Review: Sri Caitanya’s Life and Teachings: The Golden Avatara of Divine Love

Review of Steven J. Rosen’s Sri Caitanya’s Life and Teachings: The Golden Avatara of Divine Love (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2017) by Dr. Måns Broo (Bhrgupada Dasa).

Steven Rosen has written more than thirty books by now, and it is fair to say that many of them have had an important role either in outreach (e.g, Food for the Spirit: Vegetarianism and the World Religions, 1987) or in educating Vaishnava devotees in their own tradition (e.g., Six Goswamis of Vrindavan, 1991). Nevertheless, Sri Caitanya’s Life and Teachings is in some ways his most important book so far.

Published by academic publisher Lexington Books, the present volume is the second in a series dedicated to constructive work within the Indic traditions, that is, to delving into ethical, philosophical and theological questions from the practitioner’s engaged perspective, but in a way that meets scholarly standards of logical argumentation and evidence. The idea is that such work should be not only confessional, as series editor Jeffery D. Long writes, but able to contribute to a wider academic discourse as well. As a scholar-practitioner myself, I find this to be a very exciting proposition.

Steven Rosen approaches the task at hand by focusing on Caitanya himself. It is not the first time he does so; he wrote a summary of his biography already almost thirty years ago (India’s Spiritual Renaissance: The Life and Times of Lord Chaitanya, 1988). This book is rather different, though. When India’s Spiritual Renaissance was very much an “authorized” ISKCON publication, replete with the stamp of approval of local GBC in the form of a preface and numerous warnings against “deviant scholars”, the present book engages with a broad range of both scholarly and devotional authors. Further, while the focus in the earlier book was on the life of Caitanya, here it lies on his teachings.

In ten chapters, Rosen covers the prehistory of Caitanya, the position of Krishna in the Indic tradition, Caitanya’s life, the theology of bhakti and the divine name, Caitanya’s Siksastaka, the philosophy of acintya-bhedabheda, Caitanya and other traditions, the discussion between Caitanya and Ramananda Raya, as well as the path of raganuga-bhakti. A substantial afterword focuses on how Caitanya’s movement came West, noting particularly persons lesser known today, such as Baba Premananda Bharati and Mahanambrata Brahmachari, naturally without diminishing Prabhupada’s unique success.

Rosen’s book is the fruit of a lifetime of study of the Gaudiya tradition. The bibliography of secondary sources alone runs to fourteen tightly printed pages and represent close to everything written about Caitanya during the last one hundred years in English, particularly by devotees. Rosen’s erudition stands out on every page. Apart from Prabhupada, favorite contemporary authors include Swami B.R. Sridhar, Swami B.V. Narayana, Swami B.V. Tripurari and Graham Schweig, all of whom Rosen quote extensively, but he shows a thorough familiarity with many more authors all over the Gaudiya Vaisnava world. In fact, Rosen’s book demonstrates not only his learning but also what a literate tradition Gaudiya Vaishnavism remains. Collecting so many learned and eloquent voices of Gaudiya Vaishnavism within two covers creates a veritable symphony of devotion, one that cannot fail to impress any reader.

There is one problem with this symphony, though: it threatens to drown out the voice of Rosen himself. For a casual reader, it may be unclear what constructive theology Rosen actually provides the readers. Impressive erudition, yes, but what here is actually new?

Presenting one’s own ideas in the guise of citations from previous authorities is a time-honored practice in Indic religions, one that requires much learning in these authorities for the reader to sift out what is actually new. I cannot claim much such learning, but to me, five things seem to stand out in Rosen’s text – many of which have been evident in his various writings during the last few decades.

First, Rosen presents a Gaudiya Vaishnavism that does not shy away from engaging with modern academic thought. While he sometimes finds a reason to disagree, from for example Tony Stewart (p. 40), Rosen is very well aware of his writings and often refers to them. As he writes (p. xvii), this tradition is one of a balance between head and heart.

Second, Rosen’s Gaudiya Vaishnavism is a unified one, a faith in which formal, institutional lines matter little. Rosen has no taste for the petty squabbles that take up so much energy in the Gaudiya world today.

Third, Rosen describes a non-sectarian Gaudiya Vaishnavism that engages meaningfully with the other Vaishnava sampradayas (using a helpful chart) and indeed all religions, on the lines of the (early) inclusivism of Bhaktivinoda Thakura.

Fourth, while Rosen cites many renunciant Gaudiya Vaishnava authors, his Vaishnavism is one of meaningful action within the world, where devotees share their gifts of spiritual love, regardless of hierarchy or privilege.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, Rosen’s Gaudiya Vaishnavism is primarily an esoteric path, where the recital of Krishna’s names stands in the center of the path of raganuga-bhakti. Rosen has little interest in ritual. Rather, building on a seminal idea in Bhaktivinoda’s Jaiva Dharma developed by ISKCON and Gaudiya Matha devotees, Rosen distinguishes between two types of raganuga-bhakti, the so-called internal and external methods, and makes it clear which one he prefers – and which one his readers should engage themselves in.

To me, the above five points come out clearly in the present book, but nevertheless, I wish he had emphasized his own voice more, as many readers may miss what is unique to him. That would be unfortunate, for Rosen does have important things to say.

While Sri Caitanya’s Life and Teachings is a carefully written text, it is not perfect. There is something strange with the diacritics, as ā and a uses slightly different fonts. Rosen also uses a rather curious, mixed system of transcription, writing “Chaitanya” (rather than Caitanya) and “Goswami” (rather than Gosvami or Gosvamin). Also, the many citations sometimes break the flow of the text; at times, summaries could have worked better. Nevertheless, this is by far Rosen’s most important book so far. I congratulate him for this success − and look forward to the book on Caitanya he will write after another thirty years.

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