In the western Vaiṣṇava community it is often assumed that the title Prabhupāda only refers to Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedānta Swami Prabhupāda. However, there are many Vaiṣṇavas in the West and in other places in the world who are disciples of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura or who are the disciples of disciples of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Gosvāmī and for them the title Prabhupāda refers to Sarasvatī Ṭhākura.
Prabhupāda is not a title applicable only to Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedānta Swami Prabhupāda or even to Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Gosvāmī Prabhupāda. Nor is the title Prabhupāda simply a nondescript or generic term applicable to any and all spiritual masters. Since the title Prabhupāda has been accepted by so few bona-fide Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava ācāryas, it must indeed indicate a title for a spiritual master of exceptional status and transcendental qualifications.
If we examine the etymological and the ontological meaning of the title Prabhupāda, we will ultimately come to the conclusion that it indicates one who represents the deepest flow of the Gauḍīya sampradāya in terms of rāgānuga-bhakti and rūpānuga-bhajana, the most dignified conception of service to Godhead in spontaneous divine love.
In the classical Gauḍīya sampradāya there were only a few personalities to have been recognised with the title Prabhupāda such as; Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedānta Swami Prabhupāda, Śrīla Prabhupāda Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī Prabhupāda, Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī Prabhupāda, Śrī Prabhupāda Advaita Ācārya, Śrī Prabhupāda Nityānanda Avadhūta and Śrī Prabhupāda Kṛṣṇa Caitanya Mahāprabhu – the latter being the original Prabhupāda.
kāśī miśra kahe – ā mi baḍa bhāg yavān
mora gṛhe prabhu-pādera habe avasthāna
“Kāśī Miśra said, ‘I am very fortunate that the Lord of all Prabhus (Prabhupāda) will stay in my house.’” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 10.23)
Regarding this verse Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī comments:
“Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu is the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, and all His servants address Him as Prabhupāda. This means that there are many prabhus taking shelter under His lotus feet.”
It is clear from the above verse and statement of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta that Mahāprabhu was also known as Prabhupāda. There were many masters, Gosvāmīs, (controllers of the senses) such as Rāya Rāmānanda, Svarūpa Dāmodara, Govinda Dāsa, Sārvabhauma Bhaṭṭācārya, Rūpa Gosvāmī, Sanātana Gosvāmī, Raghunātha Dāsa and many others who took shelter at the Lord’s lotus feet. Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedānta Swami Prabhupāda has commented in his purport to the above verse as follows:
“The pure Vaiṣṇava is addressed as prabhu, and this address is an etiquette observed between Vaiṣṇavas. When many prabhus remain under the shelter of the lotus feet of another prabhu, the address Prabhupāda is given. Śrī Nityānanda Prabhu and Śrī Advaita Prabhu are also addressed as Prabhupāda. Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, Śrī Advaita Prabhu and Śrī Nityānanda Prabhu are all viṣṇu-tattva, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Viṣṇu. Therefore, all living entities are under Their lotus feet. Lord Viṣṇu is the eternal Lord of everyone, and the representative of Lord Viṣṇu is the Lord’s confidential servant. Such a person acts as the spiritual master for neophyte Vaiṣṇavas; therefore the spiritual master is as respectable as Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya or Lord Viṣṇu Himself. For this reason the spiritual master is addressed as Oṁ Viṣṇupāda or Prabhupāda. The ācārya, the spiritual master, is generally respected by others as Śrīpāda, and the initiated Vaiṣṇavas are addressed as Prabhu. Prabhu, Prabhupāda and Viṣṇupāda are described in revealed scriptures like Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, Caitanya-caritāmṛta and Caitanya-bhāgavata. In this regard, these scriptures present evidence accepted by unalloyed devotees.”
One can say that all personalities in the viṣṇu-tattva can be addressed as Prabhupāda as They are the shelter of all living beings. Yet in regard to Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī Prabhupāda and those personalities who have held the title Prabhupāda since that time, we note in them a special characteristic – they understood the confidential heart of Mahāprabhu.
When Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu was living at Purī, Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī composed a verse and after writing it on a palm leaf, he went to bathe in the ocean. At that time Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu visited the residence of Rūpa Gosvāmī and saw the verse written on the leaf:
priyaḥ so ‘yaṁ kṛṣṇaḥ sahacari kuru-kṣetra-militas
tathāhaṁ sā rādhā tad idam ubhayoḥ saṅgama-sukham
mano me kālindī-pulina-vipināya spṛhayati
“My dear friend, this is the same beloved Kṛṣṇa meeting Me here at Kurukṣetra. I am also that same Rādhā, and we Both feel the same joy of union –and yet My mind yearns for the forest on the bank of the Kālindī where the fifth note of His flute sweetly plays within My heart.” (Cc. Antya-līlā 1.79)
Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu read this verse and was overwhelmed by ecstatic love. When Rūpa Gosvāmī returned, Mahāprabhu slapped him mildly and said, “My heart is very confidential. How did you know My mind in this way?” After saying this, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu firmly embraced Rūpa Gosvāmī.
Mahāprabhu then inquired from Svarūpa Dāmodara, “How could Rūpa have understood My heart?” Svarūpa Dāmodara replied, “I can understand that You have already bestowed Your causeless mercy upon him, otherwise it would not be possible for Rūpa to have understood Your mind.” Thereupon, Mahāprabhu was very pleased and requested Svarūpa Dāmodara to kindly give further instruction to Rūpa Gosvāmī in the matter of transcendental mellows, rasa-tattva.
After some time, Mahāprabhu again visited Rūpa Gosvāmī accompanied by Svarūpa Dāmodara, Rāmānanda Rāya and others. Mahāprabhu requested Rūpa Gosvāmī to read a number of the verses that he had composed. Being very humble and shy by nature, Rūpa Gosvāmī remained silent. Svarūpa Dāmodara then read the previous verse compiled by Rūpa and also another verse:
tuṇḍe taṇḍavinī ratiṁ vitanute tuṇḍāvalī-labdhaye
karṇa-kroḍa-kaḍambinī ghaṭayate karṇārbudebhyaḥ spṛhām
cetaḥ-prāṅgana-saṅginī vijayate sarvendrīyāṇāṁ kṛtiṁ
no jāne janitā kiyadbhir amṛtaiḥ kṛṣṇeti varṇa-dvayī
“I do not know how much nectar the two syllables ‘kṛṣ–ṇa’ have produced. When the Holy Name of Kṛṣṇa is chanted, it appears to dance within the mouth. We then desire many, many mouths. When that Name enters the holes of the ears, we desire many millions of ears. And when the Holy Name dances in the courtyard of the heart, it conquers the activities of the mind, and thus all the senses become inert.” (Cc. Antya-līlā 1. 99)
Hearing these verses compiled by Rūpa Gosvāmī, all the Vaiṣṇavas became jubilant. Rāmānanda Rāya especially showed interest in what Rūpa Gosvāmī had written. Being very pleased with him, Rāmānanda Rāya began to praise the qualities of Rūpa Gosvāmī as if He had a thousand mouths. Rāmānanda Rāya said, “This is not a poetic presentation; it is a continuous shower of nectar. Indeed, it is the essence of all ultimate realisations. The wonderful descriptions of Rūpa Gosvāmī are superb arrangements that express the transcendental loving affairs of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. Hearing these verses will plunge the heart and ears of everyone into a whirlpool of supreme transcendental bliss.”
The significance of the praises offered to Rūpa Gosvāmī by Svarūpa Dāmodara and Rāmānanda Rāya are considerably more meaningful when we take into account the identity of these personalities in the ontological hierarchy of the spiritual world. According to Kṛṣṇa Dāsa Kavirāja Gosvāmī, the author of Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Rāmānanda Rāya was the gopī in kṛṣṇa-līlā named Viśākhā and Svarūpa Dāmodara was the gopī named Lalitā-sakhī. Eternally, both Lalitā and Viśākhā are the very intimate associates of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. Lalitā and Viśākhā are considered the personal expansions of the serving mood of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, thus they are the two chief assistants in the mādhurya love affairs between Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa.
Directly serving under Lalitā-sakhī in the mādhurya-rasa are the mañjarīs, the younger cowherd girls. This mañjarī group of servitors mainly consists of new recruits to the mādhurya-rasa and due to their young age they have been given the most sacred type of pure service to Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. Our ācāryas have recommended that we should conceive of the mañjarī class with the utmost respect and attention.
When Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are in a secret place, the older sakhīs do not like to approach the Divine Couple at that time for fear of causing even a slight disturbance. Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa may feel some shyness in the presence of the older sakhīs at that time. But the younger gopīs, the mañjarīs, can enter there without disturbing the free mixing of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. This mañjarī group of servitors in the mādhurya-rasa is headed by the gopī named Rūpa Mañjarī. To perform their service, the mañjarīs, headed by Rūpa Mañjarī, sometimes go to that place where Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are intimately engaged in divine love dalliances. Such a high and intimate scope of service is available to no other group of servitors than that of the mañjarīs. Rūpa Mañjarī who leads this mañjarī group has appeared in gaura-līlā as Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī and Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu has given him the supreme position as head of the Gauḍīya sampradāya (rūpānuga sampradāya). Our śīkṣā-guru, Śrīla Bhakti Rakṣaka Śrīdhara Deva Gosvāmī Mahārāja, used to say:
“The camp, the sampradāya of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, is known as the rūpānuga sampradāya. There, our fate and our fortune is located. Now we have to conduct ourselves in such a way that naturally we can connect with that highest, purest spiritual conception, from here. We must not allow ourselves to be satisfied with anything less than this highest ideal. That should be the highest goal of our life.”
So, the real meaning of rūpānuga-bhajana is nothing less than that – the highest ideal of the highest spiritual conception. Following in the footsteps of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, ever desiring his mercy, falling prostrate at his lotus feet, praying again and again to be accepted as a speck of dust at his lotus feet and to be enlisted in his group of servitors – that is rūpānuga-bhajana. That is what it means to be a follower of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī. That is what it means to hold the title Prabhupāda.
This conception has been expressed most perfectly in a song by Narottama Dāsa Ṭhākura called, Śrī Rūpa Mañjarī-pada. This song is the topmost bhajana sung by the followers of the rūpānuga line.
śrī-rūpa-mañjarī-pada, sei mora sampada
sei mora bhajana-pūjana
sei mora prāṇa-dhana, sei mora ābharaṇa
sei mora jīvanera jīvana
“The lotus feet of Śrī Rūpa-mañjarī are my treasure and the object of my worship. They are the wealth of my existence, they are my ornaments and the very life of my life.”
sei mora rasa-nidhi, sei mora vāñcā-siddhi
sei mora vedera dharama
sei vrata, sei tapa, sei mora mantra-japa
sei mora dharama-karama
“They are my ocean of rasa and they are the perfection of my desires. They are the dharma of the Vedas for me. They are the goal of my vows and austerities and the chanting of my mantras. They are the purpose of my religious activities.”
anukūla habe vidhi, se-pade haibe siddhi
nirakhiba e dui nayane
se rūpa-mādhurī-rāśi, prāṇa-kuvalaya-śaśī
praphullita habe niśi-dine
“By those two lotus feet, all my actions will become favourable and perfection will be achieved. With these two eyes, I will finally be able to see. Both day and night, the sweet waves emanating from Śrī Rūpa-mañjarī’s feet will shine like the moon upon the lotus of my heart.”
tuyā adarśana-ahi, garale jārala dehī
cira-dina tāpita jīvana
hā hā rūpa kara dayā, deha more pada-chāyā
narottama laila śaraṇa
“The poison of the snake of separation from you has wasted my body away and eternally my life is afflicted by fever. O Rūpa! Kindly be merciful unto me. Give me the shade of your lotus feet. Narottama has taken refuge in you.”
The conclusion is that etymologically Prabhupāda means a spiritual master at whose feet many qualified personalities have taken shelter. Furthermore, the ontological meaning of Prabhupāda is one who knows the heart of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu and who knows how to extract the internal moods of devotional service (unnatojjvala-rasa) from the lotus feet of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, just as a bumble bee extracts nectar from the lotus flower.
Additionally, without being a follower and obedient servant of the internal flow of devotional service, unnatojjvala-rasa, enunciated by Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, one cannot be a true follower of Prabhupāda.
All aspiring candidates for devotional service (our humble self included) should try to enter into the deep and mysterious meaning of kṛṣṇānuśilana bhaktir-uttama in the line of Rūpa Gosvāmī. That is the real essence of the teachings of Prabhupāda Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu.