Conversations about spiritual life between Bob Cohen, a young Peace Corps worker in India, and His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Recorded at the ISKCON International Center at Lord Caitanya’s Birthplace, Mayapur, India
“God.” “Spiritual life.” These were such vague terms to me before I met Prabhupada. I have always been interested in religion, but before I met the devotees, I did not have the intelligence or proper perspective needed to inquire fruitfully about spiritual life. I had been to Hebrew School and had studied Oriental philosophy, but I could never get satisfying answers to my questions.
After graduating college with a B.S. in Chemistry, I joined the Peace Corps and went to India as a science teacher. In India I inquired about the Hare Krishna movement. I was curious about its authenticity. Attracted by the chanting and intrigued by the philosophy, I had visited the Radha-Krishna temple in New York several times before going to India, but I did not consider the seemingly austere life of a devotee for myself.
In India I first met the Krishna conscious devotees in Calcutta during October of 1972. The devotees could clearly explain to me the purpose of yoga and the need to inquire about spiritual life. I began to feel that the rituals and ceremonies they practiced were not dull, sentimental obligations, but a real, sensible way of life.
At first, however, it was very difficult for me to understand the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. In so many subtle ways, my Western upbringing prevented me from seeing things that were as plain as the nose on my face! Fortunately, the devotees convinced me of the need to practice some few basic austerities, and thus I was able to gain the intelligence and desire to understand spiritual life. I can now recall how distant and tenuous my concepts of spiritual and transcendental existence were. I met Prabhupada briefly at this time, and shortly thereafter I decided to become a vegetarian. (I was proud of being a vegetarian, but later Prabhupada reminded me that even pigeons are vegetarians.)
In February I met some devotees in Calcutta, and they invited me to a festival in Mayapur (a holy island ninety miles north of Calcutta) in honor of the appearance day of Lord Caitanya, who is considered an incarnation of Krishna Himself. I left for Mayapur planning to stay two days at the most, but ended up staying a week. There I met Prabhupada again. I was the only Western nondevotee on the island, and since I was living with the devotees on their land, this was a unique opportunity to learn intimately about Krishna consciousness. When I met Prabhupada, he asked me how I was and if I had any questions. The devotees had explained to me that Prabhupada could answer any questions about spiritual life because he represents a disciplic succession of spiritual masters. I thought that Prabhupada might really know what is going on in the world. After all, his devotees claimed this, and I admired and respected his devotees. So with this in mind I began to ask my question. Inadvertently, I had approached a spiritual master (guru) in the proper manner, submissively asking questions about spiritual matters.
Prabhupada was pleased, and over the next several days he answered my questions. I asked them mostly from an academic point of view, but Prabhupada always gave me personal answers so that I would take to spiritual life. Prabhupada was patiently trying to help me understand that Krishna (God) is the supreme enjoyer, supreme friend and supreme proprietor. I put forward many impediments to accepting the obvious: that I would have to become serious about God consciousness to understand God. But Prabhupada relentlessly yet kindly urged me on.
Now I am back in the United States working for my master’s degree in geology at Rutgers, sponsoring Krishna conscious activities on the campus, chanting Hare Krishna myself every day, and associating with the devotees at the temple in New York. Gradually, am overcoming material impediments. Due to the kindness of Srila Prabhupada, I have realized the importance of inquiring about spiritual life from a genuinely self-realized person. Spiritual life has thus become more real to me and less sentimental.
Srila Prabhupada: This movement is especially meant to enable a human being to reach the real goal of life.
Bob: The real goal—?
Srila Prabhupada: The real goal of life.
Bob: Is the real goal of life to know God?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. To go back home, back to Godhead. That is the real goal of life. Just like the water that comes from the sea—it forms clouds, the clouds fall down as rain, and the actual goal is to flow down the river and again enter the sea. So, we have come from God, and now we are embarrassed by this material life. Therefore, our aim should be to get out of this embarrassing situation and go back home, back to Godhead. This is the real goal of life.
mam upetya punar janma
samsiddhim paramam gatah
[“After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogi’s in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection. (Bg. 8.15)] That is the version of Bhagavad-gita. If anyone comes to Me—mam upetya—he does not come back again. Where? To this place—duhkhalayam asasvatam. This place is the abode of miseries. Everyone knows, but they have been fooled, befooled by so-called leaders. This is miserable life, material life. Krishna says, God says, that this place is duhkhalayam—it is a place of miseries. And it is also asasvatam, temporary. You cannot make a compromise: “All right, let it be miserable. I shall remain here as an American or Indian.” No! That also you cannot do. You cannot remain an American. You may think that, having been born in America, you are very happy. But you cannot remain an American for long. You will have to be kicked out of that place. And your next life you do not know! Therefore, it is duhkhalayam asasvatam—miserable and temporary. That is our philosophy.
Bob: But when you have some knowledge of God, then life is not so miserable?
Srila Prabhupada: No! Some knowledge will not do. You must have perfect knowledge.
janma karma ca me divyam
evam yo vetti tattvatah
Tattvatah means “perfectly.” Perfect knowledge is being taught in Bhagavad-gita. So, we are giving human society a chance to learn Bhagavad-gita as it is and make their lives perfect. That is the Krishna consciousness movement.
The Science of the Soul
Srila Prabhupada: What does your science say about the transmigration of the soul?
Bob: I think…that science…cannot deny or affirm it. Science does not know it.
Srila Prabhupada: Therefore I say that science is imperfect.
Bob: Science may, though, say something. It is said in science that energy is never destroyed; it is just changed.
Srila Prabhupada: That’s all right. But how the energy is working in the future-that science does not know. How is the energy diverted? How, by different manipulations, is the energy working differently? For instance, electrical energy. By different handling it is operating the heater, and it is operating the refrigerator. They are just the opposite, but the electrical energy is the same. Similarly, this energy-living energy-how is it being directed? Which way is it going? How is it fructifying in the next life? That they do not know. But in Bhagavad-gita it is very simply stated.
vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya
You are covered by a dress, by a shirt. When this shirt is unusable, you change it. Similarly, this body is just like a shirt and coat. When it is no longer workable, we have to change it.
Bob: What is the “we” that has to change? What is constant?
Srila Prabhupada: That is the soul.
Bob: From one life to the next?
Srila Prabhupada: That is the soul-I. What “you” is speaking? You! What “I” is speaking? Identity: atma, or soul.
Bob: My soul is different from your soul?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. You are an individual soul, I am an individual soul.
Bob: You have removed yourself from karmic influences. If I was to remove myself from karmic influences, would our souls be the same or different?
Srila Prabhupada: The soul is of the same quality in all. You are under a certain conception of life at the present moment, and these countrymen of yours [the Krishna consciousness devotees] were under a certain conception of life, but by training they have taken to another conception of life. So the ultimate training is how to become Krishna conscious. That is perfection.
Bob: If two people are Krishna conscious, is their soul the same?
Srila Prabhupada: The soul is always the same.
Bob: In each person? In each person is it the same?
Srila Prabhupada: Ah, yes.
Bob [pointing to two devotees]: If these two are Krishna conscious, are their souls the same?
Srila Prabhupada: The soul is the same but always individual, even if they are not Krishna conscious. For instance, you are a human being, and I am a human being. Even if I am not a Christian, even if you are not a Hindu, still we are human beings. Similarly, the soul may not be Krishna conscious, or he may be Krishna conscious—it doesn’t matter. But the soul is the soul.
Bob: Can you tell me more about this?
Srila Prabhupada: Soul—as pure spirit, all souls are equal. Even in an animal. Therefore it is said [Bg. 5.18 panditah sama-darsinah: those who are actually learned do not see the outward covering, either in a human being or in an animal.
Feeling God Inside
Bob: If I may ask another question on this?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Bob: I have considered the soul somewhat as part of God. At times I think I feel God. I’m here, and you may say God is here. So if the soul is inside me, then should I be able to feel God inside me? Not all of God, I mean, but a…
Srila Prabhupada: Part of God.
Bob: But I don’t feel God in me, but God may be here, separate-separate from me. But should I be able to feel God inside me, since my soul is part of God?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. God is inside also. God is everywhere. God is inside and outside also. This is to be known.
Bob: How do you feel God inside you?
Srila Prabhupada: Not in the beginning, but you have to know from the sastras [scriptures], by the Vedic information. For example, in the Bhagavad-gita it is said, isvarah sarva-bhutanam hrd-dese ‘rjuna tisthati: God is there in every one’s heart. [Bg. 18.61] Paramanu-cayantara-stham [Brahma-samhita, 5.35]: God is also within every atom. So this is the first information. And then, by the yogic process, you have to realize it.
Bob: Yogic process?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Bob: Is chanting Hare Krishna such a yogic process?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, it is also a yogic process.
Bob: What kind of yogic process must I do to find out-to feel this information-to feel the soul inside?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, there are many different yogic processes, but for this age this process is very nice.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Bob: Through this 1 can feel not only God outside but God inside?
Srila Prabhupada: You’ll understand everything of God-how God is inside, how God is outside, how God is working. Everything will be revealed. By this attitude of service, God will reveal Himself. You cannot understand God by your endeavor. Only if God reveals Himself. Just like—when the sun is out of your sight at night, you cannot see it by your torchlight, or any light. But in the morning you can see the sun automatically, without any torchlight. Similarly, you have to create a situation—you have to put yourself in a situation-in which God will be revealed. It is not that by some method you can ask God, “Please come. I will see You.” No, God is not your order carrier.
Bob: You must please God for Him to reveal Himself. Is that correct?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Finding A Spiritual Master
Syamasundara [Srila Prabhupada’s secretary]: How do we know when we are pleasing God?
Srila Prabhupada: When we see Him. Then you will understand. Just as, when you eat, you do not require to ask anyone whether you are feeling strength or your hunger is satisfied, if you eat, you understand that you are feeling energy. You don’t need to inquire from anyone. Similarly, if you actually serve God, then you will understand, “God is dictating to me. God is there. I am seeing God.” A devotee: Or God’s representative.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Devotee: It comes easier.
Srila Prabhupada: You have to go through God’s representative.
yasya prasadad bhagavat-prasadah
“By the mercy of the spiritual master one is benedicted by the mercy of Krishna.” [Sri Gurv-astakam] If you please God’s representative, then automatically God becomes pleased, and thus you can directly see Him. An Indian gentleman: How to please God’s representative?
Srila Prabhupada: You have to carry out his orders, that’s all. God’s representative is the guru. He asks you to do this, to do that-if you do that, that is pleasing.
yasyaprasadan na gatih kuto ‘pi
“Without the grace of the spiritual master one cannot make any advancement.” if you displease him, then you are nowhere. Therefore we worship the guru.
uktas tatha bhavyata eva sadbhih
kinto prabhor yah priya eva tasya
vande guroh sri-caranaravindam
[“The spiritual master is to be honored as much as the Supreme Lord because of his being the most confidential servitor of the Lord. This is acknowledged by all revealed scriptures and is followed by all authorities. Therefore I offer my respectful obeisances unto the lotus feet of such a spiritual master, who is a bona fide representative of Lord Krishna.” (Sri Gurv-astakam)] The guru should be accepted as God. That is the injunction of all sastra.
Bob: The guru should be accepted as a representative of God?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, the guru is God’s representative. The guru is the external manifestation of Krishna.
Bob: But different from the incarnations of Krishna that come?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Bob: In what way is the external manifestation of the guru different from the external manifestation of, let us say, Krishna or Caitanya when They come to earth?
Srila Prabhupada: The guru is the representative of Krishna. So there are symptoms of who is a guru. The general symptoms are described in the Vedas.
tad vijnanartham sa gurum evabhigacchet
samit-panih srotriyam brahma-nistham
[Mundaka Upanisad, 1.2.12]
A guru must come in a disciplic succession, and he must have heard thoroughly about the Vedas from his spiritual master. Generally a guru’s symptom is that he is a perfect devotee, that’s all. And he serves Krishna by preaching His message.
Bob: Lord Caitanya—He was a different type of guru than you are?
Srila Prabhupada: No, no. Gurus cannot be of different types. All gurus are of one type.
Bob: But He was-was He also an incarnation at the same time?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, He is Krishna Himself, but He is representing the guru.
Bob: I. . . I see.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Bob: And then. . .
Srila Prabhupada: Because Krishna was God, He demanded:
mam ekam saranam vraja
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me.” [Bg. 18.66] But people misunderstood Him. Therefore Krishna again came as a guru and taught people how to surrender to Krishna.
Syamasundara: Doesn’t He say in Bhagavad-gita, “I am the spiritual master”?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, He is the original spiritual master because He was accepted as spiritual master by Arjuna. So what is the difficulty? Sisyas te ‘ham sadhi mam tvamh prapannam. Arjuna told the Lord, “I am Your disciple, and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me.” [Bg. 2.7] So unless He is a spiritual master, how does Arjuna become His disciple? He is the original guru. Tene brahma hrda ya adi-kavaye: “It is He only who first imparted Vedic knowledge unto the heart of Brahma, the first created being.” [Bhag. 1.1.1] Therefore He is the original guru.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. He is the original guru. Then His disciple Brahma is a guru, then his disciple Narada is a guru, then his disciple Vyasa is a guru- in this way there is a guru-parampara [disciplic succession of gurus}. Evam parampara-praptam. [Bg. 4.2] The transcendental knowledge is received through the disciplic succession.
Receiving Knowledge From Krishna
Bob: So a guru receives his knowledge through the disciplic succession, not directly from Krishna? Do you recieve some knowledge directly from Krishna?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Krishna’s direct instruction is there: Bhagavad-gita!
Bob: I see, but. . .
Srila Prabhupada: But you have to learn it through the disciplic succession, otherwise you will misunderstand it.
Bob: But presently you do not receive information directly from Krishna? It comes through the disciplic succession from the books?
Srila Prabhupada: There is no difference. Suppose I say that this is a pencil. If you say to him, “This is a pencil,” and if he says to another man, “This is a pencil,” then what is the difference between his instruction and my instruction?
Bob: Krishna’s mercy allows you to know this now?
Srila Prabhupada: You can take Krishna’s mercy also, provided it is delivered as it is. Just as we are teaching Bhagavad-gita. In Bhagavad-gita Krishna says:
mam ekam saranam vraja
“Just give up all other forms of religion and simply surrender unto Me.” [Bg. 18.66] Now we are saying that you should give up everything and surrender to Krishna. Therefore, there is no difference between Krishna’s instruction and our instruction. There is no deviation. So if you receive knowledge in that perfect way, that is as good as receiving instruction directly from Krishna. But we don’t change anything.
Bob: When I pray reverently, faithfully, does Krishna hear me?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Bob: From me to Him?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, because He is within your heart He is always hearing you—whether you are praying or not praying. When you are doing some nonsense, He is also hearing you. And when you pray, that is very good—welcome.
Bob: To Krishna’s ear, is praying louder than nonsense?
Srila Prabhupada: No. He is all-perfect. He can hear everything. Even if you don’t speak, even if you simply think, “I shall do it,” then He hears you. sarvasya caham hrdi sannivistah: Krishna is seated in everyone’s heart. [Bg. 15.15]
Bob: But one should pray—is that so?
Srila Prabhupada: That is his business—praying.
Bob: Whose business?
Srila Prabhupada: Every living entity’s. That is the only business. Eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman [Katha Upanisad, 2.2.13]. That is the statement of the Vedas.
Bob: What does that mean?
Srila Prabhupada: He supplies everything to everyone. He is supplying food to everyone. So He is the Father. So why should you not pray, “Father, give me this”? Just as in the Christian Bible there is, “Father, give us our daily bread.” That is good—they are accepting the Supreme Father. But grown-up children should not ask from the father; rather, they should be prepared to serve the father. That is bhakti [devotion].
Bob: My questions you solve so nicely.
[Everyone laughs with affection.)
Srila Prabhupada: Thank you very much.
Bob: So, should I ask you another question now?
Srila Prabhupada: Oh, yes. Yes!
Sex and Liberation
Bob: I’ve asked devotees about how they feel towards sex in their relations, and I see the way they feel, but I can’t see myself acting the same way. See, I’ll be getting married at the end of this summer.
Srila Prabhupada: Hmm?
Bob: I’ll be getting married at the end of this summer, in September or August when I return to America. And the devotees say that the householders only have sex to conceive a child, and 1 cannot picture myself at all in such a position, and-um-what kind of sex life can one lead, living in the material world?
Srila Prabhupada: The Vedic principle is that one should avoid sex life altogether. The whole Vedic principle is to get liberation from material bondage. There are different attachments for material enjoyment, of which sex life is the topmost enjoyment. The Bhagavatam says that this material world. . .
pumsah striya mithunibhavam etam
Man is attached to women, and woman is attached to man. Not only in human society—in animal society also. That attachment is the basic principle of material life. So, a woman is hankering or seeking after the association of a man, and a man is hankering or seeking for the association of a woman. All the fiction novels, dramas, cinema and even ordinary advertisements that you see simply depict the attachment between man and woman. Even in the tailor’s shop you will find in the window some woman and some man.
pravrttir esam bhutanam nivrttis tu mahaphalam [Manu-samhita]
So this attachment is already there.
Bob: Attachment between man and woman?
Srila Prabhupada: Man and woman. So if you want to get liberation from this material world, then that attachment should be reduced to nil. Otherwise, simply further attachment—you will have to take rebirth, either as a human being or as a demigod or as an animal, as a serpent, as a bird, as a beast. You will have to take birth. So, this basic principle of increasing attachment is not our business, although it is the general tendency. Grha, ksetra, suta [home, land, sons]. But if one can reduce and stop it, that is first class. Therefore our Vedic system is to first of all train a boy as a brahmacari—no sex life. The Vedic principle is to reduce attachment, not to increase it. Therefore the whole system is called varnasrama-dharma. The Indian system calls for varna and asrama—four social orders and four spiritual orders. Brahmacarya [celibate student life], grhastha [married life], vanaprastha [retired life] and sannyasa [renounced life]—these are the spiritual orders. And the social orders include brahmanas [intellectuals], ksatriyas [administrators], vaisyas [merchants and farmers] and sudras [ordinary workers]. So under this system, the regulative principles are so nice that even if one has the tendency to enjoy material life, he is so nicely molded that at last he achieves liberation and goes back home, back to Godhead. This is the process. So sex life is not required, but because we are attached to it, therefore there are some regulative principles under which it is maintained.
The Bodily Conception of Life
Srila Prabhupada: It is said in Srimad-Bhagavatam that—
pumsah striya mithuni-bhavam etam
tayor mitho hrdaya-granthim ahuh
janasya moho ‘yam aham mameti
This sex life is the basic principle of material life—attachment for man or woman. And when they are united, when a man and woman are united, that attachment becomes increased, and that increased attachment will induce one to accumulate grha (a home), ksetra (land), suta (children), apta (friendship or society) and vitta. Vitta means money. In this way—grha-ksetra-sutapta-vittaih—he becomes entangled. Janasya moho ‘yam: this is the illusion. And by this illusion he thinks, aham mameti: “I am this body, and anything in relationship with this body is mine.”
Bob: What is that again?
Srila Prabhupada: This attachment increases. The material attachment involves thinking, “I am this body, and because I have this body in a particular place, that is my country.” And that is going on: “I am American, I am Indian, I am German, I am this, I am that-this body. This is my country. I shall sacrifice everything for my country and society.” So in this way, the illusion increases. And under this illusion, when he dies he gets another body. That may be a superior body or inferior body, according to his karma. So if he gets a superior body, then that is also an entanglement, even if he goes to the heavenly planets. But if he becomes a cat or dog, then his life is lost. Or a tree—there is every chance of it. So this science is not known in the world-how the soul is transmigrating from one body to another, and how he is being entrapped in different types of bodies. This science is unknown. Therefore when Arjuna was speaking—”If I kill my brother, if I kill my grandfather on the other side. . . “—he was simply thinking on the basis of the bodily concept of life. But when his problems could not be solved, he surrendered to Krishna and accepted Him as spiritual master. And when Krishna became his spiritual master, He chastised Arjuna in the beginning:
asocyan anvasocas tvam
prajna-vadams ca bhasase
gatasun agatasums ca
“You are talking like a learned man, but you are fool number one because you are talking about the bodily concept of life.” So this sex life increases the bodily concept of life. Therefore, the whole process is to reduce it to nil.
Bob: To reduce it over the stages of your life?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Reduce it. Just as a boy is trained up as a student up to twenty-five years, restricting sex life. Brahmacari. So, some of the boys remain naisthika-brahmacari [celibate for life]. Because they are given education and they become fully conversant with spiritual knowledge, they don’t want to marry. But one who has no such restraint is allowed to marry. That is also restricted—he cannot have sex life without being married. Therefore in human society there is marriage, not in animal society.
Spiritual Culture in a Degraded Society
Srila Prabhupada: But people are gradually descending from human society to animal society. They are forgetting marriage. That is also predicted in the sastras. Dam-patye ‘bhirucir hetuh: In the Kali-yuga [the present age of quarrel], eventually there will be no marriage performances; the boy and the girl will simply agree to live together, and their relationship will exist on sexual power. If the man or the woman is deficient in sex life, then there is divorce. So, for this philosophy there are many Western philosophers like Freud and others who have written so many books. But according to Vedic culture, we are interested in sex only for begetting children, that’s all. Not to study the psychology of sex life. There is already natural psychology for that. Even if one does not read any philosophy, he is sexually inclined. Nobody is taught it in the schools and colleges. Everyone already knows how to do it. [He laughs.] That is the general tendency. But education should be given to stop it. That is real education.
[There is a long pause, filled with the sound of bicycle horns, children playing, and throngs of people calling to one another.]
Bob: Presently, in America, that’s a radical concept.
Srila Prabhupada: Well, in America there are so many things that require reformation, and this Krishna consciousness movement will bring that. I went to your country and saw that the boys and girls were living like friends, so I said to my students, “You cannot live together as friends; you must get yourselves married.”
Bob: Many people see that even marriage is not sacred, so they find no desire to marry. Because people get married, and if things are not proper, they get a divorce so very easily. . .
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, that also.
Bob: . . . that some people feel that to get married is not meaningful.
Srila Prabhupada: No, their idea is that marriage is for legalized prostitution. They think like that, but that is not marriage. Even that Christian paper—what is that? Watch—?
Srila Prabhupada: Watchtower. It has criticized that one priest has allowed a marriage between two men—homosexuality. So these things are all going on. They take it purely for prostitution, that’s all. So therefore people are thinking, “What is the use of keeping a regular prostitute at such heavy expenditure? Better not to have this.”
Syamasundara: You use that example of the cow and the market.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes—when the milk is available in the marketplace, what is the use of keeping a cow? [Everyone laughs.] It is a very abominable condition in the Western countries—I have seen it. Here also in India, gradually it is coming. Therefore we have started this Krishna consciousness movement to educate people in the essential principles of spiritual life. It is not a sectarian religious movement. It is an essential cultural movement for everyone’s benefit.