Vanity thought #1632. Deciphering Prabhupada

Sometimes it’s difficult. We can hear a cohesive account of what Śrīla Prabhupāda said and what he meant but it’s just one person’s impression. Other people hearing the same conversation might walk away with different conclusions and recollect it differently.

Sometimes we have recordings and transcriptions and it seems pretty straightforward on the surface but only if we don’t pay attention to details and general atmosphere. We have to be especially careful about this when we take quotes out of context. Take this straightforward question followed by a straightforward answer (Lecture):

Devotee: When you address a woman do you use the word “Mātājī”? Is that the right, proper word for her?
Prabhupāda: Mātājī. Yes, very good. “Mother.” All right. Chant. (end)

If you think about it a little, however, it doesn’t address our current dispute on the use of prabhu or mātājī at all. I mean it failed to convince proponents of “prabhu” which means some people do not see it as very clear. For one thing, it doesn’t prohibit use of “prabhu” when addressing women. It also doesn’t explain why Prabhupāda himself used “prabhu” when referring to his female disciples.

What is worth noting in today’s context is that this question came right at the end of the lecture and was a follow up on a previous question by Brahmānanda on how women should see men which, in turn, was a follow up on the quote from Cāṇakya Paṇḍita used in the lecture itself. Prabhupāda just spent a few minutes explaining how sannyāsīs should be treated by the society in general and on the proper attitude of those collecting alms. When considering this whole dynamic it becomes clear that for Prabhupāda the question about mātājī was a bit out of line and, considering all he has said before, he couldn’t give any other answer and couldn’t be bothered to pursue this any further. The class was over and the same topic was raised for a third time.

So yes, there’s an instruction to address female devotees as mātājī, everybody knows that already, but it doesn’t answer the arguments brought in favor of using prabhu either. Maybe they are right, maybe they are wrong, Prabhupāda didn’t say, he had no time and no reason to discuss it any further and his mind was probably on the next thing on his schedule already.

Maybe my interpretation of his mental state is wrong but it’s possible. I’m not going to solve this dispute today, I’m just pointing out how even simple quotes can be seen in a different light and different conclusions drawn.

There was one occasion when Prabhupāda was giving send off insructions to Lokanātha, now Svāmī, on how to preach to Indian villagers. If I ever come back to the topic of “pristine Vedic culture” there was a lot said about it. What interests me today is the earlier conversation on the same day involving Harikeśa Svāmī. I read it in Hari Śauri’s Transcendental Diary and it’s often quoted on the internet.

In Hari Śauri’s book Harikeśa Svāmī read out letters to Prabhupāda and to himself about preaching in Eastern Europe and how excited newly made devotees there were. Śrīla Prabhupāda was very appreciative and dictated replies to those letters. This is where the quote usually starts from but it’s the ending that draws everyone’s attention. Source.

    Harikesa began to explain that, apart from the risks involved, a big obstacle was a lack of funding. He said that even something as basic as finding something to eat was a major difficulty.

    “So if there is nothing else, you can eat meat if you have to,” Srila Prabhupada told him matter-of-factly.

    Harikesa’s mouth dropped open a little bit and his eyes widened. Not knowing if Prabhupada was serious or not, he tried to ignore what he had just heard and continued to say that even if he had money, there was nothing to buy.

    Completely serious, Prabhupada again told him, “So if there is difficulty, you can take meat.”

    Harikesa stopped. He appeared dazed as he contemplated the possible implications. “But Prabhupada, what about my consciousness?”

    Damn your consciousness,” Prabhupada replied. “You must go on preaching.

So much for varṇāśrama when preaching is at stake – damn you consciousness, damn your varṇāśrama, you must go on preaching.

Pretty straightforward, but it’s not how the same conversation is remembered by Harikeśa, now not Svāmī, himself. Here is his recollection of how it went. Source.

He was trying to get into Śrīla Prabhupāda’s circle of trust but failing again and again. He was jealous of Hari Śauri who joined Prabhupāda’s party later than him but quickly became Prabhupāda’s confidant. He was jealous or Tamāla Kṛṣṇa Gosvāmī and Brahmānanda who had long, personal, and very warm conversations with him while Harikeśa got only beatings, figuratively, of course. When he took sannyāsa he was sent away to Eastern Europe but rejoined Prabhupāda’s party in France and then followed it to Vṛndāvana where Prabhupāda again insisted that he stopped hanging out with him and went preaching instead.

Harikeṣa Svāmī was pretty edgy by that time and tried to find all sorts of excuses not to go but stay and transcribe Prabhupāda’s lectures and conversations and it’s at this moment where the dialog about eating meat took place. Prabhupāda would have said anything to get rid of him by then and so he did – if you say there’s nothing to eat there than you should go and eat meat, but preaching must go on. His final words were:

    Make my books. Distribute my books. Preach. That’s all. Don’t come back here crawling on the floor, wanting to sit in front of me and wave your fingers.

This line wasn’t reported by Hari Śauri at all, and the whole conversation in not on vanisource. Is it because of the controversial “eat meat” injunction? Or is it because it wasn’t recorded? We will never know, I guess.

My point is that the same talk looks very different to two people who where there, and Prabhupāda himself might have had a third opinion, too, and it’s pretty hard to guess what it was. Personally, I don’t think it could be used to justify eating meat for the sake of preaching at all. When Prabhupāda went to the US for the first time and later to Russia he was afraid there’d be no vegetables to eat there but he never said he’d eat meat himself. Here it was said for the sake of the argument to make his obstinate disciple finally agree to go and preach instead of seeking personal association.

In the end Harikeśa Svāmī went to Eastern Europe and made it into the most prosperous ISKCON zone in the eighties, all based on printing and distributing books, and then brought the Hare Kṛṣṇa revolution in former USSR. We should never underestimate the importance of following guru’s orders over our personal conceptions of what service we should do.

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