Deconstructing the Lilamrta, Part 56

BY: ROCANA DASA - 29.7 2022

A critical analysis of the Srila Prabhupada-Lilamrta by Satsvarupa das Goswami.

Today we begin Volume 3, Chapter Three of Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, entitled "New Jagannatha Puri". The first part of the chapter is about Srila Prabhupada starting and maintaining the San Francisco temple in Haight-Ashbury. I find the author's style particularly annoying in this chapter. Srila Prabhupada is legendary for having been at the center of the hippie movement, and some credit is due to the Lilamrta for spreading the story. But Satsvarupa's writing style is most unfortunate, nonetheless. He begins the chapter by writing as if it were a novel, and the reader would assume that he was right there personally by the way he describes the scene. He was not there, even though he describes in great detail how it was that Srila Prabhupada walked to the first kirtana in the park, what transpired, what the scenery and roads were like, and what Srila Prabhupada did. He even tells us that Srila Prabhupada jaywalked across the roads, and walked a lot faster than the other devotees.

Srila Prabhupada arrived at a park where the hippies hung out, and he had sent many of the devotees ahead to start up the kirtana and get the program set-up. I assume things unfolded much like Satsvarupa describes it, but by rights the author should have made it clear that this information was not firsthand. Satsvarupa's narrative is sprinkled through with creative writing, wherein he's telling us what Srila Prabhupada is thinking. I believe there's some film footage of this pastime of Srila Prabhupada's, and Satsvarupa may have had access to it, along with interview material.

He presents quotations from Mukunda and Govinda dasi about what they remember, what it was like for them, and their perception of Srila Prabhupada. Interestingly, this was the first opportunity for Srila Prabhupada to demonstrate how well he could play the mrdangas in kirtana, because authentic clay mrdangas had just arrived from India. Of course, Srila Prabhupada was a very expert mrdanga player. Although Srila Prabhupada enlivened everyone in the kirtana with his expertise in singing and playing mrdanga, throughout the rest of his ISKCON lila pastimes he allowed the devotees to play mrdanga rather than himself, even though they played in a very unbonafide way. For years, in fact, the devotees would invent their own unique personal styles of leading kirtana and playing mrdanga. In other words, Srila Prabhupada was far more concerned that his disciples were following the process and chanting Hare Krsna then he was about whether or not the actual musical instruments that accompanied the kirtana were played properly. This has changed dramatically since those days, when only Srila Prabhupada was capable of playing the authentic Bengali-style beats. Today these rhythms have not only become the norm, but anyone who doesn't play in that style is likely to not be invited to participate, even though Srila Prabhupada himself didn't make it out to be of great concern.

Satsvarupa, writing as if he was there, goes on to speculate about what Srila Prabhupada was thinking, and waxes poetic about the qualifies he was exhibiting, like he's "kind and amused", and the hippies found him beautiful. And when Srila Prabhupada sat down after leading the kirtana, he said that Srila Prabhupada was "tired". In all these cases, it's just Satsvarupa's interpretation of what was motivating Srila Prabhupada or what was going on with him, and that interpretation is more than doubtful.

The devotees in those days weren't dressing like devotees, nor were they shaved up and wearing kurtas and dhotis. Srila Prabhupada was the only one who looked like a Vaisnava. Even Hayagriva and Ravindra Svarupa, who'd been around since the New York days, had not yet surrendered to being properly attired.

The rest of the explanation of what was going on in San Francisco follows Satsvarupa's usual trend, which is that he introduces many of his friends from that era. First of all he quotes them offering their remembrances, and uses their karmi name up until the time they're initiated. One can easily detect who Satsvarupa liked and who he didn't like by how many pages of focus was given to each individual. There is one disciple, Lilavati devi, who was quite a well-known personality during that period. She came from a more sophisticated background, and according to Satsvarupa, and to her, Srila Prabhupada took a liking to her and taught her, along with the other ladies there, how to cook prasadam properly.

As I've mentioned before, it's interesting to note that many of these early devotees, although they were initially quite famous, left the movement in short order. Many were already gone long before Srila Prabhupada's lila was over, fading into the background as they went back to doing their own thing. But on account of the way they're depicted in this Lilamrta, they're given a great deal of recognition amongst the devotees even to this day, and many are writing memoirs and biographies, enhancing what Satsvarupa has said in this section of the Lilamrta. They're capitalizing on their place in history, even though their story was essentially being mirrored in many places, with new devotees who were starting-up temples across North America. Of course Srila Prabhupada wasn't personally there in each temple, but according to our philosophy we know that he was there insofar as we were following him and the focus was on Srila Prabhupada, whom Krsna was orchestrating.

It's unfortunate that Satsvarupa decided to write Lilamrta in the way that he did, putting so much focus on these early disciples rather than on Srila Prabhupada himself. Factually, from a spiritual point of view this whole phase of Srila Prabhupada's lila could and should have been written in an entirely different manner because really, the individuals other than Srila Prabhupada and their pastimes are of no spiritual significance. Their only importance is in relationship to Srila Prabhupada and how he trained them or tolerated them, and cultivated them to serve his mission, which Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu sent him to execute.

I found the section wherein Satsvarupa is describing Upendra to be the most distracting. Satsvarupa gives so much detailed information, such as what Upendra was thinking and how he was serving, how he was struggling with sex life, his remembrances, etc., which are of no real importance. There is some importance, of course, with respect to how Srila Prabhupada helped him by allowing him to become his servant, and how compassionate, fatherly and patient Srila Prabhupada was with these early devotees. How these devotees, as absolute neophytes, were thinking and experiencing things, while perhaps entertaining, is of no significance whatsoever. And now as time passes, we see that this is actually the truth, because many of them participated for only a very short time. In fact, some of those who were of the most significance, such as Jayananda and Hayagriva, got little mention.

Halfway through the chapter, Satsvarupa suddenly decides to bring us back to New York, even though the chapter is entitled "New Jagannatha Puri". He comes back to the story about how the devotees, including himself and Brahmananda, were swindled out of another $5,000 by the slick New York business people, despite Srila Prabhupada giving them all sorts of advice and warnings. What that has to do with New Jagannatha Puri I don't know, other than the fact that they were phoning Srila Prabhupada in California to discuss their blunders.

In the last chapter, Satsvarupa had already spent one whole chapter on the situation of the devotees being swindled. Here, he spends another half chapter on it, giving us more minutia even though in terms of Srila Prabhupada's pastimes, it was insignificant. These events obviously meant a lot to Satsvarupa, since he was part of them. Unfortunately, there were no real lessons learned, and most of those involved in the New York debacle went on to squander millions of dollars more. They obviously didn't learn anything from the warnings Srila Prabhupada gave them, yet the whole pastime is presented here as though the devotees had learned some great, significant lesson. Sadly, history has proven that not to be the case.