for ISKCON News on Oct. 27, 2011
At the Bhakti Center in New York City, two brahmacharis (celibate students) are developing a new book club that helps bridge the cultural gap between the ancient spiritual texts of India and a postmodern audience.
Using the books of western philosophers whose portrayal of suffering in the material world and loving a personal God mirrors that of Bhakti yoga teachers like Srila Prabhupada, they are creating a framework to help modern audiences better understand Srila Prabhupada’s mood, language and message.
“We are not diluting Prabhupada’s message one bit, but rather we are bridging a cultural gap to help as many people as possible understand and appreciate his work and life, and connect them with his books,” says Rasanath Dasa, a full-time brahmachari at the Bhakti Center who holds an MBA from Cornell University and worked as an investment banker on Wall Street in his ‘previous life.’
Rasanath leads the Bhakti Center Book Club along with Hari Prasad Dasa, an English major and NYU film graduate who introduced him to the great existential philosophers. Rasanath explains that the existentialists clearly and profoundly saw the problems of the material world. Some came to negative conclusions—Nietzche famously said ‘God is Dead,’ while Sartre’s conclusion was ‘man is but a useless passion.’ Søren Kierkegaard, however, a Danish Christian philosopher widely considered to be the father of existentialism, was different, and Rasanath fell in love with his writings.
“He was a theist, believed in a personal God, and was trying to get to the heart of what true Christianity really meant,” he says. “His work is relevant to Bhakti in many ways. In fact, the mood of his writing is very similar to that of Srila Prabhupada’s: very direct, and almost confronting, yet coming from a very realized place. His writing is profound, yet full of satire and creativity, using different pen names and characters to present philosophy, as Bhaktivinode Thakura did in his fictional Jaiva Dharma.”
As they read, Rasanath and Hari Prasad felt that Kierkegaard’s language and approach was very apt to the time and place we live in. What’s more, when they started a discussion group on his and other books in their ashram, they began to see how other thinkers over the centuries had had similar thoughts to the great Vaishnava teachers. And they found that their understanding of the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam was enriched after every discussion.
Meanwhile both Rasanath and Hari Prasad, who already ran a course for the general public called Gita Sutras—which utilized both traditional and modern teaching approaches—were looking for a way to keep their students thinking about the philosophy of Krishna consciousness and connected to the Bhakti Center.
For the post-modern, New York intellectual audience, a book club connecting the works of Western philosophers to Srila Prabhupada’s teachings seemed the perfect way. So in March of this year, Rasanath and Hari Prasad launched the Bhakti Center Book Club.
The first meeting was held in June on the second floor of the Bhakti Center, while subsequent meetings have been held monthly. They usually draw ten to fifteen people, all previous students of the Gita Sutras course with whom Rasanath and Hari Prasad have already developed relationships.
All are Westerners new to Krishna consciousness, all are serious seekers and thinkers who have a strong desire to transform their lives, and all are regular New Yorkers who come from varied walks of life. There are students, artists, photographers, activists, and people who work for both mainstream corporations and non-profit organizations.
“It’s a relatively small group, and despite plenty of demand, that’s how we like to keep it,” Rasanath says. “A smaller group preserves the quality of the discussion, and there is an atmosphere of trust and sharing.”
Students begin reading the current book one month in advance, then meet to discuss it. If the book is over 250 pages, they’ll get a second month to complete it and have a second meeting.
The gatherings are held on Saturdays at 6:30pm, with Hari Prasad bringing up points from his notes on the book, and then asking people what came up for them. The discussion is free flowing and needs little monitoring.
“The mood is beautiful, very open and inspiring,” Rasanath says.
The book club began by reading The Question of God, a fictional debate between Christian author C.S. Lewis and atheist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, written by Dr. Armand Nicholi, a Harvard professor of psychiatry. The book, subtitled “C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life,” had a deep effect on the book club members.
“What was most profound for me, was that the book presented a lot of the main points that Prabhupada discusses in the Bhagavad-gita in a Western context,” Rasanath says. “For instance, C.S. Lewis talks a lot about love for a personal God, and about how the suffering of the material world is a way for us to find our way back to Him.”
The Book Club’s second read was Søren Kierkegaard’s The Present Age, an 85-page satire on the “intellectualism” of the age that we live in, that is ultimately a call to action and spiritual transformation. Most recently, the club has read Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, which focuses entirely on surrender to God.
At every meeting, Rasanath and Hari Prasad liberally quote from the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, and encourage people to see the connection. Often the students, most of whom have already participated in the Bhakti Center’s Gita Sutras course, do this themselves without any prompting.
“During our last discussion about Thoughts in Solitude, Jean, one of our regulars, talked about how after reading the book she could now totally relate to Arjuna’s existential crisis at the beginning of the Bhagavad-gita,” Rasanath says. “She recounted his discussion with Krishna in the first chapter and spoke in a heartfelt way about how it had struck her very deeply.”
The participants of the Book Club
As well as helping a modern Western audience to understand the Bhagavad-gita, the Book Club also helps them to see how its message is non-sectarian, as so many teachers in different time periods and from different cultures and places have repeated the same things. Finally, the artistic and poetically beautiful writings of Lewis, Kierkegaard and Merton make for easy digestion and open people up more to spiritual topics.
“Each meeting officially ends at 8:30pm, but people stay on long after that, discussing the subject matter more, and asking questions,” Rasanath says. “You can see the spark in their eyes, the opening up of their hearts, their readiness to embark on a journey of personal spiritual transformation. They’re excited about making a change in their lives.”
Next, the Bhakti Center Book Club will read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel, A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and several Greek dramas which bring out human suffering and the problems of the material world in an insightful way.
As far as the future of the Club is concerned, Rasanath and Hari Prasad are more focused on quality than quantity. When it feels like time to open up to more members, they will, but for now, their priority is to preserve the nurturing mood.
“Our ultimate goal is for people to take to Krishna consciousness, but we would like them to come to that conclusion at their own pace, not by being pushed,” says Rasanath. “We don’t hide the fact that we are devotees, we quote from Vaishnava scriptures a lot, and we discuss our own lives and spiritual practices. But at the same time, we don’t want it to be in people’s faces all the time. It’s a very organic, natural approach to inspiring them to be devotees.”