Drawing Inspiration From a Rich Devotional Heritage
The lives and writings of two great Krsna conscious teachers
deepen Srila Prabhupada’s appreciation for a spiritual tradition he already knows well.
by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
A period of deep reflection and study followed Srila Prabhupada’s first meeting with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura (above, left), Srila Prabhupada greatly revered this scholarly spiritual teacher and read his writings assiduously. The life and works of Srila Bhakti·siddhanta’s father, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura (above, right), also revealed much to Srila Prabhupada about the spiritual heritage of Krsna consciousness and helped inspire him to propagate the science of devotional service through t he English language.
(Excerpted from Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami.)
Devotion to Lord Krsna had always been the main current in the life of Srila Prabhupada, born Abhay Charan De. His father had lovingly raised him as a devotee of the Lord and prayed that he would become a preacher of Krsna consciousness. But for Abhay the culmination of his father s training came in 1922, in his twenty-sixth year, when he met Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. Abhay felt strongly drawn to this powerful, scholarly preacher and accepted him in his heart as his spiritual master.
What Srila Bhaktisiddhanta spoke at that first meeting was not new to Abhay: he had known from early childhood about Lord Caitanya and the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. But how Srila Bhaktisiddhanta preached—his purity, his uncompromising arguments, his broad knowledge of the scriptures—all impressed Abhay deeply. He saw that the message of Krsna was in the hands of an expert devotee. So Abhay, filled with inspiration, turned toward the books by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and others to learn more about the spiritual heritage which he knew he would dedicate himself.
Abhay began to associate more with the Gaudiya Math devotees after his first meeting with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. They gave him books and told him the history of their spiritual master.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was one of ten children born to Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a great Vaisnava teacher in the disciplic line from Lord Caitanya Himself. Before the time of Bhaktivinoda, the teachings of Lord Caitanya had been obscured by teachers and sects falsely claiming to be followers of Lord Caitanya but deviating in various drastic ways from His pure teachings. The good reputation of Vaisnavism had been compromised. Bhaktivinoda Thakura, however, through his prolific writings and through his social position as a high government officer, reestablished the respectability of Vaisnavism. He preached that the teachings of Lord Caitanya were the highest form of theism and were intended not for a particular sect or religion or nation but for all the people of the world. He prophesied that Lord Caitanya’s teachings would go worldwide, and he yearned for this.
The religion preached by [Chaitanya] Mahaprabhu is universal and not exclusive…. The principle of kirtan [congregational chanting of God’s names] as the future church of the world invites all classes of men, without distinction of caste or clan, to the highest cultivation of the spirit. This church, it appears, will extend all over the world and take the place of all sectarian churches, which exclude outsiders from the precincts of the mosque, church, or temple.
Lord Chaitanya did not advent Himself to liberate only a few men of India. Rather, His main objective was to emancipate all living entities of all countries throughout the entire universe and preach the Eternal Religion. Lord Chaitanya says in the Chaitanya Bhagwat: “In every town, country, and village, My name will be sung.” There is no doubt that this unquestionable order will come to pass. . . . Although there is still no pure society of Vaishnavas [devotees of Krsna] to be had, yet Lord Chaitanya’s prophetic words will in a few days come true, I am sure. Why not? Nothing is absolutely pure in the beginning. From imperfection, purity will come about.
Oh, for that day when the fortunate English, French, Russian, German, and American people will take up banners, mridangas [drums] and kartals [cymbals] and raise kirtan through the streets and towns. When will that day come?
As a prominent magistrate, Bhaktivinoda Thakura was a responsible government officer. He served also as superintendent of the temple of Lord Jagannatha and was the father of ten children. Yet amidst all these responsibilities, he served the cause of Krsna with prodigious energy. After coming home from his office in the evening, taking his meals, and going to bed, he would sleep from eight until midnight and then get up and write until morning. He wrote more than one hundred books during his life, many of them in English.
One of his important contributions, with the cooperation of Jagannatha dasa Babaji and Gaurakisora dasa Babaji, was to locate the exact birthplace of Lord Caitanya in Mayapur, about sixty miles north of Calcutta.
While working to reform Gaudiya Vaisnavism in India, he prayed to Lord Caitanya, “Your teachings have much depreciated. It is not in my power to restore them.” And he prayed for a son to help him in his preaching. When, on February 6, 1874, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was born to Bhaktivinoda Thakura in Jagannatha Puri, the Vaisnavas considered him the answer to his father’s prayers. He was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and draped across his chest like the sacred thread worn by brahmanas. His parents gave him the name Bimala Prasada.
When Bimala Prasada was six months old, the carts of the Jagannatha festival stopped at the gate of Bhaktivinoda’s residence and for three days could not be moved. Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s wife brought the infant onto the cart and approached the Deity of Lord Jagannatha. Spontaneously, the infant extended his arms and touched the feet of Lord Jagannatha and was immediately blessed with a garland that fell from the body of the Lord. When Bhaktivinoda Thakura learned that the Lord’s garland had fallen onto his son, he realized that this was the son for whom he had prayed.
One day, when Bimala Prasada was still a child of no more than four years, his father mildly rebuked him for eating a mango not yet duly offered to Lord Krsna. Bimala Prasada, although only a child, considered himself an offender to the Lord and vowed never to eat mangoes again. (This was a vow that he followed throughout his life.) By the time Bimala Prasada was seven years old, he had memorized the entire Bhagavad-gita and could even explain its verses. His father then began training him in proofreading and printing, in conjunction with the publishing of the Vaisnava magazine Sajjana-tosani. With his father, he visited many holy places and heard discourses from the learned panditas.
As a student, Bimala Prasada preferred to read the books written by his father instead of the school texts. By the time he was twenty-five he had become well-versed in Sanskrit, mathematics, and astronomy, and he had established himself as the author and publisher of many magazine articles and a commentary on one book, Surya-siddhanta, for which he received the epithet Siddhanta Sarasvati in recognition of his erudition. When he was twenty-six his father guided him to take initiation from a renounced Vaisnava saint, Gaurakisora dasa Babaji, who advised him “to preach the Absolute Truth and keep aside all other works.” Receiving the blessings of Gaurakisora dasa Babaji, Bimala Prasada (now Siddhanta Sarasvati) firmly resolved to dedicate his body, mind, and words to the service of Lord Krsna.
In 1905 Siddhanta Sarasvati took a vow to chant the Hare Krsna mantra a billion times. Residing in Mayapur in a grass hut near the birthplace of Lord Caitanya, he chanted the Hare Krsna mantra day and night. He cooked rice once a day in an earthen pot and ate nothing more; he slept on the ground, and when the rainwater leaked through the grass ceiling, he sat beneath an umbrella, chanting.
In 1911, while his aging father was lying ill, Siddhanta Sarasvati took up a challenge against pseudo Vaisnavas who claimed that birth in their caste was the prerequisite for preaching Krsna consciousness. The caste-conscious brahmana community had become incensed by Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s presentation of many scriptural proofs that anyone, regardless of birth, could become a brahmana-Vaisnava. These smarta-brahmanas, out to prove the inferiority of the Vaisnavas, arranged a discussion. On behalf of his indisposed father, young Siddhanta Sarasvati wrote an essay, “The Conclusive Difference Between the Brahmana and the Vaisnava,” and submitted it before his father. Despite his poor health, Bhaktivinoda Thakura was elated to hear the arguments that would soundly defeat the challenge of the smartas.
Siddhanta Sarasvati then traveled to Midnapore, where panditas from all over India had gathered for a three-day discussion. Some of the smarta-panditas who spoke first claimed that anyone born in a family of sudras (manual laborers), even though initiated by a spiritual master, could never become purified and perform the brahminical duties of worshiping the Deity or initiating disciples. Finally, Siddhanta Sarasvati delivered his speech. He began quoting Vedic references glorifying the brahmanas, and at this the smarta scholars became very much pleased. But when he began discussing the actual qualifications for becoming a brahmana, the qualities of the Vaisnavas, the relationship between the two, and who, according to Vedic literature, is qualified to become a spiritual master and initiate disciples, then the joy of the Vaisnava-haters disappeared. Siddhanta Sarasvati conclusively proved from the scriptures that if one is born as a sudra but exhibits the qualities of a brahmana, then he should be honored as a brahmana, despite his birth. And if one is born in a brahmana family but acts like a Sudra, then he is not a brahmana. After his speech, Siddhanta Sarasvati was congratulated by the president of the conference, and thousands thronged around him. It was a victory for Vaisnavism.
With the passing away of his father in 1914 and his spiritual master in 1915, Siddhanta Sarasvati continued the mission of Lord Caitanya. He assumed the editorship of Sajjana-tosani and established the Bhagwat Press in Krishnanagar. Then in 1918, in Mayapur, he sat down before a picture of Gaurakisora dasa Babaji and initiated himself into the sannyasa order. At this time he assumed the sannyasa title Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami Maharaja.
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was dedicated to using the printing press as the best medium for large-scale distribution of Krsna consciousness. He thought of the printing press as a brhat mrdanga, a big mrdanga. Although the mrdanga drum had traditionally been used to accompany kirtana, even during the time of Lord Caitanya, and although Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati himself led kirtana parties and sent groups of devotees chanting in the streets and playing on the mrdangas, such kirtanas could be heard only for a block or two. But with the brhat mrdanga, the big mrdanga drum of the printing press, the message of Lord Caitanya could be spread all over the world.
Most of the literature Abhay began reading had been printed on the Bhagwat Press, which Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had established in 1915. The Bhagwat Press had printed Krsnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami’s Caitanya-caritamrta, with commentary by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, the Bhagavad-gita, with commentary by Visvanatha Cakravarti, and, one after another, the works of Bhaktivinoda Thakura. This literature was the spiritual heritage coming from Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who had appeared almost five hundred years before.
Abhay had been a devotee of Lord Caitanya since childhood, and he was familiar with the life of Lord Caitanya through the well-known scriptures Caitanya-caritamrta and Caitanya-bhagavata. He had learned of Lord Caitanya not only as the most ecstatic form of a pure devotee who had spread the chanting of the holy name to all parts of India, but also as the direct appearance of Sri Krsna Himself in the form of Radha and Krsna combined. But now, for the first time, Abhay was in touch with the great wealth of literature compiled by the Lord’s immediate associates and followers, passed down in disciplic succession, and expounded on by great authorities Lord Caitanya’s immediate followers—Srila Rupa Gosvami, Srila Sanatana Gosvami, Srila Jiva Gosvami, and others—had compiled many volumes based on the Vedic scriptures and proving conclusively that Lord Caitanya’s teachings were the essence of Vedic wisdom. There were many books not yet published, but Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was intent on establishing many presses, just to release the sound of the brhat mrdanga for the benefit of all people.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was teaching the conclusion of Lord Caitanya’s teachings, that Lord Krsna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and that chanting of His holy name should be stressed above all other religious practices. In former ages, other methods of attaining to God had been available, but in the present Age of Kali only the chanting of Hare Krsna would be effective. On the authority of the scriptures such as the Brhan-naradiya Purana and the Upanisads, Bhaktivinoda Thakura had specifically cited the maha-mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Lord Krsna Himself had confirmed in Bhagavad-gita that the only method of attaining Him was devotional service: “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. 1 shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.”
Abhay knew these verses, he knew the chanting, and he knew the conclusions of the Bhagavad-gita. But now, as he eagerly read the writings of the great acaryas, he had fresh realizations of the scope of Lord Caitanya’s mission. Now he was discovering the depth of his own Vaisnava heritage and its efficacy for bringing about the highest welfare for people in an age destined to be full of troubles.
The biography of Srila Prabhupada continues next month with an account of his formal initiation by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura.