Chapter 18: Breaking Ground
from his introduction to
Prabhupāda's new neighborhood was not as run-down as the nearby Bowery, though it certainly was less than quaint. Right across from his storefront, a row of tombstones looked out from the somber, dimly lit display windows of Weitzner Brothers and Papper Memorials. North of Weitzner Brothers was Sam's Luncheonette. Next to Sam's stood an ancient four-story building marked A.I.R., then Ben J. Horowitz Monuments (more gravestones), and finally Schwartz's Funeral Home. On the next block at number 43 a worn canvas awning jutted out onto the sidewalk: Provenzano Lanza Funeral Home. Then there was Cosmos Parcels (importers) and a few blocks further uptown the prominent black-and-white signboard of the Village East Theater.
Up a block, but on the same side of the avenue as the storefront, was the Church of the Nativity, an old three-story building with new blue paint and a gold-colored cross on top. The six-story 26 Second Avenue, its face covered by a greenish fire escape, crouched against the massive nine-story Knickerbocker Fireproof Warehouse.
Second Avenue was a main traffic artery for east Manhattan, and the stoplight at the intersection of Houston and Second pumped a stream of delivery trucks, taxis, and private autos past Prabhupāda's door. From early morning until night there would be cars zooming by, followed by the sound of brakes, the competitive tension of waiting bumper to bumper, the impetuous honking, then gears grinding, engines rumbling and revving, and again the zooming by. The traffic was distractingly heavy.
At 26 Second Avenue there were actually two storefronts. The one to the north was a coin laundry, and the one to the south had been a gift shop but was now vacant. Both had narrow entrances, large display windows, and dull paint. Beneath the Matchless Gifts sign was a window, six feet square, that a few weeks before had displayed matchboxes decorated with photos of movie stars of the thirties and forties. The sign-Matchless Gifts-was the only remaining memento of the nostalgic-gift shop that had recently moved out. Below the shop's window, a pair of iron doors in the sidewalk hid stone steps to the cellar and boiler room. The wide sidewalk had been laid down in sections of various shapes and sizes at different times, years past. Certain sections had cracked or caved in, and a fine dust with tiny sparkling shards of glass had collected in the cracks and depressions. A dull black fire hydrant stood on the curb. Midway between the entrances to the two storefronts was the main entrance to number 26. (This door opened into a foyer lined with mailboxes and intercoms, and then a locked inner door opened into a hallway leading to the stairs or back to the courtyard.)
To the left of the gift shop's window was its front door, a dark wooden frame holding a full-length pane of glass. The door opened into the long, narrow storefront, which was now completely bare. Just inside, to the right of the door, a platform extending beneath the display window was just the proper height for a seat. At the far end of the bare, dingy room, two grimy-paned windows covered with bars opened into the courtyard. To the left of the left-hand window was a small sink, fixed to the outside of a very small toilet closet, whose door faced the front of the store. A door on the store's left wall connected to a hallway that led into the courtyard.
The courtyard was paved with concrete geometric sections and encircled with shrub gardens and tall trees. There was a picnic table, a cement birdbath, and a birdhouse on a pole, and near the center of the courtyard were two shrub gardens. The courtyard was bordered north and south by high walls, and front and back by the two tenements. The patch of sky above gave relief.
Overlooking the courtyard from the rear building of 26 Second Avenue was Prabhupāda's second-floor apartment, where he would now live, work, and worship. With help from his Bowery friends, he had cleaned and settled into his new home. In the back room-his office-he had placed against one wall a thin cushion with an elephant-print cover and in front of the cushion his unpainted metal suitcase, which served as a desk. He had set his typewriter on the desk and his papers and books on either side. This became his work area. His manuscripts bundled in saffron cloth, his stock of
The next room was bare except for a fancy coffee table, which became Prabhupāda's altar. Here he placed a framed picture of Lord Caitanya and His associates. On the wall he hung an Indian calendar print of four- armed Lord Viṣṇu and Ananta Śeṣa, the celestial snake. And, as in the Bowery loft, he put up a clothesline.
Both rooms were freshly painted, and the floors were clean hardwood parquet. The bathroom was clean and serviceable, as was the narrow, furnished kitchen. Prabhupāda would sometimes stand by the kitchen window, gazing beyond the courtyard wall. He had moved here without any prospects of paying the next month's rent.
Although Carl, Mike, Carol, James, Bill, and others had encouraged him to move here, some of them now found it a little inconvenient to visit him regularly, but they all wished him well and hoped new people would come here to help him. They felt that this location was the best yet. And he seemed more comfortable here. At the Paradox, Bill would spread the word of Swamiji's new address.
The Lower East Side has a history of change and human suffering as old as New York. Three hundred years before Prabhupāda's arrival, it had been part of Peter Stuyvesant's estate. Today's landmark of Tompkins Square Park had then been a salt marsh known as Stuyvesant's Swamp.
The Lower East Side first became a slum in the 1840s, when thousands of Irish immigrants, driven by the Irish potato famine, came and settled. Two decades later, the Irish became the image of the American to the next immigrants, the Germans, who gradually grew in numbers to become the largest immigrant group in New York City. Next came East European Jews (Poles and Ukranians), and by 1900 the Lower East Side had become the most densely populated Jewish ghetto in the world. But in the next generation the ghetto began to break up as Jews moved to the suburbs and economic advancement.
Next the Puerto Ricans thronged in-hundreds of thousands in the 1950s-immigrating from their island poverty or moving in from East Harlem. They, and the Negroes from Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant who arrived next, were the new groups who along with the Poles and Ukranians populated the two square miles of tenements and crowded streets that formed the Lower East Side slums in the 1960s.
Then, only a few years before Prabhupāda's arrival, a different kind of slum-dweller had appeared on the Lower East Side. Although there have been many sociological and cultural analyses of this phenomenon, it remains ultimately inexplicable why they suddenly came, like a vast flock of birds swooping down or like animals in a great instinctual migration, and why after a few years they vanished.
At first the newcomers were mostly young artists, musicians, and intellectuals, similar to the hip crowd of Prabhupāda's Bowery days. Then came the young middle-class dropouts. Because living space was more available and rents were lower than in nearby Greenwich Village, they concentrated here on the Lower East Side, which in the parlance of the renting agents became known as the East Village. Many even came without finding a place to live and camped in the hallways of tenements. Drawn by cheap rent and the promise of Bohemian freedom, these young middle-class dropouts, the avant-garde of a nationwide youth movement soon to be known in the media as "hippies," wandered to the Lower East Side slums in living protest against America's good life of materialism.
As if responding to an instinctual call, younger teenage runaways joined the older hippies, and following the runaways came the police, counselors, social and welfare workers, youth hostels, and drug counseling centers. On St. Mark's Place a new hip commercialism sprang up, with head shops, poster shops, record shops, art galleries, and bookstores that carried everything from cigarette papers to hip clothes and psychedelic lighting.
The hippies journeyed to the Lower East Side in full conviction that this was the place to be, just as their immigrant predecessors had done. For the European immigrants of another age, New York Harbor had been the gateway to a land of riches and opportunity, as they at long last set their eyes on Manhattan's skyline and the Statue of Liberty. Now, in 1966, American youth thronged to New York City with hopes of their own and feasted on the vision of their newfound mystical land-the Lower East Side slums.
It was an uneasy coexistence, with hippies on one side and Puerto Ricans, Poles, and Ukranians on the other. The established ethnic groups resented the newcomers, who didn't really
The hippies had turned from the suburban materialism of their parents, the inane happiness of TV and advertising-the ephemeral goals of middle-class America. They were disillusioned by parents, teachers, clergy, public leaders, and the media, dissatisfied with American policy in Vietnam, and allured by radical political ideologies that exposed America as a cruel, selfish, exploitative giant who must now reform or die. And they were searching for real love, real peace, real existence, and real spiritual consciousness.
By the summer of Śrīla Prabhupāda's arrival at 26 Second Avenue, the first front in the great youth rebellion of the sixties had already entered the Lower East Side. Here they were free-free to live in simple poverty and express themselves through art, music, drugs, and sex. The talk was of spiritual searching. LSD and marijuana were the keys, opening new realms of awareness. Notions about Eastern cultures and Eastern religions were in vogue. Through drugs,
So it was that in 1966, thousands of young people were walking the streets of the Lower East Side, not simply intoxicated or crazy (though they often were), but in search of life's ultimate answers, in complete disregard of "the establishment" and the day-to-day life pursued by millions of "straight" Americans.
That the prosperous land of America could breed so many discontented youths surprised Prabhupāda. Of course, it also further proved that material well-being, the hallmark of American life, couldn't make people happy. Prabhupāda did not see the unhappiness around him in terms of the immediate social, political, economic, and cultural causes. Neither slum conditions nor youth rebellions were the all-important realities. These were mere symptoms of a universal unhappiness to which the only cure was Kṛṣṇa consciousness. He sympathized with the miseries of everyone, but he saw the universal solution.
Prabhupāda had not made a study of the youth movement in America before moving to the Lower East Side. He had never even made specific plans to come here amid so many young people. But in the ten months since Calcutta, he had been moved by force of circumstances, or, as he understood it, "by Kṛṣṇa's will," from one place to another. On the order of his spiritual master he had come to America, and by Kṛṣṇa's will he had come to the Lower East Side. His mission here was the same as it had been on the Bowery or uptown or even in India. He was fixed in the order of his spiritual master and the Vedic view, a view that wasn't going to be influenced by the radical changes of the 1960s. Now if it so happened that these young people, because of some change in the American cultural climate, were to prove more receptive to him, then that would be welcome. And that would also be by Kṛṣṇa's will.
Actually, because of the ominous influence of the Kali millennium, this was historically the worst of times for spiritual cultivation-hippie revolution or not. And Śrīla Prabhupāda was trying to transplant Vedic culture into a more alien ground than had any previous spiritual master. So he expected to find his work extremely difficult. Yet in this generally bad age, just prior to Prabhupāda's arrival on the Lower East Side, tremors of dissatisfaction and revolt against the Kali-yuga culture itself began vibrating through American society, sending waves of young people to wander the streets of New York's Lower East Side in search of something beyond the ordinary life, looking for alternatives, seeking spiritual fulfillment. These young people, broken from their stereotyped materialistic backgrounds and drawn together now on New York's Lower East Side, were the ones who were by chance or choice or destiny to become the congregation for the Swami's storefront offerings of
The Swami's arrival went unnoticed. The neighbors said someone new had taken the gift shop next to the laundry. There was a strange picture in the window now, but no one knew what to make of it. Some passersby noticed a piece of paper, announcing classes in
Howard Wheeler was hurrying from his apartment on Mott Street to a friend's apartment on Fifth Street, a quiet place where he hoped to find some peace. He walked up Mott Street to Houston, turned right and began to walk east, across Bowery, past the rushing traffic and stumbling derelicts, and toward Second Avenue.
Howard, age twenty-six, was a tall, large-bodied man with long, dark hair, a profuse beard, and black-framed eyeglasses. He was an instructor in English at Ohio State University and was fresh from a trip to India, where he had been looking for a true
Prabhupāda noticed Howard, and they both stopped simultaneously. Howard asked the first question that popped into his mind: "Are you from India?"
Prabhupāda smiled. "Oh, yes, and you?"
Howard never made it to his friend's place that day. He went back to his own apartment on Mott Street, to Keith and Wally, his roommates, to tell them and everyone he knew about the
Keith and Howard had been to India. Now they were involved in various spiritual philosophies, and their friends used to come over and talk about enlightenment. Eighteen-year-old Chuck Barnett was a regular visitor.
Howard remembers his own spiritual seeking as "reading books on Eastern philosophy and religion, burning lots of candles and incense, and taking
Keith, twenty-nine, the son of a Southern Baptist minister, was a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University. He was preparing his thesis on "The Rise of Revivalism in the Southern United States." Dressed in old denim cutoffs, sandals, and T-shirt, he was something of a
Wally was in his thirties, shabbily dressed, bearded, intellectual, and well read in Buddhist literature. He had been a radio engineer in the army and, like his roommates, was unemployed. He was reading Alan Watts, Hermann Hesse, and others, talking about spiritual enlightenment, and taking LSD.
In India, Howard and Keith had visited Hardwar, Rishikesh, Benares, and other holy cities, experiencing Indian temples, hashish, and dysentery. One evening in Calcutta they had come upon a group of
Now the three roommates-Howard, Keith, and Wally-began to mix various philosophies into a hodgepodge of their own. Howard would mix in a little Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, or Blake; Keith would cite Biblical references; and Wally would add a bit of Buddhist wisdom. And they all kept up on Timothy Leary, Thomas i Kempis, and many others, the whole mixture being subject to a total reevaluation whenever one of the group experienced a new cosmic insight through LSD.
This was the group that Howard returned to that day in July. Excitedly, he told them about the Swami-how he looked and what he had said. Howard told how after they had stood and talked together the Swami had mentioned his place nearby on Second Avenue, where he was planning to hold some classes.
The word spread. Although it wasn't so easy now for Carl Yeargens and certain others to come up from the Bowery and Chinatown-they had other things to do-Roy Dubois, a twenty-five-year-old writer for comic books, had visited Prabhupāda on the Bowery, and when he heard about the Swami's new place, he wanted to drop by. James Greene and Bill Epstein had not forgotten the Swami, and they wanted to come. The Paradox restaurant was still a live connection and brought new interested people. And others, like Stephen Guarino, saw the Swami's sign in the window. Steve, age twenty-six, was a caseworker for the city's welfare department, and one day on his lunch break, as he was walking home from the welfare office at Fifth Street and Second Avenue, he saw the Swami's sign taped to the window. He had been reading a paperback
That day as he stood with the Swami before the storefront, Howard had also noticed the little sign in the window:
A.C. BHAKTIVEDANTA SWAMI
MONDAY, WEDNESDAY, AND FRIDAY
7:00 to 9:00 P.M.
"Will you bring your friends?" Prabhupāda had asked.
"Yes," Howard promised. "Monday evening."
The summer evening was warm, and in the storefront the back windows and front door were opened wide. Young men, several of them dressed in black denims and button-down sport shirts with broad dull stripes, had left their worn sneakers by the front door and were now sitting on the floor. Most of them were from the Lower East Side; no one had had to go to great trouble to come here. The little room was barren. No pictures, no furniture, no rug, not even a chair. Only a few plain straw mats. A single bulb hung from the ceiling into the center of the room. It was seven o'clock, and about a dozen people had gathered, when the Swami suddenly opened the side door and entered the room.
He wasn't wearing a shirt, and the saffron cloth that draped his torso left his arms and some of his chest bare. His complexion was smooth golden brown, and as they watched him, his head shaven, his ears longlobed, and his aspect grave, he seemed like pictures they'd seen of the Buddha in meditation. He was old, yet erect in his posture, fresh and radiant. His forehead was decorated with the yellowish clay markings of the Vaiṣṇavas. Prabhupāda recognized big, bearded Howard and smiled. "You have brought your friends?"
"Yes," Howard answered in his loud, resonant voice.
"Ah, very good."
Prabhupāda stepped out of his white shoes, sat down on a thin mat, faced his congregation, and indicated they could all be seated. He distributed several pairs of brass hand cymbals and briefly demonstrated the rhythm: one... two...
Most of these young men and the few young women present had at one time or another embarked on the psychedelic voyage in search of a new world of expanded consciousness. Boldly and recklessly, they had entered the turbulent, forbidden waters of LSD, peyote, and magic mushrooms. Heedless of warnings, they had risked everything and done it. Yet there was merit in their valor, their eagerness to find the extra dimensions of the self, to get beyond ordinary existence-even if they didn't know what the beyond was or whether they would ever return to the comfort of the ordinary. Nonetheless, whatever truth they had found, they remained unfulfilled, and whatever worlds they had reached, these young psychedelic voyagers had always returned to the Lower East Side. Now they were sampling the Hare Kṛṣṇa
As Prabhupāda chanted in his own inner ecstasy, he observed his motley congregation. He was breaking ground in a new land now. As the hand cymbals rang, the lead-and-response of the Hare Kṛṣṇa
Exotic it was, yet anyone could see that a swami was raising an ancient prayer in praise of God. This wasn't rock or jazz. He was a holy man, a swami, making a public religious demonstration. But the combination was strange: an old Indian swami chanting an ancient
Prabhupāda sang on, his shaven head held high and tilted, his body trembling slightly with emotion. Confidently, he led the
Gathered under the dim electric light in the bare room, the group chanted after their leader, growing gradually from a feeble, hesitant chorus to an approximate harmony of voices. They continued clapping and chanting, putting into it whatever they could, in hopes of discovering its secrets. This swami was not simply giving some five-minute sample demonstration. For the moment he was their leader, their guide in an unknown realm. Howard and Keith's little encounter with a
In their minds were psychedelic ambitions to see the face of God, fantasies and visions of Hindu teachings, and the presumption that "IT" was all impersonal light. Prabhupāda had encountered a similar group on the Bowery, and he knew this group wasn't experiencing the
He stopped the
His lecture is very basic and yet (for restless youth) heavily philosophical. Some can't take it, and they rise rudely upon hearing the Swami's first words, put on their shoes at the front door, and return to the street. Others have left as soon as they saw the singing was over. Still, this is his best group yet. A few of the Bowery congregation are present. The boys from Mott Street are here, and they're specifically looking for a
It's another hot and noisy July evening outside his door. Children are on summer vacation, and they stay out on the street until dark. Nearby, a big dog is barking-"
Roy (one of the boys in the temple):
The man chases the children away, but they'll be back. You can't chase the children off the street-they live there. And the big dog never stops barking. And who can stop the cars? The cars are always there. Prabhupāda uses the cars to give an example: When a car momentarily comes into our vision on Second Avenue, we certainly don't think that it had no existence before we saw it or that it ceases to exist once it has passed from view; similarly, when Kṛṣṇa goes from this planet to an other, it doesn't mean He no longer exists, although it may appear that way. Actually, He has only left our sight. Kṛṣṇa and His incarnations constantly appear and disappear on innumerable planets throughout the innumerable universes of the material creation.
The cars are always passing, roaring and rumbling through every word Prabhupāda speaks. The door is open, and he is poised at the edge of a river of carbon monoxide, asphalt, rumbling tires, and constant waves of traffic. He has come a long way from the banks of his Yamunā in Vṛndāvana, where great saints and sages have gathered through the ages to discuss Kṛṣṇa consciousness. But his audience lives
He is still stressing the same point: whatever you do in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, however little it may be, is eternally good for you. Yet now, more than uptown or on the Bowery, he is calling his hearers to take to Kṛṣṇa consciousness
Suddenly a Bowery derelict enters, whistling and drunkenly shouting. The audience remains seated, not knowing what to make of it.
The man is white-haired, with a short grizzly beard and frowsy clothing. His odor reeks through the temple. But then he suddenly careens out the door and is gone. Prabhupāda chuckles softly and returns immediately to his lecture.
Suddenly the old derelict returns, announcing his entrance: "How are ya?" He is carrying something. He maneuvers his way through the group, straight to the back of the temple, where the Swami is sitting. He opens the toilet room door, puts two rolls of bathroom tissue inside, closes the door, and then turns to the sink, sits some paper towels on top of it and puts two more rolls of bathroom tissue and some more paper towels under the sink. He then stands and turns around toward the Swami and the audience. The Swami is looking at him and asks, "What is this?" The bum is silent now; he has done his work. Prabhupāda begins to laugh, thanking his visitor, who is now moving toward the door: "Thank you. Thank you very much." The bum exits. "Just see," Prabhupāda now addresses his congregation. "It is a natural tendency to give some service. Just see, he is not in order, but he thought that, "Here is something. Let me give some service.' Just see how automatically it comes. This is natural."
The young men in the audience look at one another. This is really far out-first the chanting with the brass cymbals, the Swami looking like Buddha and talking about Kṛṣṇa and chanting, and now this crazy stuff with the bum. But the Swami stays cool, he's really cool, just sitting on the floor like he's not afraid of anything, just talking his philosophy about the soul and us becoming saints and even the old drunk becoming a saint!
After almost an hour, the dog still barks and the kids still squeal.
Prabhupāda is asking his hearers, who are only beginners in spiritual life, to become totally dedicated preachers of Kṛṣṇa consciousness: "In the
A young man in the audience seems unable to contain himself and begins making his own incoherent speech.
Man (standing up):
Others in the audience:
After five minutes...
Prabhupāda (turning to one of the boys):
Roy turns sympathetically to the rambling questioner, and Prabhupāda addresses his audience: "Enough questions." His voice now seems tired and resigned: "Let us have
It is now 9:00. The audience sits before Swamiji while a boy brings him an apple, a small wooden bowl, and a knife. As most of the audience still sits and watches, gauging the after effects of the chanting as though it had been some new drug, the Swami cuts the apple in half, then in fourths, then in eighths, until there are many pieces. He takes one himself and asks one of the boys to pass the bowl around. Swamiji holds back his head and deftly pops a slice of apple into his mouth, without touching his fingers to his lips. He chews a bit, ruminating, his lips closed.
The members of the congregation munch silently on little pieces of apple. Prabhupāda stands, slips into his shoes, and exits through the side door.
As Prabhupāda retired to his apartment and his guests disappeared through the front door, back into the city, Don and Raphael would turn out the lights, lock the front door, and go to sleep on the floor in their blankets. Don and Raphael had needed a place to stay when they heard about the Swami's place. Prabhupāda had a policy that any boy who expressed even a little interest in becoming his student could stay in the storefront and make it his home. Of course, Prabhupāda would ask them to contribute toward the rent and meals, but if, like Don and Raphael, they had no money, then it was still all right, provided they helped in other ways. Don and Raphael were the first two boys to take advantage of Prabhupāda's offer. They were attracted to Swamiji and the chanting, but they weren't serious about his philosophy or the disciplines of devotional life. They had no jobs and no money, their hair was long and unkept, and they lived and slept in the same clothes day after day. Prabhupāda stipulated that at least while they were on the premises they could not break his rules-no intoxication, illicit sex, meat-eating, or gambling. He knew these two boarders weren't serious students, but he allowed them to stay, in hopes that gradually they would become serious.
Often, some wayfaring stranger would stop by, looking for a place to stay the night, and Don and Raphael would welcome him. An old white-bearded Indian-turned-Christian who was on a walking mission proclaiming the end of the world, and whose feet were covered with bandages, once slept for a few nights on a wooden bench in the storefront. Some nights, as many as ten drifters would seek shelter at the storefront, and Don and Raphael would admit them, explaining that the Swami didn't object, as long as they got up early. Even drifters whose only interest was a free meal could stay, and after the morning class and breakfast they would usually drift off again into
Don and Raphael were the Swami's steady boarders, although during the day they also went out, returning only for meals, sleep, and evening chanting. Occasionally they would bathe, and then they would use the Swami's bathroom up in his apartment. Sometimes they would hang out in the storefront during the day, and if someone stopped by, asking about the Swami's classes, they would tell the person all they knew (which wasn't much). They admitted that they weren't really into the Swami's philosophy, and they didn't claim to be his followers. If someone persisted in inquiring about the Swami's teachings, Don and Raphael would suggest, "Why don't you go up and talk to him? The Swami lives in the apartment building out back. Why don't you go up and see him?"
Prabhupāda usually stayed in his apartment. Occasionally he might look out his window and see, through the back windows of the storefront, that the light in the closet-sized bathroom had needlessly been left burning. Coming down to ask the boys to turn it off and not waste electricity, he might find a few boys lying on the floor talking or reading. Prabhupāda would stand gravely, asking them not to leave the light on, stressing the seriousness of wasting Kṛṣṇa's energy and money. He would stand dressed in
Money was scarce. From his evening meetings he would usually collect about five or six dollars in change and bills. Don talked of going up to New England to pick apples and bring back money for the Swami. Raphael said something about some money coming. Prabhupāda waited, and depended on Kṛṣṇa. Sometimes he would walk back and forth in the courtyard between the buildings. Seeming mysterious to the neighbors, he would chant on his beads, his hand deep in his bead bag.
Mostly he kept to his room, working. As he had said during a lecture when living on the Bowery, "I am here always working at some thing, reading or writing-something, reading or writing-twenty-four hours." His mission of translating
He had a broad mission, broader even than translating
Once a young hippie on an LSD trip found his way upstairs and sat opposite the Swami: "Right now I am higher than you are," he announced. "
Sometimes young men would come with scholarly pretentions to test the Swami's knowledge of
One young man approached the Swami asking, "What book will you lecture from next week? Will you be teaching the
And there were other questions: "What about Camus?"
"What is his philosophy?" Prabhupāda would ask.
"He says everything is absurd and the only philosophical question is whether to commit suicide."
"That means everything is absurd for
Adherents of various thinkers approached him: "What about Nietzsche? Kafka? Timothy Leary? Bob Dylan?" Prabhupāda would ask what their philosophy was, and the particular follower would have to explain and defend his favorite intellectual hero.
"They are all mental speculators," Prabhupāda would say. "Here in this material world we are all conditioned souls. Your knowledge is imperfect. Your senses are blunt. What good is your
"Do you mean to say that none of the great thinkers are God conscious?" a boy asked.
"Their sincerity is their God consciousness. But if we want perfect knowledge of God, then we have to consult
Often there were challenges, but under the Swami's stare and hard logic, the challenger would usually trail off into thoughtful silence.
"Is the spiritual knowledge of China advanced?"
Prabhupāda would sometimes answer simply by making a sour face.
"Well, I am a follower of Vedānta
"Do you know what
"Then how can you speak of Vedānta?
"What about the Buddha?"
"Do you follow him?"
"No, you just talk. Why don't you follow? Follow Kṛṣṇa, follow Christ, follow Buddha. But don't just talk."
"This sounds the same as Christianity. How is it any different?"
"It is the same: love of God. But who is a Christian? Who follows? The Bible teaches, "Thou shalt not kill,' but all over the world, Christians are expert in killing. Do you know that? I believe the Christians say that Jesus Christ died for our sins-so why are you still sinning?"
Although Prabhupāda was a stranger to America, they were strangers to absolute knowledge. Whenever anyone would come to see him, he wouldn't waste time-he talked philosophy, reason, and argument. He constantly argued against atheism and impersonalism. He spoke strongly, to prove the existence of God and the universality of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. He talked often and vigorously, day and night, meeting all kinds of questions and philosophies.
He would listen also, and he heard a wide range of local testimonies. He heard the dissatisfaction of young Americans with the war and with American society. One boy told him he didn't want to get married because he couldn't find a chaste girl; it was better to go with prostitutes. Another confided that his mother had planned to abort him, but at the last moment his grandmother had convinced her not to. He heard from homosexuals. Someone told him that a set of New Yorkers considered it chic to eat the flesh of aborted babies. And in every case, he told them the truth.
He talked with Marxists and explained that although Marx says that everything is the property of the State, the fact is that everything is the property of God. Only "spiritual communism," which puts God in the center, can actually be successful. He discounted LSD visions as hallucinations and explained how God can be seen factually and what God looks like.
Although these one-time visitors came and went away, a few new friends began to stay on, watching the Swami deal with different guests. They began to appreciate the Swami's arguments, his concern for people, and his devotion to Kṛṣṇa. He seemed actually to know how to help people, and he invariably offered them Kṛṣṇa consciousness-as much as they could take-as the solution to their problems. A few began to take the Swami's message to heart.
"We shall call our society ISKCON." Prabhupāda had laughed playfully when he first coined the acronym.
He had initiated the legal work of incorporation that spring, while still living on the Bowery. But even before its legal beginning, he had been talking about his "International Society for Krishna Consciousness," and so it had appeared in letters to India and in
"Kṛṣṇa consciousness" was Prabhupāda's own rendering of a phrase from Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī's
But to register ISKCON legally as a nonprofit, tax-exempt religion required money and a lawyer. Carl Yeargens had already gained some experience in forming religious, political, and social welfare groups, and when he had met Prabhupāda on the Bowery he had agreed to help. He had contacted his lawyer, Stephen Goldsmith.
Stephen Goldsmith, a young Jewish lawyer with a wife and two children and an office on Park Avenue, was interested in spiritual movements. When Carl told him about Prabhupāda's plans, he was immediately fascinated by the idea of setting up a religious corporation for an Indian swami. He visited Prabhupāda at 26 Second Avenue, and they discussed incorporation, tax exemption, Prabhupāda's immigration status, and Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Mr. Goldsmith visited Prabhupāda several times. Once he brought his children, who liked the "soup" the Swami cooked. He began attending the evening lectures, where he was often the only nonhippie member of the congregation. One evening, having completed all the legal groundwork and being ready to complete the procedures for incorporation, Mr. Goldsmith came to Prabhupāda's lecture and
Prabhupāda is lecturing.
Mr. Goldsmith, wearing slacks and a shirt and tie, sits on the floor near the door, listening earnestly to the lecture, despite the distracting noises from the neighborhood. Prabhupāda has been explaining how scholars mislead innocent people with nondevotional interpretations of the
Mr. Goldsmith stands, and to the surprise of the people gathered, he makes a short announcement asking for signers on an incorporation document for the Swami's new religious movement.
As the meeting breaks up, those called on to sign as trustees come forward, standing around in the little storefront, waiting to leaf cursorily through the pages the lawyer has produced from his thin attache, and to sign as he directs. Yet not a soul among them is committed to Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
Mr. Goldsmith meets his quota of signers-a handful of sympathizers with enough reverence toward the Swami to want to help him. The first trustees, who will hold office for a year, "until the first annual meeting of the corporation," are Michael Grant (who puts down his name and address without ever reading the document), Mike's girl friend Jan, and James Greene. No one seriously intends to undertake any formal duties as trustee of the religious society, but they are happy to help the Swami by signing his fledgling society into legal existence.
According to law, a second group of trustees will assume office for the second year. They are Paul Gardiner, Roy, and Don. The trustees for the third year are Carl Yeargens, Bill Epstein, and Raphael.
None of them know exactly what the half a dozen, legal-sized typed pages mean, except that "Swamiji is forming a society."
For tax exemption, in case someone gives a big donation, and for other benefits an official religious society might receive.
But these purposes hardly seem urgent or even relevant to the present situation. Who's going to make donations? Except maybe for Mr. Goldsmith, who has any money?
But Prabhupāda is planning for the future, and he's planning for much more than just tax exemptions. He is trying to serve his spiritual predecessors and fulfill the scriptural prediction of a spiritual movement that is to flourish for ten thousand years in the midst of the Age of Kali. Within the vast Kali Age (a period which is to last 432,000 years), the 1960s are but an insignificant moment.
(a) To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.
(b) To propagate a consciousness of Krishna, as it is revealed in the
(c) To bring the members of the Society together with each other and nearer to Krishna, the prime entity, thus to develop the idea within the members, and humanity at large, that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of Godhead (Krishna).
(d) To teach and encourage the sankirtan movement, congregational chanting of the holy name of God as revealed in the teachings of Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
(e) To erect for the members and for society at large, a holy place of transcendental pastimes, dedicated to the Personality of Krishna.
(f) To bring the members closer together for the purpose of teaching a simpler and more natural way of life.
(g) With a view towards achieving the aforementioned Purposes, to publish and distribute periodicals, magazines, books and other writings.
Regardless of what ISKCON's charter members thought of the society's purposes, Prabhupāda saw them as imminent realities. As Mr. Ruben, the subway conductor who had met Prabhupāda on a Manhattan park bench in 1965, had noted: "He seemed to know that he would have temples filled up with devotees. "There are temples and books,' he said. "They are existing, they are there, but the time is separating us from them.'"
The first purpose mentioned in the charter was propagation. "Preaching" was the word Prabhupāda most often used. For him, preaching had a much broader significance than mere sermonizing. Preaching meant glorious, selfless adventures on behalf of the Supreme Lord. Lord Caitanya had preached by walking all over southern India and causing thousands of people to chant and dance with Him in ecstasy. Lord Kṛṣṇa had preached the
ISKCON's preaching would achieve what the League of Nations and the United Nations had failed to achieve-"real unity and peace in the world." ISKCON workers would bring peace to a world deeply afflicted by materialism and strife. They would "systematically propagate spiritual knowledge," knowledge of the nonsectarian science of God. It was not that a new religion was being born in July of 1966; rather, the eternal preaching of Godhead, known as
The society's members would join together, and by hearing the teachings of
ISKCON would also erect "a holy place of transcendental pastimes dedicated to the Personality of Krishna." Was this something beyond the storefront? Yes, certainly. He never thought small: "He seemed to know that he would have temples filled up with devotees."
He wanted ISKCON to demonstrate "a simple, more natural way of life." Such a life (Prabhupāda thought of the villages of India, where people lived just as Kṛṣṇa had lived) was most conducive to developing Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
And all six of these purposes would be achieved by the seventh: ISKCON would publish and distribute literature. This was the special instruction Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura had given to Śrīla Prabhupāda. He had specifically told him one day in 1932 at Rādhā-kuṇḍa in Vṛndāvana, "If you ever get any money, publish books."
Certainly none of the signers saw any immediate shape to the Swami's dream, yet these seven purposes were not simply theistic rhetoric invented to convince a few New York State government officials. Prabhupāda meant to enact every item in the charter.
Of course, he was now working in extremely limited circumstances. "The principal place of worship, located at 26 Second Avenue, in the city, county, and state of New York," was the sole headquarters for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Yet Prabhupāda insisted that he was not living at 26 Second Avenue, New York City. His vision was transcendental. His Guru Mahārāja had gone out from the traditional holy places of spiritual meditation to preach in cities like Calcutta, Bombay, and Delhi. And yet Prabhupāda would say that his spiritual master had not really been living in any of those cities, but was always in Vaikuṇṭha, the spiritual world, because of his absorption in devotional service.
Similarly, the place of worship, 26 Second Avenue, was not a New York storefront, a former curiosity shop. The storefront and the apartment had been spiritualized and were now a transcendental haven. "Society at large" could come here, the whole world could take shelter here, regardless of race or religion. Plain, small, and impoverished as it was, Prabhupāda regarded the storefront as "a holy place of transcendental pastimes, dedicated to the Personality of Krishna." It was a world headquarters, a publishing house, a sacred place of pilgrimage, and a center from which an army of devotees could issue forth and chant the holy names of God in all the streets in the world. The entire universe could receive Kṛṣṇa consciousness from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which was beginning here.
In Keith, Prabhupāda had a serious follower. Within a week of their meeting, Keith had moved out of the Mott Street apartment and was living with Prabhupāda. He still dressed in his ragged denim shorts and T-shirt, but he began to do all the Swami's shopping and cooking. While in India, Keith had learned some of the etiquette of reverence toward a holy man and the principles of discipleship. His friends watched him curiously as he dedicated himself to the Swami.
So Keith became the dependable cook and housekeeper in Prabhupāda's apartment. Meanwhile, at the Mott Street apartment, the roommates' favorite topic for discussion was their relationship with the Swami. Everyone thought it was a serious relationship. They knew Swamiji was
Prabhupāda held his classes for almost two months in the privacy of his room, the same room where he typed and talked to guests. To Keith it was not simply a class in philosophy but a mystical experience of sweetness.
So as not to disturb the neighbors, Prabhupāda would say, "Chant softly," and he asked the boys to clap softly, so softly that their hands barely touched. Then he would chant the prayers to the spiritual master:
After singing, the Swami would give one of the boys a copy of Dr. Radhakrishnan's edition of
The boys were sure that their service to Swamiji was spiritual, devotional service. By serving the spiritual master, who was a representative of Kṛṣṇa, you were serving Kṛṣṇa directly.
One morning Prabhupāda told Howard that he needed help in spreading the philosophy of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Howard wanted to help, so he offered to type the Swami's manuscripts of
He was giving them the idea of devotional service. "A devotee may not be perfect at first," he said, "but if he is engaged in service, once that service has begun he can be purified. Service is always there, in the material world or the spiritual." But service in the material world could not bring satisfaction to the self-only
They picked it up quickly. It was something you could do easily; it was not difficult like meditation-it was activity. You did something, but you did it for Kṛṣṇa. They had seen Swamiji respond to the Bowery bum who had come with a gift of toilet paper. "Just see," Swamiji had said, "he is not in order, but he thought, "Let me give some service.'" But service had to be done voluntarily, out of love, not by force.
When Howard first volunteered to do editing, he spent the whole morning working in Swamiji's room. "If there is any more typing." Howard said, "let me know. I could take it back to Mott Street and type there."
"More? There's lots more," Swamiji said. He opened the closet and pulled out two large bundles of manuscripts tied in saffron cloth. There were thousands of pages, single-spaced manuscripts of Prabhupāda's translations of the
Because of Prabhupāda's presence and the words that he spoke there and the
Howard, Keith, and Wally devised a scheme to surprise the Swami when he came to the evening
At the storefront the boys constructed a wooden platform for Prabhupāda to sit on and covered it with old velvet cloth. Behind the platform, on the rear wall between the two windows to the courtyard, they hung the purple curtains, flanked by a pair of orange ones. Against one orange panel, just above Swamiji's sitting place, they hung a large original painting of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa on a circular canvas that James Greene had done. Prabhupāda had commissioned James, giving him the dust jacket from his
Keith and Howard were less confident that Prabhupāda would approve of their paintings and prints from India, so they hung them near the street side of the temple, away from Swamiji's seat. One of these prints, well known in India, was of Hanumān carrying a mountain through the sky to Lord Rāmacandra. The boys had no idea what kind of being Hanumān was. They thought perhaps he was a cat, because of the shape of his upper lip. Then there was the picture of a male person with six arms- two arms, painted greenish, held a bow and arrow; another pair, bluish, held a flute; and the third pair, golden, held a stick and bowl.
By late afternoon they had covered the sitting platform, hung the curtains, tacked up the decorative silks and prints and hung the paintings, and were decorating the dais with flowers and candlesticks. Someone brought a pillow for Swamiji to sit on and a faded cushion from an overstuffed chair for a backrest.
In addition to the Mott Street cache, Robert Nelson took one of his grandfather's Belgian-style Oriental rugs from his garage in the suburbs and brought it by subway to 26 Second Avenue. Even Raphael and Don took part in the decorating.
The secret was well kept, and the boys waited to see Swamiji's response. That night, when he walked in to begin the
They had pleased him. But he now assumed a feature of extreme gravity, and though they knew he was certainly the same Swamiji, their titterings stuck in their throats, and their happy glances to each other suddenly abated in uncertainty and nervousness. As they regarded Swamiji's gravity, their joy of a few moments before seemed suddenly childish. As a cloud quickly covers the sun like a dark shade, Prabhupāda changed his mood from jolly to grave-and they spontaneously resolved to become equally grave and sober. He picked up the
The temple was still a tiny storefront, with many hidden and unhidden cockroaches, a tilted floor, and poor lighting. But because many of the decorations were from India, it had an authentic atmosphere, especially with Swamiji present on the dais. Now guests who entered were suddenly in a little Indian temple.
Prabhupāda looked at his group of followers. He was moved by their offering him a seat of honor and their attempts at decorating Kṛṣṇa's storefront. To see a devotee make an offering to Kṛṣṇa was not new for him. But
The next day, Prabhupāda came down to appraise the new artwork on display. One framed watercolor painting was of a man playing a drum while a girl danced. "This one is all right," he said. But another painting of a woman was more mundane, and he said, "No, this painting is not so good." He walked to the back of the temple, followed anxiously by Howard, Keith, and Wally. When he came upon the painting of the six- armed person, he said, "Oh, this is very nice."
"Who is it?" Wally asked.
"This is Lord Caitanya," Prabhupāda replied.
"Why does He have six arms?"
"Because He showed Himself to be both Rāma and Kṛṣṇa. These are the arms of Rāma, and these are the arms of Kṛṣṇa."
"What are the other two arms?" Keith asked.
"Those are the arms of a
He went to the next picture. "This is also very nice."
"Who is it?" Howard asked.
"This is Hanumān."
"Is he a cat?"
"No," Prabhupāda replied. "He is a monkey."
Hanumān is glorified in the scripture
The summer of 1966 moved into August, and Prabhupāda kept good health. For him these were happy days. New Yorkers complained of the summer heat waves, but this caused no inconvenience to one accustomed to the 100-degree-plus temperatures of Vṛndāvana's blazing summers. "It is like India," he said, as he went without a shirt, seeming relaxed and at home. He had thought that in America he would have to subsist on boiled potatoes (otherwise there would be nothing but meat), but here he was happily eating the same rice,
Prabhupāda was still a solitary preacher, free to stay or go, writing his books in his own intimate relationship with Kṛṣṇa-quite independent of the boys in the storefront. But now he had taken the International Society for Krishna Consciousness as his spiritual child. The inquiring young men, some of whom had already been chanting steadily for over a month, were like stumbling spiritual infants, and he felt responsible for guiding them. They were beginning to consider him their spiritual master, trusting him to lead them into spiritual life. Although they were unable to immediately follow the multifarious rules that
Although he was engaging the boys in cooking and typing, Prabhupāda was not doing any less himself. Rather, for every sincere soul who came forward to ask for service, a hundred came who wanted not to serve but to challenge. Speaking to them, sometimes shouting and pounding his fists, Prabhupāda defended Kṛṣṇa against the Māyāvāda philosophy. This was also his service to Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura. He had not come to America to retire. So with the passing of each new day came yet another confirmation that his work and his followers and his challengers would only increase.
How much he could do was up to Kṛṣṇa. "I am an old man," he said. "I may go away at any moment." But if he were to "go away" now, certainly Kṛṣṇa consciousness would also go away, because the Kṛṣṇa consciousness society was nothing but him: his figure leading the chanting while his head moved back and forth in small motions of ecstasy, his figure walking in and out of the temple through the courtyard or into the apartment, his person sitting down smilingly to discuss philosophy by the hour-he was the sole bearer and maintainer of the small, fragile, controlled atmosphere of Kṛṣṇa consciousness on New York's Lower East Side.