A brief life sketch of His Divine Grace Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja
HIS DIVINE GRACE Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja, a pure devotee and very dear disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, passed away from this world on February 9, 1996, in the sacred place Sridham Mayapur. To solicit his blessings upon us, we pay our homage with this brief account of his life of perfect devotion.
His Divine Grace made his appearance on September 2, 1929, in the village of Jagannatha-pura, not far from Jagannatha Puri Dhama in the state of Orissa, India. His family were strict Vaisnavas in the disciplic line from Syamananda Pandita, the great follower of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
Having performed auspicious ceremonies (samskaras) according to Vedic tradition, his parents begot their first son, whom they named Braja Bandhu. Sri Braja Bandhu, as His Divine Grace was then known, grew up in the village of Gadai-giri, where he practiced devotional service to Krsna from his early childhood. His grandfather, he later said, was a paramahamsa whose only business was to chant Hare Krsna and cry before the Deity of Krsna, known locally as Sri Gopal Jiu. To begin Braja Bandhu's education, this grandfather taught him how to count by chanting the Hare Krsna maha-mantra on one's fingers.
Braja Bandhu's father would read to Braja Bandhu from Srimad-Bhagavatam, completing all twelve cantos once a year. By the age of eleven Braja Bandhu had heard Srimad-Bhagavatam six times.
From the age of about five, Sri Braja Bandhu would travel in the company of his uncles from village to village, chanting Hare Krsna and singing the songs of Vaisnava acaryas like Narottama Dasa Thakura. Absorbed in the kirtana, young Braja Bandhu would sometimes dance ecstatically. The people of Gadai-giri have been among the most famous kirtana performers in Orissa since the time of Syamananda Prabhu (mid-sixteenth century). Three hundred years ago in the temple registers of Jagannatha Puri, the king of Orissa wrote that the kirtana party of Gadai-giri should come to perform kirtana for Lord Jagannatha whenever possible. In Orissa they are seen as kirtana-gurus.
From the age of six, Sri Braja Bandhu worshiped the Deity of Gopal by making garlands and sometimes, under the light of a candle, singing hymns for Him from palm-leaf manuscripts. Braja Bandhu would never take any food not first offered to Gopal.
By the age of eight Sri Braja Bandhu had read the entire Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Sri Caitanya-caritamrta and could also explain their meanings. As his erudition increased he began to give discourses, which attracted many people from the surrounding villages. At night many villagers would come to hear his recitation of the Oriya Bhagavatam, Ramayana, and Mahabharata.
Braja Bandhu was noted for his detached nature. He always avoided the frivolous play of his peers. From the very beginning of his life he was absorbed in chanting Hare Krsna, studying Vaisnava literature, and worshiping his beloved Gopal.
After the death of his father in 1955 he became responsible for maintaining the family. And when he entered household life, on the request of his mother, family burdens increased. He met his wife, Srimati Vasanti Devi, for the first time during the marriage ceremony. Owing to financial constraints he could not avail himself of university education. But he prepared himself at night to attend the examinations. Within two months he successfully graduated among the top students of Utkal University. In this way he completed his Bachelor of Arts and later his Bachelor of Education.
Despite many responsibilities, his devotion to Gopal never slackened. He would rise at 3:30 A.M., chant Hare Krsna, worship tulasi, and speak to his family from the Bhagavad-gita. He meticulously kept a diary of his devotional schedule.
During his time as a householder he adopted the profession of a school teacher. He accepted teaching positions in different towns of Orissa, where he is still fondly remembered to this day. He would take every opportunity to speak to his students about Krsna and the devotional principles. (Thirty years later some of his students would become his disciples.)
Living as a perfect sense-controlled householder, he begot seven children exactly according to Vaisnava principles. He always welcomed wandering sadhus (saintly persons) and offered them whatever he had at his disposal. On Sundays he would invite interested people to his home to hear from Bhagavad-gita and accept some halava prasadam. During leave from his teachings duties he would travel with his family or friends to holy places in search of sadhus. But he always felt that his family obligations were detrimental to his spiritual aspirations. He later said, "I was always thinking of when I would get out of that situation."
On April 8, 1974, his deep devotion to Krsna called him to renounce worldly life. At the age of 45 he left home and relatives, took up the name Gour Gopal, and went out in quest of spiritual perfection. Carrying only a Bhagavad-gita and a begging bowl he wandered around India for one year and visited many sacred places along the Ganges River. He was searching for his eternal spiritual master. After many philosophical debates with mayavadi sannyasis and yogis in the Himalayas, he proceeded on foot to Vrndavana, thinking that in Krsna's dear abode his desire would certainly be fulfilled.
Two weeks after arriving in Vrndavana he saw a huge signboard that read "International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Founder-Acarya His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada." Then he met a group of Western devotees, who gave him a copy of Back to Godhead magazine. When he read how Srila Prabhupada had spread the chanting of Hare Krsna all over the world, he remembered a verse from Caitanya Bhagavata predicting the worldwide spread of this chanting:
prthivite ache yata nagaradi-grama
sarvatra pracara haibe mora nama
Gour Govinda Maharaja later reminisced, "I thought, 'Yes! This Swami has fulfilled the prediction of Caitanya Mahaprabhu. I must meet him.' " At last Braja Bandhu was to meet his eternal spiritual master, whose association he had been awaiting for such a long time.
When Sri Braja Bandhu, a disheveled sadhu, entered Srila Prabhupada's room and introduced himself, the first question Srila Prabhupada asked was "Have you taken sannyasa?" Braja Bandhu replied that he had not. "Then I will give you sannyasa!" Srila Prabhupada said. Understanding that Srila Prabhupada knew his heart, Braja Bandhu surrendered himself at Srila Prabhupada's lotus feet.
Srila Prabhupada at once arranged a room for him and engaged him in translating Back to Godhead into Hindi. Within a year, Srila Prabhupada gave him first and second initiation.
In 1975, at the opening of ISKCON's Sri Sri Krishna-Balaram Mandir, Srila Prabhupada awarded him the order of sannyasa, giving him the name Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja. Then Srila Prabhupada sent him to spread Krsna consciousness in Orissa and construct a temple on a newly donated property in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.
At that time, the donated land was a wild jungle full of mosquitoes, snakes, and scorpions. It was far from the city center, dacoits used the area to hijack trucks on the nearby highway, and even at midday people feared to go there. But Srila Gour Govinda Swami, considering the desire of Srila Prabhupada his very life and soul, was undaunted and worked with unwavering determination to fulfill that desire. Sometimes residing in the storeroom of a tea dealer and even sometimes sharing a small hut with road construction workers, he began translating Srila Prabhupada's books into Oriya as he had been instructed.
Spreading Krsna consciousness, Srila Gour Govinda Swami would visit house after house, office after office, in and around Bhubaneswar, sometimes walking and sometimes riding on the carriage rack of a bicycle pedaled by a local student, who later became his dear disciple Sacinandana Dasa. In this way he collected some small donations, had a temple plan drawn up, and with his own hands constructed on the donated property a thatched hut.
In early 1977 Srila Prabhupada came to Bhubaneswar. Although arrangements had been made for Prabhupada to stay comfortably in the state government guest house, Prabhupada at once rejected this proposal. He said, "I will only stay where my disciple child Gour Govinda has built a mud hut for me." Prabhupada stayed in Bhubaneswar for seventeen days, during which he laid the foundation stone of the temple-to-be on the auspicious occasion of Lord Nityananda's appearance day. This was Prabhupada's last founded project.
In 1978, shortly after the passing away of Srila Prabhupada, Srila Gour Govinda Swami went to Mayapur. One day, amidst kirtana in the temple, he fell to the ground unconscious. He was carried back to his room, followed by several concerned devotees and ISKCON leaders. When doctors came to examine him they were unable to diagnose the cause of his condition. Someone even suggested he may have been possessed by a ghost. Finally, a pure devotee and dear Godbrother of Srila Prabhupada's, Akincana Krsna Dasa Babaji Maharaja, explained that Srila Gour Govinda Swami was manifesting symptoms of bhava, the advanced stage of ecstatic love of God.
Srila Gour Govinda Swami was in and out of external consciousness for the next several months. When he returned to Bhubaneswar he absorbed himself even more deeply in the mission of his spiritual master. Some Western devotees had been sent there to assist him, but most of them were unable to tolerate the austere conditions. They were amazed to see him always undisturbed, eating only once a day, and hardly sleeping. He would simply preach, chant, and write in his notebooks day and night.
In 1991, after sixteen years of determined endeavor, Srila Gour Govinda Swami fulfilled the instruction of his spiritual master with the opening of a magnificent temple of Sri Sri Krsna-Balarama, which now attracts thousands of people to Krsna consciousness. Srila Gour Govinda Swami said, "I have opened a 'crying school' here in Bhubaneswar. Unless we cry for Krsna, we cannot get His mercy." This was the message he preached so vigorously all over the world during the last ten years of his manifest pastimes.
Although Srila Gour Govinda Swami was always meek and humble in his personal dealings, in his classes on Srimad-Bhagavatam he would roar like a lion, smashing the pride and cutting the misconceptions from the hearts of his disciples. Sometimes he would read an apparently basic philosophical statement from Prabhupada's purports. Then he would laugh like a child and say, "Here the topic of krsna-prema comes up, but it requires further explanation." Then he would astound the devotees by giving more and more profound explanations of the same sentence for two or three hours. On one such occasion he said, "Look! Krsna is laughing at me because I am trying to completely describe this topic, which is unlimited."
In the course of his lecturing he would inevitably burst into song, nourishing everyone with the devotional sentiments of joy, humility and surrender as expressed in the prayers of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and other acaryas. Krsna-katha, the topics of Krsna, were his life and soul. He would often say, "The day that goes by without krsna-katha, that is a very bad day."
Srila Gour Govinda Swami's knowledge of scripture was formidable. He would substantiate everything he said with evidence from all over the Vedic literature. Sometimes he would question a disciple, and if the disciple could not answer with reference to the scriptures, Srila Gour Govinda Swami would at once exclaim, "He is a cheater! Don't be a crooked person. A Vaisnava quotes authority."
In this way Srila Gour Govinda Swami would always preach fearlessly. He would never compromise the conclusions of the scripture in the name of being practical, "One who cannot see Krsna," he would say, "is a blind man. He may speak about Krsna, but in his mind he is speculating. Therefore his words will never be effective. A real sadhu never speaks theoretically."
Time To Leave
In late January of 1996, Srila Gour Govinda Swami mentioned privately, "Srila Bhaktisiddhanta said that this material world is not a fit place for any gentleman. Therefore, because he was disgusted, he left this world prematurely. I may also. I don't know. I simply depend on Gopal. I will do whatever He wants." The next day Srila Gour Govinda Swami went to Gadai-giri to see his Gopal. The word of Srila Gour Govinda Swami's remarks quickly spread among his disciples, who felt confident that Gopal would not let him leave them.
For a further four days he preached more powerfully than ever to thousands of people who flocked to a Prabhupada Centennial festival in Bhubaneswar. Then he left for the annual ISKCON management meetings in Sridham Mayapur.
On February 9, 1996, the holy appearance day of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasavati, two senior devotees requested an appointment to see Srila Gour Govinda Swami. They had never spoken with him before, but they had become eager to hear from him after reading some of his books.
As if by providential arrangement, they entered his room at 6:00 P. M. and submissively inquired, "Why did Caitanya Mahaprabhu stay in Jagannatha Puri?" He laughed with delight and began to explain the confidential significance of Lord Caitanya's pastimes.
In answer to the question, he lovingly described the pain of separation felt by Radha and Krsna when Krsna was away from Vrndavana. Enchanting all the devotees in his room with the nectarean topics of Krsna, he gradually unfolded the pastime to the point where Radha and Krsna were finally united after Their long separation. He described how Krsna became so ecstatic upon seeing Radharani that He manifested a form with big round eyes, known as Lord Jagannatha. With a choked voice Srila Gour Govinda Swami said, "Then the eyes of Krsna fell upon the eyes of Radharani. Eye-to-eye union."
Overwhelmed with love for Radha and Krsna, he apologized with folded hands, "Please excuse me. I cannot speak." Then, in a barely audible voice, he gave his final instruction: "Kirtana! Kirtana!"
The five devotees still in the room began to chant as their spiritual master lay back on his bed, breathing very slowly and deeply. A servant nearby placed a picture of Gopal Jiu in his hand. Then, gazing lovingly at that picture of his worshipable Deity, Srila Gour Govinda Swami called out, "Gopal!" and departed for the spiritual sky to be united with his beloved Lord.
Every day before the Srimad-Bhagavatam class, Srila Gour Govinda Swami would sing a song he had learned as a boy. Now his prayer was fulfilled:
"O supremely blissful Madhava! Nectar is coming from Your lotus feet. Drinking that nectar, I blissfully sing 'Hari! Hari!' Taking the name of Hari, I am binding a raft on which Lord Jagannatha will ferry me across this ocean of material existence. My mind always remains at the lotus feet of that Lord Jagannatha, who has very large round eyes. In this way I call out, 'Alas! Krsna!' and give up my life. O husband of Radharani, please deliver me."
The sadhu never speaks theoretically.
Parantapa Dasa, Raghava Pan?ita Dasa, and Gokula Dasa are disciples of Sripada Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja.