Swami Prabhupada is one of the influential spiritual teachers of the 20th century and the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which is commonly known as the Hare Krishna movement. Already being a senior man he came to the US and just within a few years managed to create a spiritual movement, which involved thousands of people and soon became well-known in the society. He is mostly known for his numerous books, you will find at least one in any library.
Swami Prabhupada was born in a middle-class bengali family, which belonged to the hindu tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. This tradition originated in Bengal abut 500 years ago, and is mostly present and popular there till now. He received a european-style college education, but rejected his diploma in support for Gandhi’s independence movement. He got married and started a small pharmaceutical business. Prabhupada was dissatisfied with his family life, and also his business didn’t go well. At the age of 26 he met his spiritual teacher, who requested him to spread the message of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in english language. A few years later he became a fully initiated disciple. In 1944 he started publishing a magazine called “Back to Godhead”, but the publication was not much of a success. He started translating to english ad commenting the main Vaishnava scriptures, which he later published on his own.
In 1965, when Prabhupada was 69 years old, he left to the United States to fulfill his master’s request to spread the message around the world. He had almost no possessions with him, and most of his luggage were boxes of books. The next year he founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York. This was the high time of the hippie movement, the youth was searching for the new meaning, and many took interest in Prabhupada’s preaching. He was giving lectures on Vaishnavism and spreading his books, thus attracting his first followers. His movement started gaining popularity when a small group of his followers started the public kirtan (devotional singing) in one of the parks of New York. Soon they started singing kirtan on the streets of other american cities, which was often accompanied by preaching and selling Prabhupada’s books. Prabhupada was putting great emphasis on spreading his books, for his followers it was one of the most important forms of religious practice. By the beginning of seventies the ISKCON book sale became a good source of income, which allowed Prabhupada to invest in building temples and ashrams in different countries. He was continuously moving around the world, giving lectures, initiating disciples, meeting with the press, meanwhile working on his translations and commentaries, which he was doing mainly at night, sleeping just a few hours a day. He died in 1977; in 12 years that he spent in the west he managed to create a big active movement.
Gaudia Vaishnavism worships Krishna as a “supreme personality of God”. All the other gods are considered to be his lower forms. The best and fastest way to spiritual realization is a pure love and devotion to Krishna, through which the devotee acquires the “Krishna consciousness”. Krishna can be worshipped and remembered in different ways, the most effective of them is repeating or singing the “great mantra”: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare. Prabhupada insisted on 4 basic rules for his followers: strict vegetarianism, no sex (except for conceiving children), no gambling, no intoxicants (though he himself was continuously using sniffing tobacco). Upon coming to the west, perhaps to get better accepted in the christian society, Prabhupada displayed a certain amount of religious tolerance, for example acknowledging Jesus as a messenger of God. Though essentially he remained a hardcore orthodox hindu. For example, he considered women to be naturally lower, less intelligent, and submissive to men. He taught the old hindu scriptures literately – including such things that the Sun goes around the Earth. The strict morality he was preaching to his followers inevitably led to a widespread hypocrisy in his movement, the biggest difficulty for the young westerners was of course the prohibition of sex. He considered his teaching to be the only absolute truth, so instead of the preached humbleness and simplicity you will surprisingly find ISKCON followers to be arrogant, intolerant and close-minded. Not to say about Prabhupada’s statements putting down blacks, jews and praising Adolf Hitler.
Originally the purpose of his movement was to lead people to “Krishna consciousness”, to the divine bliss and union with God through love, devotion and surrender. Though beautiful as such, the idea (and the movement) failed completely in the practical sense. Prabhupada succeeded in attracting numerous followers, in spreading millions of books, in building temples – absolutely yes. But where are these ideal “pure devotees”, which his movement was meant to create? Instead there is an organization of strict rules, subordination, power games and individual suppression.