Prabhupada: The Moments That Made His Movement

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An overview of the life of the world's greatest modern exponent of India's matchless spiritual wisdom.

The Man …

“It’s an astonishing story. If someone told you a story like this, you wouldn’t believe it. Here’s this person, he’s seventy years old, he’s going to a country where he’s never been before, he doesn’t know anybody there, he has no money, has no contacts. He has none of the things, you would say, that make for success. He’s going to recruit people not on any systematic basis, but just picking up whomever he comes across and he’s going to give them responsibility for organizing a worldwide movement. You’d say, ‘What kind of program is that?’ There are precedents perhaps. Jesus of Nazareth went around saying, ‘Come follow me. Drop your nets, or leave your tax collecting, and come with me and be my disciple.’ But in his case, he wasn’t an old man in a strange society dealing with people whose backgrounds were totally different from his own. He was dealing with his own community. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s achievement, then, must be seen as unique.” (Professor Thomas Hopkins inHare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West)

The Movement …

“Guess again if you think Bollywood, or Indian writing in English, is the country's biggest cultural export. You may not come across any of these if you visit Cochabamba in Bolivia or Gaborone in Botswana; what you will find instead is a centre of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).” (The Times of India, Editorial, January 6, 2006)

Every life has its defining moments. And in the lives of great souls who have inspired millions, such moments become all the more consequential.

Here we will take a look at the defining moments in the life of a great modern-day saint, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

1896: Birth

He was born in Kolkata on September 1, 1896. The day itself was significant, being Nandotsava, when millennia ago Lord Krishna’s father, Nanda Maharaja, exuberantly celebrated the birth of his son, who had been born the previous midnight. Prabhupada's appearance on that day was significant too: Just as the day was marked by devotional celebration, he too would bring devotional celebrations to various parts of the world. Named Abhay Charan by his parents, Gaur Mohan and Rajani De, he was born in a devout family. One of his earliest childhood memories was waking up to the sound of bells being rung in worship. And he started learning to play the mridanga, a drum used in kirtanas, in his early childhood, when his hands were barely long enough to reach the two ends of the drum. Little did the observers of this gifted child know that he would play the mridanga all over the world – and inspire scores of people from various parts of the world to play it too.

1901: Childhood Rathayatra

While playing, children often mimic their elders, and little Abhay played like other children, but he also had a special activity: organizing a Rathayatra ("chariot festival") on the streets near his house. From getting a cart of the right size to leading and guiding the procession while playing the mridanga, he reenacted with earnest devotion the spectacular chariot festival that annually attracts millions to Jagannatha Puri. His childhood play signified what he would do in future: organize Rathayatras all over the world.

1922: Met his spiritual master

Abhay grew into a well-educated, articulate young man. Being a concerned citizen, he joined Gandhi's noncooperation movement, which protested against the exploitative policies of the British government. To express noncooperation, he boycotted the trendy clothes manufactured in the mills of Manchester and started wearing clothes made of local handspun-cotton khadi – a dress choice that was a strong political statement. Not only that, he refused to accept the graduation degree he had earned after years of diligent study at the respected Scottish Church College. Yet a momentous meeting in 1922 spiritualized his zeal, transforming him from a political activist to a spiritual activist. That meeting was with the saint who would later become his spiritual master: Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, the founder of the Gaudiya Math, a spiritual organization dedicated to sharing the message of Krishna consciousness. Abhay had seen many sadhus living like parasites on society, so he was reluctant to meet what he thought would be one more such sadhu. Only at a friend’s unrelenting insistence did he go to the meeting. Quickly, his ritual offering of respects to the religious teacher became a confrontational discussion about the best way to contribute to India and the world. The saint saw the spiritual potential in the young man and asked him, within moments of their first meeting, to share with the world the bhakti tradition’s message of love. Astonished, Abhay countered that India needed political independence first before its spiritual message would have respectability. The spiritual master responded that the greatest need of the world was the raising of human consciousness through spiritual love – without it, no other solution would offer any lasting relief. The project of raising human consciousness was so urgent and so universal that it cut across all worldly considerations, including those of political independence or its absence.

As they discussed and debated, the saint impressed on the seeker the primacy of pure consciousness as the foundation for all individual and social change. Though a forceful debater, Abhay accepted defeat with grace, resolving that the one who had mastered him would become his spiritual master.

1925: Visited Vrindavan for the first time

Aspiring to assist Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati's mission by providing financial support, Abhay busied himself in expanding his pharmaceutical business, the profession he had entered after completing his education. As his business tours took him across the country, he frequently remembered Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and longed to be in his presence again. On coming to know that he was leading a pilgrimage tour in Vrindavan, the holy place where Krishna had appeared and sported millennia ago, Abhay joined the tour. He relished the devotional vibrancy of that holiest of all places for the devotees of Krishna. More important, he heard Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati speak for hours and felt enriched and enlivened by the wisdom being presented.

1932: Received spiritual initiation

The memories of the life-transforming first encounter with Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati would gestate within Abhay for a decade before they manifested in his becoming a formally initiated disciple. When Abhay was recommended for initiation, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati approvingly recalled his eagerness to hear and learn. While granting Abhay a spiritual name, his guru added Aravinda – thus Abhay Charan became Abhaya Charanarvinda Dasa, signifying that the fearlessness (abhaya) the human heart longs for is found in the lotus (aravinda) feet (charana) of the Supreme, the source of the ultimate security.

1937: Received the first instruction again, as a final instruction

Abhay’s guru departed from the world at the start of this year, leaving Abhay afflicted by deep feelings of separation. But just a few days earlier, his guru had reiterated in a letter to Abhay the instruction given in their first meeting: share the message of Krishna consciousness with the world. Abhay felt the presence and grace of his master in the parting instruction, and deepened his resolved to make fulfilling that instruction his life mission.

1939: Receives the title "Bhaktivedanta"

Abhay had been writing articles and poems in the magazines run by his guru's mission, and the insights in his writings had so pleased his guru that he had declared, “Whatever Abhay writes, publish it.” After Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati's departure, Abhay continued and intensified his writing. Appreciating his scholarship and zeal, his godbrothers from the Gaudiya Math gave him the title “Bhaktivedanta.” The title meant that love for Krishna (bhakti) is the conclusion (anta) of all knowledge (veda) – a truth that Abhay had consistently and convincingly communicated through his writings, and would continue to do so.

1944: Began Back to Godhead magazine

While the world was limping towards the end of the worst war in recent history, World War II, and while Kolkata was still threatened by Japanese bombardment, Abhay felt inspired to address the spiritual bankruptcy that underlay the world’s numerous problems. To make spiritual wisdom accessible, he started a magazine called Back to Godhead. Its name conveyed its mission: to re-harmonize human consciousness with the supreme source of all consciousness. He singlehandedly typed, proofread, published, and distributed the magazine, especially to influential people. Once, a stray cow gored him with her horn and knocked him down. Another time, he fell unconscious on the street from sunstroke and exhaustion. Still, he never wavered in his determination to keep publishing and distributing the message of spiritual love.

1953: Initiated his first disciple and started the League of Devotees

Abhay was now less a pharmaceutical businessman and more a traveling spiritual teacher. And his traveling brought him to Jhansi, in southern Uttar Pradesh, where several interested people urged him to make his base. A Sanskrit professor at a local college, Acharya Prabhakar, became his first initiated disciple. Abhay's local admirers offered him an unused building, which he decided to make the main office of his outreach mission, which he named the League of Devotees. Though the results of his preaching in Jhansi had been modest, he had grand plans for expansion. Unfortunately, a clique of local politicians and businessmen sabotaged his efforts and compelled him to vacate the premises. Disappointed but undaunted, Abhay returned to the life of a traveling teacher.

1956: Moved to Vrindavan

In the course of his travels, Abhay felt driven to settle in Vrindavan. Many devotees of Krishna retired there to invest their final years in focused devotion to the Lord, but Abhay’s purpose was different. He wanted to reside there to get the blessings of the great saints who had lived there in the past – and being thus empowered, share Krishna’s message with the world. Living at one of Vrindavan’s sacred temples, he prayed, worshiped, studied, contemplated, and wrote, all in preparation for the great mission that was beckoning him from within.

1959: Received sannyasa

Abhay had recurrent dreams in which his spiritual master urged him to accept sannyasa, the renounced order of life, so that he could exclusively focus on spreading Krishna's teachings. Accordingly, after having shouldered his family responsibilities for four decades, he took the vows of sannyasa in a small temple in Mathura and became A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. In went an elderly man dressed in white, and out came a monk holding a renunciant's staff, wearing saffron robes, and carrying within his heart a deepened determination to share spiritual wisdom with the world.

1960: Published his first book, Easy Journey to Other Planets

Tapping into the popular fascination with space travel triggered by the space race between the two Cold War superpowers, America and Russia, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami wrote a timely book that used contemporary scientific terminology and presented the Vedic perspective on space travel. This small book, appealingly titled Easy Journey to Other Planets, was the first in what was to be a prodigious literary career that produced over eighty books.

1962: Published the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto One, Volume One

Demonstrating the spiritual saying that a saint hears the voice of God everywhere, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami saw divine guidance in the suggestion of an acquaintance: Write books instead of magazines – books have a much longer shelf life. He envisioned a multi-volume translation with commentary on one of India's greatest devotional classics: the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Also known as the Bhagavata Purana, this most celebrated of all the Puranas is a spiritual masterpiece with thousands of verses spanning twelve cantos. It had never before been available in English with commentary. Working with the same incredible industry that had characterized his magazine publication, he typed, proofread, solicited sponsorship, and published the first volume of the series. His work was appreciated by many eminent people, including the prime minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who recommended that libraries across the country stock the series.

Over the next two years, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami completed the first canto in two more volumes before venturing abroad.

During the next decade, despite a demanding travel schedule, he continued working on this magnum opus till his last breath. Today the 18-volume rendition of the Srimad-Bhagavatam – more than 10,000 pages – has been translated into over 40 languages and distributed in millions all over the world.

1965, August 13: Started for America on the Jaladuta

A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s attempts to share spirituality in India had got lukewarm response, primarily because most Indians were enamored of Western notions of progress. He was both a realist and a visionary. As a realist, he recognized that Indians were unlikely to take their spiritual legacy seriously as long as they were captivated by the West. As a visionary, he envisioned that if he could inspire Westerners to take the message of spiritual love seriously, then Indians would do the same. So he resolved to go to the West to share Krishna consciousness, specifically to America, which had replaced Britain as the Western superpower after World War II.

With the first canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam translated, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami felt equipped. He saw the message as the actual illuminator and saw himself as the humble conveyor of that message. Being a mendicant with no money, he had to depend on the support of well-wishers for financing his US trip. One acquaintance from Mathura arranged for his son in America to act as his sponsor for the visa. But paying for the travel proved to be much more difficult for Bhaktivedanta Swami. After being turned down by many sponsors, he had to sit for hours on the steps outside the office of a potential patron to get an appointment. Only after earnest persuasion during the meeting could he secure free passage on an America-bound cargo ship.

Still, when he eventually boarded the ship from Kolkata, he had with him only forty rupees, worth nothing in America, where they couldn't be exchanged for dollars. Just as his financial assets were insignificant, so too was his departure inconspicuous – only a handful of acquaintances came to see him off. Yet his departure was far from inconsequential. The ship’s name – Jaladuta ("the water-messenger") – would turn out to be symbolic: it carried a transcendental envoy whose message would attract thousands to India’s treasure of spiritual love.

1965: Encouragement from Krishna on the Jaladuta

His voyage began ominously. After undergoing bouts of seasickness, he endured two heart attacks on two successive days. And he had to endure them without any medical attention whatsoever, being the lone passenger in a cargo ship with no medical facilities. Fearing that a third successive attack might be fatal, he intensified his prayers to Krishna – and that night instead of a heart attack came the Lord of his heart. Krishna appeared in a mystical vision, offered his blessings, and assured that He would personally steer the ship across the ocean and would ensure the success of His devotee’s mission. At the end of the journey, the ship's captain remarked that never before during his forty years of navigation had the Atlantic Ocean been so calm. Bhaktivedanta Swami wrote in his diary that Krishna had taken charge of the ship.

1966: Went to the land of the hippies

When A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami first beheld the American shoreline with its impressive skyscrapers, he saw not material prosperity but spiritual bankruptcy. And he prayed fervently to be used as an instrument of spiritual compassion, beseeching the Lord to make him dance as His puppet. Bhaktivedanta Swami had come to America not to enjoy its comforts, but to share the spiritual comfort of God's love. So, as he initially explored the terrain for its spiritual receptivity, he stayed first with his sponsor in Butler, Pennsylvania, and then with an Indian yoga-teacher in New York City. But once he found a spiritually promising territory, he plunged deep into it, although it was materially inhospitable. That territory was New York's Lower East Side, where hippies from all over America had settled to pursue their experiment in counterculture.

A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami had arrived in America at a turbulent phase in its history – the phase of the counterculture, when its youth were rejecting the materialism that was the fuel and the goal of the mainstream culture. Not knowing where to find a satisfactory alternative, many of these well-intentioned but uninformed youth were seeking spirituality through psychedelic drugs. And tragically many were ending up not as spiritualists but as drug addicts.

Into this confusion and degradation, where thievery was commonplace and drug-induced babble was seen as spiritual revelation, entered A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. A greater cultural mismatch would be difficult to imagine: an elderly, scholarly monk who had never drunk even tea was living amidst college dropouts whose lives centered on sex and drugs. And yet the spiritual music and message he brought united hearts together in divine love, transcending the cultural incompatibility.

Fearlessly and compassionately, the Swami, as he came to be known in America, invited those troubled youths to replace the chemical high of drugs with the spiritual high of the holy names of God. Initially, the invitation seemed to boomerang. The first young man to show some serious interest, and with whom the Swami was living, turned violent under a drug-induced mania. When he charged to attack the Swami, the elderly teacher had to flee – and found himself homeless in a foreign land.

But his spirit was indomitable. He quickly regrouped, soon relocated to a storefront aptly named “Matchless Gifts,” and reissued his invitation to everyone, including the hippies. Soon he was conducting programs three evenings a week. During the programs, he spoke on the Bhagavad-gita and sandwiched his talk between long kirtanas. These kirtanas featured dancing in time to the responsive singing of the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The hippies liked music, and they quickly came to love the Swami’s spiritual music.

1966: Held the first public kirtana, in Tompkins Square Park

Appreciating the positive response to the storefront kirtanas, the Swami decided to take the kirtana to people outside. He went to a prominent local park, Tompkins Square Park, and led the chanting under a tree while his followers sang and danced. Intrigued, a few onlookers joined in. Eventually two hundred or so were singing and dancing in a jubilant two-hour celebration of spiritual love, the first of its kind outside the Indian subcontinent. Public kirtanas soon became one of the Swami’s principal outreach methods. Today, kirtana processions are a familiar sight on the streets of the world’s major cities, and kirtana festivals are celebrated around the world. In fact, kirtana has become such a popular and influential genre in music that there’s an increasing demand to make it a new category for the Grammy awards.

The elm tree under which the Swami led the first kirtana still stands in Tompkins Square Park. Called the Hare Krishna Tree, it bears a plaque commemorating this historic event.

1966: Incorporated ISKCON

As the Swami attracted a small but significant group of dedicated followers, people started calling his storefront "the temple." And amidst the Lower East Side hubbub, the temple became a spiritual happening place. But the Swami’s vision went far beyond the small storefront to encompass the whole world: Just as this small group had become enlivened by spiritual love, so too could the whole world. To actualize his vision, he established, on August 8, 1966 in New York, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Though some of his followers signed as members and a few well-wishers signed as trustees, hardly anyone thought the movement would go beyond the Lower East Side. However, the Swami saw the storefront success as just the first stage in a multi-stage divine plan that would spiritually enrich the whole world, a divine plan that ISKCON would implement.

1967, January: Took his first flight, to San Francisco

Some of the Swami’s enterprising followers went to San Francisco, attracted people there to the spiritual chant of the holy names, and invited him to come there. They sent a ticket and thus he flew for the first time in his life – from New York to San Francisco. On disembarking, he was welcomed by an enthusiastic group of young people chanting the holy names. When asked how his flight had been, the Swami’s reply revealed his constant absorption in Krishna. He said that on noting how small the giant buildings looked from the airplane, he had contemplated how small everything would look from Krishna’s perspective.

1967, July 9: Inspired the first Rathayatra in the West, in San Francisco

The Swami constantly meditated on how to make the sweetness of bhakti more accessible to his Western audience. Once, when he saw a flatbed truck going along the road, he got the divine inspiration to utilize it as a vehicle for replicating the Rathayatra. One of his disciples had coincidentally found in a nearby antique shop small images of Krishna as Jagannatha, along with His brother, Baladeva, and sister, Subhadra. Seeing their appearance as a divine arrangement, the Swami asked a disciple who had some experience in sculpting to fashion larger replicas of those images. And thus manifested the first Rathayatra outside the Indian subcontinent. Jagannatha rode atop his improvised chariot through the streets of San Francisco, with people who had never before heard of Him beholding, cheering, clapping, singing, dancing, receiving prasada (food offered to the deities), and being blessed.

Rathayatra became immensely popular. The hippies loved the public dancing and singing. While earlier they would have been arrested for dancing on the streets, now they were being peacefully escorted by the police.

Since that beginning in San Francisco, Rathayatra has gone on to become a global cultural phenomenon. It is celebrated in scores of countries and hundreds of cities, from Boston to Belfast to Brisbane, from Dublin to Dubai to Dnepropetrovsk.

1967: Suffered a third heart attack and returned to India for treatment

The strain of the Swami’s relentless outreach efforts took a heavy toll on his seventy-year-old body. One fateful night in San Francisco, he suffered a heart attack – his third – and it was nearly fatal. By his determination to carry on his spiritual master’s mission and by the fervent prayers of his followers, he pulled through. But the convalescence took time, and the cold American weather didn’t help. So, he decided to return to India for its healing warmth and its holistic Ayurvedic treatment. His disciples, who were in their physical youth and their spiritual infancy, were forced to grow up rapidly as the responsibility for carrying on their spiritual master’s mission was thrust on them. During his absence, they were nourished by his regular affection-filled letters, a mode of communication the Swami would use extensively to guide his followers. Their love for him grew in separation. And a year later, they welcomed their beloved Swami, now recovered and rejuvenated, back to America.

They recognized that their spiritual master had saved them from directionless and meaningless lives. In gratitude and reverence, they longed to address him with a title more special than “the Swami.” Accordingly, after consulting him, they started addressing him with the honorific “Prabhupada.” The title refers to one who has taken shelter of the feet (pada) of God (prabhu). This was the name by which he would be lovingly addressed by millions the world over.

1968: Inspired ISKCON’s first eco-friendly spiritual community, in West Virginia

Srila Prabhupada repeatedly stressed simple living and high thinking as the most conducive way of life for cultivating spiritual love. To demonstrate this, he inspired and guided his followers to establish self-sufficient communities that featured God-centered eco-friendly living. When some of his disciples started developing such a community in West Virginia, he named it New Vrindavan and stayed with them for months, demonstrating the simple spiritual life he taught in his books. This was the way of life that devotees had lived for millennia in India and that Krishna Himself had demonstrated during His stay in Vrindavan. During Srila Prabhupada's stay at New Vrindavan, his disciples were amazed to see the breadth of his knowledge. It extended from the topmost transcendental subjects about esoteric spiritual love to the down-to-earth details of fashioning a cart that wouldn’t sink in the marshy terrain.

New Vrindavan has now become a Western place of pilgrimage for devotees and seekers. It features the magnificent Prabhupada's Palace of Gold. When it was inaugurated, The New York Times called it the “Taj Mahal of the West.”

Over the decades, many similar communities have been developed in various parts of the world. They serve as not just serene spiritual sanctuaries but also as crucibles of ecological research. They demonstrate prosperity through living in harmony with nature as a viable, even preferable, alternative to prosperity by exploiting nature.

1968: Macmillan published his Bhagavad-gita As It Is

The Bhagavad-gita is likely the most widely known philosophical classic from the Indian wisdom-tradition. Though many commentaries had been written on it, few if any focused on the transformational power of love for Krishna that is its underlying, unifying essence. Srila Prabhupada brought that essence out in his translation with commentary, titled Bhagavad-gita As It Is, which he finished in America in 1967.

He wanted to publish it, but as he was relatively unknown in America and his book was seen as the religious book of a minority religion that would not attract many readers, no publisher was forthcoming. Nonetheless, through a miraculous series of events, the respected publishing house MacMillan published it, although in an abridged edition. Exceeding expectations, the book was widely appreciated and soon reprinted repeatedly. Eventually, Prabhupada published the unabridged edition through his own publishing house, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

Over the last five decades, Bhagavad-gita As It Is has been the world’s most widely read English edition of the Gita. Millions of copies have been distributed all over the world in over sixty languages.

1969: Established ISKCON’s first Radha-Krishna temple, in Los Angeles

As his followers became increasingly devoted to Krishna, Srila Prabhupada decided that the time was right to unveil the next phase in his spiritual transplantation of the bhakti culture: introducing the worship of deity forms of the Lord. In Los Angeles, where he had attracted a substantial following and which had thus become the de facto Western headquarters of his movement, he installed ISKCON’s first Radha-Krishna deities. For their worship, he trained some of his dedicated disciples – young American men and women – to become their pujaris, or priests. ISKCON devotees now worship deities in hundreds of temples around the world, temples that offer spiritual retreat and rejuvenation to millions.

1969: Established the Radha-Londonishvara temple in London

Srila Prabhupada had sent three couples to England to share the message of Krishna consciousness there. After an initial period of intense struggle – which they weathered by the strength of Srila Prabhupada’s encouraging and guiding letters – they got a major breakthrough when they met "the spiritual Beatle," George Harrison. The legendary musician had already heard an album of Srila Prabhupada singing the Hare Krishna mantra and had found it spiritually fascinating. With his assistance, the devotees moved forward much faster in setting up an ISKCON center in London. At their invitation, Srila Prabhupada came to London and installed Radha-Krishna deities.

Five decades earlier, Srila Prabhupada had been an Indian political activist against British colonial rule. Now he was in London as a spiritual teacher, initiating as his disciples descendants of those colonists and establishing in London a temple that was a part of the same culture the British had subjugated for two centuries. Geopolitical realities had changed, but the sovereignty of the one God whom different religions addressed by different names remained unchanged. Enshrining this eternal reality in a transcendental neologism, Srila Prabhupada named the deities Radha-Londonishvara – "Radha and the Supreme Lord of London."

1969: Inspired George Harrison to spiritualize his music

During Srila Prabhupada’s stay in London, George Harrison came to meet him several times. Prabhupada encouraged the musician to compose devotional songs with lyrics that included the Lord's holy names. Inspired by this guideline, George Harrison produced several devotional songs, such as the celebrated “My Sweet Lord,” a composition in praise of Krishna that includes the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it among the five hundred greatest songs of all time. George Harrison also teamed with the devotees to produce the album The Radha Krishna Temple. The song “Hare Krishna Mantra” from that album became a global bestseller. The devotees performed it twice on BBC-TV's "Top of the Pops" and in multiple concerts across Europe, thus introducing the holy names of Krishna to millions.

1970, July 29: Established the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust

To widely, effectively, and steadily share spiritual wisdom through books, Srila Prabhupada established the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT). And he provided the trust with material at an amazing speed.

While the world slept, Prabhupada would arise after just a few hours of rest to speak his "Purports" (commentaries) into a dictaphone. His disciples would transcribe the recordings, edit the transcriptions, and publish the books. During the day, he would be busy speaking about Krishna to whoever came to meet him. And at night, by writing books he would be busy speaking about Krishna to whoever hadn't come to meet him.

Today the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust is the world's largest publisher of Vedic spiritual books. It has produced about 500 million books in more than 70 languages and distributed them in over 100 countries.

1970: Toured India with his Western disciples

This tour across India gave Srila Prabhupada's Western disciples a fuller experience of the bhakti culture still widespread in India, and it showed Indians how Westerners had diligently embraced the very culture they themselves were neglecting or rejecting. His tour created a spiritual sensation, with Indians astonished to see young Westerners adopting traditional Indian practices and principles: young Western women wearing saris, and young shaven-headed Western men wearing dhotis and kurtas. His tour won the hearts of thousands of Indians, many of whom went on to become his ardent supporters.

1971: Established ISKCON’s first temple in India, in Kolkata

When Srila Prabhupada came to Kolkata with his Western disciples, twenty to thirty thousand people attended his tent programs, making them among the biggest the city had ever seen. Soon Kolkata warmed up to the achievements of its illustrious son.

But not everyone was pleased. Anti-social elements threatened him with “Fly or Die” notes. Unfazed, he continued his preaching. One evening, when some rowdy youths came to disrupt the program, he fearlessly led from the front and diffused the volatile situation by his saintliness and presence of mind.

In Kolkata Srila Prabhupada established ISKCON’s first temple in India. While growing up as a child there, he had worshiped deities of Radha-Govinda in a neighborhood temple, and now, expressing his gratitude and his resolve to preserve and propagate the bhakti heritage, he installed Radha-Govinda deities in that same city.

1971, May: Visited Australia for the first time

As a part of his vision to share Krishna consciousness with the whole world, Srila Prabhupada had sent disciples to Australia. They had initially faced suspicion and opposition, even being arrested for chanting on the streets. But gradually their spiritual sincerity shone through, and they attracted many interested people. When Srila Prabhupada came to Sydney, at their invitation, he inspired both followers and visitors by his words and actions.

Given his age, he knew he didn’t have much time to share the bhakti movement in Australia. Still, wanting to give it a strong boost in the available time, he came up with a transcendentally bold move. Though the devotees in Australia were young and inadequately trained, he installed Radha-Krishna deities and prayed to their Lordships to guide the novice devotees from within their hearts about how to serve Them properly.

His faith in the devotees' sincerity was well placed, as he saw during his next visit a year later. The devotees had learnt proper devotional principles and practices and were maintaining high standards of deity worship that continue today.

1971, June: Visited Moscow

Having shared Krishna consciousness successfully in the Western superpower America, Srila Prabhupada had set his sights on the other superpower: the Soviet Union. That country’s communist government and underlying atheistic ideology made it much more difficult to penetrate spiritually, but even the Iron Curtain couldn’t hold Srila Prabhupada back. Through his correspondence with a respected Russian professor of Indology, he was eventually able to visit the USSR for five days. But he wasn’t allowed to do any public programs, and he had to spend most of those days in a small hotel room. Nonetheless, his spiritual potency couldn’t be suppressed by anything material. Through a series of transcendental coincidences, one sincere Russian seeker, Anatoly Pinyayev, came to meet him in his hotel room. Anatoly heard from him like a starving man getting a feast. Srila Prabhupada blessed and empowered him, granting him the initiated name Ananta Shanti Dasa.

Through this first Russian Krishna devotee, the message of bhakti spread gradually but unstoppably to thousands. Unfortunately, the devotees faced severe persecution from the KGB. The devotees were nonviolent and tolerant, and wanted to do nothing more than simply follow their heart’s calling to love Krishna and share that love with others. Yet the KGB deemed Hare Krishna one of the three main threats to the Soviet Union, the other two being pop music and Western culture. Years of persecution resulted, till finally communism fell. Thereafter, devotees were able to follow their heart’s calling much more freely, and with amazing results. In 1994, Newsweek noted that Hare Krishna was the fastest growing religion in Russia.

1971, November: Visited Africa for the first time

Srila Prabhupada had sent his followers to Africa, but they hadn’t been able to make much headway with the native African population, one of the main reasons being the forced segregation of apartheid. So they had focused on cultivating the Indian diaspora there. But Srila Prabhupada’s vision was universal – he saw the message of spiritual love not as the property of any particular religion, but as the ultimate destiny of all people. So when he came to Nariobi, he told his followers to perform kirtanas in a centrally located Hindu temple and open the doors for everyone. The joyous singing and dancing attracted Africans to enter and join the celebration. As the joy of spiritual love linked them all together, centuries of racial stereotypes and prejudices were swept away in the flood of devotion.

Later, while addressing two thousand students at the University of Nairobi, he urged them to avoid the path of uni-dimensional material development the West had followed, for it led only to disappointment and frustration, as seen in the hippie culture emerging in the West. Instead, he urged them to give due time to spiritual growth and thus achieve balanced progress.

By his inspiration, the bhakti legacy is going strong in Africa, with the Hare Krishnas being among the most rapidly growing religious groups in Ghana.

1972, February 29: Conducted the ground-breaking ceremony for a magnificent temple in Mayapur

Srila Prabhupada represented and presented a spiritual lineage coming from Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the incarnation of Lord Krishna who preached throughout India in the early 1500s. Lord Chaitanya is revealed in esoteric bhakti texts to be a hidden incarnation of God who descended to spread the yuga-dharma, the recommended spiritual practice for this age: the congregational chanting of the holy names of God. Since Lord Chaitanya had appeared in Mayapur, West Bengal, Srila Prabhupada desired to establish the spiritual headquarters of his movement in this sacred place. The project that started with a deserted patch of land surrounded by overgrown fields and forests has now become a vibrant community, indeed a spiritual township wherein people from various parts of the world live in devotional harmony. A beautiful temple there attracts millions of pilgrims annually. And under construction is what will become the biggest Hindu temple in the world, with a height of 340 feet, a covered area of 6,750,00 square feet, and a 75-foot domed planetarium theater, the only one of its kind in India.

1974: Established Food for Life

In Mayapur in 1974, Srila Prabhupada once saw local village children struggling with stray animals for scraps of food. Moved to tears, he called his followers and told them that no one should go hungry for ten miles around a temple. The temples were to provide both physical and spiritual nutrition through sanctified food (prasada). That compassionate pronouncement became the rallying call of ISKCON Food Relief, which, now as Food for Life, has gone on to become the world’s biggest vegetarian food relief program. Its members have distributed food in many of the world’s most destitute areas and in the world’s worst disaster-hit areas. The New York Times (December 12, 1995) stated that Food for Life volunteers in Chechnya were having "a reputation like the one Mother Teresa has in Calcutta: it's not hard finding people to swear they are saints."

Food for Life, through its projects in over 60 countries, distributes two million free meals every day – 23 every second. Its India wing, ISKCON Food Relief Foundation, distributes free meals to 1.2 million school children daily.

1974: Published Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita in 17 volumes

This Bengali-language biography and theological treatise on the life and teachings of Lord Chaitanya is a storehouse of exalted insights on spiritual love. Wanting to make its wisdom available to the world, Srila Prabhupada worked on it with phenomenal speed, as if on a literary marathon, completing the seventeen volumes in just two years.

1975, February: Visited South America for the first time

Having shared Krishna consciousness on four continents, Srila Prabhupada traveled to Caracas, Venezuela, to spiritually enrich this last among the inhabited continents. His followers had already established a vibrant center there, and they welcomed him with a jubilant kirtana. Seeing their enthusiastic devotion as the mercy of the Lord whom he had strived lifelong to glorify, Srila Prabhupada broke into tears during a rare public display of spiritual emotion. In a choked voice, he urged all the assembled devotees and newcomers to treasure the gift of Krishna consciousness, life’s only eternal treasure.

His words and actions created a lasting spiritual impression on all present. The inspiration and wisdom he provided powers the bhakti legacy’s ongoing expansion in South America.

1975, April 20: Conducted the grand opening of a temple in Vrindavan

Srila Prabhupada had long envisioned an elegant temple that would showcase the beauty of Krishna and Vrindavan for the whole world to relish. And in 1975, on the day commemorating the appearance of Lord Ramachandra, Srila Prabhupada opened the marvelous Krishna-Balarama Mandir in the place where he had lived and prayed and written. While the temple has Radha-Krishna deities, as do most temples in Vrindavan, its distinctive feature is that the central altar features deities of Krishna-Balarama. This special feature reflects the significance of its location: it is situated in the part of Vrindavan where Krishna and Balarama played during Their descent to this world.

1975: Established ISKCON’s scientific wing

Recognizing the enormous influence of science on the modern mind, Srila Prabhupada inspired his scientist followers to form a special wing for scientific outreach: the Bhaktivedanta Institute. Drawing insights from the Vedic literature, this wing would counter the atheism that had hijacked contemporary science and reinstate the spiritual paradigm. Today, many of his followers carry on the legacy of scientific outreach by presenting papers, arranging conferences, and writing books.

1977: Went to Krishna

By Krishna's grace, Srila Prabhupada had achieved far more than what most people can even dream of achieving. And at the end of his life he achieved what is the cherished aspiration of a devotee of Krishna: to leave the world remembering Krishna in Vrindavan. After having taught how to live in devotion, he taught through his death how to leave in devotion. As his body faded, he remained absorbed in Krishna, dictating his commentary to the Bhagavatam with his final reserves of energy. Even when his lips could barely produce any sound, he remained fixed in sharing spiritual wisdom. Surrounded by loving devotees singing the holy names, he uttered the name of Krishna with his last breath on November 14, 1977 and went to the abode of his beloved Lord.

His Legacy

Though Srila Prabhupada left the world in 1977, he left for the world an enduring legacy that continues to spiritually enrich millions even today.

Among his most significant gifts are his books, temples, and followers. When he was still an unknown Swami taking walks on the streets of New York, he could envision scores of temples and thousands of devotees – and he declared that time alone separated him from them. His vision was astonishingly prophetic. In little over a decade after he took his first step outside India, he circled the globe fourteen times, opened 108 temples, and inspired millions to take to the path of Krishna consciousness.

From 1965 to 1977, he wrote eighty books, all based on India’s spiritual wisdom-literature. That worked out to be about 7 books every year, or more than one book every two months continuously for twelve years. Such was his literary proficiency that the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year in 1976 noted, “[Bhaktivedanta Swami] astonished academic and literary communities worldwide by writing and publishing fifty-two books on the ancient Vedic culture . . . in the period from October 1968 to November 1975.”

Similar appreciation had been expressed by CNN in an article on May 16, 2010 that deemed him one of the ten most successful people in the world who launched their careers after 50.

Appreciating the magnitude and significance of his legacy, the renowned scholar on Indian history and culture A. L. Basham, author of The Wonder That Was India, wrote, “The Hare Krishna movement arose out of next to nothing in less than twenty years and has become known all over the West. This is an important fact in the history of the Western world.”

A Momentous Step for Humanity

Though the first forty years of his efforts in India met with only a lukewarm response, Srila Prabhupada was not one to take no for an answer. With an untiring determination that stemmed from his transcendental love for Krishna, he pressed on and decided to go to America, despite being in his late sixties, despite having no reliable contacts, despite having no money, and despite having no organizational backing. Considering these crippling disadvantages, his stepping onto the Jaladuta to embark on a mission to America could well be seen as one of the most significant steps in human history. What was one small step for a man was to become a giant leap for humanity in its spiritual evolution – an evolution that we all have an opportunity to participate in and carry forward.

About the Author: 

Chaitanya Charana Dasa

Chaitanya Charana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami. He holds a degree in electronic and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Mumbai. He is the author of twenty-two books. To read his other articles or to receive his daily reflection on the Bhagavad-gita, "Gita-daily," visit