- Hardbound; 363 pages; 14 x 21 (centimeters); 5.5 x 8.25 (inches)
- 8 pages black and white photographs; no index
- Publisher: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust; First issue: 1983; Reissue: 1995
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Struggling Alone
Chapter 2: Planting the Seed
Chapter 3: Only He Could Lead Them
Chapter 4: In Every Town and Village
Chapter 5: Let There be a Temple: Part I
Chapter 6: Let there be a Temple: Part II
Chapter 7: Uniting Two Worlds
Chapter 8: The Last Instruction
What is ISKCON?
Volume One (Chapters 1–11)
It is a distinct and unusual honor for me to be asked to write a foreword to this eloquent and informative biography of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. To my great regret, I never met him during his sojourn here in America. But I feel that I have met him.
The spiritual reality of a great teacher lives on in many ways, not the least in the lives of those he has touched. Since I have come to know many of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples over the past years, as well as many devotees who were influenced by him without knowing him personally, I sense a certain acquaintanceship. To write this foreword seems, then, in some measure, like introducing a friend.
Although it is not true to say in all cases that a religious movement is the shadow of a great teacher, still there is some measure of truth even in that familiar statement. It will surely help readers of this book under stand ISKCON better to know the man who founded it and to be aware of the soil from which he comes. The patience and care with which the author of this volume has reconstructed the long life Srila Prabhupada had already lived even before he set forth for America makes for absorbing and inspiring reading. I read it, I confess, not just because of my own interest in Srila Prabhupada but because the milieu the author recreates tells us so much more than a mere life story could. It reminds us of how very ensconced Srila Prabhupada was in one of the oldest religious traditions in the world. It recalls how very much went on in the generations, centuries, and even millennia before him that seems to be gathered and focused in his life and in his teaching. In one sense Srila Prabhupada was not at all “original,” and reading the story of his life raises questions about our typical Western proclivity to attach such value to originality.
What the book makes clear, on the contrary, is that Srila Prabhupada is a man who incarnates an ancient tradition. The opening verses of the fourth chapter of Bhagavad-gita, the Indian text most precious to ISKCON, teach that the ageless science of bhakti-yoga (what Christians might call the “devotional path” to God) is always received by what the Indians call parampara, that is, it is passed from one teacher to the next in a living chain, from ancient times to the present. Srila Prabhupada is best understood, as this book presents him, as one particularly effective link in this chain.
Yet, it must be added, Srila Prabhupada was also a unique person. To say that the teachings of the ancient ones come to us through a series of teachers does not mean that the teachers themselves are interchange able. If they were so faceless, there would be little point in writing a biography of any of them. But this life of Srila Prabhupada is pointed proof that one can be a transmitter of truth and still be a vital and singular person, even—in a sense I now feel safe to use—in some ways “original.” Srila Prabhupada lived during a particularly critical period in Indian history, that of British colonial rule and its aftermath. He worked with and among dozens of people who befriended, opposed, supported, or ignored him. He initiated Back to Godhead magazine. At what almost anyone would consider a very advanced age, when most people would be resting on their laurels, he harkened to the mandate of his own spiritual teacher and set out on the difficult and demanding voyage to America. Srila Prabhupada is, of course, only one of thousands of teachers. But in another sense, he is one in a thousand, maybe one in a million.
As a Christian, it is very important and impressive to me that Srila Prabhupada took it upon himself to bring the teaching he so well represents to America. This sentence I am sure requires some explanation. First of all, as a Christian I come from a tradition in which God’s sending of someone to bring a vital message to those who desperately need it is held in very high esteem. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, Yahweh sends prophets to remind the people how far they have strayed from His will, to expose the way they have misused the poor and failed to defend the widow and the fatherless. In the New Testament, Jesus sends forth his disciples two by two, asking them to take along only the scantiest clothing and equipment, telling them to bear the message of peace and salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth. God Himself is depicted as sending His only son into the world on a mission that would ultimately cost him his life. Christians are taught to respect and admire those who are willing to pay the heavy price of leaving comfort and security behind to go somewhere else to carry a message of liberation.
Today, however, many Christians have become comfortable and complacent, not only unwilling themselves to engage in such hardship but often unable even to understand or appreciate those who do. It is a great loss. Even though some people claim it is a good thing that many Christians are no longer as interested in carrying their message to other parts of the world, that they have become less presumptuous or arrogant, I personally believe it has more to do with sloth and the satiety of consumer society than with humility. I have little patience with zealous proselytizing no matter who inflicts it on whom. I do believe, however, that any spiritual teaching worth following is also worth sharing. When I visited India, living in fact in the very place where Srila Prabhupada’s tradition is centered, Vrindavana, I was thankfully received by everyone there, including the sages and holy men, and was asked to share my tradition with them. I spoke to them as a Christian about what Jesus Christ means to me and about what his teaching has to offer to the world. They listened attentively and gratefully. Their only complaint, as I recall, was that I had not spoken long enough! Indians, unlike Americans, seem in no hurry to rush off to something else if there is a serious spiritual discussion to be followed. Given the fact that I was so well received in Srila Prabhupada’s own land, I am sorry that he and his students still often find it so difficult to be heard or to be taken seriously here in America.
I am grateful for this book for two additional reasons that its writer could not have known. First, the author uses, among other methods, the growingly important method we in the West call “oral history.” He incorporates the fruits of many interviews with the people who knew Srila Prabhupada or who encountered him, who contribute some little bit of information, however tiny or fleeting, to make up the whole picture. In a few years all these people will have passed on. Those sources will be lost, at least to our mortal ears, forever. It is extremely important that the writer used this method and used it so very skillfully. I hope others will use it as effectively.
Also, perhaps without fully intending to, the author is giving us a portrait of an age the apex and the nadir of the passing epoch of which might be called “Western dominance.” He shows us the devastation wreaked by “cultural imperialism” and demonstrates how stubbornly its destructive residues remain in the mental habits—and even in the eating patterns of a previously colonized people long after the actual political rule of the outsider has been thrown off. Especially since this volume covers that period of Srila Prabhupada’s life before he came to America, it is vital to see that he was also instrumental in leading a revival of traditional Indian spiritual and cultural values in India itself before he came to our shores. Since that selfsame phenomenon is now underway wherever the long arm of European dominance once reached, the book can also be read as an integral part of the growing literature of “Third World cultural renaissance.”
Obviously this volume can be appreciated in many ways. It can also be read, I should add, as the very fascinating story of a very fascinating man. In any case, however the present reader wishes to approach it, I am glad now to terminate this foreword and allow him or her to get on with the joy of reading.
Professor of Divinity
Unlimited Opportunity, Limited Time
Srila Prabhupada was in his room, speaking with several disciples. “So, Annapurna, you have got some news?” he asked. Annapurna was a young British girl. A few months ago her father had written from England that he might be able to provide a house if some devotees came there.
“Yes,” she replied.
“So, what is our next program?” She was reticent. “That letter from your father is encouraging?”
“Yes, he encourages me. But he says he can’t provide any place if we come there.”
Prabhupada looked disappointed. “That’s all right. It is up to Krishna. When we go to someone to preach, we have to stand before them with folded hands, with all humility: “My dear sir, please take to Krishna consciousness.’ ”
“Prabhupada?” Pradyumna spoke up. “I was reading a book by this big atheist swami.”
“There are some letters in the back of the book, and I was looking at them…”
“Atheist swami’s book,” Prabhupada said, ”we have nothing to do with.”
“I wasn’t looking at his philosophy,” Pradyumna explained. “I was just looking at the techniques he used when he was in America. He wanted to go to Europe, so he had a man, a rich benefactor, who went on a six-week tour of France, England, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and then back, arranging lectures. That’s how he did most of his tour. He had one or two influential people, and they arranged everything. And the lectures were arranged, and the society…”
“So, you can arrange like that?” Prabhupada asked.
“I was thinking that there would be a Royal Asiatic Society in London. I think Thakura Bhaktivinoda was a member of that.”
“But where is Thakura Bhaktivinoda’s sanga [association]?” Prabhupada asked.
“Well,” Pradyumna continued, ”still there may be some people you could open correspondence with. They might be interested in sponsoring you.”
“Is there anything about Krishna in that swami’s speech?” Prabhupada asked.
Prabhupada sat thoughtfully. In England he would have no place to stay. Pradyumna might talk of influential persons traveling ahead and making all the arrangements, but where were such persons? Here was a shy girl who could barely speak up, whose father would not help, and Pradyumna reading an atheist swami and talking of a Royal Asiatic Society—but nothing practical. Prabhupada had plans, though. He had asked Mukunda and Shyamasundara to go to London and try to establish an ISKCON center. They had agreed and would be arriving in Montreal from San Francisco in a few days.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, Prabhupada’s own spiritual master, had wanted Krishna consciousness in Europe. During the 1930s he had sent his most experienced sannyasis to London, but they had returned, nothing accomplished. It wasn’t possible to teach Krishna consciousness to the mlecchas, they had complained. Europeans couldn’t sit long enough to hear the Vaishnava philosophy. One of the sannyasis had met Lord Zetland, who had inquired curiously, ”Swamiji, can you make me a brahmana?” The sannyasi had assured Lord Zetland he could, certainly, if Zetland would give up meat-eating, intoxication, gambling, and illicit sex. ”Impossible!” Lord Zetland had replied. And the sannyasis had accepted this response as the standard for all Europeans. The sannyasis had returned to India; Vaishnavism could never take hold in the West. Prabhupada had faith that his disciples would succeed; they would help him establish ISKCON centers in Europe, just as they had in North America. Certainly such success would greatly please Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. Prabhupada told of a man who found a gourd lying on the road and picked it up and then found a stick and a wire and picked them up. In themselves, the three parts were useless. But by putting the gourd, the stick, and the wire together, the man made a vina and began to play beautiful music. Similarly, Prabhupada had come to the West and found some rejected youths lying here and there, and he himself had been rejected by the people of New York City; but by Krishna’s grace the combination had become successful. If his disciples remained sincere and followed his orders, they would succeed in Europe.
Three married couples—Mukunda and Janaki, Shyamasundara and Malati (with their infant daughter, Sarasvati), and Guru dasa and Yamuna—arrived in Montreal, eager to travel to London. These three couples had begun the temple in San Francisco, where they had had close association with Srila Prabhupada. They had helped Prabhupada introduce kirtana, prasadam, and Ratha-yatra among the hippies of Haight-Ashbury. Now they were eager to help him introduce Krishna consciousness in London.
Prabhupada asked the three couples to remain with him in Montreal for a week or two, so that he could train them to perform kirtana expertly. Chanting Hare Krishna was not a theatrical performance but an act of devotion, properly conducted only by pure devotees-not by professional musicians. Yet if Prabhupada’s disciples became proficient in their singing, Londoners would better appreciate Krishna consciousness.
The thought of these devotees preaching in England made Prabhupada ecstatic. With their kirtana they would become more popular than the yogis, with their gymnastics and impersonal meditation. As the London program became a tangible fact, Prabhupada began to reveal more plans. Prabhupada already seemed to have hundreds of detailed plans for implementing Krishna consciousness around the world—he only needed willing helpers.
In the daily kirtana rehearsals, Prabhupada taught the devotees to chant Hare Krishna and other devotional songs, beginning with a slow tempo and building gradually. He would regularly interrupt and have them begin again. Listening carefully as Yamuna led the chanting, Prabhupada would stop her at times to correct her Sanskrit pronunciation.
After two weeks in Montreal, the London party came together for a final meeting with Prabhupada. He was sending them to start a center in London to fulfill his spiritual master’s dream. The sannyasis Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had sent to London, Prabhupada told them, had lectured in a few places, posed for photos with lords and ladies, and then returned to India. But Prabhupada wanted his disciples to go out boldly, chant the holy name, and attract others to chant.
Lord Chaitanya had personally used this method while touring South India. Chaitanya-charitamrita describes that whoever saw Lord Chaitanya became ecstatic in love of God; then that ecstatic person would chant the holy name and ask others to chant; and when they saw that person, they too would become ecstatic. Thus the waves of ecstatic love of Krishna would increase.
Prabhupada predicted that when the devotees chanted Hare Krishna, the people of London would hear the mantra, become devotees, and then enlighten others. Krishna consciousness would grow. The only requirement was that the chanting be done purely, without any material motivation. Prabhupada’s enthusiasm was contagious, and as he spoke he filled his disciples with the same contagious enthusiasm.
When Mukunda asked Prabhupada if he had any specific instructions, Prabhupada replied with a story. In his youth, he had once seen a movie of Charlie Chaplin. The setting was a formal ball held outdoors, and off from the main dance arena were lanes with benches where couples sat. Some mischievous boys had plastered glue on one of the benches, and a young man and his girl friend came and sat down. ”When the young man got up”—Prabhupada laughed as he told the story—”his tails tore up the middle.”
Prabhupada told how the couple had returned to the dance, unaware of what had happened. But now they drew stares from the other dancers. Wondering why he was suddenly attracting so much attention, the young man went into the dressing room and saw in the mirror his ripped coattails. Deliberately, he then tore his coat all the way up to the collar, returned to his partner, and began dancing exuberantly.
Then another man joined, ripping his own coattails and dancing with his partner, as if to compete with the first couple. One by one, the other dancers followed, ripping their coattails and dancing with abandon.
By the conclusion of the story, the devotees in Prabhupada’s room were all laughing uproariously. But finally their laughter subsided and the meeting ended. Not until the devotees were already at the airport did Mukunda, talking with Shyamasundara, begin to appreciate and marvel at how expertly Prabhupada had answered his question. By their bold, enthusiastic, confident preaching, they would attract people. Not everyone would immediately ”join in the dancing,” as had the people in the Charlie Chaplin film; the devotees might even be considered crazy at first. But they would be offering Krishna consciousness, the highest and rarest gift, and intelligent people would gradually appreciate this, even if at first they scoffed.
By Srila Prabhupada’s order, his London-bound disciples, holding kirtana in public, would present a profile quite different from the reserved profile of his—sannyasi Godbrothers. His Godbrothers had imitated the British ways; but Prabhupada wanted the British to imitate the Vaishnavas. To appear in the streets of London with shaven heads and dhotis would require boldness. But it would be exciting to chant, carrying out the order of Lord Chaitanya. And the people would follow—gradually, but definitely. It was the will of Lord Chaitanya.
* * *
Srila Prabhupada’s visit to Montreal took place early in the summer of 1968, six months after his return to America. In India, from July to December of 1967, he had recovered his health, and on December 14 he had returned to San Francisco. After a few weeks he had gone to Los Angeles, where a small group of disciples had opened a storefront temple in a middle-class black and Hispanic neighborhood. The storefront was bare and the location secluded. Prabhupada had stayed there two months, delivering lectures, holding—kirtanas,and giving strength and inspiration to his disciples. Although a buzzing in his head had made working difficult, he had found the warm climate and sunshine agreeable and had continued to translate— Srimad-Bhagavatam, dictating tapes and sending them to Boston for typing.
A reporter from Life had come to Srila Prabhupada’s apartment and interviewed him for an upcoming Life feature, ”The Year of the Guru.”
When the story had appeared it had mixed Srila Prabhupada and his movement with coverage of other gurus. Although the article had carried a large color photo of Srila Prabhupada and favorably described a reporter’s visit to the New York ISKCON center, Prabhupada had said that being grouped with gurus who taught concoctions of yoga and meditation was not good.
In May, a few months after leaving Los Angeles, Prabhupada had paid a first visit to his ISKCON center in Boston. There also he had found a few disciples based in a small storefront. He had lectured at many of the local universities, including Harvard and M.I.T. At M.I.T., addressing a gathering of students and faculty, he had challenged, ”Where in this university is there a department to teach scientifically the difference between a living body and a dead body?” The most fundamental science, the science of the living soul, was not being taught.
After Boston, Srila Prabhupada had come to Montreal. And after three months in Montreal, Prabhupada flew to Seattle, where he stayed for one month. Then he briefly visited Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the ISKCON center was a tiny, isolated storefront.
Prabhupada’s reasons for traveling from center to center were to train and convince each disciple and to speak with newcomers. Many young people came to hear, but Prabhupada found the majority already ruined by illicit sex and drugs. They were “rich men’s sons,” but they had become hippies, wandering the streets. By Krishna’s grace, now some of them were being saved.
Even while recuperating in India, Prabhupada had always thought of returning to America to continue his movement. The Indians had seemed interested only in sense gratification, like that of the Americans. But many American youths, disillusioned with their fathers’ wealth, were not going to the skyscrapers or to their fathers’ businesses. As Prabhupada had seen from his stay in New York City and San Francisco, thousands of youths were seeking an alternative to materialism. Frustrated, they were ripe for spiritual knowledge.
The devotees, still neophytes, knew nothing of spiritual life and in most cases very little of material life. But because they were sincerely taking to Krishna consciousness, Prabhupada was confident that their shortcomings would not prevent their spiritual progress. Although naturally beautiful, these Western youths were now dirty and morose; their beauty had become covered. But the chanting of Hare Krishna was reviving them, Prabhupada said, just as the monsoon revives the land of Vrindavana, making it fresh and verdant. And as the Vrindavana peacocks sometimes dance jubilantly, so the devotees, having shed their material bonds, were now ecstatically dancing and chanting the holy names. When a reporter asked Prabhupada if his disciples were hippies, Prabhupada replied, “No, we are not hippies. We are happies.”
More than being a visiting lecturer or a formal guide, Srila Prabhupada was the spiritual father of his disciples. They accepted him as their real father, and he found them devoted and affectionate, far more than his own family had been. These young American boys and girls—“the flower of your country,” Prabhupada called them—had received the blessing of Lord Chaitanya and were delivering that blessing to their countrymen. Prabhupada said it was up to his American disciples to save their country. He was giving them the method, but they would have to implement it.
Srila Prabhupada loved his disciples, and they loved him. Out of love, he was giving them the greatest treasure, and out of love they were following his instructions. This was the essence of spiritual life. On the basis of this love, the Krishna consciousness movement would grow. Not surprisingly, some disciples had fallen away to their former, materialistic way of living. But Prabhupada sought those sincere souls who would stay. That was the important thing, he said. One moon is more valuable than many stars; so even a few sincere workers would accomplish wonderful things. The sincere and intelligent would stay, and Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu would empower them to carry out His desires for distributing love of Krishna. In this way, the devotees’ lives would become perfect. Many disciples, in fact, already felt this happening. Krishna consciousness worked because they sincerely practiced it and because Srila Prabhupada carefully and patiently tended the growing plants of transcendental loving service he had planted in their hearts.
Srila Prabhupada returned to find the devotees living and worshiping in an exciting location on Hollywood Boulevard. A large —sankirtana party, organized by his disciple Tamala Krishna, would chant Hare Krishna on the streets all day and sell Back to Godhead magazines in larger quantities than ever before—as many as two hundred magazines a day, with a collection of over one hundred dollars.
Then one day, shortly after Prabhupada’s arrival, the landlord evicted the devotees from their place on Hollywood Boulevard. With no temple the devotees moved to scattered locations throughout the city. As many evenings as possible, however, they would all gather in someone’s garage, lent to them for the evening, and Srila Prabhupada would chant Hare Krishna with them and lecture.
Then Prabhupada rented a former Christian church on La Cienega Boulevard. He introduced a more regulated Deity worship and an increased Sunday love feast. Each week would bring a new, specially planned festival with a big feast and hundreds of guests. These new programs in Los Angeles encouraged Prabhupada, and he wanted to see them introduced in ISKCON centers throughout the world.
* * *
Srila Prabhupada was planning to go to England. But first he wanted to visit his farm project in West Virginia, and he had also been promising the devotees in San Francisco he would attend their Ratha-yatra festival in July. This traveling to establish and expand his ISKCON was alone enough to keep him busy; yet he was also always meditating on his work of translating and commenting on Vedic literatures.
In L.A. during December, Srila Prabhupada had begun The Nectar of Devotion, a summary study of Rupa Gosvami’s Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu. The Nectar of Devotion would be a handbook for his disciples, elaborately explaining the science and practice of bhakti-yoga. Simultaneous with The Nectar of Devotion, he had also begun Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, a summary study of Srimad-Bhagavatam’s Tenth Canto. Visiting the temple only on Sundays, he had spent most of his time at his small rented house on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, where he worked intensely on his two major literary projects.
Prabhupada’s most ambitious literary undertaking, the completion of Srimad-Bhagavatam, was to be no less than sixty volumes. He had begun in India in 1959, and all along he had been aware that he was attempting a gigantic task at an advanced age. Now Krishna was giving him opportunities both for writing Vedic literatures and for traveling, and he was working at an amazing pace.
The force driving Prabhupada was the desire of his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. As for how much time he had remaining to execute his mission—that was in Krishna’s hands. Everything was up to Krishna: “If Krishna wants to kill you, no one can save you; and if Krishna wants to save you, no one can kill you.” Yet although Prabhupada was always in transcendental consciousness, beyond the effects of old age, he was aware that he didn’t have many more years left. All along he had had the vision of a spiritual movement for all nations and cultures, and to establish this he was racing against time.
Srila Prabhupada’s mood of urgency was the natural mood of the Vaishnava preacher—an ambition to engage everyone in loving service to Krishna. Without Krishna consciousness the bewildered, conditioned souls of Kali-yuga were all heading for the horrible consequences of their sinful lives. Prabhupada’s sense of urgency, therefore, was an expression of his compassion. He wanted to save the gross materialists, who were blind to the existence of the soul. If they wasted their human life, they would suffer millions of years before getting another chance to awaken their Krishna consciousness and go back to Godhead.
The heart attack Prabhupada had endured in 1967 had accelerated his mood of urgency. Although before the heart attack he had often worked like a young man and played the drum for hours, now Krishna’s warning was clear. The heart attack was to have been the time of his death, Prabhupada had said, but because his disciples had prayed, “Our master has not finished his work. Please protect him,” Krishna had spared him. Similarly, on the boat to America in 1965 his heart had almost failed. But then also Krishna had saved his life.
The scope of Prabhupada’s work was enormous; even with many years and good health he could never finish. Prabhupada saw that in future generations many people would come forward to help, and thus, by a combined effort, the Krishna consciousness movement would continue to check the forces of Kali-yuga and save the entire world. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had predicted this, and Prabhupada knew that it must come to pass. But the task of erecting the framework for this universal effort rested on Prabhupada alone. And he worked tirelessly, knowing that unless he established a complete foundation the entire mission might later collapse.
Beginning with Prabhupada’s first success in New York City in 1966, Krishna had shown unlimited opportunities for spreading Krishna consciousness. But how much time was there? Only Krishna could say; it was up to Him. Prabhupada remained ever mindful of the vast scope of his mission and the ever-narrowing span of time he had in which to complete it. “I am an old man,” he often told his disciples. “I could pass away at any moment.”
* * *
Srila Prabhupada would receive several letters a week from the devotees in London. It was now December 1968—the devotees had been in London four months—and still they had no temple, nor even a place where they could live and worship together. Mostly they had been visiting Hindu families, holding kirtana and sharing prasadam. Srila Prabhupada had encouraged this, but after hearing a few reports he decided the program was stagnant. The devotees should not expect much from the Hindus, he said. “They have become hodgepodge due to so many years of subjugation by foreigners and have lost their own culture… I am concerned to preach this gospel amongst the Europeans and Americans.”
The devotees were jolted, but they knew Prabhupada was right. Determined to change their tactics, they immediately began lecturing at colleges and universities and chanting in the streets. They were preaching to the British, and it felt right. When they wrote to Prabhupada that although they had accomplished little they were “planting seeds,” Prabhupada replied,
Regarding your analogy of sowing Krishna Consciousness seeds, I may inform you that there is a Bengali proverb—Sabure Meoya Phale. This means that fruits like chestnuts and pomegranates, or similar other valuable fruits and nuts take some time to be fructified. So any good thing comes into our possession after hard struggle and endeavor. So Krishna Consciousness is the greatest of all good fruits. We must therefore have necessary endurance and enthusiasm to get the result. We shall never be disappointed when things are presented in reversed order. Anyway, your honest labor is now coming to be fructified. Always depend upon Krishna and go on working with enthusiasm, patience and conviction.
The Journey to America
Today the ship is plying very smoothly. I feel today better. But I am feeling separation from Sri Vrindaban and my Lords Sri Govinda, Gopinath, Radha Damodar. My only solace is Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita in which I am tasting the nectarine of Lord Chaitanya’s lila. I have left Baharatabhumi just to execute the order of Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, in pursuance of Lord Chaitanya’s order. I have no qualification, but have taken up the risk just to carry out the order of His Divine Grace. I depend fully on Their mercy, so far away from Vrindaban.
September 10, 1965
The Jaladuta is a regular cargo carrier of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, but there is a passenger cabin aboard. During the voyage from Calcutta to New York in August and September of 1965, the cabin was occupied by “Sri Abhoy Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami,” whose age was listed as sixty-nine and who was taken on board bearing “a complimentary ticket with food.”
The Jaladuta, under the command of Captain Arun Pandia, whose wife was also aboard, left at 9:00 A.M. on Friday, August 13. In his diary, Srila Prabhupada noted: “The cabin is quite comfortable, thanks to Lord Sri Krishna for enlightening Sumati Morarji for all these arrangements. I am quite comfortable.” But on the fourteenth he reported: “Seasickness, dizziness, vomiting-Bay of Bengal. Heavy rains. More sickness.”
On the nineteenth, when the ship arrived at Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Prabhupada was able to get relief from his seasickness. The captain took him ashore, and he traveled around Colombo by car. Then the ship went on toward Cochin, on the west coast of India. Janmashtami, the appearance day of Lord Krishna, fell on the twentieth of August that year. Prabhupada took the opportunity to speak to the crew about the philosophy of Lord Krishna, and he distributed prasadam he had cooked himself. August 21 was his seventieth birthday, observed (without ceremony) at sea. That same day the ship arrived at Cochin, and Srila Prabhupada’s trunks of Srimad-Bhagavatam volumes, which had been shipped from Bombay, were loaded on board.
By the twenty-third the ship had put out to the Red Sea, where Srila Prabhupada encountered great difficulty. He noted in his diary: “Rain, seasickness, dizziness, headache, no appetite, vomiting.” The symptoms persisted, but it was more than seasickness. The pains in his chest made him think he would die at any moment. In two days he suffered two heart attacks. He tolerated the difficulty, meditating on the purpose of his mission, but after two days of such violent attacks he thought that if another were to come he would certainly not survive.
On the night of the second day, Prabhupada had a dream. Lord Krishna, in His many forms, was rowing a boat, and He told Prabhupada that he should not fear, but should come along. Prabhupada felt assured of Lord Krishna’s protection, and the violent attacks did not recur.
The Jaladuta entered the Suez Canal on September 1 and stopped in Port Sa’id on the second. Srila Prabhupada visited the city with the captain and said that he liked it. By the sixth he had recovered a little from his illness and was eating regularly again for the first time in two weeks, having cooked his own kichari and puris. He reported in his diary that his strength renewed little by little.
Thursday, September 9
To 4:00 this afternoon, we have crossed over the Atlantic Ocean for twenty-four hours. The whole day was clear and almost smooth. I am taking my food regularly and have got some strength to struggle. There is also a slight tacking of the ship and I am feeling a slight headache also. But I am struggling and the nectarine of life is Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, the source of all my vitality.
Friday, September 10
Today the ship is plying very smoothly. I feel today better. But I am feeling separation from Sri Vrindaban and my Lords Sri Govinda, Gopinath, Radha Damodar. The only solace is Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita in which I am tasting the nectarine of Lord Chaitanya’s lila [pastimes]. I have left Bharatabhumi just to execute the order of Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati in pursuance of Lord Chaitanya’s order. I have no qualification, but have taken up the risk just to carry out the order of His Divine Grace. I depend fully on Their mercy, so far away from Vrindaban.
During the voyage, Srila Prabhupada sometimes stood on deck at the ship’s rail, watching the ocean and the sky and thinking of Chaitanya-caritamrita, Vrindavana-dhama, and the order of his spiritual master to go preach in the West. Mrs. Pandia, the captain’s wife, whom Srila Prabhupada considered to be “an intelligent and learned lady,” foretold Srila Prabhupada’s future. If he were to pass beyond this crisis in his health, she said, it would indicate the good will of Lord Krishna.
The ocean voyage of 1965 was a calm one for the Jaladuta. The captain said that never in his entire career had he seen such a calm Atlantic crossing. Prabhupada replied that the calmness was Lord Krishna’s mercy, and Mrs. Pandia asked Prabhupada to come back with them so that they might have another such crossing. Srila Prabhupada wrote in his diary, “If the Atlantic would have shown its usual face, perhaps I would have died. But Lord Krishna has taken charge of the ship.”
On September 13, Prabhupada noted in his diary: “Thirty-second day of journey. Cooked bati kichari. It appeared to be delicious, so I was able to take some food. Today I have disclosed my mind to my companion, Lord Sri Krishna. There is a Bengali poem made by me in this connection.”
This poem was a prayer to Lord Krishna, and it is filled with Prabhupada’s devotional confidence in the mission that he had undertaken on behalf of his spiritual master. An English translation of the opening stanzas follows:
I emphatically say to you, O brothers, you will obtain your good fortune from the Supreme Lord Krishna only when Srimati Radharani becomes pleased with you.
Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who is very dear to Lord Gauranga [Lord Chaitanya], the son of mother Saci, is unparalleled in his service to the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna. He is that great, saintly spiritual master who bestows intense devotion to Krishna at different places throughout the world.
By his strong desire, the holy name of Lord Gauranga will spread throughout all the countries of the Western world. In all the cities, towns, and villages on the earth, from all the oceans, seas, rivers, and streams, everyone will chant the holy name of Krishna.
As the vast mercy of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu conquers all directions, a flood of transcendental ecstasy will certainly cover the land. When all the sinful, miserable living entities become happy, the Vaishnavas’ desire is then fulfilled.
Although my Guru Maharaja ordered me to accomplish this mission, I am not worthy or fit to do it. I am very fallen and insignificant. Therefore, O Lord, now I am begging for Your mercy so that I may become worthy, for You are the wisest and most experienced of all…
The poem ends:
Today that remembrance of You came to me in a very nice way. Because I have a great longing I called to You. I am Your eternal servant, and therefore I desire Your association so much. O Lord Krishna, except for You there is no means of success.
In the same straightforward, factual manner in which he had noted the date, the weather, and his state of health, he now described his helpless dependence on his “companion, Lord Krishna,” and his absorption in the ecstasy of separation from Krishna. He described the relationship between the spiritual master and the disciple, and he praised his own spiritual master, Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, “by whose strong desire the holy name of Lord Gauranga will spread throughout all the countries of the Western world.” He plainly stated that his spiritual master had ordered him to accomplish this mission of worldwide Krishna consciousness, and feeling unworthy he prayed to Lord Krishna for strength. The last verses give an unexpected, confidential glimpse into Srila Prabhupada’s direct relationship with Lord Krishna. Prabhupada called on Krishna as his “dear friend” and longed for the joy of again wandering the fields of Vraja. This memory of Krishna, he wrote, came because of a great desire to serve the Lord. Externally, Srila Prabhupada was experiencing great inconvenience; he had been aboard ship for a month and had suffered heart attacks and repeated seasickness. Moreover, even if he were to recover from these difficulties, his arrival in America would undoubtedly bring many more difficulties. But remembering the desire of his spiritual master, taking strength from his reading of Chaitanya-charitamrita, and revealing his mind in his prayer to Lord Krishna, Prabhupada remained confident.
After a thirty-five-day journey from Calcutta, the Jaladuta reached Boston’s Commonwealth Pier at 5:30 A.M. on September 17, 1965. The ship was to stop briefly in Boston before proceeding to New York City. Among the first things Srila Prabhupada saw in America were the letters “A & P” painted on a pierfront warehouse. The gray waterfront dawn revealed the ships in the harbor, a conglomeration of lobster stands and drab buildings, and, rising in the distance, the Boston skyline.
Prabhupada had to pass through U.S. Immigration and Customs in Boston. His visa allowed him a three-month stay, and an official stamped it to indicate his expected date of departure. Captain Pandia invited Prabhupada to take a walk into Boston, where the captain intended to do some shopping. They walked across a footbridge into a busy commercial area with old churches, warehouses, office buildings, bars, tawdry bookshops, nightclubs, and restaurants. Prabhupada briefly observed the city, but the most significant thing about his short stay in Boston, aside from the fact that he had now set foot in America, was that at Commonwealth Pier he wrote another Bengali poem, entitled “Markine Bhagavata-dharma” (“Teaching Krishna Consciousness in America”). Some of the verses he wrote on board the ship that day are as follows:
My dear Lord Krishna, You are so kind upon this useless soul, but I do not know why You have brought me here. Now You can do whatever You like with me.
But I guess You have some business here, otherwise why would You bring me to this terrible place?
Most of the population here is covered by the material modes of ignorance and passion. Absorbed in material life they think themselves very happy and satisfied, and therefore they have no taste for the transcendental message of Vasudeva [Krishna]. I do not know how they will be able to understand it.
But I know that Your causeless mercy can make everything possible, because You are the most expert mystic.
How will they understand the mellows of devotional service? O Lord, I am simply praying for Your mercy so that I will be able to convince them about Your message.
All living entities have come under the control of the illusory energy by Your will, and therefore, if You like, by Your will they can also be released from the clutches of illusion.
I wish that You may deliver them. Therefore if You so desire their deliverance, then only will they be able to understand Your message…
How will I make them understand this message of Krishna consciousness? I am very unfortunate, unqualified, and the most fallen. Therefore I am seeking Your benediction so that I can convince them, for I am powerless to do so on my own.
Somehow or other, O Lord, You have brought me here to speak about You. Now, my Lord, it is up to You to make me a success or failure, as You like.
O spiritual master of all the worlds! I can simply repeat Your message. So if You like You can make my power of speaking suitable for their understanding.
Only by Your causeless mercy will my words become pure. I am sure that when this transcendental message penetrates their hearts, they will certainly feel gladdened and thus become liberated from all unhappy conditions of life.
O Lord, I am just like a puppet in Your hands. So if You have brought me here to dance, then make me dance, make me dance, O Lord, make me dance as You like.
I have no devotion, nor do I have any knowledge, but I have strong faith in the holy name of Krishna. I have been designated as Bhaktivedanta, and now, if You like, You can fulfill the real purport of Bhaktivedanta.
Signed—the most unfortunate, insignificant beggar,
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami,
On board the ship Jaladuta, Commonwealth Pier,
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Dated 18th September 1965.
He was now in America. He was in a major American city, rich with billions, populated with millions, and determined to stay the way it was. Prabhupada saw Boston from the viewpoint of a pure devotee of Krishna. He saw the hellish city life, people dedicated to the illusion of material happiness. All his dedication and training moved him to give these people the transcendental knowledge and saving grace of Krishna consciousness, yet he was feeling weak, lowly, and unable to help them on his own. He was but “an insignificant beggar” with no money. He had barely survived the two heart attacks at sea, he spoke a different language, he dressed strangely—yet he had come to tell people to give up meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling, and to teach them to worship Lord Krishna, who to them was a mythical Hindu god. What would he be able to accomplish?
Helplessly he spoke his heart directly to God: “I wish that You may deliver them. I am seeking Your benediction so that I can convince them.” And for convincing them he would trust in the power of God’s holy name and in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. This transcendental sound would clean away desire for material enjoyment from their hearts and awaken loving service to Krishna. On the streets of Boston, Prabhupada was aware of the power of ignorance and passion that dominated the city; but he had faith in the transcendental process. He was tiny, but God was infinite, and God was Krishna, his dear friend.
On the nineteenth of September the Jaladuta sailed into New York Harbor and docked at a Brooklyn pier, at Seventeenth Street. Srila Prabhupada saw the awesome Manhattan skyline, the Empire State Building, and, like millions of visitors and immigrants in the past, the Statue of Liberty.
Srila Prabhupada was dressed appropriately for a resident of Vrindavana. He wore kanthi-mala (neck beads) and a simple cotton dhoti, and he carried japa-mala (chanting beads) and an old chadar, or shawl. His complexion was golden, his head shaven,shikha in the back, his forehead decorated with the whitish Vaishnava tilaka. He wore pointed white rubber slippers, not uncommon for sadhus in India. But who in New York had ever seen or dreamed of anyone appearing like this Vaishnava? He was possibly the first Vaishnava sannyasi to arrive in New York with uncompromised appearance. Of course, New Yorkers have an expertise in not giving much attention to any kind of strange new arrival.
Srila Prabhupada was on his own. He had a sponsor, Mr. Agarwal, somewhere in Pennsylvania. Surely someone would be here to greet him. Although he had little idea of what to do as he walked off the ship onto the pier—“I did not know whether to turn left or right”—he passed through the dockside formalities and was met by a representative from Traveler’s Aid, sent by the Agarwals in Pennsylvania, who offered to take him to the Scindia ticket office in Manhattan to book his return passage to India.
At the Scindia office, Prabhupada spoke with the ticket agent, Joseph Foerster, who was impressed by this unusual passenger’s Vaishnava appearance, his light luggage, and his apparent poverty. He regarded Prabhupada as a priest. Most of Scindia’s passengers were businessmen or families, so Mr. Foerster had never seen a passenger wearing the traditional Vaishnava dress of India. He found Srila Prabhupada to be “a pleasant gentleman” who spoke of “the nice accommodations and treatment he had received aboard the Jaladuta.” Prabhupada asked Mr. Foerster to hold space for him on a return ship to India. His plans were to leave in about two months, and he told Mr. Foerster that he would keep in touch. Carrying only forty rupees cash, which he himself called “a few hours’ spending in New York,” and an additional twenty dollars he had collected from selling three volumes of the Bhagavatam to Captain Pandia, Srila Prabhupada, with umbrella and suitcase in hand, and still escorted by the Traveler’s Aid representative, set out for the Port Authority Bus Terminal to arrange for his trip to Butler.
Butler, Pennsylvania: The First Testing Ground
By the grace of Lord Krishna, the Americans are prosperous in every respect. They are not poverty stricken like the Indians. The people in general are satisfied so far as their material needs are concerned, and they are spiritually inclined. When I was in Butler, Pennsylvania, about five hundred miles from New York City, I saw there many churches, and they were attending regularly. This shows that they are spiritually inclined. I was also invited by some churches and church governed schools and colleges, and I spoke there, and they appreciated it and presented me some token rewards. When I was speaking to the students, they were very eager to hear about the principles of Srimad Bhagwatam. But the clergymen were cautious about allowing students to hear me so patiently. They feared that the students might be converted to Hindu ideas-as is quite natural for any religious sect. But they do not know that devotional service of the Lord Sri Krishna is the common religion for everyone, including even the aborigines and cannibals in the jungle.
From a letter to Sumati Morarji
The bus came swinging out of the terminal into the daylight of mid-town Manhattan, riding along in the shadows of skyscrapers, through asphalt streets crowded with people, trucks, and automobiles and into the heavy traffic bound toward the Lincoln Tunnel. The bus entered the tunnel and emerged on the Jersey side of the Hudson River, continuing down the New Jersey Turnpike past fields of huge oil tanks and sprawling refineries. The Manhattan skyline was on the left, while three lanes of traffic sped sixty miles an hour in each direction. Newark Airport came up close by on the right, with jets visible on the ground. Electric power lines, spanning aloft between steel towers, stretched into the horizon.
Srila Prabhupada had never before witnessed anything of such magnitude. He was now seeing for himself that American culture was based on passion for more and more sense gratification—and it was a scene of madness. For what important business were people rushing to and fro at breakneck speed? He could see their goals advertised on the billboards.
Of course, he had many times traveled the road from Delhi to Vrindavana, but it did not have many advertisements. A traveler would see mostly the land, roadside streams, temples, homes, farmers in their fields. Most people went on foot or traveled by oxcart or bicycle. And in Vrindavana even the ordinary passersby greeted each other by calling the names of God: “Jaya Radhe!” “Hare Krishna!” Now there were factories outside Delhi, but nothing like this. The cumulative effect did not pack nearly the materialistic punch of these fields of oil tanks, mammoth factories, and billboards alongside the crowded superhighway. Meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling—the very sins Srila Prabhupada had come to preach against—were proudly glamorized on mile after mile of billboards. The signs promoted liquor and cigarettes, roadside restaurants offered slaughtered cows in the form of steaks and hamburgers, and no matter what the product, it was usually advertised by a lusty-looking woman. But Prabhupada had come to teach the opposite: that happiness is not found in the passion for sense gratification, and that only when one becomes detached from the mode of passion, which leads to sinful acts, can one become eligible for the eternal happiness of Krishna consciousness.
Prabhupada felt compassion. The compassion of a Krishna conscious saint had been explained in an age long ago by Prahlada Maharaja: “I see that there are many saintly persons indeed, but they are interested only in their own deliverance. Not caring for the big cities and towns, they go to the Himalayas or the forests to meditate with vows of silence. They are not interested in delivering others. As for me, however, I do not wish to be liberated alone, leaving aside all these poor fools and rascals. I know that without Krishna consciousness, without taking shelter of Your lotus feet, one cannot be happy. Therefore I wish to bring them back to shelter at Your lotus feet.”
The scenery gradually changed to the Pennsylvania countryside, and the bus sped through long tunnels in the mountains. Night came. And it was late-after eleven—when the bus entered the heavily industrialized Pittsburgh area on the shore of the Allegheny River. Srila Prabhupada couldn’t see the steel mills clearly, but he could see their lights and their industrial fires and smoking stacks. Millions of lights shone throughout the city’s prevailing dinginess.
When the bus finally pulled into the terminal, it was past midnight. Gopal Agarwal was waiting with the family Volkswagen bus to drive Prabhupada to Butler, about one hour north. He greeted Prabhupada with folded palms and “Welcome, Swamiji,” bowing from the waist several times.
This was not any of Gopal’s doing. His father, a Mathura businessman with a fondness for sadhus and religious causes, had requested him to host the Swamiji. This wasn’t the first time his father had arranged for a sadhu acquaintance to come to America. Several times he had sent sponsorship papers for Gopal to sign, and Gopal had obediently done so—but nothing had ever come of them. So when the sponsorship letter for A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami had come, Gopal had promptly signed and returned it, thinking that this would be the last they would hear of it. But then just a week ago a letter had come. Sally Agarwal had opened it and then, in alarm, called to her husband: “Honey, sit down. Listen to this: the Swami is coming.” Srila Prabhupada had enclosed his picture so that they would not mistake him. The Agarwals had looked curiously at the photograph. “There’ll be no mistake there,” Gopal had said.
The unsuspecting Agarwals were “simple American people,” according to Sally Agarwal, who had met her Indian husband while he was working as an engineer in Pennsylvania. What would they do with an Indian swami in their house? Prabhupada was a shock for them. But there was no question of not accepting him; they were bound by the request of Gopal’s father. Dutifully, Gopal had purchased Srila Prabhupada’s ticket from New York to Pittsburgh and had arranged for the agent from Traveler’s Aid to meet him. And dutifully he had driven tonight to meet him. So it was with a mixture of embarrassment, disbelief, and wonder that Gopal Agarwal helped his guest into the VW and drove back home to Butler.
* * *
“BUTLER, PENNSYLVANIA, HOME OF THE JEEP” read a granite plaque in the city park. Butler, famous as the town where the U.S. Army jeep was invented in 1940, was an industrial city of twenty thousand settled amid the hills of an area rich in oil, coal, gas, and limestone. Its industry consisted mainly of factories for plate glass, railroad cars, refrigerators, oil equipment, and rubber goods. Ninety percent of the local laborers were native Americans. The nominal religion had always been Christian, mostly Protestant with some Catholic, and in later years a few synagogues had appeared. But there was no Hindu community at that time; Gopal Agarwal was the first Indian to move to Butler.
As the VW bus pulled into town, the predawn air was warm and humid. The morning edition of the Butler Eagle would soon be going to the newsstands—“Red Chinese Fire on India”; “Prime Minister Shastri Declares Chinese Communists Out to Dominate World”; “United Nations Council Demands Pakistan and India Cease-fire in 48 hours.”
Srila Prabhupada arrived at the Agarwals’ home—Sterling Apartments—at 4:00 A.M., and Gopal invited him to sleep on the couch. Their place, a townhouse apartment, consisted of a small living room, a dining room, a kitchenette, two upstairs bedrooms, and a bath. Here they lived with their two young children. The Agarwals had lived in Butler for a few years now and felt themselves established in a good social circle. Since their apartment had so little space, they decided that it would be better if the Swami took a room at the YMCA and came to visit them during the day. Of course, living space wasn’t the real difficulty-it was him. How would he fit into the Butler atmosphere? He was their guest, so they would have to explain him to their friends and neighbors.
Srila Prabhupada was immediately a curiosity for whoever saw him. In anxiety, Mrs. Agarwal decided that instead of having people speculate about the strange man in orange robes living at her house, it would be better to let them know about him from the newspapers. She explained her plan to Prabhupada, who laughed, understanding that he didn’t fit in.
Sally hurried off to a Pittsburgh newspaper office, but the interviewer wasn’t able to comprehend why this person should make an interesting story. Sally then took him to the local Butler Eagle, where his presence was accepted as indeed newsworthy.
A feature article appeared in the Butler Eagle: “In fluent English, Devotee of Hindu Cult Explains Commission to Visit the West.” A photographer had come to the Agarwals’ apartment and had taken a picture of Srila Prabhupada standing in the living room holding an open volume of Srimad-Bhagavatam. The caption read, “Ambassador of Bhakti-yoga.”
The article began:
A slight brown man in faded orange drapes and wearing white bathing shoes stepped out of a compact car yesterday and into the Butler YMCA to attend a meeting. He is A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swamiji, a messenger from India to the peoples of the West.
The article referred to Srimad-Bhagavatam as “Biblical literature” and to Srila Prabhupada as “the learned teacher.” It continued:
“My mission is to revive a people’s God consciousness,” says the Swamiji. “God is the Father of all living beings, in thousands of different forms,” he explains. “Human life is a stage of perfection in evolution; if we miss the message, back we go through the process again,” he believes… Bhaktivedanta lives as a monk, and permits no woman to touch his food. On a six-week ocean voyage and at the Agarwal apartment in Butler he prepares his meals in a brass pan with separate levels for steaming rice, vegetables, and making “bread” at the same time. He is a strict vegetarian, and is permitted to drink only milk, “the miracle food for babies and old men,” he noted… If Americans would give more attention to their spiritual life, they would be much happier, he says.
The Agarwals had their own opinion as to why Prabhupada had come to America: “to finance his books,” and nothing more. They were sure that he was hoping only to meet someone who could help him with the publication of his Srimad-Bhagavatam, and that he did not want any followers. At least they hoped he wouldn’t do anything to attract attention; and they felt that this was his mentality also. “He didn’t create waves,” Sally Agarwal says. “He didn’t want any crowd. He didn’t want anything. He only wanted to finance his books.” Perhaps Prabhupada, seeing their nervousness, agreed to keep a low profile, out of consideration for his hosts.
At Prabhupada’s request, however, Mr. Agarwal held a kind of open house in his apartment every night from six to nine.
Sally: It was quite an intellectual group that we were in, and they were fascinated by him. They hardly knew what to ask him. They didn’t know enough. This was just like a dream out of a book. Who would expect to meet a swami in someone’s living room in Butler, Pennsylvania? It was just really tremendous. In the middle of middle-class America. My parents came from quite a distance to see him. We knew a lot of people in Pittsburgh, and they came up. This was a very unusual thing, having him here. But the real interest shown in him was only as a curiosity.
He had a typewriter, which was one of his few possessions, and an umbrella. That was one of the things that caused a sensation, that he always carried an umbrella. And it was a little chilly and he was balding, so he always wore this hat that someone had made for him, like a swimming cap. It was a kind of sensation. And he was so brilliant that when he saw someone twice, he knew who they were—he remembered. He was a brilliant man. Or if he met them in our apartment and saw them in a car, he would remember their name, and he would wave and say their name. He was a brilliant man. All the people liked him. They were amazed at how intelligent he was. The thing that got them was the way he remembered their name. And his humorous way. He looked so serious all the time, but he was a very humorous person. He was forbidding in his looks, but he was very charming.
He was the easiest guest I have had in my life, because when I couldn’t spend time with him he chanted, and I knew he was perfectly happy. When I couldn’t talk to him, he chanted. He was so easy, though, because I knew he was never bored. I never felt any pressure or tension about having him. He was so easy that when I had to take care of the children he would just chant. It was so great. When I had to do things, he would just be happy chanting. He was a very good guest. When the people would come, they were always smoking cigarettes, but he would say, “Pay no attention. Think nothing of it.” That’s what he said. “Think nothing of it.” Because he knew we were different. I didn’t smoke in front of him. I knew I wasn’t supposed to smoke in front of Gopal’s father, so I sort of considered him the same. He didn’t make any problems for anybody.
One evening a guest asked Prabhupada, “What do you think of Jesus Christ?” And Prabhupada replied, “He is the Son of God.” Then he added that he—the guest—was also a son of God. Everyone was interested to hear that the Swami accepted Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
Gopal: His intent was not to have you change your way of life. He wasn’t telling anybody they should be vegetarian or anything. All he wanted you to do was to follow what you are, but be better. He didn’t stress that we should give up many things.
Srila Prabhupada followed a regulated daily schedule. Every morning he would walk the six or seven blocks from the YMCA to Sterling Apartments, arriving there about seven. When he had first landed in New York, he had in his luggage a large bundle of dried cereal, similar to rolled oats. This supply was enough for several weeks, and every morning at breakfast he would take some with milk. At seven forty-five Gopal would leave for work, and around nine-thirty Prabhupada would start preparing his lunch in the kitchen. He made his capatis by hand, without even a rolling pin. He worked alone for two hours, while Mrs. Agarwal did housework and took care of her children. At eleven-thirty he took prasadam.
Sally: When he cooked he used only one burner. The bottom-level pot created the steam. He had the dal on the bottom, and it created the steam to cook many other vegetables. So for about a week he was cooking this great big lunch, which was ready about eleven-thirty, and Gopal always came home for lunch about twelve. I used to serve Gopal a sandwich, and then he would go back to work. But it didn’t take me long to realize that the food the Swami was cooking we’d enjoy too, so he started cooking that noon meal for all of us. Oh, and we enjoyed it so much.
Our fun was to show him what we knew of America. And he had never seen such things. It was such fun to take him to the supermarket. He loved opening the package of okra or frozen beans, and he didn’t have to clean them and cut them and do all those things. He opened the freezer every day and just chose his items. It was fun to watch him. He sat on the couch while I swept with the vacuum cleaner, and he was so interested in that, and we talked for a long time about that. He was so interesting.
So every day he’d have this big feast, and everything was great fun. We really enjoyed it. I would help him cut the things. He would spice it, and we would laugh. He was the most enjoyable man, most enjoyable man. I really felt like a sort of daughter to him, even in such a short time. Like he was my father-in-law. He was friend of my father-in-law, but I really felt very close to him. He enjoyed everything. I liked him. I thought he was tremendous.
After lunch, Prabhupada would leave, about 1:00 P.M., and walk to the YMCA, where the Agarwals figured he must have worked at his writing until five. He would come back to their apartment about six in the evening, after they had taken their meal. They ate meat, so Mrs. Agarwal was careful to have it cleared away before he came. When one night he came early, she said, “Oh, Swamiji, we have just cooked meat, and the smell will be very disagreeable to you.” But he said, “Oh, think nothing of it. Think nothing of it.”
In the evening he would speak with guests. The guests would usually take coffee and other refreshments, but he would request a glass of warm milk at nine o’clock. He would stay, speaking until nine-thirty or ten, and then Mr. Agarwal would drive him back to the YMCA.
Prabhupada would also do his own laundry every day. He washed his clothes in the Agarwals’ bathroom and hung them to dry outside. He sometimes accompanied the Agarwals to the laundromat and was interested to see how Americans washed and dried their clothes. To Sally he seemed “very interested in the American ways and people.”
Sally: Our boy Brij was six or seven months old when the Swami came—and the Indians love boys. The Swami liked Brij. He was there when Brij first stood. The first time Brij made the attempt and actually succeeded, the Swami stood up and clapped. It was a celebration. Another time, our baby teethed on the Swami’s shoes. I thought, “Oh, those shoes. They’ve been all over India, and my kid is chewing on them.” You know how a mother would feel.
Almost every night he used to sit in the next-door neighbor’s backyard. We sat out there sometimes with him, or we stayed in the living room. One time something happened with our little girl, Pamela, who was only three years old. I used to take her to Sunday school, and she learned about Jesus in Sunday school. Then when she would see Swamiji with his robes on and everything, she called him Swami Jesus. And this one time when it first dawned on us what she was saying, she called him Swami Jesus, and Swami smiled and said, “And a little child shall lead them.” It was so funny.
Prabhupada spoke to various groups in the community. He spoke at the Lions Club in early October and received a formal document:
Be it known that A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami was a guest at the Lions Club of Butler, Pa., and as an expression of appreciation for services rendered, the Club tenders this acknowledgment.
He also gave a talk at the Y and at St. Fidelis Seminary College in Herman, Pennsylvania, and he spoke regularly to guests at the Agarwal home.
* * *
When Professor Larsen, the chairman of the philosophy department at Slippery Rock State College, read in the Butler Eagle of a visiting Indian swami and Vedic scholar, he phoned the Agarwals’ home to invite Prabhupada to lecture on campus.
Allen Larsen: I called the number given in the newspaper article, but it turned out that the Swamiji was actually staying in a room at the YMCA. When I arrived, he was waiting on the street corner, and I picked him up. He seemed very much alone. When we were driving to Slippery Rock, I asked him to pronounce his name for me so I would have it right when I introduced him to my class. He said, “Swamiji Bhaktivedanta,” and then he proceeded to tell me what that meant. Since I was not used to Indian names, he had to repeat it several times before I got it right. He showed no impatience with my slowness. Even at this early junction of our association, I was convinced that this man had an inner stability and strength that would be very difficult to shake, and this initial impression was further reinforced throughout the rather busy day.
A hundred students from several classes had gathered to hear the lecture, as Prabhupada, in his natural, unrehearsed manner, walked down the aisle, up the three wooden steps, and onto the plain wooden stage. He sat down, erect and cross-legged, and began softly singing Hare Krishna, his eyes closed. Then he stood and spoke (without a lectern or microphone) and answered questions from the audience. The program lasted only fifty minutes and ended abruptly with a bell signaling the next class.
Allen Larsen: After the first class, I had a short conversation with the Swamiji while sitting outside on a bench on the campus lawn. Most of the time when he was not directly engaged in conversation he would repeat a short prayer while moving prayer beads through his fingers. He was sitting up cross-legged, and we were speaking back and forth. He said that the trees around us were beautiful, and he asked, “What kind of trees are these?” I replied, “They’re shade trees.” Then he said that it was too bad they weren’t fruit or nut trees to provide food and benefit people.
At one o’clock Prabhupada lectured again. Afterward, he accompanied Dr. Mohan Sharma, a member of the faculty who had attended the lecture, and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Mini, to Dr. Sharma’s campus residence. Prabhupada accepted warm milk and dried fruit, and at Dr. Sharma’s request, blessed his home and touched the forehead of his daughter in a gesture of benediction. Around three o’clock, Professor Larsen drove him back to Butler.
Allen Larsen: The Swamiji seemed to present himself as an Indian scholar who had come for a short time to do translation work. I never thought of him as a missionary. But during the course of the day there grew in me a warm affection for this man, because he was unmistakably a good man who had found his way to a stability and peace that is very rare.
The lectures in Pennsylvania gave Prabhupada his first readings of how his message would be received in America. At Commonwealth Pier in Boston he had stated in his poem: “I am sure that when this transcendental message penetrates their hearts, they will certainly feel gladdened and thus become liberated from all unhappy conditions of life.” Now this principle was actually being tested in the field. Would they be able to understand? Were they interested? Would they surrender?
The movement he founded spread rapidly around the world, attracting the attention of leading scholars and religionists.
“Here for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire is a new Asian religion—that is to say, an Asian religion new to the Western world—being practiced by people of the Western race and Judeo-Christian background. It arose out of nothing in less than twenty years and has become known all over the West. This, I feel, is a sign of the times and an important fact in the history of the Western world.”
—A. L. Basham, Ph.D., World's leading authority on Indian history and religion
Condensed version of the biography of Srila Prabhupada, Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta.
The movement he started is now known to millions around the world, yet he himself remained in the background, without personal ambition. This is the fascinating biography of an extraordinary saint, scholar and religious leader: A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
"The life of Srila Prabhupada is pointed proof that one can be a transmitter of truth and still be a vital and singular person.…Srila Prabhupada is one in a thousand, maybe one in a million."
—Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinity, Harvard University.
The riveting story of Srila Prabhupada's life will make you wonder how the world has largely missed this saint who recently walked among us. As a sociological, philosophical, or religious study, Srila Prabhupada's life story stands tall as a unique contribution to millions of individuals and to the world.
If you read nothing else about bhakti-yoga, read this biography—the life of one soul steeped in pure love for God.
"Who is Srila Prabhupada?" people often ask, and it is always a hard question to answer. For Srila Prabhupada always eclipsed conventional designations. At various times people have called him a scholar, a philosopher, a cultural ambassador, a prolific author, a religious leader, a spiritual teacher, a social critic, and a holy man. In truth, he was all these things and more. Certainly no one could ever have confused him with the modern entrepreneurial "gurus" who come to the West with slickly packaged, watered-down versions of Eastern spirituality (to satisfy our urge for instant well-being and exploit our well-documented spiritual naivete.) Srila Prabhupada was, rather, a true holy man (sadhu) of deep intellectual and spiritual sensitivity—he had deep concern and compassion for a society which, to such a large degree, lacks real spiritual dimension.
For the enlightenment of human society, Srila Prabhupada produced some eighty volumes of translations and summary studies of India's great spiritual classics, and his work has seen print both in English and in many foreign languages.
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