By Giriraj Swami
Today is Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami Prabhupada’s appearance day. We have heard about His Divine Grace already. Today is also the disappearance day of HH Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja. He left on Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s appearance day.
I remember the first time we celebrated Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s appearance day. I was a new devotee in Boston temple in early 1970, and Srila Prabhupada instructed us how to observe the appearance day of the spiritual master in the ceremony called Vyasa-puja. Up until then there had never been any observance of Vyasa-puja in ISKCON. Apart from the actual ceremony on that day, when one offers bhoga and puspanjali and guru-puja, Srila Prabhupada instructed us to write appreciations or homages for his guru maharaja. We collected and published them. I was so new in Krishna consciousness I didn’t know much about His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura but I thought about him deeply and I had two realizations, two thoughts. First, he must have been a most wonderful personality because someone as great as Srila Prabhupada surrendered to him. And second, it was by his mercy that we came in touch with Srila Prabhupada and Krishna consciousness. He gave Srila Prabhupada the instruction to preach Krishna consciousness in the English language in the Western world, and in accordance with his divine instructions Srila Prabhupada came to America to deliver all of us. So I felt great appreciation for His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura and gratitude to him.
Today I thought to focus more on His Holiness Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja, who may be less known to many of you. HH Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja was born in a Vaishnava family in Orissa. His family were Gaudiya Vaishnavas—worshippers of Krishna—and they worshipped the family Deity named Gopal Jiu. So Gour Govinda Maharaja grew up in that atmosphere hearing Caitanya-caritamrta, singing songs of Narottama dasa Thakura and Bhaktivinoda Thakura and worshiping Gopal Jiu. In due course, as was the custom, he married. He was educated in Hindi and other languages and other subjects. To maintain his family he taught in school as a school teacher. But within his heart, his desire to serve the Lord fully without any distraction grew stronger and stronger and, as noted in his diary, he began to pray to his Deity to relieve him of the encumbrance of family responsibility and free him—to preach and serve Krishna fully.
In response to his sincere desire and prayers the circumstances became such that he was able to leave the family. He adopted the name Gour Gopal and began to travel like a sannyasi although officially he was not initiated into the sannyasa order. But he began to travel as a mendicant and at the same time he was looking for a spiritual master who could properly enlighten him and engage him in devotional service. One event led to another and he came to Vrindavan to the Krishna-Balarama temple. At the Krishna-Balarama temple he wanted to meet Srila Prabhupada, the great person who had spread Krishna consciousness all over the world and made persons from outside India into pure Vaishnavas. Eventually he did meet His Divine Grace and at the very first meeting Srila Prabhupada asked him if he would like to take sannyasa. At that moment Gour Govinda Maharaja, then Gour Gopal, realized that Srila Prabhupada was his spiritual master—he knew his heart—and could help him to fulfill his spiritual desires.
So, Gour Gopal accepted Srila Prabhupada as his spiritual master, and soon thereafter Srila Prabhupada initiated him. Srila Prabhupada gave him his first and second initiation and, within six months, at the opening of the Krishna-Balaram temple in Vrindavan, sannyasa. Because Gour Govinda Maharaja was educated, Srila Prabhupada wanted Maharaja to translate his books into Oriya, and Maharaja took that service very seriously. He was regularly translating, but specifically for Srila Prabhupada’s Centennial in 1996 he wanted to complete the entire Srimad-Bhagavatam and took a vow not to take food until he had translated his quota for the day—perhaps one hour. And he was so strict in his vow that even when he couldn’t translate because of circumstances, such as when he would travel on long flights overseas, even then he would not eat until he had completed his quota, even if it was late at night. So, he took that order to translate very seriously.
Srila Prabhupada also wanted him to establish a temple in Bhubaneswar. Somebody had given us some land that at the time was in the wilderness. The area was completely overgrown and infested with snakes, mosquitoes, scorpions, and other creatures. Gour Govinda Maharaja took up the challenge, took up the order, took up the service, and lived in extremely austere conditions. Srila Prabhupada predicted that one day that area would become the center of the city and so it came to pass. Sometime later the government decided to run a major highway right past the property that we had been given. And naturally along the highway shops came up, residences came up, and now that area is the fastest growing area in Bhubaneswar, and a major location. In time HH Gour Govinda Maharaja did raise the funds and built the beautiful temple there. In 1977 after the Maha-kumbha-mela in Allahabad Srila Prabhupada himself went to Bhubaneswar to stay on the land. Gour Govinda Maharaja was living in a grass hut where he would do his bhajana and his translation work and Srila Prabhupada stayed right next to him in another grass hut or an extension of the same grass hut for seventeen days.
On the auspicious occasion of Sri Nityananda-trayodasi Srila Prabhupada laid the cornerstone for the temple. He also completed an important phase of his own writing in Bhubaneswar, maybe the Ninth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. In any case, after Srila Prabhupada left, Gour Govinda Maharaja was ready to execute another important instruction from Srila Prabhupada to him that he should travel and help Prabhupada’s devotees. So he began to travel overseas and preach. Seeing the needs of the society and the needs of the devotees he evolved in mission in pursuance of Srila Prabhupada’s instructions to him. His mission in his own words were:
(1) To show that everything is in Srila Prabhupada’s books,
(2) To show that you can get everything within ISKCON, and
(3) To encourage the devotees and protect them so that they don’t fall down,
Gour Govinda Maharaja said that Srila Prabhupada books are like an ocean filled with gems but that in order to get those gems one must go very deep. Gour Govinda Maharaja’s own books, which are actually compiled from his talks by his disciples, especially Madhavananda Prabhu . . . His talks are all classes based on Srila Prabhupada’s books, and in them he reveals just what gems there are in Srila Prabhupada’s books and that one can get from Srila Prabhupada’s books the highest realizations of Krishna consciousness. They are expressions of what is our relationship with God and how to act in that relationship and how to actually realize love for God—Krishna.
In a similar way he showed that you can get everything within ISKCON and he himself gave much to the society of devotees in ISKCON in terms of his krsna-katha and his realization of Krishna consciousness. He was an example of a pure devotee who had ecstatic love for Krishna and who had direct perception of Krishna. From his liberated platform of pure devotional service he could guide and encourage and enlighten us and also give us hope that if we follow the same process as disciples of Srila Prabhupada or followers of Srila Prabhupada we can also attain the same result.
I have had the opportunity to hear other advanced Gaudiya Vaishnavas from outside ISKCON speak about Krishna, krsna-katha, and I can honestly say that the level of krsna-katha spoken by Gour Govinda Maharaja is as high or as good as any of them. But hearing from Gour Govinda Maharaja is different because he is a disciple of Srila Prabhupada and a member of ISKCON. So we are getting it in our line, in the line of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura and Srila Prabhupada. Therefore it is most congenial for advancement in Krishna consciousness in ISKCON. Hearing from him or reading his books, one actually can get everything that one could ever want right within ISKCON. And the result of his association, through his talks and books and followers, is that one can feel very enlivened in Krishna consciousness, be greatly nourished and make tangible progress, what to speak of not falling down and going away. One can get a glimpse of the actual perfection of Krishna consciousness and have hope that one can actually reach the goal in this lifetime by following the process of bhakti-yoga given to us in our line from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura to Srila Prabhupada and then to his followers.
So HH Gour Govinda Maharaja is significant not only to those who knew him personally but to those who serve in Orissa where he had his base which was actually given to him as his prabhu-datta-desa by Srila Prabhupada. His instructions are available to all of us even now and his mercy is available to us.
Now we come to his disappearance pastimes. It was on Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s appearance day in Mayapur in 1996. That morning I met him and fortunately I offered my obeisances to him. I placed my head on his feet, and out of his mercy and kindness he very affectionately rubbed my back and head. And that was the last time I saw him. For certain reasons I was obliged to leave Mayapur on that day to fly to America for some urgent business, and so I went. After offering my obeisances to him and packing and getting ready for the journey I went to the temple room around noon for the puspanjali and guru-puja in honor of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s Vyasa-puja and took darshan of the Deities, took blessings from the Deities, and prepared to go. Some devotees prevailed upon me to honor the feast offered to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, which I did, and still I reached the airport in Calcutta in plenty of time. But it wasn’t until much later—because where I was in America I had no opportunity to get news about ISKCON. I didn’t have a computer, or if I did I was just starting to use it and wasn’t very regular. It was only later when I met His Holiness Radhanath Swami in Chicago that I received the news that he had left this world.
It so happened that later on the day of Maharaja’s departure, two senior devotees came to meet him in his room, and inquired why Lord Chaitanya chose Jagannatha Puri as the place to perform His final pastimes. Maharaja began to narrate the pastimes of Krishna and how Krishna in the mood of separation from Radharani and His other friends in Vrindavan assumed the form of Jagannatha. It was a very ecstatic description, and, because of Maharaja’s advanced stage of Krishna consciousness, he felt transcendental ecstasy remembering the pastimes of Krishna. He became overwhelmed and excused himself from continuing the narration. He laid down flat on his bed and in a very deep state of Krishna consciousness left this world.
His disciples, of course, were greatly aggrieved feeling intense separation from him and they decided to bring his body to Bhubaneswar to place him in samadhi, at the site of his bhajana-kutira just near the Radha-Gopinatha temple that he established on ISKCON land in Bhubaneswar. So the disappearance day of an acharya is a sad occasion because we think of him and his wonderful association and we miss him. We miss his association. But at the same time, it is, from another point of view, not just a glorious occasion, but a jubilant occasion, because the pure soul has been reunited with the Supreme Soul as the eternal servant of Krishna and returned to his eternal service with Krishna. And certainly it is an occasion of great jubilation in the spiritual world. On the absolute platform, as Srila Prabhupada explained, there is no difference between meeting and separation—both are beautiful. Once on his Guru Maharaja’s disappearance day in Surat, Srila Prabhupada said that on the absolute platform the appearance of the spiritual master and the disappearance of the spiritual master are the same—both are beautiful. Just like the sunrise and the sunset—both are beautiful.
Now there is a very specific connection in service between HH Gour Govinda Maharaja and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. Of course, there is a general connection in terms of the mission, in terms of the general mission. Srila Prabhupada explained that preaching means distributing books, establishing temples, and making devotees. So Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura did all three and Srila Prabhupada also did all three and he wanted ISKCON to do all three. He wrote in his concluding words to Sri Caitanya-caritamrta that the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has formed to execute the will of His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami Maharaja and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. So all followers of Srila Prabhupada within ISKCON, whatever their particular service may be are furthering that mission which ultimately results in the publication and distribution of books, establishing and maintaining the temples, and the making and maintaining of devotees. But HH Gour Govinda Maharaja served Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura in a very specific way as well. And that relates to the Deity and temple of Alalanatha outside Jagannatha Puri.
When Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was residing in Puri for the last eighteen years of His manifest pastimes, He would daily go to the temple of Lord Jagannatha for darshan, and He would see Jagannatha not in the form that we see Him, but as Krishna Himself, Syamsundara, His beautiful threefold bending form, tribhanga-lalita. But every year Lord Jagannatha is bathed in the snana-yatra ceremony, and thereafter it is said that He catches a cold and is taken into seclusion for two weeks. And for those two weeks Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and all other devotees would be deprived of Jagannatha’s darshan. So, feeling separation from Lord Jagannatha, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu would walk fourteen miles to Brahmagiri to the temple of Alalanatha. The Alalanatha Deity is a four-handed Vishnu form of the Lord that was installed by Lord Brahma many ages ago, and thus that area is called Brahmagiri. So, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu would spend the fourteen days when Lord Jagannatha was in seclusion (anasara) at Alalanatha, and daily He would take darshan of the Deity Alalanatha.
As it happened over the course of time, the temple structure grew old and was in need of repair and renovations. When Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura came to Alalanatha in 1927 he took up the project of renovating the temple and he was so keen on the work being done expeditiously that he would personally roll bidis (cigarettes) for the workers so that they wouldn’t take time to roll their own bidis, take time away from their work on the temple renovation to roll their own bidis. That’s how sincere and intent he was in his purpose. In the course of a previous excavation, workers came upon the utsava Deity of Lord Alalanatha. In all major temples where there are large Deities, there are also smaller Deities called utsava Deities, which are used for festivals. The large Deities are never moved but the small utsava Deities may be handled conveniently and brought forward for abhiseka, taken on a procession, and put on swings and other things that the large Deities cannot move, cannot do. So the pujari put the utsava Deity of Alalanatha on the altar but that night the Deity came to him in his dream and told him that, “My very dear devotee is staying nearby and I want to go to him, I want to be in his care, I want him to worship Me.”
The next morning, the pujari, in obedience to the order of the Deity in the dream searched the area looking for the saintly person and eventually he found Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura and gave the Deity to him. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta constructed a beautiful temple for the Deities of Alalanatha on the land just next to the Alalanatha temple compound.
HH Gour Govinda Maharaja also took up service at Brahmagiri for Lord Alalanatha. For the Srila Prabhupada Centennial he wanted to build something and decided to build a kirtan hall within the Alalanatha temple compound, which was much needed. And he did. It opened in the Srila Prabhupada Centennial year in 1996 and so he continued this specific line of service of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura to Alalanatha.
Another service that His Holiness Gour Govinda Maharaja did for Lord Jagannatha was that he created a forest of trees to be used for constructing Lord Jagannatha’s chariot for Ratha-yatra every year. Lord Jagannatha’s chariots are huge and they require huge amounts of wood to be constructed. According to shastra and tradition, the wood must be of a certain type of tree. That tree grows very slowly and with the advent of Kali-yuga the forest of those trees has been encroached upon. The supply of that kind of wood has been reduced to such an extent that it appeared that within a number of years there wouldn’t be enough wood to build Lord Jagannatha’s chariots. So His Holiness Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja took up the project. The government gave him the land because they were also concerned, and with the help of his disciples and supporters he started growing a forest of these trees to produce wood for Lord Jagannatha’s chariots. The production of the wood has been so successful that now there is no immediate threat, no immediate danger that they won’t have enough of the prescribed kind of wood for Lord Jagannatha’s chariot. So HH Gour Govinda Maharaja is a great personality, munificent personality.
He did much not just for Prabhupada and ISKCON and the devotees of ISKCON in a limited sense but for the entire sampradaya and in fact for the larger cause of Krishna consciousness of devotional service to Lord Krishna, to Lord Jagannatha. Through his speeches and his books he explained the esoteric significance of Jagannatha Puri, of Alalanatha, of Lord Jagannatha: that Jagannatha Puri is a place of separation. Lord Jagannatha feels separation from Srimati Radharani and His other friends in Vrindavan and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, in the mood of Radharani after Krishna left Vrindavan for Mathura and Dvaraka, is also in the mood of separation. So Jagannatha is in separation of Srimati Radharani and His other friends in Vrindavan and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is in the mood of separation, Radharani feeling separation from Krishna after He left Vrindavan. So it is a place, bhumi, for separation, for crying, but as Srila Prabhupada taught us and as HH Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja has confirmed and fully explained in his books, service in separation is the highest, the ecstasy of love of God in separation is the highest. Therefore devotees relish that mood of separation, especially in Jagannatha Puri.
So we too are feeling separation from HH Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja today. We miss him. We miss his personal presence, his merciful glance, his affectionate touch, and we miss sitting at his feet and hearing his krsna-katha. But at the same time we know that he is present and that he is pleased when we chant the holy name with attention and devotion, that he is pleased when we chant and hear about Krishna, engage in krsna-katha, and he is pleased when we serve Srila Prabhupada in ISKCON, and endeavor to spread Krishna consciousness following in the footsteps of guru-parampara—Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, Srila Prabhupada, and Srila Prabhupada’s exalted followers. So we pray to both, to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura and to His Holiness Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja, that we may serve them eternally as they desire. This is parampara, serving Srila Prabhupada, his predecessors and followers, and we pray for their mercy that we may actually relish the internal moods of Krishna consciousness and fulfill their desire to bring others to Krishna consciousness—by their grace.
[A talk by Giriraj Swami on Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s appearance day and HH Gour Govinda Swami’s disappearance day, February 26, 2008, Carpinteria, California]