San Francisco Rathayatra (Chapter 11)

The Hare Krishna Explosion
by Hayagriva das

Part II: San Francisco, 1967
Chapter 11

San Francisco Rathayatra

As the passengers file through the gate into the terminal, we all wait anxiously, wondering how Swamiji will look. Somehow, we cannot imagine him gaunt, disabled or feeble. It is difficult for us to accept that his body, the medium for his teaching, could in any way break down, in defiance of the great spiritual personality within.

He is the last off the plane, accompanied by Kirtanananda. Despite the severity of his stroke, he looks virtually unchanged, only a little weary. The girls rush toward him and burst into tears. We throw flowers taken from Golden Gate Park: rhododendrons and hibiscus. He smiles appreciatively, but says nothing, and this is strange. Instead of giving his usual airport talk, he looks to us to show him the direction out. He chants Hare Krishna softly, his fingers incessantly caressing the japa beads in the beadbag, counting the rounds.

As we make way for him, he passes through the crowd onto a moving ramp that glides him swiftly through the terminal. We hurry to keep up. Following his example, we say nothing, but chant quietly and intently. His presence is enough. He is intact and in control, and we are satisfied that he is with us at last.

Outside, Swamiji gets into Jayananda’s station wagon. We suggest driving directly to Stinson Beach, but Swamiji wants to stop by the Frederick Street temple first. Not waiting for the baggage to unload, Kirtanananda gives the claims ticket to Upendra.

Visitors from Haight Street, hearing of Swamiji’s arrival, crowd the temple. Swamiji stays just long enough to offer obeisances to the Jagannatha Deities. Without speaking, he returns to the station wagon, and Jayananda drives off to Stinson Beach and Paradisio.

The road to Stinson Beach passes by Muir Woods, and remembering that Swamiji had gotten sick on that winding route, Kirtanananda suggests driving slowly and encourages Swamiji to lie down in the back and relax. Still, Swamiji feels a little nausea. We are all relieved to arrive at the beach house. Swamiji immediately notices the statue of Buddha beside the lawn furniture. He shakes his head and smiles slightly, as if to say, “You have yet to begin to learn.”

Now more than ever, we sense in his presence that indefinable something—illusive, magnetic, unique, majestic. Walking slowly and quietly into the beach house, he evokes love and reverence. But it is strange now to see him silent, to be in his presence without hearing him talk endlessly of Krishna, to watch passively while Kirtanananda tends him. Yet now, every moment with him seems more precious and relishable. Within, we all know how close we’ve come to losing him forever, and how little time remains.

Janaki breaks the silence and tension of the reception by crying. Mukunda tries to quiet her. Swamiji smiles and looks out the sliding window at the ocean.

“Very nice,” he says quietly. “You have arranged a very nice place here.”

Materially speaking, Paradisio is just what the doctor ordered. But sadly I sense that Swamiji will not stay long. Although he has just arrived, there is a look of departure on his face.

Jaya om vishnu-pada paramahamsa parivrajakacharya astottara-sata sri srimad bhaktivedanta gosvami maharaja ki jaya! Parivrajakacharya: the wandering mendicant, always arriving, always departing. Somehow he reconciles opposites. Sitting on the floor behind his tin footlocker, he seems eternally there. Yet his presence has something of the swiftness of the thunderbolt. You have to move quickly to touch his lotus feet.

Now Swamiji talks to no one. He goes at once to his room to take rest. The flight has been a great exertion. Kirtanananda explains clearly that Swamiji is still convalescing. There are to be no visitors besides Upendra, for serving, and me, for editing. Swamiji is most anxious to complete Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Now it is his prime concern; it is to be the Bible of the Krishna consciousness movement. Without it, we would be in a ship adrift without charts or compass. So we must give Swamiji all facility for recovery.

While Swamiji rests, Kirtanananda sets about converting the beach house into Vaikuntha. He has brought a dozen paintings from New York-paintings of Nrishingadev, Narada Muni, Radha Krishna, the Jagannatha Puri temple. Jadurani’s art has improved. We hang the paintings throughout the house. Since the Jagannatha Deities must disappear from the temple for a number of days before Rathayatra, we bring Their Lordships to Paradisio and set Them up on the living room piano.

Rathayatra is scheduled for Sunday, only four days away. We are still confused about procedures. Swamiji’s instructions seem impossible to carry out; we have been charged to organize something on the order of the Rose Bowl parade. Shyamasundar and Jayananda work feverishly to build a canopy over the back of a flatbed truck loaned by the Diggers. The police start giving us trouble. They want to know exactly how long this “parade” is going to take.

“And what’s this all about anyway?” they demand.

“A religious festival,” we explain.

The cops shake their heads, complain about hippies, and stamp more forms. Haight-Ashbury, hippies, swamis, cults, acidheads, be-in’s, long hair, rock groups—it’s all the same to them.

“Just make sure nobody gets hurt,” they say. “And hurry it up.

Saturday, July 8, three days after Swamiji’s arrival, we drive up to Stinson Beach to fetch Lord Jagannatha. For the past three days, no one has been permitted to visit Swamiji. Kirtanananda and Upendra have been attending him, and I’ve consulted him only on the most pressing editorial problems. As we place the Deities into the station wagon, Swamiji stands at the door and watches, obviously longing to go with the Lord. We say nothing, knowing that if he could, he would joyfully lead the procession.

“This festival is the major event of the year in Jagannatha Puri,” he tells us, talking slowly, his voice barely audible. “So do it nicely. The Lord should not be hurried but should be taken royally to the beach. Actually the cart should be pulled by hand. We understand that once, when the cart was stuck, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Himself put His head against it and pushed it, and so displayed His superhuman strength. And before Lord Jagannatha, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu would chant and dance and fall to the ground in ecstasy. These pastimes are there in the scriptures, and one day we will translate them. Anyway, this is the first Rathayatra in America. Do it as well as you can, and Lord Jagannatha will be satisfied.”

From Stinson Beach, we take the Deities to Shyamasundar’s apartment on Haight and Lyon. There we place Them in a corner and drape Them. Their Lordships are in hiding.

Although we want to proceed down Haight Street through Golden Gate Park, the police insist that we take the Frederick Street route to the south. The park officials fear that the hippies might trample the flowers.

All day Saturday, the girls cook and butter chapatis. Jayananda constantly runs here and there, transporting boxes of apples and bananas and running last minute errands. Without Jayananda’s enthusiasm, we would be helpless. With taxi-driver expertise, he wheels his station wagon up and down the San Francisco hills, transporting prasadam, posters, flowers, instruments, amplifiers and speakers. His excitement is contagious; he even inspires the most spaced-out hippies to help.

Although Haridas’s Rathayatra posters are our only official announcements, everyone in the Haight-Ashbury is talking about the festival. A Krishna parade to the beach! A love feast! Bring flowers, wear bells, paint yourself up, chant, get high! Celebrate Sri Jagannatha, Lord of the universe!

Sunday morning, July 9. Shyamasundar drives to the Diggers to pick up the flatbed truck, which for today will be the Rathayatra chariot of Lord Jagannatha, the supreme controller of the universe. On the truck’s open bed, we have nailed five-foot high wooden posts that support a red canopy. Along this canopy, we string flowers and bells, and on the wooden posts we staple prints of Krishna. On the broad bumper, we paint Hare Krishna in Sanskrit. Subal and Ramanuja unload boxes of flowers from the park, and Harsharani and Yamuna bring baskets filled with chapatis. Jayananda arrives with bushels of apples, oranges, and bananas.

When the Rathayatra cart is ready, Jayananda drives it to Shyamasundar’s apartment, where Their Lordships are waiting. After undraping the Deities and garlanding Them with hibiscus, we carefully carry Them down to Their chariot.

Jagannatha-swami nayana pathagami bhavatu me,” we sing while placing Lord Jagannatha on the right-hand side of the cart beneath the canopy. “Lord of the universe, please be visible unto me.” Subhadra looks out from the rear, and Lord Balarama is seated on the left. On the cart’s four corners, we stake Christian, Moslem, Jewish and ISKCON flags. Our ISKCON flag consists of a Sanskrit Om and a drawing of Radha and Krishna dancing.

“Actually, each Deity should ride in a separate cart, Swamiji had told us, “and the carts should be pulled with ropes by the crowds through the streets. But that is all right. Maybe in the future you can arrange that.”

All in all, Lord Jagannatha looks very happy staring out at the universe from His flatbed truck. As we round the corner to Haight Street, the bells on the canopy jingle. Their Lordships rock a bit, as if dancing. We make sure They are better secured.

At one o’clock, the police arrive on motorcycles to lead us down Haight. Hippies begin congregating, and the street is cleared of traffic. Haridas, Mukunda, Janaki, and I ride on the cart. Mukunda shouts through a microphone, asking everyone to chant Hare Krishna. As Lord Jagannatha smiles benevolently, the cops rev their motorcycles. They are in a hurry.

Haridas plays mridanga, and I blow apocalyptic blasts on the kelp horn. Shyamasundar drives. Seeing some startled Indians, we invite them onto the cart. We lurch forward. Subal, with shaved head and robes, walks in front of the cart, hands upraised, chanting. We tell him to walk slowly and disregard the cops. Yamuna, Gurudas, Upendra, and others also walk, surrounding the cart. The girls are dressed in saris, and even some of the hippies are wearing robes. The drums, cymbals, and tambourines strike the rhythm, and the crowd starts chanting Hare Krishna. Always ready to join some festivity, hippies descend from side streets, apartments, coffeeshops, the clouds. The girls hand out oranges, apples, bananas, chapatis, puris.

As Shyamasundar drives down Haight, people line the sidewalk and flow out into the street to follow the cart. Lord Jagannatha keeps smiling.

“Move it on! Move it on!” a motorcycle cop shouts to Shyamasundar, then roars off.

“Slow down!” Mukunda shouts at Shyamasundar through the window. “We can speed up on Frederick.”

We pick up the largest crowd down Haight to the entrance of the park. Subal, now transformed into a whirling dervish, dances crazily before the cart, sometimes stopping and swirling in circles. Jayananda jumps straight up and down and clashes cymbals. Frequently the cart slows to a halt as people cluster around our dancing Subal and bouncing Jayananda.

The motorcycle cop roars back and shouts again at Shyamasundar to move it on.

“I can’t run people down,” Shyamasundar protests.

Finally, when we reach the park’s entrance on Stanyan, the crowds surrounding us have blocked the streets. We turn left toward the temple, and the cops zoom about like angry wasps. Hippies latch onto the back of the cart. I throw out flowers. Mukunda throws apples. Haridas throws kisses. When we reach Frederick Street and pass by the temple, cheers go up.

“Radha Krishna Temple ki jai’! New Jagganatha Puri ki jai!”

Shyamasundar shifts to low gear as we pull up a steep hill. Again, dancing Subal and Jayananda force us to a halt. When the engine momentarily dies, we slide back about ten yards. I fear that we’ve run over people, but everyone manages to scramble out the way, laughing. Lord Jagannatha is protecting us. As we pass a wealthy residential area, people run out on their lawns to watch. Their faces are blank. Some glare angrily. “Crazy hippies.“ “What next?” “It’s the international society of nuts.” Home-owners wave down the cops and demand explanations. We drive on, now followed by hundreds of hippies, all chanting Hare Krishna, the crowd now extending for three blocks.

When we arrive at the beach, we jump down off the cart, run down the sands, and stand before the Pacific. Hare Krishna. It’s not possible to go further. The hippies wander about like confused lemmings, looking at us and waiting for something. We wonder what to do next. Swamiji hadn’t given us further instructions, and now all the prasadam is gone. I confer with Haridas.

“What now?”

“You know as well as I,” he says.

“Swamiji said to have kirtan and distribute prasadam,” Subal says.

“We’ve done that.”

I look back at the cart. Lord Jagannatha smiles on. Traditionally, He’s to be thrown in the ocean and new Deities carved, but Swamiji told us that wasn’t necessary.

“I guess we’ll just keep chanting,” I suggest.

“Let’s drive Lord Jagannatha up to the mountains,” Subal says.

“Sure. Why not? Later.“

Although we’re out of prasadam, some hippies run about distributing rock candy from paper plates. Haridas and I take a couple of handfuls, suck on the sweet crystals, and look out at the ocean. Gurudas and Mukunda sit on the sands and continue chanting. A crowd gather around them. Everybody’s grabbing for the candy.

“Swamiji wants to see the Deities,” Shyamasundar says. “Let’s chant about an hour and then head for Stinson Beach.”

We build a bonfire and chant until four in the afternoon. When we stop, all we can hear is the roar of waves and the persistent ring of cymbals.

Suddenly Yamuna jumps to her feet and looks out to sea.

“Where’s Gurudas?” she asks.

I look about but don’t see him. Then as I turn back to her, I see Gurudas sitting at her side. Still, Yamuna, as though blind, starts running down the beach calling for Gurudas. Janaki tells Mukunda that she feels a little ill. Mukunda laughs. Rabindra-svarup disappears. The hippies continue milling about, and I suddenly realize that Swamiji is expecting us. I turn to Haridas, who continues to stare out over the distant waves.

“We’d better get to the truck now, I say, breaking his reverie.

“Ye gods, that chanting really spaces you out,” he says.

We walk down the boardwalk and try to round up the devotees for the trip to Stinson Beach, but everyone seems to be flying off in different directions. Finally Jayananda, Haridas, Harsharani, and I get in the station wagon. The others ride with Shyamasundar, chanting to the Deities in the cart. We agree to meet at Shyamasundar’s apartment and from there drive together to Stinson Beach.

As we ride along Golden Gate Park, I’m startled to notice that the station wagon is transparent. When I look up, I see the sky through the red plastic top. The park trees and stop signs seem visible through the station wagon itself. I suddenly feel that everything I’m seeing is glued to my retina. I bend down and close my eyes.

“Is something wrong?” Haridas asks.

“I feel strange,” I say. “I guess it’s from all the chanting.”

“You didn’t eat any of that candy, did you?” Harsharani asks. “I hear it was loaded with acid.”

I should have known. Rock candy! Of course! I look at Haridas and watch his face change shape.

“No wonder!” he laughs.

“So that explains Yamuna and Janaki!”

“A lot of people got sick,” Harsharani says. “Krishna-dasi and a couple of others.”

“O dear Krishna!” I realize that the effects are just starting. By the time we reach Shyamasundar’s, I see everything colored blue. I run upstairs and fall on the bed. It’s a very long fall indeed. I jump up, go to the bathroom, and in the mirror watch myself become different people. Haridas and Shyamasundar ask if I’m ready to go to Stinson Beach.

“I can’t see Swamiji like this,” I say.

“It’ll wear off.”

“We should wait, at least.”

“The festival was great,” Shyamasundar says. “Everyone’s talking about it.”

I sit and watch him metamorphose into a multitude of people.

This isn’t Krishna consciousness, I think. This is chemistry, voodoo, black magic. I repent my carelessness in eating bhoga, non-prasadam. Knowing that the physical effects will wear off, I bide time until Shyamasundar will wait no longer. Fortunately, I had not eaten very much.

We crowd into the truck and ride up to Stinson Beach in the early twilight. Swamiji comes out of the house to see Lord Jagannatha seated on His chariot throne. He is very pleased. We take the Deities inside and place Them back on the piano.

It is the first time that many of the devotees have had a chance to see Swamiji since his arrival.

Gathering in the living room, we tell Swamiji all about the festival.

“It was wonderful! Everybody loved it.”

Swamiji eagerly listens to all the details. When Shyamasundar tells him about the truck stalling on the hill and rolling backwards, Swamiji smiles.

“Yes,” he says. “That is a pastime of Lord Jagannnatha. Once, when the cart was stuck, not even the king’s elephants could move it. Only Lord Chaitanya Himself could push it. So, Lord Jagannatha has kindly brought His pastimes to America.”

Kirtanananda distributes prasadam, and we all eat heartily. Everyone is elated, for Swamiji appears much improved. As we partake of prasadam, we listen to him talk of Jagannatha Puri and the Vaikuntha planets. His speech is now much stronger.

“As long as we are in the ocean of material nature,” he says, “we will feel anxiety. But not in Vaikuntha. That is what Vaikuntha means, freedom from anxiety. Everyone in the material universe—from Lord Brahma down to the tiny ant—is anxious about something. If you see a bird and make a sudden move, that bird will fly away from fear. He is anxiously thinking, ‘Oh, what will catch me and eat me?’ The Padma-purana says that the smaller living entities serve as food for the larger. So all are in anxiety—even Brahma himself, for although his years are incalculable by our system, there is finally annihilation.”

As we listen, we forget the rock candy and temporary intoxication, that all seeming childish and artificial. But when Swamiji asks the whereabouts of Janaki and Yamuna, Subal mentions the incident.

“They’re recovering, Swamiji,” he says. “Some hippies passed out candy with LSD in it. Nobody knew.”

Swamiji’s eyes open wide. “Oh? Just see!” he says. “You cannot just go eating whatever people offer. You must eat only Krishna prasadam. Let that be a lesson. The reactions were minimized because you were trying to serve Lord Jagannatha.”

Then again Swamiji resumes talking of Krishna and the wonderful effects of devotion to Him, and for us it seems that he was never ill, that he will go on talking forever.

“When I came from India,” he says, “I was floating on an ocean of water. And when I came from New York, I was flying above an ocean of clouds extending as far as you could see. Above the clouds was the sun, but when we came down through the clouds and landed, everything in San Francisco was dim and clouded. But the sun was still shining.

“Those clouds cannot cover the whole world, not even the United States, which is but a speck in the universe. From an airplane, we see these skyscrapers as very tiny. Similarly, from God’s position, all this material nonsense is insignificant. As a living entity, I am very insignificant, and my tendency is to come down. But the sun doesn’t have the come-down tendency. It is always above the clouds of maya.”

“Swamiji” a new disciple says. “Why does one soul rise and another fall?”

“Why is one soul in the beer halls?” Swamiji asks in return. “And another in the Krishna temple?”

No reply.

“Because one wants to be here and another doesn’t,” he says, answering himself. “That is independence. Misuse it, and you’re down. Use it properly, and you’re up.”

After a while, Kirtanananda suggests that we let Swamiji take rest. The Deities are to remain some days at Paradisio before returning to the temple.

As the night fog begins to settle, we again board the flatbed truck. It is no longer the transcendental chariot of the Lord. The Jagannatha thrones are removed and canopy taken down. San Francisco Rathayatra 1967, the first in the Western world, is over. Returning to the temple, we chant and huddle together against the night wind. We are happy because Swamiji is pleased. Our march to the Pacific Ocean with the Supreme Lord of the universe was victorious.

“That was but the beginning,” Swamiji says the following morning. “We will inaugurate many such celebrations all over the world. One by one, I will show you.”

End of Chapter 11

Pasted with permission http://www.the

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