26 2nd Ave.
by Patita Pavana das Adhikary
An article in a 1966 edition of FACT Magazine gave me my first contact with Krishna consciousness, but it was more than a year later before I met devotees. It was sometime around late 1967 when I was living in the East Village that I actually began visiting the Hare Krishna Temple at 26 2nd Ave. The temple was on the run-down Lower East Side of Manhattan. Folk singers and artists like Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol, who were seen on the streets in those days, lived less than a mile away in trendy Greenwich Village, the “West Village” near the NYU campus. Only the hardest of the hard core beatniks lived in the East Village, the neighborhood where Shrila Prabhupada, the Twentieth Century’s Deliverer of the Most Fallen, was growing a garden of transcendentalists out of a bleak concrete jungle.
It had taken weeks, maybe months, for me to get up the courage to open the temple door and go inside. I remember looking through the window and watching the blissful and effulgent devotees dancing at kirtan. With my collar turned against the winter wind, I would shake my head and mutter, “But not for me.” Then one bleak day I took a deep breath and -- as I pushed the door wide open -- a flood of light, the Vaikuntha glow of devotees’ collective spiritual satisfaction and bliss, surrounded me. Like a poor man with amnesia who suddenly remembers he is the son of the King, I went from outsider to family member. I think that all devotees know the feeling, and have their own personal versions of “coming home to Krishna”.
There in the small temple room sat the ubiquitous Brahmananda rapt in mantra meditation. Kanchanbala, Indira and Ekayani busied themselves here and there. Devananada das who, at sixteen or seventeen was a couple of years my junior, greeted me. “Why don’t you come to kirtan?” He invited. “Cure time?” I responded skeptically, thinking it sounded like some made-up, quasi-spiritual invention. Devananada chuckled and nodded, “Maybe for you kirtan is cure time.” I was stunned. Probably all devotees have experienced bells sort of going off in the mind telling you, “This is it. You’ve come back home.”
In the following weeks I learned the story of Shrila Prabhupada, who devotees affectionately called at the time “our Swamiji”. Devotees had been praying for his recovery from a serious heart problem. He had struggled against all odds to set up this small place of worship, the first Vedic Temple in North America as history would testify, only to suddenly encounter poor health which forced him to return to India, taking a disciple with him. (For the details see the Lilamrita.) In those days, Brahmananda was the temple President and sankirtan leader and, looking back, I wonder if without his organizational abilities a movement of reformed rebels and acid heads could have held together in the Guru’s absence.
Back to Godhead was nothing more than a stapled pile of mimeographed (home printed) papers. When devotees weren’t sharing their experiences, I enjoyed reading the BTG articles by Hayagriva and other devotees. One of the back issues on the shelf carried Brahmananda’s article about Shrila Prabhuapda’s 1967 return to India, and it made such an impression on me that I wanted to share it with the readers of The Prabhupada Connection. Today, incidentally, Brahmananda is a fixture in Vrindavana, and he is always more than willing to discuss the subject he loves most, unflinching service to the spiritual master in Krishna consciousness. So for those who love our Society’s history, here then is Brahmananda’s version from BTG # 15 of 1967:
by Brahmananda das Brahmachary
A girl who had been coming to Kirtan wants to be initiated 30 minutes before Swamiji is to leave for the airport. He says Yes, so while all the devotees are rushing about, making last minute preparations, Swamiji sits on his white sheet in his room, chanting the Lord’s Names on her beads, bringing another soul Back to Godhead, fulfilling his Master’s mission up to the last minute, serving Krishna always.
He emerges from His apartment, smiling, a transcendental mother who has just delivered another child into eternal life. As he has done so many times before, he descends the stairs, taking each step gracefully, and sweeps across the courtyard -- a young bride going to join her beloved. Entering the temple, before the painting of Guru Maharaj he offers his obeisances, prostrating himself on the floor, humbly, as an atom of His Lotus Feet. And, walking to the waiting taxi, he embraces Achyutananda, and then Gargamuni, who stoops to touch his forehead to the pavement.
Some devotees have already left by subway, and some by our chariot, and some ride with him in the taxi. Brahmananda sits in the front crying, and Swamiji reaches over and slaps him on the back --a father giving his loving son support, a pal, and Rayrama only rivets his eyes to Swami, ever-attentive, and Kirtanananda, sparkling, sits beside the most beautiful man in the world.
Swami says in the taxi, “There is no question of separation. The sound vibration fixes us up together, even though the material body may not be there. What do we care for this material body? Just go on chanting HARE KRISHNA, and we will be packed up together. You will be chanting here, and I will be chanting there, and this vibration will circulate around this planet.” And Swamiji says, “I may be going, but Guru Maharaj and Bhaktivinode are there. I have asked them to kindly take care of all of you, my transcendental children. The grandfather always takes care of the children much better than the father. Do not fear.”
And Swamiji says, “I think this is what Krishna desires. I have come to you, but now in this old age I may be going there to Vrindaban, and you may be coming there to me and be trained up, and we will spread this movement all over the world. Rayrama -- you will go to England. Brahmananda -- you want to go to Japan or Russia? That’s all right.” And Swamiji says, “When Kirtanananda sees Vrindaban, he will not be able to understand how I could have left that place to come to this place. It is so nice. There are no motor cars there like here, rushing Whoosh! Whoosh! and smelling. Only there is HARE KRISHNA. Everybody, always chanting. Thousands and thousands of temples. I will show you, Kirtanananda. We will walk all about there, and I will show you.” And Swamiji says, “I can understand you feeling separation. I am feeling for my Guru Maharaj.”
As the cab pulls up to the terminal, the chariot also pulls up behind it, and devotees pour out, chanting, cymbals clashing, chanting HARE KRISHNA HARE RAMA, into the Air India terminal. And the ticket man runs out from behind his protective counter and demands excitedly, “What is the meaning of this?” “We want to ride in your airplane,” one devotee says. “Oh, yes, yes. I see,” says the man. “Air India?” asks Swamiji. “El-Al?” says the man, misunderstanding, thinking the robed Brahmacharys to be Arabs of some kind. “El-Al is over..." “No, Air India. We want to go to India.” “Oh, yes, yes. I see.”
And Kirtanananda stands at the counter, while Swamiji sits in a nearby chair chanting; dispatching all the paper business, Kirtanananda a beautiful young American Brahmachary in his black suit and red tie and his budding flag (shikha). He gives the man his passport, and the man looks at the identification picture taken two years ago of a bearded, run-down youth and now at this beautiful Brahmachary standing before him. “Are you sure you are Keith Gordon Ham?” “That was taken before I met the Swami. I have changed.” “Yes, yes. I see.”
Upstairs we all go to the lounge. The milling people spread apart, and Swamiji sits in a chair, and all his disciples nestle together at His feet. “Kirtanananda, why not play the record? They will enjoy.” And Swamiji sits and looks at all the awe-struck people and smiles his unforgettable, oceanic smile. So the portable phonograph is set up and HARE KRISHNA, HARE RAMA is vibrated, filling what was a lounge with Sat-Chit-Ananda. The devotees dance and sing, and Swamiji, enthroned, just smiles contentedly.
When the record ends, Hansaduta asks, “Should we collect?” “Why not?” says Swamiji. So Hansaduta jumps up and says, “Our mission is to spread Krishna Consciousness. We have a temple in New York. We are always badly in need of money. Please help us.” And a solitary soldier steps forward and offers Hansaduta his hat, so Hansaduta goes around to all the people that are waiting, standing by the bar, drinking and smoking intoxicants, killing both time and themselves, and allows them to benefit by sacrificing for God’s service, and the soldier’s hat becomes filled with dollars and coins.
And Swamiji says, “Our traveling is very auspiciously beginning. We had a nice Kirtan, and we had a nice collection. It is all Krishna’s Mercy.” And a young airport exec-on-the-move rushes over and says that collections are not allowed in the terminal, while the bar’s cash register rings. “But you are collecting,” says Brahmananda. “Yes, this is the Age of Kali,” says Swami.
The other side of the record is played, and the devotees cry and cry. Swamiji leans over and looks into Goursundar’s pained eyes and says, “Everything all right?” in the way that only Swamiji can say it, which automatically makes everything all right. And Swamiji turns to admire steadfast Rupanuga. “You look just like Rupa Goswami. Very beautiful.” “Himavati, you must come to Vrindaban and carry a water pot on your head like those Indian girls there in the picture. Can you learn? That will be nice. Nice young village girls.” “You look beautiful, Swamiji,” says Brahmananda. “Oh? No trace of disease?” asks Swamiji. “No, no. You’re beautiful. Kirtan makes it go away.” “That’s all right.” And then Swamiji says, “When Vivekananda came to this country his picture was taken with so many old ladies. I have seen it circulated in India.” And Swamiji smiles knowingly.
Suddenly the time arrives for Swamiji to leave. The disciples prostrate themselves, declaring their obeisances. Swamiji arises and pats them on the head -- a mother blessing her brood. Swamiji goes to silent and sad Jadurani and clasps her chin with his kind hand. “You are doing very nicely. You go on doing your painting work. It is a great service you are doing. Krishna will be pleased.” Then he glides out the door, and the devotees swarm after him like protective drone bees following their queen. The devotees try to get past the gate and go with their Master, but the guard prevents them. Adwaita sees a door that promises the observation deck, but which is barred by a shiny steel turnstile, demanding a dime. The devotees duck under and jump over the gate, like an army storming a barricade.
Outside, a gentle rain is washing the airfield, and the devotees race across the wet deck; and there, below, are Swamiji and Kirtanananda walking across the field! The devotees scream KRISHNA! KRISHNA! Swamiji turns and waves and then climbs the movable stairway; on the top he turns and uplifts his arms, pausing for a long moment, blessing his transcendental children, standing there, majestic, having come to this iron land and sown the seed of HARE KRISHNA, a space-age Narada Muni, saffroned and beautiful -- Gouranga!
Our Master, our Friend, our Father, our Mother, our Child, our Sweetheart is gone! The devotees cry frantically; they can only utter HARE KRISHNA! A pack of madmen, not caring for anything. Loving, chanting, increasing the ocean of transcendental bliss; jumping up and down, gorging themselves with the taste of the full nectar which is their only desire. Bhaktas, the greatest of all yogis. And out pops Kirtanananda from inside the plane onto the platform, and he stands there and dances to HARE KRISHNA -- dances while all around him are the whines of the great airliners and the scurry of the attendent vehicles and the scampering ground crews; the flashing lights and the evening rain. Dancing, arms uplifted, beseeching the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and the devotees dance with him, their Prabhu, tears of Love decorating their eyes, flowing in torrents, all of us in ecstasy. A stewardess reaches out of the plane and taps Kirtanananda on the shoulder several times before he realizes it, and he dances into the plane, and the plane is sealed.
The motors whine, the tail flaps move, the lights flash, and the devotees scream and cry, Damodar growling out HARE KRISHNA, HARE RAMA, and Adwaita clashing his cymbals wildly like a machine running out of control. The devotees pull back as the exhaust blasts out from the plane, but Jadurani stays there, the smoke and the gas and the heat singeing her face; dancing, choking HARE KRISHNA, HARE RAMA. With a great roar the airliner moves forward, and the devotees rush to the railing and then run down the deck, screaming KRISHNA! KRISHNA! as the plane moves away from its roost into the night, and becomes only a distant light.
The devotees wait and watch. It has stopped raining. Govinda says that raindrops are the tears that the Gopis are shedding for their Krishna, and we can understand that. The devotees wait and wait, but they cannot see the plane. Their eyes are not able to see it, but they know it is there. And the devotees wait and watch until one devotee says Let’s go back, and they walk off reluctantly, looking behind, trying to see but not being able to see.
And the next morning at Kirtan Brahmananda reads: “I do not know anyone except Krishna as my Lord, and He shall remain as such even if He handles me roughly in His embrace; or He may make me broken-hearted by not being present before me. He is completely free to do anything, but He is always my worshipful Lord, unconditionally.”
-End of Brahmananada’’s article.
Fast forward: Devananada, who introduced me to “cure time” accepted the renounced order of life around 1971 and traveled with Shrila Prabhupada all over the world. Yet, somehow or other, he would drift away and he ended up in Varanasi. In 1981 I found myself traveling across India with a Godbrother named Mahavirya das He was a powerful African-American who some years before in Africa had single-handedly fought a marauding machete-armed gang with a wooden chair, suffering permanent injury to his right arm. On a lark, Mahavirya had bought a big banana yellow bus called the Chappatti Express and was taking hippies from Delhi to Kathmandu. I ran into him in Delhi and he invited me along. Two German Prabhus shared shifts driving across the Indo-Gangetic plain and though the twisties of the world’s most treacherous mountain roads.
Stopping in Varanasi, near the Dashashwamedha Ghat, a visitor, came aboard the bus. It was my old Prabhu from 26 2nd Ave., Devananada das , but I could hardly recognize him. He had fallen in with a group of “sadhus” who were really little more than the impersonalistic hippies he had preached to fifteen years earlier in New York. The once-brilliant Vaishnava had no money now and lived by begging alongside the Ganges. As he and I discussed Shrila Prabhupada sitting on the bus beside the Ganges, huge tears ran down his bearded face. Despite his external situation, he had never forgotten the World Acharya he knew in his heart was his Guru Maharaja. I gave him a hundred rupee note, regretting that I could not afford more. A few weeks later I heard that he had drowned in the Ganges.
Life is fragile, and the delicate bubble of our existence can burst at any moment. Our only shelter is Shrila Prabhupada, and our only assets are whatever we have accomplished in service to the spiritual master. Nothing else really matters. We are lucky to have had this opportunity to serve the pure devotee as well as our Godbrothers and Godsisters. We should avoid seeing flaws in our fellow Vaishnavas because in truth the feet of such saints, even those devotees who may appear misguided due to our own crooked vision, are our shelter from the bleak winds of illusion. Any flaw I see in my Godbrother is really magnified in me. When I was cast adrift in the tide of samsara, it was the hand of Devananada that reached out to pull me into the safety of the transcendental boat of Krishna consciousness. Now, in a few short years the responsibility for the propagation of this movement, the shelter of the world, will be completely placed in the hands of grand and great-grand disciples because, as Krishna says, “Time I am”.
Patita Pavana das Adhikary