Our print and electronic media abound in forecasts—weather, economic, scientific, political, fashion, and on and on. There’s a demand for forecasts. It helps to know the future. Therefore, we seek eagerly the vision of experts, the adept. Among these seers we must note that special class called sages or saints. Their forecasts are accorded the upgrade to prophecy, to revelation, since the divine is alleged to enlighten their visions.
So the followers of Shrila Prabhupada received his prediction, made on April 4, 1975, of the imminent outbreak of World War III. Taking his regular early morning constitutional, striding among an entourage of aides through the green fields of Mayapur, conversing about the delusions of modernity—of the “Western adventure”—Prabhupada suddenly said: “Now it will be smashed by the next war. Next war will come very soon.”
The devotees around him were shocked. It was hard to remember if this type of prediction had ever come from Prabhupada before. And the content of this prediction was especially alarming.
Prabhupada gave the specifics: The impending war would be a nuclear conflict between the two great contestants of the “cold war,” the USA and the USSR. The geopolitics of that global struggle, Prabhupada pointed out, had come to envelop the antagonistic states of India and Pakistan. India had become allied with the Soviet Union, and Pakistan with the United States. Prabhupada had read the news that soon the US would begin directly supplying arms to Pakistan.
World War III would begin with an attack on India by Pakistan, Prabhupada said. Then both Russia and America will be drawn in, and they will destroy each other with their arsenals of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
There is a somewhat fragmented recording of this conversation. Here is an extract from the transcript:
Paramahamsa: “Shrila Prabhupada, you said that this war will destroy the demonic civilization.”
Paramahamsa: “Does that mean that it’ll destroy all the cities and all the industries?”
Prabhupada: “War means destruction of all cities. That is natural. You have got experience in Europe so many times.”
Hamsaduta: “Cities and industries.”
Prabhupada: “Yes, that is the main target.”
The natural question was asked:
Hamsaduta: “So Prabhupada, is there something we should do to prepare ourselves for this disaster?”
Hamsaduta: “This coming war.”
Prabhupada: “You should simply prepare for chanting Hare Krishna.”
Hamsaduta: “That’s all?”
Prabhupada: “That’s all.”
I was in Mayapur myself on this occasion. Many devotees had gathered for the annual Gaura Purnima festival, and the word swiftly traveled through the assembled pilgrims, who were naturally quite electrified by the news of the impending outbreak of World War III.
It has come at last! After all, Americans of my generation, born around the end of WWII, had been expecting WWIII since we were in grade school. It claimed a very special place in the imagination of all of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s.
During those years in America, fear steadily increased. We heard that Russian spies had stolen the secret of the atomic bomb, and then that the Soviet Union was matching us step by step in the “arms race,” in deploying long-range bombers and later on missiles, both bearing lethal atomic payloads, calculated in megatons and megadeaths. In grade school we were indoctrinated in fear and our teachers drilled us weekly in protecting ourselves from atomic attack by crouching under our desks. We heard that Communist agents were infiltrating our institutions, stealing our secrets. Backyard fallout shelters became all the rage, and theologians and philosophers discussed in Life and Time the ethics of defending your shelter against your surviving neighbors.
The cold war was more personal to me than most. My mother’s parents had come to America as refugees from Russia—from Kiev and Odessa. My grandmother’s family having ended up on the losing side during the Communist revolution, she and her new husband escaped to the West with other relatives in a close encounter with Bolshevik bullets. My mother just managed to be born in America. She was named Natasha (after the heroine of Tolstoy’s great novel) and spoke Russian before she spoke English.
My father had enlisted as a private in the Georgia National Guard at the beginning of World War II, and he became commissioned as an officer in the regular Army during the conflict. In my parent’s wedding photo, both are in uniform—his displaying the crossed canons of the field artillery, hers the caduceus of the Army Nurse Corps. After the war, my father continued in the military.
He became a “cold warrior.” When he was stationed in Germany in the mid-fifties with the Second Armored Division, he was constantly away from home on “maneuvers.” These were field exercises in tanks, essentially rehearsals for the opening of World War III that could break out at any moment. This was the forecast: the vast armored divisions of the Warsaw Pact would pour into the plains of central Germany, where the NATO forces would contest them in a massive tank battle. At the war’s outbreak, my father would remain with his unit, while we, his “dependents,” would be swiftly evacuated. We had to maintain a fully packed bag on hand at all times so we could leave on twenty minute’s notice.
In the meantime, my Russian grandmother ran a dry cleaning shop near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. The Soviet Embassy at that time was not far away, and its personnel provided her with steady, loyal customers. One day I was standing behind the counter with her when two Russian diplomats came in, big solid men with wide red faces, both wearing grey double-breasted suits. I watched as she politely spoke with them in Russian while she transacted their business. As soon as the door ticked shut on their exit, my grandmother startled me by yelling out the explitive “Communists!” Her face contoured in revulsion, she spit forcefully on the floor.
Once on our way to feed the pigeons in Lafayette Park—a regular excursion—my grandmother and I encountered a pair of Soviet diplomats, suited as usual. As they stood conversing with my grandmother in Russian, they kept glancing down at me. After resuming our walk to the park, I asked my grandmother about the conversation. She said:“They were asking about you, sweetheart, and I told them you were my grandson. They said you were a good-looking boy, and I said that yes, you were very much like your father. And I told them that your father was an officer in the United States Army.” She said the words “officer in the United States Army” as if a brass fanfare played inaudibly behind it. “Oh,” I said, “and what did they say?” “They asked me,” my grandmother replied, “‘Will your grandson also become a soldier?’ And I said, ‘Yes! An officer!’”
Later, when I was in the ninth and tenth grades, we lived in a suburb of Philadelphia. My father had command of an air defense battalion, whose batteries of Nike-Ajax missiles ringed Philadelphia and Wilmington, constantly ready to shoot the attacking Russian bombers out of the sky.
After that, in Taiwan (“Free China”), my father, now as a military “advisor,” confronted the Red China across the strait with the more advanced Nike-Hercules missiles. They could carry nuclear warheads. The father of my girlfriend worked for something called the “Naval Auxiliary Communication Center.” In reality, it was the CIA. (No one was supposed to know this, but everyone did.) When her father went to work, he climbed aboard a spy plane and flew it far over the Chinese mainland.
Going off to college didn’t get me away from the war. In my first month, I spent several agonizing days with the other freshman in our dorm rooms during the Cuban missile crisis, following the news on radio, listening to the military aircraft roaring overhead, waiting for the signal to head for the shelters, waiting to be annihilated. We passed time discussing the end of the world.
So it was that in 1975 in Mayapur—not far from the Bangladesh border, situated on another geopolitical fault line between the two global powers—Prabhupada foresaw that the delicate balance of terror sustained by the superpowers, named Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.), would finally tilt and bring the long dreaded nuclear cataclysm upon us.
Why is it that human history is filled with wars, one after another? Although no one wants them, they keep coming and coming.
Prabhupada offered a reason, which he repeated in books and lectures. For example, he wrote in a Shrimad Bhagavatam commentary to 4.26.5:
In this age of Kali the propensity for mercy is almost nil. Consequently there is always fighting and wars between men and nations. Men do not understand that because they unrestrictedly kill so many animals, they also must be slaughtered like animals in big wars. This is very much evident in the Western countries. In the West, slaughterhouses are maintained without restriction, and therefore every fifth or tenth year there is a big war in which countless people are slaughtered even more cruelly than the animals.
In lectures, Prabhupada would express himself more emotionally, as in this one in Los Angeles in 1973:
The desire is never satiated that “You have killed so many animals. Now you don’t—” No, he will go on, go on killing, killing, killing, killing, killing, killing. He is never satisfied, “Now I have killed so many. No more, stop.” No, there is no stoppage. . . . The injunction is “Thou shalt not kill,” but he will kill and kill and kill and kill, and still, he want to be satisfied. Just see. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill,” and they are simply engaged in killing business, and still they want to be happy. . . . Therefore Kåñëa says, “Yes, you be killed by occasional world war. You must be killed. You have created this situation. You must be killed. You may be American or Englishman or German or this or that. You may be very proud of your nationality. But you must be killed.” This is the position. Ishvarasya viceshtitam [the will of the Lord]: “You have killed so many animals. Now wholesale killing, one bomb. One atom bomb. Be killed.”
So we could understand, when Prabhupada prophecized in Mayapur, that the mercilessness of modern civilization—with its routinized slaughter of animals and humans on an industrial scale—had produced such a gigantic accumulation of evil that the reaction would soon fructify. No one doubted it. Devotees left the festival in a heighten state of urgency. Prabhupada made it clear that war’s arrival was a matter of months, not years.
Prabhupada said that our only preparation for the nuclear war should be to cultivate our chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Nevertheless, I remember that waves of other kinds of preparations went through ISKCON. Some set out to ascertain particular locations kept safe from fallout by the winds and terrain. Others realizing the practical reason, dedicated themselves to Prabhupada’s long-standing desire for totally self-sufficient, agrarian communities. A few tapped into an extremist American survivalist tradition and dug bunkers, and shelters and stockpiled them with weapons.
So people prepared—some quite energetically—in a range of spiritual and material ways, but, as we all know, the war did not come. Gradually, as the months passed, the prophesied war stopped being a topic of conversation. More time passed. What happened? Could Prabhupada have been wrong? Perhaps devotees kept quiet from embarrassment over unexpressed doubts or from simple confusion.
For myself, I became increasingly curious. A prediction like that was so uncharacteristic of Prabhupada, and yet he had expressed it strongly, unequivocally, and publically. My own experience with Prabhupada showed me that he was preternaturally alert, and that his mind worked swifter and surer than anyone I had ever met. I did not think he could have been merely wrong.
Sometime, probably toward the end of 1976 or early in 1977, I asked a few leaders close to Prabhupada about the prediction. Had Prabhupada said anything concerning the war’s non-occurrence?
As it turned out he had. A member of the Governing Body—I don’t remember now who it was—told me: “Yeah, some of us asked Prabhupada about it. He said the war didn’t happen because Krishna changed his mind.” Another confirmed this account.
I was fascinated by Prabhupada’s answer. Of course, I recognized how someone skeptical could just dismiss his response as a kind of a cover-up for a mistake. But I knew Prabhupada better than that. I took his answer seriously, and it intrigued me. I found his answer raised two compelling issues. One concerned general theological and philosophical principles. It had never occurred to me before that God could change his mind. But—why not? Should we limit him, forbidding him what we do all the time? But if Krishna can and does change his mind, what does that imply about the nature of time, and of the specific character of the future?
The other issue was somewhat more concrete. Why should God change his mind? What would cause him to do so? And in this case, what specifically happened to make him change his mind to cancel the immanent World War III?
Over the ensuing years, I explored these issues. It proved to be an interesting and rewarding pursuit.
—to be continued next week—