7, Bury Place
by Patita Pavana das Adhikary
The Magic Formula: “Seven, Bury Place.” The address is a simple but magic formula. Yet it is as important in ISKCON history as 26 2nd Ave. And the transcendental accounts of the “early days” in London are no less significant than those in New York. The number “7” in the address reminds us of great festivals like Ganga-saptami or Advaita-saptami based upon the auspicious seventh day of the waxing Moon. Just by hearing “7 Bury Place” we recall the undefeated sapta-rathi warriors of the Mahabharata, commanders of seven chariots. We find ourselves reflecting upon the seven great sages overhead, the sapta-rishis headed by Vashishta who out of loving kindness bless this universe by ever circumambulating Dhruva-loka. The seven sacred streams or sapta-nadis headed by the Yamuna and Ganga, come to mind, especially as we recall that one of the first “married sannyasi” disciples at 7, Bury Place was the illustrious Yamuna dasi herself. Even the word “Bury” for “town”, Vedic historians tell us, originates from the Sanskrit puri with an identical meaning as “bury”. Hence the similarity between 7 Bury and India’s sapta-puris, or seven chief holy places, is too tempting to resist: “Sapta Puri Place”.
Even ISKCON Vrindavana, the lotus-like center of Mathura-mandala and chief of the Seven Holy Cities, was opened from 7, Bury Place. From London Shriman Gurudas and Shrimati Yamuna Devi, under the order of Shrila Prabhupada, were sent to Shri Radha-Damodara, one of the Seven Chief Temples of Vrindavana, near the Yamuna, chief of the Seven Holy Rivers. There they penanced with no money even for a fan when temperatures climbed over 117˚, and thus they paved the way for the tens of thousands of ISKCON devotees and friends who have since followed in the wake of this Society’s gigantic temple construction projects throughout the Indian sub-continent. As silent, immovable testimony to the potency of the holy name, from mere seeds entire forests have arisen. We may not understand Lord Krishna’s plans for the world -- or for each of us -- but Shrila Prabhupada did. Lord Krishna’s arrangement for the dawn of the Golden Age continues to blossom like a gigantic lotus. As London was known for centuries as the economic and governmental center of the world, so today it has bloomed to become a pivot for World Krishna consciousness sprouting from 7, Bury Place.
At a casual satsangha-on-the-grass with Gurudas and Punyatma das at the 2008 San Francisco Rathayatra, Punyatma Prabhu mentioned that he had helped carry Shrila Prabhupada, seated on a palanquin, into 7, Bury Place. Nearing the end of the World Acharya’s divine manifest lila it would be His Divine Grace’s final darshan of Shri Radha-Londonishwara. Punyatma recalled the pure devotee’s Moon-like face was awash with a waterfall of tears as he entered the temple to pray before the Presiding Deities of London. I submitted to them how I had followed in the footsteps of Gurudas and the others to London, finally arriving in 1972.
There on the grass at Golden Gate Park, we reflected on the history of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in London and how His Divine Grace Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati had sent several disciples to London. But the Bengali swamis never clanged caratals on Oxford St. or sang the Holy Names at Speaker’s Corner, preferring instead to entertain dignitaries with stuffy ceremonies. Neither did they ever preach at those ceremonies but only lit lamps. Their “London Gaudiya Math” address was, as Shrila Prabhupada said, the desolate home of two “nearly-dead ladies”. I once had visited those ladies in my full devotee attire, but those relics refused to let me inside their “math”, and they slammed the door in my face. Gurudas offered the ironic observation, “…And the Gaudiya Math swamis who went to London were leading disciples, too.”
By chance, in 1974, I even met one of the swamis who went to London in the 1930’s, Swami BH Bon Maharaja. In less than two minutes I found myself quickly running away from him as he did not know how to respect Shrila Prabhupada, who was not only his Godbrother but by then had emerged as the leading Vaishnava acharya in the footsteps of Shrila Saraswati Thakur. It was clear that Swami BH Bon, an author and college founder, had never learned the basic and simple formula of preaching the message of Shri Chaitanya that Shrila Prabhupada taught each of us from the beginning. Rather than trying to attract a following through self-glorification and criticism of Godbrothers, a preacher’s duty is to impart whatever Krishna Consciousness he has realized for the listener’s eternal benefit. But enacting this principle requires a modicum of humility. If BH Bon and the other London swamis had understood this basic principle of preaching this eternal message born out of compassion for suffering mankind, then they might have been successful in London. Instead the mantle of victory fell upon six new disciples all eager to preach: Yamuna, Gurudas, Malati, Shyamasundar, Janaki and Mukunda. It is due to their single-desire to share Shrila Prabhupada’s message that today this movement has become so successful in London and all around the UK. Their faith alone has transformed 7, Bury Place into a place of pilgrimage.
Long before the “Six Pioneers of Seven Bury Place” ever went to London, they had even influenced my becoming a devotee right there in San Francisco. One summer day in 1968 by the will of Lord Krishna, I happened to attend the Rathayatra Festival, the second one held in the Western world. [There is a film of this 1968 Rathayatra on Youtube, and Gurudas can be seen beside the rath in the film.] By having darshan of Lord Jagannath as He gazed out towards the Pacific Ocean my tightly-shut eyes were spiked open. Then and there I realized my eternal position as servant of the Lord, at once realizing that everything the devotees had been telling me over the past year was true.
Understanding how 7, Bury Place became “Sapta Puri Place” requires a look at Krishna consciousness in San Francisco. Hence, the story of those Jagannath Deities is eternally linked to the “married sannyasis” who would soon take sankirtan from San Francisco to London. In San Francisco it had been Malati who had found small forms of Lord Jagannath, Subhadra and Balarama at the Cost Plus import market. Later, when she showed Them to Shrila Prabhupada he replied, “So Lord Jagannath has come!” Soon, Shrila Prabhupada asked Shyamsundara to carve Jagannath Deities for San Francisco. Indeed, he made Them for 26 2nd Ave. as well as for the outpost temple at Santa Fe where I would eventually become initiated. So by the time I had arrived at 7, Bury Place in 1972, it was because I had already been stumbling along in the lotus footprints of those six married sannyasis for four years.
Once in 1973 I spent an entire night rapt in listening to Shyamsundara’s electro-magnetic, irresistible and hypnotic descriptions his adventures with the World Acharya. [Readers who would like to know something about that unforgettable experience should get a copy of Siddhanta das’s “Memories” interview with Shyamsundara, or click on Youtube’s several “Hare Krishna Tributes to George Harrison”.] Discussing his trip from San Francisco to London, Shyamsundara revealed that he had acquired a huge pile of redwood logs and somehow got them shipped to England from San Francisco for $26. He had no idea what specifically would be done with these logs, but as it turns out they were just what was needed for putting the final touches on the temple when 7, Bury Place became manifest. He told me how Shrila Prabhupada was so pleased with the London center that His Divine Grace had ordered a plaque be made and placed at the entrance stating that Shyamsundara had built the temple. [Has this order of the Founder Acharya been carried out yet?] Then, after many hours of Guru-katha, he hit me with the clincher. Lowering his gaze, he revealed that Shrila Prabhupada had once told him, “You were my spiritual master in your past life.” I was shocked and dumbfounded. “What did he mean by that,” I blurted, breaking silence. Shyamsundara shrugged, appearing amazed that he had told me the story. Here the man who could think on his feet better than anyone I’ve ever met was at a loss for words. “Well, then” I continued, “If you can’t tell me what Shrila Prabhupada meant, can you tell me what it was like?”
Aye, Edinburgh: By then Shyamsundara, the GBC, had asked me to be the President of the Edinburgh temple. The previous President had been the much-loved Tribhuvanatha who, after obtaining a huge place at Greyfriar’s, had departed to preach the glories of the holy name around the British Isles. At Edinburgh we had our fair share of drama and dharma, though I was there hardly three or four months. The police had ordered devotees to stop sankirtan along downtown Princess St. because of some city regulation that only “political parties could hand out leaflets there”. In court, our lawyer, a handsome and fiery young Scot who gave his services for free, told the judge that we were also a political movement. Because we accepted the monarchial form of government, as testified by our scriptures, we were campaigning for a Krishna conscious king. The next day my picture was on the front page of the local newspaper coming out of courthouse.
One day at the Edinburgh center, a gentleman showed up at the door saying that a contract had been signed by the previous management to exterminate the mice. I was surprised because I hadn’t seen any mice and knew nothing about the contract. A debate ensued in my head. “Krishna’s money has been spent on this service, so it should not be wasted. On the other hand, is it correct to kill mice, even though they might be a health risk to devotees?” Agonizing over the issue, I allowed the man inside.
For some years now the unstoppable effects of the sankirtana movement had been spreading from the center at 7, Bury Place. Shyamsundara said that Krishna had expanded His temple from Bury Place to include Bhaktivedanta Manor because there just was not enough room for any more devotees at the smaller London Center. And Shrila Prabhupada loved the Manor; there was cow protection and he could take walks through the peaceful town of Letchmore Heath. To keep Shrila Prabhupada from never leaving, the charismatic Shyamsundara had devised an ingenious trick, one he commented “the other temple leaders never caught on to”. He would bring famous dignitaries to hear the Absolute Truth from the lips of a paramhamsa. As long as scholars, royal knights, and even race car drivers were coming for darshan, how could Shrila Prabhupada leave London?
Soon a big initiation was to be held at the manor conducted by Shrila Prabhupada so we Edinburgh devotees went along in a temple van. I recall one new devotee named Anne, I think, who never spoke but who longed to become an initiate. She had donated her fortune of £151, everything she had, so I recommended her. I even came up with a name for her, too “Anandi dasi” thinking it sounded like a feminine form of ananda. At the gala initiation, I had serious misgivings. I really did not know if there was any such word as “Anandi”. Nervously I waited, but when her turn came to accept her beads, Shrila Prabhupada was so kind he actually lectured to the large gathering on her new name “Anandi dasi”, reciting references from the Govinda prayers of Lord Brahma. I was relieved that my foolishness had not been brought to light. Not yet, anyway.
One day I went along while Shrila Prabhupada was taking his walk around Letchmore Heath; there must have been a hundred devotees following behind his swift footsteps. I recall the Australian Swayambhur das asking Shrila Prabhupada about the ethics of hunting. He wanted to know if it was right for hunters to go into a forest and hunt animals. “They are there and you are here. Why should you kill?” came the common sense answer. “But what about tigers, Shrila Prabhupada,” Swyambhur pressed on. “If they come here to kill you, then you kill them.” Again, more common sense answers mixed with humor. Aha. This was the cue for the President of Edinburgh ISKCON to discuss an important issue of management with the Founder Acharya. So I began, “Should we kill mice in the temple.”
Focusing on me, Shrila Prabhupada gave the sternest look imaginable; I froze in my tracks and so did the entire assembly. Now stopped short his riveted gaze upon an errant disciple looked more like a two-barreled shotgun ready to fire. At once, a shock wave began to ripple across the huge gathering of devotees as His Divine Grace pointed his lo-o-o-ng index finger right at me, and thundered, “No, you should be killed.”
I was amazed. It would have been ludicrous to look around for moral support, but I did notice jaws dropping from amongst my crowd of peers. After those words -- and this is the truth -- I was engulfed in a brilliant sort of uplifting light as my spiritual master, having paused to let his words sink in, again commenced, “You should be killed! You should be killed! Fool. Rascal. Demon. Because you are dirty, Maya is sending her agents. So you should be killed!” Throughout the experience and ready to swoon, I had lost sight of everything except due to the potency of Krishna’s direct representative. I could only hear the thundering words emitting from the center of the Universe, my Guru Maharaja. As I gradually regained my senses, I realized that the verdict was final and not subject to appeal. My “vision” now over, I could see Shrila Prabhupada throw his head back again in disgust, take hold of his cane smartly, and continue marching. Yet, somehow I felt blessed also.
A chastised devotee is ever enjoined to accept punishment from the spiritual master as divine mercy. A guru’s job is not to flatter, and Shrila Prabhupada has quoted Chanakya Pandit on this point many times. The English devotees would that day treat me politely and respectfully, being careful to keep their distance from the now-uncovered demon in their midst. Some of the Americans were more direct, and thought it was pretty funny. Tribhuvanatha -- ever situated on the platform of spiritual happiness -- laughed it off saying “Poor Patit! You didn’t even sign the contract to kill those mice.” Like a good Irishman, he couldn’t help having a good laugh mixed, but it was mixed with sympathy. Old friends like Bhargava came forward to offer the consolation that Shrila Prabhupada would not have uttered what became the most severe verbal thrashing in ISKCON history if His Divine Grace did not think the disciple was spiritually fixed-up enough to accept such punishment. Perplexed, I thought long and hard, “If I should be killed, then who should kill me?” I waited.
A few days later Shrila Prabhupada was sitting on the lawn at the manor overlooking the splendid seventeen acres of the area he had dubbed New Gokula. Bhargava das, the talented photographer was there, and his photos of Shrila Prabhupada on the manor lawn have become items of worship. You can trace those photos because Shrila Prabhupada was wearing the grey embroidered chaddar that was given to him by Shrimati Shaktimati dasi, the Punjabi Mataji from Nairobi. I crossed the meadow slowly and approached Shrila Prabhupada. Again, his gaze, now softer, lowered and rested upon me. Usually, the Paramhamsa was quite aloof as he received the doting obeisances of thousands. But now I could feel his eyes on me, so I took my time reciting the prayers. Still, he wouldn’t stop bathing me in his vision through my recitation of the two guru pranam mantras. He began to recite a verse which ended with one of the two names His Divine Grace used to call me, “Patit Uddharana”. I’ve never heard that verse before or since. Shrila Prabhupada knew millions of verses, so tracking down that verse has been daunting.
With brown eyes as soft and large as those of a mother doe, he said. “Patit Uddharana. Yes, you are Patit Uddharana. You have delivered all the souls in the Universe.” His Divine Grace paused as I sat there dumbly, incredulously. Then he lowered his glance and declared with the genuine gratitude that only a pure devotee can feel for even the tiniest scrap of service a nincompoop servant like me can muster, “Now at last you have delivered my fallen soul!” He continued to bless me in a loving and concerned way for an eternity, nodding his great head.
My question to Shyamsundara had now been answered. The ways of the pure devotee are not subject to the ordinary interpretation of fools like me. We have all heard the shloka about the Lord and His representatives being more powerful than a thunderbolt in chastisement and softer than a rose in blessing. All I can submit before you, my blessed Godbrothers and Godsisters, is that I have felt both sides of that blessing. And I pray that His Divine Grace will allow me to continue to learn in future lives about all sides of his remarkable potency -- a dual-edged sword that he so expertly wields -- as I remain his sold-out servant life after life. Not a servant; but rather, a servant of the servant in the footsteps of mahatmas like the ones who established 7, Bury Place.
Thanks Prabhus: Dandavats to Vamsivadana for making me write this down, to Kishore for your friendship, to Tribhuvanath for being the best sankirtan man in ISKCON, to Kamadhuk for tolerating my stealing her garland, to Pankajanghri for going off to India with me, to Prabha Vishnu Maharaja for achieving the highest platform of yoga, to Dhananjaya for emerging as a truly great Vaishnava preacher, to Mahavishnu Maharaja for his gentlenness, to Ilapati Prabhu (now Bhakti Vikas Swami) for the back massage and his extraordinary literary ability, to Sakshi Gopal for being a brahmana, to George Harrison for his generosity, to Sarva Mangala for unflinching devotion, to Lila Shakti for seeing that Radha-Londinishwara were always well served, to Jagat Bandhu for being a friend, to Bhaja Hari for his discretion, to Nara Hari for his friendship, to Giribaradhari for the wisdom, to Vichitravirya for his steadiness, to Smara Hari for the nectar, to Krishna Acharya for showing us the best of India, to Vijai Ranamukhadeva for teaching me astrology.
Patita Pavana das Adhikary