The Soul of Srila Prabhupada
Published on October 21st, 2009 | by Harmonist staff9
In honor of Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s 32nd tirobhava (disappearance day):
By Swami Tripurari
If, as Srila Prabhupada had said, his International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) was his body, I venture to assert that book publishing was his soul. This body/soul metaphor leads naturally to the conclusion that book publishing, the soul of Srila Prabhupada, is more important than his corporate institution. Spiritual though it may be, the institution is only so inasmuch as it conforms with and serves to facilitate the dissemination of the ideal embodied in the revealed scripture. To the extent that it ceases to do so, it becomes irrelevant. In the language of His Divine Grace, “Books are the basis.”
Srila Prabhupda’s actions speak louder than my words in this regard. When he formed his Krishna consciousness movement, he was careful to establish the corporate structure of the society and that of his book trust as separate entities. His reason for this was to protect the eternal teachings and insure their dissemination, should the body of his formal society become diseased. As we know, the soul is independent of the body. Should the body die, the soul lives on, creating new bodies through which to express itself. In this metaphor, the new bodies appear as institutions to help those who are externally oriented approach the absolute. The value of the institution is realized inasmuch as it effectively draws its members to experience the inner ideal that the literature more closely resembles.
Since the time of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, the Srila Prabhupada of our Srila Prabhupada, book publishing has been further distinguished from temple worship in our sampradaya. Prabhupada’s Iskcon is the spiritual child of the institution of another Prabhupada: the Gaudiya Math, formed by his gurudeva in pursuit of the vision of Bhaktivinoda Thakura. Gaudiya Math had as its logo a symbol, in which one half was decorated with icons representing the devotional path of ritualistic bhakti (vaidhi-marga), while the other icons were representing spontaneous passionate love of God (raga-marga). Our beloved Srila Prabhupada, following in his gurudeva‘s footsteps, painted that same logo on the front gate of his world headquarters in Sri Dhama Mayapur.
In Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s logo, items necessary for temple worship represented the path of ritualistic bhakti, while the printing press, among other things, represented spontaneous devotion. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura further coined the phrase, “brhat mridunga,” or “great drum,” with reference to the printing press. He reasoned that the small clay drum used in congregational chanting could be heard only a short distance, while the big drum of the printing press could be heard around the world. In his vision, we glimpse a dynamic and living conception of what it means to engage in kirtan, the best remedial measure for our present times. Chanting Hare Krishna loudly is highly praised in all the revealed literature of sacred India, for it has a twofold effect of purifying the chanter as well as those who hear the chanting, and thus it brings further transcendental merit to the chanter. We can hardly imagine the position then of one such as our Srila Prabhupada, who—through his international campaign of book publishing—conducted the largest and longest kirtan in recorded history.
Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura’s insight with regard to the printing press and its relationship with spontaneous love was novel. In his classic Saranagati, Bhaktivinoda Thakura describes kirtan rasa or the aesthetic experience of chanting thus: while lifting the soul to the highest transcendental experience, it impels the devotee to dedicate his life to making this experience available to all souls, declaring, in Bhaktisiddhanta’s words, “totalitarian war against illusion.” This is not a sectarian outlook, rather the ecstasy of the experience of kirtan rasa, in which the holy name of Krishna is the object of love (visaya alambana vibhava) and Sri Caitanya the shelter of that love (asraya alambana vibhava). The uddipana vibhava or stimulus of this experience is the sound of the drum, or in the dynamic sense the sound of the booting of the brhat mridunga, Macintosh or Windows. The anubhavas, or ensuant ecstasies, include ministering to the fallen souls. Transitory emotions (sancari bhavas) include humility, madness, and a host of others. All of the involuntary transformations (sattvika bhavas) are manifest, and the dominant emotion (stayi bhava) is either servitude, friendship, parental, or conjugal love.
It is not that other paths have no validity. Yet when with the yardstick of objectivity we go to measure the depths of penetration into transcendence that the various ego-effacing traditions afford, none reaches further into that great unknown than the cult of Sri Caitanya. From deep within transcendence Sri Caitanya’s missionaries return here to tell us more about the world of transcendence and the possibilities that lie there, beyond the mere cessation of material existence and reverential love of God. The teachings and example of Sri Caitanya afford us a glimpse and ultimately access into the intimate social life of God, to the embrace of the personification of joy, Sri Krishna, who is God when he wants to be himself. As joy is at the heart of the life of the absolute, the person of Krishna represents the absolute in its ultimacy, enjoying intimately with those souls whose love knows no distinction between God’s desires and their own. Such is the fruit of adherence to the Bhagavata Purana that Sri Caitanya held so dear and that was the very life of Srila Prabhupada, that which he embodied.
Srila Prabhupada arrived in Boston Harbor in 1965 carrying with him several copies of his edition of the first canto of Srimad Bhagavatam. This was published in India in three volumes. In these three books he elaborately explained the devotional conclusion of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, fearing while doing so that he would not live long enough to complete the entire work of twelve cantos. As he envisioned it, this was a vast undertaking, each volume replete with original devanagari script, English transliteration, word for word definition, translation, and purport. At that time he was already late in age at seventy years and his health hardly robust. He was correct in his suspicion as to the limits of his time on earth and the strong possibility that he would not complete the task. Yet he gave us much more than these three volumes of the Bhagavatam, and there is significance as well with regard to just where in the Bhagavata his relentless voice of urgency and love fell silent, his dictaphone immortalized.
Srila Prabhupada gave us not less than fifty volumes, ornamented with all of the previously mentioned embellishments. This is hard to fathom even for those of us who had a hand in assisting him. When the tradition attributes the writing of all of the Vedic literature to the legendary Vyasa, the academic community looks on in utter disbelief at what they see as the blind faith of the devoted. To pacify those who illogically insist that all, even soul and God must ultimately answer to reason, we can further add that Vyasa was assisted in this enormous task by his disciples, Jaimini, Vaismpayana, etc. He spoke, while Ganesh acted as the scribe. Yet all of this does not go far in the way of convincing the scholars that the entirety of the Vedas and Puranas, the most voluminous body of literature known to humanity, should be attributed to one person that the devotees consider empowered by God, if not God himslef. Better we cite the example of Srila Prabhupada, who in twelve years while circling the globe constantly, opened over 108 temples, staffed them with trained priests, initiated thousands of disciples whose correspondence with him alone gave rise to enough letters in response to fill six hardbound volumes. This and more he did all in the course of writing the fifty plus books already mentioned, while seeing to their translation further into numerous languages and their distribution to the tune of 64,000,000 books by the time he left us in 1977. As he liked to say, quoting Napoleon, “Impossible is a word in a fools dictionary.” That we are—fools—to think that God and his representative must conform to our frame of reference in order to be validated.
Understanding God is not easy. Understanding Krishna is still more difficult. It is possible, however, to love Krishna, yet in order to do so we must have some knowledge about him. In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna tells us something about himself. Srila Prabhupada called this most famous of all Vedic texts and the ABC’s of spiritual life. His edition of the text, Bhagavad Gita As It Is, has sold more copies than any other translation to date. More impressive than the shear volume of its circulation, however, is the number of persons who, having read it, became devotees of Krishna themselves.
Whenever Srila Prabhupada met someone familiar with the Gita, he was quick to ask if such persons knew the conclusion of the text. From the editions they had read, most of these persons had not realized there was a conclusion. Indeed there is, and it is man manah bhava mad bhakto, Krishna instructs us, “Fix your mind upon me, become my devotee,” this is the most confidential knowledge. Out of more than fifty available translations that I am aware of, I know of no persons who, having become devotees of Sri Krishna, attribute their conversion to or inspiration for devotional life of Krishna bhakti to any of these translations. Yet I know thousands of devotees who are quick to point to Srila Prabhupada’s edition as a major factor in the unfolding of their sraddha, their faith.
Srila Prabhupada’s phrase, “As It Is”, which he attached to the title of his Gita edition, is significant. Being acquainted with the Gita‘s speaker on the intimate terms Sri Krishna lays down as the adhikari or qualification for entering the mystery of the text, Srila Prabhupada, as a friend and devotee (bhakto si me sakha ceti), knew in effect the mind of Krishna when he spoke the Gita. If we know someone intimately, when they speak we will understand the intentions behind their words. Knowing the mind of the author is the most comprehensive means of understanding that which he or she writes. It is this approach to understanding the Bhagavatam that Sri Jiva Goswami four plus centuries ago adopted to penetrate the mystery of Srimad Bhagavatam in his treatise on the same entitled Tattva sandarbha. Therein Sri Jiva has demonstrated the clear and indisputable means to sort out the essential message of all revealed scripture: examining the mind of its author (Vyasa), revealed as it is within the essence of all revealed scripture, Srimad Bhagavatam. Srila Prabhupada’s term, As It Is, thus follows the lead of none other than the immortal Jiva Goswami, the greatest philosopher in Indian religious history, if not the world over.
Sri Gita leads us to the Bhagavatam, and the Bhagavata to the Sri Caitanya. Thus Srila Prabhupada called the Bhagavatam and the life and precepts of Sri Caitanya found in Caitanya-caritamrita the graduate and post-graduate studies of Krishna consciousness, respectively. Although the Bhagavatam is the most important work for the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, Caitanya-caritamrita brings out the deepest meaning of the Bhagavatam, as do the other works of the legendary Vrindavan Goswamis and their followers. Srila Prabhupada rendered the immortal Caitanya-caritamrita into seventeen English volumes. Just how they came into print is significant in terms of the influence Srila Prabhupada had over his disciples.
Srila Prabhupada had completed his translation of Caitanya-caritamrita, yet his disciples had not managed to publish a single volume of the work due to preoccupation with Srila Prabhupada’s ongoing translation of the Bhagavatam. His disciples working directly in the field of publishing in Prabhupada’s BBT, were producing one volume of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam rendering per month, no small task for a small crew of largely self-taught devotee publishers. When Prabhupada brought to their attention the fact that they were falling behind him, his disciples stayed up all night, presenting Srila Prabhupada with a plan for publishing the entire seventeen volumes in nine months, two volumes per month. They planed to continue to publish at the same time one volume of Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam translation per month. This was indeed ambitious. Srila Prabhupada, however, was not satisfied with this plan. When he heard all seventeen volumes would be published in nine months, two books per month, he replied, “I want all books in two months.” Flabbergasted, his disciples surprised no one more than themselves when they accomplished this task, imbibing the spiritual power to do so from Srila Prabhupada’s order itself.
Other than the books already mentioned, Srila Prabhupada also gave us a summary study of Srila Rupa Goswami’ s magnus opus, Bhaktirasamrita-sindhu. This work is based squarely upon the Srimad Bhagavatam‘s rasa theology. The text discusses at length the abhideya, or means by which love of Krishna can be realized. Prabhupada appropriately termed it the science of bhakti yoga. It is indeed the original handbook of devotional life, and thus indispensable for anyone who cares to tread the bhakti-marga. Beginning with a generic description of bhakti, followed by a lengthy discussion of vaidhi and then raganuga sadhana, Rupa Goswami delineates his theory of bhakti rasa, aesthetic experience in transcendence. In doing so he supports all of his rasa theology, in which the object of all aesthetic experience or love is Sri Krishna, with examples primarily from Srimad Bhagavatam. He thus demonstrates that the notion of Krishna is not a sectarian one, rather “Krishna” means the perfect object of love. And it is because the absolute is such that he is depicted and indeed appears eternally in the particular form that he does, head adorned with peacock feather, complexion like that of the monsoon rain cloud, bearing the flute as his constant companion. Acquaintance with Indian aesthetic theory and Vedanta philosophy as taught by Srila Rupa Goswami and represented by Srila Prabhupada in his Nectar of Devotion summary study reveals that, were one to enter all that the perfect object of love would embody into one’s computer, the print out would be the two syllables “kr, sna“, the asraya, or ultimate shelter described in Srimad Bhagavatam.
While Srila Prabhupada completed his Gita edition, the Caitanya-caritamrita, Bhaktirasamrita-sindhu summary study, and a host of lesser works, as mentioned earlier, he did not complete his translation and commentary on Srimad Bhagavatam. Falling ill in the spring of 1977, Srila Prabhupada continued to translate in his labor of love the work that is the foundation of Gaudiya Vaishnavism as well as its penthouse sweet. Srimad Bhagavatam is both a philosophical treatise par excellence, as well as a book of savor, relish, the aesthetic experience of rasa that escapes definition, yet is at the same time the essence of reality, raso vai sah. Srimad Bhagavatam is both Vedanta and bhakti: Bhaktivedanta.
While Bhaktivedanta Swami, our beloved Srila Prabhupada, continued to translate in spite of his failing health, his disciples worldwide distributed his books against all odds, accomplishing—with various shortcomings in terms of methodology—something truly remarkable. As Srila Prabhupada once said regarding the distribution of his books, “I do not think that ever before in the history of the world have so many books about God been distributed in such a short period of time.” Living in a spiritual bubble, I for one, and I know I speak for many others involved in the service of distributing his books, never thought he would leave us, not to speak of failing to complete his translation of Srimad Bhagavatam. Yet he did apparently fail to do so, but his so called failure is instructive to us all, and it serves to underscore that which he labored so hard to establish.
Srila Prabhupada fell silent in the middle of the Bhagavatam‘s discussion of the brahma-vimohana lila. This lila covers three chapters of the Bhagavatam that are in one sense the most important chapters of the Purana. Although all agree that the rasa pancadhyaya (the five chapters discussing the rasa lila of Radha Krishna) constitute the essence of the work, without understanding the brahma-vimohana lila one cannot properly understand the rasa pancadhyaya. It is in the brahma-vimohana lila more than anywhere else that the truth of the ultimacy of Sri Krishna is established. This section is thus relied heavily upon in Krishna das Kaviraja’s second chapter of the Adi lila of Caitanya-caritamrita, wherein he establishes the supremacy of Sri Krishna above all as well as the identity of Sri Caitanya with Sri Krishna. Understanding the brahma-vimohana lila, one can proceed with the required adhikara: aprakrita sraddha, or transcendental faith in the supremacy of Sri Krishna, and thereby take advantage of the love lila of Radha Krishna described in the rasa pancadhyaya.
Thus Srila Prabhupada’s departure from our mortal vision in he midst of the brahma-vimohana lila serves to underscore that which he labored so hard to impress upon the world. His message: love of Krishna is the goal of life. The transcendental relish of madhurya rasa, or conjugal love in relation to Sri Sri Radha Krishna is the zenith of transcendental culture. Yet there is considerable qualification one must acquire in order to take advantage of it. Without understanding Radha and Krishna’s love dance by way of hearing about it from the guru-parampara, which awakens aprakrita sraddha, these lilas will serve only as the uddipina vibhava for a life of lust. Hearing about them through the life and teaching of a mahabhagavata the likes of Srila Prabhupada on the other hand, will stimulate the highest love of God.
Let us all offer our pranams at his lotus feet on this occasion, and pray that we may be blessed to take advantage of the literary legacy he has left behind. It is not enough to say that everything is in his books. We must read them and more, practice that which they teach. The reality of Srila Prabhupada’s greatness will be realized only by those who seek experiential spiritual life, and not mere theory.
It is not enough to exclaim, “Amar guru jagat guru!”—”My guru is the guru of the universe,” “My guru is best.” Even if it were so, that one guru could be objectively the “best,” and he or she was our guru, pointing this out in words says little to those who can see that such a guru’s disciples have themselves not experienced the truth he represents. This is the message of Srimad Bhagavatam, and this is what we are to learn from the person of Srila Prabhupada, the person Bhagavatam. All of us must understand the urgency of the task at hand, take inspiration from the life example of His Divine Grace, and, to quote Srila Prabhupada in a famous letter he once wrote to me, “Take the necessary steps and do the needful.”
The path of spontaneous love is open to all by the mercy of Sri Caitanya. It is the special message of the Bhagavatam and thus the ideal of all Gaudiya Vaishnava institutions. As many of us here years ago embraced the body of Srila Prabhupada in the form of his Iskcon, let others today embrace the particular mission of their choice. If anyone should raise the objection that the body/soul metaphor I began with is not valid, claiming that it does no apply because the body of Srila Prabhupada in the form of Iskcon is a spiritual one, non-different from its soul, then let them see things in that way. And let us ask them to see the other institutions that have arisen and gained prominence due to Srila Prabhupada’s extensive preaching campaign as his vaibhava prakash, or expansions of his own form just suited to express his multidimensional personality in the diversity he so stressed spiritual life was about. And in the embrace of one or another of these institutions, let us unite on the platform of the soul through the common tie we all have to the message of Srimad Bhagavatam, its philosophy and its ecstasy, both in its manifestation in literature and in the person of Srila Prabhupada.