The Les Crane Show – the first television appearance of Srila Prabhupada in LA
From Back to Godhead
By Mukunda Goswami
The swami arrived in Los Angeles the day before the show and spent the afternoon recuperating from the flight in his apartment on Saturn Street. The following night, we headed down to the studios for our first television appearance. March met us at the door and led us through a warren of corridors to a small room.
“We’re going to start with a warm-up interview so you get used to how the show is run.” She opened the door to a larger room and motioned for us to go in.
There were already two other men sitting at a table inside the room.
“This is Dr. Daniel Morgan,” March said, indicating the older man. “He’s the Campus Crusade for Christ leader here in LA. And this is one of his students, Joseph Shaw. They’ll be going on the show with you.”
“On the show with us?” I thought. No one had said anything to me about that. As the swami and I shook hands with them and introduced ourselves, I realized this wasn’t going to be a simple, amiable interview with Les Crane. It was set up to be a televised confrontation between opposing theological parties. I hadn’t bargained for this.
Enter Les Crane, suave, sophisticated and handsome. He had wavy brown hair, and a reddish brown tan. Over his dark-brown turtleneck he wore a gold pendant, a Hindu Om sign cast in Sanskrit letters. This glistening accoutrement immediately caught my attention and brought some familiarity into the strange environment. Maybe Crane would be on our side in this gladiatorial event.
After formally introducing all of us, the debonair host spent a few minutes with the Christian evangelists asking them questions like “What university do you work with, where do you live, what’s your goal?” Then he pulled up a chair opposite the swami and me.
“So, you are from India?” he asked the swami.
“I was born in Calcutta and came to this country in 1965,” the swami replied.
“You have followers in this country?”
“We have our temples in New York, San Francisco, and now Los Angeles.”
“So what is the chant?” Crane asked. He was being very cordial to us; charisma oozed from his every pore.
Instead of giving a verbal reply, the swami pulled out his karatalas and, smiling all the while, began to sing the Hare Krishna mantra. I was surprised, but Crane appeared charmed and fascinated by this spontaneous performance of the mantra. He nodded his head in time to the tempo; grinning, he looked around the room and, still grinning, he glanced at the other television staff as if to affirm just how entertaining this Swami was. Crane had been buoyant from the start, but the chanting seemed to make him even more favorable.
The swami put down his karatalas after a few minutes and Crane beamed at him.
“That was really something,” he said. “We’re on in fifteen minutes. Follow me into the studio.”
Inside the studio, the lights were bright and the three hundred tiered audience seats already full of chattering spectators, including twenty of the new Los Angeles devotees for whom March had managed to get seats. Crane seated the swami and me in swivel chairs next to the evangelists, Dr. Morgan and Joseph, on a round stage; he then busied himself with the cameramen and technicians. The swami and I sat silently as the flurry went on around us. I felt nervous, but the swami seemed composed.
As he stood, Les Crane shuffled a stack of papers around. “It’s one minute till we’re taping,” he said. He walked over to us and said, “When you see a red light on the camera, it’ll be filming you.”
“OK, let’s get started,” Crane said with a grin to the cameramen. The head technician nodded, and the red lights came on.
“Welcome to The Les Crane Show,” Crane said silkily. “I’m your host, Les Crane.” A blue neon light flashed the word “APPLAUSE”; the audience did. “Tonight I have with me Swami Bhaktivedanta, the leader of the Hare Krishnas, a new spiritual movement which he brought to the United States from India about three years ago. Also with us is Dr. Daniel Morgan, the leader of Campus Crusade for Christ here in LA. Daniel and the swami have also brought along their students, Michael and Joseph.”
As the audience clapped again, Crane stood and walked across the stage toward us, deftly stepping over the cord of the microphone he was carrying.
“Michael, why did you decide to join the Hare Krishna movement?” he asked me.
I was tense enough already without being the first to speak! I opened my mouth without knowing what to say.
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto my spiritual master, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, who is very dear unto Lord Krishna, having taken shelter unto the Supreme Lord.”
“And what is the purpose of that prayer?” Crane asked me.
I knew my opening was unconventional, so I tried to recover my profile in front of the audience. “This is something that we all say before speaking,” I explained. “It’s like a way of paying respect to your teacher and asking his blessing to speak.”
“OK, that’s nice,” Crane said. “So, why did you join the Hare Krishnas?”
“I read some of the books the swami brought over from India, and they convinced me.” I paused, getting ready to talk about the swami’s lectures, but Crane had already moved on.
“What was your religion before?” he asked.
“I was brought up as a conservative Jew, but when I was seventeen, I’d become an agnostic.”
“And what do you do?” Crane asked.
“Well, I’m a musician and I have been doing some importing for the swami,” I said. “I’m trying to help out as much as I can so the swami’s movement can grow and be spread around the world.”
Crane walked toward the swami, once again adroitly avoiding the wires that writhed around the stage like reeds waiting to drag him down.
“And is the movement growing?” he asked the swami.
“Oh, yes,” the swami answered. “I have many students now. They are chanting and feeling very happy.”
“What is your outlook on life?”
“Krishna consciousness means that every living being is part and parcel of Krishna,” the swami said. He spoke so confidently, I thought, completely different to the way I came across.
“What does that mean, I mean, being ‘part and parcel,’ and who is Krishna?” Crane asked.
“Krishna is God,” the swami answered. “He has got many expansions. They are called personal expansions and separated expansions. So we are separated expansion, we are living entities, individuals, but we are part of the Lord. We are very intimately connected with Krishna, but somehow or other we are separated by connection with material nature. Krishna is God.”
“Is there a devil?” Crane asked.
“Practically we have forgotten that we are part and parcel of God. That happens to everyone. Then we become demonic.”
“So anyone can be the devil?” Crane looked a little confused.
“This Krishna consciousness movement means we are trying to realize original consciousness; that we belong to Krishna. In that way we become purified and our devilish tendencies become I mean to say swallowed up.”
“When we were children, we were happy, right?” Crane said.
“The original consciousness is Krishna consciousness, not child consciousness,” the swami answered. “Just like a man born in a wealthy family, he is rich man. But he sometimes forgets his own home, so sometimes he becomes a hippy. So our Vedic literature is meant for reviving our original consciousness.”
Crane nodded at the swami and then redirected his attention toward the Christian evangelists.
“So, Dr. Morgan, what does the Campus Crusade for Christ say about original sin?”
“Everyone has to rid themselves of sin,” the older slightly portly man said, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “Alcohol and narcotics are a problem for many college students.”
“How would you correct these problems?”
“Biblical study and reading is recommended for every college student,” Dr. Morgan said. “We have classrooms in schools all over the country, places where students can study and pray together. And sing.”
“Wow! That’s a lot of classrooms,” Crane said. The audience laughed. “What do you do?” he asked the young evangelist, Joseph.
“I study mathematics at Stanford,” Joseph answered.
“And you’re the leader of the Campus Crusade for Christ at Stanford?”
“That’s right. We have about twenty to fifty people in our group at Stanford, mostly freshmen. We meet three times a week.”
Crane walked over to the swami and, thrusting a microphone at him, asked, “Do you think Jesus Christ can save souls?” “Oh, yes, certainly,” the swami answered. “Why not? He is son of God, isn’t it?” Walking quickly back to Dr. Morgan, Crane asked, “Do you think people can be saved by Krishna consciousness?” “Jesus Christ walked a very narrow path,” he answered. “He said we have to come to the Father through him.” “Are you saying then that people who take the swami’s religious route can’t be saved?” Crane persisted. The CCC leader squirmed and frowned. “No, I didn’t say that,” he said. “It’s just that we have a very narrow path to walk.”
“Do you think someone can get to heaven by following scripture like theirs?” he asked. “The Bahagavad-gita?” He turned and looked over his shoulder at the swami. “Did I say that right?”
The swami smiled and moved his head as if to say “Not really, but it’s not important.”
“Everybody who comes to our prayer meetings feels the presence of Christ and becomes transformed,” the young Christian said. “I can vouch for that. I’ve been there.” They were avoiding a direct answer to the question.
Crane spun around and, still gracefully wielding his microphone, bounced over to the swami.
“Do you think anyone can go to heaven through the Bible?” he asked.
“Yes,” the swami answered immediately. “Any word of God.”
The blue neon light above us came on: “FIVE SECONDS TO COMMERCIAL.”
“We’ll be right back with the swami and the Crusade for Christ,” Crane said. “Don’t go away.”
It seemed like no time since the start of the program, but when I looked at my watch I saw that nearly fifteen minutes had already elapsed since the beginning of the interview. The devotees in the audience were talking excitedly among themselves and smiling at us.
“Your answers were very good,” I said to the swami. “I think he likes you.” The swami looked ahead and nodded. “Let us see,” he said. “Millions of people will see this show.” I was making small talk.
“Yes,” he said. He opened his eyes slightly wider on hearing this but continued to sit silently watching the audience, most of which stared back.
The red camera lights flashed again and we were back on air. After a brief re-introduction, Crane continued where he had left off. “So you approve of the Bible, then?” he asked the swami. The swami nodded. “Of course.”
The host quickly turned and walked up close to Dr. Morgan, shoving the microphone in his face. “But you don’t approve of the Bahagavad-gita. You wouldn’t recommend it as the word of God?”
“No, I wouldn’t,” he said slowly and deliberately. He looked uncomfortable, trapped and unable to handle the situation.
Crane turned to the cameras. “It’s time for our studio audience to ask questions.” A technician in plimsolls and a blue shirt mounted the stage and pointed a microphone on a long, thin stick at the audience. It had a three-foot-long barrel that made it look like a rifle.
A man raised his hand. Crane said, “Yes. Stand up please.”
The man stood. He wore a white broad-brimmed ten-gallon hat and long black braids that descended over his ears through two holes in the hat’s brim. He pointed angrily at the Christian man.
“If your religion is so good, why did you slaughter a million of my people?” he shouted, looking defiant with his arms folded across his chest.
The CCC leader fidgeted and finally said, “I think you’re mistaking US Union Army soldiers for Christians. It wasn’t like that. I think you have gotten some of your facts wrong.”
“I know they were Christians,” the man said. “You can’t say they weren’t. And a lot of people died. A lot of women and children thousands.”
“I’m sorry, but they weren’t followers of the Gospel,” he insisted.
“That’s your apology?” the American Indian scoffed.
“Please sit down and let someone else ask a question,” Crane said, surprised at the man’s outburst.
A lady in a patterned green dress raised her hand.
“Please stand up, ma’am,” Crane requested.
“I want to know, is Krishna God to the swami?” she asked.
“He is our name for God. God has many names. Krishna is one of the many names of God. Chief name.”
“Thank you,” she said, and sat down.
A fat, red-faced man raised his hand. He was wearing jeans and a Hawaiian shirt.
“I want to ask the swami if this is yoga,” he said.
“This is bhakti-yoga,” the swami answered. Krishna says yoginam api sarvesah ‘the best yoga is to meditate on Me.’ This is meditation on the personality of God. You can do this anywhere.”
“OK,” Crane said. “That’s all the time we have tonight. Thank you to all our guests for being on the show with us tonight.”
Mukunda Goswami, one of the first devotees to be initiated by Srila Prabhupada in 1966, pioneered the preaching in England. Currently, he serves as an initiating spiritual master within ISKCON.