Prabhupada's Coming (Part 1)
by Paratrikananda dasa
Although I joined the Krsna consciousness movement many years ago, I can’t honestly say I’ve been a devotee a long time. Over the years I’ve drifted away from devotional practices I once followed. Many of us have drifted away to some degree, and it’s a great tragedy. However, if we help each other remember our spiritual master and the wonderful times we had serving him, I’m confident we can turn things around. “Prabhupada’s Coming” was written to reflect my impressions of the time His Divine Grace was physically with us. Truth be told, we had our share of problems and personality clashes, but somehow we managed because of our mutual love for Srila Prabhupada. It’s this mutual love for him that moves me to reflect on those times with the deepest admiration and affection for all the devotees who were there, who shared the experience and who accepted me as a brother.
The high regard with which I write of my God brothers and sisters of that era is not to imply that devotees of my generation were in some way better than those of subsequent generations -- many devotees from newer generations are equally dedicated and hard working and their devotion to Prabhupada is inspirational -- rather, I simply beg to share some of my memories. Hopefully they will help stimulate your love and appreciation for Srila Prabhupada, his family and the missionary spirit embraced during a happier time.
I began writing, “Prabhupada’s Coming,” in 1987. It started as a poem, but after writing a few verses I realized that newer devotees may not relate to all the references, so I decided to tell some of the back-story. Over the years the back-story grew larger as I compiled more details and anecdotes to help set the scene.
Setting the Scene
In May of 1970, Srila Prabhupada sent the following message to his temple presidents:
"Please accept my blessings. I hope everything is going on well in your center. As each and every ISKCON Center is my life and soul for preaching this movement, I hope you are doing your best to conduct the regular routine duties of the Temple -- chanting regularly the beads, observing the restrictive regulations, taking Sankirtana Party to the streets, and selling our magazines and books..."
The men that received this letter were each responsible for one of twenty-six temples. It had taken the first four years of Srila Prabhupada’s International Society for Krishna Consciousness to establish these centers.
In June of 1971, during the Rathayatra Festival in San Francisco, Prabhupada asked Karandhara, “We have got fifty centers…, how many centers now?” Karandhara replied, “Almost sixty, fifty-eight.” In slightly over a year, thirty-two new centers (almost three a month) had been opened and the number of temples had more than doubled!
That was my first Rathayatra and I remember standing in the hall at 4 A.M. with scores of other men waiting to use the only bathroom available. Karandhara prabhu was planted next to the sole bathtub with his stone cold mug fixed on his watch, counting down the time to make sure no one took more than their allotted thirty seconds to shower. Some devotees had risen earlier and some were still doing service from the previous night but there certainly were well over a hundred men who used the single bathroom that morning and everyone made mangala-aratik on time. Karandhara and Kesava talked about how Prabhupada would be pleased because there were so many new devotees this year.
During the festival I overheard one devotee, who apparently was overlooked for initiation, tell his friend with all sincerity, “It doesn’t matter. I can serve Prabhupada whether I’m initiated or not.” This struck me and made me a bit ashamed because I had received initiation a couple months earlier but my motive was to insure my own liberation. This prabhu only wanted to serve Prabhupada. Here was a real disciple and a vivid example of the selfless attitude that enabled the movement to grow at such an astonishing rate in the seventies.
My journeys on traveling sankirtan in addition to my own wanderlust during this time allowed me to observe the differences and similarities among Krsna temples from coast to coast in North America. There were many more similarities than differences. For example, a devotee visiting any temple was immediately greeted with obeisances (the kind where you actually get down on the floor) followed by a hug, a flower garland and a big plate of maha prasadam. There was a palpable comaraderie and unity of spirit among devotees during this period and the service rendered by my God brothers and God sisters was accented by dedication, simplicity and unwavering attachment to Srila Prabhupada.
In those days we had no furniture, and everyone slept on the floor. Offensive language was never spoken, and seeing a movie or watching TV was unthinkable. All Laksmi was turned over to the temple treasurer and all personal possessions easily fit in a BTG box. These usually consisted of a Bhagavad-gita, japa beads, a toothbrush, and perhaps a couple articles of clothing. No one ever took a day off or went on vacation. From the moment of waking ‘til the time of rest, devotees would be busy serving Krsna. In fact, it was a general practice that if someone finished their assigned duties they would report to the temple commander with folded hands and request more service.
Most of the buildings that served as temples were rented houses. It wasn’t hard to find the Sri Sri Radha Krsna Temple. You knew you had the right place if you came across a house painted with a somewhat psychedelic combination of pastel yellow, orange, peach or blue and saw long, narrow strips of saffron cloth hanging out the windows (curiously, one might also see similar strips of cloth hanging out the backside of the men’s dhotis). To help support the temple, devotees spent time each week stuffing incense sticks into Spiritual Sky Incense packages and these were wholesaled to local head shops and retail stores. A fair amount of the flowers used to decorate the altar were appropriated from neighboring homes, much to the aggravation of the homeowners. This, and hounding people for donations on sankirtan, were our most notorious indiscretions of the time. With the exception of a few large centers, most temples had an average of ten to twenty members, some with as few as two or three. But these small groups of devotees would regularly perform sankirtan at every major venue in a metropolitan area. Although the entire body of devotees numbered only in the hundreds, people would often remark that they saw us everywhere and therefore believed we had many thousands of followers. They didn’t realize they were seeing the same devotees over and over again.
At that time very few devotees had gone to India and almost all our devotional articles were makeshift western facsimiles. One temple I stayed in had no mrdanga so during kirtan a devotee would play the drum beats on a plastic one gallon jar. We strung our own japa mala from colored beads-red, yellow, green or blue-purchased from local bead shops. Our tilak was made from Fuller’s Earth which turned white when it dried on the body. Our dhotis and saris were cut from bolts of polyester cloth. Householders wore yellow then, and the single men and women both wore saffron. We usually wore t-shirts or button-down shirts, and at one point the turtleneck became a fashion trend. At times, even Srila Prabhupada wore such shirts. A standard element of the Krsna uniform, for both men and women, was the cape -- a rectangular piece of cloth tied at two corners, draped over one shoulder and across the chest (now worn exclusively by sannyasis). Genuine Indian kurtas and saris were rare commodities and if anyone happened to acquire one they became the envy of the temple. For the most part, clothing was communal property and you took what you could get. Dirty clothing was thrown in a barrel, washed and returned in the same barrel. To find a matching pair of socks was like discovering gold. To find matching socks without holes was as rare as pure devotional service. During winter months devotees wore hooded sweatshirts. In colder parts of the country they’d wear a hooded sweatshirt, thermal underwear and an extra pair of socks, which made it really hard to keep flip-flops on when trudging through snow.
Before coming to Krsna Consciousness, most of us had been hippies and had led lives devoid of any regulation. We were used to going to bed at sunrise and sleeping ten or more hours a day. But as devotees we rose before the sun after five or six hours sleep and often less. The transition was painfully difficult. It took me four years before I was able to stay awake during mangala-aratik. One friend told me he’d been jumping up and down during kirtan and had fallen asleep in mid air.
Nevertheless, in the morning everyone would rise by 3:30 or 4:00, including those who’d been up most of the night doing service or finishing rounds. We’d brush our teeth with a toothpaste made from baking soda, salt and mustard oil -- a formula given by Srila Prabhupada. In the dead of winter we dutifully took bone chilling, cold showers. Kirk’s was the official soap of the devotees. To save money, bath towels were cut into two or three pieces, so after showering we’d dry off with a terry cloth rag about the size of a hand towel. Fresh razor blades were uncommon and when it came time to shave up, heads were scalped and sikhas hewn with ancient, jagged blades, by God brothers anxious to get to aratik on time. Bloodshed was profuse and occasionally a careless stroke of the razor would transform someone into a Mayavadi.
As Prabhupada said, our recreation was chanting & dancing. This was the grandfather of all aerobics and we really got a workout, often jumping up and down or back and forth non-stop through the entire aratik. This also helped us stay awake because, more often than not, if someone sat down during the morning program it meant they were going to sleep. Even the person giving class would sometimes nod off in the middle of a sentence. But snoozers didn’t dally long with maya because there was always one irritating devotee who would place his mouth about three inches from his sleeping victim’s eardrum and shout, “Hare Krsna!” The typical response was to indignantly insist, “I’m just resting my eyes!” But no one could stay awake long while sitting down. The only exception to this axiom was when devotees took prasadam. Then the principle reversed -- during prasadam, no one could fall asleep even while sitting down. But if you sat down any time other than prasadam, it was just as good as waving the white flag to maya.
The alternative was to stand but then you ran the risk of dozing off and falling over, which is exactly what happened to my God brother, Pratyaya prabhu. Pratyaya had been working non-stop to prepare for Prabhupada’s first visit to San Diego in 1972. In addition to neglecting sleep he told me he had also been neglecting his rounds, believing his service was more important. One morning while he stood listening to Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam class, he nodded out and tumbled over like a bag of rice. Despite Pratyaya’s sacrifices, Prabhupada made it decidedly clear later in his lecture that nothing is more important than finishing your rounds.
Prabhupada: So similarly, how to see God. You will see God with these eyes when it is clarified. Premanjana-cchurita, by the ointment of love of Godhead. So these are the function, how to love. One has to rise early in the morning. He doesn't like, but, "No. I will have to satisfy Krsna." This is the beginning.
Then Prabhupada panned the room and when he came to Pratyaya he stopped and looked him dead in the eye.
Prabhupada: "Oh, I have to chant sixteen rounds." He is lazy. He doesn't want to do it. But if he loves Krsna, he must do it. He must do it.
Pratyaya was stunned by Prabhupada’s perceptivity, but also elated to be personally disciplined by his spiritual master in regard to chanting japa.
The holy name was the linchpin in our relationship with Krsna and devotees went to extreme lengths to stay alert while chanting rounds in the morning. One God brother, in order to hear his rounds clearly and avoid distractions, would chant japa with a 5 gallon plastic bucket over his head. I also heard of one small-framed devotee who chanted his rounds in the utility room while curled up inside the clothes dryer. Pinching, straining, stretching, slapping yourself in the face, running around the block, chanting japa loudly while leaping up and down, plundering the maha sweets, standing in a bucket of cold water, taping eyelids to the forehead, lightly banging one’s head against the wall and shooting each other in the face with squirt guns; these were some of the zany devices devotees employed to stay awake during the brahma-muhurta -- the most sacred period of the day. For visitors, it probably looked like an episode of The Three Stooges.
But devotional service was a declaration of war on the external energy and at times one would lose the battle. This could be something as innocent as getting discouraged on sankirtan, or it could fall under the heading of a bloop. There were three types of bloops. The least serious bloop was when a cook ruined a preparation by burning it, adding too much salt or some other carelessness. The most serious bloop, of course, was when someone left the movement. And the marginal bloop was when someone moved to another temple without authorization from his temple president. Ironically, in this case the other temple would usually see it as Krsna’s arrangement rather than blooping because more often than not, someone had just blooped from their temple and they needed a replacement.
Despite all the wacky behavior there was something very noble about the assembly of devotees. They were sincere and they were trying their very best to please Srila Prabhupada. In addition to following the regulative principles and chanting sixteen rounds, which was inconceivable to the overwhelming majority of the population, devotees had taken upon themselves the enormous task of helping Prabhupada bring Krsna consciousness to millions of forgetful souls.
(Cont'd on next page.)