Tag Archives: 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


Filed under Srila Prabhupada

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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A Philadelphia Invocation

It began with an answered phone in my office on an otherwise ordinary day in 1973. A woman addressed me in the distinctive vowels and consonants that revealed her to be a native of Philadelphia—or “Fluffya,” as it’s called in the local dialect. She asked if I were the head person of the Hare Krishna temple. She pronounced “Hare” as “hair.”

“Ha-ray Krishna temple,” I responded. “Yes, I am.” “Are you,” she continued, “a priest, minister, or rabbi of your religion?” She had a raspy smoker’s voice. “A priest,” I affirmed.

“OK, then. I’m calling you from the Philadelphia City Council, office of Councilman Kelly.” She paused while a phlegmy cough made its way up her bronchial tubes. “The council,” she resumed, “meets every week in its chambers on Thursdays, at ten a.m. The meeting always opens with an invocation by a member of the clergy, and the council members are responsible for inviting a clergyman on a rotating basis. In two weeks it will be Councilman Kelly’s turn. He is offering to you the honor of giving the invocation. Will you accept?” “Yes, I’ll be happy to,” I answered right away. But I was mind-blown, flabbergasted, gob smacked.

I was acutely aware of how small our group of Krishna devotees was and how alien we seemed to most people. In those days we were generally regarded as the weirdest and most spiritual subset of the counterculture, utterly strange yet benign.

I had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school that for over two centuries had reliably churned out fresh members of the Philadelphia establishment. Automatically, I had taken a certain social status for granted. I did not at all anticipate the total and complete devaluation I underwent the day I shaved my head and put on a dhoti. Shopkeepers no longer met my eye, secretaries stopped being polite. All it took was a little outward alteration, a mere half-hour’s work, to transform me into a non-person, an outcast. What a valuable lesson I received about human society—and about my own attachments as well.

It was therefore startling to be invited to open the session of city council, and by no less a personage than John B. Kelly,Jr. , a celebrity among his colleagues: famous as a scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family, famous as an former Olympic athlete, and famous especially as the younger brother of Grace Kelly, a Hollywood golden goddess of the 1950s who by 1973 reigned as Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco.

Jack Kelly had a reputation as a bit of a maverick, too, and for that reason I could entertain the notion that he had, somehow, become attracted to Krishna consciousness.

The secretary on the phone then gave me specific instruction. A driver in a city limousine would pick me up at the temple and drive me to City Hall. I would be escorted to Councilman Kelly’s office, were I would relax until the appointed time. Then I would be led to the Council Chambers. On a cue from my escort, I would walk out to the podium before assembled council members, where I would deliver my invocation. Directly behind me, a few steps up, would be the president of the city council. I would face the chamber and deliver my address.

“Keep it short,” the secretary said. “Just a few words to point the councilmen in the right direction, to enlighten their hearts. Not too long.” “OK,” I said. “And,” she said “No bells!” My heart sunk as I agreed, “All right.” “When you finish,” she went on, “you turn around, walk up a few steps to the podium of the council president, where you will shake hands with the president. Then you exit the chamber the same way you came in. Is that clear?” “Yes,” I answered, and I repeated the part involving the President. “That’s right,” she said. “You will also be returned home in a city limousine,” she added, “and you’ll get a check by mail, fifty dollars. We give an honorarium.” She paused, waiting. “Thank you,” I obliged. “OK,” she continued. “And just remember, OK: Don’t make it too long, and don’t ring any bells!”

Upon receiving the invitation, the image that had immediately sprung to mind was of my standing before the city council, kartals in hand, and chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. But the secretary had put the kibosh on that notion. Yet I could not forgo the desire for the city council to hear the maha-mantra at least once. From what I had heard, that body badly needed some purification. I decided that I would start my invocation by reciting the entire mantra—spoken, not sung. (No bells.) And the rest of the invocation would be about the meaning of the mantra. I would conclude by coming around to the mantra again.

I would make it clear that the meaning of the mantra concerned not this or that faith but rather the universal principles of religion as such. I would try to make this relevant by stressing the necessity of those principles for any civil society, and of the obligation of government to support them.

I worked a long time to make the invocation short. When it was finished, I typed it all out on my Smith-Carona portable—all capitals, double-spaced, on a single sheet of paper. I had my script. I was prepared.

On the day before the engagement, Subala Swami showed up unexpectedly at the temple. He had been the president of the Philadelphia center when I first began associating with the devotees. He had taken sannyasa, resigned from management, and had been staying in India. I showed him my invocation, and he liked it. He was happy to come with me to City Hall.

The limousine arrived Thursday morning at the appointed time, and we were led through the corridors of the imposing City Hall to the office of Councilman Kelly. I eagerly looked forward to talking with him, and I had brought him prasadam and some books. As we waited, I saw him twice go quickly in and out of the office, but I couldn’t get his attention. I figured he was busy, and I would get my chance to talk to him later.

Subala and I were soon led to a pair of velvet-covered chairs placed in the wing of the Council Chamber, a large room seriously ornate in the 19th century fashion, abounding in mosaic tiles, intricately carved wood, and glittering wrought metalwork. When I walked to the podium, I was startled to see the huge number of people in the chamber, filling the space behind the councilmen’s desks and packing the upper galleries. The members of the press and media packed the rear of the room, beneath a dense bank of TV cameras and flood lights. I reached the podium, and turned to face the chamber.

A gavel banged behind me. All rose together to their feet, and below me, I saw the councilmen bow down their heads. It seemed as if they were listening in submission as I began slowly to say: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare . . . .” Before the first “Hare Krishna” had left my mouth, a dazzling radiance burst forth from the back of the room. I had to suppress a start of surprise. Along with the light came a whirr of TV-camera motors and the staccato popping of flash bulbs. The sound was so loud I automatically raised my voice.

I realized, as I neared the completion of my exhortation, that the audience would be expecting an “Amen” to know when to raise their heads and sit back down, so I tacked a “Thank you” onto the end of my invocation. The glare blinked off. I turned away and, with the rustle and scrape of the seating crowd behind me, walked up to George X. Schwartz, city council president. As we shook hands, I looked into a pair of eyes that seemed cold and dead. There was an aura of menace about his countenance. “Congratulations,” said the president, unsmiling. With that, I headed to the wing, where Subala awaited me. “Wow,” he said, looking over my shoulder at the council president, “what a demon that guy is.” I heard my very own thought coming out of Subala’s mouth.

As I waited back in the office, Councilman Kelly rushed in, and then, as he was rushing back out he stopped, shook my hand and said, “Congratulations. Glad you could make it.” Clearly uncomfortable, he dashed back out before I could say much of anything. Subala and I cooled our heels for nearly an hour before our driver finally showed up.

On the ride back, I began to put together what had actually happened. Councilman Kelly did not want to be seen with us. He was embarrassed. Snatches of conversation I had overheard in the hallway and office began to coalesce into a coherent picture: Councilman Kelly had been in hot water because he had been frequently delinquent when it was his turn to provide a clergyman to open the council meeting. Apparently, he had been served some sort of ultimatum, and he resented that. And so, he hit upon a way that would fulfill his duty to the letter of the law, and at the same time, stick it to those who were getting on his case.

He invited me.

Well, this was a humbling realization.

Still, the Lord uses those who would use him. The invocation to open the city council meeting was carried in the local evening news on all three TV channels. And the Daily News and the Evening Bulletin each displayed on their front page a picture of me delivering the invocation.

The photograph below is from the Philadelphia Daily News. You can see how ornate the council chamber is. And you can see behind me the figure of the then council president, George X. Schwartz, whom Subala Swami and I both perceived as—how to put this—particularly ungodly.

Events bore us out. A few years after my encounter with the council president, he had an encounter with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was running a sting operation called ABSCAM. Schwartz was nabbed, along with many other corrupt state and federal legislators, for accepting a bribe. He was convicted and went to jail. Mike Mallowe, in his Bulletin article titled “Looking Back in Anger,” recalls “the dark days of George X. Schwartz’s haughty and hypocritical rule in city government.” He goes on to note how Schwartz, during his reign as council president, “would ultimately lead the way to federal prison for a whole generation of the politicians he had selected, mentored, invested with power and introduced to bribery.”

I hope that the maha-mantra has bestowed its mercy on Councilman Schwartz, on Councilman Kelly, on the council itself, and on our City of Brotherly Love. I can only think that it was the Holy Name himself who brought me before the city council in 1973, making use of Jack Kelly’s prank to fulfill his own transcendent purposes.


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