Not finding true satisfaction in inferior mundane pleasures, he discovered lasting peace and happiness in the divine words of the Bhagavad-gita.
For most of my childhood I was naive, immature, awkward, and unsure of myself. By the time I was twelve, I was no longer interested in playing with other boys. Mostly, I spent my formative years in self-imposed isolation, reading. Every day, as soon as I had finished with my studies, I would go off alone and live my dreams with the classic authors of days gone by. Sometimes I would immerse myself in reputed magazines or popular comics. My worldview at that time was limited to the luminaries of western literature.
I had a typical missionary school upbringing. And though I had been taught moral science by good Catholic priests, I still felt an indefinable void. I grew up uncertain about the goal of life. I had doubts about joining the rat race, worried about the injustices of the world, frequently pondered the meaning of life, and felt disdain for unbridled materialism in all its mediocrity. I had many doubts that all begged to be answered. But when no answers came, I told myself, “Let’s enjoy! To hell with all these serious questions.”
After graduation, I worked during the day but spent my evenings enjoying myself, hanging out with college or office friends, frequently drinking beer or hard liquor, smoking cigarettes, eating meat, playing bridge with stakes, attending dance parties with loud pop music, and so on. Since I was born in a typical Bengali family, eating meat and fish was already a daily occurrence, to be expected rather than frowned upon. My mother used to worship Krishna at home – along with shiva, Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and other demigods – and held Satyanarayana-pujas once a year. In spite of all this, I somehow did not take religion too seriously. I thought that it was my mother’s “habit,” passed down through the generations as simply a matter of genetic programming. I lacked spiritual understanding and a proper insight into the world of true spirituality. My mother recalls that I used to “feel ashamed” to bow down before the Lord and considered it too troublesome to remove my shoes before entering the puja room.
An Encounter with Divine Knowledge
I first encountered the Bhagavad-gita As It Is when I was in my early thirties, shortly after marriage. I found a copy in my room at the Mumbai airport Centaur Hotel, placed in a bedside drawer there by ISKCON, beside a copy of the New Testament. On an impulse, I picked it up and put it in my briefcase. When I first started to read it, I was just curious. Then, after a few weeks of reading it from time to time, Srila Prabhupada’s scholarship and sincerity, as well as his lucid and compelling writing style, began to have a powerful effect upon me. Very soon, there was no turning back; the Lord Himself had taken a firm hold on me. In my free time I would ponder various shlokas from the Gita. I marveled at Srila Prabhupada’s mastery of the subject, His fine command of the English language, and His expertise in using the most appropriate words. It was thus only in my later years that the Bhagavad-gita provided answers to the many questions that since youth had been troubling my mind and which many persons could not answer.
Two shlokas which at that time had a profound influence on me are in chapter fifteen (verses 19–20): “Whoever knows Me as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, without doubting, is to be understood as the knower of everything, and He therefore engages himself in full devotional service, O son of Bharata. This is the most confidential part of the Vedic scriptures, O sinless one, and it is disclosed now by Me. Whoever understands this will become wise, and his endeavors will know perfection.” As I read and reread these verses and Srila Prabhupada’s masterful explanations, I was more and more curious. After all, who does not want to be “the knower of everything”? This induced me to study the Gita more seriously and also to read Srila Prabhupada’s other books.
Years later, with very little spiritual motivation and again on impulse, though due in part to the suggestion of a friend, I joined ISKCON as a life member. As I began to visit ISKCON centers in Mumbai and other cities of India and the world, I took an interest in mingling with devotees and observing their behavior, their beliefs, their lives, and their dealings with others. I discovered special pleasure in having delicious Krishna-prasada in the association of devotees. Thinking back, I clearly recall having had very meaningful conversations with devotees who I now realize were talking to me about Krishna-bhakti out of deep love and compassion for others. I became infected with the same enthusiasm, and my connection with Krishna-bhakti became stronger. I began chanting, and in a few years time reached, and have maintained, the mandatory daily minimum of sixteen rounds.
Kicking Out the Bad Habits
As soon as I started regularly chanting the holy names of Krishna, I was able to give up my destructive habits with ease. Smoking was the first to go. At that time I used to worship Hanumanji, so I asked him to help me kick the habit. Hanumanji did not let me down. Soon after that there was a significant reduction in my “social drinking” and then, finally, total abstinence. But, for an inveterate fish and meat eater like myself, taking to vegetarianism was difficult. In fact, it is amusing to note that when my wife and I gave up eating meat altogether, some of my relatives in Kolkata conjectured that I was either suffering from an unmentionable disease or from severe financial difficulties.
My giving up meat was due in large part to the repeated urgings of various devotees at various ISKCON temples over the years. Sensing their sincerity and their concern for my wellbeing, I too decided to be sincere as well. After that, giving up tea and coffee, then onions and garlic soon thereafter, was comparatively easy. I am eternally grateful to all those devotees, on whose encouragement I have managed to give up most of my tamasic habits. And though I may have forgotten some of their names, I remember each and every one of them with gratitude and affection.
Transition from the Negative to the Positive
This process of withdrawal from tamasic sense pleasure was accompanied by increased interaction with devotees and a regular study of the Bhagavad-gita, which I began to enjoy. Srila Prabhupada’s masterful hold on the subject matter had me entranced, and in His inimitable style, He personally delivered Krishna to me. Though it may appear that I have given up so many things from my former way of life, I do not in any way feel a loss or diminution. On the contrary, my mind and senses are now filled with Lord Krishna: thoughts of His instructions and pastimes, the taste and smell of His prasada, the image of His sweet form and smiling face, and so many other things connected to His Lordship. I also find that I am more creative than I used to be, think more clearly, am less temperamental, and make more efficient use of my time.
My interactions with devotees, though sporadic, energize my devotion each time they occur. Srila Prabhupada’s advice to keep company with devotees is truly a potent medicine for the temptations of maya in Kali-yuga, because a devotee, sometimes even unknown to himself, often manages to deliver very powerful messages with only a few gentle words.
After I gave up my casual social life, many of my past friends slowly drifted away. But the Lord stood by me and did not allow me to feel lonely. The friends who departed were gradually replaced by new devotee friends with whom my connection is Krishna-bhakti. Also, by the special grace of the Lord I am sure, most of my old friends have drifted back, and I have reconnected with them, but now in a new context. None of my old friends now drink liquor or eat meat in my presence, in deference to my convictions.
Keeping Krishna in the Center
I am supported in my Krishna-bhakti by my wife Pranati, who has not only been most supportive of this change in my life but who is also chanting and worshipping the Lord with unfailing regularity and devotion. In fact, her dedication has induced me to form similarly steady habits. Our worship of Lord Krishna is now the central point of our lives. Other activities are secondary, performed only to support our service to Lord Krishna, which we offer in whatever limited way we can.
I am still reading the same copy of the Bhagavad-gita that I picked up twenty-seven years ago, though it’s since been rebound; I must use it with much care, lest it fall apart. That original copy was never paid for. I am sure that the Lord in His infinite mercy will not hold it against me, nor can I say that it weighs heavily on my conscience. Nonetheless, knowing the inestimable value of the Gita, I am ever eager to repay my debt by giving that priceless gift to others. Over the years, I have always maintained a stock of Gitas to give to receptive people of all types, including my non-devotee friends, friends belonging to other faiths, and new friends from other countries.
I have discovered that the subject closest to my heart is Krishna and Krishna-bhakti. Many of my friends from student days frown at my present beliefs. But I do not worry and let them go their own ways, though I do not hesitate to forward them something nice about Lord Krishna on occasion. They might not like it, but perhaps some day an interest in Krishna-bhakti might flower in their hearts.
At those times when I am disconsolate, thinking about my own shortcomings in devotion, I recall this verse from the Bhagavad-gita (10.9): “The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are surrendered to Me, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss enlightening one another and conversing about Me.” Whenever I recall this sloka, I take solace that at least the Lord considers me an imperfect devotee, if not a perfected one. Even if I spend just a little time thinking about Him, discussing Him, writing about Him, remembering His pastimes, or even just thinking of His devotees, He will enable me to remain connected to Him. That is His special mercy. It is also the result of the special magic hidden within the pages of the Bhagavad-gita, just waiting to bless everyone, even non-devotees, with Krishna-bhakti.
It has been a long and at times painful journey up to this point, partly because of my own ignorance and partly because of illusion, which can lure us into making mistakes. But now that the Lord has taken hold of me, I am sure that He shall have mercy on me – despite my continuing bouts of passion and ignorance – and make me a more sincere devotee. I pray that I become more productive in helping His true servants in spreading Krishna-bhakti to one and all.
Gautam Saha earned a degree in chemical engineering from IIT Bombay. He is presently engaged in business development and investment in Africa. He is a frequent contributor to BTG.