Born on September 1, 1896, the day after Janmastami, one of the most important vaishnava holidays, in a humble house in the Tollygunge suburb of Calcutta, he was named Abhay Charan, “one who is fearless, having taken shelter at Lord Krishna’s feet.” Since he was born on the day of Nandotsava (“the celebration of Nanda,” Krishna’s father, a traditional festival in honor of Krishna’s birth) he was also called Nandulal. His parents, Sriman Gour Mohan De and Srimati Rajani De, were devout Vaishnavas (devotees of Vishnu). In accordance with Bengali tradition, his mother had gone to the home of her parents for the delivery, and only a few days later Abhay returned with parents to his home at 151 Harrison Road in Calcutta, where he was brought up and educated.
He received a European led education in the Scottish Church College, Calcutta. This school was well reputed among Bengalis; many Vaishnava families sent their sons there. The professors, most of whom were Europeans, were known as sober, moral men, and it is believed that the students received a good education. The college was located in north Calcutta, not far from Harrison Road where Abhay’s family lived. During his years in the college, Prabhupada was a member of the English Society as well as that of the Sanskrit Society, and it has been suggested that his education provided him a foundation for his future leadership. He graduated in 1920 with majors in English, philosophy and economics. However he refused to accept his diploma, being a devout follower of Gandhi at the time. His refusal to accept the diploma he had earned was in protest of the British. He also wore the homespun cotton cloth the followers of Gandhi wore in protest of British clothes.
In 1922, when Prabhupada first met his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, he was requested to spread the message of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the English language. Later in 1932 Prabhupada became a formally initiated disciple of Bhaktisiddhanta. In 1944, (from his front room at Sita Kanta Banerjee, Calcutta), Prabhupada started the publication called Back to Godhead , for which he acted as designer, publisher, editor, copy editor and distributor. He personally designed the logo, an effulgent figure of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the upper left corner, with the motto: “Godhead is Light, Nescience is darkness” greeting the readers. In his first magazine he wrote:
“ Under the circumstances since 1936 up to now, I was simply speculating whether I shall venture this difficult task and that without any means and capacity; but as none have discouraged me, I have now taken courage to take up the work. ”
— A.C.Bhakivedanta Swami, Back to Godhead magazine(Vol.1, 1-4, 1944)
In 1947, the Gaudiya Vaishnava Society recognised Prabhupada’s scholarship with the title Bhaktivedanta, (bhakti-ved?nta) meaning “one who has realised that devotional service to the Supreme Lord is the end of all knowledge” (with the words Bhakti, indicating devotion and Vedanta indicating conclusive knowledge). His later well known name, Prabhup?da, is a Sanskrit title, literally meaning “he who has taken the position of the Lord” where prabhu denotes “Lord”, andp?da means “position.” Also, “at whose feet masters sit”. This name was used as a respectful form of address by his disciples from late 1967 early 1968 onwards. Previous to this, as with his early disciples, followers used to call him “Swamiji”.
From 1950 onwards, Prabhupada lived at the medieval Radha-Damodar mandir in the holy town of Vrindavan, where he began his commentary and translation work of the Sanskrit work Bhagavata Purana. Of all notable Vrindavana’s temples, the Radha-Damodara mandir had at the time the largest collection of various copies of the original writings of the Six Gosvamis and their followers – more than two thousand separate manuscripts, many of them three hundred, some even four hundred years old. His guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, had always encouraged Prabhupada that “If you ever get money, print books”, referring to the need of literary presentation of the Vaishnava culture.
Keshavaji Gaudiya Matha was the place where Prabhupada used to live, he had written and studied in the library of this building, here he edited the Gaud?ya Patrik? magazine and this is the place where he donated the murti of Lord Chaitanya who stands on the altar beside the Deities of Radha Krishna (named ?r? ?r? R?dh? Vinodavih?r?j?). During his visit in September 1959 he entered the doors of this matha dressed in white, as Abhay Babu, but would be leaving dressed in saffron, a swami. In this matha, in Mathura Vrindavana, Prabhupada took Vaishnava renunciate vows,sannyasa, from his friend and godbrother Bhakti Prajnana Keshava Maharaja , and following this he singlehandedly published the first three volumes covering seventeen chapters of the first book of Bhagavata Purana, filling three volumes of four hundred pages each with a detailed commentary. Introduction to the first volume was a biographical sketch of Chaitanya Mah?prabhu. He then left India, obtaining free passage on a freight ship called the Jaladuta, with the aim and a hope of fulfilling his spiritual master’s instruction to spread the message of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu around the world. In his possession were a suitcase, an umbrella, a supply of dry cereal, about eight dollars worth of Indian currency, and several boxes of books.
Mission to the West
A message from Jaladuta DiaryJournal kept by Prabhupada. Between August 25, 1965 and August 30, 1965, the Jaladuta Journal falls silent for six days. On the seventh day, August 31, the silence is broken with these simple words, “Passed over a great crisis on the struggle for life and death.” Prabhupada sailed to USA in 1965. His trip to the United States was not sponsored by any religious organization, nor was he met upon arrival by a group of loyal followers. As he neared his destination on the ship, the Indian freighter Jaladuta, the enormity of his intended task weighed on him. On September 13 he wrote in his diary, “Today I have disclosed my mind to my companion, Lord Sri Krishna.” On this occasion and on the number of other, Prabhupada, called on Krishna for help in his native Bengali. Examining these compositions, academics regard them as “intimate records of his prayerful preparation for what lay ahead” and a view on “how Bhaktivedanta Swami understood his own identity and mission.”
“I do not know why You have brought me here. Now You can do whatever You like with me. But I guess You have some business here, otherwise why would You bring me to this terrible place? How will I make them understand this message of Krishna consciousness? I am very unfortunate, unqualified and most fallen. Therefore I am seeking Your benediction so that I can convince them, for I am powerless to do so on my own.”
By journeying to America, he was attempting to fulfill the wish of his guru, possible only by the grace of “his dear Lord Krishna”. It is in July 1966 “global missionary Vaishnavism” was brought to theWest by Prabhupada, “the soul agent”, founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York City. Prabhupada spent much of the last decade of his life setting up the institution of ISKCON. Since he was the Society’s leader, his personality and management were responsible for much of ISKCON’s growth and the reach of his mission. When it was suggested to Bhaktivedanta Swami at the time of founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in 1966 that a broader term “God Consciousness” would be preferable to “Krishna Consciousness” in the title, he rejected this recommendation, suggesting that name Krishna includes all other forms and concepts of God.
After a group of devotees and a temple had been established in New York another center was started in San Francisco in 1967. From here Prabhupada traveled throughout America with his disciples, popularizing the movement through street chanting (sankirtana), book distribution and public speeches.
One of 108 worldwide temples opened by Prabhupada by 1977, was dedicated toKrishna-Balarama (pictured above) inVrindavana, India
Once ISKCON was more established in America a small number of devotees from the San Francisco temple were sent to London, England. After a short time of being in London they came into contact with The Beatles, of whom George Harrison took the greatest interest, spending a significant time speaking with Prabhupada and producing a record with members of the later London Radha Krsna Temple. Over the following years Prabhupada’s continuing leadership role took him around the world some several times setting up temples and communities in all of the major continents. By the time of his death in Vrindavan eleven years later in 1977, ISKCON became a widely known expression ofVaishnavism on an international basis.
In the twelve years from his arrival in New York until his final days he:
* circled the globe fourteen times on lecture tours that took him to six continents
* initiated many disciples, awarding sannyasa and babaji initiations.
* introduced Vedic gurukul education to a Western audience
* directed the founding of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, which claims to be the world’s largest publisher of ancient and classical Vaishnava religious texts founded the religious colony New Vrindavan in West Virginia,
* authored more than eighty books (with many available online) on Vedantic philosophy, religion, literature and culture (including four published originally in Bengali)
* introduced international celebrations in the capitals of the world like that of Jagannatha processions
* watched ISKCON grow to a confederation of more than 108 temples, various institutes and farm communities
Through his mission, Prabhupada followed and communicated the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and introduced bhakti yoga to an international audience. Within Gaudiya Vaishnavism this was viewed as the fulfillment of a long time mission to introduce Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings to the world. In his discussion with a historian Arnold J. Toynbee in London, Prabhupada is quoted as saying: “I have started this Krishna Conscious Movement among the Indians and Americans and for the next ten thousand years it will increase.”
Books and publishing
It is believed that Prabhupada’s most significant contribution are his books. Within the final twenty years of his life Prabhupada translated over sixty volumes of classic Vedic scriptures (such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam) into the English language. For their authority, depth, and clarity, his books have won praise from professors at colleges and universities like Harvard, Oxford, Cornell, Columbia, Syracuse, Oberlin, and Edinburgh, and hisBhagavad-G?t? As It Is was published by Macmillan Publishers, in 1968 and unabridged edition in 1972, and is now available in over sixty languages around the world and some other books by Prabhupada are available in over eighty different languages.
Photograph of selected books by Prabhupada, lavishly published byBhaktivedanta Book Trust
The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust was established in 1972 to publish his works, it has also published massively researched multivolume biography, Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, that in opinion of Larry Shinn will “certainly be one of the most complete records of the life and work of any modern religious figure”. Prabhupada reminded his devotees before his death that he would live forever in his books, and through them would remain present as a spiritual master or guru. Prabhupada had instilled in his followers an understanding of the importance of writing and publishing not only with regard to his works, but also their own initiatives. His early disciples felt Prabhupada had given them Back To Godhead for their own writings from the very start.
A prominent Gaudiya Vaishnava figure, Shrivatsa Goswami, who as a young man had met Prabhupada in 1972, affirmed the significance of book publishing and distribution in spreading the message of Chaitanya in an interview with Steven Gelberg:
“ Making these Vaisnava texts available is one of Srila Prabhupada’s greatest contributions. Apart from the masses, his books have also reached well into academic circles and have spurred academic interest in the Chaitanya tradition … The significance of making these texts available is not merely academic or cultural; it is spiritual.”
Views on other religious traditions
Prabhupada considered Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed to be empowered representatives of God, describing them within his writings as pioneers of the same essential message of dedication to God with love and devotion.
“Actually, it doesn’t matter – Krishna or Christ – the name is the same. The main point is to follow the injunctions of the Vedic scriptures that recommend chanting the name of Godin this age.”
Other typical expression presents a different perspective, where Prabhupada would point out that “today I may be a Hindu, but tomorrow I may become a Christian or Muslim. In this way faiths can be changed, but dharma” is a natural sequence, a natural occupation or a connection and it can not be changed, because it is permanent, according to him. While ISKCON theology of personal god is close to Christian theology, both personal and monotheistic, being a preacher of bhakti and a missionary he sometimes would add, that “already many Christians have tasted the nectar of divine love of the holy name and are dancing with karatalas (hand-cymbals) and mridangas (drums).” Prabhupada’s approach to modern knowledge is also seen in sectarian Orthodox Judaism, where the skills and technical knowledge of modernity are encouraged, but the values rejected. Prabhupada stated “devotees should not be lazy, idle…we are not afraid to work. Whatever our engagement is, by offering the result to Krishna we become Krishna conscious”. Some of his representations are believed to affect women adversely and are male-centred, others are tender and celebratory. Prabhupada himself taught a dualism of body and soul and that of the genders. Similar to many traditional religions he considered sexuality and spirituality as conflicting opposites. However among some liberal male followers there is a positive recognition of Prabhupada’s own example in applying the spirit of the law according to time, place, person and circumstance, rather than literal tracing of the tradition.
In line with traditional Vaishnava theology, Prabhupada was critical of the monist philosophies of Hinduism representing the Gaudiya Vaishnava devotional point of view and often calling the Neo Vedanta adherents of monism with ‘unkind words’. In the view of some, the Gaudiya-Vaishnava philosophy he followed is neither fully dualistic nor monist (this is known as Achintya Bheda Abheda). As a devotional path, Gaudiya Vaishnavism has much more in common with theDvaita, as opposed to the Advaita schools. It can be specifically noted that Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, mentions in Indian Philosophy that Nyayakosa includes Samkhya and Advaita Vedanta under naistika, i.e. unorthodox systems, due to the absence of concept of devotion.