Greeting Srila Prabhupada at the airport was never an ordinary occasion. Some of my fondest spiritual memories are of those wonderful times when devotees would gather together en masse to meet the world traveling paramahamsa. One such occasion was at the San Francisco International Airport in 1974 when Srila Prabhupada so kindly gave us a glimpse of his true transcendental nature. The sweet memory of those few moments of ecstasy remain embedded in my heart forever.
Devotees of all sizes, shapes and colors from all corners of the universe (and perhaps from even beyond) merged together in the bliss of Prabhupada's famous airport arrival lila, completely oblivious to the unbelieving stares and wide-eyed wonders of the unsuspecting passengers. Flowing robes and dangling beads decorated the long corridors like the colored flags and festoons awaiting Lord Krishna upon His triumphant arrival in Dvaraka. Sannyasis, grhasthas, brahmacaris, mothers and babies were all united together in their love for Srila Prabhupada. It was like a big happy family reunion with everyone present save and except the kind and well-wishing father whose eagerly anticipated arrival would make everything complete and fully satisfying to everyone.
The dynamic intensity of spiritual emotion grew deeper and deeper with the arrival of more and more devotees. The atmosphere was electrified, crackling with excitement and suspense: "Prabhupada is coming. Prabhupada is coming." Those prophetic words rang in our hearts. The kirtan gained momentum like the steam engine of a fast locomotive determined to reach its destination.
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare
Suddenly the kirtan leader jumped into the air with a powerful surge of enthusiasm as if springing from some deep primeval source. Simultaneously he broke into the most resounding and heart-throbbing rendition of our all-time favorite Krishna conscious melody: "Jaya Prabhupada! Jaya Prabhupada! Jaya Prabhupada! Jaya Prabhupada!" The moment we had all been waiting for had finally arrived.
I pushed and squeezed my way through the pulsating mass of devotees desperately trying my utmost to catch even a fleeting glimpse of Prabhupada's transcendental form as he walked from the customs checkpoint through the arrival gate. Peering intensely at each succesive emerging body with the pinpoint concentration of a yogi (for once in my life), I was struck with horror and disappointment to hear a faint voice struggle to announce above the swelling melee: "This is the wrong door. Prabhupada is coming from over there."
Confusion. Panic. A wave of bodies no less powerful than the rolling tide of the Pacific Ocean surged forward in perfect unison. Without my feet hardly touching the ground, I arrived at the next gate pinned against the metal railing separating the newly arriving passengers from their waiting loved ones. This was the chance of a million lifetimes and everyone knew it. There was no time to be shy.
The deep longing of the crowd to see Srila Prabhupada was nothing less than the deep longing of the spirit soul to get free from the clutches of maya and at long last attain the soothing shelter of Krishna's lotus feet. He was the approachable and all-merciful connection with Krishna, and his arrival that night signified the perfection of our long difficult sojourn through this hellish material world of repeated birth and death. The event was spiritually momentous, and also contagious, as even a number of airport personnel dropped their duties, abandoned their posts and hastily ran to join the devotees to feast their eyes on the all-attractive jagat-guru.
Then, most gloriously, like the appearance of the rising morning sun on the horizon, Prabhupada's beautiful lotus face decorated with his unforgettable transcendental smile illuminated the entire airport. Cries of ecstasy and devotion filled the air: "Jaya Prabhupada! Hari bol! All glories to Srila Prabhupada!"
Hundreds of hurried obeisances were performed in a frantic effort not to miss even a second of Prabhupada's most exalted association. In the mad rush that ensued one devotee's watch was kicked completely from his wrist and sent spinning in the opposite direction, but he didn't care. He just wanted to look at Srila Prabhupada whose presence was so beautiful and pleasing that nothing else mattered.
Calmly, smoothly, like a royal white swan floating on a lotus-filled lake of cool crystal clear waters, Prabhupada glided gracefully through the heaving crowd far removed from the chaos and euphoria which surrounded him. It was obvious to everyone present that he was fully conscious of Krishna, his beloved Lord, at every second.
One boy offered Prabhupada what appeared to be a large piece of fruit. With familiar cane in hand he walked through the aisle silently pondering the gift with a dignified air of genuine interest and amusement. Srila Prabhupada clearly revealed to us, right in the most unexpected place, the most profound yet reassuringly simple personality in the whole universe.
The opportunity to participate in loving exchanges between Srila Prabhupada and his devotees in large numbers was a rare blessing. Although the crowds were big, the exchanges were sweet and intimate. To get close to him and see the compassion on his face or to receive a merciful glance from Prabhupada during those occasions was indescribable. His deep lotus eyes, twinkling with the ointment of pure love and devotion, spoke directly to the heart: "I am your eternal father, your eternal spiritual master." It was enough to last forever.
In a quick perfect motion Srila Prabhupada entered his waiting car and smiled softly. As a final gesture of his love and humility, Prabhupada folded his palms and bowed his head. Then he disappeared into the late San Francisco night, a beautiful swan taking flight, leaving his disciples and admirers completely stunned and awestruck on the pavement behind him.
All glories to Srila Prabhupada.