A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda
by Michael J. Gressett
On orders from his guru, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda traveled from India to New York City in 1965 where he founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. His arrival initially provoked an epistemological crisis in the lives of those who encountered him. As members of the counter-cultural generation they tended to follow the popular wisdom, “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.” In an era dominated by youth movements challenging authority, how could Prabhupāda compel potential adherents to recognize his spiritual knowledge as authoritative?
Rather than submit to cultural assumptions about the difference between spirituality and religion, Prabhupāda argued that spirituality and religion were the same, a presumption handed down to him by the sixteenth-century Bengali Brahmin Śrī Caitanya, who wrote that Krishna “is always my worshipful Lord, unconditionally.” In addition to his equating spirituality with religion, it should be noted that the name of his Society also identifies spirituality with consciousness. Prabhupāda imported the Caitanya textual tradition to New York’s Lower East Side, describing exalted states of consciousness attractive to the experimental counter-cultural huddling there. But, he also taught spirituality for beginners with rules and regulations, an oxymoron for that same community who were repelled by the rules but fascinated by promises of an ecstasy not found in a pill. On one hand, Prabhupāda brought from India a model for systematic definition of the spiritual steps he believed would lead to an eternal and blissful relationship with the god. On the other hand, he faced an American society that seemed also in need of a model of teacher who could show the way in practical terms. Prabhupāda self-identified as a spiritual exemplar of this Caitanya tradition, a strand of thought that he described as the “crème de la crème” of all religious traditions. He also quoted Śrī Caitanya’s instruction that a Krishna devotee must remain as humble as a blade of grass.
The Caitanya form of Hinduism is two systems of Indian theology intertwined. It has its textual base in Sanskrit scriptures such as the Bhāgavata Purāna and the Bhagavad Gītā, in which Krishna teaches a doctrine of bhakti (devotion) with roots in the Upanishads, the most philosophical portion of the ancient Vedas. After Caitanya’s passing in 1534, his disciples elaborated their bhakti path in even greater detail in Sanskrit and Bengali literatures, adding the belief that their master was the incarnation of Krishna and the milkmaid goddess Rādhā combined, who comes into the world for the purpose of spreading faith in these deities as world saviors. As a servant of this mission, Prabhupāda used the image of “the market place of the holy name” to “sell” initiation into one of the five relationships with Krishna on Caitanya’s behalf. But the founder’s marketing method was quite unusual, for he tended to startle his audience in their very first meeting by asking them to become preachers of Krishna consciousness, even when they very likely had never heard of Krishna. His authority could never elicit their countercultural suspicion because he immediately handed it to them.
Spirituality merely for self-improvement never appealed to Prabhupāda, and he did not encourage it in others. However, on the issue of self-improvement he was strict, prescribing for his disciples a daily recitation of 1,728 repetitions of the Hare Krishna mantra, and basic rules called “the four regulative principles of freedom.” He defined these as follows: no illicit sexual activity, no eating of meat, fish, or eggs, no intoxication, and no gambling. Although these strictures—which he claimed he had always followed—would limit his niche in America’s religious market, he taught them as the basis of spiritual life, and pointed out that they would empower his disciples as preachers.
As an exemplar to his disciples, Prabhupāda was concerned with two tasks: conveying the teachings of the scriptures, and, second, demonstrating what has come to be known as “lived religion.” On the first point, he gave the example of harvesting mangoes. Just as ripe mangoes in a tree are handed down carefully from one person to another, so are the spiritual teachings preserved by his tradition. There can be no question of their authenticity, he claimed, because the teachings arrived there through a genealogy of people who “handled” the ripe teachings gingerly. Prabhupāda taught that the method for determining the veracity of any teaching is then further resolved by an ongoing exchange between the guru, other holy persons, and scripture. If they all agree, the teaching is authentic. To any skeptical objections to such a circular dialectic, Prabhupāda held up himself as an exemplar and charismatic resolution with the simple statement, “As I am doing, you must also do.”
To evince the utility of this lived religion, Prabhupāda again turned to the Caitanya tradition. In this tradition there are two sources of knowledge of Krishna: the “book Bhagavata” and the “person Bhagavata.” Prabhupāda exemplified the person Bhagavata by rising at 3:30 am, bathing, meditating, worshiping, and lecturing. Then he spent the entire day in activities dedicated to the spreading of the mission. In the evening, he repeated his morning routine. The point of this behavior—which he expected his disciples to emulate—was to control the senses in a practical manner and prepare the soul for association with Krishna in one of the five relationships in the spiritual world. According to his followers, Prabhupāda’s calm and humble manner as he described this spiritual world made it all the more attractive and believable.
In this world, Prabhupāda taught, there are three levels of Krishna devotees according to their consciousness. Beginners may follow the rules out of duty to take instruction from authoritative sources, but they will not be able to distinguish between exalted souls that they should serve and those souls who are equals. Nor will they be able to identify inimical souls who should be avoided entirely. At the middle level, a devotee understands the necessary distinctions between souls and lives accordingly. At the highest level, the devotee has no need for rules, but follows them to set the proper example, descending from the exalted consciousness of seeing everyone equally to the more worldly consciousness of the second class for the purpose of preaching. Beginners tend to regard only a temple or a sacred river as a holy place, and they may have faith in scriptures they do not understand. Middling devotees have more understanding by seeing Krishna within the heart of everyone. Those at the highest level actually experience the five relationships with Krishna.
Devotees of the Caitanya tradition need a guru at the same time that they must strive to fulfill Caitanya’s order to become gurus themselves. Practitioners of this tradition must always see their guru as a devotee of the highest sort—a “pure devotee”. Accordingly, Prabhupāda’s disciples refer to him as “His Divine Grace.” As he saw it, there was no choice but to teach the new devotees—with no background information of Hindu culture—the proper etiquette in relating to a guru. Yet he also wanted there to be a reciprocal relationship between himself and his followers. To accomplish this, he performed a careful humility. In the beginning he would get on his hands and knees to show the proper way of washing a floor, or stand in line for the bathroom in the morning. In a very short time, his disciples were bowing to him with heads touching the floor, reciting a Sanskrit formula in praise of him that, he, being the only one who knew Sanskrit, had to compose.
Prabhupāda negotiated these innovations with considerable aplomb. For instance, in his Preface to his Bhagavad Gītā translation, he writes, “If I have any credit in this connection, it does not belong to me personally, but it is due to my eternal spiritual master…Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati…” With this statement, early in the history of his institution, Prabhupāda introduced the concept of a spiritual family. His guru Sarasvati was his spiritual father, who also had a spiritual father, etc., all the way back to Krishna.
The founder’s scholarship and personal integrity in the way that he exemplified the teachings added to his disciples’ impression that he was a spiritual person. But Acyutānanda, an early disciple, said that he knew his guru was spiritual because following his instructions had a purifying effect. He also liked the way his spiritual father danced with joy instead of merely sitting in quiet meditation. Prabhupāda, who remarked that he had come to America “to make hippies into happies,” trained his followers in an overwhelming amount of detail from his formal tradition to an extent unusual from an Indian guru in America during the 1960s and 1970s. These details augmented the basic teachings of the Bhagavad Gītā and the Bhāgavata Purāna that all souls will always be individuals with the capacity to transcend the incessant round of birth and death and enjoy relationships with Krishna. In his combination of model for and model of, Prabhupāda’s career in America and his status as a representative of a spiritual tradition is a lucid example of Mark Taylor’s observation that theological argumentation is always circular, and “Far from a shortcoming…is taken to be a mark of superior achievement.”