A new academic work by ISKCON scholar and guru Krishna Kshetra Das (Kenneth R. Valpey) aims to give both devotee practioners and an educated general audience a deeper understanding of deity worship, specifically in the Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition.
Attending Krishna’s Image: Caitanya Vaisnava Murti-seva as Devotional Truthdiscusses how the ancient historical tradition was brought from India to countries all over the world. It shows how it has taken firm root today in both India and the West. And in a study comparing two temples – one Radharamana in the North Indian pilgrimage town of Vrindavana, the other Bhaktivedanta Manor just outside London – it paints a nuanced picture of deity worship and the theological reflection supporting it.
First released in 2006 by academic publisher Routledge and intended mainly for academic libraries, the hardbound edition of the book cost an astronomical $160. But this year, it has been published in a paperback edition priced just €20 (27 USD), making it decidedly more “affordable for the average mortal,” as author Krishna Kshetra jokes.
Krishna Kshetra intends his book to be an intellectually rigorous work that can be taken seriously by other scholars, as well as an answer to questions by educated people such as “What is the temple worship that Hare Krishnas do?”
“I wanted to be able to hand them a book that would satisfy them that this is a very rich tradition with a deep intellectual background,” he says. “It’s also for the wider devotee community, because I think there is room for deeper reflection and appreciation of our tradition.”
Krishna Kshetra is uniquely qualified to explain the topic of deity worship, as he is not only an academic scholar but also a long-time practioner of the ancient tradition ofmurti-sevahimself.
He first began serving as apujari, or priest, in Germany in 1975, two years after joining the International Society for Krishna consciousness, and did some of the society’s first research on how to worship the Deity of Nrsimhadeva.
In 1995, he produced the Deity worship manual Pancharatra Pradipa, which became an invaluable resource to temples all over the world. And soon after, he helped form the ISKCON Deity Worship Ministry and became its first Minister.
Meanwhile Krishna Kshetra also studied the Sanskrit language in depth and became an academic scholar of religion, receiving a Masters Degree on the subject at Graduate Theological Union in Berkely, California. He also received a D. Phil at Oxford, where he wrote the Doctoral ThesisKrishna-Seva: The Theology of Image Worship in Gaudiya Vaishnavism.
Formerly professor of Indian religions and culture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he currently teaches at ISKCON’s Bhaktivedanta College in Belgium, where he has also been appointed Dean of Studies.
His new book is a direct revision of the ideas in his Oxford Doctoral Thesis, and is in many ways the culmination of all his years of study and practice.
Attending Krishna’s Imagespans four chapters. The first, “Texts as Context: core textual sources and patterns for Caitanya Vaisnava image worship,” gives the scriptural background of the tradition of deity worship. This includes an explanation of Pancharatra, a genre of Sanskrit literature containing many texts – seventy have been recovered so far – that give step-by-step instructions on the rituals of deity worship.
Chapter 2, “Temple as Context: the Radharamana temple as embodied community,” goes into detail about the daily worship at the ancient Radharamana temple in Vrindavana.
“I spent four months living next door to the temple, because I had learned that [ISKCON’s founder] Srila Prabhupada had instructed some of his pujari disciples to study how they do deity worship there,” says Krishna Kshetra. “No one had really done that yet, so I thought, let me do this as a service for ISKCON. While there, I was able to get a copy of their daily worship procedure, which is only eight pages long and is in handwritten Brajabasha Hindi. I got it translated, and I’ve included a portion of that, detailing how they do their middaybhogaoffering, in the chapter.”
In Chapter 3, “Krishna’s new look: a worship tradition faces West,” Krishna Kshetra tells the story of deity worship moving West. He begins with the intellectual preparation by Bhaktivinode Thakura, then Srila Prabhupada’s guru Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, and then tells how Srila Prabhupada realized their plans by physically bringing deities to the West.
The final chapter, “Migrant texts, migrant images: resettling Krishna in the West,” focuses on the deity worship at Bhaktivedanta Manor in England, and makes a comparison between it and the Radharamana temple in India. Using terminology coined by the scholar Barbara Holdrich, Krishna Kshetra calls Bhaktivedanta Manor a “missionizing community” as opposed to Radharamana’s “embodied community.”
He also discusses Bhaktivedanta Manor’s ten-year legal battle with the local council for the right to public worship, and how the presence of the deity may have affected the outcome. And he talks about Vaiddhi Bhakti – the rules and regulations of worship – and Raganuga Bhakti – spontaneous devotional service, and how the two may not be mutually exclusive.
Finally, in his conclusion to the book, Krishna Kshetra reflects back on the topics discussed and the academic purpose of comparison, and discusses the notion of “images of religious truth.”
Overall,Attending Krishna’s Imagewill help devotee readers delve into the rich tradition behind their practice, get a better understanding of how rules relate to devotional emotions in the context of deity worship, and become better equipped to explain deity worship to interested persons.
“My hope is that devotees who read it will think more deeply about our tradition, and get a richer sense of just what it is we’re doing when we go into the temple, offer obeisances, offer arati, and all the other things that we do,” says Krishna Kshetra. “I also hope it will inspire some more writings by other devotees.”
Next up,Attending Krishna’s Imageis scheduled to be published in Spanish soon. Meanwhile, Krishna Kshetra is also working on the second in his two-volume Bhagavata Purana series. The first, subtitled “Sacred Text and Living Tradition” is a collection of articles by twelve scholars introducing the Bhagavata Purana’s key themes and examining its extensive influence on Hindu thought and practice. It was edited by Krishna Kshetra with Radhika Ramana Das (Ravi Gupta) and was published by Columbia University Press in March 2013.
The second volume, which will be an abridged translation from the original Sanskrit by the two scholars, is forthcoming.
“We are hoping the book, which is part of the Bhagavata Purana Research Project at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, will come out in the next year or so,” says Krishna Kshetra.