Diary of a Traveling Preacher
On April 7 our traveling party arrived in Detroit, Michigan. Several weeks ago while visiting San Francisco where my parents raised me, I experienced a few moments of nostalgia seeing the places where I had grown up, but controlling myself I reflected that since I have been in the material world, I have called so many places "home" and have adored millions of "mothers and fathers." However, this current life is certainly the most important, because I met my spiritual master, my eternal father, who is directing me home, back to the spiritual world.
janame janame saba pitamata paya,
krsna guru nahe mile bhaja hari ei
"Birth after birth one receives a mother and father, but if one gets the benediction of guru and Krsna, he conquers the material energy and returns back to Godhead by worship of the Lord." (Srila Prabhupada - Teheran, 1976)
As we entered Detroit another type of nostalgia overcame me, for it was in the original Detroit temple that I first met Srila Prabhupada. Driving past that old building at 8311 East Jefferson Street brought forth emotions that I didn't try to restrain. For me, the temple was a place of pilgrimage, having been blessed by the lotus feet of a pure devotee. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur writes:
gaura amara ye saba sthane,
karala bhramana range
se-saba sthana, heriba ami,
"May I visit all the holy places associated with the lilas of Lord Caitanya and His devotees."
Srila Prabhupada comments:
"A devotee should make a point of visiting all the places where Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu performed His pastimes. Indeed, pure devotees of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu even want to see the places He simply visited for only hours or minutes."
[Purport Cc, Antya 4.212]
After getting settled at a devotee's home, we visited the present Detroit temple. The historic mansion was originally constructed in 1928 by Lawrence P. Fisher, the general manager of Cadillac Motors, at a cost of more than $2 million. In 1976, on Srila Prabhupada's request, two of his disciples, Ambarish dasa and Lekasravanti dasi, purchased the dilapidated estate for $300,000. Srila Prabhupada asked them to restore it to its original splendor, open it to the public for tours, and develop it into a Vedic cultural center. At first the devotees were apprehensive, because although the building was built in a wealthy and prestigious area of Detroit, through time the neighborhood deteriorated and became rampant with crime. But Srila Prabhupada told the devotees not to worry. In the future, he said, the area would again become prestigious because of the presence of the Supreme Lord in His temple. As we drove up to the temple, I saw that Srila Prabhupada's perfect vision had indeed come true. Through the years the area has been cleaned up, and a number of housing projects and condominiums are under construction only a hundred yards from the temple.
True to its fame, the ornate building was large, spacious and elaborate by any standard, but like many temples I have visited in the United States it is populated by only a few devotees. I have often reflected in my travels in America that our movement must rethink its preaching strategy, without compromising its tradition, in order to effectively spread Vedic teachings. Many temples, it seems, are in a 1970's time warp.
Our basic formula will always be the same - chanting the holy names, distributing books and prasadam, as well as opening temples and farms where people can appreciate the ancient Vedic culture - but there must surely be novel ways of marketing these things that are in tune with modern society. Srila Prabhupada himself was novel in his presentation of Krsna consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, and he gave us the hint that we should do the same when he said, "Tax your brains how to spread this movement." The art of preaching is to present the "old wine in a new bottle" without watering down the tradition.
Devotee: "There was a poster on the wall, saying they are opening a big exhibition of Russian books in Punjab."
Prabhupada: "So why don't you exhibit our books too? Let them come to a competition."
Devotee: "They say that this philosophy is very old."
Prabhupada: "Yes. We are giving old wine in new bottle. It is old (but) the Western boys are taking." [Morning walk conversation - November 29, 1975]
While in Detroit we had a big harinam procession at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The students were holding a rally protesting laws against the use of marijuana. When we arrived there were several thousand students on the main plaza of the campus demonstrating with placards, shouting slogans and taunting the police who were there to keep the peace. The overall situation was quite tense, although the police were exhibiting restraint. Just occasionally they would arrest a student who got out of hand.
We set up not far from the big stage where the main speakers were addressing the crowd. As soon as we started chanting, the whole atmosphere changed. The kirtan created a festive mood and a number of kids wandered over to sit down and chant with us. After a while we chanted around the plaza, weaving in and out of the crowd, and people began to relax. I was amazed at the potency of the holy names. The tense situation cleared up almost immediately. In Kali-yuga the atmosphere is surcharged with quarrel and hypocrisy. One time Srila Prabhupada went to court in Calcutta to sign a document. While in the courtroom he turned to one of his disciples, and pointing upwards said that the ether in that place was contaminated by the lies of so many lawyers. He asked the devotees to chant Hare Krsna, and after a short time said, "Alright, everything has become purified."
On Sunday afternoon a most wonderful thing happened. I had just finished giving a Sunday feast lecture to 300 guests in the temple room and we had all moved outside to the lawn to respect prasadam. A few devotees stayed in the temple room to finish their rounds, when suddenly an older man wandered in and approached Srila Prabhupada's vyasasana. For several minutes he respectfully stood before Srila Prabhupada's murti speaking softly to him. After a while he realized he was standing before a diorama and began to cry.
A devotee approached him and asked if anything was wrong.
He replied, "He's not here, is he?"
"You mean Srila Prabhupada?" the devotee said.
"Yes, the Swami," the man replied.
"No," the devotee said. "He passed away in 1977."
More tears welled up in the man's eyes as he said, "He showed me real love."
Feeling compassion for the man, the devotee asked him to come outside and meet me. I was sitting on the front lawn with a few guests when the two of them came and sat down in front of me. I could see the man had been crying. The devotee told me how the man had attempted to speak to Srila Prabhupada in the temple. I said to him, "Did you know Srila Prabhupada?"
"Yes," he said. "I met him when I was 15 years old. One day I was walking through the Lower East Side of New York City when I saw him sitting and singing with some of his followers in Tompkins Square Park. I walked over and the Swami invited me to sit down next to him. I sat there for a long time. There was something special about the way he sang. Although his voice was very soft, you could hear him from quite a distance. He was singing for God. At one point he asked my name, and judging from my intoxicated appearance, he said I was on the wrong path in life. He asked me to visit his center."
"Did you go?" I asked.
"Yes, I went a number of times," he said. "It was a storefront called 'Matchless Gifts.' It was easy to find because you could smell the incense they were burning a block away. Each evening Swami would give class. There were often many people there, but even if there were only two people he would still speak. I remember one time no one came. There were a number of drunks loitering in front of the storefront, so Swami told his followers to go out on the street and bring them in for the lecture. A boy named Keith said to the Swami that they wouldn't be able to understand a thing. But Swami said, "The soul will hear." So his boys went outside and brought in six or seven of these men. A couple of them were so intoxicated that as soon as they sat down against the wall they fell unconscious. The Swami's followers assembled and then Swami gave a lecture. Afterwards the boys took all the drunks back outside. They hardly knew what had happened, but we all knew they had been blessed.
"Sometimes the Swami personally cooked and served the food. There was something special about his cooking. When he cooked many people would come. He was very popular in that neighborhood. There were a number of so-called gurus from India in New York, but everyone on the Lower East Side knew that Swami was genuine, because he wasn't into money or fame. Everyone knew that God took care of him because he had so little money. Sometimes Allen Ginsburg would drop by the storefront and give him a big donation.
"I had a number of exchanges with the Swami. Once I was helping in the kitchen and he showed my how to make the flat bread like in India. Another time he showed me how to play the hand cymbals. Sometimes I would ask questions after his classes, and one day he asked to meet my mother, but she wouldn't come to the Lower East Side.
"I was there when Keith shaved his head, and afterwards I watched the Swami put clay markings on his body, explaining how the body was a temple of God. The thing about the Swami was that you could always approach him. His door was always open. Because I was new, I was a little nervous to go upstairs to his apartment. But I liked to sit in the little courtyard below his room and listen to his typing. Can you believe that? I loved to hear him type. There was something mystical about his typing. My mother was a secretary and would often bring her typing work home. It used to drive me crazy. But when Swami typed I was captivated. I think it's because he was typing for God.
"He did everything for God. In fact, as long as he lived at 'Matchless Gifts' the whole Lower East Side was talking about God. But when he left the whole atmosphere changed and people resorted to their old ways.
"But I didn't forget. Although I was young and naive he cared for me. He showed me real love. In fact, I've been searching for that love my whole life. I haven't been able to find it anywhere, in my family, my relatives, my friends. Recently I lost my wife, then my job and home - everything. So I've been praying to God to lead me back to the Swami again. It's quite amazing. I knew him for only a short time, but as I look back I can see he was the most important person in my life.
"This morning, I went into a used book store. I had 50 cents in my pocket. I asked the man behind the counter if he had any books for that amount and he pointed to a shelf. I picked one book out called, Only He Could Lead Them. I walked outside to read it on the curb. Boy was I surprised when I saw that it was about the Swami! I felt that God had answered my prayers.
"I found the address of your temple on a card in the book. It took me all day to get here. When I walked in the door, I asked someone where the Swami was. They said he had just finished giving a lecture in the temple room. So I ran inside and there he was, sitting on that big seat! I was so happy! I went up and thanked him for everything he'd done for me. But when I asked him if he remembered me he didn't reply. When I looked closer I saw that there was only a statue there. Then your friend said that Swami had passed away. I don't know what to do now."
I sat there speechless. After a few moments, I said that he could find that love he was searching for by associating with Srila Prabhupada's followers.
"Yes, I'm sure that's true," he said. Then his eyes filled up with tears again and he said, "But how to live without him?" He then got up and walked slowly towards the front gate. Turning back, he looked at us one last time and then was gone.
tulayama lavenapi na svargam napunar bhavam
bhagavat sangi sangasya martyanam kim utasisah
"The value of a moment's association with the devotee of the Lord cannot even be compared to the attainment of heavenly planets or liberation from matter, and what to speak of worldly benedictions in the form of material prosperity, which are for those who are meant for death." [SB 1.18.13]