Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto Four, Chapter Twenty-eight: “Puranjana Becomes a Woman in the Next Life,” discusses the disappearance of the spiritual master:
bibhyatim patum arhasi
O best of kings, please get up! Get up! Just see this world surrounded by water and infested with rogues and so-called kings. This world is very much afraid, and it is your duty to protect her.
PURPORT by Srila Prabhupada
Whenever an acarya comes, following the superior orders of the Supreme Personality of Godhead or His representative, he establishes the principles of religion, as enunciated in the Bhagavad-gita. Religion means abiding by the orders of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Religious principles begin from the time one surrenders to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. It is the acarya’s duty to spread a bona fide religious system and induce everyone to bow down before the Supreme Lord. One executes the religious principles by rendering devotional service, specifically the nine items like hearing, chanting, and remembering. Unfortunately, when the acarya disappears, rogues and nondevotees take advantage and immediately begin to introduce unauthorized principles in the name of so-called svamis, yogis, philanthropists, welfare workers, and so on. Actually, human life is meant for executing the orders of the Supreme Lord, and this is stated in the Bhagavad-gita (9.34):
man-mana bhava mad-bhakto
mad-yaji mam namaskuru
mam evaisyasi yuktvaivam
“Engage your mind always in thinking of Me and become My devotee. Offer obeisances and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me.”
The main business of human society is to think of the Supreme Personality of Godhead at all times, to become His devotees, to worship the Supreme Lord, and to bow down before Him. The acarya, the authorized representative of the Supreme Lord, establishes these principles, but when he disappears, things once again become disordered. The perfect disciples of the acarya try to relieve the situation by sincerely following the instructions of the spiritual master. At the present moment practically the entire world is afraid of rogues and nondevotees; therefore this Krsna consciousness movement is started to save the world from irreligious principles. Everyone should cooperate with this movement in order to bring about actual peace and happiness in the world.
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This section of Srimad-Bhagavatam describes a king and his devoted wife, who have entered the forest as vanaprasthas to perform austerities and realize God. At a certain stage, the king leaves his body, and feeling great anxiety in his absence, his widow begins to cry piteously. Srila Prabhupada, following the previous acharyas, explains in his purports that figuratively, the queen is the disciple of the king, or spiritual master.
So, here the widow is praying for her husband to get up and protect the world from rogues and so-called kings. Of course, because he actually has left his body, he will not return, at least not in the same form in which she had known him. But still, the principle of being protected by the instructions of the acharya continues even after his disappearance, and the essence of those instructions is that one should surrender to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, and become His devotee, always think of Him (man-mana), worship Him (mad-yaji), and bow down to Him (mam namaskuru).
In the purport, Srila Prabhupada states, “It is the acarya’s duty to spread a bona fide religious system and induce everyone to bow down before the Supreme Lord.” Not only does the acharya present the system, but it is also his duty to induce people to actually follow. Thus the acharya thinks of ways and means by which he can induce people to surrender unto the Supreme Lord.
One example that is prominent in our line is that of Lord Caitanya. He was a teacher in Navadvipa, but His own students misunderstood Him and criticized Him. So He thought, “As long as they disrespect Me, as long as they criticize Me, they will not be able to be delivered.” And, as described in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, the Lord, after full consideration, accepted the sannyasa order of life, because followers of Vedic culture in every varna and ashrama respect a sannyasi.
Srila Prabhupada explains that an acharya must think of the ways and means by which he can spread Krishna consciousness, that preaching methods are not stereotyped. His Holiness Bhakti Tirtha Swami, following in the same line, also considered how to induce people to surrender to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. Like every acharya, in doing so he preserved the basic principles of Krishna consciousness, but he adjusted the presentation to attract people and induce people to actually take up the process of bhakti-yoga.
When I first heard of some of Bhakti Tirtha Swami’s preaching, specifically to members of the black community, I was a little surprised, because I’d never heard anyone preach like that. Srila Prabhupada, at least superficially, never preached like that. So I wondered what was going on. But then I had the opportunity, with His Holiness Tamal Krishna Goswami, to visit Maharaja’s institution in Washington DC—the Institute for Applied Spiritual Technology (IFAST)—and we met some of the devotees who had come to Krishna consciousness by his preaching. I was very impressed by them—extremely impressed. They were very intelligent, sincere, competent, and respectful—they were just wonderful. It was so nice to be there with them. After attending the morning program and seeing the devotees there, seeing the organization, we had breakfast and later lunch with His Holiness Bhakti Tirtha Swami, and he explained some of his unique approach. He told us that he had people chanting sixteen rounds and following the four principles, engaging in the service of Krishna and the worship of Krishna, for months, if not years, before they knew that such a thing as the Hare Krishna movement even existed. So I thought, “Wow! How did he do that? How does he do that?”
Srila Prabhupada himself made many innovations, and some of his godbrothers criticized him. They thought he wasn’t following strictly or that he was deviating; they had certain misconceptions about him. But Srila Prabhupada would say, phalena pariciyate: you have to judge by the result. And we could see the results of Bhakti Tirtha Swami’s preaching at IFAST: the number of people who had joined, the caliber of the people, and the way in which they had been trained and engaged. It was striking.
In 1985 the Sri Sri Radha-Radhanatha Temple of Understanding in Durban, South Africa, opened. It is a beautiful temple that in a way reflects Bhakti Tirtha Swami’s—and Srila Prabhupada’s—mood of preaching, in that it contains some of the basic elements of a Vedic temple, with domes and other features, but at the same time is constructed of modern materials used innovatively in a unique design. The basic traditional elements are there, but the whole complex combines traditional temple architecture with a modern design and modern materials.
When the temple was built, South Africa was under the regime of apartheid. It had its categories: Whites, “Coloreds,” Indians (or Asians), and then Blacks—in that order of gradation—but, as Srila Prabhupada said at the first Bombay pandal, “We are the real United Nations.” We wanted to show—and it was a fact, not a staged production—that we had Europeans and Indians and Africans all living together in harmony and serving together with Krishna as the center.
The construction of the temple was a major achievement, and prominent people from these three main ethnic categories came for the opening ceremonies. We had the mayor of Durban, who was white. The apartheid regime had allowed a degree of self-government to the Indians, and they had their own legislative assembly and judicial system and police force and managed their own affairs in relation to public welfare and utilities. (Of course, the military was in the hands of the whites.) So, we had the head of the Indian legislative assembly. And we had Chief Buthelezi, the head of the KwaZulu government and a most prominent leader of the Zulus, the largest tribe in South Africa. And we also wanted to have an outstanding black preacher from ISKCON. We had black devotees in South Africa, but not of that caliber, so we invited His Holiness Bhakti Tirtha Swami.
I was deputed to receive Maharaja when he arrived. He came wearing a Nehru jacket and an ornate African cap—not the usual traditional sannyasa dress—and he was very effulgent, very bright, very friendly. And he spoke very powerfully at the pandal. It was a huge gathering; maybe twenty thousand people came—very impressive.
Maharaja and I had some quite intimate personal talks during that visit. Somehow I felt I could really trust him and open up to him. And he was extraordinarily perceptive. He had a keen sense of what was going on. At the time, there was an issue in ISKCON about more devotees accepting the responsibility of initiating disciples. And it was coming up about me, but I didn’t feel qualified; I didn’t want to do it. Somehow my reluctance came up in my talks with Bhakti Tirtha Swami. I really don’t know how he found out these things. I think he got them from talking to people—even though he had been there for only a few days. So, I explained to him what I considered to be my disqualifications, and he pointed out that the thing about me was that I really cared about the devotees and that the most important thing for a devotee was to feel that his or her guru really cared about him or her and wasn’t just concerned with getting service out of them. So he thought that was an important qualification. Then I said, “Well, what about accepting the sinful reactions of the disciples?” And he replied, “Yes, that is something to be concerned about, but you are mainly preaching to Indians who come from pious backgrounds, so I don’t think that should be such an issue for you.”
In subsequent years, Bhakti Tirtha Swami and I would meet in Mayapur during the annual GBC meetings, and we had many interesting discussions. During one, we talked about how some devotees would race ahead to reach the goal and then stumble and fall, whereas others didn’t go so quickly but would advance more gradually and not fall down. Maharaja gave the example of climbing up a pole. “When you climb up a pole,” he said, “you are going straight up. You are going straight to the top, and you can succeed if you have the strength. But the difficulty is that if you lose your grip, you fall all the way down.” Then he gave a different example—of a winding staircase that goes around the pole. It is a much slower and more gradual process, but at least with the staircase, taking one step at a time, you are going up and not coming back down. Even if you are not going very quickly, at least you are making progress. So, it is not that one approach is better than another in any absolute sense. One is faster, but you have to have the strength, and there is a greater risk; the other is more gradual, but it requires less strength, and it is more certain.
One thing that Bhakti Tirtha Swami told me in his last days left an indelible impression in my heart. He said, “In Kali-yuga, you can never do enough for devotees.” Initially, I thought he was saying that in Kali-yuga you can never satisfy the devotes, that they are so ungrateful that they always demand more. But as he spoke further, his meaning became clear: Devotees need so much help that we can never do enough for them, so we should always try to do more for them, to give them more—which HH Bhakti Tirtha Swami did throughout his life.
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Dearest Bhakti Tirtha Swami Maharaja, the world was blessed by your presence—I was blessed by your presence—we all were blessed by your presence. Especially in your last year, you showed us love and mercy and compassion—Krishna consciousness—that I hardly could have imagined. I still don’t know how you did it. But your memory resides within my heart as an example of what a sincere, surrendered disciple of Srila Prabhupada can do, and I aspire to follow in your footsteps, in my own limited way, back to his lotus feet—his lotus feet and those of his eternal servants and his divine lords and masters.
Please bless me—and please bless us all.
Your eternal servant,