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New Illustrated Guide Promises Detailed Look at The Vedic Universe

By: for ISKCON News on Aug. 6, 2011
The book`s cover
Two second generation ISKCON devotees—Rasikananda Fitch and Jagannath Cassidy—are following in the footsteps of their parents and engaging their friends to create brand new devotional art for a modern age.

They’ve begun work on a fascinating series of books entitled The Illustrated Guide to the Vedic Universe, which will be presented in a similar format to existing popular guides on the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter universes, with a twist—the world portrayed in their books will be real.

And that’s not the only unique angle. The series is intended as the framework for all the pop media dream projects that gurukulis and devotees all over the world hope to either see or create themselves.

“To make a major production, you need to have source material to work from,” explains Rasikananda. “You need to know the scripturally accurate physical descriptions of your characters, information about what they wear and where they live, etc. So we decided to do the research which will enable ourselves and others to realize our dream projects, and put it in a series of books. They will be the spin-off point for anyone who wants to see a Mahabharata movie, or a Ramayan video game, or a Broadway Bhagavad-Gita, or cool children’s toys of famous figures like Krishna, Arjuna, and Bhima.”

In fact, it was Rasikananda and Jagannath’s own work on such an exciting project, that led them to the decision to create The Illustrated Guide to the Vedic Universe.

Inspired by his parents’ sculpture work at the ISKCON Los Angeles FATE museum, and a self-taught 3D animator at sixteen, Rasikananda received a call in 2005 inviting him to Ujjain, India, to work on a Mahabharata video-game concept funded by ISKCON guru Bhakti Charu Swami.

There, Rasikananda met Jagannatha, who was working as a research consultant on the project.

“We worked for one year developing the spiritual epic for the X-Box, PlayStation 2, and PC, and received interest from companies like Microsoft Games, Atari, and Capcom,” says Rasikananda. “But eventually the project was put on hold when our main investor decided to go with a company that had an existing track record instead. So I decided that the best way to go was to start with something small, such as this series of books, and build up. Then, by the time I was ready to start a major project again, I’d have excellent source material for it as well as a strong portfolio.”

In 2007, Rasikananda began collaborating on the Illustrated Guide to the Vedic Universe book series with Jagannath, who had garnered somewhat of a reputation for himself as a scholar of the Mahabharata. Jagannath had also already done around a thousand hours worth of research on the epic while working on his video game project.

Concept art by Dridha Vrata Dasa of the Pandava warrior Arjuna, according to the traditional Shilpa Sastra proportions

“I studied several versions of the Mahabharata in depth, beginning with Krishna Dharma’s edition, and going on to Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s, and then M.N. Dutt’s, which includes the authoritative Sanskrit verses as well as the English,” he says. “Finally, I studied the Vaishnava saint Madhavacharya’s 2,000 verse commentary the Mahabharata-Tatparya-Nirnaya, which the Mahabharata’s author Veda-Vyasa personally asked him to write.”

The result—The Illustrated Guide to the Vedic Universe will be packed with plenty of fascinating information many haven’t heard before.

The work will be divided into four sections, beginning with Places. “All the key locations in the Vedic Universe, such as Indra’s capital Amaravati, Brahma’s planet Brahmaloka, and the heavenly Nanda-nandana Gardens in the planet Svarga will be included in alphabetical order, so they’re easy to find,” Jagannath says. “There’ll be three to five pages giving you every detail you need to know about the place in question—such as what it looks like, what kind of architecture it has, who lives there, what the inhabitants look like, and how long they live.”

Concept art by Dridha Vrata Dasa of the Pandava warrior Arjuna, according to the traditional Shilpa Sastra proportions

The second section of the work will discuss the different species of the Vedic Universe, such as Kinaras, Kimpurushas, Rakshasas, Yakshas, Gandharvas, and Manushas.

The third section will feature hundreds of prime characters from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Puranas, with juicy yet scripturally accurate details about each one.

Bhima, the might Pandava hero from the Mahabharata, for instance, is described as wearing black and gold armor, a red and yellow sash, and a half black and half white dhoti.

“He had a huge sword that was fifteen finger-widths wide, which looked like a spinning wheel when he swung it around,” says Jagannath. “And on the end of his signature weapon, the mace, he had a silk rope. This enabled him to swing the mace around like a whirlwind, throw it, destroy a chariot or elephant, and then pull it back by yanking on the rope!”

The fourth and last section of the work will cover the many named items, plants, or otherworldly animals mentioned in the Vedic scriptures. There’s the Shyamantaka jewel, which protected the land it rested in from natural disasters, and gave its owner 1.5 tons of gold every day. There’s Arjuna’s bow, the mighty Gandiva, which had a string that would regrow whenever it was cut. And there’s the sacred Tulasi plant, a form of one of Krishna’s greatest devotees.

“There’s also the sacred cow Kamadhenu, who appeared from the ocean of milk when the demigods and demons churned it millennia ago,” says Rasikananda. “In the Shanti-Parva of the Mahabharata, she’s described as sometimes taking on an anthropomorphic form, with a human head, a cow’s body, a peacock’s tail, and the wings of a parrot.”

The Kamadhenu, it is said, was stolen from her owner Vasistha Muni by the Mahabharata warrior Bhishma, in a previous life as one of the heavenly Vasus. As punishment for this, Vasistha cursed the Vasu to take birth on earth and be killed by his wife, on whose request he had stolen Kamadhenu. Thus the Vasu’s wife became Amba, who was slighted by Bhisma and brought about his death.

Art by Dridha Vrata Dasa depicting the sacred Kamadhenu, an anthropomorphic creature described in the Mahabharata.

Rasikananda and Jagannath expect The Illustrated Guide of the Vedic Universe to appear as a series of separate volumes, the first dealing with the places, species, items and especially characters described in the Bhagavad-gita.

“We hope it will give people who read the Bhagavad-gita a better understanding of the context,” Jagannath says. “They’ll know who everybody is, what their history is, what their relationships are, what they looked like, where they served, and where they fought. For instance, the beginning of the Bhagavad-gita mentions Yudhamanyu and Uttamaujas. Most people don’t know who they are, and probably don’t give them a second thought.”

But they were important characters, Jagannath explains. “They were cousins of Drupada, the Panchala king whose daughter Draupadi married Arjuna,” he says.
“They liked Arjuna a lot, and would visit him and his brothers regularly in their kingdom of Indraprastha. They were tough, powerful warriors, and served in the battle of Kurukshetra as Arjuna’s wheel-guards. Every Maharathi general had warriors like this protecting the wheels of his chariot.”

Every one of the characters featured in the Illustrated Guide to the Vedic Universe will be accompanied by side, front and perspective drawings showing their likeness according to traditional Shilpa-Sastra proportions. Still-existing locations, such as Kurukshetra and the castle at the Kingdom of Virat, where the Pandavas stayed in hiding, will be illustrated with photos.

Meanwhile some characters and species will be further illustrated with historical paintings or photos of sculptures located in ancient Indian temples, to add authenticity. Finally, in-house artists will render full-color paintings showing the events of the stories.

Rasikananda and Jagannath are already working on concept artwork with second generation artist Dridha Vrata, who studied traditional iconography, iconometry and painting according to the Shilpa Shastras in Mahabalipuram, South India. They also hope to work with BBT artists trained by Srila Prabhupada in the future.

“As well as being an attractive, informative resource, it’s also very important to us that The Illustrated Guide to the Vedic Universe is extremely accurate and authoritative, and can be used in schools, universities, libraries and museums as a reference book,” says Rasikananda. “So all the information in it will be annotated and referenced, so that you can see where we got it from, and check the original work yourself.”

Rasikananda and Jagannath hope to release the first volume of The Illustrated Guide to the Vedic Universe, focused on the Bhagavad-gita, by fall 2012. The book, which they are funding by themselves and with donations, is expected to come in at around 200 pages, and will be coffe-table sized at around 16” x 10”.

“There’s been a bit of a devotional art drought since the 1980s, and this project is about us gurukulis stepping up and continuing the tradition that our parents started,” Rasikananda says. “Our spiritual guides and the rest of the devotee community have encouraged us to do so, and in turn, we encourage others to use our books as a framework, and launch their own dream projects.”

To find out more about The Illustrated Guide to the Vedic Universe, or to donate, please visit
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