“A genuine guru must not only speak the truth; he must also live it. In other words, his character must be perfect and his behavior exemplary. In the West we commonly see that a professor or philosopher achieves renown on the basis of his teachings alone, regardless of his personal life. But in Vedic society, if a man is a drunkard or in some other way violates the ideal principles he teaches, then he is considered not a teacher but a cheater. According to the Gita a real guru, who teaches by example, must have the qualities of peacefulness, sense control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, and faith in God. So-called gurus who indulge in abominable things like meat eating, cigarette smoking, and illicit sex, and who covet wealth for purchasing various other forms of sense gratification, are all disqualified. One who cannot control his senses cannot rightfully bear the title ‘guru.’” – A “special article” by the Back to Godhead staff, 1977, “Establishing the Proof: Who is a Real Guru”
I first heard about Bhaktivedanta Swami’s using snuff while I was visiting Vrindavana. At an evening sanga I attended, one of Bhaktivedanta’s disciples, Dhananjaya, recounted some of his personal memories from the time he’d spent with his guru. In particular he told about how ACBS, while on a short visit to England, had asked one of his servants to go to the druggist and purchase a tin of snuff for his own use. As Dhananjaya told it, the snuff was to be medicine for a cold or a sinus infection or some other minor, temporary ailment from which ACBS – himself a druggist earlier in life – sought relief. When word got out about the snuff, many of the swami’s followers also bought their own tins and started snorting it, eager to copy their master. The “punchline” to Dhananjaya’s little anecdote was delivered, as always, by ACBS himself, who upon realizing the sniffling, sneezing chorus in his morning class was the product of novice snuff-takers remarked, “You fools. I am taking it for health. You are taking it for pleasure.”
Snuff, of course, is tobacco, one of the intoxicants prohibited in the life of a Hare Krishna devotee. Now, so many years after I first heard Dhananjaya tell this story, I wonder why I then paid it no mind. Here was firsthand evidence that the pure and faultless leader of my self-selected religious affiliation was not so pure and faultless after all. Even a child – perhaps especially a child – can see the hypocrisy: “Do as I say, not as I do.” (Which is not to suggest that seeing this as hypocrisy is childish. As we “grow up” we become all too willing to rationalize the things we know in our hearts to be wrong.) Perhaps one reason why ACBS’s snuff taking didn’t then register to me as hypocrisy is because of the way Dhananjaya had framed it. My assumption at that time, due to Dhananjaya’s suggestion, was that ACBS’s snuff use was not only medicinal but also temporary – something used in that particular instance to address a short-lived and easily alleviated condition. Not unlike taking aspirin for a headache.
(Not for nothing: How many devotees do you know who are reluctant or unwilling to do even that?)
Many years later I came to learn that ACBS’s snuff use was not at all temporary, nor infrequent, but persistent, even chronic. A search through the “VedaBase” turns up several references to it, from ISKCON’s early days in 1968 to just before the death of ACBS in 1977. (Each of those references will appear at the end of this post.) The most significant mention comes from ACBS himself:
“Regarding taking snuff, I myself take it sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books, and sometimes I become dizzy. But it is not for you to take. You should not imitate this, neither you work like me at night.” – Letter to Revatinandana, Los Angeles, 9 January 1974
There’s a lot to say about just this quote. A few things now, more later: (1) there can be no debate over whether or not ACBS took snuff; he personally admitted to taking it “sometimes,” (2) what he meant by “sometimes” is in part answered by the scenario he depicts – he took it “at night,” while composing his “Bhaktivedanta purports”; as nicotine, the active (and highly addictive) ingredient in tobacco, is a stimulant, ACBS’s taking snuff is much like a person who drinks coffee to stay awake while pulling an all-nighter, (3) perhaps most importantly, “you should not imitate this”; i.e., do as I say, not as I do.
So, what’s a devotee to make of all this? Luckily for true believers, two devotees (that I’m aware of) have addressed the issue online. We’ll take a look at both online commentaries, because I think what they have to say will help illustrate just how blindly one must follow in order to remain an ISKCON devotee “in good standing.”
First, we have Hari Sauri, direct disciple and previous traveling personal servant of ACBS, former ISKCON guru and sannyasi, present ISKCON celebrity. He’s addressed ACBS’s snuff habit on his blog, Lotus Imprints, in a post titled “In-Snuff-Lated…” from 14 September 2008. I’ll reproduce the bulk of it below, with comments throughout.
“I just got this question from Yadunandan prabhu of the Bhaktivedanta College in Belgium:
“‘While visiting some devotees in the UK, one of them asked me a question about Srila Prabhupada’s snuff box. This devotee was somewhat puzzled thinking that Srila Prabhupada’s snuff was made of tobacco. I did a little research on the folio and looked into the dictionary to answer accurately.
“‘There are two options I see from my little research:
“‘1. Srila Prabhupada was using some type of medicine as snuff.
“‘2. Srila Prabhupada was using tobacco snuff as medicine for his blood pressure and to keep him able to perform his translation work at night.
“‘As you were and are so close to Srila Prabhupada, can you please give some light on this matter so that my answer can be more accurate?’
“Answer : Snuff is a tobacco derivative in fine powder form. This is the type that Srila Prabhupada was using.”
Thank you, Hari Sauri, for the honest clarification. That’s helpful. ACBS was snorting tobacco, not some other type of medicinal, tobacco-free, non-addictive type of snuff.
“Here’s a general definition and history that I got from the internet:
“Snuff, preparation of pulverized tobacco used by sniffing it into the nostrils, chewing it, or placing it between the gums and the cheek. The blended tobacco from which it is made is often aged for two or three years, fermented at least twice, ground, and usually flavored and scented.”
Hari Sauri’s research/copypasta goes on for a few more paragraphs. Aside from what was likely his attempt to confer some sense of tradition and broad cultural acceptance to the practice of snorting tobacco, none of that information is really relevant to our discussion, so I’ve omitted it here. (By the by, the practice of fermenting and drinking alcohol has an extremely long history and the broadest cultural acceptance, and marijuana is gradually becoming accepted by some as medicinal, but because there’s no evidence ACBS was a habitual user of either, those facts are of no interest to Hari Sauri. It’s only snuff we’re concerned with legitimizing now. Just saying.)
This next part of Hari Sauri’s post is far more telling:
“I remember my paternal grandfather was a big fan of snuff. He was never without either a cigarette in his mouth or a pouch of snuff in his pocket and I would watch fascinated and slightly repulsed as he put a few pinches on the back of his had, stuck his nose over the top and insufflated. The brown powder would cling to his nostrils and top lip and sometimes he would absent-mindedly forget to wipe it off. My grandmother would have to give him nudge (he was stone deaf from the age of five) and wordlessly point at his nose. He would give a grunt and swab it off with his handkerchief. For him I guess it was a question of feeding his nicotine addiction. Nowadays its out of style. Too messy I guess.”
Hari Sauri’s grandfather took snuff. In his case it was slightly repulsive, addictive, and messy. It should come as no surprise that he doesn’t regard ACBS’s snuff taking in the same negative terms.
“I never personally asked Srila Prabhupada why he used snuff, although we carried a couple of small tins with us at all times…”
Note, first, the comment “we carried a couple of small tins with us at all times” – once again giving the lie to the notion ACBS’s snuff use was infrequent or conditional. Even more significant is Hari Sauri’s admission that he never asked ACBS about it. That’s incredible, isn’t it? Was it really of no interest to him? Did the hypocrisy of the situation never occur to him? If nothing else, these statements give some sense of what the emotional dynamic could in some cases be like between ACBS and his servants/disciples, namely one of fear and/or mindless obedience.
Next Hari Sauri describes in detail one of his snuff pastimes with ACBS, excerpted from one of the volumes of his Transcendental Diary:
“On June 16, 1976, Srila Prabhupada arrived in Toronto:
“We arrived in Toronto at 6:30 P.M. and had our most disagreeable encounter with customs officials yet. I accompanied Srila Prabhupada, who carried his soft, red vinyl hand bag, while Pusta Krsna Maharaja remained behind to bring the luggage through. On the other side of a glass wall next to the customs counter a large number of devotees, many from the Indian community, expectantly gathered. As soon they saw Srila Prabhupada they cheered, ‘Jaya Prabhupada! Haribol!’ There were two customs officers. One of them, tall, with an unpleasant demeanor and a slight sneer on his face, asked Prabhupada to open his bag. Then, slowly, with exaggerated attention, he searched every single item. Before leaving Bombay I had sealed several new tins of snuff with hot wax. Prabhupada uses it to gain relief from high blood pressure. The official insisted on breaking each seal to check inside.”
A not-so-quick note: This blood pressure business is bunk. Nicotine is a stimulant and as such will raise, not lower, blood pressure. I see three possibilities. (1) Perhaps Hari Sauri got it wrong, and ACBS had low, not high, blood pressure. It’s possible. (And ACBS’s comment about dizziness suggests it might be true.) But the high blood pressure explanation is repeated a number of times by Hari Sauri and by others, so it’s likely something ACBS told his disciples, not something they assumed about him. (2) Perhaps ACBS didn’t understand his own medical condition, or the effects of nicotine, or quite a few other things besides. His “cure” for jaundice, though still cited as an effective home remedy, likely wouldn’t pass a double-blind clinical trial. And his recipe for toothpaste has been known to cause damage to teeth and gums. His status as a skilled pharmacist is just one of several outlandish claims about the breadth of his knowledge it’s only reasonable to regard with suspicion. (3) Perhaps “relief from high blood pressure” was nothing more than a convenient lie intended to keep gullible disciples from questioning the obvious hypocrisy of their guru’s addiction.
“At the end of his fruitless search he turned to his fellow officer, looked askance at Srila Prabhupada, and in a most demeaning way said, ‘So this is what all the noise is about.’ I flushed with anger, but bit my lip.
“Srila Prabhupada seemed utterly indifferent, appearing not to have noticed their obnoxious attitude at all. He quietly shut his bag and proceeded on with a bright smile and a wave to all the assembled devotees…
“Although he had seemed indifferent, the next [day] Srila Prabhupada mentioned the incident in a conversation in his room with Pusta Krsna Swami, Jagadisa and myself:
“‘Everyone in government service, at least it is to be supposed they are all nasty men. Here also, why not? The other day the custom officer, unnecessary. Unnecessarily. He is opening the snuff box, this box, that box. Unnecessarily. Not a gentleman. It is stated there, “snuff,” and he is bringing knife to open.’”
Hari Sauri claims his guru “seemed utterly indifferent,” but the episode affected ACBS enough that he made mention of it the following day. While he and his disciples complained about various problems they were having with passport officers and other government officials, ACBS took the opportunity to revisit the snuff incident and, on that single point of data, conclude that “everyone in government service… they are all nasty men.”
So, not quite “utterly indifferent.” It’s also worth noting that earlier the same day, during a morning walk, ACBS and his disciples derided “so-called priests” – whom ACBS calls “fourth-class, fifth-class men” – for smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and “indulging in homosex.” Bluster and more hypocrisy.
Hari Sauri continues:
“Srila Prabhupada did use it on occasion, usually in the night time, and I remember particularly coming into his room sometimes in the early morning when he was resident in Vrndavan from September–November 1976 and seeing snuff residue on his lungi or handkerchief where he had wiped the excess off his nose after sniffing it. At that time he was suffering very high blood pressure.”
A few things: (1) “usually in the night time,” so, once again, he used snuff as a stimulant to help him remain awake and alert while (allegedly) receiving the divine inspiration he channeled directly into his books; (2) the description of “snuff residue on his lungi or handkerchief” sounds – to me at least, probably not to Hari Sauri – quite a bit like “grandfather” and his “messy” snuff habit; (3) “at that time he was suffering very high blood pressure,” so it’s unlikely the diagnosis was wrong – perhaps ACBS did have high blood pressure that his snuff use was just making worse.
Hari Sauri again:
“The only reference I can find in Folio is this postscript from a letter to Revatinandana Swami sent from Los Angeles 9 January, 1974:
“‘N.B. Regarding taking snuff, I myself take it sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books, and sometimes I become dizzy. But it is not for you to take. You should not imitate this, neither you work like me at night.’
“So I assume from this that the dizziness he referred to was caused either by too much mucus in his sinus, or by very high blood pressure, and the snuff relieved this.”
I’m not sure what to make of the statement “the only reference I can find in Folio.” Maybe he means it’s the only reference ACBS personally made about it (but even that is not quite true). Maybe he’s being less than honest; by my count, there are 12 references to ACBS’s snuff use. And, once again, we get the high blood pressure explanation. Hari Sauri ends his post with the following:
“Sruta Kirti prabhu or another servant or secretary may be able to add more.”
Maybe. Sadly, that I know of, neither Sruta Kirti nor anyone else with direct knowledge has since added more (though we’ll take a look at a few very telling quotes from Tamala Krishna at the end of this post). I did however mention we’d be looking at the commentary of another true believer “regarding taking snuff.” As I said, I find both commentaries instructive in showing precisely to what degree remaining a devotee requires that one stop thinking.
The post comes from a blog called back 2 Krishna, and is #884 in a series of what the author calls “vanity thoughts.”
(This name itself is rather interesting. According to ISKCON dogma, a true devotee should feel ashamed to have any desire to write or to express him- or herself, especially in such a public forum. Such an act is an obvious sign of vanity that must, at the very least, be acknowledged for the truly self-absorbed and un-humble act it is. There are, as of this posting, 1475 “vanity thoughts” in the author’s collection. So he is a decidedly vain, self-absorbed, and un-humble fellow – at least by the psychologically damaging metric ISKCON proposes for its members – a diagnosis I’m sure he would readily accept, if only in a crass and typically ISKCONian way meant to backhandedly stake a claim on so-called humility. Anyway, I digress…)
“One reason I became somewhat lukewarm to never ending quest for knowledge is that sooner or later you run into some snafus that are extremely difficult to explain, which then goes against Occam Razor’s principle. Sometimes things become messed up beyond salvation yet, strangely, it doesn’t have any visible or lasting effect on one’s faith, so why bother? I mean why bother if knowing answers or not knowing them has no effect. Danger of losing faith is still there so why risk it?”
This thought process here is too jumbled for me to completely follow. However, Occam’s Razor is the principle that the simplest explanation – or, rather, the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions – is likely the correct one. In the case of ACBS and snuff, that explanation would be this: ACBS took snuff because he was addicted to it. Honestly, that is the simplest explanation, and the only one that doesn’t require you to assume something supernatural about him or his intentions. In other words, there are more than a few (completely unverifiable) assumptions involved if you’re saying to yourself, “Well, OK. Prabhupada took snuff. But he was transcendental. He wasn’t addicted to it. He couldn’t have been. He was transcendental.” As for the rest of that rambling intro, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe the rest of the post will help to clarify.
“One of such snafus is snuff. Srila Prabhupada used it regularly and his servants always carried a tin or two in his luggage. Snuff is tobacco that is insufflated, that is inhaled, through the nose pretty much like cocaine or other drugs.”
“Pretty much like cocaine or other drugs…” You said it, prabhu, not me. At least we’re being honest. Let’s see how long that lasts…
“Why did Prabhupada use it? We don’t know. His servants remembered that he said it was for relief of high blood pressure or maybe to clear his sinuses or to help him stay up at night, working on books. Well, nicotine in tobacco is a stimulant that would rather increase blood pressure, sinuses can be cleared with non-intoxicant inhalers, and to stay up at night people usually drink coffee.”
Oh. This guy seems like he might be a straight shooter. Maybe I spoke too soon.
“No need to remind of our ‘no intoxication including tea and coffee’ principle that extends even to chocolate. It just doesn’t match.”
And… We’re about to see cognitive dissonance in action. If something doesn’t fit, completely disregard it.
“Maybe the principle is no intoxication, as no recreational drug use. People smoke to get high, if only a little, people drink to get drunk, intoxication means altering one’s consciousness to produce an artificial feeling of happiness. Clarity of consciousness also gets lost and so it’s easy to see why it’s one of our regulative principles.
“Maybe this would explain Prabhupada’s use of snuff – it wasn’t to get high or feel good, it was to keep his work rate through the night, to perform better service, not to enjoy. This is easy to understand, but what then of drinking coffee, the usual go to pick me up elixir? Students cramming for exams don’t drink coffee to get high, no one actually does, people drink it to get perked up in order to function better, though the process can obviously be enjoyed, too.”
You heard it here first: a coffee machine in every temple. (And a box of snuff beside every murti of ACBS.)
“Would that mean that if we feel sleepy it’s okay to have a cup to coffee or a can of Red Bull as long as we need our bodies to function in Krishna’s service? That would make sense but it’s also against our principles, always have been always will be.”
What’s going on here? Make up your mind. It’s either against the principles or it isn’t. And you (and everyone else) know(s) very well which one it is. Stop dithering.
“Or we can say that Prabhupada’s consciousness wasn’t affected by nicotine in snuff, only his blood pressure, heart rate etc. That could be the answer, that would also explain why he forbade his disciples to follow snuff sniffing practice.”
I love that. (By which I mean I completely hate it.) ACBS was transcendental enough to not get addicted to or intoxicated by nicotine, just not transcendental enough to not be affected by problems with his blood pressure. You’re reaching, my friend. Really reaching.
“Still, it’s not how it’s supposed to work with parampara, we are not ‘do as I say, not as I do’ movement, we actually practice what we preach.
“As I said – it’s a snafu.”
Yes! Everyone knows this. Even someone who’s only been to a single Sunday Feast can tell you this. Hence ACBS’s snuff use is hypocrisy. Bas. End of discussion. (At least it should be.)
“Vamsidas Babaji regularly smoke, or actually he used hookah. In his case we are told that he was beyond rules and regulations and didn’t have to follow sadhana prescriptions. Smoking didn’t affect his devotion to Krishna at all, they might even have been enjoying a pipe together. He used to offer it Radha Govinda, after all, but not to Gaura-Nitai.”
Yet more shameless rationalization. “He’s so pure the rules don’t apply to him.” Is it at all possible that because he didn’t follow the rules we have to say he’s pure in order to silence legitimate doubt? Tell me something, in all honesty, if a devotee had tried to slip this past you the first time you went to an ISKCON temple, how quickly would you have turned around and walked right out the door?
“Why not? Lord Nityananda Himself was fond of chewing betel nut according to Chaitanya Charitamrita – at the end of Raghunatha Dasa Goswami’s chipped rice festival (CC Antya 6.97). We can say that Lord Nityananda is God so he doesn’t have to follow any rules but right in the next verse it’s said that after chewing some himself He distributed the rest to devotees.
“Or maybe it was because Lord Chaitanya wasn’t there so Nityananda Prabhu could relax the rules a little, as if Mahaprabhu was a party pooper. Maybe that’s why when They were together Vamsidasa Babaji didn’t offer betel to them. But then Lord Chaitanya personally appeared at that festival and was visible to many devotees.
“As I said – it’s a snafu.”
Which I’m starting to think means something like “For obvious reasons, this is something I’d rather not accept for what it seems to be on the face of it.”
“When Gadadhara Pundit went to see Pundarika Vidyanidhi for the first time he was appalled by the betel nuts and reddened spittoons by his bed. Eventually he realized Pundarika Vidyanidhi’s greatness but it doesn’t say much for no-intoxication principle, does it? Betel nut is a stimulant and people take it to get a mild high, not to increase their work rate when they get tired.”
No argument here. Notice how all of these examples follow the same pattern: (1) assume divinity, (2) find an explanation for mundane behavior that excuses that behavior and at the same time protects the original assumption of divinity.
“Our opponents can have a field day exposing our ‘hypocrisy’ with these cases and I’m sure they can dig up a few more.”
They certainly could, those nasty, dishonest “opponents.” Keep reading, we won’t let you down.
“I was always worried by the saying ‘if you see Lord Nityananda going into a liquor shop’, for example. What’s with this ‘if’? Could it be ‘when’? Where’s this idea of Lord Nityananda and liquor coming from?”
Good question. And that’s not the only “pastime” of Nitayanda’s or Caitanya’s that’s untoward. But there’s no need to comb through the fictionalized accounts of the lives of mostly fictional “personalities.” Snuff-taking is not the length and breadth of ACBS’s hypocrisy. And he’s not alone.
“Anyway, none of that seem to affect my [lack of] faith in the above mentioned personalities though I can see how some might become disillusioned. These examples are also not an excuse to start drinking coffee or take other stimulants, ostensibly ‘for Krishna’.
“Would investigating them further bring any benefits? I don’t think so, I think it would be a waste of everyone’s time and it might lead to eventual disappointment.
“That’s why I think that at some point quest for knowledge has to stop, topping up will not add any value. This idea might not appeal to everyone but there’s a far less controversial side to it, too – it’s not how much you know that makes all the difference, it’s how much you believe in the simplest things – Krishna is God and chanting His holy name is our only duty.
“No one would argue with that.”
For crying out loud! (Sorry about including all of that. I just couldn’t help myself.) Here’s the tl;dr version: There’s this thing that – if I allow myself to think about it clearly – will force me to seriously question whether or not my faith is well placed. Because I have accepted that the highest principle is to maintain that faith no matter what, I will blithely ignore whatever threatens it. Oh, and, chant and be happy!
To be fair, this sort of intellectual dishonesty is exactly what ACBS ensured would always and forever be business as usual in ISKCON. He’s the one that insisted on a standard of so-called purity so unattainable that even he, the purest of pure devotees, could neither attain nor maintain it. And he’s the one that set the ISKCON standard of thoroughly rejecting all “pretenders.” In a letter to Aniruddha (Los Angeles, 4 February 1969), ACBS wrote, “You are right when you say that setting a good example for the boys is the best precept. There is a saying that an example is better than a precept. Our exemplary character depends on strictly following the four principles, and this will conquer the whole world.” At least that explains ISKCON’s foundering attempts at world domination. ACBS also wrote, in Dharma: The Way of Transcendence, “Sometimes we find that someone poses as a great devotee very much advanced in spiritual understanding, but he cannot even give up smoking cigarettes. That means he’s not liberated.” (16: “When the Krishna Sun Rises in the Heart”) Well, if you say so, Srila Prabhupada. You’ve painted yourself into that particular corner.
(What follows are the 12 (+1) separate references to “snuff” found in the “Bhaktivedanta VedaBase,” aka “Folio,” arranged chronologically, with some commentary added by me where appropriate. Uses of “snuff” as a verb – as in “snuff it out” – have been omitted.)
The Hare Krishna Explosion, Hayagriva dasa, Part 3: New Vrindavan, 1968 to 1969, 18: Paramahansa in the Hills
Hayagriva, one of ACBS’s earliest disciples whom readers will probably know as the editor of the “original” Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, mentions snuff in his chronicle of ISKCON’s early days, The Hare Krishna Explosion. Hayagriva tells how ACBS prescribed snuff to him as a remedy for hay fever, from which Hayagriva was then suffering:
After years of dormancy, my hayfever returns with a vengeance. As the grass pollinates, my sneezing and wheezing begin. I run through dozens of handkerchiefs. My eyes constantly itch. At times, after paroxyms of sneezing, I sit helpless, totally congested.
Prabhupada asks Devananda for a valise, and from this he produces a small snuffbox.
“Here,” he says, handing it to me. “When there is discomfort, just take a pinch and sniff.”
I do so. The snuff sets off a fresh barrage of sneezes. Finally I sit dazed. Surely my head must be empty of mucus.
“When you’re irritated,” Prabhupada says, “you may use that. It will help. But you shouldn’t think that you are being attacked.”
Again he laughs, and suddenly, seeing myself pursued by legions of grass pollen, I laugh too.
Letter to Brahmananda, Hamburg, 30 August 1969
P.S. Please send my snuff pot when Hayagriva comes here. I could not get the _____ snuff here.
I wonder what’s been omitted here and, more importantly, why. Placement suggests it could be the name of the brand of snuff ACBS preferred, or maybe it was the word “tobacco,” scrubbed from the record by some loyal follower whose conscience was disturbed enough to make him or her want to “protect” the reputation of the pure devotee.
Letter to Yogesvara, Gurudasa, Digvijaya, etc., Los Angeles, 21 May 1970
…I am so much thankful to you for your respective presentations. They are as follows: one golden cup, mysore sandal soap, some scent in snuff box, one picture of London Radha-Krsna Deities and one xeroxed interview report. So I shall be glad to know what is the contents and its formula in the box, then I can use it as snuff.
This quote comes from a portion of a letter in which ACBS thanks his disciples for the gifts presented to him at the time of their initiation. Around this time it appears that ACBS’s use of snuff was common knowledge among his followers. It was at least well known enough for newly initiated disciples to think the intoxicant would make an appropriate gift to their spiritual master. If this were the only reference to snuff in the Folio, one might have reason to conclude that ACBS snorted a type of snuff that did not contain tobacco, given his query about the snuff box, “the contents and its formula.” But Hari Sauri has already made it clear that ACBS snorted regular tobacco snuff.
Letter to Revatinandana, Los Angeles, 9 January 1974
N.B. Regarding taking snuff, I myself take it sometimes at night because I am working at night on my books, and sometimes I become dizzy. But it is not for you to take. You should not imitate this, neither you work like me at night.
Transcendental Diary, Vol. 1 – Nov 1975 to April 1976, December 13th, 1975
Prabhupada likes to travel early in the morning. At 6:00 A.M., he chanted Gayatri-mantra, donned his coat, gloves, and hat, and headed for the door. In a flurry of activity Harikesa and I quickly packed last-minute items. Harikesa placed the dictaphone and Bhagavatams into a black attache case. Meanwhile I hastily filled Prabhupada’s red vinyl briefcase with his desk paraphernalia (a pen case, a golden straw for drinking coconut juice, a jar of ink, a small silver cask filled with cardamom seeds, his glasses, tilaka clay, lota, mirror, mortar and pestle, a small enameled tin full of snuff for his high blood pressure, and a black Revlon manicure case.) Finally, I swiftly stuffed Srila Prabhupada’s indoor slippers and the brass spittoon engraved with his name into my shoulder bag and rushed to catch up.
This is one of two mentions of snuff in Hari Sauri’s multi-volume Transcendental Diary. Here he simply mentions the presence of the intoxicant in ACBS’s personal effects (and again attempts to dismiss it by mentioning high blood pressure).
Morning Walk, Mayapura, 18 February 1976
Prabhupada: So one thing, if you can do, that India, at the present moment, that Swami Cinmayananda is prominent.
Hari-sauri: He’s very big. Especially in the South.
Prabhupada: (laughs) So if you can subdue him…
Yasodanandana: We’ll take care of that, Prabhupada.
Acyutananda: All right.
Prabhupada: That will be great triumph. He’s a nonsense. That’s… But he’s very popular at the same time.
Prabhupada: But he, he wants to keep his prestigious position.
Acyutananda: Oh, yes.
Yasodanandana: Yes. On your order, we shall try to hamper that.
Prabhupada: No, tactfully.
Acyutananda: I met him once. He is addicted to snuff very, very much.
Acyutananda: Even during his lectures he makes gestures so that he can take snuff without anybody knowing.
I find this conversation particularly interesting, not just for the mention of snuff but for the context in which that mention appears. To be fair, ACBS is not the snuff snorter in question in this conversation. Rather it’s Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati, someone whom ACBS apparently considered a rival at this point in time. And for good reason: Swami Chinmayananda was a teacher of Advaita Vedanta – the Enemy! – who was the inspiration for Chinmaya Mission and was inspirational in the founding of Vishva Hindu Parishad, one of ACBS’s targets of scorn (despite the fact he was happy to use their name and Chinmayananda’s authority to legitimize his own movement). Chinmayananda was extremely popular in India and outside India as well; he made his first worldwide “preaching tour,” including stops in America, in 1965, beginning several months before ACBS first arrived on Western shores. He was also a renowned scholar of Vedanta who wrote in English and published over 90 books, including commentaries on the Gita and Vedic texts. According at least to his followers, Chinmayananda was a genuine Vedic scholar, which must have felt threatening to a man who had posed himself as a Vedic scholar but who also once admitted, “I have not studied all the Vedas and Upanisads. I have read only Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam.” (TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days, 30 June 1977) It’s not hard to see why ACBS asked his followers to “subdue” Chinmayananda. Moreover, it’s ironic that Acyutananda and ACBS zero in on Chinmayananda’s “constant” snuff use as a point of condemnation.
Transcendental Diary, Vol. 2 – April 1976 to June 1976, June 16th, 1976
This is the account of ACBS’s arrival in Toronto presented in Hari-Sauri’s blog and taken from his Transcendental Diary:
We arrived in Toronto at 6:30 P.M. and had our most disagreeable encounter with customs officials yet. I accompanied Srila Prabhupada, who carried his soft, red vinyl hand bag, while Pusta Krsna Maharaja remained behind to bring the luggage through. On the other side of a glass wall next to the customs counter a large number of devotees, many from the Indian community, expectantly gathered. As soon they saw Srila Prabhupada they cheered, “Jaya Prabhupada! Haribol!” There were two customs officers. One of them, tall, with an unpleasant demeanor and a slight sneer on his face, asked Prabhupada to open his bag. Then, slowly, with exaggerated attention, he searched every single item. Before leaving Bombay I had sealed several new tins of snuff with hot wax. Prabhupada uses it to gain relief from high blood pressure. The official insisted on breaking each seal to check inside.
At the end of his fruitless search he turned to his fellow officer, looked askance at Srila Prabhupada, and in a most demeaning way said, “So this is what all the noise is about.” I flushed with anger, but bit my lip.
Srila Prabhupada seemed utterly indifferent, appearing not to have noticed their obnoxious attitude at all. He quietly shut his bag and proceeded on with a bright smile and a wave to all the assembled devotees…
Room Conversation, Toronto, 17 June 1976
And this is from the conversation in Toronto to which Hari Sauri refers in his blog and in his Transcendental Diary, and which contradicts Hari Sauri’s claim that ACBS was “utterly indifferent” about the episode the day before. The excerpt following this is Hari Sauri’s account of this conversation as presented in his Diary.
Prabhupada: Everyone in government service, at least it is to be supposed they are all nasty men. Here also, why not? The other day the custom officer, unnecessary. Unnecessarily. He is opening the snuff box, this box, that box. Unnecessarily. Not a gentleman. It is stated there, “snuff,” and he is bringing knife to open.
Transcendental Diary, Vol. 2 – April 1976 to June 1976, June 17th, 1976
Although Prabhupada hadn’t reacted to the customs official’s envious dealings when we entered Canada, he most certainly noted it. “Everyone in government service, at least it is to be supposed they are all nasty men. Here also, why not? The other day the custom officer… Unnecessarily. He is opening the snuff box, this box, that box. Unnecessarily. Not a gentleman. It is stated there, ‘snuff,’ and he is bringing knife to open.”
Prabhupada agreed with Jagadisa prabhu’s assessment that it was simply harassment. He quoted from the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Twelfth Canto. “Everywhere. Rajanyair dasyu-dharmabhi, simply wanting some bribe. They are in power, and that will increase. It will be impossible to deal with. Now it is already. In India, any work you want to be done by government, unless you bribe… The situation is becoming very dangerous.”
Conversation with Svarupa Damodara, Vrndavana, 21 June 1977
Svarupa Damodara: …There will be books, proving that these are all nonsense.
Prabhupada: (aside:) You have got increased snuff boxes?
Upendra: Er, one little one and that big one there. I’ll check to see if there’s any more.
Prabhupada: Life is a different material…
This is an interesting reference. As the transcript makes clear, it is something ACBS said to his servant while in the midst of a conversation with someone else. Apparently ACBS’s snuff use was becoming more frequent at this time, in the last several months of his life, as indicated by his request for “increased snuff boxes.” (Emphasis mine.)
TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – September 26, 1977
TKG’s Diary is a curious document that includes more than a few unsettling revelations about ACBS’s last days (one of which I’ve already included in the text above). In addition to this casual mention of snuff are the following three excerpts, which I’m including because they relate to the general topic of hypocrisy. The first two refer to ACBS’s infrequent to completely nonexistent practice of chanting japa, whereas the last mentions a kaviraja who diagnosed ACBS for gonorrhea(!), an ailment that can only be transmitted sexually.
In the afternoon, Srila Prabhupada had me read from Srimad-Bhagavatam. He sat up and put on his spectacles, then held Radha-Rasabihari’s photo. He looked for Their lotus feet and had me point Them out. He meditated on Them for a long time, leaning back occasionally with his eyes closed and listening to the Bhagavatam recitation. He had me put snuff near him, of which he also availed himself. For practically an hour we had a wonderful meditation, and I could see it was the most effective medicine.
When Tamala Krishna writes “I could see it was the most effective medicine,” I assume he’s referring to the “meditation,” though it seems the snuff was helpful too. Here is a reference to ACBS using snuff not only outside the context so far established as typical – late at night, while writing – but in the midst of a “wonderful meditation.” I find it hard not to see this as depicting a very casual, recreational user of an intoxicating substance to which he has long been addicted.
TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – June 10, 1977
Gradually, I have seen that Srila Prabhupada is no longer chanting japa on his beads. Many years ago, he was chanting sixty-four rounds, then gradually less, until a number of years ago it was sixteen. But now he does not chant on beads. He can be seen with his eyes closed, always meditating on Krsna with an intense, concentrated expression. Sometimes he stretches his neck, and sometimes he drools in his sleep and his body shakes. Sometimes there is loud belching. In this way, Srila Prabhupada is exhibiting some of the ecstatic symptoms mentioned in The Nectar of Devotion.
That’s a very generous way of tying together those last few statements. Personally, I’m more interested in this: “He can be seen with his eyes closed, always meditating on Krsna…” Perhaps. But, let’s be honest, there are any number of things he could have been “meditating on.” Krishna is just one of a practically unlimited number of possibilities. But that’s the nature of devotion to “Srila Prabhupada,” isn’t it? Take every opportunity, however small, to assume divinity (even if that assumption stands in contradiction to what verifiable facts suggest).
TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – September 16, 1977
Srila Prabhupada’s condition remained the same today. He was passing sufficient urine, well more than half the quantity of the liquid he consumed. But he seemed to be growing weaker. He began to chant on his japa mala for the first time in many months. In fact, he insisted on always keeping the beads around his neck. Even during his massage, he fingered the beads and silently chanted. His beads also remained around his neck while he slept in his bed.
TKG’s Diary: Prabhupada’s Final Days – October 16, 1977
When the kaviraja saw Prabhupada’s very discolored urine, he said the disorder was a type of gonorrhea. The urine contained semen, which could possibly turn into pebble-like substances and completely block the ureter.
The last two references to snuff come from the years after the demise of ACBS.
The first is from an article in Back to Godhead magazine titled “Drugs and Ecstasy.” In the section “Smoke From The Bottomless Pit” we get a clear picture of how the average ISKCON devotee regards snuff, independent of their founder’s using it:
In 1604, James I, King of England, tagged smoking, “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fumes thereof nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” Today some 60 million Americans smoke millions of pounds of tobacco every year at a cost of about $9 billion. Tobacco is taken primarily, of course, in the form of cigarettes (528 billion consumed each year), which are supplemented by pipe tobacco, cigars, snuff and chewing tobacco. In spite of an anti-smoking campaign in the U. S. in recent years – a result of quite conclusive evidence linking cigarette smoking to a variety of diseases – there has been little progress made in stopping the habit.
Vyasa-puja 1984, St. Louis
The second and final reference is from a Vyasa-puja offering submitted by the St. Louis temple in 1984 that (lacking any clear indication from the text itself, I can only assume) is meant to rhapsodically depict the scene in Vrindavan during the final days of ACBS. The swami’s snuff box is a detail apparently too important to be omitted:
It is six-thirty in the morning. The birds sing sweetly, and peacocks sound their exotic meow. The air resounds with japa, chanted by your faithful disciples. Two devotees softly sing the Brahma-samhita on the outer veranda, upstairs in your Vrndavana quarters, waiting. You ring the bell, and one devotee enters the inner veranda, offers obeisances, and enters the mosquito net on the bed to massage your heart. You speak softly about ISKCON matters – Bombay, Mayapur, New Vrindaban, etc. Management is arcanam, you once said. Your servant helps you to your bath and personally bathes your transcendental form. Then he brings you to the indoor room. You sit in a rocking chair as he helps you with your kurta, and you apply tilaka from your Krsna-Balarama compact. The other servant changes the linens and brings the bed on the outer veranda with pillows, scented garland, bouquet, handkerchief, lota, snuff, incense, and camara. He has also brought fresh cloth and kaupina for you. You are then aided to the outer veranda, where you sit on the bed, garlanded by your loving disciples. The incense is sweet as one devotee fans you with a camara, in a figure-eight fashion, not for cooling but for keeping the numerous flies from your thin form.
And, I assume, as Tamala Krishna puts it, he occasionally “avails himself” of a little powdered tobacco.