Once a person challenged me that Srila Prabhupada often said he is simply repeating what he had heard from his spiritual master and the previous teachers. “By his own admission”, the man reasoned, “Srila Prabhupada had nothing original to contribute. Isn’t he hackneyed and what’s his relevance if he hasn’t given us something unique?”
Adhering to traditions
Srila Prabhupada’s adherence to the strength of tradition is often misunderstood. Recently I read the Western media’s appreciation of Mr. Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister as the first Indian prime minister who is in blood and spirit Indian. All the previous prime ministers had apparently a colonial hangover. Mr. Modi, the media pundits acknowledge, is a man rooted in Indianness, whether it’s his talking eating, dress and lifestyle. Even his policies have a typical Indian touch.
When one carefully examines Srila Prabhupada’s life and contribution, you can’t help but admire his determination to remain rooted in the traditional spiritual culture of India when all around in the early 1950’s, a growing fetish for western ideas took over. After independence, the government ignored India’s traditional agrarian strengths and instead focussed on western ideas of industrialization. Yet Srila Prabhupada always advocated India to be built on cow protection, agriculture, and an overall revival of spiritual traditions. He was way ahead of his times, and not the least bothered by popular votes and media hoopla.
His originality and freshness can be appreciated when you see what he did and under what circumstances.
Three challenges faced by Srila Prabhupada-Deterioration, Disinterest and Distraction
At the age of seventy your body is surely deteriorating. That’s when most people either sulk or retire gracefully to spend their sunset years in obscurity. Srila Prabhupada however chose to travel to the west all alone on a cargo carrier, braving sea sickness and heart attacks. He was positive and determined to be an instrument to spread the chanting of Hare Krishna in every town and village of the world.
Before leaving India in 1965, he had written three books. In the next twelve years he wrote over sixty. Till the age of seventy he had only one disciple in India and then by 82, he had over five thousand disciples and many thousand more admirers and followers. He had nothing materially worthwhile before he embarked on this spiritual mission but by the next decade he built and managed a worldwide organization that had over hundred centres all over the world. He had never been outside India till the age of seventy, but by the time he left this mortal world, he had travelled across the globe over ten times.
Isn’t it obvious that he was indeed a revolutionary, enterprising individual? As Dr. Harvey Cox, a leading Christian theologian and professor at the Harvard University admitted, “At a very advanced age, when most people would be resting on their laurels Srila Prabhupada harkened to the mandate of his own spiritual teacher and set out on the difficult and demanding voyage to America. Srila Prabhupada is, of course, only one of thousands of teachers. But in another sense, he is one in a thousand, maybe one in a million”
Srila Prabhupada had to also initially face an audience of old men and women in New York who had little interest in what he spoke or did. Undaunted, he intelligently spoke on Krishna ‘consciousnesses’. The word ‘consciousnesses’ had a popular appeal in the American society then. That’s when ‘consciousness expansion’, ‘cosmic consciousness’ and ‘altered state of consciousness’ was often spoken about in spiritual circles. And Srila Prabhupada spoke on dovetailing individual consciousness with Supreme consciousness!
Most Indian gurus before Srila Prabhupada spoke about the presence of the Lord in the heart, referred to as paramatma in the Bhagavad Gita, as an ‘overseer’ or ‘head God’ or ‘God soul’. Srila Prabhupada introduced the concept of ‘Supersoul’ a soul that is superior to all of us ordinary souls. That was the time when the mythology of Superman had caught the imagination of the public in America. Although the fictional character of Superman was created in early 1940’s he rose to popularity during mid 1950’s -1970. People could relate to Srila Prabhupada’s presentation of the principle of ‘Supersoul’ as ‘Super’ man had already acquainted them with a magnificent and extra ordinary person.
In contrast to the alien crowd that Srila Prabhupada faced in America, Indians were already aware of Krishna and topics of Bhagavad Gita. Dr Harvey Cox admits he visited Vrindavan, the land where Srila Prabhupada stayed before going to the West. And he realized that Indians, unlike the westerners are in no hurry to rush off to do something else when spiritual subjects are discussed. Srila Prabhupada however preferred to take on the risk of a disinterested audience rather than settle to a crowd of pious Indians. Dr Cox also admires Srila Prabhupada’s creative tenacity in presenting the age old traditions of Krishna consciousness to the modern audience in a language and culture they were familiar with.
Thirdly Srila Prabhupada presented Krishna consciousness during the most turbulent period in world history. In the early and mid 1940’s when the world was in the grip of a devastating world war, and Indians obsessed with the independence movement, Krishna consciousness had few takers. Besides, India was also ravaged by a famine; the holocaust and bloody aftermath of partition had distracted Indians from the spiritual path. That’s when Srila Prabhupada launched his ‘Back to Godhead’- a periodical through which he addressed world news from a spiritual perspective.
Later in the mid 1960’s the Vietnam War was vehemently opposed by the American youth. As the young men were drafted into the army, the anti-war movement grew with the youth and intellectuals openly decrying America’s involvement in it. Srila Prabhupada presented the war of Kurukshetra and the discussions between Arjuna and Krishna as the panacea. Many young men being disillusioned by war couldn’t accept Krishna’s imploring Arjuna to fight the war as reasonable. Although they were distracted by the war, Srila Prabhupada emphatically declared the Vietnam fighting would soon be history, but human life is rare and he appealed to all men and women to surrender to Krishna.
Srila Prabhupada was a creative genius in helping people connect to Krishna consciousness. When someone asked him how the spiritual world was like, he smiled, “There are no draft boards there”. On another occasion a group of hippies wondered how Krishna consciousness happiness would feel like. Knowing their addiction to LSD, a popular drug of the hippies during the 1960’s counter culture movement, Srila Prabhupada described with wide eyes, “Krishna consciousness happiness is like an ocean of LSD”
Thus one who closely observes Srila Prabhupada’s life and the challenging situation, in which he presented Krishna consciousness, would have no doubts about his ingenuity, and determination to give the sacred message of Krishna consciousness in a way the moderns could understand. And at the same time, he never compromised on the principles of Bhakti that his predecessor teachers had carefully passed on since centuries.