When this child reaches the age of seventy,
the astrologer predicted, he will cross the ocean,
become a great exponent of religion,
and open 108 temples.
by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
Excerpted from Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami. 1981 by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
With this issue of back to godhead we begin serializing Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, the biography of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, from Volume 1, A Lifetime in Preparation. This volume recounts the first sixty-nine years of Srila Prabhupada’s life, from his birth in Calcutta in 1896 to his departure for the West in 1965.
The vignettes recorded in this first installment reveal that from earliest childhood Srila Prabhupada imbibed from his father the pure devotion to Krsna that would remain the central sustaining force throughout his life. And as this extraordinary history unfolds, we shall see how Srila Prabhupada, through the turbulence of two world wars, years of Hindu-British and Hindu-Muslim strife, and much personal travail, maintained his faith in Lord Krsna and carried forward the mission to spread the message of Krsna in India and in the West.
It was Janmastami, the annual celebration of the advent of Lord Krsna some five thousand years before. Residents of Calcutta, mostly Vaisnavas (devotees of Lord Krsna) but also many Muslims and even some British, were observing the festive day, moving here and there through the city’s streets to visit the temples of Lord Krsna. Devout Vaisnavas, fasting until midnight, chanted Hare Krsna and heard about the birth and activities of Krsna from Srimad-Bhagavatam, one of the principal Vedic scriptures. The devotees continued fasting, chanting, and worshiping throughout the night.
The next day (September 1, 1896), in a little house in the Tollygunge suburb of Calcutta, a male child was born. Since he was born on Nandotsava, the day Krsna’s father, Nanda Maharaja, had observed a festival in honor of Krsna’s birth, the boy’s uncle called him Nandulal. But his father, Gour Mohan De, and his mother, Rajani, named him Abhay Charan, “one who is fearless, having taken shelter at Lord Krsna’s lotus feet.” In accordance with Bengali tradition, the mother had gone to the home of her parents for the delivery, and so it was that on the bank of the Adi Ganga, a few miles from his father’s home, in a small, two-room, mud-walled house with a tiled roof, underneath a jack-fruit tree, Abhay Charan was born. A few days later, Abhay returned with his parents to their home at 151 Harrison Road.
An astrologer did a horoscope for the child, and the family was made jubilant by the auspicious reading. The astrologer made a specific prediction: When this child reached the age of seventy, he would cross the ocean, become a great exponent of religion, and open 108 temples.
* * *
Abhay Charan De was born into an India dominated by Victorian imperialism. Calcutta was the capital of India, the seat of the viceroy, the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, and the “second city” of the British Empire. Europeans and Indians lived separately, although in business and education they intermingled. The British lived mostly in central Calcutta, amidst their own theaters, racetracks, cricket fields, and fine European buildings. The Indians lived more in north Calcutta. Here the men dressed in dhotis and the women in saris and, while remaining loyal to the British Crown, followed their traditional religion and culture.
Abhay’s home at 151 Harrison Road was in the Indian section of north Calcutta. Abhay’s father, Gour Mohan De, was a cloth merchant of moderate income and belonged to the aristocratic suvarna-vanik merchant community. He was related, however,to the wealthy Mullik family, which for hundreds of years had traded in gold and salt with the British.
An entire block of properties on either side of Harrison Road belonged to Lokanath Mullik, and Gour Mohan and his family lived in a few rooms of a three-story building within the Mullik properties. Across the street from the Des’ residence was a Radha-Govinda temple where for the past 150 years the Mulliks had maintained worship of the Deity of Radha and Krsna. Various shops on the Mullik properties provided income for the Deity and for the priests conducting the worship. Every morning before breakfast, the Mullik family members would visit the temple to see the Deity of Radha-Govinda. They would offer cooked rice, kacauris (fried vegetable patties), and vegetables on a large platter and would then distribute the prasadam (the remnants of the offering) to the Deities’ morning visitors from the neighborhood.
Among the daily visitors was Abhay Charan, accompanying his mother, father, or servant.
Srila Prabhupada: Iused to ride on the same perambulator with Siddhesvar Mullik. He used to call me Moti (“pearl”), and his nickname was Subidhi. And the servant pushed us together. If one day this friend did not see me, he would become mad. He would not go in the perambulator without me. We would not separate even for a moment.
* * *
As the servant pushed the baby carriage into the wide expanse of Harrison Road, timing his crossing between the bicycles and horse-drawn hackneys, the two children in the pram gazed up at the fair sky and tall trees across the road. Sounds and sights of the hackneys, with their large wheels spinning over the road, caught the fascinated attention of the two children. The servant steered the carriage towards the arched gateway within the red sandstone wall bordering the Radha-Govinda Mandira, and as Abhay and his friend rode underneath the ornate metal arch and into the courtyard, they saw high above them two stone lions, the heralds and protectors of the temple compound, their right paws extended.
In the courtyard was a circular drive, and on the oval lawn were lampposts with gaslights, and a statue of a young woman in robes. Sharply chirping sparrows flitted in the shrubs and trees or hopped across the grass, pausing to peck the ground, while choruses of pigeons cooed, sometimes abruptly flapping their wings overhead, sailing off to another perch or descending to the courtyard. Voices chattered as Bengalis moved to and fro, dressed in simple cotton saris and white dhotis. Someone paused by the carriage to amuse the golden-skinned boys, with their shining dark eyes, but mostly people were passing by quickly, going into the temple.
The heavy double doors leading into the inner courtyard were open, and the servant eased the carriage wheels down a foot-deep step and proceeded through the foyer, then down another step and into the bright sunlight of the main courtyard. The carriage moved ahead past two servants sweeping and washing the stone courtyard. It was just a few paces across the courtyard to the temple.
The temple area itself, open like a pavilion, was a raised platform with a stone roof supported by stout pillars fifteen feet tall. At the left end of the temple pavilion stood a crowd of worshipers, viewing the Deities on the altar. The servant pushed the carriage closer, lifted the two boys out, and then, holding their hands, escorted them reverentially before the Deities.
Srila Prabhupada: I can remember standing at the doorway of Radha-Govinda temple saying prayers to Radha-Govinda murti. I would watch for hours together. The Deity was so beautiful with His slanted eyes.
Radha and Govinda, freshly bathed and dressed, now stood on Their silver throne amidst vases of fragrant flowers. Govinda was about eighteen inches high, and Radharani, standing to his left, was slightly smaller. Both were golden. Radha and Govinda both stood in the same gracefully curved dancing pose, right leg bent at the knee and right foot placed in front of the left. Radharani, dressed in a lustrous silk sari, held up Her reddish right palm in benediction, and Krsna, in His silk jacket and dhoti, played on a golden flute.
At Govinda’s lotus feet were green leaves from the sacred tulasi bush, with pulp of sandalwood. Hanging around Their Lordships’ necks and reaching down almost to Their lotus feet were several garlands of fragrant night-blooming jasmines, delicate, trumpetlike blossoms resting lightly on Radha and Govinda’s divine forms. Their necklaces of gold, pearls, and diamonds shimmered.
Beautifully dressed, dancing on Their silver throne beneath a silver canopy and surrounded by flowers, Radha and Krsna appeared most attractive to Abhay. Life outside, on Harrison Road and beyond, was forgotten. In the courtyard the birds went on chirping, and visitors came and went, but Abhay stood silently, absorbed in seeing the beautiful forms of Krsna and Radharani, the Supreme Lord and His eternal consort.
Then the kirtana began, devotees chanting and playing on drums and hand cymbals. Abhay and his friend kept watching as the priest, or pujari, offered incense, its curling smoke hanging in the air, then a flaming lamp, a conchshell, a handkerchief, flowers, a whisk, and a peacock fan. Finally the pujari blew the conchshell loudly, and the arati ceremony was over.
* * *
When Abhay was one and a half years old, he fell ill with typhoid. The family physician. Dr. Bose, prescribed chicken broth.
“No,” Gour Mohan protested, “I cannot allow it.”
“Yes, otherwise he will die.”
“But we are not meat-eaters,” Gour Mohan pleaded. “We cannot prepare chicken in our kitchen.”
“Don’t mind,” Dr. Bose said. “I shall prepare it at my house and bring it in a jar, and you simply . . .”
Gour Mohan assented. “If it is necessary for my son to live.” So the doctor came with his chicken broth and offered it to Abhay, who immediately began to vomit.
“All right,” the doctor admitted. “Never mind, this is no good.” Gour Mohan then threw the chicken broth away, and Abhay gradually recovered from the typhoid without having to eat meat.
* * *
In 1900, when Abhay was four, a vehement plague hit Calcutta. Dozens of people died every day, and thousands evacuated the city. When there seemed no way to check the plague, an old babaji oraganized Hare Krsna sankirtana all over Calcutta. Regardless of religion, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Parsi all joined, and then a large party of chanters traveled from street to street, door to door, chanting the names Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The group arrived at 151 Harrison Road, and Gour Mohan eagerly received them. Although Abhay was a little child, his head reaching only up to the knees of the chanters, he also joined in the dancing. Shortly after this, the plague subsided.
* * *
Gour Mohan was a pure Vaisnava, and he raised his son to be Krsna conscious. Since his own parents had also been Vaisnavas, Gour Mohan had never touched meat, fish, eggs, tea, or coffee. His complexion was fair and his disposition reserved. At night he would lock up his cloth shop, set a bowl of rice in the middle of the floor to satisfy the rats so that they would not chew the cloth in their hunger, and return home. There he would read from Caitanya-caritamrta and Srimad-Bhagavatam, the main scriptures of Bengali Vaisnavas, chant on his japa beads, and worship the Deity of Lord Krsna. He was gentle and affectionate and would never punish Abhay. Even when obliged to correct him, Gour Mohan would first apologize: “You are my son, so now I must correct you. It is my duty. Even Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s father would chastise Him, so don’t mind.”
Srila Prabhupada: My father’s income was no more than 250 rupees per month, but there was no question of need. In the mango season when we were children, we would run through the house playing, and we would grab mangoes as we were running through. And all through the day we would eat mangoes. We wouldn’t have to think, “Can I have a mango?” My father always provided food—mangoes were one rupee a dozen.
Life was simple, but there was always plenty. We were middle class but receiving four or five guests daily. My father gave four daughters in marriage, and there was no difficulty for him. Maybe it was not a very luxurious life, but there was no scarcity of food or shelter or cloth. Dally he purchased two and a half kilograms of milk. He did not like to purchase retail but would purchase a year’s supply of coal by the cartload.
We were happy—not that because we did not purchase a motorcar we were unhappy. My father used to say, “God has ten hands. If He wants to take away from you, with two hands how much can you protest? And when He wants to give to you with ten hands, then with your two hands how much can you take?
My father would rise a little late, around seven or eight. Then, after taking bath, he would go purchasing. Then, from ten o’clock to one in the afternoon, he was engaged in puja [worship of the family Deity]. Then he would take his lunch and go to business. And in the business shop he would take a little rest for one hour. He would come home from business at ten o’clock at night, and then again he would do puja. Actually, his real business was puja. For livelihood he did some business, but puja was his main business. We would be sleeping, and father would be doing arati. Ding ding ding—we would hear the bell and wake up and see him bowing down before Krsna.
Gour Mohan wanted Vaisnava goals for his son; he wanted Abhay to become a servant of Radharani, to become a preacher of the Bhagavatam, and to learn the devotional art of playing mrdanga, a clay drum used in group chanting. He regularly received sadhus in his home, and he would always ask them, “Please bless my son so that Srimati Radharani may be pleased with him and grant him Her blessings.”
When Abhay’s mother said she wanted him to become a British lawyer when he grew up (which meant he would have to go to London to study), one of the Mullik “uncles” thought it was a good idea. But Gour Mohan would not hear of it; if Abhay went to England he would be influenced by European dress and manners. “He will learn drinking and woman-hunting.” Gour Mohan objected. “I do not want his money.”
From the beginning of Abhay’s life, Gour Mohan had introduced his plan. He had hired a professional mrdanga player to teach Abhay the standard rhythms for accompanying kirtana. Rajani had been skeptical: “What is the purpose of teaching such a young child to play the mrdanga? It is not important.” But Gour Mohan had his dream of a son who would grow up singing bhajanas, playing mrdanga, and speaking on Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta continues next month with five-year old Abhay Charan organizing a miniature Ratha-yatra chariot festival for the pleasure of Krsna, and to the delight of his family and friends.