In the late summer of 1977 Srila Prabhupada, my spiritual master, came to England for what was to be his last visit. It was Janmashtami, the annual celebration of Sri Krishna’s appearance within this world, and the next day was Srila Prabhupada’s own birth celebration. The rare combination of celebrating my guru’s birthday and having him personally present was unforgettable.
During the proceedings, and after one of the most uplifting kirtans I’ve ever been in, one of the senior monks began to tell the life history of our guru. When he reached the point of Srila Prabhupada’s first meeting with his spiritual master he faltered on the date. Srila Prabhupada then spoke and filled in the detail for him: “1922.”
Because of this, and because I was sitting so close to him at the time, I’ve never forgotten the year when my spiritual master met his guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura Prabhupada. It was in Calcutta, and on the flat roof of a building. He was giving a discourse to a group of followers. At the time, he suggested to his guru that the message of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu might be better received in India if the British political domination of the country were brought to a close first.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakura rejected this reasoning, explaining that the message of Chaitanya was so exclusively important that it could not wait – and did not have to wait – for anything else to happen. The young 26 year old who was one day going to be the founder and acarya of a worldwide Vaishnava organisation was also requested by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakura to take the same exclusively important message to the English-speaking world. He so impressed the young man that he took that request as his life and soul.
Today is the blessed appearance day of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakura Prabhupada. He was born as the fourth son of the great Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura on Friday, 6th of February, 1874, in Jagannath Puri, Orissa, eastern India. When he was six months old the annual chariot festival took place. That year the chariot of Jagannath stopped in front of his house and could not be budged for three days. He was taken in his mother’s arms to see Lord Jagannath on the chariot. as he stretched his arm out a large garland fell from the neck of the Deity and encircled the child. As the jubilant crowd, witnessing this, shouted “Haribol!” Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura fed the child his first grains.
Many blessings were to follow. But such blessings for a child destined to be a great teacher did not mean that his life would be easy. Rather, devotion often flowers amid strong opposition, and such was the case in his life.
It is precisely because of the opposition that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakura had to preach so strongly. His father had been relentless in his explanation of the clear path of pure devotional service, cut through the jungles of sentimentality, corruption, impersonalism and Christian and Sufi syncretism that was rife in Victorian Bengal. Together they would go to prayer meetings for kirtan and discussion. At an early age the young boy had already read his father’s Sri Chaitanya Shikshamrita.
In later life he would earn the nickname ‘Lion-Guru’ for his uncompromising and strongly-delivered classes in which anything other than devotional service as taught by Srila Rupa Goswami would be ‘chopped with an axe.’
His revolutionary stance of offering the sacred thread of the brahmanas to those not born in brahmana families greatly troubled those whose pecuniary advantages in life depended upon being members of a priestly elite. His condemnation of the widespread sentimentalism that passed for Hinduism enraged those who had attachment to making a religious show. And his creation of a saffron-clad body of young men who took the message of Chaitanya everywhere in India was a challenge to those who thought that Vaishnavism was all about retiring to a more tranquil existence.
He published books and periodicals, held travelling theistic exhibitions, preached aboard a steamship, started temples, sent messengers to London, welcomed the Crown Governor to Navadwipa, his headquarters, and was the first to have kirtan broadcast on the early BBC radio.
He formed a governing body as the head of his Mission, the Gaudiya Math, and laid the foundations of the modern day ISKCON. The founder-acarya of ISKCON said that in all his own preaching activities, “I simply try to satisfy my guru.” This is the essence of the life of thhe disciple, and it is by this faith in the guru, and by the execution of his orders, that all things are possible.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura Prabhupada ki jaya!