this story to a friend
Part I: New York, 1966
By Hayagriva das
1966. I walk into Swamiji’s room, offer obeisances, and he hands me the
first three volumes of Srimad-Bhagavatam, which he had
printed in India.
says. “Take and read.”
I open the
books. In the front of each, he has written my spiritual name. “With my
best blessings, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.”
you, Swamiji,” I say.
right,” he says, smiling. “Now you compile this Back To Godhead
Godhead! That is, we were there once. It’s a question of recovering a
lost land. As Swamiji says: “I have come to remind you of what you have
orders of his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati,
Swamiji began Back To Godhead in 1944. Published
bi-monthly in India from 1944 to 1956, Back To Godhead
established Swamiji as one of India’s leading personalists. Now Swamiji
enjoins Rayarama and me to introduce it to the West.
sincerely,” he tells us,”and make it as big as your Time Magazine.”
23, I type up the stencils of our first edition. Our motto is the same
as Swamiji’s original: “Godhead is light. Nescience is darkness. Where
there is Godhead there is no nescience.”
two lectures of Swamiji from notes taken by Umapati in September.
There’s also some poetry by Kirtanananda, and an essay by me. We
mimeograph as many copies as the stencils can make—about a hundred—and
Gargamuni quickly sells them out at Saint Mark’s Place for fifteen
cents each. Although it is a modest, most unprofessional pamphlet,
Swamiji is pleased.
“We have so
many literatures to translate,” he says. “We have only to distribute
the knowledge that is there, already given by Srila Vyasadeva: Srimad-Bhagavatam,
Vedanta-sutra. And books by Chaitanya
Mahaprabhu’s disciple, Srila Rupa Goswami. And Chaitanya-charitamrita
by Krishnadas Kaviraj Goswami. Oh, there are many volumes we have to
publish! We see many different literatures on the newstands, and the
crows take delight in them, as crows delight in nasty things. But this Back
To Godhead is for the swans because it deals with Krishna.”
gives Allen Ginsberg a copy of Back To Godhead and asks
Allen if he has any material to submit. Always obliging, Allen gives us
a four page article, “Reflections on the Mantra,” and we print it in
our third issue.
Allen’s philosophy of the mantra is not consistent with
I’m some sort of guru,” Allen protests. “That is, people want
me to be a guru. But I’m not. These are just my reflections,
based on my own experiences.”
reflections, Allen defines mantra as a “short verbal formula,”
and likens it to a Rolling Stones song and a Gertrude Stein poem. Its
words are “pure physical sounds uttered in a frankly physical universe.”
print the essay, Swamiji points out the discrepancies.
identical with His name,” he tells us. “That means that His name has
the same qualities He has—sat, chit, ananda. No
mundane vibration is eternal, otherwise why does it grow tiresome and
have to be changed every other week? Nor can mundane songs like Rolling
Stones or whatever produce real knowledge or bliss unending. Also, this
transcendental vibration purifies. Anyone can see how our students are
becoming purified, but the chanters of material songs are not.”
Swamiji objects to the phrase, “pure physical sounds in a frankly
“This is not
true,” he says, “because actually everything is spiritual. It becomes
material only when we forget Krishna. Therefore, when we hear the name
Krishna, which is identical with Krishna, we must remember the Lord. In
that way, everything is purified.”
other minor differences, all stemming from this. Allen mentions that
Alfred Lord Tennyson chanted his own name and that the mantra
widens our consciousness “much as an intense conversation with
psychoanalyst or lover or priest.” He even likens it to a lover’s
have felt something when he chanted Tennyson, but does anyone else?”
Swamiji asks. “Does Mr. Ginsberg want to chant ‘Tennyson, Tennyson’?
But everyone enjoys chanting Krishna. This means there is something
different about Krishna’s name. He is the center of everyone and
everything. And some analyst, or priest, or lover may widen the
consciousness from this to that, but only Krishna is without limit and
therefore can widen the consciousness infinitely. That is the
difference. Nor can Hare Krishna be compared to any sexual cry, because
the sexual cry is a call for some partner to come satisfy the caller’s
desire. That means it is sense gratification. But when we chant Hare
Krishna, we are calling to Krishna, ‘Please let me serve You.’ So, on
the spiritual platform it is the service that is desired, but on the
material it is sense gratification that is sought.”
other points, but Swamiji leaves it at that. He then tells us that Back
To Godhead is meant solely for writings by devotees, and warns
that we should be very careful in the future not to print anything by
have enough trouble ourselves keeping the philosophy pure. Not knowing
where to start, I resort to writing essays comparing Krishna
consciousness to transcendentalism in American literature. But Swamiji
does not criticize our hybrid attempts. He smiles and thanks us for
every new issue we bring him. He is all encouragement.
Department of Immigration will not renew my visa,” Swamiji tells us in
his room, after evening kirtan. “I don’t know why they have
refused. I have answered all their questions.”
Swamiji entered America on a two month visa, which he has been
repeatedly extending every two months for over a year. Now they are
finally refusing further extensions.
Ginsberg makes further arrangements with an immigration lawyer to
extend the visa. More money is needed, however, and we decide that if
each of us can manage to raise thirty-five dollars, all the lawyer fees
can be met.
“I am very
moved that you want me to stay so much that you will do this for me,”
Swamiji says. “I am very grateful.”
We all set
about to get the money. Brahmananda even dresses in a suit and goes to
Central Park to beg. “My father is being deported to Israel,” he tells
people. “Could you please help?”
With a little
additional help from Mr. Ginsberg, we manage to meet the lawyer fees,
and Swamiji gets another extension. The lawyer begins to petition
permanent residence status.
hold elections,” Swamiji tells us. “We require one temple president,
one treasurer, a secretary and temple commander.” Then: “I think that
Brahmananda should be our president, Gargamuni the treasuer, Satsvarupa
the secretary, and Kirtanananda the temple commander.”
agree with Swamiji’s choices, we hold “elections” anyway, and our new
officers begin their duties. Brahmananda, physically the largest and
most impressive, makes announcements at the end of kirtans.
Satsvarupa takes detailed notes of all the lectures, although they’re
taped, and also of istagostis, weekly meetings wherein we
discuss philosophy and temple business. Gargamuni plops down in the
middle of the temple with a suitcase, which he uses for a desk, and
announces that as treasurer, he has no other duties to fulfill. Swamiji
calls him “Gargamoney.” Kirtanananda quickly sets everything in order,
both in the temple and in Swamiji’s apartment, and makes sure that
order is maintained.
rents an apartment nearby, and some of us live there or just visit to
take showers. Sometimes it seems that the whole financial burden of
Matchless Gifts rests on thin, little Satsvarupa. He periodically begs
Swamiji to let him quit his job with the welfare department and join
the other disciples full time, but Swamiji says no.
surrender the fruits to Krishna.”
each us of us feels that he himself is carrying the burden of our new
Society, for Swamiji makes each of us feel special, needed, important.
Our relationship to Krishna is individual and personal. Each part
serves the whole. For the entire body to function properly, each limb
must do its work in friendly cooperation.
Sharma, my old colleague from the Ohio State University English
Department, drops by to see us. He offers obeisances to Swamiji,
touching his feet.
Ganges water flowing through here, Swamiji,” he says.
Swamiji smiles. “It is all by the grace of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.”
suggests that we solicit help from some of the Indian societies in New
York, Swamiji is not enthusiastic.
thinking like that when I first came here,” he says. “I was hoping that
my countrymen in America would be the first interested in a Krishna
consciousness society. But no. Generally, they are like new crows, new
materialists, delighting in unclean things, in stool and nasty places.
Because in India there is much poverty, for economic success many
Indians come here to work and study. They generally imitate Westerners
buy new cars and drink liquors, eat meat, go to night clubs, and keep
women. So there is a saying, ‘Crows eat stool, but new crows eat more
stool.’ No. Do not expect any help from them.”
Francisco, Harvey Cohen writes that the West Coast is ripe for Krishna
consciousness. In January, a “Gathering of the Tribes” is scheduled,
and a hundred thousand are expected. Hordes of young people are
flocking to San Francisco with flowers in their hair, and the word is
out that a new generation is blossoming, the “Flower Children,”
nurtured on LSD, supposedly attuned to expanded consciousness, and
waiting, we hope, to extend this consciousness beyond drugs.
for help. He is already looking for a storefront in the Haight-Ashbury
district near Golden Gate Park, an area where “it’s all happening.”
eager. “Yes, we must go,” he says. “We will go as soon as he has found
Janaki decide to go to India by way of the West Coast. Offering
obeisances, they bid Swamiji goodbye, and as they walk out the door,
Swamiji tells Mukunda, “Try to open a temple in San Francisco.” It
appears that San Francisco is to be the first branch of our young
not satisfied with the 26 Second Avenue storefront. Matchless Gifts
served for the first few months before the newspaper write-ups
attracted people, but now it is obvious that we must find a larger
searching: abandoned meeting halls, old churches, lofts, empty
warehouses. Greenwich Village rents are too high, and midtown is out of
the question. Swamiji tells us that he wants to buy a building. But
supplying everything,” he tells us. “He is supplying to the animals and
nondevotees. How much more will He supply to His devotees!”
We land in
the hands of one Mr. Payne, an elegantly dressed real estate agent.
“You have a
handful of stars,” he tells Brahmananda, who, as our president, leads
the search for a new temple. “You are incorporated as a tax exempt
religious organization,” Mr. Payne goes on. “You’ve no idea how much
this will save you. Most people have to vacate just because they can’t
pay their taxes. Yes, Krishna is looking after you indeed. And I’ve
just the place for you and your spiritual master.”
He shows us a
handsome, three-story, red-brick building near St. Mark’s Place, a good
downtown location, near the youth movement and yet in an area where
uptowners can feel comfortable. There’s a small porch, and large double
doors open into a meeting hall, ideal for kirtan. The pinewood floors
are polished, and the thick interior walnut doors are carved and
varnished. Mr. Payne is right: a perfect temple for ISKCON.
it over approvingly. “Get it,” he tells Brahmananda. And Brahmananda
begins to negotiate. But how? We have no money. The building is selling
for $100,000. None of us has ever approached such a sum.
“If you can
just give five thousand down,” Mr. Payne says, “I can get the owners to
draw up a contract. Five thousand down, and another five thousand
within two months. That shouldn’t be so difficult.”
Swamiji tells Brahmananda.
big, burly Brahmananda sets out to raise the money.
Daily now, in
the early mornings before any of us awake, Swamiji
continues typing out his translation of
Bhagavad-gita. Months ago, in February, he had recorded a kind
of foreword, which Satsvarupa now types up as “Introduction to
Geetopanishad.” Meanwhile, I continue typing the Second Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam,
keeping editorial changes at a minimum, correcting only grammatical
transgressions. I also continue compiling
Back To Godhead and writing essays on the nonmaterial Self and
the spiritualization of energy. All the magazines sell out. The
stencils, unfortunately, won’t print more than a hundred copies of each
edition. We consider a printer, but prices are beyond us.
us how to light small birthday candles and place them on the little
table serving as an altar for Lord Chaitanya. He allows a drop of wax
to fall, then sets the candle in it. We repeat this process every
evening. When asked the significance of this act, Swamiji says that it
is “to increase your devotion,” and further explains that it is
Rama-vijaya and that we are commemorating Lord Rama’s victory over the
after showering, Swamiji sits before the picture of Lord Chaitanya,
puts on tilak, and silently recites the Gayatri mantra,
his brahminical thread wound about his right thumb. None of us knows
this mantra, nor the real meaning of the thread. After this, he
rings a tiny bell, lights a stick of incense, offers it to Lord
Chaitanya, then offers obeisances.
To us, this
is all very wonderful, very strange. We call it “bells.
Mr. Dey, a
75-year-old Bengali with long white beard and hair, visits Swamiji. Mr.
Dey wears lace-up boots and a button-down black frock, and he claims
that he is the reincarnation of Ezekiel. He’s been wandering the earth
all his life. His companion is the Bible. He never bathes.
men shall have visions; and your old men, dreams,” he says. “And from
their weapons they will make scythes, plows, and pruning hooks. Get
thee to the mountains! Out of the cities! When the sea of fire comes,
the cities will be destroyed. To the mountains! Join together in
yawns. “The end is always coming,” he says. “We are not concerned with
this end or that end. Destruction is always going on. We will stay here
and execute our duty for Krishna, and whenever Krishna wants, He can
compassion, Swamiji allows Mr. Dey to stay in the temple. He remains a
week. Then word leaks to Swamiji that he is confusing people by
preaching that Krishna is a demon and Christ is the only way.
that he should leave,” Swamiji tells Brahmananda. “He’s a serpent.
Ezekiel reincarnate moves out of Matchless Gifts.
believe in his way,” Swamiji says, “but his preaching against
Krishna—that we cannot tolerate.”
Brahmananda continues to negotiate with Mr. Payne. Although Brahmananda
has miraculously raised the five thousand deposit, the owners want more
proof of our ability to meet payments. We have to hire a lawyer to
peruse the contracts.
“Mr. Payne is
causing us so much pain,” Swamiji says. “What is the difficulty?”
see the necessity for Mr. Payne at all.
“Why don’t we
purchase direct from the owners? Why all these agents?”
the way it’s done here,” we say.
We wait. The
building on St. Mark’s remains a castle in the sky, and five thousand
is tied up with Mr. Payne.
1966. Thirty thousand gather in Washington Square to march up Fifth
Avenue for world peace. Allen Ginsberg invites us to join his group
amassing in Tompkins Square Park.
“Yes, go with
Mr. Ginsberg,” Swamiji tells us. (He always pronounces the “gin” in
Ginsberg as if it’s a drink.) “Go and chant Hare Krishna. That’s the
real peace formula. Hari-sankirtanam.”
Allen wears a kurta
and white Indian-style pajama pants, and he
plays the portable harmonium he’d gotten in Benares. It is a two hour
walk from Tompkins Square to Times Square in midtown. We spread
ourselves out in the crowd to lead the chant over a wide area.
America!” Allen chants. “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna.” He ties the
harmonium around his neck and plays a drone. I blow an ooga horn, the
kind with a rubber ball used by Calcutta taxis. On Fifth Avenue,
intimidated shopkeepers lock their doors and pull iron bars across
blocks of demonstrators take up the chanting. Although some chant
“Peace in Vietnam, peace in America,” they soon tire of this and return
to Hare Krishna. Just as Swamiji said: “Material vibrations soon grow
I feel I’m
cloudwalking up Fifth Avenue, chanting until I’m hoarse. The very
magnitude of the city crowds excites the soul. We join arms to form
long lines and dance down the center of the avenue. Police along the
blockades stare defiantly. Pink-faced Irishmen hurl insults we can’t
hear. Italian kids fling ice filled paper cups.
Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.”
Square, we break into circles, sit down, and continue chanting. I
recall Swamiji’s injunction: “Just take up Krishna consciousness, and
peace in the world will automatically come.”
As I see
people chanting, I think of Lord Chaitanya’s protest march some five
hundred years ago in Bengal. Because the local magistrate had forbidden
the public chanting of Hare Krishna, Lord Chaitanya had led thousands
in protest, all chanting Hare Krishna. Now, in New York, the issues are
much different, but they all pivot around forgetfulness of Krishna. As
Swamiji said, “My Guru Maharaj used to tell us there is only one
problem in the world—lack of Krishna consciousness.”
speaks on the peace issue, I hardly hear him. To me, Vietnam seems
secondary to the wondrous effects of public chanting, and the
return via subway to the temple, some young people follow us back for
bread, hot milk, and more Hare Krishna. Everyone’s glad to learn that
the more people chant, the more potent the mantra’s effect.
In Delhi, 200,000 Hindus riot, demanding an immediate ban on government
cow slaughter. The rally is spearheaded by sadhus, holymen.
government is atheistic,” Swamiji says, “but you can see that the
people are protesting. They know that go-mata, mother cow, is
beloved of Krishna and therefore sacred.”
outlines a letter to The Times of India and tells me to
write it up nicely. In it, Swamiji cites Vedic injunctions against cow
slaughter, pointing out that the cow is one of man’s mothers,
representative of the earth.
very severe reactions awaiting all of them,” he warris sternly.
“Cattlemen, cow butchers, transporters, restaurant owners and
consumers. Even the dishwasher.”
A “love-in” at the Gate Theater on Second Avenue and Tenth Street, a
zany political benefit for Louis Abolafia, the Lower East Side’s
candidate for President of the United States. Top billing is given to
Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, the Fugs, and “Swami Bhaktivedanta and
The Hare Krishna Chanters.”
about town with a papier-mache statue of Buddha fastened atop his
Volkswagen. Swamiji considers this offensive.
“What does he
have to do with Lord Buddha?” he asks. “Lord Buddha was a great prince
who renounced everything to meditate. What did Buddha have to do with
LSD? This is a mockery.”
Some of the
devotees are reluctant to bring Swamiji. After all, Leary and Ginsberg
are promoting drugs and sex, and our immigration lawyer discourages
Swamiji’s associating with the counterculture. Yet Swamiji sees it as
another chance to spread Krishna consciousness, and decides to go.
to go on stage, we have to endure loud and untalented rock groups, as
well as a Banana Celebration. Some people are claiming that you can get
high by smoking banana peels. Swamiji tolerates all this with
We chant some
fifteen minutes. Acyutananda and I dance vigorously, leaping in the
air, whirling about stage in robes, and clashing finger cymbals. The
managers don’t give us much time, and Swamiji briefly explains the
words of the mantra on a blackboard. His explanation is concise
God, and Hare is the energy by which we reach God, and Rama is God as
enjoyer of all. These are not ordinary words but names of God. God and
His names are nondifferent. This is not so with ordinary words. If you
sit in a corner and chant, ‘Water, water, water,’ you will go thirsty.
But if you chant Hare Krishna, you will have God dancing on your
immediately after the chanting. Audience reaction is good, and we
extend invitations to Matchless Gifts. The managers inform us that
there are benefits every Sunday throughout November and that we should
continue to attend. Back at the temple, Swamiji bursts into laughter
when he learns that Abolafia is seriously running for President.
should run Brahmananda,” he says.
More money is
needed to cement the contract with Mr. Payne and the building’s owners.
Unfortunately, the young people attending Swamiji’s lectures have
scanty resources. For monetary success, we need some rich, elderly lady
benefactors. Mishra has his, and Nikhilananda has his. Without them,
there seems to be no moving out of the slums.
With this in
mind, Brahmananda and Rayarama arrange a kirtan in midtown
Manhattan’s Judson Hall, directly across from Carnegie Hall. The rental
for the night is $200, Swamiji’s monthly rent on Second Avenue.
Figuring that contributions will at least cover that, we rent the hall
for November 15. Rayarama posts conservative announcements in midtown.
We hope for a crowd, but when we arrive, there are just eight people in
sink. We should have known. We failed Swamiji.
dressing rooms, we put on fresh tilak and chant japa
until eight o’clock. Then we follow Swamiji on stage, sit about him in
a circle, and look out at the vast hall of empty seats. Although we
feel like running out, Swamiji seems unconcerned. Whether the house is
packed, or only one person is present, it’s the same to him. His
cymbals ring out, and he begins chanting prayers to the gurus.
We chant Hare
Krishna and dance, then Swamiji delivers a short talk, and answers a
question or two afterwards. We chant again, and then leave, some $200
poorer and nary a benefactor in sight.
Second Avenue, Swamiji chides Rayarama. “I told you we should have
charged money,” he says. “In Bengal, there is the story of a man
offering people free mangoes. No one would take his mangoes because
everyone thought, ‘Oh, why is he giving away these mangoes? There must
be something wrong with them.’ But when he charged them two or three
rupees, they thought, ‘Let’s see if the mangoes are really worth it.’
When people see that something’s free, they think it’s worthless.
Charge them three or five dollars, and they will value it.”
Stung by our
failure, we retreat from making further midtown engagements and decide
to remain on our home turf, the Lower East Side. We return to the Gate
Theater, but the crowds are so small that we consider it a waste of
time. Tompkins Square Park still offers the best recruiting potentials,
and its use is free.
But the late
November winds put an end to the park kirtans. The fall rains
come. Swamiji turns on the apartment steam and wears a saffron wool
sweater and overcoat when walking through the courtyard to the temple.
We begin to think of warmer climes for his health. Letters from Harvey
Cohen and Mukunda are encouraging. Some famous San Francisco rock
groups have offered to play for a temple benefit, and in a Haight
Street head shop, Back To Godhead sells out the first
day. Now it’s just a question of finding a storefront to rent.
“As soon as
Mukunda finds a place,” Swamiji says, “I’ll take an airplane there. Is
that all right?”
confides that he’s never flown before.
been chanting since July, the cosmos has not unfolded psychedelically
before me, as I had hoped. What am I doing wrong? Why haven’t I seen
that apocalyptic vision witnessed by Arjuna on the Battlefield of
Kurukshetra? Where is that virat-rupa, the Universal Form
containing myriad eyes, hands, heads, and flaming mouths devouring
of thousands of suns rose up at once into the sky, they might resemble
the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form.”
Swamiji, Sri Krishna revealed this form to Arjuna as a special favor.
What Arjuna saw, of course, is beyond description and human
imagination. He saw the entire creation contained within the Lord’s
devotees are not eager to see this form,” Swamiji tells us. “Devotees
prefer the two-armed form of Krishna as a cowherd boy. The virat-rupa
is exhibited to materialistic men who can be impressed only by the
might and opulence of the Supreme.”
all, aren’t we Western materialists by birth? Isn’t this the form meant
gather the courage to approach Swamiji, waiting until he is alone in
his room, sitting behind his footlocker, reading.
“Why can’t I
see Krishna as Arjuna saw Him on the battlefield?” I ask bluntly.
Swamiji says. “This is the process, chanting Hare Krishna.”
chanting Hare Krishna more than four months,” I complain, “but I still
don’t see that universal form with all the heads and arms. What am I
at me a moment, his eyes magnified behind his glasses. Then he silently
hands me the manuscript of his recent translations of Eleventh Chapter
verses. I read:
O greatest of all personalities, O supreme
form, though I see here before me Your actual position, I yet wish to
see how You have entered into this cosmic manifestation. I want to see
that form of Yours. If You think that I am able to behold Your cosmic
form, O my Lord, O master of all mystic power, then kindly show me that
Swamiji says. “‘If You think that I am able to behold Your cosmic
form.’ So what does that mean?”
I look at the
verse again and think more deeply about it. Then I look up at Swamiji.
His eyes are fixed on me, awaiting my reply. Suddenly I begin to feel
stupid again, as I had when trying to defend the Buddhists.
that Lord Krishna is the best judge,” I say at length. “So Arjuna
leaves it up to Him.”
Swamiji says. “That is the process. Arjuna was a great warrior, a great
devotee of Krishna’s. He didn’t want to see the virat-rupa for
his personal gratification. He was asking on behalf of the
materialists. Yet he says to Krishna, ‘If You think that I am able.
This is the attitude we should have. Now what do you think?”
looks at me, awaiting my reply, and for a moment I think that if I
insist, he might even deliver the vision.
think I’m ready,” I finally say.
Swamiji smiles as I hand the verses back. “Yes, my spiritual master
used to say, ‘Don’t work hard to try to see God. But work in such a way
that God sees you.’ So we should just go on with our chanting, and see
Krishna in our service. Carry on devotional service sincerely, and
everything will come in time.”
continues working throughout December on his translation of Bhagavad-gita.
I rarely see him work because of his schedule. He sleeps from eleven at
night until about two or three in the morning. Then he gets up, and,
using a dictaphone, dictates extensive commentaries on Bhagavad-gita
while the great metropolis sleeps.
simile from Bhagavad-gita, he has told us that the
material world is like a banyan tree with its roots above and branches
below. A tree appears this way when pervertedly reflected in water. In
the material world, everything is topsy-turvy; what is bad appears
desirable, and what is actually desirable appears repugnant. When I see
Swamiji taking rest just as most New Yorkers are indulging their
senses, and getting up to render Krishna service just when they are
taking rest, I’m reminded of the Bhagavad-gita verse:
“What is night for all beings is the time of awakening for the
self-controlled; and the time of awakening for all beings is night for
the introspective sage.”
At seven, he
comes down to the temple to lead morning kirtan and to lecture.
Then he returns to his apartment, showers, eats a light breakfast, and
reads over manuscripts, or advises us. In the afternoon, after eating prasadam,
he chants some rounds and then rests for an hour, lying on his side on
the rug before his footlocker.
types up the manuscripts from the dictaphone tapes. Sometimes, when he
can’t understand what is said, he has to consult Swamiji. The
manuscript runs into hundreds of pages. Swamiji is a very prolific
“I wrote the
introduction one night last February when I was alone,” he tells me. “I
was just sitting in my apartment and had no one to talk to, and I
remembered my spiritual master saying, ‘If there is only one person
present, that is all right. Preach to him about Krishna. And if no one
is present, you can preach to the walls.’ So I was preaching to the
walls. But I had this tape recorder, and what I spoke can now be heard
by you. That was the introduction to this Bhagavad-gita.”
begins work on the last six chapters of Bhagavad-gita, he
tells me that I can now start editing it.
force and clarity,” he says. “We want this Bhagavad-gita
acceptable for publication, and grammatical precision is important. It
must be acceptable to the academic community also, and since you have
experience in that field, you know best how to put it nicely. Whenever
there is some question about meaning, you can consult me.”
Brahmananda out to try to interest publishers. Daily, Brahmananda draws
up lists of publishers and sets out on the subway for midtown, waiting
in offices for hours to see businessmen intent only on quick sales.
no money in swamis,” one tells him. “Risky. Very risky.”
always keeps a small postage scale and stamp sponge on his footlocker.
From the beginning, he has been instructing us in cleanliness, very
much like any parent. “Wash your hands. Take bath. Don’t put your
fingers in your mouth. Wash. Don’t bite your nails. Change clothes.
Take that pencil out of your mouth. Don’t touch leg. Clean nicely.”
I lick a postage stamp right in front of him. His eyes open wide in
Hayagriva! You have forgot!”
So true! Yes,
I am always forgetting, day after day. Forgetfulness is our disease.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.…
It’s a brisk
December morning, and we all sit in Matchless Gifts awaiting Swamiji.
He descends from his apartment wrapped in a chadar[robe or
blanket] and carrying a big brown book. After chanting the prayers to
the gurus and leading us in Hare Krishna, he opens the big
book. We all sense that something historic is about to happen.
says, “we will read from Chaitanya-charitamrita.”
At last! For
months he has been stressing that there are three books we must know: Bhagavad-gita,
the essense of Krishna consciousness, spoken by Lord Krishna Himself; Srimad-Bhagavatam,
dealing with the pastimes of Krishna, written by Vyasadeva; and Chaitanya-charitamrita,
describing the pastimes of Lord Chaitanya, written by Krishnadas
Kaviraj Goswami. Chaitanya-charitamrita is cherished by
Vaishnavas because it reveals the highest type of love for Krishna, a
love manifested in the divine pastimes of Lord Chaitanya, who appeared
on earth as a pure devotee mad with love for Krishna.
Chaitanya is Radha and Krishna combined,” Swamiji tells us. “He is
Krishna in the mood of Radha. He is Krishna come to relish love of
Krishna in separation. The understanding of this divine rasa is
concentrates on the conversations between Lord Chaitanya and His
disciple Sanatana Goswami, concerning Krishna’s expansions in the
spiritual world and the different types of avatars.
teaches that there is only one avatar,” a guest points out.
“That is Christ.”
Swamiji asks. “Christ said he is the son of God, and we accept him as
God’s perfect son. But is this to say he is the only son? There are
millions and millions of planets, and God appears Himself in countless
incarnations on each. This information is there in the Vedas.
What evidence do you have that God comes only once? None. Just
consider. In a bookstore we find a dictionary for the beginning
student, and an encyclopedia for the more advanced. The encyclopedia
contains all the information in the dictionary, and much more besides.
Religions are also like that. These Vedic literatures are encyclopedic
and complete. They contain limitless information about God, His
pastimes and incarnations. So Lord Chaitanya advises us to take
advantage of sadhu, shastra, and
guru. The sadhu is a saint of spotless character, and shastra
is scripture—the Vedas
—and the guru is the spiritual master. Not that we approach shastra
directly. No. We receive shastra from guru. And guru
must not contradict sadhu and shastra. The three can
never contradict. We must evaluate guru in terms of sadhu
and shastra. If he contradicts them, he is not guru.”
“So, what is
the relationship between Christ and Krishna?”
know? What does it say in your Bible? Christ is called the son of God,
is he not?”
“He is also
God,” the guest says.
father and his son are one. The son serves the father, and they are
“Where do you
get ‘the same’? The father is the father, and the son is the son. If
you are the son, then you and your father are one. But if you say, ‘I
am not only the son, but I am also the father,’ then you contradict.
How can you be the son and also the father?”
according to the Catholic position, they are one. It’s inexplicable.“
inexplicable, then why did you ask? Anyway, I’m giving you the
explanation: Christ is the son of God, and he is one in God the Father.
But you cannot say that he is the same. God the Father continues to be
the Father, and the son continues to be the son.
manifested His opulence in Dwarka,” Swamiji says, “He expanded Himself
16,108 times to accommodate 16,108 wives in 16,108 separate castles.”
shakes his head in disbelief.
“I just can’t
understand how anyone can do that,” he says.
hold the universe in His mouth,” Swamiji says, “and reveal it to Mother
Yasoda as a childish prank. So if He can do this, how will He have
difficulty maintaining any number of wives quite comfortably?”
Satsvarupa shakes his head and stares at the floor in confusion. He has
no trouble accepting baby Krishna’s holding the universe in His mouth.
But how could Krishna multiply Himself so many times to keep thousands
of wives in thousands of castles?
can’t learn everything at once, nor expect everything revealed at once.
In the summer and fall, Swamiji stressed the primary state of
understanding: Aham brahmasmi. I am not this body but
pure spirit soul. Bhagavad-gita, Chapter Two. Now, as we
study Chaitanya-charitamrita and Srimad-Bhagavatam
, the meaning of Krishna consciousness and the beauty of its cosmology
begin to exfoliate. We come to realize that basic to the understanding
of the reality of Krishna is awareness of the artificiality of the
material world. “The unreal never was,” Krishna tells Arjuna. “The real
never ceases to be.”
achievements are like playtoys,” Swamiji tells us. “They are modeled
after real things, but they are just imitations. A little girl may
spend hours imagining that her dollhouse is real, but it is still a toy
all the time. Krishna has impregnated this material world with
spiritual sparks, ourselves. And we are little children playing with
toys, and Krishna is a kind father letting us play to our hearts’
content. The material body comes into being, and it grows, leaves some
by-products, gets older, dwindles and vanishes. And this process is
repeated over and over. But to avoid all this suffering, we must return
to Krishna, to reality. Illusion is always strong and is always saying,
‘Look here! Enjoy. You are God. Why do you worship?'"
guest says, raising his hand.
“If the world
is unreal, as the Buddhists also say, then why attach so much
importance to it?”
“We do not
exactly say that the world is unreal,” Swamiji corrects. “The world is
a fact, but it is temporary. We Vaishnavas prefer the word ‘temporary’
as more exact than ‘unreal,’ or ‘dream.’ Because the world is
temporary, it can be said to be unreal, or like a dream. This means
that it passes. But the Vaishnavas look on the world as Krishna’s
creation and therefore beautiful but temporary. If I create something
beautiful, is it nice for you to call it maya, unreal,
illusory? No. The proper word is ‘temporary.’”
reflection of the original is valueless, or temporary, as you say, then
isn’t revelation also valueless, since it is maya, or
Swamiji says, “if it doesn’t go back to the original, to Krishna.
People are engaged in the reflection and don’t want to go back to the
source. That is their problem. We are in the reflection and being
baffled. There is a song, ‘I thought I was building my cottage safely,
but it was burnt to ashes.’ Whatever we do here is patchwork. Where can
you get happiness? Whatever material thing you get will eventually
vanish. This sense of the temporary nature of things should come to us.
Our life is defeated unless we develop spiritual knowledge. Fight with maya,
and return to the reality, the source of everything. That should be the
aim of knowledge.”
what can we perceive through the senses that can aid us in spiritual
if you can handle it,” Swamiji says. “As long as we are embodied, there
will be eating, sleeping, defending, and mating. None of these are
prohibited, but they should be restricted. Instead of eating nonsense,
you can eat Krishna prasadam. Eat nonsense, and the duration of
sleep will be increased. Five to six hours of sleep is sufficient. We
should try to decrease sleep because sleep is a waste of time. If you
can control eating, you can control sleeping. Similarly, defending. And
married sex life is nice because it is controlled—only for begetting
children. Because you cannot control your sex desire, you use it for
other purposes. Why not practise voluntary restraint? Have your sex
life, have one or two children, and live peacefully. Nothing is to be
stopped, but everything is to be controlled. If you can control your
senses, you can become a swami, even in that dress.”
Christmas, a record producer, Alan Kallman, offers to record our kirtans
and promote a Hare Krishna record.
“Yes, we must
record,” Swamiji says, happy with the offer. “It is our duty.”
before the recording session, a guest appears at Matchless Gifts with a
wooden drum resembling a mridanga
—a two-headed Bengali clay drum used in Vaishnava kirtans and
reportedly designed by Lord Chaitanya Himself. Swamiji spots it from
the dais. Quickly the drum is in his lap, and he is playing it
expertly. Everyone looks up, surprised. For us, the sounds seem to come
from faraway Bengal, or, perhaps, from other planets, so strange are
the rhythms and sweet the echoes.
“We must have
this drum for tomorrow’s recording,” Swamiji says, and Brahmananda
convinces the owner to lend us the drum for the recording session.
evening, Rupanuga drives us to Times Square in his Volkswagen bus. When
we enter the Adelphi Recording Studio, some rock and roll musicians are
name of your group?” someone asks.
Krishna Chanters,” I say. And, remarkably, we’re so booked.
on a mat in the center of the studio and plays the drum. Eyes closed,
he sings the prayers to the gurus, his voice filled with
devotion, absolute certainty, reverence, and ecstasy. Even the
recording engineers are impressed. When he finishes singing “Samsara
Dava” and “Vande Hum,” he leads us in chanting Hare Krishna.
Kirtanananda plays tamboura, and the rest of us play cymbals and
tambourines. Then, because the engineers must readjust their equipment,
Swamiji has to sing all the prayers over again. After singing, he gives
a prepared statement explaining the meaning of the mantra. When
the long session finally ends, Swamiji is extremely tired.
Too much so.
We tend to take his health for granted, mainly because he always seems
filled with boundless energy. Although more than twice our age, he
exhausts us with endless spiritual challenges, programs, ideas,
plans—all for making Krishna known throughout the world.
We have no
idea what his mission really means. We are educated to believe that
individual men can no longer affect the world in a significant way. The
world is too large and complex. What can one man do? We’re not living
in the age of Alexander or Caesar, nor of Socrates or Christ.
the morning after the recording, Swamiji suffers heart palpitations.
His schedule is proving overstrenuous. There are digestive
difficulties. Kirtanananda nurses him privately, dispensing with
unnecessary intrusions, trying to minimize his work.
isn’t possible. Within a week, Swamiji is talking about going to the
West Coast, “whether San Francisco is ready or not.”
Goodbye, 1966. Hare Krishna and Happy New Year!
Eve, Matchless Gifts is crowded with devotees and visitors. Swamiji
leads the kirtan, and we all chant and dance by candlelight. It
is a celebration none of us will ever forget.
Chant!” Swamiji tells us, and our chanting drowns out even the drunken
revelry on Second Avenue. Again, Swamiji is weaving magic.
follows, and Swamiji eats with us, sitting on his dais and talking
amiably. He keeps insisting that Umapati, Satsvarupa, and I take more prasadam.
There’s a bucket of gulabjamuns, “ISKCON bullets,” and we stuff
every day is New Year’s,” Swamiji says. “Krishna is always new, always
fresh, and we are always celebrating Him. Just see how these people in maya
are celebrating, drinking poison to forget everything! Because they are
frustrated, they want to forget. But for a devotee, it is just the
opposite. The devotee wants to remember Krishna at all times.”
the first week of the new year, we receive word from San Francisco that
a storefront has been rented near Golden Gate Park, in the center of
the Haight-Ashbury district, where “the tribes are gathering.”
converting it into a temple now,” Mukunda writes, enclosing a plane
ticket. Taking Swamiji’s advice, Mukunda and Janaki abandoned their
trip to India. After all, the best India can offer has come to us.
“I shall go
immediately, then,” Swamiji announces.
none of us want to see Swamiji leave New York, but he reminds us that
we belong to Krishna, not New York, and that we can expect to spread
this movement all over the world. Determined and confident, he excites
our imagination. Yes! Krishna consciousness must go West! And, after
California, the world!
We make final
airline reservations and begin packing his manuscripts in trunks.
Ranchor collects enough money to accompany him on the plane as personal
assistant. Rayarama and Rabindra-svarupa, contracting a car for
delivery to San Francisco, leave three days before Swamiji’s scheduled
We all worry
that the initial takeoff might be too exciting for Swamiji’s heart.
We all, of
course, want to go with him.
“The New York
temple must be maintained nicely,” Swamiji tells us. “Now this is
“But how long
will you be gone, Swamiji?” Brahmananda asks, worried.
fortnight,” Swamiji says. Then, laughing: “But you have not reckoned a
day of Brahma.”
reckon the course of things, and a long New York winter without Swamiji
is not appealing. After all, isn’t he actually delivering Krishna? And
isn’t our place therefore at his lotus feet?
Kirtanananda contracts a 1965 Chevy coupe for delivery to California.
Chanting Hare Krishna and driving fifty hours nonstop day and night, we
follow Swamiji to the land of the Flower Children.
End of Chapter 6
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