When His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (who later became known as Srila Prabhupada) entered the port of New York City on September 17, 1965, few Americans took notice — but he was not merely another immigrant. He was on a mission to introduce an ancient religion, which originated in India, into mainstream America. Before Srila Prabhupada passed away on November 14, 1977, at the age of 81, his mission proved successful. He had founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and saw it grow into a worldwide confederation of more than 100 temples, ashrams and cultural centers.
Srila Prabhupada was born Abhay Charan De on September 1, 1896 to a practicing Hindu family in Kolkata. As a youth growing up in British-controlled India, Abhay became involved with Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement to secure independence for his nation. A 1922 meeting with a prominent scholar and religious leader, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, proved most influential on Abhay’s future calling. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was a leader in the Gaudiya Vaishnava denomination, a monotheistic tradition within the broad Hindu culture. He asked Abhay to bring the teachings of Lord Krishna to the English-speaking world. Abhay became a disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta in 1933 and resolved to carry out his mentor’s request. Abhay, who became known worldwide as A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and as Srila Prabhupada, spent the next 32 years preparing for his journey to the Western world.
In 1965, at the age of 69, Srila Prabhupada travelled to New York City aboard a cargo ship. The journey was treacherous, and the elderly spiritual teacher suffered 2 heart attacks aboard ship. Arriving in the United States with just 7 dollars in Indian rupees and his translations of sacred Sanskrit texts, he began to spread the teachings of Krishna consciousness. His spiritual message resonated with many young people, some of whom came forward to become serious students of the Krishna tradition. With the help of these students, Srila Prabhupada rented a small storefront on New York’s Lower East Side to use as a temple. On July 11, 1966, he officially registered his organization in the state of New York, formally founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
In the 11 years that followed, Srila Prabhupada circled the globe 14 times on lecture tours, bringing the teachings of Lord Krishna to thousands of people on 6 continents. Men and women from all backgrounds and walks of life came forward to accept his message, and with their help, Srila Prabhupada established ISKCON centers and projects throughout the world. Under his inspiration, Krishna devotees established temples, rural communities, and educational institutions and started what would become the world’s largest vegetarian food relief program. With the desire to nourish the roots of Krishna consciousness in its home, Srila Prabhupada returned to India several times, where he sparked a revival in the Vaishnava tradition. In India, he opened dozens of temples, including large centers in the holy towns of Vrindavana and Mayapur.
Srila Prabhupada’s most significant contributions, perhaps, are his books. He authored over 70 volumes on the Krishna tradition, which are highly respected by scholars for their authority, depth, fidelity to the tradition and clarity. Several of his works are used as textbooks in university courses. His writings have been translated into 76 languages. His most prominent works include: Bhagavad-gita As It Is, the multi-volume Srimad-Bhagavatam and the set of Sri Caitanya-caritamrita books.
- Swāmījī — original honorific used by American disciples
- Prabhupāda — bestowed by American disciples, 1968, popularised by ISKCON
- Śrīla Prabhupāda — bestowed by American disciples, 1968, popularised by ISKCON
- His Divine Grace — title of address bestowed by American disciples, popularised by ISKCON
- Svāmī Mahārāj — used in his home denomination Gauḍīya Maṭha (where “Prabhupāda” is confined to Bhaktisiddhānta Gosvāmī)
- Śrīla Bhaktivedānta — used in Chaitanya Mission / Science of Identity (where “Prabhupad” is confined to Chris Butler
Born on 4 September 1896, the day after Janmastami, one of the most important Vaishnava holidays, in a humble house in the Tollygunge suburb of Calcutta in a Bengali Suvarna Banik family, 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 Nandulāl. 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 6 Sitakanta Banerjee Lane, Kolkata 700005.
He received a European-led education in the Scottish Church College, which 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, near the De’s family home on Harrison Road. During his years in the college, Abhay Charan De (অভয়চরণ দে) 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. He rejected his diploma in response to Gandhi’s independence movement.
At 22 years of age he married Radharani Devi, who was then 11 years old, in a marriage arranged by their parents. At 14, she gave birth to Abhay’s first son.
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.In 1922, when he first met his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, he was requested to spread the message of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the English language. In 1933 he became a formally initiated disciple of Bhaktisiddhānta. In 1944, (from his front room at Sita Kanta Banerjee, Calcutta), he started the publication called Back to Godhead, for which he acted as writer, 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:
— A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Back to Godhead magazine (Vol. 1, 1–4, 1944)
In 1947, the Gaudiya Vaishnava Society recognised his scholarship with the title Bhaktivedanta, (bhakti-vedānta) 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, Prabhupāda, is a Sanskrit title, literally meaning “he who has taken the shelter of the lotus feet of the Lord” where prabhu denotes “Lord”, and pāda means “taking shelter.”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, he 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 Thakura, had always encouraged him to print books, and beholding his spiritual master, Abhay felt the words deeply enter his own life – “If you ever get money, print books.” referring to the need of literary presentation of the Vaishnava culture.
The Gaudiya Matha at Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh was where he lived, wrote and studied, edited the Gauḍīya Patrikā magazine and where he donated the idol (murti) of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu which stands on the altar beside those of Radha Krishna (named Śrī Śrī Rādhā Vinodavihārījī). During his visit in September 1959 he entered the doors of this matha dressed in white, as Abhoy Babu, but would be leaving dressed in saffron, a Vaishnava renunciate (sannyasi). He took his renunciate vows from his friend and godbrother Bhakti Prajnana Keshava. On becoming a sannyasa he also took the prenominal Swami (स्वामी Svāmī). He single-handedly 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. The introduction to the first volume was a biographical sketch of Caitanya Mahāprabhu. He then left India, obtaining free passage on a freighter called the Jaladuta, with the aim and a hope of fulfilling his spiritual master’s instruction to spread the message of Caitanya 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
When he sailed to the United States in 1965, his trip was not sponsored by any religious organization, nor was he met upon arrival by a group of loyal followers. As the Indian freighter Jaladuta neared his destination, the magnitude of his intended task weighed on him. On 13 September he wrote in his diary, “Today I have disclosed my mind to my companion, Lord Sri Krishna.” On this occasion and on a number of others, he 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 the United States, he was attempting to fulfil the wish of his guru, possible only by the grace of “his dear Lord Krishna”. It was in July 1966 that he brought “global missionary Vaishnavism” to the Western world, founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York City. He spent much of the last decade of his life setting up the institution. 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 him at the time of founding the ISKCON in 1966 that a broader term “God Consciousness” would be preferable to “Krishna Consciousness” in the title, he rejected this recommendation, suggesting that the 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 centre was started in San Francisco in 1967. From there he travelled throughout America with his disciples, popularizing the movement through street chanting (sankirtana), book distribution and public speeches.
Once ISKCON was more established in there, a small number of devotees from the San Francisco temple were sent to London, England where they came into contact with The Beatles. George Harrison took the greatest interest, spending a significant time speaking with him and producing a record with members of the later London Radha Krsna Temple.
Over the following years his continuing leadership role took him around the world some several times setting up temples and communities on other continents. By the time of his death in Vrindavan in 1977, ISKCON had become an internationally known expression of Vaishnavism.
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 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 such as Jagannatha processions
- watched ISKCON grow to more than 108 temples, various institutes, and farm communities
Through his mission, he followed and communicated the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and introduced bhakti yoga to an international audience. Within Gaudiya Vaishnavism this was viewed as the fulfilment of a long time mission to introduce Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings to the world.
In his discussion with historian Arnold J. Toynbee in London, he 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.”
According to the most recent issue of Back to Godhead magazine, founded by Prabhupada, there are presently over 400 temples and farm communities listed to visit. The magazine lists only the major centres, there are many more homes turned temple that hold programs as well that aren’t close by regular temples (Back to Godhead). Prabhupada’s initiated disciples and grand disciples number in the tens or hundreds of thousands, while millions of believers who accept his teachings as genuine and bona-fide throughout the world.
Books and publishing
It is believed that Bhaktivedanta Swami’s most significant contribution are his books. Within the final twelve years of his life Bhaktivedanta Swami translated over sixty volumes of classic Vedic scriptures (such as the Bhagavad Gita, Chaitanya Charitamritaand 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 his Bhagavad-gītā 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 Bhaktivedanta Swami are available in over eighty different languages. In February 2014, ISKCON’s news agency reported to have reached a milestone of distributing over half a billion books authored by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, since 1965.
The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust was established in 1972 to publish his works, and it has also published his multi-volume biography, Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, that according to 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. Bhaktivedanta Swami 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 Bhaktivedanta Swami in 1972, affirmed the significance of book publishing and distribution in spreading the message of Caitanya 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.
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 God in this age. Bhaktivedanta Swami said:
Other typical expressions present a different perspective, where he 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 the 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).” His 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. Bhaktivedanta Swami 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. Bhaktivedanta Swami 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. Among some liberal male followers there is a positive recognition of his example in applying the spirit of the law according to time, place, person and circumstance, rather than literal tracing of the tradition.
A number of memorial samadhis or shrines to Bhaktivedanta Swami were constructed by the members of ISKCON in his remembrance, the largest of which are in Mayapur, Vrindavan and at the larger sized temples in America. Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold was designed and constructed by devotees of the New Vrindavan community and dedicated on 2 September 1979. Back in 1972 it was intended to be simply a residence for Bhaktivedanta Swami, but over time the plans evolved into an ornate marble and gold palace which is now visited by thousands of Hindu pilgrims each year, visiting this centrepiece of the community strongly relying upon tourist trade.