The Hare Krishna Explosion
by Hayagriva Prabhu
Part I: New York, 1966
The Hare Krishna Explosion
“If Krishna sees you are taking one step toward Him,” Swamiji says, “He will take ten toward you. He is so happy to see you turn to Him. He is more eager to see us return to Godhead than we are to go.”
Back in the Mott Street apartment, I stare at myself in the mirror and repeat my new name. “Now you are Krishna’s,” I think, inspecting the new kanthi beads around my neck. “These are Krishna’s dog collars, and they don’t come off.”
We all optimistically resolve to try to follow the rules. For most of us, meat eating and gambling pose no problems. Rules governing sex and intoxicants, however, force some rapid changes in living patterns. I decide to convert the old Mott Street apartment into a brahmachari ashram. Down come the psychedelic posters, and up go pictures of lotus-eyed Krishna.
The next day at the temple, we find a new notice posted on the bathroom door. There are additional rules and regulations written neatly in ink by Swamiji himself.
All initiated devotees must attend morning and evening classes. Must not be addicted to any kind of intoxicants, including coffee, tea and cigarettes. They are forbidden to have illicit sex-connections. Must be strictly vegetarian. Should not extensively mix with non-devotees. Should not eat foodstuffs cooked by non-devotees. Should not waste time in idle talks nor engage in frivolous sports. Should always chant and sing the Lord’s holy names, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Acharya
Umapati says nothing when he reads the notice. Rayarama simply chuckles.
“No coffee, no tea,” he says, shaking his head.
With dismay we begin to realize that more than hamburgers are off limits. We’re all fond of coffee and tea, and it’s hard to imagine breakfast without eggs. Besides, breads, hot cakes, ice cream, and cookies usually have eggs in them. Also, “no foodstuff cooked by non-devotees” excludes all restaurants, quick food shops, and even most packaged supermarket foods. And no yeast, garlic, onions, and mushrooms puts an end to pizza. Somebody even points out that most cheeses are made with rennet—cow’s stomach!
“I’m ninety percent lenient,” Swamiji says, laughing. “If I were to tell you everything at once, you’d faint.”
As Keith enters his second week in Bellevue, Umapati and I continue taking him fruit and chapatis. Daily, the hospital doctors give us some hope, and then delight in crushing it.
“A private psychiatrist and my parents can get me out,” Keith tells us.
The doctors have diagnosed Keith as a “malignant schizophrenic.”
When Swamiji hears, he shakes his head sadly.
“We are all at Krishna’s mercy,” he says. “When we have these material bodies, we have to undergo so many difficulties. Haridas Thakur was scourged for his devotion to Krishna and then thrown into a river for dead. Yet at no time did Haridas complain. The devotee looks on his miseries as Krishna’s mercy, as minimal punishment for his past misdeeds. He thinks, ‘O Krishna, I should be suffering so much more, but because of Your causeless mercy, my sufferings are minimized.’”
Three days after initiation, Swamiji conducts our first wedding: Mukunda and Janaki, who were initiated together and whose marriage must now be Vedically sanctified. Janaki’s sister Joan arrives from Oregon and helps decorate the small apartment for the wedding, stringing flowers across the ceiling. In the kitchen, Swamiji supervises the cooking. It is to be our first big feast. He shows us how to make kachoris, fried pastries filled with spiced potatoes. All afternoon, we labor over kachoris, and puris. In all, the preparations number fifteen—gulabjamuns (sweet balls), sabji [vegetables], sweet rice, halavah, and various chutneys.
Mukunda appears in white robes, and Janaki wears a new red silk sari, and heavy silver earrings. The sari is Swamiji’s idea.
“Girls look very feminine in saris, no?” he says, laughing.
About forty guests crowd into the apartment. Janaki sits beside Mukunda in front of Swamiji and the sacrificial mound. Obeisances and garlands are offered, incense is lit, and the wedding begins.
“Om bhur bhava sva tat…”
The water goblet is passed around, as on initiation night.
Swamiji gives a brief talk.
“In a Krishna conscious marriage there is no question of divorce,” he tells us. “In the material world, when a man gets tired of one wife, he takes another. Or when there is some argument, there is immediate separation. But in Krishna consciousness, no. Marriage is for life. It is the wife’s duty to serve the husband, to keep the house clean, cook nicely, and make her husband comfortable when he comes back from work. The wife is like goddess Lakshmi. When she is present, nothing is lacking. It is her duty to bear Krishna conscious children and aid her husband in a life of progressive Krishna consciousness. And it is the husband’s duty to protect the wife and provide for her. The wife should not have to go out and work. That is a very bad proposal. The wife is never to be independent but is to be protected and remain at home. In this way, the marriage will go smoothly. And even if there is some argument, there is no question of separation. Argument between husband and wife is said in the Vedas to be like thunder without lightning. There is much noise but no danger. So remember this, live together in Krishna consciousness, and be happy.”
The ceremony continues as Janaki’s sister Joan formally presents Janaki to Mukunda.
“I accept Janaki-dasi as my wife,” Mukunda repeats after Swamiji, “and I shall take charge of her throughout both of our lives. We shall live together peacefully in Krishna consciousness, and will never separate.”
Swamiji turns to Janaki.
“Will you accept Sriman Mukunda-das-brahmachari as your life’s companion?” he asks. “Will you serve him always, and help him to execute his Krishna conscious activities?”
“Yes, she replies. “I accept Sriman Mukunda as my husband throughout my life. There shall never be any separation between us, either in happiness or distress. I shall serve him always, and we shall live together peacefully in Krishna consciousness.”
Mukunda and Janaki exchange garlands and sitting places. Mukunda rubs vermillion down the part in her hair, then covers her head with her sari. Stryadhisa ties Janaki’s sari to the hem of Mukunda’s dhoti.
“Leave the clothes tied for a week,” Swamiji says. He then sprinkles the colored dyes on the mound for the fire sacrifice. Again we dip our hands in the ghee, barley and sesame, the fire is lit, and prayers begin. Again, the apartment is clouded with smoke.
After the feast, we are bursting with potato kachoris.
“Here in America, I see that it is customary for boy friend and girl friend to live together,” Swamiji says. “Of course, in the material world, that sex desire is natural, but we say don’t live together like cats and dogs. If you want sex, get yourself married.”
It is late when the wedding breaks up, and Rabindra-svarup and I accompany Mukunda and Janaki back to their loft, just a few blocks away on Bowery.
“We’re going out to San Francisco next week,” Mukunda tells me. “And from there we’re going on to India. You know, you should consider going to the Coast. I hear that San Francisco’s ripe for Krishna consciousness.”
“Isn’t it a little early to expand?” I ask. “We’re just getting started here.”
“Well, there’s a disciple of Swamiji’s out there now, he tells me, named Harvey Cohen. He’s generated a lot of interest just talking to people. He’s trying to locate a kind of storefront temple and prepare an event for Swamiji in January.”
Mukunda is very enthusiastic about going to India and expanding Krishna consciousness worldwide. “After all,” he says, “Swamiji called it The International Society for Krishna Consciousness. So, sooner or later, we have to go international.” He thinks that Swamiji should get out of New York before the winter snows.
“His health is good now,” he says, “but who knows? He’s used to tropical Calcutta.”
Later, we watch Allen Ginsberg on a TV talk show. Ginsberg chants Hare Krishna and mentions that there’s a new swami on the Lower East Side who has just opened classes in mantra-yoga.
We applaud happily. It’s our first plug on TV.
Despite being in Swamiji’s presence and daily witnessing his inspiring transcendental activities, I find some difficulty following all the basic rules. When I confess this to Swamiji, he jumps to his feet. “Then chant Hare Krishna!” he says, the force of his gesture sweeping me upward with him, so that I stand up automatically. “Chant Hare Krishna! Krishna! Krishna! Krishna help me! Krishna save me!”
I begin chanting, impelled by his sheer, spiritual force cleansing the dust from the mind’s mirror, purifying, lifting me up.
“There are so many inconveniences because of this body,” he says. “The senses want so many things. Bad habits force us to act, habits from this lifetime and other lifetimes as well. But Krishna says that even if a person seems to act immorally due to some past association or bad habits, he is to be considered a sadhu, a saint, if he is determined to become Krishna conscious. Some way or other, we must continue our duties. Then gradually, with advancement, purification will come. Of course, a devotee is never immoral, but maybe due to past association, he may appear immoral, or fall down due to bad habits. Sometimes habits become second nature.
“Just like with the thief who went on pilgrimage. At night, when the other pilgrims were sleeping, this thief started stealing baggage and picking pockets, but he thought, ‘Oh, I have come to this holy place, but still, due to habit, I am stealing. No! At least during my stay here, let me not steal.’ In the morning, when the other pilgrims got up, they started looking for their bags, but saw that they were all in different places, all mixed up. ‘What is the matter? What has happened?’ they asked. Then the thief stood up and told them, ‘Gentlemen, I am a thief by occupation. Because I am in the habit of stealing at night, I was going to steal something from your bags, but since I’ve come to this holy place, I decided not to do it. So instead I have simply put one man’s bag here, another’s bag there.’ This is the nature of bad habit. Even though one does not want to do it, he has the habit. Therefore Krishna says that if one decides to stop his bad habits and cultivate Krishna consciousness, he is to be considered saintly. Even if by chance he falls down and does something socially immoral, that should not be taken into account. Because he has taken refuge of Krishna, he will very soon become saintly. Very soon.”
“My Guru Maharaj Srila Bhaktisiddhanta used to say, ‘This world is no place for a gentleman.’ And it is true. Maya is so strong. I was in the dark well of householder life, and he… pulled me up!”
This memory brings tears to his eyes. For us, Swamiji is the unblemished swan floating transcendentally, yet he says that his spiritual master rescued him from the ocean of material suffering.
“The role of the spiritual master cannot be overestimated,” he says. “Guru is as good as God. Not that he is God. Mayavadis say like that. No. Only Krishna is God. That’s a fact. But for the devotee, guru is as good as God.”
As Keith enters his third week in Bellevue, Umapati and I continue visiting him one hour daily. Since he refuses to eat any of the hospital food, we bring him chapatis, fruit and vegetables, and a little rice mixed with dal. The doctors are as determined as ever to put him away, and Keith is about to abandon hope.
“They’re even talking of transferring me to Central Islip,” he says.
When we return to Swamiji, we inform him that Keith’s plight is becoming serious.
“Why did he ever go there?” Swamiji asks. “I never told him to go there.”
“That’s why he’s in trouble,” I say, then suddenly think of Allen Ginsberg. “Maybe Mr. Ginsberg can help,” I suggest.
“Yes, try him,” Swamiji says.
Allen recommends Dr. Horner, a Jungian psychiatrist at the Einstein Clinic. I phone Dr. Horner and explain the dilemma. The next day, the doctor goes to Bellevue, talks with Keith, then writes up a report stating that he is following a legitimate religious discipline and should be released. But even this is not sufficient; a family member must sign the release papers. Not knowing where to turn, Keith phones his father on Long Island. Unfortunately, his father, a fundamentalist Baptist minister, fears that by consorting with a swami, Keith has fallen into the hands of an anti-Christ. He hesitates signing. Although nearly thirty years old, Keith needs his father’s signature. Finally, in desperation, he promises to go home with his father and become a Christian. Within hours, Keith is back on Second Avenue, out of breath from running.
“I had to jump out of my father’s car to get here,” he says, “but it worked.”
When Swamiji sees Keith, he stands up and embraces him.
“Come on! Krishna has saved His devotee!” Swamiji says. “Oh, I was crying to Krishna, ‘How has this nice boy been taken from me?’ and praying that they would release you. Because they are in the crazy-man business, they were saying you are crazy. But factually the materialists are crazy because they take this temporary body for the all in all and neglect the eternal soul. A crazy man thinks that all others are crazy. But we do not care for their opinion. We will let Krishna decide who is really crazy.”
The day after Keith’s release, September 23, Is the appearance day of Radharani, Lord Krishna’s eternal consort, and Swamiji announces the second initiation ceremony.
“Today, we will fast until noon,” he says. “Srimati Radharani is so kind that She does not want us to go hungry.”
In the morning, he shows Keith how to make rasagullas, sweetballs consisting only of milk curds cooked and soaked in syrup. They are very sweet and succulent. A large pot sits in the corner of Swamiji’s little altar room, and sometimes, when I get the urge, I ask Swamlji if I can have one.
“Yes, take,” he says invariably.
To be initiated with Keith are Bruce, Charles, and Steve. Bruce looks like a football tackle; in contrast, Steve and Charles are ascetically thin. Keith becomes Kirtanananda, Bruce becomes Brahmananda, Charles becomes Acyutananda, and Steve becomes Satsvarupa.
“Today, September 23, is Radha’s birthday,” Swamiji says. “She is fifteen days younger than Krishna. When Krishna was a boy, He played with the children of the countryside, and because He was so beautiful, all the girls prayed that someday He would be their husband. Since Radha loved Krishna the most, She is the symbol of greatest worship. Krishna and the gopis, the cowherd girls, were the same age, but because girls are married earlier than boys, they were all married before Krishna. Yet, despite their marriages, they all loved Krishna so much that whenever He would play His flute, they would leave their homes and go to Him. This continued until Krishna was sixteen; then He left His friends and went to live with His real father in Mathura, and all His friends spent the rest of their lives weeping and longing for Him. Radha and Krishna met again during a solar eclipse at Kurukshetra, and it was a meeting of love, but then They were again separated. Radha is Krishna’s beloved, and by Her blessings Krishna will accept us. ‘Hare’ means Radha, so when we chant Hare Krishna, we are chanting Radha Krishna. We say Radha’s name first because Krishna loves Her.”
The fire sacrifice in Swamiji’s back apartment is joyful. There are none of the blunders of the first initiation; we manage to pour the water in the proper hand and say svaha at the right time.
It is the first of the Mother Scenes. Brahmananda had written an enthusiastic letter to his brother Greg about Swamiji, and Greg, who had just started college in Colorado, sold his typewriter and bought a plane ticket to New York to attend the initiation. Surprisingly, Brahmananda’s mother also shows up, but she is so furious at Greg for quitting college that she doesn’t speak to him. Sitting on a folding chair in Swamiji’s room, she endures the initiation with stonefaced silence. When it is over, she tells Swamiji, “You could have left me at least one of my sons.”
“Go bow down to your mother,” Swamiji tells Brahmananda, and Brahmananda immediately complies, touching his forehead to the floor.
“I still don’t see what’s wrong with Judaism,” she pouts, less than flattered by this strange gesture of humility from her son.
“Jewish Christian, Moslem—it is not a question of that,” Swamiji says. “It’s a matter of developing your love for God. That is the test for first-class religion.
Swamiji treats mothers respectfully, compliments them for having such fine, intelligent sons, and comforts them with sweetballs. Although a number of mothers come accusing him of stealing and corrupting their children, they always leave pacified. Some even attend kirtans and sit on folding chairs in the rear of Matchless Gifts. During one Sunday feast, one mother even runs outside for a marijuana break.
“Why don’t you just let prasadam satisfy your tongue?” her son chastises her.
My mother writes Swamiji a letter thanking him for “the great and remarkable change” in me.
“We just want you to know how much we appreciate the work you are doing in this country, especially among the younger generation. They need you, a spiritual advisor and leader, to lead them out of their confused, frustrated, materialistic and rebellious state—back to Godhead.”
Swamiji is so pleased with the letter that he has it xeroxed for distribution.
By early October, our Sunday “love feasts” begin gaining popularity on the Lower East Side. Since most of the guests are young and unemployed, the donations hardly cover food costs. But no matter.
“Let them come and take,” Swamiji says. “They will become attracted when they see that our philosophy is not dry.”
Under his direction, Kirtanananda and Acyutananda learn to cook kachoris, samosas, sweet rice, halava, sweet balls and mung bean dal. Kirtanananda is such a talented cook that Swamiji calls him “Kitchenananda.” After the feasts, we are so full that we can only roll over on the temple floor and sleep.
But this overindulgence is not allowed for long. One morning, after class, Swamiji says, “You should eat as little as possible.”
“First you said we should eat lots of prasadam,” Umapati protests. “Now, you say we should eat little. How can we know which instruction to follow?”
Swamiji looks down from the dais calmly, smiling slightly. “When I said to eat a lot, you didn’t have any questions,” he replies.
Since it’s a beautiful October night, we sit out in the courtyard to chant. When Umapati admires the full moon, Greg admonishes him.
“That’s maya,” he says.
This sparks a debate. Should a devotee look on the moon as maya? We take this question to Swamiji.
“For the devotee, the world is as good as Vaikuntha,” he says. “Krishna says that the sun and moon are His eyes. When a devotee looks at the moon, he sees Krishna.”
We want this clarified.
“Is the difference between the spiritual and material universes just one of consciousness?” I ask.
“But in addition to this universe, is there a universe separate and different?”
“Yes,” Swamiii says. “it Is said that this material universe occupies just a small portion, a corner, of that limitless spiritual sky. It is here as a sort of prison for the conditioned soul. But for the devotee, it is as good as Vaikuntha.”
“But here, there’s the law of change?”
“Yes. Here, nothing is permanent. Everything is changing: coming into being, staying a while, leaving some by-products, dwindling, and vanishing. But the spiritual world is not like this. There, everything is sat-cit-ananda, full of knowledge, bliss and eternity. Here, if we want to read a book, we have to open it, but there, the book opens itself. There, everything is full of spiritual consciousness. The houses are made of chintamani, touchstone, and the trees give as much of whatever fruit you want. Many descriptions are given in Brahma-samhita.”
I still have difficulty accepting the Vedic teaching of an enclosed heliocentric universe. How to explain the stars?
“Maybe when the Vedas mention the universe, they mean the solar system,” I suggest.
“Veda is infallible,” Swamiji says. “What do these modern scientists know? They are trying to acquire knowledge through their imperfect senses, by using telescopes and so many devices. But the eye itself is an imperfect instrument. How can you arrive at perfect knowledge by something imperfect? The knowledge of the Vedas is perfect and infallible because it comes from the Supreme Perfect, Sri Krishna. Since we are in the disciplic succession starting with Lord Brahma, we accept this knowledge as perfect. Let the scientists say what they like.”
This particularly upsets George Henderson, mathematics PhD, an old friend who has been attending kirtans.
“Our interest is precisely in what is measurable by the senses,” he says.
To our surprise, Swamiji suddenly comes on like thunder.
“Are your senses perfect?” he asks.
“I’m speaking of the whole scientific community,” George says.
“Then are their senses perfect?”
“For scientists, man is the measure of all things,” George says.
“Only God has perfect senses.” Swamiji says. “Therefore only God can measure perfectly. Everyone else is imperfect. Are you God?”
“Are you God?” Swamiji repeats loudly, shocking us all. “If you are God, then you can show us your universal form.”
George sits quietly, perplexed and embarrassed. Afterwards, Swamiji tells us that if someone claims to be God, we should request to see his universal form as revealed at Kurukshetra.
“Since Arjuna was Krishna’s devotee, he had no desire to see the universal form,” he tells us. “The devotee is interested in Krishna in His original two-armed form. But Krishna showed Arjuna the gigantic universal form as a lesson to mankind, as a test for knowing what is God. If some rascal is claiming to be God, we should demand to see his universal form. And if he shows it, then he is God. But this form is not manifest to please the devotees. It is more or less to convince the materialists how great God is. The devotee doesn’t have to be reminded of God’s greatness. He already knows that God is great. He is Just interested in serving Krishna in His original form as a cowherd boy.”
“What is Krishna’s size?” I ask.
“He’s your size,” Swamiji says. “His size is average. He can be as big or small as required, bigger than the biggest, or smaller than the smallest. That is absolute. So when He comes, He comes our size. In Mathura, many people were thinking of Him as an ordinary human being. This is due to yoga-maya. He may appear to be like us, but He is not. He is always the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
“To understand Krishna as He is, we must consult authorities—guru, sadhu, shastra. Otherwise we have no way of knowing. For example, one night I heard a strange noise and couldn’t tell what it was. I just knew that it was not an ordinary noise, that’s all. The next day, the police came and asked, ‘Swamiji, did you hear a gunshot?’ Then I knew that the noise had been a gunshot. If the police had not come, I never would have guessed what the noise had been. Similarly, we may try to guess what the Absolute Truth is, thinking, ‘It’s this, or it’s that.’ Then one day Krishna or His representative comes and says, ‘It’s this!’ But until Krishna tells you, you cannot guess.”
Kirtanananda, Rabindra-svarup and Stryadhisa are now living in the temple full time. In the morning, they store their sleeping bags behind the dais and tidy up the temple for Swamiji’s entrance. Inevitably, the neighbors begin to complain, objecting specifically to the seven a.m. kirtans, which are growing louder due to increased attendance and enthusiasm. The woman upstairs pours hot water through the floorboards and encourages her children to jump and pound to disturb the lectures. One Puerto Rican boy, convinced that we are all demon worshippers, throws a rock through the plate glass window.
Public relations improve, however, with our first big branching out—the Tompkins Square Park kirtans.
It is Allen Ginsberg who first suggests Tompkins Square between Avenues A and B on the Lower East Side.
“If you hold kirtans there, you’ll interest a lot of people and maybe get better temple attendance,” he tells us. “It’s a kind of Sunday meeting place.”
We promptly get a permit to chant in the park, and on Sunday Swarmji leads us down the crowded weekend streets. Kirtanananda also wears robes, and our walk through the Polish, Ukranian, and Puerto Rican neighborhoods is sensational. By the time we reach the park, dozens of curious people are following.
We spread a carpet beneath a large oak in the center of the park. Then we form a circle around Swamiji, who takes up a small bongo drum and begins leading the chanting. At first, the crowd greets us with cold indifference but soon warms up as the words of the mantra become more familiar. Swamiji pounds the drum tirelessly. Thirty minutes pass, an hour. Elderly Polish and Ukranian residents stare dumbfounded, then walk away grumbling. Soon more people stand around us and press forward to better see Swamiji. Stryadhisa and I clash cymbals, and Kirtanananda plays the harmonium given by Ginsberg. Someone brings a tamboura, but it is drowned out in the din. Puerto Rican kids run over from the playground, stare with wide eyes, then laugh happily. A jet booms overhead. The Good Humor man gravitates toward us, ringing his ice cream bells. Acyutananda, Brahmananda, and Greg dance in a circle, and the more venturesome spectators join in the chant.
After a long kirtan, Swamiji begins to give a talk, but since the people can hardly hear him, he takes up the drum and starts chanting again. A little boy throws an egg at Rayarama and runs. Our voices begin to grow hoarse, and I wonder how long Swamiji will last. But his voice seems even stronger after the second hour. As he chants, his brow furrows in concentration, and veins stand out on his neck. “Hare Krishna! Krishna! Krishna! Hare Hare!” Allen Ginsberg joins, shaking his head rhythmically and playing finger cymbals. A New York Times reporter asks me to bring Ginsberg over to talk.
“He shouldn’t interrupt a man worshipping,” Allen says. “Tell him that.”
Swamiji’s fingers continue beating out the rhythm on the drum. How can he keep at it so long? “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna!” he calls out over the cement park of stunted trees, the playgrounds, benches, brownstone apartments, and the locked and empty Presbyterian Church.
“Hare Rama, Hare Rama,” we reply. “Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” A Negro joins in with a saxophone. Someone comes with a bass drum. Tambourines rattle, and people start getting up to dance. To our surprise and happiness, Swamiji’s park kirtan begins to turn into a joyous celebration, an open party for the Lower East Side.
“Hey, man, who’s that old priest?” someone asks.
“He’s not a priest,” someone answers. “He’s a swami!”
“Hey, that’s cool, man. I dig it!”
Rayarama and I hand out leaflets:
STAY HIGH FOREVER
No More Coming Down
Practice Krishna Consciousness
Expand your consciousness by chanting the
Transcendental Sound Vibration
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare
This chanting will cleanse the dust from the mirror of the mind and free you from all material contamination. It is practical and self-evident without artificial aid. Try it and be blissful all the time. End all bringdowns! Turn on through music, dance, philosophy, science, religion and prasadam (spiritual food). Join the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
Although Polish housewives throw the leaflets away, the young renegades from American suburbia like the idea of staying high forever. Granted, staying high forever may not be the ideal impetus for pure devotional service, but the message to chant Hare Krishna gets across. Moreover, Swamiji approved the leaflet: “Yes, stay high forever! That’s the idea! Yes! No more coming down to this material world!”
“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna,” we continue into the late afternoon. Swamiji’s fingers are red from beating the little drum, but he doesn’t slow down. Only he can light the fuse to set off the Hare Krishna explosion.
When dusk approaches, he brings the chanting to a close. We roll up the carpet as people enquire about the temple. The Times reporter, remarkably, returns with us to Matchless Gifts and sits downstairs with Swamiji to talk. Acyutananda brings him a bowl of sweetballs.
The next morning, Monday, October 10, The New York Times prints a photograph of Swamiji seated on the carpet, pounding the bongo drum while Brahmananda and Acyutananda dance in front of him. The headline: “SWAMI’S FLOCK CHANTS IN PARK TO FIND ECSTASY.”
Swamiji smiles broadly when he sees the write-up. “Very nice. Now we can continue this program every Sunday.”
Before our next park kirtan, however, we receive a big, unexpected publicity boost. The East Village Other, a local underground newspaper with a good circulation on the Lower East Side, prints a full front page photo of Swamiji standing beneath an oak in Tompkins Square, a crowd clustered around him. The headlines: “SAVE EARTH NOW! HARE KRISHNA, HARE KRISHNA, KRISHNA KRISHNA, HARE HARE, HARE RAMA, HARE RAMA, RAMA RAMA, HARE HARE.”
We rush the first copy to Swamiji, and when he sees it, he breaks into a smile. We read it aloud for him.
An old man, one year past his allotted threescore and ten, wandered into New York’s East Village and set about to prove to the world that he knew where God could be found. In only three months, the man, Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta, succeeded in convincing the world’s toughest audience—bohemians, acid heads, pot heads and hippies—that he knew the way to God: Turn Off, Sing Out, and Fall In. This new brand of holyman. with all due deference to Dr. Leary, has come forth with a brand of “consciousness expansion” that’s sweeter than acid, cheaper than pot, and non-bustable by fuzz. How is this all possible? “Through Krishna,” the Swami says.
“What are these hippies?” Swamiji asks.
We try to explain as best we can.
“I’m afraid that many people would consider us hippies,” I say.
“No, we’re happies,” Swamiji laughs. “But whatever you once were, Krishna will change you. Right?”
We also have to explain “acid heads,” “pot,” and “fuzz,” and when Swamiji understands, he smiles, and says, “Yes, that is right. Krishna consciousness may seem like poison in the beginning, but it is nectar in the end. So it is sweeter.” Then: “Who is this Dr. Leary?”
We explain that he’s the leader of the psychedelic movement and has just founded the LSD (League for Spiritual Discovery) church.
“He claims that LSD is an easy means to God realization,” Kirtanananda says.
“Then his God is LSD,” Swamiji says. “If he claims that you can reach God through LSD, then LSD is stronger than God. But we do not say like that. His means are artificial. And risky. What will he do when there is no more LSD? Is LSD eternal? Is God so cheap that He can be reached by simply taking a pill? Yogis perform many lifetimes of austerities and still do not see God. And in Bhagavad-gita, Krishna says that He can be reached only by the path of pure, unalloyed devotion. After many, many births, the man of knowledge surrenders to Krishna because he knows that Krishna is everything. But this Dr. Leary is saying surrender to LSD. That is nonsense. Such people are misled and misleading.“
We chant in Tompkins Square Park every Sunday through October, and after each kirtan, more people follow Swamiji back to Matchless Gifts. Thanks to the East Village Other article and these park kirtans, we quickly become known on the Lower East Side as The Hare Krishna People.
A CBS television news team visits Matchless Gifts and films a lecture by Swamiji and a kirtan. “Happiness on Second Avenue” is the theme. They decide not to use the interview with Swamiji because “his accent is too heavy.” Kirtanananda tells how Krishna consciousness embraces all faiths. Brahmananda is a football tackle turned Saint Peter. I tell how chanting has converted Lower East Side youth from LSD madness. They film us leaving the temple to go on street sankirtan. Satsvarupa, Acyutananda, and Strydhisa clash cymbals. I follow, pounding a big bass drum.
Not all news write-ups are flattering, however. The National Insider, a less successful version of The National Enquirer, headlines: “NEW INDIAN RELIGION SENDS YOU HIGHER THAN LSD.” We shudder at a photo of Rayarama dancing, captioned: “Cultist about to go into a trance.”
Following Swamiji’s advice, I write the Mayor of New York. His secretary replies: “Mayor Lindsay is most appreciative of the work that your Society is doing, especially in the realm of combatting drug addiction.“
He promises to forward my letter to the City Narcotics Coordinator.
Meanwhile, we tell the hippies that chanting gets you higher than LSD, just as The National Insider said.
A wide-eyed, bearded youth comes up to Swamiji’s apartment unannounced.
“I’m higher than you are,” he tells Swamiji.
“Please accept my humble obeisances,” Swamiji says, bowing slightly.
“I’m higher than you are,” the young man insists, intent on more than mere acknowledgment. “Today I heard the Big Voice.”
Brahmananda gently, diplomatically removes him.
“Please do not let in any more crazies,” Swamiji finally tells us. Then: “If you tell people that they are in the grasp of material nature, they will not understand you. They’re so accustomed to suffering that they mistake their suffering for happiness. The real proprietor of this body is Krishna, and the soul within the body is part of Krishna. Krishna is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. He is not entrapped by material nature. We are conditioned souls, but we can never escape from this conditioning by trying to convince ourselves that we are God. Now they are taking some intoxicants, LSD, and convincing themselves that they are God for a short time, and then they have to come down, and again and again undergo the same process, and all the time they are being bound by some material chemical—LSD. In this way, they get involved in material nature all the more. Therefore this Krishna consciousness is needed. It is the greatest boon to society because it can free everyone from the bonds of material nature. There is nothing material about Krishna consciousness. The names of Krishna are purely spiritual and liberating.”
In the evenings, due to increased kirtan attendance, the Matchless Gifts storefront overflows to the sidewalk outside. One night, Ginsberg brings Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs rock group. The Fugs pride themselves on being the most verbally obscene rock group on earth. After a vivacious kirtan, Swamiji delivers a “sex is stool” lecture. Sanders and Kupferberg sit and stare in disbelief, Sanders’s long red hair and beard bristling in protest. After all, he’s the singer of “Group Grope” and “Slum Goddess of The Lower East Side.”
Swamiji quotes the great sage Yamunacharya: “Since I have been engaged in the transcendental service of Sri Krishna, whenever I think of sex, my lips curl, and I spit at the thought.”
The Fugs never return.
Of course, many come looking for miracles. Wanting to be “zapped,” they expect to receive an immediate electrical jolt from the guru.
“What is that ‘zap’?” Swamiji asks. “Why not put your hand in a socket? These are cheap show-bottle tricks. In drugstores, they keep some big bottle with tinted water to attract customers. There is no real medicine inside, just water. So we call this a show-bottle. Show-bottle yogis throw some sparks or produce a little gold, and people think, ‘How wonderful! He has produced some gold.’ They do not stop to consider that there are many gold mines in the world, and so what is this little gold worth? No. A real yogi does not resort to such cheap tricks. And some people think that if they grow long hair and beards, they will become yogis. That is more nonsense. These are not yogis, but bogies.”
Posters of bearded Swami Satchitananda, who offers an amalgam of yogas, abound throughout Manhattan. His disciples visit, but they are not impressed by Swamiji. No beard. No zaps.
But if one looks carefully, he can perceive certain subtle, transcendental marks: Swamiji’s large ears, shaped like a Buddha’s. (“This boy hears nicely.”) And the myriad expressions of his eyes, displaying the whole range of human sentiments—love, devotion, tolerance, disapproval, humor, sympathy, fervor—as well as transcendental emotions unfamiliar to us. And his natural, aristocratic gestures. (“The transcendental autocrat!”) The more we acquire devotion to him, the more his unique features and qualities manifest, and we come to see him as a purely transcendental personality.
“He looks like a Buddha,” a girl whispers one day.
“I saw leprechauns running around his feet,” another says.
When Yogi Dinkar, a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, comes to visit, Swamiji invites him to speak at an evening kirtan. Yogi Dinkar is a thin, white-haired gentleman from Brooklyn. “I sense greatness here,” he says. “This is real yoga. I have been to many yoga meetings and heard many speeches on Bhagavad-gita, but here I sense real greatness. There is no doubt of this.”
“When you meet Swamijl,” one boy says, “you feel like you’ve travelled all over the world countless lifetimes just to see and hear him.“
There are other initiations: Brahmananda’s younger brother Greg becomes Gargamuni. Then there is Ranchor, a student recruited from Tompkins Square Park. Bob Corens, a social worker, becomes Rupanuga. Dan Clark, an avant-garde filmmaker, becomes Damodar. Judy Koslofsky, an art student from City College, becomes Jadurani.
Jadurani is our first brahmacharini, unmarried female devotee. At first, Swamiji, in accordance with Vaishnava tradition, was not going to accept female devotees, but the social situation in America changed his mind. Time and circumstance. After all, as Americans, we are fallen mleechas—meat eaters. “If nothing else, just get them to chant Hare Krishna and take prasadam,” Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had enjoined.
Swamiji decided to accept the girls, initiate them, and then get them married. In the Vedic tradition, women are never allowed independence. They are meant for marriage, for bearing children, cleaning the home, cooking, helping the husband progress in Krishna consciousness, churning butter.
“By churning butter, they develop good bodies,” Swamiji smiles.
Jadurani is nineteen and very pretty. She’s an artist, and Swamiji immediately engages her in painting pictures of the four-armed Narayana forms.
At first, there is some resentment toward Jadurani. Stryadhisa seems most disturbed. A girl is simply a distraction. Others also criticize, but Jadurani quietly sits in the corner of the little altar room and paints.
Her Narayana is too muscular, Swamiji complains, too much in the style of the passionate Michaelangelo. “Muscular bodies are in the mode of passion,” he says, “spiritual bodies are not. The mundane conception of beauty is simply passionate. Try again. Less muscle. No, not fat. God is not fat. Nor lean. Lean men look like wolves, hungry wolves hunting for sex.”
Poor Jadurani begins to wonder: Neither muscular, nor lean, nor fat. What, then, is God’s somatotype?
“Perfect beauty,” Swamiji says. “Beauty complete and full. When we see Krishna, we will want nothing to do with the so-called beauty of the material world. Krishna’s beauty is attracting everything in the creation—great demigods, men, women, even plants and animals. That beauty is unlimited. What we call beauty here is but a perverted reflection.”
Jadurani tries again. She paints dozens of Narayana’s with rounded, idealized features and large, teardrop-shaped eyes. No one, I think, at any time ever looked like that, except in nursery book fantasies. But Swamiji is pleased.
“Yes, you are making progress,” he tells Jadurani.
Three blocks away, someone throws a piano out onto the street. Vandals smash it up until only the core remains. Acyutananda and I borrow a dolly, and we wheel the piano innards to Matchless Gifts and set them in the back.
“What is that?” Swamiji asks.
“Piano strings,” I say. “For kirtan.”
At kirtan’s climax, we pound our fists on the bare strings. The din can be heard to Houston Street. Burton Green, a pianist specializing in “getting into the piano,” joins in. He invites Swamiji to his current recital at Town Hall, and Swamiji politely accepts.
At the concert, Burton soon abandons the keyboard and leans inside the piano to beat on the strings with hammers. Swamiji sits chanting quietly on his beads, ignoring the discords. Hermaphroditic-looking poets recite garbage, fortunately too incoherent for him to understand. During the intermission, when Burton asks Swamiji if he is enjoying it, he politely says yes. It is past his usual hour to retire, and we suggest leaving, but Burton begs us to stay for the second half, and Swamiji acquiesces.
After the concert, we walk to Broadway to take the downtown subway. Pointing to the lights of Times Square, Swamiji tells us that when he first arrived in New York, he was surprised to see billboards openly advertising sex movies—something never seen in India. Recalling some of the movie titles, he laughs.
“Walking down the road, a man sees some stool,” he says, “and the stool is soft, and he thinks, ‘This is nasty.’ And a little further down the road, he again sees stool, but it has been in the sun for some time, and because it is hard, the man thinks, ‘This is good.’ But he does not stop to consider that hard or soft, stool is stool. Pleasure or pain—they are the same. In this material world, pleasure is simply hard stool. But we are thinking it is so nice.”
Afterwards, Swamiji confides to Brahmananda that he went to the concert just to see Town Hall.
“I’m thinking of renting it,” he says. “We may give some program there.“
It is beautiful autumn weather, and Swamiji accepts an invitation to Dr. Mishra’s Ananda Ashram upstate. Swamiji was introduced to Ramamurti Mishra soon after arriving in the United States, and Mishra welcomed and accomodated him at his yoga studio in the West Seventies and at Ananda Ashram.
Actually, Mishra was at philosophical loggerheads with Swamiji, and he had even requested that Swamiji not lecture at his yoga studio. Mishra preached Mayavadi impersonalism: at death one merges with the Absolute and becomes eternally formless. The “We Are God” school. Over the years, Mishra had managed to print one book on hatha-yoga and attract a small following. Now, since Mishra is in India, Ananda Ashram thought it a good time to invite the controversial Swamiji.
The ashram, near Monroe, New York, a two-hour drive from Manhattan, is certainly idyllic. A large white mansion and several small buildings overlook a tranquil mountain lake. We all feel a tinge of envy that we cannot afford such a place for Swamiji, and regret that after the weekend he has to return to the urban squalor of the Lower East Side. Still, we hope that some day we’ll be able to present him something even grander.
Mishra’s group clearly divides into two camps: The elderly widows hold the purse, and the young hipsters hang on. Eyes closed, they all sit in lotus position, holding their breath and meditating on Om, the impersonal aspect of God.
“Krishna contains Om,” Swamiji tells us. “In Bhagavad-gita, Krishna says that Brahman, the impersonal brahmajyoti effulgence, is contained in Him. So when we chant Hare Krishna, we are automatically chanting Om as well.”
The first night at the ashram, Kirtanananda, Acyutananda, Brahmananda, Gargamuni, Satsvarupa, Umapati, Stryadhisa, and I sleep outside in our sleeping bags. I awake three or four times, and each time I’m flat on my back looking up at the ever shifting star patterns, my sense of time confused.
Sometime just before morning, I dream.
I dream of devotees clustered about an effulgent, golden personality. His transcendental body, radiating a beauty strange to the world, captivates everyone. Stunned, I enquire, “Who is he?”
“Don’t you know?” someone says. “That’s Swamiji!”
I look again, but see no resemblance. The golden person, seeming no older than twenty, appears to have descended straight from the Vaikuntha planets.
“If that’s Swamiji,” I wonder to myself, “why doesn’t he come to earth like that?”
A voice somewhere within answers: “People would follow me for my beauty, not my teachings.”
Then, astonishingly enough, I see the radiant personality turn into Swamiji and then quickly back into the beautiful demigod. He does this several times, and I watch awestruck.
And I awake with the dream clear in my mind, more like a vision than a dream. I feel strangely refreshed, as though bathed in some unknown balm. Again, I see that the constellations have shifted and that the dimmer stars have faded into the encroaching dawn.
Pondering what I had seen, I recall Swamiji’s saying that although most dreams are simply functions of the mind, dreams of the spiritual master are of spiritual significance.
“If the guru gives instructions in a dream,” he told me, “the disciple is supposed to follow them.”
Then: “I came to the West after my spiritual master repeatedly advised me in a number of dreams.”
I lie still, watching the now waning stars in the clear air and thinking about the golden demigod.
Then dawn begins to break.
Kirtanananda, Acyutananda, Stryadhisa, and I stand beside the mansion watching the sun rise gloriously over the mountains, spreading bursts of purple, gold, and scarlet. The colors reflect in the lake, a mirror without a ripple. Just as the colors heighten to their full splendor, we hear a tapping on the window behind us. It is Swamiji beckoning for us to join him inside for morning kirtan.
“Nature is very beautiful,” he tells us. “The whole creation is very grand, but we should not become so attracted to it that we forget its creator. Here in this world, everyone is enamoured with the creation, but no one knows the creator.”
We sit on little cushions beside the living room wall. To our left, French windows open out on a view of the mountains and the early morning sun. To our right, another sun: Swamiji. Playing cymbals that flash in the sunbeams, he leads us in chanting Hare Krishna.
Our chanting awakes Mishra’s younger disciples. One by one, they descend the stairs into the living room, sit in lotus position, and begin deep breathing exercises. Stryadhisa bounds around the room like an ecstatic kangaroo, his arms flapping in the air. Acyutananda dances like a tiny dervish. Kirtanananda plays harmonium. Ching ching ching, the cymbals strike the rhythm.
After the chanting, the ashram’s president gives a short talk praising our kirtan as an expression of the highest types of yoga. The elderly widows enter. Enlivened by Swamiji’s presence, they begin talking about their mystical experiences.
“When I meditate,” one lady says, “I feel just like a drop of water entering the great ocean and merging, merging, merging.…
“That is not correct,” Swamiji says abruptly.
The lady is jolted out of her rapturous recall.
“When you use a simile or metaphor,” he continues, “all the elements should correspond, otherwise it is faulty. First of all, a drop can never merge with the complete ocean. A drop is eternally a drop, nothing more. And even if it did somehow manage to merge with the rest of the water, it can never become everything in the ocean because it would remain distinct from the great ocean denizens. You cannot deny that there are great fishes swimming there. So how can you become the whole ocean and merge with it if you are just a drop? And how can you know of the inhabitants of the ocean? No. For a simile to be correct, all elements must correspond. This is a faulty simile used by the Mayavadis to mislead.”
The elderly ladies sit shocked. The drop in the ocean is one of Mishra’s favorite examples.
Whenever they bring up a point made by Mishra, Swamiji attacks. He knows Mishra. He considers his philosophy “disguised atheism, worse than Buddhism.” To our surprise, as the ladies continue presenting Mishra’s philosophy, Swamiji begins to shout his rebuttals. Soon, the ladies lapse into silence. The younger disciples sit in lotus position and stare at their noses. Our eyes are fixed on Swamiji.
We remain at Ananda Ashram two days, then return to the city.
The Lower East Side is an Iron Age jolt after the quiet, autumnal Catskills, but once we are sitting in Swamiji’s room eating sweetballs and listening to him talk, we forget the environs. Ananda Ashram may have the splendor of the sun, moon, and stars, but we have Swamiji.
We receive an invitation from Swami Nikhilananda of the uptown Ramakrishna Mission. Since Swamiji has referred to Ramakrishna as “that mad, impotent monk,” I ask whether we should accept.
“Yes, why not? You may go with one other brahmachari and tell them something of our philosophy.”
Acyutananda and I go, wearing robes. When we enter the lecture room, Swami Nikhilananda is on stage giving a talk. The audience consists of elderly ladies and Ivy League young men wearing suits with vests. Swami Nikhilananda, a trim gentleman in his fifties, is clean shaved and dressed in a suit. I feel uncomfortably exotic in my robes, until I see one lady in a sari.
Nikhilananda tells us that life is a great play in which we all have a role as saint, lover, soldier, or thief. Our role really doesn’t matter. At the end of the play, we all go back stage and shake hands with the Producer, who congratulates us, more or less, on our performance.
After the lecture, we’re invited to the salon upstairs. We decline white wine and coffee.
“Not even a little coffee?” Nikhilananda asks, surprised.
“Not even tea,” I say. He lights up a cigaret. “Nor cigarettes.”
“Yes,” he smiles. “I see that Swamiji is teaching pure yoga. This is very difficult for you Westerners, no? Yet he is having some measure of success, I hear, especially among the young drug addicts. He is doing good to get them to stop taking LSD and marijuana. You must congratulate him.”
“And illicit sex, meat eating, and gambling,” Acyutananda says. “Not even eggs.”
“Not eggs!” Nikhilananda shakes his head. “Well then, you must tell me how to give up these cigarettes.”
“Chant Hare Krishna,” I suggest. “You can’t smoke while chanting.”
“Heavens!” he laughs. “Yes, chanting!” He looks at one of the Yale men. “Maybe you can heat them up some milk,” he says.
Back at Matchless Gifts, we tell Swamiji about our meeting.
“Just see!” he says. “Swami means one who can control the senses, and he wants to know how to stop smoking. So what is this nonsense?”
“Well, most of his following are old ladies,” I say.
“Yes,” Swamiji laughs. I have seen them. The cheaters and the cheated. Because they’re just about to die, they take to this yoga and that, and pay money to some charlatan to teach them all nonsense. But you can see that none of my disciples are old. The oldest is twenty-six, twenty-eight. All you young men have your lives before you, and much energy to spread this movement. This is what is wanted. So Krishna is sending you to help me. I cannot do it alone. I am old and may die at any moment, but you are young and full of energy. So don’t spoil your lives. Take to Krishna consciousness and be happy.”
Although Swamiji only reads the Vedic literatures, he sometimes quotes William Cowper (“England, with all thy faults, I love thee still.”); Samuel Butler (“He that complies against his will, is of his own opinion still.”); Milton (“Freely we serve, because we freely love.”); and Shakespeare (“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, are of imagination all compact.”). I am surprised therefore when Swamiji calls the great Bard a mundane poet. Riled, I jump to Shakespeare’s defense.
“When you are in Krishna consciousness, you can see that all the great poets and artists are praising the Supreme Personality of Godhead,” Swamiji says. “All glorious and beautiful things in this world are coming from just a tiny spark of Krishna’s potencies, and poets are always writing about these things. So, in that indirect way, they are praising Krishna. But because they do not know it, they are not in Krishna consciousness. Our method is to praise Krishna directly. Shakespeare may be a very great poet by literary standards, but because he does not praise Krishna directly, we call him mundane.”
“Shakespeare often wrote about ghosts,” Stryadhisa says. “Do they actually exist?”
“Yes, and they are always causing disturbances,” Swamiji says with such assurance that I expect to see one fly by.
“People who commit suicide become ghosts. It is a very horrible state. Disembodied. They often look for bodies to inhabit, and sometimes they inhabit bodies of drunkards. And drunkards sometimes become ghosts, too. It is a horrible state because ghosts want to be embodied. And when a person is too much attached to some house or place, he becomes a ghost just to remain there. But there’s one sure way to get rid of ghosts. Chant Hare Krishna. Ghosts will not remain where there is hari-nama.”
“That is artificial philosophy. How will people ever be equal? In Bhagavad-gita, Krishna says, ‘I instituted the four castes.’ In every society you have brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and sudras. By natural propensity, a man is an intellectual or priest, soldier, merchant, or worker. These four castes will always be there in all societies, even in Russia. This is not caste by birth, but by qualification, by guna, the material mode predominant in each individual. So Marxist socialism is artificial because it tries to make everyone equal, and this will never be possible because individuality is always there. The only real socialism is Lord Chaitanya’s spiritual socialism. Whether one is man, woman, brahmin, sudra, Hindu, Moslem, Christian, American, Indian—it doesn’t matter. Krishna is for everybody.”
“That’s government by the people, by the majority. But if we can expect no good from the majority in this age of Kali, then what of their government? They will elect rascals, that’s all. The majority will elect anyone who promises to gratify their senses. What is required is a Krishna conscious king advised by qualified brahmins. That is the Vedic way. A spiritual aristocracy. When the leaders are Krishna conscious, the state functions properly. But materialistic democracy and socialism or whatever—these become dog-eat-dog societies.”
Umapati and I are concerned over Swamiji’s attacks on the Buddhists. Although Gautama Buddha is mentioned in Srimad-Bhagavatam as an avatar, Swamiji relegates his gospel to a mere attack on animal slaughter.
“Lord Buddha came to earth to preach ahimsa,” he tells us. “Nonviolence. And in order to do this, he had to deny the Vedas because the Vedas permit animal sacrifice under certain conditions. So Buddha rejected the Vedas and preached nirvana, void: Since life is suffering, best to negate everything. Yes, material life is suffering, but God is not void. God is a person, and human life is a means for us to awaken our relationship with this Supreme Person. Therefore we call the Buddhist philosophy atheistic.”
When Umapati and I return to Mott Street, we discuss Swamiji’s lecture.
“What of the eternal and omniscient Tathagatas?”
“Don’t they exist in the realm of nirvana? And isn’t nirvana emptiness with form?”
“And what about Buddha? Isn’t he worshipped as the embodiment of the Tathagatas?”
While we are criticizing Swamiji’s attack on Buddhism, Kirtanananda comes in and announces that he’s leaving the Swami. “I just don’t like what’s going on,” he says.
“That’s just what we were talking about,” Umapati says.
“You fools!” Kirtanananda says, suddenly turning against us. He had lied just to get our confidence. “Do you think I would ever leave the Swami? You won’t solve anything by sitting in here complaining. You have to go and talk to him.”
Finally agreeing, we approach Swamiji in his back apartment.
“There are some points we’re having trouble understanding,” I begin, speaking softly.
“And what is that?” Swamiji asks, ready for anything. I feel smaller and smaller.
“Why do you call the Buddhists atheists?” I manage to ask.
“Because they are,” he says.
“But we don’t understand that,” I persist. “That just contradicts the Sutras we’ve read.”
“They have no personal conception of God,” he replies, “and they deny the Vedas. Therefore they’re atheists.”
This doesn’t satisfy me. It seems an oversimplification.
“But atheists don’t believe in a Supreme Being or supreme consciousness behind the universe,” I venture. “As far as I can see, when Buddha or the Buddhists speak of divine consciousness or the one mind, they’re speaking about God, and so they can’t properly be called atheists.”
I ventured too far. Swamiji suddenly jumps to his feet.
“If I say they’re atheists, they’re atheists!” he shouts, pointing to emphasize every word. “They deny Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and they deny the Vedas, and they reject Vedic culture, and therefore they’re atheists!”
We haven’t seen him so angry since he yelled at Kirtanananda. I want to hide under the rug. I fear that if he doesn’t quiet down, something terrible might happen. And my stupid questions responsible!
“Yes, of course,” I quickly agree, trying to rectify my affront.
Swamiji sits back behind the footlocker, his fury seeming to leave as quickly as it came. After a long silence, I suggest that I thought I had recalled reading certain passages in which Buddha might have spoken of God.
“Then you bring such passages,” he says. “But you will find that there are none.”
That evening on Mott Street, we thumb through the Buddhist Sutras without finding any overt mention of God, at least not in the Vedic sense. God is only vaguely implied by “divine consciousness” and the “Tathagatas,” which seem to have some attributes of God. Swamiji’s right. From the Vedic viewpoint, Buddha is certainly an atheist.
Nonetheless, we choose passages that best support our case and take them to Swamiji.
“You’re right,” I begin. “There’s no mention of God.”
“But we found some passages that imply—”
He shakes his head, indicating that I’m not to bother. “A preacher has to attack, he says, ending the discussion.
I feel very small and very stupid, a dumb oaf before majesty, a pedantic bookworm before divine grace.
Swamiji is worried about Stryadhisa, who eats only when prodded. He’s a tall, thin boy, and his self-imposed fast is making him look like a war prisoner. I figure he’s enjoying a starvation high. He must be chanting over a hundred rounds a day, and he sleeps no more than two or three hours. His glazed eyes are sunk in dark caverns. Chanting rapidly on his beads in a soft voice, he ignores all other devotees.
“Why are you doing this?” Swamiji asks him. “You must eat more to maintain your health.”
“Yes, Swamiji,” Stryadhisa says. He bows, goes down to the temple and eats half a chapati and a couple of spoonfuls of dal, chanting between bites.
“Bhagavad-gita says that this yoga is not for him who eats too little or too much,” we tell him. Pretending not to hear, he goes on chanting.
“Krishna says that those who fast too much are demonic,” Gargamuni tells him.
“Hare Krishna,” Stryadhisa says.
“You can’t take the kingdom of God by storm,” Kirtanananda warns.
“Hare Krishna, Hare Rama,” Stryadhisa says, his eyes wide and glassy in his bony face.
A big event! Larry Bogart, a friend of Swamiji who works at the United Nations and who helped Swamiji incorporate ISKCON, is coming to visit, and Swamiji himself helps Kirtanananda and Acyutananda prepare a special feast.
“No one is to disturb me now,” he tells Stryadhisa, and Stryadhisa goes downstairs to sit guard.
When Larry Bogart comes a little early, Stryadhisa meets him at the temple door.
“Swamiji is busy right now,” he says. “Maybe you’d like to come in and wait.”
Mr. Bogart enters, and Stryadhisa arranges a folding chair.
“Would you please take off your shoes?” Stryadhisa requests.
Mr. Bogart complies. Stryadhisa hands him a copy of “Who Is Crazy?”
Mr. Bogart waits patiently for a half hour. Then he requests Stryadhisa to inform Swamiji that he is waiting. After all, Mr. Bogart is an important man.
“But Swamiji told me that no one is to disturb him,” Stryadhisa says.
“Then tell him I dropped by,” Mr. Bogart says, putting on his shoes and leaving.
As Swamiji prepares the feast, he mentions Mr. Bogart’s tardiness. Finally, as the feast is nearly ready, he tells Kirtanananda to phone the U.N. to see if he is coming.
Stryadhisa enters, chanting furiously.
“Mr. Bogart was in to see you, Swamiji,” he says.
“Well, send him in,” Swamiji says.
“He waited and then left. He told me to tell you.”
“What? He has been and left? Why didn’t you bring him up?”
“You told me no one was to disturb you, Swamiji,” Stryadhisa says.
“But—Mr. Bogart … a very important gentleman … We were expecting…” Then Swamiji explodes. “Fool! Stupid! Rascal! Nonsense!”
Before Swamiji’s chastisement, Stryadhisa is crushed. He makes a perfunctory bow and runs out.
Stryadhisa doesn’t eat for two days. He sits in the temple corner and chants.
“Tell him he must eat,” Swamiji says, disturbed.
“You must eat,” we tell Stryadhisa. “Swamiji says.”
“Harekrishnaharekrishnakrishnakrishnaharehare,” Stryadhisa rambles, not even looking up.
“He’s in maya,” Gargamuni says.
Finally, Stryadhisa goes alone to see Swamiji. He asks for some money. Very little. Only a half dollar.
“What for?” Swamiji asks.
“For some gasoline, so I can burn myself up.”
Calling in Brahmananda, Swamiji tells Stryadhisa to repeat his request.
“Please, Swamiji, “ Stryadhisa says. “It was rather confidential.”
We confer on what to do. In Vietnam, Buddhist monks are daily burning themselves up like matchsticks. All we need to close us down is a Second Avenue incineration. And Swamiji would surely be deported.
We finally phone Stryadhisa’s mother, who comes and takes him home.
We don’t quite know what to make of all this. Stryadhisa was certainly chanting enough.
“You can’t take the kingdom of God by storm,” Kirtanananda concludes.
“He disobeyed Swamiji,” Gargamuni says, scooping up another sweetball. “He wouldn’t eat.”
We never mention Stryadhisa again. We know that for Swamiji, it is like losing a son.
In the evening, sitting on a little bench out in the courtyard, Swamiji tells us that if he could just make one person Krishna conscious, he would consider his mission successful.
“Now more people are coming to the kirtans because we are getting some notice in the papers,” he says. “But because I do not lie to them and tell them they can be Krishna conscious while having sense gratification, they go away. What am I to do? Change Krishna’s message to suit Americans? That cannot be done. It is not my message to change. I can only deliver it as it is. If I have to sit under a tree with just one sincere disciple, that will be all right. We do not require many stars. just one moon. One moon will light up the sky.“
We all look at one another, each of us yearning to be a moon for Swamiji. But the dark clouds of ignorance and forgetfulness are hard to disperse.
“Do you ever think of returning to Vrindaban, Swamiji?” Rayarama asks.
“My heart is always hankering after that Vrindaban,” he says, smiling. “Even though I am sitting in New York, a magnificent city, the world’s greatest city, I shall be very happy to return to my Vrindaban, that sacred place. Of course, if someone asks, ‘Then why are you here?’ I must say that it is my duty. I have brought some message for you people. My Guru Maharaj has ordered me, ‘Whatever you have learned, whatever knowledge you have, you should go to the Western countries and distribute It.’ So, in spite of all difficulties, I am here. If I go and sit down in Vrindaban, I would be very comfortable there and have no anxiety. But I have taken these risks in old age because I am duty bound. In spite of all inconveniences, I have to execute my duty. That is the basic principle for advancement of spiritual knowledge.”
“Maybe someday you can take us to Vrindaban,” Klirtanananda suggests. “We would all like to go there with you.”
“Yes,” Swamiji laughs. “You will like it there. In time, we will go , But actually we are already residing in Vrindaban, the place of Krishna. Now I am in America, but this does not mean that I am out of Vrindaban. If we think of Krishna always, we are always in Vrindaban. In New York, I am still in Vrindaban because my consciousness is there. Krishna consciousness means living with Krishna in that spiritual planet, Goloka Vrindaban. You simply have to wait to give up this body. That is the process. Ananya-chetah satatam yo mam smarati nityasah. For one who remembers Krishna, Krishna becomes a very cheap commodity. ‘Oh, I am very cheap for the devotees,’ Krishna says. The greatest, most valuable thing becomes cheap for one who takes to Krishna consciousness. Tasyaham sulabhah partha nitya-yuktasya yoginah: ‘Because My devotee is continually engaged in bhakti-yoga, I am easily available.
Swamiji pauses a moment and looks at us. “Of course, you may think it is sometimes not so easy,” he says, reading our thoughts and smiling. “Sometimes, when the moon is covered by clouds, we think it is not there because everything is dark. But when the clouds pass, we see that the moon has been there all the time, shining in all its brightness. This Krishna consciousness movement is that benediction moon, shining through the clouds of Kali-yuga.”