Enter, Srila Prabhupada (Chapter 13)

The Hare Krishna Explosion
by Hayagriva das

Part III: New Vrindaban, 1968-1969
Chapter 13

Enter, Srila Prabhupada

In his long absence, Swamiji’s words haunt me: “Although I am practically on the path of death, still I cannot forget my publications. I wish that if I live or die, you will take very serious care for my publications.“

We are bewildered trying to keep the ISKCON ship afloat, subsisting on the only supplies left—the holy names, the words, the taped lectures, the few books and pamphlets, the memories and photographs.

“Although I am practically on the path of death….”

(Swamiji always said “practically” for “actually.”)

His publications! The Word in English! Before me sits the first complete draft of Bhagavad-gita As It Is, ready for final English revision. “It must be published at once,” he told us repeatedly. “Either get some publisher, or we print it ourselves. Complete it quickly.”

Leaving San Francisco, even revising the manuscript on the plane, I return to New York to work with Brahmananda, who is still hounding publishers.

In Matchless Gifts, we carry on, keeping silent vigil for reports on Swamiji’s condition. Every day, we wait for a letter from Swamiji himself, signed in a large, firm hand, “Your ever well-wisher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.”

Soon letters from Kirtanananda begin to arrive. Word spreads. Swamiji and Kirtanananda were detained overnight in London because someone on the plane was infected with smallpox. A twenty-four hour quarantine. They were accomodated in a hotel by the airline. In the morning, Swamiji was feeling much better, and they were in Moscow in three hours.

Swamiji was not impressed by the stark silence of the Moscow airport. Nor by the peasant women mopping the floor, nor by the Marxist tracts. Women should be protected, and in every society there exists the four castes. How can the sudras, the working class be expected to dominate government? The four castes were proclaimed eternal by Krishna Himself. Mr. Marx cannot arbitrarily abolish them. Such is the illusion of demons.

“We stayed in Moscow about an hour,” Kirtanananda writes, then reboarded and were in Delhi by midnight. We arrived in the middle of the monsoons, so when we got off the plane, the hot and humid Indian air hit us. It was like walking into a scorching brick wall.”

Throughout the smoggy New York August days, we wait for more letters, chant Hare Krishna, and keep the Matchless Gifts storefront open. Although Brahmananda takes charge with the determination of Cortez, we do not expand. We just hold on.

“As soon as Swamiji arrived in Delhi,” Kirtanananda writes, word spread quickly. Obviously he is highly respected. One of the boys living in the temple just told me confidentially that the people look on him as something like an incarnation.”

The climatic change was too much on Swamiji’s weakened system. “The very next day,” Kirtanananda writes, “he began coughing a great deal of phlegm. He’s caught pneumonia. He had come such a long distance to recover, and now he’s caught pneumonia.”

An Ayurvedic doctor came and gave Swamiji pills. Jungle herbs. Finally, Kirtanananda called in a Sikh doctor who injected penicillin.

In two days, Swamiji was better.

“But he is so weakened that he is constantly subject to attack,” Kirtanananda writes. “Pray for him constantly, for it is only Krishna who can save him for us.”

Other letters convince us that Swamiji has returned to India just to leave his body. After ten days in Delhi, he was finally able to depart for Vrindaban. Kirtanananda writes:

When he said he was ready, we took the Agra Express and were in Mathura in two hours. From there we took a tonga to Vrindaban. Lots of temples, peacocks and monkeys. I give Swamiji massage and help prepare his food. …As for his health—he’s been improving steadily since we’ve reached Vrindaban. He contacted a well known Ayurvedic physician who prescribed some simple compounds, such as sandalwood paste and haritaki, a medicinal herb. A number of his God-brothers come by to visit. In their rituals, they chant to Lord Chaitanya a great deal, and Hare Krishna seems to get lost in a maze of mantras, but if you ask them what they consider most important, they will of course answer “Hare Krishna.”
Considering a teaching job again to earn money for passage to India, I write Swamiji for advice, and in early September receive the reply. My first letter from Vrindaban! It is postmarked August 29, 1967. Radha Damodar Temple, Seva Kunja, Vrindaban, Mathura, U. P., India.

“I am very glad to receive your first letter to me in India,” he writes. “So far as Bhagavad-gita is concerned, please complete it as soon as possible; it must be published now, either by a publisher or by ourselves.”

The same message: Complete it! Publish!

“Although I am practically on the path of death. …

The letter continues:

Regarding separation, you may know that I am also feeling that way, and it is all Krishna’s design that we cannot separate any more. In the transcendental field, the feeling of separation is more valuable than the feeling of meeting. Physically I am trying to go back to your States as soon as possible. I have a fancy for your country, and being inspired by that, I first went to your country, and still I feel that way. I am improving, although slowly; but I am eating and sleeping better than in New York. Regarding your speculation as to accepting a teaching position: Krishna wants everyone to utilize his talent as far as possible. Arjuna was a great fighter, and Krishna encouraged him to fight. He never said, “You sit down and I shall do it for you,” although He was able to. No. We must utilize our talents for the service of the Lord; that is real sannyas. Formal acceptance of sannyas, as required for all old men, means that one should retire from materialistic life and devote his time and energy to the Lord’s service. As you are devoted already to His service, without any personal consideration, you are always sannyas at heart. A teacher’s position is always influential; so your sincere efforts for kirtan may be followed by some of your students and co-workers. At the same time, your good editorial work will also continue, so I think you should accept a position.
Swamiji only briefly mentions passage to India at the close of the letter: “I am also going to Bombay to try to induce the managing director to give us some concession on the Scindia Line.”

A postscript by Kirtanananda puts us all in a fit of speculation:

I was duly made a tridandi swami yesterday, the Lord’s advent day, and Swamiji says that it was the most auspicious sannyas ceremony he has ever seen. Just at the moment when I was being inducted, hundreds of people who were at the Radha Damodar gathered around to observe the ceremony and offer obeisances. Now I have a great desire and a great mission to spread this transcendental vibration of Hare Krishna all over America.

Although it is late in the season, and my chances are not good, I phone New York University Placement Center and tell them I’m looking for a job again.

Miraculously enough, they land me one. With short-cropped hair, I pass the interview and am offered an assistant professorship at a community college in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. With some trepidation, but knowing it best to follow Swamiji’s advice, I accept the post and attend inauguration ceremonies. I sing “The Star Spangled Banner” and march across a stage chanting Hare Krishna on beads hidden beneath black robes. The dean introduces me to the college president as “the author of Bragaway Getter.”

They are delighted to have me on the new staff.

I think of Lord Jagannatha bouncing through Haight-Ashbury. I muse on chanting in the rhododendron dell.

Letters from India indicate a steady improvement in Swamiji’s health. Kirtanananda reports that Swamiji is even walking to different temples in Vrindaban to visit his God brothers. Although he enjoys visits to Imlitala, where Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was absorbed in love for Krishna, he usually remains in his room at Radha Damodar Temple, wherein reside the Deities of Jiva Goswami, personal associate of Lord Chaitanya. To the side of the temple is the samadhi of Rupa Goswami, also an associate of the Lord and author of Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, The Nectar of Devotion, an important Vaishnava handbook on bhakti-yoga.

“Swamiji’s obviously regaining strength,” Kirtanananda writes, “but it is still very slow. He is still very weak.”

Kirtanananda also relates stories of snapping turtles in the Jamuna River that clean cadavers to the bone within minutes. And stories telling that if you go to a certain garden in Vrindaban at night, you will see Lord Krishna dancing with the gopis and will never return. Upon hearing this, Swamiji reportedly laughed and said, “Do you think Krishna is so cheap that He can be seen so easily with material eyes?”

Success! Brahmananda has interested Macmillan Company in Bhagavad-gita As It Is!

I receive a letter from Swamiji dated October 19 from Sri Chaitanya Saraswati Math in Navadwipa, Lord Chaitanya’s birthplace in West Bengal.

“Regarding Bhagavad-gita,” he writes, “I fully agree with your suggestions. So far Macmillan is concerned, I shall be so glad to hand over the matter to them for publication, but in case they do not do it, please negotiate with another publisher.”

The Macmillan negotiation is the parting of the clouds. At last, a major publisher! Swamiji’s word will be heard.

But there remains one big problem. The manuscript runs eight hundred pages, and Macmillan wants it cut down to three hundred to lessen production costs.

And I have the doleful job of trying to decide which of Swamiji’s purports are not essential.

After a week in the classroom, I’m already weary of my job. I’ve a hundred and twenty drowsy, conditioned American teenage souls on my hands, and I have to teach them how to write simple declarative sentences and then put them together to make five hundred word essays. At the same time, I want to inject some Krishna consciousness. But how?

From India, Swamiji’s words inspire me:

It is so nice to read your letter and hear how you are always thinking for Krishna. When you write to say that I would like very much to be teaching them Krishna consciousness instead of English,” I am reminded of Lord Chaitanya. For some time Lord Chaitanya was conducting a chatuspati, which is a small tutorial village class run by a learned brahmin. When He was teaching grammar to His students, He was explaining Krishna. There is a chapter in Sanskrit grammar called ‘dahtu’, that is, verbal conjugations. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was explaining dahtu as Krishna, and He would explain Krishna in every step. When the students felt that the teacher was crazy, the Transcendental Teacher closed his class.

I pass a typically cold and drizzly November on the Susquehanna. For me, Wilkes-Barre represents the pits of consciousness. Coal mining town. Beer halls. Loud kids on motorbikes. Pinball machines in Kresges’s Five and Dime. Students with unpronounceable Polish names. Now that we’re in it, support the Vietnam War. Some kids leave for the army. Others stay home, let their hair grow long, and smoke pot. The Beatles follow “Sergeant Pepper” with “Magical Mystery Tour” before Christmas. The Rolling Stones issue “Satanic Majesties.” Jim Morrison and The Doors peak with “Strange Days.” As the December winter enfolds us, I think of spring in Golden Gate Park, bright skies and flowers, and Swamiji dancing under the shadow of Hippy Hill. Walking under the barren trees to class, I chant “Samsara Dava,” and through my mind the Mamas and Papas sing “California dreaming. …

Brahmananda phones me from New York.

“Swamiji’s leaving India,” he tells me jubilantly. “He’s flying to Japan. Then Los Angeles.”

It is sudden, happy news, but each new letter from India brings different plans. We all write Swamiji, telling him how much he is needed. Even In Wilkes-Barre, the kids, via popular music, are aware of gurus, yoga, and “mysticism.” It is “The Year of The Guru,” according to Life Magazine in a write-up featuring Swamiji and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who has converted the Beatles and other celebrities. Mick Jagger of the Stones wants to cut a “mantra record” with Ginsberg and the Beatles. In Vietnam, an American soldier becomes a Buddhist monk.

The time can’t be riper for Krishna consciousness. We cry out for Swamiji.

And he appears in a wholly different and wonderful way.

As the year wanes and Americans brace for another Christmas holiday, he arrives in San Francisco via Tokyo, December 16. He doesn’t arrive as the ailing Swamiji, but returns in full strength as “Prabhupada.”

“Prabhupada means one who is always found at Krishna’s lotus feet,” he says. “Rupa Goswami was called Prabhupada because he was always worshipping the lotus feet of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. All the six major Goswamis were called Prabhupada. A spiritual master is usually addressed as Vishnupada, or Gurudeva, or Prabhupada. These signify reverance and respect.”

“Oh, you mean Srila Prabhupada!” Brahmananda corrects me on the phone when I enquire about “Swamiji.” “Yes, Srila Prabhupada is doing fine. I hear he looks very well and is already shouting at the impersonalists. He arrived in San Francisco this morning.“

I phone the San Francisco temple, and Mukunda informs me that Prabhupada is fine and taking rest in his room.

“Should I fly out now?” I ask.

“Why don’t you wait for me to ask? If Prabhupada wants you here now, I’ll tell Brahmananda.”

In two days, I receive a special delivery letter from Prabhupada himself, telling me that I should continue teaching in Wilkes-Barre, save money and buy property for an ashram. He sends me a copy of a lecture to edit for presentation to a San Francisco radio station.

“We think in Krishna, we chant in Krishna, we live in Krishna, we eat in Krishna, we talk in Krishna, we hope in Krishna, we are sustained in Krishna,” he writes. “And we return to Krishna without any doubt, and this is the substance of Krishna consciousness.”

At last! The master of bhakti-yoga returns to his dais at last! Bogus yogis scatter in his wake.

“What’s all this cheating yoga? They are saying, ‘Give me thirty-five dollars, and I’ll give you some private mantra, then you can do whatever you want.’ This is yoga? Our mantra is free. It is no secret. We are distributing it freely to all. And we say that if you act like a dog, you become a dog.”

For ISKCON, the continent is alive again. Phone calls flow from New York to the new Los Angeles center on Pico Boulevard. And Frederick Street, San Francisco. And Montreal. Now Bhagavad-gita is out of my hands editorially. Rayarama snipped it down to three hundred pages for Macmillan, despite my protests. I call it the “skeleton edition,” as only a few purports managed to survive Rayarama’s cutting. In a letter of January 15 (1968), Prabhupada encourages me to work editorially with Rayarama again and forget petty disagreements.

“To me,” he writes, “the English language is undoubtedly a foreign language, and I thought your combination of editorship will help me a great deal. … Now let us start fresh with renewed energy for Krishna’s service.”

Now that Bhagavad-gita is going to press, Prabhupada looks forward to a constantly expanding future of divine literatures.

We have to finish the Srimad-Bhagavatam in sixty volumes, out of which we have published only three. Two more volumes are already in the press in India. So fifty-five volumes remain. I am now very much hopeful with your good cooperation. To finish the whole Bhagavatam, I require about $40,000, out of which I have about $12,000 contributed by Brahmananda, Jayananda and others.

Prabhupada adds that I should be prepared to return to India with him within the next four to six months. There we can work on completing the Bhagavatam manuscript.

Through February, I fight the urge to fly west. I stick to my classes but find I’m teaching more Bhagavad-gita than English. The sublime teachings of the Vedas easily seep through etymological analyses, Emerson’s essays, Thoreau’s journals, Melville’s metaphysical ponderings, the tight verses of Dickinson, the mystical poems of Whitman.

Second semester is more relaxed, the students more passive, resigned, friendly. Some visit me in the evenings to chant.

In late February, Kirtanananda, now a wandering sannyasi, phones to tell me that he is going to West Virginia to meet a man who has advertised in The San Francisco Oracle for people to help establish a religious community.

On a weekend, free of classes, I accompany Kirtanananda out to Wheeling, in West Virginia’s northern panhandle. There, we meet Mr. Foster, a balding, burly, hayseed philosopher who wants to open up a community “for everybody wanting to learn the Truth.“ Talking rapidly, the gregarious Mr. Foster informs us that he’s not only attained the Truth but can impart it as well. “You just gotta open up,” he says.

Talking nonstop, he drives us out to see some of the property. “I got over three hundred acres in all,” he tells us. “That includes this roadside farm here, and another way up a logging road that’s hard to get to. A couple of people from California are supposed to come out this weekend to help.”

From the road, we get a general view of the land. It is a little too hilly for serious farming, but it must have looked like good homestead country to the pioneers. The atmosphere is tranquil, and forests of maple, poplar, and locust run along the ridges and creeks.

Foster tells us that he’s willing to grant small individual leases on the property to those helping him start a religious community. “You can set yourselves up immediately,” he says, “and stay year round.“

Then he goes on to tell how Gurdjieff and Ouspensky are but pikers compared to him, due to his recently acquired knowledge. We don’t mention ISKCON or Prabhupada. We quickly gather that Mr. Foster would resent any guru other than himself.

Kirtanananda decides to stay at the farm, and suggests that I write Prabhupada about starting an ashram.

March in Wilkes-Barre is gusty, overcast and cold. Whenever I think of Prabhupada in San Francisco, I consider chucking the job and jumping a jet for the coast. Just six hours away! I remember March of the previous year, the hippies crowding the temple, the flowers in Golden Gate Park beginning to blossom, the lively hour-long kirtans, Prabhupada’s lectures, and quiet late-night conferences in his room.

I impulsively write a letter begging Prabhupada to come east now. I tell him about the land in West Virginia and outline possibilities for an ashram. His March 17 reply:

I am so glad to learn that one gentleman is going to open an ashram in West Virginia. I wish that this big tract of land—320 acres—be turned into New Vrindaban. You have New York, New England, and so many “new” duplicates of European countries in the U.S.A.—why not import New Vrindaban to your country? I have suggested that San Francisco be established as New Jagannatha Puri. It was already inaugurated when last year the Rathayatra Festival was performed, and you took part in it. And when you come next year, please encourage them to enhance the enthusiasm, and just try to have a new settlement on the Pacific side called New Jagannatha Puri. I am returning to New York sometimes by the middle of April, provided it is not too cold there. In all probability, I hope I shall get a permanent visa in your country, and if Kirtanananda endeavors to utilize the 320 acres and turn them into New Vrindaban, I may permanently stay there and try to serve you in constructing a New Vrindaban city in West Virginia.

Transcendental cities! Transcendental settlements devoted to the service of Radha Krishna, of Lord Jagannatha, Lord of the universe! New Vrindaban, West Virginia! New Jagannatha Puri, California! Prabhupada, what gifts are you bringing back from mother India? What spiritual frontiers?

I am so glad to understand that you are missing the atmosphere of San Francisco, which you so nicely enjoyed last year. Similarly, I am also missing your company, which I enjoyed last year here. Whenever I go to the class, I remember you, how joyfully you were chanting in the temple, and whistling the bugle so nicely. Whenever I see the cornet lying idle because nobody can play on this particular instrument, I remember Hayagriva Brahmachary immediately …I shall let you know when I shall go to New York, and, if it is possible to leave your work, please try to see me there some weekend, and we shall be glad to talk face to face.

Prabhupada arrives in New York on April 17. Obviously, the India trip has been greatly beneficial. Reports from the west coast were true: his body has been recharged.

Appropriately, at Kennedy Airport he’s smothered with garlands. Now we bow, and take care not even to turn our backs toward him. He smiles, seems to float through it all with effervescence, walking jauntily with his cane, obviously pleased with the clamorous welcome. Now we sense the happy air of assured triumph. Out of compassion for us, Lord Krishna has allowed him to return in an hour of urgent need.

“You are all doing nicely?” he asks. “Everyone is chanting his sixteen rounds?”

Mridangas and “Haribol!” sound the thunder of reply. His smile falls on us, a refreshing April shower of mercy.

In Matchless Gifts, he lectures with full strength, telling us that all our qualifications and assets are but so many zeros. Krishna is the numeral one.

“Without Krishna, all your zeros stand alone, and regardless how many zeros you add, the result will always be zero.

“But if you start with the one and then add the zero, you have ten. Another zero, you have a hundred. Six, a million. And so on. Only in relation to Krishna do our qualifications amount to something. Otherwise they are worse than nothing. They are disqualifications.“

Goursundar and his wife Govinda-dasi now attend Prabhupada as private secretaries, having replaced Kirtanananda and Ranchor. Talking in whispers, they futilely try to keep people out. A very intense atmosphere pervades, as if in a royal court where great matters of state are being decided. Everything revolves about Prabhupada. He is no longer poor little old Swamiji needing help. To look at him is to behold a radiant center, a source of countless ideas, plans, concrete instructions, perfect answers, ideal advice, and happy well-wishes.

“You are looking well,” he tells me.

“And so are you,” I say. “Very well. You have fully recovered.

“Yes. India was very agreeable to me.”

He looks at me for a moment in silence. Face to face. It is as it has always been in eternity. He is still behind the tin footlocker, now covered with saffron silk. He is still sitting on the Indian rug and inviting everyone in. But now a certain intimacy that comes with a small group has vanished. He is a great leader, a purely spiritual vehicle for the liberation of souls. And now we are aware of it.

“So, you have seen this property and its owner in the Virginia?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say. “It’s very beautiful land. I’ve some reservations about the owner, though.”

“You must convince this gentleman to become Krishna conscious. Then we can make it into a Krishna conscious ashram.”

“I doubt I can convince him,” I say. “Maybe Kirtanananda can. He says he’s opposed to all sectarian religions.”

“Then you must convince and inform him that we are not a religion but a science that is nonsectarian.”

“I’ll try.”

“Yes, you must try,” he says. “That is all Krishna asks. You should try, and Kirtanananda should try. Just try to turn this land into a New Vrindaban. Then the rest is up to Krishna.”

As I sit listening to him discuss the possibility for a transcendental community, devotees in the background tiptoe about. There is activity everywhere. Govinda-dasi enters with a silver plate filled with fruit.

Seeing that I’m a little annoyed with all the comings and goings, Prabhupada suddenly smiles very affectionately and reaches for the garland of roses about his neck.

“Come,” he tells me.

I offer obeisances, and as I bow down, he places the garland over my head. I feel their weight and smell their fragrance.

“I don’t deserve these, Prabhupada,” I say, using his new name for the first time. He looks pleased. Embarrassed, I take off the garland and hold it before me.

“No, you take, he insists.

I offer obeisances again, and he hands me some diced honeydew melon.

When I leave Matchless Gifts, I carry the garland with care. Back in Wilkes-Barre, I hang it around a picture of Lord Krishna. The aroma lingers throughout the spring.

End of Chapter 13

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