Second Avenue Fire Sacrifice (Chapter 4)

The Hare Krishna Explosion
by Hayagriva Prabhu

Part I: New York, 1966
Chapter 4

Second Avenue Fire Sacrifice

September 8, 1966. Janmastami. Lord Krishna, we learn, is not born like an ordinary child. He appears. Five thousand years ago, in Mathura, India, He appeared as four-armed Narayana, attired in His transcendental garments. At His mother’s request, He assumed a two-armed form, like an ordinary child. Sri Krishna is most obliging to His devotees.

“Today we will fast,” Swamiji tells us. “Normally we do not fast all day. Krishna consciousness is not for one who eats too much or too little. Gandhi fasted many days for political reasons, but we don’t. In Bhagavad-gita, that kind of fasting is considered rajasic, or passionate. We fast according to regulations: Ekadasi, the eleventh day of the full moon, we take no grains. That is a partial fast. And Janmastami, there is complete fast all day until midnight. So today we will fast and chant, and tomorrow there will be initiation.”

There are eleven of us to be initiated. Roy buys us beads for chanting, a hundred and eight round wooden beads the size of marbles. Standing in the courtyard behind the temple, I string them into a rosary called a japa-mala. While chanting, I carefully slide each bright, red bead up the string and then knot it. It takes hours to complete knotting all the beads. When I ask Swamiji why there are a hundred and eight, he tells me that they represent the gopis, the Vrindaban cowherd girls beloved of Lord Krishna.

In the afternoon, Stanley and I walk over to the Orchard Street flea market, buy cotton cloth, and dye it saffron in Swamiji’s bathtub. We then cut the cloth in lengths of about four yards for robes. Stanley even goes so far as to shave his head, but the rest of us balk at this, especially after seeing what happened to Keith. Besides, many of us wear long hair with a certain perverse pride, considering that it identifies us as members of the hip scene. We are the Hair Generation.

“In Kali-yuga, people think they will be beautiful just by wearing long hair,” Swamiji says. “That is the verdict of Srimad-Bhagavatam. “

We deliberate on this. Mercifully, Swamiji does not insist on our shaving, nor on the wearing of robes. When, in the late afternoon, some of us become restless and hungry from fasting, Swamiji tells us that there’s fruit in the refrigerator.

“If you are feeling weak, take,” he says.

We don’t, but allow ourselves some water instead. For most of us, fasting until midnight is the most severe austerity we have ever undertaken.

After evening kirtan, we request Swamiji to read from his new manuscript, and he sends Roy upstairs to bring down his translation of Bhagavad-gita. This, we feel, is a special event. At last we won’t have to hear the impersonalist Radhakrishnan translation! As in the First Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, the translations are supplemented with Swamiji’s elaborate purports explaining all aspects of the verse in the Vaishnava personalist tradition.

After the reading, Swamiji relates the story of Lord Krishna’s appearance some five thousand years ago.

“Those who can understand the nature of Krishna’s advent are not born again,” he says, “but attain the abode of Krishna. That is Sri Krishna’s promise to Arjuna in the battlefield.”

He then tells of the midnight birth of Lord Krishna in the prison of His demonic uncle, King Kamsa.

“The Lord’s appearance can be likened to the rising of the full moon in the sky,” he tells us. “He appeared to His devotee-parents, Vasudeva and Devaki, fully decorated, dressed in yellow silks, holding in His four hands the conch shell, club, disc, and lotus flower, and wearing beautiful ornaments. Since the evil King Kamsa was killing all of Devaki’s children, Vasudeva took Krishna to Vrindaban, where He was raised as the son of Nanda Maharaj, a wealthy owner of many cowherds.”

After describing the birth of Lord Krishna, Swamiji begins to talk of tomorrow’s initiation, telling us that there are four basic restrictions for all initiates: No meat eating (including eggs and fish), no gambling, no illicit sex, and no intoxicants (including alcohol, cigarets, LSD, marijuana, tea, and coffee).

“For spiritual advancement, purification is necessary,” he says. “Some so-called devotees smoke and drink and talk about Krishna, but this is a mockery. To really understand Krishna, we must be pure inside and out. Only pure chanting can bring real spiritual advancement. Beginners may tend to relax their efforts, but to advance, we must constantly increase our efforts and devotion. It is difficult for a beginner to follow these regulative principles and keep his mind on Krishna if he associates with skeptics; therefore we’ve established this society.

“Years ago, when one of my God-brothers went to England, one certain aristocrat asked, ‘What can I do to become a brahmin?’ My God-brother told him that first of all he must refrain from meat eating, intoxication, gambling, and illicit sex. ‘Impossible!’ the aristocrat replied.” Swamiji laughs heartily. “He was thinking that this is impossible because material life revolves around these four sinful activities. People are working hard day and night just to enjoy these four pillars of Kali-yuga. Kali-yuga is the most degraded age, and Maharaj Parikshit restricted the personality Kali to live in places where these four sinful activities take place. So you must very carefully avoid them. By chanting regularly and maintaining these regulative principles, you can make progress. There’s no doubt.

All the rules set us pondering, but no one says anything. What are we to do? Object? Complain? How will it be possible to change overnight the habits of a lifetime, or several lifetimes? If we truly desired to change our lives, we would throw ourselves at the feet of Lord Krishna and rely on His protection. But what do we know of Krishna? We can only look toward Swamiji. “Whatever impedes Krishna consciousness should be rejected, he says, “and whatever helps should be accepted.” Before his purity, sex, meat eating, intoxication, and gambling seem nasty indeed. They are anarthas, unwanted things.

“Your sinful karma is like a revolving fan,” Swamiji explains. “By chanting Hare Krishna, you turn it off. The fan may still revolve for a while after being turned off, but since it is getting no more juice, it will soon stop.”

“When it stops, does it stop for good?” someone asks.

“You know where the switch is,” Swamiji says. “You can always turn it back on.”

Despite reservations and anticipated difficulties, we place our budding faith in Swamiji. By chanting and hearing him discuss Bhagavad-gita, we trust that the rest will follow. if not, what’s there to lose in trying?

“In this effort there is no loss or diminution,” Krishna tells Arjuna, “and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.”

“We are all trying to squeeze some enjoyment out of these material bodies,” Swamiji says. “But instead of enjoying, we’re suffering. Have I told you of the camel? Sometimes the camel eats thorny branches, and his mouth bleeds. Tasting his own blood, he thinks that the thorns are very savory, and so he just keeps on chewing. Material pleasure is like that. We think we are enjoying, but actually we’re drinking our own blood. This is due to ignorance.”

We continue chanting on our new beads all evening. None of us has ever before chanted for such a long time, and, despite fasting all day, we feel mysteriously energized. As midnight approaches, we hungrily envision the great birthday feast of Lord Krishna, mountains of succulent prasadam: cake and kachoris, halava and puris, sabji, sweet rice, samosas and gulabjamuns. Just a few minutes before midnight, Swamiji finally descends from his kitchen with the prasadam. But our faces drop. There is only a platter of cut fruit.

“Oh no!” I whisper to Wally. “Is this all we get after starving all day?”

The expression on everyone’s face reflects the general disappointment. Without saying anything, Swarmji gives the plate to Roy, who passes it around.

“We’ll never make it,” Wally says, taking a slice of apple and half a banana.

But to our surprise, the small serving of fruit satisfies us perfectly.

Whether fasting or feasting, when we are with Swamiji, we are having fun—that’s all we know. For us, he is a sage, grandfather, spiritual master, and favorite uncle all rolled into one. Sitting on the dais, eating a little fruit with us, he chats about seemingly mundane topics, and laughs.

“Chanting, dancing, eating prasadam, philosophizing,” he says. “That is our process. Who would not like it?”

Yes, who would not like it, eternally, in Swamiji’s company? Though we do not say it, we feel in our hearts that he is our only link to Krishna in a dark and lonely world.

“Now that you have beads,” Swamiji says the next morning, “you should chant sixty-four rounds every day.”

“Sixty-four rounds?” To pronounce every word of the mantra distinctly, we require five minutes to chant a round. Sixty-four rounds would take over five hours. “Impossible!” we say. “We’ll never have the time.”

“All right,” Swamiji says. “Thirty-two rounds.”

“‘Impossible,” we say. “We’ll never be able to do it. It’s way too much.”

“All right,” Swamiji says. “Sixteen rounds. No less.”

After the kirtan, Swamiji requests us to chant one round, and the little storefront vibrates with the mantra. It is most soothing. It drowns out even the constant Second Avenue cacophony of traffic, kids, and barking dogs. “It is best to chant all your rounds early in the day,” he says. “Actually, before the sunrise. Perhaps this you cannot do, but at least try to have sixteen rounds chanted by midday. Of course, chanting should go on all the time. There is no restriction.”

“Even when we go to the bathroom?” I ask.

“Yes,” Swamiji laughs. “Even then. Of course, you must not take your beads into the bathroom. But the mantra you can chant all the time.”

That afternoon, Wally and I again visit Keith in Bellevue. He is glad to hear that we’ve cleared everything up with Swamiji.

“Tonight we’re taking initiation,” I tell him. “There’s to be a fire sacrifice.”

“I’d give anything to be there,” he says. “I finally got to see a psychiatrist today, but no word yet.”

“Swamiji says that we’ll have a special initiation for you when you get out,” I say. “He really needs you to help with the cooking.”

“I try to sit down and read Narada,” he says, “but the wards won’t let me sit still. They keep harassing me for some reason. I’ve gotten a few boys to chant, though. They don’t know what to do about that.”

“Careful, don’t antagonize them,” Wally advises. “Remember that you want out. Swamij’s waiting for you.”

Despite laughter and words of encouragement, we don’t succeed in cheering him up.

In the afternoon, following Swamiji’s directions, we prepare for the initiation by getting soil, sticks, flowers, clarified butter (ghee), sesame seeds and barley, various colored dyes, and bananas—all, we are told, for the fire sacrifice.

That evening, Stanley and I put on robes for the first time. Swamiji shows us how to wrap the dhotis around our waists and tie them Vaishnava style. Since my material is unusually long, I’ve difficulty keeping the dhoti from falling down. Seeing this, Swamiji pulls the knot tight, like a ship’s captain securing lifelines, determined not to lose a man in the ocean of maya. He approves of the turtle-neck saffron T-shirts we bought on Orchard Street to match the robes.

When all eleven of us are assembled in his apartment, Swamiji leads us into the altar room and shows us how to put on tilak. Following his example, we carefully mix the fuller’s earth in our palms with water.

“This should be mud from the holy river Jamuna,” he tells us, “but here, this will have to do.”

Then we put the moist clay on our foreheads before a little hand mirror. Somehow I can’t make the Vaishnava “V” as Swamiji did, and I wind up with a smeared variation. Seeing this, Swamiji swiftly runs his finger down my forehead, and I look in the mirror and see a perfectly formed tilak marking.

“My Guru Maharaj would never use a mirror,” Swamiji says, “but his tilak was always perfect. He would never see a disciple unless the disciple was wearing tilak.”

Although the complex ritual is mysterious to us, Swamiji somehow makes it seem perfectly natural and proper. All we really know about the initiation ceremony is that it is to be a fire sacrifice (agnihotra-yajna) in the ancient Vedic style. This in itself captivates us.

In the center of the room stands a small mound of earth, and placed beside it are bananas, kindling, incense, a pot of ghee, sesame seeds, barley grain, and colored dyes. Swamiji sits on the floor in front of the mound and gestures for us to sit on the other side. Since the room is small, the eleven of us fill all the space, sitting cross-legged, knee to knee, on the floor. Only three of us wear robes; the others are dressed casually in dungarees and T-shirts. Some guests stand in the back room and stare curiously through the opened door and partition. We chant Hare Krishna softly in order not to disturb the neighbors. At eight p.m., Swamiji lights the incense and softly begins to recite Gayatri mantra, offering obeisances first to the sun god.

“Om bhur bhava sva tat sabitur…”

He indicates that we are all to chant Hare Krishna on our beads, and suddenly the room is buzzing with mantra.

Then Swamiji takes a spoon in his left hand and drops water thrice into his right hand from a tiny silver goblet. He sips the water, places one more spoonful in the right hand, and flicks it on the floor. He passes the goblet and spoon around, and we follow suit. Despite the simplicity of the act, some of us place the water in the wrong hand or sip it at the wrong time, and he patiently corrects us. After we get the knack of it, he begins chanting.

“Now repeat after me,” he says, invoking the purificatory mantra.

om apavitrah pavitro va
sarvavastham gato ’pi va
yah smaret pundarikaksam
sa bahyabhyantarah sucih
sri-visnuh sri-visnuh sri-visnuh

We try our best to pronounce the words after him.

Translation: “Unpurified or purified, even having passed through all situations, one who remembers the lotus-eyed Supreme Personality of Godhead is cleansed within and without.”

After we thrice repeat the Sanskrit, Swamiji raises his hand for silence. He then reminds us that we should never fret when confronted with adversities, for we should always know that Lord Krishna is driving our chariot.

“Krishna and Arjuna sat in the same chariot,” he tells us. “But Arjuna knew that Krishna is the Supreme. We are also in a kind of chariot with Krishna. That chariot is this material body, and within the heart Lord Krishna is present as the Supersoul, witnessing all our activities. Even though He accompanies us within the material world, Krishna is never attached. He does not act out of need because He has no desires. He is Paramatma, the Supersoul, and we are jiva-atma, the individual fragmental souls. In the Upanishads, these are compared to two birds sitting in the same tree, the tree of the body. One bird, jiva-atma, is enjoying the fruits of the tree, while the other bird, Paramatma, just sits and watches. These two birds have an eternal transcendental loving relationship, but the one bird has become so absorbed in enjoying the tree’s fruits that he has forgotten his Friend. This forgetfulness of Krishna is called maya. Still, His love for us is so great that whenever we transmigrate from one body to another, Krishna goes with us to see what we are doing. He is simply waiting for us to turn our face toward Him. As soon as we turn our face toward Krishna, He says, ‘My dear son, come on. You are eternally dear to Me. Now you are turning your face to Me, so I am very glad.’

“Krishna is always fulfilling our desires. If we want to turn away from Him, He allows us. And if we want to suffer, He lets us. But an intelligent man will ask, ‘Why am I suffering? I do not want to grow old and die, but I must.’ Why are we undergoing all this suffering? For a little sense gratification, that’s all. Here, everyone is simply mad after sense gratification. Over and over, people are chewing the chewed. You have chewed sugarcane? After sugarcane is chewed, there is no more juice. It is to be spat out. But still, thinking there is some enjoyment in this material world, people are chewing the chewed. And what is the result? Although people are searching for eternal pleasure, they are only suffering. When you begin to question this suffering, it is time to approach a bona fide spiritual master who can teach you how to put an end to suffering.…

“We are not meant for suffering but for eternal enjoyment. We are not this dull matter, but Brahman, spirit soul, part and parcel of the Supreme Brahman, Lord Krishna. And when we realize our nature as Brahman, we become joyful. Brahma-bhutah prasannatma .…”

His talk continues for some thirty minutes. Legs aching, we try to modify our cross-legged positions, even as Swamiji tells us that we are not these bodies. But at no time can we take our eyes off him. With his words, he captivates us. Once again, he reminds us to follow the four basic regulative principles against meat eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling.

“These are the four trademarks of this age of Kali,” he says. “In this age, men are short-lived , ignorant, quarrelsome, forgetful, and always anxious. So let us put all this nonsense aside, chant Hare Krishna, be happy and go back home, back to Godhead.”

As the lecture ends, Roy passes out small wooden neck beads, called kanthi beads, and we put them on one another, tying them in back.

“Hey, how do you get these off?” Wally asks.

“You don’t,” Stanley says. “They’re collars for Krishna’s dogs.”

Then, one by one, Swamiji takes our japa beads and chants on them, reciting the complete Hare Krishna mantra on each one of the hundred and eight beads. We chant also, and the drone of our voices fills the tiny room. Then we individually receive our beads and our new spiritual names. Mike Grant becomes Mukunda, Jan becomes Janaki, Wally becomes Umapati, Carl becomes Karlapati, Stanley becomes Stryadhisa, Roy becomes Rayarama, Stan Moskowitz becomes Satyabrata, Jim Greene becomes Jagannatha, Bill Epstein becomes Ravindra-svarupa, Janos, visiting from Montreal, becomes Janardana.

Swamiji beckons to me, and I move forward and hand him the large, red japa beads. After chanting the round, Swamlji gives the beads back. They are now sanctified.

“You start here,” he says, “and chant around like this to here. Don’t cross over. Then back around like this. Sixteen rounds a day. And your name is Hayagriva.”

I take the beads with my right hand, hold them tightly, and bow to the floor, reciting the mantra: “Namo om vishnu-padaya krishna-presthya bhutale srimate bhaktivedanta-svamin iti namine.”

“I offer my obeisances unto His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, who is very dear to Lord Krishna, having taken shelter at His lotus feet.”

While reciting this, I sense everything becoming lighter and brighter, as if the whole room is brightening and the burden of many lifetimes is being dispersed. Out of compassion and mercy, the spiritual master absorbs the sinful reactions of his disciples’ karma.

“The word guru means heavy,” Swamiji had told us, leaving it to us to understand why.

After chanting on all eleven sets of beads, Swamiji sprinkles the colored dyes up and down and sideways on the mound of earth before him. We all strain to watch each move. He dips the twigs and wooden splinters in clarified butter, then lights them with a candle. One by one, he takes up the splinters and builds a small fire on the mound. He then mixes the sesame seeds, barley, and clarified butter in a bowl and passes it around, telling us to scoop up handfuls. As he recites the Sanskrit prayers, we repeat the words:

vande ham sri guroh sri yutapada-kamalam sri-gurun vaishnavams cha

“I offer my obeisances unto the lotus feet of my spiritual master and unto the feet of all Vaishnavas.”

In Sanskrit, we also offer obeisances unto the major teachers in the disciplic succession. Each prayer is ended by the word svaha, thrice repeated. When we say “sva-HAH,” we throw the sesame seeds and barley onto the karma-consuming fire. Meanwhile, Swamiji continues pouring on butter, sesame seeds, and barley, and piling up kindling until the mound is blazing. The prayers flow on with rhythmic svaha’s, seemingly endless, and as we continue the litany, the flames rise, and the room heats up. When the prayers finally end, we can hear only the crackling of the fire and popping of sesame seeds. Someone distributes bananas, and Swamiji tells us to put them on the fire. We do so, and the bananas quickly begin to smoulder. As the smoke thickens, some guests begin coughing and retreating into the hallway. Swamiji calmly pours the remaining butter and seeds onto the fire. We wonder if someone will panic and call the fire department. A strange sight indeed for New York firemen: Swamiji, unaffected amidst the smoke, sitting in front of the fire, beaming with pleasure at his eleven new disciples.

“This kind of smoke does not disturb,” he says, as Mukunda and Janaki rush to open windows. “Other smoke disturbs, but this kind of smoke does not.”

Smiling broadly, Swamiji stands up, claps his hands, and chants Hare Krishna loudly. Placing one foot before the other, he dances beside the fire. We also dance and chant, and the smoke slowly abates. Our sinful karma burned to ashes!

The sacrifice completed, Swamiji mixes some ashes with the remnants of butter and places a little on our foreheads. I ask him the meaning of my new spiritual name. “Hayagriva is an incarnation of Krishna who comes in Satya-yuga, the Golden Age,” he says. “Hayagriva means bird-horse. As Hayagriva, Krishna has a horse’s head and wings like a bird. When He breathes, the Vedas come out.”

Trying to picture Hayagriva, I imagine the Greek god Pegasus, logotype of the Mobil filling station outside.

“Not that you are Hayagriva,” Swamiji quickly warns. “But Hayagriva-das. Das means servant, servant of Hayagriva. We are all servants of God. Mukunda means Krishna, the giver of liberation. Therefore, Mukunda-das-brahmachari. Rayarama-das-brahmachari. Brahmachari means celibate student.”

While prasadam is distributed, Swamiji talks to the guests, urging them to follow the example of his new disciples. He laughs and jokes happily, explaining the meaning of each name.

As midnight nears, we all leave for our apartments, eleven previously unacquainted people by destiny chosen out of a city of millions, joined by a strange holyman from another land, perhaps another universe, bound by his desire to spread Krishna consciousness in America.

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