In 1965, just before he turned seventy, Srila Prabhupada took the risk of going to the West. The head of Scindia Steamship Company gave him free passage aboard the cargo ship Jaladura. Destination: New York City.
We are trying to relish more and more the life of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, our beloved spiritual master, the Founder-Acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Krsnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami writes in his Sri Caitanya-caritamrta (Madhya 9.363-364): “The activities of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu are just like an unfathomable ocean. It is not possible for me to enter into them. Simply standing on the shore, I am but touching the water. Whoever hears the pastimes of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu with faith, analytically studying them, attains the ecstatic riches of love of Godhead.”
We believe that this description of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s pastimes also holds true for the activities of Srila Prabhupada, the great acarya (spiritual teacher) in disciplic succession from Lord Caitanya who created the world movement of Krsna consciousness, beginning in America in the 1960s. We know that just as one worships the Ganges River by an offering of Ganges water, we can glorify Srila Prabhupadaonly by his own mercy. Since we are his disciples, his mercy is all we are made of. We proceed, then, in this attempt, desiring to describe him for the benefit of all who can hear.
We have begun our research and writing with the last twelve years of his life in this world—from 1965, when he began preaching in the West, through 1977. Since his personal letters from this period are the most abundant and his associates the most numerous and available, we have chosen to begin our work with these most important years.
When the biography is complete, of course, it will start with his birth in Calcutta in 1896, and describe his early training under his Vaisnava (Krsna conscious) father, from whom he learned to worship the Deity of Radha-Krsna and hold theRatha -yatra festival. We shall then recount in detail his meeting in 1922 with his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami, who instructed him to go preach in the West, After his spiritual master’s departure from this world in 1936, Srila Prabhupada started BACK TO GODHEADmagazine in 1944 and left home in 1950 to dedicate himself fully to his spiritual master’s mission. Then he went to live in Vrndavana and took sannyasa initiation in 1959. From 1960 to 1965 Srila Prabhupada stayed at the historic Radha-Damodara temple in Vrndavana, where he lived in two small rooms. There he wrote and published three volumes of his translation and commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam. By correspondence he also tried to create interest in a world movement of Krsna consciousness, although he received little response from the various gentlemen he approached.
Then in 1965, just before he turned seventy, an age when most devotees of Krsna are confined to Vrndavana and preparing to pass away, Srila Prabhupada took the risk of going to the West. A Mr. Agarwal in nearby Mathura had a son who agreed to sponsor Srila Prabhupada at his home in Butler, Pennsylvania, for one month. And Sumati Morarjee, the head of the Scindia Steamship Company, agreed to give him free round-trip passage to America on one of her cargo ships. But he had to travel without money, since governmental restrictions prevented him from taking money out of the country. His prospects, therefore, were full of uncertainty: he had only a month’s residence in the United States, he would be living with strangers, and he had no money and no formulated plan for what to do in America. But he was thoroughly convinced of the potency of his spiritual master’s instructions.
Much as reigning queens in past ages financed explorers’ voyages to the New World, so in 1965 Sumati Morarjee, a pious Hindu lady and wealthy business magnate, financed a voyage from India to America by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, “a preacher of the bhagavatacult.”
The Jaladuta is a regular cargo carrier of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, but there is a single passenger cabin aboard. For the voyage from Calcutta to New York in August and September of 1965, the cabin was occupied by “Sri Abhoy Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami,” whose age was listed as sixty-nine and who was taken on board bearing “a complimentary ticket with food.”
The Jaladuta, under the command of Captain Arun Pandia, whose wife was also aboard, left at 9 A.M. on Friday, August 13. Srila Prabhupada, in the diary he kept for the ocean crossing, noted on the thirteenth: “The cabin is quite comfortable and thanks to Lord Sri Krsna for enlightening Sumati Moranee for all these arrangements. I am quite comfortable.” But on the fourteenth he reported in his diary: “Seasickness, dizziness, vomiting—Bay of Bengal. Heavy rains. More sickness.”
On the nineteenth, when the ship arrived at Colombo, Ceylon, Srila Prabhupada was able to get relief from his seasickness. The captain took him ashore, and he traveled around Colombo by car. Then the ship went on toward Cochin, a city on the west coast of India.
The observance of Janmastami, the appearance day of Lord Krsna, occurred that year on the twentieth of August, Srila Prabhupada noted that he took the opportunity to speak to the crew about the philosophy of Lord Krsna and distributed prasada he had cooked himself August 21 was his seventieth birthday observed (without ceremony) at sea. On August 21 the ship arrived at Cochin and Srila Prabhupada’s trunks of Srimad-Bhagavatam volumes, which had been shipped from Bombay, were loaded on board.
By the twenty-third the ship had put out to the Red Sea, where Srila Prabhupada encountered great difficulty. He noted in his diary: “Rain, seasickness, dizziness, headache, no appetite, vomiting.” Although his diary gives no further description, Srila Prabhupada told us several times of the two strokes he experienced on this ocean crossing. Two years later, in 1967, when he was hospitalized for a heart attack, he realized that what he had gone through on the Jaladuta on two consecutive days was a pair of heart attacks. The severe pains in his chest, he said, made him think he would die at any moment.
On board the Jaladuta, Srila Prabhupada attributed the symptoms to seasickness and tolerated the difficulty, meditating on the purpose of his mission. But after two days of such violent attacks, he thought that if another came on the third day, he would certainly not survive it.
But on the night of the second day, Srila Prabhupada had a dream. Lord Krsna was rowing a boat, and He told Srila Prabhupada that he should not fear, but should come along. Srila Prabhupada felt assured of Lord Krsna’s protection, and the violent attacks did not recur.
The Jaladuta entered the Suez Canal on September 1 and stopped in Port Said on the second. Srila Prabhupada visited the city along with the captain and reported that he liked it. By the sixth he had recovered a little from his illness and was eating for the first time, having cooked his own kichri and puris. He reported in his diary that his strength renewed little by little.
Thursday, September 9.
To 4.00 this afternoon, we have crossed over the Atlantic Ocean for 24 hours. The whole day was clear and almost smooth. I am taking my food regularly and have got some strength to struggle. There is also a slight tacking of the ship and I am feeling a slight headache also. But I am struggling and the nectarine of life [“nectarine” is Srila Prabhupada’s word for “nectar”) is Sri Caitanya-caritamrta the source of all my vitality.
Friday, September 10:
Today the ship is plying very smoothly. I feel today better. But I am feeling separation from Sri Vrndavana [the holy abode of the Lord’s pastimes) and my Lord Sri Govinda Gopinatha Radha-Damodara. The only solace is Sri Caitanya-caritamrta in which I am tasting the nectarine of Lord Caitanya’s lila [pastimes). I have left Bharata-bhumi [India] just to execute the order of Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati in pursuance of Lord Caitanya’s order. I have no qualification, but have taken up the risk just to carry out the order of His Divine Grace. I depend fully on Their mercy so far away from Vrndavana.
During the voyage, Srila Prabhupada must have sometimes stood on the deck at the ship’s rail, watching the ocean or the sky and thinking of Caitanya-caritamrta, Vrndavana-dhama, and the order of his spiritual master to go preach in the West. Mrs. Pandia, the captain’s wife, whom Srila Prabhupada described as “an intelligent and learned lady,” foretold Srila Prabhupada’s future. If he were to pass beyond this crisis in health, she said, this would indicate the good will of Lord Krsna.
The ocean voyage of 1965 was a calm one for the Jaladuta. The captain said that in his entire career he had never seen such a calm crossing of the Atlantic. Srila Prabhupada replied that this calmness was Lord Krsna’s mercy. Mrs. Pandia then asked Srila Prabhupada to come back with them so that they might have such a calm crossing again. Srila Prabhupada wrote in his diary, “If the Atlantic would have shown its usual face, perhaps I would have died. But Lord Krsna has taken charge of the ship.” We also know that at one point Prabhupada sold the captain three volumes of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
On August 13 Srila Prabhupada wrote a Bengali poem, a prayer composed in pure devotion. He noted in his diary: “32nd day of journey. Cooked bati kacauri. It appeared to be delicious, so I was able to take some food. Today I have disclosed my mind to my companion, Lord Sri Krsna. There is a Bengali poem made by me in this connection.”
This prayer to the lotus feet of Krsna is filled with devotional confidence in the mission Srila Prabhupada was inspired to undertake on behalf of his spiritual master. An English translation of the verses follows:
”I emphatically say to you, O brothers, you will obtain your good fortune from the Supreme Lord Krsna only when Srimati Radharani becomes pleased with you.
“Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who is very dear to Lord Gauranga [Lord Caitanya], the son of mother Saci, is unparalleled in his service to the Supreme Lord Sri Krsna. He is that great saintly spiritual master who bestows intense devotion to Krsna at different places throughout the world.
“By his strong desire, the holy name of Lord Gauranga will spread throughout all the countries of the Western world. In all the cities, towns, and villages on the earth, from all the oceans, seas, rivers, and streams, everyone will chant the holy name of Krsna.
“As the vast mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu conquers all directions, a flood of transcendental ecstasy will certainly cover the land. When all the sinful, miserable living entities become happy, the desire of the Vaisnavas is fulfilled.
“Although my Guru Maharaja ordered me to accomplish this mission, I am not worthy or fit to do it. I am very fallen and insignificant. Therefore, O Lord, now I am begging for Your mercy so that I may become worthy, for You are the wisest and most experienced of all.
“If You bestow Your power, by serving the spiritual master one attains the Absolute Truth—one’s life becomes successful. If that service is obtained, then one becomes happy and gets Your association due to good fortune.
‘My dear Lord, O Supreme Personality of Godhead, because of my association with material desires, one after another, I was gradually falling into a blind well full of snakes, following the general populace. But Your servant Narada Muni kindly accepted me as his disciple and instructed me how to achieve this transcendental position. Therefore, my first duty is to serve him. How could I leave his service?’ [Srimad-Bhagavatam]
“O Lord Krsna, You are my eternal companion. Forgetting You, I have suffered the kicks of maya birth after birth. If today the chance to meet You occurs again, then I will surely be able to rejoin You.
“O dear friend, in Your company I will experience great joy once again. In the early morning I will wander about the cow pastures and fields. Running and frolicking in the many forests of Vraja, I will roll on the ground in spiritual ecstasy. Oh, when will that day be mine?
“Today that remembrance of You came to me in a very nice way. Because I have a great longing I called to You. I am Your eternal servant, and therefore I desire Your association so much. O Lord Krsna, other than You there is no means of success.”
The confidential themes of these prayers are obvious, and it is not necessary to make extended commentary on them. But since we are attempting to be with Srila Prabhupada as he lived his life, we must at least pause to appreciate such an intense, concentrated view of himself, in which he completely reveals his mind and soul in his confidential relationship with God.
In the first verse he declares that the only way one can get the mercy of Krsna is to get the mercy of Srimati Radharani, who is the mercy representative of the Lord. The spiritual master is considered the representative of Radharani, and verses two through seven describe the relationship between the disciple and the spiritual master. Srila Prabhupada gives credit to his Guru Maharaja, his spiritual master—Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati—and foresees the day when, through Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s strong desire, the holy name of Krsna will spread through all the countries of the Western world. He plainly states that he has been ordered to accomplish this mission of worldwide Krsna consciousness. Feeling unworthy, he prays to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, asking to be empowered to engage as the servant of his spiritual master to fulfill the desires of the Lord and the Vaisnavas, the devotees of the Lord.
Certain literary critics state that a biographer should never step ahead in time to remind the reader of the great success his subject will gain, since that disturbs the reality of the time sequence. A man does not know what he will achieve until he achieves it, and the biography should capture as far as possible the experience of the man’s life as he lived it, which was without knowledge of the future. But the anticipation in this prayer written aboard the Jaladuta was so great that we cannot help studying it, not only to appreciate what Srila Prabhupada would do, but to appreciate what he was doing already. We trust that the reader will not be disturbed as we examine these Prabhupada gems.
Srila Prabhupada rarely made entries in his diary, yet from this ocean crossing we have a number of intimate revelations of his mind. With the same straightforward, factual tone in which he has noted the date, the weather, and the state of his health, he has described his helpless dependence on his “companion” Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and his absorption in the ecstasy of separation from Krsna. Srila Prabhupada rarely wrote poems; we have found a life’s total of no more than about half a dozen. They were not the products of idle literary hours, nor were they written for publication or fame.
(The poems and diary entries were found years later by curious disciples who uncovered them among their spiritual master’s miscellaneous papers.)
The last two verses of this poem give an unexpected confidential glimpse into Srila Prabhupada’s direct relationship with Lord Krsna. In verse 9 he calls on Krsna as his “dear friend” and speaks of again experiencing the joy of wandering in the cow pastures and fields of Vraja. In verse 10 he relishes how this memory of Krsna has come to him in such a nice way, because of his great desire for serving Krsna. Surely the experiences related in this poem are above the mundane level.
Externally Srila Prabhupada was experiencing great inconvenience; he had been aboard ship for a full month and had suffered heart attacks and repeated seasickness. Moreover, even if he were to recover from these difficulties, his arrival in America would undoubtedly bring many more difficulties. But through this poem and through remarks in his diary, we can understand that Srila
Prabhupada’s consciousness was beyond all the difficulties of material duality. Nor can we say that these writings are merely idealistic discussions. With all deference to the literary critics, we will foretell here that this seventy-year-old mendicant was actually to ignite the worldwide Hare Krsna explosion he predicted in this poem.
And what are we to make of his remembrance of his friend Krsna wandering about in the forest of Vraja? I will not be so foolish as to attempt to understand these things. As Srila Prabhupada had already written in 1961 in his Srimad-Bhagavatam commentary, “Spiritual feelings of happiness and intense ecstasies have no mundane comparison. Therefore it is very difficult to give expression to such feelings. We can just have a glimpse of such ecstasy in the words of Sri Narada Muni.” I can at least understand that Srila Prabhupada was thinking of Krsna and speaking intimately to Krsna, and that Krsna was reciprocating with him out of His own interest.
Srila Prabhupada used to tell us that although God can certainly speak to anyone, He is selective, just like an important man in the material world who speaks only with his own associates or those with whom he has some important business. To enter the association of God will be our fortune too, if we can submissively appreciate the glimpses of pure devotional service given to us by Srila Prabhupada’s dream of Krsna and by his prayers and diary remarks as he sailed the Atlantic to bring Krsna consciousness to America.
After a thirty-six-day journey from Calcutta, the Jaladuta reached Boston’s Commonwealth Pier at 5:30 A.M.on September 17, 1965. Srila Prabhupada recalled that among the first things he saw were the letters “A & P” painted on a pierfront warehouse. (The warehouse is still there today.) The ship was to stop in Boston briefly before proceeding to New York City, which was Srila Prabhupada’s port of entry. Many skyscrapers have been added to the Boston skyline since 1965, but probably the same gray waterfront dawn that occurs now at that time of year was awaiting him then, and there must have been an earlier version of today’s conglomeration of lobster stands. In 1965, after a short walk across a footbridge and down a few streets, you would be in a downtown section of Boston, with old churches, warehouses, office buildings, bars, tawdry bookshops, nightclubs, and restaurants. We know that Srila Prabhupada went walking into the city with the captain, who did some shopping. But what is perhaps most significant about Srila Prabhupada’s short stay in Boston—aside from the fact that he had now set foot in America—was that Commonwealth Pier was the place where he wrote another Bengali poem, titled Markine bhagavata-dharma (“Teaching Krsna Consciousness in America”). The translation of this prayer is printed here:
“My dear Lord Krsna, You are so kind upon this useless soul, but I do not know why You have brought me here. Now You can do whatever You like with me.
“But I guess You have some business here, otherwise why would You bring me to this terrible place?
“Most of the population here is covered by the material modes of ignorance and passion. Absorbed in material life, they think themselves very happy and satisfied, and therefore they have no taste for the transcendental message of Vasudeva [Krsna]. I do not know how they will be able to understand it.
“But I know that Your causeless mercy can make everything possible, because You are the most expert mystic.
“How will they understand the mellows of devotional service? O Lord, I am simply praying for Your mercy so that I will be able to convince them about Your message.
“All living entities have come under the control of the illusory energy by Your will, and therefore, if You like, by Your will they can also be released from the clutches of illusion.
“I wish that You may deliver them. Only if You desire their deliverance will they be able to understand Your message.
“The words of Srimad-Bhagavatam are Your incarnation, and if a sober person repeatedly receives it with submissive aural reception, then he will be able to understand Your message.
“He will become liberated from the influence of the modes of ignorance and passion, and thus all inauspicious things accumulated in the core of the heart will disappear.
“It is said in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.17-21): Sri Krsna, the Personality of Godhead, who is the Paramatma [Supersoul] in everyone’s heart and the benefactor of the truthful devotee, cleanses desire for material enjoyment from the heart of the devotee who has developed the urge to hear His messages, which are in themselves virtuous when properly heard and chanted.
” ‘By regular attendance in classes on the Bhagavatam and by rendering of service to the pure devotee, all that is troublesome to the heart is almost completely destroyed, and loving service unto the Personality of Godhead, who is praised with transcendental songs, is established as an irrevocable fact.
” ‘As soon as irrevocable loving service is established in the heart, the effects of nature’s modes of passion and ignorance, such as lust, desire, and hankering, disappear from the heart. Then the devotee is established in goodness, and he becomes completely happy.
” ‘Thus established in the mode of unalloyed goodness, the man whose mind has been enlivened by contact with devotional service to the Lord gains positive scientific knowledge of the Personality of Godhead in the stage of liberation from all material association.
” ‘Thus the knot in the heart is pierced, and all misgivings are cut to pieces. The chain of fruitive actions is terminated when one sees the self as master.
“How will I make them understand this message of Krsna consciousness? I am very unfortunate and unqualified and am the most fallen. Therefore I am seeking Your benediction so that I can convince them, for I am powerless to do so on my own.
“Somehow or other, O Lord, You have brought me here to speak about You. Now, my Lord, it is up to You to make me a success or failure, as You like.
“O spiritual master of all the worlds! I can simply repeat Your message. So if You like You can make my power of speaking suitable for their understanding.
“Only by Your causeless mercy will my words become pure. I am sure that when this transcendental message penetrates their hearts, they will certainly feel gladdened and thus become liberated from all unhappy conditions of life.
“O Lord, I am just like a puppet in Your hands. So if You have brought me here to dance, then make me dance, make me dance, O Lord, make me dance as You like.
“I have no devotion, nor do I have any knowledge, but I have strong faith in the holy name of Krsna. I have been designated as Bhaktivedanta, and now, if You like, You can fulfill the real purport of Bhaktivedanta.
“Signed—the most unfortunate, insignificant beggar,
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, On board the ship Jaladuta, Commonwealth Pier, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A. Dated 18th of September, 1965″
These are the thoughts of one who was coming, physically and spiritually, from the holiest abode of Krsna consciousness into the hellishness of twentieth-century materialism—from Vrndavana to Boston. He could immediately see the death, suffering, illusion, the human beings reduced to animal life—as materialists could never see them. Yet he did not turn away in loathing. He had come to save these people, but now he felt very weak and lowly, unable to do anything on his own. He stood in the American city, a city rich with billions, populated with millions, and determined to stay the way it was. He was but an “insignificant beggar” with no money, an old man who had barely survived two heart attacks at sea, who spoke a different language, and who was dressed strangely—yet he had come to tell people to give up meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling, and to worship Krsna, who to them was an unknown Hindu god. What would he be able to accomplish?
But while feeling his own weakness, he directly spoke his heart to God. He was alone, with no friend, but God was his friend. And what did he wish of his friend? “I wish that You may deliver them. I am seeking Your benediction so that I can convince them.” And in this intimate poem he also revealed the method he would use. He would trust in the power of the transcendental vibration of God’s holy name. As expressed in the verses he quoted from Srimad-Bhagavatam, the message of Godhead itself would clean away desire for material enjoyment and create loving service unto Krsna as an irrevocable fact. It was complete faith in this process that he expressed, even while forced to feel the powerful influence of ignorance and passion that dominated everything around him in the American city. He was tiny, but God was the greatest, and God was Krsna, his dearmost friend.
Therefore, although no one in Boston or New York had the slightest suspicion of it, and although he himself did not assume it, he had entered as a powerful enemy of illusion. Krsna’s empowered emissary had entered the shore of America in the form of a poor mendicant from India, and no one yet knew what it all meant. As for Srila Prabhupada’s understanding of the event, he expressed it in his poem: “Somehow or other, O Lord, You have brought me here to speak about You. Now, my Lord, it is up to You to make me a success or failure, as You like.”
On the nineteenth of September the Jaladuta sailed into New York Harbor and docked at a Manhattan pier, and Srila Prabhupada ended his stay on the ship. Now he was on his own. He later, said that he had so little idea of what to do that even as he walked off the ship onto the pier he did not know whether to turn left or right. He carried only forty rupees cash, which he himself called “a few hours’ spending in New York.”
Srila Prabhupada was dressed appropriately for a resident of Vrndavana. His complexion was golden, his forehead decorated carefully with whitish Vaisnava tilaka. He wore a simple cotton dhoti and carried an old chada, or shawl, Srila Prabhupada’s only immediate hope for financial maintenance was that he might sell some English copies of his Bhagavatams, which were to be shipped on to Butler in several trunks. He wore pointed white-rubber slippers, not uncommon for sadhus in India. But almost no one in New York had ever seen or dreamed of anyone appearing like this Vaisnava.
He may have been the first full-fledged Vaisnava to arrive in New York and not hide himself with compromised appearance. He fully manifested all the outward and inward characteristics of a Vaisnava, including shaven head and sikha (the tuft of hair on the back of the head), kunthi-mala (neck beads), Vaisnava tilaka, japa-mala (chanting beads), and total dedication of mind, body, and words to the service of Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. His presence was extraordinary, but of course the people of New York City have an expertise in not giving much attention one way or another to any new kind of strange arrival. Later, in his 1966 lectures, Srila Prabhupada would speak of his first hours in the city, citing himself as an example of anxiety. He would particularly mention how he went to the bus station and looked at the signs on all the different buses, not knowing which one to take, until a man sent by Mr. Agarwal met him and helped him get the right bus to Butler.
So Srila Prabhupada’s first encounter with New York City was brief, but he would never forget even his first sight of the massive skyscrapers, which were for him always a symbol of a proud but futile materialistic civilization. He would note that the same men who had built these Manhattan skyscrapers by first pile-driving solid foundations were in ignorance that their own foundation, their own existence in this material world, was extremely fragile, for they did not know where they would go in the next life. Very soon Srila Prabhupada’s preaching was filled with images of American society.