Today is a very special day on the Vaisnava calendar: Visvarupa-mahotsava. It is the date on which Lord Caitanyaâ€™s older brother, Visvarupa, took sannyasa. And on the same date four hundred fifty years later our own spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, also accepted sannyasa, the renounced order of life.
According to Vedic literatures, Lord Caitanya is Krsna Himself, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, come in the present age in the role of a devotee. In the previous age Lord Krsna came in His original feature and spoke the Bhagavad-gita, and at the conclusion He instructed, sarva-dharman parityaja mam ekam saranam vraja: give up all other duties and surrender unto Meâ€”unto Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godheadâ€”but people could not understand or appreciate Lord Krsnaâ€™s instruction. So later, about five hundred years ago, the same Krsna came again, not in His original form but in His devotional form as Lord Caitanya. And Lord Caitanya taught us how to worship Krsna, how to serve God in the present age.
Lord Caitanya taught various methods of worship, but He especially emphasized the chanting of the holy names of God, or Krsna. In particular, He quoted a verse from the Brhan-Naradiya Purana:
harer nama harer nama harer namaiva kevalam
kalau nasty eva nasty eva nasty eva gatir anyatha
â€œOne should chant the holy name, chant the holy name, chant the holy name of Hari, Krsna. In this age of Kali, there is no other way, no other way, no other way to spiritual realization.â€
He acted like a teacher who shows the students how to write the alphabet. The teacher stands in front of the class and writes on the board, â€œA, B, C, D.â€ The teacher has no need to practice writing, but he shows by his own example how to form the letters properly. In the same way, God, Krsna, had no need to worship, but to set the example for us, so that we can learn how to worship God in the best way in the present age, He came as Lord Caitanya and taught and demonstrated the chanting the holy names of Krsna.
When Lord Caitanya appeared, in India, the social and spiritual system called varnasrama-dharma was still prevalent. In this system, there are four social and four spiritual divisions, all necessary for society to function properly. Although we may not refer to them by the same terms, and although the system has not been developed as systematically and scientifically as it was in the Vedic culture, still, by the arrangement of nature, the divisions do exist. In the Bhagavad-gita Krsna says, catur-varnyam maya srstam guna-karma-vibhagasah: â€œAccording to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me.â€ (Bg 4.13) So, the four social orders, or broad divisions of occupational duties, are created by Krsna.
The four divisions include first the intelligent class, who are teachers and priests, but mainly teachers. Then there is the martial or administrative class, who are rulers and warriors; they govern and protect the citizens. There is the vaisya, or productive class, who engage in agricultureâ€”farming and cow protectionâ€”and with the surplus, trade. And there is service class, or workers; they perform services to support the other three classes.
When a person hears the description of the different social orders and duties, he or she may be alerted to the possibilities for exploitation and domination of the â€œlowerâ€ classes by the â€œhigher.â€ But in Vedic society the different members work cooperatively for the common good, ultimately for the pleasure of God. In the physical body there are natural divisionsâ€”the head, the arms, the stomach, the legsâ€”and they all have different functions. But they all cooperate for the benefit of the whole. In the social body, the brahmanas are compared to the headâ€”they give guidance. The ksatriyas are compared to the armsâ€”they protect the body. The vaisyas are compared to the stomachâ€”they provide food for the body. And the sudras, or workers, are compared to the legsâ€”they carry the rest of body where it wants to go. There is no question of competition among the different parts of the body, or exploitation. They all work for the good of the whole.
Apart from the social divisions there are four spiritual divisions. These are also natural, especially in a culture meant for self-realization and God realization, which Vedic culture is. The first order is the brahmacaris, celibate students. In the traditional system, the brahmacari would study in the asrama of the guru, in the gurukula. He would be trained mainly in principles of good character. And because the main emphasis was on good character and spiritual development, the teachers had to be spiritually qualified.
Here we can see the defect in modern education, where emphasis is given to material knowledge without much consideration of personal character. Now practically no spiritual or moral qualification is required of teachers. They may drink, they may smoke, they may gambleâ€”they may do all sorts of nonsense in their â€œprivate livesâ€â€”but if they know the subject in a material way, they are considered qualified to teach. But in the Vedic system, because the emphasis was on moral character and spiritual development, the teachers, the brahmanas, had to be exemplary. And in addition, they had to know the other subjects that they taught. The exemplar in the Vedic system was called the acarya. Acarya means â€œone who teaches by exampleâ€â€” not that in the classroom the teacher says, â€œYou should not smoke,â€ but then outside the classroom he or she smokes, or that the teacher says, â€œYou shouldnâ€™t drink,â€ but then outside he or she drinks, or worse.
A friend of ours in Bombay was attending an international conference on drug abuse in Delhi. She is a devotee, and she works with a lot of underprivileged people in the slum areas of Bombay. And in her own way, she does try to introduce Krsna consciousness, seeing how it can transform peopleâ€™s lives, how people who were addicted to drugs can give them up with the spiritual strength gained by chanting and other practicesâ€”by the grace of God. So, she went to the conference, and during the evenings her colleagues would get together and have parties and drink and smoke and take drugsâ€”hard drugs. [laughter] Then, during the day they would meet to discuss what to do about the problem of substance abuse. Socially, she would be with them. After all, they were her friends and colleagues, but when she would attend their parties, they would insist, â€œWhy donâ€™t you have a drink? Have a smoke. Have this, have that.â€ And she would always refuse.
One night, their party was busted by the police. [laughter] The only one of them of good character, of spotless character, was our friend, the devotee. They knew that her word would be accepted because she was strict in her habits. So her colleagues appealed to her to make up some story that they were doing some experiment, some research, on taking drugs. Whatever happened in the end, the point I am making is that in Vedic culture the teachers were supposed to be exemplary. Their character was considered one of their main qualifications as teachers.
So, the first order is brahmacari, celibate student living in the asrama of the guru, the spiritual preceptor. The second order is grhastha, married. At the age of fifteen or twenty, the young man could choose to enter grhastha-asrama, household life. At such a time he would take permission from the guru to leave the asrama, and there would be a ceremony comparable to todayâ€™s graduation. The young man would leave the gurukula and go out into the world, bringing with him all the principles of moral character and spiritual development that he had learned in the asrama of the guru.
Then, after living in grhastha-asrama, having children and providing for their future, the husband and wife would enter vanaprastha-asrama, retired life. They would retire, not to while away their time in idle pursuits and reminiscences, but to realize God. Of course, there is no harm reminiscing sometimes, but they had a positive engagement, and their positive engagement was spiritual perfection.
The first instruction of the Bhagavad-gita is
dehino â€™smin yatha dehe kaumaram yauvanam jara
tatha dehantara-praptir dhiras tatra na muhyati
â€œAs the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.â€ (Bg 2.13) In other words, the soul is distinct from the body.
Later in the Gita Krsna says that He has two energies: the superior energy, or para- prakrti, which is spiritual, and the inferior energy, or apara-prakrti, which is material.
bhumir apo â€™nalo vayuh kham mano buddhir eva ca
ahankara itiyam me bhinna prakrtir astadha
apareyam itas tv anyam prakrtim viddhi me param
jiva-bhutam maha-baho yayedam dharyate jagat
â€œEarth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false egoâ€”all together these eight constitute My separated material energies. Besides these, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is another, superior energy of Mine, which comprises the living entities who are exploiting the resources of this material, inferior nature.â€ (Bg 7.4-5) The spiritual energy is conscious and eternal, whereas the material energy is unconscious and temporary. This physical body is made of the eight material elements, inferior energy, but the soul within the body is made of the superior, spiritual energy.
The soul continues to live after the death of the body. In one sense there is no death of the body, because the body is always dead. It is just a machine, and the soul is the driver of the machine who makes the machine work. When the soul is in the body, the body appears to be alive. When the soul leaves the body, we declare that the body is dead, because the soul has left. Now, someone might argue that the soul, or life, is created by a particular chemical combination, that when the chemicals or atoms and molecules combine in a certain way, life is produced. But if that were the case, death would merely be a breakdown in the chemical combination. If life were created by a certain combination of chemicals, then death would mean that the combination had broken down, and the implication would be that if we restored the combination, the person would come back to life. A car is a combination of material elements. The car may break down, but if you keep replacing the material elements, the car will work again. Even if the car is from 1900, if you replace the engine, replace the carburett]or, replace the steeringâ€”whatever the parts areâ€”if you keep on replacing them, it will work again. Yet although people have tried to become immortal since the beginning of time, they have never succeeded in bringing a dead person back to life, because life is not a combination of material elements. Life is the quality of the spiritual soul, the superior energy of the Lord. Once the spiritual soul leaves the body, we can do nothing to bring the body back to life, because the living force has left.
So the question is, â€œWhat happens to the living force when it leaves the body? What happens to the soul?â€ According to Bhagavad-gita, the soul, depending on its activities or karma, will enter a particular type of body. If the car breaks down and is not worth fixing, the driver will get another car. Now, what kind of car he gets will depend on how much he can afford. If the person has been earning and saving, he can get a luxury car. If the person has been working, but not earning so much, and has been saving, but not that much, he might get an ordinary car. If the person has been irresponsible or is unemployed, he might not even be able to afford a car. He might have to get a motorcycle or a motor scooter or a bicycle, or he may just have to walk. In the same way, the body we get in the next life will depend on how we conduct ourselves in the present life. If we are responsible and follow a disciplined, moral, spiritual life, we will get a better body. In fact, if we are fully self-realized or God-realized, fully surrendered to God, we can get a spiritual body and go to the spiritual world and live with God in the spiritual kingdom. Otherwise, if we are not perfect but are good, we will get a good material body in the material world; we will take birth on a higher planet, on a heavenly planet, or on Earth in a better situation, with better opportunities for education; we may be born with more intelligence, with more opulence, with better looks, and so on. And if we have been negligent in our duties towards God, if we have been immoral and irreligious, we will be born in an unfortunate situation on Earth in the human body or even in a lower species of life. Or we may have to take birth on a hellish planet and suffer there for some time.
In the Vedic system, by the time a person reaches the age of fifty or so, he or she should have fulfilled his or her family responsibilities and be free to leave the work and assets to the next generation, to concentrate on spiritual development. Old age is a warning or a reminder that one will have to leave the body, and so one will consider, â€œHow can I use my time to reach the best destination?â€ It is as if you are living in a house and you get notice that you will have to vacate. Of course, you will take care of the house to some degree, but you will not put all your energy into taking care of a house that you must soon vacate. Rather, you will consider, â€œWhere am I going to move?â€ That is the guiding principle in Vedic civilization: â€œWhere am I going to go after I leave the present body, this present habitat?â€
The best destination one can achieve is the spiritual kingdom of God, and for that one must engage in spiritual practices, especially chanting of the holy names of God, by which one will develop love for God. Such practices are common to different religious traditions. Although here we speak on the basis of the Bhagavad-gita, on the basis of Vedic knowledge, the principle of chanting Godâ€™s name is in practically every tradition; the principle of praying to God, glorifying God, learning about God from scriptures and teachers, and serving God and His creaturesâ€”ultimately to develop love for Godâ€”is part of every bona fide religious tradition. As the Bible says, â€œThou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shalt be in thine heart. Thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. . . . Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him.â€ This passage from Deuteronomy (6.5-9, 7.9) pretty well describes the life of the devotee. While standing up, sitting in house, walking by the wayâ€”wherever they are and in whatever they doâ€”they are conscious of God, and they teach their children the same principle: to be God conscious.
Again, the ideal of singing the name of the Lord or praising the name of the Lord is common to every tradition. The Bible, for instance, enjoins us: â€œGive thanks unto the Lord, call upon His name, make known His deeds among the people. Sing unto Him, sing psalms unto Him, talk yet of all His wondrous works. Glory ye in His holy name; let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord. Seek the Lord and His strength, seek His face continually.â€ (I Chronicles 16.7-11) But the actual process of chanting, especially the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, is elaborated most scientifically in the Vedic literatures. The Srimad-Bhagavatam in particular gives precise and detailed information about God and the process to reach Him. Otherwise, one could question, â€œIf the principles are the same, why did you have to take to Krsna consciousness? Why could you not have just been a good Christian or Jew or whatever?â€ The answer is that this method, which is technically called bhakti-yoga, is scientific and practical, and that the knowledge of God given in the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam is most detailed. To love someone, you must know the person: â€œTo know him is to love him.â€ To know God is to love Him. Otherwise, we may talk theoretically about loving God, but if we donâ€™t know Him, how can we really love Him?
God in the most complete conception is both male and female: Radha and Krsna. Still, for simplicityâ€™s sake, we often use the masculine pronoun. In any case, we learn about God in detail from the Vedic literatures, especially the Srimad-Bhagavatam. As our spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, used to say, â€œEvery religion will teach that you should love God, but who is God? The Vedic scriptures tell you His name, His address, His telephone numberâ€”all the details [laughter]â€”about His family, His friends, His habits, His hobbies, His pastimes.â€ That is why we have taken to Krsna consciousness: to learn about God and how to reach Himâ€”in detail. Even then, as Srila Prabhupada said, â€œYou donâ€™t have to give up being a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim or whatever; you can add Krsna consciousness and become a better Hindu or a better Christian or a better Jew.â€ It is not a religion in the sense that you have to convert, like one gives up one faith and accepts another, but you can remain whatever you are and add bhakti-yoga. With the physical practices of yoga, hatha-yoga, people donâ€™t mindâ€”they may be Christian or Jewish or Muslim and still practice yoga. So too you can practice bhakti-yoga whatever your faith may be. But this yoga will help you to come closer to God and have direct realization of God.
In varnasrama-dharma, the last stage, after retired life, is called sannyasa, renounced life. Although in retired life the husband and wife may stay together, their aim is God consciousness. They often retire to a holy place to worship and serve God, associating with learned scholars and saintly persons, so that they can come closer to God and be with God in their next life. But in the fourth stage, which is not meant for everyone and is not generally recommended in the present age, the husband and wife do not remain together. Also, although the brahmacari will usually marry and have children, in exceptional cases he may not; he may remain in brahmacari-asrama for his entire life, or at some point proceed directly from brahmacari to sannyasa-asrama. In the renounced order too there are different stages, four stages, but in the present age the recommended process for the renounced order is to spread the message of Godheadâ€”to travel and preach the message of Godhead, and to write articles and books on the science of God.
So these are the four social and spiritual orders, and from that background we come to todayâ€™s occasion: Visvarupa-mahotsava. As mentioned earlier, Lord Caitanya is Krsna Himself, and He appeared on earth, as did Krsna, like an ordinary person. Yet although He seemed to take birth like an ordinary person, His birth was not ordinary; it was divine. Just as a dramatic actor plays the part of a family member on stage, so Lord Caitanya appeared in a particular family on earth. And in the family in which He chose to appear, He had an older brother named Visvarupa (who Himself was an incarnation of Lord Balarama, Krsnaâ€™s first expansion).
From the very beginning, Visvarupa was attracted to devotional service to Lord Krsna. As soon as He was old enough, He would go daily to bathe in the Ganges and then proceed to the home of Advaita Acarya to engage in topics of Krsna. He had no interest whatsoever in material life. And so, when he heard that arrangements were being made for his marriage, Visvarupa left home and took sannyasa. At that time, Lord Caitanya tried to console His aggrieved parents: â€œMy dear mother and father, it is very good that Visvarupa has accepted the sannyasa order, for thus He has delivered both His fatherâ€™s and His motherâ€™s family.â€
As a sannyasi, Visvarupaâ€™s name was Sankararanya Svami. He travelled from one place of pilgrimage to another, throughout the country. Finally, He attained perfection in Pandarapura, a holy place in Maharastra. As cited by Srila Prabhupada, the Gaura-candrodaya states that after His so-called demise, Visvarupa remained mixed within Sri Nityananda Prabhu. The date on which Visvarupa took sannyasa is celebrated today as Visvarupa-mahotsava.
Now we come to our spiritual teacher and founder-acarya, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He was born in Calcutta in 1896 in a very pious family. He was well educated and attended Scottish Churchesâ€™ College, one of the most prestigious colleges in Calcutta. As a young man he married and had a child, but soon he met a very saintly person, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami Maharaja, and was impressed by him. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta requested that Srila Prabhupada take up the mission of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and spread His message all over the world, specifically in English. From their very first meeting in 1922, Srila Prabhupada accepted Srila Bhaktisiddhanta in his heart as his spiritual master, and eleven years later, in Allahabad, he was formally initiated as Abhay Caranaravinda dasa. Abhay means â€œfearlessâ€ and caranaravinda means â€œthe lotus feetâ€ of Krsna. By taking shelter of the lotus feet of Krsna one becomes fearlessâ€”even of death, the most fearful situation in the material world.
Srila Prabhupada always remembered the order of his guru maharaja, and in his household life he began the fortnightly magazine Back to Godhead. He personally wrote all the articles, got the issues printed, and distributed them. He would go on foot to the teashops in Delhi and approach the customers with his magazine. Later, a friend suggested that magazines might be thrown away but that books would remain forever. And so Srila Prabhupada turned his attention to translating the Bhagavad-gita, and later the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
In 1950, Srila Prabhupada retired from family life as a vanaprastha. He travelled to Jhansi and tried to start his guru maharajaâ€™s mission there. He was on the verge of acquiring an ideal property to use as a center, but in the end there was some politics with the governorâ€™s wife and the deal fell through. So he left Jhansi and came to Mathura, a holy place associated with Lord Krsnaâ€™s pastimes, to the Kesavaji Gaudiya Math, where he served in cooperation with one of his godbrothers, His Holiness Bhaktiprajnana Kesava Maharaja.
Even in his household life, Srila Prabhupada had dreams in which his guru maharaja was calling him to leave his family and follow him. Srila Prabhupada would wake up, and feel horrified: â€œHow can I take sannyasa?â€ He continued to have the dream, and in Mathura Kesava Maharaja advised him, â€œTo really preach the message of Caitanya Mahaprabhu and fulfil Guru Maharajaâ€™s order, you must take sannyasa.â€ So, on September 17, 1959, on Visvarupa-mahotsava, the same date that Visvarupa, the older brother of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, took sannyasa, Srila Prabhupada accepted the renounced order of life at the Kesavaji Gaudiya Math in Mathura. At the end of the ceremony Kesava Maharaja asked him to speak. Although the common language was Hindi, Srila Prabhupada thought of his mission and the order of his Guru Maharaja, and he spoke in English. Now he was Bhaktivedanta Swami, and â€œcompletely ready to discharge the order of his spiritual master.â€
It is most fortunate for all of us today that Srila Prabhupada did take sannyasa. After he translated the Srimad-Bhagavatam, First Canto, in three volumes, he felt ready to travel. Later he would remark, â€œWhen I decided to go to foreign countries, I thought of New York. Generally they go to London, but I thought, â€˜No, I will go to New York.â€™â€ He managed to procure free passage in the passenger cabin on a cargo carrier of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, and so he crossed the Atlantic on board the Jaladuta, suffering two heart attacks on the way. Then, in New York, for almost one year, he struggled alone. No one took up his message seriously. He would stay at different peopleâ€™s places, but he had no place of his ownâ€”and almost no money. He felt so discouraged that from time to time he would go to the Scindia office to see when the next boat was departing for India. Butâ€”again fortunately for usâ€”he never left.
September 17, 2005