Deconstructing the Lilamrta, Part 73

BY: ROCANA DASA - 6.9 2022

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

Today we begin Chapter Four of Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta Vol. IV, entitled "India: Dancing White Elephants". Srila Prabhupada has just arrived on August 29, 1970. This is interesting for me because it was shortly after I'd joined the temple. Srila Prabhupada arrived in Calcutta via Tokyo, and he had not been there for three years.

As the reader should know, sastra states that one can never know the mind of the pure devotee. To speculate on the mind of the pure devotee, attributing certain thoughts, feelings, or qualities onto him is very dangerous. In Satsvarupa's Lilamrta, there is a great deal of such speculation. In the case of Srila Prabhupada's pastime in Calcutta, what Satsvarupa writes appears to be pure speculation, as he wasn't along on the journey. Nevertheless, Satsvarupa narrates that Srila Prabhupada "felt happy" as he came down the stairs of the plane.

He goes on to say that some of Srila Prabhupada's godbrothers from the Caitanya Matha met him at the airport with a kirtan party. Now given all the research Satsvarupa did for this book, you'd think he could have come up with the names of those godbrothers. In fact, I think he even interviewed some of those who were there at the airport. But the author doesn't even tell us the name of the godbrother who was in charge of the matha, and who kindly greeted Srila Prabhupada with a kirtan at the airport.

There is a reason for this lack of clarity on Satsvarupa's part. Throughout the Lilamrta, the impression that Satsvarupa tries to give is that Srila Prabhupada's godbrothers were quite inimical towards him and his preaching. This is put forth in blanket statement fashion. Later on in this chapter the author also fails to mention Sridhar Maharaja, who featured in the story at the time when Srila Prabhupada went to Mayapur. By the time Lilamrta was written, however, Sridhar Swami was persona non grata, even though right after Srila Prabhupada departed, Satsvarupa and his friends had made a beeline for Sridhar, looking to get some support and endorsement for their Zonal Acarya idea.

Satsvarupa goes on to describe what it was like at the airport. With so many Indians coming to greet Srila Prabhupada, they were spontaneously coming with garlands to offer. The Indians naturally had more of an understanding of the principle of how to worship a pure devotee, and I think in many cases they did so to a greater degree than even Srila Prabhupada's own disciples.

Satsvarupa apparently got hold of a taped excerpt of a reporter who was interviewing Srila Prabhupada. To my knowledge, this audio isn't currently available to us. Satsvarupa provides what appears to be a word-for-word transcription. At that time in Calcutta, there were a lot of problems with the Communist government that was elected in Bengal, and with the Naxalites, who were engaging in terrorist activities. It was a very disturbing time, so naturally the reporter asked Srila Prabhupada about this. He replied in his usual straightforward manner that unless you have Krsna consciousness, whether you're a Communist or a Capitalist doesn't make any difference. It's not going to work. And it never did work… they're still having problems in Bengal with their government, so why they're attracted to Communism is a bit hard to understand.

Satsvarupa goes on to narrate for us how the American disciples were shocked at the common sights in India: the gaunt loitering cows, the street dogs, the heavy traffic, and so on and so forth… I'm sure that everyone gets a bit of a shock on their first trip to India, but you adjust to it. Once you apply Krsna conscious principles, you understand that it's just the mode of ignorance. Of course, here in the west we hide all that ugliness because we have the resources to do so. We try to control the environment to a great degree, and it costs us a lot of money and effort to hide what is commonly seen in India. I always think of india as being very organic and natural in this regard. Although the material world looks uglier and more disgusting, that's the truth of it. It is exactly that. Here in the West we just try to create the impression that it's nice.

So while we can understand that the first devotees were very disturbed by the street scenes in India, it doesn't really make any difference. This fact doesn't help to give us an understanding of the pure devotee and what his activities are, which is supposed to be the nature of the Lilamrta. Instead, the author tells us what the disciples were doing and who they were. And as far as I can see, that's what the Lilamrta was really written for, and what it accomplishes. It doesn't tell you philosophically who Srila Prabhupada is and what his lila is. Instead it tells you all about his senior disciples who were in the movement at that time. It's always very flattering to them, of course. And these Lilamrta stories are widely used today by the leaders, who weave them into the storyline of their lectures. Naturally, all of the devotees, including myself, like to tell the stories of their experiences with Srila Prabhupada. The problem is the tendency to rosy up and embellish the stories, making the storyteller look better.

Throughout this chapter we read about Achyutananda, who had come to India early with Jayapataka. He was very intelligent and talented, and soon both he and Jayapataka had learned Bengali. Achyutananda also had great musical talent and was very good at playing mrdanga and chanting bhajans. He wrote the first bhajan book, and tapes of him singing bhajans were circulated throughout the movement. He was also a fantastic preacher. He had this sort of underlying casualness that was sometimes shocking for those who met him for the first time. He left the movement after Srila Prabhupada departed. The bigger leaders had excluded him, so he just faded out. If memory serves, I think he went to work for a bank in New York.

There are some little excerpts included in this section from letters that Srila Prabhupada had sent out to various devotees describing his experience in coming to Calcutta after a long absence. This was all fairly positive. Of course, I'd have liked to see the whole letters, not just excerpts. This sort of complete presentation is always best when you're writing about Srila Prabhupada, and why not include the whole letter? Of course, when the Lilamrta was written, these letters weren't available to anyone but people like Satsvarupa. He got to cherry pick exactly what he wanted to use that would suit his purpose, and the rest of us didn't have access to the letters so we couldn't compare the excerpts he included to those he left out.

Satsvarupa uses what was a common phrase for the heading of this chapter, the "dancing white elephants". I'm sure Srila Prabhupada referred to us like that, but others have parroted the phrase, using it as a descriptive term that I think is rather overdone. The term really refers to the fact that in India, Srila Prabhupada stuck to his formula and sent the devotees out chanting in the streets. Of course, that drew a great deal of attention. It's also interesting that soon afterwards, Srila Prabhupada decided that it wasn't a good policy to send these devotees out in the streets of India. Especially in Bengal, it was commonplace to find kirtana parties, sahijya groups and people making a living off kirtan, and Srila Prabhupada didn't want to give that impression.

He then introduced the devotees to the whole concept of Life Memberships, which is a very sophisticated model. It was a very practical, businesslike way of gaining the funds that were needed in India, rather than just trying to collect on the streets. Srila Prabhupada was a sophisticated gentleman and he always came across so nicely. There's an interesting excerpt from a person called B.L. Jaju, who was interviewed. He describes Srila Prabhupada from his memory, and one of the things he said was that Srila Prabhupada's simplicity astounded these sophisticated people. Srila Prabhupada was obviously very educated and sophisticated, and was himself an elite member of the Bengali society, yet he came across with a simple message of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. And another thing that he said about Srila Prabhupada was, there's no snobbery in him. Now someone of Srila Prabhupada's status who is not a pure devotee, not a nitya-siddha, would be very proud of his accomplishments. Srila Prabhupada had gone over to America and done all these things, had become a very rare scholar and very expert at reciting all the slokas, knew all the Vaisnava literature inside and out, yet he still emanated the mood of being very humble. I don't know of many preachers who are doing that today.

Srila Prabhupada then started on his preaching program, which lasted the whole time he was in India. There he was, with a group of devotees who could have been his grandchildren, and they were all astounded over the intense vigor, enthusiasm and unrelenting energy he had when it came to preaching. He would preach day and night, night and day, to anyone who was in front of him. And he didn't just tell stories or try to entertain his audience, or try to make them smile or clap. He didn't even try to have them become members. His main purpose was just to say, 'here's the knowledge, here's the philosophy, just as I got it from my Spiritual Master. Just as it's given in the sastra. Here it is, and I'll repeat it and explain it according to this circumstance, today'. It was all straight, unadulterated, pure preaching without any motivation. Srila Prabhupada didn't make a big effort to make his listeners feel happy. In fact, he was very straightforward about our philosophy and what Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita – that the world is a miserable place.

Again, we find Satsvarupa highlighting here in this chapter the fact that Srila Prabhupada's godbrothers were not cooperating with him. Of course, this is a simplistic and one-sided view of things, no question. Some of the 'big devotees' like Tirtha, who was in Mayapur and had taken over Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur's asrama, we know by Srila Prabhupada's own words was a rascal and an uncooperative, envious type of person. And Srila Prabhupada's godbrothers all felt the same way about him. So the fact that he wouldn't cooperate with Srila Prabhupada and help them find the land in Mayapur isn't surprising at all. Sridhar was there on the other side of the river in Navadwip and he was cooperative, although that's not where Srila Prabhupada wanted to have his asrama. He wanted to have it right there, where Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur had his asrama, and by Krsna's arrangement, he acquired the land that's now ISKCON Mayapur.

Next Satsvarupa says something that really bothers me, and again, I think it's totally his own speculation. He reports that Srila Prabhupada said, 'maybe Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu doesn't want us to establish our headquarters in Mayapur.' Now this is not something that I've ever seen written, nor to my knowledge is there any audio of Srila Prabhupada making such a statement. So without evidence, we have to assume this is just Satsvarupa saying Srila Prabhupada said this. I can't fathom why Satsvarupa would include this given how significant a matter it is, and that it's something really out of character for Srila Prabhupada, especially considering how things unfolded in Mayapur. I think it's just ridiculous for Satsvarupa to have included this in the Lilamrta.

By this point in the story Srila Prabhupada had made his appearance and did accomplish what he had to do. He couldn't do much more in Mayapur on this visit because there was a lot of flooding going on at this time of year. So while he couldn't pursue anything further in Mayapur, he obviously didn't take this as a sign from above, from Lord Caitanya, that he wasn't going to have a center in Mayapur. His attempt to acquire the land was thwarted more by the weather than by his godbrothers, and he decided that he would go to Bombay. We'll start there next time, beginning in Bombay in October of 1970.