Now that we have reached the 100th Anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s first meeting with his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on just how profoundly important this event and their relationship was. The order he received, to preach in English to the Western world, planted the seed for all of Srila Prabhupada’s future ambitions, writings, preaching and success, and it’s no exaggeration to say the whole world has been forever changed and uplifted by their legacy.
To commemorate this most auspicious and historic occasion, we will be dedicating an entire day during the Radha Madhava Golden Jubilee Festival from March 2-5. You can also sponsor and receive a specially designed Paschatya Desha Tarine Medallion to honor Srila Prabhupada and help support TOVP construction.
Here we present a few of Srila Prabhupada’s own fond memories of this encounter, followed by Satsvarupa Maharaja’s expert retelling of the pastime in the Prabhupada Lilamrta.
“Once we had the opportunity to meet Viṣṇupāda Śrī Śrīmad Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Gosvāmī Mahārāja, and on first sight he requested this humble self to preach his message in the Western countries. There was no preparation for this, but somehow or other he desired it, and by his grace we are now engaged in executing his order, which has given us a transcendental occupation and has saved and liberated us from the occupation of material activities.”
(SB 3.22.5, Purport)
“Were we not favored by His Divine Grace Śrīmad Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Gosvāmī Mahārāja, by our first meeting for a few minutes only, it would have been impossible for us to accept this mighty task of describing Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam in English. Without seeing him at that opportune moment, we could have become a very great business magnate, but never would we have been able to walk the path of liberation and be engaged in the factual service of the Lord under instructions of His Divine Grace.”
(SB 1.13.29 Purport)
Even over half a century later, Srila Prabhupada vividly and reverently kept the memory of this meeting alive in his heart, cherishing it lovingly.
“When my Guru Maharaja ordered me to spread this movement to the English speaking countries, I did not know how I could do it, but I never lost faith nor did I ever forget this order.”
(Letter to Madhudvisa, 11 November, 1970)
“The eternal bond between disciple and spiritual master begins from the first day he hears. Just like my spiritual master. In 1922 he said in our first meeting, you are educated boys, why don’t you preach this cult? That was the beginning, now it is coming to fact. Therefore the relationship began from that day. If you think of me and work for me, then I am in your heart. If you love somebody he is in your heart.”
(Letter to Jadurani – 4 September, 1972)
“I accepted him as my spiritual master immediately. Not officially, but in my heart. (….) He brought me some way or other in preaching his gospel. So, this is a memorable day. What he desired, I am trying little bit, and you are all helping me. So, I have to thank you more. You are actually representative of my Guru Maharaja [weeping] …because you are helping me in executing the order of my Guru Maharaja. Thank you very much.”
(Bhaktisiddhanta Disapp. Day Lecture, December 13, 1973)
“From the first time I saw you I have been your constant well-wisher. At his first sight of me Srila Prabhupada also saw me with such love. It was in my very first darsana of Srila Prabhupada that I learned how to love. It is his boundless mercy that he has engaged an unworthy person like me, in fulfilling some of his desires. It is his causeless mercy to engage me in preaching the message of Sri Rupa and Sri Raghunatha.”
(Letter to Sripad Narayana Maharaja, 1966)
Whenever he received praise from his disciples, he would always humbly insist that all the credit belonged to his Guru alone and that he was simply carrying out Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s orders.
“I am in due receipt of your nice poetry. These words are very appropriate for my Guru Maharaj. Your sentiments and nice words are worthy to be offered to my Guru Maharaj. I am quite unfit for such words. Whatever I am doing, it is due to the work of my Guru Maharaj. Actually, He is the power behind me, and I am only instrument.”
(Letter to Bali Mardan, October 4th, 1969)
“On the Disappearance Day of my Guru Maharaja, you may hold meeting to discuss His activities and offer respect to His Memory. Practically, this movement is His because it is under His order that I have come to your country.”
(Letter to Upendra – 2 December, 1968)
“I thank you very much for your nice letter of appreciation. The kindly words that you have used in this connection are very much pleasing, but all the credit goes to my Guru Maharaja. He asked me to take up this job as soon as I met Him in 1922; unfortunately, I was so worthless that I delayed the matter until 1965, but He is so kind that by force He engaged me in His service; and because I am very much worthless, therefore He has sent me so many of His nice representatives—the beautiful American boys and girls like you. I am so much obliged to you that you are all helping me in the discharge of my duties towards my Spiritual Master, although I was so much reluctant to execute it. After all, we are the eternal servants of Krsna, and by the Divine Will of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura we are now combined together, although originally we are born in different parts of the world, unknown to one another.”
(Letter to Candanacarya – 12 March, 1970)
Here’s the story of the whole pastime from the Prabhupada Lilamrita:
Abhay’s friend Narendranath Mullik was insistent. He wanted Abhay to see a sādhu from Mayapur. Naren and some of his friends had already met the sādhu at his nearby ashrama on Ultadanga Junction Road, and now they wanted Abhay’s opinion… Naren explained that the sadhu, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, was a Vaiṣṇava and a great devotee of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
But Abhay remained skeptical. “Oh, no! I know all these sadhus,” he said. “I’m not going.”
Naren argued that he felt that this particular sadhu was a very learned scholar and that Abhay should at least meet him and judge for himself. Abhay wished that Naren would not behave this way, but finally he could no longer refuse his friend.
When they inquired at the door, a young man recognized Mr. Mullik – Naren had previously given a donation – and immediately escorted them up to the roof of the second floor and into the presence of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, who was sitting and enjoying the early evening atmosphere with a few disciples and guests.
Sitting with his back very straight, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati appeared tall. He was slender, his arms were long, and his complexion was fair and golden. He wore round bifocals with simple frames. His nose was sharp, his forehead broad, and his expression was very scholarly yet not at all timid. The vertical markings of Vaiṣṇava tilaka on his forehead were familiar to Abhay, as were the simple sannyāsa robes that draped over his right shoulder, leaving the other shoulder and half his chest bare. He wore tulasī neck beads, and the clay Vaiṣṇava markings of tilaka were visible at his throat, shoulder, and upper arms. A clean white brahminical thread was looped around his neck and draped across his chest. Abhay and Naren, having both been raised in Vaiṣṇava families, immediately offered prostrated obeisances at the sight of the revered sannyāsī.
While the two young men were still rising and preparing to sit, before any preliminary formalities of conversation had begun, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta immediately said to them, “You are educated young men. Why don’t you preach Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s message throughout the whole world?”
Abhay could hardly believe what he had just heard. They had not even exchanged views, yet this sādhu was telling them what they should do. Sitting face to face with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvatī, Abhay was gathering his wits and trying to gain a comprehensible impression, but this person had already told them to become preachers and go all over the world!
Abhay was immediately impressed, but he wasn’t going to drop his intelligent skepticism. After all, there were assumptions in what the sādhu had said. Abhay had already announced himself by his dress to be a follower of Gandhi, and he felt the impulse to raise an argument. Yet as he continued to listen to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta speak, he also began to feel won over by the sādhu’s strength of conviction. He could sense that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta didn’t care for anything but Lord Caitanya and that this was what made him great. This was why followers had gathered around him and why Abhay himself felt drawn, inspired, and humbled and wanted to hear more. But he felt obliged to make an argument – to test the truth.
Drawn irresistibly into discussion, Abhay spoke up in answer to the words Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had so tersely spoken in the first seconds of their meeting. “Who will hear your Caitanya’s message?” Abhay queried. “We are a dependent country. First India must become independent. How can we spread Indian culture if we are under British rule?”
Abhay had not asked haughtily, just to be provocative, yet his question was clearly a challenge. If he were to take this sadhu’s remark to them as a serious one – and there was nothing in Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s demeanor to indicate that he had not been serious – Abhay felt compelled to question how he could propose such a thing while India was still dependent.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta replied in a quiet, deep voice that Kṛṣṇa consciousness didn’t have to wait for a change in Indian politics, nor was it dependent on who ruled. Kṛṣṇa consciousness was so important – so exclusively important – that it could not wait.
Abhay was struck by his boldness. How could he say such a thing? The whole world of India beyond this little Ultadanga rooftop was in turmoil and seemed to support what Abhay had said. Many famous leaders of Bengal, many saints, even Gandhi himself, men who were educated and spiritually minded, all might very well have asked this same question, challenging this sādhu’s relevancy. And yet he was dismissing everything and everyone as if they were of no consequence.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta continued: Whether one power or another ruled was a temporary situation; but the eternal reality is Krishna consciousness, and the real self is the spirit soul. No man-made political system, therefore, could actually help humanity. This was the verdict of the Vedic scriptures and the line of spiritual masters. Although everyone is an eternal servant of God, when one takes himself to be the temporary body and regards the nation of his birth as worshipable, he comes under illusion. The leaders and followers of the world’s political movements, including the movement for svaraj, were simply cultivating this illusion. Real welfare work, whether individual, social, or political, should help prepare a person for his next life and help him reestablish his eternal relationship with the Supreme.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had articulated these ideas many times before in his writings:
There has not been, there will not be, such benefactors of the highest merit as [Chaitanya] Mahaprabhu and His devotees have been. The offer of other benefits is only a deception; it is rather a great harm, whereas the benefit done by Him and His followers is the truest and greatest eternal benefit. … This benefit is not for one particular country causing mischief to another; but it benefits the whole universe. … The kindness that Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu has shown to jivas absolves them eternally from all wants, from all inconveniences and from all the distresses. … That kindness does not produce any evil, and the jivas who have it will not be the victims of the evils of the world.
As Abhay listened attentively to the arguments of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, he recalled a Bengali poet who had written that even less advanced civilizations, like China and Japan, were independent and yet India labored under political oppression. Abhay knew well the philosophy of nationalism, which stressed that Indian independence had to come first. An oppressed people was a reality, the British slaughter of innocent citizens was a reality, and independence would benefit people. Spiritual life was a luxury that could be afforded only after independence. In the present times, the cause of national liberation from the British was the only relevant spiritual movement. The people’s cause was in itself God.
Yet because Abhay had been raised a Vaiṣṇava, he appreciated what Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was saying. Abhay had already concluded that this was certainly not just another questionable sādhu, and he perceived the truth in what Srila Bhaktisiddhanta said. This sādhu wasn’t concocting his own philosophy, and he wasn’t simply proud or belligerent, even though he spoke in a way that kicked out practically every other philosophy. He was speaking the eternal teachings of the Vedic literature and the sages, and Abhay loved to hear it.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, speaking sometimes in English and sometimes in Bengali, and sometimes quoting the Sanskrit verses of the Bhagavad-gita, spoke of Sri Krishna as the highest Vedic authority. In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna had declared that a person should give up whatever duty he considers religious and surrender unto Him, the Personality of Godhead (sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja). And the Srimad-Bhagavatam confirmed the same thing. Dharmaa projjhita-kaitavo ’tra paramo nirmatsaranam satam: all other forms of religion are impure and should be thrown out, and only bhāgavata-dharma, performing one’s duties to please the Supreme Lord, should remain. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s presentation was so cogent that anyone who accepted the śāstras would have to accept his conclusion.
The people were now faithless, said Bhaktisiddhānta, and therefore they no longer believed that devotional service could remove all anomalies, even on the political scene. He went on to criticize anyone who was ignorant of the soul and yet claimed to be a leader. He even cited names of contemporary leaders and pointed out their failures, and he emphasized the urgent need to render the highest good to humanity by educating people about the eternal soul and the soul’s relation to Kṛṣṇa and devotional service.
Abhay had never forgotten the worship of Lord Kṛṣṇa or His teachings in Bhagavad-gita. And his family had always worshiped Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, whose mission Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was espousing. As these Gaudiya Math people worshiped Kṛṣṇa, he also had worshiped Kṛṣṇa throughout his life and had never forgotten Kṛṣṇa. But now he was astounded to hear the Vaiṣṇava philosophy presented so masterfully. Despite his involvement in college, marriage, the national movement, and other affairs, he had never forgotten Kṛṣṇa. But Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was now stirring up within him his original Kṛṣṇa consciousness, and by the words of this spiritual master not only was he remembering Kṛṣṇa, but he felt his Kṛṣṇa consciousness being enhanced a thousand times, a million times. What had been unspoken in Abhay’s boyhood, what had been vague in Jagannatha Puri, what he had been distracted from at college, what he had been protected in by his father now surged forth within Abhay in responsive feelings. And he wanted to keep it.
He felt himself defeated. But he liked it. He suddenly realized that he had never before been defeated. But this defeat was not a loss. It was an immense gain.
Srila Prabhupada: I was from a Vaiṣṇava family, so I could appreciate what he was preaching. Of course, he was speaking to everyone, but he found something in me. And I was convinced about his argument and mode of presentation. I was so much struck with wonder. I could understand: Here is the proper person who can give a real religious idea.
It was late. Abhay and Naren had been talking with him for more than two hours. One of the brahmacaris gave them each a bit of prasadam in their open palms, and they rose gratefully and took their leave.
They walked down the stairs and onto the street. The night was dark. Here and there a light was burning, and there were some open shops. Abhay pondered in great satisfaction what he had just heard. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s explanation of the independence movement as a temporary, incomplete cause had made a deep impression on him. He felt himself less a nationalist and more a follower of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. He also thought that it would have been better if he were not married. This great personality was asking him to preach. He could have immediately joined, but he was married; and to leave his family would be an injustice.
Walking away from the ashrama, Naren turned to his friend: “So, Abhay, what was your impression? What do you think of him?”
“He’s wonderful!” replied Abhay. “The message of Lord Caitanya is in the hands of a very expert person.”
Srila Prabhupada: I accepted him as my spiritual master immediately. Not officially, but in my heart. I was thinking that I had met a very nice saintly person.
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