The book “Sing, Dance and Pray: The Inspirational Story of Srila Prabhupada, Founder-Acharya of ISKCON” by Hindol Sengupta tells the inspirational story of Srila Prabhupada. As the founder of ISKCON, he ’emerged as a major figure of Western counterculture, initiating thousands of young Americans’.
Srila Prabhupada’s mission was to introduce ancient teachings of Vedic India to mainstream America. He founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), colloquially known as the ‘Hare Krishna Movement’, and saw it grow into a worldwide confederation of more than 100 temples, ashrams and cultural centers.
He has been described as a charismatic leader who was successful in acquiring followers in many countries, including the United States, Europe and India. Srila Prabhupada’s story is bound to put you on a path of self-realization.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
When he was about eighteen years old, Abhay Charan De’s Calcutta was aflame with the news of an arms robbery, perhaps the most daring in British-ruled India. The Statesman, the most venerable British newspaper of the time published from Calcutta called it, in its 30 August 2014 edition, the ‘greatest daylight robbery’.
Young revolutionaries fighting for India’s freedom had managed to discover the landing date and transfer route of a major consignment of armaments to Messrs Rodda & Co., a prominent Calcutta arms dealer. They managed to intercept and steal, using an employee of the company who was also a revolutionary, fifty German-made Mauser C96 pistols and forty- six thousand rounds of ammunition.
The robbery was the handiwork of the Jugantar faction of the fiercest revolutionary group, the Anushilan Samiti. Some of the most influential freedom fighters of the time belonged to these groups—men like Aurobindo Ghosh and his brother Barindra, Rash Behari Bose, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, and even Subhas Chandra Bose. There was barely an attack on the British, an assassination, an arms robbery, that members of the Samiti and Jugantar, some of the cleverest young men in eastern India, did not have their fingerprints on. And echoes of the revolution rang through the corridors of one of the most prominent colleges in the country—Scottish Church—not least because some of the most influential figures for the revolutionaries were the monk Vivekananda, the scourge of the Empire, Subhas Chandra Bose and armed freedom fighters like Amarendranath Chatterjee.
The Scottish missionary Alexander Duff had started the Scottish Church College (first called General Assembly’s Institution) in 1830 to create Indian men into perfect subjects of the Raj. But by the turn of the century, a different wind was blowing through its corridors.
And into these hallowed corridors stepped in Abhay Charan De. If he had caught whiffs of resistance to the Raj even during his schooling, no doubt he would have noticed that the mood among many at Scottish Church was even more rebellious.
Abhay Charan had been sent to Scottish Church to imbibe a sense of the spiritual, to be surrounded by an atmosphere of piety. But the Bible and catechism were not the only things that young Abhay learnt. He was enchanted by the romance of history, including historical fiction, admiring the work of Walter Scott and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Bankim, thought Prabhupada, was ‘the Scott of Bengal’.
Years later, there would remain in his accent traces of Scotland and an affinity for history, as noted by an interlocutor Dhananjaya, ‘I could detect a slight Scottish accent in some of Prabhupada’s words. Later on, while I was massaging him, Srila Prabhupada asked me where I came from. I said “Scotland,” and he started reminiscing about his education at Scottish Church College in Calcutta and how all his teachers were Scottish. He studied the Bible there and learned the catechism. He asked me if I knew any Scottish Lords. I said, “I don’t know any Scottish Lords personally.” He said, “Oh, one Lord Zetland came to our college in Calcutta.” He asked me if I studied British history, and I said, “Oh yes,” and then he tested me. “When was the battle of Trafalgar?” I said, “1805,” “When was the battle of Waterloo?” “1815.” He said, “You know British history just like I know British history.” He also asked, “How far is Scotland and Glasgow from London?” and I told him, “Approximately 400 miles.” “How long did it take to go there by train?” “Approximately eight hours.” He put me at ease in that way, because I really didn’t know how to start a conversation with Srila Prabhupada when I was in the process of massaging him. That’s the way he won over my heart too, because he related to me in a way I could appreciate and respond to.’
In those years he took forward the lessons in devout theatrics that he had seen as a boy on the streets of Calcutta, performing and excelling in a play on Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and reading, and being moved by, among other things, Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava. The young Abhay Charan saw, clearly, in the environment of the college, the cause, the consequences and resistance to British rule. He saw, for instance, racial segregation in everything including the common rooms used by teachers, between the English people and the Indians. It was a world where ‘the European population of Calcutta was markedly segregated from the other communities’.
This differentiation, this distancing, this humiliation was, no doubt, underlined ever more strongly because of a fellow student, only one year senior to Abhay—Subhas Chandra Bose. Bose had come to Scottish Church after being thrown out from the other elite educational institution of that time, Presidency College. He was quiet and studious, and yet a leopard cannot change its spots. Though nationalist campaigning was forbidden at Scottish Church, Bose and his fellow nationalists found ways to preach the gospel of independence. For Abhay this was unmissably part of his education.
Later he would remember Bose fondly and argued that it was Bose’s creation of the Indian National Army (INA) that compelled the British, with the fear of Indian soldiers rebelling throughout the country, to leave India.
In a conversation with guests in 1977, Srila Prabhupada recounted, ‘They [the British] knew that “we are not going [from India]. So long as the non-violence is there, we are safe”. But Subhas Bose’s protest was that “if you don’t take to violence, then these people are never going”. That was the difference of opinion between Subhas Bose and [the non-violent movement]. He managed to go out of India to Singapore organized this INA.
And when the Britishers saw that “now the soldiers are [the] joining national movement, then we cannot rule over [India]”, then they decided, “let us make some compromise[s], and as much [as] possible, do harm. Divide this India [into], Pakistan and India, and go away”. This is [a] fact So they decided that because they are planning to come to India from Imphal, so they saw, “now it is impossible”. They are politicians. They could understand . . . It is Subhas Bose’s INA which compelled them to go away.’
Essentially, what Srila Prabhupada was arguing is that Gandhian non-violent tactics or techniques were not the only reason that British rule ended in India. The role of revolutionaries like Subhas Bose, who raised an army to fight colonial rule, also scared the British rulers, who realized that the loyalty of Indian soldiers to the British government could no longer be taken for granted.
As noted from the fervour of his words, there was always a revolutionary spirit in Srila Prabhupada, an admiration for the kshatriya —a word he used often—spirit. But for himself, he found a different medium or channel to focus the desire for independence. His freedom had a higher purpose, the freedom to submit in his entirety to Krishna. He had noted disdain for Hindu
philosophical concepts, like karma, among his British teachers and lessons that suggested that until the arrival of the British, Indian culture and civilization, indeed Hindu culture and civilization, was derelict and debauched.
It is important to remember that Abhay and his fellow students were being taught under the shadow of definitive (at that time, that is) books like James Mill’s History of British India (1818). Mill, who never visited India, never knew a single Indian language, yet went on to claim that ‘a duly qualified man can obtain more knowledge of India in one year in his closet in England than he could obtain during the course of the longest life, by the use of his eyes and ears in India’. Mill’s work described Hinduism as steeped in ugly superstition with not a redeeming feature in sight—and it was to seep into the colonial consciousness as the key understanding of the colonized. Historian Thomas Trautmann has noted that ‘James Mill’s highly influential History of British India (1818)—most particularly the long essay “Of the Hindus” comprising ten chapters—is the single most important source of British Indophobia and hostility to Orientalism.’ It is under this shadow that the colonial gaze fell on students like Subhas and Abhay.
Young Abhay was conscious of these biases, and he understood that things could change only when freedom came, and for the world to respect the treasures of his beloved Bhagavad Gita, it would have to be respected and promoted by the people in power at home first.
There was already, before him even at that time, one man who was already showing such reverence. His name was Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi always carried the Gita, noted Abhay, and spoke of it as having had the most important influence in his life. Abhay, the devout Vaishnava boy, also approved of Gandhi’s personal habits—his vegetarianism, his abstinence and his abhorrence of all intoxicants. Gandhi seemed like a man worth emulating. After all, imagined Abhay, a man devoted to the gospel of Krishna could not be wrong, could he?
In the meantime, in keeping with the traditions of the time, his parents worked to find a suitable bride for him, and she was discovered in Radharani Datta, suitable not merely in name, carrying as she did the name of the consort of Krishna, but also socially acceptable as she came from the same suvarna vanik community. She was eleven when they were wed and Abhay, twenty-two.
There was also an examination to pass, a college to graduate from—and in this Abhay would show how sharply the revolutionary fire had burnt within him. Even though he took the examination and passed the course, when the time came for him to accept his degree, Abhay demurred.
No matter how important it might be for his career he would not accept a validation from the colonial masters. He had imbibed the non-violent path of protest and renunciation preached by Mahatma Gandhi.
Instead, on the coaxing of his father, he gained a position as an apprentice and manager at Dr Bose’s Laboratories, a premier pharmacy of the time. In his own way, Dr Kartik Chandra Bose was a revolutionary too. Along with Prafulla Chandra Ray, he was one of the people who helped start Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works and became the company’s first managing director. These men broke the British monopoly on the chemicals and pharmaceutical business.
Abhay was now married. He had what, by all counts, qualified as a good job. And by his own later accounts, Abhay showed initial interest in the work.
He said, ‘I wanted to become very big businessman, and there was good opportunity. I was very nicely associated with the chemical industry of India, Dr Bose’s laboratory, Bengal Chemical, V.K. Farr, and all of them, they liked my business organization. Then I started a big laboratory in Lucknow. So that was golden days. But gradually, everything becomes dead, and at last my Allahabad business was lost. It was not lost on account of some, my debts; I had to hand it over to Dr Kartik [sic] Chandra Bose because I was his agent.’ But financial mishap may not have been the only reason. There is a sense that the ennui towards the material world was steadily rising. For instance, Prabhupada talks about, later in life, that at the same time he was giving up his business goals, he was getting more and more involved with ascetics like ‘Sarvesva brahmachari and Atulananda brahmachari’ and would go regularly to their temple which happened to be near his home. But soon he grew weary of the work and disinterested in his marriage. It was clear to his father that the real calling of the son was elsewhere. Not that Gour Mohan minded. His son was showing all signs of a greater, more abiding devotion to his beloved Krishna, not least during a contemplative visit to the great temples of Puri, where Chaitanya had once danced in abandon, and where Abhay tasted the magnificent, fifty-six-course bhog offered to the deities, Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra, every single day.
A different call was emerging strongly, no doubt fuelled by the rebellion brewing in him. When Gandhi asked for a boycott of clothes made from cloth manufactured in British mills, Abhay had no hesitation in chucking his clothes into the bonfire of protest and embracing the freedom of khadi or Indian handspun as popularized by Gandhi himself rolling the charkha or thread spinning wheel.
This, though, was not merely the freedom of national revolution, but one step closer to Abhay Charan De shedding the world and moving towards his Krishna.
Excerpted with permission from Sing, Dance and Pray: The Inspirational Story of Srila Prabhupada, Founder-Acharya of ISKCON, Hindol Sengupta, Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.