Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada (1896-1977) was a Hindu religious teacher who at the age of 69 came to the United States where he taught the practice of devotion to Krishna and founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
Abhay Charan De was born in Calcutta, India, in 1896 to a family strongly committed to devotion to Krishna. Although some considered Krishna one among numerous Hindu deities, for Abhay and his family Krishna was the supreme Lord of the Universe. Abhay entered Scottish Churches' College in 1916 and in 1920 passed his B.A. examination. He rejected his diploma in response to Gandhi's independence movement. In deference to his father he married Radharani Datta. He had one son by this marriage. His householder's life would present a constant conflict with his urge to devote himself completely to preaching Krishna consciousness.
Abhay became associated with the Gaudiya Vaisnava movement and took Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati as his spiritual master. Charanaravinda was the name Abhay's spiritual master gave him at initiation. Bhaktivedanta was a title his Godbrothers conferred on him in recognition of his devotional and scholarly qualities. The title Swami came in 1959 when he entered the disciplined order at the age of 63.
Abhay gained a reputation for his ability to preach in English. As his involvement in preaching and writing intensified, his business affairs and family involvement dwindled. His wife was less devoted to spreading the Krishna consciousness than was Abhay, and her drinking tea was a source of displeasure to him. When she sold his manuscript of Srimad-Bhagavatam for some tea biscuits, he left the family for good. During the 1950s he preached the Bhagavadgita and approached potential donors for support for his periodical publication Back to Godhead.
When he set out on a steamship from Calcutta to New York he had only a suitcase, an umbrella, and a supply of dry cereal. The ocean voyage was not an easy one for a 69 year old man plagued with seasickness. He settled on the Lower East Side of New York City, which was a haven for hippies during the 1960s. There, in humble circumstances, he sought to instruct young men and women who were given to experimentation with drugs and sex what it meant to practice devotion to Krishna. Many were searching for gurus and when the word spread that an Indian swami had arrived it caused quite a stir. His followers were particularly attracted to the chanting of the mahamantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. They were not immediately attracted to his philosophy.
The basic regulations which he proclaimed were to become the minimal requirements for those who joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). They were in radical contrast with the lifestyles of those to whom he preached. Nevertheless, his preaching was surprisingly successful. First, there was to be no gambling. This included frivolous games or sports. In fact, one should not converse about anything except Krishna consciousness. Second, the use of all forms of intoxicants or stimulants, including alcohol, drugs, tobacco, coffee, and tea, was prohibited. Third, there was a dietary prohibition against the eating of meat, fish, or eggs. The diet was strictly vegetarian and consisted of food that had first been offered to Krishna. Fourth, there was to be no illicit sex. Sex was only for the purpose of producing Krishna-conscious children, and therefore all methods of birth control except abstinence were prohibited. Married couples were to have intercourse only when they knew that conception could take place and for that specific purpose.
Human beings have forgotten their true relationship to Krishna, and their liberation lies in a return to Godhead through the grace of Krishna. Human beings can remove the obstacles to that grace. This, taught Bhaktivedanta, can be done by chanting the mahamantra. One need not understand it—its transcendental sound will have automatic results and raise one to a spiritual plane. One should also engage in holy association. Associating with nondevotees will have a bad effect and result in an increase of sense gratification. Early in the movement new converts were even urged to sever contact with parents who were unsympathetic to the movement. One should also eat prasadam (food offered to Krishna). While preparing the food one should think only of Krishna. Eating the prasadam is a purifying act, equal to chanting the mahamantra. It is crucial that one accept a bonafide spiritual master who is in disciplic succession from Lord Krishna. One cannot return to Godhead without submitting to Krishna, and one can approach Krishna only through his representative.
Most of Bhaktivedanta's books are commentaries on sacred texts. His approximately 60 volumes remain one of the primary means of outreach for the movement. During his first 69 years in India, Bhaktivedanta initiated only one disciple. During his succeeding 12 years in the United States he initiated over 4,000. In 1970 Bhaktivedanta appointed a Governing Body Commission, with each member appointed over a specific part of the world. This board met annually under Bhaktivedanta's supervision. When he died in 1977, the structure for the continuation of the movement was in place.
Further Reading on Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada
An authorized biography of Bhaktivedanta is available in seven volumes through Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta). Also available is a one-volume paperback abridgement entitled Prabhupada. One can also turn to issues of the magazine Back to Godhead and Bhaktivedanta's Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
Additional Biography Sources
The life story of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder-acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, New York, N.Y.: Bala Books, 1983.