Diary of a Traveling Preacher
On March 27, Sri Prahald, Rukmini Priya, Dauji Krsna dasi and myself arrived in New York City after a six-hour flight from Phoenix, Arizona. It was cold and raining and the bleak New York City skyline was a sharp contrast to the beauty and simplicity of the Arizona desert from where we had come. We were picked up by Bhakta Pankaj, an Indian devotee who lives with the brahmacaris running the original ISKCON storefront, "Matchless Gifts," at 26 Second Avenue.
As we drove into the city we got stuck in traffic and had time to study the thousands of pedestrians on the busy streets, the towering skyscrapers, and the other sights and sounds that make New York the unique place that it is. Dwarfed as we were by so many massive buildings, my impression was that the city had developed sporadically into a congested concrete jungle. Milan Kundera once wrote, "The beauty of New York is unintentional; it arose independent of human design, like a stalagmite cavern."
Despite its overbearing appearance, New York effectively serves as the great capital of business, entertainment and fashion for America. It is also the port of entry for most immigrants, beckoned by the Statue of Liberty (representing liberty as a woman with a torch upraised in one hand and a book in the other arm) who stands on Liberty Island in New York harbor. An inscription on the statue reads:
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door." [Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus]
One person who took advantage of her invitation was His Divine Grace, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. However, he didn't come to America in 1965 a tired and homeless beggar, seeking shelter in the "land of the free." Rather he came to give the people of America the benediction of achieving the ultimate goal of life. In a newspaper interview in the 1970s, Srila Prabhupada was asked by a reporter why he came to the United States. Srila Prabhupada boldly replied: "To remind you of what you have forgotten - God."
Despite being the materialistic place it is, New York holds a special charm for ISKCON devotees around the world, because it is the place that Srila Prabhupada began his preaching in the West. Srila Prabhupada himself had an affection for New York:
"New York is very much attractive for me because New York is the starting place of my activities in your country." [Srila Prabhupada, letter to a disciple, 1970]
In the minds of devotees there are many holy places of pilgrimage in New York, such as "Matchless Gifts," where ISKCON started in 1966; Tompkins Square Park, where Srila Prabhupada introduced public chanting of the holy names; Washington Square Park, where he sat on the grass to preach; and the Bowery loft where he once lived.
Arriving at the devotees' apartment a few blocks away from Second Avenue, we settled in and met our hosts. Yajna Purusa das, a disciple of Nirajana Swami, has a crew of four brahmacaris who do regular harinama in the Lower East Side, hold house programs, and give classes at "Matchless Gifts." Hearing of their preaching from that historic base made me eager to join in the programs. Just as the places of Krsna's pastimes are considered sacred, so the places where His pure devotees like Srila Prabhupada preach also become sanctified:
tirtha-bhutah svayam vibho
"My Lord, devotees like your good self are verily holy places personified. Because you carry the Personality of Godhead within your heart, you turn all places into places of pilgrimage." [SB 1.13.10]
On Friday afternoon we all assembled in front of "Matchless Gifts" for a harinama through the Lower East Side. As we chanted through the streets, I could see not much had changed since the time Srila Prabhupada lived there in the mid-1960s. The district is still a haven for young people living alternative lifestyles. Most were dressed in unusual clothes, many of the girls had hair dyed bright colors, and the boys wore oversized jeans and rings in their ears. People congregated everywhere, talking or drinking coffee and tea in small cafes. There was a relaxed mood on the street, and I could smell marijuana in the air as we passed underground bookstores and music shops.
But by far, the most "far out" dressed people with the "coolest" music were the devotees, as we chanted and danced in ecstasy through the colorful and upbeat neighborhood. Everyone enjoyed the kirtan, and on several occasions young people followed us chanting for some time as we weaved in and out of the crowds. Others waved or gave thumbs-up signals as we passed by. Some more "enlightened" people called out "Hare Krsna!" We chanted for several hours, and knowing that all of New York was as congested as this one area, I quickly concluded that the city was undoubtedly the harinama capital of the world. In my mind, I was trying to figure out how I could organize my yearly schedule so as to include a month-long harinama program in the Lower East Side with devotees from all over the world. I told Yajna Purusa, "If we could have a big, well-organized, colorful and blissful harinama here on a regular basis, we'd take over the city. At least we'd touch the hearts of millions of New Yorkers!" Of course, I knew it was unlikely, with my present responsibilities, that I could do such a thing. But I'll keep it as an alternative should things ever change drastically for me in eastern Europe and Russia. Who knows what the future holds?
On Saturday we drove to New Jersey and did an evening program at my god-brother, Samika Rsi's house. There were more than 300 devotees from the Indian community, and the atmosphere was electric in anticipation of our arrival. The mood made me eager to reciprocate, and I led a big kirtan and gave a long class full of transcendental stories. Afterwards, Dauji Krsna dasi, my 16-year-old disciple from Vrindavan who is traveling with us, did a beautiful Oriyan dance for all the devotees and guests. She touched their hearts by introducing the dance in fluent Hindi. When she danced everyone was amazed at the professionalism of her performance. Sri Prahlad concluded the evening with a rousing kirtan for arati, which left everyone exhausted on the floor.
It was a "normal" program for Sri Prahald and myself - but it seemed something out of the ordinary for the congregation in New Jersey. Afterwards, one devotee came up to me and thanked me for "the most ecstatic program of his life." He said he had heard so much about me and had been praying to Krsna to have the opportunity to meet me one day. As he spoke I experienced a moment of pride, but quickly coming to my senses realized that his words, though spoken with good intention, had entered like poison into my heart. Embarrassed that I had momentarily taken credit for something that was, in fact, only the causeless mercy of my spiritual master, I softly recited one prayer of Srila Ragunatha das Goswami to purify my mind:
pratisthasa dhrsta svapaca ramani me hrdi na tet
katham sadhu prema sprsati sucir etan nanu manah
sada tvam sevasva prabhu dayita samantam atulam
yatha tam niskasya tvaritam iha tam vesayati sah
"As long as the impudent untouchable prostitute of the desire for fame dances in my heart, why should pure love for Radha-Krsna touch me? O mind, continuously serve my spiritual master, the leader of those who are dear to the Lord. Then my master will quickly kick out that harridan and allow that pure love to enter." [Manah Siska, Verse 7]
Srila Prabhupada, please never allow me to take credit for what is yours. May I always remember that whatever success I have in devotional service is simply your mercy, somehow or other coming through a fallen soul like me.
The next day I had a few hours free, so I asked Bhakta Pankaj to take me into town to purchase a few things I needed. It wasn't so much that I wanted to do the shopping myself, but I wanted to see the city and meet the people. As we walked around, at first I was struck by the relative peace and tranquillity of the city streets. Generally big cities mean big crime, which one can easily sense in other places I've been like Moscow, Warsaw or Johannesburg. However, Bhakta Pankaj told me that the Mayor of New York, Rudolph Guiliani, has worked hard to curb the criminal elements in the city. The police are famous (or infamous) for their effort in this regard.
Although it was a mundane observation, it is actually a principle of Vedic culture that the government rule in such a way that the citizens have no fear of criminals. Srila Prabhupada touched on this in a lecture in Vrindavan in 1976:
"A ksatriya's duty is to give protection from injury to the citizens. The citizens should feel so safe, that they think: 'We have such a nice king that we have no danger at all. Not being injured, nor our property being stolen nor any injustice given.' That is the real government - when the citizens feel completely safe." [Vrindavan, September 28, 1976]
Because ISKCON started here, and because devotees have been active on the streets with harinama, prasadam and book distribution for years, our movement has been accepted by the people as part of the New York scene. Srila Prabhupada once said that you can judge a pot of rice by testing one single grain. In the same way, the effect of Krsna consciousness on New York throughout the years became apparent as we encountered the populace.
As we walked around some people greeted us saying, "Hare Krsna!" One older man approached me and said, "Do you have any of those sweet-balls you used to give out in the 1970s. I loved those things!"
Passing by a market place, an Afro-American man selling fruit called me over. He said, "You tell me what Krsna means. OK?"
Thinking him to be a simple man, I replied, "Krsna is a name for the Supreme Lord."
Not satisfied with that answer, he said, "No, sir! Krsna is a Sanskrit word!
What is the actual meaning?"
A little taken aback, this time I said, "Krsna means that God is all attractive."
He replied, "You're close! Actually, the literal meaning of Krsna is 'black.' And black is beautiful. Therefore, Krsna is beautiful!"
A few minutes later we took a taxi to a destination in the heart of the city. A short way into the ride, the driver looked back and said, "Is the Ratha-yatra parade coming soon?"
Bhakta Pankaj said, "It will take place sometime in late June."
"I want to know the exact date," he retorted.
Bhakta Pankaj said, "Well, I'm not sure of the exact date. Are you going to come and watch and take some of the food we distribute?"
The driver replied, "No. I just come for the music - only the music. I love the music at that parade, and how those boys and girls dance so nicely for hours down Fifth Avenue. Here's my card. Contact me when you know the date. I want to hear that music again!"
On Tuesday evening I felt honored to sit and give a lecture next to the same dais that Srila Prabhupada spoke from in "Matchless Gifts" in the 1960s. The storefront is not large, but somehow more than 100 devotees and guests squeezed in. Upon arriving, I had not yet decided exactly what I would speak about, but when I sat down in that holy tirtha it became very clear to me: I would speak of my association with Srila Prabhupada. It wasn't the first time I had recounted my memories of Srila Prabhupada, but because the atmosphere was surcharged with his presence, I was particularly inspired to do so. At times I struggled a little with emotions that surfaced upon remembering Srila Prabhupada's mercy on me. In fact, after describing the most significant and memorable moment in my entire existence in the material world, I concluded my talk. It is a moment I treasure daily, and one that gives me strength and inspiration - even in the midst of the greatest difficulties.
In 1971, I flew with Srila Prabhupada and several god-brothers from New York to London. As our plane descended into Heathrow Airport, I was looking forward to seeing the ISKCON temple at 7 Bury Place and participating in the devotees' reception for Srila Prabhuapda. However, when we arrived at the airport, one of Srila Prabhupada's suitcases was missing. It was the suitcase that contained the books of commentaries by the previous acarayas that he used in his translation work. I was devastated when Syamasundara prabhu asked me to remain behind to wait for the suitcase and bring it to the temple. As the airport reception party escorted Srila Prabhupada to his car, I sat dejected on a bench waiting for the suitcase to show up.
Two hours later it was located, and I caught a taxi into London. It was raining as we drove into the city, and by the time we reached the temple it was evening and dark outside. Dragging the heavy suitcase into the temple, I found a number of devotees sitting on the floor just finishing a big feast. When I asked for some prasadam, they sheepishly replied that nothing was left. When I asked for some help to take Srila Prabhupada's suitcase up to his room they all declined, saying that they were too full from the feast. Tired and hungry, I made an effort to pull the suitcase up the stairs to Srila Prabhupada's room. A little dazed from so much exertion, I didn't think to knock on his door first, and opening it proceeded to pull the suitcase into his room backwards.
Suddenly, Srila Prabhupada's secretary, Nanda Kumara prabhu, called out, "Watch out, you're about to bump into Srila Prabhupada!"
Whirling around, I found myself face to face with His Divine Grace. I fell down to the ground at his lotus feet and began offering my obeisances. While reciting my prayers, I suddenly felt a strong slap on my back and heard Srila Prabhupada say a few words. After a few moments, Srila Prabhupada walked away to his bathroom and I cautiously got up. I found Nanda Kumara standing there looking at me incredulously, his mouth wide open.
He said, "Boy, did you get some mercy. Srila Prabhupada slapped you on the back. I never saw him do that before."
I was even more amazed - and blissful too. I replied, "What did he say?"
Nanda Kumara answered, "He told you, 'So much endeavor in this material world, but when I take you home, back to Godhead, everything will be easy and sublime.' "
Those words remain forever within my heart, and each time I recount the story I appreciate them more and more. They took on a special meaning that evening at "Matchless Gifts." Speaking of Srila Prabhupada in that sacred place of ISKCON's beginning, I didn't feel as if I was in New York. I felt I was in the spiritual sky. This is His Divine Grace's mercy: that wherever we go in his service we may remain in Krsna consciousness, untouched by the modes of nature. No doubt New York remains one of the concrete bastions of Kali-yuga, fraught with quarrel and hypocrisy like any other place in the world, but those devotees who serve Srila Prabhupada there live not in New York, but in the spiritual sky. Srila Prabhupada explained this when answering a disciple's question during a lecture in 1968:
Jaya-gopala: "I heard it said that you are in this world without being a part of it, like the lotus flower which floats on the water."
Srila Prabhupada: "Yes, that is the understanding. I am in America [but] I am not adopting the way of life as Americans do. So I am not in America. Not only myself, but all my disciples who are following me, they are also not Americans. They're different. I am in Vrindavan because wherever I go, in my apartment or in my temple, I live with Krsna, in Krsna consciousness. And I teach my disciples to do that also." Bhagavad-gita lecture, December 16, 1968]