A Brief Life Sketch of Srila Gour Govinda Swami
His Divine Grace Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja made his appearance as Braja-bandhu Manik in a vaisnava family on 2nd September 1929. He appeared in the village of Jagannathapura, not far from Jagannatha Puri Dhama, in Odisha, India, but as his mother was descended from the Giri family of the village Gadeigiri, Braja-bandhu spent his childhood there. His grandfather was a paramahamsa whose only business was to chant Hare Krsna and cry before the local Deity of Krsna known as Gopala Jiu. He taught Braja-bandhu how to chant the Hare Krsna maha-mantra by counting on his fingers. In the company of his uncles, Braja-bandhu would travel from village to village chanting Hare Krsna and singing the songs of Narottama Dasa Thakura. The Giri family have been known since the time of Syamananda Prabhu as famous kirtana performers in Odisha. Three hundred years ago, in the temple registers of Jagannatha Puri, the king of Odisha wrote that the kirtana party of Gadeigiri should come to perform kirtana for Lord Jagannatha whenever possible. In Odisha they are seen as kirtana-gurus.
From the age of six, Braja-bandhu worshiped the Deity of Gopala by making garlands, and sometimes, under the light of a candle, by singing hymns for Him from palm-leaf manuscripts. He would never take any food that was not offered to Gopala.
By the age of eight he had read the entire Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam and Sri Caitanya-caritamrta and could also explain their meaning. At night many villagers would come to hear his recitation of the Bhagavata, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Thus from the very beginning of his life he was absorbed in chanting Krsna’s holy name, studying vaisnava literature, and worshipping his beloved Gopala. Friends and relatives remember him as always being very quiet and introspective. He was never interested in playing with other boys or in going to see cinema shows or theatre.
After the death of his father in 1955, as the eldest son he became responsible for maintaining the family, and on the request of his widowed mother he entered the grhastha-asrama. He first met his wife, Srimati Vasanti Devi, during their marriage ceremony. Because of financial constraints he could not enrol formally in University courses, but he studied privately at night to attend the examinations, obtaining a B.A. degree from Utkal University with overall second highest marks on the exam. He later also obtained a B.Ed. degree in a similar way and took up the profession of a school teacher. Despite many responsibilities, however, his devotion to Gopala never slackened. He would daily rise at 3.30 A.M., chant the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, worship Tulasi-devi, and speak to his family from the Bhagavad-gita. In school he would take every opportunity to speak to his students about Krsna and devotional principles. Some of his students would become his disciples thirty years later.
During school breaks he would take his wife and travel to the Himalayan mountains, visiting different tirthas and asramas, and he would sometimes engage in philosophical debates with the mayavadis he found there.
On 8 April 1974, at the age of forty-five, Braja-bandhu left his home and relatives in search of spiritual perfection. Giving himself the name “Gour-Gopalananda Dasa” and carrying only a Bhagavad-gita and a begging bowl, he wandered around India, visiting many sacred places along the banks of the Ganges River. He was looking for his spiritual master, that person who could help him develop an understanding of the maha-mantra. Although he had met many sadhus and gurus during his householder days - Odisha has many prominent sects of gaudiya-vaisnavas - he had not found any whose teachings sufficiently touched his heart. Still not finding his spiritual master after wandering in this way for one year, he eventually reached Vrndavana, thinking that his desire would certainly be fulfilled in Krsna’s dear abode.
Two weeks after arriving in Vrndavana he saw a huge signboard which read, “International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Founder-acarya His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada,” and he met a group of western devotees who gave him a copy of Back to Godhead magazine. When he read the contents describing the glory of divine love for Krsna, his heart became anxious to meet the magazine’s editor and the founder of the movement, Srila Prabhupada. Gaining entrance to Srila Prabhupada’s room, he introduced himself and the first question Srila Prabhupada asked was, “Have you taken sannyasa?” Gour-Gopalananda replied that he had not. “Then I will give you sannyasa!” exclaimed Srila Prabhupada. Understanding that Srila Prabhupada knew his heart, he surrendered himself at his lotus feet and soon became Prabhupada’s initiated disciple.
In 1975, at the opening of ISKCON’s Sri Sri Krishna-Balarama Mandir in Vrndavana, Srila Prabhupada awarded him the sannyasa order, sending him to preach in Odisha and to construct a temple on the newly donated property in Bhubaneswar.
The donated land was a jungle full of mosquitoes, snakes and scorpions. It was so far from the city center that even during the daytime people were afraid to visit. Meditating on the desire of Srila Prabhupada, Gour Govinda Swami worked with unwavering determination. Sometimes residing in the storeroom of a tea dealer and even sometimes sharing a small hut with road construction workers, he began translating Srila Prabhupada’s books into Odia as he had been instructed. He would visit house after house, office after office, in and around Bhubaneswar to collect some small donations, and he constructed with his own hands a thatched hut on the donated property.
In early 1977 Srila Prabhupada came to Bhubaneswar. Although the arrangement had been made for him to stay comfortably in the State Guesthouse, Srila Prabhupada at once rejected this proposal, “I will only stay where my disciple child Gour Govinda has built a mud hut for me.” Srila Prabhupada stayed in Bhubaneswar for seventeen days, during which time he started translation work on the tenth canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. On the auspicious occasion of Lord Nityananda’s appearance day he laid the foundation stone of the temple-to-be, his last-founded project.
During a visit to Mayapura in 1979, Gour Govinda Swami was attending kirtana one day when he fell to the ground unconscious. He was carried back to his room followed by several ISKCON leaders and other concerned devotees. Doctors came to examine him but were unable to diagnose the cause of his condition. One person even suggested that he may have been possessed by a ghost. Finally, Akincana Krsnadasa Babaji Maharaja, a godbrother of Srila Prabhupada, explained that Gour Govinda Swami was manifesting the symptoms of bhava, the advanced stage of ecstatic love of God.
When he returned to Bhubaneswar he became even more absorbed in the mission of his spiritual master. Some western devotees had been sent there to assist him, but most of them could not tolerate the austere conditions. They were amazed to see how he was never disturbed, how he would eat only once a day, and how he would never sleep. He would simply preach, chant, and write in his notebooks both day and night.
Following Srila Prabhupada’s order, Gour Govinda Maharaja preached vigorously all over the land of Odisha. The simple pada-yatra festivals and nama-hatta programs that he started, have helped hundreds and thousands of people in the ancient land of Lord Caitanya’s pastimes, discover their spiritual roots and take up the chanting of the maha-mantra:
Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
Srila Prabhupada gave Gour Govinda Swami three principal instructions: to translate his books from English into Odia, to build the temple in Bhubaneswar, and to preach all over the world. Carrying out these instructions was Gour Govinda Swami’s life and soul. He had a strict policy of not eating until he had completed his quota of translation for the day. Devotees would be struck to see how even after undergoing long international flights Gour Govinda Swami would always insist upon first doing the translation work given him by his spiritual master before he would eat or sleep. This was a practice he maintained up to his very last day.
In 1985 Srila Gour Govinda Swami first travelled overseas for preaching. He had so much enthusiasm for speaking Krsna-katha that he continued this every year for the following eleven years, despite a crippling leg injury and great personal inconvenience.
Although he was always very meek and humble in his personal dealings, in his classes on Srimad-Bhagavatam he would roar like a lion, smashing the pride and cutting the misconceptions from the hearts of his listeners. Krsna-katha was his life and soul. He would often say, “The day that goes by without Krsna-katha, that is a very bad day.” In the course of his lecturing he would inevitably burst into song, nourishing everyone with the devotional sentiments of joy, humility and surrender as expressed in the prayers of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and other acaryas.
Gour Govinda Swami’s knowledge of scripture was formidable. He would substantiate everything he said with evidence from all over the Vedic literature. Sometimes he would question a disciple and if the disciple could not answer with reference to the scriptures he would immediately exclaim, “He is a cheater! Don’t be a crooked person. A vaisnava quotes authority.”
In this way Gour Govinda Swami always preached fearlessly, never compromising the conclusions of the scripture in the name of being practical. “One who cannot see Krsna,” he would say, “is a blind man. He may speak about Krsna, but in his mind he is speculating. Therefore his words will never be effective. A real sadhu never speaks theoretically.”
Gour Govinda Maharaja always kept a diary, making daily entries without fail. Each entry would conclude in the same way: “Whatever service this servant has performed today, Gopala knows.” Every day he would pray to Gopala in his diary, “Please give me the association of like-minded devotees.”
In 1991, on Rama Navami, the auspicious appearance day of Lord Ramacandra, after sixteen years of determined endeavour, Gour Govinda Maharaja fulfilled the instruction of his beloved spiritual master Srila Prabhupada by opening the magnificent Sri Sri Krishna-Balarama temple in Bhubaneswar. Since that time the Sri Sri Krishna Balarama Mandir has grown into a flourishing project that every year attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors.
He never gave up his simple lifestyle. Until his last days he continued to live in the small mud hut next to the one he had built for Srila Prabhupada in 1977. Several times he was requested by devotees to expand his managerial responsibilities, but he always refused, saying, “I am not a manager, I am a preacher.” However, when the land in Gadeigiri, where he spent his childhood and where his beloved Gopala resided in a simple structure, was donated to ISKCON, he did take up the responsibility of one more project, that of building Gopala a magnificent temple.
Gour Govinda Swami said, “I have opened a ‘crying school’ here in Bhubaneswar. Unless we cry for Krsna, we cannot get His mercy.” This was the message he preached so vigorously all over the world during the last ten years of his manifest pastimes.
In late January, 1996, he mentioned, “Srila Bhaktisiddhanta said that this material world is not a fit place for any gentleman. Therefore, because he was disgusted, he left this world prematurely. I may also leave. I don’t know. Let me ask Gopala. I will do whatever He wants.” The next day Gour Govinda Swami went to Gadeigiri to see his Gopala. After returning, for the next four days he preached more powerfully than ever to thousands of people who flocked to the Prabhupada Centennial festival in Bhubaneswar. Then he left for the annual ISKCON management meetings in Sridhama Mayapura.
On 9 February 1996, the holy appearance day of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, two senior ISKCON devotees requested an appointment in the early evening to see Gour Govinda Maharaja. They had never spoken personally with him before but had become very eager to hear from him after reading some of his books. They inquired, “Why did Caitanya Mahaprabhu stay in Jagannatha Puri?” Delighted by their question, he began to explain the confidential significance of Mahaprabhu’s pastimes in Puri. He lovingly described the pain of separation felt by Radha and Krsna when Krsna was away from Vrindavana. This moving pastime appears in chapter eight of The Embankment of Separation. Enchanting all the devotees in his room with the nectarean topics of Krsna, he gradually unfolded the pastime to the point where Radha and Krsna were finally united after Their long separation. He described how Krsna became so ecstatic upon seeing Radharani that He manifested a form with big round eyes and shrunken limbs, Lord Jagannatha. At that time the devotees noticed that tears had come to his eyes and his voice had become choked up. Barely audibly, he said, “Then the eyes of Krsna fell upon the eyes of Radharani. Eye-to-eye union.” Unable to continue, he apologised with folded hands, “Please excuse me. I cannot speak.” He then gave his final instruction: “Kirtana! Kirtana!” The devotees present began to chant as their spiritual master calmly lay back on his bed, breathing slowly and deeply. A servant placed a picture of Gopala Jiu in his hand. Then, gazing lovingly at that picture of his worshipable Deity, Gour Govinda Swami called out, “Gopala!” and departed for the spiritual sky to be united with his beloved Lord.