Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1 September 1896 – 14 November 1977) was a spiritual teacher (guru) and the founder preceptor (Acharya) of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly known as the ‘‘Hare Krishna Movement’’.
Born Abhay Charan De in Calcutta, he was educated at the Scottish Church College in Calcutta. He graduated in 1920 with majors in English, philosophy and economics, but rejected his diploma in response to Gandhi’s independence movement. Before adopting the life of a pious renunciant (vanaprastha) in 1950, he had been married with children and owned a small pharmaceutical business. In 1959 he took a vow of renunciation (sannyasa) and started writing commentaries on Vaishnava scriptures. In his later years, as a travelling Vaishnava monk, he became an inuential communicator of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology to India and specically to the West through his leadership of ISKCON, founded in 1966.
As the founder of ISKCON, he emerged as a major gure of the Western counterculture, initiating many thousands of young people on six continents.
He received criticism from anti-cult groups, as well as a favourable welcome from religious scholars such as J. Stillson Judah, Harvey Cox, Larry Shinn and Thomas Hopkins, who praised Bhaktivedanta Swami’s translations and defended the group against distorted media images and misinterpretations. In respect of his achievements, religious leaders from other Gaudiya Vaishnava movements have also given him credit. He has been described as a charismatic leader, in the sense used by the sociologist Max Weber, as he was successful in acquiring thousands of followers throughout the world.86 Hismission was to broadly propagate Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a school of Hinduism, outside of the borders of India. He used the Bhagavata Purana as a central as it had been taught to him by his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura who requested him to print books and spread Gaudiya Vaishnavism message in the English. In 1965 at age 70 he left India, obtaining free passage on a ship called the Jaladuta over the Atlantic to the United States, with the aim and hope of fullling his spiritual master’s instruction. His trip was not sponsored by any religious organization, nor was he met upon arrival by a group of loyal followers. His only possessions were a suitcase, an umbrella, a supply of dry cereal, about eight dollars worth of Indian currency, several boxes of books and the magnitude of his intended task that weighed on him. In 1947, the Gaudiya Vaishnava Society recognized his scholarship with the title Bhaktivedanta, meaning ‘‘one who has realised that devotional service to the Supreme Lord is the end of all knowledge’’. His later well known name, Prabhupāda, is a Sanskrit title, meaning ‘‘at whose feet masters sit’’. It was in July 1966 that he founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York City. He spent much of the last decade of his life setting up the institution. Since he was the Society’s leader, his personality and management were responsible for much of ISKCON’s growth and the reach of his mission. After a group of devotees and a temple had been established in New York, another centre was started in San Francisco in 1967. From there he travelled throughout North America with his disciples, popularizing the movement through street chanting (sankirtana), book distribution and public speeches.
George Harrison took the greatest interest, spending a signicant time speaking with Prabhupada and later in 1971 producing a Radha Krsna Temple album of Vedic devotional songs that had two hit singles with the UK branch of the Hare Krishna movement.
Over the following years his continuing leadership role took him around the world 14 times, setting up over 108 temples and communities on six continents. By the time of his death at age 81 in 1977, ISKCON had become an internationally known expression of 77 Vaishnavism.
In the 12 years from his arrival in New York until his final days, he:
- authored more than eighty books (with many available online) on Vedantic philosophy, religion, literature and culture* (including four published originally in Bengali)
- initiated thousands of disciples, awarding sannyasa initiations to some
- introduced the Vedic gurukula education to the Western audience
- directed the founding of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, which claims to be the world’s largest publisher of ancient and classical Vaishnava religious texts
- founded the New Vrindavan religious colony in West Virginia
- introduced international celebrations such as Jagannatha processions
- through his mission, he followed and communicated the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and introduced bhakti yoga to an international audience
In his discussion with the historian Arnold J. Toynbee in London, Prabhupada is quoted as saying: ‘‘I have started this Krishna Conscious Movement among the Indians and Americans and for the next ten thousand years it will increase.’’
After his death in 1977, ISKCON, the society he founded continued to grow. According to the most recent issue of Back to Godhead magazine, also founded by Prabhupada, there are presently over 400 temples and farm communities listed to visit. The magazine lists only the major centers, there are many more homes turned temples that hold programs as well that in the proximity of regular temples (Back to Godhead). Prabhupada’s initiated disciples and grand disciples in the tens or hundreds of thousands, while millions of believers who accept his teachings as genuine and bona-de throughout the world.
Within the last twelve years of his life Bhaktivedanta Swami translated over sixty volumes of classic Vedic scriptures (such as the Bhagavad Gita, Chaitanya Charitamrita and the Srimad Bhagavatam) into the English language.
His books have won praise for their authority, depth, and clarity from professors at colleges and universities like Harvard, Oxford, Cornell, Columbia, Syracuse, Oberlin, and Edinburgh, and his Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is, is now available in over sixty languages. In February 2014, ISKCON’s news agency reported to have reached a milestone of distributing over half a billion books authored by Bhaktivedanta Swami 89 Prabhupada since 1965. Speaking at the inauguration of ISKCON’s cultural centre in New Delhi in 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then India’s prime minister, said:
“If today the Bhagavad Gita is printed in millions of copies in scores of Indian languages and distributed in all nooks and corners of the world, the credit for this great sacred service goes chiey to ISKCON. … For this one accomplishment alone, Indians should be eternally grateful to the devoted spritual army of Swami Prabhupada’s followers. The voyage of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada to the United States in 1965 and the spectacular popularity his movement gained in a very short span of twelve years must be regarded as one of the greatest spiritual events of the century.”
George Harrison expressed his appreciation of Prabhupada with following words: “The thing that always stays is his saying: “I am the servant of the servant of the servant.” I like that. A lot of people say, “I’m it. I’m the divine incarnation. I’m here and let me help you.” You know what I mean? But Prabhupada was never like that. I liked Prabhupada’s humbleness. I always li k e d hi s hu m ilit y and hi s simplicity. The servant of the servant of the servant is really 90 what it is, you know.
- Fearlessness – This is actually the translation of his legal name, and he proved it in practice when he went alone to America on a cargo ship in his elderly years, without any resources or anybody waiting for him there and enduring great personal hardships.
- Vision – After he arrived in USA with almost nothing, when some people asked him what he was doing there, he would say that he already has 108 temples all over the world and that only time was dividing him from that.
- Legacy – In many cases when a great personality passed away, their movements fell apart, but this didn’t happen with his movement due to the successors he empowered and the way he organized the movement while he was alive.
- Training – He left a great amount of literature behind and gave many lectures to train his future disciples so they could continue to lead his movement.
- Simplicity – He established many temples and accumulated great resources but he was not attached to any of these and didn’t consider himself the owner of any of it. He said that he would be the happiest if he went back to India and stayed in a simple ashram (where he had lived before) but that would be selfish so he stayed to serve others.
- Servant attitude – Even though his disciples were glorifying and following him he was always considering himself to be the servant of the servant of the servant.
- Humbleness – After a few years he became internationally famous, and was giving lectures in front of hundreds and thousands of people and when people asked him why he is standing on stage he would reply it was only to be able to serve them better but he would rather sit on the oor. “Srila Prabhupada has already had an amazing effect on the world. There’s no way of measuring it. One day I just realized, God, this man is amazing! He would sit up all night translating Sanskrit into English, putting in glossaries to make sure everyone understands it, and yet he never came off as someone above you.” – George Harrison• Principle based – He was never exclusive, always distinguishing principles from details, conrmed by one of his statement: ‘‘ Actually, it doesn’t matter – Krishna or Christ – the name is the same. The main point is to follow the injunctions of the Vedic scriptures that recommend chanting the name of God in this age.’’
- Friendliness – “He just made me feel so comfortable. I always felt very relaxed with him, and I felt more like a friend. I felt that he was a good friend. Even though he was at the time seventy-nine years old, working practically all through the night, day after day, with very little sleep, he still didn’t come through to me as though he was a very highly educated intellectual being, because he had a sort of childlike simplicity. Which is great, fantastic. Even though he was the greatest Sanskrit scholar and a saint, I appreciated the fact that he never made me feel uncomfortable. In fact, he always went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. I always thought of him as sort of a lovely friend, really, and now he’s still a lovely friend.” George Harrison
- Age free leadership – At the age of 69 he left India to spread his teachings in the west. In the last twelve years of his life, he become recognized influencer. Therefore, it is possible to become a leader at any age.
- Culture free acceptance – In spite of his Indian origin, Srila Prabhupada was accepted in various cultures and on different continents.
- Benefit for all – Established food for life programs and said that people within a 40 km radius around temples should be fed, and today his movement with 211 affiliates in 60 countries is distributing more than 2 million vegetarian meals a day.
Join our free Joyful Leadership online course today! Start here.