When speaking of Śrīla Prabhupāda, we sometimes hear the quote of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura –“When thou art living still in sound,” or that, ‘Śrīla Prabhupāda is living in his instructions’ but this doesn’t simply mean that he’s living in so many gigabytes in the Bhaktivedānta Folio or that he is living in the pages of the beautifully hardbound books adorning our bookshelves.
If we want to experience that Śrīla Prabhupāda is non-different from his instructions, then we must embrace the conception of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. We cannot live without that conception and simply honour him in the form of books, folios, marble mūrtis and so forth. We will have to join him by joining in with that conception. If we give so much praise to him but we ourselves don’t come to the proper conception of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, then that praise may benefit us and the people in general, but it does not serve the highest purpose. It is like propagating nāmābhāsa – what will nāmābhāsa do? It will give freedom from material miseries, it will award liberation and it will defeat so many things – but all those results are a mere shadow of prema-bhakti. Propagating nāmābhāsa pales in comparison to śuddha-nāma, the pure Name of Kṛṣṇa. The pure Name of Kṛṣṇa does not give liberation – the pure Name of Kṛṣṇa gives one a taste of love of God. Even liberation is considered mundane when compared to kṛṣṇa-prema.
We must come to the right conception. Many times our śikṣā-guru, Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja was asked the question, “How will we come to the right conception?” Many ‘how’ questions were asked, and he answered them by saying, “Guru, sādhu and śāstra – by taking shelter of the lotus feet of our spiritual master, by associating with saintly persons who themselves have the right conception and by studying the scriptures in light of that conception.
The Bhāgavatam is not an alien literature to India, but who in India truly understands the meaning of the Bhāgavatam? Who understands its actual message? The followers of Rāmānuja study Bhāgavatam, the Tattvavādīs in Uḍupī study Bhāgavatam, the Vallabhas study Bhāgavatam and even the Māyāvādīs study Bhāgavatam – but Mahāprabhu rejected all of them! Mahāprabhu recognised Śrīdhara Svāmī, the original commentator on Bhāgavatam.
śrīdhara-svāmī-prasāde bhāgavata jāni
jagad-guru śrīdhara-svāmī guru kari māni
“It is only by the mercy of Śrīdhara Svāmī that I understand the Bhāgavatam. Therefore, I accept jagat-guru Śrīdhara Svāmī as My spiritual master.” (Cc. Antya-līlā 7.133)
There is a line from Śrīdhara Svāmī to the Six Gosvāmīs, to the Seventh Gosvāmī (Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura), to Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura and to those who live by their teachings at present – these personalities understand the Bhāgavatam. Those persons should be our holy association. Guru, sādhu and śāstra will help us come to the proper conception and then we will have the merciful presence and grace of Śrīla Prabhupāda.
It is sometimes said that, “Prabhupāda is in a class by himself.” In fact, these days it has become popular to praise Śrīla Prabhupāda by saying this. This is a misnomer. He is not in a class by himself – he is in the top class of the servants of the Lord, who live eternally in the Lord’s company. He is not alone. A māyāvādī may say, “My guru is in a class by himself. Bliss is experienced alone!” They will eliminate everything and everyone, but we are not for elimination. ‘A class by yourself ’ means you have been sentenced to hell for eternity. Rāmānanda Rāya declared that to be without the devotees is the worst type of hell.
duḥkha-madhye kona duḥkha haya gurutara
kṛṣṇa-bhakta-viraha vinā duḥkha nāhi dekhi para
“(Mahāprabhu asked:) Amongst all types of miseries, which is the greatest? (Rāmānanda replied:) Apart from the separation from the devotees of Kṛṣṇa, I see no other misery.” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 8.248)
We must see Śrīla Prabhupāda in light of the association of the devotees. Śrīla Prabhupāda would never take pleasure in those words. “Oh yes Prabhupāda, you are alone and you are by yourself!” That is like saying, “Śrīla Prabhupāda, you are a failure.” Śrīla Prabhupāda is always with his Guru Mahārāja, and Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura is always with his Guru Mahārāja and they are all gathered together far from here. If you study the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, you can get some idea where all these great souls are gathered together. The universe is covered by ten material layers, each one ten times thicker than the previous layer.
etad aṇḍaμ viśeṣākhyaμ krama-vṛddhair daśottaraiḥ
toyādibhiḥ parivṛtaμ pradhānenāvṛtair bahiḥ
yatra loka-vitāno ’yaμ rūpaμ bhagavato hareḥ
“The universal sphere known as viśeṣa (subtle manifested energy) is surrounded with elemental layers such as water etc., each ten times thicker than the previous one. The last layer is covered by the pradhāna. Within this sphere are the various planetary systems that make up the form of Lord Hari.” (Bhāg. 3.26.52)
The last of the ten layers is 450 quadrillion miles thick, and after you cross that, you are on the border of infinity. Those great souls are gathered together there – on the higher side of the infinite.
We should select our words of praise carefully – they should not be gathered from mundane feelings. A politician may come and people will tell him, “Oh sir, you are a great man!” but his greatness is never really defined. So we may say that Śrīla Prabhupāda is great, he is our saviour etc. without understanding how he is great and in which way he is actually our saviour. Proper understanding is required. In the days that Śrīla Prabhupāda was physically present, his disciples were often-times at a loss for words to describe his greatness and to praise his actual position.
Now, as time progresses, we should try to understand and not simply make his glorification as something cheap, just as so many people praise Jesus or Mohammed. We find devotees making similar statements about Prabhupāda – “He is the way, the truth and the light!” but behind that, the meaning is very elusive. Devotees want to enthusiastically glorify Śrīla Prabhupāda, but they don’t actually understand his greatness and thus they make statements like, “He was in a class by himself.” This is a big mistake. Our Guru Mahārāja is known as Prabhupāda because he was qualified for that title and his qualification was not that he was independent in his activities, writings or his siddhānta. He stated many times, “My only qualification is that I did not deviate one inch from my spiritual master’s instructions.”
He did not come to present something different to us. The proper understanding of Śrīla Prabhupāda is to see him in light of the previous ācāryas, and proper glorification of him necessitates remembering those previous ācāryas. In other words, when we think of Śrīla Prabhupāda in any deep way, for any length of time, we must think of Caitanya Mahāprabhu, we must think of Śrī Nityānanda Prabhu, we must think of Śrīpāda Rūpa Gosvāmī, Sanātana Gosvāmī and Raghunātha Dāsa Gosvāmī. We must remember the various prayers of great ācāryas like Prabodhānanda Sarasvatī. We must remember the statements of Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura, because these are the things that Prabhupāda came to give us. The conception of Mahāprabhu is represented in all these personalities.
If we want to understand who Śrīla Prabhupāda is, we should look at his title – ‘Prabhupāda.’ Where does it come from? We find in the Madhya-līlā of Caitanya-caritāmṛta that Kṛṣṇa Dāsa Kavirāja Gosvāmī refers to Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu as Prabhupāda. It is also mentioned that Nityānanda Prabhu was called Prabhupāda as well as Śrī Advaita Ācārya.
kāśī miśra kahe – āmi baḍa bhāgyavān
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)
Mahāprabhu, Nityānanda Prabhu and Advaita Ācārya are all viṣṇu-tattva, and They are all referred to as Prabhupāda. Later on, in Caitanya-caritāmṛta, there is a description of the tree of caitanya-bhakti. Caitanya Mahāprabhu is the trunk of that tree, then there are two branches – the two branches are Śrī Nityānanda Prabhu and Advaita Ācārya. Therefore, in our paramparā, the first Prabhupāda is Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu Himself and then Nityānanda Prabhu and Śrī Advaita Ācārya.
When the Lord appeared, many devotees of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa from Goloka, also appeared in Navadvīpa-dhāma and other parts of Bengal in order to assist Him in His pastimes. All were fully qualified in an infinite variety of ways; nonetheless, the Lord selected certain devotees amongst His associates that would be the icons for the sampradāya in various ways. For example, He selected Haridāsa Ṭhākura to be the nāmācārya – the ācārya for chanting the Holy Name. He selected Śrīpāda Rūpa Gosvāmī as the rasa-tattvācārya, and positioned him as the head of the sampradāya. When Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu met Rūpa Gosvāmī at Prayāga, He instructed him in rasa-tattva. Rūpa Gosvāmī is also known to us as Prabhupāda, but he is not viṣṇu-tattva. He heads the group of select servitors, generally known as the mañjarīs, that serve Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. Why did Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu select Rūpa Gosvāmī to become the head of the sampradāya? There were so many great devotees at that time. What did Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī do? What did he say? In particular, what did he write? We find in Caitanya-caritāmṛta that Śrī Rūpa could understand the mood and feelings of Caitanya Mahāprabhu:
mora ślokera abhiprāya nā jāne kona jane
mora manera kathā tumi jānile kemane
“Nobody has understood the point of My verse. How did you understand the intention of My mind?” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 1.69)
From that time until this day, we are known as Rūpānugas – the followers of Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī.
I am often surprised to see glorifications of Śrīla Prabhupāda sometimes running into hundreds of pages and there is never a mention of Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī or the previous ācāryas. Śrīla Prabhupāda is waiting for the day when we will realise who he is, and what his connection is with all these great personalities. He is not in any way pleased or charmed by our foolishness when we say he is ‘in a class by himself’ or that he is the senāpati-bhakta. This means that we have not understood His Divine Grace.