Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada -- better known as A.C. Bhaktivedanta or simply by the honorific "Prabhupada" -- was a Bengali Indian Hindu spiritual leader who founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, itself better known in the West as the "Hare Krishna" movement.
Prabhupada, who died in 1977, single-handedly created a global phenomenon that spread Vaishnavism, a sect of Hinduism, to the far corners of the earth. Virtually every major city (and even some smaller towns) in Europe, North America, Australasia and South America -- not to mention India itself -- now feature Krishna temples and shaven-headed, saffron-robe-wearing devotees.
The Hare Krishna movement -- which also arguably helped to popularize yoga in the Western world -- attracted an equal number of admirers and hostile critics outside of India. However, at its core, the movement promoted some very benevolent and healthful activities, including prayer, devotion to God, peace, vegetarianism and monogamy (or in some cases, sexual abstinence).
But the man who spearheaded the Hare Krishna empire, Prabhupada, espoused some very controversial views that would likely upset, and even outrage, those who are otherwise sympathetic to spiritual endeavors and theology.
For one thing, Prabhupada spewed vitriolic racial hatred toward black/African people -- repeatedly and explicitly. Examples of his racial bigotry are numerous and frequently recorded in lectures and private conversations by his many devotees and disciples over the decades.
Even if some of his comments were taken out of context (as his defenders and apologists sometimes assert), the sheer volume and magnitude of his immense bigotry cannot be ignored nor sugar-coated.
Part of Prabhupada's hatred of blacks stemmed from his deep-seated Hindu beliefs that dark-skinned peoples represent the very bottom of the hierarchy of the human race -- a direct reflection of India's ancient color-based caste system.
For example, in an April 1968 letter to a senior disciple named Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami (born an Italian Roman Catholic in Staten Island named Stephen Guarino), Prabhupada wrote: "Certainly we are not going to say these things about the Negro people publicly, we have no distinction between black or white, or demon or demigod, but at the same time, so long as one is demon or demigod, we have to behave in the proper way.” These words, which suggested that blacks should be kept at a distance, were uttered shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
During a speech before a class in Los Angeles later that year, Prabhupada told a bizarre tale of how the apartment he was staying at in New York City had been burglarized and his typewriter and tape recorder stolen.
”When I came back [to the apartment] I saw the door [was] broken,” Prabuphada said. “That [building] superintendent, he was a Negro. He [had] done [it], I know that. This is [a] very common case here [in America].”
In a conversation with devotees on the island of Mauritius from 1975, Prabhupada chastised the gross materialism of the West, while simultaneously slurring black people.
“It is all [a] nonsense civilization,” he declared. “A first-class Rolls Royce car, and who is sitting there? A third-class Negro. This is going on. You will find these things in Europe and America. This is going on. A first-class car and a third-class Negro.”
Prabhupada frequently used the term “Negro” even though that word had fallen out of favor in most Anglophone nations.
The theme of black people as cursed by God and hopelessly beyond redemption appeared repeatedly in Prabhupada’s comments.
During an initiation session in Bombay (now called Mumbai), he told some devotes who were preparing to go to Africa: “You have got [a] good opportunity. You are going to Africa to deliver these persons ... These groups of men are considered very fallen … the black men … They are habituated to steal; therefore they have been given a separate place, [the] African jungles.”
For a man who came from a country colonized by the British, Prabhupada made some rather shocking statements about imperialism, in particular as it pertained to the United States. In a discussion with a disciple named Syamasundara Dasa, Prabhupada seemed to equate the Native Americans (pejoratively called "Red Indians") of North America with the Sudras (the lowest-caste, darkest-skinned Indians of the Hindu system in India).
“Sudras [black people] have no brain,” he said. “In America also, the whole [of] America once belonged to the Red Indians. Why they could not improve? The land was there. Why [did] these foreigners, the Europeans, came and improved [it]? So sudras cannot do this. They cannot make any [improvements].”
Prabhupada apparently also deeply embraced the myth of the "Aryan" super-race and linked the ancient peoples of India to Europe and the U.S. During a talk in Australia one year prior to his death, Prabhupada declared that “the Aryans spread [to] Europe also, and the Americans, they also spread from Europe. So the intelligent class of human being, they belong to the Aryans, [the] Aryan family. Just like [Adolph] Hitler claimed that he belonged to the Aryan family.”
The Swami also equated the Dravidians, that is, the dark-skinned original inhabitants of India who now predominate in the southern part of the country, with black Africans. He also bemoaned that the Dravidians (black people) mixed with the Aryans (white people) throughout Indian history, including in his native Bengal.
"In Bengal the … black mixed up with [the] white,” he complained. “In Bengal and Madras [now called Chennai, a city in South India], so many Dravidian have been mixed up with the Aryan. Therefore in Bengal and Madras you'll find many [people who are] black.”
The Dravidians, Prabhupada declared, are “non-Aryans. Just like these Africans, they are not Aryans.”
Prabhupada also appeared to warn that the race-mixing that occurred in India was also occurring in Europe and America, and that it would create serious problems in the future.
He also held some deeply pessimistic views about the racial conflict in the United States. Speaking in Tehran, Iran, in 1976, Prabhupada declared, “I don't think the Negro question [in the U.S.] is solved … The whites, they do not like the Negroes still. Wherever there are Negroes, in that [neighborhood] the whites do not go in …. Although they [black people] have been given equal [rights], but at heart the whites, they do not like it. Is there any improvement? I don't think [so].”
Prabhupada also appeared to endorse segregation -- the separation of the races, by referring to behavior in the animal kingdom.
“[Black] crows will not like to live with the ducks and white swans,” he reportedly said during a train trip in India during the final year of his life. “And white swans will not like to live with the crows. That is [a] natural division.”
In a conversation with an American disciple named Ramesvara, Prabhupada suggested that without government control through welfare, black people would become "out of control" and create disorder in society.
“Especially in your country [the U.S.] it will be dangerous because these blacks, if they don’t get employment, they will create havoc, these blacks,” he said. “And they are not civilized. They want money, and if they don’t get money, then they will create havoc.”
In a February 1977 conversation in Mayapur, along the Ganges, Prabhupada pontificated on what must be done with the "blacks" (the Sudras) of India -- again, equating them with African-Americans of in the U.S. Most appallingly, he suggested that black people should remain in bondage.
“[The] Sudra is to be controlled only,” he said. “They are never [to be] given… freedom. Just like in America. The blacks were slaves. They were under control. And since you have given them equal rights they are disturbing, most disturbing, always creating a fearful situation, [blacks are] uncultured and drunkards. What training they have got? They have got equal [rights]? [It] is best, to keep them under control as slaves but give them sufficient food, sufficient [clothes], not more than that. Then they will be satisfied.”
Prabhupada also had some choice words about the Jews.
During another conversation with Ramesvara, Prabhupada alleged that Hitler killed the Jews in Germany because banks in the United States and Western Europe (allegedly controlled by Jews) were helping to finance Vladimir Lenin and the Communist revolution in Russia and elsewhere.
“They [Jewish bankers] were financing against [the interests of] Germany,” Prabhupada said. “Otherwise, he [Hitler] had no enmity [against] the Jews… The Jews have got money. They want to invest and get some profit. Their only interest is how to get money, [not] nationalism, [not] religion, nothing of the sort ... Therefore [William] Shakespeare wrote [of] ‘Shylock, the Jew.’”
Also, speaking in New York in March 1966, the Swami declared: "Hitler was a great student of Bhagavad-gita [classic Hindu scripture]"
A devotee named Gopagopisvara Dasa wrote that Prabhupada clearly embraced racism and eugenics.
“Prabhupada certainly believed that there was a master human race, the Aryans, and that they were white or tan,” he wrote. “Most other races, such as Africans or Native Americans, were inferior.”
Of course, Prabhupada would never admit he was a racialist – at least not in the way westerners understand that word. He clikely would not even understand the furore his remarks would have made (had they been broadcast to a wide audience, which they were not duting his lifetime). Concepts like “civil rights” and “human equality” are indeed meaningless to someone like Prabhupada who devoted his life almost exclusively to ancient Vedic texts and prepared for the next world.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.