this story to a friend
Part I: New York, 1966
By Hayagriva das
I first see
him just after
crossing the Bowery at Houston Street. As he passes before the
iron-mesh fence of a playground, I distinctly glimpse the aura of
saintliness. I watch him through the rushing traffic and stumbling
almost jauntily down the sidewalk. He is an old man whom age
has never touched. Aloof from the people and bustle about him, he walks
proudly, independently, his hand in a cloth beadbag. He wears the
saffron robes of a sannyasi, and on his feet are quaint, pointed white
months ago, I had seen many saffrn-robed monks and holymen
walking the dirt roads of Hardwar and Rishikesh, and stopping beside
the Ganges to bathe. For me, that had been a futile journey to the
mystic East in search of the all-knowing guru.
I look again
at the pointed white shoes. Did this man follow me all the
way from North India? Or did he just suddenly descend from the clouds
onto Manhattan sidewalks? I decide I must speak to him.
As I start
across the steet, trucks rumbling toward Holland Tunnel
block him from my view. I look again to make sure that he's still
there. Yes, he even appears to be aware of me. He has all the bearing
of a great actor in a famous movie. I can't think of what to say, but I
approach him anyway.
We both stop
at once. His sudden smile is moonlight in the gray July
"Are you from
India?" I ask stupidly.
"Oh yes," he
says, his eyes bright and expressive. Crosstown buses roar
past, billowing exhaust like clouds of incense. I sense that his
tranquility is fixed in something far beyond the traffic roar. "And
you?" he asks.
American," I say, "but I just got back from Calcutta."
Calcutta!" Another smile. "I am coming from Calcutta. And you
were liking India?"
it's… very different."
Vrindaban? You have been to Vrindaban?"
"No," I say.
Mathura," he says.
not," I say, not knowing either place. "I got sick and had
excuse, but I can think of nothing else. His large brown eyes
sparkle. How old is he? His head is shaved, save for a few white hairs
in back, and his complexion, golden Bengali, seems radiant against
saffron robes. His presence evokes quiet ashrams nestled near
Himalayas, cows, bells, temples, and holy rivers.
"But I like
India," I add. "I'm interested in Hindu philosophy. Someday
I'll go back."
living near here?" he asks.
down." I point across Bowery. "Over on Mott Street."
"Then we are
neighbors," he says. "I want to give some classes on Bhagavad-gita.
I have this one place. I wonder
if it is suitable. Maybe
you can come and see?"
I say, and we turn and walk the half block to Second
before a small storefront between First and Second Streets,
next door to a Mobil filling station, and across the street from the
Red Star Bar and Gonzalez Funeral Home. Occupying half the ground floor
of a four-story apartment building, the storefront had evidently served
as a curio shop, for the words "Matchless Gifts" were painted over the
I notice an
announcement in the window: "Lectures on Bhagavad-gita.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday 7-9 p.m. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami."
So, he's a swami!
"This is a
good area?" he asks.
"Oh yes," I
say. "It surely is." Suddenly I feel sorry for the
grandfatherly gentleman so far from home, so helpless in such an alien
metropolis. "I would like to hear your lectures," I say.
must come," he says. Another moonlight smile.
friends, too," I add, "who might be interested."
good. You must bring them."
"I will," I
promise. "Monday evening."
When I return
to my dark,
cockroach-ridden apartment on Mott Street, I tell everyone about the
new swami. We are all in our twenties—Keith, Wally, George,
Patricia, Harvey, and I. Keith and Wally are the most interested. Keith
Ham, a friend from undergraduate days, is working at Columbia
University on his doctorate in American religious history. Wally
Sheffey, a recording engineer from Chicago, is a student of Buddhism.
In the course of a Mott Street evening, a conversation might revolve
around ego-loss, death, Buddha, peyote, LSD, St. John, reincarnation,
Bach, astral travel, Plato, and Lao Tzu. So the arrival of a new swami
sparks immediate interest.
followed us back," Keith suggests.
"To a Second
blocks away. He wonders if it's a good neighborhood."
should be interesting. Is he a guru, or avatar, or
go Monday and find out."
"Just what we
need," Wally says. "Another guru."
"Maybe he was
sending out all those strange vibes in India," Keith says.
say. "Anyway, let's try him."
I have read
that meeting a guru is not an
ordinary occurrence and never accidental. Life's paths lead to that
junction only after many births. Thrown by our karma into a
my generation went off to kindergarten as the Bomb fell on Hiroshima
and inaugurated the atomic age. After the war, nothing seemed
impossible for Americans, and most of us began college in the fifties
with great material expectations.
they were, the fifties were not without rebellion. When I
entered the University of North Carolina in 1958, there were beatniks
on campus—only a handful to be sure, but they were noticed. Free from
parents, we delighted in adolescent rebellion, encouraged by some
professors who considered the God of Christianity dead. When one
professor asked all atheists to raise their hands, mine went up with
many others. My favorite courses dealt with philosophy in literature,
and my childhood heroes, the American transcendentalists and the
Catholic saints, were superseded by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.
sixties began, and my friends and I were entering our twenties,
many of us gravitated to Manhattan, where, the media informed us,
everything exciting was happening. But cynicism and rebellion could not
satisfy for long. The Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy assassination
underscored the turbulence of the day and the need for something more
than nihilism and atheism to pull us through. By 1964, as I completed
graduate work in English at New York University, my interest in
American transcendentalism revived. The joyous affirmations of Emerson,
Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, and Crane filled a religious vacuum.
Aldous Huxley drew cultural comparisons in The Perennial Philosophy and
questioned reality with his mescaline experiences in The Doors of
Perception. Students began talking of ego-death, expanded
consciousness, eternity, infinity, heaven and hell, and even God. Camus
and Sartre were discarded as dead-enders. After all, maybe the mystics,
poets, saints and dreamers were on the right track. American
involvement in Vietnam increased, and with it our restlessness and need
for spiritual answers.
graduate students mostly, were undergoing some intense
value changes. The world seemed to volatile for us to follow in the
footsteps of our parents by dedicating ourselves to lifetime careers,
or investing in families and expensive homes. Wanting to get at the
meaning of things, we began searching, reading mystic poets and
investigating scriptures. We studied the Buddhist Sutras, Plato, Zen,
St. Augustine, the Hindus. We were on the trail of something, but what?
Whenever we tried to explain it, we would have to resort to hackneyed
definitions. Something earth-shattering was happening, surely. Was this
the Aquarian Age emerging? Or did every generation experience the same
thing in a different way?
becomes God as much as stillness," Keith wrote on the Mott
Street wall, quoting Meister Eckhardt.
you see before you is the one mind," Wally reminded
everyone, quoting Huang Po.
"If the sun
and moon should doubt, they'd immediately go out," I said,
we needed was a guru.
reservations, I began teaching English in the fall of 1964 at
Ohio State University. Coincidentally, I shared an office with Mohan
Lal Sharma from the Punjab. He lent me translations of Bhagavad-gita
and Shankara's Vivekachudamani, telling me, "You must
visit India. It
is the cradle of all religion and transcendentalism. There you will
find your answers." Inspired by the books, I decided to go.
the year's contract just to earn money for passage. Keith,
on leave from Columbia University, also had a little money saved. In
October, 1965, we left Newport News on the S.S. Jaladhuta, an
freighter bound for Bombay, a month's voyage. When we landed and took
our first look at Bombay, Eastern philosophy began to make sense: all
life is suffering and must be transcended. But how?
north by train and bus to the Himalayas, to Hardwar and
Rishikesh, searching for holymen who knew enough English to give us the
images! The clear-running Ganges, flowing aqua-green from
the mountains; the monks chanting at the dharmshala where we
two weeks; the sannyasi dying along the roadside, his saffron
pulled over his face, his limbs but leprous stubs, a swarm of flies
buzzing about him as he chanted in a thin, frail voice; the quiet hills
and ancient temples of Rishikesh; the old rickshaw man, straining to
cycle us up a hill and cheerfully accepting his rupee tip.
But Keith and
I couldn't find any holymen who were both impressive and
versed in English. Those who knew English seemed more immersed in
temple administration than philosophy or meditation, and the itinerant sadhus
with flowing beards seemed remote and
to Delhi, then went to Calcutta, spent a month in Bengal,
and, disappointed, finally took another freighter back to New York.
psychedelic New York welcomed us back. LSD had hit the street and
excited the media; everybody, it seemed, was dropping acid, taking
trips, astral travelling, and reading The Tibetan Book of the
cults were springing up in the Village and Lower East Side. Dropout
students and professors were travelling to ancient sun cultures and
living with natives, Shivaites and Huichols, taking hallucinogens,
consulting roadmen, shamans, yogis and gurus.
And now, A.C.
Bhaktivedanta Swami suddenly appears in our backyard, as
if the whole chaotic stage had been deliberately, specifically set for
display window of the Matchless
Gifts storefront is a painting of five men with long hair, all dancing
with their arms raised, as if about to levitate. They are dancing in a
temple—in India, the architecture tells us—and the haloes about their
heads suggest that they are saints or avatars. Their round,
cherubic faces seem frozen in celestial bliss.
"This is it,"
I tell Keith and Wally, and we enter.
storefront itself is only a fifteen by forty foot unfurnished room.
Someone had placed straw mats on the floor for sitting. At the far end
are two windows, a closed bathroom door, and a badly chipped sink. A
bare lightbulb hangs from a cord in the middle of the room, another at
the entrance. They are the only lights.
We sit on the
floor and look around. A half dozen other people are also
sitting and waiting. Someone with a beard and long hair introduces
himself as Roy.
out back and will be down soon," he informs us.
refers to the rear apartment building where the Swami has a
second floor apartment.
As we wait,
others come in. Then, through the back windows, I can see
the Swami crossing the courtyard to the storefront. He enters through
the hall door and quickly slides off his white pointed shoes. Then he
sits on one of the straw mats and faces his new congregation.
His attire is
humble, ascetic: a saffron dhoti worn in the style of a sannyasi
monk, and a saffron chadar over his
shoulders. As he sits
erect and cross-legged, his body seems to dwindle. His magnetism and
personality are concentrated in his face, large and noble like a
Buddha's. It is a serene, meditative, grave face, a tranquil face,
encompassing joy, compassion, sorrow, and much more. it is a face
unlike any other I have ever seen.
He turns to
me and smiles. "You have brought your friends?"
"Yes," I say.
Picking up a
pair of kartals, the kind of bell-metal hand cymbals used
in temples in India, he taps them together rhythmically—ching ching
ching, ching ching ching—then begins to chant:
He sings in a
pure, rich baritone, a voice filled with devotion. Since
no one knows what he is chanting, no one can join in. Only after
chanting for some minutes does he begin to explain the Sanskrit words.
Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama,
Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Hare, Krishna, and Rama.
of God are the transcendental seeds of the maha-mantra," he
as Roy hands out pieces of paper with the words typed on them. "Krishna
is the name meaning 'all attractive.' God is not a void. God is a
person, eternally youthful and fresh. He appears just like a young
cowherd boy, and His color is dark blue like a thundercloud. And Rama
means the Lord as supreme enjoyer. He is the enjoyer, Purusha,
are the enjoyed, Prakriti. And Hare means the
energy of the Lord.
Through the transcendental energy of the Lord, we can reach the Lord
Himself. So when we chant Hare Krishna, we ae saying, 'O Lord! O energy
of the Lord! Just lift me up and place me as an atom of dust at Your
He then urges
us to chant Hare Krishna in response. Slowly, awkwardly
at first, we try to follow the words on the sheets of paper. Roy and
another young man join with cymbals. There are no other instruments.
There is only the hypnotic ching ching ching of the cymbals and
words of the mantra. Eventually, we start clapping. I become
Puerto Ricans and derelicts clustered around the front door and staring
through the window. Strange sights on Second Avenue.
ends the chanting with three resounding chings. No one seems
to know what to do next. We all sit anticipating.
"Oh, look at
all the prophets," someone outside says.
over to close the door.
"No, leave it
open," the Swami says. He looks at the people outside as
if to invite them all in.
begins, "we will speak of the Absolute Truth."
Truth," he says, "is known
in various ways by different types of yogis. The impersonalist
as Brahman, the all-pervasive effulgence. The mystic followers
of the astanga-yoga system know it as Paramatma,
the localized aspect of the
Supreme Lord situated in the heart. But the devotees know the Absolute
Truth as Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. And in Bhagavad-gita,
Krishna declares Himself to be
the Absolute Truth,
Bhagavan, the possessor of all opulences."
I had previously read Bhagavad-gita, Krishna seemed to me
personification of the
divine, a kind of folk hero incarnation, a symbol to help us understand
the Self spoken of by Shankara.
the Self, is subordinate to Paramatma, the Supersoul," the Swami
says. "And this Paramatma is Krishna, manifested in the hearts of all.
Everything is subordinate to the personality Krishna. The demigods,
Brahman, time, space, the spiritual and material universes, and all
incarnations and avataras—all are subordinate to Krishna.
the sum total of everything; and yet He is beyond everything. He can
renounce everything and still be complete in Himself. To realize the
supreme ultimate truth is to realize Krishna, and realizing Krishna
means becoming His devotee. So, every living entity is an eternal
servant of Krishna. This is our svarupa, our eternal identity."
identity?! Servants of a blue cowherd boy?
As the Swami
talks of Krishna, I recall
seeing in India popular religious paintings depicting the
blue-complexioned Lord in various pastimes: Krishna as a naughty child,
turning over pots of butter; Krishna as a playful cowherd boy sporting
with His friends; Krishna as a romantic youth, playing His flute and
dancing; Krishna as a gallant warrior, driving the chariot of Arjuna in
battle; Krishna as the God of gods, revealing His universal form, which
arises like a thousand suns.
must hear about Krishna from
the lips of a pure devotee," the Swami says. "Shravanam.
childhood, in school, I first heard about America in my geography and
history classes. By hearing, I understood, 'Oh, that is a very
wonderful country, and it is very far away. If I go there, I will see
big buildings and many motorcars.' So I had some mental conception by
hearing. Or, you may not have gone to India, but you have some idea of
what it's like by reading or hearing. You don't go there without
knowing something first. Similarly, if we want to see God, or go to the
Kingdom of God, we first must hear. That is the process of sravanam.
And kirtanam. Kirtan. You must repeat what you
hear: Hare Krishna. This kirtan, or chanting of Hare Krishna,
dust from the mirror
of the mind, dust accumulated by crores and crores of births."
A crore, I
learn, is ten million.
As the Swami
lectures, my hearing slowly adapts to his accent.
driven made by the illusory material energy," he says. "For
sense gratification, we undergo crores and crores of births and deaths
trying to enjoy ourselves independent of Krishna. But when our
enjoyment is directed to Krishna, we are rightly situated. This is what
is meant by turning from illusion to reality. The guru, the
spiritual master, awakens this dormant, eternal relationship, and when
it is revived, we can see, hear, and speak to Krishna.
Lord Krishna tells us, 'Engage your mind in thinking of Me,
offer obeisances and worship Me. Thus absorbed completely in Me, you
will come to Me.'"
the lecture, an old
white-bearded Bowery bum enters and walks down the middle of the room.
We sit in confused silence. He approaches the Swami.
What to do?
The old beggar is wearing a raincoat and batterd hat. In
his hands are paper handtowels and two rolls of toilet paper. Without
speaking, he walks past hte Swami and carefully places the handtowels
by the sink and the toilet paper on the floor beneath. Then, clearing
his throat and muttering something, he turns and walks out.
the Swami says with satisfaction. "He may not be in order,
but he has just begun his devotional service. Just see how naturally it
comes. That is the process. Whatever we have—it doesn't matter what—we
must offer it to Krishna."
continues past the
forty-minute mark. Some people leave, evidently baffled by the strange
philosophy, or the Swami's Bengali accent. Undaunted, the Swami
carefully and repeatedly explains that we are not these bodies but
eternal spirit souls.
influence of maya, illusion," he says, "we are thinking, 'I
am this body, I am American, I am a father, son, husband, wife.' No.
What am I? Spirit soul, part and parcel of Krishna. And my duty? The
part renders service to the whole: Krishna. This is bhakti-yoga.
is defined by Narada as freedom from false bodily designations. The
body, through its senses, perceives dualities such as pleasure and
pain, but these arise from the body alone. It's just like a skin itch.
The cure? Sense control through Krishna consciousness.
"And who is
Krishna? The word Krishna means the all-attractive
reservoir of pleasure. We are all hankering after some pleasure in this
material world, but this material pleasure is a perverted reflection.
It is temporary. Real pleasure is there in the spiritual sky, in
relation to Krishna, and it is eternal."
Like a master
weaver at the loom, the Swami weaves his discourse around
Krishna. Krishna, "the Supreme Absolute Truth," "the Supreme
Personality of Godhead," is his main theme.
His name, His associates, His pastimes, His transcendental
body, and His abode. He's not something void or impersonal. No. He's a
For us, this
is the biggest news of all.
lakshavriteshu surabhir abhipalayantam
govindam adi-purusham tam aham bhajami
worship Govinda, Krishna, the primeval Lord, the first progenitor,
who is tending the cows, fulfilling all desires, in abodes built with
spiritual gem, surrounded by millions and millions of desire trees,
always served with great reverence and affection by hundreds and
thousands of Lakshmis, goddesses of fortune."
chants this verse with such devotion that his voice evokes
the image of an ever-youthful cowherd boy whose transcendental body is sat-chit-ananda,
full of eternity, knowledge, and
bliss. A far cry from
the vengeful, white-beared Jehovah.
"God's not an
old man," the Swami says. "Why should He be old? He is
eternal, changeless, ever fresh, ever youthful, ever blissful, all
knowing, all powerful. Although He was a grandfather on the Battlefield
of Kurukshetra, He still appeared just eighteen or twenty."
After an hour
and a half, the lecture
terminates, and the Swami asks for questions. One tall, lanky boy asks
whether or not he can see Krishna with his own eyes.
not?" the Swami says. "But first you must qualify yourself to
see. We can cleanse our senses by first hearing and chanting. Why put
so much stress on seeing God? Hearing is just as important. you can
haer by listening to Bhagavad-gita and chanting Hare
and His names are nondifferent, so by chanting Hare Krishna, you are
actually associating with Krishna. Just try to understand…."
continues citing examples and similes to clarify his point.
We are all impressed by his erudition, his inexhaustible supply of
Sanskrit verses, and his insistence on scriptural authority. He spends
a half hour answering the boy's question, then asks if there are any
more questions. There aren't, and he picks up the cymbals and resumes
chanting Hare Krishna. We respond as before, and the chanting continues
for another half hour. I check my watch. The program began at seven, an
it is now nine forty-five. The Swami slices up an apple and passes it
to us on a metal plate. After it is distributed, he slides into his
white, pointed shoes, leaves by the side door, and walks through the
courtyard to his apartment.
I notice some
people dropping coins into a wicker basket left on the
straw mat. I contribute fifty cents and leave with Keith and Wally.
Everybody's excited about the new swami.
On the way
out, Roy tells us that we can visit during the day in the
Swami's apartment. The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday night.
Wednesday evening, we are
drawn again, as if by magnets, to the Matchless Gifts storefront. After
the Hare Krishna chanting, the Swami reads Sanskrit verses from Bhagavad-gita
and criticizes the translation
Radhakrishnan, the current President of India.
impersonalist," he says, "but what can we do? We have no other
of Bhagavad-gita, he tells us, is that Arjuna can remain
warrior in the world and still be the greatest yogi by
Krishna's directions. Since we all have to follow some authority—even
if it be our own mind or senses—we should accept the supreme authority,
means knowledge given by God," he says. "Bhagavad-gita is Veda,
and is infallible. We must have faith in Bhagavad-gita to
progress. Some authority must be accepted, otherwise we are wasting our
time simply talking. In Bhagavad-gita, Krishna gives us
information about Himself, and there is no question of doubting it. We
must understnad and accept. Otherwise, how can we ever know anything of
God? He is beyond our material perception. 'Everything is resting on
Me,' He says, 'but I am not there.' You may think, 'Oh, this table is
resting in Krishna; therefore Krishna must be here.' But Krishna says,
'I am not there.' Although Krishna and His energy are nondifferent, the
energy is not Krishna. There is no difference between sunshine and the
sun, but if sunshine is present in your room, you cannot say that the
sun itself is there. Similarly, everything is Krishna's energy, but
still Krishna is beyond everything as the Supreme Person. Just because
we cannot see Him, we should not foolishly conclude that He doesn't
exist. We can see His energies working. Just as planets are floating in
the sunshine, so the sun, the universe, everything, is resting on
Krishna-shine, floating in Krishna's energy. 'Everything is resting on
Me, but don't think that I am finished because you cannot see Me. I am
confidential knowledge of Bhagavad-gita is especially
for Krishna's devotees. It cannot be understood unless we accept
Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. We cannot see God by our
own endeavor, but if we qualify ourselves, God will reveal Himself. By
sincerely hearing Bhagavad-gita and chanting Hare
Krishna, we can come
to understand God and our relationship with Him."
explains that just as Arjuna heard Bhagavad-gita from the
of Krishna Himself, we should hear it from the lips of Arjuna's
representative, the bona fide spiritual master.
was first heard on the Indian plain, at
Kurukshetra, but this does not mean that it was spoken only for India,
or that it is Indian. No. It is for everyone. The sun first rises in
the east, then goes to the west. This is not to say that the east has a
monopoly of the sun. Bhagavad-gita may have arisen in the
India, but it is not India's monopoly. It is for the whole world."
lecture, the Swami asks if there are any questions. Someone
asks if it is true that he is forming an "international society," as
indicated by the sign in the window.
"Yes, " the
Swami says. "Of course, at present, this is our only
branch, but this Society we are forming, the International Society for
Krishna Consciousness, is meant to teach everyone love of God by this bhakti-yoga
process. The other day, someone wanted
me to call it the
International Society for God Consciousness." He smiles and shakes his
head. "But I decided no," he says. "Krishna must be there."
questions, the Swami again slices up an apple and hands it to
Roy for distribution. Then, seeing that some people are questioning the
Swami further, I also approach him.
ever heard of LSD?" I ask boldly.
chemical," I say, vaguely feeling stupid. "Some people claim
that it can give religious insights or ecstasies. Do you think that it
could be helpful in spiritual life?"
He looks at
me for a moment with childlike curiosity.
need to take anything for your spiritual life," he says.
"Your spiritual life is already here."
certainly is here, I think, standing before the most exalted
personality I have ever seen.
End of Chapter 1