The Golden Age in Iskcon
There are several views within and around the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) regarding when the Golden Age will begin. Most hold that it began with the birth of Lord Caitanya (1486-1533), but it is also common to think that it began with the birth of Srila Prabhupada, especially since he is purported to having stated that his books will be the “law books for the next ten thousand years.”
Another opinion is that it began in 1986, a year in which Iskcon went through a major administrative reform. At any rate, it has begun already, and while the beneficial effects of the new age may seem small at present, they will slowly but surely increase. The beginning will be characterized by a polarization between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, but, at the apex of the Golden Age, there will be a “heaven on earth”:[There] will be regular rainfall all over the planet, the climate will become very pleasant, the earth will produce abundant quantities of food grains, the cows will produce unlimited quantities of milk, the oceans and rivers will produce minerals, jewels and natural fertilizers and the forests will provide honey, fruits, flowers and medicinal drugs. Conflict and anxiety will disappear as Krishna becomes the central point of everyone’s activities.
However, this is not an automatic process: it hinges on the successful missionary activities of Prabhupada’s followers. Such an idea is well-known from Christian post-millennialism, wherein the millennium or future “Golden Age” is expected to precede the coming savior, and it will come about gradually, not as the result of some single, cataclysmic event. Though for Iskcon members, the savior has already come (Caitanya/Prabhupada), the appearance of the millennium is similarly expected to be gradual.
Srila Prabhupada on the Golden Age
Curiously enough, looking through the Vedabase, one does not find very much about this Golden Age. The first occurrence of this idea is in a conversation with a disciple in September of 1968, but since the disciple there refers back to having heard about a prophecy of the “Golden Age of Kali”, Prabhupada must have spoken about it before. While disciples would later endeavor to record Prabhupada’s every word, casual conversations were generally not taped during the first years.
Srila Prabhupada would continue to mention the idea a few more times over the years, usually only in passing. It is interesting to note that on two of the four recorded occasions that he himself broached the topic, it was in conversations with “important” persons. This may have been done to impress upon these people the upcoming importance of the movement, in those years still very much in a fledgling condition.
Almost all the times the idea of the Golden Age is mentioned, the occurrence is prompted by disciples wishing to know more about this encouraging prophecy. Since the idea of a future millennium is such a popular Judaeo-Christian theme, perhaps especially so in the United States, it is easy to understand that many of Prabhupada’s American disciples were fascinated with it. After all, who wouldn’t like to imagine a glorious future, especially if faced with trouble and disappointments in the present?
Still, at least in the recorded material, Srila Prabhupada gives very few details about this Golden Age. The duration, ten thousand years, is mentioned, that Krishna consciousness during this time is “like a wave, first increasing, then decreasing”, or just generally that it will increase. Moreover, Prabhupada often seemed to downplay the mythical side of the prophecy, tending to a more pragmatic view of it. For example:
Madhudvisa: Prabhupada, what was exactly predicted by Lord Caitanya when He predicted the Golden Age of Kali, the age in the Age of Kali when people would be chanting the Hare Krishna mantra?
Prabhupada: Yes. People… Just like we are now preaching Hare Krishna. In your country there was no such preaching. […] If you have taken up this formula very nicely, then you will go on preaching, and it will be spread all over the world. Very simple thing.
Several years later, he stressed the same point to another, similarly enthusiastic disciple: “You work sincerely; it will increase, it will increase.” This is, as noted above, a common, post-millenarian idea. Similarly, when asked whether Iskcon would ever “take over the world,” he always answered in a very pragmatic way, saying that such a possibility would be there if the members of Iskcon were serious and sincere. However, when the same enthusiastic disciple took up the subject of the Golden Age a few days later, Prabhupada again replied in a similar way (“provided you keep it uncontaminated”), but this time also added some incentive:
Ramesvara: So after ten years we have gotten so many devotees and so many houses, so I can’t imagine how big this movement will be after ten thousand years.
Prabhupada: Yes. You’ll get the government.
Ramesvara: The whole world will be delivered?
Prabhupada: Yad yad acarati sresthah. America will be the best; people will follow. They are already following-skyscraper building, that’s all. Any nation in the world, they are all aspiring to have skyscraper buildings. India has done? In Bombay?
In other words, if America is converted, the rest of the world will follow. Just from reading a transcription, it is impossible to know whether or not Prabhupada’s comment about the devotees gaining world government was seriously meant, but many of his followers certainly took it in that way.
However, the thing that Prabhupada most often stresses (e.g. in 760621cr.tor) about the Golden Age is that it is the last chance for humanity to become Krishna conscious, before the evil effect of the age of Kali begins in earnest. This is also his emphasis the two times he writes about this golden age, in his purports to Srimad-bhagavatam 8.5.23 and to Caitanya-caritamrita 3.3.50.
Looking for a Scriptural Source
Now, what is the source of the whole idea of the ten thousand golden years? Allen Ginsberg asked that very question of Srila Prabhupada:
Allen Ginsberg: Where is all this?
Prabhupada: Vedic literature.
Allen Ginsberg: What…?
Prabhupada: Padma Purana, Puranas.
Allen Ginsberg: Bhagavata Purana.
Prabhupada: Bhagavata Purana. ((690513rc.col))
In other words, he seemed to not know the exact source, as is confirmed by his answer to the same question by a disciple several years later: “I have heard it, maybe in the Bhagavata”. The alternatives Prabhupada gives are all different scriptures regarded as canonical. Since Gaudiya Vaishnavas take great pride in being a scripturally based movement, and since the Bhagavata Purana is considered the highest authority, it should come as no surprise that Prabhupada referred to it.
Within the Bhagavata, one author identified verses 11.5.38-40 as foretelling the Golden Age. However, while the verses in question do speak about how even the gods desire to take birth on earth in the age of Kali, the context shows that the verses seek to extol the greatness of nama-sankirtana, congregational praise of Krishna, as the most efficacious form of worship in Kali, or indeed any age. There is nothing in these verses, or in the Bhagavata as a whole, about a Golden Age of ten thousand years.
The Padma Purana, the other text Prabhupada mentions, is the most voluminous of all the six Vaishnava Puranas. It is divided into six parts, and contains over 56,000 verses. Searching the whole text would thus be a formidable task! I contented myself with looking for the ten thousand years in the verse index. It indeed lists no less than 11 verses beginning with dasa-varsa-sahasrani, “ten thousand years,” and two with dasa-varsa-sahasram, a period of ten thousand years. While these verses talk about subjects such as the time different sages spent in meditation, the amount of years a sudra that steals milk from a brahmana’s cow has to suffer as a worm in stool, the years of heavenly enjoyment for one who only eats what he has cooked himself during four months or only sleeps on the ground, they say nothing about a special time within the age of Kali. I have thus not been able to locate the prophecy within the Padma Purana, and neither does anyone else seem to have done so.
The Prophecy of the Brahma-vaivarta Purana
Instead, some of Prabhupada’s followers have found a passage in the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, that seems to contain the scriptural source of the Golden Age. I am not aware of this passage having been used in any official Iskcon publications, but it is discussed by Iskcon devotee Stephen Knapp in his book on “Vedic Prophecies” and found on several web pages connected with the movement. It is referred to as stating that “there will be a 10 000-year golden age in Kali yuga” at the website of the Bhaktivedanta Archives, an official Iskcon project. And it is addressed similarly on other similar sites. Since the passage thus seems to be widely regarded as the source of the golden age prophecy, it deserves to be looked at more closely. Below, I will present the Sanskrit for the most important verses, the translation by the unnamed original translator, followed by my own comments.
50. kaleh pancasahasrani varsani tistha bhutale
papani papino yani tubhyam dasyanti snanatah
The blessed Lord said: On the earth 5,000 years of kali will be sinful and sinners will deposit their sins in you by bathing.
This translation contains a major inaccuracy, on which most of the rest hinges. What the Lord here says is not that 5,000 years of Kali will be sinful; rather, he addresses the Ganga river, ordering her to remain (tistha, second person imperative of the verb stha) on earth for 5,000 years. A better translation would thus be: “The blessed Lord said: Remain on earth for five thousand years of Kali. The sinners will give their sins to you by bathing.”
51. man-mantropasaka-sparsad bhasmibhutani tat-ksanatt
bhavisyanti darsanac ca snanad eva hi jahnavi
Thereafter by the sight and touch of those who worship me by my mantra, all those sins will be burnt.
Now, with “thereafter,” the text seems to begin talking about something else, an age beginning after the five thousand years of the Ganga mentioned above. However, looking closer, one notices that there is no such “thereafter” in the text. Instead, it says: “By the touch of those who practice my mantra, by seeing them, or indeed by their bathing, O Jahnavi [Ganga], [those sins] will immediately be burnt into ashes.”
Stephen Knapp takes the word man-mantropasaka (practitioner of my name) here to be in the singular, and thus to foretell Srila Prabhupada. While that is grammatically possible here, later verses (e.g. 4.129.55-57) explicitly use the plural number, even for the same word.
The text then goes on to describe more of the glories of such Vaishnavas in verses 4.129.52-58. After that, we arrive at the explicit mention of the ten thousand years, the statement that probably drew the attention of the translator in the first place:
59. kaler dasa-sahasrani mad-bhaktah santi bhu-tale
ekavarna bhavisyanti mad-bhaktesu gatesu ca
For 10,000 years of Kali such devotees of mine will fill the whole planet. After the departure of my devotees there will only be one varna [outcaste].
Again, the translator takes liberties with the text to make it fit his agenda. What is it that in this verse particularly describes Prabhupada’s Golden Age? That the devotees will “fill the whole planet.” Unfortunately, that is not what it says: it merely says that there “are” (santi) devotees on earth during ten thousand years.
Now, if the anonymous translator were to step forward, he might present the following objection: “It is true that I made some small additions to the text, but that was only to make the chronology clearer: first we have 5,000 years of Kali when the Ganga purifies the sinners, and then 10,000 years of the devotees, or what Prabhupada called the Golden Age. This is the inner meaning of the above verses.”
It is not. First of all, it is not reasonable. Were there no devotees before 1897 CE, when the first 5,000 years of Kali had passed? The date may be conveniently close to Prabhupada’s birth year (1896), but he himself always said that the Golden Age was begun by Lord Caitanya (e.g. in his purport to SB 8.5.23). Secondly, such an interpretation completely neglects the context of the verses given above. They occur at the very end of the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, where the evils of the Kali age are being described. The description given is for the most part similar to those in other Puranas: people will have no regard for their elders, they will not offer any sacrifices to the forefathers, they will be addicted to all kinds of evils, and so on. However, the Purana, as is also common, does present some consolation. A passage in the previous chapter has this to say:
kaler dasa-sahasrsai mad-arca bhuvi tisthati
tad-ardhani ca varsanam ganga bhuvana-pavani
During ten thousand years of Kali, my image will stay on earth, and during half of those years, Ganga, the purifier of mankind.
But what will happen to Ganga at the end of those five thousand years, or rather, what happened to her in 1896? That has been explained earlier on:
10. kaleh panca-sahasram ca varsham sthitva ca bharate
jagmus tas ca saridrupam vihaya sri-hareh padam
11. yani sarvani tirthani kasim vrindavanam vina
yasyanti sardham tabhis ca harer vaikuntham ajnaya
12. salagramo harer murtir jagannathas ca bharatam
kaler dasa-sahasrante yayau tyaktva hareh padam
And having stayed for five thousand years of Kali in India, they [the holy rivers] will give up their forms as rivers and return to the abode of Sri Hari. Being ordered, all the holy places – except Kasi and Vrindavana – will also go together with them to Hari’s Vaikuntha. At the end of ten thousand years of Kali, the Salagrama, Hari’s image and Jagannatha will give up India and go to the abode of Hari.
The chronology is therefore not 5,000 + 10,000, as in the prophecy mentioned by Prabhupada, but 10,000 years of devotees and image worship, out of which the first half has the added benefit of the presence of the Ganga. What we have here is thus clearly not a presentation of a Golden Age, but a standard Puranic dystrophy, with the added calamity of all the holy places and people gradually leaving India. In other words, the text is exhorting the readers to take these things seriously. Time is short! In addition to that, the Purana is offering a mahatmya or description of the greatness of the devotees of Vishnu. This is particularly evident in 2.6.84-123, where a similar passage about the Ganga as the first one (4.129.49-60) launches into a very lengthy description of the glorious devotees of the Lord.
Now, as seen above, Prabhupada’s main point concerning the Golden Age was that it is the last chance for humanity to attain spiritual perfection before the full force of Kali sets in. If we consider everything else—the timely rains, Vaishnavism taking over the world, and so on – as added by somewhat fanciful disciples, we could consider this passage of the Brahma-vaivarta Purana as being the origin of Prabhupada’s idea of the Golden Age. Still, one major problem remains: the passage of the Brahma-vaivarta Purana says nothing about this age beginning with Caitanya, but has it start from the beginning of the age of Kali.
In general, the Brahma-vaivarta Purana is of dubious authority for Gaudiya Vaishnavas. While the Goswamis occasionally quote it, I have not been able to locate a single one of the verses quoted in the Hari-bhakti-vilasa, a text that I have worked on, in the present edition of the text. Scholars are of the opinion that the text has been completely revamped after the time of the Goswamis. This is particularly evident in the general emphasis of the Brahma-vaivarta Purana. While classical sources characterize this Purana as being rajasic (e.g. Padma Purana 5.236.18-21), in its present form, it is a clearly Vaishnava text that presents Krishna as the Supreme, though its doctrines do not always conform to Gaudiya Vaishnavism. For example, Lord Caitanya makes no mention of the upcoming disappearance of the Ganga when he teaches Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya that in the age of Kali, Krishna is present especially in Jagannatha and the Ganga river. As far as I know, Prabhupada also never taught that the Ganga river present today would be illusory, the real Ganga having returned to Vaikuntha, or that Varanasi and Vrindavana would be the only sacred places left on earth.
Looking for the source elsewhere
Having thus rejected these scriptures as the direct source for Prabhupada’s idea, we have to return to his own statement. “I have heard it” – if not from where, from whom? One natural source would be his own guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati (1874-1937), but I have not been able to find the idea in his writings. Neither did Prabhupada’s godbrothers seem to subscribe to the idea. B.R. Sridhara Maharaja (1895-1988), never spoke about any Golden Age and was not interested in the prophecy when it was brought up. In his article “Origin and Eschatology of Hindu Religion,” B.H. Bon Maharaja (1901-1982) does not say anything about a Golden Age, even though it would have been the perfect opportunity.
However, B.V. Narayana Maharaja, a disciple of a close godbrother of Prabhupada’s, B.P. Kesava Maharaja (1898-1968), teaches about a millennium, but a different one. His idea is that since Caitanya appeared in this age of Kali, it has been changed into a “fortunate Kali.” Rather than decline spiritually, humanity will gradually become more and more spiritually advanced as Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement spreads everywhere. Finally, when Kali reaches its end, Kalki will not have to descend, or if he does, he will simply join the sankirtana ((Broo 2003b: 212-213))! Thus, instead of lasting the ten thousand years Prabhupada always mentioned, the Golden Age here lasts almost 427,000. Narayana Maharaja may have received the idea of a “fortunate Kali” from another Gaudiya Vaishnava teacher, Kanupriya Goswami, who presented it already in 1929 in an article called “Dawn of The Age of Love”. There are also other millenarian ideas within the larger scope of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, such as in the group following Prabhu Jagadbandhu, but they differ significantly from the one presented by Prabhupada.
One source to be investigated is B.S. Goswami Maharaja (1895-1958), another godbrother of Prabhupada’s, one that he had some co-operation with before going to the West. Until any further findings come to light, we simply have to stick to Prabhupada’s vague “I have heard it.”
Contrary to popular belief within Iskcon, we have seen that Prabhupada’s prophecy regarding the Golden Age does not seem to have a scriptural source. While the Puranas paint a gloomy future for humanity in the age of Kali, they do give some hope, such as when the Bhagavata extols the supremely liberating power of nama-sankirtana. Nonetheless, the texts explicitly mentioned by Prabhupada do not contain any descriptions of a ten thousand-year Golden Age, neither does the passage of the Brahma-vaivarta Purana that some of his followers have brought forward. Will this finding prove a problem for members of Iskcon? Hardly. Prabhupada’s authority within the movement is unassailable. After all, the reason some of his followers brought forward the passage of the Brahma-vaivarta Purana was not to proclaim the glories of that particular text, but to shed more light on Prabhupada’s glorious words. Prabhupada is the authority that the Purana is made to support, not the other way around. If that source is found faulty in this regard, the search for a scriptural source will no doubt continue.
Does this then mean that Prabhupada imagined the whole prophecy or just made it up? No. Gaudiya Vaishnava theology believes in the possibility of further revelation, and since Prabhupada is widely respected as an empowered spiritual master within the Gaudiya Vaishnava world, to think that he would have received such a revelation should be perfectly acceptable.