Review of “The Agni and the Ecstasy: Collected Essays of Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa),” Foreword by Radhanath Swami
(Arktos, 2012, 308 pages)
(Review by Dr. Marguerite Regan and Rev. David Carter*)
The Agni and the Ecstasy by Steven Rosen is written with the warmth and humanity of someone who’s been to the brink and back. Sometimes, a person inquires into life’s ultimate secrets, survives the vision intact, and is transformed. Still, if the person is not compelled to share the revelation or is prevented circumstantially, then few, if any, will benefit. Then there are writers endowed with passion and talent for the craft who lack enlightening insights into the mystery and goal of life, and their writing sometimes amounts to much ado about nothing. But in Steven Rosen, readers find the happy confluence of art and craft—the expression of knowledge into the mystery and a prose style best characterized as sturdy and strong, playful and reverent, breezy but deep.
A collection of essays and articles written over the last twenty years, The Agni and the Ecstasy both tackles riddles that have vexed humans for millennia and offers new insights to empower the reader. There is a lot to draw from, as Rosen has published more than thirty volumes, in addition to numerous articles and essays, dealing mostly with Eastern spirituality and related topics, but venturing also into broader questions of human mortality, ethical behavior, and the search for real and lasting happiness. He has even authored a short novel inspired by and, in ways, updating the nineteenth-century spiritual classic Jaiva Dharma by Thakur Bhaktivinode. In every case, Rosen’s focus is consistent: how does one first imagine and then achieve an enduring happiness that, instead of being underwritten by the misery and oppression of others, promotes universal happiness and well being? The “skillful means” developed by spiritual luminaries past and present for achieving personal fulfillment and becoming an agent for universal uplift are introduced, contextualized, and elaborated upon.
In today’s troubled world, are we not desperately in need of locating and adopting such “skillful means?” Ours is a world committed to unsustainable lifestyles, devoted to consumerism and technological progress, and blinded to the dangers that arise from such progress—namely the binding of humanity’s most vulnerable members to poverty and the taxing of the ecosystem beyond its natural ability to recover. More and more, thoughtful observers are haunted by the potential for catastrophic, systemic collapse. A new conceptual framework that sees interdependence and interconnectedness is needed to counteract the extremism, fanaticism, fragmentation, and crisis-oriented reactions that characterize our world, especially in a time when perpetual violence looms over the face of the earth. The Agni and the Ecstasy is part of the solution.
Everyone is seeking happiness. But, like a rudderless ship at sea, an unguided mind will flounder and fail. In Part One, the essay “Verses of Surrender” delineates the means by which one can achieve authentic peace and serenity in a world seemingly on the brink of disaster. The text shows how, through application of spiritual technologies, one’s consciousness can shift from awareness of perpetual vulnerability to awareness of insurmountable strength in union with God. In another essay “The Science of Love,” Rosen convincingly presents the art of achieving spiritual perfection as a delectable enterprise guided by understandable and reliable laws of science. Arguing that love of God is the soul’s fundamental longing, Rosen references many of the preeminent exponents of his religious tradition. He demonstrates here and throughout the book that transforming one’s consciousness is truly the first step in changing the world.
Rosen makes Vaishnava philosophy—its proof texts and practices—clear and inviting. The confusing host of higher beings depicted in and venerated by practitioners of the Vedic culture are compared and contrasted with their polymorphic, unitary source, which then becomes recognizable as another appearance of the one God celebrated in the familiar texts of the Abrahamic tradition. This book also includes compelling reads that compare and contrast modern versus ancient systems of sacred science. Overall, one comes away from this work with a better and deeper appreciation of the transcendent unity of all religion, East and West, ancient and contemporary.
In this book, the Table of Contents speaks for itself, and thus, reproducing that Contents page, we conclude the review of this magnificent book:
Part I: Vaishnava Philosophy and Scripture
What Exactly is “Vedic”?
Is God a Verb, or Something More?
Defining the Divine, East and West: Conceptions of God in the Bhagavad Gita
What Exactly is a Guru?
A Brief Introduction to Bhakti
The Science of Love
Truth, by Any Other Name
The Importance of the Sri Isopanisad
Truth in a Nutshell: Four Special Verses in Both the Srimad Bhagavatam and the Bhagavad Gita
Verses of Surrender: The Charama-shlokas of the Vaishnava Tradition
“Sour Grapes” and the Vine of Vedic Knowledge: Does Krishna Consciousness Promote a Pessimistic Worldview?
On Death and Dying: A Vedic Perspective
Part II: Vaishnava Practice
The Agni and the Ecstasy: My Initiation into Krishna Consciousness
The Journey and the Signposts that Make it Doable, or, Krishna Consciousness: A Road Well Travelled
They Aim to Please: Dimensions of Service on the Path of Bhakti-yoga
Renunciation: A Little Redefining is in Order
Least But Not Last: A Few Words on Humility
Balancing Faith and Works: To Whom is God’s Grace Given?
Writing for Krishna: An Interview with Satyaraja Dasa
Ayurveda and the Science of Spiritual Relationships
The New Carnivores
The Yoga of Eating
“Does Asana Really Equal Yoga?!”: A Vaishnava Perspective
Hatha-yoga and the Bhagavad Gita
Book Review: The Embankment of Separation
A Fight to Remember: ISKCON Russia and the Politics of Persecution
Engaged Vaishnavism: Are Devotees concerned with Making the World a Better Place?
Sri Chaitanya’s Garden of Devotion
Part III: Gods and Goddesses
Of Idols and Deities: Coming to Grips with a Misunderstood Form of Worship
Deconstructing Hari: The Creation of the Universe and the Origins of Disciplic Succession
“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” or, What’s with All the Arms?
Krishna’s Birth: Is Krishna “Born” in the Same Way That We Are Born?
“Partial Arts”: Krishna and the Killing of Demons
Krishna: Lord of Paradox
Sri Radha: The Feminine Divine
The Truth of Lord Jagannath: A Personal Meditation
Neither Here Nor There: Exploring Borders with Lord Narasimhadeva
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: The Father of Modern Kirtan
Part IV: Saints, Sages and Demigods
Demigods, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, and Universal Religious Categories: A New Look at Krishna and the Many Divinities Who Surround Him
When Shiva Became a Diva: The Story of an All-Too-Misunderstood Divinity
Narada Muni: The Father of Bhakti-yoga
Blind Visionaries: The Twin Lives of Bilvamangala Thakur and Surdas
Princes, Pandits, and Proverbs: The Sayings of Chanakya Pandita
Great Vaishnava Women
Rain of Mercy: The Exemplary Life of Bhakti Tirtha Swami
Srinivasa, Narottama, Syamananda, and . . . Gary?
Review of The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami
“You Gotta Help Me, Satch!”: The Transformation of Richard Dixon
Part V: Mantras and Music
“Hare Krishna”: The Scriptural Basis for the Greatest of All Mantras
The Shortcut Home: How Chanting Hare Krishna Effects Self-realization
Kirtan Yoga: Nurturing the Sounds of the Soul
Hip-Hop Hinduism: The Spiritual Journey of MC Yogi
The Yoga of Kirtan: An Interview with Steven J. Rosen
Part VI: Science
Quantum Brahman: The Missing Force of the Universe
Lord Matsya and Superstring Theory: A Fishy Story with No Strings Attached
The Bad Brains Behind Mad Cow Disease
Quantum Brahman: The Missing Force of the Universe
Part VII: The Transcendent Unity of Religions
Harmonic Conversion: A Note on the Nature of True Religion and the Importance of Non-Sectarianism
The Joy of No Sects
What the Hell is Hell, Anyway?
The Four Noble Truths
Diet for Transcendence: An Interview with Steven J. Rosen
The Scent Of Happiness: A Lesson in Pleasure Seeking
*Dr. Marguerite Regan, Associate Professor of English, School of the Arts and Humanities, Newman University, Wichita, KS; Reverend David Carter, Minister, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Wichita, Wichita, KS.