When Srila Prabhupada came to the western world to preach Krishna Consciousness, he thought to induct only brahmacaris and sannyasis. But being merciful and compassionate, he accepted all class of people and engaged them in Krishna’s service.
At the beginning of Chowpatty a few brahmacaris were sent her. They were quarrelsome with each other and fought bitterly with the grihastas. Stealing, back-biting, breaking regulative principles were common. It was a total discouragement to the small, fragile congregation. The leaders of the ashram, who adamantly held their positions, would not allow Radhanath Swami to even give Bhagavatam or festival classes because they condemned him as being sympathetic to fallen householders and therefore disqualified to speak to them. It was a grueling uphill struggle for him.
To the handful of temple and congregation devotees who were sincere, he emphasized developing high standards in both sadhana and character. He constantly stressed a sincere service attitude steeped in humility, tolerance and compassion. He believed that the process of chanting and hearing in that spirit is like a blazing fire. Either it will burn away your insincerity and you become sincere or the intolerable heat of that fire would impel you to leave. It actually started to work, some left and some became sincere.
One of the challenges in developing brahmacari ashram in the beginning was conflict between grihastha and brahmacaris. Grihasthas felt the brahmacaris were useless and burdensome, and didn’t want them to squander their (grihasthas) hard earned money and in turn brahamcari openly criticized the grihasthas. Radhanath Swami stressed the need of all ashrams to be united for a healthy community. He highlighted the verse trinad api sunicena and gradually the sincere became stronger and the insincere were exposed by their own words and deeds. He stressed that as the standards raise we will attract more serious seekers and give them a deep spiritual experience. The situation gradually changed.
In the beginning the parents of full time devotees were alarmed. The brahmacaris were taught to keep respectful communication with their parents and senior devotees were encouraged to cultivate them. Now many of brahmacaris parents are initiated devotees or favorable and proud of their sons contribution to society.
As intensive training prevailed in early nineties, Radhanath Swami gave 10 instructions in developing the brahmacaris ashram. Those instructions became the basis for training and education.
The 10 instructions given were as follows:
- Our brahmacaris should be trained to deeply value the importance of strict sadhana.
- We should train them to be humble menial servants at heart, expecting nothing, but ready to offer their lives in the service of the Vaishnavas.
- They should learn the essential virtue of chastity and loyalty to our Guru- Parmapara, never searching elsewhere.
- Our brahmacaris should scrutinizing learn and comprehend Srila Prabhupada’s Books.
- They should be trained to fearlessly preach Krishna Conscious philosophy to the people in general, and defend the principles of pure bhakti.
- Brahmacaris must learn the brahminical standards of cleanliness and keep the ashram clean always.
- They should be trained to offer Puja to the Holy Deities with punctuality, cleanliness, great respect & care and according to the authorized process.
- We should teach them to prepare nice prasadam and nicely play instruments for kirtan. Our kirtans should be with great feeling, enthusiasm and very graceful for the pleasure of Sri Sri Radha Gopinath.
- They should associate with women only for essential service, not for sense gratification.
- Most important is that our Brahmacaris develop GREAT LOVE, TRUST, and PERSONAL FRIENDSHIPS with one another – to be the servant of the servant of the servant.
As time passed the temple brahmacaris and the congregational grihastas became a united family. They will do anything for each other. In this shared spirit of cooperation and care, centered in hearing and chanting, Krishna attracts our hearts and the hearts of many more to the path of bhakti.
A celibate monk in the Vedic culture accepts the saffron colour as his dress code. For millennia, saffron colour in the pan Hindu culture, and even in Buddhist and Sikh traditions, has been connected to sacrifice and renunciation. Interestingly the Indian National flag also has saffron as one of the three colours. The significance of saffron in the Indian flag was announced by the former president of India, Dr Radhakrishnan: “The saffron colour denotes renunciation or disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work.”
A brahmachari (celibate monk) wears saffron to declare openly that he wants to serve; he expresses his desire to be indifferent to material prosperity and dedicate his life for service of humanity. Most brahmacharis who join Radhanath Swami’s Radha Gopinath ashram do not accept saffron immediately. They serve sincerely for three to four years and by then they become focused on their chosen path of renunciation. Then the saffron cloth is offered, not as a recognition or honour but as an opportunity to increase their service in the spirit of sacrifice. The event where a brahmachari accepts saffron is special; the senior monks celebrate yet another warrior getting recruited into the army of selfless service. The juniors too rejoice, seeing hope and inspiration for them to follow. Seeing a young monk jump and dance happily during the kirtans of saffron awarding, a friend chuckled and shared with me, “Just as the younger brother dances during the wedding of his older brother because he knows he is next, similarly these younger brahmacharis are dancing joyfully, knowing they will also soon accept saffron.”
Accepting saffron is also a sobering experience as in India the general mass of people equate saffron with the highest examples of purity and renunciation. Having accepted saffron, a brahmachari is careful in his dealings with others and is also careful to cultivate pure thoughts of prayers and service to God.
Over a period of time the brahmachari also realizes that people respect him due to the colour of cloth he is wearing. If he isn’t serious in his practices, he realizes the hollowness of his spiritual pursuits; he shuns the superficiality of identifying with the cloth of saffron and then begins to deeply internalize the spirit that saffron represents. That’s when his monkhood actually begins and his sincerity now adds substance to his life of renunciation.