January 16: 50th Anniversary of Srila Prabhupada in San Francisco
Only He Could Lead Them: San Francisco / India 1967
“Swami Invites the Hippies”
January 16, 1967
As the United Airlines jet descended on the San Francisco Bay area, Srila Prabhupada turned to his disciple Ranacora and said, “The buildings look like matchboxes. Just imagine how it looks from Krsna’s viewpoint.” Srila Prabhupada was seventy-one years old, and this had been his first air trip. Ranacora, nineteen and dressed in a suit and tie, was supposed to be Srila Prabhupada’s secretary. He was a new disciple but had raised some money and had asked to fly to San Francisco with Prabhupada.
During the trip Srila Prabhupada had spoken little. He had been chanting: “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” His right hand in his cloth bead bag, he had been fingering one bead after another as he chanted silently to himself. When the plane had first risen over New York City, he had looked out the window at the buildings growing smaller and smaller. Then the plane had entered the clouds, which to Prabhupada had appeared like an ocean in the sky. He had been bothered by pressure blocking his ears and had mentioned it; otherwise he hadn’t said much, but had only chanted Krsna’s names over and over. Now, as the plane began its descent, he continued to chant, his voice slightly audible- “Krsna, Krsna, Krsna…”-and he looked out the window at the vista of thousands of matchbox houses and streets stretching in charted patterns in every direction.
When the announcement for United Airlines Flight 21 from New York came over the public-address system, the group of about fifty hippies gathered closer together in anticipation. For a moment they appeared almost apprehensive, unsure of what to expect or what the Swami would be like.
Roger Segal: We were quite an assorted lot, even for the San Francisco airport. Mukunda was wearing a Merlin the Magician robe with paisley squares all around, Sam was wearing a Moroccan sheep robe with a hood-he even smelled like a sheep-and I was wearing a sort of blue homemade Japanese samurai robe with small white dots. Long strings of beads were everywhere. Buckskins, boots, army fatigues, people wearing small, round sunglasses-the whole phantasmagoria of San Francisco at its height.
Only a few people in the crowd knew Swamiji: Mukunda and his wife, Janaki; Ravindra-svarupa; Raya Rama-all from New York. And Allen Ginsberg was there.
(A few days before, Allen had been one of the leaders of the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, where over two hundred thousand had come together-“A Gathering of the Tribes… for a joyful pow-wow and Peace Dance.”) Today Allen was on hand to greet Swami Bhaktivedanta, whom he had met and chanted with several months before on New York’s Lower East Side.
Swamiji would be pleased, Mukunda reminded everyone, if they were all chanting Hare Krsna when he came through the gate. They were already familiar with the Hare Krsna mantra. They had heard about the Swami’s chanting in the park in New York or they had seen the article about Swamiji and the chanting in the local underground paper, The Oracle. Earlier today they had gathered in Golden Gate Park-most of them responding to a flyer Mukunda had distributed-and had chanted there for more than an hour before coming to the airport in a caravan of cars. Now many of them-also in response to Mukunda’s flyer-stood with incense and flowers in their hands. As the disembarking passengers entered the terminal gate and walked up the ramp, they looked in amazement at the reception party of flower-bearing chanters. The chanters, however, gazed past these ordinary, tired-looking travelers, searching for that special person who was supposed to be on the plane. Suddenly, strolling toward them was the Swami, golden-complexioned, dressed in bright saffron robes.
Prabhupada had heard the chanting even before he had entered the terminal, and he had begun to smile. He was happy and surprised. Glancing over the faces, he recognized only a few. Yet here were fifty people receiving him and chanting Hare Krsna without his having said a word!
Mukunda: We just had a look at Swamiji, and then we bowed down-myself, my wife, and the friends I had brought, Sam and Marjorie. And then all of the young men and women there followed suit and all bowed down to Swamiji, just feeling very confident that it was the right and proper thing to do.
The crowd of hippies had formed a line on either side of a narrow passage through which Swamiji would walk. As he passed among his new admirers, dozens of hands stretched out to offer him flowers and incense. He smiled, collecting the offerings in his hands while Ranacora looked on. Allen Ginsberg stepped forward with a large bouquet of flowers, and Srila Prabhupada graciously accepted it. Then Prabhupada began offering the gifts back to all who reached out to receive them. He proceeded through the terminal, the crowd of young people walking beside him, chanting.
At the baggage claim Srila Prabhupada waited for a moment, his eyes taking in everyone around him. Lifting his open palms, he beckoned everyone to chant louder, and the group burst into renewed chanting, with Prabhupada standing in their midst, softly clapping his hands and singing Hare Krsna. Gracefully, he then raised his arms above his head and began to dance, stepping and swaying from side to side.
To the mixed chagrin, amusement, and irresistible joy of the airport workers and passengers, the reception party stayed with Prabhupada until he got his luggage. Then they escorted him outside into the sunlight and into a waiting car, a black 1949 Cadillac Fleetwood. Prabhupada got into the back seat with Mukunda and Allen Ginsberg. Until the moment the car pulled away from the curb, Srila Prabhupada, still smiling, continued handing flowers to all those who had come to welcome him as he brought Krsna consciousness west.
The Cadillac belonged to Harvey Cohen, who almost a year before had allowed Prabhupada to stay in his Bowery loft. Harvey was driving, but because of his chauffeur’s hat (picked up at a Salvation Army store) and his black suit and his beard, Prabhupada didn’t recognize him.
“Where is Harvey?” Prabhupada asked.
“He’s driving,” Mukunda said.
“Oh, is that you? I didn’t recognize you.”
Harvey smiled. “Welcome to San Francisco, Swamiji.”
Srila Prabhupada was happy to be in another big Western city on behalf of his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, and Lord Caitanya. The further west one goes, Lord Caitanya had said, the more materialistic the people. Yet, Lord Caitanya had also said that Krsna consciousness should spread all over the world. Prabhupada’s Godbrothers had often wondered about Lord Caitanya’s statement that one day the name of Krsna would be sung in every town and village. Perhaps that verse should be taken symbolically, they said; otherwise, what could it mean-Krsna in every town? But Srila Prabhupada had deep faith in that statement by Lord Caitanya and in the instruction of his spiritual master. Here he was in the far-Western city of San Francisco, and already people were chanting. They had enthusiastically received him with flowers and kirtana. And all over the world there were other cities much like this one.
The temple Mukunda and his friends had obtained was on Frederick Street in the Haight-Ashbury district. Like the temple at 26 Second Avenue in New York, it was a small storefront with a display window facing the street. A sign over the window read, SRI SRI RADHA KRISHNA TEMPLE. Mukunda and his friends had also rented a three-room apartment for Swamiji on the third floor of the adjoining building. It was a small, bare, run-down apartment facing the street.
Followed by several carloads of devotees and curious seekers, Srila Prabhupada arrived at 518 Frederick Street and entered the storefront, which was decorated only by a few madras cloths on the wall. Taking his seat on a cushion, he led a kirtana and then spoke, inviting everyone to take up Krsna consciousness. After his lecture he left the storefront and walked next door and up the two flights of stairs to his apartment. As he entered his apartment, number 32, he was followed not only by his devotees and admirers but also by reporters from San Francisco’s main newspapers: the Chronicle and the Examiner. While some devotees cooked his lunch and Ranacora unpacked his suitcase, Swamiji talked with the reporters, who sat on the floor, taking notes on their pads.
Reporter: “Downstairs, you said you were inviting everyone to Krsna consciousness. Does that include the Haight-Ashbury Bohemians and beatniks?”
Prabhupada: “Yes, everyone, including you or anybody else, be he or she what is called an “acidhead’ or a hippie or something else. But once he is accepted for training, he becomes something else from what he had been before.”
Reporter: “What does one have to do to become a member of your movement?”
Prabhupada: “There are four prerequisites. I do not allow my students to keep girl friends. I prohibit all kinds of intoxicants, including coffee, tea and cigarettes. I prohibit meat-eating. And I prohibit my students from taking part in gambling.”
Reporter: “Do these shall-not commandments extend to the use of LSD, marijuana, and other narcotics?”
Prabhupada: “I consider LSD to be an intoxicant. I do not allow any one of my students to use that or any intoxicant. I train my students to rise early in the morning, to take a bath early in the day, and to attend prayer meetings three times a day. Our sect is one of austerity. It is the science of God.”
Although Prabhupada had found that reporters generally did not report his philosophy, he took the opportunity to preach Krsna consciousness. Even if the reporters didn’t want to delve into the philosophy, his followers did.
“The big mistake of modern civilization,” Srila Prabhupada continued “is to encroach upon others’ property as though it were one’s own. This creates an unnatural disturbance. God is the ultimate proprietor of everything in the universe. When people know that God is the ultimate proprietor, the best friend of all living entities, and the object of all offerings and sacrifices-then there will be peace.”
The reporters asked him about his background, and he told briefly about his coming from India and beginning in New York.
After the reporters left, Prabhupada continued speaking to the young people in his room. Mukunda, who had allowed his hair and beard to grow but who wore around his neck the strand of large red beads Swamiji had given him at initiation, introduced some of his friends and explained that they were all living together and that they wanted to help Swamiji present Krsna consciousness to the young people of San Francisco. Mukunda’s wife, Janaki, asked Swamiji about his plane ride. He said it had been pleasant except for some pressure in his ears. “The houses looked like matchboxes,” he said, and with his thumb and forefinger he indicated the size of a matchbox.
He leaned back against the wall and took off the garlands he had received that day, until only a beaded necklace-a common, inexpensive item with a small bell on it-remained hanging around his neck. Prabhupada held it, inspected the workmanship, and toyed with it. “This is special,” he said, looking up, “because it was made with devotion.” He continued to pay attention to the necklace, as if receiving it had been one of the most important events of the day.
When his lunch arrived, he distributed some to everyone, and then Ranacora efficiently though tactlessly asked everyone to leave and give the Swami a little time to eat and rest.
Outside the apartment and in the storefront below, the talk was of Swamiji. No one had been disappointed. Everything Mukunda had been telling them about him was true. They particularly enjoyed how he had talked about seeing everything from Krsna’s viewpoint.
That night on television Swamiji’s arrival was covered on the eleven o’clock news, and the next day it appeared in the newspapers. The Examiner’s story was on page two-“Swami Invites the Hippies”-along with a photo of the temple, filled with followers, and some shots of Swamiji, who looked very grave. Prabhupada had Mukunda read the article aloud.
“The lanky “Master of the Faith,'” Mukunda read, “attired in a flowing ankle-long robe and sitting cross-legged on a big mattress-”
Swamiji interrupted, “What is this word lanky?”
Mukunda explained that it meant tall and slender. “I don’t know why they said that,” he added. “Maybe it’s because you sit so straight and tall, so they think that you are very tall.” The article went on to describe many of the airport greeters as being “of the long-haired, bearded and sandaled set.”
San Francisco’s largest paper, the Chronicle, also ran an article: “Swami in Hippie-Land-Holy Man Opens S.F. Temple.” The article began, “A holy man from India, described by his friend and beat poet Allen Ginsberg as one of the more conservative leaders of his faith, launched a kind of evangelistic effort yesterday in the heart of San Francisco’s hippie haven.”
Srila Prabhupada objected to being called conservative. He was indignant: “Conservative? How is that?”
“In respect to sex and drugs,” Mukunda suggested.
“Of course, we are conservative in that sense,” Prabhupada said. “That simply means we are following sastra. We cannot depart from Bhagavad-gita. But conservative we are not. Caitanya Mahaprabhu was so strict that He would not even look on a woman, but we are accepting everyone into this movement, regardless of sex, caste, position, or whatever. Everyone is invited to come chant Hare Krsna. This is Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s munificence, His liberality. No, we are not conservative.”
Ref. VedaBase => SPL 22: “Swami Invites the Hippies”