A Talk by Giriraj Swami
April 4, 2010 Los Angeles
We have gathered on a most auspicious occasion, the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the manifestation of ISKCON Los Angeles here on Watseka Avenue, which came to be known as New Dvaraka. Srila Prabhupada, our founder-acarya and spiritual master, had said, “You have New York, New England–so many ‘New’ duplicates in the USA–why not New Vrndavana?” And so we also have New Dvaraka.
At the time that Srila Prabhupada and his disciples acquired New Dvaraka, I was in Boston, and there we heard the news that Srila Prabhupada had gotten a wonderful property that had been a church. Srila Prabhupada made New Dvaraka his Western world headquarters and spent months on end here–at one stage he stayed for eight months–and established it as the model center. And he personally trained the devotees. A devotee named Silavati was the head pujari, and under Prabhupada’s guidance she and others devotees established an exemplary standard of Deity worship. Then if any temple wanted to learn the proper standard of Deity worship, they would write or send a devotee here to learn. The activities and standards in New Dvaraka became the model for the other temples in ISKCON.
The sankirtana, public chanting and dancing, was also exemplary. Visnujana was the lead singer, and all the devotees were eager to go out and chant with him. And Tamal Krishna was the main organizer. He made sure that all the brahmacaris had nicely colored matching cloth and that all the ladies had bright saris and that all the devotees danced in step. It was a wonderful performance, and people were attracted.
As we heard in Boston, the Deities were the center of the community and the center of the devotees’ lives. There was a sweet reciprocation between the Deities and the pujaris and the sankirtana devotees and the public. All the devotees were in the mood of sankirtana, of wanting to share with others the wonderful knowledge and happiness that they had found in Krsna consciousness. The pujaris considered themselves to be servants not only of the Deities but of the sankirtana devotees and public as well. In the temple their mood was, “We want to decorate the Deities so beautifully that the sankirtana devotees will feel inspired to go out and chant and tell people about Krsna.” And the sankirtana devotees felt, “We want to go out and bring people back to see the Deities, the merciful forms of Sri Sri Rukmini-Dvarakadisa; Sri Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra; and Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai. So there was a wonderful reciprocation between the Deities and the devotees and the public.
In Boston we heard about Visnujana. Not only was he the lead singer who sang and played the mrdanga and harmonium beautifully, but he was also the temple commander. He was in charge of delegating different services to different devotees and seeing that all the jobs were done. We heard stories of how the devotees, when they got an assignment from him, would rush to do it and as soon as they were finished rush back to him and say, “I did what you told me. What else can I do? What more can I do?” We were astonished to hear the stories of the wonderful mood of service of the devotees here and the great inspiration they got from their leaders.
We also heard about the Sunday programs, the Sunday festivals. They were truly festivals. All week long the devotees would invite people to the Sunday program, and when guests came they found a real festival. There would always be some special event–a swing festival, butter churning, a dramatic performance–all sorts of attractive activities to introduce people to Krsna consciousness and inspire them in its mood and culture. And then a wonderful feast.
After Srila Prabhupada had established the movement in America, he decided to return to India to establish the mission there, and he asked that one disciple (or couple) from each temple–the second person in each temple–proceed to India to assist him. I was asked to go from Boston, and even in India New Dvaraka was a great inspiration. Srila Prabhupada had devised the life-membership program, which he said was a way to distribute his books and to give people association with devotees. The idea was that someone would give one thousand one hundred eleven rupees and get all of Srila Prabhupada’s books, present and future, and a lifetime subscription to Back to Godhead magazine, and when they traveled they could stay at our centers in our guest facilities.
Soon after the devotees got New Dvaraka, there was an issue of Back to Godhead that featured the project, with a picture of the temple and many devotees on the cover. So we would show people this magazine. And there was another issue that featured the San Francisco Ratha-yatra, with a photo of the grand chariot and thousands of participants on the cover. We would also show that magazine. People were very impressed and inspired, and many became life members and began to systematically progress in spiritual life.
In October 1973, after serving in India for three years, I became quite ill with jaundice, and eventually Srila Prabhupada said that as long as I stayed in Bombay I wouldn’t be able to recover. So I came to New Dvaraka, where I was given a private room just off the Tulasi greenhouse. The devotees took very good care of me. A week or two later, Srila Prabhupada himself came, and as my health improved I was gradually able to come out of my room and hear him speak, in his room, in his garden, and on his morning walks.
One time I came into the garden when Srila Prabhupada was alone, and he asked me how many devotees there were in the community. I had been curious–it was a very large, thriving community–so I knew the figures. He asked me how many men and how many women, and I answered. Then I asked, “Do you want to know how many children there are?” He said, “Oh yes, the children count too.” So I told him the number of children.
So many wonderful exchanges took place here. Srila Prabhupada was eager to present the message of Krsna consciousness on many fronts. One area was the field of science, and at that time Svarupa Damodara, who was working toward his PhD in organic chemistry at the University of California at Irvine, was coming to meet Prabhupada, often with a professor, Dr. Wolf-Rottkay. And Srila Prabhupada would speak on the theme that life comes from life–that life, the spirit soul, comes from the Supreme Soul, Krsna, not from a combination of chemicals.
Srila Prabhupada also encouraged devotees who wanted to enter the field of politics. At the time there was agitation that the slogan “In God we trust” should be removed because it was unfair to the atheists, and Srila Prabhupada declared, “We must influence the society before they remove it.” So under Prabhupada’s guidance, some disciples formed the “In God We Trust” party. Srila Prabhupada was very enthusiastic.
Srila Prabhupada had deep personal realization of Krsna consciousness and thus was very enthusiastic to share Krsna consciousness with others. But the irony, or the paradox, is that although Krsna consciousness is the greatest treasure, people are often unwilling to accept it. Therefore he taxed his brain, as he would often tell us: “You must tax your brain to find new and better ways to present Krsna consciousness”–so that people could appreciate and accept it. He saw that at the time, people had faith in science, and so he encouraged his devotee scientists to present the same philosophy of Krsna consciousness in scientific language. And they did.
After the scientists, who are comparable to the intellectual class, come the politicians, who are comparable to the ruling class. And one disciple who wanted to infiltrate the political field was Balavanta, who ran for mayor of Atlanta. At the time, the rule was that the media had to give equal time, or equal coverage, to all the different candidates. And Prabhupada understood that as a political candidate, a devotee would have a special opportunity to tell people about Krsna consciousness. Although we didn’t really expect him to win, Balavanta ended up getting a huge number of votes, far beyond anyone’s expectation.
Once, Balavanta appeared on a television program with the other candidates. Srila Prabhupada had said that the theme of Balavanta’s campaign, the theme of the “In God We Trust” party, should be that the political leaders must be of good character: if the leaders are not of good character, how can you expect good government? Balavanta, on the television panel with the other candidates, began to speak on this theme. He said, “How can you trust someone who cannot control his senses to control the affairs of the government?” He continued, “Everyone knows that smoking is not good for you, but because people cannot control their senses, they smoke anyway.” And the other candidates, all of whom had been smoking, became so embarrassed they immediately hid their cigarettes [laughter], because they had been exposed.
Srila Prabhupada had a very clear vision of how Krsna consciousness could help society in every sphere of life and how devotees could present Krsna consciousness to appeal to people in every sphere of life. It was amazing how much Srila Prabhupada and his young disciples (he used to call us “boys and girls”) could do, how empowered we were by Srila Prabhupada’s mercy.
At the same time, Srila Prabhupada was very personal in his dealings. One might think that someone with such a grand vision, with such big plans, would have no time or energy for little people, but Srila Prabhupada had both: he envisioned a mission to help the entire human society and at the same time was very caring for each and every soul. As he said, “Every soul is important in Krsna consciousness.”
Srila Prabhupada was so expert that he could engage everyone. After I had served in India for three years and then gotten sick and come here to recover, my parents came to visit me. We all went on a morning walk with Srila Prabhupada, at Cheviot Hills Park. On the walk there were scientists, political aspirants, managers, book distributors–and my parents. And Srila Prabhupada satisfied everyone. He was genuinely charming. When he saw my mother, he said, “Oh, Mrs. Teton, you look so young.” [laughter] She was very happy. And at the end of the walk, when we came to the parking lot, there was a Rolls Royce that the devotees had organized for Srila Prabhupada, and as he was about to get in he noticed that my father was eyeing the car. In a very shy, humble, diffident way, Prabhupada said to him, “My disciples arranged this for me.” And my father immediately said, “Oh no, no, you deserve it. You deserve it.” [laughter] Then Prabhupada said, “You can ride with me, if you like.” And my father said, “No, we have rented a car. That’s all right.” Prabhupada was just so pleasing.
Later I heard that Prabhupada’s servant had said, “Srila Prabhupada, everyone likes you so much,” and Srila Prabhupada had replied, “Yes, because I like everyone.”
For my family, it was a big thing that after three years I had come back to America. My uncle also came from Chicago, and I arranged for him to meet Srila Prabhupada in his quarters. My uncle was a doctor with high ideals, and he confided in Srila Prabhupada how disillusioned he was with other doctors. He felt that they were too materialistic, more interested in money than in the welfare of their patients. (This was in 1973; I can hardly imagine what he would think about the doctors today.) He went on sharing his chagrin with Srila Prabhupada, who simply listened intently and with sympathy. For me, it was as if time stood still, but in that conversation, which probably lasted half an hour, Srila Prabhupada did not say more than a few sentences. He just listened with tremendous sympathy. And at the end, as we were walking out, my uncle turned to me and said, “My God! I’ve never met anyone like him. I must get a picture of him. I have never seen a face like his.”
Srila Prabhupada had a way . . . But it was Krsna. When Srila Prabhupada would return from his morning walks, the devotees would line up on either side of the way leading to the temple and offer him flowers, which he in turn would give back to them in a very personal exchange. I heard that during one such exchange Visnujana had said, “Srila Prabhupada, you are attracting all of us,” and Prabhupada had replied, “That is Krsna’s trick”–meaning that Krsna, who is all-attractive, was manifesting Himself through Srila Prabhupada, and we were thinking it was Prabhupada. But the fact is that a pure devotee who is fully surrendered to Krsna shares in the same qualities as Krsna. Srila Prabhupada certainly did, and so we were attracted.
Another time, in his garden, Srila Prabhupada was talking about (in his words) bogus svamis and yogis. There is a statement in scripture that one who is not a devotee of the Lord has no good qualities:
yasyasti bhaktir bhagavaty akincana sarvair gunais tatra samasate surah harav abhaktasya kuto mahad-guna manorathenasati dhavato bahih
“One who has unflinching devotional faith in Krsna consistently manifests all the good qualities of Krsna and the demigods. However, he who has no devotion to the Supreme Personality of Godhead has no good qualifications because he is engaged by mental concoction in material existence, which is the external feature of the Lord.” (SB 5.18.12)
And there is one to the effect that impersonal speculators may imagine that they are liberated but that because they neglect the service of the lotus feet of the Lord, they fall down.
ye ‘nye ‘ravindaksa vimukta-maninas tvayy asta-bhavad avisuddha-buddhayah aruhya krcchrena param padam tatah patanty adho ‘nadrta-yusmad-anghrayah
“O lotus-eyed Lord [Krsna], although nondevotees who accept severe austerities and penances to achieve the highest position may think themselves liberated, their intelligence is impure. They fall down from their position of imagined superiority because they have no regard for Your lotus feet.” (SB 10.2.32) They cannot maintain their impersonal position. Srila Prabhupada said that what he wrote in his purports was based not only on scriptural statements–of course, it was confirmed by scripture–but also on his personal experiences with svamis and yogis in India. He said that once, he went into the men’s room at an ashram as the svami was coming out, and inside Prabhupada smelled marijuana. The svami had gone in to have a smoke. He said he had many such personal experiences.
He also spoke about Dr. Ramamurti Mishra, who had a yoga studio in Manhattan and an ashram in upstate New York. When Prabhupada first arrived in New York, he stayed in Dr. Mishra’s apartment. And he said that although Dr. Mishra was a Mayavadi impersonalist, personally they were friends. He cooked for Dr. Mishra, who was quite sickly then, and Dr. Mishra felt that Prabhupada’s cooking was bringing him back to life. Prabhupada said, “When it came to philosophy we would differ–we would argue vehemently–but personally we were friends.” I took that as an important instruction. Of course, it is natural in the beginning stage that one should avoid impersonalists, because if one is weak one might get confused. But when one is more mature in devotional service and has firm, unshakable faith in Krsna and the process of bhakti-yoga, one can be friends with someone and still have philosophical differences. One need not totally abandon the relationship just because of philosophical differences.
Once, while I was facing Srila Prabhupada in his garden, he looked to the side. His face lit up, his eyes opened wide, and he became very, very happy. I thought, “Wow! Who has come? It looks like Prabhupada is meeting a long-lost friend.” And when I turned I saw that it was a devotee carrying a tulasi plant. Srila Prabhupada had become so ecstatic, so moved, by the arrival of Tulasi-devi. He said, “The whole atmosphere has become sanctified just by the presence of Tulasi-devi.”
One of Srila Prabhupada’s personal servants, Srutakirti dasa, noted how much Srila Prabhupada liked the activities of Krsna consciousness: “He was such a devotee; he just took pleasure in Krsna consciousness.” Srutakirti said that most devotees would see Prabhupada only in the temple room when he was speaking or in his quarters when he was giving directions on how to organize and manage and spread the mission. But Srutakirti said that one of the best parts of being Prabhupada’s servant was that he could be with him when he was not acting as the head of the world mission, the founder-acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. When Prabhupada was alone, sometimes he would just take out his harmonium and begin to sing. There was no one there; no one was recording him. But he just enjoyed being with Krsna, singing songs about Krsna written by Vaisnava acaryas.
Or sometimes he would read books about Krsna. Once, Srutakirti went into his room and he was reading Krsna book, his summary study of the Tenth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. He was relishing, and he looked up at Srutakirti and said, “This book is so wonderful that if you just read this book, you will be Krsna conscious.” Then he said, “If you read just one chapter of this book, you will be Krsna conscious.” Then he said, “If you read just one page of this book, you will be Krsna conscious.” Then he said, “If you read just one line of this book, you will be Krsna conscious.” And then he said, “If you read just one word, you will be Krsna conscious.” [laughter, applause] Srila Prabhupada had such faith in Krsna, and he knew that his books were Krsna. The Krsna book is Krsna, Srimad-Bhagavatam is Krsna, the Bhagavad-gita is Krsna, and by associating with Krsna, your life becomes perfect.
My sister also came to visit me in Los Angeles, and she stayed with two devotees in the community here–Kanka and her husband–and she loved Krsna consciousness. By then I was feeling a little better and was able to move about, so I mentioned to Srila Prabhupada that she had come. Prabhupada met her, and after the meeting she came with me to the temple room, which was where the FATE (First America Theistic Exhibition) museum is now. I was showing her the pictures on the wall and telling her about them. There was one particularly sweet picture of Krsna and His friends herding the cows in the forest of Vrndavana, and I was explaining, “This is Krsna. He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. And this is what the spiritual world is like.” She was just drinking it all in. Suddenly she had a flash of realization, and she turned to me and said, “Has Prabhupada seen Krsna?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Oh my God!” [laughter] By Prabhupada’s association, people could be elevated immediately–just by being in his presence.
Eventually, as my health was getting better, Prabhupada encouraged me to return to Bombay. Once, he used the phrase, “back home, back to Bombay,” and the way he said it, I got the sense that he was telling me, “If you go back to Bombay and perform your service there you can go back to Godhead.”
So, the day I was departing for India, I went to take leave of Srila Prabhupada. He was getting his massage upstairs in the room with the skylight, just sitting in his gamsha in a very relaxed mood. I told him I was leaving and took the opportunity to ask some questions. I was very inspired by the presentation of Krsna consciousness to scientists and asked how we should speak to them. I said, “When you speak about the scientists, you use phrases like ‘fools,’ ‘rascals,’ and ‘kick them in the face with boots.’ [laughter] When we speak to them, should we use the same terms?” And he replied, “No, you should speak like a gentleman.”
That was the only time I was in Los Angeles with Srila Prabhupada. Much more happened than I have time to relate, but it was wonderful, and I got a sense of how important and dynamic Los Angeles was, how much time and energy Srila Prabhupada spent here, and how his presence permeates every aspect of the project.
Before my talk, I was in the mood of separation from Srila Prabhupada. So I went up to his quarters, and there my feelings of separation increased. After a while of just sitting there–nothing dramatic–I felt Prabhupada’s presence, as if he was saying, “I am still here. I am still present. You can feel my association even now.”
At the end of Srila Prabhupada’s eight-month stay here, when he was finally leaving, it was very hard on all the devotees. They were used to seeing him every day, and they thought he might just remain there, that he might never leave. And when he was about to leave, he spoke to them about the two ways of associating: by vani, transcendental sound, words, and by vapuh, physical presence. He said, “Although I am leaving physically, you can still have my association by vani, by following my instructions. Association by vani is more intimate than mere physical presence.” This is something we can all experience: if we really absorb ourselves in Srila Prabhupada’s teachings and endeavor to follow his instructions, we feel his presence, feel his reciprocation. As Svavasa Prabhu said in his introductory talk, it has been forty years–unless there is some feeling, why would we continue to serve after forty years? There is some feeling, love, and that love is based on personal reciprocation. Love means two–a reciprocation between two persons. So although Srila Prabhupada is no longer physically present, still the reciprocation of love–through service, surrender, and inquiry–continues.
If we are serious about our spiritual lives, we will have questions: “What does this mean?” “How do I apply this?” “How can I improve?” And although Srila Prabhupada is not here physically to answer our questions, we can get answers from his books and tapes and from his sincere followers. So all the exchanges that we can have with the spiritual master in his physical presence, we can have through vani, through his words. As he said, “If you read just one word, you can be Krsna conscious.” The problem, of course, is that we become Krsna conscious and then forget. We have to stay absorbed in chanting and hearing about Krsna. As long as we do, we are on the liberated platform, and if we maintain that effort, even if we are not always successful, but if we maintain that effort, we will be Krsna conscious and Srila Prabhupada will take us back home, back to Godhead.
And that is the purpose of this temple, this project, this community–to give such association. Srila Prabhupada told me, “Not everyone will be able to live in the temple, but the temple is necessary so that people can come and get the idea of how they can be Krsna conscious at home.” In principle, there is nothing we do at the temple that you can’t do in your own home. Of course, as Srila Prabhupada said, best is to live in the temple, next best is to live near the temple and come every day, and next, if due to circumstances you do not live close enough to the temple to come daily, you can make your home into a temple and you can do the same things at home that the devotees do in the temple. Even then, on Sundays and holidays–whenever possible–come to the temple and associate with more advanced devotees and get more inspiration in this most wonderful process that leads to a most glorious result.
Devotee: Your thoughts on impersonal Brahman?
Giriraj Swami: I spit at the thought. [laughter] Impersonal Brahman is transcendental. Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.11) explains that the Absolute Truth is realized in three features– Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan–and that they are nondual (advaya).
vadanti tat tattva-vidas tattvam yaj jnanam advayam brahmeti paramatmeti bhagavan iti sabdyate
“Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramatma, or Bhagavan.” The three are all the same, but for a devotee, the idea of merging into impersonal Brahman is anathema, because in impersonal Brahman there is no loving reciprocation with Krsna, no chanting and hearing the glories of Krsna, no rendering of service to Krsna. Therefore one great devotee, Prabodhananda Sarasvati, said, kaivalyam narakayate: “For a devotee, the pleasure of merging into the existence of Brahman [kaivayla] is considered hellish [narakayate].” In fact, it is worse than hell, because in hell you can sing the glories of Krsna, but in impersonal Brahman, there is nothing.
If you follow the process of Krsna consciousness, you can actually play with Krsna, who is the source of the happiness of impersonal Brahman realization
ittham satam brahma-sukhanubhutya dasyam gatanam para-daivatena mayasritanam nara-darakena sardham vijahruh krta-punya-punjah
“The cowherd boys used to play with Krsna, who is the source of the Brahman effulgence for jnanis desiring to merge into that effulgence, who is the Supreme Personality of Godhead for devotees who have accepted eternal servitorship, and who for ordinary persons is but another ordinary child. The cowherd boys, having accumulated the results of pious activities for many lives, were able to associate in this way with the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (SB 10.12.11)