By Madhava Smullen
Several hundred devotees are expected to attend the Vyasa-Puja, or birthday celebrations, of the late influential ISKCON guru Tamal Krishna Goswami, held this June 23rd and 24th at the Dallas ISKCON temple that served as his base.
While the annual Vyasa-puja for the beloved ISKCON figure is always well-attended, this year will draw an even larger crowd from across the USA and overseas. The special attraction is the book launch of Goswami’s PhD thesis, A Living Theology of Krishna Bhakti: Essential Teachings of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. It’s his swansong work, which many have eagerly anticipated since his passing in 2002.
On Sunday morning, June 24th, the 300-page hardcover, published by Oxford University Press, USA, and featuring a beautiful jacket painting of Radha-Krishna by the late Rajasthani artist B.G. Sharma, will be offered to the Dallas Deities of Sri-Sri Radha-Kalachandji. Fresh, hot-off-the-press copies will then be available at a discounted rate for attendees over three weeks before the official July 17th release date.
Scholar of Vaishnavism and comparative religion Graham M. Schweig (Garuda Dasa) is a Prabhupâda shishya and Professor of Religion at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. When Goswami passed away at fifty-six, leaving his dissertation unfinished, Garuda started working toward its completion. In the morning and early afternoon hours, he and other prominent ISKCON scholars will lead an interactive discussion on various sections of the work, projecting passages of A Living Theology of Krishna Bhakti onto a screen, and talking about its contribution to the Vaishnava community and the academic world.
In many ways, the book—which brings to light ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada’s unique theological contribution—is a culmination of Tamal Krishna Goswami’s life’s work.
A Leading Disciple
Attracted by Srila Prabhupada’s theology, he joined ISKCON in San Francisco in 1968, and quickly became a leading disciple responsible in a major way for the movement’s penetration and spread into Western culture, as well as to Eastern countries. Seeing his distinct qualification and competence in expanding ISKCON on the West Coast of the USA, Prabhupada made him a member of the GBC, the highest managerial ecclesiastical board that oversees the movement, in 1970. And in 1972, he was awarded sannyasa, the renounced order of life.
He then spread Prabhupada’s message in London, Hamburg, and Paris, before overseeing the development of major centers in India such as Mumbai, Vrindavana, and Mayapur. The latter is especially noteable, for there Goswami personally purchased the land that ISKCON’s headquarters sits on today, as does the “Samadhi” where he himself was laid to rest.
Entering the Academic World
“The remarkable thing about his life is that he also started developing in an intellectual direction in the 1980s,” says Garuda Das. “In 1985, he published the Jagannath Priya Natakam, a drama he’d created about Lord Jagannath that adhered to the principles of classical Sanskrit dramaturgy. Dr. Gary Tubb, chair of the Harvard Sanskrit department at the time, wrote a foreword for it, and to this day very much appreciates how incredibly innovative it was.”
In 1996, at the age of fifty, Tamal Krishna Goswami followed peers such as Garuda and Hridayananda Dasa Goswami, returning to his academic education. Although he had an accomplished position in the world in his own right—as a world teacher of Vaishnavism—he wanted to become a student himself and enter the academic arena to plant Prabhupada’s contribution within intellectual discourse.
He completed his Bachelor’s Degree in Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, skipped a Master’s Degree, and applied to the Doctoral program in theology at the University of Cambridge, England in 1998. When applying, with the intent of studying with the pre-eminent Indologist Julius Lipner, Goswami gave six key reasons for doing doctoral studies.
These were 1) To explore his own tradition more deeply, “by means of the best canons of critical scholarship”; 2) To become a truly effective interpreter of his own tradition; 3) To become an “informed participant in inter-religious dialogue”; 4) To be a “participant in the ongoing efforts to understand new religious movements within the [American] Academy [of Religions]”; 5) To be able to share with his own tradition “a broader vision of its place in history and the wider contribution it can make to the world” and 6) To “participate in the development of higher education” within his own institution.
Impressed by these aims, Lipner admitted Goswami to Cambridge—one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world.
Making an Impression
Studying under Lipner’s tutelage, Goswami entered a new phase of his devotional life, as a deeply thoughtful scholar of his tradition. He made a great impression on the academic community, unafraid to wear his sannyasa robes wherever he went, and much loved and respected by scholars for his intellectual acumen, deep sincerity, and passion for learning.
At the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion—one of the biggest professional meetings in the world attended by over 8,000 scholars—he was appreciated for the critical scholarship he exhibited despite being a practioner.
“Goswami was aware that he was a kind of walking, talking specimen of the very subject he focused on in his papers,” says Garuda. “But he did not hesitate to look at things in an analytical and self-scrutinizing fashion. He was not adverse to criticizing things about ISKCON where they needed to be criticized, or to talk about his own challenges and struggles in frank ways. He was very honest.”
A Theology to Live and Die By
Meanwhile, from 1998 until his passing in 2002, Goswami was working on his dissertation. His goal was an ambitious one—to have Srila Prabhupada’s theological contribution considered and appreciated by the academic world.
Srila Prabhupada, Goswami said, had so far been appreciated by academics either as an exponent of an already-existing ancient tradition, or as the creator of a social phenomenon—a new Indian religious movement taken up by western converts. Either way, his unique theological contribution had been overlooked.
“Goswami wanted to bring attention to what Prabhupada specifically did that was original,” Garuda says. “Of course, Prabhupada is well known for humbly saying, ‘I’m not presenting anything new.’ But he certainly had to make adjustments; to present the theology in English in a way no one ever had before.”
In chapter one of his thesis on this topic, Goswami outlined the need to study it and his approach to the subject matter. In chapter two, he discussed the historical evolution of ISKCON from the 1960s up to the present. In chapter three, he analyzed the different influences that contributed to Srila Prabhupada’s ability to make Krishna Bhakti so compelling: his parents, his teachers in college, his earlier Vaishnava teachers, and his guru Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura.
In chapter four, called “Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead: Sambandha” Goswami went further into Srila Prabhupada’s theology. Sambandha means ‘the perfect bond’—with, in this case, Krishna. And such a bond begins, Goswami wrote, with Prabhupada’s maha-vakhya, or “great utterance,” a phrase repeated more than any other in his books at close to 8,000 times: “Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” This phrase, Goswami claimed, contains the seed of the whole Bhakti theology.
In the fifth chapter of his dissertation, called Bhakti (Devotional Service): Abhideya, Goswami discussed the practical application of Bhakti to one’s life, describing its five most important principles as outlined in Rupa Goswami’s Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu: sadhu-sanga (association with devotees), nama-sankirtanam (chanting the Holy Name), bhagavat-shravana (hearing Srimad Bhagavatam), Mathura-vasa (living in Krishna’s birthplace of Mathura), and sri-murti-sevana (worshiping the Deity with faith and veneration).
Then, just as Goswami was about to write about the ultimate goal of of Krishna Bhakti, under the heading of Prayojana, or perfection, he passed away. It was as if he had completed his work in real life: departing in the perfect way in Sri Mayapur, the holiest place on earth for Chaitanya Vaishnavas, while meditating deeply on Prema, love of God.
His book, however, still called out to be completed.
A Love Unfinished
Enter Garuda. The first ISKCON devotee ever to return to academics with the express purpose of being an expert on Vaishnava theology in 1975, Garuda got his Master’s Degree at the University of Chicago, then went on to get his PhD at Harvard. His studies were very much appreciated by Srila Prabhupada.
In the 1980s, when Tamal Krishna Goswami began to pursue academics, he approached Garuda to help him edit and publish his drama Jagannath Priya Natakam, and to write the introduction for his book Prabhupada Antya-lila: The Final Pastimes of Srila Prabhupada. Later, while working on his PhD thesis, Goswami regularly consulted Garuda and the two became close friends.
So when Goswami left this world unexpectedly in 2002, it seemed to the trustees of his estate that Garuda was the obvious person to call.
Graham M. Schweig (Garuda Dasa)
“Many people ask why it took so long for the book to be published,” Garuda says. “Often, they don’t understand the rigorous demands that are put on scholarly works as opposed to other books. When you publish for the top university presses, you’re scrutinized heavily and the work has to be of extremely high quality. I wanted to give Goswami’s manuscript the most exquisite presentation possible. And this turned out to be quite a task.”
First, Garuda promptly had several devotees obtain Goswami’s computer and dissertation files to make sure that they were preserved intact and that no one made copies. After this delicate process, Goswami’s trustees placed the dissertation in their archives, while only Garuda and Goswami’s Cambridge mentor Julius Lipner received copies. In the meantime, Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) arranged for a memorial issue of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies to be fully dedicated to the person and academic work of Goswami, in Spring 2003.
Next, Lipner—an already very busy man—spent three years, from 2002 to 2005, editing the work. When he had finished, Garuda spent the following year meticulously comparing Goswami’s original files with Lipner’s edit, making sure that there was nothing Goswami would have objected to. Then, until 2007, he conceptualized how to finish Goswami’s work, consulting closely with Lipner and many of Goswami’s other academic contacts, as well as friends and devotees who knew him well.
“I tried to gather as much information as I could about what Goswami had told different devotees,” Garuda says. “Because he certainly didn’t tell me everything. And this was not something that I felt belonged to me.”
Finally, in 2007, Garuda was ready to write a book proposal, which he submitted to a series of highly prestigious academic publishers. He went through scrutinizing peer reviews, and back and forth discussions about how the book should be presented. One publisher ran out of funds, while another decided not to move forward after holding on to the work for months. Eventually, Garuda found himself talking to the senior editor of religion at Oxford University Press, New York, in 2010.
“Something just clicked,” he says. “The funny thing was, Goswami had once told me that he’d ideally liked to be published by Oxford, above all other publishers. And amazingly, that’s exactly how it worked out.”
Garuda wrote a new proposal for Oxford, reconceived the book, underwent their review process, and spent a further year and a half writing and editing his contribution to the book. This included the missing conclusion Prema, Purest Love: Prayojana.
“Prayojana is the perfection of Bhakti, the third and final stage of the continuum of Sambhanda, Abhideya and Prayojana,” Garuda says. “In the conclusion to the book, I discuss the essence of Prema, or love, and relate Goswami’s unique passing as a symbol that points to its uncontainable nature. I also give a sweeping summary of the theology of Krishna Bhakti.”
Subheadings in the conclusion include: The Uncontainable Nature of Prema; Is There a Theology of the Chaitanya School?; Three Foundational Sacred Texts; Three Manifestations of the Loving Deity; The Ultimate Theological Focal Point; The Divine Love Call; A Theology of Divine Secrecy; and The Gifts of Theology.
Garuda also added subheadings throughout the book to make for greater readability, and an introduction which includes a mini-biography of Tamal Krishna Goswami. Finally, he gave the book its title: A Living Theology of Krishna Bhakti. It’s a phrase that encapsulates what Goswami identifies as Srila Prabhupada’s contribution: a theology that isn’t taught systematically, but one that is truly lived and applied in everyday life.
The Wake Up Call
When Goswami’s long awaited dissertation is released this June, it is expected to reach two major audiences: academics and devotees.
“The academics, will, I hope, learn that it’s possible to be a critical scholar and a practioner of the very tradition that one studies, at the same time,” Garuda says.
“It’s been thought that if you’re a scholar of your own tradition, you’re not going to be very effective or objective—but Tamal Krishna Goswami has blown that theory out of the water. He even proves that there’s actually an advantage to being both a practioner and a scholar.”
Goswami’s mentor Julius Lipner adds: “Here speaks a man of integrity: integrity with respect to his own personal commitment, and integrity with respect to his commitment to critical scholarship. Goswami’s thesis succeeds at combining both.”
For devotees, meanwhile, Garuda feels that the book is a wake up call to reflect more deeply about the great gifts that Srila Prabhupada has given us. In writing it, and in his exemplary mission into the academic world, Goswami has lead the way for members of ISKCON to transcend routine and complacency, and to become more mature, heartfelt and thoughtful in our exploration of the theology of Krishna Bhakti.
“From one point of view, ISKCON is in an important phase of transition. Unless it meets the present challenge of implementing Goswami’s aims, it will gradually and inevitably sink into a mire of internal and petty squabbles and lapse into the obscurity of a minor cult,” Lipner adds in a firebrand statement. “But if it strives to face the world and meet this challenge in the way outlined by Goswami, it has every chance of sturdy and healthy growth, and of contributing to the well-being of society at large.”
To order A Living Theology of Krishna Bhakti at a discount price of US$16.95, please contact Rasikendra Dasa of the TKG Memorial Foundation at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Orders will be shipped on June 17th, a month before the official release date of July 17th. Checks should be mailed to: TKG Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 10070, Houston, TX 77206.