By HH Janananda Gosvami
‘The Big Apple’ as New York is sometimes called. The greatest bastion of Kali Yuga. It’s also the place of the birth of ISKCON. Prabhupada had conceived of ISKCON in India, gave birth to it in New York and nurtured and protected the tender child, throughout. He was the mother and father. So where better to be on World Holy Name day than New York. A city that never sleeps. Hundreds of streets stretch across Manhattan, all teaming with people. It is a real haven for sankirtan. In the early days Prabhupada wrote the following letter to Rayarama and the devotees in New York. It’s interesting to see how much stress Prabhupada was putting on Harinama Sankirtan.
17 May, 1969 My Dear Rayarama, Please accept my blessings. I am in due receipt of your letter dated May 14, 1969, and I have received a similar letter from Brahmananda also that you are finding some difficulty in keeping pace regularly with the routine work. My advice to you under the circumstances is that at least for one hour you must all go to have Sankirtana outside on the streets or in the park. That is your life and soul, first business. The next business is completing the chanting of 16 rounds every day. The next business is your editing, and if you find extra time, then you can attend the temple ceremonies. Otherwise you can stop these activities, but outdoor kirtana, your editing work and chanting of 16 rounds must be done. Outdoor kirtana must be done, even at the cost of suspending all editorial work. That is your first and foremost business. Temple worship is not so important. If need be, the whole temple can be locked, but the outdoor kirtana cannot be stopped.
I hope this will meet you in good health. Your ever well-wisher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Of course the situation has change and one would need to use common sense discretion under the circumstances. Still the principle of the importance of Harinama Sankirtan cannot be underestimated.
WORLD HOLY NAME DAY. New York September the 17th ‘ the official World Holy Name day. The temples in America had decided to observe WHN day on the 22nd so there was generally no special event on the 17th. However I had already negotiated with Yajna Purush prabhu, the temple president of our 26, 2nd Ave branch to make the 17th a special day of Harinama. Although many of the devotees in 2nd avenue were busy that day, nonetheless we managed to get about 10 devotees to come out. Ever since the ecstatic London Rathayatra and 3 hours of non-stop dancing one of my legs had been paining making it next to impossible to jump at all. Today the 17th I had no choice, having committed myself, but to go out regardless even if I have to be carried. As I hobbled to the street I thought ‘How will I manage many hours of kirtan and dancing?’ We planned to do kirtan as we went to as many places related to Prabhupada’s early days in New York as we could. As soon as the kirtan begun the devotees including me spontaneously began dancing. Moving slowly along Houston St. then into 2nd avenue. Still dancing ‘ no pain. Into the storefront at 26. Reading from the Lilamrita about the early days there. We go into the back garden and look nostalgically at the window of the rooms Srila Prabhupada stayed in. More chanting as we set sail. We move on across 2nd Avenue into Houston going south. Cross the Bowery and proceed on till we reach Mott St. on the left. Along we go ‘ the kirtan gets heavy and more blissful as we slowly move along. This is the street where the Mott St. gang lived. Kirtananda, Hayagriva, and Umapati Swami. China town has now spilled over in this direction and there are people everywhere. They’re blissed out’ never seen anything like it before. The kirtan roars – we stop. Talk, read, reflect. Meditating on Prabhupada walking these streets in 1966 -41 years ago. On we go chanting and chanting and dancing up Hester to the left. ‘Oh Lord if you want me to dance then make me dance make me dance make me dance as You like.’ Aha! This is the place where Carl Yeargens first saw Prabhupada. Let’s read about it. He is a very significant person in the early days since he introduced Mukunda Maharaja and also allowed Prabhupada to stay with him when Prabhupada was chased out of the Bowery. One of the initiates in the first initiation. Left turn into the Bowery. Stop ‘ there it is. 94 the Bowery. The building still looks similar, save for the doorway. Here so many bhakti seeds were sown. We stand in awe singing the holy names ‘ gazing at the top floor and the door where Prabhupada had to make his way through slouching bums. Prabhupada shared the loft (top floor) with David Allen ‘ a young hippie who eventually chased Prabhupada out. In 1966 the Bowery was a run down area inhabited by drunkards, homeless people. Crime was commonplace. A dangerous place to hang around.
Prabhupada would walk alone in this area sometimes shopping or just walking. On his walks he would inevitably meet someone and plant some seeds of bhakti in their hearts. He would go to China town to shop. The Bowery has changed a lot since then. China town has expanded to even here. The bums have all but gone to be replaced by shoppers and tourists. We meditate deeply on the past which becomes the present. It seems like this spot is eternal. That Prabhupada is still here preaching the message of Bhagavad Gita to those fortunate few. Reading the Lilamrita at the exact spot really brings it to life. Now we will proceed down the Bowery on the route Prabhupada took when he moved to 26 2nd Avenue. We cross over Grand St. – this is where Michel Grant lived with his girl friend, Jan ‘ later to become Mukunda and Janaki. Kirtan and dancing, we pass the Salvation Army building ‘ it’s still there from Prabhupada’s time- and here we see the remainder of the street derelicts. Their faces light up as we pass by ‘ sing and dance with them. Passed electric light shops and shops selling kitchen equipment, just like in 66. We reach the corner of the Bowery and Houston and turn right. That’s the spot where Hayagriva (Howard) first met Prabhupada. He introduced the others from Mott St.
‘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 west, across Bowery, past the rushing traffic and stumbling derelicts, and towards 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 beadbag. 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 sanny??s?? 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. Prabhup??da noticed Howard, and they both stopped simultaneously. Howard asked the first question that popped into his mind: “Are you from India?” Prabhup??da smiled cordially. “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, he emanated a cool tranquility that was unshakably established in something far beyond the great metropolis that roared around us.” Howard never made it to his friend’s place that day. He went back to his own apartment on Mott Street, to Keith and Wally, his roommates, to tell them and everyone he knew about the guru who had inexplicably appeared in their midst. (From Prabhupada Lilamarita)
Left into 2nd Ave. Back to 26. Prabhupada arrives in the most famous residence of all. ‘Where it all started’. We read about the move and the negotiations with Mr. Gardiner the agent. The rooms would have to painted first the agent says. Funnily enough there is a painter there today painting the door and outside window frames. Move along. Up 2nd Avenue. Just imagine Srila Prabhupada would walk these streets daily passing all the shops, across the roads, down the subway. How blessed is this place. Some of the same shops and funeral parlours are still there since 66. Most have changed their usage. The whole area has been up-graded but there are still a lot of kids and alternate people around here. After 6 blocks, chanting all the way, we reach 7th St and turn right. This is the route Prabhupada took when he went for the first Tompkins square park Kirtan. . Just around the corner we come to number 64. What’s significant about this place the devotees ask – it’s just a recycling clothes shop? But no! Much more than this ‘ can’t you feel it ‘ the atmosphere. 40 years ago this was the Paradox, a macrobiotic drop in centre. The meeting place of many in the Lower East Side. It was here that Harvey Cohen, a young artist, who had met Prabhupada in Dr Misra’s yoga place introduced many others to ‘Swamiji’. Harvey was the one who encouraged Prabhupada to move down town from his uptown base. Harvey had an artist’s flat in the Bowery and he arranged for Prabhupada’s move there to share with David Allen. Later he helped the devotees to get a place in San Francisco.
Almost there ‘ our prime destination ‘ there it is. Tompkins Square Park. One of many places in New York made holy by the presence of Srila Prabhupada. We pay our obeisances. In we go, weaving our way around the many footpaths, past interested looking housewives, old men sitting there playing cards or draughts, alcoholics, all kinds of fascinated onlookers, druggies, bums. Dogs galore, even more now than when Prabhupada was here. After 5 minutes three or four more devotees join us. They had been waiting for hours for us to reach here. We close in. The tree, the famous tree. The most blessed tree where Prabhupada had chanted and delivered his sermon back in October 66. We re-enact the scene with devotees dancing gracefully as in the Swami step going around in circles. Slow and deep and then speeding up the kirtan goes on. One two three, one two three”’ Hare Krishna Hare Krishna” We stop and read the Lilamrita. A few people come to listen. One, a fully rigged out Quaker priest spends the time listening and snapping pictures. The mood gets deeper and more blissful at every moment. We talk to the Quaker ‘ he is real friendly and appreciative. The whole story of Prabhupada at the park touched his heart. He joins us with hands up for a photo. What more is there to be said. ‘There is nothing to be had in all the fourteen worlds but the Holy name. It has filled the heart of Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura’. Thank you Srila Prabhupada for igniting the spark within our hearts. I only pray that we can immerse ourselves in the fire of sankirtan and burn out all the anarthas. With kirtan and dancing we eventually made our way back to the ashrama for a late but delicious lunch, dancing all the way. It felt we had just been on more of a Parikrama than even Vraja Mandala. It seemed we had circumambulated the universe and beyond. Let us keep this spirit burning always. Chant the Holy Names with the Acarya in the centre.
NEW YORK WHERE IT ALL BEGAN (AT LEAST IN THE WESTERN WORLD)
SRIL PRABHUPADA Srimad Bhagavatam lecture April 13th 1973 New York, SB 2.1.1. “My dear king, this question is all-auspicious for all the people of the world.” If you simply enquire about Krsna or hear about Krsna, even though we do not understand, but that vibration of Krsna… Just like we are chanting “Hare Krsna,” we may not understand what is meaning of Hare Krsna, but still, because it is transcendental sound, it is auspicious.
Wherever you chant Hare Krsna, they may hear or they may not hear, it is auspicious for them. So we are sending our men for street sankirtana. It doesn’t matter whether people are eager to hear it or not, but it is auspicious. It will create an atmosphere which is very, very congenial to the human society. That should be our principle. Not that because we are chanting, nobody is taking care, we shall not be disappointed. Our, this sankirtana movement is so nice that simply by chanting, the vibration will create an auspicious atmosphere, [SB 2.1.1]. Now you can practically see, those who are old members…
So I began in this New York in that storefront simply by chanting. So I did not bribe you American boys and girls to come after me. This is the only asset was chanting. That in Tompkinson square park, this Brahmananda Swami he first came to dance in my chant. (laughter) He and Acyutananda, that was the first dancing of our Krsna conscious movement. (laughter) Yes. And I had no mrdangas. That was a, what is that?
Devotee: (indistinct) drum.
Prabhupada: Drum, little drum. So I was chanting Hare Krsna for from two to five, three hours, and so many boys and girls were coming and joining, and there was first photograph in the Times, New York Times, they appreciated, and people also appreciated. So this chanting, the beginning was only chanting. There was no, nothing more. At that time there was no program of prasada distribution.
That, later on it came. So we should always be confident that this chanting is not a vibration of this material world. This is not vibration of material world. Narottama dasa Thakura says, golokera prema-dhana hari-nama-sankirtana. It is imported from the spiritual world. It is completely spiritual. Otherwise how it is possible? Sometimes the so-called yogis, they say that chanting… In Bombay there is a so-called rascal, he says, “The chanting of Hare Krsna mantra and chanting of Coca-cola is the same.” He is such a rascal. He does not know that this is not a vibration of this material world. But one who has no knowledge, they think that “What is the meaning of this chant, ‘Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna’?” But they can practically see that we can go on chanting day and night, still we shall not become tired, but any other material name you take, after chanting three times you will feel tired. That is the proof. You can go on chanting day and night, you will never feel tired. So these people, poor people, they have (no) brain to understand. Anyway, the chanting is so auspicious, Caitanya Mahaprabhu has given His benediction, ceto-darpana-marjanam bhava-maha-davagni-nirvarpanam [Cc. Antya 20.12]. We are suffering in this material world because we are not cleansed of our understanding or of our heart. The heart is not cleansed. So this chanting will help us to cleanse the heart.’