Prabhupada: The moments that made his movement – Part 1
The Man …
“It’s an astonishing story. If someone told you a story like this, you wouldn’t believe it. Here’s this person, he’s seventy years old, he’s going to a country where he’s never been before, he doesn’t know anybody there, he has no money, has no contacts. He has none of the things, you would say, that make for success. He’s going to recruit people not on any systematic basis, but just picking up whomever he comes across and he’s going to give them responsibility for organizing a worldwide movement. You’d say, ‘What kind of program is that?’ There are precedents perhaps. Jesus of Nazareth went around saying, ‘Come follow me. Drop your nets, or leave your tax collecting, and come with me and be my disciple.’ But in his case, he wasn’t an old man in a strange society dealing with people whose backgrounds were totally different from his own. He was dealing with his own community. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s achievement, then, must be seen as unique.”
– Thomas Hopkins in Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West
The Movement …
“Guess again if you think Bollywood, or Indian writing in English, is the country’s biggest cultural export. You may not come across any of these if you visit Cochabamba in Bolivia or Gaborone in Botswana; what you will find instead is a centre of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).”
– The Times of India, Editorial, Jan 6, 2006
The Moments …
Every life has its defining moments. And in the lives of great souls who have inspired millions, such moments become all the more consequential.
Here we will take a look at the defining moments in the life of a great modern-day saint, His Divine Grace A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
1896: Birth: He was born in Kolkata on Sep 1, 1896. The day itself was significant, being the day of Nandotsava, the day when millennia ago Lord Krishna’s father, Nanda Maharaj, celebrated exuberantly the birth of his son, who had been born the previousmidnight. His appearance on that day was significant too: Just as the day was marked by devotional celebration, he too would bring devotional celebrations to various parts of the world. Named Abhay Charan by his parents Gaur Mohan De and Rajani, he was born in a devout family. One of his earliest childhood memories was waking up to the sound of bells being rung in worship. And he started learning to play mridanga, a kind of drum used in kirtans, in his early childhood when his hands were barely long enough to reach the two sides of the drum. Little did the observers of this gifted child know that he would play the mridanga all over the world – and inspire scores of people from various parts of the world to play it too.
1901: Childhood Ratha-Yatra: Children while playing often mimic their elders. Little Abhay played like other children, but he also had a special play: organizing a Ratha-Yatra festival on the streets in the vicinity of his house. Right from getting a cart of the right size to leading and guiding the procession while playing mridanga, he re-enacted with earnest devotion the spectacular chariot festival that annually attracts millions to Jagannatha Puri. His childhood play signified what he would be doing in future: organize Ratha-Yatra festivals all over the world.
1922: Met his spiritual master: Abhay had grown into a well-educated, articulate young man. Being a concerned citizen, he had joined Gandhiji’s non-cooperation movement that protested against the exploitative policies of the British government. To express non-cooperation, he had boycotted the trendy clothes manufactured in the mills of Manchester and had started wearing clothes made of the local material, khadi – a dress-choice that was a strong political statement. Not only that, he had refused to accept the graduation degree that he had earned after years of diligent study at the respected Scottish Church College. Yet a momentous meeting in 1922 spiritualized his zeal, transforming him from a political activist to a spiritual activist. That meeting was with the saint who would later become Abhay’s spiritual master: Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, the founder of the Gaudiya Math, a spiritual organization dedicated to sharing the message of divine love. Abhay had seen many sadhus living like parasites on society, so he had been reluctant to meet what he thought would be one more such sadhu. Only at a friend’s unrelenting insistence had he come for the meeting. However, what was to be a ritual offering of respects to a religious teacher became a confrontational discussion about the best way to contribute to India and the world. The saint saw the spiritual potential in the young man and asked him, within moments of their first meeting, to share the bhakti tradition’s message of love with the world. Astonished, Abhay countered that India needed political independence first before its spiritual message would have respectability. The master responded that the greatest need of the world was the raising of human consciousness through spiritual love – without it, no other solution would offer any lasting relief. The project of raising human consciousness was so urgent and so universal that it cut across all worldly considerations, including those of political independence or its absence. As they discussed and debated, the saint impressed on the seeker the primacy of pure consciousness as the foundation for all individual and social change. Though a forceful debater, Abhay accepted defeat with disarming grace, resolving that the one who had mastered him would become his spiritual master.
1925: Visited Vrindavan for the first time: Aspiring to assist his spiritual master’s mission by providing financial support, Abhay busied himself in expanding his pharmaceutical business, the profession he had entered after completing his education. As his business tours took him across the country, he frequently remembered his spiritual master and longed to be in his presence again. On coming to know that the master was leading a pilgrimage tour in Vrindavan, the holy place where Krishna had appeared and sported millennia ago, Abhay joined the tour. He relished the devotional vibrancy of that holiest of all places for the devotees of Krishna. More importantly, he heard his spiritual master’s discourse for hours and found himself enriched and enlivened by the wisdom therein.
1932: Received spiritual initiation: The memories of the life-transforming first encounter with his master would gestate within Abhay for a decade before they manifested in his becoming a formally initiated disciple. While he was being initiated, his master showed him special favor, appreciating his spiritual acumen as evidenced in his eagerness to hear and learn. While granting Abhay a spiritual name, his master added Aravind – thus Abhay Charan became Abhay Charanaarvind, signifying that the fearlessness (abhay) the human heart longs for is found in the lotus (aravind) feet (charan) of the Supreme, who is the source of the ultimate security.
1937: Received the first instruction again as a final instruction: Abhay’s master departed from the world at the start of this year, leaving him afflicted by separation. But just a few days earlier, his master had in a letter to Abhay reiterated the instruction that he had given in their first meeting: share the message of spiritual love with the world. Abhay felt the presence and grace of his master in the parting instruction, and deepened his resolved to make fulfilling that instruction his life-mission.
1939: Is bestowed the title Bhaktivedanta: Abhay had been writing articles and poems in the magazines run by his master’s mission – and the insights in his writings had so pleased the master that he had declared, “Whatever Abhay writes, publish it.” After the master’s departure, Abhay continued and intensified his writing. Appreciating his scholarship and zeal, his godbrothers from the Gaudiya Math gave him the title “Bhaktivedanta” The title meant that love for the divine (bhakti) is the conclusion (anta) of all knowledge (veda) –a truth that Abhay had consistently and convincingly communicated through his writings, and would continue to do so.
1944: Began Back to Godhead magazine: While the world was limping towards the end of the worst war in recent history, World War II, and while Kolkata was still threatened by Japanese bombardment, Abhay felt inspired to address the spiritual bankruptcy that underlay the world’s numerous problems. To make spiritual wisdom accessible to people, he started a magazine called Back to Godhead. Its name conveyed its mission: to re-harmonize human consciousness with the supreme source of all consciousness. He singlehandedly typed, proofread, published and distributed the magazine, approaching people on the hot streets of tropical India. Once, a stray cow knocked him down. Another time, he fell unconscious on the streets due to sunstroke and exhaustion. Still, he never wavered in his determination to keep publishing and distributing the message of spiritual love. The magazine he started continues even today in over a dozen languages with thousands upon thousands of copies distributed worldwide.
1953: Initiated his first disciple and started the League of Devotees – both in Jhansi: Abhay was now less a pharmaceutical businessman and more a traveling spiritual teacher. And his traveling brought him to Jhansi, where several interested people urged him to make his base. A Sanskrit professor at a local college, Acarya Prabhakar, became his first initiated disciple. His local admirers offered him an unused building, which he decided to make the main office of his outreach mission that he named The League of Devotees. Though the results of his outreach in Jhansi had been modest, he had grand plans for expansion. Unfortunately, a clique involving local politicians and businessmen sabotaged his efforts and compelled him to vacate the premises. Disappointed but undaunted, Abhay returned to the life of a traveling teacher.
1956: Moved to Vrindavan: In the course of his travels, Abhay felt driven to settle in Vrindavan. Many pious senior citizens would retire there for investing their sunset years in focused devotion to Krishna, but Abhay’s purpose was different. He wanted to reside there to get the blessings of the great saints who had lived there in the past – and being thus empowered, share Krishna’s message with the world. Living in the premises of one of Vrindavan’s sacred temples, he prayed, worshiped, studied, contemplated and wrote – all in preparation for the great mission that was beckoning him from within.
1959: Received sannyasa: Abhay got recurrent dreams in which his spiritual master urged him to accept the renounced order of life so that he could exclusively focus on outreach. Accordingly, after having shouldered his family responsibilities for four decades, he took the vows of sannyasa in a small temple in Mathura and became A C Bhaktivedanta Swami. In went an elderly man dressed in white and out came a monk holding a renunciate’s staff, wearing saffron robes and carrying within his heart a deepened determination to share spiritual wisdom with the world.
1960: Published first book, Easy Journey to Other Planets: Tapping into the popular fascination with space travel that had been triggered by the space race among the two Cold War super-powers, America and Russia, A C Bhaktivedanta Swami wrote a timely book that used contemporary scientific terminology and presented the Vedic perspective on space travel. This small book entitled appealingly as “Easy Journey to Other Planets” was the first in what was to be a prodigious literary career that produced over eighty books.
1962: Published the Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto One, Volume One: Demonstrating the spiritual saying that a saint hears the voice of God everywhere, A C Bhaktivedanta Swami saw divine guidance in the suggestion of an acquaintance: Write books instead of magazines – books have a much longer shelf life. He envisioned a multi-volume translation-commentary on one of India’s greatest devotional classics: the Srimad Bhagavatam. Also known as the Bhagavata Purana, this most celebrated of all the Puranas is a spiritual masterpiece with thousands of verses spanning across twelve cantos. It had never before been available in English translation-commentary. Working with the same incredible industry that had characterized his magazine publication, he typed, proofread, solicited sponsorship and published the first volume of the series. His work was appreciated by many eminent people, including the Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who recommended that libraries across the country stock the series.
Over the next two years, he completed the translation-commentary on the first canto in two more volumes before venturing abroad.
During the next decade, despite a demanding traveling schedule, he continued working on this magnum opus till his last breath. Today the 18-volume 10,000 plus page rendition of the Srimad Bhagavatam has been translated into over 40 languages and distributed in millions all over the world.
1965, Aug 13: Started for America on Jaladuta: A C Bhaktivedanta Swami’s attempts to share spirituality in India had got lukewarm response, primarily because most Indians were enamored with Western notions of progress. He was both a realist and a visionary. As a realist, he recognized that Indians were unlikely to take their spiritual legacy seriously as long as they were enamored with the West. As a visionary, he envisioned that if he could inspire Westerners to take the message of spiritual love seriously, then Indians would do so too. So he resolved to go for sharing spirituality to the West, specifically to America, which had replaced Britain as the Western superpower after World War II.
With the first canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam translated, he felt equipped – he saw the message as the actual illuminator and saw himself as the humble conveyor of that message. Being a mendicant with no money, he had to depend on the support of well-wishers for financing his US trip. One well-wisher arranged for his son who was based in America to act as the sponsor for the visa. But financing the travel proved to be much more difficult. After being turned down by many sponsors, he had to sit for hours on the steps outside the office of a potential patron to get an appointment. Only after earnest persuasion during the meeting could he secure free passage on an America-bound cargo ship.
Still, when he eventually boarded the ship from Kolkata, he had with him only forty rupees – worth just a few hours of subsistence in America. Just as his financial assets were insignificant, so too was his departure inconspicuous – only a handful of acquaintances came to see him off. Yet his departure was far from inconsequential. The ship’s name Jaladuta (the water-messenger) would turn out to be symbolic: it carried a transcendental envoy whose message would attract thousands to India’s treasure of spiritual love.
1965: Darshan of Krishna on Jaladuta: His voyage began ominously. After undergoing bouts of seasickness, he endured two heart attacks on two successive days. And he had to endure them without any medical attention whatsoever, being the lone passenger in a cargo ship with no medical facilities. Fearing that a third successive attack might be fatal, he intensified his prayer to Krishna – and that night instead of a heart attack came the Lord of his heart. Krishna appeared in a mystical vision, offered his blessings and assured that he would personally steer the ship across the ocean and would ensure the success of his devotee’s mission. At the end of their journey, the ship-captain remarked that never before during his forty years of navigation had the Atlantic Ocean been so calm. Prabhupada wrote in his diary that Krishna had taken charge of the ship.