Deconstructing the Lilamrta, Part 57

BY: ROCANA DASA - 1.8 2022

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

Today we continue with Volume 3, Chapter Three of Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, entitled "New Jagannatha Puri". The title refers to Srila Prabhupada's pastimes and stay in San Francisco. Satsvarupa himself was in New York at the time, and didn't directly participate in these particular pastimes, although you would never know it by the way that he writes. He provides a great depth of detail, giving the reader the impression that he was not only there, but that knew everything that was going on, right down to the dialogue.

Hayagriva was there, and it seems obvious that much of this information was provided to Satsvarupa by him. In many parts of the Lilamrta, Satsvarupa quotes directly from the transcription of whoever is being interviewed at the time. Here, however, he essentially gives the reader the impression that he's the actual person who experienced all these pastimes.

Many of the circumstances dealt with in this section are not found in published lectures or conversations of Srila Prabhupada's, at least to my knowledge, so I have to assume that the material comes from persons who were engaging in these pastimes or talking directly to Srila Prabhupada.

The first pastime Satsvarupa chose to present was the installation of the Jagannatha Deities in San Francisco. It's very interesting to consider that Srila Prabhupada decided it was beneficial to have Lord Jagannath appear for the benefit of the early devotees in San Francisco. Obviously this was also Krsna's plan. According to sastra, worship of Lord Jagannatha should be performed according to strict rules and regulations, far more strict compared to worshipping Pancha Tattva, for example. Those engaged in such Deity worship should be qualified brahmans, since the service should be highly regulated. Yet the only worship Srila Prabhupada instructed the devotees to perform at first was the offering of a large plate of candles. Later he instructed them to offer other paraphernalia, and of course prasadam at regular times. In other words, he apparently didn't think that Lord Jagannatha would be offended. Of course, we can assume that the reason the Lord wouldn't be offended is because the Sampradaya Acarya had performed this pastime, and invited Him to come.

So Srila Prabhupada chose to install the Deities and establish a very simple program of worship, which is also interesting when you consider how ISKCON is evolving today, with more and more emphasis on very elaborate forms of Deity worship. There is a certain assumption being made that this is where Srila Prabhupada wanted us to go and that it's approved, but it's my personal opinion that's not necessarily the case. And as we can read here, Srila Prabhupada didn't make the Deity worship simple just because the devotees were untrained, but because his main emphasis was always on preaching. In order to preach one has to be purified and Deity worship facilitates that purification. It also creates an atmosphere that is conducive to having those you preach to enter into and become attracted to the culture of Krsna consciousness.

Satsvarupa adds many paragraphs wherein he's supposedly preaching the philosophy. Unfortunately he carries through with his constant theme, making it sound as though Srila Prabhupada is simply an order carrier of the real Sampradaya Acaryas, namely Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Satsvarupa indicates that Srila Prabhupada's main motivation is simply to carry their message and their desires and program to the West, but of course, we know philosophically that Srila Prabhupada is on an equal level with his predecessor Acaryas.

We can understand that due to his own genuine humility, Srila Prabhupada preached that he was simply following his Spiritual Master. But in reality, he's the one who is executing all these pastimes and he's the one who's making the decisions as to how Krsna consciousness should be spread. He's the great motivating force, but Satsvarupa doesn't give the reader that kind of impression, what to speak of making it philosophically clear. Srila Prabhupada being who he is, it does shine through despite Satsvarupa's lack of realization, or his contamination due to his own pretense of being a great Acarya himself at the time of writing this book.

The way that Hayagriva thinks and writes is that he tells us all the cute things that Srila Prabhupada did and said; that seems to be the way in which he often presents Krsna consciousness, and that becomes obvious in the Lilamrta. Through Satsvarupa, we get a series of descriptions of various interesting circumstances that are described by a writer like Hayagriva. From an overall spiritual point of view, however, this material really isn't of any great significance. In fact, Satsvarupa keeps emphasizing such descriptions because he's really trying to make Srila Prabhupada out to be "more human". He feels this is a good thing, but in my opinion it's not proper, and it gives the wrong impression to the reader.

Satsvarupa narrates how there was a big difference between the hippies and "Swami-ji", and he goes into describing what it was like in Haight-Ashbury and how Srila Prabhupada acted differently from everyone else, being a very cultured gentleman. But he doesn't specify philosophically what a pure devotee of Srila Prabhupada's stature is like, because obviously he doesn't have that realization.

As mentioned in our last segment, we get input throughout this section of the book from Govinda dasi, Hayagriva and others, with little explanations along the way filled-in by Satsvarupa. One of the circumstances that is now etched into ISKCON lore, so to speak, was the time when, according to the devotees who were there, Srila Prabhupada went into a state of ecstasy. This was captured in the Lilamrta by Satsvarupa, and I recall hearing the devotees telling and re-telling this story at the time. It's not that I don't believe this actually happened, but precisely how it happened, or the details of what happened, I feel we should all be somewhat skeptical of in terms of how the story is told by conditioned souls. Of course, now that it's been set down in the Lilamrta, and so many situations have been described in just this way, people are accepting the stories as being 100% true just as they're being related.

Personally, I feel that it's not proper to narrate the pastimes of a rare, topmost Acarya in our guru-parampara in this way. First of all, the pastimes are not told by Srila Prabhupada himself, but by various conditioned souls, particularly Satsvarupa. He goes somewhat overboard to give everyone the impression of how neophyte everyone was back then, but at the same time we're led to believe that the recollections of these neophytes was and is 100% accurate. But one has to accept the fact that not only are the characters in this story neophyte, there's no possibility that they could remember the events with this kind of detail, and do so perfectly. More than likely they're embellishing the story as they remember it, making it more interesting. In the end, we're left with what Satsvarupa is describing here as 'the way it actually was'.

Satsvarupa, Hayagriva and the devotees retell various pastimes that they remember, such as Srila Prabhupada giving Hayagriva all sorts of stories of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu's pastimes, which he wanted Hayagriva to transform into plays so that the devotees could perform them at various events. As Satsvarupa depicts it, Hayagriva didn't know many of the personalities that were an integral part of Lord Caitanya's lila, yet we get such detailed and supposedly accurate descriptions here in Lilamrta.

All in all, as I've mentioned in the past, the Lilamrta serves to immortalize the individuals who participated in the lila more than it does to immortalize Srila Prabhupada himself. The book gives everyone the impression that Satsvarupa knew exactly what Srila Prabhupada was doing and thinking, but this is entirely untrue, as time has revealed.

In large part because of the Lilamrta depictions, many personalities from the early days have become famous in ISKCON. Regardless of the fact that after Srila Prabhupada's departure (if not before it), many of them left the movement and Krsna consciousness altogether, they're still revered whenever they chose to attend programs or festivals. Some of them come back and write memoirs, and devotees buy them and treat them with all sorts of reverence. For the most part, this is due to the way they're depicted in the Lilamrta, and not due to their actual spiritual bona fides. Srila Prabhupada, one the other hand, often does not get our proper attention, study or reverence, even though he an exalted Sampradaya Acarya, and is supposedly the focus of this book.