of my negative feelings in my comments on February 14, I have come to the conclusion that I wish I had never stated such things nor ever even had such feelings. Radhanatha Swami is a vaishnava and an initiated devotee of Srila Prabhupada, who is engaged in continuing the work of Srila Prabhupada in spreading the message of Lord Caitanya.

            I am not qualified to judge the value or intentions of the writings or activities of other devotees. For a person like myself who is hoping to advance in Krishna Consciousness, to engage in the criticism of devotees is most foolish and offensive.

            I place my appologies at the feet of Radhanatha Swami. I also appologize to anyone who reads my statements for having subjected them to witnessing my ignorant and offensive nature.

            It is my heartfelt request to the editors of the Harmonist that my offensive comments be removed from this site.

            My intention is to attempt to place my appologies before the feet of Radhanatha Swami, requesting his forgiveness.

            Hopfully I can become intelligent enough to be fearful of engaging in vaishnava aparadha, and progress to platform of honoring those who have taken to the chanting of the holy name.

  3. Sounds like an interesting read. Honest and direct writing of a direct witness, as opposed to legend-making efforts of overzealous disciples trying to create a pompous royal portrait and thus failing to both grasp, and depict, the reality of situation.

  4. I love devotional memoirs, it’s my favorite devotional genre I think:) I’m little bit broke right now. Is there anyone who could lend me a copy?

  5. Very nice review. Thank you. I have also reviewed the book:

    http://news.iskcon.com/node/4796

    It should be pointed out, too, that this version of Blazing Sadhus is a first outing for Achyutananda Prabhu, full of typos, repetition, incomplete ideas, and other literary inconsistencies. The author tells me that an editor has gone over the book and that the imperfections will be corrected and clarifying statements will be added. In the end, the second edition might well be an even better read! 🙂

  6. In my unfortunate comments made on February 14th, I feel that the thoughts and feelings expressed were most offensive to Rahanatha Swami, who is engaged in the service of Srila Prabhupada and Lord Caitanya.

    In order to protect me from deepening the nature of my offense and to protect other devotees from having to read such things, I humbly request the editors of the Harmonist to delete my statement of February 14, as well as the portion of my February 2 comment in which I express negative feelings about the writings of Radhanatha Swami.

    I am actually fearful that my offensive nature will be my undoing in spite of my on-going attempt to advance in Krishna consciousness.

    My intention is also to write Radhanatha Swami, appologize to him and request that he forgive me for my arrogant, judgemental behavior.

  7. Where can I buy this book?

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