In any language, isn’t communicating what we really care about? And in any spiritual process, isn’t God consciousness all that really counts?
Kevin Lahart of Newsday interviews His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Mr. Lahart: I wonder if you could tell me how you came to found the Krishna consciousness movement here in the United States?
Srila Prabhupada: I was ordered by my spiritual master to do this work, so on his order I came to the U.S. I came alone, with no help or money. Somehow or other I stayed.
Mr. Lahart: How did you attract followers? You landed in New York and—
Srila Prabhupada: My attraction was this chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. That’s all. I had no magic. Others had some sort of magic. I never showed any magic. At Tompkins Square Park I was chanting, and gradually some boys came. First a picture was published by the New York Times. Then we started a branch in San Francisco, later Montreal, Boston, then Los Angeles.
Mr. Lahart: You just chanted at Tompkins Square Park, and people came.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, I chanted under a tree. (I think that a picture was also published in the East Village Other in a very big article.) Naturally, some boys came and joined me and began to dance. That was the beginning.
Mr. Lahart: What did you have to offer them? You were chanting in the park, and they would come up to you and say, “What are you doing? What are you chanting?”
Srila Prabhupada: I would tell them, “Chanting is for spiritual realization. You chant; then gradually you realize your self. You realize that you are a spiritual being and that you are not the body. Then your spiritual life begins.” Actually, human life is meant for spiritual realization, but if one does not realize his spiritual identity, then he remains an animal. That is the difference between animals and man. Man is supposed to be spiritually realized.
Mr. Lahart: And how is that spiritual dimension realized?
Srila Prabhupada: First one has to realize that he is not the body; he is spirit soul, and the spirit soul is within the body. The soul means consciousness. It is just like sunshine. The soul is a very small particle, but it is shining as consciousness. And after the annihilation of this body, the spirit soul is transferred to another body. There are 8,400,000 different forms of life, and at the time of death we have to transmigrate to one of these forms. So today I am in an American body or an Indian body,- very comfortably situated, but at the time of death my particular mentality will transfer me to a particular type of body.
The material laws are very subtle. We, the spirit soul, are covered by a gross body and a subtle body. The gross body is made of earth, water, fire, air, and ether, and the subtle body is made of mind, intelligence, and ego. And the spirit soul is within these outward gross and subtle bodies. When the gross body is annihilated, the subtle body—the mind, intelligence, and ego—carries the soul to another body. What kind of body we get depends on what we are thinking at the time of death. An example is given in the scriptures: just as the air carries the aroma of a rose garden or the bad odor of a filthy place, similarly, the mind, intelligence, and ego carry me to a particular type of body according to the thought in which I am absorbed at the time of death.
Mr. Lahart: What are we, ultimately?
Srila Prabhupada: Ultimately you are spirit soul, but, being materially engrossed, you are creating various material situations, and you are being transferred to various material bodies.
Mr. Lahart: For what purpose? What is the final thing?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, unless you become spiritually realized, you cannot know the final thing. The final thing is that we are part and parcel of God. Somehow or other we are entangled in this material atmosphere. So the final stage is to go back home, back to Godhead. Unless we know this and practice how to return back to Godhead, we have to remain within this material world, transmigrating from one body to another. Therefore, human intelligence is meant for understanding your spiritual identity and the goal of life, and acting accordingly. That is the purpose of the Krishna consciousness movement. It is an educational movement to bring people from gross ignorance to the highest enlightenment of spiritual understanding.
Mr. Lahart: Is the educational process internal or external?
Srila Prabhupada: It is internal, but external behavior affects internal inclinations. If you associate with some bad company, then internally also you develop bad propensities, and if you associate with good company, then internally you develop good propensities. So internal and external are interrelated. By external behavior we influence the internal energy, and because of the internal atmosphere we receive our next external body.
Mr. Lahart: You said that your movement brings people “to the highest enlightenment of spiritual understanding.” How does that happen?
Srila Prabhupada: Their original, dormant Krishna consciousness is awakened.
Mr. Lahart: So that consciousness is within us, and it needs to be brought out?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Mr. Lahart: And how is that brought out?
“I would tell them, ‘Chanting is for spiritual realization. You chant; then gradually you realize yourself. You realize that you are not the body. Then your spiritual life begins.'”
Srila Prabhupada: That is brought out by this process of Krishna consciousness-associating with devotees, chanting Hare Krishna, eating prasada [food offered to Lord Krishna], and so forth. You have to undergo some process. A man who is unconscious can again become conscious by some process. If one becomes unconscious, then by another process you can bring him back to consciousness.
Mr. Lahart: Can I ask you a rather long question? Assuming that all human beings have an innate ability to speak, a child will learn Sanskrit, English, French, Chinese, or whatever, depending on the circumstances he finds himself in. Now, if I were Chinese, I would say that Chinese is the best language, while you, as an Indian, might take it differently. So, what is the best way to communicate? Now, in terms of your movement’s bringing out God consciousness, which I would compare to the ability to speak, how is your path, your way, better than others?
Srila Prabhupada: There is no question of one process being better or superior. Krishna consciousness means God consciousness. So, whether you are Chinese, or English, or American, you have consciousness, and when that consciousness is purified, you become God conscious.
Mr. Lahart: But is your way the only way? I would think that there are many different ways to get to God consciousness.
Srila Prabhupada: Because God is one, God consciousness is one. Different ways there may be, but only if you actually come to God consciousness are the different ways approved. Otherwise, they are bogus. Whether you come to God consciousness through the Christian process or the Chinese process or the Indian process, it doesn’t matter. But if you do not come to God consciousness, then it is all bogus.
Mr. Lahart: And how can you tell that someone has come to God consciousness?
Srila Prabhupada: God consciousness means that you understand, “I am part and parcel of God; therefore I am a servant of God.” Then the process is all right.
Mr. Lahart: Your movement has been criticized to some degree.
Srila Prabhupada: How is it criticized?
Mr. Lahart: People have said that it works against the family and against Western society.
Srila Prabhupada: [He gestures to several disciples.] Here is a family man. Here is a family man. How can you say our movement is against the family? There are so many families. And there are children. Have you seen our class in the morning? There are many family members—children, husband, wife. They are present there. How can you say we are against the family?
Mr. Lahart: But are your followers encouraged to visit with—
Srila Prabhupada: Let’s take your questions one by one. You say we are against the family, but this is wrong propaganda. There are so many families in our society. It is a complete society. There are family members, there are brahmacaris [celibate students], there are sannyasis [renounced monks], and there are vanaprastha [devotees retired from family life]. Whatever situation is suitable for you, you can accept. And in any situation you can become God conscious.
It is wrong propaganda to say that we are against families. Here is a young man and his wife: they are a family. And there are many other families. Why do you say that we are against the family? It is wrong. You should note that this sort of criticism is especially envious. It is not proper. We invite all families to come and take Krishna consciousness.
Mr. Lahart: I’ve been approached by devotees at airports, on streets, and in other places, and asked to buy literature. Is that the way to God consciousness, by selling and soliciting? How does that fit in?
Srila Prabhupada: If I sell you a book about Krishna consciousness and you read it, you benefit by giving money to Krishna and by reading about Krishna.
Mr. Lahart: How does it benefit the person who works on the street selling the book?
Srila Prabhupada: He is giving service to Krishna without pay. That is a sign of love. In the material field, also, there are many philosophers, scientists, artists, who work out of love for the subject matter, not for a salary. That is love. But our devotees are also becoming spiritually purified. And the more service they give to God, the more they become spiritually advanced.
Mr. Lahart: What are some other sides to your movement? I see people selling books, but what else do your disciples do?
Srila Prabhupada: If you stay in our temple for one whole day, from four o’clock in the morning to ten o’clock at night, you will see how we are engaged in many different practices: worshiping the Deity, chanting on beads, studying Vedic literatures, cleaning, cooking, and so many other things.
Mr. Lahart: You rise at four?
Ramesvara Svami: In this temple, at three or three-thirty.
Mr. Lahart: And chant?
Ramesvara Svami: Chant and study.
Mr. Lahart: What is the purpose of rising at four in the morning, chanting and studying?
Srila Prabhupada: To become accustomed to spiritual life. In the beginning it is a little like military training: “You must do this at this time, this thing at that time.” So any training means regulated life.
“Whether you come through the Christian or Chinese or Indian process, it doesn’t matter. But if you do not come to God consciousness, then it is all bogus.'”
Mr. Lahart: What is the most important project?
Srila Prabhupada: The most important project is to become Krishna conscious.
Mr. Lahart: What is the most important practice to come to that stage? Is one technique more important than the others?
Srila Prabhupada: You cannot say that one thing is more important, and another is less important. But if someone can’t live in our temple, then we recommend to him, “At least chant Hare Krishna in your home, take Krishna prasada, read my books, and follow the regulative principles, or, in other words, refrain from sinful life.” Ramesvara Svami, can you explain what sinful life is?
Ramesvara Svami: Illicit sex, meat-eating, intoxication, and gambling. We find that these activities disturb the body and mind. They are not conducive for spiritual practices.
Srila Prabhupada: For example, if a diseased man wants to be cured, he goes to a doctor, who says, “Don’t do this. Don’t eat this.” The sastra [scripture] also cures disease—the disease of the mind—by bringing the mind to the spiritual platform. And for this there is something to do, and something not to do. That’s all.
Mr. Lahart: I understand you came here ten or eleven years ago, and that you were almost seventy at the time?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, I came here at the age of seventy years.
Mr. Lahart: What were you doing previously?
Srila Prabhupada: I was a family man. I retired in 1954. Previously, when I was twenty-five years old, my guru maharaja—my spiritual master—asked me to take seriously this task of spreading Krishna consciousness in the West. So I was at that time a family man. I thought, “Let me adjust my family affairs; then I shall do it.” So that adjustment took me long years. I finally took it up seriously at the age of fifty-eight. And when I was seventy years old, I cameto your country.
Mr. Lahart: Was it difficult for you to give up what you were doing in order to devote your full time to spiritual affairs?
Srila Prabhupada: It is the Vedic system that after a certain age, one should give up family connections and completely devote oneself to God consciousness. In the beginning, until age twenty-five, one should learn about Krishna consciousness from the guru. Then, if he is able to avoid family life, he does not become a family man. But if, due to circumstances, he is unable to remain celibate, he may become a family man. So he can remain a family man and then, at age fifty, give it up. He then retires from family life, but he travels to holy places with his wife. Sometimes he stays with her, and sometimes he stays alone. In this way, when by practice he can completely give up family attachment, the wife goes back home and remains under the care of her elderly children, and the man takes sannyasa and remains alone. Then his only work is to spread Krishna consciousness. This is the Vedic system.
Ramesvara Svami: The Vedic system is a traditional social system from ancient India.
Mr. Lahart: Is it better to do it the way you did it, or to remain single?
Srila Prabhupada: The Vedic system trains a brahmacari not to enter into the entanglement of material life. That is the Vedic system. The basic principle is to avoid entanglement in material affairs. So at the early age, up to twenty-five years, one should be trained to continue as brahmacari [celibate] if he can, and then he can take sannyasa. But if he is unable to remain brahmacari, then let him go step by step. Let him take to household life, then retired life, then sannyasa at the end. But it is compulsory that he finally give up family life. Not that he waits for death to take him away. That is not the Vedic system.
Mr. Lahart: But young men tend not to possess a great deal of wisdom. How can they be fit for renounced life?
Srila Prabhupada: They have to be trained. For example, here we have so many young men who are sannyasis. There is no injunction that a young man cannot become a sannyasi. If he is able, he can take sannyasa in the beginning. But if he is not able, let him enter household life and then remain a householder until the fiftieth year. Then he can retire and take sannyasa. Nothing is forced. It is a gradual process. But the ultimate end is to become free from all material attachment and completely devote one’s life to Krishna consciousness. That is the ultimate. Human life is meant for that purpose—self-realization, or spiritual realization. That opportunity must be given to all human beings. Unfortunately, at the present moment civilization has no scope for spiritual realization. Men live like animals—eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. They do not know that there is another life, a spiritual life. Now we are trying to educate them.
“When a radio message is received, a foolish man thinks, ‘How is it speaking?’ So any common man will be astonished at how God can speak to you.”
Mr. Lahart: How important is it to look after physical life?
Srila Prabhupada: Physical life? You must keep yourself fit to execute Krishna consciousness. It is not our desire to become sick and not be able to chant. Our purpose is to chant, and we require the physical necessities just to keep ourselves fit. Not more than that. Eating is necessary. Without eating I will die. So we take Krishna-prasada. We do not eat in the restaurant or hotel. No. We take nice vegetables, rice, grains, sugar, milk (full of vitamins). There is no deficiency of food, so it is unnecessary to kill animals.
Mr. Lahart: You run farms as well, do you not?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Mr. Lahart: Are they working farms, producing farms?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. We have many farms in your country. Just now I am coming from New Vrindavan, in West Virginia. Many devotees are living there. If you go some time, you can see how they are living. And there are other farms—in New Orleans, for instance. Tomorrow we are going to our farm in Pennsylvania. So we get enough milk, enough food grains, enough fruits, and there is no economic problem. Our purpose is to save time from unnecessary labor for the necessities of life, and to utilize the saved time for developing Krishna consciousness. As far as the body is concerned, we should have as much as is required to maintain ourselves, but no more. In general, the motto in all our temples and farms is “plain living and high thinking.”
Mr. Lahart: Is your Societyopen toeveryone?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. We give all help to anyone who comes to our Society. We give shelter, we give food, we give instruction, we give dress—everything—without any condition. We invite everyone, “Please come and live with us.” We have 102 centers all over the world, and we invite everyone to come live with us very comfortably and practice Krishna consciousness.
Mr. Lahart: How many centers in the U.S.?
Srila Prabhupada: About fifty, including the farms.
Mr. Lahart: How are they supported? Do they support themselves?
Srila Prabhupada: Krishna supports them.
Mr. Lahart: Krishna supports them?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Everything belongs to Krishna, and since Krishna is within you, if Krishna dictates, “Give the Krishna temple three thousand dollars,” you give it. Actually, this is a fact. One man came and gave me a check for three thousand dollars. I never asked him for any money, but Krishna sent money through him. We do not worry about what will happen tomorrow, but we are very nicely maintained by Krishna. That is Krishna consciousness. In the Bhagavad-gita [9.22] Krishna says,
ananyas cintayanto mam
ye janah paryupasate
yoga-ksemam vahamy aham
“To those who worship Me with devotion, meditating on My transcendental form, I carry what they lack and preserve what they have.”
Mr. Lahart: But you still have to go out and ask occasionally, don’t you?
Bali Mardana: Well, it is not that we sit back and wait for Krishna to send things to us.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, we don’t sit down idly. We are not idle preachers. We are working very hard, harder than ordinary people.
Ramesvara Svami: The books we distribute are for educating people about their spiritual identity, and the people give donations to cover the cost of printing.
Srila Prabhupada: Now I am eighty years old. I am working twenty-one hours a day. I think I work more than my young disciples.
Ramesvara Svami: Oh, yes. It is hard to keep up with Srila Prabhupada. We are publishing his books, and sometimes he is ahead of us by seventeen volumes.
Mr. Lahart: How do you spend your days? You do a lot of traveling, I understand.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. We travel throughout the world. Wherever I go, I translate and write books at night, and in the daytime I meet devotees and manage the affairs of the Society. My disciples ask me about many things, and they take my decisions as final. From all over the world letters are coming. Although I have over twenty secretaries, still they consult me, and I give them advice.
Bali Mardan: In the evening Srila Prabhupada goes to bed at ten o’clock and gets up at eleven-thirty to begin translating.
Mr. Lahart: You sleep just a couple of hours, then.
Srila Prabhupada: No, one and a half hours.
Mr. Lahart: That’s it?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Of course, in the daytime I take two hours of rest. So, in this way, altogether three to four hours’ rest. Our philosophy is not that you sit idly and wait for God to send things. No. We know that God will send everything, but still we work. Without God’s sanction, nothing can come, and we must work to become qualified to receive the favor of God.
Mr. Lahart: Are you surprised at the way the organization has prospered?
Srila Prabhupada: I am not surprised. It is natural. For example, if you do business in a proper way, there will be profit. Similarly, if you act as enjoined in this book of knowledge, the Bhagavad-gita, your endeavor will expand and prosper. Two plus two always equals four. It will never total three or five. So here the Lord says, “For one who is engaged twenty-four hours a day in My service, I provide whatever he requires, and I protect whatever he has.” Thus, if you actually serve Krishna, whatever you need will come.
Mr. Lahart: Does God speak to you directly?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. God speaks to you when you are qualified. You cannot expect God to be an order supplier, but when He sees that you are qualified, then He will speak to you.
Ramesvara Svami: It is difficult for people to understand that God can speak to a man.
Srila Prabhupada: People cannot understand many things. When a radio message is received, a foolish man cannot understand how the radio is playing. He thinks, “How is it speaking?” So any common man will be astonished at how God can speak to you. But that is foolishness. God says,
dadami buddhi-yogam tam
yena mam upayanti te
“To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me” [Bg. 10.10]. God is situated in everyone’s heart. As soon as He sees that a person is qualified, He gives him instruction.
Mr. Lahart: But you still must work to achieve whatever Krishna is giving you.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, you work for Krishna. You have to work.
Mr. Lahart: I am curious about how Krishna communicates—whether directly or indirectly.
Srila Prabhupada: No, not indirectly. Krishna communicates directly to His pure devotee. A pure devotee always consults Krishna, and Krishna will tell him, “Do like this.” Not figuratively. Directly.
Mr. Lahart: Does that apply to all kinds of decisions and activities?
Srila Prabhupada: Everything—because a devotee does not do anything without consulting Krishna.
Mr. Lahart: But that applies only to a very greatly elevated soul?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Therefore, the minor devotees consult the spiritual master. That is our process.