Back to Godhead (Chapter 6)

The Hare Krishna Explosion
by Hayagriva das

Part I: New York, 1966
Chapter 6

Back to Godhead

“October 21, 1966. I walk into Swamiji’s room, offer obeisances, and he hands me the first three volumes of Srimad-Bhagavatam, which he had printed in India.

“Here,” he says. “Take and read.”

I open the books. In the front of each, he has written my spiritual name. “With my best blessings, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.”

“Oh, thank you, Swamiji,” I say.

“That’s all right,” he says, smiling. “Now you compile this Back To Godhead magazine.”

Back to Godhead! That is, we were there once. It’s a question of recovering a lost land. As Swamiji says: “I have come to remind you of what you have forgot.”

Following the orders of his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, Swamiji began Back To Godhead in 1944. Published bi-monthly in India from 1944 to 1956, Back To Godhead established Swamiji as one of India’s leading personalists. Now Swamiji enjoins Rayarama and me to introduce it to the West.

“Work sincerely,” he tells us,”and make it as big as your Time Magazine.”

On October 23, I type up the stencils of our first edition. Our motto is the same as Swamiji’s original: “Godhead is light. Nescience is darkness. Where there is Godhead there is no nescience.”

We include two lectures of Swamiji from notes taken by Umapati in September. There’s also some poetry by Kirtanananda, and an essay by me. We mimeograph as many copies as the stencils can make—about a hundred—and Gargamuni quickly sells them out at Saint Mark’s Place for fifteen cents each. Although it is a modest, most unprofessional pamphlet, Swamiji is pleased.

“We have so many literatures to translate,” he says. “We have only to distribute the knowledge that is there, already given by Srila Vyasadeva: Srimad-Bhagavatam, Vedanta-sutra. And books by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s disciple, Srila Rupa Goswami. And Chaitanya-charitamrita by Krishnadas Kaviraj Goswami. Oh, there are many volumes we have to publish! We see many different literatures on the newstands, and the crows take delight in them, as crows delight in nasty things. But this Back To Godhead is for the swans because it deals with Krishna.”

Rayarama gives Allen Ginsberg a copy of Back To Godhead and asks Allen if he has any material to submit. Always obliging, Allen gives us a four page article, “Reflections on the Mantra,” and we print it in our third issue.

Unfortunately, Allen’s philosophy of the mantra is not consistent with Swamiji’s.

“People think I’m some sort of guru,” Allen protests. “That is, people want me to be a guru. But I’m not. These are just my reflections, based on my own experiences.”

In his reflections, Allen defines mantra as a “short verbal formula,” and likens it to a Rolling Stones song and a Gertrude Stein poem. Its words are “pure physical sounds uttered in a frankly physical universe.”

Although we print the essay, Swamiji points out the discrepancies.

“Krishna is identical with His name,” he tells us. “That means that His name has the same qualities He has—sat, chit, ananda. No mundane vibration is eternal, otherwise why does it grow tiresome and have to be changed every other week? Nor can mundane songs like Rolling Stones or whatever produce real knowledge or bliss unending. Also, this transcendental vibration purifies. Anyone can see how our students are becoming purified, but the chanters of material songs are not.”

Above all, Swamiji objects to the phrase, “pure physical sounds in a frankly physical universe.”

“This is not true,” he says, “because actually everything is spiritual. It becomes material only when we forget Krishna. Therefore, when we hear the name Krishna, which is identical with Krishna, we must remember the Lord. In that way, everything is purified.”

There are other minor differences, all stemming from this. Allen mentions that Alfred Lord Tennyson chanted his own name and that the mantra widens our consciousness “much as an intense conversation with psychoanalyst or lover or priest.” He even likens it to a lover’s orgasmic cry.

“Tennyson may have felt something when he chanted Tennyson, but does anyone else?” Swamiji asks. “Does Mr. Ginsberg want to chant ‘Tennyson, Tennyson’? But everyone enjoys chanting Krishna. This means there is something different about Krishna’s name. He is the center of everyone and everything. And some analyst, or priest, or lover may widen the consciousness from this to that, but only Krishna is without limit and therefore can widen the consciousness infinitely. That is the difference. Nor can Hare Krishna be compared to any sexual cry, because the sexual cry is a call for some partner to come satisfy the caller’s desire. That means it is sense gratification. But when we chant Hare Krishna, we are calling to Krishna, ‘Please let me serve You.’ So, on the spiritual platform it is the service that is desired, but on the material it is sense gratification that is sought.”

There are other points, but Swamiji leaves it at that. He then tells us that Back To Godhead is meant solely for writings by devotees, and warns that we should be very careful in the future not to print anything by others.

Indeed, we have enough trouble ourselves keeping the philosophy pure. Not knowing where to start, I resort to writing essays comparing Krishna consciousness to transcendentalism in American literature. But Swamiji does not criticize our hybrid attempts. He smiles and thanks us for every new issue we bring him. He is all encouragement.

“The Department of Immigration will not renew my visa,” Swamiji tells us in his room, after evening kirtan. “I don’t know why they have refused. I have answered all their questions.”

Originally, Swamiji entered America on a two month visa, which he has been repeatedly extending every two months for over a year. Now they are finally refusing further extensions.

Allen Ginsberg makes further arrangements with an immigration lawyer to extend the visa. More money is needed, however, and we decide that if each of us can manage to raise thirty-five dollars, all the lawyer fees can be met.

“I am very moved that you want me to stay so much that you will do this for me,” Swamiji says. “I am very grateful.”

We all set about to get the money. Brahmananda even dresses in a suit and goes to Central Park to beg. “My father is being deported to Israel,” he tells people. “Could you please help?”

With a little additional help from Mr. Ginsberg, we manage to meet the lawyer fees, and Swamiji gets another extension. The lawyer begins to petition permanent residence status.

“You should hold elections,” Swamiji tells us. “We require one temple president, one treasurer, a secretary and temple commander.” Then: “I think that Brahmananda should be our president, Gargamuni the treasuer, Satsvarupa the secretary, and Kirtanananda the temple commander.”

Although we agree with Swamiji’s choices, we hold “elections” anyway, and our new officers begin their duties. Brahmananda, physically the largest and most impressive, makes announcements at the end of kirtans. Satsvarupa takes detailed notes of all the lectures, although they’re taped, and also of istagostis, weekly meetings wherein we discuss philosophy and temple business. Gargamuni plops down in the middle of the temple with a suitcase, which he uses for a desk, and announces that as treasurer, he has no other duties to fulfill. Swamiji calls him “Gargamoney.” Kirtanananda quickly sets everything in order, both in the temple and in Swamiji’s apartment, and makes sure that order is maintained.

Satsvarupa rents an apartment nearby, and some of us live there or just visit to take showers. Sometimes it seems that the whole financial burden of Matchless Gifts rests on thin, little Satsvarupa. He periodically begs Swamiji to let him quit his job with the welfare department and join the other disciples full time, but Swamiji says no.

“Work, but surrender the fruits to Krishna.”

Actually, each us of us feels that he himself is carrying the burden of our new Society, for Swamiji makes each of us feel special, needed, important. Our relationship to Krishna is individual and personal. Each part serves the whole. For the entire body to function properly, each limb must do its work in friendly cooperation.

Mohan Lal Sharma, my old colleague from the Ohio State University English Department, drops by to see us. He offers obeisances to Swamiji, touching his feet.

“There is Ganges water flowing through here, Swamiji,” he says.

“Thank you,” Swamiji smiles. “It is all by the grace of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.”

When Rayarama suggests that we solicit help from some of the Indian societies in New York, Swamiji is not enthusiastic.

“I was thinking like that when I first came here,” he says. “I was hoping that my countrymen in America would be the first interested in a Krishna consciousness society. But no. Generally, they are like new crows, new materialists, delighting in unclean things, in stool and nasty places. Because in India there is much poverty, for economic success many Indians come here to work and study. They generally imitate Westerners buy new cars and drink liquors, eat meat, go to night clubs, and keep women. So there is a saying, ‘Crows eat stool, but new crows eat more stool.’ No. Do not expect any help from them.”

From San Francisco, Harvey Cohen writes that the West Coast is ripe for Krishna consciousness. In January, a “Gathering of the Tribes” is scheduled, and a hundred thousand are expected. Hordes of young people are flocking to San Francisco with flowers in their hair, and the word is out that a new generation is blossoming, the “Flower Children,” nurtured on LSD, supposedly attuned to expanded consciousness, and waiting, we hope, to extend this consciousness beyond drugs.

Harvey asks for help. He is already looking for a storefront in the Haight-Ashbury district near Golden Gate Park, an area where “it’s all happening.”

Swamiji is eager. “Yes, we must go,” he says. “We will go as soon as he has found a place.“

Mukunda and Janaki decide to go to India by way of the West Coast. Offering obeisances, they bid Swamiji goodbye, and as they walk out the door, Swamiji tells Mukunda, “Try to open a temple in San Francisco.” It appears that San Francisco is to be the first branch of our young devotional tree.

Swamiji is not satisfied with the 26 Second Avenue storefront. Matchless Gifts served for the first few months before the newspaper write-ups attracted people, but now it is obvious that we must find a larger building.

We begin searching: abandoned meeting halls, old churches, lofts, empty warehouses. Greenwich Village rents are too high, and midtown is out of the question. Swamiji tells us that he wants to buy a building. But with what?

“Krishna is supplying everything,” he tells us. “He is supplying to the animals and nondevotees. How much more will He supply to His devotees!”

We land in the hands of one Mr. Payne, an elegantly dressed real estate agent.

“You have a handful of stars,” he tells Brahmananda, who, as our president, leads the search for a new temple. “You are incorporated as a tax exempt religious organization,” Mr. Payne goes on. “You’ve no idea how much this will save you. Most people have to vacate just because they can’t pay their taxes. Yes, Krishna is looking after you indeed. And I’ve just the place for you and your spiritual master.”

He shows us a handsome, three-story, red-brick building near St. Mark’s Place, a good downtown location, near the youth movement and yet in an area where uptowners can feel comfortable. There’s a small porch, and large double doors open into a meeting hall, ideal for kirtan. The pinewood floors are polished, and the thick interior walnut doors are carved and varnished. Mr. Payne is right: a perfect temple for ISKCON.

Swamiji looks it over approvingly. “Get it,” he tells Brahmananda. And Brahmananda begins to negotiate. But how? We have no money. The building is selling for $100,000. None of us has ever approached such a sum.

“If you can just give five thousand down,” Mr. Payne says, “I can get the owners to draw up a contract. Five thousand down, and another five thousand within two months. That shouldn’t be so difficult.”

“Do it,” Swamiji tells Brahmananda.

And resolute, big, burly Brahmananda sets out to raise the money.

Daily now, in the early mornings before any of us awake, Swamiji continues typing out his translation of Bhagavad-gita. Months ago, in February, he had recorded a kind of foreword, which Satsvarupa now types up as “Introduction to Geetopanishad.” Meanwhile, I continue typing the Second Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, keeping editorial changes at a minimum, correcting only grammatical transgressions. I also continue compiling Back To Godhead and writing essays on the nonmaterial Self and the spiritualization of energy. All the magazines sell out. The stencils, unfortunately, won’t print more than a hundred copies of each edition. We consider a printer, but prices are beyond us.

Swamiji shows us how to light small birthday candles and place them on the little table serving as an altar for Lord Chaitanya. He allows a drop of wax to fall, then sets the candle in it. We repeat this process every evening. When asked the significance of this act, Swamiji says that it is “to increase your devotion,” and further explains that it is Rama-vijaya and that we are commemorating Lord Rama’s victory over the demon Ravana.

Each evening, after showering, Swamiji sits before the picture of Lord Chaitanya, puts on tilak, and silently recites the Gayatri mantra, his brahminical thread wound about his right thumb. None of us knows this mantra, nor the real meaning of the thread. After this, he rings a tiny bell, lights a stick of incense, offers it to Lord Chaitanya, then offers obeisances.

To us, this is all very wonderful, very strange. We call it “bells.

Mr. Dey, a 75-year-old Bengali with long white beard and hair, visits Swamiji. Mr. Dey wears lace-up boots and a button-down black frock, and he claims that he is the reincarnation of Ezekiel. He’s been wandering the earth all his life. His companion is the Bible. He never bathes.

“Your young men shall have visions; and your old men, dreams,” he says. “And from their weapons they will make scythes, plows, and pruning hooks. Get thee to the mountains! Out of the cities! When the sea of fire comes, the cities will be destroyed. To the mountains! Join together in communes.”

Swamiji yawns. “The end is always coming,” he says. “We are not concerned with this end or that end. Destruction is always going on. We will stay here and execute our duty for Krishna, and whenever Krishna wants, He can take us.”

Out of compassion, Swamiji allows Mr. Dey to stay in the temple. He remains a week. Then word leaks to Swamiji that he is confusing people by preaching that Krishna is a demon and Christ is the only way.

“Tell him that he should leave,” Swamiji tells Brahmananda. “He’s a serpent. Simply disturbing.”

And so Ezekiel reincarnate moves out of Matchless Gifts.

“He may believe in his way,” Swamiji says, “but his preaching against Krishna—that we cannot tolerate.”

Meanwhile, Brahmananda continues to negotiate with Mr. Payne. Although Brahmananda has miraculously raised the five thousand deposit, the owners want more proof of our ability to meet payments. We have to hire a lawyer to peruse the contracts.

“Mr. Payne is causing us so much pain,” Swamiji says. “What is the difficulty?”

He doesn’t see the necessity for Mr. Payne at all.

“Why don’t we purchase direct from the owners? Why all these agents?”

“It’s just the way it’s done here,” we say.

We wait. The building on St. Mark’s remains a castle in the sky, and five thousand is tied up with Mr. Payne.

November 5, 1966. Thirty thousand gather in Washington Square to march up Fifth Avenue for world peace. Allen Ginsberg invites us to join his group amassing in Tompkins Square Park.

“Yes, go with Mr. Ginsberg,” Swamiji tells us. (He always pronounces the “gin” in Ginsberg as if it’s a drink.) “Go and chant Hare Krishna. That’s the real peace formula. Hari-sankirtanam.”

Allen wears a kurta and white Indian-style pajama pants, and he plays the portable harmonium he’d gotten in Benares. It is a two hour walk from Tompkins Square to Times Square in midtown. We spread ourselves out in the crowd to lead the chant over a wide area.

“Peace in America!” Allen chants. “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna.” He ties the harmonium around his neck and plays a drone. I blow an ooga horn, the kind with a rubber ball used by Calcutta taxis. On Fifth Avenue, intimidated shopkeepers lock their doors and pull iron bars across their windows.

About two blocks of demonstrators take up the chanting. Although some chant “Peace in Vietnam, peace in America,” they soon tire of this and return to Hare Krishna. Just as Swamiji said: “Material vibrations soon grow tiresome.”

I feel I’m cloudwalking up Fifth Avenue, chanting until I’m hoarse. The very magnitude of the city crowds excites the soul. We join arms to form long lines and dance down the center of the avenue. Police along the blockades stare defiantly. Pink-faced Irishmen hurl insults we can’t hear. Italian kids fling ice filled paper cups.

“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.”

At Times Square, we break into circles, sit down, and continue chanting. I recall Swamiji’s injunction: “Just take up Krishna consciousness, and peace in the world will automatically come.”

As I see people chanting, I think of Lord Chaitanya’s protest march some five hundred years ago in Bengal. Because the local magistrate had forbidden the public chanting of Hare Krishna, Lord Chaitanya had led thousands in protest, all chanting Hare Krishna. Now, in New York, the issues are much different, but they all pivot around forgetfulness of Krishna. As Swamiji said, “My Guru Maharaj used to tell us there is only one problem in the world—lack of Krishna consciousness.”

When Allen speaks on the peace issue, I hardly hear him. To me, Vietnam seems secondary to the wondrous effects of public chanting, and the possibilities.

When we return via subway to the temple, some young people follow us back for bread, hot milk, and more Hare Krishna. Everyone’s glad to learn that the more people chant, the more potent the mantra’s effect.

November 7. In Delhi, 200,000 Hindus riot, demanding an immediate ban on government cow slaughter. The rally is spearheaded by sadhus, holymen.

“The government is atheistic,” Swamiji says, “but you can see that the people are protesting. They know that go-mata, mother cow, is beloved of Krishna and therefore sacred.”

Swamiji outlines a letter to The Times of India and tells me to write it up nicely. In it, Swamiji cites Vedic injunctions against cow slaughter, pointing out that the cow is one of man’s mothers, representative of the earth.

“There are very severe reactions awaiting all of them,” he warris sternly. “Cattlemen, cow butchers, transporters, restaurant owners and consumers. Even the dishwasher.”

November 13. A “love-in” at the Gate Theater on Second Avenue and Tenth Street, a zany political benefit for Louis Abolafia, the Lower East Side’s candidate for President of the United States. Top billing is given to Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, the Fugs, and “Swami Bhaktivedanta and The Hare Krishna Chanters.”

Leary drives about town with a papier-mache statue of Buddha fastened atop his Volkswagen. Swamiji considers this offensive.

“What does he have to do with Lord Buddha?” he asks. “Lord Buddha was a great prince who renounced everything to meditate. What did Buddha have to do with LSD? This is a mockery.”

Some of the devotees are reluctant to bring Swamiji. After all, Leary and Ginsberg are promoting drugs and sex, and our immigration lawyer discourages Swamiji’s associating with the counterculture. Yet Swamiji sees it as another chance to spread Krishna consciousness, and decides to go.

While waiting to go on stage, we have to endure loud and untalented rock groups, as well as a Banana Celebration. Some people are claiming that you can get high by smoking banana peels. Swamiji tolerates all this with transcendental reserve.

We chant some fifteen minutes. Acyutananda and I dance vigorously, leaping in the air, whirling about stage in robes, and clashing finger cymbals. The managers don’t give us much time, and Swamiji briefly explains the words of the mantra on a blackboard. His explanation is concise and memorable.

“Krishna is God, and Hare is the energy by which we reach God, and Rama is God as enjoyer of all. These are not ordinary words but names of God. God and His names are nondifferent. This is not so with ordinary words. If you sit in a corner and chant, ‘Water, water, water,’ you will go thirsty. But if you chant Hare Krishna, you will have God dancing on your tongue.”

We leave immediately after the chanting. Audience reaction is good, and we extend invitations to Matchless Gifts. The managers inform us that there are benefits every Sunday throughout November and that we should continue to attend. Back at the temple, Swamiji bursts into laughter when he learns that Abolafia is seriously running for President.

“Perhaps we should run Brahmananda,” he says.

More money is needed to cement the contract with Mr. Payne and the building’s owners. Unfortunately, the young people attending Swamiji’s lectures have scanty resources. For monetary success, we need some rich, elderly lady benefactors. Mishra has his, and Nikhilananda has his. Without them, there seems to be no moving out of the slums.

With this in mind, Brahmananda and Rayarama arrange a kirtan in midtown Manhattan’s Judson Hall, directly across from Carnegie Hall. The rental for the night is $200, Swamiji’s monthly rent on Second Avenue. Figuring that contributions will at least cover that, we rent the hall for November 15. Rayarama posts conservative announcements in midtown. We hope for a crowd, but when we arrive, there are just eight people in the audience.

Our hearts sink. We should have known. We failed Swamiji.

In the dressing rooms, we put on fresh tilak and chant japa until eight o’clock. Then we follow Swamiji on stage, sit about him in a circle, and look out at the vast hall of empty seats. Although we feel like running out, Swamiji seems unconcerned. Whether the house is packed, or only one person is present, it’s the same to him. His cymbals ring out, and he begins chanting prayers to the gurus.

We chant Hare Krishna and dance, then Swamiji delivers a short talk, and answers a question or two afterwards. We chant again, and then leave, some $200 poorer and nary a benefactor in sight.

Back on Second Avenue, Swamiji chides Rayarama. “I told you we should have charged money,” he says. “In Bengal, there is the story of a man offering people free mangoes. No one would take his mangoes because everyone thought, ‘Oh, why is he giving away these mangoes? There must be something wrong with them.’ But when he charged them two or three rupees, they thought, ‘Let’s see if the mangoes are really worth it.’ When people see that something’s free, they think it’s worthless. Charge them three or five dollars, and they will value it.”

Stung by our failure, we retreat from making further midtown engagements and decide to remain on our home turf, the Lower East Side. We return to the Gate Theater, but the crowds are so small that we consider it a waste of time. Tompkins Square Park still offers the best recruiting potentials, and its use is free.

But the late November winds put an end to the park kirtans. The fall rains come. Swamiji turns on the apartment steam and wears a saffron wool sweater and overcoat when walking through the courtyard to the temple. We begin to think of warmer climes for his health. Letters from Harvey Cohen and Mukunda are encouraging. Some famous San Francisco rock groups have offered to play for a temple benefit, and in a Haight Street head shop, Back To Godhead sells out the first day. Now it’s just a question of finding a storefront to rent.

“As soon as Mukunda finds a place,” Swamiji says, “I’ll take an airplane there. Is that all right?”

He then confides that he’s never flown before.

Although I’ve been chanting since July, the cosmos has not unfolded psychedelically before me, as I had hoped. What am I doing wrong? Why haven’t I seen that apocalyptic vision witnessed by Arjuna on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra? Where is that virat-rupa, the Universal Form containing myriad eyes, hands, heads, and flaming mouths devouring worlds?

“If hundreds of thousands of suns rose up at once into the sky, they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form.”

According to Swamiji, Sri Krishna revealed this form to Arjuna as a special favor. What Arjuna saw, of course, is beyond description and human imagination. He saw the entire creation contained within the Lord’s body.

“The pure devotees are not eager to see this form,” Swamiji tells us. “Devotees prefer the two-armed form of Krishna as a cowherd boy. The virat-rupa is exhibited to materialistic men who can be impressed only by the might and opulence of the Supreme.”

Well, after all, aren’t we Western materialists by birth? Isn’t this the form meant for us?

I finally gather the courage to approach Swamiji, waiting until he is alone in his room, sitting behind his footlocker, reading.

“Why can’t I see Krishna as Arjuna saw Him on the battlefield?” I ask bluntly.

“You can,” Swamiji says. “This is the process, chanting Hare Krishna.”

“I’ve been chanting Hare Krishna more than four months,” I complain, “but I still don’t see that universal form with all the heads and arms. What am I doing wrong?”

Swamiji looks at me a moment, his eyes magnified behind his glasses. Then he silently hands me the manuscript of his recent translations of Eleventh Chapter verses. I read:

O greatest of all personalities, O supreme form, though I see here before me Your actual position, I yet wish to see how You have entered into this cosmic manifestation. I want to see that form of Yours. If You think that I am able to behold Your cosmic form, O my Lord, O master of all mystic power, then kindly show me that universal self.

“There,” Swamiji says. “‘If You think that I am able to behold Your cosmic form.’ So what does that mean?”

I look at the verse again and think more deeply about it. Then I look up at Swamiji. His eyes are fixed on me, awaiting my reply. Suddenly I begin to feel stupid again, as I had when trying to defend the Buddhists.

“It means that Lord Krishna is the best judge,” I say at length. “So Arjuna leaves it up to Him.”

“Yes,” Swamiji says. “That is the process. Arjuna was a great warrior, a great devotee of Krishna’s. He didn’t want to see the virat-rupa for his personal gratification. He was asking on behalf of the materialists. Yet he says to Krishna, ‘If You think that I am able. This is the attitude we should have. Now what do you think?”

Again he looks at me, awaiting my reply, and for a moment I think that if I insist, he might even deliver the vision.

“I don’t think I’m ready,” I finally say.

“Yes,” Swamiji smiles as I hand the verses back. “Yes, my spiritual master used to say, ‘Don’t work hard to try to see God. But work in such a way that God sees you.’ So we should just go on with our chanting, and see Krishna in our service. Carry on devotional service sincerely, and everything will come in time.”

Swamiji continues working throughout December on his translation of Bhagavad-gita. I rarely see him work because of his schedule. He sleeps from eleven at night until about two or three in the morning. Then he gets up, and, using a dictaphone, dictates extensive commentaries on Bhagavad-gita while the great metropolis sleeps.

Citing a simile from Bhagavad-gita, he has told us that the material world is like a banyan tree with its roots above and branches below. A tree appears this way when pervertedly reflected in water. In the material world, everything is topsy-turvy; what is bad appears desirable, and what is actually desirable appears repugnant. When I see Swamiji taking rest just as most New Yorkers are indulging their senses, and getting up to render Krishna service just when they are taking rest, I’m reminded of the Bhagavad-gita verse: “What is night for all beings is the time of awakening for the self-controlled; and the time of awakening for all beings is night for the introspective sage.”

At seven, he comes down to the temple to lead morning kirtan and to lecture. Then he returns to his apartment, showers, eats a light breakfast, and reads over manuscripts, or advises us. In the afternoon, after eating prasadam, he chants some rounds and then rests for an hour, lying on his side on the rug before his footlocker.

Satsvarupa types up the manuscripts from the dictaphone tapes. Sometimes, when he can’t understand what is said, he has to consult Swamiji. The manuscript runs into hundreds of pages. Swamiji is a very prolific writer indeed.

“I wrote the introduction one night last February when I was alone,” he tells me. “I was just sitting in my apartment and had no one to talk to, and I remembered my spiritual master saying, ‘If there is only one person present, that is all right. Preach to him about Krishna. And if no one is present, you can preach to the walls.’ So I was preaching to the walls. But I had this tape recorder, and what I spoke can now be heard by you. That was the introduction to this Bhagavad-gita.”

As Swamiji begins work on the last six chapters of Bhagavad-gita, he tells me that I can now start editing it.

“Edit for force and clarity,” he says. “We want this Bhagavad-gita acceptable for publication, and grammatical precision is important. It must be acceptable to the academic community also, and since you have experience in that field, you know best how to put it nicely. Whenever there is some question about meaning, you can consult me.”

Swamiji sends Brahmananda out to try to interest publishers. Daily, Brahmananda draws up lists of publishers and sets out on the subway for midtown, waiting in offices for hours to see businessmen intent only on quick sales.

“There’s just no money in swamis,” one tells him. “Risky. Very risky.”

Swamiji always keeps a small postage scale and stamp sponge on his footlocker. From the beginning, he has been instructing us in cleanliness, very much like any parent. “Wash your hands. Take bath. Don’t put your fingers in your mouth. Wash. Don’t bite your nails. Change clothes. Take that pencil out of your mouth. Don’t touch leg. Clean nicely.”

Thoughtlessly, I lick a postage stamp right in front of him. His eyes open wide in shock.

“Oooh! Hayagriva! You have forgot!”

So true! Yes, I am always forgetting, day after day. Forgetfulness is our disease. Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.…

It’s a brisk December morning, and we all sit in Matchless Gifts awaiting Swamiji. He descends from his apartment wrapped in a chadar[robe or blanket] and carrying a big brown book. After chanting the prayers to the gurus and leading us in Hare Krishna, he opens the big book. We all sense that something historic is about to happen.

“Today,” he says, “we will read from Chaitanya-charitamrita.”

At last! For months he has been stressing that there are three books we must know: Bhagavad-gita, the essense of Krishna consciousness, spoken by Lord Krishna Himself; Srimad-Bhagavatam, dealing with the pastimes of Krishna, written by Vyasadeva; and Chaitanya-charitamrita, describing the pastimes of Lord Chaitanya, written by Krishnadas Kaviraj Goswami. Chaitanya-charitamrita is cherished by Vaishnavas because it reveals the highest type of love for Krishna, a love manifested in the divine pastimes of Lord Chaitanya, who appeared on earth as a pure devotee mad with love for Krishna.

“Lord Chaitanya is Radha and Krishna combined,” Swamiji tells us. “He is Krishna in the mood of Radha. He is Krishna come to relish love of Krishna in separation. The understanding of this divine rasa is most elevated.”

Swamiji concentrates on the conversations between Lord Chaitanya and His disciple Sanatana Goswami, concerning Krishna’s expansions in the spiritual world and the different types of avatars.

“Christianity teaches that there is only one avatar,” a guest points out. “That is Christ.”

“How’s that?” Swamiji asks. “Christ said he is the son of God, and we accept him as God’s perfect son. But is this to say he is the only son? There are millions and millions of planets, and God appears Himself in countless incarnations on each. This information is there in the Vedas. What evidence do you have that God comes only once? None. Just consider. In a bookstore we find a dictionary for the beginning student, and an encyclopedia for the more advanced. The encyclopedia contains all the information in the dictionary, and much more besides. Religions are also like that. These Vedic literatures are encyclopedic and complete. They contain limitless information about God, His pastimes and incarnations. So Lord Chaitanya advises us to take advantage of sadhu, shastra, and guru. The sadhu is a saint of spotless character, and shastra is scripture—the Vedas —and the guru is the spiritual master. Not that we approach shastra directly. No. We receive shastra from guru. And guru must not contradict sadhu and shastra. The three can never contradict. We must evaluate guru in terms of sadhu and shastra. If he contradicts them, he is not guru.”

“So, what is the relationship between Christ and Krishna?”

“Don’t you know? What does it say in your Bible? Christ is called the son of God, is he not?”

“He is also God,” the guest says.

“Yes, a father and his son are one. The son serves the father, and they are qualitatively one.”

“Then they’re the same?”

“Where do you get ‘the same’? The father is the father, and the son is the son. If you are the son, then you and your father are one. But if you say, ‘I am not only the son, but I am also the father,’ then you contradict. How can you be the son and also the father?”

“Well, according to the Catholic position, they are one. It’s inexplicable.“

“If it’s inexplicable, then why did you ask? Anyway, I’m giving you the explanation: Christ is the son of God, and he is one in God the Father. But you cannot say that he is the same. God the Father continues to be the Father, and the son continues to be the son.

“When Krishna manifested His opulence in Dwarka,” Swamiji says, “He expanded Himself 16,108 times to accommodate 16,108 wives in 16,108 separate castles.”

Satsvarupa shakes his head in disbelief.

“I just can’t understand how anyone can do that,” he says.

“Krishna can hold the universe in His mouth,” Swamiji says, “and reveal it to Mother Yasoda as a childish prank. So if He can do this, how will He have difficulty maintaining any number of wives quite comfortably?”

Again Satsvarupa shakes his head and stares at the floor in confusion. He has no trouble accepting baby Krishna’s holding the universe in His mouth. But how could Krishna multiply Himself so many times to keep thousands of wives in thousands of castles?

Obviously, we can’t learn everything at once, nor expect everything revealed at once. In the summer and fall, Swamiji stressed the primary state of understanding: Aham brahmasmi. I am not this body but pure spirit soul. Bhagavad-gita, Chapter Two. Now, as we study Chaitanya-charitamrita and Srimad-Bhagavatam , the meaning of Krishna consciousness and the beauty of its cosmology begin to exfoliate. We come to realize that basic to the understanding of the reality of Krishna is awareness of the artificiality of the material world. “The unreal never was,” Krishna tells Arjuna. “The real never ceases to be.”

“Material achievements are like playtoys,” Swamiji tells us. “They are modeled after real things, but they are just imitations. A little girl may spend hours imagining that her dollhouse is real, but it is still a toy all the time. Krishna has impregnated this material world with spiritual sparks, ourselves. And we are little children playing with toys, and Krishna is a kind father letting us play to our hearts’ content. The material body comes into being, and it grows, leaves some by-products, gets older, dwindles and vanishes. And this process is repeated over and over. But to avoid all this suffering, we must return to Krishna, to reality. Illusion is always strong and is always saying, ‘Look here! Enjoy. You are God. Why do you worship?'”

Question!” a guest says, raising his hand.


“If the world is unreal, as the Buddhists also say, then why attach so much importance to it?”

“We do not exactly say that the world is unreal,” Swamiji corrects. “The world is a fact, but it is temporary. We Vaishnavas prefer the word ‘temporary’ as more exact than ‘unreal,’ or ‘dream.’ Because the world is temporary, it can be said to be unreal, or like a dream. This means that it passes. But the Vaishnavas look on the world as Krishna’s creation and therefore beautiful but temporary. If I create something beautiful, is it nice for you to call it maya, unreal, illusory? No. The proper word is ‘temporary.’”

“If the reflection of the original is valueless, or temporary, as you say, then isn’t revelation also valueless, since it is maya, or temporary?”

“Yes,” Swamiji says, “if it doesn’t go back to the original, to Krishna. People are engaged in the reflection and don’t want to go back to the source. That is their problem. We are in the reflection and being baffled. There is a song, ‘I thought I was building my cottage safely, but it was burnt to ashes.’ Whatever we do here is patchwork. Where can you get happiness? Whatever material thing you get will eventually vanish. This sense of the temporary nature of things should come to us. Our life is defeated unless we develop spiritual knowledge. Fight with maya, and return to the reality, the source of everything. That should be the aim of knowledge.”

“So, then, what can we perceive through the senses that can aid us in spiritual advancement?”

“Everything, if you can handle it,” Swamiji says. “As long as we are embodied, there will be eating, sleeping, defending, and mating. None of these are prohibited, but they should be restricted. Instead of eating nonsense, you can eat Krishna prasadam. Eat nonsense, and the duration of sleep will be increased. Five to six hours of sleep is sufficient. We should try to decrease sleep because sleep is a waste of time. If you can control eating, you can control sleeping. Similarly, defending. And married sex life is nice because it is controlled—only for begetting children. Because you cannot control your sex desire, you use it for other purposes. Why not practise voluntary restraint? Have your sex life, have one or two children, and live peacefully. Nothing is to be stopped, but everything is to be controlled. If you can control your senses, you can become a swami, even in that dress.”

Just before Christmas, a record producer, Alan Kallman, offers to record our kirtans and promote a Hare Krishna record.

“Yes, we must record,” Swamiji says, happy with the offer. “It is our duty.”

The night before the recording session, a guest appears at Matchless Gifts with a wooden drum resembling a mridanga —a two-headed Bengali clay drum used in Vaishnava kirtans and reportedly designed by Lord Chaitanya Himself. Swamiji spots it from the dais. Quickly the drum is in his lap, and he is playing it expertly. Everyone looks up, surprised. For us, the sounds seem to come from faraway Bengal, or, perhaps, from other planets, so strange are the rhythms and sweet the echoes.

“We must have this drum for tomorrow’s recording,” Swamiji says, and Brahmananda convinces the owner to lend us the drum for the recording session.

The next evening, Rupanuga drives us to Times Square in his Volkswagen bus. When we enter the Adelphi Recording Studio, some rock and roll musicians are recording.

“What’s the name of your group?” someone asks.

“The Hare Krishna Chanters,” I say. And, remarkably, we’re so booked.

Swamiji sits on a mat in the center of the studio and plays the drum. Eyes closed, he sings the prayers to the gurus, his voice filled with devotion, absolute certainty, reverence, and ecstasy. Even the recording engineers are impressed. When he finishes singing “Samsara Dava” and “Vande Hum,” he leads us in chanting Hare Krishna. Kirtanananda plays tamboura, and the rest of us play cymbals and tambourines. Then, because the engineers must readjust their equipment, Swamiji has to sing all the prayers over again. After singing, he gives a prepared statement explaining the meaning of the mantra. When the long session finally ends, Swamiji is extremely tired.

Too much so. We tend to take his health for granted, mainly because he always seems filled with boundless energy. Although more than twice our age, he exhausts us with endless spiritual challenges, programs, ideas, plans—all for making Krishna known throughout the world.

We have no idea what his mission really means. We are educated to believe that individual men can no longer affect the world in a significant way. The world is too large and complex. What can one man do? We’re not living in the age of Alexander or Caesar, nor of Socrates or Christ.

Ominously, the morning after the recording, Swamiji suffers heart palpitations. His schedule is proving overstrenuous. There are digestive difficulties. Kirtanananda nurses him privately, dispensing with unnecessary intrusions, trying to minimize his work.

But this isn’t possible. Within a week, Swamiji is talking about going to the West Coast, “whether San Francisco is ready or not.”

December 31. Goodbye, 1966. Hare Krishna and Happy New Year!

New Year’s Eve, Matchless Gifts is crowded with devotees and visitors. Swamiji leads the kirtan, and we all chant and dance by candlelight. It is a celebration none of us will ever forget.

“Chant! Chant!” Swamiji tells us, and our chanting drowns out even the drunken revelry on Second Avenue. Again, Swamiji is weaving magic.

A feast follows, and Swamiji eats with us, sitting on his dais and talking amiably. He keeps insisting that Umapati, Satsvarupa, and I take more prasadam. There’s a bucket of gulabjamuns, “ISKCON bullets,” and we stuff ourselves.

“For us, every day is New Year’s,” Swamiji says. “Krishna is always new, always fresh, and we are always celebrating Him. Just see how these people in maya are celebrating, drinking poison to forget everything! Because they are frustrated, they want to forget. But for a devotee, it is just the opposite. The devotee wants to remember Krishna at all times.”

Then, within the first week of the new year, we receive word from San Francisco that a storefront has been rented near Golden Gate Park, in the center of the Haight-Ashbury district, where “the tribes are gathering.”

“We’re busy converting it into a temple now,” Mukunda writes, enclosing a plane ticket. Taking Swamiji’s advice, Mukunda and Janaki abandoned their trip to India. After all, the best India can offer has come to us.

“I shall go immediately, then,” Swamiji announces.

Of course, none of us want to see Swamiji leave New York, but he reminds us that we belong to Krishna, not New York, and that we can expect to spread this movement all over the world. Determined and confident, he excites our imagination. Yes! Krishna consciousness must go West! And, after California, the world!

We make final airline reservations and begin packing his manuscripts in trunks. Ranchor collects enough money to accompany him on the plane as personal assistant. Rayarama and Rabindra-svarupa, contracting a car for delivery to San Francisco, leave three days before Swamiji’s scheduled departure.

We all worry that the initial takeoff might be too exciting for Swamiji’s heart.

We all, of course, want to go with him.

“The New York temple must be maintained nicely,” Swamiji tells us. “Now this is Brahmananda’s job.”

“But how long will you be gone, Swamiji?” Brahmananda asks, worried.

“A fortnight,” Swamiji says. Then, laughing: “But you have not reckoned a day of Brahma.”

Still, we reckon the course of things, and a long New York winter without Swamiji is not appealing. After all, isn’t he actually delivering Krishna? And isn’t our place therefore at his lotus feet?

Resourcefully, Kirtanananda contracts a 1965 Chevy coupe for delivery to California. Chanting Hare Krishna and driving fifty hours nonstop day and night, we follow Swamiji to the land of the Flower Children.

End of Chapter 6

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