An early disciple of Srila Prabhupada reminisces some old stories
with profound lessons for the present time.
This article is based on a talk given by the author on Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance day in 2009.
We have gathered at the lotus feet of Srila Prabhupada on the auspicious occasion of his disappearance festival. When we were with His Divine Grace in Surat on his Guru Maharaja’s disappearance day, he remarked that on the absolute platform there is no difference between the appearance and disappearance of the spiritual master just like the sunrise and sunset, both are beautiful.
Srila Prabhupada always glorified Krsna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and he instructed everyone to take shelter of Krsna. Many people who came in touch with Srila Prabhupada were struck by this fact. George Harrison, for example, said that so many svamis and gurus tell their followers to surrender to them but that Srila Prabhupada always said, “Krsna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead; you should surrender to Him.”
Once, a new devotee approached Srila Prabhupada and said, “Srila Prabhupada, I can trust you; I can surrender to you. But I can’t trust your representatives. I can’t surrender to them, because I fear they may cheat me.” And Srila Prabhupada replied, “Don’t surrender to me either. I may also cheat you. Surrender to Krsna.”
In the beginning of devotional service an aspirant may think that he is a devotee, but as he makes progress he comes to realize that actually he is not a devotee. It is paradoxical: the neophyte thinks, “I am a devotee,” and the advanced devotee thinks, “I am not a devotee.” When we hear of Krsna’s mercy upon Putana, who was a demon, we may think, “Well, it is wonderful that He was so merciful to Putana, but at least I am not a demon; I am a devotee.” Yet although we are aspiring devotees I don’t say that we are not devotees, but at least we can say that we are aspiring devotees we do have some qualities in common with Putana.
One quality mentioned is jighamsaya she acted out of envy. We are in the material world out of envy of Krsna. We don’t want to accept Krsna as the supreme enjoyer; we want to enjoy independent of Him. That means we are envious of Krsna. And it is actually envy that keeps us in the material world. Only someone who is completely liberated and pure can be free from envy. Srinivasa Acarya glorifies the six Gosvamis of Vrndavana, dhiradhira-jana-priyau: they are dear both to the gentle and to the ruffians. Dhira means one who is sober, who does not identify with the body but knows that he is the soul within (dhiras tatra na muhyati). He is dhira sober, gentle, undisturbed. And adhira is the opposite one who identifies with the body, or, a ruffian. So, the six Gosvamis are popular with both the gentle and the ruffians. They are pleasing to everyone because they are not envious of anyone, and thus they are worshipable. Dhiradhira-jana-priyau. They are nonenvious (nirmatsarau) and thus are worshipable (pujitau). Srila Prabhupada explains that one who is nonenvious is worshipable because one can be nonenvious only if he is a pure devotee. Anyone other than a pure devotee must still be affected by envy. Our natural position is to serve Krsna (jivera ‘svarupa’ haya-krsnera ‘nitya-dasa’). If we act as anything other than an eternal servant of Krsna, it means that we have not realized our actual position and that our original envy of Krsna, which brought us into the material world, is still, to some degree, lingering.
An encounter in early days
After starting his mission in New York and San Francisco, Srila Prabhupada had a stroke, and after all efforts to recover in America had failed, Srila Prabhupada decided to return to India to recoup his health. Before his departure, he came to the San Francisco temple. No one had expected him to speak, but he asked for the microphone. He spoke about his mission, how under the order of his spiritual master he had brought Lord Caitanya’s movement to America and how Krsna had kindly sent so many sincere souls. He told the devotees, “I have a few children in India from my family days, but you are my real children. Now I am going to India for a little while.”
One of Srila Prabhupada’s early disciples from San Francisco suddenly entered the room. The devotees knew that he wanted to leave Krsna consciousness, that he hadn’t taken his initiation vows seriously, and that he wanted to move on he didn’t want a spiritual master any more. The other devotees tried to discourage him, but he persisted. Now they were incredulous: how could he do such a thing on the night before Svamiji’s departure?
The devotee, Ravindra-svarupa*, fell to the floor to offer obeisances, but he didn’t rise up. Instead, he began crawling on his hands and knees towards Prabhupada. This dramatic encounter is vividly described in Srila Prabhupada- lilamrta: “Ravindra usually had a cavalier manner, enhanced by a handsome face, long tousled hair, and a beard. But now he was wretched and sobbing and crazy. He crawled towards Prabhupada, who sat but two steps off the floor on the simple redwood dais. Prabhupada looked at him with compassion: ‘Come here, my boy.’ Ravindra crawled up the steps and placed his bushy head on Prabhupada’s lap. Moved, the devotees watched as Prabhupada stroked Ravindra’s head and the boy cried and cried.
“‘What’s wrong, my son? You don’t have to be so unhappy.’
“Ravindra bawled out, ‘I want . . . ,’ he sobbed, ‘aah . . . to . . . aah . . . reach God directly! Without anyone in between!’
“Prabhupada continued to pat and stroke the boy’s head: ‘No, you continue to stay with us if possible. Don’t be a crazy fellow.’ Ravindra’s weeping subsided, and Prabhupada continued, speaking both to Ravindra and to the emotion-struck group in the room. ‘I am an old man,’ he said. ‘I may die at any moment. But please, you all carry on this saìkirtana movement. You have to become humble and tolerant. As Lord Caitanya says, be as humble as a blade of grass and more tolerant than a tree. You must have enthusiasm and patience to push on this Krsna conscious philosophy.’
“Suddenly Ravindra’s tears were gone. He jumped up, dejectedly stood, hesitating for a moment, and then hurried out the door, banging it behind him.
“Ravindra-svarupa’s dramatic exit from Krsna consciousness shocked the devotees. Prabhupada sat still and continued speaking to them gravely, asking them to stick together and push on the movement, for their own benefit and for others. Whatever they had learned, he said, they should repeat.
“They realized, perhaps for the first time, that they were part of a preaching mission, a movement. They had a loving obligation to Svamiji and Krsna.”
Although that disciple’s exhibition might have been extreme, in principle he is not that different from any of us. We also don’t want anyone between us and Krsna. We don’t want to surrender. We want to be Krsna. But by Prabhupada’s mercy we have been engaged in devotional service and are undertaking the process of purification chanting the holy names, hearing Srimad-Bhagavatam, associating with devotees, worshiping the Deity, and as far as possible residing in Mathura, Vrndavana, Mayapur, or any temple of Gaura-Nitai or Radha-Krsna.
Putana was asadhvi, unfaithful. And she pretended to be something that she was not. She was actually a demon, but by her mystic powers she presented herself as a very beautiful woman. When she entered the village of Gokula she appeared so beautiful and effulgent that people thought that Laksmi, the goddess of fortune herself, had come. So when she came to enter the house of Nanda Maharaja and Yasodamayi, no one stopped her. She was so beautiful and effulgent that they thought she was some higher being. Actually, she was a she-demon, and she came to kill Krsna.
It is not entirely wrong to present oneself as something that one is not. Sometimes, for social reasons, we must, but internally we should remain faithful. The problem is that internally sometimes we become unfaithful (asadhvi). We want to surrender we decide to surrender but then we take back our surrender. It happens all the time. We surrender decide to surrender and then withdraw our surrender. We are not sure whether we should surrender. We are not sure whether the process will work, whether we will get the result. We are not sure whether we will be successful in our attempt. We are not sure whether Krsna will take care of us. We are not sure if our desires will be fulfilled.
Ultimately, it comes back to faith, upon which all progress depends.
‘sraddha’-sabde visvasa kahe
krsne bhakti kaile
sarva-karma krta haya
“Sraddha is confident, firm faith that by rendering transcendental loving service to Krsna one automatically performs all subsidiary activities. Such faith is favorable to the discharge of devotional service.” (Cc. Madhya 22.62)
Exceptional mercy from a neutral god
Even in Srila Prabhupada’s presence, devotees did not always understand him. Most of the people who joined Srila Prabhupada were young, in their late teens or early twenties, and it was years before any left his or her body. The first I recall was Jaya Gopala Dasa, who lost his life in an automobile accident. His young wife was distraught, and Srila Prabhupada assured her that Jaya Gopala had gone back to Godhead and that she would join him. A godbrother commented that Srila Prabhupada had said that just to encourage her. Then three days ago I came across a book called His Divine Grace, by Danavira Gosvami. And looking through it I came across a photo of Jaya Gopala, with the caption: “Srila Prabhupada stated that Jaya Gopala was not ready to go back to Godhead but that Krsna made an exception and took him back anyway.” That is causeless mercy Prabhupada’s mercy. Krsna has no interest in anything of the material world. He is interested only in devotees. And it is only because of the mercy of a devotee that Krsna takes interest in someone who is not yet truly a devotee. Why else would Krsna make an exception other than Prabhupada’s mercy? Otherwise, who is Jaya Gopala Dasa or any of us to Krsna? It is because of our connection with Srila Prabhupada that we have any standing in Krsna’s eyes.
Of course, Krsna is the Supersoul. He is in the heart of every living entity as the witness and overseer. And He loves the living entities and accompanies them wherever they go. But He is neutral. He lets them act to fulfill their desires. He doesn’t interfere. However, when a devotee intervenes, Krsna takes special interest. One who has received a devotee’s mercy gets Krsna’s mercy, and that is true of all of us, your followers, now.. Otherwise, why should we even be here? We are just conditioned souls who have come into the material world to enjoy in imitation of Krsna. Why should we even be in Krsna’s temple? We are here by Srila Prabhupada’s mercy, and thus we are making the effort to purify our hearts and become true devotees, hearing Srimad-Bhagavatam and chanting the holy names.
Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami told me a nice story a realization or thought that he had had. It relates to Srila Prabhupada’s mercy and leads to the conclusion kam va dayalum saranam vrajema: “How shall I take shelter of one more merciful?” In other words, “He is so merciful; how can I find anyone more merciful? How can I take shelter of anyone else?”
Sometimes it happens that devotees from ISKCON meet saintly persons outside of ISKCON. So, one year Satsvarupa Maharaja went to Jagannatha Puri, during the holy month of Purusottama, to spend some time with one such sadhu. But while there, Satsvarupa Maharaja felt uncomfortable; he didn’t feel at home in that association. He felt that Srila Prabhupada created ISKCON to be his home and that he could feel at home only in ISKCON nowhere else.
Then he went a step further. He imagined a time when he would leave his body and come to the precincts of Krsnaloka and the gatekeeper would ask him, “Who are you?” He suddenly became fearful, thinking that he was taking a gamble by turning himself into a siksa disciple of that sadhu, rather than remaining an exclusive disciple of Srila Prabhupada. He wasn’t sure exactly what his relationship with that sadhu was or how that sadhu would relate to Krsna on his behalf.
Then he imagined a different sequence. In this one, when the gatekeeper asked, “Who are you?” he would reply, “I am Satsvarupa Dasa, a disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.” Then he imagined the gatekeeper going to Srila Prabhupada and asking him, “Satsvarupa has come to the gate what should we do?” And he imagined that Srila Prabhupada would say, “Satsvarupa? My Satsvarupa? Call him immediately.”
To me, this provides a striking picture of Srila Prabhupada and his mercy, and it serves to answer the rhetorical question, “How shall I take shelter of one more merciful than he?” For us, there is no one more merciful. There is no need to take shelter of anyone else, and there will be no gain if we leave him to take shelter of anyone else.
Hold on to the lotus feet
Two years ago I had the good fortune to meet Narayani Dasi here in Houston during a japa workshop. I hadn’t seen her for many years, and then at a japa workshop here, I met her, and she told me a story that she had heard. Srila Prabhupada was giving a talk in which he had said that in order to go back home, back to Godhead, one must be cent percent pure, cent percent free of material desires and attachments. When Srila Prabhupada saw that the devotees were discouraged, he said, “All right, 90%.” Still they were dejected. Then he said, “All right, 80%.” Still they were crestfallen. Then Prabhupada said, “All right, 75% but not less.”
After the talk, Srila Prabhupada commented, “If you just hold on to my lotus feet, I will take you back to Godhead. I have the key to the back door.” (Of course, we must try sincerely and seriously, by all means, with all of our energy and resources.)
In our japa retreats we emphasize chanting with attention, without offense. We encourage devotees to pronounce each syllable distinctly and hear each syllable attentively. To chant inattentively is an offense. So, I thought of my initiation letter Srila Prabhupada sent it to me in Boston from Los Angeles in which he told me to avoid the ten offenses. And I thought, “Oh, my God, that was practically the first instruction I got from Srila Prabhupada the instruction I got when I was initiated and now, thirty-six years later, I still haven’t been able to follow it, which is another offense: to disobey the orders of the spiritual master.” So I thought, “I am just drowning in offenses.” And then I thought, “I better reread that letter, to try to get some strength, some encouragement and inspiration.” I reread it, and there was the instruction: “You should avoid the ten offenses as far as possible.” Srila Prabhupada was so merciful he knew that I couldn’t avoid them completely. So he saved me from the offense of disobeying his order, by writing “as far as possible.”
So that is our qualification, according to Srila Prabhupada. And that is our hope. If we sincerely try to follow his instructions strictly if we just hold on to his lotus feet he will do the rest. He will take us back home, back to Godhead.
Giriraja Swami joined the Krsna consciousness movement in 1969 and accepted the renounced order of life in 1978. During the mid-seventies, under Prabhupada's supervision he guided the construction of ISKCON’s temple complex in Mumbai.