Throughout his lectures and personal discussions from October to December, as well as in his books, Prabhupada often referred to his spiritual master, Om Visnupada Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura.
In one morning class he told us how his spiritual master was a perfect guru and he had perfectly followed Lord Caitanya’s example of humility. “Everyone would address the other as prabhu,” he explained. “Officially the custom is that spiritual master is considered to be in the place of Supreme Lord, and therefore he is given such respect. But the spiritual master, bona fide spiritual master, he thinks that ‘I am your disciple.’ And practical example I have seen. Our Guru Maharaja, when we offered obeisances, he used to return them and say, ‘Daso smi: I am your servant.’”
Prabhupada explained that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura was the son of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, one of the leading proponents of krsnabhakti in the 18th century. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura had ordered his disciples to preach in the Western countries because he was following his father’s mission to make this process of Krsna consciousness accessible to the entire world.
Apparently none of the other previous acaryas had taken up this aspect of Lord Caitanya’s mission. They had all written books and preached all over India, but they had not sent disciples to other countries. Hearing all this made my own admission into this spiritual lineage an exciting missionary adventure.
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In the last week of December, when I asked Prabhupada if I could paint a portrait of him, he said that it was only proper for me to first paint one of his Guru Maharaja. “This was Vedic etiquette”, Prabhupada said. He then handed me a small photograph of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati.
I asked bluntly, “He’s very handsome, but I’m surprised to see that despite his dignity he has a beard — I thought all gurus were clean-shaven like you. Why does he have a beard?”
Prabhupada smiled and said, “When this picture was taken, my Guru Maharaja was observing an austerity called Caturmasya. This is afour-month period, beginning late summer, during which devotees minimize bodily demands, including eating, sleeping and even shaving.”
I had never heard of this before, and as far as I knew Prabhupada had not asked his disciples to observe it. As he had not had a beard since I met him in October, I did not think that he followed it either. Perhaps it was one of the adjustments he was making for us. I figured that perhaps he’d considered it more of an austerity for American men to shave than not to shave. After all, he regularly criticized the “men in this degraded age who think that they have become beautiful by keeping long hairs”.
Prabhupada requested, “Examine my Guru Maharaja’s face carefully before you begin the painting. I want it to be accurate.” “I have no idea what I should be looking for.” “You can see here that one of his cheeks is a bit sunken.”
“Also you will not be able to enlarge the proportions of such a small print accurately onto the large canvas; I will show you how to use a grid.”
Brahmananda brought a roll of clear acetate with the suggestion that I staple two small pieces together to make a transparent protective envelope for the print. Under Prabhupada’s direction I drew a grid on the canvas with a piece of soft thin charcoal, and I did the same thing on the acetate-covered print with a fine point marker. In this way I was able to transpose one section at a time. The proportions of my charcoal drawing on the canvas were now accurate.
As usual I sat on the floor in the altar room with the canvas resting on large pages of newspaper and propped against the wall. I completed the first layer by the second day and, as always, I left the painting and photograph on the floor when I went home to the Bronx that evening.
Returning the next morning, I was surprised to find soft pillows placed under both the canvas and the small print. I smiled, recognizing this simple gesture of respect made by Prabhupada, and I determined to do the same.
I painted Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s tilaka white because that was the color we wore. Since Prabhupada had only one small ball of the sacred clay from India, called gopi-candana, for his tilaka, he had instructed us to use fuller’s earth mixed with gum arabic for ours. The result was that our tilaka was white, while Prabhupada’s was light yellow ochre. I didn’t think the color made any difference, but Prabhupada thought differently. “The mark of tilaka should be yellowish, not white,” he corrected, and, noticing the slight effulgence I put around his Guru Maharaja’s head, he added, “And there should be no effulgence around his head.”
“And his garland should be bright,” Prabhupada continued, “A bright garland is considered very auspicious.” Then, inspecting the painting closer, he asked, “Why didn’t you paint fingernails?”
The photograph had been taken in the early 1900s and many of the details were unclear.
“Well, I couldn’t see fingernails, Swamiji,” I said without clearly thinking.
“All right,” he responded, matter-of-factly, as though what I had said made perfect sense.
A few days later I finished the painting, and several devotees were present when Prabhupada came into the altar room to see it. He looked at the painting, and then back at me.
“You have brought me Vaikuntha,” he said, clearly pleased.
Although I was thrilled by his humility and encouragement, the other devotees and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. It was he who was bringing us Vaikuntha. By now I’d learned that the pure devotee was actually an emissary from the spiritual world, an associate of Krsna who was personally sent here by Him. Prabhupada was an eternal resident of Vaikuntha, or more specifically Goloka Vrndavana. He was not only giving us a hint of that spiritual world through his association, but he was taking anyone willing to follow him there.
Then, handing me another small piece of paper, Prabhupada asked me to copy onto the bottom of the painting his handwritten words. His words were a prayer to his spiritual master:
nama om visnu-padaya krsna presthaya bhu-tale
srimate bhaktisiddhanta sarasvatiti namine
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who is very dear to Lord Krsna, having taken shelter at His lotus feet.”
After I had written the caption, Prabhupada asked one of the brahmacaris to hang the painting on the wall to the right of his dais, next to the painting of Panca-tattva. And that evening, he told us more about his Guru Maharaja, “The common saying is, ‘Man proposes; God disposes.’ Therefore, a devotee never depends on himself. He never considers that, ‘I am independent.’ He simply depends on the supreme will of the Lord. That is devotion.
Whenever we used to ask our Guru Maharaja something: ‘Is some work going to happen like that?’ he never said, ‘Yes, it is going to happen. Yes, we are going to do it.’ No. He said, ‘Yes, if Krsna desires, it may be.’ Actually this is the fact: if Krsna desires, If God desires, anything wonderful can be done. If He does not desire, however you may try, it will never be done.”
Then, referring to the new building the devotees were trying to buy on St. Marks Place, he added, “Just like we are praying to Krsna. If He desires, we’ll have a nice house; if He does not desire, we may remain here. It doesn’t matter. But we shall prosecute our business — Krsna consciousness. There is nothing to stop us, in whatever condition we may be. Ahaituky apratihata.
Devotional service is without any impediment. Apratihata. Nothing can check it in any circumstances. No material circumstances can check your Krsna consciousness. When you are firmly convinced and situated in that position, that is real bhakti-yoga. Nothing can disturb you. Nobody can say, ‘Oh, due to this condition, I am now unable to prosecute this Krsna consciousness.’ That means he was never in Krsna consciousness. Nothing can check it.”
By Jadurani/Syamarani dasi.