Today is the anniversary of the death of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, a name which as a teenager I proudly learnt to say just like a real Indian 🙂 Prabhupada was the founder of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) – the Hare Krishnas for short. This movement has been and continues to be the target of much misunderstanding and confusion in the West. Lampooned in such movies as Flying High (Airplane for the Americans out there) the depth of spirituality, love and spiritual unfoldment in Prabhupada is easily overlooked. While not adhering to most of the doctrines espoused by ISKCON I am deeply respectful of Prabhupada and his spiritual mission.
Like many pious Indians, upon fulfilling his household duties after his children were grown, Prabhupada took Sannyasa,renunciation, to dedicate the latter part of life to spiritual practice. This is not the same as modern western styled Sannyasa as espoused by followers of Osho. Considering I once knew a 16 year old child who took Osho Sannyasa the two are about as far apart as the Dalai Lama is from the Westboro Baptists. Simply put; one cannot renounce daily life without experiencing it. This is not to say there is no place for fully celibate monks and nuns, only that they are not Sannyasins. The two are different mysteries. Also Osho followers tend to take Sannyasa and then still fuck like bunnies at a hippy festival. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But they really should use a different word. It confuses people and offends pious Hindus.
But I digress…Prabhupada was dedicated to his Guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura who had instructed him at first meeting (when Prabhupada was still in his 20s) to spread their tradition of Vaishnavism to the west. As an older man without family duties Prabhupada eventually did just that. Shortly before his 70th birthday Prabhupada set out, with $7 on a run-down steamer to America. During the trip he suffered ill health and a heart attack. Understandably only his faith and trust in Krishna kept him going, convinced that the Lord had plans for him in the bastion of materialism, America. He lived only another decade but by then ISKCON was founded and the movement had grown to thousands, touching many, many more. I find this amazing and inspiring. At the age most of us are retired and the lights failing, this God centred man risked all and faced death, poverty and rejection but through his practices helped so many.
I first came across ISKCON as a teenager when, on a visit to Hungry Jacks (Burger King for the Americans out there) I found a copy of Coming Back, a Hare Krishna book on reincarnation. As a naive lad I assumed someone had accidently left it behind and tried to hand it in at the counter. I was then told they were often deliberately left there by the Hare Krishna folks themselves. Considering Krishna devotees don’t eat meat, this was a nice bit of marketing. Anyway, it worked on me and I devoured the book more than the burger and within a week had met real, live devotees on the streets in Perth.
I studied with the Hare Krishnas for several months much to the worry of my parents and friends. Despite my aversion to many of their doctrines, I loved their devotion, passion and practices. I will always remember the first time I attended the temple. Foolishly I believed the advert for the ‘Sunday Feast‘ – 4pm start. This time however was only for delivering lectures, the food not coming out til 6pm – those hungry and in the know only turned up then. So, there I was before 4pm eager and anxious. Not knowing what to do with me (the only one) I was plonked in front of the video. One of the videos was homemade footage of the death Srila Prabhupada. Watching this changed my life.
It was scratchy homemade documentary. In mid 1977 Prabhupada was taken ill but insisted on maintaining his work. After a few months he accepted his impending death and returned to holy city of Vrindavan. There he met devotees and prepared to die. The video showed his last moments. Surrounded by his disciples he fare-welled them in turn with great love and emotion. Knowing he was returning to Krishna there was nothing but love present in Prabhupada. Finally, after all goodbyes, he softly recited the Mahamantra for the last time and died upon uttering the last syllable. It was my first experience of the notion of conscious, spiritual death and it shook me to the core. I was literally trembling for hours afterwards. I am still effected deeply as I type after all these years. It was homemade, static ridden, many copied VHS footage and the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
That was Prabhupada. ISCKON, particularly after his death was something different. I wont go into the corruption and greed that crept and was invited into the movement in later years. This is well covered in Monkey on a Stick and other works. My own experiences were somewhat more muted, though nonetheless troubling for a shy teenager looking for the One.
Though never intiated into or a member of ISCKON I got on well with the devotees and learnt at lot. As a sort of not-outsider but not-insider I spanned two realms, living in the materialist society and doing a few of the normal teenage things as well as attending temple and sleeping over several times.
Every morning the devotees get up at 4am and have a cold shower. This was a no-starter for me; no matter how much I loved the faith I knew I would never join 🙂 As a visitor I was allowed a hot shower. However, the poor lads needed their cold showers, because of cause celibacy was another major doctrine and practice.
Basically, from the HK perspective: the material world is a trap and snare and if you enjoy the material world you’re coming back to more material misery and suffering. Any physical enjoyment has to be done for Krishna not our own pleasure. Hence the wonderful ecstatic prayers, dances, chants and amazing blessed food the devotees enjoyed. But anything else was pretty much a no-no. Certainly one should not enjoy sex. The single male devotees all slept in the same room on blow-up air mattresses, which were swapped and moved every night. Thus no attachment to even a sleeping position or mattress was allowed to form. And of course these sleeping arrangements minimised the potential for masturbation. So these poor young men were exploding in sexual frustration. It was thick like pea soup, all around. I received countless propositions for illicit sex from these poor bastards, and I bet most of them were not actually gay. The problem lay in the fact that there was no actual transformation of the sexual force, only repression. This is one of the great issues with implanting eastern religions in the west; our western psyche is so conditioned to repression it is hard to change. Anyway, it was certainly evident in the Perth HK temple back in those days.
Other doctrines irked me, and the treatment of women finally put a nail on the coffin. As an example, a man who cannot handle celibacy can apply to his guru who will then choose a woman for him to marry. The couple, once married, can have sex for procreation not pleasure – but heck at least it’s sex and sometimes the procreation can take a while 🙂 However a women, no matter how frustrated and horny she gets cannot approach the guru in the same manner. Good girls, even in India, don’t want to fuck I guess. Anyway, eventually I stopped going shortly before I discovered the western esoteric traditions. But it was a lovely introduction to the spiritual life in some ways and the continuing presence and love of Srila Prabhupada was amazing and inspiring. I sure he was a Master and still is present for those of his tradition who seek. In his honour and with thanks: