It was the spring of 1975 and I was twenty years of age. As the leader of my blues band, I was having difficulty finding steady work for the band members, since it had not become a commercialized type of music in that area. I had left one booking agency for another and was told by the owner, "Once you come back to me for work, I'll be asking you 20% of your earnings instead of 10%." I was determined to outdo him, but as the twist of fate would have it, we did not have enough "gigs" with the new agency and so the band finally dismantled. Now I was free to dream of going to a place like Chicago where all of the major influences of blues music could be found. I had been visiting the Hare Krsna temple in my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba off and on for a few months, and really enjoyed the Hare Krsna kirtans, prasadam, classes and warm friendship of Nandikesvara Prabhu, the temple president.
Prior to my visit to the temple, while growing up, I saw my sister Kate doing yoga exercises at home, and became intrigued by it. I started reading various books on spirituality, yoga and meditation, and they all stressed the significance of seeking out a bona-fide guru, or spiritual master. It was explained that this was essential to make tangible spiritual advancement
in this life. As a result, I had this increasing desire to meet a REAL guru, and not the dime-a-dozen commercialized "uptown swamis" that were unethically "selling" mantras, or those that were ludicrously claiming to be God, or telling me that I was God too??!! I was totally stumped as to how I was ever going to find a genuine self-realized guru, on the prairies of
One Sunday when I was visiting, I experienced the greatest mercy that has ever been extended to me in my life when the two temple devotees Nandikesvara and Dharmaprana Prabhus said to me, "How would you like to come with us to the Chicago temple to meet Srila Prabhupada? He will be arriving next week, July 3, at O'Hare Airport and there is room in the VW van for just one more devotee. Would you like to come?"
My heart started to beat harder and I felt the adrenaline rushing through my veins. Unfortunately, it wasn't all because I was going to meet Srila Prabhupada. I had been reading his Bhagavad-gita which I had received just a few months before and was especially attracted to the colorful Back to Godhead magazines, so the bhakti-lata-bija had been planted by his disciples, but I also was excited to seek my "fame and fortune" on Maxwell Street and the South and East sides of Chicago. Little did I realize that I would be graced by the presence of the most famous and fortunate personality of all time, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Srila Prabhupada.
Departure time arrived, and perhaps a half dozen devotees or maybe a little more piled into the temple's VW van. During the journey, I had the urge to light up a cigarette, but I knew that this would be most unacceptable to the devotees and that they would get on my case and tell me I was in maya (illusion). I also wanted to give up this bad habit and sincerely wanted to get this "monkey" off my back. So I reached into my pocket and threw the pack out the window, feeling an exhilarating sense of freedom from this act. That was my last puff of tobacco for this life. Associating with the devotees was what gave me the strength to leave one more anartha (unwanted habit) behind.
Many hours later, we arrived at the ISKCON Chicago temple located on Emerson Street in Evanston, Illinois. It had formerly been a YMCA Community Center. I noticed a big difference between the hustle and bustle of this larger temple and the house temple back in Winnipeg. There were also hundreds of newly arrived devotees from all over North America there, with their vehicles occupying every inch of parking space in the area, eagerly anticipating the arrival of Srila Prabhupada. There were even big Greyhound buses parked in front and beside the temple.
I walked by the back door of one of the buses and felt very allured to see the beautifully shaped tamboura, ektar and esaraja along with the mrdanga drum and harmonium. I felt a strong desire to get on board, but was afraid that this would be the end of my material life. I felt like a young boy that wanted to run away and join the circus. The whole bus had been expertly converted into a mobile Radha-Krsna temple! This really impressed me. Inside the temple there were hundreds of devotees buzzing around, preparing the temple for Srila Prabhupada's arrival. Different renovations and fresh painting was going on around the clock. To "earn my keep," I offered to do some devotional service by washing Krsna's pots and sweeping the floors. This was my first experience at asrama life and it was like living inside a beehive, due to the cumulative drone of so many devotees completing their japa chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra: Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. They were also as busy as bees too. There was a great intensity in the atmosphere as the countdown began for Srila Prabhupada's arrival.
The next day I heard some devotees shouting, "Prabhupada is coming! Prabhupada is arriving!" A few hundred devotees started to jump into their many vans and cars and I was fortunate to get into one of them. We drove the ten miles to O'Hare (Krsna) airport and went to the American Airlines terminal to greet Srila Prabhupada with a rousing kirtan. The airport staff responded with a variety of emotions. Some were very happy to see us, happy to see the monotony of the day broken up with joyful transcendental chanting and dancing. Others stared in disbelief, with mouths open. The kirtan was very loud in the terminal due to the high ceiling and acoustics. I was amazed that they were letting us get away with it!
We poised oursleves by the arrival gate, but then we heard that due to some change at the airport, he would be arriving at the United Airlines terminal; so we all scurried over to the other side of the airport, continuing the tumultuous kirtan, to the amazement of the airport staff and the media that had now arrived. The kirtan started to reach a tumultuous crescendo as we enthusiastically waited to see the sliding glass doors open for Prabhupada to appear. I had never felt such intensity in my life as I experienced this moment. The moment was so 'BIG," that I expected Srila Prabhupada to be seven feet tall when he would appear; so I was very amazed when the doors finally slid open, that he was five foot two inches.
The moment he appeared, there was a huge shout of "Jaya Prabhupaaaaaaaaaada!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Everyone bowed down in his presence and I was automatically moved to do the same. I had been to big rock concerts before and had seen and greeted several "celebrities," but I had never seen anyone received with so much love and respect as Srila Prabhupada; nor had I ever laid my eyes on someone who emanated so many powerful qualities at one time like a deep compassion for everyone, a mood of noble aristocracy, but without a trace of arrogance. He smiled at everyone, waving his hand, and I was amazed to see the simultaneous emotions of tears of great relief and ecstatic joy on the faces of the devotees. I had never seen anyone totally happy and crying at the same time. It was amazing to see the love that Srila Prabhupada was churning in the hearts of his disciples. I wanted that too!
Srila Prabhupada had some devotees walking very close to him that were helping him to avoid getting too much physical contact with his followers. Baskets of rose petals were thrown over him and garlands placed around his neck. A lady reporter from NBC Television asked him why he was visiting Chicago, and with reference to the latest Time magazine article on crime, he said he had a message of how to stop the crimes of America by the process of Krsna consciousness. He criticized the government for wasting money on moon expeditions when so many hungry people in America could be fed prasadam (spiritual food) with those funds. He even said that it was a crime for supporting slaughterhouses and abortion clinics. I was impressed by his strong, non-compromising and practical thoughts, full of spiritual integrity. He was not there to win a popularity contest, but he had already won it amongst thousands of devoted followers. To see him being interviewed by a major media source impressed on me that even so-called materialistic persons had some understanding that he was a powerful and influential personality. He was soon accompanied to a waiting car and all the devotees dashed back to receive him nicely.
The first volume of the 6th Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam had just been released, so Srila Prabhupada spoke about the fallen devotee, Ajamila, and the conversation between the order carriers of Lord Visnu and the Yamadutas, the servants of Yamaraja, the lord of death. In his recitation of this ancient historical episode, I could understand that Srila Prabhupada was actually a great scholar. He dissected the Sanskrit verse, word-for-word, giving great elaboration to the inner meaning. Everyone listened with rapt attention. I was surprised to hear him say that there must be war in this material world due to different levels of consciousness and misunderstandings, especially since I was a part of the hippie peace movement. He went on to explain that if people were not educated to the first-class level of goodness, then there could never be peace amongst people who wanted to remain low-class in their behavior. He continued on his theme of solving the problem of crime in America simply by chanting the Hare Krsna mantra, and feeding people nice prasadam.
Srila Prabhupada continued to teach and reside in Chicago for over a week. On July 7th an amazing thing took place. Prabhupada had been explaining how Ajamila had saved himself from his sinful life by calling out the name of the Lord, Narayana, and at this point in the lecture, Srila Prabhupada went into a trancelike internal state where he did not speak for some time. It was as if he had invoked the presence of the Lord at the moment he called Narayana, and was actually seeing Him, face-to-face. On July 10, there was a big initiation ceremony to accept seventy-five new disciples. Srila Prabhupada expressed his gratitude to all his disciples who had taken the Deity in buses and were going around the Western countries to spread Lord Caitanya's sankirtana-yajna mission through musical chanting, book and prasadam distribution. He told them what it took Valmiki Muni 60,000 years to achieve through yoga practice, could be accomplished in a few days by these traveling sankirtana buses known as Radha Damodara TSKP. Visnujana Swami led the chanting of mantras for the initiation ceremony. The next day, it was explained to me that someone was receiving the first babaji initiation in ISKCON because he did not have long to live, and would just chant Hare Krsna.
Srila Prabhupada walked down by the lake for his morning walks everyday with his diciples, but I was out too late working at night to be able to attend and found it hard enough just to wake up! One morning I remember seeing the unusual sight of several Deities of Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai having yogurt poured over them as part of the installation ceremony for Their residence in some of the traveling buses. A few days later, Srila Prabhupada left for the Rathayatra in Philadephia. I was completely blown away by this whole experience, but due to my obstinancy, I still wanted to make some connections in the music world and so I moved out of the temple for a few months.
Shortly after I moved back in, and in less than six months, my temple president, Uttamasloka Prabhu, asked me, "How would you like to be initiated by Srila Prabhupada? He's coming to visit the new Detroit temple very soon." I told him that I was not qualified to be initiated and he cheerfully explained to me that to think that I was not qualified was one of the qualifications to be initiated, and that I should just go on serving nicely and he would recommend me. I never felt so exhilarated in all my life. I had great respect for all the senior devotees, but to think that I would be honored to become their godbrother and Prabhupada's disciple was more than I could fathom. I felt extremely fortunate and unworthy of such a privilege.
The newly acquired Fisher Mansion, Devasadana Mandir, was a sight to behold with all of its splendor. A gift courtesy of Ambarish Prabhu and Mother Lekasravanti. During the initiation ceremony I was extremly nervous as I stood in line, getting ready to receive my beads, and then to bow down out of submission to Srila Prabhupada. I kept going over the four regulative principals in my mind, thinking I would just freeze once I would be in front of him. As my turn was coming up, one of the senior men told me that I could not go in front of Prabhupada with an untied sikha (a tuft of hair on the head, denoting surrender to Krsna). This was the first I had heard of this.
I had a small sikha and I did my best to tie the small bit of hair in a knot, but it stood up straight in the air on top of my head! It looked as though I was experiencing one of the ecstatic symptoms of love of God. When I came before Srila Prabhupada, while he sat on an exquisite vyasasana, I felt like he had X-ray vision and he was seeing my incarnations from millions of lives. I felt completely embarrassed to even be in front of him due to all my past sins. Then he asked what are the four regulative principals and then told me, "Your name is Gaura dasa." As the devotees roared with approval, I felt like I had scored a touchdown, but realized that this was only the beginning.
When Srila Prabhupada said, "Your name is Gaura dasa, due to his Bengali/British type accent, and due to the fact that the Nectar of Instruction had just been released and I was reading it, I thought that Prabhupada said, "Your name is Go dasa." I felt joyful at being initiated and dismayed at the same time, because Go dasa means one who cannot control his senses. So I thought, "Hmm, I know that I am supposed to become humble and certainly Go dasa, "the servant of the uncontrolled senses," will keep me humble, but it is also an embarrassing name to have! Maybe he meant Go dasa, "the servant of the cows"? So I went to Hari Sauri and Pusta Krsna Prabhus, who were flanking Srila Prabhupada's seat, and asked, "Is my new name really Go dasa?" They looked at the list of new spiritual names given and said, "No, no, it is Gaura dasa, servant of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. It is Prabhupada's accent that you did not understand." I sighed a great sigh of relief!