When speaking of the glory of the Vaishnavas, Srila Gour Govinda Maharaja would often quote the following Bengali verse from the poet Vaishnava Das:
vaisnavera guna gana, korile jivera trana
suniache sadhu-guru mukhe
"I have heard from the lips of sadhu-guru, if you glorify a devotee, you will be delivered very easily. Krishna will be very pleased and you will get his mercy very easily."
As all who knew him can readily confirm, glorification of a Vaishnava like Svayambhu Maharaja flows easily from the heart. He was a special person indeed.
Svayambhu Maharaja was born in a ksatriya family on 17 December 1935 as Subhas Chandra Nayak in the Orissan village Garaam. Subhas attended school in the nearby town of Kujanga. A teacher in one of his fourth grade classes was an effulgent Vaishnava only five years older than Subhas. This young teacher was named Braja Bandhu Manik. Subhas found Braja Bandhu to be a sober serious person, very dedicated to reading Vaishnava literature, chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, and worshiping his family deity of Sri Sri Radha Gopal Jiu. Braja Bandhu was his teacher from the 4th to the 7th grades. At that time he didn't know that his tutor would one day become known as Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja and would become Subhas' spiritual master.
Subhas married when he was 19 years old, and like his revered instructor Braja Bandhu, he became a school teacher in the subjects of math and Oriya literature. Subhas was there on the 10th of April 1974 when Braja Bandhu left home. He later recalled:
I heard that Gurudev had left his family life and his position as a teacher and had gone to the Kakudia Math. The day after he left home I went to Kakudia Math to see him. When I arrived he was sitting and looking at a picture of Gopal and singing over and over again, "Gopal, Gopal, Gopal, Gopal, Gopal, Gopal, Gopal." In the afternoon a group of teachers and students from the high school arrived to meet him. They were stunned by his sudden renunciation. They asked him, "Why have you left your job and your home?" Gurudev then asked me to recite Manabodha-cautisa, Instructions to the Mind, a song by the Oriya vaisnava Bhakta Charan Das:
kaha-i mana are mo bola kara
kalasrimukha bare dekhiba calare
kete dinaku mana bandhuchu anta
ki ghenijibu tora chutile ghatare
khandi je khandi tora panjara kathi
khauna thibe svana srgaÿa bantire
khat palanke mana sejai sou
khala durgandha heba e tora dehure
galeni to sangaru jeteka jana
ganthire banddhinele ke kete dhanare
guru gobinda nama tunde nabolu
gadhe majjina nitye dhana arjilure
gharaboli arjichu jete padartha
ghata chutile tote bolibe bhutareg
ghara gharani deha kilauthibe
gheni bandhu kutumba suddha hoibere
"I say to you, O mind: Obey my order!
Let us go and see the beautiful black-faced one [Lord Jagannath]!
For how long will you remain bound in material life?
At the end of your life, what will you take with you?
Piece by piece your ribs will be distributed
Amongst the dogs and jackals.
O mind, you are now sleeping comfortably on a nice mattress,
But after death your body will give off a terrible smell.
How many of your friends and family have already died?
How much of their wealth could they bind in a cloth to take with them?
You have never uttered the names of guru and Govinda!
Always deeply absorbed in thinking how to gather wealth,
You are acquiring so many things like house and family!
But when your life is gone, all will cry, "Ghost!"
The ladies of the house will close up the doors.
And only after the recommended period of purification will your relatives be
considered freed from contamination."
Gurudev was listening intently to the song. When I came to the last line he fainted and fell back unconscious against me. Seeing that his jaw was clenched tightly shut, I took a piece of bamboo and pried open his mouth. When the teachers saw him faint in this way, they became convinced that Gurudev was no ordinary person and that he was truly qualified to leave home and take to spiritual life. The students, however, still wanted him to return. Seeing the mood amongst the students, I told them, "Now he is unconscious. We can easily take him back to his home. Go and get a motor rickshaw." As soon as they left I carried Gurudev away where they could not find him. Later we came back to the matha. That evening Gurudev's wife Srimati Vasanti Devi came. Gurudev had her sleep inside the room while he and I slept outside on top of some coconut palm leaves. In the morning I pointed out to Gurudev how there was an imprint on his body from the leaves. He said, "Yes, renounced life is like this." His wife was unable to convince him to return, and he sent her back home that morning. He stayed there at Kakudia Math for five or six days, during which time he called for his younger brother Kripa-sindhu and asked him to take care of his family. Then he left Kakudia Math and walked 14 kilometers to Gadeigiri to request Gopal's permission to take sannyasa.
After taking to the renounced order of life, Braja Bandhu asked Subhas to give him bhiksa or donations for a sannyasi. He told him, "Just as Buddha after leaving home first begged alms from his disciple Chandika, you please give me my first alms as a renunciate."
Subhas had two sons and three daughters. During this time he lost contact with Braja Bandhu and became interested in Buddhism. After some years he left home and became a Buddhist sannyasi. In that position he traveled and preached in Tailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and various places in India.
Although traveling extensively and preaching, Subhas never forgot his mentor Braja Bandhu.
In 1979 Subhas was visiting Bhubaneswar. While there he went to the Buddhist shrine known as Dola Giri. On his way back he went to get a bus. At the bus stand he was approached by a white skinned westerner, dressed in a dhoti with Vaishnava tilak. That devotee gave him a magazine in Oriya called Bhagavat Darshan. Seeing that Subhas was interested, the westerner began explaining some things about Krishna consciousness. He showed Subhas an article in the magazine written by an Orissan sannyasi, whom he said was living at their center in Bhubaneswar. The devotee's name was Bhagavat Das, and he invited Subhas to come to meet that sannyasi. When Subhas later arrived at the ISKCON property, he was astonished to see that the sannyasi, now known as Gour Govinda Swami, was none other than Braja Bandhu -- the mentor of his youth.
Gour Govinda Maharaja explained that he and Bhagavat had received initiation from His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada; and that his name was now Gour Govinda Swami. Subhas started coming every day to see Gour Govinda Maharaja, who patiently explained to him the principles of the Bhagavad-gita. Due to Maharaja's strong preaching Subhas gradually gave up his interest in Buddhism, and became a follower of Srila Prabhupada. In 1984 he took initiation from Srila Gour Govinda Maharaja and received the name Svayambhu Das. From that day, under the guidance and instruction of his spiritual master, Svayambhu began strongly preaching to the pious village people of Orissa. This remained his focus for the rest of his life. He became well-known for his learned discourses during which he would frequently sing traditional Oriya Vaishnava songs. He converted many sahajiyas in Orissa into pure followers of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Srila Prabhupada. After Gour Govinda Maharaja left this world in 1996, Svayambhu waited a few years and then took sannyasa from Srila Bhaktisvarup Damodar Maharaja in 2003. After taking sannyasa, he became known as Svayambhu Maharaja, and became even more enthusiastic to preach.
Around 2008, Svayambhu Maharaja started becoming frequently sick. His condition became acute in early August 2010, and the devotees took him to a local hospital. There he was treated for a few days and then passed away on the 11th of August 2010 at 4:15pm. A few minutes before his departure, Svayambhu Maharaja's eldest son Mahendra came to visit. He gave his fathersome caranamrita and Jagannath maha-prasadam from Puri. After giving his
father those items, Mahendra started playing a recording of Srila Prabhupada singing the maha-mantra; at which time Svayambhu Maharaja peacefully left
Bhubaneswar Dham is a sacred place. It is part of Sri Ksetra, specifically the entrance to Jagannath Puri. The fifth chapter text one of the Kapila Samhita, a Sanskrit Sthala Purana of Orissa, describes the glories of Bhubaneswar:
tasmin ksetre dvija-sresthah te vasanti narah kila
te yanti visnoh sannidhyam bhasamanah su-tejasah
"O best of the twice born those persons who reside in this effulgent and
splendid holy land, attain to the abode of Lord Vishnu."
Svayambhu Maharaja was 75 years of age when he departed from this world. He had no formal disciples, but he will be remembered by thousands of villagers all over Orissa whose lives he transformed by giving them the maha-mantra and the teachings of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Maharaja is survived by his purva-asrama wife Malati Nayak (initiated as Manjulata Devi Dasi), his two sons Mahendra and Bipin, and his 3 daughters Sangha Mitra (initiated as Su-prema Devi Dasi), Sujata (initiated as Suvarna Manjari), and Sakuntala, all of whom, with the exception of the youngest Sakuntala, were initiated by Srila Gour Govinda Maharaja.
The devotees in Bhubaneswar fondly remember Svayambhu Maharaja as being close with Srila Gour Govinda Maharaja. They are in the process now of making a svayam samadhi (full samadhi) for Svayambhu Maharaja at the ISKCON farm project in Atala, and a puspa-samadhi at his birthplace in Garaam.
We pray for Svayambhu Maharaja's blessings that we can render some sincere service to our spiritual master in the way that he so wonderfully exemplified.
. . .
Svayambhu Maharaja only spoke a few words of English and after taking initiation he rarely traveled outside of Orissa. So he is relatively unknown to most of the devotees in the West. I can't say that I had many exchanges with him. But I vividly remember the first time I ever saw him. It was the day when I first arrived in Bhubaneswar in October of 1993. I put my things in my guest house room and started walking on the outside veranda to the temple. I didn't know anyone there -- everything was very new to me. Looking down in the courtyard below I suddenly saw an effulgent elderly devotee in the courtyard. Without thinking, I instinctively offered him my obeisances. Just from his appearance I felt that he must be someone special. I later came to find out that it was my senior godbrother Svayambhu Prabhu.