The Hare Krishnas Go West

Back to Godhead - Volume 11, Number 01 - 1976

Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu desired this chanting of Hare Krishna and dancing in ecstasy be spread all over the world, in fact he predicted that one day the whole world will dance in ecstasy to this chanting of Hare Krishna. Until His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada left India for the United States in 1965 no one in India could imagine how the prediction of Lord Caitanya could come true.

In 1965 at the age of sixty nine, Srila Prabhupada traveled to the United States with nothing but a few dollars and a stock of Srimad Bhagavatam volumes he had translated and printed in India, along with his most valuable asset, unflinching faith in Krishna and the order of his spiritual master.

In the United States Srila Prabhupada established the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in accordance with instructions of His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur, his spiritual master. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta instructed Srila Prabhupada to present the philosophy of Krishna consciousness in English and to preach in the Western countries.

Although Srila Bhaktsiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, my beloved eternal spiritual master, guide and friend, according to material vision passed away from this material world on the last day of December, 1936, I still consider His Divine Grace to be present with me by his vani, his words. there are two ways of association--by vani and vapu. Vani means words and vapu means physical presence. Physical presence is sometimes appreciable and sometimes not, but vani continues to exist eternally. Therefore we must take advantage of the vani, not the physical presence. Bhagavad-gita, for example, is the vani of Lord Krishna. Although Krishna was personally present five thousand years ago and is no longer physically present from the materialistic point of view, Bhagavad-gita continues. (CC Ant p319)

Srila Prabhupada, after studying the Americans and their way of life, moved to the Bowery, and later to the Lower East Side in New York. At this time the ‘Hippy’ movement was emerging and many dissatisfied young people had started moving to the area. These young Americans were unimpressed with the materialistic lifestyles of their parents, they were concerned about America’s involvement in the Vietnam war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. They were looking for an answer. They wanted peace, love and happiness and with this vague notion they converged on the Lower East Side of New York in search of utopia. For many of these ‘flower children’ Srila Prabhupada provided just what they were looking for. A spiritual lifestyle, peace, happiness and a real purpose in life.

Srila Prabhupada’s method was simple. He sat underneath a tree in the park and chanted the Hare Krishna mantra, spoke on Bhagavad-gita As It Is and distributed prasadam (food spiritualized by offering to Krishna). He saw no distinction between people, young or old, black or white, man or woman; to Prabhupada they were all spirit souls who were lost in the bewildering network of this material world. His only desire was to help these lost souls find their way back to Krishna, their eternal father. He knew that they were suffering because of forgetfulness of their eternal relationship with Krishna, and as a humble servant of Krishna he was just trying to give them the right direction so they could reestablish that lost relationship with Krishna. This simple program gradually attracted many sincere young boys and girls to Krishna consciousness.

Srila Prabhupada was so merciful that he brought Krishna from Vrndavana to the middle of the worlds largest, and most important cities. He said “Actually I am not happy here, I was happy in Vrndavana, but in pursuance of my spiritual masters order I have come here.” And Srila Prabhupada’s living conditions in America at that time were certainly very difficult. The Bowery and the Lower East Side were full of drug-crazed hippies and drunks, winter in New York was bitterly cold, very difficult for Srila Prabhupada who was used to the climate of India, and the people who were attending his classes were generally totally addicted to all sorts of intoxication and illicit sex life, and not very respectful or well behaved. On top of this many were full-on impersonalists–more interested in becoming guru’s themselves than serving Srila Prabhupada.

Srila Prabhupada had come from Vrndavana, the spiritual world, into the darkest reigns of hell. Still, patiently and with great determination, he presented Krishna consciousness to everyone he met. He went out alone to perform sankirtana in the park. He just sat down and chanted Hare Krishna and preached to anyone who would listen. It is not that Srila Prabhupada had success very quickly or easily. He arrived in the United States towards the end of 1965 and for twelve months he had no fixed place of residence and apparently very little success in his missionary work. But still he was preaching. For some time he stayed in the Misra Yoga Society and there are tapes of his classes preaching to Dr. Misra’s students. It’s the same Srila Prabhupada, the same hard line uncompromising Krishna consciousness, the same plea to please surrender to Krishna, please give up sense gratification and serve Krishna, work for Krishna’s pleasure and you’ll be happy. Srila Prabhupada, and his preaching didn’t change at all from these first recorded classes when he was alone (apparently) in the United States with no means of support and no disciples to the stage where he had ten thousand disciples and was being worshiped in such a grand way. He was still the same Prabhupada, still pleading that we should surrender to Krishna, that we should work for the pleasure of Krishna’s senses and forget our personal sense gratification. There are also tapes of classes Prabhupada gave to a few students who would visit him in the very small narrow room he lived in on the Bowery. There’s even classes given in somebody’s garage at a time when Prabhupada had no where else to preach! Prabhupada was so determined to preach Krishna consciousness under the most difficult conditions.

So, by the grace of Lord Caitanya, this movement is already introduced in the Western countries beginning from New York. Our first movement, the sankirtana movement was introduced in New York. I came to New York first. I began to chant this Hare Krishna mantra in Tompkins Square park. So I was chanting there for three hours with a small mrdunga and these boys, American boys, they assembled and gradually they joined and it is increasing. First of all it was started in New York in a store front, 26 2nd. Avenue. Then we started our branch in San Fransisco, in Los Angeles, in Santa Fe, in Buffalo, then here. We now have 20 branches including one in London and one in Hamburg. In London the boys, they're all American boys and girls, they're preaching, they're not sannyasis, neither they are Vedantists, neither they're Hindus, neither they're Indian, but they have taken this movement very seriously. Here, at this meeting, one lady has come from London. She was very much praising our movement in London. In London Times there was an article, they said that "Krishna Chanting Startles London." So we have got many followers now. All my disciples till now, at least in this country, they're all Americans and Europeans. They're chanting, dancing and issuing our paper Back To Godhead. Now we have published so many books: Srimad Bhagavatam, Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Teachings of Lord Caitanya. So this movement is not a sentimental movement. We have background. The highest philosophical background.(SPL 69-006 Address to Columbas Indian Association 11/05/69)

Srila Prabhupada had absolute faith in the power of the Hare Krishna mantra and the association of a pure devotee to deliver anyone, no matter how fallen, from their material life and raise them to the platform of pure devotional service. Who else would be prepared to undergo such severe difficulties to spread Krishna consciousness? Prabhupada said that when he was planning to come to America to preach the babajis in Vrndavana had advised that it was not necessary to leave Vrndavana, simply by practicing Krishna consciousness in Vrndavana all benefits were there. Prabhupada had a very nice position in Vrndavana. He was respected as a scholar and great devotee, his residence was the most sacred Radha Damodara temple and he had all facilities to practice Krishna consciousness in a very sanctified atmosphere. But he gave all this up to follow his spiritual masters instructions and preach Krishna consciousness in the West.

In the preaching work of the Krishna conscious movement, we, as the servant of the servant of the servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, fully believe in the words of Krishna and His servants, the disciplic succession. In this way we are presenting the words of Krishna throughout the world. Even though we are neither a rich man nor a very learned scholar, and even though we do not belong to any aristocracy this movement is still being welcomed and is very easily spreading all over the world. Although we are very poor and have no professional source of income, Krishna supplies money whenever we need it. Whenever we need some men Krishna supplies them. This is stated in Bhagavad-gita (6.22): yam labdhva caparam labham manyate nadhikam tatah. Actually, if we can attain the favor of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, we do not need anything else. We certainly do not need those things which a mundane person considers to be material assets.

When Srila Prabhupada incorporated ISKCON in 1966 he stated the following as the aims and objectives of the society:

  1. To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace within the world.
  2. To propagate a consciousness of Krishna, as it is revealed in Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagavatam.
  3. To bring the members of the society together with each other and nearer to Krishna, the prime entity, thus developing the idea within the members, and humanity at large, that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of Godhead(Krishna).
  4. To teach and encourage the sankirtana movement, congregational chanting of the holy names of God, as revealed in the teachings of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
  5. To erect for the members and for society at large a holy place of transcendental pastimes dedicated to the personality of Krishna.
  6. To bring members together for the purpose of teaching a simpler, more natural way of life.
  7. With a view to achieving the aforementioned purposes, to publish and distribute periodicals, books and other writings.

Srila Prabhupada worked tirelessly to establish the Krishna consciousness movement all over the world by encouraging his disciples to open new centers, by translating the major Vaisnava scriptures into English and by traveling and preaching extensively. He showed by example how one can live and work simply for the pleasure of Krishna, he gave his disciples the highest knowledge and enabled them to experience pleasure on the spiritual platform. His serious disciples were easily able to give up illicit sex life, intoxication, meat eating and gambling, and to develop all the qualities of pure devotees of Krishna. Srila Prabhupada said that the process was simple, he was engaging them in chanting Hare Krishna and giving them prasadam (food spiritualized by offering to Krishna) and the result was he was turning ‘hippies’ into ‘happies.’

You begin chanting and hear for a few seconds or a few minutes. You immediately come to the spiritual platform of ecstasy. Therefore Caitanya Mahaprabhu recommended this process not only for India, but for all the people of the world. He said that prthivite ache yata nagaradi-grama.... Prthivite means the face of the world, ache and there is, naga means town and grama means village or county. So He said that as many villages, towns or counties there are in human society on the surface of the globe My name, meaning Lord Caitanya's name, because He introduced this simple method of chanting Hare Krishna, will be celebrated. That is His prediction. So we can see practically also that somehow or other in your country this chanting of Hare Krishna was introduced practically only for one year but it is being popularized. People are taking it very seriously. Even some places where I never visited, they're organizing centres. I have received information from Buffalo, from Atlantic City, one little boy, Terry, he's organizing, he has invited some of our brahmacaris to go there. And I've received letters from Germany, from Holland, they have also begun chanting Hare Krishna. In England, the Beetles, they are also chanting, so this is getting popular in the Western countries, and it will get, I am sure. So this chanting process introduced by Lord Caitanya should be seriously taken up so that our aim of human life will be successful. (SPL68-066 Mar, 1968)

Very quickly centers were established in almost every major city in the world, and devotees were seen on the streets every day chanting:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
and dancing in ecstasy, distributing books and Back To Godhead magazines.

In the early days of the Hare Krishna movement the devotees took very seriously Prabhupada’s desire that sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the names of God, should be performed as much as possible. So the devotees were out on the streets chanting Hare Krishna and distributing Back To Godhead magazines practically all day, every day. In most cases the temples were supported financially primarily by this sankirtana collection, the proceeds of the Back To Godhead sales. If the devotees went out and chanted for 6-8 hours each day they were bound to collect at least $80 – $150 which was quite sufficient for paying for the Back To Godhead magazines, the temple rent and food. And that’s the way Prabhupada liked it. He wanted his students to live very simply and advance in Krishna consciousness, simply depending on Krishna for their maintenance.

Just like you are going to sell our magazine [Back To Godhead]. So this magazine selling or taking some contribution is not our business. Our business is that we are spreading Krishna consciousness. People are hearing something about Krishna and because we are helping we are also hearing. We are also benefiting. When we speak to someone about Krishna then I hear also. Sravana kirtana. The first, preliminary step is going on, hearing and chanting. So in this way we shall take all opportunity so that 24 hours, whether awakening or sleeping, we shall always think of Krishna. That is perfection.

This sankirtana [street chanting] and Back To Godhead distribution was unbelievably effective in bringing Krishna consciousness to the notice of practically everyone in the Western world. Even though Prabhupada had very few disciples–in 1968 there were not more than 100 and at the beginning of 1970 there were not more than 300–the effects of their preaching were enormous. It was as if a army of Hare Krishna’s had descended from Vaikuntha and were attacking the whole materialistic Western world!

After a rather slow start the spread of the Hare Krishna movement was dramatic. From a small storefront in New York and a few hippy followers in 1966 to a world-wide confederation of over 108 temples, farm communities and schools all over the world by the mid ’70′s.

Srila Prabhupada travelled constantly to nurture the tender devotional lives of his thousands of disciples. Wherever he was Srila Prabhupada would rise very early in the morning and write his books. Between 1966 and 1977 Srila Prabhupada wrote an amazing number of books. He published almost eighty 400 page books. Srila Prabhupada also left thousands of hours of instruction in the form of his morning and evening classes, morning walks, room conversations and letters to his disciples.

Srila Prabhupada constantly stressed that the most important aspect of the Krishna consciousness movement was the distribution of his books. His constant stress on book distribution inspired his disciples to distribute books in unbelievable quantities. The world has never before seen such a huge quantity of religious books distributed so enthusiastically and widely.

There is no doubt about it, to distribute books is our most important activity. The temple is a place not for eating and sleeping, but as a base from which we send out our soldiers to fight with maya. Fight with maya means to drop thousands and millions of books into the lap of the conditioned souls. Just like during war time the bombs are raining from the sky like anything...

The reason Srila Prabhupada was so enthusiastic that his books be distributed in unlimited quantities was his faith in the transcendental sound vibrations they contain. Srila Prabhupada called his translation of the Bhagavad-gita, the principal Indian scripture, Bhagavad-gita As It Is. He explained that there were already dozens of translations of Bhagavad-gita in English, but practically all of them were written with some motive in mind other than simply presenting the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna as it was spoken. Because Krishna is famous, Krishna’s book, Bhagavad-gita, is also famous. Many unscrupulous people have taken advantage of the popularity of Bhagavad-gita and have used Krishna’s book to present their own concocted philosophy. Srila Prabhupada noted that the conclusion of Bhagavad-gita was to surrender to Krishna, however, until he published his Bhagavad-gita As It Is, although there were dozens of other translations of the Gita in English, not a single person in the Western world had become a devotee of Krishna. Now after reading Bhagavad-gita As It Is thousands and thousands of people were becoming pure devotees of Krishna and rejecting the materialistic way of life.

Prabhupada’s books contain the timeless science of Krishna consciousness as it has been handed down through the disciple succession from Krishna Himself. They are not interpretations or one man’s idea. They contain absolute, authorized knowledge. Because they contain the words of Krishna and narrations about Krishna’s activities and the activities of His devotees they are nondifferent from Krishna. Krishna, Krishna’s names, His pastimes, and everything connected with Him are completely spiritual and transcendental to the mundane material world. Therefore, reading Srila Prabhupada’s books is direct association with Krishna. Simply by reading one can be transported to the spiritual world. These books are so potent that even if someone touches them his life will be changed. So devotees distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books don’t just sell religious books. They are giving people Krishna.

I am very keen on the distribution of my books and I am very indebted to all of you for your untiring efforts to see that every man and woman in America gets one of my books. If they simply read one page, even if they do nothing else, they can become perfect. (to Haribasara 20 Apr, 1974)

Prabhupada’s emphasis on book distribution and his great satisfaction on hearing of temples and devotees successfully distributing his books inspired the devotees to increase more and more.

Again I am feeling overjoyed at hearing of your increased distribution program and I request you to increase more and more. There can be no limit to our distribution because Krishna is unlimited, so you may instruct the devotees there about this. (to Nityananda Feb 18, 1973)
I am especially happy to hear from you about the huge distribution of books in the Canada zone. That is the most auspicious sign. You are making good progress, that I can understand. As soon as I see that there is such increased book distribution figures, I take that to mean that all other programs are successful as well. I am especially encouraged to note that you have sold 268 of our Bhagavad-gita As It Is in only three weeks time. That is very, very satisfying to me. (to Jagadisa Jan 5, 1973)
Regarding book sales figures, please endeavor in this way. This is the only solace of my life. When I hear that my books are selling so nicely, I become energetic like a young man. (to Ramesvara, 1974)

The book distributors discovered many novel and effective ways of selling Srila Prabhupada’s books and as they surrendered more and more to book distribution both their results and the spiritual pleasure they were feeling was increasing unlimitedly.

I have read the plans of Ramesvara and Triparari to attend the fair and to distribute books to the thousands of people who will be coming; whatever transcendental tactics you leaders think best for distributing the books you can employ. Please keep me informed as the fair develops. (to Haribasara 20 Apr, 1974)

Wherever devotees took distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books as their life and soul everything was auspicious. There where plenty of enthusiastic devotees and the mood was ecstatic. The experience of a book distributor who was prepared to tolerate the difficulties and go out and sell Srila Prabhupada’s books to people, who were initially not very interested, and to see them become transformed in front of their eyes–simply by touching the book and hearing the philosophy of Krishna consciousness–is impossible to explain. Every devotee was practically seeing Krishna work every day. The devotees were practically realizing the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. The book distributors had so many realizations to share with each other and so much to talk about, and everything was about Krishna, Prabhupada and book distribution. There was absolutely nothing else to talk about! The book distributors were getting practical realization of Krishna consciousness and they were very happy. Of course there were many difficulties from the material point of view. But the book distributors were experiencing a variety of transcendental bliss that only those who seriously dedicate their life and soul to the orders of a bona fide spiritual master can experience.

Your sankirtana reports are very encouraging, especially that one girl, Gauri dasi, who has set an all ISKCON women's record of 108 big books. This is very wonderful. Formerly this would have been considered impossible, but now, by Krishna's grace everything is becoming possible. Encourage them all to increase more and more. (to Rupanuga)

Occasionally a devotee would complain that the emphasis on book distribution meant it was difficult to have chanting parties (sankirtana) on the streets as much as in the past. In this regard Srila Prabhupada followed his spiritual master. The clay drum which is used in the street sankirtana is called a mrdunga. Srila Bhaktsiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Prabhupada’s spiritual master, said that this clay mrdunga can be heard for one or two blocks, however, the printing press can produce books which can go all over the world. So Srila Bhaktisiddhanta coined the term brhat-mrdunga meaning the greater mrdunga, to describe the printing press. So this book distribution is the greater kirtana. Prabhupada stressed that the street chanting (sankirtana), temple worship and book distribution should go on, side by side, although of all activities book distribution is by far the most important.

I blindly follow my Guru Maharaja. I do not know what is the result. So I am stressing on this point of book distribution. He told me this personally. Book distribution is bhagavata-marga and temple worship is pancharatriki-viddhi. Both are important for cultivating Vaishnavism, but comparatively speaking bhagavata-marga is more important than pancharatriki-viddhi. As far as possible, both should go on in parallel lines, but still bhagavata-marga is more important than the other. (to Sri Govinda 12 Dec, 1974)
Regarding sankirtana [street chanting] and book distribution, book distribution is also chanting. Anyone who reads the books, that is also chanting and hearing. Why distinguish between chanting and book distribution? These books I have recorded and chanted, and they are transcribed. It is spoken kirtana. So book distribution is also chanting. These are not ordinary books. It is recorded chanting. Anyone who reads, he is hearing. Book distribution must not be neglected. If things deteriorate that is another thing, but it is not the fault of book distribution. (to Rupanuga Oct 19, 1974)

ISKCON had grown into a large organization and there was always a danger that individual devotees who did not take Krishna consciousness or Srila Prabhupada seriously, who had their own material desires to satisfy, might try to exploit the movement and the devotees. The spiritual master is the manifest representation of Krishna, and, although he is the representative of Krishna, he is worshiped and respected as Krishna. A bona fide spiritual master has no desire except the desire to please Krishna. He acts as Krishna’s representative, and he accepts service on Krishna’s behalf. The very opulent worship offered to Srila Prabhupada by his thousands of disciples all over the world was often not understood by outsiders and sometimes it was envied by so-called devotees who were more interested in their own fame and reputation than the glorification of Krishna and Krishna’s pure devotee. It was these self-interested so-called devotees who would create many problems and difficulties for Srila Prabhupada and the sincere devotees because their goal wasn’t the advancement of the Krishna consciousness movement… it was the fulfilment of their own material desires for fame, profit, adoration, followers, etc.

Prabhupada stressed that his students should do everything for Krishna and nothing for their own sense gratification. He clearly instructed that if they sincerely tried to preach Krishna consciousness, Krishna would send everything required including money and men.

The area of our activities is expanding. Under the circumstances, if our management goes on nicely to maintain our prestige and good name, that will be our success. Such status quo can be maintained only on our being freed from any kind of sense gratifying attitude, because pure devotional service means: anyabhilasita-sunyam, or without any other desire than to satisfy Krishna (to Bhagavan Feb 16, 1971)

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Srila Prabhupada was his humility. Although he had ten thousand disciples all over the world in more than one hundred centres who accepted and worshiped him on the same level as Krishna, Srila Prabhupada always remained unaffected.

I think that His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura is always seeing my activities and guiding me within my heart by his words. As it is said in the Srimad Bhagavatam, tene brahma hrda ya adi-kavaye. Spiritual inspiration comes from within the heart, wherein the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in His Paramatma feature, is always sitting with all his devotees and associates. It is to be admitted that whatever translation work I have done is through the inspiration of my spiritual master because personally I am most insignificant and incompetent to do this materially impossible work. I do not think myself a very learned scholar, but I have full faith in the service of my spiritual master, His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. If there is any credit to my activities of translating, it is all due to His Divine Grace.(CC Ant p320)
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1 Comment on "The Hare Krishnas Go West"

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  1. shane says:

    interesting article this point about Sankirtana devotees had nothing else to talk about, is a bit bhogus .and reminiscent of the fanatical old days as in Harikesha style mood , Prabhupada distributed books in his earlier yrs but he also took the time to talk to people about all manners of things with whomever he met. Sanatana Goswami also used to talk to the local vraja basis about all kinds of things some Kc and sometimes about farming etc .

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