Back to Godhead 1966: Gargamuni Dasa Remembers
April 6, 2003
Gargamuni: The background was very interesting because Prabhupada for some reason, I don’t know why, he made me treasurer. I guess he saw that I had business abilities. I used to keep my little office, which consisted of cashier’s books and vouchers, and I used to keep my little office in his room where he lived and translated. So while he was working, he would want me to sit there and do my accounting work. And if I had any questions I should ask him because it was very important that as the institution grew, which in those days wasn’t very much, he wanted everything to the penny accounted for. Even when he would go on the subway or on a bus, he would ask me for twenty-five cents and reluctantly I would have him sign a voucher. But he would say, “Very good,” because that was important, and he would sign “ACB.” This is at 26 Second Avenue, 1966. Of course, I would do this work. But then I felt that Prabhupada was doing more for us than we were doing for him, especially myself, because me and Brahmananda moved right into the temple. Of course, Brahmananda had a job, but I was hanging around all day and I wanted to do stuff. And I didn’t really want to do typing like Striyadisa and some of the nuts were doing because then that would put me in the category of nuts.
Jayadvaita Swami: The nuts were doing the typing?
Gargamuni: They were doing the typing because Satsvarupa had a job, he couldn’t type. Hayagriva would do some typing, but generally it was Striyadisa and anybody else who was around the temple to do the typing.
These were people who were more lost but saw hope in Prabhupada, and Prabhupada was very kind upon them and didn’t discriminate against them at all. And there were the crazies like Striyadisa, who was a mental case. But Prabhupada was so merciful with him also, gave him lots of chapatis and always telling him to get up and dance. He was always the first one to dance, and dance in that Lord Caitanya style in a circle. We used to dance in a circle in front of Prabhupada, and he used to watch us dancing. And so those first…Prabhupada was merciful upon us all.
Then later on, Prabhupada wanted to start the Back to Godhead. That was the next thing.
I used to get this paper, where old things were for sale. It was only three or four pages long, and I remember on the back of it it said “A.B. Dick Machines.” I had looked at other places, but they were so small they were no good. But this looked like they were big machines, two of them. They wanted $150 each, that’s it. Prabhupada ended up paying two for $150. So we all went out there. It was on Long Island someplace. We looked at them. Of course, they looked like they were from the forties. They were real old with the big huge drums, but it was perfect for what we needed to print a magazine. They were big enough.
Prabhupada was already talking about printing the magazine, he wanted to re-establish it. He was saying, “I had my magazine in India, and now I want to start it here.” He wanted it every two weeks. We had it every two weeks in the beginning, fortnightly. And I think that’s how it was in India, fortnightly. I remember that word because I’d never heard of that word, fortnightly, a real British term. So he wanted it fortnightly.
So we got the machines, and Prabhupada paid half [price]. We had to clean them up because they were full of oil and so bad. I had to get new pads for the drums, and we got the stencils. And Rayarama, he did the stencil typing on Hayagriva’s big typewriter. That was the best typewriter, that big white one. I think it was white or tan. Neal used to use that also. That was the only nice typewriter. Brahmananda had given Prabhupada the typewriter he used to use while he was typing, but that was like a portable. That wasn’t sufficient for doing the stencils. So I remember Rayarama would type the stencils, and then I would…
I had a helper, Rancor, also. He used to help in the beginning, but then he went with Prabhupada to be his servant to San Francisco in January of ’67.
The machines were set up in the back of the temple. That temple was very small, and to fit them … there was like an alcove as you walked in. I had them against the wall there where you put your shoes. So even when they weren’t used, I used to put them up against the wall and people would leave their shoes right around there and throw their coats on top of them when they weren’t used. It became a place for the coats because we had no coat hangers in those days, and then I would pull them out so that we could use them.
The hardest part was to print on both machines at one time, because then you could do two pages at a time. And I had to coordinate it because those things would always go… Sometimes they’d be flipping out the pages on one or they get jammed on another because the machines were old, and your hands got all dirty and everything. So finally it was quite a trick to get them to work properly.
The first Back to Godhead was printed on legal paper cut in half so we could print two. We’d get two copies, but Prabhupada didn’t like that. He wanted a full page Back to Godhead. So the first one, of course, was that half legal page. It was a legal size, but we could fit two if we cut it in half. It was our way of saving money, but Prabhupada didn’t like it. He wanted the eight-and-a-half by eleven.
So starting with issue two, it became eight-and-a-half by eleven. And Hayagriva, he did articles. Rayarama, he did most of the editing and setup. He was the main editor. He was writing comic book strips for big name companies, and he would make money. That’s how he paid his rent. He had a way of writing. I used to go to his house and read these scripts. I said, “Wow!” He would get into it and create stories in his brain, and he’d get paid for that. So he was very unique in that way, and he was very good with words. He was also a very good speaker. I always enjoyed his lectures. Next to Prabhupada, he was my best speaker. Because he would explain it so simply and so nicely, and he had a very angelic look. He looked to me like Jesus. And there’s some photos with his eyes up and dancing, and he looked very angelic. Of all the devotees there, I respected him the most.
So all of them were to me literary giants. They knew editing. They all engaged in either writing for Back to Godhead or editing it, Hayagriva and Rayarama, and then later on Satsvarupa. Satsvarupa didn’t have much time, but then he started to pull back on his job. And then I think he became…his job was to interview people to get welfare, and his job became more simplified so he could give more time. Then he also started working at night.
So Back to Godhead was going on. One thing that I remember is that sometimes in the afternoons when nobody was around I’d be printing. I was the only one in the temple. Prabhupada would come down with his beads chanting, and he would sit on the bench and watch me printing. But if you remember, the benches were alongside the opposite wall, so my back then was towards Prabhupada. So I felt very embarrassed that I had to turn my back, and Prabhupada was watching me print the magazine. But Prabhupada, I remember I used to watch his leg, and he would keep beat to the machines and he’d be chanting. So it’s like he was chanting to the beat of the machines because I see his leg going like this. It was like he was following…he was watching and hearing those machines and how I stacked them up page by page.
In a Back to Godhead we’d have twenty to thirty pages in those days, which means if we printed 500 copies, which was the normal run, we’d print 500 copies, I’d have to spread out twenty to thirty pages of 500 copies. When it was all printed, then I would have to collate them by hand and then stack them up and then put on the cover, which was a color offset. We’d use every month or every two weeks, every month, a different color – yellow, green, blue, like that – to show that it was a different issue. Then we’d have the cover offsetted, and then Rayarama would make a special stencil to print on top of that. And then we would print something special on the mimeograph…on the stencil, what articles were inside and what the date was, the date of the magazine. So, therefore, we could keep using the… We only had four colors – yellow, green, and blue, and used them every other…so we’d have different color issues. I can remember the first one was blue, the second was yellow, and the third was green. Then we went back again to blue, yellow, and green.
The third issue, that was the best issue. We printed a thousand. It was Allen Ginsberg, and he was also speaking at the East Fillmore. So I used to go in front.
So first I would collate them, staple them, and then the very first copy I would do, I’d run up to Prabhupada and say, “Here’s the first copy.” And Prabhupada would smile and say, “Very good.” I’d say, “Well, tonight, Prabhupada, I’m going to go out…” I was excited because I wanted to go out and sell them. There was nobody else to sell them anyway, so I used to also go out then and sell them.
I would go to the East Fillmore and say, “Get your program, get your program.” People would line up for tickets, and they would take them for fifteen cents. We sold them for fifteen cents. Or I would go to the Washington Square Park. I would go wherever there was groups of people. So not only was I the first printer, I was the first Back to Godhead seller. And then the next morning Prabhupada would ask me, “So how many?” I’d say, “I sold fifty” or “twenty.” He said, “Oh, very good.” So then I started also wholesaling them for ten cents to the stores, the hippie shops, and they used to sell them for fifteen cents. They would make five cents. I’d put them next to the Berkeley Barb or the EVO. I put them next to the EVO, and people would buy them. “Back to Godhead” was becoming a local term in the East Village.
We did some really stupid things of trying to interview rock stars. That was Purusottam’s idea, in 1968 or so. We went to the Beach Boys. After that I didn’t want to go because these people weren’t interested, and Purusottam would switch things around to make them look like they were Krishna conscious when they didn’t really give a damn. So that didn’t last. That idea was no good.
But we were trying to present Back to Godhead as mainstream, taking current events of the day and putting Krishna conscious. Hayagriva would do like Krishna consciousness in American poetry and things like that, and Rayarama would try and write articles also. Prabhupada wanted us to write articles, not just him. I remember he would say, “Write your realizations.” I was not a literary person.
I was just a worker and a businessman and made money. So I left the writing up to my godbrothers who were better, the intellectuals, which we had a core of them. There was Satsvarupa, Hayagriva, and Rayarama. They were the core of intellectuals, I would say, of our movement who did the writing. Kirtanananda didn’t do writing in the beginning.
So then we started the first distribution. So printing, distribution.
Then we started to do essays, Krsna, the Reservoir of Pleasure, which was a lecture that Prabhupada did and we transcribed it. It was Prabhupada’s idea to make a book of that. And Who Is Crazy. That’s when he met my mother. He gave a lecture, and then he wanted us to… We did three booklets actually – Who Is Crazy, Krsna the Reservoir of Pleasure, and The Peace Formula, which is the most popular. We used to sell tons of those. It was short, but it was great.
And there was one called Two Essays. Maybe Who Is Crazy was one of those two essays. We combined them into one, Krsna Reservoir and Who Is Crazy.
And then, I didn’t stop there. I had an idea on Saturdays and Sundays of having a book table. Something gave me the idea to walk all the way up…I took the bus up to 45th Street to the garment district. Was that 3rd Avenue? I think 3rd Avenue or maybe 8th Avenue, I don’t know. But they wheel around these big huge things with cloth hanging, and they’re on wheels. These big carts, they were six feet long. I had an idea of stealing one and making a table on top and putting up a back because it had these poles, and putting all of our propaganda and everything on the back, I would staple gun it. Having the table, putting a cloth, and putting all of Prabhupada’s books, which was nothing – Easy Journey to Other Planets, Bhagwatam, and all the magazines and essays. We didn’t have Gita then. And then incense and stuff, and going to Washington Square Park and bringing it there. And then I would bring it back and chain it up to the sign in front of the…you know that sign that’s still there, that No Parking sign because of the hydrant? I would chain it up to that. I painted it blue. Prabhupada called it Krishna’s chariot, and he loved that book table. It lasted a month, and then somebody stole it.
I think it was the Puerto Rican kids, who became a problem as we got bigger because we were competing with them in kirtan. Oh, they would have loud kirtans. On the other side of the gas station, they had their storefront and they would be singing their songs. And then we’d have our songs, so it was like a competition. Anyway, that’s the early days of book distribution.
Like I said, we had a core of intellectuals, and that was, of course, Rayarama, who was doing the main editing because Hayagriva didn’t…he was a schoolteacher. He was an instructor, so he wasn’t always there. He was doing some editing, but he was also writing. He did a lot of essays for Back to Godhead. And then Satsvarupa was limited also because of his job. So I felt that it was Rayarama who was doing all the editing…
Prabhupada would brag at his lectures that “These boys are not simply street boys.” I didn’t understand that too much until I saw this book about Bhaktisiddhanta. And I looked at some of the old photographs, and to me education was a very important thing in Bhaktisiddhanta’s movement. Because most of the people that I saw in those photos looked like adivasis, like village people. Prabhupada…there are some pictures of Prabhupada, he really stood out. And I can understand now when Prabhupada says that “I was Calcutta man, and Guru Maharaja was very pleased with that because that meant education.” Because Prabhupada went to the top schools where all the leaders went, and you could see that in the old photos. And now when I look back, Prabhupada would sometimes brag how we have professors and M.A.s and educated people, that this was very important because generally the educated people aren’t interested in these things, that only the poor people and villagers and sentimentalists and adivasis join. And I saw that…like I saw Bhaktisiddhanta’s sankirtan party. They were all like…only three people had shaved head, and they looked like adivasis. I said, “Wow, this is like village people. No wonder Bhaktisiddhanta was upset that none of the educated people were coming forward.” So Prabhupada was groomed. You could see, he was being groomed to carry on this movement for the educated masses, and so Prabhupada was very indebted to Hayagriva. To me, he was one of the most favorite sons of Prabhupada in this movement because of Hayagriva’s stature.
So it was Karlapati and…nobody knows much about him. I wish we could find out because he has an interesting history. But it seems Prabhupada attracted some very intelligent people in the beginning. Karlapati, Ph.D. Karlapati was a Ph.D. from Harvard, and Prabhupada stayed with him for a short time. He was a meat-eater, though. I think that’s how Prabhupada got introduced to Hari dasa, and then he moved to the loft, that loft on the Bowery, through Karlapati.
There was an inner circle of intellectuals and artists, like beatniks. Later on they became hippies. They transcended themselves into hippies. But before they were beatniks, and they were all educated people. And Prabhupada got…he met these people. So even Kirtanananda, wasn’t he a Wilson Scholar? There’s only two a year, so even that. Very educated people. Prabhupada did not attract the sentimentalists. He attracted educated people.
I must have been 19. That was ’67. 18, 19. So we just got consumed in our work, in our preaching. Do Back to Godhead and maintain the temple and try to carry on. Rayarama did an excellent job of giving the classes, and they would rotate. But even Achyutananda would lecture. People had different… Brahmananda would lecture. But Rayarama would do the morning classes, which were the most important, and then we’d rotate in the evening. Even Dwarakadisa would get a chance to speak because he was a good orator.
Prabhupada’s ultimate aim was to have our own ISKCON Press. That was very important. Then later on when he saw the opportunity to go to Dai Nippon and print hundreds and thousands, which he knew we couldn’t do, he went that way. Prabhupada was very flexible according to the time, place, and circumstance. So after we got the mimeograph, then the next thing was to do offset. That became the big thing in those days, offset printing.
I had shifted to Los Angeles to start the Spiritual Sky. I had started it in New York but I didn’t have facility or space, whereas Tamal gave me space at the La Cienega temple to make as much incense as I wanted, and that helped the temple to get money.
There weren’t any problems with printing, but there was a hell of a problem with binding. We had a problem with the binding machine, nobody could operate it properly. I remember in the West Coast when Prabhupada got the Nectar of Devotion, he opened it up and it cracked right in his hand. And a lot of those chapters of the Bhagavatam also, the pages just flew right out. You could rip them like a pad. So there were problems, and it was a growing up stage of getting rid of those problems. We didn’t have expert men. But from the printing side, everything came out nice. There wasn’t a problem with printing. And even in the color, matching up the colors and stuff, they came out very well. It was just in the binding area, which was always a problem in India.