Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (Bengali: Abhoy Charonarobindo Bhoktibedanto Swamy Probhupad; Sanskrit: अभय चरणारविन्द भक्तिवेदान्त स्वामी प्रभुपाद, IAST: abhaya-caraṇāravinda bhakti-vedānta svāmī prabhupāda; 1 September 1896 – 14 November 1977) was a Gaudiya Vaishnava spiritual teacher (guru) and the founder preceptor (acharya) of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly known as the “Hare Krishna Movement”. His mission was to propagate Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a school of Vaishnavite Hinduism that had been taught to him by his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, throughout the world. Born Abhay Charan De in Calcutta, he was educated at the prestigious local Scottish Church College. Before adopting the life of a pious renunciant (vanaprastha) in 1950, he was married with children and owned a small pharmaceutical business.
In 1959 he took a vow of renunciation (sannyasa) and started writing commentaries on Vaishnava scriptures. In his later years, as a traveling Vaishnava monk, he became an influential communicator of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology to India and specifically to the West through his leadership of ISKCON, founded in 1966. As the founder of ISKCON, he “emerged as a major figure of the Western counterculture, initiating thousands of young Americans.” Despite attacks from anti-cult groups, he received a favorable welcome from many religious scholars, such as J. Stillson Judah, Harvey Cox, Larry Shinn and Thomas Hopkins, who praised Bhaktivedanta Swami’s translations and defended the group against distorted media images and misinterpretations. In respect to his achievements, religious leaders from other Gaudiya Vaishnava movements have also given him credit.
He has been described as a charismatic leader, in the sense used by sociologist Max Weber, as he was successful in acquiring followers in the United States, Europe, India and elsewhere.After his death in 1977, ISKCON, the society he founded based on a type of Hindu Krishnaism using the Bhagavata Purana as a central scripture, continued to grow and is respected in India, though there have been disputes about leadership among his followers. In February 2014, ISKCON’s news agency reported to have reached a milestone of distributing over half a billion books authored by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, since 1965.
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 honor 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. The professors, most of whom were Europeans, were known as sober, moral men, and it is believed that the students received a good education. 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 (অভয় চরণ দে) was a member of the English Society as well as that of the Sanskrit Society, and it has been suggested that his education provided him a foundation for his future leadership. He graduated in 1920 with majors in English, philosophy and economics. However he rejected his diploma in response to Gandhi’s independence movement. His refusal to accept the diploma he had earned was in protest of the British. He also wore the homespun cotton cloth the followers of Gandhi wore in support of home industry and protest of British rule in India.
In 1922, when he first met his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, he was requested to spread the message of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the English language. In 1932 he became a formally initiated disciple of Bhaktisiddhanta. In 1944, (from his front room at Sita Kanta Banerjee, Calcutta), he started the publication called Back to Godhead, for which he acted as writer, designer, publisher, editor, copy editor and distributor. He personally designed the logo, an effulgent figure of Caitanya Mahaprabhu in the upper left corner, with the motto: “Godhead is Light, Nescience is darkness” greeting the readers. In his first magazine he wrote:
“ Under the circumstances since 1936 up to now, I was simply speculating whether I shall venture this difficult task and that without any means and capacity; but as none have discouraged me, I have now taken courage to take up the work. ”
— A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Back to Godhead magazine (Vol.1, 1–4, 1944)
In 1947, the Gaudiya Vaishnava Society recognised his scholarship with the title Bhaktivedanta, (bhakti-vedānta) meaning “one who has realised that devotional service to the Supreme Lord is the end of all knowledge” (with the words Bhakti, indicating devotion and Vedanta indicating conclusive knowledge).
His later well known name, Prabhupāda, is a Sanskrit title, literally meaning “he who has taken the shelter of the lotus feet of the Lord” where prabhu denotes “Lord”, and pāda means “taking shelter.” Also, “at whose feet masters sit”. This name was used as a respectful form of address by his disciples from late 1967 early 1968 onwards. Previous to this, as with his early disciples, followers used to call him “Swamiji”
From 1950 onwards, he lived at the medieval Radha-Damodar mandir in the holy town of Vrindavan, where he began his commentary and translation work of the Sanskrit work Bhagavata Purana. Of all notable Vrindavana’s temples, the Radha-Damodara mandir had at the time the largest collection of various copies of the original writings of the Six Gosvamis and their followers – more than two thousand separate manuscripts, many of them three hundred, some even four hundred years old. His guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, had always encouraged him that “If you ever get money, print books” referring to the need of literary presentation of the Vaishnava culture.
Keshavaji Gaudiya Matha was the place where Bhaktivedanta used to live, he had written and studied in the library of this building, here he edited the Gauḍīya Patrikā magazine and this is the place where he donated the murti of Lord Chaitanya who stands on the altar beside the Deities of Radha Krishna (named Śrī Śrī Rādhā Vinodavihārījī). During his visit in September 1959 he entered the doors of this matha dressed in white, as Abhoy Babu, but would be leaving dressed in saffron, a sannyasi. He received the sannyasa name Swami (स्वामी Svāmi), not to be confused with the title Swami. In this matha, in Mathura Vrndavana, Abhoy Charan Bhaktivedanta took Vaishnava renunciate vows,sannyasa, from his friend and godbrother Bhakti Prajnana Keshava, and following this he single-handedly published the first three volumes covering seventeen chapters of the first book of Bhagavata Purana, filling three volumes of four hundred pages each with a detailed commentary. Introduction to the first volume was a biographical sketch of Caitanya Mahāprabhu. He then left India, obtaining free passage on a freight ship called the Jaladuta, with the aim and a hope of fulfilling his spiritual master’s instruction to spread the message of Caitanya Mahaprabhu around the world. In his possession were a suitcase, an umbrella, a supply of dry cereal, about eight dollars worth of Indian currency, and several boxes of books.
When he sailed to the United States in 1965, his trip was not sponsored by any religious organization, nor was he met upon arrival by a group of loyal followers. As the Indian freighter Jaladuta neared his destination, the enormity of his intended task weighed on him. On 13 September he wrote in his diary, “Today I have disclosed my mind to my companion, Lord Sri Krishna.”On this occasion and on a number of others, he called on Krishna for help in his native Bengali. Examining these compositions, academics regard them as “intimate records of his prayerful preparation for what lay ahead” and a view on “how Bhaktivedanta Swami understood his own identity and mission.”
“ I do not know why You have brought me here. Now You can do whatever You like with me. But I guess You have some business here, otherwise why would You bring me to this terrible place? How will I make them understand this message of Krishna consciousness? I am very unfortunate, unqualified and most fallen. Therefore I am seeking Your benediction so that I can convince them, for I am powerless to do so on my own. ”
By journeying to USA, he was attempting to fulfill the wish of his guru, possible only by the grace of “his dear Lord Krishna”. It is in July 1966 “global missionary Vaishnavism” was brought to the West by Bhaktivedanta Swami, “the soul agent”, founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York City. Bhaktivedanta Swami spent much of the last decade of his life setting up the institution of ISKCON. Since he was the Society’s leader, his personality and management were responsible for much of ISKCON’s growth and the reach of his mission.
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.
After a group of devotees and a temple had been established in New York another center was started in San Francisco in 1967. From there he traveled throughout America with his disciples, popularizing the movement through street chanting (sankirtana), book distribution and public speeches.
One of 108 worldwide temples he opened by 1977, was dedicated to Krishna-Balarama (pictured above) in Vrindavana, India
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. Over the following years his continuing leadership role took him around the world some several times setting up temples and communities in all of the major continents.By the time of his death in Vrindavan in 1977, ISKCON had become an internationally known expression of Vaishnavism.
In the twelve years from his arrival in New York until his final days, he:
circled the globe fourteen times on lecture tours that took him to six continents
initiated many disciples, awarding sannyasa initiations
introduced Vedic gurukul education to a Western audience
directed the founding of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, which claims to be the world’s largest publisher of ancient and classical Vaishnava religious texts
founded the religious colony New Vrindavan in West Virginia,
authored more than eighty books (with many available online) on Vedantic philosophy, religion, literature and culture (including four published originally in Bengali)
introduced international celebrations in the capitals of the world like that of Jagannatha processions
watched ISKCON grow to a confederation of more than 108 temples, various institutes and farm communities
Through his mission, he followed and communicated the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and introduced bhakti yoga to an international audience. Within Gaudiya Vaishnavism this was viewed as the fulfillment of a long time mission to introduce Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings to the world.
In his discussion with historian Arnold J. Toynbee in London, he is quoted as saying: “I have started this Krishna Conscious Movement among the Indians and Americans and for the next ten thousand years it will increase.”
According to the most recent issue of Back to Godhead magazine, founded by Prabhupada, there are presently over 400 temples and farm communities listed to visit. The magazine lists only the major centers, there are many more homes turned temple that hold programs as well that aren’t close by regular temples (Back to Godhead). Prabhupada’s initiated disciples and grand disciples number in the tens or hundreds of thousands with millions of more believers who accept his teachings as genuine and bona-fide throughout the world.