Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada (Founder of the Hare Krsnas)
Srila Prabhupada was born Abhay Charan De to parents Gour Mohan De, a cloth merchant, and mother Rajani on September 1st, 1896 (Gowami 1983: 5-6) His childhood home was located at 115 Harrison Road, situated in the northern Indian section of Calcutta, India. His father belonged to the aristocratic suvarna-vanik merchant caste, was pure Vaisnava, and raised his son to be just as Krsna conscious as he was. Young Abhay accompanied his father, mother or servant daily to the temple near their home to worship, showed his strong faith which was evident even in his childhood. This devotion was helped of course by Gour Mohan’s wishes for his son to achieve Vaisnava goals and become a servant to Radha and Krsna. Employing a professional mrdana (a kind of drum) player to teach Abhay the rhythms for accompanying kirtana (a form of musical worship), Gour Mohan was determined to give his son all the teachings to enable him to reach the prescribed Vaisnava goals, even if this went against his wife’s wishes. Rajani was skeptical about the importance of her son learning to play the mrdana, and while she too was a devote follower of Krshna consciousness, she wanted Abhay to grow up and become a British lawyer. This however did not stop her from modeling her perfection of Vedic housewife duties, showcased through her attempts to keep her pet child, Abhay, safe from danger, disease and death. At age six it became clear which path Abhay favored, as he asked his father to bring home deities of his own to worship. Bringing home Radha-Krsna deities, Gour Mohan and Rajani watched their son from this day forward offering food first to these effigies, and putting them to rest at night in perfect imitation of his fathers own puja (Goswami 1983: 9-13).
While Abhay Charan De’s religious beliefs and talents continued to grow, so did his intellect in school. However, even Abhay was subject to the tradition of arranged marriage and was wed to Radharani Datta. Living apart, Srila Prabhupada was to finish his college degree before taking on full responsibility of supporting his family. But, in his fourth year of college, Abhay began to feel reluctant about finishing his degree. This was due to the influences of Subhas Chandra Bose, who was a spirited nationalist and eventual leader of the Indian National Army. Bose charged the student population to align with the Indian independence movement and forsake their studies. This proclamation was also echoed by another notable figure, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi, who was a spiritual entity instead of a just a political one like Bose, had a profound impact on Abhay, who began listening to Gandhi and abiding to his messages. When Gandhi said that the foreign run schools, like the one Abhay attended, did nothing more than instill a slave mentality, Abhay was left with a decision to make. Even though he finished his studies in 1920, after his fourth year, Abhay refused his diploma thus showing his devotion to Gandhi’s call to boycott the British rule of India (Goswami 1983: 14-15).
Inspired by Gandhi, Abhay continued to follow his lead and strengthen his own spirituality while working as a department manager at Bose Laboratory in his hometown of Calcutta, India. It was his religious quest however that led him to meet his spiritual master in 1922, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura (Rochford 10). Initially unimpressed by the work of Thakura, it was only through a friend’s encouragement that he visited him. Upon their first meeting, it was Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura who asked why, as an educated young man, Abhay did not travel the world spreading the message of Lord Caitanya. From this bold question Abhay went on to make many more insightful inquiries which left him so impressed at the end of their first meeting that he accepted Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura as his spiritual master in his heart. Until Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s death in December 1936, Abhay was a devote follower and friend, visiting him whenever time would allow as his family had moved to Allahabad in 1932 for business purposes. Abhay truly embraced Thakura’s ideal of spreading Krsna consciousness around the world and began to preach from his home. He wrote an essay and poem which were published in The Harmonist, gaining him the title of kavi, “learned poet” (Goswami 1983: 18). However, being a humble man, his most glorious moment was when this poem reached his master and gave him joy. The last conversation between himself and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura was one that had the most profound impact on his life and how he chose to get his message out. Thakura told him, “If you ever get money, print books” (Goswami 1983: 91) which is just what Abhay did (Goswami 1983: 15-20).
While still in India Abhay had to suffer through WWII. He not only had to attempt to get enough food to ensure his families survival, but also had to fight with the government for paper on which to print his journal, Back to Godhead. While his determination to spread the only real scarcity of Krsna consciousness intensified, his business and family affairs began to abate as his major focus shifted to preaching. A major breakthrough at this time in his life was being invited to lecture at the Gita Mandir, an invitation that he gladly accepted. It was in this place, of Jhansi, that Abhay formed his first center. Leaving behind his business affairs in Allahabad to his son, Abhay was now focused on creating a spiritual movement in Jhansi. He was 56 years old (Gotswami 1983: 20-24).
It was after this age that Abhay truly hit a turning point. Getting a note in Jhansi that his home had been burglarized, he returned to Calcutta as familial responsibilities outweighed his preaching desires. With bills to pay and unmarried children to look after, Abhay came back to his family but continued to talk of God and preach just as he had done before. This angered his family who could not understand his devotion. It was this misunderstanding that eventually led Abhay to break from his family and business all together, when he returned home one night and found that his wife has sold his copy of Srimad-Bhagavatam for money to buy tea biscuits. Angered and upset, this final straw led Abhay to finally leave and pursue his goal of preaching Krshna consciousness and printing books (Gotswami 1983: 24-25).
The 1950s saw Abhay facing hard time. Scraping together enough money to print Back to Godhead, he went without proper clothing for the winter to fulfill his mission. From showing such devotion, Abhay was pushed past his tipping point after he had a dream in which Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura appeared and urged him to become a sannyasa (Goswami 1983: 34). After careful deliberation, Abhay knew what he must do and became Abhay Caranaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami after his formal sannyasa ceremony. After this ceremony, his desire to spread Krsna consciousness intensified, leading Abhay to finally begin printing books. Struggling once more to raise funds and sell his volumes, Abhay was forced to become resourceful, sending copies of his works to noted officials and utilizing their positive reviews to advertise. Transforming himself from humble beginnings to notoriety, Abhay was gaining fame in India, but desired to spread his message West. With this desire in his heart, it was on August 13th, 1965 at the age of 69 that Abhay boarded the cargo ship Jaladuta to begin his journey to America (Goswami 1983: 25-38).
Reaching New York City on September 19th, 1965 he walked with little more than the clothing on his back to the bus terminal to find transit to Butler to stay with friends, the Agarwal’s. Taking up residence in the YMCA, Abhay began writing to people of religious interest in New York City to grow his network (Goswami 1983: 42). It was through such letter writing that Abhay was able to become financed by Dr. Mishra, whose yoga studios became the first site of meetings for followers of Abhay’s message (Goswami 1991: 1-14).
Abhay’s next move was out of the yoga studio and downstairs into his own place. However, far from being a temple, this move was rife with poverty. With his name on the door, anyone could find him, and despite his meager surroundings in Room 307, the meetings were becoming a new source of life for Abhay and for his followers. However, this move too proved temporary. Abhay was subject to a great number of moves following this until he finally came to find a suitable apartment to call his own. This place would allow him to grab his footing for the International Society for Krsna Consciousness (Knott 29-30)
From this point forward, Bhaktivedanta Swami spread his message. Getting a feature in the local New York press, The Village Voice was of particular importance, as it allowed Abhay to grow the number of members in his lecture groups (Knott 32). From this growing population of followers, Abhay drafted the Seven Purposes of the International Society for Krsna Consciousness, and the ISKCON really gained a hold. Circulating leaflets and invitations, the chanting of the Hare Krshna was touted as the drug of choice as it allowed one to stay high forever, because of their expanded consciousness. Thus the popular name for the ISKCON was born, and the Hare Krsna continued to thrive (Goswami 1983: 28-75).
On January 16th, 1967 Abhay left behind his devoted followers in New York and flew to spread his message in San Francisco. Awaiting his arrival this day was a group of about fifty flower bearing chanters, most of which knew the Swami only by reputation. Settling into an apartment at 518 Fredrick Street, this dwelling was now known as the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple, attracting numerous followers from the first days of Abhays arrival. From this place, Abhay preached and held lectures for his many followers. He wrote in his office, getting his messages out and attending to the needs and problems of his devotees (Goswami 1983: 75-130).
However, Abhay longed to return to India and he fulfilled this desire in the summer of 1967. He stayed until the winter months, when he once again returned to the United States and travelled around, spreading his messages and publications across the globe, even coming into contact with John Lennon and Yoko Ono when the Hare Krshna recorded chantings for their record (Knott 34-37). From such public relations, Prabhupada’s message was widely received and the ISKCON grew, setting up head quarters all over the world. This was up until Abhay’s death on November 14th, 1977 at 81 years old (Rochford 10-11).
Goswami, Satsvarupa Dasa (1983) Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
Goswami, Satsvarupa Dasa (1983) Prabhupada: He Built a House in Which the Whole World Can Live. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
Goswami, Tamal Krishna (1999) Servant of the Servant: A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Dialogue & Alliance, 13(1), 5-17.
Knott, Kim (1986) My Sweet Lord: The Hare Krishna Movement. San Bernando: Borgo Press.
Rochford, E. Burke (1985) Hare Krishna in America. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Related Topics for Further Reading
The Hare Krshna
Mohandas K. Ghandi
Subhas Chandra Bose
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by Jaycene Mock (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.