Vaishnava Compassion and Srila Prabhupada
By Giriraj Swami
Hearing His Holiness Niranjana Swami’s wonderful talk, I felt we were being elevated to the spiritual world. He quoted from Vishnujana Maharaja. Vishnujana had a program in which he went by boat along the Ganges River, in Bengal, and chanted the holy names all day, stopping at villages along the way and chanting and speaking and distributing books about Krishna. Once, when I was in Los Angeles recovering from being sick in India, Srila Prabhupada received an issue of Back to Godhead with an article by Vishnujana Swami, and he remarked that Vishnujana had such nice realizations because he spent so many hours every day chanting.
While Niranjana Swami was speaking, I thought of an instructive incident that took place in Calcutta. The temple president there became preoccupied in a business that he had started to raise funds for the temple, and meanwhile the temple had almost no money. Somehow, in the course of his absorption in the business, there was some neglect of the devotees in the temple. They were barely surviving. A strong-bodied devotee named Sudama Vipra, who had belonged to the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, was so famished that he would take the remnants of the ghee wicks that had been burned in the arati and squeeze out whatever little ghee was left, just to get a little more nutrition.
The devotees were waiting for Srila Prabhupada to come so they could explain the situation to him and get some help. There were not very many devotees in India then, and Prabhupada allowed them to meet him quite freely. Eventually he called a meeting of all the devotees to give them a chance to express themselves. One by one, they spoke about their difficulties. At one stage Tamal Krishna Goswami, the GBC for India, protested: “Srila Prabhupada, my only intention was to execute Your Divine Grace’s will.” And Prabhupada replied a little sarcastically, “Is it My Divine Grace’s will that the devotees should be disturbed?”
Srila Prabhupada listened patiently and sympathetically to what all the devotees had to say, and he formed a committee to manage the temple. He said that they should meet every week and discuss all the programs and problems—how to do things in the best way—write their resolutions in a book, sign it, and then follow what they had decided together.
But at a certain point Prabhupada’s mood seemed to change. He told the devotees, “As long as we are in the material world, there will always be problems, but if we focus too much on the problems, we will forget our real business, which is to become Krishna conscious. Instead of thinking and talking about Krishna, we will think and talk about problems.” Then Prabhupada spoke about himself, how much he had endured to spread Krishna consciousness. He had suffered two heart attacks at sea on the way to America, and in America he had a buzzing in his ears and terrible headaches. “I do not wish even to tell you how much I suffered,” he said. “But I never complained. My principle was always, ‘Everything for Krishna, nothing for me,’ and because that was my principle, I never had any complaint.”
Once, Svarupa Damodara dasa, who later became Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami, told Srila Prabhupada, “I have just one program, the Bhaktivedanta Institute, and I am always struggling with so many problems, and you are managing the whole society, the whole mission. How do you deal with all the problems?” And Prabhupada replied, “Problems? I don’t see any problems. I only see service to my spiritual master.” That was Prabhupada’s mood, and that was his vision, and if we maintain the same spirit, we will not be inclined to find fault with other devotees or with external arrangements.
Srila Prabhupada was expert in inspiring and accepting service from devotees and potential devotees—everyone. When he first began at 26 Second Avenue in New York City, there was a bum who heard him speak. Prabhupada said, “It doesn’t matter what a person was doing before, what sinful activities. A person may not be perfect at first, but if he is engaged in service, then he will be purified.”
Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta describes:
“Suddenly a Bowery derelict enters, whistling and drunkenly shouting. The audience remains seated, not knowing what to make of it.
“Drunk: How are ya? I’ll be right back. I brought another thing.
“Prabhupada: Don’t disturb. Sit down. We are talking seriously.
“Drunk: I’ll put it up there. In a church? All right. I’ll be right back.
“The man is white-haired, with a short, grizzly beard and frowzy clothing. His odor reeks through the temple. But then he suddenly careens out the door and is gone. Prabhupada chuckles softly and returns immediately to his lecture.
“ ‘So it doesn’t matter what a person is doing before; if he engages in Krishna consciousness—chanting Hare Krishna and Bhagavad-gita—it should be concluded that he is a saint. He is a saintly person. Api cet suduracaro. Never mind if he may have some external immoral habit due to his past association. It doesn’t matter. Some way or other, one should become Krishna conscious, and then gradually he will become a saintly person as he goes on executing this process of Krishna consciousness. . . . Krishna says that in such conditions, when one has decided to stop all immoral habits and just take to this process of Krishna consciousness, if by chance he does something which is immoral in the face of society, that should not be taken account of. In the next verse Krishna says, ksipram bhavati dharmatma: because he has dovetailed himself in Krishna consciousness, it is sure that he will be saintly very soon.’
“Suddenly the old derelict returns, announcing his entrance: ‘How are ya?’ He is carrying something. He maneuvers his way through the group, straight to the back of the temple, where Prabhupada is sitting. He opens the toilet room door, puts two rolls of bathroom tissue inside, closes the door, and then turns to the sink, sits some paper towels on top of it, and puts two more rolls of bathroom tissue and some more paper towels under the sink. He then stands and turns around toward the Swami and the audience. The Swami is looking at him and asks, ‘What is this?’ The bum is silent now; he has done his work. Prabhupada begins to laugh, thanking his visitor, who is now moving towards the door: ‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’ The bum exits. ‘Just see,’ Prabhupada now addresses his congregation. ‘It is a natural tendency to give some service. Just see, he is not in order, but he thought that, “Here is something. Let me get some service.” Just see how automatically it comes. This is natural.’ ”
Srila Prabhupada was also expert at utilizing, or dovetailing, different things in devotional service. Another time, someone brought a bunch of leaflets advertising a Mayavadi program. Prabhupada was very strong against the Mayavada philosophy. He often said, “Anyone who says that he is god, he is dog.” So we were wondering what action he would take in protest to these leaflets, but he found a way to engage them in Krishna’s service. At the end of the program, when the devotees were distributing prasada to the guests, he had them hand out the leaflets for the people to use as plates for their prasada, thus engaging even the Mayavadis in Krishna’s service.
An interesting event took place some time later, when Srila Prabhupada was in Mayapur. He had taken prasada, and his servant had removed the plate with his remnants. After a little while, Prabhupada heard sounds of a conflict coming from the next room, so he asked his servant to find out what was happening. When he heard the report, he called for his two assistants, Tamal Krishna Goswami and Harikesa dasa, who had been arguing.
It turned out that several days earlier, Tamal Krishna had asked Prabhupada if he could eat what was left in the pots of prasada that had been prepared for Prabhupada, because he was finding the rice the devotees ate in Mayapur too coarse to digest. Prabhupada had approved Tamal Krishna’s request, but Harikesa, his cook, had previously been instructed by Srila Prabhupada that Prabhupada’s remnants should not be monopolized by his immediate staff but should be distributed to other devotees. So, Harikesa objected to Tamal Krishna’s taking possession of all the leftovers, and thus the dispute.
As related in Hari-sauri’s Diary, “Prabhupada called them both onto the veranda. After hearing their arguments, he managed to resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. . . .
He gave his permission for Tamal Krishna to eat what was left in the pots, but also confirmed his desire that his prasadam be distributed. . . .
“Then he went on to explain that the Vaishnava attitude in dealing with one another is one of humility. He gave the example of the pilgrims that come here to Mayapur. As one man comes along the road, another tries to touch his feet. The former shies away from being so honored because he is thinking, ‘I am not a Vaishnava, I am just an ordinary man. I am simply trying my best to become a Vaishnava.’ On the other hand the person who is touching his feet is thinking that unless he gets the dust of a Vaishnava on his head he will not be able to advance.
“ ‘Actually,’ Prabhupada said, ‘this is a fact. One has to be blessed by a devotee to become a devotee. And he who is the servant of the servant of the servant—one hundred times removed—is not worse than one who directly serves the guru. If one thinks, “Because I am direct servant, I am better than others,” then he is not a Vaishnava. To offer one’s respects to guru and not to his disciples, this is wrong. This is not Vaishnava. One has to be humble and try to serve all Vaishnavas—not some and not others.’ ”
A situation arose, I believe in New York, in which there was a lot of judging and criticizing among the devotees, and Srila Prabhupada said that we should be very careful about judging other devotees, because we never know what their actual consciousness is and we may not be able to properly assess their consciousness based on external appearances and behavior. He told a story about a brahman and a prostitute who lived opposite each other on the same street.
All day the brahman would sit before his window with his Bhagavad-gita, and across the street the prostitute would be doing her business with her customers. One day a calamity occurred and they both died. The Yamadutas and the Vishnudutas came, the former to take the sinful soul to Yamaraja to be judged and punished, the latter to take the purified soul to Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu. When the Yamadutas came to take the soul of the brahman, he protested. “No, no. You are making a mistake. You are supposed to be coming for the prostitute. The Vishnudutas are supposed to be coming for me.” But the Yamadutas replied, “No, we are not making a mistake. All the time you were sitting with your Bhagavad-gita, you were looking out your window at the prostitute, absorbed in her activities. So by your consciousness you are fit to be taken to hell and punished. And the prostitute, all the time she was with her customers, was glancing out the window at you and thinking, “Oh, that pious brahman is so fortunate. All day he is absorbed in thoughts of Krishna—‘Krishna is driving Arjuna’s chariot, Krishna is speaking the philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna’—and in this way she was constantly absorbed in Krishna’s teachings and activities. By her consciousness she is fit to go back home, back to Godhead.”
Srila Prabhupada told this story to make the point that we should be careful about judging devotees—or anyone. We don’t know their consciousness. And if we become absorbed in their faults, real or imagined, our consciousness becomes faulty.
On different occasions, when asked what the devotees should do about quarrelling in temples, Srila Prabhupada gave different—but complementary—answers. In one instance he said that if each devotee considers that he is a servant of the servants, there will be no fighting. In another case he said that the way to overcome dissention and dissatisfaction and fractions, to become united, was for the devotees to engage together in common activities. And as devotees, our main common activities are chanting and hearing about Krishna, engaging in kirtan, and taking prasada.
In relation to both accepting service from a person and not causing distress to any living entity, an incident in Indore, in the state of Madhya Pradesh in Central India, comes to mind. Srila Prabhupada was invited with some disciples to the home of a relative of the royal family. There, we were served lunch in a beautiful room with chandeliers and a carved wood banquet table. Srila Prabhupada sat at the head of the table, and I was to his right. I felt very nervous, because the hosts served a really opulent feast, and I was trying to be very controlled, partly because I was afraid of getting diarrhea (something we were all prone to) and partly because I didn’t want Prabhupada to think that I was a sense enjoyer. The prasada was really good but really rich, drenched in ghee.
I got through the meal, but then the host’s elderly father came around the table with second helpings of rasagullas. All the other devotees took seconds, but I refused. I was a brahmachari, and I was being staunch—and showing Srila Prabhupada. But the gentleman really wanted me to take. He repeatedly tried to give me one more, and each time I refused. Prabhupada saw that the host’s father was becoming disappointed. Finally Prabhupada glanced at me, and with great love and compassion in his eyes and voice, he said, “You can take a sweet to make an old man happy.” And so I accepted another sweet. Srila Prabhupada wanted the old man to be happy, though later one devotee commented that by taking the sweet I had also made another old man happy—Srila Prabhupada.
It was really instructive to be with Prabhupada and see how he, the world acharya and at the same time a spontaneous devotee, responded in different situations.
How Krishna, or a devotee of Krishna, can magnify the service of an aspiring devotee, can be seen in an incident that took place in Bombay. At the time, Srila Prabhupada was still struggling to get the Juhu land, and one morning he was sitting in his room discussing with his leading managers and even some guests how to solve this problem. Suddenly a very rough-looking man appeared at the door. He had a dark complexion and a muscular, sinewy build and was wearing only a simple white cloth around his waist. He was obviously a laborer. As we looked on, he walked into the room, came right up to Prabhupada’s desk—Prabhupada always sat on a cushion behind a low desk—and placed on the table a bunch of flowers that he had collected from somewhere. Then he bowed down, got up, and walked out.
Srila Prabhupada was so moved that he could not speak. For some moments he just looked down, and when finally he did speak, his voice was choked up. He said, “Just see this man. How did he even know I was here? Somehow he heard that there was a saintly person in the house, and he went and collected some flowers, the best he could, and came and presented them as an offering. I am so much moved.” Then he said, “In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna says, patram puspam phalam toyam yo me bhaktya prayacchati, that if one offers Him even a leaf or a flower with devotion, He will accept it. Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and He is moved even by a simple offering of a flower or a leaf, and I am just an insignificant living entity, so how much more I will feel moved.” So, that is Krishna’s nature, and that is Srila Prabhupada’s nature, to take the smallest service and magnify it.
Srila Prabhupada mentioned different categories of devotees. He said that in the lowest category one will find a slight discrepancy in someone’s behavior and make a big thing out of it, in the next category one will see both the good and the bad but give more emphasis to the bad, and in the next category one will see both the good and the bad and give equal consideration to both; the more advanced devotee will see both the good and the bad but give more importance to the good, and the highest devotee will see someone do a little service and make a big thing out of it.
Of course, we cannot artificially imitate someone on a higher platform, but by associating with more advanced devotees, we can learn from them how devotees think and feel, and also see practically how they behave—learn from them how to see the good rather than the defects in others and how to appreciate others’ service and not demand anything for ourselves.
One example that comes to mind is His Holiness Niranjana Swami, but I am really torn: if I use him as an example, he may feel distress, but at the same time, it will be very informative and purifying for us. Because his mood is always to encourage other devotees, he might be willing to tolerate that discomfort, but at the same time, I don’t want to make him feel uncomfortable. Anyway, I already have, so I better just finish it up quickly.
I had the opportunity to host Maharaja in California and, with a team of devotees, serve him. Being naturally inspired by his presence, we all really wanted to give him the best we could, but once, it came out that we hadn’t provided him something that he could have used, because we didn’t know that he needed it. Two or three things came up like that, and I asked him, “Maharaja, why didn’t you say anything? Weren’t you disturbed by our lacking?” And he replied, “I don’t feel I deserve anything. That’s why I don’t ask, and that’s why I’m not disturbed.” That is a Vaishnava.
Association. I gain so much from the association of my godbrothers, who are so exemplary in so many ways. We shouldn’t think that we can learn only from our guru. We can learn from any devotee who is exemplary in any way. Part of being a servant of the servants is that you learn from the servants you serve—from their examples, their behavior, even small comments they make. They don’t have to give a discourse or a class. You can learn from just a few words or a small action or gesture.
It is very purifying, because we come into the material world out of envy of Krishna, and that envy can be very deep-rooted and ongoing for countless lifetimes, but by serving and appreciating devotees and learning from them, from their exemplary behavior and words, we can become purified of that long-standing envy. Glorifying devotees is extremely purifying. In a way, it is easier to glorify Krishna—or Srila Prabhupada or our personal spiritual master—because He is in a different category, but to glorify our godbrothers and godsisters is very purifying, because we can see ourselves as being in the same category, so in a way it is easier for us to fall into bad ways of thinking—being envious and jealous and competing and wanting what they have and wishing we had it, and so on.
The association of my godbrothers has been extremely nourishing and encouraging and purifying for me ever since Srila Prabhupada’s departure. In an exchange I had with Tamal Krishna Goswami in Dallas, he confided in me that even with all his association with Srila Prabhupada and all three initiations—hari-nama, Gayatri, and sannyasa—he still didn’t feel that his relationship with Srila Prabhupada alone was enough to sustain him in his spiritual life. He said that he also felt the need for siksa-gurus, godbrothers whose instructions he took very seriously. And he named a number whom he considered to be his siksa-gurus—Sivarama Swami, Bhurijana Prabhu, and others.
At that time, my mood was different, because I had put a lot of faith in some godbrothers who had fallen down and left the association of devotees, and after those incidents I practically vowed, “I am never going to put my faith in anyone again—except Srila Prabhupada.” So I heard what Tamal Krishna Goswami said, and I took it seriously, but it went against my resolution.
The next morning, we went for the morning program, and after mangala-arati Goswami Maharaja and all the devotees chanted japa in the temple. The japa was very intense, and there were many nice paintings of Krishna lila on the walls. I was chanting and chanting, going deeper and deeper, when this thought just overpowered my mind—that what Goswami Maharaja had said was true: we can’t do it on our own. I realized, “I can’t do it on my own, just on the basis of my relationship with Srila Prabhupada. I do need siksa-gurus in my life.” And it came to me almost equally clearly that Goswami Maharaja was meant to be my siksa-guru, or at least one of them. I didn’t want to disturb him during his japa, but I felt that I just had to tell him. So I turned to him and said, “I thought about what you said, and I believe it is true. I also need guidance, and I think you are meant to be my siksa-guru.” He gave a knowing glance and a little smile, and we continued with our chanting.
The night before, I had told Goswami Maharaja that I felt very isolated, because at that time some of the biggest leaders in the movement had left, and there was chaos in large geographical areas of the movement. I was trying to deal with things in Mauritius and South Africa, and I wanted godbrothers to come there, but they were dealing with similar crises in other places—England, most of Europe, Australia, and parts of America. So I told Goswami Maharaja, “I really feel isolated in Mauritius and South Africa. No one can come there. I don’t know what to do for association.” He said, “You have to go out of your way to get it.” So if it has to be Kazakhstan, I will come to Kazakhstan—or Ukraine, or wherever. You all are really blessed, because Krishna sends senior devotees to visit you.
Although in general we don’t want to find faults in devotees, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura says that sometimes in order to protect a dependent devotee from bad association, we have to point out the faults of another person. In other words, because the association and service of devotees is so important, we have to be able to distinguish between who is a devotee and who is not. Someone might be regarded as a devotee in popular circles who may actually not be a devotee. He could be a Mayavadi or a pretender or an atheist, and to protect innocent people from such association, we might have to point out who is actually a devotee and who is not. Bhaktivinoda Thakura says that if any person argues that criticizing such nondevotees is an offense, that person’s association should also be avoided.
One of Srila Prabhupada’s friends in Bombay, Dr. Patel, had been born in a Vaishnava family and followed Vaishnava principles of purity, but he often talked like an impersonalist, and when Prabhupada would accuse him of being a Mayavadi, he would beg to differ: “No, Sir. I am a Vaishnava.”
One day, on a morning walk on Juhu Beach, Srila Prabhupada happened to criticize a famous Indian religious figure whom Dr. Patel revered, and Dr. Patel became very upset. “You cannot criticize like this!” he said. But Prabhupada replied, “I am not saying. Krishna is saying: na mam duskrtino mudhah prapadyante naradhamah—anyone who does not surrender to Krishna is a fool, rascal, demon, the lowest of mankind. I am not saying; Krishna is saying.”
Still, Dr. Patel kept insisting, “You cannot criticize like that!” The argument escalated to the point where Dr. Patel was shouting at Srila Prabhupada and Prabhupada was actually shouting back. Dr. Patel was a leader among his friends—he was a little intelligent, educated in England, a doctor—but even his friends were catching hold of his arm and saying, “Swamiji has a heart condition. Don’t upset him.” They tried to drag him away. He was shouting, and Prabhupada was shouting, and we all were very disturbed. Finally they pulled Dr. Patel away.
Back in Srila Prabhupada’s room, Tamal Krishna Goswami asked Prabhupada, “Why do you tolerate him? What is his actual position? Is he a Vaishnava? Is he a Mayavadi? What is he?” In response, Prabhupada told a story about a man who could speak fluently in many languages. He came to a place, but nobody could figure out where he was actually from. In whatever language people addressed him, he immediately responded perfectly in that language. So, it was a big topic among the village people—where he was from. Finally one man said, “I will find out.”
One day that man snuck up behind the speaker of many languages and gave him a very hard whack, and then the linguist began cursing in his original language. Srila Prabhupada said that Dr. Patel was like that. “He can speak like a Vaishnava, he can speak like a Mayavadi, he can speak like a nationalist,” Prabhupada said. “He can speak many different languages expertly. But when I hit him where it really hurt, his real language came out.” So then Tamal Krishna Goswami asked, “Well, then why do you tolerate him?” And Prabhupada replied, “It is our duty to engage everyone.” That is real compassion.
Of course, Prabhupada accomplished many things in what he did. He also created a lot of interesting discussions for us to hear. And I think he actually liked Dr. Patel, and Dr. Patel actually liked and respected him, but they just had that relationship.
The next story also involves Dr. Patel and shows how Prabhupada appreciated his disciples and protected them. When Dr. Patel first heard about the devotees, we had just come to the Juhu land and were living in very simple tents. It became so hot that devotees often just slept outdoors, and they were getting bitten by mosquitoes, and some got malaria, jaundice—so many diseases. Dr. Patel was really impressed by their sacrifice and surrender, so he took up a collection to give each devotee a thin mattress, a pillow, a mosquito net, and a blanket for the winter. He was a proud man, but he went to the big cloth market in Bombay, from stall to stall, to beg, and eventually he presented twelve sets, for all the devotees.
If you’ve ever lived in an ashram, you know how it is. After a while, one blanket went missing, then two pillows disappeared, and gradually the hard-earned gift that Dr. Patel had begged for the devotees was down to just a few remnants. And finally, the last mosquito net, the last pillow, the last blanket, and the last mattress all disappeared—there was not even a trace, not a single thread.
So, one day, again on a morning walk, Dr. Patel brought up the topic of his gift of the twelve sets of bedding, complaining to Srila Prabhupada that the devotees hadn’t take care of them and that now nothing was left. “You know the reason?” Prabhupada replied. “These boys and girls who have come to serve me don’t identify with the body. They don’t care if they have a mattress or a pillow or a mosquito net or a blanket. As long as they can chant the holy name and serve their spiritual master, they’re satisfied.” And then he said, “That moksha that you are so eager to get, they already have.”
In a very skillful and intelligent way, Prabhupada had expressed his appreciation for the devotees, and he had spoken in such a way as to humble Dr. Patel and make him understand how exalted the devotees actually were. Of course, as we’ve matured, we’ve understood more about the principle of yukta-vairagya, about taking care of Krishna’s property—not for our sense gratification, but for Krishna’s service. But still, what Prabhupada said was true.
Srila Prabhupada was very merciful to us, his disciples, and he was merciful to Dr. Patel. He was merciful to everyone. He was an ocean of mercy. And if we can come close to that ocean, if some waves from that ocean hit us and eventually carry us into that ocean, our lives will be perfect, and we will be able to touch others with some waves from that ocean, and they will also benefit.
A Talk by Giriraj Swami
September 5, 2010
Sri Vrindavan Dham, Kazakhstan