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13 : On Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Coming to the West

Devotees of Lord Kṛṣṇa take pleasure in recounting His wonderful pastimes. Those pastimes purify the heart, attract the mind, and give solace to devotees suffering in separation from their beloved Lord. Because Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes are of the spiritual nature, they can be told again and again and constantly remembered without becoming stale. Indeed, the more they are relished, the more they become fresh.

The pastimes of the Lord’s pure devotees are of the same quality. And just as some devotees, according to their taste, take special pleasure in certain pastimes of the Lord, so the various pastimes of the pure devotees of the Lord, such as Śrīla Prabhupāda, are variously relished by his followers.

I am simply fascinated by Prabhupāda’s having come to America. The bringing of Kṛṣṇa consciousness to the West is probably the most amazing, unlikely, and glorious event in the history of the world. For so many long years the West had developed a civilization based on ignorance, sin, and suffering. Then for the first time in its history, Śrīla Prabhupāda brought real and complete knowledge to the West. So-called Vedantists and yogis had come before him with Indianized editions of the same illusion which was afflicting the West. They had simply brought sense gratification in another guise. But at last Śrīla Prabhupāda brought the real thing, the nectar we were hankering for.

Since the passing of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, the idea of preaching in the West had all but been forgotten. However, Lord Caitanya was constantly thinking about it. And all the previous ācāryas were thinking about it. They anxiously thought, “When will the day come when Mahāprabhu’s prophecy will be fulfilled? How long will the world suffer without Lord Caitanya’s prema-saṅkīrtana?” Then Prabhupāda ventured forth, carrying the order of Caitanya Mahāprabhu and the blessings of the ācāryas as his baggage. Such boldness, such courage, such adventurous spirit, such lack of concern for personal well-being, such determination, such compassion, such fearlessness, and such faith in the protection of Kṛṣṇa! Prabhupāda’s having come alone and unaccompanied demonstrated his mood of self-reliance, his get-on-with-the-job spirit, and his being in a class distinct from others.

Even if Śrīla Prabhupāda had been unsuccessful, his coming shows that he was in a different mood than any of the thousands of other Vaiṣṇavas in India. All of us were going to hell, but it didn’t seem to matter to anyone else. Most Vaiṣṇavas were content with eating, sleeping, performing their own sādhana, and perhaps giving a few speeches here and there. But Prabhupāda’s heart was tortured with compassion. He begged his Godbrothers to help him, but despite their having institutions, prestige, followers, and knowledge, none of them dared or cared to help. So Bhaktivedanta Swami waited no longer for any of them to make a move, but made his own instead. He was not the head of an institution. He had no support, manpower, or money. No one cared whether he lived or died. But, “I have to try anyway. My spiritual master has ordered.”

Even Lord Caitanya expressed His “inability” to spread the saṅkīrtana movement alone. (Cc Ādi Chapter 9) Even He, the Supreme Lord Himself, had assistants (sāṅgopāṅgāstra pārṣadam). But Prabhupāda had none. Hence his going alone to the cold, unknown shores of the West is the most courageous act in the history of Vaiṣṇavism. It demonstrates his complete fearlessness and faith in the protection of Kṛṣṇa.

When Śrīla Prabhupāda got on that ship, no one took him seriously. They questioned, “What will you, an old man, do in America?”

“I will make the Americans chant Hare Kṛṣṇa and dance in ecstasy.”

“Impossible! Even the Indians are not interested, so how will the Americans be?”

And Prabhupāda later said that what he had accomplished far exceeded his expectations. But as he wrote on Boston Pier, sakali sambhava hoy tumi se kautukī: “By Your mercy, Kṛṣṇa, everything is possible.” No one cared for him, but Prabhupāda cared for everyone; otherwise, why would he attempt the impossible? He did not even care that no one cared for him. He knew that Kṛṣṇa cared for him, and he wanted everyone to care for Kṛṣṇa.

While crossing the ocean, Śrīla Prabhupāda read Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta and preached to the crew. Then came two heart attacks. But Kṛṣṇa came in a dream and said, “Don’t worry: I’m rowing your boat.” Prabhupāda also wrote poems, talking to Kṛṣṇa. Then he landed and his American adventures began.

O my dear spiritual master, I thank you so much for having taken the trouble to come to save us. How can we ever forget your kindness upon us?

That tacky old ship at Boston Harbor Pier just “happened” to have an elderly swami on board. A little unusual perhaps. But it’s not news to anyone except Gopal and Sally Agarwal, who extend the politeness of hosting him for a few weeks. Stepping ashore, an old, learned Bengali sadhu dressed in saffron-colored cloth humbly enters America—“in like a needle.” The world would never be the same again.

Where were all of us then? I was an eight-year-old kid with no idea about anything. Prabhupāda’s followers were scattered all over the world, with not even the slightest idea of the great fortune which would soon causelessly fill up their empty lives. And many who have now dedicated their lives to that humble sadhu were not yet born.

So it’s 1966, and this old Bengali sadhu, Abhaya Caraṇāravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami, walks among the jaded, faded, hair-down, mind-gone, wild beat generation on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side. Prabhupāda went among the fuzz-heads, freaks, and hippies—refugees from a godless, greed-torn civilization—and presented the Absolute Truth, the Personality of Godhead. His contemporaries in Vṛndāvana and the staid, righteous sannyasis of the Gauḍīya Maṭha would have been shocked. They would have had nothing to do with these dirty irreverent mlecchas, that’s for sure! But here he is, Bhaktivedanta Swami down among the hippies, picking up gold from a filthy place, confident with his ching-ching-ching and Hare Kṛṣṇa, giving the change-all–be-differents a revolution that even they could never have imagined.

None of his Godbrothers could have tolerated the hardships which Śrīla Prabhupāda underwent. He so tolerantly lived with and even served the Western mlecchas, who out of ignorance constantly did things guaranteed to disturb any cultured Vaiṣṇava. Devoid of refinement or any idea of Kṛṣṇa consciousness other than the rudiments which they were gradually learning by Śrīla Prabhupāda’s so patiently teaching them, they nevertheless had faith in him. And Prabhupāda had faith in the process of Kṛṣṇa consciousness—dīna-hīna jata chilo, hari-nāme uddhārilo: “even the most fallen will be saved by the holy name”—therefore he tolerated their uncouth behavior. He did not see American mlecchas; he saw jīvas, servants of Kṛṣṇa. He did not reject his followers for weakness or foolishness born of immaturity. Prabhupāda demonstrated the efficacy of bhakti-yoga in circumstances more adverse than any previous preachers of bhakti had ever faced. He had patience, extreme tolerance born of deep compassion for the fallen souls, and faith in the power of the holy name.

Śrīla Prabhupāda found something vital and real amidst the madness of hippie life. Permeating the confusion was a spiritual search, a dissatisfaction with the status quo, an endeavor for the mystical, for the truth beyond the humdrum. The hippies had been through it all—drugs, booze, free sex, music, and “meditation.” But Kṛṣṇa consciousness was something else, brought by a person who seemed as if from another planet, from an unimagined plane of existence that revealed their attempts at consciousness expansion to be puerile and insignificant.

Like most other people the hippies were not intrinsically bad, just misguided. They had seen through the nastiness of “straight” life and were looking for something better. Lacking proper guidance they had turned down the blind alley of gross sense gratification. But for all the newness and euphoria of their crazy life, it was just as unfulfilling as the establishment they had already rejected. Swamiji, however, had something genuine. And he surely was not a “straight.” The hippies thrived on being different, but Prabhupāda outdid them all. He had sharing, simplicity, color, joy, and love, all essential elements of the hippie counterculture, but he also brought substance, direction, knowledge, and purity. He had Kṛṣṇa.

And he had music.

Prabhupāda was all about music: kīrtana. Music was the sacred beginning, middle, and end of hippie life. From the internationally famous bands to the streetside guitarists, music was an expression of being, of struggle, of lust, frustration, pain, hope, and longing. Music was both a message and a question, a quest for understanding and a plea to be understood.

Swamiji’s music was new. No one had ever played stuff like that! Every note, every word, was magical—an intense mystical outpouring of the vital inner self.

“Man, is this hip!”

Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare / Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare. Simple rhythm, simple tune. Again and again, over and over. Half an hour. . . One hour . . . More . . . Swami step. Trance dance. “This transcendental sound vibration is imported from the spiritual world.”

“Far out! What does it do to you?”

“Sometimes the devotees faint, sometimes they roll on the ground, and sometimes they shiver in ecstasy while chanting the holy names. Chanting and chanting, they give up their material bodies and go to the spiritual land of Vraja, where talking is singing, walking is dancing, and everyone’s heart is stolen by a beautiful blackish cowherd boy. Glancing mischievously at the gopīs, He fills up the holes of His flute with nectarean sounds that stun all living beings within the three worlds.”

Through music and diligent concern, Śrīla Prabhupāda did what everyone else had given up on: he reached the hearts of the hippies and gave them direction. Prabhupāda was serious, and the more intelligent amongst the hippies gradually realized that he wanted them to follow him and also become serious about Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Still, no one had any idea as to exactly how serious Prabhupāda really was. No one understood why he incorporated the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. What was all that about, when Kṛṣṇa consciousness was just a rented storefront on the Lower East Side?

Brahmanānda and company were shocked when Śrīla Prabhupāda left for San Francisco, but Prabhupāda had big plans. His magic worked again in San Francisco, and gradually it started working all over the world. Prabhupāda spread his charm by sending his disciples here and there. They were young boys and girls, dropped out from everything, saved by Prabhupāda from voluntary drug-induced brain destruction. They didn’t know much about Kṛṣṇa consciousness, or about anything. But now they were different—no longer hippies but “happies.”

Śrīla Prabhupāda had inspired a faith in them that made the Kṛṣṇa magic work even without his personal presence. And by that faith, his disciples brought guru and Kṛṣṇa with them. Prabhupāda was proud of his householder disciples who succeeded in London, where his sannyasi Godbrothers had failed. Indeed these householders, fresh out of hippie life, with no background of Indian cultural life, and who were certainly not learned Vedic scholars, had “startled” London with the Kṛṣṇa chant.

And so the story unfolded. Śrīla Prabhupāda strode across the globe and like a great general sent men here and there to spread the Kṛṣṇa message. It is a great story whose chapters are still being written. And in the future, people will look back on these formative years of ISKCON and think, “Oh, how I wish I could have been there then. How exciting it must have been!”

All of Prabhupāda’s activities were amazing, yet those first days in America held a special sweetness and significance. None of us knows how intense was the struggle nor how severe were the difficulties that Śrīla Prabhupāda underwent for establishing the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement in the West. But Prabhupāda knows, his guru-mahārāja knows, and Kṛṣṇa knows.

Let us all remember Śrīla Prabhupāda’s pastimes and thus become purified and happy.

I especially pray that Prabhupāda’s līlā of coming to the West be ever manifest in my heart. Let me remember his sacrifice so that I may not become selfish. Let me remember his tolerance that I may become tolerant.

All glories to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s coming to the West!

All glories to your divine lotus feet, Śrīla Prabhupāda! Please keep a place for me there always.

*****

Prajāpati: Śrīla Prabhupāda, why has it taken so long for a pure devotee to come to the West? Has the West been so sinful that no pure devotee has come before Your Divine Grace?

Śrīla Prabhupāda: [laughs] Don’t be sorry. At that time you were so sinful that you could not receive a pure devotee. (Conversation, 7 December 1973)

*****

Girl: Śrīla Prabhupāda, would you please explain why Kṛṣṇa consciousness hadn’t come to the West until now, why it hasn’t come earlier?

Śrīla Prabhupāda: Because you were not born. After your birth we have come here to take you back home, back to Godhead. Now you take the opportunity; come with us. We were waiting for your birth. (Lecture, 24 April 1976)

*****

Why did Śrīla Prabhupāda come to the West?

It is my duty. My spiritual master ordered me. (Lecture, 4 March 1966)

*****

Summer of 1986. I was alone, a tiny soul in saffron cloth, in the grimy streets of central London. Suddenly I thought, “What if I had to come here by myself? What if there were no temple, no devotees, and no worldwide movement? What if I were the only one who knew about Kṛṣṇa and I had to preach single-handedly? Could I do anything?” I pondered the possibility for a second before being slammed with reality: “No!”

I continued to walk the cold, uncaring streets, my heart marveling in newfound appreciation of Śrīla Prabhupāda.