Walther Eidlitz, Krishna-Chaitanya, India’s Hidden Treasure, His Life and Teachings (h:ström, Sweden: Produktion & Tryck, Umeå, 2014), 585 pages. Copies available at www.sadananda.com
[This is a revised edition of the German text, Krishna-Caitanya, Sein Leben und Seine Lehre (Stockholm University, 1968), translated into English by Mario Windisch, Bengt Lundborg, Kid Samuelsson and Katrin Stamm]
Book Review by Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa)*
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In the early 1970s, as a young devotee, I had heard about two books that piqued my interest, both by an Austrian author named Walther Eidlitz (1892–1976). The first was an autobiographical account, Bhakta, eine indische Odyssee (Hamburg: Claassen, 1951), originally written in German but initially released as a Swedish edition (1948). The book was eventually translated into English as Unknown India: A Pilgrimage into a Forgotten World (London: Rider, 1952) and republished as Journey to Unknown India (San Rafael, California: Mandala Publishing, 1998).
The story relates Eidlitz’s transcendental odyssey as a seeker who finds himself in India during World War II. As a result, he lands in an internment camp where he was forced to live under severe restrictions and intolerable conditions. By Krishna’s divine will, however, there was a beacon of light in the midst of untold darkness: a German-born Vaishnava sadhu named Sadananda Swami (1908–1977), one of the few Western disciples of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, happened to be in that same camp.
The book tells of their many experiences and exchanges together, with Sadananda Swami sharing the essential teachings of Gaudiya Vaishnavism with an attentive Walther Eidlitz. It even discloses some of the prehistory, taking us back to the time before Eidlitz initially met Sadananda, when the former had received the name Vamandas while studying under an impersonalist guru in the Himalayas.
Srila Sarasvati Thakura had already left the planet before the Second World War, and so Vamandasji took proper initiation from Bon Maharaja (a leading disciple of Bhaktisiddhanta at the time) in as late as 1946, receiving the name Shri Vimala-Krishna Vidyabinode Dasa. Still, presumably because they had become used to his earlier name, they often continued to call him Vamandas, despite his Vaishnava initiation.
In due course, he boarded a ship that took him from Bombay to London, and from there he eventually relocated to Sweden, where his wife, Hella, and their son, Günther, were waiting. He continued to study under Sadananda Swami through letters, which culminated in his writing on Vaishnava themes. As an addendum, he returned to India in the 1950s, at which time he relished more association with Sadananda. Together, they basked in the nectarean environs of various Vaishnava shrines, including Vrindavan and Navadvip, and deepened their friendship.
Some time later, Eidlitz wrote the second book that struck my fancy: Krsna-Caitanya: Sein Leben und seine Lehre (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1968). This one, however, had never been translated into English, and so, much to my dismay, I was unable to enter into its alluring world of divine ambrosia — until now. Kishordas (Kid Samuelsson) and Kalakanthidasi (Katrin Stamm), who work with other disciples of Sadananda Swami to maintain the literary estate of both the Swami and his foremost disciple, Vamandas (Walther Eidlitz), have given the world a special tome, one that will not soon be forgotten.
I remember reading, years ago, how the original German edition was used as a text at universities throughout Europe, and I noticed that it was quoted in numerous books by eminent scholars from around the world. Indeed, it was one of the first and only books on Sri Chaitanya in a European language at the time, making Mahaprabhu and His teachings available to the Western world in both academic language and through the lens of a believing Vaishnava. It was significant, too, that is was published by an affiliate of Stockholm University.
How the original German edition came to be: Shortly after Sadananda’s release from the internment camp in the mid-1940s, he and Eidlitz thought deeply about writing a thorough book on the life and teachings of Sri Chaitanya. According to Samuelsson and Stamm, it was Sadananda’s “untiring advice and assistance over the following twenty years that made this book possible, as Vamandas himself points out in the end of the foreword to his book.”
In fact, the book is a product of teamwork, just as attributable to Sadananda as it is to Eidlitz. Samuelsson and Stamm quote a letter, written in April 1962, in which Sadananda writes: “Now I have dictated to Vamandas all he needs for his book on Chaitanya.” The general idea was that Sadananda was to provide the raw translations of the traditional material, including segments of the Srimad Bhagavatam and the standard biographies of Sri Chaitanya, and Vamandas, who was not as knowledgeable regarding Sanskrit and Bengali, would render these translations into eloquent German prose.
It should be noted, too, that the English translation is a revised edition. Stamm writes, “The translation was also a great opportunity to improve the book. I had been given [the text] which contained later handwritten personal corrections and notes by Vamandas himself. Moreover we included three handwritten pages of Errata by Vamandas and two pages of corrections by Sadananda from 1972. While writing the translation we found many more mistakes: not only spelling mistakes but also missing lines in verses, wrong verse numbers etc. Altogether . . . about 200 errors. . . . We then added, whenever possible, Sadananda’s own words as corrections.”
Thus, in the end, the English translation not only closely follows the original, but it adds notes, corrections, and afterthoughts by both Sadananda and Eidlitz, making it a gem in the world of contemporary Gaudiya Vaishnava literature. Naturally, as someone who was already fascinated by a German edition that I couldn’t even really read, I was absolutely thrilled when the translation arrived at my door.
The book is set up to help an intelligent newcomer enter into an accurate understanding of Sri Chaitanya — but it also includes information that will be of interest to the seasoned devotee. The first half of the volume is a thorough introduction and overview of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology, establishing doctrine and practice in a logical and coherent manner. It elucidates key teachings of the tradition, focusing on the nuances of Sanskrit and Bengali terminology, and highlights pastimes of Krishna that are indispensable for understanding the philosophy of the Vaishnavas.
In addition, while offering the traditional accounts of Krishna and His lila, the text also draws on infrequently quoted Puranas and Goswami literature, particularly that of Sri Rupa and Sri Jiva, allowing the reader insights into obscure esoterica and inner meaning.
We are then ready for Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. After a brief overview of foundational elements in the Lord’s life and times, we are given translations of pivotal episodes in His pastimes. Most of the early pastimes are taken from Chaitanya Bhagavata, with clarifying augmentation from other literature in Mahaprabhu’s biographical tradition. The latter pastimes are largely gleaned from the Chaitanya-charitamrita, again augmented by supplemental texts.
The book is unique in that it does not merely retell the life of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, but rather allows original sources to speak for themselves: Murari Gupta’s Kadacha; Kavi Karnapura’s Chaitanya Chandrodaya Natakam and Chaitanya Charita Mahakavya; Prabodhananda Sarasvati’s Chaitanya-Chandramrita; Vrindavandasa Thakur’s Chaitanya Bhagavata; Jayananda Mishra’s Chaitanya Mangala; Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami’s Chaitanya Charitamrita, and so on — all are brought to bear to illuminate Sri Chaitanya’s life and teachings. It is also historically significant that these translated sections are pretty much all we have of Sadananda Swami’s own literary output, since he never published in his lifetime.
A particular delight in this part of the book is the attention given to Sri Chaitanya’s intimate associates. We are introduced to them with exacting detail, which has the effect of deepening our understanding of their significance and, indeed, the significance of Sri Chaitanya Himself.
The last section of the book offers valuable data for all students of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, including a chronology of events occurring in India at the time of Sri Chaitanya, as well as that of Sri Chaitanya’s manifested pastimes. In addition, back-of-the-book material includes an in-depth classification of the Vedas in relation to other sacred books of the Vaishnava tradition; a through outline of avatara theory, showing Krishna as the source of all Incarnations and how all others expand from Him; sources in Bengali and details of existing pertinent books focusing on the Chaitanya tradition. It also offers details on various selected Sanskrit and Bengali works from the Lord’s inner circle of disciples and followers, both from His time period and for a generation or two thereafter. Overall, the book is a well-written, major contribution to the study of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.
That being said, all reviews should offer constructive criticism, and while I was hard-pressed to find any significant problems with this book, I did notice something minor: I initially found the use of an “m” at the end of certain Sanskrit words, like sastram, Mahabharatam, and Puranam, a bit unusual and disturbing. By way of explanation, I thought, there are a couple of possibilities: The “m” would properly occur in the nominative and accusative singulars, since sastra, for example, is a neutral a-ending noun. So if it is the subject of the sentence, or the object, the author/translator might be using the Sanskrit word instead of an anglicized version. But that didn’t seem to be the case here.
Another possibility: Sometimes, South Indian Brahmins use idiosyncratic methods in such cases, and the translators might have had a Sanskrit teacher who employed that kind of usage. But I didn’t think that was the case, either. Besides, from what I could see, Eidlitz himself didn’t adopt this approach in his German original — he used the more common, sastra, Mahabharata, and Purana — which made it even more perplexing why the alternate version should be used here in the translated text.
I eventually found out in correspondence with the translators that they were following the rules Sadananda himself had given them: All Sanskrit words were to be rendered in nominative singular, even if they appear in another case or number in German. Although I had missed it, they actually mentioned that they were going to do this on page 13. Still, readers familiar with Sanskrit texts may find this strange use of “m” somewhat disconcerting. I must say, though, that aside from this trivial point, I found the book well worth waiting for.
ISKCON devotees should be particularly interested in this work. Let it be known: His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada referred to Sadananda Swami, Eidlitz’s guru, as his “an intimate friend,” and the work itself — this specific book on Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu — as “authorized.” These are not words that Prabhupada used lightly.
I recently spoke to Brahmananda Dasa, an early disciple of Srila Prabhupada, who had corresponded with him when Eidlitz’s book was initially released. He remembered Prabhupada receiving the book through the post and his reaction, too: “Yes,” Brahmananda wrote to me, “it was very interesting. Prabhupada approved the book after Eidlitz sent him a copy, even though he could not read the foreign language. He said it was “nice” and “authorized,” and he wrote to me to send the three-volume set of Delhi Bhagavatams to Eidlitz in return. This was in 1968.”
Prabhupada’s “authorization” of the book was also confirmed during one of his lectures in Montreal, on July 28, 1968: “He [Eidlitz] has written a very nice authorized book on Lord Caitanya in German language, and it is very big book, paperback, five hundred pages. It is approved by the Sweden University, and he has sent me.” (See http://www.harekrishnablog.com/prabhupada-vani/62-lectures/292-distributing-lord-chaitanyas-mission [Accessed June 2014])
Regarding Prabhupada’s appreciation of Sadananda Swami, we may refer to the following letters: To Mandali Bhadra Dasa (Mario Windisch), he wrote on February 25, 1968: “. . . I am very sorry to learn that my dear brother Sadananda is seriously ill and the doctors have advised complete rest for him. He is my intimate friend and God-brother, so although I wanted to open correspondence with him, I voluntarily restrain myself from doing so, taking into consideration his present health. I pray to Krishna that he may recover very soon, so that we may not only open correspondence, but maybe I can see him personally. . . . In Bombay sometimes we lived together and he used to treat my little sons very kindly. His heart is so soft, as soft as a good mother’s, and I always remember him and shall continue to do so.When you meet him next, kindly offer my respectful obeisances. . . ”
Further, writing to his disciple Hamsaduta Dasa on August 16, 1970, Prabhupada says, “. . . Regarding my Godbrother, Sadananda Swami, I have heard many things about him as you have also informed me, but I think as he is old man we should not give him the trouble of teaching you Bengali or Sanskrit. . . . Please offer my obeisances to Sadananda Swami. He is my old friend and Godbrother, and so you should offer him all due respects whenever he comes, but do not try to engage him in some work in his old age.”
So, it should be clear that Prabhupada thought fondly of both teacher and student, Sadananda and Eidlitz, and had even specifically praised Eidlitz’s work on Sri Chaitanya. As a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, I can think of no better endorsement.
*Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is a biographer, scholar and author in the fields of philosophy, religion, spirituality and music. He is the founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine. His thirty-one books have been published in numerous languages. Some popular titles include Essential Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008); the Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008); Krishna’s Other Song: A New Look at the Uddhava Gita (Praeger-Greenwood, 2010).
Aug 06, 2022
Brahmatirtha das Director, Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies