Sethiji and Guruji
A Talk by Giriraj Swami
January 12, 2010

Tonight I shall speak about Srila Prabhupada’s dear friend and staunch devotee Mr. P. L. Sethi. When Srila Prabhupada first came to Bombay with his disciples from America, Mr. Sethi read a notice about them in the newspaper, which said that Srila Prabhupada had arrived with sadhus from foreign countries who chanted the Hare Krsna maha-mantra. Mr. Sethi was part of a group that also chanted Hare Krsna, and so he wanted to meet Prabhupada, and he got the address and came to see him.

At their first meeting, Srila Prabhupada asked Mr. Sethi what he did during the day, starting from when he woke up in the morning. Mr. Sethi began, “I get up, brush my teeth, take my bath, have a cup of tea and a piece of toast, read the newspaper, and go to work.” Srila Prabhupada said, “What is the difference between you and a pig?” [laughter] Mr. Sethi thought about it and seemed to agree [laughter]. So he asked Prabhupada, “What should I do?” And Prabhupada replied, “You should invite the devotees to Goregaon [the northern suburb of Bombay where Mr. Sethi lived] early every Sunday morning to do hari-nama-sankirtana, and then you should feed them sumptuous prasada.” And this became a regular practice.

Later, when Srila Prabhupada got the Juhu property, Mr. Sethi bought some land behind it and built a house for his family. In India people often give names to their houses and office buildings, and he named his new home “Vrndavana.”

Srila Prabhupada underwent a great struggle to get the Juhu land and then to get the permissions to build on the land. Mr. Sethi was a building contractor, and Srila Prabhupada engaged him in getting permits and doing some of the early construction. At the back of the land were six two-storey apartment buildings, and before we got permission to build the temple and main project, Mr. Sethi got permission to add one storey on top of each of the buildings at the back. The roofs of those old buildings were flat, with little white ceramic tile chips set in cement, and Srila Prabhupada that said we should keep that flooring and build the walls and roof over it.

When the first additional quarters were ready, Mr. Sethi took Srila Prabhupada on a tour. Srila Prabhupada looked at Mr. Sethi with great affection and said, “Just as you are building these rooms for my disciples here, Krsna is building your rooms for you in Vaikuntha, the spiritual world.”

But we still did not have permission to build the main project. Finally, Mr. Sethi told Prabhupada, “Unless we pay them some money, we can’t get the permission.” He wanted to know if Prabhupada was willing to do that. Srila Prabhupada asked, “How much?” Mr. Sethi said, “Five thousand rupees.” Srila Prabhupada asked, “How do we know that if we pay the money we’ll get the permission?” Mr. Sethi said, “The municipal commissioner is the final authority, and he seems to be a decent man, and this is how it works in Bombay.” Srila Prabhupada said, “Let me think about it; I will tell you tomorrow morning.”

After Mr. Sethi left, Srila Prabhupada discussed the matter with me and maybe one or two other managers of the Juhu project. “So, what should we do?” he asked. And he raised another question: “What if we give the money to Sethi and he doesn’t give it to the commissioner?” He quoted a Bengali saying that a goldsmith, while fashioning some gold his mother gave him to make into a ring, is thinking, “Should I use all the gold for the ring or put some in my pocket?” Prabhupada said that this type of cheating is so much a part of the goldsmith’s business that even if his own mother gives him gold to make an ornament, he will think, “Should I cheat and keep some of the gold for myself?” Prabhupada said that the construction business—paying bribes and getting permits—is such that someone in it will automatically think, “Should I keep some of the money for myself?”—no matter whose money it is.

So there were many factors to consider—whether Mr. Sethi would give the money, or the full amount, to the commissioner, whether the commissioner, having taken the money, would in fact give the permission, or whether he might take the amount and then ask for more and more and more—so many complexities. Finally Srila Prabhupada decided, “We will not do this.”

We were a little apprehensive about how Srila Prabhupada would present his decision to Mr. Sethi and how Mr. Sethi would take it. And the next morning we waited anxiously for Mr. Sethi to arrive. Eventually he came and, as usual, sat on the floor before Srila Prabhupada. “So, what do you think?” Prabhupada asked. “Should we do it?” Mr. Sethi replied, “Yes, because otherwise we are not getting the permission.” Prabhupada immediately said, “All right”—just the opposite of the way the discussion had been going the day before. So Prabhupada arranged the money, and we got the permission.

Srila Prabhupada, as the acarya, was teaching us. He often told us that intelligence means to see the same thing from many points of view and that we should do everything very cautiously and carefully. I do not believe that he actually doubted his dear friend and staunch devotee Mr. Sethi, but he was teaching us to be circumspect and consider every proposal with keen intelligence.

There were many complications in the history of the struggle to get the Juhu land and build the temple, but tonight we shall focus on Mr. Sethi and his service to and relationship with Srila Prabhupada.

In the course of the struggle, the municipality had demolished the semi-permanent temple we had built for Radha-Rasabihari. At first, we actively campaigned to get permission to rebuild it. But eventually we concluded that we didn’t really need a permit to rebuild it, because we already had permission and the municipality didn’t actually have valid grounds for demolishing it. Still, the landlady, Mrs. Nair, somehow heard about our intention and went to the court to get an injunction to stop us from rebuilding the temple. That was on a Friday, and the judge said he would not give the injunction without hearing us. She said, “Just give a temporary injunction for the weekend and then you can decide on the permanent injunction.” But he said, “No, without hearing the other side I will not pass any judgment.” So we knew we had the weekend to rebuild the temple, because once it was rebuilt, the injunction would be meaningless.

In those days it was difficult to get cement, and a little hard to get bricks. The supply was less than the demand. And the government has imposed “cement control”: to purchase cement legally, one had to procure a government-approved quota. But Mr. Sethi brought cement and bricks from his own construction sites, so we could rebuild the temple over the weekend. While the work was going on, Mr. Mhatre, the local municipal counselor, who was in cahoots with Mrs. Nair, came to the site and demanded, “You stop the construction immediately.” Mr. Sethi replied, “No. Why should we stop?” Mr. Mhatre threatened, “Well, you can build it up, but I will come in the night with fifty gundas [hooligans] and break it down.” And Mr. Sethi turned to his son, who was by his side, and said, “Brij Mohan, bring my revolver and my rifle.” Then Mr. Sethi said to Mhatre, “Don’t bring fifty gundas. Bring a hundred. Bring two hundred. I have two hundred and fifty cartridges.” He was that staunch. Then he and his son—he with rifle in hand, his son with revolver—stayed up all night, in the pouring rain, to complete and protect the project. And no one came to disturb the work.

On Monday morning we appeared in court and told the judge that the temple had already been rebuilt. And the judge said to Mrs. Nair, “What is built is built. No one can destroy the temple.”

Eventually we did get permission to build the main complex. The question then became whether we needed piling. Piles are columns of reinforced concrete driven into the ground to support a building’s foundation. Generally, to determine if you need piles or how strong the piles must be, you hire a soil-testing company to drill into the earth and see how far down you have to go to reach bedrock. And because the Juhu land was near the beach, it was expected that the soil would be sandy, with water underneath, and that we would need piles, which would be quite an expense. Mr. Sethi approached Prabhupada, who replied, “No, we don’t require piles.” Still, Mr. Sethi had some doubt, and he didn’t want to take any chances, so he hired a soil-testing company.

When the specialized machinery was drilling into the earth and had gone only about four feet deep, it hit bedrock. In fact, when it hit the hard rock, the drill broke. Nobody had expected to hit bedrock so soon. This was one of many, many instances that increased Mr. Sethi’s faith in Srila Prabhupada. He felt that Srila Prabhupada knew everything.

Once, Mr. Sethi approached Srila Prabhupada to stage a charity benefit. The idea was that some famous artists—singers, dancers, musicians—would present an Indian cultural show, we would sell tickets, and the proceeds would go to the temple. Srila Prabhupada replied, “Yes, you can do. If you can make money from the performance, it will be most welcome.” Then Mr. Sethi added, “The only thing, Prabhupada, is we will need some devotees to sell tickets.” Srila Prabhupada replied, “Our devotees cannot sell tickets. They are meant for selling books.” He said that if Mr. Sethi and his friends promoted the program and gave the profit to the temple, he would have no objection, but that the devotees could not be directly involved.

Another time, Mr. Sethi had some ideas for other ways the devotees could make money for the project. Srila Prabhupada replied, “Your ideas may be good, but if I tell my disciples, they will think, ‘I have come for bhajana, and now he wants me to do the same business again.’” And Srila Prabhupada told a story. Once, a boy was learning algebra and his mother saw him write A + B = C. Seeing the letters A, B, and C, she exclaimed, “Oh, you have grown so much, and still you are doing the same ABC?” She could not understand there was a gulf of difference between this ABC and that ABC, between a child’s learning to write the alphabet—ABC—and an adult’s doing algebra—ABC. Prabhupada continued, “I can give my disciples so many ideas, but they will think, ‘I have come for bhajana, and again I am doing the same business?’ They cannot understand there is a gulf of difference between this business and that business—between working for Krsna and working for maya.”

Srila Prabhupada knew our consciousness, the defects in our understanding. But he did not disturb us. He encouraged us to continue in devotional service, and he maintained faith that the process of hearing and chanting about Krsna and serving Lord Krsna’s mission would purify us and enlighten us in the proper understanding of Krsna consciousness.

When we discuss Srila Prabhupada’s statements on different topics, we may contemplate only some of what he was thinking. He very well could have had other thoughts that he did not express to us. So it requires some depth of realization to understand and appreciate, to whatever degree we can, why Srila Prabhupada said or did something. We must be attuned to Srila Prabhupada’s inner mood and thoughts.

Srila Prabhupada said that there are three categories of disciples. The first-class disciple knows what the spiritual master wants even before the spiritual master tells him. The second-class disciple receives an instruction from the spiritual master and executes it perfectly. And the third-class disciple receives an instruction and, as Prabhupada put it, says, “Yes, Srila Prabhupada,” leaves the room, and halfway down the stairs thinks, “What was it that Prabhupada wanted me to do?”

Later, I found the corresponding verse in Srimad-Bhagavatam (9.18.44):

uttamas cintitam kuryat
prokta-kari tu madhyamah
adhamo ’sraddhaya kuryad
akartoccaritam pituh

“A son who acts by anticipating what his father wants him to do is first class, one who acts upon receiving his father’s order is second class, and one who executes his father’s order irreverently is third class. But a son who refuses his father’s order is like his father’s stool.” As Srimad-Bhagavatam suggests, the third-class disciple will get an instruction and then argue about it or begrudge having to execute it.

In general, we should try to act on the second-class platform: we should receive the instruction and execute it perfectly. If we are not actually on the first-class platform, we may speculate about what the spiritual master wants and then make mistakes. As Srila Prabhupada said, “If the spiritual master asks for water and you bring milk, thinking that milk is better than water—that is not service.” In other words, one should do just what the spiritual master asks. Still, if one is blessed by the spiritual master to understand his heart, one can do what the spiritual master wants even without being told.

Srila Prabhupada became very upset with his disciple Bhargava dasa, a BBT photographer, when Bhargava would snap pictures of him while he was speaking. Once, in South Africa, when Bhargava clicked a photo, Prabhupada stopped his talk and told Bhargava, “What do you get by taking photos while I am speaking? I have repeatedly asked you. Don’t take while I am talking. It disturbs me. My attention goes to your photograph. It is very much disturbing.”

Another time, Bhargava took a photo and so disturbed Srila Prabhupada that he told Bhargava, “Get out and don’t come back!” Bhargava’s mind was set in turmoil. He left the temple and began to walk. He was just walking and walking and walking. He didn’t know where he was going or what he would do. He was just walking. Meanwhile, when it was time for the evening program, Prabhupada asked, “Where is Bhargava?” Nobody knew. So devotees fanned out to look for him. Eventually, late at night, after the program was over, they found him and brought him back.

Prabhupada asked him, “Why weren’t you at the program tonight?” And Bhargava replied, “Well, you told me not to come.” Prabhupada said, “I never said that.” [laughter] And then he said, “And even if I did, still you should have come.”

We are speaking about knowing the heart of the spiritual master. And of course, if we do not really know his heart, we should not speculate and risk disobeying or offending him. But I am taking the chance and speaking about first-class service in the hope that there will be some devotees who can come to understand what the spiritual master wants even without his telling them.

Srila Prabhupada was very personal in his dealings with his disciples. Although he was the world acarya, he had individual relationships with individual disciples, and one of them was Bhargava Prabhu.

In Los Angeles recently, Bhargava told me that once, Prabhupada had told him, “You are useless.” And those words, coming from Srila Prabhupada, had weighed on Bhargava’s mind. Finally, months later, when Bhargava was alone with His Divine Grace at Bhaktivedanta Manor, he got the chance to ask about it. “Srila Prabhupada, you said that I was useless. Is that true?” Prabhupada paused for some moments and replied, “Everything has some use.” [laughter]

Srila Prabhupada’s dealings with Mr. Sethi were different. Although Prabhupada loved all his disciples, he expressed his love and care for them in different ways. A parent may give bitter medicine to a child, out of love, for the child’s benefit, and the same parent, to encourage a child, may, out of love, give a sweet. Srila Prabhupada dealt lovingly with everyone, but he exhibited his love differently with different people and in different situations.

Eventually, we did get the permission and build the temple complex in Juhu, and Saurabha Prabhu arranged beautiful quarters for Srila Prabhupada on the top floor of the western tower, facing the sea. After Srila Prabhupada moved in, he invited Mr. Sethi to see his new accommodations. He told Mr. Sethi, “Just see what beautiful arrangements my disciples have made for me—spacious rooms with beautiful chandeliers and carved-wood furniture and marble floors.” Then Prabhupada said to Mr. Sethi, “I always wanted you to live with us, but you always felt that the conditions would be too austere for you. You weren’t used to living so simply. So you come and live here in my quarters, and I will stay somewhere else.” Mr. Sethi protested, “No, no, your disciples have made this for you.” Prabhupada said, “I am a sannyasi; I can stay anywhere. You stay here.” That was Prabhupada’s generosity of spirit and his graciousness toward Mr. Sethi.

Soon thereafter, Srila Prabhupada left this world, but Mr. Sethi continued his service. He arranged and paid for a beautiful, ornate pure silver arati set for offering guru-puja to Srila Prabhupada. And every year on Prabhupada’s appearance and disappearance days he would sponsor a grand, opulent feast for everyone who came to the temple. Later, he created sizable fixed deposits in the bank, the interest from which would pay for opulent feasts on Prabhupada’s appearance and disappearance days in perpetuity. And he contributed for the construction of two guest rooms, the rent from which would sponsor Srila Prabhupada’s annual appearance and disappearance festivals.

Then, last year, Mr. Sethi became ill. He was eighty-eight, but he had no fear of death. He was completely detached from the body. Devotees constantly surrounded him with kirtana. His spiritual and biological families—everyone—was so attached to him. It is really powerful when the head of a family is such a staunch devotee. Sethiji’s wife is also a very good devotee. His sons and daughters and then grandchildren—the whole, large family—is Krsna conscious. Their affection for him was exceptionally strong, with a familial relationship based on his being husband, father, and grandfather, and a spiritual relationship based on his bringing them to Srila Prabhupada and inspiring them in Krsna consciousness.

Then, on February 12, he began to say, “Prabhupada is calling me. He is preparing a room for me, and when it is ready he will take me. I am going from where I came, back to my guruji.” On February 13, he insisted on going to the temple. And three days later, at 11 p.m., surrounded by devotees lovingly chanting the holy names of Krsna in kirtana, he left his body to rejoin Srila Prabhupada. He was so fixed in service and devotion to Srila Prabhupada that at the very end his mind was fixed on Srila Prabhupada.

Once, Mr. Sethi told Srila Prabhupada that sometimes devotees would ask him why he didn’t get initiated. Prabhupada replied, “You are better than initiated. An initiated disciple can serve Krsna, worship the Deity, but you are serving the servants of Krsna, and that is higher.” And he quoted the verse,

aradhananam sarvesam
visnor aradhanam param
tasmat parataram devi
tadiyanam samarcanam

“Of all kinds of worship, the worship of Lord Visnu, or Krsna, is the topmost. But above even the worship of Lord Visnu is the rendering of service to Vaisnavas, who are related to Visnu.” (Padma Purana)

And Prabhupada added, “Beside, I have much work for you. There may be things I want you to do that would be awkward for an initiated disciple, but as you are now, you can do them conveniently.”

Srila Prabhupada was very liberal. He knew the heart—the devotion, the service—of the person, and he accepted Mr. Sethi as more than an initiated disciple. And there is no doubt that Mr. Sethi’s attachment to Srila Prabhupada and Srila Prabhupada’s service and his fixed consciousness on Srila Prabhupada at the end have carried him to Srila Prabhupada again.

Srila Prabhupada ki jaya!
Mr. Sethi ki jaya!

Devotee: Can we draw an analogy between Mr. Sethi and George Harrison, between the relationship between Srila Prabhupada and Mr. Sethi and the relationship between Srila Prabhupada and George Harrison?

Giriraj Swami: That’s a good point. When I was saying how Srila Prabhupada was very liberal and knew the heart of a person and wasn’t so concerned with initiation, I actually thought of George Harrison. At an early stage, George asked Prabhupada if he should shave his head and move into the temple, and Prabhupada replied, “No, you should remain as a Beatle and write songs about Krsna.” Prabhupada may have seen that George could do more to spread the Krsna consciousness movement as he was, as a Beatle, than he could as an initiated devotee.

Here I recall two small incidents that involved Mr. Sethi and Srila Prabhupada in Chandigarh. Mr. Sethi was from Punjab and had a home in the capital, Chandigarh. He very much supported the devotees’ efforts to establish ISKCON in Chandigarh. He hosted them in his house, worked toward the acquisition of land, and contributed to the development of the project on the land.

In 1976 Prabhupada’s disciples arranged a huge pandal program for him in Chandigarh, and many important people—ministers and government officers—participated. One of the big ministers on the stage with Prabhupada looked at his watch and told Prabhupada that he had to leave. Srila Prabhupada whispered to Mr. Sethi, “He’s drunk and wants to go home to sleep.” Mr. Sethi escorted the minister to his car, and on the way he actually smelled the alcohol on the minister’s breath. This was another incident that increased Mr. Sethi’s faith in Srila Prabhupada, that Prabhupada knew everything.

Later, the chief minister came to meet Srila Prabhupada, and he requested a copy of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is. The chief minister was very respectful toward the Gita, and as Mr. Sethi described it, he left Prabhupada’s room carrying the Gita on his head. After he left, Prabhupada told Mr. Sethi, “Because he has given the highest respect to the Bhagavad-gita, he will be given the highest respect in India.” In time, that chief minister, Giani Zail Singh, became the seventh president of India. And Mr. Sethi attributed his rise to the position of the highest respect in India to Srila Prabhupada’s blessing.

So, this is the story of one sincere, humble devotee’s service to Srila Prabhupada and Srila Prabhupada’s immense mercy and blessings upon him. And somehow or other, that same, immense mercy from Srila Prabhupada is available to all of us who are serving him and his mission even now.

Hare Krsna.