this story to a friend Printer
Part I: New York, 1966
By Hayagriva das
morning, when I go alone
to see the Swami, he seems to be expecting me. Directly and simply, he
begins to explain that he needs help in spreading Krishna consciousness
around the world. Noticing that he has been typing, I offer to type for
him, and he hands me the manuscript of the First Chapter, Second Canto,
of Vyasadeva’s Srimad-Bhagavatam.
“You can type
“Oh yes,” I
delighted. We roll a small typewriter table out of the corner,
and I begin work. His manuscript is single spaced without margins on
flimsy, yellowing Indian paper. It appears that the Swami tried to
squeeze every word possible onto the pages. I have to use a ruler to
keep from losing my place.
words read: “O the king.” I naturally wonder whether “O” is
the king’s name, and “the king” stands in apposition. After concluding
that “O King” is intended instead, I consult the Swami.
says. “Change it, then.”
As I retype
another paragraph, I notice certain grammatical
discrepancies, perhaps typical of Bengalis who learned English from
British headmasters in the early 1900s. Considerable editing is
required to get the text to conform with current American usage. After
pointing out a few changes, I tell the Swami that if he so desired, I
could make all the proper corrections.
he says, smiling. “Do it! Put it nicely.”
editorial services begin.
I type all
morning in the room where he reads, translates, welcomes
visitors, and “takes rest.” There is a tin footlocker, used as a desk,
and a rug on which he sits and sometimes sleeps. Apart from my
typewriter table, there is no other furniture. As I type, I hear him
cooking in the kitchen, and can smell the butter being boiled to make
ghee. I finish the chapter: twenty pages, double spaced with wide
margins. The original had filled only eight pages.
“Let me know
if there’s any more work,” I tell him. “I can take it back
to Mott Street and type there.”
he says. “There is lots more.”
He opens the
closet door and pulls out two large bundles tied with
saffron cloth. Within, he shows me thousands of pages of single spaced,
marginless manuscripts of literatures unknown in the Western world. I
stand before them, astounded.
lifetime of typing,” I protest.
“Oh, yes!” he
smiles happily. “Many lifetimes.”
It is a
typically muggy, hot July day. Smog hangs over the streets like
a poisonous veil, obscuring the tops of skyscrapers. The printer
delivers five thousand small handbills to the Matchless Gifts
storefront. They read:
Practice the transcendental sound vibration, Hare
Krishna, Hare Krishna,
Krishna Krishna, Hare HareHare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare
Hare. This chanting will cleanse the dust from the mirror of the mind.
Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta
at 7 A.M. daily
Society for Krishna
Wednesdays, and Fridays at 7:00 P.M.
You are cordially invited to come
and bring your friends.
finally here, Swamiji , I announce, using, like everyone now,
the more respectful form of address.
Now just distribute,” he says.
I take about
they’re all right?” he asks.
fine,” I say. “People will be curious to learn more.”
our Society ‘Iskcon,’” he says, smiling.
he says, spelling the letters out. “Iskcon—International
Society for Krishna Consciousness.”
His newly coined acronym amuses him. ISKCON. He is having
handbills to Washington Square, I distribute them to N.Y.U.
students and Greenwich Village hipsters. I chant Hare Krishna softly,
happily, feeling like an emissary from another world.
not accustomed to getting up early, Swamiji’s magnetism
draws us out onto the nearly deserted 6:30 a.m. streets. I walk briskly
from Mott Street to Second Avenue. Surprisingly, Houston Street and
Bowery are no longer gray and drab. In the early morning, before the
smog accumulates, the fresh sky is streaked gold and red, and even the
buildings seem to sparkle. Looking down Second Avenue, I can see the
parapets of Brooklyn Bridge shine over the East River. I chant all the
way to the foyer of the front building, then push the buzzer marked
“A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.” The door buzzes open, and I walk through
the hallway and small courtyard to the rear apartment building, then
tiptoe up the stairs to avoid waking the neighbors.
morning meetings are beautiful and intimate. On any one
morning, there are only eight or ten of us present—all young, all in
our twenties, except thirty-year-old Jim Greene, a carpentry teacher at
Cooper Union. There is Mike Grant, a pianist-composer just graduated
from Columbia; Steve Guarino, a city social worker; Charles Barnett,
fresh out of high school and into hatha-yoga; bearded Roy
freelance cartoonist and writer; Bill Epstein, a waiter at the
macrobiotic Paradox restaurant; tall, skinny Stanley—no one knows
anything about Stanley; and the Mott Street crew—Keith, Wally, myself.
We all sit cross-legged on the floor in front of Swamiji, who sits
behind the tin footlocker. He looks fresh from being awake for hours.
says, barely touching together the bell-metal cymbals. Ching ching
ching. One, two, three. One, two, three.
We clap timidly,
following the rhythm of the cymbals.
davanala lidha loka.” Eyes closed, he chants slowly in a soft,
wavering baritone, while the rays of early sunlight stream through the
windows. “Tranaya karunya-ghanaghanatvarn praptasya
kalyana-gunarnavasya, vande guroh sri-caranaravindam.”
spiritual master is receiving benediction from the ocean of mercy.
Just as a cloud pours water on a forest fire to extinguish it, the
spiritual master delivers the materially afflicted world by
extinguishing the blazing fire of material existence. I offer my
respectful obeisances unto his lotus feet.”
invokes the mercy of his spiritual master, Srila
Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, founder of India’s Gaudiya Math. It was he
who told Swamiji to preach Krishna consciousness in the West.
Bhaktisiddhanta, our spiritual grandfather, another “Vaikuntha man,”
left the world of mortals in 1936.
listen to Swamaji chant. His presence dominates the small
room. Absorbed in chanting, he closes his eyes. His head is golden,
shiny, radiant. As he chants, he looks like a happy child calling to
the holy name, dancing in ecstasy, singing, and playing
musical instruments, the spiritual master is always gladdened by the sankirtan
movement of Lord Chaitanya. Because he
is relishing pure
devotion, his hair sometimes stands on end, his body quivers, and tears
flow from his eyes in torrents. I offer my humble obeisances unto his
sings prayers to Lord Chaitanya and His disciples: “Jaya
sri-krishna-chaitanya prabhu nityananda sri-adwaita gadadhar
srivasadi-gaura-bhakta-vrinda.” Lord Chaitanya, we learn, is an
incarnation who spread the chanting of Hare Krishna throughout India in
the fifteenth century. After these invocations, Swamiji chants Hare
Krishna, and we respond.
reminds us. “The neighbors complain.”
We chant for
half an hour, but who knows the time? It seems that we are
eternally before Swamiji praising the all-attractive Supreme Person,
ends. Swamiji hands Roy the Radhakrishnan translation of Bhagavad-gita,
and Roy reads the Sanskrit
transliteration and English
translation of a Second Chapter verse. After correcting Roy’s Sanskrit
mispronunciations, Swamiji criticizes the translator’s commentaries,
condemning them as “impersonalist.” Then he begins his own explanation
of the text. Since there are so few of us, we can freely ask questions
whenever we don’t understand a point.
find this necessary. Swamiji elucidates each verse by drawing
on infinite analogies and relating the real meaning to something
familiar. Meticulously, he clarifies what has been considered mystic
means misty,” he says. “Our concept of Krishna is not misty.
It is very clear. Krishna delivers Bhagavad-gita and
says, ‘This is the
way I am.’ Now we must understand properly, as Arjuna understood.”
So in the
early morning, as the trucks begin rolling down Houston
Street, and the iron Jalousies of Second Avenue come crashing up,
Swamiji introduces us to Krishna.
what Swamiji is really saying? More often, Shankara makes
better sense to me: The Self, the intangible, impersonal atma
everyone, is supreme. That is certainly more logical than saying that a
cowherd boy named Krishna is supreme. A blue boy at that.
Krishna blue?” I ask Swamiji.
“Ask Him,” he
to believe this without actually seeing?”
“We do not
concoct some artificial God,” he says. “We simply accept
Krishna as He says He is, and as all the bona fide acharyas and
say He is. Govindam adi purusam tam aham bhajami.”
other people experience Him differently?” I ask. “And
describe Him differently?”
“Yes, and we
accept as bona fide all religions founded by God. Only God
can establish a religion. We accept Christian, Moslem, and Buddhist
faiths, but we reject all mental concoctions of so-called philosophers
and mundane poets.”
Western theologians and philosophers would say that God, in
the form of a blue cowherd boy, is imaginary,” I say.
some Mayavadis, impersonalist jnanis, also say like that.
Because worshipping the impersonal is very difficult, they try to
imagine some form of God. Of course, the devotees do not imagine
Krishna; they see the actual form of the Supreme Lord. But the
impersonalists try to imagine some form. This is very foolish. You
cannot imagine the form of God. God is so great. You may imagine
something, but that something is not the form of God. It is concoction.
Such speculators are called iconographers. There are two classes of
rascals: iconoclasts and iconographers. Those who imagine the form of
God are iconographers. And those who think, ‘I have killed God,’ are
Just like in
India, during British days, there were Hindu-Moslem riots,
and the Hindus would go to the Moslem mosques and break everything,
thinking, ‘We have broken their God,’ and the Moslems would go to the
Hindu temples and break the idol, thinking, ‘We have killed the Hindu
God.’ This is foolishness. Also, during Gandhi’s noncooperation
movement, people rioted and broke anything belonging to the government,
especially the post boxes on the street. They thought that by breaking
them, they were destroying the post office, or the government. This is
the foolishness of the iconoclasts. But those who have a true
conception of God do not quarrel with each other. All through history
there is some religious fight: Hindu against Moslem, Christian against
non-Christian. God is God. He has no material qualification. The
iconographers imagine, ‘God is like this or that,’ but the man in
knowledge knows that God is one, and transcendental.“
Western philosophy?” I ask. “Are you saying that it’s all
without religion is mental speculation,” he says, “and
religion without philosophy is sentimentalism.”
Brahman realized,” he says. “He was a great philosopher
who was firmly convinced of the immortality of the soul. When he was
condemned to death and asked to drink hemlock poison, he did not lament
because he knew that he would not be destroyed with his body. When they
asked him, ‘Well, Socrates, how do you want to be buried?’ he replied,
‘First of all, you catch me. Then you put me in the grave.”‘ Swamiji
laughs heartily, shaking all over. “‘Just catch me first,’ he was
telling them. He knew that they were just dealing with his body, and he
was out of the bodily conception. Those who are conversant with Krishna
consciousness know very well, ‘I am not this body. I am part and parcel
also spoke of God with form,“ I say. “He said that his
teacher Diotima tried to turn him from the imperfect beauty of earthly
forms to contemplation of the ideal form of beauty.”
“Yes, that is
philosophy!” Swamiji says. “Now our eyes are engaged in
seeing worldly beauty. But we have to retract our eyes from enjoying
that beauty and instead see the beauty inside. Similarly, with the ears
and other senses: we have to hear the omkara, the sound of
from within. All the senses must be withdrawn from external activities
and concentrated on the form of Krishna within the heart. This is the
perfection of yoga and philosophy. Of course, the mind is very
and agitated, so this is most difficult.”
Ramakrishna?” I ask. “Was he a devotee?”
“No. He was
some mad monk.”
had always thought Ramakrishna was one of India’s favorite
saints. “And Vivekananda?”
womanizer. He said God was daridra-Narayana, the poor man in
the street. So the Ramakrishna Mission is opening hospitals and
preaching humanitarianism. They will tell you that God is in the street
starving. What nonsense! Lord Brahma says, ‘Cintamani-prakara-sadmasu
kalpa-vrksa.’ Krishna is tending the cows, in abodes built with
spiritual gems, and He is surrounded by millions of purpose trees and
is being served by hundreds of thousands of goddesses of fortune. So He
is not a poor man. But Ramakrishna was a poor man. He had so much sex
that he became impotent and then worshipped all women as his mother,
and even called some prostitute the Holy Mother. What a rascal! Then
Vivekananda called him God. But God is not such a cheap thing. We must
first understand what God is. He is Bhagavan, the possessor of all
opulence. We must learn of Bhagavan from Bhagavan Himself. Any man who
says he’s God is the opposite—dog.”
not, I sit and listen. Gradually, as I become attracted to
listening, agreement loses its importance. He is so sure of one thing:
Krishna is God. I have never before seen anyone so absolutely certain
beyond doubt. And his certainty is contagious. It becomes the basis of
“I want to
chant in one of the parks nearby,” Swamiji suddenly tells us
one morning. “I leave it to you to decide where.”
publicly? We all sit in surprised silence. Evangelical
Krishnaism? What will people think? Since Swamiji is eager to go, we
finally agree. After conferring, we decide that Washington Square is
best. Sundays are always packed.
Sunday afternoon, we follow Swamiji down Third Street to
Washington Square. New Yorkers even slow down their cars to watch ten
young men follow an Indian holyman who chants on beads and wears
saffron robes. Self-conscious, knowing that we are making public
spectacles of ourselves, we keep our eyes riveted on Swamiji, who
somehow floats through it all, the swan on water, apparently unaware of
the stares and comments.
That old man forgot to change his pajamas!”
A gang of
Italian toughs. Oblivious to their ridicule, Swamiji ambles
along unruffled, indeed ecstatic to be leading a following into the
Just what is
he doing? I wonder. Does he think he can convert all
Manhattan to Hare Krishna chanting? What must people think?
We follow him
through the Sunday crowds—Puerto Rican kids playing,
Negro couples strolling, long-haired boys tossing frisbees, old Polish
couples sitting on benches, Good Humor men vending ice cream, Italians
tinkering with motorcycles, lovers kissing, and teenagers pounding
bongo drums. Predictably, eyes turn our way.
robes and sliding off his white, pointed shoes, Swamiji
sits comfortably and solidly on the grass near the teenagers, next to a
“Keep Off The Grass” sign. We also sit down, fearing that we are surely
committing some misdemeanor. Then he begins striking the bell-metal
cymbals. Ching ching ching, ching ching ching.
Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare,” he chants.
One of the teenagers lends us his bongo drum, and we manage
to follow Swamiji’s rhythm. A small crowd gathers. Minutes, eternities
pass. A sailor grinds his cigaret on the ground. “What the hell is
this?” he huffs.
minutes, two burly policemen push through the crowd.
in charge here?” one asks.
indicate only Swamiji.
see the sign?” the cop shouts.
at “Keep Off The Grass.” He smiles charmingly at the
police and humbly walks down onto the asphalt. We ask if he wants
someone to run back to Second Avenue for a rug, but he says, No,” and
once again sits down firmly, this time on the hot asphalt. We sit in a
circle around him.
people gather, the crowd presses around us. Swamiji leads the
chant for some thirty minutes, but for us, time stands still under the
Washington Arch. Resplendent in his saffron robes, Swamiji initiates
the first public chanting of Hare Krishna in America. We are the only
ones to respond. Everyone else just gawks.
chant ends, Swamiji turns to Roy. The people await some
Swamijji says. Roy hands him the first volume.
Swamiji turns to the preface, then hands me the book.
I stand and
begin reading the entire preface aloud. Surprisingly
enough, people listen.
in human society is due to a godless civilization. There is
God, or the Almighty One from whom everything emanates, by whom
everything is manifested, and in whom everything is merged to rest.
Material science is trying to find the ultimate source of creation very
insufficiently, but it is a fact that there is one ultimate source of
everything that be. This ultimate source is explained rationally and
authoritatively in the beautiful Srimad-Bhagavatam.
As I read, I
hardly recognize my voice, for some larger voice seems to
speak through me. Despite our timid, self-conscious beginning, we feel
strangely exhilarated by our first public kirtan. Swamiji was
When chanted publicly, the mantra is more potent.
Second Avenue, Roy asks Swamiji if he is pleased with our first
“It was very
nice,” he says gratefully. “Now you may go out in the
afternoons and chant in the streets and parks. Lord Chaitanya has
specifically recommended this sankirtan movement, chanting in public,
for this age of Kali. There is no other way. Harer nama harer
harer namaiva kevalam. Kalau nasty eva nasty eva nasty eva gatir
anyatha. Three times for emphasis. There is no other way, no
no other way to salvation in Kali-yuga.”
disagreeing, we continue chanting. As our
self-consciousness slowly wanes, we return to the streets. I pound a
bass drum, toot a cornet. Roy plays a bongo. Steve and Keith clash
cymbals. We walk around the Lower East Side, visit the Village, then
circle down through Chinatown to alarm the Buddhists.
We are eating prasadam
with Swamiji every day. Prasadam
Swamiji explains that we must first prepare food nicely, then offer it
to Krishna. Just by glancing at it, Krishna eats it, then leaves
everything for us out of mercy. Then, we are permitted to eat.
teaches Keith to cook, and later Charles assists.
“When I was
on the boat, I was wondering whether the American boys and
girls would like prasadam,” Swamiji laughs.
We all laugh
with him, as we enjoy the prasadam immensely.
When I ask
Swamiji about his boat journey to America, he tells us that
he had gotten seasick in the beginning. Because he couldn’t eat food
prepared by nondevotees, nor unoffered food, he was allowed to cook in
his own cabin. Keith and I are astonished to learn that Swamiji came
over on the Jaladhuta of the Scindia Line, the same boat
we had taken
to India. Shortly after Swamiji had gotten off the boat, we had boarded.
It was all
Krishna’s arrangement,” Swamiji laughs. “You do not have to
search out guru. When Krishna sees that you are sincere, He
quickly becomes a popular, transcendental affair. Swamiji puts
all the food on one plate—mung bean soup (dal), white rice,
vegetables, and chapatis, the bread of India, a kind of wheat
back apartment, we roll up the Oriental rug and sit on the
wood floor next to the walls. When offering the food to pictures of
Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya and His disciples, Swamiji rings a
little bell and recites prayers.
We all sit
and wait. We have expanded to a dozen now. Mike’s wife Jan,
the only woman, does not attend the noon prasadam in the back
squats and walks on his haunches, distributing prasadam from
the big offering plate, which he pushes before him. As he picks up the
rice and vegetables with his right hand and puts some on each paper
plate, we repeat, after him, a prayer in Bengali and then English:
material body is a lump of ignorance, and the senses are networks
of paths to death. We have fallen into the ocean of material sense
enjoyment. Of all the senses, the tongue is the most voracious and
uncontrollable. It is very difficult to conquer the tongue in this
world, but Krishna is very kind to us. He has sent us very nice prasadam
to conquer the tongue. Now let us take
that prasadam to our
full satisfaction, and glorify Their Lordships Radha and Krishna, and
in love call for Lord Chaitanya and Lord Nityananda to help us.
At first we
take only one chapati each.
He plops the chapatis
on our plates. Stanley, tall and skinny, finally
eats ten. Swamiji keeps piling them before him. Our appetites pick up
as Swamiji prods us to take more and more. I recall that in India I had
also eaten rice, dal, chapatis and cooked vegetables,
but it wasn’t prasadam. Prasadam is more succulent because
Swamiji’s fingers have
touched it. And, as Swamiji says, Krishna has glanced upon it.
people begin attending at noon and it becomes impractical for
everyone to eat in Swamiji’s apartment, prasadam is taken from
kitchen down to the temple for distribution. Swamiji, however,
continues eating in his room. Keith and Charles cook, and stacks of hot
chapatis are rushed downstairs for disciples and
“I have many
preparations to teach you,” Swamiji tells Keith and
Charles. “But first you must learn these basics nicely.”
krtvaiva trptim bhajatah sadaiva
spiritual master is always offering four kinds of food to Krishna,
and when he sees that the devotees are eating bhagavat-prasadam,
satisfied. I offer my respectful obeisances unto his lotus feet.…
is not dry,” Swamiji says as he hands chapatis to each
disciple. “It is full of juice, full of nectar.”
teaches Keith how to make “sweet balls” (gulabjamuns), dripping
with clarified butter and sugar syrup. Swamiji calls them “ISKCON
bullets,” our “ammunition against maya.” We sit before a large
spear the sweetballs that float to the top.
become aware that Swamiji’s knowledge of recipes is as vast
as his knowledge of the Vedas. “There are so many
says, “and one by one I will teach them to you. But first you must
learn to be very, very clean. And never taste food while cooking. If
you taste, everything is spoiled. Whatever we offer to Krishna must be
pure. You must learn this. That is a qualification of a brahmin—cleanliness.”
Ginsberg is reportedly chanting Hare Krishna at peace
marches and poetry readings, we mail him one of Swamiji’s
transcendental invitations: “You Are Cordially Invited To Come And
Bring Your Friends.”
up in a Volkswagen microbus with friend Peter Orlovsky.
Allen’s full beard has no tinge of gray, but his hair is receding. He
is forty-two and at the peak of his fame as poet laureate of the
counterculture. Somewhat self-consciously, he brings a beautiful new
harmonium from Calcutta. “It’s for the kirtans,” he says. “It’s
Swamiji comes down at seven and leads kirtan. Allen joins,
pumping a slow, wavering drone on the harmonium. After the lecture, he
steps forward and offers obeisances by touching Swamiji’s feet, a
gesture customary in India. When Allen is introduced, Swamiji invites
him to take prasadam with us in the morning. Then Swamiji
should I come by?” Allen asks.
eleven,” I suggest. “You can talk with Swamiji before prasadam.”
hesitates, then frowns. Something appears to be disturbing him,
something difficult to pinpoint.
think Swamiji’s a little too… well, esoteric for New York?”
I stop and
wonder. I’ve never thought of Swamiji as esoteric, although
he draws heavily from Vedic authority. Allen, however, has been a
celebrated anti-authoritarian since his 1955 "Howl" poem.
“We’ve got a
problem,” I say, changing the subject. “Swamiji’s visa is
running out, and we need an immigration lawyer.”
with that,” Allen says. “In the morning I’ll bring a check
for two hundred, initially.“ He and Peter then leave. Although the
money is badly needed, I was only going to ask him to recommend a
arrives in the morning, he brings a portable harmonium he
acquired in Benares. Sitting before Swamiji in the back apartment, he
chants Hare Krishna to a hurdy-gurdy rhythm. The melody is very jolly,
and Allen’s head wags back and forth as he pumps the harmonium, using
only a drone and letting his voice carry the tune. His chanting is very
different from Swamiji’s. I almost expect to see a monkey with a cup
most cordial. He smiles and begins to explain the philosophy
of Lord Chaitanya. “He even led a sankirtan protest through the
streets,” Swamiji says, “and inaugurated civil dlisobedience in India.
When the government officers broke the sankirtan drums,
Mahaprabhu personally led thousands of people to the Chan Kazi’s
palace. So, you are a very influential man. I request that you chant
this Hare Krishna at your poetry readings and other public functions.”
Swamiji tells Allen that the common populace
follows the actions of a great man and tends to imitate him. “What the
great do, others follow,” Swamiji says. “So this is a great opportunity
for you to introduce this Krishna consciousness. Hare Krishna can
purify everyone. Whenever the lion roars in the jungle, even the
elephants run away. This vibration of transcendental sound, Hare
Krishna, is like the roaring of a lion. It will chase away all the
elephants of dirty things, all that huge garbage, the dirtiness that
has accumulated in our mind after many, many births.”
attentively. Although receptive, he seems to resist
conversion. While not committing himself fully, he promises to chant
more and give up smoking.
“But do you
really intend to make these American boys into Vaishnavas?”
he asks before leaving.
Swamiji smiles brightly. “And I will make them all brahmins.”
struck with wonder that anyone would venture to transform
us into brahmins.
luck, Swamiji,” he bids, giving the check to help with the
End of Chapter 2