ISKCON 50 – S.Prabhupada Daily Meditations – Oct. 9-2015 – Dec. 31-2016
By Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
October 9, 2015
ISKCON is officially observing Srila Prabhupada’s coming to America and forming his society at 26 Second Avenue, in the year 2016. But 50th anniversary events have already occurred in 2015 and two major festivals have been celebrated. The observance of the day Prabhupada left India on board the Jaladuta on August 13, 1965 was celebrated in grand fashion in an indoor stadium in Calcutta on August 13, 2015. On September 17, 1965, after a thirty-five day voyage, the Jaladuta arrived in Boston U.S.A. Prabhupada took a walk in the City and wrote his magnificent poem “Markine Bhagavata-dharma”. The devotees in Boston observed the 50th anniversary of this event with an elaborate three-day festival in which they hired a ship that held nine hundred persons and re-enacted the Jaladuta’s arrival at Commonwealth Pier.
I have been asked by the Fiftieth Anniversary Committee to write a daily meditation on Prabhupada from now until the end of 2016. I am very honored by the invitation, but feel humbled and daunted to carry it out. I intend to keep an approximate diary of Prabhupada’s activities during the weeks and months of the remainder of 2015 and 2016. I cannot be responsible for a daily calendar of his life as no such record exists. I will consult the Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta and other early memoirs for outstanding events, but I will rely on my own realizations to construct the daily “meditations”, not focusing solely on the external acts of each day, but Prabhupada’s prevailing mood and my praise and worship of his presence in America in his mission on behalf of his Spiritual Master and Lord Krishna.
By October 9th, Prabhupada was scheduled in his routine of residing at the YMCA and visiting the apartment of his sponsors, Gopal and Sally Agarwal in Butler, Pennsylvania. Every morning he would rise early at the Y and write on his Srimad-Bhagavatam translations and purports. One of his few possessions was a small, manual typewriter and he would type out his “emotional ecstasies” on the Second Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. He would then walk the seven blocks to the home of the Agarwal’s apartment and arrive there at 7:00 and prepare his breakfast. Gopal left for work at 7:45 and Prabhupada began preparing lunch at 9:00. He rolled capatis and cooked rice and vegetables in his three-tier brass burner. He worked alone for two hours while Sally did housework and took care of her two young children. He would finish cooking and take prasadam at 11:30. At noon, Gopal came home for lunch and Sally would prepare a sandwich for him, but after a few days he abandoned his sandwiches and Prabhupada prepared enough prasadam for the whole family. “Oh, and we enjoyed it so much!” remembers Sally.
Tomorrow I will tell of Prabhupada’s relationship with the Agarwals and how he “fit in” with their conservative, middle class, suburban, American milieu.
October 10, 2015
The Agarwals thought Prabhupada had come to America only to find contacts who would help him finance his books. They didn’t think he was interested in creating any followers or starting a movement. At least they hoped he wouldn’t do anything that would cause tension or controversy. Perhaps Prabhupada, seeing their nervousness, agreed to keep a low profile out of consideration for his hosts. But Prabhupada, as an Indian in Vaisnava robes, created a sensation and curiosity wherever he went. Rather than have people speculate on why an Indian swami in Vaisnava dress was living at their home, Sally thought it would be better if they read about it in the newspapers. She took him to the local Butler Eagle where they agreed to do a feature article on him. A photographer came to the Agarwal’s home and took a picture of Prabhupada standing holding an open volume of Srimad-Bhagavatam, the caption read “Ambassador of Bhakti Yoga”.
Over time Sally grew very fond of Prabhupada. “He was the most enjoyable man. I really felt like a sort of daughter to him. Even in such a short time… He enjoyed everything. I liked him. I thought he was tremendous.”
October 11, 2015
Although Prabhupada didn’t want to create waves, he asked if they could have open house meetings in the evenings. The Agarwals agreed, and every night Prabhupada spoke and answered questions from guests. Many people came from miles around. The people were fascinated by him, but they didn’t know what to ask. The real interest in him was only as a curiosity. One evening a guest asked, “What do you think of Jesus Christ?” And Prabhupada replied, “He is the Son of God.” Then he added that he – the guest – was also a son of God.
Prabhupada spoke to various groups in the community. He spoke at the Lions Club in early October. He also gave a talk at the Y and at St. Fidelis College in Herman, Pennsylvania. And he spoke regularly to guests at the Agarwal home. Professor Larsen, the Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Slippery Rock State College, read about the visiting Swami in the newspaper and invited him to lecture on campus. Prabhupada gave two lectures in one day and had informal talks with Professor Larsen. Larsen was impressed by Prabhupada. “During the course of the day, there grew in me a warm affection for this man because he was unmistakably a good man who had found his way to a stability and peace that is very rare.”
October 12, 2015
Prabhupada, you did not come to America to sleep at a YMCA and spend your days at the apartment of middle class Americans where your main association was a friendly housewife. But you patiently and humbly accepted your situation at Butler Pennsylvania as a first testing ground. Your stay there was helpful. You got firsthand experience of American life and gained confidence that your health was strong and your message was communicable. You were glad to see that America had the necessary ingredients for your vegetarian diet and that the people could understand your English. Your sponsor in Butler was for one month, and in Boston the immigration official stamped your passport with an expected stay in America of only two months. Initially, you did not have great expectations.
Prabhupada spent his autumn weeks peacefully and actively in Butler. He gave a number of one-time lectures in colleges and institutions and spoke every evening with guests at the Agarwal home. In the afternoon and the early hours of the morning, he continued working at his herculean task of translating and writing purports to the entire Srimad-Bhagavatam (twelve cantos), now on the Second Canto. He had no apparent plans on how to finance the printing of his books and arrange for their wide distribution, but he was “blindly” following the order of his spiritual master to print books in English for the people of the West. When one surrenders to following the instructions of the spiritual master, he becomes empowered by Krishna and Lord Caitanya and by Their will anything was possible.
The students at the college seemed interested in what he had to say, but the occasional one-time lectures gave no opportunity for follow-up or development of personal relationships. Nor did any of the students seem interested in seeking out a spiritual master. The guests at the Agarwal home saw him mostly as a curiosity, and the Agarwals presented him as visiting America only to promote his books and not interested in followers. So the situation was limited, but Prabhupada saw it as Krishna’s arrangement. As he had written in “Markine Bhagavata Dharma” when he had just landed at the Boston Pier, “My dear Lord Krishna, You are so kind to this useless soul, but I do not know why You have brought me here. Now You can do with me as You like … O Lord! I am just like a puppet in Your hands. So if You have brought me here to dance, then make me dance, make me dance, O Lord make me dance as You like.”
October 13, 2015
Prabhupada was not demanding in Butler. For himself, he kept his strict sadhana of chanting and hearing, his Bhagavatam writing, his vegetarian diet offered to Krishna. But he didn’t demand much from others. When he came early one afternoon to the Agarwal apartment and found them eating meat and Sally apologized – “Oh Swamiji, we have just prepared meat and the smell will be disagreeable to you,” – he said, “Think nothing of it. Think nothing of it.” When the guests came in the evening to see him, they were always smoking cigarettes and he said, “Think nothing of it.” Gopal Agarwal said, “His interest was not to have you change your way of life. He wasn’t telling anyone they should be vegetarian or anything. He didn’t stress that we should give up many things.” Prabhupada did not presume to be their guru. He was a humble guest, “an ambassador of bhakti-yoga”.
Yet he gave lectures – at colleges, at a seminary, the Lions Club, the YMCA. And he spoke to the guests every evening at the Agarwal home. We cannot imagine him speaking watered-down philosophy. We have no recordings of his talks at Butler, but surely he taught Bhagavad-gita As It Is, as he always did. Somehow, without compromising, he made his parampara message accessible and understandable – and not off-putting – to his American audiences. Bhagavad-gita is so fascinating and non-sectarian, its teachings of the eternal Self and the transmigration of bodies so revolutionary to Western audiences, and its main theme of devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead so appealing to the heart, that no doubt Prabhupada’s lectures were enthralling, even to newcomers.
October 14, 2015
Prabhupada was interested in the American ways and people, which he met for the first time in Butler, Pennsylvania. Sally and Gopal took him to the supermarket. Sally recalls, “It was such fun taking him to the supermarket. He loved opening the packages of okra or frozen beans, and he didn’t have to clean them and cut them and do all those things. He opened the freezer every day and just chose his items.” Later Prabhupada would frown on the use of frozen food and would insist on fresh vegetables. But for now he was relieved to find them on the market in any form and accept them. Before coming to America, he thought that he might not be able to find such vegetables and he would have to subsist on potatoes.
Prabhupada would do his own laundry every day. He washed his clothes in the Agarwal’s bathroom and hung them to dry on the clothesline outside. He sometimes accompanied his hosts to the laundromat and was interested to see how the Americans washed and dried their clothes. Sally said Prabhupada was the most enjoyable and easiest houseguest that she had ever had. As she went about doing her household duties, she never had to worry about entertaining him because he would sit and chant on his beads. He sat on the couch while she swept with a vacuum cleaner and he was interested in that and they talked for a long time about it. Of course, this was not preferred activity for Prabhupada. He wanted to preach, distribute his books, and meet people who were anxious and qualified to inquire into the Absolute Truth. But he waited for Krishna to give him the opportunity. He was flexible and tolerant. He wanted something more than he found in Butler, but what Sally Agarwal observed was true. He was never bored or agitated. He depended on Krishna to place him in more favorable circumstances, but in the meantime, he could be peaceful and enlivened chanting on his beads. He was atmarama; self-satisfied.
October 15, 2015
On October 15th in Butler, Srila Prabhupada received a letter from Sumati Morarji in Bombay. She was the head of the Scindia Navigation Company and a devotee of Lord Krishna in the Vallabhacarya disciplic succession. Prabhupada approached her and received a donation to print First Canto Volume 1 of Srimad-Bhagavatam which was published in 1962. In the summer of 1965, she agreed to give Bhaktivedanta Swami permission for free passage to America on her ship, the Jaladuta. She wrote a friendly reply to his letter of September 24th. She was glad to hear he had safely arrived in the U.S.A. and recovered from his sickness en route. She was “delighted” that he had started activities and delivered some lectures. At the end of her short letter, she wrote, “I feel that you should stay there until you fully recover from your illness and return only after you have completed your mission.” Prabhupada regarded the last line of this letter as especially significant: His well-wisher was urging him to stay in America until he had completed his mission. He had told the immigration officials that he would be staying in America for two months. He had one month’s sponsorship in Butler and then no support. “So perhaps I can stay another month,” he thought. So he had told the officials two months. Sumati Morarji, however, was urging him to stay on. He saw that the prospects for preaching to the Americans were good, but he felt he would need support from India.
It is interesting that Prabhupada took Sumati Morarji’s advice so importantly. She was not his mentor. She was an elderly lady benefactor who had helped him with two significant donations. But Prabhupada knew that Krishna can speak through anyone. Sumati Morarji’s letter influenced Prabhupada to rethink his entire stay in America from short term to long term.
October 16, 2015
Srila Prabhupada was nearing the end of his stay in Butler. It had been a pleasant introduction to America. As a maha bhagavata who loves all living beings, Prabhupada had been kind to his sponsors and they had reciprocated with him. Sally had become like an affectionate daughter and Gopal, who was more formal, had been an accommodating host. Prabhupada also interacted with the children. He had been present when their toddler, Brij, took his first steps on unsteady little legs. There is a photo of Prabhupada smiling brilliantly and clapping his hands. It had been a celebration. The three-year-old daughter, Pamela, had been attending Sunday school and learned about Jesus. When she saw Prabhupada dressed in his robes, she called him “Swami Jesus.” When Prabhupada finally understood what she was saying, he smiled and said, “And a child shall lead them.” Another time, Pamela teethed on Prabhupada’s shoes (his white pointy plastic slippers). Sally thought, “Oh those shoes. They have been all over India and my kid is chewing on them.” He was becoming something like a family member.
He had spent long enough in Butler and now he had one month left in America. Living at the Agarwals’ was safe and secure, but the preaching opportunities were limited in Butler. Besides, they had agreed to sponsor him for one month only. They had paid for his living at the Y, given him rent-free residence in their apartment and purchased the food with which he prepared his meals. He decided to go to New York City and try to preach there until his time was up, but how would he live there?
Prabhupada knew no one in New York City, but he had a contact: Dr. Ramamurti Mishra. He had written Dr. Mishra from Butler and included a letter of introduction that had been given to him by a respectable gentleman in Bombay, Paramananda Mehra. He had also phoned Dr. Mishra, who welcomed Prabhupada to join him in New York. As a sannyasi, Prabhupada was used to picking up and leaving one place for another. As a mendicant preacher, he had no remorse about leaving behind the quiet life of the Butler YMCA, and he had no attachment for the domestic habitat where he could cook and talk with Sally about vacuum cleaners, frozen foods and American ways. But why had he gone to Butler?
And why was he going to New York? He saw it as Krishna’s grace. As a pure devotee of Krishna, he wanted to be an instrument in distributing Krishna consciousness. Mrs. Agarwal was sorry to see him go. “After a month, I really loved the Swami.” (Sally Agarwal has become something of a celebrity in ISKCON. She attended the 2015 Festival of Inspiration in New Vrindavan and spoke to the assembled devotees about her relationship with Prabhupada. She proudly announced that it was she who had signed the sponsorship papers for the Swami to come to America, since Gopal was not a U.S. citizen. After her talk, the devotees gathered around her and asked her more questions about Prabhupada in Butler.)
Sally said she felt “sick” to see Prabhupada go. She stayed up until two in the morning before he had to leave with Gopal to catch the bus to Pittsburgh. Before going to New York he was going to Philadelphia, where he had arranged a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania with Dr. Norman Brown, a professor of Sanskrit. Before leaving, Gopal gave Prabhupada a handful of change in a sock and told him how to use the shower at the bus station and how to use the automat restaurants in New York City – “and that’s all he left us with.”
On October 18th, Prabhupada left Butler via Philadelphia for New York City. I do not have a record of Prabhupada’s visit to Philadelphia. All I know is that Ravindra Svarupa Prabhu, then a student at the University of Pennsylvania, caught a glimpse of a person in saffron robes walking across the campus. It was a vision of ecstasy. He was so impressed, he told his girlfriend about it – later to become his wife and an initiated disciple of Prabhupada, Saudamini devi dasi.
Manhattan: At the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a student of Dr. Mishra’s met Prabhupada as he arrived from Philadelphia and escorted him directly to an Indian festival in the City. There Prabhupada met Dr. Mishra, as well as Ravi Shankar and his brother, the dancer Uday Shankar. It may have been a bit of a shock for Prabhupada to plunge into New York City for the first time and be immediately brought to a non religious Indian festival where he met the impersonalists, Dr. Mishra, the world famous sitarist Ravi Shankar and his dancer brother. They were not exactly like-minded pure devotees of Krishna. But Prabhupada was not only a pure Vaisnava; he was a former hometown “Calcutta man” and a businessman for many years. He knew how to deal with worldly people in intense city life. He associated with these people like a lotus on the water; without getting wet. After the Indian festival, Prabhupada accompanied Dr. Mishra to his apartment at 33 Riverside Drive, beside the Hudson River. The apartment had large windows overlooking the River. Dr. Mishra gave Prabhupada a room to himself. Before coming to America, Dr. Mishra had been a Sanskrit scholar and a guru, as well as a doctor. He had written a number of books, including Self-Analysis and Self-Knowledge, A Work Based on the Teachings of the Monistic Philosopher, Sankara. After coming to the United States he had continued his medical profession, but as he began taking disciples he dropped his practice. Although a sannyasi, he did not wear the traditional saffron or orange dhoti and kurta, but instead wore tailored Nehru jackets and white slacks. His complexion was dark, whereas Prabhupada’s was golden, and he had thick black hair. At forty-four, he was young enough to be Prabhupada’s son. Apparently, he was financially well off.
Tomorrow we will tell more of Prabhupada and Dr. Mishra.
Dr. Mishra had been suffering from bad health when Srila Prabhupada came into his life, and Prabhupada’s arrival seemed the perfect medicine.
Ramamurti Mishra: His Holiness Bhaktivedanta Gosvamiji really knocked me down with love. He was really an incarnation of love. My body had become a skeleton and he really brought me back to life – his cooking and especially his love. And his devotion to Lord Krishna. I was very lazy in the matter of cooking, but he would get up and have ready.
Dr. Mishra appreciated that Prabhupada, cooking with the precision of a chemist, would prepare many dishes, and that he had a gusto for eating.
Ramamurti Mishra: It was not bread he gave me – he gave me prasadam. This was life, and he saved my life. At that time I was not sure I would live, but his habit to eat on time, whether I was hungry or not – that I very much liked. He’d get up and say, “All right, this is bhagavat prasadam,” and I would say, “All right.”
Joan Suval, an old student of Dr. Mishra’s, often saw Srila Prabhupada and her teacher together at the Riverside apartment.
Swamiji was very sweet. I remember him as a very, very good man. Even in the practical details of living in New York, which seemed to involve him very much, because he was a practical man he was looking for the best place to begin his work. I remember very well that he was always careful about washing his clothes out every night. I would come in and find a group of students in the living area of Dr. Mishra’s apartment and in the bathroom would be hung Swamiji’s orange robes.
Srila Prabhupada would sometimes discuss with Dr. Mishra the aim of his visit to America. Expressing his spiritual master’s vision of establishing Krishna consciousness in the West. He requested Dr. Mishra to help him, but Dr. Mishra would always refer to his own teaching work which kept him very busy, and his plans for leaving the country soon. After a few weeks, when it became inconvenient to maintain Prabhupada at the apartment, Dr. Mishra shifted him to his hatha yoga studio on the fifth floor of 100 West 72nd Street near Central Park. The large studio was located in the center of the building and included an adjoining private room where Prabhupada stayed. It had no windows.
As I will describe tomorrow, Prabhupada and Dr. Mishra were philosophically at odds. Dr. Mishra would not allow Prabhupada to preach to his students. Confined to a windowless room in a hatha yoga studio, Prabhupada could not yet begin his missionary activities. But, as with the Agarwals in Pennsylvania, Prabhupada won over his New York host with his cooking. Pancharatna prabhu has asked me to describe the mission driving Prabhupada and his qualities and how they are relevant and inspirational to devotees today. There is not much that we can describe yet of Prabhupada’s missionary activities, but his habit of serving people Krishna prasadam already stands out. Sometimes devotees today are restricted from straight preaching, such as to their parents or disinterested persons, but we can always serve them Krishna prasadam and hardly anyone will refuse. Prabhupada showed this open secret from his first days in America. Where I live, in an ashram in Stuyvesant Falls New York, my disciple Baladeva serves the garbage man full sumptuous prasadam every day and the man is being visibly purified. We can always remember Srila Prabhupada in 1965 serving prasadam in restricted situations and be inspired and prepared to do the same.
Dr. Mishra accepted the Absolute Truth in the impersonal feature (or brahman) to be Supreme. Prabhupada stressed the supremacy of the personal feature (or bhagavan), following the Vedic theistic philosophy that the most complete understanding of the Absolute Truth is personal. The Bhagavad-gita says that the impersonal brahman is subordinate to bhagavan and is an emanation from Him, just as the sunshine is an emanation from the sun planet. This conclusion has been taught by the leading transcendental acarayas of ancient India, such as Ramanuja and Madhva. And Srila Prabhupada was in disciplic succession from Madhva. Dr. Mishra, on the other hand, followed Sankara, who taught that the impersonal presence of the Absolute Truth is all-in-all and that the Personality of Godhead is ultimately an illusion. Whereas Srila Prabhupada’s theistic philosophy accepted the individual spirit self (atma) as an eternal servant of the spiritual being (bhagavan), Dr. Mishra’s view accepted that the spiritual self is not an individual. Rather, his idea was that since each person was identical with God, the Supreme Brahman, there is no need to worship God outside oneself. As Dr. Mishra would put it, “Everything is one.”
Prabhupada considered Dr. Mishra a “mayavadi” because of his inadvertent acceptance that maya, illusion, is greater than the Absolute Truth. For Srila Prabhupada, not only was the impersonalist philosophy unpalatable, it was an insult to the Personality of Godhead. According to Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita (7.24 and 9.11), “Unintelligent men, who know Me not, think I have assumed this form and personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is changeless and supreme … Fools deride Me when I appear in the human form. They do not know My transcendental nature and My spiritual dominion over all that be.” Lord Caitanya had strongly refuted the Mayavadi philosophy: “Everything about the Supreme Personality of Godhead is spiritual, including His body, opulence and paraphernalia. Mayavada philosophy, however, covers His spiritual opulence and advocates the theory of impersonalism.”
A mendicant, Prabhupada was temporarily dependant on the goodwill of his Mayavadi acquaintance with whom he regularly ate and conversed, and with whom he accepted shelter. But what a great inconvenience it was! He had come to America to speak purely and boldly about Krishna, but he was being restricted. In Butler he had been confined by his hosts’ middle-class sensibilities; now he was silenced in a different way. He was treated with kindness, but he was considered a threat. Dr. Mishra could not allow his students to hear the exclusive praise of Lord Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Spending most of his time in his new room, Srila Prabhupada kept at his typing and translating. But when Dr. Mishra held his yoga classes, Prabhupada would sometimes come out and lead a kirtan or lecture.
Robert Nelson (one of Prabhupada’s first young sympathizers in New York): I went to one of Dr. Mishra’s services and Dr. Mishra talked. Swamiji was sitting on a bench and then all of a sudden Dr. Mishra stopped the service and he gets a big smile and says, ‘Swamiji will sing us a song.’ I think Dr. Mishra wouldn’t let him speak. Somebody told me Dr. Mishra didn’t want him to preach.
Years later Srila Prabhupada remembered the situation of the early days of 1965 in a conversation with his disciples. I used to sit in the back and listen to his meetings silently. He was speaking all impersonal nonsense and I kept my silence. Then one day he asked if I would like to speak and I spoke about Krishna consciousness. I challenged that he was speaking manufactured philosophy and all nonsense from Sankaracarya. He tried to back out and said he was not speaking, Sankaracarya was speaking. I said, ‘You are representing him. That is the same thing.’ He then said to me, ‘Swamiji, I like you very much, but you cannot speak here.’ But although our philosophies differed and he would not let me preach, he was kind and I was nice to him.
Every morning, several hours before dawn, Prabhupada would rise, take his bath, chant Hare Krishna on his beads and work at his translating. While outside his closed, windowless chamber, dawn came and the city awoke. He had no stove, so daily he had to walk the seven blocks to the Riverside Drive apartment to cook. It would be late morning when he would come out on to the busy street. He would walk north on Columbus Avenue amid the steady flow of pedestrians, pausing at each intersection in the sweeping breeze from the river. Instead of the small town scenery of Butler, he passed through the rows of thirty-storey office buildings on Columbus Avenue. At street level were shoe repair shops, candy stores, laundries and continental restaurants. The upper storeys held the professional suites of doctors, dentists and lawyers. At Seventy-fifth Street, he would turn and walk west through a neighborhood of brownstone apartments, then cross Amsterdam to Broadway, which was separated by a center island park area. The park greenery could more accurately be described as “blackery” here, since it was covered with soot and city grime. Broadway displayed its produce, shops and butcher shops, with their stands extending on to the sidewalk. Old men sat on benches on the thin strip of park between the north and southbound traffic. The last block on Seventy-fifth Street before Riverside Drive held highrise apartment buildings with doormen. Thirty-three Riverside Drive also had a doorman.
Sometimes Prabhupada would walk in Riverside Park. Still careful for the condition of his heart, he liked the long stretches of flat walking area. Sometimes he would walk from Dr. Mishra’s studio down Seventy-second Street to Amsterdam Avenue to the West End Superette, where he would buy produce and spices for his cooking. Sometimes he would wander through Manhattan, without any fixed direction, and sometimes he would take buses to different areas of the City.
Here we see Prabhupada forced to do the same austerity he did in Butler: He slept in a room with no cooking facilities and had to walk many blocks to his host’s apartment, where he could cook. He would also take walks around the neighborhood and even further afoot in the streets of Manhattan. And even take bus rides. New York is a dangerous city to wander in, especially for an old man. But Srila Prabhupada was fearless. As a “Calcutta boy” he was not afraid of big cities. He was not wandering aimlessly. He was studying the mentality of the people and even looking for possibilities for buildings he might purchase for use as a temple, if he could get support. Yet we who were accustomed to never let Prabhupada go out alone but always accompanied him with a few young men, if not a larger group, feel protective and even fearful hearing of him wandering in Manhattan alone. In later years when Prabhupada was once walking with his devotees in Calcutta, he remarked how as a young boy he had climbed up to the top of the Victoria Memorial on the scaffolding when it was under construction. One of his disciples said, “You must have been brave.” Prabhupada replied, “Still I am brave, or how could I have come to America alone?”
On weekends, Prabhupada would accompany Dr. Mishra to his Ananda Ashram one hour north of the City in Monroe, New York. Dr. Mishra therefore maintained three high-rent properties, his Riverside Drive apartment, his yoga studio on West Seventy-second Street near Central Park, and his sprawling country estate in upstate New York. Ananda Ashram had a large building and acres of country land with a lake. It had a retreat atmosphere for the city-dwelling, yoga students.
Joan Suval, who used to drive Prabhupada and Dr. Mishra there, would overhear their animated conversations in the back of her car. Although they spoke in Hindi, she could hear their conversations turn into loud shouting arguments; afterwards, they would again become friends. At Ananda Ashram, Prabhupada would usually hold kirtanas with Dr. Mishra’s students joining him in the chanting and even dancing. Dr. Mishra was particularly fond of Prabhupada’s chanting.
Ramamurti Mishra: I have never seen or met any devotee who sang so much. And his kirtana was just ambrosial. If you pay attention and become relaxed, that voice has very electrical vibrations on your heart. You cannot avoid it. Ninety-nine per cent of the students, whether they liked it or not, got up and danced and chanted. And I felt very blessed to meet such a great soul.
Although Prabhupada was restricted from lecturing, his devotional kirtana won over the impersonal yoga teachers and students. This is another example that is relevant to us today. In situations where lecturing is not feasible, it is often possible for devotees to hold kirtana. Lord Caitanya emphasized ecstatic congregational chanting as His main means of spreading Krishna consciousness in India. He reserved the dissemination of intellectual discourses to learned scholars like Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya and Prakasananda Sarasvati and He enjoyed intimate, philosophical teachings with confidential devotees like Rupa and Sanatana Gosvami and Ramananda Raya. But for the mass of people, love of God was distributed by Lord Caitanya’s empowered chanting of the Holy Names.
ISKCON devotees who engage in public harinama are purifying and influential. Daily harinama is held in Jacksonville Florida at the University of Florida; six hours a day seven days a week in Union Square Manhattan; downtown in Port of Spain Trinidad, and in other places around the world. Most ISKCON temples hold at least a weekly harinama in public for several hours. For a period when harinama was de-emphasized, the general public began to ask, “Where are the Hare Krishnas? Do they still exist?” Public harinama is the most visible and symbolic form of presence for the Movement to the general public. Although he could not speak, Prabhupada thought that it was well worth his trouble to attend Dr. Mishra’s yoga classes in the City and at Ananda Ashram – because it gave him the opportunity to lead kirtana. It created a sensation and made a deep impression on the participants. By cooking and distributing prasadam, and by leading kirtanas, he was infiltrating the Mayavadi camp.
At Ananda Ashram, Prabhupada met an important contact in a young man named Harvey Cohen. In the future weeks, we will tell how Harvey played a crucial role in increasing Prabhupada’s followers and influencing his move downtown. Harvey was a newcomer to Ananda Ashram and he had difficulty in beginning to practice hatha-yoga. When he arrived at the morning meditation all the mats were taken up, so he picked a spot at the back of the room where he could lean against the wall. He noticed seated at one side was an older Indian gentleman in saffron cloth and wrapped in a pinkish wool blanket. He seemed to be muttering to himself and later Harvey discovered that he was praying. It was Swami Bhaktivedanta. His forehead was painted with a white V-shaped sign and his eyes were half shut. He seemed very serene.
Harvey tried, but he couldn’t do the raja-yoga. During his morning meditation, he found himself more attracted to the green mist above the lake outside the window, than to the circle on the wall he was supposed to be meditating on. He went to his room. The rain was increasing and beating against the window. It was peaceful and he was glad to be alone. He read for awhile. Suddenly he sensed that someone was standing in the doorway. Looking up, he saw it was the Swami. He was wrapped in his pinkish blanket, like a shawl. “Can I come in?”
Harvey nodded yes, and the Swami asked if he could sit in the corner. After sitting, he asked what Harvey was doing at the ashram and what kind of yoga he was studying. “I don’t know much about it,” Harvey said, “but I think I’d like to study hatha-yoga.” This didn’t impress the Swami. “There are higher things than this,” he explained. “There are higher and more direct forms of yoga. Bhakti-yoga is the highest – it is the science of devotion to God.”
Harvey Cohen: As he spoke, I got the overpowering realization that he was right. He was speaking the truth. A creepy, ecstatic sensation came over me that this man was my teacher. His words were so simple and I kept looking at him all weekend. He would sit so calm and dignified, with warmth. He asked me to visit him when he got back to the City.
Harvey followed up on this and started seeing Prabhupada in his room at Seventy-second Street. He began telling his friends downtown about the new Swami.
Hurta Lurch (a student at Ananda Ashram): My direct encounter with him was in the kitchen. He was very particular and very definite that he would eat only what he cooked himself. He would come and say, “Get me a pot.” So when I brought him a pot, he would say, “No, bigger.” So I brought him a bigger pot and he would say, “No, smaller.” Then he would say, “Get me potato.” So I would bring him a potato. He’d prepare food very, very quietly. He never spoke much. He prepared potatoes and then some vegetables and then capatis. After cooking, he would eat outside. He would usually cook enough to go around for Dr. Mishra and about five or six other people. Every day he would cook that much when he was there. I learned to make capatis from him. He usually stayed only for the weekends and then went back to the City. I think he felt that was where his main work was to be done.
It was certainly true that Prabhupada’s real work was in the City, but what could he do there with no money and no support? He was thinking of staying only a few weeks and then going back to India. In the meantime, he was working on his Srimad-Bhagavatam manuscripts, walking in Manhattan, and writing letters. He was studying a new culture, calculating practically and imagining hopefully how to introduce Krishna consciousness to the Western world. In later October, he expressed his thoughts to Sumati Morarji:
So far as I have studied, the American people are very much eager to learn about the Indian way of spiritual realization, and there are so many so-called yoga ashrams in America. Unfortunately, they are not very much adored by the government, and it is learned that such yoga ashrams have exploited the innocent people, as has been the case in India also. The only hope is that they are spiritually inclined, and immediate benefit can be done to them if the cult of Srimad-Bhagavatam is preached here …
He told Mrs. Morarji “that just to see the mode of reception,” he had attended the performance of a Madrasi dancer and the American public appreciated the dance. He explained that the Bhagavatam could also be preached through music and dance, but he had no means to introduce it.
He told Mrs. Morarji that the Christian missions, backed by huge resources, were preaching all over the world, so why couldn’t the devotees of Krishna combine to preach the Bhagavatam all over the world? He also noted that the Christian missions had not been effective in checking the spread of Communism, whereas a Bhagavatam movement could be, because of its philosophical, scientific approach.
He was deliberately planting a seed of inspiration in the mind of the devoted, wealthy Sumati Morarji.
But Sumati Morarji did not respond. Since her initial letter in which she had advised him to stay on in America until his mission was completed, she had not answered his correspondence. Prabhupada knew that if she wanted she could do something big, so he continued to write her.
Prabhupada wrote to his Godbrother Tirtha Maharaj, who had become president of the Gaudiya Math, to remind him that their spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, had a strong desire to open preaching centers in the Western countries. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had several times attempted to do this by sending sannyasis to England and other European countries, but Prabhupada noted, “without any tangible results.”
I have come to this country with the same purpose in view, and as far as I can see, here in America there is very good scope for preaching the cult of Lord Caitanya …
Prabhupada pointed out that there were certain Mayavadi groups who had buildings, but were not attracting many followers. But he had talked with Swami Nikhilananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, who had given the opinion that the Americans were suitable for bhakti-yoga.
I am here and see a good field for work, but I am alone without men and money. To start a center here, we must have our own building.
If the leaders of the Gaudiya Math would consider opening their own branch in New York, Srila Prabhupada would be willing to manage it. But without their own house, he reported, they could not conduct a mission in the City. Srila Prabhupada wrote that they could open centers in many cities throughout the country if his Godbrothers would cooperate. He repeatedly made the point that although other groups did not have the genuine spiritual philosophy of India, they were buying many buildings. The Gaudiya Math, however, had nothing.
If you agree to cooperate with me as I have suggested above, then I shall extend my visa period. My present visa ends soon. But if I receive your confirmation immediately, then I shall extend my visa period. Otherwise, I shall return to India.
Prabhupada had always done much preaching by letter writing. When he was alone as a householder in India he had written many letters to influential leaders, including a prophetic letter to Mahatma Gandhi asking him to quit politics and study Bhagavad-gita or die an inglorious death. He had written to big businessmen and top politicians. They were not mere formal letters asking for funds, but deeply personal, sincere appeals and filled with philosophical explanations of the need to take up the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita to solve all the social, political and economic problems of the present day. Prabhupada did not get much favorable response from these letters, but he was undaunted in attempting them. He was like a voice crying in the wilderness. Now alone in New York City, penniless and practically homeless, he appealed directly for funds to purchase a building for a temple. He wrote to Godbrothers in the Gaudiya Math and to pious, wealthy business persons.
Srila Prabhupada received a reply to his letter to Tirtha Maharaj in Calcutta. Prabhupada explained his hopes and plans for staying in America, but he stressed that his Godbrothers would have to give him their vote of confidence as well as some tangible support. His Godbrothers had not been working cooperatively. Each leader was more interested in maintaining his own building than in working with others to spread the teachings of Lord Caitanya around the world. So how would it be possible for them to share Prabhupada’s vision of establishing a branch in New York City? They would see it as his separate attempt. Yet despite the unlikely odds, he appealed to their missionary spirit and reminded them of the desires of their spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. Their Guru Maharaj wanted Krishna consciousness to be spread in the West. But when Prabhupada finally got Tirtha Maharaj’s reply, he found it unfavorable. His Godbrother did not argue against his attempting something in New York, but he politely said that the Gaudiya Math funds could not be used for such a proposal.
You were alone in the city
where no one knew Krishna.
Only a backward boy came,
but Krishna in your heart
was your direct companion.
You had kept your courage on the lonely Atlantic,
and now alone in the ocean of vices.
The Lord protected you,
just as He protects the sages in the forest.
Loitering in neighborhoods
thinking how they could be transformed
for Krishna’s mission.
But it seemed impossible,
and you went to Scindia’s man
to ask when a ship was returning.
Still you extended your stay again:
Let me try a little longer.
Subway trains rumbled beneath your feet,
steel-reinforced concrete soared to the sky,
carcasses hung in the deli windows.
The laws of the streets,
the laws of the traffic
– rush or get run over
the false sense of Uptown Civilization,
dignity for two-legged animals.
But then why are you here?
Now, because it is my duty.
I have brought some message for you people
as ordered by my spiritual master.
Appropriately, Prabhupada had described himself as “a man not to be disappointed.” He was convinced that if there was a center where people could come, hear from a pure devotee, the genuine God consciousness culture of India could begin in America. Yet, because he had made his plans depending on an expensive building in Manhattan, his goals seemed unreachable. Still, he was persistently writing to prominent devotees in India, although they were not interested in his plans.
“Why should they not help?” he thought. “After all, they were devotees of Krishna. Shouldn’t the devotees come forward to establish the first Krishna temple in America?” Certainly he was qualified and authorized to spread the message of Krishna. As for the place, New York was perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world. He had found a building – not very expensive, a good location – and there was a great need for a Krishna temple here to offset the propaganda of the Indian Mayavadis. The Krishna bhaktas to whom he was writing understood Lord Krishna to be not simply a Hindu deity, but the Supreme Lord, worshipable for the whole world. So they should be pleased to see Krishna worshiped in New York. Krishna Himself said in the Bhagavad-gita, “Give up all other duties and surrender to Me.” So if they were Krishna’s devotees, why would they not help? What kind of devotee was it who did not want to glorify the Lord?
Prabhupada did not judge beforehand who would serve Krishna’s mission and who would not. He was fully surrendered and fully dependant on Krishna. In obedience to his spiritual master he would approach everyone without discrimination to ask for help.
There was Sumati Morarji. She had helped him in publishing the Bhagavatam and she had sent him to America. In a recent letter to her, he had only given hints:
I am just giving you the idea, and if you kindly think over the matter seriously and consult your beloved Lord Bala Krishna, surely you will be further enlightened in the matter. There is scope and there is certain necessity also, and it is the duty of every Indian, especially the devotees of Lord Krishna, to take up the matter.
But he had received no reply. He had not heard from her since Butler. Those words from her that had seemed prophetic and they had struck with him: “I feel that you should stay there until you fully recover from your illness and return only after you have completed your mission.”
Now Sumati Morarji must do something big. He told her point-blank:
I think therefore that a temple of Bala Krishna in New York may immediately be started for this purpose. And as a devotee of Lord Bala Krishna, you should execute this great and noble work. Until now, there is no worshipable temple of the Hindus in New York, although in India there are so many Christian establishments and churches. So I shall request you to do this noble act and I will record it in the history of the world that the first Hindu temple is started by a pious Hindu lady, SRIMATE SUMATI MORARJI, who is not only a big business magnate in India, but a pious Hindu lady and a great devotee of Lord Krishna. This task is for you, and glorious at the same time.
Prabhupada assured Sumati Morarji that he had no ambition to become the proprietor of a house or temple in America; but for preaching, a building would be absolutely required:
They should have association of bona fide devotees of the Lord, they should join the kirtana glorifying the Lord, they should hear the teachings of Srimad-Bhagavatam, they should have intimate touch with the temple or place of the Lord, and they should be given ample chance to worship the Lord in the temple. Under the guidance of the bona fide devotee, they can be given such facilities and the way of the Srimad-Bhagavatam is open for everyone.
He informed her that he had located a building “just suitable for this great missionary work.” It was ideal, “as if it was built for this purpose only.”
… And your simple willingness to do the act will complete everything smoothly. The house is practically three storeys. Ground floor, basement and two storeys up, with all the suitable arrangements for gas, heat, etc. The ground floor may be utilized for preparation of prasadam of Bala Krishna, because the preaching center will not be for dry speculation, but for actual gain – for delicious prasadam. I have already tested how the people here like the vegetable prasadam prepared by me. They will forget meat-eating and pay for the expenses. American people are not poor men like the Indians, and if they appreciate a thing, they are prepared to spend any amount on such hobby. They are being exploited simply by jugglery of words and bodily gymnastics, and still they are spending for that. But when they will have the actual commodity and feel pleasure by eating very delicious prasadam of Bala Krishna, I am sure a unique thing will be introduced in America.
My term to stay in America will soon be finished. But I am believing in your foretelling, “You should stay there until you fully recover your health and return after you have completed your mission.”
Sumati Morarji did not reply to Srila Prabhupada’s direct appeal.
Prabhupada’s mission was really not yet underway. He was confined to a windowless chamber in a hatha yoga studio and was not allowed to preach to Dr. Mishra’s students. He knew he needed a place of his own, but he had no money. So far his only plan was to write to wealthy patrons in India. He had located a building on 72nd Street which he thought was suitable and was relatively inexpensive considering Manhattan real estate – even in 1965 the price was one hundred thousand dollars with a twenty thousand dollar cash down payment. Prabhupada thought that if he could get the twenty thousand dollars from India, he could move in, open the doors, start regular programs of kirtana, lecturing and prasadam distribution and the Americans would come forward and donate enough to pay the monthly mortgage payments. It was a little far-fetched to think he would immediately have enough funds to provide immediate ample prasadam distribution and quickly develop a supporting congregation to pay the mortgage. So far he had not found any supporters in America, but then he had not yet been able to preach to them and show the worth of his mission. The proceeds from the sales of the Srimad-Bhagavatam in the book stores he had placed them in were negligible. Although he had not yet received any favorable responses from the correspondence he had sent to patrons in India – it was hard enough to get any response from them – he cancelled his plan to return immediately to India and went ahead and extended his visa to stay in America.
Externally his prospects were not good, but he was depending on the will of guru and Krishna. Even when he was at sea on the Jaladuta and had nothing at all and had just survived two heart attacks, he had optimistic views of his mission, as he had expressed in an intimate poem.
“Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who is very dear to Lord Gauranga, the son of Mother Saci, is unparalleled in his service to the Supreme Lord Krishna. He is that great saintly spiritual master who bestows intense devotion to Krishna at different places throughout the world.
“By his strong desire, the Holy Name of Lord Gauranga will spread throughout all the countries of the western world. In all the cities, towns and villages on earth, the oceans, seas, rivers and streams, everyone will chant the Holy Name of Krishna.
“As the vast mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu conquers all directions, a flood of transcendental ecstasy will certainly cover the land. When all the sinful, miserable living entities become happy, the Vaisnava’s desire is then fulfilled.
“Although my Guru Maharaj ordered me to accomplish this mission, I am not worthy or fit to do it. I am very fallen and insignificant; therefore, O Lord, now I am begging for Your mercy that I may become worthy, for You are the wisest and most experienced of all.”
Judged by outward appearances, his situation looked somewhat hopeless, but seeing in the light of the mission that drove him, he maintained strong hopes.