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My Impressions of Srila Prabhupada — Dr. J. Stillson Judah

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A historical and personal view by Dr. J. Stillson Judah.

1979-08-17Dr. J. Stillson Judah recently retired from the faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, where for many years he was Professor of the History of Religions and Director of the Library. After an exhaustive study of the Krsna consciousness movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s he published Hare Krishna and the Counterculture, still considered the definitive scholarly study of the Krsna consciousness movement. In the course of his research, Dr. Judah several times met and conversed informally with the Hare Krsna movement’s founder and spiritual preceptor, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. In the following discussion between Professor Judah and Subhananda dasa Brahmacari, a member of the Hare Krsna movement, Dr. Judah speaks in a personal and revealing way about Srila Prabhupada the scholar, the religious leader, and the saintly person.

Subhananda dasa: When did you first meet Srila Prabhupada?

Dr. Judah: Well, the first time I met him was in Berkeley, in 1969, when the ISKCON temple was on Durant Street. This was right after I’d decided to write a book on the Hare Krsna movement. I’d been attending kirtanas regularly for quite some time, and when Prabhupada came there for a visit I was, of course, quite anxious to meet him. There were various theological and philosophical questions that I was concerned about. I don’t recall at present precisely what questions I had, but we talked principally on the philosophy of the great sixteenth-century Bengali saint Sri Caitanya, and that of Sankaracarya, who taught Advaita Vedanta, nondevotional monism. And I was rather impressed with Prabhupada at that particular time, impressed by the comprehensive philosophical knowledge which he obviously had. I was particularly impressed by his knowledge of Sanskrit, since I had studied Sanskrit myself for about six years in college. I was rather awed by the fact that about half of his part of the conversation was in Sanskrit, followed, always, by his English translation, which was something I wasn’t able to do. Although I was able to read Sanskrit, I certainly had never been able to memorize great quantities of Sanskrit and call it up at will to punctuate particular philosophical or theological points appropriately the way he did.

Subhananda dasa: You’re referring to his citation of scriptural texts?

Dr. Judah: Yes. This certainly impressed me very greatly. I was impressed not only by his Sanskrit scholarship, but by his exhaustive knowledge of Indian philosophy, particularly the philosophy of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, about which we talked quite extensively. And so I had a very favorable impression, certainly, of his knowledge at that particular time.

Subhananda dasa: What impressions did you have, during that first encounter, of Srila Prabhupada as a person?

Dr. Judah: I have to say that I was struck by his humility. Although I wasn’t a devotee, I did not at all get the feeling that he was speaking down to me. Although he certainly was worthy of my reverence, not only for his scholarship, of course, but for his obvious holiness, he treated me, you might say, on an equal level, with gentlemanly respect. Although I had had a relatively extensive education in Indian philosophy, I came, eventually, to understand that it is ultimately only through the eyes of faith produced by serious and prolonged spiritual discipline that spiritual philosophy can be clearly discerned. In spite of my academic training, therefore, I was not really a proficient conversation partner for Srila Prabhupada. In spite of this, however, he treated me with brotherly respect and affection. His humility was very apparent.

Subhananda dasa: Any other impressions?

Dr. Judah: I was also very much impressed, even at that first meeting, and have been subsequently impressed, that he lived his life in the same way that he expected his disciples to. This is quite different from so many other gurus who come to the West and take up drinking a few cocktails and the like. Prabhupada really lived a strict life. He was the perfect example for his disciples. And I think this is certainly part of the great power of the man—that he did preach a very severe disciplined life, but he followed it himself, right down to the letter. His popularity among his disciples owes much to the fact that his own life was so truly exemplary, to the highest degree of the holy and disciplined life he demanded of them.

Subhananda dasa: Could you elaborate?

Dr. Judah: Although he certainly was exalted by his disciples, he did not put himself on a plane above them. He ate what they ate, lived in the same kind of building. He didn’t want a palace to live in. He followed the same life as his disciples, strictly. The example he gave was a very good one, one that certainly impressed the devotees. I too was very impressed.

Subhananda dasa: Those disciples who, for brief or long periods, were in proximity to Srila Prabhupada consistently vouch for the fact that he was very strict in his personal habits and practices, that he fully practiced what he preached. Even dedicated skeptics could not detect any hypocrisy.

Dr. Judah: That’s very true.

Subhananda dasa: How would you view Srila Prabhupada’s achievements from a historical point of view? What was his unique contribution?

Dr. Judah: In reality, he was the first to bring devotional, theistic Hinduism—Vaisnavism—to the Western world. Until that time, the West had become acquainted with Hindu philosophy mainly through Emerson and Thoreau and the other nineteenth-century Transcendentalists, whose reading of the Vedic literatures had been limited to nondevotional translations and commentaries representing the nondualistic, pantheistic interpretation. This limited, one-sided Western view of Vedic culture was further solidified by Swami Vivekananda when he visited America in 1893 and spoke at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Since that time, there have been countless gurus that have come to the West representing the pantheistic, nondevotional side of the Indian tradition.

In studying the history of Indian philosophy and religion, one has to distinguish between this Advaita [“no-difference-between-God-and-man”] philosophy and the religion practiced by the mass of people. One of the things that one is impressed with when one goes to India is the extraordinary number of temples there. And these temples are not built to an impersonal God. They’re constructed for the glorification and worship of a personal God. So the theistic side of worship is very important in India, predominantly so. But you never get that impression from the teachings of Vivekananda and other impersonalist teachers. In this context, I recently came across an interesting reference to an article published in a popular religious journal in India in the 1890’s, in which the author said that it was a shame that Vivekananda is bringing to America this Advaita philosophy, instead of the actual religion that India itself believes and practices. The writer of this article goes on to suggest that Vivekananda should be teaching the Americans the religion of Sri Caitanya—devotional service to the Supreme Lord—and that that would be a real contribution to the American people.

Actually, it’s interesting . . . when I interviewed one of Srila Prabhupada’s Godbrothers, he told me that he had visited America in the 1930’s.

Subhananda dasa: Where did you interview him?

Dr. Judah: In Vrndavana, India. He told me that he had been here in the 30’s and had traveled around the United States, but he spoke only to the university crowd, in university classes. He never got down, you might say, to the grassroots, to the people themselves. So his attempts at spreading Krsna consciousness, the teachings of Sri Caitanya, had absolutely no impact at all. It was just a lecture, and then he was gone. He was not able to start any actual movement. When Srila Prabhupada came to America he went directly among the people, especially the people who needed him the most—the countercultural protesters on the Lower East Side of New York and in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. And from there the movement grew and expanded all over the world. So, in effect, Srila Prabhupada introduced theistic Hinduism, Vaisnavism, which has always been very popular in India, to the West for the first time.

Subhananda dasa: I appreciate what you said about Srila Prabhupada’s liberality in going among the people, as you put it, to teach Krsna consciousness. Ultraconservative, caste-conscious brahmanas in India have sometimes criticized Srila Prabhupada’s transplantation of traditional Vedic culture to the West, whose inhabitants they feel are unfit for brahminical life.

"As we we re walking by the seashore, Srila Prabhupada (at left), I was speaking of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. He said this was a belief which he also held.''

“As we we re walking by the seashore, Srila Prabhupada (at left), I was speaking of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. He said this was a belief which he also held.”

Dr. Judah: This is an important point. This is another important achievement of Srila Prabhupada’s from the historical point of view: he introduced Sri Caitanya’s highly liberal view of varnasrama, the so-called caste system. While recognizing natural distinctions between people on the basis of social occupation, it cuts through discriminatory distinctions based on birth. In Sri Caitanya’s teaching, anyone, regardless of his station by birth, is not only capable of reaching the highest spiritual position—even to that of a spiritual master—but also can practice his faith with all others in one community, regardless of birth, social position, creed, or color. Krsna calls all alike, without distinction, to seek Him.

Subhananda dasa: Dr. Judah, in the context of your comments concerning Srila Prabhupada’s scholarship and his introduction of theistic Hinduism to the West, could you comment on the significance of his writings?

Dr. Judah: I certainly honor Srila Prabhupada as one of India’s pre-eminent scholars. As a translator of many of India’s important religious texts, he gave special attention to the spirit and beauty of the texts. I have seen, of course, many selfconsciously literal translations of Indian philosophical and religious classics. These very literal translations are generally very barren—void of the intended religious sense of the text. But Srila Prabhupada, in his translations, really captured their essential spirituality. A literal translation which lacks sympathetic reverence for the text itself can obscure rather than elucidate its profound inner meaning. I find that Srila Prabhupada’s translations bring these works to life.

The Bhagavad-gita is widely acknowledged as essentially a devotional, theistic work. The Gita has, unfortunately, been commented upon almost exclusively by advocates of the nontheistic school who have obscured the deeply devotional nature of the work. So I feel that Srila Prabhupada’s translation and interpretation represent the true meaning and intention of the Gita. Due to his unstinting and diligent labors, the whole world now has been made aware of the devotional essence of the Indian spiritual tradition, as well as of one of India’s great saints, Sri Caitanya, and of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, whereas before they were scarcely known outside India except by specialists in Hindu religious traditions.

Subhananda dasa: Besides that first encounter with Srila Prabhupada that you’ve already spoken about, did you have any subsequent meetings?

Dr. Judah: I met Prabhupada again in Berkeley at the time of the Ratha-yatra festival in 1971. I had a brief interview with him at that time. Our discussion was more in connection with the book I was working on, Hare Krishna and the Counterculture. I had some questions, but it was a brief meeting. The third encounter, which took place in 1974, was perhaps the most significant. This was after my book was published and I’d sent him a copy of it.

Subhananda dasa: Wasn’t this the same occasion as when I accompanied you to see Srila Prabhupada in his private quarters at the L.A. temple?

Dr. Judah: Yes, I believe it was. He had written me a very nice letter about my book, praising it very highly. And I thought it rather amazing that he would feel this strongly about the book, because although it turned out sympathetic to the movement, it was written not from a devotional but from a critical-objective historical and sociological viewpoint.

Subhananda dasa: I vaguely recall the dialogue, but perhaps you remember better than I.

Dr. Judah: Well, we just talked mostly about the book at that time. But the more significant thing is that the next morning he invited me to go for a walk with him on Venice Beach at around 6 a.m. During our conversation, while strolling on the beach, he revealed something very important to me—something that clarified a confusion I had had. In my research on the Hare Krsna movement, I could not understand at first the answers some devotees had given to one question in my questionnaire. It concerned the age at which they felt their natal religions had lost their meaning for them. Although some gave precise years when that had occurred, many others answered that they had not given up their Christianity and still considered themselves to be Christians. Needless to say, this seemed rather strange to me. As we were walking together by the seashore with the tide rushing in, he was speaking of Christianity and of its belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. He said this was a belief which he also held. Mindful of the orthodox Christian belief in the Trinity, he questioned me: “If Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then who is the Father?” And of course he was referring to Krsna, God, the Father.

Then it dawned on me. Of course! Being unable to identify with the mainline churches because of their association with a culture they had opposed as materialistic, Prabhupada’s disciples had been given by him instead a culture and way of life that were consonant with their protests. He taught them the Vedic tradition of India, which underscored their antimaterialistic views and confirmed that material pleasures are fleeting and illusory. Prabhupada taught his disciples to adopt the view of the sixteenth-century saint Sri Krsna Caitanya, whose message has roots in the Bhagavad-gita and thus predates Christianity. For those devotees who still profess their Christianity, this meant not only acceptance of the Vedic culture as taught by Prabhupada, but also the identification anew of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, while God the Father was revealed to them as having the personal name of Krsna. According to their view, the Holy Spirit is identical with the Paramatma, the Supersoul, the form of Krsna that resides in each person as the divine witness and guide.

Subhananda dasa: Do you see the devotees’ transfer of interest from Christianity to Krsna consciousness as a negative step, that is, one of mere rejection of the apparent materialism they find in modern Christianity, or as a positive step, one of spontaneous attraction to the teachings and the life-style of Krsna consciousness?

Dr. Judah: Both, of course, but I’d say the move was motivated by mainly a positive interest in Krsna consciousness. Srila Prabhupada taught a pure Vaisnava philosophy which emphasizes so many things that Jesus taught, but which so many of us Christians have either forgotten or ceased to practice in our search for materialistic pleasures. Certainly few Christians today would be willing to really take up the cross of Jesus, to follow Him in a sacrificial life that places the love of God and His service above material pleasures rather than to lay up impermanent the injunction of Jesus to the rich young ruler in Matthew 9:21—to give up all one’s possessions and to follow Him. Nor would many care to abide by Christ’s command in Matthew 6:19-21—to seek spiritual treasures rather than to lay up impermanent material ones. In their search for a tangible, vital spiritual life-style, many devotees came to reject the hypocrisy of much of contemporary Christianity and search further and eventually find Krsna consciousness, where they felt they discovered a life of genuine renunciation and spiritual discipline.

Subhananda dasa: Why did Srila Prabhupada’s teachings appeal primarily to young people, as evinced by the relative youth of most of his disciples?

Dr. Judah: Srila Prabhupada gave meaning to many whose lives had become meaningless during the countercultural revolution. In a time of prosperity, many American youth have felt a disdain for the materialistic goals of the established culture. They have not felt that earning more money to spend on sensual pleasures has given an abiding happiness to their parents. They have come to believe that there must be a more valuable transcendental reality which they have yet to find. Therefore, they have not found direction toward a goal in our established culture, nor have they found meaning in the mainline religions that have supported this culture. For these people, Srila Prabhupada has provided a meaningful place which bears witness to quite different objectives, and he has provided a strict discipline by means of which one may achieve them. So this, I think, was one of his greatest contributions.

Subhananda dasa: Some commentators, especially those speaking from a sociological perspective, have suggested that Srila Prabhupada performed something near a miracle in extricating large numbers of young people from the drug culture and violence of the 60’s and 70’s.

Dr. Judah: Yes, this is very true. In periods of rapid cultural change, as we say especially in the 60’s, we have great periods of violence and turmoil, because people are desperate to find something that’s meaningful to them and tend to want to break down what appears to them as meaningless or corrupt. They hadn’t found direction in their lives, and so Prabhupada gave them tangible direction, and as a result they were able and willing to accept radical changes in their personal life-style. And I think not enough appreciation has come from those who are against the so-called “cults” in America, for what Prabhupada gave these young people. He transformed these individuals in the most positive way. He took them away from their drugs; he took them away from crime. You know, I’ve talked to a number of devotees—like Dharma, for example, who was in SDS—who had been involved in all kinds of, you might say, violent demonstrations. You yourself had been involved in those days, as you’ve mentioned. A lot of devotees had been. So many of the violent elements of our country in periods of cultural change are due to these very factors, and when they find something that is healing, such as what Prabhupada gave them, then their whole lives are transformed. He transformed them through a discipline of strict morality. They gave up the drug abuse, the crime, and they made great changes in their personal lives. I think this is very important, and I think this is one of the great contributions he made, just from the sociological point of view. This is very important and something that, as I say, the critics rarely recognize. It was Prabhupada who changed the hearts of many from hatred of society to love—to a love of God and a love of all people through the deep spiritual recognition of God within each one of us as the Supersoul. Unfortunately the world is slow to recognize such contributions.

Subhananda dasa: Is there anything else that comes to mind about Srila Prabhupada, either about Prabhupada personally or his achievements?

Dr. Judah: Yes … I was always impressed by the great sacrifices he made. Here was a man who had been raised and educated in India, who had been a householder, had raised a family, had managed a chemical company and who finally decided to give his full time and energy to the religious mission which his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami, had asked him to execute—to teach the message of Sri Krsna Caitanya in the West. True to the highest tradition of India’s holy men, he forsook the material comforts of retiring to his own beloved personal family. Instead, like the Galilean master before him, he was willing to abandon his personal family for a greater mission. He came penniless to America to begin a new life of sacrificial work at an advanced age. And I think that not enough attention has been given to the difficulty that this must have entailed—to come over here without any money at all. This is a tremendous thing, a tremendous sacrifice. Instead of retiring and living with the family and just enjoying life, he gave all that up. You know, that takes an awful lot. And he did this just because he’d been requested to by his spiritual master. As one thinks about this—meditates on it—one sees what a tremendous sacrifice that really is. Without ever going back, without ever retiring and saying, “I’ve done everything I can do now, the thing is going now; so I’m going to retire and go back to my family,” he carried on that sacrifice right to his dying day.

Subhananda dasa: Those of us who were with Srila Prabhupada in India in the last days preceding his departure were witness to his unyieldingly sacrificial spirit. Even when he had become so physically weak that he was virtually unable to move his own body without assistance, he continued to dictate his translation and commentary on the Srimad-Bhagavatam practically up until his last breath, and with perfect clarity of thought and expression.

Dr. Judah: Perhaps he would have lived even longer had he not traveled as extensively as he did. He came to the U.S. every year, to San Francisco for the Ratha-yatra festival and to many other cities, looking after the management of the movement, traveling back and forth around the world, at his age. Of course, this has to be very tiring and has to take an awful lot of energy out of a person, and yet he still did this right up until the very last, and that’s just remarkable.

Subhananda dasa: Generally at that age a person is taking it easy.

Dr. Judah: Yes, taking it easy, that’s right, instead of rising early in the morning, working, and doing that prodigious amount of translating. We can see that Srila Prabhupada sacrificed all personal comfort for teaching Krsna consciousness. Leaving India, alone and penniless, he came to America, where he established a new family consisting of thousands whom he loved as his own. To them he gave the commission of spreading Krsna consciousness throughout the world. Through his own example they learned of that transcendental love that extends to God, to plants and animals, and to all humanity.

Subhananda dasa: Professor Judah, I want to thank you very much for being so generous with your time and speaking so feelingly and eloquently about Srila Prabhupada.

Dr. Judah: You’re quite welcome.

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