Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller
In 1922, Abhay Charan De, the future A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, met Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. Raised in a Gaudiya Vaishnava family, Abhay had shown an interest in religion from a young age. Though trained in traditional Gaudiya spirituality by the family guru, the future founder of ISKCON had also benefited from the best of British colonial education, graduating from the Scottish Church College of Calcutta with a degree in chemistry. A successful pharmacist, husband, and father, Abhay Charan De was also interested in religious matters, and when he encountered Bhaktisiddhanta, he became more involved in the Gaudiya Vaishnavism in which he had been raised.
On November 21, 1932, Abhay Charan De received formal initiation from Bhaktisiddhanta into the Gaudiya Vaishnava lineage, an act that entitled him to learn the sacred mantras, but also required daily devotional practices. At the urging of his guru, he undertook efforts to spread Gaudiya Vaishnavism among an English-speaking audience, publishing articles and leaflets, and beginning work to translate the central texts of Vaishnavism into English. In recognition of his work, the other members of his lineage granted Abhay Charan De the honorific title Bhaktivedanta in 1939. Over the next twenty years, Bhaktivedanta would self-publish a newsletter, called Back to Godhead, found a short-lived religious association called the League of Devotees, and begin a full translation of one of the religion's central texts, the Bhagavata Purana (also called the Bhagavatam), into English, all the while continuing to work as a pharmacist and supporting his family.
On September 17, 1959, at the age of sixty-three, Bhaktivedanta took sanyas, the Hindu practice of renouncing the world to become a monk. As a sannyasi, Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta (as he was now called) dedicated himself exclusively to spreading Krishna Consciousness throughout the world. In accordance with Hindu norms, the swami set aside married life and contact with his children, effectively separating himself from the social and financial obligations of their care. Instead, he focused on translating Hindu scriptures and publishing English-language periodicals. In the midst of working on this translation and commentary, in 1965, Bhaktivedanta left for America, seeking to introduce the worship of Krishna to an English-speaking audience.
Swami Bhaktivedanta's successes in New York City led to the birth of ISKCON, which soon spread throughout North America and Europe. It also catapulted the elderly monk into the role of global guru. Before his death in 1977, Bhaktivedanta initiated nearly 5,000 devotees and founded over a hundred temples and worship centers throughout the world.
Since he served such a central role in the birth and leadership of ISKCON, the death of Swami Prabhupada led to a number of significant challenges. Several of the gurus he appointed to succeed him lacked leadership qualities, and a number violated their vows of abstinence from sex and intoxicating substances. A few even engaged in criminal activities, though such were exceptional cases. Consequently, ISKCON experienced a very rough transition with the death of its founder, and controversies related to succession continued into the new millennium. In some cases, devotees have left the organization of ISKCON but still consider themselves members of the broader Hare Krishna or Krishna Consciousness movement.
1. Describe Chaitanya's role in creating a monotheistic religion out of Hinduism.
2. How was Chaitanya engaged in social activism?
3. How did Bhaktivedanta's education contribute to the success of ISKCON?
4. What was the effect of Bhaktivedanta's death on ISKCON?