East Meets East: Srimad-Bhagavatam in the Land of Confucius

No votes yet

Two brothers present a unique retelling, set in modern Beijing, of India's ancient Bhagavata Purana.

In Srila Prabhupada’s compassionate desire to make the sublime science of Krishna consciousness available to every soul in the world, he didn’t forget China. In 1974 and 1977 he wrote to disciples, “Preach widely and enthusiastically to the Chinese population, especially to the young people, and they may not respond quickly, but they are very sober-minded; when they decide to join us that will be a fixed decision . . . . After all, a large portion of the earth's population is of Chinese origin, so why should we neglect them?” “I agree with your statement very much that if the Chinese are approached intelligently they will become strong devotees, because their moral character and steadfast nature is very strong. I also observed this in the Chinese people and appreciated it very much.”

When Prabhupada – undeterred by divisive mundane global politics – wrote these letters, the People’s Republic of China was virtually cut off from the noncommunist world by what was termed the “Bamboo Curtain,” a Cold War euphemism for the rigid political demarcation at that time between the Communist and capitalist noncommunist states of East Asia, akin to Europe’s “Iron Curtain.”

In 1961, he had been invited to attend the Congress for Cultivating the Human Spirit, an international religious conference in Japan. Aware that Oriental people are fond of the temperate autumn season, Prabhupada composed a special text based on Srimad-Bhagavatam's Tenth Canto, Chapter 20, which describes autumn in Vrindavan, Lord Krishna's sacred abode, and he planned illustrations for each verse. Although it turned out that Prabhupada could not attend the conference, years later the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust published the book Light of the Bhagavata, which combined his poetic descriptions with color illustrations by renowned Chinese artist Madame Yun-sheng Li. The book was thus a unique blending of the world's two oldest cultural traditions: Indian and Chinese.

Although the voidist teachings of Buddha came to China from India long ago, until recently Srimad-Bhagavatam, the spotless treatise on bhakti-yoga, had not been presented in an especially accessible form for the Chinese, either in their homeland or abroad. To help fulfill Srila Prabhupada’s desire to enlighten the Chinese, two American-born brothers were inspired to team together in an unlikely literary venture.

A Unique Collaboration

Near the end of Tamal Krishna Goswami’s 1989 Krishna conscious novel, Yoga for the New Millennium, the American-born Gaudiya Vaishnava guru Sanatan Swami tells his aspiring disciple Li Guang Shi, a PhD student from mainland China who has just graduated from New York’s Columbia University, “Krishna has a special purpose of His own to fulfill through you,” and adds, “Krishna’s plan began to take shape with your very birth.”

The new devotional novel The Story of Li Guang Shi: Back Home, Part I, by Tamal Krishna Goswami and his nine-years-younger brother Carl Herzig, picks up where Yoga for the New Millennium leaves off. Like Li Guang Shi's birth, Tamal Krishna Goswami's was not without a special purpose in regard to the people of China, and as one reads Back Home, it appears that Carl’s own birth and subsequent role in writing devotional literature was likewise more than mere coincidence. In material life Carl had prepared for such an eventual service via his prior development as an English professor, poet, and writer, but most importantly he emerged as a Gaudiya Vaishnava devotee himself, a development that both surprised and delighted Tamal Krishna Goswami, since the two had little contact for many years and had been, apparently, living in different worlds.

TKG, His Brother, and China

Tamal Krishna Goswami might never have had anything to do with China, but in 1976, amid controversy over his leadership of the Radha-Damodara traveling sankirtana party in America, he had commented in jest to Srila Prabhupada that maybe he should go somewhere far away, like China, where no one could object to his managerial style. To his chagrin, the next day Prabhupada told him, “You said China. I’ve wanted to do something there; I think Krishna has spoken through you.”

And it is probably safe to say that by material calculation, the odds were incredibly slim that Tamal Krishna Goswami’s brother would ever have written a transcendental 500-plus-page novel retelling and explaining India’s great Puranic history Srimad-Bhagavatam – in, of all places, the ancient land of Confucius and Mao Tse Tung. Back Home did not arise from Carl's own planning or inspiration; in fact, it wasn’t even his idea. As the book’s Preface explains, Srila Prabhupada’s grace came to Carl in 1994 in the form of an unexpected long-distance phone call from his brother.

“I’ve been preaching in China and have begun a novel set in Beijing,” Tamal Krishna Goswami told him. “We should use our relationship for devotional service. I’d like you to finish it; it’s yours now. I’ll send you the manuscript.”

Carl began work on the novel, but in 2002 he received news that his brother had passed away in an automobile accident near Mayapur, India. He was devastated, but he didn’t rationalize away the request. In fact, although he had academic responsibilities as professor of English at an Iowa university as well as family duties as a husband and father of three, he molded his life around it.

“Srila Prabhupada had once said that it had taken him twenty-two years to act upon his guru’s order to preach in the West,” Carl noted in Back Home's Preface, “but that instruction never left his heart. Neither had Tamal Krishna’s request left mine.” Meditating on it, he chanted the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, studied the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, sought devotees’ association, and visited China for research. In due course, he received initiation from His Holiness Giriraja Swami, along with the spiritual name Kalachandji Dasa.

Vaishnava Literature

Regarding a statement by the great Vaishnava author Krishnadasa Kaviraja, Srila Prabhupada stresses that without the mercy of the Lord, the blessings of devotees in a bona fide disciplic succession, and a humble service mood, it is not possible to compose devotional literature.

By their mercy, all these devotees ordered me to write of the last pastimes of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. . . . Having received the order of the Vaishnavas but being anxious within my heart, I went to the temple of [the deity] Madana-mohana in Vrindavana to ask His permission also. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 8.72–73)

Purport: To write about the transcendental pastimes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is not an ordinary endeavor. Unless one is empowered by the higher authorities, or advanced devotees, one cannot write transcendental literature. . . . Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita was written by Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami by their mercy. Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami considered all the devotees that have been mentioned to be his preceptor gurus, or spiritual masters, and [the deity] Madana-gopala (Sri Madana-mohana vigraha) is Krishna Himself. Thus he took permission from both of them, and when he received the mercy of both guru and Krishna, he was able to write this great literature, Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita. This example should be followed.

In 1995 Carl visited his brother at the Dallas ISKCON temple, home of Sri Sri Radha-Kalachandji, installed by Srila Prabhupada in 1972, and, having been the recipient of this important request, prayed for Sri Sri Radha-Kalachandji’s blessings to be able to execute this task, seeing it as a blessed duty.

Overcoming Kali-yuga's Influence

Srila Prabhupada appreciated China as a great and important civilization, with much in common with India’s Vedic culture, but he explained that due to the materialistic age in which we live, India and China need to regain their former spiritual greatness, and this can be accomplished only when Srimad-Bhagavatam is widely distributed and understood:

Our neighboring friend China has attacked the border of India with a militaristic spirit. We have practically no business in the political field, yet we see that previously there were both China and India, and they both lived peacefully for centuries without ill feeling. The reason is that they lived those days in an atmosphere of God consciousness, and every country, over the surface of the world, was God-fearing, pure-hearted and simple, and there was no question of political diplomacy. There is no cause of quarrel between the two countries China and India over land which is not very suitable for habitation, and certainly there is no cause for fighting on this issue. But due to the age of quarrel, Kali, which we have discussed, there is always a chance of quarrel on slight provocation. This is due not to the issue in question, but to the polluted atmosphere of this age: systematically there is propaganda by a section of people to stop glorification of the name and fame of the Supreme Lord. Therefore, there is a great need for disseminating the message of Srimad-Bhagavatam all over the world.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam, 1.5.11, Purport)

Li Guang Shi

It is fitting, therefore, that when in The Story of Li Guang Shi: Back Home, Sanatan Swami and several of Li Guang Shi’s American college friends visit him after he has returned to China to work as an AIDS researcher on behalf of his countrymen (at a drastically smaller salary than he could fetch in the US), the swami begins a month-long lecture series on Srimad-Bhagavatam, reexplained in modern Beijing for several of Guang Shi’s Chinese friends, associates, and visiting New York chums. As Suta Goswami retold the Bhagavatam in the forest of Naimisharanya after having faithfully heard its recitation by Shukadeva Goswami to King Parikshit, Back Home presents a special retelling of the Bhagavatam that reveals important parallels, connections, and distinctions between traditional Chinese philosophy and culture and the best of India’s great bhakti-yoga tradition.

Responding to questions, challenges, and interchanges with his lively and diverse Beijing audience, Sanatan Goswami's faithful presentation of Krishna consciousness confronts – rather than avoids – numerous philosophical doubts that can arise in anyone, Chinese or otherwise. In Back Home Kalachandji and Tamal Krishna Goswami compare Chinese teachings such as Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism with Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy and even draw parallels between qi gong and yoga, and between traditional Chinese medicine and India’s Ayurvedic health system.

I’ve never been to China, but recently I was honored to meet Kelly, a student from the mainland studying hotel management at the University of Houston. Kelly had begun to dine at our Houston Govinda’s restaurant, befriended devotees, and even volunteered to make flower garlands for our temple deities. When I presented her a copy of Yoga for the New Millennium, she enjoyed it and said it was relevant to her. Then, when she graduated and her student visa was expiring and she was about to return to China, I gave her a newly arrived copy of Back Home, although I’d not yet read it myself. Having now read it, I realize it was an appropriate gift, because it is a sincere attempt to present Srimad-Bhagavatam, to help effect what Srila Prabhupada referred to as a spiritual “cultural conquest.” In “World Pacifist and Bhagwat Gita,” an essay he wrote prior to 1967, Prabhupada explained that unlike a materialistic triumph – in which someone loses – such a victory or conquest is a win/win for everyone. “By such conquest the people of the world will get relieved of the so-called material prosperity terrorized by atomic bombs.”

Although in Kali-yuga we are always haunted by the specter of global tension and distrust, with pestilence, war (including the very real threat of nuclear devastation), even “trade wars,” and with endless other unpleasant anomalies, in a letter to Jayadvaita Dasa in 1972 Srila Prabhupada explained that a transcendental pen can be mightier than the sword. “These books and magazines are our most important propaganda weapons to defeat the ignorance of maya's [illusion’s] army, and the more we produce such literature and sell them profusely all over the world, the more we shall deliver the world from the suicide course.” Krishna conscious literature is the best “weapon” to defeat ignorance and illusion, thereby automatically creating greater peace and harmony.

The Lord as Bhakta-vatsala

If we wonder how Kalachandji Dasa ended up being a seemingly unlikely choice to assist in the Lord’s plan for the writing of such an important book, Srila Prabhupada’s words may give us an insight. “When He [Lord Krishna] personally does something, it is only to satisfy His devotee. The Lord is known as bhakta-vatsala because He very much favors His devoted servant.” Because Srila Prabhupada, Krishna’s pure devotee, desired to bless the Chinese people with Krishna consciousness and he chose Tamal Krishna Goswami to help, and because Tamal Krishna Goswami had a plan to write a book to help fulfill Prabhupada’s desire and chose his brother to help, the Lord, as bhakta-vatsala, sanctioned or inspired this unique cooperative literary effort.

Thus in Back Home Kalachandji Dasa offers his brother, Srila Prabhupada, the Chinese people, and all of us an honest literary attempt to save humankind from its “suicide course” by re-presenting the purifying message of Srimad-Bhagavatam, according to time, place, and circumstance. There are many bright souls like Kelly – good citizens, all over the world – who can benefit immensely from these transcendental literatures, thereby making their countries and the world a much better place.

About the Author: 

Sarvabhauma Dasa

Sarvabhauma Dasa, a disciple of Tamal Krishna Goswami, is based in Houston, Texas, where he engages in various Krishna conscious teaching and writing projects.