A Living Theology of Krishna Bhakti


Subtitle: The Essential Teachings of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

Tamal Krishna Goswami’s academic training at the University of Cambridge, his thirty years’ experience as a practitioner and teacher, and his extensive interactions with Srila Prabhupada as both personal secretary and managerial representative, afforded him a unique opportunity to understand and illuminate the theological contribution of Prabhupada. In this work, TKGoswami proves that the voice of the scholar-practitioner can be intimately connected with his tradition while sustaining a mature critical stance relative to his subject. A Living Theology of Krishna Bhakti includes a critical introduction and conclusion by Graham M. Schweig.


A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), founder of the Hare Krishna Movement, traced his lineage to the fifteenth-century Indian saint Sri Chaitanya. He authored more than fifty volumes of English translation and commentaries on Sanskrit and Bengali texts, serving as a medium between these distant authorities and his modern Western readership and using his writings as blueprints for spiritual change and a revolution in consciousness. He had to speak the language of a people vastly disparate from the original recipients of his tradition’s scriptures without compromising fidelity to the tradition.

Tamal Krishna Goswami claims that the social scientific, philosophical, and ‘insider’ forms of investigation previously applied have failed to explain the presence of a powerful interpretative device-a mahavakya or ‘great utterance’-that governs and pervades Prabhupada’s ‘living theology’ of devotion on bhakti. For Prabhupada, the wide range of ‘vedic’ subject matter is governed by the axiomatic truth: Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

From 1998 until his passing in 2002, Tamal Krishna 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): Abhidheya, 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.

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.

“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,Julius Lipner—a pre-eminent Indologist under whose guidance Goswami was studying at the Cambridge Univercity and 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.

This long awaited dissertation 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.

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