Black Lotus - a Book Review

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Biography of Bhakti Tirtha Swami released with New York City book signing

By Vyenkata Bhatta dasa,

Director of Communications for North America, ISKCON

New York - How do you describe a journey that starts in a Cleveland ghetto, takes a turn into Princeton University, immerses itself in spiritual India, and then crisscrosses between urban Washington D.C. and the villages of West Africa? Readers of ISKCON scholar Satyaraja Dasa’s Black Lotus: the Spiritual Journey of an Urban Mystic (Hari-Nama Press, 2007) – released last week with a book-signing at New York City’s East West Books – will soon find out.

Satyaraja spent two years tracking the profound journey that would lead a young Black civil rights leader and Princeton graduate named John Favors to study under A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the worldwide Hare Krishna movement. Black Lotus chronicles the extraordinary experiences that transformed Favors into Bhakti Tirtha Swami, the world’s first African-American Vaishnava guru.

Black Lotus uses Bhakti Tirtha Swami’s unique background as a lens through which to appreciate his accomplishments; he conveyed the teachings of the 5,000-year-old Bhagavad Gita and Gaudiya Vaishnava theology using the framework of modern psychology and principle-centered leadership. The result was a dynamic and non-sectarian approach to spirituality that broke barriers and defied categorization.

Intertwining readable prose, historical context, and insightful personal interviews, Black Lotus sheds light on Bhakti Tirtha Swami’s search for meaning. Along the way, Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj imbibed lessons from a host of inspiring role models. In one memorable passage, the book recounts Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s impressions after meeting Maharaj (then a teenage John Favors). “That young man is really headed somewhere,” King is quoted as predicting. “He’s at least ten years ahead of his time. He spoke like a true leader.”

The 400 page biography includes a 16-page full color picture section, a timeline of significant dates, and a comprehensive index. The engaging book details Swami’s rise from a child born into poverty, describing how he overcame obstacles like racial segregation and speech impediments, to become an outstanding student and a young leader in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. His achievements earned him a full scholarship to Princeton University, where he was among a handful of African-American students at the prestigious school. At Princeton, Maharaj excelled and began to delve into the subjects that he would dedicate the rest of his life to: race relations, international justice, parapsychology, spirituality, and yoga. It was at this time that he decided to embrace the worship of Krishna, soon became a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, and quickly rose to become a prominent preacher in ISKCON.

While working hard to convey the truths of his chosen faith, Bhakti Tirtha Swami maintained close ties with the African American community in which he was raised. He also traveled internationally, meeting and sharing his spiritual perspective on contemporary issues with world leaders and scholars, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nelson Mandela. In 1990, Bhakti Tirtha Swami was coronated as a High Chief in Warri, Nigeria in recognition of his outstanding work in Africa. He strived to use his “dual identity” to build bridges and inspire others to transcend differences of race, religion, and gender.

In August 2004, Maharaj was diagnosed with melanoma cancer. In the months that followed he continued to teach, drawing upon his condition to address the fears, struggles, and pains associated with facing death. Strikingly, he even wrote the foreword to Black Lotus himself, expressing his desire that “it will help me to live on and on for many generations as a servant of humanity. I want nothing more than this opportunity.”

Less than one month after penning those words, on June 27, 2005, Bhakti Tirtha Swami passed away, surrounded by friends and followers and the chanting of Lord Krishna’s Holy Names.

Hot off the press, Black Lotus was deliberately released within Black History Month. Satyaraja Prabhu views the book as a celebration of the African American community by highlighting the life of a Black American who overcame great adversity to benefit the lives of millions.

“Black Lotus is a tribute to one who rose above all boundaries and limitations,” he said, “and inspired others to do the same.”

Vyenkata Bhatta dasa
Director of Communications for North America, ISKCON

# # #

About the Author

Satyaraja Dasa (Steven J. Rosen) is the author of over twenty books on Vaishnava-related subjects and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, a peer-refereed academic journal. Academic publishing house Greenwood Press recently released his reference book on Hinduism as part of their Introduction to the Major World Religions series, and its parent company Praeger released his Essential Hinduism.

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