Very seldom does a reviewer encounter a book that can be summed in one word. Vaisnava India is one of those books, and the word is: stupendous.
Physically it is a massive illustrated book 759 elephantine folio pages in landscape format. Across the table (laps are out of the question) with two-inch spine included, this comes to not much short of a yard. It reminds one of those grand atlases of the 17th century by Guillaume Bleau, only with color photographs instead of hand-tinted graven maps.
Vaisnava India covers a great deal of spiritual and physical territory mystic, doctrinal, devotional, mythic, historic, geographic, and populist. Unlike academic treatises or guidebooks, the text addresses both spiritual and non-spiritual stimuli that shape belief systems. One indirect stimulus is geography what Lawrence Durrell called "spirit of place." Religions in part provide an understanding to explain context, the emotional satisfaction that comes with linking one phenomenon to all and all phenomenon to one. The authors put this well:
"When we as people become too enamored of our human achievements, it would benefit us to visit the Himalayas, even if only in our minds. Regardless of your philosophical or religious leanings, the awesome forces of nature in the Himalayas feed the pilgrim a heavy dose of humility and perspective. What are humanity's greatest structures in he face of Mt. Everest?"
Or rephrased the way Frank Lloyd Wright once did, "I believe in God, only I spell it Nature."
The Vaisnavas of India see their God which along with Creation are God in everything and everything in God embodied not solely in Nature, but in humans, rivers, the cycle of the seasons, the obvious place in things of animal and human alike. They see God in the signs of the stars, birth, growth, the myriad colors in the palette of human emotions, and transcendental experience directly uniting Self with All. God is God because one can never reach the limit of Gods glories; indeed, there is no limit.
The path of liberation recommended by Vaisnava authorities, is to serve the mahatma ("great soul") transcendentalists, the pure devotee Vaisnavas on the path to the kingdom of God, who chant the glories of the Lord rather than talk of philosophy. If one takes shelter in the Vaisnavas, who are engaged in chanting and hearing the glories of the Lord, one is sure to make progress on the path to Godhead.
This system of association under spiritual gurus has been recommended since time out of mind, but the authors of this book believe that in our age it is closely identified with Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, an incarnation of Sri Radha Krishna, in the role of Krishnas devotee. Although the Supreme Personality of Godhead the living entities familiar to us, material nature, and time all superficially appear to be different, nothing is different from the Supreme. But the Supreme is always different from everything. Lord Caitanya's philosophy is acintya bheda and abheda-tattva inconceivable, simultaneous oneness and difference. This system of philosophy is the perfect knowledge of Absolute Truth.
Everyday folk see all this is in much simpler terms the forces that influence or explain the daily events of their lives, drawn directly from their feelings. Almost all religions divide between the doctrinal and the devotional, the theory and the practice. Vaisnavism is the theory and practice of the eternal occupation (dharma) of the living entity which is loving personal devotional service to the Supreme Godhead, Krishna.
Hindus see the god Visnu as the protector of the universe. Of the other two great presences in the religion's Trimurti (Trinity), Brahma was the creator and director of the universe, equivalent to metaphysical concept "The Absolute"; and Mahesvara (Shiva) its destroyer and renewer, symbol of Creation's irrifragiblity the desire expressed in most religions that no matter how faulty Creation's aging mechanisms, one day all will be renewed.
Visnu and Shiva thus represent two opposing forces in the universe (and human psychology) while Brahma represents an all-embracing balancing force. Visnu not only protected the universe, he measured it out at the beginning in three great strides, he then became its deity of benevolence, more accessible than the remote and abstract Brahma, and more neighborly than Shiva, who is most often depicted in his horrific aspect. Shiva's season-like cycle of origin, fruition, and decay has convinced many religious archaeologists he originated in an ancient fertility god. Brahma represents the vital force that underlies existence itself, while Visnu represents the triumph of divine, unconditioned love for all beings. It is difficult to imagine a scheme that better unites the grand forces of being yet accounts for why they act as they do, and also provides the vast range of human perceptiveness, from the loftiest intellectual to the lowliest peasant, with something they can hang on to when existence seems awful.
The interpretation of Vaisnava described by the three authors is that, although the three incarnations of the material modes of nature Brahma, Visnu, and Shiva are the principal deities for the creation, maintenance and destruction of the cosmic manifestation, they are not the final authority. The Supreme Personality of Godhead is Lord Krishna, the cause of all causes. He is the asraya, or the final rest-of-everything.
In India it is hard to say who has the most followers, the Shaivites who worship Shiva or the Vaisnavas who embrace Visnu. Visitors who spend any length of time there are able to identify by the patterns of stripes and figures painted on his upper body not merely which of the two a devotee worships, but which sect he belongs to. Beyond India, though, Vaisnavas predominate.
The eighth Avatar was Krishna, who represents divine, unconditional love. Krishna has inspired no end of art works, from great carved stone statues in temples to delicate painted miniatures smaller than the palm of a hand whose style is at once Zen-like in the use of empty space and floridly complex in the manner of Persian miniatures. Krishna has inspired beauty in forms other than tangile art. One is how to live by way of example; another is a vast spectrum of folklore divinity which yield up no end of icons in homes and temples, beneath trees, at the junction of rivers, and at the entrances to grottoes.
Oddly enough, Visnu has never been the subject of a landmark book until this one. The book Vaisnava India states, "The purpose of this book is unique to present in English, along with profuse illustrations, as comprehensive a picture as possible ... of Vaisnavism in its birthplace on earth, India."
Vaisnavas especially revere eleven holy places. Some the Himalayas, Benares (Varanasi), Jaipur are on most every tourist's wish list. Others, like Mayapur and Sri Ranga, are known mainly as Vaisnava pilgrimage centers. The book Vaisnava India does many duties and one of them is a travelogue. Scads of beautifully photographed images set in generously contemplative expanses of empty page take the reader along the pilgrimage path of Visnu shrines, commencing with the source of the Ganges in the high Himalayas. The locales and therefore the chapters have been arranged sequentially so that Vaisnava belief sculpts itself from basic building block to highest refinement. The first chapter, "The Himalayas," accustoms readers to a new world view. Beautiful scenes of rivers, waterfalls, forests, glaciers remove all sense of mind in the here and now. The second chapter, "Kurukshetra," slips readers into the Vaisnava concept of self. The sixth chapter, "Vrindavan," delves into the union of self and God, out of which emanates divine, unconditioned love.
The book itself is majestic in the breadth of mind, body, and nature it embraces. The Bharata Natyam sacred dance of Southern India gets its fair share of space. At the end there is a voluminous bibliography, glossary, guide to Sanskrit terms, and index.
All's well that ends well, and on page 759 Vaisnava India ends. But its story does not. Its existence and massiveness is due to a labor of love. Geary J.C. Sheridan, Jack B. Hebner, Jr. and Daniel Maziarz desired to translate their own Viasnava beliefs into a form that millions could read and appreciate. A video wouldn't do too ephemeral and momentary. So a book it had to be, and it took them fifteen years from idea to over two dozen wooden pallets of bound books sitting in a warehouse.
It would have been easy to orchestrate positive initial reactions Oliver Stone loved the book, to cite just one into a grand publicity hullabaloo with well-hyped book signings, celebrity endorsements, and all the other PR frivolities publishers too often dote on in lieu of superior books. Instead, Mr. Sheridan, acting through the Vedic Heritage Foundation, embarked on a truly massive giveaway. Of the 3,000 original copies, private high schools, colleges, and university libraries received some 900. Public libraries all across the United States received 1,786 copies (and it was in one of these that this reviewer first came across the book and realized its importance). Another 100 books were sent to India, 45 of which went to institutions of higher learning and prestigious Vaisnava temples. One hundred and eighty were sold to the public; 20 copies were given to the "Traveling Ratha-Yatra Festival of India," a annual Hare Krishna event; these copies were in turn given to donors. Ten copies went to top people in the Motion Picture Industry as a thank-you for having taken interest in a film project entitled "Krsna Book." Pope John Paul II got a copy. A smattering went to personal friends. And when all was said and done the Vedic Heritage Foundation was left with only a few books. Copies in the closest library to your zip code can be located by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The rewards were obviously spiritual, not material. If Vaisnavism ran on the merit system Buddhism does, Mr. Sheridan and colleagues would have huge clouds of encomiums to billow them into their next state of being. But this is Earth, yet even here the rewards were impressive. He received over 150 admiring thank-yous from prestigious domestic institutions on the order of U.C.L.A., Harvard College Library, The Art Institute of Boston, Columbia University, Stanford University. On and on in a roll-call of America's most prestigious libraries.
So back to that opening word "stupendous." Books aren't made this way any more the printing bill alone came to $387,000, and one can only imagine the cost of mailing nearly 3,000 fifteen-pound books. Vaisnava India came about because of generous patrons rather reminiscent of the royalty and aristocrats of old who kept artists, musicians, and other "national treasures" alive from London to Kyoto. Despite the enormous obstacles monetary and otherwise, Mr. Sheridan pursued his dream until it can be opened and appreciated by anyone whose library has a copy. With over 2,600 copies in libraries all across the U.S.A., a copy should be near you. As you read through the pages, study them. There is more information about Vaisnavism here than in any three other books this reviewer knows.
Unconditional love indeed!