this story to a friend
Part II: San Francisco, 1967
By Hayagriva das
During April and May, tourism and
hippy fantasy soar to rare heights in the Haight-Ashbury. Like a Mardi
Gras carnival, the celebration is cresting, rushing toward some
indefinite Ash Wednesday.
are wild and uninhibited. We often chant at the Fillmore and
Avalon ballrooms, during intermissions between rock groups. A “Summer
of Love” festival is organized, and we chant at be-in’s in Golden Gate
Park, at the YMCA and Psychedelic Shop, and with hippy sun worshipers
at Morning Star Ranch.
passes so quickly, perhaps because its days are filled with
long hours of sunshine and festivity. Youths from all sections of the
nation roam and lounge throughout the park, barefoot and dungareed,
leisurely creating what they hope is a new community of love and peace,
a world where no one is over thirty, where there is no violence,
ignorance or death. And they chant Hare Krishna because they see ISKCON
as an exotic flower in the hippy bouquet, something even further
removed from twentieth century America, from the political activists
and their endless strife. Generally, activists and Negroes shun us,
considering us on far-out trips, dabbling in the cultures of
But what do
they know of Krishna? Or of Swamiji? What do any of us
Swamiji writes me:
so pleased to learn that you are all feeling my separation. And so
I am feeling the same here. These feelings have very great
significance—namely that we are being gradually posted in real Krishna
consciousness. I am receiving many other letters from the devotees in
San Francisco and telephonic calls indicating their feelings of
separation, the basis of Lord Chaitanya’s mode of Krishna
consciousness. The more we feel like that, the better for our
advancement. However, from the physical point of view, as there is now
difficulty in going to Montreal, I may return to San Francisco
sometimes in the next month.
points out that any good typist can learn the art of Varitype
very quickly. If I will type Bhagavad-gita and Back
To Godhead, he will
get the machine. Satsvarupa, Rayarama and I would solve the “printing
problem.” He is prepared to invest $4,500 in a Varitype.
he is looking into opening branches in Baltimore and
Rayarama and Mahapurusha, three boys, have already gone
to Boston last night,” he writes, “to see the situation, and we shall
again we run into dead ends searching for a publisher or
reasonable printer. Then, as I feared, Swamiji writes me May 10: “I beg
to inform you that it has now been arranged to print Bhagavad-gita
India, and therefore you are requested to send me back all the
corrected manuscripts on receipt of this letter.”
this disgraceful, to our eternal shame that our spiritual
master has to send to India to have his book published. But there’s no
getting around the fact that commercial presses in the States want too
much money for our budget. Brahmananda pleads with Swamiji to give us a
little more time. Surely we will find some publisher who is interested.
In late May,
Kirtanananda leaves Montreal to visit Swamiji in New York.
“I hear he’s a little sick,” he tells me on the phone. He and Janardan
plan to stay only a few days, but once there, Kirtanananda decides to
remain. He phones me again on May 30.
not feeling well,” he tells me. “He looks tired. He’s lost a
good deal of weight and looks quite exhausted.”
what to make of this, I tell no one.
Kirtanananda phones again. I answer on the receiver behind the
temple. He is most distressed. Swamiji is in the hospital. He has had
some kind of stroke.
Bit by bit,
as Kirtanananda talks in a strained voice, the pieces fit
together. We should have seen it coming. Swamiji had been having heart
palpitations since our recording session in New York before Christmas.
He was also drinking more water, indicating high blood sugar, diabetes.
day, he was having palpitations,” Kirtanananda says. “He
didn’t look at all well, so I kept everyone out. He was disturbed by a
twitching in his arm. It was terrible.”
As I listen,
frightful images of Swamiji in pain arise. Dear Krishna,
help us! I recall Swamiji saying, “If anything happens to me, don’t
call a doctor. Just give me my beads. I just want to chant Hare Krishna
and go to Krishna that way.”
continues: “Well, we phoned a doctor, who gave him a shot
of penicillin and diagnosed a nervous condition complicated by the flu.
The doctor said that maybe he’s praying too much.”
yesterday, when I was sitting in Swamiji’s room…” Kirtanananda’s
voice breaks. “While kirtan was going on downstairs, … the
began again, and Swamiji’s face began to tighten up, and his eyes
started rolling. Then all of a sudden he threw himself back, and I
caught him. He was gasping Hare Krishna. And then everything stopped. I
swear, I thought it was the last.… But then the breathing started up
again, and with it the chanting. He didn’t regain control of his body,
though. We called an ambulance. Now he’s in Beth Israel Hospital.”
almost inaudible over the long distance, Kirtanananda promises
to keep us posted. I hang up the phone and stand dumbly for a moment,
wondering what to do. In the temple, a few people are chanting.
Lilavati is making garlands for Lord Jagannatha. Harsharani is scooping
flour out of a barrel to make the evening’s chapatis.
Haridas?” I ask.
No one knows.
I run out to Stanyan. The sun is bright. Some hippies are
tossing frisbees across Frederick Street. I dash from apartment to
apartment until I find Haridas and take him aside.
called,” I tell him. “Swamiji has had a stroke and is in
the hospital. He’s asked us to spend the night chanting.”
as if he’s just been struck in the face. Worse—soul
struck. He stands, looking at me with silent disbelief, then shakes his
head sadly. “I knew it,” he says. “I could sense something horrible was
going to happen. Just look at that picture.”
He points to
a photograph taped to the wall, the photo of Swamiji’s
last look at the temple, his farewell look of infinite sadness. As we
look at the photo, we cannot weep. Weeping in itself is a finite,
inadequate release for an interior emptiness, the sense of terrible,
premature loss. We feel that a whole spiritual atmosphere is leaving us.
see him again,” I say. “I know it. I just feel it.”
told the others?” Haridas asks.
couldn’t. They’re chanting in the temple. So happy.”
tell them yet,” he says. “We’ll try to find out more. Then
we’ll tell them tonight before the kirtan.”
Haridas and I wander to the park. I don’t want to see any of
the devotees. My face must tell all.
We sit at the
park entrance on a bench and chant quietly, alone with
our awful secret and countless unspeakable fears. Foremost, we fear
that with Swamiji’s passing, the Hare Krishna movement will
disintegrate. We have just begun; the very foundation has yet to be
completed. Swamiji’s teachings may be lost. There are no books
published apart from the few he brought from India, and even Bhagavad-gita
personally for myself. What will I do without his words, the kirtans,
the little storefront temples, the quiet
moments in his room,
the casual conversations, the constant presence of Vrindaban and Lord
Krishna? I fear return to chaos and lonely searching.
I recall that Swamiji’s horoscope predicted this attack.
Years earlier, an Indian astrologer had discerned some break there in
his seventy-first year, some inevitable climax. In fact, that is to be
his normal hour of death, the time fixed for him to leave the body.
aboard the freighter Jaladhuta, a palmist told Swamiji that if
he survives his seventy-first year, he will live many more years.
crisis is in his palm and in the stars.
always be with you,” I recall him saying. “The spiritual master
is always with the disciple. I am always feeling the presence of my
But we are so
young, so green, on such foreign ground for Vedic
culture. Maya will surely absorb us like a sponge. We are now
position to lose our spiritual father.
from the park bench, I see children playing in the sprinkler
and sunlit grass and wonder at the audacity of life to go on so
I try to
phone Kirtanananda in New York, but he’s at the hospital. I
talk instead to Rayarama.
“All I can
really say is that Swamiji is very, very ill,” he tells me.
“He’s asking all of us to chant all night for his recovery.”
Haridas and I
assemble everyone in the temple and try to think of the
least shocking way to put it. Haridas looks at me and nods.
“I got a call
this afternoon from Kirtanananda,” I say finally.
“Swamiji has fallen sick.”
Lilavati immediately burst into tears. This quickly spreads
to the other girls. Sighing, I sit quietly, recalling that Socrates
banished women from his deathbed in order to die in peace.
Some of the
boys begin asking details. There’s very little to say
except that we’ve been requested to chant all night and pray to Lord
Nrishingadev for Swamiji’s health.
Nrishingadev is a fierce incarnation of Krishna—half-lion,
half-man—who descends to save His devotee Prahlad from Prahlad’s
demoniac father Hiranyakashipu. After Nrishingadev kills Prahlad’s
father, Prahlad recites the following prayer to pacify Him. It is a
prayer we immediately begin chanting.
jaya jagadisa hare.
“O my Lord, Your hands are very beautiful, like the lotus flower, but
with Your long nails You have ripped apart the wasp Hiranyakashipu.
Unto You, Lord of the universe, I offer my humble obeisances.
We turn on
the dim altar lights behind the Jagannatha Deities, light
candles, and chant in the flickering shadows. It is solemn chanting and
even more solemn dancing. The news quickly spreads down Haight Street,
and soon the temple is crowded with visitors come to join our vigil and
chant through the night.
Janaki phone New York. No additional information.
Kirtanananda is spending the night in the hospital beside Swamiji’s
bed. No one else is being allowed in. Hospital regulations. Yes,
there’s a vigil also in New York. Everyone’s chanting through the night.
We chant past
midnight. Most of the visitors leave, but none of us yet
feel sleepy. The chanting overtakes us in waves. My mind wanders to
Swamiji, to New York, to the future, to the past. I have to force my
errant mind back into the temple to confront the present, to petition
Sri Krishna to spare our master a little longer. And through the
chanting we all feel Swamiji’s presence, insistent, purely spiritual.
By two in the
morning, we begin to feel sleepy. I change instruments
just to keep awake, sometimes playing mridanga, sometimes cymbals or
harmonium. Many dance to stay awake. The girls serve light prasadam—sliced
apples and raisins. It is dangerous
to sit next to the
wall, an invitation to doze off. We are so frail. Only Arjuna, the pure
devotee, is Gudakesa, conqueror of sleep.
and four, the most ecstatic hour, the brahma-muhurta hour
before the dawn, we sense that if Swamiji is still alive, he will
surely pull through.
We sing. We
chant on beads. We chant through the usual seven o’clock kirtan
and into the late morning. Chanting fourteen
hours nonstop, we
cleanse the dust from the mind’s mirror. We sense Krishna and Swamiji
everywhere. Surely now he is well!
noon, Kirtanananda phones to tell us that Swamiji is still
living but is very, very weak. We should continue chanting. The doctors
are running all kinds of tests.
terrible,” he says. “They’re shooting him with needles and taking
blood. They want to stick needles through the skull to check out the
brain waves. He doesn’t want all this, but he’s submitting because of
us. He’s simply putting himself in our hands.”
“What does he
want to do?” I ask.
“It’s hard to
tell. He’s still so weak. But he hasn’t indicated that
he’ll be leaving his body.”
I seize on
this as good news and tell Haridas and Mukunda. There is
some guarded optimism. But within we know that his body is old and has
suffered a stroke. He can go at any moment. We still await the call
that tells us.
Swamiji has been in the hospital two days.
“He seems to
be responding to massage, Kirtanananda tells me. “He’s
talking some, talking about going to India to consult an Ayurvedic
physician. He just dictated a letter to a Godbrother in India
requesting Ayurvedic advice.”
good,” I say.
“He wants out
of the hospital,” Kirtanananda adds. “He’s still saying
that we never know when death will come, but he’s not concerned. He’s
saying that Krishna allowed him to survive his major attack because He
wants him to carry out his spiritual master’s orders to spread the sankirtan
movement in America.”
elates us all. The next day, Kirtanananda tells me that
Swamiji is definitely gaining strength.
expression is picking up,” he says, “and his chanting is
strong again. He’s not sleeping as much. Chanting all the time. This
morning, he was even able to put on tilak.”
But in the
evening, Rayarama phones to say that Swamiji passed a bad
day. Now it is touch and go. At times, he seems right on the brink of
death. At times, he’s about to leave the hospital. Reports continue to
“Swamiji wants to move to the country or seashore,”
Kirtanananda tells me. “He definitely wants out of the hospital. He’s
concerned about the money—a hundred a day here. And he says that
they’re not helping him, just sticking him with needles.”
informs us that they’ve rented Swamiji a little bungalow in
Long Branch, near the water. “Swamiji wants to be near the sea,” he
says. “He just wants a place to rest in peace. The hospital isn’t
helping him much.”
if he’s considering leaving the hospital, surely the
worst must be over. But how extensive is the damage? Will he ever be
able to lecture again, to write, to dance at kirtans in the
lead us on spiritual marathons until we drop? To be without him now is
what we have tacitly feared from the beginning. He has been
singlehandedly sweeping us along, rapidly transforming our lives with
Yet so much
is but intimated! Bhagavad-gita As It Is still sits
incomplete, and much remains untold: the twelve cantos of Srimad-Bhagavatam,
Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu. He had planned to
translate and annotate them
“I have so
much to tell you,” he’s often said. “We haven’t even
scratched the surface. In our tradition, there are such wonderful
literatures! We must work quickly and publish.”
dream for a Vedic America dissolve like Don Quixote’s dream of
Spanish chivalry? It is sad to think of those spiritual epics remaining
hopelessly buried in the past, in old dusty tomes, stored on
bookshelves labeled “occult.”
But hasn’t he
sent Krishna vibrating through the air? Rolling off our
tongues? Hasn’t he brought Krishna Himself, the Person, to Second
Avenue? Tompkins Square? Golden Gate Park?
after giving us a glimpse of Krishna, will he leave us?
protesting doctors, Swamiji checks out of the hospital June 8.
Brahmananda and Kirtanananda immediately drive him to Matchless Gifts,
where he pays obeisances to his spiritual master and Krishna and then
leaves for the ocean bungalow in Long Branch.
Kirtanananda writes that Swamiji “seems to be indestructible.” When
he hears our recording of “Narada Muni,” he sits up in bed and starts
to clap his hands.
“Is that an
American tune?” he asks.
to see a temple opened in Vancouver.
June 10, I
receive a letter from Swamiji himself:
I am practically on the path of death, still I cannot forget
about my publications. I wish that if I live or die, you will take very
serious care of my publications. Immediately I want to send Bhagavad-gita
to Japan for publication. The
complete fair copy has to
be submitted. I hope you have completed fair copies of at least seven
chapters. The balance is typed from the dictaphone, and there does not
appear to be any possibility of editing here, so I think you have to do
it.…I am thinking of going to San Francisco just after getting some
strength, which I hope I will get by the end of the month; but in case
I cannot go, you have to do it carefully and send it to Japan. Please
let me know whether you’ll do it. If you say yes, then I will send you
the dictaphone copies for doing the needful. This will give me great
relief, and I am expecting a reply as soon as possible.…
The books! He
is on the brink of death, and his only concern is
printing Bhagavad-gita As It Is. His only reason for
being in the
material world is to spread Krishna consciousness, and books are the
“big mridanga,” self-contained kirtans that defy both
time and space,
that endure and travel far.
very wonderful happened today,” Kirtanananda tells me on the
phone. “We arrived at the bungalow around noon, and of course Swamiji
hadn’t had his lunch. I was trying to prepare it as fast as possible,
but by two o’clock it still wasn’t ready. Then he came into the
kitchen. ‘Where’s my lunch? Bring me whatever there is immediately.’ He
was furious. I made some excuse, which I shouldn’t have done, and
finished up whatever I had—dal, some chapatis and
vegetables. Then he
sat down in the kitchen and ate voraciously. It was really wonderful to
elates the temple. But the next day, we are discouraged by
conflicting reports. “Swamiji had a bad night and is feeling very bad.
We just don’t know what’s wrong.”
diagnosis is certain: He has diabetes. The doctors have given
him pills to try to control this, but he doesn’t want to take them. He
wants to cure himself by diet.
managing this fairly well,” Kirtanananda tells me, “but he still
varies a great deal from day to day. Some days he’s well; other days he
feels bad. When he’s up, he’s making plans to return to San Francisco,
to go here and there. Then on bad days he just says, ‘Let me go back to
India.’ So we don’t know what we’re doing from one day to the next.”
the latest reports from New York, the spirit of the San
Francisco temple vacillates. The Rathayatra Car Festival is coming up
July 9, just a few weeks away. We plan a parade down Haight Street to
the park and ocean, but what specifically are we to do?
that you should stay there and help organize the
Rathayatra,” Kirtanananda tells me. “He says that if you will organize
it nicely, he will come.”
“I don’t even
know what Rathayatra is,” I protest.
organize a procession,” Kirtanananda says, “from the temple to
the beach. You can get all the hippies to pull the Deities in large
carts. And afterward, distribute prasadam.”
confusion. Large carts? Haridas and I search through the public
library and manage to find a book with photos of the Rathayatra cart
used in Orissa, India. It is a large cart all right, made entirely of
wood, with enormous wooden wheels dwarfing the man standing beside
them. According to the book, people throw themselves under the wheels
to be crushed and instantly liberated. The cart itself, as big as a
galleon, is large enough to hold a hundred people. It has balustrades
and a flower garlanded throne for the Deities. It would take hundreds
of people to pull it, and the cops would no doubt consider it far too
dangerous to let loose on San Francisco streets.
could never construct such a thing in three weeks.
joy I receive a long letter from Swamiji dated June 25.
scheduled to come to San Francisco on July 5, but everything
remains on the supreme will of the Absolute Person; man proposes, God
disposes. As for my health, generally it is improving, but sometimes I
feel too weak. I hope that by another week, however, I will get
sufficient strength to fly to San Francisco.…
Swamiji a Rathayatra announcement to encourage his coming. The
New York devotees report that he is looking well and is even playing kartals,
chanting, and lecturing a little.
worst is really over!
that he’s definitely coming to the Rathayatra,”
announces. Everyone clusters about the phone.
coming!” Shyamasundar shouts.
coming to Rathayatra!” Mukunda tells everyone.
The next day,
another phone call, and a somber Kirtanananda.
“Now he says
he’s going back to India,” he tells me. “He’s not feeling
well. He wants to see an Ayurvedic doctor.”
ping-ponging continues through June while we wonder what to do
about Rathayatra. On weekends, Jayananda and I drive along the coast
looking for a cottage where Swamiji can rest in the ocean air.
At the end of
June, Swamiji leaves the Long Branch bungalow and returns
to the New York temple. After a scheduled hospital checkup,
Kirtanananda phones us. For the first time, he sounds really happy.
were amazed,” he says. “They can’t understand it. He’s had
a major stroke, and now, only three weeks later, he’s checking out
fine. When I asked if he could fly to San Francisco, the doctor said,
‘No reason not to.’ So we’ve made reservations for July 5.”
We act fast.
Mukunda rents a beautiful beach house at Stinson Beach, a
little resort just north of San Francisco. The estate, called
Paradisio, is complete with palms, flora, enclosed patio, sliding
windows and a lawn Buddha covered with bird droppings.
to plead with the owners to get them down to two hundred a
In New York,
Swamiji remains in his apartment. Although still not
attending kirtans, he is steadily recovering. We hear that he
initiated a new pastime—morning walks. At seven in the morning, he
walks with devotees down Second Avenue to Fifth Street and then to
First Avenue, where he sits on a bench to chant beads or just relax in
the early morning air. He then walks back to Matchless Gifts. These
walks become as much a ritual as any other.
July 5, Kennedy Airport. Swamiji and Kirtanananda board
Delta Airlines flight 621. Something is wrong with one of the wheels,
and the plane is delayed about an hour.
We wait in
San Francisco with baskets of flowers.
End of Chapter 10
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