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In 1967, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada translated and wrote purports for thirteen of the eighty-four aphorisms (Shrila Prabhupada called them "codes") of the Narada-bhakti-sutra. In 1989, at their annual meeting, the Governing Body Commission of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) suggested that I complete the book. I was pleased to accept the assignment, especially because of my involvement with Shrila Prabhupada's initial writing of the Narada-bhakti-sutra.
I was part of the small group of seekers who joined Shrila Prabhupada in the latter part of 1966 at his storefront temple at 26 Second Avenue, in New York City. At one point we began passing around a Gita Press edition of Narada's Philosophy of Love-Narada-bhakti-sutra. Some of us were attracted to the nectar and simplicity of the aphorisms. In those days it wasn't unusual for us naive followers to pick up all sorts of translations of Sanskrit Indian books. We tended to think that anything Hindu was salutary and within Krishna consciousness. It wasn't long before Shrila Prabhupada made it clear to us that we had to discriminate. Many books, we learned, were the works of Mayavadis, a brand of atheists in the guise of svamis, gurus, and scholars. It was hard to break our attachments to some of these books, but we always did so once Shrila Prabhupada explained that a particular book or guru was not bona fide.
But when I showed Shrila Prabhupada the Narada-bhakti-sutra and told him I liked it, he encouraged me and said he might translate it.
In our edition of the Narada-bhakti-sutra was a beautiful color illustration of Shri Shri Radha and Krishna. They looked young, about eight years old, and stood gracefully by the edge of the Yamuna River with a cow behind Them. I took the illustration to a photography shop and had a dozen color copies made. With Shrila Prabhupada's approval, I gave a photo to each of his initiated disciples. It became like an ISKCON membership photo and was used by devotees on their personal altars.
When Shrila Prabhupada left our New York home early in 1967 and went to San Francisco, I wrote him to ask if he would translate the Narada-bhakti-sutra. Here is Shrila Prabhupada's reply, dated February 10, 1967:
Yes, please send me immediately one copy of Bhakti Sutra (with original Sanskrit text). I shall immediately begin the commentary.
At first Shrila Prabhupada's translation of the Narada-bhakti-sutra went quickly. He sent tapes of his dictation in the mail, and I transcribed them along with the tapes he sent for his major work, Teachings of Lord Chaitanya. From the beginning it was understood that Narada-bhakti-sutra was a kind of "extra" for Shrila Prabhupada. But it had its own charm, and Prabhupada approached it in his own inimitable way. I was surprised, on receiving the translation for the first aphorism, to see how Shrila Prabhupada translated the word bhakti. The edition he was using translated bhakti as "devotion" or "Divine Love." But Shrila Prabhupada translated bhakti as "devotional service." Even by this one phrase he indicated that bhakti was active and personal. He would not tolerate any hint that bhakti was a state of impersonal "Love."
It was significant that Shrila Prabhupada began his first purport with a reference to Bhagavad-gita, the foremost scripture for teaching bhakti-yoga. The Narada-bhakti-sutra, or any other treatise on devotion to God, should be supported by Lord Krishna's direct teachings in Bhagavad-gita. By their nature, sutras require explanation. As Lord Chaitanya explained while discussing the Vedanta-sutra, the aphorisms have a direct meaning, but their brevity allows devious commentators to distort the meaning through misinterpretation. How safe we were when reading the Bhaktivedanta purports to the Narada-bhakti-sutra, and how dangerous it is to read these aphorisms when interpreted by those who lack pure devotion to the Supreme Person!
As with his other works, Shrila Prabhupada's purports to the Narada-bhakti-sutra were completely in line with the teachings of the param-para, or disciplic succession, and at the same time full of his own realizations.
One particular statement that attracted me was his reference to enthusiasm in bhakti. Commenting on Sutra 5, Shrila Prabhupada compared enthusiasm to a powerful engine that has to be used properly. He wrote, "If one, however, becomes disappointed in his enthusiasm for serving the Supreme Lord, that disappointment must also be rejected." As a neophyte devotee, I was well aware of the danger of depression, which we sometimes refer to in ISKCON as being "fried." But just as a serious practitioner restrains his tongue and other senses, so one should not indulge in too much depression or disappointment. It was comforting to hear this from Shrila Prabhupada and to gain conviction that it is within our control-we are not helpless before unlimited waves of depression.
One simply has to follow the rules and regulations patiently "so that the day will come when he will achieve, all of a sudden, all the perfection of devotional service."
I have to admit that I acquired a personal attachment for Shrila Prabhupada's Narada-bhakti-sutra as I happily watched its progress. I noticed that some of the same material Shrila Prabhupada was putting into Teachings of Lord Chaitanya also appeared in the Narada-bhakti-sutra, but I didn't think anything was wrong in that. Yet at some point Shrila Prabhupada began to think that perhaps Narada-bhakti-sutra was a bit redundant, at least while he was also working on Teachings of Lord Chaitanya. I might have suspected this when he wrote in his purport to Sutra 12, "There are many authoritative books of spiritual knowledge, but all of them are more or less supplements to the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad-Bhagavatam. Even the Narada-bhakti-sutra is a summary of the Bhagavad-gita and the Shrimad-Bhagavatam. Therefore the beginning of devotional service is to hear these two important transcendental books of knowledge."
Then, in March of 1967, while Shrila Prabhupada was still residing in San Francisco, he wrote me this letter:
Please accept my blessings. I have seen the typed copies of Narada Bhakti Sutras as well as Teachings of Lord Chaitanya. Both of them are nicely made. I think let us finish first Teachings of Lord Chaitanya and then we may take again Narada Bhakti Sutras. The subject matter discussed with Narada Sutras is already there in the Teachings of Lord Chaitanya.
I have sent you matter for the second part of the Teachings and please go on sending me a copy of your typewritten matter. I shall be glad to hear from you.
And so Shrila Prabhupada's work on the Narada-bhakti-sutra stopped, and it was never resumed. It was a personal choice by the author, who wanted to concentrate on Teachings of Lord Chaitanya. But we should not see it as a rejection of the Narada-bhakti-sutra. Shrila Prabhupada intended to "take again Narada Bhakti Sutras." And so more than twenty years later we are taking up the work again, on the authority of Shrila Prabhupada. Whatever we have written to complete the work we have done as Shrila Prabhupada's student, using his commentated translations of the Shrimad-Bhagavatam, the Bhagavad-gita, and the Chaitanya-charitamrita, and his summary studies of the Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu (The Nectar of Devotion) and the Bhagavatam's Tenth Canto (Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead).
There is a particular charm to the Narada-bhakti-sutra in its brevity, universality, and emphasis on total surrender to Lord Krishna. The aphorisms are strong and can be easily remembered and confidently quoted in devotional discussions and preaching. Shrila Prabhupada refers to the Narada-bhakti-sutra several times in his writings, as in this statement from Teachings of Lord Chaitanya (p. 53-4): "In the Narada-bhakti-sutra it is said that one who is very serious about developing Krishna consciousness has his desire to understand Krishna fulfilled very soon by the grace of the Lord."
The major importance of the present publication is that another of Shrila Prabhupada's literary works is now available in book form for his growing reading audience. The GBC's request to Gopiparanadhana Prabhu and me to complete the Narada-bhakti-sutra is their mercy upon us. We pray that we have not deviated from Shrila Prabhupada's intentions and that this edition of the Narada-bhakti-sutra will bring pleasure and enlightenment to the hearts of everyone who reads it.
Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
Editor's note: Citations from Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead and Teachings of Lord Chaitanya are from "The Great Classics of India" editions (1985). Citations from The Nectar of Devotion are from the 1982 edition.