A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977):

Born in 1896 in Calcutta, India (as Abhay Charan De), founder of the Hare Krishna movement, or ISKCON. He first met his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami, in Calcultta in 1922. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, a prominent religious scholar and the founder of sixty-four Gaudiya Mathas (Vedic Institutes) in India, liked this educated young man and convinced him to dedicate his life to teaching Vedic knowledge.

Prabhupada became Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati's student and, in 1933, his formally initiated disciple, taking the name Abhaya Charanaravinda dasa. Prabhupada finally came to New York in September 1965 after translating, and providing commentary to the Bhagavad Gita and the first three volumes of the Srimad Bhagavatam, and establishing the Back to Godhead magazine in India.

Upon his death on November 14, 1977 he had written over 70 volumes of authoritative annotated translations and summary studies of the philosophical and religious classics of India, including his life's masterpice, a multi-volume commentated translation of the 18,000-versed Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana), begun at Radha-Damodara, in India. Spreading the message of bhakti or devotion to God over the short space of twelve years, he had also guided the Society and seen it grow to a worldwide confederation of more than one hundred ashramas, schools, temples, institutes, and farm communities.


Actually the word Prabhupada is just a title, a Sanskrit reverential address for a spiritual master(*), much like the terms Gurudeva or Vishnupada.

(*) Quick etymology: prabhupada < prabhurera-pada (prabhu lords + -pada feet) - "personage at whose feet the other Lords sit".

A Bengali born in 1896 named Abhay Charan had a childhood that prepared him for his life's mission in two ways. He was born on the day celebrating Krishna's birth to two devout Hindus of the Vaishnava denomination. They were also of affluent enough means that he was able to spend his childhood studying at the Scottish Church College, a good school run by devout, sober Europeans who apparently gave the sons of well-to-do families a good education. 

During his time there he was a member of the Sanskrit society as well as the English society and graduated with a diploma in English, philosophy and economics. Out of principle and in recognition of Gandhi's independence movement he rejected his diploma but retained the knowledge and leadership skills that would suit him well later in life.

He wasn't a devout monk his entire life - he was married and had children. He ran a small pharmaceutical business, but at the same time ran a publication out of his front room called "Back to Godhead". He had found his guru, of the lineage of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and became his formal disciple. Given his skills with English as well as his status as a learned scholar, his guru requested his help in spreading their particular branch of Hinduism. But as time went on he became more known for his scholarship in Hinduism than anything else, acquiring the honorific title "Bhaktivedanta" ("he who knows devotion to God is the end of all knowledge"). His guru was adamant that by printing books and newsletters it would help in spreading their message.

In 1950 he took up residence at a Hindu temple in Vrindaban, which contained one of the largest collections of relevant Scriptures at the time and began patiently translating them from Sanskrit into English. In 1959 he took the formal vow of sannyasi, renouncing everything in the world and becoming a religious mendicant. As such he acquired the honorific title "Swami".

As a wandering mendicant with no attachment to family or possessions, he was tasked by his guru with going to the United States and spreading their variant of Hinduism there. The main bulk of the expense, passage on a freighter - was gifted by the owner of the ship. His own possessions consisted of $8 in Indian currency, some of his books, an umbrella, some clothes, and a small amount of dry cereal. During the trip he had had severe symptoms which he experienced again later, diagnosed at that time as a heart attack. In his own diary at the time there are six days' worth of entries missing followed by a brief note noting that he had almost died. So the man who stepped onto the docks in New York City was a man of advanced age with barely more than his scholarship and his faith to sustain him, not even full health.

He gave talks on Hinduism, which in 1965 was pretty novel. Apart from some Orientalist romanticism of the late 1880s and early 1900s, the West didn't know that much about the East. It was further compounded by some would-be holy men coming to America to basically huckster the populace. As such, some of his first adherents - Jewish beatniks and hippies who came by his talks to troll and heckle him - were not really knowledgeable or even remotely interested in the religion he brought with him.

But he was the man for his age. His own variant of Hinduism was a monotheist branch, one which required a convert to mentally map "God" to "Krishna" - aided by Prabhupada, who in essence didn't care if you chanted to Jesus, considering all names of God just variants of a theme. He was also spreading the idea of ahimsa - peace and nonviolence, at a time when America was in the throes of the Vietnam war and out of self interest the Baby Boomer generation were all about peace and love. It's hard to imagine the culture shock - here was a man who didn't eat meat or eggs, even - a beacon of nonviolence even towards animals giving lectures on how we're in a violent, turbulent age. 

They founded a society, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON for short. We know them, dismissively, as the "Hare Krishnas".

If you read the stuff he wrote during that time, it's pretty persuasive. He latched on to the young people's concerns about getting shot up in the 'Nam by giving a theological explanation. In the Vedic literature there are four "ages" - the last of which is the Age of Quarrel, or "Kali-yuga". He explained that that began 500 years ago, and all the civil unrest, violence, riots and such were not only in line with Hindu understanding of the world but also were predicted by those Scriptures. He was able to simplify a lot of religious ideas into very real terms and speak directly to the spiritual and emotional needs of people and the age they lived in, using analogies such as the crying baby who could not be pacified by anything but a return to his mother's arms, and so it is with Krishna - we're thrashing about trying to find inner peace and tranquility but can't find it without a return to Godhead. Hence the materialism. The riots. The wars.

He also latched on to the perceived inadequacy of and of-the-times disillusionment with Christianity in this regard. He once politely explained that Jesus was not being followed enough - in the Bible it says "thou shalt not kill" but people kill animals and eat them. When it was explained to him that "not kill" wasn't the Jain ideal of nonviolence towards any living thing Prabhupada siezed on it and said "then he should have just said "thou shalt not murder"". But as he explained, with Krishna consciousness, you really don't kill - not even animals, and as such spread greater peace than these folks who pray devoutly on Sunday and then go ahead and cut a living creature to pieces to enjoy tearing it apart on the dinner table.  The right-wing flat-top wearing Republicans who insisted on thumping a Bible on Sunday but also sending our boys to napalm children couldn't sell religion to these kids. But this soft-spoken tiny Indian gentleman was very persuasive in this regard.

He offered a "cure" - chanting the 'maha-mantra' which is now a small tune most people can chant along with having heard it: "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare / Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare." That was not only supposed to pull the individual chanter out of Kali-yuga but also start to push back against it and spread peace.

A "New Vrindaban" was built in Virginia, a copy of the temple in the holy city, adorned with gold. The accomplishment of untrained westerners fashioning architecture from another continent cannot be understated. Temples were set up in just about every major city in the meantime, a great feat in and of itself - but the actual construction of a gold-plated copy of a mandir in redneck country is one to applaud.

It was interpreted by Americans in a very American way: "Have you bought into God? We have another model over here who actually is better suited to your needs. And you really don't have to do too terribly much, just dance a bit and sing this Sanskrit limerick." That's a terrible, terrible affront to what the man was actually trying to achieve and the core belief system he genunely believed. But there's a reason I'm presenting it this way. The kids of the 1960s were turning to quick fixes: drugs, dropping out, fleeing to Canada. And there's something  in the American psyche that likes "tricks" and "shortcuts". "Diminutive Indian man discovers one secret trick that leads to world peace! Popes hate him!"

The very thing that was an initial help - that people could "tune in" to the groovy idea of shaving your head, changing your name and eating lentils in the hope of not being blown to pieces - became a longer term liability. Like his guru, Prabhupada had found some intellectuals who were just as persuasive as he was, and were just as capable of learning Sanskrit as he had learned English. He completed a masterwork, translating the Baghavad-Gita and they had performed some competent scholarship in trying to gain as much wisdom in a few years as he had spent acquiring in decades. But what he had overlooked is that the fundamental moral character of some of the people around him wasn't truly in line with his expectations.

To an Easterner, for example, guru devotion is about the guru having to be a living example of the God, and living out his or her life selflessly in the development and support of the students. It's a duty, a sacred trust, and a burden. Some people truly believe Jesus was inspired by his travels in the East because he said "the first of you shall be the least and the least shall be the first" and washed his disciples' feet. But to a Westerner (and many Easterners, let's be honest) the very real trap of cult of personality and hero worship could and did take over. To many of them, they weren't serving followers, they had groupies and staff.

He also arranged marriages. He'd see two people standing near each other and say "you two make a nice couple, let's marry you". Turns out that that the people involved, not having been raised in a culture of arranged marriages and "making it work out"... many often times didn't. To their own chagrin and pain. I mean, if the holy holy man joins you together and you quarrel and don't work out because you're completely incompatible - what does it say about your abilities and your faith as a devotee?

Some people believe that Prabhupada turned a blind eye to some of the very nefarious deeds of his followers, but I personally believe that he looked at life one way and naively trusted in the people around him. To him, more money meant more donations, more kirtan, that more people were following Krishna. I'd like to believe his delight in a bountiful harvest of donations/kirtan wasn't about the money but in seeing that him stepping off into New York City back in the day with little more than the clothes on his back, trying to sell a very alien religion to people that weren't buying was finally coming to fruition. That got misinterpreted as "the more money, the better" regardless of where it came from.

But whether or not it was celebrity endorsement from George Harrison or the throngs of kids brought in to meetings by enthusiastic devotees on street corners who were all about that peace, man - he had huge audiences to talk to worldwide towards the very very end of his life, and he shared his religious views with a willing audience. Many people did become Hindus. And even the ones that didn't know the maha-mantra and have given vegetarianism a try, some even going through to making it their entire lifestyle. It's not weird or strange to practice yoga or look to the east for some kind of spiritual truth. I mean, it could be argued that coming up with translations (with commentary) of the Gita and other Hindu scriptures was enough scholarship and impact of a lifetime, but consider that more than one of Prabhupada's first followers was locked up in a mental hospital by a cop who saw a guy with a shaved head wearing robes and thought he was dealing with a literal lunatic. (One of them was released by having a university professor in religious studies come down and do an interview who vouched that yes, this kid was indeed following an Eastern religion and was not some nut making it all up). Nobody would do that now. (They might think "cult-dupe", but they wouldn't think the guy had gone clean off his rocker and was wearing some kind of strange delusional costume).

If the stone you throw into a pond causes ripples to the edges that have the largest band in the world comprised of sons and daughters of the British Raj dressing like Indians and chanting "give peace a chance" - your impact has been far greater than simple scholarship.

In the late 1970s, after a series of heart attacks, Prabhupada's body gave out, and that's when ISKCON began to collapse. Without his wisdom, his gudance and his example, it rapidly fell into schism and internecine fighting between the gurus he appointed and the movement almost completely died out. 

Almost.

ISKCON is still active on every continent, and has still got followers, spreading their message and their beliefs. There are now second- and third- generation Hindus from converts in America and the UK and worldwide. His memory lives on.

 


 

ReQuest 2018 - (the religious figure)

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