About Srila Prabhupada
His Divine Grace, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada (1896-1977) is widely regarded as the worlds pre-eminent exponent of the teachings and practices of Bhakti-yoga to the Western world.
Born on 1 September 1896, the day after Janmastami, one of the most important Vaishnava holidays, in a humble house in the Tollygunge suburb of Calcutta, he was named Abhay Charan, “one who is fearless, having taken shelter at Lord Krishna’s feet.” Since he was born on the day of Nandotsava (“the celebration of Nanda,” Krishna’s father, a traditional festival in honour of Krishna’s birth) he was also called Nandulal. His parents, Sriman Gour Mohan De and Srimati Rajani De, were devout Vaishnavas (devotees of Vishnu). In accordance with Bengali tradition, his mother had gone to the home of her parents for the delivery, and only a few days later Abhay returned with parents to his home at 151 Harrison Road in Calcutta, where he was brought up and educated.
He received a European led education in the Scottish Church College. This school was well reputed among Bengalis; many Vaishnava families sent their sons there. As a youth, he became involved with Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement. The college was located in north Calcutta, not far from Harrison Road where Abhay’s family lived. During his years in the college, Abhay Charan De was a member of the English Society as well as that of the Sanskrit Society. He graduated in 1920 with majors in English, philosophy and economics. However, he rejected his diploma in response to Gandhi’s independence movement.
It was, however, a meeting with a prominent scholar and spiritual leader, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, which proved most influential on young Abhay’s future calling. Upon their first meeting Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, who represented an ancient tradition of Bhakti (devotional yoga), asked Abhay to bring the teachings of Krishna to the English-speaking world. From birth, Abhay had been raised in a family devoted to Krishna – the name meaning the all-attractive, all-loving Lord. Deeply moved by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s devotion and wisdom, Abhay became his disciple and dedicated himself to carrying out his mentor’s request. But it wasn’t until 1965, at the age of seventy that he would set off on his mission to the West.
Having since been awarded the honorary title of Bhaktivedanta in recognition of his learning and devotion, and having taken the vows of sannyasa (renunciation), Abhay Charan, now known as Bhaktivedanta Swami, begged free passage and boarded a cargo ship to New York. The journey proved to be treacherous, and the elderly spiritual teacher suffered two heart attacks aboard ship. After 35 days at sea, he finally arrived at a lonely Brooklyn pier with just seven dollars in Indian rupees and a crate of his translations of sacred Sanskrit texts.
In New York, he faced great hardships without money or a place to live. He began his mission humbly, by giving classes on the Bhagavad-Gita in lofts on the Bowery, New York’s infamous skid row, and leading kirtan (traditional devotional chants) in Tompkins Square Park. His message of peace and goodwill resonated with many young people, some of whom came forward to become serious students of the Krishna-bhakti tradition. With the help of these students, Bhaktivedanta Swami rented a small storefront on New York’s Lower East Side to use as a temple.
After months of hardship and struggle, in July of 1966, Bhaktivedanta Swami established the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. When it was suggested to him at the time of founding the ISKCON in 1966 that a broader term “God Consciousness” would be preferable to “Krishna Consciousness” in the title, he rejected this recommendation, suggesting that the name Krishna includes all other forms and concepts of God. He taught that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of God and that one could find true happiness through living a simpler, more natural way of life and dedicating one’s energy in the service of God and all living beings.
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 America with his disciples, popularizing the movement through street chanting (sankirtana), book distribution and public speeches. In the following months many more came forward to assist him. Desiring to address him with the respect due to a revered spiritual teacher, his disciples began to call him Srila Prabhupada, meaning “one at whose feet the masters sit”.
Once ISKCON was more established in the USA a small number of devotees from the San Francisco temple were sent to London, England. After a short time in London, they came into contact with The Beatles, of whom George Harrison took the greatest interest, spending a significant time speaking with Bhaktivedanta Swami and producing a record with members of the later London Radha Krsna Temple. In the eleven years that followed, Srila Prabhupada circled the globe fourteen times, bringing the teachings of Bhakti to thousands of people on six continents setting up temples, rural communities, educational institutions, and what would become the world’s largest vegetarian food relief program. By the time of his death in Vrindavan in 1977, ISKCON had become an internationally known expression of Vaishnavism.
Perhaps Srila Prabhupada’s most significant contribution is his books. He authored over seventy volumes on Bhakti-yoga, which are highly respected for their authority, depth, clarity, and fidelity to tradition. His writings have been translated into seventy-six languages. His most prominent works include: Bhagavad-gita As It Is, the thirty-volume Srimad-Bhagavatam, and the seventeen-volume Sri Caitanya-Charitamrita.
For millennia the teachings of Bhakti-yoga had been concealed within Sanskrit and Indian vernacular languages, and the rich culture of Bhakti had been hidden behind the borders of India. Today, millions around the globe express their gratitude to Srila Prabhupada for revealing the timeless wisdom of Bhakti to a world immersed in a materialistic and self-destructive ethos.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada passed away on November 14, 1977, in the holy town of Vrindavan, surrounded by his loving disciples who carry on his mission today.