Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandir, Hare Krishna Temple. ISKCON New York

Srila Prabhupada

Srila Prabhupada

Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada appeared on this planet on the 1st September 1896, the day after Janmastami, one of the most important Vaishnava holidays, in a humble house in the Tollygunge suburb of Calcutta, he was named Abhay Charan – “one who is fearless, having taken shelter at Lord Krishna’s feet.” Since he appeared on the day of Nandotsava (“the celebration of Nanda,” Lord Krishna’s father, a traditional festival in honour of Lord Krishna’s birth) he was also called Nandulal. Srila Prabhupad’s parents, Sriman Gour Mohan De and Srimati Rajani De, were devout Vaishnavas (devotees of Lord Vishnu). In accordance with Bengali tradition, his mother had gone to the home of her parents for the delivery, and only a few days later Abhay returned with parents to his home at 151 Harrison Road in Calcutta, where he was brought up and educated.

Before adopting the life of a pious renunciant (vanaprastha) in 1950, he was married with children and owned a small pharmaceutical business. In 1959 he took a vow of renunciation (sannyasa) and started writing commentaries on Vaishnava scriptures. In his later years, as a travelling Vaishnava monk, he became an influential communicator of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology to India and specifically to the West through his leadership of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), founded in 1966. As the founder of ISKCON, he “emerged as a major figure of the Western counter-culture, initiating thousands of young Americans.” Despite attacks from anti-cult groups, he received a favourable welcome from many religious scholars, such as J. Stillson Judah, Harvey Cox, Larry Shinn and Thomas Hopkins, who praised Prabhupada’s translations and defended the group against distorted media images and misinterpretations. In respect to his achievements, religious leaders from other Gaudiya Vaishnava movements have also given him credit.

He received a European led education in the Scottish Church College, Calcutta. This school was well reputed among Bengalis; many Vaishnava families sent their sons there. The professors, most of whom were Europeans, were known as sober, moral men, and it is believed that the students should receive a good education. The college was located in north Calcutta, not far from Harrison Road where Abhay’s family lived. During his years in the college, Srila Prabhupada was a member of the English Society as well as that of the Sanskrit Society, and it has been suggested that his education provided him a foundation for his future leadership. He graduated in 1920 with majors in English, philosophy and economics. However he refused to accept his diploma, being a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi at the time. His refusal to accept the diploma he had earned was in protest of the British. He also wore the homespun cotton cloth the followers of Gandhi wore in protest of British clothes.

In 1922, when Srila Prabhupada first met his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Goswami Maharaja, he was requested to spread the message of Shree Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the English language. Later in 1932 Srila Prabhupada became a formally initiated disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta. In 1944, (from his front room at Sita Kanta Banerjee, Calcutta), Srila Prabhupada started the publication called Back to Godhead, for which he acted as designer, publisher, editor, copy editor and distributor. He personally designed the logo, an effulgent figure of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the upper left corner, with the motto: “Godhead is Light, Nescience is darkness” greeting the readers. In his first magazine Srila Prabhupada wrote: “Under the circumstances since 1936 up to now, I was simply speculating whether I shall venture this difficult task and that without any means and capacity; but as none have discouraged me, I have now taken courage to take up the work.” — A.C.Bhakivedanta Swami, Back to Godhead magazine(Vol.1, 1-4, 1944)

In 1947, the Gaudiya Vaishnava Society recognised Prabhupada’s scholarship with the title Bhaktivedanta, (bhakti-ved?nta) meaning “one who has realised that devotional service to the Supreme Lord is the end of all knowledge” (with the words Bhakti, indicating devotion and Vedanta indicating conclusive knowledge). His later well known name, Prabhupada, is a Sanskrit title, literally meaning “he who has taken the position of the Lord” where prabhu denotes “Lord”, and pada means “position.” Also, “at whose feet masters sit”. This name was used as a respectful form of address by his disciples from late 1967 early to 1968 onwards. Previous to this, as with his early disciples, followers used to call him “Swamiji”.

From 1950 onwards, Srila Prabhupada lived at the medieval Radha-Damodar mandir in Vrindavan, India where he began his commentary and translation work of the Sanskrit work Srimad Bhagavatam Maha Purana. Of all Vrindavana’s notable temples, the Radha-Damodara Mandir had at the time the largest collection of various copies of the original writings of the Six (Sat) Gosvamis and their followers – more than two thousand separate manuscripts, many of them three hundred, some even four hundred years old. His guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Goswami Maharaja, had always encouraged Srila Prabhupada that “If you ever get money, print books”, referring to the need of literary presentation of the Vaishnava culture.

Keshavaji Gaudiya Matha was the place where Srila Prabhupada used to live, he had written and studied in the library of this building, here he edited the Gaudiya Patrika magazine and this is the place where he donated the murti of Lord Chaitanya who stands on the altar beside the Deities of Radha Krishna (named Sri Sri Radha Vinodavihariji). During his visit in September 1959 he entered the doors of this Math dressed in white, as Abhay Babu, but would be leaving dressed in saffron, a swami. In this Math, in Mathura Vrindavana, Prabhupada took Vaishnava renunciate vows, sannyasa, from his friend and godbrother Bhakti Prajnana Keshava Goswami Maharaja, and following this he single-handedly published the first three volumes covering seventeen chapters of the first book of Bhagavata Purana, filling three volumes of four hundred pages each with a detailed commentary. The introduction to the first volume was a biographical sketch of Shree Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He then left India, obtaining free passage on a freight ship called the Jaladuta, with the aim and a hope of fulfilling his spiritual master’s instruction to spread the message of Shree Chaitanya Mahaprabhu around the world. In his possession were a suitcase, an umbrella, a supply of dry cereal, about eight dollars worth of Indian currency, and several boxes of books.

Srila Prabhupada sailed to the USA in 1965. His trip to the United States was not sponsored by any religious organization, nor was he met upon arrival by a group of loyal followers. As he neared his destination on the ship, the Indian freighter Jaladuta, the enormity of his intended task weighed on him. On September 13 Srila Prabhupada wrote in his diary, “Today I have disclosed my mind to my companion, Lord Shree Krishna.” On this occasion and on a number of others, Srila Prabhupada, called on Lord Krishna for help in his native Bengali. Examining these compositions, academics regard them as “intimate records of his prayerful preparation for what lay ahead” and a view on “how Bhaktivedanta Swami understood his own identity and mission.”

“ 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? How will I make them understand this message of Krishna consciousness? I am very unfortunate, unqualified and most fallen. Therefore I am seeking Your benediction so that I can convince them, for I am powerless to do so on my own.”

By journeying to America, he was attempting to fulfil the wish of his guru by the grace of Lord Krishna. It was in July 1966 that “global missionary Vaishnavism” was brought to the West by Srila Prabhupada, “the soul agent”, founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York City. Srila Prabhupada spent much of the last decade of his life setting up the institution of ISKCON. Since he was the Society’s leader, his personality and management were responsible for much of ISKCON’S growth and the reach of his mission.

When it was suggested to Bhaktivedanta Swami at the time of founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in 1966 that a broader term “God Consciousness” would be preferable to “Krishna Consciousness” in the title, he rejected this recommendation, suggesting that name Krishna includes all other forms and concepts of God.

After a group of devotees and a temple had been established in New York another centre was started in San Francisco in 1967. From here Prabhupada travelled throughout America with his disciples, popularizing the movement through street chanting (sankirtana), book distribution and public speeches.

Once ISKCON was more established in America, a small number of devotees from the San Francisco temple were sent to London, England. After a short time of being in London they came into contact with The Beatles, of whom George Harrison took the greatest interest, spending a significant time speaking with Srila Prabhupada and producing a record with members of the later London Radha Krsna Temple. Over the following years Srila Prabhupada’s continuing leadership role took him around the world some several times setting up temples and communities in all of the major continents. By the time of his death (disappearance) in Vrindavan eleven years later in 1977, ISKCON became a widely known expression of Vaishnavism on an international basis.

In the twelve years from Srila Prabhupad’s arrival in New York until his final days he:

  • Circled the globe fourteen times on lecture tours that took him to six continents
  • Initiated many disciples, awarding sannyasa and babaji initiations.
  • Introduced Vedic gurukul education to a Western audience
  • Directed the founding of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, which is the world’s largest publisher of ancient and classical Vaishnava religious texts
  • Founded the religious colony New Vrindavan in West Virginia,
  • Authored more than eighty books (with many available online) on Vedantic philosophy, religion, literature and culture (including four published originally in Bengali)
  • Introduced international celebrations in the capitals of the world like that of Jagannatha processions.
  • Watched ISKCON grow to a confederation of more than 108 temples, various institutes and farm communities.

Through his mission, Srila Prabhupada followed and communicated the teachings of Shree Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and introduced bhakti yoga to an international audience. Within Gaudiya Vaishnavism this was viewed as the fulfilment of a long time mission to introduce Shree Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings to the world.

In his discussion with a historian Arnold J. Toynbee in London, Srila Prabhupada is quoted as saying: “I have started this Krishna Conscious Movement among the Indians and Americans and for the next ten thousand years it will increase.”

Srila Prabhupada’s most significant contribution to humanity is his books. Within the final twenty years of his life Srila Prabhupada translated over sixty volumes of classic Vedic scriptures (such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam Maha Purana) into the English language. For their authority, depth, and clarity, Srila Prabhupada’s books have won praise from professors at colleges and universities like Harvard, Oxford, Cornell, Columbia, Syracuse, Oberlin, and Edinburgh, and Srila Prabhupada’s “Bhagavad-Gita – As It Is” was published by Macmillan Publishers, in 1968 and an unabridged edition in 1972, and is now available in over sixty languages around the world and some other books by Prabhupada are available in over eighty different languages.

The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust was established in 1972 to publish Srila Prabhupada’s works, it has also published massively researched multi-volume biography, Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, that in opinion of some that will “certainly be one of the most complete records of the life and work of any modern religious figure”. Srila Prabhupada reminded his devotees before his departure to the spiritual word that he would live forever in his books, and through them would remain present as a spiritual master or guru. Srila Prabhupada had instilled in his followers an understanding of the importance of writing and publishing not only with regard to his works, but also their own initiatives. Srila Prabhupada’s early disciples felt he had given them Back To Godhead for their own writings from the very start.

Srila Prabhupada considered Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed to be empowered representatives of God, describing them within his writings as pioneers of the same essential message of dedication to God with love and devotion. “Actually, it doesn’t matter – Krishna or Christ – the name is the same. The main point is to follow the injunctions of the Vedic scriptures that recommend chanting the name of God in this age.”

Other typical expressions represent a different perspective, where Srila Prabhupada would point out that “today I may be a Hindu, but tomorrow I may become a Christian or Muslim. In this way faiths can be changed, but dharma is a natural sequence, a natural occupation or a connection and it cannot be changed, because it is permanent”. While ISKCON theology of personal God is close to Christian theology, both personal and monotheistic, being a preacher of bhakti and a missionary he sometimes would add, that “already many Christians have tasted the nectar of divine love of the holy name and are dancing with karatalas (hand-cymbals) and mridangas (drums).” Srila Prabhupada’s approach to modern knowledge is also seen in sectarian Orthodox Judaism, where the skills and technical knowledge of modernity are encouraged, but the values rejected. Srila Prabhupada stated “devotees should not be lazy, idle… we are not afraid to work. Whatever our engagement is, by offering the result to Lord Krishna we become Krishna conscious”. Srila Prabhupada himself taught a dualism of body and soul and that of the genders. Similar to many traditional religions he considered sexuality and spirituality as conflicting opposites. However there is a positive recognition of Srila Prabhupada’s own example in applying the spirit of the law according to time, place, person and circumstance, rather than literal tracing of the tradition.

In line with traditional Vaishnava theology, Srila Prabhupada was critical of the monist philosophies of Hinduism representing the Gaudiya Vaishnava point of view. Srila Prabhupada expounded the Gaudiya-Vaishnava philosophy known as “Achintya Bheda Abheda Tattva” As a school of thought, Gaudiya Vaishnavism has much more in common with the Dvaita (is a school of Vedanta founded by Shree Madhvacharya. Dvaita stresses a strict distinction between God–the Supreme-Soul (paramaatma and the individual souls of beings, jivatma), as opposed to the Advaita schools.

Initially, Srila Prabhupada began his public preaching mission in India. He founded the League of Devotees in Jhansi in 1953. Following the establishment of temples and centres in the United States and Europe, Srila Prabhupada returned to India in 1971, holding many public programs which were well attended. From 1971 onwards, the movement became increasingly popular and spread throughout the country, Srila Prabhupada was particularly eager to see the progress at “the impressive temple project in Mumbai” which he and his disciples had fought very hard to establish, with large temples in Mayapur and Vrindavan to follow in mid 1970s.

Srila Prabhupada continued translating his transcendental books up to the point of his departure from this world. Srila Prabhupada was merciful to the general people, who was suffering for want of Krishna consciousness. Even up to the point of death, Srila Prabhupada was trying to preach Krishna consciousness. In fact his only concern was that all the people of this planet should receive the highest perfection of life namely Krishna Prema (Love of Shree Krishna). So Srila Prabhupada truly manifested the symptoms of a Saint on the topmost level of self realization. On one side he was tolerant of his own sufferings and on the other side he was merciful. On November 14, 1977, at 7:30 P.M., in his room at the Krishna-Balaram Mandir in Vrndavana, Srila Prabhupada gave his final instruction by leaving this mortal world and going back to Godhead. His departure was exemplary, because his whole life was exemplary. His departure marked the completion of a lifetime of pure devotional service to Krsna. A few days before the end, Srila Prabhupada had said he was instructing as far as he could, and his secretary had added, “You are the inspiration.” “Yes,” Srila Prabhupada had replied, “that I shall do until the last breathing.”

Srila Prabhupada’s “last breathing” was glorious, not because of any last minute mystical demonstration, but because Srila Prabhupada remained in perfect Krsna consciousness. Like grandfather Bhishmadeva, he remained completely collected and noble and grave, teaching until the end. He was preaching that life comes from life, not from matter, and he was showing that one should preach with every breath he has. The many devotees who crowded the large room bore witness that up to the very end, Srila Prabhupada remained exactly the same. There was nothing suddenly in congruous with what he had previously shown and taught them. At the time of his departure, therefore, he was teaching how to die, by always depending on Lord Krsna. Srila Prabhupada’s passing away was peaceful. During the evening of November 14, the kaviraja (ayurvedic doctor) asked him, “Is there anything you want?” and Prabhupada replied faintly, kuch iccha nahin: “I have no desire.” His passing away was in the perfect situation: in Vrndavana, with devotees. A few months previously, a young girl, the daughter of one of Prabhupada’s disciples, had passed away in Vrndavana, and when Srila Prabhupada had been asked if she went back to Godhead to personally associate with Krsna, he had said, “Yes, anyone who leaves his/her body in Vrndavana is liberated.”

Srila Prabhupada’s life had been dedicated to spreading the holy name to every town and village, and for a month he had been surrounding himself with the holy name. For his passing away, he especially wanted to fill the room with devotees chanting Hare Krsna, and Lord Krsna fulfilled that wish. Srila Prabhupada, therefore, departed under the most favourable circumstances possible-in the most sacred place, Vrndavana, surrounded by Vaishnavas chanting the holy name. An ideal spiritual teacher (Acharya) always acts in such a way that others may follow his example. As the Srimad Bhagavatam states, these great souls who cross over the ocean of birth and death by taking shelter of the “boat” of the lotus feet of Lord Krsna miraculously leave the boat on this side for others to use. And Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance, by its perfect example, affords all conditioned souls the means for meeting the greatest of all dangers. An auspicious death is not merely a matter of psychological adjustment, so that one may die without regret or without becoming unduly upset. The real point is that at the time of death the soul must leave the body and take his next birth.

While there was nothing lamentable for Srila Prabhupada in his departing from the world and going back to Godhead, it was certainly lamentable for his followers and for the people of the whole world, who became bereft of the presence of their greatest well-wisher and benefactor. Srila Prabhupada had written in a Srimad Bhagavatam purport, “When the mortal body of the spiritual master expires, the disciple should cry exactly like the queen cries when the king leaves his body.” At the departure of his own spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada had written, “On that day, O my Master, I made a cry of grief; I was not able to tolerate the absence of you, my guru.” And so on November 14, 1977, as the powerful news spread around the world, those who knew and loved Srila Prabhupada were gripped by a fearful, unrestricted grief. They saw everything around them in the overwhelming atmosphere of separation from Srila Prabhupada. They turned for solace to Srila Prabhupada’s books.

After his death (disappearance) in 1977, ISKCON, the society he founded based on a type of Hindu Krishnaism using the Srimad Bhagavata Maha Purana as a central scripture, continued to grow and is respected throughout the whole world.

A number of memorial samadhis or shrines to Srila Prabhupada were constructed by the members of ISKCON in his remembrance. The largest of which are in Mayapur, Vrindavan and at the larger sized temples in America. Srila Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold was designed and constructed by devotees of the New Vrindavan community and dedicated on September 2, 1979. Back in 1972 it was intended to be simply a residence for Srila Prabhupada, but over time the plans evolved into an ornate marble and gold palace which is now visited by thousands of Hindu pilgrims each year, visiting this centrepiece of the community strongly relying upon tourist trade. Srila Prabhupada also inspired the construction of a large international centre at Sridhama Mayapur in West Bengal, India, which is also the site for a planned Institute of Vedic Studies. A similar project is the magnificent Krsna-Balarama Temple and International Guest House in Vrndavana, India. These are centers where Westerners can live to gain first hand experience of Vedic culture.

Below are some of Srila Prabhupad’s main books that he wrote…

  • Bhagavad-gita As It Is
  • Srimad-Bhagavatam
  • Sri Caitanya-caritamrta
  • Teachings of Lord Caitanya
  • The Nectar of Devotion
  • The Nectar of Instruction
  • Easy Journey to Other Planets
  • Krsna Consciousness The Topmost Yoga System
  • KRSNA, The Supreme Personality of Godhead
  • Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers
  • Teachings of Lord Kapila, the Son of Devahuti
  • Teachings of Queen Kunti
  • Krsna, the Reservoir of Pleasure
  • The Science of Self Realization
  • The Path of Perfection
  • Life Comes from Life
  • The Perfection of Yoga
  • Beyond Birth and Death
  • On the Way to Krsna
  • Raja – Vidya: The King of Knowledge
  • Elevation to Krsna Consciousness
  • Krsna Consciousness, The Matchless Gift
  • Light of the Bhagavata
  • Sri Isopanisad
  • The Journey of Self – Discovery
  • Transcendental Teachings of Prahlada Maharaja
  • A Second Chance: The Story of a Near – Death Experience
  • Mukunda – mala – stotra
  • Narada-bhakti-sutra


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