A DIVINE LIFE (PART 1)
DIVINITY CAN BE SEEN BY ITS OWN LIGHT. The transcendental life of Srila Prabhupada Saraswati Thakur can be known to us only by his own causeless mercy--for such is the nature of the Supreme Lord and His representatives who come to this world. Srila Prabhupada was an infinite ocean of divine treasure; if we are fortunate enough, perhaps we can touch the waves of that ocean as they lap the shore of our mortal plane. Within that ocean are his innumerable transcendental qualities such as scholarship, genius, spiritual realization, humility, magnanimity, compassion, mercy, and divine love, to name only a few. The essence of Srila Prabhupada's life cannot be revealed in many volumes--let alone a single chapter--if they are merely a catalog of facts and figures. It takes the dedication of a lifetime to attain a true glimpse of his message, and his life is his message.
We are about to stand in front of a divine personality; we are about to catch sight of that reality which is eternal and infinite. Yet in our meeting with the eternal we have to retrace the footsteps of time, because we must begin somewhere.
Srila Prabhupada Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur made his appearance in Purusottam Ksetra (Jagannath Puri) in the state of Orissa, at 3:30 in the afternoon on Friday, the 6th of February, 1874. He was born in his family home, which was next to the holy site called the Narayan-chhata of Sri Jagannath Temple, and which always reverberated with the chanting of the holy name. He was the fourth son of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Srimati Bhagavati Devi. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura firmly established the concept of pure Vaisnavism in the hearts of many educated and spiritually inquisitive people of Bengal in the latter part of the nineteenth Century. Srila Prabhupada Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura was a beautiful child with all the bodily symptoms of a great personality that are described in the scriptures. Everyone was amazed to see that the child was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck like a brahmana's sacred thread. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura named his son Sri Bimala Prasada, meaning "the mercy of the transcendental potency of Lord Jagannatha, Srimati Bimala Devi."
When Sri Bimala Prasada was six months old, Lord Jagannatha's annual chariot festival took place. That year the chariot stopped in front of Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura's house and could not be budged an inch for three days. So while Lord Jagannatha stayed in front of the house, kirtanawas continuously performed there under the leadership of Srila Thakura Mahasaya ("Mahasaya" is an honorific title). On one of these days Sri Bimala Prasada, in his mother's arms, went to see Lord Jagannatha, and extended his hand towards the Deity as if to offer his obeisance. At that moment a garland fell from the neck of Lord Jagannath and encircled the child. The crowd was jubilant witnessing Lord Jagannatha's blessing on the child. Amid the tumultuous sound of "Haribol!", Bhaktivinode Thakura fed Bimala Prasada some of Lord Jagannatha's mahaprasad,and thus observed the child's annaprasan ("grain ceremony"--first feeding of grains) under the most auspicious circumstances.
Sri Bimala Prasada lived in Jagannatha Dhama for ten months with his mother. Then they traveled to Bengal and resided first at Ranaghata and then at Srirampura. Once when Srila Bimala Prasada was a small boy, he took a mango without first offering it to the Lord. When his father chastised him for this he became very remorseful and immediately vowed never to eat a mango again--a vow which he observed his whole life. In 1881 Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura had a house built at Calcutta at Ram-bagan and named it Bhakti Bhavan. As the foundation was being dug, a Deity of Sri Kurma Deva manifested Himself from the ground. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura gave this Deity to his son Sri Bimala Prasad when he was eight or nine years old, and taught him the mantra and the method of deity worship. The child duly started his deity worship with great care and devotion.
When Sri Bimala Prasada was in fifth grade, he invented a new method of shorthand which he called Bicanto (or Vikrinti). His teachers were always amazed by his mastery of Bengali and Sanskrit, his extraordinary intelligence and memory, and his pure moral and devotional nature. At this time Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura gave him Sri Chaitanya Siksamrtato read. Sri Bimala Prasada also displayed extraordinary ability in mathematics and astrology. He studied astrology under the tutelage of the famous astrologer Mahesh Chandra Churamani, and impressed hi teacher with his mastery of the subject and hi exceptional talent. He also studied astrology with Pandit Sundar Lal. Seeing his scholarship in many different subjects, including the scriptures, his teachers named him Sri Siddhanta Sarasvati--"master of scriptural conclusions." When Srila Sarasvati Thakura was a student in the seventh grade in Srirampur, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura gave him harinama(the holy name) on Tulasi-mala (rosary made Tulasibeads), as well as Sri Nrsimha mantra.
In 1885 Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura founded the Vaisnava Depository, a press which was housed in his own home. Srila Sarasvati Thakura learned about the printing press and began assisting his father in proof reading. At this time, Srila Thakura Mahasaya's magazine, Sajjan Tosani,resumed publication. In that same year Srila Sarasvati Thakura accompanied Srila Thakura Mahasaya on his pilgrimage to such places as Kulingram and Sargram. At these places he heard extensive discussions on the holy name. Also in 1885, Srila Thakura Mahasaya established his "Visva-Vaisnava Raj-Sabha" ("great assembly of the Vaisnavas of the world") in the house of Sri Ramgopal Basu on Bethune Row in Calcutta. Many well known personalities such as Madangopal Goswami, Nilkanta Goswami, Bipin Vihari Goswami, Radhikanath Goswami, and Shishir Kumar Ghosh attended the meetings of the society and participated in discussions. Srila Sarasvati Thakura used to carry Bhakti-rasamrta Sindhu(The Ocean of the Nectar of Devotion), by Srila Rupa Goswami, to these meetings, and listen to the discussion there with rapt attention.
Srila Sarasvati Thakura was not interested in associating with other boys of his age unless they were interested in spiritual matters His two favorite books were Prarthanaand Prema-Bhakti Chandrikaby Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura. As a young boy he published books on astrology, such as Surya Siddhantaand Bhakti Bhavan Panjika.In the afternoons he spent hours debating about religion and philosophy with other students in Calcutta' Beadon Square. Later, while still a teenager, he founded the August Assembly. All members of the Assembly had to take a vow of lifelong celibacy. Many educated people, both young and old, took part in the Assembly.
In 1892 Srila Sarasvati Thakura finished high school and enrolled in the Sanskrit College. He was more interested in reading many different books in the college library than in reading his own textbooks. He studied the Vedas under Pandit Prithvidhar Sharma after college. He also studied the Siddhanta Kaumudiwithin a very short time. As a student in Sanskrit College, he refuted some of the concepts of Professor Panchanan Sahityacharya. Subsequently, no one wanted to debate with Srila Sarasvati Thakura, for fear of defeat. But his spiritual interests did not allow him to stay in college for very long. He wrote in his autobiography, "If I keep studying at college with great attention, then I will be under a lot of pressure to enter family life. But if I am seen as a stupid, incompetent person, then no one will try to influence me towards material progress. Thinking this, I left the Sanskrit College, and in order to live a life of devotional service, I wanted a pious occupation so I could have a modest income."
In 1897 Srila Sarasvati Thakura established the Saraswat Chatuspathi (The Saraswat Academy) at Bhakti Bhavan. Many prominent and educated men such as Lala Haragaurishankar, Dr. Ekendranath Ghosh, Satkari Chattopadhyaya, Shyamlal Goswami, and Saratchandra Vidyavinod came to study astrology and mathematics there. From Saraswat Chatuspathi, Srila Sarasvati Thakura published astrological magazines such as Jyotirvidand Brhaspati,as well as quite a few ancient astrological texts. Srila Sarasvati Thakura's reputation as a very knowledgeable astrologer spread in the educated society of Calcutta. Later Sir Asutosh Mukhopaddhyay, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Calcutta, said that the chair of astronomy at the University of Calcutta would be reserved for Srila Sarasvati Thakura.
In 1895 Srila Sarasvati Thakura accepted a job with the independent state of Tripura, as a scholar and tutor for the royal family thereof. After King Virchandra passed away in 1896, his son, King Radhakisor Manikya Bahadur, requested Srila Sarasvati Thakura to tutor the princes, and later to supervise the estate in Calcutta. But Srila Sarasvati Thakura soon wished to retire from this job, and the King allowed him to do so in 1905 with full pension. Srila Sarasvati Thakura accepted that pension until 1908.
Previously, in 1898, Srila Sarasvati Thakura had visited different places of pilgrimage such as Kasi, Prayag, and Gaya. At Kasi (Benares), he had an extensive discussion with Ram Misra Shastri about the Ramanuja sampradaya.During this period the renunciate nature of his devotional life became very apparent. As early as 1897 he was observing the four months of chaturmasyawith great austerity and devotion. He would eat only boiled food (habisyanna) which he cooked himself, and sleep on the floor without pillows. In 1899 he wrote various articles to preach Vaisnavism in a magazine called Nivedan,published in Calcutta. In 1890 his scholarly book Bange Samajikata,consisting of research on society and religion, was published in Calcutta.
In 1897 Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura established his own bhajan-kutir(cottage for reclusive devotional practice), called Ananda-sukhada-kunja, on the Godruma island of Navadwip on the bank of the river Sarasvati. There, in the winter of 1898, Srila Sarasvati Thakura met with an extraordinary, exalted Vaisnava saint, Srila Gaurkisora Dasa Babaji, who captured his heart. Sarasvati Thakura wanted to take shelter at the lotus feet of Srila Gaurkisor Das Babaji, and by the order of Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura he surrendered at the lotus feet of Srila Gaurkisora Dasa Babaji and received bhagavati diksa(initiation) from him in 1900.
Shortly before this, in March of the same year, Srila Sarasvati Thakura had gone to Remuna via Baleswar to see the Deity of Ksirachora Gopinath (Gopinath who stole the ksira, or milk pudding, for his devotee Sri Madhavendra Puri). Then he went to Puri via Bhuvaneswar. Srila Sarasvati Thakura became very attached to the holy city of Puri. His great desire was to establish a mathin front of the samadhiof Srila Haridasa Thakura. The subregistrar of Puri, Jagabandhu Pattanayak, and others requested him to take charge of the service of the Deity of Sri Giridhari at Satasan Math. In 1902 Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura started to build his bhajan-kutircalled Bhakti Kuthi near the samadhiof Srila Haridas Thakura. The King of Kasim Bazar, Maharaja Manindra Chandra Nandi, who was grief stricken due to some personal tragedy, used to live there in a tent and listen to the hari-kathaof Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Sarasvati Thakura. At this time Srila Sarasvati Thakura regularly used to read and explain the Chaitanya Charitamrtato the audience in Bhakti Kuthi, in front of Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura. During this time he labored to collect material for Vaisnava Manjusa,a Vaisnava encyclopedia.
One Babaji, Radha-raman charan das, who lived in Puri, had concocted a song: bhaja nitai gaura radhe syama/japa hare krsna hare ram.Srila Sarasvati Thakura not only protested against this but presented a very strong argument and proved it to be inauthentic and against Vaisnava scriptures. This Babaji also introduced the sakhivekiconcept by dressing one of his followers as Lalita Sakhi. This was against Mahaprabhu's teachings since an ordinary jivawas being worshipped as though he were an expansion of Srimati Radharani. Srila Sarasvati Thakura was always a fearless and forthright speaker, and thus opposed the Babaji. Therefore, those who opposed him, unable to defeat him in argument, tried other ways to suppress his preaching. Although Srila Sarasvati Thakura silently tolerated this oppression, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura asked him to go to Mayapur and practice his bhajanathere, without obstacles.
In February 1905, Srila Sarasvati Thakura went on pilgrimage to various holy places in South India. After visiting Simhachal, Rajmahendri, Madras, Peremvedur, Tirupati, Kanjiveram, Kumbhakonam, Srirangam, Madura, etc., he returned to Calcutta and then went on to Sri Mayapur. In Peremvedur he gathered information about the practice of tridanda vaisnava sannyasafrom a Tridandi Swami who belonged to the Ramanuja sampradaya.
In 1905, Srila Sarasvati Thakura began preaching Sriman Mahaprabhu's message while residing in Sri Mayapur. Following in the footsteps of Srila Haridas Thakura, he would take the holy name 300,000 times a day. He would sleep on the floor for only a few hours, eat very simply, and take the holy name day and night. In the afternoon he would speak harikathato the assembled devotees. On some days he would go to Kuliya to have darsanof Srila Gaurkisor Das Babaji and receive his instruction. Srila Gaurkisor Das Babaji was very pleased to see the great renunciation of Srila Sarasvati Thakura. He used to say, "In my Prabhu I see the same kind of renunciation that was seen in Sri Rupa and Sri Raghunatha." Srila Babaji Mahasaya used to address his disciple Srila Sarasvati Thakura as "my Prabhu" ("my master"). Srila Sarasvati Thakura also received the blessings of Srila Vamsidas Babaji Maharaja in Navadwip. Seeing Srila Sarasvati Thakura, Srila Varmsidasa Babaji Mahasaya would say, "Someone very close to my Gaura has come to me."
Prabhupada Saraswati Thakur
Srila Sarasvati Thakura began his intense preaching of pure devotional principles in a society in which the authority of the brahmanaswas unquestioned, and the concept of pure devotion was misinterpreted and misrepresented by the imitators of Vaisnavism (the Sahajiyas). In India in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most brahmanaswere more concerned about rules and regulations that were separated from the concept of devotion and not based on the injunctions of authentic scriptures than they were about what was spiritually and morally beneficial for the rest of society. A brahmanawas no longer a person with brahminicalqualities, but simply a person born in a family of brahmanas.Since the caste system was rotting at its core, it had become meaningless and was in fact detrimental to the spiritual and moral welfare of society. The brahmanasopposed any ideas that might threaten their preeminence, which was bereft of any moral or spiritual basis. Although many educated people had lost their faith in the beneficial role of the brahmanaclass, they did not know who could take their place. The pure Vaisnavas led reclusive lives hidden from the public eye, and the Sahajiya Vaisnavas aroused more hatred and suspicion than respect. In this context, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta wanted to establish the principles of daivi-varnasrama dharma--the system in which the service of the Lord is placed in the center of society, a Vaisnava is respected by everyone else, and one's caste is ascertained according to one's natural tendency, not according to one's birth.