Bhakti Tirtha Swami Remembers Srila Prabhupada

Prabhupada Memories

Interview 01

Bhakti-Tirtha Swami: I had been involved with many different gurus and yogis. I had met a spiritual master who taught me for almost three-and-a-half years but who always told me that he was not my guru. After I took initiation from Sri Chinmoy, I saw this previous teacher. I mentioned how I’d found my guru, how he’d given me initiation and how this guru said that he is a jagat guru, a highly evolved spiritual teacher, a teacher of teachers. My first teacher laughed. He said, “He’s a mayavadi,” and he explained Mayavad and impersonalism. He said, “Do you want to know the real jagat guru?” He paused, and then he asked me again, “Do you really want to know?” I was a little nervous, but I was also curious. He asked a third time, “Do you really want to know?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Srila Prabhupada, the spiritual master of the Hare Krishna movement.” This spiritual master had taught me hatha yoga, astanga yoga, and other metaphysical things, but every now and then he would say, “Prabhupada says like this” or “Prabhupada has done it like this.” I thought Prabhupada was his uncle or friend. So when he mentioned that name again, it rang a bell, but I was devastated because I had seen the devotees twice, and I thought that they were weird. I thought, “Do you mean those people who wear bed sheets and who put war paint on their face? And who jump in the streets wearing tennis shoes and socks that don’t match? You mean they are connected with something that’s advanced?” He said, “Their spiritual master is a spiritual master of spiritual masters, and they have higher knowledge.” I was ready to be a devotee, because this person was a tremendous mystic. He read minds and had all kind of powers. He had never cheated or disappointed me and had always told me that he wasn’t my guru. But this time I decided to prove that he was lying. Just to find fault, I went to visit the Hare Krishna temple in New York, and I got as many books as I could. I heard Bhagavad-gita classes, and I heard the devotees talk. But the more I heard and studied the books, the more I became convinced. I met all different types of devotees, some serious, some less serious. I saw that there were some problems, but I realized that those who were following were special and that the philosophy was special. After studying for six months, I decided to join, and I went to Dallas to help Satsvarupa Maharaj in the gurukula. Once, a couple years later, I saw that same teacher. I wanted to ask him some questions, but he became furious. He said, “You have met the spiritual master of the universe and now you’re asking me questions? You’re not going to make me offend such a great soul.” He said, “When Srila Prabhupada came to America, there were many spiritual teachers who knew his calling and who should have assisted him. I taught you because I saw that you were so interested in such things, and I realized that in the future this would help you in your service to Prabhupada.” He said, “Now, you leave here and don’t ever come back again.”

In New York in 1971, there was a devotee named Bhakti Jana who was trying to start a program in Harlem and was gathering some black bodies to help him. I visited the temple on weekends and had connected with Bhakti Jana. When Prabhupada came, he met with those of us who worked in this Harlem project. We came in for darshan, and I was lucky to sit close to Srila Prabhupada. Like everyone else, I felt he was looking at me piercingly and intimately. At that time I asked a question due to my experiences in the temple in New York. I had graduated from the University of Princeton and was working as an assistant to the public defender in New Jersey, but when I went to the temple, not many devotees preached to me. Maybe they saw that I was puffed up, but anyway, I said, “Srila Prabhupada, there are prejudices in this move- ment.” Prabhupada looked at me and said, “Ah. Someone is thinking you’re the body? And if you’re disturbed that they’re thinking that you’re the body, then you are also nonsense.” That was the spirit. Prabhupada told me in so many words, “Bodily consciousness is there in so many ways, but if you get distracted because of that, then that is your nonsense.”

We were walking with Srila Prabhupada, and at one point he stopped and looked directly at me and quoted Bhagavad-gita 2.64. Afterwards the devotees were saying, “Prabhupada gave you such a personal instruction; amazing!” That Bhagavad-gita verse has to do with renunciation of the senses, controlling the mind, and depending on Krishna’s mercy. I took that to heart and started living an austere life. I would chant forty-two rounds every day, sleep about three hours getting up at 12:30 a.m. or 1:00 a.m., chant japa before arati and do some reading. I was eating once a day. That instruction from Prabhupada was so piercing. He knocked me over with that instruction. At other times, other devotees got personal instructions, but different kinds of instruction. How much influence Prabhupada had on us, how he encouraged me in simplicity, in the life of renunciation!

Later, I joined Satsvarupa Maharaj and Hri- dayananda Maharaj on the library party, and we started meeting with Srila Prabhupada more often. We were traveling around, distributing sets of books, and making standing orders. After we started this work, we had a wonderful encounter with Srila Prabhupada at Jayananda’s apartment in San Francisco. Prabhupada wanted all of us to come. He talked to us so sweetly, and then we came up one by one, and he gave us a flower. We were asking him some questions about how to do the work, and he told us, “Try your best, and Krishna will help you.” We realized that Srila Prabhupada was very pleased. Before he even wrote his books there was an audience waiting for them. Professors, universities, museums, and libraries agreed to take the books that were available now, as well as the books published in the future. For an author, what is more wonderful than to know that “people are taking my books and are waiting for more.”

The devotees working with the library party came in to see Srila Prabhupada, and he gave us a simple technique. He said that we should get an order from a prestigious professor, university, or institution and keep a copy of it. Then we should visit other universities or other persons connected in academia, and show them the order that we received. He was really telling us that everybody has a guru and everyone wants to be part of something that’s successful or important. As important people do, so others will follow. We started doing that as we traveled through America, Europe, and India. We would go to the most prestigious place and then show other institutions, other professors whatever we got from there. One of the biggest sales we ever had in the history of the library party was at Brigham Young University. There I met the head of the Mormon Church, who was a linguist, historian, and philosopher, and who had been studying Vedic cosmology. When he saw the way Prabhupada’s books were formatted and their detail, he was in ecstasy. He bought a complete set of Bhagavatams and Sri Caitanya Caritamrita for himself, and he ordered them for his department library. He also wrote a note and told the librarian of the general library, “Buy these books. Buy everything this book salesman has.” I took his letter to the librarian and then started visiting other departments. In most schools we would sell books to the history, philosophy, comparative literature, and religion departments. But this time I had a letter from the acharya of the institute. So every department I went to, I told them about the head of the church, and they would say, “I want the same thing.” It was easy, and it was all based on the technique that Srila Prabhupada had given us. By the time I left I had almost twenty standing orders, just from that little technique.

One professor said, “I don’t like Bhaktivedanta Swami’s interpretations, but I am completely amazed at his gall in taking up the Srimad-Bhagavatam.” Even amongst scholars, the Bhagavat Purana is most complex and it drives them batty because they think it is the Krishna in the Gita, the Krishna in the Bhagavatam and they can’t see how it is the same Personality that can be involved in so much. Some professors would buy all the books and would be in total disagreement with them but were amazed at Prabhupada’s presentation. And there were others who knew that Prabhupada was giving the best presentation on bhakti, and they wanted it. Some of these professors were studying intimate writings by Rupa Goswami and Jiva Goswami. They were like fallen brahmans from a previous life. They were fascinated with this mystical subject and would relish the books, even though they couldn’t follow any of the principles.

When we distributed books, we wore suits and had Bhaktivedanta Book Trust business cards. I gave one professor my card. He looked at it, turned red, got big eyes, and practically foamed at the mouth. It took him a minute to speak. I didn’t know whether to run out of the room or whether the guy was having an epileptic fit or what. Finally he said, “You get out of here.” I didn’t know why he wanted me out, but I didn’t want to be in his presence with that kind of energy. Then he said, “I’ve read these books. If people accept this philosophy, I will not have a job.” He was a Sanskrit professor, and he had read Prabhupada’s statement that “A teacher should teach by example.” If people accepted this as a requirement for teaching, he would have no job. But many others were appreciative and felt that Prabhupada’s books added to their scholarship and gave them much information about bhakti. One professor said, “Nectar of Devotion is the best book out on bhakti,” and ordered it for his classes.

Once in Toronto I was guarding Prabhupada’s room. Prabhupada’s door to his sitting room was glass, so while you were guarding him you could look in and watch him as he was doing things. What impressed me most was Prabhupada’s regulated schedule—japa, darshans, and how he read his own books. I thought, “Prabhupada is reading his own books, so how important it is for us to read the books! If even the guru relishes his own books, then we should be relishing and appreciating them even more.”

During the time that Prabhupada was leaving his body, about every two weeks I would send him detailed reports explaining who got the books, what was sent, and what was done. After taking lunch, being garlanded, and having chandan put on him, Prabhupada would sit back, close his eyes, and hear these reports. He said that although he was sick, this news was giving him new life. Prabhupada was so happy to hear about the preaching and how books were going to so many different places. At this time, Prabhupada wanted to go to Gita Nagari to help us develop varnashram dharma. On the way he stopped in England. I was in Eastern Europe, and I dropped everything and came to the Manor. When Srila Prabhupada heard that I was around, he immediately told a devotee to call for me. By that time, Prabhupada had practically stopped all bodily functions. Devotees would carry him in the palanquin to have darshan. I came in and sat before Prabhupada’s desk. Prabhupada’s voice was weak, so he motioned for me to come closer. I came a little closer. Then he motioned for me to come around the desk. When I came around, Prabhupada started rubbing my head and crying. He embraced me and said, “Your life is successful.” I said, “Prabhupada, we’re only doing things because you are forcing us. Otherwise, how can we do anything?” Then his voice became very strong, even though his body was so weak. He said, “Yes, and that is the parampara. My guru has forced me, and I am forcing you, and that is how things are going.” It was amazing. It was the most amazing experience I have ever had with Srila Prabhupada. But I couldn’t appreciate it, and the next thing that happened shows that I didn’t appreciate it. The next day, which was the last time I saw Prabhupada, Tamal Krishna Maharaj wanted me to experience what Prabhupada’s mood was when he heard the reports. Sometimes Prabhupada went into a trance when he heard how the books were going out. But the day before, Prabhupada had embraced me and had told me that my life was successful, and five devotees were in the room. I became puffed up. I was feeling cocky. So when I started reading about how the books had gone out in Eastern Europe, how this professor had taken, how this library had accepted, this museum had accepted, at one point Prabhupada stopped me. He said, “It is by Krishna’s mercy.” Very piercingly he was chastising me because I was feeling proud of what I had received. This was the very last time I saw Prabhupada and the last words that he ever said to me. I realized that we must always remind ourselves that anything we are able to do is by the mercy of guru and Krishna. The best time I had with Prabhupada, the most amazing experience, was the day before, and the most devastating experience was the day after, the last experience, and it was serious chastisement.

To view the entire unedited video go to Memories 16 - Bhakti Thirtha Swami, Pradyumna, Ambarish, Tamal Krishna Goswami

The full Prabhupada Memories Series can be viewed here and also at

Following Srila Prabhupada

Interview DVD 07

Bhakti Tirtha Swami: There was a special darshan Prabhupada gave us, just the Library Party, in Chicago with Satsvarupa Maharaj. It was when we had first started the work in America, and we were eager to tell Prabhupada about the success. But we were mostly wanting to hear from Prabhupada how he wanted us to proceed. It was a whole new experience getting these academics to take the books. So we came in with pens and paper and ready to take lots of instructions from Prabhupada. We shared what we had done so far, asked for guidance, and Srila Prabhupada just simply said, “You do your best, and Krishna will help you,” and that was it. At first we were stunned, we were waiting for him to say more. Then we realized, “Oh, this is a message. Srila Prabhupada is letting us know that he wants it to be done and that if we just try to do our best, Krishna will give us the intelligence what to do and how to do it.” It was a message that stuck with me for a long time. When I’m dealing with complex situations, I realize that it doesn’t really have to be approached in such a complex way, that somehow if we can just do our best then Krishna will compensate.

Interview DVD 10

Bhakti Tirtha Swami: At the Mayapur festival, Prabhupada had called in the leaders to his room and he requested that they would pray for me and give their blessings, that I was pioneering and taking great risk in the Communist countries distributing his books to people who he never thought would actually take them. And he was so happy that not only were they scholars, but they were behind the Iron Curtain and they were so favorable. And knowing that we were risking maybe our lives or could be put in jail, then Prabhupada asked the leaders that they give their blessings, that they make special prayers for Ghanashyam. So one or two of the leaders mentioned that “Prabhupada, all that is needed is your prayers. You are Krishna’s special servant.” But Prabhupada distinctly said, “No, you give your prayers and you give blessings because Krishna, He will respond to the prayers of the devotees.” And this was an example of Prabhupada’s humility and is also, I think, an example of him encouraging us that we need to be always thinking about the welfare of each other, work as a team in trying to offer our service to him and to Krishna.