Śrīla Prabhupāda’s contribution to intellectual and cultural life may be less obvious than his more visible achievements in preaching, establishing temples, and publishing books. However, the effect of a philosopher on the way people think is the ultimate test of his influence. Śrīla Prabhupāda’s entire mission was to overcome the atheistic worldview presently dominating the world, and to establish Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme Absolute Truth.
Śrīla Prabhupāda was undoubtedly the most prominent spiritual leader in the modern age. He was also the most advanced scholar, philosopher, social critic, psychologist, scientist, artist, and writer. By bringing Kṛṣṇa consciousness to the Western world, he gave the spark of life that renders perfect all fields of study, and all arts and science. Although the effect of his contribution is yet to be properly recognized, the seeds which he planted will surely fructify in due course of time.
Śrīla Prabhupāda gave the proper subject for study—Kṛṣṇa consciousness—which not only satisfies the intellect but illumines the heart. All branches of education can make tremendous progress by taking direction from Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books. Mundane scholars who waste their intelligence in minutely analyzing the permutations and combinations of gross and subtle matter, have yet to discover this higher dimension of learning.
Therefore Śrīla Prabhupāda laid much stress on convincing what he called the “scholarly class.” He liked preaching to university professors and other intellectuals, and said that his books were especially meant for the intelligent class of men. The BBT Library Party was started at Śrīla Prabhupāda’s behest to distribute sets of his books to university and college libraries. The Bhaktivedanta Institute was established by Śrīla Prabhupāda for preaching to scientists, scholars, and intellectuals. And in his commentary on the verse idaṁ hi puṁsas tapasaḥ śrutasya vā, Śrīla Prabhupāda gave the idea as to how mundane scholarship could be dovetailed into devotional service. (SB 1.5.22) Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted to capture the attention of these intellectuals because great minds influence lesser minds. If the intelligentsia were to accept Kṛṣṇa consciousness, others would follow—for ideas, not weapons, rule the world.
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s brilliance as a scholar is evident from his books. While preparing his purports, Śrīla Prabhupāda studied the commentaries of the previous ācāryas, in which intricate philosophical concepts are expressed in complex Sanskrit and Bengali. By explaining these points in simple, precise English, Śrīla Prabhupāda demonstrated complete comprehension of all the subtleties contained therein. Ever mindful of his audience, Prabhupāda kept his message straightforward and clear: “Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. You are not that body, but the eternal servant of Kṛṣṇa. Surrender to Kṛṣṇa. Chant Hare Kṛṣṇa.” By focusing on the ultimate subject of study—the Absolute Truth, Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa—by exhaustively presenting the science of the Absolute Truth, and by making this difficult subject understandable for all, Śrīla Prabhupāda established himself as the greatest author and scholar.
Śrīla Prabhupāda was not only an accomplished writer, but also prolific. Although other contemporary Vaiṣṇavas also wrote books, none wrote nearly as many as Śrīla Prabhupāda did. Nor are the books of other contemporary Vaiṣṇavas nearly as influential as those Śrīla Prabhupāda’s. His books are not only praised but actually studied, and not simply by one or two scholars, but by hundreds the world over. As Śrīla Prabhupāda said, “One’s intelligence is tested by one’s literary contribution,” and “We are exceeding all authors except Vyāsadeva.” (Interview, 14 July 1976; Conversation, 9 June 1976.)
Over the past few centuries, scientists gradually undermined the Biblical explanation of the origin of life and the universe. Although at first ridiculed and persecuted, they eventually won the day. Most modern theologians consequently try to explain scripture in terms not contradictory to modern science. Ever hoping for the merciful approval of the scientists, their attempt is to somehow or other keep religion alive, even as a poor second fiddle to science.
Today materialistic science dominates scholastics; therefore such scientists were the recipients of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s most challenging critiques. Prabhupāda exposed their bluffs and proved the chicken to be a better scientist than they! Prabhupāda had not spent years in scientific research, nor was he familiar with complex scientific hypotheses, yet he was the greatest scientist because he knew the source of all scientific knowledge. He dared to confront the entire world, having full faith in śāstra and Kṛṣṇa.
Who else could stand up to the Western world, proud of its telescopes, and declare, “The moon is further away than the sun”? Not only did Śrīla Prabhupāda assert it, but he veritably mocked the scientists, and took every opportunity to rebut their nonsense idea that the moon is a tiny satellite of the earth. The scientists have their universities, research grants, consensual scientific opinion, and imperfect senses. Śrīla Prabhupāda has śāstra.
“I have never studied science, but I am challenging them. They may take me as crazy, but I am not crazy. I am right.” (Letter, 12 November 1974.)
Some of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s contributions to modern science are as follows:
(1) Life Comes From Life—concepts to revolutionize conventional views of the universe. Present trends of interest in consciousness within science can reach their conclusion via the pages of Life Comes From Life. Śrīla Prabhupāda introduced a clear understanding of consciousness as a phenomenon independent of matter. For this alone, it is likely that future philosophers will look back to Śrīla Prabhupāda as the greatest contributor to the history of modern thought.
(2) Presentation of a worldview both rational and theistic that can synthesize all branches of modern thought and research and bring them to the logical conclusion that the universe arises from design, not chance. Prabhupāda explained how the universe comes into being, why it comes into being, and who is the cause of its being.
(3) By challenging materialistic scientific dogma and presenting his vision to competent scientists, Śrīla Prabhupāda inaugurated trends of thought that can lead to advances presently unimagined in science. After all, most major breakthroughs in science have occured because great minds, such as Galileo, Copernicus, and Einstein, dared to think radically and innovatively.
(4) Prabhupāda brought Vedic epistemology and ontology into the realm of science. He did not reject the scientific method, but recommended first hearing from scripture and then doing research based on scriptural insight. Modern science prefers “bottom-up,” the ascending process, to “top-down,” the descending method, but Prabhupāda came to turn all of that upside down. However, his presentation was not dogmatic, “You must believe me,” but analytic, “This is why you must believe me.” Through logic and reason Śrīla Prabhupāda was able to convince scientists—not many, but the few who came to him were given guidelines for making a revolution in science.
(5) He provided Vedic concepts for advanced scientific research.
(6) Vedic astronomy—a God’s-eye view of the universe otherwise unperceivable through man’s eyes.
Śrīla Prabhupāda did not bring “another religion” from the East to compete with those of the West. Rather, he gave the West what it had never known before: krṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam. Westerners had a vague idea of God, but they knew nothing of Kṛṣṇa.
First they had imagined God to be an angry old man. Later they took Him to be either dead or at best an impersonal “force.” When Śrīla Prabhupāda first arrived in London, newspaper reporters asked him, “Why have you come here?” Prabhupāda immediately replied, “To teach what you have forgotten: God.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda saved the West from impersonalism and voidism (nirviśeṣa-śūnyavādi-pāścātya-deśa-tāriṇe) and gave the full conception of God. He made religion alive and real, not just a weekly visit to church. He gave practical experience of love of God.
Today many scholars defend the science of religion, but religion without practical experience of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is no religion at all. Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam describes this as a form of cheating. Religion means abiding by the orders of Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. If one is not qualified to talk with Him and take lessons from Him, how can one understand the principles of religion? Thus, talks of religion or religious experience without Kṛṣṇa consciousness are a useless waste of time. (Cc Madhya 4.95 Purport)
Most people, even those who are religiously inclined, are not convinced about the existence of God. But Śrīla Prabhupāda proved that God is a fact. As early as 1966, the East Village Other noted that Śrīla Prabhupāda had come to prove that God is not dead, although He may have left the church. Atheists reject belief in God as foolish, dishonest, and exploitative. But no fair observer could accuse Śrīla Prabhupāda of being naive, wishy-washy, unintelligent, or ill motivated.
Materialistic psychologists resort to bizarre theories to try to explain away the transcendental nature of religious experience. However, those who are less foolish accept the reality of God’s existence and man’s ability to experience Him.
As Śrīla Prabhupāda has written, “An advanced devotee has realized his eternal relationship with the Lord, and consequently he does not accept the logic and arguments of others.” (Cc Madhya 22.153 Purport.)
By their very lives, the great ācāryas demonstrate the existence of God. They are so full of God consciousness that only an utter rascal would deny the reality of their experience. Śrīla Prabhupāda was such an ācārya. Occasionally he manifested such transcendental symptoms as shedding tears or becoming stunned. But generally his ecstasy was manifest through his ceaseless endeavors to spread Kṛṣṇa consciousness, and his addiction to glorifying Kṛṣṇa.
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s bhakti was so strong that others became convinced just by being with him, hearing him, or even by hearing about him. The faith of his followers became fixed because of him, even though not all of them could comprehend everything he said.
For those who doubted Kṛṣṇa, Śrīla Prabhupāda was always ready to offer logical arguments. For himself, however, such discussions were not necessary, for he was always seeing Kṛṣṇa face to face. Premāñjana-cchurita-bhakti-vilocanena santaḥ sadaiva hṛdayeṣu vilokayanti.
As Śrīla Prabhupāda established the existence of God, so he also established the reality of the spiritual world. (When a person from a different country gives details of his native place, why should we disbelieve him, even if we have never been there?) Prabhupāda told us of a place where everyone has wonderful qualities, and where there is no envy, but only pure love for Kṛṣṇa. Because Prabhupāda was extraordinary, being the possessor of wonderful transcendental qualities, when he informed us of a spiritual world populated by perfect beings, we could accept it. If anyone less than Prabhupāda had told us, we would have remained skeptical. Still, we thought that of all the residents of the spiritual world, Śrīla Prabhupāda must be the most wonderful, for it was he who came to save us.
What to speak of not knowing Kṛṣṇa, Westerners new nothing about even karma or reincarnation. So ignorant were they as to think it quite acceptable for a “religious” person to take meat and wine. Through Śrīla Prabhupāda’s preaching, these concepts although foreign to almost everyone less than thirty years ago, are gradually becoming accepted in the Western world.
Man is an inherently purposeful being, with goals, values, and aspirations. When he begins to look beyond his immediate experiences, and inquires into the fundamental nature of reality, he becomes a philosopher. Philosophy is that by which man finds meaning in life. Indeed, the word philosophy is derived from the Greek philosophia: “love of truth.”
Western philosophy, however, being more concerned with intricacies and abstrusities, has strayed far from reality. Most modern philosophers refuse to see the hand of God in everything. Having rejected the obvious, when they try to find reason in the cosmos, they find none. They then conclude that the world is meaningless and absurd. And the foolish masses adopt this nonsense worldview, and base their entire way of life upon it.
As demonstrated in his Dialectic Spiritualism discussions, Śrīla Prabhupāda added new dimensions to the study of philosophy in the Western world—or rather, he introduced real philosophy for the first time ever in the West. He understood that the foolishness, pettiness, and meaninglessness of modern civilization was the result of its underlying absurd philosophy. He therefore strove to introduce bhāgavata-tattva-vijñāna, the science of the absolute truth:
We can say all these big so-called philosophers are all simply mūḍhās. Perhaps I am the first to do it. Our philosophy is perfect, and we cannot be defeated by anyone. So it is up to you to learn it and be able to present it nicely. (Letter, 26 August 1975.)
Śrīla Prabhupāda was not only the most scathing social critic, but also the only one with real solutions. The words rascals, fools, and animals, were part of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s everyday vocabulary in describing ordinary people of the modern age. His social criticism far surpassed that of others, for he saw the root of all problems facing society. Na te viduḥ svārtha-gatiṁ hi viṣṇuṁ: “They do not know that the real goal is Viṣṇu.” (SB 7.5.31) As the sociologists, economists, and political theorists grope about in ever-increasing darkness, Śrīla Prabhupāda gave the solution to all problems: “Chant Hare Kṛṣṇa and be happy.” And his directions for creating a simple, agrarian, God-based society are the only hope for restoring sanity in a society gone mad.
As a practical psychologist, Śrīla Prabhupāda expertly helped many, many troubled people to rediscover their original happy nature of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. He was expert both in encouragement and chastisement. He knew how to put nervous people at ease, cut the pride of fools, and kindle even the tiniest spark of Kṛṣṇa consciousness within a person’s heart. Śrīla Prabhupāda did not deal with people as clients or as objects of clinical observation. He saw everyone as a spirit soul, a forgetful devotee of Kṛṣṇa. Alarmed at his ability to influence people, the envious accused him of brainwashing, but Śrīla Prabhupāda was never interested in psychologically manipulating others for personal gain. Although strong-willed, he ruled not from the mind but from the heart.
Apart from his tremendous grasp of practical psychology, Śrīla Prabhupāda also revealed the Vedic science of psychology, which reveals the influence of the past on our present mental situation. Modern psychologists analyze childhood experiences and their influence on character and personality, but Vedic psychology teaches of the cumulative effect of many lifetimes on our present condition, of the effect of the three modes of material nature, and of past pious and sinful activities. Therefore psychologists also have much to learn from Śrīla Prabhupāda.
Western Cultural Life
Actually, there is no culture in the West. Whatever real culture exists there now is that which Śrīla Prabhupāda introduced. He carefully transplanted the Vedic culture intact into foreign soil. He was expert enough to make adjustments that would allow that culture to thrive in an unfamiliar atmosphere without losing its distinctiveness and essential qualities.
Śrīla Prabhupāda gave a vision of a new world order with Kṛṣṇa at the center. He gave Jagannātha and Ratha-yātrā, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, joy and color to drab cities, dancing in the streets; rasagullās, pakorās, and countless other varieties of prasāda; ghee, spiritual vegetarianism, tilaka, saris and dhotis, four regulative principles, brahminical cleanliness, sleeping on the floor; and more, and more, and more. He made Hare Kṛṣṇa a household term. Many respectable people now recognize the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement as a positive loving addition to Western life. But Prabhupāda wanted even more than that. He wanted a Kṛṣṇa conscious cultural revolution.
We have a long way to go, but there are signs of progress.
The Foremost Ambassador of Indian Culture
Śrīla Prabhupāda did not like to equate Kṛṣṇa consciousness with Hinduism, but preferred to stress the transcendental position of pure devotional service (sarvopādhi-vinirmuktam). However, he did accept that Kṛṣṇa consciousness is culturally interlinked with Hinduism.
Certainly it is a gross underassessment of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s transcendental glories to consider him as simply another “Hindu saint.” Yet even if we take Śrīla Prabhupāda to be a great saint or “a cultural ambassador of India,” an appellation that Śrīla Prabhupāda himself suggested in his early days in America, we find that Śrīla Prabhupāda is the greatest. He was the first to bring the Vedic way of life to the West. He was the first to introduce traditional Indian religion and culture without compromise. Even today there is no Indian movement with as many Western followers that are as genuinely “Indian” as has ISKCON. Of course it is not our aim to become either Indian or Hindu or even to be simply Vedic, but to be pure devotees of Kṛṣṇa. Yet Śrīla Prabhupāda’s cultural authenticity stands as another tribute to his genuineness.
Another first for Śrīla Prabhupāda was introducing Deity worship in the West. Initially, many orthodox Hindus criticized him for establishing temples outside Bhārata-varṣa. They considered it offensive to worship God in the land of the mlecchas. But nowadays there are many Hindu temples in the West. It was Śrīla Prabhupāda who started the trend.
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s contribution to Indian culture and to humanity exceeded the combined total of all the other so-called swamis who went to the West. In fact, those bogus swamis, by misrepresenting Indian culture and thus cheating people, have rather done great harm. Unfortunately, such rascals are generally praised while Śrīla Prabhupāda’s contribution remains neglected or at least not taken seriously enough. Why is that? One reason is that a person must be somewhat advanced in order to appreciate what Śrīla Prabhupāda has done. Those on the bodily platform applaud the opening of hospitals and schools and the spreading of “Hindu mush.” Only those who take the trouble to understand what Śrīla Prabhupāda taught, who thus actually begin to approach Kṛṣṇa and go beyond Māyāvāda, can really begin to appreciate what he has done. What Śrīla Prabhupāda has given is so deep and real that there is no scope for taking it lightly or cheaply. There may be but few who can appreciate the value in what Śrīla Prabhupāda has given us, but those who do become staunch.
The Present Hindu Revival
Since India’s political independence in 1947, many Hindus, especially from the educated class, had lost faith in the culture of their forefathers. Becoming atheistic and hedonistic, they considered Vedic culture to be a meaningless anachronism. The overall trend was towards gross materialism, and away from traditional values. Most young educated Indians felt little empathy for their own culture and were embarrassed to profess any religious principles. But Prabhupāda preached very strongly against this. He appealed to Indians not to give up their spiritual culture.
Now the tide has turned. Although India is still enthusiastically modernizing, she is now also looking back to her roots. In India and abroad, Hindus are taking pride in their own culture. Temple construction is again in vogue, Indians are exhorted to vote in the name of Rāma, and educated people openly express interest in their ancient culture. The previously widespread distrust and scorn of foreign devotees in India has been superseded by acceptance and respect. This trend promises to have tremendous effects on the political, social, and intellectual life of India. Undoubtedly the major factor underlying this change has been Western ISKCON members’ steady adherence to traditional Indian culture and beliefs. Hindus have become encouraged by the faith which the world has put in Kṛṣṇa, Rāma, and Bhagavad-gītā.
This is all due to Śrīla Prabhupāda, whose strategy was to preach in America and bring Western devotees back to India, knowing that Indians would imitate them. And so it happened. By Śrīla Prabhupāda’s efforts, now many Westerners are widely accepted in India as sadhus, sannyasis, brāhmaṇas, and gurus. Many Indians admit that they have to learn their own religion from the Western Kṛṣṇa devotees. In India ISKCON is now a household term, and ISKCON sets the standard of Deity worship even there.
The Modern Vyāsa
Rāmeśvara: [They are] surprised that you have written so many books. They cannot understand how you could write so much. They wonder whether you were a great Sanskrit scholar for many years, so they try to guess. They just can’t imagine anyone writing so much.
Prabhupāda: We are exceeding all material authors except Vyāsadeva.
Rāmeśvara: They wonder where you have made the time to study so much about ancient Indian culture that you could write so much. They cannot understand that. There is a biography of Your Divine Grace in the Bhāgavatam that mentions different things, and they just do not understand how you could know so much. It is beyond material . . .
Prabhupāda: I was sitting in some airport, and one very nice young man came. So intelligent boy. His first question was, “Where have you got so much vast knowledge?” I replied, “It is not my knowledge. It is Vyāsadeva’s knowledge.” (Conversation, 9 June 1976)
A reputed scholar noted:
His Divine Grace, Śrīla A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, the founder-ācārya of the ISKCON movement, has taken it upon himself, in addition to his ceaseless travels and other multifarious activities in the service of the Lord, the stupendous task of translating this Sanskrit work (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam) into English in about sixty volumes for the welfare and happiness of mankind. It is really astonishing how he is able to do this single-handed, and when one comes to think of this, apart from his other great literary works, one is tempted to wonder if he is not the same Vyāsa Muni reborn today to adapt his own old work into a universal language of this age for the spiritual upliftment of the modern man. (From a letter by Śrī R. Subramanyam, M.A., Deputy Director Research, Lok Sabha Secretariat, National Parliament, New Delhi. (Conversation, 25 June 1976)