Category Archives: Srila Prabhupada

The Soul of Compassion

It is December of 1936. Abhaya Caraṇāravinda Dāsa, a forty-year-old pharmaceutical distributor then in Bombay on business, feels a sudden impulse to write a letter to his spiritual master, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura.

Bhaktisiddhanta2_1Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura

It is December 9, 1968, thirty-two years later. The same disciple—now a renunciant and spiritual master himself—finds himself in the city of Los Angeles where he relates to a gathering of his own disciples the story of his 1936 letter. He is observing with them the “Disappearance Day” of his spiritual master.

Srila Prabhupada“Swamījī”— A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami

Abhaya Caraṇāravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami asks ­his disciples: “Who knew that I would come in America? Who knew that you American boys will come to me? These are all Kṛṣṇa’s arrangement. We cannot understand how things are taking place.” He continues:

In Bombay, I was then doing some business. All of a sudden, perhaps on this date, sometimes between 9 or 10 December. At that time, Guru Mahārāja was indisposed little, and he was staying at Jagannātha Purī, on the seashore. So I wrote him letter, “My dear master, your other disciples, brahmacā, sannyā, they are rendering you direct service. And I am a householder. I cannot live with you, I cannot serve you nicely. So I do not know. How can I serve you?” Simply an idea, I was thinking of serving him, “How can I serve him seriously?” So the reply was dated 13th December, 1936. In that letter he wrote, “My dear such and such, I am very glad to receive your letter. I think you should try to push our movement in English.” That was his writing. “And that will do good to you and to the people who will help you.” That was his instruction. And then in 1936, on the 31st December—that means just after writing this letter a fortnight before his departure—he passed away.

Some background: “Push our movement in English” was an expression immediately recognized among the followers of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura. It denoted his fervent desire for his disciples to propagate Kṛṣṇa consciousness boldly in the countries of the West. He had urged this course upon his most competent leaders in his institution, who, as sannyāsīs or brahmacārīs, were free to venture forth unfettered by familial and social bonds. These renunciants, under Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura’s direction, had spread Lord Caitanya’s movement all over India, opening sixty-four temples. Now he wanted to expand outside of India. Yet his disciples had, so far, disappointed him.

Householders, with their domestic and social obligations, were not as available for widespread preaching.  Abhaya Caraṇāravinda Dāsa understood well the intensity of his guru’s desire to give others Kṛṣṇa consciousness, and he keenly felt his own lack. So he had written: “I am bound by family obligations and cannot serve you like my renounced godbrothers; even so, is there any service I can render?” How astonishing, then, it must have been for Abhaya Caraṇāravinda Dāsa to receive in answer the exact same instruction Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura had imparted to his renounced leaders.

In Los Angeles in 1968, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami—at that time addressed as “Swamījī”—recounts to his small band of disciples: “I took that order of my spiritual master very seriously. But I did not think that I’ll have to do such and such thing. I was at that time a householder.” In other words, although he took the order to heart, he could not at first consider any practical plans. He was incapacitated: “at that time a householder.”

Swamījī continues: “But this is the arrangement of Kṛṣṇa. If we strictly try to serve the spiritual master, his order, then Kṛṣṇa will give us all facilities. That is the secret.” How did it happen that he came to America and American youth joined him? Here he answers the question. Even though the order of his guru seemed like “mission impossible,” (to expropriate the title of an old American TV series), Swamījī committed himself to it anyway: “Although there was no possibility. . . . I never thought . . . . But I took it little seriously by studying a commentary by Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura on the Bhagavad-gītā.” Explaining the “resolute determination” cited by Kṛṣṇa (BG 2.41) as necessary for spiritual success, Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura wrote:

The instructions of my spiritual master . . . are my only dhana, my only dhya, my only livelihood. I am incapable of giving up these instructions either in the stage of practice or in the stage of perfection. They alone are my object of desire and my only responsibility. Besides them I can desire no other responsibility, not even in my dreams. It is all the same to me whether I feel happy or unhappy, or whether my material existence is eradicated or not.

[quoted by Bhūrijana Dāsa,  As They Surrender Unto Me, preface]

Swamījī continues: “So I tried a little bit in that spirit. So he has given me all facilities to serve him. Things have come to this stage, that in this old age I have come to your country, and you are also taking this movement seriously, trying to understand it. We have got some books now. So there is little foothold of this movement.”

And now something momentous happens:

So on this occasion of my spiritual master’s departure, as I am trying to execute his will, similarly, I shall also request you to execute the same order through my will. I am an old man, I can also pass away at any moment. That is nature’s law. Nobody can check it. So that is not very astonishing, but my appeal to you on this auspicious day of the departure of my Guru Mahārāja, that at least to some extent you have understood the essence of Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement. You should try to push it on. People are suffering for want of this consciousness.

Perpetuating his guru’s order, he directs us to cultivate Kṛṣṇa consciousness and to give it to others. He explains:

A Vaiṣṇava, or devotee of Lord, his life is dedicated for the benefit of the people. You know—most of you belong to Christian community—how Lord Jesus Christ, he said that for your sinful activities he has sacrificed himself. That is the determination of devotee of the Lord. They don’t care for personal comforts. Because they love Kṛṣṇa or God, therefore they love all living entities because all living entities are in relationship with Kṛṣṇa. So similarly you should learn. This Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement means to become Vaiṣṇava and feel for the suffering humanity.

“Push our movement in English” is the order of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, and now Swamījī, in transmitting  “the same order” to his disciples, expressing it as “feel for the suffering humanity.” Prabhupāda goes on to explain that many people make strenuous attempts to alleviate human suffering, but because they understand this suffering on the bodily platform, their efforts, however laudable, cannot solve the problem. The Vaiṣṇava, on the other hand, understands the root cause of suffering, and offers the only effective remedy: Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

It is illuminating to note that in 1936, in backward, colonial India, where the advanced British nation, having dutifully shouldered “the white man’s burden,” strives ceaselessly to bestow upon the materially and socially retarded people the blessings of centuries of European progress—in this archaic, benighted civilization, so desperately in need of enlightened Western guidance,  Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura expresses his deep concern for the suffering humanity of the West.

What effrontery! India is the land of suffering, not Europe!

Yet look at what is happening in the West in 1936, the result of centuries of progress. In Germany, Hitler sends his rearmed military to take over the Rheinland, thus breaking the Treaty of Versailles; Germany enters into a pact with Japan against the USSR. Mussolini and Hitler proclaim the “Rome-Berlin axis.” In Spain, a civil war breaks out, pitting Fascists against Communists in a harsh struggle later recognized as the “dress rehearsal” for World War II. Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini poured men and material into the civil conflict.

A world-engulfing war is in the works, taking an estimated toll of over 60 million human lives before it is over.  Research is ongoing: The systematic viciousness of this death-orgy is highlighted in a recent article in The New York Review of Books by Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor of history, who gives close consideration to the way “the bureaucracies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union turned individual lives into mass death, particular humans into quotas of those to be killed.”

Here are Snyder’s approximate numbers for “the five largest policies of mass killing of civilians carried out by Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.”

The German attempt to exterminate European Jews              5.7 million deaths
German starvations of Soviet citizens                                            4 million
German mass reprisals against civilians                                        750,000 (at least)
Soviet starvations of Soviet citizens                                                5.5 million
The shootings of the Soviet Great Terror                                     700,000

Triumph of deathPieter Brueghel the Elder, The Triumph of Death

I was born during the course of this global slaughter; as a child I played in the war’s detritus in Okinawa and Germany. Since then, I do not see that the world, despite so many efforts of good-willed, self-sacrificing people, has become more hospitable. Most of us know now that at any moment the next great human devastation can break out.

A few years after Swamījī handed on the order of his spiritual master to his own disciples, I was blessed to receive initiation from him. By that time he was called “Śrīla Prabhupāda,” for by his action he had proven himself to be the rightful inheritor of his Guru Mahārāja’s own title. On the morning of my initiation (July 21, 1971) in New York, I heard my first class from Prabhupāda in person.

In the verse for that day (SB 6.1.6), Mahārāja Parīkṣit asks Śukadeva to “kindly tell me how human beings may be saved from having to enter hellish conditions in which they suffer terrible pains.”

Prabhupāda remarks:

Vaiṣṇava is always feeling for others’ distress. That is Vaiṣṇava. Vaiṣṇava—para-duḥkha-dukhī. They’re very much afflicted with others’, I mean to say, miserable life. Just like Lord Jesus Christ, he presented himself as very much afflicted with others’ miserable condition of life. So all the Vaiṣṇavas, devotees—It doesn’t matter which country he belongs to or which sect he belongs to. Anyone who is God-conscious or Kṛṣṇa conscious. . . Para-duḥkha-dukhī kṛpāmbudhi. These are the adjectives of the qualifications. . . . kṛpāmbudhi means ocean of mercy, kṛpāmbudhi. And para-duḥkha-dukhī [one who suffers because of the suffering of others].

He explains Parīkṣit’s question like this:

“Sir, you have described that on account of these sinful activities, he’s put into this hellish condition of life or in hellish planetary system. Now what are the countermethods by which they can be saved?” This is the question. This question: Because he is Vaiṣṇava, he is thinking, “Oh, so many living entities are suffering. How they can be saved?” A Vaiṣṇava comes, God also comes, and God’s son or very confidential devotee also comes. Their only mission is how to save these sinful men who are suffering so much. That is their mission. They have no other mission.

Prabhupāda has charged his disciples with the same order he received from his Guru Mahārāja. He has also shown us that single-minded dedication to that order is the secret of success. He has demonstrated this by his own example.

And we know how much the world is suffering. Therefore, we should wholeheartedly fulfill the request Prabhupāda made at the conclusion of his address in Los Angeles in 1968:

Now, you American boys and girls who have taken to this movement, please take it more seriously and. . . That is the mission of Lord Caitanya and my Guru Mahārāja, and we are also trying to execute the will by disciplic succession. You have come forward to help me. I shall request you all that—I shall go away, but you shall live—don’t give up pushing on this movement, and you’ll be blessed by Lord Caitanya and His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī  Goswami Prabhupāda.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Triumph of Death

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A Short Letter to Śrīla Prabhupāda

Prabhupada mrdanga

My dear Śrīla Prabhupāda,

Please accept my most fallen dandavats at your feet.

For twelve extraordinary years you crossed and re-crossed the world, sowing the seeds of love of Krishna. Who can actually know the extent of your work? Wherever you went, you broadcast the seeds of bhakti—by your footfall, by your speech, by your glance. And wherever in the nooks and crannies of this earth your various energies came to alight, the seeds of bhakti scattered and spread—carried by your books, your recorded voice, your followers. To this day no one knows the breath and depth of your work.

One day it will be known. Your greatness will become manifest. You sowed the seeds, and I labor joyfully with your followers in the fields you planted to nurse the huge harvest of love to fruition; I work so that your glories can be known. Each day we uncover new fields, discover growing testimony to your great work. Each day we mark the indomitable growth. We get a hint of the dimensions of what is to come.

I am the most fortunate person in all the worlds to have had your association and to be able even now to keep your association by following your order and doing your work. I undertake these things for your glorification. Pleading to remain forever at your lotus feet,

Your unworthy servant,
Ravindra Svarupa dasa

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Srila Prabhupada’s Voice

“Voice” is the aspect of a literary work which conveys the distinct power and flavor of the narrator’s personality. Voice is different from style, although it depends on style for its realization. Here is the writer Holly Lisle attempting to capture the idea of voice:

. . . .you have to put yourself on your page. This is what is known in the writing business as developing your voice. Voice isn’t merely style. Style would be easy by comparison. Style is watching your use of adjectives and doing a few flashy things with alliteration. Style without voice is hollow. Voice is style, plus theme, plus personal observations, plus passion, plus belief, plus desire. Voice is bleeding onto the page, and it can be a powerful, frightening, naked experience.

Voice is difficult to define, and evidently even more difficult to teach and cultivate. They say the writer has to “find her voice.”

In Philip Roth’s novel The Ghostwriter, Nathan Zuckerman, a novice writer, has submitted with trepidation his four published stories to his hero E. I. Lonoff—“the great man”—for judgment. Zuckerman is thrilled when Lonoff eventually remarks:

“Look, I told Hope this morning: Zuckerman has the most compelling voice I’ve encountered in years, certainly for somebody starting out.”
“Do I?”
“I don’t mean style”—raising a finger to make the distinction. “I mean voice: something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head. don’t worry too much about ‘wrong.’ Just keep going. You’ll get there.”

However resistant to definition, voice is unmistakable when you hear it. Here are the opening of two renowned novels. The voices of the narrators are remarkably different, yet each immediately takes possession of the reader:

Herman Melville, Moby Dick:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.

Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

I first read Prabhupada’s presentation of Canto One of Srimad Bhagavatam in 1971. At that time the work was available only in the three volumes of the League of Devotee edition that Prabhupada had published in India and brought with him to America in 1965.

It was in these volumes that I encountered Prabhupada’s voice.

The thick, cheap paper of the books were crudely bound. The text was riddled with typos and solecisms. The writing was certainly not “standard” English, but more like what the British called, disparagingly, “Babu English,” the ornate but imperfect English of Indian clerks.

Recognizing the shortcomings of his work, Prabhupada directed his American disciples to edit the volumes to meet the strict requirements of standard English. Even the Sanskrit transliterations had to conform to the established academic usage. This normalized version of the first canto was published in the West under the imprint of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

I am grateful that I was able first to read Canto One in the original India version. True, it presented a challenge to me when I quoted from it extensively in a paper for a course in graduate religious studies. Standard practice demanded that I put “[sic]” after every single anomaly. It didn’t take me long to forswear that practice, and I simply presented in a footnote my reasons for not salting my quotation with sics. To tell the truth, I was a little embarrassed. So it is not that I did not welcome the BBT edition when it came.

At the same time, something precious to me was lost with the rectification of Prabhupada’s text to standard English: His voice was muffled, muted. And that voice appealed powerfully to me during my first reading; it moved me profoundly. And I missed it later on. For that reason, I return regularly to the original. And I was glad when the BBT published in 2005 a facsimile edition of the original three volumes.

In the excerpt below from the original edition, Prabhupada writes of his own project of presenting Bhagavatam in English to the Western world. If voice requires “passion, plus belief, plus desire,” we encounter it here, in full spiritualized force, energizing Prabhupada’s writing. In this passage, Prabhupada speaks of the urgent need for the Bhagavatam. At the same time he acknowledges his own shortcomings in presenting it and makes the case why the reader should overlook them. Almost magically, he transforms his imperfections into perfections.

Here it is. (You can compare this version of Bhagavatam 1.5.11 to the normalized version here.)


img-b_page_1sb-page-2-gsb-page-3-b

You can see how the energy of Prabhupada’s voice is conveyed by the way his sentences advance through long, rhythmic rhetorical periods, building up power.

Let me illustrate this by graphically rearranging some sentences:

graphic-rearrangement


For those of you who want a further taste of Prabhupada voice, here is the Preface to the second volume of the Bhagavatam. Prabhupada again speaks of his mission of propagating Bhagavatam to the world and urges its necessity. “Voice is style, plus theme, plus personal observations, plus passion, plus belief, plus desire.” All are displayed by Prabhupada in full:

preface-1preface-2bpreface-3preface-4-b

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