H.H. Satsvarupa das Goswami is a writer, artist and spiritual master in the Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya. He is one of the first disciples of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada who founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), also known in the Western countries as the Hare Krishna movement.
H.H. Satsvarupa das Goswami was born in New York (USA) in 1939. He grew up in a Catholic family in Staten Island, NY, and after graduating from high school went on to attend Brooklyn College. While there, he began to question the traditional values of his upbringing and embraced the art of writing as his personal medium of self-expression. But Life had other plans for the young writer and in 1962 he joined the Navy to appease his father’s expectations.
After suffering through two grueling years at sea, it was painfully obvious that the Navy was not the path for him. He realized that, as difficult as it would be for his father to accept, he needed to break away from the influence of his family in order to follow his own destiny. Obtaining an honorabe discharge from the Navy, he made a beeline for the Lower East Side of NY, which at that time was considered to be “the most mystical place in the world” by the hippy generation.
His parents were shocked by his behavior, but grudgingly acknowledged that he had a clear vocation in mind. His vision was to be a writer. He was dedicated and well-read, inspired by Beat Generation authors like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and the older more classical works of Thoreau and Rainer Maria Rilke (he was particularly attracted to Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.) Even in those early days, our aspiring author wrote with great determination and creativity. He smoked marijuana, a common practice among the young hip generation, while churning out pages of manuscripts, stories and poems. He had some artistic friends, but for the most part he was more of a loner – an introvert, comfortable in his writer’s muse.
He felt free and independent. He wasn’t looking for a guru, although he was interested in the English translations of Vedic literature that crossed his path (he carried paperback copies of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-gita in his back pocket.) But one day, as fate or karma or Krishna would have it, an unexpected event occurred that completely altered the course of his life. Meeting a friend in the doorway of a shop at 26 Second Avenue seemed to be an innocuous enough encounter at the time, but later proved to be exactly the opposite. In retrospect, he realized that even the name of the shop “Matchless Gifts” was propitious. A notice in the shop’s window announcing “Bhagavad-gita classes” and promising “transcendental sound vibration” piqued his curiosity and he decided to attend. Little did he know that in a week’s time that humble shop would transform into a small temple that would rock his world and have far-reaching effects on thousands of others. It was July 1966 when Swamiji, later known as A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, glided into the scene and “blew them all away” with his matchless gift of simple, yet sublimely profound philosophy.
As requested by the Swami, Stephen gave up habits like smoking and meat-eating and began regularly attending the Swami’s meetings. Eventually he became Srila Prabhupada’s disciple and henceforward became known as Satsvarupa dasa. He typed for Prabhupada and dutifully chanted the Hare Krishna mantra. He also gave up his style of writing and instead wrote articles on Krishna consciousness for the Movement’s magazine, “Back to Godhead.”
His complete surrender to the philosophy and a spiritual master had the feel of “being born again.” He felt that only at the moment of his initiation, when he commited to lifelong service to Srila Prabhupada, had his real life’s journey begun. He had been introduced to a new world! Not only had his spiritual master set him on the road to discovering his unique position with Lord Krishna, but his guru’s teachings also conveyed, by setting an exemplary example, how to achieve the qualities of a saint.
Satsvarupa absorbed all that he could from Prabhupada, but he was aware that past conditioned behaviors were still present in him and strongly influenced his mind. He knew that even though the Krishna conscious road had been clearly mapped out before him, he had a long way to go. He was young and inexperienced; he felt inadequate, conscious of the fact that he could not fully perceive the immense depth of Prabhupada’s spiritual message. He thought that the solution was to change himself; be a different person; become a “so-called” devotee and renounce all those things his former self had been attached to.
And so he crossed a significant threshold and gave up his creative dimension, thinking it was the right thing to do. In one sense it could be said that Satsvarupa was addressing his new world with the mentality of his old world, theorizing that by denying his personality and talent, he was paying the ultimate sacrifice to attain love of God. Maybe the young acolyte believed that the path could only be successfully traversed through duty (also an offshoot of the old values of his father). Whatever the spiritually immature Satsvarupa believed at the time, he gave up part of his creative self to achieve the higher goal. If love of God meant he couldn’t love himself as well, then so be it. If he was misguided; he was sincere and dedicated. Guru and Krishna would not fail him. He humbly sat at the feet of his spiritual master and devoted all his actions to the process outlined by his beloved Swamiji.
In 1977 Srila Prabhupada left this world, devastating Satsvarupa and many, many others. One can only imagine the anxiety and sorrow experienced by Prabhupada’s disciples at his departure. The most senior among them had to be insightful and decisive in instructing the more junior devotees, and the junior devotees had to have faith in those instructions and carry them out in exactly the same way they would have if Prabhupada himself had made the request. Decisions had to be made quickly in order to maintain Prabhupada’s worldwide movement. Out of love and obedience to him, and out of a sincere desire to see ISKCON thrive and retain its stature, his young/old disciples took on roles and responsibilities that they were probably not wholly prepared for. But Krishna and Prabhupada would not have put them in this position unless they were meant to do it . . . Right? As one of those senior disciples, Satsvarupa became an initiating guru and became even more dedicated and committed than he already was.
While performing his duties conscientiously, as time went on he began to feel that something was lacking. He felt stifled, but wasn’t sure of the origin of his discontent. He wanted to go beyond that doubting frame of mind and have faith that his path to self-realization was his own inner responsibility. He was aware that he had been suppressing his core writer’s personality for some time. Would that personality emerge if he gave it permission? Would it help him on his spiritual path, or was it a trick of maya that would monstrously lead him astray?
In order to regain his creative expression, he started to retreat in different small ways. He justified it in much the same way as he had justified leaving the Navy all those years ago, except this time he wasn’t fighting the traditional mores of his materialistic upbringing. This was a whole new beginning to his spiritual development. He wasn’t running from his chosen path of life within Krishna consciousness, but racing towards a way of enhancing that life. He meditated on his teacher, Srila Prabhupada, and concluded that every spiritualist’s path was inner and individual – beyond any external expections or outside force. He reconsidered the instructions of his spiritual master from within this new light of understanding and made a conscious decision to remove any masks that depicted false perfections. If he wanted to display inner weaknesses, that was his choice. It would take courage; he would need to prepare himself for that. But even as he knew his choices would create enemies and obstacles; he was confident that many aspiring devotees would be supported and encouraged by his confessions of fallibility. There would always be people who wouldn’t understand or accept what he was doing; so be it. But ultimately the self-conflict and mental for-and-against arguments took their toll, erupting into headaches that couldn’t be controlled and disrupting his service. He considered these events to be tests and tried to stoically accept them. The headaches led to a period of self-realization around his unique position. He examined the strength of his stubborness to work through the obstacles. He began to believe in his own spiritual maturity, realizing that he had earned the right to experiment and explore how his individual path and preaching methods could push on Krishna consciousness. His books, crafts and paintings creatively illustrate some of this growth process.
Satsvarupa Maharaj embraced many teachers. Anyone who could enhance his artistic expression on the path of Krishna consciousness became a mentor: Merton, Kierkegaard, Teresa of Avila, and others. They were all accessed as tools to color and illumine the path to Krishna. But no one clouded or diminished the status of the topmost mentor, Srila Prabhupada. That was an impossibility.
Slowly Satsvarupa rediscovered the creative dimension in his free writing. Every Day, Just Write is a brilliant example of that expression. While in Ireland, a new painting style also emerged. He was becoming more sure of himself –the key was not to deny and hide, but to bring out and accept. Satsvarupa was striving for authenticity. For him, “doing what came naturally” was an absolute necessity that would allow the divine dimension to enter into his life’s mission. An orthodox outward appearance was non-essential; it was the long inner journey that provided the reward.
His system of open disclosure inspired those who saw in his example a new way to delve deeper into their own spiritual awakening. It was a kinder, gentler approach to addressing difficulties by dissolving them into a dimension of acceptance and forgiveness. It was proactive and practical. And it worked. Letters started to arrive from those who were benefiting from his vision. Encouraged and strengthened by new allies he continued his journey, offering evidence of his trip in the straightforward way his avid supporters had come to expect from him.
In 2003 he moved to California, in 2006 he relocated to New Mexico, and in 2009 he settled in Albany, New York, where he now permanently resides with a few intimate friends.
During his life Satsvarupa has written hundreds of books in the form of essays, diaries, poems and journals, presenting devoted fans with both fictional and non-fictional material. In 2010 he created a website which allowed him to publish daily excerpts of his writings and share his current realizations of what life in the fast lane to Krishna is really like . . . What actually happens when you seriously decide to pursue God? Painting also demanded more and more of his time. His naïve style went through many phases, and like his writing, was not appreciated by everyone. Undaunted, he carried on with the same dogged persistence. The website and daily posts on Facebook became his major forms of delivery. They were the ideal medium, allowing him to preach to the masses and avoid travel at a time when his aging body was becoming infirm and breaking down.
In this way his journey continues to unfold in the mood of prayerful canvasses of words and art mainly delivered through the modern-day internet. But he also arranges gatherings with disciples and friends twice a year and directly corresponds with those who write to him. He is welcoming and approachable to those who request a one on one meeting. His simple life speaks of quiet meditation and the joy of following the path that is true to his nature. Through Satsvarupa’s service and genuine connection to Srila Prabhupada, we can understood that fighting our own demons and advancement in Krishna consciousness is an inner process. He has shown us that a walk in the spiritual dimension is generally at a slow and gentle pace, made up of small, tentative steps that allow for time to stop and smell the roses. It is not a realm that responds well to the knock ‘em-sock ‘em approach, impetuous or extreme actions of the false ego fall kaplunk and block the path.
Krishna has given each of us our own personal guide and the guide gives us a personalized machete to hack through the debris in our path. The machete comes in different shapes and sizes to accommodate the one who is yielding it. Life progresses through little stages. As we age, we can look back and see with clarity each door we walked through and closed behind us. Acceptance of our weaknesses puts a padlock on the closed door and gives us the strength to approach the next door. Our attempt to know and love Krishna, and by extension all living beings, is a never-ending process because God is infinite. Paradoxically, being dissatisfied in our quest to find Him is what creates whatever jewelled fragments of satisfaction He cares to bestow upon us.
We can know from Satsvarupa that our inner choices are not meant to be considered as perfect and absolute; they are simply an acknowledgement of the necessity to start from the place where we are honestly at. Satsvarupa has set an inspiring example by proving that we can be free of our weaknesses by openly admitting that they exist. Using that stratagy, we can’t be blackmailed by our own demons and forced to fight in darkness behind closed doors. Come out into the light and unabashedly do whatever it takes to destroy the enemy. In the open arena, we might even find fellow comrades in arms. Satsavarupa das Goswami is a soldier. His contemplative style of presenting Krishna consciousness is beneficial in reaping the glory from the fight. His is a different approach to exploring our spiritual dimension. It has proven successful for many on the spiritual path to Krishna consciousness, which is not a sectarian religion, but the topmost path to self-realization.