The authorised summary of the life and teachings of
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
my present life is concerned, I do not remember
In the ancient Vedic literatures (Vedas) it is stated that the ultimate cause of all causes, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is Lord Sri Krishna. The name Krishna means “All-attractive”, and by His unlimited, transcendental opulence's He can attract all living beings. There are many incarnations of Lord Krishna. Each one is scheduled and forecast within the Vedas themselves, and manifest within this material world in order to teach by example the path to spiritual emancipation.
The most recent incarnation of Lord Krishna appeared just over five hundred years ago as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Golden Avatar. It was Lord Chaitanya who predicted that the chanting of His holy names - Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare / Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare - would spread beyond the shores of India to every town and village in the world. Hundreds of years passed as Lord Chaitanya’s faithful followers endeavoured to expand his mission. Still they wondered how and when the Lord’s incredible prediction would come true.
This is a brief account of how the powerful Vaisnava saint, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, single-handedly brought into reality this historic and deeply significant prophecy.
A LIFETIME OF DEVOTION
Srila Prabhupada was born on the day after Janmastami (Lord Krishna’s Appearance Day) in 1896 in Calcutta, and was named Abhay Charan De (though for reasons of etiquette we shall continue to refer to him throughout this text as Srila Prabhupada). Srila Prabhupada displayed great devotion to Lord Sri Krishna from a very early age, as he recollects:
By the age of six Srila Prabhupada became captivated by the Ratha-yatra festivals of Lord Jagannatha, held yearly in Calcutta. This festival mirrored the one held for centuries in Puri where three giant wooden carts carrying forms of the Lord are towed by the crowds along a two-mile parade route. Srila Prabhupada asked his father to help him build a cart so he could perform his own little Rathayatra amongst his family and neighbours. Srila Prabhupada painted the cart and insisted on arranging various aspects of the festival which was a great success, running for eight consecutive days. In later life he was to transport this entire festival to many of the major cities of the world which had never before seen such a spectacle.
After leaving college, Srila Prabhupada met his own spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, when a friend took him to one of his lectures. Srila Prabhupada recounts:
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta told Srila Prabhupada that Krishna Consciousness was not dependent on any change in mundane politics since it was the absolute truth. Srila Prabhupada was deeply impressed and within his heart immediately accepted Srila Bhaktisiddhanta as his spiritual master. From that time on Srila Prabhupada would attend his Guru Maharaja’s lectures whenever he could, listening with rapt attention. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta noted his new disciple’s keenness when he commented:
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta headed up the Gaudiya Matha, a vibrant and highly successful preaching mission with temples all over India. Ever mindful of the prophecy made so long before, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was determined that the message of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu would reach the whole world. To this end in 1933 he sent one of his most senior disciples, Bon Maharaja, to start the mission in London with a monthly allowance of seven hundred rupees, which was a substantial sum in those days. Sadly, his preaching had no effect, and after some time he was recalled back to India. Later another Goswami was sent with no better result. Fortunately, as we shall see, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had another disciple who would later succeed spectacularly where others had failed.
As a householder Srila Prabhupada spent some time doing business in Bombay. The local devotees there once complained to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta that Abhay should not be living outside, separately, when he could be valuably engaged as the temple commander for the Gaudiya Matha in Bombay. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s answer was highly prophetic:
In 1933 Srila Prabhupada took formal initiation, and although he regularly donated money to help his Guru Maharaja’s mission, he urgently wanted to do more to please him. He wrote to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta in December 1936 asking if he could offer some more direct service.
In the years that followed Srila Prabhupada wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, continued assisting the Gaudiya Matha in its work and, in 1944, started Back to Godhead magazine. Maintaining the publication was a struggle. Single-handedly, Srila Prabhupada wrote the material, edited it, typed the manuscripts, checked the galley proofs, and even distributed the individual copies.
Recognizing Srila Prabhupada’s philosophical learning and devotion, the society of Gaudiya Vaisnavas honoured him in 1947 with the title "Bhaktivedanta." In 1950, at the age of fifty-four, Srila Prabhupada retired from family life, adopting the vanaprastha (retired) order to devote more time to study, writing and preaching. Srila Prabhupada moved to the holy village of Vrindavan, where he lived in humble circumstances in the historic medieval temple of Radha-Damodara. There he spent several years in deep study and writing. In 1959, he was awarded sannyas by one of his Godbrothers, His Holiness B.P. Kesava Maharaja, and a year later he started work on his life’s masterpiece: a multivolume annotated translation of the eighteen-thousand-verse Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana). He also wrote Easy Journey to Other Planets. Then, on August 13, 1965, just a few days before his sixty-ninth birthday, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada set out for America to see what could be done to fulfil his Guru Maharaja’s order.
JOURNEY TO THE WEST
Srila Prabhupada was acquainted with a Mrs. Morarji who owned the Scindia Steam Shipping Company. Since he was a sadhu with no money, she arranged for him to travel free on the Jaladuta, a regular cargo carrier. He had decided to commence his preaching in New York as he figured that since everyone was following the Americans, if he could convince them of Krishna consciousness, then the world would eventually follow.
The crossing proved difficult for Srila Prabhupada, he suffered two heart attacks and was concerned that a third could prove fatal. That night in his cabin he had a wonderful dream. Lord Krishna was rowing a boat and assuring Srila Prabhupada that He would protect him. After that his heart problems desisted.
When the Jaladuta arrived in New York harbour thirty-seven days later, Srila Prabhupada was utterly alone. He had come to America knowing no one, with absolutely no visible means of support, and with only the meagre handful of possessions he had carried on board the ship. These consisted of $7, an amount he was later to describe as ‘one hour’s expenditure in New York’, a metal suitcase full of his books and translations, an umbrella and a supply of dry cereal in case he could not find anything vegetarian to eat. He had no friends, no followers, not his youth or even his health. Just the certain conviction that he must carry out the order of his spiritual master, and the knowledge that lord Krishna was personally protecting and guiding him in his quest to present the spiritual knowledge of the Vedas to the entire Western society.
In a poem written in Bengali just after his arrival, Srila Prabhupada expressed his humble mood of surrender to the desire of Lord Sri Krishna:
This poem was written on September 18, 1965. Just twelve years later, on November 14, 1977, Srila Prabhupada passed away in India at the age of eighty-one. What happened in those twelve years? Did Lord Krishna make him a success or failure? What was Srila Prabhupada able to accomplish during this brief period, having begun with nothing, and at an age when most are ready to retire? The list of accomplishments is striking by any standard.
In short, between the years 1965 and 1977, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, or Srila Prabhupada, as his followers affectionately came to know him, had spread the teachings of Krishna consciousness to every major city in the world and had formed an international society comprising thousands of dedicated members. He had established 108 temples, with magnificent estates spread across six continents, and had circled the globe twelve times to personally guide the membership of his broadening mission.
As if this were not enough accomplishment for a person proceeding from his seventieth to his eighty-second year, Srila Prabhupada had also translated, written, and published fifty-one volumes of books in twenty-eight different languages, tens of millions of which had been distributed throughout the world. He had delivered thousands of lectures, written thousands of letters, and taken part in thousands of conversations with followers, admirers, and critics alike. And he had won the esteem of dozens of prominent scholars, social figures and politicians, who had genuine appreciation for Srila Prabhupada's contributions to religion, philosophy, and culture.
PREACHING TO THE WESTERN MIND
Once settled in New York, Srila Prabhupada started giving lectures from a small narrow office without furniture or even a telephone, and later he acquired a small shop-front called ‘Matchless Gifts’ in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The message he was preaching was almost completely unfamiliar to his audience, his saffron dress was alien and exotic, and his singing and chanting like nothing New York had ever heard. He was the first person to ever come to America with the pure teachings of Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Still, he gradually found young men and women willing to hear him. Below is an excerpt from one of the many lectures Srila Prabhupada gave to his American audience, recorded on Nov 20th 1966, where an American student had interrupted his class to ask why one should chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra:
- Lecture, 20/11/66
It was through endless exchanges such as the above that Srila Prabhupada gradually established his authority amongst his lively and often rebellious audience, and of course the authority of the Vedic knowledge he had come to impart. In general, Srila Prabhupada was not impressed by the materialistic culture he found in New York as he explained in a letter to one of his disciples:
Srila Prabhupada gradually attracted more and more followers through his lecture programmes and by sitting with a drum and chanting in Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park where many young Americans, mostly from the hippie movement, would dance around him in ecstasy. There is now a commemorative plaque in Tompkins Square Park, signed by the famous former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, that pays homage to Srila Prabhupada’s preaching activities there.
It was the ‘swinging sixties’, yet Srila Prabhupada never compromised his teachings simply to attract more followers. At a time of experimentation with free love and hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, he told his American hippie followers that they must give up illicit sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling and meat eating. Yet still the numbers attending his programmes grew. He was offering something more real than anything the hippie movement provided. A higher spiritual taste and a complete philosophy of life.
Alan Kallman was a record producer. He had read a newspaper article about how Srila Prabhupada’s chanting was causing a spiritual revolution, and it gave him the idea of releasing a record of the ‘Swami’. He met with Srila Prabhupada at his storefront on the Bowery, and shortly after the record was cut. The following are extracts from a lecture, written and spoken by Srila Prabhupada as a concise synopsis of Vaisnava philosophy, which was also included on the recording:
By 1967 Srila Prabhupada was ready to expand his mission, now called ‘The International Society for Krishna Consciousness’, or ‘ISKCON’, beyond New York to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Buffalo, and then on to other countries. He sent disciples to London where contact was made with George Harrison from the pop group ‘The Beatles’. George Harrison became very interested, and he too released a record of chanting which reached number one in the UK popular music charts. This exposed millions of people to the maha-mantra, and greatly pleased Srila Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada flew into London and personally met George who was so impressed he donated a large Manor House in the English countryside to the Movement.
By 1970 Srila Prabhupada turned his attention back to India, the spiritual home of the Movement he was spreading in the West. He was trying to secure land in Mayapur through the agency of his Godbrothers, but was not finding much spirit of cooperation. Losing patience he wrote the following letter to Govinda Maharaja in September 1970:
With his expanding Movement in the West, Srila Prabhupada was now taken much more seriously in his homeland. Even so, it was not until February 1972 that he finally laid the cornerstone for the new temple in Mayapur. Srila Prabhupada never gave up once he set his mind on some project for the glorification of Lord Krishna, even if it meant a fight. He won a huge legal battle in Bombay to build a beautiful temple and guesthouse complex at Juhu Beach, when a wealthy businessman had tried to cheat him. In Vrindavan he also established a large temple and school complex.
Wherever he travelled Srila Prabhupada was always eager to meet and
discuss with scholars and academics, since he particularly wanted to
influence the intelligent class of man. When visiting the former Soviet
Union in 1971, Srila Prabhupada met with Professor Grigoriy Kotovsky,
head of the India Department at the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences and
Chairman of the Indian Studies Department at the University of Moscow.
As they sat informally in Dr. Kotovsky’s office, the spiritual leader
and the communist scholar vigorously discussed topics of mutual concern,
and Srila Prabhupada proposed a radical reformation within modern
communism, and explained how the caste system in India was not following
Lord Krishna’s teachings:
- The Science of Self Realization, Chapter 6
- Room Conversation with Dr. Weir of the Mensa Society, 5/9/71
- Room Conversation, 31/5/74
Srila Prabhupada established several Vedic schools (called gurukulas), where children were trained in Krishna Consciousness from a very early age. He set up cow protection programmes on several of his larger projects to care for cows and bulls even after their productive lives were over. He set up an academy of artists who painted fabulous devotional artwork for his books. He also established the Bhaktivedanta Institute comprising of disciples expert in science and mathematics whose mission it was to disprove various atheistic dogmas such as the Big Bang theory and evolution, and at the same time establish a world view based exclusively on Vedic knowledge. And in New York, where his western preaching started, his disciples acquired an impressive thirteen-storey temple.
DISTRIBUTING SPIRITUAL FOODSTUFFS
Along with teaching Vedic knowledge and spreading the chanting of the Lord's holy names, Srila Prabhupada also insisted that ISKCON freely distribute spiritual food known as ‘prasadam’ throughout the world. Literally millions of free plates of vegetarian foodstuffs has been distributed to needy people around the globe. Like the philosophy and the chanting, vegetarian food that has first been offered to the Lord purifies the heart and mind. Thus it assists in the process of gradually uncovering one's original awareness of God.
PROPHESY COME TRUE
From such humble beginnings Srila Prabhupada made Hare Krishna a household word by the 1970’s. He established over one hundred temples including a thirteen storey building in the heart of the world’s most important city. He wrote scores of books, and initiated thousands of disciples. All this was achieved single-handedly without the financial support of any government department or institution. Thus it is clear that Srila Prabhupada alone fulfilled the prophecy of Lord Chaitanya. All over the world the words ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama’ have permeated modern cultures with an indelible mark. Just as was predicted. It was Srila Prabhupada whose faith and devotion brought about this colossal feat, this miracle. Mankind owes him an enormous debt of gratitude since his pure Movement will act as a beacon of light for thousands of years to come.
Of all his various contributions, Srila Prabhupada considered his books most important. In fact, he would often describe his work of translating and explaining the ancient Vedic texts as his very life and soul. It was in 1970 that Srila Prabhupada founded the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, now the world's largest publisher of books dealing with Indian philosophy and culture. Through its work over the last quarter of a century, tens of millions of people have read at least one of Srila Prabhupada's books and have felt their lives genuinely enriched. Here is a brief introduction to the spiritual knowledge you will find within those books.
THE HUMAN FORM OF LIFE
Srila Prabhupada would often pose the question: ‘what is the difference between a live body and a dead one?’ He would point out that if we are nothing but chemicals, then these chemicals are also present in the dead body. What is it that distinguishes a living form from a non-living form? The answer, Srila Prabhupada taught, is consciousness, or awareness. All living forms display this symptom of consciousness to one degree or another. That is why we call them living rather than dead. Even the small microbial germ or the common houseplant shows signs of consciousness, whereas our dining table and chairs do not.
Srila Prabhupada would stress that although different forms of life display different degrees and levels of consciousness, it is in the human form that we find the highest development of consciousness. He taught that since humans had the highest level of self-awareness it was a complete waste if he simply engaged in the same activities as the animals.
But what is it about our consciousness that makes it so different from that of the insect, the bird, the beast, or even the monkey? These creatures eat and we also eat; they sleep and we also sleep; they reproduce and we reproduce; they defend themselves and so do we. That we can perform these functions with greater sophistication may be one indicator that we possess higher consciousness, but it does not fully explain our excellence above all other forms of life.
Srila Prabhupada explained that the real difference is found in our ability to question our existence, reflect upon our selves, and inquire into our own nature and the nature of God. We can create languages, ponder the meaning of life, and puzzle in wonderment over the night sky. Such an endowment is not present in any other form of life.
The Vedas therefore advise that in this human form of life we should be inquisitive to know who we are, what the universe is, what God is, and what the relationship is between ourselves, the universe, and God.
We should inquire about the solution to the ultimate
problems of life, namely birth, death, old age, and disease. Such
questions cannot be asked by the cats and dogs, but they must arise in
the heart of a real human being.
YOU ARE NOT THIS BODY
Without exception, all material phenomena have a beginning and an end. A prominent idea of modem culture is that consciousness is another such material phenomenon. Thus it is believed that consciousness (or the self) also ends with the death of the material body. This point of view, however, remains only an assumption. It has not been proven true by any scientific observation or experiment. Srila Prabhupada was highly critical of Western culture’s strong identification of the self with the material body as he explains in the second canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam:
Nonetheless, the idea that the self ends with the body remains one of the great articles of faith of modern materialistic thought, and most of us have been educated from early childhood to think of ourselves in terms of such beliefs. Few of us, however, have thought through the philosophical implications of this type of thinking, which draws us unconsciously toward voidistic and nihilistic styles of life.
Srila Prabhupada demonstrated that the most basic of the Vedic teachings stands in direct opposition to the modern scientific view of consciousness and life. According to that teaching, individual consciousness is not at all dependent upon neurobiological functions but permanently exists as an independent reality.
The presence within the material body of a conscious observer who remains ever present throughout changing bodily and mental states indicates the existence of two energies—the spiritual energy (represented by the conscious self) and the material energy (represented by the temporary body). The Vedas explain that this spiritual energy, symptomized by consciousness, continues to exist even after the material body is finished.
If each of us is an eternal soul covered only by different temporary bodily dresses, we can reasonably conclude that the highest welfare activity for all of human society is that which awakens us to our true spiritual identity and our dormant relationship with God. That activity is called Krishna consciousness.
Just as there is neither glory nor profit in saving the dress of a drowning man, there is neither glory nor profit in humanitarian efforts aimed exclusively at improving conditions for the temporary, material body, which in the end is destined to grow old, become diseased, and die.
As Srila Prabhupada notes in Srimad-Bhagavatam:
REVEALING THE PERFECT KNOWLEDGE OF THE VEDAS
Srila Prabhupada explained that since we all have imperfect senses and because we are all prone to make mistakes and even cheat, our relative opinions about matters beyond our experience can supply neither valid nor reliable information. Such speculation is indeed sterile and futile.
Thus our attempt to approach such matters empirically will be fraught with various imperfections and ultimately fail. Therefore, so-called truths established exclusively on the basis of mental speculation cannot help us understand the Absolute Truth, which is beyond the reach of the imperfect senses and mind.
The Vedas explain that if we want to know about things beyond the jurisdiction of our experience— beyond the limitations of human perception and cognition—the process is to hear from one who knows. As Srila Prabhupada taught:
The transcendental knowledge of the Vedas was first uttered by the Supreme Lord Himself. The Lord, the supremely powerful being, cannot fall under the influence of any other force since He is the source of everything. As a logical consequence, His knowledge must be perfect. And anyone who transmits that knowledge without change gives the same perfect knowledge. We need only accept this proposition theoretically to progress in our understanding of Vedic thought.
The perfect knowledge of the Vedas has been preserved over time by transmission through an unbroken chain of spiritual masters. Srila Prabhupada is the current link in one such chain or succession. That succession goes back thousands of years to Lord Krishna Himself. Thus the knowledge found within Srila Prabhupada's books is non- different from that which was originally imparted by the Supreme Lord Himself. Srila Prabhupada did not manufacture "truths." He delivered the timeless teachings of the original Vedas without addition, deletion, or change. The writings of Srila Prabhupada are represented mainly by three Vedic texts—the Bhagavad-Gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Chaitanya-caritamrta. Together these works of literature comprise more than 25 volumes of detailed information constituting the original Vedic science of God-realization, or bhagavata-dharma. Their translation into the English language, along with elaborate explanations, constitutes Srila Prabhupada's most significant contribution to the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural life of the world.
However, there is a deeper and more esoteric level at
which Srila Prabhupada’s books deliver knowledge. We understand that
since Srila Prabhupada fulfilled the prophesy of God’s most recent
incarnation, he must be a fully liberated soul (technically known as
directly sent from the Absolute world to carry out this special service.
Since Srila Prabhupada is a liberated person, existing on the Absolute
platform, his books are non-different from himself. As Srila Prabhupada
By reading his books, and accepting Srila Prabhupada as one’s eternal spiritual master, transcendental knowledge is revealed to us, and in this way we can come to know our unique and individual spiritual relationship with the Lord. So it is more than simply reading some words on a page, when included in a regime of chanting and worship, his books are the key to a mystical process by which one can factually realise one’s original spiritual identity.
A UNIVERSAL SCIENCE OF GOD-REALISATION
The knowledge described in Srila Prabhupada's books transcends religious, national, or cultural affiliations. The science of how to understand God, how to understand one's relationship with God, and how to develop love for God has nothing to do with sectarian designations like "Christian," "Hindu," or "Jew." These are objectives no religion in the world could deny. They are, in other words, the essence of religion—universal features by which all religions may be understood.
Preferences regarding God's holy name may differ from one religion to another, modes of worship may differ, and details of ritual and doctrine may differ as well. But the test is how much the practitioner actually develops knowledge of God and love for God. Real religion means to learn to love God. And how to love God is the sum and substance of the teachings found in Srila Prabhupada's books, as he himself explained:
SCHOLARS APPRECIATE SRlLA PRABHUPADA’S TEACHINGS
Srila Prabhupada often pointed out that although modern colleges and universities had many departments of understanding, there was no department that taught scientific knowledge of the self and God. By presenting the original Vedic Science of God- realization through his books, Srila Prabhupada filled the gap and met this vital educational need. Over the years hundreds of scholars who either personally met Srila Prabhupada or read his books have expressed keen appreciation for both his personal qualities and the contribution his teachings have made to humanity. Indeed many neutral scholars have said that Srila Prabhupada’s contribution is completely unparalleled in human history:
PHYSICALLY DEPARTED : SPIRITUALLY PRESENT
Srila Prabhupada left this world on November 14th 1977 in Krishna’s holy land of Vrindavan. He had been translating his books and instructing his disciples to the very last, and left in the most auspicious circumstances, surrounded by his disciples chanting the maha-mantra.
He left behind a massive legacy of teachings in the form of numerous books, audio and video taped lectures and conversations, as well as a worldwide Movement. He said he had given everything necessary to go back home, back to Godhead, we just had to read his books, chant and follow his instructions. He taught that there was no difference to serving him when he was physically present, to doing so when he was absent. He would remain spiritually present in his books and instructions:
He spoke of his relationship with his own spiritual master:
And in the Srimad-Bhagavatam he clearly taught that it was not necessary to associate physically with liberated souls:
Just before his physical departure Srila Prabhupada set up a system of initiation employing the use of ritviks (ceremonial priests) who would continue to initiate on his behalf, without the need for any physical involvement from Srila Prabhupada. In this way, Srila Prabhupada could continue to initiate new disciples for as long as his Movement existed. Although some of his disciples became confused after his departure as to how initiation should continue, thankfully this situation is slowly being rectified. The ISKCON Revival Movement is at the forefront of this rectification, dedicated to restoring Srila Prabhupada as the sole initiating guru for the Movement; just as Srila Prabhupada intended:
Thus Srila Prabhupada has left an open invitation for all future generations to become his direct initiated disciple if they so wish. Any sincere seeker of the truth who appreciates Srila Prabhupada’s glorious life and achievements, and carefully studies his teachings, must surely find this an attractive proposition.