Sripada Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami
By Dayananda das
Svarupa Damodara Maharaja began to visit Prabhupada in Los Angeles in 1970, which was a good year, because that year, Prabhupada stayed in L.A. more than any other center. Svarupa Damodara (then Thoudam Damodar Singh) was attending the University of Irvine in its organic chemistry PhD program. He began to go regularly on morning walks with Prabhupada at Venice Beach where he and Prabhupada would discuss modern science versus Krishna consciousness philosophy, especially topics about chemistry, the soul, and “life comes from life.” Some of the leading devotees, Karandhara, Brahmananda, and others, although not highly trained in science immediately caught on that these arguments were of interest to Prabhupada. These devotees tried to recall anything in their educations that might contribute to the conversations; moreover, some even attempted to meet scientists or attend conferences, but without much success. In the coming years, Prabhupada continued to focus his attention on Thoudam Singh while at the same time encouraging his other disciples’ attempts at discussing science. One might correctly understand that Prabhupada and Thoudam had much in common. Thoudam was from Manipur, where Gaudiya Vaishnava culture has flourished since the late eighteenth century when followers of Narottama Thakura converted the king, Mahäräj Bhagya Chand. Thoudam had attended the University of Calcutta and he spoke Bengali, which was Prabhupada’s native tongue, so that formed yet another connection.
In June of 1971, Prabhupada initiated Thoudam and gave him the name, Svarupa Damodara däsa brahmacari. With Prabhupada presiding, I performed Svarupa Damodara’s fire sacrifice after which he and I always remained friends. A year later, on a summer Sunday, he came from UC Irvine to the feast. I was speaking with Professor Srinivasin, a nuclear physicist, whom I had known for about four years. Dr. Srinivasin had occasionally been coming to the L.A. temple since 1968, shortly after the temple was founded, but he was more interested in Maharishi than Prabhupada. I thought Svarupa Damodara and the Srinivasin would be a good match, so I introduced them, whereupon Svarupa Damodara, with brahmacari zeal, began to unleash some of Prabhupada’s arguments against the scientists. At first, I was a little alarmed, because I had always treated Srinivasin with respect, but then I realized that I’d never really preached very strongly to him and Svarupa Damodara might be able to talk some spiritual sense into this otherwise intelligent and accomplished man. By the way, Srinivasin still goes to the temple in San Diego, so intelligently zealous brahmacari preaching may not be so bad.
In the winter of 1972, Svarupa Damodara was still at UC Irvine and I decided to audit a course in Sanskrit at UCLA. I mentioned to him that I was attending the class, and he asked if I would arrange for him to go, too. I was pleasantly surprised, asked the instructor, and then took him with me to the class. He went twice, but did not pursue it further. Shortly afterwards I went to Dallas, so I didn’t see him until the summer of 1974 at the San Francisco Rathayatra. In San Francisco, I saw just how much Prabhupada loved Svarupa Damodara. Before proceeding with the story, it is necessary to set the scene: Upon arriving in San Francisco from Dallas, I found many of ISKCON’s biggest GBCs and sannyasis had already arrived. Prabhupada and some other leaders were yet to come. Two days later when Prabhupada arrived, all of the big guns performed aratik to Prabhupada privately in his room. The leaders had already arranged that each one of them was to individually give Prabhupada a check and perform an aratrik service to Prabhupada. Based on the amount a leader gave, he could offer a more or less intimate service, like washing his feet, offering a ghee lamp, incense, etc. Thus, a leader would give Prabhupada the check, and then perform the service. My donation of $300 only permitted me to be in the room. While standing there, I was impressed with the great prowess and devotion of the twenty some leaders. The next morning the same devotees went on the morning walk with Prabhupada. We got out of four cars, and shortly thereafter Prabhupada’s car arrived, and we greeted him with obeisances, but he immediately walked past us and approached a car that had just arrived. Svarup Damodar brahmacari got out and Prabhupada proudly announced to us, “Dr. Svarup Damodar. He has gotten his PhD,” whereupon Svarupa Damodara turned red with embarrassment.
Prabhupada’s action was a significant lesson for me. On one hand, to this day I remain impressed with the many services of my competent, powerful god-brothers. On the other hand, Prabhupada had walked past them and verbally hugged an apparently lesser figure. To put this lesson in perspective, just four years prior Prabhupada had chastised me by strongly stating, “My desire is to spread this sankirtana movement all over the world.” These forcefully stated words were in response to my opinion on a very important ISKCON strategic direction. Prabhupada had asked my opinion, and, as one of his managers, he expected me to give a passable answer, which I did not do. At any rate, I took this relatively mild chastisement to heart, thinking that I had better understand Prabhupada’s priorities. Thus, I noted his attention to Svarup Damodar that day, because it instructed me about an important, essential sankirtana priority. Moreover, I got an even more significant lesson about where Prabhupada’s affections lay. From that time until his departure, he continued to reach past the growing structure of his organization to lovingly groom Svarupa Damodara so that he might lead the greatest strategic mission—the establishment of Krishna consciousness as a science, and the deflation of modern, materialistic science.
For the next few years, I did not see Svarupa Damodara, since we served in different places. However, I followed his activities and those of the Bhaktivedanta Institute that Prabhupada had established in 1974. Once, Maharaj told me a story about the scientific conference he had organized in India while Prabhupada was there in 1977. When the conference day was over, the devotee scientists headed by Svarupa Damodara went to report to Srila Prabhupada. They came into Prabhupada’s quarters wearing suits, so he called for chairs. Maharaj and the other scientist disciples protested, because his disciples never sat higher than Prabhupada, who was sitting on the floor. Moreover, Prabhupada would not have tolerated such a violation of etiquette from a disciple. Still, Prabhupada insisted, and showed them how much he appreciated their efforts.
In the early 1980s, I become aware of a letter to Ramesvara, (4/2/77) who was in charge of the BBT (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust). In that letter Prabhupada wrote, “Now we are forming scientists party and we shall try with their help to establish Krishna consciousness as the genuine scientific movement of the world exposing the so-called scientists as nothing but speculators. Svarupa Damodara has received very good response here in India from the scientific community and there is good hope that many others will join him.” In this letter, Prabhupada made statements that revealed his strategic priorities. He wrote, “Whatever expenditure he requires, supply him immediately from the BBT. I am prepared to give $10,000 or more monthly if required to finance this most important preaching program. So whatever money Svarupa Damodara needs must be supplied monthly and he will send you accounts.”
This was a significant indication of Prabhupada’s desire. Certainly, Prabhupada had many strategies for his sankirtana movement. He also had many disciples, and most of them were nicely following his desires, so in a sense Prabhupada had many, many desires connected with service to Krishna. Yet my experience taught me that this letter revealed an important priority. The next paragraph confirmed my thinking: “You can save this money by minimizing the expenditures in the luxury departments of Sanskrit and artists. We do not want these departments for the time being.” Much can be written about this letter, but Prabhupada’s statements regarding BBT finances reinforced the importance of “exposing the so-called scientists as nothing but speculators” along with the central role that Prabhupada had assigned to Svarupa Damodara brahmacari. Prabhupada was extremely conservative with his BBT funds, so “$10,000 or more monthly” was an important pronouncement.
Over the years since Prabhupada’s departure, I’ve tried to carefully watch Svarupa Damodara Maharaj’s activities, since I understood that he and his service are both very dear to Prabhupada. Certainly, a father can love all his sons and daughters, but at the same time have favorites. Svarupa Damodara was his favorite, or perhaps one among a handful out of 4000. Near the end of Prabhupada’s lila here on earth, Svarupa Damodara’s father died and he prepared to fly to Manipur, whereupon Prabhupada told him not to go. In that way, He forced Maharaj to renounce his family. Some may not understand this instruction very well, but when Krishna or the guru forces the willing disciple to surrender, that is great mercy. Prabhupada wrote Upendra (11/13/68) “It is Krishna’s special favor and mercy that He sometimes forces a devotee to surrender fully to Him.” I don’t remember exactly when Maharaj received his third (sannyäsa) initiation, but in 1977 Prabhupada had already imparted to him the spirit of the renounced order.
In the early 1980s, I was thrilled to learn that my wealthy friend Atreya rsi was helping Maharaj establish the Bhaktivedanta Institute in San Francisco. In the 1990s, I was happy to hear that he had accepted disciples in Iran, since I had served there in the 1970s, and I was concerned about the instability caused by guru misbehavior. Beginning in the 1980s, I had begun to associate with god-brothers and sisters who are scholars in religion, philosophy, and various “soft” sciences, yet I was somewhat disappointed that few devotee scholars were able to do very much about Prabhupada’s desire to “establish Krishna consciousness as the genuine scientific movement of the world…” Generally, materialistic scientists consider that physics, mathematics and chemistry are the three top sciences, and many believe them to be the only truly valid sciences. Thus, I wanted to understand Maharaj’s strategies, since only he and a handful of others were focusing on the “true” sciences. In 1986, I attended his symposium on science and religion held in Bombay in honor of Mahäprabhu’s
500-year birth anniversary. Among the attendees were four Nobel laureates, senior Indian statesman Karan Singh, and the Delai Lama. In 1991, I was impressed that Mahäräja had organized a conference on consciousness in San Francisco, so I ordered all of the associated materials. In late 1997, I learned that his Bhaktivedanta Institute in Mumbai had formed an important collaboration with the Birla Institute of Science and Technology.
In the 1980s and 1990s, some of ISKCON’s disciples and followers had decided to approach old Indian sädhus for initiation, apparently dissatisfied with the younger Western gurus. These Gaudiya sädhus, although possibly charming and of good character, understood little of Prabhupada’s brilliant strategies. However, Prabhupada had trained Sripad Maharaj (Svarupa Damodara) in the most important and brilliant strategy, establishing Krishna consciousness as science. Sripad had graduated from that training and become a successful Vaishnava strategist himself. His only desire was to spread the sankirtana movement all over the world. All of the truly great saints of India, Madhva, Sankaracarya, Sri Caitanya Mahäprabhu, Rupa, Jiva, Bhaktisiddhanta, and Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada were brilliant strategists. Like a valuable ring, saintliness is a setting for the jewel, which is sankirtana strategy. Without the brilliant jewel, good character has not fulfilled its purpose. Thus, I’ve often given the advice that devotees who are looking for initiation from an elderly Indian saint should approach Sripad Maharaj. Why go outside ISKCON, when such a jewel of a devotee is available?
In 1989, I learned that he had organized a troupe from Manipur to perform their traditional rendition of the rasa-lila dance. I later saw the dancers along with the colorful mrdanga players and martial artists. Mahäräja told me that this cultural demonstration was also an attempt to influence scientists, because he felt they would be more receptive to a cultural presentation. That reminded me of Prabhupada’s instruction to Haladhara, a PhD in economics. In 1976, Prabhupada had told Haladhara that he should give prasädam to the scientists and try to convince them that Krishna consciousness is the highest enjoyment. Thus, Maharaj’s cultural strategy was a wise one.
Since I worked for IBM for a number of years, Maharaj asked me to approach IBM research scientists to attend his conferences. I had always hoped to organize a conference in New York as a service to him. Once he told me that he had visited the Pope. In Chicago, 2003, we met and he told me that he was in regular contact with Vatican scientists. That was another very good strategy, because, after all, the Vatican scientists deal with the tensions between religious and scientific subjects. Throughout the world, He networked with important scientists and government leaders, all of whom took him seriously. He was a saint and a scientist. These two facts were apparent to everyone who met him.
Srila Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami’s departure has created a large gap in the pursuit of establishing “Krishna consciousness as the genuine scientific movement of the world exposing the so-called scientists as nothing but speculators.” Such a project is enormous. This special desire of Prabhupada’s will take hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, to satisfy. It will take symposiums, planetariums, political and business influence, networking with prominent scientists, and more. It will take great organization and a great army of devotees. Sripad Maharaj had no such army and he had limited funds, yet he used his wits and his charm and went a tremendous distance toward Prabhupada’s grand desire. We ISKCON devotees failed Maharaja. We could not give him the millions he required, or furnish him the support of an army. He was a grand-marshal without an army. He had many disciples who helped him, and some who hindered him, but not sufficient support for the huge task.
Going back to 1979 when I returned to the U.S. after three years in Iran, I arrived in New York and attended mangal ärätrika. When I walked into the temple, I thought I heard Prabhupada singing. Prabhupada had left just two years prior, but that day I heard Sripad Maharaj sing the Gurvastakam prayers much the way I had heard Prabhupada sing them so many times before. Since then, hearing Maharaj sing has been an enchanting experience. A few years ago, he visited New York and sang at 26 Second Avenue. Again, I was surprised, because he began dancing in a stately, yet joyful, manner. He smiled radiantly, yet playfully, as he sang and danced. For me, he was not just a ray of Prabhupada in this world; he was a beam of Prabhupada. His departure is yet another reason to hope for an early escape from this world. Association with him, hearing of his accomplishments, listening to his plans, and understanding his strategies—without these, all other things are pale.
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