By Nikunja Vilasini Devi Dasi
When delivered by His pure representative, Krsna’s message attracts and transforms people young and old.
“Haribol Nani!” I greet my grandmother as I enter her home.
Unable to get up to receive me, she stretches out her arms, ready to welcome me into her warm embrace. Although her face is wrinkled with time and her body is diseased with old age, her radiant smile and loving mood reveal her inner beauty. My eighty-five-year-old grandfather, lying on a bed nearby, also suffers from the cruel fate of old age.
Greeting him, I say, “Nana, I’ve come to do kirtana and read about Krishna.”
They look forward to this time when we can hear about and remember the glories of Lord Krishna together.
Nani holds a volume of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, its pages gray and wrinkled from repeated use.
I wonder, How is it that Nani has read this holy book of eighteen volumes many times over the last twenty years?
Then as usual, she starts speaking about the subject she is reading, not missing a single detail. Her face lights up, her strong voice booms like a young woman’s, and her eyes fill with tears. With great taste she relishes the glories of the Lord. Srimad-Bhagavatam is her favorite book, and no matter whom she speaks to, they can be assured of hearing the topics of this spiritual literature.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam is the essence of all Vedic literatures, and it is considered the ripened fruit of the wish-fulfilling tree of Vedic knowledge. It has been sweetened by emanating from the mouth of Shukadeva Goswami. You who are thoughtful and who relish mellows should always try to taste this ripened fruit. O thoughtful devotees, as long as you are not absorbed in transcendental bliss, you should continue tasting this Srimad-Bhagavatam, and when you are fully absorbed in bliss, you should go on tasting its mellows forever.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.1.3, translation from Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 25.151)
As Nani reads, Nana and I listen with careful attention. I came to help them remember the Lord and hear His glories, but I get the benefit of their association. Even in her advanced age, Nani’s memory of scripture and the verses her mother taught her in her childhood is strong and lucid.
Lord Krishna assures us, “But those who always worship Me with exclusive devotion, meditating on My transcendental form—to them I carry what they lack, and I preserve what they have.” (Bhagavad-gita 9.22)
We then take turns to read Chaitanya-charitamrita, the scripture describing the pastimes of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who is Lord Krishna Himself in the guise of a devotee. We read about Lord Chaitanya delivering Amogha, the son-in-law of His dear devotee Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya. Amogha had blasphemed Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, but despite his grievous offense, the Lord forgave him and blessed him with pure love for Krishna. We are touched by Lord Chaitanya’s compassionate dealings and benevolence, and His willingness to give freely what is not easily attainable.
After reading, Nani tells me she had not known much about Chaitanya Mahaprabhu before reading Srila Prabhupada’s translation with commentary of Chaitanya-charitamrita and meeting the devotees of ISKCON. Her grandparents were indentured laborers who had come to South Africa from India in the 1800s, seeking greater opportunities and a better future. But their dreams were shattered when they realized they had left their motherland for long hours of torturous work and conditions of poverty like those in India. Over the decades, although they had kept their culture and traditions, they gradually lost the spiritual heritage and richness of India they had brought with them. Nani remembers her grandfather, dressed in a dhoti, walking barefoot and chanting the Lord’s holy names on beads. She fondly remembers her mother, who married at the age of thirteen and had thirteen children. Living in a simple rural community, the family had a difficult life, struggling against the harsh elements. Still, those were the happiest times for Nani, who remembers carrying huge pots of water from the river on her head, covering the floor of their simple residence with cow dung, and making cow-dung patties and a fire to cook their food.
Nani’s mother taught her the scriptures, and they would read together until the early hours of the morning. The family would congregate every evening to hear the Ramayana or the Bhagavad-gita and would celebrate Krishna Janmashtami and other holy festivals. How different life was then, free from the negative influences of technology and the rat race of so-called human advancement. Although she did not have much education, Nani’s love for reading was the strength that guided her in her journey toward God.
Things took a turn when Nani married into a family whose religious practices were different from hers. Nana’s family followed the teachings of a Mayavadi (impersonalist) organization, whose practices involved fire sacrifices and the chanting of om. They did not worship the personal aspect of God as Nani’s family did, and so growing up I did not see pictures of Krishna, Rama, or any other personal form of God in their home. Still, religion formed the basis of their lives. Although Nani never forgot what her mother had taught her, she dutifully followed the practices and ideals of her new family.
My Search for God
In my childhood I was a bookworm like Nani, and perhaps because of the spiritual atmosphere I had grown up in and the thirst to know more about God, I was driven to read spiritual books, hoping they would give me answers to life’s meaning and purpose. Unlike in Nani’s home, a beautiful murti of Krishna adorned our altar, and my attraction to Krishna superseded everything else. I wanted to know more about Him. In my heart I knew He was the Supreme Lord, and I directed my prayers and thoughts to Him.
“O Lord,” I would pray, “please guide me to people who worship you as the Supreme and whose lives are centered on you.”
For several years in my youth, I read volumes of literature by different spiritual leaders and gurus of various faiths. I joined several religious organizations and studied and followed their practices and teachings. But I was not fully satisfied. Then, when I joined a group that solely worshiped Krishna, I thought my prayers were finally answered. I studied under their guidance and with eagerness and faith learned to recite Bhagavad-gita and other scriptures by heart. But after a few years with this group, many of my questions were still unanswered.
Then one day at my high school library, I saw them. From one end of the shelf to the other, glistening in black and gold, was a set of books I had not seen before. I was drawn to them and began reading through their pages—Srimad-Bhagavatam, with translation and purports by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Every lunch break I would go there to read. I was mesmerized, as I had never before read anything with such profound clarity, depth, or wisdom. It was an entire encyclopedia on the science of God. It not only explained who God is, but every aspect of His nature, form, qualities, creation, devotees, pastimes, and so on. But what attracted me the most was Srila Prabhupada’s purports, wherein he explained the essence of the verses in simple language but with deep understanding and realization that penetrated my heart. More and more, I immersed myself in reading this divine literature, until I was convinced that this was what I had been looking for.
“The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.” (Gita 18.61)
In my search for the Absolute Truth, different doctrines presented different thoughts, ideas, and messages that were well intentioned but vague or incomplete. Now a much more thorough understanding replaced my previous views and ideas of God. Instead of Him being only the impersonal light or divine energy, I learned about His superior feature as the most attractive spiritual person. Instead of the soul attaining moksha by merging into His existence, I understood the unique individuality of the soul and its relationship to the Supreme Soul, the Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna. Instead of God being a person to fearfully obey, it became clear that God is a truly lovable person with divine personal attributes and that our constitutional position is to become lovers of Him.
Instead of becoming one with the universe or the “Cosmic Mind,” I learned that Krishna is the source and controller of the universe and through His agents is operating the affairs of innumerable universes. Moreover, we can return to His spiritual abode, where we can blissfully relate with Him as a servant, friend, parent, or lover. Instead of performing difficult methods of meditation and penance to achieve peace of mind and harmony with others, I learned that the simple process of chanting the names of God, as recommended for this age, cleanses the heart of the dust of millions of lifetimes and our love for the Lord is revived. Thus, not only do we become peaceful, but also our love for others naturally manifests from rekindling our love for God.
Instead of approaching God with a material motive, I was guided to call out to God without the desire for selfish materialistic gain. Instead of thinking of God only during prayer, meditation, or rituals, I understood that thoughts of Him are meant to permeate every part of my existence. Instead of rejecting or renouncing material things, I discovered that material possessions, including my body, mind, talents, and role in family and society, are intended to be used in Krishna’s service. Thus in Krishna consciousness I can make Krishna the center of my life in a more tangible way.
The list of valuable instructions and truths Srila Prabhupada revealed through his books is endless.
For the first time I read about merciful incarnations of God like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Lord Jagannatha. I learned that the demigods are not equal to God but are His empowered dependent servants. I understood that the Bhagavad-gita is not a metaphor. The Gita and other Vedic scriptures relate historical events and convey God’s message. However, the scriptures can be potent only if delivered by an authorized messenger of God. Srila Prabhupada was such a person. He presented the teachings of the scriptures without interpretation or adulteration. Being a bona fide spiritual master, he presented the science of love of God as a modern representative of a line of spiritual teachers coming directly from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Lord Krishna. Therefore his books significantly influence millions of lives throughout the world. And when I met Srila Prabhupada’s followers and disciples who distribute his books, I was captivated by the way they practiced its teachings.
One day, Nani accompanied me to ISKCON’s magnificent Radha-Radhanatha Temple in Durban for the first time. As soon as she entered, she heard a Sanskrit verse her mother had taught her that glorifies Krishna’s devotees:
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto all the Vaishnava devotees of the Lord. They can fulfill the desires of everyone, just like desire trees, and they are full of compassion for the fallen souls.” She immediately realized that the Lord had led her back to the path of bhakti, or devotion to Him.
“In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.” (Gita 2.40) Srila Prabhupada explains in his purport to this verse, “Activity in Krishna consciousness, or acting for the benefit of Krishna without expectation of sense gratification, is the highest transcendental quality of work. Even a small beginning of such activity finds no impediment, nor can that small beginning be lost at any stage. Any work begun on the material plane has to be completed, otherwise the whole attempt becomes a failure. But any work begun in Krishna consciousness has a permanent effect, even though not finished.”
Nani continues to read Srila Prabhupada’s books eagerly despite the pain in her ailing body.
“Nobody can write like Srila Prabhupada!” she tells me. “His words are sublime and give me so much strength.”
Srila Prabhupada’s books and teachings have transformed Nani’s and Nana’s lives, and they have abandoned their previous Mayavada practices of impersonalism and voidism for a life bursting with taste and joy in Krishna’s divine service. Nani continued from the point she had left in her childhood. Nana understood that his piety and adherence to righteousness would not alone save him from the effects of karma and the repeated suffering of birth, disease, old age, and death. So in their younger days they both served Srila Prabhupada’s mission by cooking for thousands of people during grand festivals and for ISKCON’s Food for Life program. Engaging in devotional service would benefit them more than mundane pious activities, they knew. Now, at the end of their lives, they have dedicated their time to hearing and chanting about the Lord. Srila Prabhupada reconnected them to the spiritual heritage their ancestors had left behind in India. In the same way, he fulfilled my spiritual quest by giving me more than what I had hoped for. He rescued countless lost souls from sinful activities and degraded lifestyles and brought them to pure lives of spiritual love and happiness.
Srila Prabhupada fulfilled the order of his spiritual master to print the ancient Vedic texts in English and take their message of Krishna to the western world. In doing so, he caused a spiritual revolution by revealing the Absolute Truth in its full glory. His books appeal to any person, irrespective of age, race, culture, or sectarian designation, because they appeal to our spiritual nature as pure servants of God.
My ten-year-old son, Arjuna, is also a bookworm. Apart from reading adventure fiction books of superheroes and knights, he also reads Srila Prabhupada’s books. Fortunately, they are easily available to him.
While reading Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita, Prabhupada’s biography, he asks me, “Do you know that when Prabhupada was born, an astrologer predicted that at the age of seventy he would cross the ocean and give Krishna to the world? He opened 108 temples and traveled the globe twelve times. He had two heart attacks on the ship to America. He went through so much to make people devotees of Krishna. He wrote so many books and did many things in his old age to spread Krishna consciousness. How was it possible? And why did he do it?”
I ponder for a while, not fully understanding Srila Prabhupada’s inconceivable greatness.
“He is an empowered pure servant of Krishna,” I say, “and his love and compassion for us made it possible for him to do so much.”
“Wow!” exclaims Arjuna. “Now I have to read Prabhupada’s books. I wouldn’t want all his time writing these books to go to waste!”