For Srila Prabhupada (then Abhay Charan De), initiation meant the fulfillment of a
cherished dream and a renewed impetus to preach Krsna consciousness.
by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
(Excerpted from Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami.)
Abhay considered Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura his spiritual master from the time of their first meeting in 1922, but business and family commitments kept Abhay from participating full-time in Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s mission to spread Krsna consciousness.
In 1923 Abhay moved from Calcutta to Allahabad and opened a dispensary. The pharmaceutical industry was just beginning in India, and Abhay had accepted an offer from Dr. K. C. Base, his employer in Calcutta, to become the agent for Base’s Laboratory in northern India. Abhay traveled out of Allahabad, opening and maintaining accounts with doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies. Except for his business travels Abhay stayed in Allahabad, working at the dispensary and spending time with his family. He tended diligently to his business, and it prospered. Abhay thought that if he were to become successful, he could spend money to help support Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s mission.
In 1928 some of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s disciples came to Allahabad and soon opened a Rddha-Krsna temple near Abhay’s home. After work, Abhay would visit the temple and join in the devotional singing and chanting. Sometimes he would bring important persons along. For Abhay, his reunion with Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s disciples brought new life.
Abhay’s father, Gour Mohan, passed away in 1930 at Abhay’s home in Allahabad. In accordance with religious custom Abhay and his brother shaved their heads; then they sat for a formal portrait with a picture of Gour Mohan. The photograph shows Abhay looking like the renounced sadhu his father had envisioned he would one day become.
In 1932 Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati conducted a month-long circumambulationflf Vrndavana, the rural village near New Delhi where Lord Krsna enacted His childhood pastimes five thousand years ago. As this month’s episode begins, Abhay is traveling to Kosi, a town near Vrndavana, to meet up with the pilgrims led by his spiritual master.
Abhay arrived in Mathura by train from Allahabad and approached Kosi by ricksha. The countryside was full of charm for Abhay: Instead of factories and large buildings there were mostly forests, and aside from the main paved road on which he traveled, there were only dirt roads and soft sandy lanes. As a Vaisnava, a devotee of Krsna, Abhay felt sensations an ordinary man wouldn’t. Now and then he sighted a peacock in the field, its exotic plumage proclaiming the glories of Vrndavana and Krsna. Even a nondevotee, however, could appreciate the many varieties of birds, their interesting cries and songs filling the air. Occasionally a tree would be filled with madly chirping sparrows making their urgent twilight clamor before resting for the night. Even one unaware of the special significance of Vrndavana could feel a relief of mind in this simple countryside, where people built fires from cow manure fuel and cooked their evening meals in the open, their fires adding rich, natural smells to the indefinable mixture which was the odor of the earth. There were many gnarled old trees and colorful stretches of flowers—bushes of bright violet camelia, trees abloom with delicate white parijata blossoms, and big yellow kadamba flowers, rarely seen outside Vrndavana.
On the road there was lively horse-drawn tanga traffic. The month of Karttika, October-November, was one of the several times of the year that drew many pilgrims to Vrndavana. The one-horse tangas carried large families, some coming from hundreds of miles away. Larger bands of pilgrims, grouped by village, walked together, the women dressed in bright-colored saris, brown-skinned men and women sometimes singing bhajanas, carrying but a few simple possessions as they headed for the town of thousands of temples, Vrndavana. And there were businessmen like Abhay, dressed more formally, coming from a city, maybe to spend the weekend. Most of them had at least some semblance of a religious motive—to see Krsna in the temple, to bathe in the holy Yamuna River, to visit the sites where Lord Krsna had performed His pastimes such as lifting Govardhana Hill, killing the Kesi demon, or dancing in the evening with the gopis (cowherd girls).
Abhay was sensitive to the atmosphere of Vrndavana, and he noted the activity along the road. But more than that, he cherished with anticipation the fulfillment of his journey—his meeting again, after a long separation, the saintly person he had always thought of within himself, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, who had convinced him in Calcutta of Lord Caitanya’s mission to preach Krsna consciousness. Abhay would soon see him again, and this purpose filled his mind.
Upon reaching the lantern-illuminated camp of the Gaudiya Math and inquiring at the registration post, he was allowed to join the parikrama village. He was assigned to a tent of grhastha men and was given prasadam (food offered to Krsna.) The people were friendly and in good spirits, and Abhay talked of his activities with the matha members in Calcutta and Allahabad. Then there was a gathering—a sannyasi (a renounced, advanced, devotee) was making an announcement. This evening, he said, there would be a scheduled visit to a nearby temple to see the Deity of Sesasayi Visnu. Some of the pilgrims cheered, “Haribol! Hare Krsna!” The sannyasi also announced that His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura would speak that evening for the last time and would be leaving the parikrama party the next day. So there was a choice of going on the parikrama or staying for the lecture.
Srila Prabhupada: So I met them in Kosi, and Kesava Maharaja was informing that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta is going to Mathura tomorrow morning and he will speak this evening. Anyone who wants to may remain. Or otherwise they may go to see Sesasayi Visnu. So at that time I think only ten or twelve men remained—Sridhara Maharaja was one of them. And I thought it wise, “What can I see at this Sesasayi? Let me hear what Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati will speak. Let me hear.”
When Abhay arrived, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was already speaking. He sat with his back erect, a shawl around his shoulders, not speaking like a professional lecturer giving a scheduled performance, but addressing a small gathering in his room. At last Abhay was in his presence again. Abhay marveled to see and hear him, this unique soul possessed of krsna-katha (words about Krsna) speaking uninterruptedly in his deep, low voice, in ecstasy and deep knowledge. Abhay sat and heard with rapt attention.
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had been speaking regularly about sambandha, abhidheya, and prayojana. Sambandha is the stage of devotional service in which awareness of God is awakened, abhidheya is rendering loving service to the Lord, and prayojana is the ultimate goal, pure love of God. He stressed that his explanations were in exact recapitulation of what had originally been spoken by Krsna and passed down through disciplic succession. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s particular utterance, mostly Bengali but sometimes English, with frequent quoting of Sanskrit from the sastras, was deep with erudition. “It is Krsna,” said Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, “who is the only Superlord over the entire universe and, beyond it, of Vaikuntha, the transcendental region. As such, no one can raise any obstacle against His enjoyment.”
An hour went by, two hours. . . . The already small gathering in Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s room gradually thinned. A few sannyasis left, excusing themselves to tend to duties connected with the parikrama camp. Only a few intimate leaders remained. Abhay was the only outsider. Of course, he was a devotee, not an outsider, but in the sense that he was not a sannyasi, was not handling any duties, was not even initiated, and was not traveling with the parikrama but had joined only for a day—in that sense he was an outsider. The philosophy Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was speaking, however, was democratically open to whoever would give an ardent hearing. And that Abhay was doing.
He was listening with wonder. Sometimes he would not even understand something, but he would go on listening intently, submissively, his intelligence drinking in the words. He felt Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati revealing to him the direct vision of the spiritual world, just as a person reveals something by opening a door or pushing aside a curtain. He was revealing the reality, and this reality was loving service to the lotus feet of Radha-Krsna, the supremely worshipable Personality of Godhead. How masterfully he spoke! And with utter conviction and boldness!
It was with such awe that Abhay listened with fastened attention. Of course, all Vaisnavas accepted Krsna as their worshipable Lord, but how conclusively and with what sound logic was the faith of the Vaisnavas established by this great teacher! After several hours, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati stopped speaking. Abhay felt prepared to go on listening without cessation, and yet he had no puzzling doubts or queries to place forward. He wanted only to hear more. As Srila Bhaktisiddhanta made his exit, Abhay bowed, offering his obeisances, and then left the intimate circle of tents, his mind surcharged with the words of his spiritual master.
Now their relationship seemed more tangible. He still treasured his original impression of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, the saintly person who had spoken to him on the rooftop in Calcutta; but tonight that single impression that had sustained him for years in Allahabad had been enriched and filled with new life. His spiritual master and the impression of his words were as much a reality as the stars in the sky and the moon over Vrndavana. That impression of hearing from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was filling him with its reality, and all other reality was forming itself around the absolute reality of Srila Gurudeva, just as all the planets circle around the sun.
The next morning, Abhay was up with the others more than an hour before dawn, bathed, and chanting mantras in congregation. Later in the morning the tall, stately figure of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, dressed in plain saffron, got into the back seat of a car and rode away from the camp. Thoughtful and grave, he looked back and waved, accepting the loving gestures of his followers. Abhay stood amongst them.
* * *
A little more than a month later, Abhay was again anticipating an imminent meeting with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, this time at Allahabad. Abhay had only recently returned from Vrndavana to his work at Prayag Pharmacy when the devotees at the Allahabad Gaudiya Math informed him of the good news. They had secured land and funds for constructing a building, the Sri Rupa Gaudiya Math, and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta would be coming on November 21 to preside over the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone. Sir William Malcolm Haily, governor of the United Provinces, would be the respected guest and, in a grand ceremony, would lay the foundation stone in the presence of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta. When Abhay learned that there would also be an initiation ceremony, he asked if he could be initiated. Atulananda, the matha’s president, assured Abhay that he would introduce him to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati.
At home, Abhay discussed his initiation plans with his wife. She had no objection, but she did not want to take initiation herself. They were already worshiping the Deity at home and offering their food to the Deity. They believed in God and were living peacefully.
But for Abhay that was not enough. Although he would not force his wife, he knew that he must be initiated by a pure devotee. Avoiding sinful life, living piously—these things were necessary and good, but in themselves they did not constitute spiritual life and could not satisfy the yearning of the soul. Life’s ultimate goal and the absolute necessity of the self was love of Krsna. That love of Krsna his father had already inculcated within him, and now he had to take the next step. His father would have been pleased to see him doit.
What he had learned from his father was now being solidified by someone capable of guiding all the fallen souls of the world to transcendental love of God. Abhay knew he should go forward and take complete shelter in the instructions of his spiritual master. And the scriptures enjoined, “He who is desirous of knowing the Absolute Truth must take shelter of a spiritual master who is in disciplic succession and who is fixed in Krsna consciousness.” Even Lord Caitanya, who was Krsna Himself, had accepted a spiritual master, and only after initiation did He manifest the full symptoms of ecstatic love of Krsna while chanting the holy name.
As for the ritual initiation he had received at age twelve from a family priest, Abhay had never taken it seriously. It had been a religious formality. But a guru was not a mere officiating ritualistic priest; so Abhay rejected the idea that he already had a guru. He had never received instructions from him in devotional service, and his family guru had not linked him, through disciplic succession, with Krsna. But by taking initiation from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati he would be linked with Krsna. Bhaktisiddhanta, son of Bhaktivinoda Thakura and disciple of Gaurakisora dasa Babaji, was the guru in the twelfth disciplic generation from Lord Caitanya. He was the foremost Vedic scholar of the age, the expert Vaisnava who could guide one back to Godhead. He was empowered by .his predecessors to work for the highest welfare by giving everyone Krsna consciousness, the remedy for all sufferings. Abhay felt that he had already accepted Srila Bhaktisiddhanta as his spiritual master and that from their very first meeting he had already received his orders. Now if Srila Bhaktisiddhanta would accept him as his disciple, the relationship would be confirmed.
He was coming so soon after Abhay had seen and heard him in Vrndavana! That was how Krsna acted, through His representative. It was as if his spiritual master, in coming to where Abhay had his family and business, was coming to draw him further into spiritual life. Without Abhay’s having attempted to bring it about, his relationship with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was deepening. Now Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was coming to him, as if by a higher arrangement.
On the day of the ceremony, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati met with his disciples at the Allahabad Gaudiya Math on South Mallaca Street. While he was speaking of Krsna and taking questions, Atulananda Brahmacari took the opportunity to present several devotees, Abhay amongst them, as candidates for initiation. The Allahabad devotees were proud of Mr. De, who regularly attended the matha in the evening, and led bhajanas, listened to the teachings and spoke them himself, and often brought respectable guests. He had contributed money and had induced his business colleagues also to do so. With folded palms, Abhay looked up humbly at his spiritual master. He and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati were now face to face, and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta recognized him and was visibly pleased to see him. He already knew him. “Yes,” he said, exchanging looks with Abhay, “he likes to hear. He does not go away. I have marked him. I will accept him as my disciple.”
As the moment and the words became impressed into his being, Abhay was in ecstasy. Atulananda was pleasantly surprised that his Gurudeva was already in approval of Mr. De. Other disciples in the room were also pleased to witness Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s immediate acceptance of Mr. De as a good listener. Some of them wondered when or where Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had arrived at such an estimation of the young pharmacist.
At the initiation, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was seated on a vyasasana, an elevated seat, and the room was filled with guests and members of the Gaudiya Math. Those to be initiated sat around a small mound of earth, where one of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s sannyasis prepared a fire and offered grains and fruits into the flames, while everyone chanted mantras for purification. Abhay’s sister and brother were present, but not his wife.
Abhay had basked in the presence of his Gurudeva. “Yes, he likes to hear”—the words of his spiritual master and his glance of recognition had remained with Abhay. Abhay would continue pleasing his spiritual master by hearing well. “Then,” he thought, “I will be able to speak well.” The Vedic literature described nine processes of devotional service, the first of which was sravanam, hearing about Krsna; then came kirtanam, chanting about and glorifying Him. By sitting patiently and hearing at Kosi, he had pleased Krsna’s representative, and when Krsna’s representative was pleased, Krsna was pleased. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had not praised him for donating money to the matha and hadn’t advised him to forsake his family and business and travel with him, nor had he asked Abhay to perform great austerities, like the yogis who mortify their bodies with fasts and difficult vows. But “He likes to hear,” he had said. “I have marked him.” Abhay thought about it and, again, listened carefully as his spiritual master conducted the initiation.
Finally, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta called for Abhay to come forward and receive initiation by accepting his japa, or prayer, beads. After offering prostrated obeisances, Abhay extended his right hand and accepted the strand of japa beads from the hand of his spiritual master. At the same time, he also received the sacred brahminical thread, signifying second initiation. Usually Srila Bhaktisiddhanta gave the first initiation, hari-nama, and only after some time, when he was satisfied with the progress of the disciple, would he give the second initiation. But he offered Abhay both initiations at the same time. Now Abhay was a full-fledged disciple, a brahmana, who could perform sacrifices, such as this fire yajna for initiation; he could worship the Deity in the temple and would be expected to discourse widely. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta added aravinda, “lotus,” to his name; now he was Abhay Charanaravinda.
After Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati left Allahabad for Calcutta, Abhay keenly felt the responsibility of working on behalf of his spiritual master. At the initiation Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had instructed Abhay to study Rupa Gosvami’s Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, which outlined the loving exchanges between Krsna and His devotees and explained how a devotee can advance in spiritual life. Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu was a “lawbook” for devotional service, and Abhay would study it carefully. He was glad to increase his visits to the Allahabad center and to bring new people. Even at his first meeting with his spiritual master he had received the instruction to preach the mission of Lord Caitanya, and now he began steadily and carefully considering how to do so. Preaching was a responsibility at least as binding as that of home and business. Even in his home he wanted to engage as far as possible in preaching Krsna consciousness. He discussed with his wife about his plans for inviting people into their home, offering them prasadam, and holding discussions about Krsna. She didn’t share his enthusiasm.
Srila Prabhupada: My wife was a devotee of Krsna, but she had some other idea. Her idea was just to worship the Deity at home and live peacefully. My idea was preaching.
The biography of Srila Prabhupada continues next month with an account of how his spiritual master gave him an essential instruction just days before passing away.