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The Power of Saintly Association: My Personal Asssociaion with my Guru, Shrila Prabhupada Part I

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At the airport reception, a huge kirtana was going on with devotees from Berkeley, San Francisco and L.A. We were oblivious to our surroundings and took over the waiting lounge. Perhaps there were over 100 devotees. As we waited the kirtana got more and more wild and ecstatic, which was not what the other arriving passengers were expecting as they filed out of the plane. We were at the top of a ramp with devotees on either side of the pathway. After what seemed a very long time Prabhupada appeared at the bottom of the walkway. Then the kirtana went into warp speed and intensity difficult to describe.

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In honor of Shrila Prabhupada's disappearance day on Saturday November 1st, 2008, I thought I would publish the few times I had Prabhupadas personal association. As it is about 6 typed pages I will do it in 2 parts.

Although this article describes my limited personal association with my spiritual master Shrila Prabhupada, this represents a very small amount of time during the 7 years of the beginning of my spiritual life when he was physically available (before he left the world). From my first encounter with devotees on the street, to years of Temple service, my connection with Prabhupada was through his books and disciples. To me they were what the Krishna consciousness movement was.

Part of the reason that I didn't cry when Prabhupada was leaving the planet in 1977 was that I had the understanding that for me, nothing would change (the other reason is I was stone hearted). I would still be with my Godbrothers and Sisters sharing and teaching others the nectar of the holy name of Krishna, and the inspiring lila of Lord Chaitanya, and Radha Krishna. That has turned out to be a deep realization, and today my significant shiksa gurus are all from my Godbrothers and Sisters.

Of course, the times I spent with Prabhupada are special and meaningful to me, yet those years were not the “good old days”. To be honest I wasn’t mature enough spiritually to fully appreciate his association or to fully take advantage of it by asking relevant questions. Though those were the foundational years of my spiritual life, it has only been recently that they are beginning to bear fruit. I have been a “late bloomer” my whole life!

The first time I personally saw Shrila Prabhupada was at an airport reception in San Francisco, right before the June 1970 Rathayatra festival. I had been a devotee about 4 months. At that time our lives were centered around reading Prabhupada’s books, repeating what he said (sometimes with an Indian accent!), and going out on street Sankirtana by chanting all day long on the streets, distributing BTGs, and inviting people to the Sunday Feast.

The Sunday “Love Feast” as it was called (to connect to the hippies, and ourselves as we were all mostly from that group) was a huge part of our outreach. We relished the special prasadum (eating super human portions), the ecstatic chanting, and preaching opportunities with many receptive young people. So receptive in fact, that new devotees were joining weekly or monthly.

With all the talk of Prabhupada going on, I’m sure I looked forward to seeing him (this was almost 40 years ago, and I was still rather spaced out from all my drug experiences, so I don't remember all the details), yet it was still very abstract to me. Thus, I am surmising that I was caught up in what must have been a contagious excited atmosphere. Due to my conditioning, I’ve never been a person to be very excited about some future event, yet I am sure even I was excited by the anticipation of others.

At the airport reception, a huge kirtana was going on with devotees from Berkeley, San Francisco and L.A. We were oblivious to our surroundings and took over the waiting lounge. Perhaps there were over 100 devotees. As we waited the kirtana got more and more wild and ecstatic, which was not what the other arriving passengers were expecting as they filed out of the plane. We were at the top of a ramp with devotees on either side of the pathway. After what seemed a very long time Prabhupada appeared at the bottom of the walkway. Then the kirtana went into warp speed and intensity difficult to describe.

As I saw him walk slowly up the ramp, I was amazed at his humility. I had never encountered such an attitude in the midst of an admiring group. Usually when a person is the recipient of great adulation from adoring fans or followers, they drink up the praise and display egotistical gestures. Prabhupada on the other hand seemed incredulous at this display of praise. I expected by his expression, to see him turn around to see who the person was the devotees had come to greet.

As Prabhupada came into our midst, I began crying uncontrollably as did many others. Jumping up and down in kirtana, streams of tears seemed to flow in all directions. The chanters followed Prabhupada, while some devotees went before him throwing flowers and fresh grass clippings. It seemed that the whole airport stopped in its tracks to watch Prabhupada and the kirtana.

This was such a moving and emotional experience, totally unexpected for me. I was a very unemotional stoic person, who never even joked (my how things have changed!) so this whole event was very unusual for me. The only times I ever cried was as a young child when I received a whipping by my father. I definitely had no frame of reference for tears of joy and ecstasy!

The night before the festival, a number of devotees including me were dispatched to the festival site, where the lecture was to be held, and feast served. We were supposed to “guard” the site and the few feast preps that were already prepared and stored there. Just before the Rathayatra parade, we were supposed to be picked up. That never happened and we missed the whole kirtana and parade. That was a long wait. Eventually the rest of the Prasadum (blessed vegetarian food) arrived and I helped set up the serving arrangements and served out the Prasad! One prep had to be thrown out as it had fermented---and I had helped pick all the fruit.

We were serving out on the barrier walls overlooking the beach, and it was a cold, windy, foggy, typical San Francisco summer day. I had on street clothes and by the time I was finished serving I was covered with many varieties of Prasadum. I also hadn’t showered so I felt rather dirty and not very comfortable. Still I wanted to at least here Prabhupada’s lecture so I shuffled into the Family Dog where the talk and kirtana was being held.

I felt embarrassed at my soiled clothes, but what could I do? I remember some people mocking Prabhupada’s Indian accent and that made me sad. A few others things I remember from the lecture was that Prabhupada said that the Krishna consciousness movement has 2 festivals like this one every month---24 a year. He seemed to want to see such huge events going on regularly. He also showed the audience the first Krishna books which he personally sold to eager participants!

In 1971 Shrila Prabhupada again came to the San Francisco Rathayatra. This year he also visited the Berkeley Temple where I was living. Someone has decided to send all the women there (I guess now) to make it easier for the men at the San Francisco Temple. I remember cleaning the inside of the Temple and the outside grounds where we often had Prasadum during the Sunday feast. We made a huge pile of refuge and garbage just outside the Temple room. Our next service was to clean it up, but just then Prabhupada arrived. Fortunately, he never went outside to see it!

We had small Jagannath Deities (which are still at the Berkeley Temple today) above a picture of the Panca-tattva (Lord Chaitanya and his associates). He walked into the Temple, offered his obeisances and walked the short distance to the Vyasasan--or raised set of esteem (the Temple room was rectangular with the shorter distance between the alter and Vyasasan). He immediately began singing the Samsara prayers, or prayers glorifying the spiritual masters. When he sang the 3rd stanza about how the spiritual master engages his disciples in the worship of Radha and Krishna tears began to roll down his checks as he looked lovingly around the room full of devotees. It was for me, a wondrous, incredible moment that I felt deeply. I was stunned and didn’t know what to think.

What came to me later was that Prabhupada loved his devotees. Being a confidential servant of the Lord with the mission to reclaim the fallen souls he was seeing its fulfillment. Perhaps he was remembering how his own guru has saved him and had sent so many sincere souls to assist him. Everything Prabhupada did or said was full of deep meaning on many different levels. It was special mercy for me, a rare moment when I actually noticed the spiritual dimension, since at that time I was rather dull and covered!

In 1973 I was in Hawaii. At that time Prabhupada asked every Temple to send devotees to India, and since I was doing some significant service at the time I was asked to go (or maybe they wanted to get rid of me :-)) ). I took this as an opportunity to write Prabhupada (as we were generally discouraged from “bothering” him through letters) to ask permission to go to India and to visit him in L.A. as I raised funds for my ticket. As I was about to write my first and only letter to him, a friend advised me to begin with glorification of pure devotees, which I did. I can’t remember if the first song book was out, but I found a prayer, Ohe! Vaishnava Thakur, and printed it out before beginning my letter.

After informing him of my intentions, I mentioned that he was given a specific mission by his guru which, in endeavoring to fulfill brought him so many blessings. Thus I thought it wise to also ask for a specific instruction, in which carrying out, I could also obtain perfection in my life. I imagined receiving some unique and exotic mission, like to go to some far away foreign land for preaching.

When I received his reply I have to admit I was disappointed in reading what seemed the same general instructions that anyone could read in his books. A bit of false ego no doubt. At present though, I know this instruction is perfect for me, and that to be able to fulfill it is no easy task. Some other “mission” may have been way beyond my capacity considering how my life has unfolded.

His instruction to me was: “ALWAYS chant Hare Krishna, and as far as possible help me by preaching the philosophy and distributing my books.” This instruction is the essence of KC and to accomplish it would be perfection. I feel I am slowly moving in that direction, though these days my “preaching” is through writing, and my books distribution may be to distribute those I am writing. We will see how far I get in this last stage of my life.

Continued in part 2: http://www.krishna.com/blog/2008/11/6/power-saintly-association-my-perso...