Srila Prabhupada accepts Sannyasa, 1959
“One night, Abhay had an unusual dream. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta appeared before him, beckoning. He was asking Abhay to leave home and take sannyasa. Abhay awoke in an intensely emotional state, “How horrible!” He thought. He knew it was not an ordinary dream, yet the request seemed so difficult and unlikely. Take sannyasa! At least it was not something he could do immediately. Now he had to improve the business, and with the profits he would print books. He went on with his duties, but remained shaken by the dream.” (Satwarup Goswami. 1980. Prabhupada Lilamrta. Page 118.)
In 1948, Abhay closed his Lucknow factory. He had fallen behind in employees’ salaries, and since 1946 he had been paying past rent in installments. But when sales dropped off, continuing the factory became impossible. He lost everything.
Srila Prabhupada: I started a big factory in Lucknow. Those were golden days. My business flourished like anything. Everything in the chemical business knew. But then, gradually, everything dwindled. With the help of some acquaintances in Allahabad, he opened a small factory there, in the same city where his Prayag Pharmacy had failed fifteen years before. He moved to Allahabad with his son Brindaban and continued manufacturing medicines. While the rest of the family remained at Banerjee Lane in Calcutta, Abhay continued his travelling; but now he was often sway for months at a time.
And then he had the dream a second time. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati appeared before him; again he was beckoning, indicating that Abhay should take sannyasa. And again Abhay had to put the dream aside. He was a householder with many responsibilities. To take sannyasa would mean to give up everything. He had to earn money. He now had five children. “Why is Guru Maharaj asking me to take sannyasa?” he thought. It is not possible now.
The Allahabad business was unsuccessful. “At present, the condition of our business is not good,” he wrote his servant Gouranga, who had asked to rejoin him. “When the condition gets better and if you are free at that time I will call for you.” He worked earnestly, but results were meagre.
As with everything else, Abhay saw his present circumstances through the eyes of scripture. And he could not help but think of the verse from the Srimad Bhagavatam:
harishye tad-dhanaM shanaiH
tato ‘dhanaM tyajanty asya
“When I feel especially merciful towards someone, I gradually take away all his material possessions. His friends and relatives then reject this poverty-stricken and most wretched fellow”.
He had heard Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati quote this verse, and now he thought of it often. He took it that his present circumstances were controlled by Lord Sri Krishna, who was forcing him into a helpless position, freeing him for preaching Krishna consciousness.
Srila Prabhupada: Somehow or other, my intention for preaching the message of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu increased, and the other side decreased. I was not disinclined, but Krishna forced me: “You must give it up.” The history is known – how it decreased, decreased, decreased.
In the Srimad Bhagavatam, Queen Kunti had also prayed, “My dear Lord Krishna, Your Lordship can easily be approached, but only by those who are materially exhausted. One who is on the path of (material) progress, trying to improve himself with respectable parentage, great opulence, high education, and bodily beauty, cannot approach You with sincere feeling.”
Srila Prabhupada: So in 1950 I retired, practically. Not retired, but a little in touch with business – whatever is going on. Then almost it became nil. Whatever was there, all right. You do whatever you like. (Satwarup Goswami. 1980. Prabhupada Lilamrta. Pages 140-141.)
One night Abhay had a striking dream, the same dream he had had several times before, during his days as a householder. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati appeared, just as Abhay had known him, the tall, scholarly sannyasi, coming directly from the spiritual world, from Krishna’s personal entourage. He called to Abhay and indicated that he should follow. Repeatedly he called and motioned. He was asking Abhay to take sannyasa. Come, he urged, become a sannyasi.
Abhay awoke in a state of wonder. He thought of this instruction as another feature of the original instruction Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati had given him at their first meeting in Calcutta, the same instruction that his spiritual master had later solidified in a letter; become an English preacher and spread Krishna consciousness throughout the Western world. Sannyasa was for that end; otherwise, why would his spiritual master have asked him to accept it? Abhay reasoned that his spiritual master was saying, “Now take sannyasa and you will actually be able to accomplish this mission. Formerly the time was not right.”
Abhay deliberated cautiously. By accepting sannyasa, a Vaishnava dedicates his body, mind and words totally to the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, renouncing all other engagements. He was doing that already. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati had offered sannyasa to his leading disciples so that they could continue his mission; they hadn’t done it. Preaching in the West had proved perilous even for the Gaudiya Math’s most recognised sannyasis. How could he, a mere householder, presume he could succeed where the others had failed? He was hesitant. The helpless, incapable feeling he had expressed in his “Viraha-ashtaka” was there. But now his spiritual master was beckoning him – over all other considerations, even over natural humility. Now, although he was elderly and alone, the desire to preach just as his spiritual master had preached remained within him, a fierce though sometimes quietly expressed determination.
The Vedik standard and the example set by the previous acharyas was that if one wanted to lead a preaching movement, sannyasa was required. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati had taken sannyasa to facilitate his missionary work. Lord Chaitanya had taken sannyasa to further his sankirtan movement. Of course, Lord Chaitanya was the Supreme Personality of godhead, but when His young students had been disrespectful towards Him, treating Him as an ordinary man, He had taken sannyasa. Because a sannyasi is automatically respected, Lord Chaitanya’s acceptance of sannyasa was a calculated tactic; as son as He began travelling throughout India as a sannyasi, he immediately attracted thousands of followers to the sankirtan movement.
Knowing that many cheaters would accept the saffron dress and abuse the respect given to sannyasis, Lord Chaitanya had advised against accepting sannyasa in the Age of Kali-yuga. He knew that cheaters, in the guise of sadhus, would act immorally, accumulate funds for their own sense gratification, and make many followers simply to enhance their own prestige. Posing as swamis, they would cheat the public. Because the people in Kali-yuga are unable to follow the rules and regulations of sannyasa, Lord Chaitanya had recommended that they simply chant Hare Krishna. However, if a person could actually follow the rules, and especially if he had to spread the sankirtan movement, sannyasa was necessary.
Abhay first had to approach one of his Godbrothers for permission. He decided to turn to Bhaktivilas Tirtha Maharaj (formerly Kunjavihari) the leader of the Chaitanya Math in Calcutta. Abhay still thought of the Caitanya Math as the headquarters of his spiritual master’s mission. During the heated legal disputes, the Chaitanya Math had been the most prized acquisition, and since 1948 it had been under the legal ownership of Bhaktivilas Tirtha Maharaj. Now, although each sannyasi had his own place or places, the Chaitanya Math and Bhaktivilas Tirtha Maharaj legally represented the Gaudiya Math entity. Abhay felt that if he were to take sannyasa and go preach in America, he should give the Chaitanya Math the first opportunity to support the work. In April 1959, Abhay wrote to Tirtha Maharaj, inquiring about sannyasa as well as about the Chaitanya Math’s printing some of his manuscripts. And since no one was going abroad, he volunteered to do so on behalf of the Chaitanya Math.
Bhaktivilas Tirtha Maharaj replied that Abhay should first join the Caitanya Math. He mentioned the strife that still lingered; “Those who are against Chaitanya Math, they are motivated by their individual ambitions.” Anyone who was against the Chaitanya Math, he said was acting illogically and against the instructions of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. So according to Tirtha Maharaj, the thing for Abhay to do, the thing he had neglected to do for so many years, was to join the Chaitanya Math and act under his direction. Tirtha Maharaj mentioned several members of the Chaitanya Math who had recently accepted the sannyasa order, and he said that Abhay could become one – in time. He invited Abhay to come reside at the Chaitanya Math; “The house that we have, there are rooms that are airy and well lit. We will treat you exclusively. There won’t be any difficulty. We will take care that no inconveniences are caused”. But as for printing books:
We are eagerly awaiting to print the books like Satsandarbha, Vedanta, based on devotional service, and many other rare books by the Goswamis. First we will print them. Books written by you will be checked by the editorial staff, and if the funds can be raised, then they can be printed according to priority. The books will be printed only if they are favourable for the service of the Chaitanya Math. Therefore, if the fund is raised, then there is a plan to go abroad as well.
Abhay was not encouraged. The main difficulty, he felt, was the Chaitanya Math’s shortage of funds. Srila Prabhupada: I was working with my broken typewriter. I went to our Tirtha Maharaj: “You give me a room and print my books. Give me some money. I will join you.” I had thought, “This is Guru Maharaj’s institution.” He did not say no, but the printing of books was a difficult task for him. He had no money. He was hardly collecting for maintaining. Printing of books is a big job, and there is no guarantee of sale.
Without printing books and going to the West, sannyasa did not have meaning for Abhay. And who knew when Tirtha Maharaj would sanction his taking sannyasa? There was no point in going to Calcutta just to reside in an airy, well-lit room; that he had already in Vrindavan. Abhay wrote back to Tirtha Maharaj, mentioning his direct order from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta to preach to the English-speaking people. He wanted to go to the West right away, and he had thought that Chaitanya Math would welcome his offer. Both Abhay and tirtha Maharaj had their responsibilities, but perhaps they could work together to carry out the desire of their spiritual master. Abhay asked Tirtha Maharaj to reconsider.. On May 7th, 1959, Bhaktivilas Tirtha Maharaj wrote back.
My suggestion is don’t make any hasty decisions. For the time being you stay with us and engage yourself in the service of the society and then accept tridandi (sannyasa). The purpose of accepting tridandi is to serve the society. If that is your desire, then Sri Chaitanya Math will decide about your going to America to preach and make all the arrangements. It can never be the principle of the society to let one act according to his individual attempt or desire. The society will decide after consulting with the heads what is to be done by whom. That is what I want to say. First of all, it is necessary to identify oneself with the society.
In order to preach in America or in other foreign countries, it is important to have a dignified organisation in the background and secondly it is necessary to establish one’s self in India before going to preach in the foreign countries.
Now it is that there are no conferences or meetings in the West as before. Communication is done through the media of television.
Abhay could understand the needs and priorities of the Chaitanya Math, but he could not allow them to overrule what he considered the highest mandate; preaching as Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati had ordered. Abhay had offered his services to the leaders of the Chaitanya Math, thinking they might also see things his way. He thought that with the world’s crying need for Krishna consciousness staring them in the face, they might see that this Abhay Babu was convinced and enthusiastic and so should be sent right away with whatever he required. But they had other priorities. Abhay next turned to Keshava Maharaj in Mathura, and Keshava Maharaj told Abhay to take sannyasa immediately. After corresponding with Tirtha Maharaj, Abhay had felt some uncertainty about accepting sannyasa, and now that he was being encouraged so strongly, he resisted. But Keshava Maharaj was insistent.
Srila Prabhupada: I was sitting alone in Vrindavana, writing. My Godbrother insisted to me “Bhaktivedanta Prabhu, you must do it. Without accepting the renounced order of life, nobody can become a preacher.” So he insisted. Not he insisted: practically my spiritual master insisted. He wanted me to become a preacher, so he forced me through this Godbrother: “You accept.” So, unwillingly I accepted.
Keshavaji Gaudiya Math was located in the midst of one of Mathura’s downtown bazaars. Its main entrance, an arched doorway, led into a courtyard, open to the sky through a metal grating above. The architecture was similar to that of the Vamshi-gopalaji temple. The atmosphere was secluded, as in a monastery. Abhay was a familiar, welcomed figure here. He had lived here, written and studied in the library here, edited the Gaudiya Patrika, and donated the Deity of Lord Chaitanya who stood on the altar beside the Deities of Radha and Krishna (Sri Sri Radha Vinodavihariji). But his visit during September of 1959 was not an ordinary one. He entered the matha dressed in white, Abhay Babu, but he would soon be leaving dressed in saffron, a swami.
Abhay had been living as a renunciate for nine years; there was no need for him to observe a ceremony or to proclaim himself a sadhu by changing to saffron dress. But it was the parampara system that a man take tridandi-sannyasa at the end of his life. He was aware of the cheating sannyasis; even in Vrindavana he had seen so-called sadhus who did not preach but simply spent their days hunting for chapatis. Some “swamis” of Vrindavana even indulged illicitly in what they had supposedly come here to reject: sex life. Such persons were making a mockery of sannyasa. And there were the caste goswamis also, who lived like ordinary householders, running temples as a business to support their families and accepting honour and donations from the public on the false basis of birth. Abhay knew of these abuses of sannyasa, but he also knew the real purpose of sannyasa. Sannyasa was for preaching.
On the morning of September 17th 1959, in the fifty-by-twenty-five-foot Deity room on the second floor of the Keshavaji Math, a group of devotees sat before the Deities of Radha-Krishna and Lord Chaitanya. The Deities were colourfully dressed in royal clothing and silver crowns. Radharani’s right hand faced palm-forward in benediction for the worshipper; at Her side, Her left hand held a flower for Krishna. Krishna stood like a dancer, placing His right leg in a casual tiptoe pose before His left, playing His long silver flute, which He held gracefully to His red lips. His long black hair reached down past His shoulders, and the garland of marigolds around his neck reached down to His knees. On His right stood the Deity of Lord Chaitanya, His right arm raised, left arm at His side, His body straight, feet together. He was a soft golden colour, and He had large eyes, a well-formed red mouth, and straight black hair down to his shoulders. One level below the Deities were pictures of the spiritual masters in disciplic succession: Jagannath dasa Babaji, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Gaurakishora dasa Babaji, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, Bhaktiprajnana Keshava Maharaj.
Abhay sat on a mat of kusha grass beside ninety-year old Sanatana, also to receive sannyasa that day. Sitting opposite the two candidates, Narayana Maharaj, Keshava Maharaja’s disciple, prepared to conduct the ceremony of mantras and offerings of grains and ghee into the fire. Akinchana Krishnadasa Babaji, Abhay’s Godbrother, known for sweet singing, played mrdanga and sang Vaishnava bhajanas. Sitting on a raised asana, His Holiness B.P. Keshava Maharaj presided. Since there had been no notices or invitations, only the matha’s few residents attended.
Narayan Maharaj chanted the required mantras and then sat back silently while B.P. Keshava Maharaj lectured. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Keshava Maharaj asked Abhay to speak. Abhay had not expected this. As he looked around at the gathering of devotees, he understood that the common language was Hindi; only Keshava Maharaj and a few others spoke English. Yet he knew he must speak in English.
After Abhay’s speech, each initiate received his sannyasa-danda, the traditional head-high staff made of four bamboo rods bound together and completely enwrapped in saffron cloth. They were given their sannyasa garments: one piece of saffron cloth for a dhoti, and one for a top piece (uttara), and two strips of cloth for underwear (kaupins). They also received Tulasi neck beads and the sannyasa mantra. Keshava Maharaj said that Abhay would now be known as Bhaktivedanta Swami Maharaj and that Sanatana would be Muni Maharaj. After the ceremony, the two new sannyasis posed for a photo, standing on either side of their sannyasa-guru, who sat in a chair.
B.P. Keshava Maharaj didn’t impose any strictures on Abhay; he simply encouraged him to go on preaching. Yet Abhay knew that to become A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami did not mean merely that he was giving up family, home comforts, and business. That he had done five years ago. Changing from white cloth to saffron cloth, from Abhay Babu to Bhaktivedanta Swami Maharaj, had a special significance: it was only a matter of time before Bhaktivedanta Swami would travel to the West as Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati had ordained. This was Bhaktivedanta Swami’s realization of his new sannyasa status.
The Gaudiya Patrika’s account of the sannyasa initiation included a biographical sketch of Sri Srimad Bhaktivedanta Swami Maharaj, listing the major events of his life. The article concluded:
Seeing his enthusiasm and ability to write articles in Hindi, English and Bengali, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Maharaj gave him the instruction to take tridandi-sannyasa. For nearly one year he had been ready to accept sannyasa. In the month of Bhadra, on the day on which Vishvarupa accepted sannyasa, Bhaktivedanta Swami at the Sri Keshavaji Gaudiya Math accepted sannyasa from the founder of the Vedanta Samiti, Bhaktiprajnana Keshava Maharaj. Seeing him accept his ashram of renunciation, seeing this pastime for accepting the renounced order of life, we have attained great affection and enthusiasm.
(Satwarup Goswami. 1980. Prabhupada Lilamrta. Pages 225-231.) Caritamrta.