Swami in a Strange Land is the Biography of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
I grew up in a time when the Hare Krishna movement took the world by storm. Honestly speaking, I had no idea who Swami Prabhupada was till I visited a few ISKCON temples, and invariably found his life-size Murti there. Even then, I hardly paid any heed to what he did, I assume he is the main pontiff of this section of Krishna worshippers. You can not miss the fact that there are most westerners who follow ISKCON than Indians.
I always liked the spic and span temples usually built in white marble with some of the most beautiful images of Radha-Krishna. Some temples also starting having their own restaurants, books, and souvenir stores. I remember eating at their restaurant every time I visited their temple in Bangalore. They even served an eggless cake much to the delight of vegetarians like me. I know them as the major force behind the Akshay Patra mid-day meal scheme. And I saw their high-tech kitchens in their Vrindavan Ashram. I have seen their Kirtans on the road in Dwarka. At the same time, I have had a tough time saying No to their constant marketing messages to either donate or to join their order.
When I received ‘Swami in a Strange Land’ for review from its publishers, I read the by-line that spoke about the Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who I now knew was the founder of ISKCON movement. I was keen to read about this order that I have always seen from the outside. I was curious about what is it that attracts so many foreigners to this society. Of course, I had no idea about the journey of the protagonist.
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Joshua M Greene, the author of this biography of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is not only his follower but someone who has been associated with him since the early days of his mission in America. He has known Swami from close quarters and has researched his earlier life very well.
The most outstanding part of this biography is that it is very well written. The story just flows through the pages like a stream of honey flowing from one page to another. It is written with a global audience in mind but nowhere did it alienate an Indian like me. When he takes you to Calcutta of early 20th CE, you roam around in its streets that were ruled by the British but where the Bhakti Tradition of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu flourished. He recreates the life of a common family with many siblings and children, where the man must work to feed them.
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada comes across a relentless entrepreneur. First, Swami experiments in his career as a pharmacist. He was creative and innovative there too. But his heart was probably stuck on his Guru’s instruction for him – Go and take the message of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to the west and print books. He spent all his life trying to earn, write & print books and go to America.
What is astonishing about his journey is that he reached America at the age of 70. And created a movement within 10 years of that with people who were more or less outcast from society – the Hippies. His relentless pursuit of the mission even in his 70s and in a land he knew almost no one is inspiring and motivating, to say the least. He made people sing and dance in the streets, in gardens, and in public places. He made Hare Rama Hare Krishna become chart-toppers on pop music. And he made a record of the largest single print run of any book in the world – a million copies of Bhagwad Gita As it is in 1976.
Radical in him comes out when you read his letter to Gandhi in Dec 1947 where he tells him to retire, else he faces inglorious death, just a month before he was killed. His letters to heads of states asking for help to print books or give permission for his travel to America give a glimpse of what willpower can make you do. He survived two heart attacks on his way to America on a ship. But his will to make his Guru’s words come true kept him alive.
My favorite quotes from Swami in a Strange Land:
Marching towards their future, Indians erased their past.
There is an explanation of Krishna, his stories, his emotions and his relevance for a general reader. If you know the Krishna story as I know, you would enjoy reading about it. If you do not know, you would know it enough to appreciate and admire Krishna by the time you finish the book.
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The only place where I have a slight disagreement with Greene is when he calls the wife of Prabhupada’s ex-wife. Well, they never got divorced and in India, it is not unusual to see husband and wife pursue their own paths without breaking the marital bond. You give up or move away but do not break. That is a choice that many men and women made.
ISKCON is not without its controversies. There was a whole movement where ‘deprogrammers’ were hired to drive young people away from the order. The author mentions them but more from his side of the story which is expected.
Overall, Swami in a Strange Land is a great book to read. As a writer, there is so much to learn from Joshua M Greene.
Go, read it.