Guru of the Guru
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.
* * * *
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
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
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
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
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.
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