“Then Srila Prabhupada stepped out of the car, and my world changed.”
By Rupa-Vilasa Dasa
“His eyes were filled with love and compassion, and he seemed to scan us and see deeply into our hearts.”
[Excerpted from Without Fear: Glimpses of Srila Prabhupada, by Rupa-Vilasa Dasa. Copyright © 2016 Robert D. MacNaughton (Rupa-Vilasa Dasa). Available from the Krishna.com Store.]
After chanting sixteen rounds of Hare Krishna for a week under the guidance of the devotees in the ISKCON temple in Tallahassee, Florida, I traveled in a van with them to Brooklyn, New York, in July of 1971, to see Srila Prabhupada for the first time. We picked up Balavanta Prabhu and his wife, Ballavhi Prabhu, and some other devotees in Atlanta, Georgia, on the way. Once we reached New York, I stayed with some friends in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and I traveled on the subway to Henry Street in Brooklyn, the site of ISKCON New York’s temple.1
I waited expectantly on the temple steps for my first sight of Srila Prabhupada. I had seen his picture, read some of his writings, and heard his powerful chanting, and I was impressed by what I had heard up to that point. I had also heard some of the teachings of other gurus, but I wasn’t very impressed with them. I didn’t know what to expect, although I was convinced about the effects of chanting Hare Krishna. Then Srila Prabhupada stepped out of the car, and my world changed. I had never bowed down to anyone before,2 but I could immediately understand that he was that person I had been seeking, perhaps for lifetimes.
I fell down to the ground and bowed down to him without reservation. He moved with a fluid, otherworldly grace, as though he were in a 3D film or hologram projected from another world to the earth. Immediately, I began to understand what it meant to be in the world but not of it. I dashed to the temple room, fighting for a spot near his vyasasana, an unusual and colorful op-art creation. As he walked down the middle of the temple room after greeting the Radha-Govinda Deities, he glanced left and right, and I had the same experience as many other devotees have reported: his eyes were filled with love and compassion, and he seemed to scan us and see deeply into our hearts. I was left feeling simultaneously exposed and blessed by his glance.
Satsvarupa dasa Goswami has written about the presence of a great spiritualist in Prabhupada Meditations, Volume II:
Recently, a Godbrother asked me to read the biography of a Jewish teacher of Hassidism, The Great Maggid; The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Dove Ber of Mezhirech. The founder of the Hassidic movement was Bal Shem Tov, and his successor was the great Maggid (“the great preacher”), Rabbi Dove Ber. I found something in this book which gave me encouragement in my proposal that remembering Prabhupada is very important.
The most comprehensive evaluation of the Maggid, perhaps, is that offered by Rabbi Leib Sarah’s [sic]. This saint was wont to say that man’s purpose is himself to become a Torah; all one’s doings, every emotion, act and speech should personify the Torah. This ideal he found fully realized in Rabbi Dove Ber, of whom he said: “I went to see the great Maggid of Mezhirech of blessed memory, not to learn Torah from his mouth but to learn how he ties and unties his shoelaces!”
It is important to hear the guru teach the Torah or the scripture, and yet we want to learn everything about him, because a bona fide guru is a living example of the scripture. We want to learn how the realized speaker of the Bhagavad-gita dealt with his disciples; how did this great author of Srimad-Bhagavatam eat his prasadam? How did he sleep and how did he walk? This is similar to Arjuna’s request of Krishna. “What are the symptoms of one whose consciousness is thus merged in transcendence? How does he speak and what is his language? How does he sit and how does he walk?” (Bg. 2.54)3
As the Hassidic Jewish ideal, expressed above, is to gain the audience of a being who is a “personified Torah” or who has “become a Torah,” that exactly describes the presence of Srila Prabhupada and is elaborated on in his
purports to Srimad-Bhagavatam:
Here is the remedy for eliminating all inauspicious things within the heart which are considered to be obstacles in the path of self-realization. The remedy is the association of the Bhagavatas. There are two types of Bhagavatas, namely the book Bhagavata and the devotee Bhagavata. Both the Bhagavatas are competent remedies, and both of them or either of them can be good enough to eliminate the obstacles. A devotee Bhagavata is as good as the book Bhagavata because the devotee Bhagavata leads his life in terms of the book Bhagavata and the book Bhagavata is full of information about the Personality of Godhead and His pure devotees, who are also Bhagavatas. Bhagavata book and person are identical. *(Author’s emphasis is in bold type throughout the book.)
The devotee Bhagavata is a direct representative of Bhagavan, the Personality of Godhead. So by pleasing the devotee Bhagavata one can receive the benefit of the book Bhagavata. Human reason fails to understand how by serving the devotee Bhagavata or the book Bhagavata one gets gradual promotion on the path of devotion. But actually these are facts explained by Srila Naradadeva, who happened to be a maidservant’s son in his previous life. The maidservant was engaged in the menial service of the sages, and thus he also came into contact with them. And simply by associating with them and accepting the remnants of foodstuff left by the sages, the son of the maidservant got the chance to become the great devotee and personality Srila Naradadeva. And to understand these effects practically, it should be noted that by such sincere association of the Bhagavatas one is sure to receive transcendental knowledge very easily, with the result that he becomes fixed in the devotional service of the Lord. The more progress is made in devotional service under the guidance of the Bhagavatas, the more one becomes fixed in the transcendental loving service of the Lord. The messages of the book Bhagavata, therefore, have to be received from the devotee Bhagavata, and the combination of these two Bhagavatas will help the neophyte devotee to make progress on and on.4
And the Srimad-Bhagavatam further clarifies and confirms:
My Lord, devotees like your good self are verily holy places personified. Because you carry the Personality of Godhead within your heart, you turn all places into places of pilgrimage.5
This was my experience. I didn’t have the philosophical underpinning to understand that I was in the presence of a self-realized soul, nor did I know that my emotions and inner certainty were substantiated by the words of saintly persons and scripture. My response was instinctive and experienced as unflinching conviction.
Some of the devotees didn’t look too pleased by the aggressive behavior of the long-haired hippie trying to get close to Srila Prabhupada, but I got a spot close to him, and next to Kirtanananda Swami. Kirtanananda Swami sat and listened, his head cocked to the side like a bird, fully alert to Prabhupada’s every word. I tried to do that too, but I was a bit overwhelmed, trying to take it all in: his presence, his heavily accented words in English, and the intensity of the scene and occasion. I do remember being particularly impressed when Srila Prabhupada said that Prahlada Maharaja was praying to the Lord that he was unconcerned about his own situation, but that he was concerned, with love, for all those rotting in material existence. Srila Prabhupada was referring to several verses from the ninth chapter of the seventh canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam:
O best of the great personalities, I am not at all afraid of material existence, for wherever I stay I am fully absorbed in thoughts of Your glories and activities. My concern is only for the fools and rascals who are making elaborate plans for material happiness and maintaining their families, societies and countries. I am simply concerned with love for them.6
In another translation of the same verse, Srila Prabhupada further elaborates on the mood of the Vaishnava:
My dear Lord, I have no problems and want no benediction from You because I am quite satisfied to chant Your holy name. This is sufficient for me because whenever I chant I immediately merge in an ocean of transcendental bliss. I only lament to see others bereft of Your love. They are rotting in material activities for transient material pleasure and spoiling their lives toiling all day and night simply for sense gratification, with no attachment for love of Godhead. I am simply lamenting for them and devising various plans to deliver them from the clutches of maya.
My dear Lord Nrisimhadeva, I see that there are many saintly persons indeed, but they are interested only in their own deliverance. Not caring for the big cities and towns, they go to the Himalayas or the forest to meditate with vows of silence [mauna-vrata]. They are not interested in delivering others. As for me, however, I do not wish to be liberated alone, leaving aside all these poor fools and rascals. I know that without Krishna consciousness, without taking shelter of Your lotus feet, one cannot be happy. Therefore I wish to bring them back to shelter at Your lotus feet.7
In hearing Srila Prabhupada speak on the essence of these verses detailing the incredible compassion and selflessness of a truly great soul, I understood the difference between Srila Prabhupada and all the other so-called gurus whose teachings I had encountered. All the others talked about “becoming God” and personal gains (health, happiness, liberation), i.e., their appeals seemed focused on getting their followers tuned into that very familiar station WIFM (What’s In it For Me?). Srila Prabhupada’s focus was not on personal gain. He spoke of and personified the mood of a Vaishnava who is dedicated to relieving the suffering of others as a servant of God. His every word and gesture clearly embodied that concern. I understood: This person is a perfect example of the compassionate, fully liberated devotee he was describing.
As already discussed, Arjuna had asked the same question about the behavior and symptoms of a liberated soul in the Bhagavad-gita:
Arjuna said: O Krishna, what are the symptoms of one whose consciousness is thus merged in transcendence? How does he speak, and what is his language? How does he sit, and how does he walk?8
And in Krishna’s answers (BG 2.55–71), He dwells on how a liberated soul engages his mind and senses, i.e., how he lives and acts while situated within the machinery of a physical body. He explains and details the symptoms of a self-realized soul as being “free from all attachment and aversion,” “able to control his senses,” for whom the “threefold miseries of material existence no longer exist,” having “satisfied consciousness,” and “transcendental intelligence,” a “steady mind,” as well as being able to restrain his senses from their objects, who is “undisturbed by the incessant flow of desires,” who has “given up all desire for sense gratification,” who is “free from material desires,” having “given up all sense of proprietorship,” and is “devoid of false ego.”
In the seventh canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Prahlada Maharaja is described as follows:
By the touch of Lord Nrisimhadeva’s hand on Prahlada Maharaja’s head, Prahlada was completely freed of all material contaminations and desires, as if he had been thoroughly cleansed. Therefore, he at once became transcendentally situated, and all the symptoms of ecstasy became manifest in his body. His heart filled with love, and his eyes with tears, and thus he was able to completely capture the lotus feet of the Lord within the core of his heart.9
Srila Prabhupada exhibited these symptoms constantly throughout his life. His life was an open book to all, and those that knew him affirmed that he behaved in private as he did in public, fully absorbed in loving concern for the deliverance of those for whom Prahlada Maharaja had expressed his heartfelt concern in his prayers to Lord Nrisimhadeva, as cited earlier in this chapter: “I am simply lamenting for them and devising various plans to deliver them from the clutches of maya.”
His whole life was dedicated for this purpose, to satisfy the desires of his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada, the entire Gaudiya sampradaya (disciplic succession), and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Himself Who desired that the chanting of the holy names be spread throughout the world.
In every town and village, the chanting of My name will be heard.10
Srila Prabhupada was clearly the embodiment of the verses uttered by Prahlada Maharaja and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Explaining this deep conviction of the pure devotee with piercing clarity, Srila Prabhupada writes:
The position of a Vaishnava is to take compassion on all these ignorant people. The great Vaishnava Prahlada Maharaja once prayed to the Lord, “My Lord, as far as I am concerned, I have no problems. My consciousness is always absorbed in Your very powerful transcendental activities, and therefore I have understood things clearly. But I am deeply concerned for these rascals who are engaged in activities for illusory happiness.”
A Vaishnava thinks only about how people can become happy. He knows that they are vainly searching after something that will never come to be. For 50 or 60 years people search after illusory happiness, but then they must die without completing the work and without knowing what will happen after death. Actually, their position is like that of an animal, because an animal also does not know what happens to him after death. The animal does not know the value of life, nor why he has come here. By the influence of maya, he simply eats, sleeps, mates, defends, and dies. That’s all. Throughout their lives the ignorant animals – and the animalistic men – greatly endeavor to do these five things only: eat, sleep, mate, defend, and die. Therefore, the business of a Vaishnava is to instruct people that God exists, that we are His servants, and that we can enjoy an eternally blissful life serving Him and developing our love for Him.11
SRILA PRABHUPADA KI JAYA!
1 It was during the same visit to the Henry Street ISKCON center that Srila Prabhupada introduced the chanting of “Jaya Radha-Madhava,” the portrait of life in Vrindavana, and also the following wonderful exchange took place with Nanda Kishora Prabhu:
Nanda Kishora: What happens to a person if we just give him, out on the street, one Simply Wonderful or some prasadam, one piece of prasadam?
Prabhupada: That is wonderful, simply wonderful. (laughter) He has not tasted such a wonderful sweet in his life. Therefore, you give him wonderful, and because he’s eating that wonderful sweet, one day he’ll come to your temple and become wonderful.
Prabhupada: Therefore, it is simply wonderful. So go on distributing this Simply Wonderful. Your philosophy is simply wonderful. Your prasadam is simply wonderful. You are simply wonderful. And your Krishna is simply wonderful. The whole process of simply wonderful. And He acts wonderfully, and it is acting wonderfully. Who can deny it?
Devotee: Prabhupada is simply wonderful.
Prabhupada: That’s all right. You can become . . . Everyone. All right, have kirtana. (New York 710720LE.NY)
2 My father, a very proud military man, a veteran of three wars, and very cynical about “authorities,” instructed me on a number of occasions: “Never bow down to anyone!” On one specific occasion, this admonition was in response to reading about a Native American shaman who had disciples who offered him respect by bowing down. However, just by seeing and hearing Srila Prabhupada, I felt no hesitation to do so.
In a conversation in Seattle, Washington, in 1968 (680930LE.SEA), Srila Prabhupada had an exchange with a young man who objected to the idea of subordinating himself to anyone or anything. Srila Prabhupada told him that this was his disease. The young man was taken aback at this, and Srila Prabhupada explained: “You are bowing down to everyone. You are bowing down to death, you are bowing down to disease, you are bowing down to old age. You are bowing down to so many things. You are forced. And still you are thinking that ‘I cannot bow down. I don’t like it.’ Because you are saying: ‘I don’t like it,’ therefore, you are being forced. You have to bow down. Why do you forget your position? That is our disease. Therefore, the next process is that ‘I am being forced to bow down.’ Now we have to find out ‘Where shall I be happy even by bowing down?’ That is Krishna. Your bowing down will not be stopped, because you are meant for that. But if you bow down to Krishna and Krishna’s representative, you become happy. Test this. You have to bow down. If you don’t bow down to Krishna and His representative, then you will be forced to bow down to something else, maya. That is your position. You cannot be free at any moment . . . Simply you have to seek out where you have to bow down, that’s all. That is Krishna. You cannot stop your bowing down, but you have to see where you have to bow down. That’s all. If you artificially think that ‘I’m not going to bow down to anyone. I am independent,’ then you suffer. Simply you have to seek out the proper place where you have to bow down.”
3 Prabhupada Meditations Vol II, PM 2.5.9, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami.
4 SB 1.2.18 purport.
5 SB 1.13.10 purport.
6 SB 7.9.43.
7 SB 7.9.44.
8 BG 2.54.
9 SB 7.9.6.
10 CB Antya-khanda 4.126.
11 Life Comes From Life, Seventh Walk, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.