Last year there was an incident where I received a major chastisement because of not having properly understood the unique position of Srila Prabhupada. Well, I thought I understood his position but unknowingly and subtly I got led in way that would have meant exactly the opposite! The repercussion for me was polite but very grave, something I had never experienced in my spiritual or even in my material life. It was something I would carry whole life as it taught me a little what is meant by Guru Nishtha (firm faith in spiritual master).
Few days back I stumbled on a very unique correspondence between Srila Prabhupada and one of his most sincere disciples, HH Tamal Krishna Goswami, which I had read almost one a half years back but for some reasons I had saved it. Here, Srila Prabhupada also shares his present and previous life and explains the position of a spiritual master. As I read it again and again I understood a little better why the reaction I received was so severe and why must I be thankful for it till eternity.
Reading it, I also realised the importance of taking a break from the ‘auto-mode’ in our spiritual life and contemplate on important issues surrounding us.
I am sharing the same correspondence below and I pray that the readers get the intended message. I am first sharing the letter which HH Tamal Krishna Maharaj received from Srila Prabhupada and then his thought process and contemplation. This correspondence also shows the level of simplicity and openness which existed between Srila Prabhupada and his disciples. I have taken the liberty to highlight some portions, here it goes.
Prabhupada’s next letter arrived. Srila Prabhupada said:
Los Angeles, California, June 21st 1970
My Dear Tamal,
Please accept my blessings. I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 18th June, 1970, sent by Special Delivery Air Mail.
Krishna philosophy is understood as it is stated in the Vedas:
yasya deve para bhakti yathadeve tatha gurou
tasya ete kathitha hi artha prakasante mahatmanah
“One who has got unflinching faith in the Supreme Lord and similar faith in his Spiritual Master to him only the imports of Vedic knowledge become revealed.”
A Spiritual Master is always liberated. In any condition of His life He should not be mistaken as ordinary human being. This position of a Spiritual Master is achieved by three processes. One is called sadhan siddha. That means one who is liberated by executing the regulative principles of devotional service. Another is kripa siddha, one who is liberated by the mercy of Krsna or His devotee. And another is nitya siddha who is never forgetful of Krsna throughout his whole life. These are the three features of the perfection of life.
So far Narada Muni is concerned, in His previous life He was a maidservant’s son, but by the mercy of the devotees He later on became siddha and next life He appeared as Narada with complete freedom to move anywhere by the grace of the Lord. So even though He was in His previous life a maidservant’s son there was no impediment in the achievement of His perfect spiritual life. Similarly any living entity who is conditioned can achieve the perfectional stage of life by the above mentioned processes and the vivid example is Narada Muni.
So I do not know why you have asked about my previous life. Whether I was subjected to the laws of material nature? So, even though accepting that I was subjected to the laws of material nature, does it hamper in my becoming Spiritual Master? What is your opinion? From the life of Narada Muni it is distinct that although He was a conditioned soul in His previous life, there was no impediment of His becoming the Spiritual Master. This law is applicable not only to the Spiritual Master, but to every living entity.
There are thousands of examples explained in our books that the conditioned soul is never affected with the material body. It is said in the Vedas asamga ayam purusa, which means the living entity is always unaffected with matter. Another example is given that the reflection of the moon on water appears to be moving, but actually the moon is not moving, it is fixed up. So any living entity is like that. His reflection on the material body appears to be changing, but the spirit soul is fixed up, therefore this movement is called illusion.
Liberation means liberation from this changing condition. So far I am concerned, I cannot say what I was in my previous life, but one great astrologer calculated that I was previously a physician and my life was sinless. Besides that, to corroborate the statement of Bhagavad Gita “sucinam srimatam gehe yogabhrasta samyayate” which means an unfinished yogi takes birth in rich family or born of a suci or pious father. By the grace of Krishna I got these two opportunities in the present life to be born of a pious father and brought up in one of the richest, aristocratic families of Calcutta (Kasinath Mullick). The Radha Krsna Deity in this family called me in 1966 to meet Him, and therefore last time when I was in Calcutta, I stayed in that temple along with my American disciples. Although I had immense opportunities to indulge in the four principles of sinful life because I was connected with a very aristocratic family, Krsna always saved me, and throughout my whole life I do not know what is illicit sex, intoxication, meat-eating or gambling. So far my present life is concerned; I do not remember any part of my life when I was forgetful of Krsna.
Your ever well-wisher,
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Upon reading this letter I was stunned as if jolted by an electric current. Literally I lost strength and had to sit down. As I sat alone in the temple, my mind reeled. I had not at all been prepared for such a letter.
Again I reread it to be sure that I had understood Prabhupada’s mood rightly. He was firm and straightforward in his defence of the spiritual master’s absolute position. I had committed a great blunder, which Srila Prabhupada by his causeless mercy had not tolerated. When previously I had committed the indiscretion of asking permission to chant the names of the gopis, he had only mildly replied that there was no need. But there was no such indulgence in this letter. The matter was far too serious. I had raised a question about his previous life and whether he had been subjected to the laws of material nature. Prabhupada sensed a doubt inherent in my questioning. If such doubt existed and was not at once quelled, my spiritual life would be undermined at its very foundation. Considering the gravity of the subject, Srila Prabhupada’s mood was extremely tempered.
I tried to examine my motives. Why had I asked such a question? I had been studying the life of Narada Muni from the First Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. From my reading I had gotten the impression that at one time he was an ordinary, conditioned soul. That had led me to wonder about Srila Prabhupada’s previous life and whether he had also been conditioned at some previous time. But I felt no uncertainty about Narada Muni’s infallibility, nor of Srila Prabhupada’s. Narada Muni was traveling from planet to planet liberating the entire universe by spreading the glories of the Maha-Mantra, and Prabhupada was doing the same in this world on his behalf. Srila Prabhupada was actually my life and soul, and I meant exactly as I had written in a previous letter; everything I had, including myself, was his to do with as he wished. Surely Srila Prabhupada knew the depth of my sincerity. Then why such a strong letter?
I concluded that Prabhupada was taking no chances. If there was even a pinch of distrust for his transcendental position that unsealed flaw would one day crack my spiritual life. And like a fire, it had to be put out at once, thoroughly. Left to its own ways, doubt, like fire, could consume everything in its path. Unflinching faith in one’s spiritual master was the key to success in spiritual life. Lord Caitanya, though the Supreme Personality of Godhead, explained that total faith in His spiritual master’s words was the cause of His achieving success in the matter of chanting Hare Krsna. In contrast, a faithless disciple loses the thread of devotional service and eventually his lips cannot even form the shape of the holy names of the Lord.
My question had arisen in regard to Narada Muni’s previous life: Was it wrong to think of him as ordinary at the time? Prabhupada’s answer was clear: “In any condition of his life he should not be mistaken as ordinary human being.” Just as when we think of famous wealthy men of the world like Rockefeller or Ford, we may hear of their early struggles when they may even have been poor. But that does not cloud our vision of them as being fabulously wealthy. Rather, their early life is precursory as the fertile ground in which the seed of their good fortune was sown. Their present stature does not allow us to view them as ever having been ordinary poor men. How much more so in the case of great liberated souls, as evidenced by the wonderful activities of Narada Muni, who began as a maidservant’s son! His were not the activities of an ordinary low-class boy; otherwise why would the author of the Bhagavatam, Srila Vyasadeva, have bothered to include the incidents of his previous life? Such narrations are of the utmost interest because they ultimately resulted in his becoming the great transcendentalist Narada Muni. Therefore the spiritual master is always liberated, and none of his activities-present or previous-should ever be thought of as ordinary.
The Vedic literatures are full of examples of great personalities who took their birth in seemingly common circumstances. The great devotee Vidura, though born in the womb of a sudrani, enlightened the great king Maharaja Yudhisthira. Haridasa Thakura, a Muslim by birth, was elevated as the namacarya for the whole world. The prayers of Kunti devi, a woman, are revered by great liberated sages. And there are hundreds of other similar examples. If one’s birth in this lifetime is not a criterion for judgment, then what to speak of one’s previous life? I could answer Srila Prabhupada with certainty that one’s past in no way hampered one’s becoming a spiritual master. Srila Prabhupada, both in his lectures and his books, has made this very evident. In Teachings of Lord Caitanya he explains this point clearly:
Whatever position one may have, if he is fully conversant with the science of Krsna, Krsna consciousness, he can become a bona fide spiritual master, initiator, a teacher of this science. In other words one can become a bona fide spiritual master if he has sufficient knowledge of the science of Krsna, Krsna consciousness. The position does not depend on a particular position in society or on birth. This is the conclusion of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and it is in accordance with the Vedic injunctions….In ancient days there was even a hunter named Dharma, who became a spiritual master for many people.
My question had betrayed an even more basic misunderstanding about the identity of the soul in regard to the body. To demonstrate that the soul is unaffected by its material surroundings, Prabhupada cited the example that the moon appears to move in its reflection on water, despite its actual steady position in the firmament. That apparent movement is factually the rippling effect of the water, not the movement of the moon itself. The Bhagavad Gita and other Vedic literatures contain numerous statements confirming the soul’s transcendence over matter:
Those with the vision of eternity can see that the soul is transcendental, eternal, and beyond the modes of nature. Despite contact with the material body, O Arjuna, the soul neither does anything nor is entangled.
The sky, due to its subtle nature, does not mix with anything, though it is all-pervading. Similarly, the soul, situated in Brahman vision, does not mix with the body, though it is situated in that body. (Bg. 13.32-33)
My question was most inappropriate, because the spiritual master, as the direct manifestation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead’s mercy feature, is never considered within the category of ordinary conditioned souls. Lest any doubts linger after citing the conclusions of scripture, Srila Prabhupada put his personal life before me as evidence. Though, connected with a wealthy aristocratic family, he had had immense opportunity for sinful life, throughout his whole life he had never indulged in intoxication, meat-eating, nor engaged in gambling or illicit sex. Most strikingly, Srila Prabhupada stated that throughout his whole life he was never forgetful of Krsna. In fact, Krsna was personally protecting him and had saved him on numerous occasions. Srila Prabhupada said that the Radha-Krsna Deity in his family’s Calcutta home had personally called him back to Calcutta. These were unusual admissions for Srila Prabhupada to make. Due to his natural humility as Krsna’s pure devotee, he rarely spoke of his own purity and intimate relationship with Krsna. But his prodding disciple had now forced these statements out.
And the evidence was clear for all to see. As Narada Muni was krpa siddha, having been liberated by the mercy of Krsna and His devotees, Srila Prabhupada as much as admitted to his own exalted position as a nitya-siddha devotee of the Lord. By his own statements, he had never, ever forgotten Krsna, not even in his last life, as the calculations of one great astrologer revealed.
I felt ashamed that I had ever asked Srila Prabhupada such a question. What I did not know at the time was that Srila Prabhupada’s lengthy response was not prompted merely by my thoughtless query. In America some of his disciples had committed serious discrepancies in regard to this very same matter. Srila Prabhupada had reason to suspect that some of his Godbrothers in India, due to envy, were influencing his disciples to doubt in his bonafidity. I was completely unaware that such a thing was going on. I had thought Prabhupada’s letter to be an isolated issue, when in fact it had been written at a highly sensitive time when an actual attempt was being made to minimize his position as the founder-acarya of ISKCON.
Srila Prabhupada’s instructions, because they are based on Vedic conclusions, do not become irrelevant due to the passage of time. The transcendental stature of the spiritual master, irrespective of birth or other social considerations, will always be accepted by learned men. Srila Prabhupada’s life should be seen as the performance of a great transcendental personality who appeared on the stage of Kali-yuga. Though he himself is timeless and could have been equally well suited to any one of the ages, he never lost sight of the historical significance of his appearance. As sastra-caksus, he always rested his words and deeds upon the authority of the Vedas. Yet as the great preaching acarya for this age, he spoke and acted considering fully the needs of the generations yet to come. The legacy of his appearance in the form of his books, his disciples, and the worldwide institution of ISKCON will be able to nourish all spiritually minded men through the duration of this age.
Only the poor-hearted, the materialists, the envious, could fail to find sufficiency in ‘Srila Prabhupada’s magnanimous gifts. For such unfortunates, his books will remain a mystery, his disciples an enigma, his spiritual institution a material organization.
(Biographies and Glorifications of Srila Prabhupada-Servant of the Servant-The European Yatra-Le Sankirtana Parisien-Tamala Krsna Goswami)
So as his followers and grand children we must develop absolute faith in the mercy and potency of Srila Prabhupada, this alone is sustaining ISKCON and its ever increasing members. Srila Prabhupada is the primary shiksha Guru of all ISKCON devotees. Therefore, we must first carefully study all his books, not just merely read them, and we will find how he has given the essence of Mahaprabhu’s and previous acharayas teachings. Finally, we should daily beg and pray to receive association of those devotees whose pure heart have Srila Prabhupada’s lotus feet in them. Only then we can make our life successful in this very lifetime.
All glories to Sri Guru and Gauranga.
All glories to Srila Prabhupada.