Remembering A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada: An Exemplar of Indic Leadership

Swami Prabhupada’s iconic vision and faith continues to shine as a bright beacon for the future Indic leaders in India and beyond.

By Sreejit Datta, Assistant Professor, Director of Civilisational Studies Practice & Resident Mentor at Rashtram.

The source of this image is Founder Acharya.

In one of his taped conversations with the Master, the ‘Quiet Beatle’ George Harrison can be heard mentioning that, of late, he had been reading the Bhagavad-Gita repeatedly, the same book over and over. This was in response to the Master’s inquiries about Harrison’s latest readings. In reply when Harrison mentioned the Bhagavad-Gita, the Master was noticeably pleased. He said: “All answers are there.” As if to highlight the truth as well as the significance of this claim, and in anticipation of what Harrison had come looking for, the Master pointed out one verse in particular from the classic to him. The verse was: 

yad yad acarati sresthas

tat tad evetaro janah |

sa yat pramanam kurute

lokas tad anuvartate ||”

(Bhagavad Gita As It Is, 3.21: Karma-yoga)

That is, “Whatever action is performed by a great man, common men follow in his footsteps. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.”

After reading out the verse in Sanskrit and then duly explaining its purport in English to the lead guitarist of the Beatles, who was then a producer of top chartbusters and was also at the peak of his musical career, the Master directed these words at Harrison: “So this is your duty now,” and followed it up with his characteristic carefree laugh. The Master continued, “By the grace of Krishna you are one of the great men. Although you are [a] young man, but Krishna has placed you in such a high position that there are many young men who follows [sic] you. So that is the instruction.” His voice was kind and relaxed, as he was a naturally soft-spoken person, but the imperative tone of the Guru was unmistakable in that utterance, through which Harrison was given a definite mission to spread the name and love of Sri Krishna through his music. Harrison found new meaning in his craft; and his life found an anchor amid all the tumultuous new possibilities of the post-Beatles days, which brought in their wake a lot of excitement, but uncertainties too. Within a few months of the Beatles’ break-up, Harrison had his first correspondence with the Master, and immediately afterwards the rockstar wrote “My Sweet Lord”, a song which was full of that boundless love and grace that the Master had bestowed upon Harrison so freely, a song which reverberated with Harrison’s heart’s yearning for the Lord with each repetition of the refrain “I really wanna see You, Lord, but it takes so long My Lord!”; and which ended with the sixteen-word Hare Krishna Maha-mantra of the Gaudiya Vaishnava-s followed by the famous shloka of the Guru-Pranam mantra (Gurur Brahma gurur Vishnuh…tasmai shri gurave namaha), a token of Harrison’s gratitude for the Master. The song went on to win the NME Award for Best Single, and to this day it remains a hit among George Harrison’s fans, with multiple covers by various artists.      

That verse from the Bhagavad-Gita (3.21), in every sense, held within itself the secret of the courage and strength that kept the Master himself going on despite the most adverse conditions, and it kept a fledgeling movement alive through the direst of adversities. The verse contains an idea which is, in fact, the crux of the Indic leadership model of which the Master, Harrison’s interlocutor in the exchanges mentioned above, was a great exemplar. And this Master was none other than His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder-acharya of the global movement known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or more popularly, ISKCON. Swami Prabhupada appeared in this world on September 1, 1896 in Kolkata, India. In his purva-ashrama, or the stage of life before being initiated into the monastic order of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, he was known as Sri Abhay Charan De. Born to a pious Bengali Hindu Kayastha father, Abhay Charan imbibed the values and ethos of the Bengali Vaishnava culture, the contours of which were defined by Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who had appeared in this world exactly four hundred and ten years before Swami Prabhupada did. It was the name of Mahaprabhu which had inspired the ISKCON global movement’s name (‘Krishna Chaitanya’, translated into English, becomes Krishna Consciousness). Prabhupada wrote of the early influence of his father in the following words: 

“My father, Gour Mohan De (1849 – 1930) [was] a pure devotee of Kṛṣṇa, who raised me as a Kṛṣṇa conscious child from the beginning of my life. In my boyhood ages he instructed me how to play the mṛdanga [i.e. the Khol, the instrument which is central to the Gaudiya Vaishnava Nama-Sankirtana performance, and which is believed to be a sacred abode of Hari]. He gave me Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa Vigraha to worship, and he gave me Jagannātha-Ratha to duly observe the festival as my childhood play. He was kind to me, and I imbibed from him the ideas later on solidified by my spiritual master, the eternal father.”  

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami was to become this eternal father, the spiritual master, that Swami Prabhupada mentions here. Abhay Charan first met his Guru in 1922 in Kolkata. At that time Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was a renowned scholar of the shastras, and had recently founded the Gaudiya Math – a spiritual organisation whose mission was to spread the reach of Gaudiya Vaishnavism (i.e. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu-led Bengali Vaishnavism) to all corners of the world through publications and preaching. Abhay Charan became a devoted student of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, and the latter finally received him as an initiated disciple in the year 1933. The Guru entrusted Swami Prabhupada with the sacred mission of spreading the message of the Vedas in English. Soon afterwards Swami Prabhupada wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita and in 1944 he started a fortnightly English magazine titled Back to Godhead. In 1950, he retired from domestic life and travelled to the sacred town of Vrindavan, and lived there in the historic temple of Sri Radha-Damodara. It was here that he started working on his masterpiece, the English translation and full commentary of the 18,000-verse long Srimad Bhagavata Purana. He took to sannyasa in 1959 and travelled to New York City by freighter in 1965. He reached New York City practically penniless, and at the time he was sixty-nine years old. Despite these discouraging conditions, he kept on preaching the name of Sri Krishna on the streets of New York City through the Maha-mantra chanting and through his books, with faith in the Lord as his sole wealth. It was a time of great transformation at the level of the consciousness in the West, especially in the USA and the UK, when young men and women turned to Eastern spiritualism, with a focus on Hinduism. They embraced the Eastern traditions with the hope of uplifting the consciousness at both personal as well as global levels, at a time when the world was reeling from the after-effects of war, a threat of nuclear apocalypse, anarchist agitations, and fresh bouts of imperialist atrocities in Asia. Some of these young men gathered around Swami Prabhupada, and with their help he established ISKCON in New York City in 1966. The movement started with a small temple, which Swami Prabhupada and his disciples had built inside a humble storefront in New York City. From there, the movement reached the other end of the USA in San Francisco within just two years, and from there to the UK in a few months; and from then onwards there was no looking back for the ISKCON movement, which spread to the other parts of the world within only a few years. Today, ISKCON is a Gaudiya Vaishnava organisation with around a million congregational members worldwide, including 15,000 in the United Kingdom as of June 2019, with its headquarters located in Mayapur, Nabadwip, West Bengal – right in the town which is the sacred birthplace of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. It has grand temples – which are an architectural as well as aesthetic marvel – in all major cities and towns across India; it runs numerous schools, and it manages NGOs for providing care to animals and a model free lunch programme named the Akshaya Patra Foundation feeding millions of children every day across thousands of schools in India. 

The Gaudiya Vaishnava movement, which started with the Avatara of the Kali Age Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Nabadwip in Bengal in the fifteenth century, has now turned into a global movement spreading the truly sustainable Vedic culture and the timeless wisdom of the Bhagavad-Gita across continents, mainly through the dauntless leadership of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. It is a greatly successful leadership model which is rooted in the true Indic ethos, whose essence is encapsulated in the verse from the Bhagavad-Gita that Swami Prabhupada had pointed out to George Harrison, and which continues to shine as a bright beacon for the future Indic leaders in India and beyond.     

References:

Kṛṣna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1970

Srila Prabhupada”, Founder-Acharya (available online at http://www.founderacharya.com/srila-prabhupada/)

Apply Now