When His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada entered the port of New York City on September 17, 1965 few Americans took notice — but he was not merely another immigrant. He was on a mission to introduce the ancient teachings of Vedic India into mainstream America. Before Srila Prabhupada passed away on November 14, 1977 at the age of 81, his mission proved successful. He had founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and saw it grow into a worldwide confederation of more than 100 temples, ashrams and cultural centers.
- In 1965, at seventy years of age, he ventured outside India for the first time to fulfil the order of his spiritual master. During his voyage at sea, he suffered two severe heart attacks. He reached the shores of America with the equivalent of seven dollars to his name.
- He founded the International Society for Krsna Consciousness with a small group of disciples, after a year of struggling alone in New York City.
- He sent his followers, chanting the names of God, into the streets of cities and towns everywhere and Hare Krsna became famous in every corner of the earth.
- He sent his disciples to London, where they recorded the single, “Hare Krishna Mantra”, with George Harrison, in 1969. It became the fastest selling of all the Apple Corporation’s releases, including those of the Beatles.
- He formally initiated approximately five thousand disciples. These initiates represented a sweeping diversity of nationalities, races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds.
- He established 108 Krishna temples on six continents, installed the deity of Krishna in each centre and trained his disciples in the process of deity worship.
- He inaugurated the Rathayatra Festival of Lord Jaganatha in major cities around the globe, in effect, bringing the temple to the people.
- He introduced the “Sunday Love Feast” and other prasadam (sanctified food)distribution programs that provided millions of free meals to the public.
- He created the world’s first chain of vegetarian restaurants.
- He spoke daily on the philosophy of Krsna consciousness, delivering thousands of formal lectures. Over 2,200 were recorded and archived.
- He conducted many hundreds of informal conversations on the science of Krishna consciousness with disciples, guests and friends. Over 1,300 were recorded and archived.
- He had scores of interviews and philosophical discussions with news reporters, scientists, religious leaders and politicians, as well as meetings with world-renowned dignitaries and celebrities
- He recorded more than twenty albums of devotional music.
- He published the monthly magazine, Back to Godhead, which he called the backbone of his movement.
- He launched the ISKCON Life Membership Program that enrolled tens of thousands of members.
- He built major temples in Bombay and Vrndavana, and founded a spiritual city at Mayapur. All became international sites of pilgrimage.
- He established primary schools to provide education in the principles of devotional service.
- He founded the Bhaktivedanta Institute to advance Krsna consciousness within the scientific community, engaging serious academics in the consideration of the science of self-realization.
- He formed the Bhaktivedanta Swami Charity Trust to unearth and renovate the holy places of Lord Caitanya’s pastimes.
- He set up farm communities to teach “simple living and high thinking”, emphasizing cow protection and dependence on God and nature.
- He commissioned his artist disciples to produce hundreds of illustrations of Krsna’s pastimes based on his meticulous instructions and the descriptions in his books.
- He directed some of his followers to learn the Indian art of “doll making” to present Vedic philosophy through dioramas. This project became the FATE Museums.
- He counselled his disciples on complex managerial, philosophical and personal issues in more than 6,000 archived letters.
- He was the subject of more than 30,000 archival photos and more than seventy hours of documentary film footage.
- He wrote seventy books on the science of Krsna consciousness, sleeping only a few hours per day which are highly acclaimed. This is astonishing considering the translations and commentaries were in English, which was a second language to the author.
- He founded the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) in 1972, to produce his books. Which to date has distributed over 1 billion books.
- He completed the entire Caitanya-caritamrta manuscript (seventeen volumes) in eighteen months. Which was published in seventeen volumes within two months.
- He circled the globe fourteen times, visiting twenty-four countries, preaching, inspiring his followers and making countless public appearances before multitudes of people.
- He skillfully managed his international society simply through letters and personal meetings, virtually without the use of a telephone.
Appearance of Srila Prabhupada
In Calcutta on 1st September 1896, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada appeared in a family of Krishna conscious devotees.
His father was Gour Mohan De, a cloth merchant, and his mother was Rajani
.In accordance with Bengali tradition, his parents employed an astrologer to calculate the child’s horoscope, and they were made jubilant by the auspicious reading. The astrologer made a specific prediction: “When this child reaches the age of seventy, he would cross the ocean, become a great exponent of religion, and open 108 temples.” It is noteworthy that in that very same year, 1896, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s (the spiritual master of Srila Prabhupada) book was accepted into McGill University in Canada, a pilot light for preaching in the West.
Gour Mohan De was a pure hearted Vaishnava. He often gave Abhay proper spiritual training from a very young age taking him to the local Sri Radha-Govinda Temple, where young Abhay would stand for many long hours offering prayers before the Deity. “The Deity was so beautiful, with His slanted eyes” – Srila Prabhupada recalls.
From childhood he showed signs of a pure devotee of the Lord, he became more and more devoted to the Deity form of the Lord, engaged in glorifying the Lord and performing Krishna conscious plays at school. In 1901 Young Abhay conducted his very own first Rathayatra. His father made a small cart, three feet high with a canopy resembling closely the huge carts in Puri. All the local children and many adults would come. Abhay stood out as a leader even then, as he organised and engaged everyone, even many of the mothers were engaged by him in cooking, (especially his sister Bhavatarini), who all cooked special preparations to be offered and distributed as’Prasadam’ at this Rathyatra festival.
In 1916 Abhay started studying in Scottish Churches college During his college years his father arranged a marriage, selecting Radharani Datta as Abhay’s bride. In 1918 they were married, but for several years Abhay lived with his family and Radharani with hers as she was only 11 years old, and Abhay was 22 years of age. So as well as for obvious reasons, this was to facilitate his finishing his college education as it was recognised that the added
responsibility of supporting a family is a challenge. In time Abhay had 5 children, 3 sons and 2 daughters.
In his fourth year of college Abhay felt reluctant to accept his degree, a degree that was given by the British. He had become a sympathiser to the Nationalist cause, which advocated ‘National schools’, Freedom from British Rule, and Self Government (Self Rule).
At the same school (Scottish Colleges) in the class one year ahead of Abhay was the highly spirited Nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose, who later became the leader of the Indian National Army formed to overthrow British Rule of India.
As a youth growing up in British-controlled India, he became involved with Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement to secure independence for India. Abhay was attracted to the pure and simple teaching of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi), who stood by the ancient pure principles of moral India, and regarded Bhagavad Gita above all other books. His personal habits too, and life-style were pure, as he lived a life of a saint, ‘sadhu’. Abhay had seen many ‘sadhus’ and was not overly impressed. However, Gandhi had more integrity than most.
It was, however, a 1922 meeting with a prominent scholar and religious leader, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, which proved most influential on his future calling.
Abhay Charan De had seen so many ‘sadhus’ come, his father a pure devotee of the Lord, would daily invite ‘sadhus’ to his house for ‘Prasadam’, and as a general feeling Abhay was not overly impressed with what he saw. His friends knowing his devotion, learning and expectations, valued his opinion, and so insisted that he come and see Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Goswami. Abhay was reluctant, but his friends wanted his approval. So Abhay conceded to go.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, a prominent devotional scholar and the founder of sixty-four branches of Gaudiya Mathas (Vedic institutes), liked this educated young man and convinced him to dedicate his life to to bring about a spiritual revolution in the Western world.
“No sooner did Abhay and his friends respectfully bow before the saintly person and prepare to sit than he said to them, ‘You are educated young men. Why don’t you preach Lord Chaitanya’s message throughout the whole world?’
Abhay was surprised that the ‘sadhu’ had asked immediately for them to become preachers on his behalf. Impressed by Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakura he wanted to test him with intelligent inquiries.
Khadi clad, Abhay asked, “Who will hear your Chaitanya’s message? We are a dependent country. First India must become independent. How can we spread India’s culture if we are under British rule?”
Note that he never objected to the concept of spreading Lord Chaitanya’s mission, his concern was with the apparent obstacles that stood in the way. Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati dispelled any thought of potential obstacles saying that Krishna consciousness didn’t have to wait for a change in Indian Politics, nor was it dependent on who ruled. Krishna consciousness could not be impaired by anyone or anything, it is so important that it could not wait. Therefore you must do it.
Abhay was struck by his boldness. He brushed all temporal material miseries and conditions aside, leaving the only worthwhile and factual conclusion and solution to all material difficulties, Krishna consciousness.
In a very short time Abhay was convinced, “He’s wonderful!” Abhay said to his friend, “The message of Lord Chaitanya is in the hands of a very expert person” It was that very night that in his heart young Abhay accepted Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur Prabhupada as his spiritual master
Srila Prabhupada became his student, and eleven years later (1933) at Allahabad, he became his formally initiated disciple.Later on when the Krishna consciousness movement began to grow he always credited all his success to this statement by his spiritual master.
On 21st November 1932, in the Gaudiya Math in Allahabad Abhay Charan De received ‘diksha’ initiation and thereafter became known as Abhay Charanaravinda Das.
Abhay tried to visit his spiritual master many times but whenever he visited Calcutta Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was not there. Unlike many of his other disciples Abhay was thus unable to travel and spend time with his spiritual master. Consequently over the next four years they only met about a dozen times.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur Prabhupada departed from this mortal world in December 1936. One month before his departure Abhay wrote him a letter. He was thinking that as householder, ‘grhastha’ he couldn’t fully serve his spiritual master, and he wanted to know what to do. Thus he inquired, “Is there any particular service I can do?”
Two weeks later Abhay Charan received a reply: “I am fully confident that you can explain in English our thoughts and arguments to the people who are not conversant with the languages Bengali & Hindi. This will do much good to yourself as well as your audience. I have every hope that you can turn yourself into a very good English preacher.” Accepting this as his confirmation of his mission Abhay began to further mould his life
After HDG Bhaktisddhanta Thakur Prabhpada left the planet, Abhay Charanaravinda tried to establish his business in Calcutta and did more preaching effort in engagements with members of the Gaudiya Math.
The sannyāsīs of the Gaudiya Math were impressed by the scope of Abhay’s thought and intentions. As it was customary to award a title to an especially worthy Vaiṣṇava according to his qualities, the Math wanted to confer upon Abhay the title Bhaktisiddhānta. However, they thought it inappropriate to give Abhay the same title as their spiritual master, and instead Abhay’s title was changed to Bhaktivedanta – bhakti meaning “devotion” and vedānta meaning “the end of knowledge.” Abhay was grateful.
The title combined the devotion of religion with the scholarship of the most rigorous philosophy, as passed down by the scholarly followers of Lord Caitanya. He appreciated the sincere gesture of his Godbrothers and accepted the title as a further commitment to his spiritual path of preaching Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
In February 1944 Srila Prabhupada following his Spiritual master request to broadcast Vedic knowledge through the English language founded Back to Godhead magazine. Using his own money and working with no assistants, he wrote, edited, proofread, printed and distributed the magazine in northern India alone.
In 1950, at the age of fifty-four, Srila Prabhupada retired from married life, and four years later he adopted the vanaprastha (retired) order to devote more time to his studies and writing. Srila Prabhupada traveled to the holy city of Vrndavana, where he lived in very humble circumstances in the historic medieval temple of Radha-Damodara.
There he engaged for several years in deep study and writing. He accepted the renounced order of life (sannyasa) in 1959. At Radha-Damodara, Srila Prabhupada began work on his life’s masterpiece: a multivolume translation and commentary on the 18,000-verse Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana).
On those papers that he received as alms, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami wrote page after page, preparing his messages of Godhead for the world. Some of his manuscripts he published in his ‘Back to Godhead Magazine’, and others, he printed as small books. Although unable to publish everything he wrote, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami nevertheless continued to write and stockpile his manuscripts. Following the mood of the day, acknowledging the world struggle and control between the ‘post war super powers’ for the ‘uncharted, unknown realm of space’, and understanding the mentality of the people of the day A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami published his first book ‘Easy journey to other planets’ in Delhi in the autumn of 1960.
Depending fully on Lord Krishna’s mercy, Srila Prabhupada began a monumental literary project – the production of an elaborately annotated English translation of the Srimad Bhagavatam. After completing the first volume, he presented a copy to the then prime minister of Bharat, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who appreciated Srila Prabhupada’s scholarly work.
Sponsorship to travel to the West
Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami was 69 years of age. He had treasured, nurtured and developed the instruction from his spiritual master for some forty years. It seemed a long cultivation and preparation time.
“In Vrindavan Bhaktivedanta Swami met Mr Agarwal, a Mathura businessman, and mentioned to him on passing, as he did to almost everyone he met, that he wanted to go to the West. Although Mr Agarwal had known Bhaktivedanta Swami for only a few minutes, he volunteered to try to get him a sponsor in America by asking his son Gopal, an engineer in Pennsylvania, to send back a sponsorship form. When Mr Agarwal volunteered to help in this way, Bhaktivedanta Swami urged him to please do so”
Meanwhile AC Bhaktivedanta Swami went about his daily affairs following his usual avenues of book selling, looking for whatever opportunity might arise. Then one day to his pleasure and surprise, he was contacted by the Ministry of External Affairs and informed that a certificate of ‘No Objection’ for travelling to the U.S was ready.
With a newly acquired passport, visa, ‘P-form’, sponsor, and travel fare AC Bhaktivedanta Swami travelled to Bombay to seek assistance in getting to America. He approached Srimati Sumati Morarji, head of the Scindia Steamship Line, who had previously helped him with a large donation for printing volume two of the Srimad Bhagavatam. Concerned of his health and welfare Sumati Morarji said, “no” to his request for assistance.
Finally she conceded and gave him a scheduled place on the ship Jaladuta, which was sailing from Calcutta on 13th August 1965. She made all the arrangements, making sure that he would travel on a ship whose captain understood the needs of a vegetarian and a ‘brahmana’. She organised that the captain, Arun Pandia carry extra vegetables and fruits for Bhaktivedanta Swami.
Staying with a slight acquaintance, and on the day before his departure, he travelled north to Mayapur to visit the ‘samadhi’ tomb of his spiritual master Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura Prabhupada to ask for his blessings. Now he was ready.
Arrival in United States of America
On Friday August 13th 1965, at 9:00 am, at the age of sixty-nine, Srila Prabhupada left India with several trunks, two hundred three volume sets of first canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam, his personal baggage a small suit-case, an umbrella, and a supply of dry cereal in case he couldn’t find food in the land of the meat eaters and forty rupees and embarked on the historic journey to the West on board the cargo ship Jaladuta.
The journey was treacherous, and by Saturday 14th, Bhaktivedanta Swami experienced seasickness, dizziness and vomiting as they moved slowly in heavy rains through the Bay of Bengal.
After experiencing sea-sickness from the Atlantic crossing, in rough seas, and in mid-Atlantic, and at the advanced age of 63 years of age AC Bhaktivedanta Swami suffered two heart attacks. “If a third comes I will not survive!”
That night in a dream the Lord appeared to him in a boat full of many incarnations, and assured the dedicated mendicant that He will protect him.
After a 35 day journey from Calcutta the Jaladuta docked at Commonwealth pier at 5:30 am, on September 17th 1965, at the ship docks in Boston, United States of America, after stopping briefly before pushing on to New York City Harbour, the world’s largest city at the time.
Unlike many Indians who had gone before him and come to the West, he had not come to receive from the West, but had come to give to the West! His message of peace and goodwill resonated with many young people, some of whom came forward to become serious students of the Krishna tradition.
With the help of these students, Srila Prabhupada rented a small storefront on New York’s Lower East Side to use as a temple. On July 11, 1966, he officially registered his organization in the state of New York, formally founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
Growth of ISKCON
In the eleven years that followed, Srila Prabhupada circled the globe 14 times on lecture tours, bringing the teachings of Lord Krishna to thousands of people on six continents. Men and women from all backgrounds and walks of life came forward to accept his message, and with their help, Srila Prabhupada established ISKCON centers and projects throughout the world.Under his careful guidance, the Society has grew to a worldwide confederation of almost one hundred ashrams, schools, temples, institutes and farm communities. Srila Prabhupada introduced a vedic gurukula system of education and inspired what would become the world’s largest vegetarian food relief program
In 1968, Srila Prabhupada created New Vrndavana, an experimental Vedic community in the hills of West Virginia. Inspired by the success of New Vrndavana, then a thriving farm community of more than one thousand acres, his students founded several similar communities in the United States and abroad.
In 1972, His Divine Grace introduced the Vedic system of primary and secondary education in the West by founding the Gurukula school in Dallas, Texas. The school began with three children in 1972, and by the beginning of 1975 the enrollment had grown to one hundred fifty.
Srila Prabhupada also inspired the construction of a large international center at Sridhama Mayapur in West Bengal, India, which is also the site for a planned Institute of Vedic Studies. A similar project is the magnificent Krsna-Balarama Temple and International Guest House in Vrndavana, India. These are centers where Westerners can live to gain firsthand experience of Vedic culture.
Srila Prabhupada’s most significant contribution, perhaps, are his books. Highly respected by the academic community for their authoritativeness, depth and clarity, they are used as standard textbooks in numerous college courses. His writings have been translated into eleven languages. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, established in 1972 exclusively to publish the works of His Divine Grace, has thus become the world’s largest publisher of books in the field of Indian religion and philosophy.
These transcendental books include Bhagavad Gita As It Is (1968), Teachings of Lord Caitanya (1968), Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead (1970), The Nectar of Devotion (1970), the seventeen volume Sri Caitanya Caritamrta (1973 – 1975) and thirty volume Srimad Bhagavatam (1962 – 1977).
Srila Prabhupada left us a veritable library of Vedic philosophy and culture. Highly respected by scholars for their authority, depth, and clarity, his books are used at colleges and universities around the world. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust publishes his works in over 50 languages.