By Lokanath Swami
Disciples’ memories of the first seven years in Bombay with Srila Prabhupada.
[Excerpted from Bombay Is My Office: Memorable Days with Srila Prabhupada in Bombay, a memoir. Copyright 2018 by Padayatra Press. Available from Amazon.in.]
The question generally arises why Srila Prabhupada chose Bombay as his office. An office is a business organization’s headquarters, and unarguably the best place for a business is a big city. In this regard, he followed his predecessor’s precedent: Srila Bhaktisiddhanta said that temples should be in the cities as bases for preaching to the mass of people. A beautiful temple in this metropolis, Prabhupada hoped, would interest the Bombayites in Krishna consciousness and give them the opportunity to make their lives successful. In the course of opening more than a hundred centers and temples worldwide, he wanted a fine temple in Bombay.
Strategically, it was in Bombay that Prabhupada arranged to go to New York to start the Hare Krishna movement. He booked his passage there, and there he shipped his books to Cochin during the summer of 1965, for pickup by the ship he would travel on. In early August, he started his long journey from Bombay, by taking a train to Calcutta to board the Jaladuta. His Jaladuta Diary mentions the date and train number. He was in transit in Calcutta for ten days and visited Mayapur.
Prabhupada went to New York, the most populated American city, which exerts considerable influence on media, commerce, research, technology, education, entertainment, and many other fields. After starting his movement there, Prabhupada, with a similar motive, returned to Bombay, in 1970–71, to launch it in India. Bombay is India’s largest city. Being a port, it has at times experienced unconstrained economic growth, with much foreign influence, and has been most susceptible to change. The population in the early 1970s was six million, and by 2015, twenty-two million.
In Srila Prabhupada’s twelve years of worldwide traveling and preaching, nowhere else did he spend as much time as Bombay, though he passed large amounts of time in Vrindavan, Mayapur, New York, and Los Angeles. Bombay was his Indian headquarters. He was heard to say, “What Bombay does, the rest of India follows.” Prabhupada’s main motive was preaching Krishna consciousness in India and the rest of the world. In the business of preaching worldwide and across India, Prabhupada excelled as much as an astute businessman, not forgetting for a moment that his business was for Krishna. He carefully planned that Bombay become his office.
When Prabhupada was in Juhu in the early 1960s to see his patron Srimati Sumati Morarji, the director of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, about two blocks away from her home he noticed a large plot of land and prayed to Krishna, “If you ever give me this land, I will build a wonderful temple for You.” He devoted time and made determined efforts to secure this land in Juhu and build a temple for Sri Sri Radha-Rasabihari. On Prabhupada’s behalf, Krishna tolerated staying in a crude shack just to fulfill His pure devotee’s promise. It was as though Krishna had signed a contract with Prabhupada to let his dream become a reality. The Juhu temple will always remain the symbol of struggle and triumph – in many respects, a Prabhupada institution in and of itself.
The land acquisition in Juhu was for the purpose of allowing Bombayites to engage in a Krishna conscious way of life. In his epic struggle for the land, Prabhupada demonstrated his leadership as a businessman. He was undaunted, uncompromising, and perseverant to the end. As a businessman fighting for Krishna and not himself, he stood firm always. To get the Juhu property for Krishna, Prabhupada displayed a warlike, defiant mood after atrocities perpetrated by Mr. Nair, the property owner, and his wife. Yet when Mrs. Nair came to surrender the land to him after her husband’s fatal heart attack, Prabhupada accepted her as a daughter. Politeness, humility, tolerance, and determination were Srila Prabhupada’s leadership trademarks. He was a perfect gentleman, a true friend, and everyone’s well-wisher.
Earlier in Bombay
As early as 1935, Srila Prabhupada had a presence in Bombay. Three years earlier, he had been initiated and given his spiritual name, Abhay Charanaravinda. Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita describes how he then moved to Bombay on business and met his godbrothers there and assisted them in finding a better center. In July of 1935 Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati arrived in Bombay to establish the Deity worship. While expressing pleasure at the work done by his disciples, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was informed that Abhay had tirelessly raised funds and done much of the work. Abhay was not present at this moment. He was very involved as a householder and did not live at the center, but someone suggested that he become the president of the temple.
Bhaktisiddanta Sarasvati responded, “It is better that he is living outside your company. He will do. When the time comes, he will do everything himself. You do not have to recommend him.”
Bombay was home to many important industrialists, some of whom Prabhupada met before going to America. He sold his Bhagavatams to them, confident that if he succeeded in America, then they would willingly give him more substantial support. This was his plan all along: to bring Western Vaishnavas to India to inspire the Indians to take the movement of Lord Chaitanya more seriously.
How and why Srila Prabhupada successfully established Bombay as his office is perfectly captured by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami in his biography of Prabhupada: “He had incorporated ISKCON in India with the main branch in Bombay. All other branches of ISKCON in India, therefore, were legally part of the Bombay incorporation. In Bombay, Prabhupada had cultivated more lawyers and businessmen as life members and earned more friends of his Society than in any other city in India. So whenever he was in Bombay, he often sought legal advice, not just about the Bombay center but also about his other affairs in India. Since Bombay was a modern city with professional and office facilities on a level with many Western cities, Srila Prabhupada wanted to locate the Indian division of his Bhaktivedanta Book Trust there, for printing Hindi translations of his books as well as English versions for the Indian market. Bombay, unlike Vrindavan and Mayapur, was not a holy place but a bustling, wealthy city. ISKCON’s biggest donors lived there. Although Srila Prabhupada’s demeanor was entirely transcendental in Bombay, and his activities were often the same as elsewhere – speaking on Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam and worshiping the Deity – nevertheless, Prabhupada called it his office. And although it was his office, he wanted a temple there.”
Setting up the Office
Madhudvisha, a devotee from America, was the temple president in the beginning. He recalled, “Prabhupada was right into the negotiations for the buildings, telling me how much to offer the builders. When you saw him lecture, you would just see a saint on the platform, but he was much more than that. He showed us how to deal with business matters and practical things. One thing in Bombay was the importance of steady management. Giriraja was a steady manager who would do anything.”
Srila Prabhupada definitely saw Giriraja, also from America, as a committed disciple and appreciated him, and that really gave Giriraja a lot of energy and the reassurance to develop as a leader. He made a lot of life members and eventually became the temple president.
In his 1972 homage to Prabhupada, Giriraja wrote, “I sometimes experienced chastisement by Srila Prabhupada, and sometimes my mind and senses revolted, but he would pacify me with his clear explanations, such as in this letter to me: ‘It is the duty of the spiritual master to find fault with his students so that they may make progress, not that he should always be praising them. So if you find some criticism, kindly accept it in that spirit. I am only interested in that you, along with all my other students, should become Krishna conscious.’”
Sridhara Swami, from Canada, recalled his own attachment to Bombay: “I think I was in Bombay longer than anyone. Even after becoming a sannyasi, I came here every year for at least three or four months. It was Srila Prabhupada’s office, and I was an office boy. It was also my office, and I could do things. In the 1980s, I set up the Food for Life program and the Bhishma donor program. Although I visited several cities in India, in Bombay I was in my element.”
Srila Prabhupada’s Bombay office in its earliest years was not an architectural wonder for managerial and administrative work. There was no suitable structure at the beginning, yet he referred to that place, with the bare minimum of modern equipment, as his office. Prabhupada was a spiritual ambassador, and his office was a spiritual embassy set up for his mission. From the sacred space he called his office, he was devoted to directing and coordinating its activities.
Aditya Dasi, a disciple from Bombay, served as his typist, and she recalled: “The electricity was unreliable and poorly wired. Sometimes we got a shock when plugging in the typewriter, and sometimes the typewriter short-circuited. At first, we had several offices at a flat in the Chand Society building. One room was for both the typist (me) and the accountant; one room was for the president; and the third room was for Tamala Krishna Goswami, our Governing Body Commissioner in India. Later, at Hare Krishna Land, the brahmachari accountant and I shared an office in the middle of the brahmachari ashrama on the roof. Within India, Bombay was the legal office for all the temples. It worked with the Income Tax Department and handled the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) transactions. It was both the legal headquarters for ISKCON India and the BBT headquarters.”
When the mother of seventeen-year-old Kshudhi Dasa came to Bombay to take Kshudhi back to America, Prabhupada heard that she was a big corporate lawyer. He got her involved in assisting him with the legalities pertaining especially to BBT matters.
Gurudasa described how Srila Prabhupada had him register ISKCON in Bombay, because he had done that in London: “We got a lawyer. I went to the clerk to register the deed and later told him we needed to make one change. He requested a bribe, but I threatened to have him declared incompetent, so he adjusted the deed.”
Once Prabhupada had ISKCON registered and was committed to the land, he began to unfold his vision for a grand project in Bombay. He was determined to establish Hare Krishna Land in Bombay and did not adopt a mendicant’s withdrawn attitude. He was taking responsibility for thousands of disciples across the world. And while devotees around the world were attracted to hear of Prabhupada’s plan for the Bombay center, devotees who had already been experiencing the austerities and challenges in Juhu received the news with mixed feelings. For some, to envision a temple and a hotel emerging from the bush strip was inconceivable.
I recall that when I endeavored to collect rice for the prasada-distribution program by going from door to door, I carried a drawing of a fourteen-story building in my preaching kit. I showed this drawing whenever someone would welcome or listen to me. I said that we were planning to build a tall hotel and guesthouse. This seemed an extremely ambitious plan even to the more enthusiastic listeners. Of course, it turned out that the twin towers of ISKCON’s guesthouse ended up being five stories high.
It was from Bombay that Prabhupada envisioned spreading Krishna consciousness in India during the first years the Western devotees were there, even though precise and exact details were yet to be arranged. It was in or through Bombay that invitations were received and accepted and Prabhupada subsequently sent or accompanied his devotees to specific destinations.
Malati, a devotee from America, recalled: “It was not like he said, ‘OK, you are going here.’ We didn’t know where we were going to go, and I don’t think Prabhupada knew. We depended on invitations. Once there was an invitation from Surat, and it turned out to be a fantastic experience. We were going to Surat, and we only vaguely knew the name of the town. Of course, after we were there, we never forgot Surat. At the time, we were going somewhere every so often, and we didn’t even know where the places were. We would just get on a train, and when it was time to get off, we got off.”
Yadubara, from America, remembered doing a lot of service for Prabhupada’s sake: “I was making life members, cooking, doing Deity worship. I was doing many, many different things. I was totally engaged – that is probably my strongest memory. I was sleeping only four or five hours a night. When all the devotees went to Vrindavan for the Nectar of Devotion lectures, I had to stay back and keep the temple together. I lamented that I didn’t get to go, but I was actually happy to serve Srila Prabhupada in separation. I sacrificed to stay in Bombay, and he expressed his appreciation later, when I met him in Calcutta.”
A devotee who often conversed with Prabhupada about the Bombay project was Surabhi. Originally from Holland, where he saw Prabhupada on a Dutch TV show, he recalled searching for the Radha-Krishna temple in Bombay the first time he went to India. He was an inexperienced architect, but Prabhupada told him that Krishna had sent him to design temples and he could start right now. Prabhupada provided a pencil and paper, and Surabhi sat down in the next room and began to draw.
Surabhi said, “Every so often Srila Prabhupada would come out of his room, look over my shoulders, and nod. He would say, ‘That is nice. Nice.’ For me, this was the beginning of the Juhu Beach temple.”
Although the Radha-Rasabihari temple opened in January of 1978, two months after Srila Prabhupada left this world, he did spend time living in his spacious rooms atop one of the two hotel towers. Seeing the progress, he felt happy that the truly palatial temple was almost ready.
Activities at the Bombay Office
With the help of others, I’ve compiled a timeline of the recorded activities that took place at the Bombay office. Alongside his ongoing translation of books, Srila Prabhupada delivered or took part in 433 lectures, morning walks, and conversations. Prabhupada spent some 477 days in Bombay. It is usual for the CEO of an organization to be in his office. As an astute transcendental businessman, he oversaw considerable numbers of national and international affairs from his office.
“Holding all of this activity together is Prabhupada,” wrote Professor Thomas J. Hopkins in a Foreword to Hari Sauri’s Transcendenal Diary, “an 80-year-old Indian guru with declining physical strength but unbounded spiritual and intellectual energy, summoning his resources – or, as he would say, Krishna’s resources – to meet the daily needs of his disciples and, more broadly, the needs of a world in spiritual crisis. He deals with his disciples, with correspondence from abroad, with curious and mainly uninformed reporters, with visiting scholars, with fellow Indians, and with a succession of issues and problems that emerge from day to day.”