Chakra Discussions

Biography makes Krishna accessible to academics

Book Review by Satyaraja das (Steven J. Rosen)

Posted May 6, 2004


Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God (Srimad Bhagavata Purana, Book X)
Edited and translated by Edwin F. Bryant
Penguin Books (London: Dec 2003). Paperback, 129 x 198mm, 608 pages including glossary, index and extensive endnotes. ISBN 0140447997.
£6.99 (UK) or $11.20 (USA)


Despite the word "legend" in the title, this book delivers the Vaishnava point of view about Krishna -- plain and simple. Bryant is using "legend" in a distinct if also calculated sense. Here, the word means "an unverified popular story, especially one believed to be historical." (This is the first definition in The American Heritage Dictionary.) It doesn't mean "mythic" or "fictional" -- which is the way most Americans and Europeans use the word today. In any case, using "legend" will go a long way in getting scholars and educators to use the book, which then calmly and competently introduces them to Krishna.

And so the bottom line is this: At long last the academic world gives us a definitive life of Krishna, culled from authoritative sources and elaborated upon by a qualified academic and practitioner.

Edwin Bryant's dual qualifications as scholar and devotee are evident from the very beginning. First, as a scholar, we see the poetic ease and penetrating expertise with which he translates the original Sanskrit. More importantly, we see his spiritual acumen from his clear understanding of Vaishnava siddhanta. But, most of all, we see his heart: The book begins with his acknowledgement to Prabhupada, whose work, he admits, is a devotional goldmine, and an important precursor to his own. He also gratefully acknowledges the diligent work of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, i.e., of Prabhupada's followers. One might question the "need" for another translation of Krishna's lila as it appears in the Tenth Book of the Bhagavatam. Didn't Prabhupada already give us Krsna Book (his summarization of this text) as well as his translation of that section of the Bhagavatam itself (though, admittedly, he only translated 13 chapters out its mammoth 90)? Prabhupada's work is clearly sufficient in itself. Yet Bryant's Brilliant Translation (BBT?) offers a significant addendum, a spice that, properly used, can augment an already delicious recipe.

At the very least, Bryant's book, being essentially an academic treatment of the Bhagavatam and published by the prestigious "Penguin Classics," can get into hands that Prabhupada's books never would. As a result, Krishna's life story (and a considerable amount of Vaishnava teaching) will get into hands that might have long ago been washed of anything Krishna-related. Certain institiutions of learning and prejudiced professors -- what to speak of their students -- might now bring Krishna back into their curriculum, after decades of premature rejection.

But Bryant's translation has other virtues as well. For one, he has a lengthy introduction that basically makes the Tenth Book comprehensible for outsiders. When Prabhupada presented Krsna Book, he basically presented it as the Absolute Truth -- you either accepted it, or you didn't. There was no historical background; no sustained attempt to explain it in terms of familiar philosophical or theological categories; no in-depth analysis of key terms. But Bryant's book does all of this, and so much more. And it's all found right in the Introduction! This is significant, for now one can study Krishna's pastimes with some intelligible background, some sense of what's going on, whether or not one is a devotee or totally sold out to the process of Krishna consciousness. In other words, an outsider can now begin to appreciate Krishna-lila, at least from an intellectual point of view.

In addition, Bryant's book, in a sense, gives a more complete picture of Krishna's life. Why? Because it includes, at the very end, several chapters fom the Eleventh Book of the Bhagavatam. This is a stroke of genius on Bryant's part. For now we have the Bhagavatam's own chapters on Krishna's disappearance story -- the details on His leaving the planet, which aren't found in the Tenth Book. Of course, Prabhupada's followers gave us this disappearance story in the BBT version of the Bhagavatam. But to put it together with the bulk of Krishna's story, in one place -- this is the first time, to my knowledge, anyone has deigned to do this.

In all, I find Bryant's work a significant contrbution. Prabhupada's Krsna Book and Bhagavatam translation will always be essential reading for all devotees, and will immensely benefit all nondevotees as well. That being said, though, I highly recommend Bryant's life of Krishna, if for no other reason than it can be used as an addendum -- as a Bhagavatam class, of sorts, to clarify and to glorify the truths so mercifully given us by Srila Prabhupada.