His grandfather was a paramahamsa whose only business was to chant Hare Krishna and cry before the local Deity of Krishna known as Gopaljiu. He taught Braja Bandhu how to chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra by counting on his fingers. In the company of his uncles, Braja Bandhu would travel from village to village chanting Hare Krishna and singing the songs of Narottam Das Thakur. From the age of six, Braja Bandhu worshipped the Deity of Gopal 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 Gopal. By the age of eight, he had read the entire Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Sri Caitanya-caritamrta and could also explain their meanings. 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 Krishna’s Holy Name, studying vaisnava literature, and worshipping his beloved Gopal. 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 theater.
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 enroll 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 schoolteacher.
Despite many responsibilities, however, his devotion to Gopal never slackened. He would daily rise at 3.30 a.m., chant the Hare Krishna 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 Krishna 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 Himalaya Mountains, visiting different tirthas and asramas, and he would sometimes engage in philosophical debates with the mayavadis he found there. On 10th 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 Gopala Das 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 (Orissa 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 Vrindavan, thinking that his desire would certainly be fulfilled in Krishna’s dear abode.
Two weeks after arriving in Vrindavan he saw a huge signboard that 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 Krishna, his heart became anxious to meet 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 Gopal replied that he did 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 Vrindavan, Srila Prabhupada awarded him the sannyasa order, sending him to preach in Orissa and to construct a temple on the newly donated property in Bhubanesvara.
The donated land looked like a no man’s zone, which was full of bushes, shrubs and a lot of poisonous insects, stinging caterpillars, scorpions, mosquitoes and very poisonous snakes etc. 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, Srila 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 Oriya as he had been instructed. He would visit house after house, office after office, in and around Bhubanesvara 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 Bhubanesvara. 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 Bhubanesvara 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 Mayapur in 1979, Srila Gour Govinda Swami while attending kirtana, one day, 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 Krishnadas 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 Bhubanesvara, 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 Orissa. The simple padayatra festivals and nama-hatta programs that he started have helped hundreds and thousands of people in the ancient land of Lord Sri Caitanya’s pastimes discover their spiritual roots and take up the chanting of the maha-mantra:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna 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 Oriya, to build the temple in Bhubanesvara, 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 Srila 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 traveled overseas for preaching. He had so much enthusiasm for speaking Krishna-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. Krishna-katha was his very life and soul. He would often say, “The day without Krishna-katha, is a lifeless 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 Thakur 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, Srila Gour Govinda Swami always preached fearlessly, never compromising the conclusions of the scripture in the name of being practical. “One who cannot see Krishna” he would say, “is a blind man. He may speak about Krishna, but in his mind he is speculating. Therefore his words will never be effective. A real sadhu never speaks theoretically.”
Srila 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, Gopal knows.” Every day he would pray to Gopal in his diary, “Please give me the association of like-minded devotees.”
In 1991, on Sri Rama Navami, the auspicious appearance day of Lord Sri Ramacandra, after sixteen years of determined endeavor, Gour Govinda Maharaja fulfilled the instruction of his beloved spiritual master Srila Prabhupada by opening the magnificent Sri Sri Krishna Balarama temple in Bhubanesvara. Since that time 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 Gopal resided in a simple structure, was donated to ISKCON, he did take up the responsibility of one more project, that of building Gopal a magnificent temple. Gour Govinda Swami said, “I have opened a crying school here in Bhubanesvara. Unless we cry for Krishna, 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 at all a fit place for any gentleman to live. Therefore, because he was disgusted, he left this world prematurely. I may also leave. I don’t know. Let me ask Gopal. I will do whatever He wants.” The next day Gour Govinda Swami went to Gadeigiri to see his Gopal. 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 Bhubanesvara. Then he left for the annual ISKCON management meetings in Sridham Mayapur.
On 9 February 1996, the holy appearance day of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur, two senior ISKCON devotees requested an appointment in the early evening to see Srila 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 Jagannath 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 Krishna when Krishna was away from Vrindavan. This moving pastime appears in chapter eight of The Embankment of Separation. Enchanting all the devotees in his room with the nectarean topics of Krishna, he gradually unfolded the pastime to the point where Radha and Krishna were finally united after their long separation. He described how Krishna became so ecstatic upon seeing Radharani that He manifested a form with big round eyes and shrunken limbs: Lord Jagannath.
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 Krishna fell upon the eyes of Radharani: eye-to-eye union.” Unable to continue, he apologized with folded hands, “Please excuse me. I cannot speak.”
He then gave his final instruction: “Naam koro! Naam koro!”
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 Gopaljiu in his hand. Then, gazing lovingly at that picture of his worshippable Deity, Srila Gour Govinda Swami called out, “Gopal!” and departed for the spiritual sky to be united with his beloved Lord.
Every day before Srimad-Bhagavatam class, Srila Gour Govinda Swami would sing an Oriya song he had learned as a boy.
Now his prayer was fulfilled:
paramananda he madhava padungaluci makaranda
se-makaranda pana-kari anande bolo ‘hari hari’
harinka name vanda vela pari karibe caka-dola
se-caka-dolanka-payare mana-mo rahu nirantare
mana mo nirantare rahu ‘ha-krsna’ boli jiva jau
ha-krsna boli jau jiva mote udhara radha-dhava
mote udhara radha-dhava mote udhara radha-dhava
“O supremely blissful Madhava! The nectar is coming from Your Lotus Feet. Drinking that nectar, I blissfully sing “Hari! Hari!” Taking the name of Hari, I am binding a raft on which Lord Jagannath will ferry me across this ocean of material existence. May my mind always remain at the Lotus Feet of that Lord Jagannath who has very large round eyes. In this way, I call out, “Alas! Krishna!” and give up my life. O husband of Radharani, please deliver me.”