In his later years, as a traveling Vaishnava monk, he became an influential communicator of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology to India and specifically to the West through his leadership of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), founded in 1966. As the founder of ISKCON, he "emerged as a major figure of the Western counterculture, initiating thousands of young Americans. Despite attacks from the anticult groups, he received a favorable welcome from many religious scholars, such as J. Stillson Judah, Harvey Cox, Larry Shinn and Thomas Hopkins, who praised Prabhupada's translations and defended the group against distorted media images and misinterpretations. In respect to his achievements, religious leaders from other Gaudiya Vaishnava movements have also given him the credit.
He has been described as a charismatic leader, in the sense used by the sociologist Max Weber, as he was successful in acquiring followers in the United States, Europe, India and elsewhere. After his death in 1977 his ISKCON, an authentic form of Hindu Krishnaism based on the Bhagavata Purana, continues to grow and is respected in India, though there have been many squabbles about leadership among his followers. Prabhupada is sometimes criticized by Neo-Vedantic relativistic philosophers, mainly due to uncompromising and 'unkind remarks' against non-Vaishnava systems, particularly 'the mayavadis'. This may be taken in the perspective of general underlying hostility of Neo-Vedantists towards fundamental truth of bhakti, devotion, and orthodox Vedanta system presented by Prabhupada being in conflict with heterodox views of mayavadis. As such his Hare Krishna movement is accepted by the academics as "the most genuinely Hindu of all the many Indian movements in the West".
He received a European led education in the Scottish Churches College, Calcutta. This school was well reputed among Bengalis; many Vaishnava families sent their sons there. The professors, most of whom were Europeans, were known as sober, moral men, and it is believed that the students received a good education. The college was located in north Calcutta, not far from Harrison Road where Abhay's family lived. During his years in the college, Prabhupada was a member of the English Society as well as that of the Sanskrit Society, and it has been suggested that his education provided him a foundation for his future leadership. He graduated in 1920 with majors in English, philosophy and economics.
In 1922, when Prabhupada first met his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, he was requested to spread the message of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the English language. Later in 1932 Prabhupada became a formally initiated disciple of Bhaktisiddhanta. In 1944, (from his front room at Sita Kanta Banerjee, Calcutta), Prabhupada started the publication called Back to Godhead,, for which he acted as designer, publisher, editor, copy editor and distributor. He personally designed the logo, an effulgent figure of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the upper left corner, with the motto: "Godhead is Light, Nescience is darkness" greeting the readers. In his first magazine he wrote:
In 1947, the Gaudiya Vaishnava Society recognised Prabhupada's scholarship with the title Bhaktivedanta, meaning "one who has realised that devotional service to the Supreme Lord is the end of all knowledge" (with the words Bhakti, indicating devotion and Vedanta indicating conclusive knowledge). His later well known name, , is a Sanskrit title, literally meaning "he who has taken the position of the Lord" where denotes "Lord", and means "position. Also, "at whose feet masters sit". This name was used as a respectful form of address by his disciples from late 1967 early 1968 onwards. Previous to this, as with his early disciples, followers used to call him "Swamiji".
From 1950 onwards, Prabhupada lived at the medieval Radha-Damodar mandir in the holy town of Vrindavan, where he began his commentary and translation work of the Sanskrit work Bhagavata Purana. Of all notable Vrindavana's temples, the Radha-Damodara mandir had at the time the largest collection of various copies of the original writings of the Six Gosvamis and their followers - more than two thousand separate manuscripts, many of them three hundred, some even four hundred years old. His guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, had always encouraged Prabhupada that "If you ever get money, print books", referring to the need of literary presentation of the Vaishnava culture.
Keshavaji Gaudiya Matha was the place where Prabhupada used to live, he had written and studied in the library of this building, here he edited the magazine and this is the place where he donated the murti of Lord Chaitanya who stands on the altar beside the Deities of Radha Krishna (named Śrī Śrī Rādhā Vinodavihārījī). During his visit in September 1959 he entered the doors of this matha dressed in white, as Abhay Babu, but would be leaving dressed in saffron, a swami. In this matha, in Mathura Vrindavana, Prabhupada took Vaishnava renunciate vows,sannyasa, from his friend and godbrother Bhakti Prajnana Keshava Maharaja , and following this he singlehandedly published the first three volumes covering seventeen chapters of the first book of Bhagavata Purana, filling three volumes of four hundred pages each with a detailed commentary. Introduction to the first volume was a biographical sketch of Chaitanya Mahāprabhu. He then left India, obtaining free passage on a freight ship called the Jaladuta, with the aim and a hope of fulfilling his spiritual master's instruction to spread the message of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu around the world. In his possession were a suitcase, an umbrella, a supply of dry cereal, about eight dollars worth of Indian currency, and several boxes of books.
Prabhupada sailed to USA in 1965. His trip to the United States was not sponsored by any religious organisation, nor was he met upon arrival by a group of loyal followers. As he neared his destination on the ship, the Indian freighter Jaladuta, the enormity of his intended task weighed on him. On September 13 he wrote in his diary, "Today I have disclosed my mind to my companion, Lord Sri Krishna." On this occasion and on the number of other, Prabhupada, called on Krishna for help in his native Bengali. Examining these compositions, academics regard them as "intimate records of his prayerful preparation for what lay ahead" and a view on "how Bhaktivedanta Swami understood his own identity and mission." By journeying to America, he was attempting to fulfill the wish of his guru, possible only by the grace of "his dear Lord Krishna". It is in July 1966 "global missionary Vaishnavism" was brought to the West by Prabhupada, "the soul agent", founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York City. Prabhupada spent much of the last decade of his life setting up the institution of ISKCON. Since he was the Society's leader, his personality and management were responsible for much of ISKCON's growth and the reach of his mission.
When it was suggested to Bhaktivedanta Swami at the time of founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in 1966 that a broader term "God Consciousness" would be preferable to "Krishna Consciousness" in the title, he rejected this recommendation, suggesting that name Krishna includes all other forms and concepts of God.
After a group of devotees and a temple had been established in New York another center was started in San Francisco in 1967.From here Prabhupada traveled throughout America with his disciples, popularising the movement through street chanting (sankirtana), book distribution and public speeches.
Once ISKCON was more established in America a small number of devotees from the San Francisco temple were sent to London, England. After a short time of being in London they came into contact with The Beatles, of whom George Harrison took the greatest interest, spending a significant time speaking with Prabhupada and producing a record with members of the later London Radha Krsna Temple. Over the following years Prabhupada's continuing leadership role took him around the world some several times setting up temples and communities in all of the major continents. By the time of his death in Vrindavan eleven years later in 1977, ISKCON became a widely known expression of Vaishnavism on an international basis.
In the twelve years from his arrival in New York until his final days he:
Through his mission, Prabhupada followed and communicated the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and introduced bhakti yoga to an international audience. Within Gaudiya Vaishnavism this was viewed as the fulfillment of a long time mission to introduce Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's teachings to the world.
In his discussion with a historian Arnold J. Toynbee in London, Prabhupada is quoted as saying: "I have started this Krishna Conscious Movement among the Indians and Americans and for the next ten thousand years it will increase."
It is believed that Prabhupada's most significant contribution, are his books. Within the final twenty years of his life Prabhupada translated over sixty volumes of classic Vedic scriptures (such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam) into the English language. For their authority, depth, and clarity, his books have won praise from professors at colleges and universities like Harvard, Oxford, Cornell, Columbia, Syracuse, Oberlin, and Edinburgh, and his Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is was published by Macmillan Publishers, in 1968 and unabridged edition in 1972, and is now available in over sixty languages around the world and some other books by Prabhupada are available in over eighty different languages.
The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust was established in 1972 to publish his works, it has also published massively researched multivolume biography, Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, that in opinion of Larry Shinn will "certainly be one of the most complete records of the life and work of any modern religious figure". Prabhupada reminded his devotees before his death, he would live forever in his books. He would remain present for them as spiritual master, guru by these means. Prabhupada had instilled in his followers an understanding of the importance of writing and publishing not only with regard to his works, but also their own initiatives. His early disciples felt Prabhupada had given them Back To Godhead for their own writings from the very start.
A prominent Gaudiya Vaishnava figure, Shrivatsa Goswami, who as a young man had met Prabhupada in 1972, affirmed the significance of book publishing and distribution in spreading the message of Chaitanya in an interview with Steven Gelberg:
Prabhupada considered Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed to be empowered representatives of God, describing them within his writings as pioneers of the same essential message of dedication to God with love and devotion.
Other typical expression presents a different perspective, where Prabhupada would point out that "today I may be a Hindu, but tomorrow I may become a Christian or Muslim. In this way faiths can be changed, but dharma" is a natural sequence, a natural occupation or a connection and it can not be changed, because it is permanent, according to him. While ISKCON theology of personal god is close to Christian theology, both personal and monotheistic, being a preacher of bhakti and a missionary he sometimes would add, that "already many Christians have tasted the nectar of divine love of the holy name and are dancing with karatalas (hand-cymbals) and mridangas (drums). Prabhupada's approach to modern knowledge is also seen in sectarian Orthodox Judaism, where the skills and technical knowledge of modernity are encouraged, but the values rejected. For example, while higher education in engineering or accounting is permitted, the liberal and fine arts are dismissed as "useless" and "immoral". Some of his representations are believed to affect women adversely and are male-centred, others are tender and celebratory. Prabhupada himself taught a dualism of body and soul and that of the genders. Similar to many traditional religions he considered sexuality and spirituality as conflicting opposites. However among some liberal male followers there is a positive recognition of Prabhupada's own example in applying the spirit of the law according to time, place, person and circumstance, rather than literal tracing of the tradition.
In line with traditional Vaishnava theology, Prabhupada was critical of the monist philosophies of Hinduism representing the Gaudiya Vaishnava devotional point of view and often calling the Neo Vendanta adherents of monism with 'unkind words'. In the view of some, the Gaudiya-Vaishnava philosophy he followed is neither fully dualistic nor monist (this is known as Achintya Bheda Abheda). As a devotional path, Gaudiya Vaishnavism has much more in common with the Dvaita, as opposed to the Advaita schools. It can be specifically noted that Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, mentions in Indian Philosophy that Nyayakosa includes Samkhya and Advaita Vedanta under naistika, i.e. unortodox systems, or in other words that mayavadi is an atheist.
Initially, Srila Prabhupada began his public preaching mission in India. He founded the League of Devotees in Jhansi in 1953.
Following the establishment of temples and centres in the United States and Europe, Prabhupada returned to India in 1971, holding many public programs which were well attended. From 1971 onwards, the movement became increasingly popular and spread throughout the country, Prabhupada was particularly eager to see the progress at "the impressive temple project in" Mumbai which he and his disciples had fought very hard to establish, with large temples in Mayapur and Vrindavan to follow in mid 1970s.
In 1996, the Government of India recognized Prabhupada's accomplishments by issuing a commemorative stamp in his honor as a part of Prabhupada Centennial celebrations.
Speaking at the inauguration of ISKCON's cultural center in New Delhi in 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then India's prime minister, said:
A number of memorial samadhis or shrines to Prabhupada were constructed by the members of ISKCON in his remembrance. The largest of which are in Mayapur, Vrindavan and at the larger sized temples in America. Prabhupada's Palace of Gold was designed and constructed by devotees of the New Vrindavan community and dedicated on September 2, 1979. Back in 1972 it was intended to be simply a residence for Prabhupada, but over time the plans evolved into an ornate marble and gold palace which is now visited by thousands of Hindu pilgrims each year, visiting this centerpiece of the community strongly relying upon tourist trade.
Asian simplicity: the North American simplicity movement can learn much from the Asian philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism and we would do well to adapt some of these ideas into our thinking and practice.
Mar 01, 2003; In the past few decades a simplicity movement has arisen in North America, including books, websites, magazine articles,...