By Gautam Saha
“Had I held a copy of the Gita in my hands years earlier, perhaps I could have been a more useful person to society by performing devotional service truly and properly.”
For most of my childhood I was awkward, immature, unsure of myself, and ignorant of many things. Only in later years did the Srimad Bhagavad-gita provide answers to the many questions that arose perennially in my mind and to which many of the persons I was thrown in with could hardly provide answers.
After I had outgrown playing with the other boys by the time I was about twelve, I mostly spent my formative years in self-imposed isolation and reading. As soon as I had finished with my day’s studies, I used to retire into seclusion and live my dreams with the classical authors of yesteryear. Or sometimes I would immerse myself in reading reputed magazines or popular comics. My world of thinking was limited to western authors of classical literature and more modern fiction. I had a typical missionary-school upbringing, and though good Catholic priests taught us moral science, I still felt an indefinable void. Due to my immaturity, however, I could not put my finger on it. I grew up uncertain about what one’s goals in life should be and had doubts about the rat race, the injustices of life, the meaning of life, the mediocrity of unbridled materialism, and many other questions that begged answers.
At the end of it all, I told myself, “Let me enjoy myself, and to hell with all the serious questions on life.”
I spent my immediate post-study years enjoying myself in the evenings after working hours, hanging out with my college or office friends, drinking beer or hard liquor, smoking cigarettes, eating meat, playing bridge with stakes, attending dance parties with loud pop music, and so on. Since I was born in a typical Bengali family and was the youngest of six siblings, the routine of eating meat and fish almost daily was expected rather than frowned upon. When my wife and I gave up meat-eating, some of my fish-eating friends and relatives in Kolkata conjectured that I was suffering from either an unmentionable disease or severe financial difficulties.
Even though at home my mother worshiped Krishna, together with Shiva, Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and others, and held Satya Narayana Pujas every year, I somehow did not take any of it too seriously. I thought it was my mother’s habit, come down the generations as a plain matter of genetic programming. I lacked spiritual understanding and a proper insight into the world of Krishna worship. My mother recalls that I used to feel ashamed to bow down before the Lord and considered it too troublesome to remove my shoes before entering the puja room.
I got to hold my first copy of the Srimad Bhagavad-gita in my early thirties, a little after my marriage. Somehow, I had not seen one before. I found one in the drawer of a room at the Mumbai airport Centaur Hotel, placed there by ISKCON, beside a copy of the Bible placed by Gideons International. On an impulse, I picked it up and put it in my briefcase. I now consider myself extremely fortunate that it was the translation and commentary of none other than His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada.
The Effect of Prabhupada’s Gita
Curiosity alone inspired my initial reading in the book. Then, after a few weeks, Srila Prabhupada’s scholarship and sincerity, as well as his lucid and powerful writing style, began to have a profound influence upon me. Very soon there was no turning back. The Lord Himself had taken a firm hold of me. In my free time I began to ponder various Bhagavad-gita verses, and I marveled at Srila Prabhupada’s mastery of the subject, his fine flow of language, and his expertise in using the most appropriate words.
As the years passed, I joined ISKCON Juhu as a Life Member—again on an impulse, after listening to a suggestion from a friend, and with very little spiritual inclination. And as I began to visit ISKCON centers in Mumbai, in various cities of India, and in other countries as well, I started taking an interest in mingling with devotees and observing their mannerisms, their beliefs, their lives, and their dealings with others. I discovered especial pleasure in joining sankirtana or sitting down with devotees and having delicious Krishna prasada in various ISKCON centers. I also clearly recall devotees, including sannyasis, with whom I had very meaningful conversations. I realized they were talking to me about Krishna bhakti out of a deep love and compassion for others. I became infected with similar enthusiasm, and my connection with Krishna bhakti grew. I began chanting, and in a few years reached, and have maintained , the mandatory minimum sixteen rounds.
A couple of verses that had a profound influence on me were Bhagavad-gita 15.19–20: “Whoever knows Me as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, without doubting, is to be understood as the knower of everything, and He therefore engages himself in full devotional service, O son of Bharata. This is the most confidential part of the Vedic scriptures, O sinless one, and it is disclosed now by Me. Whoever understands this will become wise, and his endeavors will know perfection.” As I read and reread these verses and Srila Prabhupada’s masterful explanations, I was more and more curious, since who does not want to be “the knower of everything”? This induced me to study the Srimad Bhagavad-gita more seriously and to read the other literature by Srila Prabhupada.
Discarding Bad Habits
Regarding my earlier mentioned tamasic habits (habits in the mode of ignorance), the first to go was smoking. I used to worship Hanumanji and had asked him to help me kick the habit. He did not let me down. With his support I managed to give up the habit once and for all. Soon after, I greatly reduced my “social drinking,” and then finally, practiced total abstinence. For an inveterate fish- and meat-eater like me, giving up meat was another difficult step. But by one swift stroke I managed to cut that out as well. I had promised Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha-Gopinathaji at the Chowpatty temple, way back in 1999, that I would henceforth abstain from meat in all forms. That happened after a young devotee from Chicago gave me a dose of love and compassion and asked me why I was still eating meat after associating with devotees. From that date I have kept my promise—with moral support, I am sure, from Their Lordships Themselves and from various kind devotees whose mercy I was fortunate to receive.
My giving up of meat was the culmination of repeated urgings from various devotees at different ISKCON temples at various times. Sensing their sincerity and their concern for my well-being, I decided to be sincere as well. After that, giving up tea and coffee, and onions and garlic soon after, was much easier. I am always grateful to all those devotees at whose behest and urgings I have managed to give up most of my tamasic habits. I remember each of them with gratitude and affection. I have forgotten some of their names, but I hold them all in my heart with equal affection and respect.
My withdrawal from tamasic sense pleasure was, I now understand, accompanied by increased interaction with devotees and regular reading of the Srimad Bhagavad-gita, which I began to enjoy doing. It always feels nice to pick up the Bhagavad-gita As It Is and browse through some pages to read the now familiar lines once again. No doubt, I am very grateful to Srila Prabhupada for having taken so much trouble to present the Lord’s words in such a lucid fashion. His masterful hold on the subject had me entranced, and in his inimitable style he delivered Krishna to me on a plate.
The thought has occurred to me again and again that Srila Prabhupada’s subtle influence on me through his powerful writings caused my disengagement from various forms of tamasic sense pleasure. Can just reading the Srimad Bhagavad-gita have such a dramatic, profound influence on a man’s direction in life, changing his priorities, his values, and his motivations, and giving him strong internal convictions? I would have to say yes.
Though I now abstain from so many things, I do not feel any vacuum, loss, or diminution in my life. On the contrary, my senses are now filled with Lord Krishna and His advice. I think about His pastimes, enjoy His prasada in the company of devotees, recall His smiling face, plan for tomorrow’s home worship, and write about His innumerable sweet pastimes. I also find I am more creative than I used to be, think more clearly, am less temperamental, and make more efficient use of my time.
The Power of Association
Each meeting or phone conversation with devotees energizes my devotion. As Srila Prabhupada said, to mingle with devotees is truly a potent medicine for the pulls of maya in Kali-yuga, because a devotee, perhaps unknowingly, sometimes manages to bring home a very powerful message by a few gentle words.
I am supported in my Krishna bhakti by my wife, Pranati, who has not only been most supportive of this change in my life but who also regularly chants and worships the Lord with unfailing regularity. In fact, her unfailing devotion and regularity have induced me to form similar steady habits. Our worship of Lord Krishna is now the central point of our lives. Other activities are secondary and are only to ensure proper service to Lord Krishna in whatever limited way we can.
I am still reading the same copy of the Srimad Bhagavad-gita I picked up twenty-seven years ago. I have rebound it and use it with much care, lest it fall apart. Over the years, I have always maintained a stock of Gitas to gift to receptive candidates across the spectrum, including my nondevotee friends, friends belonging to other faiths, and new friends from other countries. I request them to read a few pages every day, keep the book in a clean place, and give it due respect.
Had I held a copy of the Gita in my hand years earlier, my whole life might have been different. I might have not wasted my youth and early years in frivolous and fruitless pastimes, but perhaps been a more useful person to society by performing devotional service truly and properly. But, I suppose, better late than never. It has been a long and sometimes painful journey up to this point, partly because of my own ignorance, and partly because of illusion, which tries to lure us into indiscretions. Now that the Lord has taken hold of me, in spite of my interminable bouts with the modes of passion and ignorance I am sure He shall have mercy on me, make me a more sincere devotee, and make me a little more productive in helping His true servants in spreading Krishna bhakti to one and all.
After I ceased casual social mingling, many of my friends drifted away slowly. But the Lord stood by Me and did not allow me to feel lonely. My loss of school and college friends was gradually filled by new devotee friends with whom my connection is Krishna bhakti. Also, by the special grace of the Lord, I am sure, most of my old friends have drifted back into my ken, and I connect with them, but with a new perspective. None of my old friends now drink liquor or eat meat in my presence, in deference to my views.
I completed my studies in chemical engineering at IIT Mumbai thirty-five years ago. Most of my life has been spent in projects of marketing and business development—all material activities, far removed from spiritual life. I am presently engaged in business development and investment in a few African countries and some other countries. In the course of my material activities, I discuss many subjects pertaining to current affairs, technology, management, literature, music, movies, sports, and so on. Yet I have discovered that the subject for discussion closest to my heart is Krishna and Krishna bhakti. Many of my friends from student days frown at my present beliefs or leanings. I do not worry, and I let them go their separate ways, though I do not hesitate to forward some write-up of Lord Krishna to them all, even though they might not like it. Perhaps some day the little bud might get a chance to flower.
The devotees in the editorial department of BTG (India) have shown me special mercy by allowing me to be a part of their team, in whatever insignificant or small way, and stay connected to the service of Lord Krishna.
I recall this verse from the Srimad Bhagavad-gita (10.9): “The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are surrendered to Me, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss enlightening one another and conversing about Me.” When I am disconsolate, thinking about my own lack of devotion, I recall this verse and take solace in the idea that the Lord considers me at least an imperfect devotee, if not a perfect one. Even if I spend just a little time in thinking about Him, discussing Him, writing about Him, remembering His pastimes, or thinking of His devotees, He will enable me to stay connected to Him. That is His special mercy. And that is also the result of the special magic hidden within the pages of the Srimad Bhagavad-gita, just waiting to leap out and envelop nondevotees in the cocoon of knowledge and bhakti.