Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #36 – The Highest Scoring Spiritual Performance

September 9th, 2019

I was a fan of watching the Olympics when I was young. One thing that I found intriguing was that gymnastics and diving competitors wouldn’t be scored just for the quality of their performance, but the degree of difficulty of the routine or dive they were attempting. I had a thought today. Why not use that same lens to increase our appreciation of what Śrīla Prabhupāda achieved in his mission by briefly highlighting the degree of difficulty of the task he accomplished?

 

For those of you who may not know, Śrīla Prabhupāda crossed the ocean by steamship in 1965 at the age of seventy to start his world mission in New York. By the time he left the world twelve years later, he established over 108 centers worldwide with thousands of followers dedicated to the promotion of bhakti-yoga, primarily focused on kīrtana. He also personally translated, expounded upon, and published over eighty volumes of authentic Indian spiritual texts, which were then translated into over fifty languages. More than a half a billion of those books have since been distributed worldwide. There’s more, but let’s keep our focus on our subject: the difficulty of his task.

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda alights on shore of the New York Harbor with only eight dollars in his pocket and a trunk of his translated works. His mission is to spread bhakti and kīrtana in the western world and to transplant an ancient culture, which, for all practical purposes, has never before left the shores of India. He stands there as a lone man with no backing, followers, or resources directly facing his opposition to the west — the full force of the most powerful material civilization known to man. Perhaps an even greater challenge is where, by providence, he was directed to start his mission.

 

After a short while in America, he winds up living in the Bowery[1] sharing a loft with a young man he hopes to teach Sanskrit. One evening the young man suddenly loses his mind on LSD and Prabhupāda is forced onto the streets of the Bowery in the depth of night. With the help of some early followers, he soon settles in an apartment in the Lower East Side with use of a storefront for his lectures. The impediments he faces are unimaginable, especially for a man of his culture.

 

“Why have I come to this place? Why have I come to place?” he ponders while sitting in his storefront in the Lower East Side, the last place a devotional, learned, and cultured Bengali Vaiṣṇava gentlemen would retire to serve his own personal needs. He immediately answers his own audible reflection, “I was cent per cent faithful to the order of my spiritual master!” By force of that faith he continues with his calling.

 

He gradually collects a group of sincere young people to help him. It is by no means easy. His field of potential candidates is not of any noted culture or training, to say the least. He takes what comes and tries to train them. One story comes to mind:

 

A young lady from the Lower East Side joins the mission and is soon initiated by Śrīla Prabhupāda. To start his mission, he has no choice but to be extremely merciful. This young lady, however, hates men. After six months she requests to see Śrīla Prabhupāda. He grants her audience. “I have been chanted Hare Krishna for six months, but I just can’t stand worshipping that man Krishna!” Śrīla Prabhupāda, replies without losing a beat, “That’s OK, we worship Radha.”[2] It is hard to imagine a more insane place to try to transplant traditional Vaiṣṇava culture than the sex crazed, drugged out, hippy land of the Lower East Side. Another story comes to mind:

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s new disciples indiscriminately organize programs for him to share his message of devotion and culture. They arrange for him to speak at a rally of Louis Abolafia, the founder of the Naked Party. He is running for president of the United States with a catchy slogan: “What have I got to hide?” When Śrīla Prabhupāda enters the room, the supporters of Louis Abolafia are dressed as bananas and are wildly dancing, mostly naked.[3] Śrīla Prabhupāda remains sober, talks briefly, and leaves. Afterwards one of his disciples informs Śrīla Prabhupāda that Louis Abolafia couldn’t officially run for president because he didn’t meet the minimum age required. Śrīla Prabhupāda finds that hysterical and bursts into laughter. He certainly had a sense of humor and would sometimes chuckle or laugh, but the devotees never saw him laugh so hard. I can imagine what he was thinking: “As if his age was the reason he has not qualified!”[4]

 

It is hard to imagine that a person whose mission was to create a class of Vaiṣṇava brāhmaṇas[5] actually accomplished it within such a milieu of madness and at such an advanced age, with challenged health, I should add. He had suffered two heart attacks on his journey across the sea. Should not the score of his unprecedented accomplishments therefore be exponentially increased by the substantial challenges he faced? A final story:

 

It was the disappearance festival of Śrīla Prabhupāda in 1978. Several of the most distinguished scholars of Vṛndāvana were assembled to offer their respects. I remember the homage of one of them. “If Śrīla Haridāsa Ṭhākura, Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, and Śrīla Prabhupāda were in the same room and Śrī Caitanya appeared, who would he go to first? I say Śrīla Prabhupāda! Who could be more attached to the holy name than that person who spread it around the world!” Of course, Śrīla Prabhupāda had just recently passed from this world and the talks were in the mood of eulogy, but considering what he accomplished and the degree of difficulty of his task, is it not possible that we have witnessed the highest scoring spiritual performance in the history of Vaiṣṇavism?

 

 


[1] When Śrīla Prabhupāda arrived in the United States the Bowery was one of the worst slums in New York City, known for its homeless drunken derelicts and flophouses.

[2] This story was told to me three years ago by Nayanabhiram dasa who joined at 26 Second Avenue and witnessed this happening.

[3] The cult of Louis Abolafia believed that you could get high from smoking dried banana peels, so the glory of bananas was part of their creed.

[4] This story was told to me two years ago by my revered neighbor in Upstate New York, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, who was one of the first devotees to join at 26 Second Avenue and was there when all of this took place.

[5] A learned and cultured teacher of bhakti.

 

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