The Many Colors of Satsvarupa dasa Goswami [Jan 2017 – May 2017]

It is a great pleasure for the Museum of Sacred Art (MOSA) to present the works of Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, who is well known in ISKCON for his numerous literary contributions, which have helped devotees on the path of devotional service.

Although all devotees read or have read his biography of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and some his poetry and fiction, they may not have seen his paintings, which bring his inner world to the canvas in strong colors. His art isn’t sophisticated from an artistic point of view, but it does transmit his emotions, struggles, and joy in practicing Krishna consciousness. His art has been a kind of therapy and a way to share what goes on in his mind and heart.

Although it’s impossible to keep up with his constant art production, the works we’ve displayed represent various periods, themes, and use of materials. This MOSA exhibition, therefore, will give you a good idea of the variety and extent of Satsvarupa dasa Goswami’s creations.

At MOSA, we want to showcase the artwork of ISKCON artists to both devotee and nondevotee audiences, especially since the number of venues to do so is rather limited. Here in Radhadesh, we’re quite fortunate, for many devotees visit us every year during various festivals. A thousand attend the annual Radhadesh Mellows Kirtan Festival at the end of January. During future Radhadesh Mellows festivals, we intend to present other devotee artists so that they can add their transcendental art to the transcendental sounds and thus enhance the purifying experience.

This year, we hope devotees will enter the inner world of a special devotee, who, with sincerity and an open heart, has given his life to serving Srila Prabhupada, his spiritual master. May all Radhadesh visitors have an uplifting experience!

Written by: Martin Gurvich, Director of MOSA


When I began painting in the 1990s in my 50s, I had not heard of outsider art or art brut (a French word for “rough art”). I just painted for the fun of it, but with passion and as a therapeutic release from my migraine headache syndrome.

Then someone put Raw Vision magazine into my hands. Under the title of the magazine, the logo reads “Outsider•Brut•Folk•Naive•Intuitive•Visionary.” I was fascinated by the contents. I discovered there was a worldwide network of self-taught artists and their followers, galleries dedicated to this school of art and spokespersons who championed it. I was especially inspired by the revolutionary writing of the French artist Jean Dubuffet. He proclaimed that the art of untrained individuals and even the insane had an authenticity that was greater than the professionals. I identified with the concept of outsider artist for two reasons: 1) I was a member of the Hare Krishna Movement, which was considered a marginal sect in the West, and 2) within ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) I was not a polished realist like the illustrators of Prabhupada’s books.

I painted mostly Krishna conscious subjects, but they were primitive and childlike compared to Pariksit, Bharadraja, Murlidhara, Jadurani and the whole school of artists working for the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. In Raw Vision and outsider art, I found kindred spirits who validated my work under the umbrella of a genuine movement of alienated artists and their followers who were accepted on their own terms as honest and visionary, although outside the cultural norms. I did not really consider myself as belonging to any school of art. I wasn’t imitating anyone. I wasn’t copying Dubuffet or Picasso. I was my own man, painting for pleasure and pursuing my spiritual path by rendering pictures of Radha-Krishna, Gaura-Nitai, Vaisnava sadhus, and pictures of my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, often with a self-portrait beside him. I did cows and birds and forests of Vrndavana, and sankirtana singers and dancers, and Lord Caitanya’s land of Navadvipa. I did Radharani with Her gopi friends, and Krishna and Balarama with Their cowherd boys. Sometimes I did rough-looking characters and captioned it, “Can I Become Initiated?”, “May I Have Some Prasadam?”, “May I Chant Hare Krishna?”

I did many pictures of a man writing with a pen and captioned it with the title of one of my books like Every Day, Just Write–Volume 35. I did a man sitting writing at a desk in a shack reading Srimad-Bhagavatam. I did a man in rain gear and boots walking in the rain chanting with his bead bag, or a man walking briskly with a cane. Sometimes at the end of a session, I mixed all the colors of my palette and did a wild face, to which I added Vaisnava tilaka. If the face looked demoniac, I applied Shaivite tilaka or no tilaka at all. I rarely did pure abstract but favored creatures, human and animal and fantastic, and usually in a Krishna conscious setting.

In my peak productive period, for about five years in a cottage in Ireland, beginning at the beginning of the twenty-first century, I painted four and five canvases a day. My disciple-assistant, Baladeva dasa, kept me supplied with canvases, acrylic paints, brushes and “oil sticks,” and my next-door neighbor Caitanya-candrodaya would set up the canvases in the morning before going to work, and in the evening rinse out my used brushes for the day. Fifteen years later I am still painting in my own ashrama in upstate New York, but I am averaging two canvases a day now. I add graffiti and splotches of ink and paint in the background. Some art brut painters don’t even think of themselves as artists. I think of myself as an artist, a very humble one, with no training and few technical skills. I love to paint; it gives me satisfaction, and I am getting validation that it is pleasing to others and they enjoy seeing and owning my paintings. I think I have my spiritual master’s permission, and in a small way it is pleasing to Krishna. Thus it is part of my devotional service to the Lord. I intend to keep it up.

 “. . . there is no need . . . for learning art from study of texts. We should always remember that our time is very short. I think our artists should be satisfied with whatever they have learned already, that is sufficient. They should simply be engaged in painting pictures always, and that will teach them the art sufficiently.” — Letter from Srila Prabhupada to Satsvarupa, April 21, 1970

“Scat singing for the eyes.” “Improvisational expression of raw visual energy.” “Spiritual jazz in the form of colorful, primitive images.” This might serve as a stream of consciousness description of Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami’s (SDG’s) artwork.

But his journey wasn’t always imbued with artistic freeform expression and the lighthearted indulging of his creative impulse. Rather, his young adulthood and middle-aged years were marked by a heavily regimented life, one that carried the weight of both spiritual discipline and organizational responsibility. His was a severe if also blissful path, full of dutiful action and devotional delight.

In one sense, then, his life’s adventure has been like that of the creative geniuses of old, who would master their discipline, whether painting or jazz or some other art form, and then let go of the rules and regulations for a more spontaneous expression of their talents.

Of course, SDG is still strict in terms of his spiritual practice — his “abandonment” of the rules and regulations holds true only in terms of his art, which he embraces without the restrictions and formality that defined his life as an institutional leader. He is now free of those responsibilities, and as a result his art reflects not only his spiritual accomplishment but also that unrestrained freedom.

Some might say his art is too free, too devil-may-care, too full of wild abandon. But if this is what they say, they are missing the point: With his work falling well into the realm of “Outsider Art” or “Art Brut” (French for “raw art” or rough art”), SDG engages in a legitimate art form that is not constrained by the conventional dictates of the art world.

One of the pioneers of this artistic movement was French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), who referred to it as “beyond the boundaries of established cultural norms.” He favored the “Naïve Art” of the autodidact, and, accordingly, he would have loved SDG’s work, whose art is clearly “Outsider,” not only in that it is self-taught and unconventional, but also in that it is the work of a Hare Krishna monk.

The Hare Krishna movement, more formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), was founded in 1966 by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896–1977), who shortly after establishing his society initiated SDG as one of his earliest disciples. Prabhupada’s now successful movement has roots in ancient India’s wisdom culture and is respected as a time-honored spiritual tradition within the Vedic milieu.

However, soon after Prabhupada initially arrived in the West, his movement was mistakenly categorized as a cult and marginalized by uninformed educators and popular mass media. Thankfully, in due course, the movement’s authenticity was discovered and accepted by academics who researched its origins and by no less than the Supreme Court — it now claims hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide.

But there are many who cling to old ill-conceived notions, exaggerated stereotypes, judging the movement harshly, and in this sense SDG can be seen as representing a tradition that is quite outside the norm (again placing his work squarely within the realm of Outsider Art).

Additionally, even within ISKCON, his avant-garde, jazz-like painting style could be considered Outsider Art in that it is unprecedented and sometimes even frowned upon. Nonetheless, this essay will reveal how he came to develop his unique style and how various successes have led not only to self-validation but also to acceptance within the larger artistic community.

“The Many Colors of Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami” opened on Sat. 28. Jan 2017, during the Radhadesh Mellows festival. Both the two exhibition spaces of  the MOSA at Radhadesh are now full of Satsvarupa Maharaja’s works, and MOSA also produced a full color catalog featuring a foreword by Mahaprabhu Dasa, the director of the museum, and writings by Satyaraja dasa as well as Satswarupa Maharaja himself, writing about his own creative process. Sacinandana Swami also attended the opening along with many wonderful devotees appreciating Maharaja’s unique art.

Satsvarupa dasa Goswami was born Stephen Guarino on December 6th, 1939 in New York City. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1961 and served two years in the U.S. Navy. He worked for five years as a caseworker for the NYC Department of Welfare. He began creative writing at the age of 17, and it became his vocation. The literary artists of the past and present were his heroes. He moved to the Lower East Side of New York City, and all his friends were writers and poets. His two closest friends were Murray Mednick and Steve Kowit, who both later became recognized literary figures in California. He met his guru in 1966, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and became his disciple. He has served almost fifty years in his spiritual master’s institution, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, as a missionary. His guru asked him to write articles and books, and he has produced one hundred books in various genres such as theological works, poetry, fiction, as well as a few “genre-benders.” In 1990 he took up painting under the banner of self-taught “outsider art” or “naïve art.” He moved to Ireland for five years, living in a cottage and painting very prolifically in the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century, interrupted only by fragile health? In the year 2001 he had a one-man show in Govinda’s Gallery in Washington, D.C. and received a favorable review in The Washington Post. He subscribed to Raw Vision magazine and was inspired by the work of outsider artists. He was also inspired by the art of DuBuffet, Matisse, Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat. His art has also attracted the attention of the director of MOSA (Museums of Sacred Art), who intends to place his paintings in their two galleries in Belgium and Italy. Satsvarupa lives in upstate New York, where he paints daily and writes.


Catalog Text: Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, Steven J. Rosen
Catalog Design: Phelelani Mdabe
Editing by: Tattvavit das

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