Śrīla Prabhupāda was alone in an alien country, with no money or place of his own—but fifty centuries of spiritual tradition stood behind him.
The freezing wind blasting off the river becomes merciless when funnelled between the walls of the city’s chartered canyons. The wind hurtles a birdshot of cinder and sleet; it sends trash skimming over the icy pavement and lifts it in sudden dizzying spirals high up the face of the blank, impassive towers. A dull unending roar, as though the buildings moaned under a drugged sleep, fills the chasms.
This most densely crowded city of America is also its most desolate waste, and nothing seems more inhospitable to man than the world where everything is manmade. This is New York, in the grip of an iron winter, in the middle of an iron age.
We see now a figure making its way along the bottom of one of the empty iron-rimmed abysses. Leaning forward into the wind, a cane in his left hand, he moves steadfastly on. Look at him closely: the saffron robes of an Indian mendicant priest flap below his overcoat, and his forehead bears the parallel clay lines of the devotee of Kṛṣṇa. His face has an expression both indomitable and serene, as though he were not really walking this bitter wasteland, and indeed he appears so out of place here that a magnolia tree in full fragrant bloom on these hard and frigid streets would seem no less incongruous. This is Śrīla Prabhupāda in the winter of 1966. He is alone he has no money; and he is seventy years old. His small figure is dwarfed by the towers in icy reserve, whose stern, impervious faces turn all human effort on the streets below into tableaux of defeat. But Śrīla Prabhupāda’s effort is not merely human, and the seed he brings with him from another world does indeed incredibly, miraculously take root in this barren and uninviting soil and flourish. Soon hundreds of saffron-robed devotees will blossom out into these streets, their American faces marked with the twin clay lines, and the sound of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra will echo and re-echo against the hard high walls.
We should remind ourselves that what we see is not all there is; we never know what unseen presences hover over some lonely and modest endeavor, nor what invisible efforts cooperate to bring great results from meager beginnings. We believe that in nature no effect exceeds its cause, why should it be different in other affairs? Chance or luck are merely words to cover our ignorance.
Behind Śrīla Prabhupāda’s appearance on the alien Manhattan streets stand five millennia of planning and effort. The story of it opens one sunrise fifty centuries ago in the Himalayas, where the sage Kṛṣṇa-Dvaipayana Vyāsa sits in trance on the bank of the Sarasvatī. In his meditation, Vyāsa sees a future of unrelieved horror unfold before him. He sees Kaliyuga, the age of iron, begin and bring with it universal deterioration. The decay is so deep-rooted that matter itself diminishes in potency, and all our food progressively decreases in quality as well as quantity. Vyāsa sees the effects of chronic malnutrition on generation after generation; he watches it gradually diminish their span of life along with their brain power; no one can escape the progressive drop in intelligence and ability to remember.
The harassment of hard times upon an increasingly witless populace hastens its moral and spiritual decline. People begin to slaughter animals for food; they become more and more enslaved by drugs; they lose all sexual restraint. These habits further their physical and mental deterioration. Vyāsa watches them sink deeper and deeper into sensuality and ignorance. Families break up, and women and children are abandoned. Increasingly degraded generations, conceived accidentally in lust and growing up wild, swarm over the earth. Leadership falls into the hands of unprincipled criminals who use their power to loot the people. The world teems with ideologues, mystagogues, fanatics, and spiritual bunko artists who win huge followings among a people dazed by social and moral anarchy. Unspeakable depravities and atrocities flourish under a rhetoric of high ideals.
Vyāsa sees horror piled upon horror; he sees the end of everything human; he sees the gathering darkness engulf the world.
This is Vyāsa’s prophetic vision on the eve of Kali-yuga, five thousand years ago. It spurs him into action. For Vyāsa’s appearance on the brink of this temporal decline is not fortuitous. Vyāsa is an avatāra, the empowered literary incarnation of God, sent by Kṛṣṇa specifically to prepare the knowledge of Vedic civilization for transmission through the coming millennia of darkness.
Without such an undertaking, the erosion of human intelligence by the force of time would insure that all future generations would be completely cut off from their own cultural heritage and the matchless spiritual attainment of their forebears. Once the iron age began, they would not even realize that at one time the whole world had been governed by a single, supremely enlightened civilization: the Vedic culture.
In that Vedic culture, everything was organized to further self-realization. Self-realization marks the ultimate development of human potential, in which a person knows himself directly as an eternal spiritual being, infrangibly bound to the supreme spiritual being, and without intrinsic relation to a temporarily inhabited material body. By cultivating self-realization, the Vedic civilization brought off this unparalleled achievement: it was able to eliminate completely the evils of birth, old age, disease, and death, securing for its members an eternal existence of knowledge and ever-increasing bliss. The Vedic culture recognized that not all souls who took human birth after transmigrating up through the animal forms would be able to make direct progress toward the supreme goal. Owing to different histories, people are born with different qualities and abilities. Nevertheless, Vedic culture enabled everyone to make some advancement, and there were many arrangements for the gradual elevation of materialistic people. In any case, Vedic culture organized life so that everyone could satisfy the basic necessities in the simplest and most sensible way, leaving most of human energy free for the higher task.
Vyāsa saw that all this would disappear in Kali-yuga, since the focus of civilization would shift from self-realization to sense gratification. Yet even though Kali-yuga could not be stopped, he would be able to mitigate its effects and keep alive the tradition of spiritual culture, in the way that emissaries of a higher civilization can preserve their heritage among barbarians, or that a well provisioned village can survive a raging winter.
Vyāsa had mastered all the knowledge of Vedic culture-social, scientific, economic, political, ethical, aesthetic, and spiritual. This knowledge was gathered in a comprehensive canon called the Veda, a word that means, simply, “knowledge.” Until the time of Vyāsa, the Veda was not written, because writing had been unnecessary. Far from being a sign of intellectual advancement, the appearance of writing is a testimony of decline, a device seized upon to compensate for that mental deterioration which includes the loss of the ability to remember.
It is interesting, by the way, that the Vedic date assigned to the advent of Kaliyuga (c. 3000 B.C.) corresponds closely to the date set by modern historians for the rise of civilized life, an event signalled by the appearance of literacy and the emergence of complex urban societies. All that historians recognize as recorded human history is, in fact, only human history in Kali-yuga. The academic historians’ ignorance of the earlier and incalculably higher Vedic civilization is what we have to expect from people suffering from the mental retardation imposed by the times. We see symptoms of this intellectual degradation of modern thinkers in their avowal that sense perception is the only source of knowledge and in their obliviousness to the dependence of knowledge upon goodness. Inverted values warp their ideas, such as the conviction that human progress resides in the proliferation of complex urban societies and increasingly sophisticated technology. They are unaware that simple living is the best basis for high thinking, and that a truly advanced civilization minimizes exploitation of nature and social complexity. They do not know that the real standard of progress is the calibre of people society produces. If we pursue material advancement at the expense of self-realization, measuring our standard of living only by the gratification of our senses, then we will only get a spiritually and morally debilitated people in control of an intricate and powerful technology -a terrifying combination that leads to horrors on a scale we are just beginning to experience.
To give us access to an alternative, Vyāsa divided the Veda into four and wrote it down. Yet he knew that we would still be unable to understand the Vedas, and so he composed a number of supplementary works in which he spelt out the intentions of Vedic thought explicitly.
In this Vyāsa was aided by Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Himself. Acting in tandem with Vyāsa’s effort, Kṛṣṇa had descended personally onto this planet and, as a member of the royal order, had played a significant role in recent political events. Vyāsa took advantage of Kṛṣṇa’s activities and chronicled those times in a vast epic narrative called the Mahābhārata. In this sprawling dynastic tale of love, ambition, intrigue, and war, of fidelity and treachery, heroism and cowardice, transcendence and ignominy, Vyāsa imparted Vedic thought in a way even unphilosophical people would find engrossing. Kṛṣṇa’s presence, surcharged history with transcendental significance. Moreover, in the middle of this sweeping narrative, like a jewel placed in a gorgeous setting, Vyāsa set the Bhagavad-gītā; Kṛṣṇa’s discourse to Arjuna before the climactic battle at Kurukṣetra.
In a laconic seven hundred verses, Kṛṣṇa gives Arjuna what He calls “the most confidential knowledge” of the Vedas. Like Vyāsa, Kṛṣṇa Himself is preparing Vedic knowledge for Kali-yuga. This entails taking the highest knowledge of the Vedas, so sublime and pure that, as Kṛṣṇa says, even great souls rarely attain it, and laying it out explicitly, openly—available to everyone. So that there would be no question about the validity of this daring exposition, Kṛṣṇa, the highest possible authority, delivers it Himself.
You may question why the most advanced knowledge in the Vedas is “confidential.” If it is so important for us to know it, then why is it hidden in the first place? The answer is that knowledge is available only to those qualified to apprehend it. Education is progressive, and higher knowledge can be approached only by graduates from the lower, In particular, the qualification necessary to comprehend the mysteries concerning the ultimate source of everything is purity. Only those whose senses are under complete control and who are free from all material desires have the requisite purity to understand and directly perceive the Absolute Truth. Because people are characterized by a variety of material desires, the Vedas offer many religious paths (called dharmas). These are gradated so that people in different statuses of material contamination can ascend step by step to higher states of purity and correspondingly higher disclosures of the divine.
In the Gītā, Kṛṣṇa systematically surveys the major Vedic dharmas and shows how each directs a person toward the ultimate conclusion, that “most confidential of all knowledge.” Kṛṣṇa analyzes the performance of sacrifices and the worship of demigods; he discusses the yogas of work, meditation, and knowledge. In each case, Kṛṣṇa shows how it leads to the “most secret of all secrets,” pure loving devotional service to God. “Always think of Me and become My devotee. Worship Me and offer your homage unto Me.” This, Kṛṣṇa says, is “the most confidential part of knowledge.” Since all the Vedic dharmas lead to this one “supreme secret,” Kṛṣṇa can offer us this final instruction: “Just abandon all varieties of dharmas and surrender to Me.” In other words, we need not bother with any of the different paths; we can at once come to their common goal, surrender to Kṛṣṇa.
But if this supreme end is so difficult to reach, requiring the ultimate in purity, how is Kṛṣṇa able to offer it directly to everyone? The answer is simple. Kṛṣṇa says that if one begins devotional service, He will personally purify the devotee. “To those who are constantly devoted and who worship Me with love,” Kṛṣṇa says, “I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” A person can circumvent all the Vedic dharmas and come directly to Kṛṣṇa because Kṛṣṇa will kindly help him. This is an extremely important point. As Kali-yuga progresses, all the dharmas become increasingly difficult to pursue. Our intelligence, our memory, and our stamina have all decreased, but Kṛṣṇa is willing to compensate for all our infirmities by His personal effort. In essence, by opening up through divine kindness direct devotional service, the Bhagavad-gītā renders every other Vedic dharma obsolete.
Vyāsa made this message the centerpiece of the Mahābhārata. Vyāsa also expanded upon the Vedic teachings in eighteen Purāṇas, and he compiled an outline of the philosophical conclusions of the Vedas in the Vedānta-sūtra, a collection of extremely compressed, aphoristic utterances; later thinkers would present their understandings of Vedic thought in the form of commentaries on these satras.
After Vyāsa completed his immense labor, he was surprised to find himself dissatisfied. As he reviewed his efforts to discover what deficiency could be at the root of his discontent, his guru, Nārada Muni, arrived at his āśrama. Vyāsa placed the matter before Nārada.
Nārada praised Vyāsa’s brilliant work, but then told him that his labor was still incomplete. In the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas, Nārada said, Vyāsa had not sufficiently described the glories of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Kṛṣṇa. In faithfully transcribing the Vedic teaching, Vyāsa had dutifully set forth all those materially motivated dharmas, those teachings which allow restricted sense gratification for people who cannot come directly to the highest level of realization. In Kali-yuga such dharmas will become especially dangerous, Nārada warned, because people will seize upon such allowances to sanction indulgence. “They will accept such activities in the name of religion,” Nārada said, “and will hardly care for prohibitions.”
Nārada wanted Vyāsa to describe more completely the transcendental qualities and activities of Kṛṣṇa because, he said, by hearing them people would be able to relish their extraordinary spiritual flavor; people’s natural attraction to the Lord would be revived, and as a matter of course they would lose their taste for mundane pleasures. Nārada counseled Vyāsa about the spiritual potency of words that glorify Kṛṣṇa: when spoken in pure devotion, those words enter into the hearts of the listeners and destroy almost completely the impurities of passion and ignorance.
With Nārada’s blessings, Vyāsa then completed his masterpiece, the “ripened fruit of the tree of Vedic knowledge,” Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. The Bhāgavatam picks up where the Gītā leaves off, for Vyāsa explicitly states that it is intended for those who have already abandoned materially motivated dharmas. Here Vyāsa discloses the inviolable mysteries of the personal life of the Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa, His eternal loving affairs with His most confidential and intimate devotees. Here we have spiritual life revealed at its most intense and personal, at the absolute summit of love of God. We see from the cooperative efforts of Kṛṣṇa and Vyāsa at the beginning of Kali-yuga that there was a move to make the esoteric knowledge of the Vedas, the highest truths concerning the nature of God and our relations to Him, open and potentially available to everyone. This unprecedented disclosure had its dangers, and neither Kṛṣṇa nor Vyāsa could circumvent the stricture that these confidential truths could be understood only by those utterly pure in heart. They could not waive the requirement of purity, but what they did do was make available a correspondingly more powerful process of purification—in the Gītā Kṛṣṇa offers personally to help anyone sincerely engaged in devotional service, and in the Bhāgavatam Vyāsa offers the most potent of all purifying processes—the chanting and hearing of the glories of Kṛṣṇa Himself.
Vyāsa and Kṛṣṇa completed their activity, and with the disappearance of Kṛṣṇa from the earth, Kali-yuga set firmly in. The ensuing degeneration was so strong, however, that in a short time it threatened to destroy all Vyāsa’s efforts to preserve Vedic culture. The words of Nārada—”they will hardly care for your prohibitions”—proved horribly accurate. A particular perversion arose which was so dangerous that Kṛṣṇa had to take emergency measures.
This is what happened:
A few thousand years after the onset of Kali-yuga, the followers of the Vedas—now restricted geographically to India—began more and more to slaughter animals for food. Meat eating is so polluting to human consciousness that indulgence in it makes any sort of spiritual realization virtually impossible. Therefore, the Vedas had always instructed against it. At the same time, it was recognized that some people, in spite of all prohibitions, will eat flesh anyway. Accordingly, for them the Vedas enjoin that if someone wants to eat flesh. he may sacrifice a goat (no other animal) on the night of the dark moon (no other time) to the goddess Kali. The sacrificer, furthermore, must whisper into the goat’s ear a mantra that says, “I am killing you now, but in my next life you will have the opportunity to kill me.” By sanctioning meat-eating in this way, the Vedic culture at least kept it under control: only a goat, only once a month, and only in the unpleasant consciousness of its karmic price—all very discouraging conditions.
However, as the brāhmaṇas, the Vedic priests, in Kali-yuga became degraded, they began to proliferate animal sacrifices—to meet popular demand—by explaining away or ignoring the restrictions. Temples were transmogrified into slaughterhouses, and killing as an organized daily business flourished. If anyone objected to this unprecedented evil, the priests would reply that it was, after all, sanctioned in the Vedas.
Therefore, to stop the animal killing, Kṛṣṇa descended as Lord Buddha (c. 500 B.C.). Because the Vedas were being perversely used to justify the slaughter, Kṛṣṇa, as Lord Buddha, denied the authority of the Vedas—the same Vedas He had so carefully arranged and explicated to save the people in Kali-yuga. But it was an emergency, and there was no alternative. Lord Buddha rejected the Vedas and preached the ethic of ahiṁsā, of noninjury to all living beings.
The Buddha also taught that our material existence is suffering, that our material desires cause our suffering, and that by extirpating these desires we can attain nirvāṇa, release from material existence. Lord Buddha refused to deal with any question concerning God, the soul, life after salvation, and so on. When asked about such things, he would reply, “the Tathagata [the Buddha] is free from all theories.” Later, some of his followers spread the doctrines of śūnya, voidism, and anātmā, no soul, but these were mundane interpretations of the Buddha’s silence on transcendental topics. The simple fact is that Buddha had denied the Vedas, yet he remained faithful to them by refusing to make “theories,” that is, to discuss God or the soul independently of the Vedic teachings; so he said nothing.
Their consciousness polluted by meat-eating, the people had become atheists. But Lord Buddha, who never said anything about God, won their devotion. Thus Kṛṣṇa tricked the atheists into worshiping Him in His incarnation as the Buddha. Lord Buddha’s mission was successful. All of India eventually took up his teaching, and animal slaughter ceased. Lord Buddha exemplifies the transcendental cleverness of Kṛṣṇa. Yet while Lord Buddha’s success averted the immediate danger, it left India without respect for the Vedas and in the grip of a philosophy that denied God and the soul.
The Buddha’s palliative was incomplete; it was only a first step toward a complete Vedic restoration. Kṛṣṇa’s next move was to send an incarnation of Lord Śiva to execute the second step. This was Śrīpāda Śaṅkarācārya, who appeared in A.D. 788. In a life of only thirty-two years, Śaṅkara drove the Buddhists out of India and reestablished the authority of the Vedas. A member of the renounced order, a sannyāsī, Śaṅkara was a thinker of immense power, and he dedicated his formidable ability to persuading the followers of Buddhism to accept the Vedas. To do this effectively, Śaṅkara had to make the transition between the two easy, so he devised a philosophy called advaita-vedānta, or absolute nondualism, a kind of crypto-Buddhism that he ingeniously expounded in Vedic language and supported with Vedic texts. Śaṅkara denied the Buddhist doctrine that the ultimate truth is void; the truth, Śaṅkara argued, as the Vedas declare, is Brahman, spirit. Śaṅkara likewise confuted the Buddhist doctrine of no soul or self, and reestablished the Vedic truth of the ātmā, the individual soul. However, Śaṅkara asserted the identity of ātmā and Brahman as an undifferentiated spiritual reality without any qualities, varieties, or relations. Obviously, there is no cognitive difference between “void” and “Brahman” without qualities or distinctions. Śaṅkara’s Brahman is an intellectual clone of the Buddhist “void.” Thus, Śaṅkara eased the way for acceptance of the Vedas.
Śaṅkara’s philosophy of impersonal oneness has some basis in the Vedas. For neophyte spiritualists, whose residual material contamination prevents them from understanding the transcendental nature of Kṛṣṇa, the Vedas gave instruction for salvation by merging into the impersonal Brahman, Kṛṣṇa’s spiritual effulgence. Associated with those instructions are texts that emphasize the qualitative oneness of ātmā and Brahman. The Vedas contain other, equally important texts that say that the ātmās are numerically distinct and quantitatively different from the supreme ātmā. Kṛṣṇa, but Śaṅkara stressed the oneness. He presented transcendent reality in an abstract form and so made the Vedas palatable to the Buddhists.
Śaṅkara restored Vedic culture; he founded monasteries, organized the brahminical community, and reestablished the worship of Vedic deities. The Vedas were recognized again, although necessarily in a distorted fashion.
Buddhism is an advancement over gross materialism, and impersonal monism over Buddhism; but the personal theism of the Vedas, as set out by Vyāsa and Kṛṣṇa, had yet to be restored. After Śaṅkara, that work began. As people returned to Vedic study in earnest, many began to recognize the deficiencies in Śaṅkara’s monistic interpretation. Several powerful teachers arose—most notably Rāmānuja (1017–1137) and Madhva (1239–1319)—whose cogent commentaries on the Vedānta-sūtra and the Bhagavad-gītā seriously challenged the Śaṅkarite hegemony and gained theism a wide following. But the impersonalists retained civic control. Then about five hundred years ago Kṛṣṇa descended once again, this time to complete the restoration of Vedic culture. This is Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Śrī Caitanya is Kṛṣṇa in the guise of His own devotee, teaching by His example the supreme form of worship. Caitanya’s mission had two sides. On the one, He even more fully disclosed the nature of the highest love between Kṛṣṇa and His most intimate devotees, and Caitanya was continually merged in the ecstasy of that love. On the other side, Caitanya accompanied this revelation with a correspondingly more powerful means of God realization—the chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra. This mantra is part of the original Vedas, but because it was chanted by Śrī Caitanya, its power increased multifold, and Caitanya taught His followers the practices by which the power of the mantra could work unimpeded.
With Caitanya, the trend of delivering progressively more open disclosures of the Vedic secrets along with a correspondingly more powerful means to realize them reached its culmination. A more potent means of deliverance naturally entails the spiritual enfranchisement of greater numbers of people. Kṛṣṇa had already declared in the Gītā that people traditionally excluded from spiritual realization—women, merchants, and laborers—could by taking shelter of Him approach the supreme destination. And in the Bhāgavatam Vyāsa had asserted that even members of carnivorous and aboriginal communities—completely beyond the pale of spiritual culture—could be purified by the association of a pure devotee of Kṛṣṇa. Śrī Caitanya demonstrated in practice that this is so. As the most merciful of all avatāras, Caitanya initiated a spiritual democracy, and by the power of His chanting He turned people of vile habits into pure devotees. The brāhmaṇas claimed exclusive right to spiritual knowledge, but Caitanya showed that the potency of devotional service could elevate even the most baseborn to the brahminical platform. Caitanya recognized everyone as a candidate for devotional service, and He wanted His movement of congregational chanting to spread over the globe. “One day,” He said, “My names will be chanted in every town and village in the world.”
Caitanya also delivered the most comprehensive understanding of Vedic theism. He confronted, in person, the two greatest impersonalists of His time—Prakāśānanda Sarasvatī and Sārvabhauma Bhaṭṭācārya—and presented such a powerful theistic exposition of the Vedānta-sūtra that both acknowledged devotion to Kṛṣṇa to be the goal of the Vedas, and they danced and chanted with Caitanya.
All the work of Kṛṣṇa, Vyāsa, Buddha, and Śaṅkara to establish Vedic culture in Kali-yuga reaches its fulfillment in the appearance of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. In the original Vedas, the Kali-santaraṇa Upaniṣad had disclosed, “One cannot find a method of religion more sublime in the Kali-yuga than the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa.” And looking forward to the coming of Caitanya, Vyāsa had recorded in the Bhāgavatam: “In the Age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting to worship the incarnation who constantly sings the name of Kṛṣṇa. Although His complexion is not blackish. He is Kṛṣṇa Himself. He is accompanied by His associates, servants, weapons [i.e., the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra], and confidential companions.” Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, then, is the long-awaited deliverer of the means of spiritual realization for this age.
Ten spiritual masters in succession have passed Śrī Caitanya’s teachings down to Śrīla Prabhupāda, and it is only appropriate that we should find him, in the winter of 1966, far from his native India on the wind-racked streets of New York, center of the global technological civilization, heartland of Kali-yuga. It is the best place for him to carry the seed of Vedic culture. It is here that the work of Kṛṣṇa, Vyāsa, Buddha, Śaṅkara, and Caitanya, in the care of their empowered servant Prabhupāda, flowers and bears fruit.
RAVĪNDRA SVARŪPA DĀSA holds a doctorate in religion from Temple University, Philadelphia. He has been a devotee of Kṛṣṇa for nine years.