A senior member of the Hare Krishna movement tells how Krishna consciousness has gone from East to West and back again.
Last March, when hundreds of devotees from all over the world gathered in India for a pilgrimage to the holy cities Mayapur and Vrndavana, I had the opportunity, after four years, to again have the association of my senior Godbrother, His Holiness Tamala Krishna Gosvami Maharaja. The ISKCON temple in Vrndavana was then under construction, and Tamala Krishna Maharaja had a small grass-and-adobe hut nearby, which he used as a headquarters for chanting, reading and executing his various Krishna conscious duties.
His Holiness Tamal Krishna Gosvami
After Srila Prabhupada, our spiritual master, first brought some of his devotees to India in 1970, he entrusted to Tamala Krishna Maharaja the responsibility for overseeing the Society’s various preaching programs in India. I knew something about these programs from pictures, news clippings and letters I’d received from devotees, but still I felt that I didn’t have a clear picture of what we were really doing there. However, Tamala Krishna Maharaja is always eager to talk about Krishna consciousness, and so he kindly agreed to tell me about what our movement has done in India during the past four years.
So, there in his hut in Vrndavana, the transcendental land where Lord Krishna Himself had appeared 5,000 years ago to display His transcendental pastimes, Maharaja and I spent several mornings simply talking about Krishna consciousness—and especially Krishna consciousness in India. Here is an excerpt from our conversations, which we taped to share with readers of BACK TO GODHEAD. We will print more in a future issue.
—Jayadvaita dasa; Editor, BACK TO GODHEAD
TAMALA Krishna GOSVAMI: SrilaPrabhupada has said that originally, after he took sannyasa [the renounced order of life], his program was that he wanted to preach to the Indian people; that was his intention. But although the original culture of India was a culture of God consciousness, the difficulty was that when Westerners took over India, they introduced their own materialisticvalues and impressed upon the Indians that the Indian spiritual culture was backwards, primitive, inferior. After years of Western domination, these ideas began to take hold, and the Indian people began to think that real progress was to be found in industrialization and Western materialism. Therefore Srila Prabhupada found that people were. reluctant to again seriously take up the principles of spiritual life.
So Srila Prabhupada decided to go to America. He thought that if he could get some of the materialistic Westerners to appreciate the science of devotional service as found in the Vedic scriptures—and to actually become sincere devotees of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead—then the Indians would also realize the importance of the spiritual culture they had given up.
A Spiritual Chain Reaction. American and Indian devotees in Bombay join in chanting the Hare Krishna mantra and dancing in ecstasy.
In the city of Surat, people jammed the streets to greet the American and European devotees and offer them garlands of flowers.
In India people are just starting to get enthusiastic about materialistic life, but in the West many people are frustrated with empty materialism. They are starting to realize that just to have bigger and bigger cities, more cars and more television sets will not necessarily make them happy. So Srila Prabhupada thought that if he could get some of these Westerners to become spiritually pure, they could inspire the Indian people and in this way set off a spiritual chain reaction.
JAYADVAITA DASA: So Srila Prabhupada sees great spiritual potential in India.
TAMALA Krishna GOSVAMI: Yes. Srila Prabhupada always used to say, “My main business is in the West.” But at the same time I could see that he was spending much of his time here in India. So I could understand that India must also be very important. The
Land of Pious Life
I remember Srila Prabhupada saying that to take birth in India is a very rare opportunity. It means that one is very high in the spiritual evolutionary cycle. We understand from the Vedic literature that the living being is not actually his material body; he is the spiritual soul within the body. That spiritual soul is eternal, but because of material desires, he’s taking birth in one body after another, in various species of life. The body is temporary, and after the death of the body, according to one’s consciousness, he takes a new body. In this way, the living being takes body after body, in 8,400,000 species of life, until gradually he comes to the human form. Then, in that human form, one gets the opportunity to cultivate spiritual consciousness, or God consciousness, and the perfection of that God consciousness is to get free from this cycle of birth and death by becoming a pure devotee of Krishna, God, and going back home, back to Godhead. But even if one doesn’t achieve that perfection, if one makes only partial advancement on the path, he still gets to come back again in another human body and continue from where he left off.
It would seem, therefore, if we study the past, that to take one’s birth in India would be an advantage, because India is traditionally a country of spiritual culture. It is called punya-bhumi, or the land of pious life. Many great incarnations of God have appeared in India. For example, this city of Vrndavana is special because Lord Krishna appeared here. Therefore even today there are so many temples of Krishna here, the people chant Krishna’s holy name, and they’re always hearing and chanting about the activities of Krishna. So if you happen to be born in a place where you can see the places of Krishna’s pastimes, hear and chant His holy names or take food that’s been offered to the Lord, that’s very auspicious. And Lord Caitanya said, bharata-bhumite haila manusya-janma yara/ janma sarthaka kari’ kara para-upakara: “One who has taken his birth as a human being in the land of India should make his life successful and work for the benefit of all other people.”
JAYADVAITA DASA: So India is a good place to preach Krishna consciousness.
TAMALA Krishna GOSVAMI: Yes, it’s a very good preaching field. It’s good because the people are still to some extent Krishna conscious here in India. Preaching here is not a question of teaching something completely new; it’s a question of reviving something which is not very dormant. We say that Krishna consciousness is the dormant God consciousness within everyone. But here it’s not quite as dormant. It’s just barely sleeping. You go anywhere and start chanting Hare Krishna, and right away people join in with the chanting. You don’t have to teach them these nonsectarian holy names of the Lord, because they already know how to chant them—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Purity in the Midst of Confusion
A Bold “Hare Krishna” sign beckons people of Bombay to a Krishna conscious festival.
But you do have to overcome the Mayavada influence, the impersonal influence. That is very strong. In the West, people are innocent. They are materialistic, but their spiritual tradition is more or less simple and straightforward because they have faith in only one God, the Supreme Lord who created everything, and they generally understand that everyone else is a servant of God. Now originally the Vedic writings contain the same information found in other scriptures in other parts of the world, but they also reveal more.
Srila Prabhupada gives the example that two plus two equals four both in elementary arithmetic and in advanced calculus, but with calculus one has a more detailed understanding. In the same way, other scriptures tell us that God is great, but through the Vedic scriptures we can understand how He manifests His greatness because they tell about His name, form, qualities and pastimes. The Vedic scriptures also give information that God has an impersonal aspect, just as the sun has its sunshine, and they tell us that there are many demigods, who are also living beings like us, subordinate to God, but who control various functions of nature as a service to the Supreme Lord. So the Vedic literature is advanced and comprehensive, and therefore one must be pure to understand it.
The Vedic culture was originally one of purity, in which the central point was God consciousness. But it has gradually deteriorated because we’ve now entered an age of quarrel and hypocrisy, called Kali-yuga. In this age, which began 5,000 years ago and will last roughly 400,000 more, people are short-lived, their memories are short, their good qualities are diminished, and their minds are generally agitated. Therefore, people in this age are generally more inclined toward sense gratification than spiritual life, and so the high standards of the Vedic culture, even in India, are gradually being forgotten.
A view of Hare Krishna land, site of ISKCON’s Bombay center.
Under a huge tent in the center of Bombay, 20,000 people gathered daily to get a taste of Krishna consciousness.
Now, with the combined influence of Kali-yuga and Western materialism, what’s happened in India is that various so-called gurus, or spiritual teachers, have twisted the scriptures and confused people by teaching that there’s no difference between God, the demigods and the impersonal feature of God. Taking advantage of the innocent people, they’ve taught that God is impersonal and that we are all one with God. They don’t distinguish between God in His personal form, God in His impersonal feature, the demigods and the ordinary living beings. Their main point is that everything is one and everybody is one. “Everything is one. But I am the biggest one, I am the leader of the ones, because I have realized it.” That is their point. And bewildered people subscribe to these ideas.
These teachings, however, distort the real principle of Vedic spiritual culture. According to the Vedic scriptures, we are all one with God in our qualities, but God is great whereas we are very tiny. The example is given of a golden ornament and a mine of gold. The gold in the ornament and the gold in the mine have the same qualities, but the quantity of gold in the ornament cannot compare to the quantity in the mine. Another example is that of the drop of ocean water and the vast ocean itself. The drop is qualitatively one and quantitatively different from the ocean. Similarly, we are one with God in our qualities, but we are different from Him in quantity because He is very great and we are very small. The impersonal aspect is also one with God because it is a part of God, but it is not the complete realization; it is only one partial feature of God, and Bhagavad-gitasays that it is subordinate to God’s personal form. The demigods are also servants of God. They may be more powerful than us, but they are all tiny in relationship with God. The Vedic scriptures say, nityo nityanam cetanascetananam: “There is one supreme eternal living being among all the many eternal living beings.” There is one Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is known as Krishna, and everyone else is His servant. That is the original Vedic principle.
A Sensation Within the Heart
His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada flanked by Indian admirers.
Now, the distorted teachings of the impersonalists and demigod worshipers, mixed with the upsurge of materialism, have caused confusion in the spiritual culture of India, but actually that confusion is only superficial because in their hearts most Indian people still think of themselves as servants of God. They may sit and hear some lecture by a big impersonalist scholar, but ultimately you’ll find that when they go home they have a little altar, and before they eat they offer their food to Krishna. They sing to Krishna, and they celebrate Janmastami [Krishna’s appearance day]. They loveKrishna. And this spirit of devotion to the Supreme Lord is actually lying dormant in every Indian’s heart. That is the point.
JAYADVAITA DASA: It’s just been covered over.
Showing respect in an ancient way, ISKCON life members offer lamps at Srila Prabhupada’s feet.
TAMALA Krishna GOSVAMI: Yes, in the cities it may be a bit more covered, and in the big cities the people are often very materialistic, but in their hearts at least seventy-five or eighty percent of the people are Krishna conscious. It’s just slightly covered over. Only within the last couple of hundred years has it been covered over.
Vaisnavism, Krishna consciousness, is very strong in the hearts of many, many people, and seeing Westerners taking to Vaisnavism has a particular effect. It’s like a shock. It produces a tremendous sensation within the hearts of these people. They almost want to cry. It’s something so much pleasing to them that all they want to do is say, “Please come into my home. Please stay with us.” It’s like that. They cannot express how happy they are. It’s a very wonderful feeling. That’s a very developed Krishna conscious spirit. And Prabhupada sees that.
In a battlefield, if someone is very seriously injured and someone is not so seriously injured, you first heal the one who is not so seriously injured, because you have a better chance of saving him. These people in India, at least many of them, are in that position. They can be brought up to the platform of Krishna consciousness very, very easily.
Of course, when people in India see Western Krishna conscious devotees, they often feel pride, thinking that we are also becoming Hindus. Now, we’re glad that they’re pleased by the Krishna consciousness movement, but actually we have to explain to them that we are not in fact becoming Hindus. Rather, we are becoming Vaisnavas, or devotees of the Supreme Lord. This is natural. The soul is neither Christian, nor Hindu, nor Jewish. The natural, eternal position of every single soul is to be a servant of Krishna, or God. Therefore, we tell our Indian friends that we are not trying to spread the culture of one particular nation, sect or faith. Rather, we want to come to a higher understanding, an understanding that Krishna is actually the same Supreme Lord who is within everyone and who is worshiped by different names throughout the world, and that devotional service to Krishna is the natural spiritual consciousness that is dormant within every living being.
An Ecstatic Beginning
So that is the background of the position of India. Prabhupada’s program for coming to India revolved around a plan to immediately restore the spiritual balance in Indian culture. In America he had to present his program slowly at first because when he first came, Krishna consciousness was a science that no one knew anything about. So he started very humbly—”I opened a temple on Second Avenue, and I chanted in a park”—and gradually he became successful. When he came back to India, however, the news of his wonderful preaching in America had preceded him.
The first thing Srila Prabhupada did was to come to Bombay, to a meeting called the Sadhu Samaj, where all the big sadhus [saintly persons in India come together once a year. At this meeting almost every sannyasi was a Mayavadi sannyasi. And then Prabhupada came on with forty disciples from ten different countries, including Sarasvati [the three-year-old daughter of an American devotee couple], and just completely overwhelmed everyone. We all sat down in the third or fourth row, behind all the big sadhus. This was up on a very elevated stage, and there were about ten thousand people sitting on chairs on the ground. The sannyasis were all giving lengthy addresses, but I could see that all the people were straining to catch a glimpse of Sarasvati, of the foreign disciples, and especially of Srila Prabhupada. They had practically no interest in these big sadhus.
Finally, after about two and a half hours of lengthy, tedious lectures, they gave us the nod, and the first thing we did was start a rip-roaring kirtana. We danced all around those big sadhus, encouraging them to join in dancing and singing the holy names of the Lord. But they were too embarrassed to do so—in fact, most of them walked right off the stage. And we just took over the whole stage, then we jumped to the ground, and everyone rose up. We didn’t ask them—they just rose up and started chanting and dancing. All the guards were trying to control them, but they pushed the guards away, and the people came in and were dancing with us in ecstasy.
We had kirtana for about half an hour. Finally we stopped and asked everyone to sit down. (Everyone rushed up to the stage. They didn’t even want to sit down.) Then Prabhupada just said, “I do not want to say anything. I think that this chanting has said everything I could possibly say. I am not making any claims to have performed any miracles. I do not claim to be God. I am simply the servant of the servant of the servant of God. I am spreading Lord Caitanya’s message, and this is the result.” He gave a very humble talk—about two minutes—but it was just more than anyone could have said. And immediately it was all over the front pages. Then he told us to go on the streets for kirtana-immediately, again, all over the front pages. Our pictures were featured in all the leading magazines. It was sensational. We were the first substantial group of Eastern-influenced Westerners to come to India; no one had ever done this before.
And that was just the beginning. It was followed by the pandala, the first pandala program in Bombay, which was just unbelievable. [This was a two-week-long Krishna conscious festival in a huge pandala, or exhibition tent, in Cross Maiden, the central crossroads of Bombay.] It put us in the forefront of public attention.
The Leaders of India
JAYADVAITA DASA: How did the temples here in Vrndavana and Mayapur first get started?
TAMALA Krishna GOSVAMI: At that time, I remember—it was about three or four months after we came to India—Prabhupada was searching for land in Mayapur. “I came to get land in Mayapur.” [Sridhama Mayapur is the birthplace of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the original father of the Krishna consciousness movement.] We had tried to go to Mayapur to look for land when we first came to Calcutta, but we couldn’t; the flood waters stopped us from crossing the Ganges to go. So Prabhupada was thinking, “Maybe Lord Caitanya doesn’t want me to establish a temple in Mayapur.” So he sent me to Vrndavana, but we didn’t get any land in Vrndavana either. He kept saying to us, “You have to establish yourselves and do something tangible. It will not do if you are simply known as dancing white elephants. ‘They came, sang, danced—and left.’ You must do something substantial so that they will say, ‘The Westerners have come, and this is what they have done.’ ” So Prabhupada was trying for some land, and somehow we finally got this land in Mayapur and began construction. Then again someone gave us land here in Vrndavana, so we began constructing a temple here also. Then we got land in Bombay. The land in Mayapur is in the best location. You’ve seen it now. It’s centrally located on the main road, between all the temples. The land in Vrndavana is on the main road, bordering on three different roads, and it’s in the most serene and respected area of spiritual importance, where all the asramas are located. It’s the best location. The land in Bombay is now said to be worth four times what we paid for it. It’s said that this area will become like the Miami Beach of India, visited by millions of people, and we have five acres. In Hyderabad we were donated land directly in the center of the city, like Times Square and 42nd Street. And at least 1,000 to 2,000 people come to the daily noontime service, without any advertising.
So we have very nicely situated land, and the leading men of India have enrolled as members of our Society. Prabhupada has always stressed, “Get to the leaders of India.” And we have. We count among our life members the leading industrialists, politicians and professionals of India, about three thousand of them. We’re establishing different places with guest houses for them to stay in, as well as guest houses for tourists from abroad.
A Practical Program for Basic Needs
JAYADVAITA DASA: The building in Mayapur is wonderful. Westerners like us can come here, live without inconvenience and advance in Krishna consciousness. What is Prabhupada stressing for India now?
TAMALA Krishna GOSVAMI: Now our program is slowly starting to shift. Our movement is definitely number one in India. Everyone acknowledges that there is no other movement so substantial, at this particular time, as our movement.
JAYADVAITA DASA: Spiritually.
TAMALA Krishna GOSVAMI: Spiritually! Everyone has now acknowledged that this is the number-one movement and that Prabhupada is the number-one guru in the world. The Indian people acknowledge that fact, clearly. So now that he’s established our movement’s prestige as first class and has gotten this land, which establishes our structure, he’s especially working for the benefit of the masses. And the way is by food distribution. That is the method of approach. Feed a man, give him Krishna-prasada [sanctified food] and let him engage in the kirtana [chanting] and arati [temple worship]. That can gradually help thousands and thousands of people, not only by relieving their hunger but by reviving their Krishna consciousness. Because if anyone comes to our prasada distribution program, that means he’s hungry. If he is hungry, that means he can’t listen to philosophy. If his hunger is not satisfied, he’ll never become Krishna conscious. This is the point. If we just went around with a program of speaking and kirtana, they’d come once or twice, but they wouldn’t see its practical value. But if you give them prasada daily, with kirtana and speaking, eventually you can convince them, “Look, this is the most practical way of life. Why don’t you just live with us completely and work with us?” This is the program.
Practically speaking, many people in India are hungry. Not only can’t they afford to purchase the necessary food to feed their families, but staple foods are no longer available in the larger cities of India. For example, the major cities Bombay and Calcutta, as well as many other cities of India, are now passing through. a crisis period, in which there is no wheat available whatsoever. The basic food, called chapati, which goes along with every meal, just as in the West there is bread, is made from this wheat, but no wheat is available. And when it is available it is mixed with sawdust. Then, too, the rice being sold is of a terribly inferior quality. No one even wants to use it. Rice is another basic staple of the Indian diet. So with such important necessities as rice and wheat not available, people are literally starving here in India. Therefore we are organizing on an international basis to bring foodstuffs here to India that are very plentiful in other countries of the world. We are arranging for wheat, milk powder and other surplus foodstuffs from America, Canada and Australia.
Prosperity Through God Consciousness
Actually, God has arranged the world in such a way that what is short in one place is plentiful in another. Even within our own countries we may find in one place a surplus of gold and in another place a surplus of wheat, but in the place where there’s gold there may be no wheat at all. Therefore the national economy is run so that there’s a balance, by bringing products from places where they’re plentiful to other places, where they’re short. This now should be done worldwide. Actually, these national boundaries are man-made. God had no such boundaries in mind when He made this planet. Rather, He wants people throughout the world to cooperate. So if we want to cooperate with God’s plan, we must overcome these nationalistic boundaries and bring whatever is lacking in one country from the countries where it is in plentiful supply.
With this in mind, we are now arranging for these foods to be brought to India. Of course, we do not hope to immediately feed all the hungry people of India. But in the major cities, such as Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi, we can immediately begin to feed thousands daily. And this program can gradually expand to include more and more people as it proves successful. We have no doubt that when people begin to eat the purified food we’ll be serving—which is not merely food but what we call the mercy of God, or prasada, since it’s being given as an offering from God—people will begin to appreciate that God is maintaining them. In effect, we hope that when people’s hunger is alleviated, they will be able to listen closely and have enough faith in the fact that God is their only maintainer and protector. The entire Vedic civilization was based on this God-centered philosophy. So that has to be restored to India. If it is, then the peopled of India will automatically once again take to a very natural, happy and prosperous way of life.