Prabhupada — the transcendentalist who embodied the best of the traditionalist, the existentialist and the utopianist

by Chaitanya CharanDecember 8, 2021

Prabhupada — the transcendentalist who integrated the best of the traditionalist, the existentialist and the utopianist
Traditionalists live for the past, existentialists live for the present, utopianists live for the future. Religious teachers are often presumed to be traditionalists, but Prabhupada was a transcendentalist: he lived for the supreme transcendental reality, Krishna. And in his service to Krishna, he drew the best from the past, focused on the best in the present and aspired for the best in the future. Let’s see how.

Transcendentalist beyond traditionalist

Traditionalists believe that the past was the reservoir of everything good and that turning back the clock is the only way to human flourishing. They spend much of their time, emotion, energy and intelligence in lamenting how dreadful the present is and in nostalgically reminiscing how wonderful the past was.
Prabhupada certainly held that we had much to learn from the past. In our contemporary infatuation with progress, we have cut ourselves off from the past’s treasure trove of enriching wisdom. Therefore, Prabhupada presented and represented the wisdom that had been prevalent in India in the past. But he didn’t consider that wisdom as belonging to the past; it was timeless and transcendental, having its source in the supreme transcendental reality, Krishna. Because he knew that the timeless is timely at all times, he didn’t feel the need to center his outreach efforts on turning back the clock.

Recognizing that many of the religious rituals and cultural customs of the past couldn’t be replicated in the present, he downplayed those mores of the past. Steering clear of a naive idolization of the past, Prabhupada judiciously selected from the past those things which would help people today to come closer to Krishna. He engaged his students in spiritual practices that were doable and transformational for them. In a similar spirit of not fighting unnecessarily against the flow of history, he didn’t insist on rejecting the many facilities provided by modernity, especially by modern technology. In fact, he went far beyond acknowledging the utility and even necessity of technology for daily living in today’s world; he even encouraged the use of technology for sharing spiritual wisdom more efficiently and extensively.

Striking an even grander note in that same vein, he envisioned his movement as a global synthesis of the East and the West. Speaking metaphorically, he talked about how two people — one blind and one lame — can help each other. The lame man can show the way to the blind man and the blind man can carry the lame man, and thus both can reach their destination. Unpacking the metaphor, he asserted that India was like the lame man and the West was like the blind man. The two needed to work together for raising human consciousness and promoting the world’s welfare. How is this metaphor relevant to our discussion on transcendental vis-a-vis traditional? Because through the metaphor, Prabhupada conveys that India today needs to join forces with the West, not change itself to the India of some idyllic past.

Why did Prabhupada compare the West to a blind man? Because of its obsession with materialism and its alienation from its spiritual foundations. Was this comparison a self-congratulatory put-down of the West? No. He was not the first person to make such an assessment; many others, including several Western thinkers, have voiced similar sentiments. For example, Martin Luther King Jr stated, “Our technological power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

Why did Prabhupada compare India to a lame man? Because subjugation by foreign rulers for nearly a millennia had stripped India off most of its phenomenal past prosperity. How can India’s spiritual resources work in conjunction with the West’s material resources? If modern resources such as technology were used to spread spiritual values and if Western people, whom the rest of the world including India often imitated, started prioritizing spiritual values, the whole world would become much more ready to give spirituality its due place in their lives. And the consequent rising of human consciousness with its increased selflessness and service attitude would address at the root many of the world’s most trenchant problems.

Another example of Prabhupada’s emphasis on the transcendental rather than just the traditional is his strong opposition of the discriminatory caste system, wherein caste was determined by birth. He declared this system to be a latter-day corruption of varnashrama, an ancient system of social organization based on innate human psychophysical orientations. In his many talks and writings, he unapologetically explained the rationale for varnashrama, thus demonstrating how the baby could be cherished while throwing away the dirty bath water.

Prabhupada’s teachings were firmly grounded in tradition, or more precisely, in traditional commentaries on wisdom-texts from the Vedic canon. Simultaneously, he wrote extensive commentaries that explained the transcendental import and contemporary relevance of those texts. In the over seventy books that emerged from his teachings, he presented not just Vedic wisdom, but the best of Vedic wisdom: that is, those aspects of Vedic wisdom that were centered on the supreme spiritual reality, Krishna, and on the principle of universal spiritual love, bhakti.

Another key differentiator between Prabhupada and a traditionalist was his de-emphasizing ritual puritanism, while simultaneously emphasizing spiritual purity. Puritanism often centers on parading one’s own purity according to certain predefined cultural or moral standards, while simultaneously demeaning or even demonizing those who lack that purity. Such puritanism often made India’s religious elite and masses look down on people who were deemed lower caste or outcaste. In heart-warming contrast, Prabhupada saw the spiritual potential of everyone, irrespective of their status in terms of ritual purity. Stressing that everyone is a part of Krishna (Bhagavad-gita 15.07) and has Krishna present in them (Bhagavad-gita 15.15), he sought to fan the spark of spiritual interest in whoever he encountered. His spiritually inclusive approach enabled him to do something remarkable: connect with young people from the American counterculture in the 1960s, people who had come to reject most of the norms that defined mainstream Western society. He warmly welcomed such young people, cordially discussed philosophy with them and affectionately served them sanctified food (prasad). He even washed their plates after they left — something usually unthinkable for caste-conscious brahmins who wouldn’t even break bread with those considered impure.

While Prabhupada firmly avoided puritanism, he did convey that spiritual purity was vital for developing a personal relationship with all-pure Krishna. Though he wanted his committed students to adopt habits of self-regulation that would foster purity, he never made those who couldn’t or wouldn’t follow such habits feel guilty or dirty or unwanted. He focused on the spark of the Divine in everyone, not on the contaminations around that spark. Consequently, those who came in his presence often felt unconditionally loved by him. And he attracted toward bhakti spirituality thousands, even millions, from various backgrounds all over the world.

Additionally, with regard to some areas where Prabhupada might have seemed a regressive traditionalist, he has turned out to be a presciently futuristic. For example, among the many spiritual teachers that went from India to the West, he was among the rare few who emphasized living off the land and a vegetarian diet. Describing how Krishna lived in the pastoral paradise of Vrindavana and how devotees have for millennia lived close to nature, he encouraged his students to establish eco-friendly farm communities. Calls similar to his for living in harmony with nature are now being echoed and amplified by the widespread environmental movement which has recognized the dire necessity for humans to shift toward more sustainable ways of living.

Also, Prabhupada was among the Western pioneers in sharing the art of vegetarian cooking. Through his culinary expertise, he demonstrated how vegetarianism was far more relishable than an austere sentence to live on vegetables. Today, that trend toward vegetarianism has, with some variations, burgeoned into the huge veganism movement.

Transcendentalist beyond existentialist

“Live in the present” is a common existential saying that has gained widespread currency in today’s mainstream culture. It has merit in an important sense: being attentive to things happening in the present is far better than lamenting about the bad things that happened in the past or worrying about the bad things that may happen in the future. And Prabhupada was existentialist in that sense. For example, when he traveled to America at the age of sixty-nine for the purpose of sharing spiritual wisdom, he focused on the present. He seized whatever opportunity he got, however slim it might seem to a logical mind. And he responded enthusiastically to whoever showed interest, however unlikely that person might seem as a potential candidate for bhakti spirituality. He didn’t become discouraged by thinking about the past, wherein nearly all of his efforts to share bhakti had received at best an underwhelming response. Neither did he become paranoid by thinking about the future, contemplating all the dangers that might befall a lone, elderly teacher in a foreign land. Only because he paid meticulous attention to even the smallest of openings that came his way was he able to spread his movement, initially slowly and then dramatically rapidly.

Though Prabhupada lived in the present, he did not live for the present. In fact, living for the present can be a recipe for distress, especially for those whose present is bleak. Consider a patient suffering from a prolonged and painful disease. The only way they can get the inspiration to endure and survive is by living for a future when their health will be better. They need to live in the present in the sense that they need to take their treatment attentively, but to tell them to live for the present is to sentence them to unmitigated misery, maybe even unbearable misery.

Unlike such patients who somehow endure their present, Prabhupada wasn’t somehow enduring his present filled with anonymity waiting for a future of fame. Those who met him in the Lower East Side, New York, when he was still an unknown swami noticed immediately how he radiated a simple, sublime joy. He was satisfied speaking about Krishna to anyone who came to meet him or hear from him. And for the many who couldn’t or wouldn’t come, he was kindly writing books explaining the message of Krishna. Undoubtedly, he wanted more people to hear Krishna’s message and be benefited from it — that’s why he had traveled, at great personal risk, thousands of miles seeking an interested audience. Still, his happiness wasn’t dependent on the spread of his message; he was content in his service to Krishna. Those who met him during those days narrate how he seemed to be rooted in some unflappable reality far beyond the noisy, busy streets of New York.

Despite Prabhupada’s pragmatic focus on the present, he was certainly not an existentialist in the philosophical sense of the word. Existentialist philosophers posit that our existence in a hostile universe is ultimately unexplainable. Therefore, they disregard philosophical explanations about the nature of reality and concern themselves only with doing the best in the present. In radical opposition to such an unphilosophical approach to life, Prabhupada stressed that the faculty for philosophical inquiry differentiates humans from other life-forms. In the light of his teachings, a philosophy such as existentialism that downplays or denies the importance of philosophy is not a philosophy at all; it is better called a “foolosophy,” the sophistry of fools.

Drawing from the vast library of ancient Indian wisdom-texts, he articulated a coherent philosophy that infused the lives of millions with meaning, purpose and joy. He wove together diverse concepts such as the immortality of the soul, the universality of reincarnation, the pervasiveness of cosmic accountability in the form of karma, the accessibility of a personal all-attractive divinity and the inalienable potential of the heart for everlasting love. And in the resulting philosophical mosaic, he emphasized how love and service, centered on Krishna, could help us all make ourselves better and our world better. Simultaneously, we would be preparing our consciousness for elevation toward a better place, in fact the best place in our post-mortem existence.

Though he was deeply philosophical in his teachings, he cautioned his students against getting lost in a philosophical maze. When he was asked, “What do you think of Buddhism?” he sensed that the questioner was asking from a platform of idle intellectualism. Rather than getting into the intricacy of any philosophy, he counter-questioned, “Do you follow Buddha?” When the surprised questioner replied, “Er … No.” Prabhupada emphatically declared, “Follow Buddha; follow Jesus; follow Krishna; follow someone. Don’t just talk.” His point was that mere academic comparison of various schools of thought wouldn’t provide any substantial spiritual insight; only by adopting a path through appropriate lifestyle change could one realize the validity and suitability of any path for them.

Transcendentalist beyond utopianist

Utopianists believe that the future holds the answer to all problems. They usually subscribe to some ideology or methodology, which they hold will bring in utopia in this world. Nowadays, the most influential utopianists are champions of technology; they claim and proclaim that technological advancement will provide the key to a secure and happy future.

It’s difficult to see Prabhupada as a utopianist — he often quoted the Gita (08.15) to declare that life will always remain tough in this world; distress can never be eliminated from it. He also quoted the Bhagavatam: the present cosmic age is a dark age (Kali-yuga) characterized by human decline. Yet such statements didn’t make him gloomy, lethargic or pessimistic.

Far from it, Prabhupada often exhibited a defining feature of a utopianist: a positive, hope-filled vision of the future. Based on a holistic understanding of the Vedic texts, he knew that though the cosmic cycle might be presently on a downturn, humans always have the potential to evolve spiritually. And the activation of that potential is often aided by divine compassion. During times of spiritual emergency such as the present, Krishna becomes more merciful and makes himself more accessible than the past through comparatively easier means such as the chanting of the holy names.

Considering himself a humble instrument in the hands of his spiritual master and Krishna, Prabhupada tirelessly played his part in what he saw as a cosmic rescue plan. And he felt confident about the materialization of a divine prediction: the holy names of Krishna will be chanted in every town and village of the world. With such a vision of his mission, he was always optimistic about the future. While he was still an unknown swami, he would sometimes declare: There are temples all over the world and they are filled with hundreds of devotees. Time alone is separating us from them.

And his confident optimism was well-founded. In little more than a decade, he had spoken at thousands of places in fourteen speaking tours that circumnavigated the world. He had founded a vibrant global movement that had 108 centers across the world. And he had inspired millions toward higher consciousness, greater meaning and deeper fulfillment. He assured his students that they all could be instruments for ushering in a golden sub-age within this dark iron age, provided they maintained spiritual integrity and vibrancy. By the time he departed from the world, he had bequeathed his students in specific and the world at large a rich and resourceful spiritual legacy that could raise human consciousness for generations, centuries, even millennia.

The essence-seeker (sara-grahi)

Through his life and teachings, Prabhupada demonstrated how to be a paramahamsa (the supreme swan). Just as the swan is said to have the ability to take the milk out of a combination of milk and water, he focused on the spiritual essence from all three phases of time: past, present and future. Through his personal example, he demonstrated the truth of one of the key verses of the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.7.7): by hearing about Krishna, our devotional attraction to him awakens, thereby freeing us from the illusions characteristic of the three phases of time — lamentation about the past, illusion about the present and fear about the future.

About The Author
Chaitanya Charan