On August 13, 1965, a cargo ship named Jaladuta set sail for New York from Calcutta. Aboard it sat a sole passenger—an elderly, unassuming, dhoti-clad swami—who had with him a suitcase, an umbrella, a trunk full of books and commandment from his guru to spread the glory of Lord Krishna in the West. He had only a few dollars in his pocket that could sustain him for barely a few days in the unchartered country. He had no friends or acquaintance in the alien country to which he was headed for. His earlier attempts at acquiring followers and disciples back home had failed miserably. Not even age was on his side—he was few days away from his 69th birthday. It was not going to be easy for Srila Prabhupada, as the
stubborn old man would eventually come to be known. During the journey, he not only suffered from seasickness but also underwent two heart attacks in two consecutive days. Sensing that his end was near, AC Bhaktivedanta, aka Srila Prabhupada, increased his ritual chanting to his beloved Krishna. What followed, however, was a mystical vision of Lord Krishna blessing him, recuperating him from his illness and personally steering the ship to its destination. At the end of the voyage, the captain of the ship commented that he had not seen a more serene and calmer Atlantic Ocean during his 40 years of navigation.
A Story Straight Out of Fairy Tales
What followed in the new country, however, is no less than a fairy tale. The achievements of Prabhupada, the founder of International Society of Krishna CONsciousness (ISKCON), can best be summarized in Professor Thomas Hopkins’ comment “If someone told you a story like this, you wouldn’t believe it.”
By the time of his death on November 14, 1977, AC Bhaktivedanta swami Srila Prabhupada had established 108 ISKCON temples in 25 countries, initiated 4000 disciples and thousands of Krishna devotees in the West; taken devotional kirtanas to almost every major city; conducted rath yatras involving lakhs of people in many parts of the western world; organised some of the biggest religious gatherings around the world; circumnavigated the world 14 times to spread transcendental message of Krishna; became the most talked about contemporary spiritual figures in the West; set up world’s largest single-man publishing house; authored 71 books (including the first-ever complete English translation-commentary of devotional classic Shrimad Bhagvadam running to 12,000 pages); sold or distributed 70 million copies of his books; set up one of the biggest non-governmental feeding programmes of the world.
Remember all this was accomplished during the fag end of his life and without any claim to be prophet or supernatural healer or miracle performer or ideologue. He managed to transplant an entire repertoire of 16th century Bengali devotional regime with all its attendant mantra chanting, sankirtan (public chanting and preaching), early morning deity worship, bhog, and proscriptions (against mean-eating, illicit sex, gambling and intoxication) unapologetically to the West. Bhaktivedanta swami firmly believed that a world corrupted by materialism could be changed by the establishment of a Krishna Conscious Vedic culture. He taught to the most incorrigible, sexually-liberated and drug-addict people on how to ‘Stay High Forever and No Coming down’.
Srila Prabhupada: A Krishna Conscious Individual Par Excellence
As living spiritual soul, Prabhupada explained, we are all originally Krishna conscious entities but our association with matter from time immemorial has polluted our consciousness. This results in the material world—not Krishna—being at the centre of our life. However, the material world cannot provide us satisfaction, happiness or meaning; only Krishna consciousness can. Therefore, a Krishna Conscious individual indulges with the material world while remembering all the time that Krishna is the source, meaning and end of this material world. Prabhupada preached that by sincere cultivation of bona fide spiritual science, anyone can attain the state of pure unending blissful consciousness, free from anxiety, in this very lifetime. The easiest method, he recommended, is to chant the Hare Krishna mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare.
Srila Prabhupada always kept Krishna in the centre of his activities in thoughts, words and deeds. This way he forever “stayed high” in higher consciousness and could accomplish seemingly superhuman feats. The
path was already shown by his guru Swami Bhaktisidhanta Saraswati who had vowed to chant 3,00,000 names of Krishna every day before he would undertake the task of preaching. This way, Swami Bhaktisidhanta had chanted holy names for a record 1 billion times in just 10 years!
Prabhupada’s higher consciousness was visible in each single acts of him and that is the reason that so many people were attracted to him. One devotee recalls his impression of Prabhupada drinking water:
It was amazing because I had never seen anything done with such precision. It was a small thing, a tiny gesture, but there was something unique about it. I realized that anyone who could drink a glass of water like that was not an ordinary person. [. . .] Most people do ordinary things carelessly without thinking about them, yet somehow or other he always acted with full deliberation. It was, I guess, just a side effect of being Krishna conscious. Prabhupada employed every opportunity to advance the cause of Krishna consciousness.
When the US and the USSR, for instance, were vying for space race, he published his book aptly named Easy Journey to Other Planets that offered Hindu perspective of soul’s travel out-of-body and to
ISKCON: The Successor to The Legacy of Universal Love
Sleeping only for two hours (10:00 pm to midnight) a day, Srila Prabhupada would devote his days in managing an ever-expanding multimillion ISKCON, and nights to tirelessly writing and translating devotional literature. He taught the world not Art of Living but Art of Dying which is to prepare people mindfully for the inevitable dreadful day. Prabhupada’s philosophy continues to guide ISKCON. Their Sunday Feast enables millions of devotees to partake of sumptuous and tasty prasadam on Sunday evening, acknowledged publicly by no less than Steve Jobs. ISKCON has a policy of not letting anyone go hungry in 10-Km radius of their temples. ISKCON Bangalore operates Akshay Patra which is world’s
biggest midday meal programme feeding millions of Indian school-going children. They have distributed 450 million Bhagwad Gita around the world. Some of the most melodious songs of bhajan genre today are spun from ISKCON devotees. ISKCON has now grown to more than 500 temples that actively promote Vedic rituals, organize satsangs, undertake scientific animal husbandry and promote sustainable living. ISKCON undoubtedly is one of the most important Indian cultural exports to the world.