Soul Struck (Chapter 10)

The Hare Krishna Explosion
by Hayagriva das

Part II: San Francisco, 1967
Chapter 10

Soul Struck

During April and May, tourism and hippy fantasy soar to rare heights in the Haight-Ashbury. Like a Mardi Gras carnival, the celebration is cresting, rushing toward some indefinite Ash Wednesday.

Kirtans are wild and uninhibited. We often chant at the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms, during intermissions between rock groups. A “Summer of Love” festival is organized, and we chant at be-in’s in Golden Gate Park, at the YMCA and Psychedelic Shop, and with hippy sun worshipers at Morning Star Ranch.

The spring passes so quickly, perhaps because its days are filled with long hours of sunshine and festivity. Youths from all sections of the nation roam and lounge throughout the park, barefoot and dungareed, leisurely creating what they hope is a new community of love and peace, a world where no one is over thirty, where there is no violence, ignorance or death. And they chant Hare Krishna because they see ISKCON as an exotic flower in the hippy bouquet, something even further removed from twentieth century America, from the political activists and their endless strife. Generally, activists and Negroes shun us, considering us on far-out trips, dabbling in the cultures of undeveloped nations.

But what do they know of Krishna? Or of Swamiji? What do any of us really know?

April 23, Swamiji writes me:

I am so pleased to learn that you are all feeling my separation. And so I am feeling the same here. These feelings have very great significance—namely that we are being gradually posted in real Krishna consciousness. I am receiving many other letters from the devotees in San Francisco and telephonic calls indicating their feelings of separation, the basis of Lord Chaitanya’s mode of Krishna consciousness. The more we feel like that, the better for our advancement. However, from the physical point of view, as there is now difficulty in going to Montreal, I may return to San Francisco sometimes in the next month.
Swamiji points out that any good typist can learn the art of Varitype very quickly. If I will type Bhagavad-gita and Back To Godhead, he will get the machine. Satsvarupa, Rayarama and I would solve the “printing problem.” He is prepared to invest $4,500 in a Varitype.

Simultaneously, he is looking into opening branches in Baltimore and Boston.

“Brahmananda, Rayarama and Mahapurusha, three boys, have already gone to Boston last night,” he writes, “to see the situation, and we shall act accordingly.”

Again and again we run into dead ends searching for a publisher or reasonable printer. Then, as I feared, Swamiji writes me May 10: “I beg to inform you that it has now been arranged to print Bhagavad-gita in India, and therefore you are requested to send me back all the corrected manuscripts on receipt of this letter.”

We consider this disgraceful, to our eternal shame that our spiritual master has to send to India to have his book published. But there’s no getting around the fact that commercial presses in the States want too much money for our budget. Brahmananda pleads with Swamiji to give us a little more time. Surely we will find some publisher who is interested.

In late May, Kirtanananda leaves Montreal to visit Swamiji in New York. “I hear he’s a little sick,” he tells me on the phone. He and Janardan plan to stay only a few days, but once there, Kirtanananda decides to remain. He phones me again on May 30.

“Swamiji’s not feeling well,” he tells me. “He looks tired. He’s lost a good deal of weight and looks quite exhausted.”

Not knowing what to make of this, I tell no one.

June 1: Kirtanananda phones again. I answer on the receiver behind the temple. He is most distressed. Swamiji is in the hospital. He has had some kind of stroke.

Bit by bit, as Kirtanananda talks in a strained voice, the pieces fit together. We should have seen it coming. Swamiji had been having heart palpitations since our recording session in New York before Christmas. He was also drinking more water, indicating high blood sugar, diabetes.

“The other day, he was having palpitations,” Kirtanananda says. “He didn’t look at all well, so I kept everyone out. He was disturbed by a twitching in his arm. It was terrible.”

As I listen, frightful images of Swamiji in pain arise. Dear Krishna, help us! I recall Swamiji saying, “If anything happens to me, don’t call a doctor. Just give me my beads. I just want to chant Hare Krishna and go to Krishna that way.”

Kirtanananda continues: “Well, we phoned a doctor, who gave him a shot of penicillin and diagnosed a nervous condition complicated by the flu. The doctor said that maybe he’s praying too much.”

“Praying too much?!”

“Then yesterday, when I was sitting in Swamiji’s room…” Kirtanananda’s voice breaks. “While kirtan was going on downstairs, … the twitching began again, and Swamiji’s face began to tighten up, and his eyes started rolling. Then all of a sudden he threw himself back, and I caught him. He was gasping Hare Krishna. And then everything stopped. I swear, I thought it was the last.… But then the breathing started up again, and with it the chanting. He didn’t regain control of his body, though. We called an ambulance. Now he’s in Beth Israel Hospital.”

Weeping, almost inaudible over the long distance, Kirtanananda promises to keep us posted. I hang up the phone and stand dumbly for a moment, wondering what to do. In the temple, a few people are chanting. Lilavati is making garlands for Lord Jagannatha. Harsharani is scooping flour out of a barrel to make the evening’s chapatis.

“Where’s Haridas?” I ask.

No one knows. I run out to Stanyan. The sun is bright. Some hippies are tossing frisbees across Frederick Street. I dash from apartment to apartment until I find Haridas and take him aside.

“Kirtanananda called,” I tell him. “Swamiji has had a stroke and is in the hospital. He’s asked us to spend the night chanting.”

Haridas looks as if he’s just been struck in the face. Worse—soul struck. He stands, looking at me with silent disbelief, then shakes his head sadly. “I knew it,” he says. “I could sense something horrible was going to happen. Just look at that picture.”

He points to a photograph taped to the wall, the photo of Swamiji’s last look at the temple, his farewell look of infinite sadness. As we look at the photo, we cannot weep. Weeping in itself is a finite, inadequate release for an interior emptiness, the sense of terrible, premature loss. We feel that a whole spiritual atmosphere is leaving us.

“We’ll never see him again,” I say. “I know it. I just feel it.”

“Have you told the others?” Haridas asks.

“No. I couldn’t. They’re chanting in the temple. So happy.”

“Well, don’t tell them yet,” he says. “We’ll try to find out more. Then we’ll tell them tonight before the kirtan.”

Stunned, Haridas and I wander to the park. I don’t want to see any of the devotees. My face must tell all.

We sit at the park entrance on a bench and chant quietly, alone with our awful secret and countless unspeakable fears. Foremost, we fear that with Swamiji’s passing, the Hare Krishna movement will disintegrate. We have just begun; the very foundation has yet to be completed. Swamiji’s teachings may be lost. There are no books published apart from the few he brought from India, and even Bhagavad-gita is unfinished.

I fear personally for myself. What will I do without his words, the kirtans, the little storefront temples, the quiet moments in his room, the casual conversations, the constant presence of Vrindaban and Lord Krishna? I fear return to chaos and lonely searching.

How strange! I recall that Swamiji’s horoscope predicted this attack. Years earlier, an Indian astrologer had discerned some break there in his seventy-first year, some inevitable climax. In fact, that is to be his normal hour of death, the time fixed for him to leave the body.

En route aboard the freighter Jaladhuta, a palmist told Swamiji that if he survives his seventy-first year, he will live many more years.

The death crisis is in his palm and in the stars.

“I will always be with you,” I recall him saying. “The spiritual master is always with the disciple. I am always feeling the presence of my spiritual master.”

But we are so young, so green, on such foreign ground for Vedic culture. Maya will surely absorb us like a sponge. We are now in no position to lose our spiritual father.

Looking up from the park bench, I see children playing in the sprinkler and sunlit grass and wonder at the audacity of life to go on so blithely.

I try to phone Kirtanananda in New York, but he’s at the hospital. I talk instead to Rayarama.

“All I can really say is that Swamiji is very, very ill,” he tells me. “He’s asking all of us to chant all night for his recovery.”

Haridas and I assemble everyone in the temple and try to think of the least shocking way to put it. Haridas looks at me and nods.

“I got a call this afternoon from Kirtanananda,” I say finally. “Swamiji has fallen sick.”

Janaki and Lilavati immediately burst into tears. This quickly spreads to the other girls. Sighing, I sit quietly, recalling that Socrates banished women from his deathbed in order to die in peace.

Some of the boys begin asking details. There’s very little to say except that we’ve been requested to chant all night and pray to Lord Nrishingadev for Swamiji’s health.

Lord Nrishingadev is a fierce incarnation of Krishna—half-lion, half-man—who descends to save His devotee Prahlad from Prahlad’s demoniac father Hiranyakashipu. After Nrishingadev kills Prahlad’s father, Prahlad recites the following prayer to pacify Him. It is a prayer we immediately begin chanting.

tava kara-kamala-vare nakham
kesava dhrita-nara-hari-rupa
jaya jagadisa hare.

“O my Lord, Your hands are very beautiful, like the lotus flower, but with Your long nails You have ripped apart the wasp Hiranyakashipu. Unto You, Lord of the universe, I offer my humble obeisances.

We turn on the dim altar lights behind the Jagannatha Deities, light candles, and chant in the flickering shadows. It is solemn chanting and even more solemn dancing. The news quickly spreads down Haight Street, and soon the temple is crowded with visitors come to join our vigil and chant through the night.

Mukunda and Janaki phone New York. No additional information. Kirtanananda is spending the night in the hospital beside Swamiji’s bed. No one else is being allowed in. Hospital regulations. Yes, there’s a vigil also in New York. Everyone’s chanting through the night.

We chant past midnight. Most of the visitors leave, but none of us yet feel sleepy. The chanting overtakes us in waves. My mind wanders to Swamiji, to New York, to the future, to the past. I have to force my errant mind back into the temple to confront the present, to petition Sri Krishna to spare our master a little longer. And through the chanting we all feel Swamiji’s presence, insistent, purely spiritual.

By two in the morning, we begin to feel sleepy. I change instruments just to keep awake, sometimes playing mridanga, sometimes cymbals or harmonium. Many dance to stay awake. The girls serve light prasadam—sliced apples and raisins. It is dangerous to sit next to the wall, an invitation to doze off. We are so frail. Only Arjuna, the pure devotee, is Gudakesa, conqueror of sleep.

Between three and four, the most ecstatic hour, the brahma-muhurta hour before the dawn, we sense that if Swamiji is still alive, he will surely pull through.

We sing. We chant on beads. We chant through the usual seven o’clock kirtan and into the late morning. Chanting fourteen hours nonstop, we cleanse the dust from the mind’s mirror. We sense Krishna and Swamiji everywhere. Surely now he is well!

Just before noon, Kirtanananda phones to tell us that Swamiji is still living but is very, very weak. We should continue chanting. The doctors are running all kinds of tests.

“It’s terrible,” he says. “They’re shooting him with needles and taking blood. They want to stick needles through the skull to check out the brain waves. He doesn’t want all this, but he’s submitting because of us. He’s simply putting himself in our hands.”

“What does he want to do?” I ask.

“It’s hard to tell. He’s still so weak. But he hasn’t indicated that he’ll be leaving his body.”

I seize on this as good news and tell Haridas and Mukunda. There is some guarded optimism. But within we know that his body is old and has suffered a stroke. He can go at any moment. We still await the call that tells us.

June 3. Swamiji has been in the hospital two days.

“He seems to be responding to massage, Kirtanananda tells me. “He’s talking some, talking about going to India to consult an Ayurvedic physician. He just dictated a letter to a Godbrother in India requesting Ayurvedic advice.”

“That sounds good,” I say.

“He wants out of the hospital,” Kirtanananda adds. “He’s still saying that we never know when death will come, but he’s not concerned. He’s saying that Krishna allowed him to survive his major attack because He wants him to carry out his spiritual master’s orders to spread the sankirtan movement in America.”

This news elates us all. The next day, Kirtanananda tells me that Swamiji is definitely gaining strength.

“His facial expression is picking up,” he says, “and his chanting is strong again. He’s not sleeping as much. Chanting all the time. This morning, he was even able to put on tilak.”

But in the evening, Rayarama phones to say that Swamiji passed a bad day. Now it is touch and go. At times, he seems right on the brink of death. At times, he’s about to leave the hospital. Reports continue to conflict.

June 6. “Swamiji wants to move to the country or seashore,” Kirtanananda tells me. “He definitely wants out of the hospital. He’s concerned about the money—a hundred a day here. And he says that they’re not helping him, just sticking him with needles.”

Rayarama informs us that they’ve rented Swamiji a little bungalow in Long Branch, near the water. “Swamiji wants to be near the sea,” he says. “He just wants a place to rest in peace. The hospital isn’t helping him much.”

We speculate: if he’s considering leaving the hospital, surely the worst must be over. But how extensive is the damage? Will he ever be able to lecture again, to write, to dance at kirtans in the park, to lead us on spiritual marathons until we drop? To be without him now is what we have tacitly feared from the beginning. He has been singlehandedly sweeping us along, rapidly transforming our lives with daily revelations.

Yet so much is but intimated! Bhagavad-gita As It Is still sits incomplete, and much remains untold: the twelve cantos of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Chaitanya-charitamrita, Vedanta-sutra, Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu. He had planned to translate and annotate them all.

“I have so much to tell you,” he’s often said. “We haven’t even scratched the surface. In our tradition, there are such wonderful literatures! We must work quickly and publish.”

Will his dream for a Vedic America dissolve like Don Quixote’s dream of Spanish chivalry? It is sad to think of those spiritual epics remaining hopelessly buried in the past, in old dusty tomes, stored on bookshelves labeled “occult.”

But hasn’t he sent Krishna vibrating through the air? Rolling off our tongues? Hasn’t he brought Krishna Himself, the Person, to Second Avenue? Tompkins Square? Golden Gate Park?

And now, after giving us a glimpse of Krishna, will he leave us?

Despite protesting doctors, Swamiji checks out of the hospital June 8. Brahmananda and Kirtanananda immediately drive him to Matchless Gifts, where he pays obeisances to his spiritual master and Krishna and then leaves for the ocean bungalow in Long Branch.

Now Kirtanananda writes that Swamiji “seems to be indestructible.” When he hears our recording of “Narada Muni,” he sits up in bed and starts to clap his hands.

“Is that an American tune?” he asks.

Swamiji wants to see a temple opened in Vancouver.

“There’s one gentleman there.…”

June 10, I receive a letter from Swamiji himself:

Although I am practically on the path of death, still I cannot forget about my publications. I wish that if I live or die, you will take very serious care of my publications. Immediately I want to send Bhagavad-gita to Japan for publication. The complete fair copy has to be submitted. I hope you have completed fair copies of at least seven chapters. The balance is typed from the dictaphone, and there does not appear to be any possibility of editing here, so I think you have to do it.…I am thinking of going to San Francisco just after getting some strength, which I hope I will get by the end of the month; but in case I cannot go, you have to do it carefully and send it to Japan. Please let me know whether you’ll do it. If you say yes, then I will send you the dictaphone copies for doing the needful. This will give me great relief, and I am expecting a reply as soon as possible.…
The books! He is on the brink of death, and his only concern is printing Bhagavad-gita As It Is. His only reason for being in the material world is to spread Krishna consciousness, and books are the “big mridanga,” self-contained kirtans that defy both time and space, that endure and travel far.

“Something very wonderful happened today,” Kirtanananda tells me on the phone. “We arrived at the bungalow around noon, and of course Swamiji hadn’t had his lunch. I was trying to prepare it as fast as possible, but by two o’clock it still wasn’t ready. Then he came into the kitchen. ‘Where’s my lunch? Bring me whatever there is immediately.’ He was furious. I made some excuse, which I shouldn’t have done, and finished up whatever I had—dal, some chapatis and vegetables. Then he sat down in the kitchen and ate voraciously. It was really wonderful to see.”

Such news elates the temple. But the next day, we are discouraged by conflicting reports. “Swamiji had a bad night and is feeling very bad. We just don’t know what’s wrong.”

Only one diagnosis is certain: He has diabetes. The doctors have given him pills to try to control this, but he doesn’t want to take them. He wants to cure himself by diet.

“He’s managing this fairly well,” Kirtanananda tells me, “but he still varies a great deal from day to day. Some days he’s well; other days he feels bad. When he’s up, he’s making plans to return to San Francisco, to go here and there. Then on bad days he just says, ‘Let me go back to India.’ So we don’t know what we’re doing from one day to the next.”

Depending on the latest reports from New York, the spirit of the San Francisco temple vacillates. The Rathayatra Car Festival is coming up July 9, just a few weeks away. We plan a parade down Haight Street to the park and ocean, but what specifically are we to do?

“Swamiji says that you should stay there and help organize the Rathayatra,” Kirtanananda tells me. “He says that if you will organize it nicely, he will come.”

“I don’t even know what Rathayatra is,” I protest.

“Just organize a procession,” Kirtanananda says, “from the temple to the beach. You can get all the hippies to pull the Deities in large carts. And afterward, distribute prasadam.”

More confusion. Large carts? Haridas and I search through the public library and manage to find a book with photos of the Rathayatra cart used in Orissa, India. It is a large cart all right, made entirely of wood, with enormous wooden wheels dwarfing the man standing beside them. According to the book, people throw themselves under the wheels to be crushed and instantly liberated. The cart itself, as big as a galleon, is large enough to hold a hundred people. It has balustrades and a flower garlanded throne for the Deities. It would take hundreds of people to pull it, and the cops would no doubt consider it far too dangerous to let loose on San Francisco streets.

Besides, we could never construct such a thing in three weeks.

With great joy I receive a long letter from Swamiji dated June 25.

I am scheduled to come to San Francisco on July 5, but everything remains on the supreme will of the Absolute Person; man proposes, God disposes. As for my health, generally it is improving, but sometimes I feel too weak. I hope that by another week, however, I will get sufficient strength to fly to San Francisco.…
We send Swamiji a Rathayatra announcement to encourage his coming. The New York devotees report that he is looking well and is even playing kartals, chanting, and lecturing a little.

Perhaps the worst is really over!

“Swamiji says that he’s definitely coming to the Rathayatra,”

Kirtanananda announces. Everyone clusters about the phone.

“He’s coming!” Shyamasundar shouts.

“Swamiji’s coming to Rathayatra!” Mukunda tells everyone.

The next day, another phone call, and a somber Kirtanananda.

“Now he says he’s going back to India,” he tells me. “He’s not feeling well. He wants to see an Ayurvedic doctor.”

This ping-ponging continues through June while we wonder what to do about Rathayatra. On weekends, Jayananda and I drive along the coast looking for a cottage where Swamiji can rest in the ocean air.

At the end of June, Swamiji leaves the Long Branch bungalow and returns to the New York temple. After a scheduled hospital checkup, Kirtanananda phones us. For the first time, he sounds really happy.

“The doctors were amazed,” he says. “They can’t understand it. He’s had a major stroke, and now, only three weeks later, he’s checking out fine. When I asked if he could fly to San Francisco, the doctor said, ‘No reason not to.’ So we’ve made reservations for July 5.”

We act fast. Mukunda rents a beautiful beach house at Stinson Beach, a little resort just north of San Francisco. The estate, called Paradisio, is complete with palms, flora, enclosed patio, sliding windows and a lawn Buddha covered with bird droppings.

Mukunda had to plead with the owners to get them down to two hundred a week.

In New York, Swamiji remains in his apartment. Although still not attending kirtans, he is steadily recovering. We hear that he has initiated a new pastime—morning walks. At seven in the morning, he walks with devotees down Second Avenue to Fifth Street and then to First Avenue, where he sits on a bench to chant beads or just relax in the early morning air. He then walks back to Matchless Gifts. These walks become as much a ritual as any other.

Wednesday, July 5, Kennedy Airport. Swamiji and Kirtanananda board Delta Airlines flight 621. Something is wrong with one of the wheels, and the plane is delayed about an hour.

We wait in San Francisco with baskets of flowers.

End of Chapter 10

Pasted with permission;

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