There has not been, there will not be, such benefactors of the highest merit as [Chaitanya] Mahaprabhu and His devotees have been. The offer of other benefits is only a deception; it is rather a great harm, whereas the benefit done by Him and His followers is the truest and greatest eternal benefit. This benefit is not for one particular country, causing mischief to another; but it benefits the whole universe.
-Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī
Abhay’s friend Narendranath Mullik was insistent. He wanted Abhay to see a sādhu from Māyāpur. Naren and some of his friends had already met the sādhu at his nearby āśrama on Ultadanga Junction Road, and now they wanted Abhay’s opinion. Everyone within their circle of friends considered Abhay the leader, so if Naren could tell the others that Abhay also had a high regard for the sādhu, then that would confirm their own estimations. Abhay was reluctant to go, but Naren pressed him.
They stood talking amidst the passersby on the crowded early-evening street, as the traffic of horse-drawn hackneys, oxcarts, and occasional auto taxis and motor buses moved noisily on the road. Naren put his hand firmly around his friend’s arm, trying to drag him forward, while Abhay smiled but stubbornly pulled the other way. Naren argued that since they were only a few blocks away, they should at least pay a short visit. Abhay laughed and asked to be excused. People could see that the two young men were friends, but it was a curious sight, the handsome young man dressed in white khādī kurtā and dhotī being pulled along by his friend.
Naren explained that the sādhu, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, was a Vaiṣṇava and a great devotee of Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu. One of his disciples, a sannyāsī, had visited the Mullik house and had invited them to meet Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta. A few of the Mulliks had gone to see him and had been very much impressed.
But Abhay remained skeptical. “Oh, no! I know all these sādhus,” he said. “I’m not going.” Abhay had seen many sādhus in his childhood; every day his father had entertained at least three or four in his home. Some of them were no more than beggars, and some even smoked gañjā. Gour Mohan had been very liberal in allowing anyone who wore the saffron robes of a sannyāsī to come. But did it mean that though a man was no more than a beggar or gañjā smoker, he had to be considered saintly just because he dressed as a sannyāsī or was collecting funds in the name of building a monastery or could influence people with his speech?
No. By and large, they were a disappointing lot. Abhay had even seen a man in his neighborhood who was a beggar by occupation. In the morning, when others dressed in their work clothes and went to their jobs, this man would put on saffron cloth and go out to beg and in this way earn his livelihood. But was it fitting that such a so-called sādhu be paid a respectful visit, as if he were a guru?
Naren argued that he felt that this particular sādhu was a very learned scholar and that Abhay should at least meet him and judge for himself. Abhay wished that Naren would not behave this way, but finally he could no longer refuse his friend. Together they walked past the Parsnath Jain Temple to Ultadanga, with its sign, Bhaktivinod Asana, announcing it to be the quarters of the Gaudiya Math.
When they inquired at the door, a young man recognized Mr. Mullik-Naren had previously given a donation-and immediately escorted them up to the roof of the second floor and into the presence of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, who was sitting and enjoying the early evening atmosphere with a few disciples and guests.
Sitting with his back very straight, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī appeared tall. He was slender, his arms were long, and his complexion was fair and golden. He wore round bifocals with simple frames. His nose was sharp, his forehead broad, and his expression was very scholarly yet not at all timid. The vertical markings of Vaiṣṇava tilaka on his forehead were familiar to Abhay, as were the simple sannyāsa robes that draped over his right shoulder, leaving the other shoulder and half his chest bare. He wore tulasī neck beads, and the clay Vaiṣṇava markings of tilaka were visible at his throat, shoulder, and upper arms. A clean white brahminical thread was looped around his neck and draped across his chest. Abhay and Naren, having both been raised in Vaiṣṇava families, immediately offered prostrated obeisances at the sight of the revered sannyāsī.
While the two young men were still rising and preparing to sit, before any preliminary formalities of conversation had begun, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta immediately said to them, “You are educated young men. Why don’t you preach Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s message throughout the whole world?”
Abhay could hardly believe what he had just heard. They had not even exchanged views, yet this sādhu was telling them what they should do. Sitting face to face with Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, Abhay was gathering his wits and trying to gain a comprehensible impression, but this person had already told them to become preachers and go all over the world!
Abhay was immediately impressed, but he wasn’t going to drop his intelligent skepticism. After all, there were assumptions in what the sādhu had said. Abhay had already announced himself by his dress to be a follower of Gandhi, and he felt the impulse to raise an argument. Yet as he continued to listen to Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta speak, he also began to feel won over by the sādhu’s strength of conviction. He could sense that Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta didn’t care for anything but Lord Caitanya and that this was what made him great. This was why followers had gathered around him and why Abhay himself felt drawn, inspired, and humbled and wanted to hear more. But he felt obliged to make an argument-to test the truth.
Drawn irresistibly into discussion, Abhay spoke up in answer to the words Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta had so tersely spoken in the first seconds of their meeting. “Who will hear your Caitanya’s message?” Abhay queried. “We are a dependent country. First India must become independent. How can we spread Indian culture if we are under British rule?”
Abhay had not asked haughtily, just to be provocative, yet his question was clearly a challenge. If he were to take this sādhu’s remark to them as a serious one-and there was nothing in Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s demeanor to indicate that he had not been serious-Abhay felt compelled to question how he could propose such a thing while India was still dependent.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta replied in a quiet, deep voice that Kṛṣṇa consciousness didn’t have to wait for a change in Indian politics, nor was it dependent on who ruled. Kṛṣṇa consciousness was so important-so exclusively important-that it could not wait.
Abhay was struck by his boldness. How could he say such a thing? The whole world of India beyond this little Ultadanga rooftop was in turmoil and seemed to support what Abhay had said. Many famous leaders of Bengal, many saints, even Gandhi himself, men who were educated and spiritually minded, all might very well have asked this same question, challenging this sādhu’s relevancy. And yet he was dismissing everything and everyone as if they were of no consequence.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta continued: Whether one power or another ruled was a temporary situation; but the eternal reality is Kṛṣṇa consciousness, and the real self is the spirit soul. No man-made political system, therefore, could actually help humanity. This was the verdict of the Vedic scriptures and the line of spiritual masters. Although everyone is an eternal servant of God, when one takes himself to be the temporary body and regards the nation of his birth as worshipable, he comes under illusion. The leaders and followers of the world’s political movements, including the movement for svarāj, were simply cultivating this illusion. Real welfare work, whether individual, social, or political, should help prepare a person for his next life and help him reestablish his eternal relationship with the Supreme.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī had articulated these ideas many times before in his writings:
There has not been, there will not be, such benefactors of the highest merit as [Chaitanya] Mahaprabhu and His devotees have been. The offer of other benefits is only a deception; it is rather a great harm, whereas the benefit done by Him and His followers is the truest and greatest eternal benefit… This benefit is not for one particular country causing mischief to another; but it benefits the whole universe… The kindness that Shri Chaitanya Maha prabhu has shown to jivas absolves them eternally from all wants, from all inconveniences and from all the distresses… That kindness does not produce any evil, and the jivas who have it will not be the victims of the evils of the world.Verse” As Abhay listened attentively to the arguments of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, he recalled a Bengali poet who had written that even less advanced civilizations, like China and Japan, were independent and yet India labored under political oppression. Abhay knew well the philosophy of nationalism, which stressed that Indian independence had to come first. An oppressed people was a reality, the British slaughter of innocent citizens was a reality, and independence would benefit people. Spiritual life was a luxury that could be afforded only after independence. In the present times, the cause of national liberation from the British was the only relevant spiritual movement. The people’s cause was in itself God.
Yet because Abhay had been raised a Vaiṣṇava, he appreciated what Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta was saying. Abhay had already concluded that this was certainly not just another questionable sādhu, and he perceived the truth in what Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta said. This sādhu wasn’t concocting his own philosophy, and he wasn’t simply proud or belligerent, even though he spoke in a way that kicked out practically every other philosophy. He was speaking the eternal teachings of the Vedic literature and the sages, and Abhay loved to hear it.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta, speaking sometimes in English and sometimes in Bengali, and sometimes quoting the Sanskrit verses of the Bhagavad-gītā, spoke of Śrī Kṛṣṇa as the highest Vedic authority. In the Bhagavad-gītā Kṛṣṇa had declared that a person should give up whatever duty he considers religious and surrender unto Him, the Personality of Godhead (sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja). And the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam confirmed the same thing. Dharmaḥ projjhita-kaitavo ‘tra paramo nirmatsarāṇāṁ satām: all other forms of religion are impure and should be thrown out, and only bhāgavata-dharma, performing one’s duties to please the Supreme Lord, should remain. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s presentation was so cogent that anyone who accepted the śāstras would have to accept his conclusion.
The people were now faithless, said Bhaktisiddhānta, and therefore they no longer believed that devotional service could remove all anomalies, even on the political scene. He went on to criticize anyone who was ignorant of the soul and yet claimed to be a leader. He even cited names of contemporary leaders and pointed out their failures, and he emphasized the urgent need to render the highest good to humanity by educating people about the eternal soul and the soul’s relation to Kṛṇa and devotional service.
Abhay had never forgotten the worship of Lord Kṛṣṇa or His teachings in Bhagavad-gītā. And his family had always worshiped Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu, whose mission Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī was espousing. As these Gaudiya Math people worshiped Kṛṣṇa, he also had worshiped Kṛṣṇa throughout his life and had never forgotten Kṛṣṇa. But now he was astounded to hear the Vaiṣṇava philosophy presented so masterfully. Despite his involvement in college, marriage, the national movement, and other affairs, he had never forgotten Kṛṣṇa. But Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī was now stirring up within him his original Kṛṣṇa consciousness, and by the words of this spiritual master not only was he remembering Kṛṣṇa, but he felt his Kṛṣṇa consciousness being enhanced a thousand times, a million times. What had been unspoken in Abhay’s boyhood, what had been vague in Jagannātha Purī, what he had been distracted from at college, what he had been protected in by his father now surged forth within Abhay in responsive feelings. And he wanted to keep it.
He felt himself defeated. But he liked it. He suddenly realized that he had never before been defeated. But this defeat was not a loss. It was an immense gain.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: I was from a Vaiṣṇava family, so I could appreciate what he was preaching. Of course, he was speaking to everyone, but he found something in me. And I was convinced about his argument and mode of presentation. I was so much struck with wonder. I could understand: Here is the proper person who can give a real religious idea.
It was late. Abhay and Naren had been talking with him for more than two hours. One of the brahmacārīs gave them each a bit of prasādam in their open palms, and they rose gratefully and took their leave.
They walked down the stairs and onto the street. The night was dark. Here and there a light was burning, and there were some open shops. Abhay pondered in great satisfaction what he had just heard. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s explanation of the independence movement as a temporary, incomplete cause had made a deep impression on him. He felt himself less a nationalist and more a follower of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. He also thought that it would have been better if he were not married. This great personality was asking him to preach. He could have immediately joined, but he was married; and to leave his family would be an injustice.
Walking away from the āśrama, Naren turned to his friend: “So, Abhay, what was your impression? What do you think of him?”
“He’s wonderful!” replied Abhay. “The message of Lord Caitanya is in the hands of a very expert person.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: I accepted him as my spiritual master immediately. Not officially, but in my heart. I was thinking that I had met a very nice saintly person.
* * *
After his first meeting with Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, Abhay began to associate more with the Gaudiya Math devotees. They gave him books and told him the history of their spiritual master.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī was one of ten children born to Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, a great Vaiṣṇava teacher in the disciplic line from Lord Caitanya Himself. Before the time of Bhaktivinoda, the teachings of Lord Caitanya had been obscured by teachers and sects falsely claiming to be followers of Lord Caitanya but deviating in various drastic ways from His pure teachings. The good reputation of Vaiṣṇavism had been compromised. Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, however, through his prolific writings and through his social position as a high government officer, reestablished the respectability of Vaiṣṇavism. He preached that the teachings of Lord Caitanya were the highest form of theism and were intended not for a particular sect or religion or nation but for all the people of the world. He prophesied that Lord Caitanya’s teachings would go worldwide, and he yearned for it.
The religion preached by [Chaitanya] Mahaprabhu is universal and not exclusive… The principle of kirtan as the future church of the world invites all classes of men, without distinction of caste or clan, to the highest cultivation of the spirit. This church, it appears, will extend all over the world and take the place of all sectarian churches, which exclude outsiders from the precincts of the mosque, church, or temple.
Lord Chaitanya did not advent Himself to liberate only a few men of India. Rather, His main objective was to emancipate all living entities of all countries throughout the entire universe and preach the Eternal Religion. Lord Chaitanya says in the Chaitanya Bhagwat: “In every town, country, and village, My name will be sung.” There is no doubt that this unquestionable order will come to pass… Although there is still no pure society of Vaishnavas to be had, yet Lord Chaitanya’s prophetic words will in a few days come true, I am sure. Why not? Nothing is absolutely pure in the beginning. From imperfection, purity will come about.
Oh, for that day when the fortunate English, French, Russian, German, and American people will take up banners, mridangas, and kartals and raise kirtan through their streets and towns. When will that day come?
As a prominent magistrate, Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura was a responsible government officer. He served also as superintendent of the temple of Lord Jagannātha and was the father of ten children. Yet in spite of these responsibilities, he served the cause of Kṛṣṇa with prodigious energy. After coming home from his office in the evening, taking his meals, and going to bed, he would sleep from eight until midnight and then get up and write until morning. He wrote more than one hundred books during his life, many of them in English. One of his important contributions, with the cooperation of Jagannātha dāsa Bābājī and Gaurakiśora dāsa Bābājī, was to locate the exact birthplace of Lord Caitanya in Māyāpur, about sixty miles north of Calcutta.
While working to reform Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism in India, he prayed to Lord Caitanya, “Your teachings have been much depreciated. It is not in my power to restore them.” And he prayed for a son to help him in his preaching. When, on February 6, 1874, Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī was born to Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura in Jagannātha Purī, the Vaiṣṇavas considered him the answer to his father’s prayers. He was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and draped across his chest like the sacred thread worn by brāhmaṇas. His parents gave him the name Bimala Prasada.
When Bimala Prasada was six months old, the carts of the Jagannātha festival stopped at the gate of Bhaktivinoda’s residence and for three days could not be moved. Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s wife brought the infant onto the cart and approached the Deity of Lord Jagannātha. Spontaneously, the infant extended his arms and touched the feet of Lord Jagannātha and was immediately blessed with a garland that fell from the body of the Lord. When Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura learned that the Lord’s garland had fallen onto his son, he realized that this was the son for whom he had prayed.
One day, when Bimala Prasada was still a child of no more than four years, his father mildly rebuked him for eating a mango not yet duly offered to Lord Kṛṣṇa. Bimala Prasada, although only a child, considered himself an offender to the Lord and vowed never to eat mangoes again. (This was a vow that he would follow throughout his life.) By the time Bimala Prasada was seven years old, he had memorized the entire Bhagavad-gītā and could even explain its verses. His father then began training him in proofreading and printing, in conjunction with the publishing of the Vaiṣṇava magazine Sajjana-toṣaṇī. With his father, he visited many holy places and heard discourses from the learned paṇḍitas.
As a student, Bimala Prasada preferred to read the books written by his father instead of the school texts. By the time he was twenty-five he had become well versed in Sanskrit, mathematics, and astronomy, and he had established himself as the author and publisher of many magazine articles and one book, Sūrya-siddhānta, for which he received the epithet Siddhānta Sarasvatī in recognition of his erudition. When he was twenty-six his father guided him to take initiation from a renounced Vaiṣṇava saint, Gaurakiśora dāsa Bābājī, who advised him “to preach the Absolute Truth and keep aside all other works.” Receiving the blessings of Gaurakiśora dāsa Bābājī, Bimala Prasada (now Siddhānta Sarasvatī) resolved to dedicate his body, mind, and words to the service of Lord Kṛṣṇa.
In 1905 Siddhānta Sarasvatī took a vow to chant the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra a billion times. Residing in Māyāpur in a grass hut near the birthplace of Lord Caitanya, he chanted the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra day and night. He cooked rice once a day in an earthen pot and ate nothing more; he slept on the ground, and when the rainwater leaked through the grass ceiling, he sat beneath an umbrella, chanting.
In 1911, while his aging father was lying ill, Siddhānta Sarasvatī took up a challenge against pseudo Vaiṣṇavas who claimed that birth in their caste was the prerequisite for preaching Kṛṣṇa consciousness. The caste-conscious brāhmaṇa community had become incensed by Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s presentation of many scriptural proofs that anyone, regardless of birth, could become a brāhmaṇa Vaiṣṇava. These smārta brāhmaṇas, out to prove the inferiority of the Vaiṣṇavas, arranged a discussion. On behalf of his indisposed father, young Siddhānta Sarasvatī wrote an essay, “The Conclusive Difference Between the Brāhmaṇa and the Vaiṣṇava,” and submitted it before his father. Despite his poor health, Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura was elated to hear the arguments that would soundly defeat the challenge of the smārtas.
Siddhānta Sarasvatī then traveled to Midnapore, where paṇḍitas from all over India had gathered for a three-day discussion. Some of the smārta paṇḍitas who spoke first claimed that anyone born in a śūdra family, even though initiated by a spiritual master, could never become purified and perform the brahminical duties of worshiping the Deity or initiating disciples. Finally, Siddhānta Sarasvatī delivered his speech. He began quoting Vedic references glorifying the brāhmaṇas, and at this the smārta scholars became very much pleased. But when he began discussing the actual qualifications for becoming a brāhmaṇa, the qualities of the Vaiṣṇavas, the relationship between the two, and who, according to the Vedic literature, is qualified to become a spiritual master and initiate disciples, then the joy of the Vaiṣṇava-haters disappeared. Siddhānta Sarasvatī conclusively proved from the scriptures that if one is born as a śūdra but exhibits the qualities of a brāhmaṇa, then he should be honored as a brāhmaṇa, despite his birth. And if one is born in a brāhmaṇa family but acts like a śūdra, then he is not a brāhmaṇa. After his speech, Siddhānta Sarasvatī was congratulated by the president of the conference, and thousands thronged around him. It was a victory for Vaiṣṇavism.
With the passing away of his father in 1914 and his spiritual master in 1915, Siddhānta Sarasvatī continued the mission of Lord Caitanya. He assumed editorship of Sajjana-toṣaṇī and established the Bhagwat Press in Krishnanagar. Then in 1918, in Māyāpur, he sat down before a picture of Gaurakiśora dāsa Bābājī and initiated himself into the sannyāsa order. At this time he assumed the sannyāsa title Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvat Gosvāmī Mahārāja.
Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī was dedicated to using the printing press as the best medium for large-scale distribution of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. He thought of the printing press as a bṛhat mṛdaṅga, a big mṛdaṅga. Although the mṛdaṅga drum had traditionally been used to accompany kīrtana, even during the time of Lord Caitanya, and although Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī himself led kīrtana parties and sent groups of devotees chanting in the streets and playing on the mṛdaṅgas, such kīrtanas could be heard only for a block or two. But with the bṛhat mṛdaṅga, the big mṛdaṅga drum of the printing press, the message of Lord Caitanya could be spread all over the world.
Most of the literature Abhay began reading had been printed on the Bhagwat Press, which Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī had established in 1915. The Bhagwat Press had printed the Caitanya-caritāmṛta, with commentary by Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, the Bhagavad-gītā, with commentary by Viśvanātha Cakravartī, and one after another, the works of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura. This literature was the spiritual heritage coming from Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu, who had appeared almost five hundred years before.
Abhay had been a devotee of Lord Caitanya since childhood, and he was familiar with the life of Lord Caitanya through the well-known scriptures Caitanya-caritāmṛta and Caitanya-bhāgavata. He had learned of Lord Caitanya not only as the most ecstatic form of a pure devotee who had spread the chanting of the holy name to all parts of India, but also as the direct appearance of Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself in the form of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa combined. But now, for the first time, Abhay was in touch with the great wealth of literature compiled by the Lord’s immediate associates and followers, passed down in disciplic succession, and expanded on by great authorities. Lord Caitanya’s immediate followers- Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, Śrīla Sanātana Gosvāmī, Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī, and others-had compiled many volumes based on the Vedic scriptures and proving conclusively that Lord Caitanya’s teachings were the essence of Vedic wisdom. There were many books not yet published, but Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī was intent on establishing many presses, just to release the sound of the bṛhat mṛdaṅga for the benefit of all people.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī was teaching the conclusion of Lord Caitanya’s teachings, that Lord Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and that the chanting of His holy name should be stressed above all other religious practices. In former ages, other methods of attaining to God had been available, but in the present Age of Kali only the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa would be effective. On the authority of the scriptures such as the Bṛhan-nāradīya Purāṇa and the Upaniṣads, Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura had specifically cited the mahā-mantra: Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare. Lord Kṛṣṇa Himself had confirmed in Bhagavad-gītā that the only method of attaining Him was devotional service: “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.”
Abhay knew these verses, he knew the chanting, and he knew the conclusions of the Gītā. But now, as he eagerly read the writings of the great ācāryas, he had fresh realizations of the scope of Lord Caitanya’s mission. Now he was discovering the depth of his own Vaiṣṇava heritage and its efficacy for bringing about the highest welfare for people in an age destined to be full of troubles.
* * *
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta was often traveling, and Abhay was busy with his family and business, so to arrange another meeting was not possible. Yet from their first encounter Abhay had considered Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī his spiritual master, and Abhay began thinking of him always, “I have met such a nice saintly person.” Whenever possible, Abhay would seek out Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s disciples, the members of the Gaudiya Math.
As for Gandhi’s movement, Gandhi had suffered a bitter setback when his nonviolent followers had blundered and committed violence during a protest. The British had taken the opportunity to arrest Gandhi and sentence him to six years in jail. Although his followers still revered him, the nationalist movement had lost much of its impetus. But regardless of that, Abhay was no longer interested. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī had defeated his idea that the nationalist cause was India’s first priority. He had invoked Abhay’s original Kṛṣṇa consciousness, and Abhay now felt confident that Bhaktisiddhānta’s mission was the real priority. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta had invited him to preach, and from that moment Abhay had wanted to join the Gaudiya Math as one of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī’s disciples. But now, instead of his political inclinations, it was his family obligations that stood in the way. He was no longer thinking, “First let us become an independent nation then preach about Lord Caitanya.” Now he was thinking, “I cannot take part like the others. I have my family responsibilities.”
And the family was growing. In 1921 Abhay and his wife had had their first child, a son. And there would be more children, and more income would be needed. Earning money meant sacrificing time and energy, and it meant, at least externally, being distracted from the mission of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. Indian culture had the highest regard for the family institution, and divorce was unheard of. Even if a man was in great financial difficulty, he would remain with his wife and children. Although Abhay expressed regret at not being a sannyāsī disciple in the Gaudiya Math, he never seriously considered leaving his young wife so early in their marriage. Gour Mohan was pleased to hear of his son’s attraction to a Vaiṣṇava guru, but he never expected Abhay to abandon responsibilities and enter the renounced order. A Vaiṣṇava could remain with wife and family, practice spiritual life at home, and even become active in preaching. Abhay would have to find ways to serve the mission of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī as a family man.
Abhay thought that if he were to become very successful in business, then he could spend money not only to support his family but also to help support Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī’s mission of spreading Kṛṣṇa consciousness. An astrologer had even predicted that Abhay would become one of the wealthiest men in India. But with his present income he could do little more than provide for his family’s needs. He thought he might do better by trying to develop a business on his own.
Abhay expressed his feelings to Dr. Bose, who listened like a sympathetic father and suggested that Abhay become his agent for all of northern India. Abhay could purchase medicines, liniments, rectified spirits, toothpastes, and other items wholesale from Dr. Bose’s factory and travel widely throughout northern India, building up his own business. Also, Abhay had enough experience with Bose’s Laboratory that he could try to make and market some of his own medicines and products. Dr. Bose and Abhay decided that the centrally located city of Allahabad would be a good place for Abhay to make his headquarters.
* * *
In 1923, Abhay and his wife and child moved to Allahabad, a twelve-hour train ride northwest from Calcutta. The British had once made Allahabad the capital of the United Provinces, and they had built many good buildings there, including buildings for a high court and a university. Europeans and affluent Indian families like the Nehrus lived in a modern, paved, well-lit section of town. There was also another, older section, with ancient narrow streets closely lined with buildings and shops. Many Bengalis resided there, and it was there that Abhay decided to settle his family.
He had chosen Allahabad, traditionally known as Prayāga, as a good location for business, but it was also one of India’s most famous places of pilgrimage. Situated at the confluence of the three holiest rivers of India-the Ganges, the Yamunā, and the Sarasvatī-Allahabad was the site of two of India’s most widely attended spiritual events, the annual Māgha-melā, and the Kumbha-melā, which took place every twelve years. And in search of spiritual purification, millions of pilgrims from all over India would converge here each year at the time of the full moon in the month of Māgha (January) and bathe at the junction of the three sacred rivers.
Abhay’s home at 60 Badshahi Mundi consisted of a few rented rooms. For his business he rented a small shop in the commercial center of the city at Johnston Gung Road, where he opened his dispensary, Prayag Pharmacy, and began selling medicines, tinctures, syrups, and other products manufactured by Bose’s Laboratory. He met an Allahabad physician, Dr. Ghosh, who was interested in a business partnership, so Abhay asked him to become his attending physician and move his office to Prayag Pharmacy. Dr. Ghosh consented and closed his own shop, Tropical Pharmacy.
At Prayag Pharmacy, Dr. Ghosh would diagnose patients and give medical prescriptions, which Abhay would fill. Dr. Ghosh would then receive a twenty-five-percent commission from the sale of the prescriptions. Abhay and Dr. Ghosh became friends; they would visit at each other’s home, and they treated each other’s children like their own family members. Often they discussed their aspirations for increasing profits.
Dr. Ghosh: Abhay was a business-minded man. We were all God-fearing, of course. In every home we have a small temple, and we must have Deities. But he used to always talk about business and how to meet family expenses.
Although at home Abhay wore a kurtā and dhotī, sometimes for business he would dress in shirt and pants. He was a good-looking, full-mustached, energetic young man in his late twenties. He and Radharani De now had two children-a daughter was born after they had been in Allahabad one year. Gour Mohan, who was now seventy-five, had come to live with him, as had Abhay’s widowed sister, Rajesvari, and her son, Tulasi. Gour Mohan mostly stayed at home, chanted on his beads, and worshiped the śālagrāma-śilā Deity of Kṛṣṇa. He was satisfied that Abhay was doing right, and Abhay was satisfied to have his father living comfortably with him and freely worshiping Kṛṣṇa.
Abhay led a busy life. He was intent on building his business. By 8:00 A.M. he would go to his pharmacy, where he would meet Dr. Ghosh and begin his day’s work. At noon he would come home, and then he would return to the pharmacy in the late afternoon. He had purchased a large Buick for eight thousand rupees, and although he never drove it himself, he let his nephew, a good driver, use it for his taxi business. Occasionally, Abhay would use the car on his own business excursions, and his nephew would then act as his chauffeur.
It so happened that both Motilal Nehru and his son Jawaharlal were customers at Prayag Pharmacy. Because Jawaharlal would always order Western medicines, Abhay thought he must have felt that Indian ways were inferior. Once, Jawaharlal approached Abhay for a political contribution, and Abhay donated, being a conscientious merchant. During the day Abhay would talk with his customers and other friends who would stop by, and they would tell him many things. A former military officer used to tell Abhay stories of World War I. He told how Marshal Foch in France had one day ordered the killing of thousands of Belgian refugees whose maintenance had become a burden to him on the battlefield. A Muhammadan gentleman, a member of a royal family in Afghanistan, would come daily with his son to sit and chat. Abhay would listen to his visitors and converse pleasantly and make up their prescriptions, but his thoughts kept returning to his meeting with Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. He went over it again and again in his mind-how he had looked, his mannerisms, what he had said.
At night Abhay would go home to his wife and children. Radharani was a chaste and faithful wife who spent her days cooking, cleaning, and caring for her two children. But she was not inclined to share her husband’s interest in things spiritual. He could not convey to her his feelings about Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī.
* * *
Abhay; his wife; their two children; Gour Mohan; Abhay’s younger brother, Krishna Charan; Abhay’s widowed sister, Rajesvari; and her son, Tulasi das, all went together to an Allahabad studio for a family portrait. The photo shows Abhay in his late twenties. He is thin and dark, with a full mustache. His forehead is broad, his eyes dark and clear. He wears a white kurtā and dhotī and plain dark slippers. He sits in a chair, his wife standing behind him, an attractive young woman in a white khādī sārī with a line of color on the border. Her slim arm rests behind Abhay’s head on the back of his chair, her small hand gripping the edge of the chair. Her left hand hangs by her side, gripped in a fist. She is barefoot. With his left hand, Abhay steadies his two-year-old boy, “Pacha” (Prayag Raj), a glaring infant, on his lap, the boy seeming to squirm, his baby legs and bare feet dangling by his mother’s knee. Abhay seems a bit amused by the son on his lap. Abhay is a handsome Indian man, his wife an attractive woman, both young.
Also behind Abhay stands his nephew Tulasi and his brother, Krishna Charan. Sitting on the far right is Abhay’s sister Rajesvari, dressed in a widow’s white sārī, holding Sulakshmana, Abhay’s daughter, on her lap. Sulakshmana is also squirming, her foot jutting towards the photographer. In the center sits Gour Mohan. His face is shriveled, and his whole body is emaciated with age. He is also wearing a white kurtā and dhotī. His hands seem to be moving actively on his lap, perhaps with palsy. He is short and small and old.
* * *
Abhay traveled frequently throughout northern India, intent on expanding his sales. It was not unusual for him to be gone a few days in a week, and sometimes a week or more at a time, as he traveled from one city to another. The pharmaceutical industry was just beginning in India, and doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies were eager to buy from the competent, gentlemanly agent who called on them from Bose’s Laboratory of Calcutta.
He would travel by train and stay in hotels. He liked the feeling of freedom from home that traveling afforded, but the real drive was servicing accounts and getting new ones; that was his business. Riding in a third-class unreserved compartment was often uncomfortable; the only seats were benches, which were often dirty, and passengers were permitted to crowd on without reservations. But that is how Abhay traveled, hundreds of miles every week. As the train moved between towns, he would see the numberless small villages and then the country land that spread out before him on either side of the tracks. At every stop, he would hear the cries of the tea vendors as they walked alongside the train windows: “Chāy! Chāy!” Tea! The British had introduced it, and now millions of Indians were convinced that they could not get through the morning without their little glass of hot tea. As a strict Vaiṣṇava, Abhay never touched it, but his wife, much to his displeasure, was becoming a regular tea drinker.
Although Abhay was accustomed to dressing as a European businessman, he never compromised his strict Vaiṣṇava principles. Most of his fellow Bengalis had taken up fish-eating, but Abhay was always careful to avoid non-Vaiṣṇava foods, even at hotels. Once at a vegetarian hotel, the Empire Hindu Hotel in Bombay, he was served onions, and sometimes hotel people tried to serve him mushrooms, garlic, and even eggs, but all of these he carefully avoided. Keeping a small semblance of his home routine, he would take his bath early in the morning with cold water. He followed this routine year-round, and when, in Saharanpur, he did so during the bitter cold weather, the hotelkeeper was greatly surprised.
Abhay conversed with many people in his travels. A doctor in Dacca told him that on his way to the office he had passed a farmer talking to a friend and could tell by the sound of the farmer’s cough that the farmer would die within a few hours. Another doctor told Abhay that he had just come from seeing a pneumonia patient who was defying nature and medical science by continuing to live. He met a Muhammadan doctor in Gayā who lamented that he had just lost a patient, although he had given the man the very best medicine. Such accounts from men of the medical profession confirmed Abhay’s conviction that without God’s sanction no one could be saved. Not that he ever thought of his medical sales as philanthropic work; Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī had already convinced him that the only way to save a person was by giving him Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Abhay’s medical products were strictly for business.
On one business trip-it was in 1925-he traveled through Agra, only forty miles south of Vṛndāvana. Taking the opportunity, he made his first visit to holy Vṛndāvana, fulfilling his childhood aspiration. He loved the sight of Vṛndāvana, but he could spend only a day or two; even a single day away from his sales work could be critical. As a reverent pilgrim, Abhay visited a few temples, especially the principal temples established by the followers of Lord Caitanya. But he had to move on.
There were also risks in traveling. Once he was sitting in a train compartment in Mathurā station when a monkey suddenly entered and took away his belongings. Early one morning before dawn, while he was on his way to Kanpur in a two-wheeled horse carriage, the horse was going at a fast trot when suddenly it hit a large heap of rubbish in the middle of the road. The carriage turned upside down, horse, driver, and carriage all landed in a heap, and Abhay was thrown into the air. But he landed unharmed, feeling as though he had just changed to another seat. Because Abhay sat but said nothing, the driver thought he had been knocked unconscious and became anxious. The passenger was all right, however, and the driver considered it a miracle, since the cart had so violently ejected him. Abhay took it that he had been saved by Kṛṣṇa, and he remembered similar incidents, starting with his childhood when his clothing had caught on fire. Kṛṣṇa had always protected him.
For five years Abhay traveled widely out of Allahabad, and when he was home he put in long hours at the dispensary. But he also spent time with his wife and played with his children.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: When my son was about two years old, he was very naughty, always doing some mischief. My friends used to visit me and call my son, Pacha. “Pacha, if you sit down for one minute, silently, I will give you a gift.” But the boy failed. He could not sit down, even for a minute. There was a table fan, and Pacha was wanting to touch it. I said, “No, no, don’t touch.” But again he tried to touch it, so my friend said, “Just lower the speed and let him touch it.” So I unplugged the fan, and then he touched it. It did not harm him, but it hit his finger with a loud noise, “Tunng!” And then he would not touch again. I would ask him, “Touch again?” but he would not.
As soon as his daughter, Sulakshmana, could speak, he began teaching her the Bengali translation of the prayer Gurv-aṣṭakam, which begins, “The spiritual master is receiving benedictions from the ocean of mercy. Just as a cloud pours water on a forest fire to extinguish it, the spiritual master extinguishes the blazing fire of material life, of repeated birth and death.”
Except for his obligatory travels, Abhay stayed at home and satisfied his family. He tended diligently to his business, and it prospered.
* * *
It was Kumbha-melā, January 1928. Bhaktipradīpa Tīrtha Mahārāja of the Gaudiya Math had come to Allahabad with a few men. One day he walked unannounced into the Prayag Pharmacy, and all of a sudden Abhay was seeing them again, after so many years. “Oh, these are the people I saw before!” he thought. “Gaudiya Math. Yes, come in.”
Bhaktipradīpa Tīrtha Swami was the same sannyāsī who had visited Narendranath Mullik in Calcutta, a visit that had led to Abhay’s going to visit Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. Folding his palms in a humble gesture, standing before Abhay in simple saffron khādī robes, his shaven head, with a tuft of śikhā in the back, his forehead marked with Vaiṣṇava tilaka, Tīrtha Mahārāja said to Abhay, “We are new here. We are going to establish a temple in Allahabad. We have heard your name, so we have come to you. Please help us.”
Abhay was joyful: “Yes, I will help you.” He contributed what money he could and then introduced Tīrtha Mahārāja to Dr. Ghosh, who also contributed.
Abhay invited the Gaudiya Math devotees to come to his home and hold a bhajana and lecture; his wife would cook prasādam. They accepted, but when they arrived there was a misunderstanding. Gour Mohan, who was invalid, was staying in his room upstairs. “Please come down,” Abhay called. “There’s a meeting of the Gaudiya Math.” Gour Mohan came downstairs, but when he saw the sādhus he mistook them for impersonalists from a nondevotional mission. He had not heard correctly what Abhay had said. Gour Mohan took his seat, but he observed the saffron-clothed men sullenly and even made a critical remark. Abhay, who was enlivened at the opportunity to associate with the Vaiṣṇavas and hear from them kṛṣṇa-kathā, could not understand his father’s behavior. Then, as soon as Bhaktipradīpa Tīrtha Swami began his lecture, Gour Mohan understood. “Oh, they are Vaiṣṇavas!” he cried. Old and invalid as he was, he immediately fell down at their feet: “I misunderstood you, sir. I thought you were sannyāsīs from another mission. I am glad to meet you.”
After Kumbha-melā, Pradīpa Tīrtha Swami left, but five or six brahmacārī disciples of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī stayed on in Allahabad, maintaining a small maṭha headquarters. They worshiped the Deity, held an evening program of kīrtana and lecture, and preached actively to the local people. The devotee in charge, Atulānanda Brahmacārī, would visit the homes of Allahabad citizens, trying to solicit subscriber members for the maṭha; for half a rupee per month, a person would receive a subscription to the Gaudiya Math magazine.
In the course of his door-to-door soliciting, Atulānanda knocked on the door of Abhay Charan De. Abhay received him very hospitably and offered him some rice and fruit. Abhay was very receptive to the philosophy and relished discussions with Atulānanda, who made it a point to visit Mr. De repeatedly and speak with him about Lord Caitanya and the Bhagavad-gītā. Abhay also inquired into the recent activities of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. By now, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta had established the Gaudiya Printing Works in Calcutta and had begun to publish the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, in several volumes with his own annotations. He had also published an edited version of Śrī Caitanya-bhāgavata from his center in Dacca. He had opened centers in Bhuvaneśvara, Madras, and Purī.
Abhay’s interest was insatiable. Atulānanda told him how in 1925 Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī had led a big procession, circumambulating the holy land of Navadvīpa, with Deities riding on the backs of gorgeously decorated elephants, and with devotees from all parts of India attending. Envious professional priests who opposed Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s acceptance of disciples from all castes had employed a gang to help them hurl bricks and rocks on the procession. But Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta had continued, undaunted. In 1926 he had toured throughout India, preaching the message of Lord Caitanya. He had also installed Deities in the large temple of Śrī Caitanya Math in Māyāpur. And a year ago he had begun publishing his magazine Sajjana-toṣaṇī in three languages, including an English edition called The Harmonist.
After several visits and hours of discussion on the activities and philosophy of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, Atulānanda brought Mr. De to the Allahabad āśrama. Shortly thereafter, the maṭha relocated to a rented house on South Mallaca Street near Ram Bagh, just a short walk from Abhay’s house. Now it was possible for Abhay to visit every evening. After work, he would attend the maṭha, where he would play the mṛdaṅga, surprising the brahmacārīs with his already developed mṛdaṅga-playing skills. He sang bhajanas with them and sometimes took the lead part in the congregational singing. He would also bring important persons from Allahabad to visit the maṭha. For the brahmacārīs, Abhay seemed to give new life to their āśrama, and for Abhay new life had come to him in his reunion with the disciples of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī.
* * *
In 1930 Gour Mohan’s health took a turn for the worse, and his family members gathered around him, thinking that his end had come. Abhay had been in Bombay on business, and it was late when he reached Allahabad and knocked on the door. Gour Mohan told his daughter Rajesvari, “Open the door. Abhay has come.” She replied, “No, he is in Bombay.” Gour Mohan repeated, “I tell you that he has come. You open the door!” It was about midnight. She went downstairs, opened the door, and found that her brother had indeed come. Abhay went to his father: “How are you?”
“I am all right,” Gour Mohan replied. “You just take rest for the night.”
The next morning Abhay called the doctor. “How your father is living we don’t know,” the doctor told him. “He has practically no pulse. He has been living without food for several months.”
Abhay asked his father, “What is your wish? Tell me.”
“Why are you asking?” his father replied. “Has the doctor told you anything?”
Abhay said, “No, I am asking because I am staying in Bombay and you are here. So if you have any wish, any intention, let me know. I am here. I am here for you.” Gour Mohan told him to give their cow to the Allahabad Gaudiya Math. So Abhay took the cow, along with her calf, and donated them to the maṭha.
Then again he asked his father, “Have you got any other wish?”
And again his father asked, “Has the doctor told you anything?”
“No, no! I am simply asking because for my business I have to go.”
Then Gour Mohan said, “Invite all the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas of Allahabad, and other Vaiṣṇavas also. Let them chant hari-nāma in the evening, and you supply them with good food. That is my wish.” Abhay arranged it, and in the evening the hari-nāma started. At eleven o’clock all of them took prasādam and left. That night, Gour Mohan passed away.
Abhay felt the loss of his father painfully. His father had given him everything he had ever wanted, had been careful to raise him as a pure Vaiṣṇava, and had always worshiped Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. Although Abhay was a competent young man, he felt lost without his dearmost protector and friend. More than anyone else, Gour Mohan was the one who had always guided Abhay and treated him as the most special person. Without his father, Abhay now felt hopeless. He suddenly felt the same dependency he had felt as a small boy-but now without his father. The one who had always treated him as a pet son deserving all loving attention, the one who had given him whatever he had wanted and who had literally prayed to every holy man he met that his son become a great devotee of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī-that best well-wisher was now gone.
On the day of śrāddha, thirteen days after Gour Mohan passed away, Abhay and his brother posed for a formal photograph. In accordance with the religious custom, the two sons had shaved their heads. The photograph shows Abhay and his brother sitting on either side of a formal portrait of their father. The portrait is on an elevated stand and is surrounded with dark cloth. The picture is nicely framed. Gour Mohan looks old but still thoughtful and intent-not so old as in the former portrait where he had looked emaciated, with eyes almost dimmed.
Abhay, with his head shaved, looks like a renounced monk, and his body is covered with the robes of a monk, simple drapes in broad folds covering the upper and lower parts of his body. He looks quite different than he had in the picture that was taken in the same place, with the same rough carpet on the floor, years before. In that picture, with his wife and children gathered around him, he was very much the young householder, surrounded by his responsibilities of family and looking like he knew how to conduct himself well and move energetically in the world. But in this photo, although his children are present, they are seated unattended on the floor. Abhay’s left hand is on his knee, poised and yet at rest, whereas in the former picture, his left hand had been holding his restless son. Abhay’s wife is not present.
In this picture, Abhay looks striking. One cannot tell that he usually has a head of hair and a mustache, which he has only recently shorn for the mournful observance of his father’s passing away. Instead, this seems to be his natural appearance. There is a mysterious, spiritual air about him, as one might expect in a meditating saint. His look is neither agitated nor cheerful nor sorrowful. It is peaceful and knowing, as if he has suddenly become a sādhu on the day his father has passed away. He looks like the sādhu his father envisioned he would become. He looks as if he is and always was a sādhu and has suddenly been revealed as such on this day. Even by the most casual inspection of the photo, it appears that by shaving his head and dressing in robes, with no shirt or shoes, Abhay has become a sādhu.
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