During times of hardship and illness, Srila Prabhupada turned to the immortal prayers of one of Lord Krishna's closest devotees.
Queen Kunti, who walked this earth some five thousand years ago, was the sister of Vasudeva, Krishna's father. Her story is briefly told in the Bhagavata Purana, also known as the Srimad- Bhagavatam, where we find her heartrending prayers embodying the pinnacle of Krishna conscious philosophy. “Kunti’s spontaneous glorification of Lord Krishna and her description of the spiritual path,” the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) edition of her prayers tells us, “are immortalized in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Purana, and they have been recited, chanted, and sung by sages and philosophers for thousands of years.”
“As they appear in the First Canto of the Bhagavatam,” the text continues, “Queen Kunti’s celebrated prayers consist of only twenty-six couplets (verses 18 through 43 of the Eighth Chapter), yet they are considered a philosophical, theological, and literary masterpiece. The present book (Teachings of Queen Kunti) includes those inspired verses and illuminating commentary by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founderacarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the most renowned Vedic scholar and spiritual leader of our time. In addition to this commentary (originally written in 1962), Teachings of Queen Kunti contains further explanations that Srila Prabhupada gave more recently in an absorbing series of lectures. In those memorable talks, delivered in the spring of 1973 at ISKCON’s Western world headquarters in Los Angeles, he analyzed the verses in significantly greater detail and shed even more light upon them.”
As an early member of the Krishna consciousness movement, I saw how deeply important Queen Kunti’s verses were to Srila Prabhupada.
Even before founding ISKCON in 1966, during Srila Prabhupada’s beginning times in New York City, he had recorded himself singing Kunti’s prayers. These prayers are the only section of verses Srila Prabhupada ever recorded from the Srimad-Bhagavatam. He was living alone in what was an office on West 72nd Street in New York during the winter of 1965–66, after having come to New York from Butler, Pennsylvania. These were difficult days. Not only was Srila Prabhupada alone, but his quarters offered no shower or kitchen. To bathe and to cook his meals at Dr. Mishra’s apartment-cum-yoga studio, Prabhupada had to walk seven blocks in the frigid cold, tolerating the howling winds blowing off the Hudson River onto Riverside Drive. Although Srila Prabhupada had an overcoat and a sweater, his clothes were the thin cloth he had worn from Vrindavan and suited for hot, tropical climates, and not New York winters.
Srila Prabhupada had bought a tape recorder, spending the equivalent of one month’s rent; and when no one was visiting him and there was no one to preach to, he recorded his singing of Kunti’s prayers, accompanying himself on karatalas. He was inspired to deeply meditate on these verses during this period of hardship and trial. It is clear that they gave him solace, as he thought about their meaning in relation to his own life.
Soon thereafter, when he opened the world’s first ISKCON temple, in New York on June 1, 1966 – a storefront at 26 Second Avenue – he found himself working especially hard, carrying the slack of newcomers. They knew little of how to serve the spiritual master or his mission. Instead, they took service from him daily as he trained them in Krishna consciousness, and although this would have exhausted a man half his age, he was always full of energy and ready to do the needful. But then, on May 31, Memorial Day, 1967, he had a stroke.
Since most doctors were away from the city on vacation, we could not get one to come and treat him. Prabhupada was experiencing spasms and paralysis, and we didn’t know what to do. To alleviate his discomfort, I gently massaged him very carefully, fearing that even this could worsen his condition.
Srila Prabhupada requested three things. He wanted the newly completed painting of Lord Nrsimha placed before his view, and he asked all the devotees to chant the Nrsimhadeva mantras and the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Devotees chanted all day and all through the night both in New York and at the newly opened San Francisco center.
The third thing Srila Prabhupada asked for was for me to read to him the prayers of Queen Kunti from Srimad-Bhagavatam. I stumbled over the pronunciation of the Sanskrit words, and I felt self-conscious reading to him from the book he himself had written, all the while concerned over his deteriorating condition. Perhaps it was the first time a student read to Srila Prabhupada from his books. The only books we had at the time were the few copies of Srimad-Bhagavatam Srila Prabhupada had brought with him from India, because the first books published in America, Bhagavad-gita As It Is and Teachings of Lord Caitanya, did not come until 1968.
Srila Prabhupada accepted my attempt at reading and was satisfied to hear the verses, translations, and his purports read to him by one of his first students. He was teaching us what to do in a lifethreatening crisis: to hear the glorification of Lord Krishna by one of the Lord’s eternal associates and to thus be fully conscious of Him.
Another Health Crisis
Years later, and after having successfully spread his movement all over the world, Srila Prabhupada was in Vrindavan in August 1974. He was living in his unfinished residence and was overseeing the construction of the Krishna -Balarama temple, which he would inaugurate in April 1975. Srila Prabhupada observed Krishna Janmastami, and the following day we celebrated his Vyasa-puja Appearance Day at the construction site. The very next day he became inexplicably ill with a torrid fever and total collapse. I was serving him as his personal secretary, and Srutakirti Dasa was nursing him.
Malaria was going around; several devotees had become afflicted with it, including Srutakirti and his replacement, Kuladri Dasa. Srila Prabhupada had a fever that went up to 105, but he didn’t have the chills that usually accompany malaria. A number of westerntrained doctors from Delhi and several Ayurvedic practitioners and herbalists from Vrindavan treated him, but no one was able to cure him, or even properly diagnose the debilitating ailment. Srila Prabhupada was getting worse. It was a crisis. No one knew what to do.
Srila Prabhupada was not speaking much, but he did say that the spiritual master accepts the karma of his disciples at the time of initiation. If some of them do not follow the rules and regulations and commit sins, then the spiritual master may become affected by the karma and become ill. This had a very sobering effect on all of us. Srila Prabhupada asked that devotees pray to Lord Nrsimha and have kirtana, and this was done in temples all over the world. Yet again, he asked me to read to him, as he lay critically inert, the prayers of Queen Kunti.
I read from the Srimad- Bhagavatam published by the BBT with diacritic marks. It was easier to read the verses, and I had learned more how to read the transliterated Sanskrit, although not perfectly. So, Srutakirti and I took turns reading, and then I called in Pradyumna Dasa, our resident Sanskritist, who read with perfect pronunciation. Srila Prabhupada again demonstrated the importance of hearing these prayers during personal crisis. It was obvious to us that hearing these particular prayers gave Prabhupada satisfaction and strength. It could even be said that this is what eventually cured him, because, clearly, none of the doctors did.
Srila Prabhupada later wrote a letter commenting on this event (written from Mayapur, October 7, 1974): I thank you for your concern for my well-being. Actually I was very ill. I was falling down. But, by your prayers Krishna has kindly made me recover. Because you have prayed to Krishna , therefore I have recovered. Just like Srimati Kunti Devi, when there was difficulty, she prayed to Krishna . That is Krishna consciousness. Not that when there is difficulty I shall forget Krishna . Whatever the material condition may be, we should just cling to Krishna's lotus feet.
Notable Lectures in New York and Los Angeles
Srila Prabhupada extensively lectured on these prayers consecutively at the New York temple in April of 1973 and continued them when he next went to Los Angeles. I was traveling with him as his personal secretary. In New York, Pancaratna Dasa asked me if he could videotape Srila Prabhupada’s classes. I didn’t know what video was, because, in 1973, video was new technology. Pancaratna’s camera was a prototype, using only black and white film. No one else in the movement had such a contraption, nor did anyone have a videotape player, what to speak of a television.
I allowed him to videotape Srila Prabhupada speaking, but I didn’t know why he was doing it. I couldn’t understand the usefulness of it, because no one would be able to see the tapes. Videotapes at this time were confined to high-tech professionals and broadcasting studios. Pancaratna was not a high-tech kind of person or an experienced cinematographer. He later confided to me that his video camera was mainly a kind of love-ploy to get as near to Srila Prabhupada as possible and to be able to focus on his lotus face close up, as a meditation.
When Srila Prabhupada entered the temple room, I was dismayed to see all of Pancaratna’s equipment, which took up a good amount of space. The camera was a large bulky thing on a big tripod right in front of the vyasasana. Several glaring floodlights on stands, with lots of wires, spread out over the floor, and equipment cases and tapes competed for space with all the devotees crowded around the vyasasana. Srila Prabhupada did not like devotees photographing him, especially while he was lecturing, because it distracted both him and the audience. And the person fiddling with a camera would not be able to hear him properly.
But Pancaratna was determined to film Srila Prabhupada. Every morning this went on for more than a week. Srila Prabhupada never complained, so I didn’t say anything either, but only frowned at Pancaratna for causing this inconvenient scene. When Srila Prabhupada left New York to go to Los Angeles, he continued to lecture on the prayers of Queen Kunti, but Pancaratna stayed in New York. So, practically the only video footage of Srila Prabhupada’s innumerable classes is what Pancaratna took during that week in New York – classes on Kunti’s prayers. Years later, devotees all over the world would relish these tapes, enabling them to see Srila Prabhupada in an intimate way.
After the Kunti lectures in L.A., Srila Prabhupada ordered the BBT to publish them as a separate book, Teachings of Queen Kunti.
Exemplary Vaisnava Prayers
Srila Prabhupada’s teachings on prayer, as informed by the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition, lean toward selflessness. We are taught not to ask anything of God but instead to pray for service. For example, the Hare Krishna maha-mantra – Hare Krishna , Hare Krishna , Krishna Krishna , Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare – is a prayer to be engaged in the service of the Lord. It beseeches God for nothing other than to be an instrument for His purpose in the world.
If a prayer in the Vaisnava tradition is not asking to be engaged in divine service, then, alternately, it should be an expression of glorification. We usually think of prayer in terms of asking for some boon or protection from God. But prayer in the Vaisnava tradition means to glorify Lord Krishna or His incarnations, as illustrated by the prayers of Prahlada, Arjuna, Bhisma, and many others, including Queen Kunti, recorded in the Srimad-Bhagavatam and elsewhere. And while sometimes great souls ask for spiritual boons, the emphasis is on glorification of the sweet Personality of Godhead, and nothing more.
Brahmananda Dasa, one of Srila Prabhupada’s first disciples and the president of the first ISKCON temple, at 26 Second Ave., New York City, lives in Vrindavan, UP.