It’s a prestigious position that brings to mind a gruff, silver-bearded elder. But Radhika Ramana flips that idea on its head. At a youthful 34, he’s got a beaming smile of pearly whites and a full head of black hair. He’s also disarmingly unpretentious despite his astonishing academic journey.
Homeschooled by his mother Aruddha Dasi at his home in Boise, Idaho, Radhika followed a highly unconventional curriculum based mostly on Srila Prabhupada’s Srimad-Bhagavatam, from which he learned reading, writing, comprehension, grammar, and critical thinking skills. It clearly worked. At 13, Radhika Ramana attended Boise State University. At 17, he received his Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and math. At 22, he completed his PhD at Oxford. Immediately after that, in 2005, he got his first teaching job. From there, it was moving up the ranks from assistant professor to associate professor to achieving tenure at the age of 29.
Now, as full professor, Radhika holds the highest rank possible in academics, signifying that he has developed an international reputation in his field of study, through his research, lectures, conference presentations and teaching.
Moreover, as Charles Redd Chair of Religious Studies he is also an an endowed chair in his field, an opportunity few in academia get. And as Director of Utah State University’s fast growing Religious Studies Program, he is responsible for developing it into the future. Simply put, he’s ideally situated to make an impact. Here’s the thing: he’s not alone. A consistently growing number of brilliant Vaishnava devotee religious studies scholars, specializing in their own tradition, are coming up through the ranks.
Along with early pioneers like Hridayananda Goswami (Howard Resnick), Garuda Das (Graham Schweig), and later senior devotees like Krishna Ksetra Swami (Kenneth Valpey), these new young wunderkinds bring the total to about two dozen Gaudiya Vaishnava scholars. “And all of them are getting very good positions around the United States and across the world,” says Radhika Ramana. “It’s very, very exciting and heartening to see.” This is key, because according to Radhika Ramana, it’s important to have both outsider and insider perspectives for a fully-developed picture on any tradition. And academic scholarship on Gaudiya Vaishnavism has been dominated almost exclusively by non-practioners. Until now.
So what do these scholar-practioners bring? For one, they can dispel long-skewed perceptions. For instance, academic literature has always praised Gaudiya Vaishnavism founder Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as a great mystic who brought the emotional intensity within Krishna Bhakti to new heights. Which is true. But it has consistently left the Gaudiya tradition out of any descriptions of India’s intellectual heritage. “This despite the fact that Gaudiya Vaishnavism’s 500-year history shows an incredibly high density of great philosophers, astute thinkers, and prolific writers and poets,” says Radhika Ramana.
Radhika himself began remedying this with his PhD thesis and 2007 book about the philosophy of one of Gaudiya Vaishnavism’s greatest thinkers, Jiva Goswami. Others have alsomade their own studies on towering figures of Vaishnava thought. Next, scholar-practioners can bring to light great texts that have been ignored. Despite sister epics the Mahabharat and Ramayana being studied profusely in the academic world, the Srimad-Bhagavatam has been left by the wayside for over a century. So in 2013, Radhika Ramana, with Krishna Ksetra Swami, published “The Bhagavat Purana: Sacred Text and Living Tradition” with Columbia University Press. The book features chapters by various specialists demonstrating the Bhagavatam’s impact on numerous aspects of Indian and world history. And this October, a second book, “The Bhagavata Purana: Selected Readings” will follow. “Both will be marketed as a pair for use in university classrooms,” Radhika says. “We feel that the time is ripe now for the Bhagavatam to be taken seriously in the academic world.”
All these foundational studies on Gaudiya Vaishnava subjects by devotee scholars are important, because as Radhika Ramana says, “When you produce a foundational study on a subject that hasn’t been looked at before, future studies will always refer to it as the basis.” As well as shining a light on these gifts from the Gaudiya tradition, scholarship is also essential to the health of the tradition itself. One of the services it can provide in this regard is to study both the short term history (Prabhupada’s establishing it in the West) and the long-term (back to Chaitanya’s time and beyond) so as to better navigate problems already faced in the past.
Another service of scholarship is to identify how to keep the tradition both faithful to its roots, and relevant to today’s people. “We need to negotiate and be comfortable with both, “says Radhika Ramana. “And we need to realize that innovation is not the enemy of fidelity and vice versa – as Srila Prabhupada so expertly proved.” There will always be a tug between relevancy and faithfulness in every world religion, Radhika Ramana says, but this is in fact a symptom of a healthy tradition. “Without that tug, the religion will either become so mainstream that it loses its roots and withers away,” he explains. “Or so heavily stuck in the past, that no one can identify with it today, and it becomes inaccessible and irrelevant to people.”
With all these services and more being provided by Vaishnava practioner-scholars, Radhika Ramana is glad that his new position as full professor allows him to mentor new generations and ensure that Vaishnava scholarship continues to thrive. Because even a small group can make a major impact, he says.
“Scholarship is slow by nature, and its effects are not seen immediately,” he explains. “But once it’s developed, its effects are long-lasting and very powerful, changing the way the mainstream thinks on a fundamental level. Some of the biggest ideas that are now commonplace in the world, like the notion of equal rights for all human beings, began as ‘crazy ideas’ tossed around by thinkers.”
For his part, Radhika Ramana hopes to give the Vaishnava tradition ‘a voice and an active seat at the table’ when it comes to both public and academic intellectual discourse.
“For me, that would be a measure of success for the type of service that we do,” he says.