We tend to think that since Prabhupāda was a pure devotee and his preaching was backed up by Lord Caitanya Himself then it must have been smooth sailing all along. Sure, there must have been difficulties but they were just human limitations – the need to prepare to go to the West, for example, or the need to translate first Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, or the embarrassment of immature disciples constantly screwing things up, or lack of help from his godbrothers, to put it mildly, or cunning Indians eager to ride on his coattails. Basically, the problems of management of his preaching mission, which in itself was perfect.
Most of the time it probably was, but not always. He met quite a few dull headed people who sometimes were openly hostile, even if in general everyone he met was very impressed by his personality. I’m certainly not an expert on Prabhupāda’s life but some things are plain obvious.
First of all, we learn about Prabhupāda’s life from his disciples, which means we learn only the good things. It doesn’t mean they are factually incorrect and we are robbing ourselves of the “full picture” but it means that they tend to report about victories and want to prove that Prabhupāda conquered them all. This bias is not a reflection on his personality but rather a spin on historical facts. They are still there, we just don’t talk about them, don’t dwell on them, and, probably, don’t learn appropriate lessons.
Sometimes Śrīla Prabhupāda was downright sexist, in the modern lingo. One time devotees arranged for an interview with a reporter but when Prabhupāda learned that she was female he visibly deflated because he thought it would be a giant waste of time. Sure enough, the woman started by asking non-essential questions about superficial aspects of our society, which was a fair game for reporters but not for preachers like Prabhupāda, who can’t be expected to behave like an ordinary interviewee grateful for the exposure.
We assume that when Prabhupāda engages with the outside world, like reporters or businessmen, he would behave on their terms but it’s a wrong assumption. He wasn’t going to play any roles other than a staunch servant of Mahāprabhu’s mission. Sometimes the mission required shrewd negotiation techniques or diplomatic tact but almost always Prabhupāda used it from a devotee’s position.
There is a famous incident with acquiring Rādhā Londonīśvara deities, for example, when Prabhupāda played on inherent Hindu obligation to donate things to sādhus when the owner clearly wanted to be paid. In negotiating prices for other purchases, like buildings for our temples, he would sometimes ask for a donation straight away, to the embarrassment of his disciples who arranged the meeting. I don’t know if he really believed it might have worked, but it certainly altered the mindset of the opposing party, which was suddenly forced to negotiate not from their price down but from zero up.
I mean, isn’t it clever – instead of accepting the value of a property at 300K and trying to lower it, Prabhupāda imposed the initial value of zero and forced the seller to prove that he needs to get paid at all instead of making a donation? This suddenly becomes a moral, not a business decision.
Anyway, this kind of things Prabhupāda did according to time, place, and circumstances, and his own upbringing, they were not taken from the books of previous ācāryas so we shouldn’t focus on them too much. Preaching, however, is different, we should play close attention to how Prabhupāda did that.
In case of that female reporter it took some time, perhaps half an hour, to get her on the right track and talk about what really matters – life, death, eternal soul, and our relationships with the Supreme. Before that Prabhupāda was answering her questions with throwaway one liners, sometimes with a perfect solution: “Just read our books, then you will understand.” Eventually he did get her on the right track, though, and congratulated her on finally asking intelligent questions. Even then, Prabhupāda wasn’t satisfied and asked his disciples to screen reporters more thoroughly, he wasn’t going to preach to less intelligent people, who just happened to be women.
I also know of at least two of his lectures where audience was rude and even hostile, openly throwing insulting words towards him and the devotees. They both happened to be at universities – so much for the value of modern education – they are still cats and dogs, but now more puffed up than ever.
In one case, in Sweden, it happened during the first lecture in the series and afterwards devotees made sure everything went smoothly, and that’s a lesson we should probably learn, too. Preaching is not a random affair and it must be properly managed. Shouting match is not preaching, the audience must be receptive to the message and feel respect for the speaker, only then the talk will be successful. It’s actually easy to understand because that’s how Arjuna approached Kṛṣṇa – in a humble state of mind and looking for answers. This principle is not going to change in whatever circumstances it is applied.
Unfortunately, it’s not so obvious in the modern world where people expect debates and arguments and losing temper and raising your voice is seen as par for the course. They insist that this is the civilized and enlightened way to arrive to the truth but in the end they get Donald Trump as their hero.
In Sweden Prabhupāda wasn’t verbally assaulted but got a full taste of modern debating anyway. He’d had none of it. That’s another lesson, too – we should never stoop to their level and try to raise the conversation to our standard instead. If they can’t behave like humans we shouldn’t behave like animals either. We can accommodate them only so far, at some point it becomes useless. In that case Prabhupāda not only refused to indulge in back and forth arguments but also refused to change the topic, practically forcing the audience to follow the prescribed role – submissive and eager listeners.
This was the time when he was asked if he thought himself to be the first class man and he humbly replied, with tears appearing in his eyes, that he is the fifth class man because he serves everyone else including the fourth class.
Some other contentious issues he simply delegated his disciples, which is another lesson for us – we can’t delegate things to anyone else so we must somehow deal with problematic inquiries ourselves.
At Australian university things got so hot that physical confrontation was becoming a possibility. Once again, Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t loose his cool. When he saw that people were not ready to sit and listen he suggested to move onto Q&A instead, which didn’t really help. The whole lecture ended in disarray but, overall, Madhudviṣa managed the situation brilliantly and defended both ISKCON and Śrīla Prabhupāda with a cool head and rational arguments, earning a visible approval from Prabhupāda. At least something was salvaged from that disaster.
Another lesson that could be learned from that incident is that while our speakers must be shown respect so that the audience feels the same, too, we shouldn’t go over the limit where it would be seen as ostentatious. In Australian case it was the arrival in Rolls-Royce that did it, a less conspicuous vehicle would have probably been accepted favorably.
We should remember that there are always people who are more troublesome than others and sometimes they can steal the show, which what happened in Melbourne, so we need to be mindful of the audience composition, too, so that common sense and decency always prevail. This means that replying to trolls on unmoderated platforms will only cause trouble and will contaminate everything, including what bystanders think of us. No one comes out of a wresting match with pigs clean as a whistle.
Point is, preaching can be dangerous even to ourselves, and even Prabhupāda himself was not always successful at it, such is the life in Kali Yuga.