Joshua M. Greene: ‘Swami in a Strange Land’: How Krishna Consciousness came to the West

Imagine, if you will, boarding a cargo ship at 69 years-old to leave your home country for the first time in your life. You’ve set out on a month-long journey to go to a country where you don’t know one single person.

During the journey you suffer from sea sickness, dizziness, vomiting and also have two heart-attacks. After 37 days you arrive in the United States of America with an umbrella, a small supply of dry cereal, about forty Rupees ($7.00), several boxes of books and your life-long mission to bring Krishna Consciousness to the West.

This is the story of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of ISKCON (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness) and how he brought Krishna Consciousness to the West.

Swami in a Strange Land, by Joshua M. Greene, is an exceptionally well-written biography that intricately chronicles a story of love, devotion, courage and possibility. Prabhupada’s life story beautifully demonstrates the quintessential example that “You can start with nothing, and out of nothing and out of no way, a way will be made.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Greene to delve deeper into what is difficult to comprehend, as to how Prabhupada accomplished all that he did, given his humble beginnings.

BJB: In addition to faith, surrender, and perseverance, what spiritual space did Prabhupada have to occupy to bring Krishna Consciousness to the West?

JG: I don’t know that it’s possible to grasp the answer to this particular question unless you have been very far down the path yourself.

From our mortal perspective, that kind of determination seems utterly impossible. I ask myself all the time, “How did he get on that boat?”

I can give you platitudes, along with the three years of research I did for Swami in a Strange Land, and site chapter and verse on things he said, but I think to get inside the skin of that you really have to awaken some level of God.

It’s important to understand something central to Prabhupada’s legacy which is, in this moment we are capable of doing more than we could ever imagine.

Two things that I have learned studying Prabhupada’s books:

  1. There is more that I can do than I credit myself as being capable of doing.

  2. Never, ever judge what I’m seeing by its appearance. There is so much more going on beneath the surface. The mystery is very profound and we do ourselves and everybody else a tragic disservice when we judge things by their appearances.

My great privilege is I knew him. I traveled with him in different countries and I spent a long time with him under varying circumstances, and I’ve seen in him what it means to love God. The impression that I’m left with is that if you’re in love, anything is possible.

BJB: When Swami Prabhupada arrived in the U.S. what was the essence of his mission that attracted so many followers?

JG: The essence of his mission was that we are not the body. We are eternal souls, sparks of God.

“I am not this body. This body is the vehicle that is carrying me around.” The depth of meaning of that simple statement is mind boggling. To actually understand and live under that level of realization could be a game changer.

If I had to give you one message, it would be that, with the following post-script, due to countless births in this material world we have forgotten that we are the eternal soul that animates the body and now identify with our external temporary circumstances. That is where sadness comes from, where fear, bitterness and anger come from when we identify with our provisional condition.

Awareness of ourselves can be revived by a very simple practice, and that is chanting the holy name of God, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.”

Chanting stimulates consciousness.

Sound is the original creative element and is the most penetrating of elements. If you vibrate the proper sound, it revives our sleeping consciousness and the awareness of ourselves as eternal beings. Sound is considered to be a regenerative element because it sets creation in motion.

BJB: What is the biggest misconception about Krishna Consciousness and how does it differ from that of religion?

JG: The biggest misconception is that it’s a religion.

Religion is a social and ethical structure that serves an important purpose, which is to create a blueprint for the smooth functioning of a community. It points to the deeper truths, and the deeper levels of religion show parallels of similarity in the language and the concepts.

Ideally, religion includes spirituality. Sadly most religious leaders are confused about their spiritual identity and have a hard time guiding their communities, and so things tend to not go to those deeper and more mystical levels. They remain on the level of reinforcing “our community”, which means that “our community” is different than that other community.

Now you’ve created another division.

The advantage of Krishna Consciousness is that the Sanskrit texts are very comprehensive. They are extremely detailed in explaining the workings of creation, the nature of consciousness, the process of reincarnation, the qualities of material nature and how the cosmos operates.

BJB: One has to have a level of curiosity to remain non-judgmental with regards to the visual appearance of the cleanly shaven head and the saffron cloth for dress.