Interview with Satyaraja Prabhu (Steven J. Rosen), Disciple of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and Author of 30+ Books on Gaudiya Vaishnavism
Rasik Mohan (RM):
Most devotees know you as a scholar and prolific Vaishnava author. It would be great to learn more about you personally, especially about how you grew up and what inclined you towards Vaishnavism, and how you met Srila Prabhupada.
Satyaraja Dasa (SD):
Oh, I grew up in the hippie era, a musician and artist, of sorts. I went to the High School of Art & Design and used to study at the Art Student’s League in Manhattan. I was also a guitarist. I had a few mediocre bands, too — mainly blues and rock — and was living that life for a while, taking it somewhat seriously, I guess. A card-carrying member of Woodstock Nation. But I was always asking the big questions, and I took the answers seriously. That’s what separated me from the others. I read voraciously, the Beat poets, comparative religion, Zen, even Upanishads and such. Otherwise, I was a pretty typical teenager of the time. But questioning, reading, trying to make sense of it all. That was prominent for me, personally, regardless of what was going on on the outside. My friends always saw me as “the philosopher” — some of them would even call me “the rebbe” — and they would come to me when they had real life questions. Sort of like many devotees do today. [laughter]
Eventually I met devotees on the street — long story — and then I lived as a Brahmachari for a while. Never really took to it, but I gave it my damnedest. [laughter] Then I took initiation from Prabhupada and traveled with the Radha-Damodara TSKP throughout the country. I devoted quite a bit of those years to distributing his books, which I think gave me a good basis in bhakti lifestyle and led to my career as a devotional writer. At the end of the day, I may be compromised in many ways, a slacker, but my faith in Prabhupada is unshakeable.
Anyway, I had been writing bits and pieces for the devotees, and in 1984, during a visit to Vrindavan, I met Prabhupada’s Godbrother, Dr. O. B. L. Kapoor. For some reason, he encouraged me to write. I had a proclivity, and he saw it. He saw a spark and he fanned it. I was doing a newsletter for ISKCON throughout the east coast, and everyone seemed to like it. Some of my articles were used in BTG, both in America and in Germany, and he had seen several of those. I had developed a reputation as a preacher and a writer, and so I was encouraged in that direction. Dr. Kapoor was the last in a long line of people who encouraged me, but I had high regard for him, so I took it seriously. He specifically asked me to write a life of Mahaprabhu. That was my first book. At the same time, I did one on vegetarianism and the world religions, which became quite popular in the secular world.
Well, many people begin writing, and they manage to write an article or two, but you really took it seriously, publishing dozens of books, both through devotee publishers and in the world, with prominent popular presses and academic publishers who are well known. What inspired and led to you writing so prolifically on Vaishnava subjects — with such staying power?
Grace. [laughter] Really, it seems to have happened in spite of myself. Even with very little qualification — none, really — somehow guru and Krishna have taken the bull by the horns and allowed me to do something for them. I know not why. Really, I don’t know how it happened. All I can say is I do make an effort. Man proposes and God disposes, hmm? It’s a blessing. I have some sort of passion to convey bhakti to people in general, especially educated people, and so, one after the other, books have come out, almost magically — more than 30 of them, and some, as you say, with prominent publishers. Numerous articles for yoga magazines and academic journals, too, and yeah, regular contributions to BTG and my own Journal of Vaishnava Studies (JVS). The journal is now affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Big breakthrough. Most respected journal in the field. Seems surreal. Like I’m just a witness to it all. I do have a taste for study, and I love to write. Krishna takes it the rest of the way.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Prabhupada called his periodical, “The Harmonist.” You’ve dedicated a lot of time in the service of harmony and understanding with your cross-faith dialogues in various books and in the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. You’re also working to encourage more harmony between Vaishnava sangas. What insights could you share from your experience in this?
This is an important subject. I initially took my cue from Bhaktivinoda Thakur, whose writings are full of nonsectarian admonitions, as you know. He sees sectarianism as “the 11th obstacle of devotional service,” and he compares it to a forest fire, if you remember. He says that sectarianism forces a person to see anyone outside his or her own group as an enemy. This is a most un-Vaishnava attitude. He insists, therefore, that extinguishing this forest fire is most important — MOST important. And he is not just pointing to harmony with other religions but also among Vaishnavas.
In fact, one can gauge advancement by how much one sees harmony in various legitimate points of view, right? Because everyone is different, we approach things differently — this is natural — but that’s not to say one is right and the other is wrong. At most, we can say, “This is right FOR ME.” But we shouldn’t judge others. The Kanishta sees only the Deity — everyone else has it wrong. [laughter] A Madhyama sees harmony. He knows how to harmonize. This is what we should shoot for. Therefore, Srila Shridhara Maharaja, Prabhupada’s Godbrother, spoke extensively about the need to harmonize, to try to work together, or at least to appreciate another Vaishnava’s approach. The Uttama, of course, can resolve everything, seeing Krishna everywhere.
But we shouldn’t take sides. Chaitanya Bhagavata (Madhya 23.529) says: ihāte ye eka vaiṣṇavera pakṣa laya anya vaiṣṇavere ninde, se-i yāya kṣaya — “If someone takes the side of one Vaishnava and blasphemes another Vaishnava, he is certainly vanquished.” And Antya 4.391 repeats the same thing, more or less verbatim — “Therefore if one takes the side of one Vaishnava and blasphemes another, he is doomed.” There are so many verses like that.
Gurudeva told me this too. We should all try to work together, he said, and we should try to help each other. There are so few devotees on this planet — we should deeply appreciate anyone who chants Hare Krishna. We should appreciate EVERYONE, actually, but especially those who chant, even if their conception is different than ours.
Look, I get that there are different moods and, as a consequence of that, different institutions, and different sangas, and there’s a positive aspect to all that. I know. As they say, “Good walls make good neighbours.” All to the good. But true advancement means being able to appreciate other approaches, seeing beyond our own narrow perspective. We should look at the sincerity, the determination, the heart, not how much the approach tallies with ours. That attitude fosters real bhakti.
I agree completely. On a separate but perhaps related note: It would be wonderful to hear about your experience from meetings with Srila Gurudeva, Bhaktivedanta Narayana Gosvami Maharaja. I remember you mentioned these stories to me before. You were pivotal behind his visits to New York. I have heard from several people already that when he went there, he said, “I must visit with two people: Pradyumna and Satyaraja.” This is well known.
I have heard that, too. It’s sweet, really. Yes, by Krishna’s grace we developed a special closeness. There was a period in the late-1980s or early 90s that Gurudeva and I were corresponding regularly. I have a collection of letters from him, full of invaluable instruction and intimate exchange. In fact, we were going to work on a book together, a “Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers” kind of thing. But he said that it would require me to move to Vrindavan, and I had family and work and other responsibilities in New York. Actually, when he came to New York, after a conversation on the harmony of religions, he asked me to write a book on Buddhism from a Vaishnava perspective, which I did right after we spoke. I took it as a personal instruction. And he gave me some guidance with that. The result is my book, “From Nothingness to Personhood: A Collection of Essays on Buddhism from a Vaishnava Perspective.”
I remember his visit to upstate New York quite well, though it was in the late-1990s, I believe, and when he visited the building that is now the Bhakti Center in Manhattan. I got the key to bring him around the corner to 26 Second Avenue, Prabhupada’s first temple in the States, which is usually locked up tight. Gurudeva lectured there, and then we found a venue for him up on 23rd Street. It was a really special time, and he and I spent many hours discussing Gaudiya siddhanta. I even brought a friend of mine, who was dying at the time, to take initiation from him. It was very intimate and heart-rending. That’s a whole story in itself. “The Transformation of Richard Dixon” — the full story is my book, “The Agni and the Ecstasy,” a collected essays volume that came out some years back.
How did you come in touch with Sripada Premananda Prabhu and his writings? And what is your impression from his books?
Oh, I had been wanting to meet him for years. Several dear friends, in whom I put a lot of trust, had told me about him, that he was not only a mystic and very knowledgeable, but that he was a sweet individual, giving of his time, and always engaged in service. I just had to meet him. And you were there when we first met. You saw it. We hit it off immediately. He took me into his room and I asked him all my longstanding questions, and we told each other about our lives, and our work, and we really bonded. I’m sure most people feel that way with him. How can you not?! [laughter] But this was really special. I briefly wrote about it in that coffee-table picture book about my travels in India. I gave you a copy last time I was there. Radhe Kunj is now a non-negotiable stop for me in Vrindavan. I can’t imagine going there without seeing Prabhuji!
Truthfully, when you’re there, at Radhe Kunj, you feel, “To hell with this sanga or that sanga. To hell with external affiliation. Give me bhakti, give me seva, give me Radhika!” [laughter] At the end of the day, that’s what we all thirst for, isn’t it?! He gave me all his books, and you continue to do that, kindly. I really appreciate it. His books are a wealth of information, and I can feel Gurudeva in his books.
What did you think of our recent release: Vilap Kusumanjali?
It’s a beautiful edition, and clearly the zenith of Gaudiya siddhanta. Stavavali. Nothing like it. I have had various versions of this over the years, of course. Those ISKCON leaders who met with Gurudeva in the early 1990s, to hear from him and learn this text, specifically, had shared it with me, even back then — some of them were really close friends — but this edition obviously has more commentary and is really nicely presented. It’s a tremendous contribution.
Some might claim it is too intimate …
That will vary from person to person. Each individual needs to make that judgement in their own lives. In any case, one needs to study such work under a realized soul. That’s the secret. We are protected by our Guru-varga. The book comes with Gurudeva’s elaboration, so where is the harm? Gita Govinda, Rasa-lila, these things are only dangerous, or, let us say, lend themselves to misconception, if they are studied outside the Guru-varga. Once we are practicing properly and under the line of Rupa-Raghunath, as conveyed by our contemporary acharyas, we can understand these things properly.
Prabhupada disciples, those within ISKCON, were given extra cautions against such literature, it’s true. But that is only one side of the argument. If you really study Prabhupada’s words, you see that he actually wanted us to read these things, to become thoroughly learned in Gaudiya siddhanta. I have memorized the sections of his books where he quite explicitly says this. [laughter] He says in his purport to Bhagavata 1.2.12, for example, that a sincere devotee must read the literature left by the Goswamis. He says it outright. In his commentary to Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi 5.203, he says that all devotees who want to truly understand devotional service must read Brihat-bhagavatamrta. When commenting on Bhagavata 3.4.28, he says serious students should follow the notes and comments of Jiva Goswami and Vishvanath Chakravarti. In Chapter 46 of Krsna Book, he says that we should read Krishna-bhavanamrta. [laughter] Now THAT’s an esoteric text. It goes on and on. He clearly wanted us to know our tradition, and he specifically mentions texts that he didn’t translate.
No, it’s natural that after practicing for some time, one will have a thirst for these things. Perfectly natural. We may or may not be ready to practice Raga-marga, but we should know what our tradition teaches, at least in theory, and then when yearning or lobha comes, when spiritual maturity comes, we should be ready to jump on it. In other words, we should be informed; we should be ready to ask appropriate questions to our guides and spiritual mentors. Unless we inform ourselves, now, how will we know what to ask when the time comes? This edition of Vilap Kusumanjali leads us in this direction.
What projects are you working on now?
I go on with my JVS ad BTG work, of course, and I have an ongoing memoir project and also an ongoing Encyclopedia of Vaishnavism project. I also started writing little booklets about all the important Deities of the Gaudiya tradition, like Radha-ramana, Radha-Damodara, and so on. Eventually they’ll be compiled into one huge volume. Also, I just finished writing two books, one about Jayapataka Maharaja and his work around the world, and one about Gopal Krishna Maharaja and the many temples he has opened in Delhi. Really, they have both done remarkable work. I like writing biographies, because nothing brings bhakti to life like the people who live it. You can speak philosophy until you’re blue in the face — no offense to Krishna [laughter] — but to witness how someone spends their day, when they’re totally dedicated to guru and Mahaprabhu, THAT is a thing of beauty. That brings it all home. Right? You can quote this scripture and that scripture, but if someone comes to Radhe Kunj and sees Prabhuji in action, one’s heart is changed forever.
Thank you so much Prabhu for your time and inspiring words. It’s been a real pleasure! I hope we get a chance to meet again soon! In the meantime, I look forward to staying in touch. What is the best place for people to find your books, which are so valuable for sadhakas and anyone interested in the path of Bhakti?
Thank you. My website is always there (www.sjrosen.com), with links to amazon and such. Rasbihari Lal in Loi Bazaar has most of my books, and larger ISKCON centers have them, too. But you can tell people: If you just pray, the books will come your way. [laughter]