My first contact with the Hare Krishna movement came in the summer of 1969 when I saw its members chanting on the streets of Hollywood. My initial reaction to the shaven heads, saffron-colored robes, and seemingly strange activity was one of bewilderment and, to some degree, comic relief. It was not until a year later that I was able to appreciate the sound philosophy which stems from one of the world’s oldest religious traditions, as explained in their Back to Godhead magazine. I soon realized that there was a tremendous wealth of knowledge and logic behind the activities of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and that it was far from being a new “hippie” cult. In fact, the information contained in that first magazine concisely answered all the questions I ever had regarding life, its purpose, and more.
The next year in Dallas, Texas, it was my good fortune to actually come in personal contact with the author of that Back to Godhead magazine, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada. I greeted him along with the other devotees at the airport and then followed the procession back to the temple, where Prabhupada gave a Sunday Feast lecture. What struck me most about that lecture more than anything was one question that was asked of him by a member of the audience. Srila Prabhupada had been stressing the importance of chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare, and the guest asked what Srila Prabhupada personally felt when he chanted this mantra. Without hesitation, Srila Prabhupada answered, “I feel no fear.” Because his response was so immediate and filled with such conviction, I sensed that not only what he said was true, but I felt an urgency to try the same mantra meditation process myself.
Over time, it became apparent to many who observed him firsthand that Srila Prabhupada was steadily situated in a higher state of consciousness, beyond anything that was part of our common experience. But that was not all. After a further study of the teachings in his books and observing his interactions with others, I realized that here was a person who was not materially motivated. He was not interested in mundane acquisition, exploitation, or adoration. He was also in complete control of his senses, the very foundation of all yoga practice. By his own example, he was a perfect teacher of the divine process of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga. And by means of his unconditional love and devotion, he was in touch with and connected to the Supreme Being. His mission appeared to be for all of our best interests by making me, and everyone else who cared to listen, spiritually happy by engaging our mind, body, and soul in serving God, Krishna. Srila Prabhupada taught that as a fish out of water cannot be happy out of its constitutional element, similarly, we as spiritual beings cannot be happy simply engaging in activities meant to satisfy our material senses.
Years later, after accepting Srila Prabhupada as a pure representative of God and having taken spiritual initiation from him in Denver, Colorado, I had the opportunity to be with him again. Previously I had been convinced on an intellectual level that Prabhupada was in direct contact with the Absolute Truth, but not until I offered flowers at his feet and looked at him as I offered my obeisances did I understand on an emotional level the depth of my guru. When Srila Prabhupada looked at me, he looked right through the external me, touching the internal me, the soul. I felt naked in front of him, feeling as though he could not only read my mind but my heart as well. It was the most humbling experience of my life.
That morning during Srila Prabhupada’s daily walk, he was talking about prasadam, food offered to God before it is personally consumed. Prabhupada said prasadam is so spiritually potent that if a human being simply eats prasadam once, in his next life he will take birth in a family of devotees. He then stated that if an animal eats prasadam, in its next life it will immediately take birth in the human form of life, jumping over all other species of life that a soul would normally have to pass through before obtaining a human birth.
After this discussion, I was contemplating asking him about something that had been bothering me for some time. I had become affected by so many people I met when distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books who would say that we as devotees should get jobs and not take from society by asking for donations. I said to Srila Prabhupada, “People think we are just trying to escape material life by joining this sankirtan movement.” Srila Prabhupada turned to me, smiled, and asked, “A rich man, does he work? We are rich men. We don’t work. Any rich man, he is not working. Is he escaping? He is engaging everyone in the factory, but he is not working. So is that escaping? We are rich men. We are Krishna’s sons.” He said the problems we have are eating, sleeping, and mating, and we can arrange for these things very easily. Prabhupada taught the philosophy of “Simple Living, High Thinking.” One can till the ground anywhere and get some food. He said, “I keep some cows, and I have got land: my whole economic question is solved.” He asked, “Why shall I make big, big arrangements for these things?” He continued, “You may do it, but why should you forget your real business? That is the defect, that you are so foolish that only for maintaining this body, you have forgotten your real business -- self-realization.” Prabhupada then said, “In the spiritual world there is no question of working. You get everything. So why not endeavor to go there?”
Prabhupada then looked around the beautiful park that we were walking in, surrounded by trees, lakes, and swans. He noted how there was no one else in the park and how we were the only ones who were taking advantage of the park and all its beauty. He said, “They worked so hard, yet they are sleeping. We are taking advantage.” He then told the story of the mouse and the snake. The mouse builds a nice home for himself underground and lives comfortably. Then the snake comes and eats the mouse and lives comfortably in the home the mouse has built. He finished by telling me and the others that accompanied him on his morning walk that we can tell people that actually, “Yes, we are escaping this horrible condition of life -- meat-eating, drinking, and intoxication. We are escaping these things, but not happiness.”
In his kindness, Prabhupada dispelled my doubt about distributing books rather than living to fulfill the expectations of the public by having a 9-to-5 job. I had been affected by the negative feedback I received from the people I met, but Prabhupada, who was unaffected by them, reminded me that the point of life is self-realization, and our role in the varnasram scheme of things was to remind others about that fact.