Dancing in the Streets

Minor History of ISKCON

Mar 25, 2011 — USA (SUN) —

Part 2 – First Times

The first time that I saw the Hare Krishna devotees was in 1969. My father took me to his job in Manhattan. He was employed as a printer for a public relations company on Lexington Avenue and 59th Street. I spent the day collating stacks of papers. I was 14 years old at the time.

My father took me out to eat during his lunch break. We were walking down a typical crowded city street when I was stopped in my tracks.

A group of about a dozen young men and women wearing pink, white, orange and different colored robes were dancing and singing. They were lined up in a row along the curb, men on one end and ladies on the other end, swaying side to side in rhythm with the music. The men all had shaved heads. They were playing drums and cymbals.

I just stopped dead in my tracks and stared at them. I had never seen or heard anything like it in my short life. I was mesmerized. And I remember feeling sad and worried about them. They all looked so pale to me. I wondered, how do these people live? Were they living on the street? While I was standing and staring, a beat up old van pulled up behind the chanters and the rear doors opened and a few more men and women came out of the back with more instruments and joined the others.

After a few moments my father realized he was walking alone and came back to find me and take me to lunch with him. I will never forget that first contact, in this lifetime, with Krishna Consciousness. With Srila Prabhupada’s disciples. More than forty years have gone by and I still remember it just like it was yesterday.

The first time that I purchased one of Srila Prabhupada’s books was Christmas in 1972. I was 17 years old at the time and completely disillusioned with just about everything in the world – wars and famines, poverty and racism, and especially Christmas commercialism. I just wanted to get away from everything for the night, so I hopped on a train and went to the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan. I bought a stack of my favorite Marvel comic books and found a secluded seat in a waiting lounge and planned to just read my comics all night and forget about everything else.

It was well past midnight when a young black man sat down next to me. He started making comments about the great artwork of Marvel comics. I did my impersonal best to ignore him. But he wasn’t going away. I knew from experience that he was either begging or selling. I was still ignoring. But he was persistent.

I finally looked at him as he was pulling something out of a cloth bag that was slung over his shoulder. He took out a small soft-cover edition of Krsna book Vol. I. He then started praising the wonderful artwork of the Krsna book. He opened the book and showed me the paintings inside. I was definitely attracted to the other-worldly activities portrayed on the pages.

I gave him a five dollar bill and took the book and he left me alone. I looked at the transcendental pictures after he left and I started to read the first page. I couldn’t get past the first few sentences. I couldn’t understand a word. How dull was/am I? But I liked the paintings of Krishna’s pastimes and I paid five dollars for it, so I kept the book. A couple of days later I gave the book to a friend who saw it in my room at home and asked if he could read it. A few years later that friend taught me how to chant the Hare Krishna Maha Mantra and the Panca Tattva Mantra.

The first time that I visited a Hare Krishna temple was in January of 1978. A small group of friends practically dragged me to the Radha Govinda Mandir in Manhattan. One of the friends was the person that received that first Krsna book. Another friend in the group was a former girlfriend who also received a small Krsna book from me.

On December 7, 1973 I joined the United States Navy and was on my way to boot camp in the Great Lakes region. I was standing in a terminal with a large group of recruits in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport when a pair of Hare Krishnas in full regalia – shaved heads, tilak, dhoti and kirta – started hitting up everyone in my group for donations. I knew what was coming next. Without thinking, I pulled a dollar out of my pocket. Without looking I gave one of the devotees the dollar and he gave me a Krsna book. When I got to boot camp, I sent the book in the mail to my girlfriend. She was initiated by one of the original 11 about a year after I was.

We took the subway to the city on a Sunday evening and soon we were on 55th Street and 8th Avenue. I want to describe properly how I felt when I stood in front of the entrance to the temple. The first sensation that hit me was the aroma – an alluring mix of incense, flowers and something else that I never smelled before – Radha Govinda prasadam! That irresistible scent wafted out through the front doors and onto the street and surrounded me and gently pulled me inside.

(…to be continued)

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