The Following is an excerpt from “Our Family Business” By His Grace Vaisesika Dasa, available here.
In ISKCON we hear devotees say “Books are the basis.” Śrīla Prabhupāda himself used this phrase in a letter to Maṇḍali Bhadra Dāsa dated January 20, 1972: “My first concern is that my books shall be published and distributed profusely all over the world. Practically, books are the basis of our movement. Without them our preaching has no effect.” He uses it again in a letter to Tuṣṭa Kṛṣṇa Swami (January 9, 1976): “Books are the basis of our movement. Whatever appreciation we are getting on account of our books, it is because we are following the path chalked out by exalted devotees.”
So what does it mean that Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books are the foundation – the basis – of ISKCON? We can begin to understand by reading the letter Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote to Dāmodara Dāsa on December 3, 1971:
I’m especially pleased to hear that your distribution of our books and magazines has increased. Go on in this way, increasing more and more. Each time someone reads some solid information about Kṛṣṇa his life becomes changed in some way. These literatures are the solid ground upon which our preaching stands, so I want that they should be available to everyone, as many as possible. So please try for this.
It is interesting that Śrīla Prabhupāda uses the word “solid” twice in this letter. Before Śrīla Prabhupāda published Bhagavad-gītā As It Is, there were hundreds of translations of the Gītā in English, but almost none of them introduced Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme Personality of Godhead and encouraged readers to surrender to Him and attain the supreme goal of life, pure love of God. Consequently, after reading those translations, hardly anyone outside of India became a devotee of Kṛṣṇa – they did not read “some solid information about Kṛṣṇa” and so change their lives.
In stark contrast, as soon as Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciples began to circulate Bhagavad-gītā As It Is, hundreds of thousands of people in the West took up Kṛṣṇa consciousness seriously, as the text recommends, and many, many more took it up in India. Today, millions of devotees have heard the clarion call of Bhagavad-gītā As It Is, and more continue to do so daily. Bhagavad-gītā As It Is – and all of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s other books – are “the solid ground upon which our preaching stands.” These books change lives.
What makes them special? First, they undeviatingly and ceaselessly promote unmotivated, uninterrupted devotional service to the Supreme along with the practical means to attain it. Second, they precisely and authoritatively describe the name, form, abode, pastimes, and loving associates of the Supreme Personality of Godhead along with instructions on how to make one’s way back to the spiritual world. Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purports are not simply the musings of a single author; they are both authoritative and realized. This not only makes Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books relishable, it makes them rare in the world of spiritual literature. As he wrote in the letter to Tuṣṭa Kṛṣṇa Swami I just quoted, “Whatever appreciation we are getting on account of our books, it is because we are following the path chalked out by exalted devotees.”
The descriptions of the Lord and the spiritual world in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purports are enthralling. Here is one from his purport to Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Ādi-līlā 5.22:
The residents of Vaikuṇṭha have brilliantly black complexions much more fascinating and attractive than the dull white and black complexions found in the material world. Their bodies, being spiritual, have no equals in the material world. The beauty of a bright cloud when lightning flashes on it merely hints at their beauty. Generally the inhabitants of Vaikuṇṭha dress in yellow clothing. Their bodies are delicate and attractively built, and their eyes are like the petals of lotus flowers. Like Lord Viṣṇu, the residents of Vaikuṇṭha have four hands decorated with a conch shell, wheel, club, and lotus flower. Their chests are beautifully broad and fully decorated with necklaces of a brilliant diamondlike metal surrounded by costly jewels never to be found in the material world. The residents of Vaikuṇṭha are always powerful and effulgent. Some of them have complexions like red coral cat’s eyes and lotus flowers, and each of them has earrings of costly jewels. On their heads they wear flowery crowns resembling garlands.
In the Vaikuṇṭhas there are airplanes, but they make no tumultuous sounds. Material airplanes are not at all safe: they can fall down and crash at any time, for matter is imperfect in every respect. In the spiritual sky, however, the airplanes are also spiritual, and they are spiritually brilliant and bright. These airplanes do not fly business executives, politicians, or planning commissions as passengers, nor do they carry cargo or postal bags, for these are all unknown there. These planes are for pleasure trips only, and the residents of Vaikuṇṭha fly in them with their heavenly, beautiful, fairylike consorts. Therefore these airplanes, full of residents of Vaikuṇṭha, both male and female, increase the beauty of the spiritual sky. We cannot imagine how beautiful they are, but their beauty may be compared to the clouds in the sky accompanied by silver branches of electric lightning. The spiritual sky of Vaikuṇṭha-loka is always decorated in this way.
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s descriptions of the fascinating setting in which Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s loving relationships take place against the backdrop of the sublime Vṛndāvana forest, with its cows and monkeys, its peacock and deer, Govardhana Hill and the Yamunā River, and the enchanting sound of the flute, draw readers to the Lord. Descriptions this distinct make it possible for readers to step away from their distant concepts of God and fall in love with Him. To find this kind of potency even in a religious book is rare.
Besides giving us descriptions of the Lord and the spiritual world, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books teach us how to develop an intimate, loving relationship with Kṛṣṇa as His servant, friend, parent, or lover as we advance from an awakening of faith to unalloyed love for the Supreme. Some of his translations offer us a glimpse into Kṛṣṇa’s thinking, as does this translation from Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta (Ādi-līlā 4.15–26):
The Lord wanted to taste the sweet essence of the mellows of love of God, and He wanted to propagate devotional service in the world on the platform of spontaneous attraction. Thus He is known as supremely jubilant and as the most merciful of all.
[Lord Kṛṣṇa thought:] All the universe is filled with the conception of My majesty, but love weakened by that sense of majesty does not satisfy Me. If one regards Me as the Supreme Lord and himself as a subordinate, I do not become subservient to his love, nor can it control Me. In whatever transcendental mellow My devotee worships Me, I reciprocate with him. That is My natural behavior.
In whatever way My devotees surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Pṛthā. If one cherishes pure loving devotion to Me, thinking of Me as his son, his friend, or his beloved, regarding himself as great and considering Me his equal or inferior, I become subordinate to him.
Devotional service rendered to Me by the living beings revives their eternal life. O My dear damsels of Vraja, your affection for Me is your good fortune, for it is the only means by which you have obtained My favor.
Mother sometimes binds Me as her son. She nourishes and protects Me, thinking Me utterly helpless. My friends climb on My shoulders in pure friendship, saying, “What kind of big man are You? You and I are equal.” If My beloved consort reproaches Me in a sulky mood, that steals My mind from the reverent hymns of the Vedas.
The major works Śrīla Prabhupāda chose to translate and commentate, particularly the Bhagavad-gītā, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, and The Nectar of Devotion, provide readers with a complete, inspiring, and balanced course of instruction on bhakti-yoga. His unparalleled purports display a level of compassion and faith in Lord Caitanya’s mercy, in the process of devotional service, and in the power of the works themselves that is rarely seen in the world. Arguably, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purports have broken open the same storehouse of love of Godhead that Lord Caitanya and His associates plundered over five hundred years ago. Because the teachings in his purports are so down to earth and practical, beginners in spiritual life can follow them, but they also satisfy advanced practitioners who have learned how to read the layers of meaning they contain and thus find elucidations of the topmost devotional practices and sentiments. Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purports – through their sensible, simple, clear, yet eloquent instructions on the proper execution of bhakti – can set people at all levels of spiritual development solidly on the path to pure devotional service.
His purport to Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 2.9.36 is an example of both his deep compassion and his faith in the power of devotional service:
Therefore there is no need to seek properly qualified candidates for discharging devotional service to the Lord. Let them be either well behaved or ill trained, let them be either learned or fools, let them be either grossly attached or in the renounced order of life, let them be liberated souls or desirous of salvation, let them be inexpert in the discharge of devotional service or expert in the same, all of them can be elevated to the supreme position by discharging devotional service under the proper guidance.
Sincere seekers, advanced practitioners, and especially those dedicated to expanding ISKCON can thus be confident in their study of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books, knowing that what he is offering, especially in his purports, will help them build a strong devotional foundation and progress safely to the goal of life. And they can be confident that by distributing these transcendental books, they are helping others to do the same. What’s more, because Śrīla Prabhupāda strongly emphasized that all services connected to the saṅkīrtana movement are of equal value – gurukula, farming, scientific research, restaurants, Deity worship, and cleaning the temple room floor – those who have learned from Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books have gone out and applied what they’ve learned in all kinds of ways, and people can now visit any ISKCON project and learn how to apply the knowledge in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books.