Śrī Śrīmad Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Mahārāja
[October 29, 2022 is the disappearance day of Śrī Śrīmad Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Mahārāja in Vṛndāvana, India. Below is an excerpt of his glories from 'My Beloved Masters' by Śrī Śrīmad Bhakti Vijñāna Bhāratī Gosvāmī Mahārāja]
HIS LIFE: A LESSON IN SURRENDER
In 1933, Śrīla Prabhupāda Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Gosvāmī Ṭhākura awarded dīkṣā to Śrī Abhay Charan De, giving him the spiritual name Śrī Abhaya-caraṇāravinda dāsa. Even while Śrīla Prabhupāda was physically present, Śrī Abhaya-caraṇāravinda Prabhu used to submit articles he composed to the Gauḍīya Maṭha publication team to include in their magazines.
Śrīla Prabhupāda ordered Śri Abhaya-caraṇāravinda Prabhu to preach in the western countries. However, at that time, Śri Abhaya-caraṇāravinda Prabhu was unable to fulfill his gurus’ desire due to his family responsibilities as a householder. He did his best to maintain his family by establishing several pharmaceutical businesses in cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Allahabad, but despite his arduous efforts, his ventures proved unsuccessful. As a result of the great hardships he faced, his family members were constantly dissatisfied with him. Even when he fell ill, not a single member of his family came forward to help him. At that time, my gurupāda-padma, Śrī Śrīmad Bhakti Dayita Mādhava Gosvāmī Mahārāja kindly arranged for Śrī Abhaya-caraṇāravinda Prabhu’s treatment.
Śrī Abhaya-caraṇāravinda Prabhu accepted sannyāsa at the repeated insistence of Śrī Śrīmad Bhakti Prajñāna Keśava Gosvāmī Mahārāja and was given the name Śrī Śrīmad Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Mahārāja. Shortly after that, he relocated to Vṛndāvana. During his years in Vṛndāvana, he would mention time and again, “I have not carried out the order of my gurudeva; I have not preached in the western countries. This neglect is the cause of my suffering and the reason I was unsuccessful in all my endeavors. I have everything, because I have firm faith in śrī guru and his instructions. But at the same time I have nothing, as I have not done anything to fulfill his order. Although I have grown old, I will fulfill Śrīla Prabhupāda’s orders to preach in the West and thereby atone for the offence of disobeying him.”
With this mood, he travelled to America aboard a cargo ship. However, after only a short while of preaching, he fell ill and returned to India. Later, he would repentantly express, “I went to the West to fulfill my gurudeva’s orders, but I returned to India out of fear when I became a bit sick. I am not fully surrendered. I will now return to the West and preach until my dying breath, even at the risk of death.”
With this solid conviction, he returned to the West, where his preaching service met with tremendous success, so much so that he himself was amazed by the results, what to speak of others.
Bhagavān is the master of all opulences, and His pure devotee Śrīla Prabhupāda Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura inherited that wealth. Those who are completely surrendered to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s lotus feet will never face scarcity of any kind. Bhagavān will always fulfill the vow He has made to maintain His surrendered devotees:
ananyāś cintayanto māṁ ye janāḥ paryupāsate teṣāṁ nityābhiyuktānāṁ yoga-kṣemaṁ vahāmy aham
Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā (9.22)
For those who are devoid of other desires, who are always absorbed in contemplation of Me and who always worship Me, I personally carry their necessities and preserve what they presently have.
Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja’s relatives never cared for his wellbeing, neither when he was at home nor after he accepted sannyāsa. Yet, after he departed from this world, in order to argue rightful claims to his assets, those very same persons declared, “He was my father!” “He was my husband!” and so on. Such are the strange ways in which the people of this world behave.
HIS DESIRE TO UNITE ALL THE GAUḌĪYA MAṬHA BRANCHES
Both before and after accepting sannyāsa, Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja repeatedly beseeched his godbrothers Śrī Śrīmad Bhakti Vilāsa Tīrtha Gosvāmī Mahārāja, the ācārya of Śrī Caitanya Maṭha, and Śrī Śrīmad Bhakti Kevala Auḍulomi Gosvāmī Mahārāja, the ācārya of Bāghbazār Gauḍīya Maṭha, to put aside the trivial differences, individual motives and arguments between them and their godbrothers. He told them, “We must all unite and enthusiastically preach the message of Śrīman Mahāprabhu and Śrī Rūpa-Raghunātha, just as Śrīla Prabhupāda instructed us.”
Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja always had this sincere desire in the core of his heart, and his intentions were always pure. But as fate would have it, unification proved impossible, and so following the example of many of his godbrothers, he too was compelled to establish an independent institution of his own.
HIS FEARLESSNESS IN SERVICE
Every so often, while Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja was living in Śrīdhāma Vṛndāvana, he would visit Delhi to print his self-published magazine, Back to Godhead. He had very little money in those days, and so he would perform bhikṣā, even in the scorching summer sun. During his visits to Delhi, he would often stay in the Karol Bāgh branch of Śrī Gauḍīya Saṅgha, Śrī Śrīmad Bhakti Sāraṅga Gosvāmī Mahārāja’s institution.
One day, just before Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja was about to perform bhikṣā in the fierce heat, Śrī Bhakti Vaibhava Mādhava Mahārāja, a disciple of Śrīla Gosvāmī Mahārāja, stopped him, begging, “Mahārāja-jī, please do not go out in this heat. Your advanced age makes you more susceptible to heat stroke.”
Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja replied, “Someone has promised me a donation of five rupees, Mahārāja. I must retrieve it if I wish to print my magazine.”
“I will give you ten rupees,” Śrī Mādhava Mahārāja pledged. “But please do not go out at this time of day.”
Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja said, “Fine. Because of your affection, I will stay back for now. But in the future, I will not keep any stone unturned in my endeavors to serve Bhagavān. I will remain completely dependent on Him. I firmly believe that no harm can come to me as long as He wishes to utilize this body of mine in His service.”
HIS TIME IN VṚNDĀVANA
Prior to travelling to the West, Śrī Śrīmad Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Mahārāja resided in Vṛndāvana, initially at Chipī-galī and later near Sevā-kuñja at Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Dāmodara Mandira. He would regularly meet and perform kīrtana with his godbrothers Śrī Rāghava-caitanya Prabhu and Śrī Girindra-govardhana Prabhu at our Śrī Caitanya Gauḍīya Maṭha. My godbrother Śrī Bhakti Prasāda Purī Mahārāja and I would sit behind them with a number of devotees, singing in response to the call of their kīrtana.
When Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja first saw our Vṛndāvana maṭha’s kīrtana hall, he said, “Previously, we Sārasvata Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas had no place of our own to sit and perform kathā and kīrtana in Vṛndāvana. Thankfully, Śrīpāda Mādhava Mahārāja has now filled that void.”
ŚRĪ KṚṢṆA-NĀMA-SAṄKĪRTANA FOR ALL OCCASIONS
The assembly hall in the Vṛndāvana branch of our Śrī Caitanya Gauḍīya Maṭha was completed in 1964. Around that time, I was informed that the state governor, Śrī Viśvanātha dāsa, was planning to visit Vṛndāvana. On behalf of Śrī Caitanya Gauḍīya Maṭha, I sent him a postcard invitation to visit the maṭha, which he kindly accepted.
Guru Mahārāja was not present in Śrīdhāma Vṛndāvana at the time, and because my godbrother Śrī Bhakti Prasāda Purī Mahārāja and I considered ourselves junior, both in age and in the realm of bhajana, we invited two of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciples—Śrī Śrīmad Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Mahārāja and Śrīmad Rāghava-caitanya Prabhu—to receive the governor and speak to him about the specialty of the Gauḍīya Maṭha.
Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja explained to us, “There is no better greeting than the performance of saṅkīrtana. Bhagavān incarnates wherever saṅkīrtana is conducted. What could be more auspicious for the governor than the presence of Bhagavān Himself? Because the governor has already accepted your invitation, we will hold nothing back in our efforts to bring about his spiritual welfare. The Gauḍīya Maṭha extensively preaches that śrī kṛṣṇa-nama-saṅkīrtana is the only means of deliverance in this age of Kali. The governor will certainly understand this message once he hears our saṅkīrtana.”
When the governor arrived, we welcomed him with saṅkīrtana performed under the guidance of Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja. Afterward, Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja related to him the glories and unique contributions of the Gauḍīya Maṭha. Throughout the course of their conversation, the district magistrate accompanying the governor repeatedly intimated through hand gestures that it was time to leave. The governor, however, dismissed him. “Just wait a bit,” he said. “Where else will we receive the opportunity to hear such wonderful saṅkīrtana?”
Seeing the governor’s reaction made me realize the transcendental glory of Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja’s advice that śrī kṛṣṇa-nāma-saṅkīrtana is truly the solution to all situations.
THE ORIGIN OF THE NAME ‘ISKCON’
Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja’s sole intention for coming to America was to fulfill the innermost desire of his gurudeva by successfully disseminating the teachings of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu in the West. At first, Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja had many ideas about how to do this. In the end, however, after observing the local peoples’ condition and by the inspiration of śrī guru and Bhagavān, he began sitting in a park and chanting the pañca-tattva mantra and mahā-mantra: “śrī kṛṣṇa caitanya, prabhu nityānanda, śrī advaita, gadādhara, śrīvāsādi gaura bhakta vṛnda” and “hare kṛṣṇa hare kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa hare hare, hare rāma hare rāma rāma rāma hare hare,” respectively. As a result of his total surrender to the lotus feet of Śrīla Prabhupāda and his intense desire to follow his gurudeva’s instructions, his kīrtana began to attract many sincere souls.
One day, a devotee asked him, “What inspired you to name your institution ISKCON?”
Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja replied, “When I was sitting in a park in America one day and singing the mahā-mantra and pañca-tattva mantra, a stranger approached me and asked, ‘What kind of consciousness does this type of singing awaken?’
“By Bhagavān’s inspiration, I answered, ‘Kṛṣṇa consciousness.’ On that day, I decided I would name my future organization the International Society for Kṛṣṇa Consciousness.”
SERVING ŚRĪ GURU THROUGH THE SERVICE OF OTHERS
I heard from some of Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja’s disciples that during his early days in the West, he would not only cook and serve prasāda to newcomers, but he would even dispose of their plates, clean the place where they ate, and wash the cooking pots himself. This went on for a long time. He never asked anyone to assist him in any service. Rather, he encouraged them to give their full attention to receiving śabda-brahma, divine sound vibration. It was only after that śabda-brahma, in the form of his hari-kathā and kīrtanas, poured through their ears and entered their hearts that one of the regular visitors stepped forward and asked Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja if he could help him. Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja welcomed this service, and after that, many more people began to come forward to serve in various ways.
When I heard that Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja served in this way at such an advanced age, I came to realize the depth of his dedication to fulfilling the desire of his gurudeva, and that he was indeed a most exalted, transcendental personality.
PROTECTING ALL FROM BOGUS ‘BHAGAVĀNS’
Many of India’s spiritual figures have achieved great success preaching in the West, both prior to and after Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja’s efforts there. A number of them, being devoid of surrender and pure-heartedness, declared themselves to be God, such as the fraudulent ‘Bhagavān’ Rajanīśa, otherwise known as Osho. Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja preached against such imposters with bold determination, proclaiming the purport of Śrīla Viśvanātha Carkravartī’s statement:
sāksād-dharitvena samasta-śāstrair uktas tathā bhāvyata eva sadbhiḥ kintu prabhor yaḥ priya eva tasya vande guroḥ śrī-caraṇāravindam
The scriptures unanimously proclaim śrī guru to be sākṣāt-hari, directly Śrī Hari. This is a fact jointly corroborated by all saintly persons. Yet at the same time, śrī guru is very dear to Bhagavān. I adore the lotus feet of that śrī gurudeva. *
He repeatedly urged everyone, “Jīvādhame īśvara jñāna kabhu nā kôribā—never think a lowly soul to be the Lord.” In this way, he protected everyone from this frightening, undesirable proclivity (anartha).
A FULLY SURRENDERED SOUL NEVER SUCCUMBS TO THE TEMPTATIONS OF LUXURY
Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja knew both impoverishment and abundance. But this is inconsequential. What is significant is that the moods in his heart, his inclination to serve, and his surrender to śrī guru, Vaiṣṇavas and Bhagavān never changed. Not everyone has the capacity to refrain from enjoying. It is difficult for most people to resist enjoying, even to a slight degree, the luxuries afforded them, nor do many possess the ability to utilize such luxuries in the service of Bhagavān. It is rare to see a person’s views and conduct remain unaffected by wealth. In this regard, there is a cautionary tale about King Nahuṣa.
When King Nahuṣa attained the position of Indra, he expressed his desire to enjoy Indra’s wife, Śacī. When Śacī found out about this, she consulted a group of ṛṣis, who advised her to inform the king that if he truly wants her, he must come to her on a palanquin carried on the shoulders of ṛṣis. Śacī followed the ṛṣis’ advice and sent King Nahuṣa the message.
King Nahuṣa, being unable to digest and adapt to his new luxurious life, became exceedingly covetous, so much so that he did indeed order ṛṣis to carry his palanquin. Moreover, while being carried, he order them, “Sāpa, sāpa!—Go faster, go faster!” Seeing his wretched mentality, Śrī Agastya Ṛṣi cursed him to become a snake.
Because he lost his composure with his newfound wealth, King Nahuṣa fell into a wretched condition. Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja, however, remained unaffected, because he was fully surrendered to the lotus feet of Bhagavān and firmly dedicated to fulfilling the cherished desire of his gurudeva. All the luxuries in the world could not have affected him.
INDIA’S TRUE AMBASSADOR
Gradually, Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja introduced the West to almost all the aspects of the world’s ancient Vedic culture, including the congregational chanting of Bhagavān’s names; the study and recitation of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and other scriptures; the proper method to install Bhagavān’s deity forms and the standards and regulations by which to worship Them; the observance of Vaiṣṇava etiquette; the Vedic Indian style of dress, that is, dhotī (lower garment) and kurtā (traditional shirt) for men, and sārī and petticoat for women; and the importance of applying tilaka, maintaining a śikhā and wearing a sacred thread.
Additionally, he taught his disciples how to not only prepare exceptionally delicious and nutritious vegetarian dishes using milk, yogurt, fruits, roots, vegetables and grains, but also how to offer those dishes to Bhagavān and respectfully honor them as prasāda. He also inspired them to become self-sufficient through such sustainable practices as farming, serving cows and establishing gurukulas.
Rather than absorbing the foreign ways and customs of the Western people, Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja taught them to accept and properly follow traditional Vedic culture and thereby become expert in all its fields. It is for this reason that a famous Bengali newspaper, Ānanda Bāzār Patrikā, honored him by printing the following commendation:
The diplomatic ambassadors of today are embarrassed by the native culture of India. They return from abroad having adopted foreign attire, conduct and cuisine. Failing to introduce other nations to the great customs of India, they instead disgrace our country and waste the nation’s wealth. The Founder-ācārya of ISKCON, Śrī Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Mahārāja, however, has proved himself to be a true ambassador of India, even without the financial support or regard of his country. Through his selfless work, he has set a noble precedent for all political leaders.
CURBING SOCIETY’S PROBLEMS THROUGH KṚṢṆA CONSCIOUSNESS
I heard Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja once say that a couple somewhere in the West had filed a court case against him that accused him of brainwashing their son. They wanted the court to deny him permission to visit or preach in their country. The judge, however, not only ruled in Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja’s favor, but also praised him, saying, “Despite the fact that we, the government, have spent millions upon millions of dollars to end the rampant drug abuse and promiscuity prevalent among urban youths today, we have been unable to check it even slightly. This svāmī, however, has inspired thousands of individuals to renounce such habits and dedicate their lives to spiritual pursuits. Actually, he should be rewarded for his unmatched service to our society.”
PROGRESS IS THE PRINCIPLE
One day, my godbrother Śrī Anaṅga-mohana Brahmacārī (now Śrī Bhakti Mayukha Bhikṣu Mahārāja) asked Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja, “Mahārāja-jī, although scripture clearly states that tilaka is to be applied up to the hairline, your disciples apply tilaka that extends to the top of their heads. Why do you not correct them?”
Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja responded, “Prabhu, as of yet, I have told them only of the glories of wearing tilaka. They are very new to Vaiṣṇava society and are entirely unaware of Vedic customs. Just as new students progress from first grade to second grade to third grade and so on, my disciples will gradually climb all the successive steps of the staircase leading to the spiritual realm. Most of them used to eat the flesh of cows, but have since renounced such abominable habits and are now trying their level best to observe proper conduct, bit by bit.
“I am delighted by their progress, and I am firmly convinced that if they maintain such steadfast dedication, they will continue to progress even in my absence by attaining the foot dust (mercy) of advanced Vaiṣṇavas, by whose mercy they will gain the qualification to understand the subtle principles of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s prema-dharma and thereby make their lives successful.”
AN EXPERT AND PATIENT TEACHER
Another time, Śrī Anaṅga-mohana Brahmacārī was waiting outside Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja’s room hoping to have his darśana, when he saw a new Western devotee sitting nearby, about to apply tilaka. The devotee had a piece of gopī-candana in his hand, but had no ācamana cup or any water at all with which to make a paste, and so he spat into his hand and started rubbing the gopī-candana in it. Śrī Anaṅga-mohana Brahmacārī was shocked to see this. He immediately called out to the devotee, “This is completely improper! Why are you doing this!”
At that time, Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja came out of his room, called for Anaṅga-mohana Brahmacārī to come over and very softly said, “There is no need to instruct this devotee. Somehow or other, he has received the inspiration to put on tilaka, which does not exist in his native culture. What problem is there if he is not aware of all the rules and regulations just yet? The time will surely come when he will learn the proper way to perform all the activities of bhakti.”
Here, Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja did not establish a new siddhānta for his disciples to follow for all time. Rather, because he was an expert teacher, he taught this particular disciple according to his nature and qualification.
VISITING HIS GODBROTHERS’ MAṬHAS DURING THE CONSTRUCTION OF HIS ISKCON MĀYĀPURA TEMPLE
Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja set a noble example by staying in a bamboo hut in Śrīdhāma Māyāpura while his temple there was under construction. A devotee who is immersed in bhajana lives happily anywhere and is supremely satisfied by any and all circumstances.
Before his bamboo bhajana-kuṭīra was built, he stayed in Kolera-ḍāṅgā at Śrī Caitanya Sārasvata Maṭha with Śrī Śrīmad Bhakti Rakṣaka Śrīdhara Gosvāmī Mahārāja. Each morning, he would cross the Gaṅgā and spend the day overseeing the construction of his ISKCON temple in Māyāpura. During that time, he often honored lunch prasāda with us at our Māyāpura branch of Śrī Caitanya Gauḍīya Maṭha, where I received the good fortune to serve him prasāda on many occasions.
PATIENTLY AND AFFECTIONATELY TEACHING HIS NEW DISCIPLES
Soon after establishing the ISKCON temple in Māyāpura, Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja inaugurated his annual Śrī Navadvīpa-dhāma parikramā. During the parikramā, he would send his disciples to have darśana of Śrī Caitanya Gauḍīya Maṭha, Īśodyāna. When the parikramā party arrived before the deities, some of the newer Western devotees entered the temple with their shoes hanging around their necks from tied-together shoelaces. Guru Mahārāja was present in the temple hall at that time. When we told them it is inappropriate to enter the temple or go before the deities with shoes, they replied, “We were told not to wear them on our feet while entering the temple. No one told us we cannot put them around our necks.”
Guru Mahārāja then very affectionately explained, “If it is prohibited in the temple to wear shoes on our feet, the lowest limbs of our bodies, what can be said about wearing them on any other higher limb? If our shoes happen to touch any limb above our feet, we must purify ourselves by bathing in the Gaṅgā with our clothes on. If you are told that someone is unqualified to speak to you, does this not imply he is unqualified to speak to your superiors, also?”
The Western devotees were quite satisfied by Guru Mahārāja’s explanation. They said, “We are very new to Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Our spiritual master spends most of his time patiently teaching us many things. Being very affectionate toward us, he does not become angry, even when we continually make mistakes. Today you have kindly taught us a new lesson that we will always try to follow.”
A RECIPROCAL INVITATION
When Śrīla Bhaktivedānta Svāmī Mahārāja came to Hyderabad another time, I invited him to honor prasāda in our maṭha. He mercifully accepted my invitation and honored prasāda with great joy. As he was leaving, he invited me and my godbrother Śrī Anaṅga-mohana Brahmacārī (now Śrī Bhakti Mayukha Bhikṣu Mahārāja) to one of his events. Fortunately, we were able to attend. At the event, Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja had Śrī Anaṅga-mohana Brahmacārī play mṛdaṅga, and following the lecture and kīrtana, he mercifully had us sit with him to honor prasāda.
PAYING DUE HONOR TO AN ĀCĀRYA
I once invited Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja to visit Śrī Caitanya Gauḍīya Maṭha in Chandigarh while he was visiting the ISKCON temple there. He graciously accepted my invitation and arrived at the maṭha on the scheduled day. During his visit, my godbrother Śrī Rāma-prasāda Prabhu offered him a new wooden vyāsāsana, which he had constructed and carved with his own hands. Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja, however, refused to sit on it. He explained, “A new siṁhāsana must first be offered to and used by the maṭha’s ācārya.”
That day, we served Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja and his disciples prasāda. He very lovingly honored prasāda, and later appreciatively told us, “Today, after so long, I have honored the type of prasāda I am used to honoring. My disciples cook many preparations for me, but there is a big difference between their way of cooking and ours.”
Later, when Guru Mahārāja came to Chandigarh, he too declined Śrī Rāma-prasāda Prabhu’s request to accept the vyāsāsana he had made for Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja. He said, “How could I sit on it if my godbrother refused to do so? According to my godbrother’s words—‘Only the ācārya of the maṭha should sit on a new siṁhāsana’—I will place my gurudeva on it, for he is the true ācārya of this maṭha.”
Thereafter, Guru Mahārāja kept a portrait of Śrīla Prabhupāda on the vyāsāsana.
THE RESPONSIBILITY INHERENT IN ACCEPTING OFFERINGS
Just before Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja manifested his disappearance pastimes, Henry Ford’s great grandson Alfred Ford, whose initiated name is Śrī Ambarīṣa dāsa, told Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja of his desire to fund the construction of a university in Kurukṣetra dedicated to teaching Bhagavad-Gītā.
However, Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja declined his offer. “I will not be in this world for much longer,” He said. “If I take your money without being able to ensure it will properly be used in the Lord’s service, then I will be at fault.”
Through this example, Śrīla Svāmī Mahārāja has demonstrated that we should accept only that which we are certain we can utilize in the Lord’s service, otherwise there is a chance of incurring fault.