Chapter 21 – Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Antya-līlā
Chapter 21 of Prabhupāda Vijaya, 'Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Antya-Līlā' is a personal account shared by Narasiṅgha Mahārāja of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s final manifest pastimes. His remembrances of these moments in history are intensely personal and full of realisations that are seldom heard.
I will say something briefly about the disappearance day of Śrīla Prabhupāda. To a certain extent for many of you, this tirobhava is more of a festival day. Of course, by transcendental arrangement, you may enter into some mood where you will find a connection to Śrīla Prabhupāda and find his grace there. You can have a sense and feeling of Prabhupāda’s grace by worshipping him, singing his glories, dancing in front of his samādhi and so forth. But really, you can’t know what happened on this day twenty-five years ago and what events led up to that unless someone tells you.
I mentioned earlier today that Śrīla Prabhupāda started his pastimes of disappearance in Māyāpura, sometime prior to Gaura-Pūrṇimā in 1977. It may have been at the time of Nityānanda Trayodaśī. Around 900 devotees had arrived for the festival.
Every morning, Śrīla Prabhupāda would come down to the temple room for what is called, ‘Greeting the Deities.’ After greeting the Deities, he would walk to his vyāsāsana which was directly opposite the Deities at the very back of the kīrtana hall. There, we would offer guru-pūjā and sing the song, Śrī guru-caraṇa-padma. When that was over, Śrīla Prabhupāda himself would say the jaya-dhvani prayers, then devotees would sit down for Bhāgavatam class. Prabhupāda would begin by singing, jaya rādhā-mādhava. After the class, the devotees would start the kīrtana again and Prabhupāda would go around the Deities three times. On each side of the altar there was a big bell and when he would come to the bell-rope, someone would give him the rope and he would ring it and the kīrtana all around him would become more and more ecstatic. Devotees would be airborne and some of them didn’t come down – they just stayed up there! Prabhupāda liked to see all the devotees jumping. It wasn’t just children jumping – some of those devotees were thirty or forty years old. Prabhupāda especially liked to see Brahmānanda Prabhu, who was 200 pounds, jumping. After, the kīrtana would go outside as Prabhupāda went to this room. That was the normal morning programme.
But on this particular day when Prabhupāda came down from his room, he did not seem his normal self. He greeted the Deities, went to his vyāsāsana and there was guru-pūjā. But after the guru-pūjā he didn’t sing. We noticed on that day that Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t look well – he looked withdrawn. Instead of singing himself, he called for one of his servants to sing, but that devotee wasn’t there. Then he called the name of another devotee to sing – that devotee was also not there. Then he called the name of a third devotee to sing and that devotee was also absent. Actually all those devotees were present in Māyāpura, but they just weren’t there in the temple. After asking three devotees to sing, Prabhupāda didn’t say anything – he just put his head down and shut his eyes. It seemed that he became a little sad that they weren’t there. Then one devotee leaned forward and asked, “Prabhupāda, should I sing?” Prabhupāda just nodded his head and said, “Yes, you can sing.” So that devotee sang jaya rādhā-mādhava. After the bhajana was over, Śrīla Prabhupāda got up and went to his room. There was no Bhāgavatam class and there wasn’t another kīrtana.
That was one of the last times that Śrīla Prabhupāda sat on the vyāsāsana to give class, or anything formal here in India. The rest of the festival he never came down to the temple room. He stayed in his room the whole time, which was another 10 days or 2 weeks.
After Gaura-Pūrṇimā, all the devotees went to Delhi and then on to Vṛndāvana. Every year, Śrīla Prabhupāda was the life of the Vṛndāvana Festival – there was no question about it. Everyone had come from all over the world mainly to be with him – to be in Vṛndāvana or Māyāpura was secondary. But that year, Prabhupāda did not go to Delhi and he did not go to Vṛndāvana for the festival. He sent a message to all the devotees, “You should go and carry on with the festival.” That was very sad for everyone and by then the news was that Śrīla Prabhupāda’s health was not good and it was better for him to rest. So everyone went to Vṛndāvana, the festival concluded and all the devotees went back to their temples all over the world. It was sad for the devotees. For many of them, the Māyāpura Festival was the last time they ever saw Prabhupāda.
In May, during the hot season, Śrīla Prabhupāda decided to go to Rishikesh with a group of devotees. He stayed there for a few weeks in the guest-house of a life-member. During the hot season in Rishikesh, it is cool at night and warm in the day. Prabhupāda stayed there for a few weeks and was in quite a happy mood. Sometimes he would sit in a chair in the kitchen and give some cooking lessons. He also taught the devotees a special technique to get drinking water from the Gaṅgā. You have to take a pot, turn it upside down so there is air trapped inside, then you dive into the Gaṅgā and go down about 10 feet and roll the pot over – then it will fill up with pure water deep from within the Gaṅgā. Prabhupāda had Tamāla-Kṛṣṇa Mahārāja and other devotees dive in the Gaṅgā to get fresh water and if it came up with particles of sand or anything, he would say, “No, no, no – do it again!” Like this, he was having casual pastimes with those devotees, teaching them.
But all this time he was very weak and remained withdrawn – he was not his normal self. Then he came back to Vṛndāvana and from there he decided to go to England. Prabhupāda thought, “Preaching is life. Simply sitting around here, feeling like this… let me go for preaching.” The day he went to England, I went to the airport with about 20 or 30 devotees in the middle of the night and we put Śrīla Prabhupāda on the plane and four or five devotees flew with him.
He was in England for Janmāṣṭamī and his Vyāsa-Pūjā. I believe he came downstairs only once. He sat on the vyāsāsana for guru-pūjā and went back to his room. He did not give any class, but during that time, he still endeavoured to do translation work with his dictaphone. With the help of devotees, he would do some translation of the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. He was working on the 10th Canto and he would do that when he had the energy. That was in August 1977. Of course, the devotees in the US, Canada and other countries had hopes that Śrīla Prabhupāda would also come there, but he didn’t.
In England there was an incident where he had some physical difficulty and the devotees whisked him away to the hospital in an ambulance – he didn’t like that…he didn’t like that at all! When he got out of the hospital he told the devotees, “You take me back to India immediately! I don’t want to die in these hospitals!” He hated these places. He was disturbed that the devotees’ concern would simply be external – they would rush him to a hospital and he may end his life there. He didn’t want to end his life in a hospital. He was adamant about that, so they took him back to Vṛndāvana.
At that time, I was in Vṛndāvana when we got the message, “Prabhupāda is coming back to Vṛndāvana.” I had the good fortune to arrange Prabhupāda’s room. It was sometime in early September when he came. All the devotees were outside doing kīrtana, so when Prabhupāda came to his room, I opened the doors from the inside and I was very surprised. I wasn’t surprised – I was shocked! Prabhupāda had become very thin. Since the Māyāpura Festival, he had only been eating a few small handfuls of prasādam every day, so he had become very thin. It was a big shock for all the devotees in Vṛndāvana, to see him like that.
Every morning, all the gurukula boys would come outside Prabhupāda’s room and chant Brahma-saṁhitā and sometimes Śikṣāṣṭakam. We used to sit Prabhupāda in a modified rocking chair – we took a rocking chair and put handles on it so that four men could carry it. Prabhupāda would sit in that chair and we would carry him into the Kṛṣṇa-Balarāma Temple. At that time there was a tamāla tree in the courtyard and Prabhupāda would sit under that tree for an hour or so, just absorbed in seeing the beauty of Kṛṣṇa-Balarāma, Rādhā-Śyāmasundara and Gaura-Nitāi. He would sit and look at the Deities and the devotees would sit down and would do kīrtana. He would just gaze at the Deities and sometimes he wouldn’t move.
Around June of that year, I travelled to London and went shopping in Harrods, which used to be the most exclusive store in the world. I thought I would buy Prabhupāda a new pair of shoes. I always used to think, “If I buy him a new chaddar, I might get his old chaddar. If I get him a new pair of shoes, I might get his old shoes.” So I went and looked, but I could not find the type of house shoes that Prabhupāda used to wear – they were out of season because it was summer and they only used to sell them in winter. All I found was this kind of shoe that wasn’t a house shoe – it just had two straps and your foot goes inside. It wasn’t the kind of shoe that Prabhupāda wore, but somehow or other I was drawn to buy those shoes. Anyway, I brought them to India and gave them to Prabhupāda’s secretary. I felt very shy because I knew they were not the kind of shoes that Prabhupāda would generally wear. However, at that time Prabhupāda’s feet had become swollen and there were no shoes that they could buy in Vṛndāvana that would fit his feet. Prabhupāda’s secretary and servant were lamenting, “What are we going to do? There are no shoes for Prabhupāda!” Suddenly, I showed up with this box and said, “I bought some shoes for Prabhupāda in England.” They opened it and said, “Oh, just what we needed – exactly!” I had also bought the wrong size – they were too big, but because Prabhupāda’s feet had swollen, the shoes were a perfect fit. Prabhupāda used to wear those shoes every day. They were actually the last shoes he ever wore. They are there in his room in Vṛndāvana in a glass box. It was good for me – I got to offer that service to Śrīla Prabhupāda.
Then the situation became quite serious – there was no improvement. Prabhupāda seemed to withdraw day by day. He talked constantly about leaving this world and going to Kṛṣṇa, and of course, this was very disturbing for the devotees.
It became known that certain things would keep him in this world – the Holy Name of Kṛṣṇa, good reports of saṅkīrtana and other such things. So at one point, I jumped in a truck and went to the Himalayas to do some saṅkīrtana and I sent Prabhupāda some pictures. Whenever somebody sent a report about preaching, Prabhupāda’s secretary would read it to him. When he heard that, Prabhupāda would become enlivened, but almost immediately, he would come back down again. This became a constant battle – to keep Prabhupāda interested in being in this world. At that time we were all very neophyte – we’re still neophyte, but then we were very neophyte and not able to understand what we call Śrīla Prabhupāda’s ‘pastimes of departure.’ No one could properly understand what was Prabhupāda’s mood and there were mixed feelings about what should be done. It made everybody more and more attached to Śrīla Prabhupāda at that time and naturally, it came to the point that the devotees were willing to try anything.
Prabhupāda would not take allopathic medicine; he would not take anything from modern medicine, although he was a chemist in his early life. Once he became a sannyāsī, he never touched any of that. He would only accept Ayurvedic medicine. Śrīla Prabhupāda mentioned one night that he had a dream about an Ayurvedic doctor with big Śrī Vaiṣṇava tilaka who gave him some medicine. Immediately devotees left Vṛndāvana and searched the whole of South India within a few days, going to every Ayurvedic doctor they could find until they found one wearing tilaka. They grabbed that man, f lew him to Delhi and took him to Vṛndāvana. Even so, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s condition remained the same.
The devotees became more and more worried. At a point, 24-hour kīrtana began in over 100 of Prabhupāda’s temples around the world. This went on for months and months nonstop. The kīrtana in Prabhupāda’s room was very soft with one small pair of karatālas and 3 or 4 devotees singing or reading from Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. When the reading would stop, then kīrtana would start up again. Around 10:30 or 11 o’clock at night everything would stop in Prabhupāda’s room and the kīrtana would go on in the temple all night long. A few devotees would sit with Prabhupāda all night, and if he needed anything they would see to it. Again, I was very fortunate – I had the opportunity to spend some nights there, taking care of Prabhupāda from 11:00 at night until 4:00 in the morning. Generally, at that time he wouldn’t say anything, but if he needed something, we were there to serve him.
Previously, Śrīla Prabhupāda used to take a massage every day, but at that time in Vṛndāvana he was so thin that the devotees were afraid to give him a massage in case it might hurt him. However, it was thought that if he could have a good massage from a professional masseur, then there might be some relieve to his suffering. I say ‘suffering’ but Śrīla Prabhupāda used to say again and again, “I’m not suffering.” One doctor came to see him and said, “According to his physical condition, if Prabhupāda were an ordinary man, he would be crying in pain,” But Prabhupāda said, “I have no pain.”
One day the devotees brought a man from Vṛndāvana who was known to give good massages. They brought him into Prabhupāda’s room and when he came to Prabhupāda’s bedside, Prabhupāda slowly waved his hand meaning, “Get rid of him!” Prabhupāda would sometimes do that. If some irritating guest was in his room, Prabhupāda would wave his hand once and someone would lead them out. So, just as that man was ready to give a massage to Prabhupāda, he waved his hand like that. The devotees told that man politely, “Sir, we just changed the programme. No massage!”
Then they asked Prabhupāda, “Was there a problem?
Prabhupāda said, “His fingernails were filthy dirty!”
Then the devotees went searching for another person to give a massage to Prabhupāda. The next day they brought a another vraja-vāsī – they gave him a new kurta, new dhotī, he was clean-shaven and perhaps the devotees might have scrubbed that man’s fingernails as well – he was shining from head to toe. He came forward and then Prabhupāda looked, nodded and gave the okay. That man gave a massage to Prabhupāda, but these things were very external. Prabhupāda did not have any disease. Śrīla Prabhupāda’s ‘disease’ was vipralambha – separation from Kṛṣṇa.
Many years later, I read a description of Gadādhara Paṇ∂ita. After Caitanya Mahāprabhu left the world, Gadādhara Paṇ∂ita remained for some years and was overwhelmed with feelings of separation and gradually, he himself also left the world. The description of Gadādhara Paṇ∂ita that I read, almost perfectly fits the symptoms of what we saw exhibited by Śrīla Prabhupāda.
Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t take any modern medicine, but now and then a doctor would come to diagnose him, but they could not say what his disease was. There was no explanation. Of course, they could say that his blood pressure was down etc. but they could not give any reason. The actual reason was his feelings of separation from Kṛṣṇa and that was the cause of his withdrawing from the world.
Another plan was hatched one day. The devotees said, “Prabhupāda, maybe we should bring an astrologer.”
Prabhupāda said, “Oh yes, let’s have some fun! Bring an astrologer.”
So they went and got the best astrologer in all of Delhi, whose name was Pandit Ojas. The astrologer came in with some paper and noted down Prabhupāda’s birth time, looked at his hand etc. – then he left the room and made his calculations. When he came back, he said, “Prabhupāda needs a sapphire!”
These astrologers always prescribe some jewellery, and generally their brother or cousin is always a jeweller! So Pandit Ojas recommended that Prabhupāda needed a sapphire and the next day one devotee f lew from Hong Kong with a large blue sapphire that he purchased for $12,000 U.S. dollars. The devotees mounted that sapphire on a gold ring and Prabhupāda wore that ring when he was placed in samādhi.
After this, things became worse – Prabhupāda began to give away his personal belongings – his watch, his tilaka mirror etc. He started calling certain devotees who had been with him since he first came to America and gave away things that he was personally using. Naturally, there were mixed feelings. They were happy to receive his gifts, but at the same time they were also very sad.
At one point, Śrīla Prabhupāda told the GBC to have a meeting to decide whether he should stay or go. I don’t know…I look back at these things and I think that Prabhupāda was just playing with us like a kid bouncing a ball – he was just bouncing our hearts and making us more attached to him. During this time somebody asked, “Prabhupāda, what does Kṛṣṇa want?”
Prabhupāda replied, “I’ll have to ask Him.” Then he shut his eyes for about half an hour, although it seemed like forever to us. He was quiet, lying in his bed, not saying a word. Then after a while, he opened his eyes and said: “Yes, Kṛṣṇa said I can stay and continue my nonsense for sometime.” Prabhupāda was referring to his preaching work – he called it, “My nonsense.” Then everybody shouted, “Jaya!” They were very happy.
What is important to Kṛṣṇa? Anything Kṛṣṇa wants, He can snap His fingers and make it happen. If He desires, He can make everyone in the world stand up and chant, “Haribol! Haribol!” but he’s letting us do that on His behalf. He is allowing us to make people stand up and chant Hare Kṛṣṇa.
There were many incidents like that – some of them gave life to the devotees and some of them seemed to give life to Prabhupāda for some time. But progressively, from just before the Māyāpura Festival until November 14th 1977, it was his pastimes of departure.
At that time, many of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s god-brothers would come to see him – especially Śrīla Kṛṣṇa Dāsa Bābājī Mahārāja, who would come and talk with Prabhupāda and sing for him. Generally we would all sit on the floor around Prabhupāda’s bed and if someone was doing a particular service for Prabhupāda, they might lean on his bed. But Bābājī Mahārāja would come in, jump up on Prabhupāda’s bed and sit down cross-legged, saying, “Haribol!”
Bābājī Mahārāja was a paramahaṁsa. One time when he came, Prabhupāda was making a strange noise and the devotees were very worried. They were trying to ask Prabhupāda, “Do you need something? Do you need water?” But he would just make noises. Bābājī Mahārāja said, “No, no. You see, he’s just entered Goloka-Vṛndāvana. On this side, you are simply hearing noises, but on that side, he’s embracing Kṛṣṇa.” It was more than anybody could understand – it probably still is, but it was quite exceptionable.
Several days before Śrīla Prabhupāda left, he wasn’t eating anything and the devotees became very concerned, so they called the kavirāja (Ayurvedic doctor). In the evening Prabhupāda had been silent for many hours and feeling his pulse, the kavirāja expressed to the devotees that this may be Prabhupāda’s last day. When that news went around, things became almost chaotic. My Indian visa had just expired so I had to go back to the United States about two weeks before Śrīla Prabhupāda’s departure.
That evening, everybody came to see Śrīla Prabhupāda – even people who were generally never allowed in his room. The room must have had 50 to a 100 people in it. It was so packed that some people were leaning through the windows from outside. There was a kīrtana going on for a long time. I don’t know for how long the kīrtana went on for, but at a point, it wasn’t even a kīrtana anymore – there must have been 10 or 20 devotees leading the kīrtana. Everybody was singing. Someone was singing “Hare Kṛṣṇa,” some were singing “Hare Rāma” – the kīrtana had just dissolved into 100 people crying and chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa. Everyone was around Prabhupāda’s bed and he hadn’t said anything for hours, when suddenly he just said, “Hare Kṛṣṇa!”
We all have to depart from this world and Prabhupāda was adamant to show that our shelter is not in modern science or any other form of material concoction – our only shelter are Kṛṣṇa’s lotus feet, the Holy Name of Kṛṣṇa and the association of the Vaiṣṇavas. That is the only shelter that we should seek. He used to say that when you are young and unwell, you should make a programme for recovery, but when you get old, you should make a programme for departure. That was his advice. In this regard, Śrīla Prabhupāda would sometimes sing the prayers of King Kulaśekhara:
adyaiva me viśatu mānasa-rāja-haṁsa
kaṇṭhāvarodhana-vidhau smaraṇaṁ kutas te
“O Kṛṣṇa, at this moment may the swan of my mind become entwined in the stems of Your lotus-like feet. At the time of death, how will I remember You when my throat is choked up with mucus, bile and air?” (Mukunda-mālā Stotram 33)
On two different occasions, Prabhupāda gave bābājī-veśa to two young disciples who thought they had some terminal disease and were going to die. He told them to go to Vṛndāvana and chant Hare Kṛṣṇa. Later however, they got cured, gave up their veśa, gave up chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa, and went back into the material world. Someone may tell me, “But you have given bābājī-veśa to a healthy devotee who is 50 years old – Prabhupāda only gave bābājī-veśa to those men he thought were dying.”
Yes, those men thought they were dying, but after 50, you shouldn’t think you are dying – you should know you are dying! After 50, that’s what’s waiting. It’s the end. You’ve crossed the line. It’s downhill from there. To get another 50 years is very rare. Only one person in a million may live to be a hundred.
There probably hasn’t been a disappearance of a Vaiṣṇava like Śrīla Prabhupāda since the time of Bhīṣmadeva. At the time of Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja’s disappearance, there were only a few devotees present. He left this world in a very quiet way. Śrīla Bhakti Pramoda Purī Mahārāja also left this world very quietly early in the morning. Yet somehow or other, Śrīla Prabhupāda was selected by Kṛṣṇa to be an ambassador, a beacon, a light – not just for his disciples, but for the whole world. Throughout his pastimes of departure, Śrīla Prabhupāda would say, “I am teaching you how to leave this world.”