1935-1937: Bombay. A poem and a speech in praise of his spiritual master win Srila Prabhupada recogonition for his skill at presenting Krsna consciousness in English.
by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
Srila Prabhupada’s spiritual master, His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura..
After receiving spiritual initiation in 1932, Srila Prabhupada (then Abhay Charan De) sought to expand his pharmaceutical business both to support his family and to contribute to his spiritual master’s preaching mission. Even more important to him, however, were the rare occasions when he could meet with his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s affectionate dealings with Abhay, his vast erudition in Krsna conscious philosophy, and his uncompromising attacks against casteism and cheating religionists impressed Abhay deeply and provided lasting inspiration for his own preaching work.
In 1933 business reverses prompted Abhay to leave his family at home in Allahabadfor some time and try to set up a pharmaceutical business in Bombay. Simultaneously, he helped establish the Bombay branch of the Gaudiya Math, and in early 1935 he joined his Godbrothers there in celebrating Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s birthday
It was the sixty-second birthday of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. At Jagannatha Puri, where he was residing, the devotees observed the day with ceremony. At the small Bombay center, the few disciples planned an evening observance and invited local people. For the occasion, Abhay wrote a poem:
Srila Prabhupada as he appeared in 1935
Adore adore ye all
The happy day,
Blessed than heaven,
Sweeter than May,
When he appeared at Puri,
The holy place,
My Lord and Master,
His Divine Grace.
Oh! my Master
The evangelic angel,
Give us Thy light,
Light up Thy candle.
Struggle for existence,
A human race.
The only hope,
Misled we are,
All going astray.
Save us, Lord,
Our fervent pray.
Wonder Thy ways
To turn our face.
Adore Thy feet,
Your Divine Grace.
We fallen souls,
Paying most heavy
The illusion’s toll.
The only hope,
His Divine Grace.
Message of service
Thou hast brought.
A healthful life
As Chaitanya wrought.
Unknown to all,
It’s full of brace.
That’s your gift,
Your Divine Grace
Absolute is sentient,
Thou hast proved,
Thou hast removed.
This gives us a life
Anew and fresh.
Worship Thy feet,
Your Divine Grace,
Had you not come,
Who had told
The message of Krishna,
Forceful and bold?
That’s your right.
You have the mace.
Save me of alien,
Your Divine Grace.
The line of service
As drawn by you
Is pleasing and healthy
As morning dew.
The oldest of all,
But in new dress.
Your Divine Grace
Abhay also composed a speech, which he read before the assembled guests and members of the Gaudiya Math. Although his first language was Bengali, his English was clear and natural.
Gentlemen, the offering of such an homage as has been arranged this evening to the acaryadeva is not a sectarian concern, because when we speak of the fundamental principle of gurudeva or acaryadeva, we speak of something that is of universal application. There does not arise any question of discriminating my guru from yours or anyone else’s. There is only one guru, who appears in an infinity of forms to teach you, me. and all others. The guru or acaryadeva, as we learn from the bona fide scriptures, delivers the message of the absolute world, the transcendental abode of the Absolute Personality, where everything nondifferentially serves the Absolute Truth.
Like the poem, the speech was personal, but even more than the poem it was authoritative, philosophical preaching. Abhay’s Godbrothers were impressed to hear Abhay presenting the Vaisnava philosophy so expertly. How was it possible? Of course, it should not have come as a surprise; he had heard the Vaisnava philosophy from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, just like his Godbrothers. Why should he not be able to enunciate the teachings of his spiritual master, having heard from him and having read Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu. Was he not a devotee in the parampara (disciplic succession)? But until now, no one knew he could preach in English so expertly.
Therefore, if the Absolute Truth is one, about which we think there is no difference of opinion, the guru also cannot be two. The acaryadeva for whom we have assembled tonight to offer our humble homage is not the guru of a sectarian institution or one out of many different exponents of the truth. On the contrary, he is the jagad-guru, or the guru of all of us. The only difference is that some obey him wholeheartedly, while others do not obey him directly.
The guru of whom Abhay spoke, ofcourse, was Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, the representative of the original compiler of the scriptures, Vyasadeva. Abhay explained how Lord Krsna had delivered transcendental knowledge to Brahma, the creator of this particular universe. From Brahma the knowledge had descended to Narada, from Narada to Vyasa, from Vyasa to Madhva . . . Because Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was presenting the Vedic knowledge as it is, without any interpretation—in parampara—hewas the bona fide acarya (spiritual teacher and exemplar) who could enlighten others with the revealed knowledge of the Vedas. Abhay continued:
Gentlemen, our knowledge is so poor, our senses are so imperfect, and our sources are so limited that it is not possible for us to have even the slightest knowledge of the absolute region without surrendering ourselves at the lotus feet of Srila Vyasadeva or his bona fide representative.
This transcendental knowledge, Abhay explained, had been known in India for thousands of years, and this knowledge—although presently obscured—was India’s real gift to the world.
We must conclude that the darkness of the present age is not due to lack of material advancement, but that we have lost the clue to our spiritual advancement, which is the prime necessity of human life and the criterion of the highest type of civilization. Throwing of bombs from aeroplanes is no advancement of civilization from the primitive, uncivilized way of dropping big stones on the heads of the enemies from the tops of the hills. Improvement of the art of killing our neighbors by inventing machine guns and by means of poisonous gases is certainly no advancement from primitive barbarism priding itself on its art of killing by bows and arrows, nor does the development of a sense of pampered selfishness prove anything more than intellectual animalism. …
Thus, while others were yet in the womb of historical oblivion, the sages of India had developed a different kind of civilization, which enables us to know ourselves. They had discovered that we are not at all material entities, but that we are all spiritual, permanent and nondestructible servants of the Absolute.
The speech continued, describing the horrible consequences of a misspent human life, the sufferings of repeated birth and death. Again and again, Abhay Stressed the need to surrender to the spiritual master. He criticized empirical, mundane philosophers, godless politicians, and blind sense gratifiers. He repeatedly pointed to the soul’s natural and sublime position as the servant of God and as the servant of the pure devotee of God. Abhay, an initiated disciple of his spiritual master for a little more than two years, referring to himself as a student, continued:
Gentlemen, although we are like ignorant children in the knowledge of the transcendence, still His Divine Grace, my gurudeva, has kindled a small fire within us to dissipate the invincible darkness of the empirical knowledge, and we are so much on the safe side that no amount of philosophical argument of the empiric schools of thought can deviate us an inch from the position of our eternal dependence on the lotus feet of His Divine Grace—and we are prepared to challenge the most erudite scholars of the mayavada [impersonalistic] school on this vital issue: that the Personality of Godhead and His transcendental sports in Goloka [His spiritual abode] alone constitute the sublime information of the Vedas.
He then ended his speechwith an eloquent prayer of submission.
Personally I have no hope of any direct service for the coming crores [millions] of births of the sojourn of my life, but lam confident that some day or other I shall be delivered from this fire of delusion in which I am at present so deeply sunk. Therefore, let me with all earnestness pray at the lotus feet of my divine master to let me suffer the lot which I am destined to for all my past misdoings, but let me have this power of recollection: that I am nothing but a tiny servant of the Almighty Absolute Godhead, realized through the unflinching mercy of my divine master. Let me therefore bow down at his lotus feet with all the humility at my command.
He submitted both the poem and the speech to The Harmonist (the English-language edition of Bhaktisiddhanta’s magazine). The poem, Abhay’s first publication, announced him as a competent writer in English, and Swami Bhaktipradipa Tirtha, editor of The Harmonist, informally dubbed Abhay as kavi, “learned poet.” Some of Abhay’s Godbrothers also picked up on the name and began calling him kavi. Most of them, even the sannyasis (advanced, renounced disciples), were not so proficient in English. But Abhay was not ordinary. They could appreciate that the poem was personal, written out of Abhay’s genuine worship and his joy at having accepted a genuine spiritual master, but it was also written strictly in accord with the conclusions of the scriptures.
For Abhay, however, the glory of his “Sree Vyas Puja Homage” came when the poem reached Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati and it gave him pleasure. One stanza specifically made Srila Bhaktisiddhanta so happy that he made a point of showing it to all of his guests.
Somehow, in this simple stanza Abhay had captured the essence of his spiritual master’s preaching against the Mayavadis, and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta took it as an indication of how well Abhay knew the mind of his Gurudeva. Abhay was delighted when he heard that the couplet was pleasing to his spiritual master. One of Abhay’s Godbrothers compared this verse by Abhay to a verse in which Rupa Gosvami had expressed the inner thinking of Caitanya Mahaprabhu and had thus moved Him to ecstasy.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati also found the essay pleasing, and he showed it to some of his confidential devotees. He instructed the editor of The Harmonist, “Whatever he writes, publish it.”
* * *
Abhay thought it only natural that he should have many business enemies or competitors—it was a sign of success. But his Bombay competition caused him to lose another good chance to become wealthy. The “enemy” was the son of Abhay’s supervisor at Smith Institute. Both son and father complained to the Smith Institute executives that Abhay was pushing goods from his own laboratory and not Smith’s. By this intrigue, Abhay lost his position with Smith Institute, and his supervisor placed his own son as the new agent. Abhay was again on his own.
While continuing to help his sannyasi Godbrothers in Bombay, he found a two-story building for rent at Gawlia Tank Road. Everyone agreed it would make a suitable center, and Abhay arranged for the rental and for initial repairs and helped the sannyasis move in. It seemed that his endeavors for spiritual things were always more successful, whereas his business efforts were consistently failing. Of course, a few business enemies were no cause for discouragement—intrigues and losses were always part of the game, and he was still well known in the pharmaceutical business throughout India. But it. wasn’t so much the give and take of business that disturbed him as his own doubts about whether this was the best way for him to serve his spiritual master. Business was good only if it could go side by side with his spiritual life. Lord Caitanya had said that the chanting of Hare Krsna could be spread to every town and village, and Abhay wanted to assist his spiritual master, in fulfilling that prophecy, especiallybycontributing money and helping establish centers. His earnings should not go solely, for his family.
Ideally, familylife and spiritual life, should progress side by side. But the difficulty was Abhay’s wife. She was disturbed over the business losses and apathetic to the spiritual successes. She wanted to stay within the orbit of home and family, and despite Abhay’s suggestions she refused to accept initiation from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta. It was his own wife who was his most formidable competitor. And she waged her opposition right in the home, where it was least welcome.
When Abhay occasionally visited his family in Allahabad, he tried to satisfy them with his good intentions. Business had not gone so well in Bombay, but he had new plans, and he assured his family that there was no need to worry. He planned to do more preaching in his home—the whole family could become more involved in spiritual activities. He wanted to invite guests, hold discussions on Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, perform kirtana (chanting of Hare Krsna), distribute prasadam (sanctified food). He wanted to preach, just as his spiritual master and Godbrothers were preaching. Such a program wouldn’t require that a sannyasi or brahmacari (celibate student) come and preside. Abhay could do it himself. This would be an example of the ideal household life. But Abhay’s wife, Radharani, was unsubmissive. Rather than coming to hear him speak, she stayed with the children in another room—taking tea.
While reading Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura’s commentary on Bhagavad-gita (Second Chapter, forty-first verse), Abhay read that the disciple should consider the order of the spiritual master to be his life and soul. These words produced a deep effect on Abhay, strengthening his desire to execute Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s command. And in the Eighty-eighth Chapter of the Srimad-Bhagavatam’s Tenth Canto, he came upon a verse in which Lord Krsna said something that startled him:
harisye tad-dhanam sanaih
tato ‘dhanam tyajanty asya
“When I feel especially mercifully disposed towards someone, I gradually take away all his material possessions. His friends and relatives then reject this poverty-stricken and most wretched fellow.” Abhay shuddered as he read the verse. It seemed to speak directly to him. But what did it mean? “Does it mean,” he thought, “that Krsna will take away all my money?” Was that what was actually happening? Was that why his business plans were failing?
* * *
In July 1935, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati came to install the Deity of Lord Krsna and to institute Deity worship at the Bombay center. He was pleased with what his disciples had done so far, and Bhaktisaranga Maharaja admitted that much of the work was due to Abhay Babu, who had collected funds and established the new center. “Why is Abhay living separately?” Bhaktisaranga asked. “He should be president of this Bombay center.”
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati replied, “It is better that he is living outside your company. He will do.’When the time comes, he will do everything himself. You don’t have to recommend him.”
Abhay had not been present when this was spoken, but his Godbrothers told him what Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had said. These words of his spiritual master, with their mysteriously prophetic air, were important to Abhay. He treasured the words within himself and meditated upon their meaning.
In November 1935 he was again with his spiritual master in Vrndavana. It was the Karttika season, the ideal time to visit Vrndavana, and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was staying for a month with his disciples at peaceful Radha-kunda, the sacred lake where Radha and Krsna used to sport.
Having heard of his spiritual master’s stay here, Abhay, bringing his son with him, had traveled from Bombay, just to see his spiritual master. To see Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was always an occasion for jubilation, but to see him in Vrndavana was an added perfection. This meeting with his beloved spiritual guide and friend was different from the time in 1932 when Abhay had seen him on the Vrndavana parikrama (circumambulation). Now Abhay was no longer sitting anonymously in the back of a room. Now he was a bonafide disciple, recognized as the “kavi” who had written the praiseworthy poem and essay, the young man who listened well, the devotee who had helped the Allahabad matha (center) and who had established the matha in Bombay. Already on this visit Abhay had had occasion to be alone with his spiritual master, who had remembered Abhay’s son and presented him with a small bandhi (jacket). And now, as they walked together on the bank of Radha-kunda, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta turned and spoke confidentially to Abhay.
There had been somequarrelingamongst his leading disciples in Calcutta, he said, and this distressed him very much. Even now, in Vrndavana, it weighed heavily on his mind. Some of his disciples had been fighting over who would use various rooms and facilities at the Gaudiya Math headquarters in Calcutta. These devotees were all members of the matha, and the building was for propagating Krsna consciousness under the leadership of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. Yet even in their spiritual master’s presence they were quarreling. Brahmanas and Vaisnavas (devotees of Krsna) were supposed to be free from envy of any creature, what to speak of envy of one another. If they were to fight now, what would they do after their spiritual master passed away? Abhay had no part in these matters and did not even know the details or who was involved. But as he listened to his spiritual master,healso became distressed.
Deeply concerned, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta said to Abhay, “Rgun jvalbe”: “There will be fire”—one day there would be fire in the Calcutta Gaudiya Math, and that fire of party interests would spread and destroy. Abhay heard but did not know what to make of it. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had fought so long and boldly to establish that anyone of any birth could be elevated to become a brahmana, a sannyasi, or a Vaisnava. But if his followers became contaminated by a little wealth and the desire for prestige, thereby showing themselves to be still low-class men despite their training and purification, then his mission would be disrupted. If in the name of religion they became attached to ease, position, and prestige, it could only mean that they had failed to grasp the teachings of their spiritual master.
Srila Prabhupada: He was lamenting that these men are simply after the stones and bricks of the building. He condemned. He was very, very sorry.
“When we were living in a rented house,” Srila Bhaktisiddhanta said, “if we could collect two hundred or three hundred rupees we were living very nicely at Ultadanga. We were happier then. But since we have been given this marble palace in Baghbazar, there is friction between our men. Who will occupy this room? Who will occupy that room? Who will be the proprietor of this room? Everyone is planning in different ways. It would be better to take the marble from the walls and secure money. If I could do this and print books, that would be better.”
Abhay felt his spiritual master speaking to him in urgency, as if asking him to help avert a disaster. But what could he do?
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta then said directly to Abhay, “Amar iccha chila kichu bai karana”: “I had a desire to print some books. If you ever get money, print books.” Standing by Radha-kunda and beholding his spiritual master, Abhay felt the words deeply enter his own life—”If you ever get money, print books.”
* * *
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was in poor health at Jagannatha Puri. Abhay was in Bombay, and he wanted to write his Guru Maharaja a letter. “He is a little kind upon me,” Abhay thought. “He will understand my request.” And he began to write:
Dear Guru Maharaja,
Please accept my humble obeisances at your lotus feet. You have got many disciples, and I am one of them, but they are doing direct service to you. Some of them are brahmacaris, some of them are sannyasis, but I am a householder. I cannot. Sometimes I give monetary help, while I cannot give you direct service. Is there any particular service I can do?
Two weeks later, Abhay received a reply.
I am fully confident that you can explain in English our thoughts and arguments to the people who are not conversant with the languages of the other members.
This will do much good to yourself as well as to your audience.
I have every hope that you can turn yourself into a very good English preacher if you serve the mission to inculcate the novel impression of Lord Chaitanya’s teachings in the people in general as well asphilosophersand religionists.
Abhay at once recognized this to be the same instruction he had received at their first meeting, in 1922. He took it as a confirmation. There was now no doubt as to the purpose of his life. What his spiritual master had said in Calcutta in 1922 had not been a chance remark, nor had that been a chance meeting. The instruction was the same: “Turn yourself into a very good English preacher. This will do much good to yourself as well as your audience.”
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura passed away from this mortal world on January 1, 1937.
The biography of Srila Prabhupada continues next month with an account of how he began BACK TO GODHEAD magazine singlehandedly.