Rosen, Steven J. Essential Hinduism. ISBN: 0-275-99006-0. 296 pages. Praeger Publishers. Publication Date: 10/30/2006. List Price: $44.95 (UK Sterling Price: £25.99). Publication: 10/30/2006. Click here to purchase on Amazon
Hinduism, as a religion and a concept, is often a hard row to hoe for its own adherents; it is just as frequently misconstrued by the non-Hindu Western mind as a delightfully strange intermingling of gods and goddesses, fantastic rituals, and fanatical pagan followers, all intent on achieving some form of mysteriously captivating mysticism. Steven J. Rosen’s Essential Hinduism pragmatically dispels these misconceptions; there’s no mingling of cheap philosophies at play here. Essential Hinduism informs the reader on a varietal spectrum ranging from Hinduism to specialized forms of Krishna consciousness (Krishna being a Sanskrit name for God, literally, “The All-Attractive Person). Rosen takes care to draw distinct lines where needed, and establishes general Hinduism and the Vaishnava cult– especially the Gaudiya Vaishnava cult, and, amongst Gaudiyas, especially that type of Gaudiya practice established by Shrila Prabhupada (formally known as, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, the contemporary world’s foremost authority on Gaudiya Vaishnavism)– as disparate entities.
In vox populi conversation, it is all too often that Gaudiya practitioners of the Western world feel compelled to identify themselves as Hindu for the sake of descriptive ease. For a Western Gaudiya practitioner to answer the questions, “What is your religion?” or “Tell me more about your spiritual path?” by casually responding with an allusion to Hinduism is not what one might call the most accurate, or comfortable, response. Time is an issue here; to be sure, an appropriate theological explanation of Gaudiya practice will require a healthy investment of minutes, which may easily stretch to hours, largely depending on the skill of the speaker and the willingness of the listener.
That being said, it may also be noted how persons like Shrila Prabhupada, who are privy to a thorough understanding of the deepest theological complexities of Gaudiya practice, are able to explain advanced philosophical concepts with simplicity, all the while retaining both relevance and the interest of the inquirer. One remedy, then, would be to encourage modern Gaudiya practitioners– especially in the Western countries where Gaudiya practices, and discussions of such, are easily overcome by the obnoxious rush of capitalistic life– to hear from Shrila Prabhupada through his books and, most of all, to read deeply into the instructions Shrila Prabhupada left behind regarding the practice and distribution of Gaudiya ideologies. This will both encourage and correctly establish Gaudiya Vaishnavism’s theological complexities in the reader’s mind. Such careful study also allows those concepts to develop with lucidity, further equipping the reader to enter into respectful discussion while maintaining the integrity of their respective Gaudiya tradition.
We must note that Rosen is writing for a wide and complex audience. The necessity of his vocation sees him discussing Gaudiya concepts within a decidedly non-devotional academic sphere, one in which he must engage with all varieties of mundane conceptualizations. The ideas and ways of thinking nurtured in academia are all too often dismissed by those Gaudiya practitioners without similar leanings as illusion (maya), as “nonsense”, as even unnecessary. Factually, no person endeavoring for academic establishment can source his or her arguments from one well. The very nature of academic evolution is objectivity and, more often than not, that means: (1) Unless one is quite established in the Western Academy and has a firm track record of working only on one isolated area or region, they are obligated to consider their thesis in comparison to a multitude of other ideologies, and; (2) Even having become established, everything that anyone says, no matter who they are or how strongly they are established will be argued against by other academics.
That is to say, the entire academic enterprise is largely dedicated to the deconstruction of ideas or, we might say, to endless, and often pointless, speculation to which an answer never really comes. It’s a rough business and, at the end of the day, despite being (allegedly) trained in openness and objectivity, professional academic personalities lean heavily in the direction of unilateral subjectivity and ignorance-driven close-mindedness.
Shrila Prabhupada had a wonderful answer to this problem. He told his students who were engaged in academics that their principle argument should be (summarized here),
You have your authority and we have ours. You take a newspaper or any such book by any such expert in any such field as your authority. You have the right to choose your authority and so do we. You can not prevent us from also having an authority. Our authority is Krishna and Krishna speaks through the Veda and through His devotees.
Reliable authority is, arguably, the most important principle underlying sound academic research. Without it– or, even worse, in plagiarizing the authoritative work of another– one is doomed. Shrila Prabhupada was bold enough to assert Krishna (God) as the ultimate authority, an idea which falls perfectly in line with the arguments for God’s existence which were historically posited by significant members of academic circles (see, for example, any discussion of the Ontological Argument, posited as early as the 11th century by Anselm of Canterbury, and exhaustively written on by the likes of notables in the Western Academies as, René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Kurt Gödel, and Norman Malcolm). This is quite ironic by today’s standards where atheism and hyper-liberalism are the current en vogue academic trends. As a person still enmeshed in the academic world, I state the above observations about academic personalities and attitudes from over twenty years of personal and professional experience. As an esteemed member of my graduate school’s faculty once told me,
You can’t write about Vedic religious tradition in this way and be successful. People don’t believe in the validity of the Veda. It’s mythology to them and that’s all it will ever be. You can only do that kind of verifying work if you’re willing to write about the Bible or the Torah, or Buddhism, because, somehow, that is currently considered ‘cool’. You can only write about Vedic theology if you’re a specialist with a long track record of publication like Steven Rosen.
Steven Rosen has indeed become respected enough in the academic community that he is now considered by other academics as a specialized authority whose writings and words carry weight, dare we even say, lend credible validity to the Veda. This alone is no small feat. And it is, without a doubt, the beginning of the infiltration of Gaudiya theology into circles that had previously shunned it outright. On a variety of levels, Rosen is doing the same thing Shrila Prabhupada did with his books, bravely entering into an arena which, despite its’ claims to the contrary, is wholly rooted in Judeo-Christian ideals and loathes anything but the obligatory polite nod in the direction of Eastern theological concepts. Most significantly, Rosen’s work draws the necessary distinction between Hinduism and bhakti without portraying a mood of isolationism or exclusivity.
A pointed study of the concept of bhakti reveals bhakti itself to be thoroughly independent, called svarat by Visvanatha Chakravarti Thakur in his Madhurya Kadambini. Being free from and non-dependent on karma (works) or jñana (knowledge), neither the living practice of bhakti, nor bhakti’s practitioners, are under any obligation to adhere to a specific religious tradition, denomination, or the like. Rather, bhakti is found in the heart of any sincere spiritualist, irrespective of time, region, or personal or worldly circumstance.
It is even more interesting to note that it is the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition which is largely responsible for this idea. What Caitanya Mahaprabu, the six principle Goswamis of Vrindavana, and espcially Bhaktivinode Thakura and Shrila Prabupada have done is to raise the consciousness of bhakti to the point where it is separated out from the karma and jñana that are inherent in any religious tradition. Once recognized as separate, bhakti may be given proper attention and application. As the natural result of bhakti is Krishna (God), one can, then, only become God (Krishna) conscious.
Steven Rosen’s Essential Hinduism reveals the core concepts of the devotional science of bhakti as it has flourished in what has previously been imagined as the seemingly insurmountable world of conventional Hinduism. In doing so, he reveals bhakti to be the true “essential” of Hinduism. Hinduism is humanized here, analyzed without being unnecessarily dissected, presented with a conceptual ease, and an intellectually satisfying purport. This approach is long overdue and stands as a credit to the rich traditions which it reveals. Rosen’s study reveals a brilliant methodology, one truly useful to the layman, the professor, and even to the mission of any genuine transcendentalist, Hindu or otherwise.