By Braja Sevaki Devi Dasi
Even after this year’s celebrations of ISKCON’s Fiftieth Anniversary are over, we should always remember the great journey Prabhupada took for us.
Friday, August 13, 1965: a date every ISKCON devotee knows by heart, the day ISKCON really began, when the Jaladuta sailed out of Calcutta harbor and hobbled across the seas for thirty-five days until it reached New York harbor’s Brooklyn Pier on September 19 and discharged one thin, small, elderly sadhu, Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.
That was over fifty years ago. And mid last year, on July 13, 2015 – the forty-ninth anniversary of the day ISKCON was created – the celebrations began in commemoration of the founding of ISKCON in New York City. Those celebrations continued right through the fiftiety anniversary: July 13, 2016.
The year is almost over now. But imagine: fifty years. It’s an entire lifetime for some ISKCON members; twice a lifetime for others; three-quarters of a lifetime for those who joined in the early days; “historical” for the very young. But no matter how old or young, everyone in ISKCON was swept up in the celebrations for ISKCON’s Fiftieth.
The celebration of Prabhupada’s departure for America on the Jaladuta takes place worldwide annually, but 2015 was the fiftieth anniversary, and the celebrations – especially in Kolkata – were huge. This anniversary alone is enough to give pause: today, international travel is commonplace, flights from one side of the world to the other are offered several times a day by many and varied airlines, and take only a matter of hours. So for most, it takes a conscious effort to stop the mind, park it in neutral, close the doors of conditioned thought, and even attempt to imagine what it was like to undergo a 35-day sea voyage on a vessel as austere as the Jaladuta. Harder still to imagine that one passenger was and is so dear to us all. And worse, still, that he was elderly, sick, alone.
When we travel, it is to visit friends or family, ISKCON centers where devotees await our arrival, the sacred lands in India that Srila Prabhupada introduced us to. Even if we want to get away alone, things are smooth – flights to tropical islands to recover at retreats with yoga, Ayurveda, and herbal remedies: things that are commonplace now, but were alien to us before Prabhupada’s journey across the ocean. That’s right, you youngsters: these things didn’t exist before Prabhupada landed on Western shores.
“Celebrating 50 Years” is something we’ve all no doubt heard a lot of throughout this past year. We were unable to avoid such a glorious occasion, nor did we want to. But beneath the celebrations, the pomp and ceremony, the talks by senior devotees who were part of that time, the miracle of the second and third generations born in Vaishnava families across the globe, the joy in the hearts of every devotee young or old, still, even after these celebrations are over, we should try daily to take a few minutes and consciously direct our minds towards the reality of 1965, and the great journey Prabhupada took for us.
Prabhupada arrived in New York “Carrying only forty rupees cash, which he himself called ‘a few hours’ spending in New York,’ and an additional twenty dollars he had collected from selling three volumes of the Bhagavatam to Captain Pandia.” (Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita, Chapter 12) We speak these days of “austerity,” of being “simple,” of “living under the poverty line” even. But it is unlikely we know anyone who would have done what Prabhupada did with what little he had in his possession: a few tin trunks of books, practically no money, a cloth bag holding just two changes of clothing. To see a renunciant travel between holy sites in India is rare enough; to see one cross history’s boundaries and carve his name in the planet’s heritage as the one who saved the world from doom is beyond rare.
On his first day in America at Commonwealth Pier in Boston, on board the Jaladuta Srila Prabhupada wrote a poem entitled Markine Bhagavata-dharma. The first verse reads, “My dear Lord Krsna, You are so kind upon this useless soul, but I do not know why You have brought me here. Now You can do whatever You like with me.”
How many of us have taken such mammoth risks into unknown territory and prayed to Krsna to “do whatever You like with me”? Actually, since Prabhupada wrote those words, quite a few have done so, inspired, as was Prabhupada, by their spiritual master and Krsna. That is the phenomena Prabhupada created: no other thought entered the heads of the pioneer devotees of ISKCON but to simply do as Swamiji asked, inspired by his example.
Srila Prabhupada also wrote in that poem, “How will they understand the mellows of devotional service? O Lord, I am simply praying for Your mercy so that I will be able to convince them about Your message.” How could we ever hope to understand devotion, service, and the rich, deep mellows that weave through both, uniting us with Krsna and His associates and binding us to them?
And that word is what made this year’s celebrations so extraordinary and wonderful: that the unfathomable was made into something within our reach, something that became part of our lives, our goal in life, our purpose behind our every thought and action, our reason for living, our everything. Srila Prabhupada made the unfathomable fathomable.
That itself is . . . well . . .
So here’s a meditation we can all engage in: every time we hear “ISKCON’s Fiftieth,” let us celebrate right at that moment, that very moment, our fortune at being caught in Prabhupada’s graceful web of love. We will hear that term a lot in the coming days – just because 2016 is drawing to an end doesn’t mean this year will ever be forgotten. It won’t: it’s beyond special. So let us always meditate on this year and what it represents; let us not forget the richness of life and love we have been brought into since Srila Prabhupada stepped onto the Brooklyn Pier, and then onto the soil of many other lands over the next twelve years; let us not be jaded by our fortune, inured to all we’ve been given, unconscious of what we take for granted, or ruined by our spoiled, conditioned natures.
Let us instead, fifty times a day, stop to thank Srila Prabhupada for his unfathomable selflessness, his all-encompassing love and compassion, and his loyalty to guru and Krsna. We should let the memories of these drown us daily, because without them . . .
. . . we would have drowned.