By Sureshvara Dasa
After decades of planning, in the 1960s and ’70s Srila Prabhupada established the Hare Krishna movement by Lord Krishna’s supreme will.
To honor the fiftieth anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s incorporation of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, BTG presents Part Five of a series celebrating Srila Prabhupada’s unique, transcendental position in ISKCON, as well as every follower’s foundational relationship with him.
Shocking as it was, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948 only intensified Abhay’s desire to spread the movement of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and Lord Chaitanya. Unable to engage the Mahatma during his life, Abhay would now engage him in death to launch his mission as “the Geeta Nagari”:1
“The Geeta-nagari will properly utilize the huge resources of Mahatma Gandhi memorial fund. . . . Gandhi’s memory can be well preserved by his exemplary activities and not by simply constructions of huge buildings or deadstone statues. . . . Mahatma Gandhi was saintly reformer and his memorial fund may be utilized for the purpose of converting degraded persons into saintly order.”2
Abhay urged the fund’s director to “keep in motion [Gandhi’s] spiritual movements”:3 his prayerful recitation of sacred sounds, his restoration of deities to temples, his recognition of everyone as a harijana, a person of God, and his ideal of a spiritually harmonious society. “The above four-fold Gandhi movements,” Abhay wrote, “if done in an organized, scientific way supported by all the authentic scriptures of all [religions], will bring in that tranquility of peace [and a] respite of all harshness and bitterness of the present world, which we have longed for till now.”4
But fresh from independence, India’s leaders longed only to be “modern” and were uninterested in Abhay’s spiritual proposals. Undaunted, in 1952 he found his first receptive audience among medical students in the northern Indian town of Jhansi. One of the students was able to connect Abhay with a pious estate executor who let him use the estate’s property and buildings to teach, and to rebrand his mission as “The League of Devotees.”
Canvassing among the students, Abhay ran an ad in the local newspaper: “Wanted – candidates from any nationality to qualify themselves as real Brahmins for preaching the teachings of Bhagwat Geeta for all practical purposes throughout the whole world. Deserving candidates will be provided with free boarding and lodging. Apply: A.C. Bhaktivedanta, Founder and Secretary of the League of Devotees . . .”5
The peace that the League of Nations had failed to bring after World War I, that the United Nations would also fail to bring after World War II, the League of Devotees would now bring through systematic spiritual education “and thereby achieve real unity and peace of the contending elements of the present world.”6
The events that would eventually compel Abhay to set aside the League, leave his family, accept the renounced order of life, and finally journey to the West have been well documented in the Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita. What concerns us here is how Prabhupada established his mission as ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, unfolding its purposes in phases.
A Branch of Lord Chaitanya’s Movement
In his commentary to the Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Ādi-lila 12.73, Prabhupada identifies ISKCON as a “branch” of the bhakti-kalpa-taru, Lord Chaitanya’s “desire tree” of devotional service.7 Though but a branch, his mission carries the spiritual power to transplant the “tree of love of Godhead” worldwide. Prabhupada begged for that empowerment memorably in the poem he wrote the day he landed in America. As one verse reads: “O Lord, I am just like a puppet in Your hands. So if You have brought me here to dance, then make me dance, make me dance, O Lord, make me dance as You like.”8
During his first year in the West, when the Lord revealed to Prabhupada he would have to start a fresh branch of His mission, the same educational purpose he had announced for the League of Devotees he now declared in ISKCON’s incorporation papers: “To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.”9 Six more points followed, all reflecting the same educational mood and mission.
In 1976, ten years after he had incorporated ISKCON, Prabhupada was back in New York City to celebrate Rathayatra, the temple’s first chariot parade. Reflecting on his Society’s global expansion in such a short time, Prabhupada compared ISKCON to Varahadeva, the Lord’s boar incarnation. As Lord Varaha had appeared from the nostril of Lord Brahma and then quickly assumed a cosmic form, so ISKCON had appeared in a tiny storefront on New York’s Lower East Side and quickly covered the earth. It had done so because Prabhupada had been utterly and absolutely surrendered to Krishna’s plan, whose “movements,” or phases, he had been articulating since the 1940s.
Phase One: Holy Names and Holy Books
In a 1950s Back to Godhead article highlighting the importance of absorption in sacred sound, Prabhupada wrote: “Leaders and politicians may take lessons from the life of Mahatma Gandhi . . . in respect of his daily evening prayer meetings and regular recitation of Bhagwat Geeta. . . . [R]eciting the . . . Geeta makes one able to get rid of the demoniac way of life and gradually rising up to the plane of pure devotional life of the gods.” (Back to Godhead, May 20, 1956)
Launching ISKCON in 1966, Prabhupada was the exemplar of ecstatic absorption. Brows knit, eyes slit in concentration, “Swamiji” led his first followers in chanting Hare Krishna for hours together – inside the storefront that first summer, then outside in nearby parks that fall. Those publicized outings were a historic marker in Prabhupada’s public outreach, which he continued to expand globally through his followers.
Back at the storefront he would hold Bhagavad-gita classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening. Since Prabhupada had not finished translating his Bhagavad-gita As It Is, he used the version of a famous impersonalist whose commentary Prabhupada exposed as misleading speculation. Not till late 1968 would his As It Is edition appear in ISKCON. Till then Prabhupada was the main focus, the holy names and holy books issuing from one elderly holy person.
To impress upon his followers their responsibility to continue spreading Krishna’s teachings after he was gone, Prabhupada had them start an American edition of Back to Godhead. Rolling off old mimeograph machines at first, by the end of the decade BTG had become a colorful magazine, whose copies ISKCON devotees would offer people gathered round their street chanting parties. These were the infant days of the literature distribution that would become a hallmark of Prabhupada’s movement.
Phase Two: Temples and Deities
In the above-mentioned 1956 BTG article, Prabhupada cited Gandhi’s “temple entry movement” to show the crucial role temples play in a spiritual revolution. Though Gandhi was known as a “politician among saints,” Prabhupada praised him for trying to restore the deity forms of Krishna to temples desecrated by Hindu-Muslim violence. Unfortunately, he wrote, the temples have become “rendezvous of demoniac dance . . . so many plague spots for preaching atheism. . . .”10 Hence his proposal to regenerate the temples as centers of spiritual education.
During ISKCON’s launch a decade later, as Prabhupada’s raw recruits became practiced to chant Hare Krishna and hear Bhagavad-gita, Krishna deities often appeared first as devotional paintings in low-rent storefronts, then as imported images blessing onetime churches.
Surprisingly, “homemade” forms appeared right away in the first San Francisco temple, a storefront in the heart of America’s counterculture. Prabhupada asked a skilled devotee to carve deities modeled after figurines spotted in an import store. Never mind that the carver’s wife had purloined them, or that the carver himself wasn’t yet following the disciplines of Krishna consciousness. Inclusive Prabhupada was inviting everyone to appreciate the deity in His unusual form as Jagannatha, “the Lord of the Universe.” And where else but in psychedelic San Francisco would people so easily accept his invitation and bow before Jagannatha’s large, festive eyes. Under those watchful eyes, Prabhupada was thus able to slip past the iconoclasts and introduce deity worship to Westerners.
Phase Three: Initiation and Congregation
In a 1949 letter to Indian Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Sardar Patel, Prabhupada wrote: “The third item is to take up the harijana movement. This movement is, in the real sense, a spiritual initiation movement and this should be organized in such a manner that people all over the world may take interest in it.”
The “harijana movement” was Gandhi’s attempt to allow everyone into the temples – not just the higher castes – by proclaiming everyone aharijana, “a person of God.” That’s true, Prabhupada noted, but in order for everyone to become fit to associate with the Lord again, the harijanas must be initiated into a restorative process. As crude metal is said to transmute to gold in an alchemical process, so even a crude human being, by accepting initiation from a bona fide spiritual master, can gradually be restored to his original spiritual nature.11
Such initiated devotees would naturally become the core of a wider congregation whose history and development would vary from country to country.
When Prabhupada brought his first Western disciples to India, for example, they were the talk of the nation. Why would materially successful Westerners give up everything to dance and sing Hare Krishna in the streets? “You want to imitate Westerners,” Prabhupada would chide his countrymen, “then imitate these Westerners. They are fed-up with so-called modern civilization.” Rather, “the material advancement of the Western countries and the spiritual assets of India should combine for the elevation of all human society.” (Bhag. 4.25.13, Purport)
Concerned that Indians might come to see the Western devotees as mere performers, Prabhupada temporarily suspended their street chanting and engaged them in a new program: Life Membership. For supporting ISKCON, members would receive whatever publications and accommodations the Society could offer them. Such respectable people became the first congregational members and invaluable allies in the struggle to establish Prabhupada’s movement in India.
In the West, where the masses saw Krishna consciousness as “foreign,” the congregation has taken more time to develop. Initially living and trained inside temples, Prabhupada’s first Western followers have since spread out into the community, working and raising families, to become congregational members themselves. The Indian diaspora and the rise of yoga culture worldwide have also helped turn ISKCON into a congregational movement.
To carry the Hare Krishna movement from the margin to the mainstream, Prabhupada identified a fourth phase his committed followers need to approach.
Phase Four: Natural Life
In the same letter to Dr. Patel, Prabhupada wrote: “The fourth item is to organize the much discussed caste system as a solution of natural division of the human beings all over the world. Nationalistic division of human races is artificial but scientific division of the caste system [by quality and work] as envisaged in the Bhagavad-gita is natural.”
To show the world a better way to live and die, based on the Gita’s teachings, is the ultimate phase of Prabhupada’s mission. As the body’s different parts are equally appreciated for their contribution to the whole body’s welfare, so the social body’s different classes should be equally valued for their role in serving the Supreme Lord. High or low, head to toe, inside we’re all God’s servants.
“When the Geeta Nagari will attempt to harmonise such sweet relation between man and God, man and the world and the world and God, at such an auspicious time only, the United Nations effort to establish peace in the world will be successful or the dream of a casteless society [of spiritual equality] all over the world will be realised in practice.” (“The Conception of the Geeta Nagari,” Part II, essay circa 1948)
Because living the way Krishna lives amid His land and cows looks and feels very different from the way most of us live in the modern world, and because the first three phases of Prabhupada’s mission are perhaps more easily adaptable to modernity, we have been slow to approach Phase Four. Yet it is the timeless and natural spiritual life we and our modern world have been seeking and desperately need to recover.
1. “The village of the Bhagavad-gita”
2. First drafted after Gandhi’s assassination, most of this essay later appeared in the May 20, 1956 issue of Back to Godhead.
3. Letter to Gandhi Memorial Fund, 5 July 1949.
4. Letter to Dr. Sardar Patel, Deputy Prime Minister of India, 28 February 1949.
5. Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, Vol. 1, Chapter 7: Jhansi: The League of Devotees.
6. Bhaktivedanta Vedabase/Legal Documents/League of Devotees Prospectus, 16 May 1953.
7. Identified in the Brahma-samhita (5.29), “desire trees” yield limitless fruits to pure devotees, who have limitless desires to satisfy Lord Krishna.
8. Markine Bhagavata-dharma, “Teaching Krishna Consciousness in America,” Srila Prabhhupada-lilamrita, Vol. 2, Chapter 12: The Journey To America.
9. Bhaktivedanta Vedabase/Legal Documents/Certificate of Incorporation of ISKCON, July 13, 1966.
10. Prabhupada is referring to impersonalist preachers who deny our personal relationship with the deity, thus encouraging gross sensualism and risky speculation about life’s ultimate goal.
11. This is Srila Sanatana Goswami’s analogy from his Hari-bhakti-vilasa.