The lone fighter who won every battle: Swami Prabhupada

Most people retire at 60. Some go on working beyond that but few would dream of starting a big project of an international dimension when they are almost seventy. However, there are always exceptional people around ready to perform extraordinary things. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada belonged to that category. The unusual but most motivating and captivating story of his undaunted faith and perseverance should be read by all.

Abhay – Hindi for fearless -- Charan was born in Calcutta on the first of September 1896, which in that year was the day following Janmastami, the Hindu festival celebrating the advent of Lord Krishna. As a little boy Abhay would regularly visit the Radha-Govinda temple that lay just across the street from the family home. Abhay’s father was a deeply religious person and wanted his son to become a devotee of Lord Krishna and learn all there is to know about religion. The Radha-Govinda temple’s being just across the street was no mere coincidence.

Abay’s mother, however, had different dreams for her beloved son. She wanted him to go for further studies in the UK and to embrace the profession of a lawyer. The same fear that had got hold of young Gandhi’s mother when proposals of sending her son to the UK were being debated had gripped Abhay’s father. He was afraid his son would be adversely influenced by British culture. While the mother visualised the son addressing an austere Court of Law in a lawyer’s gown, the father saw him preaching the Bhagavad Gita to devotees in the garb of a sadhu.

When the time came, however, there was no difficulty in making the choice, for Abhay Charan would lose his mother when he was only sixteen. He had to adapt and adjust to the new situation arising out of this sad event. But some independence it brought helped his social and spiritual growth. His father had taught him about the immortality of the soul and how things happened only by the will of Lord Krishna. He learnt to have total faith in the Lord and to depend wholly on him.

At school, the young man would be influenced by the call of patriots like Subhas Chandra Bose who was studying at the same Scottish Church College and Mohandas Gandhi whose revolutionary ideas were doing the rounds in the country. What impressed him about Gandhi was his unwavering faith in the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. The simple living and high thinking of Gandhi made a big impact on the mind of the young student. It should be mentioned that Abhay, according to tradition, was married while still at secondary school. However, the couple would live separately for a number of years.

One day, a school friend almost coerced him into meeting a sadhu – a holy man. That forced meeting with the Sadhu, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, would have an everlasting impact on the mind of the young student who would become a disciple of the Swami a decade later. Abhay was told that all governments were temporary and that man-made systems could not help humanity. There was only Krishna Consciousness, explained the Guru, that could help humanity move forward on the right path. However, Abhay’s wife and children did not share his views on devotional service and would not even join him whenever satsanghs – spiritual gatherings – were held at home.

The Guru, on the other hand, held Abhay in very great esteem and judged him capable of great things in the service of the Lord. One request he made to him had a particularly deep impresson on him: “If you ever get money,” said the Guru, “print books.” Before his death in 1937, his Guru asked him to spread the message of the Gita in English instead of the traditional Hindi and Bengali. Obeying his Guru’s injunctions, he would, the following year, write articles and publish a magazine entitled, ‘Back to Godhead’. Money saved from his business would go into the publication of the magazine. Impressed by his writings on religion and spirituality, some religious people decided to award him the title, “Bhaktivedanta”.

His business having failed, his relations were strained at home. After 36 years of married life, he took the decision to leave his family and to spend the rest of his life preaching the message of Lord Chaitanya. He was 58 years old and penniless and had therefore to borrow money from a friend to enable him to travel to an ashram where he sought shelter. He faced difficult times. He had no fixed residence and no money for food. Translating the Bhagavatam into English and getting it published had become his priority but what could be achieved without money. He solicited various friends, businessmen and politicians in vain. However, he would manage to write articles, edit them and publish his magazine ‘Back to Godhead’ that he would sell in the streets of Delhi in order to pay the printer.

Now though the books were ready, he had no money to pay for the ticket to go abroad. Many people were contacted but none was willing to help. Because of his advanced age – he was already 69 -- the owner of one shipping company who had once given the Swami a sympathetic ear no longer wanted to take him on board her ship. She expressed doubts about such an old man preaching the Gita in a foreign country amid uncooperative people. However Swami was made of a different mettle. He was never known to give up easily. After lots of solicitation, he was, at last, offered a ticket. He also got one Mr Gopal settled in Pennsylvania ready to sponsor his stay in the U.S. Without the sponsor, he could not have got his visa.

An old man, with no one there to bid him goodbye, boarded the Jaladuta on 13 August 1965. What sort of welcome would await a Swami with a shaven head, wearing an orange robe and with beads adorning his neck? Lord Chaitanya had predicted the chanting of Hare Krishna in different towns of the world. Was that prediction going to be realised? On the 19th of September, the ship reached New York. Swamiji, who had celebrated his 69th birthday alone in the ship, did not quite know what to do or where to go.

Fortunately for him, his sponsor, Mr Gopal had sent somebody to meet him. He had but forty rupees in cash and another twenty dollars received from the sale of three books on the ship. He stayed in Butler and with the help of the Gopals met small groups in the evenings. After staying there for about one month, Swamiji decided to proceed to New York.

He would encounter lots of difficulties before he got a small stable group with whose help he would launch and register ISKCON – International Society for Krishna Consciousness. From that time there was no looking back. Friends, public and private figures, businessmen and capitalists in India were contacted on various occasions to help towards the setting up of a temple in New York. But none was ready to help such an old man. The lone fighter would persevere and he would build dream temples besides publishing his famous ‘Back to Godhead’. After the initial tests that he passed successfully, Krishna started backing each and every move of his. Swamiji’s words now had power: power to attract, power to motivate; power to transform. People, rich and poor and of every nationality, would flock in thousands to listen to his discourses; those who shunned him in the beginning started courting him -- for ISKCON had by then become a famous and respected international organisation. Though he had become a well-known and respected figure, Swami Prabhupad had still to fight on several fronts for some of his plans to take shape. An epic battle had to be fought before the land at Juhu beach, Mumbai, where the marvellous Krishna temple and a five- star hotel stand could be purchased.

Born near a Krishna temple, Swami Prabhupad dedicated his life disseminating the message of the Bhagawad Gita. He gave up his physical body in Vrindavan, a place that had been sanctified by Krishna in person. Some minutes before undertaking his voyage back to Godhead on 14 November 1977, Swamiji was still giving instructions to those around while the air was vibrating with the chanting of the holy names of Krishna. Could there have been a more beautiful life and death? The penniless Swami who could not afford a ticket to New York by ship spent the last decade of his life touring the world by plane and building everywhere gorgeous temples dedicated to his Lord. So many followers in such a short time, so many temples of great architectural beauty built within a decade in so many diverse places is an achievement few can hope to emulate. Getting George Harrison, a much sought-after superstar of the famous Beatles Group to make a Hare Krishna record that would set the world chanting “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Ram Hare Ram Ram Ram Hare Hare“ was no mean achievement either.
Leckram Gunnasaya