Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

In 1978, I purchased Bhaktivedanta Swami’s (Srila Prabhupada’s) Gaudiya Vaishnava translation of and commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavad Gita As It Is, from one of the female disciples of his disciple Harikesha Swami (or at least I think that is what she must have been) outside the NK department store in Hamngatan in Stockholm.

About a year later, having studied the book, I came in contact with his disciples at the “old” Govinda’s restaurant and temple in Grevgatan, just one block from Maharishi’s meditation centre where I had often been. The first dinner there was a remarkable experience. I was there with two friends who were mildly interested but did not yet develop any deeper and long-term commitment to the spiritual path or spiritual life. The restaurant was in an exquisite 1880s building. The dinner was served at the table, something I have never seen at any other of the Hare Krishna movement’s Govinda’s restaurants anywhere in the world since then. And the table was low, we were sitting on cushions on the floor. The three-course so-called raj bhoga was spectacular. I remember especially the spinach sabji, the chapatis, and the “Simply Wonderful” dessert.

Other books by Bhaktivedanta Swami and his disciples, with tastefully designed covers (I remember precisely which ones they were: the first Swedish editions of The Nectar of Instruction, with pictures of Rupa Goswami’s samadhi, and Satsvarupa dasa Goswami’s Readings in Vedic Literature: The Tradition Speaks for Itself, with a statue of Shiva) , were displayed on a small table, and the paintings on the walls were acceptable too.

The temple was downstairs. There we found Bhaktivedanta Swami’s disciple Dhirashanta dasa, in much incense, dressed in the ochre dhoti-kurta of the brahmachari, and with karatalas.

This temple room was also where, a few months later, I first met Vegavan dasa (Jörgen Sundvall), whom, more than two decades later, another disciple, Tamala Krishna Goswami, told me he thought was the best teacher and spiritual master in all of ISKCON.

In Bhaktivedanta Swami’s books, there were many things I did not understand and did not believe in. But among the things I seized on at this early stage was not least the vision of a spiritually oriented traditional civilization. Bhaktivedanta Swami described the traditional varnashrama system of brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras, and how it had been corrupted and abandoned in the course of Kali-yuga. Quite regardless of the questions of historical details and even general historical accuracy, this account felt highly relevant.

With this teaching,  he introduced a standard for the various levels and functions of society which implied that few in the modern world – whether in India or in the West – were even on the level of shudras. The task of his Vedic mission was to gradually train people so that the qualities of the various varnas could be gradually reestablished, at least as far as possible.

This confirmed the understanding I had already acquired from the other Vedic teachers I had already studied that the optimal work that could be done in our age was simply spiritual realization itself, with everything that it entailed in terms of lifestyle and the formation of congenial habits in various areas – and to teach this to others. Even if one was still oneself far from brahminical intelligence, one could gradually approach it, work for its establishment, and thereby bring gradual, real enlightenment to the world.

Bhaktivedanta Swamis much more explicit teachings on this made it clear to me that my leanings towards academia and politics should not obviously be indulged to the extent they almost certainly would have been without it. Having understood the higher, more essential, and indirectly and in the long term more effective task, one had a kind of obligation to prioritize it. Since few did understand it, few undertook it. But again, this did not imply a self-understanding in terms of being a brahmana rather than a kshatriya, or superior to those who chose an academic or political career, since all were still far below the traditional standards not only for brahmanas and kshatriyas, but even those for vaishyas and shudras.

But it did correspond to the insight of many Western thinkers of the kind I soon began to study, for instance the “New Humanist” Irving Babbitt’s understanding that the highest form of work was an “inner working”. Although he conceived of it only in ethical terms, he did accept also the level of “meditation” above that of ethical “mediation”, and other Western thinkers focused directly on the inner working of the former.

The deep teaching regarding guna-karma which is part of or underlies the teaching of the varnashrama system, also corresponded in some respects to the loose, imaginative reassertion in broad outline by leading contemporary conservatives like Russell Kirk of the values of the traditional, hierarchical society of the West, and their account of the different kinds of men and their different kinds of work.

In other words, its truth seemed universal; it seemed to convey a vision of traditional human ordered society whose clarity, consistency and depth – not least when coupled and coordinated with the life-stages of the ashramas – had the convincing power of primordiality, of an integral part of the Ur-tradition.

The essential thing was the vision of a society ordered in accordance with a real, spiritually based hierarchy of values, and the sharp light it threw on the perversions, or inversions, the inverted hierarchy, of contemporary Western liberal and socialist democracy.

It was not for me a matter of simply emulating the Indian caste system even in a non-corrupt form. The varnashrama system cannot of course be unhistorically implemented in the West as an abstract, ideological blueprint. The distinct cultural and historical characteristics of the West must be taken into account and selectively adapted to. But to introduce the hierarchy of values and the differentiation of natural work, social function, and duty, the differentiation of dharma, as a normative standard more flexibly applied and not least imaginatively grasped in the way partial equivalents were suggested by the kind of Western thinkers I mentioned – this seemed reasonable, desirable, and feasible. The varnashrama vision supplemented and reinforced that of the Western thinkers.

I also picked up immediately, through the sheer force of his message and its presentation in his organization, the power of mala-japa meditation, and the importance of vegetarianism as an essential part of brahminical culture.

Then there was, of course, the way in which the Vedic tradition was connected to the pre-Christian Western and Nordic culture. The basic conceptions and the Sanskrit language appealed to and stirred something deep within me. In many ways, I felt immediatly at home in this tradition. And not just in the “philosophical” aspects, but in some of the outer forms and practices. In this respect, the transcendent dinner at Grevgatan was the same kind of experience as the initiation ceremony at the transcendental meditation centre (which I describe in the post ‘Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita’).

During the first half of the 1980s, when I was primarily absorbed in the academy and to some extent politics in the form of theoretical political analysis, I did not have much outer contact with this movement, but I read its books occasionally. It was only in the second half of that decade, when I got to know Vegavan and his friend Ajit (Willy Pfändtner) better (they and Smita Krishna Swami were Bhaktivedanta Swami’s first Swedish disciples, and together established the movement in Sweden in the early 1970s), that I became to take part more regularly, not in the main organization, but in Vegavan’s and Ajit’s own semi-separate group, the Bhaktivedanta Society (Bhaktivedantasällskapet), to which also belonged some who were followers of Bhakti Rakshaka Shridhara, another disciple of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, and thus not really members of Bhaktivedanta Swamis’s organization.

This was a group of intellectuals, artists, and musicians, and the meetings consisted to a considerable extent of discussion. Vegavan and Ajit were parts of what seems to have been a circle primarily of senior religion and indology scholars, such as professors Åke Hultkrantz and Siegfried Lienhard, who met in the Swedenborgian leader Olle Hjern’s home library in Banérgatan. They were also among the editors of the journal Gnosis. There were often meetings more than once a week. The group was often visited by leading figures in this branch of the Vedic tradition from around the world, and not exlusively from Bhaktivedanta Swami’s movement. I thus had the opportunity to learn much, in many respects, about this branch and indeed the Vedic tradition in general.

Not least, there was ample opportunity to discuss the issues that were of central importance to me: the issues of cultural integration and bridgebuilding, of historical connections and affinities, of saving Europe and the West by means of selectively introducing the Vedic tradition, the needed historical, cultural, and other analyses, the understanding of the pre-Christian traditions of the West, etc.

This all continued well into the 1990s. Then Vegavan and Ajit left Stockholm, the former moving into hypnotherapy in south Sweden, the latter into academia at Uppsala, and the activities of the Bhaktivedanta Society petered out. Again I no longer had any regular – or rather, regular and frequent – contact with the movement and its tradition, except through the literature. Never having left the academy and the “political” circles entirely, I again became absorbed in them. A new circle of intellectuals brought together mainly by Jonas De Geer had formed around Tage Lindbom, whom I had known and stayed in contact with since the first half of the 1980s, and whom I had been pleased to note Vegavan and Ajit too had not only read, but had on one occasion invited to speak to members of the Hare Krishna movement; Vegavan had also reviewed one of his books for Gnosis.

But instead, I established contact with another group within Bhaktivedanta Swami’s movement which resembled the Bhativedanta Society, namely ISKCON Communications, which organized annual conferences, the Communications Seminars, at the movement’s centre in Belgium, Radhadesh (Château de Petite Somme), in the Ardennes. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, this was my main contact with the organization, and it was a highly rewarding one (it also made me rather intimately familiar with Brussels, since I normally stayed there for a while on the way to and from those meetings). The representatives of the tradition were here supplemented by scholars who studied it or the organization.

The leading figure behind the Communications Seminars was Shaunaka Rishi, and the nature of those seminars was such that his next career move, the impressive establishment of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, was not surprising. When I moved my own doctoral work to Oxford, I again had frequent association with, by then, many old friends among the followers of Bhaktivedanta Swami, who were in various ways – mostly of course as students and researchers – associated with the centre in its early years. I was in the philosophy and theology faculties, my work was on Western personalism and idealism, and I was not affiliated with the Centre, but I often attended the latter’s seminars, and also the meetings in the little ashram where most of those friends lived.

During this period, I also taught Western philosophy at the Bhaktivedanta College which, through the Oxford Centre and in cooperation with the University of Wales, had been started at Radhadesh. But after returning to Sweden, I found no group comparable to these, or to the Bhaktivedanta Society, for frequent association. I have continued however to attend international conferences, not only what is now called the ISKCON Conventions, but also one organized by a new institution, the Bhaktivedanta Academy of Arts and Sciences. Most of my own contributions, however, I have made in the moderated academic internet forum called Vaishnava Advanced Studies, VAST.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi