Šrī Chaitanya's Life and Teachings

The Golden Avatara of Divine Love

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Steven Rosen
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , November
     2017.
     258 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498558334.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Steven J. Rosen—not to be confused with Steven J. Rosen, the lobbyist and possible spy for Israel, or Steve Rosen, the former country and western musician now creating music for Christ—is an extraordinary fellow. With no college degree that I can find, his enthusiasms for writing, his religion (Chaitanya Vaiṣṇavism), and India, have driven him to publish over thirty books in about as many years. Since 1992 he has been the editor and publisher of the Journal of Vaiṣṇava Studies, a journal which continues to operate today and which has published numerous articles and book reviews by well known scholars and members of various Vaiṣṇava communities around the world. It is surely this latter work that has provided him with much of the material for the book under review here.

Vaiṣṇavism is a subsect of Hinduism that focuses on the belief in and worship of the ancient god Viṣṇu, his numerous descents or incarnations, and his many partial manifestations. Rosen's latest book, Śrī Chaitanya’s Life and Teachings, is about the founder of his particular tradition within Vaiṣṇavism—Śrī Kṛṣṇa Chaitanya—who lived in Bengal and Orissa in the 15th and 16th centuries (1486-1533 CE). Śrī Chaitanya is considered by his followers to be a combined incarnation of Kṛṣṇa (whom the tradition believes to be the source of even Viṣṇu himself) and his primary consort/lover Rādhā. All descents have purposes, and according to the Chaitanya tradition, the purpose of the incarnation of Śrī Chaitanya was to spread divine love not just to humans, but to all life forms without any concern for qualification or worthiness.

Rosen’s book begins with a brief discussion of the Indian context within which the Chaitanya tradition took root and blossomed (chapter 1), and then introduces Kṛṣṇa, the dark blue lord, of whom Chaitanya is believed to have been a descent or avatāra (chapter 2). Rosen next tells the story of Chaitanya’s life, the golden-complected avatāra, drawing from some of the extant Sanskrit and Bengali hagiographies (chapter 3). Then he discusses the main guiding force of the Chaitanya tradition, the cultivation of bhakti, often translated as “devotion,” but in this tradition ultimately identified with “selfless love” for Kṛṣṇa (chapter 4). An exploration of the theology and practices relating to the holy names of Kṛṣṇa, which are at the core of the tradition's form of worship, is presented next (chapter 5), and that is followed by translations of and commentaries on eight Sanskrit stanzas of instruction (known collectively as the Śikṣāṣṭaka) that are believed to be not only Chaitanya’s own compositions, but the very core of his teaching (chapter 6).

Since all orthodox religious traditions in India must legitimate themselves on the basis of a credible interpretation of the Upaniṣads (aka the Vedānta) Rosen next describes the tradition's view, which is referred to as “inconceivable oneness and difference” (chapter 7). Then he provides an account of Chaitanya’s encounters and interactions with some of the other religious traditions in India during his life (chapter 8).

Next comes an account of an important conversation between Chaitanya and a great devotee named Rāmānanda Rāya in which some of the most cherished beliefs of the tradition are revealed to Chaitanya by Rāmānanda. In appreciation, Chaitanya reveals his true nature to Rāmānanda (chapter 9). There follows a description of a special form of bhakti practice called passion-inspired (rāgānugā) bhakti. In passion-inspired bhakti one is attracted to the particular way in which one of Kṛṣṇa's companions loves and serves him, and tries to follow or become like that companion (chapter 10). In an afterword, Rosen describes some of the main people and events involved in the spread of the Chaitanya Vaiṣṇava tradition to the West beginning in the early 20th century.

While there is much that is praiseworthy and much to be learned from Steven Rosen's book, it is and should be recognized as a work of apologetics.  One might even say it is a sustained advertisement aimed at attracting new members to the religion. This is consistent with the particular part of the tradition to which Rosen belongs. Rosen is a member of ISKCON [International Society for Krishna Consciousness] and the Gauḍīya Maṭha (collectively known as IGM) subsect of Chaitanya Vaiṣṇavism which dates to the early 20th century. The main purpose of these organizations and their offshoots is to preach and spread Chaitanya Vaiṣṇavism: essentially, to save souls and send them “back to Godhead.” They were founded on the model of the Ramakrishna Mission which in turn was modeled on Christian missionary organizations active in Bengal in the 19th century. Mainstream Chaitanya Vaiṣṇavism is focused on worship, repetition, and singing of the holy names of Kṛṣṇa, and on visualizing the divine play of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. It focuses much less on preaching than does the Ramakrishna Mission. IGM also engages in worship and repeating and singing the names of Kṛṣṇa (not so much in visualization), but on a reduced scale. Apart from this, the mainstream tradition and IGM share many views and beliefs. It is to Rosen's credit that even though he mostly sticks to the IGM program, he sometimes refers to and quotes from thinkers and practitioners of the mainstream Chaitanya tradition. In his discussion of passion-inspired bhakti, for example, he discusses the esoteric practices of visualization that are embraced by the mainstream even though they are not practiced or even encouraged in IGM.

The upshot of these comments is to suggest that the views of Chaitanya’s teachings and his movement found in Rosen's book are somewhat distorted by the missionary zeal of IGM. The real spirit of the Chaitanya tradition is much more inward, deep, and contemplative, much more concerned with cultivating inner emotions of love for Kṛṣṇa.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Neal Delmonico is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven J. Rosen is author of 31 books, the founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, and Associate Editor of Back to Godhead magazine.

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