ISKCON 50 – S.Prabhupada Daily Meditations – Oct. 9-2015 – Dec. 31-2016
May 1, 2016
Now it was time to move the Swami into his new place. A few friends who were on hand accompanied the Swami over to the Bowery loft. Maybe they weren’t prepared to become his surrendered disciples, but contributing toward the first month’s rent and volunteering a few hours of work to help set up his place were exactly the kinds of things they could do very willingly.
At the loft, they all gathered up portions of the Swami’s belongings, and then they started out on foot up Bowery. It was like a safari, a caravan of half a dozen men loaded with Prabhupada’s things. Michael carried the heavy Roberts reel-to-reel, and even the swami carried two suitcases. They did everything so quickly that it wasn’t until they were well on their way and Mike’s arm began to ache that he realized, “Why didn’t we bring a car?”
It was the end of June, and a hazy summer sun poured its heat down into the Bowery jungle. Starting and stopping, the strange safari, stretching for over a block, slowly trekked along. Prabhupada struggled with his suitcases, past the seemingly unending row of restaurant supply shops and lamp stores between Grand, Broome, and Spring streets. Sometimes he paused and rested, setting his suitcases down. He was finally moving from the Bowery. His electrician friend on Seventy-second Street would have been relieved, although perhaps he would have disapproved of the Second Avenue address also. At least he was finished residing on Skid Row. He walked on, past the homeless men outside the Salvation Army shelter, past the open-door taverns, stopping at streetlights, standing alongside total strangers, keeping an eye on the progress of his procession of friends who struggled along behind him.
The Bowery artists and musicians saw him as “highly evolved.” They felt that the spirit was moving him and were eager to help him set up his own place so that he could do his valuable spiritual thing and spread it to others. He was depending on them for help, yet they knew he was “on a higher level”; he was his own protector, or as he said, God protected him.
May 2, 2016
Moving Into His New Apartment
Overlooking the courtyard from the rear building of 26 Second Avenue was Prabhupada’s second floor apartment, where he would now live, work, and worship. With help from his Bowery friends, he had cleaned and settled into his new home. In the back room – his office – he had placed against one wall a thin cushion with an elephant-print cover and, in front of the cushion, his unpainted metal suitcase served as a desk. He had set his typewriter on the desk with his papers and books on either side. This became his work area. His manuscripts bundled in saffron cloth, his stock of Srimad-Bhagavatams, and his few personal effects he kept in the closet opposite his desk. On the wall above his sitting place he hung an Indian calendar print of Lord Krishna. (Krishna, as a youth, was playing on His flute with a cow close behind Him. Lord Krishna was standing on the planet Earth, which curved like the top of a small hill beneath His feet.) There were two windows on the east wall and the dappled morning sunlight filtering in through the fire escape fell across the floor.
The next room was bare except for a fancy coffee table, which became Prabhupada’s altar. Here he placed a framed picture of Lord Caitanya and His associates. On the wall he hung an Indian calendar print of four-armed Lord Visnu and Ananta Sesa, the celestial snake. And, as in the Bowery loft, he put up a clothesline.
Both rooms were freshly painted and the floors were clean hardwood parquet. The bathroom was clean and serviceable, as was the narrow furnished kitchen. Prabhupada would sometimes stand by the kitchen window gazing beyond the courtyard wall. He had moved here without any prospects of paying the next month’s rent.
May 3, 2016
The Lower East Side in the 1960s
By the summer of Srila Prabhupada’s arrival at 26 Second Avenue, the first front in the great youth rebellion of the sixties had already entered the Lower East Side. Here they were free – free to live in simple poverty and express themselves through art, music, drugs and sex. The talk was of spiritual searching. LSD and marijuana were the keys opening new realms of awareness. Notions about Eastern cultures and Eastern religions were in vogue. Through drugs, yoga, brotherhood, or just by being free – somehow they would attain enlightenment. Everyone was being free – somehow they would attain enlightenment. Everyone was supposed to keep an open mind and develop his own cosmic philosophy by direct experience and drug-expanded consciousness, blended with his own eclectic readings. And if their lives appeared aimless, at least they had dropped out of a pointless game where the player sells his soul for material goods and in this way supports a system that is already rotten.
So it was that in 1966 thousands of young people were walking the streets of the Lower East Side, not simply intoxicated or crazy (though they often were), but in search of life’s ultimate answers, in complete disregard of “the establishment” and the day-to-day life pursued by millions of “straight” Americans.
That the prosperous land of America could breed so many discontented youths surprised Prabhupada. Of course, it also further proved that material well-being, the hallmark of American life, couldn’t make people happy. Prabhupada did not see the unhappiness around him in terms of the immediate social, political, economic and cultural causes. Neither slum conditions nor youth rebellions were the all-important realities. These were mere symptoms of a universal unhappiness to which the only cure was Krishna consciousness. He sympathized with the miseries of everyone, but he saw the universal solution.
May 4, 2016
Srila Prabhupada’s Mission on the Lower East Side
Prabhupada had not made a study of the youth movement in America before moving to the Lower East Side. He had never even made specific plans to come here amid so many young people. But in the ten months since Calcutta he had been moved by force of circumstances, or, as he understood it, “by Krishna’s will,” from one place to another. On the order of his spiritual master he had come to America, and by Krsna’s will he had come to the Lower East Side. His mission here was the same as it had been on the Bowery or uptown or even in India. He was fixed in the order of his spiritual master and the Vedic view, a view that wasn’t going to be influenced by the radical changes of the 1960s. Now, if it so happened that these young people because of some change in the American cultural climate were to prove more receptive to him, then that would be welcome. And that would also be by Krishna’s will.
Actually, because of the ominous influence of the Kali millennium, this was historically the worst of times for spiritual cultivation – hippie revolution or not. And Srila Prabhupada was trying to transplant Vedic culture into a more alien ground than had any previous spiritual master. So he expected to find his work extremely difficult. Yet in this generally bad age, just prior to Prabhupada’s arrival on the Lower East Side, tremors of dissatisfaction and revolt against the Kali-yuga culture itself began vibrating through American society, sending waves of young people to wander the streets of New York’s Lower East Side in search of something beyond the ordinary life, looking for alternatives, seeking spiritual fulfillment. These young people, broken from their stereotyped materialistic backgrounds and drawn together now on New York’s Lower East Side, were the ones who were by chance or choice or destiny to become the congregation for the Swami’s storefront offerings of kirtana and spiritual guidance.
May 5, 2016
The Swami’s Arrival Went Mostly Unnoticed
The Swami’s arrival went unnoticed. The neighbors said someone new had taken the gift shop next to the laundry. There was a strange picture in the window now but no one knew what to make of it. Some passers-by noticed a piece of paper announcing classes in Bhagavad-gita taped to the window. A few stopped to read it, but no one knew what to make of it. They didn’t know what Bhagavad-gita was, and the few who did thought, “Maybe a yoga bookstore or something.” The Puerto Ricans in the neighbourhood would look in the window at Harvey Cohen’s painting and then blankly walk away. The manager of the Mobil gas station next door couldn’t care less who had moved in – it just didn’t make any difference. The tombstone-sellers and undertakers across the street didn’t care. And for the drivers of the countless cars and trucks that passed by, Swamiji’s place didn’t even exist. But there were young people around who had been intrigued with the painting, who went up to the window to read the little piece of paper. Some of them even knew about the Bhagavad-gita, although the painting of Lord Caitanya and the dancers didn’t seem to fit. A few thought maybe they would attend Swami Bhaktivedanta’s classes and check out the scene.
May 6, 2016
Soul Eyes of Prabhupada
One devotee wrote to me appreciating my poem about Srila Prabhupada’s gaze, Soul Eyes. He said, however, that he never saw Prabhupada’s eyes, and he considered it a great loss in his life. I consoled him and told him there were many wonderful photos to meditate on Prabhupada’s eyes and form. There’s also film footage of his moving body, an expressive feature. There’s also an oversize book of special photos called Srila Prabhupada Art Book, which one can spend hours gazing over Prabhupada’s beautiful body. Even when Prabhupada’s health diminished and his face became emaciated he maintained nobility in his features, and his face was very grave.
Devotees can also ease their separation by getting together and talking about his qualities and pastimes on occasions such as his appearance and disappearance days. Srila Prabhupada personally said, “If you want to know me, read my books.” So a devotee should not think he has lost out just because he was not present when Prabhupada was still alive in his physical presence here.
By the means available through vani (instruction in sound vibration), many second-generation disciples have developed relationships equal to and even greater than first-generation disciples.
Srila Prabhupada wrote in one letter explaining the principles of vapu and vani: “… Presence of the transcendental sound received from the spiritual master should be the guidance of life.” He also told us that we could place his picture on his sitting places and this would give us solace. The main factor in developing association with Prabhupada is attaining the stage of wanting to please him. He is still living and open to reciprocate with devotees who wish to serve him. This is accomplished in standard ways and by accepting him as one’s śikṣā guru or primary guru, and obeying his instructions regarding the rules and regulations. One also pleases Srila Prabhupada by taking up the preaching spirit and working in cooperation with others in the sankirtana movement. Prabhupada’s reciprocal gaze of “soul eyes” is still available to the earnest soul who yearns to please Prabhupada and comes before him in the available methods of service in separation.
May 7, 2016
Pleasing the Guru Means Pleasing Krishna
Every morning we pray yasya prasadad bhagavat-prasadah, but sometimes we forget what it means. The verse means that by the grace of the spiritual master one gets the mercy of Krishna. If one does not please the spiritual master, then he has no chance of progress. (Yasya prasadad bhagavat-prasadah, you have to please the guru, not independently go to Krishna.) So I am praying to you like that. That is, I pray to you knowing that a prayer to you is as good as a prayer to Krishna. Yadyapi amara guru caitanyera dasa, Srila Prabhupada, you are the servant of the Supreme Lord. Tathapi janiye ami tanhara prakasa. You are the full manifestation – prakasa of the Lord Himself. (CC Adi 1.44)
May 8, 2016
Prabhupada never claimed to be a nitya-siddha, a soul who has never fallen down to the material world. Yet Prabhupada had the symptoms of such a great soul. A sadhana-siddha is a conditioned soul who is perfected by the performance of the rules and regulations of devotional service. Krpa-siddha is one who attains perfection through the special mercy of the Lord or His pure devotee. But a nitya-siddha is extremely rare in this world.
Uddhava was a nitya-siddha. He had the same form as Krishna (svarupa-mukti). Even as a child he was always engaged in the “play of transcendental realization.” Prabhupada, like Uddhava, played with the forms of Radha-Krishna as a child, bathing Them, feeding Them, and worshiping Them. He also held the Ratha-yatra festival with his small playmates and would go across the street to visit the Radha-Govinda Temple daily. Prabhupada said of himself that he thought he had ample opportunity to engage in sinful life, being born in an aristocratic family; but he never did. “And throughout my whole life I did not know what is illicit sex, intoxication, meat eating and gambling. So far my present life is concerned, I do not remember any part of my life when I was forgetful of Krishna.”
May 9, 2016
Prabhupada’s Gift of Solidity
One night while in Prabhupada’s presence at the storefront, the thought came to me that Krishna consciousness is not fragile like glass figurines. In the beginning, my attraction seemed to be a very fragile thing. If you looked at Krsna consciousness one way, it was there; but if you looked at it another way, it might disappear. Bhakti was very wonderful, and yet it could be shattered by a rude remark or by a logical argument. But as Swamiji spoke, it occurred to me that it was not at all fragile. Krsna consciousness was very, very solid.
That night when I left Swamiji’s presence and walked into the streets, I was no longer intimidated by the buildings. In Manhattan you always walk in a canyon, like a tiny living entity. The buildings make you sad; they imprison you, they overwhelm you and crush your spirit. They block out the sun and the air. They keep within them millions of unhappy lives, packed in apartments with stored-up anger and violence. But after being with Prabhupada and walking toward my apartment, I could overcome the buildings. They looked unsubstantial, as if you could go right through them. This was a bit like Hayagriva’s remark, which was quoted in the East Village Other: “By chanting Hare Krishna everything looks beautiful on the Lower East Side. Even the creeps.”
Each of us was experiencing new feelings of sufficiency in Krishna consciousness. We had all been crushed by living in the city, and Prabhupada was pulling us out.
May 10, 2016
Swamiji Defeats Mayavadi Annihilation
We were in Swamiji’s room discussing an article that appeared in the New York Times. Brahmananda brought it into Swamiji, and I was also present. The Times writer was discussing Hinduism, and he used the phrase, “The frightening goal of annihilation.” When Prabhupada heard this, he said this was misinformation. Then he began to dictate a letter, which Brahmananda wrote down, to be sent to the New York Times.
The Times writer thought that the goal of Hinduism was an impersonal experience of merging into the void of Brahman. It was frightening for him to think that one would lose one’s individuality. Swamiji quoted from the Bhagavad-gita 2.11, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you nor all these kings, nor in the future shall we ever cease to exist.” He asserted that the goal of “Hinduism” was not impersonalism but Krishna consciousness.
I was hearing it for the first time and I was impressed. I did not exactly know what the New York Times reporter meant, or what Prabhupada was saying, but it began to dawn on me. I agreed with the Times writer that merging was a frightening idea. You would practice some meditation and it would be very dangerous, because all of a sudden you would lose yourself. The Hindu philosophy was therefore very dangerous, because if it was followed, it could lead to everyone’s annihilation!
But Swamiji said that the impersonal merging was a misrepresentation of Hindu philosophy. I was surprised to learn that a respectable writer for the New York Times had given misinformation about Hinduism. The true information was right there in the Bhagavad-gita: we do not get annihilated; we are eternal.
I was not yet a devotee; I was outside this controversy, observing it. But when I heard Swamiji’s correction, I wanted to tell other people how he understood it. I liked what he said. It was authoritative. It was also very agreeable, compared with the frightening annihilation.
Srila Prabhupada was disturbed that the Times had printed such a wrong statement, and so he wrote them a letter. Brahmananda and I could see that Swamiji really wanted to combat ignorance, even if it appeared in high places. It seemed like a hopeless struggle for Swamiji to expect to wipe out all the ignorance in the world. He did not have any government power behind him, and although he was speaking the truth from the Bhagavad-gita, his letter would probably not be published by the New York Times. But at least two persons heard and felt themselves freed from ignorance and annihilation.
May 11, 2016
Keeping a One-Two-Three Kirtana Beat
People came to the storefront seeking consciousness expansion, which they had been getting on LSD, and Srila Prabhupada promised that they would find it without drugs, by chanting. Prabhupada taught the rhythm, one-two-three, one-two-three. When he gave some of the hippies the karatalas, they wanted to play their own beats. But Prabhupada stopped them and said, “No! Keep this beat: one-two-three.” Although we did not accept him in the beginning as our spiritual master, he insisted that we keep this beat, and so we agreed. He asserted his authority on the beat of the mantras; if you wanted to stay in the storefront and participate, you had to do it his way or confront him. But aside from the one-two-three beat, Prabhupada was very lenient and allowed all kinds of musical instruments to be played. Even piano innards were brought inside and strummed.
The people in the storefront would leave after the kirtana. Maybe only half would stay for the lecture. On a good night there might be many people, and after the kirtana half would leave.
May 12, 2016
A kaleidoscope is a tube-shaped optical instrument that you rotate to produce symmetrical designs by means of mirrors that constantly change patterns made by bits of colored glass. Memories of being with Prabhupada sometimes appear like that. This seems to especially happen when you travel a lot, because you tend to shake up your identity and your consciousness. It is different than when staying in the same place and following the same routine.
But a kaleidoscope is abstract. When you look into it, you do not see a meadow and cows; you see all the fragments of light, diamonds, and swirls and chips and sparks. When you shake it up again, hold it to the light and look in – there is another beautiful combination of fragmented colors. Similarly, I tend to get a jumble of images when I shake my “1966 kaleidoscope.”
A little flash of the movie, Happiness at Second Avenue – Prabhupada playing the drum there … the artificial colors of that film. You see yourself also with shaved head. Everyone looks young, but not so pretty or handsome. It is realism, or maybe the nature of the film that makes you look a little funny. There you are, and there is Swamiji playing the drum, reaching forward to get his karatalas.
When you look into the kaleidoscope, you see a lot of memory reels. You can look at them if you want. It is not an actual memory but a memory can that contains facsimile messages. It is something like that TV film, Happiness on Second Avenue, but this is your own film …
Here is a reel of going into Swamiji’s worship room. You go in there, sit down, and Swamiji sits down. He puts on his tilaka and you put on your tilaka … Say it tenderly and lovingly, even if it is “just words.” The scriptures are also words. Vaisnavas do not say that words are inadequate. Even if they cannot completely capture something, words do a service. So have a respect for them. Have a respect for the words in the memories of Prabhupada. And accept what you see in the kaleidoscope.
The floor of the storefront … Prabhupada playing the drum … I am being lifted out of the tragedy I was in. I am wearing an aquamarine shirt, which I later cut up and made into a beadbag. With him we could sit on the floor with our shirts of the past, our minds becoming cleansed by the cosmic sounds he described as “transcendental sound vibration,” delivering the mind from all that Lower East Side stuff and all the hurt of our previous lives …
We had grown up and broken away from our parents, got out of our country’s conformity and the US Navy and all that, but the new freedom couldn’t deliver us either. The new jazz couldn’t deliver us. We were still homeless, unhappy. But Swamiji was delivering us with the cleansing, cosmic vibration we barely understood. All we knew was that it was Krishna, and Krishna was far out, and you could sing with Swami leading on the drum, Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare. Leave everything else behind.
Is it fiction or magic to think that we can go back? No, it is the truth, and yet it is not just mere newspaper reporting. The past cannot be spoken of, except by metaphors, just as Krishna’s lila can only be described by the metaphors of Rupa Gosvami …
And so we are sitting on the floor and Swamiji is above us. We are leaning toward him, taking from him and giving back our voices in chant, and being delivered, getting high and becoming devotees under his care. His permissible, liberal, fatherly, motherly care.
Do not be afraid to say it again – how he walked across the floor with his bare feet. Wherever you go, tell them that Prabhupada said, “Eat more! Eat more!” and how you ate more than you ever did. Rejoice in your association with Prabhupada; tell everyone about his glories and don’t be contaminated by anyone who doesn’t appreciate what he did. Rejoice in the memory from the floor where you sit as you chant Hare Krishna.
May 13, 2016
Worshiping Memories of Swamiji
In our own little way, we are worshiping the hours and minutes when we were with Srila Prabhupada. One way to worship sacred time is to ask it, “Please come forward so that we may praise you with words and tell the world what it was like. Kindly come forward and reveal yourself, minutes and hours in which I was with Prabhupada.”
Almost as soon as I began seeing Srila Prabhupada, I also began fondly remembering him and what he said. After attending his morning class at 26 Second Avenue, I would walk east one block to First Avenue and then walk north to the Fifth Street Welfare Office. Just before Fifth Street was a very big apartment building where I used to stand in the entranceway under a roof and “kill time” before going in to punch the clock. I remember standing there and reviewing some of the philosophy that Prabhupada had spoken. He had said that any activity, if coated with bhakti, becomes a type of yoga. When fruitive activities are coated with bhakti, they become karma-yoga. Philosophical speculation coated with bhakti becomes jñāna-yoga, and pure devotional service activities are bhakti-yoga. What a wonderful philosophy!
May 14, 2016
Worship the Moments Spent with Swamiji
I worship the moments spent with Swamiji in his apartment. On one particularly quiet night, I was the only one with him. The front doorbell rang and I went down to see who it was. It was Donald, a pudgy, bespectacled young man from uptown. He was probably the only non-hippie coming to the storefront at that time. He was a junior executive with the Pepsi-Cola company and he usually dressed in shirt and tie. When I met him at the door, he asked if he could come up to see the Swami. I replied, “He’s alone tonight, so let me see if it is all right.” I went back upstairs and said, “It is someone who wants to see you.”
Prabhupada asked, “What is he like?” I told Prabhupada that Donald appeared very respectable; he was not a crazy person. When Prabhupada heard that, he gladly gave his permission and I went down to let Donald in. He came upstairs, took off his stylish raincoat, and went in to sit down with Swamiji in his room. I stayed in the other room where I had some typing to do. But I overheard Donald asking academic questions about the position of Lord Siva in relationship with Krishna. Donald later got initiated and was given the name Dvarakadhisa, but within a few years he had stopped coming to the temple.
Remembering and worshiping the minutes may be done by offerings of flowers, just as we do in arati. But I also have the feeling of shooting into the past like a sportsman hitting targets with a bow and arrow. The targets are waiting, all the minutes and hours of the past.
Inevitably, we turn toward memories that we’ve enjoyed many times. But that doesn’t make them less important or less worshipable. If we remember a favorite moment once again, it may bring out new lights.
May 15, 2016
The First Time I Bowed Down
One time, my supervisor, Mr. Rice, shouted over in my direction, “Mr. Guarino, you are gonna have to complete the Garcia case so that she can get a check this afternoon. I want you to stay in the office and do it, so don’t go out to lunch until one. Is that all right?” It was not all right, but what could I say? So I went to the hallway phone booth and dialled the Swami’s number. The thing I was most attached to in the world was going every day at noon to have lunch with the Swami and the boys. So Mr. Rice’s command drove me to the radical move of phoning up the Swami. This was in the early days, before I was initiated.
I heard the phone ring and the Swami answered, “Hello?”
I said, “Swamiji, this is Steve. Do you remember me?”
Swamiji said yes, he remembered me.
I said, “I won’t be able to come today at noon for lunch because I have to stay in the office and work. But I’ll come over at one o’clock. Could you ask the devotees to please save some prasadam for me?”
“Yes,” said Prabhupada. He made it sound like it was not a problem. As I hung up, I was very pleased that I had made the phone call. Nowadays, it doesn’t seem like the proper way to treat Prabhupada, and in the later years of ISKCON with Prabhupada there was no question of doing such a thing. First of all, you wouldn’t be able to reach Prabhupada by phone; you would reach his secretary. But in those days it was right, and it was nice. It was a way to surrender and develop friendship. I very much wanted to go and be with him and eat his prasadam.
It turned out to be a better treat than usual, because by the time I got there all the boys were gone. Swamiji was there and the rug was still rolled back. The office had been demanding – so much bureaucracy and talk and nonsense, and now I had only one hour left before I had to plunge back into it. I came to take shelter with the Swami.
He told me to sit down, and so I waited alone in the room. He made up the plate and then came in and put it before me on the floor. I said, “Thank you,” and I bowed down before him.
He said, “Yes.”
Nowadays we bow down so many times, but this was the first time that I bowed down. When I had met Swamiji at the door I did not bow down, and neither did I bow down to him in the temple. When he saw this boy finally bowing down, it pleased him and he said, “Yes.” I knew it was a significant step forward. Although now I bow down hundreds of times, I wonder if I’m actually surrendering and worshiping. But that time I overcame my pride and really did it, bowed down before the rice, dal and capātīs, and especially at the bare, lotus feet of Srila Prabhupada.
May 16, 2016
Magnanimity of the Maha Bhagavata
Sometimes he’s lecturing and he says, “Yes, come in, sit down.” That would be for a hippie who was deciding whether to come into the storefront or not, and who would look like he was eligible for sitting down and hearing Bhagavad-gita if he really wanted. He might be on an LSD trip or just not wanting to actually become part of the group, and yet he wanted to check it out – so Prabhupada invited him to step over the barrier and actually become a listener. He might invite him to sit down, but they did not always want to come under the Swami’s control, even to take a seat when he asked them.
The Swami was fearless. He was convinced that his message was relevant and had to be spoken. It was his show, he was in control, but he had to protect himself, especially in the beginning. It is not that the devotees were completely ready to be on his side, so he had to control the whole thing and say, “Don’t disturb, don’t disturb.” He depended on Krishna and went on speaking the difficult-to-understand philosophy – concepts of Bhagavad-gita and the assertion that Krishna is God. He just went right ahead without watering it down in the least.
You couldn’t understand it all, but you stayed and listened to him. You caught a word here and there, Caitanya, Krishna; missed a word here and there. I can recall thinking that I did not understand very much of it.
May 17, 2016
Hanging Out at 26 Second Avenue
We’re in the storefront and there are noises on the street, but we’re sitting and listening to the Swami. We like to chant; we like the ringing of the karatalas. Everybody chants together: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare. (Whoever heard of such a thing? – That you chant with a one, two, three beat and with brass cymbals? You never read about chanting in any book about Vedanta or Bhagavad-gita or yoga. It was far out.) The cymbals ring loudly, and the door is open and he’s singing.
When the chanting was going on and the karatalas were ringing, that would be more likely to attract passers-by to look in. But it was a time when they really couldn’t disturb because the chanting was so dominant. Their shouts and their remarks couldn’t overcome the chanting.
The Swami was more vulnerable when the whole audience was quiet and he was lecturing. But when there was kirtana, it was as if he had the upper hand. And yet more people did gather to look in at that time, and that was part of the adventure of going there. When you chant you are more on the Swamiji’s side, you are not just observing, but you are part of the kirtana – you were what people were looking in at. Yet you did it because you wanted to experience the kirtana, never mind noises from the street.
May 18, 2016
Evoking Memories of 1966
There is a famous example in the novel Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. Proust eats a little piece of pastry, a petite madeleine, and as he mixed it with tea and it softened in his mouth, the scent of it and the taste of it suddenly threw him back many years to his childhood.
Maybe we can do things like that, by hearing the noises on the street and remembering how it was during those 1966 lectures:
I’m in my spot hearing him speak. A little afraid when hoodlums or teenagers out there make noises, but we’re not going to give up our places. I hope it doesn’t get into some big scene, but that they will go away so we can continue to hear the Swami. When someone comes and makes noises at the doorway, you can get a flash of how it looks to outsiders. They see you are just some hippies with this strange Indian man. The whole thing seems weird to them and they can’t figure it out. They just can’t figure it out. The Swami is obviously an Indian, so why is he with these young American hippies? They are street-tough, street-wise; they know American hippies well enough, but they don’t know the Swami.
When we were in the storefront and someone would look in or play their music from the radio and say, “Hey, what the hell is this?” Or just, “Hey!” – you sat there and absorbed it and they would usually go away. But one intruder after another would come; sometimes for a large part of the lecture there would be disturbing sounds. The thing is, Swamiji kept the door open. If he had shut the door, it might have been better, but he wanted people to feel free to come in. Maybe it was better that way. Maybe there would have been more disturbances if they hadn’t been able to look in and check it out and say something. If the door was shut, they might have been more frustrated. But for whatever reason, he kept it open.
May 19, 2016
Prabhupada’s Gift of Intimacy
Aside from age and cultural distances, there is always a distance between two persons until they get to know each other. In the beginning, you try to see whether you will be able to be intimate with another person. Prabhupada was able to establish intimacy with hundreds of persons. He did not merely give us lessons in perfection delivered from a mountaintop. Rather, his physical association was always nearby. The awkwardness of not trusting him soon changed, and he also reached forward and pulled us toward him in a spiritual relationship.
Srila Prabhupada removed the awkwardness by convincing us that we did not belong to a different religion than he. He referred to the transcendental level at which all things come together. He used to say, “No one should object and say that they can’t chant Hare Krishna because it is a foreign name and it is not one’s own religion. This is transcendental sound vibration. We are all spirit souls, part and parcels of Krishna.” In this way, he established spiritual intimacy.
Prabhupada taught that all souls have an intimacy with Krishna and any feelings we had of alienation were not based on fact. They were illusion, based on false designation. Thus he gave a new consciousness and a new way to see reality.
As for Srila Prabhupada’s own unfamiliarity with Western culture, it was a feature that simply made him more dear to us. One time a devotee told Prabhupada that he might get fired from his job. Prabhupada was astonished and said, “Fired? They would fire on you?” Prabhupada thought the devotee would be fired with a gun. The devotee replied, “Oh no, Prabhupada! Fired just means they would release me from the job.” We would all laugh together about his not knowing these words. We did not expect him to know such things, but neither did we think of him as a “foreigner.”
Prabhupada knew the transcendental world, the real home. To be unaware of the material world was just another sign of his detachment. We did not expect that eventually he would educate himself in such things. He was not interested. They were all in the category of ignorance and passion.
May 20, 2016
Swamiji Gave Us Confidence
There were many potentially awkward moments for Srila Prabhupada as he began conducting his movement in America in 1966. We rejoice now in recalling how he was so tolerant. While Prabhupada had some control over events within the storefront, it was more uncontrolled when we went to chant outside in Tompkins Square Park. When someone joined your kirtana by blowing loudly on a saxophone, it was not easy to tell him to go away. But Prabhupada always seemed to know best how to get through such situations.
Prabhupada’s chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra was a particularly effective way to smooth over awkward gaps between himself and the younger generation. He just recommended that people chant Hare Krishna “wherever you go, and whatever you do.”
Although Prabhupada was worlds apart from the young people in America, the younger generation accepted him as “cool”; he was hip in his own way. He was not a middle-class conformist, and he had not come to give us Boy Scout lessons. He was not a church minister giving sermons with a piety that we could not relate to.
May 21, 2016
Images of His Divine Grace
Two of my favorite pictures from my “wallet”:
one shows Prabhupada
standing beside the birdbath
in the courtyard at 26 Second Avenue.
He is stout and strong, wrapped in big swathes
of khadi cloth. It’s a formal pose,
with japa-mala, from the early years
of strong health when Swamiji
played the drum 3 hours in the park.
You can worship his feet in gray shoes.
The other photo is also formal:
Prabhupada sitting with his 3 Bhagavatams,
with japa-mala, much cloth wrapped around,
and an almost sad, compassionate gaze.
I’ve shown two photos from my wallet.
And I wish to show 30 million more …
May 22, 2016
The Unthinkable – “What If?…”
Prabhupada struggled to leave India for America. It is a poignant drama: the preparation, the delay, the difficulties he had to undergo. What if something had happened to prevent him coming to us? Or as Prabhupada always pointed out, no one expected such an old man to embark on such an enterprise. Everyone retires at that age. Krishna and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura could have been sufficiently pleased by the path Prabhupada had already chosen, renouncing family and social life for the full-time service of Krishna. And yet if Prabhupada hadn’t come, what would have become of us?
He wrote and struggled to get donations to publish Back to Godhead in Delhi. Then he chose to reside in a little room in the Vamsi-Gopala temple in Vrndavana. Then he immerses himself in pure devotional service in the holy dhama in the Radha-Damodara Temple. But he thought, “Why shouldn’t people all over the world have the peace they are actually hankering for?” He rarely received visitors, but stayed alone writing. He walked to visit the temples in the evening.
May 23, 2016
A First Taste of Ecstasy
In the very beginning I wasn’t completely overwhelmed by Bhagavad-gita classes by the Swami, but soon they took over my life. When I wasn’t there I was thinking about them, doing the chanting, and trying to read his book. Other things started to lose importance. It was like a magnet, heading for that storefront. In the beginning, I would do other things sometimes. One night after a delicious time at the storefront chanting and singing and getting into the atmosphere of the Swami, I left the storefront and got a pizza and a coke and thought that was also delicious. It was like a part of the same thing, to have a pizza and a coke sitting at the counter in a racy Puerto Rican neighbourhood, gobbling down a pizza in the summer and thinking, “Krishna! Krishna and everything.”
I didn’t have the whole thing together because there weren’t any rules and regulations. It wasn’t like nowadays. (If I did something like that in the later stages of knowing Prabhupada, I would think, “Boy, I was just at the temple and now I’m in maya.”) In the beginning, we had no idea what was right or wrong. It was just great to be chanting Hare Krishna. The more association I got with Swamiji, the more it got me to thinking about all those things I had done before meeting him – eating pizza, playing a jazz record … Bit by bit, Swamiji indicated that all those things should be replaced. No, I shouldn’t eat pizza, I shouldn’t drink coke, I shouldn’t listen to jazz. I shouldn’t even listen to Ravi Shankar. Those things were sense gratification. To love Krishna, I couldn’t have any sense gratification. There were right ways to do things. We innocently took to his instructions. We wanted to do what he said: “Okay, no sense gratification.”
Then I decided that there was no way to make such a transformation while living on Suffolk Street, so I moved to a new apartment. It was like a new life. A new sleeping bag (I left behind the bed, all the records, the cats, the marijuana, the LSD.) I moved in and painted the walls white, chained my typewriter to the radiator, remembered to bring my work clothes. No sense gratification. Early in the day I would make my own capātīs like crackers and put slices of tomato on them and then cover them over with a dish. Then later I would return to my own Hare Krishna lunch of a crisp capātī and slice of tomato. At night, some milk. Life was good.
May 24, 2016
The Krishna-ized Storefront
Swamiji is a bold performer. He is expert at creating excitement. His foreignness is charismatic – his golden complexion, his yellow tilaka, his shining teeth, lips and eyes, delicate fingers. Nothing showy. Our attraction is natural. He is plain and yet scintillating. His paraphernalia: a pocket watch put up so that he can see the time as he speaks, a glass of water (because he usually starts to cough), the nearby sink for throwing apple cores at the end of the evening, the noiseless tape recorder moving from reel to reel, his dhoti and khadi cadar wrapped around his shoulders. He gives a few directions to his followers: “Bring this light here. Is this tape recorder working? Where’s the book?”
He lectures – India, that far-away place – Swamiji’s India, which he says is spiritual and eternal – sages, yogis, pure devotees. We are simply listening. Hearing about India in New York. “Why are you going to India? India has come to you.”
People look in the big storefront window. Swami holds the audience as people stop and read the sign in the window.
A fragile, little, transcendental light within the dark world of New York City, the dark world of the universe in Kali-yuga. That storefront with its slightly tilting floorboards; ragged, Oriental-style rug; posters of Panca-tattva, Hanuman, Sadbhuja and the circular Radha-Krishna over Swamiji’s head – that storefront is dear to Krishna. It is compact. Krishna conscious. Everything is here in a small storefront on the Lower East Side.
I was there.
May 25, 2016
26 Second Avenue Kaleidoscope
All glories to that 1966 kirtana which is still going on and is available any time. I think that those kirtanas were very special because of the degree of reciprocation and attention and focus. Back and forward he chants and we hear. We chant and he hears. The holy name is merciful. Pay attention and hear. It is a transcendental sound vibration. Try it, there is no tax.
Swami pounds the drum. He sings in almost relentless delivery, again and again giving the mantra as if he could go on forever, except the time and place don’t allow. We sing back to him. He is patient and convinced. “Just hear.” He knows we will take to it if we can only hear it. He has no doubt. The heart of everything is right there even now, even in the beginning, even in 1966 – the books, Gaudiya Vaisnavism, India, the sacred Yamuna, Radha-Krishna Deities, Sanskrit … Everything is here, present in the sound vibration of the holy name and in his own presence.
Remembering early times in New York is nice because it gives us an idea of what Krishna consciousness always is and what it should be today – the excitement and ecstasy to get together and chant. When the rhythm starts to build, the many karatalas sound like waves. It’s a crashing surf of happy emotions.
May 26, 2016
It was a sign of Swamiji’s genius to bring together simple instruments that everyone could play. Just as in a kindergarten music class not a single instrument requires one to be a musician – there are blocks, triangles, cymbals, a drum, clackers – so was Swamiji’s genius to bring together all those instruments and hand them out to the children to play. The only instruction was, “one-two-three, one-two-three.”
The naked light, the back bars on the window behind the Swami. Some girls from the Lower East Side coming in with motivations other than to participate in Hare Krishna. New brahmacaris, protective of our celibacy … guys with big, bushy beards reminding us of what we used to be.
Each in our own small space, a box within a box. In a small room with a lot of people, we have to manoeuvre while dancing and moving around. There’s room for everyone. Shoes in the back, smelly. Back to Godhead with many concentric circles on the cover – stencilled, mimeographed copies. A hand-cranked mimeograph machine in one corner. Gargamuni with long hair parted in the middle, looking wistful with his double strand of red japa beads wrapped around his neck. And Swamiji in the center of it all, his pointy white shoes at the door where he left them when he came in.
May 27, 2016
After a 1966 lecture in the storefront, Prabhupada sometimes asked for questions from the audience. When he felt he had answered enough, he said, “All right.” Sometimes he said it with resignation, almost sadness. He seemed to mean, “All right, I’ve tried my best.” Sometimes after answering many questions, Prabhupada’s utterance of “all right” sounded disgusted. He had just given a wonderful parampara speech, and yet people were raising their hands and asking challenging, doubtful, or crazy questions. He looked out at the audience before him, sensing that they were not asking intelligent questions. “All right,” he would say, “let us have kirtana.”
Swamiji sharing an apple with us as the last act of the evening at 26 Second Avenue; when he said, “All right,” it meant we had to leave. It was sad. Although we had just had such a nice meeting, it had to end, just like everything else in the material world. In that sense, “all right” presented a challenge to those souls who wanted to return to their maya in Manhattan.
May 28, 2016
Even a Paragraph, A Sentence, A Word
We want to remember what Prabhupada has written and repeat it to audiences wherever we go. His teachings are memorable truths. Other writers may dazzle us with their presentations, but we don’t want to memorize them. Their so-called truths are not worth repeating. Srila Prabhupada’s writing is powerful truth, and because it is powerful, he can utter it with calmness, restraint, and simplicity. Srila Prabhupada himself is a modest person, but he carries the mantle of the pure devotee of Krishna.
Even one paragraph of Srila Prabhupada’s writing is worth studying and restudying. Often just a small section of a paragraph will expose the complicated waste and misuse of energy that the non-devotees engage in. His writing cannot be read with complacency if one wants to get the full effect of his preaching. Srila Prabhupada is too dynamic a writer to read him in a casual way:
The material scientists – the quasi-priests who invoke such material activities – invent many objects to gratify the material senses, including the eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue, and ultimately the mind, and in this way the scientists create a field of unnecessary competition for enhancement of material happiness, which leads the whole world into the whirlpool of uncalled-for clashes. The net result is scarcity all over the world, so much so that even the bare necessities of life, namely, food, shelter and clothing, become objects of contention and control. And so there arise all sorts of obstacles to the traditional, God-given life of plain living and high thinking.
– Message of Godhead, p. 39
If we take the time to read with submissive aural reception, we will find gems like this studded throughout Prabhupada’s pages. Prabhupada is solid and brilliant at every step. He never slows down – he is always faithfully repeating Krishna’s message with heartfelt conviction. If we fail to get nourishment from Prabhupada’s writing, we can understand that we are lacking. One way to remedy this is to slow down when we read – take each sentence by itself, then look at it in context. For his disciples, Prabhupada’s writing is the essence of our lives. It is where we find our link to Krishna and become spiritually revived.
May 29, 2016
Howard Wheeler Meets Swamiji
Howard Wheeler was hurrying from his apartment on Mott Street to a friend’s apartment on Fifth Street, a quiet place where he hoped to find some peace. He walked up Mott Street to Houston, turned left and began to walk east, across Bowery, past the rushing traffic and stumbling derelicts, and toward Second Avenue.
Howard: After crossing Bowery, just before Second Avenue, I saw Swamiji jauntily strolling down the sidewalk, his head held high in the air, his hand in the bead bag. He struck me like a famous actor in a very familiar movie. He seemed ageless. He was wearing the traditional saffron-colored robes of a sannyasi and quaint white shoes with points. Coming down Houston, he looked like the genie that popped out of Aladdin’s lamp.
Howard, age twenty-six, was a tall, large-bodied man with long, dark hair, a profuse beard, and black-framed eyeglasses. He was an instructor in English at Ohio State University and was fresh from a trip to India, where he had been looking for a true guru.
Prabhupada noticed Howard, and they both stopped simultaneously. Howard asked the first question that popped into his mind: “Are you from India?”
Prabhupada smiled. “Oh, yes, and you?”
Howard: I told him no, but that I had just returned from India and was very interested in his country and the Hindu philosophy. He told me he had come from Calcutta and had been in New York almost ten months. His eyes were as fresh and cordial as a child’s, and even standing before the trucks that roared and rumbled their way down Houston Street, he emanated a cool tranquility that was unshakably established in something far beyond the great metropolis that roared around us.
May 30, 2016
The summer evening was warm, and in the storefront the back windows and front door were opened wide. Young men, several of them dressed in black denims and button-down sport shirts with broad, dull stripes, had left their worn sneakers by the front door and were now sitting on the floor. Most of them were from the Lower East Side; no one had to go to great trouble to come here. The little room was barren. No pictures, no furniture, no rug, not even a chair. Only a few plain straw mats. A single bulb hung from the ceiling in the center of the room. It was seven o’clock, and about a dozen people had gathered when the Swami suddenly opened the side door and entered the room.
He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and the saffron cloth that draped his torso left his arms and some of his chest bare. His complexion was smooth golden brown, and as they watched him, his head shaven, his ears long-lobed, and his aspect grave, he seemed like pictures they’d seen of the Buddha in meditation. He was old, yet erect in his posture, fresh and radiant. His forehead was decorated with the yellowish clay markings of the Vaisnavas. Prabhupada recognized big, bearded Howard and smiled. “You have brought your friends?”
“Yes,” Howard answered in his loud, resonant voice.
“Ah, very good.”
May 31, 2016
Prabhupada stepped out of his white shoes, sat down on a thin mat, faced his congregation, and indicated they could all be seated. He distributed several pairs of brass hand cymbals and briefly demonstrated the rhythm: one … two … three. He began playing – a startling, ringing sound. He began singing: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare / Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Now it was the audience’s turn. “Chant,” he told them. Some already knew, gradually the others caught on, and after a few rounds, all were chanting together.
Most of these young men and the few young women present had at one time or another embarked on the psychedelic voyage in search of a new world of expanded consciousness. Boldly and recklessly, they had entered the turbulent, forbidden waters of LSD, peyote, and magic mushrooms. Heedless of warnings, they had risked everything and done it. Yet there was merit in their valor, their eagerness to find the extra dimensions of the self, to get beyond ordinary existence – even if they didn’t know what the beyond was or whether they would ever return to the comfort of the ordinary. Nonetheless, whatever truth they had found, they remained unfulfilled, and whatever worlds they had reached, these young psychedelic voyagers had always returned to the Lower East Side. Now they were sampling the Hare Krishna mantra.
In their psychedelic ambitions to see the face of God, fantasies and visions of Hindu teachings, and the presumption that “IT” was all impersonal light, Prabhupada had encountered a similar group on the Bowery, and he knew this group wasn’t experiencing the mantra in the proper disciplined reverence and knowledge. But he let them chant in their own way. In time their submission to the spiritual sound, their purification, and their enlightenment and ecstasy in chanting and hearing Hare Krishna would come.