When His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (who later became known as Srila Prabhupada) entered the port of New York City on September 17, 1965, few Americans took notice — but he was not merely another immigrant. He was on a mission to introduce an ancient religion, which originated in India, into mainstream America. Before Srila Prabhupada passed away on November 14, 1977, at the age of 81, his mission proved successful. He had founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and saw it grow into a worldwide confederation of more than 100 temples, ashrams and cultural centers.
Srila Prabhupada was born Abhay Charan De on September 1, 1896 to a practicing Hindu family in Kolkata. As a youth growing up in British-controlled India, Abhay became involved with Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement to secure independence for his nation. A 1922 meeting with a prominent scholar and religious leader, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, proved most influential on Abhay’s future calling. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was a leader in the Gaudiya Vaishnava denomination, a monotheistic tradition within the broad Hindu culture. He asked Abhay to bring the teachings of Lord Krishna to the English-speaking world. Abhay became a disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta in 1933 and resolved to carry out his mentor’s request.
In 1950, at the age of fifty-four, he retired from married life and devoted much time to his studies and writing. He travelled to the holy city of Vrndavana, where he lived in very humble circumstances in the historic medieval temple called the Radha-Damodara Mandir. He accepted the renounced order of life (sannyasa) in 1959 and was awarded the name Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. At Radha-Damodara, he began work on his life’s masterpiece: a multivolume translation and commentary on the 18,000-verse Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Abhay, who became known worldwide as A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and as Srila Prabhupada, spent the 32 years preparing for his journey to the Western world. In 1965, at the age of 69, Srila Prabhupada travelled to New York City aboard a cargo ship. The journey was treacherous, and the elderly spiritual teacher suffered 2 heart attacks aboard ship. Arriving in the United States with just 7 dollars in Indian rupees and his translations of sacred Sanskrit texts, he began to spread the teachings of Krishna consciousness. His spiritual message resonated with many young people, some of whom came forward to become serious students of the Krishna tradition. With the help of these students, Srila Prabhupada rented a small storefront on New York’s Lower East Side to use as a temple. On July 11, 1966, he officially registered his organization in the state of New York, formally founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
In the 11 years that followed, Srila Prabhupada circled the globe 14 times on lecture tours, bringing the teachings of Lord Krishna to thousands of people on 6 continents. Men and women from all backgrounds and walks of life came forward to accept his message, and with their help, Srila Prabhupada established ISKCON centers and projects throughout the world. Under his inspiration, Krishna devotees established temples, rural communities, and educational institutions and started what would become the world’s largest vegetarian food relief program. With the desire to nourish the roots of Krishna consciousness in its home, Srila Prabhupada returned to India several times, where he sparked a revival in the Vaishnava tradition. In India, he opened dozens of temples, including large centers in the holy towns of Vrindavana and Mayapur.
Srila Prabhupada’s most significant contributions, perhaps, are his books. He authored over 70 volumes on the Krishna tradition, which are highly respected by scholars for their authority, depth, fidelity to the tradition and clarity. Several of his works are used as textbooks in university courses. His writings have been translated into 76 languages. His most prominent works include: Bhagavad-gita As It Is, the multi-volume Srimad-Bhagavatam and the set of Sri Caitanya-caritamrita books.The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, established in 1972 exclusively to publish his books has become the world’s largest publisher of books in the field of Indian religion and philosophy. Thus, today Srila Prabhupada is recognised as one of India’s greatest spiritual ambassadors of the 20th Century.