by Howard Wheeler (Hayagriva dasa)
When I first met my spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, I felt that there was never a time when I did not know him. I never tire of telling of my first meeting with him on the streets of Lower East Side New York.
At the time, I was hurrying from my Mott Street apartment, which had become a refuge for psychedeliacs, to a much quieter apartment on Fifth Street where I hoped to get some peace. I was walking down Houston Street and across Bowery, past the rushing traffic and stumbling derelicts, and after crossing Bowery, just before Second Avenue, I saw His Divine Grace jauntily strolling down the sidewalk, his head high in the air, his hand in a beadbag. He struck me like a famous actor in a very familiar movie. He seemed ageless, though later I found out that he was seventy years old.
He was wearing the traditional saffron-colored robes of a sannyasi, the renounced order, and quaint white shoes with points. Coming down Houston Street, he looked like the genie that popped out of Aladdin's lamp. I was fresh from a trip to India, and His Divine Grace reminded me of the many holy men I had recently seen walking the dirt roads of Hardwar and Hrishikesh and bathing in the Ganges. I had gone to India to look for a guru but had returned disappointed.
It was on this bright July morning, when I was least expecting it, that Sri Krishna, out of His infinite mercy, sent guru to me. The old Vedic adage—by the grace of Krishna you get guru, and by the grace of guru you get Krishna—was justified. Afterwards, Srila Prabhupada (as we were later to call him) often told me, "If you are sincere, you don't have to search out your guru. Krishna will send him." So amid the hot clang and clamor of Houston and Bowery, guru had found me out.
We stopped simultaneously, and I asked the first question that popped into my mind—"Are you from India?"—and he smiled cordially. "Oh, yes, and you?" I told him no, but that I had just returned from India and that I was very interested in his country and Hindu philosophy. He then told me that he had come from Calcutta and had been in New York almost ten months. His eyes were as fresh and as cordial as a child's, and even standing before the trucks that roared and bumbled their way down Houston Street, he emanated a cool tranquility that was unshakably established in something far beyond the great metropolis that roared around us. He answered all my questions readily, as though speaking a dialogue he was well acquainted with. I told him about my India trip briefly, and he asked me if I had been to Vrindavan. "I didn't get a chance to," I told him. "I got sick on the food and had to leave."
He then informed me that he had a place around the corner where he was planning to hold some classes and that he had been wondering whether or not it was suitable. I walked around the corner with him, and he pointed out a small storefront building between First and Second Streets, next door to a Mobil filling station. It had been a curiosity shop, and someone had painted the words "Matchless Gifts" over the window. At the time I didn't realize how prophetic the words were. "This is a good area?" he asked me. I told him that I thought it was. I had no idea what he was going to offer in his "classes," but I knew that all my friends would be glad that an Indian swami was moving into the neighborhood.
For the past two or three years, like so many downtown New Yorkers in their twenties, we had been reading books on Eastern philosophy and religion, burning lots of candles and incense and taking gaïja, peyote and LSD as aids to meditation. Actually it was more intoxication than meditation; meditation was a euphemism that somehow connected our highs with our readings. "I would like to hear your lectures," I told him, after reassuring him that the storefront was suitable. I noticed a placard in the window that read: "Lectures on Bhagavad-gita. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. Mon. Wed. Fri. 7-9."
"You will bring your friends?" he asked.
"Yes," I promised. "Monday evening."
I forget the rest of the conversation, but I do remember afterwards telling everyone I knew about the guru who had inexplicably appeared in our midst.
I attended the first meeting in the little storefront with two of my friends who were later to be initiated as Kirtanananda and Umapati. I was surprised to see half a dozen people there. The storefront was narrow and squalid. There was no rug on the wooden floors and no decorations save one painting in the window of Lord Chaitanya dancing with His disciples. Years later I was to find out that this was painted by an artist who had been given a small picture by Srila Prabhupada to use as a model for a larger canvas.
The only additions to the plain storefront were little straw mats for sitting. At the rear were two windows, a bathroom door and an unattractive sink. In the middle of the room a bare light bulb hung from a cord. Umapati, Kirtanananda and I sat in the middle of the room and looked around at a half dozen other young men who, like us, didn't know what to expect. We sat quietly and waited for about five minutes. Then the door opened and out came His Divine Grace. He deftly slid the white pointed shoes off his feet, sat down on one of the straw mats and looked out at his new audience.
When he saw me he smiled. "You have brought your friends?" I said, "Yes." "Very good," he said and took out a pair of cymbals. He started to play them and sing, "Vande 'ham" and then Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. He indicated that we were to answer the chanting of Hare Krishna, and slowly, awkwardly at first, we tried to follow. There were no other instruments—only the clanging of three pairs of cymbals. Eventually we started clapping, but no one got up to dance. I noticed that about a dozen people had gathered outside the window to watch. Srila Prabhupada finally brought the chanting to a close and recited a prayer. Nobody bowed. Nobody knew what to do. We all simply sat in anticipation.
Then he began his lecture, using Bhagavad-gita. I recall that in those early lectures he spoke mainly in terms of Absolute Truth to better communicate with us. No one had the slightest idea what "Krishna" meant. I had read Gita before, and so had my friends, but to us Krishna, at most, was just a literary personification of the Divine, a characterization of Shankaracarya's Self.
At that first meeting I had some difficulty understanding what Srila Prabhupada said, but his words nonetheless moved me, and I was interested to hear more. I noticed that my friends were also listening attentively, and most of the others seemed to show respect. Then, incredibly, midway through the lecture, an old white-haired begrizzled Bowery bum entered the storefront and walked right through the middle of the room, past all of us who sat in shocked silence, and on up towards Srila Prabhupada, who sat beneath the back windows. I didn't know what he was about to do, but I noticed that he was carrying a package of paper hand-towels and a couple of rolls of toilet paper. He didn't say a word, but walked right past Srila Prabhupada and carefully placed the hand-towels by the sink and the toilet paper on the floor under the sink. Then, clearing his throat and saying something incoherent, he turned around and walked out. No one knew what to say and no one knew whether or not Srila Prabhupada had been insulted.
"Just see," Srila Prabhupada suddenly said. "He has just begun his devotional service. That is the process. Whatever we have—it doesn't matter what—we must offer it for Krishna's service."
He then concluded his lecture and led another chanting of Hare Krishna. The first chanting lasted forty-five minutes, his lecture lasted at least an hour, and the second chanting lasted around thirty minutes. A couple of people left after the lecture. Americans are simply not accustomed to sitting on the floor for over two hours.
After the second kirtana, Srila Prabhupada sliced up an apple and passed it to us on a plate. While this was being distributed, he went out the side door and returned to his apartment in the rear building. I noticed a basket on the front mat in which some people had put a little money. I contributed fifty cents, and then my friends and I left. On our way out one of the boys told us that the next meeting would be Wednesday at seven o'clock but that Srila Prabhupada would also welcome people in his rear apartment during the day.
We attended the next meeting Wednesday night. It followed the same format as the first. After the last kirtana, I went up to Srila Prabhupada and began to question him.
"Have you ever heard of LSD?" I asked.
"No," he said.
"It's a psychedelic drug that comes like a pill, and if you take it you can get religious ecstasies. Do you think that that can help my spiritual life?"
"You don't need to take anything for your spiritual life," he told me. "Your spiritual life is already here."
I agreed with him immediately, although I would have never agreed with anyone else who would have said such a thing. I agreed mainly because he seemed so absolutely positive that there was no question of not agreeing. "Yes, my spiritual life is here," I thought to myself. I knew that he was in a state of exalted consciousness, and I was hoping that somehow he could teach the process to me.
The next morning I went around to his apartment to see him alone. He welcomed me in and told me that he needed help in spreading this philosophy. I noticed that he was typing, and I asked if I could be of any help there. I was a very good typist, and not knowing any other way to help, offered my services. He handed me the first chapter of the Second Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam and asked if I could type it out. I set up a typewriter in his room and began to work.
I typed most of the morning and then told him that if there was any more typing he needed done, to let me know, that I would be glad to take it home. "Oh, I. have lots more," he said, opening his closet door and pulling out two huge bundles of paper tied with saffron cloth. There were thousands of pages in the bundles. I was astounded. It looked like a lifetime of typing.
Early Morning Meetings
The next week, which was the first week in a sultry New York August, a time when the air hangs so hot and heavy that it obscures the tops of buildings with a yellow mist, Srila Prabhupada received a box of handbills which had been donated by a friend. There must have been five thousand of them, and they read: "Practice the transcendental sound vibration Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. This chanting will cleanse the dust from the mirror of the mind." Then Srila Prabhupada's name was given and the name of the International Society for Krishna. Consciousness, 26 Second Avenue, and the times of the meetings—7:00 A.M. daily and 7:00 P.M. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. At the bottom of the sheet was the invitation: "You are cordially invited to come and bring your friends." "There they are," Srila Prabhupada told us. "Now you simply have to distribute." I took a handful of the bills. "You think they're all right?" he asked me. I told him I thought they were fine. "We will call our society ISKCON," he then told us, smiling.
"What's that?" I asked. "I-S-K-C-O-N," he spelled the letters out.
"ISKCON—International Society for Krishna Consciousness." Then he laughed. He was obviously having fun. It was also in early August that we began attending the early morning meetings. None of us had ever gotten up before ten or eleven in the morning, but the magnetism of Srila Prabhupada drew us out of our dark Mott Street dens at 6:30 and down from fifth floor apartments into deserted Lower East Side streets.
I would walk briskly over to Srila Prabhupada's, chanting Hare Krishna and feeling better than ever before. Miraculously, the Lower East Side no longer looked drab. The sidewalks and buildings seemed to sparkle, and in the early morning, before the smog set in, the sky was red and golden. I would sing all the way to his front foyer then ring the buzzer marked A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, and the door would buzz and open, and I would go through the hallway on through the small patio between the back apartment and the storefront and up to his small second floor apartment, tip-toeing quietly in order not to awaken the neighbors.
Those early morning meetings were the most beautiful and most intimate. "Softly," he would say, just lightly touching the cymbals together, and we would barely touch our hands to clap. He would chant "samsara-davanala-lidha-loka" with his eyes closed and sit in the rays of sun that streamed through the windows in the early morning. We would listen, entranced, then join in response to Hare Krishna. Afterwards he would give a copy of Bhagavad-gita to one of us and would have us read the Sanskrit transliterations, correcting our mispronunciations, and then the text. Then he would begin to explain each verse thoroughly.
There were only six or eight of us at these meetings, so we had ample opportunity to discuss the philosophy with him. Actually, by Krishna's mercy, I had nothing else to do. I had returned from India with practically no money, and though I hadn't worked for over a year, I wasn't even interested in looking for a job. I did have a feeling, however, that the Bhagavad-gita was a key to a larger consciousness of which I could somehow partake. I desperately wanted a teacher to lead me into a world which I knew existed and which I felt was very near to me, yet somehow could not reach.
Shortly after we distributed the handbills, Srila Prabhupada informed us that he would like to go out into one of the parks to chant. This surprised us all, and after conferring we decided that Washington Square was the best place. It was on a Sunday, when Washington Square is most crowded, that we followed Srila Prabhupada down the side streets of the Lower East Side to the park. There must have been about ten of us then, and I remember the stares Srila Prabhupada's saffron robe, beadbag and pointed white shoes received. It was almost like following a Martian down the street. Somehow he floated through it all, seemingly unaware of the stares, comments and general sensation he was creating.
We walked through the Sunday crowds of Washington Square, and finally Srila Prabhupada chose a place to sit down on the grass next to teenagers who were kissing and playing bongo drums. There was a sign that said "Keep Off the Grass," but everyone ignored it. Srila Prabhupada pulled up his robes and sat comfortably and solidly upon the ground, and we followed suit self-consciously. He played a pair of cymbals and led us chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. By that time one of us had acquired a small drum and managed to follow Srila Prabhupada's rhythm.
We chanted about three minutes and immediately a crowd gathered around us. I remember one sailor who listened for a few seconds then threw his cigarette to the ground and huffed, "What the hell is this?" Very quickly the police swooped down on us, and one of the policemen asked who was in charge of our group. We could only indicate Srila Prabhupada. The policeman turned to him and said, "Don't you see the sign?" Srila Prabhupada looked again at the "Keep Off the Grass" sign, then smiled charmingly and walked down onto the asphalt. We followed him and asked if he wanted someone to run back to the temple to get a rug, but he said "No," and once more sat down firmly, this time on the hot asphalt, and we sat in a circle around him.
We chanted Hare Krishna for about thirty minutes, and the crowd thickened. No one joined in the chant. They were all perplexed. It was the first time that sankirtana had been held before the public in America. After the chanting, Srila Prabhupada told me to read his preface to Srimad-Bhagavatam to the people who had assembled. I remember reading the passage:
"Disparity in the human society is due to the basic principle of a godless civilization. There is God or the Almighty One from whom everything emanates and by whom everything is merged to rest. The material scientist is trying to find out the ultimate source of creation very insufficiently, but it is a fact that there is one ultimate source of everything that be. This ultimate source is explained rationally and authoritatively in the beautiful Bhagavatam or Srimad-Bhagavatam."
When reading this passage, I did not recognize my own voice, for it seemed to me that a larger voice was speaking through me. The kirtana, which was the first that any of us had ever attended in public, had a strangely exhilarating effect on us all. We felt divinely intoxicated, and I marveled at the unusual power of the mantra when chanted publicly. Actually Lord Chaitanya specifically recommended sankirtana, or the public chanting of Hare Krishna amidst many people, for this age of chaos (Kali).
After the kirtana, we asked Srila Prabhupada whether he thought our public performance successful. He was so happy with it that he requested that we go out every afternoon and chant in the streets and parks. Following his request, about six or eight of us would walk around the Village in the afternoon and even up and down the narrow streets of Chinatown, playing a bongo drum and cymbals and chanting the magic mantra. We must have looked pretty ragged, and I'm sure we didn't make much of an impression, but there was lots of spirit. Despite our bumbling selves, Srila Prabhupada had launched Lord Caitanya's sankirtana movement in the Western world.