Spiritual Bongos And Neighborhood Beats

Spiritual Bongos And Neighborhood Beats
By Damodara Dasa

Adapted by Nandimukhi Devi Dasi from Remembering Srila Prabhupada (copyright 1998 Daniel Clark)

His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, my spiritual master, enacted his life’s activities from his birth in 1896 to his passing in 1977. I knew him for the last eleven years of his exemplary pastimes. But to say I knew him is going too far. I watched him. I listened to him. I talked with him and corresponded with him. I followed him and obeyed him—and disobeyed him. I learned from him. I bowed down before him and prayed to him. I loved him, and still do. Through those eleven years, that person I first knew as the Swami, then as Swamiji, and then as Srila Prabhupada guided my life.

My first contact with Srila Prabhupada was in April of 1966. 1 saw a New York Times photograph with a long caption. The Swami, pictured sitting, was giving classes on Bhagavad-gita in a loft on the Bowery. For the Swami, first and foremost, God is a person, the caption stated. The best way to attain God realization, he said, is through devotion—and specifically by chanting names of God in a congregational setting. The name of God preferred by the Swami: Krsna.

In July, Swami Bhaktivedanta and his students moved into a small storefront on Second Avenue. It was seven blocks south of my apartment. I often rode the bus south to a friend’s place, and it took me by 26 Second Avenue, where a sign above the window bore the name “Matchless Gifts.” Early one evening the lights were on. Through the window I could see a half dozen people sitting on straw mats with their backs to the street. Facing them and me, at the far end of the room, was a golden glow—that’s all I saw at first. It was the Swami, in yellow cloth.

I was scared. Scared because I was attracted, and I knew what that attraction meant. I would have to stop having sex! I would have to give up all kinds of things. These impressions came to me in the three or four seconds allowed me by the fast-moving bus.

During the late summer, the Krsna conscious people were the subject of many conversations on the Lower East Side. Most of the neighborhood “beats” kept their distance. I too hesitated to walk through the storefront door into that other world. Then a neighborhood avant-garde newspaper, The East Village Other, published a long article on Swami Bhaktivedanta and his disciples. Included was an announcement that the Krsna people would hold outdoor gatherings every Sunday at the park. My wife and I decided to go the next Sunday.

The day was sunny and mild, and the park, as usual, was busy with colorful bohemians celebrating the weekend.

The Swami was dressed in a traditional wrapped cloth. He was sitting down, batting on a little wooden bongo drum. The inner circle of adepts included several enraptured disciples dancing at a stately pace around and around in a circle perhaps ten feet in diameter. Their arms were raised in supplication. Around the dancers sat two dozen or so cross-legged meditators buried deep in the sound of the mantra they sang. Around them stood a crowd of a hundred people. They were a cross-section of the Lower East Side population: students, Ukrainians, Puerto Ricans, bohemians, blue-collar workers, and kids. Many of the onlookers, helped by leaflets passed out by a disciple, sang along with the exotic spiritualists at the center. My life changed at that moment. I was catapulted into a new world.

The Swami modestly kept himself out of the spotlight. He allowed the words and the music of the mantra to work its sacred effect. After a while he stood to speak. I was too far away to hear much of what he said. He spoke with intensity—that was clear. I wanted to hear more.

I attended the next evening meeting at 26 Second Avenue. Once again, the chanting, which I learned was called kirtana, was deeply fulfilling to me.

After a kirtana of twenty minutes or so, the Swami spoke. I had expected a smiling, light-hearted wizardly fellow. Instead, the Swami was dead serious. His lecture concentrated on the evils of sex, which he railed against with vigor. During the question-and-answer period, he employed a quickness of wit and startling perceptiveness in his responses. It was plain he dwelled in a world of mystics and saints who were completely real to him. No matter how much grief it caused me, I was determined to proceed further along this path. I became a regular at the storefront.

The experience of being with the Swami was unsettling. It forced us to question our assumptions about every move we made. Yet to be with him was also the most comforting and reassuring event of our lives. We used to chant on our beads, speaking the mantra aloud, in the courtyard right under his apartment window. Sometimes he would look out and smile. To be so close to him was like being at the center of the universe. We felt no fear or anxiety. He was our eternal protector.

Perfect Teacher

Do you wonder about his authenticity? One young man attending a lecture in New York did. He asked Prabhupada, in a rude, sarcastic tone of voice, “Can you see God?” The answer came swiftly: “Yes, but you’re in the way!”

The movements of his hands were decisive yet supple. In 1966, before the Society had a treasurer, Prabhupada kept the meager fund of petty cash in his little snap-clasped purse. His disciple Brahmananda asked him for fifty cents. Prabhupada picked up the purse with a slow-motion sweep and elevated it to his eye level with his arms outstretched. He deftly unsnapped the clasp with one hand as his other hand descended into the purse, thumb and forefinger together like a bird’s beak, the other fingers straight out like wings. Somehow the beak immediately found a fifty-cent piece. The graceful bird flew out of the purse holding it as if it were a golden coin from a king’s treasure chest and released it into Brahmananda’s hand.

“This typewriter is not different from Krsna,” he taught us in his apartment at 26 Second Avenue. He patted the gray metal machine he was using to type out his purports to Bhagavad-gita. Thus we learned one of the central principles of Krsna consciousness: matter engaged in the service of God becomes spiritualized. “When you place an iron poker in the fire, it becomes just like fire.”

Among his perfections was his gentlemanly behavior. In preparation for his return to New York in 1969, the devotees worked hard to fix up his apartment. As Prabhupada climbed the stairs and saw the rooms through the open door, he said, “This is my old home” and melted our hearts. He knew we wanted him to stay there and never leave. He couldn’t give us that, but he gave us his love. At every moment he won us over again and again.

If I had not been there with Srila Prabhupada for days and weeks and months, my life would be nothing but dry, tattered scraps. The sound of the words from his mouth was like a ripe delicious mango, and it drove you mad for more and more. His hands danced, and the sight of him blessed our eyes with spiritual vision, for on seeing him we gazed into the kingdom of God.

That is why I bow down before him and offer him songs of praise.

Damodara Dasa lives with his wife, Vajresvari Devi Dasi, in Sebastian, Florida. He works as an electronic media specialist at the local public library.

“Excerpted from ‘Back To Godhead’ magazine, courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc., http://www.Krishna.com.”

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