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Was Srila Prabhupada Omniscient?
By Hari Sauri das

Dear CHAKRA readers,

Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada!

I have read with great interest Dravida Prabhu's reply to Swami Bhaktivedanta Aranya on the topics of Srila Prabhupada's supposed omniscience and his statements on the fall of the jiva. I thought Dravida's article was excellent, very nicely presenting Srila Prabhupada and his teachings "as it is" and countering the speculative interpretations that have appeared over the last few years.

I'd like to add a little something, if I may. I will say at the very beginning that I am highly unqualified. I am certainly no pure devotee, and I lack knowledge of shastra to a large degree. I can, however, comment in a practical way, since I had the privilege to live with Srila Prabhupada twenty-four hours a day for nearly a year and half. I don't claim to completely know Srila Prabhupada's mind or to understand all his actions. I can only present what I saw, heard, and read of his actions and teachings and hope that it will provide others with some further insights.

Even Lord Visnu Doesn't Know Everything

Concerning omniscience, the following interesting passage from the Srimad-Bhagavatam, along with Srila Prabhupada's comments, should prepare us well for understanding what it means to be omniscient:

SB 8.7.31 TRANSLATION O Lord Girisa, since the impersonal Brahman effulgence is transcendental to the material modes of goodness, passion and ignorance, the various directors of this material world certainly cannot appreciate it or even know where it is. It is not understandable even to Lord Brahma, Lord Visnu or the King of heaven, Mahendra.

PURPORT "The brahmajyoti is actually the effulgence of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. .... Although the impersonal feature of the Absolute is an expansion of the rays of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, He does not need to take care of the impersonalists who enter the brahmajyoti. Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita (9.4), maya tatam idam sarvam jagad avyakta-murtina: "In My impersonal feature I pervade this entire universe." Thus the avyakta-murti, the impersonal feature, is certainly an expansion of Krsna's energy. .... "The impersonal Brahman is unknown even to the other directors of the material creation, including Lord Brahma, Lord Indra and even Lord Visnu. This does not mean, however, that Lord Visnu is not omniscient. Lord Visnu is omniscient, but He does not need to understand what is going on in His all-pervading expansion. Therefore in Bhagavad-gita the Lord says that although everything is an expansion of Him (maya tatam idam sarvam), He does not need to take care of everything (na caham tesv avasthitah), since there are various directors like Lord Brahma, Lord Siva and Indra."

Our understanding of what it means to be omniscient should be tempered by this verse and purport: where there is a need, Krsna can give the information required; otherwise, although His expansions (including the jivas) can be or are omniscient, that does not necessarily mean that they know every single thing at every single moment in every single place. Even the omniscient Lord Visnu does not know what is going on in His own impersonal Brahman.

 Dravida Prabhu has nicely explained the difference between being "all-knowing" and "full of knowledge," and from our experience with Srila Prabhupada we can easily understand that Srila Prabhupada was indeed full of the knowledge that enabled him to preach the message of Lord Caitanya all over the world in the most extraordinary fashion. He was clearly empowered to do so, and thus we say that he was a "shaktyavesa avatar."

 But it should be equally clear that being a shaktyavesa avatar does not automatically bestow every attribute of God upon that soul. Since, as we have seen, even Visnu Himself, a plenary expansion of Krsna, does not know everything, we should not assume that during his manifest presence a jivatma like Srila Prabhupada must have known everything at all times simply because he was empowered to achieve a specific goal of the Lord.

Rather than extrapolate from our own assumptions and our own interpretations of shastra to decide what Srila Prabhupada knew or didn't know, isn't it more sensible and honest to learn directly from Srila Prabhupada what he was and was not aware of?

Since Dravida Prabhu has already provided direct verbal evidence from Srila Prabhupada that he was not omniscient, at least in the sense of "knowing everything, everywhere, at every moment," I will not provide further quotes to that effect. What I will do is provide some practical evidence in support of this conclusion and add a few realizations of my own at the end.

I was present on the morning walk in Los Angeles on 8 June 1976 cited by Aranya Swami. I recorded the conversation at the time, and I recounted it later in the second volume of my book "A Transcendental Diary":

This morning Bharadvaja prabhu asked something directly applicable to Prabhupada himself.

"I understand, Srila Prabhupada, that the pure devotee can be as pervasive as Supersoul? By the mercy of Supersoul, he can be present in many places at once?"

"Yes. By the grace of Krsna," Prabhupada told him, "a devotee can become anything."

"So in other words," Duryodhana-guru asked, "that means the pure devotee can be omniscient?"

"Everything," Prabhupada confirmed. "God is omniscient, so a pure devotee can be omniscient by the grace of God."

Aranya Swami has used this statement to argue that Srila Prabhupada was omniscient and claimed that he therefore knew of the abuse going on in the gurukulas but chose to do nothing about it (apparently for some "higher purpose"). However, my experience in living with Srila Prabhupada was that he did not display this opulence during his manifest presence with us. He undoubtedly could have, had Krsna wanted to bestow such an ability on him, but he did not. As Dravida dasa has rightly pointed out, there is a big difference between "can be" and "is."

A Practical Example

There are many, many incidents big and small illustrating that Srila Prabhupada was not "all knowing," but to keep things concise I shall give only one example:

 In December 1975 a letter was sent to Srila Prabhupada from a man in Chicago. His wife had joined the movement and brought their twelve-year-old son along with her, against his wishes. He had already been to the newspapers, and now he was writing personally to Srila Prabhupada. He wanted his son back, and he asked Srila Prabhupada to instruct the devotees, if they knew where the boy was, to send him back. Otherwise, he threatened more forceful action.

Srila Prabhupada wrote a letter to all the temple presidents ordering that, if the boy was in their temple, they should immediately contact the father. He also wrote to the man informing him of this.

A year later it came to Srila Prabhupada's attention that this man was wreaking havoc at O'Hare airport in Chicago, having organized a group of people who were going there regularly and disrupting book distribution. That airport had been the number-one place in America for selling books, but now sales had plummeted to almost zero due to the efforts of this angry man. Our temple in Evanston was under threat of closure by the city due to his efforts, and there were problems getting permission for the San Diego temple. Moreover, he had initiated a court case against ISKCON.

Srila Prabhupada was informed that when he had sent his letter out a year earlier to all the temples, the letter had been interpreted by one of the American GBCs. This GBC (since retired), who knew where the boy was, told the temple presidents that Srila Prabhupada did not really want the boy to be sent back to his karmi father; Srila Prabhupada, he said, naturally wanted the boy to remain a devotee. The boy himself also wanted to be a devotee. Therefore, the GBC concluded, the letter Srila Prabhupada sent out was a show, meant simply to pacify the father and make it appear that Srila Prabhupada was concerned and was trying to do something. Due to this interpretation the boy was kept hidden and eventually transferred to an overseas temple.

The end result of this intrigue was that ISKCON suffered very badly, with lost book distribution and tens of thousands of dollars of income, huge negative publicity, and a pending court case.

Srila Prabhupada had no idea that any of this had happened until it was brought to his attention. When he did hear of it, he was extremely angry. He was most upset with the particular GBC involved. He had no idea that his letter had being interpreted in that fashion, and he was even more upset with the result. He told us very clearly that "We cannot risk the whole Society for one small boy. He must be returned to the father immediately."

Srila Prabhupada at once had four GBC members who were with him in India at the time write a letter to the offending GBC ordering him to return the boy forthwith and negotiate an out-of-court settlement. He also wrote a personal letter to the offending GBC to the same effect. This was done, the man stopped harassing the devotees, and ISKCON ended up paying him (as far as I remember) $70,000 to settle his suit.

Now, the point here is that Srila Prabhupada really did not know that his first order had been disobeyed. Nor did he know about the huge problems affecting book distribution and other aspects of his preaching until he was sent news clippings and letters from the president of the Chicago temple and the Chicago-area GBC and other GBCs. Had he known, he would have ordered that the boy be returned at once, which was his desire when he sent the first letter out.

In this case Srila Prabhupada very clearly did not show any omniscience. And there are many, many other incidents that indicate Srila Prabhupada was not omniscient during his manifest presence with us.

A Few Humble Realizations

What I find most disturbing about all this is that in their attempts to establish their own ideas of Srila Prabhupada, the proponents of his omniscience deny clear evidence to the contrary, not only from Srila Prabhupada's actions but also from his own words in his letters, books and conversations. An attribute that Srila Prabhupada never claimed to have and never exhibited is somehow being ascribed to him by others, who seem to have assumed the lofty position of knowing His Divine Grace better than he knew himself.

Ignoring the real Srila Prabhupada, ignoring his words, ignoring his manifest activities, such persons would have us believe that their understanding of Srila Prabhupada is more reliable than the understanding of those who directly saw Srila Prabhupada in action and who take his words to mean what he said and take Srila Prabhupada to have said what he meant.

The mood seems to be that despite what Srila Prabhupada said and did, if his words and deeds don't fit one's own ideas they should be reinterpreted to bring the conception of Srila Prabhupada around to one's own model. And to make it appear that no offense is being committed, one ascribes to Srila Prabhupada the full powers of God, thereby putting him out of the reach of any ordinary mortal's or devotee's understanding. Thus only the elite among us can really understand him, and the rest of us should submissively accept them as our bridge to knowing Srila Prabhupada.

This line of thought is clearly extremely dangerous for the spiritual lives of those who claim to follow him, for these reasons:

Just as, in the above example I cited, the GBC man interpreted a perfectly straightforward letter from Srila Prabhupada to suit his own idea of what he thought Srila Prabhupada wanted and thus brought havoc to the Society, to Srila Prabhupada's preaching, and to his own spiritual life, similarly, those who now reinterpret Srila Prabhupada's words and deeds do so at great risk to the preaching mission Srila Prabhupada established, and to their own spiritual lives as well. While claiming an inner understanding of the acarya's intentions, they actually move away from, and thus thwart, his real intent.

Superimposing one's own realizations can never bring one into intimate contact with the spiritual master. Thus his favor is lost, along with one's spiritual progress.

Also, it goes without saying that once you justify reinterpreting the acarya, you open a Pandora's box. Any unscrupulous person can then step forward and, when he finds a difference between his own ideas and those of Srila Prabhupada, simply claim that Srila Prabhupada was saying one thing but meaning another and then proceed to tell us what he actually meant, even if it is the direct opposite of what he said! It doesn't take a genius to understand where this can lead us.

It should also be obvious that those who reinterpret now will be subject to the same speculative process themselves in the future, because that is the precedent they set for their "followers."

The Fall of the Jiva Issue

This is precisely what is happening in the so-called "fall of the jiva" debate, where we have people who cannot accommodate Srila Prabhupada's realizations within their own minds telling us that although Srila Prabhupada repeatedly said that the conditioned souls fell from Vaikuntha, his saying so was only a "preaching strategy" meant to fool us.


It remains to be seen who are the greater fools, those who take Srila Prabhupada's words and deeds "as it is," or those who wish to reinterpret them according to their own ideas.

Personally, everything I have ever understood about shastra and spiritual practice has been received through the transparent via medium of my spiritual master, and I desire nothing else. I would heartily recommend that every other follower of Srila Prabhupada also accept him in the same way. Failing that, one potentially puts oneself in the hands of the unscrupulous, who while claiming to possess an intimate relationship with His Divine Grace and to praise him, in fact do him the greatest disservice.

Your humble servant,

Hari-sauri dasa

© CHAKRA 12-August-2000

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