We almost midway between Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance day of 2020 and of 2021, so what am I talking about? There is a paradox of sorts there – on his disappearance days we make special efforts to remember him and so we come closer, he actually “appears” in our consciousness, while in the middle of the year he kind of “disappears”. But that’s not what this article is about.
What I want to reflect on here is largely an Indian thing, though it manifests among western devotees, too, in somewhat different ways. When I say it’s an “Indian” thing it doesn’t mean all Indians are affected in the same way – there are simply too many Indian devotees to fit under any particular umbrella. I’m talking about a particular slice I see in particular communities and I hope it doesn’t spread to other Indian devotees elsewhere. These affected sangas are significant and non-trivial, and therefore I feel the problem deserves to be addressed.
It’s “Indian” because they see Srila Prabhupada as one of them. Krishna is their God, not Prabhupada’s God. Bhagavatam is their purana, not Prabhupada’s purana. Lord Caitanya is their saint, not Prabhupada’s. Okay, Gaudiya Vaishnavas consider Lord Caitanya to be Krishna Himself, but for most Indians He was only a saint and if Gaydiyas make claims otherwise they accept them as “okay okay, whatever…” Indians are followers of “sanatana dharma”, as they love to proclaim, not followers of Prabhupada.
In other words, Srila Prabhupada is not as essential to them as to western devotees who had no idea of any of those things before Prabhupada came and informed them. Indians put Prabhupada in context of their religion and culture, but for western devotees Prabhupada himself created context from scratch and they put Indian culture into this context created by Prabhupada.
See how their visions are fundamentally different, how they are practically mirrors. It doesn’t matter for the moment which vision is correct and which isn’t, just that they are completely at odds.
Typical reconciliation is that Srila Prabhupada gave us the true, correct, and pure culture while today’s Indians live in some kind of degraded forms of it. Indians can accept this argument, too – no one would argue that onions are bona fide, for example, or that common Indian perceptions of God are not tinged with mayavada. Nevertheless, approaching Prabhupada from these two different angles cannot be reconciled completely and sooner or later the differences will come up to the surface.
Typical example of that is disagreements over some aspects of the siddhanta. For western devotees whatever Srila Prabhupada said is accepted as final truth and everybody else’s opinions to the contrary are rejected, but for Indian devotees allegiance to previous acharyas are never to be dropped. If previous acharyas said something than it must be accommodated, and, if necessary, Prabhupada’s opinion put aside. Note how I said “opinion” – not truth, but only an opinion. Sometimes it can be elevated to “personal realization”, but still not to the level of “truth”.
Srila Prabhupada might have spoken strongly on demigod worship but Indian vernacular doesn’t even have “demigods” in the vocabulary, so Prabhupada’s statements need interpretation. Maybe he didn’t mean it, or maybe he meant it only for westerners, or maybe he meant it only to certain types of demigod worship. At the end of the day, Indians are bound by their karma to respect the worship done by their ancestors and by their acharyas, they can’t give it up just because Srila Prabhupada said something somewhere.
This is understandable, but it’s still not what I meant by “disappearance” in the title. I mean something far more radical – Srila Prabhupada, as he was known to his western disciples, was not a person of Indian origin, not even of Gaydiya Vaishnava origin. His appearance in the west was a total surprise even for Srila Prabhupada himself. He had no idea it would turn this way. He himself couldn’t attribute his success to anything “Indian”, it had full potency by itself. The only connection he could trace was to the orders of his spiritual master. This is what he said again and again – my guru ordered me to print books, I did it, and this is what happened. He didn’t say that his mother taught him how to cook and so everybody loved his prasadam, and that’s how his first ISKCON temple survived. He didn’t claim proficiency in singing or playing mridanga. By Aindra’s standards he wouldn’t be allowed to play karatals on his 24hour kirtan party. Okay, he dedicated Krishna Book to his father, but that was one off. All the other times he gave credit only to following his guru’s order. Not even to his guru as a full personality – only to following one specific order.
The point is that Srila Prabhupada’s success was unique and it had a life of its own. It didn’t depend on anything else and it couldn’t be described in any other terms – it was a substance by itself, a category by itself. I will repeat – I think when Srila Prabhupada arrived in the US he himself had no idea what it would be like, it was a total surprise.
When it came Srila Prabhupada embraced it exactly like that – like it had a potency of its own and it had to be served, not controlled. This “success” dictated how Srila Prabhupada had to to things, not the other way around. I use the word “success” as only a label, it had to be felt to be described, as I said. I think the word “success” conveys the undeniable aspect of it – everybody knows what “success” is, everybody knows how good it feels, and nobody can deny it. But what you or I experienced as “success” is not the same thing as what was experienced by Srila Prabhupada and his followers.
Srila Prabhupada gave some explanations, the root of which is that it was a mercy of Lord Caitanya – based on the statement in CC that preaching can become successful only if Lord Caitanya puts His potency in it. On other occasions he attributed it to the power of the holy name, which he saw as absolute. This is the point where I can finally start talking about disappearance – we don’t see the power of Hare Krishna mantra as absolute anymore. An example – one devotee complained about being overwhelmed by sexual desires and Srila Prabhupada’s answer was to simply chant. In his explanation the power of Hare Krishna would drive away all lust from disciple’s heart. In Prabhupada’s experience he saw that happening all around him – hippies were chanting Hare Krishna and forgetting drugs and girlfriends. He saw it worked. We don’t. We offer all kinds of other solutions instead, like “watch your diet” or “stop watching porn”. No one today would say that simply chanting Hare Krishna mantra will solve your lust problem in a minute but Srila Prabhupada meant it exactly like that – chant loudly and lust will be gone immediately.
This is what has disappeared – the power of the holy name, and I would argue that its disappearance is linked to disappearance of Srila Prabhupada. It worked in his presence, we have many anecdotes documenting how minds and hearts immediately became pure in his presence, it was undeniable. Now the name is still with us but without Prabhupada its power is not manifested to the same degree. What I mean to say is that it’s Srila Prabhupada who has disappeared, not the Hare Krishna mantra.
Hare Krishna mantra is not tied to Srila Prabhupada exclusively, we all know that, but Srila Prabhupada gave it a particular potency. Sooo many devotees felt it directly. The annotation to the first Hare Krishna mantra record spoke about it with absolute clarity as if it was obvious to everyone. It was repeated from devotee to devotee, it was all-pervading understanding back then. Now it’s absent and no one talks that way with any conviction.
For me, however, it’s the preaching aspect of that same potency of Srila Prabhupada that disappeared first. Maybe because I can’t recall any miracles associated with Hare Krishna mantra but I was fortunate enough to see mind blowing preaching in action. It had a life on its own and, listening to many remembrances of that era, I don’t know anyone who did not notice it. They usually say only a few words (“millions of books were distributed”) and move on but actually seeing these millions of books going away to meet their eager readers was something else. At the time it was spoken exactly like this – books were going away on their own. They were not sold, not distributed, not given – they were going away on their own, and the entire purpose of sankirtana, as it was called back then, was to find that sweet spot in space and time where, by Lord Caitanya’s mercy, books would get a life of their own and practically distribute themselves against all odds and against all objections. The power was irresistible.
This is what has become absent and, to me, it indicates disappearance of Srila Prabhupada. Of course books were not the only vehicle of this mercy. One time I clearly felt it was when one of Prabhupada’s early disciples was describing San Francisco Ratha Yatra. Not the first one in 1967 but the one a few years later where Srila Prabhpada started the address with “My dear frustrated youth of America” (not exact words, but that’s how some remember it). To me it was the same kind of potency, the same “rasa”, so to speak, as the one I remember from my own life. It still lives in the hearts of at least some of Prabhupada’s followers, but that particular disciple has left his body already. Others remember it but prefer to talk about something else, like today’s politics. There is a lot to be said about why and how and who but let’s not talk about it now.
This disappearance is “mostly Indian” problem because this aspect of Srila Prabhupada’s success was never known there in the first place. They don’t have reference points for it, except may be construction of Juhu and Mayapur temples, which is not a lot in context of the entire Indian history and gets easily overflown by memories and histories of other events. Those other events are no less significant, like self-manifested deity of Radha Ramana, for example, but they are not “Prabhupada”.
For the past twenty something years Indian devotees distributed many more millions of books, and yet I never hear them speaking of book distribution with the same “rasa”. It’s just absent and book distribution means something else to them. Likewise, TOVP is a massive project, far bigger than Juhu, but TOVP presentations do not carry the same “rasa” for me. They rely on other things to “prove” themselves – like everybody should do seva, or everybody should make donations, or everybody should bathe Srila Prabhupada with sacred waters etc, and because of this conviction one should… When Prabhupada was present the proposition itself, whatever it was, had a power of its own, it was self-evident, not reliant on one’s appreciation of “seva” or “donations” or “sacred rivers”. These are aspects of Indian culture and they were totally absent when Prabhupada came to the west. He didn’t have to rely on them at all – his preaching was self-evident and no one know what “seva” even was.
This is a principal point, actually – people didn’t know what seva was and that it should have been offered – they offered service because Prabhupada was there and they felt they should do something in appreciation. Today it’s “you know that seva is important, and therefore you should go and offer it to Prabhupada.”
That’s why I’m saying that Srila Prabhpada has disappeared even though he is arguably at the most remembered stage in ISKCON’s recent history. His name and his pictures are everywhere, but not the actual memory of his presence.
Many of our senior devotees worry about it, they just express it differently. To me this disappearance is not very important – because Srila Prabhpada is present eternally, it’s only us who moved to a different location and, if we so desire, we can move into the place of his presence again.
What I really wanted to say but wrapped it in the disappearance topic is that Srila Prabhupada’s “success” was an entity of its own and even Srila Prabhupada was its servant, that even he wasn’t in control of it. To me this is the biggest manifestation of Lord Caitanya’s mercy and in decades since I haven’t found any substitutes that come even close. And I really mean “any substitutes” – not even if someone starts chanting three lakhs a day or cry incessantly or go into trance every time they see an image of Lord Jagannatha. I would even say that some big name ISKCON gurus of Indian origin have never seen it, simply because they weren’t there when it was manifested, they were in India, but that is a whole other can of worms.
I remember one of these big gurus wanted to visit the zone where preaching was booming but his request was rejected because “his mood would spoil everything”. Today this sounds ridiculous and great many devotees, each of them great in their own ways, would reject this argument out of hand but I, after deliberating on it for some time, would still argue that it was the right thing to do and that Srila Prabhupada’s preaching mood, his preaching rasa, should have been rightfully protected and that once that protection was withdrawn it simply disappeared – scroll to the top to see an explanation how and why.